Papers rustled against desks as Ms. Janeth returned the previous day's math quizzes. When she reached Krel, she paused.
"Please see me after class to discuss your quiz, Mr. Tarron."
Had the humans already recognized his superior intellect? Certainly it was safe to show off a little bit without drawing attention to himself; they all seemed quite clueless. As the other students hurried out, he approached Ms. Janeth, planning explanations for his skill.
"Mr. Tarron, what is three times four?"
"Ten. That is easy, I can do that in my sleep!"
"It is twelve, Mr. Tarron." She handed him the graded quiz. He frowned at it.
"There is a lot more red on this than the others."
"That is because you received an F. I understand that you arrived here under difficult circumstances, but this is unacceptable. I will speak to Interim Principle Uhl tomorrow about transferring you to a remedial math class."
"What? No!" He stared at the paper. At the red marks covering what should have been trivially simple math problems. "Seklos and Gaylen! It's in base ten!"
"Yes, the quiz was out of ten points. Of which you scored zero."
"No, no no no. It can't..."
"In light of your... unusual situation, I will allow you to retake the quiz on Friday. But regardless of how good you think you are at math, if you cannot improve your score, I will have to transfer you. Do you understand?"
Krel nodded mutely.
"What is wrong, little brother?" Aja asked him after school.
"I got an F on a math quiz. They want to put me in the remedial class. My math skills are not remedial!"
"I am getting lots of F's. I am very bad at history. Did you know this planet had two world wars?"
"But I am good at math!"
Aja shrugged. "Not Earth math."
"Math doesn't change! It’s math! It’s universal! But these backwards humans insist on using base ten. Base ten! Base twelve is clearly the superior system."
"Humans are very strange."
"How am I supposed to show off my math skills if the humans insist on doing math so badly? It's absurd! I hate this planet!" He stalked across the kitchen until Aja slid in front of him.
"It's not about the math, is it?"
He looked away. Aja was scared too, and he had to be brave, but seeing the failed quiz had felt like the ground dissolving under his feet. "Math is absolute. It makes sense. It’s the one thing I can rely on, no matter what else changes. Except even that’s strange here.”
"You said math doesn't change."
"Yes, but they use a different number system. Ten is actually twelve, they write it all differently." Aja had never cared much about math; she wasn't bad at it, she'd just never put any more effort into it than she absolutely had to, and studying different number systems was beyond that bare minimum.
"Is is like when you tried to teach me to count on my fingers in binary?"
"All you cared about was which numbers made rude gestures."
"But you learned very fast. And you still use it."
"It is a very efficient method,” he said defensively. “If I use all my hands, I can count to 426,993. Or..." He paused to make the mental conversion. "1,048,575 in base ten."
"So this is easier. You are only two numbers short. We are already two hands short."
"That is not how it works."
She wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "You are my genius little brother who is very good at math. You will figure it out.”
“Someone this new to our country should not be that good at math!”
“I am new to the country, but I am not new to math. It’s a very ancient subject.”
“Mr. Tarron and his sister may have had some difficulty fitting in around here, but-”
“Not in math class.” The first disastrous quiz didn’t count.
“Only because you’re cheating!”
“I’m not cheating!” He had learned a whole new number system to earn that A+. He was far from home, there was no telling when his parents would revive, and every day there was a new crisis. But math?
He could count on math, in any base.