Vincent was sipping this week’s iteration of a Privateer–the drinks were getting better, he had to note, or at least he was getting used to them–when he heard a familiar voice call his name. He couldn’t place it at first, but when he turned around and peered through the clouds of smoke drifting through the air, he spotted Talia Beaker sitting alone at a table surrounded by several empty glasses.
She waved him over and he joined her.
“How’s the research going?”
Talia snorted. “There’s hardly a diverse set of humans to gather data from here, but no one has exiled me to any more fairy tales so I guess things are going all right.”
Vincent shrugged sheepishly. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Talia. She ordered them another round.
“How are you settling in?” said Vincent.
“They’ve set me up in a little apartment,” she said. “It can’t hold a candle to my home back in the Perfectorate but it’s better than the cabins on that blasted ship.”
“I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective,” said Vincent, thinking of his cavernous studio, a luxury compared to anything he ever would have been able to afford in the City States.
“Anyway, I wanted to thank you for saving me. You can go back to your friends now.”
“It was just my job,” said Vincent, skirting admitting that he was drinking alone. He barely ever caught up with Dom or Ali these days. Those childhood plans of visiting museums and staying best friends forever seemed a lifetime away. And while it was nice to be able to spend time with Shelby openly now, they already worked together, and she usually liked her space in the evenings.
“People choose their jobs around here,” Talia said with an uncharacteristically warm smile.
“I suppose they do…” He took another sip of rum, but he was starting to get tired of the flavor.
“So were you really interested in my research,” she said after a pause, “or was that just a line to get me here?”
He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “I don’t know much about genetics. I just drive a spaceship.” Then, seeing the disappointment in her face, he added, “but it’s never too late to learn about something new.”
“You don’t have to humor an old woman.”
“I’m not humoring you. What were you researching?”
“Well, to put it in layman’s terms, I’d isolated a strange mutation in the human genome.”
“So like…people were growing extra arms or something?”
She chuckled. “Almost. See, I was working with the government to find a way to neutralize aeo magic.”
Vincent bristled, but hid his grimace behind his glass.
“I determined that every aeo witch in my test group shared a…well I called it the Creator Gene. It was almost…well… You know how a plant takes in radiation from the sun through photosynthesis? It processes it into energy it can use to grow and reproduce. This gene allows certain humans to absorb a kind of magical radiation that, well, I discovered. I never determined what its source was, but while it seems completely benign to most, for these individuals, it’s something they are able to absorb and process into, well, sentience. Life. Or a sort of bastardization thereof. I was just starting to study it, really, when they shipped me off.”
Vincent weighed his distaste for Perfectorate treatment of aeo mages against his desire to understand himself better. “Have you checked for the…creator gene…in the Etelutians?”
“Of course I have,” she said. “Their biology is quite a bit different than ours. They do have a very similar gene that seems to perform the same function, though not as efficiently. For them it isn’t a mutation–it’s just a normal part of their biology. Or, at least, it has been for a very long time.”
“I’d think this place would offer a lot of opportunities for your research, then,” said Vincent. “I mean, hopefully with a different end goal, but…”
“Yes, the moral compass of this place is rather different…” said Talia. “Which is exactly why it’s hard to get anything done. You thought bureaucratics used too much red tape? Wait till you meet a priest.”
Vincent smiled to himself, but let her keep talking.
“Say what you will about the Perfectorate–at least they didn’t let silly superstitions get in the way of rational thought.”
“I mean, you said you never figured out where the radiation was coming from. How do you know it’s not from The Giver?”
“Oh voids, not you too,” said Talia.
Vincent shrugged. “You can’t exactly call people overly superstitious when you’re the one calling people witches.”
Talia sighed and took a long sip of her drink. “With the company here, sometimes I miss the damn prison ship.” She gave him a playful smile that told him she was only half serious.
“Well, I have tomorrow off. I can take you back if you want,” he teased back.
“No you can’t,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s gone.” she said. “Went down just today. Didn’t you hear? Turns out you’re the only reason I’m alive right now. That’s why I’m drinking tonight.”
“Oh.” Vincent’s eyes went glassy.
“I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
“No. I didn’t.” Vincent swallowed. It was gone. He tried to stop himself from picturing the little girl with the markers in her hair, the stars falling away from her too fast, Esilenia’s blond hair against the void all over again and him too late to save her.
“Are you…alright?” Talia reached across the table to brush a tentative hand against his.
“Yeah. I…” Vincent scraped his tongue against the roof of his mouth, the coconut suddenly too sweet. “…I gotta get back to my friends.”
He pushed his chair back and left his last drink unfinished on the table, escaping the suddenly claustrophobic bar into a night littered with stars that little girl would never count again. He hadn’t had that much to drink, but he was afraid he was going to be sick on the sidewalk. Instead, he walked the couple of blocks to his apartment, his emotions oscillating from angry to numb to sad to numb again with each step.
For a while all he could bring himself to do was sit on the couch and stare at the radio. Then, in a furious fit of passion he grabbed a pen and some official HEC stationary and began writing against the first flat surface he could find–his kitchen counter.
Vincent spent his entire day off praying at the temple. At first, he felt like maybe if he gave enough back to the universe it would help redeem himself–just a little bit–for leaving that child to die. But he knew the two acts were unconnected. Eventually, he had to admit to himself that he’d finally found the peace in this place that, for so long, had eluded him.
“You’re troubled today.” He and the Priestess had stopped using the pillar as a translator. As they’d grown more familiar with each other, they’d stopped speaking out loud all together, relying on the oneness that connected all things to connect their minds and their thoughts.
“Talia’s rim ship went down.”
“And the little girl…”
“…still on board.” He lowered his head, the green light ebbing from him to the pillar dimming as he lost his focus.
What went through the Priestess’s head then wasn’t so much words as images and feeling. A great ship falling down in flames through the void until it crashed against an island. The scream of the Giver that followed. The great sadness in knowing that such unnecessary destruction was such a common occurrence. The frustration of watching her fellows blame it on humanity, knowing full well that it was their own treaties that had sparked the barbaric practice, that their own actions allowed it to continue.
“I wrote to the HEC last night,” said Vincent. “I asked them to accept more refugees, and to consider refugees who hadn’t done great things. Tier ones and twos…they aren’t given the opportunity to do great things, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.”
“Do you think they’ll listen?” She turned her face up toward the beam of green light swirling above the skylight that made up the temple’s roof.
“I don’t know,” Vincent admitted, “but I couldn’t do nothing. I think it’s possible they might. They know I have a unique perspective on human affairs. They’ve given me liberties I didn’t expect before.”
He could feel her sadness and apprehension from where he sat.
“I know it’s just mitigating a symptom, not solving a problem, but the HEC is the only in I have,” he said.
“It isn’t that,” she said. He felt the emotion of her touching his hand with hers, though she hardly shifted from where she sat on the dirt floor. “It’s just that you are braver than me.”
“There’s not much risk to me,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“No, that’s just it,” said the Priestess. “I wouldn’t want it to be up to me who lives and who dies.”
Vincent squeezed his eyes shut, wishing she couldn’t read his thoughts, for just a moment, because all he could think about was how he’d been a good little soldier and extracted his target so she could continue her research on eradicating his kind instead of grabbing the girl and her mother and making a mad dash back to Shelby. She could have kicked out the rest of the HEC. They could have run away and lived on an empty island somewhere. He knew how to purify water and grow crops and build a steam engine and darn socks. He could have taught her mother to do the same. They could have rescued others and given the Okayorate another shot outside the range of the inquisition. The little girl could have put flowers in her hair and painted narwhals all day. He let his breath out and put a hand to the pillar as if to steady himself. “It already is up to me, whether I like it or not.”
The Priestess didn’t say anything to this, just sat with him and prayed, their energy twining together in the pillar and broadcasting itself into the sky, one soft green star that maybe somewhere, some innocent, unremarkable, person could count as a bit of a constellation, some innocent person who it wasn’t too late to save.