Vincent tried to peer through the bandanna Aluna had tied around his eyes when he’d shown up at the cafe she’d invited him to for dinner. He’d managed to schedule his annual leave from the HEC starting on the new year, and he’d been looking forward to spending the month catching up with friends and unwinding, but he hadn’t exactly had being led through the woods sans eyesight on his bucket list.
“Where the voids are we going, Ali?”
“If I wanted to tell you, I wouldn’t have kidnapped you, dumbass,” said Aluna, tugging his arm forward. He stumbled over a root sticking up through the dirt and she caught him, her lithe muscles more than enough to support him.
“How much farther?” he said.
“Almost there.” Aluna changed direction a few more times, then stopped, placing her hands on his shoulders to turn him in the desired direction before ripping the bandana off his face with a dramatic flourish.
“Happy birthday!” she shouted, along with the others gathered in the park he found himself staring at. Dominique was sitting at a picnic table next to a cake with Toaster perched next to his ankles. Shelby was parked behind the table, her headlights illuminating the little party in the quickly failing light. Twenty three candles burned in the cake, which was done up in purple frosting with teal swirls and multicolored star sprinkles.
“Where the voids did you find that cake?” said Vincent. It looked like something straight out of a bakery from the Perfectorate, not one of the grainy, semi-sweet confections the Etelutians served at celebrations.
“You’ll never guess,” said Aluna.
“Then tell me.” Vincent took his expected place in front of the cake, eager to blow it out before the puddles of wax at the bases of the candles got any bigger.
“That first Tier One you saved, Sana,” said Dominique. “She opened a bakery in the human district. She’s doing great, and she makes stuff that actually tastes like food.”
“Wow, I’m really glad to hear that.” That hadn’t been a memory he’d been prepared to confront tonight—in fact, he’d actively been avoiding Sana since he dropped her off at the HEC headquarters. She’d been a success, technically. He’d been doing regular extractions of Tier One and Two citizens since then, and the collection of displaced humans in his neighborhood had slowly began to feel less like a campus full of Spire Academics and more like a small community. But he still couldn’t look her in the eye, not after how they’d met, or what he’d done to make sure she made it here according to protocol. He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling that empty place at the table where he wished Dad was, and yes, her too, despite everything, Mom too. But sometimes that’s what happened in life. You lost some people you always thought would be there and you kept others you didn’t expect to, and you just kept doing your best except on the days you did your worst.
“Make a wish!” Aluna said.
He blew out the candles and found himself watching the smoke drift up toward the night’s first stars, wishing that he wouldn’t end up alone.
“Can’t wait to try this thing!” Aluna took up the knife and slid him the first piece. “I know the tradition is stale cake out of the box, just you, me and Dom, but I wanted this birthday to be a little special.”
“Thanks,” said Vincent. He took a bite and closed his eyes. He had to admit it tasted like home.
“Good, huh?” said Dom. “I had to try a slice in the shop before we bought you this one. For research.”
Vincent chuckled, shooing away the rough memories to enjoy the moment with his friends. After all, here he was, an outlaw in exile on an alien world and still, he wasn’t alone.
For a while they joked and talked, reminiscing about old times, sharing anecdotes from their recent lives. Shelby played electrojazz over her outdoor speakers, Dominique passed out drinks from a cooler, and Toaster sang along to the music with dings and ticks, dancing a little circle into the grass.
By ten, Vincent was feeling good from the bottled cocktails from the cooler. Aluna had long ago perched herself in a tree branch overlooking the table. Dominique tossed another bottle up to her, and she caught it was precision even though it was far from her first. Dominique tried to toss one to Vincent from right across the table, and it caught him off guard, hit him in the shoulder and shattered on the ground.
“Captain, Vincent Coastrunner, everyone,” Dom said theatrically. “Champion of the common man.” They all laughed, and Vincent helped himself to another piece of cake instead of more booze.
“I’ll miss this,” Aluna said softly from overhead.
“There’s always next year,” said Vincent.
“Maybe…” Aluna leapt from the tree, drifting down into a far seat at the table with a quick unfurling and refurling of the glider wings in her backpack. “I don’t know how much longer I can stay here.”
Vincent nearly choked on a piece of candle wax while Dominique sat beside him, shrouded in the silence of someone who’d already heard the news. “Where the voids else are you going to go?”
“I don’t know,” said Aluna, “but I know my future isn’t here. I mean, we’re getting older. I’m almost 23 too. I always thought I’d be getting married by now, starting a family. I wanted to teach my kids how to glide before I got swallowed by a skywhale.”
“Well, don’t get swallowed by a skywhale, then,” said Vincent. “You’ve made it this far.”
Aluna sighed, the green light from Shelby’s hull glinting across her shaved head as she shook it. “That’s not the point. The point is, if you don’t rescue me a sexy man who could fight a bear and also bring me strawberries while a I take a bubble bath, there’s not a lot for me here. Just the same old job I did back home, but lonelier.”
“I mean, I’m single,” said Vincent. He was joking. Mostly.
“Vinny, you’re like my big brother,” said Aluna. “It’d be weird. Besides, no way you could fight a bear.”
“I guess the dating prospects are a little limited out here, especially if we count each other out.” He turned to the other side of the table and wiggled his eyebrows at Dominique, trying to keep things light. “How you doin’?”
“Love you, man, but I’m still straight. And Ali and I already tried to go down that road.”
“Wait, you two…?”
“No chemistry.” Aluna shrugged.
Vincent’s head was spinning. He set down the cake. “We’re traitors though. We can’t go home, even if we wanted to.”
“We found this out here,” said Aluna. She stared up at the stars. “I bet this isn’t the only civilization besides our own.”
“Yeah, but what are the chances you’re just going to stumble across another one blindly? And that it’s going to be full of hot guys instead of…like…rock people or something?”
“About the same as the chances of us all ending up here,” she said. She leaned back, giving up on the bench and tumbling onto the grass with a surprising amount of grace. “I’m not saying I’m spreading my wings and flying off into the night right now. There’s just gotta be…”
“Somewhere beautiful out there somewhere?” Vincent finished. Aluna nodded. “You know, when we first got here, I could have sworn this was it.”
“You stay still long enough, you start to watch the dirt collect,” said Aluna. “That’s just how it is, I guess.”
“I guess so.” You lost some and you kept some. That was, indeed, how it was. Vincent accepted a piece of toast from toaster, and when they went their separate ways a few attempts to bring the mood back up later, Vincent found himself walking to the only human bar in town instead of his studio apartment.
Talia Beaker raised a glass to him when he opened the door. “Vincent Coastrunner!” she said. “I owe you a drink!”
Did she know it was his birthday? He didn’t think he’d ever mentioned it, but he had never been one to turn down a free drink. He joined her at her table and let her order him whatever she was having. Everything tasted like shit here anyway.
They clinked glasses when the fresh drinks arrived. “Here’s to another cycle around the Core,” he muttered.
“To what?” said Talia.
“It’s my birthday,” Vincent said with a shrug.
“Is it? You don’t look very festive.”
“It’s been a weird night,” said Vincent. “Found out one of the only people I actually get along with out here wouldn’t date me if I was the last guy on Etelu, and the other one is, as I’ve long suspected, not in to guys.”
“Let down on your birthday, eh? That’s rough, kid.”
“It wasn’t really a let down. I don’t even know if I’d want anything to happen with either of them. They’re right. It would probably be weird. It’s just, I don’t know, sometimes it’s lonely out here for a 23-year-old edger, and I’m afraid it’s just going to get lonelier.”
“Well, it seems like you’re doing a good job solving that problem with all the new recruits.” She nodded to a small knot of newcomers in the corner of the bar. He’d rescued all of them, with varying degrees of subtlety, though no other operations had gone as ass backwards as Sana’s.
“I feel like it’d be weird to date someone I pulled off a rim ship. Some sort of weird power dynamic. I don’t know.” He shrugged and sipped his drink.
“You’ve been spending too much time around those Etelutian priests,” said Tania.
“Maybe.” He stared into his ice. “Hey, if you didn’t know it was my birthday, why did you buy me a drink?”
“Ah!” Tania’s eyes lit up. She was clearly excited to be moving away from the topic of Vincent’s love life. “Because my research has started up full swing again, and it’s all because of you!”
“Oh?” Vincent tried to keep the worry off his face.
“Turns out a disproportionate amount of your rescues have the Creator Gene!”
It made sense. Rim ships were the closest thing anyone in the Perfectorate had to a ticket out, so it figured that those in persecuted groups would gravitate toward them. Hell, Vincent wouldn’t be surprised if the people in the know in the spire encouraged it behind the scenes—they’d take any excuse they could to make sure aeo mages never had the chance for a meaningful life. And he’d be lying if he hadn’t looked for clues in the passenger manifests. Everyone born with The Gift deserved a chance to live somewhere where they could learn about The Giver and see aeo beings living in harmony with the world.
“That’s not illegal here,” said Vincent.
“Of course it isn’t, but the Etelutians aren’t much more enthusiastic about humans having it than the Perfectorate are. Now that I have human subjects to run tests on, the Etelutian government has not only approved my research, but sponsored it!”
Vincent finished his drink to hide his look of disgust.
“Don’t you see?” said Talia. “If I can find a way to neutralize the creator gene, the Etelutians and the Humans would have no reason to go to war! You can’t abuse a holy power if you don’t have that power! We could all go home!”
“Why not just send fucking missionaries if that’s their problem?” Vincent shoved his chair back and headed for the door.
“All my subjects are willing and well paid!” Talia called after him. “Why do you keep getting so worked up over witches?”
It took all of Vincent’s self control not to bring her spoon to life on the way out.
The push of a door later and he was alone on a street lined with closed businesses catering to humans like him. A sense of normalcy, the HEC documentation called it, but wasn’t it really just to discourage them from integrating with Etelutian society as a whole? Wasn’t this just another prison with shorter walls? Briefly, he considered turning back around and ordering something else, drinking until he didn’t have to think about any of this, but that was always a bad idea, and besides, it would mean walking back into the bar he’d just stormed out of. Instead, he walked home, but he could barely sleep, and once the morning light started creeping in between his blinds, he couldn’t stay in bed any longer.
By the time the pinks and violets had faded from the sky, Vincent was standing in front of Shelby, Toaster in tow.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE SO EARLY?” said Shelby. “WE ARE ON LEAVE. REMEMBER?”
“I know. Want to go for a drive?”
Lights blinked across Vincent as Shelby scanned him, reminding him he hadn’t been sober the night before, but she’d seen him on far worse mornings. “I AM NOT RUNNING AWAY WITH YOU. I WANT TO MAKE THAT PERFECTLY CLEAR.”
“Neither of us have anywhere else to come back to. I know that. I just need to clear my head. I figured you, me and Toaster could find some pretty island in the void to camp on, just like old times.”
“Somewhere I can trick myself into believing is beautiful,” said Vincent. “Just for a little while.”
Shelby’s boilers hissed out a long, thin stream of steam. “I SUPPOSE I DID NOT GET YOU A BIRTHDAY PRESENT.” Her door swung open. “CLIMB ABOARD, CAPTAIN, AND DON’T FORGET YOUR HARMONICA.”
“Thanks, Babe.” He rested his hand on the spot on her door handle still burnished from the oils of his fingertips, and his mother’s before his. It was funny how nostalgic you could be for a time you knew was worse, when the present let you down.
“ARE YOU SENTIMENTAL ENOUGH THAT YOU WANT TO CONTROL THE CLAWS, OR CAN I DEPLOY THE THRUSTERS AND WINGS?”
“Thrusters all the way,” said Vincent, easing himself into the chair he’d so long thought of as his, reminding himself he was a guest here and always had been. “Let’s explore. Maybe we’ll find Aluna’s fabled island of hot guys.”
From somewhere in Shelby’s engine compartment, there was an odd skipping sound that almost sounded like laughter. “TO THE RIM AND BACK IT IS.”
And with that, there was the rush of fire, the gallop of her legs skipping to the edge of the coast, and that giddy, sickening leap into the sky.