Every Hateful Instrument

by

javert

There Is Power In the Hands of the Worker

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There Is Power In the Hands of the Worker

The next morning, during the first shift meal, Hail’s mother noticed his extraordinarily pensive expression. Hail mindlessly shifted a piece of bread in swirling patterns through the tomato sauce on his plate with his fork, staring off into space.

“You feeling alright, Hail?” she asked, rubbing his back. The mess hall was mostly empty this shift, and they sat alone next to each other on one of the long benches at the scuffed yellow dining tables. There was some chatter and clinking of cutlery from the other members of his extended family, eating in small groups or alone along the length of the room, but the tone of the day was subdued, everyone still processing the attack from the day before.

It took half a second for Hail to realize that his mother had spoken to him, and he jerked his head up and said, “Hunh? Oh, yeah, I’m fine.”

His mother’s hand continued its steady path across his back. “You look out of it.”

“Just tired. Thinking.”

“How’s your head?” she asked.

“Better,” he said, honest for once. “I think I might have found a different way of sleeping that makes it less bad.” The specifics were a lie, but he could tell his mother believed him.

“I’m glad,” she said. “Or maybe Dr. Mayfair was right, and adrenaline does help.”

“I don’t know,” Hail said, then went back to smearing the remains of his breakfast around on his plate. He wasn’t looking at his mother, but he could feel her concern, like pinpricks on the back of his neck, the way she looked at him. It crawled down his skin. “You don’t have to worry about me, you know.”

“I’m not worried,” she said. Half a lie. “I’m very, very proud.” This was true, Hail decided, but there was an unspoken undercurrent of sadness beneath the words, in the way she was continuing to rub his back.

“I don’t know what there is to be proud of.”

“Na?” she said. “You did well, yesterday.”

Hail shook his head. “We would have been in trouble if Glory hadn’t arrived.”

“He said you had the situation in hand.”

Hail just looked down at his plate. “I was happy he came. Maybe Grace wasn’t.”

“I was a couple years older than you were, in my first real fight,” his mother said. Her voice was flat, and she was nodding to herself as she spoke. “You’re a man now, Hail. Not really my baby anymore.” It was the kind of rote thing that parents had to say, wasn’t it? Or that they felt they had to say.

Hail looked over at her, and she offered him a smile. Hail shook his head. “Doesn’t feel like something to be proud of, or anything I did well.” He looked away, back down at his plate. “I was just scared.”

She rubbed his back. “That’s natural. But you worked through it.”

Hail paused in his squishing of his mutilated breakfast. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“When I was there-- fighting, I mean-- and I killed the man I was fighting with, I don’t know, I-- while it was happening I couldn’t stop imagining, really feeling, what it must have felt like for him. I--” He broke off and touched his neck, the place where the imaginary knife had entered. “You know what I mean, right?”

His mother looked at him with fresh concern, and Hail immediately regretted saying anything.

He hurried on, trying to push her concern away. “It’s not going to stop me,” he said. “I’m just wondering-- is there any way to…” He trailed off.

“It gets easier,” his mother said. “Just as long as you don’t freeze up.”

“I did freeze,” Hail admitted. “I couldn’t move.”

“You focus on yourself,” his mother said after a second. “Yourself and your family. If those are the things that you keep in mind, it makes it easier.”

Hail nodded. “I will.”

“I hope we don’t have another fight for a good long time yet,” his mother said.

“We probably won’t.”

“Yeah.” She patted his back, then dropped her hand. “What’s your shift today?”

“Greenhouse,” Hail said.

“Alright.” She ruffled his hair as she stood. “I’ll see you at home later, na?”

“Where else would I go?” Hail asked.

“Start sleeping in the bays to get away from your overbearing mother, I suppose.”

 


 

Hail rushed through his assigned tasks in the greenhouse, half-distracted the whole time. He was lucky that none of his cousins or aunts or uncles were much in the mood for chatting, or making up tasks for him to do once he had finished cutting and planting new beds of potatoes and cleaning out the fish tank filters. Working in the greenhouse gave him plenty of time to think.

He was fairly sure what he had done the day before, both during his fight and sitting in bed afterwards, had not been his imagination. He had been tired when he had been fiddling with his knife, but he didn’t think he had been tired to the point of hallucination.

As he rinsed the fish tank filters with the hose, spraying them down and watching the grey water slough off them down into the drain on the floor, Hail wondered, if he really had managed to move his knife and the attacker’s without touching them, why had he never been able to do it before? After all, like every kid in the galaxy, he had spent a fair amount of time first pretending to be a sensitive, then as he got older, holding on to half a hope that he was one.

He didn’t know of a single kid who hadn’t sat in their bed at night, dreaming of what it would be like to be that one in a million (or more-- Hail didn’t know the exact figure) person who could alter the universe to his whim. Everyone tried to make their stuffed animals fly, or some equivalent thing. And, of course, all that time, nothing had happened. When he got a little older, he stopped trying, feeling exactly as stupid and childish as everyone eventually did when they stopped believing in anything other than the reality of their own life, the day in and day out of school and family and work aboard his ship.

From what he knew of sensitives, which was precious little, he knew that they were taken from their families as children-- hunted out somehow by the Imperial government-- and sent to train at a secretive school for years and years. When they emerged, dressed in their strange long coats and capes, they slotted themselves in neatly to the rulership of the galaxy. The leader of the Empire was a sensitive, of course, and so were most planetary governors, and anybody else with any power and influence. Even the leader of the spacefaring Guild was a sensitive, a fact that made most pirates spit after mentioning him, when they deigned to at all. Of course, none of this had any bearing on Hail’s life. His family was well and truly outside that system, and that was how they liked it.

Even if he had idly dreamed of being special, it was for that feeling of standing out among his cousins only, the same way he sometimes thought about what it would take to become the captain of the Bluebeetle . He supposed he didn’t have the temperament for it, not really. He chuckled to himself, distracted for a moment thinking that Grace would probably make a better captain, more willing to chase the things she wanted.

What he needed to do, Hail decided, was to do some research, and to try to use the power intentionally. That would confirm that he really had it.

Hail finished his work early and snuck out of the greenhouse before anyone could stop him and give him more work to do, making his way back to his room. Once there, he shut his door, and retrieved the stuffed bear from the top shelf of his closet, the one he was far too old to keep on his bed now. It was nostalgic, sitting it up on the surface of his desk, its round ears lopsided and its brown fur bare in places, though it still bared its teeth in a way that was somewhere on the border between menacing and dopey. As Hail sat on his desk chair in front of it, squinting at it, he felt much like he had at age eight, trying with all his might to make it animate, on the off-chance that there was that power inside him.

His head, which had been pounding in the greenhouse, throbbed only dully here, the background pain he felt any time other than when he was out on a dogfighter. He took a few deep breaths, placing his hands on his knees, and stared at the stuffed bear. What had the feeling been, the day before? It was a split instant where everything else had dropped away, the world seeming to come into focus in the line between him and the knife.

He pushed away the distracting whir of the air filters and the pain deep in his skull, and imagined some intangible force taking hold of the midsection of the bear, lifting it up so that it stood on its hind legs.

What surprised Hail was how easy it was. With just that feeling of intention, something clicked inside of him, some wire tying into place between him and the bear. As he pushed his intention out through that invisible connection, the bear lifted from his desk, a motion smooth as flowing oil. It stood there before him, held in place with only his will. Experimentally, he mentally tugged on its arms, and the bear swiped at the air. The power was eager to obey him.

He should be scared of this new and strange sensation, but he couldn’t find the fear within himself. Using the power was more natural than anything had ever been. It wanted to be used, and making the stuffed bear pad back and forth across his desk on its soft feet relaxed something inside Hail, something he hadn’t even realized he had been holding tight to his chest.

He tried lifting other things, and found it just as easy. He even carefully unscrewed the bolts that held his bed to the floor and tried moving that, and found that even the heaviest objects in his room posed no problem whatsoever.

Fine control, like when he tried using a pen to write on a piece of paper, was more difficult, but it was the difficulty that came from doing a task that had long been intuitive-- holding a pen-- in a way that forced him to think about every step. With practice, he would master it.

Was it this easy for everyone? If Hail could have had one wish at that moment, it would have been to speak to another sensitive, to ask him all of the questions tumbling around in his brain. But with that desire came a sudden realization, one that made him put his pen back down on his desk.

He was never going to meet another sensitive. They were all part of the Imperial apparatus, and he was a pirate, an enemy of the state. The idea that he would never speak to another person like himself, and the full hit of the realization that he no longer was like his family, hit him like a physical blow in the chest. He didn’t cry, but he rested his chin on his arms on his desk and stared at his old childhood stuffed animal without moving for many minutes. The unexpected joy of the past half hour’s ease had worn off, and beneath it the bitter reality had snuck in.

Perhaps he should have been used to feeling alone in the world, having spent the past several years taking more and more desperate measures to hide from his family as his headaches grew worse, but he wasn’t. His family had always been there for him, even to the point of redirecting the whole ship to try to save him from the pain. But he was different from them, now. If they had been a Guild ship, he would have been taken away from them to learn about the power he now held, and how to wield it for the Empire, and he wouldn’t have even been a part of the family any longer.

He wallowed in this self pity for a few minutes, but the understanding that he was lucky to be a pirate, to be able to remain where he was, was what eventually snapped him out of his reverie. He didn’t care about other sensitives, he decided, except in terms of what he could learn about them. They weren’t his kin or kind.

He could try to learn, though. The ship’s library was sure to have something he could read to learn what the extents of his newfound power were. Hail retrieved his tablet from his bedside drawer and navigated through the Bluebeetle ’s media library, which was well, if randomly, stocked with entertainment and technical manuals for the running of the ship. He wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t find any non-fiction books about sensitives. For one thing, he had gotten the impression that they were secretive people, so perhaps there simply weren’t any books aside from biographies of the various leaders of the Empire-- and why would his family care to have any of those?

There were plenty of fiction books, though, and Hail supposed that was better than nothing. He scrolled down the list of titles and picked one that looked promising, Everything They Teach You at the Academy (And Some Things They Don’t) , with the cover image depicting several young men in the strange long black coats that sensitives wore, staring at each other as they each held some sort of glowing ball in their hands. Hail had no idea what that was about, but he was sure he was about to learn. He loaded the book onto his tablet, and then lay down on his bed to start reading.

The book was entertaining enough, but unfortunately the first few chapters spent much more time developing a bitter rivalry between two of the students at the Academy than it did discussing what they were actually learning.

Hail brought his tablet with him to dinner so that he could keep reading. Neither of his parents were around, probably busy with repairs or something else, so he sat alone, continuing to read and poke halfheartedly at his dinner.

 

Because he had been held up by the coach on the court, the locker room was empty by the time that Essek arrived. That was a relief. The last thing he wanted was to encounter Kell after the mishap during the game.

Essek stripped off his grimy uniform and folded it neatly before turning on the shower and standing under the scalding water, filling the room with steam. His thoughts kept returning to the way that he and Kell had crashed into each other, each reaching for the ball at the same time, and how Kell had ended up beneath him on the rough ground of the court, glaring up at him with pure hatred in his eyes. Essek’s mind had gone totally blank under that withering stare, and he had taken far too long to disentangle himself. He would have thought that Kell would have kicked him to get him to move, but Kell had just… stayed still.

The water slipped down Essek’s shoulders, through his long dark hair. He closed his eyes, and the rush of the showerhead was loud enough that he didn’t hear Kell’s approach until it was far too late.

Kell’s power seized Essek and threw him back against the wall, pinning him to the slick tile. He tried to scramble away, but his fingers just clawed uselessly at the grout, his torso completely pinned and his legs unable to move. Kell stepped through the steam towards him, fully dressed in his cassock. The shower’s water neatly avoided him, parting and swerving out of his path, not touching him at all. Kell was incredible like that. Even though Essek was afraid, his admiration was one thing that cut through the fear.

“What the fuck were you doing out there?” Kell demanded, coming right up to Essek, naked and pinned.

“It was an accident,” Essek said. “I swear. They shouldn’t have put us on the same team.”

“You wanted to humiliate me.”

“Humiliate you?” Essek gasped. “You should have just--”

“Don’t tell me what I should have done.” Kell reached out and grabbed Essek’s chin, nails digging into his cheeks. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Essek’s mind went horribly blank once again, at the burning touch of Kell’s hand. “Are you here to humiliate me?” he managed to gasp out.

Kell stared at him, with his hard blue eyes. Essek’s face was hot, and, shamefully, he could feel himself starting to--

Hail was flushing now as he read the book, though he didn’t put it down, and indeed was quite absorbed, to the point of not noticing Grace slide into the seat across from him.

“Whatcha reading?” she asked, and tugged the tablet out of his loose grip before he could stop her.

“Give that back!” he hissed and grabbed for it. This, of course, only made her more interested in prying into his business, and she began reading aloud, in her obnoxious voice, “Pressing Essek to the wall with his palm on his chest, Kell leaned forward and kissed--”

Hail finally managed to snatch the tablet away from her, and turned it off, tucking it underneath his leg on the bench so she couldn’t get at it.

“Oooh, Hail, interesting choices,” she said. “Didn’t take you for a romance fan.”

“Shut it,” Hail said. He crammed the remains of his sandwich in his mouth, then got up, putting his tray and plate away and starting to head out the door.

Grace regretted annoying him instantly, because she grabbed her own sandwich in a napkin and ran after him.

“You’re not supposed to take food out of the hall,” Hail muttered, but didn’t do anything to stop her from following him. She just tagged at his heels, and Hail, who realized he wasn’t going to get any privacy from her, gave up and headed for his usual after-hours haunt, the classroom. Nobody would be there during third shift, so he liked to go there when the lounges were full and he didn’t feel like hiding in one of the 0G sections of the ship.

Grace followed him in, and he flipped on the light, illuminating the rickety tables and the peeling, hand-drawn posters on the walls. Now that he was older, Hail spent much less time here, only coming for lessons a few hours a week to go over the independent work that he did, but Grace spent at least half a shift every day in class. She perched cheekily on top of the table she usually sat at, and Hail found a chair. She ate her sandwich and stared at him, getting crumbs everywhere.

He just stared back. It wasn’t easy, but he could make her squirm if he waited just the right amount of time. There was always some shifting in her bearing that made it clear when she was just on the verge of opening her mouth, and he cut her off right before she said anything. “I’m not going to say anything to you until you apologize,” Hail said.

Grace deflated. “Oh, come on , Hail.”

He just stared at her some more, long enough that she got to awkwardly licking the sauce from her sandwich off her fingers before wiping her hands on the legs of her jumpsuit. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked.

“Apologize.”

She made a rude gesture.

Hail started to get up from his seat. Immediately, Grace said, “Alright! Sorry! God!”

Hail sat back down, still silent.

“Well?” Grace asked.

“Well what?”

“You didn’t have to be that mad that I looked at what you were reading,” she said. “But you don’t have to be so secretive about it, either.”

“It isn’t your business.”

“Na. You made it my business by being all weird about it.” Now it was her turn to stare at him for a second. Her voice was sickly patronising when she spoke again. “Ever-Forward was a sensitive, too. Before she left. It’s not like anybody really cares.”

“What?” Hail asked, his voice half strangled. “No she wasn’t.”

“She left to go get married,” Grace said. “Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, right.” Hail said. “Right.”

Grace raised her right hand and touched her thumb and pinky together. “I swear to love my cousin Hail-and-Farewell even if he does want to kiss men on the mouth.” She leaned forward. “There. That make you happy? You could have told me before.”

“You’re jumping to conclusions.”

“Am I wrong?”

“I was doing research,” Hail said.

Grace let out a wild laugh. “Is that what you call it?”

He narrowed his eyes at her and she stopped laughing, though she didn’t quite wipe the smirk off her face.

“Alright, I’ll bite, what were you researching?” she asked.

“You can’t tell anybody.”

“I swear I won’t tell a soul,” she said. “You can trust me.”

“I don’t think I can, considering the way you act.”

“Hail,” she whined.

He let her stew for a half second more. “I am a sensitive,” he said finally.

“Yes,” she said. “We literally just established that.”

“No,” Hail said. “The other kind.”

She didn’t believe him, and this was obvious even before she burst out laughing. “Oh, God, Hail, you’re hilarious.”

“Would you bet your jade earrings that I’m not?” Hail asked. He wanted her to understand that he was serious.

“And what would you wager?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. “What kind of trick are you trying to pull?”

Hail pulled his knife from his holster, the nice one he had gotten from Cast, the one he had used to kill a man, and laid it on the table in front of him. He nodded at it. “You can have my good knife if you decide I’m lying to you.”

Grace was visibly torn, since Hail had pledged himself to such a high-stakes bet over something that couldn’t possibly be down to chance. She fingered her earrings, but decided the possible reward of Hail’s knife was too good to pass up, so she took them out and laid them on the table with Hail’s knife.

“Name a test,” Hail said. He was moderately worried that Grace would name something impossible, and he didn’t want to lose his knife, but he did in fact have the power, so he felt sure he could prove it somehow.

Grace looked around the classroom, then reached one long arm behind herself into one of the shelves on the wall, pulling out a few sheets of bright blue construction paper. She held it up. “Can you light this on fire? Sensitives can do that, right?”

“Do you want to kill us all?” Hail asked. Fire on a ship was one of the few things that pirates had drilled into them to be afraid of. Grace had apparently missed that lesson.

“You wouldn’t have prepared some sort of trick to burn things,” she pointed out. “You’d think I was too scared of it to ask.”

“I haven’t practiced it, either.”

Grace made a face. “Well, I’ll be happy to take Cast’s knife off your hands, then.” She started reaching for it.

“Wait,” Hail said. “Let me try. Hold still.”

She did, and Hail squinted at the paper in her hands. He knew, intellectually, what made fire. He wasn’t sure how to heat up the paper, but maybe it would be just as easy as it had to move objects. Unfortunately, his reading hadn’t been of any help, even before Grace interrupted him in the mess hall. It was worth a try. Hail searched within himself for the feeling of intention that had stirred in his chest when he had used the power earlier, and found it. It tingled in his fingers, and he imagined a bright, white-hot spot on the edge of the construction paper, far from Grace’s hand. He held his breath and pushed that intention forward.

The paper burst into flames, searing along the edge and running quickly down towards Grace’s hand. She yelped and tossed the burning wad into the garbage can, which quickly lit on fire as well.

“Put it out!” Grace shrieked.

“I don’t know how!”

Grace scrambled for the fire extinguisher in the back of the classroom before the fire alarm could start to wail, and she deployed it with wild abandon, covering the garbage can, the floor, and the wall behind it with dry, powdery chemical foam.

When the fire was well and truly extinguished, and the fire extinguisher was empty, Grace dropped it on the floor and started laughing. “Oh my God, that was great.”

Hail looked at the mess that was the garbage can. “You have a different idea of great than I do.”

Grace ignored the mess. “How long have you known about this?”

“Since yesterday, kinda,” Hail said. He found some paper towels in the back of the classroom and got down on his hands and knees to start wiping the fire-extinguisher remnants off the floor. “During the fight.”

“Ooooh,” Grace said. “Maybe you had to like, unlock it or something.”

“I don’t know,” Hail said. He dumped the messy towels into the garbage can as he cleaned the floor. “I’m gonna be in trouble with my mom for this, though.”

“Na. Cast won’t say anything.”

“He won’t?”

“I’m sure he thinks you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Have I?”

Grace laughed again. She was back on the table, swinging her feet while Hail cleaned. “I can’t believe this. It’s incredible. When are you going to tell everyone else?”

“I don’t know,” Hail said. “Maybe never.”

“What?” Grace stopped kicking her feet. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Na. It would just make everything weird, wouldn’t it?”

Grace rolled her eyes. “But think about it, Hail,” she said. “Think of the profit .”

“What kind of profit?” he asked.

“I thought they had decided not to take your brain out. You could use it a bit more.”

Hail narrowed his eyes and said nothing, moving the trash can to get behind it and clean the wall.

“Stardrives, Hail,” Grace said. “You could be the one to break the monopoly. If we could start selling them, forget drugs, forget gold, we’d be the richest people in the galaxy.”

“I don’t know how stardrives are made,” he said.

“Well, figure it out!”

Hail frowned. “It’s not like I know anything about how to use the power. I was trying to do research, learn what is even possible.”

“We know that stardrives are possible,” Grace pointed out. “We’ve got one.”

“I guess.”

“Everybody else went out of their way to help you,” Grace said, a sly look on her face. “The least you could do is pay back that debt.”

Hail frowned and scrubbed. “I’ll think about it.”

“What even is there to think about?”

“Let me get more comfortable with this first,” Hail said. “And you can’t tell anyone. I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep.”

Grace considered this for a moment. She was excited, and disdained his hesitation, but finally nodded. “I want in,” she said. “On whatever you end up doing.”

“I’m not doing anything right now,” Hail said. “I’m not even going to do that again.” He nodded at the trash can, and stood so that he could find a new bag to replace the half-melted one with.

“You are so boring.”

“All I’m going to do is read. For now, anyway.”

Grace sighed and said nothing as Hail tied up the garbage bag.

“Do you really want to help?” he asked.

“Of course, idiot.”

“You help me research, then,” Hail said. “Any books we have in the library, write down anything they say that people with the power can do, and if they have a description of how it’s done, that, too.”

“And you’ll learn how to do those things?”

“Maybe,” Hail said.

Grace reached over to where Hail had left his tablet on the table, and she began poking through the media library, repeating his search from earlier. “You know these are all romance novels, right? That’s all people read around here, I guess.”

“Better than nothing,” Hail said. “Maybe the next station we’re at will have some other books I can look at.”

“Na, I doubt it,” Grace said. “Maybe at best they’ll have like thrillers or something. There wouldn’t be any point in having textbooks.

Hail sat back down at the table and picked up Grace’s earrings. “I believe these are mine now,” he said, and began fitting them into his ears, the heavy carved stone sitting cold against his skin.

Grace looked up from the list of books, frowning. “Someday I’ll remember that betting against you is a way to get stomped.”

 


 

Grace did not stop pestering Hail about stardrives, every time they were in private and going over their findings, for the next long while. She was quite cheerful about helping Hail, even though underneath her smile there was a hot sting of jealousy. Hail couldn’t blame her, and he was just glad to have somebody he could trust. She did a better job at keeping his secret than he had expected, and indeed a better job than Hail himself.

His mother noticed his change in attitude, observant as always. It could hardly be helped, since Hail’s avoidance of her and the rest of the family was now focused instead of aimless, and he walked around with a distracted intensity. When his mother asked him what was on his mind, Hail couldn’t shield himself from her disappointment when he refused to answer.

His mind was always far away from the mundane operations of the ship and instead on the secret list of trials that he and Grace were putting together, discovering piece by piece what sensitives were capable of, or at least what people thought sensitives were capable of.

Much of it was silly and was hastily crossed off the list without further experimentation. Hail did not think that he was capable of growing extra limbs on command, and he wasn’t about to attempt it, either, just in case.

Some of it seemed reasonable, but Hail lacked the knowledge, or at least the subtle touch required to master it. One book’s plot revolved around a sensitive who used her powers to rob museums, manipulating light to go invisible, and while Hail was able to distort the air to make images quiver, and was able to plunge a room into pitch darkness, he couldn’t quite hold enough in his mind at once to master invisibility.

So many things that the books posited required Hail to stop and perform much more mundane research, about physics or biology. The most terrifying experiment he had done had ended with him blocking a nerve on his left arm and making his hand go so numb that he spent half an hour worried that he had done permanent damage, until he managed to calm down and reverse it. After that, he was much less willing to perform trials on himself.

Grace, always one to leap at opportunity, volunteered herself to be a test subject when applicable. Hail drew the line at modifying her body in any way, but since so many of the books that they read-- to put it mildly-- had pivotal scenes involving the manipulation of someone’s body, Grace demanded he at least figure out how to swoop her around in the bays.

They were hanging out in a bay now, having skived off lunch in order to discuss their research. Grace had scrounged some fruit from the kitchen, and it was floating in between them. Their voices echoed through the cavernous space, and only the barest emergency lights were on, leaving them in a tepid red dimness.

“What if I get untethered on a spacewalk, and you’re the only one who’ll be able to rescue me?” Grace asked. “And you refuse to learn how? How would you feel if I just died.

“Have you ever heard of anything called a boost pack?” Hail asked. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Hail,” she whined. “Come on. Don’t you want to at least try?”

“I don’t want to accidentally rattle your brain around,” Hail said, which was honest, at least in part.

Grace flicked an apple at Hail’s face, and he stopped it with the power before it hit him. It never ceased to startle him, that abrupt change in velocity. He wondered how fast something would have to be before he couldn’t stop it. A knife, certainly. A bullet? He didn’t know, and he was almost afraid to find out.

“See, if I did that to you,” Hail said, “your brain would smash into your skull.”

“Don’t do that to me, then, idiot,” she said. “Be gentle. You know.”

She wasn’t afraid of him at all. Hail pursed his lips. “Why?”

“Because I’m trying to help you,” she said. “If you ignore half the stuff that’s in these stupid books because it’s too hard, and you’re not even going to try to make a stardrive, I don’t even see the point of hanging out with you and doing all this! You’re so boring. You’ve got the best luck in the universe, and you’re boring about it. They should punish that with death, honestly!”

“Fine.” Hail said after a second.

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah, fine. If you really want to get tossed around like a sack of rice so much.”

Grace laughed. “Oh, you don’t even know.” She clapped. “Great. Do it.”

Hail stared at her for a second, then used the power to tug on her shirt, sending her spinning off backwards. Grace laughed. “God, I feel like a kid again, thinking being in 0G is all that. Faster!”

Hail pulled her shirt again, switching her direction, but this time, the movement was accompanied by a tearing sound, the seam of her tank top coming loose.

“Hail!” she shrieked, dragging her feet on the nearest wall to bring herself to a stop. “Look what you did!”

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I told you it wasn’t a good idea.”

“Well you clearly weren’t even using the power on me,” she said, kicking off the floor to come back over. “Doing it on my clothes is boring. And stupid.”

“You were having fun a second ago.”

“You were cheating.” She pulled her jumpsuit up to cover the ripped seam of her tank top with a huff, doing up the zipper. “And I just hadn’t realized it yet.”

“Do you want me to try again?”

“Yes, and without ruining my jumpsuit, while you’re at it.”

Some of the books mentioned that it was more difficult to use the power on another person, which was the other part of the reason that he had hesitated. With all his practice, he had grown quite comfortable with reaching for the sensation of the power within himself-- it was second nature now, like it had always been part of him, and perhaps it had been-- that eager thrill in his chest, the tingle in his fingers. He evened his breathing and stretched it out towards Grace. He could feel her now, hot and alive, and when his power passed over her, his heartbeat fell into a rhythm with hers, speeding up. Although Hail hesitated, what reassured him that he could act was Grace’s excitement, and nothing else. She grinned at him.

For the first time, the power fought him when he tried to push it onto Grace’s body. It wasn’t like before when he had been unable to do something, when he had somehow failed to communicate his intentions granularly enough. This was the power bucking him. When he tried to act on Grace, it sent a spike of pain through his head, and his stomach turned, bile rising through his throat. He clutched his hand over his mouth to stop himself from throwing up.

“What’s the matter?” Grace asked. Her excitement changed to concern.

“I can’t do it,” Hail said.

Grace pursed her lips. “Yes, you can.”

“It’s fighting me,” Hail said. “Nothing else is like this.”

“That just means you’re doing it right.”

Hail gagged, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

“Come on,” she said. “You can do it.” She batted her water bottle towards him, and Hail caught it and took a grateful sip.

He steadied himself and reached for the power again. Just as before, when it rested on Grace’s skin, just experiencing her without acting, the power was complacent, purring, warm and happy to be used. When he turned it on her, it fought back. Hail closed his eyes in pain, knowing that Grace wouldn’t give up without him succeeding. Her concern and excitement weighed in his mind more heavily than the power shrieking at him, and he was used to ignoring his headaches anyway. He shoved.

Grace yelled, and Hail’s eyes snapped open. She was tumbling heels-over-head across the bay, her voice like a siren as she spun. “Hail! You said you wouldn’t go fast!” But she was laughing, too, even as she eventually hit the wall with a thump, one that made Hail wince. That impact would probably leave her with a bruised side.

Still, Grace was undeterred, and when she came to a stop, she righted herself, shook the dizziness out of her head, and pushed back over to him. “I told you you could do it.”

“Sorry,” Hail muttered when she arrived. “I didn’t mean to push so hard.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’ve had worse! You just have to practice.”

“Na,” Hail said. “I think I’m good.”

She scowled. “You big baby.” With a tone that brooked no disagreement, she said, “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

 


 

After many months of practice, though Hail would not have considered himself an expert, he was adept enough in the power that he had stopped being able to provide excuses to Grace for why he should not look at the stardrive in the heart of their ship and try to build one himself. So, in the dead middle of third shift one night, when almost everyone was asleep, he promised Grace that he would go down and take a look at it. He was half sure that he would be totally unable to replicate whatever he found there, and that he would be able to say that truthfully to Grace, but he was still quite nervous as he crept through the heart of the Bluebeetle , towards the place where the stardrive was kept.

The room was at the dead center of the ship, right next to the saferoom and the regular nuclear generator that powered the rest of the ship’s functions. It was locked at all times, of course, but Hail had also become quite adept at using the power to unlock doors without anyone noticing. It went against every instinct that he had, as someone who lived on a ship-- a door that didn’t want to open under his normal authorization was likely to have a hard vacuum behind it-- but here in the middle of the ship, that was not likely to be the case. And he was breaking all the rules, anyway.

The hallway was quite dark, all the lights off, and Hail pulled himself through it hand over hand along the railings in the walls, a flashlight illuminating his way held next to him with the power. His head throbbed more and more as he got closer to the center of the ship, but he was sure it was just nerves.

He found the stardrive room and laid his hand on the cold door, taking a deep breath and sending his power through it to skillfully pull back the heavy deadbolts that held it in place, careful not to trip the lock mechanism into sending an alarm signal back into the computer. The door eased open, heavier than Hail himself, and he slipped inside, shutting it behind him.

The stardrive itself was encased in a metal box, with a single display on the side with its status, and tubes running in and out. Hail didn’t know what they did. Perhaps they were providing coolant or fuel or simply carrying wires through to the computer system. He had seen the stardrive before, of course. Though this wasn’t a place on the ship he normally had any reason to go, the room occasionally needed to be cleaned, or other similar tasks, and Hail had at least stuck his head inside. It had not impressed him before, when he hadn’t cared how it worked. The nuclear reactor a little ways over was much more visually complicated, and thus more interesting to Hail as a child.

But this metal slab was the heart of the ship. Without it, they would all be dead in space, completely unable to move. It was the only thing in the universe capable of moving objects faster than light, jumping them from one point to another, once every eight hours, approximately.

Hail began to reach his power towards it, then decided having his flashlight on was too distracting. He turned it off, plunging himself into pitch blackness. He could hear his own heart in his ears, his breathing too loud.

The power bent and swayed in Hail’s grip as he loosely extended it towards the Bluebeetle ’s heart, through the tang of metal, through the fizz of electricity, of wires and computer parts, and then through the hot slosh of liquid, towards something that sang and throbbed in his awareness.

With a jolt, Hail realized the stardrive was alive. When his power passed over it, Hail felt a shock of pain in his head so strong that he thought he might be dying, but then it receded down into nothingness. For the first time in years while aboard the Bluebeetle , Hail’s head didn’t hurt at all. The pain was replaced with a wordless, overwhelming melancholy, one that rose up so strongly within him that hot, involuntary tears squeezed out the corners of his closed eyes. He took a shuddering breath, but could only manage to let out the air on a sob.

Hail was too aware of his own body, and while he wanted to flee this room, he was held in place, trapped by the feeling bearing down on him, so intensely. The only thing he could do was try to reach out his power towards the stardrive, trying to free himself. But as he did, the stardrive reached back and took hold of Hail. The power leaped, happy to be used, and suddenly, Hail was not himself anymore. At least, not entirely.

He had not just a sense of his own body, but somehow the entire ship surrounding him, the too-fast-to-process stream of computer data, the air flowing like blood through the walls, and every person in it, sleeping or waking, he could feel them all as part of himself. It was overwhelming, and Hail wanted to escape, but he couldn’t get out.

The vision of the ship, the sensation of it as a body, narrowed, until Hail was experiencing his own body from outside. He could see himself curled up, his hands clutching his head, his knees to his chest, floating there in the pitch black womb of the stardrive room. When Hail tried to move his arm, he couldn’t feel the movement, but he could see it, his body reaching out blindly. It was like he was using the power on someone else’s body, but without the resistance that normally entailed. He was one with the ship, somehow.

This, then, was what Hail had been missing. The thing that all the books described, when sensitives were together, that ability they had to link their minds and work in concert. Hail had ignored it as mostly fanciful whims on the part of the novel writers, and the parts of it that seemed consistent, he had put aside, given that he was never planning to meet another sensitive in his life.

But this must be it. Or some imitation of it. The second awareness, the second mind, it was quiet as Hail explored its perceptions, but when Hail turned his attention towards it, it stirred again.

You’re a sensitive? Hail asked, half-forming the words.

The stardrive let out a wail of wordless information, unleashing it on him, and Hail could do nothing to stop the blast.

He understood what the stardrive was, in full, its own sensation of existence pressed on to him. Encased in the metal shell, there was a vat, like the kind that they grew meat in to eat, and inside of that was a single brain, with wires instead of a spine, connecting and trailing down into the Bluebeetle ’s computer. It was alive, and conscious, and it had the power, though Hail could see as clear as day places where the brain had been mangled and torn, the added circuitry preventing it from using that power except when directed by the Bluebeetle ’s computer.

Starved of any ability to interact with other people, the stardrive had no true language, but it clung to Hail, the only living thing who had been able to speak with it since the day of its creation, some forty-odd years ago. It was more than half-mad, and it was in pain, and it was pleading with Hail, begging him for something that it didn’t have the words to express, and that Hail didn’t have the power to give it. He understood well enough, the stardrive’s despair catching him low in his chest, his real body curling even tighter, involuntarily against the psychic onslaught.

He couldn’t bear it, and tried to escape, but the stardrive wouldn’t let him go. It was holding him like a baby monkey clutches at its mother in the dark and terrible forest. Hail’s struggle to escape only caused the stardrive to hold tighter.

The fight raged on, until Hail’s body couldn’t bear the strain, and he puked, the vomit remaining in his mouth in the 0G environment, and he breathed it in, coughing and choking, and that threat of death was enough to send him back into his own body, spitting out the bile and taking raw, harsh breaths. The pain in his head quadrupled, but he recognized it for what it was, now: the stardrive’s cry for relief.

Hail fled the room. He couldn’t do anything to help it, and he hated himself for that.

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A note from javert

i've talked about this on tumblr extensively but the "the only books about sensitives that hail has access to are highly questionable gay eroticas" come from the following factors

- in universe, sensitives can come from any walk of life. this makes for compelling fiction.
- they are also a mysterious group of people who the average person will never encounter, but who as a class dictate much of the way the Empire is run. this makes for compelling fiction.
- they have freaky psychic powers that the average person will not be intimately familiar with. this makes for compelling (and imaginative) fiction
- they are almost all, but not exclusively, gay. this makes for compelling gay romance novels, especially.
- most of the entertainment available on board pirate ships is for people who don't have a lot of novelty in their life during their few free hours when they're not working, and spend most of their lives around their families. romance novels (and just straight up porn lmao) are in high demand.
- as was pointed out, there's not really any reason for the laity to have textbooks on how the power works.
- also, it's just a funny logical worldbuilding consequence

[there are probably equal numbers of horny books about pirates, like there are tons of cowboy novels irl or whatever, but hail and his family would probably have zero reason to read any of those lol]

anyway hail has now received QUITE the education, if not exactly on the right topic. [to quote pirates of the caribbean] you'd best start believing in horny gay romance novels, mr vinright. you're in one.

i do not tease you for like 700,000 words about how stardrives get made in this one :p over in main story itsoh, yan /still/ hasn't figured it out lol

there is power in a factory / there is power in the land / there is power in the hands of the worker / but it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand / oh there is power in a union

i kinda miss writing the silly little folk song epigraphs in main story v1 itsoh. i don't think they add enough to justify their existence, but they were a fun touch. occasionally they were used to play against something in the story but not often enough lol

grace loves to stress her words in an annoying way. i figure i'm allowed to give one character an overdone italics quirk :p

next chapter five year timeskip because i'm not going to spend a million years wasting time in this story >.> aymon arrives next chapter! which i'm sure you're looking forward to? though if you already read the previous version of the beginning of this story, it's basically cut/paste, so you've already read it, unfortunately lol

thank you very much to em for the beta read! you can find me on tumblr @ javert, on twitter @ natsinator, my other writing is linked at gayspaceopera.carrd.co , and you can join my discord if you so desire https://discord.gg/2fu49B28nu


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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