Is this really the new identity of my life? Savior of our species? I don’t know if my heart can take it. The walls of the Zeyo fade back into focus as my thoughts quiet under the pounding of my heart, and the low murmur of the atmosphere grows to full volume around me.
The glass near my mouth fogs with my sigh when a shrill, twangy voice pierces the hum of conversation in the local lounge. A shiver crawls up my spine in the instant I realize I’m about to drown in the entirety of today’s gossip.
Nineveh approaches the bar where I sit. “Did you hear about Tiamet?” With a graceful swoop, she slides a wooden stool from under the bar and sits atop the velvety scarlet cushion.
Thinking only of The Council’s decision, which will change every aspect of my life, I’m slow to answer with an unenthusiastic “What?”
After placing the strap of her bag on a hook underneath the glassy granite counter, she looks at me with beaming eyes. “They selected him to lead the expedition!” She pinches her glossed strawberry lips together in a smile, her shoulders shaking with a suppressed giggle.
Though her comment evokes a proper stiffness through my entire body, I maintain my feigned disinterest on the subject. “Expedition?” I ask, staring at my glass on the countertop, arms folded against the padded edge, my voice hoarse from lack of use throughout the day.
I’ve had a thing for Tiamet ever since we attended The Academy of Science Advancement, or TASA, if you will. The thought of working closely with him turns my stomach over itself, threatening to tie in knots.
Nineveh swats at the air, rolling her juniper eyes. “Oh, stop it! You know . . . the expedition! On that planet to find an indigenous race to breed with!”
With a nod and a smile toward the bartender, I prop my glass between my fingertips. Another round. I wouldn’t say I’m a regular at the lounge, but I frequent enough for them to know my usual drink. My gaze sweeps across the mirror behind the bar, illuminated by amber lights embedded into the glass shelves where various bottles rest. To my left is the entrance, hidden behind a wall that separates the lavatory hallway from everything else. Just left of that is a pony wall separating the entrance from the crushed velvet sofas around a low glass table. Single-light chandeliers dangle over the wooden tables, whose surfaces showcase natural curves in the grain.
The same dark marble as the bar counter is infused into them, following these patterns like a black river carving its way through an underground cavern. The ceiling showcases a dark finish, garnished with tiny white lights to mimic the night sky. The same amber lights in the bar shelves wrap around the room to tie everything together.
“I’m thrilled you’re privy to all this rather useless information, Nineveh, but we won’t actually breed with them . . .” I don’t mean to sound condescending, but the uncertainty of how to drive the conversation away from Tiamet gets the better of me.
Nineveh folds her arms, wrinkling her freckled nose. “Come on! I know deep down you’re thrilled.” Her bubbly demeanor is constantly teetering over a line between being amusing and irritating.
“I didn’t know they would select him as director, but I had my suspicions he would be going.” After lifting a new glass to eye level, I observe the light refraction of the caramel fluid inside before pressing the rim to my lips, letting it slip through them.
“You don’t sound very excited,” she says with a look of disapproval.
I raise my eyebrows as a silent request to know when she’d ever seen me excited.
She grips my arm and shakes it gently. “I was certain you’d jump at the news since you’re going too.”
I hold back a grin and roll my eyes. It must be all she can do to keep from jumping up and down herself.
“You’re going too?” Tiamet’s voice rings in my ears from behind as he approaches. My heart rattles to a stop at his question. He places himself diagonally from Nineveh and me, leaning against his hands on the edge of the countertop.
“Not by choice,” I snap, building my defensive walls higher. “I am completely against creating a hybrid race for this.” With another sip, my fingertips collect the condensation from the outside of the glass before I rest it in my hands against the counter’s glassy surface.
Discomfort closes in when Nineveh pulls her stool closer to mine, the sweet smell of plums and roses infiltrating my senses. “Oh, come on, Aya! We get to save our planet and do none of the heavy lifting.”
“How cool is that? We will be heroes!” Tiamet places his hands on his hips in a heroic pose, looking toward the ceiling.
I roll my eyes. Why won’t anybody around me listen? “You’re acting like it’s some big joke,” I mumble.
“Come now, Aya, don’t be like that. At least explain to your friends why you’re so against it.” Tiamet nods, motioning a hand to Nineveh and the other toward himself. “We’ve heard your argument presented at council, but I can tell there’s something more.” He hides a chuckle in his voice, in that teasing manner I never seem to be in the mood to tolerate.
“It’s no laughing matter. It’s cruel. Case closed.” It takes all my strength to avoid looking at him, but as he leans his forearm against the bar, pulling a stool underneath him, I can’t help but glance. His wide palm is balled into a loose fist, sending his arm into a flex.
He’s got that look in his eye—the one where he knows he can get a rise out of me. “Well, you act as if you don’t even want us to surv—”
“Of course I want us to survive!” I hiss through my teeth. “To think otherwise is idiotic . . . But creating a new race to do our dirty work? Are we too good to get our hands in the mud and collect the gold ourselves?” I slam my glass on the countertop. “Creating a sentient being for enslavement to fit our agenda is wrong, and I’m not convinced The Council has exhausted all other options before going this route! Their creationist, entitled outlook on the entire ordeal makes me sick.” I slowly breathe out. Calm down. I’ve got to calm down.
Tiamet closes his eyes, shaking his head. “Ayathesti, they won’t be intelligent enough to know the difference. Besides, we’ll just let them be once we have what we need, so they’re not exactly ‘slaves.’ They’re just . . . temporarily contracted . . . involuntarily.”
I glare at the droplets of liquid pooling on the counter’s surface.
Nineveh’s eyes grow wide, and she puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Bring it in Aya! Obviously, he’s kidding!” I catch her glare at Tiamet as he sits there, propped against the counter with a sly smile pasted on his lips. It’s like he gets some thrill at the ease of getting under my skin.
I take a deep breath. “No, no. It’s a good thing to discuss if we’re working together. Having a similar target outcome will help everyone in the long run,” I say to them, but the words are more for me. Maybe I can eventually convince myself of this truth.
“So . . . let’s elaborate then,” Tiamet says. The bartender sets a tall glass in front of him. In return, he offers the man a smile and a nod before bringing it to his lips.
“It’s simple, really. I don’t find it beneficial to our intellectual progress to create a species for one reason alone.” I lift my gaze to him while placing a napkin over the droplets on the counter. “Imagine if it were you, Tiamet, working one day, happy and stupid as you are, and out of nowhere—you develop a new neural connection and notice something is off. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Maybe I’m the only one with any of this intelligence we all keep talking about . . . or at least the only one with enough to anticipate that these beings getting smarter, instead of staying mindless, is inevitable.”
I like Tiamet, but his teasing can go too far with little effort. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand his fascination with it. Is that just me, though? Am I one of those sensitive people everyone jokes about? Our eye contact holds while I attempt to hide the tremble in my chest. I rub my eyes, offering a temporary relief from the weight of the late night and conversation. If he thinks pushing in on my boundaries will make me open up, he is mistaken.
A strong, gentle hand lands on my shoulder, making me catch my breath.
“Don’t worry, Aya. If anyone can make this work, it’s you.” Tiamet’s hushed voice is inviting, like a soft blanket wanting to engulf my entire soul and extinguish the flame of problems in my chest. My heart pounds so loud I’m certain he can hear it. I hold my breath until the warmth of his fingertips slips away. After gaining my composure, I peer over my shoulder to watch him mingle with another group.
“He’s right, you know. I mean . . . he’s a complete ego maniac, and not worth your time if I’m being honest, but just now, I think I may have seen a glimpse of what you like about him.” Nineveh always seems to make sense of my emotions before I can, with little comments like this. Maybe she’s just more observant than me.
“What do you mean ‘what I like about him’?” I empty my glass and tip it toward the bartender before looking at her.
“Ohh, sweetie. You can’t fake it with me. It’s so obvious you have a crush on him. It’s actually rather painful to watch.” Nineveh giggles as I glance over my shoulder again. “See! Your expression goes soft, and you blush every time you look at him!”
I jerk my eyes to her. “Get off! I do not.” Desperate to keep my eyes from wandering back to Tiamet, I examine Nineveh’s red hair. How do those curls stay in such perfect form throughout the entirety of every day?
“You can deny it until the sun explodes, but that won’t help you feel any better about it.” She crosses her ankles and pops a mint into her mouth.
“I don’t want to ‘feel better’ about it. Besides . . . fantasies are always better than the real thing.” My tone mellows as my gaze drifts back to Tiamet.
“Well then, I won’t sit here and watch you torture yourself. To be frank, Aya? You need to get him one-on-one and tell him how you feel! You’ll be more content either knowing he feels the same or, in the off chance he doesn’t, you can let go and move on.” After grabbing her bag from the hook under the counter, she flings the strap over her shoulder and stands from her chair. “Go talk to him! Then get yourself some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow!” She turns and walks away, the click clack of her heels fading as she exits.
I come out of my trance and look at the increased emptiness of the room. It’s as though the last four hours passed by in a moment. Was I lost in a zombie-like state the whole time? After taking care of my bill, I push myself to stand, hands sliding on the smooth surface of the bar, before I make my way to the exit. I push the swinging doors open, revealing a dark starry night overhead with street lights letting off their dim purple haze.
A gentle breeze brushes over me with ease, eroding the weight of the earlier conversation away. Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, I smile at the memory of Tiamet’s hand on my shoulder, his voice echoing in my head, making my heart race and my lungs heavy.
While I turn the corner, away from the Zeyo, a shimmering bright-green light pans from one side of the sky to the other. The sand-faced homes lining the street cast strange shadows as their basic, uniform cubed shapes dance under the waving light above.
My heart swells with gratitude at my luck in witnessing such a rare event. Could it really be late enough for me to see the elusive aurora? Streams of light wisp around the stars in a tango. The slow movements, beautiful and mesmerizing, captivate me and pull me to sway with them in the breeze.
I don’t know how much time passes while I stand there dancing with the sky, but by the time I’m home, I’m ready to collapse. Tomorrow marks the real start to an extensive journey. The Council has already selected the destination, the planet to save our own: a planet we call Earth.