A Fatal Flaw

A Fatal Flaw

I like to write stories for my friends. At the end of last year, I wrote a tribute for a friend who was grieving a lost pet. This story was written for a member of my regular RPG group (the one which spawns all my Dark Space stories). The incident it depicts happened near the beginning of a session (and what a start it was). Our GM gave the two of us an opportunity for some in-depth character interactions and I knew I had to immortalize it in words. But it wasn’t my character’s story – it was my friend Rowena’s and her character Giana’s. I spent some time talking to her after the session in order to get the details right, and I’m pleased to say she liked it (as I hope you will too)!
. . .

The boy was only a few years older than her and, right now, Giana hated him. He enjoyed making comments about her family in a mocking, nasal tone of voice that grated against her nerves like nails on a chalkboard. Facing him on the school yard was bad enough without running into him at market. She was only supposed to be running a simple errand. Why did he have to be here?

Today, the target of his ire was her youngest brother, as undeserving a victim as there could ever be. His words were like hot stones, burning in her gut, brighter and hotter until, at last, they ignited a fire that demanded to be fed. In that moment, Giana would have done anything to wipe the smug grin off her tormentor’s face.

Something crashed behind her and to her right. It was almost like the sound of her temper finally fraying all the way through. She turned, almost in slow motion, to see delicate shards of ceramic sprinkle across the ground. They were bright white, crisscrossed with a spider web of delicate golden designs. A trio of blood spatters marred their pristine surface, dark blotches in the morning light.

The pot hadn’t fallen. Someone had smashed it over the head of the man standing next to him. Already a bright, purple-ish lump had begun to form at the place of contact and a smear of crimson tricked down the victim’s face. His eyes narrowed, flashing with a fire not unlike the one burning in her gut, as he whirled on his assailant.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, letting his fist fly.

Other shouts, cracks and bangs drew her attention before that fist connected. It was as if the entire market had come alive with the same anger and hatred that poured from her like a swarm of angry bees. A woman bashed the head of a farmer against the flat wood of his own stand, screaming something about overblown prices. Others simply screeched incoherently as they lunged, sometimes kicking, sometimes clawing at whoever happened to be standing nearby.

In movies and stage dramas, monsters were always easy to identify. When they emerged from the darkness and shadows in which they lived, their appearance was twisted, their claws and teeth were sharp and their eyes seemed like mirrors into some hellish other-world. In real life, it turned out that monsters almost always wore the faces of regular people.

It was therefore disconcerting that, in the midst of all the chaos, the boy’s eyes were riveted on her. As if she had suddenly sprouted an extra limb. When she glanced down at her hands, she became dimly aware of darkness surrounding her body, as if some black hole of her own creation were trying to swallow her.

As the cacophony grew louder, as the darkness grew stronger, as the crowd closed on their position, Giana was aware of only one terrifying truth; she wanted to take it all back – the wish, the anger, even her desire to disappear – but she could not. If she lived ten thousand years, she could never take it back.

Nor could she stop it. And she would never forget the anguished expression on the boy’s face in the moment before the fire of his life snuffed out of existence forever.

*  *  *  *  *  *

They were coming out of it now. Clever Freun sorted it out, of course. Giana could only hope to one day match her level. The skill with which she wielded her power, and her fine-tuned level of control, were dreams of Giana’s. Distant dreams at the moment, nearly impossible in the wake of the incident.

Ves had stopped gnawing on the armor shrouding Pantriss’s ankle. That the huge dranfel had not snapped the tiny human in half was a source of endless relief for Giana, even in her current state. With her heart beating a hundred miles a second, even the sounds of Ves spitting the remains of earth and recent battles onto the drop ship floor was a worthwhile anchor.

Meanwhile, Eddie, Sailenn and Ruhk extracted themselves from the pile they made on top of Shrike. The good doctor would take care of them, Giana was certain. And at the first possible moment, she would be certain to remove herself, as far away as a spaceship would allow.

She didn’t allow herself to think about what would happen when they returned to Immortaa. An elite group like this would never tolerate the presence of an amateur like her. It might be better if she never went back to Immortaa at all.

Even as the thoughts circled her brain like a ship struggling to break free of an intense gravity well, a shadow loomed over her. A familiar shadow which, perhaps, made it the most daunting of all.

In situations like these, Domerin’s face was almost always carved from stone. Usually she would have relied on her secondary senses to glean what lay beneath the facade, but he also had an unusually secure mind and, in her current state, she didn’t trust herself to peek beyond his natural barriers.

When he lifted his hand, she expected it to crash across her face. Friend he may have been, but he was a no-nonsense sort of person. The fight between himself and Freun could easily have turned deadly, even without their weapons drawn, and he was no doubt as keenly aware of that as she. But instead his hand closed on her shoulder, gentle but firm. The pressure he exerted carried her only as far as a chair. As soon as she realized his intentions, she practically melted, letting her jelly legs give way.

She expected a lecture, demands, curses. Instead, Domerin thrust a water bottle into her hand and commanded her to drink. On any other day, the cool liquid would have been calming. At the moment, it didn’t so much refresh her as it did bring her position into sharper relief. The past was fading, replaced with a present that looked all too familiar. Angry, confused faces. Concern for the people who might have been hurt. Pantriss patting Ves’s shoulder as she sipped water, cleaned out her mouth and wondered aloud if the two of them were still friends. Sailenn stalked, claws clicking against the deck plating, ears lying almost flat against his head, his face low to the ground. Every time his tail twitched, Giana resisted the urge to flinch.

Domerin waited until the rush of blood faded from her ears and her breath came in slow, regular gasps before he asked the question. His voice, when he spoke, held every ounce of incredulity she expected but, shockingly, none of the accusation. “What the hell just happened?”

“I… I’m sorry.” She choked on the words, the lump in her throat so large she wondered that it didn’t cut off her air supply completely. These people were her friends and she had turned them against each other like a trickster with the snap of their fingers. She hadn’t even gotten a chance to warn them it might happen.

Slowly, each word its own agony, she told them the story, as much as she could manage, about the day her power manifested the first time. He had been a school-yard bully and she had only wanted to make his taunting stop. She had never fathomed that a force lived within her powerful enough to make people lose their minds.

But she had been as powerless today as she had been back then, at the mercy of her own helplessness. The reminder of accidental death, not just witnessing it but causing it to happen, made her relive that horrible moment as if it were new. And she feared the simple act of explaining what she had done would transport her back to that day in her distant past, the day that started it all. The running, the fighting and her eventual isolation from everything she loved.

A proximity alarm wailed. Time outside the drop ship had not stopped. The crystal creatures were still approaching. They had to act, and they had to act now.

Again, it was Domerin who knelt in front of her, his dark eyes boring through her with an intensity she could hardly bear. “Look at me,” he commanded softly, waiting until she lifted her gaze to speak again. “We need you here now, in the present. Lock the rest of it away. There’ll be time for it later.”

He didn’t say if we survive that long. He didn’t have to. Slowly, she nodded and slid to her feet.

*  *  *  *  *  *

When Domerin took her aside, she knew what was coming. They couldn’t leave the system yet, not until they discovered the cure for the strange psychic marks infecting everyone on their ship. They couldn’t risk drawing the crystal creatures back to their home base. They were in a holding pattern, waiting for one of Domerin’s ships to arrive with something that might help, and there wasn’t much for any of them to do in the mean time, aside from lick their wounds.

It made sense that they would want to get this over with. She deserved to know where she stood. But it would be difficult, oh so difficult, to finish what remained of this mission, to fill those empty hours, knowing that her time with the Immortals had come to an end. It was almost more than she could bear. She wanted to curl into herself, disappear into her chair, maybe even melt through the hull plating into the vast void of space beyond.

For the first time, it was difficult to look at Domerin’s impassive face. She imagined his temper seething behind his mask, waiting for a precisely calculated moment to strike. She kept her head down, her chin tucked against her chest, pouring the last of her focus into keeping tears out of her eyes. She would at least bear this with grace. What else could she do?

Domerin set his hands in front of him on the table, leaned forward slightly and drew a deep breath. “Tell me what happened back then.”

Giana swallowed hard. “My parents sent me to market to run an errand. I don’t remember anymore what it was. I just remember that I encountered this boy. He had been tormenting me for months. He always had something to say about my family. That time it was… Camrin, my youngest brother.

“I… I hated him. I wanted him to pay for it. I think I wanted to disappear. I don’t know. I had no idea that I had power until it happened. It was just like what happened today. Only worse. So much worse. I made everyone in the market turn against each other. And eventually one of them turned on that boy and… and killed him.” Her voice cracked. She expected Domerin to say something, to rush her forward or even dismiss the telling of the story, but he waited patiently until she regained her composure.

“Afterward, they exiled my entire family. I can’t blame them. My parents knew that the empire would take me, so we ran. We kept running.” Until she tore her entire family apart. As long as she stayed, they could never have a normal life. It was why she left. It was why she would have to leave again. Shrike might understand. He knew what happened to people like her. But how could she expect any of the others to forgive her transgression?

“Let me get this straight,” Domerin said, “you had no idea what psychic powers were before that day? No one ever explained to you that you might have them?”

Giana shook her head.

“And you were how old?”

She did a few mental calculations. “Eight.”

“Eight years old?” The disbelief in his voice was like a bucket of cold water poured over her head. “And they exiled you?”

Again, she nodded, unable to find her voice.

“Look at me.”

It was a request, rather than a command, but it was so hard to comply. She didn’t know what she would see when she looked into his face. Even if it was as smooth and impassive as before, she expected his eyes to burn with outrage. But she knew he would not speak further until she obeyed, so she lifted her head and met his gaze.

“You know me, right?” He jabbed a thumb toward his chest. “You know, that I don’t just say things. That I’m always going to tell you the truth as I see it and never what you want to hear. You know that, right?”

Again, she nodded, unable to find her voice. If there was one thing everyone could agree about Domerin Lorcasf, it was that he never minced words and he never sugar-coated them either.

“Those people,” he said, pronouncing each word carefully, “whoever it was who decided to exile you over what happened, they were idiots. More than that, they were assholes. You were a child. You had no idea that you could do something – anything – like that. You were frightened, angry, upset. And when things started to happen, I don’t doubt that you panicked. Why wouldn’t you? You had never even entertained the possibility that you could make things happen with your mind.” There was anger in his voice, but not the anger she expected. It didn’t seem to be directed at her at all. In fact, there was a shocking amount of compassion underlying that tone, perhaps more than she’d ever heard in his voice before.

Giana blinked, uncertain for a moment she heard right.

Domerin only paused to draw another breath. “You have been carrying this burden long enough. Whatever those people said, whatever you’ve spent your life convincing yourself, what happened that day was not your fault. Shit happens. People make mistakes. You’re hardly the first person whose mistake ever resulted in someone’s death. People like us, we go out there and we make decisions that people’s lives depend on every day. And sometimes we make the wrong choice and end up having to live with it. But you’ll never convince me that you were responsible for that boy’s death. There was nothing you could have done to prevent it, Giana. Nothing. And it’s utter bullshit that the adults in your life piled all that on your shoulders.”

For a moment, she could do nothing more than stare at him. It was the exact opposite of what she expected to hear. It was counter to everything anyone had ever said to her in regards to that incident. Even members of her own family had eventually come to blame her for the events that followed. How many hours had she spent going over it in her mind, wondering what she could have done differently? If she had only made a different wish, or been able to control the power when it began to act, her entire life might have turned out differently.

A dam burst inside of her and her emotions cascaded free of her meager protections. Already, she knew, her friends had been experiencing echoes of her emotions since the incident, but now the full force of her reaction washed over Domerin. All of the guilt and sorrow she had carried for a lifetime, mingled with the relief, surprise and fondness summoned by his words. For the first time, someone knew her past, and accepted her. She knew, somehow, without having to ask that his perception of her had not changed in the last few hours and, if it had, it had been for the better and not for the worse. There were hints of joy beneath the dissolution of her anxieties. It was not over. She could not simply dismiss the guilt in her heart. But this was an unexpected release, certainly a welcome one.

And Domerin was like a wall in the face of her torrential emotions. He was the rock over which the waves break on the ocean’s shore. He didn’t even flinch.

“Promise me,” he said softly, “that you are going to try to let this go. No more beating yourself up over an accident.”

Tears stung her eyes and she was powerless to hold them at bay. They streaked fiery channels across her cheeks as they flowed, blurring her vision of the man sitting across from her. Sniffling, she lifted a hand to brush them aside, trying in vain to clear her vision. At the last, she stumbled from her chair, across the three feet separating them, and threw her arms around his neck.

Domerin wasn’t a hugger – though it had never stopped her before – but he didn’t draw away. After an awkward moment, he wound his arms around her in return and squeezed her gently. But even after his arms fell away, she clung to him, and he let her.

He looked somewhat embarrassed when, finally, she drew away, but that she had expected. “Thank you,” she murmured around the lump in her throat. It was more than she had ever hoped for.

He patted her shoulder, the gesture again somewhat awkward. “Don’t mention it,” he replied, a thin smile gracing his lips. “What are friends for?” Then he fled before she could hug him again.

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