“The Stealing Gift” by Richard Ford Burley

She cradles the cup in her hands and stares out the café window: across the mottled blue-greys of the cobbled street; past the rainbow splotches of beach umbrellas and children’s swimsuits; and down to the narrow patch of horizon, the silver and dark blue shimmer of the sea. She doesn’t look away as she sips her tea, but lets her eyes close, watching the afterimage of the scene fade from the inside of her eyelids. When she opens her eyes again, there’s a shadow over her table.

She puts the cup down and picks up her glasses, sliding their cool frames over her ears. Through the lenses, the world becomes sharper, dirtier: the hairline crack in the window, the chipping plaster on the walls, the coffee grease patina on the table. The propaganda flyers rustle on the corkboard as the door closes, reminding her that even going to the seaside is a part of the War Effort. She looks up at her shadow, and scowls.

“Sergeant,” he says. He’s a lanky, six-foot scruff of a man, whose thick black hair used to hang in his eyes whenever he looked down at his notepad. The pad’s absence strikes her as odd.

“I’m retired, Max,” she says.

“The brass doesn’t let anybody retire, Thea, least of all War Heroes.” He eases his way down onto the chair across from her without invitation. His clothes look as run-down as the café. When she’d first met him, he’d worn a tie.

“Yeah, well, whose fault is it I’m one of those?” The press had had a field day with his account. A single recruit protecting an entire company from an unexpected artillery strike. They’d held the line thanks to her. The whole front, if you believed Max.

He smirks, a glint of mischief shining from the brown eyes beneath his bangs. “I just call it like I see it.”

“Yeah well I can’t. At least not without these.” She takes the glasses off again as the aura of a migraine looms at the edges of her perception, threatening violence. The lenses are the very latest—being a Hero gets you künsttech leagues better than you can get at the veterans’ hospitals—but even they have their limitations. Some days she can wear them for as much as an hour without pain; some days far less. Her guest slides back into impressionism, a shifting blur across the table, muted blues rather than the informal white and tan of the military press. Another suspicious change.

“You saved a lot of lives.”

She closes her eyes again, remembering what she’d done with her Gift that day. She can still see the wall of shimmering, golden light, the brilliant incendiary explosion she couldn’t look away from—that she’ll never be able to look away from again. And she remembers the way that Max and the other embedded press had reported it. “Thea White, National Hero,” the newspapers had proclaimed. But the headlines were as accurate at the stories that followed. As they’d squawked on about Heroism and the National War Effort and her Great Sacrifice, they’d never once managed to approach the truth.

He breaks her silence with a request.

“I want you to come work with me,” he says.

“Not at the press.” It’s not a question.

“No it’s—I’ve been reassigned to another project.”

“Doing?”

“I…it’s classified.”

“You mean you won’t tell me unless I sign up, by which point it’ll be too late to back out.”

When he doesn’t respond, she sighs and stands. She knows better than to let him have time to choose his words. She unfolds her cane and walks to the door. When she gets there she turns to face the shadow still seated at the table.

“Not a chance, Max,” she says. “We’re friends, even good friends, but I don’t sign on to things without knowing the details. If it’s the only thing I get out of being the hero you made me, I’m damn well going to use it.” The bell rings as the café door slaps shut behind her.

* * *

They’re waiting for her when she gets home: in front of the old stone and thatch cottage are a black car and a military jeep, the latter identifiable even in the shifting prisms of her eyes by its standard navy hue, the former by the staccato flicker of the small diplomatic flags at its nose, their white sides catching the light as they dance in the coastal breeze.

Max, it seems, had been the Soft Sell. This will no doubt be the Hard.

A woman is standing at her gate, quite a bit taller than Thea, and wearing the same muted blues as Max had been. The shadow of the open door looms behind her. Thea had locked it when she went out that morning.

“Sergeant White,” the woman says, almost pronouncing it ‘weight.’ The curious vowels of the northern provinces sound out of place after two years on the south coast. She’s holding a pad or clipboard of some kind, but it disappears behind her along with her hands when she adopts a military stance.

“Former,” Thea says, then turns and latches the gate before stepping around her guest and walking into her home. There are two men inside, one of whom seems to have picked up a book off her desk and is casually flipping through it. Neither seems to have noticed her presence.

“Does our commonwealth’s military now go through the belongings of its citizens without consultation?” The one with the book freezes and she smiles inside. They’ve sent a couple of new recruits to do the job, apparently. She leans on them a little, hoping they’ll remember the feeling in the future. “I thought this kind of thing was the reason we were at war in the first place,” she continues, collapsing her cane with a pointed snap and sitting in her living room chair. She crosses one leg over the other and folds her hands in her lap. “Preservation of civil liberties, and so forth.”

There’s a faint moment of shuffling in which she dearly wishes she could see the looks on their faces, before their commanding officer walks in and sets them at ease.

“Sergeant White,” she repeats. “I am here on a matter of some urgency.”

“I refuse,” Thea says, smiling, “both your urgency and whatever request you are about to make.”

“Sergeant White I must insis—”

“—I would offer you a spot of tea,” she says, speaking over her guest in a warning tone. “But seeing as how you’ve already quite made yourselves at home, perhaps you can make some for us instead. You there, on the left,” she waves her folded cane at one of the men, who stops. There’s a twisting of his form that suggests he’s wordlessly asking his superior officer what to do, and after a moment it appears he’s given the go-ahead.

“The kettle’s already on the stove, matches on the right,” she offers advice as he walks to the kitchen door. “The teapot and bags will be in the cupboard above, teacups to the left. It should all be fairly obvious, but do give a shout if you have any trouble.”

After the kitchen door closes, her guest clears her throat. “Are you quite done?”

“I haven’t even begun,” Thea says, almost to herself. She pulls her glasses from her pocket and slips them onto her face, the world coming once more into hard, crisp focus. She’ll pay for it later, but she needs every weapon in her arsenal for this battle.

What she sees comes as a surprise. The woman’s eyes are a striking shade of green, her black hair cropped to only a few inches, and almost entirely shaved away at the sides of her head. It’s an unusual look, but not an unflattering one. She stands at attention even now, suppressing what Thea imagines is a great deal of impatience with only a slight scowl touching her eyebrows and the corners of her lips. At the sound of a loud clatter from the kitchen she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, but otherwise does little more than draw up a chair and wait for her subordinate’s return.

Thea maintains her watchful silence until the tea is poured. After a sip—a little weak, but not undrinkable—she begins.

“Now,” she says, “to what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your visit…” Thea peers obviously at the insignia on her visitor’s shoulder “…Sergeant Major Jacob?” A warrant officer…a technical specialist? There’s another insignia at her collar Thea doesn’t recognize, a bridge and drafting compass.

“Engineer,” the woman corrects her. “It’s an equivalent rank, but we’re…a special case. It’s somewhat immaterial, of course. If you won’t permit me to call you by your rank, then you shall have to return the favor. You may call me Esme.” She extends a hand, the tiniest hint of a smile dancing in her eyes.

Thea stares for a moment, then takes her hand. It’s rough, but warm. “Thea,” she says. “But of course you knew that.”

“I did,” Esme says. After a moment she leans back in the chair and stares back at her over the cup of tea, before taking a sip and returning the cup to the saucer in her lap. “You’re not what I expected,” she says at last.

“Not expecting a half-blind woman barging into her own home and demanding your men make her some tea?” Thea almost laughs. “Truly a shocking lack of imagination on your part.”

Her guest doesn’t clarify, but the smile in Esme’s eyes brightens a little further, and almost spreads to her mouth by the time she finishes her tea. “Allow me to be more brief than you would like,” she says.

“Ah, now here it comes.”

“We need your help.”

“I’m retired.”

“It’s about saving lives.”

“I’m retired.” She puts down her cup and saucer, the sharp rapping of ceramic on tin putting a firmer point on it than she’d intended.

Just then, one of the men leans over and whispers something in her visitor’s ear, and she sighs. “Fine. Go.” Her words elicit something just shy of surprise, and she interrupts the delay with the words, “You’re dismissed. Both of you.”

The men salute and leave the cottage, the sound of the door followed a moment later by the jeep’s engine sputtering into life and taking off down the lane.

“You’ll have to forgive Stack and Wallace. They thought if they came along—”

“That I could be intimidated into helping you out,” Thea finishes.

“They mean well.” The engineer leans forward, elbows on her knees, hands folded as she speaks. “I did think Max might’ve been able to convince you. He’s very good with words.”

“I told him just what I’ll tell you: I don’t sign on to anything without knowing the details. And even if you do tell me, the fact remains that I most likely still won’t.”

The other woman looks up at her then, her green eyes unsettlingly bright even as the shadow of an afternoon cloud darkens the cottage windows.

“Tell me about it,” she says. “About what happened that day.”

“You’ve read it in Max’s words. He was there, what more do you need—”

“—Oh, Max is a liar and we both know it,” Esme interrupts. “A good man,” she softens her tone, “but a liar by trade.”

“That is his Gift, after all.” Max is a third-tier influencer, that’s why they’d recruited him for the embedded press. He has a kind of sixth sense for what people will believe, for the right thing to write in his stories in order to effect a change in a reader. Fourth-tier influencers can do the same verbally, in real time. Fifth-tier ones are legally banned from all political work, for obvious reasons. Thea wonders what her guest’s Gift is—if she has one, of course. Even if it’s just an inconsequential first-tier—levitation under two ounces, sub-ten-degree temperature control, below-one-percent probability adjustment—most people in the Commonwealth have something.

The woman sits back, still staring at Thea. “I want to know what really happened. What you really did that day. And how.”

Thea takes a slow breath and lets it out through her teeth. There’s about a snowball’s chance in hell she’s going to talk about it, but there’s something about those deep-set eyes that holds her back from saying so. She doesn’t want their conversation to end, not just yet.

She sighs and stands up, wandering to the cupboard and pulling out a bottle of brandy, along with two round glasses.

“Looks like this is going to require something stronger than tea.”

* * *

Esme closes the door behind her in the dark—as gently as she can, but more loudly than she means to. She undoes the snap at the collar of her uniform and lets the thick fabric hang down over her chest. Damn that girl and her brandy. Even after the two-mile walk up to the patrol base, her head’s still spinning. She’s not looking forward to the walk back tomorrow to pick up the car, either, but it’d be better than asking Max for a ride.

“Well this is a sight.”

She curses at the sound of his voice, spinning around and doing her best not to grab onto anything when the room keeps going. Max is leaning against the doorway, arms folded. Even without the light on she can tell he’s smirking.

“How did it go?” he asks.

She doesn’t respond, just leans forward and pulls off her boots in the narrow entryway, trying not to bang her elbows as she does so. She can hear Stack and Wallace both snoring through the paper-thin door down the hall.

“How did it go, Es?” There’s a hint of concern in his voice she didn’t expect.

“I blame you for this,” she says, the brandy dragging her words a hundred miles further north than usual. If he’d been even the least bit trustworthy—one would think an “old friend” who was actually there—! But just seeing him had probably put her more on guard than if she’d left the propagandist back up north with the rest of her team.

“I hate to say I told you so—”

“Then dinna say it—”

“—but I did tell you so.”

She just snorts and thumps her way past him, down the short hallway and into the tiny kitchen. She grabs a glass of water and wedges herself into a seat at the small wooden table in the corner. A run-down, lit candle in the center suggests Max has been waiting up, and he slips into the chair across from her with a grace unbefitting of a man of his proportions.

“When you found out I knew her, Thea White, the great hero of the Incursion, you asked me about her. Do you remember?”

“I do.”

“And what did I tell you then?”

“She’s retired.”

“She’s retired,” he repeats.

“An’ angry.”

“Yes.”

“An’ you’re part of the reason for that.” She shoots him a look.

Max clears his throat. It’s not a guilt-free sound.

She sighs, elbows on the table, head cradled in her hands, the scraps of the girl’s story she could elicit still ringing in her ears. This was not how she’d planned on things going, not even close. But if she can just get her help, if she can just understand how Thea White’s Gift could do what it did that day—how she’d saved all those people—then there’s a chance…and even the slightest of chances is worth it. “I’ll try again tomorn’,” she says, then looks up. “An’ you’re goin’ to stay a pure mile off.”

Max does a half-serious salute as he gets up from the table.

“I’ll see you in the morning, boss,” he says.

“No’ if I see you first,” she responds, but he’s already slunk off down the darkened hall.

“I’ll try again tomorn’,” she repeats to the empty room, then blows out the candle and sits in the dark.

* * *

Each knock on the door adds a peal of thunder to the already rainy day. Echoes roll around the inside of Thea’s skull as she slips barefoot through the cottage, her eyes closed against even the wisps of grey light leaking past the edges of the curtains. She turns the lock, the sliding cylinder sandpapering its way across her eardrums before she opens the door.

“Thea,” comes the warm northern voice over the whisper of rain.

“I thought it might be you.” She lets the woman in and closes the door behind her. “I hope you don’t mind the dark,” she says, and, after a moment’s pause, adds, “or my nightgown, I suppose.”

“It looks…very sweet on you,” she says, and Thea snorts—then winces.

“I look as though I’m still in sixth form. Or perhaps an old man about to be visited by three spirits,” she says. “But it’s comfortable, and the rest of me is…rather the opposite.” She sets herself down on the couch and pulls her knees up in a hug, forehead pressed into them.

“And here I thought I would be the worse for wear this morning,” Esme says.

“This isn’t the brandy. Well,” she reconsiders. The brandy had let her forget how long she’d been wearing those damned lenses. Thea makes a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “In a way it is. I don’t even know what time you left. I must’ve worn them for hours, damnable things.”

“You mean the glasses? May I see them?”

Without looking, Thea waves in the direction of a low credenza sitting against the far wall. “They ought to be over there. I recommend against trying them on, mind.”

There’s a shuffling as her guest retrieves them, then sits on a neighboring chair in silent examination.

“And these adequately correct for what happened to your eyes?”

“Mm,” Thea says, face pressed once more into her knees. “For a time.”

“How do they—I’m sorry,” she says, interrupting herself. “I’m letting my curiosity get the better of me. I do feel quite awful seeing you like this. Is there anything I can do?”

It isn’t just her accent that’s warm, Thea thinks; it isn’t just the shape of her vowels. There’s something more in her concern. In other circumstances, perhaps they could have been friends.

Thea looks over, a now near-useless habit learned of twenty years of crystal-clear sight, then closes her eyes on the dark blue shadow in the dark brown room. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “I’d absolutely kill for a cup of tea.”

* * *

Esme slides her fingers across the wooden countertop, waiting for the water to boil. She supposes she could turn on the light, the single bulb and shade that hang too low over the sink, but the grey light from the window and the licking blue and yellow tongues of the town-gas flames are somehow enough. As a child she’d spent hours staring past her mother’s silhouette at the deep red vent lines in the coal-fire stove that had served to heat both the farmhouse and their meals. She’d thought she would just wind up a farmer like the generations before her, but then the war had come—and stayed, the stalemate on the front a slow burn consuming lives like lumps of coal.

She’d been a soldier at first; she’d found an aptitude for fighting that surprised even herself. But whether it was repelling an enemy push or making one of their own, every mission boiled down to the same thing: fifty to a hundred feet at a cost of dozens or even hundreds of lives. But the war had changed. The first wave of Gift-mirroring künsttech—”Art technology,” after the Empire’s name for Gifts—had swelled on the horizon and washed over them from the East, and a Gift like hers had become too valuable to merely feed to the smoldering front lines. She’d been given a warrant and the title of Engineer, and another, more nebulous mission.

The mission that had brought her here.

The kettle whistles and she pours the water into the teapot, steam curling around the lid as she clinks it into place before carrying the tray back into the other room. Thea White has curled up against one arm of the couch and seems against all odds to have fallen asleep. For not the first time in twenty-four hours, Esme is struck by just how different the girl is from what she’d expected. How small and fragile she appears, right up until she opens her mouth.

“I’m not asleep,” she says in a quiet voice. “Promise.”

“It just needs a moment to steep,” Esme replies, putting everything down on the low table and perching next to Thea on the couch. She pours a little milk into the bottom of each cup, then follows it with tea. “Sugar?”

“Just a smidge.”

Esme hands her the cup, then takes her own.

“I came by to apologize for yesterday,” she says.

“The soft sell suits you better than the hard,” Thea responds.

Esme ignores the jab and sips at her tea, thinking. After a moment of silent consideration, she says, “I need to know what your Gift does, and how you used it to save those people. I want to copy it.”

Thea raises her eyebrows. “So much for ‘classified.'”

“You said you wouldn’t help if I didn’t tell you, so: I’m telling you.”

“Against orders.”

“Indeed.”

Thea holds up a hand. “I said I certainly wouldn’t help if you don’t tell me, and that I almost certainly won’t help you even if you do.”

“But why?” Esme puts her teacup down on the table in her excitement. “I’m an Engineer, Thea. They gave me a warrant because my Gift is to see the best way to replicate the Gifts of others and turn them into technology.” She slides a finger over the crest on her uniform, thinking of a way to explain. “The logo here,” she says, “it’s the logo of the engineering corps. It’s on your glasses, though of course you can’t see it. We invented the stasis chambers that keep wounded soldiers alive long enough to get them to surgery. The levitation platforms that get supplies to the front lines when wheels would just sink in the mud. We’re not making weapons. I don’t make weapons. You don’t have to worry about that. I just want to protect everyone. When I heard about what you did—if I can just understand how you created that wall, how you protected those troops from the bombardment. If I can just see you do it…imagine a barrier like that along the entire front! We could make fighting impossible; we could end the war unilaterally.”

There’s a long silence that settles over the room. At first she thinks Thea is simply considering what she’s said, but it hangs in the air far too long for that. The silence shifts from thoughtful, to foreboding, to stifling.

“It’s a beautiful dream,” she says at last, staring into some distant place that Esme can’t see, “but I can’t help you.”

“But why, Thea—”

“—You don’t understand—”

“—Then make me understand!”

“I can’t!”

“But why?!”

Thea doesn’t respond.

“Whatever your Gift is, however you did it, you held the line that day. You saved so many lives. Help me to do the same. Please.”

Thea has curled up around her teacup, a crocus that’s closed its petals against the night.

“No,” she says. She doesn’t say it loudly, doesn’t talk over her. She just quietly, almost mechanically, tells Esme, “you’re wrong.”

“About what?” she asks, confused.

Then Thea White looks up and smiles, and something twists in Esme’s chest.

It only looks like a smile.

“You should go,” Thea says from somewhere far away. She puts her tea down on the table and stands.

Esme swallows, then does the same.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she tries to be reassuring, despite herself.

“You shouldn’t.”

Thea White shows her to the door. Esme counts the steps to the car, still parked since yesterday at the side of the road. It isn’t until she’s in the driver’s seat that she looks back at the old stone cottage, its door now closed, its windows shuttered.

It had only looked like a smile.

Behind it, Esme could almost hear the slipping, grinding sound of a machine long broken but still trying to run, the shattered-glass violence of a fractured heart still trying to beat.

* * *

“What do you know?” Esme says. It’s a demand.

Max is sitting at the table; the others are down the hall. He takes a breath.

“I can’t tell you.”

“I’m your superior officer.”

“It’s classified, Es.”

She stares down at him, arms folded. Smoldering.

“Look, I told you we shouldn’t have come. I’m telling you now we should leave.”

“Not until I get some answers.”

Max sighs, folds his hands on the table, and stares at them in silence.

“Not. Without. Answ—”

“I can’t tell you anything about that day beyond what’s in the public record,” he interrupts. But while he talks, he pulls a small pad of paper out of his back pocket. “It would be a gross violation of clearance authorizations, and a potentially court-martialable offense.” He writes two words, tears out the page and puts it on the table, then stands. “I can’t help you,” he says.

He leaves without another word.

Once the front door has opened and shut, Esme picks up the paper.

It reads, “Broadview, Ravenstadt.”

* * *

There’s no noise inside when she knocks on the cottage door. It’s been three days.

She knocks again.

There’s a distant rustling from behind the door, followed by the sound of something shattering, glass on hardwood. Concerned, she twists the handle and is surprised when the door swings open.

“Thea?” she calls into the house.

There’s a clinking, scrabbling sound from the living room, and she follows it in.

Thea White is almost unrecognizable.

On the floor sits a shadow of the girl she’d met just four days before, a half-dressed wraith left behind to haunt the place in her own absence. Her hair is matted, eyes red and puffy, mouth twisted and wordless. Blood drips from her hands as she fumbles in the mess of brandy-soaked shards for her glasses while she drunkenly sobs.

“Thea…”

She seems at last to notice that she’s not alone and tries to regain some composure, but succeeds only in scattering the wreckage and wiping blood on her cheek while she fixes her hair.

“Oh, Thea, please.” Esme hurries down, kneeling before her, gently grabbing her hands. “Please stop, Thea. You’re bleeding.”

“I’m not…” she shakes her head. “…Bleeding? Oh…Esme.” She says the name with distant recognition, then scowls at her hands as if trying to see. “Red,” she says.

“Yes. Oh, Thea. Please, let me help.”

Thea nods absently and allows herself to be led to the kitchen. Neither says a word as Esme cleans and bandages her hands, guides her to her room, changes her bloody clothes, and puts her to bed.

She thinks she hears Thea’s voice as she slips toward the door, but when Esme returns to the bedside she’s already fallen asleep.

* * *

Thea White wasn’t born in the Commonwealth. When she was just two years old, her hometown was swallowed up by the Centralia Accord after the Empire’s second expansion. Fleeing the shadow of the Great Peace, her mother snuck across the border at night. She learned that much as she grew up: the quiet violence in her family history, the separation from a homeland she never knew.

When she turned seven she started to see things. Visions of a place she’d never been would interrupt her chores and games alike, mundane vignettes of gravel roads and wooden fences, a small vegetable garden tucked behind a blue-shingled house. Adults she’d never met, shouting in silence, mouthing the shapes of unfamiliar words. Her mother thought it was a game she was playing, a long-running joke from the precocious, story-teller of a girl she’d always been.

When she was nine she finally learned the truth, when the girl whose eyes she’d been seeing through passed in front of a mirror.

It had been her—or a girl who looked just like her.

She’d waited in front of a mirror herself, all the next day. Hiding in the bathroom, slipping out of sight at the merest mention of chores. Hoping that her other self had been seeing through her eyes in exchange the whole time. She sat on the edge of the bath with a slate, on which she’d written in chalk the words “I’m Thea, who are you?” and when she’d felt it start, she’d held it up and smiled.

In the next visions, she’d learned her copy’s name, and her identity.

Five years before, deep in the memory of snapping twigs and crunching snow, in the chase through that darkened wood on the eastern border of the Commonwealth that still haunted her dreams—there, pursued by the sounds of footsteps and barking dogs, with the bitter taste of panic in their throats, there—

There had been more than two of them running.

Five years before, she’d had a father, and a sister, too. A twin.

She still had one.

* * *

“Do you have any siblings?” Thea asks her, sitting up in the bed, cradling in her hands the cup of tea Esme had made her.

Esme shakes her head. She’d slept there, had been there when Thea woke.

“My sister’s name was Hannah,” Thea says. “We were twins.” She holds the teacup as if it were alive, and Esme imagines in her hands a small bird, a hatching egg, a still-beating heart.

“I thought she had died when we were crossing into the Commonwealth—we were post-Centralia refugees—but I later learned that…wasn’t so.” She closes her eyes. “How much do you know about life in the occupied territories?”

“Not much,” Esme responds, “though I should think that unsurprising, given how little information passes across the border.”

“I know, well, more than most. At first, it was mostly fear that drove people to flee. Those without Gifts—’naiv‘ they called them, like it was a joke—they were the most afraid. It was understandable: the Empire’s Gifted still hold a grudge from the pogroms and the civil war that followed. My mother was a woman of many talents, but no Gift, and so we ran away. My father and sister were caught, and my mother assumed they had both been killed.” She takes another sip of her tea. “Perhaps that would have been better.”

“How would you know any of this?” Esme asks.

“We could see through each other’s eyes.” She says it so simply that Esme almost thinks she’s misheard. “At first it was at random times and places, but with practice we learned to do it on cue. We learned each other’s language. She told me about her life, about everything.” There are gaps in her story, pauses for recollection still too full to insert a question.

“Father had been ‘disappeared’ after all,” she continues, “but Hannah had been moved to a small town, placed in a kind of group home for the children of ‘dissidents.’ So they could be ‘rehabilitated,’ you see. At first I was so happy to have a sister—I had been so young I couldn’t even remember what it had been like—but as she aged and started avoiding mirrors so I wouldn’t see the bruises…” she trails off.

A linked Gift. Esme finds it hard to believe, but she doesn’t dare interrupt. She sits in silence as Thea collects her thoughts from their scattered places, assembles them into something she can share.

“We hid it, of course. That’s why she was bullied. Just another worthless naiv. But you can imagine what they would have tried to do if they found out about it, can’t you? Still, the beatings, the abuse she got for having no Gift—it was nothing. Not compared to what happened when they found out the truth.

“It was only four years ago. God, a lifetime. I had been lucky. Mother had managed to keep mine secret all that time, she knew what the costs might be. Hannah didn’t have anyone to protect her.”

The same broken smile from four days before threatens to find its way back to the corners of her lips, and it almost seems like Thea’s talking just to keep it at bay.

“They threatened her,” she says. “Imprisoned her. Threatened me, too, with her. They made her look in the mirror and show me what they’d done to her each time we refused, every time we wouldn’t act as spies or saboteurs. But she never gave in, and so neither did I.”

“I’m so sorry, Thea.”

“Mm,” she says. “So. I signed up. I thought—maybe, somehow—we could break through. Get to her. Free her. Save her.” She swallows. When she clears her throat it almost comes out as a growl.

“One day, when I was in training camp, she went dark. All I could see through her eyes was blackness. Oh, I cried. I thought for sure she’d been killed. I spent hours in that darkness, every night for months, trying to see through to her. But there was nothing to see.” Her words get farther and farther apart, quieter and quieter until she’s almost whispering to Esme, there in the bedroom. “I kept training, but it was hollow. I was hollow. You don’t…you can’t understand how much of me she’d become.”

She holds the empty teacup in her outstretched hands as if trying to grab it from somewhere else, then sets it down on the blanket in front of her.

“I tried to end it. I had some pills out of another recruit’s locker when she wasn’t looking. But just as I was about to take them, there—there was the darkness. There was Hannah. Not me looking for her, but her coming to me. She was still there. There, in that blackness, in that cell, or—I thought afterward maybe they had blinded her but that wasn’t it at all it was just darkness and more darkness, a dark you can’t even imagine is real it’s so thick…And then when it had gone, so was the bottle.”

For the first time since she began, Esme feels like Thea’s waiting for a response, but there’s nothing to say. “I don’t understand,” she says. “What did she—? What happened?”

“I don’t—I never—” Thea hugs her hands to her chest as she talks. “I felt it, as it happened. She reached out through me and just…took them.”

“Took them?”

“To her. To where she was. To that darkness she’d been living in forever. Somehow I knew. They were in her hand then, instead of mine. She’d stolen them to save me…I think to save me.”

Esme stares at Thea, trying to understand. Trying to make sense of the story she’s been told. Trying to understand the root of Thea’s Gift, what it could even mean. No one has more than one Gift; it’s not how they work. A Gift can defy math, logic, even physics, but only in one specific way.

“I shipped out the next day. There’d been an attack and—well, you remember the Incursion. Everyone does. But just our luck, even in the training camp at the rear, we were the closest. Everyone else had been shipped north for the Eftling Valley offensive. We just had to hold the line. That’s what they said. Just hold it until reinforcements could get back.

“That’s when the artillery started. They did it on purpose, of course. They charged in without warning, then retreated to let us feel like we’d won. Really they’d been trying to scare us, to draw us in, make sure every last reinforcement from the rear was there in their sights.”

But Esme is still stuck on the pills, still trying to work out how trading sight and stealing pills could work together as facets of the same—

“Stealing,” she interrupts without thinking. “Your Gift wasn’t trading sight, was it? You were stealing the light before it reached the other’s eyes.”

But Thea’s not there in the room with her anymore. She would have kept talking even if she were alone. In a way, Esme thinks, she is.

“When the first shell exploded, it was so, so bright, it was like looking right into the sun. A great shimmering wall of light. It sparkled. I wasn’t afraid. It was beautiful. It danced. And then I was in the darkness. In her darkness, the darkness she’d been living in for weeks, months. It was only a second, but it was so…complete. I reached out, grabbed for whatever I could. And then the darkness was gone.

“It was only the tiniest fraction of a second, just the blink of an eye, but I saw it. The ‘room’ she’d been in. The ceiling so low you couldn’t stand. The boards sealed over the windows. The stained, rusted cot shoved up against the wall. The bucket in the corner. The absolute darkness that was in that room. She reached out to me. She drove it away…forever…” Another sob catches in her throat, and this time she grinds to a shuddering halt.

Esme rushes to her side, wraps her arms around her as each great wave of sorrow tries to wash her out to sea.

Holding her, Esme remembers what she’d seen two days before, the photographs she’d managed to pull out of their classified files back in the military archives. The file labeled “Broadview, Ravenstadt.”

Every silent photo told the same inexplicable story. A small town a hundred miles from anywhere, out of range of any force on either side. A small town under surveillance by the Commonwealth as a suspected prison for captured spies and political dissidents. A small town that had been razed to its very foundations in one afternoon, two years ago, by a barrage of artillery strong enough to punch a hole through the front—if it had landed anywhere close by.

She’d stolen them all.

Every shell meant for Thea. Every piece of shrapnel and ball of fire that marked her for death.

Every one had rained down on her sister instead.

* * *

Thea stands at the door to the cottage. With her glasses on, its ornate wooden carvings seem less a part of the stone wall than something set into it, an addition that makes of the original little more than a frame. She thinks Esme’s green eyes are the same way.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” Thea says.

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I had no right—”

“—and no way of knowing.”

Esme looks away in the ensuing silence, then looks back when Thea places something in her hands.

“This is for you,” she says.

It’s a small bottle, green and smooth. Any labels have long since been scrubbed off, leaving only the dark shine of its glass surface beneath.

“It’s the only thing I ever stole,” she says. “Other than light.” She closes Esme’s hands around it. “When I woke up in the hospital it was by the side of the bed. They said they’d had to pry my fingers off it, one at a time, even unconscious.”

“You stole it back.”

Thea nods.

“The only thing…” she starts and stops. It feels silly to say it out loud.

“What is it?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Thea says. “It’s just…no one at the hospital could tell me. When I woke up, it was empty.”

If Esme has something to say about it, she keeps it to herself.

“Thank you, Thea,” is all she says.

As she walks up the path to the car, Thea takes off the glasses and slides them into her pocket, watching as the engineer’s muted blue mirage flickers her way toward the black shadow of the car, gleaming under the blue southern sky. She stares after it, gazing into the distance as though she could swallow it whole, watching until long after the shadow has pulled away down the road and vanished into the shimmering horizon.


Richard Ford Burley (they/he) is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry as well as Deputy Managing Editor of the academic journal Ledger. Their second novel, Displacement, was published in hardcover in February 2020 by Prospective Press and has just been released in paperback.