Only three minutes into their association, Ayla had already hugged Sam twice. They were filleting fish, a task greatly complicated by the fact that Sam had not been taught how to do it. Fortunately, Ayla didn't seem particularly concerned with Sam's productivity.
"Fish, fish, fish! Fillet Mister Fish!" With effortless strokes, Ayla separated cold, scaly bodies from their bones. Spines and ribs emerged intact, not a single morself of flesh on them. Fish after fish went through Ayla's hands while Sam butchered her first attempt. Slimy slivers, irregularly shaped and full of bone fragments, mixed with blood from myriad self-inflected cuts in her hand. She was certain the mutilated corpse no longer met the standards for human consumption.
"How am I supposed to do this?"
Ayla flashed a smile almost as large as her diminuitive face. "It's easy with talent! Just make the bones harder and not sticky. Then it comes right apart. Easy squeezy!"
The words she spoke didn't seem to make sense. "How . . . what do you mean by make bones harder?"
"Teleotic attraction!" With a dramatic brandish, Ayla stabbed her filleting knife at her palm. Having knicked herself three times, Sam squealed in anticipation of the horror that would follow. The thin blade bent almost in half between tightly gripped handle and point dimpling unbroken skin. "See? You can't do it yet because no one attuned you."
Sam stared at the knife that had halved a dozen fish in two minutes but now refused to pierce Ayla's palm. "Attuned?"
"Attuned to a precursor so you can use a talent." Ayla put her knife down and took the fish pieces from Sam. She shook the mess, causing the bone fragments to rain free. A quick rinse in the sink, then Ayla pressed the fish segments back together and gave it back to Sam as two solid halves.
Ayla wrinkled her nose. "Teleotic attraction. One of the talents the Chekowan taught us."
Sam put a hand to her forehead, then yanked it away when the contact coated her with slime. She needed to put her thoughts in order and ask intelligent questions. "What are the talents?"
Ayla counted them off on her fingers. "Teleotic attraction. Kinesis. Telepathy."
"Who are the Chekowan?"
"Humans from another planet. They built the Angelship."
"I thought the Angmari built the Angelship."
"No, the Chekowan made it. My Aunt Cassandane was one of the five saviors who took the ship for us."
"You mean your people stole this ship from space invaders?"
"The five saviors broke onto the Angelship and killed everyone there the same day our Earth was destroyed. Torrent Hafnym, Statiera Cassandane, Zellar Wilson, Tyler Marius, and Erral Quincy."
Sam stared at Ayla, who resumed her work with a filleting knife. She looked down to study the fish in her hands. Unbroken flesh confronted her, though the mending had been imperfectly done. The muscle fibers would run one way, then suddenly the angle of the striations would change in a sharp line. It looked much like a wooden table where what had once been two separate pieces of wood had been joined together so that the only clue of their different natures was the mismatched direction of their grains. A word came back to her from earlier in the conversation. Attuned.
"Ayla, can you attune me?"
"No, no, no. That's illegal. I have only one talent. If I attune you, then you can only have one talent. Everyone needs to get all three from a paragon. Then if they fail to hold onto all the talents it is their own fault." Ayla wrinkled her nose. "I only kept one talent. I wanted to be a kinetic very much, but when they gave me the charge for the last time, I attuned just to gravias. Now all I have is teleotic attraction."
The door beeped as it unlocked, then swung open to admit a short, overly groomed man who strutted forward as if on a fashion runway. He didn't make eye contact with them as he approached, instead throwing out a dismissive question. "Is one of you the English person with a vision problem?"
"This is my friend Sam. She needs her eyes fixed."
The man glanced at Ayla. "I take it you're a Lentaran."
Ayla's broad smile shrunk a bit.
"You, English woman, stand still while I assess."
"I'm American, not English."
"You call your language English," the man said. "Now be still." He frowned at the ground for a moment. "Your lenses are not only misshapen, their surface is rippled. Shouldn't be hard to fix though. Don't move, don't blink."
As Sam stared at the man, he suddenly came into sharper focus. Her jaw dropped. Everywhere her eyes darted, things were suddenly crisper, as if she had slipped on contacts.
"Stop moving!" The man grumbled to himself, something something English something. Judging by the tone, it was not complimentary.
Sam's vision improved in sudden increments until she saw better than normal. The man grunted. "Good enough for one of your kind. Don't be alarmed if you see any floaters in your eye over the next few days. They should clear themselves up as they decay."
"The extra material had to go somewhere." The man turned and walked away.
"What an asshole," Sam said.
Ayla giggled and seized Sam with a tight hug. "Now you see good, right?"
"Yes. I see perfectly." She laughed. "I just got magic Lasik. When is someone going to come by and attune me?"
Ayla released her. "I don't know. People don't like the idea of the English having talents."
"So no magic for me." Sam tossed the fish still in her hands onto the pile her friend had been accumulating. "Ayla, how am I supposed to fillet a fish without your teleotic thing?"
"I'll help you!"
"But that wouldn't be any faster than you just doing the work yourself."
"I don't mind!"
Of course she didn't. "What did that man call you? Lentaran?"
Ayla shrugged. "Yes."
"What is that? Another space alien? Is every star out there hosting a human Earth?"
"Not aliens. A breed of people."
Breed? "You mean another nationality? Different than the Angmari?"
"I'm Angmari. Just . . . also Lentaran."
"What is it?"
"Special breed of people." Ayla's voice dropped to a whisper as she continued. "Loyal servants."
Sam's jaw dropped. Slaves. The Angmari had bred people to make slaves. The girl before her was essentially the human version of a golden retriever, with who knew how many generations of selective breeding to ensure she would cheerfully perform any task asked of her, expecting nothing more than a warm word in return. Sam had joined a society capable of doing such a thing. One that also needed manual labor while they grew their fleet.
The diminuitive woman before her suddenly flashed her trademark grin, lifting a whole fish from the intake pile so that she could make it dance through the air while she burst into a song about Mister Fish leaving his tank for the first time ever. The silly lyrics ended with the fish swimming in someone's soup. Ayla pretended to bite the nose of Mister Fish and Sam let herself smile. This girl was not her enemy and never would be.
The door beeped and opened once more. Darla, the heavy-set supervisor with the bad attitude, strode in with hands on hips. "New girl, is your vision fixed?"
"As in supervisor." Darla's stance exuded expectation.
"Yes, super," Sam said.
"Then get upstairs. You're working cabbagino's today."
Ayla held up Mister Fish. "Bye, friend!"
"Enough with the stupidity, Ayla. Get back to work."
Ayla wilted under the criticism. Sam opened her mouth, then closed it when Darla fixed a glare on her. More and more, joining the fleet seemed like a horrible decision.