Sam blinked awake at the intrusion of light. The warm, dark cocoon of her sleeping pod had been a delight the previous night. At the moment, she didn't care much for the automatic wakeup function. The lights at full intensity imitated natural sunlight. A buzzing began to sound on the inner panel of the door hatch, further encouraging her to get out of bed. She pulled down the lever, which popped the hatch open, then crawled forward and held onto the bar above to stabilize her climb back to the floor.
"Aw, yeah, it's time for my morning space pee!"
Sam winced as Space Rhonda waltzed past her. She wasn't entirely compatible with morning people. At least not in the morning part of the day. She waited in the line for the bathroom, blocking out the conversations around her for fear of being dragged into one of them, then dig her business and moved onto the dining area. Jess approached, scowl on her face. "I wouldn't have come here if I knew they don't have coffee."
Sam twirled her fingers. "They don't have space coffee."
"I don't do jokes before caffeine."
"So no more jokes ever?"
Jess pointed to a mug of something on the nearest counter. "It depends if I am willing to drink that garbage."
"I wish. It's . . . you try it."
Sam bent over to sniff at the mug. It possessed little odor, so she lifted it to her lips. A grimace formed on her face. She tasted apple and ginger and bitter notes mixed in with a greenjuice base. The room temperature beverage in no way replicated the experience of morning coffee. She gulped down the liquid until it was gone, then handed the mug to Jess.
"It's not great, but I need a pick-me-up."
Alicia, their industrious hispanice taskmaster, pushed her way between them. "We need to start preparing lunch now."
Sam rolled her eyes, but let Alicia guide her towards the ceramic cutting board. Before she could put her complaints into words, the two of them were stuffing cabbaginos with lentils and slices of tomato and eggplant. Alicia took each completed wrap and put it into the water-filled kettle. Once they finished, there was barely enough time for them to grab a quick snack of fruit and nuts before their three supervisors arrived.
"Same assignments as yesterday," Darla said.
Ayla interrupted. "I need help prepping cabbaginos today. Can I have helpers?"
Darla shrugged. "You can have one."
Before the girl moved, Sam knew what was coming. Ayla skipped forward to seize Sam in a fierce embrace. "Hi, Sam!"
"Hi, Ayla." The caffeine had begun to take effect, but it was still too early for all of this. Sam patted Ayla's back, conscious of all the eyes on them. "Should we get going?"
"Yes, we have a lot of cabbagino's waiting for us. Come on!" And the tiny woman was running.
Sam groaned and trotted down the stairs after her supervisor. The harvested cabbaginos from the previous day had joined a pre-existing pile in the corner. Ayla filled a bucket and carried it back to the washing station, where she rinsed and then diced one of the vegetables. "Chop, chop, chop!"
Without waiting for the instructions she doubted were coming, Sam copied Ayla's methodology by finding a bucket, filling it, and then rinsing and dicing cabbaginos. She did not join Ayla in singing about their task, working in silence until her cheerful companion suddenly decided to ask questions.
"What did you do on your Earth?"
"I was a college student," Sam said. "I was majoring in biology, but that wasn't working out for me so I was looking at switching to business. Then I came here instead with my friend Jess."
"Friend Jess? Is she here?"
"Yes, she is working under Kistlen."
"Is Jess nice like you?" The question came softly.
"Yes, Ayla, I think she would like to be friends with you just like I am."
Ayla beamed. "Good! Darla and Kistlen told me all the new girls didn't like me, but I knew they couldn't be right because you are nice. And now Jess too!"
After rinsing in a colander, they dumped their pile of chopped cabbaginos into a steel barrel and refilled their buckets for another round.
"So, Ayla, what all can you use your teleotic talent for?"
"Lots of things! I can make things harder like my body or fish bones. I can make things go back together if they break. I can make things break. I can separate salt water -- they make you do that when you are learning. I can make my skin look better. I can stop myself from being sick. Sometimes. That's a really hard thing to do."
"So why can't you help other people attune to use that power?"
"Because then you for sure only get one talent. It's illegal!"
"Why is that so bad?"
Ayla's face scrunched up like she'd bitten into a lemon. "Paragons are best. Everyone needs to try to be a paragon. They have all the talents. And they can stop themselves from getting corroded."
"What do you mean 'corroded'?"
"When you use talents, they leave a little bit of precursor behind and it builds up. Over time you can use less and less. Average person like me gets thirty years with one talent. If someone generates their own precursor, they only get ten years." Ayla slapped the sink with her free hand. "Then normal again. No more talents. If you have two talents, you get fifteen years. Or just five years if you generate. But paragons can clean up the mess from using precursor. If they are only attuned, they last fifty years maybe. That is what Aunt Cassandane guesses. But if they generate, then they never get clogged up."
Ayla sighed. "I tried very hard to be a paragon like Aunt Cassandane."
"You get attuned when you don't have any precursor. First, someone needs to give it to you for you to get used to it. Paragons give you all three so you have the best chance. They do this many times and you use it all up in practice. Then one day when you are empty, you suddenly see that you can get it on your own. Whatever you see is what you attuned to."
"And then if you generate you will lose your talent faster," Sam said.
"Not if you are a paragon like Aunt Cassandane."
"Your aunt must be very important around here."
Ayla nodded. "She is a centurion. They were going to promote her to captain, but then she wouldn't be able to lead soldiers in battle. Aunt Cassandane is the best with the talents."
"Ayla? What are your people going to do with my planet? Are they going to take it over?" The question felt vaguely treasonous on Sam's lips, and she had to force it out.
"I don't think. They want resources and people. Then they have to leave before the Chekowan get here. They hope that the Chekowan will split their forces so they can take over your Earth. Then the Angmari will have more people and the Chekowan will have less. They are going to give your planet talents just as they leave so that you can be difficult for the Chekowan."
"Are the Chekowan really bad?"
Ayla's brow drew down into an uncharacteristic frown. "They are horrible. They killed my Earth with an asteroid."
"Do you think they are going to kill my Earth too?"
Ayla slapped herself on the forehead. "They might. They are really bad, Sam. We need to warn my Aunt Cassandane."
Sam shook her head. "Ayla, don't you think she already knows about the risks if she is in your military?"
"She wouldn't let the Chekowan kill your planet!" Ayla's exclamation faded towards the end.
"But what if it was the only way to protect the fleet? Would she let it happen then?"
"No." Ayla shook her head. "No, no, no. We need to chop now."