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Brilliance Like Stars

Jamie Gilman Kress lives in Upstate NY with her husband and assorted other pets. She is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop, and her work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and the anthology 2034: Rewriting Rochester's Futures. Jamie can be found on Twitter @JamieGKress.

Lynn, her fragile focus on the painting broken, stomped to the door and yanked it open.
Her irritation scattered like ashes. Her daughter stood there, escorted by a man in the crisp blue-purple bodysuit of an Emissary, those humans chosen to serve as the middlemen between the Stretchies and humanity.
Lynn spent the week of the war locked in her studio trying to survive the overwhelming grief of her husband's death. Fortunately for her, and everyone else, the aliens proved to be relatively benevolent overlords. Within months of arrival they'd confiscated the nuclear weapons, cleaned up the atmosphere, ended world hunger.
They also instituted mandatory testing at a network of clinics. Turned out they came looking for something specific and extinct on their planet that they wanted back. Badly.
Lynn cared not at all. She and her daughter had been tested, found wanting, and released to return to their normal lives.
Now Kendall stood with her shoulders in and head down. She huddled with her whole body bowed away from the Emissary as if touching him might cause spontaneous combustion.
Temporary henna tattoos swirled over Kendall's bare arms and magnetic face piercings glittered in the light. Normally the girl looked to Lynn like a biker gang wannabe that got trapped in Hot Topic. Now, she seemed more a child caught playing dress-up.
Except that blood still oozed in slow motion from a cut on her bottom lip and the faint ghosts of impending bruises colored her forehead and cheek.
Finally, after Lynn had paused far longer than socially acceptable, the Emissary cleared his throat. "Ms. Reagan, may we please come in?"
It broke Lynn's trance. "Oh! Yes, of course." Jerky, still oddly removed from herself, Lynn stumbled as she stepped out of the way. "What did she do?"
"We found," the Emissary said, "your daughter and several others vandalizing a mobile testing unit. The others were legal adults and have been handled accordingly." He spoke calmly, the rich baritone voice at odds with his weak-featured appearance.
For a minor like Kendall the Stretchies might instead convert the penalty to a fine. But the price for this sort of crime--Lynn didn't have that kind of money.
Which left only the one option.
Clinging to the chair, knuckles white, it took Lynn two attempts before she forced out the required phrasing. "As her legal guardian, I will, of course, accept the penalty in her stead."
"No!" Kendall's wet face snapped up. "You can't!"
"I just did." For just that one second, Lynn hated the girl.
"I'm afraid," the Emissary sat forward, hands clasped and hanging just between his knees, "the disposition of punishment is the least of our reasons for being here. We're far less interested in what Kendall has done than what your family has not."
She saw Kendall's face go ashen, and Lynn's knees gave out entirely.
The Emissary caught Lynn and set her in the chair with a sympathetic smile that flashed by and vanished like a card in a magician's sleight-of-hand trick. "My apologies. I understand this is all quite stressful. Still, Ms. Reagan, we do need to talk about Kendall's test results. The deadline for a response passed more than a week ago."
Lynn shook her head as though the movement might force sense into the words. "Response? We both tested negative."
Kendall spoke, her voice wafer thin and choked with fear. "I lied... Gave you a copy of Missy's results." Her head shot up, and pleading eyes met Lynn's own. "Please don't let them take me away."
Lynn moved without thinking, knelt before her daughter and wrapped the girl in her arms. "Shh, shh, sweetie. We'll figure it out. I promise you, we'll figure it out."
"As Kendall's legal guardian," the Emissary, "the decision on how to proceed is yours, Ms. Reagan. You have three days."
Lynn and Kendall listened while the Emissary explained the options, his words stripped of all inflection by the deep groove of repetition. Kendall refused to meet Lynn's eyes, dark hair falling like a barrier between them. Not the only one they'd built since her father died.
The haven for people like Kendall that wanted to retain their 'gift' sounded like a lovely place. Except, of course, it existed on a space station circling a planet no human ever saw. Oh, and accepting residence there made Kendall the property of the Stretchies.
Lynn's skin crawled.
An easy choice to have this mysterious thing removed, keep Kendall here, but the Emissary skirted around the hows and whys of that choice like an Olympic skater. Hiding something.
Lynn shored up her courage. "I have some concerns I'd like to address."
The man went predator still. "Of course."
Taking a deep breath, Lynn locked her hands around her coffee cup to hide how they shook. "What are the side-effects of removal?"
"Well, the process is painless, but it can cause some memory loss, personality changes, behavioral shifts. Nothing detrimental to living a normal life. And given Kendall's previous criminal behavior, such changes might be particularly beneficial for her."
Kendall jerked, head snapping up as if on a spring. "You're talking about lobotomizing me! Mom, you can't seriously be considering--"
"Calm down." Lynn closed her eyes, pushing away memories of a sweeter, less rebellious girl. Hard to deny she missed that child. "And," Lynn paused as her voice cracked on the word, "if she went to this commune you've described? I assume she'd have some duties or requirements there?"
"Yes. She would be expected to spend the majority of her time painting."
Lynn stared at the Emissary. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Understandably, if Kendall wished to retain her immense gift the Stretchies would want to ensure the best return on providing her the resources to develop it."
"I--but--They want artists?" Lynn's heart pounded. Had they meant then to choose her, not Kendall?
"They need creative brilliance. The spark of insight that separates mere practitioners from the truly gifted, the proficient pianist from Mozart, for example."
"But," Lynn stammered, "my daughter's hardly a painter at all, much less an exceptional one."
"Like you'd know," Kendall shrieked. "Since Dad died all you do is hide in your studio. I thought if I painted too, we'd start talking again, but the only time you noticed was to complain that I'd borrowed your stuff."
Lynn stared at Kendall. "That's not--you could have shown me your work."
"I tried! You never--"
The Emissary stood. "It seems you two have a great deal to discuss. You have two days."
Lynn found the paintings tucked away in the back of Kendall's closet. Darker and moodier than Lynn's own, she wanted to dismiss them as juvenile.
But not once had Lynn created anything half so moving as the worst of Kendall's efforts.
The aliens wanted to take her daughter away. Whether the loss came from sending the girl off to some space age artists' commune or a procedure that left Kendall's personality irrevocably changed, Lynn lost her either way.
Silence reigned over the dinner table until Kendall dropped her silverware, the clatter of it against her plate a cannon in the tense stillness. "We could run. There are places--"
Lynn placed her own fork and knife down with care. "What happened to the last one they found?"
"But there are others, and Robbie knows--"
"Robbie's dead. They're all dead, Kendall, executed for their crimes."
"That's not true! We'd never allow that. There'd be revolts, uprisings--"
"Stop. You're far too old to be so naive. We can't beat them, and really, as long as you play by the rules, there's no reason to try."
"You don't believe that." Kendall stared, mouth open as though gasping for breath. "You can't believe that."
Lynn carefully folded her linen napkin and rested it on her plate, unable to meet her daughter's eyes. "It's not about what I believe. It's the way it is."
Kendall stood, slammed her palms on the table. "What about me, Mom? Am I worth fighting for?"
Lynn raked her eyes over all of Kendall, from her badly dyed hair and infuriating fake nose and cheek studs to the chunky black boots. She took in the puffy eyes, the same shade of green as Kendall's father's, the blotchy cheeks already glistening with tears, the hands covered in gaudy costume jewelry and topped with blue-polished nails.
"Mom?" Kendall's voice trembled. "Please say something."
Those hands created paintings so lovely they made Lynn cry.
But Kendall inspired a different tangle of emotions. Yes, Lynn loved her daughter. But, she didn't like her very much. "We'll schedule the procedure tomorrow. It's the safest option."
And maybe, just maybe Lynn might recover the little girl she'd once adored. Or at least not be so damn jealous of this practical stranger that shared her home.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 19th, 2016

Author Comments

I've always been fascinated with the tales of prodigies, and I also possess zero talent in visual arts, though I wish that were different. Somehow, those two facts collided, and this story was the result.

- Jamie Gilman Kress
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