Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.
Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.
“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.
Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.
“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”
Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.
“Very helpful, Tig.”
The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.
He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.
It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.
“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.
“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.
“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”
“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.
He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.
He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).
Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.
Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.
Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.
Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.
Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.
Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.
“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.
“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.
The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.
But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.
Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.
After all, it was his only option.
Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.
There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.
Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.
The Emperor was arriving.
The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.
“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.
Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.
Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.
He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.
Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.
Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.
Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.
Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.
Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.
Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.
He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.
No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in a veritable cave of debris.
Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.
“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.
“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”
“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”
And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.
Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.
Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.
It was a man.
He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.
Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.
“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.
“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.
“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.
The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.
“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”
If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.
“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”
Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.
“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.
“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”
Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.
The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?
No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.
Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.
He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…
Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.
“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”
Jax let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.
The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.
Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.
He turned on the man and tried to smile.
“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.
“Ereb,” he offered simply.
“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”
Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both, he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.
“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”
Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.
“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”
“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”
With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.
“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.
“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.
Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.
“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”
Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.
“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.
“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”
It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.
“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”
Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.
“More time than–I have,” Ereb said, as if answering his thoughts.
Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.
There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.
Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.
Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.
Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.
The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.
“How long has he been gone?”
Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.
“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.
The difference wasn’t worth the effort.
“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”
Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.
“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.
“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”
“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.
“What? Let me see.”
“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”
“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.
Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.
The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.
“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”
Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.
The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.
The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–
“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”
“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”
And, in spite of every doubt, he did.