He flicked his antique lighter to life with a press of his thumb. John Harmond was a man of small pleasures, the smooth metal-on-metal sound being one of his favorites. The cigarette took from the flame between his cupped hands, and he stowed the lighter back in his pocket.
“Can I get a light?” Greg asked. John gave him a look somewhere between a glare and a frown, holding out his cigarette for Greg to use. “Thanks.”
He nodded and returned to leaning against the cold brick wall. Those who filed out of the club often turned to notice the pair, but none lingered for any amount of time. They were only sharing casual conversation, after all.
“So Redford goes to trial next,” Greg said with a puff of smoke.
“Mmm,” John hummed.
“His lawyer thinks he’s got something. Gonna say that the mages don’t count as people. Technically scientists ain’t sure that they’re homo sapiens or not, and that means he wasn’t killin’ anyone when he put out the orders.”
“Huh,” John scoffed, his whole body shifting with the breath, “that’s so stupid it just might work.”
They both went silent while a couple from the club walked past them. The woman looked over her shoulder as she turned a corner, and her giggling echoed down the alley. John ground his teeth.
“It ain’t stupid if it’s true.”
“It’s not true. Mongols are more genetically different from us than mages are.” John took a long drag and watched his icy breath travel up to the sky.
“Those with Trisomy twenty-one. Down syndrome. That’s an entire extra chromosome, compared to the relatively minor differences in mages. The magic users have six extra operons spread across chromosomes- well, the specifics don’t matter. They produce viable young with humans, and the effects of the genetic differences aren’t even physically apparent. If the social conservatives can’t convince congress to block the Inclusion bill, they’ll be counted. Simple as that.”
Greg scratched at the stubble on his chin, staring thoughtfully at a hanging fluorescent light. “All of that may be true, but I don’t think that’ll hurt Redford.”
A group of eight people spilled out the door and started walking toward the pair. They were happily drunk, laughing and bouncing off each other as they stumbled in the direction of the parking lot. John turned and started walking away fast enough that they wouldn’t catch him. Greg followed.
They rounded two corners to reach the street. Instead of crossing to the lot where they’d parked, John headed further down the lane. The snow was cold, biting, and soaked into his socks he kicked through several feet of the stuff. Even so, being cold was much less painful than having to interact with inebriated college students.
“This isn’t a matter of legality, it’s a matter of ethics. The codswallop about mages not being humans is for the masses to latch on to, rather than accept their own inability. They’ll march to Washington and protest about about how the magically powerful are taking their jobs and destroying industries without realizing that it’s the best thing that could ever happen to them.”
Greg craned his neck to look up at John. “The hell do you mean by that? Best thing that ever happened to them?”
“I’ve seen the numbers, Gregory. Even with a small fraction of the population being capable, they still produce enough raw energy to meet the needs of the entire country and then some. Every nation is the same. We could build a society where citizens don’t have to work, since the runes can automate entire enterprises with little effort. We could have a thousand people supplying everything humanity needs to thrive.”
“Are you saying it’s a good thing?”
John glared down at him. He threw his cigarette on into the snow and stepped past it. “It’s not good, it’s invalidating. People have spent their lives achieving things that mages can ruin overnight. Hard-working men and women won’t stand for it, which is why we’re playing the game of courts and lawyers over whether or not these aberrants actually have rights.”
They walked in silence as Greg finally ran out of questions. Snow whirled in the streets and pelted their faces with shards of ice. It was enough that John had to pull his scarf up to his nose and tug his hat down so it covered the very bottoms of his ears. When he could take it no longer, John led Greg into a nearby diner.
A sign just inside the door read ‘self seating’, so he picked the table second from the corner. The waitress came and took their order, one coffee each. With a backwards glance out the window to see the rapidly deteriorating weather, she bit her lip and returned to the kitchen. The diner would close before they could get snowed in.
John drummed his fingers on the table and willed the snow to stop. When it didn’t, he turned his attention back to Greg. “Why are you still here?”
“Dunno. Redford told me to let you know about the trial, but I figure I’d feel pretty dumb if I just told you that and then went back. It was like a four hour trip to get out here.”
“Four and a half,” John replied without really thinking about it.
“Even longer, then. Anything you want me to take back to my boss? Words of wisdom? Any plans?”
The waitress stopped by the table and dropped off their coffees. With a smile, John passed her a hundred dollar bill and nodded her away. His grin died as soon as she was out of sight. “No, I don’t think I do. Tell him good luck, he’ll certainly need it.”
“Christ, John.” Greg pushed against the table to lean back in his chair. “This is a capital offense we’re talking about. You’ve really got nothing? You know you’re up to bat next.”
“No,” John said, taking a sip of his drink. It was the perfect temperature.
“I’m not going to trial next.”
Greg scrunched up his face and reached into his pocket to fish out a crumpled piece of paper. Notes were scrawled across it at multiple angles as though it had been made in haste. He narrowed his eyes at the sequence of names and dates he had written down.
“You are, Harmond. I’ve got the list,” he said, turning the paper so John could see it.
“I’m not going to trial. My nation needs me,” John said, in a tone that carried no humor. He turned to face the waitress whose shoes were clacking on the tile as she approached. The smile was back in an instant. “I know you’re closing. My apologies, we’ll be leaving now.”
He stood up and wrapped his scarf back around his face, waiting for Greg to join him. Even when they’d stepped out into the wind and cold, Greg still couldn’t wipe the look of confusion off his face.