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Stars Over Void

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On her first day at the station, they tell Tamika that the survival rate for Night Vale Community Radio interns is low.

Handing her a stack of neatly folded, vaguely bulletproof red shirts, the intern manager goes over the death rate. He tells her that if she survives, she'll almost certainly have permanent work here. The trouble is how few people have lived through that trial period over the years.

The manager looks in her in the eye as he explains the station's policy in the event of intern death. It's a little tricky to look back at him the same way: Tamika has rarely been around anyone with double pupils. At least Intern Manager Glenn looks in just one direction at a time. All four pupils are focused on her. Good. She wants to know that he's paying attention.

"I'm going to live," she tells him.

All four of his pupils go down slightly, immediately, breaking eye contact with her. "There is, of course, a success rate for our interns."

"I'm going to live," Tamika repeats. She can feel it buzzing in her chest. She never would have signed up for this job if she hadn't known she could go through with it. Of anyone to be NVCR's next hire, it will be her.

And as many of her fellow interns as she can get through with her, too.

"A positive attitude is the first step toward completing a job." Glenn's pupils move around the room, looking for anything but Tamika.

This afternoon they're the only ones at the station. It's too quiet: whatever studio is broadcasting right now is on the other end of the station and Tamika isn't sure who's on the schedule today. It's either the repeat of last year's east coast cicadas or the howling moan that accompanies the realization you've left your coffee cup on the top of your car.

Finally Tamika breaks the silence. She sets down the stack of shirts and pulls one on over her dress. She pins her ID badge to the front. "Is it straight?"

Glenn nods and spots a way forward. "We need you to fill out some more paperwork," he says. "It's about your ceremony, when -- should you leave us. What style cremation urn, that kind of thing."

He hands her yet another stack of paper as her teeth begin to grind. People who manage to pay attention to her without actually listening are the worst kind.

Then Glenn leaves her alone in the office to fill them out with the tiny paintbrush she'd used on all the other forms. She sits down and presses the wrinkles out of her shirt. The fabric is heavy and stiff. They never had bulletproof vests in school, so she isn't very familiar with Kevlar. Still, it seems weird that Station Management would order something no thicker than what would be needed to stop shotgun pellets at a distance.

That's going to have to change, too. Tamika has an allowance and an old gun that got replaced at the beginning of the school year. She can sell the latter and use the former to invest in some protective gear on her own.

In the section about what prayers she wants used at her funeral, she paints in what Modified Sumerian she remembers from freshman year, before she switched to Weird Spanish:

Ul Erumma Ana Harrani Sa Alaktasa La Tarat
Abatu ina tahazu lalartu, utuk xul, ma idimmu
Ninmulmulla, kanpa annu sinnis wardatu!
Cacama! Cacama!

Which (very) roughly translates to:

I do not enter the road whose course does not turn back
I destroy in battle phantoms, evil spirits, and demon
Lady of Many Stars, remember this young woman!
Amen! Amen!

Then she smiles, and sets down her paint brush. Despite their ratios and the likelihood of connecting with one over the other, Tamika always did prefer the stars over the void.

***

On her third day at the studio, Tamika attends her first funeral.

She had never met this intern. The boy worked nights. He was a year younger than her and his parents had pushed him to skip a grade, but she didn't remember him from any of her classes. Standing aside as they pried up a tile from the floor, she made herself stare at the photo they had hung on the wall.

It wasn't a class picture. It wasn't a Facebook profile picture, either. That was surprising. His family had chosen to memorialize him at the station in a portrait with all of them. His parents, his older sister, his younger brothers, him to the side: all of them smiling and smiles as bright as ice.

Tamika stares at it all the way through the ceremony. She stares at it as they lower the ashes into the small space left beneath the floor tile. She stares at it while the family read out the prayers he had put in his paperwork on his first day.

Her teeth grind.

At the end of the ceremony, as is custom, she gets in line. She presses her palm to the tile above the late intern's ashes, and she whispers his name thrice: Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.

"Glenn," she says, rushing after the intern manager as he leaves the room.

He turns to her and... Well, she doesn't know what she was expecting. Not all four pupils blown out to double their size. She was sure the punch wasn't spiked, but Glenn could have brought his own, she guesses.

He inhales and purses his lips. "What do you want, Intern Tamika?"

It's a very formal way to refer to her when she's not technically on the clock. Tamika stiffens and resists the urge to pull her ID badge from her pocket. Technically, she's not supposed to wear it when she's not on the clock.

"I want a list of the interns."

Glenn shakes his head. "They're on the wall," he says, gesturing vaguely back to the break room. "Or engraved on the floor."

That's surprising. "They are?"

"You can't see them without a magnifying glass, but they're there." He starts to turn away, and Tamika walks with him, shaking herself out of her distraction.

"I want a list of the living interns. The ones who work here."

Glenn side-eyes her. It's a strange effect with the way his pupils, together, are taking up half his eye. "You'll meet them all in time," he says.

Not good enough.

"I want to know their names before their funerals."

Glenn doesn't understand, but then, he's five years older than her. He wasn't young enough to be taken for the Summer Reading Program that year. He doesn't understand.

He can't know that you fight for every single person. It's not just you against the shadows and the teeth that spring out from between spaces too small to fit their jaws.

Tamika knows.

She memorizes the names of every intern in her cohort. By the time NVCR hires her, she's going to make sure even Station Management knows that their current survival rate? Is not acceptable.

Not with her there.