Carl Romeo pulled his coat closer. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but the wind had picked up as if to maintain a constant background level of discomfort. Carl snorted at the thought. He knew very well that misery was one of the few quantities in the universe that was not limited by a conservation law.
Across the cemetery people were starting to disperse. It hadn't been a very large crowd, and the few left were now throwing their flowers into Michael's grave. The ceremony had been short. The priest just didn't have a lot to say about his thirteen year long life. That, thought Carl, was the cruelest thing of all.
Soon only Michael's parents were left standing by the grave. The shock of loosing their son was just starting to sink in. Only three days ago he had been found dead in their backyard. The doctors said it was a massive stroke, a very rare thing for someone so young but not unheard of. In the panic and the confusion, no one had noticed the strange marks on the ground near his body. Carl had carefully erased them later that night, not wanting their residual potential to hurt anyone else. He had paused to admire Michael's final spell. It was unusually precise for a wizard of his experience, using some very subtle distinctions between meta-causative conjugations in the Speech. More talent, wasted.
Not wasted, he reminded himself. The Powers did not waste their investments lightly, and there were no coincidences. Michael was there to do what he did because he was the best person available. Because no one else could have done it as well. Because, as the Powers saw it, Michael could do more good in that one act than he would have in the rest of his career. They had been playing this game for a long time, and the stakes They played for were far too high to be swayed by sentiment. Michael had chosen a death with purpose, which is more than most people got. A death with optimized purpose. Carl struggled to find comfort in that thought.
He sighed, watching Michael's parents turn from the grave. They made it three steps towards the parking lot before collapsing into each other's arms, wracked with sobs. Looking around, he confirmed that the priest was gone and they were alone. He thought through twenty-three of the twenty-four syllables of his least favorite spell. It sat in the back of his mind, incomplete and restless. He ignored it with the ease of too much practice, accepting the inevitable headache that was already building.
Carl stepped out from under the tree and approached the couple. Luckily they saw him coming, saving him from having to decide exactly how to interrupt their grief.
"Excuse me," Carl said. "You are Michael's parents, right? Michael Stephens?"
"Yes," Michael's dad said softly. "Are you one of his teachers? I'm afraid you missed the - the ceremony."
"I was... an instructor of his, yes. We talked quite a bit about chemistry, actually."
Michael's mom smiled sadly. "He was quite obsessed with it, wasn't he?"
"Yes, a very driven young man. Did he ever mention RTGs to you?"
"No, I don't think so."
"They were something he had become very interested in recently. They were the last thing he and I talked about, in fact."
Michael's parents nodded absently. This was the part Carl hated most. They thought he just wanted to share a harmless little anecdote about their son.
"RTGs, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, are a very simple way to generate electricity from a chunk of radioactive material," Carl continued. "They don't put out a lot of power, but they can last for decades and are highly reliable. For some applications, like deep space probes out beyond Mars, they are the only practical power source. The sunlight is so dim out there that you can't carry enough solar panels. But they've been used a lot more in military applications. Even though there is plenty of solar energy in low Earth orbit, if you're putting up a stealth spy satellite you don't want to put giant shining solar panels on it. So you use an RTG instead."
"Not hard to imagine Michael being interested in that," his dad said.
Carl nodded. "There are hundreds of secret military satellites in orbit around the Earth. Not all of them carry RTGs, but quite a few do. And eventually, their orbits decay. They're supposed to be de-orbited in a controlled fashion and crashed into the ocean. The RTGs are supposed to be designed to survive that. A small lump of plutonium in a metal case at the bottom of the ocean isn't going to hurt anyone."
Even if they do startle the local inhabitants, he thought. Not that anyone down there is going to complain too much about a free source of heat...
"The problem is that there are a lot of supposed-tos in that reasoning. Michael was practicing passive scans last week, just feeling what was in the atmosphere. And he found a lot more plutonium than there should be. No more than a couple of grams total, but all of it finely powdered and drifting downwards."
"Wait," Michael's mom said. "What do you mean, scanning?"
Carl hurried along. "We don't know whose satellite it was. Probably Soviet, something they lost track of in the collapse. But it could have been ours just as easily. It doesn't matter, of course. That much plutonium, distributed across the world as a fine dust, could kill thousands of people. They would simply be unexplained cases of lung cancer. But people would die all the same, for decades to come, unless something was done. So Michael did something."
Michael's dad was looking stony and turned to leave.
"Wait," Carl cried, grabbing his arm. "You need to hear this. Michael stopped it. He took in the entire atmosphere, all of it. He took it in and he held it. And then, while holding something a quadrillion times larger than his mind, he talked the plutonium away. He chased it down the decay chain all the way to lead-206. All of it."
Michael's dad shook himself free, livid. "I don't know who you are, but this is unspeakable. Coming to us on this of all days"
"I know," Carl said. "I won't bother you further. I just wanted to tell you, it meant something. Michael died for a reason. He died to save thousands of people that he would never even know. It meant something, and none of us who know will forget."
Before they could turn away again he thought the twenty-fourth syllable. The spell, finally complete and unrestrained, unfolded itself and leapt out of his mind. He watched it settle onto them, reflected by a glazed look that appeared in their eyes.
Michael's mom blinked a few times. "Did... you say you were one of Michael's teachers?"
"Yes. I'm very sorry for your loss."
After a few more generic comments, Carl wandered off. He didn't feel much better, but it was still better than not doing anything.
In a corner of his mind he felt a certain buzz, the kind indicating an emergency call for a Senior. The world had gone on turning, and it still needed saving.
Carl looked at Michael's grave one last time, nodded a vague goodbye, and vanished.