In the Shadow of Heaven [ORIGINAL VERSION]

by

javert

Chapter Sixty-Five - The Loneliest People in the Whole Wide World

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The Loneliest People in the Whole Wide World

“If you speak the truth, people will either believe or disbelieve. If you speak what’s in your heart people will either love or hate you. Speak what you know to be true, and nothing may change, but you’ll be free of your own burden.”

-from ‘The Proverb of the Liar’, children’s story

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Sylva did her best to avoid everyone over the next few days. She was feeling… Extremely bad would be an understatement. She couldn't have even said why, if anyone had bothered to ask her. For all intents and purposes, the surgery had gone well. Keep and baby were still alive, and life seemed to be going back to normal. But Sylva was wracked with some sort of unending guilt that made her dread the thought of going back to the little office and resuming her duties. She faked sick for a couple of days, telling Iri to tell everyone that she had a bad cold and didn't want to get everybody else sick with it as well.

Iri came back to her on the third day of laying around feeling sorry for herself. She stood in the doorway, putting her hands on her hips and looking down at Sylva as she lay in bed.

"If you can't stand to be here anymore, it's a good thing that we're docking at a station tomorrow."

"What?" Sylva asked, not really understanding.

"Tomorrow. We're docking at a station. We can leave the ship."

"Oh." Sylva's mind was blank. "Should we?"

"Do you feel like you're getting any closer to finding Yan by being here?" Iri asked. "Because I don't."

"Yeah. You're right."

"You agree with me?"

"I was kinda relying on you to deal with our travel arrangements," Sylva admitted. "I've been holed up in the office–"

"No, you've been holed up here, but continue."

"I've been holed up and not paying attention to where we're going. But yeah. You're probably right. Shouldn't stay here." Sylva tried to roll over in her bed to get Iri to go away.

"You'd better say your goodbyes, then," Iri said. "I can talk to Respect for you, but you should at least check in with Keep."

"Why?"

"Are you a decent human being or are you a worm?" Iri asked, sounding unexpectedly annoyed. "You didn't go to her naming ceremony."

"What?"

"Her naming ceremony. For the baby. You know, the one you delivered. It was yesterday. I tried to tell you about it but you were so insistent on not leaving here that–"

"I didn't know it was, like, required."

"The whole ship went, Sylva. Everyone was there except for you."

"So you're saying I should apologize?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"Oh my God," Iri said. "I don't know why I bother with you."

"Look, she's a pirate, I'm not. I don't really–"

"Sylva, are you really here basing your social priorities on who's an enemy of the state? Because out here that's a good way to get a gun put to your head."

"No, I just mean I don't know anything about their weird ceremonies, and I don't really–"

"Go. Say. Goodbye. And apologize," Iri said firmly.

"Is this actually about Sign?"

"Of fucking course it's about Sign. His sister is pissed at you which makes him pissed at me. And we do need to get off this ship, and I'd personally prefer doing it in such a way that we don't piss off this half of the galaxy. This fake identity is too useful to make single use, you know."

"Fine." Sylva tugged the blankets back up towards her ears.

"Now." Iri walked further into the little room (it was really only a few steps) and pulled the blanket down off of Sylva, leaving her unexpectedly cold despite her jumpsuit. Sylva flailed her arm and whacked Iri in her solid shoulder. Iri grabbed her arm and hauled her off the bed, dropping her unceremoniously to the floor. "Get going."


A few minutes later, Sylva was making the trek towards Keep and Sheilder's rooms. She stood outside their door for a solid minute, hand poised to knock, until the door swung open of its own accord. Shielder looked shocked to see her there, though he didn’t see her until he basically tripped over her, she was that far below his eye level. He was dressed go go out to work his shift, wearing his utility belt around his waist.

"Hi, Sylva, uh…" Shielder was a fairly quiet man. He seemed more confused than anything by Sylva's presence. He held the door open so that she could go inside. "Keep's in there."

"Thanks, Shielder. Have a good shift," Sylva squeaked out.

"Yeah. See you around." Shielder edged out around her, and Sylva made her way into the tidy and tiny suite that the two of them (three of them, counting the baby) shared. She heard Keep's voice murmuring something in a back room, behind a closed door. Sylva again hesitated before knocking, but figured she was already here, and rapped on the door.

The murmuring stopped. "Who's there?" Keep called out.

"Hi Keep," Sylva said.

"Sylva?"

"Yeah."

"Come in. Door's not locked." Keep sounded a little resigned, but Sylva couldn't back out now, so she pushed the door open. Keep was laying in bed, wearing pyjamas, with her blanket pulled up to her chest. Her little baby was curled up next to her, sleeping, or just laying. Sylva couldn't really tell.

"Hi," Sylva said again, awkwardly. She stuffed her hands in her pockets. "Sorry for not coming to your naming ceremony. Iri told me I missed it."

"Yeah, you did," Keep said. She didn't look up at Sylva, she just kept looking down at the baby. "I was pretty mad about it."

"I wasn't…" Sylva trailed off. There wasn't any good way to explain how she was feeling. "I'm sorry."

"Is that all you have to say?" Keep asked, her voice flat.

"I mean, I guess I came to see how you're doing." She was nervous about hearing about the results of her surgery, but Keep still seemed alive and kicking, so nothing could really be that bad.

"Fine. I think you bruised my bladder something terrible, though. Hurts like I'm being stabbed to pee."

"I'm sorry," Sylva said again. That at least didn't sound like it was going to be life threatening. Keep would probably heal on her own.

"Again, is that the only thing you have to say?" Keep asked.

"What do you want me to say?" Sylva asked, unexpectedly angry.

"You might want to ask what his fucking name is!" Keep gestured angrily at the baby, which rattled the bed and caused the baby to wake up. His arms and legs, swaddled in a soft little baby jumpsuit, flailed weakly, and he cried a tiny, wheezing sound.

Sylva grabbed her head, shoving her fingers deep into the thick braids that crossed her skull. "I don't know anything about your custom– I didn't– argh." She took a deep breath, yanking on her hair. Keep picked up the baby and shushed him. "What's his name?" Sylva asked after she got herself under a little bit of control.

"Travel-Well. We'll probably call him Trav." Keep said after a moment. "You should have come to the ceremony."

"I know, I know."

"Why didn't you?"

"I was scared. I– I had never done anything like that before. And it was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I didn't– I felt so embarrassed."

"You're so weird. You're so weird." Keep lay back on the bed. "It turned out fine, I think. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. And now you know if you did it now, you can do it again."

Sylva's breath caught in her throat. She was so close to admitting that she wasn't a doctor, that she had no right to be here, doing anything, but she couldn't say it. She couldn't blow her only cover like that, not after she had finally gained her first real piece of clout. She settled for the next best thing. "I'm just– I feel like I'm a fraud. Nothing like my father."

"Fathers are overrated. Don't tell Sheilder I said that."

Sylva laughed, and Keep did too. "Okay, I won't."

"Seriously, Sylva. Sign told me that you're like fresh out of school or whatever, but you put your hands where your mouth is, and you got the job done. That's all anybody can ask from any member of a crew."

"You'd be singing a different tune if I had fucked up, though," Sylva said. She jammed her hands back in her pockets. "Maybe next time I won't get lucky."

"You think you got lucky?" Keep asked. "I feel like I had just about the worst birth I could have had."

"No, uh, definitely not. Nothing was– until I, you know, cut you open, there wasn't–"

"Well, I wouldn't have been able to do it without you. If you hadn't been here, we both could have died."

"Somebody else would have stepped up and done it. The medical library is– it's a pretty good teaching tool," Sylva said. She was fumbling over her words. "I don't. Yeah." She gave up.

"Regardless."

"Yeah."

They stood in silence for a moment. "Do you want to hold him?" Keep asked.

Sylva nodded.

"Come sit down, then." Keep scooted to the side of the bed, wincing as she shifted her lower body. Sylva sat cautiously on the edge of the bed, and Keep passed her the baby, Travel-Well. He was small, and chubby, and wrinkled, and ugly, in an endearing sort of way. He had a tuft of strawberry blonde hair, and dark brown eyes. Those features, at least, came directly from his parents. He was heavy, for a baby. Had some real heft to him. He stared myopically out at the world, completely uncomprehending. Sylva tucked one of her fingers into his hand, and he grabbed at it. His hand was so tiny, it was shocking. She looked down at him wonderingly for a moment. Keep had made this. Keep had made this.

"He's very cute," Sylva said.

"Isn't he just."

"So do you forgive me for not coming to his ceremony?"

"Yeah, I guess," Keep said. "Try to go to the next one, will you?"

"You're having another baby?" Sylva asked, aghast. She really wouldn't recommend that. She had no confidence in her stitches holding up under that sort of strain.

"What? No. But somebody's going to, eventually, I think my cousin, Guidance–"

"Keep," Sylva cut in.

"What?"

"I came to tell you that I'm leaving."

"What?!"

"I wasn't ever going to stay for that long. Ir-Evie and I are getting off at the next station." Sylva was so bad at remembering Iri's fake identity.

"You can't go!" Hearing Keep's shrill words, Trav began to cry again. Sylva bounced him up and down on her knee gently, then gave up and handed him back to Keep.

"I have to."

"Why?"

"I have things I need to do. I didn't just come out here for fun," Sylva said.

"I thought you were just here to get away from your family. You can stay here. We're always on the move."

"No, I'm…" Sylva sighed, shook her head. "I'm looking for someone."

"To marry?"

"I'm not Evie."

"Then what are you looking for?"

"A friend of mine."

"Universe is pretty big. You're just as likely to run into that friend with us as you are anywhere else."

"Maybe."

"So you shouldn't go. Who else is going to look after me? And Trav? And everybody else?"

"I'm sure you can find a new doctor."

"It took us months to find you!"

"And you survived in that time."

"Barely," Keep said. "Seriously, don't go."

"I'm going."

There was a moment of silence as Sylva’s words sat there like rocks between them. Then Keep started to cry. She cradled her baby in one arm and wiped at her eyes with the other. "You're the worst. You're sick. You–"

"I'm sorry," Sylva said again, plaintively. There wasn't anything else to say. "Part of me doesn't want to go, but I can't stay here. I have things I need to get done."

Keep didn't say anything, just cried and cried. Sylva was beginning to feel uncomfortable. She reached out to awkwardly pat Keep's shoulder, but she shoved her away.

"Just get out. Go. I don't care."

"Keep–"

"Get OUT!"

So Sylva stood, and left.


And so it came to pass that she and Iri were once again friendless and alone on a station, this one much less inviting, pleasant, and legal than the last. Iri stuck to Sylva like glue, not letting her out of arm's reach, let alone sight. For all that the pirates aboard the Warrior II had been nice people individually, the people who congregated on this station were, on the whole, a rough bunch. It was a wonder that the station survived, but according to Iri, who had asked Sign, the station was under the ownership and protection of one particularly strong pirate clan, who made their living partially by taking a toll from everyone who docked there, and partially from mining out and building ships, minus stardrives, of course. That and the usual workings of pirates– trading in drugs, weapons, human lives, and anything else that someone cared to put a price on.

The place was well lit, and there were cameras every few meters along the black walls and ceilings, but that didn't give Sylva the impression of safety. It only gave the feeling that the people who ran this place simply wanted the chance to take a cut of any profit made from violence. They drifted down the gravity-less hallways together, away from the docking tube that connected the Warrior II. Most of the crew who were doing business had already gone back aboard; Sylva and Iri (but mostly Iri), had waited until the last second to say their goodbyes.

There was a bored looking man with a thick knife strapped to his hip waiting at the end of the docking tunnel, floating in front of a desk. If it could be called that, since it was rather sideways to him.

"Fee," he said, holding out his hand.

Iri fished through the pockets of her jumpsuit and pulled out a thick envelope. She put it in the man's hand. He opened it, took out the bag of pills that was in there, and pulled some sort of testing kit from his own pocket. He dropped a pill into a tiny bottle and shook it around, holding it up to the light to see the color change. Iri and Sylva waited patiently as he did so.

"Alright," he said after a long moment. "Don't cause trouble. If you're staying for longer than ten days, you need to pay again. Keep these on you." The man pulled out two cards from a set of drawers, as well as a scanner. He scanned both their faces; the light blinded Sylva momentarily, and then he handed each of them a card. Considering that he hadn’t even asked for a name, just a face for the cameras to recognize, that was a good indication of how scrupulous the pirates were about who became a guest on their station.

"Thanks," Iri said.

"Yeah," the man grunted.

Iri tugged Sylva along, and they headed into the station proper. There had been a part of Sylva that was expecting it to be dingy and poorly maintained, but if there was one thing that held all spacers together, it was their love of their vessels. Apparently that extended to stations as well, because the place, while it had a sinister aura, had no cracks in its walls or garbage on its floors. They were in the rotating section, or one of them anyway. It was a bustling marketplace, with people going every which way, and stalls lining the walls, hawking their goods and services. There were plenty of empty stalls; it looked like they were often rented on a very short term basis. Pirated goods didn't usually lend themselves to having a steady supply, so maybe that wasn't so surprising.

The whole place made Sylva a little sick. She saw normal storefronts: machinists workshops, tattoo parlors, food vendors, electronics repair, all right along side drug vendors, and things that could be only generously described as brothels. Real human beings were for sale here. Bile rose in the back of Sylva's throat as she saw someone idly swiping through a display showing which people were for sale. She turned away, and Iri tugged her forward.

"We need to get rooms to stay in, at least for tonight," Iri said, hand firmly on Sylva's arm.

"Yeah, okay." Sylva muttered her agreement, but she was deeply wishing that they both could run back to the Warrior II and get away from this place. The harsh white lights above made nauseating shadows on the ever so slightly curved floor. Iri navigated the station with no problems, sidestepping the several people who tried to get their attention to sell them something, and giving a clear berth to people with heavy weapons and bad looking intentions. They made their way further through the market, which seemed to stretch out forever. It probably did span the entire ring, and loop back on itself eventually.

Finally, they stopped under a glowing sign proclaiming that there were rooms for rent, and food and drinks for sale. Iri and Sylva stepped in to the dimly lit establishment. There was a desk near the front, guarding the entrance to the bar and dining area behind, as well as the stairs up to the rooms. A bored looking woman stood at it, playing a game on her tablet. The dining area was almost completely abandoned– possibly this station was running on an odd timing system, and this was in between meals.

"Hi," Iri said, getting the woman's attention. "We'd like to book a room."

"Single or double?"

"Single," Sylva spoke up. She didn't think their funds, in whatever assorted "currencies" they had, were going to stretch very far if they kept having to shell out for things on this station. Better to get the cheaper room. Iri hid a smirk behind her hand. Sylva wondered what that was about.

"How are you paying?" the bored woman asked, swiping through her tablet to the reservation system.

"Merchandise," Iri said. What a pleasant euphemism.

"It's fifty grams a night," the woman said. "How long you staying for?"

"Can we pay by the night?"

"Fine."

Iri handed over one night's worth of payment, along with the cards they had been given as they entered the station. The woman scanned the cards and handed them back. Sylva noticed that the woman did not bother checking the bag of pills that Iri handed over. The woman could count herself lucky that Iri wasn't trying to scam them.

"You're in room 214. Connect your phones to the information system if you want to know what's on the dinner menu for the upcoming nights. Or don't. I don't really care."

Iri and Sylva took themselves and their limited personal belongings up the set of stairs into the second floor. This station was pretty big, to have a rotating ring that could accommodate a second story. Probably that second story was where all the residents of the station lived, hidden above the marketplace, since the other rings hosted greenhouses and manufacturing space.

The room, unlike the rest of the station, was somewhat dingy. The light above was half burned out, and the single bed creaked badly when Iri tossed her stuff down onto it. Sylva sat down, feeling how much of a tremor was in her body as she did so.

"I kinda hate this place," she said.

"No shit." Iri flopped down on the bed as well, and the mattress lurched horribly sideways. Sylva was worried the whole thing was going to collapse, but it didn't. "But we've got a better chance of finding out where to go from here than we did on the Warrior II."

"I know," Sylva said. She shuddered to think that this was the true face of piracy, all the nastiest parts of it out and on display for the highest bidder. The Warrior II had been downright respectable in comparison. Sylva wondered what exactly compelled the crew of that ship to only trade in relatively benign drugs and other black market goods. She hoped it was human decency, and not just some sort of convoluted profit motive that would change as soon as the winds of fortune shifted.

"See if there's any jobs on the information system," Iri said. "I'm gonna take a nap."

"What?"

"You heard me." Iri straightened out on the bed, and pulled the rather worn covers up around her. Sylva huffed and scooted out of the way. She took out her phone and hooked it up to the information system aboard the station. There was a space for ships to leave job postings, including a time they would be returning to the station, as well as their general route. It was quite handy.

There were a couple ships looking for doctors, which was… It was an option, anyway. Even though Sylva hadn't left the Warrior II on the best terms with Keep, she had a letter of recommendation in her pocket from Sign and Respect, and she was assured that it would go a long way towards getting her wherever she needed to go. Even so, Sylva swiped away from the requests for doctors for a minute. She had had her fill of doctoring, unless there really wasn't any other choice.

The list of available positions went on. Lots of people were needed to maintain ships, and because of the necessity to leave the family ship in order to find a partner, it created a constantly rotating pool of available positions. If Sylva had ever wanted to be an engine repair specialist, a dogfighter pilot, a chef, a greenhouse overseer, an inventory appraiser– now would have been the time. There were also requests for odd jobs, and requests for various types of cargo that ships were willing to buy. Out of idle curiosity, as she listened to Iri's steady breathing turn into jerky snores, Sylva paged through all of that. The bulk of it was for requests for specialized equipment that was probably useful on ships, from medical supplies to farming robots. Another significant portion was asking for large deliveries of certain material: rare ores, less common drugs, weapons of a particular manufacture. None of it held much interest, other than as a glimpse into how these economies worked.

Then Sylva swiped all the way through to the last page, entitled simply "Human Contracts". She shouldn't have expected any different– it was bounties, of all prices, on all types of people. There wasn't any section for completed orders, so she couldn't tell how often any of these came due, but there were a staggering amount of them, and some of them were worth a whole lot of money. She was disgusted, but she kept looking. A little voice in the back of her brain was telling her that this would be a pretty lucrative way of living, but she squashed it with the more normal part of herself.

Sylva's finger slid down the phone, and then stopped, dead in its tracks. Staring up out of her from her phone screen was the face she had been looking for.

Yan BarCarran, the message read. Wanted Alive. Reward: 5,000 kg. or choice of equivalent payment. Contact Seal-the-Mouth Yossar aboard the Bellringer.

Sylva's hand clenched and unclenched on the phone. She was frozen in place for a few seconds, then abruptly came to her senses. She leaned over the bed and shook Iri awake. Iri jolted, and her hand immediately went to her side where she kept a concealed weapon, drawing it on Sylva. Sylva ducked out of the way of the gun barrel.

"Iri, it's just me!" Sylva hissed urgently.

"God, don't wake me up like that," Iri said, sitting up, dropping the gun to the bed, and rubbing her eyes. "At least be a little more gentle."

"How was I supposed to know you'd draw on me." Sylva got back up from where she had ducked to the floor.

"Common sense." Iri yawned widely. "What was it that couldn't have waited until my alarm went off?"

"Didn't know you set an alarm," Sylva said, getting distracted.

"Sylva, if you woke me up for nothing, I really will shoot you."

"Oh, sorry, yeah." Sylva's presence of mind had scattered to the wind during the jarring moment after waking up Iri. She retrieved her phone; it had fallen to the floor when she had. She passed it to Iri. "Take a look at that."

"Hmm." Iri considered the wanted poster for a long few moments. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised about that."

"You're not surprised?"

"Think about it for a hot minute, Sylva," Iri said, flopping back on the bed. "Who's likely to put out a bounty on Yan?"

"I thought she was already captured, and that's why we're looking for her."

"Duh. Use your brain." Iri reached up one of her long arms and tapped Sylva's forehead. "I've seen you use it before."

"The Empire could be putting out a bounty on her, in order to get her back," Sylva said. "And they disguise it as a pirate request in order to get people to willingly give them the information." She looked at Iri expectantly.

"Sure. Not the first guess I would have made, but I could see that happening."

"Then what would you say it is?"

"Did Yan not tell you what happened when she was on the way to Olar?" Iri laughed a little bitterly.

"That's what this is about?" Yan hadn't described it in clear detail, obviously, but Sylva did remember that Yan had some sort of pirate encounter. It had left her a little changed.

Iri swiped through the phone a little more, and pulled up another wanted post, showing it to Sylva. There was Sid Welslak, Yan's coworker, with the same reward out on his head. "Since there's no listing for the third apprentice, Kino Mejia, I'd assume that's what this is about, yes."

Sylva thought for a moment. "How big of a reward is that?"

"Pretty sizeable. Not a stardrive's worth, but getting up there. You saw what the other bounties were." It was true that Yan's was higher than average. Sylva took the phone back and looked at Sid's wanted poster– they had the same bounty on their heads.

"And how do these people even know about this to put a mark on her head? How do they know she did it?"

"They were the talk of the whole Guild, and not in a good way," Iri said. "News gets around."

"Well there's one silver lining to this," Sylva said.

"What's that?"

"Wait, two silver linings."

"Spit it out."

"We can at least be sure that since these posts are still up, they haven't found her yet."

"Sure. That just means these particular people haven't gotten to torture and kill her yet." Iri was frowning. Sylva picked up the pillow off the bed and hit her with it. Iri fended it off without smiling.

"And we know a lead where we might be able to find information," Sylva continued. "If they're looking, and they have money, and connections, and resources, we should get on that ship."

"You sure you want to do that?" Iri asked.

"What other choice do we have?"

"There could be other avenues of information."

"This is a pretty sure one, and it's right under our noses. I'd say we go for it."

"You'd better check their hand requests then, and hope they're looking for a doctor."

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A note from javert

Unfortunately for Sylva and Keep, sometimes people exit our lives without saying goodbye in way that will leave us with fond memories of them. Sylva... could have handled this better. 

And if you were thinking that the pirate thing was never going to come up again, well... I honestly try not to drop stuff like that. I feel like 'main character kills 30+ strangers' is like a big thing to happen, and I think that the consequences of it, 'realistically', are pretty wide ranging. We saw some of the /personal/ consequences, and some of the guild consequences, but the pirates were also a pretty big party who never got to have their say. And now they shall, at least a little bit.

I've revamped my story description and (obviously) cover. Let me know what you think! I like to switch things up every once in a while. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, here is the new cover, and here are the two old ones [1] [2, illustration by @bonepocket on tumblr]. I like the new image, I think it's bold and graphic and has #symbolism. Or what passes for symbolism around here haha. Otoh, I do still love that illustration of Yan. She looks so pensive.

Please consider leaving me a review or rating, they help immensely.

Hope you've all had a great week. I'll see you on monday.

update 10/14/19 - added title. it's mountain goats lyrics, what else did you really expect?

 


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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