“Imagine how miserable it would be, to be a civilization confined to a single planet. There would be no chance for us to expand our horizons, or to understand ourselves. Just as I could not understand my own being except in relationship to other people, there is no way for a culture to be fully realized without a contrast, or a language to be truly broken down unless it is translated. We are lucky that the many planets of the Empire retain their individual spirit, culture, and language, even with central leadership.”
-Helem Walochoulis, Sylva's Galactic Literature III teacher at the Academy
The shuttle didn't end up sinking. It mainly just floated there lopsidedly, though a leak in one of the inflatable air bladders caused it to release a puffy whining noise whenever a particularly strong wave hit it. The life raft where Sylva and Iri lay didn't drift very far away. They lay there, panting and trying hard to believe that they were still alive.
Really, the only thing that convinced Sylva that she was was alive was the pain all over her body from where she had been sliced open by the chair straps. She struggled to sit up on the thin and wiggly plastic, and examined her wounds.
Her dislocated shoulder was probably the most pressing, though it didn't even hurt the most. She wasn't sure how it had happened. She must have somehow twisted herself in the straps as they crashed, maybe she had been been a little bit sideways to crush her arm against the back of the chair and pop her shoulder out. She cradled it to her chest. There were definitely ways for her to get it back in, but she wasn't interested in trying them without Iri's help. Iri would probably know better, anyway, as this seemed like a regular first aid thing.
To check her cuts, Sylva carefully unzipped her torn jumpsuit and pulled her right arm out of it to see the skin underneath. There was a nasty gash across the top of her shoulder that crossed down towards her chest, where it mainly turned into a deep vertical bruise and several horizontal ones. Nice of the designers of these seatbelts to avoid putting pressure on her sternum, which might have killed her. There were matching cuts on her thighs, where the straps had kept her legs and hips in place. All of the cuts were screaming with the intrusion of salt water, but none of them looked like they went into the muscle. On her thighs, she peeled back the fabric of her jumpsuit and saw that the cut did go deep into the globby fat layer below the skin, but that was still better than having her whole leg sliced off.
She was being remarkably calm and rational, even if that was just shock that would wear off soon. She turned to Iri, who was staring up at the dark and starry sky. Now that she had determined she wasn't about to die from her own wounds, Sylva could figure out what was going on with her traveling companion.
“Iri?” Sylva asked, leaning over her friend. “You okay?”
Iri's eyes found hers. “Sorry.” Her voice sounded thick.
“For what?” Sylva asked. She scooted towards Iri on her knees, trying not to wobble their boat too much. The whole scene was barely illuminated in the last gasps of light from the set sun, and the stars that lurked on the other end of the sky.
“I passed out.”
“No shit. Wish I could have done the same. You okay now, though?”
“If my heart would go back to beating normally. And my neck hurts worse than I've ever felt.”
“Good news is you probably don't have a concussion, just whiplash. Those headrests are pretty soft.”
“Yeah, I didn't think I did. You got the first aid kit?”
“It should still be attached,” Sylva said. She shuffled to the other side of the liferaft, feeling it wobble disconcertingly beneath her. There was a first aid kit that was attached to the side, on the interior, just in case. Obviously, if a shuttle like this was making a water landing, the occupants were likely to be in significant distress. Shuttles were meant to land and take off from flat, cleared ground. Ditching in the water was obviously thought of as something that could happen, but definitely not something that should.
She pulled the kit with her less injured arm and brought it back over to Iri. “It's all here.”
“Great.” Iri was still flat on her back.
“Can you sit up?”
“Then do it.”
Iri struggled to sit up, clutched her head, and leaned back a little bit against the side of the raft.
Sylva rifled through the first aid kit, looking to see if there was any painkillers. There were: a few small pills. Despite being on a pirate ship, where the most accessible “medication” was drugs, these were the mildest painkillers that money could buy. Maybe that was to stop the crew and guests of the ship from raiding all the first aid boxes to get their fix. She handed one to Iri and took one herself, dry swallowing it.
“Do we have any water?”
“All our food is still in there,” Sylva said, nodding back to the shuttle. “No idea if it's still good after being submerged.”
“We can think about that in the morning,” Iri groaned.
“We're sticking around until morning?”
“We're able to move?” Iri countered.
“Come on. The longer we sit here the worse things will get. With our luck, the Bellringer will be in orbit and tracking where this shuttle went down so they can find us. We have to get out of here.”
Iri closed her eyes. “Fine.”
“Let's do some triage.”
“Go for it, Doctor Sylva.”
“Fuck off.” Sylva took stock of the situation. Iri had the same cuts she did, though in slightly different places because she was much taller. There wasn't anything that Sylva could do about her whiplash, and the reason that Iri had passed out and been so unresponsive earlier was not clear. Maybe it was just terror? Could that do that to a person? “Is it just your cuts and bruises, and your neck that are messed up?” Sylva asked to confirm.
“As far as I know. But my whole body hurts worse than it ever has, so I can't really pick out anything in particular.”
“We basically slammed into a wall going two hundred kilometers an hour,” Sylva said. “It's to be expected.”
“Could have been way worse,” Iri muttered. “Thanks.”
“Don't know if I ended up doing much,” Sylva said.
“You didn't use the power?”
“I did, I just don't know how much it helped.”
“Oh. Well at the very least, you stopped me from drowning in my chair.”
“The water wasn't coming in until I opened the doors.”
“I don't really remember the order in which things happened,” Iri admitted.
“Is your head alright? Is there a reason you were so out of it?”
“No idea,” Iri said. She winced and rubbed her temple. “Probably just me choking up at a crucial moment.”
“Okay. Well, if there isn't anything actually wrong with your head, and I don't think I could do anything even if there was, step one is probably fixing my arm so that I can stitch us up. The cuts are deep enough that they need stitches.”
“What's wrong with your arm?”
“Pretty sure I dislocated my shoulder somehow.”
Iri squinted in the dim light, and Sylva nodded sideways to her left arm, which she was cradling against her chest. “Think you can fix it?”
“Sure,” Iri said. “Won't be pleasant, though.”
“Like anything has been. What do I need to do?” The calm acceptance was still in Sylva's voice. They had passed far out of the real world, and into this other realm where anything could happen. Maybe they hadn't died when their shuttle had impacted with the surface of the water, but if they couldn't find Yan and get rescued, it was certainly only a matter of time. In order to forestall the inevitable, Sylva would have to accept the pain of Iri fixing her arm.
“Come around here,” Iri said. She patted the spot just in front of her, and spread her legs so that Sylva could get close. Sylva inched in. “Give me your hand.”
“How much is this about to hurt?”
“Definitely no more than giving yourself stitches will,” Iri said. “Hand.” Sylva reluctantly unclenched her wounded arm and gave it to Iri. “Try to relax.”
“I've never been relaxed in my life,” Sylva said through gritted teeth.
“It'd probably do you a world of good.” Iri raised Sylva's arm up towards the top of her head. With her height advantage, it was fairly easy, even if they were both sitting. Sylva's shoulder popped back into place, and the pain immediately lessened, even though her arm felt extremely weird.
“Thanks,” Sylva said, carefully lowering her arm and rubbing her shoulder.
“Stitches,” Sylva said. “Legs first.”
“I have a deeper cut there. Goes all the way down to the fat. How about you? Let me see.”
“I'll do my legs myself, thanks,” Iri said, and scooted her feet towards herself so that her knees curled up to her chest.
“You can do my shoulders.”
“Do you even know how to do stitches?”
“Basic ones, yes,” Iri said. “And you'd need me to do your shoulders either way.”
“But why wouldn't you let me just do them both? I've had a ton of practice,” Sylva's doctoring experience was coming in handy, for exactly once.
“I don't want you poking around down there.”
“Fuck, Iri,” Sylva rolled her eyes. “Just because you're not into women doesn't mean-”
“That's not what I'm saying,” Iri said. “Drop it, okay? I'll do my own.”
“Fine. Whatever. But if you fuck it up that's your own issue.” Sylva went through the first aid kit, now much easier with both hands available for the task. She found a glowstick in there, and cracked it so that they could see. It cast a watery light that was barely enough to do anything by, but it would have to be enough. There were prepackaged kits available with needles and surgical thread already done up, as well as a small bottle of alcohol and wipes to clean wounds. She handed Iri one of the needle sets and some of the wipes. “Legs first, so we don't rip out our shoulder stitches when we're doing each other.”
Iri took the offering and put it down next to her. She turned sideways to Sylva and pulled her jumpsuit off with some difficulty, holding onto the side of the raft and lifting to get it off of her hips so that she had access to her thigh cuts. She left it on her feet, and bunched up the material of the rest of it in between her legs. Sylva, out of some respect for Iri's apparent wishes, turned away and also stripped.
She could do her own legs, too, since she trusted her own stitching more than she trusted Iri's. The alcohol stung like bees when she used it to irrigate her wounds, worse than the salty water that had already gotten in there. And it hurt far worse to sew the fleshy part of her legs shut. She didn't know how easy it would be to walk after this. At least the cuts weren't exactly in the space where her legs rubbed together. They were a little more to the front.
When she was done sewing up each side, she looked around again in the medical kit. There was a small tube of surgical glue there. Just as an extra precaution, she smeared that along the edges of her stitches, holding them in place. After all, they probably were going to have to do some walking and swimming. She had no desire to get any extra diseases lurking in there. This wasn't sanitary conditions at all, but it would have to do. It would all just have to do.
And, if she contracted some sort of disease, that was still better than having died from slamming into the ground at supersonic speeds. So she could at least be grateful for that.
She got started on Iri's shoulders next. She would rather have the full range of motion while doing someone else's cuts. Maybe it didn't make sense that Iri, the less experienced stitcher, should be put at a disadvantage when she would have to do Sylva's later, but Sylva would prefer to not fuck up somebody else. And besides, Iri would also be running the risk of having her stitches rip out if she wasn't gentle enough, though with the glue that was less of an issue. Either way, it felt fair enough, and when they had finished, it didn't particularly matter.
Iri was pretty stoic while she was getting hers done, and barely said anything. Sylva, on the other hand, couldn't help from hissing in pain basically every time Iri drove the needle in. It sucked. Majorly. But Iri didn't complain about Sylva's whining, so it was all alright.
They were both bloody messes by time they were finished, but at least they didn't have any holes in them anymore. At least no more than normal. They re-dressed in their torn up and bloody jumpsuits. They hadn't wanted to weigh themselves down with extra clothing as they fled. Whatever.
It was still probably a few hours until sunrise, and the excitement of the whole thing had worn off, leaving a deep lethargy. During this whole time, their little raft had moved about twenty meters away from the crashed shuttle, but overall, it didn't seem like they were drifting anywhere in particular. They should probably have been grateful that the sea was calm, and that they weren't being pulled in every direction by the waves.
“So,” Sylva said. “Do we know which direction the land is?”
“Based on the last glimpse of the map I saw before we crashed, the island we're aiming for is probably roughly ten kilometers east of here. It's pretty big. Can't miss it.”
“We have a compass that works?” There was a compass built in to the plastic of the raft, but Sylva didn't trust it on an alien planet. No idea if there was a magnetic field to speak of here, and if there was, if what Iri was saying would reliably navigate them in the correct direction based on its markings.
“By east I mean in the direction of sunrise.”
“Ah. And which direction is that?”
“I think we've probably gotten turned around, in our confusion. I'd guess that direction,” Iri said, nodding over her shoulder to the left. “But then again, I wouldn't want to go the wrong way and end up further away.”
“So we're stuck here until sunrise?”
“You could also watch which direction the stars are moving.”
“Oh, yeah.” It was nice that the blackout around this star system was mono-directional, like a mirror where one side could be seen through. Not having the stars to look up at would be pretty sad. “Can you row with your arms like this?” Sylva asked.
“I was hoping that you could use the power to scoot us along. It would probably be faster.”
“Fine.” Sylva wasn't even in the mood to argue. She leaned back on the side of the raft and looked up at the stars as they crept slowly across the sky. More accurately, the sky was creeping slowly underneath the stars, but it didn't matter. None of it mattered.
Her whole body hurt, but she tried to ignore it, and just keep her eyes fixed upwards, so she could tell in what direction everything was moving. Rather like meditation, she needed to clear her mind and stay focused at the same time. After a long, long stretch of silence, she was pretty sure of the direction they had to travel in.
“You ready for me to try moving us?” Sylva asked.
“Go for it,” Iri said, though she held on to the side of the life raft in a way that did not inspire confidence in Sylva.
Sylva closed her eyes. If all it took to get more comfortable and familiar with using the power was constantly being put in life or death situations, maybe it was worth the trade-off. She had this clear sense of purpose that made it easier to reach down inside that well in herself and pull the power to the surface. With her hands on the textured surface of the life raft, she used the power to gently tug them forward.
Two things went wrong. Her tug was less gentle than expected, and the sudden burst of speed sent her falling backwards, breaking her concentration. The second thing that happened was that the instant she used the power, she felt the eyes of that mind on her, the one that she had encountered far far out in space.
“Fuck,” Sylva said, sitting up and rubbing the back of her head where it had hit the bottom of the raft. She wasn't hurt any more than she already was, but the textured rubbery surface of the raft had pulled her hair unpleasantly.
“What was that?” Iri asked, more tired than judgmental.
“I felt it again,” Sylva said. “Whoever was out in space. They're definitely here.”
“On this planet.”
“I thought you said you only found them before because you, how'd you describe it, touched them? What are they doing here?”
That was a good question. “No clue. Let me try again and see if they're still around.” Sylva found it hard to believe that they wouldn't be.
Focusing on the power was more difficult, now that she had something distracting her. She kept anticipating that electric tingle of touching another mind, and that prevented her from actually reaching out. It was rather like the feeling of not wanting to touch doorknobs in winter, for the perpetual fear of getting shocked by the static.
“Got anything?” Iri asked.
“Not yet,” Sylva said.
“At least get us moving forward while you're doing this. We can't sit in the middle of the ocean forever.”
“I'll try.” If that mind wanted to seek her out because she was using the power, that mind was welcome to do so. Or, if it wasn't welcome, Sylva at least couldn't stop it, so it was functionally the same thing. Perhaps she should have felt nervous about it. After all, she was on a strange world where she knew nothing, and this was a mysterious person who was both far more powerful than she was, and aware of her presence.
Sylva nudged the boat forward again, and it scooted obediently across the surface of the water. She was careful to keep their speed in check, so she didn't fall over this time. And again, that mind found hers. The contact sent shivers down her spine. There was a feeling there, like something was trying to be communicated, but Sylva had never been good at this mind to mind contact. She couldn't understand what she was receiving, just that she was being seen.
“I feel it,” she whispered to Iri, trying not to break her own concentration.
Sylva probed outward with her own power, momentarily abandoning pushing the boat forward. She was shocked to discover that their raft kept moving, bouncing along over the tops of the waves.
“Iri,” Sylva said, voice shaking with nervousness.
“I'm not the one moving the boat,” Sylva said, grabbing onto the side.
“Can you stop it?” Iri asked.
That was a thought. Sylva reached out with the power again and fought against the forward tug on the boat, hauling it backwards. There was a momentary tension between the two minds, and the other one released it. The life raft stopped dead in the water, and resumed its own gentle bobbing.
“That was terrifying,” Sylva said.
“You stopped it, though,” Iri said. “Good job.”
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” It hadn't been as difficult as she would have expected. Either the mind she was fighting against didn't mind stopping its inscrutable machinations, or Sylva was more powerful than she had thought. It was probably the first one, but it had been surprisingly easy to use the power in that moment. Perhaps it was once again something that felt like a dire threat urging her onward.
“On the plus side,” Iri said.
“How can there be a plus side?”
“If you'd let me finish I'd explain,” Iri said. “As I was saying. If whoever is out there wanted to hurt us, they already would have. Clearly they can.”
“It's harder to touch someone--”
“You're not thinking outside the box enough,” Iri said. “How easy would it be for them to simply deflate our raft and leave us to drown?”
“We wouldn't necessarily drown. I can swim.”
“Alright. How easy would it be for them to move the water around us and suck us under?”
That was something to consider. “Don't make me paranoid that that's going to happen at any second,” Sylva said.
“If it was going to happen, it already would have,” Iri said. “Maybe we can consider this person, whoever they are, as a potential ally.”
“Against the Bellringer?”
“In finding Yan.”
“What do you mean?”
“There's two, three, people on this planet we know have the power. You, that mind, and Yan.” That was operating under the assumption that Yan was both alive and not drugged out of her mind to suppress the power. “That mind already reached out to you, the second you used thee power. I wouldn't be surprised if they reach out to every sensitive who comes here.”
“What if they're the one who kidnapped Yan in the first place.”
Iri scratched her chin, face ghoulish when lit underneath by the glowstick that sat in the bottom of the boat. “Seems slightly unlikely to me,” Iri said. “But even if they are, then at least we'd be heading in the right direction.”
“Why do you think it's unlikely?”
“They're the one holding up the dark shield, right?”
“That seems like a defensive rather than an offensive strategy. Even if,” Iri choked slightly.
“Even if what?”
Sylva frowned. “You think that this person does have a reason to kidnap Yan?” Iri nodded. “Is it a personal reason?”
Sylva didn't love playing twenty questions, but she was going to get answers out of Iri eventually. “They never released a ransom, did they? Whoever actually did kidnap her.”
“No, they didn't.”
“So they wanted her for some reason other than money. And they never sent threats or anything.”
“None that I'm aware of,” Iri said. “But if I was First Sandreas, and I received some sort or exchange for Yan, I wouldn't make it public.”
“Sure. But he would do it. Give them what they wanted. And you'd probably hear about it through the grapevine.”
“What makes you so sure that he would? The Empire isn't in the business of negotiating with... anyone.” The pause was telling.
“The relationship that an apprentice is supposed to have with their teacher is... It's hard to explain. I think that my mentor would do anything for me, or for any of her previous apprentices.”
“But she let you go out here and risk your life?” Iri asked.
“She probably knew she couldn't stop me. I mean, I'm an adult. It's not exactly a parent-child thing. But...” Sylva paused to think about it. “If I were First Sandreas... I know he's had a lot of attempts on his life, right?”
“I think the only people I would trust would be the people I could share my deepest being with, who I'd be responsible for passing on all my knowledge to. That and the person I love,” Sylva said.
Iri scratched her chin. “I'm not sure if Yan has that type of relationship with First Sandreas,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You say your mentor shares her whole being with you?”
“So how often did you... You know, do your weird mind thing.”
“Constantly,” Sylva groaned. “I hated it. But Brache, she said it was the best way to get me to learn anything, if she could show me first hand.”
“And you felt like that was an important part of your apprenticeship, right? Like it wouldn't be the same without it?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I never once saw Yan and First Sandreas do that. It probably happened at least once or twice, but...”
Sylva was actually so shocked that she leaned back against the side of the boat. She didn't have an articulate response to that revelation. “Fuck. Yan must have hated that. She-- there's nothing she likes more than meditating with other people.”
“She did with Sid, sometimes,” Iri said. “They were very close.”
“No, but.” Sylva was finding it hard to explain what the apprentice relationship was supposed to be. “It's vital.”
“I don't understand the whole thing you all have going on,” Iri said dismissively. “But we need to get moving. Can you get us going again?”
Sylva sighed, then turned back towards the front of the little raft. “Only if that other mind doesn't try to grab us.”
She put her hands on the side and sent her power out. She was careful, this time. When she felt the touch of the other mind, she very firmly pushed their raft in the direction that she wanted to go, not the direction that that mind wanted to bring them. The mind still lurked out there, very aware of her, tingling on the surface of her brain, but there was no direct attempt at interference right at this second.
“It's not bothering me,” Sylva said. “It's still there, but it's just watching now.”
They sailed in silence for a while. Sylva found that there was a maximum speed she could drag the raft along at, before the jolting of it over the top of the water became too much and its surface began to catch and drag and wobble disconcertingly. So they weren't going very fast, but at least they were going.
Sylva found the monotonous task of dragging the boat along got easier the longer she did it, and she was able to split her attention between that and thinking once again about Yan's apprenticeship and its rather strange nature.
“So you're saying that Yan and First Sandreas weren't close?”
“No, they weren't. Sandreas is not a very open person, except with Halen.”
“Did they spend a lot of time together?”
“Some. A mix of personal and professional, but mostly professional, time.” Iri sighed. “I think that, maybe this is just speculation on my part, but Sandreas doesn't have a clue how to be a good mentor, because he didn't have the best relationship with his own.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh, just some of the way that Halen talks about Sandreas's predecessor.”
“You talk to Halen a lot?”
“We're friends. He tells me things that he thinks might be relevant. He's pretty protective of Yan.”
“Do they have a good relationship?”
“Hah. Depends on what you mean by good.”
“I don't know. Do they talk? Do they like eachother? I feel like I don't know anything about this side of Yan's life, and I want to know more. I'm curious, I guess.”
“Yan hated him at first, but she came around a bit after the whole pirate incident. I think Halen coached Sandreas on what to say. He ghostwrites all his correspondence to them, you know.”
“Iri, I'm not going to lie, the more you say about First Sandreas, the more I want to slap him.”
“That is a hilarious mental image.”
“Do you doubt my ability to slap the leader of the Empire?”
“I'm picturing it now. We get Yan back, and of course First Sandreas wants to meet the person who rescued her. And he goes to shake your hand, and you just whack him upside the head.”
“But seriously, Sylva, it's not like he didn't, doesn't, care. I think he's just really shitty at expressing it.”
Sylva leaned over the side of the boat, resting her elbows on its rough surface, careful not to tug too hard on her shoulder stitches. “Do you know how Yan felt about the whole thing? Her apprenticeship, I mean? She didn't like to talk about it with me that much. My fault. I got angry and told her to quit, and I don't think she wanted to tell me anything that was supposed to be a secret.”
Iri was silent for a moment. “She liked a lot of it. She found the work interesting, at least most of it, and she looked up to First Sandreas, and she and Halen found they had a lot of things in common, and she was good friends with Sid, less so with Kino, and I think she liked having me around... Those were the good parts. Everything else? I don't know.”
They were both just rambling, talking about Yan. Iri stared up at the sky, and Sylva looked out ahead into the darkness that surrounded them, the light from the stars doing little to illuminate the waves. This planet had no moon, which made the night much darker than it ever was on Emerri, which had two.
“The only things I know about First Sandreas come from personal observation, and from what Halen or Yan says to me. Those are two different pictures,” Iri said after a long pause in the conversation. “Even though I was Yan's minder, I wasn't really privy to a lot of their private moments. So maybe I have a skewed view. But... Halen told me about what happened when Kino went missing for a couple hours.”
“Kino went missing? When?” Sylva disregarded what Iri was trying to communicate, some sort of emotional message about Sandreas's emotional connection with his apprentices, and seized on the piece of factual information that she hadn't known about before. She was curious about the other two apprentices. From what she knew of them at the Academy, they were both weird, and she really see why they had been chosen along with Yan.
“She and Sandreas were on a trip.”
Iri choked a little again. “Nowhere you'd be familiar with.”
“It was right before they went to Jenjin,” Iri said. “Yes.”
“Was it a station?”
“Another planet, then.”
“Like this one?”
“In some ways.”
“What ship did they take there?”
“A Fleet ship. The Telescope, I believe.”
“How come I'm allowed to play this guessing game with you?”
“I think if you get too close to it I'll have to stop,” Iri admitted. “You'll know when that happens.”
“Okay. Do Fleet ships go to that planet a lot? Is it some place that's being terraformed?”
“Depends on what you mean by terraformed,” Iri said, voice a little strange.
“I don't know. What does terraforming usually entail?”
“Usually? Fixing the atmosphere; introducing microbial, plant, and animal life; adding water a lot of the time... There's lots of steps.”
“So were the Fleet ships doing any of that?”
“What were they doing, then?”
“You ever considered joining the Fleet, Sylva?”
“Only in the way that a ton of Academy graduates end up there. I wasn't really the exploration driven type, though.”
“You dodged a bullet.” Clearly this was Iri indicating that Sylva could ask no more questions along this line without running into difficulty. Sylva gave up and went back to the earlier topic of conversation.
“So when Kino went missing, on this mystery planet, what did Halen have to say about that?”
“Sandreas went and searched for her himself. Apparently he was fairly distraught.”
“He found her, obviously.”
“No, Halen did.”
“But they won't go looking for Yan?”
“There's a bit of a difference between two sensitives searching a small section of a planet they're already on and the leader of the Empire going personally on a quest to find his missing apprentice across the galaxy.”
“When I talked to Sid,” Sylva said, “when he first told me the news, it sounded like there wasn't going to be a search at all.”
“There's three apprentices, but only one of them will eventually succeed First Sandreas,” Iri said. “Something has to happen to the other two.”
And that was the end of that conversation. Sylva stared morosely off into the distance and pulled the raft forward. There quite obviously was a search, and a fairly thorough one, but Iri was right that it seemed to be the fate of apprentices to die, or at least become indisposed. Had that been true of the previous rulers as well?
They didn't see land until the sun came up, peeking over the horizon and blinding Sylva. The dark line of land rose ever so slightly above the crests of the waves. She tugged the boat forward with renewed vigor, even though she was exhausted from a night of using the power nonstop. At least with such a simple task, it was easy enough to do with mild distractions, and simple enough to pick back up if she was disturbed. Throughout the night she had felt that other mind watching her, checking in occasionally, though making no overt moves to interfere. Sylva, perhaps unjustifiably, felt that if she fell asleep, that other mind would try to pull them along again. But soon they would be on land.
In those first smudges of cloudy sunlight, it was possible to see that the island they were approaching was inhabited primarily on one side. The left, or “northern” side of the island sloped gently down to a beachhead, and when she squinted, Sylva could see squat little buildings built on the grassy bluffs that rose back up towards the central hill of the island. It wasn't quite a mountain, but it may have been, once. The other side of the island was as though the hill had been sawn in half, and short cliffs of rock crumbled into the sea. Off in the very distance, Sylva could see white sails dotting out along the ocean, leaving the side of the island that they couldn't see and heading out to do their business: fishing or travel.
This presented a slight problem. Sylva and Iri were not in any position to be encountered by the inhabitants of this planet, but their raft was a vivid orange against the clear blue of the ocean, and with the sun up, the other boats could see them just as easily as they were seen. Furthermore, they needed to get onto land, which would be a challenge in and of itself. They could land on the beach, but that would expose them to the full sight of the buildings up on the bluffs, or they could try to sail around the cliffs to find some more sheltered cove. If Sylva hadn't been in moderately bad shape, and both of them bruised and stitched up, it would have been only “difficult” to climb the cliffs (they weren't very high, and the staggered way in which they broke would provide plenty of footholds), but it was rather out of the question in the shape they were in.
Sylva shook Iri awake gently, and stopped pulling the boat for a second. Iri positively sparkled in the sunlight, both of them covered in dry salt from their dip in the water. Her hair was crunchy with it when she sat up and ran her hands through it.
“Careful you don't get that in your eyes,” Sylva said.
“Yeah. We there yet?” Iri yawned, which revealed just how cracked her lips were.
“Close. Not sure where best to bring us in. There's houses up there,” Sylva pointed. “We could try the other side of the island?”
“Circle us around. Maybe there's a cove or something.”
So Sylva changed the direction she was pulling the boat, and swung them out around the cliffs, keeping a good distance away from the land still. She was worried about the high-visibility nature of their raft, but no boats stopped in their course and came towards them, which was good.
As they sailed around the cliffs, they did give way eventually to a newer, much rockier beach, where big boulders littered the ground among gravelly rocks. If they landed there, they would have to do some scrambling to get up onto the more solid ground, but it was as good of a place as any, and Sylva was already having to fight the battering waves to keep their boat away from that area. It wasn't a surprise that no boats docked here, and that there weren't any buildings. It would have been a fairly unpleasant area for doing any real work, though had she been a child, Sylva would have loved to climb the rocks and scavenge in the tide pools. Now Sylva brought her raft in, and it scraped on the rocks as they got close. She and Iri both hopped out and dragged it up onto what could be considered a shore.
They looked around themselves, staring out over the ocean and up onto the rocks behind them, which rose first into scrubby grass and then into bushes and finally trees. This place was teeming with life, like a fully realized colony. Birds dashed through the sky, and tiny specks of shrimp swam in the salty tide pools, along with see grasses and lichens and all manner of other things. The air was warm and clean and the day was bright. It was enough to lift both of their spirits, as the wind tousled their hair.
But they couldn't stand and contemplate the natural beauty of this world forever. They hauled the raft further ashore and weighed it down with loose rocks they gathered from the shoreline, hiding it in a dip between two of the larger cracked rocks. With any luck, no one would see it, and it would still be there should they need it. Sylva pulled the plug to let the air out of it, and the raft wheezed and deflated. They took their bags and scrambled up the hillside towards the center of the island.
The grass was scratchy, and their torn, salty, and bloody clothes didn't make things easy.
“We need to get new clothes,” Sylva said.
“Let's hope these people hang their laundry outside,” Iri said. They were going to resort to theft immediately, but it couldn't be helped.
Before the treeline, there was a beaten dirt path. Sylva and Iri followed it. They kept a close ear out for people or cars coming down the road, but there were no sounds other than the birds and the rustling of the morning wind. It was a several kilometer walk around the outside of the island to where they had seen houses, and by time they came within sight of them, Sylva's feet were complaining as much of the rest of her was. She wasn't used to walking in full gravity; ships tended to run their rings light. As they came closer, they hid themselves among the trees, seeing the backs of houses and trying to avoid detection by the occasional person who peered out of a window or tended a garden.
The people here didn't seem to have many unifying physical features; their skins and hair were in the full range of shades, if tending towards the darker end of the spectrum due to the sunny climate. They were of different heights, and Sylva saw both men, women, and children out doing household tasks. Most of them were wearing loose fitting tunics that hit at about the knee, some tied at the waist with ribbon, others with a row of beads at the bottom that made a pleasant clacking as the wearer walked. Everyone seemed to be wearing soft cloth shoes, which made Sylva wince to look at them, considering the tender state of her own feet.
Snatches of conversation floated across the wind. They were speaking a language that Sylva didn't know. From what she heard, it had a similar cadence to a few of the languages of the Empire, but she didn't recognize any of the words.
They crept along through the trees until they did find a house where no one was around, with laundry hanging out to dry in the back. Tunics were strung up on a line from a window to a tree branch, flapping in the wind. They had probably been out overnight, since it was still a little early to be hanging up laundry.
The houses were all of similar construction in shape: round, windowed, short. Some of them had a wall or several made out of the local stone, while others were more of a wood or clay construction. While the building materials appeared rather primitive to her eyes, there were solar panels along the clay tile roofs of the houses. So this place was not completely devoid of technology, for all that they used sailboats and had no satellites in orbit. Not technology-afraid separatists, then.
“Ready to use the power again?” Iri whispered to Sylva as they crouched in the bushes.
Sylva nodded. It took her a solid half minute of concentration, but she was eventually able to get two tunics in her grasp. She tugged them loose from the clips holding them to the wire, trying to make it look like a particularly strong gust of wind had grabbed them, should anyone be watching. They flew through the air and into the bushes. Sylva and Iri waited a minute to see if anyone noticed before they went and retrieved them. With their ill-gotten clothing in hand, they headed into the forest, stripped off their filthy jumpsuits, and dressed in their new outfits. They didn't fit, but since everything was of a very loose wear anyway, Sylva doubted anyone on this planet would notice. At least they were less blood-soaked now.
“Now what?” Sylva asked. She had a plan percolating in her head, but she wasn't sure if she actually wanted to follow through on it. They were deep into the wooded area, and they sat, leaning against two trees. Sylva stroked the roughly-woven fabric of her yellow tunic. She had tried to pick the plainest ones, so that there would be fewer identifying features, and if they were seen people would be less likely to peg them as clothes thieves.
“There's a long list of things that we probably should do,” Iri said. “First would be getting some food and water.”
In all the work that she had been doing, Sylva had been more concerned with how tired she was than how hungry and thirsty she was, but they hadn't eaten since before they crashed the shuttle, which had been many hours ago.
“Plenty of gardens we can steal from,” Sylva said. She felt only slightly guilty about this. “I meant after that.”
“What was it that your mentor taught you, before you left?” That was a non sequitur, but it wasn't surprising that Iri was curious now. After all, Sylva's apprenticeship was in linguistics, and they were on a planet where they did not speak the language. Iri was, of course, right to be suspicious.
“She taught me how to steal knowledge out of someone's brain.”
“I thought you said you couldn't do that.”
“Not... memories, exactly. Language,” Sylva said, frowning. “I don't want to do it.”
“It's painful for all involved. And immoral, probably. And I don't even think I could.”
“What, you've done everything else with the power I've asked of you. Don't see why this would be different.”
“It's way more complicated,” Sylva said. “Way harder. I mean you aren't even supposed to use the power to touch other people.”
“That's never stopped anyone particularly dedicated.”
“Yeah, but it'd probably stop me. I don't think you really get it,” Sylva said. She looked at Iri, who seemed as relaxed as she could be against the tree. She had gotten to sleep, after all, where Sylva had been awake since the nap she had taken aboard the shuttle. Plus Sylva had already been doing a lot more work during that time.
“I don't, but there's no harm in trying.”
“There definitely, definitely is,” Sylva said. “Worst case scenario, I could destroy someone's brain completely.”
“That's not going to happen. I feel like that would take a lot more effort.”
“Even in the best case scenario, we'd have to kidnap someone ourselves, and invade their brain, and I'm not kidding when I say it hurts, and then they'd know about us, and...”
“Sylva, do you want to find Yan or not? Because if you're refusing to do this, that's you refusing to take the most direct route to getting information. If we can't talk to people on this planet, we can't learn things.” Iri stared her down. “Let me know what you decide. I want to see what Yan's life is worth to you.”
“Fuck you,” Sylva said. She ripped up a clump of grass and threw it at Iri. It wasn't a very effective projectile, and lessened the impact of her words significantly. They glared at each other in silence.
“I'm waiting for an answer.”
Sylva didn't speak for a long moment, frowning deeply. She would have usually been twisting her hair, but it hurt just a little too much to raise her arms for that to be a useful coping mechanism. “I don't think I physically can.”
“But you'll try?” Iri asked, still staring directly at her.
Reluctantly, Sylva nodded.
“I assume after that, we steal a boat and get off this island so that no one attacks us for what we did to our victim.”
“Please don't talk like that,” Sylva said.
“Let's not be anything other than blunt.”
“Do you even know how to sail?”
“You know how to push a boat around.”
“And where are we going to go?” That was the question of the hour.
“The way I see it, we have two choices,” Iri began. “First, we could go to the major population center. There might be, I don't know, a library or something where we could look at news articles. I assume that this planet has news articles. If Yan is a high profile political prisoner, which she might be, that could give us a clue.”
“And the other choice? Keeping in mind that I'm not actually sure I'll be able to learn how to read. It wasn't really clear when my mentor showed me,” Sylva said, trailing off.
“Not that I particularly like the idea, but we could go towards that other mind.”
“That's what it wants.”
“And that makes me nervous. There's nothing good that can come of a person that powerful having their eyes on you,” Iri said. “But they haven't outright tried to harm us.”
“I get the feeling that as soon as we're in another boat, they'll be pulling us along again.”
“So it'll be very, very easy for us to get there,” Iri agreed. “And if I know Yan...”
“If she managed to escape, and that mind had its eyes on her, she probably would have gone towards it like a beacon.”
That made sense. Yan was always seeking out a connection. Perhaps she would have judged that as safer than the alternative of being alone on this planet. Who knows how strongly that mind had called to her? Perhaps Sylva's barely functioning sense of the power had muted her connection to that mind. She had been getting better, but really only at the practical, surface level power applications. Everything else was up in the air.
She was about to find out just how much better she had gotten. The thought put goosebumps all up and down her spine.
“Maybe,” Sylva said. “Can we split up, or is that too dangerous?”
“I want to sleep, and you can go get us food.”
Iri chewed on her chapped lower lip for a second, thinking about it. “Let's go deeper into this forest area, and yes, I can go find us something to eat.”
It was late afternoon before they were ready to enact their terrible plot. Sylva and Iri staked out a position on the side of the road, a good distance away from the houses. They had been watching people walk up and down the road, and they were waiting until the conditions were just right. They were hoping that down the road would come a man, hopefully scrawny enough that Iri could take him in her weakened state, walking alone, and without much... stuff. There were a couple people who had come by dragging carts full of supplies, or walking in pairs, or riding on little electric vehicles, but none had yet matched quite the right criteria. They wanted someone who wouldn't be missed if he went missing for a few hours. It was hard to tell exactly what that type of person would be like, but they were going to do their best.
Sylva was a little further up the road than Iri was, so that she could give Iri advanced warning. She heard someone coming. People on this planet walked pretty quietly, with their soft shoes on the dirt path, but this one was whistling a jaunty tune. Whoever the person was kept getting confused midway through the tune and looping back to start it again, ending in a different place each time. As the person came into view, Sylva could see that he was a man, tall but skinny, alone, and only carrying a bag. She flashed Iri the hand signal that they had set up and waited.
She saw Iri silently tense in the bushes. As soon as the man walked by, going past her by a few feet, Iri sprang up and grabbed him, her arms around his face to stop him from screaming. He thrashed to get away from her, and they both went down to the dirt road, hard. Iri wrestled with him for a second, but got her legs and arms firmly in place around his body. They were both covered in dirt and grime, and Iri was frowning.
Sylva rushed over. They had some rope, more like a thin cord, that had originally belonged to their liferaft, and they used that to tie him up. Sylva did most of the tying while Iri made sure he couldn't escape, despite his struggling.
They hauled him off the road and into the forest. Sylva carried his feet and Iri hoisted him under his armpits. He didn't make it easy on them.
He wasn't a bad looking man. He had curly brown hair and chestnut eyes, with a sharp nose and slightly crooked teeth. His teeth were in plain view because they had jammed a piece of torn up fabric from Sylva's discarded jumpsuit in his mouth. His nostrils flared wildly as he struggled to get enough air, wiggling to try to escape their grip.
They brought him back to the clearing and sat him upright against a tree. For good measure, Iri tied him to that as well.
“Now what?” Iri asked.
“I guess you make sure that no one finds us, and I'll just...” She trailed off. She didn't want to do this. Every fiber of her being was screaming out to her that she both couldn't and shouldn't, but she was going to anyway. Commitment actions. That was what she had done, like the captain of the Bellringer deciding to jump the ship in. She had committed to this path, probably a long time ago, and she would have to follow it through.
The man looked back and forth between them, panic evident in his face. It only got worse when Sylva crouched down in front of him and sat heavily backwards onto the ground.
“Sorry in advance,” Sylva said, trying to sound calming and apologetic. “This is going to suck. But if it's any consolation, it'll probably be just as bad for me as it is for you.”
She leaned forward and put her hands on his face, thumbs on his cheeks, the rest of her fingers splayed out towards his ears. His hair was soft and fine. He flinched back away from her, but there was nowhere for his head to go except into the bark of the tree behind him.
“Sorry again,” Sylva said, and reached for the power.
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].