The God of the Gaps
“And so the Red King’s palace was empty. No footsteps walked the halls, and no voices sounded save the voices of the dead which the Red King had forced to sing with the wind. Soon, even those stones crumbled to dust, and there was nothing but silence.”
-from ‘Fourth Song: Reign of the Red King’
With none of his apprentices around, Aymon's life fell back into the pattern it had held for years before he took them on. Though it was simple enough to resume his physical routines, he caught himself waiting at his desk some mornings, anticipating the moment when they would walk through the door. He sometimes turned half around as he walked, thinking that he had caught a glimpse of Kino's ghostly presence. He would be in a meeting and realize that this was a perfect task to assign to Sid, and almost begin composing a memo to that effect.
But Sid wasn't there, and neither was Kino. Yan was long gone, of course. She was so far gone that the hope and pain had both begun to fade, though not in equal measure.
In his suite, leaning on Halen's shoulder, a glass of wine half-drunk in hand, Aymon asked, “How long until they get back?”
“You ask me that every night and the answer doesn't change,” Halen said. “It's like you miss them or something.”
“Remind me to never send them anywhere again.”
“I tried.” Halen stroked the top of Aymon's head and Aymon closed his eyes.
“Remind me that you're always right, next time.”
Halen laughed a little. “They'll be back soon enough, and they'll start driving you crazy until you send them away again.”
“Can't live with them, can't live without them,” Aymon said.
“You're surviving just fine.”
“You flatter me.”
So Aymon stayed busy, not that he had any particular choice in the matter. He tried to put both the calendar and his apprentices out of his mind. He had enough to deal with, with the Guild, the upcoming council elections, and the daily business of running the Empire. He couldn't waste thought and energy on something happening far beyond his reach and his control.
Many days later, Aymon was woken in the middle of the night with a phone call. This had happened to him countless times over the years, and every time he felt as though he had been dislodged from time, into a quasi-dreamlike place. Anything could come drifting hazily down to him through the phone's connection.
He fumbled for it in the dim bedroom, the screen lighting up blindingly.
“Sandreas. What is it?” he asked as soon as he had the phone to his ear.
“The Impulse has jumped back in, sir,” an aide said.
Aymon sat up immediately. “What's their status?”
“We called you as soon as we saw her, so we haven't received their data package yet.”
“How long will that be?”
“Probably about twenty minutes, sir.”
“Can I meet them at the top of the elevator?”
“I'll prepare a flight.”
“Good. I'll be ready immediately. Call me back as soon as there's more information.” Aymon hung up, got out of bed, and got ready to go. He put his phone on speaker and called Halen, who picked up immediately.
“I'm already ready,” Halen said.
“You're better than I am,” Aymon said, splashing water on his face in the bathroom.
“Shall I meet you at the door?”
“I'll be ready in two minutes.”
“See you there.”
Aymon felt vaguely grimy from sleeping as he was ushered down to the lot underneath Stonecourt, where he met Halen and got in a car. Inside, an aide explained the situation. The data transfer had finally come through.
“Who's onboard the Impulse?” Aymon asked, strapping himself in as the car drove out of the underground lot, speeding with its escort towards the airfield. “Where's the Gatekeeper?”
“It's nothing but good news, sir,” the aide said. “Mejia and BarCarran are both aboard the Impulse.”
Aymon's heart thudded in his chest wildly. “Yan's alive? Yan's here?”
“Where's Sid?” Halen asked quietly.
“Welslak transferred to the Gatekeeper and remained behind.”
Halen's arm brushed Aymon's. “I'm going to kill that kid,” Halen sent through the power. Aymon ignored him.
“What's Yan's status?”
“She's mostly in good health. There's a report that Maedes compiled that goes through what happened to her, to the best of her knowledge. Do you prefer the summary or do you want to read it?”
“I'll read it.”
“It's been sent to you.”
After a short and bumpy drive, they transferred from the car to the plane, meeting up with a suite of journalists who accompanied Aymon whenever he traveled.
Once they were in the air, he read through the details of what had happened to Yan. He felt himself grow cold and hot and cold again.
He was sick, reading over what had happened. All through it, he couldn't help thinking how lucky they had been, how much worse it could have been if even one thing had gone wrong. The sections that relied on Yan's testimony of what had happened to her were jumbled and vague. Clearly she hadn't wanted to go into details, but the physical section of the report, detailing how much weight she had lost and the way the bones in her neck had been fused together, that spoke enough.
Aymon could understand why Sid stayed behind.
The flight was long, and the elevator ride to the top was longer. They would arrive just in time for the Impulse to make the final jump in, and that gave Aymon plenty of time to think over exactly what he was going to say when he saw his apprentices, two of them at least, again.
The note that had been included in the data package about Kino's misbehavior, courtesy of Captain Wen, was spared barely a thought. His focus was all on Yan.
Halen stared out the window, just as pensive as Aymon was. He wanted to ask what he was thinking, but they were too in public now. Even standing close enough to touch was perhaps too much, so their silent conversation was limited to the occasional glance, and the one way communication of Aymon's feelings leaking out into the air.
He had a quiet conversation with some of his advisers. How would this be publicized? What would be the overall strategy moving forward? He needed to get in contact with Fleet command and make strategic choices, send help to the Gatekeeper. It was all happening so quickly, and yet not quickly enough, as the elevator rose up higher and higher above the planet, the curve of the atmosphere coming into view, the tug of gravity slowly lessening.
The Impulse was already there when they reached the top, but everyone had stayed on board to await the elevator that would take them down to the surface. The vast majority of the crew would be disembarking, but the doors hadn't opened yet.
Aymon saw out the windows the two ships currently docked to the station: the Impulse, and the far smaller First Star. Against all logic and reason, he wanted to take the First Star out to where Yan had been found. He wanted to go there himself and--
The doors opened.
The distance between himself and the figure silhouetted against the light spilling out from the Impulse's docking tube seemed insurmountable. There was no gravity here holding him to the ground. Aymon pushed off the floor and went towards her.
He knew people with cameras were watching him, but that footage could be reviewed and edited later. For now, he had one goal, to bring his apprentice home again.
“Yan,” he said. “God, Yan.”
He hugged her, and all the pain of the past several months retreated into a dark corner of his heart. She was stiff for a second, then reciprocated the hug, wrapping her arms around him. His hand found its way to the back of her neck, where he felt the scars that had been described to him in such dry and clear language. He pulled back to look at her, sliding his hands down her shoulders and arms to grab her hands, dry and warm.
He didn't know if he should be smiling or crying, and only part of that was due to the need to make a good impression on the cameras.
Yan's face had a thin, weak smile, and her eyes flicked all around before settling for looking at Aymon. He squeezed her hands.
“I don't have words to say how much I've missed you, and how glad I am to have you back,” he said, low enough that only she could hear.
“I didn't know if I would ever get here,” Yan said, even more quietly. “It doesn't feel real.”
“It is, I promise it is,” Aymon said. He stared at her for a long second, and she submitted to the examination. He tried to send her reassurance through the power, but it was if there was a thick, rough edge between them. Pressing on it made his own power feel tender, like a half-healed bruise. It was disconcerting, to say the least.“We shouldn't stay here. There's a shuttle to take us down.”
“Okay,” Yan said. She sounded slightly relieved, maybe to get out of the public eye. Aymon's mind was already working overtime, wondering how he would be able to spin this to the public. She seemed fragile. Maybe that was to be expected.
“I have a bit of business to attend to with Captain Wen. Will you be alright for a minute?”
“Yes,” Yan said. This was all very fast and abrupt, but a more private conversation would be better had aboard the shuttle anyway.
Aymon jerked his head at one of his aides, and Yan was immediately surrounded and shuffled off towards a more private area of the station, where emergency space-to-ground shuttles sat parked in a bay. They had taken the elevator up to more easily accommodate the journalists who followed him, but back down they would have the luxury of landing a shuttle at an airfield, and a private journey. There were a few comforts like that that he allowed himself, even if he was a public figure. The public wanted to have their eyes upon him, but this was one moment he could keep private.
That left the remainder of the people to deal with. Kino was standing, lurking, really, near the exit. Aymon stared her down, and she pushed off the wall and came over to him. “Welcome home, Kino.”
“Thank you,” Kino said.
“I understand that I have reason to be angry with you.” Kino just stared at him, making no response. Her hands were in her pockets, so he couldn't even see if she was engaging in one of her perpetual nervous habits.
“I'm sure that's something to be dealt with later,” Aymon said, abandoning any thought of disciplining her right now. This wasn't the time. “Do you know who should be coming down in the shuttle with us?” He wasn't familiar with the makeup of Yan's rescue party, and if there were any medical personnel who had been taking particular care of her.
“Maedes, Calor, Cesper,” Kino said, pointing at the three people. Maedes, Aymon knew very well. The other two he only vaguely recognized. Calor was wearing a Fleet uniform, though stripped of all insignia, so she must be the girlfriend, the unlikely rescuer. Cesper he realized was the same man who he had thanked for saving Sid.
“Great. Get them all to the shuttle. I need to talk to Captain Wen. Is he still onboard?”
“Yes.” A tiny, almost imperceptible expression of distaste crossed Kino's face. Aymon would have perhaps laughed about it with Halen later, if the situation had been different. Now, Kino's petty troubles were far less important than anything else, and he wanted to get it all over with as quickly as possible. He nodded to Halen, who got the message and followed Kino away as Aymon headed into the Impulse.
He didn't have to go far to find Captain Wen. He was ushered directly to him, in his private office on the Impuse. Aymon was very glad to have the pull of gravity from the spinning rings under his feet again.
He shook hands with the captain, putting a smile on his face and keeping his impatience to leave firmly tamped down.
“Welcome home, Captain,” Aymon said.
“Thank you,” Wen said. “Although we're back about as fast as one could have expected, I'm sure my crew wishes they had been home a moth ago.”
“I thank the whole Impulse's crew for their dedication, and for hosting my apprentices. I'd say that I'm glad they didn't give you any trouble, but I've heard that's not the case.”
“It wasn't so much trouble,” Wen said. “It was unpleasant, however.”
“I will make sure that Kino is dealt with appropriately,” Aymon said.
“I'm sure you will.”
“How were Sid and Yan?”
“Apprentice Welslak was fine. A little to eager, perhaps. Rough around the edges, but he made a good impression on several members of my crew.”
“I'm glad to hear it.”
“Yes. And BarCarran, well, I appreciate the effort she puts in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I won't keep you from her for long, so you'll see it yourself in a minute,” Wen said. “But you can tell when she has a mask up. She's not hiding the fact that she's hiding something. I appreciate the effort to hold it together.”
“Are you saying you think she's broken?”
“I would not overstep my bounds to say that. I'm a starship captain, not a psychologist.”
“But I'm sure in your days as a captain, you've had to assess the competency of your crew. Do you think she's... going to be able to continue?”
“Oh, I have no doubt that she will do what needs to be done. That's what I'm saying. Her personal problems, if you can even call it that, she puts them aside when she puts her professional face on. It's when that professional face is not on, that's when I'd be worried about her.”
“Did you spend a lot of time with her?”
“Some. She enjoyed being on the bridge, I believe. It was a long trip, so I saw her fairly often. As long as we avoided conversation topics that she found unpleasant, she was perfectly able to hold up her end of things.”
“Oh, if I started talking about pirates she would leave the room. I tried not to discuss current events after that.”
“You'll see for yourself. Don't let this come off as me saying that I have a low opinion of her. I think she is a very strong woman, stronger than most other people would be if they had been in her situation.”
“Did you read the report that Maedes put together?”
“That confusing little thing, yes.”
Aymon nodded. “Are you staying with the Impulse, or are you going planetside?”
“I'll be taking her and a skeleton crew in to the repair station, and then we'll be hitching a ride out.”
Aymon clapped Wen's shoulder. “I'll see you when you get back to Emerri. I'd like to discuss what you think of that planet.”
“I'll try to get my thoughts in order before then,” Wen said with a smile. “Though we weren't involved in much of the engagement.”
“You know more than anybody else who's in contact range.”
“The Gatekeeper will have an ansible up soon. Baczynski is a competent woman.”
“I pray that they do. I'll be sending reinforcements, just in case,” Aymon said.
“I didn't for a second think otherwise. One ship alone is a liability.”
“And I'm not in the mood to lose any more apprentices.”
“Better not let them go anywhere else, then.”
“Trust me, I won't.”
“I won't keep you from your happy reunion. It was good seeing you, First Sandreas.”
“And you as well,” Aymon said. He departed the way that he came.
When he returned to the shuttle, he found Halen inspecting the outside of it, trailed by Cesper. When the door closed to the bay, they looked up at the sound. Halen smiled slightly, and Cesper looked nervous. Aymon let himself into the shuttle, where the rest of their little group were already buckled in.
The shuttle was the standard layout. The pilot and co-pilot would sit up front, and behind them, separated behind a barrier, were several rows of seats, each of which could pivot independently, depending on the user's preference for acceleration direction. Yan was in the middle row, sandwiched between Calor and Maedes. Kino was in the back, though she wasn't buckled in, and instead was leaning forward to talk to Yan. She straightened up and sat back when Aymon entered. Cesper and Halen followed him in. Without speaking, Aymon sat in the front row, and turned his seat around so that he could talk to his apprentices and guests behind him. Halen took the seat next to him, and Cesper squeezed down through the rows to sit next to Kino.
The pilots went through their pre-flight checks.
“Shouldn't be long before we're home now,” Aymon said, smiling at Yan. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Yan said.
Halen's leg brushed Aymon's. “Not fine,” Halen said through the power. That was obvious, considering Wen's comment about masks, but it was nice to have confirmation.
“I should thank both of you,” Aymon looked between Calor and Maedes. “You have both done me an invaluable service.”
“For the second time,” Halen said, looking at Maedes.
“Yes, twice over,” Aymon said. He remembered briefly the moment in which Maedes had saved his life, an assassination attempt that she had prevented by being in the right place, at the right time, and paying attention to the right person.
The engines of the shuttle whined to life.
“I don't believe we've had the pleasure of meeting before,” Aymon said to Calor. He reached out his hand to shake. Calor looked at him and hesitated for a moment, then shook his hand. Aymon didn't miss the subtle kick that Yan gave to her girlfriend and rescuer.
“Sylva Calor,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
“You don't sound overly enthusiastic,” Aymon said with a smile. He meant it to be charming, but perhaps she took it the wrong way.
“Sorry, I'm just thinking about something dumb I said to Iri, ages ago.”
Maedes barely concealed a smirk, hiding her mouth behind her hand. Yan simply looked confused.
Calor blushed hotly, visible even in the dim light of the shuttle. Underneath her twined braids, her ears were a bright red. “It wasn't complimentary. I won't repeat it.”
She reminded him a little bit of Sid, in the way that she ran her mouth, but she at least had the good grace to look ashamed. Aymon laughed. “You don't have to worry. This is about as informal of a gathering as we can manage, and I owe you a debt, besides.”
Calor nodded. “I hope you won't take offense to me saying that I didn't go find Yan for your sake.”
“None whatsoever.” Aymon leaned back in his seat, tilting his head to the ceiling. “God must have looked favorably on you, for you to find success.” He heard a minuscule sigh, and looked at Yan, who was staring dead eyed at the wall behind him. “Are you alright, Yan?”
“Everybody asks me that,” she said. “I'm fine.”
Calor scrunched up her face, clearly aware that it was a lie and willing to bring other people's attention to it.
“God is a somewhat fraught topic,” Iri said mildly.
“Really?” Aymon asked. Yan had always been the most devout of his apprentices, it was shocking to him that that had changed.
“Where was God when I was in prison?” Yan asked. She looked directly at Aymon. “I didn't hear God's voice.” Strangely, her eyes flicked over to Halen as she said that second half of her statement.
“You don't believe it was God's will that you should escape?”
Her voice was quiet when she responded. “I don't know why I was able to escape. I've thought about it a lot and I still don't understand.”
“Maybe that gap in your understanding is where God is.”
Yan frowned, clearly not liking that explanation. “I'll probably keep thinking about it for the rest of my life.”
“That's only natural. I won't press you on it,” Aymon said.
The whole shuttle vibrated as the engines fired, and Aymon was forced forward against his seatbelt as they accelerated out of the station's bays. There weren't any windows, so they couldn't see the station and its docked ships receded, or the brilliant glimmering line of the elevator, or the planet far below. He could imagine it, though.
“The one thing that we need to decide on,” Aymon said, “is what to say about who took you in the first place.”
“It has to be pirates, right?” Iri asked. She half turned to look at Yan, even though they were both pressed back into their seats with the acceleration. Aymon struggled to keep his head upright, and not drop his chin to his chest.
“The easiest option would be to blame the Bellringer,” Aymon said.
“Please don't,” Yan said. “I've done enough to them already.”
The reports that had come back aboard the Impulse had not exactly been clear about what the intended future for the disabled Bellringer was. She would probably be destroyed eventually, along with her crew, but from the way that the events were described, she was not a priority. The prisoners taken by the Impulse could be the only survivors, at this point, though there was no way of knowing without an ansible.
“Very well. Do you have any objection to saying that you were kidnapped for the bounty money? We can make up a ship, if you'd like.”
“Fine.” Yan closed her eyes.
He wanted to be sensitive to what she wanted, what she needed, but he had to keep pushing on with the business of running the Empire, and that would require blaming someone. “And you two, I don't think it would be in the best interests of anyone to go through your whole story. Do you want credit? We can work you into the official narrative if you do.”
“I don't care,” Calor said.
“I don't want a big event,” Yan said abruptly. “I'll talk to the press, but I don't want anything fancy.”
“That's fine,” Aymon said. “Any particular reason for that?”
Yan's eyes were still closed. “This was the worst period of my life,” she said slowly. “I'm very grateful to everyone who helped me get out of it. But if I have to attend anything that celebrates it, I'll be unable to cope. I'm not telling you this to sound stupid, or whiny, I'm telling you the truth so that you can avoid a bad image.”
“I understand,” Aymon said. “Captain Wen mentioned that you have your limits.”
“I'm capable of being professional,” Yan said. There was an unspoken 'and nothing more'.
“I don't doubt that.”
“Thank you,” Yan said.
The acceleration of the shuttle increased, and Aymon was forced to turn his chair around. He felt vaguely dissatisfied by the whole conversation. He knew that he was not particularly close with any of his apprentices, and that was his failing. But he felt like he was doing wrong by Yan in her grief, and he didn't know how to connect with her. He would have to ask Halen.
But Halen was busy composing a plan for how to go about re-introducing Yan to the world, the aforementioned press talk, the sure to be carefully constructed information packet that they would release, and who would take the blame and the credit. It would have to wait until they got home, home, home.
The rest of the day passed in a blur for Aymon, not least because he had barely gotten any sleep the night previous, and had spent most of the day traveling. He trusted that his staff would take care of all of his guests, find them housing and keep them out of the public eye until they were ready to do so.
Aymon spent some time with Fleet leadership at Stonecourt, discussing which ships were available to go aid the Gatekeeper, and what the plans should be. There was wonder if personnel and equipment should be reassigned from Tyx III to go to this new planet, but the conditions on each world were apparently so different that it might not be feasible. He was slightly concerned that if they began waging a battle without the proper supply lines in place, they could end up costing themselves more in the long run in money, time, and people, but they didn't have much of a choice. The Gatekeeper had already engaged the planet. They were committed.
So he didn't even make it back to his suite until late that night, after everything he had to deal with, and he certainly hadn't had time to meet back up with Yan. He sent her a message to come see him tomorrow morning, along with Kino. It was time to slip back into their routines.
One other routine of his was relaxing with Halen for a little while before he went to bed. If he didn't have this time to talk, truly without barriers or inhibitions, he wouldn't be able to function.
Halen seemed distracted this evening, with his phone out, typing messages and giving orders to keep the whole situation running behind the scenes. Aymon paced back and forth in front of him as he sat on the couch. Perhaps he was lying to himself when he said this was relaxing.
“What did you think of Yan?” Aymon asked.
“She's doing better than I expected,” Halen said, tucking his phone into his pants pocket. “I'd like to have a better chance to talk to her.”
“Please do,” Aymon said. “You were closer with her than I was able to be.”
“You should make an effort. She's your apprentice, not mine. She needs you more than she needs me.”
“I don't know how.”
“Step one is having a private conversation with her, where you're not worried about how you'll be observed by everyone else. Step two is just talking to her like you talk to me.”
“I know you're right, but that's easier said than done.”
“I'll talk to her,” Halen said. “But you need to, too. I'll tell her you want to have a private conversation. All you need to do is give her the time.”
“What if I say something wrong?”
“You sound like you're asking for first date advice.”
“I'm not a therapist,” Aymon said, unintentionally rephrasing what Wen had said earlier. “I don't know what to tread around.”
“The idea is that you shouldn't have to tread around things,” Halen said, shaking his head. “You'll figure it out. You have to. You figured it out with Sid.”
“Sid is easy to deal with.”
Halen made a noncommittal noise. “Speaking of Sid,” he said.
“Are you trying to think of a way to punish him for staying out there?”
“I'll leave that up to you,” Halen said. “He sent you a message, though.”
“Catch.” Halen pulled a data stick out of his pocket and tossed it to Aymon, who deftly caught it.
“Where did this come from?”
“That lieutenant. Cesper.”
“And it wasn't in the data dump because...?”
Aymon sighed and plugged the stick into his phone, pulling up the one file on it. He read the letter and frowned.
“Did you already read this?”
“And what do you think?”
“I don't know,” Halen said. “The secrecy is a bit over the top, but Kino's been a black box to me from day one. Maybe it's time we both started making more of an effort with her.”
Aymon sighed. “He's right. Probably overreacting, but right that I should take her to see the Emperor.”
“If you take her, you'll need to take Yan as well.”
Aymon rubbed his chin. “I don't really want to put her through that.”
“I think she deserves to know, after all she's been through. I know you think of the Emperor as a punishment, but don't tell her that.”
“You think she'll like the Emperor?” Aymon asked.
“You read the report. She entered a group mind, at least somewhat willingly, and stayed there until she was drugged out of it. She probably has at least the possibility of liking the Emperor.”
Goosebumps rose on Aymon's arms. He hated the Emperor, for a variety of reasons. Maybe hate was too strong of a word, but he certainly feared the Emperor. Any sane person would. Especially for Aymon, the Emperor seemed like the inevitable end of a road, and when he came to that point, he would lose himself completely.
“You think she's going to be my successor?”
“She's proven herself more than the other two have. But maybe I'm being biased,” Halen said. “We'll just have to wait and see.”
“I'll take them to see the Emperor in a couple days,” Aymon said reluctantly.
“And you'll talk to Yan privately.”
“And I'll talk to Yan,” Aymon agreed. “Is everything set up for tomorrow?”
“Yes. We're keeping it low key. I had someone pick out a journalist we can trust to be-”
“Considerate,” Halen said. “Anyway, one reporter, one camera, shouldn't be too overwhelming.”
“Will she have anyone else with her? I don't want to feel too much like an insect in the magnifying glass.”
“Calor is obviously out,” Halen said. “Since she's being included in the official story only as a passing note.”
“And I don't trust her not to run her mouth.”
“What about Maedes?”
“I've been mulling over the implications of that,” Halen said.
Aymon thought about it for a second. “How much was Maedes connected to Yan's original kidnapping?”
“People could connect those dots if they looked closely,” Halen said. “And I'm a little concerned that if Maedes is in the room, the attention will be more focused on the how of the rescue, which we don't want too much.”
“Could we put in that lieutenant?”
“I can ask him. I don't know how well he and Yan know each other, though.”
“You know what, maybe you can be in the room. Not on camera, but make sure that the whole thing runs smoothly.”
“Fine.” Halen pulled out his phone and made a note.
“And you are scheduled to give your own remarks to the full press later as well.”
Aymon ran his hand through his hair. “Of course I am.”
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].