All Of Us Pirates Would Have Been Martyrs, Part III
“My love will be with me forever, my love will be with me today, my love and I will be together, until my dying day.”
-from a variation on a traditional spacer song
Sylva had insisted on staying with Yan, not that it took much insisting from either of them. Yan felt just as much a guest in her own apartment as Sylva did, considering that she had been gone for so long, and it had never really felt like home in the first place. It was nice to reacquaint herself with all the objects that were scattered around, touching them like they would anchor her there. There was her project from the end of her days at the Academy; the fake fish still swam around as though nothing in the world had ever happened or would ever happen. There was the prayer book that her family had given her as a gift, all wrapped up in bad memories and sitting placidly on her desk. There was the fancy outfit she had worn to the Governors' Dinner; there were her Iron Dreams uniforms hung nicely in the closet; there was her computer; her phone; and, locked away in the secret room behind her closet, her gun and all of the Empire's secrets. She closed the door on that room rather emphatically.
Iri had gone home to her own family, though they didn't live far away, so she would be back in the morning, but that left just Yan and Sylva. All of the conversation, all of the processing, everything that they could do had already been done on their long trip back home, so they spent the evening wondering about the future and distracting themselves by watching the most innocuous movies that Yan could find.
Even then, after doing everything she could to keep her mind off of things, it wasn't a surprise when Yan woke in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, heart racing. She climbed out of bed, leaving Sylva asleep, and took a shower. She didn't remember what she had been dreaming about, which she was grateful for. She got dressed and sat on the couch in the living room, having drawn back the blinds to look out over the city.
Everything felt familiar but distant, like it was a photograph of something she new, hung behind a wall of glass. She had missed all of the Emerri winter, and the days were turning into spring again, so she didn't have to wait very long before the sun began to first brighten the sky, then the tips of the buildings. She sat there and watched the slow process, keeping her mind as free from thoughts as she could make it. Was it meditation? Maybe.
When the sun was well and truly up, and she heard Sylva begin to stir and shuffle around in the bedroom, Yan made some coffee, grateful that her past self had left some grounds in the freezer (though she had cleaned out the fridge in anticipation of her trip) and that no one had gotten rid of all her stuff. Again, she was struck by the oddness of handling this innocuous object that belonged only to her past self. She cut off her own thoughts and dumped the grounds into the coffee maker.
Sylva shuffled out of the bedroom, yawning, as the smell began to travel through the apartment.
“Morning,” Yan said.
“It sure is. How long have you been up?”
Yan shrugged. “Couple hours.”
“It's okay,” Yan said. “I'm probably going to go out in a minute. Just wanted to wait until you were up.”
This perked Sylva up considerably. “What? Where are you going?”
“Stonecourt. And just a walk in general,” Yan said.
“Want me to come?”
“Nah. I'm going to go meet with Sandreas.”
Sylva frowned a little. “You sure?”
“I'll be fine.” Yan poured herself a cup of coffee, realized there was no creamer and dumped in extra sugar to compensate. She winced when she sipped it; it was too sweet, too bitter, and too hot. She drank it anyway, and offered the rest of the pot to Sylva, who declined with raised eyebrow, as if shocked that Yan could even tolerate drinking that.
She didn't tell Sylva that her meeting with Sandreas was not for at least another hour or so, but Sylva didn't need to know that. “Do you have any plans for the day?” she asked Sylva.
Sylva ran her hand down her face, stretching out her lips and rolling her eyes in an overly dramatic gesture. “I guess I should call my family. And my mentor.”
“Yeah, you definitely should do that,” Yan said. She herself had composed a long letter to her family while aboard the Impulse, and it had been sent out as soon as they were in ansible range. When the Dreams would receive it, only time would tell. Yan didn't know what route they were currently travelling.
Yan slipped her shoes on her feet. They felt odd after the borrowed Fleet set and the cloth shoes that she had worn for so long. It would take some getting used to.
“You're going already?”
Sylva frowned, but didn't move to stop her. “Call me if you need me, okay?”
“I will. I probably won't be gone all day. There's only so much Sandreas I can handle right now.”
“Hah. Good luck then.”
Outside, the weather was warm and inviting, somewhat humid, as it had rained at some point in the night before Yan woke. It was nothing like the weather on the Mother's planet; there was no hot salty breeze, the sun wasn't beating down, but it was outdoors, which was more than Yan could have said for the long trip aboard the Impulse. It was the conflicting spacer desire for being planetside and being starbound rising up within her, but she accepted it.
She noticed that as she left the building, one of the plainclothes security people who monitored the building peeled off and followed her. It was so much like that morning when she had first encountered Iri that Yan almost laughed. She ignored the trail and took the long route to Stonecourt.
She went in the back entrance, passing through security without paying much attention, and old, old memory took her towards Sandreas's office. His secretary, Mrs. Rosario, met her at the door.
“Yan, it's so good to see you again,” Rosario said.
“Thanks, it's good to see you too,” Yan said awkwardly. “It's been a long time.”
“I'm sure we can get you caught up on everything. Do you want your schedule for the day?”
Yan's stomach dropped, but she smiled. “Yes, thank you.”
“I'll send it to your phone. You're a bit early. Is Kino coming?”
“I think she'll be around later, but I didn't talk to her.”
“Alright. And your friend, Ms. Calor, is she all set?”
“Girlfriend,” Yan corrected. “And yeah, she's fine. She's just in my apartment.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Rosario said with a smile. “Does she need travel arrangements made?”
“I think she'll be staying with me for a while,” Yan said.
Rosario nodded. “Did you come to see First Sandreas? He should be here in a few minutes.”
“I'll let you in, then.” She unlocked the door to Sandreas's office and Yan went inside, shutting the door behind her.
It was much the same as Yan remembered. The pictures on the walls had perhaps been swapped out, but the overall atmosphere was the same. Still very clean. She paced around the side of the room for a minute, but found herself behind Sandreas's desk.
It felt a little subversive, like she wasn't supposed to be doing it, but she sat down in Sandreas's chair for a moment, gazing out across the room from that perspective. Of course, that was the moment when Sandreas chose to walk in. Yan caught a glimpse of Halen, who didn't enter the office.
Yan scrambled to her feet. Sandreas just smiled, shutting the door behind himself. “Imagining you're in my place?” he asked.
Yan felt her cheeks grow hot. “No.”
“It's alright. What brings you here so early?”
“I couldn't sleep,” Yan said. “So I've been up for a while.”
“Understandable. Come here.” Sandreas gestured to the couch and Yan sat down. He took a seat across from her, and leaned forward. He had an odd, earnest look on his face that Yan didn't think she had ever seen before.
“I've been told, in no uncertain terms, that I need to have a talk with you,” Sandreas said.
“Do you have any particular feelings about that?”
“Halen told you to talk to me?”
Sandreas smiled. “Who else?”
“Could have been Kino. Or Iri.”
“No, it was Halen.” Privately, Yan thought she would have much rather been having this talk with Halen. Halen was someone she needed to process her complicated feelings around. Her feelings towards Sandreas were relatively simple in comparison.
“What do you want to talk about?” Yan asked.
“I'm not sure. I assumed it would come naturally.”
Yan did not know why he had assumed that. “I don't know if we've ever had a real conversation,” Yan said.
“I do recall you ran out of the room the first time we ever talked,” Sandreas said with a smile.
“Did I ever apologize for that?”
“It's alright. Clearly I didn't mind.”
“I don't know how you could still think I was ready to be your successor after all that.”
“Ready? You weren't ready. But from what I saw of you, I thought you could become ready.”
“Do you still think that?”
Sandreas leaned back. “I do.”
“I think you've proven yourself a hundred times over.”
Yan stared at him, unsure of what he was referring to. “Breaking out of prison and killing pirates aren't exactly things that a leader needs to be able to do,” Yan said.
“You've constantly proven your ability to keep a calm head and make decisions during crisis, you've shown that you can maintain a professional appearance, you've kept the peace between Kino and Sid, and talked at least Sid down from his most destructive urges. And all the time I've known you you've been conscientious and thoughtful. You've gone through what was probably your worst nightmare, and you've come out the other side still whole. I deeply admire that about you, Yan.” He ticked off each of those points as though it were a well rehearsed speech. It probably was,
This was high praise coming from Sandreas, especially since Yan hadn't even known what he thought of her at all before now. His praise was a warm feeling in her chest. “Thank you,” she said.
“I think you're far stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
“I have my limits,” Yan said.
Sandreas scratched his chin. “Perhaps.”
“Do you think that you could become my successor?” Sandreas asked. “You were thinking about it, weren't you?”
“I don't know what to think about it,” Yan said.
“Can I be honest?”
“This is our open and honest conversation. Say whatever you need to say.”
“The thought of it scares me. I can't really imagine myself as you. I mean, you've always seemed, I don't know, in control.”
“That is the goal.”
“And part of me feels out of control.”
“The nice thing about being a public figure is your internal feelings don't matter nearly so much as your actions, and how you look on the camera.”
“But that's the thing. You've always just been a person on the camera. Even now, it's...” Yan trailed off.
“I'm sorry that we never got to really connect, before all this. I want to be a better mentor to you, and to Kino and Sid.”
“You're a fine mentor,” Yan said, her instinct always to deflect.
Sandreas shook his head. “You're very sweet, but you just admitted that you hardly feel like you know me.”
“But I respect you. And I respect the way you want to teach us, and the way you want to do things,” Yan said, unexpectedly earnest herself. She hadn't realized how much she wanted to defend Sandreas from himself, as though his own criticism of how he handled her apprenticeship somehow was her fault.
“I respected my mentor, too,” Sandreas said. “That doesn't mean that now, with the benefit of years of hindsight, I didn't wish there were so many things she had done differently. I don't want you to have to look back on your time with me as something that you wish I had done better.”
“I wouldn't think that.”
“I'm not immune to criticism, Yan,” Sandreas said with a small smile.
“I didn't say you were. I just-- I don't know what I would change.”
“Give it some thought, alright? I want to be here for you, but I don't know what you need.”
“I don't want to need things.”
“You're human. Having needs doesn't make you weak.”
Yan was silent for a long moment. “But you were just saying, about how it would look on camera.”
Sandreas raised his eyebrows. “You think that I don't have needs?”
Yan looked down at her lap. “I don't know. I'm sorry, I'm being stupid.”
“You're not. Look, we're in private. Anything you say to me, it's not going anywhere. Whatever you need, I can provide.”
The things that Yan needed, or wanted, were not things that Sandreas could give.
“Maybe this is an exercise in vulnerability for us both,” Sandreas continued.
Yan looked him in the eye. “I don't want to be vulnerable anymore.”
“There's a difference between being powerless and being intentionally vulnerable with someone you trust,” Sandreas said. “I understand if you don't want that, though.”
“I like to be open,” Yan said. “It's not communicating with you that's the problem.”
“You were in a group mind, right?” This question was somewhat out of the blue.
“Yes,” Yan said warily.
“What was it like?” Sandreas seemed curious, and not attacking. There was something else on the edge of his voice, though, that made Yan take the question very seriously.
“I don't really remember. The memories all got the feeling taken out of them.”
“The group mind, we called ourselves the Mother, kicked me out and took away all the thoughts that were in my head.”
“I must have liked it,” Yan said, looking distantly across the room. “It tore me up to leave. The power, I mean.”
“So you don't harbor any ill feelings towards it?”
Yan sighed. “It's all a mess,” she said. “I don't know how I'm supposed to feel.”
“You aren't required to have a specific feeling towards it.”
“I ask because... I think it's time that you and Kino meet the Emperor, who has a rather overwhelming mental presence. Do you feel up to that?”
“I'll do what I have to do,” Yan said, though her mouth was in a tight line.
“You have permission to say no,” Sandreas said.
“I'll see the Emperor. Sid has, so I should.”
“Great,” Sandreas said. He looked relieved, but his voice sounded strained. Yan decided not to question it. “And will you be alright with your interview later? I assume you read your schedule that Mrs. Rosario gave you.”
“I asked Halen to be in the room with you, off camera, to make sure things stay copacetic.”
“Thank him. But also, thank you for being so willing to go through all of this,” Sandreas said.
“I just want things to get back to normal,” Yan said, though that wasn't exactly what she wanted. “I might as well do all of this so that it's over and done with.”
“That is an attitude that will keep you moving forward,” Sandreas said.
“Can I ask an unrelated question?” Yan asked.
“Are you mad at Kino?”
Now it was Sandreas's turn to sigh. “To be honest, you've been preoccupying more of my thoughts. I should talk to her.”
“I don't even know what the problem is about. Everyone refuses to talk to me about it.”
Sandreas raised an eyebrow at that.
“I don't want to be babied,” Yan said. “Whatever she did, I can handle it.”
“I really don't think it's that big of a deal,” Sandreas said. “God only knows the number of times I did the opposite of what my own master wanted. It's a political thing, and in the end, no harm, no foul.”
“Alright,” Yan said. “I'll tell her to calm down.”
“She and Sid are clearly both prone to overreaction. I'm glad to have your more level head prevailing once again.”
The door swung open, and Yan turned to see who it was. It was Kino, led in by Halen. “Well, speak God's name, God will listen,” Sandreas said. “Good morning, Kino.”
And from there, the conversation moved on to the schedule for the day.
Someone put makeup on Yan's face, which was intended to make her look less sweaty under the camera lights, but it only made her feel worse. She couldn't turn her head to get away from the glare, so she kept seeing in the corner of her eye, the harsh glare of the light. The interviewer sat at about forty-five degrees from her, and Halen was in the shadows behind the camera.
She was neat, and presentable, but she was realizing exactly how little she wanted to be answering questions about her time in captivity. At least this wasn't being broadcast live. If she broke down, there would be someone to edit it all out and back into some semblance of normalcy. But she wasn't going to do that.
She just had to be like Sandreas. It didn't matter what she felt, it only mattered how she appeared. The questions were all going to be easy. They had to be, in order to stay believably true to the lie that had been constructed.
Someone behind the camera asked for confirmation that both Yan and the interviewer were ready. Yan smiled thinly at the camera. A red light, like an ominous eye, lit up. The camera swiveled to focus just on the interviewer, a pretty woman in her forties, wearing a professional blue dress.
“Good evening. This is Falia Marse with Emerri Direct News, reporting from the Imperial center directly across the Empire. The past few days on Emerri have been full of celebration, because First Sandreas's missing apprentice, Yan BarCarran, has been rescued after over three months. She joins us here tonight for an exclusive interview, and her first public appearance since she returned home to Emerri aboard the Fleet ship Impulse.
“Welcome, Apprentice BarCarran, and thank you for the chance to talk to you.”
“Thank you, Ms. Marse,” Yan said, trying to smile as the camera turned towards her. She imagined that the twisting lens had zoomed out to put both of them in the frame at once, so she resisted the urge to lean towards the interviewer. They had set her up in the way that was best, she was sure.
“First of all, Apprentice, let me just extend the well wishes of the citizens of Emerri, and all the Empire, for your return. You were very dearly missed during your absence.”
“Thank you,” Yan said again, sounding rather dumb. “I had no idea.”
“People had been clamoring to see more of you before you left, and when you vanished it was a real blow. We're glad to have you back.”
“I'm glad to be back.”
“I'm sure you are. I know that your family are spacers-- you come from the ship the Iron Dreams, correct?”
“Yes, that's right.”
“Do they know you're back yet? Have you been in contact with them?”
“I sent them a letter, but I'm not sure when they'll be in ansible range next. I'm sure it won't be too long, though. Spacers are rarely more than a ten-day from port.”
“That's true. Are you excited to see them again?”
“Of course. Though they really shouldn't, I suspect that they'll redirect themselves to make a stop at Emerri station. It's a bit out of their way, usually.”
Marse laughed. “Practical considerations are probably less important than seeing their missing family member again.”
Yan, for all that she loved her family, didn't know how she was going to handle seeing them when they eventually did show up, so she just smiled.
“Aside from reconnecting with your family, do you have any future plans, now that you're back?”
“I plan to get right back into the swing of things,” Yan said. “I feel like I've missed so much, and now I'm behind.”
“Is there anything in particular you're going to focus on?”
“I don't know,” Yan said. “As always, I serve at the will of First Sandreas. Whatever he sends me to do, I will do my best to accomplish.”
“That's an admirable attitude to have. I understand that you went through quite an ordeal-- most people would take some time off.”
“I feel best when I'm working,” Yan said. This was not in the script, but she didn't think it would hurt. “I had plenty of time to dwell on things when I was gone, so I'd like to move forward with my life.”
“Of course. You were gone for a long time. Are you willing to describe any of it to us?”
“Sure. I don't think I'll be capable of going into too much detail, though, because I was kept drugged, most of the time.”
“Was that to prevent your escape?”
“Yes,” Yan said. “For anyone who doesn't know, strong drugs can disrupt a sensitive's ability to focus, and thus their ability to use the power. I might have easily escaped if I was able to use the power, but I was not.”
“Thank you for explaining that. I know the world of sensitives is a bit of a mystery to most people.”
“We're really not so different,” Yan said. “But I'm getting off track. While I was aboard the Tranquility, my food was drugged by several collaborators aboard the ship, including someone on the bridge crew. That was how I was kidnapped originally.”
“But the pirates didn't hassle the Tranquility itself,” Marse said.
“If I had to guess, I'd imagine that the deal the collaborators worked out involved leaving their own ship alone.”
“I'm surprised that there is enough honor among pirates to keep that deal, when a defenseless ship and stardrive is right there.”
Yan shrugged. “I can't explain it. Perhaps they thought I was more valuable than a stardrive.”
“And what was their original intention for you?”
“I think originally they were going to sell me to another group of pirates who had a bounty on my head,” Yan said. “But then they hesitated because they thought they might be able to get a higher price from someone else.”
“I don't know. They clearly weren't successful.” Yan tried to put a bit of humor into her voice. The thought of her being bought and sold was a distasteful one, but since all this was a lie, it didn't hit too close to home.
“So when you were kidnapped, where were you kept?”
“In solitary confinement, underground. It was an abandoned mining colony.”
“It would have been hard to escape, then.”
“Certainly. The lack of atmosphere outside the prison is a major deterrent from running away.”
“Did you know you were on a mining colony while you were there?”
“I was surrounded by rock, and the temperature never changed, and the gravity was less than I was used to, so I could make some assumptions. I had a lot of time to think about it.”
“What was it like, being alone for so long?”
Yan smiled thinly. Now, this was real. “I don't like to think about it. But there's a reason the Imperial government does not practice solitary confinement for prisoners. It breaks people.”
“You seem remarkably unbroken.”
“I do my best.” Yan tried to signal that this was the end of this line of conversation, below the view of the camera waving her hand to switch topics. The interviewer caught the signal, smiled, and moved on. There was a reason this particular woman had been chosen; she was cooperative and easygoing, as far as journalists went.
“I'm sure you do. As far as the people who captured you, do you know what is going to happen to them?”
“Not all of them were at the station at the time when I was rescued. I believe the Fleet will be tracking down the remainder.” Let the viewership fill in that there were not even bodies left to return.
“Of course. Speaking of the Fleet, did you enjoy your time aboard the Impulse?”
“I was anxious to get home, and so was the Impulse's crew. When the news came, they were on their way home from their deployment.”
“Did that deployment lead to any new planet discoveries? Will we be hearing about suitable new colonies in the future?” Marse smiled.
“I'm afraid I can't tell you that. But you can be assured that we will tell you of any exciting new planets as soon as we can.”
“I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat. Speaking of colonies, your original mission that was interrupted by your kidnapping was to consecrate a new colony....”
Yan half zoned out. The interview was wrapping up, and she answered the last few questions rather mindlessly. She didn't want to think about the lies she was directly telling, or insinuating, and she didn't want to be in front of this camera, wearing thick makeup, feeling dried out by the harsh lights, stared at, fake.
Marse clearly saw her flagging, so wrapped it up. Either that or Halen gave her some signal from the sidelines.
“Thank you so much for your time and the opportunity to talk to you, Apprentice BarCarran.”
“Thank you,” Yan said.
“We are all looking forward to seeing much more from you in the future.”
“I will do my best to not disappoint the people of the Empire,” Yan said, smiling. She sounded stiff, and she knew it, but she needed to get out. She let Marse say her closing statement, then the glaring red eye shut off, and the set lights dimmed.
Yan stood up from her seat a little too abruptly.
“You did a good job, Apprentice BarCarran,” Marse said. “You're a natural.”
“Er, thanks,” Yan said. “I've, uh, got to go.” Her naturalness had broken the moment the camera was no longer on her, and as soon as that need to perform was gone, so was her mask. She felt disgusting, and scanned the room for the exit. She slipped out past the cameras, even as a few people stopped to try to talk to her, and headed out into the much cooler Stonecourt hallway. She found a bathroom, half by memory and half by luck.
Inside, under the much less harsh and much less flattering bathroom lights, she leaned over the sink, staring into the mirror. Sandreas had been right. She only had to show what needed to be shown, and her internal feelings didn't matter. She wet a paper towel and scrubbed the makeup off her face, though she couldn't quite get it all.
It had gone alright, in the end. She hadn't panicked. She hadn't had to leave the room. No questions had tripped her up. The whole thing was more of a reassurance to the public that she was a real person than it was anything else. The press got substantive answers about what had happened from Sandreas and elsewhere. She was just for show.
Outside of the bathroom, people passed by her, disassembling the set and wheeling the cameras back out to where they belonged. Yan spotted Halen, leaning against the wall a little further down, watching her carefully. Yan went over to him.
“Halen?” Yan asked quietly.
He looked toward her. Her hands were bunched up in the pockets of her cassock, and for all she had proven herself capable of, she looked small and vulnerable. He smiled at her.
“What do you need, Yan?” he asked. He had clearly been waiting for her. He must have known how she was feeling. She figured now was as good of a time as ever to start dealing with... All of what was going on. Maybe he felt the same way.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“In private, I mean. If that’s alright?” Halen smiled and nodded.
“Right.” He began to walk down the hall and Yan followed. Even now, the cadence of her footsteps still had something in it from her time being imprisoned. Every sixth step, there was a minute pause, as she had to remember, bodily, that she didn’t have to turn around and go back the other direction.
They walked the halls of Stonecourt, Halen in front and Yan behind. He glanced at her every time they came to a corner or turn. If it was hard for Yan to believe she was back and safe, it must have been harder still for Halen. They descended several floors, heading underground. Yan had rarely had reason to visit this area of Stonecourt, so she followed Halen blindly. At last, they came to a nondescript, unlabeled door in an equally bland hallway. It could have been a storage closet, except for it needing to be opened with Halen’s power. He pushed the door open and held it so that Yan could step through.
“This is where you live?” Yan asked. It was a simple set of rooms: a tiny living room with shabby furniture, a clean kitchen, an open door to a dark bedroom. There were no windows since they were underground, but for both of them born as spacers, that was a non issue.
Halen flipped on the lights. It was dim and cozy inside, and his body seemed to fill up most of the space, as though it was a crab’s shell that was a little too small. Halen walked over to the left hand wall, where a tiny shrine was set up on a high table. Candles and sticks of incense sat behind little partitions of colored glass, arranged around photographs. Yan walked quietly over behind Halen as he used the power to light the candles. To her surprise, among all the photos of people Yan didn’t know, Yan found a picture of herself.
Halen noticed her looking at it as he mouthed a silent prayer. When he finished, he picked up the photo of Yan and looked at it. “Guess I can put this back where it belongs now,” he said.
He brought the photo over to the opposite wall and hung it on a nail. That wall had photos of people Yan did recognize: Sandreas, Sid, Kino, Iri, Kino’s minder Deboan, Sid’s minder Hernan, and various others who she didn’t know by name but had seen around Stonecourt.
“The living and the dead?” Yan asked.
“I like to think of it more as ‘the here and the gone’,” Halen said.
Yan stared at the wall of photos for a moment longer. The way they were arranged, although everyone was in a separate frame, gave the feeling of being a family. Sandreas had the place of honor, of course. His photo was large, centered, and taken in a rare, unguarded moment. Below him were Kino, Yan, and Sid. She realized what a hole had been left, physically, when she had been gone; her photo was in the middle of the other two apprentices.
“I’m glad to be back,” Yan said, reaching out to touch the edge of the picture frame, as though that action would prove that she really was there. Perhaps for the first time, she said that honestly.
Halen put a heavy hand on her shoulder, and the two stood silently for a moment.
“Does Sandreas ever come here?” Yan asked. She didn’t know why she was curious, but she was. The relationship that Sandreas and Halen shared was as enigmatic as it was sweet.
“No. I rarely have guests. I think the last person to come here was…” He thought for a second. “Maedes. More than a year ago, then.”
“Why don’t you have people over? You’re not a slob.” The room was indeed neat and well maintained.
He squeezed her shoulder. “Several reasons. But is this really what you want to be talking about?”
Yan took a deep breath. “No.”
He nudged her over to the couch, and they both sat down. Just like their first private conversation, months and months ago, Halen took up a surprising amount of chair space. Yan didn’t mind anymore. Halen was much more to her than just a pirate. He waited for her to speak. It took a long time; all the thoughts jostled around in Yan’s head without forming words.
Everything was just a meaningless emotional chaos. Halen could probably feel it swirling around the room. She tried to pull her conscious mind away from it, manipulating her own thoughts in the way that had become a strange half-nature to her.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Halen was still next to her: warm, breathing, and real. This wasn’t something she was imagining.
“Can I ask a personal question?” Yan finally said. It wasn’t the way she had imagined this conversation going. This was too formal and distant by far, for someone who had been living in her head through the worst period of her life. But it was the first coherent sentence she could form, so it fell out of her mouth and landed there between them.
“Of course,” Halen said.
“What was it like, when you were trapped on your shuttle?”
“Oh, Yan…” he said softly, and reached his arm around her to pull her close. She let him, not resisting his touch. She didn’t know what that was in response to, exactly. Her mind was so far away from her body, and there was a clear wall up in between what she was consciously processing, and the unrelenting nausea that churned in her stomach and pulsed out in waves with her heartbeat. “I’m sure it was different than what happened to you.”
For some reason, she felt more vulnerable now than she had before. Privacy made her let her guard down a little, perhaps.
“That’s not- I-.” Yan took another deep breath, shuddering a little against Halen’s side. He squeezed her tighter. It could have been restricting, and it could have been comforting, but Yan was doing her best to remove her thoughts from herself.
It took her a moment to get her words in order. “When I was there, in the prison, I mean. I was alone. And I kept imagining that- I know this sounds like I’m crazy- maybe I am. But I just kept picturing myself in that shuttle with you, and you in the prison with me. It helped me.” She couldn’t quite explain how it had allowed her to escape, so she left it there. Halen stayed quiet to let her finish her juddering, broken speech. Compared to her written out and practiced interview lines, she was barely coherent. “And I guess… Part of what I want to know, is just what it was really like. So I know what’s real.”
Halen stayed silent until he judged that she was done talking. His voice sounded thick when he finally did respond. “I’m… glad… it helped you.” There was a long pause. Yan couldn’t look up into his face, but she could hear his breath, and feel the way he held her, and she knew if she reached out in the power that they would understand each other. “Do you want to see it?”
“Please,” Yan whispered. She leaned further sideways, until her upper body was laying across Halen’s broad lap. With one hand, he stroked her hair, just like a mother would, and the other rested on her shoulder. The colored lights from the candles behind their stained glass frames twinkled in Yan’s vision.
Halen started to sing- a simple little spacer song in Old Imperial. He must have been relatively confident that spacers and pirates would both know it. His voice was low and soft. Yan joined in. No harmony; they both just sang the melody.
“Have you seen the one I love
On the highest mountain?
Have you seen the one I love
O’er the widest ocean?
Or has he gone to the farthest star
Where I’ll ne’er see him again?
“My love is strong, my love is hardy
And he has only a heart for me.
But with my trust I let him wander
And he’s gone across the deep.
If my faith in God were stronger,
I’d rejoice all of my days!
For God will hold safe my lover
And forever at his side I’ll stay.”
A momentary, amused thought flashed across Yan’s mind. She remembered one other time she had seen Halen hold someone like this: an unconscious Kino on the floor of the simulation room. Only she wasn’t imagining those bare white walls. She saw instead an endless plain of grainy red dirt, underneath a dark and starry sky, and Kino’s bloody head was in her lap, and, no, she was in Halen’s mind, and they were there together. This memory, Tyx III, dissolved into nothingness, and only thoughts floated together there between them.
This was the first time that Yan had been with anyone since the Mother, and the pain of being separated had dulled somewhat, but she realized anew how much she had missed this connection with other people. She wasn't alone. God! She wasn't alone!
Although they were theoretically equals in this mind space, Yan felt like she was being carried along on the tide of Halen’s emotions. Love, and joy at her return, and a bitter anger at the people who had taken her away in the first place all danced in equal measure along the pathways of their minds.
Her emotions were there, too. She couldn’t compartmentalize them away when Halen’s power of feeling them and understanding them was inside her so vividly. There was the dark, rich trust that allowed them to be there together; fear; sadness; and the same love. As she recognized his feelings and hers, for once having names for the mess of sensations that she felt in her body like bruises, there came more and more: appreciation, happiness, warmth, protectiveness, and on and on, until there was no place where Yan’s feelings ended and Halen’s began. It would have been overwhelming if he hadn’t been the same steady presence right there next to her. They both took a moment to adjust to this new openness before they went anywhere. They had all the time in the world now.
It was a joy that Yan could have never described to anyone else, to be with another person and to be so completely understood and accepted. There had been a worry, deep inside of her, that Halen wouldn’t want her back, after learning about what she had been and done and seen and thought. Halen shoved that fear away with a fierce determination.
There is nothing, he thought, crystallizing it into words, that could make me stop caring about you.
And since lying would have been nearly impossible, Yan had no choice but to believe him. A tear trickled down her cheek, or was it his? She could feel both of their bodies. His hand was on her hair, or her hand on his hair, or her head on his lap, or his head on her lap, and it didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore.
Now that they were slightly more settled, and the nearly overwhelming tide of greeting was over, there was a mutual feeling of assent that they should do what they came to do. Yan wanted to see the shuttle.
Halen brought the memory to the forefront of their minds, and Yan was in his body as a young man. It felt as natural as anything, to be there floating in the gravity-free shuttle. The actual interior of the shuttle settled around them like they were standing behind the shimmering surface of a waterfall. All the detail was there, but if they looked too hard at it, it would slip away. It looked just like how Yan had imagined, and a feeling of amusement came toward her. All shuttles looked basically the same. There were only two or so companies that manufactured them. Of course. She could feel their bodies laugh a little as she realized her foolishness. Of course the shuttle would be similar.
In that dream-memory, they pushed off the wall of the shuttle and went towards, not the stardrive in the back, but the tiny bathroom. They stared in the mirror, and reached up to touch the surface of their face.
It, too, wavered. Yan’s image of the young Halen was mostly accurate, or perhaps she was superimposing that onto the memory. Stubble of a few days beard growth scratched under their fingers, and skin was young and tight, but still splotchy with a permanent red tint that would never leave. They had a haunted, hunted look in their eyes, and a feeling of dread settled over them like a blanket. Starvation, or nausea, pooled in their gut.
I don’t want to die in here.
They left the tiny bathroom, and headed out to the back of the shuttle. The stardrive was there. Of course it would be. It was no shining light, but even here, in this dream-memory, they could feel it in the power. It throbbed hungrily.
They reached out to touch it, the smooth box that contained it. Without warning, the power pulsed through them with a blinding intensity. In that moment, they were sure they were going to die.
The fear crashed down around them like a wave, taking over, carrying them along to places where Yan hadn't wanted to go.
And then they were on a rocky hillside, holding a gun to their own head. The stars shone down a dark light upon them, and the wind whipped through the trees.
Drop it! Drop it now!
They screamed, feeling the pain in their hands, and the gun fell, an endless distance to the ground. A figure stood shrouded in shadow, and reached down to pick it up.
Etta/Aymon held the gun, pointed at them. Their face melted and shifted, the lively half of Etta’s face calling out, the dead side morphing into Aymon’s steely features.
I will help you, Etta/Aymon said. But what will you do to deserve it?
Love you, they said. Survive, they said.
And there was no way to know who was saying what, and none of this was real, and Halen was holding Yan like her mother did, and then they were standing at the window of the Iron Dreams, watching helplessly as their mother sailed heedlessly towards a thousand ton shipping container wildly out of control.
And then they were standing, with their mother’s hands on their face.
He shall not be lost. Keep him in Your sight, as he keeps the stars in his.
Let him always know that he is home in our hearts. Let him always know that we will rejoice at his return.
And they were laying in bed with Aymon, their hand on his cheek, saying those same words, and crying.
They were crying.
They were clutching at Sid for dear life, feeling his thoughts tangled all up with theirs, saying the funeral prayer.
And they were alone, whispering it into the dark, in the light of a shrine, in an empty apartment, to silent photographs.
They picked up a photograph. Yan. Yan’s mother. Aymon. Halen. Halen’s mother. Sid. Sylva. Iri. Kino. Etta. A long list of faces and names. They put the photo on the opposite wall, with all the others like it. They reached out a hand- slender and brown, thick and white. They touched the photograph to reassure themself that they were real.
My love will return from over the mountains.
My love will return from beyond the sea.
My love will carry me to the farthest star.
And forever with him I will be.
Forever at his side I will be.
And then Yan was sitting up, and sobbing into Halen’s chest, getting the fabric of his cassock wet with snot and tears. He clutched her tightly to him, clearly not caring that she was wrecking one of his few formal outfits. His chin nestled on top of her head, and he rocked side to side, gently, until her breathing slowed and they were both completely their own selves again.
“I’m sorry,” Halen said, after Yan had sufficiently calmed down.
“For what?” Yan sniffed.
“I overstepped my boundaries as your teacher. I shouldn’t have let that go so far.” His voice was intentionally restrained.
“It’s my fault,” Yan said. “That happens to me sometimes.” She half laughed, half coughed. “One of the masters at the Academy once told me that my brain is ‘loose and associative.’”
“Regardless, I shouldn’t have made you relive parts of your life you didn’t want to. Or see any of mine, for that matter. You don’t need that kind of a burden.”
“You didn't make me do anything.” She paused, still leaning on his chest, still taking comfort from him where it could be found. “I- I didn’t want that, exactly, but-” The words tumbled out. “We understand each other.”
Halen took a long second to respond. “It doesn’t have to be your job to understand me.” He was building up a barrier between them, drawing the line in the sand where the water would not cross. Yan felt more like a storm surge than the high tide, though, and she insisted on crossing that line.
“I don’t need you to be my teacher,” Yan said slowly. “I don’t… I don’t want to be anything except-” She searched for the right word.
Part of her was clearly screaming out that she wanted Halen to be her parent. She wanted him to hold her and keep her safe. But the more rational, kinder, older side of herself recognized that feeling, allowed herself to mourn for what couldn’t be, and spoke. “I don’t want to be anything except equals. Friends.”
She was tired of dominating and being dominated. If there had ever been a spark of that inside her, she felt that it had gone out. All Yan wanted, and she wanted it more deeply than anything else, was to spend her life with people she could understand and love, who understood and loved her. That had been the appeal of the Mother, though she knew it had required giving up far too much of herself.
“Alright,” Halen said. “Friends.”
She reached out to him in the power, carefully, and felt that warm, tugging current of love just underneath the surface of Halen’s skin. She tried to send that feeling back. He must have understood, because he stroked her head with his gentle and heavy hand.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” Yan asked.
“No.” She waited for him to elaborate. “I think you’ve had a natural response to a trauma that most people can’t even imagine.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
Halen laughed, seemingly despite himself. “That, Yan, is the crazy thing to say.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, exactly. I just- I can’t point to a specific thing that was worse than anybody else has had to endure. It could have been a lot harder.”
“You could have died. You almost died.”
“I think I could have survived more,” she said tentatively.
“You don’t have to punish yourself like that,” Halen said.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to say ‘I could have gone through worse’ and ignore what did happen to you. Just because of some imagined other lifetime was harder, that doesn’t mean that you should suffer more here.” His tone changed and he was fierce again. “I’m glad you didn’t have to survive worse. I wish you hadn’t had to go through it at all.”
“Maybe I deserved it.”
“But I’m not a good person,” Yan said after a moment.
“The question of what any of us deserves is a question that you have to ask God,” Halen said slowly. “But Yan, if we were all going to be punished in this lifetime for the things we’ve done, you’ve already suffered disproportionately.”
Yan sent a questioning feeling through the power.
Halen’s voice was laden with sadness when he spoke again. “If we talk about what we’ve done to deserve the way we’re treated, I’ve done many things that-” He paused. “That hurt other people.”
That was a diplomatic way of phrasing it; not as ‘things I’ve done wrong’ or ‘things I regret’.
“And Aymon, too. But you’ve gone through a personal ordeal that was greater and more dangerous than-”
“But what we went through was the same,” Yan cut in.
“No, it wasn’t.” Halen was firm about this. She let him continue without argument or interruption. “For all that I’ve done, I’ve never been tortured, only ever…”
And Yan could fill in the blank with the unspoken ‘been the torturer’, which she didn’t like to think about or remember about Halen. She tried to keep it out of her mind. Yan felt the echo of an ache in the fingers on her left hand which the Green King had broken, and the memory of the singing pain he had put in her brain.
There was a brief and horrible moment where Yan imagined herself back there, with Halen. He towered over her, and he could feel her terror as he picked up the knife. His power held her down, and she had no recourse, none at all. It could have been worse than the Green King, then.
She must have made some sort of whimper in the back of her throat as the vision seized her, or Halen felt the icy spike of fear that drove like a physical pain through her abdomen. “Shh…” Halen said, still holding her, bringing her back to reality. “It’s over now. It’s alright.”
It was. It was over, and alright, and far away, and never again. And even if it did happen again, she knew that she would survive.
There was a long pause in the conversation as Yan gathered her wits. Then Halen spoke again. “No one will think the worse of you if you don’t want to be Aymon’s apprentice anymore.”
“What?” The statement was so out of the blue that Yan disentangled herself from Halen’s arms and sat up straight.
“You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to,” Halen said. “Everyone would understand.”
Several thoughts lept into Yan’s brain. Was this Halen saying that he thought she should leave? Should she be trying to leave? Where would she go? What would she do? She couldn’t imagine a future for herself that wasn’t this.
“You could go be with your girlfriend,” Halen continued. “I’m sure an Imperial pension could be easily arranged. Or you could go back on your family’s ship. Or, I know you wanted to be a xenobiologist. I’m sure we could find a position for you doing research.”
“Are you sending me away?” Yan finally asked. “Do you not want me here?” Her voice cracked.
“No! God, no, Yan. I’m just trying to help you remember that you have options. No one else will tell you this, I’m sure. I just always want you to know that you have a choice.”
It felt worse to have a choice. If she stayed, there would almost certainly be danger, pain, and hard, hard days. She could walk away from all of that. But if she left, it would feel like an abandonment of everyone here that she cared about, and everything her past self had gone through. She thought about it, weighing those two factors against each other, and made her choice. Yan would always choose to stay where she was understood.
“I want to stay,” she whispered.
Halen smiled. “Some people don’t understand that that’s a choice that you make.” The way he said ‘some people’ clicked a light on in her brain.
“Is sometimes seized by the notion that he’s been keeping me prisoner for the past thirty years.”
Yan laughed, for real this time, even though her throat was still full of phlegm. She scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“He thinks that a choice influenced by the weight of the past isn’t a choice,” Halen said.
“You should tell him that he has the option to retire and quit being Voice.”
“You get it.”
She did. Every moment, they were making the decision to carry along on their present course. They were borne along ceaselessly by the currents of time, but they could each try to swim against it, or step out of the boat and walk across the open water. The weight of those decisions felt like it could crush her, but it wouldn’t.