“How close to the heart should you keep your dear friends? How close to the heart indeed. There’s none who will know you and soothe all your fears like a true friend in your hour of need.”
-from “I Got a Friend (In You)”, traditional song
Yan knocked on Kino's door the next morning. Kino didn't open it, so Yan knocked again, harder.
Pressing her ear to the door, Yan could hear Kino moving around inside. “Kino, we're going to be late,” Yan called. She couldn't believe that she had to be the responsible one in this case, but she was determined to continue to act professional, and that meant arriving to Sandreas's summons on time.
There was a part of her that was strangely excited to meet the Emperor, even if that defied all logic and reason. She felt a deep desire to know, even when that knowing seemed to make Sandreas so uncomfortable, and worry Sid.
After another thirty seconds of shuffling noises coming from inside the room, Yan knocked again for the third time. This time, the door swung open. Yan felt the ghostly touch of Kino's power on it. Kino herself was across the room, her dim apartment far cleaner than Yan had remembered it being. Kino was already dressed, and her hair was braided and tied up on top of her head, an unusual choice, since she usually kept her braids down by her ears.
“What are you waiting for?” Yan asked.
“I'm not waiting. I was getting ready.”
“You already look ready to me.”
Kino clenched and unclenched her fists. Yan noticed that her cassock sleeves were in good repair. She must have been dressing up and abstaining from picking at them in order to make a good impression. “I'm never going to be ready,” Kino said.
“Well, it's not like you have a choice.” Yan stopped, tried to be less abrasive. “Look, Kino, Sandreas doesn't seem that concerned about whatever your little indiscretion was. I somehow doubt the Emperor will do worse to you than he did to Sid.”
“Will you do me a favor?” Kino asked.
“Like what? We have to go, Kino.”
Kino reached into her pocket and pulled out a data stick. She held it out to Yan, who was forced to cross the room to take it from her. Their hands brushed; Kino's was cold and sweaty.
“Give this to my sister. In case.”
“You have a sister?” Yan was somehow more shocked by this revelation than the fact that Kino felt that the visit with the Emperor was going to be this dire.
“Her contact information is on there,” Kino said. Yan looked at the data stick and thrust it into her pocket.
Yan sighed. “If you feel this bad about it, you could probably stay home. Talk to Sandreas. I'll cover for you for now.”
Kino's eyes glinted feverishly in the light that spilled in from the hallway. “There's no sense in putting it off. We shall see what awaits me.”
“At this point, I'm sure it's nothing.” Yan muttered. She turned and headed out back towards the door. When she reached the hall, she turned back around to look at Kino, who was glancing all around her apartment. “So, are you coming?”
Kino jammed her hands deep into her pockets, nodded, and walked out.
She and Kino met Sandreas in his office, and he brought them to see the Emperor without much preamble. They waited together in the richly draped and dark antechamber as Sandreas went in alone, then came back out, somewhat paler than Yan had ever remembered seeing him.
“Yan, the Emperor wants to see you first,” Sandreas said.
Yan stood and approached the door. Before she opened it, she laid her palm flat against it. She could feel the power, heavy in the air. It felt dark and rich and inviting. She pictured a flat lake, surface of the water glassy under the moonlight, and she opened the door and stepped inside. She heard the door shut behind her.
There was a single spotlight in the center of the room. Yan walked towards it, half in a trance.
She felt herself be observed. She observed herself being observed.
Then there was the feeling of a cold hand on her mind, a touch that was less the overwhelming call of the Mother, and more a pressure that kept her distant.
“Hello, little Yan,” the Emperor said in so many voices.
Yan reached out with her own power, seeking contact. She was brushed away, like a child who stepped too close to their father while he was working. How did Yan have that image? She didn't even have a father.
It was someone else's father, then.
The Emperor's amusement rang in her mind.
“I see you already understand who we are,” the Emperor said.
“Yes,” Yan said. “I do.”
“Are you afraid?”
The only answer that came to Yan's mind was to quote the theology. “Fear is the distance between people.”
“And what is the distance between us, little Yan?”
“I don't know.”
The Emperor put a vision into her mind of years passing by. At the end of those years, Yan as an old woman, hair long gone white, passed back through the doors beyond the reach of the spotlight and the Emperor welcomed her with open arms.
Yan took half a step forward, but the Emperor held her back.
“Time. Time is the distance between us. Are you afraid of that?”
“No,” Yan said. She knew it was crazy, to want the years to have already gone by, so that she could slide into that welcoming mind and lose herself once again, but she couldn't stop herself from wanting it.
“You perhaps should be,” the Emperor said. All of a sudden, it was like a pressure had been lifted off of Yan's brain. She realized that the Emperor had been looking through the layers of her mind while she stood there, distracting her with images and emotions, in order to get a good look.
She was slightly angry at being tricked.
The Emperor heard her thoughts, since they were still in her mind. “Would you have preferred to watch as I went through your memory?” The Emperor asked. “Let me see.”
The Emperor began again, flipping backwards through Yan's mind, going from her standing right there in the room, to sitting out in the antechamber, watching Kino sweat, to Sandreas's office, to--
“Stop,” Yan said aloud. “Stop.” It was too fast, and it gave her a headache. She could hardly understand how the Emperor was going through it all so fast. Even the Mother had required time to process everything she pulled from Yan.
“I'm much more than your Mother,” the Emperor said. “I'm more than just a random collection.” There was some disdain in the Emperor's thoughts, an interesting emotion. Yan felt weirdly compelled to defend the Mother, and the Emperor sent back amusement at that impulse before Yan could even act upon it.
“Someday, you could be much more than yourself as well,” the Emperor said.
“I know,” Yan said.
“That image I showed you,” the Emperor said, and put the picture in her mind again. “That could be real.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes, I look down the pathways of the present to the future, to see what lies there.”
“That doesn't sound possible.”
“It's rarely useful,” the Emperor said dismissively. “It's tempting to become caught up in the possibilities, and forget about the present. But I like to know what my viable options are.”
“There is a reason I did not summon you earlier,” the Emperor said.
“I thought Sandreas was keeping us away,” Yan said.
“My little Aymon thinks he does things for one reason, but he would obey me if I asked him to,” the Emperor said. “I simply never asked.”
“Why didn't you?”
“I wanted to get a clearer picture of who I should favor. I thought that it was your young friend, Sid, but now that you have returned, I see many other paths.”
An image appeared behind Yan's eyeballs. A much older Sid, barely recognizable with long hair, stood in the spotlight beside her. He wore a dark red cassock, and he bowed his head for a moment. Then the illusion, or vision, vanished.
“But that can't be true at the same time as the other thing you showed me,” Yan said.
“Of course not. They're ghosts, nothing more.”
“What about Kino?”
“An interesting question,” the Emperor said. “There's a reason I brought you in here first.”
“You needen't concern yourself with it, but I'll explain anyway.” The Emperor paused for a moment, as if to collect their thoughts, though that seemed unlikely. Perhaps it was just for dramatic effect. She wondered if that was a thread that tied the Emperor to Sandreas, who also had a penchant for making the most impressive presentation out of anything.
“When I look into the future, I can only see things that I can reasonably make predictions about. Talking to you and looking into your mind lets me predict what you would be like as my Voice, and so I can use the power to track you down those roads, even just a little way. I could do this even before I met you, simply by gathering information and seeing how those around you acted. I do this for everyone.”
“Why is Kino any different, then?”
“I suspect that her little invisibility game throws me off just as much as it does everyone else. I've never encountered a more frustrating person. I could see clearly you walking in here, and I can imagine what will happen if I send you all away without talking to her, but the moment I call her in here, it all goes blank.”
“Is that dangerous?”
“Since the futures I see without talking to her are generally what I would expect, I doubt it. Do you have reason to believe that little Kino is a danger to me?” The Emperor brought up the full scope of their power into Yan's mind, and Yan took a step back, physically reeling. It was very different than the experience of the Mother's power, but perhaps that was only because Yan had been on the operating side of the Mother's power, rather than the receiving end of it.
“No,” Yan said, completely honest.
“Then let us return to our own meeting, without worrying about others,” the Emperor said. “The future will always be there for us.”
Yan couldn't quite pull away from Kino as a topic of conversation. She remembered the odd way that Kino had acted, and the data stick in her pocket, and the sister that she hadn't even known that Kino had. “Kino is worried.”
“It's normal to be nervous,” the Emperor said. “But if we are talking about her flagrant disregard for my orders aboard the Impulse, I already know about that.”
“What are you going to do to her?”
“The same thing I would do for any transgression of that magnitude. The same thing I did to my little Aymon, years ago, and the same thing I did to young Sid.”
“I told her she shouldn't worry,” Yan said.
“A little worry keeps people moving in the right direction,” the Emperor said.
“I never did find out what she did aboard the Impulse,” Yan mused. “Everyone refused to tell me.”
“Would you like to see?”
Yan considered it for a second. “Yes.”
“Then stay here when she comes in. I will let you see out of her eyes.” That had not been the answer Yan was expecting, and she felt a little bit bad about asking now. It was definitely an invasion of privacy for her to follow the Emperor into Kino's head. It was an invasion of privacy for the Emperor to be in there in the first place, but that was different than Yan, since she was Kino's... friend? Still, she couldn't exactly change her mind now.
The Emperor followed her train of thought with some amusement. “You are an interesting little creature, aren't you?”
Yan objected to being called a creature.
“I think you have real potential. I would like to reward you.”
“For what?” Yan hadn't even done anything.
“Survival deserves a reward. I never expected to meet you. The least I can do to make up for my lack of confidence is to give you a gift.”
“What are you going to give me?” Yan wasn't trying to be ungrateful, but she didn't know what the Emperor could give her. What she wanted, the Emperor had already said that they weren't going to give, and everything else seemed like it could be a double edged sword.
A cold hand settled on the back of her neck. Yan spun on her toes to see who was behind her, but the hand stayed, and there was no one there.
“I'd like to fix what has been broken,” the Emperor said.
“Oh. That,” Yan said. She reached up and touched the back of her neck, where the thick scars lay. “It's more like the opposite of broken.”
“I'm aware,” the Emperor said, mental voice quite dry. “Do you give your permission?”
“Yes,” Yan said. She wasn't sure how she felt about the prospect of having a full range of motion in her neck again. It had been so long, and she hadn't thought that it was even possible to fix. The Mother hadn't been willing to try, and none of the doctors she had seen aboard the Impulse had brought up surgical possibilities. She supposed if there was anyone who could do it, it would be the Emperor.
“This will hurt,” the Emperor said. “Are you prepared?”
“Yes.” Yan waited for the inevitable third question; the Emperor was clearly following the tradition of asking three times.
“This connects you to the past. Are you ready to leave it behind?”
Yan hesitated. Iri's words echoed in her memory. 'The past is not a home you can go back to.' Yan didn't have good memories of her neck injury, but the Emperor was right to ask her that question; she didn't like to think of letting go of anything. She gritted her teeth.
“Very well. I give you this gift freely, then.”
Yan heard more than she felt the bones in her neck split apart where they had been welded together. A blinding white pain shot up through her whole spine, and lodged at the base of her head. She gasped and stumbled, and her chin dropped to her chest. It was over as quickly as it had begun, but a lingering ache stayed.
She lifted up her head, which took far more effort than she had expected. The muscles in her neck were weak from months of disuse, and she felt like her head was suddenly too large and flopping all over.
Still, it could move. She could move.
Gingerly, wincing as it felt sensitive, Yan reached up with her hands and prodded the back of her neck. The scars remained, but she could put her hand on her chin and gently turn her head from side to side, up and down. She breathed heavily, trying to steady herself. It was overwhelming. This was too much, too fast.
“Calm down, little Yan.”
She took a few deep breaths, trying to slow her pounding heart.
“How does that feel?” the Emperor asked.
“I don't know,” Yan said. Her eyes stung, but she wasn't going to cry here, not now. “Thank you.”
If the Emperor had been more like the Mother, they probably would have said something like “there is nothing that I wouldn't do for my daughter.” The Emperor was not like the Mother, though.
The Mother was ancient in the way that a river was ancient; though the individual drops of water passed through, the river retained its strength and kept its course. The Emperor was more like layers of rock, each one building upon the last. That was just one of their differences. She couldn't use her experience with the Mother to predict how the Emperor would act.
“There is something to be said about stability, and about remaining changeable with the times,” the Emperor said, listening in on her thoughts. Yan had forgotten that they were doing that. The Emperor's mental presence was overpowering. “That is why I keep my Voice, after all. Even after all these years, it's the best way.”
“How old are you?” Yan asked.
“There were a great many things that were lost when the Edden Empire fell. One thing that was saved, at least in part, was the technology that our ancestors used to travel between the stars, before the first stardrives were created. I have been using it since I left Edden.”
That was a long time. Hundreds of years.
“Why don't you make this technology available to the rest of the Empire?” Yan asked. The ability to prolong life seemed like a very useful one.
“Only sensitives can use it to its fullest potential,” the Emperor explained patiently. “Without the ability to use the power to connect with others, one is trapped silent inside their own mind. I have no desire to allow citizens of the Empire to sleep their way into the future, and I have even less of a desire to allow other sensitives to make use of it in the way that I do. Does that answer satisfy you?”
Truthfully, it did not, but Yan experimentally nodded anyway. Her neck hurt, but it was nice to be able to respond that way again.
“Little Yan, you feel that it is horrible to deny people the chance to come together like this?”
“I guess.” If the Emperor put her feelings into words, then she wouldn't have to.
“I think you will find that most people vastly prefer to be alone in their own heads.” The Emperor was amused. “Even I,” and that 'I' was spoken in Yan's head with so many voices, “found it difficult for quite some time. You are a rare exception.”
“Is that why Sandreas doesn't like coming here?”
“My little Aymon fears the future. He dislikes what I represent for him more than he dislikes me.”
“I guess I can understand that,” Yan said, thinking about the way that Aymon looked at Halen when no cameras were watching.
“Yes,” the Emperor said. “I always try to caution my Voices, but they almost never listen.”
Well, it wasn't as though the Emperor could stop someone from loving.
The Emperor was amused again. “Clearly, I cannot.”
Yan thought of Sylva, and then that image of herself with the white hair, walking past the reach of the spotlight, into the welcoming arms of the darkness.
“That's a long time from now yet. And I will promise you, just as I promise Aymon, that it will be a relief to join me, when the time comes.”
“I know.” She already understood the relief of giving herself up. She already knew what a comfort it could be to become part of something greater.
“You are experienced beyond your years,” the Emperor said. “I like you very much, little Yan.”
“But I can feel my Aymon becoming worried about you in the other room. Let us see what your friend Kino has to say for herself, and then I will let you go.”
Yan's legs moved by the Emperor's command, and she went back and opened the door.
“Kino,” she said, and that was all she needed to say. Kino stood, back straight, hands utterly still, long black hair tied on top of her head like a crown.
Yan glanced at Sandreas who smiled and tried to gesture her over, but her legs were already moving again, and she was back inside the Emperor's chambers.
Kino took her place in the spotlight, so Yan watched her from the nearby shadows. Kino's eyes gleamed, and she looked up at the ceiling, arms at her sides, but with her palms facing forwards.
“Here I am,” Kino said simply.
“I see you now,” the Emperor said, voice ringing in Yan's head.
And then she was plunged deep into Kino's memory.
The scene was half formed and chaotic. The way that Kino remembered things was odd; she fixated on the details of an image, like the way that the ceiling tiles in the room were slightly off axis, and the way the varnish on the table was wrecked in one place from a long ago spill. The people in the room all seemed to blend together, as though their faces had been replaced with generic stand-ins. Even if Yan had talked to all of these Impulse officers, she wouldn't have been able to recognize them in this memory. Kino's mental eye skirted away from the faces as though they were so much less important than the texture of the walls or the buzzing of the lights. Her cassock felt heavy and her hands itched to pull it off.
The memory brought with it a crushing feeling of sadness and regret and anger, but Yan could tell that those weren't the emotions that Kino had been feeling as she stood in front of the room, addressing the Fleet cohort. She must have been resolute.
“This needs to stop,” she began, interrupting the meeting. “On my authority as the apprentice to First Sandreas, we cannot continue.”
The words were practiced, or the memory was distorted because Kino had replayed her words in her head so many times, like a groove that had been worn in the dirt of a path.
Whatever the Fleet leadership replied with was irrelevant. Time was distorted in this memory/dream. Only certain phrases stood out, certain moments, and they jerked and started up again. Was it the Emperor combing through, or was this simply the way that Kino remembered things?
“We cannot condemn an innocent planet to death.”
She tried to be stoic.
She tried to be reasonable.
When people would not let her be reasonable, she moved on to being pleading.
“I KNOW what it's like to see your whole planet die around you! I can't let that happen to somebody else! I can't let you do this!”
A memory within the memory flashed into place. A far younger Kino was holding a toddler on her hip, looking out over the grey and empty plains of Falmar, catching the smell of something rotting in the air. Kino's eyes snapped back into focus in the Impulse meeting room.
When pleading didn't work, she moved on to threats and screaming.
“Complicit! This will be on your heads! On God, this will be on your hands!”
It was at this point that Kino was dragged from the room. She kicked and flailed at her captor, but she didn't use the power. Perhaps she was too overcome in that moment to do so.
Yan thought that this would be the end of the memory, but she felt herself be pulled down deeper, deeper into Kino's brain. She couldn't control it, and she wasn't sure how much time was passing in this state. Perhaps she was processing things as quickly as the Emperor did, and this all took less than a second. Or perhaps she was standing there, stuck, as the Emperor showed her select bits of Kino's memory.
How old was she? Yan recognized the view outside a window. She was in an Academy dorm. It was nighttime. She had the window open, and a cool breeze licked in, catching the smoke from the cigarette Kino held between two of her fingers. She was seated on a chair, leaning against the windowsill, computer balanced precariously on her lap. She was out of uniform, wearing only an undershirt and underwear.
Kino reached down to the floor with her free hand and picked up her discarded cassock, rummaging around in the pocket until she pulled out a data stick. She shoved it into the port of her computer and opened the text file that was on there.
The words didn't precisely resolve in the memory; the letters blurred if Yan tried to focus on them, but the message was as clear as if Kino had memorized it. It sang in her head, read in the voice of some stranger.
I'm sorry for leaving you without warning, and I hope you can forgive me. I'm glad that you still consider me a friend, and I'm glad that you got in contact with me.
I can't come back to Emerri right now, and maybe not ever. It's a tricky business, the one that we're in. The one that I'm in.
I feel so lucky to have met you. I've been learning a lot since I left. I'd like to tell you all about it, if you'll let me. I know it will take a long time for this message to get to you, and even longer for you to get back to me, if you still want to talk to me. Keep getting in touch with Ralah if you do. But in the future, these messages will be encrypted. The password will be the address that I first had you deliver to.
You're in a unique position to help me, being at the Academy and all, and you've proven that you're a big help, trustworthy, and a good listener. Never once caught you skimming off the top. I like having a person like that on my team.
Can't tell you what this is about until you agree, but let me know if you want in. If you do, let me know an encryption key for your letters.
And time dipped in a different direction, forward this time, and Kino was reading another letter.
This sickness at the heart of the Empire, it goes far deeper than you'd ever think. I want to just scream it out to the world, but I'd get shot instantly. It kills me that people are going around not knowing what’s going on out there. It kills me that I didn't know. And it kills me now that I do.
You understand. I've told you everything. But what can I do aside from that? There might be something that you can do.
Do you read the news? The sketchy stuff, not the real news. You know, the junk. We get it all a couple weeks late, whenever we can get close enough to real ports. Someone says that First Sandreas is going to be taking an apprentice soon. He's getting older.
You might be in the right place at the right time to make some changes. You're graduating from the Academy. If you play your cards right, you could make a difference.
Sandreas is a self absorbed, cold hearted lunatic. What do you think would attract a person like that?
Get as high as you can. Stay out of the Fleet. Keep people out of your head.
No, I haven't told anyone who you are, just that you're high up. As soon as you start to give me information, that will help people understand what you're in place to do. When people verify what I tell them, they'll trust me more, and we can accomplish big things.
You need to keep a lower profile. Ralah saw you outside his place with company. Don't be an idiot. Just stay quiet for now. Don't show your hand too early.
If you can be on the lookout for information about....
This letter definitely won't reach you before you travel. Don't be a fool. People on Tyx III don't know who you are. You won't be able to talk to them.
I don't know why I bother. You won't get this letter anyway. God.
I'll pretend like you're already back, like I know what happened there.
You can't let people know who you are. I'm the only one who knows. You have to keep it that way, or you get a target on your back painted as bright as a star. There's gonna be someone out there who will want to kill you.
Don't be an idiot. Please. If you got any information, I want it, but it's not worth risking your life.
Not now, anyway. Not until we're in real position to do something.
If you're already dead, I'll come to Emerri or Tyx III or wherever and dig up your body and kill you again for being so stupid.
I'm worried that this information is coming from too close to you. There's a few people who are beginning to speculate about who my source is. If that information gets out, you're in danger.
But thank you.
With the First Star out of commission for the foreseeable future, and the consecration of Anthus on the horizon, we're getting agents in place to make our move. There are only a few ships that Sandreas could travel on, unless they spare a Fleet ship. As soon as you know which one it will be, if you can get access to the travel plans, send us that information. Tell Ralah to rush it, pay him whatever he asks for.
And when the time comes, you make sure that you are not on that ship. Do whatever it takes to stay on Emerri. If you're caught up in it, that'll be it.
As much information as you can get, I need. We're counting on you.
I don't know if it was just a bad coincidence, but people think that you've betrayed us. I'm going to get out of here and lay low as much as I can for now. I'll contact you again when this all blows over. You keep your head down. Don't do anything crazy. Don't try to contact me. Keep watching. Keep listening. You're still our best hope, people just don't understand that right now.
I'll be keeping my ears to the wind.
It was clear that the Emperor had pulled through Kino's memory almost instantly, and was now only showing these pieces to Yan in a specific order so that she could understand. The spell broke, and Yan was back in the dark room, clutching her head, overwhelmed.
“I wish I had summoned you earlier,” the Emperor said, voice in Yan's head, and probably Kino's as well.
Kino's face had crumpled, her previous stoic expression replaced by one of absolute terror. Her eyes were wide, and the muscles in her neck stood out as she strained against some sort of invisible hold. The Emperor had her in their clutches.
“Still, it is almost no matter. You weren't able to accomplish anything of substance, and my little Yan has come back all the stronger for it.”
Yan was crying, and she certainly didn't feel any stronger. She felt nauseous, after experiencing the sweep of both Kino's righteous emotions and the depths of her betrayal. It was Kino's fault that she-- that she had--
Yan couldn't think about it. She wanted to beat her head on the floor to get the thoughts out. She wanted this nightmare to end.
“You should kill her, Yan,” the Emperor said. “I'll let you have this chance to do it.”
Yan felt like she was shaking, shivering. The Emperor had her in their grasp, too. “Before my Aymon comes in here. Before I tell him what he brought into his house.”
The Emperor dragged her feet forward. Yan's ears rang, first loudly, then the sounds of the world faded to nothing. She felt like she was going to pass out. If the Emperor hadn't been keeping her upright, she would have fallen over.
Her feet brought her right in front of Kino. She looked into Kino's face, and into Kino's eyes, shining bright with the horrible reflection of the spotlight, and wide with terror and with something else indescribable. Kino's breath came in little wheezing spurts.
The Emperor raised Yan's arms. Her hands closed involuntarily around the soft flesh of Kino's neck.
'No!' Yan thought. She couldn't do this while looking into Kino's eyes. The Emperor turned her head away, closed her eyes. 'No!' Yan thought again, and opened them. Her hands squeezed, without her control.
She didn't want this.
She didn't know what she wanted, but it wasn't this.
Halen's voice screamed in her ears. 'Drop it! Drop it now!'
She felt like she was back on that rocky hillside, holding a gun to her own head. She had fought off the Green King's control in her panic then, and she did it again to the Emperor's power now. Her grip on Kino's neck loosened, she stumbled sideways, fell to the floor, scrambled up on her hands and knees, and ran out the door, past Kino, past Sandreas, as far away as she could get.