“Twenty thousand people on a barren planet, dead. Twenty thousand souls who begged and cried and pled. Twenty thousand people the Empire did ignore, so all of you with ships and hearts let’s even up the score…”
-from “The Marksman’s Rescue”, spacer song
True to his word, Halen did make Yan, Kino, and Sid practice that specific skill for several hours. Though Yan felt like she was getting pretty good at redirecting bullets, she knew that Halen would keep drilling them on it, possibly for the rest of all time. He also emphasized that this was a cheap trick meant to keep them safe quickly, but that they would eventually be fixing the problems (aim and willpower) that made it necessary in the first place. There was just only so much one could learn and accomplish in one afternoon.
Yan just considered it a blessing that none of them had died due to Kino's twitchy trigger finger. By the end of practice, it seemed as though Halen was ready to throttle the girl. She kept her finger on the trigger at the wrong times, she fiddled with the gun when she wasn't supposed to, and her actual aiming and handling of the weapon was beyond atrocious. Kino's horrible habits made Halen irritable which made Yan vacillate between annoyed and scared.
Despite the level of trust that Sandreas had in Halen, Yan didn't trust pirates, even former ones. If such a thing as a ‘former pirate’ was even really possible. Yan had her doubts about it.
Finally, Halen released them from training. Before they returned to their apartments to change, they briefly talked to Ms. Rosario, who gave them all the promised communication devices, security keys, and briefing on where they would be expected to be and when for the rest of the day.
The time they had to get ready before the meeting they were set to attend was fairly limited. Yan had enough time to shower, change into one of the truly fancy sets of uniforms she had been provided, and figure out how to holster her new firearm so that it was accessible through her cassock. Previously, Yan had been confused about an odd construction in the way that her uniform was put together. The pockets of the cassock only filled part of the hole where her hand could go inside; when reaching in, the entire underside of the garment and her body were accessible. Yan realized now that this was so that she could carry and access a weapon on a holster underneath the long coat. After she was fully dressed, she unloaded the weapon and practiced drawing it quickly a few times.
Maybe Halen's paranoia about being attacked was getting to her.
Yan also sent out a quick message to Sylva.
> Apprenticeship's weird so far.
> learned to fire a gun, sorta
> not allowed to talk about it tho
> gonna go to dinner with an important guy?
> not a date lol just a political thing
> sorry for like the octo text haha
> love ya
There was no response, but that was predictable, since Sylva was probably busy. Yan was sure she would have a response when she got back from dinner.
Once she was dressed and ready, Yan exited her apartment. She considered for a moment whether she should walk to Stonecourt alone, but decided against it. Instead, she walked down the hallway of her apartment building and walked on one of the other doors. She knew one was Sid's and one was Kino's but she didn't know which was which. Yan supposed she would find out if Kino came to the door. Sid wouldn’t be able to hear her knock, so if no one answered then it was probably his apartment.
It turned out to be Kino's apartment. Kino opened the door to Yan, but she was wrapped in a towel, with her hair damp and unbraided, hanging around her shoulders.
"Hey," Kino said. "Do you want to come in?"
"I was really wondering if you were ready to walk to Stonecourt, but I can see the answer is no," Yan said. "Sure, I'll come in."
"Didn't you get the message?" Kino asked, stepping aside so that Yan could enter.
"What message?" Yan asked. She shut the door behind her.
"Ms. Rosario said that we're getting a car sent to us instead. The location of the dinner got changed, so we have a half hour before the car gets here."
"Oh, ok. Guess I'm glad I didn't start walking," Yan said.
Kino's apartment was similar in layout to Yan's, but amazingly, despite the fact that Kino had only lived there for about a day and a half, was much messier. Boxes and papers were scattered around, and Kino's discarded clothes were just on the floor. There were already dirty dishes piling up on the coffee table.
"There but for the grace of God go you," Kino said, referring to the fact that Yan hadn't decided to walk to Stonecourt, but unintentionally echoing Yan's thoughts about the state of this apartment.
Yan hadn't had a chance to actually really talk to Kino before. She had moved into her apartment the day before while Yan and Sid were out shopping. And then today had been entirely taken up by training with Halen, which didn't really give them a chance to get to know each other.
Kino walked into the bathroom, still clad in a towel, but left the door open a crack.
"I'm just getting dressed, we can talk," Kino called back to the living room.
Yan was trying to find the least disruptive place to sit on the couch. She eventually settled for squeezing into one corner that seemed miraculously clear of stuff.
"Did you find your secret room?" Yan called back.
"The closet? Yeah," Kino said.
"Part of me is hoping that I won't ever have to use it," Yan said.
"You've picked the wrong apprenticeship, then. It was made pretty clear that we're in deep." Kino emerged from the bathroom fully dressed, wearing her dress uniform, though she was still barefoot and her hair was still wet and loose. Yan suspected that their dress uniforms would be seeing quite a lot of wear.
Kino came over to the other couch and scooted over a large box so that she could sit. She put her feet up on the coffee table, then started running her fingers through her hair. Yan felt that she was using the power, though it felt slippery and odd, quieter than usual, which was interesting.
"What are you doing?" Yan asked.
"Taking the water out out of my hair," Kino said. "I want it to be just a little bit damp so I can braid it."
"Where are you putting the water?" Yan asked.
"Just into the air. Keeping it humid in here," Kino said.
"You want it to be humid in here?" Yan asked.
"Don't care, and it's easier to just disperse it into the air than it is to collect it," Kino said. It was true that handling a mass of water outside of some container with the power was a trickier task than one might hope, especially when not in microgravity where surface tension reigned supreme.
"Did you figure out how to wear the holster?" Yan asked. She remained somewhat nervous of Kino's handling of the gun.
"Yeah, it's in the pocket area." Kino started to reach into the pocket and Yan half flinched.
"Please don't take it out." Yan said.
"I'm not as careless as you think I am," Kino protested, but she didn't take the gun out. Her hands returned to their task of braiding her hair.
"Ok," Yan said. "I'm not trying to say you're careless but, I mean, Halen seemed pretty nervous and he's, you know."
"He wasn't nervous," Kino said absently. "He's good at putting on a performance to influence your behavior."
"What?" Yan asked.
"You don't think he could stop any bullet I fired? Even one that was aimed point blank at his head? Of course he could. He wants me to be afraid so that I act more safely, he wanted Sid to be afraid so he would act more deferentially, he wants you to be afraid so that you don't trust him to take care of you. He's good at manipulating, but I don't think he likes me," Kino said, the words coming out in a tumble.
"How do you know?" Yan asked, curious as to where this insight had come from. Now that she was thinking about it, Halen definitely could stop a bullet, but that didn’t seem like quite enough to base this whole set of assumptions on.
"He wasn't lying about his life, I don't think. He really is very, very strong. He couldn't have kept Sandreas alive for this long without being very good and very dedicated to his job."
"I didn't mean how did you know he could stop a bullet, I meant how did you know he was trying to manipulate us?" Yan pressed.
"If he has no reason to act concerned about me mishandling a gun, then he must be doing that as a show. If he has no need to act angry about Sid getting angry, when we first came to see Sandreas and you had to kick him, he's acting. Sid couldn't do anything to him, not right now anyway,” Kino said, continuing to braid.
"And what about me?" Yan asked.
"You," Kino said, "Unlike the rest of us, have grown up inside a chain of command your entire life. I don't know for sure, but I think that Halen wants to break you of some of those instincts."
"How do you know about that?" Yan asked.
"I know you grew up on a ship. I can only assume that on a ship the ultimate authority is the captain, and that everyone below that follows orders to keep life going smoothly. And if that's trained into you since birth..." Kino shrugged and tied the end of one her braids off, moving her hands to the other side of her head to braid the second one.
“True, I guess, but we’ve all been attending the Academy, and that’s pretty structured,” Yan said. There weren’t many things in life that weren’t structured like that, as far as she could tell.
"I think it’s more on ships. It might be important of him to cure you of that, since he had a similar upbringing," Kino said.
"No he didn't!" Yan said. “He’s a pirate!”
"See, it's already working," Kino said. "If you came onto this job thinking, 'here is a man whose one job is to protect', you might delegate the task of protection from yourself onto him. By making it clear to you that you cannot trust him, he's teaching you to protect yourself. You're going to be more on guard around him, and not just watching him for cues of what to do, like how you were already watching him when you kicked Sid."
Yan processed this for a moment. Kino probably wasn’t wrong.
"God," Yan said flatly. "I mean. I guess. What should I do about it?"
"Nothing," Kino said. Kino was calm, for all that she was saying things that made Yan have to frantically rearrange her worldview. "Keep letting him do it. If Halen was you he would let him keep doing it, he said so himself."
This comment seemed odd to Yan, but Kino was right. Halen had said that he would let people manipulate him, if… And that was the big question.
"And what about you? Why don't you think he likes you?" Yan asked, changing the subject a little. "Actually, I know nothing about you. Why am I taking your word as authority now?"
"You have a respect for authority streak about a mile wide and visible from orbit," Kino said. "I say something rational and you put me in the box of 'knows what she's talking about, listen'. I can just keep talking and you'll keep doing it. But to answer your original question, he doesn't like me because he can't get a read on me. I don't project emotions with the power."
Yan hadn’t noticed Kino’s emotions through the power one way or another, but then again, Yan had never tried to read them. Experimentally, Yan sent out a line of power towards Kino. Curiously, when Yan did that, she didn’t feel anything there. It was as though Kino was just part of the couch she was sitting on, for all the signature she had in the power. Well, maybe, if she focused hard, there was some feeling there that Yan could learn to identify as Kino, but it was a far cry from the ease with which Yan could usually find people in the power. Odd that Yan could feel Kino using the power to pull the water from her hair, but not feel Kino herself as easily.
"Why don't you? I thought that was something that everyone subconsciously did," Yan asked. Kino shrugged in response.
"You can train yourself out of it, but I think it's just one of those things that I'm naturally attuned to in the power. Halen's opposite, kinda, since his affinity is picking up on emotions and feelings."
"Weird," Yan said. "I don't feel like I have anything like that."
"Oh, you probably do, but it might be unnoticeable, or just something you're a bit better at. I think most people have a special talent, it's just only obvious when it’s really extraordinary."
"How did you discover yours?" Yan asked.
"Oh, it's a funny story," Kino said, but didn't elaborate.
"So tell it," Yan said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees.
"I discovered I was a sensitive before the inspectors came, but then when they did come they didn't notice me. I had to get their attention myself," Kino said. It seemed like there should have been more to this story.
"Wait, so where do you come from?" Yan asked. "Not trying to pry into your life, just thought we should get to know each other."
"Falmar," Kino said. "That's where I was born, anyway. But we had to leave, so we went to Hanathue."
"Oh," Yan said. Falmar was the most recent failed colony. Really, it was the only one in living memory. Yan had been about six when the disaster on Falmar started, but the repercussions of it were still being felt throughout the Empire. "I'm sorry," Yan said.
"It is what it is," Kino said. "You're from a spacer family, did you work the evacuation?"
"No," Yan said. "We were doing mining runs at the time."
"Makes sense. Not many ships were there," Kino said. "We were a small colony in the first place." Kino wrapped a tie around her second braid. Casually, she used the power to summon a pair of socks and her shoes over to her. It was amazing that she seemed to know exactly where all of her belongings were, despite the mess.
"Even though you were on Falmar, you decided to work for Sandreas?" Yan asked. "He was the one who ordered the quarantine, right?"
"Yes. I understand why he made that choice. I don't hold that against him," Kino said. "He wasn't the one that caused the plague."
"But he..." Yan said.
"It's better for about twenty thousand to die than an entire planet. I understand what could have happened if I brought the disease with me to Hanathue," Kino said dryly. "Luckily, I don't have to carry the burden of condemning an entire planet to death."
Yan couldn't decide if she was talking about the fact that she hadn't been a transmitter of the disease or if she wasn't responsible for Sandreas's decisions in condemning her home planet.
"And I decided to work with Sandreas because I didn't have any other offers, and I have no prospects on Hanathue, or anywhere else." Kino stood up, now that she was fully dressed. "I'm not even sure why Sandreas picked my project. An unfortunate side effect of its design is that it doesn't call out like every other project does. Maybe God really was leading him to me, as he said. Or me to him."
"That seems to be a running trend with you," Yan said.
"Of course," Kino said. Now that she was done braiding and getting dressed, her hands were back fiddling with the edges of her sleeves. "Are you ready to go? We should get Sid."
"Oh. Yeah. Do you just want to wait for the car in the lobby?"
"That would be best. I don't want Sid to walk away," Kino said.
Yan stood up and the pair walked to the door. Yan led Kino to the door that she now knew was Sid's. Yan thought for a moment about the fact that knocking on the door would probably do nothing to alert Sid, so she reached out for him in the power instead, alerting him to their presence outside his door.
A moment later, Sid opened the door. Yan waved at him.
"We're going to take a car to dinner," Yan signed. She didn't know the sign for car, since there weren't very many of those aboard the Iron Dreams, so she replaced it for the sign for 'shuttle' and hoped it would still make sense.
"I thought we were going back to Stonecourt?" Sid signed back.
"Place changed," Yan replied with a shrug. "Kino told me."
"Ok," Sid signed. "I'm ready to go. Is the car here?"
Now that he had used the real sign for car, Yan did her best to remember it. Kino was standing next to her with a blank expression.
"No, we're going to wait downstairs," Yan signed. "Don't want to make anyone wait."
"Fine. Let's go." Sid stepped out of his doorway and closed his apartment door behind him. Yan briefly caught a glimpse of a living room that was the polar opposite of Kino's: a very clean space.
"Hey," Yan signed as the trio headed down the hallway and got in the elevator. "You ok?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Sid asked.
"I kicked you, I'm sorry," Yan signed.
"Oh, that. It's ok, sometimes I need a reason to think about my anger," Sid signed.
"Kino said that Halen," she fingerspelled both names, "was just trying to make us act the way he wants."
"Of course. It's his job." Sid shrugged. "Hope he doesn't think that taking care of me is your job."
"I don't think so," Yan signed.
"What are you talking about?" Kino asked.
"You need to learn sign," Sid signed at Kino.
"Just what you told me about Halen earlier, how you think he's trying to manipulate us," Yan explained. Privately, Yan thought that if she was going to have to be the go-between for Sid and Kino, this would be a long five years.
"Are you going to use sign at the Trade Guild meeting?" Kino asked Sid. "They're all spacers."
Sid grinned brightly.
Yan shook her head. "It will make Sandreas mad," she signed.
Sid didn't discontinue his grinning. Yan rolled her eyes.
They exited the elevator and stepped out into the lobby. Yan nodded and smiled at the man at the desk. He wasn't Denson, it was another man Yan hadn't met yet, but it didn't hurt to be polite.
The three loitered near the door, waiting for their ride to pull up. Eventually, it did. It was a large, black car, with tinted windows. The passenger side window rolled down, and Halen stuck his head out, waving the group over.
"Glad you all got the message that a ride was coming. Get in the back," Halen said as the group exited the apartment.
Yan pulled open the car door and clambered inside. It was a strange car, where the seats were arranged along the walls of the vehicle rather than in rows. She was shocked to find Sandreas already in the back. Yan quickly took a seat along the opposite side from Sandreas and moved as far along as possible to let Sid and Kino in. They all made it inside and Kino closed the door behind herself.
"We're trying to be as incognito as possible, hence the unmarked car," Halen said once the door was closed. "This is not a public meeting."
The car pulled away from the curb, its engine nearly silent, and began heading down the street.
"Can I ask what this meeting is actually about, or are we going into this blind?" Yan asked.
"Ah. Bit of a touchy subject," Sandreas said. "This meeting is to politely, and informally, ask the Trade Guild to consider lessening their routes with planets and that are known to be pirate harbors."
"Aren't we, sorry, the Trade Guild already staying away from pirate dens? Doesn't make sense to run a ship into dangerous territory," Yan said, feeling her face heat up at the slip of her tongue. She wasn't a spacer anymore, she supposed.
"Oh, Yan, that's sweet of you to think," Halen said jauntily from the front seat. Yan scowled at him.
"Unfortunately, there is more overlap between the sanctioned trading of the Guild and the black market than anyone would like to admit. Tightening the belt on systems that are known to have thriving black markets will both incentivize the planetary governments to take a harsher stance on illegal trade, as well as hopefully convince Trade Guild ships that are smuggling around illicit material that it's better to stay away from that side of the business," Aymon explained.
"Why does this have to be private?" Kino asked.
"Guildmaster Vaneik does not want anyone to think that his reputation, and the reputation of all of the ships aligned under his banner, is anything less than spotless. He knows better, I know better, but it's better that the public does not know better," Aymon said. "As I am sure you will come to understand, maintaining our image is a good thirty percent of what we do."
"What are you going to offer him to make him go along with this? I mean, not that I personally know, but people wouldn't deal in black market goods if it wasn't sufficiently lucrative," Yan said. "Why would he give up that source of income? Or even just the regular income from trading with those planets?"
"I am prepared to make this a less bitter pill to swallow with the offer of putting up a few extra stardrives for sale for commercial use this year. But in this matter, at least, I hold more of a stick than a carrot," Sandreas said.
"I suppose you don't have much of a personal relationship left with Guildmaster Vaneik left to jeopardy by threatening him," Yan said. At least, that was what Sandreas had implied earlier. "What would you do if he refused?"
"First step would probably be to pick an example system and station a Fleet ship at it. Say that all cargoes must be inspected before entering or leaving the planet. This would be sufficiently frustrating to sway him, probably. I think he's more willing to accept an uninspected but smaller flow than he is to accept a heavily observed regular trade."
"Having a Fleet ship there would probably make pirates less likely to hang around on planet, too," Yan said.
"Still, it's better to try asking politely first. Despite the fact that it would be beneficial, I don't actually have the ships to spare for stationing at every planet that is a piracy magnet. Besides, it would be a major breach of the goodwill between both the Trade Guild and the outer planets governments, and there's little enough of that to go around as is."
"How many planets are we actually talking about?" Yan asked.
"Top priority is six, but there's a network of twenty or so that are areas of concern. Of course the black market has fingers in basically every port of call. But people have been growing far too bold."
"You don't have six ships to spare?" Yan asked, going back to Sandreas’s previous comment. "What are all the Fleet ships doing?"
"More important things than babysitting pirates. We can discuss this later. For the moment, all you need to know is that I want Vaneik to do my dirty work for me, and do it quietly. So your job at dinner is going to be to chat up Vaneik's apprentices and put on a polite, unified front. This shouldn't be too challenging."
"Vaneik has apprentices?" Kino asked.
"I don't know much about them," Sandreas said said, with a tone in his voice that made it clear he did not care one whit about other people's apprentices.
"Two," Halen said from the front seat. "Nomar Thule and Yuuni Olms. They're both in their last year of their apprenticeship, and they hate each other. The main dynamic there is that they're vying to be Vaneik's second in command when they finish their apprenticeship, but they're both fairly sure he's actually grooming his son for the position. Yuuni is much more talented than Nomar, but Nomar is slipperier."
"And what about the son?" Kino asked.
"Won't be there," Halen said. "Which is for the best."
"Why?" Kino asked.
"He's a lout," Halen said. "God only knows why, but Vaneik thinks the universe of him. He's spoiled and lazy and doesn't have a shred of sense."
"If he's just going to have his son become the head of the Trade Guild when he retires, why did he bother getting apprentices?" Yan asked.
"He was, how shall I say this, convinced to give them a try. It is not in the Empire's best interest to have the Trade Guild be run by a man with about as much brains and impulse control as a two year old, so we tried to make Vaneik see reason with regards to his successor." Sandreas said.
"Is Vaneik a sensitive?" Kino asked.
"No. Life would be a lot easier if he was. His father was," Sandreas said. "Since he's not a sensitive he distrusts his own apprentices."
"Did he pick them himself?" Yan asked.
"He was presented with a field of candidates that were chosen by the Academy's selection committee," Halen said.
So, that explained why Vaneik wanted to promote his own son instead of one of the apprentices he had theoretically spent the past five years training, Yan thought. They were Empire through and through, and there was nothing Vaneik valued more than the Guild's independence from the Empire. Any spacer would make the same decision, especially when considering their families.
"Isn't talking with his apprentices going to be useless then?" Sid spoke up. "Since he's going to just make his own son his successor?"
"They're probably not going to become the head of the Trade Guild, that's true, but that doesn't mean that they don't know things or have any influence. Both of them have spent the last five years getting as close to power as they can," Halen said.
"What will they do when their apprenticeship is over?" Yan asked, curious.
"I believe Yuuni will probably take on a ship of her own. Her father, Banmei Olms, is the captain of the Neutron Star, which is a very successful ship. He isn't going to retire any time soon, but through her family and apprenticeship Yuuni has the connections, power, and money to buy a ship of her own. It's a waste of her talent, but I'm not in charge of her," Halen said with a shrug.
"Nomar is probably going to continue working for Vaneik, probably in the hopes that his son will keel over and leave a position open. Right now he handles a lot of Guild finances, and it would be a massive disruption to the status quo if he walked out," Halen said. "If he does what I think he's going to do, he does stand a pretty good chance of heading the Guild in the end. It just might take him longer than he really wants."
"Are you saying he's going to have Vaneik's son assassinated?" Yan asked, scandalized.
Halen laughed. "Nomar? God, no. But I do think that he could very easily handle manipulating Wil Vaneik into doing exactly what he wants, especially if he holds the Guild's purse strings."
Privately, Yan considered that while Halen said that Nomar wouldn't try to assassinate the younger Vaneik, he never said that the Empire wouldn't try.
The car pulled to a stop outside an expensive looking restaurant. Kino put her hand on the door to open it, but Sandreas held up a hand to stop her.
"Hold on a second," Halen said from the front seat. "I need to make sure everything is okay."
Halen closed his eyes and Yan felt the briefest touch of his power as he sent it out to investigate the building's inhabitants. Yan suspected that Halen's natural talent for feeling out other people had some limitations on it, like distance or specificity.
When it came to most things done using the power, the limits usually came down to knowledge and concentration. Most sensitives could use some forms of farsight, using the power to get an understanding of what was happening behind a door, for example. Yan often used this to locate her friends in a crowded room. But looking around with the power was much different than looking with a set of eyes or hearing with a set of ears: being able to make sense of the sheer amount of information in the world could be overwhelming when the sensory organs weren't there to do the job for you. Yan found it fairly easy to identify people when reaching out with the power: seeing the light of God within them and feeling their specific "signature" was a relatively simple task. Or, if it wasn't simple, it was at least only as difficult as learning to interpret that information, since it wasn't the transition from interpreting sound through ears to interpreting it as the flow of air through a room. That was much harder, in Yan's opinion.
Halen probably was employing a similar learned skill, though with the added complexity of sensing how people were feeling. Yan could usually only read a room like that if she knew the people very well. Halen must have had a fairly good intuition about people in general.
After a moment, Halen opened his eyes.
"Nothing unusual in there. Before we go out, Aymon." Halen leaned around the back of his seat and Sandreas slid along his bench seat towards Halen. Halen held out his hand and almost, but not quite, touched Sandreas's face. Yan could feel the power move, and she saw the air shimmer in front of Sandreas's face for a moment. When Halen removed his hand, Sandreas's face was unrecognizable.
Where before Sandreas had been a pale faced, older man with hazel eyes and a strong nose, he now looked like a much younger man with bright brown eyes and absolutely massive cheekbones.
"Do you three know how to do this?" Halen asked. "You'll need to learn if you don't."
"Is it just an illusion?" Kino asked.
"Depends on how you call an illusion. It's air. Well, the eyes are contacts and coloring, told to look a certain way. Cheap trick, but it will do the job of getting us between the car and the door. I had people take out the building cameras earlier," Halen said. "Well. Right now you don't need it, you're nobodies."
Yan chose to not take offense at Halen’s comment.
"Are we just going in then?" Kino asked.
Halen didn't respond. Instead, he leaned forward towards Sandreas, who reached out to perform the same trick that Halen had. Yan didn't think it would have much effect, since Halen was almost absurdly large, and that was certainly hard to disguise. Sandreas, rather than hovering his hand over Halen's face, actually placed it on his cheek. It seemed intimate. Yan looked away.
When she looked back, Halen’s face had lost its normal blotchiness, and he had what looked like the shadow of a beard on his chin. Since nothing could be done about the size of him, it wasn’t a very convincing illusion. Yan didn’t really know why they bothered.
"Now let's go," Halen said. They all exited the car.