In the Shadow of Heaven

by

javert

Chapter Fourteen - Far Away Secrets Are Easy to Keep

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Far Away Secrets Are Easy to Keep

“My mother said to me, don’t take a military wife. None of them know the first thing about our home-ship life. But my lover has a smile more precious than gold, and it’s with her that I want to grow old.”

-from “Lovers Quarrel”, traditional spacer song

Yan banner

After Vaneik and his entourage left the restaurant, the tension in the room was noticeably lessened.

"Glad that's over with," Sandreas said with what seemed like unusual candor.

"Didn't go nearly as badly as it could have," Halen said.

"No, it went well," Sandreas said. "Every time I have a borderline pleasant interaction with that man, he goes and does something to make me hate him again, though, so don't take this success too much to heart."

"Why don't you like him?" Kino asked from the end of the table.

Sandreas laughed. "When we were younger men, first coming into our positions, we were both much more hotheaded. We spent a lot of our earlier careers butting heads rather spectacularly. It was bad publicity for both of us, and didn't do the Empire any good. I can admit that, now. Even though we've both come out of that time, I don't trust the man."

"He's still too slimy," Halen said. "He knows exactly what all his captains are doing, and he lets it slide to keep his position."

"Oh, of course. But my dislike for him is strictly personal, at this point," Sandreas said. "Anyone else in his position would probably do the same."

"What did you fight over originally?" Yan asked, curious.

"It's all a matter of public record. Stardrive allocation, how much Imperial resources should be devoted to combating piracy, taxation on shipments, free passage laws, colonization," Sandreas said. "Anything that involved the Guild even remotely was a place for contention. My predecessor, Caron Herrault, she got along splendidly with Vaneik's father. Part of it, years and years ago, was we both wanted to make names for ourselves separate from the legacy we were inheriting."

"You sound like you regret what you did when you first became Voice," Kino said, twiddling a braid around her fingers.

"Regret? No. I did what I needed to do, but I've certainly done a lot of growing as a politician and a person since then. Someday, one of you will take my place, and I'm sure you will learn your own types of lessons on that front."

This was the first time, Yan thought, that Sandreas had directly mentioned that the point of the apprenticeship was to train up his successor. It had been obliquely mentioned earlier, when he talked about his own cohort not surviving, but Yan hadn't really processed that as 'one of you will someday have my job' and more as, 'you might not survive this apprenticeship'. She couldn't bring herself to decide which was a more terrifying thought. There seemed to be two roads ahead of her. At the end of one road, she ended up dead. At the other, she would find herself as basically the highest authority in the populated universe. The coffee that she had been drinking churned in her stomach.

"How long are we going to wait here before we leave?" Sid asked, clearly not caring quite as much about the personality discussion.

Halen looked at his watch. "I give it five more minutes."

"While we wait, can you show how to do that disguise you did earlier?" Sid asked.

Halen glanced at Sandreas, who shrugged.

"I guess we have time. It's not hard," Halen said. "As with everything, it helps to be able to feel your way through it. Do you know basically how light works?"

All three of the group had a solid understanding of physics, since it was an important part of the Academy curriculum, so they nodded.

"At the most basic level, you can manipulate the density of air, to make things look larger or smaller. It's like the mirages that will happen over a road on a hot day, making the road look wet or wobbly. It's absolutely not perfect, and it can look pretty messed up, but it will fool a casual glance or a computer facial recognition program. The way eye color is changed is different," Halen said, anticipating the question that Sid had opened his mouth to ask. "Contacts with a coating that can change color."

"There's really nothing more to it than that?" Kino asked.

"Oh, well, you can get fancier with it if you want. You can spend your time designing a power structure that will bend light to look a certain way, and literally change the wavelengths of light for color changes, but then we get out of quick and easy and into a much more complicated situation," Halen said. "It all has its uses, but a walk from the car up into a private room, this is more than enough."

"It's easier to do on someone else, or in a mirror," Sandreas added. "And if you want to do it quickly and easily, you will need to practice it."

"And before you practice on a person's face, which is fairly complicated, practice on something else, like warping text on a paper," Halen said.

"Doesn't sound that bad," Sid said.

"It's not," Halen said. "Just practice it, some time."

"I will," Sid said.

"Do you also..." Kino thought for a moment. "Couldn't you also alter the density of air to change the sound of your voice?"

"Sure, you could do that. Same effect as breathing in helium to make your voice higher, or xenon to make it lower, so long as you don't overdo it and make it implausible. It's not really the most useful thing to do." Halen said. “In a situation where you’re using this type of trick, you’re not likely to be talking much.”

"That's true, I guess," Kino said. "I guess also it's not as safe to be altering things inside your body, rather than just over it."

"That is also a consideration you should have, but really, that's not so dangerous." Halen looked down the table. "Actually, that's going to be one thing that we'll have to work on."

"What?" Sid asked.

"Learning to modify your own body with the power," he said.

"But that's-" Yan started.

"Dangerous, against the rules, I'm aware," Halen waved his hand. "But if you know what you're doing, it could save your life. I'm lucky in that I didn't have the Academy's rules ground into me from the day I started learning how to use the power. I had to figure out most things on my own, and so I don't have any qualms about using the power on myself or other people. You're going to have to get over that problem too."

"What do you mean?" Yan asked.

"If someone tries to kill you, and you end up hurt and bleeding out, you need to be able to fix that and get yourself to safety. You need to be able to stop yourself from feeling pain so you can work through it. You need to be able to mend broken bones and keep all your vital organs functioning. That kind of thing."

"Do you really think that we'll need to be able to do that?" Sid asked.

"Has it not been made perfectly fucking clear to you? This is a dangerous job." Halen looked at Sid harshly as he said this.

"You need to be prepared for any eventuality. I trust Halen to teach you," Sandreas said. "It's in your best interests to listen to him."

"Okay, okay," Sid said, backing down.

"We can head out now," Halen said. "It's been long enough since Vaneik left. You all, if you want to learn how to do this, watch what I do."

Halen reached towards Sandreas's face again and repeated the trick he had done earlier in the car, changing the look of his face enough that he was unrecognizable. It was far from perfect, and Yan thought the large cheekbones were quite cartoonish, but it was enough, as Halen said, to fool facial recognition programs. For a moment, Yan wondered why it was necessary, since Halen had said all the cameras in the area had been taken out, but again, she figured it was his job to be paranoid.

After Halen finished altering Sandreas's face, Sandreas reached out and did Halen's, this time only lightly brushing his cheek with his hand. The three apprentices, since they'd come in without disguise, could leave without one as well.

Aymon stood up and led the way out of the room. When they left, the guard at the door was still there. Outside, it was night, and the small moon was making its way across the sky. There was too much light pollution from the city to see the stars very clearly. The air was humid and warm, with a light breeze. It smelled somewhat like the ocean. Overall, it was a pleasant night out. The group walked to the car, which was parked in the back lot.

Everyone climbed inside of the car, and Halen and Sandreas dismissed their disguises. Halen started the car and they began moving back towards Stonecourt. Yan recognized the route they were taking.

The car ride was quiet, though Halen put on some music over the car speakers. Everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts, for the most part. Yan was looking out the windows, Sid was practicing changing the density of air above his hand, Kino was fiddling with a hair tie that she had pulled out of her pocket. Sandreas was alternating between looking at something on his phone and glancing at the other occupants of the car.

As she looked out the window, Yan noticed several other cars carefully following them. They were unobtrusive and unmarked, but they were clearly a tail. Based on Halen's ignoring them, Yan decided that they must be Imperial cars with security people in them.

After a drive of about ten minutes, they arrived back at Stonecourt. They drove directly through the security entrance. Yan felt Halen send out his power as authorization, similarly to how various secure doors in her apartment and in the Academy worked. There was a long driveway that led around the back of the building to an underground garage. Halen opened several security gates in the same way he had the first one in order to get them there. The car finally parked and everyone climbed out.

"I promised earlier that we could spend some informal time getting to know eachother," Sandreas said. "So unless there are objections, that's where we're going."

No one said anything, so they followed Sandreas. Halen walked at his side, and the three apprentices followed behind him like a train of black and red ducklings. They passed guards at doorways who gave Sandreas a military salute. To perform the salute, the person brought their right hand up to their forehead, palm facing the left shoulder, then down over their face, tracing down the middle with the thumb of their hand. The salute would end with a clenched fist in the center of the chest.

They all walked deep into Stonecourt. When they finally stopped, it was in front of a set of heavy wooden doors that had a pair of guards posted outside of them. Both guards saluted to Sandreas, who nodded at them and opened the door. Inside, it was Sandreas's private quarters. Sandreas closed the door behind everyone.

The lights were off as they walked inside, but Halen turned them on, revealing the interior of the room. The furniture was opulent, but it was quite clearly a lived in room, with personal memorabilia littered around. Pictures were on the walls, a few that Yan recognized as Sandreas and Halen in front of various landmarks on Emerri, or standing with other politicians or famous figures. At the other end of the room was a large window that was currently covered with curtains. The center of the room held two couches surrounding a coffee table. There were bookshelves covered with books and knicknacks on the walls, and closed doors that led to other rooms, presumably an office, bathroom, dining room, and bedroom.

Sandreas and Halen kicked their shoes off at the doorway.

"Don't track dirt in here, take your shoes off," Sandreas said. The three apprentices obliged, lining up their shoes neatly near the door. Sandreas wandered over to one of the doors and opened it, revealing a dining room.

"Anyone want anything to drink?" Sandreas asked, disappearing into the other room.

"I'm good," Halen called back.

"Just water, thanks," Yan asked.

"Nothing for me," Kino said.

"I'll take a water," Sid requested.

A moment later, Sandreas returned holding three bottled waters. He tossed one to Yan and one to Sid, keeping one for himself.

"Please, take a seat," Sandreas said, gesturing to the couches. Halen was already sitting on one, and Sandreas went to sit down next to him. The three apprentices awkwardly sat next to each other on the opposite couch.

"So, how did you all feel about the meeting with Vaneik?" Sandreas asked. "You can be honest."

"Was the point of having us there just to get a taste of politics?" Kino asked, picking at her nails.

"For the most part. You're going to be doing an awful lot of politicking, and this was as close to an informal setting with no audience as it gets. Rather fortuitous that something like that came up on the first day of your apprenticeships," Sandreas said.

"Nomar was nice," Sid signed. Sandreas rolled his eyes.

"If you want to talk in sign, it's your job to teach Kino," Sandreas said.

"Ok," Sid said aloud, then grinned at Kino, showing teeth. Kino looked like she was considering the idea if Sid bit her, would she be allowed to bite him back.

"I feel like it went ok," Yan said. "Hopefully that solves the black market problem."

"It won't, not completely, but it will at least make those particular planets and traffickers sweat a little. All that money is going to have to spread itself out over different planets, now. It's a little bit of a shame that it's going to become a little harder to track, but I don't think there's any way to kill a market like that entirely," Sandreas said. "Some of my governors have been complaining that the amount of drugs and other illicit things flowing mysteriously into their systems is too much, so this will hopefully slow it down."

Yan narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean by 'other illicit things'?" She asked.

"What do you think a black market runs? Drugs, weapons, human traffic, anything that anyone is willing to pay for. There's quite a storied underworld in the galaxy, I'm shocked you haven't encountered any of it, being a spacer," Sandreas said casually.

The notion of human trafficking made Yan feel nauseous. She took a sip of her water before responding.

"Why do people do it?" She asked.

"Are you asking about the nature of evil, or are you asking about the specific economic forces that drive it?" Sandreas asked.

Yan didn't really have a response to this, so she picked the one that was less embarrassing. "The economics," she said.

"Fairly simple. Certain drugs come from certain planets. People want drugs for a variety of reasons. Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous to the public health, but people want them very dearly, so people are willing to pay for them. That isn't so complicated," Sandreas said. He explained it patiently, but there was a tone in his voice that made it clear that this should have been well known information.

"Weapons are another story: if you are running illegal things, you're going to need to protect yourself from other people who would take them from you. That could be law enforcement or other criminals. It doesn't particularly matter. So weapons will get manufactured in secret, or stolen from legitimate sources, and sold to pirate ships and people on the ground who need to protect their people and product. Plus there are agitators on almost every planet who threaten armed revolution every once in a while, that isn't unusual."

So far none of this was particularly new information. Yan could have pieced this all together herself if she had ever really had a reason to think about it.

"As for the flow of people, there are too many reasons. Some people just want to move from one planet to another, to get away from debt or avoid prison, or just to escape things they don’t particularly like. That's the best reason one could have to be moved from place to place illegally. Other reasons are much less pleasant. There are plenty of people who are willing to pay to enslave someone, particularly women. I'm sure you can imagine why. And," Aymon said, "It is a lucrative business to kidnap and sell sensitive children."

"As for everything else, from exotic animals to precious gems to stolen art, there's a reason for almost everything to be bought and sold illegally."

Yan didn't really want to think about it. She was sorry she had asked. "That's disgusting," she said finally.

Kino and Sid both seemed fairly impassive towards the whole thing, Sid looking at her with an expression that indicated that Yan should have put the pieces together earlier, and Kino blankly playing with her sleeve.

"Yes, and I would like to quash as much of it as possible, hence cracking down on the Trade Guild," Sandreas said.

"That's good," Yan said. "But why couldn't you do like you threatened, just send ships to all those planets? It seems like a pretty high priority to stop all of that."

Sandreas sighed and leaned back into the couch.

"That's the million charge question, isn't it," Halen said, clearly already knowing the answer.

"How many ships would you estimate the Imperial Fleet has?" Sandreas asked the apprentices.

"Stardrive ships or in system ships?" Sid asked.

"Stardrive ships," Aymon said.

"Uh, the Trade Guild has about two hundred ships, so maybe four or five hundred?" Yan said.

"If you can't spare even six, I'm going to guess low. Fifty," Sid said.

"Six thousand nine hundred seventy two," Kino said.

Yan looked at her. "Where did that number come from?" Yan asked.

"Oh I just made it up," Kino said. "You already picked a reasonable number, and Sid guessed low, so I had to guess high."

Aymon raised his eyebrows at them. "And how many people do you think it takes to crew each vessel?" He asked.

"If you're talking about ship operations, specifically, I think you could probably get by on a crew of..." Yan thought for a second. "Thirty, minimum. At least that's what a Trade Guild ship would absolutely have to have in order to run a really small route."

"There has to be more than that, like, we're talking a military ship, here. There has to be, you know, actual soldiers, not just a bridge crew. Six hundred each ship?" Sid guessed.

"Eight thousand each," Kino said. Yan presumed this was another random guess. Yan couldn't imagine that many people on a ship, it would have to be unbelievably massive. Well, she supposed it wouldn't have to be bigger physically, just that all the cargo space that the Iron Dreams had would have to be used for personnel. She actually didn't have a real sense of the scale of these sorts of things. It would truly be insane to have such a large crew aboard a ship.

"And how many people," Aymon asked, "do you think we recruit to the Imperial Fleet from every planet?"

This made Yan stop and think for a moment. She certainly saw plenty of recruitment posters around whenever she took a trip down into the city from the Academy, and a good chunk of Academy graduates always went into the Fleet, but she hadn't really connected that with solid numbers.

"I'm not talking about planetary civil defenses, I'm specifically talking about the Imperial Fleet," Aymon clarified.

"I don't know," Yan said. "I don't have any sense of that."

"Hundred thousand people from central worlds?" Sid guessed. "There's always active recruitment going on."

"You're not far off," Sandreas said. "Call it a hundred fifty thousand each."

"That's a lot of people," Kino remarked. "There's, what, thirty central planets?"

"About. So call the Fleet about four and a half million people strong," Sandreas said. "Now, take out, hmm, seven hundred thousand for planetary forces around the Empire, and take out another three hundred thousand for being stationed on space stations that the Guild doesn't own, ship construction facilities, things like that. That leaves still three million people, in active duty, somewhere out there."

"And how big are military ships?" Yan asked.

"Each one has about ten thousand people on it," Sandreas said. "Some are smaller, some are larger, but that's an average."

Yan grimaced. She couldn't imagine such a massive and crowded ship.

"So, three hundred ships?" Kino asked.

"Approximately." Sandreas cracked the top off his water bottle and took a sip.

"I've... never seen one?" Yan said. "Like maybe the Iron Dreams just never was anywhere near a station where Fleet ships stop, but I've never even thought about where they all are."

"They actually exist, if that's what you're wondering. We do have a Fleet, and some of them do spend time in inhabited space," Sandreas clarified.

"So, what are they doing?" Sid asked.

"Fighting a war, obviously," Sandreas said.

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A note from javert

Bit of a shorter chapter today, but this is a pretty decent stopping point.

Hope everybody's monday is going well. I've spent the last two days turning crabapples into jelly and apple butter, so that's what I've been up to.

As always, thanks to Lydia for the beta read!

8/20/19 - added chapter title


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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