The Flame Which Casts a Long Shadow
“On every journey, put your faith in the God who made the stars. No one can be lost in the sight of God, and no one shall be lost with the stars in their sight.”
-from 'Eighth Song: Wisdom'
The Telescope was a Fleet ship through and through. Unlike the trade vessels that Aymon had occasionally visited, the Telescope had little in the way of decoration, and even less in the way of comfort. The Telescope was a transport ship, not one of the massive warships that were on the front lines, but it was still quite large and heavily populated when compared to Guild ships. It was bringing supplies and new troops to the front, which allowed Aymon and his entourage to hitch a ride.
On an ordinary diplomatic mission, Aymon would have taken the ship designated for the Voice to use, but since he was travelling to the front, a Fleet transport was the more practical choice. Though he had been provided with quite large quarters aboard the Telescope, the softer part of him missed the privacy and familiarity of the First Star, which was the ship he normally traveled in. At least the journey to the front was almost over, and the real work could begin.
Aymon hung on the rail that crossed the viewing lounge, in front of the massive window looking out into space. The Telescope was stopped, waiting for the stardrive to cool and recharge enough to make another run. In order for the view to be still, the viewing lounge was in the non spinning section of the ship. Not having gravity was an inconvenience, so it was not ever very crowded, unless there was something in particular to look at. The only other attractive feature of the room was the small snack bar that would dispense a selection of foods and a very limited selection of drinks for a few credits. Still, the annoyance of eating in microgravity rarely made it a better choice than the lounge areas in the rotating portions of the ship. So, Aymon was alone.
At least he was until he heard the door open behind him. Expecting the person interrupting his quiet thoughts to be Halen, Aymon turned around.
It wasn't Halen. It was Kino, which was a surprise. He hadn't seen much of her during the trip, aside from briefings and formal dinners with the captain of the Telescope. It seemed as though Kino had been content to spend her unassigned travel time alone. The captain had mentioned to Aymon that she had asked one of the lieutenants to show her the stardrive. She must have been curious about how it looked up close. Aymon turned back to looking out the window and Kino drifted over to rest beside him.
She was stiller in the microgravity than she ever was on the regular gravity of a planet or in the rotating sections of the ship. It was as though she had to be extra careful not to send herself spinning with wild movements. Her two long braids drifted behind her head like snakes as she looked out the window beside him. Neither said anything for a long moment.
"Halen told me that you wanted to talk to me," Kino finally said. Aymon turned his head to look at her, but she was looking steadily out the window, both hands fixed firmly on the rail.
"You know," Aymon said after another second of silence, "You've been my apprentice for a while, and I really don't know you at all, Kino."
"What don't you know?" Kino asked, which Aymon thought was a fairly odd question.
"Everything," Aymon said. "What you like, what you dislike, what your goals are, what you feel, anything."
"Is this because Halen thinks I'm creepy?" Kino asked. "I know he doesn't like not being able to read me."
"Halen doesn't think you're creepy," Aymon said. "Please don't think that he does."
Kino laughed, an odd and dull sound that didn't echo at all in the viewing lounge. "I may be many things, but I'm not stupid."
"Are you doing ok, Kino?" Aymon asked.
"I'm fine," Kino said.
"Are you sleeping well?" Aymon asked.
"No worse than usual," Kino said.
"I was just wondering, since you..." Aymon didn't want to say Vena out loud, since they were still in a public place, and it wouldn't do to have someone overhear the de facto leader of the Empire asking about his apprentice's drug habit. Kino knew what he was talking about.
"I'm fine," Kino said shortly. "It was going to have to happen eventually."
"I'm glad you recognize that," Aymon said. "For what it's worth, though, I am sorry."
"For what?" Kino asked.
Aymon considered what he wanted to say for a moment. There was more than one thing that he could be apologizing for.
"There are many things that you probably blame me for. At the very least, everything that has happened recently. Even going back to Falmar, you could blame me for that."
"I don't blame you for that," Kino said.
"Maybe that's for the best," Aymon said. The rail pressed into his stomach as he peered out the window, looking at the stars.
"I was lucky," Kino said. "Or God wanted me to serve a higher purpose."
"I'm sure of that," Aymon said. "I never did get a chance to ask you, why did you make your project the way you did?"
"Oh," Kino said. "That was a long time ago."
"Only a few months," Aymon said.
Kino was quiet for a second.
"I don't want to see or be seen. I didn't want to make a project that has myself in it. But there had to be someone in it. I just thought, the piece of God that's in you or anybody is the same as in me, so it doesn't matter, really," Kino trailed off.
"I think you're in the wrong line of work," Aymon said.
"I know," Kino said. "But I am not free to desist from it."
"True," Aymon said. "Would you rather have a different apprenticeship?"
"No," Kino said, but as was usual for her, she didn't elaborate.
"Do you like Yan and Sid?" Aymon asked.
"Yes," Kino said.
"Would you have preferred to go on the other trip with one of them?"
"This is the best arrangement of us," Kino said, thought that didn't answer Aymon's question in the least. When Aymon didn't respond, she did continue. "Sid and Yan make a good team. I want to see the front."
"Fortunately, I doubt that the front will be very exciting," Aymon said.
"Oh," Kino said.
"I’m hoping that it’s all just a cleanup operation at this point. I wanted to get the chance to have a talk with the everyone running the planet in full, in person, about how much longer it’s going to take. It was convenient to do this before heading to Jenjin." Aymon paused for a second. "It's been a long time since I walked into an active warzone. You understand that for the security of the Empire, I can't do that sort of thing. We’re going to be staying on a part of the planet that’s already been completely cleared out."
"Yes," Kino said. "I understand."
"What do you want to see there?" Aymon asked.
"The world, and I thought, before we put our mark on it, but we already did. Before we put people who live there," Kino said.
"It's true that we do try to clean things up as best as possible before we let settlers come in. The world will be as pristine as we can make it," Aymon said. "It's a real science to clean up all traces of human habitation, just to let humans inhabit it again."
"Why do we go through all the trouble?" Kino asked.
"At this point, the strongest form of habit. If I had been my predecessors, I would have made different choices, but as you know, our whole society is built upon going through these motions the same ways we have for hundreds of years," Aymon said. "When one of you takes my place, I'm hopeful that you will consider the impact your choices will have on the entire future of the Empire, not just what is convenient for you."
"I will," Kino said.
Aymon laughed at her serious and assured delivery. "And do you want to have my position?"
"I want to do what is good and right and necessary," Kino said.
"Don't we all?" Aymon asked. "But you're being very diplomatic."
"I'm trying," Kino said. "It's important to say the right thing."
"You'll need to be a little more fluent about it," Aymon said. "Small word of caution that you sound very stiff most of the time."
"I know," Kino said, and she scrunched up her nose. "I know."
"A big part of this job is getting people to like and trust you," Aymon said.
"I'll get better at it," Kino said.
"I know you will," Aymon said. "You know, the apprenticeship process, choosing your apprentices, you're guaranteed to choose people who work well with you. There was something within you that called out to something within me, same with Sid, same with Yan."
"What part of you?" Kino asked.
"It's hard to describe. I think you and I, we're similar in some ways." Aymon stopped for a second. "Is it ok if I tell you a story?"
"When I was a child, I come from Lonn, it's a wonderful planet, mostly forest. There was one hot, dry summer. I was about eight, eight and a half. And that summer we had this absolutely massive, devastating fire in my area.
“We went to bed one night thinking that the fire was going to go the other direction, pass us by, but the wind changed while we were asleep, and we didn't... We didn't have time to evacuate. The fire circled us in.
“So my mother got us all- God, we had this pond way behind our house. Couldn't have been more than ten feet deep, we'd go swimming in it sometimes. My mother got the whole family to go stand in the pond, we wrapped wet towels over our faces to stop breathing in the smoke, but it didn't really help. And we had to stand there in the water for hours.
“We couldn't even tell when the sun came up, the sky was so full of smoke, and everything was just burning around us. It was so hot, your face would be scorched whenever you came up out of the water.” Aymon paused for a second.
"Not to get too metaphorical, but I felt like I was being swallowed by some giant with fiery teeth a hundred feet tall, trapped in its wet mouth. I remember thinking that I would rather die than stay there for a second longer.
"It was probably the worst day of my life, to have to stay there and watch our house burn. We lost everything. When the fire was out, we had to walk into town, it was about ten kilometers away, and it was like walking on an asteroid. Everything was dead and destroyed. And when we got to town, that was burned too, but at least... There were people who came looking for survivors and they took us to a shelter. We were lucky, at the time, to survive. But my family wasn't ever the same."
Aymon stopped talking and just stared out the window again. He could have gone on, detailing the aftermath, but talking about the ripple effects through the rest of his life would have involved recounting his life story to the present day.
"You have a talent for finding other people who have lost things, then," Kino said.
"Don't I?" Aymon said flatly. "What can they say, misery loves company."
"I'm sorry," Kino said.
"I think I've had plenty of time to recover," Aymon said. "A good fifty years."
"Still," Kino said. It was clear that Aymon's story had affected her. It seemed odd to Aymon, since she had lost much more, her entire family, her entire planet. But Aymon knew, or thought he knew, that both of them shared a horrible, formative moment in their childhood. Telling Kino was a way to link them together in his mind.
"Between me, and you, and Halen, and Yan, who in our little group doesn't have a tragic past after all?" Aymon said with a tone that was a little too jaunty.
"Sid," Kino said simply.
"Ah, well, I saw something different in him, I suppose," Aymon said.
"What?" Kino asked.
"The angry young man that I used to be," Aymon said.
"That's just admitting you don't relate to women," Kino said. She must have been feeling particularly bold.
"Kino, I have never related to a woman in my life," Aymon said. "But that's not what I meant."
Kino smiled a little bit, the gloom that had fallen over them broken.
It was a shame, Aymon thought, that Halen couldn't read Kino at all. Maybe it was for the best that Kino was here, so that they could get to know each other better, without the more intense Sid and adept Yan to overshadow Kino. She wouldn't be able to stay in her shell forever. If she was going to really succeed, in this apprenticeship and later, she would have to work for it.
"How long is it until we get to the front?" Kino asked.
"Two more days, barring any delays," Aymon said. "Did you enjoy your tour of the stardrive?"
"Yes. Halen told us that he used to make them, I wanted to feel what they were like up close," Kino said. "We had a class about them, but we didn't ever get to see one working."
"Don't get any ideas," Aymon warned.
"I won't," Kino said. "I know they're dangerous."
"God, the last thing I would want is the disastrous press that would result from one of my apprentices destroying a stardrive," Aymon said.
"You're more likely to have to worry about Sid for that, he likes to build things," Kino said.
"And I let him go on a trip where he and Yan are the highest authority? I clearly have made a grave error," Aymon said lightly. "I don't think he would be that stupid, Kino."
She shrugged, which bobbed her up and down in the air, hands still clinging to the rail.
"Halen told me to tell you that you're invited to lunch in the Officer's hall, at twelve hours, right before the jump tomorrow," Kino said.
"And Halen couldn't deliver this message himself because?" Aymon asked.
"He said 'There's your pretense for going to talk to him. Try to be natural, less awkward'. Then he told me where you were," Kino's impression of Halen's voice was shockingly accurate.
Aymon laughed. "Of course. Kino, you know you were supposed to open with telling me that, right?"
"I didn't want a pretense," Kino said.
"I see. Well if you see Halen before I do, tell him thank you for the invitation,"
"Ok," Kino said. "Are you just going to look out the window all night?"
"I'll go to bed eventually," Aymon said. "I like looking out the window."
"Why?" Kino asked.
"Many reasons. It's a good place to pray," Aymon said.
"Oh," Kino said. She stared out the window with intent, and in the long moment of silence that passed between them, Aymon saw her lips move as she mouthed a prayer.
When she had finished, she relaxed her face and shoulders. Her knuckles were white around the rail that the two held.
"I didn't mean that you had to pray," Aymon clarified.
"No, you just reminded me that I should," Kino said. She yawned.
"Are you invited to the Officers lunch?" Aymon asked.
"Am I?" Kino asked. "Halen didn't tell me."
"Assume that you are, then," Aymon said. "Go to bed so that you can be awake in time for it."
"Ships time doesn't make any sense," Kino said. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Kino," Aymon said.
Kino pushed off the rail and drifted back through the room towards the door. When she reached it, she turned around for a moment and to look at Aymon, who was still leaning on the rail and staring intently out the window. He was a dark shadow against the stars. Kino turned away and headed out the door.
Aymon stayed. These quiet moments where he could pray and think were more valuable than sleep, just now.