“God keeps our ship safe when we’re out of the port, but when we get back we’re in the hands of the law. So keep yourself clean, work hard for your pay, and we’ll live to see the stars again.”
-from ‘Pirate’s Brother’, traditional spacer song
"Blessed is the Lord of the bountiful harvest, who provides for all our needs," Yan murmured as she bowed in front of the small shrine. She waited for her friend Sylva to finish her own prayer. Sylva turned and bounded up the stairs two at a time, with Yan following at a more sedate pace.
They were in one of the Academy’s dining halls for dinner. Students of all ages swarmed around them, crowding the massive room. Yan scanned for anyone that they knew, but in a sea of black uniform cassocks it was difficult to pick out anyone in particular.
"Anyone eating dinner right now, you think?" Sylva asked over the noise in the cafeteria, both of them lurking in the doorway as other students flowed around them.
"Yeah, definitely, there's gotta be somebody else fed up with working on their final. Let me check." Yan moved slightly out of the way of the passers by and closed her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she stretched her awareness gently over the room.
The bright, familiar, and comforting flare of Sylva's presence was next to her, and the room was crowded with similar lights- the light of life within all the students. Yan looked for any that she was intimately familiar with, found many students she recognized, but none of her friends were around. How unfortunate. Yan dropped her search.
“Any luck?” Sylva asked.
“Maybe they’re all working even more last minute than we are.”
“I’d hate to think that we’re the most responsible ones,” Yan said. Sylva laughed.
“Come on, let’s eat.” They got in line for food, which turned out to be a spicy chicken dish, and then sat down at a tiny free table near the windows. The sun was going down outside.
The two made an odd silhouette against the orange sky. Though they were both twenty, they were almost complete opposites of each other in terms of looks Yan was absurdly tall. Having grown up on a commercial space freighter, the lessened exposure to gravity had allowed her to stretch out to heights that her groundbound best friend could never hope to match. Her skin was brown and her curly hair was cut close to her scalp.
Sylva was short, round, and incredibly freckled. Her auburn hair was coiled and braided around her head, more elaborate than strictly necessary.
“You feeling confident about your project?” Sylva asked, fiddling with the chicken and rice on her plate.
“I feel confident that I’m trying to feel confident,” Yan said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to peak confidence levels.”
“Not even after you’ve turned it in?”
“I’m sure the instant I put my project in the hall and submit my paper for real, I’ll be hit with the sudden desire to change everything about it.”
“You’d just have to sneak into the hall in the middle of the night, and re-do your project right then before anyone comes in for the selection.”
“You make me out to be a criminal,” Yan said. “What do you take me for?”
“Is it better to be a criminal or to get a bad apprenticeship?” Sylva asked. “Answer me that one.”
“You’ll be fine,” Yan reassured.
“How would you know?” Sylva speared a piece of chicken so aggressively with her fork that it caused her plate to tip and send other pieces flying. Yan, quick on her feet, caught them in the air with the power and returned them to Sylva’s plate, slightly the worse for wear. Years of practice had honed her skills to where using the power like that was second nature. Yan was more agile with the power than Sylva was, so it was good that she grabbed it rather than letting it fall onto the floor. “Thanks,” Sylva said, stabbing the chicken again, more gently this time.
“I know because I know you,” Yan said. “You always try your best.”
“That doesn’t always mean I succeed,” Sylva grumbled.
“I’ve never heard of anyone hating their apprenticeship,” Yan said. “Or of somebody not even getting picked for one.”
“Well, that’s easy for you to say. You said you tailored your project specifically to get picked by the xenobio people.”
“Obviously,” Yan said. “I didn’t want to risk getting something else.”
“See, and if you do end up with something else you’ll be sad about it!”
“I don’t want to think about that,” Yan said. “I’ve been putting that possibility out of my head for years.”
“You’re deluding yourself is what you’re doing,” Sylva moped.
They ate companionably for the rest of the meal, trying to avoid discussing their final projects as much as they could. Unfortunately, it was the only topic of conversation that felt worthwhile, so they sidled up to it again and again until Yan could take it no more. She said goodbye to Sylva, and left the dining hall, heading back to their shared apartment. Sylva had some errand to run, possibly involving delivering her paper to advisor; Yan hadn’t really been paying attention when Sylva described it. Either way, it meant that Yan got to enjoy the silence of the night as she walked home alone.
She trudged up the dim stairway towards her third floor suite that she shared with Sylva. The solid wooden door was painted with an elaborate pattern of curved lines in various colors. Sylva had decorated it several years before. This door had more security than the outer door to the building. Yan laid her palm flat on the door and stretched her power gently through it and into the locking mechanism. Keys and locks, even common electronic ones, could be easily manipulated by Academy students. The common story was that new technological solutions had to be invented to cope with the mischief caused by hordes of powerful teenagers gathered in one place.
Yan entered her suite and turned on the lights. The main room was a living room, with the usual couches and television. One wall of it had a large window, showing the darkened courtyard below. There was a tiny kitchen that took up the left wall. Despite Yan and Sylva eating mostly in the dining hall, the counter was scattered with various snacks and beverages.
Yan sighed, relieved to strip off her black cassock. She didn't mind the uniform, it was fairly comfortable, but after a whole day of wearing it she was glad to be free. Underneath she was wearing a wrinkled and unbuttoned white shirt, which she also pulled to reveal a coffee stained undershirt. Her pants were standard black slacks. She tossed her discarded clothing and backpack onto one of the couches, then plopped down herself. She kicked off her dress shoes, still tied, and they landed somewhere on the other side of the living room.
For just a minute, Yan leaned back, closed her eyes, and let the quiet of the room flow gently in and out of her brain. It was almost meditation, but Yan didn't want to formulate a prayer at that moment. She just rested quietly for several minutes, clearing her mind of all the worries about her project. She cleared her mind a bit too successfully, falling asleep.
Yan woke suddenly, skipping the usual bleariness and falling directly out of her dream with a sense of urgency. Her heart was pounding. She had forgotten to do something extremely important, but it took her a moment to remember what it was. The living room was nearly pitch black, with only the single light from the courtyard outside shining in through the window. Yan rubbed her eyes. The time on the microwave clock read 11:42.
Thinking back to what she had been doing before she fell asleep, Yan remembered that she had meant to send her final paper to her mentor before the end of the day. She groaned quietly in frustration, not wanting to risk waking Sylva, who was asleep, judging from the lack of light coming through the crack under the door.
Yan disentangled herself from the couch. At least the situation wasn't completely lost, she could get the paper to Master Farber; he attended midnight prayer almost every night. She could catch him there. Maybe this was God telling her to go to midnight prayer more often anyway.
Yan pulled her computer out of her bag and opened it to print her paper. The printer in her room wheezed to life and started spitting out page after page. She slapped her computer shut and shuffled around the room, trying to collect various articles of clothing.
Now with her hands full, Yan nudged the door to her room open with the power and slipped inside. She bumped the light on with her shoulder and winced as it momentarily blinded her.
Her bed and desk took up most of the small room. The bed was covered with wrinkled sheets and a towel still damp from her shower in the morning. A few things were scattered on the floor, mostly discarded clothes and garbage that had made its way out of the can. The desk had a normal scattering of writing implements, old papers, and books. Most of its surface, however, was taken up by Yan's final project, which was covered by a towel and had a note pinned to it that read "Sylva- DO NOT TOUCH".
Yan's printer finished and Yan absentmindedly floated the sheaf of papers towards herself. The papers remained obediently in the air behind her as she looked in the mirror hanging on the front of her closet door. The undershirt she was wearing was stained with coffee, and her eyes were slightly bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles. Nothing to be done about the eyes, but she could at least change into clean clothing. After struggling to locate some clean clothes in the minor mess of her room, Yan judged herself to now be, if not presentable, at least in uniform. She grabbed her papers out of the air and stapled them together more forcefully than necessary.
Not wanting to haul her backpack to midnight prayer, Yan tucked her final paper inside the front of her cassock, pinning it snugly against her chest. She headed out of her room. Her shoes were neatly placed by the door, probably thanks to Sylva. She jammed them onto her feet, stumbling around for a moment in the dark.
She could make it to midnight prayer if she ran.
Yan took the stairs out of her building three at a time, her abnormally long legs serving her well. She used walls and any solid object to change her speed and direction which helped her to keep momentum as she sprinted. One of the benefits of growing up a spacer was a fearlessness about flinging herself full speed at any wall and utilizing the rebound to gain a positional advantage.
Yan banged out of the building and headed full tilt towards the massive temple looming at the other end of campus. Walking would take fifteen minutes along the approved paths, but by sprinting through the grass Yan could cut it down to seven.
More and more of of the temple came into view past the trees and other buildings as she ran. The stained glass windows were lit from the inside, giving the building a sense that it had eyes and was peering down on the rest of the Academy.
By time she reached the massive doors, the midnight bell was tolling. Yan was out of breath and her shoes were soggy from dashing through the damp grass. She edged her way inside just before the service began and found an inconspicuous place in the back.
For a midnight prayer, the temple was reasonably well populated. There were a surprising number of students from her year. Maybe that wasn't so surprising. Everyone could use an extra prayer for the success of their project.
Everyone in the temple was from the Academy; there wasn’t a single person not adorned in the standard black coat. There were plenty of Masters with their cassocks trimmed in different colors, but there were no outsiders. The services were open to the public, but most people from the surrounding area attended service in one of the many, less imposing, temples in the city proper. It was a shame, but most normal people were a little unnerved by sensitives. It didn’t help that while the normal population of sensitives was less than one in a million, many of them gathered at the Academy to train. Yan had often had the unpleasant experience of walking in the city and having people avoid her when they saw her long uniform cassock.
Yan was abandoned her train of thought and stood as the cantor started chanting from the back of the temple. He processed towards the front, ringing his small handbell. The change that swallowed the room as those first few notes began was immediate; every participant was at attention and every voice was raised in the familiar response to the cantor's call.
"Blessed are you, God of all creation,” the cantor sang.
"Blessed oh Lord, our God," came the response.
The service proceeded. One of the nice things about being at the Academy was that all the participants in the service had a chance to join in the active meditative. Yan was a big believer in meditation, both alone and with others, so she jumped at the chance to participate. The feeling of the mass mind of the group had a different tenor depending on who the participants were.
Any sensitive could join in the active meditation. The only requirement was that everyone focused on the same thing. In the case of the prayer services, the focus was on singing the standardized chants. The cantor kept the group moving along, and anyone who chose to could slip into the group mind. The feeling of the people around gathering into synchronization was alluring for any sensitive.
Following along with the chanting, Yan closed her eyes, listened, and sang. She could feel the group mind collecting around her. There was always the slightly narcissistic thought that it was just waiting to let her in, the last piece of the puzzle. The sensation of being around the group mind but not joining in always felt odd. It was a hovering presence that was at once hungry, eager to welcome, and completely indifferent anything outside itself.
For her, joining into meditation was easier than falling asleep. Maybe it was the spirit of God within her calling her strongly to that side of the art, but it made work at the Academy significantly easier for her. Some of her friends, Sylva especially, struggled to reach the trance state.
Yan let herself join in.
Distantly, Yan was aware of her own consciousness and her own body, but only in as much as she was aware of the bodies and minds of everyone else. By joining the active meditation, she relinquished control of herself, but gained a fraction of control over the group. With the entire mind focused on singing the midnight worship, her voice snapped into a perfect synchronization. They sang as one voice.
They felt tired, but excited and resolute and creative. They decided that they were not going to think about their final project because that would ruin the surprise and tradition, despite that project (a cloudy rush of indistinguishable images) being the reason they were there. They were happy to be here together as one voice. They were glad to be able to sing praise.
They really were. There was no note of their song that rang hollow or wrong, no intention to worship that was not genuine. They were buoyed by absolute confidence in the power of God in the world, and they raised each other up in their own tide.
The prayer service lasted about a half hour. If midnight prayer lasted longer, participants would start falling asleep. As the standard chant reached its conclusion, the group mind began to fall away. Before she abandoned it completely, Yan sought out the thread that was Master Farber, her advisor, and sent it a thought. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision after having her eyes shut for so long, Yan glanced around the temple. Most people were streaming out the door, eager to either go back to work or go back to bed. Yan’s advisor was waiting for her.
"Good morning, Yan," Master Farber said as she joined him by the door. “What brings you here tonight?”
"I came to give you my final paper. I didn't get the chance to send it earlier so I figured I might as well give it in person." She reached into the front of her cassock and fished out the (now slightly wrinkled) paper.
"Thank you very much," Farber said as he accepted them from her, clearly doing his best to ignore her pulling it out of her coat. "Is everything going well?"
"Yeah, I think so. Everybody's just nervous about the selection."
"Things work out as they work out, you know. Very, very few students are ever disappointed or unhappy with their eventual position,” Farber said calmly.
"That's fine for you to say, but nobody wants to be one of those few." Yan knew she was being hypocritical; she had given the exact same advice to Sylva earlier.
“There’s no point in worrying about it. Trust in God that you will be given the apprenticeship that is right for you.”
"I guess. You can tell me what you really think about my chances once you’ve read my final draft."
"Don’t doubt yourself so much. I'll send you my thoughts on it tomorrow, but I'm sure I won’t have much to say."
"Thanks." The two walked out of the temple and down a path towards the academic portion of campus.
"I'll miss having you as a student and advisee, Yan. You're definitely one of the shining stars of your year," Farber said. Yan felt the blood rushing to her face at this pronouncement.
"Uh, thanks, I'll miss having you too."
As they reached a branch in the path, Farber stopped and stuck out his hand. Awkwardly, Yan shook it.
“Goodnight, Yan.” He released her hand and started turning down the branch of the path that would lead off campus. She nodded goodbye and headed home.
The night was chilly, and a stiff breeze had kicked up through the trees. Their new leaves rattled in the wind. Through the shifting gaps, the large moon shone brightly, a bit past full. A thin scattering of clouds obscured the stars.
She reached her building, slowly climbed the stairs to her suite, unlocked her door, and went inside. As soon as she was in the privacy and comfort of her own room she changed into pajamas: a bright blue tunic length shirt. On a shorter person it might have been much longer, but being so tall it was the best she could get.
She lifted up the towel that was "guarding" her final project. Seeing that it was still looking just as it should, she smiled and put the towel back down.
On her desk her phone was flashing with a notification. She opened it with some trepidation. The message in her inbox made her groan and flop, scowling, onto her bed.
Dear Yan, it started.
It's been a long time since I've been able to check in with you, eh? We've been doing some long hauls recently so I haven't been in port for weeks. The captain was wondering if you're joining us for the summer? We've been missing you all year long. Let me know- we're going to be swinging close enough to you that we could pick you up if you hitch a ride out of system on the Sun's Gold. Cap. Pellon can write a letter of transit for you if you want.
I want to catch up with you, it's been a long time since we've gotten to be together face to face and I miss you, favorite niece.
How's your final project going? Can you tell me about it? I know you said there was some sort of confidentiality thing and you can't show me. Did you already pick your apprenticeship? I'm dying to know.
I know you're doing the best you can and that all your Masters love you ; ) Make sure you get a good apprenticeship, it's good for the family that you're doing so great.
Hope the rest of your school year goes well.
Yan didn't exactly hate her uncle, but every interaction she had had with him since the death of her mother had been painfully awkward. It was like they approached life from opposite perspectives, and he wanted things from her that were... confusing. All Yan wanted was to have a nice, simple life with a nice, simple job. Maybe someday she could be the head of a xenobiology research team on a new colony somewhere- that was the extent of her life’s ambitions. Her uncle, on the other hand, was constantly pushing for more. He was always negotiating new shipping contracts for her family’s ship, always making political connections, always telling Yan just how much he expected from her once she graduated from the Academy.
Even back before her mom had died, he had been weird. Not like hurtful, but pushing her further, making her work harder than any of her cousins on the ship. Yan guessed that this was at least partially responsible for her good work at the Academy, but it didn't make her feel any less... whatever she felt about him.
She would respond to him later. Since he probably wouldn't be back into port for a while, it wouldn't matter if she didn't reply right away. She halfheartedly tossed her phone back towards her desk, minorly nudging it with the power when her toss went wide. Maybe it was silly to use the sacred power to throw her phone around, but why wouldn’t she make the best use of the gifts that God gave?
It was late. She didn’t want to think about the future: not the upcoming selection and not the summer that she would probably spend with her uncle. Yan pulled herself under the covers and used the power to turn off the light.