“Any group that is sufficiently isolated or cohesive will develop their own languages, modes of communication, and behavior. To integrate oneself within a new setting, one must adopt or adapt these customs.”
-from Language in the Outer Colonies: An Introductory Text by Kalian Burgess
Sylva arrived on the Iron Dreams a little the worse for wear. It had been a tougher journey off planet than she had expected. She was coming to realize just how much Yan had taken care of for her on their previous visit to the Dreams. Now she had to struggle with travel arrangements and what to pack all on her own. Describing her as harried when she finally arrived aboard would have been an understatement. She came along onto the Iron Dreams with every other passenger hitching a ride between planets, and there was no one there to greet her aside from the bored looking young man who gave all of the passengers a guest room. Sylva trudged there unhappily.
She didn't know what she should have expected. Probably she shouldn't have expected a warm welcome and a whole ship party, but she did think that she rated slightly above all these other passengers. After all, hadn't she spent a month onboard not too long ago? Hadn't she made herself useful and been generally well liked? Maybe most of the people she had known while aboard before only associated with her because of Yan, and maybe now they didn't even know she was here. That was a depressing thought.
Her room was in the gravity section of the ship, which she guessed was a luxury. It was weird to go there instead of to Yan's room in the belly of the ship. The bedroom even had a private bathroom attached to it, with a shower, so there would be no more trekking the ship to use the communal showers every morning. That had been a very annoying part of staying with Yan, and Sylva was grateful for the privacy that this guest room afforded her.
Still, it was sterile and barren without company. At least she didn't have to worry about attaching velcro to all her possessions to keep them stuck to the walls. Sylva sat on the bed and took stock of her situation. She had made it to the Iron Dreams, but she wasn't sure what to do next. She had her proposal for Captain Pellon, but she wasn't entirely sure how well it would go over. It wasn't as though she could just waltz onto the bridge or into his apartment- that would be insane. But she also couldn't just stay in her room waiting for someone to remember that she had boarded the ship. Sylva idly fingered the pin that she had been given by the captain on her last visit. She wore it all the time when she wore her cassock.
Maybe she should ask to take up cantoring again. She had enjoyed that more than she expected to.
But first she would have to find someone to ask. Maybe she should go find Yan's uncle. He would probably want to talk to her. She wasn't sure if he knew she had come; as far as Sylva knew, the only person who knew she was coming was Captain Pellon. She had sent him her long letter asking to come aboard, and he had responded with nothing more than the required travel documents. She didn't really know how to interpret that. She was worried that he had misconstrued her letter as just a request for a free ride across the galaxy, since she couldn't tell him about what had happened to Yan.
The official announcement had come before she reached the Iron Dreams, and she didn’t know how to feel about that. On one hand, she was glad that she didn't have to break the news herself, but on the other… It would have been fitting for her to do so. She wondered how Yan's family had taken it. Her uncle was probably completely crushed. For all that Yan thought he was weird (and he was), he genuinely cared about her.
Sylva unpacked her suitcase, noticing some of the velcro that was still attached to the back of it. Part of her was tempted to go take up residence in Yan's room, to go be weird and pretend like her ghost was there, or to sniff her left-behind clothing and cry. That was a little too far, even for Sylva. And Sylva was no stranger to strange lovelorn rituals. The number of papers she had practiced signing her name as "Sylva BarCarran" on was innumerable. They had all been burned immediately, of course. She tried not to think about how dumb she had behaved in the past. Foolish teenage things were behind her now.
Once all of her stuff had been put into drawers, Sylva re-attached her phone to the onboard messaging system. She checked the duty roster to see where Maxes was. Weirdly, he wasn't on it. Sylva paged through the information system to see the current manifest, and swiped over to the crew section. Maxes was indeed onboard, just not listed as having a duty. Strange. Yan had mentioned that he was the current council representative but… Sylva swiped through the list. The council representative was listed as Eman BarCarran, Yan's aunt, currently off ship. Had Maxes given up his post so quickly after getting it? Maybe he didn't like the council as much as he had thought he would.
Just out of curiosity, Sylva scrolled through the list of crew to check if anyone had filled the cantor position. It was still empty. Well, at least she could probably make herself useful by stepping into that spot. If she was going to be living with Yan's family, the least she could do was her spiritual duty. Sylva put her phone away and stood.
Whatever Maxes's story was, if he didn't have duty he was likely to be at home. She knew where he lived. She had visited his quarters several times. She thought his wife was sweet, and his two kids were rambunctious but fun to be around. Jaden and Sion were twelve and ten respectively, but they were already both taller than Sylva. Not that Sylva was particularly short, but it was a little awkward to be surrounded by extremely tall people all the time. She would just have to get used to it again, if she was going to be spending any length of time aboard the Dreams.
She walked down the hallways, reacquainting herself with the layout of the ship. There was the cafeteria, the chapel, the library, the classrooms, the gym. She remembered them, and felt more confident with that memory. Most of the actual crew quarters were in the other rotating ring of the ship. Guests were housed near all the amenities out of courtesy, or just to keep the uninitiated out of the crew's hair. Important things, such as the bridge, were far away from all these social areas. Sylva had to switch between the first ring and the second, which meant navigating through the zero gravity sections. It took her a few minutes of clumsiness before she regained her "space legs" and remembered how to dash about. She probably wouldn't ever be as comfortable as a natural born spacer, but at least she hadn't lost all her facilities during her few months back on the ground.
As she traveled the ship, a few of the crew members looked her over, but none stopped her. She couldn't tell if they recognized her or not. She certainly didn't know the names of most of Yan's extended family. There were just too many of them, and all of those who hadn't married in to the Iron Dreams looked vaguely similar as cousins and siblings tended to do. Sylva had been saved from awkwardly not knowing people's names countless times by the embroidery on most people's uniform spelling it out. Thank goodness for the industrial laundry of the Dreams needing all the clothing to be labeled with its owner's name. All those green jumpsuits looked the same.
Maxes's quarters also looked the same as any other door on the ship. There was the same gunmetal grey construction, the same peeling white paint labels, and the same scuffs and scratches from decades of use. Sylva hesitated outside the door for a long second. It was the middle of first shift, according to ship's time. Since Maxes didn't have a duty assigned, he would probably be home and awake. Jalena, his wife, had duty in the med station, so it was unlikely that she would be there. The two kids were either at school or doing their minor duties. Maybe no one would be home.
Sylva rang the bell. She waited about thirty seconds, but heard nothing from inside. Just to be sure, she rang it a second time. It was only then that the door opened. Sylva looked up at Maxes.
He was a mess. His beard had grown out, and his braided hair lacked its usual compliment of bright beads. His eyes had a haunted, dark look in them, and he was out of uniform, wearing just an undershirt and shorts. He looked down at Sylva and it took a moment for recognition to snap into place.
"Sylva Calor?" he asked, confusion written clearly on his face.
"Hi, Mr. BarCarran," Sylva said. "Sorry to surprise you."
"Come in, come in. And it's just Maxes." Maxes stood aside, and Sylva stepped into the quarters. It was a cozy place, filled with well worn furniture that had seen better days, and all sorts of trinkets and decorations that had been accumulated over the years. The walls were draped with tapestries, and the floor had area rugs taped down in strategic locations. Most of the furniture and decorations were fastened to the floor, in case of the rare but occasionally necessary stoppage of the rotating rings. There was no kitchen, but the family did have one bathroom. Off of the living room there were two bedrooms- one shared by Maxes and Jalena, the other by their two children.
"What are you doing here, Sylva?" Maxes asked, closing the door. "Not to be rude, but I never thought I'd see you again. I thought you were at your apprenticeship?"
"I took a leave of absence," Sylva said.
"Why?" Maxes asked. He sat down on one of the couches. Sylva sat on a large reclining chair. She sank down into it further than she expected.
"Isn't it obvious?"
"Did you come for the funeral?"
"You're having a funeral?" Sylva asked, blanching.
"No," Maxes said sternly. "No." He clenched his fists, his knuckles white.
"Oh," Sylva said. "No, I didn't think you were having a funeral. I would have come if you were, but…" She trailed off.
"Then what are you doing here?" Maxes hadn't quite relaxed, but the lines on his face smoothed a little. Apparently he reacted badly to anyone insinuating that Yan was dead. Sylva could understand that.
"I want to find Yan," Sylva said. This was the first time she was saying this aloud. She had run through her prepared script over and over. She had practiced variation after variation of how she would convince the crew of the Iron Dreams to go along with her crazy plan, but it felt strange to finally be delivering the lines in person.
"What do you mean?" Maxes asked.
"She was taken by pirates, right?"
"That's the leading theory."
"I want to infiltrate one of their ships and find where she went," Sylva said. She delivered her line with as much confidence as she could, but Maxes still looked like he was on the verge of laughing at her. He probably would have if he didn't care so much about Yan.
"So why are you here?" Maxes asked. He seemed genuinely confused, his nose and forehead wrinkled.
"I need help," Sylva said. "Not to infer things that you don't want me to infer, but I know you have connections. I know you could find a way to get me onto a ship."
Maxes frowned at her. "What makes you say that?"
"Uh…" Sylva didn't want to admit how she knew what she know. She could either tell the truth and admit what Pellon had told her and Yan in confidence, or she could say that Yan said something that she really hadn't.
Maxes stared her down in the long silence. He apparently wasn't going to let this go without an answer.
"Yan told me that you have connections to the black market," Sylva said. This wasn't technically a lie in the traditional sense, but it wasn't the original reason that she suspected that Maxes and the crew of the Iron Dreams would be able to help her.
"Did Yan tell you why she said that?"
Maxes hummed noncommittally.
"Well, is it true?" Sylva asked. "I came here because that's not the kind of thing you can just ask over the ansible."
"It's not the type of thing you should just ask someone in conversation, either," Maxes said with a frown. Sylva figured that his dodges of the topic were as much of an admission as she was going to get. "I assume Captain Pellon gave you permission to come aboard. Does he know that this is what you're here for?"
"No. I couldn't say anything over the ansible, and I messaged him asking to come before, uh, before the news came out. So I said I had a proposition. If the Imperial Government had never announced it, I would have told you what happened to Yan as soon as I got here."
"How long have you known?" Maxes asked.
"A few weeks."
"Captian Pellon and I were on Canerra station for Guildmaster Vaneik's funeral. We heard about it then." Sylva did the math in her head. She had remembered reading some news story about the funeral, but she hadn't paid it much mind. Still, that had taken place long before the official announcement.
"Who told you?"
"First Sandreas was there attending the funeral. He told us in person."
"Was he…" Sylva didn't really know what she was asking. Yan had a high opinion of the man, but Sylva had only seen him on the news. He seemed imposing and competent, but she didn't know much about his personality.
"He did his best to be professional," Maxes said, but she could tell that Maxes wasn’t expressing everything he thought. Sylva nodded.
"How have you been?" Sylva asked, trying to inject a note of compassion into her voice. She had just barged in to Maxes's room, his life, his home without preamble. Maybe she should have waited a little longer before delivering her own plans.
Maxes tugged on the end of one of his braids, curiously silent from their lack of beads. Over the summer, the clicking of the beads against each other had been a constant backdrop to talking to Maxes as he moved his head or walked around. "It's been hard," he admitted. "I quit my post on the council."
"You were only on the council for a little while, though, right?"
"I had been intending to stay longer," Maxes said. "My sons are old enough now that they could deal with me being gone for a few months at a stretch, so I was hoping to make it a career."
"Why did you quit then?"
"I needed to be home," he said. "I might go back someday, but I couldn't do it now."
"Oh." Sylva wasn't exactly sure what to say to that. "What are you going to do now?"
"Pellon and I told First Sandreas that we would keep our ears to the ground. I'm going to get in touch with some old friends of mine." The way he said old friends made Sylva more curious than anything.
"That sounds like it aligns with my goals pretty well."
"Maybe." Maxes wasn't willing to commit to Sylva's crazy plan outright. "I think you need to figure out exactly what you want, and you need to talk to Pellon about it. This is his ship, he doesn't like people doing things without his knowledge."
"Yeah, I wasn't planning on making it a secret. I just think he's forgotten that he gave me permission to come aboard at all."
"What makes you say that?"
"I'm here instead of talking to him."
"He's a busy man, and he's been… Yan was always one of his favorites."
"Yeah, I got that impression over the summer. Why?"
"He was quite close with her mother when they were children, and after she died, raising Yan became somewhat of a community effort. There are lots of people aboard who are invested in her." Maxes couldn't have said that in a way that made Yan sound more like a venture capital project, but the sentiment was clear. Sylva decided not to bring up the fact that Yan had always felt distant from everyone aboard precisely because they looked at her like some sort of construction set to build up. Yan's family dynamics were not supposed to be Sylva's business, but here she was anyway. Still, she could at least try to not make things awkward for when Yan came back. Because Yan would come back.
"That makes sense. Does everybody here know what happened?"
"Yes. Life goes on, though."
"Can I ask a question?"
"You clearly already are."
"Not right now, obviously, but are you ever, uh, planning on having a funeral?" Sylva asked.
"Bring me a body," Maxes said. "Bring me a body and we can have a funeral. Not a second sooner."
That was his right, as next of kin, of course. The concept of next of kin was debatable. Any one of her aunts or cousins could have claimed the title by blood, or Pellon as head of the family, but Maxes had raised her after her mother died. Sylva couldn't fault Maxes for that decision, but she wondered if he would actually keep it up if Yan didn't turn up after a year, two years, a decade? Would she wander unmemorialized? Sylva shivered.
"I'd rather bring her back alive," Sylva said, trying to put as much confidence behind the words as she could. "That's my goal."
Maxes smiled, his lips a thin line. "I certainly hope that you will succeed."
"So you'll help me?"
"I don't know what help you want me to provide, but I'll give you what I can. You should start by talking with the captain."
"Yeah, I should. I didn't want to interrupt him while he's busy running the ship, though."
"First shift will be over in a while. You can catch him at dinner."
"Does he eat in the dining hall?"
"Not lately. But I'll send him a message. I'm sure he wants to talk with you. Do you have an actual plan?"
"Uh, mostly?" Sylva wasn't sure how much planning she could do. She mainly wanted to infiltrate a black station and then listen around for gossip and trace that back to its source, but that wasn't the most robust plan.
Maxes sighed. "How long are you planning on staying on the Dreams?"
"As long as it takes to come up with a real plan, I think," Sylva said. "Not that I don't have a plan, but just, it might take awhile before it's perfected and ready to be implemented. Do you think that Captain Pellon will go along with this?"
Maxes had to take a moment to consider that question. "I think he'd be willing to do a lot to help Yan, and your best bet is to make him think that you actually can help her."
"You say that as though you think I can't." Sylva was rather put out.
"Be honest with me. What skills do you have?"
"I can use the power. I can learn any language. I'm smart and capable."
"If you go onto a black station, or are among pirates for even a second, you won't be able to use the power. You can't let anyone know that you're a sensitive." Maxes was weirdly adamant.
"Do you know what happens when pirates capture sensitive children? They hunt ships coming off Emerri just for that reason."
"Oh." Sylva didn't have much experience with pirates except in an abstract sense that they were bad. The only times she had even been in space were the summer and now. She had never met a pirate, just read the occasional news story about them. "Okay."
"So you're smart and good at learning languages. Maybe that will get you onto a pirate ship. But you're going to stand out like a sore thumb." Maxes looked her up and down. "I mean, look at you."
"What about me?"
"There's no person in the universe who will think you were born a pirate. You're just too short."
"So? I'll just have to have some sort of false identity that explains that."
"Such as?" Maxes didn't have bad intentions in asking these questions, but he was making Sylva feel more stupid and useless than she already did.
"I don't know," Sylva admitted with a sigh. "I came to you all for help, because I knew you'd be willing to help me because, well. Just because."
"I never said I wasn't willing," Maxes clarified. "I just think that you need to solidify your plan. Especially if your plan involves bringing the Dreams somewhere. Diverting a ship from its course is a difficult thing to do."
"I know you all still have jobs to do and deliveries to make. I don't- I'm not expecting you to ferry me across the galaxy. Just maybe to point me in the right direction."
"Sylva, if I knew what the right direction was, I'd already be running in it."
"You can't just go off somewhere, you have kids and a family."
"Yan is my family," Maxes reminded, his voice soft. "I know we haven't always been as close as I would like. But I raised her. She's mine."
Sylva wasn't sure if she should interpret Maxes as being sweet or possessive. If she hadn't known what she did about the plan that Maxes had concocted involving Yan's birth, it wouldn't have even been weird, but that knowledge tinted everything that Maxes said into off-shades. She wanted to trust him wholeheartedly, but the reservations and odd feelings that Yan had towards him transferred to her. After all, in the eleven years that she and Yan had known each other, she mostly talked about her uncle in resigned tones: yes he loved her, but. And it was that but that made agreeing with Maxes slightly awkward. Sylva just nodded at him.
"I promise I'll do everything I can to get her back," Sylva said. "I love her."
She wasn't sure if Yan had told her uncle about the fact that they were a couple, but it wasn't really a secret. It felt so obvious that it should have been apparent to all onlookers. Maxes didn't have a reaction to what she said, but they heard shouting and footsteps in the hallway outside the door.
"Jaden and Sion?" Sylva asked. Her question was answered as the two kids almost broke the door down in their hurry to come home. Sion dodged in the door first and tried to hold it shut to prevent his older brother from coming in. Sylva watched their antics with a smile, but Maxes seemed less amused.
"What have I told you about playing with doors?" he asked loudly. Sion, who hadn't noticed his father sitting on the couch, jumped about a foot in the air, which left the door free to swing open and bash him in the face. Sion fell over, clutching his nose. Jaden came in triumphantly.
"Gotcha," Jaden said, tapping his younger brother with his foot. Sion wasn't too injured, as he stopped holding his nose to snatch his brother's ankle. Now off balance, Jaden fell down as well. He looked shocked for a second, then started laughing. Sion didn't laugh, but disentangled himself from the pile of limbs and school bags and stood.
The two boys were both extremely tall and wiry. They took after their father in terms of the shape of their features; they had the characteristic low cheekbones of the BarCarran clan, and the same bright, wide eyes. They did share one peculiar trait with their mother, a native of Terlin. The two boys were immediately recognizable as hers by the odd patterning of light and dark skin that covered their bodies. On their hands, knees, elbows, and face, parts of their usually deep brown skin were a bright white. It gave them an endearing look, and they always stood out in photos of the crew. Their hair was braided like their father's was, in elaborate skinny braids all down their heads. They still had their usual beads, unlike their father. Sion's beads were large and shaped like animals: birds, bugs, the heads of cats and dogs; Jaden's beads were simple and colorful.
It was only after he stood back up that Sion noticed Sylva. He froze, scrunching up his nose.
"Hi Sion, hi Jaden," Sylva said with a wave. She had spent plenty of time hanging out with Yan's young cousins over the summer, so she knew them pretty well.
"Sylva?" Sion asked. Jaden sat up, looking to see who was talking. "What are you doing here?"
"Coming for a visit," Sylva said. She didn't think it was super appropriate for her to tell the kids about what her plans actually were.
"Cool. Are you going to do temple again?" Jaden asked from the floor. Both of the kids had no problem adjusting to her presence.
Sylva shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know how long I'll be here for."
Maxes stood and hoisted Jaden off the floor. "Did you have a good day at class?"
"It was fine, I guess," Jaden said. He picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. "I need to go to the greenhouse soon."
"Okay, go get changed," Maxes said. Jaden shuffled off into the bedroom that he shared with his brother. "What are you up to, Sion?"
"Math," Sion said, tossing his bag onto the couch. It landed with a heavy thud, even on the couch cushions. Sylva wondered what exactly he was keeping in there.
"All afternoon?" Maxes asked.
"Until I'm done with it," Sion said, with a face that indicated his dad was being stupid. "What are you doing?"
"I think I'm going to take Sylva to talk to Captain Pellon," Maxes said.
"About what?" Sion asked, curious.
"It's a surprise," Maxes said.
"Is this about Yan?" Sion asked, sounding grumpy. "That's all you ever talk about with Captain Pellon."
Maxes eyes shifted. "Yes, it's about Yan. Is that a bad thing?"
"No, I guess," Sion said. He sat down on the couch next to his bag and pulled out a tablet. He ignored his dad, who puttered around the room aimlessly for a moment.
"Sylva, let me just get dressed and we can go find Pellon," Maxes said. He seemed eager to leave the house now that his kids were home. He went into his bedroom and closed the door behind him.
"How have you been, Sion?" Sylva asked. Sion was focused on his tablet, and he didn't look up at her to respond.
"Fine," he said.
"Why aren't you going to the greenhouse with Jaden?" Over the summer, Sion had a short shift there.
"I only work when Victory is around. She takes me on Onesdays, Threesdays, and Fivedays." Victory was one of the older teens aboard the Dreams- there was a mentoring system to help the younger kids learn various jobs around the ship. Sylva thought that Sion was already graduated from that program and given independent tasks like Jaden was, but apparently he was still a little too young.
"How's your mom doing?" Sylva asked, vainly trying to find a conversation subject.
"Fine. She was busy when everyone got sick last month." Jalena BarCarran, Maxes's wife and the boys' mother, was the ship's doctor.
"Really? What did you all get sick with?"
"Flu. One of the passengers brought it on board."
"I thought you all were vaccinated?"
"Mom said it was a different strain."
"Oh. Is everyone better now?"
"Yeah." Sion continued to poke at the tablet. Sylva craned her neck to see what he was doing. It looked like math homework. Sylva sat back on the chair. "What are you going to talk to Captain Pellon about?" Sion asked, still not looking up from the tablet.
"I don't think your dad wants me to tell you."
Sion bit his lower lip. "Oh."
"I might be able to tell you later."
"Okay." Sion didn't sound convinced. "You know, we're not dumb."
"What do you mean?" Sylva asked. "Of course I don't think you're dumb."
"Yan's dead. You don't have to pretend she's coming back," Sion said sullenly. He swiped up on his tablet with such force that his fingers squeaked on the glass.
"Yan is not dead," Sylva said firmly.
"Whatever." Sion didn't seem to be in the mood for talking. She was getting the feeling that there was more to Sion's attitude than just confusion about Yan's status. Something was wrong in the family dynamic here, but it also was definitely not Sylva's business. She was probably making it worse by being here, if she was honest.
Jaden emerged from his bedroom, wearing a much rattier uniform than he had been wearing before, and carrying his personal gardening gloves. He had a bandanna tying up his long braids so that they wouldn't get messy as he worked in the greenhouse. His facial expression clued Sylva in to the fact that the interior walls of this apartment were very thin; he had heard their conversation.
"Headed to work?" Sylva asked, trying to raise the mood and be cheerful.
"Yeah. We're planting new corn today."
"Good stuff," Sylva said. She didn't know anything about the crop rotations in the greenhouse, and she didn't particularly care to learn. The most she had done over the summer was water a few plants and harvest a few fruits. Unlike a good percentage of the population of the Empire, Sylva had no farming experience. She was from a home as suburban as they came, and she liked it that way.
"See you at dinner?" Jaden asked. He seemed more willing to be friendly with her again than Sion was. Maybe the extra two years of maturity he had were the cause.
"Maybe. I don't know what my plans are, but I'll be around in general."
"Cool. I've gotta go," he said. "Bye Sion."
"Bye," Sion said. "Bring me a tomato."
"I'll see if there are any extras," Jaden said, pushing open the door. "But you should just ask in the kitchen." He left, bouncing down the hallway.
"You really like tomatoes?"
"I need one for an art project," Sion said, but offered no explanation of what the project could be. Maxes came out of his room, now dressed in his uniform and looking better overall.
"Ready to go, Sylva?"
Sylva stood from her seat in the cozy chair with some effort. All the furniture was just a little too tall for her comfort. Spacers must order specialty stuff to be more suited to their heights. Either that or they built it themselves in one of the ship's workshops.
"You think we can find him now? First shift isn't over."
"It's fine. We'll find him. I'm sure he isn't busy."
Sylva looked at him. "Not busy?" she asked.
"Not so busy that he can't talk."
Maxes held open the door for Sylva. "I'll be back so we can have dinner together," he said to Sion.
"Yeah, whatever," Sion said without looking up.
Sylva followed Maxes out into the hallway, and they walked along the great curved corridor in silence for a while.
"Why is Sion mad at you?" Sylva asked after a bit.
"What?" Maxes asked.
"Sion, he's mad at you. What did you do to make him angry?"
"It's been a rough few months for him. I don't think he liked me leaving to go be on the council."
"Well, obviously," Sylva said. "No ten year old would like their dad leaving for months at a time."
Maxes didn't say anything. That might be the only reason that Sion was grumpy, but Sylva couldn't tell. Either way, she had a strong suspicion that the whole family could use a good therapist, but then again, who couldn't. Even just the loss of Yan would have necessitated such a thing, but from the way that Yan had talked about her past, well, even after her mother died there had been nothing and no one. Maybe that was why she was so into meditation, it gave her a way to escape her feelings or whatever. Sylva didn't get the appeal, but then again, she lacked the attention span required for meditation, to the point where she barely qualified to attend the Academy.
They came to the bridge and paused.
"Wait here for a second. I'll see if he's available." Maxes swiped his finger over the fingerprint scanner, and the door to the bridge slid open. Sylva caught a glimpse of people sitting at computers and a big screen displaying the ship's current status as Maxes walked in. The door closed behind him.
Sylva leaned on the wall next to the door and stared around at the featureless hallway as she waited. She could understand that she didn't rate enough to be allowed into the control room of the Dreams, but she also didn't think she would cause any trouble if she was let in. It was just annoying.
The door opened again and Sylva straightened. It was just Maxes.
"Pellon will meet us in ten minutes in there." He nodded across and down the hallway at another door. Sylva followed him. It was a meeting room, with a long rectangular table. One nice but somewhat disconcerting feature of it was the floor, which had windows placed into it along the edges of the room. Outside the windows, the stars slid by. The glass was very thick, and probably wasn't glass, but being reminded of how close she was to a hard vacuum at all times made Sylva more than a little nervous. She wouldn't ever admit that to anyone, of course, but she wasn't accustomed to the casual way spacers interacted with their (lack of) environment. Sometimes Yan would talk about going for a spacewalk as casually as she would talk about going for a stroll around the Academy campus. Sylva didn't think she could ever get used to something like that.
She hoped that wouldn't be a problem when she put her plan into action. After all, she would have to be spending a whole lot of time aboard ships, if she really was going to track down Yan herself.
Sylva was starting to have her doubts about the whole thing. As she sat in silence with Maxes, staring at the floor windows, she worried that her plan was starting to sound more and more stupid, even to herself. But she was here, and although there technically was plenty of opportunity for her to hitch a ride back to civilization, Sylva was not going to be deterred that easily. After all, no one had even tried to stop her yet. Except her own worries about her plan, or lack thereof, things were going smoothly. And if there was one thing that was true about her, she had never let a stupid plan pass by without at least giving it a fair shot.
They waited. Finally, the door slid open, and Pellon walked in. Sylva hadn't seen him in a while. He looked approximately the same as he had over the summer. He still had the same aura of command, even if he was smiling and friendly. Maybe it was just the way that Maxes unconsciously oriented himself toward him, subordinate. Any room that Pellon was in, he was the center of attention.
Pellon sat down at the head of the table. Sylva and Maxes were across from each other.
"It's good to see you again, Sylva," Pellon said. His voice was softer than she remembered. "I got your message at a bit of an inopportune time."
"Yeah, I mean, that's what it was about," Sylva said. "I couldn't tell you over the ansible. I'm glad to see you, though."
"How did you find out?" Pellon asked.
"One of her coworkers called me. I was her on planet emergency contact," Sylva said.
"Oh. I'm surprised that you were told," Pellon said. "But maybe I shouldn't be. First Sandreas doesn't seem stingy with personal information."
"I wouldn't know, I never met him."
"He told us before he made the official announcement. It was… I've had better conversations."
"Yeah, I can imagine," Sylva said. "I'm glad that you found out from something other than the official announcement."
"I am as well. Now that you're here, though, you can tell me what it was that you were proposing in your letter. I'll admit that I signed your travel papers without thinking about it too much."
"Did you think I was coming for the funeral?"
"That would have been a reasonable thing to think, but I wasn't thinking. But we're not having a funeral, and you're not asking to go home, so I'd assume that there was something else you wanted to discuss."
"Yeah. Maybe this is a stupid thing to say-"
"Don't shoot yourself down before you've even started," Pellon said kindly.
"Okay. Did Maxes tell you anything?"
"I just- when I heard what happened- I needed to do something. So I thought, well, Yan got taken by pirates, right?"
"So there must be someone who knows what happened to her. If I could get onto a pirate ship then maybe I can hear, I don't know, and follow where she went?"
"You want to become a pirate?" Pellon asked, sounding as amused as he could, considering the situation.
"Uh, double agent?" Sylva said. "Spy? Whatever that would be."
"How do you expect to go about this?" Pellon asked. He wasn't angry, and he wasn't making fun of her, but he didn't seem entirely confident in this plan. Not that it was a very fleshed out plan.
"I was hoping that you could, uh, not to impugn your ship, but I think that you could introduce me to someone who could take me to a pirate ship, or something."
"I don't know if that would be as easy as you're hoping," Pellon said. "And what were you planning to do once you're there?"
"Uh, work on the ship until I heard something, then I would leave and muster up forces to rescue her."
"What would you do on this pirate ship?" Pellon asked. "Do you have any skills?"
"Uh, not really. But I could learn. And probably lots of people end up on pirate ships without any skills."
"Those types of people tend to end up in unpleasant positions," Pelon said kindly. "I would be hesitant to go aboard a pirate ship, if I were you."
"I can defend myself."
"Sylva," Pellon sighed. "You're an adult, and I can't stop you, but I won't agree with sending you into danger. I can't have you on my conscience."
"Well, okay, I can learn skills and then go, but I don't want- I don't want to waste time. I don't know if anyone is going to go after her, and I can't just sit around and not help. I have to try." Sylva scrunched up her face. Her voice rang with conviction, on this part of her plan at least. If the crew of the Iron Dreams was willing to help her, all the better. If they weren't, it would be a setback, but she would figure out a way to get on a pirate ship. No matter what it would take.
"I understand how you feel," Pellon said.
"We're already keeping our ears to the ground," Maxes said. "We're listening to everything that we can."
"That's not the same as actually being in the middle of things," Sylva said.
"You're most likely to end up on a ship where nobody has a clue," Pellon said. "Anybody careful enough to pull off kidnapping Yan in the first place, they're careful enough to keep their plans and locations a secret."
"There's no way to know that. I mean, they must have a big web of people, there's always leaks," Sylva said.
"Maybe," Pellon said. "But the point remains. If you don't have skills to offer, you might have to offer something else in order to get on a ship. If there's one thing that spacers and pirates have in common, it's no one does something for nothing, and that includes taking passengers."
"I'm here and I'm not paying my way," Sylva said.
"I believe you mentioned something in your letter about a business venture," Pellon said with a sad smile. "But I somehow doubt that you will be content to sit on the ship without providing any services, even if that's only cantoring on Sevensdays."
"You want me back as cantor?"
"You did a fine job over the summer, and we still don't have anyone filling that role, so I would not object if you want to provide us some spiritual guidance."
"I don't know how much of that I'm qualified to provide, I'm just good at singing." She was shooting herself in the foot again.
"That's better than nothing at all," Pellon said. "How long are you planning to stay?"
"That depends on if you're going to help me or not," Sylva said. "You can't change my mind on this. This is the best, well, the only plan that has a chance of working. And I have to take that chance, even if I do it myself."
Pellon and Maxes shared a look. Something was passing between them, some sort of remembrance of a conversation they had before, or some shared sentiment that Sylva was excluded from completely. It was a long moment of silence. Sylva stared at Pellon's still, smooth face, waiting for him to break the silence. Her fingers moved unconsciously to the pin on her chest, the one that he had given her at the end of the summer.
"You'll need to stay a while," Pellon said. His voice had changed, and there was a note of resolve in it. "If you really do want to go through with this, I can't let you go unprepared. You'll need to learn everything about how to survive on a ship. That could take a while."
Sylva grinned broadly. She didn't know what had caused Pellon's change of heart, but she was glad. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. I assume you want to leave as quickly as possible. You'll have a lot to learn. Maxes-"
"I'll take care of it," Maxes said. His voice sounded stiff.
"Of course." Pellon tapped the table, drumming his fingers. "I still hate this plan."
"May I make a suggestion?" Maxes asked. Pellon looked at him with mild surprise written on his face.
"Is there anyone who could accompany her?"
"No. Absolutely not. I lay down my line there," Pellon said. "It's one thing for me to help someone who is effectively a free agent, it's another thing completely to send out my crew."
"No one needs to come with me, I can do it myself," Sylva said. She felt like a whiny child saying that, but it was true. She could do it herself, and that was her original plan.
"I didn't mean one of us," Maxes said, though there was a note in his voice that made Sylva suspect he had been about to volunteer.
"Then who did you mean?" Pellon asked.
"What about that Maedes woman?" Maxes asked.
"Who?" Sylva didn't know who he was talking about.
"The one who wrote the letter," Maxes said. "I met her briefly on Olar."
"You mean the one who lost Yan in the first place?" Pellon asked.
"I don't think it was entirely her fault," Maxes said. "But yes, that one."
"Sorry, I'm still confused," Sylva said.
"Maedes was one of Yan's bodyguards. She was with Yan on the Tranquility when she was kidnapped, and she wrote Sandreas to tell him what had happened," Maxes explained.
"Oh. And why do you think she would want to help?" Sylva asked.
"Good question," Pellon said. He was skeptical.
"It said in the note that she was quitting her job, right?" Maxes asked. Pellon nodded. "Why would she do that if she didn't have some desire to be a free agent?"
"I read that more as an admission that she felt she hadn't done enough of a job," Pellon said. "I didn't take that as her saying that she was going to go out and take revenge."
"I think that there's a chance that's what she wants to do," Maxes said. "It's worth getting in contact with her."
"Why? Don't you think that would be overly complicating the situation?" Pellon asked.
"She probably has a lot of skills. She would have to, in order to have her position in the first place. And from what I saw of her, and the way Yan described her, she sounds both competent and devoted to Yan."
"How would you even get in contact with her in the first place?" Sylva asked. "I'm not opposed to talking to this person, but I don't know her." Actually, Sylva was somewhat opposed, but she couldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The way that Maxes said that this Maedes was 'devoted' to Yan, that stirred up a little flame of jealousy in Sylva's chest. She knew it was completely irrational, but why hadn't Yan ever mentioned this lady to her? Sylva tried to shake herself out of it. There were more things to focus on than this imaginary love problem that she had just cooked up in her head.
"She might still be aboard the Tranquility," Maxes said.
"You don't think it would send up red flags to the Empire to have us suddenly contact her? You know they read all the ansible messages, and we're definitely on a watch list." Pellon indicated everyone in the ship, including Sylva.
"I somehow doubt that the Empire will stop people who are trying to find Yan and bring her back. Obviously we can't talk about the plan in detail over the ansible, but I don't know why it would be a problem for us to talk to her."
Pellon looked somewhat unconvinced. "Well, it's an academic matter until we get into port. If she isn't on the Tranquility, do you have any idea where she would be?"
"I'm sure she lives on Emerri," Sylva said. "But I wouldn't know how to get in contact with her."
"Then let's just hope she's still on the Tranquility, or on Anthus," Maxes said.
Pellon's forehead was wrinkled up. Sylva couldn't tell if he was frustrated or just thinking. "We can contact her. I have to say, though, that this whole plan- I don't know if it will survive contact with the enemy."
"Who is the enemy?" Sylva asked. "We don't know anything."
"Precisely," Pellon said. He stood, and Maxes and Sylva followed him up. "We can talk more about this later. I need to get back to the bridge. Maxes, feel free to compose whatever letters you think you need to send. Sylva, consider yourself a part of the crew for now, with all the rights and responsibilities that affords you."
Sylva was actually taken aback by that honor. "Thank you, Captain," she breathed.
Pellon stuck out his hand and they shook. "Formally, welcome aboard. You have a lot to learn."
Sylva grinned up at him. "I'll do my best." It was Pellon's magnetism, his casual command, that made her take this seriously.
"I'm sure." He smiled at her and headed back to the bridge.
"I forgot that Pellon likes you," Maxes said. "That could have gone a lot worse."
"If he didn't like me, I'm sure he wouldn't have even let me on board," Sylva said. "But man, now I feel kinda bad." She rubbed the back of her neck.
"What, why?" Maxes asked.
"Well I have no skills, and Captain Pellon just said I could be a member of the crew- that's like, it's a lot." Sylva didn't really know how to express what she was feeling.
Maxes laughed a little. "Anyone who's not a guest is part of the crew. Even babies. Don't worry about being useless, I'm sure I'll be putting you to work soon enough."
"I look forward to it."
"You say that now, but probably you'll regret it the first time you're showed up by a twelve year old."
Privately, Sylva was used to being beaten by twelve year olds in most non-academic contexts. Her tenure at the Academy had been marked by persistent failure to show any promise while using the power; though she had the raw ability, she lacked the mental discipline that it required. Still, if the skill gap between her and twelve year olds was only in terms of skills to be learned, Sylva was hopeful that she could master things quickly enough to be of some use. And, as Pellon said, she would still be able to be a cantor.
"I think I'll be fine," Sylva said. "I'm motivated, after all."
"Clearly. No one else would be making up the same crazy plans as you are." Maxes walked toward the door, and Sylva followed, still distracted by the glass on the floor. "I'm going to start composing a letter to that Maedes woman. You should go pester Jalena, she can give you a list of what the most important skills to learn while you're onboard are."
"Will she be busy?" Sylva asked, not wanting to bother Maxes's wife while she was at work in the medical center.
"Probably not. She only became a spacer when she married me," Maxes said with a note of pride in his voice. "So she knows better than most all the catching up that you’ll have to do."
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].