In the Shadow of Heaven [ORIGINAL VERSION]



Chapter Seventy-Two - 'Tis Better to Have Tried and Failed Than Never Tried at All



'Tis Better to Have Tried and Failed Than Never Tried at All

“Come away, oh lovely maid, to where the glistening waters play. Take your lovers in your hand, to a world more full of treasure than you can understand.”

-from “The Stolen Woman”, poem by Ousef Margraith

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Sylva and Iri, having delivered their message as best they could, now had no choice but to wait for the Bellringer to reach her ultimate destination. It was a long, long, long trip. Even at three jumps a day, as fast as the ship's stardrive could be pushed, it took them fifteen days. Thee other passengers grew restless. Iri and Sylva could hear them, complaining in the common areas of the ship. It surprised no one when the vitriol between the passengers and the crew grew so intense that a physical fight broke out.

Sylva, and everyone else, avoided the unscrubbable bloodstain that lingered in the dining area after that.

On the bridge, someone postulated that they could put the passengers into a shuttle and leave them in dead space to wait until the Bellringer came back. There was resounding laughter at that suggestion, most of it bitter. No one would ever go for a plan like that; not someone who wanted to live, anyway. Another suggestion was to simply kill them all.

There was far less argument at that one than Sylva would have hoped. She counted her blessings that she had Iri able to keep an eye on the official workings of the Bellringer. It made them far safer and better informed than most of the other passengers, which kept them out of trouble. Trouble was the last thing they wanted.

As they inched ever closer to the area indicated on the starmaps, the worries began to grow among the crew. It seemed as though they were chasing a star that didn't exist. From their instruments, and from the starcharts that the Bellringer carried, they were heading into a completely dead and empty area of space.

It spooked Sylva that they were so insistent on going there for themselves, even if it was clear to her that Starman, whatever his real name was, was lying. No one builds a station in the middle of nowhere, and there's no way a star could remain uncharted. But the Bellringer carried on, in the hope that they would find what they were looking for, in the hope that they would not be led astray.

When they were two jumps out from this theorized destination, Iri and Sylva had a long sit down to discuss their plans. It wasn't as though they had been doing anything else for the past many days, but they needed to get all their options in order. Sylva sat on the bed, her legs crossed stiffly, and Iri was on the chair, sitting backwards and tipping it on its two back legs. She might have fallen, had the room not been small enough that tipping the chair caused it to lean on the bed.

“Think there's a station out there?” Sylva asked. Iri turned back to the desk, to look at the two starcharts that were open there: their current position and their destination.

“It's that or nothing,” Iri said.

“Well, there's a possibility that whatever is there has been erased from all the starcharts, on purpose.”

Iri gave her a long-suffering look. “The reason starcharts are a navigational tool is because you can see the stars,” Iri said. “We'd be able to see it from here.”

“I read this proposal, one time, when I was in school,” Sylva began. Iri sighed, but Sylva continued. “There's this group, they wanted to put a sphere around a star, all made of things that would absorb energy, to provide like, the maximum amount of power to the people living there.”

“You know why no one's bothered to do that?” Iri asked, raising an eyebrow.


“It's a waste of charges,” Iri said. “Not really feasible, either.”

“But it could be done,” Sylva said again. “And that would stop emissions out of there.”

“Sylva, think for a second. If the Empire decided it would be a stupid idea, who else would even have the means to go about it. Or the reason to?” There was something weird in Iri's voice. She wasn't just saying that Sylva was being stupid, she was insinuating something else, but Sylva couldn't quite make the connection.

“I don't know, pirates, maybe?”

“And they'd bother with that because...?”

“I'm just saying it's a possibility, okay?” Sylva said, getting frustrated with the conversation. “A small one, maybe, but you don't have to shoot down everything I say.” She was huffy, and snipped at Iri. The long confinement and period of waiting was getting to her, just as it was getting to the rest of the passengers and crew of the Bellringer.

“Sorry,” Iri said. She didn't sound sorry. “Let's go with the assumption that this is a station, and we haven't been duped. We need to figure out a plan.”

“And we're also assuming that Yan is actually on the station?” And alive, was the unspoken half of Sylva's question.


Sylva thought for a second. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times, and Iri watched her.

“Spit it out,” Iri said.

“I hate to suggest this,” Sylva began, “but do you think we should just, you know, like we did with Starman, let the Bellringer take care of it?”

Iri frowned, but didn't say anything for a long moment. “Let's think that through. Okay, I'm the captain of the Bellringer, no, wait, I'm one of the people the captain sent down onto this station to grab Yan. Obviously, we're not being diplomatic about this, so maybe the station's already shot to bits, and it's rough.”

“So Yan might not even survive that?”

“We're assuming that she does. Don't interrupt.” Iri closed her eyes, her body tensing up. “I'm with my team, and we fight through to where Yan's being kept. Doesn't really matter what state she's in, but she probably looks pathetic. My orders are obviously to take her back to the Bellringer, so that the whole crew can do justice on her, but-”

“But what?”

“I said don't interrupt!” Iri's hands gripped the back of her chair, and she resumed her little imagined story, eyes still closed. “But suppose I'm on that team, and my, hm, daughter, my daughter was one of the ones that Yan killed. I don't think I want to bring her back to the ship. I think I want to kill her myself,” Iri said.

“Is that actually likely? Would the captain be dumb enough to send somebody like that?” Sylva asked.

“Have you seen the decisions this captain has made?” Iri asked, opening her eyes and looking at Sylva. She cracked her knuckles, stretching out her arms all the way in front of her. Sylva actually had to lean back in order to avoid getting hit. “Besides, it wouldn't be much better if Yan got onto the ship.”

“If she was on the ship, then we'd be able to...” Sylva trailed off as she thought it through. On a ship, there was no way to escape. In order to save Yan from the clutches of the Bellringer's crew, they'd have to all be killed, or at the least, incapacitated. Then Iri and Sylva would somehow have to get the ship back to civilization.

“Yeah,” Iri said as she watched the thoughts play out obviously on Sylva's face. “We'd be trapped here together. And I don't think they'll be waiting to get back to civilization before they do whatever it is they're planning to her. They've all got blood in their eyes.”

“So what do you think that we should do?” Sylva asked. She wasn't seeing any way that this could work out. They had perhaps backed themselves into a corner. The worst possibility was looking them straight into the eye. What would happen if they had come all this way, only to fail and then watch Yan die at the hands of the crew of the Bellringer? Sylva would never be able to live with herself after that.

She couldn't even think about what that would look like.

“I have some thoughts, but they're all relying on one big assumption.”

“Which is?” Sylva didn't mind that; their entire presence here was contingent upon wild luck, and so if Iri's plan required some more of that, then Sylva couldn't particularly fault it.

“I think we'll need to steal a shuttle,” Iri said. “And get onto that station ourselves.”

“I see several assumptions being made there,” Sylva said.

Iri smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. “I think it's our only real hope. If we can get to Yan before the Bellringer does, and then get out, I think that we stand a chance. Which is better than what we have right now.”

“And after we get Yan, what? You want to try to hide her on here?”

“Oh, no, I don't think there's any chance we could steal a shuttle and then sneak back on board,” Iri said. “That would be insane.”

“I was more like imagining that we'd stow away as whatever shuttles headed to the station,” Sylva said. “We might be able to do that.”

“No,” Iri said. “I think we need to steal a shuttle, go to the station ourselves, grab Yan, then fly as far away as we can.”

Sylva shoved her fingers into the braids that coiled around her head. “Let's start at step one here. You think we can steal a shuttle?”

“Sure. That's not difficult.”

“You don't think they have all that shit on lockdown?”

“Who's crazy enough to steal a shuttle, be real. And also, even if they did, I have the keys. Shuttles are all standard make. There's ways to get in.”

“Fuck,” Sylva said, as she realized that Iri was saying that they could actually do this. “Do you know how to fly a shuttle?”

“I've had some experience.” That was a slightly cagey way of putting it. “And they mostly fly themselves.”

“Sure, they'll fly themselves when the station's navigation system sends you docking information,” Sylva said. “Not when you're being shot at as an enemy. You don't know how to dodge missiles.” She shot Iri an accusing glance. “Gonna get us both killed.”

“You'll have to handle the missiles,” Iri said. “I know you can do it.”

“What? I couldn't hit anything.”

“You don't have to hit anything. You said you stopped them. That's all you'd have to do again.”

Sylva tugged at her braids, fraying them severely. “I wouldn't trust my life to that and you shouldn't either.”

“It's either we risk it or Yan dies,” Iri said. “And I don't want to think that we could have done something and didn't even try.”

“We are trying.”

“Then let's not give up at the last second. You handle the missiles.” Iri was definite. Sylva wasn't sure that she could, but she nodded slowly anyway. If they both died because she couldn't deal with the power, then that was Iri's fault for not coming up with a better plan. How long had Iri been thinking about this plot for? When she had first suggested it, it sounded like it was something she was coming up with on the spot, but clearly she had been mulling it over enough to have answers to Sylva's objections.

“And once we get onto this station, if it even exists?” Sylva asked.

“We don't know anything about it, so I can't flesh this out at all,” Iri admitted. “I don't think they'll just let us in, regardless, so we might have to board them.”

“You mean...”

“Good thing you're suit trained,” Iri said with a smile. “And I know for a fact you can open airlocks.”

“I hate you so fucking much,” Sylva said.

“It's either you open airlocks or I saw a hole in the side of the station. Take your pick.”

“Bring your power saw along just in case.”

“Don't worry, I will.”

“And then what?”

“Then I think we'll have to fight our way through to find Yan.”

The thought made Sylva's neck tense up. She pulled more at her rapidly fraying braids. “I hope you don't expect me to do anything there.”

“Not really, no. I know that Yan knows how to block bullets. If you could learn to do that, I'd appreciate it.”

“Not happening,” Sylva said. “When are you going to learn that the less you rely on me using the power, the better things tend to go?”

“It's the one real advantage we have,” Iri said. “That and the element of surprise, which we'll be giving up the moment we steal that shuttle.”

“It's more of a liability than an advantage.”

“Come on,” Iri said. “I'm not here to babysit your feelings, but you have proven that you can use the power just fine. I need you to grow up and stop being such a baby about this.” Iri tilted the chair dangerously forwards, coming very close to Sylva. “If you didn't think you could help, I don't know why you're even here.” She stared her down. “If you don't want to come, I'll do it without you.”

Sylva didn't know how to respond. She scrunched up her nose, and various thoughts ran through her head as she took just a second too long to decide if she should yell at Iri or not. It really was just a moment too long. Iri dropped her chair back onto all four of its legs and laughed.

“You know, if I'd said something that mean to Yan, she probably would have cried. You were just thinking about slapping me, weren't you?”

“I really will slap you if you say shit like that.”

“What? I'm just saying that people require different handling.”

“You're not my handler.”

Iri smiled at Sylva. “Then who is?”

“I'm a free agent.”

“Yeah, just like I am.”

“You're just on a leash that's a kilometer long,” Sylva said. There was someone out there who was letting Iri have continued access to tools and knowledge. There must be some sort of expectation there.

“Precisely. And I'm dragging you along with me. So, are you okay with this so far, or not?”

“It's a suicidal plan,” Sylva said. “There's absolutely no way in God's universe that we'll be able to get Yan off that station.”

The look on Iri's face was weirdly placid. “Sure. But we're going to try.”

“What would you do if I decided I wasn't going to go along with this?”

“I'd do it myself,” Iri said. “The better question would be of what would happen to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, as soon as they see that I've stolen that ship, they'd come for you,” Iri said. “The Bellringer crew, I mean. I don't think you'd live to see the shift out.”

“So this is you blackmailing me?”

“No. This is me saying that if you think you're going to die either way, you might as well pick the plan that has you trying to do some good in the world.”

“I wasn't being serious,” Sylva said. “When I said that I didn't want to go with you.”

“I know.” Iri's face was still so calm. “But it doesn't hurt to walk through the alternatives.”

“Let's get back on the main topic. Let's pretend that through some fantastic coincidence, we do rescue Yan. What then.”

“We get on the shuttle and run like hell,” Iri said.

“A shuttle can't outrun a ship with a stardrive.”

“That's true. But-”

“And if you even HINT that I should try to build a stardrive, I swear to God I'll kill you where you stand.”

Iri laughed. “No, I've heard too many horror stories about that. I'm just saying, we don't have to outrun them, exactly, we just have to keep them chasing us until reinforcements arrive.”

The dumbfounded look on Sylva's face must have said enough to Iri to get her to elaborate.

“I'm hoping that our message will be received in time. An Imperial warship might decide to make an appearance on the scene.”

“And if they don't?”

“Then we'll eventually die, and it will all have been basically for nothing, but, I don't know, you'll have gotten to spend your last moments with Yan, so worth it, maybe.”

“And this is like, the best case scenario of your crazy plot, right?”

Iri nodded.

Sylva stared up at the ceiling for a second, trying to think of how exactly she was going to phrase this. “If this whole thing was doomed from the start, which it probably was, I don't really understand how I ended up here, or why.” She dropped her hands onto the bedspread, laying them palm upwards. “But you're right that I'm not going to stop now. So.” She bit her tongue slightly. The right words just weren't coming to her, not to express the feeling that lived inside the cavity of her chest. There was something living in there, something bright and warm and alive, and that was pushing her onward.

“I'm not going into this thinking that I'm going to die,” Iri said. “And neither should you. I want to succeed. If I didn't, I think I'm at least smart enough to not be here.”

“Hey.” Sylva probably should have been more angry at Iri's dig at her, but she was feeling overwhelmed. She paused for a moment. “It'll be good to see Yan again.”

“Yeah. It will.”

They had their bags packed and ready. They were still in their room for the jump. It wasn't exactly the last jump in, because the Bellringer had made the (smart) decision to stay far enough away from the hypothetical station, running cold, so that they could observe without themselves being observed. That was the idea, anyway. Sylva and Iri were in their room, sitting on the bed with Iri's computer between them, listening to the bridge chatter and monitoring the instruments as the Bellringer counted down and jumped, dropping them into a new space.

“Do we have eyes on the station?” the captain asked.

“We're working,” one of the crewmembers said. “Nothing visible yet, but we're far out. It will take us a while to scan the area.”

The space around the ship was as barren and empty as any space was. All the stars were lightyears away. Though the distance to the closest one could be covered quickly with a stardrive, it was still nowhere near as close as stations typically were to stars. The energy of a star, and the resources that could be found around them, made them logical choices of building locations. The only reason a person would build a station out in the middle of absolutely nowhere was to avoid detection at all costs.

“There's nothing here,” one of the crew said. “Empty all around.”

“Will someone murder Starman, please?” someone else said jokingly.

For Sylva, this information was both a relief and a terrible feeling. Sure, if there was nothing here, they wouldn't have to go and definitely risk their lives. But on the other hand, this was a crushing disappointment, being no closer to finding Yan than they had been before they came to this ship. It felt like a failure and a waste. Sylva clenched her fists, and Iri draped her warm arm around Sylva's shoulders.

“We'll find something else, try again,” Iri said. “It'll be okay.”


The atmosphere on the bridge, which they continued to listen to, was much of the same. People were angry, frustrated, and continuing to search in the vain hope that there was something there that they had missed.

“Captain?” someone asked. A low level person, Sylva recognized the voice as belonging to a young woman who was training to take over the navigator's position.

“What?” the captain growled. “News?”

“Were we having problems with our gravimeter?”

“Not that I know of,” the captain said. “Why?”

“I'm getting a weird reading on it,” the woman said. “It's claiming we're in a gravitational field.”

“There's nothing here.”

“Dust cloud, maybe?”

“No, no dust.”

“How strong is it?”

The navigator in training consulted a chart. “It's giving a reading like we would get if we were 2AU out from, uh, Ayhup.” Ayhup was the star that Vanquished Station orbited. The navigator was probably using it as a point of reference since it was the last one they had visited.

“Micro black hole?”

“Don't see one,” someone else said.

Sylva could practically hear the annoyance in the captain's voice. “Will someone please go and calibrate it? It's probably just knocked out of whack.”

“I'll go,” the young woman said. “I feel like there's something weird going on.”

“What's weird is that Starman thought he could get away with lying to us,” the captain muttered, barely audible over the microphone.

Sylva pulled her headphone out of her ear and flopped back onto the bed. Bridge talk about technical issues and details with their instruments was not something that she cared about at all. Iri continued to listen, though, with an odd expression on her face.

“What?” Sylva asked.

“It's a pretty weird coincidence that their gravimeter would break right when we jump into this empty region of space,” Iri said. She continued to listen with headphones in one ear, but turned around to look at Sylva flopped on the bed.

“Wouldn't after a jump be the most reasonable time for it to break?” Sylva asked.

“I don't know.” Her voice indicated that she thought this was a bit more than a weird coincidence.

“You think there's a black hole out there, or some other thing we can't see.”

“Black holes aren't just invisible,” Iri said. “But no...” She trailed off.

“What? Spit it out.”

“How much do you think that you could feel with the power?” Iri asked.

“Are we really back on this?” Sylva groaned.

“Can you humor me for one second?”


“I know Yan can tell when someone else is using the power around her. Can you?”

“No. I didn't even know Yan could do that,” Sylva said. “Is that normal, or?”

“I think it might just be a her thing. When we were on the shuttle-” Iri's voice faltered a little bit. “She could tell when the Bellringer jumped in. Sid couldn't, so I think it's just her. But I was just wondering if you could.”

“Definitely not,” Sylva said. “Why?”

“I just was wondering, there could be something out there, hidden.”

“Someone could hide a whole station with the power?”

“Maybe. I've seen Halen make things invisible before.”

“It would have to be more than just invisible. No radio, no UV, no infrared...” Sylva mused.

“Sure. But light is light. And if someone maybe could hide a station...”

“What would be the point of that?” Sylva asked. “Wouldn't it just be easier to not give out the location.”

“You're right, I guess,” Iri admitted. “But could you check for me anyway?”

“I just told you, I can't feel when the power's being used.”

“I know, but you can feel if there's mass out there.”

“You're asking me to look over a huge distance, just to see if there's a station?”

“It'd have to be close, and big, if it's putting the kind of pull on us that a whole star would.”



“Before I waste my time on this, let's just wait until that girl fixes the gravimeter.”

Iri crossed her arms. “Like you've got something better to be doing.”

Sylva rolled over and pulled out her own computer from her bag. “I'm going to read more medical tutorials. I want off this ship as soon as possible.”

“Like you can focus on that at a time like this.”

“Maybe it'll take my mind off of whatever they're about to do to Starman,” Sylva said darkly.

“Do you want me to keep an ear out for that?” Iri asked.

“If you do, I don't think I want to hear about it,” Sylva said. If the Bellringer crew was going to kill Starman, which they almost certainly were, for feeding them false information that lost them almost a full month of profits, then she could only imagine what they were planning to do to Yan, who had cost them that much more. Her imagination could fill in the gaps, even if Iri didn't tell her anything.

Iri nodded slowly. “Will you at least try the power, once?”

“You're really not going to give up on this, are you?” Sylva rolled onto her back, putting her computer onto her stomach and staring up at the corrugated ceiling above them.

“I mean. I'd rather know,” Iri said.

“I'm probably not going to find anything, so you probably won't know any better than before,” Sylva said.

“It's better to have tried and failed than never tried at all,” Iri said jauntily, though her eyes had no humor in them.

“Shut up.” Sylva rested her hands flat on the surface of the bed and closed her eyes. Everything in the room was distracting: the sound of Iri's breathing, the whir of the computers, the creaking of the ship's air systems, the weight of her computer on her stomach, the temperature that was just a little too cold, her stomach gurgling, the feeling of the rough fabrics all around her body. It was as though the moment she tried to turn off the outside world in order to use the power, it was all she could think about. She resisted the impulse to shift and wiggle on the bed, but it only grew stronger the longer she lay there. Sylva could just imagine Iri staring at her, judging her.

The power wasn't coming. It was there, as it always was, lurking under the surface of her brain, but that didn't mean she could access it at all. Something in the way she breathed must have sounded frustrated, because Iri interrupted her fruitless struggle.

“You okay?” she asked. Sylva's eyes snapped open, and she lifted her head slightly to look at Iri. Though Iri was looking at her, she seemed more genuinely concerned than judging, as Sylva had imagined.

“Yeah, I just suck at this.”

“You're fine,” Iri said. “I believe in you.”

“And that makes one of us.”

Sylva closed her eyes again, and let her head drop onto the mattress behind her with a thud that made it bounce up and down a little. She heaved her breath in and out, and reached for the power with what she imagined was an iron fist. And if it was an iron fist, it was like she was grabbing at jello, or smoke. Her head hurt. She clenched her real fists on the bedsheets.

A hand grabbed hers. Sylva kept her eyes closed, but she felt Iri take her hand, gently uncurl the fingers from where her nails were digging into her palm, and stroke the palm and back of it, gently. It sent a little shiver up Sylva's back, which she resisted. If Iri thought this was helping, she was dead wrong. It was intensely distracting.

Even so, it was enjoyable, and it took Sylva's mind off of the rest of it. Feeling slightly less frustrated now, the power acted more like a placated cat than it did a writhing mass of snakes trying to squirm out of her hands. Sylva stretched out, mentally.

She could feel the walls of the ship passing underneath her. It was weird, using the power like this. It was easy to imagine what it looked like from the outside: an ever expanding bubble of sensation that started in her chest and worked outward towards... whatever was out there. But in reality, it was as though she was feeling a 2D slice of the world, but wrapped along the surface of a sphere. It was disorienting, if one wasn't used to it. Sylva wasn't used to it, but she also could identify the feeling of metal, and air, and warm, breathing humans, and knew that those feelings weren't what she was looking for.

The bubble expanded, and she felt finally the weird tingle of space. Vacuums had their own particular set of sensations to them. Out here, her reach was greater, because there was nothing that the power had to push through. If she was on Emerri, her range would have been, maybe, maybe, on the order of a hundred meters. She had never measured it, so she didn't exactly know. Here, though, the bubble around her could expand without restraint, and so she did, hoping that it would catch on something solid.

Something solid was not exactly what it caught on. As Sylva's presence in the power expanded out and out, it brushed against something that felt like electric sparks crawling through her brain. A chorus of voices, like the ringing of bells, screamed in her ears. It was as though she had brushed the surface of someone else's mind, like when she had been desperately trying to join the group meditation in one of the worship services at the Academy. Sylva processed that feeling of contact in a fraction of a second as it seared across her mind. She shrieked and dropped the power.

As she came back fully to her senses, Iri was gripping her hand tightly and leaning over her.

“Are you okay?” Iri asked.

Sylva's breathing was all over the place, loud and ragged. She tried to calm down, choked a little on the spit in her mouth, nodded, and struggled to sit up. She gently tugged her hand out of Iri's, and placed it on her chest, feeling the beating of her own heart. Iri stared at her, eyes wide, and waited for Sylva to be able to speak.

When Sylva's heartbeat slowed, and her breathing calmed down enough for her to talk, she tried to put into words the sensation that the power had fed to her. “There's someone out there,” she finally said. “Using the power.”

“I thought you said you couldn't-”

“No, I mean, I touched their mind. You don't understand.”

Iri shook her head. “That creepy mind sharing thing weirds me out.”

“Yeah, me too.” That wasn't precisely true. Sylva just didn't like it because she was bad at it. If it came as naturally to her as it did to Yan, or any number of her classmates, or her mentor, she probably would have liked it a lot more. As it was, her jealousy and bitterness towards it had combined into a resentment that colored her perceptions of the whole exercise that seemed designed to exclude her.

“So you touched...” Iri reached out and touched Sylva's sweaty forehead, brushing away a couple strands of auburn hair. “Someone else?”

“I don't know how,” Sylva said. “It's not usually like that.”

Iri sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and chewed on it for a second. “A couple problems,” she said.


“Did you find the body of that person?”

“No, just their mind. It was like they were projecting into space, or something.”

“Okay...” Iri thought for a second. “Do you think... Their body has to be somewhere, right? On a station?”

“I mean, you can't just not have a body. So I guess.”

“Is that something that the Bellringer can find, if they're hiding it?”

“Depends on that gravimeter, I think,” Sylva said. “They know something's up, but if they 'fix the bug' that they think they have...”

“They'll just be miscalibrating it. Right.”

There was a silence for a second.

“There's nothing we can do about that,” Sylva said. “Either the Bellringer figures it out or they don't.”

“I'll keep an ear out for that,” Iri said. “I did have another question.”


“Did that other person out there, will they know you're here?”

Sylva shuddered. “Yes.” It was unavoidable. The contact between two minds was never, ever a one way thing. Even if it was brief, it was felt by both parties. That was definitely for the best, as it stopped... intrusions. Sylva didn't want to think about what it would be like if other people could invade her brain without' her feeling it. It would be beyond horrible.

“Do you think they're going to do anything about it?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Sylva asked, indignant. “I don't know anything about them.”

“But you were in their brain.”

“Surface level. For like, max half a second. That doesn't tell me anything.”

“Do you think that they could do something to the Bellringer?”

“Maybe? It's hard to hurt ships, because they're protected by their stardrives, but this person felt pretty strong, so I really don't know. I don't know.” Sylva ran her hands over her temples, wiping off the sweat that had gathered there. Her heart was still beating faster than it should. She leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved her water bottle, and drank out of it until it was empty.

“What are we going to do?” Sylva finally asked.

“You're not going to like what I have to say,” Iri said.

“Of course I won't.” Sylva wiped some drips of water off her chin, then fiddled with the water bottle in her lap. “Spit it out.”

“I think our shuttle plan timeline just got moved up.”

Everyone aboard the Bellringer was sufficiently distracted, between calling for revenge at Starman, trying to fix the “technical difficulties” the gravimeter was experiencing, and deciding what to do next. It was the perfect opportunity, or as close as it was going to get, for Sylva and Iri to creep down to the unguarded shuttle bays. They had all their worldly possessions in bags on their backs, and Sylva had said a quick prayer before they headed out.

“Once I kill the power, we're going to have to do this quick,” Iri said. “Are you ready?”

The door to the shuttle bay was, essentially, the door to a very large airlock. Just as when they had deployed their drone, they had to take extra precautions. Sylva floated in front of the door, one hand on the thick metal. A strange new excitement was gripping her. There was no more waiting, wondering, or hesitation. This was it. Now or never. Do or die. Sylva nodded to Iri.

Iri pushed off the wall and floated down the hallway towards the closest power access panel. It was actually quite far away, and she vanished from Sylva's view.

Sylva drummed on the metal of the door, waiting. The power cut out, plunging her into darkness. This time, Sylva didn't bother reaching for her phone's flashlight. She had opened so many doors, she was at least a little confident she could do it again.

The power came to her along with the adrenaline that flooded her body. It pushed all extraneous thoughts out of her head. She pushed the power in streams down her fingertips and into the door. With a long moment's effort, she identified the deadbolts (made of a slightly different metal than the rest of the door) and forced them aside. She tried not to damage the door too badly. After all, she didn't exactly want to kill the crew of the Bellringer, and this shuttle bay by necessity vented directly to the outdoors.

By the time Iri got back, Sylva was already pushing the door open. It wasn't an easy thing to do in zero G, when her feet couldn't exactly find purchase on anything. If she had been smart, she would have used the power for that, too, but she didn't. Iri lent her a hand, and they got the door open enough to squeeze through.

On the other side, in the cavernous shuttle bay, Iri helped her push the door shut again. The sound echoed terribly in the darkness.

“You lock it. I'll get one of these started,” Iri said as she pushed off and went into the depths of the bay. Her own flashlight illuminated each of the shuttles in turn. Sylva watched for half a second, then turned back around to her own task.

They were in a shuttle bay and not with the dogfighters. They didn't have much of a choice. While the dogfighers were capable of much greater acceleration, and they had more weapons, they sacrificed seating and storage for those things. Since Sylva and Iri were hoping to bring back a third person, and hide out in space until help arrived, they would need the seats and emergency food stores that shuttles had.

Perhaps that planning ahead was far too optimistic, but what other option did they have?

Sylva refocused on the door. She called on the power to lock it. It was harder, this time, because she was distracted by the sound and light of Iri behind her. Still, she ground her teeth, found the deadbolts, and shoved them back into position.

The thrum of a shuttle's engine starting filled the air behind her. Sylva turned and kicked off the door, heading towards the shuttle that was sitting still on the floor. Its lights lit up a wide circle around its landing gear and stubby little wings. Fairly agile in the gravity free environment, Sylva stopped herself on the side of the shuttle, then pulled up the side and slipped in to the top hatch. She pulled it closed behind her and spun the heavy wheel to lock it.

The interior was slightly cramped.

“Why'd you pick a space-to-ground one?” Sylva asked as she buckled herself in to the co-pilot's seat. There were passenger seats, but there was no way she was going to sit back there.

“This one wasn't involved in the fighting, so it's the least beat up of all of them,” Iri said. From what Sylva had seen of the craft's exterior, that was true. “It'll work just as well as any other. You ready?”

“As I'll ever be,” Sylva said. She stared out past the control panel on the dashboard and into the gloom of the shuttle bay. The vague shapes of the other shuttles lurked there. Iri fiddled with a few dials and switches on the cluttered control panel that Sylva was ver careful not to touch.

“Get that door open,” Iri said.

Sylva was good for one thing, and that was opening doors, apparently. She turned her attention to the massive metal constructions on the other side of they bay, only barely visible in the light cast by their shuttle.

“It might be hard,” Sylva warned. “It's part of the ship, and ships don't like being touched with the power.”

“You've been able to open all the other doors, haven't you? You're still part of the ship, too,” Iri said matter-of-factly. “It would probably be a different story if we were going the other direction. But we're not.”

This one was different, something in Sylva said, but that part of her was probably just afraid of the sheer size of it. She just had to trust Iri that she knew what she was talking about. Sylva closed her eyes and reached out.

Air, air, air, the tangy feeling of metal, the tingle of vacuum. Sylva backed up a little bit, then searched around for the locking mechanism that held the door shut.

“Hurry,” Iri said urgently. Sylva clenched her jaw, keeping her eyes closed. She wrestled with the power.

She knew she was sweating; she could feel it gather underneath her jumpsuit, and her whole body was tensed in her seat, straining against the straps that held her down.

There. There were the huge deadbolts. She grasped each one individually and forced it out of its closed position. They resisted her every move, and even through the sealed shuttle, Sylva could hear them scrape and groan open. Then the doors themselves. She steeled herself.

This was it. This was really it.

She forced the doors open a crack, and an alarm shrilled outside the shuttle, but only for a moment, until the air escaping grew too thin to carry sound. She was pulling the doors open as though they were the jaws of a crocodile. She forced them open more and more. The shuttle jerked underneath her, and she gripped the sides of her chair, knuckles white.

“Can we fit through?” she asked.

“It'll be tight,” Iri said.

With the shuttle moving beneath her, forcing her back into her seat, it was even harder for Sylva to keep her focus on opening the doors. But she did, as far as she thought she could, and she opened her eyes at last.

The electricity in the bay was back on. The lights flooded the whole area, many flashing red with unexpected vacuum alarms. The shuttle was hovering in the middle of the room, and Iri had her hands on the yoke. She nudged it ever so slightly, and the shuttle shot forwards towards the gap in the doors.

“Too fast!” Sylva yelped as the shuttle veered far too close to hitting the wall.

Iri didn't respond, but swung the shuttle up and out through the gap, rotating it slightly so that it would fit. Sylva heaved a huge breath of relief once they were clear.

“Don't say a word or I'll make you fly,” Iri muttered. Sylva nodded mutely. She sat on her hands to avoid touching the yoke.

“How long do we have before the dogfighters come after us?” Sylva asked.

That was the wrong question.

Warning lights lit up across the dashboard of the shuttle as the Bellringer's own guns fired on them.

“Sylva!” Iri yelled.

The projectiles, a mass of rock shot out in a wide scatter, came towards their shuttle. It felt like it came from halfway down the length of the Bellringer, which was a significant distance away, but it was moving impossibly fast.

Iri jammed the yoke forward, and the shuttle's engines blasted, forcing both of them back into their seats. Sylva's vision blacked out for a second, and she gasped for breath, fighting to expand her lungs against the sudden pressure of acceleration. How many gravities was this? Ten? Fifteen?

It was almost enough.

The hail of projectiles reached them, and one of them clipped the back half of the shuttle. A horrible groan shot through the metal around them. The shuttle spun crazily.

Iri managed to keep her hand on the yoke, and after a few dizzying seconds, she got the shuttle out of the spin.

Outside the window, Sylva could see a trail of debris, chunks that had come off the back of the shuttle when they had been hit. They were incredibly lucky that it hadn't breached their pressurized section, or killed their engine. Al it had done was hit the tail section of the shuttle, and they weren't planning on descending into an atmosphere anyway, so that wasn't even necessary.

“Sylva, we need that shield, now,” Iri said. She moved the shuttle this way and that, trying to make their motions unpredictable and difficult to shoot at. Really all it did was make Sylva very, very seasick feeling, as it bruised her shoulders and jolted her around in her seat.

“I'm trying,” Sylva said. A shield was far easier said than done. It was one thing to do something concrete, like push open a door. It was another entirely to set up a power structure. Those worked not on conscious though performing each individual action, but based on holding the entire construct in her head at once.

She had taken a programming course at the Academy for one semester, in the hopes that learning a more structured way of breaking down ideas would help her with exactly this type of power use. One of her friends had told her it would. It hadn't helped at all, and she had hated every second of the class. She had passed, of course, but she hadn't bothered taking the second class in the series.

A regret that she hadn't tried harder to learn flashed through her brain just like the new series of warning lights that lit up the dark interior of the shuttle. Iri jerked them away again, and Sylva's head slammed back into the headrest, hard. They didn't get hit this time, but Sylva almost thought that the medicine of dodging was worse than the disease of getting hit.

“Let me know when you've got a shield up.”

Sylva grunted something half affirmative in response.

Part of the problem was that there were just too many ways to go about this. Should she enforce a condition where in a certain radius of the ship, the energy contained in movement was transmuted into light? That seemed to difficult. Should she pretend like there was an invisible wall out there in space? What would it have to be made of? She was thinking too much.

All she needed was a shield. A shield. Sylva reached out, far behind them now, and gathered up all the debris that was floating in space from when they had been hit. They had been accelerating this whole time, but the distance was negligible since the vacuum of space didn't interfere with Sylva's use of the power. Sylva pulled the garbage towards the shuttle, and flattened it out, mushing the metal and rocks together to form a flat disk. She interposed it between the shuttle and the Bellringer.

“What is that?” Iri asked, with a little too much disdain in her voice.

“You focus on steering the ship,” Sylva snipped back. “It's the best I can do, okay?”

“Is that going to block things, or do I still have to dodge? It looks thin.”

“It'll block them the same way a brick wall blocks a bullet,” Sylva said with more confidence than she felt.

“Fine,” Iri said. She pushed down harder on the yoke, forcing them both into a choked silence as they accelerated away from the Bellringer. All of Sylva's attention was focused on keeping her shield in position. She barely even noticed when another round of fire came towards them until it peppered her shield.

Her shield did not work exactly as anticipated, but it worked. Though she had been imagining it would look something like the slow motion footage of bullets peeling apart as they hit a solid target, the velocity of the buckshot was such that when it hit the shield, they both disintegrated into puffs of dust. Her shield held its overall shape because she was holding it, but it was full of holes wherever the projectiles had hit. The shuttle, however, was perfectly fine.

Sylva scooped up all the resulting garbage and added it back to her shield, trying to patch the holes. It wasn't elegant, and it wasn't even easy, but it was enough.

They had discussed beforehand the approximate location where Sylva had felt the other mind, so Iri didn't need Sylva to give her directions. She wouldn't have been able to, even if she had needed to, she was so focused on the shield.

They withstood several more rounds of shots, but each one grew less intense. Since they were accelerating away, and the buckshot that peppered them had a fixed velocity once it was fired, eventually it posed no threat. The first shot had been the worst, and they had taken it on the tail rather than the nose. Sylva was extremely grateful to that.

“Are they going to send out the dogfighters?” Sylva asked.

“I don't know,” Iri said. Iri was staring out the window, intent on steering them forward. Sylva looked at the rearview camera, and saw no sign of movement from the Bellringer.

Either it was taking longer to get the dogfighers ready than she would have thought, or the ship had decided not to chase them for some reason. She couldn't imagine why either way, but the captain of the Bellringer was known for making odd decisions. Maybe they just thought that crazy passengers stealing a shuttle would starve to death in dead space and they could come back and pick up the shuttle when that happened.

“Can you feel the mind?” Iri asked.

“You want me to try to look for it? That will definitely let it know we're here,” Sylva said.

“In a bit, I guess. Keep an eye out on the Bellringer, okay?”

Sylva obliged, and they fell silent as they both focused on their own tasks. It was a lull, and the tasks weren't particularly difficult, so Sylva felt the excitement leave her body and be replaced with a creeping fear that shook her limbs. She tugged on her braids nervously, yanking her hair.

“Keep doing that and you'll go bald someday,” Iri said, catching a glimpse of Sylva out of the corner of her eye.

“Shut up,” Sylva said.

They sailed on in silence.

Then there was an odd, creeping feeling in the back of Sylva's brain. She jumped slightly in her seat, even through the force of acceleration pushing her backwards into it. “I feel the mind,” she said.

“It's reaching out to you?” Iri asked, surprised.

“I don't know, I-”

Sylva's train of thought was interrupted. It was as though the shuttle had passed through a dark cloud, and had burst out into the brightest sunlight imaginable. The light flared into the cabin of the ship for a second. The window took barely a fraction of a second to auto-darken, but in that fraction of a second, they were both momentarily blinded.

The whole trapped light of a star shone on them, and on the monitor of their shuttle, three planets blinked into view as the computer scanned the system.

Iri blinked, eyes watering so much in the sudden light that a tear trickled down her cheek. Sylva scrubbed at her own eyes, trying to clear out the dark spot from her vision.

“Holy fucking shit.”

A note from javert

come away, o human child, to the waters and the wild, with a fairy hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand

and finally, finally, two of our main threads are back in the same star system : ) we're creeping closer and closer, crawling our way towards the end of act 2. (for the record, this act probably won't end until ch90ish? but we're getting there...)

Sylva doesn't actually know about anything outside the Empire yet. Iri does, but she's been tight lipped thus far. She maybe should have put 2 and 2 together from the weird situation with the pirates, plus the strange way her mentor acted when she left, plus Iri sorta dropping hints, but it's so outside the realm of anything that she could have imagined that you can't really fault her for not having a clue. It's like if I turned around and told you that the US government has been waging a secret war on dragon people in our sewers for the past 100 years, and the dragon people recently took prisoner, uh, a princess. Granted, it's far easier to keep a war secret if it's being fought lightyears away, with tightly restricted access to information (all ansible traffic is tightly controlled), and [redacted].

Please consider leaving me a comment and/or rating. They really brighten my day : )

Hope you all have a fantastic week. I'll see you on Friday!

update 10/21/19 - added chapter title

About the author


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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