The Home of the Past: Part Two
"God placed into the heart of each creature a spark which said, 'You are alive. You are a complete being. Let no one take that from you.' So each creature went their own ways, holding that flame on their tongues. 'I am alive,' they said. 'I am a complete being.' But such was the love that they had for their sparks that some creatures tried to steal sparks from others, and there were many battles fought. But a spark cannot be stolen, only extinguished."
-from First Song: Creation
"Are you paying attention to me, Aymon?"
Aymon looked up, slightly startled. He had been staring out the window of the office, contemplating the bright summer air outside, rather wishing that he was out in it. Unfortunately, he had a job to do, and right now, his master was reminding him of it. Caron Herrault, Voice of the Empire, leaned forward on her desk, looking at her apprentice on the couch. She had medium brown skin, and she wore her grey-streaked hair in a rather childish style, with it cut to chin length all around, and the bangs tied up at the top of her head with a long gold clip. She wrinkled her nose in annoyance at him.
Across the room, taking up a position at the other window, Aymon saw Herrault's daughter, Frae, staring at him. He didn't spare her a thought, and turned towards her mother.
"Pirates, Aymon. I'm sick to death of pirates." Her voice was tired, like something was catching in it. It made Aymon pay attention, even though he would much rather be doing anything else.
"This seems a little below us to worry about, doesn't it?" Aymon asked.
"Unfortunately, it's not. I had a very friendly visit from Treygar Vaneik this morning."
"Oh," Aymon said. "And I suppose he wanted to complain about things."
"Actually, he was offering me a bit of a warning. Some friendly advice, if you will."
"Like he's your equal," Aymon said dismissively.
"If you keep that attitude, you won't have much luck with the Guild," Herrault said, and the sharpness surprised Aymon. "You should treat them with more respect."
Aymon resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Fine," he said. "What did Guildmaster Vaneik have to say?"
"He told me that there's someone selling their own stardrives."
Now, that made Aymon lean forward with genuine interest. "A pirate? Did we lose anyone who's able to make them?"
"No, all our people are accounted for," Herrault said. "And they're kept under the tightest scrutiny." Herrault's brow was furrowed, deep in thought. "It could be another sensitive, Academy trained, who decided to take that risk."
"I don't know anyone from the Academy who would play that game," Aymon said. "I certainly wouldn't."
"I asked Setzali to look into graduates, see if there are any who have been acting suspicious, but I have a bad feeling that it isn't one of ours." Setzali was Herrault's chief of information.
"What makes you say that?"
"The pattern of behavior that Vaneik described. It didn't strike me as anything like an Academy graduate, either out for a profit or being otherwise manipulated. They are selling pretty slowly, but at far below the real value of a stardrive."
"How do you know that one?" Aymon asked, curious.
"Vaneik didn't specify. But if I had to guess, it's based on his knowledge of the relative wealth of pirate families."
Aymon made a noncommittal humming noise. "Okay."
"So. We have a problem on our hands."
"I don't see what the issue is," Frae piped up from the back of the room. Her mother turned to look at her.
"Connect the dots," Herrault said. There was an awkward silence that descended over the room, and Aymon took pity on Frae.
Frae had the decency to look ashamed when Aymon provided the explanation that her mother was clearly not about to. "Our power relies on there being a delicate balance between people and money flowing between planets. If the gates of that flow are opened, we lose control. Vaneik knows that. His power is tied directly to ours, and to the fact that the Guild has the only 'free' stardrive use. If pirates are making and selling stardrives, we lose some of that control. The more we lose, the worse things get," Aymon said flatly.
Herrault looked between the two of them, and the ghost of a frown touched the corners of her mouth. What was she thinking about, Aymon wondered. Probably there was more going on here than just pirates.
"Are you bringing this up with me because you want me to deal with it?" Aymon asked Herrault. "Is Obra not going to be involved?" Obra was Herrault's other (living) apprentice.
"Obra has other things to worry about. I want you to take care of it, if only to get you out of my hair."
Aymon looked up at her, caught completely off guard.
"I'm not kidding," she said, and her tone had become razor sharp.
"I'm aware. So this is some kind of punishment?" He did get the feeling that tracking down pirates, important though it probably was, was not a task that would be worthwhile. He had better things to work on, and anything that involved chasing ships tended to be something that could drag on, and on.
"Your need to be the center of attention in every room you enter has rumpled the cassock of one too many council members. I'm tired of putting out the fires that you've been starting recently."
Herrault's face and tone were calm, but she wasn't being pleasant. "I appreciate that you were trying to help me," Herrault said. "The fact that I know your intentions were good, at least the intentions that were in your conscious brain, is the only thing that's stopping me from doing something to you that we would both regret."
Herrault raised her hand to stop his protests. Her daughter looked on, face turning pale as she realized what her mother was talking about.
"When you learn that Council members are having an affair with each other," Herrault continued, "You tell me about it. You do not go out to a party, get completely shitfaced, and try to use that information as a bargaining chip. You have a compulsive need to be in the center of things, and it's killing me, Aymon."
"I'm not interested in your justifications," she said. She picked up a pen and clicked it open and shut, a loud nervous or frustrated tic.
"You're young. I get it. But that doesn't mean you have to be stupid."
She stared Aymon down. It took all his willpower to not bite back with some response. When Herrault got into this kind of mood, he probably wouldn't be able to do anything beside dig himself in deeper. "So, you're putting me in time out?" he asked.
She sighed, deflated a little. "You're going to take the Fleet ship Whitewater, and you're going to go chase pirates until you can learn how to behave with some dignity. Either that, or until the Council has gotten over your little indiscretion. Preferably both."
"Catching the stardrive maker doesn't factor in to me getting to come back?"
She ignored him. "Think of it as a vacation, if it helps."
Aymon frowned, muttered, "When do I leave?"
"As soon as the Whitewater docks at Emerri Station," she said. "Pack your bags."
"Can I go with him?" Frae asked. Her mother looked over at her sharply.
"You absolutely will not," she said.
Frae scowled at the ground.
"Is that everything?" Aymon asked, trying to keep the frustration out of his own voice.
"Yes," Herrault said. "It is."
So Aymon stood, with as much dignity as he could muster, and left the office. He hadn't gotten very far down the sunlit hall when he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him. He half turned, saw that it was Frae, and continued walking. She caught up with him and walked at his side. He refused to acknowledge her for a moment, but then his anger got the better of him.
"Why did you tell her?" he asked, spitting the words out.
"I didn't! I swear I didn't!"
Aymon didn't say anything, just walked faster. Frae struggled to keep up.
"She's just as mad at me for not stopping you," Frae said. "I can tell I'm gonna get it later."
Aymon barked out a harsh laugh. "Like you're responsible for me."
"Anything either of us, or Obra, whatever we do, it reflects on her. She just wants us to-- I don't know." Frae threw up her hands in frustration.
"Tell her that I'm not your problem, and you're not mine."
Frae scowled at the ground again. It seemed to be her chronic state.
"Why did you ask to come with me?" Aymon asked. "Just to get away from her?"
"No, I wanted to just..." Her voice quivered minutely. "Spend some time with you."
"You're my boss' daughter. Not my friend. Stop trying to be something you're not. It doesn't suit you."
They came to a juncture in the hallway, marble floors stretching out in two directions, and Aymon turned sharply, walking away and leaving Frae standing alone.
He didn't like being on the Whitewater. It was incredibly tedious, to have nothing to do. It was the perfect punishment for his crime, in a way. If his master thought he had been trying to get too close to the center of things, wanting all eyes on himself, then sending him out into the vast desert of space was truly the way to punish him. He couldn't even really make an impression on the senior staff of the ship. They were deferential in the right places, and gently sidestepped Aymon whenever he thought about sticking his nose into the goings on of the ship where it didn't belong. He was bored, and, if he could admit it to himself, lonely.
He was taking his punishment on the nose. Whenever they were somewhere with an ansible to collect information, he eagerly read any missives that came from his master, hoping that one of them would be a summons or a reprieve from this boredom. He would have even taken Frae for company, even with her strange attitude towards him, and he certainly wouldn't have minded if Obra was around.
They were chasing a ship. The Whitewater was small and fast, and this ship was meandering. Imperial intelligence had ascertained which pirate ship they were meant to be tracking, and from there it was simply a matter of waiting in ambush for it outside a black station that it often visited. They would run the Whitewater cold, so that it couldn't be detected on the station's instruments, wait for the ship to jump in, wait for it to jump out, and follow it. From there, it could be easily destroyed, without the worry that anyone at the black station would interfere. It was scummy work, but Aymon was beginning to feel like that was his lot.
They waited, and, though it was an excruciatingly long wait (days! weeks!), to the point where there was speculation that someone else had destroyed their prize, the ship did jump in to the station. And, ten hours later, jumped out. The instruments aboard the Whitewater could pinpoint the direction and distance that the ship jumped, especially when the jump was so fresh, so it was a simple enough matter to follow it out.
And from there, it was an easy thing to take the ship. Though they had no need for the ship's stardrive, and so felt like the whole ship could be destroyed with impunity, Aymon requested that they take it without resorting to blowing it to pieces, just so that the computers could be examined. He wanted to see how exactly this group of pirates had come to be able to make their own drives. That question had been idly haunting him since the beginning of this little misadventure, so he was willing to devote a few more resources to figuring it out.
Ship-to-ship combat was thrilling. Aymon didn't take part-- the captain had informed him in the politest possible tone that he would probably only get in the way of the Whitewater's own sensitives. Aymon tried and failed not to take offense at that, but he stood back and just watched as the pirates' shuttles were destroyed, and then their ship was boarded. He listened to the radio with breath that caught in his throat every time they pronounced another room clear.
Someone scraped the ship's computer and transmitted the data over as they continued to clear the ship.
"Will you take a look at that," someone's voice crackled over the radio. A picture flashed up on the big screen in the room they were using to coordinate the operation, where Aymon sat at the head of the table. The image was of a clearly re-purposed meat vat, usually kept near the greenhouse of a ship, but this one had been hauled into the medical center. In its tubes, carefully partitioned off, were brains, each one growing at its own steady pace.
"Destroy those," Aymon snapped. "And make sure we have the person they belong to."
"They're not labeled," someone complained. "Not with a name, anyway."
"Why would they be?" Aymon asked. "Check the genetics if you must."
"That will take time."
"I don't want a sensitive knocking around unaccounted for," Aymon said.
The captain spoke up. "We haven't had any sensitive resistance." They had been prepared for such an eventuality, but their own sensitives and shuttles had walked right over the relatively defenseless pirate ship. There was a nagging fear in Aymon that the sensitive they were looking for was not on board. They knew that this ship's crew had, relatively recently, split off from a different and more established ship. Perhaps the sensitive was there.
He, along with the Whitewater's resident computer team, combed through the information that they had scraped from the ship.
"Take a look at this," one of the experts said. "Coordinates to nowhere?" He showed Aymon a starmap that did indeed seem to be a stretch of space that was far away from any star.
"Probably the meeting place for where they sell a newly made drive."
"I'm not seeing any financial information about that," the expert said. Aymon shrugged.
"If you think it's important, then we can investigate it when we're done here. I'm going to assume that our sensitive was on the ship, though. Make sure you're thorough with the genetics."
After several hours,the results of the search came back negative. Aymon swore, though he tried not to make it seem as though he was swearing at the crew of the Whitewater. They looked on at him patiently.
"Well, let's go check out those coordinates," the captain suggested. "Just as soon as we take this stardrive out and destroy the hulk." So it ended up being quite a long time before they were moving again, and the coordinates they had been given were many jumps away. By time they arrived at the spot, there was no trace on the instruments of the "wake" left in the ether by a ship being pulled through space by a stardrive. The larger the ship, the larger the wake it left.
There was no sign, either, of a shuttle that had been abandoned here, with its owner left to make a drive. That was the only other thing that Aymon could imagine these coordinates were for.
So, the Whitewater was forced to conclude that this was a meeting spot, but no meeting was forthcoming. Perhaps it was the spot they had planned to use, once they arranged a buyer for thier drive. Either way, it was a dead end, and Aymon ground his teeth as the Whitewater left and found some other task to amuse itself with.
After all, the ship was on duty simply to babysit him, and he had not yet been summoned back to Caron Herrault's side. They were stuck chasing the ghosts of pirates, like it or not. They hunted down the originating ship of the one they had just killed, and they destroyed it as well. There was still no sign of their missing sensitive, and Aymon began to suspect that he was dead by someone else's hand.
But it came to be that, after some time of wandering through space and picking up the occasional missive from agents tucked neatly away aboard black stations, that they heard a strange rumor. There was a shuttle, apparently unaccompanied by a ship, always crewed by the same man, that was making its way through space. This was clearly impossible, as shuttles had absolutely no capacity for interstellar travel. But it was worth investigating anyway, as the Whitewater had nothing better to do. So they chased this ghost for a while instead. They confirmed the existence of the shuttle, and the person on it, with a video and data feed that an agent sent them.
Aymon studied the video. It showed the massive frame of a pirate, he couldn't have been any older than twenty-two, sliding gracefully around in zero gravity in the bay of a black station, hauling food and supplies into his shuttle. The clip, though it was short, was an intriguing glimpse into the pirate's world.
"There has to be a ship somewhere," Aymon said. "Staying just out of sensor range, running cold. A very small one, maybe."
"That is the only thing that makes sense," the Whitewater's captain agreed. "But we don't have any evidence either way."
"The evidence is that a shuttle isn't physically capable of interstellar travel," Aymon said. "And yet we've seen this exact same one reported at four different stations."
"You'd think that a lone pirate would be eager to join up with a crew," the captain mused.
"He has a crew," Aymon stressed. "In whatever ship is hiding just out of sight." The weird mystery of it had gotten into him. "We have to track this guy down."
"Sure," the captain said, quite genial. "Whatever you say."
Chasing pirates was a vacation for this Fleet crew. It was an exile for Aymon, but he would just have to make the best of it.
Hail and Farewell jumped.
They didn't have a destination in mind, but they did have a goal. They wanted to track down their family's ship-- either the one they had just left, or the originator, the original Bluebeetle.
The hope was slim that they would find either ship, but they had to make an attempt. So they were stopping at every black station they could find, asking after their family. After they had found the first station through sheer luck and half memory, it was easier to find more. He had been able to barter for some food (there were emergency funds tucked into the back of the shuttle, luckily), and so he wasn't starving, and he had asked around after a starmap, which had been provided with little resistance. So they were hopping through space, jaunting, running, always with that creeping feeling in their hearts that came with visiting every new station. There would be no finding their family, Hail knew. Farewell knew it, too, and he mourned for these people had memories of from Hail, but no real knowledge of. It was a breaking heart thing, and the feeling bounced back between Hail and Farewell, and made them both sick with it.
After a while, it was just keep moving, try to think of something else to do.
"I could make another one of you," Hail said.
Farewell just laughed. "I think if you did that in the state you're in, your new baby would kill us both." They were so good at simply speaking into each other's heads, at this point, the conversation flowed easily and naturally.
"I'm going to run out of money," Hail said.
"Find a ship," Farewell suggested. "One that needs a stardrive. We can both join their crew, in a way."
It was a hard thought, that one. But they didn't have any particular choice, as their money ran out. So when Hail made the rounds at stations, he put out the word that he was looking for a ship, and that he had something of value to offer them. He had to be a little cagey, because if word did get out that he had survived his family's ship's misfortune, there would be a price on his head.
He didn't realize that he was being followed until it was too late.
Dover Station was like any other black station that Hail had ever been to, and in fact, he had been to this particular station many times. His family had come here often, to trade, to pick up passengers, to hear the news of the goings on of the galaxy. It was often a bustling place, with a large resident population on its asteroid, and a strong visiting contingent from all the pirate ships that stopped by regularly.
He had decided to return here, in particular, because he had left a message on the station's boards a while ago with his inquiry. He was hopeful that someone had replied, since people at this station would probably be familiar with his family name, and willing to take him on. That was his hope, anyway.
Hail and Farewell jumped the shuttle in far outside the sensor range of the ship, and Hail reluctantly strapped himself in to prepare for traditional acceleration towards the station. He didn't enjoy accelerating, and, honestly, after so long trapped on the shuttle with Farewell without artificial gravity to speak of, he could feel himself becoming weaker. His usual time in his ship's gym had been taken away from him, and there was only so much he could do in this cramped and tiny space to make up for it.
"Dover station, shuttle requesting docking permission," Hail said.
There was an unusually long pause before traffic control sent a response. "Shuttle, state your ship and purpose."
That was, unfortunately, a tricky thing for Hail to do, as he had no ship to speak of, and did not really want to
"I do not want to disclose my ship's location," Hail said. "It will not approach. I am interested in purchasing from the marketplace and learning the news."
"Occupants of the shuttle?"
"Just one," Hail said.
"You are cleared for approach," the station control said, after another unusually long pause. There was something about this that made the hairs on the back of Hail's neck stand on end, but he was far, far too far away from the station to feel what was going on there with the power. And he certainly didn't want to not approach after signaling that he would, so reluctantly he edged forward on the acceleration and they pressed onward through space.
"What's making you nervous?" Farewell asked.
"I can't put my finger on it. I didn't recognize the controller's voice," he said.
The shuttle travelled onward in a tense silence. Everything looked normal from outside the station. It was a massive asteroid, many times larger than even the largest ship, and it orbited a small, dim star rather eccentrically. The asteroid was a huge black mark on space, blotting out the view of the close star and all the distant ones. The only illumination that came from it were the lights across its surface, directing his shuttle towards the landing bay.
Hail reached out a tendril of his power as they got closer. Usually there were more ships here. At least one. He didn't see any with his eyes or the shuttle's instruments.
When they came closer still, enough that he could reach with his power inside the walls of the station himself, Hail grew quiet and still.
"There's no one there," he said. "Ghost station. I don't like this at all."
"Someone was on the radio," Farewell replied, and sent out his own power to confirm Hail's observation.
"Can you reach further than I can?" Hail asked.
"If we work together, maybe."
Hail cut the acceleration of the ship, leaving him floating in darkness once more, and breathed slowly so that he could synch up his mind with Farewell's. Were they brother, child, twin, friend? Here in the darkness they could approach being one and the same.
With their combined power, they stretched out past the empty, dead station, feeling no signs of human life as they swept through its bulk, and out past the other side. It was hard, keeping their power and concentration, but Farewell had the benefit of being conjoined with a computer, and thus had more attention and memory than Hail did.
They discovered where the radio signal was coming from rather quickly, after that. A whole mass of shuttles-- dogfighters from their approximate masses-- were hiding just out of sight, on the other side of the shuttle. Hail felt the hot anticipation coming off of them. At this distance, and with this large of a crowd, he couldn't feel individual emotions, but the whole gathering had its own cloudy sense.
Hail and Farewell withdrew their awareness, panicked. Without discussing it, they already knew and acknowledged that the whole group of shuttles was just waiting out there to kill them. They were prey, and that was a gathered swarm of hunters. Hail had to wonder-- was this how his family had felt? Was this the same group of attackers?
There was almost a relief attached to this knowledge. Yes, he would die. But he would rejoin his family in God's House, and there would be no more trouble after that.
Until we meet again, in our house or Yours, after all.
"Don't you dare," Farewell said in his head.
"I don't want to die."
"You don't?" This was news to Hail.
"If I had wanted to die we would be dead already. You don't want to die either. You didn't want to starve to death. We are not going to let them kill us."
"I wasn't going to just let them," Hail said. He hadn't been planning to go down without a fight; he just didn't expect that one shuttle could hold its own against the hundred or so that were out hiding in the station's shadow.
"If you go into it thinking that you're going to lose, we won't have a chance. We can get away."
"Can you jump?"
"If we can stay alive for five more hours," Farewell said.
Even while they had been talking, their shuttle had been carrying along on its vector towards the station.
"Should I try to run now?"
"They don't know that we know they exist," Farewell said. "That's an advantage we should use. If we run, we lose that one advantage."
"I don't want to keep going closer to them," Hail said. His mind was working a million miles an hour. He felt like it was jumping from thought to thought, faster than a ship could jump between stars.
"We're two sensitives," Farewell said. "Their shuttles aren't protected by having a mind like mine."
Hail nodded slowly. "And the station?"
"Same. Even easier."
A plan, a half a thought, was coalescing in his brain. "How much mass do you think we could move, if we worked together?" he asked Farewell.
"I can move a whole ship," Farewell said. "You know I can."
They formed the plan as quickly as they could, as they were still approaching the station at a rapid clip, and then put it into action.
They wouldn't decelerate. That would waste time that they could be using to get away from their pursuers, who were stationary with respect to the station. They were just going to have to overshoot them, and hope that their relative starting velocity would give them enough of a head start, when the inevitable chase began.
Hail pushed the acceleration, pressed back into his seat, then closed his eyes and brought his power humming into focus in his mind. Farewell joined him.
There was that great empty station. They could see it so clearly, feeling every speck of it sitting there in the power. It was large enough that it made a noticeable dent in the spacetime fabric of the universe-- just as a planet or star would. The power told them that.
It was large, and holding all of it in their minds was difficult. But in terms of complexity, moving a single, solid object was one of the least difficult things that one could do.
They took the station, empty, dead, and they PUSHED it forward, with an impossible amount of force, accelerating it towards the swarm of shuttles hiding behind it. The power didn't have any limit on the force that could be applied to an object-- indeed, they were able to break the laws of physics completely in the case of stardrives-- so even if a conventional engine would have barely been able to nudge the station forward, Hail and Farewell could rocket it as fast as they could imagine it going.
Their imagination was pretty fast.
The closest shuttles were destroyed on impact, having absolutely no time to fire up their own engines and escape. They were crushed against the bulk of the station. Hail could feel it happen, and they added to the mass as Hail and Farewell pushed forward. The shuttles further out, the ones with pilots who had been paying attention and who had fast response times, were able to fly out and escape from the station hurtling forward through space.
They scattered in all directions, which was both good and bad. With them all flying out away from each other, Hail and Farewell couldn't easily track them or direct the bulk of the station towards a mass of ships to attack at once. But it also meant that the forces were separated, and it would be more difficult for them to hit Hail and Farewell.
There was a bitter sense of triumph in this. He had felt that wash of fear and terror and pain when all the shuttles had been crushed with the station, and the continuing fear as the surviving shuttles scattered, and it tore at his heart, but he was not going to go down without a fight. And they had killed his family. Odds for evens.
Hail and Farewell's feeling of momentary triumph was interrupted when something unexpected happened. They were still pushing the station forward, trying to use the rock to press into and attack nearby shuttles, when they felt an opposing force in the power.
Hail had never felt anything like it before. The only other power he had ever felt was an echo of his own: from the stardrives he created, all of Farewell's brothers. This was something completely different. Someone else, in one of the scattered surviving shuttles, was pressing their power back against the mass of the station. It groaned and vibrated underneath their competing pressures.
Hail felt the smart thing to do would be to release it (it was doing very little good for them now, anyway, and their plan from here on relied on them accelerating away from the other shuttles as much as they could), but Farewell continued to press on the station, with a grim determination that Hail could not help but match.
The station exploded under the opposing forces of the sensitives. Viewed in slow motion, in the odd out-of-time awareness that using the power sometimes gave, Hail understood that it formed cracks along its surface, spiderwebbing out in great heaving lines, then flying outward in all directions. Some of the pieces were massive, some were specks of dust, but all spun outward with huge momentum, and thus many of them would be deadly were they to hit a shuttle.
The enemy shuttles scattered further, and Hail and Farewell drew their awarenesses back in towards themselves, now relying on the instrument panel in the front of their own shuttle to tell them what was happening. After all, with the station shattered, there was no longer any obstacle blocking their view.
Hail and Farewell rocketed forward, and it was up to Farewell to keep debris out of their path as Hail steered. He tried to keep them in as straight of a line as possible, in order to make the best use of their acceleration. As they got closer to the enemy shuttles, which began to turn and fly towards them, the scattered debris was joined by intentionally fired projectiles.
Hail wondered which ship the enemy sensitive was on. He used the power to grab chunks of rock and throw them back at the attacking ships, but they either dodged or blasted them with their guns before they could hit. He didn't feel any sense like he had with the station, of another mind battling his own.
All of a sudden, their shuttle rocked, and Farewell gave a mental scream.
"What's going on?" Hail asked, grabbing the yoke of the shuttle, which twitched and shuddered under his hand. He held it straight and pressed the acceleration even more.
"There's someone touching me!" Farewell yelled. "It's--"
A section of the shuttle's rear wall dented, with the most horrible pinging of metal bending out of shape that Hail could have ever imagined. He realized that he was not wearing a spacesuit, and if the hull really breached, he would die.
"This is your body!" Hail yelled. "Nobody else can touch you! Don't let them!" He felt protective, and he loaned Farewell his mind and power, feeling, as Farewell felt, the sick and hot touch of another mind on his skin. Hail and Farewell pushed again, this time from within themselves, and the power touching them fell away, retreating with the sensation of a kicked animal.
Hail returned to his own mind and vision just in time to swing the shuttle out of the way of a massive station chunk coming right towards them. He could feel the touch of power on it when he attempted to divert it. It could not be diverted, and it chased them even as he dodged, so he pressed back on it with his power like he had with the complete station, and it exploded into a shower of much less dangerous dust. Shuttles, after all, were designed to deal with being hit with micrometeorites and the like; this was no different.
"Where is the other sensitive?" Hail asked through gritted teeth.
There were shuttles all around, and they were now spread out enough that Hail, if he stretched out his power, could identify the emotions of the people in each shuttle. He thought that there must be some way of telling which one contained the sensitive, the only person truly capable of attacking them. Hail split his attention: half on that, half on keeping their vessel out of harm's way. It was nearly impossible; projectiles were flying at him from all sides, and even with Farewell's help, they couldn't avoid being hit with debris or bullets. There was a horrible jolt to the shuttle, and the hiss of air escaping out into the vacuum, which, along with the change of air pressure in the cabin, made Hail sick.
Farewell used the power to plug the hole, and in the end they lost very little of their breathable air, but it was a scary moment. If the object that had hit them had been larger, perhaps--
But Hail was doing his best to stop the larger projectiles, and he was mostly successful.
And there it was. He felt it. Not the fear and determination of all the people in the other shuttles, no, this was something else. The emotion coming from that one shuttle, the one that hung slightly back, that wasn't firing its guns, he should have seen it right away. That one called to him, the emotion was hot and raw: excitement, thrill, appreciation. Hail knew right away that this was the shuttle with the other sensitive in it. He knew that it must be destroyed for him to survive. Only one of them could leave this place alive.
There was a thought that Hail entertained briefly, that even if he escaped here he would be pursued for the rest of his life, but that was a problem for tomorrow. Today was about escaping. If he escaped today, he could escape all the rest of the days of his life as well. That he would promise to himself, right as soon as he dealt with this problem.
He just had to think of it as one more problem to solve.
"Farewell, you take control," Hail said. "Make sure we don't get hit."
There was assent from Farewell, and Hail closed his eyes, sinking deep into his awareness of the power.
He imagined that there were just three lights in this space, the three power users: himself, Farewell, and this stranger. He pushed his awareness of Farewell away, and it was just him and the stranger, orbiting each other warily like twin stars. He reached out to the stranger's shuttle. It had no protective brain in it like Farewell had, so it was so easy to lay his mental hand on the engine chamber, so easy to find, and to begin to rip it apart.
He felt resistance almost immediately. Probably as soon as the other sensitive heard the creaking and groaning of his own ship, they put out their own power to stop it. After all, this person had as much of a desire to live as Hail did. Probably more.
It became a power struggle. Hail could feel the other mind, even across this great distance, feeling almost giddy with the joy of pushing back against him. They were evenly matched, in a sense. Though Hail had Farewell on his side, Farewell was distracted by dealing with all of this sensitive's allies in the other shuttles.
Hail was determined to rip this shuttle apart. He felt, he knew, that this person had been responsible for killing his family. He would have his revenge here. That was what he told himself, anyway, because it made the action of attempting to kill this specific individual slightly easier.
They fought for control over that person's shuttle, seemingly equally matched, and all the while, Hail was thrown back and forth in his seat as Farewell did his best to keep them out of harm's way. it was perhaps a battle of attrition rather than anything else. One of them would lose concentration, and in that moment, the other could seize the opportunity to destroy them. Hail lost awareness of everything else besides this, but the weird excitement of that other mind nagged at him. He could feel it, and he could feel something sympathetic building in response in his own chest, a kind of joy at finding an equal. He would not die here, but if he did, he at least would know that it was at the hands of someone talented, and that he had put up a good fight.
He was jolted out of his thoughts and concentration by the hiss of the radio.
"What's your name?"
The words came over the same band that he had been communicating with (what he had thought was) station control earlier, and he had neglected to completely cut off radio transmissions. It was a man's voice, slightly haughty sounding, but calm and rich. Hearing it was a mistake.
The other mind should have seized on his lapse in concentration, should have taken the opportunity to reach across the vast distance and kill him, but he did no such thing, simply kept up the pressure that kept his own shuttle from collapsing inward under Hail's attack.
"What's your name?" The question repeated, this time more insistent.
Hail continued his pressure, this time not fazed by the question. He felt like he owed this other the courtesy of a response, because he could feel his curiosity. He pressed the button that would open his own broadcast.
"What are you doing?" Farewell asked in his mind, extremely alarmed.
"Halen? That's a pleasant name," the man on the radio said. Hail didn't bother to correct the mistake.
"What's yours?" Hail asked. Farewell was yelling in his mind, but Hail kept his attention split between the radio and keeping himself alive.
"Aymon," the voice said. "Do you know who I am?"
"No," Hail replied honestly. He should have said that he was the man who had killed his family, but the thought didn't coalesce into words until it was too late.
Aymon laughed. "Pirates," he said. His voice sounded tense, and Hail could feel the strain in his mind now, the effort it took to keep Hail from killing him. Hail could feel the strain himself. The tiredness felt like an admission that they were evenly matched.
"I don't want to kill you, Halen," the man on the radio said.
"You killed my family," Hail said, finally speaking the words.
A mental twitch that Hail couldn't identify. It wasn't quite guilt, or shame, or anything that Hail had been thinking he might feel. Not even sadness.
"I did," Aymon said. "But someone else would have if I hadn't. And you killed... About a hundred of my people with the station."
"Odds for evens," Hail said with a grunt of effort.
Aymon's tone was smooth. "We can avoid it coming to worse."
"You can't kill me," Hail said.
"Oh, I think we could find a way to mutually self destruct," Aymon said. "Especially if you manage to draw this out long enough to get back to wherever your little ship is hiding."
Hail's concentration slid again, because he was momentarily confused. He didn't have a ship.
Aymon must have felt the momentary dip in Hail's power, and he once again chose not to capitalize on it. "That startled you? Was that not your plan?"
"Don't have a ship," Hail said. He figured there was no harm anymore at admitting that. He was surprised that this man, Aymon, hadn't been aware that his shuttle was the thing that contained the stardrive: must it not have felt the same as using the power against a living creature when he had tried to attack? Or perhaps he had just assumed that it was Hail's talent holding him back.
They were still trying to kill each other, all this time, but every time Hail made a mistake, and left an opportunity open, this man had failed to act. Why?
"I have a suggestion for you," the man said.
"Because if you do, you can live," the man said. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
Hail couldn't respond. He gave another push with his power, and Farewell joined him, shoving hard against the man's shuttle. There was that same resistance, that same amusement in return.
"I don't want to kill you," the man said. "You don't want to die. An equitable situation."
"Yes," the man said. "Surrender."
Hail realized that the man was speaking from a position of power. There must be some reason he was choosing to say this, some force he was holding in reserve, some knowledge that made him sure that Hail would choose surrender over defeat. Possibly it was because they both knew that Hail would be perused to the ends of the galaxy, even if he should escape from here, and that Hail had no ability to kill this man.
"I don't want to owe him," Hail said to Farwell.
Farewell was resigned when he spoke in Hail's head. "You either owe him your life tomorrow, or he takes it today."
He felt sure that he was about to be tied up into something far beyond himself. Entrapped. He wondered if there could ever be an escape from the prison that he was sure to be encased in. Surely that would be hell for a pirate. Perhaps it was better to die, better to let this man kill him.
But, of course, this man would not kill him. This man had not taken the opportunities. Would he, the instant that Hail proclaimed that he had given up? That would be a sly move, but Hail knew that there was no honor among anyone but pirates.
Die now, die later, be a prisoner, be pursued forever. What kind of choice was this? He might have even asked Farewell to kill them both, if Farewell had had the ability to jump, just then. That at least would have been freedom and a choice, of a sort.
"What about you?" Hail asked Farewell.
"I will sleep," Farewell said. "As you said would be my lot. There is no need for me to be anything different."
It was a bitter taste in Hail's mouth.
"I surrender," he said over the radio, and dropped his power from the other man's shuttle. It was an empty void, replacing the struggle that had been.