"It's like we're in the beginning of a buddy cop movie."
"Though you may enter the darkest parts of the valley, between the tallest mountains, be not afraid, for there are friends by your side. Though you may pass alone through the coldest winter, be not afraid, for spring will soon arrive. And though all manner of beasts and fiends may pursue you through the night, be not afraid, for God has love for you as boundless as the stars."
- From ‘Seventh Song: Love’
"Where's your call to action?" Sylva asked when she had finished reading.
"Well, it's, uh..." Yan took the slim book. "Look at the power structure," she said as she flipped through the pages. "It tells you to take the words to heart, and to pass the book on to someone who hasn't read it yet."
Sylva rolled her eyes. "Vague."
"It can't be that overt. I don't want anyone getting killed for having read this."
"Okay," Sylva said. "If you can get it to the Fleet, you might be able to have it do some good. But average people?"
"I want to prepare them, just in case the truth comes out. And besides, I think the message that you can leave your home, and that you don't have to do what your leader tells you, I think that's a good message."
"Take another pass at the power structure," Sylva advised. "Bake those messages in there more strongly. And maybe write up an introduction, a forward."
"You're just saying that because the power structure didn't work on you. It's probably fine."
"Test it on Iri. Or Chanam."
"How many of these are you going to make?"
"As many as I physically can. We've got the whole Empire to cover."
"You want to do me a favor?"
Sylva looked up at Yan, rather surprised by the request. "Of course. Whatever you need."
"We need to spread this," Yan said. "Once I've made a bunch of copies, and maybe put in an introduction like you said. Are you willing to go put them out there?"
Sylva considered it for a second. Part of her was thrilled that Yan was finally trusting her with something important. Another part leaped at the idea of getting off the ship, which was feeling far more confining than the Iron Dreams or any pirate ship ever had. But there was a different part of her that objected to leaving Yan, and still more that felt somewhat inadequate.
"Are you just trying to get rid of me?" she asked. She had thought the joke in her words was obvious, but Yan flinched back.
"No, of course not!"
"I'm kidding," Sylva said. "Why do you want me to go?"
"I trust you," Yan said. That made something warm light up in Sylva's heart. "And you know how to get around pirate ships. We wouldn't be able to bring the First Star too close to a planet."
"Oh. Would Iri be coming with me?" Iri was really the only thing that had allowed Sylva to half function as a pirate, so it was a terrifying thought that she might not be around. Sylva didn't like the sound of Yan's sudden awkward silence, and she looked at her expectantly.
"Can you go with Kino?" Yan finally asked. "I need Iri here with me."
"God, why?" Sylva asked. "We don't even get along."
"Kino..." Yan began, then trailed off.
"Spit it out."
"She wants to get to Hanathue," Yan finally said. Sylva sighed and leaned back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.
"I thought we decided against that," she said.
"I feel really bad about it," Yan said, rubbing the back of her neck. "And it's probably not any more dangerous than it has been to go all the other places we've been."
"But we'd be alone."
"I know. Maybe it's not possible," Yan murmured. "But we need to get these out."
Sylva shook her head. "It's fine. We can do it. I've done worse."
Yan looked at her, and nodded slowly. "Thank you."
"I'll talk to Kino and get ready. Will you be bringing us to a black station?"
"Yeah, I think so," Yan said. "Iri can shuttle you over, and then fly back here. We'll want to keep the First Star pretty distant."
"Hm. And how will we meet back up?"
"We'll have to pick a time and place, and we'll have to meet there," Yan said.
"That doesn't sound ideal."
"It's not." There was worry thick in her voice. "You'll be gone for a while."
"A fortyday, at least," Sylva agreed.
Yan reached down and took Sylva's hand, turning it over in her own, tracing the lines of her palm with her long fingers. Sylva shivered, but it was a good shiver.
"I'm sorry that this has been, you know," Yan said.
"You don't have to apologize," Sylva said, feeling genuinely like she meant it. She had appreciated Yan's earlier apology, but now that the issue between them had been resolved, for the most part, she didn't want Yan to keep obsessing. There was no need for her to feel miserable over it.
"I know," Yan said. "You've done so much for me already. I'm sorry that I'm like, sending you away."
"With Kino, no less."
"Maybe you'll have a good time."
"I suppose if Kino's with me, I won't have to worry about being jealous of the two of you spending time together," Sylva said lightly. She only half meant it as a joke, but she tried to keep the serious part out of her voice. She didn't want Yan to think she was crazy.
Yan laughed. "I'll just have to be jealous of you and Kino."
"God, kill me," Sylva said, and fake gagged. "She's colder than a stone."
"You don't have to be mean. You'd like her if you got to know her."
"I guess I'll have plenty of time to do just that," Sylva said.
Yan sighed, her face drawn with worry.
They came to Xuanhuan Station, a black station nestled in a thick asteroid belt, and it was with a tearful goodbye that Sylva and Kino left the First Star. They carried everything that they could need: plenty of currencies from the emergency stores aboard the First Star in gold, in untraceable charges, in drugs; clothing and tools; a heavy trunk crammed full of all the books that Yan had managed to manufacture.
Iri docked the shuttle with the station, and Sylva hugged her goodbye.
"Stay safe out there," Iri said.
"I'll say the same thing to you," Sylva replied. "Wish you were coming with me."
"First Star needs crew more than anything. You'll be safer with Kino than you would be with me."
"I somehow doubt that's true." Certainly Kino had the larger price on her head.
"Sensitives are useful things," Iri said. "Better than just one woman with a gun."
"You're the best woman with a gun I know."
"I won't tell Yan you said that," Iri said with a smile. "Remember the plan, okay?"
"I can hardly forget it." They had worked out the most probable ways of getting off Hanathue, and the most probable ways of getting a message out, if they got themselves into trouble. Granted, without official identities (and thus no official ansible access), communication off planet would be limited to what they could beg or trade pirates and spacers into carrying by word of mouth. And that would involve keeping in touch with reliable and trustworthy spacers or pirates in the first place.
Sylva had a dread feeling in her stomach, and it didn't go away even when Iri hugged her crushingly hard. "Take care of Yan, will you?" she asked.
"That's my job," Iri said. She released Sylva and looked her over, then brushed a piece of lint off her shoulder.
Kino was lurking by the door of the shuttle, watching the exchange.
"I'll miss you too, Kino," Iri said. "I hope you find your sister."
Kino nodded silently. Her hand with the metal prosthetic was tucked into her pocket, and she wore gloves on both hands. It wouldn't do to let other people know she was a power user, just by the way her prosthetic moved without any reasonable mechanisms to make it do so.
"Good luck," Iri said. "I'll see you in a fortyday."
"I'll hold you to that," Sylva said.
"Bye," Kino said. She nodded again at Iri. Sylva wondered how much time the pair of them had spent together, outside of Sylva's view.
They opened the shuttle door and drifted out into the station proper, dragging the trunk full of books along behind them, with their bags on their back. As Sylva and Kino headed towards the door that would let them into the main area of the station, Sylva glanced behind herself to take a last look at Iri, watching them go from the door of the shuttle. The shuttle door closed; the bay door opened; Sylva and Kino stepped through.
They were alone now, with no real way of contacting the First Star. No backup to rely on.
They were wearing disguises, of a sort. There wasn't much that could be done about their faces, short of getting plastic surgery. Yan had shown them both how to do invisibility, and Kino had briefly experimented with using the same method to warp the way their faces appeared, but it was decided that the effort to maintain a realistic illusion was probably not worth the risk. Sylva, predictably, had been bad at it. It would have required Kino holding a new face for both of them, which could only be done when they were together, and it would have taken more mental energy than Kino could spare, especially if she was also meant to be making sure that someone didn't randomly decide to kill them. Was that likely to happen? Sylva didn't know, but she was paranoid.
So they had cut their hair, and re-bleached it in Kino's case. They were both wearing heavy makeup, and Sylva had managed to find disguising contact lenses in the First Star's medical inventory, so they were safe from iris scanners at the very least. It was far from ideal, but it would have to do.
Being on a black station came with an ugly sort of familiarity for Sylva. She had now been on several, and she decided that they were all the same. No matter what family ran the place, the goods that were being sold were equivalently distasteful. Still, with money in their pockets and obvious guns on their hips, it was easy for them to book passage on a pirate ship that would be passing towards Hanathue.
While waiting for their ship to arrive, Sylva and Kino also took advantage of some of the station's services, namely, the purchase of a set of fake identities. Their new ID cards and preloaded charge cards (paid for with slivers of gold) were a bit of a comfort. They might help get them back into normal society.
They also took the opportunity to stash a few of the copies of Yan's heretical book, The Song of the Stranger, in the library and other public places aboard the black station. They didn't have any idea if they would go anywhere, but since black stations were a real nexus for pirate activities, it probably didn't hurt to leave a few there. Once their ship arrived, they boarded it and prepared for the long journey.
The journey itself was uneventful, and Sylva and Kino barely spoke to each other, for all that they spent time cooped up in a cabin together. At first, the silence had felt awkward, but Sylva came to understand that Kino was simply... existing?
She wasn't being ignored, and when she caught Kino looking at her, in a quiet moment when Sylva was distracted with something, Kino's stare was not hostile. When Sylva saw her looking, Sylva opened her mouth to say something, but Kino just nodded at her in acknowledgement and went back to reading something on her tablet. Sylva found it odd, but she didn't hate it, not entirely.
The way that pirates got people down onto planets was somewhat convoluted, as it turns out. The ship that they were on had to stop at a tiny, hidden outpost on the outskirts of the Hanathue system. From there, all the passengers who would be heading to the planet disembarked, along with all of their trade goods that would be going down.
The outpost was on a moon orbiting the furthest planet of the system (a gas giant that loomed in the sky menacingly above them), and it had such little gravity that it could barely be called gravity. Encased in a spacesuit that was far too large for her, Sylva wished that she were instead floating in the unencumbered reaches of space, rather than being half-trapped and half worried about bouncing away on the ground. The shuttle they had taken down to the ground wasn't even a proper space-to-ground shuttle-- it was a pure space shuttle, and it looked so awkward as they all piled out of it and stood around. Sylva could still recognize Kino, even through the heavy suit, because of the way that her arms moved in their jerky way, as she tugged at the outside of the suit.
The outpost itself was a large dome, almost a tent, really, that provided atmosphere and warmth. Everyone pressed into the airlock, and it was with an audible sigh of relief over someone's unguarded radio when the whole group disgorged into the outpost proper. It wasn't much.
There were a few stores, a few homes, and a waiting area for all the people who were passing back and forth from the planet. There wasn't even really much of a check in. Sylva and Kino paid for their lodging and their food and their energy use while they were staying, and they checked the big board that passed for a "schedule". There was one Guild ship coming, theoretically in a few days, who would be able to stop here at the outpost and surreptitiously pick up passengers. A few days after that, it looked like a mining shuttle from this system's asteroid belt might be swinging by with supplies, and could also take people. Sylva and Kino contemplated the options.
"We'll see if the Guild ship can take us," Kino said. "Our IDs might be enough."
"Hope so," Sylva said. She fingered the sliver of plastic in her pocket, with her face and somebody else's last name.
The Guild ship, which was named the Westwind, arrived, and caused a great rush all through the outpost. The residents were eager to get a pick of the Westwind's supplies, and the sojourners were eager to get on the ship and leave. Sylva and Kino squeezed into one of the shuttles going up and down to the ship, and were shuffled along into its great bays.
The whole place felt very homey and familiar. Sylva had been on so many ships at this point, she was beginning to feel, if not comfortable, at least that she knew what to expect, and what was the same and what was different between all of them.
"Guest areas are over here," a bored looking young man in a greyish-purple jumpsuit said, leading them through the halls. "You won't be here longer than ten hours, so no point in giving you rooms. I'll come around and make sure you pay your passage and have ID before we leave."
Presumably, if they had not paid, or not had sufficient ID to be let onto the planet, they would have been kicked back into the outpost on one of the returning shuttles. Sylva and Kino shared a nervous moment when they handed the young man a carefully measured gold piece and their two IDs. He looked them over, flipping them between his fingers and holding them up to the light to check their security cards. He huffed and seemed satisfied. When he handed them back, he also gave them two slips of paper.
"What's this?" Kino asked.
"Your planetary travel authorization," the young man said. "So you'll be allowed to stay on Hanathue."
"Will it get us through security?" Sylva asked.
The man shrugged. "That's not my problem. It should. Certainly better than nothing. If we're passing through the port, and you don't have any documentation at all, you're going to get eyes on you. I assume you don't want that," he said, looking at their IDs that Sylva was now holding.
"Uh," Sylva said, but the man just walked away. "Thanks?"
"Don't think about it too much," Kino said, and they found a place to sit and station themselves for the wait until they jumped towards the planet proper.
They were lounging around in the fairly spacious Westwind guest areas when Sylva tensed up. Across the room, she saw someone who looked shockingly familiar. A tall woman (only slightly taller than the average spacer), with obvious tattoos that crept up over the neck of her jumpsuit. Sylva grabbed Kino's arm. "Fuck me," she said.
"What?" Kino asked, peering around the room, clearly not noticing anything amiss.
"See that woman?" Sylva asked, jerking her head slightly to indicate the figure on the other side of the room. "Don't be obvious about it."
Kino looked, and, to her credit, kept her gaze unobtrusive. "You know her?"
"That's Keep. She was on the pirate ship that I, urgh."
"Iri told me all about it," Kino said. "Good job."
"What in God's name is she doing here?"
"The world of spacers and pirates is a small one," Kino said logically. "She's travelling just like you are."
Sylva craned her neck, herself failing at being unobtrusive, and searched around to see if she could find either Keep's husband, or brother, or baby. How old was that baby now? Still just a few months old. If she had been Keep, she probably wouldn't have brought the baby with her while travelling, but also she probably wouldn't have left the baby behind. The thought of those conflicting things sent a storm of worry up through Sylva's brain. She had to hope that nothing had happened to the little thing that she had helped deliver.
Kino beside her noticed how pale and nervous Sylva was. "What's the matter?" Kino asked.
"I don't see her kid," Sylva said.
"She probably didn't bring him with her," Kino said.
"Or he's dead because I abandoned them."
"I doubt that," Kino said. "It's not like you actually have more medical knowledge than anyone else."
Sylva frowned. It was true, but she didn't like Kino to say it. "Hey, I fixed your hand."
Kino shrugged, and her gloved left hand clenched and unclenched on her lap. "I guess."
"I'm worried about it, though."
"Go talk to her, then," Kino said.
"She's probably still pissed at me for leaving."
"Then it's not your problem. Either stop worrying about it or do something about it," Kino said, leaning back on the bench where they were sitting.
"What if she comes over here?"
"Then you talk to her," Kino said. "I don't understand the problem."
"You don't understand anything."
Kino's lips twitched up in a serene but odd smile. "Perhaps."
"You're the worst." Sylva sighed and sat back as well. She kept her eyes firmly fixed on Keep across the room, who was talking to a far shorter man, one who looked rather weaselly looking. Sylva couldn't help but wonder what exactly Keep was doing here, and why she was alone. The curiosity burned inside her.
Eventually, the shorter man left, leaving Keep by herself. She kept scanning the room, as though she were nervous, or aware that there was someone watching her, but she hadn't yet recognized Sylva in the room full of people. Perhaps that was because she was scanning the room at average spacer eye height, and Sylva was far, far shorter than that average.
"I need to pee," Kino announced.
"Stay safe in there," Sylva muttered as Kino got up and left.
It was perhaps that action, Kino crossing the room, that finally attracted Keep's attention to Sylva. Their eyes met across the room, and, although Sylva hastily looked down at her lap, it was too late. The flash of recognition was in Keep's eyes, and she crossed the room in great bounding strides, pushing past all the other passengers.
"Sylva!" she said. "God, I never thought I'd see you again!"
Keep sounded, well, happy, which was so completely unexpected that Sylva looked up, startled. Keep was smiling.
"Er, hi, Keep," Sylva said. "I'm pretty surprised to see you, too." This was awkward. Sylva ran a hand over her hair, anxiously tugging at the strands.
"What in God's name are you doing here?" Keep asked. "Can I sit?" She gestured at the bench next to Sylva, and Sylva had no real choice but to scoot over and let the large woman sit.
"Couple things," Sylva said. "I'm visiting a friend. Giving out books."
"What?" Keep sounded confused.
"Er, hard to explain. Here." Sylva reached down and opened the heavy trunk that she and Kino had been hauling around with them. The books were all wrapped in brown paper, to prevent unwanted attention grabbing, so she handed it to Keep. "It's yours."
"Thanks?" Keep turned the brown paper package over in her hand, and started to open it.
"Wait, don't do that," Sylva said. "I mean, you can, I guess, but it's a really good book. You'll probably want to wait until you have a decent amount of free time before you read it."
"Okay," Keep said, sounding more confused by the second, but she complied and tucked the book inside the pocket of her jumpsuit. "What is it about?"
"It's a lost Song," Sylva said. "We're trying to spread it."
Keep laughed and laughed. "I didn't ever take you to get drawn into a cult, Sylva. You seemed like you had a head on your shoulders."
"It's not a cult!" Sylva was affronted by this, especially since, technically, she didn't believe a word of Yan's ramblings. She was somewhat pleased that Keep had a high opinion of her. She felt like she was just as confused as Keep was, in this conversation. She wondered when Kino was coming back.
"I'll judge that for myself when I read it," Keep said. "Well, aside from joining a cult, you're visiting a friend?"
"Yeah. Well, really it's a friend of mine's sister, who I haven't met." Sylva waved her hand. "Not really important. What are you doing here?"
Keep sighed. "Business, as usual."
"Do you travel a lot on business?"
"Oh, of course. Well, I used to a lot before I had Trav. This is the first time I'm getting to go out since then."
"How is Trav?"
"He's doing great. Very big. Very strong. Let me show you a picture." She pulled out her phone and scrolled through it for a second until she found a picture of the chubbiest baby that Sylva had ever seen.
"I'm glad he's doing well," Sylva said, and the genuine relief in her voice was so strong that Keep laughed.
"Feel guilty for abandoning us?"
"I had things to do," Sylva said. "I'm sorry. Are you still mad at me?"
"I got over it," Keep said. "I was just a little crazy back then. You know. Hormones."
"I was crazy too," Sylva said. "For different reasons."
"Clearly," Keep said. She paused and studied Sylva. "You're looking good. I'm so glad to see you again."
"It's a small universe, I guess," Sylva said.
"Hah. If you travel a lot, that makes it smaller. Where have you been hiding out?"
"That's one way to describe it. I don't know," Sylva said. "I've been all over the place."
"I heard that you were going on the Bellringer," Keep said. "When did you get off?" Her voice was serious.
"How do you know that?"
"I asked around at the station we dropped you at," Keep said. "I have my ways. I kinda wanted to write you a letter, apologizing for being so crazy, but, you know."
"I heard you were on the Bellringer." From Keep's tone it was evident why she had forgiven Sylva for leaving, and had been so surprised and relieved to see her: she thought Sylva had been dead.
"Yeah, uh... I got off."
"Was the ship destroyed? Do you know what happened to them?"
"Did you know anyone on there?" Sylva asked, diverting the question.
Keep shook her head. "I know some people who did, though. I was just wondering, in case you knew, so I could pass the word along."
"I don't know," Sylva said, which was mostly true. She did know what had happened to the physical ship (it was probably still in orbit around the Mother's planet, if the Dark Hands hadn't decided to plant a new stardrive in it), but she didn't know the fates of the individual crew. She half hoped they were living alright lives on the Mother's planet, though that seemed somewhat unlikely, considering the many and bad circumstances. "Sorry."
Keep shrugged. "I guess nobody knows but the people who were on the ship at the time, and for whatever reason, they're never going to talk about it."
"People have given up on them coming back?"
"Word travels slowly. But when a ship doesn't show up for their scheduled deliveries, people start to think and people start to talk."
Sylva nodded. She saw Kino, on the other side of the room, give a half wave to indicate that she was back from the bathroom. Sylva waved her over fully, now that it was clear that the situation with Keep wasn't going to be nasty. "Who's that?" Keep asked.
"This is my friend," she said. She didn't know if she wanted to give the fake name on Kino's ID card, or if Kino would prefer to use her real name.
Kino put a smile on her face, stuck out her right hand for Keep to shake. "Chenai," Kino said. "Pleasure to meet you."
"This is Keep," Sylva said, by way of very awkward introduction. Kino sat down next to them.
"The pleasure is mine, Chenai. What happened to your other friend, No-Evil?"
"She's back on the ship we just left," Sylva said. "She's doing well."
"Found a husband for herself yet?" Keep asked with a smile.
"Unfortunately not," Sylva said. "And she won't let me forget it."
Keep laughed. "It's only a matter of time, I'm sure. Anyway, did you find what you were looking for? When you left?"
"Oh. Yeah. I did."
"You don't sound thrilled about it."
"I am," Sylva said. "I swear. But my life has taken several sharp turns since then. I've been in a weird way."
Keep nudged her. "We live in an ever shifting universe."
"Did you give her a book?" Kino asked, interrupting the conversation.
Sylva sighed. "Of course I gave her a book."
"Oh, you're in the little cult, too? I look forward to reading it even more," Keep said.
"Not a cult," Sylva grumbled.
"Alright, alright. So, you're headed down to the planet. Any idea how long you'll be staying there?"
"We're planning to meet back up with our own ship at Xuanhuan in a fortyday," Sylva said, though she immediately regretted giving out so much information. They were supposed to be staying on the down low, even if she did think that Keep was very trustworthy.
"Oh, that's not long at all," Keep said. "I'm going to be spending two weeks on planet, and then I'll be heading back out. We should travel together."
Sylva and Kino glanced at each other, though there was no unspoken communication in the glance. They operated on too different wavelengths, and Kino's face was so perpetually apathetic. "Well, we don't have any actual plans to get off planet yet," Sylva said. "So, why not?"
Keep smiled broadly. "Fantastic. Do you have on planet contacts?"
"We'll pay for net use once we get down," Kino cut in. "Haven't prearranged it."
"They sell that stuff at the bottom of the elevator," Keep said with a wave of her hand. "I'm headed to the capital. What about you?"
"Traver City," Sylva said.
"May I ask why?"
"It's where my sister lives," Kino said with a shrug. "No special reason."
"Well, we can arrange a place to meet and get back up here. I am sure that I can book us all passage back to Xuanhuan on somebody's ship," Keep said. "And having someone else who knows you on planet is always a good thing. Just in case."
Sylva agreed, though Keep certainly didn't know the half of what was going on with her and Kino.
They passed the rest of the journey in simple companionship. It was good to catch back up with Keep, and she didn't even seem too annoyed by Kino's awkward lingering presence.
The Guild ship docked at the top of Hanathue's elevator, and disgorged its passengers in a great wave. There was the usual rush of everyone trying to get through security, and, remarkably, Kino and Sylva were let through with their false papers given very little scrutiny.
She asked Keep about this, who laughed. "Every spacer ship bribes the elevator officials," Keep said. "Standard operating procedure, or no one would be able to operate anything."
However it was accomplished, Sylva was glad that the most nerve wracking part of their journey so far was over, and the slow elevator ride down to the planet's surface could begin.
The elevator on Hanathue was especially strange, Sylva thought. Unlike the one on Emerri, which came down into a tropical land area, this one descended to the ocean's surface, then plunged down underneath the water. How odd that the container that they were riding in was required to resist the pressure of water and the vacuum of space. A submarine and a spaceship, one and the same. It reminded her a little bit of how she had crash landed on the Mother's world, with Iri. But this descent was slow and steady, and at the bottom of the ocean there was a massive train station, with lines going every which way, which would take passengers to the different continents of the world.
"This seems like an inefficient system," Sylva grumbled to Kino.
"There aren't any good tropical locations on Hanathue," Kino replied.
In the train station, they purchased net access for their phones, using some of the charge cards they had brought with them, and exchanged contact information with Keep, so that they could go their separate ways. They promised to meet back up in Traver City in a week and a half, which felt like an impossibly short time and an impossibly long one. There was so much that could go wrong.
The train ride to Traver City was longer than their elevator trip, and, by the end of it, Sylva was feeling like she had been kicked in every part of her body. She hadn't slept in far too long-- not since they had been on the moon of the outer planet.
Kino and Sylva emerged into moonlight, chill air whipping around them as they stood on one of the relatively empty streets of Traver City. It was just past midnight, local time, and it was deep into the fall in this part of the world.
"Let's find a hotel," Sylva said, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest, her spacer jumpsuit doing little to protect her from the chill.
"This way," Kino said.
"You know where you're going?"
Kino shrugged, and Sylva followed a few steps behind her, peering out into the darkness that waited behind each puddle of streetlight, feeling watched and wary. She couldn't help but be nervous, especially since she had grown used to the sterile and contained atmosphere that living on a ship brought. There was something so different about being on a planet again. The buildings loomed over them, and the few lights in the windows were like watching eyes.
"How long are we going to walk for?" Sylva asked, grabbing on to Kino's arm. "Wouldn't it have been easier to get a bus? Or a ride?"
"Do you want to attract attention?" Kino asked.
"You think that two people dressed like us walking through the night isn't going to attract attention?"
Kino shrugged and they continued on. Kino paused for a second in front of one building, which looked, with its grey brick facade, to be exactly like every other one around. Shorter, perhaps, and less well maintained, but very nondescript. Kino stared up at it.
"Is this the hotel?"
"I used to go to school here," Kino said. Her voice was very quiet, and held the same toneless even note as usual, but from the way that she had stopped, Sylva figured that Kino must be feeling something.
"Did you like it?" she asked, feeling rather awkward.
"Not at all," Kino said. She walked a few steps forward, towards the side of the building, then stooped down to pick up a rock from a flowerbed. She tossed it up in the air a few times.
"What are you thinking about?" Sylva asked. The wind picked up a little, almost taking the rock out of Kino's catching range.
Kino shook her head for a second, as though she didn't want to say anything, but then she did speak. "What did I look like, to somebody else?" she asked.
"I don't know," Sylva said. "I didn't know you before."
"You saw me at the Academy," she said.
That was true. Sylva had known Kino in a vague sense, as there were not so many students that everyone didn't have a passing familiarity with one another. "I didn't really think about you," Sylva said. "I had my own problems."
"Maybe that's for the best."
"People don't like me," she said. "And being invisible was always better than being hated."
Sylva looked up at the building above them. "Were you invisible or hated here?"
"Hated," Kino said. She kept tossing the rock, and began walking away. Sylva stayed still, caught up in imagining a tiny Kino walking in to school, surrounded by hundreds of other faceless children, pushed along by the crowd. Sylva jogged for a second to catch up with Kino.
Kino looked over at her. "I have to wonder what would have happened to me if I had stayed here," Kino said.
"What do you mean?"
"If I hadn't proved I belonged at the Academy."
Sylva gave her a confused look, but didn't question. After all, there was no real test to going to the Academy, other than having the power and being decently intelligent. How would Kino not have managed it? She was certainly far smarter and better at the power than Sylva was.
"Maybe I would have ended up like Halen," Kino said.
"What do you mean?"
"He didn't go to the Academy." Sylva had far less experience with that hulk of a man than Kino did-- the only time she had spent with him was during the journey down from the top of the elevator to Emerri, and then that horrible few hours trapped in a shuttle with him while he chased down Yan. Kino's acquaintance with him was much longer and much more brutal.
"That doesn't mean anything. You wouldn't ever be like him," she said, trying to reassure Kino. Kino looked at her with again that inscrutable expression on her face, with the dim light from the streetlamps falling across it. She tossed the rock up again.
"I was a criminal, and he was a pirate," Kino said. "And both of us ended up working for the people who killed our families. I am like him."
"But you went to the Academy," Sylva said. She felt like Kino was running circles around her, talking about things that she didn't understand and had no frame of reference for. She wished that she were Yan, or even Iri, so that she could understand Kino better, now that they were here together.
"I did," Kino said. "I just have to think about how it would be different."
They walked along in silence, Kino continuing to toss the rock.
"I feel sorry for the person that I was," Kino said. "And the person that I could have been. But I think that if I saw her here, I would be fundamentally incapable of being kind to her."
Something smelled like it was burning; it was the Kino's left glove: the tip of the pinky finger had somehow caught on fire.
"What the fuck, Kino?" Sylva yelled, and beat at the fire with her own hand until it was extinguished. Kino had dropped the rock on the ground between them, and Sylva saw that it was faintly glowing. The whole sequence was incomprehensible to Sylva, like it had happened in a kind of dream that they were sharing, but Kino seemed impassive, as though catching her hand on fire was a quotidian experience.
"Now you've put a hole in it," Sylva grumbled.
Kino pulled the glove off and looked at it. "No I didn't," she said, and put the glove back on, covering her metal prosthetic once again.
They walked in silence for a while longer, and Kino did eventually lead them to a hotel, where they paid for a room for the night.