A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

SotP - Chapter Three - Make a Mess, Then Go Home and Get Clean

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Make a Mess, Then Go Home and Get Clean

November 479 I.C., Odin

Yang wasn’t quite returning to Odin in disgrace, but he didn’t want anyone on the planet to see him until he had picked up the pieces of his life and gotten them back into some semblance of order. His first priority was to rent a room on the outskirts of the capital. Luckily, there were more than a few boarding houses that catered to military personnel, and Yang found a house on Linbergstrause rented out by two nice old ladies. He chose it because the rooms were furnished and a daily dinner was included in his rent. Since Yang had never cooked in his life, he knew it was either a boarding house like this, or he would eat out every day, and the boarding house seemed like the preferable choice for his budget.

He liked his rented room. It was quite cozy, especially when he got the fire going, and it had a nice view looking out onto the garden and street. It was about a mile walk from the commuter rail station that would take him into the capital proper and then to the Ministry of Military Affairs building, but he didn’t mind the walk, even though it was the middle of winter. He just bundled up so much that he looked rather comical.

On his first day at his new posting, Yang was introduced to his new CO, Commodore Bronner, who ran what was formally called the Tactical Analysis/Personnel Intelligence unit, down in one of the basement levels of the Ministry of War building. Bronner was a slender man, with an owl-like expression, and he peered at Yang with a kind of distaste, sitting at his desk in his dimly lit office, surrounded by glowing computer screens and neat stacks of thick binders.

“You come to me highly recommended, Lieutenant von Leigh,” Bronner said. “Which seems odd to me.”

“May I ask why you say so, sir?” Yang asked, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He hoped that he hadn’t gotten himself assigned under someone who he would have difficulty working with.

Bronner steepled his hands. “If Rear Admiral Merkatz liked your front line command abilities and your personality so much, he shouldn’t have been in such a rush to recommend you to me. Promotion is easier on the front lines than it is here. He’s not stifling your career, but he’s not doing it many favors, either.”

“Perhaps he figured I would be well suited to the work here,” Yang said.

“Let me read you a selection from his letter,” Bronner said, and opened up the top, thick binder on his desk. Yang caught a glimpse of a photo of Merkatz, and then Bronner flipped to a bookmarked page, on which was a letter with Merkatz’s official letterhead. “Von Leigh is a highly competent officer, who is able to quickly discern the true nature of any tactical situation and make recommendations based on what he sees. He has an almost uncanny understanding of a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and uses them to turn situations to his advantage, often in surprising and subtle ways that lead to him gaining the upper hand.

“I quite like him as a person, and if he were to make strategic or tactical recommendations to me, I would give them far more careful consideration than I would give to the thoughts of most fresh Academy graduates. Leigh is both quietly strong-willed and kind-hearted, and never makes decisions that would lead anywhere except for the maximum preservation of life. He does not carelessly throw away the lives of the soldiers under his command, but does not allow himself to hesitate in indecision, either.

“In my opinion, von Leigh would be a good fit working in your department. He has the skills required to make proper use of himself there, and I think that he would benefit in other ways, as well. It would not hurt him to learn how other people interpret tactical situations, and, in the future, when he returns to the front lines, it may be to his advantage to have a familiarity with the personalities of our high command, and the tactics of the rebel fleet.

“As a personal note, Bronner, I trust that you will know how to nurture his talents in the correct direction. And I trust that he will work well as a talented and honest officer in your staff, under your supervision. Incidentally, I also trust that this letter will somehow find its way into Lieutenant von Leigh’s possession.” Bronner put the binder down and stared out at Yang with his steely eyes. “There’s more, but it’s not relevant. What do you think of that, von Leigh?”

Yang scratched the back of his head. “I’m grateful that Rear Admiral Merkatz thinks so highly of me.”

“Rear Admiral Merkatz is putting you with me in the hopes that I can straighten you out,” Bronner said flatly. “You are a very, very lucky man.”

Playing ignorant was not going to work here. “In what way, sir?”

“Merkatz has come to the conclusion that you are a humanitarian caught in the heat of the moment,” Bronner said. “It’s an interesting conclusion to come to, I’ll give him that.”

Yang was sweating a little under his uniform, but he still stood in front of the desk loosely, with his hands by his sides, and nodded at Bronner. “I’m grateful that he came to that conclusion as well.”

“Is he wrong?”

“Sir, it would be contrary to Merkatz’s valuation of my intelligence for me to say anything one way or the other.”

Bronner smiled, then, a thin smile. “I’m glad you understand. I also spoke to one of your former teachers, Captain Staden, to get a second opinion on you. Are you curious as to what he had to say?”

“It would be rude of me to inquire about whatever Captain Staden said to you in confidence.”

“Lieutenant, if you hadn’t realized by now that the reason Rear Admiral Merkatz has sent you to me is for you to realize that there is no such thing as confidence yet, then perhaps he and Captain Staden were both mistaken in their assessments of your intelligence.”

“Then, yes, I am curious, sir,” Yang said after a second.

Bronner pulled out another binder from the pile. “He was amused by calling you the 479 Mafia, but then said that the 479 Misfits might be more appropriate.” He read from the first page in the binder. “Oskar von Reuenthal, number one in the class, undefeated in strategic warfare simulations, except for when he faced you, especially in your extracurriculars. Grandson of Count Marbach, but estranged. Close ties to the family of Count Mariendorf.

“August Samuel Wahlen. Common family. Third place in his class. Not undefeated in his strategic warfare games, but talented. Showed a marked improvement after his sophomore year, perhaps due to extra practice.

“Fritz Joseph Bittenfeld--”

“Sir, I’m aware of who my friends are,” Yang said dryly. “I get the point.”

“Staden provided me with all of your game transcripts,” he said. “I do mean all of them.”

“I suppose you want me to ask you what you thought?”

“I’ll say that if I were suddenly handed this wealth of material on a rebel fleet admiral to analyze, I would feel like I knew him well enough to invite him over for a riveting discussion over coffee.”

“Indeed, sir.” Yang was coming to the conclusion that Bronner was a supremely strange man. He was looking at Yang like he enjoyed making Yang squirm, but Yang wasn’t really squirming.

“Staden thought that you behaved the way you did in your games for your own amusement, but I wouldn’t say you were amusing yourself at El Facil, were you, Leigh?”

“Merkatz would not trust me to command if he thought that I was treating his men’s lives like a game,” Yang said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a game,” Bronner said. “I think it’s something else entirely.” He looked sharply at Yang. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances and their exits, and--” he took an inhale of breath, and swept his arm out in front of him-- “their audience. What part are you playing?”

“I don’t know,” Yang said.

“I tried to find your Phezzani birth record,” Bronner said, switching both tone and gear abruptly. “Curiously, I didn’t find any Hank von Leigh born on Phezzan. Do you have anything to say to that?”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bronner’s smile, which had been thin, cracked open as he chuckled. “It pains me to say that I understand why both Captain Staden and Rear Admiral Merkatz seem to like you, even against their better judgement.”

“Er, I’m glad to hear it, sir.”

“That doesn’t mean that I like you, though,” Bronner said. “And don’t think for a second that I will ever trust you.”

“I understand, sir,” Yang said.

“If I see you step a single toe out of line, the consequences for you will be dire. And not only you-- for everyone you have associated with, as well.”

“Thank you for the warning,” Yang said.

Bronner smiled again. “You’re quite welcome. You’ve been given a very interesting second chance here. Merkatz could have had you go anywhere else. There are plenty of places where you could do no harm; this is decidedly not one of them. He wants you to feel temptation, and learn to resist it.” Bronner was somewhat animated now. “It’s almost cruel of him.”

“Perhaps,” Yang said. “But I should still thank him for recommending me here.”

He earned another chuckle from Bronner. “You do that. I believe he’s hopeful that after you’ve had your punishment with me, you can be friends with him once again.”

“This is a punishment, sir?”

“I think that Merkatz believes that anyone forced to associate with me is being punished.”

“Why do you say that, sir?”

“I was engaged to his daughter for two years,” Bronner said, closing and restacking all the binders on his desk. “There were personality conflicts.”

“I see,” Yang said. He scratched his head.

“If you do speak to Merkatz in person, and if you should happen to see his daughter, please tell her I said hello.”

“If Merkatz recommended me here for my intuition, perhaps I should trust that this feels like a trap.”

“No,” Bronner said. “It’s not. Cora and I parted on good terms.”

“I have no choice but to believe you.”

Another thin smile from Bronner. “Oh, I don’t think that’s true at all,” he said. He opened up yet another binder on his desk, this one quite thick. Yang saw his own photograph and winced at the vast trove of information that had apparently been collected on him. From the binder, Bronner removed a few typed sheets and slid them towards Yang, who squinted at them, then had to laugh a little. “You’re already very good at determining which sources of information can be trusted.”

“I always wondered what the person grading this thought,” Yang said, looking over the graded comments on the essay that he had turned in while taking the Imperial Officers’ Academy entrance exam, the one where he had pointed out the fact that the battle he had been asked to analyze was completely falsified. The grader had been impressed and had written that he recommended Yang for a possible career in intelligence. Funny that that was where Yang had ended up. “They really should have taken more points off for my grammar.”

“Yes, it’s almost as though imperial isn’t your native tongue, or something,” Bronner said. “How odd.”

“Honestly,” Yang said, sliding the graded paper back across to him, “when I was Staden’s TA, I graded the SW post-mortems for several sections of the engineering cohort. I’ve seen far worse.”

“Truly the standards of admission to the IOA have declined.” Bronner returned the papers to the binder and closed it. “Speaking of tests, I suppose I should give you your first one. See how well you’ll fare underneath me.”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said.

Bronner slid another piece of paper across the desk, one with a picture of an imperial admiral, dressed in an older style of uniform, labeled Christopf von Michaelsen. “Prepare me a report on this man.”

Yang raised his eyebrows. “Do you have anything specific you’re looking for?”

“I want to know what you’ll produce. I’m not going to give you any instructions.”

“Stunning pedagogical technique.”

“I’m not trying to teach you anything,” Bronner said. “And don’t be smart with me.”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said.

When Yang sat down at his new desk and tried to get started on his assignment, first just running a simple search on the man’s name in the official database, he found a wealth of weird information. Particularly, Michaelsen had been murdered in his office, in the middle of the day, when there had been both ten thousand potential witnesses and ten thousand potential suspects. It was very odd.

Several of his new coworkers came by to introduce themselves and see what Yang was working on. All of them were curious about him, and Yang wouldn’t have been surprised if each one of them started their own little binder labeled “Hank von Leigh” to keep in their own desks. They also all expressed surprise at the assignment that Bronner had given him-- without fail, when he mentioned the name, each of them said, with a perfectly neutral expression, something along the lines of, “Hm, never heard of that one before,” and then wished him good luck.

It was a series of strange interactions, and by the end of the day, Yang was relieved to creep back to his rented room, share dinner with his landladies and the few other tenants of the boarding house, then pass out.

 


 

Yang couldn’t put off his social obligations on Odin forever, though since he had the weird feeling that he had returned to Odin in disgrace, he almost didn’t want to fulfil them. He realized that he was being ridiculous, though, and so he called Mittermeyer on Friday night. He was sitting in his room, on his bed, with one hand flipping through his work notes on the guy he was supposed to be researching, the other holding his phone to his ear. Mittermeyer picked up after two rings.

“Leigh!” Mittermeyer said immediately, sounding almost frantic.

“Hey, Mittermeyer,” Yang said. Mittermeyer’s wild greeting had not managed to shake out the laconic tone from Yang’s voice.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mittermeyer asked. “Where are you?”

“What?” Yang asked.

“Some MP came to the IOA to grill me about you,” Mittermeyer said. “I thought something had happened to you. I tried to get in touch with anybody else, to see what was going on, but I couldn’t reach-- Gods above, Leigh.” Some of the panic was leaving Mittermeyer’s voice.

“Oh, jeeze,” Yang said, rubbing the back of his head. “Sorry about that.”

“What’s going on?” he asked, slightly calmer now.

“I got reassigned; I’m back on Odin. I think you probably met my boss.”

“What?”

“It’s a long story.” And one that Yang probably shouldn’t tell over the phone. “It was kind of a promotion, but-- you know what, better to just tell you in person. Anyway, I’m working at the Ministry of War now.”

“Okay.” Mittermeyer sounded extremely confused. “Have you told anyone else?”

“No. Look, it’s really stupid,” Yang said, feeling flustered now himself. “I’m going to feel embarrassed when I tell Reuenthal, so I’ve been putting it off.”

“At least write him a letter or something,” Mittermeyer said. “I’ll send him one retracting the one I sent in a panic, but you should let him know you’re okay.”

“Why didn’t you try calling me?” Yang asked. “You probably shouldn’t have jumped to the assumption that I was dead.”

“I didn’t jump to the assumption that you were dead,” Mittermeyer said. “I jumped to the assumption that contacting you would be a bad decision, because there was an MP cornering me after I left SW class, wanting to talk about our game.”

“I’m really sorry about that,” Yang said. “What did the guy you talked to look like?”

“Skinny, big glasses, weird nose, short brown hair, probably in his early thirties. Introduced himself as Lieutenant Carl Tamar.”

“Yeah, no, that was my boss,” Yang said. “His real name is Deitrich Bronner, and he’s actually a commodore. And not an MP.”

Yang heard the sound of Mittermeyer putting down his phone and swearing. After a second, he picked the phone back up. “Where did you say you were working?” Mittermeyer asked.

“The Personnel Intelligence unit,” Yang said.

Mittermeyer let out a rush of breath. “Okay. Okay.”

“Yeah. I know. You want to meet up to talk? I’d rather see you in person.”

“Of course, yeah. I’m free tomorrow after physicals.”

“Meet you at Joseph’s at six?”

They agreed to meet, and Yang hung up, feeling suddenly exhausted. He hadn’t meant to worry Mittermeyer, but he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that he had gotten him brought under suspicion.

He spent the rest of his evening writing apologetic notes to his friends whom Mittermeyer had contacted in a panic, making the subject line “READ THIS BEFORE WHATEVER MITTERMEYER SENT YOU” with the hope of preventing them from panicking, if they hadn’t yet read Mittermeyer’s letters. He was sure that he was going to get an earful from Reuenthal as soon as his ship was back in contact with the rest of the Empire, but that would be a problem for the future.

Yang flopped on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He should probably talk to Count Mariendorf, as well, but he was still putting that off. He hoped that Bronner hadn’t gone to bother him. Yang liked the count, and it would have been even more embarrassing to drag him into this. Maybe he could pay them a visit on Sunday.

He thought about all of this, then picked up some of his work notes and thought about those, too, until the words stopped making sense, and then he fell asleep, fully clothed, on top of his sheets.

 


 

Joseph’s was exactly the same as Yang remembered it, and it felt odd to him that he had last been here less than half a year ago. He sat down at the same booth where he had always sat with Reuenthal and Mittermeyer, and he laid his damp hat and gloves down next to him, ordering a beer as he waited for Mittermeyer to show up. The waitress recognized him, and Yang had to smile and say that he was just back for a visit, feeling awkward about the whole thing. Although he had thought he missed the IOA, now he was distinctly uncomfortable, as though it was a too-tight skin.

Mittermeyer showed up, looked around, spotted Yang immediately, and smiled broadly as he sat down across from him. “I was half worried you weren’t going to show up,” Mittermeyer said.

“You think I’d abandon you?”

“I think I’ve been right to have nightmares that you’ve gotten yourself into a horrible trouble.” Mittermeyer stripped off his own gloves and hat.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Yang said.

“I might have, at one time, believed you when you said that, but now I most certainly do not.” The waitress came back over, and Mittermeyer ordered a beer for himself. When she left, he said, “Should I be saluting you, Lieutenant?” He nodded to the new stripe on the shoulder of Yang’s uniform.

“I’m not here on business,” Yang said. “But I’ll take that as a congratulations.”

“You said this was ‘kind of’ a promotion,” Mittermeyer said. “I am expecting you to tell me exactly what you meant by that. Did things not work out with Rear Admiral Merkatz? I thought you said in your letters that you got along with him.”

“I did,” Yang said. “I mean, I think I probably still do, but he’s pissed at me.”

“I’m dying of curiosity.”

“Did you hear about El Facil?”

“Only what was in the newspapers.”

Yang rubbed the back of his neck. “Near the end of the fight, Merkatz’s flagship got hit, and he was injured, so he ended up giving me command of about half his fleet.”

Mittermeyer nodded, duly impressed.

“Anyway, that was mostly fine, and I didn’t lose any ships, but while we were rounding up the rebel fleet ships that were trying to escape the system…” Yang shrugged. “I made some command choices that led to about half the civilian population of the planet escaping.” In a very flat voice, he added, “By accident.”

Mittermeyer seemed to not know how to respond to that, and took a long drink from his beer, then rubbed his eyes. “By accident,” he repeated.

Yang was staring out over the bar, and his eyes landed on someone who had been there before he arrived. He was dressed in civilian clothing, which was odd because most of the people who came to Joseph’s were Academy students, and he was sitting alone at the bar counter. He didn’t look in Yang’s direction, but Yang could tell that he was there for him. After all, Yang had announced over the phone exactly when and where he would be meeting Mittermeyer, and he wasn’t surprised that his phone was tapped.

“My thoughts on how it happened are somewhat irrelevant,” Yang said lightly. “Regardless, Rear Admiral Merkatz decided that I needed a change of venue.”

“I see.”

“I’m grateful that he merely had me reassigned,” Yang said.

Mittermeyer shook his head. “People have been shot over less, you know.”

“I’m very well aware.” Yang tilted his beer glass towards their eavesdropper, and raised his eyebrows to get Mittermeyer’s attention. Mittermeyer nodded slightly. “I was spared from greater embarrassment because in all other respects, I performed well in a capacity far above my actual rank, and because Merkatz believes it was an honest error which will not happen again.”

“I’m not going to ask you to predict the future.”

“Probably for the best.”

“You really scared me, Leigh.”

“I’m sorry about that.” He really was, and he ruffled his hair nervously. “I really don’t want to drag you down with me.”

“You got a promotion,” Mittermeyer pointed out. “That’s not exactly being dragged down.”

“Failing upwards, then,” Yang said. He sighed a little. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Leigh,” Mittermeyer said. “Don’t be stupid.”

“In what sense?”

“In every sense.” Mittermeyer shook his head, long blond hair falling about his eyes. “For one thing, yeah, you were stupid and I hope you see that. For another, vanishing off the face of the universe wouldn’t do me any favors.”

Yang nodded. “Yeah, I really am sorry for making you worried.”

“I thought Staden had told you that you needed to toe the line.”

Yang shrugged, rather miserably. “You’re going to yell at me about this, too?”

“You’re my friend,” Mittermeyer said. “You don’t even know how much I’ve missed having you around this year. Whatever else happens, I don’t want to see you ending up--” He cut himself off, clearly agitated. “You get that, right?”

“You’re doing a better job of making me feel actually sorry than anyone else has thus far,” Yang said. “Or guilty, anyway.”

Mittermeyer shook his head and took another drink from his beer. “You’re smart, but I’m sorry to report that you’re also an idiot.”

“I know.” Yang studied Mittermeyer. He wished that they could talk free of supervision, because there was so much that he actually wanted to say. He thought that Mittermeyer would have a chance of understanding why he had done what he had done-- maybe Mittermeyer already did understand, but was putting on a facade for their audience; or maybe Mittermeyer considered his life more valuable than the lives he had saved at El Facil; or maybe Mittermeyer really did just value the oath that he had sworn to the Goldenbaum dynasty. It was hard to tell, and Yang wished he could pry all of it apart. He tried to communicate his feelings in the most honest way he could. “You know, when I was at school, there were a lot of times when I thought that I was maybe making a mistake. But I think I can justify my choices, now.”

Mittermeyer frowned at him. “Your choices?”

“Leaving Phezzan for my own sake,” Yang said.

“And why would that need to be justified?”

“I thought it was selfish, and I might end up doing things that I regretted. But I think that I’m capable of doing more good in the universe here than harm.”

Mittermeyer narrowed his eyes. “Should I ask you to clarify that statement?”

“Probably not,” Yang admitted. He drank some more of his beer, then looked down at the table. “Do you remember the conversation that we had, in my room after the hunting trip in your freshman year?”

“I’m not sure I could ever forget it. And I’m not sure I want to know why you’re bringing it up now.”

“I said then that I knew you were a good person,” Yang said. “I still believe that to be true.”

“I didn’t understand what you meant back then.” Mittermeyer was frowning as he looked at him. “I’m not honest.”

“There’s no such thing as honesty,” Yang said.

“Don’t say shit like that,” Mittermeyer said.

“Well, it’s true as anything else.” Yang slowly began ripping a napkin on the table to shreds. Mittermeyer watched him do this, clearly uncomfortable. “I just think that you can understand me.”

“What do you want from me, Leigh?” Mittermeyer asked. “What are you trying to get me to say?”

“Nothing,” Yang said. “Really, Mittermeyer. I am sorry I got you wrapped up in my mess, and I don’t want any chance of ruining your career as well as mine. I’m just…” He shrugged. “You’re my friend, and I think we understand each other. That’s all. I just wanted you to know that.”

“Of course I know that.” Mittermeyer wasn’t really looking at him, and was instead staring out over the heads of all the students at the bar. Mittermeyer’s discomfort seemed to be with more than with just the current topic of conversation.

“Are you okay, Mittermeyer?” Yang asked.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, without you and Reuenthal here,” Mittermeyer said. It had the air of a confession. “I don’t know what I’m doing with myself.”

Yang frowned slightly. “Now I have to ask you what you mean.”

“You know what I mean.” Mittermeyer shook his head. “My head’s clearer when I’m here by myself. I can think about what the future should look like, without getting distracted.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘should’ either.”

“Will you just listen for a second?”

“Yeah, sorry, go ahead.”

“Over the summer, I guess I spent a lot of time talking to Evangeline,” Mittermeyer said. “She was way nicer than she used to be.”

Yang winced a little. “My fault, maybe. When I was at your house last winter, I told her that you’d probably appreciate her changing the way she acted around you.”

“You weren’t wrong.” Mittermeyer took a drink and didn’t meet Yang’s eyes. “She is more pleasant than I gave her credit for, initially.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said. “Maybe it would be good for me to be with her.”

“You really think it would be good for you?”

“It would make my parents happy. It would make her happy. It seems like the right thing to do.”

“Would it make you happy?”

“I don’t know,” Mittermeyer said. “And you can tell me as much as you want about my moral right to be happy, but…” He trailed off and shook his head.

“You don’t sound happy.”

“That doesn’t really matter.”

“I think it matters far more than most other things.”

“You were just saying that you were worried about justifying selfish decisions,” Mittermeyer said. “So am I. And maybe there are some selfish decisions that I really shouldn’t justify.”

“I can’t stop you,” Yang said. “But I don’t want to see you make yourself miserable, either.”

“I’m not miserable.”

“Sure.”

“And it’s rich of you to say that. I don’t want to see you get in trouble, and yet you go off and do… that.”

“Honest mistakes happen,” Yang said. “That’s always going to be true.” As soon as the words left his mouth, though, he regretted them, because he saw that Mittermeyer was misinterpreting what he was saying.

“So maybe I should try not to make any more,” Mittermeyer said. “Maybe both of us should try not to make any more.”

Yang slumped a little. “Mittermeyer…” he said.

“I’m not good at this, Leigh,” he said, shaking his head.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He moved his hands, holding both flat in the air, one above the other. “It’s like there’s all these gaps, between what’s real, and what’s said-- or what’s right, and what’s happening-- or what you mean and what you understand-- and what people see when they look at you, and who you are-- there’s so many of them. You’re good at living somewhere in between. You don’t care that there’s a gap, or if you do, you don’t mind living on both levels at once.” Mittermeyer shook his head. “Reuenthal’s good at it, too. I’m not. I hate it. I hate all of it.”

“I’m sorry,” Yang said.

“I’m not saying I hate you,” Mittermeyer said. “And I guess you’re right, that I do understand you, because I can see, or I think I see, all of you. You want to be honest, too, I guess.”

Yang nodded, waiting for Mittermeyer to continue. He seemed frustrated, and he dropped his hands to the table in fists, shoulders hunched forward.

“I don’t want people to misunderstand me. I don’t like that gap.” He shook his head and took another drink of his beer, finishing the glass. “It’s some kind of stupid dream to say that I wish people could understand where I am,” he said, holding up his hand again. “So the alternative is to be where people understand.” And he raised his hand up to the surface level. “It’s honest, that way. At least it can be that.”

“You don’t sound like you want me to give my opinion.”

“What do you want to say, Leigh?”

Yang considered very carefully what he wanted to say, because he wasn’t sure that he would have another opportunity, and he was aware that he was being observed. He could understand why Mittermeyer hated all of this-- the doublespeak, the implications. But it was all they could have. He ran his hand through his hair, then leaned back a little and closed his eyes as he spoke. Not having to look at Mittermeyer provided a kind of clarity, the dark space behind his eyes where he could piece together his ideas without Mittermeyer’s sad blue-eyed gaze.

“Look, Mittermeyer,” Yang began, “we’re all treading water in the ocean. We can see each other, and speak to each other, but nobody can see how hard everyone is kicking and moving underneath the surface, just to keep their heads up. Everyone has to swim like this their whole lives, because there’s no shore you can climb out onto-- or maybe there is, and no one wants to climb out onto it, because we’ve all been swimming around naked and everyone’s afraid to get out and let people see. You just have to call out to find other people you think you can swim next to without them kicking you by accident, or drowning you on purpose.

“You can’t just pretend like you’re only a head floating on the surface of the water. You can’t just stop moving your arms and legs because you don’t want people to feel them moving and know they exist. You can’t just cut off your own head and pretend like that’s all of you.” He sighed and opened his eyes. “We don’t get mad at icebergs for only coming part way out of the water. We just have to understand that there’s more there than we can see. It’s when we don’t understand that, that’s what will sink a ship.”

Mittermeyer was frowning. “You were right; I didn’t want to hear any of what you had to say. Less in the mood for metaphor than I thought I was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Mittermeyer said. “I’m sorry for being an ass here. You didn’t come here to listen to me whine.”

“I’m happy to listen,” Yang said. “I just don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret.”

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us.”

“Have you talked to anybody else about this?”

“No.”

“You should.”

Mittermeyer stared down into his empty beer glass. “It’s one of those things that’s better discussed in person, isn’t it?”

“I don’t disagree entirely, but it’s not something you should just sit on, either. Have you been stewing on this for a whole semester?”

“I guess.”

“What brought it on?”

“An excess of self confidence,” Mittermeyer said. He wiped his hands on his own napkin, then crumpled it up and threw it on the table. “Without anybody else around, I convinced myself that I could be perfectly content.”

“The use of the past tense is interesting there.”

“Well, you’re here ruining it for me.”

“I’m sorry,” Yang said.

“I don’t know what you’re apologizing for.”

“Interrupting your personal development.”

Mittermeyer laughed a little, and Yang smiled. “Sure. We’ll call it that.”

“If you want me to leave you alone, I will.”

“No, I’m glad you’re back on Odin,” Mittermeyer said nonchalantly. “Clearly you couldn’t keep away from me.”

“Of course, Mittermeyer. That’s exactly it.” Mittermeyer had his arms loosely folded on the table in front of him. Yang reached across the distance and put his hand on Mittermeyer’s left arm, giving it a brief but gentle squeeze. Mittermeyer’s expression changed for a second into something that approached desperation, but then he clamped it down and just smiled a neutral smile.

“You’re cruel to me, Hank von Leigh.”

“I know,” Yang said. “Though I suspect I’m less cruel by far than you are to yourself.”

“That’s my prerogative.”

 


 

Yang didn’t end up going to see the Mariendorfs. He felt too strongly off-kilter from the conversation he had had with Mittermeyer, and he felt it was likely that the count or Hilde would ask how Reuenthal was doing, a question that Yang was suddenly completely unprepared to answer. He would give it another week, he decided, then tell them that he was back on Odin.

In the meantime, he decided to pour most of his energy into the work assignment he had been given. It had the exciting flavor of historical research, which he appreciated. He started with the obvious: personnel records that he had easy access to, looking up Michaelsen’s battle record and all of the positions he had held. He snooped through the Peerage of the Galactic Empire book to see what family connections Michaelsen had, since he had a noble name, and discovered that he was indeed the successor to a barony, but had had his name struck from the family record before he could inherit for reasons that the Peerage did not care to mention.

Since Michaelsen had spent most of his time working as an officer in the Ministry of the Interior, Yang was only able to put together the barest of battle tactics analysis from his very brief stint on the front lines. Similarly, though his work in the Ministry of the Interior left a very long record of accomplishments, most of them were banal and efficient public works and decisions that could have been made by anyone. Michaelsen showed a talent for organization, Yang noted, and was well respected by his staff, but that gave him no hints as to why someone had shot him to death in his office in the middle of the day.

Since this was an affair that had happened decades ago, Yang didn’t have the ability to interview anyone about it, though he would have liked to.

The only lead that Yang had was that he had been struck from his family’s records for unknown reasons, around the time when he had been graduating from the IOA. Yang decided that he might as well start at the beginning, then, and asked around in his office where he might find old IOA yearbooks. His coworkers laughed at him, but showed him where they were found in the archive.

Yang loved the archive.

But before he got distracted by the miles and miles of files, books, and secrets within the huge archive, Yang pulled down the relevant years from the IOA yearbook and flipped through them, looking for the very young Michaelsen. Most of the photos in the book were completely mundane, even the ones that involved Michaelsen, but there was one, in his junior year yearbook, that caught Yang’s eye.

It was a casual photo. The caption read “Analyzing the enemy’s movements!” and it showed several people, all cadets, leaning over a map and spread of documents laid out on a long table, pointing and arguing. What had attracted Yang’s attention was something that he didn’t even think that the photographer noticed, or it would have been cropped out. Michaelsen was leaning shoulder to shoulder with another cadet, who was just smiling rather than participating in the heated argument that the others were having. Just barely visible in the photograph, Yang could see that Michaelsen had his hand on the small of the other cadet’s back.

It could have been a casual thing. It could have been meaningless.

Still, Yang searched the yearbook for the other cadet’s name, James von Harsburg, and looked up his service record. It was a dead end: he had been killed in action two years after graduating from the IOA.

Yang had to wonder what exactly his boss was trying to get out of him, here. What was the angle that he was looking for? It seemed… somewhat unlikely that Bronner was trying to send Yang a message about being a homosexual, since Yang had not actually done anything that could lead him to suspicion. There had to be something else, then.

What would Bronner assign him this man for? He had an angle, just like the writers of the IOA entrance exam had an angle.

Yang had access to a photographic search, where he could input a few photos of a person and then have the computer search all of the records he had available for that face, even if he didn’t know their name, or their name wasn’t written in the captions. Hoping to turn up more information, Yang did that, using the photographs of the young Michaelsen as a starting point.

A few results turned up, most individual photos that were useless and lacked relevant context. One of the images, though, was a staff photo showing Michaelson with two other men, taken at some kind of party for officers of the Ministry of the Interior, where Michaelsen had spent most of his career. In the center of the photo was a young man, about Michaleson’s age. He and Michaelson were glancing at each other. The other unidentified man was significantly older and appeared related to the man in the center. He was wearing a rather nasy expression and had his hand on the younger man’s shoulder with a clawlike grip. It was, again, an almost meaningless image, but it caught Yang’s attention. It was something, rather than nothing.

Yang ran an image search on those two people and felt like he had struck gold. The older man was Baron Wilhelm Siegmeister, and his son was Martin Siegmeister. In the photo, Martin was merely a lieutenant commander, but he rose to the rank of admiral before defecting alone to the Alliance. When Yang tried to look him up further, he found that most of his records had been expunged, or at least buried in classified archives that Yang did not (yet) have access to. It was a shame, but Yang was capable of working around that.

He dug deeper into the father’s records, which were spotty, but that was because the father had worked for the Department of Social Discipline, which was a kind of shadow organization known for extrajudicially executing potential traitors to the Empire. Yang was beginning to understand why Bronner had assigned him this case.

The Baron Siegmeister had one other interesting thing in his file: several times during Martin’s childhood, the police had been called to his home. These police records were all searchable, still. Neighbors had been called to the house after hearing screaming, but no charges had ever been filed, officially.

The picture that was being painted here was a grim one, though he had fallen down the wormhole of researching the Siegmeister family, rather than his intended target, Michaelsen.

Aside from the one photo, there wasn’t much to tie them together. Yang wished that he had access to personal documents, but the database he had access to had none of that.

Siegmeister had defected to the Alliance after his wife and child died in a fire, during the night while they were in a hotel. Siegmeister himself had not been in the building, but the police report of the night had reference to a statement by him, so he had been in the area-- why would he not be at the same hotel his family was staying at? Was it arson, intended for him? Was it arson, intended just for his family? There were so many questions that Yang couldn’t answer. Immediately after this, Siegmeister had requested and received a transfer to the front lines, from which he had defected. Maybe he killed his own family in order to free himself to escape? Where did Michaelsen fit into this?

Maybe Yang had focused in too closely. Maybe he needed to look at the bigger picture. Siegmeister had defected in 419 IC. Yang didn’t have any records of what he was doing in the Alliance, but he wasn’t mentioned in any Phezzani newspapers,or copies of Alliance newspapers that, through Phezzan, ended up in the imperial archive. It was as though he had vanished from the universe almost entirely. But that couldn’t actually be the case, because Yang was fairly certain the Alliance would not hesitate to make use of a defecting admiral. He must have been providing some function there.

Yang frowned deeply, sitting at his desk and tapping his pen hard against his paper. He was quite familiar with this time period in history, as it had been extensively covered in his classes at the IOA. The Alliance had had a long, sweeping string of victories over the Empire, culminating in the Second Battle of Tiamat. Most people attributed the success of the Alliance during this time to the brilliance of its star commander, Bruce Ashbey, who had been practically undefeated his entire life. There were plenty of photos of Ashbey in the archive, but Yang didn’t need to look them up to picture him: a vivacious young man, bold and handsome, redheaded and tall, almost always pictured next to one or more of his friends, who were all equally good looking. Twice married; twice divorced.

Yang realized that Bronner had been giving him a hint: “ He was amused by calling you the 479 Mafia, but then said that the 479 Misfits might be more appropriate. ” Bruce Ashbey and his friends, who had all graduated from the Alliance Officers’ Academy in 730 UC had been known as the Year 730 Mafia. When Bronner had said that Staden had called Yang that, Yang had simply thought it was a reference to him playing the Alliance in their game-- especially since all of Yang’s friends weren’t even in his same year. But no, Bronner was definitely telling him to connect the dots, as a kind of personal warning.

Bruce Ashbey had led the Alliance to overwhelming victory.

Martin Siegmeister had defected to the Alliance.

Somehow, all of this led back to Christof Michaelsen, who was shot to death in his office years after the Second Battle of Tiamat.

And, of course, it was all a message from Bronner to Yang.

Yang didn’t have enough information to tell the truth, he decided, but he did have enough information to tell a story. And perhaps that was what Bronner was looking for. After all, if the records and archives contained “the truth”, and they had been wiped clean of most things that Yang could have used, perhaps there was no “truth” any more.

He had spent more than a week poring over the archives, trying to deconstruct and reconstruct the narrative. It was time to be done, he decided. He began to type his final conclusions.

That afternoon, Yang marched himself to Bronner’s dark office.

“Took you long enough,” Bronner said, when Yang handed him his neat binder, constructed in the style that Bronner seemed to prefer. “You were very thorough, which is a good thing.”

“You know that without looking at it?”

“You thought that a record of every file you accessed in the archive wasn’t being sent to me the minute you opened it?” Bronner asked. “I had your report open as you were writing it. I like your literary flair, though I’d advise you to cut it out when you submit actual reports for the fleet to use as advisory material.”

Yang couldn’t help but scowl. “I suppose you’ll tell me that there’s no such thing as privacy anymore, won’t you, sir?”

“You already knew that,” Bronner said, flipping through the binder, even though he had already seen all of its contents.

“Is it true, then, sir?” Yang asked. “I’m curious, now.”

“Hm?”

“Was Michaelsen running a spy ring? Was he feeding information to Siegmeister?”

“Oh, probably,” Bronner said. “Some of your logical leaps are unsubstantiated, but the locked files that you don’t have access to point to the same conclusion, so I suppose you did a good job.”

“Oh. Thank you, sir.”

“Why did you spend so much time looking at his family?” Bronner asked. “I thought you were going down a dead end.”

“I wanted to know why he had been struck from the family record. I thought it might give me a better basis for my analysis.”

“And did you find that out?”

Yang rubbed the back of his head. “Er. Not really.”

“But you spent so much time looking,” Bronner stressed. “You must have some ideas.” He had a smile on his face that Yang felt was rather menacing.

“I’m sure I couldn’t say,” Yang said. He crossed his arms.

“Well, if you don’t even want to put forward any theories,” Bronner said. “Fine.” Bronner steepled his fingers. “It’s interesting that you drew a direct connection between Michaelsen and the 730 Mafia.”

“Why is that?” Yang asked.

“Because while you seem unwilling to speculate about Michaelsen’s personal motivations, you have no trouble speculating on Siegmeister’s, and on the Alliance’s side of the story, even though no official connections exist.”

“It seemed to me, sir, that you gave me this case as a personal warning. You specifically made a reference to my friends as the 479 Mafia.”

“I believe I called them the 479 Misfits, yes,” Bronner said. “Though, perhaps on the surface, you and your friend Lieutenant Eisenach are the only ones who immediately stand out.”

Yang frowned and was silent.

“You don’t have anything to say about that?”

“Sir, if you want me to reassure you that my friends are not involved in a spy ring, I’ll happily do so.”

“Your friend Oskar von Reuenthal was also struck from his family’s record, which I find very interesting.”

Yang tensed up. “That has nothing to do with me, or this, sir.”

“If you say so.” Bronner closed the binder that Yang had given him. “Have you learned anything from this, Lieutenant von Leigh?”

“You said that you weren’t intending to teach me anything.”

“One can learn on one’s own,” Bronner said. “I was given the impression that you were quite the autodidact, anyway.”

“The message you intended to send me was received loud and clear, sir,” Yang said.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Bronner said. He smiled. “Keep your nose clean and to the grindstone, Leigh, and we should have no problems whatsoever.”

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A note from javert

The complete absence of Reuenthal has been hovering like a ghost over the past few chapters, hasn't it?

I love Mittermeyer but he's having a bad and sad time.

Bronner is An OC and a deeply weird and unpleasant man. This universe might slowly have to get filled with OCs because although there are like 9 mbillion canon characters, not all of them fit in the places that I need them to go. If you are deeply allergic to OCs in your fanfiction, then I'm sorry, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa etc etc etc

In This House We Love Themes

Lydia says the vibes in this whole section are completely off the walls. Agree? Disagree?

This is the "I watched the Spiral Labyrinth Gaiden so you don't have to" chapter.

Chapter title is from the Lorde song "A World Alone". People are talkin / people are talkin, indeed. Might even say that they're speaking in tongues :p

Thank you to Lydia for the beta read.


About the author

javert

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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Sereminar ago

I which Yang is told to behave himself by multiple people once more xD

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