The Sensations From Sex and Surgery
Five years later.
The harsh buzz of the room doorbell would have woken Aymon Sandreas up if he he hadn’t already been awake. He was on his back on his slim bed, his body forming a right angle as his legs stretched far above him, pressed straight up against the wall. He was looking at his tablet, re-reading an amusingly crude letter that Obra had sent him, which he hastily hid and switched to something more innocuous before getting up to answer the door. He wasn’t in his uniform, but he couldn’t be expected to be this late at night.
“Sir,” the soldier at the door said, “there’s an urgent message from Emerri for you.” The words ‘urgent message from the capital’ almost never meant anything good, but Aymon wasn’t one to panic.
Aymon rubbed his eyes. “We’re in ansible range already?”
“Just getting the first planetary radio now, sir. We’re four light-hours out,” the soldier said.
“Can I have the message?”
“It’s marked secret disposition, sir. You’ll have to take it in the radio room.”
“Ah,” Aymon said. “Tell— uh who’s waiting on me to read this?— tell whoever that I’ll be there in a moment.”
“Yes, sir. It’s Captain Maynard. Her message said that yours contains new orders for the ship, but she can’t hear them until you give them.”
Oh, so the situation was very bad, then. “Right,” Aymon said. “I’ll be there in a second.” Without waiting on a response, he shut the door in the soldier’s face and pulled a clean black uniform cassock out from the tiny closet, slipping it on over his undershirt and pants without bothering to find a new button down to go underneath. When he opened the door again, the message-of-a-message bearer had vanished, and Aymon jogged through the long, gently curving ship’s hallways until he reached the command areas. The ship usually ran on three quarters of Emerri standard gravity, so Aymon felt like he could half fly, his strides longer than they had any right to be.
He was a man of average height, with light brown hair that he currently wore loose, the ends of it just long enough to curl around his ears and drift across his shoulders. He was thinking of cutting it short, but he hadn’t made up his mind. Aymon’s face was pale, sharp, and narrow, with small dark eyes over prominent cheekbones, a stong jaw and an expressive, thin mouth. Everything about his bearing was confident and self-assured, despite the unexpected interruption to his evening.
The radio room was a hive of activity, with operators at all of the closely packed computer consoles processing the flood of data that always came in whenever the ship returned to ansible range. Captain Maynard leaned over one console, watching what looked like a news video coming up from the surface of the planet they were heading towards. She straightened when she saw Aymon enter the room.
“Apprentice Sandreas,” she said, her tone annoyed. “I was under the impression that this would be an easy little political trip, not something that requires secret course change missives sent over my head as soon as we start getting close to our destination.”
“Captain, you know about as much about the situation as I do. Can I please see what’s so urgent?”
One of the soldiers standing by directed him into a secure room, barely larger than a closet, with a desk and a computer to show Aymon the message. He input his relevant security details, and the message package that was for him illuminated the screen. It was just two personal messages, and then the set of new instructions for the Cruel Maiden. The first message was from his mentor, Caron Herrault, Voice of the Empire. The second was from Obra, his fellow apprentice.
He opened the one from Herrault first.
There’s no way to be pleasant about this, so I won’t be. Jalena was killed earlier this week (8/22). I need you to come home for the funeral.
This has not yet been announced. I informed her father, but aside from him and the bare essentials of personnel, no one has yet been told. I didn’t want you to find out from the news. I know you were close.
You want to know what happened. In short, while attending a private gathering at the home of a friend of Governor Salois, explosives hidden within the house detonated. While attempting to protect the other guests from the ensuing fire and collapse of the building, another sensitive was able to fatally wound Jalena. If she hadn’t been distracted, she would have survived. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where she died.
I’ve appointed the Fleet leader on Jenjin, Rear Admiral Jiang, to take her place as the Imperial Advisor, along with his regular duties. Increasing Fleet presence on the planet should be enough of a deterrent to prevent anything else. The motives for the attack are still unknown. It could be that the attack was aimed at Salois, and it was only luck that Jalena was caught up in it, or it could have been a motivated attack on her specifically, or on Imperial presence on the planet. The investigation is ongoing.
I can’t write more. This is the kind of thing that I need to see you in person for. You know how I feel.
God keep you,
Aymon’s breath froze in his throat by the time that he reached the end of the letter. He couldn’t quite wrap his brain around it. He had last seen Jalena three months ago, when she had left Emerri to take up the temporary posting on Jenjin. They had spent the night together, him and Obra and Jalena. But Jalena had snuck out of Obra’s room before Aymon had woken up, and they hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye. None of them were sentimental people, and Herrault appointing her as the Imperial Advisor on Jenjin was supposed to be temporary, and the three of them were always going all over the place anyway, so it wasn’t as though that had been any different than usual. Except now she was dead.
His hand trembled as he opened the letter from Obra.
Herrault won’t give you the details, but it’s worse to not have them. I pulled these out of Herrault’s report. She knows I have it, but I think she has bigger things to worry about than me going through it. The medical record and photographs are attached, anyway.
Read it, or don’t. But I know you will, and if you didn’t, you’d come home and wonder.
I don’t think she felt much of it. She was always better at that kind of blocking than I was. I guess I should get better at it.
Pisses me off that she got all those other people out. Fuck her, and fuck them.
If you die, I’ll kill you.
Obra was right that he would want to see the photographs. He opened the letter’s attachment, titled “Marne, J. Medical Records, Askinov Memorial Hospital” and scrolled directly past the medical jargon until he found the relevant images.
Jalena’s abdomen had been torn completely open, from about halfway down her ribs all the way through to her pelvis, and what had once been her organs was just a red, unrecognizable mash. Her face was unharmed, somehow, and he looked at the expression on it and tried to imagine that it was peaceful and satisfied, rather than simply slack. He stared at the photographs, unable to close them even though the image made his stomach churn. He shouldn’t have looked at them. They were burning themselves into his vision, replacing his memories of Jalena as bright, beautiful, and alive with… this.
He closed the photographs and tried to calm his breathing, organizing his thoughts. He needed to send a letter to the planet they were headed towards, no, two letters, one to the interplanetary trade consortium that he had been coming to address, the other to Herrault, to be sent over the ansible, telling her that he would be returning to Emerri as soon as possible. Then he would have to talk to the captain about getting the ship turned around. He organized these tasks in his mind, each one falling into place and pushing out the sight of Jalena’s eviscerated body bare on the hospital bed, at least for the moment that it took to complete the task.
The journey home took a tenday, even with the route efficiency of a Fleet ship as compared to a Guild ship. Aymon, in his conscious hours, tried to distract himself with nothingness, studying some, reading some, meditating as much as he could bear, and going down to the 0G gym in the guts of the Cruel Maiden , where there were plenty of competitions to be had with whatever officers or crew happened to be around at the time. If there was one thing Aymon was good at, it was keeping himself occupied with mindless diversions.
Still, even he couldn’t go without sleep, and it was at night that his thoughts inevitably turned back to Obra and Jalena. He had a dream, one that started out like so many others he had had. They were all together, in the dark, their breathing perfectly in sync, connected through the power. The two of them were lit up in Aymon’s vision, and he was simply watching, but he could feel everything all the same, in the way their thoughts and bodies always blended, one single creature of Aymon/Obra/Jalena, moving in tandem. Obra held Jalena’s waist, then kissed down beneath her breast, across her stomach, and everywhere they kissed there was that blossoming wound, Jalena’s guts spilling outward. There was no pain, perhaps because imagining such pain would wake him, but there was horror, watching it unfold.
He had that same dream several times over the journey, always waking up with a shock, fumbling in the dark for anything: Obra, the lightswitch, whatever he could think of to grasp at at that moment. Even reaching for Jalena, in the vain hope that she would be squeezed into his narrow bed next to him, before the realization that Jalena was dead hit him in his conscious mind there in the darkness of his room.
When he finally did make it back to Emerri, he disembarked from the Cruel Maiden on a ground-to-space shuttle, so that he would be spared the extra travel time of taking the elevator and then a flight. He landed in the capital city airport, and was greeted on the runway by two people: one of whom he had been desperately looking forward to seeing, the other whom he had been doing his best to forget about.
Aymon stumbled on the tarmac as he tried to mentally recalibrate to the full gravity of Emerri. The soldiers and staff who had accompanied him gave him space as he stood and watched as Frae Herrault and Obra Zacks crossed the distance from the airport itself, its glass facade glinting in the golden, late-afternoon sun. It was chilly out; winter had come to this part of Emerri while Aymon had been away, and his cassock wasn’t really enough to protect him from the cold.
Obra and Frae could have been mistaken for cousins, though there was no relationship between them. Obra’s skin was a slightly deeper brown, but they had the same black hair. Obra wore theirs in long black braids, but Frae kept hers short. Obra had a wide, exuberant mouth over a narrow chin, and darting, deep-set black eyes. Frae’s face was childish and round still, a few years younger than Aymon. Obra was magnificent; Frae was annoying.
“Welcome home!” Frae called out as she got closer. She was bundled up in a sporty blue jacket, but her light skirt whipped around her bare knees in the breeze. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Aymon didn’t know what to say to that, since he was not glad to be back at all, but now he was close enough to her that he had to say something, so he said, “Yeah.”
Frae grabbed him, wrapping him in an uncomfortable hug. His eyes met Obra’s, a look passing between them that signalled their mutual understanding, if nothing else. Frae didn’t let go of Aymon until Obra said, “I’ve got a car waiting for us.”
“Thanks,” Aymon said. “Glad you’re looking out for my well being.”
“If I’m not, I don’t know who fucking is,” Obra said. Their voice was harsh. “Let’s go.”
“Is Herrault around?” Aymon asked.
“She’s at Stonecourt,” Obra replied. “She’ll want to see you as soon as we get there.”
Aymon nodded. He followed Obra and Frae out towards the parking area, his small suitcase thumping against his legs as he walked. In the car, Aymon got into the passenger seat, while Frae was forced to take the back. Obra drove, because Obra enjoyed driving, especially fast, and especially recklessly. Aymon trusted them not to send them all to early graves, but perhaps he shouldn’t have. He wanted the ride to be silent, but Frae insisted on filling it with useless chatter, until Aymon very pointedly asked, “Why did you come meet me at the airport anyway?”
“I wanted to see you,” Frae said. “That’s all.”
“You haven’t even said anything about Jalena,” Aymon said.
Frae’s face stilled for a second, Aymon catching a glimpse of her in the rearview. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about her,” she said finally.
“Why would I not want to talk about her, when she was one of the three people in the universe who—“
Obra slammed on the brakes as they approached the security gates of the huge capitol building, Stonecourt. Obra presented their security details at the gate, and they were let down without fuss into the underground parking area. The security car that had been following them without intervening also pulled in.
“You’re not coming with me while I talk to your mother,” Aymon said shortly to Frae. He glanced at Obra. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Obra said. “Not much to say, is there?”
Aymon pursed his lips, but nodded. “I’ll see you later.”
Obra nodded. “After dinner.”
“What are you doing after dinner?” Frae asked.
“Work,” Aymon said as he got out of the car. His footsteps echoed in the parking garage, and behind him, he heard Obra and Frae start talking about something inconsequential, Obra doing their best to keep Frae away from him as he headed up the stairs into Stonecourt proper. He could have taken the elevator, but he was suddenly reluctant to go see his mentor. He had had enough time over the journey to get his emotions under control, but the routine and undisrupted nature of space travel meant that his resolve hadn’t been tested yet. If only Frae hadn’t been in the car, he could have had an actual conversation with Obra, the only person who could possibly understand, but she insisted on following after him at every turn.
Herrault’s office was on the first floor of the building, but directly in the center, facing the courtyard. The sun had dipped below the building by the time that Aymon got there, so the hallway windows showed the bare garden in deep shadow. He could just let himself into the office at any time, a privilege shared by only a few people, but he stopped and talked to Herrault’s secretary first, and knocked out of politeness.
The door swung open, seemingly of its own volition, though Aymon was well used to Herrault using the power for casual tasks. It was almost her trademark, and she was often criticised in the press for it— it was uncouth. But that was the furthest thing from Aymon’s mind right then as he stepped inside the office.
Herrault was seated at her heavy wooden desk, the lights in the room warm and dim-- she hadn’t turned all of them on as the sun was setting. She wasn’t looking up at him, instead studying something on her computer. Her grey-streaked black hair, cut in a childish bob, fell around her face, the usual gold clip that held her bangs to the top of her head sitting discarded on the desk. Aymon stood at attention, waiting for her to acknowledge him. It didn’t take very long. It was clear that she was composing herself rather than playing a power game: he could see the tension in her shoulders, and the way her breath was hitched, then deep.
“I’m glad you had a safe trip back,” Herrault finally said.
“I don’t think pirates usually go out of their way to harry Fleet ships,” Aymon said. “I wish I could have gotten here sooner.”
“Ships have their speeds. Did you read the news, when you jumped in?”
“No,” Aymon said. “Am I wrong that there were no revelations waiting for me?”
“We arrested the guilty party,” she said.
“It was intended for the governor. More terrorism from their separatist party.” Her voice was bitter. “Jalena wasn’t even supposed to be there.”
“The governor was lucky, then.”
“Take a seat, Aymon,” Herrault said, looking at him, then waving at the chair across her desk. “Please.”
He did so, sitting stiffly.
“I’ve had to think a lot about this,” Herrault said. “I assume you have been, too.”
“I’ve tried not to.”
“I never expected anything like this to happen.”
“You told us when you took us on that it would be dangerous.”
She shook her head. “I was speaking from my own experience as First. I had had two attempts on my life, at the time.”
“But your apprenticeship wasn’t dangerous?”
“No, or, at least, not in this way.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed her eyes. “I spoke to the Emperor.”
“And what did they say?”
“I asked if I was making the same mistake as my mentor.”
Aymon leaned forward. “What mistake do you think you’re making.”
“Did I ever tell you what happened to the other apprentices in my cohort?” Herrault asked. Aymon glanced over at the wall, at a photo he had often seen but rarely thought about. Herrault, as a young woman, stood with two young men in front of an older man— he knew that was First Wyland, the Voice before Herrault. All four of them were wearing identical black cassocks and red capes, like the one that Herrault was wearing now.
“It never seemed that urgent to me. You’ve been First since before I was born.”
She pointed at the young man on her left in the picture. “Yusuf killed himself, four years into the apprenticeship. Milo— he…” she trailed off. “I think he killed himself, too, in a way.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Aymon wanted to protest that she was the one who had brought it up, but he bit his tongue just in time. There were plenty of moments in which to push his luck with Herrault; this was not one of them. “So, what is your mistake?”
“Wyland picked people who were too tender-hearted to handle the strain, he always said. This job eats you from the inside. It doesn’t stop eating you.”
Aymon resisted the urge to make a face. She might be sentimental, but he was not. “Are you worried about me?”
She continued as though he hadn’t said anything. “When I picked you, and Obra, and Jalena, I thought I was picking people who knew how to do what they had to do. I felt how stubborn she was. All three of you. Made the Emperor laugh at me. They told me that you all would be a handful, especially together. I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it.”
“I don’t see how that’s a mistake,” Aymon said. “You know we can do anything you send us to.”
She shook her head. “You can do anything you decide you need to,” she said. “And Jalena decided that she needed to protect everyone in that building before herself. And she did.”
Aymon scowled. She was right. Maybe Jalena was too tender-hearted like that. “I won’t do that,” Aymon said. “I understand what the stakes are.”
“Not even if it was a choice between you and Obra?” she asked.
“Obra is perfectly capable of protecting themself.”
“Everybody has their weaknesses, Aymon.”
“Maybe. But it wasn’t yours, and it isn’t going to be mine.”
She was still looking at the photograph. “I wish I could say that I hope you’re right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Milo and Yusuf and Jalena can go in peace to God’s house,” she said.
“Jalena died with her guts on the floor of a burning building,” Aymon said. “I don’t call that peaceful.”
“I have to offer you the opportunity to leave,” she said. “If you want to. I’ll release you from the apprenticeship. You can go live your life without… all of this.”
“No,” he snapped immediately. “You offered the same thing to Obra, I assume?”
“Yes. And they refused, as well.”
“And if they hadn’t? If we had both said we wanted to leave? You’d be getting your way, with Frae next in line.”
“Aymon,” she said, her voice tired. “No.”
“I don’t think for a second that you’d take a new set of apprentices.”
“It was an offer,” she said. “To save your soul, if you wanted to take it. The Emperor has made the line of succession very clear.”
“You should have known that I wouldn’t take it.”
She looked down at her hands. “Jalena wouldn’t have, either.”
For some reason, there was grim satisfaction in that. “You picked stubborn apprentices.”
“And I pray to God that you and Obra will be stubborn in the way I intended.”
Aymon nodded. “How long will I be on Emerri for?”
“I don’t know. I think I’d like to keep you close by, for a while.”
“I’ll content myself with that, then.”
“I’m glad to have you back, Aymon.” She reached across the desk, offering him her hand. He grasped it for a second, her skin weathered and dry. Through the physical connection, in the power, she sent a true swell of relief and gratitude that he was back, though she noticeably cut it off before the feeling could venture anywhere towards love. Aymon offered the best he had in return: the hard, stubborn assurance at his core.
It didn’t take long for Aymon to unpack his few belongings back into his apartment, boil some noodles that had been in his cupboard for months, and eat them. It was then, technically, “after dinner” which meant that he could go find Obra, in the apartment down the hall.
He had to pass Jalena’s door to do so, of course. As was his habit, as he had done for years, every time he walked past, he rapped on the door, half to annoy her, half as a friendly “I’m here” gesture. But there was no chance that Jalena would stick her head out the door and yell at him, or, better, follow him the rest of the way down the hall to Obra’s suite.
Obra’s door wasn’t locked. It usually wasn’t, when they were home. He opened it and slipped inside. All the lights were off, so it was pitch black the moment that Aymon shut the door behind him. Obra, who was prone to migraines, had even at one point gone around and taped over every clock display and fire detector alert light in the apartment, so that they could have pure darkness when they drew the blackout curtains over the windows.
He was familiar with the layout of Obra’s apartment, even in the pitch blackness. From the bedroom, he could hear the distant sound of Obra’s light but ragged breathing, asleep. Aymon came into the bedroom and undressed down to his underwear and undershirt, laying his cassock neatly on the chair. He slid into bed next to Obra, warm under the blankets, crooking his knees against theirs and draping his arm over their waist, his forehead pressed against their shoulder.
He matched his breathing to theirs, pushing every thought out of his mind. Meditation hadn’t come easy to him as a child, but now it did, though he was careful not to slip too far down into it, because he had no desire to fall into Obra’s dream as they twitched every so often in his arms. He wasn’t sure how long it took for them to startle awake. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours. When Aymon allowed himself to get wrapped up in meditation, time passed strangely.
Obra rolled over in bed, facing Aymon. “You talked to Herrault?” they asked, voice clear despite having just woken up. They were good at jumping right back into things. Obra was always either awake or asleep, never drowsy.
“Yeah,” Aymon said. He stroked some of their hair, tucking it behind their ear. “Don’t tell me you were tempted by her offer.”
“To quit?” Obra asked, then sighed. “It was more tempting to be asked it the day I learned she was dead. You’ve had some time to—“
“Get over it?”
“I’m not over it,” Obra said. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
“I had nightmares, on the way back,” Aymon said.
“Doesn’t surprise me. About her?”
“You bring this up because you want to show me?” Obra knocked their forehead gently against Aymon’s. “I have my own nightmares, you know.”
“I could tell.”
But Obra was already pressing themself onto Aymon, their bodies symmetrical, fitting together, the close contact making things easier. They held hands, the old, familiar game, where Obra would squeeze Aymon’s right hand, and the instant he felt it he would squeeze with his left, around and around in a circle, until the sensation and focus and the power thrumming just underneath their skins matched up, and they slid into each others’ minds, easy and familiar as their own.
Two thoughts were at the forefront of Aymon’s mind: the first, his nightmare, where Obra’s kisses had left that blossoming wound against Jalena’s body, and the painless terror that accompanied it; the second, that phrase that Obra had used in their letter; “I don’t think she felt much of it.”
Obra understood, as they always did, and offered up their own nightmare as an offering: a burning building, a chance to save Jalena, or a chance to escape, and the inability to choose between those two things, leaving them trapped as the fire inched closer, and even worse, the nameless terror hidden in the dark smoke.
The conversation that Aymon had had with Herrault played in his mind, her asking if he would sacrifice himself for Obra. There was a dark amusement from Obra when in Aymon’s memory he responded in the negative. Satisfaction.
“I only would want to save Jalena because she clearly wouldn’t save herself,” Obra’s thought bounced between them. Would Aymon have saved Jalena? Considering it again, even now here with Obra, he didn’t think so. There was guilt in that thought, and then a stubborn rejection of guilt, even if Jalena would have saved him. She had saved strangers. That echoing thought made their hearts beat faster, Obra’s anger whipping up like a fire.
“Don’t ever let me go to Jenjin,” Obra thought. “I’d kill the governor myself for it.” The mental words were accompanied by a flash of vivid fantasy that Obra had failed to stifle, but Aymon didn’t pick at it. “She was worth more than a hundred of them. A thousand.”
“A million,” Aymon offered.
In the silent space as Obra tamped down their thoughts, Aymon’s nightmare rose again to their minds, and he turned the image over and over, unable to deny its power over him. He felt like he needed some way to answer the inherent question, the repulsive painlessness. If he knew what it had felt like, there would be no more wondering.
Obra’s mental question was answered before it was even asked.
“She was always better at blocking it out,” Obra thought.
“You practice, then,” Aymon responded.
Obra shivered, but it wasn’t clear which of their bodies actually performed the motion. Probably both did. They were one and the same. Obra could lift Aymon’s arm just as Aymon could direct Obra’s hands to peel off his undershirt, both feeling both sets of sensations and movements at once. They were one creature in this space, though it felt curiously empty without Jalena’s stalwart presence.
It wasn’t as though they had never done this without Jalena. They had, often. And Jalena and Obra had lain together while Aymon was away more times than he could imagine. Even he and Jalena had tried fucking each other a few times, when Obra had been out and they had been bored, though they both found that prospect less appealing than it would have been with Obra. They hadn’t always been three, physically. Aymon tried to tell himself that.
But they were both thinking of her now, so her absence was a wound.
Obra’s hands traced over Aymon’s chest, and they found the lowest part of his ribs, kissing him there. The power danced on their fingertips, the tip of their tongue, rising to the forefront of their minds. The sensation of Obra’s lips told them where to direct the power, and they did, sending it through Aymon’s body, lighting up his nerves with fire and electricity, first just a burning spark, then they kissed lower, across his body the way he had seen them do to Jalena in the dream.
The fire grew hotter and brighter, the pain unimaginably bad, but in that shared mental space, Aymon was in greater control of his body and mind, existing half-outside of it, so he didn’t scream or even twitch, just felt it, as though he was bearing the weight of Jalena’s death for her, somehow. He could feel his skin tearing open, the hot rush of blood out, these phantom signals that Obra flooded him with.
The pain was a rolling wave, now, and it crested, and even though Aymon was half-someone else, there was only so much that a person could bear. Obra’s power was driving directly through his nerves and into his brain.
They stopped just past the moment that it passed from exactly enough to too much, breaking out of the shared mental space and leaving Aymon alone in his head with the burning echoes of the pain that rang down into a strange nothingness, one that made him regret the feeling’s absence as soon as it was gone. He couldn’t think or see or hear for a moment, until his heart stopped beating so wildly.
When he was back in his senses, he realized that Obra was still clinging onto him, sobbing against his chest: full body, wracking sobs. There wasn’t anything he could say, not apologies, not condolences, so he just wrapped himself around Obra, holding them tight, the comfort of being a warm body to cling to the only comfort either of them could give or get.