That splitting headache from earlier is wearing off, only to be replaced with a significant amount of brain fog. I haven’t been able to determine whether it’s from the long hike through the forest, the slightest regret I cannot deny lingers from rejecting a bribe, leaving Fletcher wounded; the ethereal energies that penetrated my skull, or the surreal weirdness of everything that just occurred. Must be all of them. Either way, my reserve of stamina has bled out over the past several hours.
Windsong did start up and take off, and I’m running her hot and flying us back home at thirty thousand meters—practically the flight ceiling of her air-breathers—to get us home faster. I have to make way for some orbital descents incoming above and along our route, but we can sustain Aud four. It will also avoid turbulence or any of the standard traffic patterns below. Or, as highly unlikely as my paranoia might make it out to be, any pursuit.
Speaking of weird, I’ve ignored our evacuee, who has sat behind me, suspiciously quiet for most of an hour. I’m glad that they're not the talkative sort, because I have needed time to recover. My body and mind are running a negative balance, and I’m just going through the motions necessary to survive on a debt that I will have to pay back with massive amounts of interest later.
Why did I commit to flying back to Tencair? How much extra recovery time am I dooming Fletcher to by letting him suffer in Tea’s limited palliative care? He needs a surgeon as soon as possible, and I’m only making it worse. I’m glad he’s out cold. I hope that once he recovers, he’ll understand the decision I made. This passenger’s safety better be worth my learned wariness of the past decade, because I hardly choose to believe they are worth my physical weariness.
Thinking is very hard right now, but it keeps me awake. So I use one of the free multi-function panels to do some sleuthing on the Datalace. The Lace doesn’t have much to offer other than objective facts and figures like “the Empyrean Commonwealth is a sovereign nation that inhabits several megastructures in the heart of The Bary” and “Port Angelice [tap for barycentric coordinates] is the defacto capital. It is a shipbuilding hub for Titan-class freighters and the only station open to foreign citizens.” Everything else offered here is just conjecture.
I devoured tales containing half-truths growing up, easily entertained introvert that I am. Historical fiction, science fantasy, and the like. Even the mostly accurate Sagas of Settlement contain embellishments. I realized that in my voracious appetite for stories as a child, I read some scattered anecdotes few and far between of the so-called Empyrean Commonwealth. They were an ancient tyrannical thalassocracy, mercantile know-it-alls, or cynical demigods playing games in the shadows with our planet-bound nations for shits and giggles. Maybe all three, or none of the above?
Consult more than one author and you’d learn quickly that no one really pieced together a cohesive narrative. None of those mentions of the Commonwealth wove a full and complete tapestry. They all came to different conclusions, and so all those frayed threads withered in my head.
From what I figured, maybe no one had anything but musings to share because they were just sociopaths without any kind of coherent imagined community to propagate. Not pirates, but true interstellar anarchists. I had always figured you’d have to be crazy to not want something solid to put under your feet for the sake of individual well-being, at least until I flew into the void for the first time. Now I understand the serenity of freefall, but a planetless society without figureheads just seems so… alien. The human body isn’t built for the lives we make up there. That’s why we take drugs. And the human mind seeks the safety of structure, orientation, and community for all the basic evolutionary reasons.
I can’t even sort through all the questions I want to ask them, yet. But I figure I should make an attempt, since they will only be with us for the next two hours.
With Windsong level in the thin upper atmosphere, her four engines a chorus of lockstep resonance, all I can do is wait, anyway. Autopilot engaged, I lean back in my seat and sigh.
“My crew member… the wounded one… calls you a ‘Herald.’ He says you’re here to deliver a diplomatic message. Is that all true?”
There’s no immediate answer over the hum of the precoolers and engines reverberating astern and the subtle creaking of the ship’s rather lean titanium hull. I don’t turn my head, too entranced by the beauty of Sibyl’s dark curvature ahead. But I do glance at one of the small mirrors I have to the sides of my controls to keep tabs on Fletcher or Tea while I’m up front. They are sitting there with a conflicted look about them.
“I suppose that is correct, in a sense,” they say. “I am not privy to the moniker of ‘Herald,’ nor am I sure I like it. As I said when we boarded your voidcraft, my official title is Vox.”
“Don’t worry, Vox… Kiran Jyoti,” I reply, making sure I remember their name. I put my hand up in a slow and reassuring manner. “I’m only repeating what I was told. So, that title makes you the ‘voice’ of the Commonwealth?”
“One of many voices.”
“Which means you will have some kind of information to present to our kingdom’s diplomats.”
“We do not speak with diplomats,” they say. There’s that languid cadence in their voice again.
“What? If I don’t turn you over to an embassy for debriefing then who—”
“There is no embassy. I am to speak with your head of state directly.”
That hits me like a slugball in the face at a hundred kilometers an hour. Who the hell do they think they are?
“Did you just demand I take you to my leader?”
“Demand? No. I am grateful for your assistance. Simply point me in the right direction. Under normal circumstances, I would have no need for your services, but I am indebted to you and your crew for your intervention, Captain…”
Under normal circumstances, indeed.
“Rinn,” I say. “Ashlee Rinn Jensdottir.”
“Thank you, Captain Rinn Jensdottir.”
“Just Rinn,” I say, stifling a chuckle at their outlandish blunder. They may know Astrilish, but strangely enough, they don’t know the most basic tenets of our culture. We drop the matronymics in conversation after we've introduced ourselves. Tea knows that. Fletcher knows that. How you could learn Astrilish without absorbing that knowledge, I don’t know. Culture and language are so often entwined.
“Or my given name, Ashlee,” I add. That last statement was a white lie. One for myself, perhaps.
There’s a pause that I allow for. This is weird.
“What the hell happened to you out there? You buzzed our ship in low orbit and nearly killed us on your way down,” I say, with a little less anger than I actually wanted to inflect. “The book says that I should be detaining you and pressing charges for that alone. But I suppose that would not make sense now.”
“I respect your duty to the laws of your world, Captain Rinn. And I am ready to cooperate with you in any way that does not hinder my mission, but I can not allow for my apprehension. For you see, I was already escaping custody,” they say, frowning in the mirror. “Of whom, I am not certain. Our anonymity is our best defense. I cannot fathom how they ascertained my identity.”
Well, your social skills leave something to be desired, is something that I want to say.
“Did you recognize any of the faces of the men you incapacitated back there? Or any of their ships?”
“I did not. They were not from the installation that held me captive.”
“And how exactly does that work, anyway?”
“It is a form of…,” they stop briefly, clearly wanting to choose words that don’t mean much to me. “Non-lethal transcranial electromagnetic stimulation. It is afforded to all Voces for their protection and the security of their dispatch, as an alternative to ritual suicide. I cannot divulge further. But you have proven worthy of some manner of answer.”
“So how were you apprehended in the first place?”
“As a safety precaution, I must be conscious to activate it.”
When Fletcher dropped the Vox to the ground, it must have woken them up. This is all a bit much, but it’s starting to come together. From what they are saying, I glean that Vox Jyoti may have been shadowed by House Fjalner or someone else. My supposition is that they must have knocked them unconscious, unaware that when they woke, they would have a trump card with which to make an escape. But a commoner house with clandestine intelligence of that sort? Who would possibly know where and when a representative of the Commonwealth was on their way to see the queen but perhaps the royal houses themselves, if at all? And how would they know what they look like?
I don’t regret my decision now.
“When we land in Tencair, Vox Jyoti, you will be free to go. However, as this is a matter of national security, I must insist that I put you immediately in touch with the Royal Navy’s diplomatic attaché. They will verify your identity, debrief you, and send you to the royal household under escort.”
“That is appreciated, Captain Rinn.”
At that moment, Tea appears at the back of the bridge with what might be one of Fletcher’s shirts, as it appears far too large for either of us, or for our charge. She holds it out to them.
“Please wear this. I’ve seen enough bare-chested men for one day,” she says in a cantankerous tone betraying her manners. The Vox turns around and obliges, displaying stilted gratitude and donning the shirt over the remaining tatters of their tunic.
I unlock my seat and turn around. We’re on autopilot for the next forty minutes or so, and I’m grateful to see Tea report to the conn, as awful and disheveled as she looks.
“How is he?” I ask with concern.
“The shot went clean through his leg. But it’s a mess on the inside. I can tell from the imaging that he has a distal tibial break. I administered general anesthesia to keep him under and cleaned and packed the entry and exit wounds with antibiotics. But I also saw bullet and bone fragments in there, shattered by hard contact. He needs to be taken to the nearest hospital as soon as we land.”
I sigh a mix of relief and sorrow.
“You can count on it. ATC will give us priority.”
I return forward and call up Tencair air traffic control on the satellite for a medical emergency landing clearance with plenty of lead time.
Then, I call my sister.
A gray-blue veil of persistent rain drenches the tarmac. I watch in the downpour as a team of EMS personnel take Fletcher away on a gurney and load him into the back of their chevron-striped, yellow-green ground vehicle. I stand, my face slopped with wet hair, wondering as I always do if there was anything I could have done differently.
It’s not the first time any of us three has been injured. But it is the first time Fletcher has, and the first time I’ve been forced to decide any one of us is considerably less important than the outcome of our mission. It hurts. And it hurts more because it was so senseless. It hurts because some twisted motherfucker decided the upper hand gave him liberty to play target practice with a legally sanctioned search and rescue crew.
But I’m not letting anyone bend us to their will. If they wanted us to fly Fletcher to Diya for treatment so that they could ensnare us again, they had the wrong idea. And I know Fletcher himself, if he had any say in the matter, would have given them the same gesture of contempt.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the evidence I need to go after that man, the marshal. Our cameras are mounted inside our helmets, which we conveniently left behind, because we were operating in the middle of pristine, life-bestowing wilderness.
I fear I can’t trust the Constabulary any longer. They were never the good guys, but at least they would clean up after us. Always late to the scene, they still helped us interdictors do hazardous work without legal friction. But that’s in the wake of violence perpetrated by stubborn smugglers, desperate hijackers, and the odd pirate. Now politics have gotten entwined with my job, and with a global police force entrusted with all of Sibyl, I realize that an unscrupulous house like Fjalner could have moles anywhere.
I try to tell myself this won’t concern us after the Vox goes with the navy attaché that’s on its way here. But I can’t be so certain. What was it that asshole said about the balance of power?
Sibyleans like to tell ourselves that we are such a unified and harmonious society. We joke that we are so peaceable in comparison to the other Barystates because the Age of Variance—warring to the brink of famine and extinction—shook the bloodlust out of our systems. The national myth is one of understanding, compromise, cooperation, and honor without conflict. Ours is the most learned realm in The Bary, the most charitable, and (if you are to believe it) the most humane. And we act smug and superior about such labels. But embedded in that pride is a spiral of silence, a disinclination to confront big questions of public interest, and an air of passive-aggression whenever we do so. It’s probably why cisgender friends and family rarely speak up for people like me.
The population boom of recent decades touched off all sorts of political theater among lesser houses at the Klatching. And I fear that the current moral panic over transgender women existing in a near millennium old matriarchy is an insidious proxy for an unspoken question of power. Relative peace has been maintained on this world for nine hundred years, but with only one of The Twelve royal houses elevating a female heir to the throne at any time. Despite the meager democratic reforms that made us an elective monarchy after we beat back the Novani, commoner houses get locked out of lawmaking for decades. Even centuries, for a collegeless house like my own.
More than ever, Sibyl feels like a powderkeg ready to explode if an arsonist in the Klatching is willing to ignite it. And if that happens, even more people in the Constabulary will take sides.
Tea puts a hand on my shoulder as we watch Fletcher’s ambulance drive off, and I’m jolted from one dark thought to another, remembering a time when she was injured on the job, herself.
“He’s going to be okay, Ashlee.”
“Yeah, I know,” I reply, giving Tea a ginger embrace.
She doesn’t recoil at this, but seems a bit surprised. I don’t know why. We’re friends. At any rate, she acquiesces.
“Sometimes I don’t know why you two stick with me,” I sniff out, feeling myself falter at Tea’s touch. Tired and overwrought with anger, distrust, and new questions about just what is happening to this world, I’m losing composure, overthinking everything that is currently wrong and nothing that is right. I could cry myself to sleep. I don’t know what I’ve gotten us into, and the fear that I work hard to suppress during every job is boiling over in my head.
“Either of you… you could pursue safer work than this,” I say. “I don’t have that luxury. I’m an outcast. This is all I can do to make a meaningful living. And it’s fucking cursed, because I can’t do it without hiring people to take bullets for me. Bullets I should be taking instead.”
“Ashlee…,” Tea squeezes me a little tighter, displaying a tenderness rarely shared between us. “My dear friend… it’s not like that at all.”
“I should have just continued doing this alone with a smaller and less capable ship. This shitty work is too much to ask anyone without a death wish. We’re just becoming meatshields for a corrupt police force that refuses to face the worst of a violent sky.”
Tea holds me back and tries to make contact with my eyes. I don’t try to avoid hers, but I can’t regard her fully, and I’m glad that the rain is hiding any welling up that I can’t forcibly stifle.
“I know this world of yours’ leaves few options for you, Ash. And I’m sorry for that. I really am. We Celadonians know the cruelty of a civilization that promises one thing and delivers another.
Leandros and I know the risks of every job: the same as every other independent privateer across The Bary, interdictors, mercenaries, or otherwise. But it’s not just that. You are also a good boss. You are generous with your money and time, have realistic expectations, seek consensus, and assess people on their merits. You even manage to open up and have some fun once in a bright sky. Hell, at least a tiny paramilitary unit has the luxury of enjoying all those qualities.
Suffering so much has only made you a more compassionate leader. I can’t speak for Leandros, but I know that he won’t blame you for anything. You shouldn’t have to face the burden of a tough job alone.”
That’s more than Tea has ever said on the topic in the past three years, and far more than I ever expected from someone who brags about what she’d do differently all the time. Maybe I’ve been misreading her.
I pull away and wipe my face clear of rainwater and saline.
“Thanks, Tea. I needed to hear that.”
She nods in gesture over my shoulder.
“Looks like they’re ready to receive the baton.”
I turn around to see a motorcade of black and gold ground vehicles beginning to line up outside our ship. Their parade is orderly, escorted by a pair of light utility vehicles with unmanned small arms emplacements on top. All of the civilian vehicles flash golden warning lights, which are overpowering as they bounce off the glassy tarmac.
Tea stands aside and behind, and I stand to attention—or at least straighter, though I don’t need to—and compose myself. Well-dressed women and men with concealed weapons flip open black umbrellas in a disconcerting unison, and begin walking our way. One elderly woman in particular seems to be someone of authority, as she is dressed differently, more gracefully, than the rest. As she steps up to us with what must be her bodyguard, holding an umbrella open over her head, I note that she bears the crest of House Avlynn on her lapel. I sigh relief.
“Interdictor Rinn,” the orotund voice of an elderly politician begins, “how auspicious that you have rescued a diplomat in distress. On behalf of Her Majesty, I request the transfer of your charge to House Avlynn under Section Four of the Royal Interdiction Code.”
I study the lady for a second. She is stout, white haired, and has a no-nonsense, obstinate looking expression. A tight-ass bureaucrat, but that’s exactly who I needed to see.
“Vox Kiran Jyoti,” I speak into my collar, “it is safe to proceed.”
The politician looks up to Windsong’s gangway as Vox emerges from the safety of her hull. I wasn’t going to let them out until I was sure they would be going to the right hands. I turn on my heel and gesture to the strange little person approaching.
“I recognize the jurisdiction of House Avlynn. Vox Jyoti, you may take your leave with these people.”
“My thanks and blessings, Captain,” they say, with a polite bow of the head as they pass.
I watch as several bodyguards take positions around the 'Herald' and shuffle them off to their vehicles. The representative of House Avlynn gives me a strange look of query that I think settles into a polite nod, and takes her leave as well.
It’s done. I decide right there and then that it will be at least six or seven gyres before we fly another sortie. Fletcher needs time to heal, and I need time to rally my faltering resolve.
“Ashlee!” I hear a familiar voice call in the pounding rain.
Lydia, still limping about with a cane, and without an umbrella, stumbles her way with far too much speed past the departing guards and toward me. I didn’t think she would be here. I jog toward my sister and embrace her. This beautiful world of ours is falling apart. I’m happy to have one family member who I can depend on.