by Bogi Takács
I am staring at the face from a thousand newscasts – the gentle curve of jaw, the almost apologetic smile. Miran Anyuwe is not explaining policy. Miran Anyuwe is bleeding from a head wound, drops falling tap-tap-tap on the boarding ramp of our ship, the sound oddly amplified by the geometry of the cramped docking bay bulkheads.
“I’m looking for a ride out,” they say. They are not supposed to be on Idhir Station. They are supposed to be three jump points away, heading the accession talks, guiding Ohandar’s joining of the Alliance.
I uncross my legs and get up to my feet – one quick, practiced motion. I bow my head briefly. “Esteemed, I will inquire.”
They nod. Their smile intensifies just a little, as if someone repainted the lines of their mouth with firmer brushstrokes.
I dash inside, my entire torso trembling with fear of the sudden and the unexpected. I take a sharp corner and crash into Master Sanre. They steady me with both hands.
“Slower. In and out.”
Their presence calms me. It only takes a few breaths.
“Iryu, look at me.”
I stare up at them. Their eyes narrow, the lines of silver paint that I so carefully applied to their face in the morning crumple like spacetime clumps around a planet. The glass beads in their hair clack together.
“Explain what’s wrong.”
I mutter, still tongue-tied from the sudden fright. Miran Anyuwe is outside and injured. Miran Anyuwe wants to hire us. Miran Anyuwe–
“Ward the ship, then come outside. I will talk to them.”
They hurry outside, boots clanging on metal.
I exhale again. I focus on the power inside me, direct it outside and into the wards. My remaining tension eases up. I’m not missing anything – I will be able to look at my master’s sensory logs later. I turn around and return to the open airlock.
I stop for a moment as I see the two of them together. They look so alike, and the resemblance goes beyond gender, appearance, the light brown of their skin and the dark brown of their braids. They have the same bearing, the same stance. It’s clear both are used to effortless command. Miran Anyuwe commands an entire planet. My master commands only me and the ship.
Is my master more powerful?
It’s not about the head wound, it’s not about the desperate urgency in Miran Anyuwe’s gestures. It involves something innate that goes to the core of being.
I knew my master was powerful. But did I overestimate Miran Anyuwe?
Both of them look up at me, nod at me to come closer. I approach, unsettled.
Miran Anyuwe is unwilling to explain. Details are elided, skirted around. Anti-Alliance isolationists, terrorist threats, an attack on Miran Anyuwe’s life. I don’t understand why they abandoned the talks and went back to their planet – surely they knew they would present a better target there? Were they trying to pull off some populist maneuver? I find myself dismayed that my thoughts are moving along less than charitable pathways, but Miran Anyuwe clearly has something to hide.
I tell myself it is only the bitterness of disillusionment. But did I really want them to be that glorified, polished figurehead from the political news, that semi-deity with a charmingly pacifist stance?
I excuse myself; I start preparing for launch. My master can keep Miran Anyuwe company.
These ships do not run on pain; that’s a misconception. They run on raw magical power. It can be produced in any number of ways. Pain is just easy for many people.
Of course, it’s a matter of choice. Even those who find it easy don’t have to like it.
I like it. I need it. If I go without, my body protests. Maybe it’s about the need for overwhelming sensation; I’m not sure.
As I’m checking the equipment, I wonder why I’m having these thoughts – I think because of a foreigner on the ship, a potential need to explain. For all the newscasts and analysis articles, I know little about Ohandar. The focus is always on Miran Anyuwe, and the progress of the negotiations. I wonder if that means the Ohandar isolationists have already won.
I slow my all too rapid breathing. There will be time to get agitated later. First to get away from the gravity wells, to a relatively clean patch of spacetime while still on sublight. Then we can decide – the client can decide. Miran Anyuwe has all the reputation credit in the world to pay. Of course, my master would nix all the dangerous maneuvers. I just hope Miran Anyuwe isn’t up to something wrong.
I tug on straps, lean into them with my full bodyweight. They hold. They always hold, but it’s best to check.
I undress. A lot of magic leaves through my skin surface – I’d rather not burn my clothing. I never have, but it heats up and that makes me worried. I’ve already adjusted the ambient temp a few degrees higher, so I’m not feeling cold.
The chamber is mostly empty – my master is a minimalist, and I like this: distractions do not help. The lines carved into the bulkheads – carefully, by hand – are the same off-white as the bulkheads themselves. One day it would be pleasant to have wood, but I like this surface too: it reminds me of ceramics, some of our tableware from down planetside.
Master Sanre is setting up the frame: pulling it out from storage inside the bulkheads, affixing it. They work quickly; we’ve done this so many times.
I say I’m ready. I’m eager to begin; we were stuck on Idhir Station for days upon days, our time consumed with administrative tasks. I’m starved for a run, and we have the client of clients, safely ensconced in one of the bedchambers, but probably not yet asleep. Out on the corridor I felt their jitters, but this chamber is the best-warded on the ship. No distractions inside, no stray power leaking out and causing disturbance outside.
I lie stomach down on a fixed-position pallet and my master straps me in. I wriggle a bit – everything seems to be in order. I smile up at them and they run a hand along the side of my face, smooth down my curls. I close my eyes for a moment and sigh a little. They chuckle.
“So dreamy. What would you do without me?”
“I would be sad?” I volunteer, my voice thin and little.
They pat me on the shoulders.
They start with their bare hands, slapping, grabbing and pulling at the flesh. It is all quite gentle. I relax into the restraints and my muscles unknot. Whatever Miran Anyuwe is doing, I couldn’t care less.
Heavier thuds on the sides of my back. I can tell the implements by feel. I wish we would go faster – aren’t we in a hurry?
Master Sanre fusses with the tool stand. They turn around, change stance. A whizzing sound through the air, a sharper pain. I yelp. Sound is good, it also helps release. We go on. On. My back burns. I groan at first, then scream. Tears and snot. I–
“What’s going on in here?”
Miran Anyuwe. How– The door was supposed to be locked–
Did you forget to lock the door? My master sends me a private message.
It locks automatically once the frame is disengaged, I think back over our connection. It should be encrypted, but now I am uncertain about everything.
Miran Anyuwe strides up to us. “What are you doing?” Their voice wavers with anger and fear. I try to crane my head to see – I can’t, but Master Sanre disengages the straps with a quick thought-command. I sit up, trying to suppress the shaking caused by the sudden halt. I’m not sure where to put all the magic. I clumsily wipe my face and hug myself. Why is Miran Anyuwe so angry?
They stare at each other. I wonder if I ought to say something.
You may speak, my master messages.
“Powering the ship,” I say. My voice is wheezier, wavier than I’d like. This voice is not for strangers. My vulnerability is not for strangers. Not even for Miran Anyuwe.
“You did not say you would do that!”
Do what? I am baffled. “Powering the ship?”
They glare at Master Sanre. “You are hurting him!”
“Em,” my master says. “Different pronouns.”
Miran Anyuwe looks startled; they know they of all people are not supposed to make assumptions. I feel they are gearing up to apologize, then thinking better of it. Some of their anger dissipates.
They hesitate – I’ve never before seen them hesitate, then turn to me. “It will be all right,” they say.
“Could you please leave?” I am trying to be courteous, but the magic is pushing against my skin. This is not a point to come to a sudden stop. What is their problem?
“I am not letting them torture you,” they say, with a sudden shift of tone into media-proof reassurance.
I wish I could hit Miran Anyuwe. With so much magic, it is dangerous to even think of violence. I force down the thought. “They are not torturing me. Please.” I wave my arms. My motions are increasingly jagged – I know I’m losing control. “I need to release the magic, please, could you please leave? It’s dangerous. You shouldn’t be in here.”
“I would listen to em if I were you,” my master says quietly. “If you’re not leaving, I will escort you out.” They step forward.
Miran Anyuwe recoils. “You– you brute!” They yell at my master. Then to me: “I will protect you!”
This would be annoying or even amusing if I weren’t about to explode. I hug myself into a ball. I think I am making a sound…?
I don’t see how my master grabs them and drags them physically out of the room. I can hear their huffs as they manually turn the lock.
Hurried steps across the room. My master is practically flying. Toward me.
Arms around me. I feel very small. “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m here. I’m here for you.” Holding me tight. “You can let it go now. I will guide it. You can let it go.”
I howl, convulsing, weeping. The magic tears at my insides as it rushes out. My master will have things to repair – I am suddenly angry at Miran Anyuwe for this, but then the thought is swept away; thought itself is swept away.
Outside, the ship is moving.
My master is so furious they have excess. They run up and down the length of the room, then just groan and push magic into the structure.
“Next time I’ll have to do that out the airlock or I’ll just fry the controls,” they say. Calm enough to sound cynical. They shake their head. Clack, clack. “I’ll fix you up once I’m steadier,” they say. “It didn’t seem to leave lasting damage. I would’ve torn them in half!”
I seldom hear my master talk about violence. But I understand the source of their fury now.
I query the systems. Where is Miran Anyuwe? Pacing the corridor outside, apparently.
I close my eyes and lay back. I don’t think I can face the client. I don’t think I can face anything. How could things go this wrong?
“I’ll talk to them,” my master says. “You can rest. I’ll bring you your heavy blanket.”
They cover me up. I wriggle into the warm, weighty duvet, grab armfuls of it. Some things are eternal, unchanging. My master briefly caresses my head, fingers playing with my short curls. My muscles loosen up. I can feel that some of the tension leaves my master, too. I turn my head, peek out from the blanket to gaze at them. They look like Miran Anyuwe; but they also look like me, and this time I just want to focus on the latter. People have mistaken us for relatives before, and there is something deeply comforting in this.
“It’s not your fault,” they say. “None of this is your fault.”
“But… the door?” I find it hard to move my lips and tongue. My mouth doesn’t work.
“There was a malfunction.” They frown. “Don’t forget that Miran Anyuwe is a magical person, too, if not so powerful as either of us.”
The message, unspoken: Be on your guard.
I’m back in our room, still resting, the soft upper layer of our mattress bending obediently around my aching flesh. Master Sanre repaired what could be repaired right away, then set the rest on a healing course. I’m halfway to sleep, drifting in a white-fluffy haze, when the alarm sounds.
I get out of bed, hastily dress, walk to the control room like a baby duck unsteady on its legs. Teeter-totter. My master looks up at me, and so does Miran Anyuwe. I feel they had been arguing.
“Warships on our tail,” says Master Sanre. “We’ll need to jump soon, and hope fervently that they can’t follow us.”
We’re still on sublight, and moving much slower than our target velocity due to the unwelcome interruption. I grimace, try to gather my wits. The warships must be after Miran Anyuwe; we ourselves don’t have enemies.
I sense my master’s gaze upon me. “How soon can we jump?” they ask.
“I can start preparing right away,” I say. I know the healing won’t be able to run its course, and I know that’s also what my master has been thinking. But if we are hit by a mass-driver, there won’t be any healing in the world to repair our bodies.
Miran Anyuwe has stopped protesting. I want to grab them, snarl at them: If you think what you saw was bad, just see what happens now. Just watch. Will you turn your head away?
A shot whips past our ship: the sensors tell me everything in minute detail. I shudder.
Master Sanre tries to hail the warships. No response, just another shot. Deliberately missing? Intended as a warning?
Then a third, aimed head on–
My master jumps up from their chair. “We need to get out now!”
They tackle me, hug me to themselves, push me down on the floor. My face flattens against the cold floorboards, my mouth opens. I gasp for breath.
“Now!” they yell, and even without the familiar trappings, my body responds instantaneously, my mind rushes through the preparations of matter transposition.
Magic rises in me, floods me, streams outward, suffuses the ship. I scream with the sudden expansion of awareness, the pain of white-hot power running along my spine, I keen and convulse as my master holds me down, grabs hold of my power to direct it outward–
–we jump. Arriving clumsily at our target destination, off the ecliptic, too close to the system’s star. I cough, close my eyes to better focus on the sensors. I try not to focus on my body. Something feels broken, not a bone or two but a process itself; something biochemical knocked askew.
Master Sanre rolls to the side, still holding me close. We remain there for a few breaths, ignoring Miran Anyuwe. We get up, holding onto each other.
“We need to jump into Alliance space,” my master says, “who knows how fast they can follow us?”
Very few people can make an entire ship jump as rapidly as I do; my magic simply has an uncommon shape that’s well-suited for this particular task. Miran Anyuwe doesn’t know this. Our pursuers don’t know this.
“I’ll request a permit right away,” I say.
“I’ll do it. You get ready to jump again.”
My master is still trying to get through to an Alliance comm station when the warships show up. I can’t even make it to the power chamber. Pain unfurls, spreads out as I raise power; I flail and claw against my master who holds me strongly. The ship jumps.
I’m half dragged, half carried. Two voices wheezing. My master and… Miran Anyuwe?
They drop me down on the pallet, and the shape, the sensation identifies it to me. I’m in the power chamber. Straps are pulled, tightened across my body.
“Can you do it? Can you do it again?”
It takes time to realize my master is speaking to me. I nod, teeth gritted.
“Can you do it?” Miran Anyuwe asks them.
“Oh–” My master suppresses a curse. “Don’t bother about me!”
“Of course I am–” They raise their voice and it trembles. Suddenly I am worried: I need to bring this to a close, I can take the magic, but what about my master?
I grapple with words for a few moments before I am able to speak. “I can jump us to Alliance space without a beacon.”
“Without a permit? It’s illegal,” my master protests, but inwardly I know they are already convinced. The Alliance goons ask first, shoot second, not the other way round like the jockeys of these warships are wont to do.
“I’d take Alliance Treaty Enforcement over these people any day,” I say, knowing full well that they have magic-users just like me. I used to be one of them. I wouldn’t be able to get out of harm’s way fast enough. More effort and I won’t be able to do anything at all, but one more jump I can manage, even against the gradient, against the odds–
The warships are back.
I strain against the straps and clutch at my master, scream at them to pull, pull because I can’t generate enough power in time, and after their initial hesitation they do it, and I can feel myself pulled apart, space itself getting fragmented and torn, unraveling at the edges–
We are in orbit around Andawa, second-tier Alliance population center. We know this planet well. It’s easy for us to jump here.
It will take the Alliance more than a moment to mobilize their forces. Andawa is peripheral, but not so peripheral as to be without protection. The enforcers will simply take a bit longer to arrive, jumping in probably from Central.
My master undoes the straps, their fingers working as their mind is busy hailing Planetside Control. I try to stand, fall into their arms. Miran Anyuwe is silent this time, but I can tell they are shaking, and not just with the side-effects of back-to-back jumps with no jump point, no beacon.
I make a motion toward them, then slowly collapse and fold into myself as my legs give way. My master topples down on the floor together with me, cradles my head.
The warships soon follow. I can’t move. I can’t jump. I can’t think. I gasp and wheeze, try to push myself upright. My master pushes me back. “Don’t,” they whisper next to my ear.
The enemies can’t quite jump into our ship – the wards still hold. They board the old-fashioned way, with lots of clanging and metal being cut. Where is the Alliance? Why are they so slow?
Before my vision gives in, I see black-clad commandos stream into the room. I see Miran Anyuwe crouch on the floor next to me, taking cover behind the box of equipment.
I don’t understand what the commandos are saying. I only understand what my master is thinking.
On their signal, I roll to the side, bump into Miran Anyuwe, my arms around them. They smell of marzipan. I hold fast. Then I fall through space, through time, through awareness itself.
Sharp, prickly grass. The sunlight scrapes at the back of my head when I open my eyes; I close them and shiver despite the warmth of Andawa’s sun. I grapple with the earth as I try to get if not upright, then at least on all fours. I can’t even pull myself up on my elbows – I lose balance, smear my face and arms with rich dark dirt. Andawa is a garden world.
Miran Anyuwe is speaking, has been speaking for a while now. I can’t make sense of the words. They reach under my armpits and pull.
Gaps in continuity.
Miran Anyuwe dragging me on some backcountry path and yelling at me, preaching that I shouldn’t live a life of slavery. I try to say that I am not a slave, I serve my master voluntarily, without coercion. My speech turns into mush – my mouth is too uncoordinated – and in any case Miran Anyuwe refuses to listen. I can’t walk unassisted, I can barely parse sentences and yet they are preaching to me, about how I ought not to be running away from freedom but toward it.
Who’s running away, I want to say, but my systems checks are failing one by one, my biosensors are screaming.
Words. Words. More words. Completely opaque.
I’m lying on the slightly curving floor – a ship’s bay? Entirely unfamiliar beyond the reassuring calmness of Alliance-standard. Miran Anyuwe is sitting next to me, their left hand on my forehead. I try to bat it aside; my entire right side spasms. I gasp, force steadiness on my breath, ignore all the warnings.
Miran Anyuwe speaks – the sentences elude me. I want to turn and see, observe the crowd whose presences I can feel pressing on my mind, but I can’t move; even my motions to shoo away Miran Anyuwe are little more than twitches.
Someone, a sharp bright voice, finally: “…a medical emergency, Captain, we need to intervene.” I miss the answer. Then the same person, slower, pausing after each word: “Captain, you need to allow me.”
Miran Anyuwe withdraws; I sigh in relief. Someone crouches down next to me and oh I know this mind-template, so familiar I fight the urge to grab and latch onto it, in this sea of incomprehension where in every moment an eddy or whirl can cause me to drift away. Ereni magic-user, delegated to the Alliance; they don’t call it magic, they have their own words…
“Ssh.” A touch on my chest. “You are almost completely drained. I will help you if you let me.”
I murmur something, hoping it will be enough, hoping the intent would be clear. I reach to the Ereni’s hand on my chest, but my fingers fail to connect. I’m not quite clear about where my body parts are situated at any given moment.
Warm egg-yolk-yellow power floods into me through their hand and my cells drink it in, desperate for nourishment. I can move. I can live.
Speaking doesn’t come as fast. Where is my master, I think at the Ereni now that my thoughts can move forward, Is my master safe?
ETA another twenty-five minutes, the Ereni thinks in my head. We are short on people to jump them here. The Isolationists have been apprehended and are being ejected from Alliance space. I look up at the Ereni – their appearance matches my mental impression of them. Black, thick-set, gender-indeterminate. They are still clenching their jaw. I know it takes a lot of effort to get exact numbers across – this is not a high-magic area. I nod, appreciating the effort. They hold my hand, squeeze it. Just as I understand them, they also understand me, through the shared demands of magic and the hierarchies it often creates.
I sigh, look around. Across the room, a short, sharp-featured officer in the uniform of Alliance Treaty Enforcement glares at – me? No, at Miran Anyuwe. My interface works again, the error messages recede. The officer is a man, by the name of Adhus-Barin, with about half a dozen more lineage-names after his first. A nobleman from the Empire of Three Stars, one of the more socially conservative members of the Alliance.
“Maybe we can try this again,” Adhus-Barin says. He looks about as angry as a noble in a mere Alliance captaincy position can be expected to look, his auburn-brown skin darkening further. His systems are probably frantic, trying to avoid a stroke. “You might wish to rephrase what you’ve just told me.”
Miran Anyuwe seems proud as ever, but as my body processes the influx of magic, I can already tell the politician radiates fear, apprehension and… brokenness, somehow. An impression of someone caught in the act.
“I was escaping from the Isolationists who were after me,” Miran Anyuwe says, “I wouldn’t have made it to Alliance space if not for these excellent people.” They nod at me. Am I supposed to smile, murmur thanks? I remain silent. They continue: “One of whom doesn’t even understand the Code of Life and Balance, I must say.”
What is that? If I hear one more word about how I’m supposed to be some kind of slavery apologist…
Adhus-Barin also glares at them. Is he waiting for Miran Anyuwe to incriminate themselves?
The politician continues, shifting pace as if realizing they are no longer talking to their home crowd. “As you are no doubt aware, the Isolationists oppose our negotiations to join the Alliance, negotiations that I am leading…” They pause, uncertain for a moment. “Between two rounds of talks, I returned to Ohandar, where I was summarily attacked, and after my attempted escape, even my security detail deserted me at Idhir Station, so I had to seek out a private vessel for help…”
“Your security detail betrayed you?” Adhus-Barin turns oddly mild, almost gentle. I don’t have to pry into his thoughts to sense a trap being readied.
“They were all Isolationists, they turned against me–” Voice rising. Miran Anyuwe is losing their cool.
“Oh, those kinds of roughshod mercenaries don’t appreciate going unpaid,” Adhus-Barin nods with empathy.
“What could I have done? The talks were almost over and the funds–” They halt midsentence.
I stare. At Adhus-Barin smiling, his thin mouth turning up in almost a sneer, at Miran Anyuwe standing statue-still, with only stray tremors breaking through their rigidity.
The security detail going unpaid. Isolationists going unpaid.
“Thank you,” Adhus-Barin says, “I do believe this will be enough.”
As if a dam breaking through, Miran Anyuwe starts blabbering, words tumbling over each other. The statue falling apart. “The Alliance has to understand, the Alliance knows – isolationist sentiment has always been strong on Ohandar, we had to show the populace that isolationism was extremism, we had to–”
“So you backed the Isolationist movement, steered them into violence,” Adhus-Barin says, one step away from gloating. “Created and funded your own rivals, so that you could point a finger at them and say, we are not like those people. So that you could revel in the position of the peacemaker.”
“The Alliance knows! Don’t deny it! The Alliance knows!”
“May I?” the Ereni says, then waits for the captain’s nod. “The Alliance knows. That doesn’t mean the Alliance assents.”
“Exactly as Officer Enisāyun has it,” the captain nods at them again. “Undesirable allies often incriminate themselves during the accession process, as we have found.” He says it as if the Empire was innocent of all possible wrongdoing, and I wonder if Miran Anyuwe knows how the Alliance had taken its present shape, what had prompted the member states to create Treaty Enforcement, back it with real power and threat. I sneak a look at Enisāyun, and the Ereni glances back at me, shrugs.
Miran Anyuwe mutters word-fragments, all sense lost in overwhelming anger, directed at us who thwarted the plan. We all gaze upon the spectacle. I pull my personal wards tighter around myself in case Miran Anyuwe lashes out.
Officer Enisāyun asks to speak again, then gestures toward me. “The esteemed leader might wish to thank the young māwalēni here for saving their life.”
Adhus-Barin makes a face. The meaning is clear – he would rather the politician would have perished, murdered by their own erstwhile allies. Let alone called esteemed leader, but then again the Ereni are fond of formality… and its ironic flipside.
Enisāyun smiles softly. “We will make sure that the young māwalēni receives all due payment for services rendered – though from whom might be uncertain at this point…”
Miran Anyuwe collapses.
“It wasn’t me,” Enisāyun says, voice shaky. “Captain? It wasn’t me, Captain.”
“I thought they were warded from all outside–” A voice from the back of the Alliance crowd, then another, “I warded them!”
A door seal hisses, and my master dashes in, the familiar clang of boots on ship-metal. “Were they threatening anyone? I felt they might be threatening someone, so it seemed safer to shut them down.”
“Excuse me?” Adhus-Barin seems utterly lost. It’s that kind of day, the Ereni thinks at me and I suppress a chuckle.
“I have a policy of not interfering with clients’ minds, but they severely disrupted my ship, interrupted the jumping procedure–”
Officer Enisāyun is shocked in the back of my mind.
“–so I thought it would be safest to plant my safeguards on them just in case. They had no defenses to speak of.”
An understatement, recognized by everyone present as such. When did my master have time to do this? I consider the events of the day, fail to find the exact moment. An intervention performed off-hand, with a stray thought…
As Adhus-Barin regains his calm and goes through the motions of the cleanup, organizing transport for Miran Anyuwe to Alliance Central where they will no doubt have to endure another round of castigation before getting booted out of Alliance space, my attention is elsewhere. I knew my master was more powerful, I tell myself, but I understand at the same time that it’s not about power – or, rather, that power entails more than raw control. It entails being straightforward, honest, upright.
And I know that between the two of us, we don’t need a planet.
Master Sanre offers me a hand and I stand up – then they grab me, hold me tight to themselves, their tears trickling down my curls.
“The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” (© Bogi Takács) was published in Issue 1 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.