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behind me a sword

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Sword of Cyclonus always sends a full unit of Etrepa ancillaries to accompany Lieutenant Taiilaat when she visits Whirl.

Taiila isn’t sure why. She’s three years out of training; she’s not the baby lieutenant anymore! That honor goes to Var Lieutenant Saari, these days. And Whirl always seems perfectly nice, for a Notai ship who spent a few thousand years wandering alone in the Dark Nebula, crewless and sporadically violent. Like a ship out of an old historical drama!

But Cyclonus is phenomenally stern about Taiila taking along a full detachment whenever she leaves. All the ship’s ancillaries have cultivated the exact same disapproving not-frown, and the ship knows how to use it. If Taiila’s sleeves so much as fray on a microscopic level, Cyclonus is there before it happens to make sure her uniform is picture-perfect and regulation-standard. The ship has tea ready and waiting in Taiila’s quarters a half hour early if she so much as thinks about sleeping in.

Deep sigh. Sword of Cyclonus never lets her get away with anything.

At least Whirl doesn’t mind. She chortles when Taiila hops off the shuttle, her hollow-eyed, scarred ancillaries grinning too widely as they ruffle Taiila’s hair and bump hips and sling arms over Etrepa unit’s shoulders. She never demands that they disarm before boarding. Occasionally a restless body will try to smack an Etrepa upside the back of the head or pull some other silliness to test Cyclonus’s reflexes (and patience). The Etrepas have stopped throwing Whirl into walls at the slightest twitch, and now simply flick their armor on and off in a blink of silver until Whirl loses interest in hassling them.

Whirl’s grins never falter under Cyclonus’s implacable stare. Maybe ships are immune to other ships’ stern disapproval? All Taiila knows is that Cyclonus is old enough to remember when the Titan class ships were decommissioned, and instead of being impressed Whirl just called her old as fuck.

The contrast between Cyclonus’s dark haired, disciplined ancillaries, and Whirl’s chaotic flurry of bodies with teal-dyed braids and prosthetic limbs and missing eyes, is stark. Apparently, the battle that left Whirl adrift, captainless and cut off, did a number on her ancillary stockpiles, and she had to piece them back together again from what she had in suspension over the centuries. A few of Cyclonus’s ancillaries are missing inessential bits – the occasional missing ear or finger, in one case an entire foot – but it’s nothing compared to Whirl. According to Amaat Lieutenant Ambus, Sword of Cyclonus had a firm, unspoken policy about conserving ancillaries long before the end of the annexations was announced.

But Taiila’s been the primary liaison with Whirl for almost a year without anything terrible happening! No one else on Cyclonus wanted the job, anyway. After she worked up the nerve to scold the Etrepas a couple times, and received only unamused, immovable stares in response, Sword of Cyclonus finally stopped bristling when Whirl’s lead ancillary for the day – none of them seem to be in actual, organized units anymore – claps a two-digit prosthetic on her shoulder and steers her toward the repurposed decade quarters. This body is older, with white streaks in her dyed hair like some of Cyclonus’s most experienced Amaat units, and a permanently crooked grin, one side of her face a mass of scar tissue. “Oh, aren’t you adorable, lieutenant. I could just eat you up,” the ship says, waving a careless hand. Etrepa Nineteen narrowly dodges in time to avoid getting smacked in the face, squinting. Taiila is very familiar with the not-irritated squint. “Come, come!”

When Whirl stops bouncing off the walls and messing with Taiila’s hair, Etrepa Five – who just keeps her armor up permanently the entire time they’re in Whirl territory, with a faintly resigned air steps silently behind Taiila and briskly combs her thick white hair back into something resembling order. Cyclonus has Ideas about correct behavior, and honor, and dignity, and Etrepa Five always seems to find Taiila’s hair less than presentable and in need of fixing and pinning. She’s used to the fussiness now, even if Cyclonus’s ancillary bodies act like they’ve sucked on a lemon if she ever calls them fussy in their hearing.

Which is everywhere.

(Taiila has caught Sword of Cyclonus singing. But only the one time. Cyclonus also has Ideas about ships, and propriety, and absolutely no one on board knows how she feels about being people, now.)

Along the way, they pass a lot of clocks. Clocks are Whirl’s obsession. Er, passion, maybe? They cover the walls: clocks and mounted watches and timepieces and chronometers from thousands of different worlds. A couple of them look like round chunks of metal with dangling wires and cords, occasionally stained bright pink. When Taiila points out that those ones don’t even display or transmit the time, Whirl pats her on the head and says that only the finest connoisseur of clockwork would understand. Whirl’s ancillaries are in perpetual motion tending to her many clocks – dusting, repairing, painting – in addition to all the tasks needed to keep the ship itself functioning. The bodies with all their fingers intact are in high demand.

Sometimes Taiila catches the ancillaries just – staring at the walls. One particular body hasn’t moved in weeks; she just stands in a corner at the end of one white corridor, swaying slightly, as she watches the unfamiliar planets of some far off solar system spiral around an astronomical clock.

There are no lieutenants on Whirl. No captain. Only ancillaries, with one vast mind ticking away behind their eyes. Sometimes – sometimes Taiila forgets, because Whirl’s many bodies are so expressive as they tow her through the halls for their weekly tea-and-gossip session. She forgets this isn’t a human crew. That she should be unnerved by the level of chaotic, exuberant activity. Whirl never stops being in your face. The ancillaries on most ships are a silent, unobtrusive presence. Just another part of the ship.

(Sword of Cyclonus called Whirl by her real ship designation exactly once, when the two ships first encountered each other. Yeah, Schorl was a stupid name, Whirl commented, laughing, before trying to ram Cyclonus into the sun.)

“I am such a fan of these Presger kiddos,” Whirl chatters, as she ushers Taiila into a seat at a table where three other bodies are pouring out tea, setting out breakfast, and lounging in the chair opposite, respectively. Another taps the side of Taiila’s blue visor until it sits askew on her nose, and cackles when Etrepa Five dourly readjusts it. After a few rounds of that Taiila rolls her eyes and flaps their hands away so she can fix it herself. “Tell that translator she can come by any time! The clock she gave me is a work of art.

Taiila swallows the wrong way. Cyclonus’s ancillaries look extra stoic, taking up guard positions while she does her best to turn her cough into a nervous laugh. Long-suffering Etrepa Five ignores the Whirl ancillary pretending to swoon against her armor. “Uh, Translator Tsieh made you a clock?” she says, voice cracking.

Sword of Cyclonus provides the relevant data at a reflexive twitch of Taiila’s hand; according to all sensors, the Presger Translator in this province never left the Justice of Tyrest.

Which is normal, as far as the Presger go! But probably something Taiila needs to report to her senior officer, if Cyclonus hasn’t already done it for her. Ships are people, and nothing is the same, and things are kiiind of a mess - but the Presger can always make them messier.

Taiila doesn't know about all that big picture stuff. She has Sword of Cyclonus, and she has Whirl, and that's plenty for one lieutenant to deal with, thanks very much.

The Whirl across from her sighs happily. She’s a familiar face; she always sticks her lonely pinky finger out when she cups the bowl of tea to drink, for reasons that are a complete mystery to Taiila but which she assumes have something to do with ancient Notai manners. “I mean, sure, it’s probably an unsanitary abomination of science,” Whirl muses, as another body adds the exact amount of sugar Taiila likes, “but it works just fine!”

Taiila accepts the tea offered to her, her nervous smile locked in place like always. The ancillary leans in conspiratorially. “Want to see it?”

“No,” Cyclonus says for her, flatly, through Etrepa Five.

Something emits a horrifying squelch from behind the door to the decade kitchen. Cyclonus’s ancillaries on either side of said door keep their guns in hand, looking grim.

Whirl pouts. “You’re no fun at all, you know that?”

Another absolutely revolting noise burbles through the door. Taiila can see something…leaking on the floor. Very awkwardly, she folds her feet up under her on the seat without breaking eye contact with Whirl, and doesn’t panic. “Does it…tell actual time? I mean, what does it do?” she asks, the teal and silver glass tea bowl rattling a little under her fingernails.

A low, clicking rattle echoes through the kitchen vents, like an animal in a swamp.

Definitely not panicking.

Whirl smiles with all her teeth, and sets a plate in front of Taiila. “It’s an egg timer,” she says, poking the strips of bacon and eggs into a smile.