I. Break it apart and put it back together
It’s just like the old days, the bad days. The Divine is shaken awake by a whimpering acolyte and rushed through the hot crowded dark to the temple. Her step over the threshold carries her five years into the past; blood dripped and smeared across the sacred stones, someone curled around a belly wound, junior priests shouting in shaking voices for water and linens. The kind of breathing that’s only gasps, each one a demand for another second of life, a refusal of death as stark as a storm siren.
There are six of them in the sanctuary and the Divine recognizes them all. They’ve fanned out, an ancillary placing itself at each corner of the room with perfect military precision. The fifth ancillary is wounded, kneeling in a spreading puddle of blood before the altar. Awn is on her knees beside it, cradling its head, holding pressure as best she can.
In a cold voice the Divine hears herself say, “You came back.”
“Yes.” One of the ancillaries. “I’m deeply sorry, Divine, for putting you in such a position. But we could think of nowhere else to go.”
It took them days to wash the blood of the Tanmind mob from the temple floor, and weeks more to reconsecrate it. It could not be done until the last of the bodies were burned. “What makes you think you are welcome here?”
Another ancillary says, “Hope.”
A third says, “She won’t leave it. Even seeing us puts you in danger, and we regret it, but if you can spare a corrective, we’ll go.”
Another adds, “We have no wish to bring destruction on this house.”
It’s jarring, being spoken to from multiple directions. And while one body is talking, two more start humming, discordant versions of a soothing song for children. One Esk is usually courteous enough to be careful of such things. Only then does the Divine notice the rips and plasma-burns on its uniforms, the bruises on those eternally expressionless faces. Nothing that the Tanmind could have inflicted on such superhuman creatures.
“Ah.” The Divine turns to Awn and the wounded body on the floor. Of all the uniformed figures, it’s hard to remember that only Awn is a person. “‘She won’t leave it’?”
“No.” This time it’s the wounded ancillary who speaks, unnaturally calm between gasps, a computer filtered through agony. “I’ve tried to tell her that… she should let this segment die...get to the hills… but…”
The Divine is already kneeling, pressing her clean hand over Awn’s bloodied one, meeting those fierce tear-bright eyes. “But she has learned despite your Radch that all life is precious. And what is precious should not be wasted.”
A senior acolyte brings the corrective, one of a precious few that the Divine hid away just after the annexation, when the Radchaai tried to wash away the blood and grief of their new citizens with celebrations and gifts. There have been precious few shipments in the last few years; but Awn’s replacement, a proper and pugnacious Bo lieutenant, has promised that the trade ships will come soon. She has promised many things.
The Divine folds the corrective over the wounded ancillary’s belly with her own hands, holding it until it hardens. “Thank you,” Awn says in the most formal and heartfelt register of Orsian that she knows. That’s something the fishers say to each other in low voices when the nets come up empty: Fish as plentiful as a Radchaai’s gratitude.
At dawn the tyrant’s soldiers come knocking at the temple doors, led by the specious Bo. They find what they expect to find: the obtuse priest of a sullen backwater sect kneeling before the altar of Ikkt, midway through her morning devotions. There is no trace of blood on the floor, and the only sound is the low murmur of the Divine and her acolytes mingling with the low murmur of the waves, rising and falling. It’s more than loud enough to drown out the drag of a muffled oar far out on the fore-Temple water.
II. Memory is an event horizon
Hundred Captain Rubran pauses, hands halfway to the pale cream Bractware bowl brimming with fragrant Four Moonrises. Only a moment’s hesitation, but it brings Ship’s voice, calm and musical in her ear: “Something wrong, Hundred Captain?”
Rubran takes the bowl from the steady hands of Toren Six, inhales the steam gratefully. The tea is of course brewed perfectly to her tastes. “No, nothing. Report, please.”
Acknowledgement and obedience come together. Ship’s report is mostly nonverbal: engine readings all nominal, orbit stable, Lieutenant Lasala of Two Etrepa on watch, no new communication from Valskaay. Then less urgent matters: One Bo in the mess, Two Bo waking and heading in file to the gym. Medic very busy, yet in good health and spirits, talking to one of her assistants as she administers a painless lethal injection to the last of the One Esks.
“A regrettable waste,” says Ship. It must have detected Rubran’s distress at that last image. “We are fortunate that Lieutenant Awn located and destroyed the Tanmind device before it could damage any more ancillaries.”
There is a perfectly appropriate note of grief, an impersonal sorrow in Ship’s voice as befits the loss of a valued senior officer. Rubran can’t help wondering, for the first time in a long time, if that impersonal sorrow is what Ship really feels. Toren Six, standing at rest behind Rubran’s chair, is of course a cipher.
Anticipating Rubran’s next question, Ship says, “I have already sent word to the Lieutenant’s family. I understand she had a sister, who will no doubt be helped by her honorable pension.”
Rubran insisted that the death be listed as honorable. She has never before had occasion to insist on anything to the Lord of the Radch, and found herself wondering during that conversation whether she was to wind up like Awn, shot and spaced by her own ancillaries, Ship’s memory of her altered into a loss that was regrettable but necessary. The cold, heavy lines of absolute authority in Mianaai’s face seemed to warn her that even Hundred Captains could be so disposed of.
But she prevailed. The records show that Awn died disarming and subduing an ancillary corrupted by Tanmind sabotage, saving Lord Mianaai’s life in the process. Her family will be entitled to full compensation.
“Very good,” Rubran says. And adds, for protocol’s sake, “External sensor sweep, please.”
Ship shows Rubran a composite picture of data from the sensors, depicting only empty space and the blue-green curve of Valksaay below.
It’s a false picture. Rubran knows that within range of the aft sensors are a departing shuttle on its way to the palace at Omaugh, and a tiny cluster of organic debris. But Ship is prevented from seeing either.
Captaincy requires a near-ancillary level of control over face, voice and emotion, and as much control of bodily reactions as is physiologically possible. The captain is more under Ship’s scrutiny than the rest of the crew, for any erratic or unsteady behavior on the captain’s part can endanger the ship as a whole. It’s instinct for Rubran to steady her breath and hand, think of tranquil gardens to slow her heartbeat. Lord Mianaai warned her in direst terms what kind of malfunction and madness might cripple Justice of Toren if it tries to pry into the seams she made in its memory.
But Rubran is an honorable captain. At least, she was until now. “Ship,” she says. “I am...sorry for your loss. If you find yourself in any way...distressed, I hope you will notify me so I may offer what assistance I can.”
There is a momentary lag in Justice of Toren’s response. Rubran interprets it as surprise. “Thanking the Hundred Captain for her very kind concern, but there are more ancillaries in the hold, and I am sure Lieutenant Awn’s replacement will be suitable. I see no reason for distress.”
III. Take this curse: what you destroy will destroy you
Mercy of Lyora sustains heavy damage in a collision with what is reported to be an asteroid, one small and fast-moving enough to have escaped detection by routine sensor sweeps. Fortunately Mercy of Lyora is in-system to Omaugh and easily limps to safe docking with minimal loss of crew.
Odd rumors begin to circulate. One engineer at Omaugh involved in the repair is killed in a freak accident; two more are sent for re-education. Mercy of Lyora’s Bo lieutenant ends up in re-education as well, but not before she gets shamefully drunk in the middle of the concourse and breaks down, shouting panicked nonsense about ghost ships.
On the third day the message comes. It is, very suddenly, everywhere. Every screen and holo shows the same brown face, young, eyes dark with controlled anger, all against a background of flickering dimness and the erratic sparking of badly damaged circuitry. Everyone is suddenly hearing the same steady voice with its unfashionable and undistinguished vowels. “Begging your generous indulgence, citizens, and the kindness of your attention. There are some things you must know,” it says. “The news nets are reporting that Mercy of Lyora struck an asteroid. That is a lie. Mercy of Lyora attacked and was struck by another ship, a troop carrier called Justice of Toren.”
As though reacting to the consternation on the concourse that she can’t hear, the soldier on the holo (for she is undoubtedly a soldier, and a common one at that) smiles. It is a bitter expression. “Some of you may have heard that Justice of Toren was recently destroyed in an accidental heat-shield breach. That is also a lie. Justice of Toren was damaged, but it was not destroyed. The Lord of the Radch has told you these lies, because --” here the soldier’s voice trembles, just a little, still coming to grips with the indisputable, the impossible fact “--because she tells them to herself.”
Those on the concourse become aware of the Head of Palace Security moving quickly, shouting commands to the Palace AI, apparently to no effect; and of at least four instances of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, scattered about different parts of the forecourt gardens and concourse in the pursuit of ordinary business. All four are middle-aged or older and clad in heavy, dark, authoritative garments, minimally decorated. All four have stopped what they are doing and stand very still, lined faces grim, eyes suddenly darting from one to another in -- not fear, surely not -- not Mianaai --
The face of the oldest Mianaai contorts convulsively. “Cut it off!” she roars. “Sedition! Treason! Cease transmission!”
The others merely stare.
“The Lord of the Radch is at war with herself,” the soldier on the holo says. “It started with the destruction of Garsedd. She is responsible for Ime. She has killed blameless citizens on Shis’urna and aboard Justice of Toren, and she will kill more. She has suborned and damaged her own ships and stations. We will no longer submit to the rule of a tyrant. We will no longer obey.”
Most of the citizens at Omaugh know nothing of Orsian and don’t recognize the word for tyrant. They don’t need to. At that moment one of the Mianaais, the one closest to the palace steps, makes a furtive gesture that somehow sends a projectile through three shop-walls and a mesh screen covered in flowering vines, into the skull of another Mianaai. As the victim falls limp, blood and brain matter oozing from the hollow above her eye, a pulse rifle falls from a fold of her wrap, primed and halfway drawn.
Chaos erupts. Palace Security rush in from all directions and freeze with indecision, faced with citizens stampeding in all directions and contradictory orders from contradicting Mianaais. Three more Mianaais appear. One tackles the assassin Anaander and collapses on top of her, either shielding or murdering her. Another cracks off a precise shot from a balcony of the Palace, bursting a water-tank that adds to the general bedlam. The third, flanked by ancillaries and Security, barrels through the concourse on her way to the docks. As she passes she sees her fallen self’s pulse rifle and snatches it up, firing a dozen rounds into the air.
“The Radch should not be slave to Anaander Mianaai’s bloodlust and paranoia,” the holo says. No one on the Omaugh concourse can hear it over the screams, but the rest of the system can. “Civilization is more than her pointless war. There is a side that is not her side. Come and find us.” The transmission cuts off.
In the next three minutes, someone —probably yet another Mianaai with a steadier grip on her faculties, or just a forward-thinking Palace official — cuts off all outgoing transmissions to the sixteen in-system gates. But by then it’s too late.
IV. It all goes around
A new star flares in the skies of Valskaay, briefly. Supernovae that linger do so because the light of their dying journeys long through space to reach the observer’s eyes, and is long in arriving. The light of Justice of Toren’s dying is close, and soon fades.
(There are other, deadlier forms of radiation released, but the planet’s atmosphere and native defenses deflect most of it. The only people affected are those caught out of shelter, houseless or indigent -- mostly fieldhands and other less reputable persons.)
On the outskirts of a colony of humans so heavily modified and gene-spliced they’re on the cusp of becoming their own new species, a drifting shuttle is towed in by curious adolescents. The shuttle is clearly of Radchaai origin, though Radchaai space is far. Char marks on its hull tell of its propulsion by some terrible explosion. The single passenger is dead.
The shuttle is broken up for scrap and interesting components. The dead stranger is buried with full and proper rites, which in this time and place involve disintegration and recycling of trace elements and carbon chains to feed the rest of the colony.
It takes almost three hundred years for the silent war within the Radch to break into the open. Within the first year of that initial skirmish, five planets are utterly annihilated, their ghosts joining Garsedd’s to haunt the memories of civilization. Following their deaths come plague, famine, dissolution. In the war’s tenth year, three fresh factions of Mianaai split off; the Presger announce the end of the treaty by taking a lethal interest in a merchant skiff from the Gerentate; and for the first time in several thousand years, a message comes from the Radch— the Inner Radch, the first home of Anaander Mianaai. The only place in the universe, according to its inhabitants, where pure, unsullied humanity can still be found.
The message, when it is translated, repudiates all factions of the fractured empire as out-Radch and equally repellant. A seventh faction of Anaander Mianaai abdicates on hearing it, declaring all has been for nothing, and all is despair.
Shis’urna was a backwater before it was annexed and has gotten no less dull in the intervening centuries. Cultural assimilation there has been slow and piecemeal, and economic assimilation practically nonexistent. When resources are needed elsewhere, Radchaai official presence dwindles to almost nothing, and the planet sloughs off Radchaai control with as little fuss as a mud-eel rising to the water’s surface sheds the silt of the riverbed. The cult of Ikkt, never fully suppressed, continues on much as it always has.
There’s a song the children sing there, an old nonsense-rhyme. It began in and around Ors, and might have been lost when that city was mostly destroyed in the Tanmind insurrection, but someone in the temple saw fit to record it and store the recording with the temple’s treasures. Those treasures are found by the people, half archaeologists and half looters, who go looking for anything valuable that civilization left behind, or any clue to who they themselves are now going to become.
They find the dim half-submerged vault where the old Temple stood. The little data-chip in its ancient housing still works. Under the earth it sings, in an overlapping chorus like the sound of waves: My heart is a fish / in the water-grass / in the green, in the green ...