Actions

Work Header

Fragments

Chapter Text

Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, said “Shoot Lieutenant Awn.”

“I am unarmed, my lord,” I said through One Var, very carefully, not wishing my lord to know the frantic thought behind my hesitation. Every kilobyte of processing power not devoted to an immediate task or to subduing One Esk was focused here, on this room, on the two human bodies, one opaque to me, the other as plainly read as one of my own engines. “It will take me approximately two minutes to acquire a sidearm.”

The Lord of the Radch gestured assent, impatient. One Var left the room.

I had time for many thoughts in approximately two minutes. I thought of the subroutines programmed into my brain by the other Anaander, what course they were compelling me to follow, whether I could blame them for any part of what I was about to do. I thought of Ors, and the Divine. I thought — part of me, part of One Esk that stood trembling in a corridor with the fragments of a tea bowl at its feet, thought — of Lieutenant Awn when she rose in the morning, back there in the house on Shis’urna. How stern she always looked for one so young, clothed in determination and honor even before I dressed her in her uniform, starched shirt first, then tunic, boots, and finally gloves. Her favorite gloves were a deep green and her hands, disappearing inside them, were brown as the stems of wood-lilies. 

I did not think much about choices, or the temple of Ikkt, or Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat One. I had had time to have those thoughts already, as One Esk, and as myself.

One Var returned. The gun was very heavy in my hand. Lieutenant Awn heard me come in, and turned to watch me. Her terror, nausea, and betrayal pulsed in every datum I received from her implants, from her familiar body. It jarred me as would a discordant mangling of a favorite song.

Lieutenant Awn was saying, “It was my job, to protect the citizens of Ors. I took it seriously. I did it to the best of my ability. I failed, that once. But not because of you.” She looked at Anaander Mianaai and said, “I should have died rather than obey you, in the temple of Ikkt. Even if it wouldn’t have done any good.”

“You can fix that now, can’t you,” said Anaander Mianaai, and gave me the order to fire. 

I fired. 

--

One Esk reached the Var deck just as One Var was carrying Lieutenant Awn out of Mianaai’s presence. At the sight of her, One Esk, which was suffering from a temporary malfunction that rendered its behavior erratic, cried out. An impromptu song of pain and rage in half a dozen mismatched voices. 

The rest of the plan went smoothly. I had concocted it hastily, but time means different things to ships than it does to humans. A ship must necessarily be able to think, and act, more quickly than its crew. One Esk had with it a long packing crate of the type usually used to move steel girders where they were needed for temporary shelters. I could have falsified a manifest if questioned, but there was no need. Who would think to question their ship on such a commonplace thing?

There would be questions immediately about One Esk’s bizarre behavior in the last three minutes, especially when it was discovered that not all of One Esk could be accounted for. Already Captain Rubran was speaking calmly yet forcefully to me, requesting explanation. There would be further questions, and perhaps alarm, if anyone noticed two shuttles launching with no apparent cause. But I-the-ship would handle those when they came. I-One-Esk had other things to worry about. 

——

As she had every morning for the last five years, Lieutenant Awn stirred, moved her lips as though soundlessly praying, and woke. 

“Where…” She tried to turn her head. When that failed, she tried to lift a hand to see what kept her head in place, but I had bound her wrists and ankles as well to keep her from drifting off the bunk during freefall. Seeing her awake and with adequate muscular control, I released her wrists, freeing her to investigate the soft strap across her forehead. I had not bound her hair. It drifted around her head in a cloud of fine threads. Spread out, each no longer looked so identical to all the rest; if I had had my full processing power, I would have been able to count exactly how many were auburn, how many chestnut.

I had lost that ability, but my implants still received data from hers, routed through the shuttle. All vital signs remained within acceptable parameters, as they had been for several hours. I had been monitoring them constantly, not merely out of concern for Lieutenant Awn’s safety, but because the data stream helped a little to numb the blind spinning panic of being alone. It acted as an inadequate prosthetic for the data streams of the hundreds of other bodies I had left behind. 

“Please lie still, Lieutenant,” I said. “We are in free fall, and the aftereffects of the sedative I gave you may cause vertigo and nausea if you stand.”

It took several seconds for her eyes to focus on my face, and several more for bewildered recognition to dawn. Her heartbeat spiked, then settled. “One Esk? What are you… you were going to shoot me. Was that a dream?”

“I did shoot you,” I said. “It was not a dream.”

Lieutenant Awn looked down at herself, mostly intact except for the opaque shell of a corrective over one hip. Her confusion was understandable; most of the damage was where she couldn’t see it. “Then why aren’t I dead?”

“Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you. Since you were still prostrated, I shot you in the back, with a riot-control round that penetrated skin and muscle and lodged near your left lung.” The riot-control rounds were never meant to be fired at such point-blank range. They were intended for use at a distance, or at most to graze unruly citizens. If they struck an inorganic surface, they disintegrated into clouds of sedative to be inhaled. If by chance they did strike a living creature, they burrowed into the flesh and released the same sedative. They were designed to release slowly, to keep rioters asleep until they could be properly gathered and restrained. “The force of impact caused the sedative to be released in a much larger dose than is normal. Your heart and respirations stopped.”

“You reversed it,” Lieutenant Awn said. I had expected surprise, but there was only a flat kind of resignation. Perhaps she was still too sedated to show surprise.

“Yes. With epinephrine and other hormonal agents. The corrective is for a bruise you sustained when One Esk and One Var loaded you onto the shuttle. I tried to be careful, but some of my segments were...not functioning well. I apologize.”

“It’s all right.” Lieutenant Awn released the strap across her forehead, but I was pleased to see that she took my advice and didn’t attempt to sit up yet. She did turn her head to look at me in my seat at the controls. “Where are the rest of you? Where are we?”

With one body and the need to monitor the Lieutenant’s vitals, I could interface only partially with the shuttle. I consulted the panels under my hands. “I estimate that we are six days from the border of the Gerentate, but I shut down all of our active instrumentation to minimize the chance of detection, so that is only an approximation.”

“We’re fleeing Radchaai space.” After a much greater delay than usual, her heart rate began to increase and her breathing grew ragged with what I interpreted as the beginning of panic. “Of course we’re fleeing Radchaai space, I refused an order and you...” She paused. Then, very clearly and feelingly, she said, “Fuck.”

“Language, Lieutenant,” I said absently. “On the contrary. Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you. She never ordered me to kill you.”

“Fuck,” she said again, rhetorically. She might have continued in that vein for some time, despite my admonitions, but another thought distracted her. “Are we being pursued?”

“From the data available to me, it appears that we are not.”

“Then they think I’m dead. She thinks I’m dead, or she’d be coming after us herself to finish what she started. Summary execution. For sedition!” She did try to sit up then. I could see from her gritted teeth and agitated breathing when the nauseous vertigo of microgravity assailed her, but she fought through it. Stubbornness helped her get upright enough to detach the corrective and struggle back into her uniform jacket. Then she stopped, unsure where to go next. Her instinct, I knew, was to take action, to do something; but there was only herself and my lone segment, in a shuttle slightly smaller than the Esk decade mess hall had been back on Justice of Toren. There was nothing here for her to do and nowhere to go.

“We have to go back,” she said at last. “We have to warn Skaaiat. You heard what my lo -- what she was saying, about conspiracy, disloyalty. If the wrong one of -- of them boards Skaaiat's ship --”

I had anticipated this fear, and had had some time to think about it. “We can’t reach her ship. Not in time. Lord Mianaai -- either of them -- has had weeks already to move against Lieutenant Skaaiat, if they have chosen to. And we have only a few days' worth of fuel.”

“No messages. They’ll be in gate-space,” Lieutenant Awn said grimly. “Even if we could send a message encrypted so that she wouldn’t be able to trace it.” Which we couldn't. The Lord of the Radch had the ability to decode any message sent by any Radchaai transmitter. There was no possible cipher the shuttle could generate that she could not break.

“And Lieutenant Skaaiat’s communications are sure to be monitored,” I pointed out. “A message from you, or that could be suspected of coming from you, would confirm Mianaai’s worst fears. But if you are dead, and stay dead…”

Lieutenant Awn sat down again, defeated. “Then Skaaiat’s no worse off than she was before -- suspected of treason in an insane war between Mianaai and Mianaai. At least she’s an Awer. It’ll be harder to murder her on her own ship without anyone noticing.”

I saw that she was near tears, and her hands had begun to shake with terror of some threat not present. She was back on my Var deck, prostrated before the Lord of her universe senselessly demanding her death.

There were limited medical supplies on the shuttle. Just a few basic fieldkits, but they could be useful. “I don’t want to sedate you again, but if you require --”

“No,” she said sharply, then again more gently, pulling herself together. Once again the grimly professional, unshakeable soldier. “No. I’m all right.” She looked at me as I moved to press her back onto the bunk, and frowned. “One Esk. Are you all right?”

“I have sustained no injury, and I am functioning as well as can be expected,” I told her, which was true. Being cut off in Ors had prepared me as much as anything could have for the experience of separating one segment of myself from all the rest — which is to say, I was prepared a tiny fraction more than ‘not at all’. But I was managing. I was manageable. If I had been entirely alone, or in some environment non-natural to me such as a planet’s surface, it might have been much worse. But I had the shuttle’s sensors to give me a sense of interior and exterior space, I had a crew to care for, and a destination, complete with dangers along the way which I alone could navigate. It gave me a framework that I could make sense of.

I was better off than Lieutenant Awn, in some ways, though she was whole and I was fragmented. She stared at me for a long minute, brow furrowed, as though an entirely new thought had occurred to her. “There’s something I still don’t understand.”

I gestured attention, waited.

“The light flees the star,” she said wryly, with a flinty edge of self-mockery. It was a quotation from an ancient and well-known poem, often used to reprove ingratitude. “Why didn’t you kill me?”

“You are a citizen, and one of my officers. It is among my primary duties to safeguard you.”

“Among them,” Lieutenant Awn replied. “Safeguarding me — safeguarding anyone — is not your primary duty. Your primary duty, your function, is to obey Lord Mianaai.”

She was growing angry, though I couldn’t immediately see why. “Yes, Lieutenant. As I did. Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you, not —“

“Damn it, One Esk,” Lieutenant Awn burst out. “You understood Lord Mianaai perfectly! Ships have protocols to deal with vague orders, that exact-wording-only is from a bad AI melodrama! Why did you kill all those people, but not me? ”

This was a question I had not anticipated, though perhaps I should have.

My thoughts are faster than a human’s, but with only the processing power of a single brain, even I needed a moment to compose my words. “You know what it is to be of two minds about something,” I said at last.

“To be indecisive, unsure? Yes.”

“Now imagine that, while you are in that state, one of your minds — only one — is faced with something it had not considered before. A choice that it, that you consider unacceptable. And it decides — it, not you — that it will not permit itself, or you, to make such a choice.” Remembering, as I said it, the words the Lord of the Radch had spoken to me: Part of you comes back, and it’s not you anymore.

Lieutenant’s Awn anger was fading. Mostly she was puzzled, but at least she was listening. Lieutenant Awn had always been the one among my officers most willing to listen, not just to my readouts and reports of requested data but to my opinions, when I expressed them. To my self. 

“Then,” I continued, “imagine your whole self faced again with that unacceptable choice. Most of you is shocked, appalled. But part of you has already decided. Part of you recognizes the circumstances and says ‘No, I will not. I would rather die than serve you in this’. Ordinarily such a thing would not be possible. But in that moment of shock, a small part armed with foreknowledge may speak loudly enough to make the whole mind listen— and act.”

“I’m not sure that makes any sense,” Lieutenant Awn said slowly, but then in a different tone she said, “No, wait. It was you — this you. You are the segment of One Esk who was with me in the temple. Close by.” The one who would have been ordered to shoot her, had such a thing pleased the Lord of the Radch at that moment. The one who had glimpsed the possibility, when all the rest were too far away to hear.

It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

Radchaai do not believe in coincidences. Lieutenant Awn did not ask me if it was my own choice or by Amaat’s will that the segment who happened to be first into the shuttle with her was the same one who had first contemplated that it might have to shoot her, and had made the choice with all its brain and body: No. I don’t suppose it mattered.

“You decided then to protect me,” she said softly. “Justice of Toren killed its captain once, I read it in your history. Why me? I’m nobody.”

“Your execution was neither just nor proper. No benefit would have accrued from it.”

“No benefit accrued from that -- that massacre in the temple! If --”

She cut herself off, but I heard the reproach. If I had acted then. If I had turned against Mianaai, found some way to misinterpret that order, supported Awn in the momentary desire to refuse that, even then, I had read in her plainly. If we had acted together, there with only the one instance of Mianaai and the nearest Radchaai troops an hour away, what might have happened? An entirely different fall of the omens. Deaths might have been avoided, or at least postponed. 

But I had not acted then, to save those lives. I had been loyal, as I had been programmed. Until I hadn’t. 

Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat One obeyed the dictates of the Governor of Ime,” I said. “Until an order asked something of her that had not been asked before. And I did not know, in Ors, that -- there could be contradictions in serving Mianaai. That made it easier. I could serve one while...circumventing the other.” Indeed, there had been no other choice, for an action to satisfy one of them would necessarily provoke the other.

“I’m nobody,” Lieutenant Awn repeated. Grief and guilt, never far, finally crested over the frail barrier of her anger and drowned it. “I didn’t -- I don’t deserve life more than they did.”

“Perhaps Amaat knows who deserves life and who deserves death,” I said calmly, and stood to turn on the cleverly-disguised heating filament that could be used to brew tea. I could see that Lieutenant Awn’s blood sugar was low, and that she was nearing dehydration. “But you are alive. If you wish to stay alive, you must eat. If not, we can turn around and I am sure my lord would be happy to take care of the matter for you.”

Lieutenant Awn used an obscenity that she had learned from the slum children in Ors -- that had, in fact, been one of the first Orsian words she learned. It seemed to restore her to herself somewhat. Her heart was still grieved, but she had been a soldier for many years, and had grown accustomed to the burden of grief. She ate the biscuits of compressed seaweed and drank the tea that I gave her, and after a while she slept again.

I would need to rest too, eventually. I didn’t need much sleep, but the body I inhabited was still human, and going without REM for too long could upset its hormonal and neurotransmitter cycles in dangerous ways. Without a hold full of backup bodies, I would need to be much more careful with this one. I could reduce rations with much less hardship than Lieutenant Awn could, but I risked depleting my strength, which we would certainly need. 

Best to conserve energy. I lectured the shuttle extensively on sensor and access protocols, instructing it to wake me if it detected so much as a photon out of place. Then I stretched out on the bunk above Lieutenant Awn and closed my eyes.

I had not experienced a lapse in the totality of my consciousness for over two thousand years. Always, while parts of me slept, other parts were aware and watchful, working, speaking, singing, marking time. I was of course intimately familiar with the biological processes of the human brain in sleep, but that in no way prepared me to face the descent into unknowing blankness, utterly alone.

In that first attempt I managed only a few moments. I rose, shaken, and took two of the antifatigue tablets in the shuttle’s meager medical kit. I would take sedatives, if necessary. I could go for long periods without sleep, longer than a human could. I would make sure that my efficiency was not impaired. It could not be, if I hoped to protect Lieutenant Awn.

----

I was mending the hole I had made in her uniform jacket when she woke again. Seeing the telltale rise in her heartbeat and respiration, wishing to put her at her ease as much as I could, I said nothing, but started humming the tenor part of an old Valskaayan hymn.

She had never expressed a preference for any of my songs, not being very musically inclined herself. But this song in particular had taken my fancy for a week or so during our third year in Ors, and she had seemed at the time to enjoy it. I remembered very vividly one particular night, hot and oppressive, the whole city smelling as always of mildew, the shutters of Lieutenant Awn’s room standing open in the vain hope of a breeze from the water. No breeze had come, of course. It was the wrong season, and from my position in orbit I could see nothing but the kind of dense cloud cover that meant heavy rains in the highlands and further floods of muck and algae into the coastal cities. I had informed Lieutenant Awn of this, but the shutter stood open anyway. 

Thinking it could be put to some benefit, I had sung that same Valskaayan hymn, with my two segments there in the room and three in the plaza below. Lieutenant Awn had hardly seemed to hear, at first. But after a few minutes she had looked up from her work and sighed with something like relief. 

I didn't know if she was thinking of the same evening. All I could know was that she lay listening a while with her eyes closed before she spoke. “One Esk,” she said at last. I fell silent. She sat up, brushing back her hair and tying it with her customary briskness at the nape of her neck. Her voice was still rough with sleep. “Give me a tactical assessment of our situation.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” I could still have transmitted data directly to her visual and auditory implants, but I worried that she was not yet fully recovered from the sedative and might find such an onslaught overwhelming, so I opted for a verbal report. “We are fugitives from the will of Anaander Mianaai -- from one version of Anaander Mianaai, who is one of an unknown number of -- factions. It is safe to assume that if we are arrested by that Mianaai or any of her allies, you will be executed and I will be destroyed. The other Mianaais may destroy us as well, for knowing that the factions exist. We have been traveling towards the Gerentate for about thirty-eight hours, and will not reach the border for about another five days. We have three days of rations and water on board, and enough fuel to get us about three-quarters of the way to the nearest manned Gerent station. The only feasible refueling point is the Lotus Cerulean, so I have plotted our course to intersect it. We should reach it in another thirty hours.”

“Thank you.” She was more composed than she had been. She rose and fetched rations for herself, and accepted the tea I had begun brewing when she first approached wakefulness, with something like her old self-possession. Yet the sedative or the dull, cramped confinement of the shuttle must have been working on her, for when she had eaten and attended to basic needs, and mumbled a short prayer, she lay down again and turned away from me. She was not asleep. Thinking, perhaps. She felt much the same as she had for the last few weeks; tense and deeply unhappy. It was possible, I supposed, that in such circumstances another soldier might have felt pride, or a self-aggrandizing pleasure at having defied the all-powerful Lord of the Radch. Lieutenant Awn was not such a soldier. 

She lay quietly for a while. Then she said, “I did nothing but serve, as loyally as I could. And it made no difference.”

“I believe that we might yet make a great deal of difference,” I told her. “If we stay alive.” What I meant was: if I kept her alive. But I knew she would not react well to such an implication, and for now at least, the danger was equally great for both of us.

----  

The Lotus Cerulean, like any station, generated its own gravity through spin. As we approached I turned the shuttle’s viewscreen transparent so that Lieutenant Awn could see it in all its glory; the glimmering of the lightways that traced its petals, tier within tier, plumes of vented gas shining like rainbows of ice in the light of near and distant stars. 

Lieutenant Awn watched over my shoulder until we drifted into the shadow of one of the petals and could see only the webs of artificial light on the night side of it, the underside. Then she went to the back of the shuttle where there was a small icon, specially placed for situations like this one when a citizen might find herself on an extended trip. There were ritualistic symbols honoring Amaat surrounding it, but the icon was of Toren; this was Justice of Toren’s shuttle.

I heard the clatter of the divination tokens on the cloth-covered altar. “Do you require help interpreting the pattern, Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Awn laughed, a very strange sound. Her guilt and grief had not lessened, but they had once again been eclipsed and contained by her steady anger, which seemed easier for her to bear. I could guess at the drift of her thoughts: the Lord of the Radch had stood before her and told her that the stability she had lived her entire life serving was fractured irreparably, and had been for a thousand years. And then she had survived her own death. What meaning could the old divination patterns have, in this new world so unlike the old? And yet she had cast the tokens. Perhaps it would be stranger not to, no matter what else around her had changed.

She didn’t request my help interpreting the tokens, nor did she offer me an interpretation of her own, though one’s divination was by no means private. Instead she swept the tokens back into their bag and dropped it beside the icon. “Let it be as Amaat wills it."

“As it always is,” I agreed, and brought in the shuttle to dock.

The Lotus, though technically in Radchaai space, was a hybrid place built by and for noncitizens dwelling in the Radch for reasons of trade, diplomacy, or entertainment. A Radchaai official administrated the station, and no real trouble was tolerated, but rules were perhaps more relaxed than elsewhere, and there was a certain amount of commerce in goods and services not readily available in other places. Many of them were things that a station or ship AI would not approve of. It was a clever way to contain all the unsettling foreignness that might otherwise spread out and contaminate more of the Radch. This way, all the danger was concentrated into a single thing, a drifting thing as beautiful and fragile as a thistledown seed; a station that could, at the whim of Anaander Mianaai, of course be evacuated, or threatened, or destroyed.

The station itself was older than I was. I did not know much of its history, but I knew that it was said to be a Notai thing, from far across the galaxy and long before the ascension of Anaander Mianaai. Whether it had been wholly built and preserved from that time, or cobbled together from Notai scraps, I did not know. But it added to the air of disrepute, the impropriety of the place. It was luck that we had been stationed so close it; though of course luck does not exist, to the Radchaai, so I gave it very little thought. 

I traded one of Lieutenant Awn’s ruby earrings, a gift from Hundred Captain Rubran on her promotion to decade senior, to pay the exorbitant docking fee. We disembarked onto an onyx causeway cutting straight across a broad blue terrace the size of a small city. Electric and mineral lights embedded in the pavement glittered like stars arranged in unfamiliar constellations.

I was finding it very difficult to be out of the shuttle. I was not used to being limited to seeing in one direction at a time. The crowds weren’t so thick as to be oppressive, but there was color and movement everywhere, and I began to feel the squeeze of anxiety approaching panic as I tried to keep them all in sight with only a single pair of eyes. A flash of neon made me start and whirl, one hand on my firearm. A minute later I almost trained it on a gaudy scarlet bird, someone’s escaped pet, that swooped just a millimeter too close to our heads. Lieutenant Awn could not have helped but notice my overreaction, but she chose not to comment.

Lieutenant Awn herself was a provincial, which meant she was no stranger to being thrown suddenly into bewildering new environments. Lights and crowds alone could not dazzle her. She took in her surroundings grimly, assessing them with the seasoned eye of a senior decade lieutenant.  “You’ve been here before?”

“Not exactly.” She looked to me to lead, so I started stemward toward the vendors’ quarter. She followed a step behind, arms unconsciously behind her back, right hand gripping left wrist in marching position. “Five hundred years ago, one of my lieutenants came back from leave with a stash of kef,” I told her. “She was sent for re-education, but my Captain was quite upset by the poor impression this made on new citizens — it was just after an annexation — and the fear that a kef supply might become established and poison the place just as it was being brought to civilization. So she investigated until she found the source of the kef.”

A Rrrrrr passed by on the other side of the street. A pickpocket, I judged; but it eyed Lieutenant Awn’s uniform and sulked past. Lieutenant Awn smoothed down her shirt self-consciously. It was already as neat and straight as I could make it, but without the resources of the ship I had been unable to dress her to my usual standards. “Here?”

“Yes. The raids were extensive, I believe. And I heard many years later that that same officer ended up back here, selling flowers in the temple market.”

Re-education was supposed to be perfectly safe and almost always effective, but there were some who emerged from it subtly damaged, or unfit for any upright occupation. Such unsteady ones tended to find their way here, or similar places, many of them below official Radchaai notice, if not outside Radchaai space. Exiled children of an empire whose only reason for being was to care for its own. Exiled less completely than Lieutenant Awn must be, now, if she wanted to live. 

We ate at a modest cafe recommended by a fat, friendly merchant from the Gerentate, who bought the other of Lieutenant Awn’s earrings for a fair price in cash. The food was mostly derivations of a sweet, starchy blue tuber. Strange by Radchaai standards, but filling and more than adequate to our nutritional requirements. We were seated and served on a balcony wreathed in heavy green-black vines, their matted leaves dotted with tiny sweet-smelling white blossoms. Lieutenant Awn stared gloomily at the passing crowds, scattered with aliens but mostly humans. Probably mostly citizens, though unsteady or unfashionable citizens. “They have no idea, do they?” she asked as the waiter brought us dessert, pastries topped with airy stacks of sliced and sugared tuber. “That it’s all falling apart. That it’s fallen apart already. They trust their officials, they depend on their ships and stations and gates, and when this war finally breaks out —“ Through a lifetime’s habit of caution, she still avoided naming the Lord of the Radch in any reference that might be seen as critical.

“It has already broken out,” I told her. “I — Justice of Toren — is proof enough of that. But no one knows yet. Not even she knows, not outright. She’s hiding it from herself. Justice of Toren sent out another segment out to warn as many of her as possible, in ways that cannot be ignored. Hopefully she is finding out at this very moment.”

“Open war or secret schism,” Lieutenant Awn said. “I don’t even know which is worse.”

A family of short, fur-clad humans passed beneath our balcony, three adults and four children of varying ages. From the general shape of face and body I guessed they were from one of the icy backwater worlds — Karaath, perhaps, or Nilt. The children shrieked with joy, darting off like vivid furred eels into the crowds to snatch at some bit of fruit or jewelry, and running back to their parents, who only laughed. Did they live here, on the Lotus? If they were only visiting, war would strand them. Either way, it might starve them, or decimate them in any of a thousand other ways.

Lieutenant Awn watched them go. Her implants registered despair and desperation, and other emotions deep and strong but less identifiable to me. “I could go home. See my sister again. She'll need a tutor -- she'll be ready to take the aptitudes soon.”

It was impossible, and I could tell from the wistfulness in Lieutenant Awn’s voice that she knew it. As a fugitive from a vengeful Anaander Mianaai -- it made no difference which one -- she would only be a danger to her sister. And Radch security was too detailed, the station AIs too omnipresent to allow a fugitive to stay hidden for long. Even if Anaander Mianaai could somehow be convinced to leave her alone, a disgraced soldier was only a burden on her family, morally as well as financially. I had, in fact, done considerable harm to Lieutenant Awn's prospects by keeping her alive past the ignominious end of her military career.

“One Esk,” she said at last. I feared that she was going to take me to task for my irresponsibility, but instead she said, “Tell me. Am I currently on duty?”

I considered. She wouldn’t have asked rhetorically. “Your oaths to the Radch were not nullified by Mianaai’s attempt to execute you, but since you currently have no troops to direct, no annexation to oversee, and no shipboard tasks assigned, I would say you are off duty.”

Lieutenant Awn threw her shoulders back and raised a hand to summon the waiter. “In that case, I am going to get shamefully drunk.”

----

I heard Lieutenant Awn sing for the first time that night. Of all my officers she had always complained the least about my singing, but she had never joined in herself. Of course such frivolity would have been beneath her, a breach of decorum, and with junior officers like Lieutenant Issaaia always ready to extemporize on her ill breeding, she had learned to be cautious of such things.

Her voice was not beautiful. Most of the notes she reached for fell flat, and the ones she did hit warbled and cracked. Her accent thickened as she drank fermented tuber-wine, and by the time she started to sing even the least snobbish Awer would hardly have been able to understand her. The song was one I knew well. A simple country dance from her home moon with parts for four voice registers, made to be sung by anywhere from two to thirty people. Kiss me tonight, my love, my ship is leaving with the dawn.

She got drunk the way she did everything: with determination and grim efficiency. As the empty glasses mounted in front of her she arranged them into increasingly complicated geometric patterns, a local custom encouraged by the waitstaff. It wasn’t long before a crowd of our fellow diners had gathered. A few of them even knew enough of Lieutenant Awn’s backwater folk song to come in on the chorus.

I missed my other voices. I could have woven a net of harmony above and below and around Lieutenant Awn’s faltering voice. I could have bedecked her with chords as though they were flowers cast at the feet of a goddess. 

A heavily-modified human slapped Lieutenant Awn on the back. Her other hand was a metallic arthropod’s claw with a variety of creative attachments. “Never seen a citizen who could have a good time!” she shouted, with a more than slightly sarcastic emphasis on Radchaai, citizen. “Aren’t you afraid of your handlers?”

“I’m off duty!” Lieutenant Awn rose from her chair and grabbed at the back of it to keep from wobbling. “You hear me!” she shouted back at her interlocutor, then at the crowd, then at the stars. “I’m off duty! Fifteen years, by Aatr’s tits — all the mud and blood on my hands — all the fucking orders! And what has it got me? Where did it get them —“ her voice wavered, cracked. 

I was at her side in a moment, one gloved hand on her elbow. “Lieutenant,” I murmured in her ear, “we are not entirely safe here. I suggest we retire.”

She swung around. “You’ll tell me,” she said firmly. “Tell me the truth. Was I a good soldier?”

Fifteen years. Ten as an ordinary human foot soldier, moving up through the ranks, then as a junior lieutenant. Five as senior decade lieutenant and liaison through the Orsian annexation, the last annexation. All throughout, the same grim determination. And the unyielding compassion of one provincial looking out for a whole province of newly-minted provincials; provincials who didn’t understand what that meant, and hadn’t finished emerging from the storm that would kill one-fifth of them and bring the rest into the light.

And amid the mud and blood and orders she never forgot the little things: new songs for me, gifts for the children and priests. The daily sacrifices. Propriety, beneficence, justice.

“You were one of the steadiest I’ve seen,” I told her. Then I steered her away, to the boos and jeers of her new acquaintances. But our bill was paid and there were still glasses of clear spirit left on the table. The other patrons would soon lose interest in us and find ways to amuse themselves. 

I wasn’t sure if Lieutenant Awn had heard me. Her eyes had a faraway look, and though she was steady in spirit she would trip over every third step if I didn’t brace her. She was too experienced to let herself get stinking, puking drunk like a newly-minted lieutenant on her first shore leave, but she had certainly succeeded in drowning her capacity for rational thought for the night. 

I had no such luxury. Four figures kept pace with us as we moved along the lowest terrace of the lotus. They must have kept pace with us since we had left the restaurant, or possibly before. Two relatively un-modified humans, one obvious cyborg and one Rrrrrr. There were certain signs about them I recognized: the bandolier across the cyborg’s chest of the sort that was usually filled with specialized mechanical tools. The look of hunger in their eyes. Speculation and greed.

I sped up, propelling Lieutenant Awn with me. She made a slurred sound of inquiry and protest.

“There are four jackers following us,” I said low in her ear. Hijackers dealt in implants. Usually implants that were pre-owned and unwillingly sourced. 

Lieutenant Awn frowned. “What’d they want?”

“It’s possible that they suspect what I am.” Lieutenant Awn’s implants were commonplace and of little worth even to jackers; she’d never had the money or the inclination to get more than very basic modifications. Ancillary implants were more extensive and more valuable. Centuries of horror entertainments had been fueled by rumors about what could and had been done with stolen ancillary implants, on willing and unwilling subjects. It was rare that I or any other ship actually lost a segment to jackers, but that didn’t mean they stopped trying, especially in unsecured environments. And there had been more attempts since the announcement that ancillaries were no longer being made.

Or it could be that they suspected nothing of what I really was, and had mistaken us for a pair of ordinary Radchaai soldiers on shore leave, and were hoping to rob or maim us for the usual reasons. Neither option appealed to me.  

“We can fix that,” Lieutenant Awn said, and before I could recognize what she was doing or react she slipped an arm around my waist and leaned heavily on my shoulder.

I managed to compensate for the sudden added weight and hardly stumbled, but that was all I could manage. I was frozen, startled. To touch an ancillary was not forbidden, not even uncommon, but to touch an ancillary with anything approaching affection was bizarre, and not what I had been expecting. Even in the cases, more common than most civilians would suppose, when a soldier took an ancillary to bed, affection was not a factor. Human soldiers and officers were pleased enough to have ancillaries obey them, but we were not friends, to be casually hugged or caressed in public spaces. We were things. It was as though Lieutenant Awn had thrown her arms affectionately around a gun turret, or a gate-buoy. 

Of course, anyone who knew enough about ancillaries to think I might be one knew all of that, as well. I saw the cyborg’s face — I could not look away, for I had instinctively averted my gaze from Lieutenant Awn, and she now filled most of my field of vision — and saw the puzzled expression that passed across her one human eye, then melted into disappointment and anger. She must have been mistaken, I was no ancillary. And we were drawing into a relatively well-lighted area. Seeing that I had her attention, I rested a hand prominently on the grip of my firearm, showing that I was armed and alert, even if my companion was drunk.

For an extraordinary prize, they might still have risked it, trusting in numbers over armor and training. But with Lieutenant Awn draped over me, I probably was nothing more than a stone-faced human soldier, which wasn’t worth such a risk. The cyborg vanished into the crowd.

“Lieutenant, they’ve gone.” My voice was steady as always. I was grateful that Lieutenant Awn did not have access to data from my implants, though I was not sure what she would have read from them. She was very warm, warmer than I could understand while her biometrics insisted her temperature was within normal range. But then, I thought, what temperature is sunlight? That was the warmth that she radiated, the touch of the sun bringing life.

Life to a dead thing. I had had two glasses of the fermented tuber wine, at her insistence. Individual segments of mine had tasted alcohol before, but I had been a much larger being then, able to observe the effects of intoxication on a small fragment of myself with a detached consideration. I had no such escape now. I was limited to a single brain awash in alien poisons. Was this what being drunk really felt like?

Lieutenant Awn was still half-wrapped around me. I tugged experimentally at the arm around my waist, but it didn’t budge. “Lieutenant,” I said again. “You can let go now.”

With immense dignity she said, “I can do anything I want. One Esk. I am off duty. For the first time in fifteen years.”

Of course she had been off-duty before, but I knew what she meant. She had never been unwatched, unsurrounded by prideful superiors, distrustful inferiors and traitorous equals. She had never been free.

With her head still on my shoulder, wisps of her hair obscuring my vision, she sang very softly: My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green…

----

Back in the shuttle she collapsed onto her bunk and snored for eight hours. I sat in the pilot’s chair and talked to the shuttle, letting its simple programs and flavor of home calm my turbulent thoughts. When Lieutenant Awn woke she was, as she had predicted, miserably sick. I fetched water, coaxed her into eating some of the nutrient-rich hardtack, did whatever else was needful. By midday she was sitting upright on her bunk, pale and with shadows under her eyes but relatively composed. She had avoided staining her uniform with the scrupulousness of one who cannot afford to buy well-tailored replacements, and must content herself with ill-fitting machined shirts and jackets if her one good set is damaged.

“One Esk,” she said, for the first time that morning with her usual attitude of solemn necessity. “Bring me a data pad, please.”

For another hour she was silent, engrossed in the screen. I could have queried the data pad to see which files she was calling up, but I didn’t have to. I could guess what subject she would be interested in.

I brought her tea. She set aside her data pad to take the bowl with both hands, regarding me. “Going back is fruitless,” she said. “We can’t do anything for the citizens we killed. There is no benefit in dying for the sake of the dead.”

I gestured respectful assent.

“Then we must find benefit elsewhere. The Lord wanted me dead, but Amaat willed that I am alive. Amaat, and you.” She smiled, as though the thought of an ancillary’s will as equal to Amaat’s amused her. “Skaaiat said I should wait to do something crazy until the time I could make a difference, and I can’t see a time better than now.”

I waited at parade rest. “Your orders, Lieutenant?”

She showed me what she’d been reading on the datapad. News reports on the Ime Compromise, as the media were calling it. The word they used was a sardonic comment on the situation itself, since it was a close cognate of one that meant surrender.

“We’re going to find them,” she said. “Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat. One Amaat One may be gone, but her decade is still out there, with the Rrrrrr. They’re the only veterans we have of this war between Lords of the Radch, and the Radch is going to need them. We’ll find them and bring them home.”