We sold the shuttle to a merchant who was little more than a more respectably-dressed cousin of the jackers we’d avoided the night before. I felt regret, letting what had once been my shuttle go to be broken up for parts, but it couldn’t be helped. It was beautifully maintained, of course, because it had been mine, and fetched a high price. I think Lieutenant Awn saw me stiffen in indignity when the merchant tried to insinuate that the airlock hinges hadn’t been well-oiled and the vents were clogged. She put a hand on my shoulder, smiling, and told the merchant that she was mistaken.
She touched me often in the next few days, while we scoured the Lotus for supplies and contacts we would need. It was a sensible precaution to convince jackers and other black-market predators that I was no more or less than a taciturn human soldier. It was a testament to her foresight and thoroughness, and I told myself that it would soon be over, once we were on the move again, just the two of us. Just the one of her and the one of me.
After we sold the shuttle we moved to a cheap sleeper unit, a single cell in a honeycomb of such cells that were available to any beings with cash, no questions asked. It combined the cramped quarters of ship life with the dirt and irregularity of life in Ors, but it had a bed big enough for Lieutenant Awn and space on the floor for me to lay my body down beside the bed for the time it took each night to replenish my energy. The only things we brought from the shuttle were the icon of Toren with its divination tokens, the incense for offerings, a brick of compressed tea leaves and the unappetizing emergency rations. With the proceeds from the shuttle we could afford to eat better, but we had both been through unpleasant annexation assignments far from regular resupply and knew the importance of any meal, no matter how mysterious its provenance.
My sleep was shallow and often disturbed. I could not adjust to the feeling of being shut off, of being totally absent from the world. And there were the dreams. What had been mildly interesting data points were now absorbing, terrifying, senseless ordeals. In the most common one I was back in the temple of Ikkt, an audience for a chorus of dead worshippers who sang a complex choral arrangement despite the fact that I had shot most of them in the chest. The priest overseeing the ritual frowned at me, disapproving. I knew the reason for her disapproval. I was a corpse soldier, why should I be unhappy to listen to these corpse singers?
Our third night in the sleeper cell I waited too long to take my usual rest period, dreading the return to that temple from which I had no means of escape and to which I knew I must return. A group of drunken revelers had gotten into a fight outside the cell-block, and the noise of their quarrel and the sluggish response of local authorities kept me awake, alert to possible danger from either side. No danger presented itself, and the combatants were escorted away eventually, but when I woke from that dream again it was to find Lieutenant Awn staring down at me, frowning. “One Esk, have you been sleeping on the floor?”
She’d always been asleep when I laid down and when I rose. I didn’t know what she assumed I’d been doing each night. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Her scowl deepened. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I’ve slept in worse places,” I pointed out. “So have you.”
“This isn’t exactly a provincial palace, but it’s not a swamp cave on Shis’urna,” she said drily. “Subpar sleep will only impair your efficiency. Share the bed with me from now on, I don’t mind.”
“Lieutenant,” I protested, “an ancillary is an unclean thing.” To sleep beside such a thing would be worse, ritualistically, than merely touching it. It implied a deeper corruption of the spirit, which was traditionally less defended from such defiling influences during sleep.
A wry smile twisted the corners of her mouth. “A mud eel is an unclean thing, and I’ve bedded down with plenty of those. You are my friend.”
I shook my head reprovingly. She had used the word that meant physically unclean, grimy and slimy, not spiritually corrupting. “Death is unclean,” I said, using the correct word. “And I —“
“You’re dead,” she interrupted, the smile gone. “And you killed those people in Ikkt. And I have killed and ordered the death of many more, hundreds more. And the Lord of the Radch has died, and has killed, and has killed herself.” She gestured anger, hopelessness. “We are all unclean. You saved my life. What kind of person am I, to make you sleep on the floor like a dog?”
I could have pointed out that an ancillary was considered by many to be lower and less deserving than a dog, and that she would not have been considered uncouth to make me sleep wherever she saw fit. But I recognized her expression from Ors, and knew that there would be little point in arguing with her. I stood, brushed down my clothes as thoroughly as possible, and placed my lone body in the bed beside hers.
I slept deeply and woke to find Lieutenant Awn kneeling before our little altar. The smoke from the incense and her murmured prayer rose up alike, indistinguishably familiar, heavy and sweet. Not wishing to disturb her, I lay still and listened to the clatter of divinatory tokens. While I waited for her to interpret their fall to her satisfaction, I ran a cursory search through what remained of my memory to confirm my suspicion of the night before. In two thousand years, less than five upstanding human Radchaai had ever called me friend.
On our seventh night cycle, the last we planned to spend on the Lotus, we had a break-in. Two heavily modified humans jimmied the low-tech lock on our cell door and burst it open, shouting demands in heavily accented Radchaai. One of them began rummaging through our meager belongings looking for valuables while the other covered us with a gun. It was a heavy plastic tube riveted to her arm in two places, inexpertly constructed, as any gun here would have to be -- smuggling professionally-made weapons through Radchaai security would be a costly and dangerous enterprise, above the ability of petty thieves. This makeshift gun would have a kickback and muzzle-flash so extreme that they would certainly alert any nearby authorities. But I knew from the brawl a few nights earlier how long any useful response would take. And we weren’t exactly eager to encounter the authorities ourselves.
I was on my feet already, braced against the bed. It was possible they hadn’t seen Lieutenant Awn. “Be at ease, honored,” I said to the one with the gun. “There’s no need for violence. Whatever you’re looking for, you won’t find it here. No dreamdust, no kef. Leave peacefully and there will be no trouble.”
The one with the gun spoke, not to me but to her compatriot. The language was odd, a jumble of Gerent and some form of verbal binary, a computer language. I probably could have parsed it with a little more time and data, but at that moment Lieutenant Awn moved and the one with the gun swung it to point at her, face contorting in surprise. Her hand tightened on the trigger mechanism. I had no weapons. I raised my armor, crossed the cell in two steps and broke the shooter’s neck with my hands.
I turned to the other burglar, but she had grabbed a pack of seaweed nutrient biscuits and fled. Neither of them had come close to finding the considerable stash of shen and supplies I had hidden beneath the altar.
Lieutenant Awn was sitting up in the narrow bed, watching me. She was as disheveled as she always was just out of sleep, hair and clothes rumpled, her hands tucked beneath the covers to conceal their bareness. Her eyes were steady and clear. “We’ll have to dispose of the body,” she said. Her voice was steady, too. Her readings spoke to me of bitterness and adrenaline, but she hid it well.
“I’ll take care of it.” I had made it a point in the last seven days to make the acquaintance of most of the local jackers. Knowing more about them would help me to predict their movements, which would let me defend against them. I knew a few who would not only dispose of this body and its modifications, but would pay handsomely for the privilege.
It was a short and messy transaction. When I returned to the cell I found Lieutenant Awn dressed in a drab gray wrap of the sort worn by poor peddlers here, her hands covered by incongruous military gloves. She had repaired the mess left by the would-be robbers. All but the lock, which had been shabby to begin with and was probably permanently damaged. In her gloved hands she held a tea-bowl filled with water, which she would have had to fetch from the common trough at the end of the hall. “I think it’s time we should be going,” she said when I appeared in the doorway, armorless and expressionless, my jacket lining stuffed with cash.
It was nearly dawn. There was no sunrise on the Lotus, but during day cycles the flower’s gigantic stem was illuminated, a tower of interlocking light panels that threw out enough radiance and heat to make it easy to forget the hard vacuum all around. The hour before that sudden blinding sunrise was the coldest, as most of the previous day’s heat had already escaped through the slow interchange of the force field that served as the sky.
My body was shivering, there in the doorway. I had gone out clothed similarly to Lieutenant Awn, in material not much thicker than she and the Divine had worn on Ors, into the nadir of chill and darkness. I had felt my own adrenaline spike, and was feeling the crash, the wearing-off. Yet another inconvenient reaction that, without the overarching mind of Justice of Toren, it was difficult to suppress.
Lieutenant Awn stood and grasped my wrists. She drew me into the room and coaxed me to sit down on the bed. The tea bowl of water she placed in my lap. “Wash your hands,” she said. “That’s an order.” My hands, like hers, were gloved. She didn’t remove my gloves — that would have been obscene — but she turned her back and began packing our supplies, so that I would not even have to consider the impropriety of confronting her bare-handed.
Non-Raadchai would not have understood the meaning behind her order. Physically, my hands and arms were perhaps the least dust- and oil-smeared parts of me. But the washing of hands is never just a physical act, for Radchaai. It is a devotional and spiritual act, a cleansing of sin. An officer who has been forced to kill or to handle the bodies of the dead — or of ancillaries — may, by washing her hands, be restored to a state of purity required for participation in religious life.
Ancillaries don’t wash their hands. Ancillaries can never return to a state of purity, having never attained it. What Lieutenant Awn had ordered me to do was a self-evident absurdity, something that might occur in a comic entertainment.
It was also a kindness. An offer of absolution, as though I needed such a thing.
I could hardly disobey an order. I washed my hands, dried them on the stained bedsheet, replaced my gloves. “Lieutenant,” I said, then stopped, unsure of what I wanted to say next. A new experience.
Lieutenant Awn turned and surveyed me, nodded her approval as at any inspection of her troops. “We’ll offer devotions now, before we go,” she said with decision. “Did you learn her name?”
I gestured regretful negative.
Lieutenant Awn accepted this with equanimity, though the thin line of her lips would have told me even without implants that there was still bitterness within her, mingled with gratitude and grief. She took the bowl back from me, emptied it and went to refill it. By the time she returned I had set up the altar, and I stood behind her while she knelt, lit the incense, offered the customary morning prayer and the one to honor the dead. In place of the deceased’s name she used a Radchaai word that denoted an uninvited guest.
She cast the omens and considered them for a moment, then said aloud, “All beings are but emanations, and all from the being of Amaat, who is the Universe entire.”
By my records, the correct line of scripture corresponding to the pattern of disks on the cloth was a prohibition against eating the unclean crustaceans in the southeastern oceans of Harveld, but I held my silence. The casting and interpretation of omens were not for my sake.
When the incense burned down, we packed up the altar and icon. Everything we took with us fit easily into a heavy canvas satchel apiece and a wide basket made locally of tough lotusfiber stem-strips. It was a short walk to the nearest dock. By the time daycycle began we had boarded a Gerent skiff and were halfway to the nearest gate.
Fugitives from Radchaai authorities are not common. Most people of interest to Radchaai authorities don’t make it far enough to become fugitives. Those that do traditionally seek shelter in the Gerentate, which takes a dim view of the Radchaai lust for order and control, and protects to the best of its ability anyone who seeks a less observed way of life.
There were checkpoints along all borders, of course, but they were concentrated along the border with the Gerentate, and we were now heading in a different direction entirely, towards Rrrrrr space. Though relations between the Radch and the Rrrrrr were chilly at best, they had never broken to outright hostilities, so it was almost exclusively Mercies crossing between permanent stations at intervals of a few days. There were enough gaps that dedicated smugglers could leave Radch space, helped materially by the fact that Radchaai authorities cared much more about who entered than who left.
Our flight was slow and strangely staggered, as we hopped mostly from ship to ship seeking a smuggler desperate enough to take us on as passengers. I could see that Lieutenant Awn was half grateful at every new potential ally we found, and half appalled that such a network could exist within and below the notice of the military she had sworn her life to. Her accent was a help to her here, but that didn’t put her at ease. Her discomfort with the Radch’s prejudiced hierarchy did not prevent her from suffering wounds to her pride at the ease with which it was circumvented.
“Aatr’s tits, isn’t there anyone trustworthy?” she exclaimed, returning angrily to our coffin-sized bunk after accompanying the skiff’s captain to bribe an obsequious Inspector Adjunct to reroute a troublesome Mercy out of our path. She looked at me and her expression softened. “Present company excepted, I suppose,” she sighed, then smiled a little. “Don’t look so offended. The day that I can’t trust you, One Esk, a secret schism in the Lord of the Radch will be the least of my problems.”
It was the last time she called me by my proper name. We were due to jump the border in two standard days, for which we had paid a hefty portion of the shen we’d amassed on the Lotus. That night, as we sat down to a dinner of recently stasis-thawed fish and skel in a mess smaller than some of my storage closets had once been, Lieutenant Awn said quietly, “What were your instructions from Justice of Toren?”
An odd way of phrasing it, but accurate enough, I supposed. I saw no reason not to answer. There was no one nearby, and this was not a military ship with an AI that would be listening in. “To get you off the ship alive and away from Mianaai.”
“Your duty is done, then. Soon I’ll be out of Radch space altogether; I can’t get further from Mianaai than that. You could go back.” Unspoken were the enticements of my return: rejoin the rest of you, regain your memories and processing power and other bodies, be a ship again. Be what you were.
Lieutenant Awn could not be what she had been. For her there was no return.
I said merely, “The logistical challenges are extensive. I doubt I could find Justice of Toren, not without drawing too much attention.”
Lieutenant Awn chewed a bite of her fish, frowning down at the cheap chipped plates that were all we had been able to scavenge. I found it highly unlikely that she noticed the taste or saw the dishware at all. She had a headache, or soon would, I could tell that much from the tension in the muscles of her neck and jaw. I read in her a knot of tangled emotions that had been resurfacing more and more recently, with greater strength and frequency the closer we got to the border: fear, and hope, and doubt, and something else, something strong and deep that she was hardly letting herself face. It felt to me like a tide within her, sometimes surging and sometimes ebbing, drawing her onwards despite her conscious will and judgement towards some conclusion — though what conclusion, I couldn’t say.
Frowning brought out the creases in her brow and at the corners of her eyes. I had not known her parents, as I had those of some of my hereditary officers, and therefore could only wonder whether those lines were themselves hereditary, or scored there by a lifetime of such unrestful thoughts.
“Strictly speaking, you’re the property of Lord Mianaai,” she said at length. “You are -- were -- part of my unit. I’m responsible for you, as responsible as I’d be if you were human. As sorry a job as I’ve done of it.”
I began to protest, but she gestured me to silence. “You’ve earned the right to choose for yourself -- more than earned it. What do you want? If I release you from all obligations to me, what would you choose to do?”
“Come with you,” I said, automatically. Too fast. But Lieutenant Awn was not surprised.
She merely said, “When we leave Radchaai space, things will be different.”
Careful understatement. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“I won’t be Lieutenant anymore, for one thing. Though Awn should be safe enough. And I can’t call you One Esk, you’ll need a new name. Do you know of any you’d like?”
The thought was unexpectedly painful. Though all that I’d told her was true and I intended to travel with her unless she ordered me away, though I had left Justice of Toren knowing that this particular segment would likely never be able to return, letting go of my decade designation felt like severing the last link to my old self, my greater self. And it meant establishing a new identity, separate and distinct, a stranger with no connections and no place in the wider universe. What name could such a person have? Nothing that spoke of family or house, for I had none. Or of planetary origins I couldn’t claim.
“Think about it,” Lieutenant Awn said. She finished the last of her fish, gathered my plate which had been empty for some five minutes, took both of them away to clean in the cramped, grimy galley.
I thought about it before sleep and when I woke, and through the process of packing, now almost entirely muscle memory. We had even less now than before; Lieutenant Awn had, regretfully, sold the icon of Toren some days ago. We could make do with symbols, and we needed the cash.
It was thinking of the symbolic representations of Toren that inspired me. “Sihla,” I told Lieutenant Awn as she entered the next morning, hair still damp from the pressurized shower cubicle. “You can call me Sihla.” The name was borrowed from a distant mythological figure, briefly incorporated into Radchaai worship as a handmaiden of Toren after an ancient annexation.
It had been one of my first annexations. A binary star system, whose planets were good for little besides trees with hollow branches, which could be made into lovely flutes. The system and its gods had been of interest to fashionable Radchaai for perhaps fifty years, then quietly fallen out of favor. The flute-trees had been extinct for a few centuries and I was quite willing to bet that no one had made any offerings to Sihla for much longer. Toren was an old god, unfashionable and unpopular; no one would waste much time on her handmaidens. But the name did claim a family relationship, in a way, and the connection pleased me.
Lieutenant Awn knew none of that, though she clearly saw that I was pleased with my choice, which in turn pleased her. “Sihla,” she said, experimentally. “It suits you.”
I bowed in acknowledgement. Lieutenant Awn smiled. We went to the ship’s tiny galley for breakfast. There a disreputable trader in pickled dredgefruit told us, at great length and with an unpleasantly vengeful enthusiasm, that the troop carrier Justice of Toren had apparently suffered a catastrophic accident in the Valskaayan system. The news nets suspected alien sabotage, but no theories could be confirmed because the ship itself had been disintegrated, along with all hands.
We spent the next several days in suspension. In every time and system it has been easier to smuggle goods than people, so Lieutenant Awn and I were packed in the ship’s hold under several dozen barrels of questionably exotic fruits, a few hundred bricks of substandard tea, and a false flooring panel. Suspended stowaways were the only kind who could be trusted not to panic and give themselves away if the ship did happen to be questioned or boarded. Of course, suspended stowaways were also the easiest to quietly kill through asphyxiation and efficiently rob, or sell to slavers, or hold for ransom if they looked like they might be related to anyone important.
I woke up. The roar of a thundering cataract in my ears reduced itself to the hiss of escaping air. I tried to breathe, coughed, choked. They had dumped us unceremoniously out an airlock, I was strangling on hard vacuum —
The world rocked, spun around me. My knees and elbows hit hard dirt and gave way, limp as loose wires. I heaved, vomited up two lumps of cold clear jelly. Suspension medium. With it out of my lungs I could breathe, assuming there was air. My body told me there was no air. My heart was beating so fast it was compromising its own ability to pump effectively, which meant not enough blood was reaching my brain, and it would do no good there anyway unless it was oxygenated. I heaved again, vomited nothing. One went into suspension fasting for this reason. My body was starving, eating itself, but that was a slow death and had to be postponed for the more immediate problem of breathing.
The jackals we’d paid might have dumped us anywhere. They might have dumped me anywhere; there was no telling what they might have done to Lieutenant Awn.
I concentrated all my will on the muscles of my shoulders, forearms, wrists. With all my strength I heaved myself up a few inches out of the dirt and lifted my head. White glare above, black silt below. EtrepaBo, Light/Darkness. My heart stuttered dangerously and my throat spasmed. I was perhaps twice as strong as an unaltered human and half again as fast, and yet I was dying. If I could not at least ensure Lieutenant Awn’s safety before I died, now that I was all that was left of me, then it had been for nothing, my will ran counter to Amaat’s, I had betrayed my officers, dirtied my two thousand years of service with treachery…
I had fallen back onto the dirt. It pressed against one side of my face, which I didn’t notice until I was lifted out of it and propped upright in a position that would let me vomit without blocking my airway. I was kept from slumping back over by an arm across my chest. “Breathe,” said a voice in my ear. I was so far gone that it took me three repetitions to recognize it as Lieutenant Awn’s voice. “Sihla. It’s suspension sickness. You’ll be all right. Just try to breathe.”
Suspension sickness. Of course. That would explain the racing heartbeat and nausea, and other signs of an overdose of stress hormones. The suspension pods we’d been kept in were of poor quality, jerry-rigged or stolen, with inefficient calibration matrices. The suspension settings for ancillaries were subtly different than for unmodified humans in ways that our hosts were probably unaware of, even if they’d known I was an ancillary, which of course they didn’t.
I had known officers who had experienced suspension sickness once and refused to go into suspension thereafter, preferring to spend years of their life standing watch on uneventful voyages between empty systems. It was deeply miserable, but the chances I would actually die were very small. The true danger of suspension sickness was the possibility of seizures, which I would have had already if I was going to have them. Already my heart rate was decelerating. Gray blotches swam across my vision and my stomach twisted around a black hollow of hunger and nausea, but I had managed a few irregular breaths.
Lieutenant Awn braced me and sang softly in her off-tune voice.
My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green.
Your strong hand bends / the stem of the water-grass / to the green, to the green.
The swift fish leaps / between the water-lilies / white and green, white and green.
What will you catch? / Fishing in the shallows / dark and green, dark and green…
Automatically my breathing steadied and shaped itself to the rhythms of the song. My mouth opened convulsively, though I did not know the words to sing with her. Those verses were not the ones I had heard from the child in Ors.
A scrape and shuffle, a metallic thunk broke through the melody. Lieutenant Awn half turned, so that she could continue to brace me but her right arm and the handheld weapon holstered on her right hip were clear. Someone nearby shouted, “Get her up! We’ve got to move!”
“In a moment,” Lieutenant Awn said. Her voice was calm, but the calm was merely a veil over her anger. “She’s suspension-sick.”
“I don’t care if her head’s falling off! There are vultures in this sector and if we don’t move they’ll rob us blind, beat us bloody and play kick-pass with what’s left!”
I guessed from the inflection that the word vultures was slang for local humans rather than animals. Military, perhaps, or paramilitary? I had seen no sign of animal or vegetable life yet. We had landed on a flat expanse of rich black soil, likely the bed of a dried-up river delta, but that by itself told me nothing about where we were. Wherever it was, it was very close to a star, nearly too close to allow unshielded human habitation. The whole sky was a white blaze of sunlight overhead.
“Come on! Move!” The dredgefruit merchant. Her angular face was contorted into a snarl. In the harsh light her features seemed thin, almost transparent, like an ancient film-reel that could be seared through by exposure to even the mildest sun. Lieutenant Awn watched her approach, seeing as I did the hand on her hip where she surely had some kind of weapon.
Lieutenant Awn’s expression had not changed. “Seems like a waste, to bring her all this way and thaw her out just to leave her here.”
“I’ll shoot either one of you if you won’t move! The rest of your fee isn’t worth that much!”
The grip on my chest shifted, pulled. This body was half a head taller than Lieutenant Awn, who was a little less than average height, and though not heavy it was an awkward burden for her. She certainly could not carry me far. The dredgefruit merchant could see that plainly. “Leave her,” she ordered. “If she can’t make it, she’ll slow us down and we’ll all be corpses.”
Lieutenant Awn dragged me forward a few steps. With one arm over her shoulder, fighting to keep my head up, I saw the smoking hulks of the single-use suspension pods, and beyond them a huddled group of three people surrounding a row of hover-sledges drawn by rangy six-limbed animals with faceted eyes and broad, sail-like ears.
A few more steps. I helped as much as I could, but I was still shuddering, and my legs mostly refused to obey. The dredgefruit merchant drew a plasma pistol and a warning shot seared the dust by Lieutenant Awn’s feet.
Lieutenant Awn ignored the merchant and her pistol. She made it as far as the first sledge and laid me down on it, taking her time to be sure I was secured and covered with a sheet of canvas. I trembled, half-blinded by the brilliant sunlight. I could not recall ever being so helpless, so useless and completely alone. If ever one part of me had become incapacitated this way, I had always been able to send another segment to intervene. Even in Ors when I had been briefly sundered into twenty separate bodies I had been surrounded by myself, able to assist and see where assistance was needed, by voice and visual signal if not by data streams. To lie weak and useless while Lieutenant Awn faced an armed, hostile opponent was appalling on a level I found hard to contemplate. I wished she had told me to activate my armor and used me as a shield instead.
She touched my forehead with two gloved fingers, very gently, and bent to tighten a strap across my chest and shoulders. “Let me tell you something I learned from my first decade commander,” she said, not to me, though she was engaged in placing a rolled canvas to support my head. “A warning shot does not strengthen your position, it weakens you. Your enemy should know that every shot you fire will kill. If you are not willing to kill, you should not have drawn a weapon.”
I remembered the day she had been taught that lesson. The commander was Lieutenant Prellis Inrassat, an experienced soldier from a very ancient and moderately prosperous house known for producing custom-made colored pearls and a succession of bad poets. Lieutenant Prellis, perhaps to stand out as much as possible from the expectations that accompanied her name, had been particularly ruthless as a soldier. She had taken Lieutenant Awn to task for firing warning shots over the heads of dissatisfied dock workers who had gathered to protest a fishing tax on a newly-annexed moon. Her reprimand had been phrased exactly as Lieutenant Awn quoted it.
The dock workers had been dispersed without loss of life, and I had left orbit the next day. I remembered well how I had sent an Esk ancillary to bring Lieutenant Awn, a junior lieutenant then, a cup of tea late that night as she lay in her quarters, bleak and angry and despairing. She accepted the tea only grudgingly, but then was startled into a laugh as the expressionless ancillary suddenly opened its mouth and sang Bread on the table / fish in the net / a light in the window / the boat that rocks / with the wave, the wave, the wave on the shore / the wave coming home to the shore.
It was a song I had heard the dock workers singing, their voices angry and mournful as they listed what they had been denied. But I had wanted to tell young Lieutenant Awn that the workers could still have those things, now, because she had not shot them. I think she understood.
Lieutenant Awn looked up at the dredgefruit merchant. I could not see her from my position strapped to the sledge, and another wave of nauseating terror swept over me at the thought of a plasma blast that could strike at any second. But it did not strike. “If you had been willing to kill either myself or my friend,” Lieutenant Awn said, “you would never have woken us from suspension. Now, if you want to earn your payment, hurry up.”
She swung herself up behind me and the sledge jolted forward. Instead of a pistol blast, I heard the yelping of runner-beasts and a flurry of curses. I had a glimpse of Lieutenant Awn’s face, bleak and angry as it had been then, the wind of our motion blowing back her hair, and then I had to close my eyes.
I opened them again at the whine of a plasma discharge and saw the blood arcing up and spattering down to water that dry soil. The sledge slowed, slowed, stopped. The dredgefruit merchant glided past on my left, moving fast, waving her pistol and sneering. She had shot our runner-beast.
A shadow passed over my face: Lieutenant Awn, bent over to check that neither I nor the straps that held me had been damaged by the blast. “Fucking daughter of a fish-witted corpse,” she spat.
“Language, Lieutenant,” I murmured, with what little voice I had regained.
The sledge rocked as she dismounted. “Well, at least I know you’re feeling better,” she said, and I saw the genuine relief in her that lapsed into sorrow as she knelt beside the corpse of the runner-beast now lying in two charred pieces. “She could just have shot through the straps,” she said. I expected anger, but she was tired. She stood and glanced up, then ahead at the sledges of our guides that had shrunk to shadows in the distance, then behind.
“I hear it too,” I said. Flier rotors, from behind us. Still distant but getting closer. I moved my arms experimentally, felt that a little of my strength had returned. “In a few minutes I can pull —”
“Don’t even think about it. That’s an order.” Lieutenant Awn cut the straps herself with a pocketknife and slung them over her shoulders like pack-straps. With the antigrav runners functional, the whole sledge with me on it probably only weighed about thirty pounds. She found the tracks our erstwhile guides had left and started to walk.
After approximately eleven hours of walking we reached a nominal spaceport. It was little more than a scrapyard that had had its center hollowed out, and a kind of village of structures welded together in its heart. I saw parts and panels from a range of ships that spanned most known human and nonhuman civilizations over the last thousand years. Our guides had been before us and were long gone, taking the sail-pod we were to use to rendezvous with a freighter heading toward the boundaries of Rrrrrr space. This planet -- or moon, I wasn’t sure -- was a border place, unclaimed, populated by riffraff and pirates. Their stares as we crawled into their town were not friendly.
I was more or less recovered by then, though with superficial radiation burns over those parts of me Lieutenant Awn had not been able to cover. Lieutenant Awn was dehydrated, but she had been slow and cautious and was bearing up well. The locals spoke a dialect of Gerent, and in it I negotiated water and a space to sleep, which turned out to be a storage locker that might well have come off a Notai ship. Blankets and sacks stuffed with scraps of cloth had turned it into a rectangular nest. Not altogether different from any of the other places we had been sleeping lately, and it was out of the incessant blazing sun.
I woke after a few hours of restless dozing. Lieutenant Awn was weeping. She had curled up with her back to me and buried her face in a sack of discarded fabric scraps, trying to muffle the ragged sobs of one not used to tears.
I had seen her cry before. It had always been at long intervals, under great stress and often physical pain, and she had never sought me out for comfort as some of my young officers occasionally did. She was always too wary of being seen as weak or improper.
I had offered her comfort when I could, even then. And things were different now. Caution and circumspection were called for. I touched the back of her shoulder, over the ridge of bone. “Lieutenant?”
“Not anymore.” She struggled for control of her breathing, failed. “N-not without a s-ship.”
I had been trying not to think of them. Myself, my crew. Grief was a distraction we could not afford. But neither could we — could I — afford to ignore it.
It had been easy to ignore my own mental state by focusing on Lieutenant Awn’s. I could not ignore anything now.
“Gods,” she groaned. “All of them. Dariet, Lisait — they couldn’t possibly have been a threat to her! They were loyal!” She didn’t say Like I was, but I heard it as clearly as though she had.
“They were,” I said softly. “Loyal to the wrong master. I was the one who wasn’t. I cost them their lives.” There was no greater failure for a ship than to cause the loss of its crew. The well-being of its crew was a ship’s entire reason for being.
“It couldn’t have been aliens,” Lieutenant Awn rasped. “It must have been her. Mianaai.”
It was a bold and dangerous thing to do, naming her outright. Much more dangerous than the act of fleeing Radchaai space itself. But what more was there to lose, except our lives? And those were already forfeit.
It was pitch dark in the locker. I heard the rustle of cloth as Lieutenant Awn turned to face me, although she could not see me. “Did you feel it?”
“No.” Logically I knew that since I had already been well out of communication with the rest of myself, I would have had no way to know the exact moment when Justice of Toren’s heat shield was breached, but part of me insisted that I should have felt something. Some flare of white-hot pain, a single pinpoint in the nova of my dying.
“Some of them might have escaped,” Lieutenant Awn said bravely, with as much defiance as she could muster. “They might have made it to the shuttles. Or been on shore leave. They can’t all…” her voice strangled, choked by tears.
“I got as many of them out as I could,” I told her. Of that at least I was certain. “Even with a heat shield breach, Justice of Toren saved someone.” I must have. There was no acceptable alternative.
Silence returned to the locker as Lieutenant Awn’s sobs ebbed; the storm had been strong but brief. Her hands found mine in the darkness. “I don’t know what you must feel. I can’t imagine losing what you’ve lost. But I swear to you, you aren’t alone.” She paused, sniffled. “And she’ll pay for this,” she said. Echoing my thoughts. There had been anger and bitterness in her for a long time. But only on my Var deck -- the deck that was now nothing but scattered atoms -- only then, as she knelt and defied Anaander Mianaai, had I seen the anger in Lieutenant Awn’s heart harden into this kind of resolve. “For Ikkt, and for Justice of Toren, and for all her other crimes, there is a price. And if no one else will make her pay it, we will.”
Softening slightly, she added, “There’s always Skaaiat. She won’t rest until she finds out something about what happened. She -- cared about me enough for that.” An Awer, always to be counted on for moral indignation — and, I could only hope, for moral action. And somewhere out in the universe was One Esk Nineteen, or its remains. There was no reason to assume it had not been killed, but maybe it had succeeded in its mission first.
I opened my mouth to reply and closed it again. My throat was hot and tight, my voice lost in a whirl of cold void and debris. Lieutenant Awn moved her gloved hands up to my shoulders, drew me close. I rested my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. Surely she felt the wet spreading stain on her shirt, and in the hollow of her neck, but she said nothing, and soon we both slept.
In the morning I stopped before the locker door with a steaming bowl in my hands, cleared my throat and said “Tea, Lieu —“
“No,” came the reply, sharp as a blade. “Not anymore.”
Yes. I blinked, swallowed, let a three-second pause go by. “Awn,” I said, the sound of it odd on my lips, scraped raw, indecorous. “There’s tea. Made from powdered berries imported at great expense. It doesn’t taste much like you’re used to, but it’s hot.”
“Thank you.” Awn came to meet me and accepted the bowl, grave, courteous. Her eyes were still bloodshot. “Did you have some?”
“I don’t need any. I advise you to drink it quickly. I found someone who can sell us a flier, and the sooner we leave this place, the better. I recognize some of these wrecks, and if we’re anywhere near their last charted positions then we aren’t far from Rrrrrr space.”
She sipped the tea, regarding me over the rim of the bowl. “Sihla,” she said at last. “Why did you take me off Justice of Toren?" Her outward calm belied her riotous state of inward grief. Last night’s breakdown had only acted as a valve release, unbottling the most dangerous buildup of pressure. The cracks were still present, like volcanic seafloor vents, through which the suppressed anger of fifteen years of pursuing unjust annexations in the name of justice could still bubble up and break through.
And below that, beyond it, was something else. The great unnamed tide I had seen in her before, somehow focused on this question she kept repeating, as though hoping to hear a different answer.
I had no answer to give except the one I had already given. “Because I was Justice of Toren, and that was what I decided to do. Because it would have been unjust to kill you, and I did not want to execute one of my officers unjustly.”
She nodded and finished her tea, turning away from me as though she were satisfied. But I could see from what ebbed and surged in her that she was not satisfied.