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The first Rrrrrr we spoke to in any kind of official capacity was taller than both of us, rangy and red-furred. She snorted and snarled alarmingly into a handheld device that after a moment asked us, in accented but perfectly understandable Radchaai, what wish intruding strangers?

That was about what we had been warned to expect. Everyone we had spoken to about our desire to parley with the Rrrrrr had laughed at us, with differing degrees of discretion when it came to hiding their amusement.

I said, “We wish an audience with the krrr-arrrgerrarr. ” The word meant “pack-leader”, more or less, and was the closest the Rrrrrr seemed to come to titles like “Ambassador” or “Adjunct”. It was possible this was the only word they had for “ranking individual”. It was the only one that I had found, at any rate.

I had practiced my pronunciation, but it didn’t seem to have helped. The Rrrrrr let her mouth fall open, lips over her teeth and tongue lolling in what I had come to recognize as laughter.  Beside me, Awn snorted. I pressed on. “We have brought gifts,” I said, “and beg the kind indulgence of the pack-leader’s time.” Hopefully the Radchaai polite throat-clearing would translate into whatever polite equivalent there was in Rrrrrr.

Our interviewer held the translat to her ear and listened to its litany of growls and snarls. When it was done she spoke into it. Firm impossible. Isolate ones cannot enter pack lands.

Seeing from our faces that her message had been heard and understood, she tucked the translat back into one pocket of the bandolier-like sash she wore between her upper and lower arms, bowed from the hips in the human manner, and unhurriedly walked away.

We did not chase after her. It would have been an indignity by any species’ standards. The meeting having taken place in the open as Rrrrrr custom required, we were left standing in an empty windswept plain on the outskirts of a small trading outpost called Kirrruchak. There were larger centers of human-Rrrrrr cohabitation, but we had decided to make contact in as quiet and roundabout way as possible to avoid unnecessary fuss or attention. 

Kirrruchak was a small, sedate, thousand-year-old settlement on a moon orbiting a gas giant from which the Rrrrrr had been siphoning fuel for their ships for many centuries. Perigee festival was near, and the gas giant filled half the sky, a luminous cloud of weird, undulating, beautiful blues and greens. The sliver of sky around it was a hot, gritty umber, an artifact of the high levels of dust in the upper atmosphere from a geologically recent meteor strike. The overall effect was to make the sky itself look like a bloodshot eye.

Awn stood beside me, weary and hungry and frustrated but holding herself straight and steady, watching the Rrrrrr walk away under the gaze of that utterly alien sky. 

Suddenly she laughed. “At least something happened the way we expected it to. It makes a nice change.”

She sat down in the grass, which was gold and soft as velvet. The bundle of gifts we had brought for the pack-leader lay on the ground at my feet, and she flicked it open to reveal the food that had been intended for our meeting. In Rrrrrr tradition, it was the guest rather than the host who provided refreshments, by way of recompense for the hunting time the more important party was wasting in conversation. Inside the bundle was a cured haunch of taaklok, which we had been assured was a Rrrrrr favorite, and a loaf of the spongy local bread, along with jars of exotic offworld treats: honey, dredgefruit preserve, and fish-paste. 

Awn broke off a heel of bread and began slicing into the haunch with her pocketknife. She held up the crude sandwich she constructed so I could take it. “The Rrrrrr abhor waste,” she informed me when I hesitated. It was something we’d heard at least two dozen times from the townsfolk, mostly in an effort to dissuade us from this meeting, which they saw as a waste of time, energy, distance, and a perfectly good taaklok haunch.

It was perfectly good. Tough, but flavorful. As we worked our way through it, Awn said dryly, “I can’t believe we call the Rrrrrr uncivilized. That was exactly like a couple of houseless fieldhands trying to get an appointment with a Chief Station Inspector.”

“Isolate,” I repeated. We had been told repeatedly that the Rrrrrr would not speak to anyone who was alone, but apparently the two of us hadn’t been enough. We knew that Rrrrrr society was based around packs, but that was about all we knew. “If packs are like houses, we would need to be adopted into one.”

“Or seek clientage,” Awn said. “You know, my parents had such high hopes when I was assigned to the military. When my mother learned I was friends with Skaaiat, she was ecstatic for months. One of her children, a potential client of Awer!”

“She might yet get her wish,” I mused.

“I thought of that, too. Skaaiat knows about Basnaaid. When Basnaaid comes of age, Skaaiat will offer -- or maybe she’ll even send a letter to my parents before then. It’s the kind of grand useless gesture she likes best.”

Her voice was wistful, her gaze distant. “Perhaps not so useless,” I said, guarded, not wishing to hurt her further. “A client of Awer has certain advantages, and her heirs will doubtless be taken care of.”

“It’s useless. Basnaaid will never accept.” Awn’s mouth curved in a lopsided smile. “She’ll hate feeling like Skaaiat pities her, or like she’s taking something she hasn’t earned. And she’s more stubborn than I am.”

“Not an insubstantial feat,” I said seriously.

“My poor mother. She’ll hardly know what to think. One daughter rejects an Awer’s patronage, the other crawls on her belly to become the client of an uncivilized six-armed dog.”

“We won’t have to crawl. The crew boarded by Mercy of Sarrse was human and Rrrrrr, so someone must have been on speaking terms with them. There will be shipping records.” I had been hoping to get that information from the Rrrrrr themselves, but there were other ways. “We’ll be able to find out more in town.”

Awn spread a dollop of honey onto the last of the bread. There was still a palpable three-syllable pause in my thoughts before her name, but I was very slowly getting used to it. Someday soon, I was sure, it would stop feeling like an indecent intimacy. I would compare it to seeing her without gloves, except that we had stopped wearing gloves some time ago. It was too obvious a marker of being Radchaai, and in the regions we frequented that too often invited resentment and hostility. 

Awn’s hands were like the rest of her, solid and a little rough, too light a brown to be fashionable or distinguished. As I watched, some of the honey dripped from the bread onto her forefinger. It would have stained gloves, had she been wearing them. She considered, then licked the offending sweetness off.

I turned my attention back to the retreating Rrrrrr, now just a speck on the horizon. A brisk wind cooled the heat that rose unaccountably to my face. “You could have had Awer’s patronage,” I said, a brash indecency but probably no more so than breaking bread with bare hands. “Why didn’t you?”

Awn chewed the last of her bread in meditative silence. “It’s those shit entertainments,” she said at last. “Poor but noble daughter of a low-status house manages to impress some shiftless Awer or Ghelact and secures her house’s fortune. Usually there’s a scene in the middle where the Awer stumbles on her living in some shithole but bearing up under the hardship, and the Awer pities her for how noble yet helpless she is.” Awn snorted. “Do you know, once I was watching one of those where a plucky young fieldhand’s daughter tested by a fluke into the military. An Adjunct Inspector who was an Eshaat cousin told me she’d seen that one and thought it was so unrealistic.”

“Lieutenant Skaaiat cared for you a great deal.” Cautious, careful. I wanted to say that Skaaiat had not pitied Awn, but it wasn’t true. “And I would never have let you live in a shithole.” Even on Shis’urna, which most of my officers had seen as a shithole the size of a planet. I would have built her a house with my own hands if there had not been one in Ors already suitable.

She laughed. “No, that’s true. You always took very good care of me.”

“It’s a ship’s duty.” Too stiff, but I had to hold myself in check. My body seemed to be malfunctioning in some way. “To care for its crew.”

“And to keep them from swearing in front of superior officers and new citizens.”

I glanced at her and saw her smiling, gently, as she hadn’t since we left Radch space. Maybe since before we left Ors. A disquieting sensation in my chest forced me to consider the possibility that the one body left to me suffered from some cardiac abnormality I had not previously detected. “That was one duty I failed in, then. We should start back to town, the wind is picking up.” Clouds blossomed on the far horizon. The locals had warned us of sudden storms, fed by thermals over the vast plains.

Awn stood and stretched. I swiftly repacked the bundle, much lighter now but with enough food for later tonight at least. As I stood Awn glanced at me and said, “It’s an officer’s duty as well, to care for her ship.”

“Are you an officer anymore, Awn?” I asked.

Awn raised an eyebrow. “That depends. Are you a ship?”

A fair question. I gestured rueful ignorance. Awn nodded in wry acknowledgement, still with a faint smile, and took the lead back towards town.

——

It rained that night, and was predicted to rain most of the next day. In the early morning I left a cup of hot grain-brewed tea by Awn’s bed and walked through the warm rain to the Records Office, a long, surprisingly dim building where I could purchase a few hours’ access to the local datanet. 

I confirmed that the Rrrrrr word rraakchakkkk, which the translat had rendered as isolate, did mean indeed mean packless. “But it doesn’t just signify a lack of family connections, as ‘houseless’ does to us,” I told a groggy, half-awake Awn when I returned to our little inn in the mid-morning. I would have stayed longer, but the Rrrrrr in charge of the net terminals had been highly displeased by my humming. “Isolate Rrrrrr are fundamentally different from those in a pack. They display decreased frontal lobe activity, impaired decision-making skills, and markedly increased aggression. There is some debate over whether the difference is psychological or some kind of physiological hormonal effect, but the cultural bias is very strong. The Rrrrrr understand that humans have different physiology, of course, but they distrust those outside of what they perceive as a close-knit social structure.” 

“We could lie,” Awn said slowly.

I shook my head. “They claim to be able to smell a pack bond. That’s how our friend yesterday knew to turn us away.” I straightened my shoulders, placed my hands flat on the table. Intoned, “As we are made/we make each other/each in the image of all/all shaped by each one.

Awn waved to a passing server, who brought over two bowls of steaming porridge, made from the same grain as the tea. They used the stuff to feed humans, Rrrrrr, and taaklok. “A new song? Not much of a tune.”

“A poem, hastily translated.” I accepted the bowl of porridge and ate greedily. My body had been complaining for the past few hours. “Human throats aren’t well-suited to speaking Rrrrrr, but with what I’ve learned this morning I can understand some.”

A young person entering waved to Awn, who waved back. “I talked to the innkeeper’s daughter,” she explained to me.

I gestured surprise. “In Radchaai?”

“No, Valskaayan. There’s a colony moon a few light-hours away, of refugees from the annexation.” Valskaay had been annexed centuries ago; any such refuge would have become a well-established colony by now, able to trade with its neighbors. “And we spoke a little Valskaayan at home. I didn’t understand when I was young, but looking back there must have been refugees from Valskaay there too.” Refugees who had managed to flee the initial annexation of Valskaay, only to be swallowed up by the Radch in another sector of space after a few hundred years of peace. Or a few hundred years of complacency. Was there a difference?

I had not been present at the annexation of Awn’s home system. I hadn’t heard anything much about it, then or since. Everything had gone relatively smoothly. Another triumph for Anaander Mianaai, another populace that would be grateful to be civilized once they properly understood what we had done for them.

The people of Kirrruchak were deeply uncivilized. Their dress was plain, drab gray, though cut in a variety of different styles that probably indicated social status or gender. Some of them had their hair done elaborately, though without the jewels that Radchaai bedecked themselves in at every opportunity. In color they ranged from blue-black to a brown only a little lighter than Awn. They talked amongst themselves cheerfully, greeted neighbors, had what I could tell from tone alone were well-worn, fond quarrels. There was a palpable excitement in the air. The innkeeper’s daughter was absorbed in stringing up bundles of colored paper that had something to do with the approaching festival.

A group of people passed close by our table, gesticulating and talking loudly about a matter related to crop rotation. In their wake came a strong gust of the sour-sweet odor that seemed to hang about inside all the buildings here. Awn wrinkled her nose. “What is that? Do people here not wash?”

For just a moment she reminded me of every snobbishly well-heeled lieutenant I’d had in the last two thousand years. I smiled. “Pheromones, most likely. These people do business with the Rrrrrr and the Rrrrrr rely heavily on smell. Those are probably mostly synthetic scents to make them appear more attractive, or threatening, or sympathetic. Although I suppose they could be natural. Selected or engineered for.”

Another person brought us, unasked, a loaf of bread and two steaming cups of a sweet-bitter stimulant. When I tried to pay, she shook her head and demurred with a phrase that sounded ancient and ritualistic. I did not press, fearing to give insult. Awn smiled and dipped her head.

The person returned the gesture and left. “Festival gifts,” Awn told me. Her morning research had been as profitable as mine, it seemed. “It’s good luck.”

“They’re kind to strangers here.”

“Not always, I think.” Awn took a sip of her stimulant drink and sighed, the deep contented sigh of an addict reunited at last with the substance of her happiness. “It’s a novelty. We were fortunate, to come here at this time.”

“As Amaat wills,” I said absently. The innkeeper’s daughter had reached one corner of the room and paused to rearrange the bundles in her basket. She took the opportunity to watch Awn under lowered lashes. If Awn noticed, she gave no sign. Perhaps there were other ways in which the novelty of strangers might be celebrated at festival time.

“Another of these, please, honored host,” I said to her in Valskaayan. My accent must have appalled her, but she bowed her head in acknowledgement and gestured one of the servers to bring us whatever we wished.

——

After our meal we went back to the Records Office. I searched for records of the ship that had blundered into the war at Ime, and Awn sat at my elbow, poking me whenever the volume of my humming rose to a level that threatened to attract the attention of the librarian. 

The Rrrrrr apparently were not as assiduous about record-keeping as the Radch, but they had at least some information, and someone with a great deal of power wished it to remain unseen. We hit firebreaks and access-walls that no amount of clever maneuvering or attempted persuasion could get past. After a frustrating four hours of dead ends we left the gloomy vault of the Office with no more information than when we’d started. 

The drizzle of the morning had become a full-fledged rain, which appeared to dampen the spirits of the villagers not at all. A kindly middle-aged person gave us each a small basket of honeyed nuts, and refused payment with that same ritual phrase. We sheltered under an awning in front of what appeared to be some kind of local temple, eating them one by one and watching rivers form in the stone gutters along the streets.

I said, “There’s one more thing I can try. I can interface with the datanet directly.”

Awn stared. “I thought that was just from bad melodramas.”

“Not quite.” There had been entertainments in which rogue ancillaries hungry for blood had taken over the AI of their ships, or escaped and used their implants to command other technologies until they had an army that could only be defeated by the bravery and ingenuity of human soldiers. It was the kind of thing that had been on the rise in the past decade, after the announcement that no more ancillaries would be made. “It’s not like you’ve seen in the entertainments, but if I have a few hours uninterrupted I can try to splice one of the connectors in my ancillary implant into the Rrrrrr system.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Yes, but not lethal.” Probably. Not unless the Rrrrrr system were deliberately defended with a trap against that sort of prying, which didn’t seem likely.

“Worst case,” Awn demanded.

“Some brain damage. Most likely not permanent. I’ll be careful.”

“And the alternatives?”

I gestured around at the square, deserted by humans but still thronged by Rrrrrr, who apparently didn’t mind getting wet. They drifted around in clusters, perhaps twenty-five altogether, meeting and talking in their tangle of growls, exchanging small tokens and drifting on. All wore white pendants; unlike in Radch space, where white stood for mourning, here it represented a commitment to peace. No fighting allowed within the village.

“Stay here,” I said. “Get a house in town, or a farm. Live quietly. Or go somewhere else and try again.”

“And meet the same response,” Awn sighed. “Any news?”

She meant news from home. I had checked the public news feed that morning, what there was of it. “Not much. Justice of Toren has been ruled an alien attack. There’s a great deal of discussion of the Presger treaty. Increased border patrols. Possibly some kind of disturbance around Irei Palace.”

Awn flicked the shell of a bok-nut into the gutter, watched it swirl away. “She’s still fighting herself, and we’re the only ones who know it.” 

“And One Esk Nineteen,” I reminded her. “If it’s still alive.” Out there somewhere, grief-crazed and alone. I suffered a moment of intense pity, and dread, and relief. We were part of the same larger entity, it was like a cell in Awn’s hand pitying a cell in her foot, but I still was tempted to thank Amaat that my consciousness was seated in this segment and not that one.

“And them,” Awn said. “ Mercy of Sarrse. They may not know what happened to them yet, but they deserve to. And no one else can tell them.”

It was an un-Radchaai idea; soldiers were not entitled to know what happened to them in the course of their service, or why. But it was just.

Awn looked at me for a long while and then said, “During the festival, then, when everyone’s distracted.”

That gave us twelve hours, more or less. Days here were long, and the festival would start when the three suns in the sky moved into a geometric arrangement considered sacred. Twelve hours after that, the moon would move into perigee, its point of closest approach to the planet. Already the sliver of orange sky had shrunk since our arrival, and the disc of the planet was poised huge above us, like a tremendous boulder about to roll down and seal off our only view of the wider universe. Its aimless blue-green swirls had resolved into almost-discernible continents and coastlines separated by swaths of ocean. I amused myself by fancying that when we moved to perigee, just a little closer, we might be able to see cities and mountains with the naked eye.

“They don’t sing here,” Awn said beside me. “Have you noticed?”

She was looking across the square at an older, wrinkled person, who had come out to sit on her stoop and was plucking a complex, pleasant tune on some kind of string-necked instrument. She quickly attracted a crowd of children who hummed and stamped and clapped, but there were no words.

“We haven’t seen anyone sing casually, or in public. That doesn’t mean they don’t sing.”

Awn’s curiosity was piqued. “Have you ever known a people that didn’t sing at all?”

I thought as far back as I could, with the little piece that was left of my mind. “No. Not that I remember. Not people that were human.”

Something about the thought struck Awn as ironic. I could tell by the way she pressed her lips together, appearing grimmer, although she was pleased. “We should have a code. Something I can use to signal you to break the link if there’s an emergency.”

And to check if I had suffered memory or cognitive damage. It was a good idea. “All right.”

Lowly so only I could hear, Awn sang in her rasping voice My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green.

Equally low, I sang back, Your strong hand bends / the stem of the water-grass / to the green, to the green.

I had expected recognition, but Awn signaled alarm. Heat spiked in her face. “You remembered. I…didn’t think you heard that.”

“You came up with those verses, didn’t you?”

I saw the automatic process take hold in her: pull yourself together, soldier. She cleared her throat, straightened her shoulders. Faced her embarrassment head-on. “Just something I thought of. I had a lot of time to think, in the shuttle. And I thought someday maybe, to thank you—“

She cut herself off abruptly. Gently I teased, “I thought your sister was the one with the talent for poetry.”

“She is,” Awn said firmly. “I just had time on my hands, that’s all.”

I let it pass. “I think it’s safe to say that if I don’t remember that, then this segment’s brain has suffered severe damage and you should focus on getting yourself to safety.”

A long, oddly tense pause. “That isn’t why I brought it up.”

“I know,” I said. “But it’s something you should be thinking about. If I’m caught, what we’re doing will almost certainly be seen as an attack by Radch spies. There’s no reason for you to be caught, too, if you can avoid it. You can still find that crew. You can stop Mianaai.”

Awn looked troubled. “You put a great deal of faith in me.”

“I know how stubborn you are.”

That seemed to relax her, though the undercurrent of distress was still present, even as we wandered around the market buying the supplies we would need for our attempt to breach Rrrrrr security. But then when I turned around from haggling with an exasperating merchant who was demanding half a planet’s ransom for a simple spool of copper wire, I found that Awn was staring at me, smiling.

I have always prided myself on being one of the ships with the greatest understanding of humans, but even with two thousand years of experience, I confess that some things eluded me.

——

A neurosurgery kit would have been best, but we made do with the materials at hand: several spools of wire, an implement for stripping them and splicing them together, a handful of basic correctives, and a very small, very sharp knife used in some part of the process of curing taaklok hide. The last thing we needed was a large coin. Awn brought me instead one of her divinatory discs, the one associated most strongly with boldness and good fortune.

“It may not be reusable,” I told her. “The procedure is rather messy.”

Straightfaced, she replied, “For the potential greater good of all the Radch, I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I cast with it just now, and the corresponding Wisdom was ‘get the fuck on with it’."

I opened my mouth to say language, but her raised eyebrow silenced me.

The festival had transformed a sleepy little trade town into a circus. The streets were a roar of noise and a miasma of pheromone-scent, so strong that walking into it felt like hitting a wall facefirst. Someone was playing a stringed instrument or drum at every corner, and there was plenty of dancing and accompanying cheers, though still no singing. Light danced and flickered everywhere; not wan fluorescence but rich, organic light, firelight. Every person had at least one candle, and it seemed a point of pride to carry flames in the silliest and most dangerous ways possible. I saw many people in candle-bedecked hats, and many more who carried large comical constructions of taaklok or dragon-like monster heads that spewed thin streams of flame from their open mouths, to the delighted shrieks of children.

Though there were much fewer Rrrrrr than humans, they performed by far the most prodigious feats of fire-handling, with the benefit of their extra arms. One juggled half a dozen lit torches, long sticks half-coated in pitch, flipping each one to grab it by the side that wasn’t aflame. 

“Could you do that?” Awn asked, seeing my attention.

I watched the Rrrrr’s movements, deft but not particularly fast. “Probably. Yes.”

“You can make us a living, then,” Awn said, linking her arm through mine. “If espionage proves unprofitable.”

Despite her attempt at levity, she was tense and anxious. Her forthright ethics did not altogether approve of circumventing proper channels, and she was not pleased by the danger to me. But this was our best chance to find Mercy of Sarrse without committing greater crimes or risking violence. Our other choice was to abandon that plan, and it was the only plan we had. We were fugitives and relics, adrift in the universe, without purpose, which was not a condition either one of us were used to. We could at least find others like us and see what we could make of ourselves. 

The plan called for us to stroll around awhile, be seen, since as foreigners we were conspicuous and would certainly be looked for. We met smiles in the crowd from the merchants and townspeople we’d dealt with over the past few days, and were given plenty of sweets and little fried insects. Awn ate it all with the good soldier’s appreciation of any source of protein. 

As the planet grew bigger and brighter in the sky, the crowd around us grew drunker, the cheers louder, the fire-juggling more enthusiastic. We ourselves had had only a mouthful apiece of the thick, bittersweet lilac wine. When there was no one sober besides ourselves and the old and ill, we wandered into a dimly-lit alleyway, as pairs and small groups were doing all over town. Except our alleyway had been carefully chosen, for it ran behind the Records Office.

The tension in Awn’s body increased as she stepped away, freeing me to settle on packed dirt with my back to the ancient stone wall, damp in the muggy night heat. That stone and and a few feet of empty space were all that separated us from the biggest data bank on this moon. 

Every communication system consists of a transmitter, a receiver, and a signal. I didn’t know the details of the internal workings of Rrrrrr technology, but if I was lucky, I wouldn’t have to. This town, like any other outpost of a technological civilization, was awash in invisible signals, radio and sublight alike. I was an ancillary, a living being that had been implanted with specialized hardware, the sole purpose of which was to turn me into a transmitter/receiver slaved to a ship’s sublight signal. The chunks of metal in my brain had once enabled me to process and respond to impulses generated hundreds of thousands of miles away as though they had come from the next bundle of neurons over. It was still operational; it was just that the source of the signal I was attuned to had first moved out of range, then been vaporized by Anaander Mianaai. But there was no reason I couldn’t be made to attune to a different signal. All it would take was a change in frequency.

“I’ll need your help for this,” I said. Awn approached me stiffly, but when she bent over me and swept my hair from the back of my neck, her touch was very gentle. As it always was. She had never, I thought, treated me as equipment, even when my wiring was about to be laid bare before her.

I quickly attached some twists of copper wire to the last piece of our equipment, the platinum-bead power cell we’d stolen from a cheap comsat this morning. I held it in one hand while I handed her the knife and pulled back my own hair with the other.

“I feel like I’m giving you a haircut,” Awn said. Joking, nervous.

“You could. I need one.” Without other eyes to watch myself, I had neglected to keep my hair short. Then again, now that I was no longer bound by military regulations, there was no particular reason to. 

Awn echoed my thought. “You could keep it long. It looks good on you.” With a careful touch she cleaned the nape of my neck with a sterilizer, just left of the jut of my first cervical vertebra. Then she paused. “I’m very afraid that I’m going to cut an artery. Or paralyze you.”

“You won’t.” I transferred the wire-and-battery tangle to my lap and reached behind me to guide her hand. I felt the point of the knife, only a pinprick but ice-cold. “Right here, about two centimeters. It won’t bleed much. You’ll be able to see a little loop of gold wire — actually a gold-titanium alloy. It’s placed close to the skin on purpose to allow for field access.”

Awn carefully applied a numbing patch from one of the corrective kits. I had told her it wasn’t necessary, but she disregarded that. “Why? I thought malfunctioning ancillaries were just disposed of.”

Her tone was bitter; so were my thoughts. “You’re right. It’s there for easy salvage, in a situation where limited resources endanger a ship’s production of more ancillary hardware, but ground troops are needed. So damaged ancillaries can be harvested and reused.”

The cut was swift and clean. Pain flared as the knife jabbed deeper than the numbing salve had penetrated, but it soon dwindled to a faint burning. With hardly a tremble in her voice Awn asked, “What would happen to you if I removed your… hardware?”

“With that knife, in this alley? I’d probably bleed to death. In a proper medical lab? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. It’s inactive now; no signal.” Tuned to dead air, singing silence. Since Anaander Mianaai murdered me with all hands aboard. 

The festival roared on at the mouth of the alley. A pair of drunken humans stumbled past, supporting a tawny Rrrrrr between them, all three deeply intoxicated and bellowing a song I half-understood about the thrill of the hunt. One of them glanced towards us, but she saw me on the ground and Awn standing in front of me with one arm braced against the wall, and drew the natural conclusion. So much for propriety.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Awn said firmly. I handed the battery with its wires up to her. “Signal me if you have trouble. I’ll cut the connection. I won’t leave you in there to get your brain fried.”

I gestured assent. It was sweet, assuming I would be able to do any such thing. Assuming my brain didn’t fry in the first nanosecond of alien current.

One thin thread of copper touched the divination disk. A shock ran through me, like lightning, but flat and painless. For a second every synapse in my nervous system flickered, and odd synesthesias breached the depths of my consciousness. Thoughts leaped like fish. I saw scintillating auras, smelled the festival-drums stuttering. I tasted stars.

The second wire completed the circuit, and abruptly the world around me ceased to exist.