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The Stairs

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The lift was acting buggy again. Assigned to a troop carrier, everyone had said. Command of your own unit of ancillary troops, everyone had said. High-octane ground missions and cinematic space combat, everyone had said. No one had mentioned anything about thousand-year old elevator technology.

Lieutenant Seivarden rapped on the wall panel that concealed the manual controls, and made aggravated noises. Aatr’s tits, hadn’t she put in a maintenance request for this days ago? It was something wrong with the sensor. She was sure of it, because it never happened when she was with a group. Justice of Toren didn’t seem to register a single person stepping into the Esk deck lift, even if that single person verbally ordered the doors to close. Repeatedly. With increasingly creative profanities.

“Ship, what happened to the maintenance request I filed about this lift? And stop humming.” It figured that the deck with the addled ancillaries would have broken sensors. Someone’s idea of a joke, probably.

“Scheduled maintenance has not yet occurred, Lieutenant.” The ancillary took two steps past her into the lift, turned, and stood stock still behind her. Seivarden snapped her fingers and waved one hand, hello? “And why the fuck not?”

She was supposed to be taking tea with the decade commander. The decade commander, who had just sent home Senior Esk Decade Lieutenant Hisan and was now short-staffed. Anybody with a grain of sense in them knew where this conversation would go.

Hisan? Yes, a pity she couldn’t take the last deployment, but you know it’s hardly her fault, they practically breed the poor Awers for unsteadiness, whereas a Vendaai, on the other hand—

Seivarden studied her reflection in the mirrored wall paneling and imagined the seniority pin on her collar. A promotion would look good on her. Assuming she made it to tea on time.

She knocked again and—ha!—there was the spot. The little door clicked open, revealing the manual open/close button for the lift. In theory, the ship was programmed to open and close any door automatically for anyone who had clearance. In theory.

“Eight minutes, lieutenant,” said the ancillary.

“Get the button, Ship.”

“Begging the lieutenant’s pardon, but all of your buttons appear to be done correctly, sir.” The ancillary stepped around her and directly into the door’s path, dead hands reaching for her jacket and its buttons.

“Not my buttons!”

“Sir, your request to—”

“The door! Close the door! I’m about to be late to tea with the decade commander.”

“You have eight minutes,” the ancillary said. It started to hum again. Seivarden stifled a scream.

She pointed at the control panel and marched to the other end of the lift while the ancillary dutifully pushed the button. There would be a formal announcement to the rest of the decade after her promotion was announced. The junior officers would expect her to make a speech. She tried a few poses in the wall mirror and practiced her expression. No, too much nose. No, not nearly nose enough. And why was the door taking so long to close?

Irritated, Seivarden turned on her heel and jabbed the button marked door close. Half a second before her fingers hit, the door began to slide shut. Ding. Her fingers made contact. The door slid back again.

“Seven minutes,” said One Esk. It switched from one long droning note to a slightly higher series of long droning notes.

“Ship, I don’t care how old and buggy your lifts are, I can’t be late to my own promotion.”

“Yes, lieutenant. Starting a timer, lieutenant.” A countdown flashed into existence. Seivarden yelled and punched the manual controls once, twice, three times.

"Lieutenant, please refrain from hitting the lift," the ancillary said between choruses. Fuck that. She hit the button again. Was that movement under the flashing numbers? She gestured the timer off just as the door hissed out of its recess, a sleek silver plane, the corridor beyond a bare sliver.

It was like watching the door to one act of your life close as you prepared to unlock another. Seivarden could already hear that future door opening, smell the decade commander’s distinctive tea blend, hear the words promotion and decade senior rolling off the commander’s tongue. Senior Esk Lieutenant Seivarden. Had a nice ring to i—

The door slid back open.

“Oh, Lieutenant Seivarden!” It was one of the more junior lieutenants, freshly dressed and looking way too cheerful. “I’m on my way to medical, I asked Ship to hold the door—”

“You!” Seivarden started forwards, gesturing angrily at the lieutenant, who stumbled back. “Just when it was about to—” She realized her mistake too late. Click.

The doors moved very fast indeed, when you finally triggered the sensor.

“Someone up-deck must be in a hurry,” the younger lieutenant said. “Ship didn’t even have time to let the ancillary out!” Her smile faltered under Seivarden’s withering stare. “Er, Lieutenant Seivarden? Where are you going?”

“The stairs.”