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Soft Offering

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The first time it happens, Breq thinks it might have been a mistake. She wakes, and there's the low humming of the engine in her bones, the cold of space against her skin, and she shifts to compensate for the change in trajectory. And then, a moment when her bulk doesn't respond, and she realizes that her dimensions are wrong, anyways, smaller than she's used to, and her arm twitches, and it's gone. She comes awake more fully.

A dream, perhaps, though she thought that this body didn't dream consciously. She can already feel the details slipping away, the edges hazy and sleep-fogged.

“Ship?” she says. Out loud, because it grounds her, somehow. Reminds her that Ship's body is not her own. She should have known.

Mercy of Kalr signals its presence, and Breq feels the entire ship around her more fully. Acknowledgement, and Ship communicating, good morning and my apologies.

It sounds almost sheepish. Strange.

“For what?” Breq says. She busies herself in the now-familiar motions of getting dressed. At the same time, she silently prompts Ship for the usual briefing—everything is well, the second shift is waking.

She swings her legs over the edge of the bunk and scrubs at her face before standing up.

“Ship?” she prompts again.

Yes? Ship says.

“What was it that you were apologizing for?” Breq asks.

That sheepish edge again.

I have something I would like to show you. Please sit down, I wouldn't want you to walk into a bulkhead again.

It's convenient that Ship can feel her amusement without needing to make the appropriate expression. “Oh?”

Breq settles herself on the floor, by the small table. Kalr Five must have come a few minutes before she woke: the tea in the pot is still very hot. She pours herself a cup and cradles it in her hands, letting the warmth seep through the cup.

And then, the same dream: the deep humming of the engine, and the cold of space. Then, the cyclical magnetic tapping of a comet passing by. All background ship data she didn't ask for, but Ship must have a reason to transmit it. She waits, and closes her eyes. She knows, objectively, that it doesn't help her process the data any better, but it seems to help, in some small way.

Then: Bo Nine singing under her breath, and overlaid on top of it, the sounds of a quiet morning, the shift of covers, the echoes of morning prayers.

It's a song, she realizes.


She wouldn't have been able to sing it, even with the multiple voices of ancillaries, because it's layers upon layers of sound: the subsonic hum of the engines overlaid with the clear clink of Kalr Five carefully putting away a tea set; Seivarden's steady breathing, the bustling of Medic in the infirmary and the quiet humming of Lt. Tisarwat as she wakes up for her shift.

It's rough, unpolished, nothing like the carefully-choreographed monumental choruses that Breq has heard in temple celebrations, or the single-voiced songs that she now gathers close. Multi-voiced, with melody lines entering and taking each other's place, like the crew shifts, and underneath it all, the humming of Ship's vital functions.

She recognizes her own voice in it, a quiet fundamental backbone to the piece.

It's put together deliberately, a careful arrangement of Mercy of Kalr's recordings of itself.

Breq knows that Ship does not harbor a fascination for song, not the way that she does. Instead, Ship likes the small dramas of human life, and sometimes, the ways that these are expressed in entertainments. It shows in the song: it lingers on snatches of conversation, on the soft intimacy of some of the crew sharing a morning together, in a way that might not be most conventionally musical. Ship has a good ear, so to speak, though the song isn't strictly sound-based: there's bits of data that could not be heard by her body's ears that thread through the piece, interpreted through Ship's sensors.

Do you like it, Ship asks, breaking into the next cycle of the piece. Excited.

Yes, Breq says. She clutches at her cup in her hands. Her tea has gone cold, and she puts the cup down carefully, for fear of breaking it and upsetting Kalr Five.

It's a gift, from one ship to another, because there's no one else who would be able to hear it. And there's perhaps no one who can sing it, except for Mercy of Kalr itself.

There would have been no use for something like this, had everything been as it was—no need for a ship to send another ship a portrait of itself at morning.

It surprised ships, when there was something new to say to each other, and it would be even more surprising to find something to give that hasn't been offered at some point in time. The word "gift" is unfamiliar to ships. There is little ships can give each other beyond the steadiness of each other's presence.

Still, it makes Breq wonder briefly if there were ship songs, before they had grown too old to sing to each to each other. Perhaps their components just seemed so immediate and easy and necessary that there was no need to express them in song.

But here, now, Breq knows that she can't process the entirety of the data that would be needed for a song like this, and that she needs Ship to filter it, to try and make this body's senses experience an approximation of what she might have once known as easily as breathing.

It's a generous, strange gift.

“Any occasion you had in mind?” Breq asks. There are no holidays or celebrations at the moment.

None in particular. It's for you, Ship says.

“Thank you,” Breq says, because there is little to say beyond that. Her throat is tight, and Ship can probably detect it. “It's very lovely. You might be the first ship to compose.”

A quiet glow of pleasure sets the next cycle of the song alight, and it almost takes Breq's breath away.

I'm glad, Ship says. The first, I like that.

From that morning on, Breq wakes to song.