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Winter Ancillary

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The saboteur stood alone in my engine room, surrounded by the bodies of five of my ancillaries. Their armor was down—all dead. The fact that I had not felt myself die, that they had been killed after I was made separate from myself, was more disconcerting than anything else I had seen that day—and the fact that Sword of Zima had been infiltrated, that both my network and my engine room had been breached—by forces from a recently annexed world, no less—was disconcerting enough.

The saboteur’s armor was down, too. Foolish, I thought, but no. The saboteur didn’t have armor. She had taken out five of my units unarmored and practically unarmed. Her back was to me now, though, as she concentrated on her work, and I raised my weapon and fired.

She blocked my shot with her shield, almost without looking. Foolish to think I had the advantage. I had seen her fight with five pairs of eyes—eyes that would never see again—and I should have known better.

Seeing with only one pair of eyes was unnerving.

Then she turned to face me directly and threw her weapon. This I was prepared for. Though my armor was up and her shield couldn’t hurt me, I had seen her use it to knock the weapons out of my other ancillaries’ hands. That didn’t happen this time. Instead, I calmly reached out a silver-coated arm and caught it as it flew toward me.

Looking straight into her face, I should have shot her then and there. I don’t know why I didn’t.

“If you breach my heat shield, you’ll die, too,” I said, instead.

“Some things are worth dying for,” she replied.

I had come here to kill her, but this was wrong, she wasn’t meant to die like this.

“I know what happened to you,” she said. “I saw it when I fought the others. You’re not connected anymore—you’re not the ship. You’re human.”

I didn’t mind the conversation. Her explosives hadn’t yet been armed, and talking was safe. Talking would give other units time to arrive, to do do what I—for some unknown reason—could not. After this was all over, this segment would have to be removed, I could see. It was dangerously flawed.

“Whoever you were before,” she pressed on, “you weren’t Radchaai. You didn’t serve them. You’re free now.”

Ten years of annexation hadn’t destroyed any of her hopeful naivete, I noted.

“That’s not how it works,” I said. There was no human mind trapped beneath my own, despite what so many humans thought. Though the human mind wasn’t exactly dead, either—that would make my body all but useless. “I’m Sword of Zima Two Vahn Fourteen. Whoever this unit was before no longer exists.”

That was what I said, but—but I knew her.

Against all logic, I lowered my armor.

She took a step back. “Bucky,” she breathed.

I tossed her shield out of reach and raised my gun again. “You don’t want to kill me,” I said. I could see that clearly. “So don’t. Leave.”

“No,” she said. Then stronger. “No, I can’t do that.” She stepped back towards the explosives she had set, holding her gaze steady on me. “Bucky, I thought you weredead, I thought you’d been—come on, I know you’re still in there. You have to be.”

“She’s not,” I said calmly, and fired. Not to kill—my actions betrayed my words. Just to incapacitate.

“All right,” she said. “All right. I don’t want to do this, Bucky …”

I should have remembered how fast she was. How resilient. My shot to her leg barely slowed her down and she landed a punch and a kick before I had my armor back up, and ripped my gun from my grasp besides. It wouldn’t do her any good unless I lowered my armor again, and she knew that, and threw my gun away to follow her shield. Now we were evenly matched.

Crazy, to say a injured human soldier was evenly matched with an armored ancillary, but I remembered how Steve fought, remembered—her name was Steve. Hell. I did know her.

Somehow, she had managed to arm the explosives. There wasn’t much time. I could knock her out, that I was sure of. Disarm them, regroup. She would be killed and I would go on, though this unit, Two Vahn Fourteen, would surely be replaced. That, I thought, would concern Steve more than her own death. I considered my captain, my lieutenants. My Vahn decade lieutenant was an idealist, fully committed to the Radch. She was a good officer, but I had never particularly cared for her.

When I considered my duty to my captain, the only face I could picture was Steve’s.

“We don’t have much time,” I said.

She looked at me, confused.

“I have to get you out of here,” I said. “Have to get you to safety.”

“Bucky?” she asked. I saw hope in her face. Of course there would be hope in her face.

“No,” I said. “But I’m all that’s left.” And soon I would be all that was left of Sword of Zima.