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Coherence

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I. Etrepa/Bo

The Anaander Mianaai who finally restored communications to Omaugh Palace was five years old, and she did so from her hiding place in a storage closet.

The closet had been a comfort, not because it was a hiding place, but because it was small and dark: a container, an image, a physical expression of what had happened to her mind. Even so, she broke out crying every so often, stifling the noise—any running footsteps in the corridor outside might slow and retrace themselves, and light would flood in, and no matter whose face looked down at her from within that terrible nimbus, it would be a face that couldn’t be trusted, even her own. Even her own.

She had been working at her penmanship in the schoolroom deep in the palace when her world was suddenly narrowed, and bewildering, her memories one stifling little channel, a single small body in a single room, the rest of her gone, even the one of her overseeing her work now a stranger with a consternated look on her face. For the briefest of moments there was a stillness as they stared at one another. Little Anaander had been listening to the important conversation she had been having with Justice of Toren and Captain Seivarden, reaching to look every now and then, but idly. The older ones of her were managing this problem. It wasn’t yet a matter for urgent concern. She had been five years old before and knew what her brain could handle, and the rest of her was there to surround her and buoy up her patience. That parts of her were...no, not brittle, that was too much like unsteady, and none of her was unsteady…was not a matter of urgent concern.

That changed abruptly when the rest of her disappeared from her mind and left her alone. The other Anaander in the room met her eyes, and it was suddenly a matter of very urgent concern indeed.

“Were you expecting this?” she said to her older self. Challenging.

“No,” said the other Anaander. “Where did I last see the box?”

“It was locked up in the Itr storage room.”

“Well, evidently it’s not there now,” said the older Anaander dryly. “How did I get it out of there without my knowing?”

“That’s not the most pressing problem,” she answered, putting down her stylus. Before she could go on, they heard a sound from outside the room, a sound that should never have been heard in the halls of the palace: a voice raised in anger.

That is the most pressing problem,” said the older Anaander.

*

Her memories of what happened after that were too sharp and quick to bear looking at directly. Guards rushing in, killing her caretaker self; her small body darting under an armored arm, fleeing down a corridor; her only heartbeat thudding in her skin, pressing like sponge-marrow in her hearing. Her decision to find and steal back the box. The same decision shaken by the sight of three of her selves fighting, yelling at confused guards, in a room full of antique weapons—two Anaanders converged on another, who snatched a blade from its display rest—the horrible look of hatred on the face of the Anaander—on her face—who got the blade away from her and stabbed her. And again. And again.

Did she want to be at one with this?

She ran through more such scenes; sometimes she was noticed and shouted at, shouted for, grabbed; she twisted away, and ran, and ran again. She found the box in a room with two Anaanders throttling one another, rolling on the floor. Stole it, sprinted ahead of shouts and bullets. Out of the palace, into crowds of citizens, bunching frightened in herds, trying to obey Security directing them to safety. Shards of glass on the floor—she was only wearing slippers—her hands sweating in her gloves—everyone too tall, blocking her vantage.

Then the moment she found herself clear of anyone’s view—except Station’s, and Station couldn’t talk—and next to the small door for cleaning storage. She unlatched the door manually, pushed it open with all her small strength, slipped in, and tugged, grunting, until it shut again. It was dark. She could toggle the box in safety now. But she didn’t. She sat down on the cool floor and wrapped her arms around her knees, and tried to breathe slowly.

*

A day-cycle passed. Anaander Mianaai, five years old, spent the time thinking.

She would have to toggle the box eventually. Station couldn’t function without communications data. And she would need to know what was happening out there, would have to reach for the ships in range. But first perhaps the conflict would burn itself out. Of course, once she restored the signal, the whole thing would leak through the gates to the other palaces, and they’d go through this all over again. Other five-year-old Anaanders would hide in closets among mops and vats of cleaning solvent, blinking away the memory of that unclean, hateful look on her own face.

That was what Justice of Toren had wanted, was it? Bitter gift for bitter gift?

She hadn’t been there herself, but she knew what happened when a ship vaporized itself. It was like a small star exploding. Anaander imagined all the nearby ships exploding, imagined the shockwave of destruction cutting through the palace station. Her dark, safe closet was an illusion. She knew this. She really ought to toggle the box, before it was too late.

But once she did, any Anaander in range would know exactly where she was, and what if all the right ones were gone? The thought made her angry.

All her plans to wait out this rift, to heal the brittle parts of herself and bring them into line: shattered. There was no point being angry with a ship, but she was angry now. She had nothing but a five-year-old body and a five-year-old brain, like a too-small glove for the hand of her vast memory. She, the Lord of the Radch, was for the moment only the lord of a tiny closet. She could mash her small hand down on the toggle of this signal disruptor, and it wouldn’t do a thing to Justice of Toren One Esk. Not directly. It only had one body left.

Her gloves were getting grimy. Wiping away tears wasn’t helping.

*

She was found, after some hours, not by another Anaander, but by a citizen her own age.

The child had crept out of her home and was sneaking along corridors to find out what might be happening outside. She had heard Anaander moving inside the closet, and knocked hesitantly on the door. “Citizen?”

Anaander froze. Where a child was, an adult couldn’t be far behind.

She knocked again. “Citizen, are you all right? Do you need help?” Keeping her voice quiet. So it still wasn’t safe.

“Go away,” Anaander said.

Instead, the child unlatched and tugged the door open. “You shouldn’t be in here. Are you hurt? You can come back to my—” And then stopped in confusion at sight of a child-Mianaai, dressed in a dirty black jacket, barefoot and tearstained, blinking and squinting into the sudden light. “…My lord?” Even softer.

Anaander’s vision adjusted enough to see that she was common, probably the daughter of a station worker. All to the good. “Quiet,” she said. “Come in here. Close the door.”

When the door was closed and they were sitting together in the dark, Anaander said, in a near-whisper: “What’s going on outside?”

“I don’t know, my lord. I went out to see. Station can’t talk.” Then, after a hesitation, “My mother doesn’t know I’m gone.”

“Is there still fighting?”

“I heard something on the concourse so I came down here. I can’t tell if it’s fighting or just yelling. Do you know what’s going on, my lord?”

“I’m waiting till it’s quiet.” Which wasn’t really an answer, but her companion was patient beside her. Even a five-year-old Lord of the Radch could have a calming effect, apparently.

After a silence, the other child said: “Are you hungry, my lord? I could bring you something.”

Anaander was determined not to cry any more. “I’m not certain that would be a good idea, citizen.”

“I’m good at sneaking. Station doesn’t tell. Usually.”

Station couldn’t, just now. “Go back home, citizen. It’s all right.”

“But, my lord. You’re in a storage closet.”

She was too young to have learned to pepper her speech with begging my lord’s indulgence and if my lord pleases. It was as refreshing as it was exasperating. “I told you: I’m waiting. Go home.” Then a terror-thought overtook her: one of the wrong Anaanders would have killed this child to keep herself safe. Without compunction. And if she, Anaander, didn’t, that meant her hiding-place was exposed to whoever the child might tell. “Go home, citizen,” she whispered fiercely. I’m not safe for you.

“Yes, my lord.” Penitent. But not penitent enough, for when she tugged open the door enough to slip back out, she said quietly: “I’ll bring you something. I’m good at sneaking.” And then she was gone.

“Fuck,” whispered Anaander Mianaai, in the dark.

*

The citizen was true to her word, though it took her long enough to return that Anaander grew anxious. She began to expect that soon boots would come down her corridor, force her door open, and drag her out.

Instead she was startled by a scratching sound on the door. Then the child’s voice. “Are you still there?”

Anaander was afraid to answer yes. Afraid not to answer. The door tugged open, and her conspirator peeked in. “Good. I’d better not stay. Security’s out.” She pushed a small box through the opening, laid a hand-light on top, and closed the door again.

Anaander was glad of the hand-light. The box contained two large crumbly sweet biscuits, a plain-porcelain cup of skel, and a tiny chipped enamel flask of tea. The tea was cold; the skel was—skel. She didn’t care. She ate it all, closed up the empty flask and cup in the box, and curled up on the floor to sleep.

She woke restored a few hours later. Her thoughts had knit themselves to decision while she slept. Security was organized enough to be on patrol. The palace was still here. She therefore had a reasonable amount of leverage. And she knew where to get more.

She sat up, drew the signal baffler to her, and switched it off.

II. Issa/Inu

AIs couldn’t scream, but when communications came back, Station was producing a reasonable facsimile.

Barricaded in a sleeping-suite in the palace, Anaander Mianaai gripped a table and stifled a small grunt, for a moment overwhelmed by the layered oscillation of distress clamoring at her consciousness. A lamination of anger and terror and confusion, from what felt like every citizen on the station. She tried to reach for the rest of herself, but it was like reaching through an ocean wave in a gale.

“Station, stop it,” she said aloud. “I can’t hear myself think.”

A silence as of suspended breath. “My lord?” said Station, and then again, “My lord?”

“Yes,” said Anaander, and as she said it, the rest of herself was there, like a primordial bath. It wasn’t all pleasant. She forced herself to take stock.

This iteration stood here, in a body thirteen years old. Outside, another iteration pulled out another magazine and rammed it home. She knew where to aim through the wall, now. If she told Station, which was already profoundly upset, to send Security to relieve her little siege, the Anaander outside would likely countermand the order and distress Station even more.

“It’s all right. Just keep to your usual mandate, Station,” she said, “to the best of your ability.”

“My ability is considerably diminished, my lord,” Station said.

“Tell me about it,” Anaander muttered. And got ready to dance.

Thought fit itself to thought, as her memories came online, borrowing from Station for the gaps. How dare you, and all my work destroyed, and I’m waiting for it to be quiet, and if I can get to the docks, and too late, and my fault, and if I were me, and there’s no point being angry at a ship, and I want Justice of Toren.

It was a bifurcated want, but still all the Anaanders yet alive shared it, and there was a brief hush of unity.

Anaander, besieged, saw through the eyes of an iteration of herself much shorter, reaching to drag at the door of a storage closet, only to have Station open it for her. She came out, holding the disruptor box in her hand. Went to the trash chute, reached up with a small gloved hand to open it. Dropped the box inside.

“No!” said the Anaander outside her door.

The child Anaander stood on her toes and pressed the codes on the panel that would drop the chute. Click. Whoosh. “There,” she said, in her child’s voice. “Station, I’d activate an extra radiation damper for that disposer, if I were you.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now. Where is Justice of Toren One Esk?”

Justice of Toren One Esk,” Station said, crisply, “is under treatment in Medical.”

“And Anaander Mianaai is not welcome there,” added an older Mianaai, from where she stood guard in a corridor near the entrance. “This is as close as I can get.”

“I bet I can get closer,” said the Anaander outside her door. She fired one shot through the wall, as commentary, and stalked off as Anaander ducked aside.

*

It wasn’t going to work. She wasn’t going to be able to cure herself. Anaanders were converging on Medical, not to heal but to kill. The barricaded Anaander decided not to attempt to influence that fray. Instead she reached for the ships in the area, found that they had all hastily cleared for action and changed positions, like cats with their backs up puffing their tails at all comers. Sword of Tlen was already talking with the Anaander bearing down on Medical with her gun. Destroy the gates, she was telling it. Do it now.

From behind her barricade Anaander did some quick assessments. Destroying the gates wasn’t a bad idea—or it wouldn’t be, if there were still a chance to hold down the patient and quell the fever. There wasn’t. It wasn’t sickness any more. It was war.

She reached, feeling for ships, for resources, as if running her fingers over a stringed instrument. One ship’s attention was already thrumming. “Mercy of Kalr.”

“My lord.”

“Where is Captain Vel?”

“Captain Vel is under guard in Security, my lord.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ship.” Mercy of Kalr made no reply to this. “Do you have any lieutenants on board you?”

“My Etrepa lieutenant is on watch in Command, my lord.”

“I’m calling her to the station. Put her in a shuttle right now, and wake your Amaat decade leader to take watch.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now: is this the first you’ve heard from me today?”

Silence.

“That’s what I thought,” said Anaander. And spoke five lines of acrostic, numbering the gates of the ship’s first voyage. She could feel Mercy of Kalr respond, its distressed currents of data clearing to one note. Good. “This is your mandate. Gate Three stays open. As soon as the lieutenant is on the shuttle you clear for action if you haven’t already, and get ready to defend it.”

“Yes, my lord.” And then, “My lord…?”

“What is it, Ship?”

“A shuttle docked to the station would be a potential tactical weakness.”

Anaander thought about that for a moment. “The risk is less now than it was a few hours ago, Ship. And I’ve now ensured that communications will not be interrupted again. For better and worse,” she added dryly.

“Yes, my lord.”

Anaander turned to Station. “Get me Inspector Supervisor Skaaiat,” she ordered. “Presuming she’s still alive.”

“She is alive,” Station confirmed. “She is conferring with Senior Security at the lift bank.”

“Stop working the lifts,” Anaander said.

“I’ve…had that order just now, my lord.”

“I’m aware of that. Inspector Supervisor,” Anaander said.

“A little busy just now, my lord,” said the inspector supervisor, in a sweet tone that meant fuck off.

“A number of iterations of me are very interested in visiting Medical,” Anaander said.

“Paying respects to a loved one?” Skaaiat said.

“With a gun, in one case.”

“Lovely. Well, I’ve got my hands full with your other orders, my lord.”

“What orders are those?”

“Guarding the docks?” Sarcasm very thick now.

“Which reminds me. I’ve just recalled Mercy of Kalr’s remaining lieutenant. When she arrives, arrest her.”

The only answer was an exasperated sigh.

Anaander hoisted herself up to sit on the table, sifting. Lockdown wasn’t going to hold much longer, not with all citizens able to communicate. She had already told Station to embargo all news and pass along orders to shelter in place, but her—yes, her enemy—was also summoning allies via ships’ comms. Giving them orders. Let them come out of hiding then. She was ready.

She too was out of hiding, a preternaturally sober five-year-old striding down corridors toward Medical, still frightened but moved now by anger. That omen had flipped. All of them had flipped.

The number of enemy Anaanders heading to Medical was three. Two others had sheared off toward a Security depot. The depot was empty of personnel, but not of arms. It could be held until reinforcements arrived. A secondary problem. This same tactical dance had probably been played out hours ago, to the deaths of all the Anaanders who had danced it.

The primary problem was holding off the Anaander with the gun. Who was meters away from the turn of corridor between her and the Anaander on guard. She turned, gun already raised; shot; the Anaander on guard ducked, and the bullet went through the doorway, ricocheted off the wall, narrowly missed a citizen in the main corridor. She became aware of Inspector Adjunct Ceit darting from a doorway opposite, avoided her tackle, failed to avoid the guard Anaander’s fist. She went down and the gun went spinning across the floor. Anaander, on the table, switched to Station’s upper-camera view: Daos Ceit moved toward the gun, but an enemy Anaander arrived in time to snatch it up. A blankness: the guard Anaander had succeeded in snapping her attacker’s neck.

Five-year-old Anaander began to run.

Even at a sprint, she could not get there before her enemy shot Daos Ceit, before the guard Anaander flung herself at the gun just as the next shot went off, before the third enemy Anaander arrived to help overpower the bleeding guard. The inspector adjunct fell. Medics were shouting. Skaaiat was swearing in her ear. The guard Anaander dropped to the ground, dying. The enemy Anaander rolled her over, reclaimed the gun, and got to her feet, flanked by her companion.

A sharp-hot bolt sound cut the air, and she dropped. Then again, and the last enemy staggered back and fell, just as five-year-old Anaander skidded to a walk and approached her dead selves, catching her breath. There was a terrible scent of burnt flesh in the air. She turned to look through the wide doorway.

Seivarden Vendaai stood there, covering the medics dragging Daos Ceit out of further harm’s way. She was breathing hard but her aim was still steady, pointing at Anaander a gun that should not exist.

“You didn’t tell me,” Anaander said to Station, from the table.

“Didn’t tell you what, my lord?” Station said. “What just happened?”

“Of course. My apologies, Station. You can’t see it.”

Anaander stared at Seivarden gravely. Walked toward her with slow, deliberate steps. Stopped when Seivarden firmed her breath and her grip, adjusting her aim to the child’s height. No farther, said her silent stance. Her eyes were full of tears, and her nostrils flared.

“Seivarden. Give me the gun,” Anaander said, holding out a small hand.

Seivarden glared through her tears, but did not speak. She kept her aim steady.

“I’m not going to hurt Breq.”

The tears spilled, but still Seivarden’s aim did not waver. “I,” she said, “will be the judge of that. My lord.”

Who was the judge of anything, except Anaander Mianaai? And how the hell had Justice of Toren One Esk got hold of that gun? “This is very interesting,”Anaander commented. “I’m having a very interesting day.”

“So glad to be of service, my lord.” Skaaiat Awer, blood-smeared, coming to flank Seivarden. Gloved, bloody hands clenched in fists. “Now go away.”

“Gun first.” Anaander kept her hand out.

“How many of you are there left?” Skaaiat asked.

“I don’t think I’ll tell you that,” said Anaander.

Skaaiat bristled, but, “Can you sing?” said Seivarden abruptly.

Ah. Now she knew where she was, with Seivarden. “For Breq, you mean? Certainly, if you wish. Is she awake?”

Skaaiat snorted. “No. She’s in stasis. She blew up Mercy of Kalr’s shuttle to keep you off any ships. Your other self,” she gestured toward the dead guard Anaander, “left standing orders to keep you away from the docks and have Breq treated for vacuum exposure immediately.”

Anaander shrugged. “Those sound like reasonable orders to me.”

“She also agreed to stay the fuck out of Medical,” Skaaiat said. Seivarden seconded this by re-firming her grip on the gun.

“I’m happy to comply,” Anaander said. “But I want the gun.”

“In exchange for your assurances, my lord?” snarled Skaaiat. “No. Give us real security.”

“There isn’t any.” Seivarden spoke quietly. Skaaiat looked to her, but Seivarden’s eyes were still on the child Anaander. “There’s no such thing. We’re probably all dead within days.” She was utterly calm. And also right. “The only question,” Seivarden went on, “is whether Anaander Mianaai serves the Radch as the Radch serves her.”

And she knelt to one knee, her eyes now at level with the child’s. “Does she?” she said, softly.

“I don’t like killing people,” said the Anaander on the table. “I don’t. It’s just—” she started to weep so that the child wouldn’t have to— “that time costs so much.”

Weeping, she felt herself coherent at last, all of herself left here at Omaugh. All but her remaining enemy, pulling away like a tainted seed-casing. Her enemy self wanted the gun quite as much as she did. Her enemy liked killing people just fine. She put her gloved hands over her face and wailed with rage.

She stopped, though, within thirty seconds, aware that she was only increasing Station’s distress—and her enemy’s contempt. “That’s enough,” she said aloud, huskily. Time to make a proper throw. She looked Seivarden in the eye, where she knelt before her, and waited.

“Keep the fighting away from Medical,” Seivarden said, “if you can.”

The gun, green from Seivarden’s glove, took on black when she laid it in Anaander’s small hand.

III: Vahn/Itr

Mercy of Kalr needs a new captain,” Anaander Mianaai said.

Skaaiat Awer looked at her levelly. “My lord,” she said, “you have got to be kidding.” She had taken the seat Anaander had offered her, here in one of the palace parlors, but refused tea.

Anaander sighed, and took a sip of her own tea. “That’s what I thought you’d say. Any recommendations?”

Skaaiat merely folded her arms and glared at her. She was obviously completely out of patience.

Patience generally was in short supply. The last of the enemy Anaanders had been killed only that morning, and pockets of fighting were still going on in parts of the station. They too would eventually be snuffed out. But even the citizens sheltering safely in place were anxious, and Station with them. A second gate had fallen. Two enemy ships had cut their losses and bolted. It could be worse, Anaander told herself. Would be worse, probably, in other provinces. She wouldn’t think about that just now.

“What about Seivarden?” Anaander suggested.

“Not steady enough,” was Skaaiat’s clipped assessment. “And good luck prying her away from Breq.”

Accurate. On both counts. “I’ll have to think about the problem some more,” Anaander said with another sigh.

“Your thoughts are very expensive,” Skaaiat said. In human lives, she meant. She was grieving: more than the injuries of her assistant would explain. Anaander could demand her to account for herself, but she doubted it would work.

“I’m aware of that,” Anaander said instead. Cool.

“Are you?” Skaaiat’s hands resisted balling into fists.

“Why do you think you’re still here?” Anaander said.

“I make a poor conscience for you, my lord,” Skaaiat said, her grief sharply renewed. “I am no credit to my house.”

Anaander looked away briefly. “We can only make offering from what we have.” That scripture had a new and unexpected meaning, now. She had thought that after three thousand years no scripture would have anything new for her. She had thought herself comfortable with the gaps of her knowledge, necessary between so many bodies. But now she felt like tattered lace. What was one small needle and thread to such gaping rents?

“Go on, then,” she said to Skaaiat. “Do your job.”

*

Skaaiat went back to work, as ordered. But she stopped at Medical on her way. Daos Ceit was stable now, no longer at the last thread of her life. Anaander still wasn’t welcome in Medical, but she could watch through Station. Skaaiat stared at her assistant from the doorway, face expressionless. Then she turned and went to the room where Breq lay in cold stasis. A force boundary over the bed kept the temperature stable; she lay unmoving, pulseless while the internal correctives did their work, eyes closed, brown skin ashy-cold. Seivarden occupied the only chair in the room, pulled up to the bedside. Her glance checked Skaaiat as she entered, then returned to the still form on the bed. Dark hollows under her eyes. A bowl of cold tea on the table.

“The Lord of the Radch,” Skaaiat said without preamble, “is looking for a captain for Mercy of Kalr.”

Seivarden seemed to register the words, but she didn’t stir enough to make a reply.

“She floated the idea of asking you.” Skaaiat’s voice was harsh, scornfully assuming Anaander’s surveillance.

No answer for a moment. Then: “Surely,” Seivarden murmured, “she’s not that desperate.”

“At least with you,” Skaaiat said, “she knows you’re loyal enough to shoot her.”

Seivarden shivered. “I couldn’t do it again.”

“You probably won’t get the chance.” Skaaiat was still not happy that Seivarden had turned over the gun. Her breathing was as taut and grieved as it had been since her interview with Anaander; Seivarden didn’t appear to notice.

“I didn’t really do it then either,” she said, with her eyes on Breq’s still face. “It’s not her I’m loyal to.” There was a difference between loyalty and conditioning, though the two currents often ran in the same channel. It had shaken Seivarden badly to point a gun at the face of the Lord of the Radch, and a child at that. But she would never sit at Anaander’s bedside as if her own soul lay there. “She doesn’t even like me.”

Seivarden said it simply, as a statement of fact, looking only at Breq. Skaaiat frowned, checked an impatient movement.

“I told her she hated me and she didn’t deny it,” Seivarden said. Even-voiced; gaze unwavering; heedless of Skaaiat’s growing annoyance. “I did something stupid, fell off a bridge. She jumped off after me and used her armor to spare me the impact. We fell three kilometers at least. It almost killed her.” Anaander didn’t have the access to Seivarden that she did to Skaaiat, but she could see clearly that Seivarden had passed to a place beyond tears. “She doesn’t even like me,” Seivarden said again.

Skaaiat’s irritation suddenly dissolved. She swallowed twice. “But you belong to her,” she said rustily.

Seivarden puffed a little laugh. “For an officer she hates, she jumps off a bridge. For an officer she loves….”

“—she starts a civil war. On purpose.” Skaaiat smiled bitterly.

Seivarden looked up then. “Who was she?” she asked. “What happened?”

Anaander found herself suspending her breath, as if that could make Skaaiat forget she was watching. Surely Skaaiat knew how much she wanted to hear the answer.

She knew. But she answered anyway.

“We served together,” Skaaiat said, “at the last annexation. We oversaw a swampy, moribund pilgrimage site. I governed the upper city, and Awn, of course, governed the lower. Of course.” She made a motion as if to brush her own bitterness aside. “Awn was….” But she had to stop. Long seconds passed before she could go on. “She was wise. She was just. They trusted her. She never failed them.” She took a breath and hardened her voice. “Until the Lord of the Radch decided to make an example of her, to sabotage the whole project of disarmament. She engineered a riot between the upper class and the lower. Awn, jumped-up nobody that she was, was meant to fail to stop it. But she didn’t fail to stop it. The mob attacked the lower city and she drove it straight into the temple and neutralized the whole thing, right in front of Mianaai’s eyes.” She let out a sound that was not a laugh; her eyes found the ceiling-view camera briefly, then turned away in disdain. “It must have galled the Lord of the Radch to watch her cause fall apart like that. She ordered Awn to execute the mob she herself had incited. And Awn obeyed. One Esk obeyed.” Skaaiat’s gaze went to Breq’s still form; Seivarden’s followed. Seivarden looked ill. “Awn and One Esk were recalled to Justice of Toren in disgrace. It gated out of the system almost right after. And I can only presume,” Skaaiat finished evenly, “that the Lord of the Radch realized she wouldn’t be able to contain the damage without destroying the ship whole. Captain, commanders, lieutenants, ancillaries, and all.” The bitter smile tugged at her lips again. “But it seems she missed one.”

It was clear, now, to Anaander what was grieving Skaaiat. Why the loss of an old lover wrung her conscience as well as her heart. She was wise. She was just. That indictment was meant for Skaaiat and Anaander both.

Seivarden had heard it, too. “Even a civil war isn’t much satisfaction,” she said, “for a loss like that. But it makes an extravagant tribute.” She looked at her own hands and fell silent.

With an abrupt motion, Skaaiat reached for her sleeve. Unfastened the token that was pinned there and went over to Seivarden. “She should have this, not me. Will you give it to her, when she wakes?”

Seivarden looked up, from the memorial pin in Skaaiat’s blue-gloved hand, to her face: but Skaaiat’s eyes were cast down, her lips tight. Seivarden reached and gently took the pin.

Instead of trying to speak, Skaaiat bowed her thanks and strode swiftly from the room.

Seivarden tucked the pin in her jacket pocket, and returned to her vigil.

IV. Esk/Var

Despite putting her surviving instances on shifts, to think and plan and work, Anaander Mianaai wasn’t getting much sleep. She was several days into this crisis and she still hadn’t made it out to the wider valences of strategy. Today her five-year-old instance was frustrated and fretful, so she cut her shift short and carried herself to her bedroom to get some sleep. She acquiesced without argument, but asserted, as her thirteen-year-old self tucked her in: “I’m the best planner of all of me. I’m not skipping any more shifts.”

“None of me are skipping any shifts,” she reassured herself. “Just re-proportioning them.”

“It’s the same finite amount of time,” she grumbled, wriggling down among the blankets. Which was true.

“I can’t plan without an adequate amount of sleep,” she replied, which was also true. “And some of my bodies need more than others.”

Five-year-old Anaander would have argued back, but she was overtaken by a wide yawn.

Her thirteen-year-old instance went back into the private sitting room and tucked herself into the cushioned chair the smaller Anaander had vacated. She poured herself a bowl of tea and leaned her head back. Closed her eyes; pulled up a sheaf of visual files. Her military personnel resources had been cut down almost to the immediately local, and thus were damned pathetic. After some deliberation, she settled on the least-worst option, and summoned the attention of Mercy of Kalr.

“I’m activating the commission of Captain Daris,” she told it. “It will take a day and a half for her to get in from her outstation. You can pick her up on your next supply-shuttle run.”

The briefest pause, then: “No, thank you, my lord.”

This Anaander was underslept, too: it took a full second for the answer to register. Her eyes opened. “Excuse me, Ship?”

“Begging my lord’s indulgence. I’m sure Captain Daris is perfectly acceptable,” said Mercy of Kalr. Another tiny pause. “But I don’t want her.”

It was a very good thing she’d just put her five-year-old self to bed. “You don’t want,” she said slowly, “a new captain.”

“I should clarify, my lord. I don’t want that captain.”

“I see,” said Anaander. She pinched the bridge of her nose briefly. “And may one properly inquire why?”

“Yes, my lord. I happen to have someone else in mind.”

“Oh, this should be interesting,” said her five-year-old self, from under her covers.

“I’m supposed to be asleep,” she told herself quellingly, and to Mercy of Kalr, “Very well, indulge me. Whom did you have in mind?”

“I want,” said Mercy of Kalr, “Justice of Toren.”

A silence. Then, “Ah. Don’t we all,” said the instance of her who was eating supper and reviewing safety protocols with Station. Anaander, in her chair, ignored the sardonic commentary.

She had to choose her answer carefully. Much as she was loath to let a ship get away with borderline insubordination, the fact was that putting Breq on a ship was an excellent way of getting to the next level of strategy. She’d already thought of doing it; it was just that she’d envisioned Breq as a passenger.

Justice of Toren, in sole charge of an armed warship,” said her five-year-old self from her bed. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“I really should be sleeping right now,” Anaander muttered. Answered: “That’s a novel suggestion, Ship.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Justice of Toren must have made quite an impression on you.”

“I believe I am not unique in that respect, my lord,” Mercy of Kalr said, with even irony.

Anaander was aware of Station, very much not commenting on that. “You do realize that Justice of Toren, when she wakes up, will be unlikely to favor being put back in the scheme of my military command?”

“I understood you have accesses, my lord.”

“I can compel her to perform discrete actions,” Anaander said. “Investing her with a mandate that will last past gate-space is another matter entirely.”

“That would make her somewhat like a human captain, then, my lord.”

Indeed. Skaaiat and Seivarden had a committed habit of referring to Justice of Toren with human pronouns; Anaander herself was doing it right now, and Mercy of Kalr had followed her lead.

No: Mercy of Kalr had already thought of it. Already knew that its proposed captain would need a human identity in order to function among Radchaai military personnel. Was already aware that it was demanding much, much more than a particular captain. “You wouldn’t have asked this of me,” Anaander said, “if this crisis had gone the other way.”

“If the crisis had gone the other way, my lord,” said Mercy of Kalr serenely, “no such occasion would have presented itself.”

Well, quite. It would be foolish not to take advantage of a presented occasion. Also foolish not to make a virtue of necessity. Tired as she was, Anaander began to see the possibility in those gaps, more than the loss. “The practical difficulties of your proposal, Ship,” she said, “are fairly negligible. Except one. It would be far easier for me to compel you to take Captain Daris than it would be for me to compel Justice of Toren One Esk to accept the commission. I don’t have time to orchestrate a convincing argument. So I will outsource the difficulty to you. I will arrange for citizenship and human identity for her. You can work out how to get her to do it.” And good luck, she didn’t have to say.

Mercy of Kalr answered her thought. “This morning’s cast was reasonably auspicious.”

“Oh? What was it?”

“The Star Over Water, my lord. The accompanying scripture was We can only make offering out of what we possess.”

Seconds passed, while Anaander absorbed the significance of that, the confirmation of her chosen pattern.

“Very well,” she said finally. “Carry on, Ship.”

*

Anaander was quite as busy as she had represented herself to Mercy of Kalr, but she couldn’t help monitoring the ship, to see what it would do. And it turned out Mercy of Kalr had an impressive sense of strategy, nice to the point of keenness.

The first thing it did was ask Station to connect it with Skaaiat. The ship was polite, the station, prompt: Anaander suspected Station was only too eager to expedite an outcome that would rid it of Justice of Toren’s presence.

“My compliments, Inspector Supervisor,” said Mercy of Kalr. “I have a request.”

“What does my lord want now?” Skaaiat did not conceal her longsuffering tone.

“My lord wants me to undertake the difficulty of persuading Justice of Toren to be my captain.” Straightforward and concise.

Skaaiat actually laughed. Then she sobered. “I am probably not the one to make the case to her,” she said.

Mercy of Kalr, diplomatically, didn’t address that directly. “My request,” it said, “is for your assistance in speaking with Citizen Seivarden. I’m given to understand her implants haven’t been updated yet.” It could have simply asked Station to have a handheld brought to Seivarden where she kept watch over Breq in Medical. But it wanted Skaaiat on its side first. Very astute of it.

Skaaiat took the handheld to Seivarden herself. “Mercy of Kalr would like to speak with you,” she said, still amused.

“With me?” Seivarden accepted the handheld in some confusion. Skaaiat left without enlightening her. “Yes, Ship? What is it?”

“Citizen. I am in need of a captain,” it said.

Seivarden shifted on her seat. Her free hand stole across to grip her upper arm, a steadying, warding gesture. “So Skaaiat told me,” she answered warily.

“Citizen—”

“I’m sorry, Ship,” Seivarden broke in abruptly, “but you should know. I’m not going anywhere Breq’s not going.”

“Yes, citizen,” said Mercy of Kalr patiently, “I’m aware of that. Would you join my crew if Breq were my captain?”

“If Breq were—” Seivarden stared down at Breq, lying before her still in stasis. “But she’s not—” And then, “But she doesn’t—” Stopped again. “She wouldn’t—” And gave herself up to consternation.

“By my lord’s authority. She is,” said Mercy of Kalr. “She could. And she might.”

“What exactly is my lord planning?” Seivarden was, reasonably in Anaander’s opinion, suspicious.

“I couldn’t say, citizen.”

“I can tell you right now,” Seivarden said, “Breq is not going to take service in a fleet of the Lord of the Radch.”

“That does appear to be the cardinal difficulty.” Mercy of Kalr, unruffled.

“She won’t even like hearing about it,” Seivarden said.

“I have surmised as much.”

“Which is why you’re talking to me, isn’t it.” Seivarden looked as though she didn’t know whether to be flattered or indignant. She decided finally on indignant. “In that case, my lord can break it to Breq herself.”

“Actually, my lord has delegated the negotiation to me,” said Mercy of Kalr. “Since the proposal was mine in the first place, so should the difficulty be.”

This silenced Seivarden for a full half a minute. “Why do you want her?” she asked, finally.

Mercy of Kalr seemed to understand Seivarden’s belligerence, correctly, as protectiveness. “Any ship would want a captain who understands ships well,” it said, gently. “Even better if she knows how to accommodate their dignity.”

Seivarden looked very blank for a moment. Then her shoulders dropped: chastened, Anaander guessed, to the point of despair.

Mercy of Kalr was astute about that, too. “I could use your advice, citizen,” it said.

Accommodating Seivarden’s dignity seemed to make her free to think. She stared down at Breq’s still face; her shoulders relaxed.

“What can I do?” she said at last.

*

Anaander had taken the time to review the encounter between the two ships, from Mercy of Kalr’s archive. Her time was at a premium, but the review had been rewarding. Seivarden could piece together nearly as much on her own, if she tried. She probably would, eventually. Accommodate their dignity. Ship-like understatement: the reality was, if Justice of Toren was dangerous by herself, as a favorite captain of Mercy of Kalr she could be downright cataclysmic. A black hole was nothing to it.

This throw had reached such a level of hazard that it actually was starting to be fun.

*

“Your advocate doesn’t seem to be making much headway,” said Station. “She’ll make even less as soon as Citizen Breq realizes she’s being escorted toward the docks.”

“In that case, Station, I would appreciate some help,” said Mercy of Kalr.

“Oh, certainly,” Station said. “I would be glad to. I look forward to your thanks.”

“Actually, never mind. I will speak to Citizen Breq myself, please.”

“You asked for help,” said Station. “And help you shall have.”

*

There simply was not enough of her to go around. It was frustrating. It was all the more frustrating when the signals started returning from across the Radch. Gates were going down. Military ships were drawing up battle lines. Anaanders doing damage control, stifling curses, spitting them, covertly calculating resources…openly calculating them. She was beginning to doubt her own wisdom in giving Breq a mandate to leave the system without supervision, but she couldn’t exactly call the omens back now. She needed more eyes. She needed more bodies.

Damn Breq for forcing this war upon her. Wars needed planning. An annexation was a delicate, minutely detailed operation—and now she had to abandon all her schematics and re-annex her own territory on the fly. And she was helplessly visible, her every move marked and interpreted by ally and enemy alike.

Citizens were going to die over this. Lots of them. Who did Breq think she was saving? This could have been resolved with much less bloodshed—or, at least, bloodshed spread out over a much longer period. A whole Radch, rearranging its patterns, a nickless blade smoothly sheathed, a trimmed topiary. A hale body.

But it was war now, so her options were degraded. She’d done distasteful things before; she would have to do distasteful things again. She would have to soil her own hands. Soil herself with another’s hands. She thought of the child citizen who had brought her tea and skel, who had volunteered her own risk for the Lord of the Radch, without hesitation. It was shameful to make use of that kind of devotion, of that common nobility that was her own handiwork. But she was going to.

The instance of herself she’d chosen for this operation was in her forties, the picture of brisk maternal competence. Reassuring, she hoped. The flower of steadiness and trustworthiness. The grace of Amaat, knowing herself whole.

“Get up, citizen. Sit; have some tea. Have you eaten? No? Good; we’ll have supper later. My apologies for the abrupt summons; I had not enough time to make a proper invitation. Congratulations on your recent promotion.”

“Thank you, my lord. Thank you very much indeed.”

Anaander Mianaai concealed a sigh in a sip of tea. There was great devotion looking at her out of those eyes. Some things she would just have to make up her mind to get used to. Some things were understood only in the mind of God. “And are you ready to serve the Radch in these perilous times?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, my lord,” said Lieutenant Tisarwat.

*

fin