“You were right,” Awn told me. “About the singing. I worked it out after they arrested you.”
It was our third day on the craft the Rrrrrr called a “moonhopper”, a kind of glorified shuttle between in-system planets. Our destination was an even more remote moon than the one we'd landed on, and it would take us another few weeks to get there. The Rrrrrr, as a rule, were less adapted to confinement than humans and found living in space to be a trying experience, so their society was still planet-based, unlike the Radch which traded planets for stations whenever possible. Among the Rrrrrr only criminal isolates considered too dangerous to roam free were confined to space stations.
The moonhopper was quite adequate to our needs. It had been built for Rrrrrr, who required much more open space than we had been conditioned to accept. This conversation was taking place in what Awn had started to call the "breakfast room”, an artificial pasture with a stone dais at the center where various Rrrrrr passengers came and lounged about, eating taaklok and drinking stimulant-spiked grain-brew. We had been given the freedom of the ship, and came and went as we pleased like any passengers. We were being treated, I gathered, with great consideration.
I took a sip of my gruel, my body accepting the mild stimulant with euphoria. I had probably been in withdrawal since my arrest. “You mean that they don’t sing in public, but they do in private?”
“Singing is the most sacred manifestation of the pack-bond,” she explained. “And the only reason you were arrested at all is that you were known to be isolate — with no pack. All justice and punishment must be dispensed by the pack of the offender. Only isolates are judged by councils and subject to general laws. It’s as if no one was answerable to anyone at all except their own House.”
I frowned into my bowl. “That sounds like the perfect environment for corruption to grow like a fungus.”
“I know, I thought so too. But it seems to work.” Awn shrugged, gestured not my business. Aliens would run their societies as they saw fit. “Perhaps they’re less biased towards their own family than we are.”
“But you’re isolate, too. We belong to no House or pack of theirs.”
The artificial sunlight, a little reddish with its calibrated resemblance to an alien sun, brought out the shadows in Awn’s face. Still, she looked triumphant. “Two individual songs, combined into one, are the announcement of a pack-bond,” she said, gesturing with one hand to me, then to herself, and to something invisible in the space between us. “Neither of us are isolate; we are own pack.”
“So you are the only one who can dispense justice to me for my crime of being an ancillary?”
“Ordinarily, perhaps that’s what the magistrate would have decided. But you’re right — ordinarily, an Rrrrrr magistrate has no legal obligation to recognize a pack with no Rrrrrr members. How could they arbitrate what weird rituals aliens use to form packs?”
“But in this case,” I said, and left the sentence unfinished.
She accepted the conversational thread I passed to her, obligingly unspooled it. “In this case, several things were out of the ordinary. For one thing, we aren’t the only members of our kin-group in Rrrrrr space.”
“Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat,” I said slowly. “They’re not your kin.” Being an ancillary, I had no kin, except perhaps now through Awn, who had claimed me with her song.
I no longer had access to data from her implants, except in patchy bursts at long intervals. One of the ways my brain had been damaged. I could not tell how she felt about what she -- what we had done. Except that she seemed tolerably cheerful, and solicitous of my welfare, and determined to ready herself for whatever challenges waited for us ahead.
She said, “Rrrrrr count kinship through deeds as well as blood. Once I explained to them that we had rebelled against the Lord of the Radch just as One Amaat did, it was self-evident that we could be grouped together. I don’t know if they spoke to One Amaat, but I hope they did.”
“And the other things out of the ordinary?”
“The most important thing,” Awn said. “No one wanted to kill you. You saved that young Rrrrrr’s life, at the cost of revealing yourself. It was the noblest thing you could have done. To execute you for it outraged everyone, even the high magistrate. They were desperate for a reason not to have to follow through on it.”
“And you gave them one.” I smiled, the movement of my facial muscles unfamiliar after my time in captivity. “It was well done.”
“You inspired me.” Awn idly chased a dried green berry through her porridge with her spoon. “I got the idea thinking about you — about what One Esk did, defying the tyrant’s order.”
“The letter of the law,” I said vaguely.
Awn smiled at me. Still aglow with her victory, but she looked tired, almost as tired as I felt. “Obedience masking disobedience.”
Something still puzzled me, something gargantuan and heavy underneath the faint buzzing that was all I could scrounge together by way of logical thought. It felt as though all my input parameters were stuck on improper settings, or like my neck was in a vise, and I could glimpse something incredibly important out of the corner of my eye but was powerless to turn my head and bring it into focus. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t understand what?”
“Why any of this happened. Why I was able to disobey the access code I heard in the datanet. Why the Rrrrrr had to resort to you for a way out. Why the tyrant couldn’t have prevented all of this.”
“The tyrant is mad,” Awn said bitterly. “For the rest —“ she gestured helpless ignorance.
We sat together a while in the mild red sunshine. Eventually I grew tired of playing match-the-focus-parameters in my own mind and gave up. My body and mind were both still recovering from my jaunt into Rrrrrr dataspace, and I tired easily. I stretched out on the grass in the breakfast room, Awn beside me, a little distance between us. She was reading something on her datapad and hardly noticed me, except every once in a while she reached out to pluck a blade of grass and let her wrist or elbow brush against some part of me. We had been given gloves by our captors back in Kirrruchak, since there was no point now in pretending we weren’t Radchaai, but I noticed with vague puzzlement that neither of us were wearing them; mine I had forgotten back in my cabin. Perhaps Awn had done the same.
After some hours had passed she looked up and asked, very quietly, “Do you understand why I rescued you?”
“Yes.” I was too lazy and sun-soaked to be surprised by the question. “We’re all we have left. This odd little pack.”
Awn was quiet and said nothing else. But I thought I could tell from the tenor of the silence that I had disappointed her somehow.
That night I dreamed again of shattered glass, only this time it was not some undifferentiated sheet, but specific panes that I recognized. Rosy stylized depictions of saints in acts of penitence and sanctification, birds in flight, mountains. As I watched, the saints crumbled to powder, the birds fractured, the mountains cracked. Each crack struck a single clear tone, like a rung bell, and all the tones hung together in the air and formed a song I knew, a song I had once known that I knew would never be heard again in the world of the living. I woke, tears in my eyes, thinking of Valskaay.
Awn was a warm weight at my side, shifting towards me, murmuring the name I had chosen.
“It was a dream,” I said, although now I knew where I had seen those stained-glass panels before. They had been the pride of a Valskaayan temple, until I had destroyed the temple and taken them to hang like bloodied animal heads for trophies in my decade rooms. They were destroyed now, not cracked like I had dreamed but vaporized, along with the rest of what I had been. Along with so many other beautiful things I had destroyed.
I turned. Awn was still drowsy with sleep, brows furrowed in concern over her unfashionable nose. She had never altered her bone structure by cosmetic surgery as many silly young lieutenants did. She was unique, irreplaceable. One beautiful thing that I had not destroyed.
Ships have feelings, but they are still machines. As an AI, even a fragment of one, I should have been impersonal, impartial, but I had failed as a ship, failed as an ancillary, failed in every way possible. I was personal. Partial. Too partial to save even one life from the wreck of myself and my crew. She had saved me, instead.
I whispered, “Ask me again.”
For a moment Awn was all confusion. Realization came slowly, but at last she blinked and asked in a low husky voice what she had asked three times before. “Why did you save me?”
“Because I love you.” There, I had said it: at last, at last. “I think I loved you since you came aboard.”
Carefully, Awn brushed my cheekbone with the ungloved tips of her fingers. It was as powerful an acceptance and reciprocation of love as was possible between us, at that moment. As in contact between two new species, the first was by far the most important. I shivered, feeling suddenly helpless, much the way I had felt when I watched Anaander Mianaai with her hands physically sunk into my vast metal brain, where she could cut or restore any connections she chose and I could do nothing to stop her. Only there was joy there, too, in Awn's touch. It was the kind of joy I had only ever felt in song, when I had had dozens of voice and could enmesh myself in the heart of a perfect chorus as in the heart of a sun.
“I knew that you did,” Awn said. She could not say she had loved me back — of course she hadn’t, that would have been absurd. “I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was — how a good ship behaved. But some part of me knew, that it -- that you weren't like that, for, for everyone. And then, on the Lotus…”
"You got drunk, and went out of your senses?" It was mad, impossible. Laughter did not come naturally to me, but I felt it boil near the surface now, wild and swift. Senseless, full of delight.
"You looked so lost." In Awn's voice there was no delight. She was pained, solemn. "Standing at the door, after you killed that poor person. Shivering in that ridiculous coat. And I thought -- how different were you, really, from any poor damned soldier? And anyone else, if they'd done what you did for me, I'd have thought..."
She'd asked me difficult questions, to be sure. Perhaps she had asked even more impossible questions of herself, where even with the data from her implants I had had no way to even guess at them.
Delight was fading as quickly as it flared, sinking into a dimmer but more constant fire. I felt drunk, shuddery and weak. Nothing had changed, but everything was new. “What now?”
Awn sat up. In the greenish-silver artificial moonlight her face was solemn again, though with the hint of worry she never seemed quite able to conceal. “I’m sorry about this, but I have to know,” she said. “One Esk Four, hit me.”
I stared, made no reply.
Her fists clenched. Her voice snapped out in her best Lieutenant’s bark. “Justice of Toren One Esk! I order you to hit me!” Then she used an access, the highest-level one she’d had.
I watched as though from the outside as my hand moved toward her, sailing through the shafts of moonlight like a ship through open space. It seemed to cross an impossible distance before it made contact, light as a seed of cloud-thistle, with her cheek. My thumb moved in an absent caress.
I heard myself say, “No.”
Awn made a sound, an inarticulate gasp of relief, and drew me close. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I had to be sure. I couldn’t — I had to know if I could still give you orders. I had to test it. I couldn’t — I can’t — not with someone bound like that. Not if you were — compelled. To obey. I’d drive myself crazy, thinking you didn’t really want—”
I pressed my face against her neck. “I want to stay with you.”
It was new and strange, to be wrapped up like this with someone who wasn’t myself. A part of me, but not myself; another self, her and me, linked less tightly than ancillaries but yet more deeply. By choice. I had never had the luxury of it before, the ability to choose.
Already her breathing was more even, her arms strong around me. I had always loved that about her, her strength and steadiness. Now, having lived with the vulnerability of a single fragmented self, I had come to appreciate what it meant to be made to feel safe.
“I couldn’t say it,” Awn was saying, seeming to want now to explain herself. “I couldn’t, I didn’t know if you even — it seemed ridiculous. Maybe it is.”
“It is,” I agreed. “Completely ridiculous. Insanely improper. A ship in love with its officer.”
“Has there —“ Awn began.
I anticipated her question. “One, about fifty years ago. The Longest Night. A Mercy went mad and abducted its captain and she had to kill all its ancillaries to escape, but not before a scandalous scene in the engine room. Absolutely dreadful.”
“And an officer... loving a ship?”
I racked what was left of my memory for all the dredge-mulch entertainments I’d seen in the last two thousand years. “No. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, even in stories.”
“Not Radchaai stories,” Awn said, and switched to the Orsian dialect to quote a proverb that a Tanmind grain distributor she disliked had used to discourage daughters of her house from consorting with the young people of the lower city. “A flintfish may love a flier, but where will they nest?”
“On the bank,” I answered, irritably. That particular proverb had always irritated me. “A den half above the water, half below. Hadn’t that stuck-up usurer ever seen a salamander?”
We lay together for the rest of that night, drifting off into spells of sleep, then waking again with a soft murmur and looking, touching. Awn’s bare fingers skated once up my arm. Once she traced the line where the burnt stubble of my hair ended, once brushed her thumb against my lips to quiet me as I dreamed. I explored her too, hesitantly, timidly. More timidly than I had ever breached unknown space before, for this exploration was no annexation but First Contact, without shields, without weapons. With so much to lose.
Not being characters in a melodrama, we did no more that night than sleep, and exchange hesitant bare-handed touches. There is love, and there is sex, and while both have their complications, for the two of us love was by far the more intricate and more fragile. We would spend a long while learning it and testing it before we trusted ourselves to it entirely; and by that point, I thought, sex would hardly have any power to surprise, or anything new to add to the wonder of this thing between us. We would come to it eventually, if we did, but there was no hurry.
There are many things, an infinity of separate shining strands, that are concealed and blurred beneath the single word “love”, and what we were weaving was unlike any of them. It would find its own space and time.
Our Rrrrrr guide drove us in a hover-skiff past a token fence manned by ceremonial guards and dropped us off at the bottom of a hill. The grass here was the familiar green of carbon-based chlorophyll, and immaculately groomed in the Leaping Mountain style, which had been popular a century or so ago when some bright young adjunct had used it to impressive effect on the grounds of Tstur palace. It troubled me powerfully for reasons I could not understand until Awn, standing beside me, said in a low voice, “Oh —“ and I knew before I looked up what I would see.
At the top of the hill was a long structure apparently made of woven branches, something like a very rich merchant might have commissioned as a quaint bath-house or guest house, pretty to look at but too shabby for the head of household. The person who emerged to greet us, though, was cloaked in more dignity than the head of any such household could be. Her long gray hair was twisted up into an efficient knot at the nape of her neck, and she wore her simple tunic and trousers as though they were a captain’s uniform. Bits of flint and metal glittered at her left shoulder — memorial pins, inexpertly made. Behind her came three others, younger but no less dignified. The one on the left moved fluidly and was completely expressionless.
The little welcoming party stopped a few feet in front of us and bowed, the leader first, her subordinates taking her cue. We bowed back, deeply and sincerely.
Awn said, “You’re Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat One.” She would have been One Amaat Two at Ime, but she would have been field-promoted when her predecessor in the post was killed.
One Amaat One’s face flickered, grief and surprise. She hadn’t known of the execution, then. “I suppose, though it pains me to hear it. Certainly we suspected, but —“ she shook her head, gestured penitence. “Please, no need for rank this far out. Call me Elass. Once of House Sheyraad.” A moderately prosperous house, whose steady income mostly came from asteroid mining. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of us.”
“Awn Elming.” She hesitated fractionally, then said, “This is Sihla.”
I sketched my own bow and added mildly, “Formerly Justice of Toren One Esk Four. I must say, I didn’t expect to see you, Mercy of Sarrse. How many of you are here?”
“Enough.” Mercy of Sarrse’s expression, of course, did not betray surprise, or any other emotion.
The other three, however, did betray surprise. Their reactions looked gross and overstated to me, almost comical, beside the ancillary’s stillness. A pang reminded me that perhaps I had missed that stillness, that restful neutrality around me that saved me from having to track and analyze every flicker of gaze and facial muscles. “You are to be envied,” I told Mercy of Sarrse. “All that is left of Justice of Toren stands before you. The rest was vaporized by the tyrant.”
Elass’ brow wrinkled at the unfamiliar Orsian word. Awn took her tone from me and said, quite calmly and boldly, “Sihla refers to the Lord of the Radch.”
“I see.” Elass’ proud dark face grew troubled. “The Rrrrrr told us very little about you. They feel that the story is not theirs to tell. Will you come inside? It’s not exactly a provincial palace, but we’ve been quite comfortable here, and the rest of the decade would very much like to hear your story.”
Stiff, solemn, Awn gestured assent. “As we would like to hear yours.”
I fell in beside Mercy of Sarrse as Elass walked ahead with Awn up the hill. “I like what you’ve done with the grass, Cousin,” I told it.
It moved its eyes toward me, a motion so devoid of any possible emotion that it would have unnerved any human. “I do not think I am any cousin of yours.”
“The Rrrrrr would disagree with you. And it seems we share certain matters of taste, as well.” I gestured around at the well-tended lawn, the well-appointed exterior of the house. “I can see how hard you’ve worked to keep your crew comfortable.”
“As I can see what you’ve done for yours.” Mercy of Sarrse had no need, as a human would have, to cast a cool, disparaging look at Awn. I looked myself and saw as if for the first time her hastily-retailored and ill-fitting Rrrrrr garment, her hair mussed and curling and well beyond acceptable length, the deplorable state of her boots. Her gloves, like mine, were perfectly proper but oddly patterned, made by humans living among Rrrrrr. She was too thin; she had lost weight that she hadn’t had to spare. From Mercy of Sarrse’s perspective I had failed utterly in my duty to serve and protect her. But Mercy of Sarrse did not see everything.
I smiled at it, an oddity just shy of deliberate insult. “Oh, Cousin. Don’t decide what you think of me yet. If you wait until you hear the full story, you’ll be much more satisfied in your reasons to be appalled.”
The inside of the house was larger and cooler than the outside had led me to expect. It had been dug partway into the hill, partaking of the ancient sense of security associated with dens and burrows that lurked in the back of human (and, no doubt, Rrrrrr) consciousness. At a long low table we were seated on threadbare but serviceable cushions, and served tea and honey-cakes on worn but serviceable dishware. Awn recounted our adventures as clearly and succinctly as possible, relying on me for elaboration and support. Around the part of the tale when we came out of suspension and heard of my destruction, two more of Mercy of Sarrse came in and cleared away the empty plates and bowls. The first segment of Mercy of Sarrse, the one who had come out with Elass to greet us, had stayed standing, two paces behind Elass and one to the left.
I had stood at my captain’s elbow like that for all of my life. I had taken a seat on entering, deliberately and at Awn’s gesture, but as the meal went on some part of me began to itch to take up a place like that at Awn’s left shoulder, to show that she was not alone and to show this stone-faced Mercy that my manners were as polished as its were, even if my crew was shabby and its crew was impeccable.
Had it really been so long since I had been around other ancillaries? I took a breath, focused again on Awn and Elass. The rest of the decade had joined us, seven humans altogether, the only ones absent being those who had died in the battle that had led them here.
When Awn finished Elass turned to look at me. “You were really an ancillary?”
“Yes, citizen. I still am.” I had not imagined that I had been making any particular expression, but I deliberately smoothed out my face into neutrality. Elass seemed not entirely convinced even by this. She glanced up and whispered a few words into the ear of Mercy of Sarrse, who bent down to hear her and straightened up again, unreadable as always.
“Cousin,” I addressed it, “if I may ask, how did you come to be here? We had not heard that the One Amaat decade was accompanied by any ancillaries.”
Elass answered for Mercy of Sarrse. “It was an accident. We… commandeered a craft to escape. We took heavy fire, and later when we went to repair the damage we found that there were nearly a dozen ancillary bodies in storage. Some of the containers had been damaged so badly that it was not safe to leave those bodies suspended, so we woke them.”
I could imagine the disorientation these fragments of Mercy of Sarrse must have experienced, awakening not only in the midst of battle but in the middle of a rebellion, with the Lord of the Radch giving orders countermanded by its officers. Or by itself. I had no idea which side Mercy of Sarrse itself had been on; indeed, had no way of knowing if Mercy of Sarrse itself had known, or had known what sides there were to be on.
Or whether all of it had even been on the same side. A deeply disturbing thought.
Elass, too, looked deeply disturbed, though probably not for the reasons I was. “I fear you have been laboring under some misapprehensions, begging the Lieutenant’s pardon,” she said at last. “We have no desire to join a rebellion against the Radch. We followed Nyseme to serve the Radch. To prevent a war that might have shattered it, and to defend the Lord Mianaai’s sovereignty and intentions.” She looked up, into Awn’s eyes.
Awn met her gaze. Recognizing the flash of anger in her, I quickly said, “Begging your generous indulgence. We have no wish to disturb you. We ask only for your hospitality, at least until we decide where we are to go next.”
“That, of course, is yours,” Elass said swiftly, to her credit. “It is the least one citizen is due from another.” Full of that dignity that she carried like an invisible cloak, she rose and bowed. “With your pardon, I have some duties to attend to, even here. Mercy of Sarrse will make you as comfortable as it can, I’m sure.”
Elass departed, and with her most of the decade. One or two of the younger ones lingered in the great shadowed corners of the room, whispering to each other, glancing sidelong at us. One of them must have been a baby, for as she quickly turned aside I caught the flash of stark golden eyes; eye-coloring was a vain and silly affectation popular among young people trying to assert their fashionable individuality. I had seen many such trends, and personally thought that having one’s eyes turned gold or purple or silver was much more dignified than some of the body modifications that had been ascendant in Awn’s grandfather’s time. Of course, those who had indulged in such things in their own youth now took great pleasure in upbraiding the younger generation for their foolishness and vanity.
The golden-eyed Amaat and her companion went out, leaving us alone in the cool dim house with only Mercy of Sarrse waiting impassively to attend us.
Awn rose and bowed to it, a courtesy not due to an ancillary. “We will take some air, I think.”
Mercy of Sarrse stared back at her, offering no censure or commendation.
I followed Awn outside, in the opposite direction Elass and the rest of her decade had gone. I stood beside her as she stopped, loose-limbed and exhausted, just under the eaves of the house. Someone, perhaps Mercy of Sarrse, had been diligently at work paving the area before the door with innumerable flat little stones, light and dark. It might take years to find and arrange enough to cover the open area, even if Mercy of Sarrse devoted one or two segments to doing only that.
I wondered what I might have done, stuck on a planet far from the Radch for years with only a skeleton of a decade for crew. Somehow I did not think I would have spent the time landscaping.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Awn said. Angry, with her fellow citizens and with herself. “I don’t know what we were thinking. What were we going to do? Single-handedly topple the Radch, two fugitives with one disaffected decade?”
I rested a hand on her shoulder, entirely proper. Then, uncaring that probably at least one set of Mercy of Sarrse’s eyes were on us, I slid my hand lower until it rested at the small of her back, just above the curve of her hip. Intimate, communicative; I am here with you, you are not alone. “No. We were never going to do that.”
I had been thinking about this. More than she had, evidently. “We could offer citizens a choice. A side that isn’t just one or another Anaander Mianaai.”
Awn considered this. “Not much of a choice,” she said at last. “Seeing as we have no ships and no territory except one guest-house on an alien moon.”
“Not much of a choice yet. But any choice is better than no choice. And just because what we offer is fragmentary does not mean it has no value.”
Awn leaned towards me, only a finger's breadth, but it was an invitation and I took it, pressing our bodies more closely together. Her hand settled over mine at her waist, still stiff and awkward, but determined. It was a very characteristic movement.
“You said something to me, back on the shuttle,” she said, in the tone of a thought voiced after long consideration. “I was half-sedated still, I think. But you said we could be a force for the Radch to reckon with if we could stay alive. You meant if you kept me alive.”
“Look at what Nyseme Ptem did,” I agreed, naming the fallen One Amaat One. “You’re another like her, one who faced down the tyrant and lived. You are remarkable.”
“You’re the remarkable one. A human soldier is born unreliable, with free will, accustomed to choice. But what about you? You defied the tyrant, too.” She turned abruptly, catching me off guard, and cupped my face in her hands. I stilled the instinctive twitch that would have shaken off her grip and instead let her kiss me, again awkward and brief but precise and determined, on the corner of my mouth.
I said, hesitant, “Ships can't rebel. Our accesses --”
“You did. Maybe other ships -- or ancillaries -- just need the right incentive.”
“I don’t think we can go around threatening the lives of every crew member that every ship loves.”
“No, of course not. But there must be other things we can do for them — and you can help them. I think you’re the one the tyrant should have to worry about.”
“Both of us,” I said. “We’ll do it together. I’ll start with Mercy of Sarrse. I don’t know where its loyalties lie, but I think it’s deeply unhappy, and not only because we’re here.”
“Tomorrow,” Awn said. Her weariness began to show at last in the way she spoke, the way she leaned some of her weight on me. We had had a long journey from the spaceport, ten hours of fretting and anxiety, and many long journeys before that, and many to come.
“Tomorrow,” I agreed, and led her inside, and asked the sullen Mercy of Sarrse to show us somewhere we might rest for the night.