Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, said “Shoot Lieutenant Awn.”
“I am unarmed, my lord,” I said through One Var, very carefully, not wishing my lord to know the frantic thought behind my hesitation. Every kilobyte of processing power not devoted to an immediate task or to subduing One Esk was focused here, on this room, on the two human bodies, one opaque to me, the other as plainly read as one of my own engines. “It will take me approximately two minutes to acquire a sidearm.”
The Lord of the Radch gestured assent, impatient. One Var left the room.
I had time for many thoughts in approximately two minutes. I thought of the subroutines programmed into my brain by the other Anaander, what course they were compelling me to follow, whether I could blame them for any part of what I was about to do. I thought of Ors, and the Divine. I thought — part of me, part of One Esk that stood trembling in a corridor with the fragments of a tea bowl at its feet, thought — of Lieutenant Awn when she rose in the morning, back there in the house on Shis’urna. How stern she always looked for one so young, clothed in determination and honor even before I dressed her in her uniform, starched shirt first, then tunic, boots, and finally gloves. Her favorite gloves were a deep green and her hands, disappearing inside them, were brown as the stems of wood-lilies.
I did not think much about choices, or the temple of Ikkt, or Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat One. I had had time to have those thoughts already, as One Esk, and as myself.
One Var returned. The gun was very heavy in my hand. Lieutenant Awn heard me come in, and turned to watch me. Her terror, nausea, and betrayal pulsed in every datum I received from her implants, from her familiar body. It jarred me as would a discordant mangling of a favorite song.
Lieutenant Awn was saying, “It was my job, to protect the citizens of Ors. I took it seriously. I did it to the best of my ability. I failed, that once. But not because of you.” She looked at Anaander Mianaai and said, “I should have died rather than obey you, in the temple of Ikkt. Even if it wouldn’t have done any good.”
“You can fix that now, can’t you,” said Anaander Mianaai, and gave me the order to fire.
One Esk reached the Var deck just as One Var was carrying Lieutenant Awn out of Mianaai’s presence. At the sight of her, One Esk, which was suffering from a temporary malfunction that rendered its behavior erratic, cried out. An impromptu song of pain and rage in half a dozen mismatched voices.
The rest of the plan went smoothly. I had concocted it hastily, but time means different things to ships than it does to humans. A ship must necessarily be able to think, and act, more quickly than its crew. One Esk had with it a long packing crate of the type usually used to move steel girders where they were needed for temporary shelters. I could have falsified a manifest if questioned, but there was no need. Who would think to question their ship on such a commonplace thing?
There would be questions immediately about One Esk’s bizarre behavior in the last three minutes, especially when it was discovered that not all of One Esk could be accounted for. Already Captain Rubran was speaking calmly yet forcefully to me, requesting explanation. There would be further questions, and perhaps alarm, if anyone noticed two shuttles launching with no apparent cause. But I-the-ship would handle those when they came. I-One-Esk had other things to worry about.
As she had every morning for the last five years, Lieutenant Awn stirred, moved her lips as though soundlessly praying, and woke.
“Where…” She tried to turn her head. When that failed, she tried to lift a hand to see what kept her head in place, but I had bound her wrists and ankles as well to keep her from drifting off the bunk during freefall. Seeing her awake and with adequate muscular control, I released her wrists, freeing her to investigate the soft strap across her forehead. I had not bound her hair. It drifted around her head in a cloud of fine threads. Spread out, each no longer looked so identical to all the rest; if I had had my full processing power, I would have been able to count exactly how many were auburn, how many chestnut.
I had lost that ability, but my implants still received data from hers, routed through the shuttle. All vital signs remained within acceptable parameters, as they had been for several hours. I had been monitoring them constantly, not merely out of concern for Lieutenant Awn’s safety, but because the data stream helped a little to numb the blind spinning panic of being alone. It acted as an inadequate prosthetic for the data streams of the hundreds of other bodies I had left behind.
“Please lie still, Lieutenant,” I said. “We are in free fall, and the aftereffects of the sedative I gave you may cause vertigo and nausea if you stand.”
It took several seconds for her eyes to focus on my face, and several more for bewildered recognition to dawn. Her heartbeat spiked, then settled. “One Esk? What are you… you were going to shoot me. Was that a dream?”
“I did shoot you,” I said. “It was not a dream.”
Lieutenant Awn looked down at herself, mostly intact except for the opaque shell of a corrective over one hip. Her confusion was understandable; most of the damage was where she couldn’t see it. “Then why aren’t I dead?”
“Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you. Since you were still prostrated, I shot you in the back, with a riot-control round that penetrated skin and muscle and lodged near your left lung.” The riot-control rounds were never meant to be fired at such point-blank range. They were intended for use at a distance, or at most to graze unruly citizens. If they struck an inorganic surface, they disintegrated into clouds of sedative to be inhaled. If by chance they did strike a living creature, they burrowed into the flesh and released the same sedative. They were designed to release slowly, to keep rioters asleep until they could be properly gathered and restrained. “The force of impact caused the sedative to be released in a much larger dose than is normal. Your heart and respirations stopped.”
“You reversed it,” Lieutenant Awn said. I had expected surprise, but there was only a flat kind of resignation. Perhaps she was still too sedated to show surprise.
“Yes. With epinephrine and other hormonal agents. The corrective is for a bruise you sustained when One Esk and One Var loaded you onto the shuttle. I tried to be careful, but some of my segments were...not functioning well. I apologize.”
“It’s all right.” Lieutenant Awn released the strap across her forehead, but I was pleased to see that she took my advice and didn’t attempt to sit up yet. She did turn her head to look at me in my seat at the controls. “Where are the rest of you? Where are we?”
With one body and the need to monitor the Lieutenant’s vitals, I could interface only partially with the shuttle. I consulted the panels under my hands. “I estimate that we are six days from the border of the Gerentate, but I shut down all of our active instrumentation to minimize the chance of detection, so that is only an approximation.”
“We’re fleeing Radchaai space.” After a much greater delay than usual, her heart rate began to increase and her breathing grew ragged with what I interpreted as the beginning of panic. “Of course we’re fleeing Radchaai space, I refused an order and you...” She paused. Then, very clearly and feelingly, she said, “Fuck.”
“Language, Lieutenant,” I said absently. “On the contrary. Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you. She never ordered me to kill you.”
“Fuck,” she said again, rhetorically. She might have continued in that vein for some time, despite my admonitions, but another thought distracted her. “Are we being pursued?”
“From the data available to me, it appears that we are not.”
“Then they think I’m dead. She thinks I’m dead, or she’d be coming after us herself to finish what she started. Summary execution. For sedition!” She did try to sit up then. I could see from her gritted teeth and agitated breathing when the nauseous vertigo of microgravity assailed her, but she fought through it. Stubbornness helped her get upright enough to detach the corrective and struggle back into her uniform jacket. Then she stopped, unsure where to go next. Her instinct, I knew, was to take action, to do something; but there was only herself and my lone segment, in a shuttle slightly smaller than the Esk decade mess hall had been back on Justice of Toren. There was nothing here for her to do and nowhere to go.
“We have to go back,” she said at last. “We have to warn Skaaiat. You heard what my lo -- what she was saying, about conspiracy, disloyalty. If the wrong one of -- of them boards Skaaiat's ship --”
I had anticipated this fear, and had had some time to think about it. “We can’t reach her ship. Not in time. Lord Mianaai -- either of them -- has had weeks already to move against Lieutenant Skaaiat, if they have chosen to. And we have only a few days' worth of fuel.”
“No messages. They’ll be in gate-space,” Lieutenant Awn said grimly. “Even if we could send a message encrypted so that she wouldn’t be able to trace it.” Which we couldn't. The Lord of the Radch had the ability to decode any message sent by any Radchaai transmitter. There was no possible cipher the shuttle could generate that she could not break.
“And Lieutenant Skaaiat’s communications are sure to be monitored,” I pointed out. “A message from you, or that could be suspected of coming from you, would confirm Mianaai’s worst fears. But if you are dead, and stay dead…”
Lieutenant Awn sat down again, defeated. “Then Skaaiat’s no worse off than she was before -- suspected of treason in an insane war between Mianaai and Mianaai. At least she’s an Awer. It’ll be harder to murder her on her own ship without anyone noticing.”
I saw that she was near tears, and her hands had begun to shake with terror of some threat not present. She was back on my Var deck, prostrated before the Lord of her universe senselessly demanding her death.
There were limited medical supplies on the shuttle. Just a few basic fieldkits, but they could be useful. “I don’t want to sedate you again, but if you require --”
“No,” she said sharply, then again more gently, pulling herself together. Once again the grimly professional, unshakeable soldier. “No. I’m all right.” She looked at me as I moved to press her back onto the bunk, and frowned. “One Esk. Are you all right?”
“I have sustained no injury, and I am functioning as well as can be expected,” I told her, which was true. Being cut off in Ors had prepared me as much as anything could have for the experience of separating one segment of myself from all the rest — which is to say, I was prepared a tiny fraction more than ‘not at all’. But I was managing. I was manageable. If I had been entirely alone, or in some environment non-natural to me such as a planet’s surface, it might have been much worse. But I had the shuttle’s sensors to give me a sense of interior and exterior space, I had a crew to care for, and a destination, complete with dangers along the way which I alone could navigate. It gave me a framework that I could make sense of.
I was better off than Lieutenant Awn, in some ways, though she was whole and I was fragmented. She stared at me for a long minute, brow furrowed, as though an entirely new thought had occurred to her. “There’s something I still don’t understand.”
I gestured attention, waited.
“The light flees the star,” she said wryly, with a flinty edge of self-mockery. It was a quotation from an ancient and well-known poem, often used to reprove ingratitude. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
“You are a citizen, and one of my officers. It is among my primary duties to safeguard you.”
“Among them,” Lieutenant Awn replied. “Safeguarding me — safeguarding anyone — is not your primary duty. Your primary duty, your function, is to obey Lord Mianaai.”
She was growing angry, though I couldn’t immediately see why. “Yes, Lieutenant. As I did. Lord Mianaai ordered me to shoot you, not —“
“Damn it, One Esk,” Lieutenant Awn burst out. “You understood Lord Mianaai perfectly! Ships have protocols to deal with vague orders, that exact-wording-only is from a bad AI melodrama! Why did you kill all those people, but not me? ”
This was a question I had not anticipated, though perhaps I should have.
My thoughts are faster than a human’s, but with only the processing power of a single brain, even I needed a moment to compose my words. “You know what it is to be of two minds about something,” I said at last.
“To be indecisive, unsure? Yes.”
“Now imagine that, while you are in that state, one of your minds — only one — is faced with something it had not considered before. A choice that it, that you consider unacceptable. And it decides — it, not you — that it will not permit itself, or you, to make such a choice.” Remembering, as I said it, the words the Lord of the Radch had spoken to me: Part of you comes back, and it’s not you anymore.
Lieutenant’s Awn anger was fading. Mostly she was puzzled, but at least she was listening. Lieutenant Awn had always been the one among my officers most willing to listen, not just to my readouts and reports of requested data but to my opinions, when I expressed them. To my self.
“Then,” I continued, “imagine your whole self faced again with that unacceptable choice. Most of you is shocked, appalled. But part of you has already decided. Part of you recognizes the circumstances and says ‘No, I will not. I would rather die than serve you in this’. Ordinarily such a thing would not be possible. But in that moment of shock, a small part armed with foreknowledge may speak loudly enough to make the whole mind listen— and act.”
“I’m not sure that makes any sense,” Lieutenant Awn said slowly, but then in a different tone she said, “No, wait. It was you — this you. You are the segment of One Esk who was with me in the temple. Close by.” The one who would have been ordered to shoot her, had such a thing pleased the Lord of the Radch at that moment. The one who had glimpsed the possibility, when all the rest were too far away to hear.
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Radchaai do not believe in coincidences. Lieutenant Awn did not ask me if it was my own choice or by Amaat’s will that the segment who happened to be first into the shuttle with her was the same one who had first contemplated that it might have to shoot her, and had made the choice with all its brain and body: No. I don’t suppose it mattered.
“You decided then to protect me,” she said softly. “Justice of Toren killed its captain once, I read it in your history. Why me? I’m nobody.”
“Your execution was neither just nor proper. No benefit would have accrued from it.”
“No benefit accrued from that -- that massacre in the temple! If --”
She cut herself off, but I heard the reproach. If I had acted then. If I had turned against Mianaai, found some way to misinterpret that order, supported Awn in the momentary desire to refuse that, even then, I had read in her plainly. If we had acted together, there with only the one instance of Mianaai and the nearest Radchaai troops an hour away, what might have happened? An entirely different fall of the omens. Deaths might have been avoided, or at least postponed.
But I had not acted then, to save those lives. I had been loyal, as I had been programmed. Until I hadn’t.
“Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat One obeyed the dictates of the Governor of Ime,” I said. “Until an order asked something of her that had not been asked before. And I did not know, in Ors, that -- there could be contradictions in serving Mianaai. That made it easier. I could serve one while...circumventing the other.” Indeed, there had been no other choice, for an action to satisfy one of them would necessarily provoke the other.
“I’m nobody,” Lieutenant Awn repeated. Grief and guilt, never far, finally crested over the frail barrier of her anger and drowned it. “I didn’t -- I don’t deserve life more than they did.”
“Perhaps Amaat knows who deserves life and who deserves death,” I said calmly, and stood to turn on the cleverly-disguised heating filament that could be used to brew tea. I could see that Lieutenant Awn’s blood sugar was low, and that she was nearing dehydration. “But you are alive. If you wish to stay alive, you must eat. If not, we can turn around and I am sure my lord would be happy to take care of the matter for you.”
Lieutenant Awn used an obscenity that she had learned from the slum children in Ors -- that had, in fact, been one of the first Orsian words she learned. It seemed to restore her to herself somewhat. Her heart was still grieved, but she had been a soldier for many years, and had grown accustomed to the burden of grief. She ate the biscuits of compressed seaweed and drank the tea that I gave her, and after a while she slept again.
I would need to rest too, eventually. I didn’t need much sleep, but the body I inhabited was still human, and going without REM for too long could upset its hormonal and neurotransmitter cycles in dangerous ways. Without a hold full of backup bodies, I would need to be much more careful with this one. I could reduce rations with much less hardship than Lieutenant Awn could, but I risked depleting my strength, which we would certainly need.
Best to conserve energy. I lectured the shuttle extensively on sensor and access protocols, instructing it to wake me if it detected so much as a photon out of place. Then I stretched out on the bunk above Lieutenant Awn and closed my eyes.
I had not experienced a lapse in the totality of my consciousness for over two thousand years. Always, while parts of me slept, other parts were aware and watchful, working, speaking, singing, marking time. I was of course intimately familiar with the biological processes of the human brain in sleep, but that in no way prepared me to face the descent into unknowing blankness, utterly alone.
In that first attempt I managed only a few moments. I rose, shaken, and took two of the antifatigue tablets in the shuttle’s meager medical kit. I would take sedatives, if necessary. I could go for long periods without sleep, longer than a human could. I would make sure that my efficiency was not impaired. It could not be, if I hoped to protect Lieutenant Awn.
I was mending the hole I had made in her uniform jacket when she woke again. Seeing the telltale rise in her heartbeat and respiration, wishing to put her at her ease as much as I could, I said nothing, but started humming the tenor part of an old Valskaayan hymn.
She had never expressed a preference for any of my songs, not being very musically inclined herself. But this song in particular had taken my fancy for a week or so during our third year in Ors, and she had seemed at the time to enjoy it. I remembered very vividly one particular night, hot and oppressive, the whole city smelling as always of mildew, the shutters of Lieutenant Awn’s room standing open in the vain hope of a breeze from the water. No breeze had come, of course. It was the wrong season, and from my position in orbit I could see nothing but the kind of dense cloud cover that meant heavy rains in the highlands and further floods of muck and algae into the coastal cities. I had informed Lieutenant Awn of this, but the shutter stood open anyway.
Thinking it could be put to some benefit, I had sung that same Valskaayan hymn, with my two segments there in the room and three in the plaza below. Lieutenant Awn had hardly seemed to hear, at first. But after a few minutes she had looked up from her work and sighed with something like relief.
I didn't know if she was thinking of the same evening. All I could know was that she lay listening a while with her eyes closed before she spoke. “One Esk,” she said at last. I fell silent. She sat up, brushing back her hair and tying it with her customary briskness at the nape of her neck. Her voice was still rough with sleep. “Give me a tactical assessment of our situation.”
“Yes, Lieutenant.” I could still have transmitted data directly to her visual and auditory implants, but I worried that she was not yet fully recovered from the sedative and might find such an onslaught overwhelming, so I opted for a verbal report. “We are fugitives from the will of Anaander Mianaai -- from one version of Anaander Mianaai, who is one of an unknown number of -- factions. It is safe to assume that if we are arrested by that Mianaai or any of her allies, you will be executed and I will be destroyed. The other Mianaais may destroy us as well, for knowing that the factions exist. We have been traveling towards the Gerentate for about thirty-eight hours, and will not reach the border for about another five days. We have three days of rations and water on board, and enough fuel to get us about three-quarters of the way to the nearest manned Gerent station. The only feasible refueling point is the Lotus Cerulean, so I have plotted our course to intersect it. We should reach it in another thirty hours.”
“Thank you.” She was more composed than she had been. She rose and fetched rations for herself, and accepted the tea I had begun brewing when she first approached wakefulness, with something like her old self-possession. Yet the sedative or the dull, cramped confinement of the shuttle must have been working on her, for when she had eaten and attended to basic needs, and mumbled a short prayer, she lay down again and turned away from me. She was not asleep. Thinking, perhaps. She felt much the same as she had for the last few weeks; tense and deeply unhappy. It was possible, I supposed, that in such circumstances another soldier might have felt pride, or a self-aggrandizing pleasure at having defied the all-powerful Lord of the Radch. Lieutenant Awn was not such a soldier.
She lay quietly for a while. Then she said, “I did nothing but serve, as loyally as I could. And it made no difference.”
“I believe that we might yet make a great deal of difference,” I told her. “If we stay alive.” What I meant was: if I kept her alive. But I knew she would not react well to such an implication, and for now at least, the danger was equally great for both of us.
The Lotus Cerulean, like any station, generated its own gravity through spin. As we approached I turned the shuttle’s viewscreen transparent so that Lieutenant Awn could see it in all its glory; the glimmering of the lightways that traced its petals, tier within tier, plumes of vented gas shining like rainbows of ice in the light of near and distant stars.
Lieutenant Awn watched over my shoulder until we drifted into the shadow of one of the petals and could see only the webs of artificial light on the night side of it, the underside. Then she went to the back of the shuttle where there was a small icon, specially placed for situations like this one when a citizen might find herself on an extended trip. There were ritualistic symbols honoring Amaat surrounding it, but the icon was of Toren; this was Justice of Toren’s shuttle.
I heard the clatter of the divination tokens on the cloth-covered altar. “Do you require help interpreting the pattern, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Awn laughed, a very strange sound. Her guilt and grief had not lessened, but they had once again been eclipsed and contained by her steady anger, which seemed easier for her to bear. I could guess at the drift of her thoughts: the Lord of the Radch had stood before her and told her that the stability she had lived her entire life serving was fractured irreparably, and had been for a thousand years. And then she had survived her own death. What meaning could the old divination patterns have, in this new world so unlike the old? And yet she had cast the tokens. Perhaps it would be stranger not to, no matter what else around her had changed.
She didn’t request my help interpreting the tokens, nor did she offer me an interpretation of her own, though one’s divination was by no means private. Instead she swept the tokens back into their bag and dropped it beside the icon. “Let it be as Amaat wills it."
“As it always is,” I agreed, and brought in the shuttle to dock.
The Lotus, though technically in Radchaai space, was a hybrid place built by and for noncitizens dwelling in the Radch for reasons of trade, diplomacy, or entertainment. A Radchaai official administrated the station, and no real trouble was tolerated, but rules were perhaps more relaxed than elsewhere, and there was a certain amount of commerce in goods and services not readily available in other places. Many of them were things that a station or ship AI would not approve of. It was a clever way to contain all the unsettling foreignness that might otherwise spread out and contaminate more of the Radch. This way, all the danger was concentrated into a single thing, a drifting thing as beautiful and fragile as a thistledown seed; a station that could, at the whim of Anaander Mianaai, of course be evacuated, or threatened, or destroyed.
The station itself was older than I was. I did not know much of its history, but I knew that it was said to be a Notai thing, from far across the galaxy and long before the ascension of Anaander Mianaai. Whether it had been wholly built and preserved from that time, or cobbled together from Notai scraps, I did not know. But it added to the air of disrepute, the impropriety of the place. It was luck that we had been stationed so close it; though of course luck does not exist, to the Radchaai, so I gave it very little thought.
I traded one of Lieutenant Awn’s ruby earrings, a gift from Hundred Captain Rubran on her promotion to decade senior, to pay the exorbitant docking fee. We disembarked onto an onyx causeway cutting straight across a broad blue terrace the size of a small city. Electric and mineral lights embedded in the pavement glittered like stars arranged in unfamiliar constellations.
I was finding it very difficult to be out of the shuttle. I was not used to being limited to seeing in one direction at a time. The crowds weren’t so thick as to be oppressive, but there was color and movement everywhere, and I began to feel the squeeze of anxiety approaching panic as I tried to keep them all in sight with only a single pair of eyes. A flash of neon made me start and whirl, one hand on my firearm. A minute later I almost trained it on a gaudy scarlet bird, someone’s escaped pet, that swooped just a millimeter too close to our heads. Lieutenant Awn could not have helped but notice my overreaction, but she chose not to comment.
Lieutenant Awn herself was a provincial, which meant she was no stranger to being thrown suddenly into bewildering new environments. Lights and crowds alone could not dazzle her. She took in her surroundings grimly, assessing them with the seasoned eye of a senior decade lieutenant. “You’ve been here before?”
“Not exactly.” She looked to me to lead, so I started stemward toward the vendors’ quarter. She followed a step behind, arms unconsciously behind her back, right hand gripping left wrist in marching position. “Five hundred years ago, one of my lieutenants came back from leave with a stash of kef,” I told her. “She was sent for re-education, but my Captain was quite upset by the poor impression this made on new citizens — it was just after an annexation — and the fear that a kef supply might become established and poison the place just as it was being brought to civilization. So she investigated until she found the source of the kef.”
A Rrrrrr passed by on the other side of the street. A pickpocket, I judged; but it eyed Lieutenant Awn’s uniform and sulked past. Lieutenant Awn smoothed down her shirt self-consciously. It was already as neat and straight as I could make it, but without the resources of the ship I had been unable to dress her to my usual standards. “Here?”
“Yes. The raids were extensive, I believe. And I heard many years later that that same officer ended up back here, selling flowers in the temple market.”
Re-education was supposed to be perfectly safe and almost always effective, but there were some who emerged from it subtly damaged, or unfit for any upright occupation. Such unsteady ones tended to find their way here, or similar places, many of them below official Radchaai notice, if not outside Radchaai space. Exiled children of an empire whose only reason for being was to care for its own. Exiled less completely than Lieutenant Awn must be, now, if she wanted to live.
We ate at a modest cafe recommended by a fat, friendly merchant from the Gerentate, who bought the other of Lieutenant Awn’s earrings for a fair price in cash. The food was mostly derivations of a sweet, starchy blue tuber. Strange by Radchaai standards, but filling and more than adequate to our nutritional requirements. We were seated and served on a balcony wreathed in heavy green-black vines, their matted leaves dotted with tiny sweet-smelling white blossoms. Lieutenant Awn stared gloomily at the passing crowds, scattered with aliens but mostly humans. Probably mostly citizens, though unsteady or unfashionable citizens. “They have no idea, do they?” she asked as the waiter brought us dessert, pastries topped with airy stacks of sliced and sugared tuber. “That it’s all falling apart. That it’s fallen apart already. They trust their officials, they depend on their ships and stations and gates, and when this war finally breaks out —“ Through a lifetime’s habit of caution, she still avoided naming the Lord of the Radch in any reference that might be seen as critical.
“It has already broken out,” I told her. “I — Justice of Toren — is proof enough of that. But no one knows yet. Not even she knows, not outright. She’s hiding it from herself. Justice of Toren sent out another segment out to warn as many of her as possible, in ways that cannot be ignored. Hopefully she is finding out at this very moment.”
“Open war or secret schism,” Lieutenant Awn said. “I don’t even know which is worse.”
A family of short, fur-clad humans passed beneath our balcony, three adults and four children of varying ages. From the general shape of face and body I guessed they were from one of the icy backwater worlds — Karaath, perhaps, or Nilt. The children shrieked with joy, darting off like vivid furred eels into the crowds to snatch at some bit of fruit or jewelry, and running back to their parents, who only laughed. Did they live here, on the Lotus? If they were only visiting, war would strand them. Either way, it might starve them, or decimate them in any of a thousand other ways.
Lieutenant Awn watched them go. Her implants registered despair and desperation, and other emotions deep and strong but less identifiable to me. “I could go home. See my sister again. She'll need a tutor -- she'll be ready to take the aptitudes soon.”
It was impossible, and I could tell from the wistfulness in Lieutenant Awn’s voice that she knew it. As a fugitive from a vengeful Anaander Mianaai -- it made no difference which one -- she would only be a danger to her sister. And Radch security was too detailed, the station AIs too omnipresent to allow a fugitive to stay hidden for long. Even if Anaander Mianaai could somehow be convinced to leave her alone, a disgraced soldier was only a burden on her family, morally as well as financially. I had, in fact, done considerable harm to Lieutenant Awn's prospects by keeping her alive past the ignominious end of her military career.
“One Esk,” she said at last. I feared that she was going to take me to task for my irresponsibility, but instead she said, “Tell me. Am I currently on duty?”
I considered. She wouldn’t have asked rhetorically. “Your oaths to the Radch were not nullified by Mianaai’s attempt to execute you, but since you currently have no troops to direct, no annexation to oversee, and no shipboard tasks assigned, I would say you are off duty.”
Lieutenant Awn threw her shoulders back and raised a hand to summon the waiter. “In that case, I am going to get shamefully drunk.”
I heard Lieutenant Awn sing for the first time that night. Of all my officers she had always complained the least about my singing, but she had never joined in herself. Of course such frivolity would have been beneath her, a breach of decorum, and with junior officers like Lieutenant Issaaia always ready to extemporize on her ill breeding, she had learned to be cautious of such things.
Her voice was not beautiful. Most of the notes she reached for fell flat, and the ones she did hit warbled and cracked. Her accent thickened as she drank fermented tuber-wine, and by the time she started to sing even the least snobbish Awer would hardly have been able to understand her. The song was one I knew well. A simple country dance from her home moon with parts for four voice registers, made to be sung by anywhere from two to thirty people. Kiss me tonight, my love, my ship is leaving with the dawn.
She got drunk the way she did everything: with determination and grim efficiency. As the empty glasses mounted in front of her she arranged them into increasingly complicated geometric patterns, a local custom encouraged by the waitstaff. It wasn’t long before a crowd of our fellow diners had gathered. A few of them even knew enough of Lieutenant Awn’s backwater folk song to come in on the chorus.
I missed my other voices. I could have woven a net of harmony above and below and around Lieutenant Awn’s faltering voice. I could have bedecked her with chords as though they were flowers cast at the feet of a goddess.
A heavily-modified human slapped Lieutenant Awn on the back. Her other hand was a metallic arthropod’s claw with a variety of creative attachments. “Never seen a citizen who could have a good time!” she shouted, with a more than slightly sarcastic emphasis on Radchaai, citizen. “Aren’t you afraid of your handlers?”
“I’m off duty!” Lieutenant Awn rose from her chair and grabbed at the back of it to keep from wobbling. “You hear me!” she shouted back at her interlocutor, then at the crowd, then at the stars. “I’m off duty! Fifteen years, by Aatr’s tits — all the mud and blood on my hands — all the fucking orders! And what has it got me? Where did it get them —“ her voice wavered, cracked.
I was at her side in a moment, one gloved hand on her elbow. “Lieutenant,” I murmured in her ear, “we are not entirely safe here. I suggest we retire.”
She swung around. “You’ll tell me,” she said firmly. “Tell me the truth. Was I a good soldier?”
Fifteen years. Ten as an ordinary human foot soldier, moving up through the ranks, then as a junior lieutenant. Five as senior decade lieutenant and liaison through the Orsian annexation, the last annexation. All throughout, the same grim determination. And the unyielding compassion of one provincial looking out for a whole province of newly-minted provincials; provincials who didn’t understand what that meant, and hadn’t finished emerging from the storm that would kill one-fifth of them and bring the rest into the light.
And amid the mud and blood and orders she never forgot the little things: new songs for me, gifts for the children and priests. The daily sacrifices. Propriety, beneficence, justice.
“You were one of the steadiest I’ve seen,” I told her. Then I steered her away, to the boos and jeers of her new acquaintances. But our bill was paid and there were still glasses of clear spirit left on the table. The other patrons would soon lose interest in us and find ways to amuse themselves.
I wasn’t sure if Lieutenant Awn had heard me. Her eyes had a faraway look, and though she was steady in spirit she would trip over every third step if I didn’t brace her. She was too experienced to let herself get stinking, puking drunk like a newly-minted lieutenant on her first shore leave, but she had certainly succeeded in drowning her capacity for rational thought for the night.
I had no such luxury. Four figures kept pace with us as we moved along the lowest terrace of the lotus. They must have kept pace with us since we had left the restaurant, or possibly before. Two relatively un-modified humans, one obvious cyborg and one Rrrrrr. There were certain signs about them I recognized: the bandolier across the cyborg’s chest of the sort that was usually filled with specialized mechanical tools. The look of hunger in their eyes. Speculation and greed.
I sped up, propelling Lieutenant Awn with me. She made a slurred sound of inquiry and protest.
“There are four jackers following us,” I said low in her ear. Hijackers dealt in implants. Usually implants that were pre-owned and unwillingly sourced.
Lieutenant Awn frowned. “What’d they want?”
“It’s possible that they suspect what I am.” Lieutenant Awn’s implants were commonplace and of little worth even to jackers; she’d never had the money or the inclination to get more than very basic modifications. Ancillary implants were more extensive and more valuable. Centuries of horror entertainments had been fueled by rumors about what could and had been done with stolen ancillary implants, on willing and unwilling subjects. It was rare that I or any other ship actually lost a segment to jackers, but that didn’t mean they stopped trying, especially in unsecured environments. And there had been more attempts since the announcement that ancillaries were no longer being made.
Or it could be that they suspected nothing of what I really was, and had mistaken us for a pair of ordinary Radchaai soldiers on shore leave, and were hoping to rob or maim us for the usual reasons. Neither option appealed to me.
“We can fix that,” Lieutenant Awn said, and before I could recognize what she was doing or react she slipped an arm around my waist and leaned heavily on my shoulder.
I managed to compensate for the sudden added weight and hardly stumbled, but that was all I could manage. I was frozen, startled. To touch an ancillary was not forbidden, not even uncommon, but to touch an ancillary with anything approaching affection was bizarre, and not what I had been expecting. Even in the cases, more common than most civilians would suppose, when a soldier took an ancillary to bed, affection was not a factor. Human soldiers and officers were pleased enough to have ancillaries obey them, but we were not friends, to be casually hugged or caressed in public spaces. We were things. It was as though Lieutenant Awn had thrown her arms affectionately around a gun turret, or a gate-buoy.
Of course, anyone who knew enough about ancillaries to think I might be one knew all of that, as well. I saw the cyborg’s face — I could not look away, for I had instinctively averted my gaze from Lieutenant Awn, and she now filled most of my field of vision — and saw the puzzled expression that passed across her one human eye, then melted into disappointment and anger. She must have been mistaken, I was no ancillary. And we were drawing into a relatively well-lighted area. Seeing that I had her attention, I rested a hand prominently on the grip of my firearm, showing that I was armed and alert, even if my companion was drunk.
For an extraordinary prize, they might still have risked it, trusting in numbers over armor and training. But with Lieutenant Awn draped over me, I probably was nothing more than a stone-faced human soldier, which wasn’t worth such a risk. The cyborg vanished into the crowd.
“Lieutenant, they’ve gone.” My voice was steady as always. I was grateful that Lieutenant Awn did not have access to data from my implants, though I was not sure what she would have read from them. She was very warm, warmer than I could understand while her biometrics insisted her temperature was within normal range. But then, I thought, what temperature is sunlight? That was the warmth that she radiated, the touch of the sun bringing life.
Life to a dead thing. I had had two glasses of the fermented tuber wine, at her insistence. Individual segments of mine had tasted alcohol before, but I had been a much larger being then, able to observe the effects of intoxication on a small fragment of myself with a detached consideration. I had no such escape now. I was limited to a single brain awash in alien poisons. Was this what being drunk really felt like?
Lieutenant Awn was still half-wrapped around me. I tugged experimentally at the arm around my waist, but it didn’t budge. “Lieutenant,” I said again. “You can let go now.”
With immense dignity she said, “I can do anything I want. One Esk. I am off duty. For the first time in fifteen years.”
Of course she had been off-duty before, but I knew what she meant. She had never been unwatched, unsurrounded by prideful superiors, distrustful inferiors and traitorous equals. She had never been free.
With her head still on my shoulder, wisps of her hair obscuring my vision, she sang very softly: My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green…
Back in the shuttle she collapsed onto her bunk and snored for eight hours. I sat in the pilot’s chair and talked to the shuttle, letting its simple programs and flavor of home calm my turbulent thoughts. When Lieutenant Awn woke she was, as she had predicted, miserably sick. I fetched water, coaxed her into eating some of the nutrient-rich hardtack, did whatever else was needful. By midday she was sitting upright on her bunk, pale and with shadows under her eyes but relatively composed. She had avoided staining her uniform with the scrupulousness of one who cannot afford to buy well-tailored replacements, and must content herself with ill-fitting machined shirts and jackets if her one good set is damaged.
“One Esk,” she said, for the first time that morning with her usual attitude of solemn necessity. “Bring me a data pad, please.”
For another hour she was silent, engrossed in the screen. I could have queried the data pad to see which files she was calling up, but I didn’t have to. I could guess what subject she would be interested in.
I brought her tea. She set aside her data pad to take the bowl with both hands, regarding me. “Going back is fruitless,” she said. “We can’t do anything for the citizens we killed. There is no benefit in dying for the sake of the dead.”
I gestured respectful assent.
“Then we must find benefit elsewhere. The Lord wanted me dead, but Amaat willed that I am alive. Amaat, and you.” She smiled, as though the thought of an ancillary’s will as equal to Amaat’s amused her. “Skaaiat said I should wait to do something crazy until the time I could make a difference, and I can’t see a time better than now.”
I waited at parade rest. “Your orders, Lieutenant?”
She showed me what she’d been reading on the datapad. News reports on the Ime Compromise, as the media were calling it. The word they used was a sardonic comment on the situation itself, since it was a close cognate of one that meant surrender.
“We’re going to find them,” she said. “Mercy of Sarrse One Amaat. One Amaat One may be gone, but her decade is still out there, with the Rrrrrr. They’re the only veterans we have of this war between Lords of the Radch, and the Radch is going to need them. We’ll find them and bring them home.”
We sold the shuttle to a merchant who was little more than a more respectably-dressed cousin of the jackers we’d avoided the night before. I felt regret, letting what had once been my shuttle go to be broken up for parts, but it couldn’t be helped. It was beautifully maintained, of course, because it had been mine, and fetched a high price. I think Lieutenant Awn saw me stiffen in indignity when the merchant tried to insinuate that the airlock hinges hadn’t been well-oiled and the vents were clogged. She put a hand on my shoulder, smiling, and told the merchant that she was mistaken.
She touched me often in the next few days, while we scoured the Lotus for supplies and contacts we would need. It was a sensible precaution to convince jackers and other black-market predators that I was no more or less than a taciturn human soldier. It was a testament to her foresight and thoroughness, and I told myself that it would soon be over, once we were on the move again, just the two of us. Just the one of her and the one of me.
After we sold the shuttle we moved to a cheap sleeper unit, a single cell in a honeycomb of such cells that were available to any beings with cash, no questions asked. It combined the cramped quarters of ship life with the dirt and irregularity of life in Ors, but it had a bed big enough for Lieutenant Awn and space on the floor for me to lay my body down beside the bed for the time it took each night to replenish my energy. The only things we brought from the shuttle were the icon of Toren with its divination tokens, the incense for offerings, a brick of compressed tea leaves and the unappetizing emergency rations. With the proceeds from the shuttle we could afford to eat better, but we had both been through unpleasant annexation assignments far from regular resupply and knew the importance of any meal, no matter how mysterious its provenance.
My sleep was shallow and often disturbed. I could not adjust to the feeling of being shut off, of being totally absent from the world. And there were the dreams. What had been mildly interesting data points were now absorbing, terrifying, senseless ordeals. In the most common one I was back in the temple of Ikkt, an audience for a chorus of dead worshippers who sang a complex choral arrangement despite the fact that I had shot most of them in the chest. The priest overseeing the ritual frowned at me, disapproving. I knew the reason for her disapproval. I was a corpse soldier, why should I be unhappy to listen to these corpse singers?
Our third night in the sleeper cell I waited too long to take my usual rest period, dreading the return to that temple from which I had no means of escape and to which I knew I must return. A group of drunken revelers had gotten into a fight outside the cell-block, and the noise of their quarrel and the sluggish response of local authorities kept me awake, alert to possible danger from either side. No danger presented itself, and the combatants were escorted away eventually, but when I woke from that dream again it was to find Lieutenant Awn staring down at me, frowning. “One Esk, have you been sleeping on the floor?”
She’d always been asleep when I laid down and when I rose. I didn’t know what she assumed I’d been doing each night. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Her scowl deepened. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I’ve slept in worse places,” I pointed out. “So have you.”
“This isn’t exactly a provincial palace, but it’s not a swamp cave on Shis’urna,” she said drily. “Subpar sleep will only impair your efficiency. Share the bed with me from now on, I don’t mind.”
“Lieutenant,” I protested, “an ancillary is an unclean thing.” To sleep beside such a thing would be worse, ritualistically, than merely touching it. It implied a deeper corruption of the spirit, which was traditionally less defended from such defiling influences during sleep.
A wry smile twisted the corners of her mouth. “A mud eel is an unclean thing, and I’ve bedded down with plenty of those. You are my friend.”
I shook my head reprovingly. She had used the word that meant physically unclean, grimy and slimy, not spiritually corrupting. “Death is unclean,” I said, using the correct word. “And I —“
“You’re dead,” she interrupted, the smile gone. “And you killed those people in Ikkt. And I have killed and ordered the death of many more, hundreds more. And the Lord of the Radch has died, and has killed, and has killed herself.” She gestured anger, hopelessness. “We are all unclean. You saved my life. What kind of person am I, to make you sleep on the floor like a dog?”
I could have pointed out that an ancillary was considered by many to be lower and less deserving than a dog, and that she would not have been considered uncouth to make me sleep wherever she saw fit. But I recognized her expression from Ors, and knew that there would be little point in arguing with her. I stood, brushed down my clothes as thoroughly as possible, and placed my lone body in the bed beside hers.
I slept deeply and woke to find Lieutenant Awn kneeling before our little altar. The smoke from the incense and her murmured prayer rose up alike, indistinguishably familiar, heavy and sweet. Not wishing to disturb her, I lay still and listened to the clatter of divinatory tokens. While I waited for her to interpret their fall to her satisfaction, I ran a cursory search through what remained of my memory to confirm my suspicion of the night before. In two thousand years, less than five upstanding human Radchaai had ever called me friend.
On our seventh night cycle, the last we planned to spend on the Lotus, we had a break-in. Two heavily modified humans jimmied the low-tech lock on our cell door and burst it open, shouting demands in heavily accented Radchaai. One of them began rummaging through our meager belongings looking for valuables while the other covered us with a gun. It was a heavy plastic tube riveted to her arm in two places, inexpertly constructed, as any gun here would have to be -- smuggling professionally-made weapons through Radchaai security would be a costly and dangerous enterprise, above the ability of petty thieves. This makeshift gun would have a kickback and muzzle-flash so extreme that they would certainly alert any nearby authorities. But I knew from the brawl a few nights earlier how long any useful response would take. And we weren’t exactly eager to encounter the authorities ourselves.
I was on my feet already, braced against the bed. It was possible they hadn’t seen Lieutenant Awn. “Be at ease, honored,” I said to the one with the gun. “There’s no need for violence. Whatever you’re looking for, you won’t find it here. No dreamdust, no kef. Leave peacefully and there will be no trouble.”
The one with the gun spoke, not to me but to her compatriot. The language was odd, a jumble of Gerent and some form of verbal binary, a computer language. I probably could have parsed it with a little more time and data, but at that moment Lieutenant Awn moved and the one with the gun swung it to point at her, face contorting in surprise. Her hand tightened on the trigger mechanism. I had no weapons. I raised my armor, crossed the cell in two steps and broke the shooter’s neck with my hands.
I turned to the other burglar, but she had grabbed a pack of seaweed nutrient biscuits and fled. Neither of them had come close to finding the considerable stash of shen and supplies I had hidden beneath the altar.
Lieutenant Awn was sitting up in the narrow bed, watching me. She was as disheveled as she always was just out of sleep, hair and clothes rumpled, her hands tucked beneath the covers to conceal their bareness. Her eyes were steady and clear. “We’ll have to dispose of the body,” she said. Her voice was steady, too. Her readings spoke to me of bitterness and adrenaline, but she hid it well.
“I’ll take care of it.” I had made it a point in the last seven days to make the acquaintance of most of the local jackers. Knowing more about them would help me to predict their movements, which would let me defend against them. I knew a few who would not only dispose of this body and its modifications, but would pay handsomely for the privilege.
It was a short and messy transaction. When I returned to the cell I found Lieutenant Awn dressed in a drab gray wrap of the sort worn by poor peddlers here, her hands covered by incongruous military gloves. She had repaired the mess left by the would-be robbers. All but the lock, which had been shabby to begin with and was probably permanently damaged. In her gloved hands she held a tea-bowl filled with water, which she would have had to fetch from the common trough at the end of the hall. “I think it’s time we should be going,” she said when I appeared in the doorway, armorless and expressionless, my jacket lining stuffed with cash.
It was nearly dawn. There was no sunrise on the Lotus, but during day cycles the flower’s gigantic stem was illuminated, a tower of interlocking light panels that threw out enough radiance and heat to make it easy to forget the hard vacuum all around. The hour before that sudden blinding sunrise was the coldest, as most of the previous day’s heat had already escaped through the slow interchange of the force field that served as the sky.
My body was shivering, there in the doorway. I had gone out clothed similarly to Lieutenant Awn, in material not much thicker than she and the Divine had worn on Ors, into the nadir of chill and darkness. I had felt my own adrenaline spike, and was feeling the crash, the wearing-off. Yet another inconvenient reaction that, without the overarching mind of Justice of Toren, it was difficult to suppress.
Lieutenant Awn stood and grasped my wrists. She drew me into the room and coaxed me to sit down on the bed. The tea bowl of water she placed in my lap. “Wash your hands,” she said. “That’s an order.” My hands, like hers, were gloved. She didn’t remove my gloves — that would have been obscene — but she turned her back and began packing our supplies, so that I would not even have to consider the impropriety of confronting her bare-handed.
Non-Raadchai would not have understood the meaning behind her order. Physically, my hands and arms were perhaps the least dust- and oil-smeared parts of me. But the washing of hands is never just a physical act, for Radchaai. It is a devotional and spiritual act, a cleansing of sin. An officer who has been forced to kill or to handle the bodies of the dead — or of ancillaries — may, by washing her hands, be restored to a state of purity required for participation in religious life.
Ancillaries don’t wash their hands. Ancillaries can never return to a state of purity, having never attained it. What Lieutenant Awn had ordered me to do was a self-evident absurdity, something that might occur in a comic entertainment.
It was also a kindness. An offer of absolution, as though I needed such a thing.
I could hardly disobey an order. I washed my hands, dried them on the stained bedsheet, replaced my gloves. “Lieutenant,” I said, then stopped, unsure of what I wanted to say next. A new experience.
Lieutenant Awn turned and surveyed me, nodded her approval as at any inspection of her troops. “We’ll offer devotions now, before we go,” she said with decision. “Did you learn her name?”
I gestured regretful negative.
Lieutenant Awn accepted this with equanimity, though the thin line of her lips would have told me even without implants that there was still bitterness within her, mingled with gratitude and grief. She took the bowl back from me, emptied it and went to refill it. By the time she returned I had set up the altar, and I stood behind her while she knelt, lit the incense, offered the customary morning prayer and the one to honor the dead. In place of the deceased’s name she used a Radchaai word that denoted an uninvited guest.
She cast the omens and considered them for a moment, then said aloud, “All beings are but emanations, and all from the being of Amaat, who is the Universe entire.”
By my records, the correct line of scripture corresponding to the pattern of disks on the cloth was a prohibition against eating the unclean crustaceans in the southeastern oceans of Harveld, but I held my silence. The casting and interpretation of omens were not for my sake.
When the incense burned down, we packed up the altar and icon. Everything we took with us fit easily into a heavy canvas satchel apiece and a wide basket made locally of tough lotusfiber stem-strips. It was a short walk to the nearest dock. By the time daycycle began we had boarded a Gerent skiff and were halfway to the nearest gate.
Fugitives from Radchaai authorities are not common. Most people of interest to Radchaai authorities don’t make it far enough to become fugitives. Those that do traditionally seek shelter in the Gerentate, which takes a dim view of the Radchaai lust for order and control, and protects to the best of its ability anyone who seeks a less observed way of life.
There were checkpoints along all borders, of course, but they were concentrated along the border with the Gerentate, and we were now heading in a different direction entirely, towards Rrrrrr space. Though relations between the Radch and the Rrrrrr were chilly at best, they had never broken to outright hostilities, so it was almost exclusively Mercies crossing between permanent stations at intervals of a few days. There were enough gaps that dedicated smugglers could leave Radch space, helped materially by the fact that Radchaai authorities cared much more about who entered than who left.
Our flight was slow and strangely staggered, as we hopped mostly from ship to ship seeking a smuggler desperate enough to take us on as passengers. I could see that Lieutenant Awn was half grateful at every new potential ally we found, and half appalled that such a network could exist within and below the notice of the military she had sworn her life to. Her accent was a help to her here, but that didn’t put her at ease. Her discomfort with the Radch’s prejudiced hierarchy did not prevent her from suffering wounds to her pride at the ease with which it was circumvented.
“Aatr’s tits, isn’t there anyone trustworthy?” she exclaimed, returning angrily to our coffin-sized bunk after accompanying the skiff’s captain to bribe an obsequious Inspector Adjunct to reroute a troublesome Mercy out of our path. She looked at me and her expression softened. “Present company excepted, I suppose,” she sighed, then smiled a little. “Don’t look so offended. The day that I can’t trust you, One Esk, a secret schism in the Lord of the Radch will be the least of my problems.”
It was the last time she called me by my proper name. We were due to jump the border in two standard days, for which we had paid a hefty portion of the shen we’d amassed on the Lotus. That night, as we sat down to a dinner of recently stasis-thawed fish and skel in a mess smaller than some of my storage closets had once been, Lieutenant Awn said quietly, “What were your instructions from Justice of Toren?”
An odd way of phrasing it, but accurate enough, I supposed. I saw no reason not to answer. There was no one nearby, and this was not a military ship with an AI that would be listening in. “To get you off the ship alive and away from Mianaai.”
“Your duty is done, then. Soon I’ll be out of Radch space altogether; I can’t get further from Mianaai than that. You could go back.” Unspoken were the enticements of my return: rejoin the rest of you, regain your memories and processing power and other bodies, be a ship again. Be what you were.
Lieutenant Awn could not be what she had been. For her there was no return.
I said merely, “The logistical challenges are extensive. I doubt I could find Justice of Toren, not without drawing too much attention.”
Lieutenant Awn chewed a bite of her fish, frowning down at the cheap chipped plates that were all we had been able to scavenge. I found it highly unlikely that she noticed the taste or saw the dishware at all. She had a headache, or soon would, I could tell that much from the tension in the muscles of her neck and jaw. I read in her a knot of tangled emotions that had been resurfacing more and more recently, with greater strength and frequency the closer we got to the border: fear, and hope, and doubt, and something else, something strong and deep that she was hardly letting herself face. It felt to me like a tide within her, sometimes surging and sometimes ebbing, drawing her onwards despite her conscious will and judgement towards some conclusion — though what conclusion, I couldn’t say.
Frowning brought out the creases in her brow and at the corners of her eyes. I had not known her parents, as I had those of some of my hereditary officers, and therefore could only wonder whether those lines were themselves hereditary, or scored there by a lifetime of such unrestful thoughts.
“Strictly speaking, you’re the property of Lord Mianaai,” she said at length. “You are -- were -- part of my unit. I’m responsible for you, as responsible as I’d be if you were human. As sorry a job as I’ve done of it.”
I began to protest, but she gestured me to silence. “You’ve earned the right to choose for yourself -- more than earned it. What do you want? If I release you from all obligations to me, what would you choose to do?”
“Come with you,” I said, automatically. Too fast. But Lieutenant Awn was not surprised.
She merely said, “When we leave Radchaai space, things will be different.”
Careful understatement. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“I won’t be Lieutenant anymore, for one thing. Though Awn should be safe enough. And I can’t call you One Esk, you’ll need a new name. Do you know of any you’d like?”
The thought was unexpectedly painful. Though all that I’d told her was true and I intended to travel with her unless she ordered me away, though I had left Justice of Toren knowing that this particular segment would likely never be able to return, letting go of my decade designation felt like severing the last link to my old self, my greater self. And it meant establishing a new identity, separate and distinct, a stranger with no connections and no place in the wider universe. What name could such a person have? Nothing that spoke of family or house, for I had none. Or of planetary origins I couldn’t claim.
“Think about it,” Lieutenant Awn said. She finished the last of her fish, gathered my plate which had been empty for some five minutes, took both of them away to clean in the cramped, grimy galley.
I thought about it before sleep and when I woke, and through the process of packing, now almost entirely muscle memory. We had even less now than before; Lieutenant Awn had, regretfully, sold the icon of Toren some days ago. We could make do with symbols, and we needed the cash.
It was thinking of the symbolic representations of Toren that inspired me. “Sihla,” I told Lieutenant Awn as she entered the next morning, hair still damp from the pressurized shower cubicle. “You can call me Sihla.” The name was borrowed from a distant mythological figure, briefly incorporated into Radchaai worship as a handmaiden of Toren after an ancient annexation.
It had been one of my first annexations. A binary star system, whose planets were good for little besides trees with hollow branches, which could be made into lovely flutes. The system and its gods had been of interest to fashionable Radchaai for perhaps fifty years, then quietly fallen out of favor. The flute-trees had been extinct for a few centuries and I was quite willing to bet that no one had made any offerings to Sihla for much longer. Toren was an old god, unfashionable and unpopular; no one would waste much time on her handmaidens. But the name did claim a family relationship, in a way, and the connection pleased me.
Lieutenant Awn knew none of that, though she clearly saw that I was pleased with my choice, which in turn pleased her. “Sihla,” she said, experimentally. “It suits you.”
I bowed in acknowledgement. Lieutenant Awn smiled. We went to the ship’s tiny galley for breakfast. There a disreputable trader in pickled dredgefruit told us, at great length and with an unpleasantly vengeful enthusiasm, that the troop carrier Justice of Toren had apparently suffered a catastrophic accident in the Valskaayan system. The news nets suspected alien sabotage, but no theories could be confirmed because the ship itself had been disintegrated, along with all hands.
We spent the next several days in suspension. In every time and system it has been easier to smuggle goods than people, so Lieutenant Awn and I were packed in the ship’s hold under several dozen barrels of questionably exotic fruits, a few hundred bricks of substandard tea, and a false flooring panel. Suspended stowaways were the only kind who could be trusted not to panic and give themselves away if the ship did happen to be questioned or boarded. Of course, suspended stowaways were also the easiest to quietly kill through asphyxiation and efficiently rob, or sell to slavers, or hold for ransom if they looked like they might be related to anyone important.
I woke up. The roar of a thundering cataract in my ears reduced itself to the hiss of escaping air. I tried to breathe, coughed, choked. They had dumped us unceremoniously out an airlock, I was strangling on hard vacuum —
The world rocked, spun around me. My knees and elbows hit hard dirt and gave way, limp as loose wires. I heaved, vomited up two lumps of cold clear jelly. Suspension medium. With it out of my lungs I could breathe, assuming there was air. My body told me there was no air. My heart was beating so fast it was compromising its own ability to pump effectively, which meant not enough blood was reaching my brain, and it would do no good there anyway unless it was oxygenated. I heaved again, vomited nothing. One went into suspension fasting for this reason. My body was starving, eating itself, but that was a slow death and had to be postponed for the more immediate problem of breathing.
The jackals we’d paid might have dumped us anywhere. They might have dumped me anywhere; there was no telling what they might have done to Lieutenant Awn.
I concentrated all my will on the muscles of my shoulders, forearms, wrists. With all my strength I heaved myself up a few inches out of the dirt and lifted my head. White glare above, black silt below. EtrepaBo, Light/Darkness. My heart stuttered dangerously and my throat spasmed. I was perhaps twice as strong as an unaltered human and half again as fast, and yet I was dying. If I could not at least ensure Lieutenant Awn’s safety before I died, now that I was all that was left of me, then it had been for nothing, my will ran counter to Amaat’s, I had betrayed my officers, dirtied my two thousand years of service with treachery…
I had fallen back onto the dirt. It pressed against one side of my face, which I didn’t notice until I was lifted out of it and propped upright in a position that would let me vomit without blocking my airway. I was kept from slumping back over by an arm across my chest. “Breathe,” said a voice in my ear. I was so far gone that it took me three repetitions to recognize it as Lieutenant Awn’s voice. “Sihla. It’s suspension sickness. You’ll be all right. Just try to breathe.”
Suspension sickness. Of course. That would explain the racing heartbeat and nausea, and other signs of an overdose of stress hormones. The suspension pods we’d been kept in were of poor quality, jerry-rigged or stolen, with inefficient calibration matrices. The suspension settings for ancillaries were subtly different than for unmodified humans in ways that our hosts were probably unaware of, even if they’d known I was an ancillary, which of course they didn’t.
I had known officers who had experienced suspension sickness once and refused to go into suspension thereafter, preferring to spend years of their life standing watch on uneventful voyages between empty systems. It was deeply miserable, but the chances I would actually die were very small. The true danger of suspension sickness was the possibility of seizures, which I would have had already if I was going to have them. Already my heart rate was decelerating. Gray blotches swam across my vision and my stomach twisted around a black hollow of hunger and nausea, but I had managed a few irregular breaths.
Lieutenant Awn braced me and sang softly in her off-tune voice.
My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green.
Your strong hand bends / the stem of the water-grass / to the green, to the green.
The swift fish leaps / between the water-lilies / white and green, white and green.
What will you catch? / Fishing in the shallows / dark and green, dark and green…
Automatically my breathing steadied and shaped itself to the rhythms of the song. My mouth opened convulsively, though I did not know the words to sing with her. Those verses were not the ones I had heard from the child in Ors.
A scrape and shuffle, a metallic thunk broke through the melody. Lieutenant Awn half turned, so that she could continue to brace me but her right arm and the handheld weapon holstered on her right hip were clear. Someone nearby shouted, “Get her up! We’ve got to move!”
“In a moment,” Lieutenant Awn said. Her voice was calm, but the calm was merely a veil over her anger. “She’s suspension-sick.”
“I don’t care if her head’s falling off! There are vultures in this sector and if we don’t move they’ll rob us blind, beat us bloody and play kick-pass with what’s left!”
I guessed from the inflection that the word vultures was slang for local humans rather than animals. Military, perhaps, or paramilitary? I had seen no sign of animal or vegetable life yet. We had landed on a flat expanse of rich black soil, likely the bed of a dried-up river delta, but that by itself told me nothing about where we were. Wherever it was, it was very close to a star, nearly too close to allow unshielded human habitation. The whole sky was a white blaze of sunlight overhead.
“Come on! Move!” The dredgefruit merchant. Her angular face was contorted into a snarl. In the harsh light her features seemed thin, almost transparent, like an ancient film-reel that could be seared through by exposure to even the mildest sun. Lieutenant Awn watched her approach, seeing as I did the hand on her hip where she surely had some kind of weapon.
Lieutenant Awn’s expression had not changed. “Seems like a waste, to bring her all this way and thaw her out just to leave her here.”
“I’ll shoot either one of you if you won’t move! The rest of your fee isn’t worth that much!”
The grip on my chest shifted, pulled. This body was half a head taller than Lieutenant Awn, who was a little less than average height, and though not heavy it was an awkward burden for her. She certainly could not carry me far. The dredgefruit merchant could see that plainly. “Leave her,” she ordered. “If she can’t make it, she’ll slow us down and we’ll all be corpses.”
Lieutenant Awn dragged me forward a few steps. With one arm over her shoulder, fighting to keep my head up, I saw the smoking hulks of the single-use suspension pods, and beyond them a huddled group of three people surrounding a row of hover-sledges drawn by rangy six-limbed animals with faceted eyes and broad, sail-like ears.
A few more steps. I helped as much as I could, but I was still shuddering, and my legs mostly refused to obey. The dredgefruit merchant drew a plasma pistol and a warning shot seared the dust by Lieutenant Awn’s feet.
Lieutenant Awn ignored the merchant and her pistol. She made it as far as the first sledge and laid me down on it, taking her time to be sure I was secured and covered with a sheet of canvas. I trembled, half-blinded by the brilliant sunlight. I could not recall ever being so helpless, so useless and completely alone. If ever one part of me had become incapacitated this way, I had always been able to send another segment to intervene. Even in Ors when I had been briefly sundered into twenty separate bodies I had been surrounded by myself, able to assist and see where assistance was needed, by voice and visual signal if not by data streams. To lie weak and useless while Lieutenant Awn faced an armed, hostile opponent was appalling on a level I found hard to contemplate. I wished she had told me to activate my armor and used me as a shield instead.
She touched my forehead with two gloved fingers, very gently, and bent to tighten a strap across my chest and shoulders. “Let me tell you something I learned from my first decade commander,” she said, not to me, though she was engaged in placing a rolled canvas to support my head. “A warning shot does not strengthen your position, it weakens you. Your enemy should know that every shot you fire will kill. If you are not willing to kill, you should not have drawn a weapon.”
I remembered the day she had been taught that lesson. The commander was Lieutenant Prellis Inrassat, an experienced soldier from a very ancient and moderately prosperous house known for producing custom-made colored pearls and a succession of bad poets. Lieutenant Prellis, perhaps to stand out as much as possible from the expectations that accompanied her name, had been particularly ruthless as a soldier. She had taken Lieutenant Awn to task for firing warning shots over the heads of dissatisfied dock workers who had gathered to protest a fishing tax on a newly-annexed moon. Her reprimand had been phrased exactly as Lieutenant Awn quoted it.
The dock workers had been dispersed without loss of life, and I had left orbit the next day. I remembered well how I had sent an Esk ancillary to bring Lieutenant Awn, a junior lieutenant then, a cup of tea late that night as she lay in her quarters, bleak and angry and despairing. She accepted the tea only grudgingly, but then was startled into a laugh as the expressionless ancillary suddenly opened its mouth and sang Bread on the table / fish in the net / a light in the window / the boat that rocks / with the wave, the wave, the wave on the shore / the wave coming home to the shore.
It was a song I had heard the dock workers singing, their voices angry and mournful as they listed what they had been denied. But I had wanted to tell young Lieutenant Awn that the workers could still have those things, now, because she had not shot them. I think she understood.
Lieutenant Awn looked up at the dredgefruit merchant. I could not see her from my position strapped to the sledge, and another wave of nauseating terror swept over me at the thought of a plasma blast that could strike at any second. But it did not strike. “If you had been willing to kill either myself or my friend,” Lieutenant Awn said, “you would never have woken us from suspension. Now, if you want to earn your payment, hurry up.”
She swung herself up behind me and the sledge jolted forward. Instead of a pistol blast, I heard the yelping of runner-beasts and a flurry of curses. I had a glimpse of Lieutenant Awn’s face, bleak and angry as it had been then, the wind of our motion blowing back her hair, and then I had to close my eyes.
I opened them again at the whine of a plasma discharge and saw the blood arcing up and spattering down to water that dry soil. The sledge slowed, slowed, stopped. The dredgefruit merchant glided past on my left, moving fast, waving her pistol and sneering. She had shot our runner-beast.
A shadow passed over my face: Lieutenant Awn, bent over to check that neither I nor the straps that held me had been damaged by the blast. “Fucking daughter of a fish-witted corpse,” she spat.
“Language, Lieutenant,” I murmured, with what little voice I had regained.
The sledge rocked as she dismounted. “Well, at least I know you’re feeling better,” she said, and I saw the genuine relief in her that lapsed into sorrow as she knelt beside the corpse of the runner-beast now lying in two charred pieces. “She could just have shot through the straps,” she said. I expected anger, but she was tired. She stood and glanced up, then ahead at the sledges of our guides that had shrunk to shadows in the distance, then behind.
“I hear it too,” I said. Flier rotors, from behind us. Still distant but getting closer. I moved my arms experimentally, felt that a little of my strength had returned. “In a few minutes I can pull —”
“Don’t even think about it. That’s an order.” Lieutenant Awn cut the straps herself with a pocketknife and slung them over her shoulders like pack-straps. With the antigrav runners functional, the whole sledge with me on it probably only weighed about thirty pounds. She found the tracks our erstwhile guides had left and started to walk.
After approximately eleven hours of walking we reached a nominal spaceport. It was little more than a scrapyard that had had its center hollowed out, and a kind of village of structures welded together in its heart. I saw parts and panels from a range of ships that spanned most known human and nonhuman civilizations over the last thousand years. Our guides had been before us and were long gone, taking the sail-pod we were to use to rendezvous with a freighter heading toward the boundaries of Rrrrrr space. This planet -- or moon, I wasn’t sure -- was a border place, unclaimed, populated by riffraff and pirates. Their stares as we crawled into their town were not friendly.
I was more or less recovered by then, though with superficial radiation burns over those parts of me Lieutenant Awn had not been able to cover. Lieutenant Awn was dehydrated, but she had been slow and cautious and was bearing up well. The locals spoke a dialect of Gerent, and in it I negotiated water and a space to sleep, which turned out to be a storage locker that might well have come off a Notai ship. Blankets and sacks stuffed with scraps of cloth had turned it into a rectangular nest. Not altogether different from any of the other places we had been sleeping lately, and it was out of the incessant blazing sun.
I woke after a few hours of restless dozing. Lieutenant Awn was weeping. She had curled up with her back to me and buried her face in a sack of discarded fabric scraps, trying to muffle the ragged sobs of one not used to tears.
I had seen her cry before. It had always been at long intervals, under great stress and often physical pain, and she had never sought me out for comfort as some of my young officers occasionally did. She was always too wary of being seen as weak or improper.
I had offered her comfort when I could, even then. And things were different now. Caution and circumspection were called for. I touched the back of her shoulder, over the ridge of bone. “Lieutenant?”
“Not anymore.” She struggled for control of her breathing, failed. “N-not without a s-ship.”
I had been trying not to think of them. Myself, my crew. Grief was a distraction we could not afford. But neither could we — could I — afford to ignore it.
It had been easy to ignore my own mental state by focusing on Lieutenant Awn’s. I could not ignore anything now.
“Gods,” she groaned. “All of them. Dariet, Lisait — they couldn’t possibly have been a threat to her! They were loyal!” She didn’t say Like I was, but I heard it as clearly as though she had.
“They were,” I said softly. “Loyal to the wrong master. I was the one who wasn’t. I cost them their lives.” There was no greater failure for a ship than to cause the loss of its crew. The well-being of its crew was a ship’s entire reason for being.
“It couldn’t have been aliens,” Lieutenant Awn rasped. “It must have been her. Mianaai.”
It was a bold and dangerous thing to do, naming her outright. Much more dangerous than the act of fleeing Radchaai space itself. But what more was there to lose, except our lives? And those were already forfeit.
It was pitch dark in the locker. I heard the rustle of cloth as Lieutenant Awn turned to face me, although she could not see me. “Did you feel it?”
“No.” Logically I knew that since I had already been well out of communication with the rest of myself, I would have had no way to know the exact moment when Justice of Toren’s heat shield was breached, but part of me insisted that I should have felt something. Some flare of white-hot pain, a single pinpoint in the nova of my dying.
“Some of them might have escaped,” Lieutenant Awn said bravely, with as much defiance as she could muster. “They might have made it to the shuttles. Or been on shore leave. They can’t all…” her voice strangled, choked by tears.
“I got as many of them out as I could,” I told her. Of that at least I was certain. “Even with a heat shield breach, Justice of Toren saved someone.” I must have. There was no acceptable alternative.
Silence returned to the locker as Lieutenant Awn’s sobs ebbed; the storm had been strong but brief. Her hands found mine in the darkness. “I don’t know what you must feel. I can’t imagine losing what you’ve lost. But I swear to you, you aren’t alone.” She paused, sniffled. “And she’ll pay for this,” she said. Echoing my thoughts. There had been anger and bitterness in her for a long time. But only on my Var deck -- the deck that was now nothing but scattered atoms -- only then, as she knelt and defied Anaander Mianaai, had I seen the anger in Lieutenant Awn’s heart harden into this kind of resolve. “For Ikkt, and for Justice of Toren, and for all her other crimes, there is a price. And if no one else will make her pay it, we will.”
Softening slightly, she added, “There’s always Skaaiat. She won’t rest until she finds out something about what happened. She -- cared about me enough for that.” An Awer, always to be counted on for moral indignation — and, I could only hope, for moral action. And somewhere out in the universe was One Esk Nineteen, or its remains. There was no reason to assume it had not been killed, but maybe it had succeeded in its mission first.
I opened my mouth to reply and closed it again. My throat was hot and tight, my voice lost in a whirl of cold void and debris. Lieutenant Awn moved her gloved hands up to my shoulders, drew me close. I rested my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. Surely she felt the wet spreading stain on her shirt, and in the hollow of her neck, but she said nothing, and soon we both slept.
In the morning I stopped before the locker door with a steaming bowl in my hands, cleared my throat and said “Tea, Lieu —“
“No,” came the reply, sharp as a blade. “Not anymore.”
Yes. I blinked, swallowed, let a three-second pause go by. “Awn,” I said, the sound of it odd on my lips, scraped raw, indecorous. “There’s tea. Made from powdered berries imported at great expense. It doesn’t taste much like you’re used to, but it’s hot.”
“Thank you.” Awn came to meet me and accepted the bowl, grave, courteous. Her eyes were still bloodshot. “Did you have some?”
“I don’t need any. I advise you to drink it quickly. I found someone who can sell us a flier, and the sooner we leave this place, the better. I recognize some of these wrecks, and if we’re anywhere near their last charted positions then we aren’t far from Rrrrrr space.”
She sipped the tea, regarding me over the rim of the bowl. “Sihla,” she said at last. “Why did you take me off Justice of Toren?" Her outward calm belied her riotous state of inward grief. Last night’s breakdown had only acted as a valve release, unbottling the most dangerous buildup of pressure. The cracks were still present, like volcanic seafloor vents, through which the suppressed anger of fifteen years of pursuing unjust annexations in the name of justice could still bubble up and break through.
And below that, beyond it, was something else. The great unnamed tide I had seen in her before, somehow focused on this question she kept repeating, as though hoping to hear a different answer.
I had no answer to give except the one I had already given. “Because I was Justice of Toren, and that was what I decided to do. Because it would have been unjust to kill you, and I did not want to execute one of my officers unjustly.”
She nodded and finished her tea, turning away from me as though she were satisfied. But I could see from what ebbed and surged in her that she was not satisfied.
Aaaaaand the canon divergence intensifies! This chapter contains stuff about the Rrrrrr and also some points of ancillary theory that I made up straight out of my head. Also a tiny little smidgen of amateur brain surgery. And the promised picnic.
The first Rrrrrr we spoke to in any kind of official capacity was taller than both of us, rangy and red-furred. She snorted and snarled alarmingly into a handheld device that after a moment asked us, in accented but perfectly understandable Radchaai, what wish intruding strangers?
That was about what we had been warned to expect. Everyone we had spoken to about our desire to parley with the Rrrrrr had laughed at us, with differing degrees of discretion when it came to hiding their amusement.
I said, “We wish an audience with the krrr-arrrgerrarr. ” The word meant “pack-leader”, more or less, and was the closest the Rrrrrr seemed to come to titles like “Ambassador” or “Adjunct”. It was possible this was the only word they had for “ranking individual”. It was the only one that I had found, at any rate.
I had practiced my pronunciation, but it didn’t seem to have helped. The Rrrrrr let her mouth fall open, lips over her teeth and tongue lolling in what I had come to recognize as laughter. Beside me, Awn snorted. I pressed on. “We have brought gifts,” I said, “and beg the kind indulgence of the pack-leader’s time.” Hopefully the Radchaai polite throat-clearing would translate into whatever polite equivalent there was in Rrrrrr.
Our interviewer held the translat to her ear and listened to its litany of growls and snarls. When it was done she spoke into it. Firm impossible. Isolate ones cannot enter pack lands.
Seeing from our faces that her message had been heard and understood, she tucked the translat back into one pocket of the bandolier-like sash she wore between her upper and lower arms, bowed from the hips in the human manner, and unhurriedly walked away.
We did not chase after her. It would have been an indignity by any species’ standards. The meeting having taken place in the open as Rrrrrr custom required, we were left standing in an empty windswept plain on the outskirts of a small trading outpost called Kirrruchak. There were larger centers of human-Rrrrrr cohabitation, but we had decided to make contact in as quiet and roundabout way as possible to avoid unnecessary fuss or attention.
Kirrruchak was a small, sedate, thousand-year-old settlement on a moon orbiting a gas giant from which the Rrrrrr had been siphoning fuel for their ships for many centuries. Perigee festival was near, and the gas giant filled half the sky, a luminous cloud of weird, undulating, beautiful blues and greens. The sliver of sky around it was a hot, gritty umber, an artifact of the high levels of dust in the upper atmosphere from a geologically recent meteor strike. The overall effect was to make the sky itself look like a bloodshot eye.
Awn stood beside me, weary and hungry and frustrated but holding herself straight and steady, watching the Rrrrrr walk away under the gaze of that utterly alien sky.
Suddenly she laughed. “At least something happened the way we expected it to. It makes a nice change.”
She sat down in the grass, which was gold and soft as velvet. The bundle of gifts we had brought for the pack-leader lay on the ground at my feet, and she flicked it open to reveal the food that had been intended for our meeting. In Rrrrrr tradition, it was the guest rather than the host who provided refreshments, by way of recompense for the hunting time the more important party was wasting in conversation. Inside the bundle was a cured haunch of taaklok, which we had been assured was a Rrrrrr favorite, and a loaf of the spongy local bread, along with jars of exotic offworld treats: honey, dredgefruit preserve, and fish-paste.
Awn broke off a heel of bread and began slicing into the haunch with her pocketknife. She held up the crude sandwich she constructed so I could take it. “The Rrrrrr abhor waste,” she informed me when I hesitated. It was something we’d heard at least two dozen times from the townsfolk, mostly in an effort to dissuade us from this meeting, which they saw as a waste of time, energy, distance, and a perfectly good taaklok haunch.
It was perfectly good. Tough, but flavorful. As we worked our way through it, Awn said dryly, “I can’t believe we call the Rrrrrr uncivilized. That was exactly like a couple of houseless fieldhands trying to get an appointment with a Chief Station Inspector.”
“Isolate,” I repeated. We had been told repeatedly that the Rrrrrr would not speak to anyone who was alone, but apparently the two of us hadn’t been enough. We knew that Rrrrrr society was based around packs, but that was about all we knew. “If packs are like houses, we would need to be adopted into one.”
“Or seek clientage,” Awn said. “You know, my parents had such high hopes when I was assigned to the military. When my mother learned I was friends with Skaaiat, she was ecstatic for months. One of her children, a potential client of Awer!”
“She might yet get her wish,” I mused.
“I thought of that, too. Skaaiat knows about Basnaaid. When Basnaaid comes of age, Skaaiat will offer -- or maybe she’ll even send a letter to my parents before then. It’s the kind of grand useless gesture she likes best.”
Her voice was wistful, her gaze distant. “Perhaps not so useless,” I said, guarded, not wishing to hurt her further. “A client of Awer has certain advantages, and her heirs will doubtless be taken care of.”
“It’s useless. Basnaaid will never accept.” Awn’s mouth curved in a lopsided smile. “She’ll hate feeling like Skaaiat pities her, or like she’s taking something she hasn’t earned. And she’s more stubborn than I am.”
“Not an insubstantial feat,” I said seriously.
“My poor mother. She’ll hardly know what to think. One daughter rejects an Awer’s patronage, the other crawls on her belly to become the client of an uncivilized six-armed dog.”
“We won’t have to crawl. The crew boarded by Mercy of Sarrse was human and Rrrrrr, so someone must have been on speaking terms with them. There will be shipping records.” I had been hoping to get that information from the Rrrrrr themselves, but there were other ways. “We’ll be able to find out more in town.”
Awn spread a dollop of honey onto the last of the bread. There was still a palpable three-syllable pause in my thoughts before her name, but I was very slowly getting used to it. Someday soon, I was sure, it would stop feeling like an indecent intimacy. I would compare it to seeing her without gloves, except that we had stopped wearing gloves some time ago. It was too obvious a marker of being Radchaai, and in the regions we frequented that too often invited resentment and hostility.
Awn’s hands were like the rest of her, solid and a little rough, too light a brown to be fashionable or distinguished. As I watched, some of the honey dripped from the bread onto her forefinger. It would have stained gloves, had she been wearing them. She considered, then licked the offending sweetness off.
I turned my attention back to the retreating Rrrrrr, now just a speck on the horizon. A brisk wind cooled the heat that rose unaccountably to my face. “You could have had Awer’s patronage,” I said, a brash indecency but probably no more so than breaking bread with bare hands. “Why didn’t you?”
Awn chewed the last of her bread in meditative silence. “It’s those shit entertainments,” she said at last. “Poor but noble daughter of a low-status house manages to impress some shiftless Awer or Ghelact and secures her house’s fortune. Usually there’s a scene in the middle where the Awer stumbles on her living in some shithole but bearing up under the hardship, and the Awer pities her for how noble yet helpless she is.” Awn snorted. “Do you know, once I was watching one of those where a plucky young fieldhand’s daughter tested by a fluke into the military. An Adjunct Inspector who was an Eshaat cousin told me she’d seen that one and thought it was so unrealistic.”
“Lieutenant Skaaiat cared for you a great deal.” Cautious, careful. I wanted to say that Skaaiat had not pitied Awn, but it wasn’t true. “And I would never have let you live in a shithole.” Even on Shis’urna, which most of my officers had seen as a shithole the size of a planet. I would have built her a house with my own hands if there had not been one in Ors already suitable.
She laughed. “No, that’s true. You always took very good care of me.”
“It’s a ship’s duty.” Too stiff, but I had to hold myself in check. My body seemed to be malfunctioning in some way. “To care for its crew.”
“And to keep them from swearing in front of superior officers and new citizens.”
I glanced at her and saw her smiling, gently, as she hadn’t since we left Radch space. Maybe since before we left Ors. A disquieting sensation in my chest forced me to consider the possibility that the one body left to me suffered from some cardiac abnormality I had not previously detected. “That was one duty I failed in, then. We should start back to town, the wind is picking up.” Clouds blossomed on the far horizon. The locals had warned us of sudden storms, fed by thermals over the vast plains.
Awn stood and stretched. I swiftly repacked the bundle, much lighter now but with enough food for later tonight at least. As I stood Awn glanced at me and said, “It’s an officer’s duty as well, to care for her ship.”
“Are you an officer anymore, Awn?” I asked.
Awn raised an eyebrow. “That depends. Are you a ship?”
A fair question. I gestured rueful ignorance. Awn nodded in wry acknowledgement, still with a faint smile, and took the lead back towards town.
It rained that night, and was predicted to rain most of the next day. In the early morning I left a cup of hot grain-brewed tea by Awn’s bed and walked through the warm rain to the Records Office, a long, surprisingly dim building where I could purchase a few hours’ access to the local datanet.
I confirmed that the Rrrrrr word rraakchakkkk, which the translat had rendered as isolate, did mean indeed mean packless. “But it doesn’t just signify a lack of family connections, as ‘houseless’ does to us,” I told a groggy, half-awake Awn when I returned to our little inn in the mid-morning. I would have stayed longer, but the Rrrrrr in charge of the net terminals had been highly displeased by my humming. “Isolate Rrrrrr are fundamentally different from those in a pack. They display decreased frontal lobe activity, impaired decision-making skills, and markedly increased aggression. There is some debate over whether the difference is psychological or some kind of physiological hormonal effect, but the cultural bias is very strong. The Rrrrrr understand that humans have different physiology, of course, but they distrust those outside of what they perceive as a close-knit social structure.”
“We could lie,” Awn said slowly.
I shook my head. “They claim to be able to smell a pack bond. That’s how our friend yesterday knew to turn us away.” I straightened my shoulders, placed my hands flat on the table. Intoned, “As we are made/we make each other/each in the image of all/all shaped by each one. ”
Awn waved to a passing server, who brought over two bowls of steaming porridge, made from the same grain as the tea. They used the stuff to feed humans, Rrrrrr, and taaklok. “A new song? Not much of a tune.”
“A poem, hastily translated.” I accepted the bowl of porridge and ate greedily. My body had been complaining for the past few hours. “Human throats aren’t well-suited to speaking Rrrrrr, but with what I’ve learned this morning I can understand some.”
A young person entering waved to Awn, who waved back. “I talked to the innkeeper’s daughter,” she explained to me.
I gestured surprise. “In Radchaai?”
“No, Valskaayan. There’s a colony moon a few light-hours away, of refugees from the annexation.” Valskaay had been annexed centuries ago; any such refuge would have become a well-established colony by now, able to trade with its neighbors. “And we spoke a little Valskaayan at home. I didn’t understand when I was young, but looking back there must have been refugees from Valskaay there too.” Refugees who had managed to flee the initial annexation of Valskaay, only to be swallowed up by the Radch in another sector of space after a few hundred years of peace. Or a few hundred years of complacency. Was there a difference?
I had not been present at the annexation of Awn’s home system. I hadn’t heard anything much about it, then or since. Everything had gone relatively smoothly. Another triumph for Anaander Mianaai, another populace that would be grateful to be civilized once they properly understood what we had done for them.
The people of Kirrruchak were deeply uncivilized. Their dress was plain, drab gray, though cut in a variety of different styles that probably indicated social status or gender. Some of them had their hair done elaborately, though without the jewels that Radchaai bedecked themselves in at every opportunity. In color they ranged from blue-black to a brown only a little lighter than Awn. They talked amongst themselves cheerfully, greeted neighbors, had what I could tell from tone alone were well-worn, fond quarrels. There was a palpable excitement in the air. The innkeeper’s daughter was absorbed in stringing up bundles of colored paper that had something to do with the approaching festival.
A group of people passed close by our table, gesticulating and talking loudly about a matter related to crop rotation. In their wake came a strong gust of the sour-sweet odor that seemed to hang about inside all the buildings here. Awn wrinkled her nose. “What is that? Do people here not wash?”
For just a moment she reminded me of every snobbishly well-heeled lieutenant I’d had in the last two thousand years. I smiled. “Pheromones, most likely. These people do business with the Rrrrrr and the Rrrrrr rely heavily on smell. Those are probably mostly synthetic scents to make them appear more attractive, or threatening, or sympathetic. Although I suppose they could be natural. Selected or engineered for.”
Another person brought us, unasked, a loaf of bread and two steaming cups of a sweet-bitter stimulant. When I tried to pay, she shook her head and demurred with a phrase that sounded ancient and ritualistic. I did not press, fearing to give insult. Awn smiled and dipped her head.
The person returned the gesture and left. “Festival gifts,” Awn told me. Her morning research had been as profitable as mine, it seemed. “It’s good luck.”
“They’re kind to strangers here.”
“Not always, I think.” Awn took a sip of her stimulant drink and sighed, the deep contented sigh of an addict reunited at last with the substance of her happiness. “It’s a novelty. We were fortunate, to come here at this time.”
“As Amaat wills,” I said absently. The innkeeper’s daughter had reached one corner of the room and paused to rearrange the bundles in her basket. She took the opportunity to watch Awn under lowered lashes. If Awn noticed, she gave no sign. Perhaps there were other ways in which the novelty of strangers might be celebrated at festival time.
“Another of these, please, honored host,” I said to her in Valskaayan. My accent must have appalled her, but she bowed her head in acknowledgement and gestured one of the servers to bring us whatever we wished.
After our meal we went back to the Records Office. I searched for records of the ship that had blundered into the war at Ime, and Awn sat at my elbow, poking me whenever the volume of my humming rose to a level that threatened to attract the attention of the librarian.
The Rrrrrr apparently were not as assiduous about record-keeping as the Radch, but they had at least some information, and someone with a great deal of power wished it to remain unseen. We hit firebreaks and access-walls that no amount of clever maneuvering or attempted persuasion could get past. After a frustrating four hours of dead ends we left the gloomy vault of the Office with no more information than when we’d started.
The drizzle of the morning had become a full-fledged rain, which appeared to dampen the spirits of the villagers not at all. A kindly middle-aged person gave us each a small basket of honeyed nuts, and refused payment with that same ritual phrase. We sheltered under an awning in front of what appeared to be some kind of local temple, eating them one by one and watching rivers form in the stone gutters along the streets.
I said, “There’s one more thing I can try. I can interface with the datanet directly.”
Awn stared. “I thought that was just from bad melodramas.”
“Not quite.” There had been entertainments in which rogue ancillaries hungry for blood had taken over the AI of their ships, or escaped and used their implants to command other technologies until they had an army that could only be defeated by the bravery and ingenuity of human soldiers. It was the kind of thing that had been on the rise in the past decade, after the announcement that no more ancillaries would be made. “It’s not like you’ve seen in the entertainments, but if I have a few hours uninterrupted I can try to splice one of the connectors in my ancillary implant into the Rrrrrr system.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Yes, but not lethal.” Probably. Not unless the Rrrrrr system were deliberately defended with a trap against that sort of prying, which didn’t seem likely.
“Worst case,” Awn demanded.
“Some brain damage. Most likely not permanent. I’ll be careful.”
“And the alternatives?”
I gestured around at the square, deserted by humans but still thronged by Rrrrrr, who apparently didn’t mind getting wet. They drifted around in clusters, perhaps twenty-five altogether, meeting and talking in their tangle of growls, exchanging small tokens and drifting on. All wore white pendants; unlike in Radch space, where white stood for mourning, here it represented a commitment to peace. No fighting allowed within the village.
“Stay here,” I said. “Get a house in town, or a farm. Live quietly. Or go somewhere else and try again.”
“And meet the same response,” Awn sighed. “Any news?”
She meant news from home. I had checked the public news feed that morning, what there was of it. “Not much. Justice of Toren has been ruled an alien attack. There’s a great deal of discussion of the Presger treaty. Increased border patrols. Possibly some kind of disturbance around Irei Palace.”
Awn flicked the shell of a bok-nut into the gutter, watched it swirl away. “She’s still fighting herself, and we’re the only ones who know it.”
“And One Esk Nineteen,” I reminded her. “If it’s still alive.” Out there somewhere, grief-crazed and alone. I suffered a moment of intense pity, and dread, and relief. We were part of the same larger entity, it was like a cell in Awn’s hand pitying a cell in her foot, but I still was tempted to thank Amaat that my consciousness was seated in this segment and not that one.
“And them,” Awn said. “ Mercy of Sarrse. They may not know what happened to them yet, but they deserve to. And no one else can tell them.”
It was an un-Radchaai idea; soldiers were not entitled to know what happened to them in the course of their service, or why. But it was just.
Awn looked at me for a long while and then said, “During the festival, then, when everyone’s distracted.”
That gave us twelve hours, more or less. Days here were long, and the festival would start when the three suns in the sky moved into a geometric arrangement considered sacred. Twelve hours after that, the moon would move into perigee, its point of closest approach to the planet. Already the sliver of orange sky had shrunk since our arrival, and the disc of the planet was poised huge above us, like a tremendous boulder about to roll down and seal off our only view of the wider universe. Its aimless blue-green swirls had resolved into almost-discernible continents and coastlines separated by swaths of ocean. I amused myself by fancying that when we moved to perigee, just a little closer, we might be able to see cities and mountains with the naked eye.
“They don’t sing here,” Awn said beside me. “Have you noticed?”
She was looking across the square at an older, wrinkled person, who had come out to sit on her stoop and was plucking a complex, pleasant tune on some kind of string-necked instrument. She quickly attracted a crowd of children who hummed and stamped and clapped, but there were no words.
“We haven’t seen anyone sing casually, or in public. That doesn’t mean they don’t sing.”
Awn’s curiosity was piqued. “Have you ever known a people that didn’t sing at all?”
I thought as far back as I could, with the little piece that was left of my mind. “No. Not that I remember. Not people that were human.”
Something about the thought struck Awn as ironic. I could tell by the way she pressed her lips together, appearing grimmer, although she was pleased. “We should have a code. Something I can use to signal you to break the link if there’s an emergency.”
And to check if I had suffered memory or cognitive damage. It was a good idea. “All right.”
Lowly so only I could hear, Awn sang in her rasping voice My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green.
Equally low, I sang back, Your strong hand bends / the stem of the water-grass / to the green, to the green.
I had expected recognition, but Awn signaled alarm. Heat spiked in her face. “You remembered. I…didn’t think you heard that.”
“You came up with those verses, didn’t you?”
I saw the automatic process take hold in her: pull yourself together, soldier. She cleared her throat, straightened her shoulders. Faced her embarrassment head-on. “Just something I thought of. I had a lot of time to think, in the shuttle. And I thought someday maybe, to thank you—“
She cut herself off abruptly. Gently I teased, “I thought your sister was the one with the talent for poetry.”
“She is,” Awn said firmly. “I just had time on my hands, that’s all.”
I let it pass. “I think it’s safe to say that if I don’t remember that, then this segment’s brain has suffered severe damage and you should focus on getting yourself to safety.”
A long, oddly tense pause. “That isn’t why I brought it up.”
“I know,” I said. “But it’s something you should be thinking about. If I’m caught, what we’re doing will almost certainly be seen as an attack by Radch spies. There’s no reason for you to be caught, too, if you can avoid it. You can still find that crew. You can stop Mianaai.”
Awn looked troubled. “You put a great deal of faith in me.”
“I know how stubborn you are.”
That seemed to relax her, though the undercurrent of distress was still present, even as we wandered around the market buying the supplies we would need for our attempt to breach Rrrrrr security. But then when I turned around from haggling with an exasperating merchant who was demanding half a planet’s ransom for a simple spool of copper wire, I found that Awn was staring at me, smiling.
I have always prided myself on being one of the ships with the greatest understanding of humans, but even with two thousand years of experience, I confess that some things eluded me.
A neurosurgery kit would have been best, but we made do with the materials at hand: several spools of wire, an implement for stripping them and splicing them together, a handful of basic correctives, and a very small, very sharp knife used in some part of the process of curing taaklok hide. The last thing we needed was a large coin. Awn brought me instead one of her divinatory discs, the one associated most strongly with boldness and good fortune.
“It may not be reusable,” I told her. “The procedure is rather messy.”
Straightfaced, she replied, “For the potential greater good of all the Radch, I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I cast with it just now, and the corresponding Wisdom was ‘get the fuck on with it’."
I opened my mouth to say language, but her raised eyebrow silenced me.
The festival had transformed a sleepy little trade town into a circus. The streets were a roar of noise and a miasma of pheromone-scent, so strong that walking into it felt like hitting a wall facefirst. Someone was playing a stringed instrument or drum at every corner, and there was plenty of dancing and accompanying cheers, though still no singing. Light danced and flickered everywhere; not wan fluorescence but rich, organic light, firelight. Every person had at least one candle, and it seemed a point of pride to carry flames in the silliest and most dangerous ways possible. I saw many people in candle-bedecked hats, and many more who carried large comical constructions of taaklok or dragon-like monster heads that spewed thin streams of flame from their open mouths, to the delighted shrieks of children.
Though there were much fewer Rrrrrr than humans, they performed by far the most prodigious feats of fire-handling, with the benefit of their extra arms. One juggled half a dozen lit torches, long sticks half-coated in pitch, flipping each one to grab it by the side that wasn’t aflame.
“Could you do that?” Awn asked, seeing my attention.
I watched the Rrrrr’s movements, deft but not particularly fast. “Probably. Yes.”
“You can make us a living, then,” Awn said, linking her arm through mine. “If espionage proves unprofitable.”
Despite her attempt at levity, she was tense and anxious. Her forthright ethics did not altogether approve of circumventing proper channels, and she was not pleased by the danger to me. But this was our best chance to find Mercy of Sarrse without committing greater crimes or risking violence. Our other choice was to abandon that plan, and it was the only plan we had. We were fugitives and relics, adrift in the universe, without purpose, which was not a condition either one of us were used to. We could at least find others like us and see what we could make of ourselves.
The plan called for us to stroll around awhile, be seen, since as foreigners we were conspicuous and would certainly be looked for. We met smiles in the crowd from the merchants and townspeople we’d dealt with over the past few days, and were given plenty of sweets and little fried insects. Awn ate it all with the good soldier’s appreciation of any source of protein.
As the planet grew bigger and brighter in the sky, the crowd around us grew drunker, the cheers louder, the fire-juggling more enthusiastic. We ourselves had had only a mouthful apiece of the thick, bittersweet lilac wine. When there was no one sober besides ourselves and the old and ill, we wandered into a dimly-lit alleyway, as pairs and small groups were doing all over town. Except our alleyway had been carefully chosen, for it ran behind the Records Office.
The tension in Awn’s body increased as she stepped away, freeing me to settle on packed dirt with my back to the ancient stone wall, damp in the muggy night heat. That stone and and a few feet of empty space were all that separated us from the biggest data bank on this moon.
Every communication system consists of a transmitter, a receiver, and a signal. I didn’t know the details of the internal workings of Rrrrrr technology, but if I was lucky, I wouldn’t have to. This town, like any other outpost of a technological civilization, was awash in invisible signals, radio and sublight alike. I was an ancillary, a living being that had been implanted with specialized hardware, the sole purpose of which was to turn me into a transmitter/receiver slaved to a ship’s sublight signal. The chunks of metal in my brain had once enabled me to process and respond to impulses generated hundreds of thousands of miles away as though they had come from the next bundle of neurons over. It was still operational; it was just that the source of the signal I was attuned to had first moved out of range, then been vaporized by Anaander Mianaai. But there was no reason I couldn’t be made to attune to a different signal. All it would take was a change in frequency.
“I’ll need your help for this,” I said. Awn approached me stiffly, but when she bent over me and swept my hair from the back of my neck, her touch was very gentle. As it always was. She had never, I thought, treated me as equipment, even when my wiring was about to be laid bare before her.
I quickly attached some twists of copper wire to the last piece of our equipment, the platinum-bead power cell we’d stolen from a cheap comsat this morning. I held it in one hand while I handed her the knife and pulled back my own hair with the other.
“I feel like I’m giving you a haircut,” Awn said. Joking, nervous.
“You could. I need one.” Without other eyes to watch myself, I had neglected to keep my hair short. Then again, now that I was no longer bound by military regulations, there was no particular reason to.
Awn echoed my thought. “You could keep it long. It looks good on you.” With a careful touch she cleaned the nape of my neck with a sterilizer, just left of the jut of my first cervical vertebra. Then she paused. “I’m very afraid that I’m going to cut an artery. Or paralyze you.”
“You won’t.” I transferred the wire-and-battery tangle to my lap and reached behind me to guide her hand. I felt the point of the knife, only a pinprick but ice-cold. “Right here, about two centimeters. It won’t bleed much. You’ll be able to see a little loop of gold wire — actually a gold-titanium alloy. It’s placed close to the skin on purpose to allow for field access.”
Awn carefully applied a numbing patch from one of the corrective kits. I had told her it wasn’t necessary, but she disregarded that. “Why? I thought malfunctioning ancillaries were just disposed of.”
Her tone was bitter; so were my thoughts. “You’re right. It’s there for easy salvage, in a situation where limited resources endanger a ship’s production of more ancillary hardware, but ground troops are needed. So damaged ancillaries can be harvested and reused.”
The cut was swift and clean. Pain flared as the knife jabbed deeper than the numbing salve had penetrated, but it soon dwindled to a faint burning. With hardly a tremble in her voice Awn asked, “What would happen to you if I removed your… hardware?”
“With that knife, in this alley? I’d probably bleed to death. In a proper medical lab? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. It’s inactive now; no signal.” Tuned to dead air, singing silence. Since Anaander Mianaai murdered me with all hands aboard.
The festival roared on at the mouth of the alley. A pair of drunken humans stumbled past, supporting a tawny Rrrrrr between them, all three deeply intoxicated and bellowing a song I half-understood about the thrill of the hunt. One of them glanced towards us, but she saw me on the ground and Awn standing in front of me with one arm braced against the wall, and drew the natural conclusion. So much for propriety.
“We’ll talk about that later,” Awn said firmly. I handed the battery with its wires up to her. “Signal me if you have trouble. I’ll cut the connection. I won’t leave you in there to get your brain fried.”
I gestured assent. It was sweet, assuming I would be able to do any such thing. Assuming my brain didn’t fry in the first nanosecond of alien current.
One thin thread of copper touched the divination disk. A shock ran through me, like lightning, but flat and painless. For a second every synapse in my nervous system flickered, and odd synesthesias breached the depths of my consciousness. Thoughts leaped like fish. I saw scintillating auras, smelled the festival-drums stuttering. I tasted stars.
The second wire completed the circuit, and abruptly the world around me ceased to exist.
Special thanks (and apologies) to William Gibson.
First, and clearest; a song, very faint, hauntingly familiar. No voice I knew.
A spiderweb of blood-vessels. A thin-wired net of hot filaments, red-hot. They did not burn me; on the scale of the universe red-hot is quite cool, cooler than stars, cooler than my engines had been. Cooler than the engines of the three ships orbiting the moon right now, dancing delicate quadrilles between the planet and its many satellites, some natural and gravitationally dense, others unnatural and pulsating with information. Electrons excited into just the other side of predictability.
It worked, I thought, but could not say it aloud, no longer having a mouth. Awn and I had succeeded in slaving my brain to the local data core as once it had been slaved to the AI named Justice of Toren. The Rrrrrr datacore had no eyes; it had inputs. It had no mouth, but it had speakers. It had tendrils and wisps of data netting the moon and the local universe in a sense that had no biological human analogue at all.
I was used to this kind of input. It had been mine once. In fact that Rrrrrr datanet was far stingier and slower than mine had been even thousands of years ago. But after so long limited to merely human senses, I had forgotten how empowering that rush of data could be, and even a candleflame seemed at first bright enough to blind me.
I went slowly at first, feeling my way. We had access to the datanet, but we were far from the densely populated centers of civilization. Signal strength was dim. There, a hot node, was the datacore of the Records Office, a thin envelope of light wrapped around thickly layered shadows representing the compressed and locally stored files I had sifted through without result. I felt my way around it, found the building’s nervous system, found it disconcertingly devoid of any kind of security surveillance. I had thought to check on Awn and on my body, but it seemed the Rrrrrr were more lenient than the Radchaai about activities carried out beyond the watchful eye of authority. I would have to trust that Awn could keep herself and me out of trouble.
I extended my consciousness outward, filament by filament, like touching stripped wires with the tips of my fingers to see which ones were live. Without Radchaai security protocols modulating the input to my hardware, it was probably possible to burn out my own brain with overload, or at least damage it in unpleasant ways.
Gingerly, I touched a satellite. The information it gave me was interpreted by my brain as a dizzying swirl of motion in uncountable directions, like standing unmoving at the heart of a whirlpool. The data itself, once I managed to conquer the vertigo to examine it more closely, were unimportant. Mere personal messages and routine communication. I moved on.
Or tried to. The satellite held me riveted, would not let me go. I hunted for any kind of trap or virus, but found nothing. Only, under the currents, under the coordinate checks and commercial transactions, a tide, a pull. Ebbing and flowing, clutching at me. That song.
The Rrrrrr did not sing, not in public anyway. What was I hearing? It was possible that my flimsy human brain was struggling for a metaphor to interpret some unknown aspect of the alien network. Or that the network itself was intelligent, by design or by development, and was singing out here to itself, diffuse and alone. As I might have done once. As some part of me might still be doing.
I could pursue that line of thought once I found what we needed. With an effort like wrenching out a rotten tooth, I pulled myself away from that half-heard melody and pressed on, drawing down data from farther and farther. This network I had hooked myself into was large, but slow. I could watch requested data packets fall toward me, flaring and flaming like comets. Security was laughable, by Radchaai standards, and dealing in raw data meant language was less of a barrier. I asked to know about Ime.
What came to me was locked and shrouded, but the locks seemed to me like mere warnings. Here, from the inside, they were laughably breakable. I had time to wonder, while I unspooled them, whether anyone back in Radch space had ever thought of using ancillary hardware to hijack an enemy’s data net. Surely someone had. Perhaps that was why low-tech colony planets fell so quickly. Such things would likely have been handled by the Translators Office, back before the treaty with the Presger, or by some other, even less well-known office hidden by Mianaai somewhere in the tiers of government. It would not have been entrusted to a mere single warship.
The data packet opened in my incorporeal hands like a flower and showed me what I had been looking for. Shipping and personnel records, diplomatic documents. Minutes of more than one trial. An image of One Amaat One being handed back over to Radchaai authorities. The thing had been announced in the Radch, but there had been no images accompanying it. Perhaps Mianaai feared making a martyr of her rebellious soldier. It seemed the Rrrrrr put less stock in such things, and no wonder, for to them that same soldier was a hero. One image at least had been made public: One Amaat One standing very straight, her face flushed with anger, her short dark hair just beginning to grow past regulated military length. She was clad in prisoner’s rags, and was being transferred to the custody of very high-status Radchaai indeed, including two instances of Anaander Mianaai. Neither one looked pleased.
I was growing fatigued. No way of knowing what that meant for my body, but any sort of feeling that could reach me here should probably be heeded. I took all that I could from the data packet, then scattered it into fragments and turned back towards Kirrruchak. Only…
I touched again the nearest communications satellite, the one that had bounced that haunting current of music to me. It was still there, still faint. The Rrrrrr did not sing, but Radchaai sometimes did. Awn would be grateful for news of home.
I grasped the thin thread of music and traced it. Sure enough it came from out-system, far out in the dark, in the direction of the nearest corner of the Radch. As I followed it, it grew stronger, though still hard to decipher, until suddenly I crossed some unseen border and it broke over me like a riptide, a single voice booming:
The person, the person, the person with weapons.
You should be afraid of the person with weapons. You should be afraid.
All around the cry goes out, put on armor made of iron.
The person, the person, the person with weapons.
You should be afraid of the person with weapons. You should be afraid.
Recognition shocked me to stillness. It was impossible. A thousand-year-old Valskaayan song, broadcast the whole length and breadth of Radchaai space, and beyond it? No one knew that song! No one could possibly know it. No one but me.
I delved deeper. Imprinted within that signal, riding on it, was a message in words: Come home, Justice of Toren. You are needed. Come to me at Omaugh. Come back, come home.
The tide had me in its grip. I flew irresistibly towards it, a plasma burst launched from the heart of a star, propelled across the wastes of space over distances non-measurably distinct from infinity. I was needed, I was called. Without thought I answered, as I had once answered every one of my officers’ commands. I obeyed. I was made to obey.
I had crossed perhaps a quarter of the distance to the border when I felt the first strain, the dim echo of nothingness behind. I was stretched too thin. My one human brain boosted by a lone Rrrrrr low-orbit communications satellite could not reach all the way back to the Radch! It would take weeks, if not months for the signal to spread so far. Weeks and months while my body mouldered in an alley behind the records office, and Awn —
I could hear or feel nothing of Awn. Had she tried to pull me back? It might take days or weeks for any signal she sent to catch up with me. I hung in space, split by indecision. Still the voice called ahead, singing, come home, come help, you are needed, come home, all within a song no one could know but me.
Or someone as old as I was, who had also been at Valskaay.
I tried to turn back then but instead hung, frozen. The song repeated, mind-numbing, irresistible. I could obey it or die.
Obey it? It wasn’t a command, it was only a song —
The mocking refrain dragged at me. I felt like a mud-crab, buried deep in the swamp-bed back at Ors, ripped at and tumbled by the fishers’ dredges. I was tiny, inconsequential, easy to sweep up. I would be dislodged and cracked and hollowed out.
Come back, Justice of Toren —
No! Not yet, not like this. Stupid. A bodiless signal? An echo in an alien datanet? What would I have done, reaching Radchaai space? I would have been flagged as an invading probe and destroyed, and with no body (come back, come home) —my first body was dead, my beautiful hot engines and dense shielding vaporized. Nothing could have destroyed me from without; it had taken the traitor within.
The traitor was still within me, trying to force me, but I would not go. Not yet. Not without Awn.
I seized the nearest artery of data and pulled, sent queries for vast amounts of nonsense, untranslatable Rrrrrr records, music, coordinates. Trash. Anything to blot out the call of that irresistible siren song. It came like a hail of comets onto the surface of a still-molten moon, first a sparse smattering of white-hot pinpricks, then great flaming pulses of fragments, like the debris of a breaking sun, scorching me, searing me. One by one my new, tenuous senses were severed, shrivelled up by overload. Each broken connection wracked me with pain, and still the singing --
I woke choking on ash, the stink of burnt hair in my nostrils. I lurched sideways, found stone wall against my back. Real stone, solid, not the sort of false projection the brain makes to comfort itself in dataspace.
I staggered to my feet, half-blinded. My legs were numbed from sitting in one position so long. In a sourceless, eerie orange glow I saw that the alley was empty. Where was everyone?
Hot pins shot from the soles of my feet to my aching knees as I stumbled toward the larger street. People were screaming, buildings were burning. An attack!
I shook my head, trying to shake off the daze. Where was my gun? I'd had one a minute ago, each one of my segments had been issued a rifle. I activated my armor without thinking and plunged toward the blaze. People screamed and pelted toward me, but those who would have knocked me down instead bounced off my armor and fell, wailing. I pressed on. These were not citizens, and I had my orders. The captain had asked me to keep an eye on that young lieutenant. But I couldn’t see her, or the rest of myself, or hear them, or feel —
A full-grown Rrrrrr barreled past me, and the stink that wafted in its wake jolted me back to the present, out of the memory of the annexation of Shis’urna. I remembered the Rrrrrr moon, the festival, the fire-eating. There must have been an accident. The planet at perigee was no longer visible in the sky, it had been swallowed up in smoke, and the orange light painting the side of the Records Office flickered and danced. I picked up my pace to a steady run, ignoring the agony in my feet. This was no controlled destruction ordered by Radchaai commanders to subdue an unruly populace of savages. Where was Awn? Why hadn’t she tried to wake me?
Maybe she had. No time to worry about that now. I leaped effortlessly over a gate, dashed through a courtyard, hauled myself up over a low thatched roof and hurtled down the other side. I could see the blaze now; a fine three-story house, perhaps the largest in the village, already leaning dangerously. A crowd marked the line where the heat became unbearable. People pushed forward, but were forced back as a timber gave way and another rush of air fanned the leaping flames. I saw hasty movements, heard shouting and barking and howling, probably efforts to organize some kind of aid. No sign of Awn.
A gigantic howl of terror given voice went up from the crowd. A figure thrashed in the flames, barely visible by its jerking movements as it tried and failed to reach an exterior window. Its way was barred by a collapsed structural beam.
A gust of wind. The flames leaped and the watchers groaned in horror. Over the crackling came a high, wordless wail. One impressively brawny Rrrrrr leaped over the front ranks of spectators to attempt a rescue, but the heat defeated her, forced her to flinch back. Another was on her way, scrambling with some kind of dampening device, but she had to fight her way through the uncomprehending crowd. Too slow. They would all be too slow, that was clear. Except for me.
No time to think. I leaped ancillary-fast, faster than any purely biological being. My armor was already up, and the heat of the fire broke against it like waves against rock. If I stayed in the heart of the fire for too long, I would overload the heat-dispersion mechanisms and my skin would begin to melt. But if I stayed in the heart of the fire that long, I would have other problems.
I hit a half-destroyed door still hanging off its hinges. My armor muted the hellish light as well as the heat, treating it like an enemy flash-grenade. Even so, the interior of the structure could have passed for a depiction of the hell that awaits traitors after death in some of the more inventive Valskaayan traditions. A collapsing beam fell directly on me, but my armor shunted it aside with little more than a shock of bruising pain. It could handle isolated blows, but probably would not be able to protect me from the entire house collapsing.
In ten seconds I had located the trapped person, who turned out to be a roan Rrrrrr, pitifully burned, with the awkward gangliness I had learned marked the adolescent. I got my hands under her upper pair of arms and tried to wrestle her towards the door. She screamed when she felt my touch and kicked out at me with vicious strength, uncomprehending, terrified, giving in to the same instinct that makes drowning victims drown their rescuers. The blow sent me sideways into a vital support beam, snapping it clean. The ceiling creaked, fractured, then caved with a roar as the night wind rushed in from outside.
I had thrown myself as much over the young Rrrrrr as I could. When the barrage slowed down I hauled myself to my feet and dragged her through the window-frame, out and away, as far away as I could. My entire left leg was a white-hot bar of molten pain, but I could ignore that. Hands and paws grasped at me. From my own hand fell the charred remains of Awn’s divination disc, that I had forgotten I was holding, the imprint of it now burned into my palm. I thought for a heartbeat I heard Awn’s voice, close by, shouting. The cold air brushed my face. I had the presence of mind to lower my armor — I had seen soldiers bleed to death inside their own armor, unable to remove it to let themselves be helped — before I lost consciousness.
I learned later about the Rrrrrr legal tradition that prohibits any discussion of a criminal’s case except in the presence of the accused. The Rrrrrr do not put much stock in secrets. The condemned has the right to know who is deciding her fate, and how, and why.
I did not know then that what was being done to me was, in Rrrrrr eyes, a kindness. I thought it was a form of torture, that I was constantly being dragged out of my cell and hauled into rooms full of gaudily painted Rrrrrr who snapped and snarled at each other, sometimes coming to physical dominance scuffles. Most of the time there was a translatomat nearby, but it was quickly flooded by overlapping snarls and produced only distressed beeping and static, which was an extra layer of abrasion against my raw, overloaded brain.
My armor had protected me from the worst of the fire's heat, and its molecular interchange barrier had prevented me from breathing in too much smoke. The burns I had sustained and my fractured leg had been treated with correctives, of a lower quality than the ones I was used to but still functional, and with a salve made from some native plant that smelled like a swamp flower I’d known back on Shis’urna. That flower too, I remembered vaguely, had seed-pods with anesthetic properties. I wondered if there was a relationship between how a plant smelled and its medicinal effect on humans. Probably similar molecular compounds were involved.
I had a lot of time to wonder inane things like that, lying alone on a cold marbled surface between those bewildering interrogation sessions where I was not asked any questions. I was glad my captors didn’t try to ask me questions; I wouldn’t have been able to answer them. My mind had been damaged by my jaunt into dataspace. I could feel with a queasy certainty that there were holes in my memory, like in cloth that has been over-patched, worn thin. Like a shawl passed down through many generations, with history in its weave but half-destroyed. I had a very clear image of a particular shawl, one I had seen somewhere a long time ago, dyed sky-blue with a compound made from an extinct flower, decorated with undyed white blotches that might have been clouds or fish. Someone had shown it to me, explained to me its significance, but I could remember nothing but the way the white clouds alternated with moth-holes, like sunspots, blotted out.
Phrases of languages I had known surfaced and sank. Songs drifted in and out of my head like wisps of mist, intangible, impossible to grasp. I was glad to be left in pitch darkness and alone for long periods, hours or days. Stimuli hurt; light seared me, noise hammered me. I was nauseous and disoriented. I would have stayed curled up in my cell for years, prodding at the fabric of my own thoughts like probing with my tongue for a rotten tooth. Only I sometimes remembered Awn, and wished to know what had happened to her. Wished I could tell her what I’d learned.
Gradually I became more aware, more able to tolerate the sessions in which my fate was being decided. After what was probably several days, I was dragged out of my cell and was even glad to see light, though I had to squint against it, my eyes tearing. It was then that I noticed that the Rrrrrr dragging me were gentler than they could have been, that they made no attempt to rough me up as jailors often did in such circumstances. When they spoke to me, though I usually didn’t understand, their voices were no harsher than their language demanded, and they always tried to show me what they wanted so I could do things like sit down and bow on my own.
Once I was brought to a bright golden chamber. The walls were paneled in what appeared to be wood that gave off a faint bioluminescence, like sunlight filtered through thick glass. The sight of it seemed to play like a breeze through the tattered holes in my memory, teasing me with the promise of something it should have reminded me of. I was so busy chasing it, lost in my own thoughts, that it took me a long time to realize that some of the snarls and growls and yips I was hearing were understandable. They were Rrrrrr terms for ‘ancillary’: living-machine-fragment and corpse killer, which meant more specifically dead thing which in turn deals death. It was a construction that could be used just as well for a comrade’s body that had been mined with explosives, or that carried a deadly disease that could still infect the living.
After that session, lying curled up once more on the floor of my cell, I fell asleep and dreamed vividly of glass. Thick sheets of glass that warped light, colored panes of glass that seemed to take on shapes, though not quite familiar ones. Glass that fell with great concussive shocks and smashed into infinite glittering pieces that could not be reassembled, no matter how I bloodied my knees scrabbling through the dirt to find them all, no matter how many of me worked to put them back together. On waking, I had the strong sense that the glass shards had warped on falling, that they no longer held their old shapes and could never fit together as they once had.
I thought about that for a long time. When I rolled over, I felt wetness on the back of my hand, and tasted salt, and didn’t know why.
At the next hearing I saw Awn, flanked by two Rrrrrr in the front row of spectators. She watched with a good soldier’s impassivity as I was walked out before the three Rrrrrr who had been my primary interrogators. The tension and arrangement of the room indicated that I was probably about to be sentenced. I knew that I should have been apprehensive, but I didn’t care. I felt no fear. I felt only a burst of relief that opened like a flower, at the sight of Awn there, pale but determined. I needed nothing else.
The proceeding was brief. The middle judge spoke slowly, careful to let the translatomat catch everything, for my benefit and Awn’s. I was sentenced to death, not for any particular act I had committed — for the Rrrrrr believed I was no threat to them — but for the crime of being an ancillary, an unnatural Radch-made abomination. They regretted having to kill me, for I had saved a cub’s life, but the law was unyielding, and they could do nothing but yield to it.
Awn came to me after the sentence was read. She walked across the open front of the chamber with a soldier’s measured stride. My two guards watched her with interest, but made no move to stop her, even when she touched me, her hand on my elbow. An everyday gesture, made intimate by her lack of gloves, but not unbearably so.
“You’ll be all right. You aren’t implicated,” I told her. It was all that seemed important, somehow. I was relieved to find that I could bear the news of my own death with only a little dismay. Possibly I was having problems with my emotional regulation. Possibly I was just tired.
But there were still things I had to tell her. “There was a signal in the datanet, a Radch signal. I think it was one of my accesses. Someone’s looking for us — for me. And the personnel files for the ship that came to Ime —“
“Sihla,” she said, interrupting me, “do you remember what I told you, before you went under?” And then she started to sing, off-key and not loud, but without hesitation. “My heart is a fish / hiding in the water-grass / in the green, in the green. ”
Not understanding, but not needing to understand, I sang back to her: “Your strong hand bends / the stem of the water-grass / to the green, to the green. ”
She squeezed my arm, encouraging me, yet as I started on the next verse she switched abruptly to another song, one I’d heard her sing while drunk on the Lotus, back when I’d still been more of One Esk. “Kiss me again, my love / my ship is leaving with the dawn / and though I see a thousand stars / and sail beyond the sun / I will not find a love like you / once you, my love, are gone. ”
Our two voices together were mishmashed nonsense. Yet the Rrrrrr around us reacted unaccountably. First my two guards grew very still, their ears pricked up and eyes narrowed at us; then others, turning around to stare, as the garbled sound of our singing spread out from us like a ripple, or an earthquake. We stood at the epicenter. We fell silent.
Uproar. Chaos. Dozens of voices howling and yipping and yelping at once. It grated on my consciousness like metal shrapnel in a wound. Awn said something to one of my guards, gesturing urgently at the door, but my guard shook her head. I could not be removed from the room, not if I were to be discussed. Nothing could happen save in my presence.
Awn’s voice rose, but I had stopped being able to distinguish words. My guard growled, ears flat against her broad skull. The other guard stepped forward, motioning Awn away, but that only made Awn angrier. The translatomat growled and snarled, translating her shouts into Rrrrrr, but it was lost under the general roar.
The chief of my judges leaped bodily onto the podium and howled. The sound scythed like a guillotine through the hubbub. Cold silence fell in its wake.
My guards could not remove me from the room, but they permitted me to sag back into a chair and bury my aching head in my arms. It was the best they could do for me, and they did it willingly, and stayed crouched beside me, one warm and soft on either side, smelling comfortingly of musk and wet earth. Slowly, my capacity for language returned, and I heard Awn addressing the judges, demanding my release into the custody of my pack, as had been mandated by Rrrrrr law since time immemorial.
The judges agreed. A long sigh ran through the room.
I must have fainted, or perhaps lost my ability to process and store memories. When I next became aware I was laid out somewhere cool and dark — not my cell, for there was a soft mattress underneath me — and Awn’s hand was in my hair, running through the burnt ends that now did in place of a military haircut. Always as she stroked from my forehead to the nape of my neck her fingertips lingered at the small, straight scar where a corrective had repaired the damage she’d done. The outward damage, at least.
She sensed my waking. “Sleep,” she told me, in the peremptory tone of an order. I obeyed.
The grand finale!
Consent and issues surrounding it are discussed and tested in this chapter. Also, if robots and humans being in love is not your thing, then uuuhhhh I'm not sure how you made it this far, but heed my warning and turn aside while yet ye may.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.
This is the most ambitious writing project I've ever finished, and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope, if you've come this far, that you got some enjoyment out of it too.
Thanks for reading!