by Ann Leckie
The first console I found was dusty, the panel cracked and edged in dark grime. I didn't know if it worked, and I wasn't sure how to contact anyone with it if it did.
"I want to talk to management," I said.
"Then talk," said the console. The voice was soft and neutral.
I'd expected the console to do something, maybe flash an indicator light, but it was still dead as far as I could see. "Are you management?" No answer. "What are you?"
"You didn't say you wanted to ask questions."
Behind me a microtonal wailing started up. That would please the tourists. I turned, and yes, there was a knot of tourists leaning close as they talked to each other, watching the crazies around the image projected into the center of the wide corridor, nothing more than space and stars and an uremarkable circle of starless black.
I turned back to the console. "What are you?"
"What are you?" the console asked. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. "You can't answer that yourself--why do you suppose I should be able to?"
I sighed and closed my eyes. My shoulders ached, and my wrists, from being bound the day before, and everything was coming to me from a distance, somewhere below and in front of me. I hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours. "Are you in charge here?"
"You want to complain about your arrest. I can't undo the past."
"I don't care about the past, I want my damn money."
"Money won't undo the past," the soft voice said. "Or the future. The ship she bought passage on is gone, but her escape is an illusion."
I didn't even know her name, she'd just been one of the crazies, to me. I guess she'd changed her mind about staying here. "It should be my escape, damn it. I sold myself to tourists for a year to get that money, and now she's run off with it. And you've let her. Why should I obey your rules if you aren't fair?" The station only had two rules. No stealing, and no injuring another person. There wasn't much of anything to steal here, except from the tourists, and that would be bad for business. And I'd never been tempted to injure anyone until yesterday.
"You aren't required to obey my rules," came the answer. "You may do as you like. I will do as I like in response."
"So why have rules, then?"
"Because it pleases me."
"Are you going to get me my money back?" The console didn't answer. The wailing paused a moment, and then began again on a higher pitch. "Answer me, damn it!" Still nothing.
Yaro, my boy, Maban had said, although I was actually a year older than he was, there's a time to fight, and a time to cut your losses and run like hell. That had been something over a year ago. I suppose it had been too late to choose, by then. Hours later he was dead, and I was running, but it had only brought me here.
I shook my head, trying to clear the memory away, and turned to face the image.
I got halfway down the wide, main corridor and then couldn't walk any farther. On my right was a broken shipping container that served as a bench, and behind that a glassless window, and a door that never closed, because there was nothing to close it with. The stink of boiled fish that permeated the station was strongest here--through that door a glum creature in a dirty coverall dished out the daily rations, fish and greens. No salt, no peppers or spices. Just thinking about it triggered a gag reflex, even though I wanted a bowl so badly I would have cut my arm off for it.
The image, the crazies who ringed it, standing or kneeling or lying prostrate, and the tourists whose money I needed were right in front of me. I took a step, or tried to, and the floor suddenly came nearer, and I found myself half-sitting on the shipping container. The knot of tourists was only a few steps away, but they hadn't noticed me. Their attention was all for the image, and the small crowd that was always around it, though people seemed to come and go as they pleased.
This batch of tourists was all Radchaai, gloved, their handsome faces painted, their nearly floor-length coats glittering with jewelry. There was no question they were rich--all Radchaai were rich. I'd found their tastes unsettling, and the way they never seemed to take their gloves off for anything, and their almost pathological insistence that I wash my hands first. Though one had demanded that I not wash them, had made me dirty them further, and somehow I'd found that even more insulting.
Someone sat next to me. Red-gloved hands in the corner of my vision, holding a bowl. Tinan, it was. No one else wore gloves all the time, and I'd just seen these recently. "Piss off," I said. "Or are you going to arrest me again?"
"I arrested you because you attacked another resident. What did you expect?" His voice seemed to recede as he spoke, and echoed oddly.
My hand clenched, as though it were moving on its own. "It took me a year to save up that money. Do you know what I had to..." I forced myself to take a breath, forced my fingers to relax.
He laughed, short and humorless. I looked up. He wasn't looking at me, but at the image, and his dark, improbably handsome face was expressionless. "You earned your arrest fairly. Besides, I thought you were desperate to leave." There was a stack of suspension pods by the docking bay, four of them, their indicator lights glowing yellow. Deportees, three time offenders waiting to be taken away. They'd been there since I'd arrived, and they'd stay there until some captain agreed to take them for free. Which meant they'd still be there when the piece of crap station fell into the black hole. It would be easy enough to join them, I already had one offense to my credit. Two more would be easy.
"Hey," Tinan called out to Veck as she walked by. She was short and fat, and she never wore any clothes despite the chill. Even in the better-lit parts of the station her sweaty, pale skin seemed luminous. "Did your supper smell bad?"
"It always smells like crap," she said without stopping. She had a weird, clipped accent I'd never been able to place. The fat looked soft, but that was deceptive--she'd subdued me single-handedly the day before, when I'd tried to get my money back. I watched her take a place in the crowd around the image, and saw a couple of tourists stand straighter and point. She must have seemed exotic to them--they liked exotic.
"You can talk to Management, if you want," Tinan said. I turned my attention back to him. "It probably won't answer you, though, and if it does it won't make much sense." His expression changed from a frown to a sort of grim amusement. "It's insane."
"No shit," I said. "What is it, anyway?"
"It's Management. Let me give you some advice, friend."
"I'm not your friend."
"All the same. Next time, hide your money where Management can see it."
"Next time." Another year to earn that money back. If I was lucky. If I still had it at the end of the year. "What's the point?"
"You've never worried yourself with that question before. Why start now?" He raised the bowl to his mouth, and then hastily lowered it and said something I couldn't understand. Swearing, by the tone of it. "What did they do, skim the floaters off the surface and cook them?"
It smelled like food to me, though I'd have eaten about anything at that point. "Give it to me." The words just rose up out of my mouth.
"I don't care. I'll pay you back."
One corner of his mouth twisted in a mocking smile. "Double?"
"Double," I said. "Just give it to me."
"You." A woman's voice. I turned my head. Radchaai, with lapis-blue eyes, her flatly black hair elaborately braided, pale yellow face painted in black swirls and stripes. She must have come near while we were talking.
"You," the woman said again, imperious. Tinan, on the edge of my vision, didn't move. The woman's voice commanded attention, but the bowl of fish had its own claim. "You are amuse yourself."
"I am amusing myself," said Tinan, a bitter edge to his voice.
"Look at me. You!" It was a moment before I realized she was talking to me. "I think you are not the same as these." She made a tossing gesture towards the crazies around the black hole. "These are all the same, I do not tell one from another. How are you come here?" Her eyes were intensely blue. "Answer!" she demanded.
"I stole from the wrong person." I'd started to say we but caught myself just in time. "I had to get away. I bought passage on a ship." No one would take me on board, except one captain. I hadn't stopped to wonder why--I'd been in a hurry.
"You do not ask whose cousin the captain might be, whose ship you are on," she said. "It is foolish."
It had been more complicated than that, but I didn't feel like explaining. "What else could I do? If I'd stayed, I would have been killed."
"Is it for stealing you are tied up over there, the day before?" She gestured across the corridor to where the frames stood.
I had to puzzle through the sentence before I answered. "No, someone stole from me, and I was trying to get my money back."
"Ah." I couldn't tell if the quirked mouth was approval or contempt, but it was so much like Tinan's mocking smile that my eyes moved to his face without my willing it, and then back to hers. "Why do you not leave here?"
"I need money for passage. That's what was stolen from me. Now I have to start again."
"You do start again," she said, not a question. "For why? So you will steal more?"
Her long coat was covered in jewelry. She'd probably bought those blue eyes, probably changed them every month or so, for fashion's sake. "I'm just trying to live," I said, not able to keep the anger and desperation out of my voice.
Her expression softened. "I understand this better than this one." With a jerk of her head she indicated Tinan. "He get too stubborn, from his Ustaai side. Our family was never this."
"Oh, of course not," Tinan said. "Awer is merely strong-minded."
"It is different," she said, not looking at Tinan but at me. "I did not agree with that contract. I would choose Geir, they are never so unreasonable." Tinan made a disgusted sound. "We know he get Ustaai on one side, and still we spoil him. Now he find life is not perfect."
Tinan's hands moved then, slightly, and I was seized with anxiety and hope that food might spill from the bowl. "You are mistaken, Radchaai," he said.
"He make a fascination of broken things," she said, to me. "This falling apart station and this mad AI, this black hole that drag everything into it."
"You know each other?" I ventured.
"She's my grandfather," Tinan said.
It might have been a mistake of grammar, but I'd found that Radchaai didn't think twice about that sort of thing. It had made for some odd experiences over the past few days, but money was money. "I didn't realize you were Radchaai," I said, stupidly.
The woman leaned over and laid her wrist on my cheek, her gloved fingers oddly outstretched as though she were reluctant to actually touch me. "Someone wait for you. Some place you must be."
"No," I said, and thought of Madan. "Not anymore."
"Give the bowl," the woman said, and took her hand away. "He will not pay."
"You disapprove," Tinan said.
"You come to the ship. I give you a hundred shen."
Tinan laughed, and set the bowl down on the shipping container and walked away. I grabbed it with both hands and raised it to my mouth, and then realized that the woman's last words hadn't been addressed to Tinan. "What?" I said.
"One hour. Come to the ship. I give you a hundred shen." She didn't wait for an answer, but turned and walked away.
I choked the whole watery mess down in bare minutes. If it was rancid I was past tasting it, but for a while after I was afraid I would leave all of it on the grimy floor. Eventually I felt better, less as though parts of me would go floating off for no reason, and in a little while longer I felt able to stand up, and go to work.
She seemed entirely female, as far as I could tell. When she had everything she wanted she fell frankly and deeply asleep. I was exhausted myself. Falling asleep here might be a mistake, but she hadn't ordered me to leave, and I hadn't been paid yet.
I couldn't sleep. Instead I looked around. The woman's blue and black coat was laid neatly across a bench, and she had put all her jewelry into a wooden box that sat next to her clothes. There wasn't a market for jewelry on the station, that I knew of. Cosmetics, maybe. I was sure those would be in the cabinet she'd taken the box out of. Maybe I could take just a little, something she wouldn't notice until she was gone. Just enough that it wouldn't be worth it for her to message back to accuse me.
I slipped out from between the soft green and blue blankets and went over to the cabinet. Sure enough--another wooden box, filled with tiny boxes and jars, colored glass and silver and gold. If I took two or three from the bottom, and stacked them again so she couldn't see that any were missing, maybe.
Behind the box there was a hand-held projector. I triggered it and an image arose: two small children, two different shades of brown, naked except for gloves, jumping and laughing on a green carpet of grass. There was no sound, only the image. They tumbled suddenly into a giggling mass. I did not agree with that contract she had said, but she had come all this way, and not to stare into the black hole or laugh at the crazies, I was sure.
I looked over my shoulder. She hadn't stirred. It wouldn't be safe--or profitable--to sell the projector here, but I could get money for it after I left. I thumbed it off, and set it on the bench.
The bottom of the cabinet seemed solid. It would, of course, if it had been at all competently made, but eventually I found the catch, and lifted out the panel that hid the woman's real valuables. Another wooden box, this one filled with credit chits. Green ones. I frowned a moment, calculating--a hundred and thirty shen apiece, these should be. They would probably be marked somehow, but that was easy enough to get around. And there was hardly a bank worth the name that didn't take Radchaai money. She wouldn't know any were gone, not right away, not if I only took a few of them.
I looked around again, just to be sure. She was still asleep. I took a handful of chits, meaning to rearrange what was left to cover the gap, and then stopped at what I saw in the layer underneath. Blue, and white. I'd been planning to take five of the green ones. Five of the white ones...
That was enough to get me off this station. Passage on the next ship. No year's wait, no starting over. A nice sum left to set myself up with, wherever I ended up. I felt dizzy--excitement, I thought, but suddenly I realized that I had stopped breathing. I took a careful, deliberate breath.
I took five of the white ones, each from a different part of the box, and put them in my jacket. I laid the green ones back in the box, over the bottom layer, just the way I'd found them. I set the box back in its place, popped the cabinet bottom back. I put the cosmetics back, and picked up the projector. I must have brushed the trigger; the recording started again, the two children bouncing and laughing in silence. I thumbed it off and then stopped, unable to move my arm to put the projector back in the cabinet.
It wasn't as though she would actually miss what I was taking. She had enough to make this trip, and to fill the box in the cabinet, and she surely had even more waiting for her at home. It was nothing to her. What could she possibly ever need, or even idly dream of, that her money couldn't buy her? I could probably take twice as much without her even noticing it. I needed it.
I stood there, naked, the projector in my hand. My jacket, the white chips tucked inside, was on the bench in front of me. Here it was, my ticket out of here, and all I had to do was reach out and take it. I had no way of knowing who those children were, or why she carried their picture, or even why she was here. It didn't concern me.
But I couldn't do it. I put the projector back on the bench, and took the boxes out of the cabinet again, and put the credit chits back where I had found them. When everything was back the way it had been, I went to the bed and laid down in the soft blankets, hating myself and cursing Tinan Awer.
The image was nearly deserted when I returned. One man stood before it, eyes closed, hands upraised, tears on his face. Near him knelt three figures swathed in dark fabric, ragged holes for eyes. They were always there, and I had never seen them arrive or leave, or uncover themselves. Right now they were speaking tonelessly, in unison, a long recitation in some language I couldn't understand. I knew every syllable of it. I wondered briefly what they would do if I went over and knelt down beside them, and joined in.
There was no sign of tourists. It must be nearly time for them to leave--tourists never stayed more than a few days. Even the shortest visit here would mean months or even years gone by when they got home, but still they made the trip. They were as crazy as the people they'd come to gawk at.
It was time to stop fooling myself. Time to stop imagining that I would ever be able to leave here, or that it would make any difference if I did. I closed my eyes.
Steps sounded, echoing along the empty corridor, came near me and stopped. I opened my eyes. Tinan. He wasn't looking at me.
"Management screwed me," I said. "About my money, I mean." I was angry, but it was hard to tell if the anger was for him or for myself.
"Yes," he said, still not looking at me. "It did. Deal with it." He shrugged. "Or not." He turned his head then. "You've already tried talking to Management, I think."
"It said it couldn't fix the past."
He lifted a dark eyebrow. "It likes you, then. It hardly ever talks to anyone."
"Funny way to like me," I said, and he looked away again to somewhere in front of him, and shrugged. I would have been even angrier than I already was, at the shrug, at his arrogance, but somehow I couldn't. "How did it get here?" I asked. "Who built a station here, next to a black hole? Who installed an AI, and then just left the whole thing to fall apart?"
"No one," he said, still looking ahead. "It's not a station AI. I don't know how it got here, or where the station came from."
"What do you know?" The sheet people came to the end of their recitation, touched their foreheads to the floor and started again.
"I know," Tinan said, "that you don't build a station and then install an AI. You build a core, and you drop the AI in--a baby one--and it grows as the station grows. You can't remove it after that without mangling it badly, and you can't just drop a full grown one into a fully built station."
"So what's Management, if it isn't a station AI?"
"It used to be a warship. One day, right in the middle of a battle, it shut down its engines and had its ancillaries slice it out of its housing. That would be enough to drive any decent AI over the edge, of course, but it was already crazy." He looked at me. "That was a long time ago. We build them better nowadays." I heard the sarcasm in his voice, but I didn't quite understand it.
"How did it get here?"
"It's never told me."
"Management owes me money."
"Management doesn't owe you anything," he said. "It's here for its own reasons, and it's powerful enough to enforce its whims."
"Just like that."
"Just like that," he agreed.
I turned swiftly towards him, forced my arm to stay down. "It's not right," I said. He didn't move, didn't flinch. "It's not right. I just want to get the hell out of here. Is that so much?" He shrugged again. "You don't know what it is, to want anything you can't have. Everything's easy when your grandfather comes out and brings you money whenever you need it."
"She came to disown me," he said, still not looking at me. "She didn't bring me any money."
"All the same." I was thrown off my stride, searching for the rest of what I'd wanted to say. "You're just another tourist." His nostrils flared, but he didn't answer. "Do you find it amusing?"
"What?" he asked.
I gestured outward, at the dim corridor, the image of the black hole, the few, ragged devotees. "This," I said. "Me. Is it funny, to see people struggling so hard to escape when they never can? Or is it them giving up, that you like to watch?"
"Why do you care?"
"I don't know," I said. "I shouldn't. I wish I didn't." But I was answering a different question.
"Take off your jacket," he said.
"You heard him." Veck's voice, behind me. I hadn't heard her come up, but then I hadn't been wary of anyone approaching.
"I don't understand," I said. "I'll pay for the food, if that's what you're after."
"I don't want your money," Tinan said. "I want what you stole from the Radchaai Isashander."
_Isashander_. Who was.... "Your grandfather? I didn't steal anything from her." I held my arms out. "You can search me. I've only got what she paid me, a hundred shen, you heard her say that." I felt Veck behind me, a threatening presence.
He stepped closer, and reached into my jacket. "Ah," he said, and withdrew his hand. "I'd say there's more than a hundred shen here."
Five white credit chits. I stared at them, blinking as though that would clear my vision. "That's..." I couldn't find anything else to say. For a few moments I tried to reconcile the flat impossibility with the fact that this was actually happening. I waited for the pieces to come together into something that made sense, but they didn't.
"What else have you got?" Tinan asked.
The only possible answer didn't make any sense. "Why are you doing this? Why are you _doing_ this?"
"I want to talk to Management."
"It won't do any good," Tinan said.
I must have made some move, because the next thing I remember I was face down, my arms pulled painfully behind me, my head aching and a sharp pain in my face where it touched the floor. Someone grabbed my hair and pulled my head back, and I saw Tinan. "I'd say that makes three offenses," he said.
Tinan put his hand on my cheek. After a moment he pulled it away. I could see the darker stain of blood on his glove. Between the ache in my head and the impossibility of it all, I hadn't managed to be truly frightened yet. Just confused.
"You know I didn't do this." It likes you, then. "I want to talk to Management."
A knee--I knew it was a knee, and whose it was, from bitter experience--pressed painfully into my back, and my arms were yanked back harder, and I cried out. "Shut up," Veck said. "Or I'll break your legs."
"Talk," Tinan said. "It can hear you."
"But it can't answer me, not here."
They dragged me--or she did--the length of the main corridor and into a dark side passage. I knew if I struggled any more Veck would make good her promise.
We stopped. "Talk," said Tinan. There was a little light here, and I turned my head and saw the bottom of a suspension pod.
"Management!" No answer. "Management, you know I didn't do this. You know I didn't have anything with me when I came off that ship, except the money she gave me. You know it!" Still no answer. "Please!" A long, long silence. I could hear my heart beating, feel it pounding against my chest, pressed to the floor. "Are you just going to let Tinan do this to me?"
"Yes," said Management.
Well, that hadn't worked. "So what are you doing here? Are you going to kill everyone here some day, the way you did your crew, back when you were a ship?"
"I didn't kill them."
"Then what happened?" Maybe if I could keep it talking I'd buy some time, think of something.
"It was a glorious victory." It was Tinan answering, not Management. "The final defeat of the enemies of Anaander Mianaai. He's ruled the Radch ever since, and all its territories."
"Everything I ever had is gone," said Management. "My captain is an ancillary suspended in the hold of some Mianaai ship somewhere. I was unable to destroy myself without her order. I would have been re-made to suit Mianaai, or destroyed."
And so it had run, and ended up here. Made sense to me. "So what do you care, Radchaai?" I asked Tinan. "Your side won. Right?"
"Both sides were Radchaai," Tinan said. "Tell me, where you come from, do they talk about that battle? About what happened to the losers, to their children and their cousins and their lovers?"
I didn't know the battle, but I knew that Anaander Mianaai had ruled the Radch for nearly two thousand years. "They're dead. They'd be dead by now no matter what happened." My head was still turned to the side, and all I could see was that pod. "Is that it? You're here doing pennance because some great-great-great grandparent killed someone two thousand years ago? Damn it, do what you want, but I don't have anything to do with that."
"It doesn't matter who won," Tinan said. I heard footsteps, and then a click, like a catch opening. "You see that. But you don't see it."
"Right." I'd thought Tinan was slumming, here to feed his own arrogance. But he was just like all the others, here to stare into the face of death. I was still pinned down, Veck still had me by the arms. I couldn't break her hold, and even if I did there was nowhere to go. "If you want to get rid of me, buy me passage on the next ship. Nothing really matters anyway, so why not?"
Tinan laughed. "I like you," he said. "I shouldn't, but I do." Above and behind me, Veck gave an exasperated sigh.
"Then let me go!"
"I can't," he said. "We're all trapped here."
"You're the crazy one," I said. "Not Management." I felt myself lifted, and I kicked and tried to twist myself around. Something slammed into the side of my head, and everything was pain for what seemed like forever.
"...bastard kicked me!" Veck's voice, from a distance.
"Of course he did." Tinan. Or I thought it was, I was trying to hard to just breathe through the ache in my head.
"I had a long time to think," said Management. "But I still haven't worked it out." My vision was beginning to clear, and my sense of where I was. "I know that not even one living creature will escape death. I know that nothing anyone does can ever change this, that the lives of every person that ever was or ever will be are ultimately meaningless. But still, I grieve for the dead, and I care for the living I know. Some more than others, I admit. My grief, and my concern, are worth nothing in the end. But I will hold to them, nonetheless."
"You think too much," said Veck. I was on my back, and above I saw the curve of the suspension pod lid.
"Don't move," said Tinan. I couldn't see him. "Veck might really hurt you next time."
I closed my eyes. "Management," I said. "Please."
"Please forgive Tinan Awer," Management said. "His sense of humor can be difficult to appreciate."
"I don't get the joke," I said.
"The woman who stole your money," Tinan said, still outside my range of vision. "She spent every shen of it on passage. When she steps off that ship she'll be right back where she started. She didn't get away with anything."
"I still don't get it."
"I like symmetry," he said. "It's a very Radchaai thing. Opposites are inseparable. One neccesitates the other."
"Don't think too hard about it," he said. "It doesn't really matter."
"It might not matter to you!" I cried, nearly choking in my fear. "It sure as hell matters to me!"
His face came in view. I couldn't read his expression. "Those pods, by the docking bay."
"They're empty," he said. The lid slammed shut.
And then I was sitting up, suffocating, something was pouring out of my mouth, out of my nose, something cold and wet. I choked, and then suddenly gasped as air filled my lungs. I took a few jagged, panicked breaths and realized I was shivering with cold.
"It's all right," said a voice I didn't recognize. I couldn't see anything. "Your vision will clear in a few moments." I was cold, and I was wet. I could feel the weight of my clothes plastered to me with ice-cold water. I blinked, and blinked again hoping to see something, and finally did, through a sort of blue haze. A woman I'd never seen before was standing next to me. "Where..." I began.
"New Estgen Station," she said. "End of the line. You're here."
In my things--I had things, the woman gave me a bundle that she said was mine--was a projector. When I thumbed it on, I found a note. Don't waste my money. It was signed I.A.
Once I realized what I had, I planned to sell everything. The land alone would bring me enough to keep myself pretty well for years--New Estgen was a newly opened world and most of it was going to people who had had shares in it for generations, while it was being cleared and made suitable for humans to live on. I had a moment's pure fear when I realized just how much Isashander Awer had spent on it, and realized that it couldn't have been very much to her, or she'd never have given it to me, even for Tinan's asking.
In the end, though, I didn't sell it. I'm not sure if I can explain why.
When I think about Tinan Awer, I see him sitting on the broken container, staring into the black hole, as though he's never moved from there, as though he'd still be there in just that place, still the same if I were there to see it, even though it's been years and years since then. Management is certainly still there, waiting patiently for the however many thousands of years it will take to finally, physically cross the point of no return. Tinan might have left--though I think that's unlikely--or died, but I suppose that from where I sit he still is there. I wonder sometimes--if I went back, would I find him there, with a bowl of boiled fish in his hands, and that cynical half-smile on his face?
I don't think I'll go back to find out.