Ancillary Sword: Chapter 2

The tyrant had said our backgrounds were similar, and in some ways they were. She was—and I had been—composed of hundreds of bodies all sharing the same identity. From that angle, we were very much the same. Which some citizens had noted (though only relatively recently, within the last hundred or so years) during arguments about the military’s use of ancillaries.

It seemed horrible when one thought of it happening to oneself, or a friend or relative. But the Lord of the Radch herself underwent the same, was arguably in some ways the same sort of being as the ships that served her, so how could it possibly be as bad as detractors claimed? Ridiculous to say that all this time the Radch had been anything less than entirely just.

One of a triad, that word. Justice, propriety, and benefit. No just act could be improper, no proper act unjust. Justice and propriety, so intertwined, themselves led to benefit. The question of just who or what benefited was a topic for late-night discussions over half-empty bottles of arrack, but ordinarily no Radchaai questioned that justice and propriety would ultimately be beneficial in some gods-approved way. Ever, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, questioned that the Radch was anything but just, proper, and beneficial.

Of course, unlike her ships, the Lord of the Radch was a citizen—and not only a citizen but ruler of all the Radch, absolute. I was a weapon she had used to expand that rule. Her servant. In many ways her slave. And the difference went further. Every one of Anaander Mianaai’s bodies was identical to all the others, clones, conceived and grown for the express purpose of being parts of her. Each of her thousands of brains had grown and developed around the implants that joined her to herself. For three thousand years she had never at any time experienced being anyone but Anaander Mianaai. Never been a single-bodied person—preferably in late adolescence or early adulthood, but older would do—taken captive, stored in a suspension pod for decades, maybe even centuries, until she was needed. Unceremoniously thawed out, implant shoved into her brain, severing connections, making new ones, destroying the identity she’d had all her life so far and replacing it with a ship’s AI.

If you haven’t been through it, I don’t think you can really imagine it. The terror and nausea, the horror, even after it’s done and the body knows it’s the ship, that the person it was before doesn’t exist anymore to care that she’s died. It could last a week, sometimes longer, while the body and its brain adjusted to the new state of affairs. A side effect of the process, one that could possibly have been eliminated, presumably it could have been made a good deal less horrific than it was. But what was one body’s temporary discomfort? One body out of dozens, or even hundreds, was nothing, its distress merely a passing inconvenience. If it was too intense or didn’t abate in a reasonable amount of time, that body would be removed and destroyed, replaced with a new one. There were plenty in storage.

But now that Anaander Mianaai had declared that no new ancillaries would be made—not counting the prisoners still suspended in the holds of the huge troop carriers, thousands of bodies frozen, waiting—no one need concern themselves with the question at all.

As captain of Mercy of Kalr, I had quarters all to myself, three meters by four, lined all around with benches that doubled as storage. One of those benches was also my bed, and inside it, under the boxes and cases that held my possessions, was a box that Ship couldn’t see or sense. Human eyes could see it, even when those eyes were part of an ancillary body. But no scanner, no mechanical sensor could see that box, or the gun inside, or its ammunition—bullets that would burn through anything in the universe. How this had been managed was mysterious—not only the inexplicable bullets, but how light coming from the box or the gun might be visible to human eyes but not, say, to cameras, which in the end worked on the same principles. And Ship, for instance, didn’t see an empty space where the box was, where something ought to have been, but instead it saw whatever it might have expected would occupy that space. None of it made any sense. Still, it was the case. Box, weapon, and its ammunition had been manufactured by the alien Presger, whose aims were obscure. Whom even Anaander Mianaai feared, lord as she was of the vast reaches of Radch space, commander of its seemingly endless armies.

Mercy of Kalr knew about the box, about the gun, because I had told it. To the Kalrs who served me, it was just one box among several, none of which they’d opened. Had they really been the ancillaries they sometimes pretended to be, that would have been the end of it. But they were not ancillaries. They were human, and consumingly curious. They still speculated, looked lingeringly, when they stowed the linens and pallet I slept on. If I hadn’t been captain—even weightier, fleet captain—they’d have been through every millimeter of my luggage by now, twice and three times, and discussed it all thoroughly among themselves. But I was captain, with the power of life and death over my entire crew, and so I was granted this small privacy.

This room had been Captain Vel’s, before she’d chosen the wrong side in the Lord of the Radch’s battle with herself. The floor covering and the cloths and cushions that had covered the benches were gone, left behind us at Omaugh Palace. She’d had the walls painted with elaborate scrollwork in purples and greens, a style and a palette that she’d taken from a past era, one presumably nobler and more civilized than this one. Unlike Captain Vel, I had lived through it and didn’t much regret its loss. I’d have had it removed, but there were other, more urgent concerns, and at least the paint didn’t extend any farther than the captain’s quarters.

Her gods, which had sat in a niche under the ship’s gods—Amaat, of course, chief of Radchaai gods, and Kalr, part of this ship’s name—I had replaced with She Who Sprang from the Lily, an EskVar (the Emanation of beginning and ending), and a small, cheap icon of Toren. I had been fortunate to find that. Toren was an old god, not popular, nearly forgotten except by the crews of the ships that bore the name, none of them stationed near here, and one of them—myself—destroyed.

There was room for more gods, there always was. But I didn’t believe in any of them. It would have looked odd to the crew if I’d had none besides the ship’s, and these would do. They were not gods to me, but reminders of something else. The crew wouldn’t know or understand that, and so I burned incense to them daily, along with Amaat and Kalr, and just like those gods they received offerings of food and enameled brass flowers that had made Five frown when she’d first seen them, because they were cheap and common and not, she thought, what a Mianaai and a fleet captain ought to offer to her gods. She’d said so to Kalr Seventeen, obliquely, not mentioning my name or title. She didn’t know I was an ancillary, didn’t know how easy it was, because of that, for Ship to show me what she felt, what she said, wherever she said it, whenever I wished. She was confident Ship would keep her gossip secret.

Two days after we gated, on our way to Athoek in our own tiny, isolated fragment of universe, I sat on the edge of my bed drinking tea from a delicate, deep rose glass bowl while Kalr Five cleared away the omens and the cloth from the morning’s cast. The omens had indicated continuing good fortune, of course, only the most foolish of captains would find any other sort of pattern in the fall of those metal discs on the cloth.

I closed my eyes. Felt the corridors and rooms of Mercy of Kalr, spotless white. The whole ship smelled comfortingly and familiarly of recycled air and cleaning solvent. Amaat decade had scrubbed their portion of those corridors, and the rooms they were responsible for. Their lieutenant, Seivarden, senior ofMercy of Kalr’s lieutenants, was just now finishing her inspection of that work, giving out praise and remonstrance, assignments for tomorrow, in her antiquely elegant accent. Seivarden had been born for this work, had been born with a face that marked her as a member of one of the highest houses in the Radch, distant cousins to Anaander Mianaai herself, wealthy and well-bred. She had been raised with the expectation that she would command. She was in many respects the very image of a Radchaai military officer. Speaking with her Amaats, relaxed and assured, she was nearly the Seivarden I’d known a thousand years ago, before she’d lost her ship, been shoved into an escape pod by one of its ancillaries. The tracker on the pod had been damaged, and she had drifted for centuries. After she’d been found, and thawed, and discovered that everyone she’d ever known was dead, even her house no longer existent and the Radch changed from what she’d known, she’d fled Radchaai space and spent several years wandering, dissipated, aimless. Not quite willing to die, I suspected, but hoping in the back of her mind to meet with some fatal accident. She’d gained weight, since I’d found her, built back some of her lost muscle, looked considerably healthier now, but still somewhat the worse for wear. She’d been forty-eight when her ship’s ancillaries had pushed her into that escape pod. Count that thousand frozen years and she was the second oldest person aboard Mercy of Kalr.

Next in seniority, Lieutenant Ekalu stood watch in Command with two of her Etrepas. It wasn’t theoretically necessary for anyone to stand any sort of watch, not with Mercy of Kalr always awake, always watching, constantly aware of the ship that was its own body and of the space around it. Especially in gate space, where nothing untoward—or, honestly, even interesting—was likely to happen. But ship systems did sometimes malfunction, and it was a good deal quicker and easier to respond to a crisis if the crew was already alert. And of course dozens of people packed into a small ship required work to keep them disciplined and busy. Ship threw up numbers, maps, graphs in Lieutenant Ekalu’s vision, murmured into her ear, information mixed now and then with friendly encouragement. Mercy of Kalr liked Lieutenant Ekalu, had confidence in her intelligence and ability.

Kalr was captain’s decade, my own. There were ten soldiers in all the other decades on Mercy of Kalr, but there were twenty in Kalr. They slept on a staggered schedule, because also unlike the other decades, Kalr was always on duty, a last remnant of the days when Ship had been crewed by ancillary bodies, when its soldiers had been fragments of itself and not dozens of individual human beings. The Kalrs who had awakened just now, as I had, were assembled in the soldiers’ mess, white-walled, plain, just big enough for ten to eat and space to stack the dishes. They stood, each by their dish of skel, a fast-growing, slimy, dark-green plant that contained any nutrients a human body needed. The taste took some getting used to if you hadn’t grown up on it. A lot of Radchaai had in fact grown up on it.

The Kalrs in the soldiers’ mess began the morning prayer in ragged unison. The flower of justice is peace. Within a word or two they settled into step, the words falling into familiar rhythm.The flower of propriety is beauty in thought and action.

Medic—she had a name, and a nominal rank of lieutenant, but was never addressed by either—was attached to Kalr, but was not Kalr Lieutenant. She was, simply, Medic. She could be—had been, would be in another hour—ordered to stand a watch, and two Kalrs would stand that watch with her. She was the only one of Captain Vel’s officers remaining. She would have been difficult to replace, of course, but also her involvement in the previous week’s events had been minimal.

She was tall and spare, light-skinned by Radchaai standards, hair enough lighter than brown to be slightly odd, but not the sort of striking shade that might have been artificial. She frowned habitually, though she wasn’t ill-tempered. She was seventy-six years old and looked much the same as she had in her thirties, and would until she was past a hundred and fifty. Her mother had been a doctor, and her mother before that, and her mother before that. She was, just now, extremely angry with me.

She’d woken determined to confront me in the short time before she went on watch, had said the morning prayer in a rushed mutter as soon as she’d rolled out of bed. The flower of benefit is Amaat whole and entire. I had turned my attention away from Kalr in the soldiers’ mess, but I couldn’t hear the first lines without hearing the rest. I am the sword of justice…Now Medic stood silent and tense by her own seat in the decade room, where the officers ate.

Seivarden came into the decade room for what would be her supper, smiling, relaxed, saw Medic waiting, stiff and impatient, frowning more intensely than usual. For an instant I saw irritation in Seivarden, and then she dismissed it, apologized for her tardiness, got a mumbled, perfunctory it’s nothing in return.

In the soldiers’ mess Kalr finished the morning prayer, mouthed the extra lines I’d ordered, a brief prayer for the dead, and their names. Awn Elming. Nyseme Ptem, the soldier who had mutinied at Ime, preventing a war with the alien Rrrrrr, at the cost of her own life.

Bo decade slept in what was more an alcove than a room, barely large enough for their ten close sleeping bodies, no privacy, no individual space, even in their beds. They twitched, sighed, dreamed, more restless than the ancillaries that had once slept there.

In her own tiny quarters, their lieutenant, the very young, impossibly lilac-eyed Lieutenant Tisarwat, slept as well, still and dreamless, but with an underlying current of unease, adrenaline just a touch higher than it ought to be. That should have awakened her, as it had the night before, but Medic had given her something to help her sleep.

Medic bolted her breakfast, muttered excuses, and all but stormed out of the decade room. “Ship,” she messaged, fingers twitching emphatically, gesturing the words. “I want to speak to the fleet captain.”

“Medic’s coming,” I said to Kalr Five. “We’ll offer her tea. But she probably won’t take it.” Five checked the level of tea in the flask and pulled out another of the rose glass bowls. I suspected I wouldn’t see my old enameled set again unless I specifically ordered it.

“Fleet Captain,” said Mercy of Kalr directly into my ear, and then showed me an Amaat on her way to the soldiers’ mess, singing softly to herself, one of those collections of inconsequential nonsense children from nearly anywhere sing. “It all goes around, it all goes around, the planet goes around the sun, it all goes around. It all goes around, the moon goes around the planet…” Thoughtless and off-key.

In my quarters Kalr Five stood stiffly at attention, said in an expressionless voice, “Medic requests permission to speak with you, Fleet Captain.”

In the corridor, the Amaat, hearing the step of another Amaat behind her, fell silent, suddenly self-conscious. “Granted,” I said to Five, needlessly of course, she already knew I planned to speak with Medic.

The door opened and Medic entered, a bit more abruptly than was strictly proper. “Fleet Captain,” she began, tight and furious.

I raised a forestalling hand. “Medic. Sit. Will you have tea?”

She sat. Refused tea. Kalr Five left the room at my order, just the tiniest bit resentful at missing whatever Medic had to say, which showed every sign of being something interesting. When she was gone, I gestured to Medic, sitting tense across the table from me. Go ahead.

“Begging the fleet captain’s indulgence.” She didn’t sound at all as though she cared whether I’d give it or not. Under the table, she clenched her gloved hands into fists. “Fleet Captain. Sir. You’ve removed some medications from Medical.”

“I have.”

That stopped her momentum, briefly. She had, it seemed, expected a denial. “No one else could have done it. Ship insisted they’d never left inventory, and I’ve looked at the logs, at the recordings themselves, I’ve been all through them, and there’s no record of anyone taking them. There’s nobody else on board who could hide that from me.”

I feared that was no longer true. But I didn’t say that. “Lieutenant Tisarwat came to you yesterday at the end of her shift and asked you for help with some minor nausea and anxiety.” Two days ago, some hours after we’d gated, Lieutenant Tisarwat had begun to feel stressed. Slightly sick. Had found herself unable to eat much of her supper that evening. Her Bos had noticed, of course with concern—the problem with most seventeen-year-olds was feeding them enough, not tempting them to eat. They had decided, among themselves, that she was homesick. And distressed by my obvious anger at her presence. “Are you worried for her health?”

Medic nearly started up out of her seat in indignation. “That’s not the point!” Recollected whom she was speaking to. “Sir.” Swallowed, waited, but I said nothing. “She’s nervous. She reads as under some emotional stress. Perfectly understandable. Perfectly normal for a baby lieutenant on her first assignment.” Realized, as she was speaking, that I probably had extensive experience of what was normal for very young lieutenants on their first assignments. Regretted speaking, regretted, momentarily, coming here to confront, to accuse me. Just for an instant.

“Perfectly normal under the circumstances,” I agreed, but I meant something different.

“And I couldn’t help her because you’d taken every single med I might have given her.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged. “I had. Was there anything in her system when she arrived?” I already knew what the answer would be, but I asked anyway.

Medic blinked, surprised by my question, but only for an instant. “She did look as though maybe she’d taken something, when she came to Medical from the shuttle. But there was nothing when I scanned her. I think she was just tired.” A tiny shift in her posture, a change in the emotions I read coming from her, suggested she was considering, now, the significance of my question, the odd, small mismatch of how Lieutenant Tisarwat had looked, to her professional eye, and what the readings had said.

“Any recommendations or orders to dispense medication, in her file?”

“No, nothing.” Medic didn’t seem to have come to any conclusion. Much less the one I’d come to. But she was curious now, if still angry along with it. “Recent events have been stressful for all of us. And she’s very young. And…” She hesitated. Had, perhaps, been about to say that by now everyone on board knew I’d been very angry when Lieutenant Tisarwat had been assigned to Mercy of Kalr. Angry enough to stop singing for several hours.

By now the whole crew knew what that meant. Had begun, even, to find it comforting to have such an obvious way to know if everything was as it should be. “You were going to say?” I asked, my expression and voice as noncommittal as I could make them.

“I think she feels like you don’t want her here, sir.”

“I don’t,” I said. “As it happens.”

Medic shook her head, not understanding. “Begging the fleet captain’s indulgence. You might have refused to take her.”

I might have refused to take her. Might have left her on the palace docks, when Mercy of Kalr’s shuttle left, and never come back for her. I had seriously considered doing that. Skaaiat would have understood, I was sure, would have contrived to discover that not a single docked ship could fetch the young lieutenant out to Mercy of Kalr until it was too late. “You gave her something?”

“Something to help her sleep. It was the end of the day for her. It was all I could do.” That galled Medic, not only that I had interfered in her domain, but that she had been unable to help.

I couldn’t help a quick, momentary look. Lieutenant Tisarwat, asleep but not deeply. Not restfully. Still tense, still that quiet background of unease. “Medic,” I said, returning my attention to where I was, “you have every right to be angry with me. I expected you to be angry, and expected you to protest. I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t.” She blinked, puzzled, hands still clenched in her lap. “Trust me.” There wasn’t much more I could say, just yet. “I am an unknown quantity, I am… not the sort of person who’s generally given command.” A flicker of recognition on Medic’s face, slight revulsion and then embarrassment at having felt that, where she knew I could see it, knew I was almost certainly watching her response. Medic had repaired my implants, which I had deactivated and damaged, to hide them. Medic knew what I was, as no one else aboard but Seivarden knew. “But trust me.”

“I don’t have a choice, do I, sir? We’re cut off until we reach Athoek, there’s no one I can complain to.” Frustrated.

“Complain at Athoek when we get there. If you still want to.” If there was anyone there to complain to, that would do any good.

“Sir.” She rose, bit back whatever else she’d wanted to say. Bowed stiffly. “May I go?”

“Yes, of course, Medic.”

Lieutenant Tisarwat was a problem. Her official personal history, a dry recitation of facts, said she’d been born and raised on a planet, the third child of one parent and the second of another. She’d had the sort of education any well-off, moderately well-born Radchaai had. Done well at math, had an enthusiasm but no gift for poetry, lacked both for history. She had an allowance from her parents but no expectations to speak of. She’d gone into space for the first time when she’d left for training.

Reading between the lines, she had been born not to take some particular place in her house, or inherit anyone’s wealth and position, or fulfill any particular expectations, but for her own sake, and no doubt her parents had loved her and cosseted her right up to the day she’d left for the military. Her correspondence with her parents confirmed this. Her siblings, all older, seemed not to resent her position as favorite, but took it in stride and petted her nearly as much as their parents did.

Flighty, Skaaiat Awer had said of her. Frivolous I had thought on seeing the certainly purchased color of her eyes, and the aptitudes data in her file suggested the same. That data did not suggest self-possessed. Nor did it suggest the nervous gloom she’d displayed since shortly after boarding Mercy of Kalr.

Her trainers had met her sort before, been hard on her on account of that, but not cruelly so. Some of them no doubt had baby sisters of their own, and after all she was destined for an administrative post. It hardly mattered if in microgravity she could never keep her supper down—plenty of other new lieutenants had the same problem, particularly if they had little experience in space.

Two days before, while Tisarwat had sat being examined in Medical, while Ship made the connections that would let it—and me—read her like it could every other member of the crew, her Bos had gone over every millimeter of her luggage and come to fairly accurate conclusions about her history. They were prepared to be disgusted with her ignorance, a baby fresh from training, a matter for mocking and exasperation, yes. But also for sympathy, and some anticipatory pride. Her Bos would be able to claim credit for any of Tisarwat’s future accomplishments, because after all they would have raised her. Taught her anything she knew that was really important. They were prepared to be hers. Wanted very much for her to turn out to be the sort of lieutenant they would be proud to serve under.

I so very much wanted my suspicions not to be true.

Watch was, of course, uneventful. Medic went from our conference to Command, still angry. Seivarden’s Amaats were exercising, bathing, would soon be climbing into their own beds, settling into their accustomed places with shoves and the occasional indignant whisper—there wasn’t much room to stretch out. Ekalu’s Etrepas scrubbed the already near-spotless rooms and corridors they were responsible for. Lieutenant Tisarwat wouldn’t wake for nearly four hours.

I went to the ship’s small gym, a few last Amaats scurrying out of my way. Worked out, hard, for an hour. Went, still angry, still sweaty from exercise, to the firing range.

It was all simulation. No one wanted bullets flying on a small ship, not with hard vacuum outside the hull. The targets were images Ship cast on the far wall. The weapon would bang and recoil as though it had fired real bullets, but it shot only light. Not as destructive as I wanted to be, that very moment, but it would have to do.

Ship knew my mood. It threw up a quick succession of targets, all of which I hit, nearly unthinking. Reloaded—no need to reload, really, but there would be if this had been a real weapon, and so the training routines demanded it. Fired again and again, reloaded again, fired. It wasn’t enough. Seeing that, Ship set the targets moving, a dozen of them at a time. I settled into a familiar rhythm, fire, reload, fire, reload. A song came into my mind—there was always a song, with me. This one was a long narrative, an account of the final dispute between Anaander Mianaai and her erstwhile friend, Naskaaia Eskur. The poet had been executed fifteen hundred years ago—her version of the event had cast Anaander as the villain and ended with the promise that the dead Naskaaia would return to revenge herself. It had been almost utterly forgotten inside Radch space, because singing it, possibly even knowing it existed, could easily cost a citizen a thorough reeducation. It still circulated some places outside Radch influence.

Betrayer! Long ago we promised

To exchange equally, gift for gift.

Take this curse: What you destroy will destroy you.

Fire, reload. Fire, reload. Doubtless little of the song—or any other on the same subject—had any basis in fact. Doubtless the event itself had been quite mundane, not so poetically dramatic, ringing with mythic and prophetic overtones. It was still satisfying to sing it.

I came to the end, lowered my weapon. Unbidden, Ship showed me what was behind my back—three Etrepas crowding the entrance to the firing range, watching, astonished. Seivarden, on her way to her own quarters and bed, standing behind them. She could not read my mood as closely as Ship could, but she knew me well enough to be worried.

“Ninety-seven percent,” said Ship, in my ear. Needlessly.

I took a breath. Stowed the weapon in its niche. Turned. The expressions of the three Etrepas turned instantly from astonishment to blank, ancillary-like expressionlessness, and they stepped back into the corridor. I brushed past them, out into the corridor and away, toward the bath. Heard one Etrepa say, “Fuck! Is that what Special Missions is like?” Saw the panic of the others—their last captain had been very strict about swearing. Heard Seivarden, outwardly jovial, say, “Fleet Captainis pretty fucking badass.” The vulgarity, combined with Seivarden’s archaic, elegant accent, set them laughing, relieved but still unsettled.

Mercy of Kalr didn’t ask me why I was angry. Didn’t ask me what was wrong. That in and of itself suggested my suspicions were correct. I wished, for the first time in my two-thousand-year life, that I was given to swearing.

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3