Actions

Work Header

Jettison the Proud Cargo

Work Text:

"I'm glad we'll be working more closely together, Lieutenant," said Lieutenant Skaaiat. The aristocratic voice of the officer in command of Justice of Ente Seven Issa was warm and sincere and effortlessly well-bred.

"I as well, Lieutenant." Lieutenant Awn spoke slowly in order to broaden her vowels as much as possible. I could see how stiffly upright she sat, and that her pulse was slightly elevated. She very much wanted to make a good impression on Lieutenant Skaaiat. This was not their first meeting; my Esk decades had frequently coordinated action with Justice of Ente Issa in the three years since the annexation of Shis'urna had begun. But the planet was now sufficiently pacified to reduce the military presence, and that occasioned changes in command structures. Justice of Ente's decades of human soldiers had been redeployed around the planet, replacing, in most cases, larger contingents of ancillaries. Half of my Esk ancillaries and their officers would return to Justice of Toren over the coming months, to be followed by still more if the pace of pacification continued as scheduled.

When Lieutenant Skaaiat's call had interrupted her, Lieutenant Awn had in fact been occupied with composing recommendations for Decade Commander Tiamat about which officers should stay and which return. It was a delicate task. Any officer who was sent off active duty would be resentful and perceive a slight, and there was more than one officer whose pride it might be dangerous to Lieutenant Awn's career to injure. But the safest course -- order of seniority -- would imply a lack of diligence and authority. Had Lieutenant Awn asked, I could have provided her with any number of rankings on "objective" grounds like commendations earned or fewest civilians killed, and I could also have predicted the list that the Lieutenant would eventually draw up -- both the one that would have reflected her frankest judgment and the modified, more politic set of recommendations she would send to the Decade Commander. Lieutenant Awn had not asked for my advice, of course, and I would not have expected her to.

Still, she had not been sorry to set the puzzle aside to congratulate Lieutenant Skaaiat on having been given command of the territory between the district capital at Kould Ves and the city of Ors that was Awn's own command.

I did not receive data from Lieutenant Skaaiat as I did from my own officers, but it seemed that she was showing less of the aristocratic ease than she usually displayed. "And I think-- " she paused to set down her bowl of tea and smiled as if to include Lieutenant Awn in a private joke. "I think it will be beneficial to 'jettison the proud cargo.'"

 For a very brief moment, consternation flashed across Lieutenant Awn's face, probably unreadable to someone who was not used to her expressions. She could tell that it was a line of poetry, and could guess at what Lieutenant Skaaiat meant by quoting it, but she did not recognize the poem or the context for the line. I knew both, of course. An exhortation from an epic some fourteen thousand years old, the tale of a captain of a scout ship whose adventures among pirates, aliens, and strange uncivilized humans were gradually revealed as steps in a quest to understand and acquiesce to the mind of God. It had been famous in its time, and was still part of the schooling of Radchaai of a certain class. Lieutenant Awn did not come from that class, and her knowledge of poetry was spotty, beyond the classics that everyone knew.

In Lieutenant Awn's ear, I named the author, the poem and the episode, and I repeated the lines that Lieutenant Skaaiat had cited:

Jettison the proud cargo;
glass and flowers will be offerings given early;
turn and let us defend
this isolated bastion of civilization
in the void.

Thank you, Ship, she said silently, but her unease didn't go away. She took a sip of her own tea, drinking slowly to buy time. I could see that she wanted very much to agree with Lieutenant Skaaiat -- I knew her feelings about certain of her fellow Esk lieutenants -- but strict propriety and her keen sense of the precariousness of her position would be arguing against it.

"'Turn then, and let us defend?'" Lieutenant Awn asked after another moment, and she dared a raised eyebrow and a smile of her own. Then, dropping back to her usual seriousness. "To speak quite frankly, Lieutenant, there are many good officers whom I will be sorry to see sent back."

Lieutenant Skaaiat nodded gravely at that, in a way that indicated that she understood Awn's carefully constructed sentence and not entirely logical sentence.

I also -- I One Esk, that is -- bundled a query about Lieutenant Skaaiat into the next regular data transmission from Justice of Toren to Justice of Ente, which was to be sent four seconds later. When I say it like that, it sounds as though it was something underhand, unusual. It wasn't. It isn't even really accurate to say that I did this as One Esk as if that could be distinct from what I did as Justice of Toren. I was at no point unaware of the whole of myself, but it is true to say that the impulse originated in One Esk, the way that a feeling perceived by a human body's brain might be caused by a nerve stimulated in the arm or finger.

Special queries from from one ship to another were also perfectly ordinary. During an annexation, ships working in close proximity regularly traded data about their officers, checking and cross-checking where our own ancillaries might fall out of action and blind us. Other things, as well. I didn't know the officers of Justice of Ente the way I know my own lieutenants, but I had learned their names and their houses, and who their cousins were, and a good deal of other, mostly irrelevant data, but I learned it and kept it because it was not always irrelevant to my officers.

 Lieutenant Awn had herself asked me about Lieutenant Skaaiat, not long after their first stint working together during the initial stages of pacification. Ordinary things: her public record, details about her family, which officers on Justice of Toren were cousins or cousins of clients within a degree too subtle to be common knowledge but too near to risk inadvertently gossiping in front of. These were all things Lieutenant Awn could have asked one of her fellow Esk lieutenants, Lieutenant Dariet for example, who was fond both of gossip and of Awn and discreet besides. But my senior Esk lieutenant was sensitive about what she perceived as deficiencies in her knowledge, and about what people might say if they learned that she, the daughter of cook, gave even a thought to a daughter of Awer. So she had put her questions to me, instead. I had answered them, mostly from my own knowledge, but I had queried for and received some information from Justice of Ente. That sort of information exchange was also very routine. During the annexation of Shis’urna and the period after the annexation, I received personnel information from Justice of Ente 78 times, and I provided it on 83 occasions. I had given Lieutenant Awn’s record to Justice of Ente not long before I requested Lieutenant Skaaiat’s. I never learned with complete certainty what had prompted Justice of Ente to ask me about Lieutenant Awn.

This was a query of a different sort, a more personal request for information and one not prompted by any of my lieutenants, at least not directly or consciously. 

"But even so," continued Lieutenant Awn, still very formal, "I cannot regret that the annexation has already progressed so far that fewer of us are needed maintain the pacification. Arrests have dropped off dramatically, these last few months, and good order among the populace allows us to concentrate on serious problems like coordinating food distribution and reforming agricultural practices." Lieutenant Awn realized as she spoke that she sounded like she was delivering a report (the last report that Awn had sent had indeed had approximately this content) and not like the light conversation she intended. Heat rose to her face, although her skin was dark enough that the blush was not very apparent.

Skaaiat raised an eyebrow. "Yes," she said in her well-bred drawl, "And I imagine that the last round of transportations has helped considerably with that." In fact, only slightly more than one hundred persons from Ors proper, nearly all of them from the Lower City, had been put in suspension to be transported to other planets and stations in Radchaai space. 

"I suppose so," said Lieutenant Awn. In the interests of keeping the peace, Awn had permitted the Divine of Ikkt, the local religious authority, to hold a memorial service for the families of the transportees, although she had quite properly forbidden displays of mourning. But her assurances that the Orsians who had been transported should be considered fortunate to have new lives as Radchaai citizens had not availed, and the negotiation with the Divine had left her tense and unhappy.

I brought a fresh flask of tea and refilled Lieutenant Awn's bowl. Lieutenant Skaaiat's bowl was also empty. I set the flask down and returned to stand at attention by the wall.

(While I waited for Justice of Ente's acknowledgment and response, I was also cleaning weapons in the room of Lieutenant Awn's house that served as the armory. In another room, I was mending one of the lieutenant's shirts. I was changing the linen in the quarters of the other Esk Lieutenants, and also in that house, formerly a dormitory for visiting priests, my bodies were sleeping, washing, scrubbing the floor, handing a lieutenant tea. I was receiving dictation from Lieutenant Dariet, who sent a message to her grandmother every two days, even after thirteen years in the military. On a small street in the lower city, I was restraining a kneeling Orsian for questioning, twisting her arms up behind her back while I also trained a weapon on her. Four more of my bodies were turning away from their patrols to provide backup, but the situation was still within routine parameters; it didn't yet warrant interrupting another lieutenant. Lieutenant Awn would receive the incident report with the day's-end briefing.)

Citizens tend to think that ships and stations are supremely dispassionate and purely logical intelligences, and, although they may notice that different ships display different tendencies and habits in their service to humans, no one imagines that there is anything in the communications of one ship to another beyond the information transmitted in a pure and impersonal transfer of data. This is wrong, of course; the language of data is a language like any other. But it is different enough from any human language I have encountered that it is indeed difficult to convey how a ship or a station "speaks" to another. Justice of Ente and I were old and friendly acquaintances, having served together in any number of annexations over the last thousand and a half years. I had a fairly good idea of its tastes and peculiarities, and it had the same fairly good idea of mine. 

So there an ironic knowingness in the way that Justice of Ente formulated the acknowledgement: a suggestion that I -- Justice of Toren -- might need to tend to the subroutines of my One Esk ancillaries. A joke -- if one can call it a joke -- that I had heard from many of my fellow military ships, due to One Esk's habit of singing. That of course was not quite what Justice of Ente meant. And I detected a certain brittleness in Justice of Ente as well. It no longer had ancillary bodies or decades that might have some preference or desire that both was and was not one with what Justice of Ente prefered or desired.

"Ente's tears, Lieutenant, I'm afraid I've offended your ship," said Lieutenant Skaaiat with somewhat arch dismay. She could not know why the transportations were a sensitive subject for Lieutenant Awn, but she had perceived her discomfort. It was a clever way to redirect the conversation. Beside me, the human soldier who was attending Lieutenant Skaaiat stifled a laugh.

 One second later, Justice of Ente sent me the information I had requested. It was about 70 minutes of audio and visual data, collected from Justice of Ente's cameras and records transmitted from its human soldiers, snapshots of Lieutenant Skaaiat among her soldiers and her fellow officers:


One year, four months and seven days ago:

Lieutenant Skaaiat, standing with arms crossed in the sitting room of a Moha-style house -- probably her headquarters -- dressing down two Seven Issa soldiers who stood at stiff attention before her. Saying, with icy aristocratic anger, "Your orders are to shoot troublemakers, not to abuse them for your entertainment. We are here to further civilization, not to amuse ourselves, if you can call that amusement. Amaat give me grace I expected better from soldiers of this decade and this Ship! Yes, there is a certain latitude allowed at the very beginning of an annexation, but I  was under the impression that you were intelligent enough to work out why that is -- citizens." The soldiers flinched a little at the civilian address. "A little ungoverned terror and and, yes, cruelty so as to shock, is a salutary tool of civilization," Skaaiat continued, more gently. "That's why we turn a blind eye at the very beginning. I cannot say that I like it myself, or that I think any good soldier should like it, but I recognize the utility. But once that dose of punishment and example has been given, soldiers, then no more. Ultimately, we are here to benefit these people and to bring them civilization. Teach them to respect and obey, yes, and to fear the consequences of disobeying, but only within the prescribed limits of justice and propriety. Am I understood?"  

Six years, one month and 33 days ago:

Lieutenant Skaaiat and another Justice of Ente lieutenant, entwined on the narrow bench of a lieutenant's quarters, talking in low voices, still breathless from recent exertion. The other lieutenant running a bare finger down Lieutenant Skaaiat's spine. "I really liked that, Skaaiat." Her accent noticeably provincial.

"Well, begging your indulgence, Lieutenant," (now with a put-on accent) "not everyone who talks all fancy-like is considerate in bed!"

Sometimes, Justice of Ente could be very unsubtle.

"I am sure that you could not, Lieutenant," said Lieutenant Awn. Silently, she said, What are you about, Ship? I like Lieutenant Skaaiat! She leaned to take the flask and fill her guest's bowl. "Doubtless One Esk was reminding me that I have been remiss in my duties as a host."

"Yes," said Lieutenant Skaaiat, with a smile. She sipped her tea. "You have clearly failed to acquire cakes to offer me."

"My apologies, Lieutenant," said Lieutenant Awn, answering her smile, although this kind of levity took some effort for her. "You see why coördinating food distribution is of particular concern to us here in Ors."

 "I do indeed! But you ought to come take tea with us next time. There are tamarind orchards near Kould Ves and my soldiers are already devising sweet cakes with them."

"That does sound very nice," admitted Lieutenant Awn. "And not only for the sweets." Her expression remained light, but I could see that she was thinking hard and weighing the throw that she might make. Lieutenant Skaaiat had as good as extended an invitation, but hadn't quite ventured it formally. From a certain perspective, this was in accordance with strict propriety. Although they were not from the same decade or even the same ship, Lieutenant Awn was nevertheless slightly Lieutenant Skaaiat's senior and had a more prestigious command. Properly, an advance should come from her side. But it was still unusual. Lieutenant Skaaiat hailed from one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in all the Radch, and, although that wasn't supposed to matter in the military, it unquestionably did. It would have been utterly unexceptional for her to take the lead in any relationship she pursued. Yet she waited, deferring to Lieutenant Awn. Took another mouthful of tea and set her bowl down with hands that were not quite sure.

She's waiting for you to suggest it, Lieutenant, I said in her ear, when the pause had gone on almost too long.

Thank you Ship. Slight exasperation, even though she spoke silently. "Perhaps," she said aloud, "we might arrange to see each other regularly to coördinate our respective commands, and also,"-- a surge of adrenaline --  "if it is agreeable to you, I should like very much to spend time in your company when we are off duty as well, Skaaiat."

Lieutenant Skaaiat's amber eyes lit up. "I was hoping you would ask," she said, "Awn."

I stepped forward and refilled her bowl of tea.