Awn was everything the Radch wanted in a soldier: smart, determined, inventive, and overall obedient. She excelled in her first post, as a junior officer on a Mercy-class ship. She served under a lazy, vindictive cruel captain, and she quietly saved face for that captain time after time. She rescued her superior from countless disastrous decisions, and without ever making the captain feel like her judgement had been questioned. She was silently miserable in the role for years, and she left with glowing references and a promotion on its way.
This was what you learned, growing up as a second-generation newcomer to the Radch. To watch and listen and say as little as you could. To do the job right, even when you'd been asked to do it wrong.
It was a living.
She liked the next posting better. It was nothing glamorous, but the people were better.
At the Turning of the Trees, the quarter-year festival, Awn's term of service on the Mercy of Nihlen came to an end. The ship had just returned from a two-year stint on the far borders of Radch space, and morale was high. The Captain called Awn up to her office, offered her tea.
“I wanted you to know, I recommended you to a couple of posts.”
Awn didn't intend to show her surprise, but Captain Jaanen laughed at her expression and poured them each a drink.
“You didn't think I'd pass you over, surely? You've done the best of any of my officers over the last few rotations. My senior lieutenants flit around hapless like wild-fowl while you sit and organise their time.”
“It’s only proper,” Awn murmured.
“My point exactly.” Jaanen said, with the wry humour that she only showed in private. “You're a good soldier, Awn, and you'll be an excellent officer when you learn to speak your mind. I'm recommending you as first lieutenant, and I'm expecting to hear good things back from your next assignment.”
That meeting was the day before she left the ship. Bright and early the next morning, Awn returned to her parents’ home on the outskirts of Kannern - near enough the centre to stay busy, but not so far from the fields that the dairy could not deliver before the shop opened up for the morning.
The house had not changed. Perhaps the sign over the door had got a bit more faded, Awn thinks, but as she unlocks the door round the back the scent of bread and sugar and home brings her right back to her childhood.
Her sister runs downstairs to greet her, almost a whole head taller, her hair long and braided. She chatters about dinner and her day. She's almost old enough for school, Awn remembers, and answers in Radchaai instead of dialect. She gets a glare for that, but it's important.
“My darling girl! Don’t be so serious with the little one, not now. Sit down. We were worried you'd miss dinner, Awn, it's good to see you,” her father comes through. “Take that jacket off, come on, sit down.”
It's been a while since anyone said her name like that. Radchaai readers always cut the vowel short, ‘Ahn’, and they don’t know how to speak that ‘w’ in the middle of a single syllable so they miss it out entirely. She has wondered sometimes about changing the spelling on her records – Aawn, or Oan, maybe – but never seriously enough to decide on a spelling. It’s only when she comes home she remembers how nice it is to hear her name spoken as it ought to be.
She hangs her uniform coat up and takes a place at the table, and some part of her relaxes, welcomed back into this little piece of her childhood.
The assignments get mailed through that night: she is to serve on the Justice of Toren. The specific posting comes through an hour later. Justice of Toren's Esk unit. First lieutenant.
There aren't many things she'll miss about Mercy of Nihlen, but she'd built a good relationship with most of the common soldiers in her unit. At night, at home, safe and comfortable, she does not want to image starting again on a new ship. And as first lieutenant! She will have to spend all her time with officers, almost none with the common troops.
She had made her peace with most of her fellow lieutenants by the time she left, but it had been a long and hard journey to mutual respect. It helped that a lot of the Mercy’s crew had arrived at the same time as her, or after; long haul perimeter patrol trips were the kind of postings people wanted to move out from as soon as possible.
On a Justice, an officer could live out her entire life on the ship: there are only three new officers on the Justice of Toren; no new soldiers, weirdly.
Late at night, warm at home, the thought of walking on board a new ship and fighting for everyone's respect all over again is exhausting. She leaves the assignment briefing to read later.
She doesn’t mention it to her family, but they know her well. Preparing bread in the morning, before the sun has quite risen, her mother echoes the feeling: “My love, stay here. Teach the little one Radchaai, remind yourself how to bake, and settle down. Find a nice man.”
“You know that's not the way we do things any more,” Awn says.
“It's not the way they do them, you mean.” Awn's mother says.
“It's not the way I want to do them, either,” Awn says, “And I wish you wouldn't go putting all these ideas in my sibling's head” - she uses the Radchaai word, weird as it sounds in the middle of a sentence of dialect - “It's only going to make life harder for her when she gets to school. Let alone the language! She can hardly understand me when I say hello to her, now, don't you realise how difficult it will be for her to read and write in Radchaai?”
“Awn. There are things that matter more than school, and one of those things is my daughters knowing how to speak in our own tongue.”
“So speak both, and let her choose. She has a whole life ahead of her in this civilisation.”
Her mother shakes her head, as if there's something Awn is missing.
Awn did not manage to apologise loud out for starting that argument, but the morning she left for the Justice of Toren she gets up early and bakes the bread her mother used to make on name days for breakfast. You couldn’t buy potato flour here any more, but there is extra-fine rice flour instead and the texture isn’t too far off.
Her mother’s face lights up in joy as Awn cuts into the loaf, and her good mood stays with her until Awn’s sister grabs her sleeve and starts chattering about a Radchaai storybook they had been reading together, speaking in a cheerful mish-mash of languages. Mother’s face grows distant, and her father jumps in with an anecdote about how his brother’s business is taking off at last, and aren’t the Radchaai suckers, the way they’re too proud to haggle? They pay so far over the odds for nothing more than a few dyed fabrics.
Awn is happy for him, she really is, but her parents just don’t realise how her little sibling is going to suffer for speaking the language with such a strong accent. It’s all very well for them - they can choose the company they want to keep - but this will be a mark against her sister no matter where the aptitudes send her.
She clings to her temper by a loose thread and turns down the lift they offer her to the docks.
Awn is pretending not to be terrified. She’d only read the full briefing on the transport, and she can’t decide whether she’d glad that she did not have the chance to fret about it or furious at herself for missing such important information.
The Justice of Toren is crewed by ancillaries. It’s one of only a handful of ships to use them still: that was why the name had sounded familiar. All those whiny traditionalists praising it to the sky for having the good taste to keep their eerie corpse soldiers around to do the laundry. And to shoot people who don’t want to be annexed.
Whenever her uncle gets drunk he tells the story about how he saw his grandfather dragged into a ship to be made one of them. When he’s really plastered he tells it in front of the kids, even.
Awn normally tries her best not to think about her uncle’s stories or his unwise political decisions or his dubious business practices, but for the whole journey to the docks the story just won’t leave her mind. That and every other story like it she has heard over the course of her childhood of the way her nation was civilised, just thirty or forty years ago. Telling herself that it is what it is just doesn’t work. She’s been assigned to a unit of corpse soldiers, things with human faces and computer minds. Those are what will be her comrades for the year or more to come, and for the most part, her peers will be the kind of Radchaai who wanted to be posted to one of the last ships left crewed by them.
There are only five minutes left until the transport pulls in to the docks. Awn screws up her courage, lifts her head high, and pushes everything out of her mind except the rhythm of her breathing.
By the time she walks up to the Justice of Toren, she looks calm.
She promised to write to her sister, so she writes, in deliberately simple Radchaai. This ship is very different to my last one. It is just as busy, but much bigger, so my division has a whole floor of the ship for ourselves. You probably cannot picture how big one floor of this ship is, my dear - remember visiting the station last winter, all the little shops? Our dining room is as big as any five of the shops there, and it is made to look as if it is a manor house on the planet, not a part of a working ship...
She gets that far and runs out of things to say. Most of the Esk lieutenants openly resent her for being put in command of them, and more than likely the others just resent her just as much, only more quietly. Her family cannot know that.
The corpse soldier troops are everywhere on the ship: each ancillary - segment, the word is - has the same expression, the same cropped hair, the same uniform. They serve tea; they follow their lieutenants around like a silent guard of honour. Eerie though it is, their sameness makes it is easier than Awn expected to treat them as the ship, to ignore the people they once were.
That is another thing she cannot write in a letter home: after only ten days, she has stopped finding One Esk scary. It is not that she has forgotten her family’s stories of the annexation. She has chosen to put them aside, because for good or ill, she is a soldier of the Radch. She has done violence in the name of civilisation, but she has also protected people. Stopped piracy, fixed communications, brought emergency supplies to damaged outposts and space stations. She believes in the Radch and she believes in her work here. She has to.