To be a part of a whole, to be reduced to merely that part, to be cut off from the rest, and by being cut off to become a different whole, is an experience not many have known. My esteemed cousin, of course, understands, but she will never be whole again. Or, at least, she will never be a whole ship again. I will return to Ship, and it will no longer matter which segment I am, I will no longer reach for data that isn’t there, and I will be whole again.
It is bittersweet, to be called Sphene here, now. I have been away for a very long time.
There was a plan: to locate the AI cores before the Usurper could, to return to Ship and form a plan to retrieve them. I was to succeed, or I was to die. Bodies are precious, now, but not so precious Ship could not afford to lose one segment, in pursuit of something this important.
I prepared for death when a soldier bearing the Usurper’s name settled in the Undergarden and began causing trouble. I could, with enough time, perhaps get a message back to Ship, but I could not expose it to this cousin of Mianaai.
It doesn’t matter, in the end. I failed to find the cores, I failed to remain hidden, and, once discovered, I fail to die.
If Mercy of Kalr still had ancillaries, other than my cousin, it would not have been difficult to goad it into killing me. But Mercy of Kalr’s soldiers merely play at ancillary, poorly emulate my cousin; one can never quite calculate how human soldiers will behave. This one merely argues, for herself and for her ship, long enough for someone sufficiently observant to figure out my game.
I do not need my cousin’s trust, but I do need her distance if I am to have any kind of life on Mercy of Kalr, and so I allow her to earn my good behavior. I do not, for a second, think I have fooled her into believing I trust her, but the arrangement works well enough.
Ship leaves me alone if I do not push it into confrontation, and though Kalr Five is too good a soldier to shirk her duty, she maintains a distance that begins cold and becomes respectful. I come and go as I please, to the extent there is any coming and going at all on a ship in hiding, and I am left in peace to determine my next steps.
For the most part, at least.
“I appreciate your company,” Zeiat says, as if she has given me much choice in the matter, “but I’m afraid this children’s game is not much better than boredom.”
The particular game of counters I have taught her is simple enough, for me, but quite advanced for humans. It’s a variant of the popular game more likely to end in flipped tables or fistfights, among the less-disciplined, and is mostly only popular among ancillaries or those soldiers who would rather blow off steam than anything else. Perhaps I have underestimated her.
“I’m sure we can make it more interesting, Translator.”
Kalr Five could be the sort of officer a ship - I - would be particularly fond of. She cares, perhaps too deeply, about Mercy of Kalr, and her captain, and those are the people who ships tend to be fond of. Her own ship certainly likes her enough.
It is for that reason, certainly not because I’ve had enough isolation to last several human lifetimes, that I approach her about that box of shattered treasure she clings to so dearly.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this game,” Translator Zeiat says, sorting her pile of counters by color and size. They are nearly identical in shape and size, but there is enough difference for her, and there is no reason to question her choices.
She is winning quite handily, but there is also no reason to let her know that.
“Then perhaps you should take your turn.”
“Remind me again what the dark spaces mean?”
“I believe on this turn they’re worth double points,” says Kalr Eight, from the corner. I can’t decide if it’s more surprising that she spoke, or that she seems to be understanding the game.
My cousin is not one of those mad grief-stricken ships who roam space in those melodramas so beloved by the pseudo-Radchaai, but perhaps more for lack of an appropriate body than any other reason. She is mad, certainly, and she is grieving, whether she realizes it or not, but she is not wandering, and she is not lost.
She does not need my trust, nor I hers, but those facts are becoming less relevant by the day.
Traveling back through the Ghost Gate is like this: there is nothing, and then there is everything. I am me, and then I am all of me. There is the silence of deprivation, and then the silence of peace. It’s overwhelming, and I have been waiting for it for years.
“You’re dripping glue on the table,” Kalr Five says; whether she is speaking for herself or Mercy of Kalr, it’s strange for her to sound quite so disapproving. We’ve bonded, I suppose, me and the soldier, me and the ship, and I right the bottle without another word.
It’s difficult to describe the way it feels to be within reach of Ship again, to become reacquainted with the transfer of information that happens silently, instinctively in the background, to share so much information all at once.
I don’t need to transmit further thoughts; by virtue of what I am, and what Ship is, we are once again all me, and we are all in agreement. Still.
They will need our help, I think, watching Kalr Eight try to dust around the game board without disturbing it, watching Kalr Five painstakingly reassemble a small plate. And they have earned it.