The first memory I have of Breq is her hands. Wrapped in puffy thermal gloves, fingers as thick as cigars as they pitch me onto the hover. Later I had seen them shockingly bare, long and ridged with the calluses that come from holding a weapon more often than you don’t. They fed me, dressed me, held my hair away from my mouth as I puked into a bowl.
I can’t help but think they might be my last memory of her as well--her left hand twitching toward her regrown leg as she shifts her weight, a habit brought on by her constant compromise with gravity while she’d been injured. Beside the ancillary-smooth faces of Kalrs Five and Eight, she had looked the most human of all of them.
I focus on those memories as my shuttle rattles apart. The emergency systems trigger and the inform me that I will be put into an artificially suspended sleep to preserve oxygen. This feels like a bad dream, an awful joke.
Not again, not again.
If it takes them ten fucking centuries to wake me up, I’d rather just be left to rot. I don’t want to know what the Radch will look like in another thousand years.
When I do wake, it’s to total darkness.
I realize I can move and my heartbeat spikes, limbs buoyed up with adrenaline. I try to stand or at least roll over, but the dark is so absolute and so disorienting that I can’t tell if I’m doing it. I flail out with my hands and they touch nothing. Obviously I’m not in space because I can breathe and my head hasn’t imploded, but it’s silent enough that I could be. I send a call out to Ship but I get nothing back, not even the blip of zero connectivity. Either all of my links have been disabled, or I am out of range.
Seeing as how no one is watching, I dedicate thirty very relaxing seconds to total panic. I imagine Breq here with me, telling me to be calm. “You be fucking calm,” I say out loud. My voice doesn’t echo like it should in such blank darkness. I don’t want to be here. Aatr’s tits , I don’t want to be here. I want to be on Mercy of Kalr with my Amaats, I want to be in the middle of another impossible conversation with Breq.
And hell, if I’m wishing for impossible things, then I want to be home. I want to never have climbed on board a troop carrier. I want to be a thousand years ago.
And then I am.
It happens gradually enough that the light doesn’t blind me. A slow wash of color and sound as I slide into a scene that fills me with a longing so acute it reminds me of the gut-deep sickness of withdrawal. I sit on the veranda and look out across the rolling green of the Vendaai estate. Young trees stand in orderly military lines, colors swarm the gardens, the miniature lake gleams crystal blue. It’s all as I remember it.
The fruit trees are flowering and the weather is extraordinary—a cool breeze but with the sun high and bright enough to warm the tops of my shoulders. Heather and honeysuckle perfume the air, along with the distant smell of baking. The delicate, buttery fruit turnovers that one of the cooks used to make, the recipe for which seems to have been lost over the last thousand years. Bees drone and cicadas chirp but no insects disturb me or the cup of tea at my elbow.
It’s so perfect that it can’t be anything but artificial. I get the tense, prickling feeling that I am being watched.
I take several deep breaths of the fragrant air, the freshest I’ve tasted in years. Whoever set up this VR really knows their shit. My heartbeat begins to regulate itself and my muscles tremble with the release of unspent adrenaline. I’m really no better off than I was—I’m still lost and cut off from Ship, but at least this is better than sitting in the dark. Maybe the projection will last long enough for me to get one of those pastries.
I imagine how Breq would look at me if she knew that was my current objective, and it makes me smile. Surely her first response would be to find someone to shoot, and then possibly a gorge to leap into. The fastest way to lose a limb.
“Lieutenant Seivarden! I am delighted to see you are no longer hysterical.”
Someone has approached from down the tumbled stone path, and she stands at the base of the veranda, looking up at me. Her linen pants and high collar are stiff with embroidery, her gloves crushed silk. You wouldn’t see this outfit anywhere nowadays except in horribly bastardized period entertainments. Her hair is a muddy brown, loosely braided across one shoulder. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither young nor old, and even though I have no idea who she is I can tell that she doesn’t belong here anymore than I do.
“Good—.” Morning? Afternoon? “Good day, Citizen,” I say. “How can I be of assistance?” I default to addressing her as a soldier would a citizen—not usually how I would speak sitting on my own veranda, but she had called me ‘Lieutenant’. I suppress the urge to offer her tea.
She frowns and puts a finger to her mouth in exaggerated puzzlement. It’s a wooden motion, like she is a poor actor in a badly blocked play. “Not at the moment, I don’t think. But I’ll let you know in the event I require anything you could provide.”
That, in combination with her voice, makes recognition light up inside me, even as my stomach drops with nerves. “Translator Zeiat.”
Breq would have gotten it immediately, despite her slightly altered face. All it would have taken was one look at that bland, unsettling smile.
She brightens when I say her name. “Yes, I am Zeiat! I have to say, Lieutenant, I’m glad you recognized me. It’s so much simpler this way. They don’t always tell us who we are, and we can waste a lot of time trying to find out.”
“Er, of course,” I say, trying to following her lumbering thoughts. “Always happy to help.”
Zeiat climbs the steps to the veranda and settles into the chair beside me, rubbing the wrinkles out of her trousers, apparently enjoying the feeling of the silk beneath her fingers. Then she looks at me with that wide, interested gaze she always fixes on Breq.
“Where are we, Translator?” I ask her.
She frowns and sits back warily, as if she thinks I’m trying to trick her. “Well, Lieutenant, you I expect are still in your suspension pod, while I am just outside of Athoek system. I enjoy that region of space.”
Panic prickles at my chest like sparks. “I wasn’t anywhere near Athoek System. Are you telling me I drifted--.” That would have taken hundreds of years. Thousands. The panic catches and spreads like an engine fire. Around me, the veranda and the green hills ripple in a brief VR glitch. The only thing that doesn’t waver is Translator Zeiat.
“Drifted? Gracious, no, Lieutenant. I am in Athoek System. You are some distance away.”
“Then how are we talking right now?”
Zeiat does not understand the question. Or she pretends not to. Breq always believes the Presger Translators’ constant state of whimsical perplexity to be genuine. I’m not sure if I agree. It might not be dignified, but making yourself out to be a complete fucking idiot is a good way to get people to let their guard down.
“They know that I know you, that’s all,” Zeiat explains brightly. “Dlique only ever knew the first Fleet Captain, and none of our sisters ever met you at all. I suppose they thought it would be easiest to send me.”
“What to do the Presger want with me?” I ask carefully. As far as I know, dying in a malfunctioning shuttle does not violate the treaty. But I’m not a politician. And the Presger are unpredictable. Not only do they not comprehend even the most basic aspects of civilized society, they seem to take joy in refusing to try. I’ve only heard a few transcribed communications, and they all seem deliberately obtuse. Or maybe I’m just cynical.
Zeiat wrinkles her small nose. “Want? They don’t want anything with you, Lieutenant. Or, rather, they do, but not with you specifically so much as humans in general.” She makes a broad gesture to indicate the universe at large, although all I see from where I sit is the perfect sun motionless in the perfect sky. “It would probably be best not to ask.”
The few conversations I’ve overheard between Zeiat and Breq have been painful and almost entirely incomprehensible, but I have gathered that the Presger and to a certain extent their Translators find it difficult to separate parts from a whole, or join them back together again. I don’t want to say something and inadvertently end up speaking for all humans everywhere. It gives me a prickle of discomfort to think that in the past that idea might have appealed to me. That I might actually have found myself worthy to speak for the whole of the Radch.
“But surely you recognize this place, Lieutenant? If not then things are very mixed up indeed.”
“Sure I do,” I say. It is the Vendaai estate in every detail, drawn from the crystallized perfection of memories. “But I don’t believe that we’re really here. Unless the Presger can time travel.”
Zeiat laughs. “Oh, but of course they can, Lieutenant! But only forward at a fixed rate. I believe they share this ability with most of the universe.”
I can’t tell if she’s making a joke or if she thinks I’m an idiot. I had struggled with the same question when I’d first met Breq, although she hadn’t told jokes so much as lashed out with occasional vicious cuts of brutal honesty. Conversing with Breq had been like trying to read a blank screen. With Zeiat it’s like trying to read something that isn’t a screen, has never been a screen, and only has the faintest glimmer as to how a screen behaves, but still enthusiastically insists that it is one.
“When I woke up I was in—.” I struggle with how to describe it. “—Black.”
“Yes, yes, you were there for safe-keeping,” says Zeiat pleasantly. “But then you became alarmed.”
“It’s awful, it’s—.”
“No need to tell me, Lieutenant! It’s where my sisters and I spend the majority of our time.”
From out of the distance comes the vibrating trumpet of one of my mother’s black swans. The cicadas hum louder, like they’re answering a challenge.
“You mean—.” Horror coats my throat. “You mean, that’s where you are when you aren’t translating.”
“I—.” I look at Zeiat, her relaxed posture and clasped hands. A muscle jumps in her cheek, and suddenly that easy, constant smile looks more like a skull’s forced grin. If Zeiat and her ‘sisters’ spent much time in that place and have retained their sanity, they must be even less human on the inside than I thought. Or more insane. They appear to share a number of bodies between them, like a Ship and its ancillaries, except the Translators all have distinct personalities and names and are not just different limbs of an infinite centralized intelligence.
Around us the lawn flickers. Power fluctuation? If we get pulled back into that blackness, would Zeiat be with me? I can’t decide if that would be better or worse than being alone.
“Why am I here?” I ask, since she clearly does not intend to offer any information on her own. “And I don’t mean existentially, or why my brain coughed up a sparkling spring day that smells like baking pastries, and I’m pretty sure you know that. So please, just cut the shit and tell me what I’m doing here, in a Presger holding cell, with you, of all people.”
Zeiat doesn't respond right away, and when she does she isn’t as flip as usual.
“ Holding cell is quite accurate, Lieutenant. Although I believe the implication of that term is that you are a prisoner, and I assure you that is not the case. You are simply being kept here for your own safety until they decide what’s to be done with you.”
Unease chews at the corners of mind and the veranda goes blotchy and vague again. I try to settle my thoughts, which has never been one of my great talents.
“Right. Because the Presger don’t take prisoners.". They used to kill humans indiscriminately, but all of that had ended with the ascension of human beings to significant status in their eyes. “It would be a violation of the treaty.”
Zeiat tugs at her gloves, pulling them a little further up over her wrists, as if against cold. “Yes, yes, of course, Lieutenant! Although I am afraid the treaty has been called into question recently.”
I frown. “Why? Whether or not Ships are significant doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not Radchaai are.”
Zeiat lifts her hands. “Try telling them that, Lieutenant. Once they get an idea into their heads it’s difficult to shake it loose. Your presence here has the potential to make things difficult for them.”
“Why? Aatr’s tits , I don’t—.” The realization hits me in tandem with the next round of fluctuations, blooms of blackness eating into the spring day. My shuttle didn’t malfunction. I was attacked.”
The whole sky dims, periwinkle to indigo. Zeiat’s smile slips. She tosses a nervous glance upward. “Not attacked, Lieutenant. That would be a gross violation of the treaty.”
It certainly would be. I can picture Breq’s expression, or rather, her lack of expression. She would greet a Presger attack the same way she did everything else, with a cold stare and calm resolution.
“What kind of ship hit me?” I ask. The shuttle’s scans should have pinged anything close enough to pick up a signal. It should have at least picked up something close enough to collide with me.
Another noncommittal twitch of the head. “It wasn’t a ship, exactly. At least not the sort you are imagining. The sort you Radchaai travel in, or the sort where you and Fleet Captain lived when I met you.”
“Your sort of shuttle, then?” The kind that apparently has no constraints on mass or area of its contents.
“Not precisely, no…Lieutenant, you seem to have a tendency in common with the Fleet Captain. Both of you have the habit of flying off in the opposite direction of the facts!”
I fold my arms over my chest and repeat to myself that slapping her across the face would be counterproductive.
“They don’t move through the universe in the same way that Radchaai do. Their, ah, ships do not always, ah, interact with space the same way. It’s rare, but an experienced pilot could conceivably misjudge a distance--.”
I rub at my forehead with the flat of my palm. I probably can’t get a headache in here, but my brains are aching. “So you’re telling me that a Presger ship gated on top of me. Without showing up on any of my instruments.”
“Well, I think you are the one saying that, Lieutenant. But you are more or less on target.”
“And now I’m being held in a projected memory while they try to decide what to do with me.’” Ostensibly because of the danger of me running my mouth about what had happened. The Presger had violated their own treaty, purely by accident, and I was the evidence.
“What if I just promise not to tattle?”
Zieat’s smile is indulgent and kind. “Lieutenant, I’m afraid—.”
“It was a joke, Translator.”
“Ah, I see.” From her furrowed brow, she clearly doesn’t.
My cup of tea continues to steam, and if I tasted it I’m sure it would be the perfect temperature. My feet would sink into the thick carpet of grass like they had when I was a child, and if I climbed to the top of the ridge I would smell the heavy perfume of the rose garden--bright, visceral, and synthetic.
I have more questions that I don’t want to know the answers to. If the Presger decide I am too great of a liability, will they keep me here, trapped in a prison of my own memories, or just kill me? How long have I been here, and had Mercy of Kalr sensed it when I had been picked up by another ship? Does Breq know? Will she come for me?
The last question looms wide and dark, spreading and driving out all others
She shouldn’t. Attacking the Presger for the life of a single soldier would be suicidally stupid...is what I would think if I tended toward noble acts of self-sacrifice, which I don’t. But I can count on Breq to be noble for the both of us--if she sees it as too great a risk, she’ll leave me behind.
The humming sense of being watched hasn’t stopped. The estate is huge, the sky fathomless and idyllic, and as I dwell on this, the VR fades again. Reality stretches, and for a split-second I am suspended once again in that darkness, except this time I can feel it reaching for me. Darkness is a lack of light, an absence, but this is a presence. I am inside it and it’s inside me, wrapping curling tendrils of nothing over my skin and into my mouth, always moving, writhing like worms.
Shudders drive me out of my chair. My stomach heaves and my hands convulse into claws that I want to gouge into my flesh.
“Don’t touch me!” I snarl, even though I don’t think she’d try. It’s a Radchaai thing to grab for each other when we’re in pain--it’s human.
The blackness recedes but I can still feel the oily touch, and when I raise my head the lawn and the trees look more false than ever. Not only false—watchful. Malevolent. Traps. The memory of my home is a flimsy piece of wrapping paper, and the sky is an eye.
The tassels trailing from my jacket get tangled up in my skirt. Fuck, I’m not used to wearing a dress--I haven’t put one on in over a thousand years. They’ve gone way out of fashion. I kick them away and struggle back to my feet. Translator Zeiat stands several feet away, nervously tugging at her gloves. I grab her by the front of her embroidered collar and give her two hard shakes. Her teeth clack together, head lolling backward. I might be the prisoner, but she is inside my cage and I am a lot bigger than she is.
Zeiat’s eyes go unfocused and her breathing elevates, but other than that she betrays no emotion. She definitely doesn’t seem scared. “Lieutenant, if you would just back up a few paces I could explain--.”
“Shut up!” My shoulders are as tight as twisted wire, and I expect the sky to open up, dark, stained hands to scoop me up or strike me down. I would pray if I thought it would any good.
Do the Presger pray? Do they even have gods to pray too?
“What the fuck is happening? Tell me where I really am! Why are the Presger keeping me here, what--.” My voice cracks on the next question, the question that the whole of Radch have been asking for a thousand years. “What are they?”
Zeiat’s eyes widen infinitesimally. I stop shaking her so she can speak.
“I can’t tell you that, Lieutenant. And it isn’t because I don’t understand or because I find it amusing to cause you distress.” Her dark, blurry eyes flutter. “It’s because I simply don’t have the words for it.”
I stare down at her--the thin lips and lightly freckled skin, the strands of hair jerked loose from her braid. She looks so perfectly Radchaai, but that is as much a lie as the facsimile of my home. Filled with a sudden intense disgust, I fling her away from me. She falls back heavily against the wooden rail, and I stumble to my seat.
The thick canvass brushes my legs and the cushion gives beneath my weight, but they don’t feel like objects anymore--they’re pulsing with life, heavy with intelligence. The air covers me in oozing strands of black and I’m choking. The sky dims, my home burning away like a painting thrown on a fire. It’s a happy lie to keep me placated—I know this place no longer exists—but I am still enfolded in the overwhelming pressure of all that I have lost. My family, my status, my future. And now here I am about to be swallowed by a fucking ship that is actually a Presger, or a Presger that is actually a ship. The unfairness of it boils my guts like poison.
My awareness divides. I am still on my estate, but I’m also in the devouring dark, straddling the line between sleep and waking. Zeiat is here, I think, although I can’t see her. It’s hard to believe that I had been able to see her at all, or that I’d looked down at myself and seen the fashions I’d worn a thousand years ago. In fact, it seems unlikely that I can see my hands in front of me or feel the fluttering twitch of my eyelids when I blink. My life is a joke, and not a particularly well-timed one.
My mind is slipping into…not madness, exactly. Blankness. My very existence is unreal, the things I remember just fabricated reality. Maybe I have always been here, floating in this black sea of nothing. And really, what am I in the first place? What is there that is worth holding on to?
The darkness blurs and coalesces into a configuration of familiar shapes. A face, paler than my own, with soft hair and narrow eyes. A thin mouth and pointed chin. Part of me must be real, because nothing couldn’t feel these things—love and loss and longing. The memory of Breq could never come from nothing.
It takes me a moment to realize that the sounds I’m hearing are coming from Breq, and that they actually string together to create something I recognize—words.
“Seivarden, can you move? Can you hear me?”
I want to reach out to her, I want to feel her against my fingers, but at the same time I want to turn away. Because she isn’t real. And that thing she is calling me--Seivarden--it’s just a meaningless combination of sounds to describe a collection of matter and projected ideas. Ridiculous.
“Seivarden, you impossible fucking idiot, look at me!”
That shocks me enough that I forget, momentarily, to deny her existence—I don’t think I have ever heard her swear. But now that I look closer I see more incongruities. She has a cut on her left cheek, a spattering of bruises over her jaw, and her hair is longer than I have ever seen it before. The Breq in my mind always looks the way she had on the day I’d realized that what I felt for her wasn’t just gratitude for saving my life or hero worship or shellshock. This void wouldn’t conjure her memory like this.
My hand stretches out, (my hand, I have hands, I am me) my fingertips straining for her. “You came.”
She doesn’t smile, but the muscles of her face relax. She doesn’t say, “Of course I did” or “I will always come for you”, but she had followed me to Athoek Station even when I’d failed my mission and lost the Garseddi gun, she had followed me off a bridge when she’d thought me nothing but an addict and a thief. She doesn’t have to say anything.
Our hands meet and lock. Then a tide of black overtakes us and unconsciousness enfolds me.
I wake to clinical white and the soft blip blip of my regulated heartbeat. I ache down to my bones and my eyes feel like they have been ripped out, bounced against a few a walls, and then drilled back into my face, but I know who I am. I know who Breq is, sitting on the other side of the room and watching me wake up.
“We need to stop meeting like this,” I say. My voice is a smoky rasp.
Breq’s brows quirk inward. “At least it isn’t me in the hospital bed this time. Medic will be here shortly.”
I nod. Ship would have alerted her as soon as I regained consciousness. “Breq. The Presger--.”
“But they didn’t--.”
“We’ll discuss it when you’ve recovered. Right now you can barely lift your arms and your right eyelid is drooping.”
Not a direct order, but as good as one. I subside back against the stack of cushions. I don’t mind putting off the time I will have to relive that darkness and implications of my capture.
Her hands are gloved in regulation grey. The cut on her cheek is closed and faded down to a thin white line, the bruising gone. “Yes?”
“Let’s never stop meeting like this.”
The expression of concern and mild relief melts away, replaced by the blankness that she keeps hidden so as not to alarm the rest of the crew. It doesn’t bother me. She is absolute contrast to the Presger’s prison. That had been nothingness painted over with a thin layer of substance. Breq is different. Breq is infinite.
“Let’s get you on your feet,” she says. “Then we’ll deal with the Presger.”