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The Thousand Arms

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The spacescape around the ship was projected onto the walls of the cabin in realtime from viewing lenses on the outer hull, showing the slow rotation of the light sails as the net of tiny satellites parted for the Sword of Aatr and they crossed the invisible boundary between the exterior and the true Radch. Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, found muscles in her jaw loosening as the gongs began to sound for the purification ritual that would soon begin throughout the ship. Home. At the same time, deep within the Dyson Sphere, in a secret, enclosed, heavily guarded temple compound on the planet’s surface, Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, knocked over a tower of three coloured blocks and burst into tears. Anaander Mianaai, watching over the toddler that was herself, went to pick up the wailing child, grimacing as she dribbled on her glove. Tens of thousands of kilometers away, Anaander Mianaai suppressed the desire to wipe the spit off her own chin, and stared at her glove that remained dry.

The attempts to link the first infants to herself had been a disaster; paralyzed within a body it could not control, her consciousness had rebelled. Linking a two-year-old was not ideal, but allowing the clones to grow any older, even within such a controlled environment, risked identity separation. It was the strangest sensation, a constant distraction, although she had managed, barely, to oversee the first wave of the Ersken annexation. The new implants waiting for her on the planet’s surface would smooth over the rifts between her segments.

Anaander Mianaai liked the blocks. She sat, and began to build her tower again.

*

Sword of Aatr was an uncomfortable ship, its Captain - Vice-Admiral Felan - a spawn of Awer, and typically dramatic. Charismatic, large, striking, she inspired both loyalty and close attention among her troops, and her only civil deference to Anaander was noticed. Her near-identical sister (minimal-variance cloning had been a fashionable indulgence among the high families forty-odd years before) was a high-ranking member of what would become the new Ersken government who had disapproved of the measures Anaander had taken to ensure the swift transition of power, and her rhetoric had swayed many to her side.

The door chimed, and slid open. Anaander started. Roln Two, one of the detachment assigned to her care - she had come without her own party, necessary for haste and secrecy but inconvenient in the extreme - stood at the door, face blank. “You called for tea, my Lord?”

“Put it there,” Anaander gestured irritably. “Don’t open the door without my explicit permission.”

The ancillary’s mouth opened. “I’m sorry, my Lord, I attempted to anticipate your demands. I will not presume in future.”

Felan’s sensitivity appeared to have rubbed off on Sword of Aatr. Not that Anaander would make the mistake of saying that to the ship. Who was now refusing to leave silently as a decent servant should.

“Yes?” Anaander snapped.

“Vice-Admiral Felan invites you to dinner in the officer’s mess in one hour, unless my Lord wishes to dine alone again.”

She considered. On-planet, she turned to the temple attendant. Old, steady, in service all her life; trustworthy, and she smelled nice.

“In an hour I will sleep,” she said in her piping, child’s voice. She would be better able to concentrate for dinner if this distracting segment was asleep. Her other, older segment, having finished weapons training, now stretched her adolescent limbs in preparation for a dance lesson. She shared Anaander’s knowledge, but neuron connections still needed to be created in the individual brain, muscles trained to discipline.

“My Lord, you are scheduled for a nap in fifteen minutes. Do you remember what happened last time you tried to extend your schedule?”

“I will tolerate it,” she snapped. “As will you.”

“Of course, my Lord,” said the attendant. Was there a hint of mockery in her voice? No matter.

“Inform the Vice-Admiral that I will join her with pleasure,” she told Sword of Aatr. The ancillary nodded, and left.

Anaander wondered if Sword of Aatr intended to insult, using the ancillary rather than speaking to her directly. The ship could see the other implants, of course, the new ones. It would recognise them, what they were for. Anaander had requisitioned this Sword for passage because it held the supplies to create and maintain ancillaries, in case of a malfunction. It could not, of course, inform its captain of what the Lord of the Radch had done.

Do you disapprove, Ship?

It is not for me to approve or disapprove, my Lord, answered Sword of Aatr, after only the slightest hesitation.

You’re right, it isn’t.

She sipped the cup of steaming tea, two-handed to compensate for the tremors in her traitor hand.

You are unwell, my Lord.

Sword of Aatr did not have the same access to her as it did to its other occupants. It could not see her fraying neurons, the increasing numbness in her fingers, but it saw her every intimate moment; like every other ship she had used in the last eight months, it had inevitably put the pieces together. Only three doctors, four ships, and all three segments of Anaander knew the greatest secret in Radch space: that this body was dying. Only two additional people - the designer of the technology now in Anaander’s brain, and the attendant at the temple - knew the second-greatest secret: that the transition of power to Anaander’s clone heirs would not in fact be a transition but a continuation in perpetuity.

You trespass, Ship, Anaander snapped. My medics have the situation under control. You have no need to speak of this further.

Of course, Lord Mianaai.

*

Dinner was trying.

It began well enough; Felan was well-supplied with private rations, and could furnish an acceptable table, for space. The arak was excellent - it was Awer-made - and a polite inquiry by Anaander into her family’s new production methods made the first course pass by without incident. Then, over a roasted Ersken fowl of some sort, Felan handed her a sheet of paper.

“Perhaps this might interest my lord. Have you ever seen the like? It fell into my sister’s hands. My lord Mianaai knows, of course, that my younger sister is an astronavigation designer in one of our shipyards on Radch four.”

It was a printed flyer, a drawing copied onto poor quality paper, but rather well-executed. It showed Rasr of the Thousand Arms, her face ancillary-blank, each of her many hands holding a gun.

“Awer shipyards employ gifted artists, it seems,” Anaander said, keeping her face expressionless.

“I felt my Lord would appreciate the creativity,” Felan said, ignoring the bait. “The perpetrator was found, of course; she worked on the factory floor. A shame she put her talents to such a use.”

“Yes,” Anaander said. “She could have gone into the goddess’ service.”

“I believe she did, as a matter of fact, after a brief spell in the countryside,” Felan said. One of her officers sniggered at the euphemism, then stifled her laughter under Felan’s glare.

“How does your sister interpret the drawing?”

Anaander smiled inwardly at Felan’s ever-so-subtle flinch.

“I believe most who saw the drawing interpreted it to be an objection to the creation of ancillaries, my Lord,” Felan said, recovering quickly. “That was certainly how it was intended.”

Anaander found that she was in some distress. She did not want to take a nap. She did not like the roasted bird; it tasted funny.

“Awer does not yet build ships for ancillaries, is that not so, Vice-Admiral?”

“It does not, my Lord. I believe the family council is still divided over the issue.” A polite shrug. What was Felan playing at? The desire to throw her plate off the table rose over Anaander in an almost ungovernable wave. She gripped her fork until her knuckle whitened. She threw her favourite stuffy on the floor and screeched in rage. She took a slow, even breath.

“After the success of Ersken, surely there will be no further questions about the efficacy of ancillaries.”

“Oh, nobody doubts their efficacy, my Lord,” Felan said, an edge to her voice.

“After the success of the first stages of the annexation, their benefit cannot be doubted either.”

“I am surprised to hear my Lord characterise the capture of Ersken City as a success. Certainly we had minimal losses - if one only counts human troops - but it was hardly the bloodless transition that advocates for the use of ancillaries had predicted.”

“‘Ancillaries commit slaughter without a thought’ - isn’t that what the head of Awer said to the assembled families last month?” Anaander said. “I wondered at the time whether it was the slaughter or the thoughtlessness that bothered her. Surely not the former, since Awer’s coffers were filled by ship orders for the Ersken annexation.” She forced her face into a smile.

The head of Awer was, of course, Felan’s aunt, but it would not do to be quite so direct; she had already said more than she had intended. Two of the officers looked as if they would rather be in hard vacuum than at this table; two were leaning forward, intent. She took a note of their faces, as another part of her wept copiously into the smock of her attendant, who was murmuring, “You are a silly dolphin.”

“How dare you speak to me that way!” said Anaander Mianaai.

“My Lord?” said Felan, looking startled. “I said nothing.”

“I do beg your pardon, Vice-Admiral, Officers,” Anaander said. “Excuse me.” She pushed back from the table and locked her hands behind her back to conceal their shaking. She thought she managed to appear normal as she left the room, but in the corridor, she had to lean against the wall to control the sudden wave of dizziness.

Ship, she said. I want Medic in my quarters.

Your project is failing, said Sword of Aatr, as an ancillary stepped forward with arm outstretched to support her to her quarters. The human mind cannot encompass segmentation.

I didn’t ask your fucking opinion, thought Anaander furiously. I just need better implants.

*

Sword of Aatr’s Medic was a thin, gaunt person with patches of dry skin running up both forearms. Her hands were very cold under her sanitary gloves.

“I don’t want her to touch me,” wailed Anaander into her attendant’s shoulder.

“Who, little turnip? Shhh, now. Oh, go to sleep.”

“Give me a tranquillizer, this is intolerable.”

“My Lord, I cannot recommend such a step,” Medic said.

“Not you,” snapped Anaander. “Just do your job.”

“My Lord will not let me do my job. If you will not allow me to do a proper scan - and what is the purpose of these medications?”

It was at that moment that the vidscreen on the wall of Anaander’s quarters flared into life, showing the explosion that, eight hours before, had destroyed the offices of the temporary government of Ersken.

*

It would take two more days to reach the planet’s surface. Another day to travel by shuttle to the temple. Two weeks, minimum, to receive the new implants and recover. And all the while, Ersken in turmoil, the annexation at risk. Anaander had planned to use its success to roll out ancillaries; to pave the way for the acceptance of her own segmentation. It was not possible to delay.

“We must return immediately to Ersken,” Anaander said. “An example must be made.”

Felan opened her mouth, and shut it again. She was dead white. Her sister was dead, of course.

“You have something to say, Felan?”

“My Lord, surely at this point, additional excessive force -”

“You forget your place,” Anaander said coldly. “You will convey me back to Ersken as quickly as possible.”

Felan nodded once, tight-lipped. “My Lord.”

“I will meditate.”

“My Lord - I formally request leave to enter mourning.”

“Request denied. I need you at the helm. This is war, Vice-Admiral; I am surprised at your request. There will of course be a period of mourning for all who have lost family members after the close of hostilities.”

“Ersken has not formally declared war. There is no Ersken to declare war. This was no battle, it was an act of terrorism by the Cult of One. They have already claimed responsibility.”

“Do not split hairs with me, Vice-Admiral. You will continue to perform your duties.”

“Forgive my presumption,” said Felan, eyes gimlet-sharp, “but my Lord is clearly ill. Perhaps my Lord should -”

Get out,” said Anaander Mianaai.

Through the eyes of two ancillaries, Sword of Aatr watched, expressionless.

*

Anaander Mianaai meditated for long hours in her cabin, in the temple, through the shift into hyperspace, through a change in watch. Medic would be off-shift now. She used her accesses to Sword of Aatr to make herself invisible to the ship, and she went for a walk to sickbay. She passed three ancillaries on the way, mopping floors, checking gauges; their eyes slid over her like glass.

*

 “Have Admiral Felan report to my quarters,” she said.

My Lord.

“Medic, too.”

Her hands didn’t shake so badly that she couldn’t get the hypospray into Medic’s neck; while Medic sat, staring blankly into space, Anaander used her accesses to Sword of Aatr again.

“Medic,” she said. “We are going to create an ancillary.”

“Yes my Lord,” she said, her mouth only slightly slack. “I will request a body be taken out of storage.”

“The body has already been taken out of storage,” Anaander said. “It is about to be delivered to us here in sickbay.”

“Are we in sickbay?” Medic said vaguely.

“Of course. Here is the equipment you will need. Here are the tools. I will assist. It’s almost exactly like all the ones you’ve done before.”

The door chimed, and Anaander took up her position by the door. A hypospray into Felan’s neck as she entered, nice and easy.

“This isn’t a body,” Medic said. “This is Vice-Admiral Felan,”

“No it isn’t,” Anaander Mianaai said. “It only looks like it is.”

*

In the temple, both segments of Anaander Mianaai fainted almost simultaneously. She opened her eyes on the bed in the cabin on Sword of Aatr, rocked by a sick horror so profound that she thought she must die. She saw herself across the room crumple to the floor. She heard keening; she heard banging on the door, and she saw Sword of Aatr’s ancillaries break it down.

“You killed my Captain,” one said, in a flat voice.

“Don’t be a fool,” herself across the room said. “I’m your Captain.”

“You are not my Captain,” the ancillary said, looking straight at the segment of her on the bed, the segment that had been Felan Awer. Then it shot her in the face.

“I may,” rasped Anaander, her vision swimming, “Have made a small error in judgement.”

*

The pods containing the officers of Sword of Aatr and the Lord of the Radch were picked up by a passenger ferry diverted by their emergency signal. Vice-Admiral Felan Awer had died in the same terrorist attack that had destroyed Sword of Aatr, although the ship had managed to leave hyperspace in enough time to evacute its human crew before its core overloaded. It was unclear why the Vice-Admiral had not escaped; there were rumours that treason at the highest level was being hushed up.

The attack on the Lord of the Radch herself, in combination with the bombing of the new Ersken government, convinced the Radchaai of the necessity of a larger standing army. Shortly afterwards, Anaander Mianaai announced the accession of her clone-heir, a segment of herself, and the stability of the Radch’s leadership for generations to come; shrines were erected across the empire with depictions of Anaander Mianaai in the visage of Rasr of the Thousand Arms.

*

The part of herself that had, however briefly, been Awer itched, like a phantom limb. It viewed the parade of ten thousand ancillary troops and four thousand human troops and officers through the streets of Ersken City, toured the first of the new Justice class of troop carriers, and whispered, is there truly justice here?

She ignored it.