Some days, Seivarden was fine. It was the other days that were the problem.
Those were the days that her limbs felt like lead, and every electrical impulse that traveled across her brain seemed to be pushing its way through double gravity. On those days, she lay on her servant’s bed in Breq’s tiny cabin and stared at the wall, her arms wrapped tight around herself.
A thousand years had passed by, and nobody had needed her. The world had gone on fine without her.
It was a funny thing about traveling the stars, that you could see the vast indifference of the universe that the ships passed through like fish in a dark ocean and still, somehow, believe you weren’t insignificant. All the Radchaai managed it. She herself had managed it, in the easy, bright days on Justice of Toren and Sword of Nathtas, and everyone around her had done the same. Or, she thought, at least everyone looked like they had.
The blanket felt hot and prickly on her side. No. That was impossible. Nobody had the strength to put a smile on this, to look at the dark face of the emptiness that awaited, and smile, and salute, and make small talk. Nobody could.
But it was different for them. However much you saw planets revolving around other bodies, enough revolved around you to keep you centered. People deferred to you. People expected things of you. People praised you or envied you or criticized you, each a tiny fleck of substance that circled you and proved your own existence had weight, had gravity. Take the satellites away, and a planet would still stretch the rubber sheet of space-time. A person just faded away.
“Are you ever going to get up?” Breq said, on the third or fourth day of the leg to Sheq’al. She didn’t sound particularly interested in the answer.
“No,” Seivarden said, staring at the wall. “Go away.”
In the night, she heard Breq sigh and move in her sleep across the room, and the sound was enough to make her wide-awake and irritated. What right did Breq have to wake her up? It was Breq’s fault that she didn’t have kef enough to sleep, it was Breq’s fault that they’d spent all the time on that stupid ice planet, and that they were here on this stupid ship, tumbling through empty space, on and on and –
And that you’re alive, and that you have food and shelter, and that you’re headed to civilization, a treacherous part of her mind reminded her. If she’s telling the truth about Special Missions, she never had any reason to do that. You’re a pity project.
Seivarden put the pillow over her head.
When she woke up next time, she found Breq sitting by her bed.
She had pulled the room’s only padded chair over and was sitting with arms crossed and back straight, in an attitude of forbidding military neutrality. That didn’t say anything about how long she’d been there. Breq defaulted to that around Seivarden, and could hold it for hours.
She’d pushed over the bedside table, too. There was a foil-wrapped ration meal on top of it.
“Eat,” Breq said.
Seivarden shut her eyes again.
“I know you’re awake,” Breq said implacably. “Eat.”
Seivarden didn’t even feel irritation. She knew with a dull certainty that there was no point in irritation, because if she stayed like this, Breq would go away again.
When Seivarden had been a Radchaai soldier, obligation and duty had seemed like a steel net, underlying the basic actions of every day. That had been one of the worst realizations when she’d unfrozen. The net was an illusion. There would be no consequences for failing to do anything, save the inexorable retreat into the empty company of her own head.
Action and reaction. You were only worth the effort other people exerted against you. It was hard to sink lower than nobody caring enough even to murder you in the snow.
She crossed her arms and turned to face the wall, and a hand gripped her shoulder roughly.
Seivarden’s eyes opened wide. She caught herself just before the now-useless combat reflexes kicked in and froze, her muscles humming in tension.
Breq seemed to hesitate, which was odd. She was in shape, which Seivarden wasn’t, and she could have wrenched Seivarden up to a sitting position as easily as lifting a ration tray. But after a moment of that odd hesitation, she let go.
“Get up,” she said.
Seivarden sat up warily.
“All the way up,” Breq said. She stood and turned the chair around so it was facing the table and the ration meal.
Seivarden sat on the side of the bed. The shipboard air felt cool against her bared legs. She’d stopped bothering about being in her underwear around Breq – to be accurate, she’d never worried about it. Breq had seen her naked and puking her guts out. It couldn’t go downhill from there.
She stared at Breq. “What happens if I don’t?”
Breq stared back down at her. Her face was as unreadable as ever.
The one person in this galaxy who knows my name, Seivarden thought, and she looks at me like I’m a spare flyer part. Her arms on the edge of the bed started to shake.
Breq pulled the chair out again and sat down, facing Seivarden. She crossed her arms as if settling in for a long wait.
Seivarden stared at her for almost half a minute before it sunk in. This was new. Breq should have just said suit yourself and gone off to do her own thing.
The shipboard time display was blinking its red light on the opposite wall. Seivarden found herself counting the seconds out in her head. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty.
Fifty. Breq hadn’t moved. Instead, she started to hum under her breath.
A minute wasn’t long when you were doing something. When you were inches from someone else, frozen, concentrating on them to pick up the first sign they were going to give up and go away, it was an eternity.
At two minutes ten seconds, Seivarden pushed herself back on the bed, and pulled up her knees and put her arms around them. She didn’t take her eyes off Breq’s face.
Three minutes. It felt hard to breathe. Seivarden found herself timing her breaths, one short, shallow puff each second. In. Out. In. out. When was she going to crack? Breq had never made any secret of the fact that Seivarden wasn’t worth three minutes of her time.
Four minutes thirty. That can’t be true, her mind said, belatedly, otherwise why take you along at all? Seivarden’s restless gaze darted to Breq’s face and back again, afraid to see her expression. She didn’t really believe Breq had been sent after her, not any more. It had been a bright, burning fairy tale that had given her the wall she needed against the darkness, but it wasn’t true. The Radch would have found her sooner. The Radch had obviously decided she wasn’t worth the resources.
Another twenty seconds passed. Seivarden felt a perverse desire to wait Breq out, to prove what they both knew – that Seivarden wasn’t worth it. She let the darkness swirl into her mind again. She had waited out whole days like this. She could manage a few minutes. The red light carried on blinking.
Breq’s tune changed again. Seivarden shivered.
Seivarden lasted until seven minutes and eight seconds, when the shiver that came over her was convulsive enough that she brought her head down to her knees, her eyes squeezed shut. She jumped off a bridge for you.
In the darkness behind her eyes she lost sight of the flashing seconds. So she never knew, afterwards, exactly how long it took for your own orbit to shift, for your own worthless shard of rock to cease tumbling through space and fall, gently, into a curve.
A handful of seconds. A thousand years.
Seivarden pushed herself to her feet in one jerky movement. Breq stopped humming and raised her eyebrows fractionally.
Seivarden crossed her arms over her chest and hunched her shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
Breq raised her eyebrows further. “Are you going to eat?”
Seivarden really didn’t want to eat. The thought of it made her stomach roil. “Do I have to?”
For a moment, Breq didn’t answer. Her hands uncurled from their fists, and she tapped a finger thoughtfully on her knee. “Yes,” she said.
You have a lot of ground to make up, Seivarden told herself. She grimaced and uncrossed her arms long enough to pick up the rations.
Breq stood up and gestured towards the table with the minute flick of a finger. Seivarden shook her head and perched on the edge of her bed with the rations on her knees. “You should have the chair,” she muttered. “It’s your room.”
She picked at the mush of salted protein inside the ration tray. Her stomach was a weird mixture of hunger and nausea, but she managed three of the white, chewy starch lumps, taking deep breaths between each one.
Her stomach revolted at the idea of tackling the next one. “I – need a break,” she said, looking up.
Breq gave a gesture that Seivarden interpreted as assent. Seivarden laid the rations aside and tried to convince herself that she wasn’t going to throw up. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
Breq shrugged. She was humming under her breath, but that didn’t mean anything: Breq always did that.
“Why do you sit like that around me?” Seivarden said abruptly. “Am I that hard to be around?”
Breq broke off. “Sit like what?”
The impulse seized Seivarden before she could stop herself. She straightened her back to ramrod-stiffness, put her hands on her knees and scowled in exaggerated imitation.
Breq did not laugh.
“Sorry,” Seivarden muttered, and crossed her arms.
“Finish your rations,” Breq said, unimpressed.
“Right,” Seivarden said. She picked them up again and stared at them dismally. “I might throw up,” she said, poking the plastic fork into them. “Just warning you.”
Breq frowned, and Seivarden’s shoulders hunched. “I’m not being difficult,” Seivarden said hurriedly, and somehow swallowed another mouthful.
Breq’s hand grasped her wrist, and Seivarden stopped moving.
“I didn’t mean for you to make yourself sick,” Breq said, sounding exasperated. “Could you eat something else?”
Seivarden looked at the unappetizing mess. “I can eat this,” she said stubbornly. “Give me time.”
Breq released her wrist. “Fine,” she said. “I need to go and talk to the captain about entry permits. We’re nearly at Sheq’al. Don’t make yourself ill.”
By the time she came back, Seivarden had soldiered her way through another forkful.
“All right, stop,” Breq said, thumping two disposable flasks and two bowls of soup down on the table. “Try this.”
Seivarden didn’t reach for them. “Those aren’t basic rations,” she said.
“I got them at the restaurant.”
“Restaurant food isn’t included in the passage fare.”
Breq merely stared at her.
“I don’t need it,” Seivarden said, increasingly desperate and not sure why. She pulled the lukewarm rations tray towards her. “You didn’t have to. I can do this. I can!”
“They’re seven hours and thirty-one minutes old,” Breq said. “Throw them away.”
“You haven’t eaten in three days and you’re being illogical. Throw them away.”
Seivarden hesitated, then leaned over and dropped the rations into the disposal chute. Then she opened the flask.
“This is… this is tea.”
“Fake,” Breq said clinically. “But not a bad fake.”
Seivarden gripped the flask so tightly her knuckles went white, but it wasn’t enough, because when Breq reached for her own bowl she blurted out, “Breq.”
“I’m coming, aren’t I? On the next leg?”
Breq shrugged. “If you want.”
Some of the tension eased from Seivarden’s back. She gave a quick, jerky nod.
Breq returned it with a puzzled frown. After a moment, she said, “I always sit like that.”
“It’s not you,” Breq said. “Well – it was,” she added punctiliously, because Breq was always painstakingly accurate, “but you’re getting slightly better.”
Seivarden’s eyes widened, and her hands clenched on her knees.
She couldn’t blame Breq for not being enthusiastic about taking her along. Seivarden wasn’t exactly much use to anyone. But she had shelter and food and someone who knew her name and cared if she starved. She had to be more careful with that. She had to be more grateful. She couldn’t let it go now.
“Thank you,” she said, and clutched the flask to her chest. “You won’t regret it.”