When it came to renovations, Fleet Captain was generally content to leave matters between Station and its people. With the conclave looming, Athoek Station was busier than it had ever been intended to be, new constructions and renovations springing up seemingly overnight, and attention of a meddling Fleet Commander was not needed in the least.
In regards to this particular guest suite, however, Breq had a specific alteration in mind.
“This needs to be inaccessible,” she said, gesturing to the decorative aquatic display. “Can it be set into the wall?”
The architect in charge of constructing the diplomatic accommodations made a gesture of polite negation. Unlike many of Station’s citizens, her tone was blunt when addressing Breq. Breq supposed that if you were used to butting heads with management, it didn’t matter if they were one rank above you or if they were the provisional head of the entire republic– if someone had incorrect opinions about joist loading or how many support beams were necessary, they could take it up with physics itself. “With all due respect, Fleet Captain, that’s not necessary. The tank will incorporate a subtle locking mechanism, enough to stop any honored guest from interfering with the fish.”
“You haven’t met this guest.”
The architect flicked her eyes to the side, listening to whatever Station had to say. With a sigh, she demurred. Her tablet pen flicked to and fro over the digital blueprints, moving lines, newly calculated figures appearing at junctions and angles. “I suppose if it’s set deep into the wall…”
“With no access from within the room.”
The ability to keep one’s pen moving while rolling one’s eyes was almost impressive. “With no access from within the room…”
That one alteration seen to, Breq left the matter in Station’s many capable hands.
“It’s beautiful,” Zeiat breathed. Her eyes roamed the room, and Breq noted that her gaze lingered just as rapturously on the windowsills as it did on the view outside the window. When it reached the fish-tank, they grew even wider.
“Ah!” she said, with the slightly brisk smile of one who isn’t quite sure what to do next. “Not food,” she added, and managed to very nearly keep the question mark out of her voice.
“No, Translator.” Breq inclined her head. “Just for you to look at.”
“Of course!” With a small thud, Zeiat leaned her forehead against the plastiglass. The fish paid her little regard.
After a moment, it became apparently that any chance at conversation had disappeared, Zeiat’s eyes zipping from fish to fish to fish. Breq said her goodbyes and left her to it.
When Breq returned that evening, Zeiat was in the tank.
The wall was intact. The plastiglass was intact. The fish, from what Breq could see of them as they meandered in and out of the billowing reef of Zeiat’s hair, were intact.
Zeiat noticed her, and smiled. She waved, scattering a cloud of guppies.
Unlike some of Station’s newer citizens, unused to working alongside an all-encompassing AI, Breq didn’t feel the instinctual urge to look towards a recording unit or the ceiling when she was addressing Station.
She did it anyway, shooting a stern look at the nearest recording unit.
Station remained stubbornly silent.
“Translator,” Breq began, then caught herself. She pointed at Zeiat, then out in the room. She left, shutting the door behind her, and then counted down from twenty.
When she opened the door again, Zeiat was sitting on a chair, perfectly dry.
“Fleet Captain!” she said, grinning wide. “I almost didn’t recognize you with all that water in the way.”
Breq knew it was a pointless question, but she had to ask it anyway. “Translator… how did you get in there?”
“Oh, you know,” Zeiat said, and made what Breq recognized as a gesture of non-importance. Unfortunately, it had clearly been picked up by watching other people do it, and her gesture was reversed, indicating indigestion. “The regular way.”
Zeiat smiled. Station said nothing. Breq knew when to give up. “I’m here to take you to dinner.”
“Excellent timing!,” Zeiat cried, bouncing to her feet. “For some reason, I was starting to feel a little hungry.”
They strolled through Athoek Station and settled in a small shopfront that offered tea and cakes and privacy; the latter was definitely needed when it came to sharing the former with Zeiat.
Breq watched the Translator arrange her cakes on the serving tray, pushing them around to form new configurations, breaking them apart and rearranging them again. Even from across the table, Breq couldn’t fail to notice a certain piscine quality to the arrangements.
“Is there something on your mind, Translator?”
“There is,” Zeiat confessed. She speared a honey cake that had been serving as a tail, and ate it in one snap of white teeth. “You were all fish once, weren’t you?”
There was a trick to conversations with translators. Breq sipped her tea, letting her mind shake off those little things like time, space, and logic.
Eventually she settled on “Life did begin in the oceans, with fish-like ancestors, yes.”
It seemed to be the correct answer for the question. “So I’d heard! But not…” Zeiat lifted her hands to frame Breq, then snapped them together and wiggled them vigorously.
“I was never personally a fish, no.”
“Me neither! I was made,” Zeiat breezed. “But if I was made from Radchaai, and Radchaai were made out of fish, then I suppose I must have a little fish in me, don’t I?
Breq leveled a look at her across the cakes. "Translator.”
“Oh, I didn’t eat any,” Zeiat said, waving the accusation away. “Really, Fleet Captain. Those fish are just for looking! I thought everybody knew that.” She nibbled at another cake. “But… well, fish… they’re not Significant, are they?”
“Did you try asking them?”
“They make terrible conversationalists.” Zeiat tossed her hair. “Very rude.”
“I apologise for the rudeness of my fish,” Breq said. “No, Translator, they’re not Significant.”
“But,” Zeiat made a vague gesture out of the window, “all of these people are made out of fish, and fish aren’t Significant but all these people are!” The gesture returned from looping around the walkway outside to trace an accusative circle around Breq. “And everyone petitioning for Significance now, well, you were made out of them, but they were Significant and you all weren’t, and right now you’re in-between are and aren’t, and later you most likely will be. All that, from the same pieces!” She squinted at Breq. “Is it… some sort of organ that keeps getting misplaced? A gland, maybe?”
“Maybe it stops working every now and then?” Zeiat looked at her helplessly. “In my experience, glands can be awfully problematic.”
This looked like genuine Translator confusion, the sort that lead to hour-long circular talks about what was and wasn’t edible. With the conclave so near, though, Breq had to be sure. “Is this an official discussion, Translator?”
“No.” Zeiat slumped a little in her seat. “I was just curious. If the same parts are there, just arranged a little differently…”
Scholars and philosophers had been debating the issue for thousands of years. Breq had to explain it before the tea ran out. “It depends on where you draw the line,” she settled on. “We’re drawing one where we feel it should be.”
“Not glands, Translator.”
Zeiat huffed. “I was so sure that they were involved somewhere.”
It seemed as if Breq had answered her question, but Breq noted the way that Zeiat kept frowning at her own gloved hands, splaying them out like fins, arching her fingers into gestures.
If the same parts are there, just arranged differently…
AIs weren’t significant, and then, just because they said so, they could be.
Breq sipped her tea and regarded the ticking time bomb that was sitting across from her.
“If you feel like you might want to draw a line somewhere, you’re welcome to visit and talk about it with us.” Preferably after the conclave is over, she thought to herself, and without a fleet of disgruntled Presger on your heels.
Zeiat’s face lit up. “That’s very kind of you, Fleet Captain!” She beamed. “You know, you’re a much better conversationalist than your fish are.”
“Thank you, Translator,” Breq said, and as she finished off her tea, Zeiat took apart her cake fish with smug satisfaction.