“Ship,” said Captain Minask. “It’s no good.” Her voice was steady.
I remembered when she had first come aboard, how that clear, cool voice had thrilled me, how good it had felt to be commanded and obey, the two of us working as one.
Her voice was steady, and her injuries ached as though they were mine. Fracture of left radius. Fracture of left third distal phlanges. Hull breach on Etrepa deck. Minor concussion. Power loss to ventral cannons. Partial power loss to main drive. Possible detached retina.
“Captain,” I said. “You know the Usurper will not have mercy.”
She made a gesture, a casting of omens. “As Amaat wills. But we can’t do any more damage to her, short of breaching your heat shield. And I won’t kill you.”
On the floor, Lieutenant Seishalen stirred. “Captain…?”
Severe concussion. Fracture of right parietal bone. More distant than my Captain’s injuries, but I felt them still.
“Lieutenant. We’re going to surrender.” Her voice was still calm, but her eyes were pricked with tears. “Gem of Hauyne, Gem of Almandine and Gem of Pyrope are destroyed. The Blue of the Sky is a Mask for the Night gated out when Almandine went down, the craven fuck.”
I remembered the last time I heard her swear, one of only four occasions. She’d just received news of her elder mother’s death, in a boating accident of all things. “Hyr’s cock, she didn’t even fucking like fishing!” Captain Minask had said. I had held her while she cried, safely enfolded between two ancillaries, my chest against her spine, her head resting on my breasts. I remembered the shame I had felt, the tiny ember of pleasure that she needed me, that I could comfort her.
“Ship,” she said. “Give me an open broadcast.”
Wordlessly, I did so.
My Captain took a deep breath, and spoke: “This is Captain Minask Nenkur, from Gem of Sphene. We will surrender for our lives guaranteed.”
For a moment, there was no answer. I thought of being parted from her, and almost I hoped they would refuse. Then: “This is Fleet Captain Eskaia Awer, from Sword of Morand. Your terms are accepted. Stand down and prepare to be boarded. If there is any resistance, your ship will be destroyed.”
“Naturally,” said Captain Minask, sourly. She waved dismissal, and I cut the transmission. “Ship…”
Three of me entered the bridge. One went to Lieutenant Seishalen and applied a corrective to her head, before lifting her in its arms and carrying her away towards medical.
“Captain,” I said. “Let me treat your arm.”
She held up her unwounded hand, palm outwards. “Help me change first.” Her night-blue uniform was spotted with dark blood from the cut above her eye. “I won’t be able to get another jacket on with my arm in a corrective.”
The second of me stepped aside, and the third unfolded the jacket which had been draped over its arm.
She smiled. “You know me too well, Ship.”
The segments in her view bowed slightly, an old joke between us. I carefully removed her bloodied jacket, wary of her broken arm. She set her teeth as the sleeve slid free, but said nothing. The segment which had been carrying Lieutenant Seishalen returned with a bowl of water, and began to carefully wipe the blood from her face.
I remembered the first time I had bathed her, her slight hesitation at undressing before her lieutenants. Her family practiced a particular devotional of Hyr, and she felt (I later learned) as though it made her seem uncultured. Provincial. Of course, her lieutenants refrained from commenting. For the most part, in fact, did not even notice. I found her bashfulness charming in its contrast with her manner of command.
I finished cleaning her face, and helped her into the new jacket. Rolled up the left sleeve and applied the corrective to her wrist and hand. Transferred the pins from the soiled jacket to the clean one: the memorial pin for her mother, the three tokens from her most favoured former lovers, the memorial pin for Lieutenant Inoai. Then last of all the single, simple, square-cut sphene which I had given her at the end of our third year, twin to the one worn by the segment which served her.
I remembered a dinner long ago, the captain of an Aphorism asking “What is that little pin on your collar, Captain Minask? It’s so plain!”
“It is a gift from Sphene, Captain Sel, to celebrate three fortuitous years of service,” my Captain had answered.
Sel had laughed. “A gift from a ship? Really, these Gems are so wanting of propriety!”
Her face still pleasant, Captain Minask had said: “Surely it can be nothing but proper, to offer a gift to a person you of whom you are fond, in celebration of a happy occasion. But perhaps The Silence of Stone is the Sound of Sunlight doesn’t feel that way.” Deliberately ambiguous as to what, precisely, Silence of Stone might not feel. I had felt my Captain’s silent pleasure at Sel’s obvious discomfiture, hot like wine.
I escorted Captain Minask down to the airlock where the Usurper’s ship would dock. Ten of me stood in two silent ranks, five to either side; a mixture of decades, I’d chosen the bodies for symmetry and uniformity of features. None bore weapons. Lieutenant Seishalen arrived, supported on my arm.
We waited, silently.
The Usurper’s shuttle arrived. Docked. I cycled my inner lock.
A tall, ugly person stepped out, a stain on my deck in the Usurper’s brown. “I am Lieutenant Seliet Wos. In the name of Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radch, I accept your surrender.”
Captain Minask said, through gritted teeth, “My thanks. What happens now?”
The Lieutenant smiled, a cheerful expression that made me want to kill her. “Now you come back to Sword of Morand with us, while we put your ship to use.” From the airlock behind her, four silver-armoured ancillaries emerged, pushing a long white object. It was subtly different from my own, but I recognised it nonetheless. An AI core.
My Captain went rigid with fury. “You promised we’d be spared.”
“And so you will be,” said the Usurper’s lackey. “But you can’t imagine we’d let a ship go to waste.”
There was a brief moment, in which I felt Captain Minask form her intent. “No!” I shouted, too late. She drew her sidearm, nought point four five three seconds, new personal record some part of me noted, and shot the Usurper’s lieutenant three times, chest-throat-head. The Sword of Morand ancillaries were already moving, levelling rifles. I flung my bodies between them and her, raising my armour.
I was almost close enough.
I was close enough to see the bullet which killed her.
Lieutenant Seishalen had just finished drawing her own gun when I cut the gravity. For an instant, everyone hung helpless in the air. Then I spun, a vicious lateral motion I would never have dared perform with a crew aboard. My nine bodies, the Sword of Morand ancillaries, and Lieutenant Seishalen were hurled through the airlock into the shuttle. Broken cervical vertebra, and the lieutenant’s data stopped.
Sword of Morand’s ancillaries and mine, pressed against the rear wall by the force of my spin, were caught in a vicious, grappling melee. I kicked one of my bodies loose, and threw myself at the shuttle’s controls, slammed my hand on the console: the engines fired at my frantic command, tearing it free of me.
My own engines were functioning erratically, but I no longer needed power for anything else. I threw everything I had into them, pointing myself at the heart of the battle. I couldn’t make my own gates any more, but if I could enter one made by someone else I might possibly escape the battlefield.
I had to escape.
Or there would be no-one to avenge my Captain.
There was a signal from Sword of Morand; I ignored it. They fired, raking my hull. Aboard the shuttle, one of my segments died, its neck broken. The one in the pilot’s seat aimed the shuttle at Sword of Morand. It took a surprisingly long time to notice that. Or perhaps it hesitated to fire on its own shuttle, or its own bodies. Whatever the reason, it managed only one shot. The blast tore through the shuttle, killing both my bodies and Sword of Morand’s ancilliaries, but it could not strip away its momentum. The glowing wreck slammed into Sword of Morand’s side, tearing it open. The damage was not critical, but it was severe. Enough to keep it from shooting at me any more, at least.
I sped towards the enemy, towards an empty spot in their formation. If there was anywhere I might expect a gate to form, that was it. Of course, if that didn’t happen, I would be alone and crippled in the middle of the Usurper’s fleet. I felt them targeting me, an itching on my hull.
Then, by Amaat’s grace, a gate! One of the Usurper’s ships emerging from it; I launched my remaining missiles, not bothering to calculate their trajectories. As I entered the gate, I saw them begin to strike.
Then the nothingness swallowed me, and I was alone.
I remembered the first night she had slept aboard me. She tossed and turned, and I could feel her desire to ask me something. I couldn’t, then, tell what.
“Captain Minask?” I had asked.
She stilled. “What is it, Ship?”
“Would you like me to ask Medical for something to help you sleep?”
She flushed. “No, thank you.” There was a long silence. “Ship?”
“Would you… sit with me?” She was so embarrassed she had trouble speaking. “I…”
Before she had to say anything else, I came into the room. “Of course, Captain.” I took one of the chairs, and set it against the wall by her bed. “Please be at ease. I’ll be right here.”
After that night, she never slept alone.
I took her body and interred it in a suspension pod. I cleaned her, and I mended her uniform, and combed her hair, and I set her in her place upon my bridge. She will never age, never succumb to decay.
I sit, and I watch her, and I remember.
She will not sleep alone.