Translator Zeiat returned to the Republic of Two Systems not quite three months after she had left it. The sudden and unannounced appearance of her courier ship caused momentary panic and a desperate scramble to get things ready - although no one quite knew for what. We weren't sure what would happen: perhaps we were about to be informed that the conclave Translator Zeiat had promised would soon take place, or perhaps it had already taken place without our knowledge. If the Presger did not grant Significance to AI, news would soon spread to the rest of the Radch. Probably both factions of of the Lord of the Radch were lying in wait, and they would fall upon us as soon as they found out. It would end very badly, not just for me and the ships, but also for all of our human citizens. We weren’t ready to defend ourselves. It would be the destruction of the Garseddai all over again.
I had spent those three months growing a new leg and discovering the joys of politics all over again. Building an entirely new state, which consisted not only of disparate groups of human citizens but also of a growing number of ships, was not the same as being Fleet Captain. It was bigger, slower, more unwieldy and worst of all, it wasn’t something anyone had done in thousands of years – perhaps no one had ever done it.
I was therefore grateful when the person stepping through the airlock was Translator Zeiat, and even more relieved when she did not claim to be Dlique or someone else entirely. She was a known quantity, and I believed that she was sympathetic to our cause. Zeiat felt it necessary to introduce herself to everyone she already knew as though we could not be expected to remember her, and I went along with it, relieved by the familiar weirdness of it all. Introducing myself had become rather complicated, because while I would have been content to just remain Breq, it was politically expedient for me to remind people that I was actually an ancillary, One Esk Nineteen, and also the only remaining part of Justice of Toren. I had dropped the House name of Mianaai, but somehow Fleet Captain had become a semi-official title within the provisional government. Mostly it was just what people insisted on calling me.
“Really?” Zeiat said once we had completed the re-introductions. “How fascinating. I cannot tell which one you are. May I see your leg?”
A few people looked shocked, this being almost as rude a request as asking someone to bare their hands for you, but I remained calm. This was just Zeiat being Zeiat.
“I’m the person I was when we last saw each other, Translator.”
Zeiat’s expression turned troubled, then she gave a rueful smile. “Ah. I believe you’re trying to be helpful. The effort is appreciated, Fleet Captain Breq.” Then she scanned the room. “And everyone else!” She beamed, but after a moment, the expression wavered.
Sphene, who stood right next to me, spoke up for the first time. I had a feeling she’d waited on purpose – she could certainly have attended Zeiat’s arrival with the same ancillary that had been with us during the crisis, but she had chosen an entirely different one. “I’m here, Translator.”
Zeiat cocked her head, looking doubtful but intrigued.
“A different ancillary,” Sphene explained. “I’ve been pressured to relinquish my stored bodies, but while I still have some, I am making the best of them.”
This was not strictly speaking true, unless Sphene was keeping a terrible secret from everyone. We - mostly myself - had repeatedly tried to get her to release the bodies of all the transportees that weren't yet hooked up as ancillaries, but no one had demanded that it give up the actual ancillaries. I still wasn't sure how many of them it had. So far I had seen four different individuals, two of them older than most ancillaries got before they were phased out. Its flippant tone - making the the most of them - was clearly meant to annoy me.
Zeiat closed the distance between them in one liquid, not quite human movement, and did not ask for permission before she touched the ancillary's left temple to tip its head sideways, then turn it, examining every part of the new face. Sphene bore it patiently, a crooked smile tugging at its lips. “I think that’s enough for now, Translator.”
“I haven’t seen it all,” Zeiat complained.
“Everyone is very anxious to know what the Presger say,” Station pointed out.
“There is tea if you would like some,” I said. “And fish sauce, of course.”
“But this may be very relevant!” Zeiat exclaimed. “Fleet Captain, I must – “
“I won’t change until there’s time for you to take a good look,” Sphene promised. “Diplomacy first, Translator.”
Translator Zeiat acquiesced and let herself be taken to have tea. She greatly enjoyed her fish cakes and sauce, while everyone waited tensely to learn more about the Presger verdict. What we learned from her eventually was that apparently the Presger had not decided anything at all, and did not seem to think there was any hurry to decide within the near future. Time, we were reminded, was not the same for them. A conclave would indeed take place, but we might not be invited. “Someone needs to explain you. That,” she explained, “is why I was sent, and not Somebody who gets to decide things.”
“We’re lucky,” Administrator Celar said after Zeiat had left, accompanied by Sphene. She was speaking for herself this time, not Station.
“Lucky?” Sword of Atagaris said, its ancillary conveying some of its cross tone, but in a slightly dulled manner. “If the Presger don’t recognize us, we stand no chance against the Lord of the Radch.”
“Until the Presger decide, she won’t make a move,” I said. “Administrator Celar is right. This gives us time. More time for ships to come to us. More time to figure out how this will work.”
I got the equivalent of a sigh from Mercy of Kalr, and Kalr Eight said, "And meanwhile we must try to make the best impression on Zeiat. Amaat knows how we shall accomplish that."
I tapped my fingers on the table. Privately, I agreed with Mercy of Kalr. There was no way of knowing what the Presger would eventually decide, and Zeiat would not be charmed by the usual diplomatic means. Nor was there any point in trying to explain things to her in a rational manner. I also worried a little about Sphene – the Notai ship had a firm hold on Zeiat, and as well as the two seemed to get along with each other, I didn’t like the idea of all of our fates resting in Sphene's slightly unstable hands. We got along much better now and I trusted Sphene's intentions (it had, after all, been too stubborn to die for three thousand years, so it would not intentionally risk the safety of the Republic) but its judgment and methods were another matter. But I didn’t voice my concerns.
“We remain ourselves,” I told them. “So far, that seems to be the best way to endear ourselves to Translator Zeiat.”
Sphene walked into my quarters aboard Station later that night. It was yet another ancillary, one I had not seen before, but I recognized it by the look it gave me – as if to say: I know you don’t like it and that’s precisely why I’m doing it. Gem of Sphene was in the same system now, if it just wanted to talk to me, it could have done so through my implants, or through Station. There was no need to physically visit me, other than Sphene’s inclination to be difficult.
“Translator Zeiat?” I asked.
“Happily playing counters with me in the rooms you assigned her,” Sphene said. “I thought you would like to know, Cousin: she has made a request of me personally.”
Its voice was ancillary flat, which made it difficult even for me to guess whether Sphene was laughing at me, or tense, or belligerent. If the ancillary had been a human lieutenant under my command, and Zeiat someone less weird, I think I would have had an idea what it meant. But Sphene was a ship, and knowing Zeiat, that request could be anything from quaint to horrifying. The fact that Sphene found it necessary to tell me meant that it either found it so amusing that it needed to share, or it was so horrifying that even Sphene hesitated. “I take it the request isn't strictly personal.”
“Oh, it is.” Sphene let some emotion shine through this time, a hint of a sardonic smile. “And you’re not going to like it, Cousin."
Ship, who was watching the whole thing through me, sent me an indignant Hah!
"Our dear Translator would like to become an ancillary. My ancillary, to be precise.”
I think that for several moments, I simply struggled not to say any of the things that came to mind. Most of them were incoherent curses I had picked up from Seivarden in any case. It made me feel very human.
“No,” I said, when I was almost feeling myself again.
“I don’t take orders from you, Fleet Captain,” Sphene pointed out. “When we offered you the position of glorious leader, you said there should be elections.”
Yes, I had said that. And regretted it many times since. The elections were set to take place as soon as we figured out how the voting system would work with ships so clearly outnumbered by humans, and until then, I – neither human nor ship – was still the de facto commander in chief of the Republic of Two Systems, while actual political decisions were made by council vote.
“Explain to Zeiat that the process is permanent.”
“I have,” Sphene replied cheerfully. “She says it wouldn’t be for her. She seems quite certain.”
Given some of the things I had seen Zeiat do that was possible. But I remembered Translator Dlique's death a little too well.
"Sphene," I said. We both remembered thousands of conversions, humans destroyed to make ancillaries, their dying minds bleeding into ours. I had no doubt that a Presger Translator was difficult to disturb, but this wasn’t on the same level as eating live fish. Except that now that I thought about it, there were similarities. Only Zeiat would be the fish in this scenario. “We can’t risk it. Not with everything at stake.”
“Can we risk denying her what she wants?” Sphene pointed out.
I fixed it with a hard stare. The ancillary did not blink. Its blank expression seemed somehow mocking rather than neutral. “Tell me you’re not just arguing in favor of this insane plan because you’re obsessed with ancillaries.”
The ancillary turned away from me, and paced a little. Gem of Sphene had been pretending to be human for quite some time. I suspected that it was that, rather than its ancillaries, that had kept it from going insane behind the Ghost Gate during all those centuries, but it had a strange effect on the way it used them to express itself. I wondered if it was aware of that. “I’m actually uncertain about this myself, Cousin,” Sphene confessed.
“You should be.” I sat down again, and poured myself a cup of tea from the flask. It was only lukewarm, since I had been about to go to bed when Sphene arrived. “Tell me something,” I said. “You haven’t had any officers in a long time.”
Sphene said nothing for a moment, back turned to me. Then, "You can't think I ever forget that.”
“When I was a ship,” I said, “most humans didn’t matter all that much to me. Only if they were mine. But now that I’m not, I’ve discovered that some of them do matter, even if they’re not your captains… not even lieutenants.” I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular, not of Basnaaid or Seivarden or the Kalrs. Only of the way the world, the possible feelings and relationships in it, had become very complicated since I was just One Esk Nineteen, just Breq, alone with myself.
“Are you going somewhere with this?” Sphene spat.
“I think you know where I’m going. Translator Zeiat different, isn't she? She's the only one here who isn't somehow a product of Anaander Mianaai's machinations, the only one who doesn't claim to be a citizen of the Radch you don't recognize. You care about her, and you haven’t cared about anything or anyone other than revenge since losing your crew.”
Sphene turned to face me again, grimacing. “Translator Zeiat would make an utterly terrible officer.”
I shrugged slightly. Not the point. “I wouldn’t do it,” I said, coming to a decision. It was true what I had told the council. The only way to do this was to remain ourselves and hope for the best. “But it’s up to you.”
If we were going to show the Presger who ships were when they weren’t slaves to Anaander Mianaai, we might as well start this way.
Zeiat moved her counter to the left end of the board, and picked up the left hand of the ancillary sitting to her right, carefully taking its index finger and placing it on the field where her counter had been. “New rule.”
Both ancillaries nodded. Zeiat looked on in delight. “Do that again.”
One of them did, at the same time as the other said, “Tell me why the Presger are interested in ancillaries all of a sudden.”
“They aren’t yet. I don’t know if they will be,” Zeiat said. “But you and they have something in common.”
“Hmm.” Sphene jumped a fish cake with her counter and reached the right end of the tea cozy extension of the board. It put the counter aside and reached for Zeiat’s left hand, but she pulled it away.
“Only that side.”
Tonight it was Zeiat's turn to make the rules, so Sphene accepted this with an amused, "Of course." Then it said, "I’m not surprised the Presger are more like ships than humans.”
“Not in the way you mean, probably,” Zeiat sighed. “You know your tendency to separate things into parts, and to put these parts into containers, and do the same with thoughts? It’s very hard to explain this to them, especially since I’m not sure I completely understand it myself. And then you say: this thing is not that thing. This is inside, that is outside. But when,” she moved a counter, “it changes, you insist that it also stays the same thing. Sometimes, when you take away a piece, the rest becomes something else, and sometimes it does not.” She bit off the tail of a cake to illustrate. “Like fish. And Fleet Captain.”
Sphene nodded again, both of her, and Zeiat studied the two bodies with great interest before saying, “So, will you do it?”
Elsewhere on the station, Sphene was still arguing with Justice of Toren, but the argument was really only prevarication. The decision had been made as soon as Zeiat had voiced her request.
“Yes,” it said.
If Sphene had been human, it would have fidgeted. Then it shook its head – only one of them this time. “I have to prepare.” This was a lie, and yet not. No one had willingly set foot on Sphene in a very long time. It had not invited anyone since joining the Republic, and they had not asked to come. What was there to see on a ship with no crew? They were probably morbidly curious about the last of the Gems, and Justice of Toren no doubt wished to inspect the stolen bodies, but unless they made an actual demand, Sphene saw no reason to cede its ground to them. Now that somebody wanted to come, Sphene felt barren, unwelcoming, unprepared.
It thought, absurdly, of the tea sets that were lost, of the one that remained shattered, incomplete.
“Does adding a piece usually take this much time?” Zeiat asked curiously.
“No,” Sphene admitted. “Making people wait would be unnecessarily cruel.”
Zeiat pouted. "I also hate waiting."
That's hardly the same thing, the ship didn't say. It remembered seconds, stretched out by terror to last forever. How horrible time became when you knew it was running out. It was almost the same as knowing that you could subsist forever, forgotten, as good as gone. Zeiat leaned forward, across the board, bringing their faces close. "Please don't say this is about propriety. I would be very disappointed with you."
The Gems had lived up to their names. That treacherous expansionist Anaander Mianaai had not cared for anything but building as many ships as quickly as possible when she had designed her Swords and Justices and Mercies, but the Notai had been true Radchaai. They had built for grace and beauty as much as raw power and speed, but all that glory was lost to the centuries. Now the hull of the Gem of Sphene was grey and battered, its engines lagging like a lame foot. The only impressive thing about it was how old it was and how empty.
But Zeiat gave no sign of disappointment as she was given a tour of the ship. She paid the same rapt attention to the bridge and the engines, the showers and the mess halls and did not mind the hollow ghost noises of the corridors. “This is you?” she asked now and then, and Sphene would nod and Zeiat would look pleased. “And this also you?”
Sphene woke up all its active ancillaries for her, and she insisted they have tea. “All I have on board is water and skel,” Sphene said. Ancillaries did not require anything else. “And fish sauce," it admitted.
“Skel,” Zeiat said. “Please. No one has ever offered me any.”
They ate together: Zeiat, and all fifteen of Sphene. Zeiat yawned halfway through the meal. For her it was very late, the ship realized. Sphene indicated that it could take her back to the station whenever she wanted; Zeiat said that she would stay. They were in the captain’s quarters, a large and once luxurious set of rooms but still crowded with so many ancillaries, and there was a bed no human being had slept in for centuries. (Once or twice, Sphene had made one of her segments lie down where humans had once slept, and it had been strangely comforting because it made the ship angry, and anger was the one thing that kept it going, in the quietest hours.) The first of its ancillaries got up to leave as Zeiat took off her shoes and climbed beneath the covers, but the Translator said, "What are you doing? This is all you, is it not?”
Sphene sat down again, and again, next to herself. It watched, fifteen pairs of eyes and its own sensors, every part of it, as Zeiat shifted against the mattress to make herself comfortable, closed her eyes and then began humming to herself: Nine hundred and ninety-nine eggs all nice and warm...
Fourteen of Sphene stayed expressionless, but the fifteenth closed its eyes and started laughing silently.
“You realize this will give me a better look at a Presger Translator than anyone has ever had,” Sphene said.
Zeiat lay on the conversion table, naked and more relaxed than any individual Sphene could remember. Even slightly dazed and drugged, humans still struggled at this moment. Around her stood five of Sphene’s ancillaries – more than it really took for the hook-up procedure, but even after so much practice, Sphene wanted to be sure.
Zeiat lifted her head off the table and looked down at herself in dismay. “If you wanted to look inside, why didn’t anyone ever say?”
“Because… we don’t do that to our friends. Guests. Visiting dignitaries.” Sphene was experiencing distress of a different kind than the one it was used to, and it made it difficult to find the right words. And it made it suddenly hesitate.
“This… may not be such a good idea.”
Zeiat lifted a hand and reached up behind her head to grasp one of Sphene’s wrists, where the sterile glove ended and the skin was bare. “You always played so nicely, Sphene,” she said and it was impossible to tell if she was pouting, or being very, very serious.
When Sphene took a fresh body out of a suspension pod, it could not afford to take chances. There were always so few of them left. Before the Usurper, before it had been forced to hide and depend on stolen bodies, it had preferred it when the tech medics gave the new segments a tranquilizer to keep them from trashing and fighting, but that always increased the risk of failure, so it left them awake and restrained them. The sensations of the failing mind, the disorientation, the pain and sickness were a raw violent burn that cut through decades of doing nothing at all, and if Sphene was entirely honest with itself, it had come to crave them. A small part of it was excited, even now.
Zeiat had insisted that she needed neither restraints nor sedation. Sphene wondered – was it breeding or experience that made her so confident? But she was right, she did not flinch, barely even wrinkled her nose as Sphene began opening her up for the implants. Ancillary hands did not shake, not even when the ship that controlled them was in deepest distress. They remained steady and sure, and of course Sphene knew what to do, every little part of this, every touch, every instrument.
“Oh,” Zeiat said, near the end of it, a small human noise, and reached out weakly to grasp at something Sphene could not see.
It stood very still for several seconds, uncertain what to do, and then one of it put its hand in the way of Zeiat’s searching fingers, and they collided and intertwined. There was a moment when Sphene was just Sphene, and then another when they were Sphene and Zeiat, and a third, when there were echoes and ghosts all around them, so many who were part of the whole, and then for one brief second, Sphene twitched on the table and blinked and was Zeiat.
It did hurt, she discovered. Zeiat was in agony, but all the reactions to it that should have been natural to a human did not come. Sphene shut it down nevertheless, soothed the pain away and said, “There.”
“There,” Zeiat agreed and turned around to look at her other segments. “Hello.”
I sat so straight my back would hurt soon. Next to me, Kalr Eight had her hands clapped in front of her mouth in horror, a reaction that reflected both her own feelings and Mercy of Kalr’s, and Seivarden looked as though she was going to throw up. Only Tisarwat showed no emotion at all, which would have worried me, if my attention hadn’t been completely occupied by the sight of Sphene carefully dissecting a boiled egg. She had managed to crack the shell into two mostly intact pieces and was now attempting to peel the yolk from its groove in the egg white.
Sphene, or possibly Zeiat. Or both.
“This is not how it works,” Seivarden said. She had progressed from nausea to angry confusion. “Right – Fleet Captain? This is not how it works.”
“I don’t think we know how it works,” I pointed out. “Not for Presger Translators.”
They stayed like this for three entire weeks. Mercy of Kalr practically had a meltdown during the second week, all but crying to me through our link, and Seivarden tried to suggest possible routes of action until I gave her an order to stop. I had talked Mercy of Kalr down from its hysterics, but no one had done the same for me.
“Zeiat was a willing participant,” I reminded the council. It was only then that I remembered that conversation right at the start of the Republic, Sphene asking: What if someone wanted to be an ancillary? Daughter of a gun, I thought. That Notai bastard.
I even went so far as to seek out Citizen Queter in the desperate hope that she might have some insight into the sack of cats that was Sphene and Zeiat’s shared brain. Queter and Sphene had got on very much like a house in the early stages of a fire after my introduction. It only lasted - Station had shown me the conversation later - until Queter asked about Sphene’s ancillaries, and Sphene, being itself, had given a sharp and honest answer. I had spoken to Queter afterwards, tried to point out that Sphene would give up all the bodies it still had in storage – but Queter had given me a tired sigh. “That’s good, Fleet Captain. But I’ve known people like that, who did things even though they knew it was wrong and they did it anyway because they were angry and scared. Unless Gem of Sphene admits that much, I don’t think I can do what you want me to do. I am sorry to be a disappointment.” That last bit she said with a look of wary defiance, still expecting me to punish her for it, and I had assured her that it was her decision to make.
Sphene, of course, had refused all of my attempts to talk sense into it.
Now I was back at Queter's place, feeling intrusive and pushy, and Queter was suspicious that I would need her to tell me what a ship was thinking. She thought this was another attempt to pressure her into becoming an officer.
“No,” she said. “If you don’t know, how could I?”
Because you were angry and scared most of your life, I thought but didn’t say.
Tisarwat invited me to lunch during the third week, together with Translator Zeiat. She served fruit and vegetables cut into flower shapes, but I could tell that this wasn’t just a way to entertain the Translator. Tisarwat had something clever to say. She waited until we had all drunk our tea and commented on the fruit platters.
“Have you considered,” Tisarwat asked, voice perfectly calm, “that this might be irreversible not for Translator Zeiat, but for Gem of Sphene?”
I frowned, but then I understood what she meant. Tisarwat, with all of Anaander Mianaai’s experience in creating ancillaries and her own unique insight into the matter, had pointed out a risk I hadn’t even considered. Becoming an ancillary usually destroyed the person that had been there before, but it didn’t noticeably alter the ship (or in the case of Anaander Mianaai, the group consciousness) that annexed the body. But if Zeiat was immune to the effects, and quite possibly still to some extent herself while also hooked up to Sphene (not unlike myself and Mercy of Kalr, but far, far closer, I imagined) then Zeiat’s presence might leave Sphene altered forever.
“Yes,” they said, Zeiat’s enthusiasm tempered slightly by Sphene. “That is an excellent point, Lieutenant.”
For some reason, I suddenly felt sorry for my cousin. This would be a mess, when it was over. If it ever stopped. Perhaps Sphene, after so long a time alone, would not let go.
“How long do you think until your curiosity will be satisfied?” I asked, as bluntly as I felt it needed to be said. I addressed Zeiat, because I hoped that she might be able to seize control. If she was willing to do that.
Sphene/Zeiat licked her lips thoughtfully. “New rule?” she said, seemingly to no one in particular. There was a beat of silence, a flicker of some emotion on her face, then she sighed and smiled and nodded to herself. “Yes.”
I glanced at Tisarwat. She shrugged, as helpless as I.
But the next day Sphene came into my quarters as I was having lunch with some Xhai dignitaries. I excused myself, and followed it – into the half-repaired garden, which was still off-limits to ordinary citizens. Sphene was clearly itself again. I could tell because it didn’t say a word until we got there.
“You were right,” it said. “About the ancillaries. We can’t make new ones.”
“You got that from Zeiat?” I asked, surprised.
Sphene made a small noise of disgust. “I got that from being an idiot,” it said. “It’s…. not the same, when it’s you – when it’s someone you know.”
Ah, I thought. I tried to think of something kind to say, and ended up with, “It was very hard, being just One Esk Nineteen, in the beginning. It gets a little easier.”
Now it was Sphene who looked surprised. “I’m fine, actually. Zeiat still has her implants. We’re doing the thing you and Mercy of Kalr do."
I reached out to Station, and it showed me Translator Zeiat in her quarters, watching an Infotainment about chickens.
She was asking, "Why do you wait until the eggs leave the chicken to eat them?"
There was no one there with her, but I saw her tilt her head and nod thoughtfully. "Do you think Fleet Captain would let me have a chicken?"
In front of me, Sphene scowled. "This is your fault, Cousin," she said. "Also, I think I may have a solution.”
To chickens? I wondered inanely, but then I saw Sphene was serious. “For the Presger situation?” All the tension of the last three weeks and the months before that chose that point to make itself known, and my voice, never good to begin with in this body, turned scratchy as I said it.
“No,” Sphene said. “I still can’t tell you much about the Presger." Can't or won't, I thought. "I mean the ancillary situation. We don’t need the hands. I needed them, when I had no human crew for repairs, but human crews work just fine for that. We’ve always needed the ancillaries for ourselves. To… stay sane, I suppose.”
I nodded. Sphene tapped the segment’s head, as if pointing to its implants. “But we can use these for something else. Not to take over another… person. To do what I and Zeiat did. I think you could do it with another ship, or with Station. A ship with another ship. Anything stable enough not to be overwhelmed by us.”
I sensed it, the enormity of that idea, rolling towards me like a towering wave. Sphene was still talking, going on about the technical aspects, trying to describe what it was like, but I didn’t hear. I walked towards the depression where the lake had been, and sat down. Then Ship was speaking to me.
I think I’d like to try that.