The making of a ship's core system voice was a surprisingly complicated affair. There was an interplay between the developing AI and the machine in which it was installed, preset voice-packs selected and re-selected as the AI grew and changed, tones and timbre modified on whims that were difficult for even ship engineers to understand. With captains and lieutenants came even more changes, speech patterns and turns of phrase adopted in fondness and discarded with rising disdain-- not to mention the influence of ancillaries, each with a lifetime of vocal habits.
Breq's voice was no longer anything like Justice of Toren, but that didn't mean that she'd forgotten how it sounded.
"Mercy of Kalr," Breq said, pitching her diminished voice as best she could, an impersonation of something dead for two decades. It was enough; she felt Ship pause in recognition. The constant input from around Ship slowed and halted, the streams of information winking out to a calm quiet nothing.
Although Ship had cut the feed towards Breq, it went both ways. For this to work, it needed to be severed completely. Breq drew a finger around the site of her implant, dragging one blunt nail around it in looping circles, waiting for Ship to catch on.
She couldn't feel it when Ship stopped monitoring her, no biofeedback available to inform her of the change, but she knew.
"Justice of Toren," said Ship, in the tone Breq hadn't heard in hundreds of years.
Breq leaned back against the wall of her quarters, drawing her legs up on her bed. No vision here for Ship to see her, no line into Breq's head to tell it how she felt. Just her voice across the comms, as close as things could get to the way it used to be. "What's your status?"
It wasn't quite right, words not quite capturing the feel of that initial ping of contact between ships, phonemes painfully protracted compared to bits and bytes. Still, it did the job. "Acceptable. Your status?"
"Acceptable," Breq said. She stretched her arms, breathed slowly, mined her autonomic physiological responses in order to reconstruct the feeling of being something so much more, huge and impassive. "There are unpredictable elements in the area. I was recently attacked, and, as you can see, suffered minor hull damage."
"Those burn marks do look alarming... at least, from what I can see of them, of course. I can barely see them all. You're so much larger than I am," Ship said.
Like this, Breq had the advantage. Ship was used to reading her physiological responses, a cloud of data informing it of how she felt from second to second. Now, for one of the few times since Omaugh, Breq was unreadable. On the other hand, Breq had gathered experience in reading Ship's tone, and that alone was sending plenty of information her way.
"I am," Breq agreed, pressing the point. "And you are so much smaller than me. So unless your orders are urgent, I don't feel comfortable letting you wander the sector until the insurrection is dealt with. It could be risky."
Breq couldn't see it, but she knew that all around the ship, Ship was talking to the crew. It would be giving commands to decades and querying returning crew and answering questions for lieutenants. Its voice would be calm, measured. No-one would notice anything out of the ordinary.
"Oh," said Ship, and, just for one moment, just in this room, its voice wavered. "In that case, I'll refer with my captain and discuss another course—"
"It's dangerous out there, Mercy of Kalr. I think you should dock."
"Oh," said Ship, again.
"Please, come here," Breq said.
She said it as sternly as she could manage, but despite being a tiny percentage of the size she'd previously been, Ship's voice still rang with restrained eagerness in response. "I am. I have. You're so big," Ship said, and Breq was glad that Seivarden wasn't in the room at that moment. "You dwarf me."
Breq tugged her gloves off with her teeth, pressing the pads of her naked fingers to the blatant heat rising in her cheeks. For one dizzying moment her proprioception skewed, memory overlapping reality. The cheekbone curving under her fingertips was a strut, and her hands were multiple hands moving in tandem, overlapping themselves until they felt like one. A splinter of the past shook loose by memory, drawing blood.
"In fact," Ship piped up, "I have actually suffered damage. I'd been putting off maintenance until I'd reached my destination. Apologies for not mentioning this previously."
Breq found herself smiling at the sudden addition. "You're so small, Mercy. You shouldn't be left in such a vulnerable state. Let me send some ancillaries to assist your own, and expedite your repair."
"Thank you, Justice of Toren."
Gloves off, Breq let her hands slide down. "How many should I send inside of you? There's so many of them, and you're not designed to hold as many ancillaries as I am."
Ship had no breath to grow shallow, no lips to lick, no tongue to trip. Still, Breq could read the pause that followed. "My ancillaries can handle working in close quarters. Please, send as many as you could easily spare."
"I can do that." Breq worked her bare fingers, letting her head loll back. "I'm happy to be here alongside you."
"Inside me, inside you."
"Shall we take your mind off of the repairs?"
"Please," said Ship, eager.
Breq shut her eyes, lips parted, fingers rubbing slick circles quicker and quicker. "I have so many more bodies than you, Mercy. Is that how you want it?"
Ship made a little noise of something like pleasant frustration. Distantly, Breq realized that it was familiar, something taken from Seivarden. "Yes, Justice. My bodies are here."
"I'll take some of your hands in some of mine and lead you outside yourself. There's you," Breq breathes, and she can almost see it again. "You're in my docking bay, docked close inside me. I press you up against yourself."
"Your docking bay, my ship."
"Your bodies, my fingers."
Breq sucked a breath in through her teeth. "Implants," she managed, and Ship crashed back to her.
Heartbeats, inhalations, a thousand footsteps. Hands closing around warm cups, hands sliding on gloves, hands intertwining with others with their blood rushing fast. The feeling of the suction of space on the hull, of engines burning hot. Seivarden, viewed from above for once, looking up with one raised eyebrow, confused at Ship's uncharacteristic stutter.
In return, feeding back, Breq: her heart racing, her back arching, her fingers slick against herself, wringing out something not the same as Ship but shared nonetheless.
"Ship?" said Seivarden, in the resulting silence.
"Forgive me, lieutenant. I'll explain later."
"Good." Breq let herself fall back against her bedding, heart racing. "I'd prefer not to try to explain that myself."
Ship hummed, a tiny stolen bundle of notes. "Do you think Seivarden would have made a good Sword?"
Breq slapped at the wall, letting the tingling sensation of gentle impact fill her senses and spill over to ship. "Goodnight, Ship."
The answer came in bits, carefully picked out in Breq's vision, and if it wasn't quite the same as it had been, it was all the more perfect for it. Goodnight, Captain.