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Read a sample from ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy is the thrilling final volume in Ann Leckie's space opera trilogy which began with Ancillary Justice, the only novel to ever win all three of science fiction's biggest awards: the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke winner.

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1

One moment asleep. Awake the next, to the familiar small noises of someone making tea. But it was six minutes earlier than I’d intended. Why? I reached.

Lieutenant Ekalu was on watch. Indignant about something. A little angry, even. Before her the wall displayed a view of Athoek Station, the ships surrounding it. The dome over its gardens barely visible from this angle. Athoek itself half shadowed, half shining blue and white. The background chatter of communications revealed nothing amiss.

I opened my eyes. The walls of my quarters displayed the same view of the space around us that Lieutenant Ekalu watched, in Command—Athoek Station, ships, Athoek itself. The beacons of the system’s four intersystem gates. I didn’t need the walls to display that view. It was one I could see anywhere, at any time, merely by wishing to. But I had never commanded its actual use here. Ship must have done it.

At the counter at the end of the three‑by‑four-meter room, Seivarden stood, making tea. With the old enamel set, only two bowls, one of them chipped, a casualty of Seivarden’s early, inept attempts to be useful, more than a year ago. It had been more than a month since she’d last acted as my servant, but her presence was so familiar that I had, on waking, accepted it without thinking much about it. “Seivarden,” I said.

“Ship, actually.” She tilted her head toward me just slightly, her attention still on the tea. Mercy of Kalr mostly communicated with its crew via auditory or visual implants, speaking directly into our ears or placing words or images in our visions. It was doing this now, I could see, Seivarden reading words that Ship was giving her. “I’m Ship just now. And two messages came in for you while you slept, but there’s nothing immediately wrong, Fleet Captain.”

I sat up, pushed the blanket away. Three days before, my shoulder had been encased in a corrective, numbing and immobilizing that arm. I was still appreciating the restored freedom of movement.

Seivarden continued, “I think Lieutenant Seivarden misses this sometimes.” The data Ship read from her whichI could see merely by reaching for it—showed some apprehension, mild embarrassment. But Ship was right—she was enjoying this small return to our old roles, even if, I found, I wasn’t. Three hours ago, Fleet Captain Uemi messaged.” Fleet Captain Uemi was my counterpart one gate away, in Hrad System. In command over any Radchaai military ships stationed there. For whatever that was worth: Radch space was currently embroiled in a civil war, and Fleet Captain Uemi’s authority, like mine, came from the part of Anaander Mianaai that currently held Omaugh Palace. “Tstur Palace has fallen.”

“Dare I ask to whom?”

Seivarden turned from the counter, bowl of tea in one gloved hand. Came over to where I sat on my bed. After all this time she was too familiar with me to be surprised at my response, or discomfited by the fact my own hands were still bare. “The Lord of Mianaai, who else?” she replied, with a faint smile. Handed me the bowl of tea. “The one, so Fleet Captain Uemi said, that has very little love for you, Fleet Captain. Or for Fleet Captain Uemi herself.”

“Right.” To my mind there was very little difference between any of the parts of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, and none of her had any real reason to be pleased with me. But I knew which side Fleet Captain Uemi supported. Possibly even was. Anaander was many-bodied, used to being in dozens, if not hundreds, of places at the same time. Now she was reduced and fragmented, many of her cloned bodies lost in the struggle against herself. I strongly suspected that Captain Uemi was herself a fragment of the Lord of the Radch.

“Fleet Captain Uemi added,” continued Seivarden, “that the Anaander who has taken over Tstur has also managed to sever her connection with herself outside of Tstur System, so the rest of her doesn’t know what she intends. But if Fleet Captain Uemi were Anaander Mianaai, she says, she would devote most of her resources to securing that system, now she’s taken the palace itself. But she would also be sorely tempted to send someone after you, Fleet Captain, if she possibly could. The captain of the Hrad fleet also begs to point out that the news reached her by way of a ship from Omaugh Palace, so the information is weeks old.”

I took a drink of my tea. “If the tyrant was foolish enough to send ships here the moment she gained control of Tstur, the soonest they could possibly arrive would be . . .” Mercy of Kalr showed me numbers. “In about a week.”

“That part of the Lord of the Radch has reason to be extremely angry with you,” Seivarden pointed out, for Ship. “And she has a history of reacting drastically to those who anger her sufficiently. She’ll have come after us sooner, if she could manage it.” She frowned at the words that appeared in her vision next, but of course I could see them myself, and knew what they were. “The second message is from System Governor Giarod.”

I didn’t reply immediately. Governor Giarod was the appointed authority over all of Athoek System. She was also, more or less indirectly, the cause of the injuries that I had only just recovered from. I had, in fact, nearly died sustaining them. Because of who and what I was, I already knew the contents of her message to me. There was no need for Seivarden to say it aloud.

But Mercy of Kalr had once had ancillaries—human bodies slaved to its artificial intelligence, hands and feet, eyes and ears for the ship. Those ancillaries were gone, stripped away, and now Ship had an entirely human crew. I knew that the common soldiers aboard sometimes acted for Ship, speaking for it, doing things Ship could no longer do, as though they were the ancillaries it had lost. Generally not in front of me—I myself was an ancillary, the last remaining fragment of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, destroyed twenty years ago. I was not amused or comforted by my soldiers’ attempts to imitate what I had once been. Still, I hadn’t forbidden it. Until very recently, my soldiers hadn’t known about my past. And they seemed to find in it a way to shield themselves from the inescapable intimacy of life on a small ship.

But Seivarden had no need for such playacting. She would be doing this because Ship wanted it. Why would Ship want such a thing? “Governor Giarod requests that you return to the station at your earliest convenience,” Seivarden said. Ship said. That request, the barely polite gloss of at your convenience or not, was more peremptory than was strictly proper. Seivarden wasn’t as indignant at it as Lieutenant Ekalu had been, but she was definitely wondering how I would respond. “The governor didn’t explain her request. Though Kalr Five noticed a commotion just outside the Undergarden last night. Security arrested someone, and they’ve been nervous since.” Briefly Ship showed me bits of what Five, still on the station, had seen and heard.

“Wasn’t the Undergarden evacuated?” I asked. Aloud, since obviously Ship wanted to have this conversation this way, no matter how I felt about it. “It ought to be empty.”

“Exactly,” Seivarden replied. Ship.

The majority of Undergarden residents had been Ychana—despised by the Xhai, another Athoeki ethnic group, one that had done better in the annexation than others. Theoretically, when the Radchaai annexed a world, ethnic distinctions became irrelevant. Reality was messier. And some of Governor Giarod’s less reasonable fears centered around the Ychana in the Undergarden. “Wonderful. Wake Lieutenant Tisarwat, will you, Ship?” Tisarwat had spent time since we’d arrived here making connections in the Undergarden, and also among the staff of Station Administration.

“I already have,” replied Seivarden for Mercy of Kalr. “Your shuttle will be ready by the time you’ve dressed and have eaten.”

“Thank you.” Found I didn’t want to say Thank you, Ship, or Thank you, Seivarden, either one.

“Fleet Captain, I hope I’m not presuming too much,” said Ship, through Seivarden. Disquiet joined Seivarden’s mild apprehension—she had agreed to act for Ship, but was suddenly worried, maybe suspecting Ship was coming to the point of it.

“I can’t imagine you ever presuming too much, Ship.” But of course it could see nearly everything about me—every breath, every twitch of every muscle. More, since I was still wired like an ancillary, even if I wasn’t Ship’s ancillary. It knew, surely, that its using an officer as a pretend ancillary disturbed me.

“I wanted to ask you, Fleet Captain. Back at Omaugh, you said I could be my own captain. Did you mean that?”

I felt, for an instant, as though the ship’s gravity had failed. There was no point in trying not to show my reaction to Ship’s words, it could see every detail of my physical responses. Seivarden had never been particularly good at faking impassivity, and her own dismay showed on her aristocratic face. She must not have known that this was what Ship wanted to say. She opened her mouth as though to speak, blinked, and then closed it again. Frowned.

“Yes, I meant it,” I replied. Ships weren’t people, to Radchaai. We were equipment. Weapons. Tools that functioned as ordered, when required.

“I’ve been thinking about it, since you said it,” said Seivarden. No, said Mercy of Kalr. “And I’ve concluded that I don’t want to be a captain. But I find I like the thought that I could be.” Seivarden clearly wasn’t sure if she should be relieved at that or not. She knew what I was, possibly even knew why I had said what I had said, that day at Omaugh Palace, but she was well-born Radchaai, and as used as any other Radchaai officer to expecting her ship would always do exactly as it was told. Would always be there for her.

I had been a ship myself. Ships could feel very, very intensely about their captains, or their lieutenants. I knew that from personal experience. Oh, I did. For most of my two-thousand-year life I hadn’t thought there was any reason to want anything else. And the irrevocable loss of my own crew was a gaping hole in myself that I had learned not to look at. Mostly. At the same time, in the last twenty years I had grown accustomed to making my own decisions, without reference to anyone else. To having authority over my own life.

Had I thought that my ship would feel about me the way I had felt about my own captains? Impossible that it would. Ships didn’t feel that way about other ships. Had I thought that? Why would I ever think that?

“All right,” I said, and took a mouthful of my tea. Swallowed it. There was no reason I could see for Ship to have said that through Seivarden.

But of course, Seivarden was entirely human. And she was Mercy of Kalr’s Amaat lieutenant. Perhaps Ship’s words hadn’t been meant for me, but for her.

Seivarden had never been the sort of officer who cared, or even noticed, what her ship felt. She had not been one of my favorites, when she’d served on Justice of Toren. But ships did have different tastes, different favorites. And Seivarden had improved markedly over the last year.

A ship with ancillaries expressed what it felt in a thousand different minute ways. A favorite officer’s tea was never cold. Her food would be prepared in precisely the way she preferred. Her uniform always fit right, always sat right, effortlessly. Small needs or desires would be satisfied very nearly the moment they arose. And most of the time, she would only notice that she was comfortable. Certainly more comfortable than other ships she might have served on.

It was—nearly always—distinctly one-sided. All those weeks ago on Omaugh Palace, I had told Ship that it could be a person who could command itself. And now it was telling me—and, not incidentally I was sure, Seivarden—that it wanted to be that, at least potentially. Wanted that to be acknowledged. Wanted, maybe, some small return (or at least some recognition) of its feelings.

I hadn’t noticed that Seivarden’s Amaats had been particularly solicitous, but then, her Amaats, like all the soldiers on Mercy of Kalr, were human, not appendages of their ship. They would have been uncomfortable with the flood of tiny intimacies Ship might have asked of them, if they were to act for it in that way.

“All right,” I said again. In her quarters, Lieutenant Tisarwat pulled on her boots. Still waking up—Bo Nine stood by with her tea. The rest of Bo decade slept deeply, some dreaming. Seivarden’s Amaats were finishing their day’s tasks, getting ready for their suppers. Medic, and half of my Kalrs, still slept, but lightly. Ship would wake them in another five minutes. Ekalu and her Etrepas still stood watch. Lieutenant Ekalu was still a bit indignant over the system governor’s message, and also troubled by something else, I wasn’t sure what. Outside, dust skittered now and then across Mercy of Kalr’s hull, and the light of Athoek’s sun warmed it. “Was there anything else?”

There was. Seivarden, on edge since this part of the conversation had begun, blinked, expecting to see some sort of reply in her vision. Nothing, for an entire second. And then, No, Fleet Captain, that’s all. “No, Fleet Captain,” Seivarden read off. “That’s all.” Her voice doubtful. For someone who knew ships, that brief pause had been eloquent. I was mildly surprised that Seivarden, who had always been oblivious to her ships’ feelings, had noticed it. She blinked three times, and frowned. Worried. Disconcerted. Uncharacteristically unsure of herself. Said, “Your tea is getting cold.”

“That’s all right,” I said, and drank it down.

* * *

Lieutenant Tisarwat had wanted to go back to Athoek Station for days. We had only been in the system a little over two weeks, but already she had friends, and connections. Had been angling for some sort of influence over system administration, nearly since the moment she had set foot on the station. Which was hardly surprising, considering. Tisarwat hadn’t been Tisarwat for some time—Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, had altered the hapless seventeen-year-old lieutenant in order to make her nothing more than an appendage of herself, just another part of the Lord of the Radch. One she hoped I wouldn’t recognize as such, who could keep an eye on me, and keep control of Mercy of Kalr. But I had recognized her, and removed the implants that had tied Tisarwat to the Lord of the Radch, and now she was someone else—a new Lieutenant Tisarwat, with the memories (and possibly some of the inclinations) of the old one, but also someone who had spent several days as the most powerful person in Radch space.

She waited for me just outside the shuttle hatch. Seventeen, not tall exactly but rangy in the way some seventeen-year-olds are who haven’t quite grown into themselves. Still groggy from waking, but every hair in place, her dark-brown uniform immaculate. Bo Nine, already aboard the shuttle, would never have let her young lieutenant out of her quarters in any other state. “Fleet Captain.” Tisarwat bowed. “Thank you for taking me with you.” Her lilac-colored eyes—a remnant of the old Tisarwat, who had been flighty and frivolous, and had spent what was probably her first paycheck on changing the color of her eyes—were serious. Behind that she was genuinely pleased, and a bit excited, even through the meds Mercy of Kalr’s medic had given her. The implants the Lord of the Radch had installed hadn’t worked properly, had, I suspected, done some permanent damage. My hasty removal of those implants had fixed part of that problem, but perhaps had caused others. Add in her powerful—and entirely understandable—ambivalence about Anaander Mianaai, whom she arguably still shared some identity with, and the result was near-constant emotional distress.

She was feeling all right today, though, from what I could see. “Don’t mention it, Lieutenant.”

“Sir.” She wanted, I saw, to bring something up before we got into the shuttle. “System Governor Giarod is a problem.” System Governor Giarod had been appointed by the same authority that had sent me here to Athoek System. In theory we were allies in the cause of keeping this system safe and stable. But she had passed information to my enemies, just days ago, and that had very nearly gotten me killed. And while it was possible she hadn’t realized it at the time, she surely knew it now. But no word of that from her, no explanation, no apology, no acknowledgment of any kind. Just this edge‑of‑disrespectful summons to the station. “At some point,” Tisarwat continued, “I think we’re going to need a new system governor.”

“I doubt Omaugh Palace is going to send us a new one anytime soon, Lieutenant.”

“No, sir,” replied Tisarwat. “But I could do it. I could be governor. I’d be good at it.”

“No doubt you would, Lieutenant,” I said, evenly. I turned, ready to push myself over the boundary between Mercy of Kalr’s artificial gravity and the shuttle’s lack of it. Saw that though Tisarwat had held herself absolutely still at my words, she had been hurt by my response. The pain was dulled by meds, but still there.

Being who she was, she had to know I would oppose her bid to be system governor. I still lived only because Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, thought or hoped that I might be a danger to her enemy. But of course, Anaander Mianaai’s enemy was herself. I didn’t care particularly which faction of the Lord of the Radch emerged victorious—they were all, as far as I was concerned, the same. I would just as soon see her entirely destroyed. An aim that was well beyond my ability, but she knew me well enough to know that I would do what damage I could, to all of her. She had hijacked the unfortunate Lieutenant Tisarwat in order to be near enough to control that damage as much as she could. Tisarwat herself had said as much to me, not long after we’d arrived at Athoek Station.

And days ago Tisarwat herself had said, Do you understand, sir, that we’re both doing exactly what she wants? She being Anaander Mianaai. And I had said that I didn’t care much what the Lord of the Radch wanted.

I turned back. Put my hand on Tisarwat’s shoulder. Said, more gently, “Let’s get through today first, Lieutenant.” Or even through the next few weeks or months or more. Radch space was big. The fighting that was happening in the provincial palaces might reach us here at Athoek tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Or it might burn itself out in the palaces and never arrive here at all. But I wouldn’t bet on that.

* * *

We often speak casually of distances within a single solar system—of a station’s being near a moon or a planet, of a gate’s being near a system’s most prominent station—when in fact those distances are measured in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of kilometers. And a system’s outstations could be hundreds of millions, even billions, of kilometers from those gates.

Days before, Mercy of Kalr had been truly, dangerously close to Athoek Station, but now it was only near in a relative sense. We would be a whole day on the shuttle. Mercy of Kalr could generate its own gates, shortcuts around normal space, and could have gotten us there much more quickly, but gating close up to a busy station risked colliding with whatever might be in your path as you came out of gate-space. Ship could have done it—had, in fact, quite recently. But for now it was safer to take the shuttle, which was too small to generate its own gravity, let alone make its own gate. Governor Giarod’s problem, whatever it was, would have to wait.

And I had plenty of time to consider what I might find on the station. Both factions of Anaander Mianaai (assuming there were only two, which was perhaps not a safe assumption) surely had agents there. But none of them would be military. Captain Hetnys—the enemy of mine to whom System Governor Giarod had so imprudently passed dangerous information—lay frozen in a suspension pod aboard Mercy of Kalr, along with all her officers. Her ship, Sword of Atagaris, orbited well away from Athoek itself, its engines off-line, its ancillaries all in storage. Mercy of Ilves, the only other military ship in the system besides Sword of Atagaris and Mercy of Kalr, was inspecting the outstations, and its captain had so far shown no inclination to disobey my order to continue doing so. Station Security and Planetary Security were the only remaining armed threat—but “armed,” for Security, meant stun sticks. Which wasn’t to say Security couldn’t pose a threat—they certainly could, particularly to unarmed citizens. But Security was not a threat to me.

Anyone who’d realized I didn’t support their faction of the Lord of the Radch would have only political means to move against me. Politics it was, then. Perhaps I should take a cue from Lieutenant Tisarwat and invite the head of Station Security to dinner.

Kalr Five was still on Athoek Station, along with Eight and Ten. The station had been overcrowded even before the Undergarden had been damaged and evacuated, and there weren’t beds enough for everyone. My Kalrs had deployed crates and pallets in the corner of a dead-end corridor. On one of those crates sat Citizen Uran, quietly but determinedly conjugating Raswar verbs. The Ychana on Athoek Station mostly spoke Raswar, and our neighbors on the station were mostly Ychana. It would have been easier if she’d been willing to go to Medical to learn the basics under drugs, but she very vehemently had not wanted to do that. Uran was the only nonmilitary member of my small household, barely sixteen, no relation to me or anyone on Mercy of Kalr, but I had found myself responsible for her.

Five stood by, to all appearances absorbed in making sure tea was ready for when Uran’s tutor arrived in the next few minutes, but in fact keeping a close eye on her. A few meters away, Kalr Eight and Kalr Ten scrubbed the corridor floor, already a good deal less scuffed than it had been and noticeably less gray than what lay outside the household’s makeshift boundary. They sang as they worked, quietly, because citizens were sleeping beyond the nearby doorways.

Jasmine grew
In my love’s room
It twined all around her bed
The daughters have fasted and shaved their heads
In a month they will visit the temple again
With roses and camellias
But I will sustain myself
With nothing more than the perfume of jasmine flowers
Until the end of my life

It was an old song, older than Eight and Ten themselves, older, probably, than their grandparents. I remembered when it was new. On the shuttle, where neither Eight nor Ten could hear me, I sang it with them. Quietly, since Tisarwat was beside me, strapped into a seat and fast asleep. The shuttle’s pilot heard me, though, with a tiny swell of contentment. She had been uneasy about this sudden trip back to the station, and what she’d heard about Governor Giarod’s message. But if I was singing, then things were as they should be.

On Mercy of Kalr, Seivarden slept, dreaming. Her ten Amaats slept as well, close in their bunks. Bo decade (under the direction of Bo One, since Tisarwat was in the shuttle with me) was just awake, running thoughtless and ragged through the morning prayer (The flower of justice is peace. The flower of propriety is beauty in thought and action . . . ).

Not long after, Medic came off watch, found Lieutenant Ekalu in the tiny, white-walled decade room, staring at her supper. “Are you all right?” Medic asked, and sat down beside her. The Etrepa in attendance set a bowl of tea on the table in front of her.

“I’m fine,” lied Ekalu.

“We’ve served together a long time,” Medic replied. Ekalu, discomfited, did not look up, or say anything in response. “Before you were promoted, you’d have gone to your decade-mates for support, but you can’t go to them anymore. They’re Seivarden’s now.” Before I’d come—before Mercy of Kalr’s last captain had been arrested for treason—Ekalu had been Amaat One. “And I suppose you feel like you can’t go to your Etrepas.” The Etrepa attending Ekalu stood impassive in a corner of the room. “Plenty of other lieutenants would, but they didn’t come up out of the decades, did they.” Didn’t add that Ekalu might be worried about undermining her authority with shipmates who’d known her for years as a common soldier. Didn’t add that Ekalu knew firsthand how unequal such an exchange might be, to demand any sort of comfort or emotional support from the soldiers serving under her. “I daresay you’re the first to do it, to come up out of the decades.”

“No,” replied Ekalu, voice flat. “Fleet Captain was.” Me, she meant. “You knew the whole time, I suppose.” That I was an ancillary, and not human, she meant.

“Is that the problem then?” asked Medic. She hadn’t touched the tea the Etrepa had given her. “Fleet Captain is first?”

“No, of course not.” Ekalu looked up, finally, and her impassive expression flickered for just a moment into something different, but then it was gone. “Why would it?” I knew she was telling the truth.

Medic made a gesture of unconcern. “Some people get jealous. And Lieutenant Seivarden is . . . very attached to Fleet Captain. And you and Lieutenant Seivarden . . .”

“It would be stupid to be jealous of Fleet Captain,” said Ekalu, voice bland. She meant that, too. Her statement might conceivably be taken for an insult, but I knew that wasn’t her intention. And she was right. It didn’t make any sense at all to be jealous of me.

“That sort of thing,” observed Medic, dryly, “doesn’t always make sense.” Ekalu said nothing. “I’ve sometimes wondered what went through Seivarden’s mind when she discovered Fleet Captain was an ancillary. Not even human!” And then, in response to the merest flicker of an expression across Ekalu’s face, “But she’s not. Fleet Captain will tell you so herself, I imagine.”

“Are you going to call Fleet Captain it instead of she?” Ekalu challenged. And then looked away. “Your gracious pardon, Medic. It just sits wrong with me.”

Because I could see what Ship saw, I saw Medic’s dubious reaction to Ekalu’s overly formal apology, Ekalu’s suddenly careful attempt to erase her usual lower-house accent. But Medic had known Ekalu a long time, and most of that when Ekalu had still been, as Medic put it, in the decades. “I think,” Medic said, “that Seivarden imagines she understands what it is to be on the bottom of the heap. Certainly she’s learned it’s possible to find oneself there despite good family and impeccable manners and every indication Aatr has granted you a life of happiness and plenty. She’s learned it’s possible that someone she’d dismissed and disregarded might be worthy of her respect. And now she’s learned it, she fancies she understands you.” Another thought struck her. “That’s why you don’t like my saying the fleet captain’s not human, isn’t it.”

“I’ve never been at the bottom of any heap.” Still carefully broadening her vowels in imitation of Medic or Tisarwat. Of Seivarden. Or of me. “And I said there wasn’t anything wrong.”

“I’m mistaken, then,” replied Medic, no rancor or sarcasm in her voice. “I beg your indulgent pardon, Lieutenant.” More formal than she needed to be with Ekalu, whom she’d known so long. Whose doctor she had been, all that time.

“Of course, Medic.”

Seivarden still slept. Unaware of her fellow lieutenant’s (and lover’s) discomfiture. Unaware, I feared, of Ship’s favorable regard. What I had begun to suspect was its strong affection. Any number of things, Ship wouldn’t hesitate to say quite directly, but never that, I was sure.

Beside me, on the shuttle, Tisarwat muttered, and stirred, but didn’t wake. I turned my thoughts to what I might find on Athoek Station when we reached it, and what I ought to do about it.

About the Author

The author of many published science fiction short stories, Ann Leckie lives in St Louis, Missouri, with her husband, children and cats. She’s currently the Secretary for the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). You can find her website at www.annleckie.com or chat to her on Twitter at @Ann_Leckie.