Tor.com is honored to reprint “Night’s Slow Poison,” a short story by Ann Leckie originally published in 2012 by Electric Velocipede. Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (Orbit 2013) has taken the science fiction world by storm. So far it has won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for best debut novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best novel, the BSFA Award for Best Novel, and the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It is a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, which will be announced at Loncon 3 on August 17.
“Night’s Slow Poison” is from the same setting as Ancillary Justice, and tells a rich, claustrophobic story of a galactic voyage that forces one guardsman to confront his uneasy family history through the lens of a passenger with his lost lover’s eyes.
The Jewel of Athat was mainly a cargo ship, and most spaces were narrow and cramped. Like the Outer Station, where it was docked, it was austere, its decks and bulkheads scuffed and dingy with age. Inarakhat Kels, armed, and properly masked, had already turned away one passenger, and now he stood in the passageway that led from the station to the ship, awaiting the next.
The man approached, striding as though the confined space did not constrain him. He wore a kilt and embroidered blouse. His skin was light brown, his hair dark and straight, cut short. And his eyes… Inarakhat Kels felt abashed. He had thought that in his years of dealing with outsiders he had lost his squeamishness at looking strangers in the face.
The man glanced over his shoulder, and cocked an eyebrow. “She was angry.” The corners of his mouth twitched in a suppressed grin.
“One regrets.” Inarakhat Kels frowned behind his mask. “Who?”
“The woman in line before me. I take it you refused to let her board?”
“She carried undeclared communication implants.” Privately, Kels suspected her of being a spy for the Radchaai, but he did not say this. “One is, of course, most sorry for her inconvenience, but… ”
“I’m not,” the man interrupted. “She nearly ruined my supper last night insisting that I give up my seat, since she was certain she was of a higher caste than I.”
“I did not,” said the man. “I am not from Xum, nor are we anywhere near it, so why should I bow to their customs? And then this morning she shoved herself in front of me as we waited outside.” He grinned fully. “I confess myself relieved at not having to spend six months with her as a fellow passenger.”
“Ah,” Kels said, his voice noncommittal. The grin, the angle of the man’s jaw—now he understood why the eyes had affected him. But he had no time for old memories. He consulted his list. “You are Awt Emnys, from the Gerentate.” The man acknowledged this. “Your reason for visiting Ghaon?”
“My grandmother was Ghaonish,” Awt Emnys said, eyes sober that had previously been amused. “I never knew her, and no one can tell me much about her. I hope to learn more in Athat.”
Whoever she was, she had been from the Ghem agnate, Kels was certain. His eyes, his mouth, the line of his chin… With just a little more information, Kels could tell Awt which house his grandmother had been born in. “One wishes you good fortune in your search, Honored Awt,” he said, with a small bow he could not suppress.
Awt Emnys smiled in return, and bowed respectfully. “I thank you, Honored,” he said. “I understand I must disable any communications implants.”
“If they are re-activated during the voyage, we will take any steps necessary to preserve the safety of the ship.”
Awt’s glanced at the gun at Kels’ waist. “Of course. But is it really so dangerous?”
“About three months in,” said Kels, in his blandest voice, “we will pass the last ship that attempted to traverse the Crawl with live communications. It will be visible from the passengers’ lounge.”
Awt grinned. “I have an abiding wish to die old, in my bed. Preferably after a long and boring life tracking warehouse inventories.”
Kels allowed himself a small smile. “One wishes you success,” he said, and stepped aside, pressing against the wall so that Awt could pass him. “Your belongings will be delivered to your cabin.”
“I thank you, Honored.” Awt brushed Kels as he passed, awakening some unfamiliar emotion in him.
“Good voyage,” Kels murmured to the other man’s back, but there was no sign Awt had heard.
Ghaon is a moonless blue and white jewel orbiting a yellow sun. Its three continents provide every sort of terrain, from the great deserts of southern Lysire, and the rivers and gentle farmlands of the north and west of that same continent, to the mountains of Aneng, still fitfully smoking. Arim, the third continent, is arctic and uninhabited. Aside from the sorts of industry and agriculture that support the population of any world, Ghaon produces pearls and ingeniously carved corals, which, when they find their way outside the Crawl, are highly valued. Flutes carved from the wood of Aneng’s western forests are prized by Gerentate musicians.
According to legend, the first inhabitants of Ghaon came from a world called Walkaway, the location of which is unknown. There were thirteen original settlers, three agnates of four people each plus one eunuch priest of Iraon. The three agnates parceled out the world among themselves: Lysire, Aneng, and the surface of the sea. The priest blessed the division, and each agnate prospered and filled the world.
The legend is only that, of course. It is impossible that thirteen people would possess the genetic diversity required to populate a planet, and in any case studies show that the first human inhabitants of Ghaon, whose descendants now populate Lysire and Aneng, derived largely from the same populations that eventually made up much of the Gerentate. The ancestors of the sea-going agnates arrived several thousand years later, and their origins are obscure.
In any case, the first colonists must have either known about the Crawl before they arrived, or constructed it themselves. The latter seems staggeringly unlikely.
Gerentate explorers found Ghaon some years after that entity’s expansionist phase had run itself out, and so the only threat they presented was a trickle of ill-bred, bare-faced tourists.
But the Radch was another matter. Every soul on Ghaon, from the smallest infant at the breast to the most ancient Lysire matriarch in her tent on the edge of the drylands, believed that the nefarious Anaander Mianaai, overlord of the Radch, had cast a covetous eye on Ghaon and contemplated how he might make it his own.
Fortunately enough, the ships and seemingly endless armies of the Radch, which had been the downfall of a thousand worlds and stations, could not traverse the Crawl. Only it stood between Ghaon and the Radchaai. Spies regularly probed this defense, the Ghaonish were certain, and the acquisitive minds of the Radchaai continually planned and plotted how best to breach it.
In vain did more sober minds point out that the worlds of the Gerentate were a larger and in some ways easier target, that the reward for defeating the Crawl was far outweighed by the difficulty of the task, that the sweeping ambition of the Radchaai could hardly notice this one, small, somewhat obscure world. The people of Ghaon knew these arguments were specious. The overlord of the Radch had set his mind on acquiring Ghaon—so its inhabitants believed.
Third watch was on duty, guarding the pilot’s station and pacing the corridors of the Jewel of Athat. First watch was asleep. Second watch had finished their supper, and the small table held cups of tea and the remains of the bread. Inarakhat Kels leaned forward, elbows on the table. Ninan and Tris, his fellows on second watch, leaned against the bulkhead.
“A spy!” said Ninan, trying not to sound jealous. “Well, we were about due for another one.” He leaned an elbow companionably on the table beside Kels’.
“How is it,” asked Tris, “that their attempts are so obvious, and yet the Radchaai are so rich and powerful?”
“They are naturally perverse.” Ninan picked up a teacup and peered at its contents.
“So one imagines,” said Kels. “In any case, Anaander Mianaai must find some other way to pass the Crawl.”
Tris grinned, teeth showing beneath the mask that covered his upper face. “And the others? What do we have to look forward to this time?”
“Chis Sulca,” said Kels. He leaned back, feeling crowded by Ninan. They knew the Ghaonish merchant from previous trips. “A few others.” He thought of Awt Emnys. “The usual sort. A tourist from Semblance.” Ninan and Tris each made derisive noises. “A Faunt clanswoman on her wander. A young man from the Gerentate.”
“Another tourist,” groaned Ninan.
“No!” said Tris, half-laughing. “I spoke to that one. He’s searching for his Ghaonish grandmother!”
Ninan laughed. “He’ll find some runaway or some whore was his ancestress, and to what end?”
“Whoever she was, her grandson has money and time to indulge his curiosity,” said Kels, stung.
Ninan shook his head in disapproval. “He expects to find some ancient, noble agnate, whose matriarch will acknowledge him as her cousin.”
Tris nodded. “He’ll hang an overpriced, tasteless mask on his wall and brag to his neighbors about his exotic and aristocratic blood.”
“What if his blood truly is aristocratic?” asked Kels, knowing what the other two did not know. The Ghem agnate was among the most ancient, most prestigious of families. He reached forward, poured himself more tea.
“It hardly matters,” said Ninan. “No agnate would be pleased to find a barefaced brute on the doorstep.”
Under the mask Kels’ eyes narrowed. “He can hardly be blamed for the customs of his people,” he said in his most even voice.
Ninan turned to regard him more closely. “No doubt.”
“It’s been a long day,” said Tris, conciliatory. “And Inarakhat has spent it dealing with passengers. But now we rest, at least until tomorrow.”
“And a dull tomorrow it will be,” said Ninan. “For which, thank Iraon.”
“Thank Iraon,” Tris and Kels echoed in agreement.
Ghem Echend was the most beautiful girl Inarakhat Kels had ever seen. Echend’s mouth was firm and full, her skin a warm dark brown. Her hands were square, and strong, and graceful, as were all her movements. She seemed to laugh even when she merely spoke. But her chief beauty was her eyes, wide and gray and luminous. She never took to the fashion for masks that obscured them. Indeed, she had skirted the outer edge of acceptability, preferring masks that exposed and emphasized her eyes as much as possible.
She had kissed him on a moss-covered hillside by the river. The summer stars had been thick and silver in the sky, no other lights but the city below, and the boats passing, colored lanterns hanging in their masts, red and blue and green and gold. She tasted of flowers. It seemed to him that his heart stopped, and everything bled away from his awareness but her. He lifted a hand to touch her cheek, hardly able to believe his daring. She kissed him again, and taking that for approval he placed a single finger tentatively on the lower edge of her mask.
With both hands she shoved him hard in the chest, and he found himself lying on his back in the soft moss, with only the stars in his vision. “Not yet,” she said, and ran away laughing.
He could hardly breathe with happiness. Not yet!
Within six months, the extent of his agnate’s debts had been revealed, as well as the lengths to which his aunts had been willing to go to support their lifestyle, which had been beyond their means for quite some time.
When the expected letter, sealed in red and gold, had arrived, it had contained not an offer of marriage but a few curt lines informing him that if recently certain expectations had been raised, they were unfounded and it would be best if he realized this. It was not from Echend, but from the matriarch of her agnate.
He had stuffed a single change of clothes into a sack and gone down to the docks intending to offer his labor to whatever ship would take him farthest away from Athat. No ship would have him, so he made his way to the precinct employment bureau, where the civil servant on duty had judged him a fit candidate for the Watch. Next morning he was on a shuttle for Ghaon’s orbiting station. He had not set foot on Ghaon since.
The Crawl is not detectable by sight, nor by any scanner yet devised. It is, however, ineluctably there. Its outer boundary is littered with the wrecks of ships whose captains disbelieved the warnings. Sometimes these are whole ships, with no sign of damage except their aimless drift. Some are collections of fragments, shining eerily in the light of the warning beacons placed at intervals along the limits of the Crawl. Occasionally a ship traversing the Crawl will come across a human body, rigid and frozen, spinning in the vacuum.
In order to survive the passage through the Crawl a ship must go slowly; it takes nearly six months. In another system it would be a matter of hours. And it is well known that the use of communications equipment within the Crawl has disastrous results.
It is less well known that the Crawl may only be safely crossed by particular routes, which the Ghaons had not recorded or marked in any way. Careful of their one defense, they had been at pains to be sure that knowledge existed only in the minds of pilots authorized to make the trip. The Watch was founded not only to prevent spies from boarding the ships and to enforce the ban on communication, but to ensure that no one meddled in any way with the pilot.
The lounge on second deck was small and narrow, a few tables and chairs along the wall on one side, ports for viewing on the other. Two travelers, one in the brightly-dyed, draped robe typical of the world Semblance, the other bare breasted and skirted in ochre, sat at one table, hunched over a game board, scooping counters out of hollows and placing them around, quickly, with a quiet word every few moves. At the other end of the space Awt Emnys stood, looking out on the void. His face was shadowed, a matter of both relief and disappointment to Kels.
The eyes were Ghem Echend’s. He could not have been more certain if the two genotypes were laid out before him. Echend had not been Awt Emnys’ grandmother, but certainly some aunt or cousin of hers had left Ghaon, gone to the Gerentate.
If Kels had married Echend, he would have had children. Or his co-husbands would, it was all the same. For the first time in years he allowed himself to wonder what that would have been like. He couldn’t imagine an infant Awt with any clarity, but the dark-haired, gray-eyed young boy… a memory flowered in his mind, Kels and his father (so very tall and imposing then!) walking hand in hand down to the riverbank to see the boats come in.
Awt Emnys turned his head, displacing the shadows. He smiled as he saw Kels. “It’s you again.”
“One is always oneself,” said Kels, unaccountably disturbed by the younger man’s words.
“But you’re not always on duty,” said Awt, and came closer to where Kels stood at the other end of the viewing ports. “You all wear the same clothes, and the same masks, and I’m never quite sure who is who.” He smiled, slightly, made an apologetic gesture. “I was speaking with the Honored merchant Chis,” he said, as though it followed naturally on his previous words. “She is most gracious. She advises me to give up pursuing my ancestor and instead rent a boat and visit the coastal towns of Western Aneng, where she assures me I will find the most exquisitely beautiful scenery in all known space. Not to mention the finest arrak and the most reasonable prices on cultured pearls.”
“Ah,” said Kels, somewhat disdainfully. “She is from Western Aneng, and biased as a result. All of those are to be found in the vicinity of Athat.”
Awt gave a wry smile. “I suspect her intent is to divert me from embarrassing my grandmother’s agnate with my existence. But you advise me to tour Athat?”
“Certainly.” Athat was the loveliest city on Ghaon, spread over the mouth of the river like an exquisite mask. “There is also a forest preserve, to the south of Athat, that you may be interested in visiting. Though,” he said, frowning, thinking of Awt’s luggage, “you may need to purchase some equipment if you intend to stay there long.”
“I rarely camp on worlds I’m not entirely familiar with.”
“Doubtless a wise policy. One would not advise doing so alone, anywhere on Ghaon.”
“And why is that, Honored?” asked Awt.
“They range from very small to… ” Kels made a wide and shallow cup of his hands. “This large. With the tiny, common ones, a bite will itch for a few days afterwards. Some of the larger ones may affect a person more. Indeed, some of them are in demand for the intoxicating effects of their venom.” He thought of the vonda-bars in the northern precincts of the city and made a soft, disgusted sound. “One doesn’t recommend it. But the one you should be careful of is the tea vonda.”
“It’s called a tea vonda because from the moment it fastens itself on you, you have just enough time to prepare and drink a cup of tea before you die.”
Awt raised an eyebrow. “That is, perhaps, not the wisest way to spend those few minutes. Have you ever encountered one?”
“I was bitten,” said Kels. He had been fifteen, and his uncle had been to the market in Athat and bought a basket of berries and left them on a counter in the kitchen that ran long and narrow across the back of the house. The berries were at the height of their season, huge and dark purple, and when Kels had seen them he had reached out without thinking. Almost before his fingers had touched the fruit he’d felt an icy sting.
“What did you do?” asked Awt Emnys. “Not put water on to boil I presume.”
“I panicked,” said Kels. For a few, blinking moments he’d stood trying to understand what had happened, coldness creeping up his hand towards his wrist, and then his mind had registered the tea vonda fastened to his hand, berry-purple bleeding away from it. Its center was dead white, shot with streaks of silver. Its surrounding membrane pulsed and fluttered, the convoluted edges turning pink and then red as it dug its proboscis deeper into his hand. As he watched, his hand went numb, and the ice continued to inch past his wrist towards his elbow. He tried to scream, but no sound would issue from his throat. “I froze.”
“What should you have done?” asked Awt Emnys.
“I should have taken the largest knife in the kitchen and cut off my hand.” And he’d thought that far, had run along the length of the room to open the cabinet and draw out the knife, heavy-handled, with a blade three inches wide and fifteen inches long. Then he stood there unable to do what needed to be done, no coherent thought settling out of the whirl of fear and panic in his mind. His sister came into the kitchen then. She closed the distance between them at a dead run, grabbed the knife out of his hand and shoved him against the counter. Then, as though she were dressing game for a feast, she jerked his arm straight and swung the knife down in a fierce blow, crunching through bone and severing his arm just below the shoulder.
Then he’d screamed.
“What happened?” asked Awt.
“My sister found me and cut my arm off. It was very fortunate. I had been very foolish.”
“Indeed.” The skirted woman, from Faunt, spoke up. “Had I been your sister I would have left you to die.”
“Come now, Honored,” said her opponent. “Surely not. Anyone might panic in such a situation.”
“Not anyone fit to survive,” said the woman, with a curled lip. “It speaks poorly of the Watch that such a one would be selected.”
“Surely your people would not be so cruel,” said the man. “Surely not.”
“Cruel? We are practical,” she replied.
“I can’t blame him,” said Awt Emnys. “It’s easy enough to tell yourself the doctor can replace it, but when it comes to actually doing it… ” He shook his head. “It only makes sense that we should be reluctant to injure ourselves so grievously.”
The woman scoffed. “I am now convinced that the Gerentate will fall to Anaander Mianaai the moment he turns his attention that way. You are all of you far too sentimental. Ghaon as well, despite the Crawl and the efforts of the Watch.” Here she looked directly at Kels.
“Honored,” said Kels. “There is no need to be rude.”
“I say what I think,” said the woman. “My people don’t hide behind masks.”
“You certainly do,” said Awt, equably. “Your mask is rudeness and offensively plain speech. We only see how you wish to appear, not your true self. Mask or not, Watchman Inarakhat has been more honest than you.”
The woman made her disgusted noise again, but said nothing further.
Kels looked out the viewing port for a moment, gathering his thoughts, settling himself. He wanted to leave the lounge, but felt that it would be a retreat of some kind. “Honored Awt, do you intend to approach your grandmother’s agnate?” It wasn’t what he had intended to say.
Awt Emnys seemed unsurprised by the question. “I don’t know. Do you advise it?”
Yes and no and I didn’t mean collided, tangled, blocked his speech. Ghem, who had balked at any association with his own ruined agnate, would be no more charitable towards Awt, and the thought distressed Kels. And also pleased him. Let Ghem see what they rejected!
Or perhaps they would be at least courteous to him. “One could hardly say, Honored. Only… ”
“If you do, buy a mask. Not at the shops near the shuttle port, nor even along the riverbank. Find a place on the third hill, behind the jeweler’s district. And be sure to choose one that is neither very elaborate, nor very brightly colored.”
“That would have been my own inclination,” said Awt. “I thank you again for your advice.” He paused a moment, as though undecided about something. “The merchant Chis is an inveterate gossip.”
Behind the mask, Kels frowned.
Awt continued, quietly. “She tells a fantastic and romantic story of your youthful disappointment in love. Not, I’m sure… ” Awt made a small, ironic gesture, “out of any disrespect for you, but to further discourage me from approaching my grandmother’s agnate. Whichever that might be. But when I heard your story just now, I wondered. Have you held to something you should have let go? The daughter of a wealthy, noble agnate might not have chosen her first husband, or even her second. But the third would have been her heart’s choice. Perhaps you didn’t know her as well as you thought. She certainly behaved very badly, if what Honored Chis says is true.” He bowed slightly, apologetic. “Forgive my presumption.”
“Her agnate,” Kels began, and Awt raised an eyebrow. Kels was glad of the mask. “It was a long time ago, Honored.”
“I’ve offended you. Please believe it wasn’t my intention.”
“No, Honored,” said Kels, in his most even voice, and then, at a loss, bowed and left the lounge.
Six months on a small ship is a long time. The view out the ports of the Jewel of Athat was the same as any ship. One can only play at counters so much, and one has only a limited number of potential opponents. Even betting on the games loses its charm a month in.
“It’s fashionable to have a Ghaonish ancestor six or seven generations back,” Awt said to Kels near the end of the first month. The Faunt woman had retreated in silent pique, Awt having defeated her at counters the third time in a row, and they were alone in the lounge. “Even farther back is better. Too near—and poor—and you’re half-foreign, an outsider in your own family. My mother’s relatives always suspected my half-Ghaonish father of mercenary impulses. They cared for me when my parents died, but more out of their sense of propriety than anything else.”
“How different your childhood would have been, had your grandmother never left Ghaon!” Kels said, thinking as much of himself as of Awt.
“True, but then I wouldn’t have been Awt Emnys.”
By the second month of the voyage, the library of recorded entertainments that seems so large and varied at the start of the voyage becomes monotonous and dull. Fellow passengers who had seemed either exotically foreign or companionably familiar lose all their charms and become objects of irritation. The small spaces become ever-narrowing traps.
Ever since he had known them, Ninan and Tris, Inarakhat Kels’ fellow Watch officers, had been more or less pleasant company, despite a certain distrust on their part; even ruined, his agnate was far superior to theirs. Near the end of the second month, their dismissive observations about the passengers became a burden to Kels, particularly their assessment of Awt Emnys. It was no different from jibes directed at previous Gerentate travelers looking for Ghaonish ancestors, and those had amused Kels in the past. But now he realized that his disdain had a different source and direction than theirs.
In the third month it seems as though there has never been any world but the ship, and the endless progress through the blackness. Life before the voyage is a distant memory, unreal and strangely textured. The idea of disembarking at some final destination seems untenable. During this month the wreck of the last ship to defy the ban on communications takes on an interest out of proportion to its significance.
“Just as you promised,” Awt said to Kels as he watched the dead ship drift. Quietly, because the others—the fierce Faunt, the tourist from Semblance, even Chis Sulca, who had seen it before, were silent. “I wonder why they did it.”
“They were fools,” said Chis.
“They were driven mad by isolation,” said the tourist from Semblance, by his tone of voice meaning a joke, but it lacked conviction.
In the fourth month desperate boredom sets in. The beige, undecorated walls, the black view out the ports, the nourishing but unvaried diet, become an undifferentiated background, and sensory deprivation forces the mind to produce all sorts of fantasies in an attempt to ward off starvation.
“Have you read Thersay?” asked Kels. He and Awt were alone in the lounge.
“The Consolation of Insanity?” Awt smiled. “No, I never have. And I’ve probably never met anyone who has, either, highly regarded as it is.”
“I’ve tried,” confessed Kels.
Awt smiled. “That bored?”
“You laugh,” Kels said. “She began the work here, on this very ship, at that table, there, at just about this point in the voyage. What a strange and sprawling thing it is! She must have been half mad.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Awt said.
The fifth month is much the same as the fourth, time having contracted into a single eternal moment.
In the sixth month, the mind awakes slowly to the realization that there will indeed be an end to the endless voyage. When the Watch announces that only one day remains before the ship will exit the Crawl and increase speed, feverish excitement runs through the passengers. The day ahead, and the few days after that it will take to reach the station orbiting Ghaon, seem unbearably long. In vain do passengers remind themselves that the time will surely pass without their watching. Everyone, whether openly or surreptitiously, will mark each interminable second and anxiously await the thunk and jar of docking.
It was during the last day inside the Crawl that disaster struck.
Kels had endured his shift, and a silent, tense supper with Ninan and Tris. He’d retired early, but after several hours of uncomfortable tossing he rose and dressed and went to the lounge. It was empty; he was vaguely surprised and disappointed that Awt Emnys wasn’t there, though he’d known that the passengers were likely asleep at that hour.
Once Awt disembarked Kels might never see him again. It had been true of every passenger over the years, but it had never mattered to him before. This, then, was why he couldn’t sleep. There were things he wanted to say, that he didn’t know if he should say, or even if he possibly could.
He traced the path he would have on his rounds, but met no one, not even his counterpart on third watch. The passengers’ cabins were shut, the ship felt deserted and lonely. He wished someone would come out and nod, or give some perfunctory greeting, just to break the unsettling feeling that he was invisible, a disembodied ghost alone on an abandoned and drifting ship.
It was because of this feeling that he did something he almost never did—he approached the two Watch officers standing outside the door behind which the pilot guided the ship.
He raised a hand in greeting, expected the same gesture in return, and questions about why he roamed the corridors at this hour. A perfunctory sentence or two about not being able to sleep was on his tongue, ready for the question, but the two officers stood masked and unmoving at the end of the narrow corridor.
He stopped, bewildered. “The days are longer near the end, are they not?” he essayed.
No answer. The feeling of invisibility increased, and for a moment Kels wasn’t so much alarmed at the thought that something might be wrong with the guards as he was despairing of his own substantial existence. But common sense exerted itself. He put a hand on one silent watchman’s shoulder. “Honored!” Nothing. He pushed gently, and the man turned slowly to the side, as though he were in some sort of suggestible trance.
Kels drew his gun, and pushed past the two unresponding men to open the door to the pilots’ station.
The pilot was in his seat, back to the door, and before him were the ship’s controls. A dark-haired figure in kilt and embroidered blouse bent over him, a small recorder in his hand. They were both close enough that Kels might have reached out to touch either man. Kels was on the verge of firing when Awt Emnys straightened and looked at him with Ghem Echend’s eyes.
The moment of hesitation was enough. Awt grabbed the gun, pulling it upwards and away, twisting Kels’ arm around painfully until he was forced to let go his weapon. Awt pointed the gun at Kels, and pushed him against the bulkhead.
“Why?” Kels gasped, his arm still hurting from Awt’s grip.
“It’s my job,” Awt said. “Did you think warehouse inventory suited me?”
“Have you no regard for your own people?” asked Kels. “Or is the Gerentate truly our enemy?”
Awt smiled, a little sadly. “The Gerentate is not your enemy. The Radch, on the other hand… ” He shrugged.
“Radchaai,” Kels whispered in horror. “We are destroyed.”
“On the contrary. To destroy any part of the world would be to destroy its value. No one who submits will be harmed. Those who don’t submit… ” He shrugged, gun still aimed at Kels. “They choose their own fate. But if you mean some indefinable quality of being Ghaonish, or that splendid pride and isolation… I would have thought that you of all people would have understood that it wasn’t worth preserving.” He cocked an eyebrow, sardonic. “It wasn’t only you the Ghem agnate treated badly. I know more of my grandmother than I said.”
Kels was dizzy, and breathing was difficult, as though the air had turned to water and he was drowning. Awt had understood, had already known the things that Kels had so wanted to say to him.
“I owe Ghaon nothing,” Awt continued. “Nor the Gerentate. And the Radchaai pay me well for my services.” He let go of Kels, who didn’t move, still frozen with the revelation, and the threat of the gun. “Don’t accuse yourself. Nothing would be gained if you had killed me. Do you think this is the first successful attempt? None of you will remember anything, just like every other time an agent has made this run.” Awt put a hand on Kels’ shoulder, gave a consoling squeeze. “I won’t kill you unless you make me. And I would regret that very much.” Then he turned away, gun still in hand, and resumed his quiet questioning of the pilot.
Kels’ arm hurt, but distantly, as though the pain was part of some dream he would wake from shortly. He tried to make his breaths deeper, but only felt even more starved for air. Had he himself ever stood entranced beside the pilot’s station as a Radchaai spy carefully probed for the keys to Ghaon’s strongest defense? How many times? His failure was galling, even more so the thought that he had failed over and over again, and never known it. He was afraid to die, afraid to risk his life and indeed his death might well be purposeless, as his life had been. But what difference would it make? If what Awt had said was true, Ghaon was already doomed, and he himself would have no memories to reproach himself with.
Awt spoke to the pilot, quietly, and the pilot murmured in response. He recalled Awt speaking to him in the lounge, six months back. Have you held to something you should have let go? Awt had judged him well. It speaks poorly of the Watch that such a one would be selected.
Awt turned, one ear still towards the murmuring pilot.
“Don’t do this. Destroy the recording, return to your cabin. I will tell no one.” Without answering, Awt turned back again.
No more hesitation. This was the moment. Kels shoved himself away from the bulkhead, grabbed Awt’s arm as he turned. The gun fired, the bullet grazing Kels’ ear and burying itself in the bulkhead behind him. Alarms sounded, faint and distant beneath the pounding of Kels’ heart. He brought his knee up hard between Awt’s legs, yanked the gun from his hand, brought the muzzle up to Awt’s head, and fired.
The alarms brought first and second watches. Blood was splattered on Kels, the still senseless pilot’s body, the deck. Ninan was speaking but Kels could only hear the roaring silence that had followed the gunshot.
“… in shock,” said a distant voice. But Awt wasn’t in shock, he was dead.
“He’s not injured.” Ninan’s mouth moved with the sound. Ninan speaking. His mask was askew. “None of this blood’s his. Iraon! Look at it all!” Someone made retching noises, and the need to vomit was overpowering for a moment, but Kels managed to suppress it.
“Lying bastard!” Tris. Kels couldn’t see him. “I bet there’s no Ghaonish grandmother at all. I knew he was no good, that kind never are.”
“Inarakhat Kels, you’re a hero!” said Ninan, and patted Kels lightly on his jaw. “Caught a spy!”
Kels drew in a long, ragged breath. Ninan was saying something about promotions and pay raises, and someone said, “Now they’ll know they can’t fool the Watch.” They were all familiar and foreign at the same moment.
“Let’s get you to your bunk,” said Ninan.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Kels.
Ninan was pulling him up by his arm. “What?”
“It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t worth it.” Ninan looked at him, uncomprehending. “None of you are worth it.” Kels shook his head. Ninan would never understand, or Tris, or any of them. Awt Emnys might, but Awt Emnys was dead.
“Of course,” said Ninan reassuringly. “It’s upsetting. But he chose his own fate. You did nothing more than your duty.”
“He wouldn’t submit,” said Kels.
“Exactly. A fatal mistake.” Ninan clapped Kels on the shoulder. “But enough of this. Let’s get you to your bunk. And something strong to drink.”
“One thinks,” said Inarakhat Kels, “that a cup of tea would be sufficient.”
“Night’s Slow Poison” copyright © 2012 by Ann Leckie.