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The False and the Real

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Think that when you are standing or walking, you're connected to Ship, a pole extending outward all the way to the top of your spine. Think that your emotions and your thoughts don't have to belong to your body; let your body sit on the edge of your awareness, just another piece of Ship. Think that even if you feel an emotion, your body doesn't have to feel it. And if your body has a sensation an itch, or a cramp observe it like something that doesn't affect you.

Her uniform was pressed and crisp, as neat as she could make it—neater even than that, in fact, because one of her decade-mates had taken pity on the newest soldier, still wet and from training, as they said. Fifteen—no, Suul—had shown her the trick for arranging her collar and making her shirt perfectly smooth under her jacket so that they would not only be straight but stay straight for an entire shift, but, to her shame, Ettan fumbled it under the nervousness of Inspection. “Even if other people might not notice, Ship will know,” Suul had explained as she tweaked a fold so that it creased itself and lay flat. Ship would inform Captain Vel if the decades were out of discipline, of course, but Ettan thought that this was not what Fifteen meant. Ship knew every soldier's every breath and muscle twitch, practically her every thought. But that was very little compared to what Ship had once had, when it was not maintained and crewed by humans, but by its own ancillary bodies. Now Ship’s human soldiers had to do for Ship all of the tiny things that it needed—and wanted—and that it once would have taken care of almost without thinking. 

“Our duty is to be Ship’s ancillaries,” Kalr One, the Decade Senior, had informed her during her orientation. At first, Ettan had been disturbed by that. She was a human, a citizen, and it seemed improper for a citizen to act like a non-human, with her facial muscles perfectly unengaged and her voice inflectionless, to say nothing and do nothing and almost think nothing except what Ship or an officer ordered, to play-act as a corpse soldier appended to an AI. But now, after two months, it was starting to become habit, and it seemed less strange. Especially since Ship did so much for her: Mercy of Kalr gave its newest soldier instructions and guidance as she mastered the routines of her duties and when she worked hard in the gym to make up the gap between basic training and the competency possessed by a long-serving decade even on a ship that had not seen combat these hundred years. Sometimes it almost seemed that Ship was encouraging her, that Ship cared about her, and Ettan—Mercy of Kalr One Kalr Eighteen—found herself glad to do what she could for Ship in return. 

Today she and Suul had scrubbed their section of the hydroponics deck spotless, sterilized its instruments, and harvested and prepared the skel for the next shift’s rations under the instruction and oversight of Kalr Twelve, the second hydroponics tech. Then the daily aerobic and endurance training and an hour of marksmanship. The bath, supper (skel and water, with nothing to mask its flat, recycled taste) and then the scrub of the soldiers’ mess before the Captain's fiveday inspection. The decades' service was unlovely and utilitarian: plates, utensils, and bowls of a durable and cheap alloy. Eight hundred years of use had not been able to do more damage than a small dent here or there, and just as many years of regular cleaning and polishing had not been able to make the dull metal shine. Ettan put her back into scouring and rubbing them anyway, and she fancied that the bowls were a little bit brighter when she was done. 

And now, at the end of their day but the beginning of Captain’s—no, at the beginning of Sir's: she had to remember never to say “Captain”—the weekly inspection. Ettan checked her already rule-straight cuff one more time as Kalr—all of Kalr Decade together, both those who were just about to go on duty and those about to go off—lined up and marched to the mess, twenty pairs of booted feet sounding almost in unison. 

They stood at perfectly still attention in a row that curled around three of the four walls while Kalr One made her report. Ettan concentrated on all of the instructions and she had been given for keeping her muscles from twitching, her eyes ahead, any trace of emotion off her face. At the same time, she couldn't help but be curious about Captain, whom a soldier in the back-end of the decade hardly saw and never addressed. Captain Vel Osck ran her ship tightly, as they said: with strict, old-fashioned discipline. No one complained of course, because that was unthinkable, when Ship could hear your every word. But even as new as she was, Ettan thought she could tell that their commander was not well liked for it by the decades. For her own part, Ettan had not yet and grounds for feeling anything toward Captain beyond the proper respect that she ought to feel toward any superior officer and the well-founded fear that any sensible person had of being the object of that superior’s displeasure.

Still, Ettan privately felt that were reasons to consider Captain Vel favorably. Captain's House was an old and noble one, almost eight hundred years old, although she came from a secondary branch, according to Suul. And she looked it, too: although Captain was short and stocky, her fine complexion and close-cut hair in the style of officers on active service in centuries past gave her an Old-Radch dignity. She seemed, moreover, to have an appreciation for older styles. She had had the corridors of the Command Deck decorated with lovely scrollwork in the purples and greens fashionable at (and also her cabin, but Ettan had not seen that)  As she walked slowly to survey the line of Kalrs, a tasteful assortment of jeweled pins on her jacket glinted in the unlovely light of the soldiers' mess. What Ettan watched for with suppressed eagerness, however, was the teabowl that Captain held in one gloved hand.  

Ettan hadn’t drunk tea since arriving on Mercy of Kalr (Captain believed it was better for discipline if soldiers drank water), and she missed it keenly. But it wasn’t the tea itself that attracted her attention as much as the beauty of the bowl. Captain's everyday tea service—at least, they were the only ones that Ettan had ever seen in her brief glimpses of the Captain—was like something out of a historical entertainment. The bowl Captain held was of pale green porcelain painted with a dredgefruit vine that twined in on itself in an archaic pattern that suggested EtrepaBo. But the true beauty of these bowls was in their form: a rounded half globe with a foot that was delicately lipped without seeming fragile. Although Ettan had never been able to study the tea service, and even now only caught the bowl Captain held from the corner of her eye as she stared straight ahead, ancillary-impassive, she saw the slightly irregular shape that indicated that it was no mass-produced object but been planned and executed according to the will and the hand of a masterful artisan. 

There would be four in the set, but so far she had only seen EtrepaBo and VahnItr. Sets of teabowls weren’t like fine sets of Arrak cups made of planetary hardwood, which the etiquette manuals had taught Ettan had to be rotated so the lightly corrosive liquor would wear equally on the whole set over centuries of use, but even on OutHraad-4, they knew that it most proper for each piece in a set of utensils or dishes with divine sigils to be used equally, so as to pay due respect to each god in turn. It was impossible that someone as educated and proper as Captain Vel would not know this, and so Ettan could hope that she would someday see the other two as well.

There were few beautiful objects on Mercy of Kalr. They were forbidden to wear jewelry on duty, and the decade-soldiers generally kept their pins and mementos, their icons and their own two-bowl service or set of counters—all the small, individualized possessions that Citizens could carry with them in space to have a little bit of beauty and to remind them and anyone else of their families, their houses, and themselves—shut away in the small private lockers they were allotted, one eighth cubic meter each. After three weeks, Fifteen had shown Ettan the tiny, jeweled icon of her family's god, to whom she prayed briefly every morning, rising four minutes before the rest of the decade. It was an unfamiliar god, one that had never spread very far beyond the distant province where it had originated, but Ettan had understood the importance of the gesture. With it, Suul trusted her with a glimpse of her private self, separate from the soldier Mercy of Kalr One Kalr Fifteen. In addition, the icon was a beautiful thing, and Ettan appreciated that as well. But the beauty of Captain Vel’s tea bowl, not of Suul’s icon, was the kind of beauty that she yearned for.

Everywhere that citizens lived was part of and benefitted civilization, of course, and civilization in its turn benefited every citizen, no matter their assignment or the insignificance of their home. But Ettan had always been aware of the gap between her family's life on a small, dirty, asteroid-mining outstation in the Hraad system and real civilization, the kind you saw in transmissions and Entertainments: the pure Palace accent and proper way of speaking that she had to work hard to produce, the clean, bright, high-roofed concourses and temples with jewel-encrusted icons and statues in the classical style. Tea that wasn't bricked and musty from shipping but long-leaved and new; fresh fruit and greens that hadn't been pickled or didn't have to be soaked for hours to banish the taste of long-preservation. Porcelain tea bowls from Bract and Inai and glass utensils from Omaugh. She had requested every scrap from the 300-year memory of OutHraad-4 Station, poring over its odd assortment of etiquette manuals, poems in praise of the hospitality of famous system governors, and instruction books for upper servants. She had studied the the emblems of the noblest Houses of civilization and memorized the classical categories of ceramic forms alongside the formulas for greeting guests of different rank and the techniques for polishing utensils of different metals and alloys—as if all this knowledge could somehow help her spring over that chasm and come closer to those beautiful things themselves. 

And, in a way, she had. She had escaped OutHraad-4, and she was a soldier, with a crisp uniform and polished insignia, on a well-ordered, military Ship of old service. Her Captain hailed from a House that, although not among the highest circle of ancient and elevated Houses, commanded recognition and respect through all of civilized space. Right now, she was within half a meter of a tea bowl that she thought she could place as Third-Style Semekaai from Tatur—almost as old as Mercy of Kalr itself. This was what civilization should be, and here she was, finally, right in the middle of it. Someday, if Amaat willed, she might be soldier who took care of those bowls and touched them every day.

As Captain walked slowly down the row of soldiers, and out of her vision, Ettan let herself indulge—just for a moment, and without moving a muscle from ancillary equipoise—in the  fantasy of being assigned to be Captain’s chief attendant. It was a sensible aim, she told herself. The pinnacle of a good soldier's career was supposed to be being named Decade Senior, or even One Amaat One, and Decade Seniors often got clientship from their captain’s or lieutenant’s House after they retired. Ettan was fairly certain, however, that no matter how many years of seniority she accrued, she would be unlikely to be named Decade Senior. But an officer's servant might well be kept on when that officer was transferred or, when she eventually retired, and the position of a personal attendant in an exalted House was a respectable one, several steps up, certainly, from keeping mining accounts for the client of a client of a client to the second cousin of a junior branch of Geir or being assigned to Station Security on OutHraad-4. 

The calculation Ettan had made almost as soon as she had gotten her assignment had only been strengthened by two months of real military service. Officers' attendants were excused some of the drudgery of the decades' labor, and they got the leavings of the food—food that wasn’t skel and real tea—that they prepared and served in the decade room. They had the chance to overhear interesting conversations in elegant, proper speech with officers from other ships, and to handle and care for fine things, civilized things. Ettan would be able to demonstrate that she knew the way to convey an invitation on behalf of a superior without insult, how to set a table and which honored guest to serve first, how to use the day’s cast to rotate the use of a set of tea bowls—something she was beginning to wonder whether Kalr Six knew how to do. Today’s cast had been Sacrifice begets strength, and Ettan was certain the Third Emanation would have been more appropriate than the First. She could picture the way the painted vine would twine into IssaInu, and she imagined pouring the tea and presenting it to Captain (both hands, fingertips touching the porcelain where it was unadorned). Captain would give the briefest of nods, in silent appreciation of her choice.

It was a pleasant thought, but Ettan pulled herself away from the daydream: she must not let her expression slip, must not allow her eyes or thoughts to wander. She fixed her attention where her eyes were fixed on far wall of the the mess. In the far corner of her eye, Captain Vel had begun to walk back along the line toward her.

“Kalr! You are out of order!”

The voice—Captain’s voice—was far closer than it should be and brought Ettan back to herself with an involuntary judder. Captain Vel had stopped before her. Surprise turned almost instantly to terror. She thought about ancillary impassivity, riveted her blank gaze forward. Concentrated on her breathing, willed her pulse in vain not to increase. 

“Slovenly uniform, clearly inattentive—you are a disgrace to this ship,” Captain continued.

“Sir.” Ettan spoke the acknowledgment as flatly and unemotionally as she could. She forced herself not to look down at herself, although she could not think of what Captain or Ship could have seen amiss in her uniform.

Caught dreaming like a provincial fool, and the middle of Inspection, too. And she hadn’t even realized it; she hadn’t thought she had dropped her discipline at all. But Ship would have known, of course, and Ship must have told Captain—which was only proper, she reminded herself sternly. It wasn’t Ship’s task to save her from the consequences of her mistakes. But oh she wished Ship had said something!

The muscles below Captain’s throat twitched as she subvocalized something to Ship; then she spoke aloud. “What is the meaning of this lapse in discipline?” said Captain Vel. “Ship, explain.”

Ettan had been readying a flat “No excuse, sir.” But she swallowed that reply in increasing shame. After what seemed like a year, but was probably only a second and a half second and a half of sick horror, Ship began to place words in her vision. 

“Captain. Kalr Eighteen was distracted,” she read out carefully with her broadest, most correct vowels, praying that she could keep any quaver from her voice by sheer force of will. 

More words. Ingo and—I mean Kalr keep me, she thought. “Watching your tea bowl.” She could hear her own voice, which she kept admirably flat and emotionless, but her accent slipped on the last word, which came out half in her throat and clipped, with an ugly narrow nasal vowel, exactly the way a barely-civilized miner in an entertainment would say it; exactly the way that Ettan's mother and co-mother and aunts and cousins, would say it, although her family hadn’t been miners for three generations. A miner trying to get above herself to comic effect, because on OutHraad-4 they wouldn't have said "tea bowl" in the first place, but "mug." That was a character she had seen in entertainments often enough, a cliché that she had vowed she would never be taken for. Ingo and Ratvar and Sem keep me still. She would not blush. She would not. Not even when Captain raised an incredulous eyebrow. 

“My tea bowl,”  she repeated in her effortlessly proper accent, and well-bred irony made the vowels made even broader. “You have been two months on this ship, citizen; no matter what your origins, I should think that the civilized custom of drinking from bowls would no longer surprise.” Captain’s direct address was somehow worse than being treated like an ancillary, and, worse, Ettan could not be sure that she was able to keep her face properly blank. 

“Ship,” Captain continued, “See to it that Kalr Eighteen takes the next shift on Disciplinary, Ship scouring the baths and presents herself properly from now on. Civilization stands on our discipline, on proper attention to duty.” This last to the entire assembled decade, with a slight stress on proper. It sounded like a quotation of poetry, something elevated and classical and unfamiliar. 

Understood, Captain,” Ettan read out as flatly as she could. “Kalr Eighteen assigned the next shift on disciplinary, to scour the baths. Sir,” she added, because she didn't know whether or how she should acknowledge the punishment. Disciplinary meant no food or breaks for rest, and no assistance from another soldier. And the shift would be marked in her record but wouldn't count toward advancement the way a regular extra shift would

“That will do,” said Captain. “Dismissed, Kalr.” Inspection was over. When Captain had left, half of Kalr filed out to go to sleeping quarters. The other half began to set out bowls and utensils for their breakfast.

As Suul left, she touched Ettan briefly on the shoulder, and whispered something. Ettan was unable to understand it. She stood frozen. She had shamed her comrades, shamed her training and her uniform, and, worst of all, shamed Ship. She felt heat on her cheeks, which further betrayed that she was unable to repress her feelings, unable to keep discipline, a poor soldier, utterly lacking in propriety, an ill bred provincial failure—

Kalr, said Ship in her ear, as calm as if nothing had happened. Start with the shuttles; then the officers’ bath. Finally the duty baths and the soldiers’. I’ll tell you where the difficult spots are, the ones that I can't see. It won't take you the whole shift. Meaning that if she worked hard, she would be able to get a few hours sleep before her shift proper began.

Fortified in some way by the fact that Ship was still talking to her, Ettan left the mess and gathered the solvent and bucket and scouring pads. Moving reminded her that everyone was watching her, and that the story would be all around the ship before she had finished the tiny bath and drain in Mercy of Kalr’s Amaat shuttle. Gaping at the Captain’s tea-bowl like a transportee who didn’t know anything about anything, completely oblivious to military discipline. Oh they would mock her.

When she had gathered the cleaning supplies and was alone in the bath of the first shuttle, she examined herself as critically as she could, but she could not find the flaw in her uniform. She was too embarrassed to ask Ship directly, even though it was silly thought for a human to be embarrassed by what a warship—an AI that didn’t even really think the way humans did—thought about her. But she still didn’t ask, and Ship did not volunteer it. 

__________________________

 

The mistake people make is assuming that still means stiff. But if you are stiff, you can't react quickly enough; you can't stop yourself if your body wants to startle or twitch. Think instead that you are long and fluid, ready to do whatever Ship needs you to do.

Six hours later, Ettan was nearly done with the soldiers' bath, which was fortunate, as Amaat Decade would be coming from their assigned time in the gym in thirty minutes. But the initial adrenaline born of fear and shame had long since dissipated, and she was tired, hungry, and ached like she hadn’t since she had entered Basic. They almost always worked in pairs, and it was awkward to manage the solvent container, the bucket, and the two scrubbing cloths alone. There was no easy way to access the drain in the tiny closets that kept the convenience on military shuttles, and she had bashed her elbow against the pipes in each of Ship’s three shuttles, and twisted her shoulder in the last one. 

But more than weariness and physical strain, she was dispirited and alone. Her decade-mates were asleep and unreachable. The Kalrs and Etrepas who had encountered her, shipmates whom she hardly knew because their duty shifts were opposite hers, had slid their eyes away and let their expressions go blank. Ship had been as Ship always was. There had been no hint of reproach or disappointment in the calm, neutral voice reminding her to check under the grate after she had scoured the drain, but none of the almost-warmth or solicitude that Ettan had had sometimes imagined she noticed. 

There was no reason why Ship should have any particular liking for her, Ettan reminded herself. Ships were made to care for their officers, not for their crews. Mercy of Kalr might be accustomed to its human soldiers, but there was no reason why it should consider Ettan anything other than a replaceable body, one that was irritatingly unreliable and fallible, compared to an ancillary, and clumsy and unpracticed, compared to its more experienced soldiers.

Ettan knew that she oughtn't to indulge her misery, indeed, that she ought to practise suppressing it, but tears started to well in her chest, and it was so very easy to let them out.

Ship interposed itself into her attention. Amaat Three is approaching. She is looking for you.

Once again, Ettan froze. She did not know the Amaat soldiers well: her half of Kalr was, for the most part, off-shift to the ship's most senior decade, but her decade-mates whispered that even the junior Amaats thought they were superior to everyone else, the upper half of Captain's Decade included The only reason a senior Amaat would be looking for Ettan was to tell her off again. And worst of all, it was Amaat Three. whom everyone agreed was the best soldier on the whole ship. Amaat Three was young to rank so high in the Decade—probably only than fifteen years older than Ettan herself—and she was the model of what a soldier should be, from her broad shoulders to her excellent marksmanship rating. 

Don't worry. She isn't coming to scold you. But Ettan barely registered that. She was already rubbing her eyes dry. She hoped that she hadn't cried hard enough that they would giver her away by swelling. Standing up, she tried to smooth her rumpled work coverall into a semblance of propriety. When footsteps in the entrance of the bath alerted her, she could manage a neutral demeanor again.

"Amaat," she said, ducking her head in acknowledgement.

"Kalr" said Amaat Three. "Don't worry—Ship told me you were here. I've just come to see that you are all right."

Ettan swallowed. "Thank you, Amaat. I will be finished with with the assignment soon. Kalr be my witness, I won't fail inspection again."

Amaat Three shook her head. "You shouldn't take it hard, Kalr. Everyone gets a dressing down for something or other, especially at the beginning. I've been in the service for seventeen years," she added, almost offhandedly, as if she were aware that seventeen years was only a long time compared to the nonexistent experience of a new recruit like Ettan. "Fourteen, almost, on Mercy of Kalr and before that three years on Justice of Arenaugh—and I've never known someone who didn't, when she first began serving on a new ship. Even experienced soldiers. Isn't it so, Ship?"

You are correct, Amaat, said Ship in Ettan's ear as well as, she supposed, in Amaat Three's. She was glad that Ship was transmitting to her aurally just now, rather than putting words in her vision. The slightest of pauses, before Ship added, Captain has very high standards

"And—" Amaat Three stopped, clearly thinking carefully about what she was going to say and how she wanted to say it, especially since Ship was paying attention to them. "It sometimes happens that an example is made of a soldier when she first arrives," she said obliquely. “Not because of a particular thing she did wrong. Everyone understands how it is; no one holds it against you. If you take your punishment without complaining too much or stinting it—well, that's just what you have to do."

This was hardly an unknown piece of wisdom, and Ettan wondered if Amaat Three really thought she was so unsteady that she would whine about punishment duty. "It's fair enough," she said automatically. But a small part of her was glad at Amaat Three's words. Even the senior soldiers thought Captain had been unjust. She tried to suppress that though. Maybe Captain Vel had treated her a little unfairly, picking on things that another Captain might have let go, but it was her right to make an example of someone in order to promote discipline. The flower of propriety is beauty in thought and action. The flower of benefit is Amaat, whole and entire. If it benefited discipline, it benefited the ship. That couldn’t be unjust, and that was that. Or, as her mother would say, grousing doesn't make the rock more friable. She got down on her knees and set to scrubbing again.

 "I just wish—" she ducked her head over her cleaning cloth. 

“Are you worried about the talk?”  Amaat Three squatted down next to her. Her face hardly changed, but she seemed gravely sympathetic. “You may have to bear jokes about tea bowls for a little while. But they won’t be very unkind. Just endure it, and soon enough, something else will put it out of mind." 

Ettan wasn’t sure how to say it, or even if she wanted to: I don’t want it to be a joke; I'm not a goggle-eyed provincial gaping at civilized art.

Instead she said. “It was just—they're just like the ones in History. You know—Fleet Captain Issaaiad Geir presenting Ghaon to the Lord of Mianaai.” 

"Issaaiad who?" said Amaat Three. Ship must have helpfully thrown the image up before her sight, as it did for Ettan. "Oh that. Yeah, I remember that one from school." 

The famous mosaic itself was in Irei Palace, but there were pictures of it in the standard curriculum: you learned about it when you learned the the principal exports of each province (“remember the eleven most important products of Irei by the eleven commanders in the Ghaon mosaic”) as well as when you did history and the order of the annexations. The rulers of Ghaon had built what they thought was an impenetrable barrier around their system, one that had stopped every other ship for centuries upon centuries, so they could hold their people isolated and imprisoned. The barrier had been no bar to the spread of civilization, of course, once Anaander Mianaai turned her benevolent gaze toward the people of Ghaon. But it had made the annexation—some 800 years before—unusually difficult, with the Radchaai fleets forced to delay and trickle slowly into the system rather than gating in en masse. But Fleet-Captain Issaaiad, in command of the initial force, had moved so deftly and quickly that she cut the entire, Ghaonish fleet to pieces and destroyed the system defenses before the Lord of the Radch and her flagship arrived. 

The mosaic showed the austere decade room of a military ship, Fleet Captain Isaaiad’s Sword of Qulaa. The Lord of the Radch sat serene, a bowl of tea in one black-gloved hand. You could just see the edge of the twining EskVar. Fleet Captain Isaaid stood beside her and gestured to the eleven Ghaonish commanders—the governors of all of the stations and the commander of the fleet—who were prostrated on the floor with shards of broken masks around them.  In the background, two lines of ancillaries flanked the principal figures.The Fleet Captain’s bowl of tea (decorated with IssaInu) sat next to the flask. In a moment, she would be invited to sit and drink with the Lord of the Radch. Tens of thousands of impossibly small tesserae showed it in the confident set of the Fleet Captain’s shoulders, the hauteur on her aristocratic face: you could see that this was the sort of person whom the Lord of Mianaai asked to take tea. 

“The tea bowls are just the same colour and shape,” said Ettan. 

Amaat Three made a short sound that could have been a laugh. “I remember that picture, but I never even noticed the bowls on the table. Reproductions, probably—”

She had to mean Captain Vel’s bowls, and that brought an obscure pang of disappointment, despite the fact that Ettan knew that a reproduction of the quality of Captain’s would be itself handmade and handpainted and nothing to be disdained. It would still be nice to hold one of those bowls. But she had been especially enjoying the thought that it really was a Semekaai bowl: not a distant picture or a description but a real artifact of Civilization. It was as if she had been deceived, somehow, tricked into getting herself dressed down for something that was itself just another imitation.

“—Sir is very fond of history,” Amaat Three continued. Once again, her inflection suggested that Ettan should be deducing more than was said, But Ettan was not sure what she was supposed to understand. Sir was a little bit like the officers in historicals, it was true. And the well-born captains of yesteryear—officers like Issaaiad Geir—were capricious and domineering to their inferiors by modern standards of politeness, accustomed as they were to the instantaneous and perfect obedience of their ships and ancillary-units and well able to remember when their not so distant ancestors had "ground down recalcitrant Systems and made them submit to the habit of civilization," as the poet said. 

So that was another explanation for Captain Vel’s perhaps unreasonable standard and strictness: she was trying to be like the Captains of old. It was, of course, Captain’s right to take any model she wished. But she wasn’t precisely the real thing either, Ettan realized, not any more than the tea bowls. That was another slightly unsettling thought to ponder over later. “I won’t slip up that way again, anyway,” she repeated, as much for herself as for Amaat Three and Ship. Propriety was propriety, after all, and even if Captain was unfair, she, Ettan, could ensure that she didn’t invite being an object example again. 

For a moment, Amaat Three looked as though she might have disagreed. But when she spoke, she did not respond to Ettan.  “Ship. Have you told Kalr Eighteen why she failed inspection?”

A pause. I am unable to understand what you mean, Amaat.

Amaat Three gave Ettan a significant look; evidently, she expected Ettan to understand something from this answer.

But Ettan didn’t understand anything. “I broke discipline,” she answered, puzzled, “and C—Sir said that my uniform was a disgrace.” 

“Yes,” said Amaat. “Ship, will you tell Kalr in what way she broke discipline and why Sir called her uniform a disgrace?” 

Again that pause. I am unable to understand what you mean, Amaat.

“You see.” Amaat Three said.

Ettan nodded, although she did not really see, except that Ship had been forbidden to speak about it. Why? She wanted to ask. Punishment for a lapse of discipline or a uniform infraction, she could understand, but why couldn’t Ship tell her what to correct? That couldn’t be just or proper, and how could it benefit anyone?

She was about to ask Amaat Three whether she knew what the cause was, but— Better to keep silent, Kalr, said Ship in her ear.

Ettan closed her mouth and, reflexively, blanked her face. You have learned to do that very quickly. Words in her vision, this time. Not very many soldiers learn to control their muscles so well in such a short time of service

That was unexpected praise, given that Ettan had just been rated for failing to keep attention. She blinked. Why would Ship—

Amaat Three leaned close, and spoke very softly even though it didn't matter, because Ship could hear them anyway. "Your uniform and discipline were perfectly proper, Kalr. Your decade-mates would not have let you appear otherwise. Ship wouldn’t have let you appear otherwise.” She stepped back a little. “That's how things work on this ship: we look out for each other and for Ship. That's what matters."

"I understand," said Ettan automatically, even though she didn't, not really. But something lifted from her chest, and she thought that maybe she would understand, if she thought it over. "Thank you, Amaat." 

"My given name is Ekalu," said Amaat Three, which was the last thing Ettan expected her to say.

But she managed to control her face. "Ettan," she said. "Mine is Ettan." Amaat Three—Ekalu—was still looking at her. "I had better finish my assignment now, before the rest of your decade needs the bath."

Ekalu nodded with that same seriousness with which she seemed to do everything. "Good luck, Ettan." Then she was gone—to tell the rest of her decade that the bath was still being cleaned, probably.

Ettan gave the grate a last wipe and set it back in place. That went well, said Ship in her ear. She didn't know what that meant either, but she filed it away to think about, along with Amaat Three's advice. The basin and spout were last, to be done, and they hardly needed scrubbing. 

The rest of her decade would tease her about the tea bowls, but she would use it as practice for keeping her expression still and blank. Ship wasn't angry at her. Amaat Three had given her her given name. "That's how things work on this ship: we look out for each other."

As she finished wiping the solvent from the basin, Kalr Eighteen smiled.

Ship's deck is holding you up— pushing you up—and Ship's gravity is pushing down with exactly the same force. And since Ship is keeping you in place, your body can be perfectly calm, perfectly ready. Let everything go: you'll never fall because Ship is holding you.