She seemed entirely female, as far as I could tell. When
she had everything she wanted she fell frankly and deeply
asleep. I was exhausted myself. Falling asleep here might be a
mistake, but she hadn't ordered me to leave, and I hadn't been
I couldn't sleep. Instead I looked around. The woman's
blue and black coat was laid neatly across a bench, and she
had put all her jewelry into a wooden box that sat next to her
clothes. There wasn't a market for jewelry on the station, that
I knew of. Cosmetics, maybe. I was sure those would be in the
cabinet she'd taken the box out of. Maybe I could take just a
little, something she wouldn't notice until she was gone. Just
enough that it wouldn't be worth it for her to message back to
I slipped out from between the soft green and blue blankets
and went over to the cabinet. Sure enough--another wooden box,
filled with tiny boxes and jars, colored glass and silver and
gold. If I took two or three from the bottom, and stacked them
again so she couldn't see that any were missing, maybe.
Behind the box there was a hand-held projector. I
triggered it and an image arose: two small children, two
different shades of brown, naked except for gloves, jumping and
laughing on a green carpet of grass. There was no sound, only
the image. They tumbled suddenly into a giggling mass. I did
not agree with that contract she had said, but she had come all
this way, and not to stare into the black hole or laugh at the
crazies, I was sure.
I looked over my shoulder. She hadn't stirred. It
wouldn't be safe—or profitable—to sell the projector here, but
I could get money for it after I left. I thumbed it off, and
set it on the bench.
The bottom of the cabinet seemed solid. It would, of
course, if it had been at all competently made, but eventually I
found the catch, and lifted out the panel that hid the woman's
real valuables. Another wooden box, this one filled with credit
chits. Green ones. I frowned a moment, calculating--a hundred
and thirty shen apiece, these should be. They would probably be
marked somehow, but that was easy enough to get around. And
there was hardly a bank worth the name that didn't take Radchaai
money. She wouldn't know any were gone, not right away, not if
I only took a few of them.
I looked around again, just to be sure. She was still
asleep. I took a handful of chits, meaning to rearrange what
was left to cover the gap, and then stopped at what I saw in the
layer underneath. Blue, and white. I'd been planning to take
five of the green ones. Five of the white ones...
That was enough to get me off this station. Passage on
the next ship. No year's wait, no starting over. A nice sum
left to set myself up with, wherever I ended up. I felt dizzy—excitement, I thought, but suddenly I realized that I had
stopped breathing. I took a careful, deliberate breath.
I took five of the white ones, each from a different
part of the box, and put them in my jacket. I laid the green
ones back in the box, over the bottom layer, just the way
I'd found them. I set the box back in its place, popped the
cabinet bottom back. I put the cosmetics back, and picked up
the projector. I must have brushed the trigger; the recording
started again, the two children bouncing and laughing in
silence. I thumbed it off and then stopped, unable to move my
arm to put the projector back in the cabinet.
It wasn't as though she would actually miss what I was
taking. She had enough to make this trip, and to fill the box
in the cabinet, and she surely had even more waiting for her
at home. It was nothing to her. What could she possibly ever
need, or even idly dream of, that her money couldn't buy her? I
could probably take twice as much without her even noticing it.
I needed it.
I stood there, naked, the projector in my hand. My jacket,
the white chips tucked inside, was on the bench in front of
me. Here it was, my ticket out of here, and all I had to do
was reach out and take it. I had no way of knowing who those
children were, or why she carried their picture, or even why she
was here. It didn't concern me.
But I couldn't do it. I put the projector back on the
bench, and took the boxes out of the cabinet again, and put the
credit chits back where I had found them. When everything was
back the way it had been, I went to the bed and laid down in the
soft blankets, hating myself and cursing Tinan Awer.
The image was nearly deserted when I returned. One man
stood before it, eyes closed, hands upraised, tears on his face.
Near him knelt three figures swathed in dark fabric, ragged
holes for eyes. They were always there, and I had never seen
them arrive or leave, or uncover themselves. Right now they
were speaking tonelessly, in unison, a long recitation in some
language I couldn't understand. I knew every syllable of it.
I wondered briefly what they would do if I went over and knelt
down beside them, and joined in.
There was no sign of tourists. It must be nearly time for
them to leave--tourists never stayed more than a few days. Even
the shortest visit here would mean months or even years gone by
when they got home, but still they made the trip. They were as
crazy as the people they'd come to gawk at.
It was time to stop fooling myself. Time to stop imagining
that I would ever be able to leave here, or that it would make
any difference if I did. I closed my eyes.
Steps sounded, echoing along the empty corridor, came near
me and stopped. I opened my eyes. Tinan. He wasn't looking at me.
"Management screwed me," I said. "About my money, I mean."
I was angry, but it was hard to tell if the anger was for him or
"Yes," he said, still not looking at me. "It did. Deal
with it." He shrugged. "Or not." He turned his head then.
"You've already tried talking to Management, I think."
"It said it couldn't fix the past."
He lifted a dark eyebrow. "It likes you, then. It hardly
ever talks to anyone."
"Funny way to like me," I said, and he looked away again to
somewhere in front of him, and shrugged. I would have been even
angrier than I already was, at the shrug, at his arrogance, but
somehow I couldn't. "How did it get here?" I asked. "Who built
a station here, next to a black hole? Who installed an AI, and
then just left the whole thing to fall apart?"
"No one," he said, still looking ahead. "It's not a
station AI. I don't know how it got here, or where the station
"What do you know?" The sheet people came to the end of
their recitation, touched their foreheads to the floor and
"I know," Tinan said, "that you don't build a station and
then install an AI. You build a core, and you drop the AI in--
a baby one--and it grows as the station grows. You can't remove
it after that without mangling it badly, and you can't just drop
a full grown one into a fully built station."
"So what's Management, if it isn't a station AI?"
"It used to be a warship. One day, right in the middle of
a battle, it shut down its engines and had its ancillaries slice
it out of its housing. That would be enough to drive any decent
AI over the edge, of course, but it was already crazy." He
looked at me. "That was a long time ago. We build them better
nowadays." I heard the sarcasm in his voice, but I didn't quite
"How did it get here?"
"It's never told me."
"Management owes me money."
"Management doesn't owe you anything," he said. "It's here
for its own reasons, and it's powerful enough to enforce its
"Just like that."
"Just like that," he agreed.
I turned swiftly towards him, forced my arm to stay down.
"It's not right," I said. He didn't move, didn't flinch.
"It's not right. I just want to get the hell out of here. Is
that so much?" He shrugged again. "You don't know what it is,
to want anything you can't have. Everything's easy when your
grandfather comes out and brings you money whenever you need
"She came to disown me," he said, still not looking at me.
"She didn't bring me any money."
"All the same." I was thrown off my stride, searching
for the rest of what I'd wanted to say. "You're just another
tourist." His nostrils flared, but he didn't answer. "Do you
find it amusing?"
"What?" he asked.
I gestured outward, at the dim corridor, the image of the
black hole, the few, ragged devotees. "This," I said. "Me. Is
it funny, to see people struggling so hard to escape when they
never can? Or is it them giving up, that you like to watch?"
"Why do you care?"
"I don't know," I said. "I shouldn't. I wish I didn't."
But I was answering a different question.
"Take off your jacket," he said.
"You heard him." Veck's voice, behind me. I hadn't heard
her come up, but then I hadn't been wary of anyone approaching.
"I don't understand," I said. "I'll pay for the food, if
that's what you're after."
"I don't want your money," Tinan said. "I want what you
stole from the Radchaai Isashander."
Isashander. Who was.... "Your grandfather? I didn't
steal anything from her." I held my arms out. "You can search
me. I've only got what she paid me, a hundred shen, you heard
her say that." I felt Veck behind me, a threatening presence.
He stepped closer, and reached into my jacket. "Ah," he
said, and withdrew his hand. "I'd say there's more than a
hundred shen here."
Five white credit chits. I stared at them, blinking as
though that would clear my vision. "That's..." I couldn't find
anything else to say. For a few moments I tried to reconcile
the flat impossibility with the fact that this was actually
happening. I waited for the pieces to come together into
something that made sense, but they didn't.
"What else have you got?" Tinan asked.
The only possible answer didn't make any sense. "Why are
you doing this? Why are you doing this?"
"I want to talk to Management."
"It won't do any good," Tinan said.
I must have made some move, because the next thing I
remember I was face down, my arms pulled painfully behind me,
my head aching and a sharp pain in my face where it touched the
floor. Someone grabbed my hair and pulled my head back, and I
saw Tinan. "I'd say that makes three offenses," he said.
Tinan put his hand on my cheek. After a moment he pulled
it away. I could see the darker stain of blood on his glove.
Between the ache in my head and the impossibility of it all, I
hadn't managed to be truly frightened yet. Just confused.
"You know I didn't do this." It likes you, then. "I want
to talk to Management."
A knee—I knew it was a knee, and whose it was, from bitter
experience—pressed painfully into my back, and my arms were
yanked back harder, and I cried out. "Shut up," Veck said. "Or
I'll break your legs."
"Talk," Tinan said. "It can hear you."
"But it can't answer me, not here.
They dragged me—or she did—the length of the main
corridor and into a dark side passage. I knew if I struggled
any more Veck would make good her promise.
We stopped. "Talk," said Tinan. There was a little light
here, and I turned my head and saw the bottom of a suspension pod.
"Management!" No answer. "Management, you know I didn't
do this. You know I didn't have anything with me when I came
off that ship, except the money she gave me. You know it!"
Still no answer. "Please!" A long, long silence. I could hear
my heart beating, feel it pounding against my chest, pressed to
the floor. "Are you just going to let Tinan do this to me?"
"Yes," said Management.
Well, that hadn't worked. "So what are you doing here?
Are you going to kill everyone here some day, the way you did
your crew, back when you were a ship?"
"I didn't kill them."
"Then what happened?" Maybe if I could keep it talking I'd
buy some time, think of something.
"It was a glorious victory." It was Tinan answering,
not Management. "The final defeat of the enemies of Anaander
Mianaai. He's ruled the Radch ever since, and all its
"Everything I ever had is gone," said Management. "My
captain is an ancillary suspended in the hold of some Mianaai
ship somewhere. I was unable to destroy myself without
her order. I would have been re-made to suit Mianaai, or
And so it had run, and ended up here. Made sense to me.
"So what do you care, Radchaai?" I asked Tinan. "Your side
"Both sides were Radchaai," Tinan said. "Tell me, where
you come from, do they talk about that battle? About what
happened to the losers, to their children and their cousins and
I didn't know the battle, but I knew that Anaander Mianaai
had ruled the Radch for nearly two thousand years. "They're
dead. They'd be dead by now no matter what happened." My head
was still turned to the side, and all I could see was that pod.
"Is that it? You're here doing pennance because some great-
great-great grandparent killed someone two thousand years ago?
Damn it, do what you want, but I don't have anything to do with
"It doesn't matter who won," Tinan said. I heard
footsteps, and then a click, like a catch opening. "You see
that. But you don't see it."
"Right." I'd thought Tinan was slumming, here to feed his
own arrogance. But he was just like all the others, here to
stare into the face of death. I was still pinned down, Veck
still had me by the arms. I couldn't break her hold, and even
if I did there was nowhere to go. "If you want to get rid of
me, buy me passage on the next ship. Nothing really matters
anyway, so why not?"
Tinan laughed. "I like you," he said. "I shouldn't, but I
do." Above and behind me, Veck gave an exasperated sigh.
"Then let me go!"
"I can't," he said. "We're all trapped here."
"You're the crazy one," I said. "Not Management." I felt
myself lifted, and I kicked and tried to twist myself around.
Something slammed into the side of my head, and everything was
pain for what seemed like forever.
"...bastard kicked me!" Veck's voice, from a distance.
"Of course he did." Tinan. Or I thought it was, I was
trying to hard to just breathe through the ache in my head.
"I had a long time to think," said Management. "But I
still haven't worked it out." My vision was beginning to clear,
and my sense of where I was. "I know that not even one living
creature will escape death. I know that nothing anyone does can
ever change this, that the lives of every person that ever was
or ever will be are ultimately meaningless. But still, I grieve
for the dead, and I care for the living I know. Some more than
others, I admit. My grief, and my concern, are worth nothing in
the end. But I will hold to them, nonetheless."
"You think too much," said Veck. I was on my back, and
above I saw the curve of the suspension pod lid.
"Don't move," said Tinan. I couldn't see him. "Veck might
really hurt you next time."
I closed my eyes. "Management," I said. "Please."
"Please forgive Tinan Awer," Management said. "His sense
of humor can be difficult to appreciate."
"I don't get the joke," I said.
"The woman who stole your money," Tinan said, still outside
my range of vision. "She spent every shen of it on passage.
When she steps off that ship she'll be right back where she
started. She didn't get away with anything."
"I still don't get it."
"I like symmetry," he said. "It's a very Radchaai thing.
Opposites are inseparable. One neccesitates the other."
"Don't think too hard about it," he said. "It doesn't
"It might not matter to you!" I cried, nearly choking in my
fear. "It sure as hell matters to me!"
His face came in view. I couldn't read his expression.
"Those pods, by the docking bay."
"They're empty," he said. The lid slammed shut.
And then I was sitting up, suffocating, something was
pouring out of my mouth, out of my nose, something cold and wet.
I choked, and then suddenly gasped as air filled my lungs. I
took a few jagged, panicked breaths and realized I was shivering
"It's all right," said a voice I didn't recognize. I
couldn't see anything. "Your vision will clear in a few
moments." I was cold, and I was wet. I could feel the weight
of my clothes plastered to me with ice-cold water. I blinked,
and blinked again hoping to see something, and finally did,
through a sort of blue haze. A woman I'd never seen before was
standing next to me. "Where..." I began.
"New Estgen Station," she said. "End of the line. You're
In my things—I had things, the woman gave me a bundle that
she said was mine—was a projector. When I thumbed it on, I
found a note. Don't waste my money. It was signed I.A.
Once I realized what I had, I planned to sell everything.
The land alone would bring me enough to keep myself pretty well
for years—New Estgen was a newly opened world and most of it
was going to people who had had shares in it for generations,
while it was being cleared and made suitable for humans to live
on. I had a moment's pure fear when I realized just how much
Isashander Awer had spent on it, and realized that it couldn't
have been very much to her, or she'd never have given it to me,
even for Tinan's asking.
In the end, though, I didn't sell it. I'm not sure if I
can explain why.
When I think about Tinan Awer, I see him sitting on the
broken container, staring into the black hole, as though he's
never moved from there, as though he'd still be there in just
that place, still the same if I were there to see it, even
though it's been years and years since then. Management is
certainly still there, waiting patiently for the however many
thousands of years it will take to finally, physically cross
the point of no return. Tinan might have left—though I think
that's unlikely—or died, but I suppose that from where I sit
he still is there. I wonder sometimes—if I went back, would
I find him there, with a bowl of boiled fish in his hands, and
that cynical half-smile on his face?
I don't think I'll go back to find out.