- Age: Late 20s
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Revolver, myriad magical weapons
- Special Attack: Thaumaturgy
- A thorough magical inventory (rings, amulets, staff, coat, etc)
- Substantial magical brute strength
- Any number of firearms
- His magic has a tendency to interfere with technology
- His magic isn't especially refined
- Age: 2000+ years old
- Species: Human
- Weapons: A Presger alien gun that can penetrate any material in the universe, standard-issue armor, AI implants
- Special Attack: Marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat
- Expert observer of the nuances of human nature and behavior, with the notable exception of gender recognition
- Can communicate with other elements and denizens of her assigned ship and perceive what they are perceiving almost instantaneously
- Expert strategist, capable of making superhuman-seeming calculations, with more than two thousand years of training as an ancillary soldier in a vast interstellar empire
- Occasional sentimentality concerning some of her favorite lieutenants
By Laura Bickle
You don’t turn your back on anything in the Nevernever. You just don’t.
All kinds of boogeymen creep around in the Nevernever. Ghosts, Sidhe, demons… it’s a grab-bag of things that go bump in the night. Whenever I ventured into these dark corners of the universe, I kept my staff and blasting rod at the ready to light up the dark things that would take any piece of me they could gnaw off and drag back into the shadows.
But I never saw this coming. Never did. There was the bang of a gun. My shield bracelet flickered to life, but whatever that bullet was, it sizzled through my shield like a hot coal through marshmallow fluff. It seared through the armor of my duster and landed smack into my chest. It knocked me off my feet and I was sprawling on the ground, gasping, staring up at a dark red sky full of stars.
“What the hell?” I had no idea what hit me, but I could feel one lung deflating and hot blood sliding down the inside of my coat. My bracelet flickered to life again, and I willed a dome of protection over me. I glanced around for what was trying – and pretty much succeeding – to wipe me on the floor of the Nevernever. Was this Kincaid again, or…?
A figure approached. I couldn’t tell what it was, at first. Sure wasn’t Kincaid. It was human-shaped, dressed in a brown and black uniform of sorts. It held a gun that seemed to blend into its gloved hands. Not ghost. Not vampire. The Sidhe had better wardrobes. A silvery skin seemed to envelope my attacker’s exposed flesh. What the hell was that – mercury? Some kind of quicksilver armor, fashioned by an alchemist?
“What do you want?” I croaked, though that was pretty obvious, at this point. Whoever it was wanted my death.
The figure seemed to consider what to say, to hesitate.
I seized the opportunity to clutch my staff and mutter: “Fuego.”
Fire rushed out of my staff, streaming toward the figure. The figure ducked, but the fire seemed to slip over that armor. The gloves and uniform were singed, but I saw a bit of the armor decompose a bit, retract from the face of my attacker. I glimpsed smooth dark skin, an amber-colored eye.
That was all I needed. I locked in on my adversary with the soulgaze.
And my mind was blown. Totally blown.
I had the sense of connecting to a fragment of some staggering whole. My adversary was Breq Mianaai, a human, a human who had once been a starship. I struggled to comprehend the vastness of it, having thousands of minds and streams of consciousness working in perfect concert. It felt foreign, alien, trying to connect with another mind like this. I realized that I had always interacted with others – human, nonhuman, monster – on the basis of gender, first. Breq was beyond that. She – and she preferred that as a generic pronoun – was the last AI of a warship. She was a “corpse soldier,” a formerly human captive who had been implanted with technology that gave her the ability to perceive from many, many vantage points. She had been everywhere, and that had collapsed away, and she was alone. Just one.
I could understand that. That solitude.
But Breq had found another ship. She connected with it in a more limited way than before, but could still monitor the very breathing and heartbeats of all of her crew. She was part of a teeming whole again.
And that crew was above me. A dark shape blotted out the stars. It was a freaking spaceship, here in the Nevernever. Now, I’d seen it all.
I tasted blood in my mouth. It occurred to me that I should probably start summoning up a death curse. I wasn’t really a fan of them on general principles, but I had to say that I was pretty pissed. Anger makes one creative. “Die alone…” that one had been laid upon me a long time ago. It might be appropriate here, but I sensed losing something that she loved that would disconcert her more. I wanted to craft something that would affect her, only her. There was one thing left that she still loved. I could hear it, rattling around the back of her brain in layered notes, symphonies and children’s humming.
“Die,” I rasped. “Die without music.”
All in all, I was pretty happy with that one. Not the greatest magical working of my life, but it would do the job.
I closed my eyes, pulling my consciousness back.
I didn’t understand what had happened in this place. It was as if Dresden had his own implants, as if he was part of my AI. Since he was not civilized, not Radchaai, it was a chaotic jolt. I felt what he felt and knew what he knew. And I knew that I had the pronouns right, this time. His identity overwhelmed me, and I took a step back.
He lived in magic. This place, his life. He was a wizard. He controlled forces and uttered spells that would have been pure superstition and fodder for children’s tales among the Radchaai. There was no technology underpinning it. Just will and words and objects of focus. It made no sense to me, this reliance upon… personality. This reliance upon individual will. Such a thing was foreign to the Radch. I had taken Mercy of Kalr though the Ghost Gate and wound up here, this place Dresden called the “Nevernever.” This place was of strategic importance to the Radch, was vital to the survival of their civilization. It needed to be annexed, and quickly.
But there was something horrible about it. It began as static, creeping through my implants. And it flickered through my connections like fire, cutting off my connections to Ship above and blinding me to what my officers saw. Panic jolted through me. I was going to pieces, again, cut off. Alone.
I stepped back, gripping the Presger gun, the one that could cut through any material in the universe. I had taken down Dresden with it, the first soldier to resist the Radch occupation of the Nevernever. But I felt the technology eroding in me and around me, and with it the residue of hidden orders that had impelled me forward. The Emperor of the Radch had wanted the territory beyond the Ghost Gate, had ordered it, had implanted this mission deep in my skull. Now, it was falling apart.
“What’s happening?” I muttered. My armor was retracting in pieces, pulling back, struggling to cover my skin in this eerie red light.
Dresden laughed behind his sparkling, useless shield. “Magic. Magic is happening. This whole place is magic, and it screws up any technology it touches. Since I’d hazard that thing above is more complicated than a clock radio, I think you’re screwed.”
I looked up, at Mercy of Kalr. Lights flickered within it, and the ship had pitched dangerously to starboard. It slid closer and closer to the dark, shadowy ground here. I reached out to Ship for a status update, but heard only the silence of the Mercy slowly sliding out of orbit.
I turned upon Dresden. “What will it take to save the ship?” I could not lose another ship. Not again. It didn’t matter what the Emperor’s orders were, now; they were shorted from my consciousness and burned away. I wanted the Ship and her crew to live more than I wanted anything else.
Dresden coughed. “Guess your only shot is to get out of here.”
I reached into my pack and threw a plastic package down on the ground beside Dresden. “Put this on your chest. It will save your life.”
“What is it?”
“A corrective.” I clarified when I saw his blank look: “Science.”
“I’ll burn it out. Just as surely as that ship is gonna burn out of the sky.”
I glanced up at the ship, even larger in the sky than before, calculating how many minutes it would be until it would make landfall. I could see a dozen of Bo units swarming over the ground, and shadows rising up to greet them. Other magical creatures were aware of their presence.
This war could not be won, even if I wanted to.
I whistled for a retreat. My implants wouldn’t allow for direct communication, but those under my command heard me. I gestured for them to return to the shuttle. There was time enough for them to get there, to follow Mercy of Kalr through a gate and out of this forsaken place.
I backed away, aiming down the sight of the Presger gun that I wasn’t sure worked anymore. Keeping Dresden in my view, I retreated, back to the shuttle and back to the tech that was breaking down all around me.
Amid it, I hummed a tune to fill the silence in my head.
I turned over, reaching for the plastic pack. I ripped it open. No harm could come from giving it a shot, right?
A viscous gel poured out into my hands. Wincing, I slapped it on my chest. I felt it sinking, coldly, into my torn skin and below, worming away behind my ribs. I had the feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should have. But it stopped the bleeding and took away the pain, which sure was something.
I struggled to sit up. The spaceship that was lowering on the sky had begun to wobble. A hole appeared in the sky before it – I only could tell that something was there by the distortion around the edges of the stars. The ship limped into it. Moments later, a smaller craft streaked after it, and the stars washed back into place again.
“Urk.” I held my ribs and took a deep breath. I angled my staff beneath me and hauled myself to my feet.
Breq had given me much to think about, seeing the world from her eyes for that instant. I’d seen a heck of a lot more of the universe than I’d seen from my own singular viewpoint. I’d been lucky, having the home field advantage. In another place or time, it would have been different, and I would have been a smear on the ground. I sure hope that she managed to continue to defy her programming and not come back.
Breq had let me live. Because of that, my death curse had fallen flat. Breq had her music; I had my life. I was going to count that as a win.