Together We Will Hunt Again

This short story takes place after Shall Machines Divide the Earth and before Where Machines Redeem the Lost.

Seventy-two hours after I’ve left Septet behind—for good; I don’t intend to set foot on that forsaken wasteland again—I receive a notification that I’ve been made Recadat Kongmanee’s legal executor. The message is from Wonsul’s Exegesis, with the explanation that since we are both Mandate citizens now, someone must manage her material assets while she convalesces. For all intents and purposes, he says in that bland monk-voice of his, I own Recadat due to a quirk of Mandate law and Court of Divide corollaries. None of that makes any sense. A person does not own another person, deranged AI gladiatorial spectacles or not.

Such infelicities are the price of accepting machine jurisdiction. But you pay a price for being admitted to any polity, any organization: the question is the extent—how much blood, how much soul; how much compromise you’re willing to make in your moral compass. If my work in public security has taught me anything, it is that. Nowhere did I bend my sense of justice more than I did on the force.

I make a point of not mentioning these messages to Daji, though I suspect she knows. My partner—my wife; we have the rings, and soon we’ll have a ceremony—is aware of all traffic inbound or outbound from my overlays, my guardian of the etheric pathways. But she doesn’t press. Simply she busies herself customizing our suite on this luxury liner, afforded by the lucre Wonsul sent. He keeps his promise that no Mandate citizen shall be allowed to tarnish machine reputation by appearing poor. What a bizarre point of concern, but the AIs are nothing if not attached to their self-image as gods. Omniscient, omnipotent, able to grant or destroy fortunes at a coin’s toss. Shapers of galaxies. One day, someone will take that away from them.

Daji looks up from turning the bedsheets the same dawn-red as her roses, the pillows a deeper, more sanguinary shade. “What do you think, Detective?”

“I think you have fantastic tastes.” I hold up my hand with the sapphire-and-platinum band. “As proven in your choice of spouse.”

She laughs, the sound like bells—effortlessly musical, as only a proxy can be. “I love having my excellence recognized. But tell me, where do you want to go? I know we’re not disembarking at the next stop.”

The next stop being Krungthep Station, medium-sized and belonging to a system-wide polity; popular with some tourists and pilgrims, but of little interest to me. “Probably somewhere more interesting.” This liner’s voyage terminates, eventually, on One Thousand Erhus. An enormous ship-world, though nowhere near the scale of a dyson sphere. I have contacts there, and from that place it is not so far to reach Ayothaya. Three relays.

“You’re thinking of war.”

We have been together for so short a time and yet she reads me like an open book. The advantage of drawing on a wealth of memories; the advantage of Eurydice. “It’ll take years.”

Her gaze sharpens. She draws close and lays her slim hand on my chest. “Not really. You have me, remember. And I’d love to see all the places on Ayothaya you wanted to show me, the rivers and the places… the places she loved.”

I take her hand, run my thumb over the delicate structure of it: the phalanges and metacarpals, the fine ulna. To me it feels like the bones of a bird. In truth it is near-indestructible, or at least not destructible by conventional means. “I want to plan something subtler than orbital bombardment.” My homeworld has been subjected to enough. Even if we break every Hellenic ship, the debris would linger in the orbit for years to come. Reminders will be unescapable. The fading of scars will be accounted for in decades. Worlds are fragile things, more fragile than people’s hearts sometimes. Imagine growing up under a sky that won’t let you forget the occupation, as though it is not enough to see it in the eyes of your parents, on the skin of your elders.

“I want them to suffer,” Daji says, and I remember that Eurydice did love our world, not a patriot but more sentimental toward the physical matter of Ayothaya than I ever was.

“They will.” Despite the impossibility of it I do wonder what it’d be like to return the favor—to seek the Hellenic seat of power and turn it to ruin, to fill its atmosphere with terror, to poison its seas. But I set that thought aside. Such acts are beyond the scale of my ability, and I don’t know yet whether they are beyond the scale of my ethics.

In another life, one where the path to Septet was not open, I might not have paused to ask these questions. In that life Daji would not have come to me; I would not have the balm of her, her roses and her fox. The latter of which I put inside my pocket as we prepare for dinner. She smiles. It makes her feel safe, she says, to have her second proxy curled up close to my heart. A little shield, for both of us.

The cocktail gown she puts on is a vision. Black silk that folds around her like petals, accented here and there by roses in pale dawn and late dusk, impossibly woven into the fabric. Dark metal lace and black pearls frame the feast of her pale breasts. Her pseudoskin is polymorphic, able to spin out its own attire, and she uses that advantage to the fullest. A slit bares her thigh when she walks, and she makes sure I get to see every time it peeks.

At the dining hall, everyone wears their best, as though they have a social trial to overcome, something to prove. Perhaps a handful hope to catch a lover, temporary or otherwise. Bed sport is as good as anything to leaven the tedium of travel. Beautiful women glitter like chandeliers.

Several diners choose to indulge in the cocktail portion of the reception, circling the buffet and each other. Daji and I keep to our table, drawing no particular attention. She dresses better and shines brighter than anyone present, and I have attended to myself, putting on finer attire than what I wear into the field and into combat. One would not look at me and think, there goes a war refugee. Money is the currency of chameleons; wherever you go, protected by its grace, you belong.

The banquet has been decorated in high-quality projections: canopies of glistening blue leaves and pearly fruits, orchids and crane flowers falling down like drapes. Birds chirp and click overhead, flashes of plumage in silver and brass. The food is fine, the drinks likewise. Daji eats her share, though in any case she passes as human and has finagled the biometric sensors to agree with her appearance. The game of Septet has impressed upon me how easy it is for AIs to pretend at humanity, how they can slip through any perimeter undetected; how they can cut into the fabric of human society like a razor, unresisted. Though Daji does it with greater ease than most, and then I wonder if that’s another purpose served by the haruspex process. It couldn’t possibly have begun as a project to soothe the needs of humans like my first wife, who want to become one with machine.

Two women enter the banquet hall, piquing my interest because I’ve never seen them. This means they have never attended the ship’s soirees before, and have kept to themselves so thoroughly that I have never spotted them in public areas. Not improbable: the cabin suites are large and have all the functions you could need, but it strikes me as odd that travelers on a trip for pleasure wouldn’t avail themselves of the ship’s entertainments.

One is tall and prim, dressed in a sensible silver blouse and dark green slacks, clothes that suit business dealings more than a touristic voyage. The other is shorter and showier, encased in an ensemble of gold mesh and redshift scarab-silk. Technically the dress covers her from throat to knee. In practice it keeps few secrets from the world as to the fullness of her figure. Her throat has a delightful geometry—it’s one of the features I look for on a woman, idly imagining how my hand might fit around it, how my teeth prints might adorn it like a choker of bruises.

From the way the two touch each other, it is evident they’re a couple and have been for a long time. The easy intimacy, the movements keyed to each other’s, the harmony of habit.

Daji raises her head and sets down her wine flute. “Don’t look at them too long.”

I have not looked, not noticeably. Long ago I’ve perfected the science of examining without appearing to, scrutinizing and threat-assessing without the target catching on. “They’re not to my tastes.” Half a lie: the shorter one is, for the same reasons that Daji has made her proxy the way it is—I’m transparent in that fashion.

“They shouldn’t be. I should be the sole answer to your tastes, Detective, in every imaginable way. But I’m not just being petty and jealous. The woman in red and gold, she’s a haruspex.”

To Daji that is pressure on a scab, on lymph still beading beneath the thin layer of fibrin and dried plasma. “What’s she doing off Shenzhen Sphere?”

“Honeymooning. Debauching her wife. Who can tell?” Daji’s mouth bends. “I know the AI half of the haruspex, and I don’t want either of them to intrude on our time. If they come this way…”

Fortunately they do not come our way, though the taller of the pair meets my eyes, once. The quality of her smile is surgical and knowing. I rarely dislike people on sight, but for her I make an exception. No, not dislike precisely. A fundamental incompatibility, maybe; unreasonable conclusion to jump to, but my intuition rarely leads me astray.

After dinner, I change in the cabin and head off for one of the ship’s gyms; Daji amicably agrees to wait, though her fox second comes with me. I set it not far from my chosen pull-up machine, where it nestles among folded towels.

Exercise is a mindless routine. Normally I keep alert, but the fox watches out on my behalf, and so I settle into the rhythm. Push, pull. Slow combat against the ship’s gravity, a test of my muscles and cybernetic couplings. After a time I find my pace, and then I unload the data packet containing the details of Recadat’s legalistic necessities. I shouldn’t—I will release them to her in any case, as soon as I am able, and knowing what she has or doesn’t have will change nothing. But it’s been ten years and I am curious. It doesn’t appear she accrued much in material goods. There’s the apartment unit she owns, there’s the usual savings and slated pension, all meaningless while the Javelin of Hellenes still occupies Ayothaya.

And then there are the digital personal effects.

It is a violation of privacy. It is not anything I should be looking at when it belongs to someone I respect. And yet. We had grown so apart. The brief time on Septet made it feel as if nothing had changed in the interim, only of course it had, and now the need to know—to examine—drives me: how it turned out as it did, how I was a fool and how she… could not tell me. Because I didn’t let her. The problem with owning any measure of self-awareness is that it becomes tremendously difficult to avoid responsibility, to avoid admitting you’re as much at fault as the other party. And I, for all my flaws, have too much of this quality to not delve into and cut apart my own scar tissue.

I don’t spend much time on the truly personal sections, the medical files and the therapy records. Instead I open the archive of her entertainments. Discovering much of her taste remains the same makes me smile—I used to hassle her a little about those romances she liked, the love stories that I found of limited substance but which she couldn’t get enough of. In those books love always triumphs, unrequited longing is always returned, all adversity is always conquered.

Then I find unlabeled texts that, it quickly becomes obvious, are her own writings.

Sweat streaks down my face, salt on my lips. I drop to my feet, panting slightly, and veer to the bench where the mound of towels hand-selected by Daji awaits. The fox scoots aside to make room. No one remarks on the tiny thing; it looks like a small replicant, decorative and whimsical but harmless. Slowly I wipe myself off. Just as slowly I pry Recadat’s personal writings open.

The oldest ones, dated twelve years back, aren’t too different from the fiction she enjoys. Sweet. Simple. Charming, by virtue of who wrote it. I’m hardly any judge of technique—the tawdry entertainment I partake in is not of high literary caliber, tending toward violence with varying degrees of realism; otherwise I read non-fiction, on forensics and insurgency, on advances in cybernetics. But Recadat is a competent enough author, and the tales sprawl volumes. Adventures heavily tinged with romance, interspersed by moments of mundanity. The characters are no parallels to anyone, not really, save that their names reference the wolf and the tiger. Yet there is a particular loneliness to the two lovers that I recognize, one that is alleviated only by each other, the way it can be when all your existence has been lived in the dim and you meet the one who will be your ray of sun.

As the volumes go on—uneven lengths, sometimes uneven pacing—the tenor shifts. More close calls; more infidelity and less domesticity. The two lovers are apart longer. Sometimes they never reunite until the next installment. In the final entry, the wolf leaves the tiger for dead. She does not mourn. She walks away, indifferent, headed toward a destination unknown.

The stories stopped altogether about eight years ago. Two years after I left the force; two years after I disappeared from Recadat’s life.

It may not mean anything. These are just stories. But I think about them, and about her, as I return to the cabin and shower. I think about them as I join Daji who, as ever, waits naked for me in bed. She wraps herself around me, making us almost as close skin-to-skin as when she turns herself into my armor. It is protective; it is possessive, a demand that she wants all of me, not just my body but every crevice in my soul.

“You went through what Wonsul sent you,” she says against my collarbone.

“So I did.”

Her quiet goes on for some time, before she breaks it with, “He’s a meddling little shit. Just like Benzaiten in some ways, but biased the opposite direction. Maybe he empathizes with your old partner.”

My smile is faint. “He doesn’t strike me as an empath.”

“You know precisely what I mean. He has a problem. It aligns with that of your old partner’s in very particular ways.” She shifts position, climbing onto me, then straddling me. Her wealth of hair falls across my chest, brushing me like the fox furs of her namesake. “Whatever you saw is causing you pain.”

“Not exactly.” I reach to cup her haunches, feel the silk of her pseudoskin, perfect in the way organic epidermis cannot match. In every way she is peerless. No human, even cyborgs enhanced within a millimeter of their organic tissue, can compete.

Her sigh is exasperated, even as she runs her fingers up my stomach, between my breasts. They stop at my face, framing it as though she’s considering me for a portrait. “Detective, it is the kind of wound that festers. It needs lancing. You should do what you need to do.”

“I’d have thought you would prefer I avoid contacting Recadat.”

In this illumination, her eyelashes seem not just gold but touched with crimson. They flutter, butterfly-slow, a beat of temptation. “Yes. But I also don’t want you to be in pain. That supersedes any of my preferences. Your wholeness is more important than anything.”

On Septet, Chun Hyang’s Glaive warned me that to choose Daji means to choose bondage: that I will never enjoy true liberty, the complete individual freedom to do precisely as I please—any time, anywhere. To be the sole steerer of my own trajectory, unbound by any obligation.

But that is a fantasy. Such freedom is beyond reach for most humans: it is available only to machines and even then only the most unattached sort. Chun Hyang could not understand that. Daji understands it perfectly.

“All right,” I say, and brings her down for a kiss. “I did make a promise.”

Recadat wakes. She does not want to, but time and again consciousness has proven she is not its master, and she has no tool with which to fend it off. And old instincts push her upright, uneasily and clumsily, because first and foremost she needs to assess. Whether she is whole or broken; whether this is friendly or adversarial ground; whether she is alone.

Yes to the first, ambiguous on the second, and yes to the third at least physically. It is not as though she has forgotten. With the return of consciousness comes the return of the rest. She searches her immediate surroundings and discovers her sidearm is absent. The loose robe she wears is comfortable but missing any holster, and the nightstand offers nothing useful except water and nutrient bars. To the far side there is a single window, rectangular, that looks out to complete dark. She hears muted tides and winds. The pane blends completely into its housing, without any latch or button that’d permit opening. No loose objects lie around with which she can attempt to break the glass.

A whisper of mechanism. She whips around to find Wonsul’s Exegesis in the same vestments as on Septet, the false monk in saffron on black.

Her knees are not as steady as she’d like, but she can stride. She closes the distance and grabs the proxy’s shoulders. “Why the fuck am I alive?” This is close to a scream; she has no interest in controlling it, in dialing it back or sounding composed. “I’m supposed to be fucking dead. Or lobotomized.” Oblivion either way, complete bliss in forgetting.

The AI is calm. He makes no effort to dislodge her, would likely be just as serene if she attempts to strangle him. “Thannarat Vutirangsee, winner of the most recent round of the Court of Divide, has used her wish to secure your life.”

Recadat stares. Her hands fall to her sides. “What?” Then a spike of fury: “She didn’t use it to free Ayothaya?”

“It occurs to me,” he says, unrelenting, “that she prioritizes you over that world.”

Her hands clench. She says nothing: unable to find anything to say—speechless with anger, with something else. With something that verges on hope.

Wonsul’s Exegesis goes on. “Next I need to inform you that you’re a constituent of the Mandate, entitled to the same rights as any of our human citizens, including a stipend and liberty of movement. You’re guaranteed permanent residence on Shenzhen Sphere and succor on any of our outposts. However, you’re bound by Mandate laws—you were informed of those when you first landed on Septet—and due to how the Divide works, Thannarat Vutirangsee essentially owns you in the sense that she’s your de facto legal executor and guardian. Or, at least, this was the case until a minute ago. She has relinquished those and returned them to you, making you once more a free being.”

She draws a breath. Lets it out. Draws another. “Why?”

“You know her better than I possibly can. I merely observe; I don’t become personally acquainted with duelists. That’s what regalia do.”

“I want—” To remain Thannarat’s, even through so flimsy and technical a thread. A thread that Thannarat has chosen to sever, seemingly without a thought. “I didn’t ask her to do this. Any of this.”

He makes a cast-away gesture. “That’s frequently the case in human interpersonal relations. She has sent you a message. I’ll leave you to it. There’s a panel in the nightstand that lets you order food and drink or any wardrobe items you need fabricated. The bathroom is in that corner to the right. I have, personally, pledged to Khun Thannarat that you’ll not be harmed nor altered in any way, and I would like to keep that a reality.”

Meaning she will be monitored and prevented from injuring herself. She watches him retreat from the room, paralyzed, her thoughts a low white buzz. It takes entire minutes before she can make herself move again, jolted by a thundercrack. She paces without purpose, around the room, its barely-decorated confines. Clinical and institutional as any normal infirmary. Several times she returns to the window, peering through it, trying to make out where she is. But it is pointless. The outside is lightless. Maybe a suggestion of a coastline. Maybe movements that might be waves.

Time passes. Recadat doesn’t mark it, doesn’t call it up on her overlays. All she wants is to empty herself, pour the soul out of its chalice so it might meet the earth, eventually evaporate. All she wants is to not be.

Eventually she loads up the message. She must. She cannot avoid it—cannot avoid opening her own barely-sealed gash, pouring in salt, digging in with a pickaxe. It is so short, when she expected more, succinct in the way that Thannarat always is. May I visit you? I want to be sure. I won’t stay long—or no longer than you’d want me to. If not, it goes on, I’m on my way to… not engage the Hellenes, not yet. But I will expel them, even if it takes a few years. I promise that they will pay and that you’ll have a home to return to. I know you love it more than I ever did, and maybe this will be some form of apology, not that I deserve your forgiveness.

She bends and presses herself to the wall and then she howls. The noise of grief is so animal. She cannot—does not want to—contain it. All she has left is a beast’s impulses: the yawning hunger, the rage when injured, the need to hide inside a space of her own and lick her wounds and shut the universe out. Her eyes are hot. Her entire body is a pyre.

She does not want this. She does not want Ayothaya’s liberation. And Thannarat knows precisely what she needs. It is not this empty assurance, this stranger’s well wishes, a gift that she no longer desires.

I want you to be well, Thannarat’s voice murmurs, in that low wolf-growl which should be intimidating but which has always sounded to her like the most reassuring sound in the world. I want you to be happy. Whatever is in my power to give, I want you to have.

Recadat cries until she doubles over, until she is on the floor, weeping into the cold tiles. She cries until all of her is in agony; she heaves and heaves.

It seems hours before she’s wrung out. Hours longer when she moves, slow as a speared tiger, to the bathroom. She doesn’t stop to look at herself in the mirror. Merely she does the bare minimum to get clean, to wash her face, to get dry. During this she pulls herself together enough to compose a reply to Thannarat: No. Don’t bother coming to visit. Don’t bother making promises. Don’t come into my line of sight ever again.

She returns to the bed, seating herself, watching what goes on outside her window. A rectangle of black nothing. But the waves are louder, now, and the storm is drawing close.

The next Recadat short story, taking place before Where Machines Redeem the Lost, is Where the Tiger Runs Alone.