Where the Tiger Runs Alone

The final section of this story takes place after Shall Machines Divide the Earth and before Where Machines Redeem the Lost.


i.

Recadat wakes from a dream of red smoke and slow-moving tides. Trauma warps the mind, she’s been told once, such that it can alter the entire personality. Sometimes a person’s lucky and forgets; at the moment she belongs to that category of fortune, distant from her own pain, from even the specifics of what happened. More anesthesia in her than blood, therapeutic chemicals designed to slow neurotransmitters, suspend her in a glass house of well-being. She can think clearly, or almost clearly.

Memory intrudes. She pushes it away. In this state it is easy.

“You’re up. I was starting to get worried.” The voice is deep, almost a growl: it makes her think of something primal, for all that the words belong to civilization. “The doctor said there’s no neurological damage. You’re a tough one, Inspector.”

She turns her head. The woman at her bedside is huge—broad in the shoulders, long-limbed and strongly made. A face of chiseled structure: cruel, striking.

The predator’s mouth breaks into a grin. “Come now. I don’t look that strange, surely. I am Thannarat Vutirangsee.”

“The transfer.” From another city, a precinct said to be low in crime rate. But nothing about this woman looks soft or untested.

“And your new partner.”

Her first instinct is to sink back into the bed—there is a remote ache to all of her, and her hands are in casts. But she’s already shown so much weakness before the woman assigned to be her partner, and… “Did I say anything strange on the way here?”

Thannarat’s expression flickers. “Nothing in particular.”

Meaning she did say something. Recadat stares ahead, trying to push through the embarrassment. It also helps her not look at her own injuries, and thus deny her recall the facts of what have been done to her. “Did the children survive?”

There is a long pause. “Shouldn’t you save that question for when you’re feeling better?”

She tries to clench her hands. Both are immobilized. “Let me change the parameters. How many?”

“None.”

Her breath curdles. “Fuck.”

“The perpetrator’s dead.” Thannarat is nearly expressionless. “He resisted arrest.”

The woman’s tone nearly—very nearly—makes Recadat laugh, if bitterly. “You’re not going to be in trouble?”

“Not so far. Your doctor’s going to come see you in a minute. Anything I can get you in the meantime?”

“The hospital menu’s probably hellish. Chicken tendon in batter, if you can get it. Squid’s fine. Something very loaded with salt, very fried.”

“Not exactly the diet of a convalescing patient.” Her partner’s voice turns wry. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it past the nurses.”

Charming her way through them, Recadat suspects; at full height Thannarat is even more imposing, and she watches the wide, long back disappear through the door.

Her doctor turns up not long after, as promised. She is asked diagnostic questions, informed that if her condition proves stable her neural overlays will be reactivated within the week, and inquired about her next of kin.

“I don’t have any,” Recadat says. It’s an automatic answer; she doesn’t have to think about it.

The doctor, an androgyne with an avian skull, nods and makes no remark; zie treats public security officers often enough. “One other thing, Inspector. I’m recommending you memory therapy. Do you wish to take it?”

A regimen of drugs that will help her forget; that will allow her to pass through this with her soul unscathed, her mind pristine. But such treatment cannot select, the amnesia is comprehensive over the relevant period.

There is one part that she wants to keep, one memory that’ll shield her in place of the drugs. It is foolish. She wants it, all the same.

“No, I’ll be fine.” Recadat nods, does her best to demonstrate her lack of need for pinpoint amnesia. Composed. Collected. The picture of an experienced officer. “Just give me the usual psych suppressants. Nothing more than that.”

ii.

Thannarat comes the next day, and the day after that. On the third day she brings chilled bottled teas. “Caffeine, but not too much,” she says, conscientious. Hibiscus, chrysanthemum, berry. Some with no additives, others sweet and sour.

Recadat wonders whether she looks like the kind of woman who would enjoy floral teas, and soon discovers that they’re much more to her liking than she would expect—normally she doesn’t bother with anything weaker than coffee. “They’re not bad,” she says, a little grudging. Neither of her hands works well yet, but once Thannarat has uncapped the bottles she’s capable of holding them without spilling. “Are you into these?”

“Why’d I bring you something I hate?”

She sets the hibiscus tea down. “That’s fair, but…”

Her partner laughs—throaty, a sound like boulders rolling against each other. “My looks are misleading. People think I subsist on whiskey and human blood. Listen, I took the liberty and picked up books from your desk. Paper books, very quaint, but with your overlays disabled—”

Embarrassment flushes the back of her neck. “Did you actually…”

“I thought you’d be bored out of your skull. Would you rather not?”

Recadat starts talking, settles for clearing her throat. Just as well she’s not in the middle of drinking: the hibiscus tea, wine-red, would have gone all over the neat hospital sheets. She composes herself. “They’re not exactly thoughtful literature.” As the titles and covers would have made obvious. She suffers a minor amount of ribbing for those, on slow days.

Thannarat takes a copy of Captive of the Amaryllis out of her coat pocket. “What, do you think I read ancient poetry and classical treatises for fun? I’ll show you my library when your overlays are online again—it’s mostly trash. Can I ask though, is this based on the Armada of Amaryllis? How did the author and publisher not run into legal issues or get their home planet bombarded?”

“It’s plausibly deniable. A few names or spellings changed and all that, and probably the actual admiral is too busy to bother. You might as well give that to me, I was in the middle of it—”

“Is your fine motor control good enough to turn pages?”

“No,” she admits, grimacing. Hands are so fundamental to a person.

“I could read to you.” Her partner shrugs. “If you like. I asked for paid leave to help my assigned partner, and I got it.”

A flash of insight: this woman feels responsible for her, having rescued her from that basement too late to prevent the damage. And none of the children lived. Only Recadat did. She stares out the window, at the view of the city that she loves, its honeycomb streets and tall bridges, the buildings like black, ancient bones. “Go ahead.” Already she imagines, making deductions as to this woman’s life. Unattached, like hers, to have this much time to devote to a near-stranger she pulled out of the dark. A sense of justice that denies the crawl of bureaucracy, she hopes. She is not blind to the reality of what public security attracts, but for all Thannarat’s looks, she’s sure this woman is not a creature of cruelty.

Thannarat turns to the bookmarked page and opens the volume with delicacy, as though she fears that the force of her might damage the paper—an unfamiliar object to her, likely; Recadat makes a mental note to read her profile later, to check whether Thannarat is an expert in electronic warfare. “Chapter five,” she begins.

There are intermittent pauses, at first, as Thannarat familiarizes herself with the language of the genre: the florid descriptions of the Alabaster Admiral and her perfect physique, how the very air she breathes carries with it the scent of cinders and starfire, how her eyes burn with the smoke of conquests past. The plot is absolutely unlikely, a gorgeous virgin brought into the fleet after a human trafficking incident, who then receives the admiral’s mercy and attentions. Ones that turn amorous, in time, and more so when the admiral’s wife (left peculiarly nameless) enters the picture.

In time, Thannarat falls into rhythm. She speaks the admiral’s lines with a certain verisimilitude—Recadat can almost imagine them having the same magnetic voice, the same growl.

In time, something inside Recadat turns.

iii.

The hospital garden is an expanse of wisterias, the air deeply fragrant and blue. It is pleasant. Learning to walk again is much less pleasant. One of Recadat’s feet is in near-perfect shape, the other—she tries not to think about the state it must have been when Thannarat found her.

Thannarat, who is walking with her, lending her an arm when she needs it. Keeping pace with Recadat even though it must look torturously slow. They walk in silence until Thannarat says, “I heard from the division that you were seeing somebody.”

She stops walking, wincing at the ache in the broken foot. All she wants to do is lean against the nearest wisteria tree. “Do we have to talk about that?”

“I’m just surprised they haven’t come to check on you at all.”

He, but she doesn’t correct the gender. The man in question is slight and delicate, more so now that she imagines him next to Thannarat, and in any case they’ve been on the rocks for some time. A waning attraction on her part, one that even now she cannot quite explain, and a preference for work over romance. “We are… not much of a thing anymore.”

“My apologies.”

“I bet you don’t have that problem.”

One thick eyebrow arches. “In what sense?”

“That you must have your pick of women.” She might have erred on the side of ambiguity, selected your pick of people, but she’s almost certain Thannarat has a singular line of attraction. “Ones as beautiful as you want, hanging on to your every word, who won’t let you go no matter what.”

Thannarat half-huffs, half-chuckles. “You overestimate my charms. In any case all those things are in the past.”

Recadat is about to ask what that means when her bad ankle gives and she crumples. Thannarat catches her, demonstrating that her broad frame is not just for show, keeping Recadat upright as though she weighs nothing. And it is then that every nerve in Recadat ignites, every point of contact between her and Thannarat like a small conflagration. She holds herself very still so that it will not be so obvious.

“Let’s sit down,” Thannarat says, guiding her to a bench.

She doesn’t make eye contact: it must be blatant, written on her face. Her adolescence is far behind her, and she knows what this is. The surprise—she’s never experienced this before, not toward another woman. Her experience of desire has been simplistic, singular, and infrequent. Nor has it ever been like this. The spark. The retreat into what is nearly the roar and flux of teenage want. Intellectually she can rationalize it; this woman saved her, she is handsome, the geometry of her body speaks of sheer might—nearly as larger-than-life as the Alabaster Admiral of Recadat’s library. Somatically she is helpless.

A terrible, stupid urge seizes her as they sit: she wants to lean against Thannarat, to feel those hard muscles under the clothes again. She wants—and that is ridiculous too—to be protected. Her hands convulse in her lap, even the one in the cast that she can’t look at because the fingers have barely grown back yet. No doubt her partner has this effect on most women; chooses and discards bedmates as easily as one goes through shoes. The thought of what Thannarat might be like in bed brings a fresh flush to her cheeks.

“You must have better things to do,” she mutters, “than come to the hospital every day.”

“It’s a paid leave.” Thannarat crosses her legs. “You looked like you could use the company. Am I wrong?”

Not a woman turned down often, not for anything. “I don’t do casual relationships.” Almost as soon as she says it, she wants to take it back.

“Neither do I.”

Recadat’s gaze flicks upward, to search Thannarat’s expression. It is noncommittal, then it softens into a smile. And then it occurs to her that might be why Thannarat asked their colleagues about her relationship, that Thannarat and she are aligned in the meaning they’ve been driving at. It is not impossible. She opens her mouth.

“I don’t just spend all my time here,” Thannarat goes on, “or my wife would be very cross, so don’t worry. Half a day here, half a day home; she’s seeing more of me than usual, if anything, since I’m not taking on any case unless there’s an emergency. It’s just as well since we haven’t settled in yet, and I’m doing my part to decorate and set everything up. Moving here was her idea, she loves living next to a river. We take walks down the riverfront every evening.”

“You’re married.” She schools her voice. “I’m sorry, I don’t have my overlays yet and…”

“Gods, everyone says I don’t look like a married woman. Here.” She takes out a ring on the chain around her neck, a sanded-platinum band mounted with a ruby. “I don’t wear it on my hand, since it gets in the way. Eurydice and I are celebrating our third anniversary soon.”

“Right.” Recadat tries for nonchalance—it was, she tells herself, a short-lived impulse. A vulnerable moment. “Congratulations.”

Thannarat’s expression looks almost gentle, as much as someone can with the aspect of a wolf. “Thank you. Know anywhere good for dinner?”

“Not really.” Her voice is distant. She studies the wisterias, trying not to think of anything. “I don’t go in for elaborate meals. Hope the two of you have an excellent time, though.”

iv.

Recadat wakes. This time she is instantly alert. She is whole, but for all that she nearly wishes she was still in that hospital, in that bed; she wishes for the arrow of time to reverse. When she sits up she almost—almost—thinks Thannarat will be there, holding a battered paperback, asking if Recadat would like to be read to.

Thannarat is not there. Has not been there for a very long time; will never be there again.

The ship is small, spartan; her cabin is dun and gray, the shades usually reserved for prison cells. Her overlays inform her little of its systems, even its position or destination. That is the point—she is no one, on the way to nowhere. For months she’s been in lacunal space, cut off from data streams and network access, and thus as close to untraceable as anyone can be, especially a Mandate citizen. It has not been pleasant, transferring from ship to ship, eating synthesized meals that vary from edible to miserable. For human company, she’s had little.

Most of what she has had is her own memories. But she’s getting better at asphyxiating them, now.

I can tell your neocortex is full of dangerous thoughts, Wonsul’s Exegesis said before she left. You’re transfixed by a single idea, a single person. It strikes me that you waste the human capacity for growth. For forgetting.

To that she said nothing: what would a machine know about it. She could sit there and explain heartbreak and home-loss to him until she was blue in the face and he’d never grasp a single word. Her hatred for his kind has become, almost, a comfort.

She stands. This is the day, she’s been told through messages left behind on the previous ship, that she will meet her benefactor. Or the liaison, at any rate, and after that be ferried to her destination. Her muscles are supple; her body is as hale as it has ever been, and she arms herself with the smooth ease of habit. There has not been much else to do save the maintenance of her physique.

The cabin door opens. A woman enters, her hair elegantly cut, plain black. About ten centimeters taller than Recadat. She doesn’t move like a trained combatant but there’s an assurance that informs her every movement. Her smile is a shark’s courtesy. “Greetings, Khun Recadat Kongmanee. I’m your contact and, for the duration of your stay, I will be your physician. I’m Doctor Orfea Leung, and I hope we’ll get along well. I have found that helpful for the doctor-patient relation.”

Before she went to Septet, she studied Ayothaya’s occupiers. Hellenic doctrine asserts that the ruin is greater than the edifice, that the aftermath of a civilization tells its truth. She does not believe this. But for a person, perhaps there is something to the thought.

When all is laid bare, she holds at her core a single memory: of being carried out of the black and the blood, of being held and told she was safe.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor.” Recadat locks eyes with the woman, unflinching. “Let’s get along famously.”