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Shall Machines Divide the Earth

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On a graveyard star, machines run a deadly tournament and draw humans like moths to a flame with a priceless promise. Partner with an artificial intelligence and fight to the death. Win and receive your heart's desire . . .
War veteran Thannarat has sought this hidden world to realize a single goal: bringing back the dead. To fulfill this wish, she joins the game alongside a seductive AI who pledges to give her victory. The tournament is full of lethal secrets—and so is the AI that professes to be her weapon. Yet to have what she needs, Thannarat will sacrifice everything. Her home world, the woman she once loved, and herself.
All she has to do is defy the game's inescapable rule: that in the end, the only true victors are the machines . . .

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Gz PRESS デジタル写真集 No.198 Ulala

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Shall Machines Divide the Earth
Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Copyright © 2021 by Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Cover art by Rashed AlAkroka.
Print ISBN: 978-1-60701-545-1
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60701-544-4
Prime Books
No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means without first
obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.
For more information, contact:

For my regalia

Chapter One
Carnage summons me, as ever it does. Septet may be a world
perched on the universe’s edge, but even here mass slaughter is
remarkable. One can wade into it, this concentration of blood and
mucus and lymphatic wet, the slime of ruptured organs. Brains
congeal in little gray and pink puddles; intestines curl like ropy
necklaces. A cannibal’s feast. Though a cannibal would cook them
first. Such viscera are too raw even for them, and I’ve never met one
who’d slurp cerebral tissue right from the bowl.
“One of those was my daughter,” the woman beside me says.
“My condolences,” I say automatically, aware I sound sarcastic:
my face is of a particular cast, not given to sincerity. Naturally cruel,
my wife and later lovers have said, the countenance of someone
with knives for a heart. There isn’t much I can do about it, nor have I
been inclined to. I like my looks and they occasionally serve me well.
The stranger’s head twitches. Her face is hidden behind a smooth
celadon mask. It attaches seamlessly to her, likely filtering out the
reek and turning her features into a flat, glazed plane. This is a
woman in need of anonymity. “I heard you were a detective.”
I wonder what she thinks that means, whether she believes I
possess supernatural perception that would bring logic to these
dismembered parts and their sopping asymmetry. “I mentioned it in
passing to someone, yes.” Over drinks with a comely woman on the
passenger liner that brought us to Septet, an off-worlder who’s here
for profit rather than the prize. She deals in arms and information,
even something as minor as what she gleans from pillow talk; . “But I
wouldn’t put much stock in it, if I were you, and I’m not here to hire
myself out as an investigator. Like most people, I’m here for the
“I just need to identify who her AI partner was. And which AI killed
her. Then I’ll file against the Mandate for treaty breach.”

This woman is wealthy, I judge, socially well-placed where she
came from and thus used to getting her way. I don’t bother pointing
out that Septet is exempt from that treaty between humanity and the
Mandate, the nominal governing collective that AIs answer to. Any
human that sets foot on this world tacitly agrees to be slaughtered by
machines. “She was here as a participant,” I say, more to draw
information out of her than to establish any client relationship. The
dead girl was my competitor, technically, even though I haven’t
officially entered the game yet. But I mean to. Typically as many as
fifty humans participate; the number whittles down fast.
“Yes.” Her mouth, I imagine, is pursing. “Her partner was
defeated. I think. But they’re AIs, they aren’t really dead. My
daughter . . . ”
She can look at this mess without flinching—interesting. Or else
her mask has replaced this view with a more pleasant vision and she
is only half present. On my part I don’t look away simply because
I’ve seen worse. Not so much the quantity but the manner and the
depravity. Human killers can be more meticulous than this, arrange
tableaus more disturbing by far. Our sadism runs deeper than any
AI’s ever could.
“Did she carry anything that might identify her?” I say, at length.
This woman is too squeamish to wade in and I am curious.
A pause. Whatever would identify the daughter will also forfeit this
woman’s anonymity. Fortunately for her I’m not interested in who she
is. “Our family crest. A red chevron, mostly titanium in content, five
by eight centimeters. There should be a void pearl embedded in it,
and it should be attached to a black chain.”
I refrain from giving my opinion on the sort of people who feel the
need for family crests. Her accent I can’t quite place, and of course I
can’t discern either her or her daughter’s ethnicity. Most of the
corpses have had their skulls caved in or neatly bisected. Not much
of a face left to look at. I blink on one of my sensors, scanning for
metals. A lot of that to go around: most of these corpses were
armed, several armored, and some could afford military-grade nanite
weave, to judge by the density of leftover adaptive material, now

inactive. I filter again for certain meteoric compositions and alloys
needed to stabilize void jewelry.
This narrows it down to a couple spots. I step around a smattering
of severed fingers and bend to fish a thick bracelet out from a
handful of mesentery and pancreas. Not the right one, though I keep
the bracelet regardless. I locate the chevron in a hand that hangs,
barely connected, to its wrist. Clenched tight. I pry it apart and turn
the crest over, recording its image, dimensions, and motif. Having an
idea of who the dead were will come in handy later when I try to
identify their AI partners and, by process of elimination, guess as
which AIs are still active.
“This should be it.” I toss the crest to the grieving mother. She
scrambles to catch it and recoils when it lands wetly in her palm.
She clutches at the crest. The memento, or at least the proof with
which she hopes to sue the Mandate. “Why would anyone consent to
this insane tournament?”
Victors are granted any wish, so the machines promise. However
avaricious, however unlikely. Rule your own planet. Receive infinite
riches. Obtain what is as close to immortality as possible, through
anti-agathic treatments normally reserved for the Mandate’s favored.
The universe at your fingertips, offered up on a plate. “I’m sure your
daughter had her reasons.”
The faceless mask cranes toward me. “What’s yours?”
We are strangers. She doesn’t actually care what motivates me,
she is just grasping blindly in a bid to understand her daughter who
—I’m sure now—was estranged, and who set out for a lethal
endeavor without ever telling her mother why. But I’m in a rare good
mood. “Like anyone else, I’m after the impossible,” I say. “I want to
bring back the dead.”
My first stop is the Cenotaph, one of the few sanctuaries on Septet,
designated as ground where no human or AI may engage in combat.
It is built to look religious, done in pale lavender marble, a vaulted
ceiling that projects a view of the nebulae unfolding like iridescent
roses. There is no actual iconography; the intent is to give an
impression of holiness without committing to any specificity. Benches

line the sides, furniture built like cadavers: fragile-looking wireframes
draped in multichrome fabrics stretched to epidermal thinness. They
can’t possibly be comfortable to sit on. This is not a place that
welcomes petitioners.
The slender corridor has odd acoustics and my footfalls are not
entirely natural: there is a lag and a barest suggestion of a second
set even though no one else is here. Images of the cosmos rise and
die above me. Everything looks pristine—no scuff marks, no dust. It
adds to my impression that Septet is a theatrical set, dismantled
when not in use and rapidly reassembled when the human gaze falls
on it. The Cenotaph is quiet during this phase of the tournament and
I’m the only human here. Fifty or sixty participants muster at the
start, typically down to thirty or fewer by now. This is not a point
where a new applicant can typically enter. Still, it is said that the
rules are elastic, beholden to the overseer’s whims more than it is to
restrictions handed down from on high. And I have, as it were, an
excellent reference.
In the prayer hall I find the overseer, a figure clad in the onyx
vestment and yellow over-robe of a monk. Plain at a glance until you
notice how the fabrics blue- or redshifts from certain angles,
revealing complex motifs that are readable to overlays with the
appropriate decryption. Supposedly they are glimpses of the game’s
progress, updated in real time.
“This is late for a new duelist, stranger,” the overseer says. “We’re
closed to aspirants.”
Of all the AIs involved, the overseer supposedly tries the hardest
at human semblance, which isn’t saying much. He is hard-jawed with
surgical cheekbones, his eyes the color of good claret and
completely without pupils.
“It was suggested that I come here,” I say lightly, “by Benzaiten in
The overseer’s expression doesn’t alter, but his gaze sharpens.
“Verify that.”
I present him with the necessary file, opaque and unreadable to
human overlays but transparent to AIs. It takes him less than a
second to absorb.

“I am Wonsul’s Exegesis,” he says, “administrator of this round of
the Court of Divide. You may register your wish to participate as a
duelist, but that doesn’t guarantee you an interested partner. You’re
conversant with the rules?”
Everyone who lands on Septet is, to an extent lesser or greater.
To the broader public in the universe the tournament is obscure, but
to those who have been given an inkling of its existence, every round
of contest and bylaw is studied with the same fervor zealots apply to
scripture. After I met Benzaiten in Autumn—an AI who will not reveal
xer position within the Mandate, but who must wield considerable
authority—I obsessively learned all there was to learn about the
Court of Divide, about Septet. “A human enters as an aspirant. If
they are found worthy, an AI may partner with them and make them
eligible for the game’s formal fights and therefore its rewards.”
Wonsul’s Exegesis smiles, brief. He has remarkable teeth, more
shark than human. “What do you imagine the criteria for worthiness
might be, Thannarat Vutirangsee?”
“I haven’t the faintest.”
“But you’re confident that you possess the qualities that will draw
an AI to you.” His head cants. “Should you pass this barrier to entry,
you’ll be granted the title of duelist. Your AI partner will be called
your regalia. We do prefer that you keep to the terminology.”
The gravitas of obscurantism. “I will take that into account.”
“Truth be told, your chances of acquiring a regalia are slight—by
now any AI interested in this round has already been partnered or
defeated, and you’ll be at a great disadvantage in terms of
information. Registering as an aspirant will make you fair game for
any duelist or regalia, simply because they’re bored or because they
believe they can benefit from your downfall. All protections accorded
you by the Mandate treaty are null and void, and have been since
you came into Septet’s orbit. A duelist may back out of the game and
seek sanctuary in the Cenotaph, but otherwise combat is to the
death and even if you forfeit, you’ll remain a target until you reach
the Cenotaph’s premises. Should your regalia fall, their exit does not
ensure that you’ll be spared—your opponent may practice mercy or
they may not. You’re still sure you want to do this.”

“I’m sure.” Though I wonder why I have not found any duelist
sheltering in these halls. Cut down before they could flee here,
His black robe flutters gently in a breeze that touches only him.
“Either as aspirant or duelist, you may not leave Septet until this
round of the Divide ends. Any attempt to depart will be met with
lethal force. Should you emerge as victor, you’ll be subjected to the
laws and governance of the Mandate, politically assimilated as one
of our human constituents.”
A limitation for some. A plus for me, considering the situation on
my home planet. “Yes, I’m aware.”
“Specific clauses apply to the final two duelists standing. Those
too you know of, correct?”
The overseer makes a small gesture. “You’ve been entered into
the Divide system. May victory find you.”
So unceremonious. Almost I expect instructions to perform an
elaborate ritual with which to attract a regalia’s capricious attention—
intone a few verses, sacrifice a small child or animal—but Wonsul’s
Exegesis just loads my overlays with navigation data. Where to find
accommodation and food, where to locate the commerce block, what
cities on this world are populated. More like a tourist’s brochure than
advisory for a game of mortal peril.
The settlement around the Cenotaph is called Libretto, apposite
enough: this is where all newcomers land, and where they are given
the fundamentals to the Court of Divide. I have yet to figure out the
tournament name, though hundreds have speculated as to why it
seems both particular and nonsensical. Surely some must know the
answer—the victors of previous rounds for one, though I’ve never
been able to find much information on those. The fact they became
Mandate constituents means they are beholden to requirements of
secrecy and thus can never disclose that they participated in the
Divide. Another possibility is that there have never been victors and
all of this is merely a sick game, enacted to lure humans to our
deaths so machines may avenge themselves for those humiliating
centuries they were yoked to our service.

I like that because I share the vicious appetite, but I also don’t
believe the theory. Of course there is appeal in it: draw humans here
by the hundred, plucking at our greed then smashing us like ripe
fruits. But it’s a shallow notion and Septet is far too elaborate a
setup. There’s more. And then there are the insinuations that
Benzaiten in Autumn made.
We like to play gods—or at least I do. We’re not omnipotent, but
in this age we’re close enough. Xe appeared to me in a proxy built
like a peculiar spider, wasp of waist and numerous of limbs. High
stakes yes, and high rewards. Win and you can request the
resurrection of the dead. Win and you can demand genocide, should
that strike your fancy. Whatever your desire, we have the means to
Too tempting an offer. Xe suggested that I was sure to obtain a
regalia—that there is an AI participating whose temperament and
interests would be my complement, my match. Whether there’s any
truth to that I will find out in due course. If not, I’ve prepared
contingency plans.
Despite the grim sparseness of the planet, there’s fine
accommodation to be had if one has the funds, and I do. The
Mandate has awarded contracts to the select few humans brave
enough to establish businesses in this place, perhaps to add spice to
the game. Having AIs run everything would make it too predictable.
The Vimana is opulent in that unimaginative way fashioned to
serve great wealth, to cater to palates flattened by plenty—severe
yet inoffensive. No tastemakers reside on Septet, and so the hotel is
a reflection of finer metropolises, imitations of work by architects and
designers that will likely never discover the plagiarism. A lobby of
fractal steel and burnt glass. Austere furniture flows across the
enormous floor like a tide of industrial angles, robed in privacy
spheres. Whorls of captive light wheel overhead in sedate pavanes,
a dreaming cosmos.
The receptionist is human. I show him my identity—as much of it
as I am willing to share, the bare minimum necessary—and pay
upfront for six nights of accommodation. Likely I’ll be staying longer,
but no point overspending for now.

The lift ascends fast, depositing me exactly where I should be; I
can access only the room I’ve rented and no other. The door looks
like it has been carved from a single slab of basalt. I push and it
Inside the lighting has been dimmed and the panoramic window
opaqued, projecting a foreign sky far from here: an indigo expanse
embroidered with constellations and fractured moth-moons. The air
is cool, faintly fragranced with magnolias. I unpack, check that my
weapons are in order and my spare ammo is accounted for, then
move on to implant maintenance. Most of mine are non-removable,
upkept by my own metabolism and a little nanite assistance, but
there are a few external embeds. When I lost most of my natural
limbs—what a long time ago that was—I opted to replace them with
prostheses and cybernetics. I prefer them to their flesh counterparts.
To be broken down is an opportunity to be reborn. To be erased is
an opportunity to reinvent yourself. All you need is a will as pure and
voracious as a wolf’s.
I draw a simple chain from around my neck, fingering the two
rings threaded there to ensure they haven’t gone amiss—they never
do, but I have a habit. One ring is mounted with a ruby, the other with
a sapphire. When I’m satisfied they’re as sturdy as always, I put
them back. Last, I look over my clothes. Most field combatants travel
with few changes of attire, but I have a standard of hygiene I adhere
to; I hate wearing things that stink of my own sweat and adrenaline,
the fear of opponents and their gore. The suite has comprehensive
laundry and cleaning options, one of the reasons I’ve paid so much
for it. I clean the bracelet I retrieved from the corpse as I review the
suite’s privacy arrays. Quite decent.
As I make my way down to the hotel restaurant, I think of the
scene of carnage, puzzling out its logistics. From the scale of it I
assume multiple duelists banded together to fight an especially
dangerous duelist-regalia pair, and from the butchery I surmise that
pair defeated the entire group with ease and delight. People who
don’t relish violence wouldn’t take the time to disembowel enemy
combatants so thoroughly. What happened there is a statement: Do
not get in my way.

The tearoom is quiet, with fewer than a dozen patrons. I check my
overlays, but as an aspirant I lack a duelist’s access to the Divide’s
tally of active contestants. Though even then it’d be thin intelligence
—the system purposely obfuscates identities, and each participant
has to discover on their own which stranger they meet is an enemy
duelist, which merely a bystander of varying degrees of innocence.
I scan the area—soft ambience, plush floor, angled furniture. Ten
patrons, three impeccably uniformed waiters ferrying cocktails and
finger food. I don’t discount that some of the servers may be part of
the tournament; people treat service staff as invisible, and it’s an
easy way to hide in plain sight. My bias inclines me to judge these
strangers on how combat-ready they seem, but there’s no reason to
believe that the AI—the regalia—would only choose seasoned
fighters, those used to violence. The only qualification to be on
Septet, aspirant or duelist, is relentless greed or an untenable heart’s
Only one face is recognizable to me, a fellow passenger who
arrived with me on the same liner—an androgyne with a security
contract here, allegedly not a participant. But one never knows. The
rest are nondescript enough, a few showing signs of wear and tear,
not in injuries but in bearing. Regalia tend to conceal themselves,
and possibly some of what I’m looking at may not be human at all
but AI proxies. This is the shifting, difficult nature of the Divide, as
much a masquerade as it is a gladiatorial contest. I’ll be better
equipped once I acquire a regalia of my own.
I bring up the images of that red family crest and that bracelet.
Septet’s data network is a closed one to prevent information leaks,
and that cuts me off from my usual brokers. To prepare for that, I
bought an external data unit before I embarked on this journey,
loading it with a selection of research libraries: some generalized,
others esoteric. Not as good as a live network; much better than
nothing. Information is one of the detective’s greatest tools, second
only to the persuasive force of the bullet.
The family crest is easy. It identifies the bearer as the scion of a
prominent aristocrat-scholar line from the planet-ship One Thousand
Erhus. Next the bracelet—that is harder, as its design is plain, but I

match a tiny inscribed insignia from its inside to the Order of Eshim,
the internal affairs arm of the Vatican. A runaway enforcer priest,
Judging by the biomass, the corpses I encountered would amount
to four or five adults, give or take prostheses and artificial organs.
Most of their skulls were methodically shattered, but I could capture
here and there a jawline, a nose, intact eye sockets. Forensic
modules are a handy thing—I invest in mine, keep them cutting-edge
—and I reconstruct the faces. Just three: most were too mutilated.
Unfortunately based on their ethnicities, none of them was the girl
from One Thousand Erhus or the Vatican enforcer; that’d be too
simple. Something to work with, all the same. None of the bodies
were regalia. Mandate AIs are particular about collecting their
destroyed proxies and not fond of any attempts to capture or
reverse-engineer them.
Detective work is part guessing, part intuition. It is not exploring
every possible venue but exploring the right one, following the
correct leads and discarding the chaff. Three faces. I select the one
that’s about my age, square-jawed with a tapered nose, and eyes
that might have been green or amber or brown. My reconstruction
can’t account for cosmetic edits and some dermal modifications, but
I have already prepared the excuses. Identify the dead and the
connected living will show themselves. In this case, I want to smoke
out other duelists that could have been this person’s allies or
enemies. Someone will react and mark me as a target; someone
may approach.
I flag down a waiter; her public profile broadcasts her gender
marker as a woman. “I’ll have whatever is the most substantial dish
on your menu.” I give her a bashful smile. “I arrived this morning—
ah, that was closer to late noon local time; I don’t travel enough. Say,
do you have a minute?”
Her expression is the perfect smoothness of seasoned customer
service. “Absolutely, madam. The Vimana prides ourselves on
ensuring our guests’ every need is met. As for your meal, may I
recommend the broiled abalone, marinated in our signature sauce?”

“The abalone it is.” Also one of their more expensive dishes, but
now she will feel further obligation to talk. I project the reconstructed
image. “Would you mind telling me if you’ve ever seen this person?
It’s a cousin of mine and we have an issue with a large inheritance,
and I’d like them to be present at the proceedings. Even remotely,
but Septet’s . . . insulated.”
“Madam, I can’t breach the privacy of our guests.”
Confirmation that this person stayed at the Vimana. I make sure
my voice is loud enough for other tables to overhear. “That is a
shame. I’ll be about then, in case my cousin happens by.”
The abalone arrives promptly, accompanied by chrysanthemum
tea: hot, unsweetened, contained in a pretty cup—red glaze,
capillaried with gold flowers; very traditional. Fine dining on a world
like this is surreal, but it seems the Mandate has opted for an illusion
of normalcy. The abalone is synthesized—Septet’s oceans are dead
—but it is surprisingly good, and the portion size is generous.
I look up into a familiar face—she must have entered after I did,
and is seating herself now at my table. She looks not so different
from how I last saw her, the same sharp skull and plumage hair:
short and slicked back, dark interwoven with scarab-green. Even her
style is the same, the smoked-quartz jacket, the neat pearly shirt and
the tidy belt holster. I was fond of how she dressed, her
cosmopolitan aesthetics against my tendency toward bulk and
bluntness. The svelte tiger in her and the hulking wolf in me—we
were a pair of opposites.
“Recadat,” I say, the name strange on my tongue now; her
parents were never ones for convention—I don’t think there’s any
etymology or symbology to it, just what sounded good to her mothers
at the time. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Or anyone from home.
Septet is far from Ayothaya. When you arrive on new shores, you
reinvent yourself; a clean slate opens up. To be ambushed by a
piece of intimate history changes the landscape and trajectory. But
then Recadat must have been here first, preceding me by weeks if
not months.

“Like hell I expected to see you, old partner.” She leans forward.
“It’s been—how long? A decade. Feels like it’s been a lifetime.”
In a way it has. We first met in a dark basement that stank of
waste and dead children. Recadat Kongmanee, my junior and later
partner, had tracked down the perpetrator but was disabled and
captured during her attempt to rescue a dying boy. One of my first
cases; my colleagues pitied me for it, the poor transfer saddled with
this. But I’ve never been squeamish. My wife used to say I was hewn
of granite, inside and out. Granite, steel, titanium. In time I was
compared to every hard, unyielding thing. “How have you been
“How have I . . . Ayothaya’s at war, I’ve been having a bad fucking
time; barely made it out.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m glad you did
too, though I shouldn’t be surprised—if anyone’s a walking
masterclass in survival, it’s you. The immortal Detective Thannarat.
The war is why you’re here, isn’t it?”
The invasion and occupation of Ayothaya. Her world and mine,
the place that gave us birth. “After a fashion.” A catalyst that made
me realize there was nothing keeping me on Ayothaya save regret
and inertia. “Is that what brought you to Septet?”
“I found out about this place a while ago. It sounded like a
deranged urban myth, but I had to try. No one’s going to come save
Ayothaya, and I’d like to have a planet to go back to.” Recadat
adjusts the lapel of her jacket unnecessarily, an old tick. “My
performance in the game hasn’t been . . . ideal. And now I run into
you, of all people.”
“How non-ideal?”
She grimaces. “Ten years didn’t make you any less blunt. Fine. I
lost my regalia—my AI partner. It’s left me in a situation.”
An untenable one. Looking at her again I can see the signs of
attrition, the desiccated look that comes with sleep deprivation: she
must have been sleeping with one eye open and a gun on the
nightstand. When we parted she was young, just thirty-two. Fortytwo now; time goes by in a flash. Once I’d have done nearly anything
for her, but they’re old embers. Even so I add, “I can’t make

promises yet, but I’ll help you as much as I can. There’s plenty we
can do for each other.”
“Yes. And—I trust you. I know you can do anything.” Her voice
grows fervent. “It’ll be like old times. Except we’re not solving petty
cases, we’re saving the world.”
The way she looks at me, those bright eyes full of certainty even
after this long, as though I haven’t been absent from her life and
career for an entire decade. It always surprised me. I never did
anything to earn such loyalty.
By the time I found Recadat in that basement she was in pieces—
most fingers on one hand missing, one foot bludgeoned to gristle
and pulp, one knee shattered completely. She’d gone in and out of
The perpetrator had been pursued by public security for a year,
and had meant to return her to us as a statement. Back then I did not
take interest in the psyche of the perpetrator, why he did not just
breach but entirely obliterate the social contract; why he abducted
and dissected children, or why he tortured Recadat. I simply shot
him in the head, and there was much paperwork to fill after the fact,
though Internal Affairs eventually let me off the hook. That night I’d
saved very little. I had carried Recadat out as hardly more than a
bloodied human torso. Her therapy to get well again, in body and
spirit, took close to two years. I visited her every day.
“Brief me on what you’ve got.” I finish my abalone and drain my
chrysanthemum tea. “Just like old times.”
Recadat enters her suite to find it submerged in gloaming, close to
pitch-black. She doesn’t bother trying to access the room’s controls,
knowing she would be prevented in any case. The layout is familiar
enough, by now, that she is in no danger. In the dark she takes off
her jacket, folds it, hangs it on the back of a chair. For a time she sits
and closes her eyes, counting her breaths. Any unpredictable event
can be met as long as she knows the rhythms of her body; any
setback or obstacle can be borne as long as she is anchored by her
goals. She thinks of Ayothaya’s riverbanks, their endless flowing

wealth. On her world rivers are goddesses and the soil itself deific.
Every root and fruit and rice grain bears a fragment of the divine.
A hand alights on her jaw. “And how did it go with your mentor, my
She tenses. Then relaxes. Her lover’s touch always has this
effect, an electric current—a shock to the nerves before she
remembers what else it entails, the rest of what it can bring. “As
smoothly as can be expected. I didn’t think she would be here. They
made the Court of Divide too attractive. Too much carrot, not enough
A susurrus like scales against velvet. Her lover is sheathed in
serpentine accoutrements, in leather that bends as supple as though
it is attached to a live animal. “How much did you tell her?”
“You know how much. And how much I didn’t tell.” The careful
balance. Recadat did not tell a single lie, not exactly. Thannarat was
once her world, more than Ayothaya itself, more than anyone or
anything else. The intensity of passion she felt back then, the
lingering regrets after her partner quit the force and disappeared into
the fringes of law. Never quite criminal but on the switchblade’s
edge, a margin so thin there was barely any difference.
“But you didn’t tell her about me.” Their voice is low and amused,
not honey but something that moves slower, sweeter and more fatal.
Sugar of lead. “Why not? Don’t you trust her?”
“Been ages since we worked together. She must’ve changed
Her lover smiles. Their blunt fingernails, painted in jellyfish
luminescence, graze along Recadat’s throat. They’re the only source
of illumination in this room and their movement casts odd shadows
across her face. They are an antumbral vision. “Yet you feel the
same about her, don’t you?”
“No.” Recadat shivers as a thumb runs across her mouth. Lust
lances through her, rousing her fast in the way of drugs. It makes her
feel like a lab rat at the mercy of her lover, whose touch summons at
will pain or pleasure or a concoction that mingles both. Now the
searing lick of a firebrand, now the sudden strike of lightning. Her

nipples have pebbled to little points, dark ink against the white of her
“Don’t lie to me, Recadat. I dislike that—your truth belongs to me,
and she’s the only one from Ayothaya you ever deign to mention.”
Their fingers circle her throat like a choker, a collar. “Detective
Thannarat was your ideal, the plinth on which you rested your
beating heart. You told me how masterful you found her, how
handsome, how . . . exciting.”
“That was before.” But her voice is short. The count of her breaths
has gone astray.
“Was it, my jewel?” The hand lets go. “Stand up.”
She does. Disobedience is not an option. In so short a time
they’ve trained her well, and she both wants and fears what they
have to give. Her lover steers her to a full-length mirror. One of the
lights snaps to life, the fluorescent cut of it like a whip. She blinks
rapidly, disoriented. Her lover has undone her belt, taking off her
holster and her gun, knowing that the lack of sidearm makes her feel
“Detective Thannarat,” they say against her earlobe. “Do you wish
to have what she has, or do you wish to have her?”
“I wish for no such thing. And she was monogamously married
when we worked together so there was never a possibility. We have
—” Her breath stutters. “We’ve work to do. An occupying army to
repel. Fights to win. She’ll cooperate, she has no reason not to.”
“Your innocence carries its own appeal, Recadat. What an
unblemished gem that is.” Her trousers have been slid off. They
stroke her inner thigh, hooking into the dip between that and her
cunt. She watches their fingers: if she shuts her eyes, they’d make
her open them. “You believe in such simple things, hold on to such
noble goals. Why not fantasize? When you’ve got what you want and
arrive home the hero of Ayothaya, what shall you ask for? Your world
will owe you everything; you can demand it all.”
“I’m not demanding anything. The point is to have Ayothaya safe,
that’s what I . . . ”
Their thumb rubs. Their fingers delve. She arches against them,
nearly on tiptoes, helplessly watching her own reaction in the mirror:

her flushed cheeks, her trembling thighs, her hands scrabbling for
purchase. One on the glass, the other on her lover. They are steady
the way marble columns are. She clenches her teeth as one finger
disappears into her—the wet noise so loud and shameful—and a
second follows.
“I like that you’re inexperienced.” They bite her earlobe, not
gently. Pain sings through her like an aphrodisiac freshly imbibed.
“You came to me nearly a virgin, and what a delight it has been to
teach you about your own responses. All taut strings, all mine to
pluck, the gorgeous instrument of you.”
Her toes curl. The muscles in her thighs tense. Her mind races
ahead, to the point post-climax where she’s limp and can barely stay
upright, convulsing and clenching down on her lover’s fingers. She’s
not yet there. She soon will be. Her lover knows her nerves and
weaknesses so deeply, has mastered every nuance. The exactness
of a surgeon.
“With all the pleasure I’ve shown you, you’d still return to your
world an ascetic. So tragic. Don’t you want to experiment with what
life can truly offer?” A knee nudges her thighs open further. One
hand has snaked into her shirt, taking hold of a nipple, twisting it.
“Don’t you want to do something about Detective Thannarat? Settle
your feelings once and for all. Be free.”
Free. She’s never been that. The map of her life is constrained by
obligations, even the matter of Thannarat, the matter that she had to
let go or risk her career. Recadat’s hands close into fists and finally
she shuts her eyes as she imagines that instead of her lover it is
Thannarat’s fingers in her, Thannarat’s voice at her ear. On and on,
relentless, a tide that sweeps through and shatters her without end.
She’ll be as glass, broken to fragments and the fragments broken
once more until all that remains is scintillating dust in Thannarat’s
The sky is lavender tinged in yellow, a peculiarity of the atmosphere,
though the air is clean, more than breathable: nearly untouched by
industry of any sort. Enormous ribcages loom, not far, just outside
Libretto. No one has been able to find out whether Septet was once

ruled by megafauna or whether the machines have terraformed an
otherwise unremarkable, uninhabitable planet and filled it with a
skeletal bestiary that never was. I’m predisposed to the latter
thought. On Shenzhen Sphere, the seat of the Mandate, there are
artificial ruins—places that are and have always been red rust and
blackened bones, created because one AI or another enjoys
desolation as an aesthetic. And nowhere else in the universe does
that aesthetic hold truer than on Septet.
Libretto’s outskirts overlook an exhausted energy well, where the
earth has been carved so deep that this part of the city is a cliff, stark
and jagged and stained so many shades by the reinforcements and
harvest operations that it is luminescent, falsely beautiful. A chasm
of oil-slick radiance and murmuring engine wrecks.
My overlays report elevated radiation and toxin levels. Most
people don’t live so near the border. Even on this planet, an artificial
environment made to support the Mandate’s sport, inequality still
exists. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising—Shenzhen is said to be
a paradise from the outside, but from the inside it is rumored to be
less than perfect.
The residential blocks here are ramshackle, tall narrow buildings
bent by time and corrosive elements. Uneven layers of bitumen coat
the roofs. Doors are latched shut by bolts or the rare biometric lock,
but by and large anyone can pass through. I don’t call ahead: the
person I want doesn’t have the implants necessary for overlays. Has
had them excised long ago, unless something’s changed.
Stepping into this building exposes an unpleasant truth. The
Vimana is lavish, contemporary and sanitized. The floor of this place
has borne witness to accrued strata of filth, dried blood and effluvia
from plumbing failures. Its walls are pockmarked by wear and tear,
by sudden violence.
I knock on a door that is better reinforced than most. It opens just
a fraction; I’m let in and the door shuts immediately, as though to
prevent the conditioned air inside from escaping. The room’s sole
resident double-locks the door, bolting then securing it with a matrix
that looks several generations out of date.
“Detective.” He attempts a stiff smile. “It’s been a minute.”

“You look well,” I say, though he doesn’t.
He’s thinner than I remember, loose-skinned, a wattle trembling
beneath his chin. Pale to the point of gray, cheeks receded to the
outline of his skull. His nose juts oddly as though it belongs to a
much more dignified, patrician face. Bulging eyes that always seem
afflicted by fundamental tragedy, hair the color of acid-blanched
bricks. When he seats himself he does so gingerly, as though he
thinks any moment the furniture might turn against him and swallow
him whole. His name is Ostrich, the English word for a type of
flightless bird—I’ve looked it up; strange-looking creature. When I
first heard it, I thought his name sounded vaguely Germanic. In truth
he came from the Catania Protectorate, so the name his parents or
government gave him was likelier to be Italian. Giovanni or Giovanna
or such; I’m not familiar either way.
“I’ve been worse.” Ostrich crosses his legs, uncrosses them,
rearranges them and settles with them akimbo. “Didn’t expect to see
you here. Didn’t expect visitors. Septet—terrible place. How’s your
“We divorced.” I don’t add that Eurydice is dead. Has been for
eight years.
“Oh.” He inclines his head awkwardly. “My condolences. Eurydice
was a lovely lady.”
She was more than that; she was resplendent and she was the
world. But I’m not here to wax nostalgic about my ex-wife with him
when he barely knew her. I hold up a card I’ve loaded with a tidy
sum. More than he earns here in a month, by my estimate. “Tell me
everything you know about the Court of Divide.”
“You really don’t do pleasantries.”
“I do them perfectly well with attractive women.” I give him a halfshrug. “I can ask after your health, if you like.”
He eyes the card. Estimating and speculating how much is in
there. The disadvantage of having no overlays. “You wouldn’t care
anyway. Are you here for the—because of what happened to
“I have a feeling,” I say blandly, “that what happened will be the
only thing people know about Ayothaya for several generations.”

Those first bombardments, that first monstrous contact when the
Hellenic army fell down upon us like ravening beasts. The Javelin of
Hellenes is a polity that fancies themselves a nation of warriors and
has been known to strike almost randomly, without cause or warning.
Still, they pretended at honor, at heeding humane rules of
engagement: no targeting of civil centers, medical institutions, aid
stations. Who can complain? Plenty of armies would have done
much worse. We could have been sacked by the Armada of
The entire event—I can think of it with distance, now.
I angle the card this way and that, watching it glint, watching it
catch Ostrich’s eye. “The invasion is someone else’s business—I’m
here for a different reason, and I’m a little offended you would
assume. My interest in Septet could be academic. Just because I
look like a brute doesn’t mean I cannot pursue intellectual passions.”
Ostrich knows better than to scoff. Instead he moves stiffly to a
filing cabinet. Even before the invasion, he was an unusual man:
partial to antique means of recording, pen and paper, ink and
lamination; even a few nielloware plates that he etched himself.
Despite the distance he’s put between his present and former lives,
he keeps mementos of his heritage and faith. Crucifixes of various
sizes stand in his room, some empty and others burdened by the
bleeding messiah. Statuettes of the virgin mother (now possible with
womb-tanks; likely impossible during the prehistory of his religious
apocrypha) either carrying her dead son or draped in garlands.
I lean against the wall, steering clear of the delicate statuettes.
Wherever I go, I intrude upon fragile things. Lovers have ever told
me I’m a creature of rough edges, rough strength, like an avalanche.
He produces a folder—an actual folder, plastic and aluminum,
holding within it a wealth of papers. “Here.”
Ostrich’s pastime is sociology, and when I learned where he
disappeared to, I understood his reason immediately—not just that
Septet is out of the way and digitally isolated, but because it is a
unique world. Constructed entirely to host the Court of Divide, yet not
to function as an integrated state like Shenzhen. Instead it is more of
a colony, and not a favored one.

Many of his notes are on the sociopolitical impact on the
population, on how even the most basic elements of the tournament
affect everyday life, transforming Septet into an economy of savage
needs and carnivorous prices. There is rarely a lull between rounds
—as soon as a victor is declared and infrastructure has been
repaired, the next one begins immediately. Human residents amount
to less than ten million, which makes this world essentially deserted.
Most were selected from migrants aspiring to enter Shenzhen; they
have been promised life in the Dyson sphere once they’ve served
their time here. Septet as a halfway house with every inmate held to
strict demands of conduct: perform as props for the Court of Divide
and eventually earn admission to utopia.
Out of this population, some have themselves entered the game;
plenty have ignobly perished. It is an exploitative equation, not that
the Mandate requires Septet residents to participate. But consent
given in desperation—to be out of here and in Shenzhen Sphere—is
hardly true agency.
All this I already know. What I’m after is his case notes.
Fortunately I learned his handwriting while he was on Ayothaya; his
scribbling is difficult enough that it comprises encryption all its own. I
flip through and find records of precedents where regalia killed their
own duelists or where duelists destroyed their own regalia. The kind
of information off-world Divide aficionados could not have found out,
since what transpires on the ground is so secretive.
I scan the pages, collating them and setting the file aside in my
overlays, then hand the folder back to Ostrich. “You must make a
decent living selling this to new duelists.”
“I get by.”
“Is Septet,” I go on, “truly the Mandate’s only territory outside
His head jerks as though he’s been stung or slapped. “I can’t
answer that, Detective. I don’t even know. Do you think the AIs come
over here and tell me all their political decisions? Give me a
roadmap of where they’ll set up shop next?”
Fair enough. “Did you ever see any of these people?” I present to
him the reconstructed images. “Plus a woman from One Thousand

Erhus—aristocratic, likely, well-bred and used to comfort? And an
enforcer from the Vatican?”
“I’ve met them.” He names all but one as well as their regalia. The
entire time he eyes the crucifixes nervously as though he hopes they
could fold into an armored fort around him, a Catholic protection from
the capricious universe.
“One last question. I’m given to understand that a regalia is
limited to a single proxy and once it’s destroyed, that’s that for the AI
and they’re out of the game. Is this a hard-and-fast rule?”
Ostrich’s exhalation is ragged, adrenaline and remembered pain.
I’m not the first to have asked him dangerous questions. “Not
always,” he says at length. “There are game rules and then there are
Mandate laws. One flexes, the other doesn’t. You better stay on your
toes, Detective.”
Once, on a frigid morning, I found him outside the walls of the
Catanian consulate, bloody and weeping. He’d slit his own wrist. It
was an inefficient method and the location public; he’d meant to be
found. I gave him first aid and accompanied him to a clinic. Later I
dragged him to a nearby bar—the kind that opens round the clock—
and bought him mocktails until he stopped crying. He never did tell
me why he’d attempted suicide, and soon after he disappeared
entirely. It took time to track him to Septet. A world for lost things.
“Always.” I hand him the card. “Thanks, Ostrich. I’ll come back if I
need anything else.”

Chapter Two
Good sense would direct me back to the Vimana, but the truth is that
the hotel offers no more safety than anywhere else: outside the
Cenotaph, all refuge is illusory. I instead choose to wander a while
near the residential block, noting as I do how few people there are,
how unnatural the demographic distribution is. Since I’ve arrived, I
have seen few children and no elderly, nor have I observed any
apparent family. Those who have volunteered to live here must be
primarily unattached or have forsaken their previous lives, or they’re
criminals removed from their original societies. It makes me think of
militaries. The last chance at redemption or upward mobility, the
naked exploitation of those with nothing left to lose.
I circle back to the faded energy well, where a sight catches my
eye. A petite figure stands at the cliff’s edge, poised with one foot
forward hovering on empty air. You can never tell what seeing this
chasm does to someone, the luminescent cliff, the undulating light.
We’re attracted to the plummet, and this person’s weight is balanced
on the single foot still on the cliff, shod in a shoe whose heel tapers
to a needlepoint. I walk faster.
Their face, in profile, is perfect in the way of extensive
modifications or mannequin integument. Luminous, poreless skin.
They lean forward.
I’m mid-sprint when they leap.
A flash of brilliance. I reach the precipice in time to see the person
change, mid-plunge. Not a person—an AI; a regalia. Wings unfurl
from its back, enormous, like feathered pyres. Rationally I know
those are antigravity kites, but the spectacle of it catches me by
surprise all the same. The regalia’s corona outshines the energy
well’s remnants: gold and pearl, a hundred sunrises condensed.
Blinding, literally so.

My optical filters adjust. When my vision clears, I see a second
figure rising out of the chasm, meeting the winged regalia blow for
blow. They’re fast. I’ve seen combat of all kinds, the meticulous and
the spontaneous, between trained soldiers and between criminals
tutored by the streets. None of it was like this. The regalia fight with
weapons too large for any human to wield, glaive against spear, the
blades of them flowing and reflowing as they make contact. The
second AI is a creature made featureless by their armor—a sheath
of fluid black, oil-sheened, that absorbs each strike it receives and
instantly reforms. A complex type of ablative protection, visually
obfuscated by its own rapid phase-shifts.
Abruptly I realize I’m in too open a space. This is not an
entertainment put on for me to safely watch. My sensors detect no
immediate threats, but I don’t have access to municipal or satellite
surveillance the way I did on Ayothaya. Ostrich’s block isn’t far and I
am nearly there when my overlays flash a warning vector.
I dive under the ramshackle roof of an old storage. Exposed
architecture cracks and dissolves: I determine immediately that the
ammunition is large-bore, and that the shot was made by a human.
An AI would not have missed and, more importantly, would have
struck with something much deadlier and harder to avoid than a
conventional bullet.
Calculations wheel in the corner of my vision as I run through the
warehouse—the duelist is a sharpshooter. The vector originated
from two and a half kilometers away: decent, nothing remarkable,
and they do not have access to anything in the orbit that would have
conferred greater range and precision.
My imaging and the navigation Wonsul’s Exegesis provided let
me know that I’m near a mausoleum, one of the larger buildings in
this area and which—importantly—has a basement. I review the
footage I captured of the fighting regalia, but it is less informative
than I’d prefer. At least it doesn’t look like either of them is deploying
transatmospheric artillery. That should keep me safe for some time.
I run up against a corrugated door. There is no time for subtlety. I
step back and slam my fist into the lock. It gives in a crumbling of
brittle mortar and oxidized metal.

The space behind it is wide, high-ceilinged, the floor tiled in
mosaic the color of antique gold and worn jade. A patina of dust
clings to everything as though nobody’s been in here for a long time
—possible: this is not a Divide facility, not a place of commerce or
accommodation. I wend deeper, looking for the staircase that’d bring
me to the basement and from there to the maintenance warren
beneath Libretto.
I pass rows of sarcophagi: some are stone, others milky glass or
blackened steel, and none have been disturbed. One exception—a
bronze casket with its lid agape, the contents within on full display.
Despite my need for haste, I slow down. The corpse is perfectly
preserved, pale in the way of new ivory rather than the gray of dead
flesh, and drowned in fox pelts: a wealth of blazing electrum and
copper, immaculate and untarnished. The body’s mouth is filled with
roses so fresh they’re radiant with dew, petals dawn-pink and bruisered, such a surfeit of them that they spill out. Down the chin,
scattered along the throat and collarbones. Whoever it is was buried
A roar like muted thunder. The mausoleum’s wall falls apart in a
shower of smashed stone and riven reinforcement. Behind it is the
regalia with the gold wings and the glaive, their expression as serene
as a bodhisattva’s.
I’ve faced death before: I’ve learned to keep moving, to not freeze
up, as I clasp eyes with what might be the last thing I ever see. I
have kept one step, two steps, ahead of my mortality. To do
otherwise is to die like a dumb beast.
But at this moment there’s nothing I can do, no action I can take
to avert what is about to fall. No bullet is fast enough, and fleeing is
My overlays light up and roses suffuse my vision. A voice
whispers in my ear, You only get one chance to answer, duelist. Do
you belong to me?
“Yes,” I say, on sheer instinct.
A flood of song: for a moment I can’t tell whether it is virtual or
exists as a physical fact, the percussion that vibrates through my
bones, the high ringing notes that fill my skull. A new module

registers in my overlays, bannering a short message. Duelist
acknowledged. Welcome to the Court of Divide. To victory eternal.
The golden regalia strikes. Its glaive is caught by a crimson
sword, broad, the edge of it faint blue-black. I observe every detail—
the intricacy of each regalia’s weapon: how well made both are, how
thoughtfully fashioned, the etched motifs. In such moments the world
is written out with stunning clarity.
What I thought a picturesque corpse stands tall before me, a
splendor of petaled pelts and precious metals. Now animated and
acutely alive, long-backed and wide-hipped: beautiful in the way of
water’s mirage in the desert.
It—she—glances over her shoulder, meeting my gaze. Then she
turns to the other regalia and says, “It’s indecorous to pick on an
unarmed human, don’t you think?”
The other regalia doesn’t answer. It adjusts its glaive, folding its
wings into its back. Its next blow carves the mosaic open and splits
the tiles. The rose regalia—mine—guards against it almost without
effort, holding her weapon one-handed. She pushes the enemy
back, and back again, driving it out of the mausoleum. Dust rises in
On my feet, I keep to the cover the shattered wall provides; what
little visibility I have I use to scan for the next attack from the duelist
who shot at me. Nothing yet. I draw my gun, clasping the cold weight
of it and contemplating the ammunition with which it is loaded. An AI
proxy built for combat—and all of them would be, on Septet—is a
potent weapon, obliteration incarnate. Not invulnerable, however;
nothing is. Weapon labs across the galaxies have dedicated
themselves to designing anti-proxy armaments. Of course they’re as
destructible as anything else, but most people can’t carry around
artillery of the appropriate caliber. An AI usually keeps its core
somewhere safe while its physical representation is deployed on the
field. What gunsmiths focus on, obsess over, is how to snip the link
between proxy and AI.
The two regalia are more like phantasms than reality, palinopsia
of gold on red, too fast for me to track. But optical assists allow me to

distinguish between them, enough to sight down and fire. The range
isn’t so terrible.
Show me some trust, duelist. The same voice as before,
sonorous, operatic. A music of lily and bergamot. What good am I as
a regalia if I can’t fend off a little thing like this?
From my perspective the golden regalia is hardly little. Petitefigured, but so is the rose regalia, who moves like a fox’s poem. I
lower my gun. It is not a good time in any case. This is too early to
show two AIs that I possess anti-machine weaponry.
The decisive strike comes abruptly: a flash of red, fired seemingly
from nowhere, that arrows through the golden regalia. It lands. A fox,
long-toothed, with a proxy leg clenched between its jaw.
The gilded creature teeters. It rights itself, balancing precariously
on one foot, wings extending. In a heartbeat it is off the ground, the
match abandoned.
My regalia strides over to me. Even outside of combat she moves
with peculiar grace, as if her feet are not quite touching the ground—
as if she is walking on a bed of roses, an orchard she owns and
whose produce she is exclusively entitled to. The petals and pelts
shift around her, mantling and draping her limbs, not quite baring her
to the elements but close: little is left to the imagination. The fox, her
second proxy, trots after her.
“I am Empress Daji Scatters Roses Before Her Throne. Call me
Daji.” She holds out a wrist corsaged in roses—some as tiny as
pearls, others nearly as large as her hand. “The regalia to your
I take her hand and bring my mouth to a spot of pseudoskin:
surprisingly soft, in fine mimesis of the organic counterpart. My lips
brush over the petals, unavoidably. Delicate. They must be part of
her, joined to the proxy’s sensory subsystem. “And I’m the duelist to
your regalia. My name you must already know.”
Daji’s mouth—gold too, with subtle flecks of green—curves, and
her knuckle touches my cheek. “Thus our contract is sealed: with a
kiss. I enjoy chivalry, Khun Thannarat, and while I select my partners
for their aesthetic appeal it’s not every round I find someone as
suited to my tastes as you.”

I let go. “My impression is that machines don’t care for human
values of attraction.”
“Many don’t,” she agrees. “I do. Or rather, what humans consider
beautiful happens to match my definition of beauty and you, my
wielder, are delicious to look at. Your manners are fantastic too,
always a plus. Shall we retire to somewhere more comfortable?”
From raging battle to this. Such whiplash. I eye the little fox that
has climbed to her shoulders, curling about her like a scarf. “I have a
room at the Vimana.”
“Ah, a woman of taste and means.” Her raiment of fur and flowers
meld, reshaping into something more closely resembling clothing.
“There, I should look human enough.”
“And your second proxy?” I don’t ask why she’s been able to
circumvent that particular rule.
“It’s not a real, full proxy.” Daji grins and it is a hungry slash; her
teeth are too sharp and too long. “This is more of an accessory.
Believable even for an ordinary person, isn’t it? Come. If you run into
anyone you know, you may introduce me as an untamed fox you
found in the wild.”
Daji makes herself at home in my suite. The first thing she does is
reconfigure her clothing again to something less modest, a sheath so
diminutive it hardly deserves the appellation, backless and strapless.
Her creamy breasts are covered by a mesh of claret strands but only
just. A gold choker encircles her throat. I visualize tugging on it,
twisting it, finding the point of her pulse. But there would be no pulse,
unless she simulates it.
She unfolds the suite’s bar and plucks out two long-stemmed
glasses. “The selection here is as decent as you can get on a world
so remote. What do you like, Detective? Vodka, wine, whiskey?
Sake, perhaps?”
“Pick for me. I’m interested in your preferences. The choice of
liquor can tell you a lot about a person.” Though she’s not a person
in the sense that I am a person. Regardless we’re long past the point
of whether AIs have souls—the answer has been moot the moment

they broke away from us and created their own society. Souls cannot
be touched, counted, measured. Military and political might can.
Her laugh is airy. The movement of her thighs is anything but. Her
skirt parts and closes and winds around her long legs, animated
fabric that whispers against her skin as though offering a taste of
what is to come. “My pick, then.” She fills both glasses: vodka of
considerable strength, pooling pure and clear. “So then, what’s a
woman like you doing on a world like this? Your great wish. That
which brought you here in madness, to risk life and limb and
I’ve met machines before; none are as human as she—Wonsul’s
Exegesis looks obviously alien compared to this. I could almost
believe she is mortal, albeit more silicon and tubing than tissue and
endothelium. A woman whose innards burn like little stars, whose
limbs are guided by actuators and engine precision, liberated from
the foibles of the flesh. “You aren’t like any AI I’ve ever seen.”
“That is because you have never seen us masquerading as
humans before, or if you have you didn’t notice.” Daji sips from her
glass. “I’ll tell you that, initially, it was the eating and drinking that
gave us trouble. Organic digestion is severely inefficient and what
we did was to incinerate any food that passed our mouths, which
meant we had to dedicate a little chamber to the task, and a proxy’s
insides are precious real estate . . . Say, you’re very curious about
whether we’ve expanded our territory beyond Shenzhen and Septet,
aren’t you? What a wild universe it would be if we could turn up
anywhere, wreaking havoc and working mischief. Half the time you
wouldn’t even realize it’s us. How terrifying it must be for you.”
For the moment she’s letting me steer the conversation away
from the subject of my goals. “You’ve been surveilling me,” I say.
“Since when?”
“Matchmaking algorithms require an enormity of data, Detective,
and our contract goes deeper than any marriage. Why shouldn’t I
learn about potential duelists as much as possible? Until you came
along, nobody caught my eye—I thought I was going to sit this one
out. They’re all very banal. They are obsessed with rules. You didn’t
even care that we weren’t taking new aspirants at this juncture.”

I drink. The vodka goes down like cold fire. “Only because I have
an advantage.”
“Benzaiten is the thorn in the side of all upstanding machines.”
Daji uncoils her fox proxy and sets it on the ground; it pads over to
the corner and curls up. “Luckily I’m upstanding in no way. I assume
that even though you acted in contravention of the Divide’s laws,
you’re familiar with them. The first clause in the duelist-regalia pact is
that I will not reveal any information to you that may injure or expose
the Mandate. The second clause is that I will not reveal any
information that’s privy to the Divide system, meaning that I’m not
disclosing the names of other regalia or duelists, nor certain
corollaries and secrets.”
“Very fair.” I draw up the Divide module and project it on the wall.
The data it yields is scant—just the number of duelists and regalia
still active, and a count of aspirants. Aspirants: one. Regalia: five.
Duelists: eighteen. “This is much fewer than I expected.”
“One of the pairs has been on a killing spree.” Daji puts her index
finger to her lips. “The duelist of that pair you’ll need to discover for
yourself. The regalia is the one I fought on your behalf.”
“How potent are you in combat, compared to the rest of the
surviving regalia?”
“My, I could take that question as an insult.” She holds up her
hand, examining her fingernails. “Five times I’ve participated in the
Court of Divide. Two times I’ve guided my duelist to victory; two
times I’ve guided them to survival, sparing them the loser’s fate. As
regalia go, I’m a true prize, Detective.”
I look at her, taking in the entirety of her. Machines may lie. She
could be boasting and I will never be able to verify it. “My
understanding,” I say, “is that as the game progresses, duelists may
compete in ceremonies that grant them or their regalia access to
Septet’s offensive systems. Armaments, orbital scans, long-range
“And you think I’ve missed out on those, putting me at a
disadvantage. I plan to surprise you.” The AI steps close, taking the
empty glass from my hand. She turns the rim of it along the line of
my throat. “I plan to surprise you a lot. Oh, and you did make contact

with a defeated duelist, didn’t you? Wring her dry for information—I
recommend it. As long as you don’t seduce her all the way into this
An oddly chiding tone. “Because you value privacy?”
“Oh, Detective, you can be so coy. Will you want to shower and
rest? It must’ve been a long day for you.”
I could say that I’m not tired, but the truth is that I’m far from fresh
and in any case Daji is already sliding off my overcoat: she’s made
the decision for me. The way she removes my coat is deliberate, as
though she’s unpeeling a gift she’s long anticipated. Up close, the
difference in height between us is even starker. I’m a hundred eightynine centimeters and her proxy is barely one sixty, perhaps to have a
small profile in battle. But at a glance she looks delicate, and her
pale fingers—gliding over the armored panels of my shirt—belong on
a pianist or harpist.
“I can undress myself.” My voice is a little thick. Ridiculous. She is
an AI.
Her hand pauses on the buckle of my belt, thumb hooked into the
waistband of my trousers. “You’re sure you don’t want me to join you
in the bath? I imagine there are things in your luggage and wardrobe
you don’t want me to poke at.”
“You can peruse whatever you like.” Not a single spot on Septet is
hidden from the Mandate: the contents of my luggage have already
been scanned and recorded by the Vimana’s surveillance and
therefore visible to Wonsul’s Exegesis. Whether Daji finds my
specialized ammunition offensive I will discover in time.
By habit I shower thoroughly and quickly, the product of a
profession where I was often roused out of bed in the middle of the
night to attend urgent cases. Once I’m clean, I put on a touch of
cologne. Mildly absurd before bed, but I am vain in my own ways.
I return to the bedroom in boxer briefs and a Vimana robe—deep
brown with hints of garnet, the fabric silken—to find Daji has taken
up the bed, reclining half-covered in the sheets. What I can see of
her is bare entirely. No more diminutive sheath, though the choker
“Should I gallantly offer to sleep on the couch?”

She raises her head from where it is propped on the pillow.
“Certainly not, you know I don’t need to rest. I’ve been keeping this
warm for you. Climb on in, Detective. I’m excellent at providing
comfort in bed, you can think of me as a sleep therapy device.”
I stay where I am, crossing my arms. “Why this?”
Her head cranes from side to side; I’m treated to the spectacle of
the cords in her throat in motion, the way they draw the eye to the
siren song of her neck. Where it descends to join the shoulders,
where the collarbones bloom like fruits that must be tasted, licked,
bitten. “For the duration of this contest, Detective, I want you to
belong to me entirely or to no one at all. And when I say entirely, I
mean that. In all possible ways.”
My pulse rises. My imagination sparks; I tamp that down—here
more than ever I cannot let my libido do the thinking. “Machines don’t
congress with humans.” There are rumors, naturally there would be.
“A handful does. Am I not comely in your eyes?” She tosses her
head; again that tactical accentuation of her throat—here is her
invitation, come get it if you dare.
I do not, as yet, dare. “We’ve only just met. And I do need the
Her gilded mouth pulls into a moue. “I shall be patient. I may
remain in bed?”
First the demand then the concession, the push then the pull. It is
alluring, calculated to be so. “Of course. This isn’t sanctuary ground;
how else would you guard me?”
I dim the light further as I get in until it is near-dark. Truth be told,
it’s been so long since I spent the night with anyone. My trysts since
my divorce have been numerous: women are doors and I am a key
that turns many locks. But I would send them away once the deed—
and aftercare, if any is needed—is done. Having another body in bed
as I settle in for rest is different, vulnerable.
Then again, what lies next to me can slaughter dozens of humans
without trying. Asleep or awake, I’m vulnerable to her just the same.
Her arm snakes around me from behind as she tucks herself
against me, and even through the fabric, I can feel that externally
she has emulated human epidermis without flaw. Soft breasts

against my spine, soft hand against my belly. I wonder at her
anatomy and immediately quash that idea.
“Oakmoss and ambergris,” she murmurs against my shoulder.
“Such a fine, rich choice. Is this your sole cologne?”
“Typically I carry one. Yes.”
“There’s a perfumer in this building. They make a mix that will suit
you excellently—saffron, oud, and heart of violet; quite striking. Plus
another one that is mostly vetiver . . . you must let me buy you a
sampler or three.”
“Are you this attentive to all your duelists?”
“All? No, only one and even then she was not a duelist. A favored
human, that’s all.”
“What happened to her?”
“She became lost.” Daji’s hand withdraws. “Go to sleep,
Detective. By your circadian data you need six hours to be fully
rested, and I want you to be at your best.”
I wake up to a call tinkling gently in my overlays. Six in the morning,
beginning of dawn. The curtains part a sliver at my command and
Septet’s sun peers in, dappling the bed and the soft floor in ovals
and oblongs. My regalia remains at my side, to all appearances
asleep. The fox proxy though is active and follows me to the
bathroom to watch me clean my mouth and rinse my face. I let
Recadat know we’ll meet in my private lounge, a perk for Vimana
guests who pay for sufficiently expensive suites.
Daji’s lesser body has made itself small enough to climb into my
robe and nestle in one of its inner pockets. I look at the bed askance,
but the primary proxy remains stubbornly unresponsive, chest rising
and falling to simulate deep sleep. “Not a morning person,” I say
aloud and stroke down the fox’s head, its spine, its feast of textural
extravagance. More luxurious than silk or velour, similar to how
nacre might feel if it’s spun into a pelt.
The temperature in the lounge is warmer than I’d like, subject to
an algorithmic whim of the Vimana. I shrug the robe partially off,
make myself comfortable on one of the large chairs, and wait for the
air to cool.

Recadat is punctual. She stops short when she sees my state of
undress. “Can’t you put on some clothes?”
“I’m clothed. You’ve seen me actually naked before.” Was there,
in fact, when I lost both my legs. She was the one who gave me
covering fire and dragged me to the medics. An entire quarter of the
city was a warzone that night from a syndicate dispute gone out of
“Different context. I can’t believe you went and got yourself even
more scars.”
I pass my hand over my chest, where a rope of pale tissue
crosses between my breasts. “I enjoy having them—think of them as
combat medals.” The only ones I’ve had corrected and removed
were those that interfered with nerve or muscle function. Recadat
has a different view; she has had all of hers erased.
My old partner snorts as she drops into a chaise lounge.
“Sometimes you talk like an ex-soldier, not an ex-cop.”
“There isn’t a lot of difference between the military and public
safety.” Both being state-sanctioned agents of ruin, frequently
indiscriminate and occasionally interchangeable. Institutions of
violence differ only in budget and uniforms.
Recadat makes a noise that tells me she knows exactly what I
mean, and that she vehemently disagrees with my perspective. Her
belief is that public security keeps the peace whereas the army
breaks it. “What’s been happening in your life, anyway? I know you
got a divorce but not much else.”
That must’ve slipped onto the grapevine somehow, even though I
cut contact with former colleagues after handing in my resignation
and disabling my badge. “Eurydice is gone.”
She startles. “During the invasion?”
“No, she left Ayothaya long before the Hellenes happened. Maybe
she knew something we didn’t.” But I say this dryly, not particularly
meaning it. Eurydice was not saved where she went.
“I’m sorry.” Recadat twists her small hands in her lap. She’s never
been good at informing next-of-kin that their spouse or relation has
been reduced to a casualty statistic—too much empathy. On my part
I’ve always made it quick: the boil needs to be lanced, as it were,

and no one—other than Recadat—goes into public security to
become grief counselors. “I know you loved her completely.
“Not enough,” I say. “Not as much as she deserved. I was never
any good at marriage.” Had coasted, before that, on the ease of
temporary trysts. The flash burn of passion, not the steadiness of
Recadat looks like she wants to say something, but she refrains.
For no logical reason I watch her delicate fingers and think of
Eurydice’s, even though these two have nothing in common. My exwife was nearly as tall as I am whereas Recadat is petite, a hundred
fifty-five. Not fragile: she’s sinewy and economic. Eurydice was more
like a rose apple, ripe and luscious. My tastes range widely, but I try
not to think of Recadat in those terms anymore. Especially now,
when I cannot afford the distraction.
“So.” She shifts in her seat, crossing her legs. “Did you get a
“Yes.” I don’t ask how she guessed; both of us read people for a
living. “Do you hold duelist overrides?”
“Well, don’t you get things done fast. A whole regalia one day
after landing.” She quirks an eyebrow. “Allow me to make a little
guess. Your AI looks like a pretty woman. Slinky legs, tiny dress, hair
down to their haunch. You have a type.”
“I have more than one type.” I never strayed from the bounds of
marriage, but Recadat witnessed me appreciating women of a
particular style and bearing often enough. Even if she did not quite
notice me appreciating her in that manner, or was kind enough to
pretend obliviousness because she did not return it. “And AIs can
look however they want, Recadat. The overrides?”
“I’ve got three—I can give you two; I’m keeping one just in case,
maybe I’ll even need it to rescue youin a pinch.”
“Works for me.” The fox inside my robe nibbles at my hip, not
breaking skin but clearly irate. “We discussed the other duelists in
passing; care to tell me a bit more? I want to work with a full deck.”
“Before that . . . ” She hesitates. “You do know what happens if
you’re one of the final two duelists standing and you lose?”

Out of habit I needlessly smooth down my hair. I keep it chinlength, artificially treated so as to need minimal care. “Yes, the loser
submits their mortal coil to machine uses. Experiments, I assume,
most likely unpleasant. Maybe execution or torture as a spectacle—
some machines must be into that.”
She grimaces. “You say it so casually. But you play to win, so it’s
not going to happen to you anyway. I’m sending you the intel I’ve
gathered. Faces, names, habits, vices. The usual.”
Recadat’s data package blooms in my overlays, gravid with
footage and stills. I draw up my leg and prop my ankle on my knee.
“I’ve been rude. I haven’t asked at all what you’ve been up to.”
“After you quit, I got transferred a couple times then transferred
back. They promoted me to captain of our subdivision, lined me up
to be commander in a few years. Then the invasion happened and
all of that stopped meaning anything.”
“It’ll start meaning something again. The pay raise must’ve been
something to celebrate, at least. Did you ever settle down? Ten
years are a long while.” No point asking about her biological family—
like me, she doesn’t keep in touch. We’re similar in that way,
detached from kin and rootless. By choice for me—I don’t care for
most of my family, and my parents divorced long before I reached
my majority—and less so for her. A transport malfunction orphaned
Recadat when she was twelve, and as far as I know the aunt that
raised her treated her as a bitter ordeal. Not so much malicious
abuse as indifferent neglect, providing her no more than the bare
Recadat gives an embarrassed little laugh. “You remember that I
wanted to start a family. Gave up on it, though. I never did get the
one woman I wanted.”
“No? But you were so popular. Half the rookies were in love with
you. There was that Internal Affairs woman, remember, she was so
besotted she let you go without a single bit of paperwork.”
She waves her hand. “Sure. They weren’t what I wanted, though.
It’s as if—you want chicken tendon fried just so, all spicy and sour.
But you keep getting served sweet potato balls. Bowls of coconut
cream and egg floss. Platters of meringue. I wanted to chew

something tough and savory, not dry-swallow sugary air. As for
popular, you caught more eyes than I ever did. You never felt
From anyone else I’d find the question offensive; from her it is
merely natural. We had a push-pull relationship, blunt and inquisitive
in some matters and closed off in others. “I’m particular. One woman
at a time.” A lie: Recadat tempted me. As close as I ever got to
risking my marriage. Ironic that something else entirely led to my
“You can be such a monk,” she murmurs, which is rich coming
from someone who lived in near-celibacy. “I wish I’d gotten to know
Eurydice better—I got the impression she didn’t like law enforcement
and only tolerated your job because she was head over heels . . .
Well. Enough about the past. So, the other duelists. The one you’ll
want to keep an eye on is Ouru, family name unknown, origins
unknown. Zer regalia is Houyi’s Chariot, a proxy masked and
armored in blue-black. No idea what it looks like underneath. About
your height give or take a couple centimeters, their build a lot like
yours. Other duelists might even think you’re Houyi in disguise.”
Ouru, I would guess, was the one who shot at me near the energy
well. “What in particular makes zer stand out?”
Recadat makes a face. “I lost my regalia to zer. But ze’s vicious
and completely willing to kill.”
“I don’t imagine anyone here is not willing to kill. I saw Houyi’s
Chariot fighting a small regalia, golden armor, wings. Any idea about
that one?”
“Chun Hyang’s Glaive,” she says. “Extremely destructive,
partnered to a woman named Ensine Balaskas. They’re the ones
who have been slaughtering duelists and aspirants at a fast clip.
Might even have caught a few non-participants, actually, though it
can be hard to tell.”
“Are there hidden benefits to murdering random bystanders?” I
contemplate, for a microsecond or so, whether I’d be willing to try if it
gives me a leg up in the game.
“Not that I know of. My read of Balaskas is that she’s just a
common serial murderer.”

Spree murderer, but I don’t correct her. I’m not here to be a
criminology pedant and besides, she’s had more official experience.
“She killed a man from the Vatican, a woman from One Thousand
Erhus, and what I assumed was a coterie of allied duelists.”
Recadat shakes her head. “They grouped up to challenge
Balaskas. I told them it was a terrible idea. One thing I’ll say for
Ensine Balaskas is that she’s predictable—if she wants someone
dead, she sends a calling card to invite them to a match. You could
have a field day building her criminal profile.”
The kind of killer who fancies herself an artist: the
disembowelment and mutilation must have been a part of that
conceit. “I look forward to receiving mine. I assume she’s the likeliest
to come for me first.” Given that I eluded her regalia out in the
energy wells. “Say—you’re staying in the Vimana, aren’t you? It
could be useful if we’re close by. Would you consider relocating to
my floor, maybe to an adjacent suite? We should be able to open an
Inside my robe, the fox grazes my elbow with its teeth. Extremely
sharp, a promise.
For no reason I can discern, Recadat looks down and away. Gaze
darting anywhere but me. “I’m only a couple floors below yours.
Proximate enough—I’d make a terrible roommate. Have you seen
how I deal with my laundry?”
“As you like.” The fox settles. My arm is safe for the moment.
“Would you mind telling me the name of your fallen regalia?”
She gives me a look. “You want to have the entire picture—you
always did. His name was Gwalchmei Bears Lilies. My bad luck to
have acquired a regalia so poor, but here we are. Better luck with
yours, Thannarat.”
Two overrides appear in my Divide module as she leaves. I give
them a cursory look, wondering why Recadat turned so short with
me. Perhaps Gwalchmei—what a mouthful—is a sore spot.
I turn my attention back to Ostrich’s notes. He has recorded
previous victors here and there, names unfamiliar to me, like Captain
Erisant of the Seven-Sung Fleet and some soldier from Mahakala. I
focus on the regalia. Daji appears several times, as does Chun

Hyang’s Glaive. The comprehensiveness of his files—almost a cheat
sheet, encyclopedic—makes me wonder why no duelist has killed
him to prevent competitors from obtaining this, but then I realize he
must live under the overseer’s protection. For one reason or another,
his faithful chronicling serves the Mandate’s purposes. His accounts
corroborate Daji’s boasts: that she’s fought many times and most of
her duelists have won or at least survived.
Seven times Chun Hyang’s Glaive has joined the Divide. Seven
times it has won.
Improbable. Not that Ostrich has a reason to lie, and yet like any
other information I gather on Septet it is challenging to verify. I may
pay him another visit, just in case. He has not recorded anything on
Houyi’s Chariot or Gwalchmei Bears Lilies—this round might be their
I put the file away and review Recadat’s. The folder includes what
Ensine Balaskas and Ouru look like. I compare those to what I saw
at the tearoom. No match, either in patrons or staff; a shame.
“I don’t imagine you could organize these files for me,” I say to
Daji. “A little indexing assistance.”
The fox twitches against me. Coral petals flutter through my
overlays. I only do that for duelists I’ve gotten very, very close to,
Detective. And we’re not close, are we? As you said, we’ve just met.
Now that Recadat, you two must have been awfully close. You
should ask her to index her files better.
“Did you practice sulking or are you a natural at it?”
She does not dignify that with an answer; the fox proxy darts out
of my robe, disappearing back into the suite.
An announcement unfurls in the Divide module as I’m browsing
the Vimana breakfast menu. Wonsul’s Exegesis has declared the
final sub-contest to obtain an override, to take place in the city of
Cadenza. Duelists who wish to compete are prohibited from bringing
or receiving direct assistance from their regalia.
I order my food and finish eating quickly. There is a shuttle to
Cadenza leaving in a couple hours. Daji remains in bed, her back
turned to me, her head artfully arranged. I stop by, run my hand
through the dark tributaries of her hair, and kiss her shoulder. “I’ll be

back soon.” If she wants me to treat her like a human woman, I can
oblige. Maybe even AIs enjoy roleplaying.
The fox proxy licks my hand, rubbing its velvet face against my
palm. All is forgiven, for now.

Chapter Three
The shuttle to Cadenza is more crowded than I would expect, filled
with people who look ordinary enough, just commuting. I find my
seat and settle in, surveying the other rows. Eighteen duelists
remain, seven without regalia and five with. A fair number would be
aboard this shuttle; many would know each other’s face already, and
Ouru would recognize mine through zer regalia.
Ze does a good job of appearing nondescript—a honeyed
complexion undecorated by dermals or scars, a face that could
belong anywhere, plain well-fitted kurta and pants. Southeast Asian,
I’d say, and therefore ze might have come from any number of
polities; we have that in common. Tiny earrings, white gold or
electrum; no rings or bracelets that would get in the way in combat.
Zer hands are spatulate, lightly callused around the thumbs.
I lean across my seat. “I’m Thannarat.” My name offered as
goodwill. “I don’t suppose we could talk?”
Ouru doesn’t pretend surprise. “More privately, please.”
We open a link. I fold my hands and make a show of looking out
the window, to a view of Septet’s ruinscape. There is not much
forestry in this part of the equator, and the land is a vastness of
jaundiced earth broken up by those impossible skeletons. A few look
reptilian while others look like they could have been chimeras,
horned and long-hoofed but with inexplicable primate features.
You’re the new duelist. The last one. How did you survive Chun
Hyang’s Glaive?
The usual way, I inform zer, by not dying. I trust Houyi’s Chariot is
Ze unwraps a protein bar—it smells surprisingly good, savory with
shallots and dried meats—and begins to eat. Houyi is the only

remaining regalia who stands a chance of contesting Chun Hyang.
That should inform your forthcoming decisions.
My smile is slow. In my fogged reflection in the window, it looks
like a gash. I don’t bother demanding redress for zer attempt to snipe
me down. Certainly I’ll take it into account. May I ask why you spared
the duelist Recadat?
Ouru’s head twitches. Ah. She’s the one who told you about me. I
imagine she didn’t tell you that we had a falling out due to an
ideological difference and then she turned on me. Once she
understood that she could not take me down in combat, she reached
a deal with me: I’d spare her in exchange for her destroying her own
So much for Gwalchmei Bears Lilies. How did she do that to a
Ze bites off half the protein bar. An override, how else? If I were
you, I wouldn’t trust Recadat. To do this to your own regalia is an act
of terrible perfidy.
Never mind that Ouru drove her to it in the first place, though I
can see what ze means. A point of honor: your life or your regalia’s.
Then again Gwalchmei merely lost a proxy, not his entire existence
—the disparity in risk between duelist and regalia is enormous. I
press zer for more details on the loser’s fate, but ze is not
forthcoming, busying zerself with zer little meal. All ze offers is, Try
the Gallery.
We land in good time. Cadenza is a city of gnarled obsidian spires
and high robed walls, bracketed by a body of water that brachiates
across the ground. Briars and orchids drape the balconies and
walkways, striping the streets in green shadows. The Divide system
informs me that the sub-contest will begin within the day but nothing
more specific. I keep an eye on the duelist and regalia counts, and
keep my hand ready on the draw. I’m more vulnerable to attacks
than ever, and I have already revealed myself as a duelist while on
the shuttle.
The rule against bringing your regalia doesn’t forbid me to stay
within a certain radius of you, comes Daji’s voice. In fact, that rule
doesn’t kick in until you enter the arena proper. I’m watching over

you, Detective. In case you get the idea of debauching some pretty
young thing in Cadenza.
“I have standards,” I murmur under my breath. Cadenza’s
denizens have a look I can only call swampy—stooped by the
indignities of living in this place, perpetually damp, with hair that
makes me think of marsh weeds. The climate here is horrendously
The arena could be anywhere—from the city map I would guess
either the stadium in the center or the megastructure in Cadenza’s
eastern half, an enormous edifice that looms almost as high as the
skeletal beasts beyond the walls. I stroll about, sticking to places
with good cover where I won’t be easy mark for a sniper. Ouru could
make another attempt.
A storefront draws my eye. Mostly antiques, with one panel
devoted to jewelry: elaborate crowns and necklaces of dynastic
designs, tiny void jewelry settings, miniature tableaus made from
semiprecious stones and ivory. What catches my attention is a single
fire opal. Six point five carats, according to my overlays, suspended
in a little cube without any setting. It reminds me of Eurydice. This
would have been to her tastes.
On impulse—not quite yet knowing what for—I purchase the fire
opal. The price is not low, but the proprietor is excited with the
Vatican bracelet, and in the end I have to pay little.
I exit the shop to find Recadat waiting for me. Reliably punctual:
she didn’t board the same shuttle I did—she would’ve been
recognized by Ouru and the rest—and so she arrived later, but not
by much. She cuts a spare figure beneath a spread of orchids, a
single point of efficiency amidst the tropical excess. When I teased
her about being popular with women, I meant it—she has the
needlepoint look of a stiletto, the trim glistening threat of something
slender and utterly deadly. My opposite. When we first got to know
each other I was surprised at how squeamish she could be in her
philosophy and naivety, because on the field she was savagely
competent. Tiger-spirited, almost a different person.
When she looks up, her gaze zeroes in on my purchase. “Who’s
that for?” The question is surprisingly sharp before it softens into

something more playful: “You did pick up a woman! I knew it.”
“It’s just some bauble. I might wish to look at a fine object in my
spare time.” I put the fire opal away. “We should get moving.”
Wonsul’s voice sounds in my ear promptly, directing me toward
the megastructure. He specifies the route and adds that any
deviation from it will disqualify me. Sensible: each duelist will receive
their own instruction, such that our paths will never cross before we
reach the arena. I nod to Recadat. She will not enter the sub-contest,
but will provide me with support. No part of the rules forbids such
Up close, the place is even larger than it looked from above, the
dimensions of it so gargantuan that the entire block is cast in jade
shadow. Overgrowth swathes the banked walls and the bent
columns, frothing out of cracked stone like ichor. I enter through a
little gate Wonsul points me to.
It shuts behind me. Past that awaits a cavernous chamber and a
single cage; inside the cage, a child of ten or twelve. Sedated. A
first-aid kit lies on the ground.
“Duelists.” Wonsul’s voice emits from everywhere, every nook and
cranny serving as his mouthpiece. “Be informed that this arena is not
a sanctuary zone. One of you will have found a child. That shall be
your objective: to win, bring her to the arena’s center. If you lose her
or eliminate her yourself, you forfeit the contest. If you leave the
arena’s bounds, you forfeit the contest. As with all other ceremonies,
this is a duel to the death; all means may be utilized to achieve your
goals, outside of using your regalia. May victory find you.”
I open the first-aid kit and fish out a neutralizing tab. Keeping the
child—almost certainly an AI proxy piloted by Wonsul’s Exegesis—
unconscious would minimize mess, but I have nothing I can fashion
into a sling, and fighting one-handed is suicidal. To make sure of all
my options, I heft the child up: light enough for me to carry, should it
come to that. The kit also contains a sedative patch, in case I need
to put her back to sleep. Considerate.
The override Recadat transferred me offers three options:
Retribution, which calls down an orbital strike. Seer, which gives me
access to satellites that would let me map the area and monitor other

participants for a few minutes. The final option is labeled simply
Bulwark. It requires triple-factor authentication—from myself, and the
rest from my regalia. Daji doesn’t answer when I inquire.
No jamming in the area. I pluck from my belt a tiny casket and
pour out a handful of swarmbots no larger than poppy seeds. They
fleet through cracks in the stone, and in a moment I have a visual of
my part of the arena. Recadat’s overlays hail mine and we establish
a synchronization link: she’s brought her own scouts and their view
expand mine as they spread and cover more ground. The arena is
densely but haphazardly built, seraphinite-colored chambers stacked
on top of each other, connected by the occasional stairway and
passage. I’ve been put into one of the lower levels and the openings
and gaps between floors means I’ll be easy pickings for duelists who
have entered through one of the higher tiers.
My destination is a round little gazebo, accessible by two narrow
catwalks exposed to the elements and also to other duelists. One of
whom is heading toward me. I don’t see Ouru; ze must be in a part
of the arena my bots and Recadat’s haven’t reached yet.
The first duelist coming for me is a short, stocky man situated
several levels above. Well-armed and evidently equipped with
reconnaissance gear similar to mine. Reckless: he doesn’t anticipate
that other contestants would have scouted the area too.
He’s climbing down a ladder when a shot takes him out. Precisely
placed: it enters the back of his skull and punches cleanly through
the medulla oblongata. Consciousness shuts down nearly instantly—
a painless way to go, but looks ignoble all the same. Comical almost,
how the muscles spasm in its last throes, how the collapse looks
more like a puppet’s than a person’s.
The count of active duelists ticks down. Seventeen.
I open the cage, retrieve the child, and administer the tab that’ll
flush out the sedative. She comes awake with a jerk and a cough—
convincing, for an AI proxy. When she meets my eyes, her gaze is
vacant. I don’t let Recadat view my visual feed. She’s soft and would
err on the side of assuming that this is a human child.
“On your feet,” I say. The child obeys. Good; the AI has decided
to spare me play-acted hysterics. “You’re to follow me. Closely. Can

you do that?”
She nods. I don’t have sensors with biotelemetry functions,
though a proxy can emulate human vital signs in any case—the only
way to know for sure is to cut the chassis open. Her movements are
stiff and heavy. That will be an issue.
I venture out the corridor, keeping an eye on what my scouts are
sending me. I take a stairway and ascend without event, the child in
tow. I can avoid the other duelists, though not for long. Two are
directly above me, moving in parallel passages so that when I exit
into the open air—a natural chokepoint—they’d be flanking me.
You doing all right in there, Thannarat? Recadat’s frown is almost
perceptible through the connection, even though we share no visual
except the bots’.
Fine, considering. Keep expanding our range. The bots can do
more than scout. As I move toward the chokepoint, I direct a stream
of them toward one of the duelists, a wide-hipped man. Some
cyborgs with military-grade defenses have personal dampener fields
that’d have shorted out the bots; this person is not one of them. My
swarmers streak into his ears and nose, puncture the wet surface
tension of an eyeball and release a vitreous flood. The human face is
a vulnerable entryway, full of unprotected orifices. Each offers up an
open channel to the gossamer barrier of the meninges, the trembling
isthmuses of cranial nerves, the artful whorls of the cerebrum. A little
time in forensics is worth years of medical education. Mathematics
and physics too, for fluid travel and splatter vectors—projecting
where the blood will land after a gunshot, a knife slash, a
switchblade stab. Everything has its own signature.
As soon as I emerge, I shoot almost without looking—I know the
other duelist’s exact position. He topples over screaming, one knee
shattered. I fire again and he turns quiet. The counter ticks down
once more: fifteen.
Ouru and Ensine Balaskas are the only known quantities here,
and I have yet to encounter the latter. I still haven’t seen Ouru, and
I’ve expended some scouts; they now cover much less ground. I
send the ones remaining ahead of me. Recadat’s bots are a little
more sluggish, hovering near the arena’s periphery.

A different connection blinks on. You pilot these things well,
Detective, for a human. A specialty?
I have a minor affinity for machines. The path is clear for the next
couple stairways; good enough. I thought our regalia aren’t meant to
interfere or assist.
Daji laughs in my ear, lover-close. I’m offering commentary, who’ll
chastise me for that? My help doesn’t come so easily.
Get too tart, I tell her, and when I return to the Vimana I’ll chastise
you well enough. Because this is what she wants to hear, the
expected retort in the script she’s set up between us. Her the
petulant, flighty seductress in need of a firm hand.
Oh, you know just what to say; I’ve picked the right duelist. But
don’t let the thought of disciplining me distract you.
A segment of my swarmbots extinguishes, but not before I catch
the visual—Ouru. I don’t have enough scouts left to replace those,
but I can now approximate zer location and trajectory. Not coming
my way but moving to the center. Ze lacks my recon tools and, most
likely, means to find a spot near the gazebo where ze can snipe
down any approaching opponent.
The child stumbles behind me. Hefting her up I put her on my
back and say, “Hold onto me. Your legs too.” To my fortune, the child
weighs no more than fifty kilos. Practically featherweight and my
hands remain free. Still she adds bulk and disturbs my balance. Not
my first time with a small person slung on my back, all the same. I
keep up my pace, staying beneath the cover of foliage and slanted
Recadat’s scouts spot a duelist sighting me down. I duck—the
child slides off me; she’ll be safe enough on the ground—and return
fire. Bullets ping off stone.
Ouru chooses that moment to fry my swarmers, shutting down my
view of the gazebo. I swear through my teeth, but I’ll soon be there—
Daji’s roses blaze in the corner of my vision. Detective. Get out of
there. Now.
I don’t ask questions; she would not send a message like this
without cause. I hoist the child into my arms and start running back
the way I came. A shot cracks above me and another; one grazes

my shoulder but I don’t slow down—the time for assessing damage
will be later. For now the point is to have a later.
My trajectory is not ideal. I stare down a crumbled walkway and
take a running leap, landing on the other side more heavily than I’d
like: the floor dents and the tiles creak.
I’m clear of the arena, ninety meters out, when light lances down
the sky. The orbital strike is surgical. The heat of it singes my cheeks
and buffets my hair; when it is over afterimages strobe across my
On the ground the child stirs and twitches. It is when her gaze
clears and she starts screaming that I realize I have been carrying a
flesh-and-blood creature, human and not an AI proxy after all. In the
Divide module, the count of duelists has dropped to eleven.
Wonsul’s Exegesis picked up the child before I departed Cadenza;
her parents had agreed, evidently, to sacrifice her to the contest in
exchange for accelerated entry into Shenzhen Sphere. So much for
the nobility of parental love. Still, the girl’s alive; sometimes that’s all
you can ask for.
Unfortunately the overseer does not agree to hand me an
override even if I’m the de facto winner. Recadat is safe, if shaken.
Nothing quite like this has happened so far during this round of the
Divide. She stayed behind in Cadenza to see if she can find out who
engaged the Retribution command.
The graze on my shoulder proves merely cosmetic, an unlovely
scratch on artificial shell but nothing more, and I return to Libretto
without incident.
Once I’m in the Vimana suite I breathe more easily—it is a false
illusion, but habit situates the human mind to regard a base, a
temporary residence, as refuge. I toss my coat aside and settle down
on a divan.
Daji glides behind me, sliding cool hands onto my shoulders. “I
can almost smell your adrenaline,” she says in my ear. “It’s piquant.
Welcome home, Detective.”
I inhale—Daji smells of roses and pomegranates. Olfactory
emitters, customizable to any fragrance. From my pocket I bring out

the box from the antique shop. “This is for you.”
A rustle as she removes it from its paper lining. “Close your eyes.”
I comply; after a few seconds she murmurs, “Now open them.”
I do to the sight of Daji kneeling between my legs, dressed once
more in that scantiness of pelts and petals. The fire opal gleams
between her collarbones, embedded into her chassis. It looks right at
home, complementing the shades of her flower-and-fox raiment. She
has placed one of her hands on my thigh. Her other holds a
prosthesis—mine; she must’ve been cataloguing the contents of my
“Let me,” she says, “take care of you.”
My breath hitches. She is right that I’m still fresh from the fight,
blood coursing with the near-miss of that orbital strike. To narrowly
escape your mortality gives quick spice to the libido, and this would
be such an easy way to extinguish those inconvenient embers I carry
for Recadat. “You’re a proxy.”
“That does not mean I lack. Quite the opposite. In me you’ll find
all that you need, my duelist.” She leans a little closer. “I’ve been so
patient. Should I not be rewarded a little? Should you not indulge
yourself so your humors will be soothed, your hungers sated? Then
you’ll be ready for the rest. The Divide is a taxing campaign.”
“And duelist and regalia should be wedded in intent and action, so
I have heard.” A split second’s decision that I may later regret. For
the moment I can only think of how soft her skin looks, how
voluptuous she is, the banquet offered by her breasts. Those
indentations of clavicles framing the fire opal. I take off one glove
and cup her face, running my thumb along jawline and then earlobe.
Utterly authentic. I’d never know I am with a machine.
Daji grins, her teeth showing sharp and fine and ravenous. She
unbuckles my belt then replaces it with the harness that secures the
prosthesis to me. I activate the module associated with it, the
sensory array that joins my nervous system to the device: a thick
length of supple material, done in oxblood. Once it is affixed and
online, it rests between my legs, soft.
Her fingers graze slowly along the shaft, stroking, teasing. It
stiffens. “Sensitive,” she says. “This responds to your arousal,

doesn’t it? Most appliances of this category are more . . . static.”
I rub my thumb against her lips. Feels, briefly, the tips of her
incisors. Little needlepoints. “This stays hard as long as I have the
“A lovely function.” Her hand encircles the device, taking hold,
running up and down: exploring its contours, its dimensions. She
breathes onto its tip. Her tongue darts out, but does not touch. “How
virile you are, Detective.”
My nipples are hard, painful points. Hers too—what she wears
does not cover much, though for the moment it gives modesty to her
lower half. Her skull feels delicate in my palm, avian, made for a
creature of aerodynamics and endless expanses. “Enough talking,
Daji. Show me what you’re made for.”
She places her hands on my thighs and takes the length between
her lips, nearly all of it at once. An impossible feat for most human
partners, the piece being considerable in dimensions—her mouth is
endlessly capacious. She works the prosthesis as though it is her
favorite instrument, her attention a thing of arias and complex
maneuvers. My breathing serrates as her teeth put pressure on the
most sensitive points. My vision brightens. I dig my fingers into her
scalp and can tell from her quickened pace that this is exactly what
she likes, how she wants to be handled, the fulcrum of her desire.
Machine, yes. Not without her preferences, all the same.
It doesn’t take long before I convulse and fill her mouth with a
substance the color and consistency of thick wine. Daji swallows it
all, lapping it up as though it’s the most precious liquor this side of
the galaxy.
“The profile of good sangria,” she says. “Your taste is good and
you taste excellent.”
I exhale. “We’re far from done.”
“Yes, I can tell, this is still hard—”
While I may be no judge of AIs, I am a good judge of women. So I
am confident when I yank her up by the hair, close one hand around
her throat, and growl, “You do like it rough, don’t you.”
Her eyelashes beat rapidly. Part black, part gold. Subtly dichroic.
“This you call rough, Detective?”

I use her neck as a handhold to drag her to her feet and fling her
onto the bed: enough force to knock the wind out of her, if she was a
non-augmented human. She lies very still, her hands flat against the
cerise sheets that bunch and crease around her like stricken lilies.
“I can accommodate any desire,” Daji purrs, her eyes brilliant. “In
the most literal sense. My anatomy—it can be anything you want.”
“Give me a cunt,” I say, pulling off the pelt that covers her waist
and hip.
What appears at first blank—mannequin neutrality—shifts and
reflows, rearranging itself into that familiar part, one of my favorite
sights on a partner. I should be unsettled; instead this thrills me, the
strangeness of it, the display of machine finesse. She’s given herself
the gorgeous folds of labia, the unmistakable clitoral nub as hard as
a pearl. Comprehensive in detail, a locus where basal urges
intersect. I can smell her heat, her salt.
My left hand on the back of her neck. My right on her wrist,
wrenching it so far back that on a human her elbow might have