Engineer, and Benedick—Benedick was a man who had lost one daughter, and would do anything to defend the one who remained. Caitlin found it hard to reconcile her own anger and grief—for she, too, had been fond of Rien—with any forgiveness for Benedick. She knew some of her wrath was because she loved him. When we love, it is hard to forgive the beloved for not being the person we imagined them.

But he was also one of Caitlin’s greatest resources when it came to the running of the reborn Jacob’s Ladder—no longer a world but now a starship again. Tension between them was insupportable.

And Caitlin did not have the skills to lie to him about her feelings. Or the desire to learn how. There was nothing else to be done.

They were going to have to have A Conversation.

*   *   *   

She went to find him in person, seeking for some time through the only slightly populated corridors of Engine until she found him working below the environmental services level in one of the adaptive maintenance microclimates. She could have asked the ship where he was, but there was always the chance that Nova would pass along her interest, and though the weakness shamed her, she craved the advantage of surprise.

She got it. The moss-carpeted floors and lichen-hung beams of the glen softened her footsteps beyond the hearing of even Exalt ears, and Benedick was invisible to the waist inside the bole of a symbiotic filtration tree. The world requires an awful lot of maintenance.

He was working with a toolkit—not the one that had been lost when Arianrhod tried to kill him and Chelsea so many decades ago, but a smoke blue one with long, grasping fingers adapted as holders and pullers. Caitlin watched his hand emerge from inside the tree, hanging out a rack of filters for the toolkit to lick clean, and when he would have collected the replacements she brushed his fingers.

The thump and startle from inside the bole were vividly audible. Caitlin winced even as she grinned. Cursing under his breath, Benedick telescoped out of the tree, shaking sap and cobwebs from his straight, black hair. “We’re both lucky I wasn’t armed,” he said.

“So much for the catlike reflexes.”

He studied her from his greater height, wiping his hands and face on a rag the toolkit offered. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

He didn’t even think the word dubious, as far as Caitlin could tell from inspecting his expression. Which made him, right there, a better person than she.

“We need to talk,” she said. “About your daughters.”

He glanced aside, finding a branch to drape the rag over, careful not to disturb the banners of Spanish moss and air-plant that grew there. “You have plenty of reasons to be angry with me,” he said. “I’ve never denied that. Is this about something else this time?”

As long as she was looking up at him, she decided, she might as well take a load off. The filtration tree had a number of low, louvered branches that arched comfortably for sitting. She hooked a leg over one at waist height and slid herself onto it, leaning back on the curve of the branch as if into an armchair. “I guess I want to understand,” she said. “What did you think could be achieved by placating him? By giving him a means of controlling you?”

He blew his bangs out of his eyes and plunked down on the moss, giving her an advantage. She wondered if he didn’t think he’d need it, or if he was capitulating preemptively. “I thought it would make him feel safer,” he said. “You know how many of the evils he was driven to were motivated by fear. You know how brutal Gerald was —”

I don’t believe you’re still making excuses for the old bastard! But as she opened her mouth to say it, she somehow managed to choke back her temper. Reasons were not excuses, and she had asked. Punishing Benedick because she didn’t like his honest answers got them no closer to healing.

“I know,” she said.

Benedick rubbed his palms across his long face, smearing the skin and stretching his eyes out long and crooked. He let his hands fall and looked at her, the monster countenance vanishing back into the lined features of a familiar man. “Caithness scared him more than anything. I wanted to give him a sense of control; he was always better when he felt he had control.” He sighed. “I was wrong. I made mistakes. There’s only so much culpability I can admit to.”

She looked down at her hands. This was harder than she had imagined, rehearsing it in her head. It wasn’t a lie; she had to believe it. “We all made mistakes,” she said. “I wanted you to fight him more, to be more like Cate. But you’re here and she’s not, and I’m here, and—” She shrugged. “I’m ready to put the mistakes away.”

He was silent a long time, but she could hear him breathing as his chin sank down to his chest. Thinking; considering. She knew the posture. He was phlegmatic by nature. When he finally spoke, it was slowly. “I’m not sure I’m ready for your forgiveness.”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure I’m ready to offer it. But I also know we have too much to worry about, and we need each other too much, for me to hang on to that anger. So I’m working on it, okay?”

She held out her hand. He stared at it for a moment before, tilting his head in acquiescence, he took it and they helped one another to stand.

   It wasn’t too many days later when, sitting across the breakfast table from her, Benedick Conn remembered beheading his other sister.

Benedick’s flesh, and his colony, were replete with recollections that he would have preferred to erase, undo, or lose forever. Human memory was fragile, malleable. Merciful. It had a tendency to protect the rememberer from the worst excesses of his own guilt or folly. Benedick was a bred eidetic, but even that eideticism was imperfect knowledge contained in flesh, vulnerable to conflation, confabulation, and plain, old-fashioned forgetting.

Machine intelligence was not so clement. It was precise and perfect, photographic. Unforgiving. But it could be edited by choice, and that was the temptation that Benedick found himself doing battle with more often than he cared to admit. Because, while the memories might be painful, it seemed wasteful to sacrifice the experience hard-won through that pain in the name of comfort or self-respect.

Cynric and he were not alone in the small spare room, cramped around a transparent table littered with fixings for a hasty first-watch meal. Their sister Caitlin Conn, the Chief Engineer—and the (estranged) love of Benedick’s life—stood at the front wall. To Benedick’s left was the Astrogator, Jsutien, and on beside him, passing him notes on her slate, was another sister—the youngest, Chelsea.

The Captain, Benedick’s daughter Perceval, and the First Mate, his brother Tristen, were available by remote, but not currently engaged in the conversation. They had their own problems.

Benedick lifted the table knife and dipped it in olive oil spread, which melted to herbs and oleaginousness on contact with warm lentil-flour bread. It was a metal handle with a flat blade attached, small and unthreatening. But his hand closed on the knife as if around the hilt of a sword—the sword he had wielded to execute his sister. The sensory memory was vivid and sharp—the weight of Mirth in his hand, so unlike the non-presence of an unblade, which had seemed appropriate. An unblade would have killed with no feeling of contact as the sword parted bone and flesh, but there should be resistance when a life ended. The resilience of flesh, the density of bone.

It should be harder to kill someone. The ease of unblades made their purpose somehow more terrible.

So he had chosen Mirth, which was not an unblade at all. And considerably safer. Unblades, engines of entropy that they were, required fanatical care in handling and training if they were not to be more of a danger to their wielder than her enemy.

Though Cynric the Sorceress had begged for the favor of her death at his hand, he understood now that it had all been pursuant to her master plan and that the death hadn’t been quite … permanent. Something was lost in translation, surely, when machine memory alone remained, patterned electricity without chemical context. But he hated it when Cynric came back to Engine, when he was forced to remember killing her—with memories of flesh and memories of silicon.

Benedick found irony in his knowledge that the symbiont Cynric herself had created—and inoculated into Benedick by her own hand—was the very thing that allowed Benedick to remember her murder so precisely.

He watched her from the corner of his awareness, her hair as straight and long as his own, but paler—brown where his was black, her eyes gray-blue where his were hazel. She looked the same, but he knew she wasn’t. And he hated how she had changed, and how he could see the core seed of who she had been repopulating the corners of her mind in configurations that were similar to but not the same as those of the woman he had known. He hated knowing that his own actions had been instrumental in pruning her back so brutally, whether by her consent or

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