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The Tea Master and the Detective

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The Tea Master and the Detective

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Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2018
Series: Xuya Universe

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Galactic Empire
Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(45 reads / 26 ratings)


Nebula Award-winning and Hugo Award-nominated Novella

Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.

A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.

As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...


The new client sat in the chair reserved for customers, levelly gazing at The Shadow's Child - hands apart, legs crossed under the jade-green fabric of her tunic. The tunic itself had been high-quality once, displaying elegant, coordinated patterns, but it was patched, and the patterns were five years old at least, the stuff that got laughed at even in a provincial backwater such as the Scattered Pearls belt. Her skin was dark, her nose aquiline. When she spoke, her accent was flawlessly Inner Habitats. "My name is Long Chau. You have a good reputation as a brewer of serenity. I want to use your services."

The Shadow's Child stifled a bitter laugh. Whatever her reputation was, it hadn't translated into customers fighting to see her. "Go ahead."

That gaze again from Long Chau. The Shadow's Child was used to respect or fear; to downcast eyes; to awkwardness, even, with people who weren't used to dealing with a shipmind, especially one that wasn't involved in passenger service.

The Shadow's Child's body - the metal hull that encased her heartroom and her core - was far away from the office compartment they were both in. The avatar she projected into the habitat wasn't much different from it: a large, sweeping mass of metal and optics that took up most of the office, shifting between different angles on the hull and ports, giving people a glimpse of what she was really like - vast enough to transport merchant crews and supplies, the whole of her hanging in the cool vacuum of space outside the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls belt, with bots crowding her hulls and sensors constantly bombarded by particles. She could have made herself small and unthreatening. She could have hovered over people's shoulders like a pet or a children's toy, as was the fashion amongst the older shipminds. But she'd lived through a war, an uprising and a famine, and she was done with diminishing herself to spare the feelings of others.

Long Chau said, "I'm going into deep spaces to recover something. I need you to make a blend that keeps me functional."

Now that was surprising. "Most of my customers prefer oblivion when they travel between the stars," The Shadow's Child said.

A snort from Long Chau. "I'm not a drugged fool."

Or a fool at all. The name she'd given, Long Chau, was an improbable confection of syllables, a style name, except as style names went it was utterly unsubtle.Dragon Pearl. "But you're drugged, aren't you?" The Shadow's Child asked. She kept her voice gentle, at that tricky balance point where customers had trust, but no fear.

An expansive shrug from Long Chau. "Of course I'm drugged." She didn't offer further explanation, but The Shadow's Child saw the way she held herself. She was languid and cool, seemingly in utter control, but that particular stillness was that of a spring wound so tight it'd snap.

"May I?" The Shadow's Child asked, drifting closer and calling up the bots. She wasn't physically there, but physical presence was mostly overrated: the bots moved as easily as the ones onboard her real body.

Long Chau didn't even flinch as they climbed up her face. Two of them settled at the corner of her eyes, two at the edge of her lips, and a host clung to the thick mane of her hair. Most people, for all their familiarity with bots, would have recoiled.

A human heartbeat, two: data flowed back to The Shadow's Child, thick and fast. She sorted it out easily, plotting graphs and discarding the errant measurements in less than the time it took the bots to drop down from Long Chau's head.

She gazed, for a moment, at the thick, knot of electrical impulses in Long Chau's brain, a frenzied and complex dance of neurons activation. For all her computational power, she couldn't hope to hold it all in her thoughts, or even analyse it all, but she'd seen enough patterns to be able to recognise its base parameters.

Long Chau was drugged to the gills, and more: her triggers were all out of balance, too slow at low stimuli and completely wild past a certain threshold. The Shadow's Child accessed Long Chau's public records, again. She finally asked a question she usually avoided. "The drugs - did your doctor prescribe these to you?"

Long Chau smiled. "Of course not. You don't need a doctor, these days."

"For some things, maybe you should." The Shadow's Child said, more sharply than she intended to.

"You're not one."

"No," The Shadow's Child said. "And perhaps not the person who can help you."

"Who said I wanted to be helped?" Long Chau shifted, smiling widely - distantly, serenely amused. "I'm happy with what I've achieved."

"Except that you came to see me."

"Ah. Yes." She shook her head with that same odd languidness. "I do annoying side effect. I'm more focused and faster, but only in a narrow range. Deep spaces are well outside that range."

The Shadow's Child had never dealt very well with dancing around the truth. "What are you talking about? Anxiety? Traumatic reaction?"

"Fuzziness," Long Chau said. "I can't think in deep spaces."

It wasn't unusual. Time and space got weird, especially deeper in. It took effort to remain functional. Some people could, some people couldn't. The Shadow's Child had had one lieutenant who spent every dive into deep spaces curled up on the bed, whimpering - it had been a hundred years ago, before the brews got developed, before brewers of serenity started doing brisk business on space stations and orbitals, selling teas and brews that made it easier for humans to bear the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.

"You could stop taking the drugs. It would probably help," The Shadow's Child said.

"I could." Long Chau's tone made it clear that she wouldn't even consider it. The Shadow's Child thought, for a while, reviewing evidence as she did. Long Chau was entirely right. She was no doctor; merely a small-rank brewer of serenity struggling to make ends meet. And she just couldn't afford to ignore a customer.

"I could make a blend that would suit you," The Shadow's Child said.

Long Chau smiled. "Good. Go on."

Deep spaces. She hadn't returned to them since the Ten Thousand Flag uprising - since her entire crew died and left her stranded. The Shadow's Child hesitated again - a moment only - and said, "I don't want to be responsible for accidents. With all that you have in your body, I'd want to monitor you quite closely after you drink the blend."

"I'll have your bots."

"Bots won't be able to react fast enough, with the time differentials. I want to be with you in deep spaces. And it won't come cheap."

Long Chau was silent, for a while, staring at her. At length, she stretched, like a sated cat. "I see." She smiled. "I hadn't thought you'd want to return to deep spaces, even for a price. Not after what happened to you there."

It was like a gut punch. For a brief, startling moment The Shadow's Child was hanging, not in a comforting void, but somewhere else, where the stars kept shifting and contorting. The dead bodies of her crew littered her corridors, and the temperature was all wrong, everything pressing and grinding against her hull, a sound like a keening lament, metal pushed past endurance and sensors going dark one after the other, a scream in her ears that was hers, that had always been hers...

"How - " The Shadow's Child shifted, showing her full size, a desperate attempt to make Long Chau back away. But Long Chau sat in the chair with a mocking, distant smile, and didn't move. "It's not public, or even easily accessible. You can't possibly have found - "

Long Chau shook her head. Her lips, parted, were as thin as a knife. "It is my business to work out things that other people don't pick up on. As I said - I'm more focused. You hesitated before saying yes."

"Because you're a difficult customer."

"It could have been that. But you kept hesitating afterwards. If you'd simply decided to accommodate a difficult customer, the moment of decision would have been the only time you slowed down. There was something else about this bothering you."

"It was a fraction of one of your heartbeats. Humans don't pick up on this."

"They don't." Nothing ventured, again; no hint that she found the silence awkward or unpleasant.

The Shadow's Child hesitated - again for a bare moment, because what her customers did with her blends was none of her business. But she'd just committed to being in deep spaces again, and that was beyond her short limit of unpleasant surprises for the day. "You haven't told me what you need to find in deep spaces."

Again, that lazy, unsettling smile. "A corpse."

Then again, perhaps she was wrong about the unpleasant surprises.

Copyright © 2018 by Aliette de Bodard


The Tea Master and the Detective

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The Tea Master and the Detective

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