Sci-Fi Master Ann Leckie Returns With Translation State

Image:  Hachette Books
Image: Hachette Books

“The mystery of a missing translator sets three lives on a collision course that will have a ripple effect across the stars in this powerful new novel by award-winning author Ann Leckie,” reads the official release for Translation State. “Masterfully merging space adventure and mystery, and a poignant exploration about relationships and belonging, Translation State is a triumphant new standalone story set in Leckie’s celebrated Imperial Radch universe.” io9 has the cover and the first chapter to share today.

First, here’s a bit more about the story:

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Qven was created to be a Presger translator. The pride of their Clade, they always had a clear path before them: learn human ways, and eventually, make a match and serve as an intermediary between the dangerous alien Presger and the human worlds. The realization that they might want something else isn’t “optimal behavior”. I’s the type of behavior that results in elimination.

But Qven rebels. And in doing so, their path collides with those of two others. Enae, a reluctant diplomat whose dead grandmaman has left hir an impossible task as an inheritance: hunting down a fugitive who has been missing for over 200 years. And Reet, an adopted mechanic who is increasingly desperate to learn about his genetic roots—or anything that might explain why he operates so differently from those around him.

As a Conclave of the various species approaches—and the long-standing treaty between the humans and the Presger is on the line—the decisions of all three will have ripple effects across the stars.

The cover (designed by Lauren Panepinto) is below, followed by an exclusive look at the first chapter.

Image:  Hachette Books
Image: Hachette Books


Enae

Athtur House, Saeniss Polity

The last stragglers in the funeral procession were barely out the ghost door before the mason bots unfolded their long legs and reached for the pile of stones they’d removed from the wall so painstakingly the day before. Enae hadn’t looked back to see the door being sealed up, but sie could hear it for just a moment before the first of Aunt Irad’s moans of grief rose into a wail. One or two cousins heaved an experimental sob.

Enae hadn’t cried when Grandmaman died. Sie hadn’t cried when Grandmaman told hir she’d chosen the time to go. Sie wasn’t crying now. Which wasn’t necessarily a problem, everyone knew what expressions you should have when you were following the bier to the crematory, everyone knew what sounds a close relative made, and Enae could sob and wail if sie’d wanted to. And after all, among all these aunts and uncles and nuncles and cousins, Enae was the one who’d lived with Grandmaman for decades, and taken care of her in her old age. Sie had been the one to arrange things in the household these past ten years or more, to deal with the servants—human and bot—with their very different needs. Sie still had all the household codes and bot overrides, and the servants still looked to hir for orders, at least until Grandmaman’s will was unsealed. Sie had every right to walk at the head of the procession, right behind Grandmaman, wailing for all the town to hear, in these quiet early morning hours. Instead sie walked silent and dry-eyed at the back.

Grandmaman had been very old, and ill-tempered. She had also been very rich, and born into one of the oldest families in the system. Which meant that the procession to the crematory was longer than one might have expected. There had been some jostling in the entry hall, by the ghost door, Aunt Irad turning up a half hour early to position herself at the front, some cousins attempting to push her out of her place, and everyone eying Enae to see how sie’d react.

None of them had lived in the house for decades. Grandmaman had thrown most of them—or their parents—out. Every year she would hold a birthday dinner and invite them all back for a lavish meal, during which she would insult them to their faces while they smiled and gritted their teeth. Then she’d order them off the premises again, to wait until the next year. Some of them had fallen away in that time, sworn off Grandmaman and any hope of inheritance, but most of them came back year after year. It was only Enae who had actually lived in the house with Grandmaman, Enae who, one might think, would be the most affected by Grandmaman’s death.

But for the past week Enae had let the aunts and uncles and nuncles and cousins do whatever they’d wanted, so long as it didn’t trouble the household unduly. Sie’d stood silent as Aunt Irad had changed the cook’s menus and stood silent when the same aunt had raged at Enae because sie’d told the cook to disregard any changes he didn’t have resources for. Sie had done and said nothing when, the very first day of the funeral week, an actual fistfight had broken out between two cousins over who would have which bedroom. Sie had remained silent when sie had heard one uncle say to a nuncle, And look at hir, fifty-six years old and sitting at home sucking up to Grand- maman, and the nuncle reply, Well look at hir father’s family, it’s hardly a surprise. Sie had walked on past when one cousin had surreptitiously slid a small silver dish into his pocket, while another loudly declared that she would be making some changes if she were so fortunate as to inherit the house. And in the meantime, sie had made sure that meals arrived on time and the house was kept in order. That had been the trick, all these years, of living with Grandmaman—keep calm, keep quiet, keep things running smoothly.

Grandmaman had told Enae many times that sie was her only remaining heir. But she had also said—many times— that Enae was an embarrassment. A failure. As far as the Athturs had fallen since Grandmaman’s days—look at all those grandchildren and great-grandchildren and nephews and nieces and niblings of whatever degree abasing them- selves to win her favor in the desperate hope that she’d leave them something in her will—as pathetic as they were, Enae was worse. Nearly sixty and no career, no friends, no lovers, no marital partners, no children. What had sie done with hir life? Nothing. Enae had kept calm, had not said that when sie had had friends they had not been good enough for Grandmaman. That when sie had shown any sign of wanting to do some- thing that might take hir out of the house, Grandmaman had forbidden it.

Keep calm, keep quiet, keep things running smoothly.

At the crematory, Grandmaman’s corpse slid into the flames, and the funeral priest sang the farewell chants. Aunt Irad and three different cousins stepped forward to thank him for officiating and to suggest that they might donate money for future prayers for the Blessed Deceased. Enae could feel everyone else glancing toward hir, yet again, to see hir reaction to others acting as though they were the head of the family, the chief mourner, the now-Matriarch (or Patri- arch or Natriarch, as the case may be) of the ancient family of Athtur.

“Well,” said Aunt Irad, finished with her loud and obvious consultation with the funeral priest, “I’ve ordered coffee and sandwiches to be set out in the Peony Room.” And marched back toward the house, not even looking to see if anyone followed her.

Back at the house, there was no coffee and sandwiches in the Peony Room. Aunt Irad turned immediately to Enae, who shrugged as though it wasn’t any of hir business. It wasn’t anymore—technically, Grandmaman’s will would have taken effect the moment her body slid into the flames, but the habit of ordering the household died hard. With a quick blink sie sent a query to the kitchen.

No reply. And then someone dressed as a servant, but who Enae had never, ever seen before, came into the Peony Room and coolly informed them all that refreshments had in fact been set out in the Blue Sitting Room and their collective presence was requested there, and then turned and walked away, ignoring Aunt Irad’s protests.

In the Blue Sitting Room, another complete stranger sat in one of the damask-upholstered armchairs, drinking coffee: a lanky, fair-skinned woman who smiled at all of them as they came in and stopped and stared. “Good morning. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Who the hell are you?” asked Aunt Irad, indignant.

“A few minutes ago, I was Zemil Igoeto,” said the woman as she set her coffee down on a mother-of-pearl inlaid side table. “But when the Blessed Deceased ascended, I became Zemil Athtur.” Silence. “I don’t believe in drawing things out. I will be direct. None of you have inherited anything. There wasn’t anything to inherit. I have owned all of this”—she gestured around her, taking in the Blue Sitting Room and presumably the whole house—“for some years.”

“That can’t be right,” said Aunt Irad. “Is this some kind of joke?”

Grandmaman would have thought it a joke, thought Enae. She must have laughed to herself even as she was dying, to think of the looks on everyone’s faces right now. Everything had seemed distant and strange since Grandmaman had died, but now Enae had the feeling that sie wasn’t really here, that sie was watching some sort of play or entertainment that sie wasn’t terribly interested in.

“Fifteen years ago,” said Zemil Igoeto—no, Zemil Athtur—“the Blessed Deceased found herself completely broke. At the same time, while I had plenty of funds, I wanted some way to gain access to the sort of influence that is only available to the oldest families. She and I came to an agreement and made it legally binding. In, I need not tell you, the presence of authorized witnesses. I would purchase everything she owned. The sum would be sufficient to support her in excellent style for the rest of her life, and she would have the use of all the properties that had formerly been hers. In return, on her ascension to the Realm of the Blessed Dead, I would become her daughter and sole heir.”

Silence. Enae wasn’t sure if sie wanted to laugh or not, but the fact was, Grandmaman would very much have enjoyed this moment if she could have been here. It was just like her to have done this. And how could Enae complain? Sie’d lived here for years in, as Ms Zemil Athtur had just said, excellent style. Enae couldn’t possibly have any complaints.

“This is ridiculous,” said Aunt Irad. She looked at Enae. “Is this one of the Blessed Deceased’s jokes? Or is it yours?”

“Mx Athtur has nothing to do with any of this,” cut in Zemil. “Sie had no idea until this moment. Only I, the Blessed Deceased’s jurist, and the Blessed Deceased herself knew anything about it. Apart from the witnesses involved, of course, whom you are free to consult as confirmation.”

“So we get nothing,” said the cousin who had declared her intention to make changes once she’d inherited.

“Correct,” said Zemil Athtur, picking up her coffee again. She took a sip. “The Blessed Deceased wanted to be sure I told you that you’re all selfish and greedy, and she wishes she could be here to see you when you learn you’ve been cut off with nothing. With one exception.”

Everyone turned to look at Enae.

Zemil continued, “I am to provide for Mx Enae Athtur, with certain stipulations and restrictions, which I will discuss with hir later.”

“The will,” said a cousin. “I want to see the will. I want to see the documents involved. I’ll be speaking with my jurist.”

“Do, by all means,” said Zemil, and Enae felt the itch of a message arriving. Sie looked, and saw a list of files. Documents. Contracts. Contact information for the Office of Witnesses. “In the meantime, do sit and have a sandwich while the servants finish packing your things.”


It took some time, and a half dozen looming servants (who, once again, Enae had never seen before), but eventually the aunts and uncles and nuncles and cousins had left the house, picked their luggage up off the drive, and gone elsewhere, threatening lawsuits all the while.

Enae had remained in the Blue Sitting Room, unwilling to go up to hir room to see if hir things were still there or not. Sie sat, more or less relaxed, in a damask-upholstered armchair. Sie badly wanted a cup of coffee, and maybe a sandwich, but sie found sie couldn’t bring hirself to get up from the chair. The whole world seemed unreal and uncertain, and sie wasn’t sure what would happen if sie moved too much. Zemil, too, stayed sitting in her damasked chair, drinking coffee and smiling.

At some point, after the house had quieted, Grandmaman’s jurist arrived. “Ah, Mx Athtur. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know you loved your grandmother very much, and spent your life attending to her. You should be allowed to take some time to yourself right now, and grieve.” He didn’t overtly direct this to Zemil, sitting in the armchair across from Enae, but his words seemed intended for her. Then he did turn to her and nodded in greeting. “Ms Athtur.”

“I am fully aware,” said Zemil, with a faint smile, “that I’m tasked with providing for Mx Athtur, and I will.”

“I would like some time to read the relevant documents, please,” said Enae, as politely as sie could, and braced hirself to argue with an angry refusal.

“Of course,” said the jurist, “and I’ll be happy to go through them with you if you need.”

Enae, at a loss for some reason, said, “Thank you.” “You’ll see, when you read it,” said Zemil, “that I am obligated to provide for you, as I said. How I am to provide for you is up to me, within certain parameters. I have had years to consider what that might mean, for both of us.”

“Your provisions will meet the requirements of the will,” said the jurist, sharply. “I will be certain of it.”

“I don’t understand.” Enae suppressed a sudden, unex- pected welling of tears. “I don’t understand how this happened.” And then, realizing how that might sound, “I didn’t expect to inherit anything. Gr . . . the Blessed Deceased always said she would leave her houses and money to whoever she wanted.” Watch them gather around my corpse when I’m gone, she’d said, with relish. Ungrateful, disloyal while I lived, but watch them come the moment they think they might get something from me. And she’d patted Enae’s hand and made the tiny huff that was her laughter, near the end.

“As I said,” said Zemil, “the Blessed Deceased was facing bankruptcy. Her income had declined, and she had refused to alter her way of living. It took several years to negotiate—our ancestor was stubborn, as I’m sure you know—but ultimately she had no choice if she was to continue living here, in the way she was accustomed to.”

Enae didn’t know what to say. Sie hardly even knew how to breathe, in this moment.

“I wanted the name,” said Zemil. “I have wealth, and some influence. But I’m a newcomer to wealth and influence, at least according to the oldest families. An interloper. Our ancestor made sure to tell me so, on several occasions. But no longer. Now I am an Athtur. And now the Athturs are wealthy again.” Another unfamiliar servant came in, to clear the food and the coffee away. Enae hadn’t eaten anything. Sie could feel the hollow in hir stomach, but sie couldn’t bring hirself to take a sandwich now, knew sie wouldn’t be able to eat it if sie did. Grandmaman’s jurist waved the servant over, muttered in her ear. The servant made a plate with two small sandwiches, poured a cup of coffee, handed both to Enae, and then took the rest and left the room.

“Have you dismissed the servants?” Enae asked. Sie’d meant to sound casual, curious, but hir tone came out rough and resentful.

“You are no longer the housekeeper here, Mx Athtur,” Zemil replied.

“I was until this morning, and if I’d known people were going to lose their jobs I’d have done what I could for them. They’ve worked for us a long time.”

“You think I’m cruel,” said Zemil. “Heartless. But I am only direct. No servants have been dismissed. None will be who perform their jobs well. Does that satisfy you?”

“Yes.”

“I will do you no favors,” Zemil continued, “leaving you in any misapprehension or uncertainty. As I said, what I wanted in this transaction was the Athtur name. There will be some reluctance on the part of the other old families to accept my legitimacy, and that will be made more difficult if you are here as an example of a true Athtur, one who so loyally cared for hir Grandmaman for so long, and rightfully ought to have inherited—in contrast with my false, purchased hold on the name. But I am also obligated to support you. Understand, I bear you no ill will, and I have no objection to providing for you, but I need you gone. I have, therefore, found employment for you.”

“Ms Athtur . . .” the jurist began, reproachfully.

Zemil raised a forestalling hand. “You may stay here for another month, to complete the time of mourning. And then you will take a position with the Office of Diplomacy. Your assignment is already arranged. You will find it congenial, I assure you.”

“You could just leave me my allowance,” said Enae. “I could move out.”

“Would you?” asked Zemil. “Where would you go?”

“I have a month to figure that out,” sie replied, not sure sie had understood anything anyone had said for the past five minutes, not even sure what sie, hirself, was saying.

“Let me tell you what your position would be in the Office of Diplomacy. You have been appointed Special Investigator, and a case has been assigned to you. It is a situation of great diplomatic delicacy. Perhaps we should discuss this in private.” She glanced at the jurist.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, and crossed his arms very decidedly.

“You don’t work for Mx Athtur,” Zemil pointed out. “No,” he acknowledged. “In this matter, I represent the interests of the Blessed Deceased. And consequently, I will be certain that her grandchild is appropriately cared for.”

“If she were here . . .” began Zemil.

“But she’s not here,” said the lawyer. “We have only her expressed desire, and your agreement to that.”

Zemil made an expression as though she’d bitten into something sour. “All right then. Enae, you’ve been assigned . . .”

“Mx Athtur,” said Enae, hardly believing it had come out of her mouth.

To Enae’s shock, Zemil smiled. “Mx Athtur. You’ve been assigned, as I’ve said, to a matter of some delicacy. Some years ago, the Radchaai Translators Office approached the Office of Diplomacy to request our help in tracking down a fugitive.”

Radchaai! The Radch was an enormous, multisystem empire, far enough away that no one here in Saeniss Polity felt immediately threatened by them—especially now, with the Radchaai embroiled in their own internal struggles—but close enough and powerful enough that Radchaai was one of the languages the well educated often elected to study. The Translators Office was the Radchaai diplomatic service. Enae felt the itch of files arriving. “I’ve sent you the details,” said Zemil.

Enae blinked the message open, read the opening summary. “This incident happened two hundred years ago!”

“Yes,” Zemil agreed. “The Office of Diplomacy assigned an investigator when the request first came in, who decided the fugitive wasn’t here in Saeniss Polity or even anywhere in this system, and what with one thing and another the matter was dropped.”

“But . . . how am I supposed to find someone who’s been missing for two hundred years?”

Zemil shrugged. “I haven’t the least idea. But I rather imagine it will involve travel, and a per diem on top of your wages. On top of your existing allowance, which I have no plans to discontinue. Indeed, the Blessed Deceased was quite miserly in the matter of your allowance, and I believe I’ll be increasing it.” She turned to the jurist. “There, are you satisfied?” The jurist made a noncommittal noise, and Zemil turned back to Enae. “Honestly, no one cares if you find this person or not. No one expects you to find anything at all. You’re being paid to travel, and maybe look into an old puzzle if you feel like it. Haven’t you ever wanted to leave here?”

Sie had always wanted to leave here.

Sie couldn’t think. Not right now. “I’ve just lost my grandmother,” sie said, tears welling again, sie didn’t know from where. “And I’ve had a terrible shock. I’m going to my room. If . . .” Sie looked Zemil directly in the eyes. “If it still is my room?”

“Of course,” said Zemil.

Enae hadn’t expected that easy acquiescence. Grandmaman would never have tolerated her acting all high-and-mighty like this. But what else was sie supposed to do? Grandmaman wasn’t here anymore. Sie blinked, took a breath. Another. “If your people would be so kind as to bring me lunch and coffee there.” Ridiculous, sie was still holding the sandwiches the servant had handed to hir, but sie couldn’t even imagine eating them. Not these sandwiches, not here, not now. “And I’ll have supper in my room as well.”

“They’ll be happy to help you any way you wish, as long as you’re here,” said Zemil.

Enae rose. Set hir untouched food back onto the sideboard. Sie turned and nodded to the jurist. “Thank you. I . . . thank you.”

“Call me if you need me,” he said.

Sie turned to Zemil, but found sie had no words to say, and so sie just fled to hir own room.


Excerpt from Translation State by Ann Leckie reprinted with permission from Hachette.

Translation State is available for preorder now. It will release in June 2023.


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