Chapter 11

INITIATE

The body lay blackened and flaking on the still-table, recognizable as a human only in the grossest aspect of its limbs, trunk, and head. But Initiate Viran Farre stood back, wary of the charred corpse as if it were capable of sudden motion--some swift reprisal against those who had failed to protect it. Three more humans and the Rix commando lay, similarly burned, on the other tables in the room. These were the five who had been killed in the council chamber.

Officially, Initiate Farre and Adept Trevim had claimed possession of their remains in case one of them were fit to rise. But clearly any such reanimation lay beyond the Miracle of the Symbiant; these people had been destroyed. The politicals' real purpose was to cut open the Child Empress's body, and make sure that all evidence of the Emperor's Secret was eliminated.

Farre felt a strange hollow in her stomach, a void filled only with an ominous flutter, like the anxious lightness of sudden freefall. She had performed the administration of the symbiant many times, and was no stranger to dead bodies. But this palpable presence of the Emperor's Secret made war against her conditioning. She wanted to blot out the sight of the Empress's fallen body, run from the room and order the building burned down. Adept Trevim had ordered Farre to steel herself, however; the initiate's medical knowledge was necessary here. And Farre was also conditioned to obey her superiors.

"Which of these saws, Farre?"

Farre took a deep breath, and forced her eyes to take in the array of monofilament incisors, vibrasaws, and beam cutters on the autopsy table. The tools were arranged by kind and size, the backmost raised on the stepped table like a jury, or the excavated teeth of some ancient predator displayed by form and function: here the gnashers, here the renders, here the grinding molars.

"I would stay away from beam cutters, Adept. And we haven't the skill for monofilaments." The confidant was made of nervous tissue, and would be a delicate extraction. They needed to open the body in the least destructive way.

"A vibrasaw, then?" Trevim suggested.

"Yes," Farre managed.

She selected a small one, and set it to its thinnest and shortest cutting width, just enough to slice through the rib cage. Farre handed it to the adept, and winced at the dead woman's clumsy grip on the tool. Farre, who had been a doctor before her induction into the Emperor's service, should by rights be performing the autopsy. But the conditioning was too profound. It was all she could do to assist; actually cutting into the corpse that housed the Secret would bring forth a calamitous reaction from her internal monitors.

The vibrasaw whirred to life in Trevim's hand, its whine like a mosquito caught inside one's eardrum. The sound seemed to put even the fifty-years-dead Adept on edge as she pressed the saw against the blackened corpse. But her strokes were smooth and clean, gliding through the charred flesh like a blade through water.

A mist rose up from the corpse, the faintest blur of gray in the air. Farre shuddered and reached for a medical mask. The mist looked like fine ash dust rising from a burned-out fire; indeed, it was in every chemical sense the same--fire-distilled carbon--but its source was human flesh rather than wood. Farre covered her mouth carefully, trying not to think of the small motes of dead Child Empress that would be trapped between the mask's fibers, or were settling even now into the pores of her exposed skin.

The Adept finished, having done almost too thorough a job. The vibrasaw had been set to undercut the connective tissues, and the Empress's rib cage lifted up easily in narrow strips as Trevim tugged. Farre leaned carefully forward, trying to quell the raging inhibitions of her conditioning. The exposed chest was almost abstract, like the plastic sculptures back in medical school; the titanic heat from the Rix blaster having burned gristle and tissue to a dark, dry mass.

"And now a nerve locator?"

Farre shook her head. "They only work on living subjects. Or the very recently dead. You'll need a set of nervous-tissue-seeking nanoprobes and a remote viewer, along with a troweling rod." She took another deep breath. "Let me show you."

The Adept moved aside as Initiate Farre sprayed the nanoprobes onto the glistening chest cavity. Farre let them propagate, then inserted the rod carefully, watching its readout to make sure she didn't damage the delicate strands of the confidant's skein. The troweling rod's nimble fingers, thin as piano wire, began to work the flesh, teasing the tissue from the Empress's body.

But Farre had only progressed a few centimeters when she realized what she was doing, and a wave of nausea struck her.

"Adept..." she managed.

Trevim lifted the instrument delicately from Farre's fingers as she staggered back from the still-table.

"That will do nicely, Initiate," she heard Trevim say. "I think I see how it works. Thank you." The images stayed unshakeably in her mind's eye as she sank heavily to the floor. The Emperor's sister, Child Empress Anastasia, Reason for the symbiant, splayed open like a roasted pig.

Vulnerable. Injured. The Secret exposed!

And she, Viran Farre, had participated. Her stomach heaved, and acid bile rose into her throat. The taste destroyed all will, and she retched pitifully as the adept continued to remove the confidant from the fallen Empress.

CAPTAIN

Laurent Zai dropped the single-purpose remote into his pocket. It wasn't actually programmed to do anything yet--he hardly wanted to kill himself accidentally. He'd simply wanted to show ExO Hobbes the manner in which he intended to commit suicide. As a warrior, he had always borne the prospect of a messy end, but an awkward changeover of command was unacceptable.

Zai felt a strange calmness as he followed Hobbes to the command bridge. The anxiety that consumed Zai during the hostage situation was gone. Over the last two years, love had compromised his bravery, he realized now. Hopelessness had returned it to him in good working order.

Zai wondered why the Lynx had been equipped with two bridges. The warship was a new class, unlike any of the Navy's Acinonyx frigates, and a few of its design concepts had seemed odd to Zai. In addition to a battle bridge, the ship had a command bridge, as if an admiral would one day want to command a fleet from a frigate. The second bridge had wound up being used as a very well-equipped conference room.

When Zai and Hobbes entered, the officers present snapped to attention. The command bridge was optimized for flatscreen viewing, the conference table folded out like a jackknife, all seats facing the hi-res screen. The officers' eyes met Zai's with nervous determination, as if they had been planning a mutiny.

Or plotting to save their captain's life.

"At ease," Zai ordered, taking the shipmaster's chair. He turned to Hobbes. "Make your report, Executive Officer."

Hobbes glanced anxiously at the hardkey she'd been worrying in her hand during their discussion in the observation bubble, as if suddenly unsure that it was up to the task. Then, with a grim look, she shoved it into a slot before her.

The vibration of the table's boot sequence shimmered under Zai's hand. He noted the shift of shadows in the room as overhead lights dimmed and the billions of picture elements on the wall warmed to their task. He saw his officers relax a little, as people always did when preparing to watch a canned presentation, no matter how grim the situation. Now that Zai faced death, details had become terribly clear to him. But this clarity was like amplified secondary sight, sharp but somehow distant. The marrow of these quotidian details had been lost along with his future, as if his experiences had become suddenly worthless, like some currency decommissioned overnight.

The screen showed a grainy image, its colors flattened into gray-scale--the unavoidable signal loss of a helmet-sized transmitter narrowcasting all the way to low orbit. The picture seemed stretched, the pulled-taffy visuals of a marine's 360-degree vision. It took a few moments for Zai's visual cortex to adapt to the view, like struggling to understand pre-Diaspora Anglish for the first few minutes of some ancient play.

Then figure and ground sorted themselves out, and he could make out a Rix soldier, a blood-spattered admiral, an off-balance Dr. Vechner, and the body of one Empress Anastasia Vista Khaman. All were frozen, their motion suspended, the horror of the situation oddly aestheticized by the rough grain of the medium.

"This is 67:21:34," Hobbes announced, her airmouse hovering in front of the timecode on the screen. "Exactly fifteen seconds before the stasis field was first activated by Corporal Lao." She named the participants, the air-mouse flitting like a curious hummingbird from one to the next.

"Note that there are no visible wounds on the Empress. Blood is visible on her and the admiral, but it's spread evenly across them. It probably belongs to the Rix commandos, who had been railgunned from orbit with structure-penetrating exsanguination slugs."

The airmouse shifted in response to these words, seeming to sniff the entry wound on the Rix commando. Zai had to admit that it looked like a square hit. Her guts should have been sucked out in buckets. How could she have survived?

"Now, I'll advance it to the point where the stasis field interrupts transmission."

The figures jolted into action, Vechner stumbling, Lao's helmet voice calling "Come, sir," and dragging him toward the Empress. Lao deployed the field generator and her fingers reached for the controls; then the screen went black.

"Now," Hobbes said, "to focus on certain elements. First, the Empress."

The fifteen seconds replayed on the screen, with the Empress's image highlighted. She was shaking uncontrollably, having some sort of seizure. The admiral restrained the Empress as if she were a living child thrashing her way through a nightmare.

"Obviously, the Child Empress is alive. Under some sort of stress, perhaps wounded, but alive. Now, observe the Rixwoman."

The scene replayed, and Zai felt himself gaining familiarity with the short document. The highlighted Rix commando was completely still.

"She's dead," First Pilot Maradonna said to the room.

"Or playing dead," Captain Zai responded.

"That's possible, sir," Hobbes allowed. "The Rix physiology is not pulsitile. Which means they don't take lungfuls of air, they filter it continuously. And their hearts spin rather than beating."

"So they are naturally motionless on the surface, no matter the resolution."

"Yes, sir. But allow me to skip forward to the visuals received when the situation had been secured, when Lao briefly lowered the stasis field. This is from Dr. Vechner's helmet."

The screen was refreshed with a new tableau. Vechner knelt beside the Empress. The airmouse moved to indicate the Rix soldier; she apparently hadn't moved in the interim. Hobbes left this fact unspoken.

"Note the ultrasound wrap around the Empress," Hobbes continued. "As we advance, you can see her heart beating within."

The image moved forward for five seconds, then the stasis field went back up and cut off the transmission again. But the heartbeat was clearly visible. The Empress had still been alive at that point.

Damn, Zai thought. They'd been so close.

"Why don't we have data from the ultrasound wrap?" he asked. "Shouldn't it have automatically connected with the Lynx medical AI?" "Unfortunately, the security protocols require more than five seconds to complete, sir. There are extensive firewalls against viruses being loaded onto the Lynx in the guise of emergency medical data."

Zai wondered who'd tried that little trick in the past. It sounded like typical Tungai sabotage.

"Now from Corporal Lao's perspective again," Hobbes continued. "The new marine in the picture is Initiate Barris. His armor was crashed on captain's orders, as he had just killed another marine with friendly fire."

Barris's motionless armor lay just outside the field area. When the image advanced, Lao reached out and dragged him inside the protective perimeter.

"Lao is moving to protect a fallen comrade," Hobbes said dryly.

Barris rolled over. His face was an appalling mess, a wreckage of tissues damaged by a bad atmospheric entry.

"Rix ... here," Barris's twisted face said.

Lao's hand darted for the field generator's controls again, and the image went dark.

"There were no Rix in the palace at that point," Hobbes said firmly. "Nor had Barris seen any Rix at all. For some reason, he lied."

Zai shook his head. "He'd just had a firefight with another marine, whom he must have thought was Rix. Initiate Barris wasn't lying, just unbelievably stupid."

"Can we see Barris's visuals?" someone asked. "From when he killed the marine?"

"I'm afraid his helmet transmitter was trashed on entry. But we do have that event from the other side."

New visuals loaded onto the screen. The administrative text identified the viewpoint as Private Ernesto. From a kneeling position, he held a position in front of the council chamber's door, facing out into the palace's broad hallways. The black hemisphere of the stasis field could be seen in Ernesto's rearmost vision.

Initiate Barris, recognizable from his smashed helmet, staggered into view. Ernesto waved at him, but Barris raised his weapon.

The initiate's varigun fired, and Ernesto's viewpoint spun as he was knocked back by a hail of small projectiles. The barrage went on, the damage to suit and soldier recorded in grim little glyphs along the bottom of the screen. A second before Ernesto must have died, the armor lost its ability to transmit, and the screen froze.

"Not much fog of war there," Maradonna commented.

"Barris would have to override the friendly-fire governor," the marine sergeant added. Zai wondered if these observations had been scripted in advance. What were his senior staff suggesting, anyway? That the initiate had gone in purposefully to kill Ernesto? Or the Empress, for that matter?

That was unthinkable. Politicals were bound by governors far more insurmountable than some failsafe on a varigun. Their minds were fixed to a state of selfless loyalty by years of painful conditioning; on some gray planets, they were selected from birth for genes that showed high susceptibility to brainwashing. They were beyond suspicion.

"The fog was in Barris's mind," Zai said. "He'd suffered a grevious head injury on entry. He probably thought every suit of armor he saw was Rix."

"Exactly, sir," Hobbes agreed. "'Rix ... here.' His last recorded words."

The screen split into three parts. In the first two frames, the Rix soldier lay in her now familiar position, looking dead as ever. But in the last frame her body was a blackened husk, even the marble floor beneath her scorched by the blaster shot that had killed everyone inside the stasis field. It was evident now from the trio of images: all three positions were much the same.

Although the commando's body had been jostled by the blast, there was no sense that she had sprung back to life and raised her weapon. Indeed, in the last frame the ruined Rix blaster lay across her left ankle, much closer to the burned hands of Barris than her own.

"Where is the initiate's weapon?" someone asked.

Hobbes's response was instantaneous. These questions must be scripted, Zai thought with growing annoyance. The screen again showed the last recording from Lao's viewpoint. As she dragged Farre's body into the stasis field's perimeter, his varigun stayed outside. He had dropped it when the Lynx had crashed his armor. '

A murmur came from the assembled officers.

"He had no weapon," Hobbes said. "But the Rix blaster was already within--"

"Hobbes!" Captain Zai snapped.

The anger in his voice shocked the room into silence. The officers sat as motionless as the image from doomed Mirame Lao's helmet.

"Thank you all for this briefing," Zai said. "Executive Officer, in my observation blister. Now."

He stood and wheeled away from the surprised faces, and strode from the command bridge. He was gone so fast that it took a few moments for Katherie Hobbes to catch up in the corridors outside.

Zai and his executive officer walked in silence back toward the plastic bubble that faced the void.

COMMANDO

The commando's heart, if you could call it that, was closer to a turbine than a pump. A pair of long screws, one venous and the other arterial, rotated inside her chest, threading the vital fluid through her body at an inhumanly fast and even rate. The liquid carried oxygen and nutrients but was not, properly speaking, blood. It also served the purposes of a lymphatic system, transporting uptake nanos from thousands of tiny lymph nodes distributed along her arteries. The substance in the commando's veins had little else to do with her Rix immune system, however. It contained no white blood cells, whose functions had been delegated centuries before to a scattered population of organs roughly the size of rice grains, themselves generated by small machines hidden in the marrow of her bird-light, aircraft-strong, hypercarbon bones.

The surging fluid did, however, contain enough iron to oxydize red when it was spilled, a situation that the commando was currently attempting to avoid.

She was tucked into an area smaller than an overnight bag, a space that normally housed a cleaning robot. The Rixwoman had disassembled the previous occupant, hoping the scattered parts would not reveal her appropriation of its home, and folded herself into the space, limbs bending at sharp angles like some origami construction. According to the messages sent to her from Alexander, her invisible and omnipresent benefactor in this chase, the local militia were searching for her with sonic sweeps. These devices were designed to find escaped fugitives by detecting that steady, unstoppable, telltale rhythm of humanity: the heartbeat.

Apparently, no one had told the locals that she, a Rix commando, had none. The tiny turbine purred inside her chest, an infrasonic hiss without rhythm or vibrato, and the nervous, soft-shoed sweep operators passed by her hiding place, blissfully unaware.

The commando, who was called H_rd, had gone to ground in a building that was called, in the local language, a library. This structure served as a distribution point for proprietary data, information not available in the public infostructure. Corporate secrets, technological patents, personal medical records, and certain erotic poems and images available by paid subscription were deposited here, accessible only to those with special physical keys, totems of information ownership. Alexander had guided H_rd here, helping the commando fight and creep her way across a hundred kilometers of dense city that swarmed with militia, police, and the occasional Imperial marine, all searching for her. But Alexander was a powerful ally, and even a single Rix commando was deadly quarry. The local forces made a show of the pursuit--evacuating buildings, running sweeps, and occasionally firing their weapons--but were more interested in self-preservation than glory. And the Imperial marines numbered fewer than a hundred.

The commando waited in the library with inhuman patience. For seven hours, she lay folded in her compartment.

It was strange here in the darkness, so alone. H_rd had spent her entire life in the intimate company of her drop-sisters, never separated from the sibling group for more than a few minutes. The fifteen commandos in her dropship had been raised together, trained together into a perfect fighting unit, and were supposed to have died together. The commando felt no grief, an unknown emotion in her warrior caste, but she did mourn her lost sisters. Surviving this suicide mission alone had left her in limbo, ranging this hostile planet like the truant ghost of some unburied corpse. Only duty to the nascent Alexander kept her from mounting a sudden, glorious, and fatal counterattack against her pursuers, the quickest way to join her sisters.

Finally, the search moved on. A trail of clues--disrupted traffic monitors, inexplicably triggered fire alarms, disabled security devices--led her pursuers toward a planetary defense base at the southern edge of the city, which the Imperials moved hastily to reinforce. Alexander had orchestrated these deceptions as the commando lay motionless, teasing pursuit away. Let the Imperials guard their space defenses. The planet's armaments did not interest the compound mind; it wanted information.

Alexander sought secrets.

A tapping came on the metal door of the compartment, a tattoo in the distinctive rhythms of Rix battle language. The commando rolled out of her hiding place, unfolding into a human shape like a marionette pulled by its strings from a box, and found herself facing a small librarian drone. Alexander never narrowcast instructions to the Rixwoman; she was incompatible with the Empire-born mind. Rather, the compound mind guided its commando through a host of avatars--gardening robots, credit terminal screens, traffic signals sputtering battle binary. The drone wheeled about and headed down the hall of the still-evacuated library, its single rubber wheel emitting a mousy squeak as it accelerated. H_rd favored one leg as she followed, circulation returning with painful pricks and noodles after the lengthy confinement. The librarian drone moved almost too fast for her, and its squeaking wheel tortured her high-frequency hearing. H_rd felt the slightest temptation to kick the small machine, even though it was a messenger of her god. It had been long seven hours in that compartment, and the Rix were not completely without emotion.

The librarian led H_rd to a staircase, and whirred down a spiral ramp scaled to its small size as she limped down the stairs in pursuit. They descended to a deep sub-basement of the library, a place of low ceilings, narrow hallways choked with unshelved data bricks, and dim red lighting tuned for sensitive drone eyes. The Rixwoman, her circulation restored by the long climb, slipped deftly after the squeaking librarian. In a dark corner of the sub-basement, reached through a heavy blast door and smelling of disuse, though it was very clean, the drone halted and extended its data-plug. It rapped on a shelf encased in metal and webbed with security fractals and the Imperial glyph for medical records (H_rd was fluent in Imperial Navy iconography).

H_rd charged her blaster, and cycled the weapon's output down to a cutting torch. She brought the whitehot finger at its muzzle across the dense weave of security fractal, melting circuitry and metal alike.

The library system detected this depredation, and sent a flurry of messages to the local police, the Political Apparatus, and the winter and summer homes of the Master Librarian. All these were intercepted by Alexander, who responded with the official codes for a maintainence procedure. This part of the library was rated for Apparatus-grade secrets, but even the most extensive security did not anticipate the entire planet's infostructure being in the hands of the enemy. In the data-systemic sense, of course, Alexander was not the enemy at all, merely an unwanted aspect of self. Like an autoimmune disease, the defensive measures of the body infometric had been turned against itself.

With the alarm quelled, the librarian drone watched quietly as H_rd worked. The metal of the security case was slowly reduced to burn-fringed panels stacked on the hallway floor. Smoke rose to curl around insensate detectors on the ceiling, and the drone reached its dataplug into the case and began to probe one brick after another, searching for the faint scent of the data it sought: the secret implementation specs of the Empress's confidant, the key that would unlock its recordings of her final moments alive.

The compound mind smiled as fresh information began to trickle in through the narrow pipeline of the drone's dataplug. Alexander was the master, was the data here on Legis XV. Whatever secrets it chose to seek would eventually be found.

Soon, another weapon would be in its hands.

SENATOR

"So I was right."

Roger Niles had said this at least five times over the last hour. He repeated it with the glazed look of someone told of a friend's unexpected death, the periodic iterations necessary to fight off fresh surges of disbelief.

"You sound surprised," Oxham said.

"I was hoping to be wrong."

They were in Niles's den, the most secure room among her senatorial offices. The jagged spires of communication gear reddened in the setting sun, soaking the insect cities in blood. Niles was half in data fugue, trying to predict who the other members of the War Council might be. Oxham wanted forewarning about the personalities who would surround her in council, the agendas and constituencies that would be represented there. "One from the Lackey Party," Niles said. "Probably not toothless old Higgs, though. The Emperor will pick whoever is really running things in Loyalty these days."

"Raz imPar Henders."

"What makes you say that? He's first-term."

"So am I. He's the new power in Loyalty."

"His seat isn't even safe."

"I can feel it, Roger."

Niles frowned, but Oxham could see his fingers begin to flicker as he redirected his efforts.

The senator hovered in her own synesthetic wash of data, searching the Forum gossip channels and open caucuses, the newswires and polling engines. She wanted to know if her legislation, presented and then hastily withdrawn, had left any traces on the body politic. Somewhere in the hordes of media analysts, muckrakers, and political junkies, someone must have wondered what that strange and massive omnibus meant. It was only a matter of time before someone with the interest and expertise would decode the legislation, unraveling the skein of taxes, liens, and laws.

Of course, in a few days--possibly hours--the news of the Rix raid would become public. Hopefully, the reordering of power alignments and alliances, the panicked shift of markets and resources, the tidal data-surge of war would overwhelm any notice of her legislation. That was fine with Oxham. It was one thing to take jabs at the Emperor in times of peace, quite another when Empire was threatened, and still another when sitting on his War Council. Most importantly, the young senator didn't want it to look as if her seat on the council had been bought with the withdrawal of the legislation.

At least, it hadn't seemed that way to her.

"Someone from the Plague Axis, as well," Niles announced.

"Why, for heaven's sake?"

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