"I can feel it," he said flatly.
Oxham smiled. Thirty years into their shared career, and he still hated when she made appeals to her empathy. It offended his sense of politics as a human enterprise, as the human enterprise. Niles still felt that the offshoots of synesthetic implants were somehow ... superhuman.
But the Plague Axis? He must be kidding. The Risen Empire was riven between the living and the dead, and the Plague Axis were a sort of twilight zone. They were the carriers of ancient diseases, and the repositories of the old congenital defects. When humanity had started governing its own genetic destiny millennia before, too few traits had been selected for, and hordes of information irretrievably lost. Too late, eugenists had realized that most "undesirable" traits concealed advantages: sickle cell conferred resistance to dormant diseases; autism was inextricably linked to genius; certain cancers stabilized whole populations in ways that were not entirely understood. The Plague Axis, germline-natural humans subject to every whim of evolution, were essential to maintain the limited diversity of an overengineered population. They were the controls in the vast experiment that was Imperial humanity.
But to have them represented in the War Council? Oxham might have her own infirmity, her own madness, but she still shivered at the thought of lepers.
The senator brought forward the list she and Niles had constructed. By tradition, the council would have nine members, including the Emperor. Balance was the main priority; for the Senate to delegate real warmaking power to the council, all factions had to be represented. The major power blocs of Empire were relatively fixed, but the individual pieces that would fit into each of those places at the table were as variable as cards in a hand of poker. How the Emperor filled those spaces would determine the course of this war.
Interrupting these thoughts, a chime sounded in her secondary hearing, a powerful signal that broke through all other data. The note was low-pitched, the steady, awesome sound of the largest pipe on a church organ. But it carried a froth of higher frequencies: the indistinct breath of a distant sea, the fluttering of birds' wings, the stray high pitches of an orchestra tuning. The sound was sovereign, unmistakable.
"Council is called," Nara Oxham said.
She could see the overlays of secondary sight falling away from Niles's face, his attention slowly focusing on the here and now, like some subterranean creature emerging into unfamiliar sunlight.
With his dataveil removed, Niles regarded her through limpid eyes, his powerful mind for once reflected in his gaze. He spoke carefully.
"Nara, do you remember the crowds?"
He meant the crowds on Vasthold, back in her first campaigns, when she had finally put the terror of madness behind her.
"Of course, Roger. I remember."
Unlike those of most of the Empire, Vasthold's politics had never become hostage to the media feeds. There, politics was a kind of street theater. Issues were fought out face-to-face in the dense cities, in the house-to-house combat of street parades, in basement gatherings, and around park bonfires. Impromptu debates, demonstrations, and out-and-out brawls were the order of the day. To escape her old fear of masses of people, Oxham had agreed to deliver a nominating speech at a political rally. But with a willful perversity, she had only partially suppressed her empathy that day, daring the childhood demons to visit again. At first, the roiling psyches of the crowd assumed their familiar shape, a massive beast of ego and conflict, a hungry storm that wanted to consume her, incorporate her into its raging glut of passions. But Oxham had become an adult, her own ego grown stronger behind the protective barrier of the apathy drug. With her image and voice augmented by the public address system, she shouted down the old demons, rode the throng like a wild horse, worked their emotions with words, gestures, even the rhythm of her breathing. That day, she found that on the other side of terror could be found ... power.
Niles nodded; he had watched those powerful memories cross her face.
"We're very far from them now, those crowds. In the pretense of this place, it's easy to forget the real world that you came here to represent."
"I haven't forgotten, Roger. Remember, I haven't been awake as long as you. For me, it's only been two years, not ten."
One hand went to his graying hair, a smile on his face.
"Just remember then," he said. "Your cunning whorls of legislation will now represent acts of war: violence will be done and lives lost in the name of every decision you make."
"Of course, Roger. You have to understand, the Rix frontier isn't as far away as all that. Not for me."
A frown appeared on his face. She hadn't told anyone, not even Niles, about her affair with Laurent Zai. It had seemed such a brief and sudden thing. And now it was, in Niles's framework, over a decade ago.
"Someone very close to me is there, Niles. He's at the front. I'll keep him in mind, as a stand-in for all those distant, threatened lives."
Roger Niles's eyes narrowed, his high forehead wrinkling with surprise. His powerful mind must be searching for whom she might mean. Oxham was glad to know that she could still keep some things secret from her chief advisor. She was pleased that she had told no one; the affair remained hers and Laurent's alone.
Senator Nara Oxham rose. The sound of the Imperial summons hadn't faded completely from her secondary hearing; the chime shimmered like the toll of some giant bell vibrating into perpetuity. Oxham wondered if it might actually get louder should she fail to answer its summons.
Niles's face became distant again, easing back into data. Oxham knew that after she had gone, he would worry her words, and would plumb the vast store of his datatrove to discover whom she meant. And that eventually he would discover Laurent Zai.
And it crossed her mind that by then, her lover might already be dead.
"I take your concerns with me, Roger. This war is very real."
"Thank you, Senator. The trust of Vasthold is with you."
The old ritual phrase, to which Senators were sworn before they left Vasthold for fifty years. Niles uttered it so sadly that she turned to look at his face again. But already the veil had fallen over him. He descended into his virtual realm, searching an empire's worth of data for answers to ... a war.
For a moment, he looked small and forlorn under his towering equipment, the weight of Empire upon him, and she stopped at the door. She had to show him, to let Niles see the token of love she carried.
Oxham held up a small black object in her hand, striped with yellow warning circuitry. A single-purpose remote, encoded with a Senatorial Urgent message. It was marked with her personal privilege--highest priority transmission over the Empire's entanglement net, one-time encryption, sealed eyes-only under Penalty of Blood--and keyed to her DNA, her pheromonal profile, and voiceprint.
Niles looked at the object, his eyes clearing. She had his attention.
"I may be using this while sitting in the War Council. Will it work from the Diamond Palace?"
"Yes. Legally speaking, the Rubicon Pale extends from the Forum to wherever you go, along a nanometer-wide gerrymander."
She smiled, visualizing this baroque legal fiction.
"How long will it take the message to get to Legis XV?"
His eyebrows raised at the planet's name. Now he knew that her lover was truly at the front.
"How long is the message?"
Niles nodded. "Entangled communications are instantaneous, but unless the shared quantum packets the receiver is using were physically transported directly from Home--"
"They were," she said.
"On a warship."
"Then, no time at all." Niles paused, searching Oxham's eyes for some sign of her intentions. "May I ask what the message is?"
"Don't," she said. EXECUTIVE OFFICER
Hobbes stood nervously at attention as Zai worked gestural codes at the small interface beside the observation blister's door.
She stared down into the void. The usual vertigo created by the transparent floor was gone, replaced by the crushing weight of failure. A dead, empty feeling pulsed in her gut. A bright taste like a metal coin under the tongue fouled her mouth. Her careful study of the hostage rescue, the sleepless hours spent poring over every frame of the engagement from dozens of viewpoints, had amounted to nothing. She had not saved her captain, had only managed to make him furious.
There seemed to be no way to bend the rigid spine of Zai's Vadan upbringing. No way to convince him that it had been the politicals and not military personnel who had botched the rescue. The initiate had gone down against the captain's protests, waving an imperial writ; why couldn't Captain Zai see that he was blameless?
At least they should take the evidence before a military court. Zai was a hero, an elevated officer. He couldn't throw his life away for the sake of brutal, pointless tradition.
Executive Officer Hobbes was from a Utopian world, an anomaly among the military classes. She had rejected the hedonistic ways of her own home-world, attracted by the rituals of the grays, their traditions and discipline. Their lives of service made the grays otherworldly to Katherie, uninterested in the brief pleasures of the flesh. For Hobbes, Captain Laurent Zai embodied this gray stoicism, quiet and strong on his cold bridge, his craggy face uncorrected by cosmetic surgery.
But underneath, Hobbes could see the wounded humanity in him: the marks of his unbelievable suffering on Dhantu, the melancholy dignity with which he carried himself, the regret every time he lost a "man."
And now her captain's sense of honor demanded suicide of him. Suddenly, the religious surety and gray traditions that Hobbes found so compelling seemed simply barbaric, a brutal web in which her captain had trapped himself, a willful and pathetic blindness. Zai's acquiescence was far more bitter than his anger.
He turned from the controls.
"Steady yourself," he ordered.
The floor lurched, as if the ship had accelerated. Hobbes barely kept her footing, the universe become briefly unhinged around her. Then the transparent surface under her stabilized, and she saw what had happened. The blister had become a true bubble, floating free of the ship, tethered only by the ship's gravity generators, filled only with the air and heat trapped within its walls. The gravity felt wrong, cast across the void by the Lynx's generators to create a tentative up in this small pocket of air.
Hobbes's vertigo returned with a vengeance.
"We can talk freely now, Hobbes."
She nodded slowly, careful not to disturb her plaintive inner ear.
"You don't seem to understand what's at stake here," Zai said. "For the first time in sixteen centuries, a member of the Imperial household has died. And she was lost not to a freak accident, but to enemy action."
"Enemy action, sir?" she dared. "Yes, dammit. The Rix caused all this!" he shouted. "It doesn't matter who pulled the trigger of that blaster. Whether it was a Rix playing dead or an imbecile political gone mad from an insertion injury: it doesn't matter. The Empress is dead. They won; we lost."
Hobbes focused on her boots, willing a visible floor into existence below them.
"You're about to have command of this vessel, Hobbes. You must understand that with command comes responsibility. I ordered that rescue. I must stand by its results, no matter what."
She looked at the space that separated them from the Lynx. No sound vibrations could cross that gap; the captain had made sure of that. She could speak freely.
"You objected to the initiate going down, sir."
"He had a writ, Hobbes. My objection was pointless posturing."
"Your rescue plan was sound, sir. The Emperor made the mistake, giving those fools a writ."
The captain sucked a harsh breath in through his teeth. However cautious Zai was being, Hobbes knew that he hadn't expected to hear words like this.
"That's sedition, Executive Officer."
"It's the truth, sir."
He took two steps toward her, closer than Vadan fastidiousness had ever allowed him before. He spoke clearly, in a voice just above a whisper.
"Listen, Hobbes. I'm dead. A ghost. There is no tomorrow for me, whatsoever. No truth can save me. You seem confused about that. And you also seem to think that the truth will protect you and the rest of the Lynx's officers. It will not."
She could barely meet his gaze. A few flecks of saliva borne on his harsh words had reached her face. They stung her; they were shameful. The bright sun was rising behind the bulk of the Lynx. The blister's skin was polarized, but she could feel the temperature rising in the unregulated bubble. A trickle of sweat ran under one arm.
"If there are any more briefings like the one a few minutes ago, you'll be killing yourself and my other officers. I will not permit it."
She swallowed, blinked in the suddenly harsh sunlight. Dizziness rose in her. Was the oxygen running out so fast?
"Stop trying to save me, Hobbes! That's an order. Is it clear enough?"
She just wanted him to stop. She wanted to return to the solid boundaries of the ship. To surety and order. Safety from this void.
"Thank you," he spat.
Captain Zai turned and took a step away, facing the bauble of Legis XV hanging in the blackness. He uttered a command, and she felt the tug of the frigate reclaiming its tiny satellite.
They said nothing more as the blister reattached itself to the Lynx. When the door opened, Zai dismissed her with a wave. She could see the black, single-purpose remote in his hand. His blade of error.
"Report to the bridge, Executive Officer. You will be needed there shortly."
To take command. A field promotion, they would call it.
"Do not disturb me again."
The executive officer obeyed, stepping from the blister into the rush of cool, fresh air that surged from the Lynx. Hobbes felt she should glance back at her captain, if only to create a last memory to replace that of his angry, spitting face, centimeters from hers. But she couldn't bring herself to turn around.
Instead, she wiped her face and ran.
The librarian drone puttered among the data bricks, a dull-witted child unsure of which toy to play with. It moved fitfully, searching for some secret entombed within their crisp, rectangular forms. H_rd, having emptied the security case, sat patiently by, listening for any sound from above.
At first, the library basement had made her nervous. The Rix didn't like being trapped belowground. She and her drop-sisters had been raised in space, tumbling into gravity wells only on training exercises and combat missions. H_rd felt crushed under the weight of metal and stone. An hour ago, she had left the fidgeting drone behind and reconnoitered the ground floor, installing motion alarms at each entrance. But the surrounding streets were empty; her pursuers had clearly moved on, following some false trail created by Alexander. And this part of the city was still evacuated from the militia's search.
She and her drone had the library to themselves.
It was hard to imagine that the crude little device was actually animated by Alexander, an intelligence of planetary scale. The drone's single wheel allowed it to whir efficiently through the neat stacks, but here among the debris of the ruined case it was reduced to unsure, stuttering motions: a unicyclist negotiating a construction site. H_rd watched the comical display with a smile. Even the company of a speechless robot was better than being alone.
Suddenly, the drone seemed to flinch, plunging its dataplug farther into the brick before it with an obscene hunger. After a moment of vibrating wildly, the little device released the brick and spun around. Dodging debris with renewed vigor, it took off down the narrow aisle at top speed.
H_rd stood slowly, her body rippling as she went through a two-second regime that stretched each of her eleven hundred muscles in turn. No point in rushing; the drone could not outrun her. With a single leap, H_rd cleared the rubbish of her vandalism, then turned back toward the pile. She set her blaster low and wide, and sprayed the data bricks with enough radiation to erase their contents, and any clues as to what Alexander had found here. The fire suppression node above her head chirped, but was overridden before it could spray any foam.
H_rd turned and ran. In a few long-legged strides, she was right behind the little drone, strange companions in the dark stacks of the abandoned library. The whine of its monowheel blended with the subtler, ultrasonic whir of her servomotors.
She followed it up the ramps, through the basement levels and to the ground floor. The drone rolled squeaking among the staff desks, and through a portal in the wall scaled exactly to its size, like a door for pets. This obstacle course was designed for the drone's use, not that of two-meter amazons, and the challenge put a smile back on the commando's face. H_rd dove, leapt, and weaved, sticking close to her small charge, which brought her to a back office. The drone skidded to a halt beside an unruly pile of plastic squares, roughly the size of a human hand.
The Rixwoman picked one of the devices up. It was a secured handscreen, a rare physical storage and display device in a universe of omnipresent infostructure and secondary sight. Commandos, of course, fought on hostile worlds where the local infostructure was inaccessible, and H_rd had used such a device before. A library of this type would use them to allow its patrons to exit with sensitive information, the kind that had to stay outside the public sphere. The handscreen would be equipped with limited intelligence and governors to keep the wrong persons from accessing its contents.
The drone plugged into one of the devices, and the two were locked in a momentary, shuddering embrace. Then the screen hummed to life.
The Rixwoman took it from the drone. On the top page was a map of the planet, a route marked in pulsing colors. She worked the limited interface with her quick fingers, and found that the machine contained thousands of pages, a detailed plan for reaching her next goal: the entangled communications facility in the polar sink. The gateway of all information into and out of the Legis system.
Four thousand kilometers away.
H_rd sighed, and looked accusingly at the little drone.
Every Rix sibling group who had volunteered for this raid had realized that it was fundamentally a suicide mission. To plant the seed of a compound mind was a glorious blow against the Risen Empire, and the raiders had succeeded beyond all expectation. For the first time, a Rix mind had emerged upon an Imperial world. That a full-scale war might result was irrelevant. The Rix did not distinguish between states of war and peace with the various political entities that bordered upon their serpentine amalgam of bases. Their society was a constant jihad, a ceaseless missionary effort to propagate compound minds.
But four thousand kilometers through hostile territory? Alone?
Generally, suicide missions at least had the advantage of being brief.
H_rd flipped among the pages on the handscreen, and found a map of the planetary maglev system. At least she wouldn't have to walk. She also discovered the medical records of a particular conscript in the Legis militia, one who resembled H_rd, and had expertise necessary for the mission. The Rix commando realized that Alexander wanted her to go undercover, to pass as a standard Imperial human. How distasteful.
She moved toward the library exit. Best to take advantage of the evacuated streets while she could.
The squeal of the drone's wheel followed H_rd to the door. It darted in front of her, almost spinning out of control in its haste to block her path.
H_rd was brought up short. Did it think it was coming?
Then she realized its purpose. Alexander had downloaded the precious secret it sought through the memory of the little drone. There might be some residue, some backup somewhere from which the Imperials could extract what Alexander had learned.
The commando set her blaster to high, and leveled it at the drone. The machine backed away. That was just Alexander, being careful to keep H_rd out of the blast radius. But the little device seemed nervous on its single, unsteady wheel, as if it knew it was about to die.
H_rd felt a strange reluctance to destroy the drone. For a few hours, it had been a companion here on this lonely, unRix world, a little sister of sorts. That was an odd way to think of the drone, which was an embodiment of one of her gods. But she felt as if she were killing a friend.
Still, orders were orders.
She closed her eyes and pressed the firing stud. Plasma leapt from the mouth of the blaster, disintegrating the drone in a gout of fire and metal parts, which H_rd leapt over, passing into the dark night beyond.
Running between quiet buildings, she shook off the feeling of loneliness. Alexander was still here all around her, watching through every doorway monitor, concealing her passage with feints and deceptions. She was the compound mind's one human agent on this hostile world: beloved.
H_rd ran fast and hard. She was doing the will of the gods.