This time, the journey to the Diamond Palace was by tunnel, a route Senator Oxham hadn't known existed. The trip lasted seconds; the acceleration registered by her middle ear seemed insufficient for the distance.
Oxham was met by a young aspirant in the Political Apparatus. His black uniform creaked--new leather--as they walked down the broad hallway. Although her apathy was set very low to allow her abilities full rein for the first session of the council, she felt nothing from the aspirant. He must have been particularly susceptible to Apparatus conditioning. Perhaps he had been chosen for that very reason. His mind was tangibly barren; she sensed only tattered remainders of will, the cold stumps of a burned forest.
She was glad to reach the council chamber, if only to escape the chilly umbra of the man's psychic absence.
The chamber of the War Council, like most of the Diamond Palace, was formed of structured carbon. Woven throughout the palace's crystalline walls were airscreen projectors, recording devices, and an Imperially huge reserve of data. It was rumored that within the structure's expansive processors an entity with limited agency had arisen, a sort of minor compound mind that the Emperor indulged. The palace was abundant with devices and intelligence, and infused with the mystique that comes of being a focus of awesome power, but its floor had a mineral solidity under Senator Oxham's feet. It felt as dumb as stone.
She was the last to arrive. The others waited in silence as she took a seat.
The chamber itself was small compared with the other Imperial enclosures that Oxham had seen. There were no gardens, no high columns, no wildlife or tricks with gravity. Not even a table. A shallow, circular pit was cut into the glassy floor, and the nine counselors sat at its edge, like some midnight cabal gathered around a disused fountain. The floor of the pit was not the same hypercarbon as the rest of the palace. It was opaque, an off-white, pearly horn.
There was a simplicity to the setting that Oxham had to admire.
Her artificial secondary senses had faded as she approached the chamber; now she was cut off from the purr of newsfeed and politics, communications and data overlays. As she sat down, the senator was struck by the sudden silence that was the absence of the summons, the grave tone in her head finally extinguished.
It was quiet, here in this diamond hall.
"War Council is in session," said the Emperor.
Oxham's eyes took in the council members, and she found that Niles's predictions, as usual, had proved very accurate. One counselor was present from each of the four major parties, including herself. She'd been right about Raz imPar Henders representing Loyalty. The counselors from the Utopian Party and the Expansionists were both as Niles had predicted. And his wildest guess also proved correct: an envoy from the Plague Axis, its gender concealed by the necessary biosuit, was seated at a lonely end of the circle.
The two dead counselors were both military, as always. One admiral and one general. The wild card, as Niles called the traditionally nonpolitical and nonmilitary seat on the council, was held by the intellectual property magnate Ax Milnk. Oxham had never seen her in person; the woman's truly extraordinary wealth kept her in a constant womb of security, usually on one of her private moons around Home's sister planet, Shame. Oxham sensed Milnk's discomfort at being removed from her usual retinue of bodyguards. A misplaced fear: the Diamond Palace was safer than the grave.
"To be absolutely precise," the dead general said, "we are not yet a war council proper. The Senate doesn't even know of our existence yet. We act now only with the ordinary powers of the Risen Emperor: control of the Navy, the Apparatus, and the Living Will."
Power enough, thought Oxham. The military, the political service, and the unfathomable wealth of the Living Will--the accumulated property of those who had been elevated, which was willed to the Emperor as a matter of custom. One of the driving forces of the Eighty Worlds' rampant capitalism was that the very rich were almost always elevated. Another was that the next generation had to start all over: inheritance was for the lower classes.
"I am sure that once the Senate is informed of these Rix depredations, we will be given full status," Raz imPar Henders said, performing his lackey function. He intoned the words prayerfully, like some not very bright village proctor reassuring his flock of heaven. Oxham had to remind herself not to underestimate the man. As she'd sensed in the last few sessions, Senator Henders had begun to take control of the Loyalty Party, even though he was only midway through his first term. His planet wasn't even a safe seat, swinging between Secularist and Loyal representatives for the last three centuries. He must be brilliant tactician, or a favorite of the Emperor. By its very nature, Loyalty was a party of the old guard, bound by staid traditions of succession. Henders was an anomaly to be carefully watched.
"Perhaps we should leave the question of our status to the Senate," Oxham said. Her brash words were rewarded by a flush of surprise from Henders. Oxham let the ripple of her statement settle, then added, "As per tradition."
At this last word, Henders nodded reflexively.
"True," the Risen Emperor agreed, a smile playing in the subtle muscles around his mouth. After centuries of absolute power, His Majesty must be enjoying the tension of this mix. "We may have mispoken ourselves. The Provisional War Council is in session, then."
Henders settled himself visibly. However keen a politician, the man was terribly easy to read. He had been ruffled by the exchange; he couldn't bear to hear the words of the Risen One contradicted, even on technical grounds.
"The Senate will ratify us soon enough, when they learn what has happened on Legis XV," Henders said coldly.
Nara Oxham felt her breath catch. Here it was, news of the rescue attempt. The pleasure of rattling Henders was extinguished, reduced to the helpless anxiety of a hospital waiting room. Her awareness narrowed to the face of the gray general who had spoken. She searched his pallid, cold visage for clues, her empathy almost useless with this ancient, lifeless man.
Niles had been right. This was no game. This was lives saved or lost.
"Three hours ago," the dead general continued, "we received confirmation that the Empress Anastasia was killed in cold blood by her captors, even as rescue reached her."
The chamber was silent. Oxham felt her heartbeat pounding in one temple, her own reaction reinforced by the empathic forces in the room. Senator Henders's visceral horror arced through Nara. Ax Milnk's reflexive fear of instability and chaos welled up in her like panic. As if her teeth were biting glass, Nara experienced the grim pain of the general remembering ancient battles. And throughout the chamber, a sovereign shudder built like the approach of some great hurricane--the group realization that there was finally, irrevocably, certainly going to be war.
As when she awoke from coldsleep, Oxham felt overwhelmed by the emotions around her. She felt herself dragged down again toward madness, into the formless chaos of the group mind. Even the voices of the capital's billions intruded; the white-noise scream of unbridled politics and commerce, the raw, screeching metal of the city's mindstorm all threatened to take her over.
Her fingers fumbled for her apathy bracelet, releasing a dose of the drug. The familiar hiss of transdermal injection calmed her, a totem to hang on to until the empathy suppressant could take effect. The drug acted quickly. She felt reality rush back into the room, crowding out the wheeling demons as her ability dulled. The awesome, somber silence returned.
The dead admiral was talking now, giving particulars of the rescue attempt. Troops descending in their blazing smallcraft, a firefight sprawling across the great palace, and one last Rix commando playing dead, killing the Child Empress even as the battle was won.
The words meant nothing to Nara Oxham. All she knew was that her lover was a dead man, doomed by an Error of Blood. He would settle his affairs, prepare his crew for his death, and then plunge a dull ceremonial blade into his belly. The power of tradition, the relentless fixity of gray culture, his own sense of honor would compel him to complete the act.
Oxham pulled the message remote from her sleeve pocket. She felt its tiny mouth nibble at her palm, tasting sweat and flesh. Verifying her identity, it hummed with approval. Nara pressed the device to her throat, unwatched as the council attended to the droning admiral.
"Send," she said, at the threshold between voice and whisper.
The device vibrated for a moment with life, then went still, its purpose expended.
She imagined the tiny packet of information slipping down the thread of its Rubicon gerrymander, inviolate as it passed through the palace's brilliant facets. Then it would thrust into the torrent of the capital's infostructure, a water-walking insect braving a raging river. But the packet possessed senatorial privilege; it would exercise absolute priority, surging past the queue awaiting off-world transmission, flitting through the web of repeaters, as fleet as an Imperial decree.
The message would reach an entanglement facility somewhere buried under kilometers of lead, a store of half-particles whose doppelg ngers waited on Imperial warships, or had been transported by near-lightspeed craft to other planets in the realm. With unbelievable precision, certain photons suspended in a weakly interacting array would be collapsed, thrust from their coherent state into the surety of measurement. And ten light-years away, their doppelg ngers on the Lynx would react, also falling from the knife's edge. The pattern of this change--the set of positions in the array that had discohered--would comprise a message to the Lynx.
Just reach him in time, she willed the missive.
Then Senator Nara Oxham forced her attention back to the cold planes of the council chamber, and forcibly banished all thoughts of Laurent Zai from her mind.
She had a war to prosecute.
The blade rested in Zai's hand, black against black infinity, waiting only for him to squeeze.
Hard to believe what that one gesture would trigger. Convulsions throughout the ship as it shifted into combat configuration, the dash to battle stations of three hundred men, weapons crash-charged and wheeling as AI searched vainly for incoming enemy craft. Not entirely a waste of energy, Zai thought. War was coming here to the Rix frontier, and it would be good practice for the crew of the Lynx to run an unexpected battle-stations drill. Perhaps performing the EVA maneuvers of a body recovery--their captain's corpse--would impress them with the seriousness of being on the front line of a new Rix incursion.
Not that he'd meant this means of suicide as a training exercise. Bringing the ship to emergency status was simply the only way to override the safeties that protected the observation blister.
What a strange way to kill myself, he thought. Laurent Zai wondered what perversity of spirit had led him to choose this particular blade of error. Decompression was hardly an instantaneous death. How long did it take a human being to die in hard vacuum? Ten seconds? Thirty? And those moments would be painful. The rupture of eyes and lungs, the bursting of blood vessels in the brain, the explosive expansion of nitrogen bubbles in the knee joints.
Probably too much pain for the human mind to register, too many extraordinary violations of the body all at once. At what point was a chorus of agonies overwhelmed by sheer surprise? Zai wondered. However long he stood here facing the blackness and contemplating what was about to happen, his nervous system was unlikely to be in any way prepared.
Of course, the traditional ceremony of error--a dull weapon thrust into your belly, watching as your pulse splattered onto a ritual mat--was hardly pleasant. But as an elevated man, Laurent Zai could choose any means of suicide. He didn't have to suffer. There were painless ways out, even quite pleasurable ones. A century ago, the elevated Transbishop Mater Silver had killed herself with halcionide, gasping with orgasm as she went.
But Zai wanted to feel the void. However painful, he wanted to know what had lurked all those years on the other side of the hullalloy. He was in love with space, emptiness, always had been. Now he would meet it face to face.
In any case, his decision was made. Zai had chosen, and like all command officers, he knew the dangers of second-guessing oneself. Besides, he had other things to think about.
Laurent Zai closed his eyes and sighed. The blister was sealed from the crew by his command. He would be alone here until the end; there was no longer any need to show strength for the sake of his shipmates. One by one, he relaxed the rigid controls he had forced upon his thoughts. For the first time since his error had been committed, Zai allowed himself the luxury of thinking about her--Senator Nara Oxham.
By Imperial Absolute, it had been ten years since he had last seen his lover. But in the long acceleration spinward, the Time Thief had stolen more than eight of those years, leaving Zai's memory--the color of her eyes, the scent of her--still fresh. And Nara also suspended herself in time. As a senator, she spent the frequent legislative breaks in stasis sleep, enfolded in a cocoon of temporal arrest. That image of her, a sleeping princess waiting for him, had sustained him for these last relative years. He'd entertained the romantic notion that their romance would beat time, lasting through the long, cold decades of separation, intact while the universe reeled forward.
It had seemed that way. Zai was elevated, immortal. Nara was a senator, almost certainly eligible for elevation once she renounced her Secularist deathwish. Even the pinkest politicians sometimes did, ultimately. They were two immortals, safe from the ravages of time, preserved from their long separations by relativity itself.
But time, it seemed, was not the only enemy. Zai opened his eyes and regarded the black remote before him.
It was death, in his hand.
Death was the real thief, of course. It always had been. Love was fragile and hapless compared to it. Since humans had first gained self-awareness, they had been stalked by the specter of extinction, of nothingness. And since the first humanlike primate had learned to smash another's skull, death was the ultimate arbiter of power. It was no wonder that the Risen Emperor was worshiped as a god. To those who served him faithfully, he offered salvation from humanity's oldest enemy.
And demanded death itself for those who failed him.
Best to get it over with, Laurent Zai thought. Tradition had to be served.
Zai touched his hands together as if to pray.
His stomach clenched. He smelled it on his hands, that shame from childhood, when he had prayed to the Emperor for taller classmates. He felt the bile that had risen on that afternoon at the soccer field, when he felt with childish surety that he himself had caused the Krupp Reich plague. The heavy-handed Vadan propaganda still informed him somehow. He smelled vomit on his hands.
And instead of praying to the Emperor, instead of saying the ritual words of suicide, he whispered, "Nara, I'm so sorry," again and again.
The remote was hard in his hand, but Laurent Zai didn't reach for death. Not yet.
Message for Captain Laurent Zai, came the prompt in second sight.
He opened his eyes and shook his head in disbelief.
"Hobbes..." he sighed. He had left specific orders. Would the woman not let him die?
But his executive officer did not respond. Zai looked more closely at the hovering missive, and swallowed. It was eyes-only, under penalty of blood. It had bypassed the bridge altogether, looking for him alone, under senatorial seal.
Nara. She knew.
The situation here on Legis XV was subject to the highest order of secrecy. The Lynx's marines had locked down the planet in the first hours of the crisis, occupying the polar entanglement facility that allowed translight communication. Even the ubiquitous Rix compound mind was cut off from the rest of the Empire.
Among the Senate, only a select few would know that the Empress was dead. The propaganda machine of the Political Apparatus would prepare the body public very carefully for the news. But evidently Nara knew. Senator Oxham must have risen high in the ranks of her party these last ten years.
Or could the message be a coincidence? Surely that was absurd; Nara wouldn't contact him casually with a message sealed under penalty of blood. She had to know about his error.
He didn't want to open the message, didn't want to see Nara's words borne by his defeat, his extinction. Laurent Zai had promised to return, and had failed her. Use the blade now, he told himself. Spare yourself this pain.
But a senatorial seal was an agent of some intelligence. It would know that it had reached the Lynx successfully, and that Zai wasn't dead yet. It would report back to Nara that he had rejected it, just as any intelligent missive would. The seal would record his last betrayal.
He had to read it. Anything less would be cruel.
Laurent Zai sighed. A life spent in service of tradition, but he was apparently not destined to die cleanly.
He opened his palm before him as if to receive a gift, that first interface gesture taught to children.
The senatorial seal expanded before him, cut with the crimson bar sinister of Vasthold. Nara Oxham's formal titles were vaguely visible in tertiary sight.
"Captain Laurent Zai," he said to it.
The seal didn't break. Its security AI wasn't satisfied yet. Thin lasers from the Lynx proper washed Zai's hands, covering them with a shimmering red patina. He turned them over, letting the lasers read the whorls of his fingertips and palms. Then they moved up and played across his eyes.
Still the seal remained.
"Godspite!" he swore. Senatorial security was far more cautious than the military's.
He pressed his right wrist against the signet on his left shoulder. The smart metal of the signet vibrated softly, tasting his skin and sweat. There was a pause as DNA was sequenced, pheromones sniffed, blood latticed.
Finally the seal broke.
The message spilled out, in senatorial white against the depthless black of space. It hovered there, text only, absolutely still and silent, as clear as something real and solid. Just one word.
The message said:
Zai blinked, then shook his head.
He had the feeling that this would not be easy. That nothing would ever be easy again.
EXECUTIVE OFFICER Katherie Hobbes felt small in the shipmaster's chair.
She had called the command officers to the bridge, wanting her senior staff at their stations when the battle-stations clarion sounded. None of them questioned her. As they arrived, they noted her position at the con, met her eyes briefly, and silently took their positions.
Hobbes wondered how many of the senior staff would accept her as acting captain. She had never fit in with the other officers on board Zai's ship. Her Utopian upbringing was inescapably obvious; the cosmetic surgery that was common on her home planet made her beauty too obvious here on the very gray Lynx.
The staff looked duly serious, at least. Hobbes had set the temperature of the bridge to ten degrees centigrade, a sign that every member of Zai's crew knew well. Their breaths were phantoms barely visible in the dim, action-ready lighting. She knew there would be no mistakes during the drill, or during the body recovery. However the politicals had screwed up the rescue, this crew felt they had failed their captain once. They were all determined not to let that happen again, Hobbes was confident.
But the shipmaster's chair still seemed gigantic. The airscreens that surrounded her were fewer than at the ExO's station, but they were more complex, crowded with overrides, feedback shunts, and command icons. The airscreens at her old position were simply for monitoring. These had power. From this chair, Hobbes could exercise control over every aspect of the Lynx.
Such potential power at her fingertips felt perilous. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, or aiming a tactical warhead at a large city. One nudge to the controls, one sudden movement, and far too much would happen. Irrecoverably.
From the chair's higher vantage, she could see the entirety of the huge bridge airscreen. It showed the Lynx, scaled small but ready to come into sudden bloom when Captain Zai unleashed his blade of error. The deployment of the energy-sink manifold alone would increase the vessel's size by an order of magnitude. The Lynx would bristle like some spiny, startled creature, the power of its drive flowing into weapons and shields, geysers of plasma readied, ranks of drones primed. But one soft part of its lethal anatomy would be sloughed off, almost as an afterthought. With its integrity field snapped off, the observation blister would explode like a toy balloon.
Her captain would tumble out into naked space, and die.
Hobbes reviewed the steps she'd taken to try to save her captain. The images from the short firefight still played in her mind when she closed her eyes. She and the tactical staff had even synthed a physical model of the palace in the forward mess, had painstakingly traced the movement of every commando, every marine during the encounter. Hobbes had known that there must be something there to absolve Zai of responsibility, if only she could search harder, longer, build more models and simulations. The possibility that there was simply nothing to find, that the situation was hopeless, had never crossed her mind.
But now she remembered the look on Laurent's face as he had dressed her down, and Hobbes despaired. His anger had broken something inside her, something she hadn't realized was there, that she had foolishly allowed to grow. And the bitter shame of it was that she actually thought Laurent might save himself for her: Katherie Hobbes.
But that foolishness would be lost forever in the next few minutes, along with her captain.
Hobbes's fingers grasped the wide arms of the con. All this power within arm's reach, and she had never felt more helpless. She looked down at the Lynx in the airscreen. Soon, it would unfold into battle configuration, suddenly and terribly beautiful. The deed would be done. Hobbes almost
wanted the clarion to sound. At least then this waiting would be over.
The voice came from behind her.
"I'll take the chair now."
Even as her mind seemed to crash, the imperatives of duty and habit took over her body. Hobbes stood and turned, taking one respectful step away from the station that wasn't hers. Vision reddened at the edges, as if an acceleration blackout were closing in.
"Captain on the bridge," she managed.
The confused bridge crew snapped to attention.
He nodded and took the shipmaster's chair, and she took careful steps back toward her usual station. She slipped into its familiar contours still in shock.
She looked up at Zai.
"The drill we spoke of is canceled, Hobbes," he said quietly. "Not postponed. Canceled."
She nodded dumbly.
He turned to regard the airscreen, and Hobbes saw the other officers quickly turn their startled faces to their own stations. A few looked at her questioningly. She could only swallow and stare at her captain.
Zai looked down at the image of the Lynx, and smiled.
If Hobbes understood him correctly, Laurent Zai had just thrown away all honor, all dignity, every tradition he had been raised upon.
And he looked ... happy.
Her words had made a difference to him. For a long, strange moment, Katherie couldn't take her gaze from the captain's face.
Then a troubled look came over Zai. He glanced sharply down at her.
"Pray tell me. Why is it so damned cold on my bridge?" TEN YEARS EARLIER
Laurent began talking about Dhantu quite suddenly.
Nara could feel his injuries, the strange absences in his body. The prosthetics were lifeless and invisible to her empathy, but psychic phantom limbs overlay them, hovering like nervous ghosts. Laurent Zai's body was still whole in his own mind. One arm, both legs, even the cavity of the artificial digestive tract glowed hyperreal, as if Laurent were a photograph garishly retouched by hand.
The apathy in Nara's system was slowly losing effect as the drug filtered from her blood, her empathy growing stronger by the hour. Oxham's abilities recovered from chemical suppression in two stages: first with a sudden rush of increased sensitivity, then more gradually, a timid animal emerging after a storm.
Even here in the refuge of her polar house, thousands of kilometers from the nearest city, Nara was anxious about complete withdrawal. Laurent's presence in this sanctum was an unknown quantity. He was her first guest here at the polar estate, and the first person in whose presence she had totally freed her empathic ability since coming to the Imperial home world.
She wondered what had possessed her to bring the gray warrior here. Why had she been so open about her childhood? He was, after all, one of the enemy. Nara tasted embarrassment now, the long discussion of her own madness flat and metallic in her mouth. And the sting of Laurent's words: That's insane.
She was silent now, letting her mind drift while the hearthfire burned itself low.
Nara's polar estate was a kingdom of silence. In the unpopulated south, her unleashed empathy could extend for kilometers, searching for human emotions like a vine seeking water. It sometimes seemed that she could enter the cool, slow thoughts of the plants in the house's many gardens. Away from the capital's throngs, she felt transported back to the empty expanses of Vasthold.
But when Lieutenant-Commander Zai began his tale, her empathy pulled itself back from the wastelands and came to a focus on this quiet, intense man, and on the old pain deep inside him.
"The Dhantu punitive expedition was requested by a local governor," Zai said, his eyes on a distant snowmelt waterfall. It tumbled onto the surface of the great glacier that approached the house from the east, the collision of temperatures raising a misty veil across the slowly setting sun.
"The governor was a sympathizer, it was later discovered," he said. "She came from a very good family, from among the first allies of the Emperor on Dhantu. But she had harbored traitorous thoughts since childhood. She wrote about it before her execution, bragging that she had achieved the office of Governor Prefectural on the power of hatred alone. A household nanny had raised her from birth to despise the Emperor and the Occupation."
"The hand that rocks the cradle," Oxham observed.
"We have no servants on Vada."
"Nor on Vasthold, Laurent."
He smiled at her, perhaps recognizing that the spartan ways of his gray planet were not too different from the austere meritocracy of the Secularists. Though polar opposites politically, neither of them were Utopians. Both monks and atheists trod on bare floors.
Nara realized that Laurent had used the word occupation to describe what was officially known as the "Ongoing Liberation of Dhantu." Of course, he had seen firsthand the excesses of direct Imperial rule, and its effect on the Dhantu heart. He was beyond euphemisms.
Zai swallowed, and Nara felt a chill in him, a shudder through the phantom limbs.