"The governor directed us to a secret meeting place of the resistance, whore she said a high-level parley among its factions would take place. We sent a contingent of marines, hoping to capture a handful of resistance leaders."
"But it was a trap," she remembered.
The lieutenant-commander nodded. "The walls of the canyon had been carefully prepared, natural iron deposits configured to baffle our intelligence small craft, to hide the ambush. When the resistance fighters appeared in force, it was as if they had materialized from thin air."
She began to recall the details of the Dhantu incident, which had consumed the media for months, especially on anti-Occupation Vasthold.
"You weren't actually with the landing force, were you, Laurent?"
"Correct. The insertion force was strictly marines. The trap closed quickly, with only a few shots fired. From up in space, we could see through small-craft recon that our marines would be wiped out if they fought. We ordered a stand-down."
"But Private Anante Vargas had been killed in the first exchange of fire," he said.
Nara nodded. She remembered the official narrative now, the hero Zai trading himself for a dead man.
"His armor diagnostics showed that he'd died cleanly, a chest wound. If we could get the body up within forty minutes, he would take the symbiant easily."
"But they wouldn't give him up without an exchange."
Laurent's eyes closed, and Nara felt a deep, anguished tremor from the man. She struggled to pinpoint the emotion.
"There was a confluence of interests," he explained. "The resistance would get another living hostage; we would retrieve our dead. But they demanded a command officer. They asked for a member of the Apparatus, but there were no politicals aboard our ship. They knew that we wouldn't give them the captain, but a lieutenant-commander would do."
"Were you ordered, Laurent?"
"No," he said, shaking his head slowly. "The propaganda version is true. I volunteered."
There was the anguish again, as clear as words. If only it could have been someone else. Anyone else. But this regret was entangled with Laurent's guilt at his own thoughts. In Zai's gray world, the honored dead were by any measure worth more than the living.
"I inserted in an up-down pod. Ballistic entry, with crude rockets to get it back up. Not much bigger than a coffin."
"You trusted them?"
"My captain had stated quite clearly that if they reneged on the deal, he'd collapse the whole canyon with a railgun strike, kill us all. So I stepped out of the pod reasonably sure that they'd give up Vargas.
"Two of the resistance fighters brought Vargas's body over, and I helped them load him. For a moment, the three of us were human beings. We carried the lifeless man together, arranged his hands and feet in the jumpseat. Prepared him for his journey.
"Then we stepped back and I spoke to my ship for the last time, saying Vargas was ready. The pod ignited, carried him heavenward. I suppose I began the Warrior's Prayer out of reflex. The prayer is Vadan aboriginal, pre-Imperial, actually. But one of the two resistance fighters didn't hear it that way. He struck me down from behind."
He shook his head, bewildered.
"I had just handled the dead with these men."
Nara felt his horror in waves. Laurent, poor gray man, was still aghast that the Dhanti could have so little respect for ritual, for the Old Enemy, death. That blow from behind had made Zai more bitter than his months of torture, more anguished than having to walk into the trap of his own free will, sadder than watching his fellow captives die one by one. Nara could hear the question inside Laurent: the two guerrillas had handled the dead with him, and they wouldn't let him finish a simple prayer. Were they utterly empty?
"Laurent," she offered, "they'd seen millions die on their world, without any hope of resurrection."
He nodded slowly, almost respectfully. "Then they should know that death is beyond our political feuds."
Death is our political feud, Nara Oxham thought, but said nothing.
The sunset had turned red. Here in the unpolluted air of the deep south, the sunset lasted for two hours in summer. Nara knelt to place more wood on the fire. Laurent settled beside her, passing logs from the fireside pile. The house grew its own wood, a vanilla-scented cedar engineered for fast growth and slow burning. But it took a long time to dry properly, and hissed and smoked when wet. Zai hefted each piece in his hand, discarding those still heavy with water.
"You've built a fire before," Nara said.
He nodded. "My family has a cabin in the high forests of the Valhalla range, just above the snowline. Entirely datablind. It's built of wood and mud, and its only heat comes from a fireplace about this size."
Nara smiled. "My mother's line has a dumb cabin, too. Stone. I spent my winters there as a child. Tending fires is youngster's work on Vasthold."
Laurent smiled distantly, at some more pleasant memory.
"It develops a sense of balance and hierarchy," he said, or quoted.
"Balance, yes," Nara said, leaning a slender log carefully against the central mass of the fire. "But hierarchy?"
"The match ignites the kindling, which feeds the larger pieces."
She chuckled. A typically Vadan interpretation, to see order and structure in the consuming chaos that was a healthy blaze.
"Well, at least it's a bottom-up hierarchy," she commented.
They built the fire together. "We were well treated at first, during the few weeks of negotiation. Our captors made populist demands, such as medical aid for the tropics, which were in epidemic season. They began playing with the Imperial government. Wherever the government acted against disaster, the resistance would issue demands retroactively, making it seem as if any Imperial aid on Dhantu was a result of the hostage-taking. The resistance took credit for everything. Finally, the Imperial governor-general grew weary of their propaganda. He suspended all humanitarian aid."
Nara frowned. She'd never thought of the Dhantu Occupation as a humanitarian operation. But, of course, occupying armies always brought a certain social order. And most occupying regimes were wealthier than their victims. Bribery followed naturally after conquest.
"After the Imperial sanctions were imposed, the torture began. The strange thing was, our captors weren't interested in pain. Not when they first strapped us to the chairs."
Chairs, Nara thought. Such a quotidian word. A chill rose inside her, and Nara turned to catch more of the heat from the blazing fire.
"The chairs were experimental medical equipment, fully pain-suppressant," Laurent said. "I felt nothing when they removed my left hand."
Nara closed her eyes, a realization dawning in her. Even without her quickening empathy, she would have heard in Laurent's voice the searching cadence of an unrehearsed tale. He hadn't told this story before. Perhaps there'd been a debriefing, with the dispassionate rendering of a military report. But this was his first human telling of what had happened on Dhantu.
No wonder the psychic scars felt so fresh.
"Only twenty centimeters removal at first," he said. "The prosthetic nervous tissue shone like gold wires. I could even see the muscle extensions flex when I moved my fingers. The blood transports were transparent, so I could see the beating of my heart pulsing in them."
"Laurent," Nara said softly. It wasn't a plea for him to stop; she'd just had to say something. She couldn't leave this man's voice alone in the huge silence of the polar waste.
"Then they moved it farther away. Forty centimeters. Flexing the fingers ached now, as if they were cramped. But that was nothing compared to ... the disgust. To see my hand responding so naturally, as if it were still connected. I vowed not to move it, to shut it from my mind--to make it a dead thing. But I could feel it. Only the strong pain was suppressed. Not normal sensations. Not the itching."
He looked deep into the fire. "The Dhanti were always great physicians," he said without irony.
Something broke inside the fire, a pocket of water or air exploding with a muffled sound. Sparks shot out at Nara and Laurent, and were repulsed by the firescreen. Bright ingots of flame dropped in a bright line along the stone floor, revealing the position of the invisible barrier.
"Of course, we were fully restrained in the chairs. My fingers and toes were all I could move. Imagine trying not to move your only free muscles for days. The hand began to itch, to throb and grow in my mind. Finally, I couldn't stand it. I would flex my fingers, and have to watch them respond at that remove."
Nara felt her empathy coming to its highest pitch. Freed from the drug, it responded to the horror coming from Laurent, reached out toward him rather than recoiling. It had been so long since her ability had been fully open to another person; it stretched like a long-sleeping cat awakening. She could see now, empathy fully co-opting the second-sight nodes in her optic nerve. Spirals of revulsion wound through the man, coiling like serpents on his artificial limbs. His gloved hand clenched, as if trying to grasp the phantasms of his pain. Maybe this was too private for her to look upon, she thought, and Nara's fingers moved to her wrist, instinctively searching for her apathy bracelet. But it was gone, left on a doorside table.
She closed her eyes, glad that easy relief was out of reach. Someone should feel what this man had suffered.
"They took us to pieces.
"They pulled my left arm into three, segmented at wrist and elbow and shoulder, connected by those pulsing lines. Then the legs, fused together, but a meter away. My heart beat hard all day, pumped up by stimulants, trying to meet the demands of the larger circulatory system. I never really slept.
"As ranking officer, I was last in line for everything. So they could learn from their mistakes, and not lose me to a sudden mishap. I could see the other captives around me twisted into bizarre shapes: circulatory rings, with blood flowing from the fingertips of the left hand into those of the right; distributed, with the digestion clipped off in stomach fragments to supply each removed limb separately; and utterly chaotic bodies, jumbles of flesh that slowly died.
"As we grew more grotesque, they stopped talking to us, or even to each other, dulled by their own butchery."
With that last word, the unavoidable moment came. Her empathy became true telepathy. Flashes struck now in Nara's mind, like flint sparks lighting a black cave, revealing momentary images from Laurent's memory. A ring of large chairs, reclined like acceleration couches for some grotesque subspecies of humanity. They sparkled with medical transport lines, some as thin as nervewires, some broad enough to carry blood. And on the chairs ... bodies.
Her mind rejected the sight. They were both terribly real and unbelievable. Living but not whole. Discorporate but breathing. Nara could see their faces move, which brought a nauseous shock, like the sudden movement of a dummy in a wax museum. The devices that sustained them gleamed, the lines efficient and clean, but melded with the broken bodies in a sickeningly random jumble, creatures made by a drunken god, or one insane.
But the prisoners were not creatures, Nara reminded herself. They were humans. And their creators were not mad gods, but humans also. Political animals. Reasoning beings.
Whatever Laurent believed about death, nothing was beyond politics. There were reasons for this butchery.
Nara reached out to touch him, taking his right hand, the one still made of flesh. Disgust struck out at her from Laurent's touch, as deep as anything she'd ever felt: utter horror at himself, that his own body was nothing but a machine that could be taken apart, like an insect's by cruel children.
There was nothing to do but hold him, a human presence in the face of inhuman memory. But still she had to ask.
"The Apparatus never told us why, Laurent," she said. The resistance fighters' reasoning for the Tortures of Dhantu had never been explained.
"They told us that there was a secret, something that would undo the Emperor. They claimed to have heard something from a living initiate of the Apparatus they'd long ago captured. But they'd killed the man trying to wring the details from him. They kept demanding this secret from me. It was preposterous. They were grasping at straws. It was torture without reason."
Nara swallowed. There had to be a reason; the Secularist in her did not believe in pure evil.
"Perhaps it was a fantasy on their part. They must have wanted some weapon against the Emperor so badly."
"They only wanted to show us..."
Zai looked at her directly, and as their eyes locked Nara saw what he had realized over the long months in that chair. His next words were unnecessary.
"They wanted to show us what the Occupation had made of them."
Nara closed her eyes, and through Laurent's touch she saw herself through his, as if in some magical mirror in which she was a stranger to herself. A beautiful alien.
"There was one lie in the Apparatus propaganda," he said a few moments later.
Nara opened her eyes. "What?"
"I wasn't rescued. The resistance abandoned the hideaway and transmitted my position to my ship. They left me to mark what they had done. Along with the dead bodies, they left me living, but beyond anyone's ability to repair."
His gaze went from her to the waterfall, reddened now by the arctic summer sun.
"Or at least so they thought. The Empire moved heaven and earth to fix me, to prove them wrong. Here I am, such as I am."
She ran her fingers along the line of his jaw.
"You're beautiful, Laurent."
He shook his head. A smile played on his face, but his voice trembled as he spoke.
"I am in pieces, Nara."
"Your body is, Laurent. Not unlike my mind."
Zai touched her forehead with the fingers of his flesh-and-blood hand. He drew some shape she didn't recognize, a mark of his dark religion, or perhaps simply a random and meaningless sign.
"You began life in madness, Nara. But you wake up every day and cohere, pull yourself to sanity. I, on the other hand," he lifted his gloved prosthetic, "possessed absolute surety as a child, piety and scripture. And every day I shatter more."
Nara took both of Laurent's hands in hers. The false one was as hard as metal, without the rubbery feel of a civilian prosthetic. It closed gently around her fingers.
Nara Oxham ignored the cold pain of him. She grasped the living and the dead parts. Pushed her fingers into the strange interfaces between body and machine. She found the hidden latches that released his false members. Removed them. She saw his phantom limbs as if they were real. She put her mind into him.
"Shatter, then," she said. 4
A painful lesson for any commander: loyalty is never absolute. --ANONYMOUS 167 SENATOR
It was past midnight before the War Council was called again.
Senator Oxham was awake when the summons came. All night, she had watched the bonfire in the Martyrs' Park. The flames were impossible to miss from her private balcony, which hung from the underside of her apartment, giving it sweeping views of the capital. The balcony swung in a carefully calibrated way--enough to feel the wind, but not nauseously--and at nighttime the Martyrs' Park spread out below, a rectangle of darkness, as if a vast black carpet were blotting out the lights of the city.
Tonight, the usually dark expanse glimmered, populated by a dozen pools of firelight. Initiates from the Apparatus had taken all day to build the pyres, raising the pyramids of ceremonial trees using only human muscle and block and tackle. The newsfeeds gathered swiftly, broadcasting their labors and speculating on what sort of announcement would come after it had burned. As the pyres grew in size, the guesses were scaled up to match them, growing ever wilder, but still not quite matching the truth.
The politicals never trusted the populace of the Risen Empire with unexpected surprises, especially not in the volatile capital. The lengthy rituals of the Martyrs' Park allowed bad news to be preceded by a preparatory wave of anxiety, a warning like the glower of a distant storm. The newsfeeds usually hyperbolized their speculations, so that the true facts seemed reassuringly banal by the time they were made known.
This time, however, the news was likely to exceed expectations. Once the Child Empress's death became public knowledge, the true war fever would start.
There was enough of the construction to burn until morning, and Nara Oxham would need her energy when the news was announced, but she nonetheless went outside to watch. However exhausted by the day's events, sleep was impossible.
Her message to Laurent Zai seemed such a small and hopeless thing now, a futile gesture against the unstoppable forces of war: the vast fire below her, the still-gathering crowds, the mustering of soldiers, the warships already on their way to the Spinward Reaches. It was all unfolding with the fixity of some ancient and unchanging ceremony. The Risen Empire was a slave to ritual, to these burnings and empty prayers ... and pointless suicides. There was nothing she could do to stop this war; her brash legislation hadn't even slowed its arrival. She wondered if even a seat on the council would ultimately accomplish anything.
Worse, she felt helpless to save Laurent Zai. Nara Oxham could be very persuasive, but only with gestures and spoken words, not the short text messages the distance between them necessitated. Laurent was too far away from her to save, both in light-years and in the dictates of his culture.
The balcony swayed softly, and the sickly sweet scent of the burning sacred trees reminded Oxham of the countryside smells of Vasthold. Crowds began to gather around the fire, the voices in massed prayer blending with the hiss of green wood, the crackle of the fire, and the rush of wind through the balcony's polyfilament supports.
Then the call came. The chime of the War Council's summons penetrated the susurrus noises from below, a foghorn cutting through the crash of far-off waves. Insistent and unavoidable, the summons's interruption brought her self-pity to a sudden halt. Oxham's fingers made the gestures that propped her personal helicopter.
But then she saw the shape of an approaching Imperial aircar, silhouetted by the firelight. The delicate, silent craft drifted up and matched exactly the period of the balcony's sway. It opened like a flower, extending one wing as a walkway across the void. The elegant limb of the machine was an outstretched hand, as if the craft were inviting her to dance.
A ritual request, but one which she could not deny.
"There is strange news from the front," the Risen Emperor began.
The counselors waited. His Majesty's voice was very low, revealing more emotion than Nara Oxham had yet heard from the dead man. She felt a twinge of empathic resonance from him, a measure of confusion, anger, a sense of betrayal.
He moved his mouth as if to form words, then gestured disgustedly to the dead admiral.
"We have heard from the Lynx, from His Majesty's Representatives," the admiral said, using the polite term for the Political Apparatus.
She lapsed into silence, and the other dead warrior lifted his head to speak, as if the burden of this announcement had to be shared between them.
"Captain Laurent Zai, Elevated, has rejected the blade of error," the general said.
Nara gasped aloud, her hand covering her mouth too late. Laurent was alive. He had rejected the ancient rite. He had succumbed to her message, her single word.
The chamber stirred with confusion as Nara struggled to regain her composure. Most of the counselors hadn't given Zai much thought. Next to the Empress's death and war with the Rix, the fate of one man meant little. But the implications soon became apparent to them.
"He would have made a fine martyr," said Raz imPar Henders, shaking his head sadly.
Even in her relief, Nara Oxham realized the truth of the Loyalist senator's words. The brave example of the hero Zai would have made a fine start to the war. By throwing away his own immortality, he would have inspired the whole empire. In the narrative crafted by the politicals, his suicide should have symbolized the sacrifices required of the next generation.
But he had chosen life. He had rejected the Risen Emperor's second-oldest tradition. The ancient catechism went through her head: Eternal life for service to the crown, death for failure. She had hated the formula her entire life, but now she realized how deeply ingrained it was in her.
For a horrible moment, Nara Oxham found herself appalled at Zai's decision, shaken by the enormity of his betrayal.
Then she took control of her thoughts. She inhaled deeply, and booted a measure of apathy to filter out the emotions running rampant in the council chamber. Her reflexive horror was just old conditioning, inescapable even on a Secularist world, rising up from childhood stories and prayers. Tradition be damned.
But even so, she was amazed that Laurent had found the strength.
"This is a disaster," said Ax Milnk nervously. "What will the people think of this?"
"And from a Vadan," the dead general muttered. The grayest of worlds, reliable Loyalists all.
"We must withhold news of this event for as long as possible," Senator Henders said. "Let its announcement be an afterthought, once the war has begun in earnest and other events have overtaken the public's interest."
The admiral shook her head. "If there are no more Rix surprise attacks, it could be months before the next engagement," he said. "Even years. The newsfeeds will notice if there is no announcement of Captain Zai's suicide."
"Perhaps His Majesty's Representatives could handle this?" Ax Milnk suggested quietly.
The Emperor raised an eyebrow at this. Nara swallowed. Milnk was suggesting murder. A staged ritual of error.
"I think not," the Emperor said. "The cripple deserves better."
Both general and admiral nodded. Whatever embarrassment Zai had caused them, they wouldn't want the politicals interfering with a military matter. The branches of the Imperial Will were separate for good reason. The conduct of propaganda and internal intelligence did not mix well with the purer aims of warcraft. And Zai was still an Imperial officer.
"Something far more distasteful, I'm afraid," the Risen Emperor continued.
The words brought a focused silence to the chamber, which the Emperor allowed to stretch for a few seconds.