Chapter 15

"A pardon."

Raz imPar Henders gasped aloud. No one else made a sound.

A pardon? Oxham wondered. But then she saw the Emperor's logic. The pardon would be announced before it was known that Captain Zai had rejected the blade of error. Zai's betrayal of tradition would be concealed from the public eye, his survival transformed into an unprecedented act of Imperial kindness. Before now, the Child Empress had always been the one to issue clemencies and commutations. A pardon in the matter of her own death would have a certain propagandistic poetry.

But it wouldn't be so easy, Nara's instincts told her. The Risen Emperor wouldn't allow Zai to be rewarded for his betrayal.

The sovereign nodded to the dead admiral.

The woman moved her pale hands, and the chamber darkened. A system schematic, which they all now recognized as Legis, appeared in synesthesia. The dense swirl of planetary orbital circles (the Legis sun had twenty-one major satellites) shrank, the scale expanding out. A vector marker appeared on the system's spinward side, out from the terrestrial planets into the vast, slow orbits of the gas giants. The red marker described an approach to the system that passed close to Legis XV.

"Three hours ago," the admiral said, "the Legis system's outlying orbital defenses detected a Rix battlecruiser, incoming at about a tenth lightspeed. This vessel is nothing like the assault ship that carried out the first attack. A far more powerful craft, but fortunately far less stealthy: this time we have warning.

"If it attacks Legis XV directly, the orbital defenses should destroy the Rix ship before it can close within a million kilometers."

"What could it do to Legis from that range?" Oxham asked.

"If the battlecruiser's intention is to attack, it could damage major population centers, introduce any number of biological weapons, certainly degrade the info- and infrastructure. It all depends on how the vessel has been fitted. But she won't have the firepower for atmospheric rending, plate destabilization, or mass irradiation. In short, no damage at extinction level."

Nara Oxham was appalled by the dead woman's dry appraisal. A few million dead was all. And perhaps a few generations with pre-industrial death rates from radiation and disease.

"The Rix ship is decelerating at six gees, quickly enough to match velocities with the planet. But its insertion angle is wrong for a direct attack," the admiral said. "Its apparent intent is to pass within a few light-minutes of Legis XV. The defenses at that range will be survivable for a ship of its class, and it won't be close enough to damage the planet extensively.

"And there is another clue to its intent. The Rix vessel appears to be equipped with a very large receiver array. Perhaps a thousand kilometers across."

"For what purpose?" Henders asked.

The Emperor shifted his weight forward, and the dead warriors looked to him.

"We think that the Rix ship wants to establish communication with the Legis XV compound mind," the sovereign said.

Nara felt bafflement in the room. No one in the Risen Empire knew much about compound minds. What would such a creature say to its Rix servants? What might it have learned about the Empire by inhabiting an Imperial world?

But from the Emperor came a different emotion. It underlay his anger, his indignation at Zai's betrayal. A dead man, he was always hard to read empathically, but a strong emotion was eating at him. Oxham turned her empathy toward the sovereign.

"The Rix compound mind has no access to extraplanetary communication," the general explained. "The Legis entanglement facilities are centralized and under direct Imperial control, and of course could only transmit to the rest of the Empire. But from the range of a few light-minutes, the compound mind could communicate with the Rix vessel. Using television transmitters, air traffic control arrays, even pocket phones. Legis's infostructure is composed of a host of distributed devices that we can't control."

"Unless we do something, the Rix will be able to contact their compound mind," the Emperor declared. "Between the mind's global resources and the battlecruiser's large array, they will be able to transfer huge amounts of data.

With a few hours' connection, perhaps the planet's entire data-state. All the information that is Legis XV."

"Why not shut down the planet's power grid for a few days?" Henders suggested. "When the ship approaches apogee?"

"We may. It is estimated that a three-day power outage, properly prepared for, would cause only a few thousand civilian deaths," the general answered. Oxham saw nothing but cold equations in the man when he gave this number. "Unfortunately, however, most communications are designed to survive power grid failure. They have backup batteries, solar cells, and motion converters as part of their basic makeup. This is a compound mind; the entire planet is compromised. A power outage won't prevent communication between the compound mind and the Rix vessel."

At these last words, Oxham's empathy felt a jolt from the Emperor. He was agitated. She had witnessed the fixations his mind could develop. His cats. His hatred of the Rix.

Something new was in his head, consuming him.

And then, in a moment of clarity, she felt the emotion in him. Saw it clearly.

It was fear.

The Risen Emperor was afraid of what the Rix might learn.

"We don't know why the Rix want to talk to their compound mind," he said. "Perhaps they only want to offer obeisence to it, or perform some kind of maintenance. But they have dedicated years to this mission, and risked almost certain war. We must assume there is a strategic reason for this attempt at contact."

"The compound mind may have military secrets that we can't afford to lose," the general said. "It's impossible for us to know what they might have discovered in an entire planet of data. But now we know this was the Rix plan all along: first the assault ship to seed the mind, then the battlecruiser to make contact."

The council chamber stirred again, frustration and anger filling the room. They felt trapped, powerless before the well-laid plans of the Rix.

"But perhaps we can solve both our problems with one stroke," the Emperor said. He pointed into the airscreen among them.

Time sped forward in the display. The Rix ship's vector marker inched toward Legis XV, from which another marker in imperial blue moved to meet it.

"The Lynx," Nara said quietly.

"Correct, Senator," the Emperor said.

"With aggressive tactics, even a frigate should be able to damage a Rix battlecruiser. Especially the receiver array," the admiral said. "It's too large to shield properly, highly vulnerable to kinetic weapons. Between battle damage and a careful, systematic degradation of the Legis communication infostructure, we may be able to keep the compound mind cut off."

"Any casualty estimates for this plan, Admiral?" Oxham asked softly.

"Yes, Senator. On the planet, we'll airjam com systems and flood the infostructure with garbage. Shunt the main hardlines for a few days to reduce bandwidth. Civilian deaths will be within normal statistical variation for a bad solar storm. Medical emergency response will be slowed, so a few dozen heart-attack and accident victims will die. With lowered transponder functions, there may be a few aircraft accidents."

"And the Lynx?"

"Lost, of course, and its captain with it. A grand sacrifice."

Henders nodded. "How poetic. Granted Imperial pardon, only to become a martyr nonetheless."

"The trees will burn for a week in the name of Laurent Zai," the Emperor said.

ADEPT

The two dead persons stood before a wreckage, the broken and burned shapes of data bricks scattered across the floor of the library.

"Was it here?"

"Yes, Adept."

"Did the Rix abomination find it?"

"We don't know, Adept."

"How can we not know?" Trevim said quietly.

The initiate shifted uncomfortably. He looked nervously at the walls, although every noise-sensitive device in the library had been physically deactivated.

"The abomination cannot hear us."

The initiate cleared his throat. "The one-time pad was concealed as a set of checksum garbage at the ends of other files. Only the few Honored Mothers studying the Child Empress's ... condition knew how the scheme worked. There was no way for the abomination to know how to compile the data and re-create the pads." Adept Trevim narrowed her eyes.

"Could it not use trial and error?"

"Adept, there are millions of files here. The combinations are--"

"Not limitless. Not if all the data were here."

"But it would take centuries, Adept."

"For a single computer, millennia. But for the processing capabilities of an entire world? Every unused portion of every device on Legis, devoted to this single problem, massively distributed and absolutely relentless?"

The initiate closed his eyes, removing himself from the shallow world of the senses. Adept Trevim watched the young dead man let the Other take control, the symbiant visible upon his face as it transformed hurried suppositions into hard math.

It would have been quicker to employ a machine, but the Apparatus avoided technology even in the best of circumstances. With the Rix abomination loose in the Legis infostructure, they kept to the techniques given by the symbiant. To trust a processor would be unthinkable.

Trevim waited motionless for just over an hour.

The initiate opened his eyes.

"The state of emergency was still in partial effect when the library was broken into," he said.

The adept nodded. With the markets closed, the media feeds suspended, the population locked down, the planet's infostructure would be largely dark. The abomination would have ample excess processor power at its disposal.

"It would have taken only minutes to run every permutation against the data it had recovered from the confidant. When the correct order was hit upon by chance, the data would take on a recognizable form," the initiate concluded.

"It knows, then."

The initiate nodded, looking queasy as he considered the Secret in the hands of Rix abomination.

"We must assume it does, Adept."

Trevim turned from the jumble on the floor. It had seemed so sensible a place to hide the one-time pads that would decrypt the recordings of the Child Empress's confidant. Rather than keeping the pads in a military installation, under lock and key, a target for treachery or infiltration, the Apparatus had hidden them among the chaos here at this library, a sequestered and little-accessed partition at the edge of the planet's infostructure. The pads were here as a last resort, for when the Empress suffered the ultimate result of her infirmity.

But with the Rix abomination and its last commando running free on the planet, the clever hiding place had worked against them. Even within the Apparatus, only a few people knew how the confidant worked. And these lived in the gray enclaves, far from any communication or even ready transport. It had taken hours to discover this weak point in the Emperor's Secret.

The compound mind had known where to look, though. The telling details could have come from anywhere: the shipping manifests of repair components, long-lost schematics, even from within the confidant itself. Based on her examination of the device's remains, Initiate Farre was certain that the abomination had briefly occupied it just before the rescue had begun.

The mind was everywhere.

They had to destroy it, whatever the cost to its host world. "What do we do, Adept?"

"First, we must see that the contagion does not spread. Are there any translight communications the abomination could use to make contact with the rest of the Empire?"

"There is none, Adept. The Lynx's infostructure is secure, and there are no other ships in the system with their own translight. Planetside, the entanglement facility at the pole is under Imperial control."

"Let us pay the pole a visit, and make sure."

"Certainly, Adept."

They walked up the stairs, leaving a ruin of secrecy behind them.

"Destroy this building."

"But, Adept, this is a library," the initiate said. "Many of the documents here are single-copy secured. They're irreplaceable."

"Nanomolecular disintegration. Melt it into the ground."

"The militia won't--"

"They'll follow an Imperial writ, or they'll feel a blade of error, Initiate. If they feel squeamish, we'll have the Lynx do it from space. See what they think about losing a few square kilometers."

The initiate nodded, but the marks of emotion on his face disturbed the adept. What was it about this crisis that afflicted the honored dead with the weaknesses of the living? Perhaps it was the conditioning, the distress they had been trained to suffer even at the mention of the Secret. The mental firewall that had preserved their silence for sixteen centuries might be a liability now that the Apparatus had to act rather than merely conceal. But perhaps there was more than conditioning behind the initiate's anguish. The abomination of the Rix compound mind surrounded them, had imbued itself into the very planet. Now that the thing knew the Secret, it threatened them on every front.

"The militia will relent, Initiate. They must. But this one library will not be enough. We will have to repair this breach at its source."

"But the mind has propagated beyond any possibility of elimination."

"We must destroy it."

"But how, Adept?"

"However the Emperor commands."

CAPTAIN

Captain Laurent Zai stared past the airscreen and into the ancestral painting on the wall behind it.

Three meters by two, the artwork filled one bulkhead of his cabin. It reflected almost no light, only a ghostly luminescence, as jet as if the frigate's hull had suddenly disappeared, leaving a gaping hole into the void beyond. It had been painted by his grandfather, Astor Zai, twenty years after the old patriarch's death and just before he had started on the first of many pilgrimages. Like most Vadan ancestrals, it was composed with hand-made paints: pigment from powdered black stone suspended in animal marrow, mixed with the whites of chicken eggs. Over the decades, the egg-white rose to the surface of Vadan black paintings, giving them their lustrous sheen. The painting glowed softly, as if it were highlighted by a thin coat of rime on some cold, dewy morning.

Otherwise, the rectangle was featureless.

The dead claimed otherwise. They said they could see the brushstrokes, the layers of primer and paint, and more than that. They could see characters, arguments, places, whole dream-stories painted within the blackness. Like images in tea leaves or a crystal ball. But the dead claimed that reading the paintings was no trick, but straightforward signification, no more magical than a line of text calling an image into a reader's mind.

The minds of the living were simply too cluttered to interpret a canvas so pure.

Zai could see nothing. Of course, that absence of understanding was a sign with its own meaning: for the moment, he was still alive.

In second sight, hovering before the painting, were the orders from the Navy. The Emperor's seal pulsated with the red light of its fractal authenticity weave, like a coat of arms decorated with live embers. The shape was familiar, the language traditional, but in their own way, the orders were quite as inscrutable as the black rectangle painted by an ancestor.

The door chime sounded. Hobbes, here on the double.

Zai erased the orders from the air.

"Come."

His executive officer entered, and Zai waved her to the chair on the other side of the airscreen table. She sat down, her back to the black painting, her face guarded and almost shy. Zai's crew seemed reluctant to meet his eye since he had rejected the blade of error. Were they ashamed of him? Surely not Katherie Hobbes. She was loyal to a fault.

"New orders," Captain Zai said. "And something else."

"Yes, sir?"

"An Imperial pardon."

For a moment, Hobbes's usually rigid composure failed her. She gripped the arms of the chair, and her mouth gaped.

"Are you well, Hobbes?" Zai asked.

"Of course, sir," she managed. "Indeed, I'm ... very glad, Captain."

"Don't be too hasty."

Her expression remained confused for a moment, then changed to surety. "You deserve it, sir. You were right to reject the blade. The Emperor has simply recognized the truth. None of this was your--"

"Hobbes," he interrupted. "The Emperor's mercy isn't as tender as you think. Take a look."

Zai reactivated the airscreen. It showed the Legis system now: the Lynx in orbit around XV, the high vector of the incoming Rix battlecruiser. It took Hobbes only a few seconds to grasp the situation.

"A second attack on Legis, sir," she said. "With more firepower this time."

"Considerably more, Hobbes."

"But that doesn't make sense, Captain. The Rix've already captured the planet. Why would they attack their own mind?"

Zai didn't answer, giving his executive officer time to think. He needed to have his own suspicions confirmed.

"Your analysis, Hobbes?"

She took her time, more iconographics cluttering the airscreen as she tasked the Lynx tactical AI with calculations. "Perhaps this was the backup force, sir, in case the situation on the ground was still in doubt. A powerful ship to support the raiders if they weren't entirely successful," she said, working through the possibilities. "Or more likely this is a reconnaissance-in-force, to discover if the raid succeeded."

"In which case?"

"When the Rix commander contacts the compound mind and realizes it has successfully propagated on the planet, they'll back off."

"Then, for the Lynx's disposition, what would your tactical recommendation be?" Zai asked.

Hobbes shrugged, as if it were obvious. "Stay close to Legis XV, sir. With the Lynx supporting the planetary defenses, we should have enough firepower to keep a battlecruiser from damaging Legis, if that's their mission, which it probably isn't. The Rix will most likely keep going once they realize the raid was successful. That'll carry them deeper into the Empire. We could try to track them. At ten percent or so of the constant, they'd be hard for the Lynx to catch from a standstill, but a pursuit drone could manage it in the short term."

Zai nodded. As usual, Hobbes's thinking roughly paralleled his own.

Until he'd read the Lynx's orders, that is.

"We've been commanded to attack the battlecruiser, Hobbes."

She simply blinked. "Attack, sir?"

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