Chapter 23

Oxham willed herself silent, trying to read the council's reaction. Their minds were in chaos. The Emperor's speech about the Rix had raised old fears, but those were nothing compared to the truly ancient horror of nuclear weapons. The counselor's minds had gone wild, like those of animals trapped within a ring of predators.

"The main power stations are shielded from EM pulses," the general continued. "But they will be shut down voluntarily. Ether-power substations will be destroyed by conventional explosives. Other shielded facilities, such as hospitals and emergency shelters, should remain in good working order."

Oxham shook her head. An isolated hospital might keep functioning for a few days, but with the world around it crippled, remote consulting doctors would be cut off, emergency transport would fail, and supplies would soon run short.

Ax Milnk spoke. "The short-term casualties might be limited, but we must consider what will happen over time. It might take months to return to a functioning infrastructure, during which millions could die from lack of food and medicine. The Legis population is all in the northern hemisphere, where winter is coming."

"We have fully analyzed the situation, Counselor Milnk."

The dead general looked at the Emperor, who nodded.

"We expect there to be roughly one hundred million deaths total," the old warrior said.

A howl came into Nara's head, a whirlwind like the city when she awoke from coldsleep. The naked fear of the counselors pried open her mind, and the war lust of the surrounding capital rushed in. She could see better than ever the bright, raging face of Empire at war: the popular clamor for revenge, the hunger of profiteers, the unpredictable shuffling of power as new alliances formed.

For a moment, Nara Oxham was lost to herself. She became the Mad Senator, subsumed into the cries of the city's animal group-mind.

The cool hand of apathy reasserted herself. She looked down, almost surprised to be conscious. Then she saw her fingers at the bracelet. Old reflexes had moved her to increase the flow of the apathy drug, saving Nara from dropping to the floor mewling and insane.

She breathed deeply, wiping the sweat from her forehead and trying not to vomit.

"This will show our true strength," the Emperor was saying. "It will show that we would rather destroy ourselves than accept Rix domination. We will have surrendered them nothing. And they will never doubt our resolve again."

"A hundred million, dead by our own hand?" the Expansionist senator said. "Won't that do more damage to morale than the Rix ever could?"

"We will say the Rix did it," the general said flatly.

Oxham bowed her head. Of course, this was why they had invoked the hundred-year rule. She doubted that even a century from now anyone would learn what they had done.

"A new Rix terror to motivate the Empire," the sovereign added. "Many war aims met with a single act."

"I move we accept without objection," said Senator Henders. Senator Oxham raised her head. She had no time to think, no time to calculate. But given only those spare seconds, making the choice turned out to be easy.

"I object," she said. "I call for a vote."

Relief. Even with her empathy dulled, she saw it on the living counselors' faces. They were glad someone had spoken against the Emperor's plan.

And they were glad it hadn't been them.

The sovereign looked at her coolly, his expression unreadable now. His gray young face seemed as remote as the night sky. But she knew that someday there would be a price for her action. Nara Oxham had crossed the Emperor.

"A vote, then," he said quietly.

"Can we have more time?" Ax Milnk asked.

The Emperor shook his head. He had calculated this to the minute, had left revelation of the plan until time was too short for discussion. His best opportunity was now, before the horror of the idea could sink in.

"There is little time," he said. "The Lynx might be dead in hours. The Rix battlecruiser will be within transmission range a few days later."

"Give us those days, then," Oxham asked. Her voice sounded hollow in her ears.

"The lightspeed delay between Legis and the Lynx, Senator," the admiral said, shaking her head. "Round trip several times, to be sure. We have only hours to decide."

"And the earlier the space-raid warning is sounded, the fewer casualties will result," the general said. "More medical personal can be standing by. Grounded aircars will have time to bring their passengers to populated areas rather than depositing them in the wild. We owe the population of Legis a quick decision."

Their arguments were illogical, Nara knew. The Apparatus could sound a raid warning in any case, and wait for a final decision. They could have prepared the planet for this over the last few days. The Emperor had simply chosen to spring this on the council, to grind their will against an artificial emergency. But she was too dizzy to make these arguments, to bring specific points against the steamroller that the Emperor had created. Her stomach roiled now, the first sign of a mild apathy overdose. Nara's blind fingers had unleashed too sharp a dose of the drug after all the days she had kept her sensitivity high. Her empathy was absolutely flat, her body barely able to function.

Council sessions had been called at odd hours for ten days. They were all exhausted; the Emperor had wanted them that way.

Senator Oxham gritted her teeth in anger. She had been outmaneuvered by the sovereign, betrayed by the weakness of her own psyche.

"A vote, then," she said. "I say no. 'No killing of worlds.'"

There was a gasp from someone. She had quoted the Compact, the old document that a few gray worlds interpreted as validating Emperor's authority. He smiled at her coldly.

"I vote yes," he said. The Emperor leaned back, supremely confident.

The War Council almost stopped him.

The Expansionist and Utopian senators voted against the action, as Oxham had known they would. And Ax Milnk showed unexpected strength, joining the opposition senators against the Emperor.

In a foregone conclusion, the two dead warriors voted with their sovereign, as did the Loyalist Henders. The measure was tied at four votes to four when the counselor from the Plague Axis spoke. He was an unknown quantity, this host of all the ancient terrors that humanity had put to rest. Living, and yet not fully alive, he was on the borderline that split the Risen Empire. He was a cursed thing.

"Let us show our strength," came the voice from the suit's filter. "Destroy the mind, at whatever cost."

The motion had passed, five to four.

Roger Niles was right, Nara Oxham thought coldly as the vote was entered into the council's records. There were no moral victories. Only real defeats.

Then a glimmer of hope entered her mind. This unfathomable genocide might not actually occur; the Lynx might succeed in its mission. But even this slim chance had a dark side.

If my lover fails, a world dies, Nara realized.

She shook her head.

More blood on the hands of Laurent Zai.

TEN YEARS EARLIER

(IMPERIAL ABSOLUTE)

LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER

Laurent Zai dressed quietly, thinking his lover asleep.

His arm was clever enough to come to him when he clicked his tongue for it. The limb turned itself slowly, orienting on the sound, then finger-crawled a bit too quickly for Zai's taste, for a moment a fleshy insect. Supposedly, it was smart and agile enough to reach its master even in zero-gee, but that was not a feature he had tested.

The arm had fallen close to the fire, and felt feverishly hot when he meshed its control surface with the tangle of interface threads that hung from his shoulder stump. But the warmth wasn't unpleasant. This house, the fire, Nara: these things were warm, and were good.

Zai flexed his fingers, their artificial nerves awakening with a tingle like returning bloodflow. When a chime assured him of the arm's strength, Laurent pushed himself upright with both hands, looking for his legs. They were close by.

His remaining natural legs were short stumps, and Zai could sit up easily on them. The floor was soft with some kind of plant growth; it felt like a fine animal pelt, chinchilla or mink. He made his way to the artificial legs with two quick movements, swinging forward like a gymnast on parallel bars. Over the subjective months since his torture, he had exercised his remaining arm until it was almost as strong as the prosthetic one. Vadans valued balance.

He reattached his legs. The smooth gray of their exterior melded with his pale flesh, edges sealing with a familiar tug of suction. He saw his tunic, and pulled it over his head as he flexed his toes.

Zai turned to see Nara gazing at him.

A chill in his chest pushed aside the warmth of the fire, of their love-making. Other than a few medics, none of his crewmates--no one--had ever seen him naked before, much less without his limbs. He tried to say something caustic, but his voice failed him and he scowled. Nara shook her head.

"I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"It's your house," he said, pulling on his trousers.

When he looked at her again, she seemed puzzled by the words.

"Take your pleasure as you will," he explained sharply.

"Have I taken advantage of your nakedness?" she said with a small smile. Zai realized that Nara was still completely unclothed. He felt foolish now in his disheveled fatigue tunic, grasped some piece of her clothing on the floor, and flung it to her.

Nara pushed it aside and sat up, reaching for his hand. It was the artificial one, which had somehow lost its glove. She pulled the metal thing toward her breast.

Zai's anger faded abruptly. At Nara's touch, he felt safe and whole again, as he had in her arms. Sighing, he closed his eyes and imagined the hand to be real. The returns of the false nerves were very convincing. He opened a second-sight menu and increased the hand's sensitivity, basking in the warmth of Nara, the change in texture from dark skin to pink aureole, the slow ripple of her heartbeat. He felt a tremor like distant running water as blood rushed into the erectile tissue of her nipple.

He opened his eyes. She was smiling.

"I'm sorry I snapped at you, Nara."

"No, Laurent. 1 should have realized. But you seemed so ... comfortable before."

"Eager, more likely."

"Oh." Was there a note of pity in her voice? A look crossed her face, and she nodded. "You don't use..."

He shook his head. Surrogates, she would have said, but on Vada they used the old words for professionals.

The playful smile again. "In that case, Laurent, you must be famished."

He could not disagree.

But Laurent Zai pushed her hands away. He'd felt so broken under her eyes. "Nara?" ho pleaded.

"Yes," she answered. "You can keep your limbs. Your tunic too if you want."

He nodded, and a sound came from his chest that was like a sob. But he ignored it, hastening.

HOUSE

The missive came over the general net, looking for Laurent Zai. The lieutenant-commander's presence here at the polar estate wasn't registered with the comnets--the mistress had specifically requested privacy--but the search was energetic enough to ping every private domicile on Home. Not an emergency, just standard military persistence. The house quietly snatched a copy, investigating its security before passing it on to the mistress's guest.

The message bore the telltale marks of midlevel military cryptography. It hadn't been buried under the absolute noise of a onetime pad, or the self-similar swirls of fractal compression, so it was neither top-secret nor very large. The missive seemed to be double-ticket encryption, with a long enough key that Zai must be carrying it on his person, not in his head. The house set a host of micromaintenance bots--normally used to repair optical circuitry--to the task of discovering this object. This effort was illegal, and against Imperial AI guidelines, but the Rubicon Rale extended around the house whenever Oxham was here. The transgression was also justified by the fact that the house was sometimes called upon to encrypt the mistress's Senate business. And the best way to learn the craft of security was to attack the systems of one's peers.

Besides, the house was curious. And the mistress always encouraged it to indulge its curiosity, to gather information relentlessly. It was relatively sure she wouldn't mind this bit of harmless snooping.

The key was disappointingly easy to discover. A Vadan fetish on a strap around the lieutenant-commander's neck proved to be subtly bit-marked. The titanium cladding on its front was brushed to resist fingerpints, and upon close inspection, the tiny ridges of the burnishing were actually sawtooth waves, which reversed direction with suspicious periodicity. The house read the two directions as one and zero, fiddled with the results, and in a few seconds had cracked the missive.

It delivered the message to Captain Laurent Zai (the first half of the message was a promotion) as it absorbed the contents.

A new class of ship was described in the missive's second part, an experimental vessel of which Zai would be taking command in a few days. The specifications were not given in great detail--hence the shoddy encryption--but they were certainly stimulating. The warship was officially a frigate, but in the range of its weaponry and ground troops, the Lynx was sui generis. Its design had some of the characteristics of a patrol craft: fast and maneuverable, full of intelligence drones, capable of long-range operation with minimal logistical support. But the "frigate" also possessed extensive ground-attack and orbital insertion capacity, a smattering of heavy weapons, and excellent survivability. It had punch.

The house figuratively raised its eyebrows. This was a fine little warship. Perhaps it was intended to serve as a roving ambassador, showing the flag, equipped for crisis management and gunboat diplomacy.

As the house expected, the AI component of the warship was woefully insufficient for its range of possible operations. Imperial design tended toward underpowered artificial intelligence. (The house had recognized long ago that its own distributed processing was at odds with strict Imperial AI regulations. Some sort of damage at the beginning of its existence had allowed it to expand without the usual self-governors. The mistress had always approved, however, as long as it was discreet. There were advantages in being down here at the end of the earth, and it was pleasurable to be illegally smart.)

The house took care to note Zai's reaction, wondering what he would think of his new ship.

Captain Zai and the mistress were together on the western balcony, overlooking a few ice sculptures of aboriginal Home insect life that the house had attempted in the dead of winter, smoothed to abstraction now by the arrival of summer. Zai hadn't even accessed the entire missive yet, but he seemed upset by what he had read so far.

"Ten years out," he said. Was it pain in his voice? Or just the cold? "Ten years back."

The mistress stepped toward Zai, put a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her and laughed sourly, shaking his head.

"I'm sorry to react this way," he said. "You hardly know me, after all."

The house scanned the missive and spotted a section it had ignored. The newly promoted captain had been assigned to the Rix frontier, to a system called Legis, ten light-years away, for a tour of indeterminate length.

"I'm sorry too, Laurent," the mistress said. Zai placed his hand on hers, blinking from his eyelashes the first flakes of a light snow. He spoke carefully.

"I know we've just met. But to lose you already--" He shook his head. "I sound foolish."

"You don't, Laurent."

"But I thought I'd be here on Home for at least a few months. I was half hoping they'd stick me on training staff."

"Would you want that, Laurent?"

"A staff position? My ancestors would wail," he answered. "But twenty years. And facing the damned Time Thief again. I suppose I've grown tired of his tricks."

"How long has it been, Laurent? Your career, in Absolute years?"

"Too many," he said. "Almost a hundred."

Nara shook her head. "I didn't know."

"And now another thirty, probably," he said. "Fifty, if there really is a war coming."

"A senator's term of office," the mistress observed.

The man turned, his expression changing.

"You're right, Nara. We may both lose the next fifty years. And you senators have your own Thief. You're frozen half the time, aren't you?"

"Much more than half, Laurent."

"Well," he said, meeting her eyes, "that's hopeful, I suppose."

She smiled. "Perhaps it is. But I'll still be older than you, subjectively. I am already."

"You are?"

She laughed. "Yes. Give me another decade in subjective, and you'll notice."

Zai straightened himself. "Of course I will. I'll notice everything."

"Is that a promise?"

He took both the mistress's hands.

"We have four days to make promises, Senator-Elect."

"Yes, Captain."

"Four days," he repeated, and turned back to the ice sculptures.

"Stay here with me," she asked. "Give us those days."

The house became alert. The mistress had only announced a weekend stay; never before had she extended a visit unexpectedly. Meals had been planned in excruciating detail, supplies obtained in exact amounts. Despite the vast resources of the estate--the underground gardens, the caves full of food and wine, the cargo drones ready to launch from a hundred high-end stores on the Imperial homeworld--a surge of anxiety almost resembling panic swept through the house's mind. This was all so abrupt.

And yet, the house wanted Zai to agree.

It waited anxiously for the man's answer.

"Yes," he said. "I'd love to."

The house took its attention from their sudden kiss. There was so much to do.

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