Zai waited, his champagne forgotten in his hand.
"Almost no one believed it," she said. "The new theory was debated for a while, gained a few supporters, but then it was suppressed and almost entirely dropped."
Zai narrowed his eyes in disbelief. "But eventually people must have realized. Otherwise, we wouldn't be standing here, two thousand light-years from Earth."
Oxham shook her head. "They didn't realize. Very few ever changed their minds. Those scientists who grew up with the old theory stuck to it overwhelmingly."
"But then how--"
"They died, Lieutenant-Commander."
She drank the last of her champagne. The old arguments still moved her, still made her mouth dry.
"Or rather, they did their descendants the favor of dying," she said. "They left their children the world. And thus the new ideas--the new shape of that world--became real. But only through death."
Zai shook his head. "But surely they would have eventually figured out--"
"If the old ones lived forever? Possessed all the wealth, controlled the military, and brooked no disagreement? We'd still be living there, stuck on that lonely fringe of Orion, thinking ourselves at the center of the universe.
"But the old ones, the ones who were wrong, died," she finished.
The man nodded slowly.
"I'd always heard that you pinks were pro-death. But I'd thought that an exaggeration."
"It's no exaggeration. Death is a central evolutionary development. Death is change. Death is progress. And immortality is a civilization-killing idea."
Zai smiled, his eyes roaming to take in the grandeur of the palace around them. "We don't seem to be a dead civilization yet."
"Seventeen hundred years ago, the Eighty Worlds were the most advanced technological power in this arm," she said. "Now look at us. The Rix, the Tungai, the Fahstuns have all surpassed us."
Zai's eyes widened. It was a fact seldom spoken aloud, even by Secularists. But Laurent Zai, a military man, must know that it was true. Every war grew more difficult as the Risen Empire continued to be outpaced by its neighbors.
"But seventeen hundred years ago we were no empire," he argued. "Merely a rabble of worlds, like the Rix, but far more divided. We were unstable, in competition amongst ourselves. We're stronger now, even with our technical ... disadvantages. And besides, we have the only technology truly worth having. We can beat death."
" 'The Old Enemy,'" Oxham quoted. That was what the Political Apparatus called it. The Old Enemy whom the Risen Emperor had dared and vanquished.
"Yes. We have beaten death, and yet the living still progress," Zai continued. "We have the Senate, the markets."
She smiled ruefully. "But the weight of the dead is choking us. Slowly but surely, they accrue more wealth every year, more power, and a greater hold upon the minds of the living."
"Minds like mine?" Zai asked.
Oxham shrugged. "I don't presume to know your mind, Lieutenant-Commander. Despite what they say about my abilities."
"You think the Empire is dead already?" he asked.
"No, not yet. But change will eventually come, and when it does, the Empire will snap like a bough strung with too many corpses."
Laurent Zai's mouth gaped; he was appalled at the image. Finally, she had managed to shock the man. Nara remembered when she had first used that simile in a speech on Vasthold. The audience had recoiled, empathically pushing back against her words, filling her throat with bile. But she had seen new thoughts swarming in to fill the spaces that horror made. The image was powerful enough to change minds.
"So, you want us to go back to death?" he asked. "Two hundred years of natural life and then ... nothingness?"
"Not necessarily," she explained. "We just want to reduce the power of the dead. Let them paint and sculpt, travel the Eighty Worlds on their pilgrimages, but not rule us."
"No Emperor?" he said.
She nodded. Even with her new senatorial immunity, it was difficult to speak traitorous words aloud here in the Emperor's house. Even those born on Secularist worlds had the conditioning of gray culture; the old stories, the children's rhymes were all about the Old Enemy and the man who had beaten it.
Laurent Zai was silent for a while. He acquired two more glasses of champagne for them from a passing tray and stood there, drinking with her. A few of his military clique remained close, but they didn't dare come unbidden into this conversation with a pink senator.
Nara Oxham looked at the man. The Navy dress uniform, with its coordinated horde of subunits, certainly embodied the grossest aspects of Imperial power: the many made forcibly into one. But like much of the Imperial aesthetic, there was an undeniable elegance to the lockstepped fit of myriad elements. Zai's body didn't have the squat look of most high-gravity worlders. He was tall and a bit thin, the arch of his back rather tempting. "Let me ask you a question," she said to interrupt her own thoughts.
"Do you find my words treasonous?"
"By definition, no. You are a Senator. You have immunity."
"But immunity aside..."
He frowned. "If you weren't a senator, then by definition, you would have just committed treason."
"Only by definition?"
Zai nodded. "Yes, Senator. But perhaps not in spirit. After all, you are concerned with the welfare of the Empire, in whatever form you imagine its future."
Oxham smiled. Throughout the conversation, she had thought of Zai as unsophisticated, never having met a pink. Perhaps that was true, but how many actual grays had she herself spoken with honestly and openly? Perhaps her assumptions had been, in their own way, unsophisticated.
Zai raised an eyebrow at her expression.
"I was just thinking: Perhaps minds can be changed," she offered.
"Without death to drive the process?" Zai asked.
He took a deep breath, and his eyes drifted away from her. For a moment, she thought he was using synesthesia. But then some glimmer of intuition told Oxham that he was looking deeper than second sight.
"Or perhaps," Laurent Zai said, "I am already Head."
Something took hold of Nara. She felt an impossible moment of empathy, as if the drug had somehow failed: far inside the man was a terror, a wound opened by the depth of evil he had seen. It cut like an arctic wind, like an old fear made undeniably physical. It was agony and hopelessness. And, quite suddenly, she hated the Emperor for pinning a medal on this man.
Rewarding, rather than healing him.
"How much of Home have you seen, Laurent?" she asked quietly.
He shrugged. "The capital. This palace. And soon I will meet the Emperor himself. More than most of the risen see in centuries of pilgrimage."
"Would you like to see the South Pole?"
He looked genuinely surprised.
"I didn't know it was inhabited."
"Hardly. Outside a few estates, the poles are arid, freezing, dead. But I am pro-death, as you know. My new house there is surrounded by a glorious wasteland. I intend to escape the pressures of the capital there."
Zai nodded. He must know of her condition. The Mad Senator, the grays called her. A woman driven insane by crowds and cities, yet who made politics her profession.
The man swallowed before he spoke.
"I would like to see that, Senator."
"Then come with me there tomorrow, Lieutenant-Commander."
He raised his glass. "To a glorious wasteland."
"A truly gray place," she answered. 2
No plan survives contact with the enemy. --ANONYMOUS 81 SENATOR
She awoke without sanity.
The temporal ice released her quickly. Its lattice of tiny interwoven stasis fields unraveled, and time rushed back into her body like water through a suddenly crumbling dam, inundating a valley long denied it. Her mind became aware, emerging as it always did from coldsleep, raw and unprotected from the raging mindstorm of the city.
She awoke to madness.
Here in these exposed moments, the capital screamed in her brain. Its billions of minds roared, seethed, shrieked like a host of seagulls tearing at the carcass of some giant creature exposed upon a beach, fighting amongst themselves as they rended their huge find. Even in her madness, though, she knew the source of the psychic screaming: the rotting creature was Empire; the vast chorus of keening voices was all the myriad struggles for power and prestige that animated the Imperial capital. The noise of these contests thundered through her, for a moment obliterating any sense of self, her identity a lone mountaineer engulfed by an avalanche.
Then she heard her apathy bracelet begin its injection sequence, the reassuring hiss audible even through the deluge of sound. Then her empathic abilities began to fade under the drug's influence. The voices grew dim, and a sense of self returned.
The woman remembered who she was, childhood names spilling through her mind. Naraya, Naya, Nana. And then the titles of adulthood. Dr. Nara Oxham. Electate Oxham of the Vasthold Assembly. Her Excellency Nara Oxham, Representative to His Majesty's Government from the planet Vasthold. Senator Nara Oxham, Secularist Party whip.
Popularly known as the Mad Senator.
As the psychic howl receded, Oxham steeled herself and concentrated on the city, listening carefully for tone and character as it trailed away. Here on Home, she was always threatened by the crush of voices, the wild psychic noise that had kept her in an asylum for most of her childhood years. But sometimes as the apathy drug entered her veins, in this passing moment between madness and sanity, Nara could make sense of it, could catch a few notes of the multiplex and chaotic music that the capital played. It was a useful ability for a politician.
The sound of the Risen Empire's politics was troubled today, she heard. Something was coalescing, like an orchestra tuning itself to a single note. She tried to focus, to bring her mind to bear on the theme of unease. But then her empathy faded, extinguished by the drug.
Her insanity was, for the moment, cured, and she was deaf to the city's cry.
Senator Nara Oxham took a deep breath, flexed her awakening muscles. She sat up on the coldsleep bed, and opened her eyes.
Morning. The sky was salmon and the sun orange through the penthouse's bubble, the facets of the distant Diamond Palace tinged with blood. The bubble silenced the capital, the transparent woven carbon barely trembling for passing helicopters. But the city still buzzed, flickers of movement and the winking lights of signage shimmering in her vision, distant aircars blurring the air like gnats or heat haze on a desert. In the odd way of cold-sleep, her eyes felt clean, as if she had only closed them for a moment.
A moment that had lasted...
The date was displayed on the bedroom's large wallscreen. Since she had entered coldsleep, three of Homeworld's short months had passed. That was puzzling and alarming. Usually, the senatorial stasis breaks lasted half a year.
Something important was happening, then. The disquieting sound Oxham had heard on the limen of madness returned to her. She called up the status of her colleagues. Most were already animated, the rest were coming up as she watched. The full Senate was being awakened for a special session.
As Senator Nara Oxham crossed the Rubicon Pale at the bottom of the Forum steps, the reassuring wash of politics surrounded her, drowning out the shapeless anxiety she had felt coming out of coldsleep.
In one corner of her hearing she now registered the drone of the Inherited Intellectual Property filibuster. The filibuster, in its eighty-seventh decade, was as calming and timeless (and as meaningless, Senator Oxham supposed) as the roar of a distant ocean. Farther away in the echoey space of secondary audio she sensed plodding committee meetings, strident media conferences, the self-righteous energy of a Loyalty Party caucus meeting. And, of course, easily discernible by its sovereign resonance, the debate in the Great Forum itself.
She blinked, and a lower-third informed her that Senator Puram Drexler had the floor. A tiny corner of her synesthetic sight showed his face, the familiar milky gray eyes and elaborate, liquid rolls of flesh that poured from his cheekbones. President of the Senate, a figurehead position, Drexler was said to be over two hundred fifty years old (not counting cryo, and in his own relativistic framework--not Imperial Absolute). But his exquisitely weathered face had never seemed quite real to her. On Fatawa, which he represented in the Senate, the surgical affectation of age was almost as fashionable as that of youth.
The ancient solon cleared his throat languorously, the dry sound as gritty and sharp as a handful of small gravel poured slowly onto glass.
As she climbed the Forum steps, Senator Oxham brought the fingertips of her left hand together, which signaled her handlers to pick her up. The other voices in the Senate infostructure muted as her chief of staff confirmed the day's itinerary with her.
"Where's Roger?" Oxham asked after her schedule was confirmed. The morning scheduling ritual usually belonged to Roger Niles, her consultant extraordinary. The absence of his familiar voice disturbed Oxham, brought back her earlier uneasiness.
"He's deep, Senator," her chief of staff answered. "He's been in an analysis fugue all morning. But he leaked a request that you see him face-to-face at your earliest convenience."
The morning's disquiet flooded back in now. Niles was a very reserved creature; a meeting at his own insistence would mean serious news.
"I see," Oxham said flatly. She wondered what the old consultant had discovered.
"Bring my synesthesia to full bandwidth."
At her command, data swelled before Oxham in secondary and tertiary sight and hearing, blossoming into the familiar maelstrom of her personal configuration. Nameplates, color-coded by party affiliation and striped with recent votes, hovered about the other Senators flowing up the steps; realtime polygraph-poll reactions of wired political junkies writhed at the edge of vision, forming hurricane whorls that shifted with every procedural vote; the latest headcounts of her party's whip AI invoked tones at the threshold of hearing, soft and consonant chords for measures sure to pass, harsh, dissonant intervals for bills that were losing support. Nara Oxham breathed in this clamor like a seagoing passenger emerging onto deck for air. This moment--at the edge of Power, before one dived in and lost oneself--restored her confidence. The bracing rush of politics gave Nara what others were given by mountain-climbing, or incipient violence, or the pleasure of a first cigarette before dressing.
The senator smiled as she headed for her offices.
Nara Oxham often wondered how politics had been possible before second sight. Without induced synesthesia, the intrusion of sight into the other brain centers, how did a human mind absorb the necessary data? She could imagine going without synesthesia in certain activities--flying an aircraft, day trading, surgery--where one could focus on a single image, but not in politics. Noninterfering layers of sight, the ability to fill three visual and two auditory fields with data, were a perfect metaphor for politics itself. The checks and balances, the competing constituencies, the layers of power, money, and rhetoric. Even though the medical procedure that made it possible caused odd mental results in one in ten thousand recipients (Oxham's own empathy was such a reaction), she couldn't imagine the political world--gloriously multitrack and torrid--without it. She'd tried the old, presynesthesia eyescreens that covered up normal vision, but they'd brought on a claustrophobic panic. Who would trust the Senate to a blinkered horse?
The disquiet she had felt all morning tugged at Nara again. The feeling was familiar, but vaguely so, in the way of old smells and d j vu. She tried to place it, comparing the sensation to her anxieties before elections, important Senate votes, or large parties thrown in her honor. Nara Oxham recalled those apprehensions easily. She lived her life fighting them, weathering them, indulging in them. She was old friends with anxiety, that poor sister of madness which the drugs never fully vanquished.
But the current feeling was too slippery. She couldn't find the worry that had started it. She checked her wrist, where the dermal injector blinked happily green. It couldn't be an empathy flare; the drugs made sure of that. But it certainly felt like one.
When she reached her offices, she strode past supplicant aides and a few hopeful lobbyists, heading straight for Roger Niles's dark lair at the center of her domain. No one dared follow her. His office doors opened without a word, and she walked through, removed a stack of laundered shirts from his guest chair, and sat down.
"I'm here," she said. She kept her voice calm, knowing his interface AI would bring him up from the data fugue if she sounded impatient. Better to let him cross back into the real world at his own pace.
His face had the slack look of deep fugue, but his eyebrows lifted in response to her words, sending ripples up his high expanse of forehead. One finger on his right hand twitched. He looked too small for his desk, a circular monstrosity of dark wood that enclosed Niles like some giant life-support machine. Senator Oxham had recently discovered that its copious drawers and pigeonholes held only clothes, shoes, and a few emergency rations extorted from military lobbyists. Roger Niles thought the habit of going home at night to be an inexcusable weakness.
"Something bad, isn't it?" she asked.
The finger twitched again.
Niles looked older. Senator Oxham had only been in stasis for three months, but in that short absence a frosting of gray had touched his temples. Her staff had the right to go into cryo during the breaks, but Niles seldom did, preferring to work out the true decades of her term, aging before her eyes.
The loneliness of the senator, Oxham thought. The world moved so quickly past.
Senators were elected for (or appointed to, competed for, bought--whatever their planet's custom) fifty-year terms, half an Imperial Absolute century of office. The Risen Empire was a slowly evolving beast. Even here in the dense coreward clusters, eighty populated worlds was an area thirty light-years across, and the exigencies of war, trade, and migration were bound by the appallingly slow rate of lightspeed. The Imperial Senate was constituted to take the long view; the solons generally spent eighty percent of their terms in stasis sleep as the universe wheeled by. They made decisions with the detachment of mountains watching rivers below shift course.
Unavoidably, the planet that Oxham represented had changed in her first decade in office. And the trip to Home from Vasthold had consumed five Absolute years. When she returned, sixty years total would have passed, all her friends infirm or dead, her three nephews well into middle age. Even Niles was aging before her eyes. The Senate demanded much from its members.
But the Time Thief couldn't steal everyone. Oxham had found someone new, a lover who was a starship captain, a fellow victim of time dilation. Though the man was gone now, Absolute years away in the Spinward Reaches, Oxham had begun to match her stasis sleeps to his relativistic framework. The universe was slipping past them both at almost the same rate. When he came back, they would share the same years' passage.
Senator Oxham leaned back into her chair and listened with half her mind to the flow of political data in her secondary senses. But it was pointless to do anything except wait for Niles.
As political animals went, Senator Oxham was fundamentally unlike her chief of staff. She was a holist, feeling the Senate as an organism, an animal whose actions could be tamed or at least understood. Niles, at the other extreme, lived by the dictum that all politics is local. His gods were in the details.
The office was crowded with hardware that kept him linked to the everyday goings-on of each of the Eighty Worlds. Ration riots on Mirzam. Religious bombings on Veridani. The daily offensives and retaliations of a thousand price wars, ethnic struggles, and media trials, all maintained in real time by quantum entangled communications. Senatorial privilege allowed him to monitor the internal workings of news agencies, financial consortia, even the private missives of those wealthy enough to send trans-light data. And Niles could put it all together in his magnificent brain. Senator Oxham knew her colleagues as individuals, and could feel the hard edges of their petty vanities and obsessions, but Roger Niles saw senators as composite creatures of data, walking clearinghouses for the host of agendas and pressures from their home worlds.
The two sat across from each in silence for a few more minutes.
Niles's finger twitched again.
Nara sat back, knowing that this could take a while. It was dark in the room. The crystalline columns of the com hardware loomed like insect cities made of glass--perhaps fireflies, the Senator thought; the crystals were pinpoint-dappled by sunlight filtered through tiny holes in a smartpolymer curtain that extended across the glass ceiling.
Oxham looked upward with an annoyed expression, and the millimeter-wide holes responded, dilating a bit. Now she could feel the sun on her hands, which she splayed palm down, relishing the cool metal of Niles's desk. In the patterned light her chief of staff's face seemed tattooed with a fine trompe l'oeil veil.
He opened his eyes.
"War," he said.
The word sent ice down Senator Nara Oxham's spine.
"I'm seeing Imperial tax relief throughout the spinward worlds," Niles said, tapping the right side of his head as if his brain were a map of the Empire. "Every system within four light-years of the Rix frontier is having its economy stimulated, courtesy of the Risen One. And the Lackey Party caucus has buried parallel measures in that maintenance bill they've been debating all morning."
"Is that war, or just patronage-as-usual?" Oxham asked dubiously. The Risen Emperor and the Senate levied taxes separately, their sources of revenue as carefully delineated as the Rubicon Pale around the Forum building. But however separate crown and government were meant to be, the Loyalty Party--true to its name--always followed the Emperor's lead. Especially when it helped the voters back home. Loyalty was traditionally strong in the Spinward Reaches, as it was in every outskirt region where other cultures loomed threateningly close.
"Normally, I'd say it was the usual alms for the faithful," Niles answered. "But the Coreward and Outward Loyalist regions aren't sharing in the largesse. On the contrary, those ends of the Empire are taking a big hit. Over the last twelve hours, I'm seeing higher honoraria tributes, skyrocketing futures on titles and pardons, even hundred-year Imperial loans being called. The money isn't earmarked yet, but only the military could spend amounts like this."
"So the Navy's being strengthened, and the Spinward Reaches fattened up," Oxham said. It sounded like war with the Rix. Riches to fund military forces, and comfort for the regions threatened by reprisal.
Her chief of staff cocked his head, as if someone were whispering in his ear. "Labor futures on Fatawa tightened by three points this morning. Three. Probably reservists being called up. No one left to sweep the floors."
Oxham shook her head at the Risen Emperor's madness. It had been eighty years since the Rix Incursion; why provoke them now? Though not numerous, the Rix were unspeakably dangerous. The strange technologies bestowed on them by their AI gods made them the deadliest combatants the Empire had ever faced. Moreover, war with them was always a less-than-zero-sum game. They owned very little worth taking, having no real planets of their own. They seeded compound minds and moved on. They were spores for the planetary beings they worshiped, more a cult than a culture. But when injured, they made sure to injure in return.
"Why would the Risen Emperor want another war with the Rix?" she wondered aloud. "Any evidence of a recent attack?" Oxham silently cursed the secrecy of the Imperial state, which rarely allowed the Senatorial Government detailed military intelligence. What was going on out there, in that distant blackness? She shivered for a moment, thinking of one man in particular who would be in harm's way. She pushed the thought aside.
"As I said, this has all been in the last few hours," Niles said. "I don't have raw data from the frontier for that timeframe."
"Either precipitated by an emergency, or the Imperials have hidden their plans," Senator Oxham said.
"Well, they've blown their cover now," Niles finished.
Oxham interleaved her fingers, her hand making a double fist. The gesture triggered a sudden and absolute silence in her head, shutting off the din of orating solons, the clamor of messages and amendments, the pulse of polls and constituent chatter.
War, she thought. The galling domain of tyrants. The sport of gods and would-be-gods. And, most distressingly, the profession of her newest lover.
The Risen One had better have a damn good reason for this.
Senator Oxham leaned back and glared into Roger Niles's eyes. She allowed her mind to start planning, to sort through the precisely defined powers of the Senate for the fulcra that could impede the Emperor's course. And as she felt the cold surety of political power flowing into her, her anxieties retreated.
"Our Risen Father may not want our advise and consent," she said. "But let's see if we can't get his attention."
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