Alexander did what it could to forestall the invaders.
Legis XV's arsenal had been locked out from the compound mind, of course. No Imperial installation this close to the Rix would rely on the planetary infostructure to control its weaponry. Physical keys and panic shunts were in place to keep Alexander from using the capital's ground-to-space weapons against the Lynx or its landing craft. But Alexander could still play a role in the battle.
It moved through the palace, seeing through the eyes of security cameras, listening through the motion-detection system, following the progress of the Imperial troops as they stormed the council chamber. Alexander spoke through intercoms to the two Rix commandos left alive after the initial assault, sharing its intelligence, guiding them to harry the rescue effort.
But by now, this last stand was merely a game. The lives of the hostages were no longer important to Alexander. The rescue had come too late; it would be impossible for the Imperials to dislodge the compound mind from Legis XV without destroying the planet's infostructure.
The Rix had won.
Alexander noted the local militia flooding into the palace to reinforce the Imperials. The surviving commandos would soon be outnumbered hundreds to one. But the compound mind saw a narrow escape route. It sent its orders, using one of the commandos in a diversion, and carefully moving to disengage the other.
Alexander was secure, could no more be removed from Legis's infostructure than the oxygen from its biosphere, but the Imperials would not give up easily. Perhaps a lone soldier under its direct command would prove a useful asset later in this contest.
Dr. Vecher felt hands clearing the goo from his eyes.
He coughed again, another oyster-sized, salty remnant of the stuff sputtering into his mouth. He spat it out, ran his tongue across his teeth. Foul slivers squirmed in the mass of green covering the floor below him.
He looked up, gasping, at whoever held his head.
A marine looked down at him through an open visor. Her aquiline face looked old for a jumper, composed and beautiful in the semidarkness. They were inside the hemisphere of a small stasis field.
The marine--a corporal, Vecher saw--clicked her tongue, and a synthesized voice said, "Sir, heal."
She pointed at a form lying on the ground.
"Oh," Vecher said, his mind again grasping the dimensions of the situation, now that the imperative of emptying his lungs had been accomplished.
Before him, in the arms of a bloodsoaked Imperial officer, was the Child Empress. She was wracked by some sort of seizure. Saliva flecked the Empress's chin, and her eyes were wide and glassy. Her skin looked pale, even for a risen. The way the Empress's right arm grasped her rib cage made Vecher think: heart attack.
That didn't make sense. The symbiant wouldn't allow anything as dangerous as a cardiac event.
Vecher reached into his pack and pulled out his medical dropcase. He twisted a polygraph around the Empress's wrist and flipped it on, preparing a derm of adrenalog while the little device booted. After a moment, the polygraph tightened, coiling like a tiny metal cobra, and two quickneedles popped into the Empress's veins. Synesthesia glyphs gave blood pressure and heart rate, and the polygraph ticked through a series of blood tests for poisons, nano checks, and antibody assays. The heart rate was bizarrely high; it wasn't an arrest. The bloodwork rolled past, all negative.
Vecher paused with his hypo in hand, unsure what to do. What was causing this? With one thumb, he pulled open the Empress's eyes. A blood vessel had burst in one, spreading a red stain. The Child Empress gurgled, bubbles rising from her lips. When in doubt, treat for shock, Vecher decided. He pulled a shock cocktail from his dropcase, pressing it to his patient's arm. The derm hissed, and the tension in the Empress's muscles seemed to slacken.
"It's working," the Imperial officer said hopefully. The man was an admiral, Vecher realized. An admiral, but just a bystander in this awful situation.
"That was only a generalized stabilizer," Vecher answered. "I have no idea what's happening here."
The doctor pulled an ultrasound wrap from the dropcase. The admiral helped him wind the thin, metallic blanket around the Empress. The wrap hummed to life, and an image began to form on its surface. Vague shapes, the Empress's organs, came into focus. Vecher saw the pounding heart, the segments of the symbiant along the spine, the shimmer of the nervous system, and ... something else, just below the heart. Something out of place.
He activated the link to the medical AI aboard the Lynx, but after a few seconds of humming it reported connection failure. Of course, the stasis field blocked transmission.
"I need help from diagnostics upstairs," he explained to the marine corporal. "Lower the field."
She looked at the admiral, chain of command reasserting itself. The old man nodded. The corporal shouldered her weapon and scanned the council chamber, then extended one arm toward the field generator's controls.
Before her fingers could reach them, a loud boom shook the room. The corporal dropped to one knee, searching for a target through the sudden rain of dust. Another explosion sounded, this time closer. The floor leapt beneath the doctor's feet, throwing him to the ground. Vecher's head struck the edge of the stasis field, and, looking down, he saw that the marble floor had cracked along the circumference of the field. Of course, Dr. Vecher realized: the field was a sphere, which passed through the floor in a circle around them. The last shockwave had been strong enough to rupture the marble where it was split by the field.
Another pair of blasts rocked the palace. Vecher hoped the floor was supported by something more elastic than stone. Otherwise, their neat little circle of marble floor was likely to fall through to the next level, however far down that was.
Screams from the hostages came dimly through the stasis field; a few decorative elements from the ornate ceiling had fallen among them. A chunk of rock bounced off the black hemisphere above Vecher's head.
"Those idiots!" cried the admiral. "Why are they still bombarding us?"
The marine corporal remained unflappable, nudging one booted toe against the cracked marble at the edge of the field. She looked up at the ceiling.
She pulled off her helmet and vomited professionally--as neatly as the most practiced alcoholic--the green goo in her lungs spilling onto the floor.
"Sorry, doctor," she said. "I can't lower the field. The ceiling could go any second. You'll have to do without any help for now."
Vecher rose shakily, nodding. A metallic taste had replaced the salty strawberry of the oxycompound. He spat into his hand and saw blood. He'd bitten his tongue.
"Perfect," he muttered, and turned toward his patient.
The ultrasound wrap was slowly getting the measure of the Child Empress's organs, shifting like a live thing, tightening around her. The shape below the Empress's heart was clearer now. Vecher stared in horror at it.
"Damn," he swore. "It's..." "What?" the admiral asked. The marine took her eyes from the open council chamber's doors for a moment to look over his shoulder.
"Part of the symbiant, I think."
The palace shook again. Four tightly grouped blasts rained dust and stone fragments onto the field over their heads.
Vecher simply stared.
"But it shouldn't be there..." he said.
Private Bassiritz, who came from a gray village where a single name sufficed, found himself regarding minute cracks in the stone floor of the palace of Child Empress Anastasia Vista Khaman.
A moment before, a hail of seeking bullets had rounded the corner before him, a flock of flaming birds that filled the hallway with light and high-pitched screams, driving him to the ground. Fortunately, Bassiritz's reflexes were rated in the top thousandth of the highest percentile of Imperial-ruled humanity, in that realm of professional athletes, stock market makers, and cobra handlers. This singular characteristic had given him passage through the classes in academy where he often struggled--not so much unintelligent as undersocialized, raised in a provincial sector of a gray planet where technology was treated with due respect, but the underlying science ridiculed for its strange words and suppositions. The academy teachers taught him what they could, and quietly promoted him, knowing he would be an asset in any sudden, explosive combat situation, such as the one in which he now found himself.
He was a very fast young man. None of the small, whining Rix projectiles had hit Bassiritz, nor had they, by the celeritous standards of the event, even come close.
His eyesight was awfully good too. Throw a coin ten meters, and Bassiritz could run and catch it--the called side facing up in his small, yellow palm. The rest of humanity drifted through Bassiritz's reality with the tardy grace of glaciers, vast, dignified creatures who evidently knew a lot of things, but whose movements and reactions seemed deliberately, infuriatingly slow. They seemed dazzled by the simplest situations: a glass fell from a table, a groundcar suddenly hurtled toward them, the newssheet was pulled from their hand by a gust of wind--and they flailed like retarded children. Why not just react?
But this Rixwoman. Now she was fast.
Bassiritz had almost killed her a few moments ago. With the servos in his armor set to stealth and his varigun precharged to keep it quiet, he'd crawled into a cunning position behind the Rixwoman, separated from her only by the translucent bricks that formed the sunwall in this part of the garden. The enemy commando was pinned by supporting fire from squadmates Astra and Saman, who were smart enough to let Bassiritz do the killing. Their variguns pummeled the area with fragmentation projectiles, kicking up a maelstrom of flying glass and microbarbed shrapnel and keeping the Rixwoman down, down, down. She knelt and crawled, and her shadow was warped and twisted by the crude, handblown shapes of the brickwork, but from this angle Bassiritz could see to shoot her.
He set his varigun (a difficult weapon that forced Bassiritz to choose how to kill someone) to its most accurate and penetrating ammo-type, a single ballshot of magnetically assisted ferrocarbon. And fired.
That setting was a mistake, however. Just as Bassiritz never understood the relativistic equations that made his parents and sisters grow old so quickly, fading visibly with every visit home, and that had stolen his bride-to-be with their twisting of time, he never could remember that some varigun missiles were slower than sound. Bassiritz couldn't understand how sound could have a speed, like his squadmates claimed even seeing did.
But the crack of his weapon reached the Rixwoman before the killing sphere of ferrocarbon, and with Bassiritz-like speed she ducked. The ball-shot shattered three layers of ornamental pleasure-garden wall, but missed its target.
And now the Rixwoman knew where Bassiritz was! The swarm of seeking bullets proved that, though she herself had disappeared. All manner of shit was about to come his way. Fast shit, maybe faster than Bassiritz.
Bassiritz decided to swallow his pride and call on help from the ship above.
With his right hand he pulled a black disk from his shoulder holster. Yanking a red plastic tab from the top, Bassiritz waited for the few seconds it took the disk to confirm that it had, in fact, awoken. That red light meant that there was a man in it now--a wee man who you couldn't see. Bassiritz stood and took the stance of one skipping a flat stone across water, and hurled the disk down the long hallway. It glanced once against the marble floor, making the sharp sound of a hammer on stone, then lofted up like a leaf caught by a sudden wind...
...Master Pilot Jocim Marx assumed control of the Y-1 general tactical floater as easily as slipping on an undershirt. Whatever grunt had thrown the floater had imparted a good, steady spin, and the small craft's fan drive accelerated without turbulence.
Marx looked out across the terrain materializing in synesthesia, adjusting to the much larger scale of the floater (almost a hundred times the size of an Intelligencer) and the new perspective. He preferred flying these fast small craft with an inverted viewpoint, in which the floor of the palace was a ceiling over his head, the legs of humans hanging from it like giant stalactites.
The enemy target was a sharp-eared Rix commando, so the floater was seeing with only passive sensors and its highest frequency echolocation. The view was blurry, but the long, featureless hallways offered few obstacles.
The master pilot took his craft "up" to just a few centimeters from the floor, brought it to a halt behind the cover of an ornamental column. According to battle data compiled by the Lynx insertion AI, the nearest Rix commando was roughly twenty meters ahead. A hail of audio came from the canopy's speakers: blaster fire. The Rix was on the move, closing on the marine who had tossed the floater.
She had the marine's position, was moving in for the kill.
Firefight debris began to fill the air. The brittle glass and stone of the palace demanded the crudest sort of tactics: bludgeon your enemies with firepower, raining projectiles on them to cover any advance. Rix blasters were particularly well suited for this. It was not the best environment for floaters. Marx took his craft farther away from the marine, escaping the maelstrom of flying glass and dust, circling around to take a position behind the advancing Rix. At least in this cacophony, the commando wouldn't hear the soft whine of the floater's fan. Marx brought his active sensors on line and decided to go in close.
There were several ways to kill with a floater. Paint the target with a laser, and have a marine launch a cigarette-sized guided missile. Or deploy the floater's skirt of poison spurs and ram the enemy. Or simply spot for the marine from some safe vantage, whispering in the soldier's ear.
But Marx heard his marine's ragged breathing, a panicked sound as the man ran from his pursuer, and realized there wasn't time for any but the direct approach.
He brought the floater up to ramming speed.
Sweeping around a corner, Marx's craft emerged from the palace into a dense sculpture garden, the way blocked by the splayed shapes of birds in flight, windblown reeds, and flowering trees, all rendered in wire-thin metal. Marx found himself within a few meters of the Rix, the purr of her servomuscles just audible through the din of blaster fire. But she was moving through the sculptures at inhuman Rix speed, dodging and rolling among the razor-sharp sculptures. It was possible she had detected his floater; she had moved into very inhospitable terrain for Marx. If the floater collided with one of these sculptures, its fan drive would be knocked out of alignment--the craft instantly useless. With the lightspeed delay of remote control, this garden was a nightmare to fly through.
Or for the true master pilot, a challenge, Marx thought with a smile.
He closed in, prepping the poison spurs of the ram skirt with a harsh vocal command.
Bassiritz was bleeding.
The Rixwoman had hounded him into the corner of two long hallways, bounded by supporting walls--one of the few hypercarbon structures in the palace. His varigun couldn't blast through them. Bassiritz was trapped here, exposed and wounded. The Rixwoman's incessant fire had brought down a hail of fragments on him, a stone-hard rain. One random sliver had cut through a thin joint in his armor, tearing into his leg just behind the knee-plate.
Bassiritz's helmet visor was scratched and webbed. He could barely see, but he dared not take it off.
And Astra and Saman were dead. They had trusted Bassiritz's kill-shot too much, and had exposed themselves.
For the moment, though, the Rixwoman seemed to have paused in her relentless pursuit. Maybe she was savoring the kill, or possibly the wee man in the disk was troubling her.
Perhaps there was time to escape. But the two wide hallways stretched for a few hundred meters without cover, and Bassiritz could hear the Rixwoman still moving through the garden of crazy shapes. He felt hunted, and thought of the tigers that sometimes took people outside his village. Up! his mind screamed. Climb a tree! He searched the smooth hypercarbon walls for handholds.
Bassiritz's sharp eyes spotted a sequence of slots in the hypercarbon that led up to the top of the wall. Probably some sort of catch so that the walls could be repositioned. Bassiritz dropped his varigun--most of its ammo was expended anyway--and drew from his boots the pair of small hypercarbon knives his mother had given him just before the Time Thief had taken her.
He thrust one knife into a slot. Its thin blade fit perfectly. He pulled himself up. The hypercarbon blade didn't bend, of course, though supporting his entire weight with a grip on its tiny handle made his fingers scream.
He ignored the pain and began to climb.
Marx pursued the thudding boots of the Rix commando through the sharp twists and turns of the garden, his knuckles white on the control surface. The floater could barely keep up with this woman/machine. She definitely knew a small craft was pursuing her; she had twice turned to fire blindly behind, her weapon set to a wide shotgun blast that forced Marx to screeching halts under cover of the metal sculptures.
But now he was gaining.
The Rixwoman had fallen once, slipping on a sliver of glass from some earlier stage of the firefight, and she'd skidded into glancing contact with the sharp extremities of a statue representing a flock of birds. Now she left drops of thin Rix blood behind her on the marble floor, and ran with a noticeable limp. Marx urged his craft through the blur of obstacles, knowing he could reach her in the next few seconds.
Suddenly, the sculptures parted, and hunter and quarry burst from the garden. Realizing that the open terrain was now against her, the commando spun on one unsteady heel to fire back at Marx's craft. He flipped the craft over and it leapt up from the floor as her blaster cratered the marble beneath him, the floater's ram spurs extended to full. He hurtled toward her helmeted face. Marx fought to get the craft down, knowing it would bounce off her visor. He had to hit the vulnerable areas of hands or the joints of her armor, but the craft was thrown crazily forward by the concussion wave of the blaster explosion.
It was not his piloting skill, but the woman's own reflexes that doomed her. With the disk flying directly at her face, she reached up with one hand to ward off the impact, an instinctive gesture that even three thousand years of Rix engineering had not completely removed. The spurs cut into her palm, thinly gloved to allow a full range of motion, and injected their poison.
The floater rebounded from the impact with flesh. It was whining unhealthily now, the delicate lifter-fan mechanism a few crucial millimeters out of alignment. But the job was done. Marx took control of the suddenly unwieldy craft and climbed to a safe height to watch his adversary die.
But she still stood. Shaking as the poison-nanos spread through the biological and mechanical pathways of her body, she took a few more steps from the garden, looking frantically about.
She spotted something.
Marx cursed all things Rix. She should have dropped like a stone. But in the decades since the last incursion, the Rix immune system must have evolved sufficiently to give her another few moments of life. And she had sighted an Imperial marine. The man's back was to her, as he somehow pulled himself up the smooth wall twenty meters away.
The Rix commando shakily raised her weapon, trying to buy one last Imperial casualty with her death.
Marx thought of ramming her again, but his damaged craft only massed a few grams; the gesture would be futile. The marine was doomed. But Marx couldn't let her shoot him in the back. He triggered the floater's collision-warning alarm, and the craft expended the rest of its waning power to emit a screeching wail.
Marx watched in amazement as the marine reacted. In a single motion, the man turned and spotted the Rix, and leapt from the wall as her blaster fired, one arm flinging out in a gesture of defiance against her. The round exploded against the hypercarbon, the shockwave hurling the marine a dozen meters through the air to crash against the stone floor, his armor cracking it like a hammer. With unexpected grace, the man rolled to his feet, facing his opponent.
But the Rix was dead; she spun to the ground.
At first, Marx thought the poison had finally taken her, but then he spotted the blood gushing from her throat. From the soft armor seam there, the handle of a knife--a knife, Marx marveled--protruded. The marine had thrown it as he fell.
Master Pilot Marx whistled as his craft began to fall, energy expended. Finally he had met an unaugmented human whose reflexes matched his own, perhaps were even superior.
He patched himself through to the marine's helmet.
"Nice throw, soldier."
Through the floater's fading vision, he saw the marine jog toward the Rix and pull the knife from her throat. The man cleaned it carefully with a small rag he pulled from one boot, and tipped his visor at the floater as it wafted toward the ground.
"Thanks, wee man," the marine answered in a rough, outworld accent.
Wee man? Marx wondered.
But there wasn't time to ask. Another Y-1 general tactical floater had just been activated. One last Rixwoman remained alive; Marx's talents were needed elsewhere.
Initiate Barris was trapped in darkness.
His brain rang like a persistent alarm that no one has bothered to turn off. One side of his face seemed paralyzed, numb. He had realized from the first moment of the drop that something was wrong. The acceleration gel hadn't had time to completely fill the capsule; when the terrific jolt of launch came, his helmet was partly exposed. A few seconds into the frantic, thunderous journey, the dropship had whipped around, triggering an explosion in his head. That's when the ringing in his brain had started.
Now the vehicle was grounded--a few minutes had passed, he dizzily suspected--but the automatic egress sequence had failed. He stood shoulder-deep in the mud of the gel, which was slowly leaking out of some rupture in the damaged craft.
The gel supported his battered body, warm, soft, and womblike, but Initiate Barris's training compelled him to escape the dropship. The Emperor's Secret must be protected.
He tried to shoot open the door, but the varigun failed to work. Was the gel jamming it? He pulled the weapon up out of the sucking mud. Of course, he realized, the barrel was sealed against the impact gel that filled the vehicle, and a safety mechanism had prevented its firing.
He pulled the seal, the sucking pop faint in his ruptured hearing.
In the lightless capsule, Barris was unsure what setting the varigun defaulted to. The marine sergeant onboard the Lynx had warned him not to use fragmentation grenades at short range, which certainly seemed a sensible suggestion. Barris swallowed, imagining shrapnel bouncing around in the coffin-sized payload space.
But his conditioning was insistent; it would not brook further delay. Barris gritted his teeth, pointed the varigun at the dropship door, and fired. A high scream, like the howl of fresh hardwood cut on a rotary saw, filled his ears. A bright arc appeared, the light from outside stabbing in through the perforating metal. Then in a sudden rush he was tumbling outward, the rent door bursting open under the weight of the gel.
He stumbled to his feet and looked around.
Something was missing, Barris dully thought for a moment--something wrong. The world seemed halved. He looked at the gun in his hands, and understood. Its barrel faded into darkness...
He was blind in one eye.
Barris reached up to touch his face, but the battle armor stiffened. He pulled against the resistance, thinking a joint or servomotor was damaged, but it wouldn't budge. Then a diagnostic glyph--one of many mysterious signs alight inside his visor--winked frantically. And he realized what was happening.
The battle armor wouldn't let him touch his face. The natural instinct to probe the wound was contraindicated. He looked for a mirror, a reflection in some metal surface, but then thought better of it. The numbness in his face was anesthetic; who knew what awful damage he might see.
And the Emperor's work needed doing.
The map projected on his visor made sense after a few moments of thought. Concentrating was difficult. He was probably concussed, or worse. With grim effort, Barris walked toward the council chamber, his body shaking inside the smooth gait of the body armor's servomotors.
Sounds of a distant firefight pierced the ringing in his head, but he couldn't ascertain their direction. The clipped phrases of Imperial battle-talk buzzed in his head, incomprehensible and strangely tinny. His hearing was damaged as well. He strode doggedly on.
A series of booms--two groups of four--shook the floor. It seemed as if the Lynx were trying to bring the palace down around him. Well, at least that might get the job done if Barris couldn't.
The initiate reached the doors to the council chamber. A lone marine, anonymous in battle armor, waved to him from a kneeling position just outside. The chamber had been secured. Was he too late?
Perhaps there was only one marine here.
Initiate Barris leveled his varigun at the figure and pressed the firing stud. The weapon resisted for a moment, held in check by some sort of friendly-fire governor, buzzing at him with yet another alarm. But when Barris ignored it and squeezed again, harder, a stream of the ripping projectiles sprayed across the marine.
The barrage knocked the figure down, and ejected a wave of dust and particles from the marble wall and floor. The fallen marine was swallowed by the cloud, but Barris moved forward, spraying his weapon into the debris. Once or twice, he saw a struggling limb emerge from the cloud; the black battle armor fragmenting, gradually beaten to pieces by the insistent hail of projectiles.
Finally, the gun whined down into silence, expended. Surely the marine was dead.
Barris switched the varigun to another setting at random, and stepped into the council chamber.
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