"Shots fired near the chamber, sir."
Captain Laurent Zai looked at his executive officer in surprise. The battle had been going well. Another of the Rix was dead, and the sole surviving enemy commando had been hounded almost to the outer wall of the palace complex. She was clearly in retreat. Zai had just ceased the railgun bombardment. The second wave of marines and a host of local militia had begun to secure the crumbling palace.
"Sounds friendly, sir. According to the squad-level telemetry, it's Initiate Barris. His suit diagnostics look dodgy, but if they're reading true, he's just expended his projectile ammo. One casualty."
Zai swore. Just what he needed: a run-amok political ruining his rescue mission. "Crash that idiot's armor, Executive Officer."
"Done, sir," Hobbes said with a subtle flick of her wrist; she must have had the order preconfigured.
Zai switched his voice to the marine sergeant's channel.
"Forget the last commando, Sergeant. Secure that council chamber. Let's evacuate those hostages before anything goes wrong."
Marine Corporal Mirame Lao had just decided to lower the stasis field when the shooting outside started. The railgun bombardment had ceased, and the ceiling of the council chamber seemed stable. One marine was stationed outside the chamber, and a few of the hostages had crept out from under the shelter of the council table. Lao had suspected the situation was secure, and wanted to check in with the Lynx.
But then the muted scream of varigun fire had erupted, a cloud of firefight dust rolling in through the chamber doors. Lao listened for the thudding of Rix blasters, but she could discern nothing through the heavy veil of the stasis field. She kept the field up, positioning herself between the Empress and the doors.
Vecher was talking to himself, a low murmur of disbelief as he probed the ultrasound wrap with instruments and his fingers. Some sort of tumor had afflicted the Empress's symbiant, apparently. What had the Rix done to her?
The sounds of the firefight ended after a few seconds. A broken figure stumbled through the dust and into the council chamber. An injured marine in battle armor. The helmet was crushed on one side. As the figure shambled toward them, Lao could see the face through the cracked visor. She knew all the Lynx's marines by sight, but the hideous mask was unrecognizable. The man's left eye had exploded out of its socket, and the jaw on that side was slack with anesthetic. It looked more like an insertion injury than blaster fire.
The figure walked toward her, waving frantically. A few steps away, the marine crumpled, dropping with the sudden ragdoll lifelessness of an armor crash, the dozens of servomotors that enabled marines to carry the heavy armor failing all at once. The marine sprawled helplessly on the floor.
Lao listened. It was silent outside.
"Doctor?" she said. "How is the Empress?"
"I'm not sure if I'm helping her or not," the doctor answered. "Her symbiant is ... unique. I need diagnostics from spaceside before I can treat her."
"All right. Admiral?"
The admiral nodded.
Lao lowered the field, squinting for the second it took her visor to compensate for relatively bright light of the chamber. With her varigun aimed at the chamber doors, she reached out and dragged the wounded marine inside the field perimeter. If the firelight started again, the man might as well be protected.
The marine rolled onto his back.
Who was he? Lao wondered. Even with his ruined face, she should be able to recognize him. She knew every marine aboard the Lynx. The man's rank insignia was missing.
More marines appeared at the door. They were moving low, battle-wary. Tactical orders were still flying in secondary hearing: one more Rix commando remained.
The wounded marine attempted to speak, and a mouthful of oxycompound emerged from his lips.
"Rix ... here," he gurgled.
Lao's fingers shot for the generator's controls again, raised the stasis field.
"Damn!" the doctor swore. "I lost the connection. I need Lynx's medical AI!"
"Sorry, Doctor," she said. "But the situation is not secure."
Lao looked back at the wounded marine to offer assistance. He was crawling toward the dead Rix commando, dragging the deactivated armor he wore with the last of his strength.
"Just lie there, soldier," she ordered. In the few seconds the field had been down, Lao's tactical display had been updated. A host of friendly troops were converging on the council chamber. Help was only moments away.
The man turned to face her. He brought up the Rix blaster, leveled at her chest.
At this range, a blast from it would kill everyone inside the field.
"The stasis field in the council chamber is down again, sir."
"Good. Contact them, dammit!"
Hobbes frantically tried to establish a link with Corporal Lao. By the process of elimination, she had determined that Lao was the marine inside the stasis field. A few seconds before, the shield had dropped, but then had popped up again, and there hadn't been time to connect.
"Lao!" she ordered on the marine broadband. "Do not raise the field again. The situation is secure."
The second wave of marines had secured the council chamber. And a rotary-wing medevac unit from the capital's hospital was in position on the palace roof.
There was no response from Corporal Lao.
"Dr. Vecher," she tried. Neither of the marines' armor telemetry was active. Even the diagnostic feed from the doctor's medical equipment had disappeared.
"Sir," she said, turning to face her captain. "Something's wrong."
He didn't answer. With a strange smile of resignation, Captain Zai leaned back into his bridge chair and nodded his head, murmuring something beneath his breath.
It almost sounded like, "Of course."
Then the reports came in from below, fast and furious.
The council chamber was secure. But Lao was dead, along with Dr. Vecher, Initiate Barris, and two hostages, victims of Rix blaster fire. The shield generator had been destroyed. Apparently, a last Rix commando had been alive, having survived the railgun attack, and had been inside the stasis field. In those close quarters, a single blaster shot had killed all six of them, even the Rixwoman herself.
In a few more moments, it was determined who the two hostages were.
One was Admiral Fenton Pry, General Staff Officer of the Lesser Spinward Fleet, holder of the Order of John, the Victory Matrix, and a host of campaign medals from the Coreward Bands Succession, Moorehead, and the Varei Rebellion.
The other was Child Empress Anastasia Vista Khaman, sister to His Imperial Majesty, the Risen Emperor.
The rescue attempt had failed.
Hobbes listened as Captain Zai recorded a short statement into his log. He must have prepared it earlier--Hobbes realized--to save the lives of his crew.
"The marines and naval personnel of the Lynx performed admirably and with great bravery against a perfidious enemy. This mission was carried out with distinction, but its basic plan and direction were flawed. The Error of Blood is mine and mine alone. Captain Laurent Zai, His Majesty the Emperor's Navy."
Then the captain turned and slowly left the bridge under the eyes of his stunned crew, shambling rather than walking, as if he were already a dead man. ONE HUNDRED YEARS EARLIER
The house was seeded in the range of mountains that almost encircled the planet's great polar tundra. The seed braked its fall with a long, black drogue chute made of smart carbon fibers and exotic alloys, rolling to a stop in the soft five-meter snows that shouldered the chosen peak. At rest and buried in the snow, it lay silent for three hours, performing an exacting diagnostic routine before proceeding. It was a complex mechanism, this seed, and an undiscovered flaw now could doom the house to years of nagging problems and petty repairs.
It was certainly in no hurry. It had decades in which to grow.
At length, the seed determined that it was in fine shape. If there were any problems, they were of the sort that hid themselves: a corrupted diagnostic routine, a faulty internal sensor. But that couldn't be helped; it was one of the natural limits of any self-aware system. In celebration of its good health, the seed took a long drink of the water that its drogue chute had been collecting. The chute's dark surface was splayed across the snow, absorbing sunlight and melting a thin layer of snow beneath it. This water was carried to the seed by a slow capillary process, a few centiliters each minute reaching the core.
The seed's gut quickly broke the water into hydrogen and oxygen, burning the former for quick energy, saving the latter. It radiated the heat of this combustion back to the drogue chute. More snow was melted. More water collected. More hydrogen burned.
Finally, this cycle of energy production reached a critical point, and the seed was strong enough to make its first visible movements. It tugged at the drogue chute, drawing it inward, and, as deliberately as a patient on a carefully measured diet, it consumed the clever and useful materials from which the chute was made.
From these, as the heat of its labors caused the seed to sink deeper into the snow, it began to make machines.
Cylinders--simple thinking reeds whose mouths gnawed, whose guts processed and analyzed, whose anuses excreted subtlely changed materials--crawled through the mountain peak on which the seed found itself. They mapped its structure, and determined that its steep but sound shoulders were as stable as a pyramid and capable of withstanding howling gales, construction tremors, even ten-thousand-year quakes. The cylinders found veins of useful metals: copper and magnesium, even a few grams of meteoric iron. They sent gravity waves through the peak, scrying its flaws and adjusting them with a compression bomb here, a graviton annealment there. Finally, the seed deemed the building site sound.
Carbon whisker butterflies pulled themselves out of the snow. One flew to the summit of the icy peak, others found crags and promontories that looked out in all directions. Their wings were photosensitive, and the butterflies stood stock still in the light breeze, taking slow, rich exposures of the peak's splendid views. The artificial insects then glided down into the valleys and across to neighboring peaks, photographing sightlines and colored lichens and the delta-shaped flows of meltwater. Sated with these images, the butterflies flew back to the seed, crawling back into the snow. The data coiled in their bellies were unwound and digested, views constructed and cropped with possible windows, sunsets and seasonal shifts calculated, the happenstance waterfalls of an extrapolated midsummer sculpted and regarded.
The butterflies ventured forth every day for weeks, gathering sights and samples and leaving behind survey markers no bigger than grains of rice.
And the seed found that its aesthetics concerns were also met; the peak was deemed acceptable in function and in form.
The seed called for its second stage, and waited.
Scattered across likely sites in the great polar range were other seeds, sown at some expense--the devices themselves were costly, as were prospecting options on land ownership even in the cold, empty south of Home--but almost all the others had fallen on fallow ground. The seed was one of very few successes. So when the second stage arrived, it was repletely stocked: a large supply of those building materials unavailable on site, detailed plans created by real human architects from the seed's data, and best of all a splendidly clever new mind to manage the project. This artificial intelligence was capable not only of implementing the architects' plans, but also of improvising its own creative flourishes as the work unfolded. The dim awareness of the seed felt incorporation into this new intelligence as a mighty, expansive rush, like an orphaned beggar suddenly adopted by a wealthy and ancient family.
Now work began in earnest. More devices were created. Some of them scurried to complete the imaging of the site. Others began to mine the peak for raw materials and to transmute it to its new shape. Thousands of butterflies were built, swarming the neighboring mountains. Their wings now reflective, they focused the near constant summer sun on the building site, raising its temperature above freezing and providing the laboring drones with solar energy when the last of the snow on the peak was finally melted, its load of hydrogen expended.
A latticework began to enclose the peak, long thin tubes sculpted from the mountain's igneous base material. This web of filaments covered the site like a fungal growth, and moved material around the peak with the steady pulse of the old seed core, now transformed into a steam turbine. Within this mycoid embrace, the house began to take shape.
In the end, there were six balconies. That was one of the few design elements the new mind retained from the original plan. At first the human architect team approved of the project mind's independence. After all, they had set the mind's operating parameters to highest creativity; they reacted to its changes the way parents will to the improvisations of a precocious child. They applauded the greenhouse on the northern face, and complimented the scheme of mirrors that would provide it with sunlight reflected from distant mountains in the wan winter months. They failed to protest the addition of a network of ornamental waterfalls covering the walls of the great cliffs that dominated the house's western view. What finally raised the architects' ire was the fireplace. Such a barbaric addition, so obviously a reference to the surrounding snows, and so useless. Already, the house's geothermal shaft extended 7,000 meters into the planet's crust. It was a very warm house when it wanted to be. And the fireplace would require chemical fuel or even real wood imported via sub-orbital; a gross violation of the original design's self-sustaining aesthetic. These sorts of flourishes had to be stopped. The architects drafted a strong attack on the project mind's changes, ending the missive with a series of unambiguous demands.
But the mind had been alone--save for its host of mechanical servitors, builders, masons, miners, sculptors, and assorted winged minions--for a long time now. It had watched the seasons change for a full year, had sifted the data of four hundred sunrises and sunsets from every window in the house, had attended to the play of shadows across every square centimeter of furniture.
And so, in the manner of smug subordinates everywhere, the project mind managed to misunderstand its masters' complaints. They were so far away, and it was just an artificial. Perhaps its language interpreters were faulty, its grasp of human usage undeveloped due to its lonely existence, perhaps it had sustained some damage in that long ago fall from the sky; but for whatever reason, it simply could not comprehend what the architects wanted. The project mind went its own way, and its masters, who were busy with other projects, threw up their hands and forwarded the expanded plans, which changed daily now, to the owner.
Finally, only a few months late, the house decided it was finished. It requested the third stage of its deployment.
The final supply drone came across the harsh, cold southern skies. It landed in a cleverly hidden lifter port that raised up amid the ice sculptures (representing mastodons, minotaurs, horses, and other creatures of legend) in the western valley. The drone bore items from the owner's personal collection, unique and irreplaceable objects that nanotechnology could not reconstruct. A porcelain statuette from Earth, a small telescope that had been a childhood gift to the owner, a large freeze-dried crate of a very particular kind of coffee. These precious items were all unloaded, many-legged servitors straining under the weight of their crash-proof packing.
The house was now perfect, complete. A set of clothing exactly matching that in the owner's capital apartments had been created, woven from organic fibers grown in the house's subterranean ecologies. These gardens ranged in scale from industrial tanks of soyanalog lit by an artificial sun, to neat rows of Belgian endive in a dank cellar, and produced enough food for the owner and three guests, at least.
The house waited, repairing a frayed curtain here, a sun-faded carpet there, fighting a constant war with the aphids that had somehow stowed away with the shipment of seeds and earthworms.
But the owner didn't come.'
He planned several trips, putting the house on alert status for this or that weekend, but pressing business always intervened. He was a Senator of the Empire, and the First Rix Incursion (though of course it wasn't called that yet) was underway. The prosecution of the war made many demands on the old solon. In one of its quiet moments, he came so close as a takeoff, his suborbital arcing its way toward the house, which was already brewing a pot of the precious coffee in breathless anticipation. But a rare storm system moved across the range. The senator's shuttle forbade an approach (in wartime, elected officials were not allowed to indulge risk levels above 0.01 percent) and carried its grumpy passenger home. In fact, the senator was not much concerned with the house. He had one just outside the capital, another back on his home planet. He had seeded the house as an investment, and not a particularly successful one at that; the expected land rush to the southern pole had never materialized. So when the Rix invasion ended, the owner placed himself in a long overdue cold sleep, never having made the trip.
The house realized he might never come. It brooded for a decade or two, watching the slow wheel of the seasons, and made a project of adjusting once again the play of light and shadow throughout its domain.
And then the house decided that, perhaps, it was time for a modest expansion.
The new owner was coming!
The house still thought of her that way, though she had owned the house for several months, and had visited dozens of times. That first absentee landlord still weighed on its mind like a stillborn child; the house kept his special coffee hidden in a subterranean storage room. But this new owner was real, breathing.
And she was on her way again.
Like her predecessor, she was a senator. A senator-elect actually, not yet sworn into the office. She suffered from a medical condition that required her to seek periodic solitude. Apparently, the proximity of large groups of humans could be damaging to her psyche. The house, which over the years had expanded its sculpted domain to twenty kilometers in every direction, was the perfect retreat from the capital's crowds.
The senator-elect was the perfect owner. She allowed the house considerable autonomy, encouraged its frequent redesigns and constant mountain-scaping projects. She had even told it to ignore the niggling doubts that it had suffered since its AI rating had increased past the legal threshold, an unintended result of its last expansion. The new owner assured the house that her "senatorial privilege" extended to it, providing immunity from the petty regulations of the Apparatus. That extra processing capacity might come in handy one day in the business of the Senate, she had said, making the house glow with pride.
The house stretched out its mind again to check that all was in readiness. It ordered a swarm of reflective butterflies to focus more sunlight on the slopes above the great cliff face; the resulting melting of snow would better feed the waterfall network, now grown as complex as some vast pachinko machine. The house rotated the central skylight so that its faceted windows would in a few hours break the setting sun into bright, orange shards covering the greatroom's floor. And in its magma-warmed lower depths, the house activated gardening servitors to begin preparations for a meal or two.
The new owner was, for the first time ever, bringing a guest.
The man was called Lieutenant-Commander Laurent Zai. A hero, the house was told by the small portion of its expansive mind that kept up with the newsfeeds. The house jumped into its preparations with extraordinary vigor, wondering what sort of visit this was to be.
Political? Of military import? Romantic?
The house had never actually seen two people interact under its own roof. All it knew of human nature it had gleaned from dramas, newsfeeds, and novels--and from watching its senator-elect spend her lonely hours here. Much could be learned this weekend.
The house decided to watch very carefully indeed. The suborbital shuttle was a brilliant thing.
The arc of its atmospheric braking was aligned head-on with the house's sensors, so the craft appeared only as a descending, expanding line of heat and light--a punctuation mark in some ecstatic language of moving, blazing runes.
The house received a few supplies--those exotics it could not produce itself--via suborbital, but those arrived in small, single-use couriers. This shuttle was a four-seater, larger and much more violent. The craft was preceded by a sonic boom, flaring hugely in the house's senses, but then became elegant and avian, its compact maneuvering wings spreading to reduce the speed of its entry. It topped the northern mountains with a dying scream, and swooped down to settle on the landing pad that had risen up from the gardens.
The dusting of snow on the landing pad began to melt in the shuttle's heat, the pad becoming wet and reflective, as if mist were clearing from a mirror. Icicles hanging from the nearest trees began to drip.
The mistress and her house guest had arrived.
They waited a few moments inside the shuttle while the landing area cooled. Then two figures emerged to descend the short exit stairs, hurried by the not-quite-freezing summer air. Their breath escaped in tiny puffs, and in the house's vision their self-heated clothing glimmered infrared.
The house was impatient. It had timed its welcome carefully. Inside the main structure, a wood fire was reaching its climax stage, coffee and cooking smells were peaking, and a last few servitors rearranged fresh-cut flowers, pushing stems a few centimeters one way and then the other as some infinitesimal portion of the house's processors found itself caught in an aesthetic loop.
But when the senator-elect and her guest arrived at the door, the house paused a moment before opening, just to create anticipation.
The lieutenant-commander was a tall man, dark and reserved. He walked with a smooth, prosthetic gait, the motion a gliding one, like a creature with more than two legs. He followed the mistress attentively through a tour of the house, noting its relationship to the surrounding mountains as if scouting a defensive position. The man was impressed, the house could tell. Laurent Zai complimented the views and the gardens, asked how they were heated. The house would have loved to explain (in excessive detail) the system of mirrors and heated water in underground channels, but the mistress had warned it not to speak. The man was Vadan, and didn't approve of talking machines.
Receptive to the smells of cooking, Zai and the mistress presently sat down to eat. The house had pulled food from deep in its stores. It had slaved (or rather, had commanded its many slaves) to make everything perfect. It served breasts of the small, sparrowlike birds that flocked in the south forest, each no bigger than a mouthful, baked in goat's butter and thyme. Baby artichokes and carrots had gone into a stew, thickened with a dark reduction of tomatoes and cocoa grown deep underground. Meaty oranges and pears engineered to grow in freezing temperatures, which budded from the tree already filled with icy crystals, had been shaved into sorbets to divide the courses. The main dish was thin slices of salmon pulled from the snowmelt streams, chemically cooked with lemon juice and nanomachines. The table was covered with petals from the black and purple groundcover flowers that kept the gardens warm for a few extra weeks in the fall.
The house spared nothing, even unearthing the decades-old hidden cache of its first owner's coffee, the previous senator's special blend. It served them this magic brew after they were finished eating.
The house watched and waited, anxious to see what would result from all its preparations. It had so often read that well-prepared food was the key to engendering good conversation.
Now would come the test.
After lunch, Nara Oxham took him to a room with incredible views. Like the food, which had been exquisite to a fault, the vistas here almost overwhelmed Zai: mountainscapes, clear skies, and marvelous, distant waterfalls. Finally, an escape from the crowds of the capital. Best of all, however, was the large fireplace, a hearth such as a Vadan home would have. They built a small pyre of real wood together, and Nara worked with long and skillful fingers to bring it to a blaze.
Zai stole glances at his hostess in the firelight. The senator-elect's eyes were changing. With each hour at the polar estate, they grew less focused, like a woman steadily drinking. Laurent knew that she had stopped taking the drug that maintained her sanity in the city. She was becoming more sensitive. He could almost feel the power of her empathy as it tuned in on him. What would it reveal to her? he wondered.
Zai tried not to think of what might happen between him and his hostess. He knew nothing of the ways of Vasthold; this excursion to the pole might be merely a friendly gesture toward a foreigner, a traditional offer to a decorated hero, even an attempt to compromise a political opponent. But this was Nara's home, and they were very much alone.
These thoughts of intimacy came unbidden and moved creakily, almost a forgotten process. Since his captivity, Zai's broken body had been often a source of pain, sometimes one of despair, and always an engineering problem, but never a locus of desire.
Would Nara detect his thoughts--half-thoughts, really--about possible intimacy between them? Zai knew that most synesthetic abilities were exaggerated by the gutter media. How keen were hers?
Zai decided to show his curiosity, which at least would have the advantage of distracting Nara (and himself) from his other thoughts. So he pursued a question he'd pondered since they'd met.
"What was it like to be empathic as a child? When did you realize that you could ... read minds?"
Nara laughed at his terminology, as he'd expected.
"The realization was slow," she said. "It almost never came.
"I was raised on the pleinhold. It's very empty there. On Vasthold, there are prefectures with less than one person per hundred square kilometers. Endless plains in the wind belt, broken only by Coriolis mountains, constructs that channel the winds into erosion runnels, which will eventually become canyons. Everywhere on the plains you can hear the mountains singing. The wind resonances are unpredictable; you can't engineer a mountain for a particular sound. They say even a Rix mind couldn't do the math. Each plays its own tune, as slow and moaning as whalesong, some deeper than human hearing, with notes that beat like a drum. Hiking guides can tell the songs apart, can distinguish the different sides of each mountain with their eyes closed. Our house faced Mount Ballimar, whose northern-side song sweeps from thudding beats up to a soprano when the wind shifts, like a siren warning that a storm is coming.
"My parents thought I was an idiot at first."
Zai glanced at her, wondering if the word had a softer meaning on her planet. She shook her head in response. That thought had proven easy enough for her to read.
"Out there on the plains, my ability went undetected. I suffered no insanity in the hinterlands; the psychic input from my large but isolated family was manageable. But I had less need of language acquisition than my siblings. To family members I could project emotions as well as empathize. It was so effortless, my communication; my family thought I was a dullard, but a very easy one to get along with. My needs were met, and I knew what was going on around me, but I didn't see the need to chatter constantly."
Zai's eyebrows raised.
"Strange that I became a politician, then. Eh?"
He laughed. "You read my mind."
"I did," she admitted, and leaned forward to poke at the fire. It burned steadily now, and was hot enough to have forced them to a meter's distance.
"I could talk, though. And contrary to what my parents thought, I was smart. I could do spoken lessons with an AI, if a reward was coming. But I didn't need speech, so the secondary language skills--reading and writing--suffered.
"Then I took my first trip to the city."
Zai saw the muscles of her hand tighten on the poker.
"I thought the city was a mountain, because I could hear it from so far away. I thought it was singing. The minds of a city are like ocean from a distance, when the wave crashes blend into a hum, a single band of sound. Pleinberg only had a population of a few hundred thousand in those days, but I could hear from fifty klicks out the tenor of the festival we were headed to, raucous and celebratory, political. The local majority party had won the continental parliament. From out there on the plain, coming in by slow ground transport, the sound made me happy. I sang back at this happy, marvelous mountain.
"I wonder what my parents thought was happening. Just an idiot's song, I suppose."
"They never told you?" he asked.
Surprise crossed Nara's face for a moment.
"I haven't spoken to them since that day," she said.
Zai blinked, feeling like a blunderer. Senator Oxham's biography must be well known in political circles, at least the bare facts. But Zai knew her only as the Mad Senator.