Chapter 9

The words chilled him, though. Abandonment of a child? Loss of the family line? His Vadan sense of propriety rebelled at the thought. He swallowed, and tried to stifle the reaction, knowing his empathic host would feel it all too well.

"Go ahead, Laurent," she said, "be appalled. It's okay."

"I don't mean to--"

"I know. But don't try to control your thoughts around me. Please."

He sighed, and considered the War Sage's advice on negotiating with the enemy: When caught dissembling, the best correction is sudden directness.

"How close did you get, before the city drove you mad?" he asked.

"I'm not sure, exactly. I didn't know it was madness; I thought it was the song inside me, tearing me to pieces."

She turned away from him to place fresh wood on the fire.

"As the city grew nearer, the mindnoise increased. It follows the inverse square law, like gravity or broadcast radio. But the traffic going into the festival slowed us down, so the ramp up in volume wasn't exponential, as it could have been."

"So clinical, Nara."

"Because I don't really remember, not sequentially, anyway. I only recall that I loved it. Riding a victory celebration of a quarter million minds, Laurent, who'd won a continental election for the first time in decades. There was so much joy there: success after years of work, redemption for old defeats, the sense that justice would finally be done. I think I fell in love with politics that day."

"The day you went mad."

She nodded, smiling.

"But by the time we reached the center of town, it was too much for me. I was raw and unprotected, a thousand times more sensitive than I am now. The stray thoughts of passing strangers hit me like revelations, the noise of the city obliterated my own young mind. My reflex was to strike out, I suppose, to physically retaliate. I was brought into the hospital bloody, and it wasn't all my blood. I hurt one of my sisters, I think the story goes.

"They left me in the city."

Zai gaped. There was no point in hiding his reaction.

"Why didn't your parents take you back home?"

She shrugged. "They didn't know. When your child has an unexplained seizure, you don't take them into the hinterland. They had me transferred to the best facility possible, which happened to be in the largest city on Vasthold."

"But you said you haven't seen them since."

"It was in Vasthold's expansion phase. They had ten children, Laurent. And their silent one, their retarded child, had become a dangerous little beast. They couldn't travel across the world to visit me. This was a colony world, Laurent."

More protests rose in Zai, but he took a deep breath. No point in battering Nara's parents. It was a different culture, and a long time ago.

"How many years were you ... mad, Nara?"

She looked into his eyes. "From age six to ten ... that's roughly age twelve to nineteen in Absolute years. Puberty, young adulthood. All with eight million voices in my mind."

"Inhuman," he said.

She turned back to the fire, half smiling. "There are only a few of my kind. A lot of synesthetic empaths, but not many survivors of such ignorance. Now they understand that synesthesia implants will cause empathy in a few dozen kids a year. Most live in cities, of course, and the condition is discovered within days of the operation. When the kids blow, they ship them off to the country until they're old enough for apathy treatments. But I was desensitized the old-fashioned way."

"Exposure."

"What was it like in those years, Nara?" No point in hiding his curiosity from an empath.

"I was the city, Laurent. Its animal consciousness, anyway. The raging id of desire and need, frustration and anger. The heart of humanity, and yes, of politics. But almost utterly without self. Mad."

Zai narrowed his eyes. He'd never thought of a city that way, as having a mind. It was so close to the Rix perversion.

"Exactly," she said, apparently having plumbed the thought. "That's why I'm anti-Rix, for a Secularist."

"What do you mean?"

"Cities are beasts, Laurent. The body politic is nothing but an animal. It needs humans to lead it, personalities to shape the mass. That's why the Rix are such single-minded butchers. They graft a voice onto a slavering beast, then worship it as a god."

"But something, some sort of compound mind is really there, Nara? Even on an Imperial world, with emergence suppressed? Even without the networks."

She nodded. "I heard it every day. Had it in my mind. Whether computers make it apparent or not, humans are a part of something bigger, something distinctly alive. The Rix are right about that."

"Thus the Emperor protects us," Zai whispered.

"Yes. Our counter-god," Oxham said sadly. "A necessary ... stopgap."

"But why not, Nara? You said it yourself, we need human personalities. People, who inspire loyalty, give human shape to the mass. So why fight the Emperor so bitterly?"

"Because no one elected him," she said. "And because he's dead."

Zai shook his head, the disloyal words painful.

"But the honored dead chose him at Quorum, sixteen hundred years ago. They can call another Quorum to remove him, if they ever wanted to."

"The dead are dead, Laurent. They don't live with us anymore. You've seen the distance in their eyes. They are no more like us than Rix minds. You know it. The living city may be a beast, but at least it's human: what we are."

She leaned toward him, the fire bright in her eyes.

"Humanity is central, Laurent, the only thing that matters. We are what puts good and evil in this universe. Not gods or dead people. Not machines. Us."

"The honored dead are our ancestors, Nara," he whispered fiercely, as if silencing a child in church.

"They're a medical procedure. One with unbelievably negative social and economic consequences. Nothing more."

"That's insane," he said.

He closed his mouth on the words, too late.

She stared back at him, triumph and sadness on her face.

They sat there for a while longer, the thing that had been between them broken. Laurent Zai wanted to say something, but doubted an apology would matter.

He sat in silence, wondering what he should do. 3

DECOMPRESSION

Swift decisions are virtuous, unless they have irrevocable consequences. --ANONYMOUS 167 SENATOR

The constellation of eyes glistened, reflecting the sunlight that penetrated the cultured-diamond doors sliding closed behind Senator Nara Oxham. The ocular glint raised her hackles, marking as it did the eyes of a nocturnal predator. On Oxham's home planet Vasthold, there ranged human-hunting bears, paracoyotes, and feral nightdogs. On some deep, instinctive level, Nara Oxham knew those eyes to be warnings.

The creatures were splayed--fifteen or twenty of them--on an invisible bed of lovely gravity. They wafted like polychrome clouds down the wide, breezy hallways of the Emperor's inner palace, carried by the ambient movement of air. Her apathy bracelet was set to high, as always here in the crowded capital, but sufficient sensitivity remained to feel some small measure of their inhuman thoughts. They regarded her coolly as they drifted past, secure in their privilege, in their demigodhood, and in their speechless wisdom, accumulated over sixteen centuries of languor. Of course, their species had never, even in the millennia before Imperial decree had elevated them to semidivine status, doubted its innate superiority.

They were imperious consorts, these personal familiars of His Risen Majesty. They were felis domesticus immortalis.

They were, in a word, cats.

And in a few more words, cats who would never die.

Senator Nara Oxham hated cats.

She halted as the invisible bed passed, anxious not to disturb the air currents that informed its slow, dignified passage. The animals' heads swiveled as one, alien irises fixing her with languid malevolence, and she had to steel herself to return their unblinking gaze. So much for her brave, anti-Imperial heresies. Nara Oxham's constituency was an entire planet, but here in the Diamond Palace the mighty senator found herself intimidated by the housepets.

Her morning unease had returned the moment she had egressed across the Rubicon Pale, the protective barrier, electronic and legal, that encircled the Forum and ensured the Senate's independence. The aircar waiting for her at the Pale's shimmering edge had been so elegant, as delicate as a thing of paper and string. But inside the car, fragility had transformed into power: the machine's tendrils of lovely gravity reaching out to spin the city beneath her like a juggler's fingers turning bright pins--among building spires, over parks and gardens, through the mists of waterfalls. At first lazy and indirect, the sovereign aircar had become suddenly urgent as it headed toward the Diamond Palace, a potter's blade incising a straight path, as if the world were clay turning on a fast wheel below. This profligate expediture of energy to take her mere kilometers--a demonstration of the Emperor's might: awesomely expensive, exquisitely refined.

Now, a few moments inside the palace, and the housecats were flying too.

Oxham shivered, and took a deep breath after the animals disappeared down the curving hallway, trying to remember if any of them had been black. Then she cast aside superstition and strode across the hall, braving their wafting path, toward her rendezvous with the Risen Emperor.

Another set of diamond doors opened before her, and Nara Oxham wondered what this was all about. The obvious answer was that His Majesty objected to the legislation she had proposed, her counter to the Loyalty Party's preparations for war on the Rix frontier. But the summons had been so instantaneous, only minutes after the legislation had been registered. Oxham's staff had followed her orders well, creating a subtle and labyrinthine weave of laws and tariffs, not a direct attack. How could the Apparatus have recognized its purpose so quickly?

Perhaps there'd been a leak, a mole somewhere on her staff or among the Secular Party hierarchy, and the palace had been forewarned. She dismissed this thought as paranoia. Only a trusted handful had helped write the legislation. More likely, the Emperor had been waiting, alert for any response. He had known that his Loyalists' preparations for war would eventually be detected, and he'd been ready. Ready with this demonstration of alert and awesome power: an Imperial summons, that extraordinary flight, this palace of diamond. That was the warning in the cats' shining eyes, she realized: a reminder not to underestimate Him.

Oxham realized that her contempt for the grays, those living humans who voted for Loyalty, who worshiped the dead and the Emperor as gods, had caused her to forget that the Risen Father himself was a very smart man.

He had, after all, invented immortality. No mean feat. And over the last sixteen hundred years had brokered that single discovery into more-or-less absolute power over eighty worlds.

Through the doors, Oxham found herself in a garden, a vast space over which a bright sky was refracted into facets by a canopy of diamond.

The path under her feet was made of broken stones, their pointed shapes driven into the earthen floor to form a precise and curving road, a mosaic formed from the remains of some ancient and shattered statue. Look upon my works, ye mighty, she thought to herself. A short, red grass grew up between the stones, outlining them with the color of dried blood. Motile vines undulated through the grass on either side of the path, a sinuous and vaguely threatening ground cover, perhaps to keep the visitor from straying. The route spiraled inward, taking Oxham past an orchard of miniature apple trees, none higher than a meter, a serpentine dune of white sand covered with a scrambling host of bright blue scorpions, flocks of hummingbirds sculpted into topiary shapes by invisible fields, and, as she reached the spiral's center, a series of fountains whose misty sprays, waterfalls, and arcs of water patently did not follow the laws of gravity.

Oxham knew she was close to the man himself when she came upon the calico. It lay in the middle of the path, splayed to capture the warmth of a particularly large, flat stone. It was a no-breed-in-particular cat, whose coat was mottled with the colors of milk, apricot, and black. The spinal ridge of the Lazarus Symbiant extended all the way down the tail, which moved agitatedly, though the rest of the animal's body was calm. The vertical slits of the cat's irises swelled a bit with curiosity when it saw Nara, then the interest receded, ending in a slow, languid blink of disdain.

She managed to meet its gaze steadily.

A young man strode up the path from the other direction, and lifted the cat to his shoulder with a practiced motion. It let out a vaguely protesting trill, then settled into the crook of his elbow, one claw reaching out across his chest to secure itself in the black threads of imperial ramient.

Her first thought was trite: He was more handsome in person.

"My Lord," Oxham said, proud that she had managed not to kneel reflexively. Senatorial office had its privileges.

"Senator," he answered, nodding at her, then turning to kiss the captive cat's forehead. It stretched to lick his chin.

Outside of military casualties, most of the risen were, of course, quite old. Traditional medicine kept the wealthy and powerful alive for almost two centuries; disease and accidents were almost unknown. All the dead people whom Nara Oxham had met were ancient solons and wizened oligarchs, various relics of history, or the occasional pilgrim having reached Home after centuries of winding sublight travel. They wore their death gracefully, calm and gray of manner. But the Emperor had committed the Holy Suicide in his thirties (when structural exobiologists do their best work), in the final test of his great invention. No real age had ever touched his face. He seemed so present, his smile so charming (cunning?), his gaze so piercingly aware of Oxham's nervousness.

He seemed terribly ... alive.

"Thank you for coming," the Risen Emperor of the Eighty Worlds said, acknowledging the privilege of the Pale.

"At your service, m'lord."

The cat yawned, and stared at her as if to say, And mine.

"Please come and sit with us, Senator."

She followed the dead man, and at the center of the spiral path they sat, floating cushions taking up positions against her lower back, elbows, neck--not merely cradling Oxham's weight, but moving softly to stretch her muscles, undulating to maintain circulation. A low, square block of red marble sat between them, and the Emperor deposited the cat onto its sun-warmed surface, where the beast promptly rolled onto its back, offering the sovereign's long fingers its milky belly.

"You are surprised, Senator?" he asked suddenly.

The question itself surprised her. Oxham gathered her thoughts, wondering what her expression had revealed.

"I hadn't thought to meet Your Majesty alone."

"Look at your arms," he said.

Oxham blinked, then obeyed. Dusted onto her dark skin were silver motes that glistened in the sun, like flecks of mica in some black rock.

"Our security," he said. "And a few courtiers, Senator. We'll know it if you sweat."

Nanomachines, she realized. Some to record galvanic skin response, pulse, secretions--to check for lies and evasions; some to kill her instantly if she threatened the imperial personage with violence.

"I shall endeavor not to sweat, m'lord."

He chuckled, a sound Oxham had never heard from a dead person before, and leaned back. The lovely gravity cushions adjusted themselves indulgently.

"Do you know why we like cats, Senator?"

Nara Oxham took a moment to moisten her lips. She wondered if the tiny machines on her arms (were they also on her face? beneath her clothing?) would detect her hatred of the animals.

"They were cats who suffered the first sacrifice, m'lord." Oxham heard the dutiful cadence in her own voice, like a child repeating catechism; its unctuous sound annoyed her.

She regarded the lazy creature splayed on the marble table. It looked at her suspiciously, as if sensing her thoughts. Thousands of its kind had writhed in postdeath agony while the early symbiants of the Holy Experiments tried unsuccessfully to repair deceased nerve cells. Thousands had limped through the ghoulish existence of unwhole reanimation. Tens of thousands were killed outright--never to move again--as the various parameters of recovery from brain damage, systemic shock, and telomere decay were tested and retested. All the successful experimentation had been performed on cats. For some reason, simian and canine species had proved problematic--they arose insane or died of seizures, as if they couldn't deal with an unexpected return after life's extinction. Not like sanguine, self-important cats, who--like humans, apparently--felt they deserved an afterlife.

Oxham narrowed her eyes at the little beast. Millions of you, writhing in pain, she thought at it.

It yawned, and began to lick one paw.

"So it is believed, Senator," the Emperor answered. "So it is often believed. But our appreciation of the feline predates their contribution to the holy researches. You see, these subtle creatures have always been demigods, our guides into new realms, the silent familiars of progress. Did you know that at every stage of human evolution, cats were instrumental?"

Oxham's eyes widened. Surely this was some recherche joke, a verbal equivalent to the gravity-modified fountains in the surrounding garden. This talk was like the water running uphill--a display of imperial self-indulgence. She determined not to let it throw her off guard.

"Instrumental, m'lord?" She tried to sound earnest.

"Do you know your Earth history, Senator?"

"Earth Prime?" That far-off planet on the galaxy's edge was so often used to make political points. "Certainly, Sire. But perhaps my education is deficient on the subject of... cats."

His Majesty nodded, frowning as if this oversight was all too common.

"Take, for example, the origin of civilization. One of the many times when cats were midwives to human progress."

He cleared his throat, as if beginning a lecture.

"That era found humans in small clusters, tribal groups banded together for protection, constantly moving to follow their prey. They were rootless, barely subsisting. Not a particularly successful species, their numbers were less than the population of a medium-sized residential building here in the capital.

"Then these humans made a great discovery. They found out how to grow food from the ground, rather than chasing it across the seasons of the year."

"The agricultural revolution," Senator Oxham supplied.

The Emperor nodded happily. "Exactly. And with that discovery comes everything. With efficient food production, more grain was produced by each family than it needed to survive. This excess grain was the basis of specialization; as some humans ceased laboring for food, they became metal-smiths, shipwrights, soldiers, philosophers."

"Emperors?" Oxham suggested.

His Majesty laughed heartily, now leaning forward in his retinue of floating cushions. "True. And senators too, eventually. Administration was now possible, the public wealth controlled by priests, who were also mathematicians, astronomers, and scribes. From excess grain: civilization.

But there was one problem."

Megalomania? Oxham wondered. The tendency for the priest with the most grain to mistake himself for a god, even to pretend to immortality. But she bit her lip and waited quietly through the Emperor's dramatic pause.

"Imagine the temple at the center of the proto-city, Senator. In ancient Egypt, perhaps. It is a house of the gods, but also an academy. Here, the priests study the skies, learn the motions of the stars, and create mathematics. The temple is also a government building; the priests document productivity and levy taxes, inventing the recordkeeping symbols that eventually become written language, literature, software, and artificial intelligence. But at its heart, the temple had to do one thing successfully, perform one task without which it was nothing."

His eyes almost glowed now, all deathly calm erased by his passion. He reached out toward her, fingers grasping at the air in his need to be understood.

Then quite suddenly her empathy flared, and she saw his point.

"A granary," she said. "Temples were granaries, weren't they?"

He smiled, sinking back with satisfaction.

"That was the source of all their power," he said. "Their ability to create art and science, to field soldiers, to keep the population whole in times of drought and flood. The excess wealth of the agricultural revolution. But a huge pile of grain is a very tempting target."

"For rats," Oxham said.

"Armies of them, breeding unstoppably, as any parasite will when a vast supply of food presents itself. Almost a biological law, a Law of Parasites: accumulated biomass attracts vermin. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with rats, an inexorable drain on the resources of the proto-city, a dam in the rushing stream of civilization."

"But a huge population of rats is also a tempting target, sire," Oxham said. "For the right predator."

"You are a very astute woman, Senator Nara Oxham."

Realizing that she had charmed him, Oxham continued his narrative. "And thus, from out of the desert a little-known beast emerged, sire. A small, solitary hunter that had previously avoided humanity. And it took up residence in the temples, where it hunted rats with great efficiency, preserving the precious excess grain."

The Emperor nodded happily, and took up the tale. "And the priests dutifully worshiped this animal, which seemed strangely acclimated to temple life, as if its rightful place had always been among the gods."

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