The senator took a deep breath, realizing that the Emperor had returned to his favorite theme.

"I take it, Sire, that this animal is one of the great cats?" Until a few years ago, Oxham had always assumed the creatures legendary, created by the Apparatus at an Imperial whim. But the Imperial Zoo here on Home held a small, inbred family of lions that were generally believed to be natural. Awful beasts from a childhood nightmare, four times the size of any predator on "primeval" Vasthold.

The Emperor nodded happily. "A creature more than two meters long, when humans stood under a meter and a half. It possessed so-called false-saber teeth. Knives in its mouth."

The Emperor of the Eighty Worlds made a claw of four fingers with his right hand, and plunged them into the holes. Oxham removed her hand from the purring creature on her lap.

"The great cats lived deeper in the caves than our ancestors, in the absolute darkness beyond the humans' twilight domain."

"They attacked from behind, apparently, Sire."

He nodded, lifting the skull with his rapacious fingers, so that its empty eyes stared at her again.

"They grasped the heads of their victims with their jaws, penetrating the brain and killing instantly. Then they dragged the body back into the darkness."

"And this danger drove us out of the caves, Your Majesty?"

"Exactly," he agreed with flashing eyes. "But don't think of these cats simply as some evolutionary pressure. This wasn't mere natural selection; this was terror. The saber-tooths were utterly silent, invisible in the darkness. It's possible that no human ever clearly saw one. They were original nightmare buried deep in our species' psyche. They were death itself. This is the mark of the Old Enemy."

Oxham looked down at the cat on her lap. She offered it a finger, which it licked once with its raspy tongue. The beast made a small noise in its throat and continued to purr, absolutely content.

"I see your love of felines has a darker side, Sire."

"Of course, Senator. Their contributions to humanity, though al-ways essential, haven't always been pretty. Imagine being a predated   277 species, Nara. At any moment, a family member, a lover, a friend might be hauled away screaming to die."

"Like being always at war," she said.

"And always on the front lines. But from this enemy came the necessity to evolve. We were defenseless against this beast, until we developed group cooperation, tools, and finally, the only useful weapon: fire."

"The terror is what brought humanity up?" Nara Oxham said, then realized it at last: "Perhaps you are pro-death too, Sire."

"Perhaps. The council faces another difficult decision."

She took a deep breath. Was the Emperor contemplating another genocide already? "Sire, shouldn't this be raised before the entire War Council?" The dead sovereign narrowed his eyes. "Senator Oxham, the War Council is not a parliament of equals. I have enjoined twelve such councils over the last sixteen hundred years, and in each of them one counselor has arisen from among the others."

Her eyes widened. Flattery from the Emperor? "I am your servant, Sire."

"Don't contest with me, Senator. You are nothing of the kind. You are the force that has risen up to balance my power. A natural occurrence in the evolution of this war."

Oxham ordered herself to relax, trying to see into the man's mind. There was more in his words than flattery. She spoke carefully.

"I agree, Your Majesty, that the council has achieved a balance now."

He nodded. "That is its purpose, to be a microcosm of the Risen Empire. It must possess two parts, equal parts. But there are times when we must act together, you and I."

She realized that the Emperor had taken the first person singular. He had dropped the imperial we for plainer speech.

The garden darkened, and the Lynx's war prize appeared in synesthesia.

"Our elevated hero Laurent Zai has concerns about this Rix artifact," the sovereign said. "He believes it contains some sort of ghost of the Legis compound mind."

"A ghost, Sire?"

"A doppelganger. A copy, transmitter! trom Legis. Captain Zai has been rather convincing on this point. If he's right, the object is even more dangerous than the mind that occupied Legis. It contains all our secrets. And now it has a body as well."

"Lucky, then, that the good captain has captured it."

"We hope so. But the powers of this thing are unknown. It can change itself, Senator, at the lowest level of matter. Zai's journey to Home will take almost two subjective years, ten Absolute. We don't know what tests the Lynx may face over that length of time."

Senator Oxham frowned. The official reports that the council had received about the object had couched their conclusions in very speculative language. Oxham wished that she could retain outside scientific counsel, but the reports were wrapped in the hundred-year rule. She couldn't even access them outside the council chamber. "In fact," the Emperor continued, "it may be that the Lynx cannot control the object."

"Control it, Sire?"

"The Apparatus representatives on board the Lynx believe that the object may be exerting an ... influence. The thing is trying to subvert Zai's crew. There is grave danger."

What was the Emperor saying? Her empathy flared, and Oxham saw a bright shape in the Emperor's mind, a point coming to focus: the culmination of a plan.

"Sire, aren't there escort craft heading to rendezvous with Zai now?" she asked. Two smaller vessels had set out for Legis when the incursion began; they were now altering their paths, angling in behind the Lynx as it headed back toward Home.

The sovereign nodded. "Exactly. They will keep a greater distance from the object than the Lynx. And they will be under Imperial writ, outside of the usual chain of command."

She saw it in his mind: the cold point of closure. Victory. Revenge.

"What are their orders, Sire?"

"They are fabricating several high-yield nuclear drones. If the need comes, they will destroy the object and the Lynx in a surprise attack."

Nara Oxham felt blindness creep into the edges of her vision. Felt   279 her own emotions rise: anger and desperation. She knew finally that the sovereign wouldn't rest until Laurent Zai was dead.

"Sire . . ."

"Only if the need becomes immediate, Senator. I will make the final decision. I alone will take responsibility."

The first person singular again.

"Shouldn't the council discuss--"

"My oath is to protect the Eighty Worlds, Senator. Captain Zai's warning is clear in this matter: This object represents a great threat to the Empire, even to humanity itself.'"

She swallowed. The dead man was hanging Laurent with his own words. He would use them later to justify his decision. Now that he had warned her, the Emperor could even claim that he had consulted with his counselors before emergency action. Although he couldn't depopulate a world without the political cover of a War Council vote, the sovereign could certainly order a single frigate destroyed.

The people would remember that the Emperor had pardoned Zai. Making him a martyr would maintain a certain symmetry.

"I know you will keep this information confidential, Senator. The hundred-year rule still applies, of course, to this conversation."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

The cat leaped from her lap and crossed to rub itself against the Emperor's legs. Nara Oxham rose, her mind numbed by the depth of the sovereign's hunger for revenge against Laurent. She forced herself to look again into the arid space of his emotions, searching for what he feared so much.

But there was nothing there but satisfaction.

After the rituals of parting, as she walked through the obscenely gilded garden, Nara's mind rang with one imperative. She had to warn Laurent. The Lynx could handle two escort craft, provided her captain was wary. But if he assumed they were friendly, they could overwhelm the frigate with a single stroke.

Then, as her eyes traced a swath of red flowers decorating an inverted sand dune, Oxham saw it, the shape hidden in the Emperor's satisfaction. It grew clearer with every step away from his icy presence.

This was the trap. This was the mistake of which Niles had warned her. It had nothing to do with Laurent Zai.

The Emperor wanted her, Nara Oxham. He had somehow learned of their relationship, their previous communication. He knew that she would warn Zai.

And, of course, he was right.

There was no choice but to walk into this trap, eyes open.

It was the only way to save her lover.

Captain Laurent Zai stood at the extreme of the observation blister.

He looked up at the object, its shape ominously black this far from the Legis sun. It boiled like a dark cloud presaging a storm. According to the DA staff assigned to monitor its movements, it had grown gradually more active over the last few weeks. Its attempts to signal the Lynx had grown in number and subtlety: There were signs scrawled huge upon its surface, old codes flashed at obscure frequencies, cryptic phrases in local Legis dialects that somehow made their way into the ship's internal channels. It was all the Lynx's Al could do to forestall the mind's attempts at communication. Finally, Zai had been forced to cut off all but the crudest level of sensor scrutiny of the object.

The Lynx had shut its ears. The Apparatus had demanded it.

Ever since the Rix prisoner had attempted to deliver Alexander's "message," His Majesty's Representatives had behaved as if they were victorious boarders on a captured enemy ship. Their watchful gaze seemed to penetrate every deck of the Lynx. It was all ExO Hobbes could do to track the various bugs that the Apparatus had placed in the ship's functions. This invasion of his ship appalled Zai, but he was powerless against the imperative of an Imperial writ, the scope of which seemed to expand daily.

Adept Trevim had sealed up the Rix prisoner's cell as tight as a tomb, and posted an Apparatus guard with her at all times. The Adept had also taken personal control over the Lynx's external communications. Every outgoing message required her approval now. And, of course, Trevim had commanded that the frigate blind itself from any and all signs emanating from the object.

Of course, there were rumors. Some crew thought they knew what the Rix artifact was trying to say. But the stories were contradictory and absurd, just the chatter of a bored crew. ExO Hobbes had even detected a rumor that the suicide of Data Master Kax a few weeks ago had been related to a message from the object that he had deciphered. But the theory conveniently ignored the fact the man's immune system had rejected his artificial eyes; a lifelong data analyst, he had simply gone mad from blindness.

Zai touched the plastic membrane between himself and the void, feeling the cold on the other side. He wondered what weapon the object had offered him.

Then he pushed the disloyal thoughts aside, and turned to his more important business here.

A senatorial missive awaited his attention. From Nara Oxham, His Majesty's Representative from Vasthold. August and luminous, the message hovered against the blackness of space, its security icons slowly coiling around themselves like tree snakes crowding a branch.

He opened it.

Zai smiled as his lover's words appeared. He imagined her voice.

Laurent, it read, / wish I could start tenderly. But instead I have to warn you of danger.

Zai blinked his eyes, and shook his head at this beginning. All his life, he had been taught that warcraft brought meaning and order to existence, but this conflict with the Rix despoiled everything it touched.

He continued.

The ships sent to rendezvous with the Lynx are governed by two sets of orders. The open dictate is to escort you here to Home in safety, but there is also an Imperial writ carried by a few officers. It can be triggered by a single word from the Emperor. If he gives the command, the task force is to destroy your ship and the war prize in a surprise attack.

Laurent Zai straightened. It was just as the Rixwoman had said: The Emperor wanted to destroy him, the Lynx, and the object. The dead man's hunger for revenge was insatiable. What was he hiding?

Zai's anger quickly turned to concern, however. This was confidential intelligence data from outside the chain of command, from the War Council itself.

"What have you done, Nara?" he whispered, his heart sinking.

Supposedly, the Emperor will only invoke the writ if the object threatens the Empire. But I have felt. . . I know that he intends to kill you all. I've been close to the Emperor since joining the council, and I can read him now.

Of course, Nara had used her empathy on the man. As Zai continued, the realization dawned that Nara's ability had doomed her. She had broken the hundred-year rule.

He's terribly afraid of something, Laurent. Something that the Rix mind knows. Something that it discovered on Legis.

The words of his lover echoing those of the Rixwoman sent a chill through Zai.

He'll go to any length to prevent this knowledge from reaching the rest of the Empire, Laurent. I've seen it myself. He even pressed the War Council to approve a genocide. The Apparatus was ready to release a nuclear attack on Legis XV, with dirty weapons. They would have killed hundreds of millions just to destroy the compound mind.

Zai closed his eyes. If Nara was right, then the Rixwoman had told the truth.

He'll kill you, Laurent. The Emperor so fears the mind, he would destroy a world.

Laurent Zai nodded slowly, straightening as if a weight were lifting from him.

Take care, beloved. Return to me.

Captain Zai nodded again as the missive refolded itself, disappearing to a bright mote of synesthesia against the void. Suddenly, a wave of nausea struck him, and he had to reach out one hand to the blis   283 ter's wall to hold himself upright. The plastic felt reassuringly solid and cold. Real.

Still, it was painful. The last shreds of Vadan loyalty were passing from him.

The Emperor had designed to destroy one of the Eighty Worlds.

Zai remembered the catechisms of his childhood. The old relationship between the Emperor and Vada had been formed after the Vadan Founders had fled their ruined previous home. No killing of worlds, the Compact read. And now the sovereign had broken it.

Through his nausea, Zai saw an icon blinking in the lower corner of Nara's folded message. One of Hobbes's telltales, indicating that this message had gone through the adept's hands.

"Damn," he whispered.

He'd assumed that the document was secure. It carried senatorial privilege, with the full protection of the Pale, but the adept's writ had somehow opened it.

Nara Oxham would be found out now. The Emperor would know that she had warned him. The final wave of nausea lasted only a few seconds, then Zai felt ready.

He took the slow, measured breaths of a Vadan warrior. He turned from the blackness of space and strode from the blister, glad to hear the ring of his boots on hard metal.

He was smiling.

Strange, that such danger should lighten his soul. But he felt sure and powerful for the first time in months: All his own shortcomings were buried now, overwhelmed by the crimes of his enemy: the Risen Emperor.

"Hobbes," he signaled.

"Captain?" She sounded half asleep.

"Meet me at Rana Harter's cabin."


"In five minutes. Bring your weapon."

Executive Officer

Katherie Hobbes fastened the seals of her tunic as she ran.

She stopped around the corner from her goal, and checked the time. She had fifty seconds left. Her eyes scanned the black wool of her uniform, checking for imperfections. She pulled up one sleeve to reveal the flechette pistol. Its ammo meter read full, but Hobbes popped the cover to check the needles with her own eyes.

The darts were nestled in their twin magazines, as perfectly aligned as two ranks of tiny metal soldiers.

She walked briskly and calmly around the corner. Zai awaited her with a grim expression.

"Captain, what is it?"

"We've been betrayed, Hobbes."

Mutiny again? She took a deep breath against panic, drew l$er pistol.

"Not by our crew, Hobbes," her captain said.

She blinked. What was he saying?

"Just hand me that." He pointed at the pistol.

What? she thought. The captain could draw his own weapon from stores. But of course that would raise any number of flags with the politicals aboard the ship. Hobbes handed him the weapon silently.

The captain held the flechette pistol behind his back and opened the door to the dead woman's cabin. Light spilled between Hobbes and Zai into Rana Harter's dim antechamber. The dead Adept Trevim herself was here, kneeling with her back to them, her hands working gestural commands.

"Forgive me, Honored Mother," Zai said.

He shot Trevim with a spray of needles, cutting an X across her heart.

Hobbes gasped, her knees week. This must be a dream, she thought.

"Her symbiant should rise from that," Zai said.

He turned to Hobbes.

"What was she doing?" he demanded.

Hobbes forced herself to concentrate, probing the Lynx's diagnostics. The adept's actions were officially hidden from Navy Al, but there were always indirect signs. The translight grid was cycling out of a transmission.

"It looks as if she sent a message, sir."

"Did I interrupt her?"

Hobbes shook her head. "It's stepping down in an orderly way, Captain. She was finished, and the main entanglement grid shows depletion."

"Home," he said.

She nodded.

"Damn. Shut it down, Hobbes. The whole grid--cut its power."

She swallowed, and signaled the com staff to perform the task. This was one trump card the captain held. The Apparatus might have a writ of authority, but the crew of the Lynx could still disable the frigate's components by hand.

The captain opened the inner door of the antechamber, holding the pistol ready.

"Rana Harter," he called.

Was Zai going to murder the woman? Hobbes wondered. The Adept would reanimate easily from her heart wound, but a shot like that to the head could destroy a risen permanently. The dead woman stepped from the darkness, blinking in the light. She was small, her hair shorn like the Rixwoman's. Though she was shorter than the commando, Hobbes could see how their faces were alike. The Legis authorities believed that Rana had been chosen from the militia's population for her resemblance to Herd, and perhaps for a savant ability to process chaotic data. Hobbes wondered to what uses the compound mind had put Rana's intellect, and what traces captivity had left in the dead woman before her.

"Please come with me, Honored One," Zai said.

Harter nodded quiescently. She had none of the usual hauteur of the dead. Laurent Zai went ahead, with Rana after him. Hobbes brought up the rear, reminding herself that this was real.

They reached the Rixwoman's cell in a few minutes. The gunfire and Adept Trevim's medical monitors had triggered various alarms aboard the ship, but Hobbes had managed to suppress them as far as she knew.

There was a single marine guard, not the familiar Bassiritz, and one of the lower-ranking politicals on station. The man was living, and Captain Zai shot him in the leg, and kicked him in the head as he fell. The aspirant dropped to the floor unconscious.

Zai sternly ordered the startled guard to return to attention.

The private froze in shock for a moment, then obeyed as crisply as if at parade drill. Zai's tone of command was stronger than Hobbes had heard it in some time. The sound thrilled her, however bizarre these proceedings.

Her fingers flickered, moving to quell the new alarms. The remaining politicals must already know that something was happening.

"Shall I get a fire team up here, Captain?"

"Good idea, Hobbes. That fast private, for one."

She nodded, sent commands.

"Secure this area, Private," she ordered the motionless marine.

Hobbes opened the cell, turning the screwlock and bracing one leg to pull out the massive door.

Zai moved to enter first. "The shock collar remote, sir," she called.

"We won't need it."

Hobbes followed him closely, wishing that she had another weapon. Straightjacket or no, the Rix commando could probably kill them both easily. She doubted that a half-expended clip of flechettes would even marginally slow down a Rix soldier.

The prisoner stared at them coolly, a hungry look in her eyes. Hobbes felt naked under her hunter's gaze.

But then Rana Harter followed them through the door, and for a moment Herd seemed utterly human.

"Rana!" she said, stepping forward.

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