The old man nodded, satisfied. She wondered what these revelations were doing to him. Drexler was long since elevated, probably only a few subjective years from death. And now his promised immortality had been revealed as a fraud, his beloved Emperor the murderer of his sister, Anastasia the Reason.

Then another empathic shock interrupted Oxham's thoughts, a burst of emotion from the city outside the Great Forum.

"Something has happened," she said softly.

Drexler looked up, his old fingers trembling with the slightest interface gestures.

"Our link to the rest of the capital has been cut," he announced. "The physical hardlines below the Forum have been destroyed."

Fearful cries came from the senators.

"Order!" Drexler commanded. "This body is still in session!"

Nara brought her second sight online. The bandwidth of the Forum's infostructure had been degraded. The images were coming through weak wireless, as if she were on horseback trip in the deep country ofVasthold. But the snowy newsfeed image was familiar enough. She could make out the Forum complex, a veil of smoke rising from its periphery. The low black shapes of military hovercraft surrounded the building.

"They will not cross the Pale," Drexler said.

Godspite, Oxham thought. The army was outside. Their tradition of noninterference would be sorely tested now.

What had she started?

A rumble came through her feet. The very granite of the Great Forum was trembling.

"They will not cross the Pale," the President repeated, quiet desperation in his ancient voice.


"The Empire faces a crisis." The sovereign addressed the hastily assembled War Council gravely. "We are under a new and diabolical form of attack, and the War Council must deal with it without delay."

The representative of the Plague Axis reflected silently that this was   315 not the entire War Council. Only eight of nine were present. Three of the senators were here, still looking stunned by their swift passage from the Pale to the Diamond Palace, but Nara Oxham was not. The Senate had officially suspended Oxham from the council pending her expulsion trial, but her absence from the chamber pit had never been more noticeable.

"How have we been attacked, Majesty?" the Loyalist Senator Raz imPar Henders said.

"From the Senate floor itself," the Emperor said.

"I must protest, sire," the Utopian senator interjected. "The Senate is in legal session, considering a matter of great importance. The only attack on the Empire is the military's incursion against senatorial privilege."

"No military units have crossed the Pale, Senator," the risen general said. "Then why is the Great Forum surrounded?" the Expansionist demanded.

"For the protection of the Senate," the Emperor nearly shouted.

The plagueman had never seen the sovereign so incensed. He seemed unaffected by whatever had crippled his Apparatus, though he had lost his usual boundless reserve of calm. The biosuit's optics had always revealed the Emperor's physiology to be more animated than an ordinary risen, but now they showed a heat in his face almost as intense as a living man's.

"Protection?" the Expansionist sputtered. "The Senate is surrounded, its contact with the rest of the capital cut off. This is nothing but bald intimidation."

"I assure you, Senator, no military units shall cross the Pale," the dead general said flatly. "Not without due order by this council."

"There'll be civil war if they do," Ax Milnk said. "And all of us will lose everything."

The plagueman raised his eyebrows. That much was true. The Empire was perpetually balanced on a knife's edge between gray and pink, the dead and the living, military and economic power. The military forces stationed on Home were as carefully equilibrated as the rest of the fragile mechanism, with units hailing from pink worlds and gray. Any military move against the Senate would be met with an equal counterforce. A disaster.

"Please, let us calm ourselves," Henders insisted, obviously flustered at his fellow senators' abuse of the sovereign. "Sire, what is this attack you speak of?"

The Emperor nodded, visibly working to calm himself. "Of course, we must explain. No doubt events today may have seemed precipitous. But we are sure that once you've heard the facts you will understand our actions."

The pink senators and Milnk responded with stony silence.

The risen general leaned forward, gesturing to bring an image of Nara Oxham onto the central airscreen. The plagueman recognized it from her trial, clipped from the newsfeed of only an hour before.

"Counselors, during the trial of Senator Nara Oxham, we discovered that a neural virus was being transmitted from the Senate floor. The virus used the newsfeed as a carrier wave, instantly affecting a small but vulnerable portion of the capital's populace. The virus caused nausea, seizures, paralysis. We believe that the effect would have spread to the entire population had the broadcast continued. Fortunately, the Apparatus acted quickly, shutting off the attack at its source."

The council chamber was silent as those assembled digested the general's words. The plagueman quietly searched the database within his biosuit. He found references to visual stimuli that could cause seizures, but only to a small percentage of human beings, most often children, and nothing that could be hidden inside a normal news-feed. This was an unprecedented weapon, if the general's words were true.

"This sounds incredible," the Utopian said. "Nothing but a pretext for silencing Senator Oxham." He turned toward the plagueman and Milnk. "We heard more than you did, before we were summoned away. After the newsfeed was cut, Oxham accused the Emperor of murdering his sister. And she claims that the symbiant's immortality is a lie."

"Incredible stories seem to abound today," the Emperor said.

"If Oxham is lying, then why concoct this story to cut her off?" the Expansionist senator countered.

"The palace had nothing to do with the decision," the Emperor said. "As I said, the media monitors found themselves under attack, in great pain. They acted in self-preservation."

"That much may be true," the plagueman said quietly. "Oxham's words seemed to have effected the Apparatus in particular."

The Emperor started, then fixed the Axis representative with a glare. It was rare for the representative to speak at all, and the sovereign had counted the Axis as an ally throughout the war, especially since the vote on the Legis genocide.

"That may be," the dead admiral said. "We don't understand exactly how the virus works or who is susceptible. But we suspect who is behind it."

"And that would be?" the Utopian said.

"Oxham, and perhaps some elements of the Secularist Party," the general said.

"You have proof of this?" Ax Milnk demanded.

"Give us Oxham, and we'll get the proof," the Emperor said.

"This is utterly transparent," the Utopian said flatly.

The plagueman remained silent as the argument raged, biding his time. The members of the War Council would soon lose all civility, but that hardly mattered. The details of whatever Oxham had discovered were, in their way, unimportant as well. This drama would ultimately be played out in other venues. The pressures that had been too long restrained in the Empire would shortly be released, violently and disruptively, that much was obvious. The Axis had seen this coming for a long time. It had failed in its mission to stabilize the Eighty Worlds. The Rix, with their blockade, their wars, had finally won.

But the plagueman was glad that the Emperor's desperate gamble would allow him one last act of penance here on the council. It was clear that the sovereign would call for a vote, thinking he had five among the eight counselors in his pocket, believing that under cover of the War Council he could move against Oxham, perhaps ultimately against the Senate, and keep the whole unwieldy contraption of the Empire clanking along for a few more decades.

"I shall repay you, Nara Oxham," the plagueman thought to himself. Not just with this vote to save her, but with all it would bring. As much chaos, progress, and the Old Enemy death as she and her party could ever want.

"God is change," he muttered to himself.

Laurent Zai looked down upon the object.

At this point in the Lynx's slow rotation, its dark bulk was beneath his feet, barely discernible through the observation blister's high-impact plastic. Its shape had grown ever more difficult to make out as the Legis sun receded. Now, the object was merely an absence of stars, a giant lump of coal blackening one quarter of the universe.

The Lynx was still studiously avoiding communication with the thing. The frigate's mass detectors were the only sensors trained on its position; mass was the one aspect of itself the object couldn't modulate, and thus use to signal the Lynx. Zai felt safer this way, cut off from the mind. One of Alexander's secrets had already brought the Empire to the brink of civil war.

Now, the only means of contact with the mind was through the slender connection it had established with Herd. The Rixwoman spoke for it like some ancient oracle: as expressionless and miraculous as a bleeding statue, an intermediary with the deity.

But Zai knew that this prophylaxis couldn't be maintained forever. The object was too tenacious and resourceful, too capable of unanticipated configurations. And the Lynx was too porous: It was fundamentally a scout ship, designed to gather information in a thousand ways. The object would get in sooner or later, would reach Zai's crew just as it had reached Herd.

He would have to tell them. The crew knew that Zai had disarmed thp nnlitirals on board, so thev would eventually have to know about the Emperor's Secret and the coming civil war. Their native worlds would be thrown into chaos soon. Zai and his lover had lit a match that would consume millions of lives.

Laurent watched Home's bright star rise slowly on his left, still two subjective years away, and wondered what was going on at the Forum. Nara would have made her speech a few hours ago, threatening sixteen hundred years of stability. The Apparatus's reaction would be swift and desperate, but Nara Oxham was a Senator, and would not be easily silenced.

Laurent Zai had burned seven percent of the Lynx's entanglement reserve trying to keep track of the developments, and he knew that the Empire was already shaking. If the signs were to be believed, the Emperor had acted directly against the Senate. Zai hoped that the other messages he had sent, warnings to old colleagues and confidants within the military, would help Nara come through this unharmed. She and the Senate would certainly need allies to survive the next months. But in the long term, Zai believed, victory would be theirs.

The Apparatus would do what it could to forestall the spread of the Secret, but their efforts could only be stopgap. The data on pilgrimages were public; once examined, rumors would turn swiftly into accepted fact. And the Secret revealed would strain even the greatest loyalty. Few religions could withstand the news that heaven was, in fact, a lie. Temporary.

Zai wondered what had led the Emperor down this path. Five hundred extra years of life was hardly a trivial boon. Presumably, the sovereign had simply been mistaken at first, thinking that the symbiant was permanently stable, and a religion had been built on the concept that the Old Enemy had been beaten. When the first signs of the error had been detected, perhaps it had been too late for such a massive revision in scripture.

Well, a revision was coming now.

If the sovereign chose to fight, the Empire might remain divided for a long time. The Apparatus could easily keep a few warships, perhaps even a majority of the fleet, in the dark for years. Vessels could be ordered into deep cover for decades, receiving only censored information from the outside universe. But slowly, the truth would chip away at the loyalists, the conditioned, the willfully blind. Though some of the military would certainly remain loyal to the Emperor regardless of his lies, the Eighty Worlds would turn against him one by one. And what would follow this civil war? A republic? A new sovereign? It might take decades to resolve the question of succession.

The Lynx's problem was more immediate, however. As Nara had warned, the vessels pursuing them were under orders to destroy the object, Zai, and his ship. One had to assume that they'd been under deep cover from the start of their mission--and Imperial writs were difficult code to subvert. In a few years Absolute, they would be closing with the Lynx, their velocities almost matched. With the extra mass of the object in tow, the frigate could not outrun them. Outnumbered, with a half-untrained crew and an imperfectly repaired ship, Zai would have to fight again.

He needed an ally, and he was alone in deep space.

All he had was the object.

He reached down toward the absence below him, looked at his gloved hand against the absolute blackness of the thing. He pulled off the glove, and gazed upon the smooth metal of his hand. If the Rix were at long last arriving in the Empire, they had begun with the right man. Laurent Zai knew what it was to be half machine.

And he wanted to return to Home; that was all that mattered. That was what had moved him from the start. Now that everything else-- honor, tradition, sovereign, and immortality itself--was stripped away, he had love to return to.



"Captain?" Hobbes's voice came.

"Assemble the senior staff in one hour."

"Yes, sir. Command bridge?"

"As good a place as any."

"Any prep, Captain?"

"Consider contact with the object, Hobbes, an alliance of convenience with the Rix. Consider how to fight a guerrilla war in a crumbling Empire. Consider how best to explain to our crew that death is final, and that we all may die soon."

There was a pause, but not a long one. "On it, sir."


The four officers entered the Great Forum slowly, as warily as a pack of predators trespassing in another's territory. They clearly didn't want to be here, committing this transgression.

The rows of white-clad senators watched the four descend the steps toward the dais. A murmur rose up, a sound halfway between defiance and fear. Nara Oxham felt the two emotions collide and mix, creating a strange discomfort that was almost like embarrassment. In their black uniforms, one might have mistaken the officers as guests arriving at a ball wearing tragically confused dress--fantastical masks at a white-tie function.

But then the fear grew, displacing everything else. These four had thousands of soldiers under their command, who surrounded the Forum even now, dozens of ships in the skies above.

"President," the most senior officer said, nodding a small bow.

Drexler looked down upon the four with undisguised anger.

"You have broken the covenant, Admiral. Would you destroy the Empire?"

The woman looked surprised. With the Forum infostructure down, Oxham had no prompts, but Nara recognized her from official parties. It was Admiral Rencer Fowler IX. She had been on Home for some time, and had aged the last ten years at full Absolute.

"We are unarmed, President Drexler. We meant no violation of the Pale."

The old man scowled. "No Imperial soldier has ever come inside the Forum before, Admiral, and your troops threaten us even now."

"These are strange times, President," she said simply, as if in somber agreement. "The four of us wished to speak in private with you, but the secure lines crossing the Pale seem to be in disrepair."

The Forum reverberated with a hissing sound: the word disrepair spoken with contempt. Against the feigned politesse of the admiral, defiance reasserted itself. "The hard lines were deliberately destroyed," the President said coldly.

Admiral Fowler nodded. "That would seem likely."

"Do you claim this was not the military's doing?"

She shrugged. "We aren't certain. We suspect the Apparatus is responsible. In any case, we four do not represent the military per se."

Confusion filled the Great Forum now. Nara could read nothing useful from the officers. They were soldiers on a mission, hard-minded, determined not to consider the greater implications of their actions. Whatever Fowler's claims, the four were following orders.

"You carry a writ from the Emperor himself?" Drexler asked.

Fowler shook her head. "We don't represent the Emperor, either. Can we speak in private, President?"

"The Senate is in session, Admiral. We are conducting a trial."

Fowler looked about the hall, begrudgingly recognizing the hundreds of senators surrounding her. She sighed, and turned to address them all.

"Two of us are here to speak for the Home Fleet and certain ships of the High Fleet. My own flag vessel, for one." She indicated the men on her left. "And these fine officers represent ground units of the Capital Guard and Home Reserve. But not much of the latter, I fear."

Nara Oxham swallowed. The military was divided.

Drexler raised his eyebrows. "The situation is complicated, then, in terms of your chain of command."

Admiral Fowler nodded slowly. She glanced nervously around the Forum, as if wishing again for a smaller audience. Then she shifted her weight, looked at the gray marble floor, and spoke carefully.

"Yes, but perhaps you could clarify matters for us, President Drexler. Due to the communications situation, the War Council has rendered an incomplete vote on an issue of great importance."

"An incomplete vote?"

"Eight members have voted, President, and the result is a four-to-four tie. Certain members of the military command structure insist that the Emperor's vote should break the tie, as per tradition when the council is not at full strength."

The admiral cleared her throat.

"But others of us would prefer to wait for the vote of the ninth member of the council, given the importance of the issue. Should she be available."

For the first time, the admiral looked at Oxham. Nara could read nothing in the woman's expression. Fowler's mind was clean, as if she were a disinterested, slightly bored observer at some hoary political convention.

"What is this issue?" Oxham asked.

The admiral spoke officiously. "The council has voted--partly voted--on an order to the Capital Guard. The order is to suspend temporarily the normal operations of the Senate. To arrest Senator Oxham and turn her over to the Apparatus."

"To cross the Pale?" Drexler hissed.

Admiral Fowler nodded. "That exceptional action was explicitly dictated."

Drexler's face darkened.

"Thus, in a manner of speaking, we four are authorized to be here, President," the admiral continued, "by partial vote of the council. But, being on this side of the Pale, we discover the ninth member of the council."

The woman bowed to Oxham. Finally, emotion finally surged from all four them to reach her empathy. Strong affect, focused directly on her.

"Should she be available."

President Drexler spoke carefully, joining the admiral's dance of words.

"Senator Oxham's membership in the War Council has been suspended, as you may know, pending the result of this trial." He looked down from the dais at Oxham, raising one eyebrow.

For a moment, Nara wondered if this was a charade, all a trick. Her empathy was mostly suppressed; she couldn't feel the emotional reality of the situation. The confusion of the divided city raged around her, but the emotions of these officers were too subtle to read. But one thing was certain, Nara had to act.

Four to four, she thought. The Plague Axis had made good on their promise. And now she could break the tie. "President Drexler, I rest my defense. And call for a vote on my expulsion."

The young Secularist who had replaced her as party whip, rose.

"I second the call. A fast vote, if the President pleases."

Puram Drexler's gavel thundered. "Senators, you have fifty seconds. Vote by standard gestural code."

A few objections were raised from the shocked Loyalist benches, but Drexler gaveled them into silence. The Senate was stunned for a few moments, but then votes began to tally. Oxham almost failed to cast her own, forgetting that she had never been officially removed as His Majesty's Representative from Vasthold, Senator of the Empire, and that she had every right.

The Senate voted.

Half a minute later, it was over. Even a sizable number of Loyalists--whether from confusion, the realization that defeat was certain, or a final faithfulness to traditions even older than the Emperor-- voted with the majority. Nara Oxham had been overwhelmingly acquitted of treason; the motion for her expulsion had failed.

The suddenness of it all left her empty inside; relief would take a long time to come.

"Senator Nara Oxham is returned to full status and duties, without prejudice or delay," President Drexler announced.

The old man turned to the officers.

"She is available, Admiral," he finished.

They turned to her.

"Senator, we await the final vote of the War Council."

Still stunned at the speed of events, Nara gathered herself. Enough of the military had dared to forestall the Emperor, Drexler had supported them, the Senate had acted quickly and true. All that was left was for her to finish the job.

Again, it all came down to a word.

"I vote against the proposal, Admiral," she said quietly.

"Thank you for the clarification," Fowler answered. She turned to face the Senate. "We apologize for this intrusion. Certain elements under our command will remain--outside the Pale--to render technical assistance and all necessary protection to the Senate."

"That is acceptable," Drexler said.

"Death spare the Senate," Fowler said.

"Death spare the Senate," came the murmured response of the assembly.

Three of the officers turned and strode from the Forum, hurrying back to the Pale and the military infostructure, where they could give orders to their troops and ships. But one of the navy men stayed behind, and took a step toward her.

"Senator Oxham?"

"Yes . . . Commodore?" she asked, reading his rank.

"My name is Marcus Fentu Masrui."

She blinked, recognizing the name. Masrui had been Zai's commanding officer on Dhantu. In fact, she'd come close to meeting the man on the night she'd met Laurent, ten years ago.

"Is it true, Senator?" the officer asked.

"What, Commodore?"

"That the Emperor wanted to kill Laurent Zai? After everything?"

She nodded. "Absolutely true. I heard him say the words."

"And that there is no immortality?"

"Yes. It's all true, Commodore. Laurent himself told me."

The Commodore shook his head ruefully. "If any man deserved to live forever, it was Zai," he said.

She felt it then, the emotion the officers had hidden so well. It burst from behind Masrui's discipline, from behind his decades of training and loyalty. The prize they'd all been promised, the Valhalla where their dead comrades had gone for rewards eternal, the very reason many of them had joined the military: All of it was a lie.

The man's face wrenched, as if he were swallowing something awful. Then he took a deep breath, and focus returned to his thoughts.

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