"And, another thing, begging your pardon ..." "Yes, Commodore?"

Masrui bit his lower lip before speaking.

"Were you and Zai . . . really lovers?"

"Yes, Commodore. We are lovers." :

For a moment, his face was blank. Then he grasped her hand.

"Thank you," he said.

Nara found herself speechless for a moment. Then she pulled her hand from his. "No thanks necessary, Commodore. It was never pity."

"Of course not, Senator. I didn't mean to imply pity. Thank you, though. I wanted ... all of us wanted somehow to restore Zai. He lost too much on Dhantu. After the Legis rescue failed, we thought the Emperor's pardon was real."

"It wasn't."

He swallowed, the bitter taste of another lie showing on his face.

"Commodore, tell me something," Oxham said.

"At your service, Senator."

"Are there enough of you? Enough to fight those who'll follow the Emperor without question?"

"Not yet. But there will be. The truth will turn them."

He looked up at his departing comrades, realizing that he should join them and put this revolution, this righteous treason, this civil war into motion. But he turned back to Nara.

"Laurent Zai's name will turn them," he said.

"And death," Nara added.

"Death, Senator?"

"Death is real again, Commodore. Remind them of that."

Commodore Masrui thought about this for moment, then shook his head.

"It was always real, Senator, for us soldiers. Death out in space rarely left enough for the symbiant. But I suppose that now death is unavoidable, as it always was before the Emperor's lie."

"Spread the word, then," Nara Oxham said. "We're free again."


After a long time, the sun and moon stopped wheeling in the sky. The tides were over.

The fisherman looked down at himself. Somehow, he was still here, still whole after having been consumed a thousand thousand times. The fish were placid now, half in the tide pool, half in the bay.

But no, there were more of them ... in the sky.

The dark night seemed to have filled with stars, as if he'd jumped ten thousand light-years closer to the core. But what looked like stars were in fact the little luminescent fish, strewn across the sky to make a galaxy, a milky river of light. The fisherman's thoughts grew clearer, and he understood what had pacified the ravenous schools: They had reached their goal, resplendent and sovereign in the dark.

They were up there, beyond the reach of his spear.

He dropped the weapon and turned toward the opening sky. . . .

Master Pilot Jocim Marx's gummy eyes focused first on the scarred woman.

Her face was blank, as if nerve damage had rendered it expressionless. The hair had been burned from her scalp. But the woman's gaze was bright and intelligent.

And violet, her eyes as bright a hue as stained glass catching the sun.

Had he been captured by the Rix?

Marx started, trying to sit up. The scarred woman moved awav. with the suddenness of a bird cocking its head. He knew from that movement that she was not human.

"Who--?" Marx began, then he saw Hobbes over the woman's shoulder.

"Jocim?" the ExO said. She articulated the two syllables carefully, as if to establish whether he knew his own name.

He did her one better. "How are you, Katherie Hobbes?"

She smiled, "Relieved."

"How long?"

"A month."

"Godspite." To Marx, it had seemed like an eternity, but the memory was already fading when contrasted to the real world. He looked around, and recognized the room as a private sickbay cabin aboard the Lynx. The violet-eyed Rix had moved to the side of a small, gray-faced woman. One of the honored dead? This was too confusing.

"Why is there a Rixwoman here, Hobbes? Have we been captured?"

"No, Master Pilot. She is a ... guest. Or an ally, perhaps." Hobbes sounded only slightly less confused than Marx. "She helped cure you," the ExO added with surety.

He looked at the violet-eyed woman, blinked.

"Thank you, then, I suppose."

The woman's gaze remained both piercing and empty^ as if he were a specimen pinned in a curio case.

"How do you feel, Marx?" Hobbes asked.

He sat up. His muscles had the even tone of artificial exercise. His fingers, chronically suffering mild soreness from the demands of piloting, felt rejuvenated from the enforced break. His head was ...


"What happened, Hobbes?"


That was Hobbes. Concise, but not always helpful. The passage of weeks must have refreshed his brain, Marx thought. He could see the executive officer's stunning beauty again, as he had before growing accustomed to it over the last two years. As if he'd spent a month on leave rather than in a...coma?

"You were caught in an upload, Jocim," she said. "Alexander--the Legis compound mind, I should say--was transferring itself from the planet to the object. You got in the way."

The object. That word brought a shiver to Marx. Images swirled in his head: a kind of liquid creature below him, its pseudopods reaching out, like those legant members to which a sea creature delegates its kills. Marx recognized from his own discomfort that he was near-ing his last memories from before the onset of coma. He'd been taken, prey.

"Your sensor subdrones were pumping everything they could directly into your synesthesia," Hobbes continued. "The information gain was too high for you. And perhaps it was partly my fault, too, Jocim. You'd been pulled out of a hypersleep cycle out of phase, less than an hour before you were hit with the compound mind. Your mind was vulnerable."

He looked up at Hobbes, silently begging her to talk more slowly. "What hit me?"

"Alexander. The Legis compound mind. You had a planet stuffed into your head."

Marx nodded, and rubbed his aching temples. That metaphor felt about right. Then he blinked. He hoped it was a metaphor.

"Again, Hobbes," he pleaded. "Why is there a Rixwoman running loose on our ship?"

"Ah," Hobbes said. "She's a commando, from the Legis attack."

"Oh, a commando. Understandable then, that we would want her in sickbay." Marx vaguely realized that he should be terrified, as if a poisonous snake had been dropped in his lap, but his body wasn't up to producing adrenaline.

"Things have changed, Marx. Not just here, but throughout the Empire. We've had to ally ourselves--or at least cooperate--with the object. With the Rix."

"The Empire and Rix are allied?" Suddenly, three months' sleep didn't seem adequate.

"No, just us, Marx. The Lynx is on its own."

"Wait," the master pilot interrupted. "Who's in command, Hobbes?" He clenched his fists. Had the aborted mutiny finally occurred?

"Captain Zai, of course."

Marx's head swam. The Vadan had committed treason?

"Listen, Marx," Hobbes kept at him. "The Emperor's status is unsure. The dead have called a quorum. The pilgrimage ships are coming into Home from all over the Empire. The sovereign may be removed."

A quorum of the dead? Something from a ten-year-old's civics class. A strictly theoretical possibility. For sixteen hundred years, the Emperor had ruled without a single dissenting vote from among the billions of honored dead. The dead never argued, never even disagreed. For them to consider removal of the sovereign seemed unthinkable.

"Hobbes," he started, waving at her to slow down. His mind fought to locate the questions that would straighten out this strange new world.

"What the hell . . . ?" was all he could manage.

She started to speak, and Marx winced.

Katherie Hobbes shook her head, laughed. "Master Pilot, I think you should rest now."

She took his shoulders, touched him. Things had changed, indeed.

"We've lost so many, Jocim. It's good to have you back," Hobbes whispered.

Marx simply nodded, and leaned back on the sickbed. Suddenly, he was exhausted again.

The ExO left him there, the lights dimming as she exited the private sickbay cabin.

He leaned back, and his mind roiled now, full of questions, confusion, sheer energy. Marx felt as if he'd drunk a pot of coffee after a full day of meetings, his mind tired but buzzing. Deep breaths had only the slightest calming effect. He exercised his fingers, forcing himself to think about how good it would be to fly again.

Then he caught the eyes of the Rixwoman. She was still here-- watching him, observing, as if monitoring a patient, awaiting some expected symptom to evince itself. The dead woman stood beside her, their shoulders just touching with the casual intimacy of old lovers.

Marx locked his gaze onto the Rixwoman's, focusing himself.

Somehow her implacable stare calmed his mind, her violet eyes   331 glowing like meditation candles in the dark cabin. The rhythm of his breathing slowed, and he felt the cycle of the dreamtide again. He heard the ambient sound of the ship, the ever-present hum of engines, air system, and gravity generation. Something was different.

Without releasing the commando's gaze, Marx placed his hand on the side of his bed, palm flat against cool metal. The ship-hum was stronger there. He let the dream phantoms, the reverberations of his fugue, align themselves to the frigate's vibration. Memory and metal conjoined, like the many instruments of an orchestra tuning to a common pitch.

They matched the flicker of the Rixwoman's eyes.

She smiled at Marx. Then the two of them together--yes, they were lovers, he suddenly knew--left him.

And the master pilot understood the deal that the captain had made. He wondered what must be arrayed against them, their lone ship in the deep, to have motivated Zai to let this thing aboard. To have allied his vessel and crew with the Empire's sworn enemy.

Perhaps Laurent Zai didn't even know, didn't understand the extent of its subtle, pervasive occupation. But Marx knew. He had spent a hundred days inside its belly. He could see its signs and hear its music. Like a vortex of wind revealed by the leaves, dirt, and debris it captured, the shape and scope of Alexander were clearly marked.

The Lynx had been taken.

The Rix were here.


Marine Private

Marine Private Second-Class Bassiritz explained it again to his new crewmates: "Just Bassiritz. In the village where I come from, we only have one name."

"Only one name?" Astra shouted above the roaring crowd.

"Better than none at all," Master PrivateTorvel Saman assured him.

"Better than one too many," Astra added. "How many names would be too many?" Bassiritz asked.

"Not how many, but which ones!"


"The late . . ."


They laughed at their own jokes and clapped Bassiritz on the back as if he'd made one himself. He didn't completely understand, but didn't press his mates with questions. He was relieved at their good humor, knowing from his travels that in some cultures, a single, unadorned name was a badge of shame, or a mark of servant lineage. But these Lynx marines all had wide experience; they'd seen far stranger things. The crew of the new, experimental warship was drawn from the cream of the Empire. Bassiritz knew that he himself only rated selection due to his high scores as a marksman and close combatant--he was younger and less educated than his squadmates.

The fire team was perched, alongside a hundred or so of their crewmates, on the gantry supporting a huge, false Lynx. The facsimile of their new ship loomed up behind them, two kilometers tall. (But it was not a figment or ghost-sight: The dummy ship was real, physical had begun to realize that no expense was too   333 absurd here on Home. Not for a pageant or party.) Before them, filling the great square before the Emperor's Diamond Palace, was a huge crowd of cheering citizens. An uncountable host, far more people than Bassiritz had ever seen in his life. Not merely in one place, but more than all the people the young private had ever seen, put together. That fact bounded around inside his head, a realization as sovereign as the glittering facets of the palace as it caught the strangely white light of Home's large sun.

This horde seemed to be the Empire entire, assembled to send off the Lynx's crew.

Master Private Saman grasped his arm and pointed into the crowd.

"She's got something for you, Bass!" (The single name indeed didn't bother his squad: They'd shortened it already.)

Bassiritz's keen eyes followed Saman's gesture, and spotted a woman among the ecstatic dancers in the front of the crowd. She had removed her jacket and tunic, ignoring the autumn chill, baring flesh pale enough to shine like a ray of sun among the gray throngs of the faithful. Then others followed her example, men and women dancing out of their clothes, euphoric and supplicant before the towering, mock totem of the warship. Bassiritz shook his head in bemusement. The gray religion took on many forms throughout the Empire, but here on Home all its strangest versions were clustered together, as if the planet were a curio cabinet stocked for the amusement of the Risen One himself. The ecstatic dancers had seemed like monks to Bassiritz at first. He had watched them over the last few days, encamped in the square before the rising dummy ship. Their gray tents and clothes, shaved heads, quiet prayers, and diet of cold field rations had given them a solemn dignity. But now he saw that the purpose of these privations had been to secure a position in the front of the crowd. To dance and scream wildly--now nakedly--before the crew and the onlooking masses. To become part of the spectacle of christening a new class of Imperial warship.

To pay their. . . respects.

"You'll catch flies, Private Second Class."

Bassiritz closed his mouth, and smiled to echo the laughter of his squadmates.

"Bass's never been to a christening, I suppose."

"Neither have you, Astra!"

"But I've seen war prizes presented. The dancers were there."

"The dancers are everywhere."

"There were a couple in your room last night, I overheard."

"Those were honest surrogates, Private."

"I'm sure you kept them honest."

"I kept them awake."

The squad laughed again. Bassiritz felt warm in their company, even in the chill wind. It was new and wonderful to be here up above a crowd, arrayed with his crewmates on the slender beams of the gantry, almost flying over the press of people. He had never felt so ... exalted before.

His eyes scanned the buildings that rose as straight as cliffs around the square. The wide balconies were full, glittering with the reflective clothes of the wealthy, as if the city itself were bejeweled for this event. Bassiritz had heard fantastic stories about the cost of rooms on the square, which could not be owned, only leased from the Apparatus or temporarily bequeathed to high officeholders, such as senators and visiting planetary governors. Wealthy families exhausted whole fortunes to rent them, if only for a few days, in hopes of establishing connections, rising a little higher in the social order, nearing the ultimate prize of elevation. They were all out to gaze upon the mock ship, glittering and awestruck, yearning for immortality.

And with that thought, Bassiritz realized why his crewmates were so deliriously happy here. Suspended above the horde, under the gaze of the Empire's plutocrats, they felt their true value as soldiers, saw a prefigurement of their true reward. For their grueling service-- the years confined on tiny ships, the decades lost to theTimeThief, the constant danger of sudden obliteration--they were granted the one prize that even the wildest wealth could not absolutely guarantee.

If they could just die in combat, cleanly and without too much brain damage, or enjoy long and exemplary careers, Bassiritz and his squadmates might live forever.

Forever. A period not even the Time Thief could steal.

He could see the Emperor's promise here, from this vantage above the crowd.

As his incredibly sharp eyes scanned the balconies of the powerful, Bassiritz's elated thoughts were suddenly interrupted. Alone on a small veranda were two figures, one wearing civilian white, the other military black. An odd couple.

The man in black seemed familiar. Bassiritz squinted, focusing on the pair. The man turned to profile, making some comment to his companion, and the young private started.

"It's the captain!" he cried.


"Not a chance."

"Won't be here for hours!"

Bassiritz pointed. "There on that balcony. With that woman in white."

The others followed his gaze, cupping their hands against the glare of the sun now spilling into the square.

"That's the Secularist senatorial block. You wouldn't catch the Old Man in those abodes." Master Private Saman had served with Laurent Zai before.

"Zai's Vadan, Bass! Not some pink."

"But it's him. I can see him clearly."

"It's at least a klick away, young man. You're hallucinating." The two figures on the balcony grew closer, first hands touching, then bodies drawing near against the cold. Then white and black intertwined.

"He's kissing a woman up there," Bassiritz announced.

"Hah-hah!" Saman yowled, almost doubling over against the gantry's handrail. "The captain kissing a pink senator!"

"Kissing anyone at all!" Astra added in amazement.

The squad laughed at Bassiritz's fine joke on them, slapping his back again, full of good humor and intoxicated by their imperious position above the crowd, above the naked and gyrating dancers, above the grasping wealthy. Above everything but the huge false ship behind them, and its real and lethal double in high orbit above, where they would soon be lofting to join it, to journey toward the rumored troubles of the Rix frontier.

They laughed that the possibility of death awaited them.

But Bassiritz frowned. He alone could see that it was, in fact, the captain. He could see that it was a long and vigorous embrace. And in his small village the elders had taught Bassiritz one certain rule: Never laugh at a kiss. A kiss was mysterious and powerful, fragile and invincible. Like any spark, a kiss might fizzle into nothing, or consume an entire forest. A kiss was no laughing matter. Not for the wary.

A kiss could change the world.

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