"I just had a question, sir. Before the meeting."
"To better understand your thinking, sir," she said. "You see, I'm not sure that I completely grasp your... motivations."
"My motivations?" he said with surprise. "I'm a soldier, Hobbes. I have orders and objectives, not motivations."
"Generally true, sir," she admitted. "And I don't mean any personal intrusion, Captain. But the current tactical situation--as we both have agreed--seems to have become intertwined with your... personal motivations, sir."
"What the devil are you asking, Hobbes?" Zai said, his fingers frozen on the top clasp of his uniform.
Hobbes felt her face flush with embarrassment. She wished she could disappear, or could rewind time and find herself on the other side of his door, walking toward the command bridge, having never come in.
But even mortified as she was, the emotions that had carried her into the captain's cabin pushed her to say the next words.
"Captain, you know that I'm very happy that you rejected the blade. I did all could to convince--" She swallowed. "But now that you have, I'm just a bit confused."
Zai blinked, then the slightest smile played at his lips.
"You want to know why I didn't kill myself, eh, Hobbes?"
"I think it was the right choice, sir," she insisted quickly. It was absolutely essential that he not misunderstand her. "But as your executive officer, I need to know why. In case it has an effect on ... our working together, sir."
"My motivation," Zai repeated, nodding his head. "Perhaps you think I've become unhinged, Executive Officer?"
"Not at all, sir. I think your choice was very sane."
"Thank you, Hobbes." Laurent Zai thought for a moment, then sealed the top clasp of his uniform and said, "Sit down."
She found herself falling into one of the deep chairs around his airscreen table. The effort of breaching the topic had exhausted her. Her legs were weak. She was glad as he sat down that he would speak now, that she could remain silent.
"Hobbes, you've known me for two years, and you know the kind of man I am. I'm Vadan and gray. As gray as they come. So I understand that you're surprised by my recent decisions."
"Happily surprised, sir," she managed.
"But you suspect there may be more to it, eh? Some secret directive from the Apparatus that explains all this?" She shook her head. That wasn't it at all. But Zai went on.
"Well, it's simpler than that. More human."
She blinked, waiting through the interminable pause.
"After forty relative years, and almost a century of absolute time, I've found out something unexpected," he began. "Tradition isn't everything for me, Hobbes. Perhaps it was on Dhantu that I changed, that some part of the old Laurent Zai died. Or perhaps when I was rescued and rebuilt, they didn't put me back together in the same way. However it happened, I've changed. Service to the Emperor is no longer my only goal."
Zai absentmindedly attached his captain's bars to his shoulders, where they slid to their correct positions.
"Hobbes, it's quite simple, really. It seems I have fallen in love."
She found that her breath had stopped. Time had stopped.
"Sir?" she managed.
"And the thing is, Hobbes, it seems that love is more important than Empire."
"Yes, sir," was all she could say.
"But I am still your captain, as before," he said. "I shall still follow the Navy's orders, if not every tradition. No need to worry about my loyalties."
"Of course not, sir. I never doubted you, sir. This changes nothing, Captain."
It changed everything.
Hobbes allowed herself to feel for a moment, tentatively to sample the torrent of emotions that built inside her. They poured from her heart, ravenous and almost frighteningly strong, and she had to clench her teeth to keep them from her face. She nodded carefully, and allowed herself a smile.
"It's okay, Laurent. It's human."
With an effort of will, she rose. "Perhaps we should continue this conversation after the battle with the Rix is concluded." It was the only possible solution. The only way to survive was to push this down into hiding for another ten days.
Zai glanced rightward, where she knew he kept the current time in his secondary sight, and nodded in agreement.
"Right, Hobbes. Always efficient."
"Thank you, sir."
They took a step together toward the door, and then he grasped her shoulder. A warmth spread from that contact through her body. It was the first time he had touched her in two years.
She turned to him, her eyes half closing.
"She sent that message," he said softly.
"When I went to the observation blister to kill myself," he said. "There was a message. It was from her."
"From her?" she repeated, her mind unable to parse the words.
"My beloved," he said, an out-of-character, beatific smile upon his face. "A single word, that made all the difference."
Katherie Hobbes felt a chill spreading through her.
"'Don't,' the message said. And I didn't," he continued. "She saved me."
There it was again. She. Not you.
Laurent's hand slipped from her shoulder. Now the cold in Hobbes was absolute. It stilled her raging emotions. Like a killing frost, it cut down the part of her that was confused, devastated.
Soon she would be ready to go on. She just had to keep standing here, without feeling, for these next few seconds, and everything would be back the way it was.
"Thank you, Hobbes," Captain Zai said. "I'm glad you asked. It's good to tell someone."
"Very well, sir," she answered. "The briefing, sir?"
They walked there together, her eyes forward so as not to see the unfamiliar expression on her captain's face.
"We approved the attack without objection."
Senator Nara Oxham said the words quietly, almost talking to herself.
Roger Niles frowned and said, "The Lynx would be just as doomed if you'd forced a vote. Losing eight to one isn't much of a moral victory."
"A moral victory, Niles?" Oxham asked, a faint smile softening the bitterness on her face. "I've never heard you use that term before."
"You won't hear it again. It's a contradiction in terms. You did the right thing."
Nara Oxham shook her head slowly. She'd signed a death warrant for her lover, and for another three hundred men and women, all for the political advantage of a despot. Surely this could not be the right thing.
"Senator, these won't be the last lives the War Council will vote to sacrifice," Niles said. "This is war. People die. There are real strategic arguments for sending the Lynx against that battlecruiser. The Empire simply has no idea what the Rix are up to. We don't know why they want to contact the Legis compound mind. It might be worth a frigate to keep the beast cut off."
"Might be, Niles?"
"It's in the nature of war to frustrate the enemy, even if you're not sure exactly what they're doing."
"Do you really think so?" Nara asked.
The man nodded. "The Emperor and his admirals aren't about to sacrifice a starship just to revenge a slight. The Lynx may be small, but she's the most advanced warship in the Spinward Reaches. Even an insult from a gray hero like Laurent Zai wouldn't warrant throwing her away."
"You should have heard them, Niles. They laughed with pleasure at making him a martyr. Called him a cripple."
Nara put her head in her hands and leaned back, letting the luxuriant visitors' couch take her form. She and Niles were in one of the docking spires above the Forum, tall spindles of crystal that sprouted from the senatorial grounds to tower over the capital. The spire rooms were used primarily to impress ambassadors and to entertain the odd powerful constituent. They were intimate despite their commanding views, the Senate's subtle answer to the Imperial glories of the Diamond Palace and the Holy Orbitals. Their slightly musty furnishings spoke of collegiality and chumminess, of retail politics and handshake deals. Oxham and Niles had evicted the spire room's previous occupants (Council rank had its privileges) for a hasty meeting before she returned to the Diamond Palace. The senator's palace flyer waited just outside, bobbing softly in the cold morning breeze. Nara hadn't known that the term "docking spires" was literal, but the flyer's AI had chosen the spire, recognizing that Oxham had little time for a landing.
Council would meet again in twenty minutes.
"I don't know what's worse," Oxham admitted. "The Emperor killing Zai for revenge or me voting to commit the Lynx for purely tactical reasons--agreeing with the overwhelming majority so that they'd listen to me when a close vote came up."
"That's sound thinking, Senator. You don't want to be branded as weak and unwilling to shed blood."
"But actually to agree with them," she continued. "To sacrifice three hundred lives on the merest assumption that troubling the Rix is worth the cost. That's harder to swallow than a tactical concession, Niles."
Her old counselor stared back at her. He looked diminutive on the over-cushioned divan, a sharp-faced elf in the salon of some corpulent satrap. His eyes narrowed, bright blue and exceptionally sharp. There was no second sight here, ten kilometers above the concentrated synesthesia projectors of the Forum's chambers.
"You've made distasteful compromises before, Nara," he said.
"Yes, I've traded my vote before," she answered warily. It was Niles's way to debate her when she doubted herself, to bully her into understanding her own motives.
"What's the difference this time?" he asked.
She sighed, feeling like a schoolgirl repeating rote lessons. "In the past, I've bargained with the Empire's wealth. I've dealt tax relief for patent enforcement, axis protections for trading rights. Ninety percent of Senate policy is pure economics, a matter of possession. I've never traded in lives before."
Niles looked out the window, his gaze oriented on the Debted Hills, over which dawn was breaking through distant black clouds.
"Senator, did you know that the suicide rate in the Empire has been consistent since the First Rix Incursion?"
Suicide rate? Oxham thought. What was Roger talking about?
She shrugged. "The population is so large, its economic power so dispersed--that sort of consistency is just the weak law of large numbers at work. Any local spikes or troughs in suicides are subsumed within the whole."
"And what would cause those local spikes, Senator?"
"You know that, Niles. Money is the key to everything. Economic downturns lead to a higher suicide rate, murder rate, and infant mortality, even on the wealthiest worlds. Human society is a fragile weave; if the pool of resources shrinks, we're at each other's throats."
He nodded, his face growing lighter by the moment in the rising sun.
"So, when you trade tax relief and axis protections, pushing around wealth in accordance with the grand Secularist plan, what are you really trading?"
The bright sun had reached her face, and Nara Oxham closed her eyes. As often happened when she was out of synesthesia's reach, ghost images of old data danced before her eyes. She could reflexively visualize what Niles was saying. On a world of a billion people, a decrease of one percentage point in planetary product would result in well-established statistical shifts: some ten thousand additional murders, five thousand suicides, another million in the next generation who would never leave the planet. The explanations for each tragedy were terribly specific--a broken home, a business failure, ethnic conflict--but the god of statistics swallowed the individual stories, smoothing the numbers into law.
"Of course," Niles interrupted her thoughts, "the process you're used to is rather more indirect than ordering soldiers to their deaths."
Oxham nodded. She had no will left to argue the point.
"I'd hoped you would cheer me up, Roger," she said.
He leaned forward. "You did the right thing, Nara, as I said before. Your political instincts were correct, as always. And it's possible that the council actually made the right military decision."
She shook her head. They'd condemned the Lynx without a clear reason.
"But here's what I was trying to say," Niles continued. "You've handled issues of this import before."
"I've traded in lives before, you mean."
His gaze swept down from the bright sky to the huge city.
"We are in the business of power, Senator. And power at this scale is a matter of life and death."
She sighed. "Do you think they'll all die, Roger?"
"The crew of the Lynx?" he asked.
The old advisor was looking straight at her. The sunrise had found his gray hairs, which glinted like strands of boyish red. She could tell that her anguish was revealed on her face.
"It's Laurent Zai, isn't it?"
Oxham lowered her eyes, which was sufficient answer. She'd known that Niles would find out soon enough. He knew that Oxham's lover was a soldier, and there were a limited number of occasions when a Secularist senator would come into contact with military personnel. The Emperor's parties were a matter of record, and they were monitored by an informal system of rumors, gossip sheets, and anonymous posts, all of which were filtered through celebrity newsfeeds. An intense and private conversation between a senator-elect and an elevated hero, no matter how brief, could not have gone unreported.
Any doubts that Niles might have entertained would be vanquished once he'd uncovered that decade-old conversation. It must have been obvious to him why Nara was focused on the fate of the Lynx.
She sighed, sadder still now. Her closest advisor knew that she had voted for the death of her lover.
He leaned closer.
"Listen Nara: it will be safer for you if they all die cleanly."
Her eyes stung now. She tried to read Niles, but she'd had to up the dose of apathy in her bloodstream to cross the city, which was bright and sharp with war lust.
"Safer?" she managed after a moment.
"If the Risen Emperor were to discover that one of his war counselors communicated privately with a commander in the field, one who then rejected a blade of error," Niles explained, "he'd have her head on a stake."
"I'm protected by privilege, Niles."
"Like any legal construct, the Rubicon Pale is a fiction, Nara. Such fictions have their limits." Oxham looked at her old friend aghast. The Pale was the basis of the Risen Empire's fundamental division of power. It was sacred.
But Niles continued. "You're playing both sides, Senator. And that's a dangerous game."
She started to respond, but the council summons sounded in her head.
"I have to go, Niles. The war calls me."
He nodded. "So it does. Just don't make yourself a casualty, Nara."
She smiled sadly.
"This is war," she said. "People die."