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At Jun's announcement of a guest, I rub my eyes and notice with some irritation that my hand is shaky. I press my fingers to my temples to stop the shaking. I don't need a visitor right now...but I guess I need a break anyway. I should probably get some sleep--I'm going to start looking old. I laugh a little at that thought. This "advanced experience" is a bit of a mixed blessing.
Jun and I have been on this for days. We have what I think is a pretty solid model of Taru's AI, based largely on extrapolation from Jun-ni and cues in the command interface that Jun and I used during our last interaction with the android general.
Over the last several hours, we've been running simulations of the scenario that I discussed with Mixter Archebelloch and Captain King. The result is a cold knot in the pit of my stomach, and the combination of weariness and adrenaline has me half-sick. In every simulation so far, General Taru turns us into so much space dust. That wasn't part of the plan I presented. Perhaps it's time to enlist the help of Mr. Bezier. My professional pride chafes at the notion of presenting this to him in its current state of abject failure, but I can't let pride bring about our annihilation. I stare out at the Zen garden, where nanobots encased in stone are busy organizing themselves into patterns. If we can't figure this out, at least my embarrassment will be short-lived. Zen gardens always help me see the positive side of things.
"Jun, please have someone escort Her Grace to the garden."
“Sit, child,” I say in a tone that brooks no argument.
“Rei. Kimiko. Soyinka. I love you like a daughter, and you may be all grown up and a duchess now, but if you ever again accuse me of conspiring against you, I will put you over my knee.” I reach out and place my hand on hers. In a quieter, gentler voice, I say, “Your enemies are mine, Rei. Always.”
I sit up straight and look her in the eye. “I could not say the same to my nephew. It is true that I am part of the rebellion against the emperor. This is why I did not support your son’s suit for Xuan’s hand. I did not want you drawn into so dangerous an enterprise.” My brow wrinkles, and I rub my burning eyes. “Now, it would seem that we have both become involved in something a good deal more complex. For that, I apologize.”
“My family too, has had not a little allegience to the empire,” I say with a wry smile that turns wistful.
My eyes harden and the knuckles on the hand gripping my walking stick whiten. “Thirty million colonists on Archon Six can attest to the degree to the importance my family places on honor. The colonists offended my nephew’s honor when they responded to an ultimatum disguised as a generous offer by making it into a satiric play. I saw it, you know–the play. It was really quite funny, and not so one-sided as the emperor imagines. A comic tragedy. I think they knew that the emperor would withdraw his protection and leave them to the Void Wasters. That part was in the play as well, and not nearly so funny as the rest.” I trail off and look away, studying the black thistle motif on the teapot between us before continuing in a subdued voice. “Thirty million souls, including the couple dozen creative geniouses who dared offend my family’s honor, are now five. Five personalities, indistinguishable drones of the Void Wasters. Not one of those five are artists. My family’s honor is safe.”
“This is just one of the ‘noble acts’ my nephew has undertaken in defense of our honor,” I say, my eyes snapping back to my guest. “Shall I tell you of the platinum mining colony that was destroyed because the miners’ success proved the emperor wrong?” I put the back of my hand to my head in mock dismay. “Good heavens! If the emperor is not infallible when it comes to geology and metallurgy, what of all the other topics to which he claims expertise?”
I look out over the Zen garden, watching the stone nanobots arrange themselves, creating the effect of someone raking. Before my eyes, a pattern emerges--symbols for honesty and inner turmoil. Of course. Jun runs the nanobots, and Jun is an incorrigible busybody. It is good advice nonetheless.
Rei... I say, turning my eyes back to hers. "You have uttered precisely the argument that keeps me up at night. Why risk so much? No--not even risk--for it is a certainty that lives will be lost in this venture. Why not just wait for Xuan to come to power? The cost of revolution is not easy to live with. I could give you the coldly rational reasons that I give to some others--that the empire that Xuan inherits will be fundamentally flawed and so corrupt that it will matter little that a kind soul sits beneath the yellow parasol. In the end, it's simpler than that for me. Some things cannot be borne. We cannot stand idly by without its changing who we are. My nephew must be stopped. If I thought I do so myself, bring about Xuan's rule with one short visit to His Imperial Highness, I would have done so by now. He is a very cautious man, however, and extremely well protected, even from his dear old auntie. I smile a sweet smile completely at odds with talk of assassinating my nephew.
"In the end, dear, you and I are not so very important after all. The revolution did not begin at my word, nor would it end at my word. Given that there is a revolution, should I join in the brutal repression of those willing to take a stand so that I may sit in my estate, drinking tea and pretending not to see the atrocities being committed while I wait for my niece to ascend? Or should I stand with those who have refused to bombard civilians from space, and with those who chose to defend the citizens of the empire against the Void Wasters? These people took a stand, refused to act against our own people, and for that, they are labeled traitors and rebels. I have too few years left to spend them waiting for an empire that will celebrate rather than condemn people like these."
"You always were such a gentle soul, Rei. I'm gratified that you've decided to believe that I haven't betrayed you," I say, smiling and bowing in an exaggerated display of mock humility, my forehead nearly touching the table and my arms spread wide.
I straighten and smooth out my blouse and jacket, giving her a look of mild reproach--to even imagine that I would betray her. How could she? Really.
"I am working on the problem of the fleet," I say matter-of-factly, with a wave of my hand. "Meanwhile, however, having a Plan B is always prudent, don't you think? Perhaps you'd better explain this 'something terrible' to me."
There are lines I won't cross, certainly. I would not be here among the rebels if that were not the case. I reach across the table and take one of Rei's hands in mine, smiling. Kaluga came after my family. Who's to say Rei's 'something terrible' is not merely a tool ill-fitted to her gentle hand?
She greets your theatricality with the tiniest of pained smiles. There is still a deep shadow on her eyes, one of someone who sees their world coming apart.
She's silent for a moment.
"We're moving mining asteroids in the planetary belt with an experimental engine. My advisers tell me they can be put under a constant burn... and be made to hit Aglisse 2a in three days. Kaluga does not posses a weapon that can stop them. They are of the opinion he would surrender after the first"
I look at Rei for a long time, while in my mind’s eye, I watch a line of asteroids hurtling toward the planet. When I speak, it comes out subdued, lacking my usual brisk confidence. “I do not think I would entrust the fate of millions of people to Lord Kaluga’s surrender.” I could see him saving himself somehow and leaving his people to die. “I have always believed that the best way to never get caught bluffing is to never threaten something you are unwilling to do. I would not bombard a planet from space to force Kaluga’s surrender.” What is it about my family and bombarding people from space? Even those of us who don’t do it get the opportunity. I pat Rei’s hand. “We will find another way.”
"Of course I trust you, dear," I say to Rei. "If you say you've done the math, and your plan saves lives, I trust your judgment. I do have a plan, though, and it could turn the tide of battle before things get out of hand."
I pick up my fan, unfold it and wave it in the air, which thickens and shimmers until a translucent starfield appears. Ships begin to fade into view, represented hundreds of dots on the starfield.
"The largest part of Kaluga's fleet is the drone fleet commanded by General Taru." Roughly two-thirds of the dots turn a bright blue.
"Few people know this, but Taru and Jun-shi, my AI companion, share a common ancestor, Jun-ni. I believe--and Jun does as well--that we can use this to turn Taru against the rest of the fleet. And where General Taru goes, so go his drones."
The dots begin moving, engaged in a pitched battle. While I continue speaking, dots of both colors begin to wink out, the grey dots vanishing more quickly than the blue. "Kaluga could arrive just to have the bulk of his fleet turn on the rest." On the display, the grey dots disappear entirely, and the blue dots assume a defensive posture around the planet. "We could end up with Kaluga's forces decimated and a large drone fleet under our command--without a shot fired at us or at the civilian population. That is my hope." I fold my fan and the starfield image hanging in the air folds in on itself and vanishes. I look back to the Zen garden as tens of thousands of nanobot rocks assemble themselves into the glyph for "hope", reminding me of Jun's omnipresence.
I look at Rei, and momentarily, I see the young girl who used to host dinner parties for a great assemblage of dolls and stuffed animals. When did she become burdened with the care of a whole system? Now is not the time to treat her like a child, however much she may seem it to me. It will just make her more determined to do things her way.
“I cannot tell you what is best for your people, Rei. It is a terrible set of choices in front of you. If you decide to send the rocks, I am not the one to second-guess you. I only seek to give you another alternative to consider. I think Jun and I have a real chance to turn General Taru, but it would be prudent to have your rocks in motion, regardless.”
She looks at you a long moment, Bai, considering. Then, finally, she nods.
"If you are confident, Auntie, we will go with your proposal... and I will provide whatever resources are in my power to grant that might help your plan to succeed." She holds up a finger. "This does not mean that I am turning against the Empire and joining the Rebellion, however. I am merely saving as many of my people as I can."
“Thank you. We share the same goal, you and I. I respect your perspective on the rebellion. If you can indulge an old lady in her attempts to share hard-won experience with you: I have found that each decision one makes that saves innocent lives becomes another step on the path to the rebellion. That is how I arrived here. I did not just wake up one day and decide to join the rebellion. It was a series of acts of conscience, which took me past the point of no return. I came to realize that I could not both live with myself and live as a part of the empire. Truly, I wish you luck walking a different path, and I hope our paths are not so far apart that we cannot walk together from time to time.”
Her face softens a little.
"As do I. But if this... if these people are the rebellion, I cannot see giving up one monster for another."
As soon as Rei departs, I turn my attention back to the cell--just in time for Jun to inform me of Xuan's departure. "Thank you, Jun," I say. "Please keep me informed of any unusual developments with respect to Mixter Archebelloch and Captain King."
It's not that I'm uninterested. It's just that I am sure Captain King and Mixter Archebelloch have the situation under control.
Before Rei's visit, though, I'd been in Rieva's cell--virtually, of course--until Mr. Bezier blinded me. That and the sudden non-visit in the logs were all I needed to confirm Xuan's arrival. Mr. Bezier is good--startlingly good--but he's not paranoid enough. Looking back over the logs and the video, I see the "fixes" have been done so artfully that no one would suspect, let alone prove, tampering. However, Mr. Bezier neglected to consider the possibility of an observer of the live video feed and an open read on the visitor log. If Rei's visit had been a few minutes earlier, I wouldn't have been watching closely enough to catch the sudden edit to the visitor log and introduction of the looped video. As it was, however, he may as well have comm'd me to announce Xuan's arrival.
Of course I knew Xuan would visit Rieva. Under other circumstances, I might have been glad to see them reunited. Kaluga had used Rieva so very badly, though. Akio would have given her a kinder end. And there's that glare Rieva gave me. Surely, she doesn't know that it was me who betrayed her to Akio. She just sees me as part of the family that drove her from Xuan's side. Still, that glare...
Perhaps I'd better pay Mr. Bezier a visit. Even if he can't tell me what went on between Xuan and Rieva, the artistry of his shielding of that visit gives me an idea about my plans for Taru. I hurry to Mr. Bezier's quarters with as much haste as decorum allows, and rap on his door with the brass raven on the head of my walking stick.