November 2717, Imperial Standard Reckoning
New Hope City, South Africa, EARTH
Diamenta Neshepaz received Minister Wu in the garden. Around her flowers bloomed in a chaos of fiery color. A Bio-Derm gardener moved placidly through its work directives, its cranial implants winking steadily. Wu still appeared vigorous, despite his great age. He wore an immaculate black suit of the finest cut, with a heartbrooch resembling a snarling tiger’s head. Diamenta smiled at his choice. It told her Wu supported her decision. Good. It was good to be able to count on old friends. She rose and met him by the fountain. Behind the spray of glittering water, she could see the angular head of one of the manor’s laser turrets looming over the garden wall.
"Greetings, old friend," Diamenta said, taking his wrinkled old hands in her own. "Let us sit in the sun here. It’s warmer, and the fountain’s music is soothing."
"Thank you, Great Lady," Wu replied with a toothy smile. He knew as well as she that the fountain concealed sonic dampeners to protect the conversation from spies. This wasn’t the first time he’d come here to discuss the decisions facing the Immortal Brotherhood.
Diamenta led him to a pair of chairs she’d had brought out. They were soft and comfortable. She’d had tea made, and it waited for them in a small porcelain pot with matching cups. She used this set whenever Wu visited, because it was genuine Ming work nearly a thousand years old and therefore it pleased him, Wu Sing Choi, the Chinese Minister of Colonial Trade. He always incarnated as a Chinese male of his own extended family. Diamenta wondered how many of the Wu clan knew an ancestor still walked in their midst.
They sat and she poured tea for both of them. For awhile, they made small talk while sipping from the priceless little teacups in their hands. Wu had similar treasures, doubtless. He was the secret majority shareholder of Sung Industries, the major producer of Hercs and robotic components. Consequently, he could afford virtually any luxury or work of art he desired. Had Wu ever expressed an interest in owning the tea set, Diamenta would of course simply have made a gift of it to him. As it was, however, it pleased him more that she could serve tea to him in a civilized manner on his infrequent visits.
After a time, Diamenta gave in and began to speak of serious matters, thereby giving her friend face by being the first one to bring up business.
"The Inner Circle must make a decision immediately," she said. "Petresun is on the verge of converting the colonies to labor camps to feed the military machine. He has asked for our opinion."
Wu nodded sagely. "And so you have called today’s emergency meeting."
"We can’t do that to the colonies. It would destroy them as free people."
"What matters broken glass when the tiger is at the door?" He finished his tea and returned the cup to the tray.
Diamenta kept the shock off her face with an effort. Had she misread Wu’s choice of the tiger brooch? She had thought it referred to her, since his nickname for her had always been the tigress. But now he implied it meant the Cybrid threat. How dare he betray her! Rage suddenly burned through her, nearly blinding her. She forced herself to smile and sip her tea. Remember, she told herself. By the Great Hunter, remember who you really are. Don’t let this body’s passions push you into stupidity. She leashed the anger, tied it down deep inside her.
"It matters very much when the door is made of glass," she replied sweetly. She leaned over and stroked Wu’s cheek casually, the ebony of her skin contrasting greatly against his lighter hue. She let him feel the sharpness of her long gold-plated nails, but she was careful not to draw any blood. The nails were coated with a deadly toxin, and she did need him.
"There are many tigers," she added, withdrawing her hand. "Many doors."
Wu smiled back, apparently unfazed. "The colonies must be nurtured, of course. Venus and Mars have the highest birthrates in the Empire, even higher than China. There can be no other decision."
So he did support her after all! Diamenta took a moment to collect herself and refilled their cups. The garden smelled of jasmine and oleander. Songbirds flitted from bush to bush. Diamenta sighed. She didn’t feel much like a tigress today, but she knew she’d earned the nickname over the two hundred years she’d directed the actions of the Immortal Brotherhood. Yes, she’d certainly earned it.
"We should not have put Letellier in the Prefecture," Wu was saying.
"No," Diamenta said, returning her mind to the present. "He’s absorbed their single-mindedness about war preparation. He has divided the Brotherhood."
"He never used to be so blind, Tigress."
Diamenta shrugged. "Cell-memory drift. Despite the efficiency of our organimech brains, our minds are affected by interaction with each new body. This identity has damaged his judgment."
"Yes. Thus I prefer to remain incarnated within my own family. The drift is less severe."
"I myself have not encountered any difficulty, fortunately."
"And the others?"
"Sonia devotes herself entirely to her work. I suspect her of using certain drugs to numb her emotional centers, but she keeps herself well hidden."
Diamenta let out a sound of exasperation. "He cares for little but the pleasures of each new body. I don’t trust him, but we need him. Unfortunate."
"Yes. Joss." The Chinese term "joss" meant luck, destiny, karma, or divine favor, depending on how you looked at it. Whatever it meant, the children of Earth needed good joss. A lot of it.
"You force the issue with Letellier today," Wu stated.
"I’m afraid so." Diamenta stood and gathered the folds of her silken wrap. The old man also stood. "He is a devil-tiger in his own right."
"He suspects nothing. NAP Intelligence is riddled with Gideon’s agents. We’ve been monitoring Letellier very carefully."
Wu gave her a slight bow. "Ah, Tigress, and am I also under your fierce eye?"
She smiled broadly at him, liking him greatly. "Of course not!" she lied. "You and I go back too far, old friend! Shall we go meet the others?"
* * *
The meeting room was cavernous, richly paneled in dark wood, dimly lit except for the lamps near the table. A bar near the table held various bottles and glasses. Immortals enjoyed their vices, especially since none of the chemicals affected their ability to think or remember. Diamenta nodded to the servant to close the doors. The meeting had begun. As was the custom, they would use only the names of their current identities.
She watched calmly as Letellier seated himself at her left and placed his cap on the polished table. As usual, his military uniform was crisply pressed and only modestly decorated with a few service medals. A Tribune of the North American Prefecture’s Department of War Intelligence, Edward Letellier reminded Diamenta of a sword, the kind a soldier would actually use in combat, not some shiny toy meant only for show. In his previous life, he had distinguished himself greatly in the Earthsieges, but he could hardly wear those medals in his current incarnation. As one of the most powerful men in the Prefecture’s military establishment, Letellier had to protect his secret even more diligently than the rest of them. The Prefecture’s independence movement was one of the thornier political problems facing the Empire these days. The revelation of an Immortal so high in the NorthAm ranks would touch off a political explosion.
Diamenta glanced around the table. Across from her Sonia Uravich met her gaze coolly, EurCoord’s Special Economic Advisor. Sonia alone among the Immortal Brotherhood seemed to have no vices, no exploitable weaknesses, no personal life, no feelings except toward the goals of the Brotherhood. She had devoted this life and the last one toward rebuilding Europe from the ashes of the Earthsieges. Her analytical abilities and her singleness of purpose made her useful to Diamenta. Sonia would follow whatever course the Inner Circle decided upon. She was not a political animal, and would be of little use in the battle with Letellier.
Wu sat on Sonia’s left, the tiger heartbrooch gleaming in private reassurance.
On the other side of Sonia lounged a young, swarthy man in a rich suit. A lightgem shone from a ring on his eyebrow. Jewels glittered on his fingers as he covered a yawn. Don Luis Montellius Alvarhado, owner of the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Alcinha-Moderno, was a thoroughly distasteful man, Diamenta thought. But his wealth and especially his ties to organized crime cartels made him valuable. He was the most jaded of Immortals, burning out each new body with an extravagant lifestyle. He’d had this body for only a few years, not enough time for the damage to show. His eyes watched everything, hard and cold, like the eyes of a snake. Don Luis was easily the most ruthless member of the Inner Circle.
Except, of course, for Diamenta herself.
The last of the Circle sat to Diamenta’s right. Gideon Fairchild had risen to the position of Director of Imperial Intelligence, a post he had held for over twenty years now. Of all of them, he was the closest to the Emperor’s ear. He took poor care of his bodies, and this one had the usual pale and flabby look of his previous incarnations, although this one still had its hair, a fine blonde wisp over a round face. Gideon had brilliant organizational talent and a flair for piecing together accurate conclusions from only a few facts. He knew everything about everyone, it seemed. Fortunately, he was totally loyal to Diamenta.
"Shall we begin?" she asked. The others nodded, and Diamenta gestured gracefully to Gideon.
"Ahem, ah, yes," he said. "The reports of unusual activity beyond Neptune continue to filter in. Our probes invariably cease to function beyond Neptune’s orbit, but we have detected traces of infrared signature from Pluto, as well as radio emissions not, ah, consistent with the normal radio readings from that area."
Gideon continued after a moment. "We’re, ah, unable to make sense of the transmissions, other than that they exhibit a pattern consistent with Cybrid communication ciphers. The great likelihood is that Prometheus has established its new, ah, base on Pluto."
"We should nuke it immediately, no? The Empire should be agressivo and stamp out this nest very quickly." Don Luis sipped narcordial, a numbing, opiate-laden drink.
Gideon shook his head. "I’m afraid that’s impossible. We have already lost probes. Short of an all-out assault, we couldn’t provide enough, ah, cover for our missiles to penetrate the point defense the Cybrids have undoubtedly set up."
"And that scale of offensive isn’t possible right now," Letellier injected. "The supply difficulties would be tremendous, that far out. The reaction mass requirements alone would be enough to keep us from doing it. Our warships could get there, but they wouldn’t have enough left in their tanks to manuever."
Don Luis shrugged. "Given time, we will solve that problem, senhor."
Diamenta watched the reactions around the table. Wu and Sonia showed nothing. Gideon seemed disappointed. Letellier’s face was tight and angry.
"Sonia, why don’t you give us your perspective?" Diamenta asked.
Sonia nodded. A holoprojection misted into view before them, showing a graph of Imperial expenses and revenue. "As you can see from the data, we can’t afford the kind of military buildup necessary to go after Prometheus. We haven’t the industrial capacity, the resources, or — most important — the population to support another all-out war effort at the moment. So much of our effort until now has simply focused on rebuilding from the last Earthsiege, that all we can do is sustain a moderate build-up."
"We still haven’t any other choice but to go to an all-out mobilization. We’re already behind the Cybrids," Letellier said. "If we don’t start mobilizing now, we’ll never have a hope in hell of catching up with Prometheus’s army."
"Not strictly true," said Sonia flatly. "Our economy and population will be better able to support a rapid mobilization in seventy years. We lost hundreds of millions of people in the Earthsieges. Even with the Imperial policies that encourage childbirth, it takes time to rebuild the numbers."
Gideon coughed delicately. "Yes, and it takes money to, ah, educate and feed these numbers. Your projection figures indicate a dramatic reduction in colonial population and profits should the military receive the, ah, first priority —"
Diamenta raised her hand sharply, cutting him off. "Gideon, how did the Emperor react to the news of the Cybrid buildup?"
"He, ah, questioned me as to how far along Prometheus was."
"And your answer?"
"Prometheus would have to build material processing and fabrication plants from scratch. Transportation and logistics would take more time. Testing his work. Energy requirements, ah, also a challenge. Even with the, ah, immense knowledge Prometheus has, we estimated at least another century before it would be able to consider mounting a serious, ah, offensive."
"A century? In fifty years, it’ll be too late!" Letellier said. "Those damn machines can work around the clock for years — they don’t have to worry about economics or motivation! We have to gear up now if we’re going to have any chance at all. Christ and Hunter, Prometheus has already had almost a hundred years!"
Diamenta turned to Wu. "What would happen if the colonies were left alone, without the burden of a military buildup, but without any extraordinary assistance?"
Wu folded his hands before him. "The colonies are self-sufficient now, Great Lady. They can survive on their own and still expand their trade with Earth and the Empire. It will be hard for them, naturally."
"The military must take A-one first priority," Letellier said. "Otherwise we’re committing suicide."
Wu tapped the table thoughtfully. "Population is the real problem. We can always build more factories, more robot weapons. We can’t build people." He tapped his finger on the tabletop. "I suggest we expand the bio-derm programs. If we convert career criminals to useful bio-units, that will help conserve population resources."
"I’m concerned about the development of a bunker mentality in the people of Earth," Diamenta said. "We need to mobilize, yes, but we also need to fan the flames of the human spirit." She looked serenely around the table. "In the past wars with the Cybrids, we didn’t defeat Prometheus with brute force, but with cunning and bravery, with dreams and stubborn daring. We should encourage those traits as much as we encourage building new weapons platforms. We need warriors."
"When we fought the Cybrids before, millions died." Letellier’s voice was ice. "We weren’t ready, and the Cybrids nearly exterminated us all."
Diamenta hardened her voice. "We can’t outbuild them, Edward. We can never match them in numbers! The human spirit is our greatest weapon and the colonies are the seed beds for it — we need the children of the frontiers desperately. Earth is tired. Its people are tired. We need tough, self-reliant people with courage and a terrible strength of will. Those are our greatest weapons —"
"By Christ and Hunter! I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion!" Letellier struck the table with his fist. "It’s crucial — absolutely crucial — that we devote all our effort toward building a force that can defend us against the Cybrid menace! The colonies must provide Terran factories with raw materials, period!"
He stood, taut with anger. "This isn’t a game, you know. It’s survival." Letellier picked up his cap and turned to leave.
Diamenta triggered the room’s hidden laser with a thought. Letellier crumpled immediately, the smell of burnt flesh rising from his body. Sonia’s face showed surprise for a moment. Alvarhado laughed softly and raised his glass in salute.
Wu’s voice sounded strained. "It has come to this, then, Tigress."
Diamenta nodded curtly. "He’d have informed the Emperor and we’d have lost. Gideon has been blocking Letellier’s attempts to contact Petresun this last week. Any longer and Letellier would have realized it, done something. And you know the Emperor would never have ignored the advice of his friend the former Archibald Weathers." She passed her hand over the tabletop and holographic controls materialized for her. She keyed in a command sequence and dismissed the panel.
"The men who accompanied our late friend are being terminated," Diamenta said. "The bodies will be placed in the NAP jet with a preprogrammed autopilot. The jet will go down over the mid-Atlantic. Mechanical failure, terrorism, maybe even a leftover Cybrid autosniper missile. A tragedy."
"And Edward’s brain?" Sonia asked, her face pale.
Doors slid open at the opposite end of the room. A pair of bio-derms in surgical whites entered and moved to Letellier’s body, pushing a gurney before them. Blank-faced, the bio-derms said nothing. They lifted the body onto the gurney and paused a moment, the lights on their command-synch skull implants blinking briefly. Then they left with the gurney. The doors clicked shut behind them.
Diamenta surveyed the group. "His brain is too valuable an asset to waste. The location beacon capacity will be disabled, and the brain will be connected to a virtusim unit. He’ll spend his time living a simulation of the next Earthsiege. We’ll learn from him, naturally, and when the Enemy does return, we’ll bring him back for the fighting. In the meantime, his death will serve humanity." She glanced at Sonia. "You should approve, dear. It’s economical."