by Blake Hutchins

“The Emperor will see you now.” The woman, a striking brunette of the Imperial Escort, stepped aside to allow Harabec to enter. Harabec admired how the fit of the tight black uniform accentuated her athletic figure.

“Thanks, Nyca,” he said. “Nice bod this time around. Vat-grown, or did you pull one from the accident circuit?” He brushed past her into the foyer. The last time he’d seen Nyca years ago, she’d been in a man’s body. Times change, he thought. Harabec kept as current as possible regarding other Immortals’ identities. It was important to stay straight on who was who when colleagues could change identities and lives like short-timers changed clothes.

The woman remained expressionless, ignoring his comment. “Please follow me, Knight-Captain Weathers.” She opened the next door and led Harabec into the Imperial Suite. Or one of them, at least. Like the ancient Chinese Emperors, His Imperial Majesty Solomon Poulicho Petresun maintained a large number of suites, and spent his nights in them randomly. The Imperial Palace in Nova Alexandria was vast enough that months could go by without sleeping in the same room twice.

This one was on a higher level, with jeweled tapestries fairly dripping from every wall, and wonder of wonders, even had a window view. Outside, Harabec caught a glimpse of Nova Alexandria shining white in the sunlight. The Great Pyramid thrust its weathered point defiantly into the vivid blue of a desert sky. The green of palm trees and flower-studded gardens accented the city’s whiteness. It was a city built in the aftermath of the Earthsiege, one of the finest architectural achievements of all history, designed to show that Humanity could rise from the devastation and recapture a vision of peace and beauty.

Like a phoenix, Harabec thought bitterly. His battle-name among the Imperial Knights was “Phoenix,” earned from his knack for escaping seemingly impossible situations. Behind his back, though, many Knights called him “Hara-Kiri” for the heavy losses his unorthodox strategies often caused among his own forces. Of course, it would help if he weren’t given near-suicidal missions to begin with. That insurrection in the Turkhazak Border Zone last spring, for instance, should have been faced down with at least five times the force Harabec had been given, including badly needed aerial support. It was a miracle he’d gotten anyone out at all when the Turkhazaki rebels hit them. The Turkhazaks had obtained a cache of Chinese anti-Cybrid weapons on the black market, so when Harabec’s Imperial Peace force arrived, things got hot in a hurry. Half the platoon’s Hercs went down in the first two minutes, and the rest would have been slaughtered to the last man had Harabec not managed to penetrate the Turkhazak line with a charge directly into the teeth of the incoming fire.

Christ and Hunter, Harabec wondered. How did we get out of that? He knew, though, that his centuries-old reflexes were the cause. He’d reacted instinctively to a vague hint on the sensors, on the strength of more battle experience then everyone else in the platoon put together. In the instant before the hail of microatomic Hellflowers exploded in his troop, he’d brought his Minotaur around and redlined it toward the shooters. While his fellow Knights reeled in confusion, Harabec hurtled into the Turkhazaki position, tearing them into rags with a firestorm of lasers and hypervelocity slugs. The few Knights who had the presence of mind to follow their leader survived. The ones who froze never made it out. Good men and women had died that day, and Harabec was celebrated as hero at the same time the relatives of the dead cursed his name. Eventually, the public soured on his exploits and came to see him as a glory-seeker. The Phoenix rose from the flames time after time, but burned his companions in the process. Careless of other warriors’ lives, the newsvids said. The Turkhazak Debacle was just one example.

“Terra Mater,” he whispered, his fists clenching at the memory. All so needless! The Turkhazaks were fighting the Empire’s wartime economy more than the Empire itself. People understood the need to prepare against another Earthsiege, but the merciless demands of the Emperor’s military buildup made Terran Defense Force needs the only needs. As a result, people actually starved so the Empire could build more Hercs, hovertanks, and stratofighters.

I’d tried to tell the Emperor, but he never listens to me. He just gives orders.
The woman moved aside and ushered him into a richly appointed room off the main suite. This room was designed to look like the interior of an ancient Egyptian temple, with sandstone floors and hieroglyphs painted on the circular walls. The Emperor lay in his gel-padded wombcouch between two black pillars carved to resemble falcon-headed gods. A host of tubes arced into his thin body, worming between the delicate struts of the exo-harness that allowed his withered muscles to move his arms and legs. The Emperor wore nothing else. The air was quite warm. Harabec was already sweating. Behind the Emperor, two men of the Escort stood at attention, their eyes boring into Harabec. The floor between Harabec and the Emperor held what looked like a pool of blue-green liquid, smooth as glass. It was what passed for a bath for His Imperial Majesty, Harabec knew, a mix of emollient analgesics, microcleansers, and tissue regeneratives. The gel was buoyant and designed not to stick to inorganic material such as the Emperor’s life-support net.

“I’m here, as you requested,” Harabec said, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets. He’d have preferred to come to this audience less formally dressed. Behind him, Nyca shut the door and moved to just behind where he stood. “You’re not safe with the usual two watchdogs?”

The Emperor replied in a faint whisper, the most he could manage without mechanical aid. “My Escorts are very concerned for my well-being. Take no offense.” “Too late. I’m offended. May I sit?”

The Emperor flicked his gaze over Harabec’s shoulder. Harabec heard the door open as Nyca went into the adjoining room. In a few moments, she returned and set a chair by Harabec’s side, something thin and black, with a gilded cushion. “Thanks.” Harabec didn’t bother to look at Nyca as he took his seat. “What do you need me for this time? I thought I was out of favor. Even Caanon doesn’t have time for me these days. You’d think I had a disease.” He slouched back and stretched his legs out until his boots nearly reached the edge of the gel-pool. The guards shifted uncomfortably. Harabec smiled.

“Precisely what I intended, my boy.” The Emperor’s eyes gleamed. “You’ve heard of the rebel attacks on Mars, naturally.”

“Of course. And Venus, not to mention right here on Earth. This surprises you, given the suffering our policies cause?”

“It is necessary, as you know well. The Enemy isn’t delaying its preparations, and neither can we.”

Harabec looked at the ceiling. “Spare me the propaganda. If you’d begun Earth’s preparation a hundred years earlier, as I’d advised, you wouldn’t be forced to play catch-up now.”

“I will not waste time arguing,” the Emperor said mildly. “Humanity has no room to falter. The Empire must succeed in its preparations, even if people suffer.”

“Even if people begin to see the Empire as the enemy?”

“Short-sighted. They must sacrifice so that the species survives.”

Harabec snorted. “Why not bring them into the preparation? Give them a stake. Let them build their own forces instead of sending everything back to Earth!”

“We on Earth are in the best position to lead the effort, Victor.”

Harabec leaned back so that his chair balanced on two legs, put his hands together behind his head. He looked hard at the Emperor. “Don’t call me that! Victor’s gone. I’m Harabec Weathers now.”

The emperor chuckled, a dry rustle. “Yes, and it’s a useful position to have you in. Very useful indeed.” He gestured weakly at the pool. “I’m ready.” One of his Escorts, a powerfully built Asian man, lifted the Emperor and placed him gently into the pool, the web of nano-fibers and nutrient tubes extending with the Emperor from the wombcouch into the jade-colored gel. “Aaah, yes. By Christ and Hunter, that feels good.” His Imperial Majesty closed his eyes and relaxed with a blissful look on his face. Harabec thought about his place in the Weathers family with a twinge of guilt. Neither his body’s father nor his body’s brother knew the true Harabec was long dead, killed in that hovertrike accident fifteen years ago, a few days after his eleventh birthday. They didn’t know that when the Emperor’s own medicos intervened and flew the comatose boy to the Celestial Mercy Imperial Hospital, he was already braindead.

Instead of an operation to save the young Harabec, who was beyond help at that point, the Imperial surgeons removed the boy’s cerebrum. They replaced it with an Immortal brain, a sophisticated solid-state neural net encased in a sleek, black metaplas casing tough enough to stop anything short of a hypervelocity round. The Immortal brain was powered by a superconductor battery and had a theoretical life of several thousand years. It had the same shape as a human cerebrum, except that it was as smooth as an eggshell. It was even somewhat flexible, adapting itself to the space available in the skull as the individual aged. The Immortal mind residing in the brain had several advantages over a biologically-based mind besides longevity. Its reflexes and thought processes were generally faster. It possessed near-absolute memory, and it was capable of limited mental multitasking. Thus, an Immortal could in theory carry on a social conversation while composing poetry, performing complex calculations, and reading a novel. In practice, few Immortals found any need or desire to be that busy.

When Harabec had opened his eyes in the Imperial Hospital, he’d been greeted by a teary father and a concerned older brother he’d never met. Harabec had been briefed, of course, and he’d been able to explain away any strangeness others saw in him as the result of head injury. Nevertheless, it bothered him that the Weathers never knew the truth. Harabec grew to love his adopted family, threw himself into the role of his new life with gusto. And all the time, he carried his secret guilt. Deep inside, he suspected the hovertrike accident had been planned....

The Emperor’s eyes snapped open, and Harabec returned to the present. “It is time to take the next step in our plan,” the Emperor said.

“Your plan ... Majesty.” Harabec allowed a bitter note to bleed into his voice, his posture. The Escorts behind the Emperor’s wombcouch narrowed their eyes. He knew they’d kill him instantly if he made any abrupt, unexpected moves. “Our plan,” the Emperor repeated. “It is time for you to go to Mars. I want you to infiltrate the Rebellion now. We can’t tolerate any more reductions in our quotas. It is time to bring these colonists back into line.” “And why do you expect the Martian underground to trust me, an Imperial lackey?”

The Emperor cackled, a dry sound almost like a cough. “Why else do you have a reputation as a reckless maverick, my boy? You’re almost a rebel already, in the public eye. You’re not popular among the aristocracy. You’ve fallen out of favor, you’ve made public statements criticizing Imperial policy — to your family’s embarrassment, I might add — and you’re going to give the rebels a manifest of TDF resource and personnel deployment which will be accurate for the next six months.” The Emperor paused, cleared his throat, and spat a gobbet of mucus into the gel. “Besides, you will do anything necessary to earn their trust. Even to participating in their terrorist actions.” Harabec suddenly felt very tired. “Christ and Hunter, I thought the plan was for me to be a mediator, not another killer.”

“To some degree, plans must adapt to circumstances. The Brotherhood’s analysis concludes that the time for mediation has passed.”

“We screwed up again, didn’t we? We waited too long — !”

“The colonists are the ones who have raised the stakes. We must do what is necessary to defend humankind.”

“As if you knew what it is to be human anymore.” Harabec clenched his fists and leaned forward, anger flaring in him. “Look at you! You’re half-machine! You don’t have a heart anymore, or a liver, or kidneys.” He waved a hand at the wombcouch.

“That’s your heart now. It’s all your major organs. You can’t live without it.”

“Now you know that’s not true,” the Emperor replied in his mild tone.

“Excuse me. You’re not living now, just surviving.”

“I retain my essential humanity, my identity.”

“Normal humans don’t live to be over three hundred years old. Bodies give out before a century passes. You spend much of your so-called life in a virtual reality simulation these days, you show at most of your functions as a hologram —” The Emperor’s whisper was harsh. “The people know I am still human, still the same person —”

“— you don’t know anymore what it is to walk in a meadow, to hold a woman! By the Hunter, you don’t even allow mirrors in your —’

“— haven’t had my identity smothered in a parade of new, young bodies with different cell memories, different tastes!” The Emperor’s voice thundered as the room’s hidden speakers cut in, cued by the Emperor’s will. “With each body come a host of new tastes and cell remembrances, genetic memory. You know that, Victor. Don’t pretend you haven’t been changed by each new body. Don’t pretend you’re the same person you were two hundred years ago! You’re not! But I am! I keep my humanity, perhaps even my soul, so long as I remain in my original body!”

Harabec uncovered his ears, found mild pleasure in seeing the Escorts doing the same. They hadn’t expected the Imperial outburst either. He got to his feet and stared down at the decrepit form in the gel-pool. “Change is part of life,” he said. “It’s part of living. Humans weren’t meant to be flies stuck in amber. We’re not meant to be drones working for the Imperial Bee, either.” Harabec turned and headed for the door. Nyca stood in his way. “His Imperial Majesty hasn’t dismissed you, Victor.”

“I used to be in the Escort, Nick. About a hundred years back. Don’t play that game with me.” Harabec brushed her aside without meeting resistance, opened the door. At the threshold he turned around. “I’ll go to Mars, Father. Because maybe there’s still a chance to salvage something from your mismanagement. But I’m not going for you or for the Empire. I’m going for me.” His face twisted. “It’s a matter of redemption.” As he swept out through the Imperial Suite, the tapestries stirring slightly in his wake, Harabec cursed silently and made a promise to himself. He’d go to Mars all right, but he’d join the rebels for true. He’d train them to be warriors who could stand against any tyranny, be it the Cybrids or the Human Empire. And Hunter willing, he’d free the colonies from the relic who called himself Emperor of Mankind. Humanity would prepare for the next Earthsiege as a united band of free citizens, not as peasant colonists and noble knights! By God and Hunter, he’d see this to the end!

As she lifted the Emperor back into the wombcouch with Feng’s assistance, Nyca asked, “Will he go, Majesty?” She very gently began to clean the remaining blobs of gel from the Emperor’s parchment-like skin with assimilator pads. “Yes.” Petresun felt mortally fatigued, as he always did after an argument with the man who’d been his biological son, so many years ago. “He’ll go.” And he’ll do just as I secretly wish him to do. He’ll join the rebels, thinking he’s betraying me. His anger against me will inspire him to a supreme effort. Then he’ll train the rebels to be the kind of spirited fighters we need to take the edge off the Cybrid advance when that devil Prometheus finally moves against Earth. “Yes, he’ll go,” Petresun repeated. “I feel certain of it.”