Scott Westerfeld, the acclaimed author of Fine Prey, Polymorph, and Evolution's Darling, follows The Risen Empire with the next thrilling space opera in Succession, the Killing of Worlds.
The immortal Emperor can grant a form of eternal life-after-death, creating an elite known as the Risen, and so has ruled the eighty worlds unchallenged for sixteen hundred years. The only thing he fears are the Rix, machine-augmented humans who worship AI compound minds. They are dedicated to replacing his prolonged rule with an eternal cybernetic dynasty of their own.
Brilliant tactician Captain Laurent Zai of the Imperial Frigate Lynx faces a suicide mission: stopping the next thrust of the Rix invasion with just his own vessel. While ship-to-ship combat rages among the stars, Zai's lover, Senator Nara Oxham, is caught in a deadly political fencing match with the Emperor himself. The Emperor has a terrible secret, a secret Nara is in danger of finding out, a secret for which he would countenance the killing of worlds.
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The contrail of a supersonic aircraft blossomed weakly in the thin, dry air, barely marking the sky.
Rana Harter imagined the passengers far above: reclining in sculpted crash-safe chairs, the air they breathed scented with some perfumed disinfectant, perhaps being served some light snack now, midway to their destination. From up there, other contrails would be visible through windows of transparent hypercarbon. Most long-haul air routes on Legis passed over the pole. The continents were clustered in the northern hemisphere, far from the raging equatorial sea and the vast, silent ocean of the south. Air transit routes converged here at the pole like the lines on a dribble-hoop ball, this tundral waste an empty junction, overflown but never visited.
Rana had never traveled on an aircraft before Herd had brought her here. She could only blurrily imagine airborne luxury, the gaps in her vision filled with the sound of wealthy people’s music: soft strings repeating the same slow phrase.
She watched the wind move driftsnow across the plain, and noted the direction and speed of the few scudding clouds. Her brainbug made a prediction. The contrail reached a certain point and Rana said, “Now.”
At that moment, the contrail jagged suddenly, a sharp angle marring its slow curve. A few pieces of detritus caught the sun, flickering with their spin, falling from the supersonic craft with the apparent slow motion of great distance.
The plane quickly recovered, righting its course.
Rana imagined the sudden, sickening lurch inside the cabin. Glasses of champagne flying, trays and hand luggage upset, every object leaping toward the ceiling as the plane lost a thousand meters of altitude in a few seconds. The unexpected opening of the cargo hold would instantly double the plane’s drag profile, sending a shock through the entire craft. Hopefully, the smart seats would hold their passengers in. A few bloodied noses and wrenched shoulders, perhaps a concussion for some unlucky soul on her feet. But by now the plane had righted itself, automatically closing the offending cargo door.
Rana Harter had discovered that her brainbug worked better if she indulged these fancies. As she imagined the sudden jolt above, her eyes tracked the flickering fall of luggage and supplies, and she felt the whirring of her mind as it calculated the location and shape of the debris field. The sharp, determinate math of trajectories and wind smelled like camphor, rang in her ears with vibrato-free, pointillistic notes on a handful of flutes, one for each variable.
The answers came.
She turned to Herd, already dressed in her hooded fur coat. The sable had come from the first luggage drop arranged by Alexander. The stain that had once disguised Herd’s Rix eyes was faded now, and they shone in their true violet, beautiful in the frame of black fur. The hairs of the coat ruffled in the bitter wind, a fluttering motion that made Rana hear the small, shimmering bells worn by wedding dancers on their feet.
Herd awaited her instructions, always respectfully silent when Rana’s ability was in use (though the commando had squeezed her hand as her word now seemed to yank the airplane from its path).
“Seventy-four klicks that way,” Rana said, pointing carefully. Herd’s violet eyes followed the line of the gesture, checking for landmarks. Then she nodded and turned to Rana to kiss her good-bye.
The Rixwoman’s lips were always cold now, her body temperature adapted to its environment. Her saliva tasted vaguely of rust, like the iron tang of blood, but sweeter. Her sweat contained no salt, its mineral content making it taste like water from a quarry town. As Herd dashed toward the flyer, the oversized coat lifting into sable wings, the synesthetic smell of the commando’s avian/lemongrass movements mingled with the flavor left in Rana’s mouth. The joy of watching Herd never lessened.
Rana turned back toward the cave entrance before the recon flyer whined to life, however. Every second here in the cold was taking something out of her.
Inside, it was above freezing.
Rana Harter wore two layers of real silk, a hat of red fox, and her own fur coat, vat-grown chinchilla lined with blue whale from the ubiquitous herds of the southern ocean. But she was still cold.
The walls of the cave were hung with centuries-old tapestries earmarked for the Museum of Antiquities in Pollax. A vast collection of toiletries and clothing, the bounty of fallen personal luggage, lined the icy shelves Herd had carved into the walls. Rana and Herd slept on the pelt of a large ursoid creature that neither of them recognized—a customs stamp confirmed its off-world origins. The floors were covered with soft linings ripped from luggage, a pile of undergarments forming an insulating layer underneath.
The small, efficient machines of travel were everywhere. Handheld games and coffee pots, flashlights and sex toys, all for Herd to dissect and rebuild into new devices. For sustenance, they had only prestige foods. Rich meats from young animals, fruits scandalously out of season, caviar and exotic nuts, candied insects and edible flowers. It all came in morsel sizes, suitable for luxury airplane meals: canned, self-heating and freeze-dried, bagged and coldboxed, to be washed down with liquor in plastic bottles dwarfish enough to have survived the long fall. They drank from two crystal glasses that someone thought valuable enough to pack in thirty centimeters of smartfoam. Oddly, the glasses had been labeled as coffee beans on their packaging. A mistake, or perhaps they were smuggled antiques.
All this bounty from only three aircraft holds, Rana wondered. She had never seen such wealth before. She lifted a smartplastic tennis racket, its rim no wider than the strings it suspended, and wondered at the instrument’s elegant, almost Rixian lines.
This fourth luggage “accident” would be their last haul. The background rate of such events had already been wildly exceeded, and Alexander’s false clues explaining the cargo-door defect had begun to wear thin. But she and Herd had all they needed until the compound mind called them to action.
Until then, they would live in luxury. And they had each other.
Rana Harter sat and rested from the freezing minutes outside. She lifted up a travel handheld to read, and that simple exertion tired her. She slept longer each night, dreaming lucidly but abstractly in the strange symbols of her brainbug. Her happiness never wavered, though. The dopamine regulators saw to that.
The infection in Rana’s wound was gone, disappearing in a single fevered night after an ampoule of nanos from Herd’s medical kit. But the weight in Rana’s chest was still there, building and building. Her breath grew shorter by the day.
She activated the travel handheld; its screen lit up, bookmarked to its medical compendium. Rana flicked it off again. She had read this section enough times, and knew that her one good lung was slowly going. Fluids were slowly building up in the wall between ribcage and lung, squeezing the breath from her like a tightening fist. Only an operation could save her. However resourceful her Rix lover might be, surgery was beyond their means here in this icy cave.
Rana Harter’s mind had never possessed a sharp sense of irony. The mean circumstances of her life had never required one. But she saw the joke here: She was surrounded by everything she had ever desired. Every petty luxury and marker of wealth. An invisible god that she positively knew to exist. Free use of her brainbug in a safe retreat at the literal end of the earth. And a lover of alien beauty, a fierce and lethal protector, whose physical grace, novel mind, and violet eyes offered whole new worlds of fascination.
And the punch line: Rana, in the next few days, would almost certainly die.
She turned from these thoughts the way a child ignores a light rain. They did nothing to reduce her joy. Whatever occurred, she—one of the few among humanity’s trillions—had chanced blindly into happiness.
Death must have found me, Rana Harter decided.
She was already in heaven.
Copyright © 2003 by Scott Westerfeld