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Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge

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BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
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He could take the money and vanish. Brandon had to know
that. The level of trust this implied... on the other hand, money meant nothing
to an Arkad, who commanded seemingly infinite wealth.

Deralze carefully folded the paper and put it inside his
jacket. Of all the possible outcomes of this meeting, the total freedom he’d
just been handed was the last he’d expected. Now he was no longer dependent on
the Poets to escape after he assassinated Brandon...

Or didn’t assassinate Brandon.

Collateral damage?

o0o

QOHOLETH ANACHRONICS HUB

Martin Cheruld, Aegios Prime of the Qoholeth Anachronics
Hub—and traitor to the Panarch his liege—looked up from his desk as the
monneplat
in the opposite wall of his office suite chimed. He hadn’t ordered in a meal
yet tonight, late as it was, and he wasn’t expecting any other sort of
delivery.

He crossed the darkened office to the mechanism, but when the
hatch slid open, it revealed a small box in the familiar blue and gold of a
standard ParcelNet package. Puzzled, he reached in. When the box seemed to come
alive in his hands, he nearly dropped it, then stilled.

The box was heavy for its size. He hefted it experimentally.
Instead of resisting, as any normal object would, the box jigged upwards as if
impelled. No, as if it had instantly lost all its mass. No. That was not right.
It was still heavy.

Cheruld frowned. Whatever was in the package was unlikely to
be dangerous in any predictable sense. The scanners in the ParcelNet system
were too efficient for that. He shook it gently. The impossible disjunction of
weight and inertia made him queasy. So he stilled again, breathing slowly. The
box had also stilled, and once more felt simply heavy.

He’d never studied energetics, but even a school child was
taught the inviolable relationship between mass and inertia.
Inviolable?

Cheruld let out a last breath and, moving with infinite
care, bore the little box to his desk to set under the light so he could view
the routing information printed on it.
JiJi Byron, care of Martin Cheruld...

Byron! This was too early! He’d known to expect a delivery
under the code name for the head of the Poets’ conspiracy, from whom he took
his orders. But that was to have been just before the Krysarch Brandon’s
Enkainion, which was still two weeks off. Nor had he ever thought much about
what the package would contain—probably funds in untraceable bank notes—but
that couldn’t be what this was.

There was no sense in checking the embedded message chip.
His only function was to hold the box for whomever contacted him with the
proper passphrase, and there would be no data that he could read.

Still staring at the box, Cheruld lowered himself into his
chair as he tried to recall where he’d heard about something without inertia...

Something impossible. As always, smell came first, the
highly scrubbed air of the lecture room, which often contained ancient
artifacts. The time, his university days.

The source of the impossible?
The Shrine Planet.

And there it was on the routing information: the package had
originated on Paradisum, the other Doomed World in the Ouroboros-Ophis system.

His hands shaking, Cheruld dug his thumbs into the seal-seam,
and the package unwrapped itself, the foam clamshell opening to reveal a small,
mirror-bright sphere.

“Correlative multi-sensor analysis performed by the
Fourth Expedition revealed the Heart of Kronos to be apparently inertialess.”
His
tutor’s measured voice came back to him across the years.
“The Guardian has
never permitted anyone to handle it, so we can only surmise what it would feel
like...heavy but light?”

Shock prickled through Cheruld, almost the same feeling as
might precede fainting, but without the light-headedness of physical surrender.
His mind remained as clear as the presence on his desk of an artifact
representing a science far beyond anything the Panarchy understood.

There was no way to explain raiding a forbidden planet for
an artifact millions of years old as part of the conspiracy to make Krysarch
Galen ban-Arkad the Panarch’s sole heir by assassinating both his older and
younger brothers.

I’ve been lied to,
Cheruld thought bleakly, looking
down at the evidence on his desk. Cheruld knew history. One of the salient
facts about conspiracies was that their nature precluded knowing just how far
lies reached.

The conspiracy had to be much bigger, and if so, what was
its true goal?

What have I done?

More to the point, what could he do now? With the exception
of Sara, he knew the other conspirators—he knew
some
of the
conspirators—only by their code names. The theft of the Heart of Kronos,
guarded for 700 years by a Class-One Quarantine, would demand resources beyond
anything Cheruld had imagined. It had to mean corruption at the highest levels,
which in turn meant any alerts he sent might not get through.

Even if he did manage to get messages to... (whom?) in
time—itself perhaps impossible, given how close the zero hour was—what could he
say and what could they do?

Another memory surfaced. Cheruld’s position at an
Anachronics Hub, where the timing errors that accumulated in the DataNet’s
shipborne communications were rationalized, was key to the Poets’ conspiracy.
It had enabled him to give Byron’s messages the DataNet priority only an Aegios
at a Hub could accomplish, even though he couldn’t read the encrypted message
payloads.

But there had been one message, about two weeks ago, whose
header had indicated total corruption, its timing information implying that
he’d received the message before Byron had dispatched it. What should have been
instructions to him for its routing had been a string of gibberish, and there
had been no other payload.

But that was after all the keys changed.
At least, it
was after Cheruld had been given a new key, followed by a flurry of messages
that he’d assumed had been similar instructions to all the other conspirators.

He hadn’t thought to use his old key on the message, and had
discarded it.

It might be totally unrelated, but it was all he had to go
on.
Telos! Let it still be unscavenged!
He crossed the room to his wall
safe, thumbed the ID plate, blinked at the barely-visible flicker of a retinal
scan, and then reached inside, gathering a handful of small red-striped
ampules. Tonight he’d need more than the strong Alygrian tea favored by
noderunners throughout the Thousand Suns.

He had very little time.

o0o

Uncounted hours later, Cheruld pulled his hands away from
the keys and blinked groggily at his console, brainsuck hallucinations
flickering at the edges of his vision.

He’d pushed himself too far with the drug, diving deep into
the lower
chthons
of the DataNet. Around him the dim-lit elegance of his
workroom wavered, as though about to dissolve back into the vivid structures of
synesthetic noderunning.

Bitter regret welled up in his throat. The room might as
well dissolve. There was nothing left for him here. He’d been revealed as a
fool and a dupe, his talents suborned to the service of the Panarch’s bitterest
enemy.

Dol’jhar!
Even without the other data he’d uncovered,
that knowledge alone was enough to confirm that Galen, too, was doomed, and
perhaps the Panarchy with him. The Poets were but a front for the Lord of
Vengeance, the Panarch’s implacable enemy.

The key had indeed been that strange message from Byron.
Once decrypted, the string of gibberish had proved to be a cipher key that had
enabled him to go back and read the payloads of all the messages he’d handled
for Byron that had not yet been scavenged by the system.

The picture that emerged was fragmentary, but damning. As
Cheruld had feared, Galen was to die as well. There were hints of more
widespread action, even against the Panarch himself.

And all of it pointed back to Dol’jhar.

There was much still unexplained. Why had that message come
to him in the first place? Was someone in Dol’jhar’s employ playing a double
game? More important, why did so many of the message headers imply the same
impossible timing as Byron’s strange message to him, as though they had been
received before they were sent? His blurry eyes returned to the Heart of
Kronos—had the Ur who’d created it mastered time as well as space before they
vanished from the galaxy? What did Dol’jhar hope to gain from its possession? And
what would they lose without it?

That is the heart of the matter.
Cheruld smiled
sourly at the pun. Without the artifact’s arrival, he’d never have suspected a
thing. Whoever had arranged for it to be sent to him for safekeeping had
obviously been as ignorant of the implications of its physical properties as
Cheruld himself had been until he picked it up. “
Heavy but light”... He
probably thought of it as a kind of soap bubble.
I wonder if he even
knew I once studied briefly under a man who’d actually seen the Heart in
person?

Likely not. It wasn’t in his CV.

Cheruld flexed his trembling hands. No, Dol’jhar had seen
only the noderunning talent that had gained him his title, the almost
unconscious, intuitive grasp of structure that enabled him to explore the
deepest reaches of the DataNet—that, and his connection, through Sara, to
Semion and Galen.

Galen, the Panarch’s second son, the poet, the dreamer with
his quicksilver sensitivity, had a core of very real strength. He had quickly
won both Cheruld and Sara’s hearts, that summer years ago, during their
university days: it seemed only right when Cheruld’s beloved Sara fell in love
with Galen.

Of course Galen would make a better Panarch, but it had long
seemed that Semion was the Panarch’s chosen heir; his influence over the Navy
more than implied it. So Cheruld had gladly joined the Poets, and not long
after, had been promoted into his sensitive position at Qoholeth, the closest
Anachronics Hub to Dol’jhar.

The lies and insinuations and manipulations all seemed so
obvious, now.

He shook his head, then regretted it as pain flared behind
his eyes. He was forsworn, but he would have his revenge on those who’d used
him. It had taken him three shifts to undo the work of years, stretched his
noderunning talents to the utmost in an attempt to negate the web Dol’jhar had
spun around him, and he might still win.

Maybe. Sara, the one person he was fairly certain he could
still reach—but even if the tortuous method of communication he’d been forced
to use to reach her hadn’t been compromised, given her hatred of Semion, what
could he say to convince her to stop the heir presumptive’s assassination? She
wouldn’t understand the significance of the Heart of Kronos. Who would? Very
few. He needed more time...

But he was out of time.

Cheruld’s hands flew over the console again, and a brightly
colored space-time graph windowed up on the screen. Red lines signified
Dol’jhar’s plots, green the progress of the information he would shortly
dispatch to the authorities on Arthelion and Lao Tse, to Galen’s Talgarth, and
to Sara on Narbon. Pale blue spheres, fuzzy with the indeterminacy imposed by
relativistic communications, indicated the various planets. The red lines fell
short of Narbon, and Talgarth; the blue spheres of both Semion’s and Galen’s
worlds were transfixed by green shafts of light and life. Both lines reached
Lao Tse, where the Panarch’s well-publicized schedule would have him, at the
same time. A red line pierced Arthelion ahead of the green. Recalling what he knew
of Brandon nyr-Arkad, Cheruld felt only a trace of regret.

Sara might feel Brandon’s death more keenly. Cheruld had
been careful to keep from her the knowledge that his death, too, was part of
the conspiracy. His message was phrased to lead her to assume that he’d
discovered the plot against Brandon just as he had that against Galen. She must
not be distracted by grief from doing what she would hate—they both would hate.
Need was greater.

He closed the window with a stab at the console. As Aegios
Prime of an Anachronics Hub, which rationalized the timing errors that
inevitably built up in a network based on ship-borne data, he knew too well the
fallibility of the graph. At this moment—a concept, he reflected grimly, that
itself had no meaning—someone else halfway across the Thousand Suns could
demand a graph of the same situation, and get a different answer. The DataNet
and all its complex calculations of Standard Time were just a gloss of the
unyielding vastness of space-time. But humanity persisted in imposing order on
disorder, insisted on comprehension of the incomprehensible...
and he
could hope.

It was all he had now.

But first he had to finish the message to Sara, to try to
save the life of the man they both loathed.

“There’s nothing more I can do. I only hope my message to
Talgarth will indeed get through in time. You must tell Semion, regardless of
what it costs me or you. Too much depends on us now—only he can mobilize the
naval detachment at Narbon with any chance of stopping whatever is intended to
follow his assassination—the deaths of the three heirs must be only a small
part of Dol’jhar’s plan. It’s the only way we can smash Eusabian’s plot before
it starts.”

He looked down at the holo of Sara on his desk—clear,
sea-green eyes under a crown of ruddy hair, exquisitely formed features, the
curve of her mouth expressive not only of humor, but her innate good nature.
The thought that he would never see her again was agonizing.

“If I get away, I’ll contact you when I can.” He swallowed
convulsively and tabbed
COMMIT
.

Now only two things remained. Cheruld pulled a
newly-addressed ParcelNet package toward him, his stomach lurching again at the
dissonance of its content’s weight and inertia. This box was larger, for he’d
put the Heart of Kronos in an Alhaman puzzle-box, hoping that the time needed
to open it might give the recipient more warning of the strangeness within, and
spare him some small part of the shock Cheruld had felt on first sight of the
little sphere. Fatigue and the inevitable nervous tremor made his fingers
clumsy as he sealed it and then ejected from the console the message chip he’d
prepared with a copy of all the data he’d discovered and a brief note of
explanation.

BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
10.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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