Read The Killing of Worlds Online

Authors: Scott Westerfeld

Tags: #Science Fiction, #War, #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adult, #Mystery, #Adventure

The Killing of Worlds

The Killing of Worlds

This novel is indebted to Wil McCarthy’s research on programmable matter, from his Nature article on the subject, to a paper I heard him give at Read-ercon 2001, to his kind vetting of this manuscript.

Another debt is owed to Samuel R. Delany, whose views on the typography of Swords and Sorcery, expressed in 1984: Selected Letters, gave me the courage to capitalize “Emperor.”

Copyright 2003 by Scott Westerfeld

To Justine, with whom I have a genuine and continuing relationship.

A Note on Imperial Measures

One of the many advantages of life under the Imperial Apparatus is the easy imposition of consistent standards of infostructure, communication, and law. For fifteen hundred years, the measures of the Eighty Worlds have followed an enviably straightforward scheme.

  • There are 100 seconds in each minute, 100 minutes in an hour, and ten hours in a day.
  • One second is defined as 1/100,000 of a solar day on Home.
  • One meter is defined as 1/300,000,000 of a light-second.
  • One gravity is defined as 10 meters per second squared acceleration.

The Emperor has decreed that the speed of light shall remain as nature has provided.

From the introduction to The Imperial Civil War

—compiled by the Academy of Material Detail

Two thousand years ago, it is believed, the population of diasporic humanity surpassed one hundred trillion, including various more-or-less human types in addition to the main germlines. This was a very rough count, and given the scale of the galaxy and the unattainability of translight travel, informed estimates can no longer be made. Certainly, no census is possible. But it is obvious that humanity is a vast object of study, even when matters of merely local concern are engaged.

The Risen Empire, with its eighty worlds, its trillions, and its core-ward position—dense with neighbors such as the Rix, the Feshtun, and Laxu—is huge enough to seem unaffected by the actions of individuals. Historians speak of social pressures as if they were physical laws, of “unstoppable” forces of change, of destiny. But for the men and women who walked the historical stage, these forces were often invisible, hidden by their sheer scale and the rank propaganda of the times. Social pressures built invisibly over lifetimes, not across the pages of a history text. And destiny only became apparent after the dice had been thrown. For those who experienced them directly, historical events were ruled by the fortunes of war, the whims of lovers, and dumb luck. Fate arises out of such humble parts as these.

In the current era, when the inevitability of the Imperial Civil War is received wisdom, we must work to remember that it was the product of specific events. Collapse would have come in any case, true, but it might have come centuries earlier, or (more likely) centuries later than it did. For the generations who lived under the cultural and military tyranny of the Risen Emperor, the difference was not trivial.

The origins of the Civil War are now learned by rote. The Risen Empire was riven into two parts. The limited democracy of the Senate contested the iron rule of the Emperor in an uneasy dance of power sharing. Representative government provided an outlet for popular will, while the Imperial cult of personality supplied a patriarch to bind together eighty worlds, the living populace and the risen dead each playing their part in the machinery of the Empire. The great majority of Imperial citizens were alive, and constituted the collective engine of change and economic productivity. As inventors, capitalists, and workers, they were the functional, instrumental members of society. The risen dead, on the other hand, represented continuity with the past. They controlled the established wealth, owning the land, the shipping charters, the ancient copyrights, dominating religion and high culture, an undead aristocracy of sorts. These tensions, fundamentally a class conflict, had to find release eventually. The immortal Emperor and his fanatical Apparatus had held onto power at any cost for centuries, making it almost certain that any resolution would be a bloody one. Adding to this instability, the small gene pool of its founder population made the Empire particularly susceptible to mass manias, cults of personality, pandemics, and other forms of radical upheaval.

Still, specific events brought about the Civil War in a specific way, and are worth historical study. There was a Second Rix Incursion, a Senator Nara Oxham, a Captain Laurent Zai.

The Second Rix Incursion began on Legis XV. It was at root a religious war. The Rix Cult worshiped planetary-scale Al, which the Emperor’s Apparatus jealously stamped out of existence wherever it arose. The Rix viewed this as deicide, and planned a deicide of their own, perhaps from the moment the Child Empress retired to Legis. Sister to the Emperor, Anastasia was his only equal as an object of worship.

Sixteen hundred years earlier, the Emperor had worked to save Anastasia’s life from a juvenile disease, inventing immortality in the process, and forming the basis of the Risen Empire. Thus, she was known as the Reason, the child for whom the Old Enemy death had been defeated. When a small Rix warship penetrated Legis’s defenses and took her hostage, the Risen Empire had suffered a devastating blow.

Captain Laurent Zai found himself in the unenviable position of being in command of the only Imperial warship in the Legis system. The
was a capable ship, a small, powerful frigate prototype, but any attempt to rescue Anastasia from a squad of Rix commandos could only be a desperate gamble. Under the military conventions of the day, failure would constitute a so-called “Error of Blood,” demanding ritual suicide from the commanding officer.

There was little time to weigh the issue. Once the Rix had taken the Child Empress, they set loose a compound mind within the Legis infostructure. Over a few hours, every networked machine on the planet— diaries, market mainframes, pocket phones, traffic computers—was amalgamating into a single emergent consciousness: Alexander. Captain Zai had to act quickly.

Given the chaos of the rescue attempt, it will never be clear if the Child Empress was killed by her Rix captors or by the Imperial Apparatus; theories of the Emperor’s involvement have never been decisively proven. Easier to confirm is why Laurent Zai refused the Blade of Error, flying in the face of tradition. Although he was from an ancient and gray military family, sworn to the Emperor’s service, he had recently sworn a different sort of loyalty to Nara Oxham, a Senator from the anti-Imperial Secularist party. The two were in secret contact, he at the Rix frontier and she at the capital, throughout the beginning of the Rix War. When she asked Zai not to kill himself, he assented. Love, in this case, was a stronger force than honor.

The rescue attempt had come too late for Legis. The Rix compound mind emerged within the planet’s infostructure, an alien intelligence in possession of a hostage world. But Alexander was cut off. The polar facility that maintained Legis’s interstellar communications remained in Imperial hands. Alexander was alone, save for a single Rix commando who had survived the rescue attempt. With the help of omnipresent Alexander and her hostage/lover Rana Harter, this Rixwoman disappeared to the far north to await the compound mind’s next move.

On board the
, Captain Laurent Zai faced a mutiny, an attempt by gray members of his crew to enforce the Error of Blood. Though he and his able first officer, Katherie Hobbes, easily thwarted the mutineers, a far more dangerous threat approached. Another Rix ship, a battlecruiser of far greater firepower than Zai’s frigate, had entered the Legis system. Although officially pardoned by the Emperor for his Error of Blood, Zai was ordered to engage the battlecruiser to prevent it from making contact with the compound mind, a suicide mission, the Emperor no doubt assumed.

Of course, Laurent Zai could not have imagined the fate that awaited Legis XV if the
should fail.

The Emperor probably planned a nuclear attack from the moment the Rix mind came into existence. Total annihilation of the Legis infostructure offered three advantages to the sovereign. He could destroy the compound mind, rally the Empire behind another costly war with the Rix, and, most importantly, maintain the secret that had underlain his rule for sixteen centuries, a secret grasped by Alexander in its first hours of consciousness. Against the objections of Senator Oxham and the anti-Imperial parties, the Emperor’s hand-picked War Council approved the attack by a narrow margin, providing political cover for this desperate act.

But Laurent Zai and the
proved far more resourceful, and luckier, than anyone might have expected.


exploded, expanded.

The frigate’s energy-sink manifold spread out, stretching luxuriant across eighty square kilometers. The manifold was part hardware and part field effect, staggered ranks of tiny machines held in their hexagonal pattern by a lacework of easy gravity. It shimmered in the Legis sun, refracting a mad god’s spectrum, unfurling like the feathers of some ghostly, translucent peacock seeking to rut. In battle, it could disperse ten thousand gigawatts per second, a giant lace fan burning hot enough to blind naked human eyes at two thousand klicks.

The satellite-turrets of the ship’s four photon cannon eased away from the primary hull, extending on hypercarbon scaffolds that always recalled to Captain Laurent Zai the iron bones of ancient cantilever bridges. They were removed on their spindly arms four kilometers from the vessel proper, and the
was shielded from the cannon’s collateral radiation by twenty centimeters of hullalloy; using the cannon would afflict the
‘s crew with only the most treatable of cancers. The four satellite-turrets carried sufficient reaction mass and intelligence to operate independently if released in battle. And from the safety of a few thousand kilometers distance, their fusion magazines could be ordered to crashfire, consuming themselves in a chain reaction, delivering one final, lethal needle toward the enemy. Of course, the cannon could also be crashfired from their close-in position, destroying their mothership in a blaze of deadly glory.

That was one of the frigate’s five standard methods of self-destruction.

The magnetic rail that launched the
‘s drone complement descended from her belly, and telescoped to its full nineteen-hundred-meter length. A few large scout drones, a squadron of ram-scatters, and a host of sandcasters deployed themselves around the rail. The ramscatters bristled like nervous porcupines with their host of tiny flechettes, each of which carried sufficient fuel to accelerate at two thousand gees for almost a second. The sandcasters were bloated with dozens of self-propelled canisters, whose ceramic skins were crosshatched with fragmentation patterns. At the high relative velocity of this battle, sand would be Zai’s most effective weapon against the Rix receiver array.

Inside the rail bay, great magazines of other drone types were loaded in a carefully calculated order of battle. Stealth penetrators, broadcast decoys, minesweepers, remotely piloted fighter craft, close-in-defense pickets all awaited their moment in battle. Finally, a single deadman drone waited. This drone could be launched even if the frigate lost all power, accelerated by highly directional explosives inside its dedicated backup rail. The deadman was already active, continuously updating its copy of the last two hours’ logfiles, which it would attempt to deliver to Imperial forces if the
was destroyed.

When we are destroyed, Captain Laurent Zai corrected himself. His ship was not likely to survive this encounter; it was best to accept that. The Rix vessel outpowered and outgunned them. Its crew was quicker and more adept, so intimately linked into the battlecruiser’s ware was a subject more for philosophical debate than military consideration. And Rix boarding commandos were deadly: faster, hardier, more proficient in compromised gravity. And, of course, they were unafraid of death; to the Rix, lives lost in battle were no more remarkable than a few brain cells sacrificed to a glass of wine.

Zai watched his bridge crew work, preparing the newly configured
to resume acceleration. They were in zero-gee now, waiting for the restructuring to firm up before subjecting the expanded frigate to the stresses of acceleration. It was a relief to be out of high-gee, if only for a few hours. When the engagement started in earnest, the ship would go into evasive mode, the direction and strength of acceleration varying continuously. Next to that chaos, the last two weeks of steady high acceleration would seem like a pleasure cruise.

Captain Zai wondered if there was any mutiny left in his crew. At least two of the conspirators had escaped Hobbes’s trap. Were there more? The senior officers must realize that this battle was unwinnable. They understood what a Rix battlecruiser was capable of, and would recognize that the
‘s battle configuration had been designed to damage its opponent, not preserve itself. Zai and ExO Hobbes had optimized the ship’s offensive weaponry at the expense of its defenses, orienting its entire arsenal on the task of destroying the Rix receiver array.

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