Kostura is keenly aware that he’s not exactly working up a reputation for loquaciousness here, but he thinks he might be forgiven due to the fact that a swarm of nanites just reconstructed his entire throat and face.
“You regained the capacity for intelligible speech two minutes and thirty-seven seconds ago,” the voice admonishes.
Well, so much for that. He sits up, although even this simple act is made more challenging by the fact that there are now muscles where before there had only been wasted space, and their eagerness to get in on the action turns things into what might rightfully be called a clusterfuck. Eventually, the newcomers are informed that they really aren’t needed for this task and to call back later, maybe, and the janitor manages to stand up in front of the glowing face. A few photons twitch with the effort of suppressing a smirk.
“I hope you like the bed, Emperor Dreth. It is imported, as you may have been able to tell, from the homeworld.”
“Can we,” he begins before the new tones of command and respect force their way to the surface. “Er. Did you—“
She slips into the gap smoothly. “Yes, you now have the same vocal patterns as your predecessor. It will be necessary if you are to deliver public orations.”
“Is that very likely?”
The face intimates a shrug. Kostura files this under “Things that will bite me in the ass,” a file which has been growing exponentially as of late, and manages to walk into the adjoining room. It, too, is a nice room, although it appears to have been designed for a man who had not considered the existence of colors other than gunmetal grey. Okay, perhaps that’s not quite fair. There are other colors, yeah, but they probably also have the word “gun” in them somewhere.
“Since you now have nothing better to do, you will be spending your time supervising our operations,” the synthetic intelligence says, scooting a chair back along magnetic rails invitingly. He sits as carefully as he can without actually touching anything and raises a hand, which is determinedly ignored. “To begin, we’ll focus on—“
The hand rises a little higher, prompting a quiet sigh. “This is about the ‘minor duties,’ isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I figured those were going to be things like…dusting your microprocessor?” He takes a hopeful stab, checking to see if the face has stopped disapproving. It—or she—says nothing. “The motherboard.” She repeats herself. “Megapixels. I’m supposed to clean them, right?” A synthetic eyebrow arches. “I mean, you can’t have…dirty megapixels. That would be…” He trails off, shrugging as though to suggest a Goddamned catastrophe
“Listen,” she says, activating the room’s three screens and filling the room with a soft, reddish light. Kostura obeys, partially because the picture is just so clear, possibly even worthy of crisp. “You’re familiar with this, I assume?”
“It’s Adelheid,” he says, pleased to be back on firmer ground. The colony world floats there invitingly, and he reaches out to turn the planet round, which brings a small, please-stop-doing-that cough from the synthetic intelligence.
“That’s correct.” Adelheid shrinks, and four more worlds fade into being, connected by faint lines. “These are the only four worlds we know of in this system apart from our own.”
“Hang on…no, that’s not right,” he says, leaning forward to touch the picture again. The star of Alchibah glistens between his fingers as he swivels the imaginary camera round. “There are only five worlds? And four of them look the same?”
This appears to score a few points, and the voice sounds pleased. “You see the problem quite well for someone so ignorant.” There is a moment where no one is quite sure how to touch this. “That is, ignorant when it comes to the mechanics of stellar dynamics and the formation of planetary systems.” Kostura reluctantly agrees; he’s not sure how to design star systems beyond a vague notion that you’d need a really big thing, or possibly several of them, and then maybe you set one on fire? “Those worlds appear identical because no Vasari probes have ever reached them. Our colonization is limited to this single world; we only know of the others because orbital calculations suggest their presences. There are almost assuredly more, but those are the only four we can reach in a single jump.”
Without being prompted, the janitor makes a universal zoom-out motion—a sort of pinching gesture—and Alchibah’s comforting radiation quickly shrinks to a small red blossom, a handful of tiny spheres scattered near the rim.
“There are four more star systems in the immediate vicinity.” The image swivels to reveal two more brilliant discs, unmarred by any evidence of planets. “Propus and Golganis.”
Another turn, this one bringing a cold blue system into view. “Rotanev.”
A third turn reveals a blood-yellow system. “And Sadalsuud.”
“And we don’t know anything about them at all?” Kostura hopefully taps one of the stars, which fails to achieve anything. “I thought we had probes, other colonies, mining operations—what about the Melchior border skirmishes?”
There is another pause, this one somehow quieter than the last. Then, “All fabrications.”
“All of them?” The janitor’s mouth doesn’t quite drop open in shock—it’s freshly grown and is a little bit stiff—but it tries, recognizing a suitably dramatic moment.
“This colony was established as a resort,” the synthetic intelligence admits. “Over time, the planet grew to have no middle class, only workers and members of the High Crèches. And once the Enemy arrived…” Her voice trails off, but Kostura catches the capital letter on the word ‘enemy.’
“What exactly is the Enemy?” he asks, already mentally filing this in that same Goddamned folder.
“I don’t know.” The admission is quiet, barely a whisper.
“So who does?”
“The only Vasari who have ever seen them and returned were found drifting in a ruined hulk of a ship, the only remnant of the entire Dark Fleet. They were incapable of describing their experience.”
“And why was that?” He has to ask; to do otherwise is impossible now.
“They had been driven insane by fear.”
Kostura sits back in the chair to ponder this in the manner an Emperor might. This lasts about three seconds before he bursts forth, “So why don’t we just run?”
A quiet sigh escapes the luminous face. “Allow me a demonstration, then.” A great many of the stars on the display turn green. “This is a representation of every system inhabited by the Vasari and every system where we have placed beacons.”
Kostura is impressed. There’s a lot of green.
“Now remove every star system with which we have lost contact.”
It isn’t too hard to guess where this is going, given what’s already happened today, but it would have been extremely nice for at least some green stars to stay behind. That is, on top of the single point burning in the center of the display, which he just knows will turn out to be a certain colony world. He makes a hopeful unpinching gesture anyway, because maybe it’s actually a bunch of little dots on top of each other?
Nope. Fucking Adelheid glows cheerfully at him in the light cast by Alchibah, which he’s starting to think is a dumb name for a star.
“So, we’re basically dead, then?” Asking is just a formality by this point, honestly, and he’s already picturing a variety of unhealthy habits he could develop in the meantime.
“Not quite.” The display swivels again to reveal a swathe of untouched stars tantalizingly close to their own, leading off into the distance like—well, let’s be honest, it’s pretty much a road. Made of stars. “This is a viable escape route. By my best estimates, we could buy the Vasari another ten thousand years of life by fleeing this way and adopting a nomadic lifestyle.”
Ten thousand years does sound pretty good to Kostura. “But we can’t because why?” He has to ask; it’s always something.
The stars that had vanished before return, except now they’re red for no apparent reason. There’s a single red point sitting casually between the five untouched star systems and the escape route. It’s not doing much, really. Just chilling.
“We would have to punch through the Enemy.” She’s almost apologetic about it.
“The Enemy that eradicated the entire Dark Fleet.”
“I heard that.” The capital letters are starting to grate on his nerves. His right eye narrows.
“Up until now, we’ve been claiming the existence of other colonies because it was a convenient way to tax people more than they would be willing to pay otherwise. Give them a border war, and they’ll gladly pay for protection. But your predecessor—the real Emperor Dreth—had given up on escape. Every coin that poured into our treasury went to pay for his own pleasures while the Enemy drew nearer with every year.”
“But why couldn’t you have just taken over yourself? For that matter, why do you need me?” This has been bothering him for quite some time.
Her face, despite being formed entirely of seemingly solid light, seems to be avoiding his gaze somehow. “I’m not permitted that degree of freedom. If the Emperor’s orders contradicted my advice, I had to adopt his course of action. When you murdered him—“
Kostura winces faintly, trying not to think of the mop sitting over there in the corner.
“—I was able to administer the surgery because it wasn’t a terribly important procedure. Now you’re similar enough to the Emperor to give your own orders to me—orders which will in turn come from me.”
There is a pause where Kostura works through the implications of this, during which the synthetic intelligence helpfully flashes a diagram on the screen.
“So how long do we have before we have to run?” The five star systems on the screen linger behind his eyelids when they close, as if to say, “Good luck, motherfucker.”
“A year, perhaps. No more.” Her face bobs apologetically.
Three rows of incisors grind together in agitation, reminding him exactly how weird it is to have new teeth. He grasps the arms of the chair, lets them go, grabs them again. Glances at the mop, then at the star systems, then back into the bedroom at the wonderful bed for a change of pace. This continues for long enough that it would be tedious to write out. Go on, skip to the next paragraph.
“It’s not like I had anything else to do in the meantime,” he says in resignation, already trying to decide whether the mop is good or whether he should keep something else around to kill himself as insurance.
The face brightens, almost blinding the janitor. “Wonderful! You’ll be a legend among the Vasari,” she says, not bothering to mention that legends are not inherently good.
Kostura nods, sitting up straighter in the chair and assuming what he thinks is a heroic pose. He casts a quick glance at her face, which nods encouragingly, then reaches out to the screen, zooming in on Adelheid. “Then let’s get started.”
There is yet another pause, this one dramatic at first but quickly lengthening into melodramatic and then dying with a small whimper.
“…exactly what the fuck am I supposed to be doing again?”