Chapter no 2 – Like Distant Thunder

Empire of Silence

THE NARROW WINDOWS OF Gibson’s cloister cell stood open, looking twelve stories down upon an inner courtyard where servants tended the topiary in the rock garden. White sunlight streamed in from an eggshell sky, casting highlights on the clutter in Gibson’s study.

The walls were given over to bookshelves stuffed so to bursting that they leaked paper onto the floor like snow, the sheaves fallen amid piles of yet more books. Some shelves held racks of crystal storage and spools of microfilm, yet all of these were outnumbered one hundred to one by Gibson’s books.

The scholiasts read.

Technological injunctions filed against their order for long-ago heresies forbid the scholiasts unfettered access even to the limited technologies permitted Imperial houses by the Earth’s Holy Chantry. They were allowed only the pursuits of the mind, and so books-which are to thoughts as amber to the captured fly-were their greatest treasures. And so Gibson lived, a crooked old man in his flattened armchair, taking in the sunlight. To me he was a magus out of the old stories, like Merlin’s shadow cast forward across time. It was all that knowledge which stooped his shoulders, not the passing of years. He was no mere tutor but the representative of an ancient order of philosopher-priests dating back to the founding of the Empire and further, to the Mericanii machine-lords, dead these sixteen thousand years. The scholiasts counseled Emperors; they sailed into dark places beyond the light of the Suns and on to strange planets. They served on teams that brought new inventions and knowledge into the world and possessed powers of memory and cognition beyond the merely human.

I wanted to be one, to be like Simeon the Red. I wanted answers to all my questions and the command of things secret and arcane. For that reason I had begged Gibson to teach me the language of the Cielcin. The stars are numberless, but in those days I believed Gibson knew them all by name. I felt that if I followed him into the life of a scholiast, I might learn the secrets hidden beneath those stars and travel beyond them, beyond even the reach of my father’s hand.

Hard of hearing as he was, Gibson did not hear me enter, and so he started when I spoke from behind his shoulder.

“Hadrian! Earth’s bones, lad! How long have you been standing there?”

Mindful of my place, that of the student before his teacher, I performed the half bow my dancing master had once taught me. “Only for a moment, messer. You wanted to see me?”

“What? Oh! Yes, yes . . .” The old man noted the closed door behind me and tucked his chin against his chest. I knew the gesture for what it was: the deeply ingrained paranoia of the palace veteran, the impulse to check for camera drones and bugs. There should be none in a scholiast’s cloister, but one could never be sure. Privacy and secrecy: the true treasures of the nobility. How rare they were, and how precious. Gibson fixed one sea-gray eye on the brass fixture of the doorknob and shifted languages from the Galactic Standard to the gutturals of Lothrian, which he knew none of the palace servants understood. “This should not be said. There are orders, understand? It is forbidden to speak of it.”

That held my attention, and I seated myself on a low stool, pausing only to displace a stack of books. Matching my tutor’s Lothrian, I said, “It’s a mess in here.”

“There’s no correlation between the orderliness of one’s work space and that of its mind.” The scholiast flattened his flyaway gray hair with one hand. It didn’t help.

“Is not cleanliness next to godliness?” I struggled with the strange language. The Lothrians had no personal pronouns, recognized no identity. I had heard their people did not even have names.

The old man snorted. “Lip today, is it?” He coughed softly, scratching one bushy sideburn. “Well, enough. This news won’t wait. It was received last night, else it would have been shared sooner.” He sucked in a deep breath, then said in measured tones, “There’s a retinue from the Wong-

Hopper Consortium due here within the week.”

“Within the week?” I was so stunned I forgot my Lothrian for a moment and said, “How is it I’ve not heard?”

The scholiast eyed me seriously along the crook of his nose and replied in Lothrian, “The QET wave only arrived a few months ago; the Consortium diverted from its usual trade routes to make the trip.” What Gibson said next, he said without preamble, without softening. “Cai Shen was hit. Destroyed by the Cielcin.”

“What?” The word escaped me in Galstani, and I backpedaled, repeating myself in Lothrian. “Iuge?”

Gibson just kept looking at me, his eyes intent on my face as if I were an amoeba in some magi’s petri dish. “The Consortium fleet received the telegraph from the Cai Shen system just before the planet fell.”

Strange, isn’t it, how the greatest disasters in history often feel hollow and abstract, like distant thunder? A single death, wrote one ancient king, is a tragedy, but a genocide can only be understood through statistics. I had never seen Cai Shen, had never left my own homeworld of Delos. The place was only a name. Gibson’s words carried the weight of millions, but my shoulders carried none of it. Perhaps you think me monstrous, but no prayer or action of mine could bring those people back or quench the fires on their world. Nor could I heal every man and woman mutilated by the Chantry. Whatever power I had as my father’s son stretched only so far, and only so far as he allowed. Thus I took the news without eulogy, my initial shock ebbing into numb acceptance. Then something deeper, something cold and pragmatic, took hold of me, and I said, “They’ve come for a new source of uranium.” I sounded like my father.

The scholiast’s ghost-trace of a smile told me I was right even before he admitted it. “Very good!”

“Well, what else could it be?”

Gibson shifted noisily in his seat, groaning from some complaint of time. “With Cai Shen destroyed, House Marlowe becomes the largest

licensed supplier of uranium in the sector.”

I swallowed, leaned forward to rest my chin on my folded hands. “They want to make a deal, then? For the mines?” But before Gibson could form an answer, a darker question settled on me, one I couldn’t ask in Lothrian, and instead I whispered, “Why wasn’t I informed of this?” When Gibson did not respond, I remembered his earlier remark and breathed, “Orders.” “Da.” He nodded, trying to pull me back into Lothrian.

“Specifically?” I sat back sharply. “He said not to tell me, specifically?” “We were instructed not to share the news with anyone not cleared by the propaganda corps or without the archon’s countenance.”

I stood, and forgetting myself, still spoke in Galstani. “But I’m his heir, Gibson. He shouldn’t-” I caught the scholiast glaring at me and returned to Lothrian. “This sort of thing should not be concealed.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, my boy. Truly I don’t.” He switched smoothly to Jaddian, glancing out the window as a maintenance worker ascended on a scaffold past stained glass in the shadow of a buttressed wall. If I craned my neck I could almost see the vast gray expanse of the Apollan Ocean beyond the curtain wall, stretching east to the bending of the world. “Just keep acting like you know nothing, but prepare yourself. You know what these meetings are like.”

Frowning, I sucked on the inside of one cheek, and following his language change, said, “The Cielcin, though? They’re sure it was a raid?”

“I saw the attack footage myself; the Consortium broadcast the last news packets from Cai Shen along with their visit announcement via the wave. Your father had Alcuin and myself up all night reviewing with the logothetes. It was the Cielcin, no mistake.”

We sat there a long while, neither one moving. “Cai Shen’s not in the Veil,” I said at last, referring to the frontier beyond the Centaurus Arm of the galaxy comprising the bulk of the war front against the Cielcin. I looked down at my hands. “They’re getting bolder.”

“Latest intelligence says the war’s not getting better, you know.” Gibson turned his misty eyes away from me again and looked out the window and across the deliberately antique merlons and purely symbolic ramparts that hemmed in my family’s house. The servant was still out there, polishing the glass by hand.

Again silence reigned, and again I broke it. “Do you think they’ll come here?”

“To Delos? To the Spur?” Gibson eyed me pointedly, bushy brows contracting. “It’s nearly twenty thousand light-years from the front. I’d say we’re safe for now.”

Still in Jaddian, I asked, “Why does Father insist on keeping secrets from me? How does he expect me to rule this prefecture after him if he won’t keep me involved?” Gibson did not answer, and as it is the peculiar nature of youth to be deaf to silences, I did not take his meaning or see the answer presented there. I forged ahead, caught in the gravity of a question I could no longer shake: “Does Crispin know? About the Consortium?” Gibson gave me a long, pitying look. And then he nodded.

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