Which was of course exactly what had happened, there was no way that such a conversation could ever go without being subject to some form of surveillance. It was the natural order of things that secrets, no matter how great or terrible, would always find their way into the light. They'd be dragged from their soft and silent dens on the lips of conspirators and hauled into the open where they would be hunted to extinction, their remains put on display for all to gawk at. Keir's lungs dragged in an unsettled breath as the circuits connecting his eardrums to receptors hidden in the serving drone withdrew into their fittings embedded in the surrounding flesh. The sensation only lasted for a second. Nevertheless it was unpleasant, like pulling a splinter from under a nail but the discomfort was worth it. Without the implants he would have had to be in the room himself, and there was nothing less conducive to an atmosphere of free-flowing conversation than the presence of someone like him. He was able to avoid detection if the mood so struck him but only in places where his kind was expected to be. If the soiree had been nothing more than an addendum to some practically interminable official function, then he might have got away with skulking around. Everyone knew that events like that were infested with his type so they paid them no mind; they floated at the edge of conversations gathering titbits of information like fish nibbling at pellets of food. But at a full-fledged social event, where they didn't have to pretend to tolerate people they didn't like to maintain their professional reputations someone like Keir was entirely out of place. They may have allowed him to live and work in their society but he was not part of it, or if he was then it was not a part that they cared to acknowledge like the core of a verruca that had finally fallen out. Granted, he could have entrusted one of Jerrin's more socially acceptable associates (for want of a better term) to keep an eye and an ear open for anything that might have been vaguely considered pertinent. Although, given their propensity for flights of fancy and general indolence he didn't want to risk it. Besides, this was no ordinary assignment and it certainly wasn't one that the prince would have approved of: least of all because he hadn't given it the go ahead and most of all because he was its intended target. Either one of those facts would have been enough to discount the prince's regular companions from participation, but both of them together meant that they were absolute non-entities as far as the mission was concerned.
Once he stopped wincing at the pain that crawled through the soft tissues of his ears he found that without the active augmentation to his hearing the world seemed dim and distant, less real to a certain extent like a voice from a dream echoing off a pillow. Not that that was entirely a bad thing, even he needed a break from reality every now and then. Especially now. He'd had nothing to do for months other than listen to Jerrin prattle on about his plans for the throne or relay the details of said plans to the emperor. Frankly, he was getting tired of it, exhausted by it even. So much so that he actually caught himself missing the sweet oblivion that lingered at the edge of his consciousness amongst the not-quite-memories from before he'd been flushed out of his incubation chamber. That didn't last for long of course but there were times when he convinced himself that non-existence would have been preferable to shepherding secrets back and forth along the palace corridors. If his life had been worth anything perhaps he might have considered throwing himself out of a window in the central spire to put an end to the tedium but they'd just scrape his remains off the pavement, grow another version of him, superimpose a transcription of his synaptic pathways onto a fresh brain and he'd have to go through it all over again. The only difference between his previous and present lives would be that he'd remember what it felt like in that split second when his body literally exploded. Such an unpleasant thought made him feel as though he was still in the ball room, where the laughter of aristocrats rebounded off the ceiling frescoes and made crystal candelabras vibrate in agonising repetition of their attempts to out guffaw one another.
The very thought of them made his stomach churn. Their faces flushed to a crushed strawberry red by their drink, lips slick with fowl fat and eyes glazed over as though iced pastries had been shoved into their skulls. There they were gathered together, a macabre assembly of profane icons dedicated to some gluttonous, murdering god set in place to guard a shrine that was little more than an offal pit covered with an igloo of gore-splattered granite. The familiar taste of bile creeping up the back of his throat brought him to his senses. Thankfully he had not been trapped in a limbo of silicone constructs and monuments of qubits, forced to observe them forever as they gorged. He was back in the world of flesh with a cup of ginger tea steaming on the trestle table beside him. He cracked his knuckles once or twice just to be certain of his physicality and the hollow smack of his cartilage bounced back to him from between the stacks of books that dominated the emperor's sanctuary. The air conditioners stirred streams of dust along the shadow-speckled aisles and sconces daubed the walls with fluorescent splashes. The continuous wheeze of computer coolant wafted towards him from the far end of the room where screens displayed collated data in a series of stuttering images as though with every blink of their inner eyes the machines beheld a succession of new realities. How long they had been working there was no way to tell, but Keir had not seen them ever cease not even for a moment. The emperor would not allow it, their task and his was not yet done. Speaking of which, where was the old man? He asked himself and cast a shifty glance this way and that as if he were demanding an answer from the studious silence itself. No sign of him. Where could he have gone?
'Is he planning to move against Jerrin?'
Behind him evidently. Keir turned in the chair and masked his surprise by pretending to still be adjusting back to normal hearing, tugging his earlobes as though he were a jack in the process of pulling himself out of the box. Although in truth he was only half-pretending. It still felt like he'd had his head in an airlock as the pressure seal broke. It took a rare talent to sneak up on Keir and he was repeatedly amazed at how adept the emperor had become at it. Such mastery of the shadowy arts took an unusual amount of dedication. Keir had been bred for it, every muscle fibre precisely tuned for optimum poise and precision which resulted in a form so delicate that it was both beautiful and monstrous at the same time. For his inherent skill to be matched by a normal human being was almost insulting. But then he supposed that the emperor was only normal in a relative sense. 'Yes.'
Gaius knew, in a way he had always known. Not that Jerrin sought the throne (well yes that too) but that Ralph would act first to safeguard his father's life and failing that, his legacy. He had always been the better son but not the best candidate to rule. 'As he should. He'd do anything to protect me.' For all the truly genuine affection in his voice he couldn't help but be disappointed. There was far more at stake than filial obligation but in some part of his heart that hadn't been hardened beyond redemption by decades of relentless duty he took comfort in the fact that at least one his children loved him, or at least respected him, enough to want to try and save his life.
'You raised him well.' Keir supposed that his tone was reassuring, at least he meant it to be. He wondered what it was like to grow up. He never had because he had never been a child and the closest thing he had to a father was the technician assigned to ensure that the training and information encoded in his mitochondria hadn't been corrupted during his gestation. It made for rather bleak, if refreshingly trauma free recollections of his early inter-personal relations. 'I don't mean to question you but-'
That was just nonsense. 'Of course you do!' Gaius regretted the harshness of his voice, not that Keir displayed any reaction other than a curious twitch of his left eyebrow. 'You wouldn't be any good to me if you didn't doubt me.' His lips curled in a smile but his eyes did not, could not, echo it. Their metallic surfaces twinkled with nothing other than the reflected light from the wall sconces, they gleamed like pebbles tossed in the surf.
'Quite.' Keir knew that made a certain amount of sense, no one in a position of power deserved their place if they were not willing to listen to the doubts of their counsellors. They didn't have to act on them and more often than not they didn't; either way they always paid the price in the end.
'You're concerned about my decision.' That was more than understandable. Gaius wasn't entirely sure he was happy about it either, but his personal gratification wasn't a priority. He had centuries upon centuries of progress and civilisation to protect and an equal amount of wrongs to set right. The books around him contained everything there was to know about all of it and it was with them that he would strike the final fatal blow against the tyrannical terror that his predecessors had ultimately failed to slay. He was living proof of that appalling truth. 'It is the only way.'
There was no need to be so fatalistic. 'Abdication is still a possibility.'
What? Abdicate and spend the rest of his life as a topic for mocking opinion pieces until he died and became the laughing stock of imperial history? 'No, that wouldn't be enough. Besides, I wouldn't want to live knowing that I'd failed so completely.'
'Failed? You've done more in one lifetime than any man could hope.' His taxation reforms alone had redefined the boundaries of society; the agricultural programmes he'd sponsored had made sure that no citizen ever went to bed on an empty stomach; his stewardship had forever cemented the fact that education was an inalienable civil right not just a box for people to tick when they applied for jobs they wouldn't get anyway because they weren't the “right” kind of person.
Gaius looked at Keir and through him saw every man, woman and child that lived in his dominion. It was true that he had done a lot but no matter how much he tried to tell himself that he knew, 'It's not enough. I should have done more. I could have done more.' Through his death and replacement he would do more.
'You still could. You needn't sit on the throne to be an asset to humanity.' Keir was almost pleading, if he'd been one prone to or capable of outbursts of emotion he may have been on his knees tugging at the emperor's sleeves begging him to reconsider like some hausfrau in a melodrama.
'Perhaps, but more drastic change is needed than that.' Gaius would have liked nothing more for there have been a quick fix to the problem, but a lifetime of work had proved conclusively that there wasn't one. Even his current plan, if he managed to carry it out, would not achieve full fruition until long after his death.
Silence filled the room. Even the sounds of the computers faded into nothingness as the two of them reflected on the truth of the matter. The emperor was right of course, but that didn't make any easier to accept. 'This probably will not mean anything coming from someone like me but I don't want to see you die.' Keir actually meant that, a fact which almost astonished him. The old man was nothing special to him, he held no sacred place in his heart. He was just the person he'd been designed to obey, yet there was something which made him feel as though the emperor truly mattered to him. He didn't really care who sat on the throne or who commanded the legions vast that kept mankind unified as it sprawled itself across the galaxy. At least he shouldn't have done.
A clone constructed for espionage and murder developing an appreciation for something other than carrying out his orders? Gaius would have found that hard to believe but in such strange days nothing was impossible. 'Coming from someone like you, that means more than you can know.' It seemed fitting to pat the spy on his shoulder. The knowledge that that might very well have been the last physical contact that he would ever have with another human being, even a fake one, made him wish that there was still time to find an alternative solution, but there wasn't. The void from which all life sprang and to which all life returned beckoned him. Somewhere in a place beyond the ken of science and mortal men a spectre, with eyes as sharp as a lethal injection needles and phantasmal skin that clung to musty bones like a veil made from trillions of last breaths, added his name to a list written in ink made from the powered hearts of every star that had ever died.
Keir did not approve of the touch but he appreciated the gesture all the same. He stood and tugged at the cuffs of his shirt before he made his way to the door to put the next phase of the plan into motion. Before he left he turned and said, 'Thank you.' It seemed appropriate. The emperor was one of the only men he knew who treated him like real person. Keir knew that Gaius didn't entirely believe he was one, but his thoughts were irrelevant. What mattered were his actions.
Gaius understood what was going to happen next and that his remaining days on Earth were literally numbered in the single digits. 'You will take care of them when I'm gone won't you, Keir? The boys.' Obviously they were old enough to handle their own personal affairs but it never hurt to have someone like agent Olesk in the background steering them in the right direction. The not-too-distant future was going to be very trying for Ralph more than anyone else, the last thing he wanted was for his eldest son to feel like his father had abandoned him...again.
That wasn't exactly included Keir's job description, but hand-holding Jerrin through his recent schemes had been the latest in a long line of tasks hastily added to his remit. Ralph had always been more independently steadfast, his sense of self adequately adjusted to the role selected for him so he didn't imagine he would pose much of a challenge to his patience. 'I'll try.' What else could he have said?
Jerrin's plan had thus far been so excellently orchestrated that no one suspected him. If he hadn't been himself then not even he would have been able to guess what he was up to. On the off chance that anyone had actually become suspicious of him then they had no proof of his activities, and those who were in possession of such evidence had too much to lose from his failure to bother running to the custodians. If the impossible happened and he was discovered then he would just have to accelerate his timetable; he was not about to unweave his tangled web after he had spent so long constructing it thread by thread until when he closed his eyes he could trace its extent from one side of the galaxy to the other. As if nervous physical activity would force the space time continuum to yield victory to him before it was due he alternated between tapping his feet impatiently and pacing like a lunatic convinced that if he stopped then the world would fly off its axis. But for the moment it span on just as it always had and reflected in his eyes as he glanced out of the window was the crack-toothed sawblade skyline of a half-finished city on the coast of what had once been a continent so barren and ruinous that its landscape looked as though it had been blanketed with the hyperkeratotic skin of harlequin babies. Long ago in a time almost beyond memory it had been the city of pearls; a place with such wealth and power that its inhabitants controlled the destiny of the entire southern hemisphere.
From its central transportation hubs vast titanium anacondas slithered along the tracks of trans-tectonic railways and its harbours and shipyards were the spawning grounds for leviathans of steel that turned the ocean to foam in their wake. But since its integration into the global economy post-unification of humanity it had never quite regained its status as a planetary hub, which is why although it wasn't abandoned many of its more ambitious projects had been. Once buildings had reached a certain height they tapered out into the set-aside dreams of over-confident architects, left in a state of near-completion that tantalised the minds of onlookers with fantasies of what might have been. But for all the shabbiness that marred the marvels of the city Jerrin knew that it could not be discounted for much longer. Its fortunes were about to change for the better along with those of every other citizen of the empire. Once the old man was gone so too would be the haze of relentless desiccation that had penetrated right to the very heart of the Empire. No longer would the course of civilisation be determined by the pace-making stupidity of the administrative and noble houses. He would give back to humanity what it had lost. Its spirit of bold adventure, its thirst for knowledge, its lust for conquest and its drive for eventual peace.
His reflection watched its corporeal counterpart practising rhetorical gestures; if it had been capable of expressing anything of its own accord then it might have found the sight bordering on hilarious but as it was it merely mimicked the sneer of self-satisfied braggadocio splattered across his face. Jerrin paused after lowering imaginary laurels onto his head and for a moment considered peace. Every ruler worth their salt knew that it could only be obtained by preparing for war and he had done nothing but that. The beauty of it was that the war didn't even have to be real for it to take its toll. The convoys of refugee ships that arrived in greater numbers week upon week made it more than obvious that the colonies were in uproar: it didn't matter whether their home worlds were actually under attack or not, it was the fear that drove them to the brink of madness. One couldn't turn on a local newsvid without being confronted with constant torrent of strategic speculation, tactical analyses, exaggerated casualty figures and dire economic projections. That was nothing unusual to be honest, good news was not interesting or entertaining news, nor was there anything out of the ordinary about the cloying smiles the reporters tried to hide when they spouted regurgitated factoids as though they'd been the ones to invent them. It was all so charmingly amateurish that he couldn't help admire them for trying. Not a day went by that he wasn't bombarded with reports, official or otherwise, provided by soldiers and civilians who were beyond the scope of traditionally “reliable” sources. They varied in content dramatically but regardless of whatever empirical exposition they held, each and every one of them only served to confirm that the situation was becoming utterly untenable. What was the government doing about it? Without reliable interstellar communications there was no way to really know. People were crying out for strong leadership. His leadership. He knew that there would be those who would accuse him of grabbing power simply for his own ends, but that assumption could not have been further from the truth. The people’s grief was something he took to bed with him every single night and the first thing that crossed his mind upon waking. Granted, he had played no small part in causing it but that was irrelevant. He could put an end to it, that was all that mattered.
In the musty gloom of his chambers he pondered the varifocal layers of mist and smog that had draped themselves over the shattered-spear spires along the coast like clouds of lung-clogging cotton. He squinted through the fog to see if he could make out any details when a rectangle of dull yellow light appeared in the mist-wall. It had such an ethereal quality that he allowed himself to believe, if only for one gloriously ecstatic moment that his golden age had already dawned, like a Lowry landscape sculpted in gold he saw the world he would make. There would be no more killing, no more murder, an end to all war and pain. His line would rule the Empire in peace and prosperity for endless generations. But no, his optimism vanished in the blink of his heavy-lidded eyes as Keir emerged from the wash of amber light as though an emissary from some distant time had returned with dire portents of doom. It seemed that things were not to be so simple and the present was not an unfortunate memory but rather something that he would be forced to endure, if only for a while longer. But even that was too long for his taste.
'You're late.' Jerrin pulled the curtains closed with a wave of his hands. The room brightened when lamps activated themselves in response to the further diminished light, insects that began to glow as if darkness itself was their only predator.
'Good evening to you too.' To Keir the room was in an unnatural state of disarray. Jerrin had never been especially fastidious in his domestic habits but at that present moment his quarters looked like the forward camp of some scatterbrained general from one of mankind's mytho-historical pasts unsure of which barbarian tribe to subjugate next.
'Do you have anything for me?'
Keir attempted to find somewhere to sit and failed. Not a single chair, bench or other suitable perch was clear of maps, digi-slates or crumpled clothing. He resigned to remain standing, hands clasped behind his back like a disapproving prefect. 'Your brother just had a rather interesting conversation.
That was not news to Jerrin. 'My brother has many interesting conversations.' Over the years he'd listened to his brother on many occasions; it never hurt to know exactly what his older sibling thought of him. Well, maybe it hurt a little. Ralph wasn't always kind. He had quite the vicious streak when provoked. It was surprising and just a tad encouraging. Maybe they weren't so different at heart after all.
'This one was about you.' Keir dangled that fact out before the prince, waiting for him to lunge for it like a puppy catching a scrap of meat.
'Most of them are, but then all things considered I can't say I blame him for that.' How could he? Jerrin had made it his business to actively involve himself in Ralph's, after all nothing was more heartbreaking than brothers estranged.
'You probably shouldn't have given the game away so early.' Under the circumstances, and given Jerrin's propensity for not-exactly subtle innuendo, it was a miracle that Ralph hadn't moved to counter his brother's efforts long before. He had demonstrated more patience than anyone in his place could generally have claimed to. Thankfully, otherwise his father may not have had time to finalise his own designs.
'I gave him nothing more than he didn't already know or suspect. He's a lot smarter than you give him credit for.'
'That's my point.' Not only was Ralph intelligent, he'd also proven quite adept at the art of deception. The pair really were the emperor's sons, of that there could be no doubt.
'One moment please.' Jerrin gave his immediate and full attention to a computer screen as he responded to its shrill demands for interaction. He scanned the information briefly at fist expecting nothing more than some hint of rumour or intriguing speculation. What he saw instead was far more troubling; like a bluffer working his way through a repertoire of poker faces Jerrin announced, 'There was just a heavy exchange of communication chatter between the surface and several ships in lunar orbit. Admiral Worfeld has been busy it seems.'
'I was just about to inform you of that.' Keir felt unexpectedly affronted by the computer's interruption, as though in some way it believed that it could ever possibly replace him. Robots dominating heavy manufacturing, transportation and the service industries was understandable but for them to usurp his unique position was unthinkable!
'You're getting slow.' Jerrin smirked, the light from the console bathed his face with an unhallowed glow as though he were a necromancer brooding over the consequences of his latest monstrous endeavour.
'Well, it was my idea to infiltrate his personal transmission terminals.'
That struck a dim cord. 'Was it?' But Jerrin shrugged off the recollection, knowing full well that Keir was right he decided to make it sound like he was doing the spy a favour by admitting, 'That seems like something you'd think of so you're probably right.'
'I know I'm right.' Keir was careful not to place any stress on his words. Utter passivity was often the best way to respond to Jerrin when he was in one of his more antagonistic moods.
Jerrin snapped his attention away from the screen, tired of the repartee when it turned against him. 'Yes well, moving on. Is everything ready?' As the screen switched off the room grew darker, its contents sporadically illuminated by ever-growingly distant lashes of lightning that made them seem as though they were the last material fragments of the living world a drowning man saw just before infinity smothered him.
'The guests are about to leave, once they're safely away I'll issue the lock down orders.' Keir could see them know, flocking back to their burrows of marble and gold. They put mirrors everywhere of course, ostensibly to catch the light but in reality each one was placed to reflect them as the centre of their own personal universes.
'Good, if we can do this with minimum collateral damage so much the better.' Judging by the lip-curling disdain on Keir's face that might not have been possible.
'Does your brother count?'
Jerrin wouldn't even dignify that with a response. He reached for a nearby digi-slate, sat behind his desk and began to read. The back-light threw his face into stop-motion life as without so much as flicking his eyes upwards he drawled in Keir's general direction, 'It's been a pleasure as always.'
Keir's scoff was suppressed by the sound of the door panels retracting on their runners but his words were not. 'For you perhaps.'
Not even remotely. 'Let's just get this done.' A glare sent the spy scurrying off to follow his orders. When the doors closed in Keir's wake, Jerrin was left alone in the light unleashed by the receding storm front and waited for his future to begin.