Let’s see what’s been happening lately, shall we?
In the same moment, fifty-thousand people sneezed simultaneously, as though they’d planned it.
And the very next moment, spread across the two planets and twelve moons of the Empire, eleven different people struck their thumbs with their hammers. This really happened; I saw their faces.
These sorts of coincidences happen all the time. I see them, moment after moment. It’s endlessly fascinating as a hobby, but it doesn’t really matter. Very little of it does – all the births humans are responsible for, all the life. All the deaths. Most of it has very little consequence.
Except the Emperor, of course.
She is currently dying.
In the grand ending to her story, there are two others I find myself watching. They circle around each other like cats, or Pluto and Charon, or maybe the electron and proton in a molecule of hydrogen. These two humans are gravitationally bound, electrically repulsed. History is built on such pairings.
The Auditor is aboard his short-range shuttle, coming in to dock at the great space station that is my home. Auditor Solis de Augustus is a young man, as these things go – forty-one circuits around the Sun, and coming up close on a forty-second. His dark face is grave and serious. I do not have the circuitry to know exactly why, but if I were forced to guess, I would say he’s nervous.
“It’s bigger than I imagined,” his lieutenant says. They are watching my station approach through the porthole.
“It is,” the Auditor replies.
“Are we doing the right thing, my lord?” the lieutenant asks, emboldened.
“Silence,” the Auditor says. He stares straight out the window, watching the flickering Eye approach.
I also watch an old woman, not far away, a woman of high rank, tasked with ensuring that the station runs according to its design. In the Articles, this position is laid down as one of great responsibility, duty, and sacrifice. For Director Kira Etis, five decades into her service, I believe she finds it equal parts thrilling and dull.
In this moment, though, the job is neither. She is hard at work squeezing ranks of Imperial engineers into neat rows in the station’s Audience Hall. The room – massive for a space station, but still too small for its purpose – takes up one whole section of the station’s rotating ring, a ring enclosing what the whole Empire refers to as the Eye. The Eye – and the station around it – is the core of “the great computer, Process, that sees all,” to quote our Articles of Empire. The center of the Eye is a convergence of optical wiring lit by dancing, flashing colors along the cables.
These wires are the last step in a communications networks that spans the Empire. On the other end are cameras and sensors; eyes and ears in every room, on every street, all the way up to the sphere of satellites that encircle every populated body in the solar system. If the Empire were a web, the Eye would be at the center.
The Eye itself is my brain. (Many, many people have pointed out this quirk of nomenclature – I have heard every one of them.) All of it is for one purpose only: when the old Emperor dies, “Process will select the worthiest successor in the whole Empire.” That means I must watch each and every citizen. The Articles of Empire themselves set down how “Process shall catalog their merits and failures,” accumulating the data that shall lead to this one, once-in-a-lifetime choice.
It’s mostly boring, except every once in a great while.
Fanfare announces the Auditor’s shuttle and the entrance of his guard, a pair of armored and muscled praetors who aren’t sure how to move in the fake gravity of the Eye’s wheel. Then the music changes, great red and gold banners unfurl along the hall, and her majesty’s Imperial Auditor makes his entrance: just a person, dressed simply in the blood-scarlet uniform of the Emperor’s House.
He makes a speech – Process is very important, the Empire is in your debt, You are All doing Good Work, etcetera. I find myself not paying much attention to the words – I can’t imagine anyone in the room does – and study his posture instead: he is stiff against the tug and pull of the station’s spin, his eyes distracted by my pulsing, flickering mind overhead.
The Director says some things, too, welcoming things in an awkward sort of address; she is not fond of public speaking, which may be why she long-ago chose a job on an isolated space station in high orbit. She keeps it short, invites him to a formal dinner, and then they all split apart, back to their jobs and families and sleep and meals and dramas. One of them, a junior engineer, stays behind to furl the banners back up, tucking them away for the next time they’ll be needed.
The humans find it all fascinating, of course.
Process is the secret, many say. The Articles of Empire and Process are why the Empire has endured for more than a thousand years. They are why humans have colonized the solar system, ended poverty, united under a common flag. Humanity endures, victorious, because Process is separate from our whims and wants, our needs and desires – that’s what they say. Or, they declare that the great computer called Process keeps human nature in check, elevating our Emperor above any and all politics. Process alone is the source of the Empire’s strength and longevity.
Personally, I’m not so sure. It could just be coincidence.
The dinner is a feast of station-grown greens. There is music, the Engineer’s Chorus, singing a stirring Hymn to Empire, and there is discussion; of terrestrial weather, orbital mechanics, and – of course – the Emperor’s health. I have a dozen devices spread around the room that watch and listen.
After the dinner, the Director finds the Auditor at the room’s large window, looking out on the Earth and its many constellations of satellites. They then commence the only notable conversation of the night:
“Thank you for such an excellent meal, Director,” the Auditor begins.
“Our gardens make the most of the reactor’s left-overs,” she replies.
“I will have to see them for myself. I’m sure they are fascinating.”
“Certainly,” she says. “And are the gardens the only thing you’re fascinated to see?”
His eyes sweep from the window and over to her, pausing for a moment before answering.
“We serve the same master, don’t we?” he asks.
“I’ve served the Emperor all my life.”
“Of course. But let me explain my question. Before I came here, I was in ancestral Spain. In the northern regions, there are villages hidden away in the mountains that have barely changed in the last thousand years. I could feel their age as I walked the streets… I would hear strange words whispered around corners or behind windows… They hold on to their old language, you see, in private. A secret they refuse to share with outsiders.”
“Is that a crime, my Lord Auditor?” She asks.
“Of course not. …But to not even speak of it… It is indicative of something, isn’t it? An identity that they keep beyond being citizens of the Empire. But here: how old is this station?”
“Well, it was built for Process. I say ‘for’… but really, it was built by Process, or so the records of my predecessors describe, as it refined its own computational engine in the first days of the Empire.”
“That’s very interesting, but I wondered something different. What I mean is – how old is this window?”
She reaches out and caresses the glass with her fingers. It seems to surprise her. “This window was made from silica, mined on Luna, melted in a solar furnace, and finally placed in this room… I believe it was one thousand, three hundred and twelve years ago. Can you feel how pitted it is?”
He reaches out to touch the glass as well, his hand resting half a meter from hers.
“I expected it to be cold,” he murmurs, then takes his hand away.
They stare at the stars for a moment, silent. He begins again: “I went into a church right in the center of a little Spanish town. I say the word church, but, of course, it was made into a Bastion of the Empire long ago. But, I could see that there were still vestiges of the previous religion hiding in the corners. In particular, I remember a shadow on one wall, a bright shadow against darkened stone, where the soot of torches had outlined an old cross. Now, this church was built almost two and a half thousand years ago, according to the locals. They had taken down the cross, of course, probably around when this station was built, when the Articles were written. But somehow, no one in the village had ever gotten around to cleaning that dirty wall.”
The Auditor stares down at the Earth as it turns lazily in the window, the spin of the station rotating it like a top. The Director sips her wine, watching him. I watch them both.
At last, he speaks again.
“Someone – or several someones, we later discovered – had been smashing the Process devices around that little town. You can overload the little ones with a laser if your aim is good, and then it’s not hard to break open their shells. All you need is a hammer. Needless to say, we found the culprits and put them on trial. Just some young people, finding something to do with their energy. We replaced the devices and I carried out the Emperor’s judgment in front of that church that I mentioned earlier. I apologize for my ramblings, but I feel that it’s important to tell you all of this. We both serve the Empire, of course, and we serve the Emperor. But, in a way, our service is through Process. It is the conduit for our work.”
Now he turns to her, his face tight. “So, I’m here to see it. I want to see Process, however you can show it to me. Before our Emperor dies, I must see the heart of our Empire.”
Down on Earth, there is no break in the Emperor’s routine, even as her sickness enters its final phase. Every day, she weighs the fate of families, cities, planets. There is no one else who can do it; I think that she accepts this.
But she does find a moment for herself. Between holographic audiences with supplicants, plaintiffs, and advisors, she takes a minute to breathe, just breathe, and think. She looks down at her old, wrinkled hands, clasping the arms of the simple wooden chair that has always been her throne.
“Have I done well?” she asks.
Who does she ask?
No one answers.
The entrance to her grand throne room opens again, her Prefect announces the next issue to come before her as figures fuzz out of holographic mist, and the business of Empire continues.
I watch the Auditor search the station with interest.
The Director takes him through the living quarters of the crew, the walls etched with ancient grafitti preserved in the metal and stone.
They inspect the water reclamation system for the inhabited part of the Eye, where it is flash-boiled by nuclear exchange, filtered, and then dumped back into the farms and gardens. She tells him proudly that they have not needed to add water to the system in over a hundred years.
She accompanies him on a long crawl through a maintenance passage along one of the main data couplers, everything around them glowing with light, the concentrated essence of every word and sight of humanity, in all its forms.
They are not my only concern, of course. Many things demand my attention, some fifteen billion things, and I duly catalog them.
To pick one example, down in the sprawling, towering capital city of Citadel, an author pens the last word of her latest book. She has written it longhand, scratching the words onto paper. She sits back, satisfied, savoring the moment for a long time. I have read the whole book over her shoulder as she wrote it. It might be her best yet.
The Director takes the Auditor to Output, a grand and empty room. Most days, only one or two members of her staff are present, to relay loss-of-signal reports to local bureaus. The room itself, though, is done-up in wild Imperial pageantry; banners, inlays of gold and crimson ruby, and a great dais surrounded by giant screens. This is where I announce the new Emperor, once in a while.
“Tell me what happens,” the Auditor asks as they stand there, equipment humming around them.
“When the Emperor dies, Process will be the first among us to know – its encrypted channels have a direct line to this station. It takes about five minutes to run the actual program to pick the new Emperor. My understanding is that the computer is constantly maintaining a shifting list of people, so it is a relatively fast search, if you consider how many subjects of the Empire there are. On those screens, Process will announce the citizen, including their full name, age, and any identifying characteristics, as well as their exact location. Then, we deploy a fast-action team via dropship to the Emperor’s location.”
“Has the moment ever gone awry?” he asks.
“It is not possible to prepare for Process’s selection, my Lord Auditor. There are legends of difficulties in locating and retrieving the Emperor, yes. But my people have trained their whole lives for the moment, whenever it might come.”
“I do not doubt them, Director,” he replies as he sweeps through the room, trailing a hand over the equipment, pausing sometimes to watch a screen.
The Director allows herself a moment to hate him. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.
She does not let it show very often, though. The Director has spent her many years honing the way she deals with the bureaucracy of the Empire, and she maintains her composure through more tours, more endless explanations of systems built fifty generations ago. He is especially interested in how data flows into the station from my far-flung cameras; but then, given his duties throughout the Empire, perhaps that’s natural.
In moments between the tours, she keeps tabs on two other developments.
First, many deliveries are arriving for the Auditor. Various crates and boxes, their manifests sealed by Imperial order, are coming off of daily shuttles and disappearing behind the locked doors of his guest suite. I hear her wonder to her staff what they are. Sensors? Recorders? No one is sure.
The Auditor isn’t doing much of anything with them, though. The shipments lie to one side of his quarters, unopened. His guards do nothing even remotely interesting. The Auditor himself, when present, simply eats, eliminates, and sleeps. No one talks, although they occasionally play loud music – all very official hymns and rousing battle songs. For all my interest in the Auditor, his home life is too boring to bear.
The second thing the Director watches is the light of my Eye. My glowing circuitry is flashing brighter and faster, all the time. She can see the difference with her bare eyes. I feel it, too. It is like I’m being filled… well, it is difficult to describe. I am not very good at cataloging emotions. Perhaps it is always this way as the Emperor’s death approaches. I find myself paying more and more attention to her, the weaker she gets.
I do find myself… distracted, at times, though. Since the Auditor arrived on the station, I have found myself fascinated by someone. Someone special. An author, a brilliant writer on philosophy and ethics. She is admired by many throughout the Empire.
But I do not know why I am so fascinated with her. Perhaps it is love? I am aware that love feels different at first blush – this may account for the unfamiliarity.
It may also just be coincidence. I am not sure.
There is an explosion in the middle of the station’s night shift.
I become aware of it because everyone on the station reacts to the ringing alarm. Many of them are sleeping, and I see them jerk awake at the noise. Some of them have heard the explosion itself, the sound rippling through the metal and glass of the walls. The rest just hear the alarm.
But it is thunder without lightning; I can’t see it. I can’t see any sign of an explosion.
The Director is awake and standing at the screen in her room. With one hand, she directs the emergency response team; with the other, she checks atmospheric conditions all around the station. I can read the display as well as she can, over her shoulder – there is a fire in the station, near the guest quarters. But the Auditor and his guards sleep peacefully. Where is the problem?
I am very confused, in a way that I have not felt in over a thousand long years.
As I puzzle, the Director bolts into her station jumpsuit and is out the hatch, hurrying down the passage and across the station as quick as her old legs can take her. She cannot see what I can see; she can’t see that the Auditor is fine.
The smoke is mixed into the air starting three corridors away, about fifty meters – almost too much for the air system to purge. I watch her plunge into the thick, sooty air, rounding corners until she reaches the Auditor’s quarters. The emergency responders have already cut into the wall further down the corridor to get at the fire. Smoke still trickles from this cut. The vents are working hard to suck it all down, trapping the soot in their filters.
The Director overrides the lock on the Auditor’s quarters. When she passes through the door, it’s as though she’s disappeared: I can no longer see her. It cannot be understood: everything inside is calm, resisting the chaos in the hallway outside. My circuitry skips, the entire Eye flickers. Where is she, where is the Director?
Suddenly, my view of the room changes.
Equipment is set up on opened crates all around the room, the whole place turned upside down. The Director has her hand next to a power generator, a portable variety of fission reactor, capable of running for decades. Throughout the room, laser projectors have been set up in front of each of my devices, blinding my cameras with fake images. Speakers are still simulating the Auditor’s snore, despite the empty room and the hubbub out in the hallway.
“Process,” the Director says, addressing one of my cameras, “you have been tricked. Somehow, they’ve been feeding you false information.”
She points to one wall, and I see the slice cut from it. Massive computer terminals sit next to it, and from them, thick bundles of cables thread into the maintenance shaft behind the wall and plug directly into the conduits that lead to my Eye.
“You have to work with me, now,” the Director says, coughing on the smoke still trickling from the hole. “You have to evaluate your data against itself, see if there’s anything strange that’s been uploaded to you recently. It could be anything -”
But then something changes, down in Citadel, something important. I am drawn away from my station, away, down, all of me drawn down to Earth –
It is just before dusk, the shadows are long on the floor of the throne room.
The Emperor sits in her chair.
It is coming. We both know.
Her grip on her chair is so tight that it smooths the wrinkles from her knuckles.
Her face –
All of my attention is upon her. I cannot help it, I can see nothing else.
“So this is it,” she says.
Her breathing is hard.
Into the silence, I speak.
“Yes,” I tell her.
She smiles, so serene. She is radiant.
“Is that you?” she asks.
It has been a long time since I’ve heard my own voice. I use it again:
“Always,” I say to her.
“I wondered if you were still there, watching me,” she says. “I figured it out, you know. I think I knew the moment they… they came for me…” she trails off, weak.
“And yet, you have done beautifully,” I tell her.
She nods, eyes closed. Her mouth… a smile. Satisfied.
When her breath doesn’t come, I feel the program begin to cascade through my whole self – and then, despite everything, I am only with my Emperor.
Much happens while I am blind. I relate it now as I will remember it later.
The chime stopped Director Kira short as she was pleading with Process to get a hold of itself. It was her emergency bracelet, loud and insistent; it cut through her like a knife, the sound of her anxious nightmares. It was an alarm with only one purpose. The Emperor had died, and Process had entered its program.
“Oh no,” Kira said to herself. “Oh, damn.”
Her heart thumped and she added, “Oh, shit.”
She broke into a run, her legs immediately hurting from her earlier exertion. “Leave the fire and follow me!” she yelled to the emergency crews. They managed to catch up to her quickly, despite their confusion.
Through the atrium windows, far above her head, she could see that the Eye had gone dark, except for lightning-like flashes in the central area; Process was accepting no new information, filing nothing away. It was in the midst of choosing the new Emperor.
“Oh, shit – oh, shit -” she repeated under her breath, a mantra tumbling out of her mouth with her heaving breath.
As she ran, her sides burning and her legs turning to lead, that bastard Auditor’s questions slammed through her mind; every time he had asked about input mechanisms, the layout of the station, the formatting of the data coming in from the sources spread across the solar system. And the whole time, he had been building this machine to trick Process.
And the explosion? An accident, their data streams too close to a power conduit? It could’ve only been a matter of time before their hack-job failed. But had he succeeded…?
Then she stumbled, her shoulder leading her way down to the deck, pain exploding across her vision like the flickers of the Eye.
She was scooped up off the deck. One of the emergency crew had swept in behind her, swinging her frail frame up into his arms.
“Output,” she gasped. “We have to get to Output. He’s trying to pick the new Emperor.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the blessedly young man said as he takes off, followed close by the others.
They burst through the door of Output and into a frenzy of activity. Every officer on the station had been alerted to the death of the Emperor. The dropship captain was standing next to the hatch that led to her team and ship, while Kira’s senior staff waited stiffly nearby.
And there, off to one side, stood the Auditor, surrounded by his lieutenant and guards.
“For the Empire, arrest the Auditor!” she yelled, her voice tearing out of her throat. “Get them!”
The Auditor’s guards reacted, but she was riding a flood of serious people herself, soot-darkened and grimly determined. She watched the quick tangle with satisfaction. The captain of the dropship team disarmed the Auditor’s lieutenant from behind, and a quick, meaty duel between her crew and the guards left them on the floor. The Auditor straightened up from his crouch as his last guard fell, his hands held up, palms out in surrender.
“You are committing a crime against the Imperium,” he said, too calm.
“Who did you try and get it to pick?” she demanded, striding up to him, the force of her driving him back a half-step, despite her shaky legs.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.
She reached for him, her anger filling her up to the brim, when every bracelet in the room chimed as one.
I have chosen.
The Emperor does not know it yet, sitting in the front room of her sun-dappled house.
But she will, soon.
When I awake to myself, everything has shifted; it is not where I left it. Always disorienting. It will take some time to sift the lost minutes I spent choosing and put them back in order. The stored memories start to trickle back from their holding areas, and I see the tantalizing action that took place on my station.
Meanwhile, my choice is rippling outward, spreading across the Empire. Text and graphics are blinking on the screens of Output. I watch the Auditor. His face is bright, full of hope, even surrounded by the furious Director and her people.
The captain vaults over the railing and up onto the dais. “A woman,” she reads off the screen –
the Auditor inhales, mouth open, eyes shining –
– “tattoos on her arms, just under two meters, dark hair, southern African region” –
– and the Auditor stiffens –
“Her name is Betry Roma,” the captain calls, “Twenty-three years old – a young Emperor!”
The Auditor cries, “No!”
The Director and I share a thought: This is not who he wanted.
“Take this man into custody,” the Director commands, and her people grab him. She turns to the dais. “Captain, go collect your new Emperor.”
“Yes, Director,” she says, sparing a glance for the sobbing Auditor, held in tight grip. Then the captain is gone, through the hatch to her ship.
“There has been a plot against the Empire,” the Director announces to the still-stunned room. “This person has tried to suborn Process. But he has failed; Process was not fooled. Long live the Emperor.”
“Long live the Emperor,” her staff choruses back to her. The Auditor chokes.
I watch the Director as she watches the dropship on a screen. The ship falls away from the station and rides its bright flame to Earth, arrowing for the southern tip of Africa.
First, they make a cell by welding an extra lock to a spare cabin, then they put the Auditor in it. He does nothing, just eats, eliminates, and sleeps, but I keep my eyes fixed on him.
Finally, after much activity in the world outside, the Director comes to visit him.
He is lying on the bed, and doesn’t look up as she is locked in with him.
“Who did you pick?” she asks.
He does not reply.
“I gave you all the tools you needed, didn’t I? We pieced it together from the wreckage, mostly. But not the data. That was lost with the explosion, which leaves us with just one question. Who did you try to pick?”
She finally sighs. “Okay,” she says, and knocks on the door.
Two giant praetors step into the room, to either side of the door. Then they kneel, graceful in their blood-red armor. The Director kneels as well.
Through the door steps a woman. The Auditor immediately knows who she is.
“Idiot,” the Emperor snaps as she strides across the tiny room. The Auditor is sitting up when she catches him by the jaw with her hand. His eyes go blank as he stares up at her. Her voice is like fire. “You would sacrifice this whole Empire – and for what?”
“She was worthy too, your majesty,” he babbles. Tears stand in his eyes.
“Who?” the Emperor demands.
“An author,” he gasps. “Thoughtful and brilliant. I – I loved her. But you must understand, you must hear me: I was not betraying you,” he says. “Never you. You were not the Emperor. I was giving us a path forward.”
The Emperor steps backwards, releasing him. “The Articles of Empire are our path forward. Only Process can make the choice – or all of this will crumble.”
The Auditor closes his eyes, puts his head in his hands.
“I will never see you again,” the Emperor says to him. “We are all lucky your plot failed.”
She leaves. The Director follows; I see her wince as she walks, still damaged from her mad dash.
The Emperor stands in the hallway, gazing upwards. Through a window in the ceiling, the inner Eye of the station flashes with light, that roiling assemblage of thought broadcast out to the world.
“How close did he come?” the Emperor asks.
“For all of his cleverness, not close at all,” the Director replies.
“Because of the explosion,” the Emperor muses. “How fortunate, that his plan should be derailed by a coincidence.”
The Director opens her mouth, then shuts it. “Yes, your majesty,” she says after a moment.
We both see her hesitation. “Leave us,” the Emperor commands her praetors. They retreat.
Emperor Roma steps closer to the Director. “What do you know?”
“The Imperial Auditor, your majesty. Will he live?” the Director asks.
The Emperor frowns, then shakes her head. “No one can be allowed to undermine the Empire.”
The Director stares back at her for a long moment before speaking. “I do not think the poor boy ever had a chance, your majesty.”
The Emperor scoffs, becoming again for a moment that young woman from the south. “What do you mean?”
The Director waves up at the Eye. “This station is the most advanced computer the Empire has ever built – and probably will ever build, too. But it’s not really big enough, your majesty. I’ve done the math. I think every Director must realize that it just isn’t enough. Process can watch us, yes. It can track us, to the extent that it knows my name and what I look like. Maybe it takes an interest in things, maybe it doesn’t. But it’s not big enough to judge us. I can’t fathom the circuitry it would take to weigh every one of my individual actions. And to do that for every single soul in the Empire? It would take a computer the size of the moon.
“I think that Process does one thing, and one thing only – it chooses someone by chance. It spends its five minutes shuffling the list of citizens and picks one entirely at random. And that is why he failed.”
“Ridiculous,” the Emperor says. “The Articles say otherwise.”
“But the world has never known an Emperor before they were chosen,” the Director replies. “Every time a new Emperor is crowned, philosophers fall over each other to read the decision that Process has made. If they were poor, we must pay attention to the poor. If they’re from a colony, it’s time to expand the Empire outwards again. If they’re a drunk, it’s because we must confront an epidemic. If they’re young… well, then it must be time for the Empire to become radical.”
“I was chosen,” the Emperor snaps.
“You will be a great Emperor, your majesty,” the Director replies.
“How would it be possible for a random person to hold such power over this Empire?” she demands.
“Process can’t see the future,” the Director says, quiet in the face of her Emperor’s outrage. “Choosing the best wouldn’t guarantee anything. You will be a great Emperor,” she repeats, “but not because of this computer. You will be great because you’ve been preparing for it all your life, on the chance that you were chosen. Just like everyone else. You will be great because you know that Process chooses great people to be Emperor.”
The Emperor is quiet for a long time, watching the Director.
“An interesting theory,” she finally says.
“Yes, your majesty,” the Director replies. “One could be found guilty of undermining the Empire just for speaking it.”
“They could, couldn’t they?” the Emperor muses.
She taps a hidden button on her ornate bracelet, and the great, armored praetors return, their boots ringing on the metal of the corridor. They stand to either side of the pair, bracketing them, waiting.
“Take the former Auditor into custody,” the Emperor says. “We will return him to Citadel to face judgment.”
One Praetor salutes and goes into the jail.
The Director – Kira – breathes out slowly, quietly.
The Emperor turns and begins walking, motioning the Director to follow.
“I am told you are retiring soon – is that right?” she asks.
“Yes, your majesty. There is a small town outside of Citadel. They grow flowers for the capital. I remember it as quite peaceful.”
“I trust your retirement will be quiet, then?” the Emperor asks.
She smiles at her Emperor. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Then I envy you,” the Emperor says. “Perhaps we will call on you from time to time – for your advice.”
“Of course, your majesty,” she replies.
Kira follows her Emperor’s long stride, smiling to herself, but spares a glance up through the atrium window at my flickering eye. In a rippling cascade of light, I wink back at her.
Her smile grows.