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Authors: Jody Lynn Nye

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Rhythm of the Imperium

BOOK: Rhythm of the Imperium
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Table of Contents

The Zang, an elder race of the galaxy, may be a shrinking population, but they're also intelligent, curious, and powerful. What's more, they practice a most unusual art form: they bonsai star systems. Eager to witness this first hand, Lieutenant Lord Thomas Kinago, accompanied as always by his Man Friday Parsons, sets out on a several-week jaunt to see the Zang destroy a moon to enhance the beauty of a star system. 

But the trip is sidelined when Kinago's uncle offers to take him to the seldom seen human homeworld, Earth. Unable to resist, Kinago goes along, only to find on his return that the planet he's just visited may be in danger of being eradicated. Earth lies within the protective sphere of the Zang, but enemies of the Imperium are lobbying to have Sol system turned over to them.

It is up to Kinago and Parsons to save Earth. Kinago has the key, but will he be able to persuade the Zang to spare the human homeworld before it's too late?

BAEN BOOKS BY JODY LYNN NYE

Lord Thomas Kinago Series

View from the Imperium

Fortunes of the Imperium

Rhythm of the Imperium

The Grand Tour

School of Light

Walking in Dreamland

Don't Forget Your Spacesuit, Dear

License Invoked
(with Robert Asprin)

With Anne McCaffrey

The Ship who Saved the World

The Death of Sleep

The Ship Who Won

The Ship Errant

Planet Pirates
(also with Elizabeth Moon)

RHYTHM OF THE IMPERIUM

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Jody Lynn Nye

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this bookor portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN: 978-1-4767-8091-7

Cover art by David Mattingly

First printing, December 2015

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Nye, Jody Lynn, 1957-

Rhythm of the Imperium / Jody Lynn Nye.

pages ; cm. -- (Imperium ; 3)

ISBN 978-1-4767-8091-7 (softcover)

I. Title.

PS3564.Y415R48 2015

813'.54--dc23

2015033288

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

PROLOGUE

The elder being called One Zang moved toward three more of its kind who stood on the tossing waves of a gas giant’s upper atmosphere. They all stood immersed in infinity, watching the liberated energy flowing away from them in huge glowing explosions of radiation that created shock waves felt throughout the white dwarf star’s system and beyond. One Zang enjoyed the sensation of riding the wild force through its ups and downs. It had the urge to burst forth with a wordless thought of pleasure, but reined it in. One had to retain one’s dignity.

Like its fellows, the Zang’s senses extended infinitely far away from its corporeal body. Their minds were rooted among the stars, but centered upon a diaphanous form that occupied a space one meter by three meters by 1.45 meters and excited wavelengths in the visible light scale close to the ultraviolet. Some carbon-based ephemerals from certain star systems had described its shape as a chopped-off tree trunk or a gigantic half-melted gray candle. It felt outward with its extended senses, touching the substance of its fellows, then into the deepness they were studying. The immediate space, for nine hexaprag in all dimensions, was serene. Perfection. The process had been a success. Nothing more needed to be accomplished there to bring that portion of the present universe into harmony. Its colleagues had done well. Truthfully, it could not recall a time when they did not.

The other three Zang acknowledged One Zang. The four of them contemplated the shock wave that spread out from the place where the enormous, misshapen asteroid had been. One Zang sent out a portion of its consciousness and enjoyed the sensation, riding it like a light wave until the energy was dissipated to barely perceptible vibrations. Charm Zang, leaner and taller than the others, sent a thread of inquiry.

“Do you like it?”

“You have removed a disharmonious obstruction,” One Zang replied, overspreading its colleagues with waves of shared pleasure. It received some in return.

“The transient mass interfered with the orbit of two planets in this system,” Zang Quark said. It had the most opaque form of the four. “Now, it is energy.”

“It is good.”

Low Zang interjected a wobble of dissent.

“The asteroid might have had a purpose one day.”

“It looked bad. It had to go,” Charm Zang replied. It gave off a sensation of impatience that shook them all. “See how much better it does as dark energy?”

Low Zang retreated from its stance, both physically and in spirit. It was the newest to the group, and was uncertain of its mastery of matter. One Zang noticed the withdrawal and moved to include Low Zang in the group, wrapping it in warmth gathered from the tossing inferno of the gas giant’s surface. A gathering of the usually solitary Zang was rare, so it did not want to discourage Low Zang from feeling comfortable joining such conclaves in future.

“Why pull away?” it asked. “We are a unit.”

Low Zang lowered its aura until it was nearly drawn around its physical form. “I did not mean to imply the action to change its state was wrong.”

“It is not disrespectful. If you truly disagree, then it is wrong not to offer your input,” One Zang said, kindly. “We believe in you.”

“Yes, we do,” Charm Zang said, moving close. The tall being chimed its empathy. “We could have brought any of the others into our group, but we appreciate
your
insights into harmony and artistic arrangement.”

“You do?” Low Zang broadcast its wistfulness.

“Yes,” One Zang said. It gathered the approval of the others, and focused it upon the youngster. “So much so that we are going to permit you to decide which disharmony we will dispose of next.”

Low Zang was thrilled. Its person, out to the very ends of its energy streams, glowed with joy. The art that they created was beautiful, both in physical and aesthetic terms. Low must not throw away this opportunity. It had wished to be part of this unit for many ages. Eternity would be very long if it was dismissed from the group for making a poor decision.

It studied the cosmos for hundreds of hexaprag in every direction. Over eons, the Zang had rearranged or disintegrated errant heavenly bodies that interfered with the beauty of space. Low Zang turned its attention to a sector on a galactic arm that for whatever reason had never been well-furnished with stars, planets or other artifacts. Its emptiness suggested quiet meditation. It was a place much loved by the senior Zang, but like so many things in the chaotic universe, it could be improved further. Low evinced daring, a sensation that caused its fellows to hum along in tune. One gleaming ball in particular excited its interest. Its hazy blue color was not in tune with the other spheres that circled the lone, low-quality star at the heart of its system. The planet’s placement seemed superfluous, considering the larger orbs further out. Only one satellite circled it. The moon was much too big for the planet. Whoever had permitted the out-of-proportion spheroid to continue existing had not paid attention to that detail.

“That one,” Low said, highlighting it with a tiny burst of energy. “I feel that it does not belong there. It does not add to the flow of its system.”

One Zang projected pleasure toward Low Zang.

“We have chosen well, as have you. Agreed.”

“So you approve?” Low Zang asked, hardly able to accept the notion.

“Yes,” Charm Zang said. Zang Quark added the pleasant regard of its assent and One Zang enveloped them all in the sense of unity, making Low Zang feel warm to the tips of its being. “That will be the next planet we demolish.”

CHAPTER 1

After my sixteenth spin, during which I realized I was becoming intensely dizzy, I leaped into the air, with both heels arching toward my back, then sank upon my left knee to the ground. My right leg extended with toe pointed in the direction of the sunset. My arms were crossed upon my chest, my back bowed to show that all energy was spent. The recorded music rose around me in a splendid crescendo, and I let my chin fall to my breastbone.

I waited for a moment, but the expected applause failed to materialize. I glanced up at my audience.

My cousins sat or reclined upon the various sumptuously upholstered chairs and crash couches arranged about the elegant private entertainment center of the
Imperium Jaunter
. Though each of them was dressed in the height of fashion and styled within a millimeter of their lives in the latest of sartorial, tonsorial and aureate splendor, all of them wore a uniform expression of befuddlement.

“I’m sure that was very meaningful, Thomas,” my cousin Jil said, patting a bored yawn with a slender but heavily beringed hand, “but I have no idea whatsoever what it was you just did.”

“Oh, come now!” I said, rising to my feet. A squat, cubic LAI attendant trundled up to me and offered me a towel almost glowing in its pristine whiteness from the hatch on its top side. I mopped my forehead and the back of my neck. Such was the intensity of my training for my newest art form that I scarcely had to collect any droplets of exertive moisture. That did not stop my mechanical shadow from mopping up and down the skin-tight, plum-colored bodysuit that I wore on my long frame. “That was my tribute to the final sunset we just witnessed as we departed Keinolt!”

Jil fluttered a hand and tossed back her mane of caramel-colored hair.

“Why? What is wrong with simply
saying
that it was pretty? If it was. I didn’t notice. Did anyone else notice?”

Several of my relations shrugged their shoulders.

“But merely saying so is excruciatingly ordinary,” I said, coming over to throw myself upon the couch beside hers. “I wish to evoke the special energy of the moment, to give it the importance that it deserved. Are we all so jaded by our circumstances that we pay no heed to natural phenomena?”

“Not at all,” my cousin Xan insisted. He stretched his long feet out before him, admiring the toes of his polished bronze-colored boots, which were tinted to go with the tunic counterwoven with gold that fit his muscular torso like a glove. His entire ensemble was designed to point up his natural good looks. He had thick, dark, wavy hair and almond-shaped blue eyes startling in a golden-hued face. “But, Thomas, the sun sets every day. Why draw attention to a single sunset?”

“Because,” I said, infusing my voice with as much melodrama as it could absorb without creating a distressingly cloying precipitate, “it may be the last one we ever observe on our homeworld. Has no one thought of that?”

“To be honest, no,” Erita said, toying with her wine glass. Our cousin’s long blonde hair had been swept into an updo of ridiculous elaboration, with the inclusion of a bamboo cricket cage, a cluster of bright red pinpoint lights and a golden charm featuring her monogram. “Travel via jump points has been safe for several millennia. This is the best and newest of the Imperium leisure fleet, and we are accompanied by military vessels to ensure our well-being, as is fitting for scions of the noble houses. So, I assume that I will see many more sunsets over Keinolt that rival the one we just left behind.”

“True,” I said. It was hard to argue when faced with facts. I sighed.

“But don’t be upset, Thomas,” Jil said, encouragingly. Her lovely, golden-skinned face wreathed itself with smiles. “Just because
we
didn’t understand it doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”

“Oh, I know it was
good
,” I said, dejectedly. “I wish you understood how meaningful it was.”

“I thought it was pretty amazing, my lord,” Ensign Nesbitt said, his voice hoarse with shyness at addressing me in the midst of my noble family. The big, dark-haired man seemed embarrassed to have spoken. He twisted his very large person into a series of uncomfortable postures that indicated in rapid succession abashment, discomfort, fear and admiration. I made a note of the sequence for later. It might come in handy in some of my future performances. “I never saw anyone make jumps like that outside of low-grav.”

Nesbitt and other members of the small but select crew that usually traveled with me on missions for the good of the Imperium had been assigned to accompany me to the Zang sector. The
Rodrigo
, my small naval scout ship, was bestowed in the belly of the
Jaunter
, but a full destroyer led us toward our second jump point. There would be five jumps in all, with long transits in between each. Zang space was difficult to reach, not unusual considering its inhabitants. Nesbitt and the other navy personnel sat in modestly upholstered chairs arranged at the side of the chamber as though afraid to touch the bubble of nobility for fear it might burst.

“Thank you,” I said, with a gracious inclination of my head. “But did it touch your soul?”

Nesbitt looked bemused, not an uncommon expression for him to wear. He glanced at our fellow naval personnel as if to gather wisdom from one of them. None seemed to be forthcoming.

“I think so,” he replied.

Oskelev, a white-furred Wichu and the best pilot in the Imperium Navy, shrugged her meaty shoulders. Unlike the rest of my crew, she wore only a harness to hold her viewpad and identifier patches. Her thick pelt was more protective than any clothing up to cold-weather gear, though brilliant pink nipples and other exterior genitalia protruded therefrom. All Wichu were unselfconscious about their bodies, so humanity had perforce to come to terms with their culture and customs.

“I don’t know if we have souls to touch,” she said.

“Of course you do!” I declared. “Even the least amoeba, the merest slip of grass, the most distant star has a soul.”

Oskelev put her candy-pink tongue between her lips and blew a derisive sound.

“Okay. What use do stars have for souls?”

“How do we know they don’t?” Lieutenant Anstruther piped up.

I smiled at her. The slender, quiet brunette often championed me in arguments with the others. I thought it was rather sweet of her, though I could wax loquacious on my own behalf. I prepared to launch a philosophical argument, based upon my theories of the movements of the stars through the observable galaxy.

“I’m sorry, Thomas,” said my sister Lionelle, drawing my attention away. She curled her slim legs up under the skirt of her cerulean-blue gown. Of my mother’s three children, Nell, the youngest, was the one who most resembled her: petite, small-boned, waves of soft hair framing a heart-shaped face, though her vivid brunette coloring and sapphire-blue eyes came from our father. By contrast, I had acquired our father’s physiognomy and our mother’s sea-blue eyes and sandy hair. “I’m afraid that symbolism has never been an open book, as far as I am concerned.”

“That’s not true at all,” I argued. “Language is a purely symbolic form of communication. Nothing that we say is concrete. Every word is a concept. Every phrase is a collection of action and meaning. Interpretive dance merely turns such symbolism into meaningful movement.”

“So it’s one step further removed from actually doing something,” Xan, said, looking amused.

“You have it exactly,” I said, very pleased. I knew I could count upon Xan to catch the somewhat wayward drift of my discourse. “It both obscures and reveals meaning. In this case, I am telling the story of the regret that we experience for leaving our home planet, coupled with the excitement for the upcoming spectacle we will witness at our destination.”

“Not all gathered,” said Kolchut Redius, an Uctu who was a member of my crew and possibly my best friend in the galaxy. His people rather resembled the Earth lizards called geckos, though they were human size, and their skin was coral pink with some blue scales here and there instead of green. He turned up a hand and wiggled his spatulate fingertips. “Some symbols lacking.”

“Really?” I asked, feeling my eyebrows climb high upon my brow. “What did I fail to include?”

“Deeper meaning,” Redius replied, dropping his narrow mandible in a humorous grin. “Mere description too simplistic.”

“Well, what I did present seems to be too much for the audience I have at the moment,” I said, with a pointed look at my cousins.

“Perhaps we can look at it as a game of charades,” Xan said, lying back lazily and signaling for a refill. “Look, you do another one, and we’ll try to guess what it is you are trying to get across.”

“Later,” I said. I swallowed. My throat was dry and scratchy from my exertions. “I’m parched.” I waved to a different rude mechanical, which trundled toward me with its drinks tray elevated. “Alas,” I bemoaned, as I settled back in the chaise longue with a cup of wine, “no one appreciates art these days.”

“We all admire art,” said my cousin Nalney, his broad, swarthy face widened still further with a grin. “Too bad my brother Nole isn’t here! He loves to go to all the museums and stare at dusty displays. At least you move about a bit.”

A bit
was rather insulting, as I had flung myself hither and yon in my attempts to share the dying light over the continent that cradled the Imperium Compound, our palatial home. Still, Nalney was right. Nole would have had some interesting if not intelligent musings upon my skill. It was a pity he hadn’t joined us, but he had been busy furnishing his new residence ship, a project that had taken up all his attention and disposable income for the last two years. In spite of hints and downright espionage on the part of me and my cousins, no details about the vessel had been forthcoming.

“Is there any mystical significance to your motions?” Erita asked, with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows.

I waved a dismissive hand.

“That’s so three weeks ago,” I said. “I had debunked so many superstitions by the time we returned from Nacer that there weren’t enough fun ones left to examine. Another time.”

Which, functionally, to me meant never. When I took up an enthusiasm, I embraced it with my whole person, all my time and attention and not a small amount of money. When I ceased to be enthusiastic, I tended to put away all the trappings. I always meant to go back to them, but there was always something newer and more fascinating with which I could become involved.

“Oh, I meant to mention, Thomas,” Jil began, leaning toward me. “I went to visit Uncle Rodrigo yesterday. I think he knew who I was, but perhaps he thought I was my mother. He was very sweet. He gave me this pendant.” She displayed an exquisitely wrought teardrop-shaped jewel of platinum and gold with a scattering of brilliant green gems fixed here and there that hung on a chain around her slender neck. “He sounded fine until he mentioned having just visited with Uncle Laurence. Is he getting worse?”

I hesitated before I answered. My father, for whom I had named my scout ship, was a decorated war hero whose health had been catastrophically affected by his experiences. He frequently spoke to people who were not there, especially his younger brother, who was off on some nebulous expedition or other. In any case, I know Uncle Laurence wasn’t on Keinolt, though Father frequently hallucinated that he was.

Father’s condition was a sore spot with me, as my cousins knew and were solicitous of. I had been the subject of some badinage during my school days over a visit he made during which he accused my mathematics professor of being some kind of nefarious criminal. While I agreed with him to an extent, particularly regarding the heinous character of that teacher’s pop quizzes, some of my fellow students, not my cousins but some rich incomers who thought that their fortunes elevated them to an equal rank with us nobles and who were sadly mistaken, found an impaired parent to be a figure of fun. It was that day that I discovered the school had a policy of punishing those students who challenged other students to a duel to the death on matters of honor. Ah, well, one day I would find those harassers and make such cutting remarks to them that they would drop dead on the spot from mortification, without needing to resort to physical weaponry. It was not so much a matter of my own honor, but my father’s, for which I would willingly die.

“What compelled you to learn to fling yourself about?” Erita asked. “Your dance, if I may term it such, looks absolutely exhausting. Why exert yourself in such a fashion?”

“Interpretive dance,” I said, warming to my topic with practiced ease, “is a marvelous art form. I saw a fascinating documentary on primitive cultures that tell stories through the movement of their bodies. Language, choices, symbolism. Since we are going to see a Zang demonstration, and their form of communication is notoriously difficult for younger races to comprehend, I thought I would gain insight into them with the use of body language. I undertook a study of numerous cultures, including many of our ancestral tribes, as well as those of other races, like our Uctu friends.” Here I nodded to Redius, who wrinkled his nose in his people’s substitute for sticking out one’s tongue or making a ruder gesture. “You see? Gestures and motions have profound meaning that it would serve us well to learn and possibly emulate. I rest my case.”

Lieutenant Carissa Plet rose from her place and set her glass aside. The tall, thin blonde human was the nominal head of the
Rodrigo
’s crew, though I was its actual commander, owing to my noble rank.

“Thank you for allowing us to be present, sir,” she said, fixing me with the keen gaze I had come to know and respect, if not love. “It was most educational. We must return to our other duties now.”

“Must you go?” I asked. I glanced back at my cousins, all of whom had abandoned any further interest in my performance. I offered her a hopeful look. “Do you require my presence for any of these duties?”

“No, sir.” Did I detect a hint of relief in that flat statement? Her countenance, which was nearly as capable of a stony expressionlessness as my aide-de-camp Parsons, gave me no clue. I tried to read her posture, based upon my new studies, and found little nourishment to my hunger for knowledge.

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