“I’m tired,” the Empress sighed.
I refused to comment on her exhaustion, considering that the other Proxies and I had borne the vast burden of governing the Empire for more than a few centuries. I hadn’t even had a chance to unpack my bag from my last mission before being summoned to her. Instead, I made appropriate comforting noises and rubbed her bare shoulders until she stilled my hand with a touch.
“I’m tired,” she insisted. “Aren’t you, Caorann?” The name startled me. I’d been Proxy 701 for so long I’d almost forgotten I had one.
“I was born tired, my Empress.” The words slipped out unbidden. I never complained. My Memories kept her anchored. It helped, on the bad days, to speak the languages of her millennia-lost childhood. But I did get tired, so tired, of Remembering who else I’d been to her, reminding her who she was.
“So.” She leaned her head on my forearm, letting the word linger before going on. “How’s that rebellion you’re fomenting coming along?”
“Oh, nicely, my Empress. They’ll have the weapons they need. And the Shipwright’s Guild is abetting them adequately. Even with the outdated facilities at Station 428 they should be ready to attack by year’s end.” Not that they’d win, of course. We leaked only the tech we thought a properly-stocked rebellion should have. The soul-killing and chthonic weapons remained neatly locked away, a reminder of what we’d had to do on Earth.
“And the people support this rebellion?” She leaned back into the circle of my arms, only the light titanium frame of the chair and my heavily-embroidered formal jacket between her skin and mine.
“You did name this the Evil Empire. It was a terrible PR move.” I kept my voice dry and light.
She stifled a giggle.
“It was a perfect PR move, precious. The rebels keep us strong and alert. We would never have been prepared to meet the Ch’mod, otherwise.”
“Yes, my Empress. Your Dread Majesty. Your August Imperial Highness. Your…” She was laughing too hard to hear me, even if I had chosen to continue.
I could do that to her, me, when no-one else could. It was a thing to remember, to hold close on nights spent shipside or station-bound when the dark stretched all around me like getting lost in her eyes. I could make her laugh, cry, remember what it was to feel and be human. Small comfort, though. I remembered a time in Europa when she had promised me never again. Said she had had e-bloody-well-nough of being the gods-cursed Empress and was ready to move on.
She made it nearly fifty years, that time, before the conquering urges took her again. My Sarah, never satisfied.
I bit my mental tongue, but she was already turning to look up at me, as if she heard me. “As if.” Who was I fooling? Of course I could summon her with her true name. Didn’t I come when she called mine, no matter where I was? For a moment I suspected that the entire network of teleporters and relay devices that linked the Empire had been developed and designed only to bring me back to her.
“We could run,” She offered. “They’d never know. The other Proxies could rule. You and I could vanish into the stars. To Altana, perhaps. They’d never look for us in Vana’s Protectorate.”
For a moment, I was tempted. But I was the responsible one, the one who had to be her conscience when she swore she had none. The Empire might survive briefly, but it would inevitably totter and topple without her. I answered in the negative.
She just laughed.
“It’s a command, kitten. An imperative. We run.”
I knew better than to disbelieve; her moods might be mercurial but once she voiced a decision it was Her Law.
Still laughing, she walked toward the teleport platform, holding out her hand for me to follow, becoming less the Empress and more Sarah with every step. Ever the practical one, I grabbed my bag from the corner.
As the portal flared to life, I took a last glance around the opulent quarters that served the Empress. One of the Proxies would move in now, or several of them. Once, she promised that Proxy would be me. I tried to fix every detail in my mind as the winds of Altana whipped my hair. She never looked back, she just kept walking.