Tyche, the jewel of Mercury, hunches in fear between the mountains and the sun. Her famed glass and limestone spires are dark. The Ancestor Bridge is empty. Here, Lorn au Arcos wept as a young man when he saw the messenger planet at sunset for the first time. Now, trash rolls through her streets, pushed by salty summer wind. Gone are the calls of the fishmongers at the wharf. Gone are the patter of pedestrian feet on the cobbles and the rumble of aircars and the laughter of the lowColor children who jump from the bridges into the waves on scorching summer days when the Trasmian sea winds are still. The city is quiet, its wealthy already gone to desert mountain retreats or government bunkers, its soldiers on its rooftops watching the sky, its poor having left for the desert or upon cramped boats destined for the Ismere Islands.
But the city is not empty.
Huddled masses fill the public transit systems that wend beneath the waves. And in the upstairs window of a tenement complex on the ugly fringes of the city, far from the water, where the working poor are kept, a little girl with Orange eyes fogs the window with her breath. The night sky sparks. Flashing and flaring with spurts of light like the fireworks her brother sometimes buys at the corner shop. She’s been told there is a battle between big fleets high up there. She has never seen a starship. Her mother lies sick in the bedroom, unable to travel. Her father, who builds parts for engines, sits at the little plastic dinner table with his sons, knowing he cannot protect them. The holoCan washes them in pale light. Government news programs tell them to seek shelter. In her pocket the girl carries a folded piece of paper that she found in the gutter. On it is a little curved sword. She’s seen it before on the cube. Her teachers at the government school say it brings chaos. War. It has set the spheres on fire. But now she secretly draws the blade in the fog her breath has made on the window, and she feels brave.
Then the bombs begin to fall.
They come from high-orbit Thor-class bombers piloted by farmboys from Earth and miners from Mars of the Twelfth Sunshine Squadron. Curses and prayers and tribal dragons and curved scythes have been sprayed upon them in aerosol paint. They dip through the clouds and fall over the sea, outracing their own sound. Their guidance chips are made by freeColors on Phobos. Their steel is mined and smelted by entrepreneurs in the Belt. Their ion propulsion engines are stamped with the winged heel of a company that makes consumer electronics and toiletries and weapons. Down and down they go to race shadowless over the desert, then the sea, carrying the weight of the newest empire under the sun.
The first bomb destroys the Hall of Justice on Tyche’s Vespasian Island. Then it burrows a hundred meters into the earth before detonating against the bunker buried there, killing all inside. The second lands in the sea, fifteen kilometers from a fleet of refugees, where it sinks a Society warship, hiding under the chop. The third races over a spine of mountains north of Tyche when it is struck with a railgun round fired from a defense installation by a Gray teenager with acne scars and the charm of a sweetheart around his neck. It careens off its course and sputters across the sky before falling to the earth.
It detonates on the fringes of the city, far from the water, where it turns four blocks of tenement housing to dust.
Silent, he lies encased in mankilling metal in the belly of a starship called the Morning Star. The fear swallows him now as it has done time and time before. The only sound is the whir of his armor’s air filtration unit and the radio chatter of distant men and women. Around him lie his friends, they too cocooned in metal. Waiting. Eyes Red and Gold and Gray and Obsidian. Wolfheads mark their pauldrons. Tattoos their necks and arms. Wild empire breakers from Mars and Luna and Earth. Beyond them fly ships with names like Spirit of Lykos, Hope of Tinos, and Echo of Ragnar. They are painted white and led by a woman with onyx-dark skin. The Lion Sovereign said the white was for spring. For a new beginning. But the ships are stained. Smeared with char and patched wounds and mismatched panels. They broke the Sword Armada and the martyr Fabii. They conquered the heart of the Gold empire. They battled back the Ash Lord to the Core and have kept the dragons of the Rim at bay.
How could they ever stay clean?
Alone in his armor, waiting to fall from the sky, he remembers the girl who began it all. He remembers how her Red hair fell over her eyes. How her mouth danced with laughter. How she breathed as she lay atop him, so warm and fragile in a world far too cold. She has been dead longer than she was ever alive. And now that her dream has spread, he wonders if she would recognize it. And he wonders too if he were to die today, would he recognize the echo of his own life? What sort of man would his son become in this world he has made? He thinks of his son’s face and how soon he will become a man. And he thinks of his Golden wife. How she stood on the landing pad, looking up at him, wondering if he’d ever return home again.
More than anything, he wants this to end.
Then the machine takes hold.
He feels the tug on his body. The pounding of his heart. The mad cackling of the Goblin and the howls of his friends as they try to forget their children, their loves, and be brave. Nausea in his gut rises as the magnetic rails charge behind him. With a shudder of metal, they fire him forward through the launch tube out into silent space at six times the speed of sound.
Men call him father, liberator, warlord, Slave King, Reaper. But he feels a boy as he falls toward the war-torn planet, his armor red, his army vast, his heart heavy.
It is the tenth year of war and the thirty-third of his life.
There is a poor, blind Samson in this land,
Shorn of his strength and bound in bonds of steel,
Who may, in some grim revel, raise his hand,
And shake the pillars of this Commonweal,
Till the vast Temple of our liberties
A shapeless mass of wreck and rubbish lies.
—HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
WEARY, I WALK UPON FLOWERS at the head of an army. Petals carpet the last of the stone road before me. Thrown by children from windows, they twirl lazily down from the steel towers that grow to either side of the Luna boulevard. In the sky, the sun dies its slow, weeklong death, staining the tattered clouds and gathered crowd in bloody hues. Waves of humanity lap against security barricades, pressing inward on our parade as Hyperion City Watchmen in gray uniforms and cyan berets guard the route, shoving drunken revelers back into the crowd. Behind them, antiterrorism units prowl up and down the pavement, their fly-eyed goggles scanning irises, hands resting on energy weapons.