“Citizens of the Solar Republic, this is your Sovereign.”
I stare half blind into a firing squad of fly-eyed cameras. Out the viewport behind my stage, battle stations and ships of war float beyond the upper atmosphere of Luna.
Eight billion eyes watch me.
“On Friday evening last, the third day of the Mensis Martius, I received a brief indicating that a large-scale Society military operation was under way in the orbit of Mercury. The largest in materiel and manpower since the Battle of Mars, five long years ago.
“We are responsible for this crisis. Lured by the false promises of an enemy plenipotentiary, we allowed our resolve to weaken. We allowed ourselves to believe in the better virtues of our enemy, and that peace was possible with tyrants.
“That lie, seductive though it was, has been exposed as a cruel machination of statecraft designed, perpetrated, and executed by the newly appointed Dictator of the Society remnant, Atalantia au Grimmus—daughter of the Ash Lord. Under her spell, we compromised with the agents of tyranny. We turned on our greatest general, the sword who broke the chains of bondage, and demanded he accept a peace he knew to be a lie.
“When he did not, we cried Traitor! Tyrant! Warmonger!
In fear of him, we recalled the Home Guard elements of the White Fleet from Mercury back to Luna. We left Imperator Aquarii at half strength, exposed, vulnerable. Now, her fleet, the fleet which freed all our homes, floats in ruins. Two hundred of your
ships of war destroyed. Thousands of your
sailors killed. Millions of your
brothers and sisters marooned upon a hostile sphere. Quadrillions of your
wealth squandered. Not by virtue of enemy arms, but by the squabbling of your
“I have heard it said in these last months, in the halls of the New Forum, on the streets of Hyperion, on the news channels across our Republic, that we should abandon these sons and daughters of liberty, these Free Legions. I have heard them called, in public, without shame, ‘the Lost Legions.’ Written off by you, despite the courage they have summoned, the endurance they have shown, the horrors they have suffered for you
. Written off because we fear to part with our ships will invite invasion of our homeworlds. Because we fear to once again see Society iron over our skies. Because we fear to risk the comforts and freedoms the men and women of the Free Legions purchased for us with their blood . . .
“I will tell you what I fear. I fear time has diluted our dream! I fear that in our comfort, we believe liberty to be self-fulfilling!” I lean forward. “I fear that the meekness of our resolve, the bickering and backbiting on which we have so decadently glutted ourselves, will rob us of the unity of will that moved the world forward to a fairer place, where respect for justice and freedom has found a foothold for the first time in a millennium.
“I fear that in this disunity we will sink back into the hideous epoch from which we escaped, and that the new dark age will be crueler, more sinister, and more protracted by the malice which we have awoken in our enemies.
“I call upon you, the People of the Republic, to stand united. To beseech your senators to reject fear. To reject this torpor of self-interest. To not quiver in primal trepidation at the thought of invasion, to not let your senators hoard your
wealth for themselves and hide behind your
ships of war, but to summon the more wrathful angels of their spirits and send forth the might of the Republic to scourge the engines of tyranny and oppression from the Mercurian sky and rescue our Free Legions.”
At that moment, three hundred eighty-four thousand kilometers from my heart, in orbit one thousand kilometers above the wayward continent of South Pacifica, projectiles skinned with Sun Industries stealth polymer race into the void at 320,000 kilometers per hour toward Mercury, ferrying not death, but supplies, radiation medicine, machines of war, and, if my husband is alive, a message of hope. You have not been abandoned. I will come for you. Until then, endure, my love. Endure.
Two Months Earlier
DARROW Blood Red
A graveyard of Republic warships floats in the shadow of Mercury.
Of the triumphant White Fleet that liberated Luna, Earth, and Mars, nothing remains but twisted shards and blackened hollows. Shattered by the might of the Ash Armada, the broken ships spin in orbit around the planet they liberated only months before. No longer filled with Martian sailors and legionnaires loyal to Eo’s dream, their cold halls are naked to vacuum and populated only by the dead.
This is the last laugh of the Ash Lord, and the debut of his heir.
While I burned the old warlord to death in his bed on Venus with Apollonius and Sevro, his daughter Atalantia stepped out from his shadow to take up his office of Dictator. She slipped the greater part of their armada away from Venus and used the sun’s sensor-distorting radiation to ambush the White Fleet in orbit over Mercury.
Orion, my fleet’s commander and the greatest naval tactician in the Republic, never saw them coming. It was a massacre, and I was three weeks too late to stop it. The frantic Mayday calls of my friends tortured me as I crossed the void, slipping farther and farther away from my son and wife toward bedlam.
The White Fleet may be gone, but the Free Legions they ferried to Mercury are not dead yet. Soon I will join them on the surface of Mercury, but first I have work to do.
It would be easier with Sevro. Everything violent is.
My breath rasps in my vacuum-proof suit as I traverse the graveyard. My magnetic boots land silently along the broken spine of a Republic dreadnought, and I peer into a great fissure in the hull to check on the progress of my lancer. The wound in the hull is thirty decks deep. Jetsam floats in the darkness—bits of metal, mattresses, coffeepots, frozen globes of machine fluid, and severed limbs. No sign of Alexandar.
The rigid corpse of a sailor in a mechanic’s kit drifts upward feet-first. His legs have been congealed into a single crooked stump from the heat of a particle blast. His mouth is locked in a silent scream, as if to ask, “Where were you when the enemy came? Where was the Reaper I swore to follow?”
He was deceived by his enemies, by his allies, by himself.
While the Republic Senate fooled itself into believing peace could be made with fascist warlords, I pretended killing the Ash Lord would end war in our time. That I held the key to unlocking a future where I could put down the slingBlade and return to my child and wife to be a father and a husband. My desperation let me believe that lie. The Senate’s naïveté let them believe Atalantia’s. But I know the truth now.
our time. Sevro thought he could escape it. I thought I could end it. But our enemy is like the Hydra. Cut off one head, two more sprout. They will not sue for peace. They will not surrender. Their heart must be excised, their will to fight ground to the finest dust.
Only then will there be peace.
Lights flicker in the chasm beneath my feet. Several minutes later, a Gold in an EVA suit drifts upward to set down with me on the hull. For fear of enemy sensors, he puts his faceplate to mine to give his sound waves a medium. “Reactor is primed and ready for necromancy.”
“Well done, Alexandar.”
He nods stoically.
The young soldier is no longer the callow, insecure youth who entered my service as a lancer four years ago. After war, most men shrink. Some from the rending of flesh. Some from the loss of fellows. Some from the loss of autonomy. But most in shame at discovering their own impotence. Confronted with horror, their dreams of destiny crumple. Only a cursed few relish the dark thrill in discovering they are natural-born killers.
Alexandar is a killer. He has proven himself the worthy heir to the legacy of his grandfather Lorn au Arcos. And I have begun to wonder if he will inherit my burden. He alone held back the tide atop the Ash Lord’s spire when Thraxa, Sevro, and I had been knocked to our knees. It woke the hunger in him. Now, he craves revenge on Atalantia for the murder of our fleet.
I miss that purity of purpose.
What was it that Lorn said again? “The old rage in colder ways, for they alone decide how to spend the young.”
How many more must I spend? What is Alexandar’s life worth? What is mine worth? As if to find the answer, I glance to my right. Past the hull of the drifting dreadnought, the eastern rim of Mercury throbs like a molten scythe.