Our sun floats in darkness attended by moons made of trash.
Long ago, when the planets were reshaped by mankind, the detritus of their terraforming operations was fused together into moon-sized spheres by orbital compactors and shoved out toward Sol. Gripped by the gravity of her mass, most of these trash moons have completed their centuries-long funeral march into the nuclear fires of the sun, but several hundred laggards still remain circling their eventual demise.
Tethered to the barren landscape of a forgotten trash moon once catalogued as Marcher-1632, a shipwrecked corvette named the Archimedes
hides in the shadow cast by a waste escarpment a kilometer high. Martian slaves-turned-soldiers-turned-castaways crawl over the ship. Our welding torches flare against the hull. Our space suits are stinking bogs. We are marooned two hundred million kilometers from home, and I stew in sweat, nausea, and discontent.
That bloodydamn Bellona. That arrogant Peerless shit.
I’m going to break his knee if I ever see him again. It should be him on this hull. I’d tell him to his face, but he took the only relic in the base’s hangar that could still fly and stole off with Aurae, his Pink accomplice, while I slept. He recorded a little message telling me to tend my wounds, and left his mess behind—his crippled ship—for us to repair. The bastard.
More than a decade separated from Olympia’s airy sepulchres has done little to dim Cassius’s spectacular talent for condescension. Worst of all, in typical Cassius fashion, he’s taking his damn time. Six weeks he’s been gone on a mission to Starhold—an ecliptic trade post between the orbits of Mercury and Venus—to secure us the helium we need for the Archimedes.
While here I am: either languishing in the old Sons of Ares base that’s hidden in the belly of the trash moon or latched onto the side of his ship like an industrious barnacle welding the days away, knowing time is running out.
Hades, it may already have run out.
Cut off from communication with the outside world, I have no way of knowing the course of the war I began. No way of knowing if Virginia and Victra have managed to weather the united power of the Golds of the Rim and the Core. No way of knowing if Sefi has come back to the Republic or if Lysander has used my defeat on Mercury as a ladder to the Morning Chair.
No way of knowing if the enemy has already burned Mars, my family, my home.
I think of Mars and her highland moors and whispering woods . . .
No. Virginia told me to endure.
I’ve been imprisoned before. I know I must force away the thoughts of home before they make debris of me. Not for the first time, I try to seek refuge in anger. I want a fight. I need a fight. It’s how I’m made—to struggle in eternal vain. But instead of a fight, instead of the forward motion that soothes my restless nature, all I get is the monotone hum of generators and the days congealing together, a litany of endless routine.
I started this war. Others are finishing it. I must escape. Atalantia must die. Atlas must die. Lysander must die. I picture them each groveling before me, my ears deaf, my hand choking the life from them as blood swells in their eyes.
The violent fantasies do nothing to ease my desolation. The anger that once made planets tremble is now toothless. Shorn of my myth by my failure, shorn of my army by my mistakes, shorn of my friends and family by the demands I made on them, I know hate will not return what I have lost or repair what I have broken.
The sun has raged for 4.6 billion years. I have raged for sixteen. No surprise, the sun has more fuel to spare. Even my anger at Cassius feels performative. I can’t sustain it anymore, can’t feed this endless anger at myself and everyone. Not after what I have done.
I escaped Mercury with my life, but it cost me my Free Legions and what remained of my self-respect. I led children of Mars to a planet far from home promising we could finish the war, only to abandon them to the enemy to save my own hide. My heart is buried with my army in those sands. But my body trudges on, as it does, no matter the ruin it leaves in its wake.
It’s been a backward slide since I fled Mercury with my small band of survivors. Cassius rescued barely two hundred of us from Heliopolis, but it was not a clean escape. Harried by Grimmus torchShips, we missed our rendezvous with the Telemanus fleet. Missed our chance home. We barely managed to limp into the base on the Marcher before Cassius took off.
The silence is broken by the chatter of the other welders. One tells a joke. It’s funny enough for me to stop flagellating myself. I listen to the other voices. They remind me of the drillboys chattering in the tunnel above my clawDrill back in Lykos. Their bad jokes soothe me, and my mind wanders to the tattered book Aurae left in the helmet of my space suit before she slipped off with Cassius.
The note Aurae left with it said that the book was her path through the darkness of her servitude in the Rim. I was angry after Aurae and Cassius left and nearly used the book as toilet paper. But I’ve always felt Pinks to be the most oppressed of the Colors, their plight imbuing some of them with preternatural internal strength. Evey and Theodora taught me that. So, more out of respect for them than Aurae, I read the first page. I grew annoyed by the opacity of the writing. It read like a divination book, repeating conventional wisdom in esoteric metaphors. Still, I recall a few lines that seem apt. The path is made of many stones that look all the same. When you trod upon evil, do not rest or look down because goodness is only a step away. The next may bring ruin, the next joy, but these stones are not your destination, they are but your journey to the path’s end.
I mull that over as I weld a new panel onto the hull. Maybe this is just a stepping stone. Maybe this place isn’t perdition. Maybe it is a gift.
Truth is I should have died on Mercury. Truth is everything after that hell is
a gift, even this place. It may be tedious repairing the antique fifty-meter corvette with only hand tools, but labor gives a man purpose, I suppose. Each panel welded a step forward. Each step forward takes me closer to my family. So long as Cassius returns with the helium we need for the reactor, and so long as Harnassus actually fixes the reactor, we will go home.
Maybe I’ll read another page tonight.
But I’m a stubborn bastard, so maybe not.
My com crackles. “Welder twenty-three, do you register?”
I holster my torch and ease back on my security line. “Welder twenty-three. Ignore your existential dread for a moment and do reply . . .”
“Welder twenty-three registers. What’s what, Thraxa.
That rash acting up again?”
Unable to find any suits wide enough for her prodigious thighs, Thraxa’s stuck inside the base. Daily, the bellicose woman grumbles that she would have preferred the honorable suicide she intended to commit in Heliopolis to the daily monotony of shift management. “Sun’s on its way in thirty
. Be a dear and rein your squad in before you boil in your suits.”
I glance over my shoulder to the eastern curve of the trash moon. “A little early, no?” “
Archimedes’s mass is speeding up the moon’s rotation. We all know you skipped physics, but trust me on this one or by tomorrow your prick will look like a hydra. You’re rad heavy as is.”
“We can finish the hull this shift,” I say. “Next shift can finish. Aren’t going anywhere without helium and the reactor fixed anyway. Call it.”
With a grumble, I agree and call my crew to end shift. The welders scurry along their safety lines back to the base as I count heads. When the last is in, I pull myself down the hull, push toward the base, and ease down to the airlock.
At the rim of the airlock, I pause and do something I haven’t done in all my welding shifts. I take the time to look out over the craggy horizon. A thin scythe of sunlight carves around the trash moon. It warps the mottled surface outward with heat, inverting expansion calderas until dust and toxic gas spew. The dust and gas coalesce around a scarp of green-black plastic before stretching out behind the moon to form a tail of shimmering particles.
I have seen things a Red miner was never meant to see—unspeakable horrors, impossible beauty. Things that would make the tail of particles seem commonplace. But today I feel a little different. A little more willing to see there’s beauty here on this stepping stone. Maybe it’s the book. Maybe it’s the radiation. Whatever it is, I feel like today I have enough strength to look the other way, past the shadowy shoulder of the Archimedes
to an expanse of stars in the distance where my eyes settle on a dim, ruddy light.