Hic sunt leones. “Here be lions.”
—Nero au Augustus
My silence thunders. I stand on the bridge of my starship, arm broken and held in a gelcast, ion burns still raw on my neck. I’m bloodydamn tired. My razor coils around my good right arm like a cold metal snake. Before me, space opens, vast and terrible. Small fragments of light prick the darkness, and primordial shadows move to block those stars on the fringes of my vision. Asteroids. They float slowly around my man-of-war, Quietus, as I search the blackness for my quarry.
“Win,” my master told me. “Win as my children cannot, and you will bring honor to the name Augustus. Win at the Academy and you earn yourself a fleet.” He likes dramatic repetition. It suits most statesmen.
He’d have me win for him, but I’d win for the Red girl with a dream bigger than she ever could be. I’d win so that he dies, and her message burns across the ages. Small order.
I am twenty. Tall and broad in the shoulders. My uniform, all sable, now wrinkled. Hair long and eyes Golden, bloodshot. Mustang once said I have a sharp face, with cheeks and nose seemingly carved from angry marble. I avoid mirrors myself. Better to forget the mask I wear, the mask that bears the angled scar of the Golds who rule the worlds from Mercury to Pluto. I am of the Peerless Scarred. Cruelest and brightest of all humankind. But I miss the kindest of them. The one who asked me to stay as I bid her and Mars goodbye on her balcony almost a year ago. Mustang. I gave her a horse-crested gold ring as a parting gift, and she gave me a razor. Fitting.
The taste of her tears grows stale in memory. I have not heard from her since I left Mars. Worse, I have not heard from the Sons of Ares since I won at Mars’s Institute more than two years ago. Dancer said he would contact me once I graduated, but I have been cast adrift amongst a sea of Golden faces.
This is so far from the future I imagined for myself as a boy. So far from the future I wanted to make for my people when I let the Sons carve me. I thought I would change the worlds. What young fool doesn’t? Instead, I have been swallowed by the machine of this vast empire as it rumbles inexorably on.
At the Institute, they trained us to survive and conquer. Here at the Academy they taught us war. Now they test our fluency. I lead a fleet of warships against other Golds. We fight with dummy munitions and launch raiding parties from ship to ship in the way of Gold astral combat. No reason to break a ship that costs the gross yearly output of twenty cities when you can send leechCraft packed with Obsidians, Golds, and Grays to seize her vital organs and make her your prize.
Amidst lessons of astral combat, our teachers hammered in the maxims of their race. Only the strong survive. Only the brilliant rule. And then they left and let us fend for ourselves, jumping asteroid to asteroid, searching for supplies, bases, hunting our fellow students till only two fleets remain.
I’m still playing games. This is just the deadliest yet.
“It’s a trap,” Roque says from my elbow. His hair is long, like mine, and his face soft as a woman’s and placid as a philosopher’s. Killing in space is different from killing on land. Roque is a prodigy at it. There’s poetry to it, he says. Poetry to the motion of the spheres and the ships that sail between. His face fits with the Blues who crew these vessels—airy men and women who drift like wayward spirits through the metal halls, all logic and strict order.
“But it’s not so elegant a trap as Karnus might think,” he continues. “He knows we’re eager to end the game, so he will wait on the other side. Force us into a choke point and release his missiles. Tried and true since the dawn of time.”
Roque carefully points to the space between two huge asteroids, a narrow corridor we must travel if we wish to continue following Karnus’s wounded ship.
“Everything’s a damn trap.” Tactus au Rath, rangy and careless, yawns. He leans his dangerous frame against the viewport and shoots a stim up his nose from the ring on his finger. He tosses the spent cartridge to the floor. “Karnus knows he’s lost. He’s just torturing us. Leading us on a little merry chase so we can’t sleep. The selfish prick.”
“You’re such a little Pixie, always yapping and whining,” Victra au Julii sneers from her place against the viewport. Her jagged hair hangs just past ears pierced with jade. Impetuous and cruel, but neither to a fault, she disdains makeup in favor of the scars she’s earned through her twenty-seven years. There are many.
Her eyes are heavy, deeply set. Her sensual mouth wide, with lips shaped to purr insults. She looks more like her famous mother than her younger sister, Antonia; but in her capacity for general mayhem she far outstrips both.
“Traps mean nothing,” she declares. “His fleet has been dashed. He has but one ship. We’ve seven. How about we just bust his mouth?”
“Darrow has seven,” Roque reminds her.
“Your pardon?” she asks, annoyed at the correction.
“Seven of Darrow’s ships remain. You called them ours. They are not ours. He is Primus.”
“Pedantic poet strikes again. The point is the same, my goodman.”
“That we should be rash instead of prudent?” Roque asks.
“That it is seven against one. It would be embarrassing to let this drag out any longer. So, let’s squish the Bellona thug like a cockroach with our sizable boot, fly back to base, take our just rewards from old Augustus, and go play.” She twists her heel in emphasis.
“Here, here,” Tactus agrees. “My kingdom for a gram of demonDust.”
“That your fifth stimshot today, Tactus?” Roque asks.
“Yes! Thank you for noticing, Mommy dearest! But I grow weary of this military crank. I believe I desire Pearl clubs and copious amounts of respectable drugs.”
“You’re going to burn out.”
Tactus slaps his thigh. “Live fast. Die young. While you’re a boring old raisin, I’ll be a glorious memory of finer times and flashier days.”
Roque shakes his head. “One day, my wayward friend, you’re going to find someone you love who makes you laugh at the silly person you once were. You’ll have children. You’ll have an estate. And somehow you’ll learn there are more important things than drugs and Pinks.”
“By Jove.” Tactus stares at him in utter horror. “That sounds resolutely miserable.”