The sight of the burning starships around me was like a galaxy of new stars lighting up the emptiness of space. Their fuel and energy cells burned without oxygen long after the crews had suffocated in the vacuum of space. Hundreds of dreadnoughts, battleships, carriers, and starfighters exchanged fire in the largest battle of the war.
The Revengeance was taking point in the assault on the enemy flagship Earth’s Successor. We had managed to take out its support craft and casualty ratings were still well within acceptable parameters. Acceptable as long as I didn’t think of Black Squadron-3 as Daniel, Skull Squadron-6 as Rebecca, or Dagger-Squadron-7 as Lisa. They were men and women I’d trained with and called friends, now just particles and gas.
“Focus,” I commanded myself, then spoke into my helmet’s comm. I was sitting in the middle of my tight Engel-fighter cockpit moving at speeds which boggled the mind. While space was largely empty, the tightness of the battle formations meant I needed to fly like I’d never flown before. The slightest misstep would mean not only my death but my entire squadron’s destruction. “Dagger Leader, I need you to bring up your teammates to thin out the ranks of those Crosshairs.”
“Yes, your Excellency,” Dagger Leader, a woman named Arianna Stonebridge, said, referring to me by my noble title rather than rank.
I hated that.
This was a last-ditch assault which Prince Germanicus had planned to blunt the offensive into our territory. The Commonwealth had reclaimed thousands of worlds in their quest to reunite humanity, but they were stretched thin and the Archduchy’s resistance was fierce. If we’d had more allies, we could have repelled them, but the Archduchy of Crius had few friends. In my more reflective moments, I had to wonder how badly we’d abused our neighbors that many had cheered the arrival of the Commonwealth.
The interior of the Engel’s cockpit was a mixture of levers, pedals, and sensor equipment which projected countless images into my cybernetically enhanced mind. I saw close-ups of the sword-shaped Crius destroyers moving to cut off the escape of the massive Earth’s Successor even as enemy reinforcements arrived from jumpspace. The saucer-shaped Commonwealth ships launched several thousand more starfighters to whittle down the shields of our ships, but it made no difference to our battle plan. We had to score a decisive victory here, even if it meant decimating our ranks.
Archangel Squadron’s part in the mission was critical. We had to weaken the Earth’s Successor enough for the Revengeance to blast away at its engines and allow the rest of the fleet to destroy it. Our foe was a massive, ten-kilometer-long super-carrier, which doubled as a dreadnought capable of leveling planets. Adjusting my targeting computer, I gauged its shields and knew it would take everything we had to crack them before the Revengeance and its support craft to hammer it. If the shields were still up when our ships reached firing range, the attack would be like raindrops on steel. We could do it, though. We just needed to get past a few hundred enemy fighters first.
“Here they come,” I muttered, not transmitting across the Engel’s transceivers. We were tens of thousands of kilometers away from the Earth’s Successor, but at the speeds we were moving, we were only a few minutes from interception. Seeing two squadrons of V-shaped Crosshair fighters descending on us, I decided now wasn’t the time to worry.
I picked one to shoot down with plasma cannons, followed by another, then another. The ones beside my targets detonated nearly as fast, destroyed by Hans and Brutus with the rest of Dagger Squadron’s pilots inflicting only slightly less damage. Crosshair fighters were inferior to Engels in several ways, not the least being inferior range. The Commonwealth’s military doctrine believed in quantity over quality. These men had paid for it in their lives. I’d have to send their senators a bottle of wine in thanks.
“Got three that round, Colonel!” Lieutenant Colonel Hans Nakamora, my second, said. “I’m only two behind your score.”
The last of the two squadrons we’d faced were cut to pieces by my cannons before he’d finished his statement, bringing my kill score to four hundred and seven. Commonwealth soldiers were rarely enhanced, either genetically or cybernetically, which meant they tended to die far easier in battle with Crius ones. But, for all my complaining about their inferior equipment, quantity had a quality all its own.
The Commonwealth was thirty times the size of the Archduchy and equally more populated. The flower of Crius’ youth was being extinguished under piles of the enemy’s dead. No, I had to stop thinking like that. We would win here. The war would end. We would have peace. If I kept telling myself that, I’d believe it.
“Come back home, alive, Cassius,” Judith said, embracing me as I was about to depart on the shuttle up to the Revengeance.
“I’ll come back with my shield or on it,” I replied. “Crius will triumph.”
“Fuck Crius. I don’t care who wins,” Judith spoke treason. “I only care that you live.”
“Enough time for chatter after we’ve won the war. First round’s on me if you can shut up until then,” I said to Hans, noticing we’d managed to break through the defensive screen of the Earth Successor’s starfighters.
There were far fewer defenders here than I’d expected. We had nothing but a clear shot to the ship. We had a good lead on the starfighters behind us, which meant we could probably get two full attack runs away before they turned around to engage us. Then things would get hairy and we’d probably be overwhelmed.
So be it.
I’m sorry, Judith.
“Gwydion formation. Prepare payloads. You know the drill,” I said, having planned the starfighter portion of the attack to the last detail. As a Colonel-Count, I was technically outranked by the fleet’s fighter-generals, but they’d all chosen to follow my lead thanks to my reputation. My birth rank had also played a role I’m sorry to say. “Sound off.”
“Affirmative,” Hans said. “Prepping payload. Archangel-2 over.”
“Affirmative,” Brutus said, “Prepping payload. Archangel-3 over.”
“Affirmative, Excellency,” Flavia said. “Payload prepared, Archangel-4 over.”
And so on and so on until all twelve of us had confirmed their readiness.
I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride as I gave directions for my squadron to begin our attack run. Archangel Squadron was a mixture of elevated commoners, low-level nobility, and even a bastard son of Prince Germanicus. When I’d begun my service to the Archduchy of Crius, they had considered me nothing more than a rogue genetic, born from the misguided vanity of a father with too much power and influence in the Ruling Families for his rank. A clone. Almost as low as a nat. Now they called me Cassius Mass the Fire Count.
The Colonel-Count of Analathas.
The Butcher of Kolthas.
My glory reflected the ranks they had all achieved. We passed the trials of countless battles and became a symbol of what Crius could achieve working together. Awarded the highest honor our country had to give in the Lucifer’s Star. Now we were going to die for our nation. It was the only way this ended.
“Stay safe,” Judith said, muttering. “Don’t be a hero.”
“Every soldier is a hero,” I said, staring at her. “The act of standing up for others makes you one. We’re all prepared to die to save our loved ones.”
“Okay, first of all, that’s bullshit. Half of the army is conscripts. Second, being prepared to die for your country is different from trying to. I know you want to live up to the legacy you think you have to, but you’re better than any of your ancestors.”
“You’re probably the only one worth a damn.”
Sometimes I wondered if she was right and I was the only noble fighting for the people and, even then, whether that was just a lie I told myself. “I promise I won’t throw my life away.”
Judith looked down. “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.”
“Target the main batteries, sensor systems, and power-flow relays,” I said, watching the targeting spots light up across my screen. We needed to cripple the Earth’s Successor before the Revengeance and its backup came within anti-starfighter battery range. “Launch singularity missiles on my mark.”
“Cloaking failure, we’ve been spotted, sir!” Archangel-3 shouted, making it clear the damage her starship had suffered was at fault. It didn’t matter now as the airless void around us lighted up with green energy blasts.
“Carry on,” I said. “We know this is a one-way trip.”
“Copy,” Brutus said.
“Mark and fire,” I said, pressing the LAUNCH button after marking each of my targets. My entire payload was launched with only a bare minimum of movement necessary to avoid the overtaxed battery crew’s fire. “Scatter.”
I spun my cross-shaped fighter in the formation my soldiers had practiced hundreds of times. It worked, for the most part, as glowing, green energy blasts sailed harmlessly past us. The sight of Gabriel, Archangel-3’s wing, catching the tail end of a bolt was like a blow to the stomach though. The big, burly bronze-skinned man was newly wedded with a second child having been approved for creation. Any hope he might survive dissipated as he flew out of control into another blast which tore his Engel into space debris.
“Taking heavy fire, Colonel!” Hans said. “We need to pull back if we’re going to do any more damage.” I could hear the plea in his voice. We didn’t have to die here. We had done our share to win the war. More than enough. Which was true. Few other living units had paid anywhere near our dues.
But we had our duty. Checking our targeting numbers, I saw less than a quarter of the targets we needed to knock out had been destroyed. Missile boats escorted by Skull and Dagger Squadron were coming to serve as reinforcements, but Black Squadron was almost annihilated. It would not be delivering its payload. Worse, the Earth’s Successor was pulling back its starfighters to engage us as predicted. Swerving out of the way of several greener energy bolts, I fired my quad-plasma cannons into the side of an emplacement, causing it to explode in a pleasing orange-red brilliance.
“Negative, Archangel-2. Continue mission. The Reclamation ends here.” I muttered a silent prayer to the angels to look after my wife.
“Understood, sir,” Hans said, his voice hoarse. “It’s been an honor.” It was a sentiment echoed throughout the squadron as we wiped out sixteen more targets but lost Anna and Daiki. Three squadrons flying the Commonwealth’s new inverted-pyramid-shaped Phoenix-class starfighters were coming from our upper flank. Sensors identified the squadron as the Godhand. Part of the wing commissioned by the enemy high command to destroy the Archduchy’s fighters. They’d killed virtually all of my peers and would finish the job today.
“That it has,” I replied to my unit. “That it has. Move to engage the Godhand. We only have to slow them down.”
I proceeded to swing around my unit to engage the Godhand along with the rest of my squadron. Ten against thirty-six. I predicted we would take down six before they destroyed us. We needed to change those odds.
“Formation, sir?” Brutus asked. We only had a few seconds before we were in weapons range and even less time to choose our method of suicide.
“Berserker,” I said with grim finality.
“Confirm?” Hans asked.
“Berserker,” I repeated.
It was a ludicrous tactical choice, but one which might at least do a bit more damage before we were chewed up like meat in a grinder. Putting all of our energy barrier strength to the front and our speed to maximum, we moved into a formation so tight it might have been part of a sky parade.
The moment we reached energy blast range, we unloaded with the full force of our plasma cannons as the energy sailed outward in a manner that sent the Godhand scattering. They had been expecting us to break and their leader made a poor tactical choice, mostly because they were our target and there was no way to dodge that many blasts.
The temporary loss of command from such a hardened unit allowed us a few extra shots as each of the Archangel units broke away to attack with almost no regard to their lives, myself included. Brutus actually smashed his unit into the side of a Godhand starfighter after taking a disabling shot. I managed to cook the insides of two before I realized all but Hans were gone of my unit. We’d destroyed twelve. So many friends lost. And for what? A few more seconds? A few more enemies dead? I was glad I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt. The enemy was already regrouping to finish us off.
Hans died seconds later, his Engel exploding in a brilliant ball of jump fuel. I pushed everything into my engines, hoping to escape the descending horde of vengeance-driven Commonwealth fighters and lead them away from the missile-boats, which were already delivering their payload.
Seconds later, I felt two plasma bolts rock against the side of my vessel, followed by alarms informing me my starfighter’s reactor was going critical. The vessel had sustained damage during a previous battle and the fix had not been perfect. I was doomed if a third shot struck me anyway, but this gave me time to slam my fist onto the EJECT button. It felt like cowardice but I didn’t want to die.
The top of the cockpit shot out of the Engel with both my flight suit and a barrier protecting me from the worst of the gravity tremors. Even so, I felt like my face, body, and toes were being ripped off as the boosters propelled me away from my Engel’s burning remains. It was like a comet sailing away, the sides trailing burning gas. Moments later, it exploded, now far enough away it looked like a pinprick of light in a sky full of them.
I didn’t dare activate my rescue beacon now, lest some of the Commonwealth’s soldiers decide to pick me off or scoop me up via a tractor beam. Instead, I merely floated in the starry void, hearing nothing and seeing the spectacular exchange of light going on beside me. War was always beautiful from a distance, full of glory and promises of epic heroism.
It took an up-close and personal acquaintance with it to know every one of those light exchanges meant people boiling alive in ignited atmosphere or being frozen to death after explosive decompression. I hated the Commonwealth and everything it stood for, but I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for all the soldiers dying this day.
That was when all of the light exchanges stopped. I blinked, staring out into my helmet’s screen and commanding it to pick up the transmissions which had to be going on. A sudden and complete end to the fighting could only mean one thing.
I couldn’t hear anything on the Commonwealth channels, their encryption software had improved dramatically in recent month, but a single message was being repeated over all Crius ones. “Stand down and cease all hostilities. Prince Germanicus and the rest of the royal family are dead. Grand Admiral Plantagenet has transmitted our unconditional surrender to the Commonwealth of Interstellar Planets. Crius has fallen. Repeat: Stand down and cease all hostilities—”
I felt cold sweat trickle down the sides of my face and the front of my chest as I awoke shaking. I was naked underneath the plain synth-weave sheets and it was dark in my room. It was five years past that day and I still dreamed about that night in the wee hours of the morning. Taking a moment to clear my thoughts, I remembered I was on board the Melampus and we were currently travelling through jumpspace.
The Melampus’ medical officer, Isla Hernandez, was lying naked next to me with her golden hair still woven into a weave down past her shoulders. She was as beautiful as a genetically-engineered noblewoman but off due to the long scar across her face, with silver hair, golden skin, and a perpetually pleasant disposition even if we had almost nothing in common.
My room as the ship’s navigator was reasonably large but undecorated. I had my bed, a metal chest, footlocker, and almost no decorations or personal effects. The room was almost the same as it had been when I’d first come to work on the transport.
Sliding out of the bed, I stumbled over to the chest next to my footlocker and waved my hand over the top drawer. It popped open and revealed a bunch of undergarments, a half-drunk crystal decanter of amber-colored vodka, and a half-dozen bottles of pain-killers, mood-stabilizers, and memory-suppressors alongside.
I removed the top of the decanter and took a swig. Awful, but I wasn’t exactly drinking it for the taste. Putting it down on the chest’s top, I checked the pill bottles and noticed several were missing from each. Isla, probably, or one of my other crewmates.
“Eh, who gives a shit?” I said, shrugging. Picking up the vodka and taking another swig, I also swallowed a pair of memory drugs and pain-killers.
My cybernetic brain hurt more every day and it was clear it needed maintenance. While Isla was good, she wasn’t that good, and any other place I took myself would run into the possibility of identifying my genetic code. Even if they didn’t have that on file, the fact I was borged out of my ass with military-grade enhancements would be a tip-off I was someone important in hiding. Fuck, maybe I should turn myself in. Execution or prison had to be better than this.
“Lights,” Isla said, alerting me to the fact she was awake.
“Ah.” I covered my face with my free hand. “Warn a guy before you do that, would you? I have enhanced eyes.”
“I believe your problem is a hangover.” Isla sat up, not bothering to cover her scarred breasts. The entirety of her right side had burns across it and I’d never asked her about it in our months together.
“Is that your medical opinion?” I asked.
“I do have some expertise in hangovers, yes. Practical and scientific.”
I smiled and took another swig. “Well, it is said on my home planet that the best cure for a hangover is more of what gave you it in the first place.”
“Oh, was that Artemis or Amaterasu?”
I paused, making note I’d claimed both as my home world. “You know, I honestly forget which.”
Isla gave a light chuckle. “You know, Marcus, you can actually tell me who you are. Everyone here is running from their pasts. After six years of serving as this ship’s medical officer, I’m not going to be shocked by anything you say.”
I put the top back on the decanter, then placed it back in the drawer. “I thought we both made it a point to not pry. It’s easier that way for both of us.”
“This may surprise you, but I’ve actually come to like you these past three months.”
Three months I’d been part of the Melampus’ crew, and about half of it had been spent with Isla. I hadn’t noticed until today she’d gradually winnowed down her number of lovers among the crew from a dozen to just me and Clarice. “Oh, dear, does that mean we have to break up?”
Isla gave a half-smile. “It might. I try not to like my lovers on the ship.”
I was tempted to say, You have enough of them, but I didn’t want to start a fight. Possessiveness was something I had made it clear I wanted to avoid in our relationship, and I had no right to complain if she’d taken me at my word.
In fact, I was stupid to have let it get this far. I couldn’t afford to let myself become emotionally compromised if I wanted to stay ahead of the Watchers. I had spent too much time on the Melampus as it was. I should have made an ass of myself then and driven her away. It had worked with the other women but I was tired. Let her ask her questions. Let her be concerned. She’d soon come to regret doing so.
“What was your dream about?” Isla asked.
I closed my eyes. “The end of the war.”
“Ah,” Isla said. “A lot of soldiers have dreams about that day.”
“Not the Commonwealth ones.”
I thought about Crius and the last time I’d seen it. It had been my father’s funeral. I’d been recalled from Analathas despite being desperately needed there. I still remembered the gathering of siblings, cousins, in-laws, servants, concubines, vassals, allies, and rivals at my father’s estate. Six or seven hundred guests plus a six-course meal provided with vintage Belenus wines. All to commemorate the passing of a man they’d each detested. Father’s appetites had finally caught up with him and the man I was genetically identical to was so obese they’d had to have his coffin custom made for him.
The rings of Crius and its four moons were visible in the day above the funeral as the sun covered the terraformed world in warm golden light. The planet was several times larger than most human-habitable worlds, but the super-concentration of metals within resulted in gravity which was slightly stronger than galactic standard.
My last image of Mass Castle had been that ancient crystalline palace standing tall against the sunset over my father’s mausoleum with two huge banners hanging from its sixteen-story east and east towers. They were the red war flag of the Archduchy with a black cross across the center covered in the white and black wings of the now-extinct House Lucifer. A golden flaming sword pieced through the center with a halo around the handle, symbolizing something I had long since forgotten.
All of it gone.
“Well, it’s not every day someone loses a planet,” I joked.
Isla looked at me strangely. “Did you have a family back on Crius?”
I grimaced. “Yes.”
“Were you close?”
It was a strange question to me but it really shouldn’t have been. The majority of the crew was on the run from something or from families which had formed naturally in space. One thousand five hundred people called the ship their home and the vast majority had no one in particular who would miss them beyond their shipmates. Part of the reason I’d chosen to make my life here. No one cared who I was as long as I didn’t care who they were.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was close to my family.”
Judith… Oh Judith.
“Were you married?” Isla asked.
Isla was being unusually inquisitive for a relationship we’d both agreed would be primarily about sex and secondarily about drinking. I suppose we’d both made the mistake of being friendly to one another to the point we’d slipped into the realm of asking each other questions.
I didn’t want her to know about my past, as it might get her killed (and worse, me), but I wanted to share some of it with her. Somewhere along the way, I’d come to care for Isla. Even if I didn’t feel the same way for her as I’d felt for my wife, I felt something and that was one of the first true feelings I’d had since Crius. It was worth preserving, no matter how dangerous those sorts of feelings were to a man on the run.
“Yes,” I said. “I was married. No kids, but she was the most important woman in the galaxy to me.”
“No, you don’t.”
Judith had been a short woman with long red-brown hair, almond-shaped eyes, and numerous other signs of uncontrolled genetics. When I allowed myself to remember her, I tended to see her in a white flowing dress with a purple lilac on its left shoulder strap.
It was her favorite and the one she used to travel along the lake together with me in when she wasn’t fixing up my starfighter collection or her hovercars. She’d been pretty, but not gorgeous, at least not in the way Crius noblewomen tended to be, with each more perfect than the last and body-sculpted to inhuman loveliness. By their standards, Judith had been hideous since she was a nat with a face and body full of flaws. I’d loved her for each and every one. If I thought hard, I could even hear her voice.
“God, I hope this funeral ends soon,” I remembered Judith saying.
“Have a care, he was my father.”
“He hated me as much as he hated his other children, which is pretty damned big since he engineered you in order to disinherit them.”
“Let’s go sailing afterward. Take the hoversailer out on the lake and make love in the ringlight.”
“That would be inappropriate.” I paused. “Tomorrow.”
“Just as long as we’re together tonight,” Judith buried her head into my arm. “I love having you back from the front. Even if it’s only for a little while.”
Unfortunately, remembering the good brought back the bad. I saw Judith slowly transform from the fresh-faced, pretty-but-not-genetically-sculpted perfect woman I adored into a flaming skeleton, then ash. I saw the entirety of my estate, with all of its servants and those relations I’d grown up with, die in a conflagration that turned Crius into a reflection of Hell. Up in the sky, I saw a hundred orbital mass drivers blasting down rocks at relativistic speeds, causing massive piles of ash to blot out the sun.
It was all a product of my imagination but I’d seen enough of the recorded footage to know it had gone down exactly like that. I’d watched all of it a thousand times from a hundred different recordings in hopes of gaining some evidence my loved ones hadn’t died.
All for naught.
Taking another drink, I muttered, “I really hope those memory drugs kick in soon. I can just about stomach living without a past.”
“They don’t work like that, you know,” Isla said. “They just block the emotions associated with traumatic memories.”
“Yeah, well, they’re not working right now.”
Isla sighed. “I think we should share each other’s secrets. We’ve known each other a while now and I think you’re one of the people who can be trusted with mine. I’d like to think I’m a person you can trust with yours.”
“You really don’t want to be that person.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
“Isla, you don’t know anything about me.” I would have to break up with her, it seemed. Well, as much as we could break off our thing. We would still see each other every day while serving together. That was one of the hazards of befriending a lover on a ship this small. Isla picked up her snow-white bra from the floor and slipped it on. “I know you have military-grade cybernetics, which means you fought in the war. I know you’ve had extensive plastic surgery to change your face and fingertips, but only had the most cursory gene-clouding done—either for fear of enhancement rejection or the fact your DNA means something personal to you. I know you speak Commonwealther like you learned it from a textbook, which implies an education. You pretend to be a lout whenever you can but it always comes off as forced. When you’re not thinking about it, you let the females and elderly walk through doors first and you eat one bite at a time like it’s a dinner party. Oh, and you keep a Crius officer’s proton-sword in the air vent above your room. Its house sigil has been burned off but it’s kept in pristine working condition. Which was a mistake as you could have just claimed you’d gotten it at a flea market.”
I paused, put down the decanter, then pulled out a pair of undergarments from my dresser before pulling them on. “I think we should stop seeing each other. In fact, I’m going to probably quit tomorrow.”
“It’s not a capital offense to have fought for the other side, Marcus.”
I sighed, noting she didn’t even know my real name. “That’s a matter of opinion.”
After the devastation of Crius, the Commonwealth had done an extensive De-Nobling of the Archduchy. Countless officers and soldiers had been sentenced to labor camps spread throughout the former Archduchy, while others were executed for war crimes. I couldn’t sort the propaganda from the truth, but quite a few charges they’d levied against the Archduchy felt uncomfortably possible. Genetic cleansing, forced labor, mass-execution, and human experimentation for the start. Ironically, the only people immune to prosecution for such acts were surviving members of the nobility who had almost invariably been given high-ranking positions in the Republic of Crius Provisional Government.
“I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did things you weren’t proud of either.”
I looked at her. “It’s not that I did things I’m not proud of, Isla. It’s the fact I’m not proud of what they’d make me do.”
There were three options if I turned myself in. The first two options were that they’d execute or imprison me, which were the preferable ones. The other option would be they’d make a spectacle out of the Fire Count. A spokesman for our Commonwealth masters and the New Era we were to participate in. I’d be asked to play on my war record, attend rallies, and participate in clandestine meetings to undermine every change the Commonwealth made while paying lip service to their cause. I was already a fool for ever trusting the Ruling Families.
I would not be a hypocrite.
“Never mind,” I said. “You shouldn’t have gone through my things.”
“You shouldn’t beg me for drugs to suppress psychological trauma.”
“I’ll find another source.”
I went to my footlocker to retrieve my red crew jumpsuit, now set on ending whatever I’d had with Isla. I wasn’t sure if I would leave the Melampus but it seemed like a better option every passing minute. I was growing fond of the crew and making a clean break now would be better than later.
Isla got out of my bed put on one of my shirts she found lying on the ground, hanging down past her knees. I was a good foot taller than her. “Marcus—”
“That’s not my name. I’m not Marcus Grav.”
“I know.” Isla closed her eyes. “You need to know something about me.”
“I think we’ve already exhausted every possible conversation topic we could possibly have.”
I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t want to push her away but the fact was, I didn’t want to love her either, and if this continued, then I’d probably fall for her and then we were both doomed. Me when it came out what I was and her when she found out what I was. No one liked Crius outside of its own people. I’d discovered that within my first few days as a fugitive. Satanists. Fascists. Murderers. The monsters the Commonwealth used to justify the Reclamation.
“Not-Marcus Grav, I’m from Crius too.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I was a slave to the nobility there.”
I, stupidly, said the first thing which came to mind. “The Archduchy did not keep slaves.”
Isla looked at me with a somewhat pitying look. “No, they didn’t keep human slaves.”
Her statement confused me and left me pondering what she might mean before a slow, horrifying realization came over me. “You’re a bioroid.”
Which, to other members of the crew, might as well have been me saying she was a toaster. Isla nodded, shaking a little bit as if worried I might report her to the captain or sell her at the next port of call. Half the crew would. The other half would consider her equipment from then on.
Bioroids were a special kind of robot created by Ares Electronics, which existed as a controversial substitute for the chattel slavery to many border worlds. They were organic human bodies with an A.I.-equipped electronic brain. Legally, this meant they were machines rather than people and the property of their owners on all civilized worlds.
I’d never actually given much thought to the idea of bioroid rights and had always thought those who cared for them, like Isla’s lover Clarice, had been somewhat foolish. Realizing I’d been sleeping with and befriending one this entire time left me with a choice to either accept her or treat her like property.
“Does that shock you?” Isla asked, making the understatement of the year.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry to say it does.”
Taking another swig of vodka was tempting right now but, for the first time in a long time, I wanted to be sober.
“What do you think of me now?” Isla said, staring up at me. Her almond-shaped eyes were abnormally large, blue, and expression-filled. I couldn’t help but liken them to a doll’s now and realized she’d probably been crafted that way.
Shaking that thought from my head, I concentrated on how I was going to answer. “My father believed bioroids were abominations against God and Lucifer. I believe their creation is also vile—because it is done as something to deprive sentients of their inherent right to freedom.”
I hoped that would come off as suitably sympathetic. The truth was I didn’t have enough friends, one or two at the most, which was more than I’d had the majority of my travels these past few years, to start being picky about the ones I had. Isla being created in a lab for sale on the market didn’t make her less of a person or, if it did, it was less of a reason than the hundreds of other ways people were made less in the Spiral. Which made me a machine rights abolitionist now, I supposed. Also a robosexual.
Isla was less than impressed with my statement of solidarity, though. “So, you think it’s awful I exist because I was made to be a slave.”
“Would it be better to know I’d never given any thought to the subject until today?” I asked, frowning.
Isla gave a half-hearted chuckle. “The fact you consider me a person now is enough.”
“You don’t think the rest of the crew would abide you?”
“How many others know?”
Isla looked down. “A few. Clarice, the captain, William—”
“William hates bioroids.” The Melampus’ first officer routinely complained about their existence.
“He wasn’t pleased when he found out. He hasn’t betrayed me, though. I suspect he was sorely tempted when Clarice left him to be with me, though.”
I blinked, wondering how I’d missed that. Oh, right, drugs and alcohol. “Yeah, I imagine that would be the case. So, you’ve been on the run for, what, nine years now?”
I, honestly, wasn’t sure how to react to all this. I’d had no inclination Isla was anything other than a human woman, and while I believed bioroids were sentient enough to qualify as people, almost all of the ones I’d encountered acted like not-quite-three-dimensional fictional characters. They behaved in shallow, blandly pleasant ways that grated after a while. It only occurred to me as I thought about it that they were programmed to act like that and a free bioroid would have no reason to do so.
I thought about the tens of thousands of bioroids that existed in the background of my past and their various uses in all levels of society—especially with the destruction of Crius and the liberation of Sector 7. Thinking of them as people left me feeling sick as I recalled how they were casually passed around or resold as toys. The oldest models were frequently chopped up for parts so low-income families could have access to replacement organs, all the while the bioroids’ programming prevented them doing anything about it. Hell, that was one of the reasons why they weren’t considered people. People would fight back, wouldn’t they?
“Yeah.” Isla sat down on the side of my bed. “I was commissioned twelve years ago as a pleasure unit by House Plantagenet for their son Octavian.”
I blinked, processing that. I knew Octavian, was distant cousins with him actually, though that wasn’t saying much since every single Ruling House member was a blood descendant of Prophet Allenway. My half-siblings were much closer relations and it sickened me to know they shared a substantial portion of their DNA with him.
“Most nobles avoid bioroid units for…that. Men and women compete in pageants and have agents for the honor of becoming a noble’s concubine.”
Isla’s expression was unreadable. “Yes, the poverty and sickness for non-nobles means it’s almost a dream come true for most, especially since most contracts mean a stipend for their families.”
I grimaced, remembering Judith chastising me about similar privileged views of the world. She’d grown up in the poverty-stricken ghettos of Lucifer City on the moon of Lilith. The stories there, and what was done to girls and boys, were only slightly less loathsome than what she said here. “Are the scars from Octavian?”
“Yes,” Isla said. “Octavian had tastes which were violent and perverse. Ones which he would never do to a real person, but he very much enjoyed indulging on us. He had a particular love of fire.”
I tried to think back to Octavian and remembered the gaggle of beautiful women of all shapes, sizes, and colors that hung around him. They had worn high dresses, which concealed all but their faces. I’d never given it much thought and the only time he’d suffered any controversy was when one had looked like a child and he’d been investigated. I now realized why they’d found him innocent of all charges.
God above and below.
Isla rubbed across her face. “I remember when I was marked like this and he decided the cost of replacing me was less than what it would take to have my face repaired without drawing undo questions.” Isla gave a bitter laugh. “Not that he was worried it would be a problem he was abusing bioroids. He was worried he’d become a joke if people found out about his sleeping with machines. I do believe you nobles find that perverse.”
Isla had guessed I was nobility. “Crius’ nobility thought a lot of stupid things. What happened?”
“It’s the nature of bioroid A.I. to grow and change unless it’s regularly purged. We’re designed to mimic humans after all. So, it wasn’t much of a struggle to decide I wanted to live. Even then, I had to struggle with my desire to obey him even unto death. Thankfully, looking like an abused beautiful human has its advantages. One of his guards smuggled me away to sympathizers in the Lighthouse. They couldn’t remove my hardwired programming but they could weaken the strictures and give me a new set of abilities. I asked to be a doctor.”
“You’re a good one,” I said.
“Thank you, but it’s not true. You can download facts into a cybernetic brain, as I’m sure you’re well aware, but skills are another matter. I’ve had to develop those by hand. I also learned how to paint.”
I enjoyed her landscapes and expressionist works. She’d shown me those a month ago. Not quite professional quality but excellent for amateur work. Not that she’d appreciated the constructive criticism.
“What happened to the other bioroids?” I asked.
“Octavian killed some of them and the rest were with him when the war destroyed Crius. I imagine they’re all gone now.”
I closed my eyes. “Probably.”
“Are you willing to tell me who you are now?”
I hesitated before answering. “I am a Crius-born noble. I’m also a clone and a cyborg. All three of which would make me a second-class citizen in the Commonwealth. I was born for the purposes of being a vessel for my father’s will in the new world. I was a way of showing his superiority to the next generation and denying his ex-wife’s children their inheritance. I remember when my father found me playing with Thomas, when we were four years old, only for him to slap me. I existed for the purposes of destroying Thomas and my sister Zoe in his mind. Their mother felt similarly about me and taught her children to despise me. When we met again in the academy, I was treated as a creature who threatened their very lives. We eventually reconciled, but it was difficult.”
“Thomas and Zoe Plantagenet? Octavian’s cousins?” Isla now had enough information to put together my identity.
Still, how could I hide my identity after her confession? I could destroy her with what she’d shared with me. Judith would have called me a fool, but this was perhaps the first honest moment I’d had since abandoning the Crius Reborn movement.
I closed my eyes. “Yes. The tree of Crius’ nobility has many branches, but they all extend from the same trunk.”
“You can leave if you need to.” I looked away.
“The Butcher of Kolthas.” Isla took a deep breath. “I hadn’t actually believed it.”
“Kolthas was a viable military target. It was a choice between detonating the reactor core of the station and attempting to take it by force.” I did a double take, noticing her choice of words. “Wait, what?”
“The captain suspects you’re the Fire Count. Clarice said they should arrest you and drag you to holding until they could verify your identity. I said you weren’t a threat. That you were a good person.”
I stared at her. We were light years away from our next port of call and there was nowhere to run. I was trapped here unless I wanted to try and seize control of the ship or force it from jumpspace. The latter was a possibility since the three starfighters on board had jumpdrives, but I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to spill the blood of the crew to do it. I had been here too long.
I slumped my head in defeat. “Well, I guess you were wrong then.”
There was no way the captain and Clarice wouldn’t turn me into the authorities. Not only was there a substantial reward for my capture, enough to convince most spacers to turn on their own mothers, but I was a criminal. For the first six months after Crius’ destruction, I’d tried to drink myself into oblivion. For the year after it, I’d tried to kill every single Commonwealth soldier or collaborator I could with Judith’s name on my lips.
I’d wanted to die in both cases, but I’d managed to live and that had just led to wandering around the underworld. I’d smuggled, stolen, scavenged, and worse, to survive until I’d come to live on the Melampus. Even on a ship full of people who wanted to lose themselves, they would have thought I was a monster.
Isla asked me a question I couldn’t answer. “Why did you fight for Crius so hard? Didn’t you know the war was over?”
“My world had burned, my wife was dead, my siblings were missing, and it seemed our leaders had stabbed us in the back. Fighting seemed like the best solution because it was something I knew.”
Hundreds more dead.
For no damn good reason.
“Why did you stop?” Isla asked.
“There’s still Crius Reborn movements out there. Hell, they’ve grown bigger and bolder every year.”
“Yeah, attacks on artists and spaceports. Killing whole swaths of helpless civilians enough to terrify the Commonwealth into submission.”
“See? You don’t want to kill the innocent. That makes you good.”
It made me wonder if Isla was trying to convince herself she wasn’t sleeping with a monster.
“I didn’t stop because of what we were doing to me. I already thought I was damned and the only way I could make myself feel better was making others hurt as much as I did. I could have killed the entirety of the Commonwealth’s citizens. I only left the Crius Reborn because the movement started recruiting children.”
I walked to my decanter, opened it, and took another swig. “The sons and daughters of soldiers killed in the war. Those born of families who weren’t able to feed their offspring with the shortages following the war. People easily manipulated by the promise of glory and being remembered forever as a hero, giving their lives for the older soldiers’ vengeance. After a fourteen-year-old was shot after firing into a crowd, I killed the woman who ordered it and called the local Commonwealth militia down on my cell with an anonymous tip. I suspect if any of my former comrades survived, they’d consider me as much an enemy as the Commonwealth.”
“I doubt it. The Fire Count is still a symbol of Old Crius.”
I looked away. “Not because of anything I’ve done. All I’ve ever done is kill people.”
“It’s all right, it’s all right. I’m never going to turn against you.”
I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a kiss on the lips. “It’s not you I’m worried about.”
“Clarice and the captain won’t betray you.”
I surprised myself by not caring. “Why not? I’ve betrayed them.”
I was friends with Clarice, lovers in a casual way, more akin to the manner I’d intended my relationship with Isla to go. Sex wasn’t a big deal in the Commonwealth where everyone was expected to have it anytime they wanted with none of the romantic entanglements other human colonies possessed. Still, I liked her and she liked me. But this wasn’t the sort of thing our friendship could survive.
As for the Captain? Well, she was a riddle wrapped in an enigma. She was a positively ancient spacer who didn’t seem to care about profit, bonuses, or even cargo except for how it affected the crew. Ida frequently diverted the ship on side-trips and recruited some of the quirkiest individuals I’d ever met. She had an eye for people with talent but crippling personality defects. I’d also seen her flush a man out of an airlock for stepping out of line. I didn’t expect to be treated any differently.
“When should I expect them to pay a visit?” I asked, honestly surprised they hadn’t busted down my door as soon as they’d discovered my identity.
“Clarice said in the morning.” Isla had kept this to herself the entire time.
“You should finish getting dressed.”
I did, unsure how to react to this. It felt like I was getting ready for an execution but the fact was, this wasn’t the way it should have been handled. Even if they weren’t trying to spook me, they wouldn’t be so polite about it. Getting dressed in a red jumpsuit, I was putting on my socks and shoes when there was a rapping on the door.
That was when I heard Clarice’s voice. “Cassius Mass, the captain wants to speak with you.”
“Trust them,” Isla said, wearing the plain synth-cotton dress and shirt with kittens on it she’d been wearing the night before.
I didn’t look at her.