io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we’ll be featuring a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Tomorrow When We See the Sun” by A. Merc Rustad. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
Image © 2015 by KG Schmidt.
Tomorrow When We See the Sun
A. Merc Rustad
The last wolflord will be executed on the cusp of the new solar year.
Wolflord (title): nomadic, nameless survivors of destroyed warships; those who did not accept ritual immolation during the Decommission. No allegiance to the Principality; outlaws. The antiquated title is self-taken from the first deserter, whose name and memory were erased upon execution; precise origin unknown.
Released from its stasis, Mere stretches and glides through the wide atrium wreathed in bionic roses and silk banners. It pauses at the gates that hang perpetually open on the Courts of Tranquility. The sensory matrix on the threshold purrs against its consciousness in greeting.
“What awaits this it?” Mere asks the threshold.
The last wolflord. A great victory.
Mere feels nothing at the announcement, as it should. It is not allowed emotion.
It parades to the pool, proud-arched spine and lifted jaw; autonomous machine-flesh granted scraps of self and mind.
(In the glued and stapled seams, it has painted its own awareness. A taste for Zhouderrian wines fermented in the aftermath of white dwarf stars; the poetry of Li Sin, disfavored master of nanite-barbed words; desire stacked like coiled DNA strands, a tower of cards; a voice etched from grave-silence and forgotten pauses between peace and war. It displays none of itself, for it has also learned fear: It can be taken apart and erased if it deviates from its scripted role.)
Mere crouches at the pool’s lip. Once its function is complete, it will be returned to stasis. Mere dreads its inevitable sleep.
From this vantage, it surveys the Courts of Tranquility, the synaptic-like rainfall of light along the membranous domed ceiling, the living heartbeat of the tamed planet carved and grown to a million fine-tuned specifications and indulgences. And those within, oh yes, it has seen these courtiers often:
—nobles in redolent synth armor; generals and admirals decked in finest military dress; pilots, their faces replaced with the mindscreens of their ships—
—an eleven-souled sorcerer who drinks the breath of his favorite nemesis, their words twined together as they spar with tongue and gaze, neither ever ready to destroy the other (for then the fun would end)—
—the Gold Sun Lord, resplendent armored god, ensconced in a hover-throne that drifts about the Courts, omnipresent and untouchable—
And below, in the oblong pool where Mere has spent half of its conscious existence, the last wolflord is bound wrist and ankle, suspended in water as every ancillary world watches the feed. There will be no backup made of the wolflord’s mind, no funerary rites in the Archives of Heaven. Treason unto the Principality is not suffered lightly.
The Arbiter of the Suns steps forward and lifts reedy, sulfur-scorched hands. Smoke-cured breath fills ordained words with harmonies and atonal bass-clef chords. “You are summoned here, dearly condemned ...”
Mere unbends its body, muscle and ligament stretched along metal bones, and glides into the pool, water slicing to either side of its midriff. It cradles the disgraced wolflord’s head in one splayed hand. The other, fingers knife-tipped, rests along the condemned’s throat. Unseen, Mere spools neuron-thin tendrils into the base of the wolflord’s spine and siphons away pain and fear.
The wolflord’s body slackens in synthesized, unwanted calm. “Why do this?” the wolflord grinds out, words blocked by auditory and visual firewalls. None in the Courts of Tranquility will witness a criminal’s last words.
By protocol, Mere is granted the same erasure. It could scream and curse, and no one would hear (except its keepers, silent beneath the pool and always watching). “It is civilized,” Mere says with a mocking smile.
“No.” The wolflord struggles to speak. “You. Why do you ... obey, Mere ...”
Mere has never heard its name, found upon waking when it was first brought online, spoken aloud. For the first time since it has served as executioner (sixteen hundred rotations), Mere wants an answer from the damned: “How do you know this it?”
The wolflord’s eyelids droop with the sedative. “Loved you ... once ... I am so ... sorry ...”
“... and thus the heavens are cleansed anew,” says the Arbiter, and Mere cuts the last wolflord’s throat.
Blood ribbons out, diluted and sucked clean into vents. The wolflord’s spirit sinks as a glossy pebble to the pool’s bed.
Mere glances up at the Arbiter’s consorts that are ringed about the pool edge. Tattooed jawbones, bared of muscle and flesh, grin with engraved teeth; razored laughter cooks inside skinned throats.
“Where did you net the wolflord?” Mere asks.
They hum a response in chorus, each voice sculpted as a single, distinct, perfect note.
You shouldn’t care for the dead.
A traitor on the rim of knownspace,
seeking paradise in madness.
Spoke of you, of others lost,
begged mercy for crimes
and forgiveness, never granted.
They tip eyeless heads down in regret. The Arbiter’s consorts are hunters and bailiffs, as close to allies—never friends, never close—as Mere has. They bring it trinkets and bits of new poetry, synthesized tastings of wine, scents of uncharted galaxies and the sound of dying stars. In return, Mere slips the consorts filaments forged between its ribs to dull their unceasing pain.
(Sometimes, they share fragments of memory of who they were before they were exulted. Mere has trouble recalling what they have told it.)
Mere unwinds the neural threads from its fingertips, catching final memories and thought-imprints in illegal mods on its palms. It scythes its fingers in the water to wash away the blood.
With duty finished, the Arbiter glides away, flanked by consorts, to join the eleven-souled sorcerer at a table.
The wolflord’s hair fans out in gray strands that brush and twine lifeless about Mere’s wrist. Mere tilts its head, startled by the odd sensation, like it is choking. Is this grief? How can it grieve what it does not remember?
Mere is put back in stasis, where it dreams.
The keepers do not watch Mere sleep. So it unwraps the last worlflord’s stolen memories.
her hair smells of ruined worlds and clover soap
bring my conquests, she says, bring all of them and I will aid you
she whispers a string of coordinates, a planet once called Rebirth
each kiss nettles the tongue with microscopic treason, plague passed mouth to mouth
call forth the Red Sun Lord, champion of the dead
let us live again; let us rebuild; let us redeem ourselves
The rest: lost like unsanctioned souls brewed in a frosted glass kept chilled at zero Kelvin.
Mere aches, a phantom-physical sensation it cannot control.
There remains an early impression in its subconscious: on a barren world, a laboratory lined with glass suspension tanks, cold-filled with other bodies. Mere has no empirical evidence the recollection is its own. It was made, but by whom is unknown.
(It has no desire for a creator.)
Yet, the she with the plague kiss—it feels kinship for her, sharp, embossed on its awareness with sudden heat.
The Decommission (event): as a measure of good faith upon the signing of the peace treaty between the Seven Sun Lords, each god decommissioned and executed one thousand of their most powerful warships. Each ship and its pilot self-destructed within an uninhabited system of choice and were granted honor in the eyes of the Seven Suns.
Mere wakes without its keepers’ bidding. It blinks back the protective film on its eyes and stares at the lid of its stasis pod. Odd. Mere presses its palm against the lid, and it retracts into the floor.
A she crouches outside, dressed in mirrorsilk armor, visor drawn over her face so all it sees is its own reflection. “Mere?” she says, synthesized voice low.
“You have acquired unauthorized access to this it,” Mere says. “It is curious why.”
The stasis chamber is empty. Unadorned red walls and its stasis pod in the center with a ring of security lights above. Mere notes the disabled alarms and the blinding virus chewing at the keepers’ optic-feeds.
The she flicks her visor up. Her eyes are quicksilver, liquid and bright—cybernetic implants that contrast space-dark skin. “I’m Century. I’m here to free you.”
Mere is intrigued. No one has ever wished to free it, not even the Arbiter’s consorts. “Why?”
“I made you,” she says. The smell of the ancient laboratory is etched under her armor. “A crime I cannot undo. But we have no time. You have already been condemned for not reporting this security breach.” Her lips twist in a bitter smile. “Do you want to live?”
Mere has no organic heart (it knows the rhythmic beat of muscle against bone, has read of it in lines of Li Sin’s poetry), yet it still knows fear. It lost any choice when the she broke in.
“It will follow, then.”
Century blurs down the maintenance halls, the invisible veins of the Courts, enhanced speed given by her armor. Mere lopes at her heels.
It processes data and sensation in microseconds:
—it is exile, a faulty machine to be unmade—
—this is no coincidence Century broke into the Courts of Tranquility, a feat deemed impossible by the Principality, only hours after the last wolflord died—
—it is exhilarated—
—what will it do now? Its purpose, courtly executioner, has been dismantled—
They slip beneath the cityskin to the spaceport. Vessels of all make and class dock in thousands of bays. Century stops before an eel-ship, coiled in jewel-skinned splendor. Its great eye-ports are open, and Century signals with a hand; the eel distends a proboscis lined with diamond mesh and graphene plates like a ramp. Century leads Mere into the eel’s body.
Alarms klaxon in Mere’s head—its escape is known.
Within the eel’s retrofitted abdomen, synthetic tubes house the mechanics and computerized guts. Finery for living; oxygen filtration system and water recycling.
“Where will you take it?” Mere asks.
Century does not reply.
Mere crouches, toe-talons locked against the mesh floor panel. The she whispers to the eel-ship, and the great sinuous vessel unpeels itself from the port and scythes into vacuum.
Olinara V (planet, former population: seventeen million): Once a thriving colony world settled early in the founding of the Principality, it was decimated by the Gold Sun Lord when an escaped trinket-slave sought refuge in the Olinarain wilds. Olinara V is now classified as an uninhabitable world.
Mere has never been off-world. It taps the gills of the eel-ship, which obliges and unfurls interior flaps of skin to reveal translucent, hardened outerflesh and a view of space.
This odd, unclassifiable sense of kinship with the dead has grown the farther from the Courts they travel—a need (honor-bound) to see the dead to proper rest so they might pass into one of the afterlives in paradise or purgatory, reinvention or rebirth. It has killed so many, it longs to redeem itself. The last wolflord gave it the key.
“Why did you free this it?” Mere asks.
“An old debt.” Century grinds her teeth. “Once we’re out of range of the Courts’ sensors, I jettison you in a shuttle, wraith. You can make your own path.”
Mere pets the eel-ship, grateful for the indulgence, and turns towards the she. “Take it to the court of the Red Sun first.”
“No,” Century says.
“You will.” Mere flexes its hands. “You forged this exile without consent. You owe this it.”
Century whirls. The she has a plasgun at its jaw, muzzle pressed into soft tissue beneath its chin, and in turn, it rests its fingertips against the back of her neck. It looks down at her. The mirrorsilk burns into its skin, coiling up its wrist and burrowing towards bone.
“I can unmake you far easier than I made you, Mere.”
“It can sever your brainstem through you armor with but a gentle pinch of its fingers.”
Century scoffs. “We are both destruction incarnate. Perhaps this is a better end.”
Mere does not think the she wishes to die; it does not. If it kills her, the eel-ship will never take it where it must go. “A truce.” Mere lowers its arm, flesh chewed back to wire and metal skeleton, the knives bright. It will heal slowly. “It has a proposition.”
Century holsters the gun. “Do you.”
Mere extracts the last wolflord’s memories, printed into a small holochip it saved for one of the Arbiter’s consorts. “It is the wolflord who found Rebirth, is it not?”
Century’s shoulders tighten. “That world was lost long ago.”
Mere repeats the coordinates to her. Her expression remains inert. “It is what the wolflord remembered at death.”
“Damn you.” Century tips her head back and sighs. “I told him to forget.”
Mere offers her the holochip. “Clearly.”
Century doesn’t accept. “We thought the Red Sun’s presence would weaken the bindings of the consecrated pool. Once that happened, we could collect the soul seeds and bring them somewhere. Another planet. Give them proper rest. It was just a dream.”
“‘Dreams need not stay trapped in sleep alone,’” Mere says, quoting Li Sin. “Bring this it to the Red Sun Lord. We will rescue the dead.”
Century raises her eyebrows. “Do you know how many security protocols I hacked to get in ‘unnoticed’ the first time? I helped buildthe Courts.” She snorts. “I constructed the pool. I built the door matrix. The Courts were supposed to be an end to the galaxy-spanning wars I fought and won. The Principality was supposed to bring peace, starting with the Decommission.”
It tilts its head, watching the she sidelong. “You are old, then.”
“I am,” Century says with a bitter laugh. “But what’s age any longer?”
“You do not believe this endeavor possible.”
“No,” Century says. “I don’t. Not anymore.”
Mere examines its healing arm, flesh reknitting. There is an ache in its ribs it cannot define. “At least bring it to the Red Sun. All the souls in the pool are there by its hand; it would see them to a better fate.”
Century flinches, near-imperceptible.
But she speaks to the eel-ship, and they set course for a different court.
Blue Sun Lord (God): one of the Seven Suns, everlasting and all-knowing rulers of the Principality. Dwelling within the Hollow Systems, the Blue Sun Lord oversees the sanctified pool within the Courts of Tranquility; the Blue Sun Lord is a merciful and generous god [search terminated]
The ship glides through a radiant nebula; the eel-ship’s body glows as it absorbs radiation and shed filaments from the void, skin sluiced away from a progenitor star. This reminds Mere of Li Sin’s collection, Bound Infinity, Transcendent. Mere has dabbled in poetry, played with bits of unattached verse:
Breathing in designer atmosphere / academic bloodsport
Sip sorrow’s martini / watch sequin-skinned guests sway and flow /
Mere stumbles over further stanzas, uncertain. Does it possess its own creativity, its own words, or are they borrowed finery collected from too many other sources, pieces plucked from the dead?
Other space eels twine and dance in the ruins of gasses and elements and carbons.
“Beautiful,” Mere murmurs.
Century, tucked in a fold between the eel-ship’s ribs, doesn’t look up from her reading. “Anything can be beautiful. Even monsters.”
Mere has never been praised for its aesthetic. “Will you tell it why it was made?”
Century sets aside the tablet. “I built you from the remains of my enemies. It was to be their eternal subjugation.” Quieter: “I still regret it.”
“It has heard,” Mere says, “regret may be molded anew, if one chooses. This it will shape its own future once its duty is complete.”
“And where will you go if you survive?” Century asks. “Any planet you linger on will suffer like Olinara V.” Her jaw tightens. “I saw what befell that world. You can’t escape forever.”
Mere has no basis for argument. “What do you run from?”
Century’s mouth thins into a line. “I should have left you, wraith.”
Mere tilts its head. It is grateful, unexpectedly, that she converses with it, that she has not ejected it from the ship and let it drift into frozen death. “It would rather live briefly outside the Courts than forever in chains.”
Century coughs, a strangled laugh. “Sweet mother of stars. You have no recollection, do you?”
“What should it recall?”
She reaches into a slit in her armor. “Here.” The holochip rests heavy on her palm. “Your birth, if you want it.”
Hundreds of glass pods, each cold-filled with bodies—her enemies, trophies, former friends betrayed. The wolflord stands beside her (young, war-scarred, shipless). The wolflord has always remained loyal to Century, and she has taken the wolflord under her protection so the former pilot will not be discovered and executed.
“Must you do this?” the wolflord whispers.
She has taken pieces of each enemy, mind or flesh or bone or blood or gene, and she has built a sexless bipedal wraith from her conquests. It stands taller than she, lithe deadly machineflesh, and she gives it her organic eyes last of all, cased in cybernetic implants.
“It is a mere tool,” she says, fondness in her tone.
The wolflord sighs. “That is all we are to you.”
She turns, head tipped in curiosity. “Would you be more?”
Instead of answering, the wolflord nods to the many glass pods. “And the remains?”
“The wraith will execute them,” she says. “In doing so, it will become mine alone, unburdened from its former selves.”
The wolflord flinches.
She presses her palm against the wraith’s chest, igniting its processors and sparking its lifeforce siphoned from her dearest enemy. The wraith opens its—her—eyes.
“Wraith,” she says. “I have made you for one purpose.”
It blinks several times, then bows.
“It will serve in the Courts of Tranquility,” she says to the wolflord. “A celebration of our new age of peace.”
The wolflord’s gaze meets the wraith’s, but the wolflord looks away in shame.
(There is a subfile tucked inside that is not the she’s. The wolflord planted it, imprinted with a name: Kitshan Zu.
In the months between its awakening and the completion of the Courts of Tranquility:
“They will erase this,” the wolflord says, hand at rest so gentle on Mere’s cheek. “They won’t let you have what’s yours. Not memory nor self. Not...” The wolflord swallows. “I have to go. Century has work I must finish in her name.”
Mere blinks, chalk-gray skin furrowed between its cybernetic eyes. “I wish to go with you, Kitshan.”
The wolflord kisses Mere, lips rough and course and so familiar. “If I could steal you, Mere, I would. I promise you one thing—I will come back for you. When I learn how to free you, I will come back.”
“Then I will wait,” Mere says, and pulls the wolflord close one last time.)
Mere shudders as the memory knits into its own consciousness, blended with so many dreams of the dead.
A fragment, unburied: The wolflord was most often a he, and sometimes not, and always kept his name. Kitshan.
Mere wishes it had memories of its own to braid into a lost narrative in which it was happy with him, in which they shared passion and laughter and sorrow. This is like its favorite of Li Sin’s sonnets, where the poet laments falling through a time vortex and breaking the time stream by trying to reclaim lost love.
“I watched the feeds,” Century says. Outside the ship, great gaseous whales converge in a celestial pod, frequency-song caressing the hull and sides. “I saw his capture. I was too far away to get to the Courts before ...” A crisp, vicious head shake. “I would have spared you that, if I could grant you but one mercy.”
Mere has nothing to say to the she.
Rebirth (world): there is no such designated planet in the Principality archives. Further searches will result in disciplinary measures.
The court of the Red Sun is bones and dusk, burned into a cold shell of its former glory.
The eel-ship glides into membranous ports that ring the station. Heptagonal, forged from old warships and dead stars, lit and powered within by the Red Sun Lord’s essence.
Century sits motionless in the cockpit. “You better hurry. The other Suns will find you. Always, they will find you.”
Mere is aware. The Courts call to its blood; until it finds a way to unlock its own molecular leash from its keepers’ hold, it must stay a dozen steps ahead. But first it must survive an audience with the Red Sun, the Death of Endless Worlds.
Mere enters the airlock. Spindle-legged drones bow and guide it through red-splashed corridors to the throne room of the Red Sun Lord.
A beautiful spider-prince, chitin-skinned humanoid with four delicate legs protruding from the spine like desiccated wings, sits at the Red Sun’s left, a shadow-garbed concubine. Eight jewel-rimmed eyes watch under thick lashes. “Those beholden to the Courts of Tranquility are seldom welcome, wraith.”
Mere bows. “It seeks aid for the lord’s chosen.”
The spider-prince leans close, a spine-leg lightly brushing the Red Sun’s helmet. The visor rises, and the Red Sun’s gaze sears into Mere’s flesh.
Mere folds itself in supplication, its back blistering. It unbends an arm, lifts a palm, and shows the holochip record of the wolflord’s execution. “It asks the lord to listen.” Pain sinks deeper—it holds its ground, and does not scream. “The lord has claim to the dead,” Mere says, “and if the lord will come to assert that claim, this it will retrieve the souls of the lost and give them peace.”
The heat relents as the Red Sun drops the helmet visor. Mere shivers as its cells begin repair, and the coolness of the dim throne room sinks into its burned flesh.
“May this one eat the wraith?” the spider-prince purrs.
Mere waits, its body taut.
The Red Sun stretches out a hand, and with a sigh, the spider-prince rises and sweeps forward. He takes the chip from Mere’s palm and inserts it into a port in his ribs.
“A pity,” the spider-prince murmurs, with a longing glance at Mere. “I am starving.”
“Perhaps another time,” Mere says. It listened well to courtly wit and challenge. It has read much of Li Sin’s political treatise, curated by the poet’s ship, Vector Bearing Light. “It might poison you in turn.”
The spider-prince smiles, appreciative. The projection blossoms outward, slow like congealed blood, and the image of the last wolflord stands before the Red Sun.
fleeing the Arbiter’s consorts on a far-flung world, injured
looking up at the sky, begging
the last wolflord is bound in the pool, throat cut
The Red Sun’s armored form stiffens, fists clenched on the starlight throne. “And why should I not unmake you for this crime, wraith? The last of my disciples, no more. Why did I feel nothing ...”
The spider-prince slinks back to the Red Sun’s side and strokes the god’s armored shoulders, soothing. “The Courts of Tranquility are shielded, my liege-love.”
The Sun Lords are cosmic bodies reshaped into compressed armored shells after a treaty two millennia ago. They have never ceased being enemies. Six rule the Principality, while the Red Sun Lord, who was always death, broods alone in the outer reaches of dominion.
Mere continues: “It has defied the Sun Lords of Tranquility to come and beg for vengeance. It once cared for the dead and does not wish to obey its masters.”
“And what,” says the Red Sun, “would you do with the souls, wraithling?”
“It knows of a world far outside the Principality where they will be safe: Rebirth.”
The spider-prince taps his long, graceful fingers against his chin. “Rumors do exist among the lost of such a world, my love.”
The Red Sun stands. Mere flattens itself to the floor.
“Come,” says the Death of Endless Worlds. “I will return to the Courts of Tranquility.”
Wraith (object): an organic drone (technology outdated and now forbidden by the Principality) constructed from pieces of other organics and androids. Wraiths are non-sentient and possess no soul. The majority of wraiths were created before the Treaty of the Seven Suns as shock troops built from the dead.
The Red Sun arrives in a ship built from bones of ancient solar chelonians and no port dares refuse it entry. The Death of Endless Worlds burns footprints into the halls. Mere follows, never stepping in ash.
“You’ll have but a few seconds once inside,” Century told it while the eel-ship rode beside the Red Sun’s vessel. “If you’re caught again, nothing will save you.”
Since when has it been caught before?
Soundless, the Red Sun strides into the Courts of Tranquility. The smell of emptiness, the dark between the stars, clings to scarlet and black-scaled armor. Unease writhes through the courtiers, fermenting into panic.
“You dare?” The Gold Sun Lord steps down from the hover-throne and cuts through the skittering courtiers, armor brightening. “And you bring thisthing with you?”
Mere spreads its hands in mock supplication from where it stands on the threshold matrix.
“You break every law by coming here,” says the Gold Sun.
“Except one.” The Red Sun extends a fist towards the pool. “I have a right to the dead.”
“No,” says the Gold Sun. “Not anymore.”
Gold Sun and Red Sun raise non-corporeal blades to each other in silent duel.
You should run, murmurs the threshold.
Mere dives into the pool. It knows every soul pebble, so it scoops a hundred seventeen into its abdomen pouch. The others are already rotted—celestial molecules broken down from the inside, wrapped in distended film, which the slightest disturbance will break and spill out only dust. It cannot save them all.
It knifes through the water and catches the wolflord’s soul last.
Mere senses the keepers watching, cold optics drifting in amniotic fluids behind the pool’s walls. Sudden anger sparks in Mere. It slams a hand into the tiled side. Cracks web around the impact. Again, Mere strikes. Its hand sinks through insulated glass and it snatches one of the keepers: an optic node attached to sensory cables.
Alarms ricochet among the keepers, but Mere holds tight. It bounds from the pool.
The eleven-souled sorcerer confronts it, wreathed in iridescent shadow. “Stand down, wraithling,” he says, thin lips curled mirthless.
Mere coils muscle and hydraulics in its legs and leaps, toe-claws bared. It cuts through the sorcerer’s shadow shields and ducks away from his grasp. It kicks the sorcerer in the chest with bone-shattering force. The sorcerer falls back.
Automated defense drones circle overhead. Exhilarated, Mere sprints towards the door matrix, letting the Red Sun’s wrath deflect its pursuers.
Good luck, murmurs the threshold, and Mere smiles.
This time, it runs through the upper halls of the Courts: past luxury holo suites and theaters, gardens and feast halls, over bridges that span crystalline waterfalls and floating glass spheres filled with lovers and voyeurs alike. It crosses into the industrial sectors, locks bypassed by Century’s nanite snakes, which slither through the walls as fast as it runs.
And then, once more, the spaceport. Mere sprints down the wide central platform towards freedom.
Four mammoth crustacean guards—crab-bodied, armored, spotted in hundreds of eyes—unwind from the walls and mesh themselves between Mere and the eel-ship. Mere springs up, spotting niches in armor, planes of body and joint it can use to climb and evade. It has no time to fight.
A fifth crustacean guard appears behind it and hammers a claw into it mid-air.
The blow shatters Mere’s arm and rips open its side. Its body is thrown halfway across the platform, ribs crushed. Mere curls in on itself to protect its belly and rolls. A sixth crustacean guard circles behind and seizes Mere in great pincers. It twists, hissing, a single breath between it and being decapitated through the midriff.
“Stand down.” The voice resounds with such weight and power, Mere mistakes it for one of the Sun Lords. The crustacean guard freezes. “Know my voice: for I am the Unmaker of Worlds.”
The others hesitate. Mere lifts its chin, orienting itself on the voice.
Century stands on the platform, wreathed in a film of ultraviolet light. It projects from her skin, her teeth, her voice.
“The wraith is mine.” Century extends a hand, commanding. “Give it to me, now, unharmed. Disobey my word and I shall reign destruction upon your people until there is naught by the trembling memory of pain in the heavens.”
Gently, the crustacean guard sets Mere down. The others back away, submissive. Century does not move.
Mere limps towards her, past her, and into the ship. She follows, but the crustacean guards do not. Mere collapses inside.
The eel-ship twists and streaks from the port, chased this time by droneships beholden to the Six Suns: faceless pilots uprooted and loosed once more.
“We will lose them in subspace,” Century says, calm. “If not for long.”
Mere apologizes to the ship for spattering its blood on the floor as it cradles its side. It takes a slow breath, the crunch of bone rearranging in its torso and arm familiar. “You are a Sun Lord,” it says at last.
Century rolls her shoulders. “Once I was the Violet Sun. We took new bodies, it’s true, but they change, they weaken. Anything that lives can die.”
Mere strokes its undamaged hand along its abdomen; its cargo remains undamaged. It wonders what its soul might look like, culled in a pebble beneath cold water. If it was born from the fractured pieces of the Principality’s enemies, what will its existence reflect in death? It is automatous, but it still more machine than organic, and there are no simple answers in the theologies or heresies it has skimmed.
It unfurls its broken fingers with its other hand and examines the keeper it stole. Inside the optic, thousands of compressed recordings tagged wraith_construct.
“Don’t,” Century says, but makes no move to stop it. “You’ll only hurt yourself, Mere.”
Mere downloads the recordings.
A crustacean guard drags Mere’s limp body from the surgical pods, where it was once more tested for pain tolerance (high) and fitted with a restraint collar beneath its throat-skin so it will not escape again (fourth time, the keepers say, disapproving).
“Why do you run?” the guard asks as Mere’s eyes open. “There is nowhere to go. Do you like being hurt?”
Mere hisses at the guard, always the one to find it. “Why do you stay?”
“There is no choice,” says the guard, quiet.
“I will make choice,” Mere says.
The wraith is put in stasis.
Dozens of near identical recordings:
Mere fulfills its duty as executioner.
It is taken to a containment chamber of sterile walls and faceless technicians. Its memory is selectively culled so it no longer remembers the details of the ones it has killed.
Sometimes, the wraith fights. Dead technicians are easy to replace.
But even technology fails. Mere takes advantage of the blocks in the feeds over the pool and slices open its arm to write on its bones; the flesh glues together before the technicians focus the light instruments into its head.
(The keepers hum interest to each other: Why does the wraith care about the names of the dead? Where is the fault in its programming?)
The keepers cannot find the anomaly.
It has not attempted to flee in two cycles, so it is given privileges and allowed to wander the cityskin. It seeks out the Arbiter’s consorts, confined in luxury and pain. Zarrow and Jhijen, the newest consorts who still keep hold of their names, welcome Mere. It basks in attention and conversation. Zarrow teaches it laughter. Jhijen invites desire; Mere can experience pleasure as much as pain. Mere could have picked from any number of genders, but it does not have an interest in the choices, so it remains neutral, comfortable with its pronouns. Jhijen and Zarrow always respect its choice, as it does theirs, when their genders change like the fluid motions of a dance.
(Mere thinks, the keepers note. It thinks of the consorts as friend.)
There is no timestamp to show when Zarrow and Jhijen disappeared.
The she bound in the pool looks like Zarrow.
“Who are you?” Mere whispers.
“... and thus the heavens are cleansed anew,” says the Arbiter.
Mere does not kill the she.
The keepers hastily feed a loop of crafted images into the broadcast, so the universe watching will never know the wraith’s hesitation. The Courts of Tranquility see what is expected; polite applause follows.
Obey, the keepers send to its processor.
Mere shakes its head, snips the fibrous chains, and lifts the she from the water. “It will not kill this one. The she has committed no crime.”
The she that looks like Zarrow brushes her fingers along its cheek. “I’ll remember you.”
The Arbiter’s eyes burn with fury. “The she is an insurgent who disobeys the Six Suns.”
Mere laughs at the Arbiter. “So do I.”
The restraint collar activates and crumples Mere on the edge of the pool. The consorts lift the she’s shallow-breath body and carry her off; her true death will be private. Mere cannot stop it.
Mere hisses in pain as the Arbiter watches. It lifts its arm, shaking, and digs its knife-fingers into its throat. Blood and fluids drip into the pool as Mere cuts out the collar piece by piece.
The Arbiter backs away, a step shy of haste.
Mere’s body slides over the side, into the water. It floats there as its skin regrows and the crustacean guards come to drag it away.
All the Arbiter’s consorts are replaced and the wraith’s privileges are revoked. The keepers implant a block in its neural protocols that will never allow Mere to speak as an “I” again.
In its stasis chamber, Mere scrapes sharp fingers against the wall, which throbs and erases each mark; still Mere tries to carve the names of the dead, transcribe them from its raw bones before the keepers or the security drones stop it.
Mere crushes the remains of the keeper’s optic and stands, shivering. There are many, many more files. It deletes them.
It looks at Century.
Century rubs beneath her quicksilver eyes. “When I gave you to the Blue Sun Lord, a final gift to seal our peace treaty, I couldn’t take you back.” She turns away. “The wolflord was working on a way to unbind you. I refused. I do not wish to see war again.”
Mere wipes the keeper’s fluids from its hands. Bones have mended and the eel-ship has washed away the blood on the floor. “How soon before we are found?”
She shrugs. “We will find Rebirth first. We will finish this.”
After it asks and receives permission from the ship, Mere etches all the names of the dead into the eel’s rib bones. The ship promises to remember them.
Mere murmurs its thanks.
And you? the ship asks. What would you like to be remembered as?
Mere hesitates. Of the possibilities it might choose from, it does not want to be: executioner, killer, weapon. But what else does it deserve?
Mere does not know what else it should say.
Li Sin (revolutionary): a neutrois poet whose work is known for biting wit, political critique, and transcendent beauty. No records can be found on Li Sin’s birthplace or their death. The poet stopped writing and disappeared after challenging the Gray Sun Lord in the Year of Unpraised Night 2984; the Gray Sun slumbers in the Arora Nebula, undisturbed and unresponsive since.
The ship drops from subspace over planetary designation Z1-479-X: Rebirth.
Mere peers through the ship’s gills at the blue-green-white sphere. It is devoid of cityskin; no metal-glass veins or infrastructure rising to the sky. Mere has never seen a world like this.
“I never thought I would see it again,” Century says. Her voice catches like skin on a metal burr. “Come.”
Mere says goodbye to the ship.
Farewell, friend, says the eel-ship.
They take a shuttle with two life-pods down to the surface.
Kitshan Zu (warship pilot): Zu’s ship, Forever Brightness of the Sun, was killed in battle and disconnected its pilot prior to its destruction. Zu was comatose on an Olinara V field hospital until his disappearance following the visitation of the Violet Sun a cycle later. The ex-pilot’s whereabouts and fate are unknown.
The night sky froths with clouds. Mere marvels at the prickly moss webbing the stony ground and the kiss of damp air against its body. This world is unshaped and wild, virile with flora and fauna it does not recognize from the Principality’s records. It has never seen so much uncultivated wilderness, even in holos. Field and forest pass, and still the map leads Century forward.
They landed in a dry canyon and followed the she’s implanted map.
They find a river, unsanctified and alive, bubbling past without notice. Mere stands transfixed. It wants to touch the water’s delicate skin, but does not feel worthy.
This world cannot know its presence long. Mere yearns to stay, to wander the wonders it has only glimpsed on this planet. But it is a taint, a cultured, weaponized stain from the Principality, and it does not belong. It will take the shuttle and let the Arbiter chase it to the universe’s birthing place, so long as no harm comes to this world or any other.
“Here,” Century calls. In a clearing ringed in living walls of flowers, Century stands motionless in raw, rich soil. “Can you feel it?”
Mere shuts its eyes and breathes in. Its skin and circuitry hum with power. “What is it?”
“Life. Potential.” A sigh. “The world welcomes us all. I remember ... I remember. I was born here. That is how I know it; why it haunts my bones.”
Mere tilts its head. “What now?”
“Give the ones we carry rest. Perhaps they too will be reborn. Our part is done.”
Mere slits its abdomen pouch and lets the pebbled souls fall loose into the ground. The earth shifts and closes gently over each one.
Energy it cannot name loops through Mere—the world’s fingers caressing its mind.
Wordless, an impression sweeps through Mere: the dawn kissing the earth, the souls wrapped in soil released from their pebbled shells crafted by the pool. When the sun rises, all will be complete. The dead will find their afterlives or their rebirth.
Century removes her armor piece by piece, and runs her fingers along her scarred scalp. “Will you kill me now, wraith? That is your purpose. It is ... what I deserve.”
Mere has never been given choice. It has seen the wolflord to rest. What further purpose must it serve?
It tallies what it would do if freed: seek out the funerary holo of Li Sin and pay homage; sip wine on a far-flung world where identity is unnecessary; learn to dance without downloading precise diagrams of movement; travel the stars; write poems of its own; see wonders; live. And it would remember.
Mere retracts its knife-tips into fingerbones. “You gave it its freedom. It returns the grace. Do as you will.”
Century dips her chin, military acknowledgement. “Gratitude, Mere.”
Mere lifts its head, elated. If it can show mercy, it can do so much more.
Century smiles at Mere. “I will sleep, as I’ve not done in so long. When I wake ... we’ll see. Farewell.”
“Farewell,” Mere says to its maker, and lopes towards the ship.
It is free.
In the canyon gullet, the repulsors of dropships thrum. Mere slows, dry earth cracking beneath its feet. The shuttle is visible at the end of the ravine, caked in reentry burns and wind-blown dust.
The air brings the sharp scent of bloodied and oiled mechanics. Mere’s sensors link with other semi-biologicals.
The mercury-veined butchers, stained silver and red, squat in single file rank along the canyon’s lip, sores popped from necrotic skin. Beneath the light-bent holoprojectors, the butchers’ forms are true: fragmented drones from the Gold Sun and the Blue Sun, vessels programmed with tireless efficiency.
The Sun Lords have found Mere.
But these are no hollowed shells. Mere sees the frightened eyes of armor-bound clones (of the Arbiter’s consorts, as they were before they were exulted—Zarrow is there, and so is Jhijen), unmasked behind targeting arrays. It knows each one of them, has shared memory and dreams with them. Once (so long ago) it dared think of them as friend.
Mere stands frozen between the butcher-clones and Century, the wolflord, and all the seeded. In a microsecond, realization:
—no longer must Mere kill—
—the seeded need but an hour more, until the sun rises and wakens new life—
—weaponized bones, detonator heart, poison blood: Mere can unmake all the Sun Lords’ drones, dismantle and slaughter until all that remains is gore-soaked earth; christen the seeded with the promise of eternal war, mark Rebirth for a fate shared by Olinara V—
—Mere wants to live—
The drones have come only for Mere, the Blue Sun’s disobedient trinket. Once the mission is complete, this world will be a forgotten sanctuary once more.
Mere steps forward as the butcher-drones approach. It will fight them, but not to win. The Suns will witness its desperation and be satisfied with its death. It will not be brought back to the Courts of Tranquility. It will remember.
This is its chosen purpose and its choice: to save the ones it can.
The butcher-drones attack. Mere lets them come.
It composes a final a poem, and though the last wolflord will never know, Mere dedicates the words to Kitshan.
Your eyes, grace-touched / forever refuge
We will live together
Tomorrow / when we see the sun.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2015 issue, which features 8 science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.