Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’ll take you away. She’s down by the water, her belly kissing the sand and her skinny landing-legs stuck out like a crab. You and Tamar watched her land, stayed up half the night like babies staring at their first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of Tamar’s balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two have been full up with starstuff for as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by yourselves. Now you’re almost home.
Home for you will be the Imperial battlecruiser Vault of Heaven, destroyer-class, star-conqueror and peacekeep. You’ve had your marching orders for three months, and you’ve spent every spare minute accessing all the file and ‘fiche on her you can scrounge clearance for. You practically live on your records-tablet when you’re not out with Tamar, so no one’s minded you taking a bit of time to fall in love with your own personal piece of the Fleet. The Vault of Heaven‘s an old ship, a proud ship, refitted top of the line just a year ago. You’re for officer’s training and then command, your geneset finally writing you the ticket you’ve always known it would. Tonight the shuttle takes you and Tamar and every other crèche-spun kid old enough to have passed the entrance exams up to the Empress’s very own flagship.
Tomorrow there’ll be ceremonies and presentations, and then your nanite horde will be calibrated for shipside on live broadcast for the entire Fleet to see – another cohort of kids full up with starshine micromechanics, bound to service and obedience, gone off into the stars. You’ve been dreaming about it since you could read. You want it so much you’ve spent the last three months feeling like your chest is going to burn out from longing.
The night after tomorrow, though. You can’t let yourself dream about that.
Under the drape of your overjacket, snugged up to your spine like you’re its best lovecrush, are the disassembled pieces of a sniper rifle. Nestled right at the small of your back is the lead-shielded explosive heart of an electromagnetic pulse bomb.
The overjacket’s the best overjacket you’ve ever had, orchid brocade in stiff heavy folds that split at the breastbone into six panels, done over in mother-of-pearl and sequins that echo the lightswarm of your nanites. You had it made specially. No way you were going up to space in last year’s couture, you said at the tailor’s, and you meant it, only you also meant you wanted to look enough the louche crècheling that no one would think to check under your finery. You’re Elias Akhal. There’s only one geneset in the Empire purer than yours. No one would ever suspect you’re anything but the Fleet’s man, hungry for your own ship and a starfield as big as any ocean you’ve ever swum in.
You wish so much it were that simple. You also wish it weren’t true. You’d like it if you could ever feel all one way about a thing.
When you turn round from staring at the shuttle, there’s Petros Titresh and your Tamar, coming down the beach like a picture out of a storyfiche. She’s done up in gauzes with gold bangles in her hair, but he’s a steel-gray bore: overjacket buttoned to the chin and his skin unlit, sparkless and smooth like stonework. Petros never ate his nanites; the way he tells the story, he stormed out of his crèche in a stubborn fit of ideological purity instead of making himself into starlight. Sometimes, when you and he stay out talking in the city until the dawn alarms sound, you get drunk enough to almost understand why.
Now he walks in careful tandem with Tamar, his hand trapped in hers, her regard pinned to him like a medal he never won nor deserved. Tamar can have anyone she likes, is the problem. She’s not just Akhal like you – she’s real Imperial cloneflesh, sister and twin right down to the cell with the Empress Herself. She hasn’t been a mirror for you since you both hit puberty, but the lines of your face and hers are the same: razor cheekbones and full mouths, the nose that every Fleet officer shares. Her eyes never darkened from gray; that was the first clue the crèche-keepers got that they’d spun an imperial clone instead of another Akhal. Today Tamar is bare-armed beautiful in the light coming up reflected off the waves, all muscle through the shoulder from how much she’s practiced with spear and neuroparalyzer net.
Tomorrow the Empress Herself kills her, or your Tamar kills the Empress and takes the Imperium for a prize. They’re not just otherselves like you and every other Akhal, they’re cloneflesh, they’re the same, there’s only ever allowed to be one of them. The law guarantees it.
Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.
Petros stares at the shuttle like you’ve been staring at it, goggle-eyed and hungry. “It’s not very big,” he says.
“That’s because this one’s just for this crèche, direct to the Empress’ flagship!” Tamar’s all foam-bubble excitement. You glow just hearing her.
“I know,” Petros says. “Only the best genesets, sent straight into the maw of the Fleet for our compulsory brainwashing and a celebratory gladiatorial death game! I am going to have so much fun I can hardly begin to describe it.”
“No one’s going to notice you, Petros, your bit’ll be easy,” you say, which you mean to be a comforting sort of comrades-in-arms gesture. From Petros’s expression it sounds to him more like you were enthusing about the benefits of sticking his head out an airlock.
Tamar ruffles his hair. Petros flinches, and so do you, your heart flopping in your chest like something from the deeps dragged out and drowning in air. Tamar can take anyone up to the Fleet with her on just her say-so. Even if he’s outside the law, no starstuff sparks ready to tear his flesh if he betrays the Empire, Petros Titresh gets his berth on the ship. That’s the part of your plan that’s all Tamar. She says to every horde-riddled adult: this Titresh is my servant; I want him, he comes with me.
On your good days, you believe that pile of rotten sharkmeat. This isn’t a good day. You’d rather you three were trying to smuggle him in the luggage.
“Two hours left,” Tamar says. “Last day on the beach. You boys ready?”
It’s your beach, yours and Tamar’s. Her balcony in the crèche looks down over it. It’s also the safest place for three kids to plan treason. The surf covers ambient sound pickup, and hardly anyone but you two’ve got the arm-strength to climb down the cliffs to the shore alone. When Petros comes along one of you brings a rope to help him, and he’s not a weakling. He’s just not an Akhal.
“You got the –” Petros starts to ask, his hand shaping a trigger and a stock in the air, and you interrupt him.
“Of course I do. Yours and mine.”
Petros gives you a short nod, stepping into the waves towards the shuttle. He gets the hems of his trousers soaked. “Everyone else I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing is either half-drunk on the prospect of basic training and eternal servitude, or hiding out in a skep hoping that not showing up for conscription day won’t make their nanites disassemble them,” he says contemplatively. “I guess I’m ready.”
Tamar splashes him. When he yelps, she says, “You’ll be fine.”
“I will not,” he says. “This is such a brilliant disaster of a plan.”
Next to Tamar, blazing like a comet, the moonlight shrouds him; he’s near invisible, his head bowed and his shoulders hunched up to his ears. He’s probably wishing he was down in the city, yelling at kids with visible asymmetries about changing the world. He’s a mess. You could hate him for it, but hating Petros makes you tired.
“Only a disaster if it doesn’t work,” you say, and you make yourself sound coaxing and gentle and like you believe it.
“It’s going to work,” Tamar says. “If I win that duel – and you’re going to make sure I win that duel – I’m legally Empress and I can retroactively pardon the three of us. And then we can get started on making real changes! For everybody. We just have to get there. I need you.”
You are going to be sick to your stomach. Maybe you can blame it on never having been up in space before. The laser-housing for your rifle is digging a hole next to your ribs, under your gorgeous overjacket. You can’t forget it’s there and you aren’t sure how anyone else is likely to fail to notice how you’ve got most of a sniper rig in pieces all attached to you. Especially if you get sick all over yourself. Retroactive pardons. The fuck are you three doing.
“I know,” says Petros. “You can’t do it without me. Got to have an invisible kid to carry the bomb. We’ve got two hours, right? I’m taking a walk.” He trudges into the surf, heading east down the shoreline. Tamar watches him go.
You look around the beach that’s been a truer home than even your room in the crèche, and think: I am never going to see this place again. You don’t know if how empty your chest gets is because you want to be gone or because you’re saying goodbye. Then your Tamar is finally looking at you and you forget all about yourself.
She smiles like she smiles on the bow of a skiff right before she fires her speargun, high-tension and brighter than midday. She gets her feet wet coming over to you, and then she reaches out and fixes your collar. It’s the first time in six days she’s touched you, and she doesn’t even notice how you go shame-struck still under her fingertips.
“Elias,” she says. “We’re really doing this. I’m so nervous! It’s great.”
You nod. “We really are,” you say. She lets you go and dashes toward the pier and its boathouse.
“I’m going out one last time! You should come with me!” she calls over her shoulder.
The shadow of the pier swallows her whole and you go running after.
You meet your first shipside adults when the shuttle door gapes open like the belly of a gutted fish. The adults are tall and beautiful and they glitter, their lips and eyes full to bursting with nanite sparks. You can’t spot their geneset from just looking; it’s not one that gets spun in your crèche. They move like sharks, like they’ve forgot how to be still. When you line up to board, they take samples of your blood. Fingerprick test: one officer with a clipboard, one officer with a little needle-machine, making sure each kid is what they say they are.
Tamar gets a wide eye and a bit of snide subservience when she comes up imperial on the fingerprick, ushered to a seat right in the shuttlefront with the best view. She is simpered at while she goes. She takes it like the princess she’s always been, like she couldn’t care less for propriety. She introduces Petros while they check the dull hue of his blood. She introduces you: and this is Elias Akhal, we were crèchesibs together. The adults look you over, then, take your measure like they understand all of what you are. You twitch the panels of your overjacket into place and stare them down until they dismiss you as just one more sparkstruck kid caught in Tamar’s wake, and don’t you wish that didn’t sting.
You sit in the seat facing her and Petros, strapped in against acceleration. Your back’s to the view so even when you break gravity and the dizzy pressure of atmospheric escape shoves your lungs into your stomach, space stays a mystery. You watch it reflected in Tamar’s horde, starlight particles flowing restless in her cheeks, a hectic flush. About then everything goes topsy-turvy and you have to spend some time once again not spewing your guts onto your overjacket and ruining everything. Petros has got no such problems with weightlessness. His mouth gapes open at the view, and you’ve never seen him look so much like he might cry from seeing something good. Whatever else is wrong with him, refusing the horde and all his bullshit talk about geneset equality, turns out the kid is made for space. If you weren’t working on remembering how to breathe, you’d add that to the list of things Petros has taken away from you without ever knowing he took them.
Gravity reestablishes when the shuttle docks, but you don’t have time to adjust before the officers unstrap Tamar and take her away. You panic for the first time. The other kids are filing out of the shuttle and onto the flagship and all you do is scramble to your feet and say “Already?” like you are the most ill-starred fool in an awful romanceflick.
Tamar comes over to you all in a rush, gets close enough that you can see how wide her eyes have gotten. “Don’t worry yourself, Elias,” she says. “I’ll see you before sunrise. And you’ll – you’ll see me sooner, promise you’ll watch?”
There is nothing in your life that ever prepared you to say goodbye to Tamar Akhal. You haven’t got a single clue as to how. “I promise,” you say. “I’ll be right at the front—”
She leans in close. You think for a minute she’s going to kiss you, let you drink up how her mouth tastes exactly the same as yours. Tamar takes you by the shoulders instead, her fingers a bare inch from where the barrel of your rifle pushes against the nape of your neck. You tell yourself you don’t care and know you’re lying.
She presses her forehead to yours. “And take care of Petros for me.” She isn’t smiling; your princess is as serious as a cull. The other thing you haven’t got a clue about is how not to do what she asks of you.
“Just until you get back,” you say. Petros is staring at you like your geneset spelled for three heads.
“Heir,” says one of the officers, reproving, and she lets you go all at once, stalks over to them with her head high.
“Let’s go,” Tamar says, “I want to meet my predecessor already,” and then her escort’s got her and she’s gone.
“Fuck this,” says Petros. You agree. Then he does something you do not expect: he grabs your hand and holds on. You wouldn’t admit it if he asked, but you’re glad.
You wait an endless fifteen minutes before your escort arrives. He’s Akhal like you and not much your senior; looking at him is like looking at five years from now. Turns out your shoulders aren’t going to broaden much more but your face’ll settle into cheeks that could cut glass. Mid-twenties seems fantastic. You hope you live that long, but you’ve got your doubts.
Your escort doesn’t give his use-name, just hands you a records-tablet stuffed full of paperwork and grins your grin back at you, says welcome aboard, little brother. You manage not to stammer when you thank him, even if you’re shot right through with nerves. If anyone’ll notice your smuggled sniper’s kit it’ll be your otherself, trained up and true loyal.
You think: You should guess that you’re lying, you should guess that you’re committing treason right in front of you. You keep not guessing. Maybe you’re defective, and that’s why you’re capable of marching down a spaceship corridor behind a person who is supposed to be another part of you, and you can keep a secret from him. It’s horrible to think about. You’re proud of your geneset. You’ve always been. You don’t want to be so different from your otherselves that you’re opaque to them. (You also don’t want to be dead. You wish that mattered more to you right now. You’re so bad at this.)
Petros is dragged along in your wake, which is a better situation than a lot of the ones you three considered back on the beach. There’s no records-tablet and no fleet assignment for a kid who isn’t full up with nanites, and your otherself makes a note and promises Petros that he’ll have a whole fleet-compatible horde delivered for installation posthaste, considering Tamar’s gone and vouched for his usefulness.
Petros thanks him. You didn’t think he had the capacity to lie through his teeth. You’re learning all kinds of things now that you’ve come to space.
You and Petros are left in your assigned quarters. They’re tiny, an eighth the size of your rooms at the crèche, but not half bad otherwise: desk and little couch and a threadbare pretty carpet over the metal floor, single bed nestled under a huge viewport, and there’s your first real look at space. Space is a brighter black than night down planetside, a sharper distance studded with starlight that puts your horde to shame. It goes on and on and you are utterly dumbstruck, staring, records-tablet forgotten in your hands.
Over your shoulder, Petros says, “Come on, Elias, it’s just stars,” but you know better; you saw his face on the shuttle.
“Don’t you want them?” you say. You think it must be written into your geneset, the way you’re falling into the pinpoint lights.
“You are lovestruck for giant fusion reactors,” says Petros, wryly, “and I am twenty minutes from having a horde stuffed down my throat like oh accidentally missed my appointment and fucking the plan completely. I like the stars fine. Space is – great. Brilliant.”
You turn around. Petros is perched on the corner of the bed. He shrugs, crosses his arms over his ribs.
“They’re awfully gorgeous fusion reactors,” you say. You’re trying. You are, you’d swear to it in front of Tamar, even. “I’ve been waiting such a long time to see them.”
“I swear you Akhal are all space-mad.”
“Just because I love what my geneset might spell for me to love –”
“Doesn’t mean you don’t love it true, and doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Come on, Elias, how many times have we had this argument?”
“Enough times that I thought we were done,” you say.
“Maybe we were done while it was hypothetical.”
You want to turn around and look at the stars; you wish Petros would stop making you doubt your own desires. “I’m not giving up on the plan,” you say, “just because I’m happy to be here.”
“If you don’t do your half, I’m the one who is going to get spaced,” Petros says. He gets up and paces a short arc across your quarters, door to desk to bedside and back again. “You’re the safest of the three of us if you drop out. Nothing Tamar’s doing is even illegal. I set off an electropulse bomb and fry everyone’s nanite horde in the middle of the succession duel, and you don’t get out your smuggled rifle and snipe the Empress, I’m an anti-Fleet seditionist and you’re an innocent Akhal bystander. You get to moon over the stars for-fucking-ever-and-ever, just like you’re doing right now. You have a future in the Fleet. Your otherself just walked us here. So forgive me if I am suddenly having doubts about your commitment to the cause.”
“And here I thought we were comrades,” you say. You feel as if your spine is liquid fire, spreading into your lungs and your tongue. “I guess I oughtn’t expect anyone who refused his nanites to be capable of comradeship.”
Petros’s cheeks go that dull ruddy shade that isn’t like anyone else’s fury, and he grabs your shoulders as if he’s about to shake you. You twist away and he snatches at the collar of your overjacket, so you swing at him. He ducks, yells something completely incomprehensible, and lunges for you. You shove your knee in his stomach, which doesn’t help at all, and the two of you go tumbling to the floor in a heap. The trigger-grip of your rifle slams into your left kidney and you make a high-pitched wheezing noise.
You shout at him. “Stop! If you hit me I might explode!”
This is true. It is also the funniest thing either of you have apparently ever heard. You find yourself with your forehead pushed into Petros’s shoulder, the both of you sharing an ugly bark of a laughing fit. You still feel miserable and furious and you still want nothing of the last ten minutes to have happened to you, but you can’t seem to stop the spasms of your gut and your lungs; you are practically gasping by the time you manage to raise your head.
“You’re kidding, right?” says Petros.
You get up on your knees and finish the job of shucking your overjacket. Petros exhales hard when he’s got a clear view of the pulse rifle, barrel curved to your back and disassembled trigger housing and scope taped low around your hips. You have to shove your shirt up to your collarbones to unstrap the electropulse bomb. The air of your quarters is clammy on your ribs.
“I used to snipe swordfish at four hundred meters, Petros,” you say. Your voice is a quaver and an embarrassment. “This isn’t even going to be hard.”
“You and Tamar have had your brains replaced with a kid’s infofiche history,” Petros says, but he’s helping you pull off the tape. The backs of his fingers brush your stomach and your nanites flock to the warm traces of touch, glittering afterimages rising on your skin. If he’d been full-up with a horde, he’d light up too. You’re selfish enough to wish to see it.
“She gave me this rifle, y’know?” you say to Petros, trying to cover that you’re blushing so hard your nanites cast a shadow. “When we were just kids. She bought it off a courier ship down for repairs, that winter I introduced you to her. Spent half her money and all of mine and said she thought I should have it. Started out being too big for me to carry, let alone shoot.”
Petros helps you slot the fuel cells into body of the rifle. “I always thought you were kind of an idiot,” he says companionably, as if he hadn’t tried to punch you five minutes back, as if he wasn’t putting together your sniper’s rig, “and your politics have got the complexity of a two-year-old who’s still dubious about sharing.”
“And yet here we are,” you say. You hand him the electropulse bomb. He turns it over and over in his hands, his unlit thumb brushing over the pressure pad of the trigger.
“It’s a public succession duel,” he says. “When did you two decide that you’d settle for nothing but the purest high-grade treason?”
Quite suddenly you don’t want to explain. You’re shy of it; you think he’ll laugh at you, and somehow that’d be worse than when he wanted to punch you for being yourself.
“Wasn’t Tamar’s idea at all, to begin with,” you say.
“No? Come on, Elias, you’re gagging for Fleet Command, have been since you were knee-high. Can’t have been you.”
You shrug; you kneel so as to fasten the rifle back under your overjacket, in three parts this time. Four seconds to assemble it the rest of the way. You’ve practiced, alone in the sand, watching the horizonline instead of your hands, faster and faster.
“When I brought it up,” you explain, “she said I didn’t owe her that much, that she could take care of herself. I even took her out on the quay and shot seagulls off the rocks so she’d know what kind of aim I’ve got. But she told me she wanted a fair fight.”
Petros laughs, that same bitter barking. “Nothing fair about fighting the Empress in a duel to the death when you’ve not even gone through basic training yet.”
“Maybe I should have said that.”
“What did you say?”
You’d shoved the butt of your rifle into the sand and leaned on it, looking out over the sea that’d belonged to you and Tamar both. The wind had blown your hair twining with hers and you remember you’d felt like a photograph. You’d said to her, I’m not yours, I’m not flesh of your flesh, but like fuck I’m going to watch you die and then bow my knee to your murderer. She’d looked at you like you were breaking her heart.
What you say to Petros Titresh is: “I told her that I read my histories. There’s never been an empress who won the throne fair. And then she said I sounded like you.”
He slides the bomb into his pocket. He gets to his feet. “I should go before they find me here and dump me full of nanites,” he says. “The explosion’ll be on my count. Two hundred seconds from the opening of the duel.”
He sticks out his hand. Gingerly, you take it, and he yanks you to your feet. “Elias,” he says. “Don’t miss.”
The arena is sand, starlit, a huge jewel set in the belly of the flagship. Every coliseum-style seat is full but yours, rows and rows all the way up to the edges of the shieldglass dome that covers the whole thing. There’s at least ten thousand Fleet soldiers here, more sets of faces than you’ve ever seen in one place. You wonder if anyone’s left to drive the starship.
There are tunnels underneath the arena, and somewhere in one is Petros Titresh, alone and invisible and carrying a bomb. No horde in him: You and he left your quarters before any adult could show up with a nanite wafer to dissolve on his tongue. Technically you suppose you’re AWOL right now, but if anyone asks, you wanted to see the succession duel, and who wouldn’t. Petros isn’t AWOL so much as he’s a ghost. He peeled off from you twenty steps down the hall, and now you suppose you have to trust one another. You suppose also that you do.
The starfield above the arena goes on forever. You can’t look at it for dizziness, can’t think about it else your directions slide all out of phase. Gravity’s a spinning fiction and you know it. You wish you could’ve shot at something less important a couple hundred times to make sure you’ve got your trajectories calculated right. There’s only so much the scope of your rifle will do for you. More than half of sniping is the sniper’s eye and the sniper’s will.
Those, and hands that don’t shake.
The three parts of your rifle are tucked up under your arms with your overjacket back on to hide them. Petros pronounced you the very picture of someone with better genes than sense before he left you alone, so you figure you can smile at the other new Akhal innocuous enough. There was a time when you’d’ve been more than eager to chat them all up, shove and maneuver until you sorted out whose geneset had spun truest. Now you sit as tall and still as you can, playing like none of them are worthy to talk with you. They’re crowded into the seats beside yours, a jagged little clutch of mirrors, bright black eyes in your face eight times over. You all glow the same. None of them are dressed as pretty as you.
This is the quietest you’ve been in your entire life.
When the whole arena goes dark, there is nothing but the flicker of ten thousand nanite hordes, echoing the sudden press of the stars. You are going die of loving them, you think, they are lodging in your chest like your horde was actually made of light.
In that glimmering dim, the Empress rises from the center of the sand. She is flame-bright, some of those stars settling like a thousand tiny crowns in her hair. She’s got the Akhal face and Tamar’s gray eyes and there isn’t a spare inch of flesh on her; only sternness, only regal command, effortless in a way that makes you want nothing but to get on your knees. It’s all a show, you tell yourself, it’s light and smoke and mirrors. In her hands she carries neuroparalyzer net and a spear that doesn’t look like a prop of office; its point is a savage glint.
Your Empress lifts the spear to the starlight. The roar of the crowd resonates in your bones.
“Welcome,” she says, her voice amplified and enveloping the whole arena. “Newest members of our Imperial Fleet. On the occasion of this night I offer you my personal congratulations. You are the purest, the brightest, the best genesets spun of your cohort. And tonight – tonight, the stars are yours.”
Tonight the stars are yours. It isn’t that you weren’t afraid before. It’s that now you’re afraid you’ll break your own heart when you shoot your gun. You don’t much want Petros to be right about you, star-struck, blind and betraying; you want there to be a third option where you get to keep how you feel right now and no one has to die.
Your Empress dips her spear. “In recognition of the achievement of your adulthood, the light that you carry within you will now be joined to the light which burns in me, so that we may all be subject to the same law.”
Your mouth dries and you flush hot. You are already burning, your veins humming as each tiny machine hears its new instruction. The law of the nanites is the Fleet’s law; if you act against the interests of the Fleet you will be disassembled, devoured for carbon and water and reused in some more appropriate capacity. There is only one free man on this ship now and it isn’t you: it is Petros Titresh, down in the dark under the arena with his nanite-disabling bomb.
Then your Tamar walks out onto the sands and even the nanites stop mattering to you. Next to the Empress’s glory she isn’t small but she is stark, all in black, none of your girl’s usual frippery, no gauze and gold wrapped around her narrow waist. She carries spear and net like they’re part of her arm. Somehow she is smiling. You hate yourself for thinking even for one minute that you’d regret defending her.
“Predecessor!” she shouts. Whatever amplification the Empress is using picks her up too, makes her sound like a struck bell, right at your side where she belongs. “I greet you and I challenge you, predecessor, for command and for the Fleet!”
You imagine, in the dark, Petros starting his count, down from two hundred. You start yours.
“Do you?” says the Empress. She sounds infinitely gentle, kind and a little sad, like she’s seen a dozen challenges and, regretting every one, spilled them red onto the sand. “On what grounds do you make claim to our stars, little sister?”
It’s a script. A show. One hundred forty-eight.
“I am flesh of your flesh,” says Tamar. “Your blood is mine! Your life is mine! Your stars are mine!” Then she squares her shoulders and jerks her chin up. You know that set of her, all stubborn and annoyed. “Also by the right of the law, predecessor, I claim you incompetent to rule – you misuse us.”
The Empress pauses. You go cold, staring at the shine of her nanites and the brighter shine of her spear, knowing the script is trashed. You keep counting – one hundred thirty, one hundred twenty-nine – all the while wondering if you’ll even have time to take your shot. Then the Empress laughs. When she laughs she sounds exactly the same as Tamar.
“Child,” she says. “So will you.” She dips her spear in some kind of salute.
Tamar doesn’t wait. She’s flying through the air, all of her behind the force of her spearthrust, aimed perfect at the Empress’s throat. Your breath freezes in your lungs.
The Empress moves, faster than you can see, a blurred glow that snatches Tamar’s spear from the air and wrenches her brutally sideways, tosses her like a cracked whip through the air. She lands on the sand – you wait for the sickening thump of splintered bone (eighty-two seconds) – but Tamar rolls, gets to her feet. She still has her net. You’re panting. You suck at the air like your body thinks you’re breathing vacuum, every cell straining sympathy.
Sixty-five. They circle each other, slow. Tamar’s spear is a dark line she’s landed too far away from, and she heads counterclockwise toward it. The Empress throws her net, its weighted edges spinning, the filaments crackling with paralyzing electricity. It sends Tamar ducking backward, dancing away from her weapon. Your girl is fast. Faster than you, faster than anyone you know, but the Empress isn’t even breathing hard yet. Tamar tosses her head back, bares her perfect teeth –
Thirty. You haven’t got time for watching this.
You drop to your knees. You’re up front and all the other Akhal kids are all on their feet, screaming with the crowd, ignoring everything but the fight below. Four seconds to snap the rifle together – you lose one in fumbling the stock free of your overjacket, twenty-three, twenty-two, the barrel balances perfect on your shoulder. The scope settles over your eye. Your fingers flip each laser cell alight, curl around the trigger easy and gentle.
Tamar feints for her spear, makes a leap toward where it’s lying and when the Empress starts forward to bat Tamar away, Tamar changes direction, closes in, just her net in her hands. It is the bravest thing you have ever seen Tamar do, and Tamar is the bravest of all the kids you know.
Fourteen. In the entire universe there is only you, and your target, and Tamar. Tamar’s arm, the bunched curve of her spine, how they block where you need your shot to hit. Your fingertip feels raw against the triggerpull, every millimeter of your skin telling you how much pressure, how much tension you need to apply.
The first time you shot this rifle it knocked you over and Tamar had to pull you out of the dune where you’d landed on your ass.
The second time you shot it, braced proper like you’d looked up in your military manuals, you’d blown a hole in the side of a cliff deep enough for a grown man to hide in.
The Empress closes her fist in Tamar’s hair and yanks her head back. You think of the veins in her throat, the curve of her collarbones. You think that hit or miss, you can’t watch her die and never could. You wonder when your nanites will notice that you’re brimful with treason. Is it now, as you sight through the scope? Two. Is it now, as you breathe out, as your finger squeezes, one, as you wonder if Petros has the count right, now, the sound of the gun louder than the crowd –
The back of your hand is a blaze of white; you are lit up like a thousand stars, electrical arcs between your fingertips. You feel your muscles lock; you shake, you are empty of everything but desire and you know you’ll die of it, know it is the fuel that renders you up for consumption, and in knowing, understand you haven’t missed. Tamar is empty-handed on her feet and yet the Empress has no chest. It is all blown clean. Nevertheless the two of them have the same expression: a surprised triumph fading to serenity. The Empress crumples, a slow fall. The white glow of your nanites crawls up the inside of your eyelids. You wait for the oblivion of seizure.
The world goes dark and shudders. You think it is dark only for you, that you are gone, devoured. You lie on your side with your cheek pressed into the barrel of your rifle. You are alone. There are no lights under anyone’s skin, not yours and not your otherselves, the whole group of you stunned silent.
You think, marveling: Petros. The bomb. Every nanite disabled at once. You are not going to die after all.
To turn your head is agonizing, but when you do, the vaulted starfield roof still gleams. Your stuttering heart keeps beating.
You leave your eyes open. You wait.
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a Byzantine historian. In both roles she writes about border politics, rhetorical propaganda, and liminal spaces. She was a student at Viable Paradise XVII. Arkady grew up in New York City and currently lives in Uppsala, Sweden. Find her online at arkadymartine.wordpress.com or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.
Other Tales To Put in Your Eyes:
Anna Saves Them All, Seth Dickinson Blackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified. Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.”
Caretaker, Carlie St. George A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.
Of Blood and Brine, Megan O’Keefe Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side.