Chakad squints up at the black expanse of sky overhead, the half-moon gleaming like a chip of pitted silver through gauzy stripes of cloud cover. It’s half-past one in the morning, Saturday mid-September, and the music from the banquet at Hundred Columns fades out in octaves behind him. As he navigates the paved walkways between buildings, the instruments lose out to the soft exhalation of ironwood foliage and the hushed and private conference of the fig trees. The wind rises, briefly, with chords twisted beyond recognition; but it feels cool on his face, sweeps a heavy length of hair from his neck, clears his head and slowly scrubs the sky clean.
“Jimmy was able to locate the source file,” Sophie replies, to a question Chakad doesn’t remember asking. He opens his eyes, belatedly wondering when he had closed them. Concentrates on the voice of his First Secretary, who works so diligently to tighten the administrative nuts and bolts of his People’s Nation of Humanity.
“The resolution, compared to any of the public reposts, is equivalently poor.” Her eyes are dark and tireless when he glances down to meet them, and she regards him without expression from the palm of his hand.
“Noted,” he says absently, tightening his grip on the round comm device. He’s gone through several this year already, and the solid stones on the solid ground have begun to sway like a ship deck. Each replacement, Sophie has made her disapproval known with increasing severity.
Mindful, and with his arms out to steady his balance, Chakad does not stumble over the brick edging as he course-corrects from inadvertently wandering into the grass. He raises the comm, which gave Sophie a resplendent view of his pressed ivory slacks, back up to his face.
In the perfect circle of its screen, the brightness of her data display washes out most of her coloring, cuts her features into misshapen pools of chestnut-brown and turquoise. Her hair, braided tightly into place as though she’s been awake and working for hours, casts off blue light in a thousand oblique crescents. She appears to be reviewing paperwork immediately beneath her own comm’s desk-mount, her eyes cutting right to left on something off-screen.
“Several of your guests had hoped to discuss regional policy with you tonight,” she says as though going down a list. Sophie isn’t kara or anusiya, and it’s always a fresh surprise when a natural human is capable of organizing the endless intricacies of Chakad’s reign. “I have passed along your regrets.”
He skims the fingers of his free hand through silken rose bushes that crowd the narrow trough of a raised garden wall. It skirts the exterior of the building to his right, the moon washing the red and white petals into shades of matte silver. “They were heartbroken, I am sure,” he mumbles idly.
“I am sure,” she echoes. “They will have other opportunities. I filled some chairs at the New Year Luncheon.”
It was Sophie’s fine and impossible flair for balancing flexibility and expediency that had elevated her to the position of First Secretary to begin with, just over fifteen years ago. Her ability to corral subordinate heads of state in such a fashion that they are productive politically while oblivious to her machinations—and to function without too much sleep—have made her indispensable, over the years, to Chakad and the Nation.
“...wasn’t able to fit Karlson on the guest list, but Sikora made the cut, of course.”
Chakad, taken wayward of the floral notes in Autumn breeze, clumsily coaxes his mind back to the conversation at hand. “Sikora. Of course,” he manages.
It’s to Sophie’s credit that she doesn’t react to his lack of attention. She only explains, “As requested, we’re keeping a careful record of his affairs for further review.”
Ellis Sikora, director and founder of the Bright Horizons Foundation, had been the guest of honor at tonight’s banquet. Well-dressed and well-made with light hair, light skin, and sharp blue eyes, he had seemed content to talk Chakad’s ear off throughout the evening over several fingers of cognac. Chakad had lazily mined him for information after it became clear early on that the charity’s mission—expanding public access to hereditary- and congenital-corrective genewashing—was a front to secure funding for his illegal cloning operation.
Pharmaceutical research was where Chakad’s financial empire first caught its stride. Should Sikora develop anything of particular interest, Chakad looks forward to casually pressing charges against him for crimes against the Nation.
That would naturally involve seizing all assets and research, adding to the vast wealth of knowledge Chakad’s administration already controls. If a byproduct of Sikora’s work happens to improve the day-to-day life of the average citizen, all the better.
“Status,” Sophie asks after awhile.
“Courtyard.” Chakad’s office, the once-throne room of Queens Quarters, looms over the walled garden he’s come to. Although Parsa has been Chakad’s home for decades, although he oversaw its reconstruction from the ground-up after the initial occupation, everything looks different at night—skeletal, airless. Bleached beyond distinction.
The ornate buildings rise angular and colorless from the deep shadows between pathway lights. As he passes through the enclosed space, the sounds of his footsteps turn back on themselves as though caught; and, bound by a heavy brickwork lip, the courtyard’s shallow pool gleams thick and greasy like oil.
After the liveliness of the fundraiser—bright swathes of color and texture, a patchwork orchestra of conversation and laughter and music, the hazy overlay of vibrance from too much wine—Chakad feels like a stranger, here in his own skin.
Distantly, he misses the full flavors of his last bottle: vintage twenty-one-oh-nine, imported as a gift and a favor from Saint Francis Seven of the New Vatica colony. Chakad had been vaguely surprised that Frankie’s pet assassin-priest hadn’t made off it with it first; she must have managed to keep a second secret in her young life.
“Your medication has been resupplied.” Sophie’s voice cuts through the aether like mist compressing into ice, piercing the shroud of malaise that has swept heavily around him. “Do you have your water?”
Chakad fumbles at his hip—his slim, gleaming Hydra is half-full, the filtration indicator at green.
He blinks at his comm device until his vision refocuses. Sophie tips her chin expectantly, meeting his eyes. The edges of her full, brown face glow like a neon ink painting.
“Yes,” he says as he passes beneath the portico. The lights come up automatically, throwing the carvings of Xerxes along the South, West, and East entrances into sharp relief. His desk, commanding in the daylight as the focal point of the columned hall, looks lonely now, isolated.
“The video can be accessed from our shared server, partition seventeen-twelve-two.”
“I’ll review it.” In the dead air of his office, his voice rolls over as though treading water, a dying thing unsure which way is up.
“Your medication,” Sophie reminds him gently.
“Thank you,” he remembers to say before ending the call. He wishes, idly, that he’d known her in a past life—she would have been invaluable during the old days of the Eastern Union. He’d had a lot to drink back then, too, but. It was a different time.
He settles the comm into its desktop cradle, powers up his data display with slow fingers. He doesn’t regret the stiff beer he had for lunch, the parade of spirits early in the evening, or the strong New Vatican wine he’d opened after midnight. Just that his attendance of the banquet itself had to be interrupted by matters of imperial security.
Chakad pulls the Hydra from his belt, setting it on his desk with a hollow stutter. As he sinks bonelessly into his office chair, the cavernous hall slow-spins around him. He toes off his glossy white dress shoes and folds his legs inelegantly beneath his body. His hair has started to come loose from its ornate topknot, likely from the brisk walk between Hundred Columns and Queens, and he works a few strands free from the tangle of his earrings before tucking them gracelessly back into place.
His desk is just as he left it, from the orientation of his display and keyboard—a physical keyboard, because Chakad is a tactile purist—to the mixed jumble of pens and pencils in their glazed porcelain canister, to his favorite angle of the squat, round pyxis vase on the corner of his desk. The pyxis is his only real decoration, and a replica: stark paint applied flawlessly over even, red ceramic, without signs of age or wear. He’d had the original, before, and had broken it.
Studying the centuries-old image painted by new hands, on an ancient form constructed from fresh materials, he remembers his medication—Sophie’s word, her polite and diplomatic phrasing shaping the minutia of his entire world—and lifts the pyxis lid. Inside, it’s filled to the brim with glossy teal- and cream-colored Sobrietols, banded thinly with gold and gleaming like candy. He takes two at the crest of a long pull from his hydrator, spilling a bit of water in the process. He smudges his white sleeve over the small puddle.
Within moments, the corners of his office deepen. The lights crisp up around them like bright bones rinsed free of fluid black clay. The ever-wandering river of his thoughts rushes into clear, cold focus, his attention transformed from blindly spinning leaves to stones that sink inexorably into place.
Chakad accesses the video from the encrypted server, sizes up the display, and leans forward with his elbows and toes tucked into his knees. He knows nothing else for a handful of hours.
Another time, it might have been refreshing—novel, even—to settle for mediocrity alongside the average citizen, to engage in the collective experience of history. But the political stability of an entire system hinges like a marionette on the strings of information Chakad receives, and his ability to manipulate them. Life—this one in particular, but also several preceding—has never permitted him the role of spectator.
Perhaps he might one day retire, next time around. But the thought exhausts him when there is still so much left to do here.
He skips through the footage once without trying to make sense of the images: washes of gray and dull red, with sparse shadows carving out the middle distance into figures that are broadly recognizable; a man facing the camera from a makeshift stage, dimly lit from what must be an unseen skylight above him; a dense, writhing shadow on the bottom plane of the screen that resolves itself into a fixated crowd.
The composition remains consistent, right up until a second figure manifests beside the first, and a body folds and falls as though in mimicry of the erratic, curving crack that splits the screen in the moments that follow. Something wet spatters the ruined glass.
Chakad skips back to the beginning, settles himself more comfortably, and plays the footage from start to finish without pause. After, he takes a long drink from his hydrator again, more out of meditative reflex than any need for water. When he briefly closes his eyes, he does not see darkness.
The second time through, he pauses a great deal; seventeen minutes of unfiltered political crisis equates to roughly two hours of detailed note-taking on the finely frosted surface of his desk—just enough that his pen nib traces the texture like true paper, while a secondary display suspended thinly beside the video keeps track in clean type what his empty handwriting transmits.
He sets his pen down in front of the keyboard and stares blindly at the wild face in the final frame. He orders his thoughts. No one beyond the halo of the skylight is discernible enough for identification, though Chakad is relatively sure who the cameraman is. The exact date of the event is not known, but his best approximation is that it took place one year ago. And—what has transpired, while not a declaration of war in the strictest sense, was certainly a declaration of independence.
Chakad is well aware that the distinction between those two things falls solely on the skill of your diplomat.
He studies the ceiling, the striated panels of red-lacquered wood drawing sharp lines between thick-cut crossbeams, artfully wrought in blue and resting on dozens of crowned, ridged columns. Where they join, carved bulls with golden horns fold their legs between heaven and earth.
He had restored Parsa with as much historical accuracy as possible, though by necessity there were modern considerations. Panes of glass set into the otherwise open grid of square skylights quartered between columns; climate-control flooring panels underlying a thinned layer of polished limestone; seamless strips of surface lighting installed over the subtle structure of solar powerlines threaded like flush veins through every wall and block and brick of the compound.
This place is his home, as much a reflection of his identity as his own DNA. But there are some feelings that follow you everywhere, and you can only distract yourself until they lose interest and move on.
Chakad presses his fingers into the plain air, drawing them apart across the video screen to zoom in on the man at the heart of all this. It does nothing to clarify the picture, though some of the building’s internal architecture lines out during the shift and heave of the cameraman’s unskilled hands.
In the exhaustive Articles of Intersystem Unification that Chakad has been drafting for the better part of two years, technological compatibility within the Mithra system—Humanity’s home system—is only one small footnote. There are far more immediate concerns: interplanetary resource distribution, a consistent and overarching legal framework, human biomedical research.
Severe regulation of new territory claims by non-governing entities.
He sweeps his fingertips together, zooming out again, and rocks back in his chair. This debacle with Eurasia Interstellar’s Marsian mining facility had not initially been public. Coupled with the company’s abysmal attempts to handle the matter internally, the particularly antiquated communications systems on Mars had segregated much of the ugliness from the rest of the system. Chakad himself might never have been apprised of the situation if he hadn’t had contracts in place—contracts which, after months of productivity delays, he had been quite ready to dissolve.
Eric Silva, the CEO at the time, had finally met with Chakad to explain the situation: the employees had unionized, the strikes had turned violent, and EI was unable to negotiate even the minimum level of functionality required to fulfill production commitments. They were hemorrhaging money. They needed a bailout.
After a light lunch—open-faced sandwiches of thinly-sliced cucumber with lemon hummus, paired with a new blend of tea he’d been meaning to try—Chakad had sent Silva on his way with superficial sympathy, well-wishings, and a collection of other platitudes that ultimately equated to a firm, No.
That had been a year and a half ago. Chakad can hazard a guess at the rest of the story: Eurasia Interstellar, now desperate beyond absolution, had provoked the Marsian Union into all-out revolt, and lost everything. In addition to the valuable Marsian shipyards and Pentecost tech, their mismanagement had cost Chakad eight-hundred million citizens across a hundred mining stations, all in the midst of a galaxy-wide revolution for human independence from a centralized extraterrestrial labor cartel.
Chakad is prepared to accept that, in a fit of rare negligence, he may have misinterpreted the scope of Eurasia Interstellar’s failure. He had not anticipated civil war. But Mars has been their de facto property for over a century, and whether a corporation conducts its affairs as a business or as a small country appears directly proportionate to the amount of real estate they own and occupy.
At what point does property become territory? It’s an oversight Chakad has sustained for years. But this particular mistake will not repeat itself.
He slides his left pinky along the vertical edge of the video display, pulling a third screen into visuality. In real-time, a scrolling reaction feed of every active social media account within orbit turns like an endless wheel. With a gesture, he adjusts the type size for readability. There is one trending tag on every post, one title that populates first in all media searches: a single phrase that will become the rallying cry of a new age if Chakad cannot mitigate it.
He spends an hour in thoughtful study, gauging the public reaction. It’s just about four-thirty; the video appeared, across multiple platforms, at midnight. In another twelve hours, the news will have completely saturated his empire, but the daylight-half of Earth is a suitable enough sample size to predict the mind of the average citizen.
As expected, the vast majority of the People’s Nation of Humanity falls heavily in support of the Marsian Union. Decades of contractual oppression and forced labor for off-world humans at the hands of the Collected Commerce and Trade Cartel—an intergalactic corporate entity with an endless reach, whose conduct has culminated in a war that Chakad is still fighting—had long ago extinguished any sympathy citizens of the Mithra system may have held for the struggles of labor-based industry. Even the stockholders of Eurasia Interstellar have jumped ship, causing the relatively even share prices over the past year to plummet into obscurity. Chakad will be fascinated to see the acrobatics of their bookkeeping once greater concerns have been addressed.
He steeples his fingers contemplatively. He had intended to wait until formal bankruptcy; he could then have absorbed the Marsian properties and equipment during asset liquidation, and approached the rogue labor union as a friend and ally. He could have offered terms that, while certainly favoring The Nation, would have been amenable to the Marsians as well. And if they were not amenable, Chakad would have had the leverage and maneuverability to insist.
But lines have been drawn; Mars has declared sovereignty, forever shifting their sphere from the private sector to the political. The whole of his empire has witnessed it. Now, Chakad can only act beneath the weight of the public eye; now, certain avenues have been closed to him.
“Alexei,” he says stiffly in the direction of his comm. “Coffee, please.”
“At once, Eminence,” Alexei’s smooth voice replies.
Chakad unfolds himself from his chair, taking the time to stretch the kinks out of his back and hips. He paces the length of his office. Pauses, eventually, beneath the arch of the Eastern doorway, beside the relief of Xerxes fighting the lion-headed monster. He traces the round shapes with his eyes: the sweep of the beast’s wings, the stylized drapery of Xerxes’s robes, the angle of his knives as they vanish into the leonine belly. He allows his mind to wander, to flex and relax without direction or intent; and, underneath the underneath, his thoughts cobble together a tactical substrate for his conscious mind to fill in at a later time.
After a dozen moments, Alexei enters through the South door from the kitchen and staff apartments. He bears a standing platter, which he positions within reach of Chakad’s chair and desk in a flawlessly utilitarian fashion. “Is there anything further you require, Eminence?”
“‘Chakad’ is fine,” Chakad reminds him absently, padding back over to his data displays. He hadn’t put his shoes back on, and his socks slide seamlessly over the polished limestone. Parsa had originally been carpeted—wall-to-wall, throughout all structures—but Chakad had never quite gotten around to commissioning the work. And, if he’s honest with himself, he feels at ease on the floors as they are.
“As you say,” Alexei murmurs thinly, his eyes sweeping over Chakad’s rumpled suit jacket, wrinkled slacks, and barely-clothed feet. He’s worked for Chakad at least a decade, ever-professional in his disdain for Chakad’s lack of decorum, distant and impersonal with the affection Chakad is reasonably sure he possesses.
Alexei pours the first cup of coffee from a decorative porcelain pitcher, the steam twisting opaquely in elegant, slanted spirals. With swift, economical movements, he produces a cloth and thoroughly polishes the area of the desk where Chakad had spilled the water.
“Thank you,” Chakad says sheepishly.
“Certainly. Eminence,” Alexei folds his tall, thin form into a low bow, placing a gloved hand firmly over his chest, and departs. His gleaming boots are absolute in their soundlessness.
Chakad waits until the coffee has cooled slightly, then takes it to hand with a soft clink. He drinks it steadily and with purpose, thinking about the Eastern relief’s composition, how the lion-monster and Xerxes are depicted to be of equal height. Then he pours a second cup and takes his seat. Untouched, it grows cold over the course of the next hour.
By Chakad’s tenth—fifteenth, perhaps—replay of the Mars footage, he's committed to memory every second of tracking, every skip and compression flaw, the placement of each jagged artifact. To the left of the social media display, a tertiary screen summarizes events according to public perception; to the right, the more detailed and accurate analysis of his own.
As of oh-five-thirty, there have already been demonstrations for the ‘liberation’ of Mars in both the Paris and Belfast regions. Chakad is hyperaware of the reality that newness has little to do with sensationalism, but timing always does. The Union has not been beholden to anyone for many months; Eurasia Interstellar has long withdrawn to lick its significant financial wounds.
Political scandal has been something of a vacuum during the war season, but the gravity of Mars has pulled it to center stage. Chakad’s citizens will make themselves heard, regardless.
The problem, second to but perhaps more influential than the circumstances of the Revolution itself, is that this specific video was filmed on outdated equipment in an agitated, densely-packed crowd, and formatted on a home-built drive cobbled together from spare parts. Transmitted to the Luna relay base over a faulty connection, artifacts and intermittent sound and all, it had been uploaded to the public forum in its current state; and, now, the entire population of Chakad’s vast Nation is thrumming with excitement around a handful of words that everyone misheard.
Chakad palms his eyes. He’s fairly sure he has a security brief in a little over an hour. Once more, then, and he’ll have a few minutes to shower and change his suit. Then the briefing, then something light for breakfast—or perhaps he’ll skip breakfast, steal a nap before whatever hell Sophie has packed into the morning begins in earnest.
He skims his notes once more, for posterity, before saving and dismissing both files. Then he banishes the social media display with a brush of his hand, resettles into his chair, and hits play on the video for the final time tonight.
Seventeen minutes of dull, monochromatic rectangle and scraping sound quality break apart into recognizable shapes. A crowd, seething and surging along the bottom of the screen, blocked out in writhing heads and limbs; a makeshift podium that looks as though it were welded together from spare sheet metal. A backdrop of awkward, angular mechanisms gleaming in and out of obscurity, recording equipment that is certainly broadcasting to each of the hundred mining sites.
There is no doubt in Chakad’s mind that better footage of this man and his words exists, but he would have to travel to Mars to get his hands on it.
In the Southern Auditorium of the Ophir Chasma Facility, a tall man is made even taller by a section of torn-down divider wall. The camera, though jostled often and violently in the sea of bodies, never quite throws him from center-stage. Suspended like a lantern above the varied boundary of the crowd, caged in by the silver wiring of the homemade broadcast system and illuminated from above by an off-screen skylight: revolutionary and de facto leader of the Marsian Miner’s Union, Volodymyr Kuzma.
In a dull haze, Kuzma’s body angles forward over the podium to compensate for his height. His long coat, vaguely military in style but similar in construction to the standard-issue Marsian worksuits, falls low enough to brush his heels. From an unrelated security still that has been circulating alongside the video, Chakad knows that the coat is red; he knows that Kuzma’s skin is red as well, the deep genewash red of the Red Family brand, but Chakad strongly suspects the image has been tampered with—the colors significantly boosted, garish and demonic, almost as an intentional foil to the dull sepia of the video.
Now there’s a thought, Chakad considers for the first time. But he shelves the idea for now, because Kuzma has started to speak. In a few hours or days or weeks, Chakad’s mind will have fleshed out his suspicion into something substantial; he’ll review it then, and act accordingly. For now, he follows the words he knows by rote.
“It has been three of these long years,” Kuzma begins around heavy Russo-Ukrainian vowels. He speaks in a thick, quiet way that commands complete silence from the crowd. His hair is short and dark above his stern, angular face. “We have lost much. We have lost such that we can never recover from it.” There is no hope in his voice, not in the way of a representative compromising on a treaty, but not in the way of a new leader taking power after political upheaval, either. Chakad would know.
Kuzma makes a short, abortive gesture with long fingers. “But we have gone to the table with Eurasia Interstellar, and they have offered terms to us. Terms which have compelled me to make this announcement to all of you, my sisters and my brothers. My family.” His eyes narrow sharply. “And to our guests, of course, who are joining us here tonight at my express invitation.”
He glances to someone off-screen, someone Chakad has not been able to discern at any point throughout multiple viewings. Perhaps a slender, brown hand, gesturing; perhaps not. But Chakad knows they are vital by the way Kuzma watches them; another missing component in an image defined by absences.
“There are decisions to be made that are necessary for the greater good of all,” Kuzma says softly, as though speaking only to that person. “There are compromises we must sometimes make within ourselves. There are places to where we must that we may never come home again from.”
Though the shadows artifact badly at this point in the video, Chakad does not miss the way Kuzma’s hands grip the edges of the podium. He never looks down at it, or out over the heads of the people—he is not reading from note cards or a teleprompt. Exactly once, he gazes directly into Chakad’s camera lens; across space and time, his eyes feel almost like a physical touch. It’s impossible to tell what color they are.
When Kuzma looks back at the crowd, he stares down at someone new with what, after hours of scrutiny, Chakad has come to identify as animal intensity: that of a predator sizing up his prey. He says to them, with teeth, “I thank you for your trust, to come here today and to meet in the name of peace. If you will come forward, esteemed guests of Blue Sector and those you represent. I would like to accept your terms with the gravity that they deserve.”
The first time through, due to compression and poor resolution, Chakad hadn’t noticed the line of men standing just behind Kuzma, up onstage. But he sees them now, even before they move: a spectrum of soil and clay and rust, clearly cut from the brandmen cloth, but heavier and demonstrably more menacing. Members of the Red Family, and the Marsian Naval Fleet.
Formerly sold as slaves to a Sheikma construction site circling a distant star, they had risen up on Liberation Day with the rest of humankind. When they found their way home to Mars, it was with an impressive armada of stolen warships—and, even more valuable, the experience to crew the vessels in the Marsian shipyards.
The camera does not leave Kuzma, but the crowd shuffles restlessly, parting for the approaching individual.
“Eurasia Interstellar thanks you for this opportunity.” The man who appears is broad and graceful in the particular way of a body built from scratch, dressed in the formal attire of Eurasia Interstellar’s Blue Family: crisp orange bisected with the color of his designation, though in the footage he simply looks outfitted in shades of warm gray. His skin is light, probably teal, and his hair hangs straight past his shoulders—navy, if he’s brand-standard. “We are eager to end this chapter of violence and work together to make Mars prosperous once more!”
Kuzma’s face slackens in a strange way at his words—not a snarl, not a smile. He bows his head as the man nears the podium, his hands folded on either side of the ugly microphone into tight fists. “I am sure that you are,” he replies slowly, once they are standing side-by-side. “You will be pleased, then, to know that your—opportunity—begins today. Mister Engine?”
Chakad has timed it: one-and-a-half seconds. A single, fluid motion that signaled the beginning of the end for Eurasia Interstellar on Mars.
The brandman immediately at Kuzma’s back, presumably Mister Engine, breaks rank to press his sidearm into his leader’s waiting hand. Kuzma raises it from the shoulder, a perfect ninety-degree arc, smooth as sunrise. Without taking his eyes off the crowd before him, and too quickly for the Blue man’s expression to register what has happened around the fresh crater in his temple, Kuzma blows a hole in the head of their esteemed guest.
The sharp crack punches out of Chakad’s speakers like thunder before a storm. The crowd splits between a scream and a cheer as the body falls, and the anonymous cameraperson gets lost in the crush. An elbow cracks the lens. Someone closeby moans bitterly, and a pale, bleeding hand gropes blindly at the glass before falling away. The red smear it leaves behind traces three parallel lines.
“I will no longer tolerate this filth to breathe our air,” Kuzma’s voice rings out above the cacophony, devoid now of everything but fury. “This is my answer to the terms of our slavers.” He tilts his head back, eyes skyward, voice caught between a bellow and a scream. “Look upon me! They who have violated our fathers and mothers and grandmothers, they who have enslaved the First Colonists, they who have starved us and made us weak and sick—they die this day! I am Mars. She is mine. After decades of submission and rape, we will become now inviolate!”
Someone has been sobbing quietly very close to the camera, her voice layered beneath the wet sounds of flesh on flesh on bone—presumably the colonists putting down the remaining Company men—and all around, the crowd has begun to chant.
“Any further attempt to invade or overtake us will be met with swift and violent resistance. If any should trespass here, on this sacred ground that we now anoint, they will be met by me. If any wish to take us, they must first blow us out of the sky!”
His voice rises as the citizens of Mars raise theirs, and never has Chakad seen a population so willing to die for the steel and dust they stand on. And many of them did, he realizes—in the following months, the casualties were severe.
“This is my answer! Look upon me!”
The chant becomes audible, here at the end, like low tide swelling into a great tsunami as it readies to crash upon the shore: “Vyatka. Vyatka. Vyatka!”
Within Chakad’s copious notes, he has written, Archaic Russian: an extinct breed of horse, known for hardiness and strength. He knows there is a story to this. He looks forward to hearing it one day.
Kuzma’s final words, half-drowned by fervent voices and folded over another small skip in the soundtrack, are almost lost. The first time Chakad heard them, he’d felt chilled in a way he hasn't for decades.
Even now, they make his nerves dance sharp and strange along the angles of his back: whispers of violence yet to come, of all the obscene ways that empires can change or end.
They feel portentous; they weigh heavily within Chakad, and for the first time he recognizes that the words command a distant fear in him.
But these are not the words the world has heard.
Kuzma looks out over his people, still in the way the heart of a storm is still. Warm, red light falls over his face as though, out beyond the skylight, the clouds have parted over his bleeding planet.
His voice rises like a call to arms: “I am the reckoning of Mars!”
Chakad pauses the video on the last frame, the composition bisected by the splintering lens, the uneven smear of red-brown streaks darkening the cracks in the glass. He studies the brutal set of Kuzma’s face for several long moments.
Here on Earth, in Parsa, a year after dozens of unarmed men were murdered during a false armistice, the rising sun has started to knife shallowly into Chakad’s huge, hollow office in Queens Quarters from the open North portico and the dozens of skylights overhead. Soft swathes of gold highlight the bright colors of the columns and the bulls pinned above them, fall across the polished wooden surface of Chakad’s desk and the backs of his hands. He tries and fails to calculate how much he’s slept over the past few days; the last time he saw the underside of his own bedsheets in his own apartments at Hadish; if he ate anything at the banquet yesterday night, or simply drank.
The clock displays oh-eight-twenty. He knows Alexei has hung a clean suit in one of the vacant suites that doubles as Chakad’s—well, home away from home. Distantly, he can hear that the shower timer has switched the water on.
Chakad sighs, pushing up from his desk. Drinks some water, stretches the long limbs of his slight frame in opposite directions. Starts to pull his hair free of the topknot that has somehow reconfigured itself into a rat’s nest.
With some small reluctance, he arcs his palm over the air, the display eclipsing into nothingness beneath it. His voice rough from a night of drink and disuse, he murmurs, “Long live the king.”