PROLOGUE

“This is the highest resolution available, unfortunately,” Sophie tells him within seconds of the comm connecting.  There isn't a hair out of place on his First Secretary’s dark head, though reasonably she should have been asleep at this hour.  Her morning starts before even his.  “I’ll let you know if that changes, but René was fairly adamant.”

From the row of monitors behind her, her brown skin glows blue.  She isn’t kara or anusiya, and it’s always a fresh surprise when a natural human is capable of anticipating Chakad’s endless tasks each day.  He wishes, idly, that he’d known her in a past life.

Ending the call with a brusque, “Fine,” he skips through the footage to see if the images clear up at any point, or if the saturation improves.  They don’t, and it doesn’t.  He returns to the beginning after a reddish-gray substance spatters the screen; at that point, there’s is a sizeable crack in it.

At any other time, it might have been refreshing—novel, even—to settle for mediocrity alongside the average citizen, to engage in the shared experience of watching the machinations of history.  But the political stability of the entire system hinges on the quality of the information he receives, and his ability to act on it; life—this one specifically, but also those preceding—has never permitted him to be a spectator.  Perhaps next time.

Chakad allows the video to play start-to-finish without pausing.  The second time through, he pauses a great deal; seventeen minutes of unfiltered political crisis equates to just under two hours of detailed note-taking.

He sets his pen down, the physical habit of writing having never left him, and leans back in his chair.  Staring blindly at the high, domed ceiling of his office, he orders his thoughts:  no one can be identified without access to EI’s employee database, though he’s relatively sure who the cameraman is; the exact date of the event is uncertain, but it was likely recorded approximately one year ago; and it isn’t precisely a declaration of war, but.  It’s a declaration of independance, and the only distinction between those two things is how successful your diplomat happens to be.

His eyes refocus on the fierce lions and heavy-clawed manticores picked out in gold and ivory above his head, already tiring of the extravagant carvings.  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 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.

The debacle with Eurasia Interstellar’s Marsian mining facility had not initially been public.  Coupled with the company’s attempts to handle the matter privately, the particularly antiquated communications systems on Mars had kept much of the ugliness from reaching 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 customer orders.  They were hemorrhaging money.  They needed a bailout.

Their mismanagement had cost Chakad eight-hundred million citizens and the valuable Marsian shipyards, all in the midst of a galaxy-wide war.  So, he’d had one of his butlers, Lorayne, serve a light lunch alongside a new blend of tea Chakad had been meaning to try.  Then he’d sent Silva on his way with 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.

Chakad glances at the second monitor on on his desk, a real-time reaction feed of virtually every social media account within orbit.  The trending tag on every post, the title that populates first in any media searches, appears to have become the rallying cry of a new age.

He presses his lips together thoughtfully.  He’d intended to wait until the dust had settled, approaching the new Mars regime as a friend and ally, and offering terms that, while certainly favoring his empire, would have been amenable to the Union as well.  And if they were not amenable, Chakad certainly would have had the leverage and maneuverability to insist.

But now he has the weight of the public eye, and certain avenues have been closed to him.

He takes a moment to stand up and pace the length his office, stretch out the kinks in his back and hips.  He calls over the intercom for coffee, and studies one of his entryway paintings until it arrives without thinking about anything in particular.

“Eminence,” Alexei says a dozen moments later, bearing a standing platter that he positions expertly within reach of Chakad’s chair.

“‘Sir’ is fine,” Chakad reminds him absently, taking a seat.  Alexei has worked with him for at least a decade.

“As you say.”  He pours Chakad’s first cup, bows low, and departs.

Chakad drinks it steadily and with intent, thinking about the painting’s composition, then pours himself a second.  He pulls his legs up and crosses them, settling his elbows on his knees.  Four hours later, his coffee remains untouched on his desk.

It’s his tenth—fifteenth, perhaps—replay of the Mars footage, and he's committed to memory every second of tracking, every skip and compression flaw, the placement of each jagged artifact.  He has a written summary of events according to public perception next to his left hand, and a more detailed analysis of his own beside that.  As of midnight, there are already demonstrations supporting the “Liberty 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.  Political scandal has been something of a vacuum during the war season, but the gravity of Mars has pulled it center stage.

The problem, second to but perhaps more influential than the circumstances of the Union itself, is that this specific video was filmed on outdated equipment in an agitated, densely-packed crowd, and later formatted on a home-built drive cobbled together from spare parts.  Coupled with transmission to the Luna relay base over a faulty connection, artifacts and intermittent sound quality 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.  It’s nearing five in the morning, and he’s fairly sure he has a security brief in 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 and steal a nap before whatever hell Sophie has scheduled for the rest of the morning.

Chakad tidies his desk, and transmits his notes to data storage with the button on the end of his pen.  Then he hits play.

The recording is seventeen minutes long.  The dull rectangle of the screen shifts and breaks apart into recognizable shapes—the writhing blocks of heads and shoulders as the crowd seethes and surges before the camera, the makeshift podium that looks as though it were welded together from spare sheet metal.  The tall man behind it, elevated on a section of torn-down divider wall in the Southern Auditorium of the Ophir Chasma Facility, baring his teeth.  Though the camera is jostled often and violently in the sea of bodies, the frame never leaves him.  Revolutionary and de facto leader of the Marsian Miner’s Union, his name is Volodymyr Kuzma.

Chakad has studied the schematics of the four primary Marsian structures, has become intimate with specific landmarks and the peculiar architecture of each.  The Southern Auditorium, according to Eurasia Interstellar’s online corporate itineraries over the past decade, was most recently used for a compulsory customer service workshop.  The irony is not lost on Chakad.

In the dull, dust-hued lighting from the unseen glass ceiling, 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, hangs down low enough to brush his heels.  From an unrelated security still that’s 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 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 thinks 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 a long three 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 seen only in fleeting glimpses as the camera heaves and jerks.  Someone small in stature, but vital:  Chakad, at five-seven, would know about that, too.  “There are decisions to be made that are necessary for the greater good,” he says softly, as though speaking only to that person.  “There are compromises we must sometimes make within ourselves.  There are places we must go to 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 over the heads of the people—he is not reading from note cards or a teleprompt.  Exactly once, he gazes directly into the camera, and Chakad almost feels his eyes, across space and time, like a physical touch.  It’s impossible to tell what color they are.

When Kuzma looks back out over the crowd, he stares down at someone with what, after hours of scrutiny, Chakad has come to recognize as animal intensity:  that of a predator sizing up his prey.  He says to them, “I thank you for your trust, to come here today and to meet in the name of peace.  If you could 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 camera does not leave Kuzma, but the crowd shuffles restlessly, parting as someone approaches the makeshift stage.

“Eurasia Interstellar thanks you for this opportunity,” a new voice says.  Broad and graceful in the particular way of a body built from scratch, the speaker is dressed in the formal attire of a brandman of Eurasia Interstellar:  crisp orange bisected with the color of his designation, though in the footage he simply looks outfitted in shades of dull gray.  His skin is light, probably teal if he’s Blue Family, and his hair hangs straight past his shoulders.  Navy if it’s brand-standard, but brown onscreen.  “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.  The first time through, due to the faulty compression and poor resolution, Chakad hadn’t noticed the line of men standing just behind him.  But he sees them now, even before they move:  a spectrum of sepia and rust, heavier and demonstrably more menacing, but clearly cut from the brandmen cloth.

Kuzma bows his head as the man approaches the podium, his hands resting on either side of the microphone in 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.

He watches Kuzma reaching back with an open hand for the sidearm waiting to be pressed into it; watches him raise it without taking his eyes off the crowd before him;  watches him blow a hole in the head of their esteemed guest before the man’s expression is able to register what is happening around the hole in his eye socket.

The sharp crack punches out of Chakad’s speakers like the beginning of 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 bloody hand gropes blindly at the glass before falling away, leaving a red smear behind.

“I will no longer tolerate this filth to breathe our air,” Kuzma’s voice rings out.  “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, she will become now inviolate!”

Someone has been sobbing quietly very close to the camera, but 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, 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 dirt 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 the pages of 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.  Warm, red light falls over his face as though the clouds outside have parted.

I am the reckoning of Mars!

Chakad pauses the video on the last frame, studying the brutal set of Kuzma’s face and the wildness in his eyes for long moments.  Here on Earth, in Chakad’s large, dim office, the rising sun has started to knife in through the slatted windows behind him, sharp blades of gold cutting across his notes, the polished wooden surface of his desk, the backs of his hands.  He tries, and fails, to calculate how much he slept, night before last.

He glances at the clock:  five-twenty.  A clean suit is hanging over the door in his attached bathroom.  Distantly, he can hear that the shower timer has switched the water on.

Chakad sighs, pushing up from his desk.  “Long live the king,” he murmurs, his voice rough from a night of disuse.  Reluctantly, he powers down the monitor.