Authors: Pierce Brown
Tags: #Hard Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Galactic Empire, #Colonization, #United States, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Literature & Fiction
But as I pull back my head to deliver one last great blow, existence groans. Rumbling like an earthquake. Not the darkness. Something beyond. Something in the stone itself, growing louder and
deeper above me, till the darkness cracks and a blazing sword of light slashes down.
The ceiling parts. Light burns my eyes. I clamp them shut as the floor of my cell rises upward till, with a click, it stops and I rest, exposed, on a flat stone surface. I push out my legs and gasp, nearly fainting from the pain. Joints crack. Knotted tendons unspool. I fight to reopen my eyes against the raging light. Tears fill them. It is so bright I can only catch bleached flashes of the world around.
Fragments of alien voices surround me. “Adrius, what is this?”
“…has he been in there this whole time?”
I lie upon stone. It stretches around me to either side. Black, rippling with blue and purple, like the shell of a Creonian beetle. A floor? No. I see cups. Saucers. A cart of coffee. It’s a table. That was my prison. Not some hideous abyss. Just a meter-wide, twelve-meter-long slab of marble with a hollow
center. They’ve eaten inches above me every night. Their voices the distant whispers I heard in the darkness. The clatter of their silverware and plates my only company.
I remember now. This is the table the Jackal sat at when I visited him after recovering from the wounds incurred during the Iron Rain. Did he plan my imprisonment even then? I wore a hood when
they put me in here. I thought I was in the bowels of his fortress. But no. Thirty centimeters of stone separated their suppers from my hell.
I look up from the coffee tray by my head. Someone stares at me. Several someones. Can’t see them through the tears and blood in my eyes. I twist away, coiling inward like a blind mole unearthed for the very first time. Too overwhelmed and terrified to remember pride or hate. But I know he stares at me. The Jackal. A childish face in a slender body, with sandy hair parted on the side. He clears his throat.
“My honored guests. May I present prisoner L17L6363.”
His face is both heaven and hell.
To see another man…
To know I am not alone…
But then to remember what he’s done to me…it rips my soul out.
Other voices slither and boom, deafening in their loudness. And, even curled as I am, I feel something beyond their noise. Something natural and gentle and kind. Something the darkness convinced me I would never feel again. It drifts softly through an open window, kissing my skin.
A late autumn breeze cuts through the meaty, humid stink of my filth and makes me think that
somewhere a child is sprinting through snow and trees, running his hands along bark and pine needles and getting sap in his hair. It’s a memory I know I’ve never had, but feel like I should. That’s the life I would have wanted. The child I could have had.
I weep. Less for me than for that boy who thinks he lives in a kind world, where Mother and Father are as large and strong as mountains. If only I could be so innocent again. If only I knew this moment was not a trick. But it is. The Jackal does not give except to take away. Soon the light will be a memory and darkness will return. I keep my eyes clenched tight, listening to the blood from my face drip on the stone, and wait for the twist.
“Goryhell, Augustus. Was this really necessary?” a feline killer purrs. Husky accent smothered in
that indolent Luna lilt learned in the courts of the Palatine Hill, where all are less impressed by everything than anyone else. “He smells like death.”
“Fermented sweat and dead skin under the magnetic shackles. See the yellowish crust on his forearms, Aja?” the Jackal notes. “Still, he’s very much healthy and ready for your Carvers. All things considered.”
“You know the man better than I,” Aja says to someone else. “Make sure it is him. Not an imposter.”
“You doubt my word?” the Jackal asks. “You wound me.”
I flinch, feeling someone approach.
“Please. You’d need a heart for that, ArchGovernor. And you’ve many gifts, but that organ, I’m afraid, is dearly absent.”
“You compliment me too much.”
Spoons clatter against porcelain. Throats are cleared. I long to cover my ears. So much sound. So
“You really can see the Red in him now.” It’s a cold, cultured female voice from northern Mars.
More brusque than the Luna accent.
“Exactly, Antonia!” the Jackal replies. “I’ve been curious to see how he turned out. A member of the Aureate genus could never be so debased as this creature here before us. You know, he asked me for death before I put him in there. Started weeping about it. The irony is he could have killed himself whenever he chose. But he didn’t, because some part of him relished that hole. You see, Reds long ago adapted to darkness. Like worms. No pride to their rusty race. He was at home down there. More than he ever was with us.”
Now I remember hate.
I open my eyes to let them know I see them. Hear them. Yet as my eyes open, they are drawn not to
my enemy, but to the winter vista that sprawls out the windows behind the Golds. There, six of the seven mountain peaks of Attica glitter in the morning light. Metal and glass buildings crest stone and snow, and yawn upward toward the blue sky. Bridges suture the peaks together. A light snow falls. It’s a blurred mirage to my nearsighted cave eyes.
“Darrow?” I know the voice. I turn my head slightly to see one of his callused hands on the edge of the table. I flinch away, thinking it will strike me. It doesn’t. But the hand’s middle finger bears the golden eagle of Bellona. The family I destroyed. The other hand belongs to the arm I cut off on Luna when we last dueled, the one that was remade by Zanzibar the Carver. Two wolfshead rings of House
Mars encircle those fingers. One is mine. One his. Each worth the price of a young Gold’s life. “Do you recognize me?” he asks.
I crane my head to look up at his face. Broken I may be, but Cassius au Bellona is undimmed by
war or time. More beautiful by far than memory could ever allow, he pulses with life. Over two meters tall. Cloaked in the white and gold of the Morning Knight, his coiled hair lustrous as the trail
of a falling star. He’s clean-shaven, and his nose is slightly crooked from a recent break. When I meet his eyes, I do all I can to not fall into sobs. The way he looks at me is sad, nearly tender. What a shadow of myself I must be to earn pity from a man I’ve hurt so deeply.
I murmur with no agenda except to say the name. To speak to another human. To be heard.
“And?” Aja au Grimmus asks from behind Cassius. The most violent of the Sovereign’s Furies wears the same armor I saw her in when first we met in the Citadel spire on Luna, the night Mustang rescued me and Aja beat Quinn to death. It’s scuffed. Battle-worn. Fear overwhelms my hate, and I look away from the dark-skinned woman yet again.
“He’s alive after all,” Cassius says quietly. He turns on the Jackal. “What did you do to him? The scars…”
“I should think it obvious,” the Jackal says. “I have unmade the Reaper.”
I finally look down at my body past my ratty beard to see what he means. I am a corpse. Skeletal
and pallid. Ribs erupt from skin thinner than the film atop heated milk. Knees jut from spindly legs.
Toenails have grown long and grasping. Scars from the Jackal’s torture mottle my flesh. Muscle has withered. And tubes that kept me alive in the darkness erupt from my belly, black and stringy umbilical cords still anchoring me to the floor of my cell.
“How long was he in there?” Cassius asks.
“Three months of interrogation, then nine months of solitary.”
“As is fitting. War shouldn’t make us abandon metaphor. We’re not savages after all, eh, Bellona?”
“Cassius’s sensibilities are offended, Adrius,” Antonia says from her place near the Jackal. She’s a poisoned apple of a woman. Shiny and bright and promising, but rotten and cancerous to the core.
She killed my friend Lea at the Institute. Put a bullet in her own mother ’s head, and then two more into her sister Victra’s spine. Now she’s allied with the Jackal, a man who crucified her at the Institute.
What a world. Behind Antonia stands dark-faced Thistle, once a Howler, now a member of the Jackal’s Boneriders by the looks of the jackal skull pennant on her chest. She looks at the floor instead of at me. Her captain is bald-headed Lilath, who sits at the Jackal’s right hand. His favorite personal killer ever since the Institute.
“Pardon me if I fail to see the purpose of torturing a fallen enemy,” Cassius answers. “Especially if he’s given all the information he has to give.”
“The purpose?” The Jackal stares at him, eyes quiet, as he explains. “The purpose is punishment,
my goodman. This…
presumed he belonged among us. Like he was an equal, Cassius. A superior, even. He mocked us. Bedded my
He laughed at us and played us for fools before we found him out. He must know it was not by chance that he lost, but inevitability. Reds have always been cunning little creatures. And he, my friends, is the personification of what they wish to be, what they will be if we let them. So I let time and darkness remake him into what he really is. A
to use the new classification system I proposed to the Board. Barely different from
on the evolutionary timeline. The rest was just a mask.”
“You mean he made a fool of
” Cassius parses, “when your father preferred a carved-up Red to his blood heir? That’s what this is,
The petulant shame of a boy unloved and unwanted.”
The Jackal twitches at that. Aja’s equally displeased by her young companion’s tone.
“Darrow took Julian’s life,” Antonia says. “Then slaughtered your family. Cassius, he sent killers to butcher the children of your blood as they hid on Olympus Mons. One would wonder what your
mother would think of your pity.”
Cassius ignores them, jerking his head toward the Pinks at the edge of the room. “Fetch the prisoner a blanket.”
They do not move.
“Such manners. Even from you, Thistle?” She gives no answer. With a snort of contempt, Cassius
strips off his white cloak and drapes it over my shivering body. For a moment, no one speaks, as struck by the act as I.
I croak. But he looks away from my hollow face. Pity is not forgiveness, nor is gratitude absolution.
Lilath snorts a laugh without looking up from her bowl of soft-boiled hummingbird eggs. She slurps at them like candy. “There
a point when honor becomes a flaw of character, Morning Knight.” Sitting beside the Jackal, the bald woman peers up at Aja with eyes like those of the eels in Venus’s cavern seas. Another egg goes down. “Old man Arcos learned the hard way.”
Aja does not reply, her manners faultless. But a deathly silence lurks inside the woman, a silence I remember from the moments before she killed Quinn. Lorn taught her the blade. She will not like seeing his name mocked. Lilath greedily swallows another egg, sacrificing manners for insult.
There’s animosity between these allies. As always with their kind. But this seems a stark new division between the old Golds and the Jackal’s more modern breed.
“We’re all friends here,” the Jackal says playfully. “Mind your manners, Lilath. Lorn was an Iron
Gold who simply chose the wrong side. So, Aja, I’m curious. Now that my lease on the Reaper is up, do you still plan to dissect him?”
“We do,” Aja says. Shouldn’t have thanked Cassius after all. His honor isn’t true. It’s just sanitary.
“Zanzibar is curious to discover how he was made. He has his theories, but he’s champing at the bit for the specimen. We were hoping to round up the Carver that did the deed, but we think he perished in a missile strike up in Kato, Alcidalia province.”
“Or they want you to think that,” Antonia says.
“You once had him here, didn’t you?” Aja asks pointedly.
The Jackal nods. “Mickey’s his name. Lost his license after he carved an unlicensed Aureate birth.
Family tried sparing their child the Exposure. Anyway, he specialized in blackmarket aerial and aquatic pleasure mods afterward. Had a carveshop in Yorkton before the Sons recruited him for a special job. Darrow helped him escape my custody. If you want my opinion, he’s still alive. My operatives place him in Tinos.”