Three lunar cycles had passed since the fall of the Highlands; two since the occupiers’ tribunal condemned Cordan to die. By the winter solstice, the designated day of reckoning for the man called deviant, war criminal and heretic, the once proud city of Bryn saw only four hours of daylight. Dust and debris had been stirred up not only by the battle for the capital which marked the Highlands’ last stand, but also by the punitive burnings of surrounding plantations, meaning that many people residing in the subjugated city were beginning to forget what a true day looked like.
For most, this was just another source of misery, yet Cordan found it strangely comforting to lose track of time. At least the narrow window of his cell and the darkened landscape limited his view of the indignities inflicted upon his Bryn; the structures shelled into rubble which the occupiers had not even begun to rebuild, the scorched vestiges of collapsed bridges, the crude filling in of Cordan’s silos with cement. Worst of all for most Highlanders was the fact that leviathan oil was wasted illuminating the occupiers’ crimson flags draped all over the city every hour of the night, while medicine had gone unsyntheized in Bryn ever since the war’s end. A constant reminder: “Woe to the vanquished.”
Although Cordan was, when he wore a general’s uniform, one of the Chieftan’s most adored, and although he as a Highlander professed his love of country loudly and publicly as all virtuous citizens should, the patriotic hatred that should boil in his blood on the day of his execution was actually rather trivial at this point. He was only plagued by the sorrow of his personal failure – how close he had come to victory, only to have it torn from his grasp days before his life’s work would come to fruition. Perhaps this was why he took his death sentence in such stride; for he had lost a battle with time already, the only one which truly mattered.
To breathe life into the rocket would have been so much more than a milestone in the history of this species; Cordan knew it would have been ascension to a new era that would have made all civilization thus far seem primitive. Indeed, he promised the Chieftan as the tide of war turned against the Highlanders that his creation would reduce Arma, the Meadow Clan’s capital, to ashes and bring them a victory unlike any other. Yet what would winning the war be except a means to an end? Why use the rocket only to kill, when it could one day let men walk among the stars?
The last vestiges of Cordan’s sense of duty to his country crumbled with Bryn’s walls. Truthfully, he would have gladly served the Meadow Clan, the occupiers, if only he could continue his noble work. He and Alyzia offered them this chance. But the foul fundamentalists refused, and repaid the offer of friendship with charges of heresy. Their priests held that the sky was the Creator’s blanket, the most merciful blessing ever given, to shield all from the Void and the demons within. To even dream to leave the confines of the dome above, to rise above the clouds and touch the Void; that was a crime that eclipsed the worst atrocities of the war.
No doubt, every priest, clan-elder, and “scientist” the occupiers summoned to testify concluded that Cordan and Alyzia would have doomed every soul, brought forth an extinction event, had they not been stopped.
The din of the crowd gathered in the city square grew louder, and Cordan smiled in his cell as he listened. This would be over soon. Then, he heard another sound: the unmistakable footsteps of the occupiers. Cordan was perplexed, for he did not expect to be passed another meal through the iron door after last night’s, but knew his executioner was not to escort him outside until high noon. So what had they come for?
Even when unlocked, the cell door took a considerable amount of strength to move, and Cordan feared for a moment that his last hour of life would involve watching it open inch by inch. But after a moment, the necessary force slid it all the way down the track. Three figures stood before the filthy, unshaven prisoner. Two were Meadow-clan soldiers. The other, Cordan thought, must be a hallucination. But she spoke, and he believed.
“Our conquerors have granted my last request.”
Alyzia looked only slightly less dreadful than he did. She no longer wore the black lipstick that was one of the most memorable sights at the silo. Her hair was greasy and had too many knots to count. Her eyes were sunken in and open wounds lined the circumference of her wrists where she had so often been chained.
But Cordan forced his half-atrophied legs to allow himself to rise to greet her.
“I’d thought they burned you already” he told her.
“I asked that we die together” Alyzia replied.
“Why?” Cordan asked as he laced his fingers in hers, looking past her at the occupiers who glared with disgust but said nothing.
“We have been intertwined seventeen cycles. It only seems fitting” she answered.
“No, why does the Meadow Clan indulge any desire of yours or mine at all?” Cordan clarified. Alyzia laughed, weakly but distinctly, and speculated “those who will rewrite history might one day find it useful to appear magnanimous. I’ve heard they will even throw bread to the justice-seekers who attend our execution.”
“We defied the Creator, Alyzia. And still they must feed the masses just to get them to watch us die? For a crime so unforgivable, you would think they’d trample one another just to catch a glance of our pyre.”
With a dark grin, Alyzia turned toward the soldiers and raised her voice to say “there is no Creator.” Predictably, they recoiled; the one holding the keys even lost color in his face and looked as if he were about to vomit. Defiance was all Alyzia had left.
This is what Cordan admired so much about her. No presence was so exquisitely corrupting as hers. He was a general, she was a scientist. Cordan could think unconventionally, but she could blaspheme. There is no doubt Cordan was a talented inventor in his own right, but without Alyzia the rocket would scarcely have been more than a dream.
In retrospect, Cordan could not even recall whether their ambitions fueled their lust for one another, or whether their lust fueled their ambitions. She would paralyze his inhibitions with wine, and whisper to him in bed an illicit, occult doctrine; to envision one’s destiny while locked in carnal union would make it come to pass. At the start of the next cycle following that night, there was no need for wine; and as Cordan and Alyzia climaxed, they proclaimed they would deny the bonds of gravity and touch the Void. Whatever demons may come, let them, for theirs is Knowledge.
There were no more chances for that; only the privilege to burn together.
Still, Alyzia expressed one more wish.
“When they walk us to the pyre, Cordan, I believe we should clasp hands and take a bow. And if you can will it, smile as they curse us and chant for us to burn. They will see us die, but they need not see us regret.”
Cordan nodded and quietly said “I have already accepted my end.” He turned his left arm up toward her and revealed fresh scars on the underside. They spelled out words: “Woe to the vanquished.”
“You should have carved that into the wall of your cell rather than your arm, for posterity. For your skin will soon be ashes” Alyzia suggested. Cordan had a riddle to offer in return.
“If a book is to burn, are the words on the last page to touch the fire more attuned to posterity’s needs?”
Alyzia was glad that Cordan would walk to his death with pride rather than cowardice, but disappointed that he had lost his faith in the destiny they wished together.
“No execution can frighten a populace into submission forever. Another will rise and achieve what we did not, of that, I am sure” she admonished him.
“I would disagree, Alyzia. They will forever be afraid. Not of punishment, no. They will fear their own potential, and they will all die. When the red oceans rise eons from now, they will overtake Arma and Bryn. And this world will be a mausoleum for beings that knew there was one way forward, but refused it.”
The moment of silence lasted as long as the Meadow Clan soldiers would allow it to. But they moved to drag the condemned outside if they had to, so Alyzia left Cordan the last word and took his hand.
Minutes later, the most hated beings to ever draw breath were on full display for all the justice-seekers and bread-seekers gathered. A priest on the stage was handed a scroll while the condemned were bound. Eager executioners held their torches. Their moment would come as soon as the priest’s proclamation had finished.
“All ye assembled hear our judgment! There is no graver crime, no darker sin, than daring to invite the Void’s demons down upon us…”
Vessel X62 of the Reclamation Fleet idled in the thermosphere of the planet called Atikyr. Assembly officials called it an “edge world”, though it was actually closer to the galactic center than the capital, Sumeria Prime. It was deemed such because it was habitable, but undesirable.
Fourteen million colonists were about to enter this solar system. Their terraforming resources were meager, and life on Atikyr would be hard; but the frontier offered them more hope than the hiveworlds from which they emigrated.
Admiral Vallan reflected as he stood on the bridge of X62 that he was grateful this arid world was not to be his home. The three-hundred eighty-six year old war hero had just one more tour of duty to complete before the gleaming palaces of Titan would be his to walk freely among the Assembly’s aristocracy. Overseeing this sector’s Reclamation Fleet was little more than a reward career; it required virtually no exertion at all.
After all, ever since the Assembly won the Final War, times of strife were behind the human race. Thousands of years of internal rebellion meant losing contact with lesser colonies like Atikyr. The Reclamation Fleet’s task was simple – assess the condition of a planet, see if there is anything worth salvaging, and prepare it for the immigrants.
The report Admiral Vallan sent back to Sumeria Prime read thus:
“Approximately 160,000 ferals occupy the southern continent. Data from explorer drones indicate all tech from the initial habitation has been lost. Primitive warfare occurs incessantly and nothing of value remains. Zythyl canisters will deploy – all ferals will be purged.”
And the Void’s demons did so.