CHAPTER I — SUNTHIEVES
ONE | The Tithe
Encircling a half-burned planet far past the known heliostasis was a bras and granite superstructure birthing a ring of suns. The first Emperor built the structure during untold generations passed.
If he had glanced to his left out the window, Virgil could have observed the tremendous ring, and her pocked machinery, and the one hundred and eight suns she carried forth, hovering in a rigid dance around the planet below. They orbited above the lush continents. Virgil could not be bothered with the sight. Virgil ignored the celestial bodies, ignored the air rank with wet metals, and ignored the rickety atmosphere drones buzzing in their struggle to keep the ring habitable for he and trillions more young souls.
Virgil even ignored the Author reading his alleged crimes back to him. Virgil focused instead on how difficult it might be to steal one of those suns.
Just one sun!
He listed required tools, the cost, the expertise required to operate them:
A good team would need to be four people at least. It'd require thorough planning.
The Author dimmed the chamber’s helioglobe to near darkness. He commanded the light. All took notice.
He raised the light back, regaining Virgil's attention. “—And signal theft!” the Author punctuated his final statement. “Do you understand the charges before you?”
Virgil blew out a dissatisfied grunt. “Urgh. The visible and invisible spectrums are a recognized intangible and therefore can’t be owned. And they can’t be stolen, either,” Virgil said, meeting the Author’s accusatory tone. He took to his feet to address the gathered court, manacled hands making for strange gestures. “You’re accusing me of your most terrible crime—of creating something with no value! I made a machine to gather and measure a formerly unquantifiable thing. A thing so terrifying that you’d never sleep again, should I reveal it—and I hate all of you, so I’m gonna reveal it. The machine measured a signal from past the black end of space. Oh, shut up, what have you all ever done—?!”
The Author fired back, grasping for control. “There is nothing beyond the black end of space!”
Virgil was already repeating himself. “—What have you ever done? What’ve you EVER done, other than be a badly-made breathing-machine?!”
The Author raised and dimmed lights again to calm the collected muttering from the gathered observers.
“The universe is mapped,” he whispered through the darkened room. “Existence, in all its forms, is known. To exist without purpose, as you do, is a bad form for creation to take.”
“Yeah? And your bad form is my good conflict, ya idjit. Hah! What is that like? You’re bending over backward to pin something on me, and I’ve still broken notta one of your tangible laws, have I?”
Other than waste valuable mineral resources to build the machine that captured the signal. Other than burning countless of his own energy joules. Other than the fact that that exact energy could have been used for true labor. The Emperor’s ancient ring of suns required constant maintenance.
Other than that, Virgil was correct. The Author deflated into his chair.
Virgil rattled his tongue between his lips. “Hmm. The sound of ten thousand tragedies filling the hearts of minds of everyone here. Any societal shame and disappointment you sling for punishment doesn’t mean a fucking thing to me. That’s a side-effect of being right all the time, along with never being indecisive.”
“You’ll never see the planet below with such defiance.”
“Oh, the planet?” Virgil begged in feigned panic. He rose to acknowledge at last the vast, tan and aqua orb below, frothy with green storms. “The planet! The planet Goria! Into the arms of the world with us all! That planet? The planet where my father died? And yours? And their fathers before them? Come around to my way of thinking, Author. Your life-choices have got you facing the wrong direction. We stand in this moment on a semi-atmosphered ring just north of the sky. Why would you would you devote your life to that?” He swung his arms at the planet. “Devoted to traveling south of the dirt? To live there? D’you have any answer? I’ve had enough. Finish your failed poetry and dismiss me. Like you always do.”
The Author made a motion Virgil had never seen before. It was a wrist-flick to put his knuckles to the accused, then a clenched fist.
Virgil could not act quickly enough. The cadre gained a firm grip on him from behind. They towered two full heads over him, cylindrical helmets fitted into place, never to be removed until the day they died. Virgil’s high, bony cheek was smashed to the table.
The Author spoke. “Virgil, for your aimless creation, and remorselessness, and laziness, and continuous unwillingness to contribute to the breath and the spark that we all treasure, I sentence you to a tithe. The tithe of one trillion megatons will be paid in full in one hour.”
“What?! That's physically in-shittingly-conceivable—!”
“—Energy to be generated and contributed in full in one hour, otherwise the punishment of body harvest will be rendered, and your formerly-lecherous joules will be returned to the arms of the world below.” The Author cradled the words on his tongue. “South of the dirt. You will contribute.”
The cadre jammed a sharpened tube into Virgil’s hand. An infinity of pulsating eggs hissed hot into his veins. He cracked a horrified yell. The cadre watched the number tick down, describing his remaining time.
“This isn’t a great conflict,” Virgil said.
He snapped his head back. It was enough to catch the cadre off balance. Virgil struck the other in the throat just below his helmet's mask, leaving him a wheezing mess. He yanked the tube out of his hand, catching a sight of just how much time he had. The second cadre grappled him from the side in renewed tenacity. His grip clenched so tight Virgil’s bones would snap in a moment. Virgil thrust the tube into the cadre’s lower jaw. The cadre’s bellow started low before peaking at an ultrasonic pinpoint and he was consumed by a light bulging from his body. Red dust hung in a man’s shape where he had stood. It curled for an airless second. Virgil ploughed the remains in his escape.
Virgil barged through the crowd out the door into the exterior level. He shielded his eyes from the dissolving light, from the humongous creations, from each living soul working their station.
The grand machine made the suns.
She groaned on.
The sight of the planet below and her encircling, growing star-belt could not impress Virgil, nor could the ringed machine he called home girdling this dot in those unlit cosmos, because his hand was branded.
Virgil pushed colorless golden hair out of his eyes and slapped goggles over his face to get a clear look.
Despite his best efforts, he had only managed to lengthen his life, not save it entirely. At least not yet. He had one solar cycle to register a tithe of energy worth roughly one sun. If not, his body would be reduced to dust, swept to the more deserving solar wind.
TWO | Heiress
Einie was one girl among the four hundred trillion currently living on the ring. On that day though, she was one of only one hundred and eight youths considered strange enough. She and the rest were welcomed into the Emperor’s Cloister. There were evaluators there, too, of course, tending to she and the others. The evaluations were painless. Since the emotionally-taxing day they determined Einie would represent the thousands from her school on Plate 616, the evaluators had treated her with increasing kindness.
Their close conversations and questions to her became gentler.
This was the first occasion they administered physical examinations. One by one, the candidates were taken from the great hall of the Emperor’s Cloister. The massive statue of the last Emperor towered above. It licked at the light from the sun-ring.
Einie was relaxed in a reclined chair at the center of the warm exam room. One evaluator was with her. The more they checked her over, the more she smiled. She fought the grin at first. She restrained the trembling warmth in her body, chancing looks up at the statue of the Emperor, her eyes glowing in glassy adulation. She winced with welcoming pride when they pinched at her muscles and squeezed her bones just a little too hard, repeating to them that she didn’t mind.
They wanted to know if she was the one in the infinity—the Emperor reborn.
At first, when the group was larger, the candidates were apprehensive. To be the reincarnation of the Emperor, the first in untold eons, was a terrifying consideration. Einie could not keep from smiling though.
The tests had gone on. Candidates collected into groups and breathed easier, shunning those like Einie who couldn’t quite bring themselves to fit into the collective.
One hundred and eight remained, Einie included.
The evaluator was only a few years older than Einie. After twenty minutes of small checks, she said, “Oh, one last thingie here, Einie, then we’ll be done.”
Einie was surprised it was over so quickly. The silvery tools on the tray had gone untouched, perhaps just there for show.
“I’ve taken a small sample to test your cellular, and by proxy molecular, density,” the evaluator said.
“Heavy,” Einie said. She remained unsure what precisely qualified her to be among the other finalists. There had been innocuous talks about mental capacity, atomic composition, and behavioral analysis. No certain evidence though.
“See, certain elements have certain densities,” the evaluator said. Einie smiled a little, letting her keep on with her loose explanation. “It’s a strong indicator that you might be the one we've been seeking for the last thousand cycles.”
“Alright. How will you know if it’s me?”
The evaluator nodded, familiar with the question. “We won’t know until we know. That’s what’s so challenging, generation after generation. See, the Emperor was unique, but the records of how precisely he was unique come and go from—”
“Einie!” another voice blurted from across the room.
The evaluator opened her mouth to protest but was sent unconscious to the floor by a green-blue mist. Einie twisted around for a look. A skinny man approached. He had a rag over his mouth to avoid the mist, which Einie realized was a fine salt mixture he kept in a tiny bag on his belt. He wore a leather jacket faded to a near-yellow by the suns’ brutal rays.
He moved the rag away.
“Whoa, wait, Virgil?”
Virgil tugged his goggles off his eyes.
“You gotta help me, Einie!” he shouted, snatching her out of the chair by the wrist. “C’mon, Einie, I need you to come with me! We’ve got less than half a cycle before I get turned into dust!”
THREE | The God-Suns
Einie had never seen Virgil so uncomfortable. Considering he had forced his way into the Emperor’s Cloister to retrieve her, the most hallowed location on the entire ring, the situation must be dire.
“Virgil, wait, wait,” she protested. “What’s happened?”
“They’ve finally gone and done it, Einie,” Virgil said, halting in a wide corridor away from the rest of the other candidates. They had evaded the evaluators for the moment. Virgil was panting. “It’s come back around. I was stupid, and I couldn’t get away from them. The societal status quo is a tenacious thing, Einie. It’s like a big comfy chair of cyclical thinking. Who-whomever is king of the chair really doesn’t want your pal Virgil going around telling people that much sitting is gonna make you a lifeless mockery of the universe’s greatest, most beautiful accident. My life isn’t meant to end now, Einie. My life is meant to keep conflicting. And I need you to help me think of a way to pay this fucking thing off—”
“Virgil, please, half of those words don’t even make sense. And do you need to speak with me now? I’m right in the middle of this. I’m a finalist!”
“Finalist? Finalist for what?”
Einie pointed to the murals on the walls surrounding them. There in the Emperor’s Cloister, the walls were a milky green stone flecked with small shadowy movements deep within. They were easy to miss. Golden regalia attracted all available attention in raised murals. The mural told the story of the Emperor creating the ring. He used fiery vessels to rise from the planet, carrying the green stone skyward. There, he worked alongside the first four suns to create more, guiding the suns into place with his very own hands.
Vychen, Mizar, Acrux, and Megiddo. The God-Suns. The First Lights, made from one another, expanding outward into the universe's something-empty. The string of suns was made. Eons passed and the light still burned, to be harvested and worshiped.
Virgil stayed still for a moment. Einie looked back toward the hall, toward the other inquisitive finalists. They were young, like Einie. She looked out the window to the ring, bowing like an aching ladder left and right until gravity took it and vanished out of sight beyond the planet’s horizon.
All about the ring, crawling about each crevice, and orbiting near the suns clasped every regular distance, were workers. They were young, like Einie. And the ones out of sight, crawling the ring’s innards, Virgil knew they were young, as well.
“I might be the Emperor,” Einie said. “Reborn. At last.”
“Couldn’t even call yourself the Empress,” Virgil answered with a flippant gesture. “You’ll never be a decent despot without an ever-expanding ego. No time for dalliances, Einie. They shot me full of something that’ll make me into dust, unless I complete a tithe of inconceivable value. Now c’mon! Seems you’re the only one who can help me now!”
Virgil snatched her by the scruff of her neck and dragged her onward. “Ahh! Virgil, leggo, you’re holding too tight.”
Continued in Part 2 . . .
-- Aleksander Ruegg
Follow on Twitter