FOUR | The Eidolon
It was so obvious. The Author had expected him to try to steal a sun. It was the only object in known reality that could accommodate a tithe of that size. The search for the solution had only been momentary. It was a wonderful coincidence that his brief observation of the murals had spurred him in a timely manner. And he had been able to earn Einie’s commitment to help in the process.
“You’re really a sterling human being, Virgil,” Einie said, following.
“Einie, relax. You’re with me, nothing’s gonna happen. Just come along and for a hot minute and you’ll be back to out-classing your peers’ gentle hum of their mediocrity. I mean, this could be fun, you know? Stealing a sun? Kinda neat, right? All the other critters your age will like hearing that story!”
“They think I’m lazy for faking my work quotas. Because you keep hijacking my time! I’m gonna be older than you before I’m allowed to go to the planet, at this rate.”
“Yeah, well, you can fight me on this, Einie, but maybe choose another hill to die on, if you know what I mean? This isn’t a great conflict, as they say. Not a good use of energy? They want to blow up my body for that exact reason. For not pulling my own. Whatever that means. And anyway, if you are indeed the reincarnation of a trans-galactic despot, you’ll probably know how the machinery you’ll rule over really works. C’mon, I docked the Eidolon over here.”
They found Virgil's craft in the usual place. A bulky vessel, it could carry twenty people and decent cargo in its hold, should need arise. It narrowed to a sleek nose, suggesting an agility Einie had never observed it exercise. The green paint was faded, despite Virgil's clear attempts to re-touch it and keep it from fading under the relentless heat. Tiny men were tinkering here and there with instruments on its hull. Virgil waved them off in frantic motions. They were half Einie’s height with faces lined with horrible age and hunched shoulders. She expected them to scatter in fright at Virgil’s gestures. Instead, they flocked around him in excitement.
Three stacked onto each others’ shoulders and did a coordinated dance. Virgil gasped in delight and mimicked the dance amidst shared laughter.
One tiny man tugged on Einie’s hand. Skin baked dead could not hold back his giggling eyes. “You know Virgil?” he whispered to her. His voice was like a child’s. He gasped, unable for a moment to form the next squeaking sentence. “He’s so brave. He’s saved my life many times!”
There were four seats in the Eidolon's cockpit. Einie had never seen more than two in use at any given time. Virgil ignited the engine. He jammed the flight stick back and the Eidolon obeyed immediately. His motions and throttles were deliberate, fiddling with dials as they took to altitude over the ring. Einie’s chair shuddered against loose screws. Without a moment's hesitation, he piloted them toward the nearest sun.
“What do you need me along for this time, Virgil?” Einie inquired.
“So, you think you’re the Emperor?” he asked, not answering.
Einie didn’t reply.
The tests she had taken appeared to have nothing to do with anything and everything to do with something. While plenty of fit, intelligent, good-looking candidates had been ruled out early, Einie had begun questioning her definitions of those words each day she woke and dressed in her dormitory. She felt the suns’ warmth in a way she used to hate as a younger girl. She found herself admiring the gorgeous planet down below the belt’s orbit before catching a quick sight of herself in the mirror.
“I like to think so, yes,” Einie said after a time. They drew nearer to the closest sun. Virgil didn’t speak. She blushed. She quickly collected herself, speaking with confidence. “The very energy that spins the universe on its axis thinks I’m a rather attractive bundle of something. The embodiment of energy itself. So, if I’m right, every poet who’s ever lived has kinda been trying to describe me. And failing. There are no poems about me, now that I think about it.”
“If you’re the Emperor of all this?”
“What else would being the Emperor of all known creation mean?”
Einie considered, then said, “I dunno? Maybe something with my molecular density?”
It took Einie a moment of awe at the sun soaring in from below to realize Virgil was still looking at her.
“Einie, I brought you along today because you’re pretty good at eyeballing things. So I was wondering if you’d do some fast math?” he said. “How far apart d’you wager your molecules are, Einie?”
FIVE | To Steal A Sun
Each of the one hundred and eight suns were grown for an indefinite term. They were farmed in regular, careful portions. Tiny craft made from green stone traveled close to the suns. Small, brave threshers piloted the ships. The idea was to skim the surface to gather lit gases while leaving the sun itself undisturbed. The threshers did not hold these jobs for long. Coming so close to the suns ravaged them inside and out with radiation. In gratitude, they were welcomed into the arms of the world at a young age.
To actually loose a sun from its chamber was unthinkable. If there had ever been a time when an entire sun was removed all at once, there was no record of it, just as there was no record of the first Emperor’s name, or how he became emperor, or how he built the superstructure with only meager technology and help from the first four lights.
Some distance below where the Eidolon hovered was one of the first four lights, Vychen. She was the brightest light of the entire ring. She licked with flares of undying fission energy.
“Have you got a plan?” Einie asked. “Don’t we need extra equipment or anything? Man, that’s a bright sun.”
“I had a decent glance at the test results before we left the examination room,” Virgil said while they put on silver suits to prepare for the spacewalk. The heat was intensifying. “This world is a place where being an unusual freak is gonna getcha noticed. People like getting noticed. Means you’re worth something, by somebody’s measure, Einie. It’s gonna put you in a job with a function that serves the ring’s continuation and keeps us all living. Keeps us all breathing. Small guys make remarkable threshers. Nice girls are usually remarkable evaluators. Things like that. There aren’t a whole lot of remarkable things about you, Einie. You aren’t tall. You aren’t pretty.”
“Aww, c’mon, Virgil. You’re kinda punching me in the tit when you say stuff like that, saying I’m unremarkable. I told you earlier, the test results on me are pretty interesting—”
“No, no, Einie, that’s precisely my point!” Virgil elbowed the hatch release. They crawled out the opening. Their suit’s air jets pressed them toward the sun, Vychen. Gravity did the rest. “The remarkable thing about you, Einie, is that you want stuff. You got dealt the cleanest existence in creation, and you deny it. Everyone around here wants to be content and eventually retire to the planet. You want to be odd though. You weren’t born into it, but you want it anyway.”
They drifted down toward the sun. Their tethers bound them to the Eidolon. The ship maintained a safe distance in a calm orbit. Einie watched the graceful threshers glide past. They picked up speed as they reached the sun, dipping in close, grazing its misty dermis between exhaled solar fares, and taking flight again with its payload.
“Then why’d you ask me about how close together my molecules were?” Einie asked.
Virgil put his hands on her shoulders. "Because, in my estimation, if you’re the Empress of the planet, Voice of the First Four, and the first ruler in unknown millennia, it’d mean you’re hyper-dense, Einie. Denser than dark matter. And it means you can quite literally punch a sun out of orbit.”
Virgil clipped Einie’s tether. He gripped her shoulders hard.
She was stricken motionless in terror. He flipped on her thruster. He kicked her down shrieking toward the surface of the sun.
SIX | The Way Through
The Eidolon obeyed Virigl’s command. He put the control stick into place and skimmed along Vychen’s surface. The gas giant burned overhead, piloting the craft to the opposite side from where he had dropped Einie. There, he drew to a halt in a steady orbit. Hurried, he scrambled to the ship’s top hatch. He made sure the receptacle was positioned perfectly underneath the sun, ready to receive. He checked his suit was sealed. He blew the hatch.
The heat roared. He was closer to the sun than anticipated. The force slammed Virgil to the floor beside the receptacle. He fought to keep his breath. He hurried. He kept his eye fixed on the open hatch. He stood. He licked his lips, already baking. He rubbed the back of his hand where the tithe was counting down the minutes, but he never looking away from the opening, right into the sun where he had flung the girl.
The receptacle vibrated a little. Virgil touched it. It wasn’t filling with energy as it should. The pressure of Einie’s impact should have sent a solar flair straight out the other side.
He looked back out the hatch.
Minutes, and nothing.
An hour, and nothing.
Nothing would happen.
Einie was gone.
Virgil felt his arms go limp and his head bow.
SEVEN | The Conflict
Cloth mask lowered and sun goggles shielding his eyes, Virgil made his way to the Author’s station. He had drained eight bottles of kist before working up the courage to just lose count and realize these were his last moments alive. Now he was drunk. He was ready.
On sight, they put him back in irons. The Author’s page examined his hand for how much of the tithe had been paid and how much time was left. She updated a record she carried.
An hour remained. He owed slightly more now. Penance for Einie’s death.
“We see this a lot,” the Author’s page said quietly, sounding like she was trying to console herself.
“Let me explode in peace,” Virgil said.
She told him to wait for the author.
In a minute, Virgil observed a young man escorted out of the Author’s hearing room. He had a grateful look about him. His tithe had been workable. Given time, he could pay the debt off. He could grow into a man. He could discover his calling. He could service the suns, to keep the belt turning. That endurance would someday yield the next Emperor from its ranks, as it always had. Then the young man could retire into the arms of the world, far below, his service done, his contribution complete.
He had found a place. The universe had aligned a use for him. His life could be a good conflict.
The spit in Virgil’s mouth boiled.
The Author appeared from his hearing room. He grinned at Virgil. The crowd gathered in the hall held on his every move, observing.
Surrounded, Virgil let out a gasp of wounded realization. This was his conflict. His place was to be executed. His proper destiny was not to explode in peace. He was made so others could watch a man burn. The conflict, Virgil’s energy fighting for a heartbeat against eternity would, at last, be good.
“You always were going to contribute,” the Author whispered to him.
The cadre walked him at the head of the crowd down the vast corridor to where the platform welcomed the planet. A raised altar greeted them. There was enough room for all who had gathered to observe Virgil’s life end. They were so many.
Far below was the planet—a ball of dust twisted so hard into itself that it defied the Void Formless. The suns shone upon her, and the planet, Goria, lived.
The Author put Virgil to his knees. He faced the planet. His eyes grew hot with tears. He struggled to see through the cloud layer. He turned to face beyond the sun-ring, out into the black end, for any sight of something. He could not.
“Look into the something-empty!” he shouted. “There’s fucking more! There’s more damn light out there! It just hasn’t gotten here yet!”
He kept breathing. He might dissolve into dust. He might lose his sight. His taste of sound might mix in with opposite senses as he died.
But he promised himself he would not stop breathing.
The Author threw a handful of sand into the air and watched it drift.
Virgil did not stop breathing.
He could not hear the surrounding mob anymore. They had come to watch him fulfill his life’s purpose.
Virgil did not stop breathing.
He felt a new heat in his body. It was beginning. His chest shuddered. It swelled out from his interior. He panted. Expanding, the heat spread his bones apart from his muscles. It burned through his skin, outward, beyond agony he had ever felt.
In the moment when he exploded, Einie appeared before him. She was a saint. She was illumination on two legs. Then her body came into form. Ablaze, she put her hands to Virgil and returned his burst parts into place. She gathered all his swept energy from the center of him in her hand, holding a green sun in her open palm.
Then she made a gesture, flicking her wrist, and crushing the Author’s soul between her fingers like glass against stone.
“You’re the property of the Empress now,” Einie said, bewildering the mob who stood in sight of her magnificence.
Continued in Part 3 . . .
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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