—SUNS GO DARK—
words & art: Alexander Ruegg
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CHAPTER ONE (v1.01)
Encircling a half-burned planet far past the known heliostasis was a superstructure that created 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 birthed forth, hovering in a rigid dance around the planet below. 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 overhead who struggled 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 pilot, an engineer, and maybe a scriptor. 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 object. An object so terrifying that you'd never sleep again, should I reveal it: 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 had to dim the lights again to calm the collected muttering from the gathered observers. “The universe is mapped,” he whispered through the darkened room. “All things are 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 exact energy could have been used for true labor. The ancient ring 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 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 it before.
He could not act quickly enough. The cadre gained a firm grip on Virgil 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.
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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 though. 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 surer she was. She was the one. She wanted to be so badly. She wanted it so much that when they pinched at her muscles and squeezed her bones just a little too hard, 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, afraid of the notion. To be the reincarnation of the emperor, the first in untold eons, was a terrifying consideration. Einie was warming to it though.
The tests had gone on. Candidates collected into groups and breathed a littler 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.”
“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 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 worse a leather jacket so faded by the sun it had nearly turned yellow.
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. “Einie! C’mon, Einie, I need you to come with me! We’ve got less than half a cycle before I get turned into dust!”
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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 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.”
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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 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 saved my life once!”
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 steered 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 seemed 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 whose 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?”
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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 going to 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 by. 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.
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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.
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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,” she 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 being escorted out of the author’s hearing room. He had a grateful look about him. His tithe had likely 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.
Far below was the planet—a ball of dust twisted so hard into itself that it defied the void’s formlessness. 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.
Virgil did not stop breathing.
He felt a new heat in his body. It was beginning. His chest shuddered. It pressed 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 the sun in her open palm.
Then she crushed it between her fingers like glass against stone.
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