Mars (Coming in 2024)

Ares Sikranth, reknowned general, thought he was done with the Lunar Court's intrigue. He was wrong

A story about Earth, Mars, the Moon and an old fool that should have stayed far, far away from politics.

What follows is a preview, draft chapter

Whether it was in respect for his past services or the size of his later betrayal, two of the Reborn were sent to bring him from his hiding place. And me.

It was sunrise, he was sitting on a tree stump, chewing a bit of straw.

“Overdoing it a bit, aren’t we?” Silver, towering over me, his baritone ringing throughout the open field. The man sitting on that tree stump didn’t respond. I could see the piece of straw bob up and down as he chewed some more.

This was his way of letting us know he knew we were coming. And apparently that he loved melodrama. Eventually, he stood and turned, looked at the three of us, “I suppose so. This middle of nowhere life never suited me. “ His pantomime of rural life cast aside as he spit out the piece of hay.

He held out both hands. “Let’s get on with it. I am sure the Emperor has been salivating over finally putting me down.”

“We are not here for that, General.” Silver stood straight and saluted. He had been a soldier of some sort before. A long time ago.

“I don’t rate that anymore. “ He said irritably. “Killing me on the spot then rather than taking me to Executioner’s Star? I doubt I’d warrant two of you, but I am often wrong on these things.”

Silver slowly chanted “Exalt-General of the Rainbow Legions, Lord Regent of the Princeps, Reaver of the Five Rebellions, Crown-breaker…”

The general broke in, bitterly in a raspy whisper, “I don’t have titles anymore, except ‘traitor’ and, of course, ‘butcher’.” Butcher of the Red Legion, my mind filled in on its own. He sat down on the stump heavily and looked down.

He looked nothing like the promo posters from the Hundred Year War. The great hero had been a hearty man - tall, muscular and barrel chested. Even on vids, his presence dominated those around him. Not this withered man, hunched over, his walnut skin stretched thin and gray.

I knelt and performed the triple obeisance.  ”Exalt-General Ares Sikranth, we need you.”.

He hadn’t paid attention to me when we had arrived. I was looking down from my position, so I didn’t see him draw to his full height.  I didn’t see the look of astonishment on his face at the genuflection.  I didn’t need to.

The aircar — non-descript, uninteresting — took us to the waiting orbital shuttle without incident. I was nervous that we had been followed but nothing happened.

The Exalt-General had cleaned up and wore a modest grey suit with flowing pants and nehru jacket. No sign of rank. But the change in body language was remarkable as I could feel him slowly expanding to fill the space around him with an intense palpable aura. There were only the four of us in the car, but I found myself in the corner of my seat, making room.

It was silent. The general had followed Silver and Medea to the door and gotten in without comment. The whir of the propellers and air passing around the car - the only sounds. A small bit of air turbulence broke the droning monotony, and I took the opportunity to speak finally.

“Princess Octavia Jedeja has requested your presence.”

“Tavia?”, he frowned, “she must be…” And he frowned.  ”Time never stops, I suppose.”

“Her Highness,” I added, with not a little emphasis, “has requested your attendance on her person. Your sentence to be suspended during your service to the Royal Family”.

“Such details of service to be provided only as needed. “ He smiled and grinned,” by her most august majesty, the Princess… Tavia. “ Mocking, but the fondness in his voice took away the sting. I supposed he had been the princess’s guardian as well as the emperor’s.

Seeing the effect a smile had on his face was breathtaking. When I saw him, I intellectually knew he was on the younger side of middle-age, eighty-six years old. But my first impression had been much older, nearing senescence.

The aircar stopped. We climbed out and see our breaths in the cold, crisp air. He looked at the orbital shuttle, being loaded onto the launchrails. He looked at me and barely frowned as a small message drone flew towards us.

“Is this a public visit?” He asked and before I even answered, he jumped on top of me and knocked me to the ground.

What was left of Medea was very little. Even the Reborn could be killed and the small drone had apparently carried quite an explosive payload.

Silver was missing his arm and part of his chest. Blood and various fluids were oozing from the wounds, but already slowing as the wound closed up in grey latticework.  His face was damaged, but he was already on a isolated laser-comm to the shuttle.

“Security is blown. Get that shuttle on the rails now. We will be coming in hot.” With his only hand he first pulled up his biofilter mask and then drew the large rifle from his back. He started scanning the surrounding hills with its optic. A trio of drones flew from his pack in a spiral pattern scanning for IR traces. He wasn’t waiting for identification and firing off trace rounds into the air to kill anything the drones marked. The bullets swerved through the air in crazed patterns as he killed or destroyed every small mech or animal that happened to be nearby.

I crouched behind a small hedge, pulled on my mask and took my needler from my bodice. Not that useful at these long ranges, but if they had infiltrated a drone through the shield, they could bring in other assailants. I wished I had worn a full suit, not that I would have known how to use the augments.

The general stood up, apparently unconcerned and looked around.

“Feels good to be back. Shall we?” And jauntily stepped over and headed to the shuttle.  Bastard.

The adrenaline tapers and relaxants being pumped through couldn’t hide the level of strain. I slumped in a chair as the general pulled out his AI drone and began a code audit on the shuttle. Silver had done one on the way in, but the general did not trust the comms After launch, he kept his personal monitoring the shuttle systems.

“Disabled the usual launch soporific - we need to talk cleanly,” and he sat down across from me. “What does Her Highness want?” I had been looking forward to the lassitude that usually comes with take-off.

“I cannot say. She will tell you once you arrive.”

He sat back, unsurprised. Pulled up several holos and began reading through news articles from the time of his exiling.

I went back to my quarters. Sealed the doors, scanned for intrusion and assassination devices. And fell asleep.

The next day I woke and began getting dressed for the day. The shuttle was a small affair and had only one zero-g shower so I skipped it regrettably. I picked a practical jumpsuit in purple with yellow stripes on the side and programmed my hair into a complementary style and shade. The ship had reached its cruising velocity and any sense of gravity had disappeared so I changed the parameters to stay out of the way and contained adequately without being too stiff.

My drone floated freely and began offloading it’s report from night into my vision. I slept for eight hours. Ordinary sounds at night. Trace biocontaminants from Earth, typical of the region. Ground based acceleration from lasers was done at higher than normal power and finished early. Our velocity was higher than typical lunar transit and we would be spinning for decel early.

I queried the ships systems for the general’s activity. He had stayed up reading through political and military news and slept four hours. Based on visual analysis, he had used internal stims to stay focused combined with indeterminate pills that most likely were focusing drugs. Sleep was artificially induced. He had made no attempts at communication nor had he made any personal news searches.

I was careful not to ping any of the generals personal systems so confidence level was not ideal, cobbled together from pupillary dilation (one eye was still original), breathing rate, trace chemicals in sweat that had been caught in the air system, and other external readings.

Silver had done a full security check of his own and had spent the rest of the night in the fab, having a new arm made to his specs. The specs on the arm was inaccessible, most of the lab’s systems had been cut off physically from the rest of the ship.

The perfect opportunity to discuss without the general’s presence. I requested the ships systems to counterfeit my presence to my room and plotted a route to the lab without going near the general. Then alerted Silver that I would be arriving.

I asked my drone to collect details just as the doors slid open. Silver was having the arm attached, without any drugs or pain blocking. Had he run out of his internal supplies of anesthetics, but what about his neural blocks? It seemed unlikely both had failed him.

“Here, let me get you some anesthetic.” I started to the supply wondering why he hasn’t asked the ship.

“No.” He said around gritted teeth. “I don’t want it.” He paused and hissed as his pain receptors were fully connected. He admitted reluctantly, “The Reborn use pain as a lesson.” His hesitation to tell me was no surprise. The Reborn were said to be the most secretive of the post humans. A strange chimera of technology and engineered biomes, the rumors about them were varied and invariably wrong.

The arm was draped with a privacy cloth. The hum of its active blocking system was audible over the fans other noises. Undoubtedly he didn’t want me to see the arm in its unfinished state - whatever secrets it harbored were his.

I allowed a slight smile to cross my face to let him know I knew. It would make him feel more comfortable.

“When will you tell him?”

“Now I think. He needs to know to inform his efficiency. And the ship has been checked over thoroughly, I assume.”

“The Empress has given you the discretion.” He knew why. He knew who I was.

“The attack began with what appeared to be a relatively conventional bacterial agent, air-dispersed through a home-made projectile device of primitive manufacture. We assumed it was a homegrown bit of terrorism - hacking together something with a gene sequencer. The bio defense AI analyzed it quickly, manufactured viral phages to attack the bacteria, and we thought that was it.”

The general nodded to himself. Stayed quiet and waved the video to go on. “What the AI didn’t catch, was in the protein matrix of the cell wall, here and here,” he pointed to two protein sequences. “When the phage attacked key points to break apart the bacteria, it released this protein. This protein, carefully folded into the cell wall, was actually a prion.”

The general paused the video and made a side query. “Define prion.”

His drone was positively glowing with excitement. “Misfolded protein capable of self-replication causing neurologic degeneration. Eliminated through quarantine in 21st century. This variant is not on the historical record but appeared to have been made to order for this purpose…”

General Sikranth interrupted, “And the Emperor?”

I looked up. He had deduced the ending.

“Yes,” said Silver.

“Anyone else?”

“Several of his attendants, a guest he was receiving at the time, two minor functionaries.”

“All dead?”


“Why hasn’t the Empress taken the throne? Why the charade?”

It was my turn. “I am officially the Princess’s handmaiden and assistant. I am neurally bound to her for loyalty, but with much wider latitude than the Bound are usually given.”

I gave him a moment to digest. Binding was a two way connection and was a vulnerability. Nobody with a Bound would let them run off out of safekeeping nor allow them individuality or speech.

His natural assumption would be I was the Empress, travelling incognito with two Reborn for protection. I gave him a small smile, “I am not the Empress. Now now, anyway.”

The general sat down heavily on the bed and sighed. He kicked off his boots and lay down on the bed, hands crossed and stared at the top of the bunk.

He got back up and paced the three steps he could and turned around. Sat back down.

Twice more.

He called his drone out, it floated in front of him. And began displaying pictures. A young girl, four years old, dressed in mourning white, standing still, face stiff and cold… eight years old hugging a much younger Ares (well before he had earned that name)… in a group of young women dressed for sport, smiling into a camera, hair in disarray… and ten… and thirteen.

He paused a moment and spoke quietly to the drone. A young boy, six years old. Progressively getting older through pictures, more and more drawn and serious - the outfits progressively more ornate.

They cycled through twice more.

He paused a moment and called up another picture. A younger picture of him. Before he was Named. With a woman, small with a pixie cut. A young child in her arms.

“I always hated that haircut.” He murmured and smiled. Paused and switched back to the other pictures. They cycled through.

He fell asleep on the fourth. After some time, a light in the corner of his vision woke him from strange fantastical dreams of dragons and unicorns.

“What is it?” He asked.

The door slid open. The handmaiden was there. No, it was the Empress. He flew out of bed and began the triple obeisance.

“Damn you Jai! How did you know?”

“Nobody calls me that anymore. I haven’t heard that name in 40 years since your mother gave my new one.”

“Okay. Ares then, mother wasn’t terribly creative in granting you that Name..” Her responses were slightly hesitant. A condition of the distance from the moon, still a couple days out.

“It fit.” The general shrugged.

“Perhaps Athena would have been better, for wisdom. You had warned her.”

“But that would be admitting her mistake. Metis would have been more apropos.”

“And royalty never makes a mistake” they both intoned, quoting the old Empress’s lesson. She tacked back. “No more deflecting. How did you know?”

He paused for a moment. “Your eyes were looking at me instead of down. The handmaiden shows more deference immediately and would have been looking down when the door opened. You looked at me immediately.”

He paused a moment and began again. “Imperatrix, you know Mars is a possible culprit.”

Sounding her out with a poor hypothesis. Always testing, even now.

She answered quickly, “After all, perihelion is soon. But to what gain? Our relationship has been stable for a long time. We send a slow freighter twice a year with refined goods and luxuries and they shove an asteroid our way with raw materials every so often. For the past twenty years or so they have started returning the freighters with some crafts of their own, which command a ridiculous premium for their oddity and origin. If anything they need us less since their own advancement. Hells, the most popular show on Earth now is a Martian drama they beam to us… It works. And certainly Haru hadn’t planned on changing it. Neither do I.”

“Other interests? The Praetorian seemed quiescent when left. The Houses? The Legions? The bureaucracy? Earther separatists? Lunar superiorists?”

“That litany isn’t useful. That is basically everyone. There is no way to select between them with as little as we have. Motivations are opaque. My political preferences are not known which means either it was a gamble on me as opposed to Haru. Petra is pursuing the biological agent but has nothing to report yet. If anything, things are quieted than when you left.” Exiled stayed unspoken.

“And I am here because I was out of the game?”

“Because what happened wasn’t your fault. You were and are loyal. And you would never betray us.” Her tone was even. But he knew the last was a question.

“After the Kiev campaign,” After I was betrayed and the entire legion was massacred, “I was happy to leave it all behind. I wanted time to myself. I did not care and did not miss it.” That was as good an answer as he could give. He knew it would not be sufficient to allay any concerns of betrayal. The old Empress had made trust difficult.

“And now?”

“Now I will help. Because I raised you and your brother and loved you both too much because of my poor dead daughter. And whoever killed Haru…” he paused, an anger making his voice flat and emotionless, “ I will carve them into pieces.”

“So what do you think?” Silver asked his Empress, later in a sealed conference room.

“He will do.” Her voice held steady.”Our blood is a curse on our servants and those we love dear most of all. He will do. And our betrayal will finish it.”

“You know it has to be him.”

“I know. Just like I knew Haru had to die. Now we need someone to die for it. So I lose my brother and my father to the same insanity. “