“We must consolidate around the Aery.”
Pinpricks of light shone through an elaborate glass ceiling, casting vivid shadow patterns on a table of grim faces. Through the glass, space was a blanket of black pierced by distant stars – including the sun.
The Icy Earl spoke again. “Even SRM convoys are disappearing into the River Nyx. To deploy the Fleet Protectorate at this time is foolishness – the Starfarer’s make the fickleness of their lives their identity. Let them bear the consequences for a season.”
“We are all concerned by the conditions around the solar system,” a soft-faced man in gentle white robes murmured. “But to forsake our commitments to the Least of These is no way to ensure the Duke’s authority remains strong.”
“The Duke wanes,” Triton cut back. Every other pair of eyes in the room narrowed. Those words had not been said yet inside the Thrall, but the council knew it was true. “Why do you think we meet in his absence? Restoring authority to his throne is short-sighted. We must plan a more enduring solution.”
“I suppose you would suggest yourself?” a young man quipped. He had a dagger-shaped face and hair to match that jutted over his darting eyes. The cross-breasted uniform of a Protectorate Naval Officer made him stand out among the otherwise regal and adorned clothes of the Thrall members.
Triton levelled his gaze at the young man, who diverted his eyes. “Only if I must to keep upstarts like you from seizing it.”
Over a thousand faces watched her. They were arranged in curved balconies stacked almost thirty stories tall and arching in a semicircle around the balcony where she stood opposite. Floodlights did not reach the ground half a dozen stories beneath her, miring it in shadows and giving her the feeling of standing over a lurching precipice.
Given the opportunity, she knew most of them would have thrown her in.
The flowing blue gown she wore was unfamiliar and uncomfortable compared to her usual overalls and welding jacket. She fought for a deep breath and began.
“My Supreme Senate.” She flinched. The small mic taped to her cheek sent her voice exploding across the massive chamber. Conversations in each senator’s booth quieted. But even in the tremendous space of the senate chamber, she could tell someone about halfway up the rows was still whispering to their staff or to an adjacent official.
“My Supreme Senate,” she repeated. “I come to you on the eve of one of the darkest days in our Republic’s young history.” She tried to glance down from the wall of watchers to her script. But her hands trembled, and the lines of text swam between her fingers.
“We – Phobos – we are a small settlement of no great significance to the Republic at large. And yet, we, as its citizens, desire not to divorce ourselves from it. The Republic. But instead, we invoke the rights of Edict One and…” She frantically counted. After performing the simple calculation twice with different results, she took a blind guess. “And Edict Seven – no Edict Six, invoking the precedent of such cases as Tarnos Mining vs. Ganymede Helix and…”
But she already heard the murmuring conversation of the one Senator blossoming as disinterest spread.
“The Marquis, an even older line than the Duke’s, suffers the first major challenge since the Crucible,” Triton declared. “Unseen enemies prey on Kuiper settlements and defy SRM authority. A moon of Jupiter is in rubble after the first major SRM bombardment since the Crusade. We are in unprecedented times.”
“The solar system still heaves with news of the Dimming,” Chadwick replied, smoothing his white robes calmly. “If we respond in military strength, we will only exasperate their desperation. The Duke was wise in this. People are clamoring for hope, and therefore primed for revolutionaries who can promise it. It will pass, and our faithfulness to the people will prove greater than their fear.”
“Oh please,” Ven moaned, casting his darting eyes to the bishop. “The church is a relic. The problem is here and now. We don’t have time to promise every citizen in the duchy a golden castle in the next life.”
“Our differences aside –” a woman at the table cut in, “but perhaps the Earl is right. He does not ask us to overthrow the Duke. And he does not tell us to forsake our contracts with the Starfarers or the Ganymede Helix. But discretion is the greater part of valor –”
“That hasn’t been my experience,” Ven muttered.
“—and wisdom in this case would seem to suggest we should exercise such discretion. If a rebellion breaks out in the Aery, we do not have the luxury of a planetary bombardment the like of Carpo. Our station, for all its technologies, is fragile. The throne may not survive a similar conflict.”
“And any fracturing of the Duchy would necessarily cut through the Aery,” Triton nodded. “Arranging the Protectorate around it would secure a peaceful transition of power and the preservation of the Duke’s legacy.”
“Use of military power in these times via open war is forbidden under Edict One,” Syzygy continued, fighting to maintain authority over waves of conversation. “We petitioned, as is our right under Edict Four, before the Judicator, who has sent me –” she could barely hear her own voice. The glimmer of hope was fading. “Who has sent me to—” she couldn’t even see the eyes of any of the senators anymore. Someone laughed, probably at a joke of one of their staff, but it felt directed at her. “Who has sent me to—” desperation swelled in her chest.
“LISTEN TO ME.”
Across the balconies, senators and staff members froze.
Syzygy’s fists balled, crumpling and tearing the speech script in her hands. “Please. Listen to me. We have no one else to ask. Phobos is small without the military or money to defend ourselves.” She tried to roll up a sleeve, but the gown was unyielding. After fumbling for a moment, she tore at it, ripping the whole silky sleeve from the shoulder and revealing her bare arm, which she thrust upward into the air of the chamber.
The bottom of her forearm displayed the puckered white scars of a slave brand.
“We are a captive people. We are branded and beaten, at the mercy of the Marquis’ levies which we can never hope to pay. We are hard workers, willing to break our backs, but we are smart enough to know what that is worth – and watching everything we built the last two generations corrode is not. We do not have strength to fight for ourselves. But we will fight. And die if we have to.
She lowered her arm and gestured weakly to the countless rows of opulent balconies. “But you… You can make it so we don’t have to. I don’t ask you to pass a new edict. Or even to so much as get out of your velvet chairs. I only ask that you remove us from the governance of the Marquis and place us into the Ganymede Helix. Our small government has already spoken with them, and their representatives have consented to this arrangement.”
A new round of murmuring broke out among the crowd. It was hushed and almost frantic.
“I don’t ask out of pride. Fluch, our republic is run by a vagrant, a physicist, and a deposed aristocrat. We are past having pride.” Syzygy pursed her lips and considered. Tangling only a little in the blue gown, she lowered herself to her knees. “Please. I beg of you set us free.”
“I call for a vote,” Triton declared. “What will this council justify?”
“Why was Duchess Odessa not invited to this meeting?” Chadwick interrupted. The others looked around as though they noticed it for the first time.
“The Lady’s betrothal to the Duke was deemed a violation of her objectivity.”
“Deemed by who,” Chadwick countered.
Triton pursed his lips. “Myself.”
Chadwick rose from his chair, his gown and ornaments settling around him as he did. “I cannot read you, Triton. But you are called icy for a reason. I begin to think that your years in the dark of Eis Festung have left you without a heart. The woman prepares her heart to grieve. And there is already too much death in this solar system.”
“Please, Bishop,” one of the other members mumbled. “Don’t be so dramatic. All the Earl is suggesting is that we close ranks around the Aery. Nothing more.”
“If you truly believe that, then vote with your conscience,” Chadwick retorted. “But my conscience tells me this Thrall is drawing its knives at the first smell of blood.” Ven, the young officer, turned his gaze to the ground. “And I will have none of it.”
Triton sneered. “Then go back to your prayers. And leave governance to those with the heart to do what must be done.”
“I move to vote,” another woman’s voice called over the booming speakers of the senate chamber. Looking to her right, Syzygy saw the slender form and red hair of President Nerress Hulix standing at a balcony parallel with her own, facing the semicircle of senators. Her words cracked like a whip, snapping the attention of the Senate.
Behind the President, the banners of the Republic draped almost forty feet, from the rafters of the chamber into the shadowed floor somewhere below. She was taller than Syzygy had realized, and she commanded the attention of the room with an unexplainable magnetism. Her uniform was crisp – flawless even – and the emblem of the Republic gleamed on its breast.
“My executive power, entrusted by each of you, allows such a motion as to skip debate and discussion. I do not make such a decision lightly,” Nerress continued, bowing her head. “Instead I do so out of an abundance of caution and leave each of you with this – the Republic exists for the purpose of every citizen. Consistency is the tool we use to stave off the fickle wills of evil and the whims of those who would predatorize our Republic. Great pains were underwent to draw such regions of governance, and those regions were won by the blood of the Crusade. To suffer is to be human. But we shall not fracture our fragile peace and compound the suffering of our people under the name of alleviating it.
“I therefore move the vote so as to render immediate judgement.” She pointed to her left, to where Syzygy still kneeled.
From where she knelt, Syzygy felt the barrel of a rifle press against the back of her skull and knew she would feel the verdict before she heard it.
“Is this woman guilty of treason, or no? Is the Republic so deeply flawed that we must change, or no?” Nerress cast up her hands. “You do not decide for yourselves. But for the good of the Republic.”