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Triumph of the All-Sovereign
After I got stung, I started having nightmares, in which that scorpion, blown up in my mind to something the size of a cat or a dog, would sit there openly on the wood pile. It would watch me with terrible, single-minded intensity, just waiting for me to stray back within range of that arched stinger.
Nothing but a stupid childhood anxiety, I know. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I'd learned that you could easily get through life completely ignoring the little bastards, and that they had far more to fear from a booted heel than we had to fear from a little sting.
But that was on earth.
Shackled to that chair in front of that gold-masked son of a bitch, I felt about six years old again, and that horrid thing out of my all-but-forgotten nightmares really was staring me down, just waiting for an excuse to jump.
"Why, Violet, you seem to be losing a great deal of moisture through your skin," said Thrail. "Would you like another cup of water?"
"Just ask your god-damned questions," I muttered. "Please."
"Avila, bring me the garment our blueworlder was clutching when she was drawn here," said Thrail.
Avila fetched my flight jacket from where it lay beside the attendant with the silver scribing table. That Martian had a stylus out and was, I can only presume, taking notes on my interrogation. Avila passed the jacket to Thrail, who turned it over in his hands a few times.
"Is this a personal possession of yours?"
"What's the meaning of this symbol?"
Thrail pointed to the patch over my jacket's right breast, a cartoon representation of a female gremlin, a winged-and-goggled creature leaping into action in a fetching little pilot's outfit.
"A religious icon of some sort?"
"She was... she was our mascot."
"Ahhh." Thrail folded my jacket neatly and settled it on the lap of his robe. "A superstitious device, meant to bring good fortune."
"Someone at the Disney company drew her for us. We put her on everything- jackets, planes... our, uh, newsletters..."
"'You,' meaning a unit? A military unit?"
"I, uh..." God, that scuttling thing shifted its weight and twitched at me! "Thrail, please, what if I don't know the right answer... what if I make a mistake?"
"Calm yourself. Construct your answers very, very carefully. The blind demon isn't omniscient; it detects your intention to lie. Nothing more, nothing less. Tell the truth as you best understand it."
"It was- well, it was a unit, yes. Not technically of the military, but serving a military purpose."
"Soames said that you named yourselves after an aggressive, stinging insect. You were a combat formation?"
"Uh... no. We flew... combat aircraft, yes, but not into fights. We were called WASPs because, uh, if you took the first letters of the names of the organization, you got WASP. It was a catchy acronym. Does that, uh, make sense to you?"
"Yes," said Thrail. "Yes, quite. So it was an artistic flourish rather than an expression of purpose?"
"Uh, if you put it that way, yeah."
"Describe the nature of your training."
"Well... we were all previously trained. Civilian pilots, that is. We knew how to handle airplanes before we joined the program. You have airplanes here, right?"
"Your meaning is perfectly clear."
"Once in the program, well, it was called ground school... first we had a few hundred hours of classroom instruction. Maps, navigation, physics. Engines and other mechanical stuff. And then we were taught how to, ah, fly in the manner, of, uh, the male military pilots we were supposed to replace."
"Blueworlder females are not allowed to participate in combat actions?"
"Not where I come from, no."
"So you flew peaceful missions to free your more valuable trained males for the ironic duty of slaughtering one another?"
"You got a mighty cynical way of looking at things, Thrail."
"Any realist who isn't accused of cynicism every now and then isn't being realistic enough. Now, describe the air vehicles you flew in your capacity as a WASP."
"Uh, well... we started with trainers. The, uh, BT-13, and then the AT-6." I concentrated hard on the details of those airplanes to keep my mind off the scythes of the blind demon's jaws, which were slowly flexing and contracting.
"The BT-13 was a shaky old bird. The AT-6 was, ah, faster and more powerful, and a lot more demanding." No gentle partner, that ship- more like a jealous suitor. Bad things happened when it didn't have your full attention, which is why, I suppose, it was seen as an ideal prelude to flying high-speed fighters.
"Irrelevant," said Thrail. "Describe the militarily significant air vehicles."
"Okay, sure- I was properly, ah, properly checked out on five real combat types... three pursuit models and two bombers. Do you understand what I mean by those terms?"
"Why not explain them to me, Violet, as though dealing with someone from another planet?"
"Ha. Funny. Bombers... uh, well, those are large vehicles, designed to travel... long distances, carrying a load of, ah, munitions, which are meant to be dropped on a ground target. Pursuit planes, well, those are smaller, faster. They go after the bombers, see? And after each other."
"Were any of these vehicles propelled by rockets?"
"N-no. By, uh, turbine-driven propellers. Airscrews, if you want to get really technical."
"Astonishingly quaint," said Thrail. "And yet I see our little friend is still in his box. You flew no vehicles with rocket engines? What about turbojets?"
"Those were brand new at the end of the war," I said. "I never flew any, and as far as I know, no WASPs were checked out on them before we got folded up."
"What was the effective ceiling of the combat vehicles you flew?"
"Well," I said, "uh, the P-51 Mustang, the 'D' model, I could have got one of those up to about 40,000 feet, at least. If I'd tried." I'd been part of a WASP cadre certified for real upper-deck flying, and spent several long sessions in Army Air Force pressure chambers, where we'd removed our oxygen masks one at a time and discovered how hypoxia could turn an attentive adult into something like a drunk toddler in just a few moments.
The fifty-one was probably the best aircraft I'd ever flown, powerful as its namesake, with a beautiful bubble canopy that let you see the whole sky. Any time you could grab in one of those ships was a joy, if you knew what you were doing.
If I'd had one at my disposal at that instant, with its six fifty-cal wing guns, I'd have gladly zeroed the sights right between Thrail's eyes and pulled the trigger until the hammers were falling on empty chambers.
"And the, uh, the B-17," I continued, trying not to let that attractive fantasy knock me off-course. "A big bomber, with four engines. We would ferry those with a crew of four. They could get way up over 30,000 feet, easily"
"No trans-atmospheric capability?"
"What, you mean... skip past the stratosphere, hit space, come on home? Lord, no."
"Interesting," said Thrail. "This is exactly in line with our remote observations, but Soames dropped some curious hints. Threats about secret programs, and aircraft beyond our means of detection. He said that you might have been involved with that sort of thing during your service."
"Ugh," I said, "Please, Doctor Soames doesn't know the first thing about aviation. Hell, I don't know what he was trying to do. Maybe he's just confused."
"He didn't believe our warnings about the blind demon, I can tell you that much," said Thrail. "He thought it was a ruse. Much to his chagrin, he discovered that our warning was... quite honorable."
"Damn you people-"
Thrail put his hand against the back of the transparent box and pushed it six inches closer to me. The blind demon scrabbled for balance against the inner surface of the box, shifting its weight, never turning its mandibles away from me for an instant. My guts turned into a ball of ice, my lungs seemed locked in iron bands, and I squirmed helplessly against my restraints.
"Jesus, Thrail, please, please, I'm being honest about everything!"
"Yes," he said in an airy, pleasant tone of voice. "You are. Was your WASP program a cover for any form of secret research or aircraft development?"
"Were you secretly trained in combat techniques?"
"No! No, I had... no formal combat training!"
"What do you mean?"
"Look, uh, my country... when our combat pilots had spent a certain amount of time in action, they were withdrawn and sent back home to train new pilots. We bumped into a lot of those guys. We picked things up, here and there, but it was nothing like the training or the experience actual fighter pilots had... uh... please move this thing. Please move this thing. I'm being fair with you."
"Answer quickly, and this will be over quickly. Did you fly aircraft capable of delivering atomic weaponry?"
"I... probably. The B-17 I talked about. Our atom bombs are big and heavy, the Flying Fortress would have had trouble with one, but a smaller device, yeah, maybe."
"Blueworlder atomic devices remain in this form? Delivered by aircraft, not by rockets?"
"As... as far as I know, yes. There's ideas, plans, theories, but dropping one from a plane is still the only sure way I know." Back home they were shooting captured German V-2s off, copying them, designing improvements. But as for rockets arcing into space, hopping between continents with atomic payloads, well, that was still firmly in the realm of fiction writers like yours truly.
"To the best of your knowledge, no blueworlder nation possesses any vehicle capable of travel or combat beyond your planet's atmosphere?"
"No," I said. "No. If we don't have 'em, nobody does. And I'm pretty damn sure we don't."
"Disappointing," said Thrail. "It seemed for a short while that you were an intriguing anomaly. A pity that your primitive achievements match our remote observations so precisely after all."
"A pity? Why?"
"Because the All-Sovereign cultivates a studious indifference toward you soft-fleshed, over-hydrated barbarians. Your ongoing failure to reach beyond the cradle of your own gravity has likely bought your fellow blueworlders another ten years of life."
"Fellow blueworlders," I said. "So I'm not going home, then?"
"I'm afraid not," said Thrail, clicking in the back of his throat. "And look, our little friend didn't leap out of his box at me. Alas for you, dear Violet."
"Anything else you want to ask me, you son of a bitch?" My voice had gone hoarse with strain, and I felt hot tears stinging the edges of my eyes again. "Want to know the secret formula for Coca-Cola? Want me to sing Burma-Shave jingles?"
"No, our meaningful business is concluded."
"Then will you please, please move this thing?"
"Of course," he said softly. Then he slapped the back of the transparent box just hard enough that the blind demon tumbled out and landed above my right breast.
I've told you some things I'm not so proud of, and I'll tell you a few more before we're through, imaginary reader. But listen, at that moment I felt about as low and miserable and weak as I ever had in my entire life, and I'm not ashamed to say it. Not one bit. Frankly, I'd like to see anyone receive the close personal attention of a bastard like Exarch Thrail and come out smelling like a bed of roses.
I screamed, more or less. I flinched, and closed my eyes, and held my breath like the little girl I'd once been, trapped in her nightmare, willing herself to stay perfectly still so the monster on the wood pile wouldn't get her.
The blind demon weighed at least a pound, probably more. I felt its dozens of legs clutching at the fabric of my work shirt, and I heard it hiss- its jaws were open so wide I could have fed it three fingers in one snap. This much I saw before I slammed my eyes shut and flinched, waiting for the pain-
After a few seconds, nothing happened. Except Thrail had another big laugh at my expense.
I opened my eyes to find Zhanazia stroking the blind devil, ever so gently, with one finger. Her hand was as red and leathery as that of the poor murdered functionary, but what really got my attention was that she'd somehow managed to calm the angry critter before it could tear a gaping hole in my chest.
I had no words; I just blew air out of my mouth, half relieved sigh and half unvoiced sob.
Thrail finished laughing, unfolded himself from his chair, and dropped my jacket carelessly on the floor.
"Collect your pet," he said, and Zhanazia complied. The blind demon scuttled up onto her robed forearm and then perched there, submissive as a kitten, while she fetched her original metal container for it.
Thrail produced a glass sphere from within his robes and cupped it in one hand. A swirling blue light came to life within the glass, and he spoke directly to it: "Hail, Dread Eminence. The last of the blueworlders has been interrogated. Loyalty Section fully concurs with the report from Sciences Section. The rumors of secret developments in blue world aerial weaponry are baseless."
"Very good, Thrail." The voice that answered, transmitted by the sphere, was no less cultured than the Exarch's, but softer, somehow milder. My first reaction to hearing the voice of the being that commanded such cruel and far-reaching power was surprise; surely the voice of the devil incarnate should have been more theatrical. "Move the blueworlders to the Forum of Justice. Exarch Kreth will begin the military displays immediately."
"Your will, All-Sovereign." The glass sphere dimmed, and Thrail hid it within his robes once again.
"Now what?" I said.
"Now we can commence the celebration at last. The special arrangements for your interrogation have put it slightly behind schedule."
"The drawing of each representative sample culminates in a public pageant, the Grand Triumph of the All-Sovereign, at which he pronounces his verdict on your people." Thrail adjusted his robes and beckoned to his assistant with the scribing table. They put away their stylus and rose to their feet. "Personally, I'd just as soon blast your culture into memory and find some other excuse for a public display. It's not as though we're short of valid excuses, on this planet at least."
"Thrail," I said, "there's an awful lot of things you're short of on this planet, but I don't think you'd understand them, even if I bothered to explain."
"Charming," he said. "You're recovering something of your old familiar fire now that the blind demon is back in its box. But I wonder if you can maintain a bold demeanor in front of fifty million pairs of eyes?"
"The highlight of any Grand Triumph," said Thrail. "You and all the other blueworlders drawn here for the sample will be escorted to the Forum of Justice, in the City of the Sovereign Eye. There your images will be broadcast to every corner of the All-Sovereign's dominion. Every civilized being on Mars will be attentively watching your public execution."
"Whoah," I said, "How is that necessary? Christ! You just proved it yourself with this sample- we're no threat to Mars. What's the harm in sending us back?"
"Ahhhh. We can't send you back," said Thrail. "The apparatus used to draw you here only works in one direction. For the rest of your life, which will last about an hour, you can consider yourself a Martian. Congratulations."
"But dammit, we can talk about this, it's not necessary, it doesn't make any sense!"
"Oh, it makes perfect sense," said Thrail. "It just isn't fair."
He turned and strolled toward the elevator. Zhanazia and his scribe followed quietly at his heels.
"Avila, prepare the blueworlder for escort. The elevator will return with my men."
"Your will, Excellency."
"Farewell. And farewell to you, Violet DeVere. We won't meet again."
The elevator door opened and closed with a soft hiss, and then Thrail was gone. Avila and I were alone. He put a hand on my shoulder.
"Don't touch me." I shook myself violently, and he pulled his hand back. "Go screw yourself. You and all your fascist buddies."
"I know you must think very poorly of me." Avila spoke in a whisper while he moved around my chair and picked up my jacket. "When there are members of Loyalty Sector nearby, you have to act in a certain manner or risk drawing notice to yourself. I only wish I could-"
"Hey," I said, suddenly struck by a craving that cut like a knife, "Hey, are my cigarettes still in there?"
"Your... your incendiary drug cylinders?"
"Yeah, that's close enough. There should be a half-pack or so in the inside pocket."
"I'm truly sorry," he said. "Our scan-beam registered the contents of that package as some sort of chemical weapon. We disposed of it."
"Nnnngh," I said, beating my head against the back of my seat. "No last smoke. God almighty, you people can't even do an execution right."
"I assure you that we can," said Avila softly as he moved away. "Violet, you can't escape from this room, and in a few moments armed soldiers will be coming up the elevator. Don't do anything stupid."
An instant later, to my surprise, my wrist and ankle shackles snapped open. I stumbled up off the chair, shaky in a way that had nothing to do with my spore hangover. I was soaked in sweat, and I didn't smell so pretty- I'd been through an awful lot for one set of clothes.
Avila had taken my jacket over to a little podium that had popped out of the floor, and he was fiddling with it.
"Uh, can I have that back, maybe?"
"Of course," he said. "I'm just scanning it once last time for contraband, so it doesn't get taken from you." A moment later, apparently satisfied, he turned toward me and held it out. "Put it on, though. Anything carried will surely be confiscated."
I slipped into that old familiar jacket, grateful for its warmth and coverage. Psychological armor at best, but I think it's fair to say I'd suddenly acquired a pretty deep understanding of that old chestnut about drowning folks and straws.
"Some advice, blueworlder." Avila moved close to me, so close that his patina-covered mask was next to my ear. "This room is monitored. But I wanted you to know... not everyone on this world is a willing abject of the All-Sovereign. Their eyes will be on you. So when you face the execution squad... wear your symbol proudly and take it well. For the sake of those watching, if no one else."
"Uh..." I nearly said something, but realized at the last instant that any verbal acknowledgment that Avila wasn't treating me like absolute dirt could get picked up. I was sure that even such a little kindness would make him suspect to his masters, so I merely nodded.
A few moments later, the elevator doors slid open again, revealing all of Thrail's gray-cloaked soldiers, waiting for me with their rifles unslung.
After another incredible elevator ride, the wonders of which I was all but numb to, I was marched across the fortress in the opposite of the direction we'd originally come from. The architecture seemed to open up before us as we moved- small corridors became cavernous passages; rooms became vaults. My hands had been cuffed again, but I'd at least been allowed the minor dignity of keeping my arms in front of me.
I was taken down a wide corridor lined with huge metal shutters, like garage doors, which would open from time to time to admit or disgorge small units of Martian soldiers. I assumed these were elevators. One opened directly in front of us, and out came a group of ten guards wearing the same black uniforms and iron masks as Mathrel's boys, the detention block guards.
In their midst, riding on some sort of motorized cart, was Dr. Soames.
"Doc," I shouted, "Doc!" I pushed toward him, and in my excitement forgot my clumsy Mars-gravity walking skills. I bounced two or three feet in the air before half a dozen of the gray-cloaks grabbed me and slammed me back down.
To my surprise, a general mingling of the assorted guards followed, and Soames was let through my cordon. I can only presume that they thought bunching us together would make us easier to handle.
"Miss DeVere," said Soames hoarsely, "I'm mighty glad to see you. Frankly, though, we're up to our necks in something awful here."
"Doc, what happened to you?" He looked terrible- his skin was waxy and gray, his eyes were bloodshot, and he sat stiffly atop his motorized cart, a soundless gizmo that looked a bit like a mobile barber's chair. Even his miserable condition hadn't been enough to keep them from shackling one of his hands to the cart.
"I was, uh, I was bitten by some sort of native creature. While I was being questioned. When I was able to move again, I think I had a minor cardiac episode."
"Jesus," I said. "A heart attack... how are you now?"
"Well, in all honesty, Miss DeVere, I don't believe I have much gas left in the tank. I think I might just make it to the, ah, execution, but these sons of bitches had better be punctual if they want to off me before the good Lord cashes my chips."
"Doc, what did you tell them? About me, I mean."
"Ah," he said, "I should apologize. My gut told me pretty early on that our, uh, hosts had no real reason to keep us alive. I saw them shoot one of their own down, right in my cell. So I figured, maybe if I dropped some interesting hints about you, they'd find a reason to spare you. For a while, at least."
"Oh. That was a sweet thought, Doc. For what it's worth."
"Well, I won't be sending you a bill for that particular service, Miss DeVere. It doesn't seem to have done you any damn good."
Another one of the huge elevator doors opened, and a third squad of guards joined our growing entourage. They pushed forward a tall, rather handsome Negro fellow, about my age or a little older. He wore an expensive-looking dark suit torn open in several places, and had a black tie hanging loose around his neck.
"Well, well," he said. His gentle voice had some sort of British accent. "This must be where the queue forms up for getting killed. Am I intruding?"
"Not at all," I said. "I'm Violet DeVere. This is Dr. Soames."
"Cheers. Reggie Abbott. You don't look so well, Dr. Soames. Surely they can't mean to-"
"Oh, they mean to," said Soames. "You look like you've been questioned, same as us. You honestly don't expect anything resembling mercy from these people, do you?"
"Can't say that I do. Hell of a thing, all this. Pity we can't get some message back home. Warn them, you know."
Now that was a tantalizing fantasy- seizing a Martian radio, beaming a desperate message back to earth. I wondered how Mathrel and his goons might fare against a regiment of U.S. Marines, bounding around in low gravity, storming the red sands of Mars like they had the black sands of Iwo Jima...
Well, they'd kill them, probably. Rifles and machine-guns against the technology of a culture that could sustain a pocket of picnic-lunch weather in an area three times the height of Mount Everest? It was no use wishing like a little kid- our world was in second place in a race it didn't even know it was running.
"If it's any consolation," I said, "I think we might have already done our bit to save the earth. By convincing these bastards that we're too primitive to bother about destroying, I mean."
"Rather arse-backwards bit of heroism on our parts," said Reggie. "Not exactly the stuff of legends."
"You got that right," I sighed. This definitely wasn't how the story should have gone- reluctant, confused earthlings saving their world by convincing their alien interrogators that humanity was barely worth laughing at. And then getting murdered for their trouble.
John W. Campbell wouldn't have given me three cents a word for that.
A fourth human joined our little party a few minutes later. Barely my height, a wiry Asian guy with close-cropped hair and a dangerous sort of feeling about him, even with handcuffs on. Not the sort of fellow you'd want to corner with a weapon in his hands, if you take my meaning. He wore stained blue coveralls, and the lean lines of his face were marred by several fresh bruises.
"Howdy," I said. "I'm Violet, that's Reggie, this is Dr. Soames, and the Martian goons all around us are, uh, Martian goons."
"Byun Jae-Sun. You're Americans?"
"Well, I'm not," said Reggie with a faint smile. "But these two can't help themselves."
"I see. British and Americans, then. There's no functional difference."
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Reggie.
"We march to death together, it seems. It must have come as quite a shock to you," said Jae-Sun, "being unable to reach an accommodation with your fellow imperialists."
"Oh, Christ," said Doc Soames. "Now we know it's a global affair. Even the commies sent someone to the party."
"I wonder- did you offer our captors money, old man? Or did you try to pledge fidelity to them as brother oppressors?"
"He didn't offer them a damn thing," I said. "They tortured him worse than any of us. Look at him!"
"He does look ill. But then, he has very little to be satisfied with, here or on our home world. When I was kidnapped from the field, my division was fighting on the Naktong Line. Your hold on Korea has collapsed to one feeble bubble around Pusan. As we speak, the final liberation of the Fatherland is likely underway. I can die well pleased."
"You're gonna die with one of my loafers up your ass if you don't put that crap behind you," I said. "Now-"
"I might have approved this 'representative sample,' young man," said Soames, "if only the Martians had had the good sense to kidnap and execute nobody but reds-"
"Now don't you start, either, Doc!" My temper, already well beyond frayed, snapped hard. "Both of you, look around and quit making idiots of yourselves. Commies, Brits, Americans, these guys don't give a damn. Ain't nobody here but us chickens. Not any more."
One of the brighter sides to the translation spores was that they smoothed over any rough edges when you threw a saying like that into a conversation. Everyone listening got whatever their local equivalent was. Reggie nodded thoughtfully, Doc mumbled angrily to himself, and Byun Jae-Sun had the good grace to look away, seemingly abashed.
"I apologize," he said a moment later. "Whatever the crimes of your home nations, they have been well and truly eclipsed by the evil we see around us. I had been focusing on my teachings to give me strength during my interrogation. Perhaps that focus has made me act... uncultured."
"A day like this would make anyone crazy, mate," said Reggie.
At that point the corridor we had been walking through broadened before ending altogether at the edge of a vast open area. At last, we had come to the City of the Sovereign Eye, the center of Martian civilization, and here we caught our first glimpse of the Grand Triumph of the All-Sovereign.
"For some time, I have been hoping to see the power of the earth's imperialists surpassed," whispered Jae-Sun. "I suddenly wonder if that might not have been a very unwise thing to wish for."
The City of the Sovereign Eye covers part of the western slope of the largest volcano in our solar system; framed on either side by crumbling red ridges, the covered and climate-controlled city extends down the slope, tier upon tier, and each tier is a steel shelf the approximate length and width of Manhattan Island. These are stacked atop one another, moving outward like a gigantic set of steps, describing a gentle downward arc more than sixty miles long. What we saw was the topmost tier, and the middle of a Martian metropolis that made Manhattan look like an East Texas ghost town.
Our platoon of guards marched the four of us onto a gray avenue at least a hundred yards wide, where we were met by hundreds of troopers in gray cloak-coats, their jackets and hoods a verdant green, their armor and eerie masks of well-polished iron. Spinning their gleaming weapons effortlessly from arm to arm, they about-faced as we approached, slamming their heels down on the metal of the alien street in thunderous unison.
In the darkness above us, I could see at least twenty of the aerial leviathans drifting in formation, vast battleships of the sky, each one lit up like a department-store window at Christmas. They sent a dozen golden searchlight beams apiece into the air above them, forming an ever-shifting canopy of lights, a grid with hundreds of bright lines.
Swooping around them, above them, below them, I caught my first sight of smaller Martian aircraft. Jets, from the high-pitched sound of their engines; they seemed to be about the size of our new F-86 Sabres, or perhaps slightly larger, and they were nearly delta-winged, like triangles in flight. They flashed red navigational lights as they soared in full squadrons... perfect formations, artificial constellations of precise, deadly crimson lights beneath the real stars, which were all but blotted from view by the glare of the larger vessels.
We were marched down the avenue toward a huge flat square platform with rails, about five feet high. It turned out the rest of the representative sample was already waiting for us there, along with at least a hundred soldiers and several Very Important Martians in masks of copper and bronze. We were shoved up onto this platform and crowded in by our guards; it was a bit like being on stage during a War Bond drive.
Then the platform began to hum, and rose slowly up into the air, turning as it moved. I heard gasps from several of the other human prisoners. I myself had certainly had my sense of awe pretty forcefully renewed, and felt a little queasy.
We gathered speed, soaring into the air, moving east now through a corridor of black and silver Martian towers. At every window and balcony as we passed I could see rich robes, and masks of precious metals, and ranks of functionaries with their uncovered dark eyes plainly visible. We were rising toward the base of High Silence, where an immense review field had been constructed on metal pylons the size of skyscrapers, above the tier we had just been standing on.
As we came level with that field I could see there, in neat ranks like a meticulously placed legion of toys, an army of gray-cloaked soldiers standing at attention. They waited in squares of ten by ten, in larger cohorts of ten squares by ten squares. I had plenty of time for simple math as we floated through the air. Beneath us were no fewer than fifteen thousand Martians-at-arms in full dress, still and silent as statues, waiting to greet the All-Sovereign.
"Oh, God help us," said Reggie. Somewhere behind us, a woman started screaming. Then came harsh words from a Martian officer, and the hard slap of a rifle-butt against human flesh.
A gong sounded, a vast metallic crash that echoed across the city; where it came from was a complete mystery to me.
On the red stone surface of High Silence (and this really was just its base; it stretched like a mind-breakingly high wall in either direction for miles), about three hundred feet above the huge metal plain on which the army stood, a door flashed into being with the characteristic speed of Martian machinery. This opening was as wide as an aircraft hangar, and from it a balcony slowly extended, holding a court fit for a dozen Louis XIVs, with enough courtiers to spare for a rainy day. A dozen golden masks gleamed above gold robes, surrounded on all sides by silver masks and robes. Even the guards wore silver masks, and their flanged Buck Rogers blast-rifles were gilded with bright gold. Or perhaps those barrels were actually forged from the stuff- how the hell would I know, really?
Those dozen gold-masked Martians, standing in bad eminence like the highest ranks of Satan's rebel angels, were the Exarchs. I eventually found out that they were the only twelve beings on the planet permitted to cover their faces in gold.
Suddenly, all those robes parted, more quickly than Moses had thrown apart the two halves of the Red Sea, and the gold and silver scions of Martian society formed a corridor right through the heart of their little pageant. Then they dropped to their knees in supplication, bending their heads until their eyes were on the ground before them.
A single figure in black and gray robes emerged from the darkness behind the balcony.
Instantly, his image appeared in the air before us, projected there translucently but with perfect, steady clarity. The projection must have been seventy-five feet high, and it was from the waist up. The All-Sovereign wore ribbed armor, much like his soldiers, and his breastplate was forged around a single metal disc covered in elaborate Martian symbols. His robes and cloak were partially cut away over that armor- I had the immediate impression that while his garments were not exactly meant for field duty, they wouldn't be entirely useless in a fight, either. His black hood was surmounted by a gold and obsidian crown with several high, sharp spikes. Most striking of all was his mask- an infinitely cruel and beautiful thing, polished and faceted, carved from a single flawless ruby.
At that moment, the voices of the fifteen thousand soldiers rose in a roaring chorus:
"HAIL! HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN! SUPREME SOUL OF MARS!"
Thunder erupted overhead, blasts so deafening that the air shook with them. I just about jumped out of my shoes. The aerial leviathans were firing off their weapons, broadside after broadside of whitish-blue flames that crackled like live arcs from billion-volt electrical cables. Their flares cast a harsh white glare across the whole scene before us; I had to close my eyes after a few seconds. Every time I blinked for moments afterward, I could see white sparks dancing in the darkness behind my eyelids.
The cascade of weapons fire was followed by an incredible chain of booms, like double-barreled shotguns being discharged directly above us, boom-boom-boom-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! It was the jet aircraft, in arrowhead formations, flashing past high above the aerial leviathans. They were generating sonic booms with their passage, synchronized like the beating of some cosmic drum. I winced, and tried as best I could to use my cuffed hands to cover my ears.
"HAIL! HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN!" As the echoes from the noise overhead crashed and faded into the distance, the fifteen thousand gray-cloaks burst into shouts again. "DELIVERER OF CIVILIZATION!"
"My children," boomed the voice of the All-Sovereign. It was the same mild, rather cultivated voice I had heard from Thrail's communicator sphere, but now it was a thousand times larger than life, echoing from every surface in the impossibly huge city, amplified like the gong that had kicked off the festivities. "Loyal sons and daughters of the All-Sovereign, hear my words, and rejoice. Ten solar orbits have passed for the barbarian blueworlders, and another representative sample has been drawn from their ranks.
"Across the black depths of space, the ancient sciences of our red world reached forth, and found the blueworlders as lost now in the fog of ignorance as they ever have been in the past!"
"HAIL," answered the soldiers, "HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN!"
"Their knowledge- primitive! Their culture- shallow! Their nations- fragmented and chaotic! Their highest ambition- mere survival! Mars rests safe beneath its Veil... safe from the blinkered eyes and stumbling sciences of our less fortunate neighbors. I pronounce my verdict upon them- another ten of their years, to toil in ignorance, in the shadow of our benevolent grandeur!"
"HAIL! HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN!"
"I shall not waste so much as a speck of Martian energy to chastise them, until they have risen to a level of civilization which would merit so great an honor! We shall test them again, at the next representative sampling, to see if they can match even the thousandth part of our worthiness!"
"HAIL! HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN!"
"And now, I give you the subjects of the representative sample. Blueworlders, allowed the singular honor of a glimpse of the world we take for granted, my loyal sons and daughters. I pronounce upon them my doom, as useless creatures from a useless planet. I command their deaths for your amusement."
"HAIL! HAIL THE ALL-SOVEREIGN!"
And then, I swear to God, the son of a bitch turned around and walked back into his palace. The gigantic projection flickered and vanished. He wasn't even going to stay to watch us do our part for the entertainment.
Several cohorts of troopers on the field below us moved aside, and a square platform about the size of our own rose into the air atop a thin metal cylinder. Our platform floated forward and locked onto a bridge that extended from the opposite surface. The bridge was about thirty feet long, and there was a single large groove down the middle of it, a groove that extended to the middle of the opposite platform.
Eight gray-cloaks strode forward and walked across the bridge, diving themselves into two teams of four. Each team took up a position on either side of the groove. They began checking their rifles.
I felt a cold, hollow ache at the bottom of my stomach. I don't know how else to put it- the proximity of death is something you feel in your gut first, because I think the head is a lot slower to grasp the concept.
"Blueworlders," shouted a Martian in a bronze mask and orange robes, stepping forward onto the bridge, "It is the will of the All-Sovereign that you be slain, here upon his Forum of Justice, for the amusement of his people. Prepare yourselves for death in your accustomed fashions."
So, this relatively simple platform was the actual Forum of Justice. I had expected some sort of huge court building or plaza, but I guess it made perfect sense, knowing how the All-Sovereign ran his empire, just how simple "justice" would be around here.
On the opposite platform, at the point where the groove in the metal surface ended, an iris spiraled open, uncovering a circular black hole. Two thick metal brackets, each about seven feet tall, popped up in front of it, facing one another just like the symbols you can find on typewriter keys. Those brackets joined at their bases and locked themselves into the groove. They slid along it, toward our platform.
Our guards seized us and sorted us out, forming a rough line of blueworlders in the middle of our platform. The four of us weren't the very first in line, but we were close. I didn't even bother entertaining any thoughts of resistance or escape- there were a dozen armed guards directly at hand for each human, and those odds would only get worse and worse once they started to kill us.
The first one they selected was a dark-haired woman in a long maroon dress. She kicked and screamed as four guards hoisted her up to the brackets, raising her arms over her head.
"No, please," she cried, "I don't want to die! You can't- I don't-"
But they had everything they wanted from us, and no further reason to be gentle. One of the guards punched her in the stomach, and in just a moment or two his comrades wrestled her into place. The upper brackets contained some mechanism that caught her hands and seized them tight in an instant; there were similar slots for her feet. Trussed up and spread-eagled, she sobbed as the brackets slid along the groove and stopped just above the black hole on the opposite platform. There they tilted back slightly over the pit, perhaps twenty degrees or so.
The orange-robed Martian raised an arm, and the eight rifles of the firing squad came up in one smooth motion. Then down came the arm, and there was a volley of crackling, popping, hissing sounds. I blinked, and could see an after-image of the beams, pale gray things that had bridged the gap between gun-barrels and woman for one terrible instant.
She writhed under their impact, her face and chest distorted by a corona of pale fire. A cloud of steam exploded out of her and melted into the air- it was as though all the moisture in her body was hammered to vapor in the blink of an eye. The mechanical bracket opened its restraints with an audible clack, and the scalded, dessicated corpse tumbled into the black pit. Then the bracket began sliding back along the groove for its next passenger.
"Oh, Jesus," I muttered. "Oh, dad, give me strength."
"I see a plain old firing squad was too simple for you bastards," said Doc Soames, about as loudly as he could.
"Your corpses go straight to the organic reclamation vats," said one of the guards. "It's three miles down that shaft to the first of the mechanical grinders. If I were you, I'd pray the execution squad shoots straight."
That guard unshackled Doc from his cart, and heaved the old man to his feet.
"Take this one next," he said.
"Oh, Doc..." I whispered. I didn't know what else to say.
"Never you worry, Miss DeVere. We'll meet again soon in a better place. God bless you." He slapped fussily at the guard holding him. "Get your hands off me, you cretin. I'll get there on my own two feet."
And so he did- obviously in pain with every step, he managed to stumble to the bracket and hold his own arms up. In a few seconds, he was secured within the frame, and it was on its way.
The arm of the bronze-masked officer rose, then fell.
"I'm truly sorry," said Byun Jae-Sun as the brackets came back toward us. He would be next. "Despite his ignorance, he was a man of quality after all. I hope to do as well."
All I could do was nod numbly.
"I wish you courage and no pain," said Jae-Sun as he stepped forward to be placed within the execution bracket. Then he raised his voice: "One day the people of this world will awaken and avenge our murders a thousand times over! The fall of your tyrant is inevitable!"
They beat him for that before they sent the bracket on its way, but he grinned all the while.
After they shot him, the bracket came back for me.
I stepped forward. Two guards held me while a third unfastened my cuffs and took them away. They pushed my arms into the upper brackets, where metal clamps slid tightly shut around my wrists. I set my own two feet on the bottom of the bracket, and thin silvery restraints slipped out over my shoes. I looked up at the nearest guards.
"Jae-Sun was right," I said. "Screw you sons of bitches, and screw your All-Sovereign."
They didn't bother hitting me. Maybe the North Korean's reaction had disappointed them. In a moment, I was sliding backwards toward the pit, away from two hundred masked Martian soldiers and the sixteen human beings who'd be following me.
"One last flight, Fifinella," I whispered. I gulped the dry air and tried to find my spit; it had all gone mysteriously AWOL. "I love you, mom and dad."
The bracket came to a halt. Whirring, it tilted back slightly.
The orange-robed officer raised his arm, and eight silvery gun barrels swung up until they were eight black holes pointed straight at me. I felt a tear sliding down my right cheek, and I took a deep breath.
The arm fell, and the guns went off like camera flashes. A white-hot pain exploded in my chest. Darkness came down like a hammer.
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