In the beginning we were a Legion of 500 worlds – intrepid warriors, travelers, seers and mystics.
The first world to fall was Moswen, along the Outer Rim, swallowed by a foreign sun at the edge of known space. The second was Jung Mei. She fell from the Core – spinning, breathless, screaming – and tried to turn home, too late. She was last seen orbiting a dying star. Then the Valente clipped the Ken’ichi on the Inner Rim, and lost her inertia. The Legion listened to her dying beacon for a hundred years. Her voice faltered, then faded… then died. There was no place in the Legion for the wounded, the stragglers. We had not yet reached the Edge.
It was the Edge that broke us. When we came to the Edge we saw nothing ahead of us but blackness. We had lost nearly a hundred worlds by then – to stardust, collisions, failures, insurrection, and blight.
But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
Because when we went over the Edge, something came over with us.
– Addendum 176, The Annals of the Legion, 442 AD
I do all my dreaming in the dark. That’s all it is out here – a world of darkness. The old bottom world mechanics who work for my mother say they heard stories from their folks about a time before the darkness, when you woke up to the bright burst of light that was the Edge. But to me, the Edge is just another point of light that helps the Legion navigate the darkness. It’s the big smear we point our sextants to in nav class. The last gasp of a dying galaxy.
My mother’s in charge of our family’s worlds in the Legion – the Katarzyna worlds. Her mother and her mother’s mother boarded, mobbed, and manned the Katarzyna 1 and 2 back before I was born. They pounded them so good that nobody’s even sure what they were called before that. It was my mother who took the neighboring worlds, Aatai and Sjorka, and made them Katarzyna 3 and 4. That’s us. Our family. Katarzyna. And it’s a name that’s feared and respected all along the Outer Rim. My mother says it’s the name that will unite the Legion. I’m pretty proud of that.
My mother’s proud, too. She worked hard for it. She once brought me out to the great docking hall and opened up all the bay doors with her big iron fist. The shields were all intact, of course, but it was still thrilling, standing there at the edge of space and looking into the black. From the docking hall you can see the nearest of the Outer Rim worlds – Katarzyna 2-6, Dima, Matrona, and the two FA satellites. If you look deeper, you can see The Tern, the big world they hijacked from the Core forty years ago, and out past that, a hint of the Jagadev and the Naabhi worlds, and then – the Bhavaja worlds. All four of them.
“All this is going to be yours, Zahrah,” my mother said, sweeping her iron arm out toward the worlds slowly spinning in the darkness around the Core, the black well that keeps us together as we push farther and farther from the Edge.
She reached toward the dim shape of the nearest Bhavaja world, so it looked as if she cupped it in her palm. Then she closed her iron fist around it. I heard the metal grind and creak – solid metal skinning a heated organic core. I had seen her crush men’s heads with that hand.
“But you’ll have to fight for it,” she said. She shook out her hand, as if to rid herself of the dust of the shattered world. “Just as I did. And my mother before me. Everything here on the Outer Rim comes with a cost. You understand that?”
“I know what keeps the worlds spinning,” I said. I looked up at her. She’s taller than me by a head. Every time I see some short, umber-skinned sub-captain or petty lord, I wonder if he was my father.
Everybody on the Katarzyna worlds – the Aatai and Sjorka refugees, the indentured castes in the lower wards, even the mechanic’s guild and grower’s union and the man who was my father – they all pay a fealty tax to my family in blood or bone. That’s bodies for our grinder, genetic material for kids like me, or labor to keep the world running and the armies moving. And we have a lot of armies on the move these days, now that the Bhavaja are on the move again.
My mother looked back out into the spinning worlds in the darkness. “It’s more than just the Outer Rim,” she said. “A seer prophesized it.”
“Which one?” I asked. I know most of my mother’s seers, the spidery crones and broken old men who make a living off our family’s offal down in the sludge hall.
“She came to me before you were born,” she said. “Never told you about her. I wanted you to see me take Aatai and Sjorka, first. I wanted you to know what’s possible.”
She pointed her metal hand out toward the hijacked Core world, The Tern. It didn’t quite sit right in space. It wobbled more and more with every rotation of the Legion. Forty years it had been out there, my mother said. Someone or something had brought it up out of the Core back when my mother was born, thinking they could escape the Legion and chart a new course. But some other world had crippled it on the way out of the Core, or maybe it’d clipped a world out there, or they’d killed or maimed whatever group or thing had hijacked it. Now it hung out here on the Outer Rim, deceivingly dark, like some derelict. But it wasn’t a derelict – not yet.
“Every year I assault The Tern. You know why?” my mother asked.
“It’s part of the Outer Rim. It should be Katarzyna,” I said.
“You need to think bigger than that, Zahrah. What use do I have for a Core world?”
I watched the jagged black hull of The Tern. It was easily a hundred thousand jumps from where I stood, but I always hoped I’d see some sign of life – a flicker of light, the reflection from a survey pod, the shimmering umbilicus of a resource-strapped space walker.
“I’ve been watching that world my whole life,” my mother said. “And in the eight assaults I’ve made on The Tern, I’ve brought in no pods, no refugees, no fighters. That defense grid is automated. There’s nothing alive in there. All we need to do is wear down the grid and take the world back.”
“Back to the Core,” my mother said.
Nobody talked much about the Core out here. It was the first time I heard her mention it. We’re Outer Rim people – the fittest, the strongest, the keenest. It’s our sacrifices that have kept the Legion together this long. We’re the first and last line of defense. Controlling the Outer Rim meant controlling the Legion, everybody said. They couldn’t survive without the goods we brought in. They’d never survive the terrors we protected them from.
To reach the Core, you had to go through the black spaces of the Outer Rim where world after world fell had fallen among the stars, then through the Inner Rim worlds, navigating the debris and deitritus of four hundred lost and broken and embattled worlds. Then deeper, into the Rim where the worlds got bigger and the spaces between them got smaller. And finally, through the dark, shimmering Fade that protected the Core worlds. Nobody had been through the Fade, not since the Legion had reached the Edge.
Nobody but The Tern, anyway. And they were headed the other way.
“We take the Core, we take the Legion,” my mother said.
“I thought owning the Outer Rim meant owning the Legion,” I said. I come from a line of conquerors. Why hadn’t I thought of taking the Core?
My mother grimaced. “That’s a cheap story we tell ourselves to make this life mean something. No.” She heaved her big metal arm out toward the worlds of the Outer Rim. “If I wait until we’ve broken the Bhavarja to mount an assault on The Tern, it could be another decade before we’re in a position to take it again. With The Tern, we can cripple every Bhavaja world from here to the point.”
She turned and met my look. Hard face, grim as some dead spacer. Her eyes met mine. It’s always hard to meet my mother’s look. Her pupils are enormous. They swallow all the color in her eyes, even in bright light. Like most of us, she wears goggles when we navigate the inner core of the world.
She pushed her metal fist into my chest. The metal was warm. “We can take it all, Zahrah,” she said. “But we will have to sacrifice everything to do it. You understand that?”
I took a shallow breath. “I trained my whole life for this,” I said.
I wake up every morning in the darkness, for this.
My mother pulled her hand away. My chest was still warm where the metal had touched me.
“Tomorrow you come of age,” she said. “Tomorrow I give you an army. Tomorrow we take The Tern.” She crossed her arms, flesh and metal. “And then – the Legion.”