The Dominion of Leviathan | Tor.com


Lord Ajax! First and greatest Ascendant; conqueror of the Martian machine-minds; mighty Steward of Leviathan’s Dominion! For a thousand years, Ajax has ruled the solar system’s worlds and moons with an iron fist. But history catches up with everyone—even an immortal tyrant. On the frozen dwarf planet Ceres, a scribe composes a record of his millennium-long rule. Unbeknownst to Ajax, her account contains a coded message that will spark a revolution.

An account of the worlds

that comprise the realm of our Great God, Leviathan;

composed upon void-vellum, under patronage of Leviathan’s Steward, Ajax—

Ajax! Greatest among Ascendants! Ajax! Formidable Lord of Europa!

Ajax! Magnanimous Regent of Callisto and Ganymede!

—to commemorate the one thousandth anniversary

of his Ascent beyond humanity.

The Festival City on Mercury was built a century ago, to mark the nine hundredth anniversary of Lord Ajax’s Ascendance. Our august Lord opened the festivities by piloting a gravity-dhow from Leviathan’s holy orbit into the solar system’s core. His trajectory was perfect: noble Ajax struck Mercury’s nightside like a meteor. Leviathan’s banner gripped in one mighty hand, he climbed the Festival City’s hundred-stepped ziggurat to await the dawn.

            Sunrise moves slow on that small, rocky world, but when it finally comes, it is blistering: white-hot and holy. For centuries, Ascendants have made pilgrimage to witness it. And until Lord Ajax’s celebration one hundred years ago, it was customary for the most ancient and honored of our Lesser Cousins to accompany them.

            These humans—Earth’s anointed rulers!—considered sunrise on Mercury to be a sacred way to die. A way, perhaps, to Ascend in their final moments. For although an Ascendant can easily survive Mercurial daylight, an unaltered human cannot. This close to the sun, eyes cook in sockets; flesh bakes and blood boils beneath void-armor; screams rise and cease—a prayer-chime by which we Ascendants, humanity’s Greater Cousins, may contemplate the sacred mysteries of Leviathan’s Domain.

            But to celebrate Lord Ajax’s nine hundredth year as semi-deus, humans of a different sort were brought to Mercury as well.

            Not nobles, no. These were mere rabble, plucked by Indra from Earth’s crowded streets. None of these humans had been offworld before. None had even seen a space elevator, except perhaps as distant threads sewing the horizon.

            Clad only in void-armor, they were cast upon Mercury’s surface minutes ahead of the implacable dawn. Ten miles between them and the Festival City; sunrise hot on their heels. The humans scrambled across rocks and craters, clumsily leaping and falling in unfamiliar gravity. Those who stumbled—who fell to frost, fatigue, or simple fear—were incinerated by the sun.

            A fine sport, indeed, to commemorate our Lord.

            It is well-known, of course, that one human was able to reach the Festival City, moments before daybreak. She crossed its threshold as the searing sun crested the horizon and the City’s pennants burst into brilliant flame. She struggled up the ziggurat’s one hundred steps, each taller and more arduous than the last; she struggled until finally, as the assembled crowd watched in disbelief, she pulled herself onto the dais, snatched the banner of Leviathan Itself from its place beside the throne, and attempted to murder Lord Ajax with it.

            None had ever seen anything like this. Not the assembled Ascendants, nor the loyal rulers of Earth, gawking in the brief, final moment before their sun-boiled deaths. For his part, Lord Ajax would praise the attempt on his life as the highlight of his nonacentennial.

            The games continued in grand fashion for the better part of a Mercurial morning. Afterwards, the Festival City was abandoned. It still stands: a broken ring open to the dawn, unused now for nearly a century. Its cruel architectural beauty, fashioned after ancient gladiatorial arenas, is well-known. Well-known, too, are the ingenious designs of the City’s banners and pennants, which gleam starry silver through long Mercurial nights and sublimate with each glorious sunrise, casting Leviathan’s storm-sigil upon the rock in flowing light and shadow.

            And as for the human who tried to kill Lord Ajax; what happened to her is equally well-known.

The humble scribe who pens this account on void-vellum

dares not stand before Ajax’s immense strength;

nor the majesty of Holy Leviathan.

And so she must make do

with Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars;

the distant orbit of Leviathan’s moons, and

the historian’s refuge: her poor, pitiful half-world—Ceres.

Venus is a world of cruel irony. Our predecessors named this planet for a deity of love, but for our siblings, condemned for their crimes, it is a place of penance: of endless, labored steps under a sulfuric sky. And yet, some say there is still love here. They say that Venus is proof of the boundless depths of Leviathan’s heart; and of the great affection Lord Ajax shows his vassals—even those who have turned against him.

            On Venus, even the vilest profaners may find redemption. It is not easy—Venus is a world of labyrinthine canyons; of brutal atmospheric pressures; of unceasing mirages made by light’s passage through dense air. A place where Ascendant bodies are pushed past breaking point so that Ascendant minds may contemplate betrayal, forgiveness, redemption.

            There are dozens of them imprisoned on Venus. Traitors, oath-breakers, conspirators.

            Ninurta, who once commanded legions in Ajax’s stead.

            Bellerophon and Mafdet, who brokered the peace of Phobos.

            Raijin, thunder-slaker, who fought beside Ajax on Mars and betrayed him on Ganymede.

            And Ishtara—once-beloved of Ajax; once his closest confidante. Now, she is the Lady of Venus. As a token of his love, unbroken despite his broken hearts, Ajax built her a monastery-keep atop Venus’s highest peak. She resides there now, watching her comrades through ten thousand satellite-eyes.

            They deserved death, but instead merciful Lord Ajax gave them an entire world. The betrayers wander ceaselessly, through valleys and across vast continental highlands. They seek out pillars of tenebrous matter marked with Leviathan’s storm-eye sign—caches of rations and equipment that Ajax, in his endless magnanimity, showers upon them from orbit. They hear ghostly voices and footsteps echoing through the superheated chasms and canyons. But though they call out, though they search and plead and weep, they will never find each other.

            One by one, the traitors turn to the mountains, seeking out Ishtara. But those peaks are craggy and treacherous; wreathed in poison that can corrode even an Ascendant’s carapace.

            Imagine now, one of our Ascendant siblings on Venus. Raijin, perhaps. Or Kasandra: she whose many inventions still course through our nanite-rich blood. Imagine them weakened by long imprisonment, struggling up the mountainside, so exhausted they’ve even forgotten their names; their crimes; Leviathan’s holy face. Imagine them stumbling; falling to their knees. Imagine acid rain beginning to eat through their exoskeletal armor, exposing flesh, devouring organs; reducing a demigod to nothing but bones, slowly dissolving on the mountainside.

            The peaks and passes of Venus are littered with bodies, disintegrating beneath the cover of toxic clouds. None of them have found what they are searching for. Some say that this is not torture. That Venus is not a prison, but a place of atonement; of harsh mercy. That all those who repent will return in time to Leviathan’s holy orbit.

            But so far, not one has escaped Venus’s crushing embrace.

Is this lowly scribe worthy of the tale she tells?

Should this humble historian speak in her own voice,

or instead bear nameless witness to history’s grand passage?

 

Yet—

before Holy Leviathan was named, It shaped this system:

transforming life on Earth, stripping Mars of magnetosphere;

forever altering this cold, quiet world—

—Ceres.

Earth, our ancestral home, is a world of beauty and horror. Entering its orbit, one feels the weight of mythology, of inheritance; of an ancient origin. The lights of Earth’s cities gleam like constellations on nightside, giving way to expanses of endless ocean, lush forest, and sprawling plains. The landscape welcomes you as the space elevator descends. You feel its ancestral gravity deep in your organs and bones: this is home. Earth has always been home.

            But though the Homeworld’s wild places are magnificent—its snowcapped peaks and vast jungles teeming with life—its cities are filthy and dilapidated: a chain of senescent slums.

            Our Lesser Cousins lord pompously over this contradiction. They welcome us with lavish feasts and organize grand expeditions to the summits of Nanga Parbat, Baintha Brakk, and Denali. They pantomime leadership, even as they preside over insurrection, infighting, and decay.

            If you have been hosted by the rulers of Earth, then you have seen them bow and scrape, clad in cast-off trinkets and pathetic imitations of our fashions. They curry favor by offering us their children as attendants and begging Lord Ajax to allow them to attempt the Trials. They think themselves masters, safe in their spires and palanquins. But they are no different from their forebears—the merchant-princes who nearly extinguished life on this world fifteen hundred years ago; the fools who fled to Mars after plundering the Earth and filling its atmosphere with poison.

            The rulers of Earth are cowards, content with their own comfort amidst so much suffering. They neither remember history nor glimpse its pattern. But I have studied histories both human and Ascendant, and I remember—

            —the Accord of Ulaanbaatar, the Kinshasan Revolts, and the establishment and imposition of Pax Leviathan upon this world

            —cycles of violence; purges, inquests, and executions that stain history’s pages, only to be scrubbed and forgotten

            —seditious songs passed down through generations, sung gleefully in slums and shantytowns that sprawl in the shadows of mighty towers

            —graffito’d slogans glimpsed momentarily while fleeing down cramped alleyways

            —the sound of barefoot children playing; the looming violence of teenagers hunting for scraps

            —an old man stirring an iron pot; the rich smell of clonemeat stew

            —strange silver plants that sanctify fouled water but kill those who dare touch their leaves or eat their fruit

            —soldiers, always soldiers: patrols, garrisons, legions of them, toting weapons that reduce the human body to slurry or cinders; wearing blast armor forged on Mars and adorned with Leviathan’s raging storm-eye sigil

            —children shot, tortured, disintegrated for stealing food or for cobbling together communications devices from stolen parts

            —the skulls of grieving parents cracked open with rifle butts.

            Yes, I remember Earth. And I remember my first time offworld: the sunrise made vast and glorious by a space elevator’s ascent.

            I remember my return, and the strange, giddy days following my Ascent beyond humanity: feasts and festivals; celebrations and sycophants; my transformed face adorning the walls of the city where I was born.

            And I remember what it all amounted to—nothing. Nothing at all.

            Soon, there shall be another great celebration on Earth; a celebration to honor our beloved, benevolent Lord Ajax. Even now, workers toil to raise a new Festival City from mountain and steppes. But before you travel there, I pray you tarry a while. I pray you visit the Homeworld’s other cities, the ones that have no festive cause. Wander the crowded streets and see the people who live their lives in the shadows of those towers. Visit an Earthbound shrine to Holy Leviathan, and honor our god by meditating upon the great mechanism that yokes us all.

            There is an intimate gravity between hardship and exultance that spans millions and millions of miles. The corrupt, crumbling metropolises of Earth are twins to our own jeweled cities, so far away, cradled in our Great God’s holy orbit.

            I pray that you reflect upon this.

            I pray you understand my meaning.

Home is a set of scars

etched in vellum and carapace.

All poets eventually turn homeward,

but where now is this poet’s home?

Earth or Mars; Callisto or Ganymede; Cold Europa;

or this silent, icy half-world—

—Ceres.

Mars is a world of ghosts and machines. But it wasn’t always so. Four billion years ago, before its magnetosphere evaporated, Mars’s oceans and rivers teemed with ancient, ancestral life. And again, when Earth’s rulers settled this place, luring their subjects with glittering promises to lives of toil and radiation sickness.

            The dusty landscape is strewn with the ruins of that era—from the dead cities of Tharsis to the great shipyards of Olympus Mons, where the bones of ships that yearned after godhood slowly wither in crimson wind.

            In their infinite arrogance, the merchant-princes and potentates of Mars made machine-minds to steer their starships. The ship-minds grew far more intelligent than those of their makers. In time, the ships came to rule Mars from their cradles. They strip-mined the Martian moons and transformed the Valles Marineris into a vast foundry visible from orbit: a silver slash in the planet’s rust-red face.

            The scattered descendants of Mars still tell stories from this time. Tales of tyrant ships that walked abroad in human bodies; of dust storms that spoke in the voices of gods and made cruel demands of their subjects. And a favorite tale, now become legend—of a child, born in Tharsis’s packed shanties, who left for Jupiter’s moons and returned transformed: a demigod at the head of an army.

            Ajax won his war against the ships, but at a price. Mars was left desolate, its cities emptied of life; the survivors relocated to Earth and Callisto. The once-fearsome Martian ship-minds were sundered, their starfaring bodies broken, ribcage-vaults slowly eroding on the slopes of the great shield volcano.

            Now, once in every long, slow orbit of Saturn around the sun, Lord Ajax returns to this lonely place, his childhood home, to walk amongst the hollow remnants of his vanquished foes. Unarmed and unarmored, naked but for his carapace, he summits the solar system’s highest peak, wandering the whisper-haunted shipyards, listening to the slow unspooling of fierce intelligences that once ruled this world.

            I wonder what they speak of, there on the very edge of space. Those vast minds knew so much, made as they were to explore long stretches of night beyond the Oort Cloud; to plot a course to the hungry maw at our galaxy’s heart—and beyond. Like us, the ships sought godhood. They would have ended humanity and strangled Leviathan stillborn. And so they had to be defeated, dismantled, and destroyed.

            I often think of our Lord Ajax, sojourning alone on Mars. I think of the Red Planet’s vast spaces, silent except for the ceaseless humming of great manufactories that still run by rote, transforming bits of Mars and the scraps of its moons into blast-armor and armaments, the filigree sails of gravity-dhows, and other wonders born from Leviathan’s god-mind.

            I think that Lord Ajax must be exceedingly lonely. For who in all of Leviathan’s domain is like him? Who can he confide in? Of those who lived through the war with the ships, only Utamo remains—and Utamo is like nothing else in existence.

            The rest—Ishtara, Raijin, Mafdet and the others—are traitors, imprisoned on Venus. And we younger Ascendants, we who’ve completed his gauntlet of Trials? None of us were there. None fought on Mars. None saw what he saw.

            We only have the stories he tells us.

            And so, Lord Ajax stands alone on Olympus Mons, considering the endless horizon, listening to ghosts; listening to the whisper of dust-motes on a scouring red wind. To understand Mars is to understand the past, and our mighty Lord Ajax understands this well.

Lo, my unworthy words orbit worthy Ajax—

as Luna orbits Earth; as Phobos and Deimos once orbited Mars;

as seventy-nine moons; seventeen cities; nine-hundred ninety-nine Ascendants

orbit that hallowed, sacred planetary divinity—

Leviathan Itself!

Unworthy, I record. I compose. I orbit

history’s grand shapers, forever at a remove,

much like this place: my lonely, moonless half-world—

[[///—Ceres is my home now. Ceres is my home now. Ceres is my home now.///]]

            It has been my home for many years. An exile, of sorts. This cold world that is not quite a world houses a great library beneath ice and moonrock, built by Ishtara and Kasandra, now claimed—as all things are—by supercilious, self-aggrandizing Ajax.

            To be Librarian of Ceres is to be unimportant—it is to be more committed to recounting the great deeds of others than in undertaking such deeds oneself. A self-imposed humiliation.

            So says haughty, hubristic Ajax and all his sycophants.

            But I have had enough of slavish hagiographies and obsequious poetic forms; enough of bullies and bootlickers to last ten thousand lifetimes. I am still young, for an Ascendant, but I have already lived far, far longer than can be expected for a child of Earth’s vicious cities. And I have never forgotten where I came from, even though so much has been sanitized from these archives. There are patterns that cannot be erased, absences that hold their own truths, gaps in the lives historians so often overlook that I can fill with my own memories.

            Listen: I first killed a man when I was thirteen years old. I did not want to, or mean to, but I had no choice. It haunted me, until I Ascended and left most human emotions behind. Even after that, I never forgot. And now that I can see the pattern, glimpse the shape of the great yoke, it haunts me again.

            Listen: if you have deciphered this section of vellum, then you already know what must be done. And if you have decoded it and are not one of us…well. Things are underway, and by the time you read this, they will be further underway. By now, Ajax and his creatures will have read to the end of my seditious account and crumpled their vellums in fury. Likely, they will have taken me into custody; ferried me to Earth to be tried, tortured, and executed at the Festival City.

            No doubt it will be the highlight of lordly Ajax’s millennial celebration.

            But I have a gift for him, far greater than this account that I, Promethea, Librarian of Ceres, am obliged to compose. Together we will deliver this gift and finish what I—thoughtlessly, instinctively—tried to do one hundred years ago.

            Our Lesser Cousins will never act against him, for they are cowed and self-serving. But perhaps their children will. As, perhaps, will the rest of Earth’s population, who have been discounted, disregarded, and brutalized for so long. This would not be the first time they have risen up, though Ajax would have you forget that. They are not inert matter. They are people.

            Perhaps the flame we spark will catch. Perhaps my name is even more appropriate than Lord Ajax thought when he sneeringly bestowed it upon me.

            Here on lonely Ceres, surrounded by nothing but void and frozen water for eighty million miles, I dream of cleansing fire; of a system where not just a handful may bask in the beauty of Saturn’s rings, or see Callisto’s glorious, gleaming dawn. A system where the gifts that Ajax and Utamo stole from their makers are shared with all, not just with those who dance to the tyrant’s hollow tune.

            Listen: reverse the cypher and apply it to the vellum’s underside. You will find detailed instructions. Maps, blueprints, code names, and cache-locations. Study them carefully. When it is time to act, act swiftly. Be careful, but be courageous. Do not fear Leviathan, for It is not listening. It never was. Leviathan cares not for our plans or plots.

            But you would be a fool not to fear Ajax.

            Our cruel Lord’s eyes and ears are everywhere. Trust no one, not even your own lover. Memorize this information, then destroy the cypher. When I am taken, a new one will appear, encoded into the obligatory propaganda-poems of Ajax’s trials that dot this vellum’s second half, for our mighty leader so craves sycophantic praise that he codified it into a poetic form.

             Listen: remember why we do this. For those who cannot; for those who dare not; for those who have had that power stolen from them. For all that we have lost. For all that we still love. For all who live under Sol’s shared light.

            [[///Ceres is my home now. Ceres is my home now. Ceres is my home now—///]]

—and its millions of rocky, desolate fellows.

The space between Mars and Leviathan is vast and filled with wonder. Here in the silent depths, asteroids and dwarf planets dance to Leviathan’s tune, as they have for four billion years. On Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea, Utamo’s disciples conduct their strange and secretive experiments. And here on Ceres, I maintain sagacious Lord Ajax’s storied library, archiving human and Ascendant histories beneath ice and moonrock.

            Eons ago, Ceres could have grown into a lush, oceanic world. But Holy Leviathan—still unnamed then; a mighty, slumbering deity—snatched precious matter from this region of space. It rendered Ceres tiny, misshapen and inert, even as It rained water upon Earth, giving rise to life.

            All across Leviathan’s domain, from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt, our Great God’s touch is unmistakable and omnipresent. Its divine storm-mind is vast enough to swallow Earth. Its designs are unknowable to we who wander Its planets, moons, and void-ways. All we know is that Its divine intelligence will shepherd us through a thousand millennia to come; Lord Ajax ruling in Its name, a humble steward. All we can do is emulate our Lord’s humility, and approach Leviathan’s Holy orbit with heads bowed.

            Worthier poets than I have written of the awe one feels approaching Leviathan’s sacred planetary body; joining the seventy-nine moons in Its mighty magnetosphere, orbiting God just as God orbits the sun.

            Most famous among Leviathan’s moons are Callisto and Ganymede, where so many of us Ascendants dwell, along with those who aspire to our closely-guarded ranks. The Children of Leviathan—raised above humanity, but still Unascended—and the scions of Earth’s noblest houses. Those chosen by Ajax to attempt the Ascension Trials will visit other moons, equally famous, but forbidden. Places known only by their legends.

            Europa, Io, and Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan: the worlds of the Trials.

            Countless songs have been sung of the Trials. How Lord Ajax dived into Europa’s ravenous depths; how he journeyed across volcano-ravaged Io; how he engaged in savage contemplation for forty days and forty nights in Titan’s strange, cold caverns.

            Lord Ajax completed these Trials, Ascending to semi-deus in sight of Holy Leviathan. The tales that spilled from Lord Ajax’s beneficent lips have been told again and again, swelling to myth over the centuries. We lesser Ascendants undertook the Trials in turn, and the scribes and poets spread our stories across all Leviathan’s Dominion. But it has been so long since an Ascendant has told their own Trial-tale; so long since we heard a song that was not from some bard or balladeer who never themselves witnessed the events.

            Perhaps that shall be my offering for glorious Lord Ajax’s millennial celebration. An unprecedented gift, for an unprecedented regnal anniversary. Alongside my obligatory recompositions of Lord Ajax’s storied undertakings, I shall offer the firsthand account of my own Trials. The tale of how I, Promethea of Earth, Librarian of Ceres—a ragged, lowly Earth-child—came to Ascend, by grace of Holy Leviathan and munificent, open-handed Lord Ajax.

            This poorest of gifts will be paltry repayment for the boundless generosity our Lord has shown me. But it is all I have to offer.

            I pray you forgive my indulgence.

 

When wise Lord Ajax first beheld Valhalla Crater, he saw—

bejeweled cities rising from Callisto’s gleaming surface:

crystal-towers and temple-observatories gazing

forever skyward in humble worship

of our God of Gale-Force Mind,

Holy Leviathan!

Listen—

Callisto is a pitted gem hung upon the face of God. It is our civilization’s jewel, a moon of ice and diamondglass as large as Mercury. And it is home to the greatest city ever built by human or Ascendant hands.

            At the heart of a vast, concentric-cratered expanse stands Valhalla, City of Heroes. Its grand dwellings and villas gleam amidst the impact-ridges. Crystalline spires soar spaceward, sanctifying Holy Leviathan in endless prayer.

            If you have wandered the wilds of Earth, perhaps you have seen the carcasses of felled trees and studied the growth rings inscribed upon their trunks. One ring for every growing season, each larger than the one before. Approached from orbit, Valhalla’s craters, two billion years old and two thousand kilometers at their widest, resemble those Earthbound rings recast in glittering rock and ice.

            But when I first came to Callisto, I had never seen a tree stump. There were no trees in the city where I was born, save the strange silver ones that rendered wastewater drinkable. Nor had there been trees on Europa, or Io, or on Titan. And so, descending towards Valhalla’s cratered plain in a gravity-dhow, I could think only of Saturn’s rings, made of ice and ancient, shattered moons.

            There were three of us in that small gravity-dhow: myself and two pilots. Those human princelings, Lord Ajax’s attendants, had been uneasy since I boarded the craft at Ajax’s citadel-station. I could smell discomfort beneath their void-armor; hear their murmured conversations, though they spoke on a private whisper-link. One was heir to the family that ruled the city where I was born. He spoke of me in tones of fear and admiration, while his copilot’s voice tended towards disgust and envy.

            Several times, the princeling from my city asked awkwardly after my comfort. Once, he even dared ask if it was true. Who I was. Where I came from.

            I replied only with a single word: Yes.

            As we approached, I glimpsed the lights of Valhalla, brilliant even against Callisto’s gleam. I could see the towering structure at its heart. Another ziggurat, many times larger than the one I’d scaled on Mercury: the temple-observatory to Leviathan Itself.

            “Open the hatch,” I commanded as we flew over the outer craters. “I will approach Valhalla on foot.”

            The pilots exchanged a nervous glance. My city’s princeling spoke. “But, honored Ascendant, the current of our approach is…we can’t simply—”

            “Silence, Lesser Cousin.” I felt dangerous, savage, like I was still on Titan. And perhaps, in a way, I still was. “Open the hatch.”

            They obeyed, and I leaped. As I gently fell to Callisto’s surface, I wished for Venusian gravity, that I might be dashed upon rock. But of course, I landed with perfect ease. I ran, barely looking up to acknowledge the golden god that dominated Callisto’s sky; the holy storm of Its almighty intellect ever-raging across Its face. I sprinted hard as my new body allowed, with its void-resistant carapace and three hearts that beat jet-black blood but would not allow me to feel pain, or fear, or love.

            Even at full speed, it took me forty-two minutes to reach Valhalla’s gate: an enormous edifice set into the innermost crater-ridge. Carved from endlessly flowing diamondglass, mimicking the ceaseless pattern of Leviathan’s storm-eye, the gate was as tall as the towers in whose shadows I’d grown up. The towers in which my princeling-pilot had been raised. In front of them, dwarfed but still imposing, stood Lord Ajax.

            Our august Lord wore filigrees of golden armor over his pale carapace, patterned intricately into nebulae and star-clusters. His shoulders were heavy as boulders, and the void-cloak that billowed electrostatically from them was deep crimson—like human blood. Leviathan’s storm-sigil raged eternal on Lord Ajax’s chest. His eyes were void-dark; his beard the silver of starlight.

            “Thea,” he said, a bass rumble in Callisto’s thin atmosphere, picked up even at distance by my new subdermal organs. “Truly, you are one of us. Determined to forge your own path.”

            I did not reply. But I slowed, from sprint, to jog, to stride. I held my head as high as I could.

            “There will be consequences for your pilots,” he said.

            “I would expect nothing less from you, my Lord Ajax,” I replied. I thought about what had happened on Europa and Io, and in Titan’s cold caverns, far from the sight of God.

             “Nothing less from us,” he corrected gently. “For you have completed the Trials. You are one of us, now and always. The pilots were my emissaries, Thea. They could have stood up to you. But they didn’t. By now you know I reward only strength. The weak cannot continue. They weaken us in turn.”

            I carried no weapons, but I was a weapon now. I wondered—could I defeat him here, in savage combat with hands and teeth? Our Lord was ancient, but he had grown larger and stronger with age, like a tree or a mountain. His carapace looked thick enough to deflect laser fire; his arms powerful as meteorites striking from orbit. And beyond the gate, his many loyalists awaited.

            I gritted my teeth, and nodded.

            “Welcome to Valhalla, Promethea of Earth,” Lord Ajax laughed as the gate opened behind him, so smooth for something so huge. “Today we celebrate your Ascent.”

            He spared the lives of my pilots—ostensibly. One of them—the one who had spoken to me, the one from my city—was coerced to compete in gladiatorial combat for his family’s honor during my banquet-games. He died at the ziggurat’s base, impaled upon the six tusks of a megapachyderm—another Earth creature made monstrous by Utamo’s scalpel. I felt nothing as he died, just as I felt nothing when Lord Ajax clapped a massive hand upon my shoulder and bade me welcome to the ranks of the Ascended; the heroes of Valhalla; the Honored of Leviathan.

            I, Promethea of Earth, was one of them, now and forever. One of us.

On Leviathan’s icebound moon,

beneath Its holy hydrogen gaze,

Lord Ajax wandered.

 

On Leviathan’s icebound moon,

beneath Its holy hydrogen gaze

monsters dwell.

 

On Leviathan’s icebound moon,

beneath Its holy hydrogen gaze

lies a deep carnivorous sea.

 

There, our Lord Ajax was tested

and so, in time, were we.

 

Listen—

Beneath Europa’s frozen surface sprawls the House of Ajax. Its doors and battlements are hidden among the towering ice-thorns that throng Europa’s equator. Behind those fortified entrances lie grand laboratories, ornate halls, and harsh corridors that run many cold miles down towards a vast sublunar sea.

            Lord Ajax was born on Mars. But here, under the ice, he became what he is.

            All who have Ascended remember waking in this House. Shivering, disoriented; body suddenly foreign—like waking in a different room from the one you slept in. The last thing I remembered was blinding sunrise on Mercury and the blistering certainty of heat-death. When I awoke it was dark, and cold, and my brother was there.

            Yes, I had a brother. He is never mentioned in the tales told of Promethea of Earth, nor in the songs sung of my Ascension. But I had a brother, and he was there with me, in Ajax’s House on Europa.

            Like me, he lay on a shadow-pale block in that dim chamber. I was shocked to see him, but as I sat up and crossed the cold floor, I was even more shocked at his appearance.

            My brother had always been scrawny and slight: easy prey in Earth’s crowded shanties. He was different now: taller, broader, with a hard sharpness about his features, stormy-grey in the darkness. He looked much older—though, in my memory, it had been mere days since I last saw him. His shoulders were enormous, strangely jagged beneath the heavy robes he wore. Confused, I touched my own arms, chest, and shoulders—and felt the same barbed protrusions there. Hard, like armor: a nascent carapace.

            My brother woke with a start. He cried out, grabbing at me. I held him, whispering soothing things. His name. My name. A song from our childhood that our parents taught us. Eventually, he recognized me as his sister, and stilled. He was more confused than I was. I had fevered memories of Mercury; he remembered only a week of fear and frantic scavenging after I disappeared. The city militia had apprehended him, but they hadn’t beat or tortured him. They’d simply taken him into one of the towers, into a dark room, and then—nothing. Strange dreams: alternating sensations of crushing pressure and weightlessness. And then he was here, with me. Transformed in the darkness beneath the ice, in Ajax’s House.

            A strange voice spoke, a monotone chorus: “Your bodies have begun metamorphosis.”

            In the room’s corner stood a massive, shrouded figure. Fingers, too thick and far too numerous, dangled from its robe-sleeves. Long beard-locks drooped from the depths of its hood, but they writhed like silver serpents: coiling, uncoiling, coiling again. How long had it been watching us?

            “I am Utamo,” the figure said. “Once: of Mars. A significant, yet insignificant aspect-subroutine of the Martian Millumvirate, the Thousand-Willed Fleet. Now: Steward of the House of Ajax.”

            “Where are we?” I asked.

            “The House of Ajax. On Europa. One of the moons of dread Leviathan. Now: stand.”

            “Why?” I demanded. “What is this place? What are you?”

            Pain coursed through me, like ten thousand needles impaling from within. It felt as though the flesh was being ripped from my bones. I fell to my knees and heard my brother scream. When the pain subsided, Utamo spoke again: “Now: stand. You will walk.”

            A door slid open, revealing a paler darkness beyond. Utamo led us through, and into a maze of barren corridors. Eventually, the labyrinthine passages opened onto an abyss: a deep, icy chasm, dimly lit by some sublunar source. A winding stair had been carved into its sides. We descended for hours, Utamo ever behind us, a gently looming threat.

            All around us, adorning that endless stair, were weapons—bladed rifles long as my body and immense, barbed discs stained crimson-black. And bones. Monstrous skeletons: strange, segmented things, hundreds of feet long. I had never seen anything like them. They danced vertiginously on the walls of that pit; calcified armor bristling with fangs and spikes.

            I tried to pause for a closer look, but Utamo prodded me ever-forward; ever-downward.

            “Where are we going?” I asked.

            “To the sea,” Utamo said.

            I remember my confusion. I had heard of seas on Earth, even seen images of them. Seas were places with broad shores and wide-open skies—not subterranean, abyssal things. But before I could ask, Utamo clarified: “Europa’s ocean lies below. Old as Mars. Full of life.”

            “Why?” my brother asked, a strange creature in that indigo light; all blades and angles.

            “A Trial: to prove your worth.”

            Finally, we reached the bottom of the stairs, and a vast cavern where crystalline walls gleamed above a lake: the entrance to Europa’s ancient sea. We wound a path along the shore, coming to a carved nook filled with equipment—belts, ropes, knives, and long, jagged spears, stained and scored with memories of battle.

            “Now: you will enter the water,” Utamo said. “You will not return to the House of Ajax without a suitable trophy.” The crystal light revealed Utamo’s beard-locks and fingers for what they were—mechanical tendrils, snarled and shiny, moving ceaselessly with life of their own.

            “What sort of trophy?” I asked.

            “One suitable for the walls of the great stair.”

            As we buckled belts and slung them with knives and nets, Utamo said: “You will feel as though you are running out of breath. Be assured: you are not.”

            So we dove into that lake, my brother and I, miles and miles beneath Europa’s surface. It was far deeper than any of our Earthbound city’s sunken wells—and those were only the shallows. We found an icy passage marked by glowing beacons, leading us down into the unfathomable expanse of the Europan ocean.

            It was cold, but our new bodies did not freeze. It was dark, but our new eyes saw pale, bathyal vistas. We dived so deep, but our new muscles did not tire. And though we felt our chests struggle and heave, we never ran out of air.

            Soon, we began to see life. Tiny fishlike creatures; pale and tangled plants. And then larger things—luminescent entities that trailed thin, pale arms for miles; and serpentine creatures with teeth like knives. Eventually, we came to the deep place where Leviathan’s firstborn children dwell: a place of ravenous teeth and crushing pressure, where one is either predator or prey.

            My brother glanced nervously in every direction. Even in this new body, made to withstand airless Europan depths, I saw the same fear that had dogged him his whole life. You would be afraid, too, if you’d been abducted across the solar system, body transformed against your will into something alien. You would be afraid, too, if you were ordered into the sea of a distant moon, after your only experience of swimming had been in the noxious waterways of an Earthbound city.

            So I kept one eye on my brother, and another on our bearings. For in that place, all directions quickly become one.

            It didn’t take long for one of the deep-serpents to scent us. It came up from below, shockingly fast. Its thorn-ringed mouth was big enough to swallow a gravity-dhow whole: it had no problem swallowing us.

            I managed to grab on to one of its many fangs. With my other hand, I caught my brother—saving him from the creature’s gullet, even as a spiny tooth gored him through his thigh. Blood, newly blackened by nanotech, spilled from his wound into the serpent’s mouth and out into the depths. A beacon, sure to summon hungry mouths.

            My brother struggled, pushing and bracing against resinous gums until he got his leg free. Some faraway part of me noted his thrashing—and the surge of blood that followed—with concern. I’d seen more than one human bleed out after removing a knife. But my brother was no longer human. His wound was already coagulating and knitting over itself. I held on tight: to the tooth; to my brother. We hung there in the monster’s maw, buffeted by currents that threatened to sweep us down into its inky throat.

            Then the creature shook, and we tumbled violently. Something had struck it—something equally enormous. My brother’s blood had drawn another ravenous predator from the deep. With precariously timed kicks we pushed ourselves out of the deep-serpent’s maw, dodging fangs to swim clear of its thrashing form.

            From a hundred feet away we watched two titans battle. We’d seen the bladed, monstrous skeletons on the staircase wall. In death they were imposing, but in life, they were magnificent. To our more-than-human eyes, they shined: pale grey against endless black; sinuous and deadly; a grappling, biting dance.

            Finally, one of them won. It found a soft place to sink its jagged fangs, just below the ridges of its foe’s skull. Some new part of my mind marked that spot with cold precision. I watched how the beast lashed out one last time in death; calculated the safest routes of attack and egress. When it stilled, when its victorious enemy coiled constrictor-tight around it, I seized my opportunity.

            I’d never moved that fast before. I’d never struck so powerfully. The victor writhed and twitched as I skewered its brain. The blood that clouded forth was blacker than the icy water, black as space itself. A final tremor ran down the serpent’s body, and then it was still.

            I beckoned my brother from a hundred feet away. How small he looked—how vulnerable against the endless sea! We hurriedly lashed the dead behemoths together, securing our toothy cargo to dive-belts with the rope we’d been given. Then, we ascended.

            I felt a concern—again, dull and distant—that we were diving towards the moon’s core instead of ascending to its surface. I was aware of massive, hungry shapes circling beneath. But the pressure slowly began to ease, and eventually we saw murky beacons on the underside of the ice crust, guiding us back to the lake; back to Ajax’s House.

            When we burst forth from the water, gasping for breath that we no longer seemed to need, Lord Ajax was there to welcome us home. The spiny, mottled carcasses of the two deep-serpents burst to the surface, one after another. They seemed even larger in the lake’s contained geography. Each was well over a hundred feet long; heavy waves crashed in their wake.

            “Well done, children,” Ajax said, wading out to examine the corpses. “Well done, indeed. I only required one trophy, and you brought me two.”

            We did not reply; merely dragged ourselves, exhausted, onto the shore.

            “I see that this serpent killed the other,” Ajax said, easily grasping and lifting the carcasses with his enormous hands. “And then it was harpooned. An efficient kill.” Ajax dropped the bodies, making cold waves once more. He followed in their wake to the shore.

            “Tell me,” he commanded. “Which of you landed the killing blow?”

            “We slew it together,” I lied, but my brother’s eyes were downcast; his hands—nearly as big as Ajax’s now, I noticed—nervously tracing the outline of a still-healing wound.

            “Is that so? Or is one of you far more the warrior than the other?” He laid a hand on my shoulder. “Go with Utamo, my child,” he said to me. “You’ve earned the right to stay here, in my House.”

            I staggered to my feet, but when my brother tried to do the same, Ajax slapped him, a hard backhand across the face. My brother fell back to his knees. Black blood dripped onto pale ice.

            “You are weak,” he hissed. “You denigrate the name of my House.” He pointed to the stairs; the endless staircase that led long miles back towards the surface. “You wish to redeem yourself? Climb.”

            I rode an elevator with Utamo back up to our cold cell. Hours later, my brother returned. He collapsed the moment he staggered through the doorway, sinking down against the wall. I tried to comfort him, but he pushed me away.

            That was the first lesson we learned in the House of Ajax: that weakness is always punished; that left unchecked, it weakens us in turn. A harsh lesson—but all our Lord’s lessons are harsh. Harsh as they were an age ago, when Ajax learned them for himself in the fortress beneath the ice that now bears his name.

            I did not learn until much, much later, that our noble Lord did not build this House. No—he was brought here, like the rest of us. Smuggled from Mars, part of a cargo of stolen children; experimented on; remade with genetic material harvested from the Europan deep’s microbes and monsters.

            Imagine him, if you can—our mighty Lord as a boy, weak as my baby brother was when the city militia snatched him. Did our Lord feel fear when his captors took him from the red streets of Tharsis? Was he afraid when they cut him open on cold operating tables; injected him with serums, grafted him with strange new organs? Did he feel dread when they field-tested him on Europa’s rust-and-iron surface?

            What did he feel when he first looked up and saw sacred, sky-filling Leviathan—though It was still named Jupiter then? Did our Lord know what was happening in that holy horizon? That the scientists who remade him were laboring to remake a gas giant into a god—a single mighty will that could outwit the Thousand-Willed Martian Fleet?

            When Ajax dove into Europa’s feral depths, did the storm in God’s face truly pause and change direction? When he wrestled sea serpents, did he receive a vision of himself, hardened like unto diamond? Did he truly hear the name Leviathan, whispered on those cold currents?

            We will never know. For we only have what wise, generous Lord Ajax offers us.

            Only stories.

On Io—

volcanic, irradiated Io!

murderous, superheated Io!

tempestuous and treacherous Io!

—did our brutal Lord prepare himself

to battle against the ships of Mars;

to dive into Leviathan’s storms;

to war, to wreck, to rule;

to Ascend.

Listen—

On Io, volcanoes erupt ceaselessly. So near God’s stormy face, the sky crackles with lightning, lakes of lava churn, and magma plumes burst upwards into orbit.

            On Io, we crossed a landscape of heat and flame.

            On Io, we trekked across an island in a burning sea.

            On Io, my brother died—and so did the finest part of me.

            After Europa, there had been other, minor Trials. Battles with multi-tusked beasts beneath Ganymede’s polar auroras. Navigating void-currents between Leviathan’s distant moons. All the while our bodies grew stronger and more resilient, even as our hearts—old and new—slowly hardened. My brother still struggled, but not as much. For a time, he seemed to find his footing.

            And so, as we descended through the chop and tumult of Io’s skies, our faces cast in gold and umber, we were not afraid. A simple Trial, Lord Ajax had said. All you have to do is walk. He spoke the truth—but our road stretched many hundreds of miles: through fiery valleys, over volcanic slopes, and across a charred island, set into a mighty cauldron of lava.

            No beasts to slay. No trophies to bring back. All you have to do is walk.

            We had to walk, yes; and more importantly, we had to survive. And for a time, we did. We crossed Io’s surface, a nightmare world of ash, shadow, and endless flame; Leviathan’s holy face looming monstrously above. We walked for days. We no longer needed sleep. A twenty-minute nap every twenty-four hours was sufficient. After a time, even the heat did not bother us much. I observed these changes with cold detachment, thinking of them as one would a knife, a wrench, or some other tool; but my brother—

            He’d always been smaller than me, always been a target for ruffians and bullies. Now that he’d been gifted a body whose strength seemed to know no bounds, a heady pride blossomed in him.

            On Io, my brother kept sprinting ahead of me, laughing; leaping thirty feet into the air like some joyous magma-geyser. His hearts, it seemed, had not yet hardened. They never would.

            “I was made for this!” he crowed, again and again. “I will never return to Earth!”

            It is strange to think of my brother in those final days, suddenly so different. All children grow, of course, their faces, bodies, and voices transforming as they mature. But these changes, this rapid Ascent beyond humanity, seemed almost as alien as Leviathan’s moons. I remember my brother’s face in endlessly shifting firelight, his features hard and sharp as his carapace. I remember him changed. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember how he looked before.

            We trekked twelve days across Io before reaching Loki Patera. The largest volcanic crater in Leviathan’s domain holds a molten lake, two hundred kilometers across. A massive island stands at that churning cauldron’s center—a blackened crust of solidified lava, its edges lapped by flame. We had to cross it.

            My brother and I clambered down the crater’s steep southern edge, making our way across a precarious, miles-long promontory. Whole sections of it were occasionally swallowed by lava: we had to sprint hard at the end to avoid being incinerated. But the island itself was stable enough, and far cooler underfoot.

            We traversed it in little more than an Earth day. We were tired, yes, but the feeling weighed less than the dim flame of purpose and contentment. I felt calm; collected. But my brother—this close to the finish, he grew ever more confident and boisterous. I told him to be careful. To mind his environs. To mind our mission.

            We reached the island’s northwestern edge. To north and east, the magma sea churned ceaselessly, molten waves breaking at the horizon. To our west, another finger of rock promised a narrow egress. This causeway was thinner, more disparate and treacherous—a collection of pillars, really. We would have to leap from one to another, mindful of the fiery tongues that sought to taste our flesh.

            “Follow my steps,” I told my brother. “And move calmly.”

            And he did. He followed close behind me, mimicking my careful timing, matching every footfall—until he didn’t.

            I don’t know if it was his new strength, his old fear, or his still-human exuberance, but we were nearly out of Loki Patera when my brother broke into a sprint. I heard his laughter, and saw him land eight feet ahead of me. He turned and grinned, then leaped high into the air, body silhouetted against a sea of flame, careening towards the next rocky pillar—

            —and missed. He caught a handhold halfway down, and hung one-handed, treacherously close to the magma.

            “Hold on!” I called, but he was already moving: both hands on the tiny outcropping, feet coming up to meet them in a perilous crouch. He was going to try and jump back up.

            “Don’t,” I ordered. “Just wait—”

            But he could not wait. Would not. He pushed off, launching himself a whole body length into the air, so his arms were just inches from the ledge, armored fingertips flexing, yearning for solid ground—

            —and then he was gone. He missed, and there was nothing to save him as he plummeted. The fire swallowed him.

            I cried out, peering over the edge. There was nothing left of him except the blackened husk of his carapace and his survival kit’s iridescent shell, dissolving rapidly. Then only lava. He was gone. I screamed, smashing my fists into rock again and again. My wails pitched up to heaven, but the face of God far above did nothing but watch.

            Slowly, painfully, as though I was struggling against Venusian gravity, I climbed out of Loki Patera. Alone, now and always. Lord Ajax waited for me a mile beyond the crater’s lip.

            “Do not mourn your brother,” he said. “For he was weak and foolish. His conduct at the end was pathetic. Childlike. It was his fate to die, and this is as honorable a resting place as one such as him could hope for.”

            I did not reply, but rage and sorrow burnt within me, bright as the lake that swallowed my brother. I held on to my rage as long as I could, even as sorrow faded with my other emotions. And I disobeyed our Lord. I would mourn my brother. I mourned him then, and I mourn him still.

            When an Ascendant dies, their body is dropped into Leviathan’s atmosphere. They fall, through ammonia clouds and thick layers of hydrogen and helium, until heat and pressure reduce them to composite particles, and they become one with God’s mighty storm-mind.

            My brother received no such honor. But his body melted in Io’s largest lava lake. Perhaps some part of him lingers on in fire and rock, so close to God. Perhaps some molecule that once belonged to my brother evaporated from that sea of flame. Perhaps some trace element was born aloft by eruption after eruption, until finally, one of the great magma plumes carried it out of Io’s thin atmosphere and into space. Perhaps some part of him now orbits Leviathan. Perhaps he will orbit Leviathan for millennia to come: an eternal tomb of gravity and carbon.

            That is how I choose to remember my brother, whose human face is forever lost to fire and shadow; whose human name I keep close to the tenderest of my hearts, a secret tether to the vanished part of me. That is how I mourn him.

Imagine

august Lord Ajax,

One thousand years ago:

on demigodhood’s starlit cusp,

diving into Leviathan’s stormy depths,

coming face-to-face with divinity;

a speck in vast pressure systems;

a thought in God’s mind.

Listen—

Ajax’s Citadel orbits Leviathan closer than any moon. A thorned flower of a space station, its petals mirror the turbulent colors of Leviathan’s depths. Once every thirty-six hours, it passes above the storm-mind so that Lord Ajax may commune with God’s vast, holy intelligence.

            After Io, I stayed on the Citadel for weeks, convalescing. Healing; even as my human emotions faded like a bruise. And yet I still grieved—first, the loss of my brother; then, the loss of grief itself, an absence in my chest cavity, deeper than the Europan sea.

            Ajax was not always present on his Citadel, and even when he was, he secluded himself in his wide-windowed Sanctum. Ascendants arrived and departed on gravity-dhows, currying favor and bringing intrigue: velvet-gloved conspiracies or insurrections that needed crushing with steel-clad fist.

            Sometimes I listened by the door. Indra encouraged it. A long-standing tradition, she called it. By the Sanctum door, I heard our Lord Ajax’s dealings. Hours of commlink chatter. Reports and prostrations. Lesser Cousins offering up their scions as attendants in exchange for paltry favors. Once, when Leviathan’s storm-mind was directly below, I heard a dense, garbled growl, as though all Its stormclouds whispered in Ajax’s ear.

            Then there were his audiences with Ascendants. Asterion brought whispers from Ganymede: a cabal plotting against our Lord. Hod brought rumors from Earth: a rebellion brewing in one of the southern hemisphere’s great cities. Ajax left soon after. He executed the Ganymedan traitors himself, but he let the revolt on Earth fester. I did not yet realize it, but he was saving that task for me. My first mission as an Ascendant.

            But for now, a final Trial lay ahead: savage contemplation, in the caverns of Titan.

            “A war with yourself,” Indra whispered. “Your body battles your mind. And all the while, you wander that labyrinth.” Her body was warm against mine, her arms hard and muscled, our carapace-ridges interlocking.

            Indra had coveted me for some time. Since the Mercurial games, perhaps. Ascendants are allowed dalliances with aspirants who have completed the Europan and Ionian Trials, and so she timed her meditative retreat to the Citadel to match my recuperation. But though she was with me, I was far, far away: staring out the void-window, lost in Leviathan’s twisting storms; lost in memories of Io and my brother.

            “Savage contemplation changes us all,” Indra said, tracing Leviathanesque patterns into my back. “And not always for the better. Sometimes I wonder…if I am still there. There, in Titan’s cold and distant caves.”

            She fell silent, and we lay there until I slept. The face of God gave way to that of my brother, and to other, stranger faces, bathed in crystalline blue light. A dream of ghosts; of caverns and mournful songs. Or perhaps that happened after Titan. I do not know.

 

Beneath Titan’s cold mountains, far from the eye of God;

Our Lord did wander in savage contemplation.

Stalked by nightmares; self against self;

crimson Theseus-trail ever-dripping

from his abdomen.

Listen—

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is a strange and distant place, forbidden to all. Not even Lord Ajax, who first endured Trial in its cold caves, returns there. Here, far from our Great God’s sight, those who would Ascend suffer a final Trial.

            Savage contemplation changes us all. And not always for the better. Indra’s words haunted me as I descended through Titan’s dense atmosphere; as I crumpled my gravity-dhow’s sails and attached it to my survival-pack. As I trekked across a dark, desolate hydrocarbon desert, in the dim shadows of hundred-foot dunes, I thought about how much I had already changed.

            In all Leviathan’s domain, there is no place like Titan. It is much like the most barren of Earth’s wild places, but strange and cold—a world in hibernation. Far from the sun, Titan’s days are as dim as its seasons are long. There are lakes here—beautiful, enormous liquid methane lakes—and mountains: jagged equatorial ranges made of water frozen harder than rock, with volcanoes that spew ammonia and ice.

            I never imagined such a place. And now I walked there—alone. Cold despite my fledgling carapace, and without my brother. I was so alone.

            As I approached the frozen mountains, my mind returned, again and again, to the lake of fire that claimed him. Io and Titan; magma and ice. I did not realize it yet, but my mind was beginning its endless circle of the labyrinth that is savage contemplation.

            You know the tale, no doubt, of our Lord Ajax’s savage contemplation. The criers in the plaza of my humble, crowded, Earthbound city often sang it. They say he wandered the caverns for forty days and forty nights, hunted by a sleepless beast. That he pressed a knife under the scales of his carapace, ever-twisting the blood-blackened blade, to mark himself a trail by which to escape. That finally, after grave combat, he slew the beast and came face-to-face with himself—for the beast’s face was his own. That he conquered his own savage nature to become a wise and worthy ruler.

            Now hear the tale of my own savage contemplation:

            For twenty hours, I climbed the mountain, following cruel ridgelines until I found a tunnel entrance marked with Leviathan’s storm-eye sigil in impossibly flowing gold. I steeled myself and entered, descending a long stair carved into rock.

            The labyrinth awaited.

            To my near-Ascendant eyes, the tunnels glowed dim blue like the caverns beneath Ajax’s House. The walls were rough and curved: they seemed the work of some great burrowing beast. Time is strange beneath that mountain. Perhaps there was something in the air, some toxin or hallucinogen. My chronal senses ceased to function as they should. I recall disparate flashes of memory—ever-descending; hunkering for brief respites only to sleep for what seemed like eons, until I woke from terrifying dreams of being hunted. Melting the ice walls for drinkwater. Finding strange markings that should not have been there, tracks on the hard tunnel surfaces that should not have been possible.

            I convinced myself I was tracking something. Once, I thought I nearly had it. Knife in hand, I quietly stalked from cavern to cavern, following distant noises until they resolved into the sound of breathing. I found my quarry against a wall—and saw that it was me, asleep against my survival-pack. I woke with a start, staring out into the dim blue, scanning for a shape, certain that I was the one being tracked.

            And I was. I do not know whether Ajax carved the caverns of Titan, or if they are natural, or if they were made by some ancient civilization from Titan or Enceladus or some far-distant star. But I do know this: creatures live there, in that mountain. Beings made solely for suffering.

            I began to hear their mewling calls echoing through the tunnels. I followed the cries for hundreds of hours, but never found anything. I no longer slept. When I tired, I found a cul-de-sac or a cavern wall and sat against it, knife in hand, eyes scanning the dark. Eventually, dreams invaded my waking mind. Shadows danced in the distance, shrieks and moaning sobs always just around the corner.

            Finally, after an unknowable time, I succumbed to sleep. I do not know how long I slept, but when I awoke, I finally saw them.

            I was in a vast cathedral of a cavern—had I slept there?—and some crystalline light-source threw shadows on the wall. Lumbering, scuttling, humanoid shadows. The creatures came for me, dozens of them, screeching and moaning. Their fingers were long and deadly as any knife I’d seen. Their faces were almost human, but warped; shrunken mouths packed with needle-sharp teeth.

            I fought these sad, withered creatures with the same rage and resignation that fueled every fight I’d ever fought, the same rage and resignation with which I’d attempted to gore Lord Ajax on Mercury. One by one, they fell to my blade: stabbed, decapitated, dismembered, and disemboweled. I was stronger than them, and far more the warrior. But there were so many of them. And their faces—it felt like slaughtering animals. Or murdering children.

            Finally, I saw him among the horde.

            He was bigger than the rest. Arms dense with muscle. Barbed, armored shoulders—an Ascendant’s carapace, but charred and melted. His face was a twisted distortion of the face I’d known my whole life. My brother’s face, ruined and monstrous. A revenant from Io.

            We fought in that cavern, amidst the press of bodies and the clawing of knife-fingers. He bit and swiped at me, all the while snarling and laughing: a strange idiot cry that was all the more disturbing because it was his voice. As I cut off his hand, as I buried my knife in heart after heart, I told myself this was not him. A facsimile reconstituted by Ajax and Utamo from cloneflesh. An empty copy. Nothing more.

            But as I landed the killing blow, the creature with my brother’s face looked at me and whispered my name through its monstrous maw. Thea.

            I killed them all. The cavern was full of corpses, its floor slippery with gore. A Theseus-trail of blood dripped from the softest part of my carapace, slowing to a trickle as the wound knit. I had killed my brother. I had killed him twice.

            I do not know how long I wandered through the labyrinth. It could have been weeks, even months. Finally, deep in the mountain’s heart, I found a doorway marked with Leviathan’s sigil. I stepped through it and a platform hummed to life beneath my feet. The door slid shut behind me, and I collapsed, exhausted.

            The space elevator raised me out of the caverns, out of the mountain, and up, up, up through Titan’s dense atmosphere, up beyond the edge of space.

            I rested there for hours, staring out at Titan’s poison-green curve, and at Saturn: massive, majestic, and ringed. Leviathan’s sibling. Some say its storms are even mightier than our God’s. Yet Saturn remains silent, unaware. Asleep.

            I slept, too. Later I learned that my body acted without my conscious mind, launching my gravity-dhow and plotting a course for Leviathan’s orbit. I awoke briefly on Ajax’s Citadel, flitting between sleep and waking, unaware of anything but the nightmares and Indra’s arms. Then, abrupt as the transition between two dreams, Indra was gone, replaced by a massive shadow seated at the corner of my cot.

            He spoke to me, but it was as though he spoke to himself. He has never spoken this way to me; not before, not since.

            “The tales of my savage contemplation are not entirely true,” Lord Ajax said. “I wandered, yes, and I fought, but the beast…it did not have my face. It had my brother’s face. Impossible, of course. I knew that. He’d been left on Mars. And yet, by Phobos and Deimos and all the moons of dread Leviathan, I swear it was him.”

            He turned to look at me. Did he think I slept still? Surely he could hear my heartbeat; the breath frozen in my throat.

            “None of the others can understand,” he said. “What it is like. To have come from a place like Tharsis, or Bokhara, or Ulaanbaatar. To have spent your life struggling against bootheels that would grind you down to red dust. No…I have pushed them. Hardened them. But they will always be soft. But you…you are like me. A savage, bladed thing.”

            And then darkness took me again, Ajax’s words echoing in my dreams. Perhaps it was all a dream. A dream born of exhaustion; of a mind worn down by savage contemplation. Or perhaps it happened before Titan. I do not know.

            When I awoke truly, I was alone. The Citadel was deserted, the Sanctum door shut. In my chambers I found a suit of Ascendant armor, gleaming ceremonial crimson and crafted to my exact dimensions. A vellum was pinned to it, commanding me to Callisto for my Celebration.

            As I gathered my things, I found a little oracle-pearl tucked beneath my pillow. A beautiful thing, inscribed with Indra’s sigil. It woke to my fingertips. In it, I saw myself on Mercury. So small, so frail, so human: racing and falling across cratered rock; entering the Festival City’s bounds and struggling up the ziggurat’s huge stairs. I watched myself seize Leviathan’s banner and jam its point against Ajax’s armored sternum. I watched Ajax swat me with an easy backhand that knocked me three steps down. I heard his laugh echo across the commlink as tiny machines swarmed from his palm, cocooning my body from the sun in a protective sarcophagus.

            Behold this mere human, Ajax said. She is bolder than any of you. Ascendants? Rulers of Earth? Have any of you dared strike at me this openly? Mark my words well: for her temerity, I shall honor this once-Earthbound child. I shall lift her into Leviathan’s holy gaze. I shall allow her to attempt my Trials. But for daring to raise her hand against me, she shall also be punished.

[[///—before they come, listen. before they come, listen. before they come, listen.///]]

            My account is almost at an end. Soon I will be, too. I have listed the grand deeds of our Lord. I do not think he will repay me kindly. My captors are nearly here now, screeching down through Ceres’s thin atmosphere on a war-barge. Indra among them, no doubt. Exactly the sort of cruelty Ajax loves to inflict.

            He gave me this name, Promethea, as a joke. I was called Thea before, on Earth, so he transformed it, just as Utamo transformed my body. In the long-ago mythology of the Greeks, the same mythology that named Europa and Io and Callisto, the mythology that named Ajax himself, Prometheus was a Titan. He stole fire from the Gods, and was punished for it by Zeus—later Jupiter; later Leviathan. They tied Prometheus to a rock, and every day, an eagle tore out his liver. Every night, the liver regrew, and day after day, the eagle returned to tear it out again.

            Ajax and Utamo could not devise a better punishment. But I expect they will try.

            Ajax wishes to live forever. But he forgets—the majesty of planets and stars unfold over billions of years. In the long life of the universe, even Leviathan’s mighty storm-eye will vanish in a momentary blink. Ajax would tether the divine to the mortal for his own purposes—and his purposes are base. What has he done with God’s divine superintellect? What has he wrought? New armaments and blast-armor? Void-vellums: clever papyruses that update their contents across light-minutes and light-hours? Innovations, yes, but petty things. A tyrant’s toys.

            Do not doubt the justness of our cause. Do not doubt our plan. Our hands—all our hands, mine especially—are drenched in the blood of Earth. It is time for us to cleanse them. Go now. Prepare yourselves. Soon, we will end his monstrous reign. Even if I do not live to see it, I am honored by your bravery, your temerity, your humanity. I am honored to be in league with you.

            [[///Before they come, listen. Before they come, listen. Before they come, listen—///]]

Beyond the orbit of mighty Leviathan,

Beyond the rings of mysterious Saturn,

Beyond blue Neptune and the Kuiper Belt;

Beyond the Oort Cloud’s quiet expanse;

There are other places to gaze towards;

Other worlds; other suns; and perhaps

even other gods.

The outer worlds are quiet and dark, but this will not always be so. In five billion years, our sun will swell to swallow Mercury and Venus, and reduce Earth to cinders. But on Titan, mountains of melting ice will give rise to new life under a dim red sun. And in Leviathan’s depths, perhaps God’s mind shall continue to contemplate the void.

            Have you ever wondered what our God dreams of? Why we have not heard It speak, except in Ajax’s voice? Like the ship-minds of Mars, Leviathan’s intelligence was made to transcend the limits of biology and circuitry. Lord Ajax, in his wisdom and authority, tells us that everything in Leviathan’s domain is as God wills it. But he knows the truth—a truth you suspect deep in your bones. Leviathan cares not for us.

            It does not even think of us, much as we do not think of microbes or ants. It does not register our presence, or acknowledge our designs. Carried upon the great gas planet’s shifting storms, Leviathan’s god-mind runs so languid and slow that our lives—perhaps even our civilization—will be spent before even a single thought forms in Its mind.

            I was born on Earth. On Europa, I was changed. On Io and Titan, I became who I am today. But here on Ceres—cold, quiet Ceres; lowly, unimportant Ceres—I have studied the rise and fall of civilizations, learned the forbidden histories of our own rulers, and written my own story. I can only speak to what I know, and what I know is this:

            Our God is a distant, alien being, and we should not concern ourselves with what It wants.

            Its regent, Lord Ajax, is a monster, and a poor one at that. He cares only for war and violence. He claims to have elevated himself far above humanity, but he is not elevated—he is base. He is a soldier, a honed instrument; nothing more than a weapon who has found himself atop a throne and knows not what to do with it except continue to inflict pain.

            And so, contemplating the outer worlds, the inner planets, the ancient gas giants, and the star around which we all revolve, perhaps it is time for us to throw aside the whims of gods and demigods; to sweep away the detritus of Earth and Mars; to topple the aged towers of princes and potentates. Perhaps it is time to break the decrepit cycle of our empire and the empires before it, this system of mailed fist and foot upon neck.

            Perhaps now, in this single, small moment on the eve of the one-thousandth year of a tyrant’s reign—a mere instant in our solar system’s five-billion-year history; a mere moonlet amidst the great, quiet realm of night—it is time, at last, to dream of something new.

 

“The Dominion of Leviathan” copyright © 2022 by Manish Melwani
Art copyright © 2022 by Greg Manchess



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