Mara calls a caucus of elected representatives in the Sacred Fire, one of the largest hulks in the reef of derelicts. The Fire was built to support habitat construction on 4 Vesta, where Mara hopes to one day anchor the entire flotilla and set down roots—but the hopeful, fearful faces before her make Mara afraid that it'll never happen. What if everyone runs off at the first hint of home? Having come so far, across worlds and eons, to see Earth again—how can she ask them to hold back now?
"We've found Humanity," she tells them. "We've found our ancestors."
The cheer of triumph and wonder thrills her to the marrow. Most of these Awoken are Distributary-born, raised on myths of Humanity and the Traveler. She has just opened the pages of their storybooks and conjured them to life.
"What remains of the Human species lives in a single settlement." She nods to Uldren, who snaps his fingers for footage. His ship's holographic perspective plunges through fluffy strata of clouds and mist, out into clear air. A lucid vista, a perfect instant: the white mountains, the city, and the enormous shattered sphere that hangs above it.
"Freeze," Uldren commands. "That is the Traveler."
As the crowd murmurs and thrills, Mara feels herself bridle. She doesn't like that thread of reverence. She doesn't like the Traveler looming there, almost but not quite completely dormant (like a dying heart ripped from its body and thrown into warm water, it ebbs and flutters if you look at it with the right sensors). If the Traveler had the power to protect anyone, wouldn't it protect more than one huddled settlement?
Esila, daughter of Sila, leaps up from the crowd, too small to make it on her own, but buoyed up by enthusiastic neighbors. "What are we waiting for?" she calls. "That's everything we came to find! They need us, and that's where we belong!"
Uldren and Mara trade glances. Uldren snaps his fingers, and the recording resumes.
Something moves in the treetops. The canopy roils and parts. A red-brown aircraft shaped like a fat, wingless, furiously angry dragonfly bursts from cover and climbs to intercept. Uldren's head-cued camera tracks the target, and Mara imagines his narrow grin as he waits for the other guy to make a move.
The dragonfly ship drops a brace of little needles, and they erupt into dirty orange flame and come arrowing after Uldren. Everyone in the caucus gets an earful of his grunts as he whips through a high-G turn and climbs away.
"Those are Fallen," Uldren says. "They're a species of interstellar scavengers and subsistence pirates. They've been here for a long time, and they've sacked most of the large settlements that survived the original fall of Humanity. There may be more Fallen than there are Humans left on Earth." He lifts his chin to bare the pale scar across his throat. "I landed and went looking for prisoners. I was ready when he pulled two knives on me, but it turned out he had an extra set of arms."
"Worse," Mara adds, beckoning for panes of deep-space passive sensor data, "they're all over the solar system. We've detected flotillas of their interstellar ships around Jupiter and Venus. They don't go near Mars, but only because it's under occupation by another alien species. Mercury is—well, you can see for yourself." Gasps of horror at the clockwork cinder, all that remains of the legendary garden world. "We believe this may be the work of the Vex, a machine species listed in Shipspire's threat index."
Esila, famed historian, puts voice to the plea in the crowd. "So they need our help, don't they? We have to go to them! Our ships, our technology—we could make all the difference."
"No." Mara collapses the projected images between her hands. She stayed up late wrestling with this dilemma, which kept her from wrestling with Sjur. It was a choice she had to make alone. "We can't reveal our existence, lest the Fallen track us down. We need more information. Our focus must remain on securing this derelict reef, bootstrapping industry and a population, and scouting out the solar system."
"Mara, with all my respect, all my genuine gratitude for bringing us here," Esila sighs, "who died and made you Queen?"
Mara says nothing. But she thinks: Everyone, Esila. All of us died and made me Queen.
"It's bad," Sjur Eido says, confirming what Mara already knows, but nonetheless performing the valuable service of mopping away all the blood and tears and allowing Mara to glimpse the actual shape of the wound that divides her people. Not a literal wound (though she is, right now, tending to Uldren's scar, tweezing tiny fragments of Fallen metal out for analysis), but the rift in her Reef, the schism now re-schismatic, as if the quake that split the Distributary Awoken from Mara's people is now firing off aftershocks.
She should've known this would happen. She shouldn't have told them so much about Earth. "How bad?"
Sjur pokes Uldren in the hard gut, where a passing line of molten metal left a red burn. He's under anesthesia, but he snarls at her anyway. "As of the last caucus, I'd say thirty percent of the expedition wants to head for Earth. If you ask the 891," though there aren't 891 of them anymore, "it's more like eighty percent."
Mara swears and pulls a bloody line of solidified slag from her brother. "Unacceptable. We can't lose their skills." Or their genes: The Awoken have yet to adapt to the attrition of this harsh spaceborne world, and tentative mothers are still in the early stages of designing their babies. It's vital to maintain a diverse gene pool. "And the Fallen will vector them back to us."
"I know," Sjur says, heavily. "That's when I'm going to die."
The most horrible thing about the words is that they slap down on Mara's consciousness like face-up cards, like truth revealed. "Unacceptable!" she barks, and then both she and Sjur begin laughing, and then, at last, Mara shakes her head and growls. "You can't know that, Sjur. No one can know that."
"I do. I don't know how, but I do. I know it's going to be something I choose to do, and it's going to be incontrovertibly heroic. Which is enough for me."
"But if that's true—" Mara proposes, flinching away from the personal conversation they really ought to have, and all its attendant rawness, "—if you die when Fallen attack us, it means I won't stop these people from fleeing to Earth, and the Fallen are going to find us, and we're doomed." She is already building intricate models of how the universe might accommodate fate or doom and how she might go about destroying those things.
"Could be, I suppose." Sjur pulls a parchment-thin rag of dead flesh off Uldren's wound. "Look. I'm the Queen's bodyguard. I always expected I'd die violently."
"I'm not the Queen."
"Maybe that's your problem." She flicks Uldren in the chest, leaving a purple bruise, fading. "What is with you two, anyway? You never talk about him. You never seem to think about him at all. But he's dashing himself to pieces for you. How do live as his favorite and only sister for so many centuries… and hardly even smile at him?"
Secrets, Mara thinks. You've got to have secrets from each other so there's room for him to fill in the gaps with his own happy illusions. Two ships joined together rigidly will tear each other apart if they try to move. But a loose tether leaves room to maneuver—and can be more quickly disengaged, if necessary.
That makes her think of Sjur's prophecy again. She sets the shrapnel down in the dissection dish, very gently. "You won't die. I won't allow it."
Of all the disasters that might happen in space, riot is the worst. Breaches can be contained, fires can be starved, plague can be quarantined, radiation shielded, heat vented—but a riot has a will of its own: a chaotic ingenuity that corrodes any countermeasure.
Mara crawls through compartments choked with vaporized coolant. She keeps low and clutches the breather to her face. All she can think of is Kelda Wadj's last message and the data attached. "Mara. The paracausal effects are strongest around you. Whatever's happened to us, you are the locus. I cannot overstate how subtle and how important this discovery might be. Mara, when we use radioactive decay as a trigger for simulated bombs—bombs that could harm Awoken—the trigger atoms are a thousandfold less likely to decay near you. People are literally safer when you are around."
She has to get into the riot. She has to protect her people.
A horrible groan vibrates through the habitat structure, and then, with an apocalyptic shudder, something tears off the Reef. A ship. A ship is leaving. Mara has failed.
Mara drops onto her belly and pants into the mask. Then, cringing in anticipation of migraine, she activates the augment, the jury-rigged machine her eutechs produced for exactly this purpose by extracting Mara's ruined Distributary implants and reworking them. She's going to fire a command override to shut down that ship's systems—
—but then she realizes it's a salvaged Human vessel, deaf to her commands.
She gasps in frustration, sucking down cold bottled air. "Sjur."
"I'm here," her radio whispers. "Pinned down in the dockmaster's office. I shot a few in the shoulders, and they seem to have gotten the idea."
"Let them go. If one ship's away, there's no sense holding back the rest. Our position is compromised."
"Broadcast to everyone. I'm going to allow anyone who wants to leave the Reef to go. This their one and only chance." She rolls onto her back and stares up into the swirling vortices of coolant, seeing faces, futures, the lives she has just lost, the lives she might yet lose. She brought her people here to die in the sense that she brought them into mortality—but she never wanted it to happen quickly.
"They know, your Majesty," Sjur says. "They already know."
"You told us. We heard your voice." Awe like gratitude in Sjur Eido's voice. "Mara, I heard you. You spoke to me."
Thus the riven Awoken were riven again, into Reefborn and Earthborn. Those who left went to scour the ruins for lost history and give some succor to their Human cousins who still clung to a hostile world. The Awoken came unto these Humans like nephilim, armed with lost weapons, forgotten industry and medicine. They were like omens of hope, for they were often taken to be starborn colonists returned to the hearth, which was not, after all, so far from truth. All who looked on them saw that the night sky contained more than lurking doom. They bred true with each other and sometimes hybridized with Humans, and in the course of centuries, many forgot the Distributary and even the Reef. However, there was always in their souls an itch, a vector pointing to a distant place in the Asteroid Belt, where their Queen still dwelt.
"They've made a difference already," Sjur told Mara not long after the first Awoken made planetfall on Earth. "They'll save so many lives just with the provision of medicine, pure water, and construction supplies that even if they all died by year's end, they would each yield ten or twenty Humans."
"I know," Mara said, with bitter pride. "Let the people remember them as saints and paladins, and tell no one how many more they might've saved if they had only kept the faith." For she knew the precious value of each Awoken life: She knew how many she would have to spend and mourned each soul wasted on a lesser purpose.
On the day the Fallen struck, Mara was proclaimed Queen. It happened swiftly, though after no little debate among the people, for everyone was afraid of a monarch who could speak to their thoughts. Yet they feared more to deny her power and sovereignty, for they had come between worlds in her name. To refuse her would be to refuse their choice.
"Awoken," she told them, "for the first time in my life, I hesitated to reach for power, and now one in three of you are gone. I cannot deny what the cosmos has made of me any longer. I am your one and rightful Queen."
She knew she had been a fool to pretend to be a peer to the others. What was true of her brother was true of all Awoken. They needed secrets to marvel at, secrets that rhymed with the deep enigma of their souls. They could not follow what they fully understood.
There would be a formal coronation later, in a place not yet built. Out of respect for that unhappened coronation, Mara did not at first wear a crown; and later she claimed as her diadem the ring of event horizon that surrounds the observable universe.
"My techeuns," she said, gathering Kelda Wadj and the other eutechs who'd remained, "will be given absolute authority to explore our new power, the Traveler's relics, and all associated domains. We are no longer in the realm of pure science. We require an order of mysteries and witches to tend to them."
Not an hour later, a Fallen Ketch threw off its stealth and began a deceleration burn toward 4 Vesta. The four-armed predators had traced one of the Earthward ships back through all its erratic course changes and to the Reef. They came in search of the source of these blue ape-kin.
A salvo of coherent-matter guns gutted the Ketch: blink-quick death for the mighty ship, ancient fury compressing matter into a relativistic pinhead. It was a waste of weapons that couldn't be recharged or reloaded, however, and the Baron in command had already scattered his skiffs like camouflaged seeds. The Fallen Raiders came down all over the Reef and cut their way inside. The Awoken, young to mortality, terrified of death, fled in fear.
Mara, Uldren, and Sjur Eido rallied as many as they could. Sjur fought in a powered combat shell, but Mara needed to be seen vulnerable, silver-haired and narrow-eyed, hurling herself at the enemy. She fought with pistol and dagger, and her brother moved like a wraith at her flank. Her people were ashamed of their timidity. No more were the Fallen scuttling alien predators: Now they were an indignity, an offense to regal privilege to be met with a snarl and a rifle shot. The Awoken saw their desperation: how the stump-limbed Dregs stumbled forward emaciated, how the Vandals cringed from battle as they peeled off wall panels, desperate for salvage to please their Captains.
Armored Sjur Eido met the Fallen Baron in zero-gravity combat above his spider tank and shot him dead, one adamant shaft through plate and throat. Ether hissed into vacuum. Sjur threw herself upon the spider tank that clung to the Sacred Fire's hull. Laughing in joy, she cut into the tank's barrel and threw a charge inside, knowing its next vengeful shot would be meant for the Sacred Fire's main habitat drum—and that she would die in the catastrophic misfire.
The tank fired. The charge detonated. Sjur Eido was thrown clear, utterly unharmed.
"That was where I should have died," she said, in wonder—and in her mind was the smiling face of her Queen.