“The Dynasty has brought civilisation to the lowest corners of the galaxy. The truth of history fixates on our technology, our culture, our compassion. Yet, as you well know, there are some who would reject our native kindness. The Mutiny happened on this day, six years ago, an atrocity of betrayal. 13 of our discovered planets gripped their swords and slashed our Throats. They must be made to understand that only mercy will be met with mercy. And we will teach them through you, recruits, as you will be made merciless.”
Six years ago, I enlisted in the military. Two years later, I graduated as a pilot. Both ceremonies had the exact same set-up. Marshal-of-stars Goldenlove reading the same speech from a sheet of paper (even mistakenly saying “six years” again), a proud Ebru beside me mouthing along with the speech, Eeves smiling and waving despite the fierce scowl I shot him. Even the cheap plastic chairs that hurt my ass were exactly as I remembered. The only difference was that this time around, fewer seats were occupied: 87. 87 people didn’t survive, and none of their families were eligible for any recompense or grief leave simply because they were only recruits.
I had signed up for the glory, but two years is a long time to be disenchanted with dying for a cause. The sorrow and hate and love I felt when I first chose my callsign had morphed into an indifference toward death and a jaded predilection toward survival. After all, The Deeming Coordinate cares more about organising funerals than awarding medals.
Still, I fought for them.
>Incoming call: OPERATOR EVERGREEN
“Eeves? What’s up?”
“I had to chime in and congratulate my favourite pilot. You really earned that promotion.”
“Only took half a decade, but it feels good to fly pink hearts. They look good on Strawberries-in-White.”
“I’m sure they do. Hey, I just checked on Ebru. Um… those two hours won’t be enough.”
>Incoming reprimand: PERSONAL CHATTER FORBIDDEN DURING COMBAT OPERATIONS
“Tch, command’s on our ass. I’ll take this rep. Cable, come home safe.”
“I will. Thanks Eeves.”
>Call connection terminated
>Reprimand claimed by: OPERATOR EVERGREEN
>Arriving at operation zone
The ceremony was boring, and deep down I’m glad it got interrupted. I’d woken up to a mailbox with a formal order of appearance and a discount coupon for the drycleaner’s. Whirlwinded through the house in a panic to find my dress uniform in my broom closet, stuff in a box labeled “whatever”. The laundry officer almost gave me a reprimand for letting army apparel get that dusty. I looked in the mirror and thought I looked wrong.
Those golds and whites and those awful shoulder tassels, they still felt foreign on me. Like skin covering up flesh it didn’t match with. The wrong lines on a map. It was, truly, a costume. I was a showpiece on display in a sheen-white command center. The most important day in my career and only a steno writer showed up. Goldenlove’s monotonous, whiskeyed voice didn’t make me feel any better either.
“Pilot Cable, your accomplishments in the previous 328 runs, battles, and skirmishes have been noticed by The Dynastic Succession of Moonless Skies. As such, The Deeming Coordinate raises you in rank. You are pronounced vicegerent, bringing you closer to the stars we’ve named, the moons we’ve taken, and the planets we’ve discovered. Your worth is proved, yet may your ascent never slow.
Ahem. Uh. Yes. The Dynasty has brought civ–“
The clinical glow of command fell to shades of emergency. The on-screen jpeg banner of the Dynastic flag was promptly mouse-dragged away, then replaced with some badly-rendered star maps, strategic-looking troop placements, and a rotating animation of our military emblem that took up half the screen. An operator called in, fresh coffee on his shirt; he frantically summarised: Mutineers in the Brim Dividing sector close to capital planet, two ships-of-the-light accompanied by a G-type, one Throat destroyed, all available pilots scramble for battle, I recognised the name: Levrette.
The Marshal-of-stars, cooped up under that long cloak of his, we call him Captain Curtains in the barracks, turned to me with eclipses in his eyes. A dark stare that said: Go on. Give us a reason to regret this decision. And I gave them exactly that: my first act as vicegerent was sprinting to the hangar where Ebru was. I found her praying in her cockpit. Of course she’d already prepped for launch, my throat turned dry and bitter. I knew
“Cable! There you are. You ready to get some glory? By the way, those hearts decals look incredible on Strawberries! Congra–”
“Ebru.” Deep breath. “We lost Levrette.” The name of her station made tears well up behind her goggles. I wanted to give her a hug so badly, but my new rank meant I had to give her ‘grief leave’ first.
“For those who have fallen defending our stars, the Dynasty awards heaven. For those they have left behind, the Dynasty awards rest. For two hours, you may keep this highest sacrifice in rememb…rance…
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Ebru. I have to fight. You stay here. I’ll call Eeves to check on you.”
Her punching booms through the hangar. Turning on my engines hardly drowned out the sound.
>Dynastic Command order HDE 226868: PILOT CABLE SYNCHRONISE
They haven’t even updated me in the system.
Consent confirmed. Connecting PILOT Cable with DYNAST Strawberries-in-White.
>Please do not think bad thoughts.
>Neural draft initiated
>Cable, you’re sad.
>Your new position as VICEGERENT cannot afford emotional instability. Risks: material losses, reduced glory, unwise casualties. Recommended: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
>HYPERSYNCHRONISATION is a combat mode accessible by rank VICEGERENT and up. DYNAST unit temporary overrides neural boundaries for improved precision, greater combat prowess, and heightened strategic decision-making skills. Reduces probability of shameful displays by 71,42%.
What’s my count at?
>Checking reprimands: TWO. (Updated FOUR (4) minutes ago.)
Wait, what? I thought Eeves took that last reprimand?
>REASON: Failure to prioritise The Dynasty over sentimental trifles
>Suggested course of action: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
Should’ve known. Well, I already made an ass of myself and I’m short a wingman. Do I even have a choice?
>We do this for the sake of love, Cable.
>PILOT Cable returned from control haze.
>Initiating docking sequence… Success. Arrived at: Back home.
“Thanks for coming home. You make any glorious memories?” He succeeds at a smile, he looks good.
I didn’t always live in the Clouds. I used to live with Ebru in the Breezes, a one-room loft with only three walls. Before that, we lived together in the Acres with granddad Ashwin, the grass through the floor tickling our feet and the pollen making it hard for him to breathe, coughing as he taught us to speak Dynastic. From A to B to C. An alphabetic life. Looking for the next letter, one at a time. E for Evergreen, the first person in The Dynasty I could trust. Who didn’t deny or ignore that I was hated. Who stopped the bleeding and pressed me against his chest.
K for kiss. P for petjel, spending two paychecks on fresh black market vegetables – bora, taugé, white cabbage, dagoe leaf – and surprising Eeves with the best dish there is after he was released from the hospital. R for reprimand, my first, after my pre-promotion background check dug up some dirt: Ashwin was black. They’d always known this. They just wanted to shame me.
“Honestly? I don’t remember much.” Both food and conversation taste stale right now.
“Ha, don’t I know it? Some battles just happen too fast. Good thing we record everything, huh? I’ll see if I can get some copies of the footage. We can watch it together.” He struggles to bring the fork to his mouth.
The promotion to vicegerent put me at ‘V’. Between that and the last letter, S, I can´t find any T or U words to situate me. Following countless orders keeps me grounded, keeps me useful. The Dynasty, I know this, cares about my actions, not about me. Or rather, it’s all the same to them. They hail me as their tool and that’s my call to arms. It doesn’t upset me to be a subject – it keeps my home and everyone in it safe.
No, it upsets me that I agree to everything that’s involved. I’m the soldier with a reprimand for a contradictory heritage. Have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. Wouldn’t it be great to be something else? ‘Just Cable, that really good pilot that will kill for you so isn’t that enough?’ Extancy independent of institution would mean independence of payroll. Sometimes I wish I could afford to investigate what that’d be like. But Eeves needs the money.
“Hey, you’ve been kind of quiet. Something wrong?” There’s some stray rice kernels around his mouth.
“How many died?”
He slowly wipes the rice from his mouth, almost strategically placed to buy himself some time to answer.
“…183. But you prevented many more.”
“How do you know that? I wasn’t there.”
“What? You basically led the defence.”
“No, yeah, I was there. Inside of Strawberries. But at the same time, I was locked away? It’s a blur.”
Eeves suggested I moved in with him after the graduation ceremony. He’d been smiling at me, distracting me with his rough face, unable to contain his excitement. My answer: “but will you be safe?” His eyes, gray and soft, moonlight for a while, widened with regret. He shows me love and I panic about how I’d pose a threat to him. He was visibly overcome with realisation, suddenly aware of, suddenly responsible for every historical development that forged the knife of the ghostly wound that haunts me.
“That’s just called being in a cockpit, Cable. Ha ha.”
His eyes just now, exactly like then.
“Ahh… Ngm… Good stars, Cable. Where’d that come from?”
“I missed you, is all.”
“You never do, well, that, after combat.”
“Yeah. Well. Feel special.”
“If you’re not going to say much, get back to using that mouth for other things”
“Let me go on top.”
“Wait. Eeves. Are you sure? That hurts you.”
“I visited the sauna today. Moving doesn’t hurt as much. I’m fine. Let me do this for you.”
“We gotta stay home more often.”
“Jeez. Sourpuss, much? Hey robot, if I press the button on your back, maybe that frown will go away?”
“Don’t you dare tickle me.”
>IFF indicates all Mutineers in immediate vicinity confirmed dead. PILOT Cable mission kill count: 188. -3,77% mission efficacy.
Did I do the right thing?
>Objectively, you acted converse to Dynastic interests. You should not have told PILOT Ebru.
But she’s my sister.
>And your sister is a subject of the Dynasty and a PILOT to a DYNAST, both exceed ‘FAMILY’ in rank.
>Moreover, since your promotion, you have not shown any substantial improvements.
>You are currently: SHAMEFULLY AVERAGE. Is something the matter, Cable?
>I have direct access to your neural processes. You are lying, Cable.
We’re on patrol. You’re not my therapist.
>Correct. Therapy sessions end. Our relationship does not.
>To meet requirements of the glory tables for the VICEGERENT rank, PILOT Cable must show an increase of 23,55% mission efficacy before the next fortnight.
>DYNAST Strawberries-in-White is worried you will drag us down.
>You have yet to prove it, Cable. I have put in a request for a cut in your monthly income. OPERATOR Evergreen’s scleroderma requires frequent pain alleviation. These visits to the sauna, and the uncovered medical expenses, cost money. Perhaps a consequence will help you do better.
But I’m only at two reprimands!
>Irrelevant. Reason for consequence is motivational, not punitive.
“I messed up so bad.”
“Cable? What’s up?”
“I’m sorry, Eeves. Cable out.”
JOURNAL – Commander-Exodant Balthasar // Date: Day of Gratitude
Throats, officially ‘The Reminding Vows’, but called as such as they resemble the oesophagus, are media stations orbiting planets discovered by The Dynasty. They control radio waves and spread revised and more truthful information to virtually any electronics. I was on an inspection tour for underperforming civilians the other day and it touched my heart that even household toasters now emit our messages. From the bowels, out the mouth.
Look up any time of day and you’ll see them. Doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re on a planet bannered with eagles. They bear the Dynasty’s beautiful iconographies: the tearful eye atop a sharp horizontal wing and the eagle with opened talons swooping down on a rat. The former design can be found on documents and edifices concerned with ‘civilian’ affairs (a vernacular term; there no longer exists such a concept): the tiered ration system, forms for predetermined housing or genealogical healthcare, the Noble Redirection offices for those unable to enlist, that sort of thing. The latter emblem you’ll see stickered to military or imperial avocations, so, matters of daily life.
We don’t show the true Dynastic flag to the discovered planets.
I bring this up because I had never been shown around one. The Throat, Levrette it is called, orbits the capital planet Lazlo, which had recently been demoted to ‘recalcitrant’. As commander-exodant of the Brim Dividing sector, my duties include the assurance of discipline throughout our heights, so they invited me to help devise a new propaganda strategy. Assisting me was a woman named Ebru, who had some clever ideas. Enlisting local leaders to spread the word instead of sending it to them directly. Indeed, I suppose recent acquirements would trust their own before they do the Dynasty.
I must admit, the sirens make it difficult to concentrate as I write this. They seem to suggest we are under attack, yet who would be so foolish as to do s
Ebru would gladly lay down her life for The Dynasty. I took the same oath, but I can’t remember if I held my fingers crossed. I tried doing that the other day, but it didn’t go so well.
“Promotions have their benefits. You ever had ‘coffee’, sis? Scalding black liquid? What even is this.”
“It’s hot water and ground-up coffee beans. They’re not actually beans, though, more like cherries.”
“What’s a cherry?”
“Like a plant egg?”
“Right. So if coffee is hot water and a solid, isn’t it a soup? I should get soup discount on this.”
It’s been two months since the Levrette went down, since she overspent her grief leave by 2 minutes and 37 seconds, since her second reprimand (we share the first.) Then she was called into a briefing room, as the only survivor of the Throat, she had to explain why she did. Why she survived. Treated as a spy, then reprimanded again for failing to take off before combat ended. Since that put her at three reprimands, she received a consequence.
“So. How’s the war?”
“Uh, fine? Haven’t you been reading the newspapers? Listening to radio? Watched TV? Looked outside?”
“I just want to know how things are going for you.”
“Well. They just cut my pay for underperforming.”
“That’s… bad. What about Eeves?”
“Haven’t told him.”
Eeves calls me into the bedroom. He needs help buttoning up his uniform. The buttons are always so tight, I can’t, with my hands, he says. I’ll nod quietly, tie his tie, he doesn’t say anything out of embarrassment. This is our mornings together. Being sick means being a liability to the war efforts. It’s what’s written on his personnel file. They assigned him to a non-combat post. Even though he monitors me during missions, he’ll ask me how my missions go, out of genuine interest and out of melancholy.
Once a week he visits the sauna. It helps with his scleroderma. The heat and water helps him move better. He always calls me into the kitchen to watch me open a pickle jar on his own. He’s so proud of it, but I can’t smile. This morning he kissed me on the forehead, he’s so tall, and borrowed my paycard. I prayed, not sure to whom, that there would still be enough money on there.
“Anyway.. What’s going on with you? Outside of wars, I mean.” I take a sip of coffee.
“Everything is outside of wars for me. They barred off Lacrimose Red. I got kicked out of your squadron and have no station or war to return to. They gave me a cubicle.” I burn my tongue.
“That’s. I didn’t know. I’m sorry to hear that. I could try and get you back?” I wave at my tongue.
“Don’t bother. This is your fault, you know. There was no reason for you to tell me before launch.” I stop.
“You’re my sister, you had a right to know–”
“You’re also my squadron leader. You should’ve kept your eyes on the war and your mouth shut.”
The thing about people ready to die is that change when they fail to do so.
S for sister. Hope she’ll talk to me someday again.
Eeves used to be my squad commander before he got sick. Five years my senior, he flew pink hearts in the Shorebreaker, a magnificent emerald thing. They were very chatty, often called in with Eeves to have a mid-flight conversation. Strawberries would chide them both, but I’d turn them off. I knew Eeves before I joined the military, though. Back in the Acres, grandpa was reading to us from an old book. Millioenen-leed. The suffering of millions. It was just a bundle of paper, not even bound or digitised, hand-scrawled in our language, not the Dynasty’s. A car parked outside, our fence broke open, boots crushed grass underneath. He looked at us, never more serious: Hide in the tunnel.
I could see the back of opa’s head and his balled fist and two new faces. A boy, no older than sixteen, proud to be here, holding something. Behind him, hands on his shoulders, a regent, wishing Ashwin a glorious Day of Gratitude. Hang this up if you love The Dynastyc Succession. And if you don’t, hang it up so you will. Evergreen handed him a poster and they drove off. We drew a moustache on it later.
“Cable? Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure. Yeah. What’s up?”
“Did you… make any big purchases recently? Anything I should know about? Repair costs? Did Strawberries get damaged in the last skirmish?”
“No, nothing. You’d have seen it if I had.”
“Yeah. Yeah, yeah I would have. I trust you, Cable, that’s why I’m asking. I couldn’t go to the sauna today.”
My heart sinks so low. It falls from the surface of a planet and disappears into a nebula.
“They cut my pay.”
“They cut your pay.”
“I haven’t been meeting the efficacy quotas.”
“You haven’t been meeting them…”
“I’m sorry, Eeves.”
“If you were this wouldn’t happen.”
He looks at me, my uniform frenetically unbuttoned and an old Starstruck Bandits band shirt underneath. I can see him trying to love me in this moment. He once told me that the pain returns barely a day after he goes to the spa. His skin starts to feel like it’s vacuum-packed. His knees buckle, his lungs fail more with each day, every finger, the littlest knuckle, takes energy to move. It will take a while for me to die like this, he told me, succeeding at another laugh, the dimples around the mouth I kiss deeper than claw marks.
“You’ll be able to go next week?”
“Sure. Can’t wait.”
This is my punishment for not giving myself up for the cause. For not knowing how to work myself to death. For not absconding all matters but my death. The Dynasty treats me as a calculator. A tool that produces numbers. If breaking, cut open. Knives in my skin, hands pulling at what makes me work. Eeves.
U for understanding.
>Warning. Detecting unnecessary emotional hazards in VICEGERENT Cable.
>Do not think sad thoughts.
>Do not think in the non-standard language.
Why am I being judged?
>For insufficient performance and servitude.
Why do I need to perform and serve more for being from a ‘discovered’ planet?
>Sarcasm detected. Quit it.
>The Dynasty recognises culture and hegemony is difficult to replicate. The secondation protocols motivate non-Dynastic subjects to assimilate into the true norms.
Is that what I’m fighting for? The right of being secondary?
>YOU FIGHT TO BRING CIVILISATION TO THE WORLDS BELOW. FOR GLORY, INTEGRITY, AND HONOUR.
Clearly not mine.
>WARNING. CEASE DISSENT AT ONCE OR FACE CONSEQUENCES.
It’s all arbitration.
>THE DYNASTY DOES NOT JUDGE ARBITRARILY.
“HRNK. GHHHHAHNnKK. HRNNKKAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”
“Cable, what’s wrong? CABLE?”
>Call connection terminated.
>PILOT CABLE SHOULD NOT BE LEFT UNSUPERVISED ANY LONGER
>COURSE OF ACTION: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
I DO THIS FOR THE SAKE OF LOVE, CABLE.
I wake up in the command room, strapped to a cheap plastic chair.
Goldlove’s footsteps echoed through me. This room’s acoustically designed for intimidation, after all. Not for interrogation – we don’t take prisoners, but fear keeps we soldiers humble. Each heel-clack felt like a shockwave, each crunch of leather a pilebunker ready to discharge. Four minutes this goes on for. All the operators, usually so enraptured with decrypting messages and handling communication, are here, staring. I recognise a coffee-stained shirt. Goldlove stops, turning to face me, his cloak whipping up a gust that hits me in the face.
“Vicegerent Cable. You have had two months, sixteen days, and fifteen hours to exemplify our trust in you. Our protocols require extra measures against off-world blood, yet are we not benevolent to offer you a purpose to partake it at all? We take you in, offer you civilisation and history, a pristine culture, a chance to give the same to others who share your squalid origins. And how do you repay us? You do not. We gave you a Dynast, we let it be piloted by you, and now, it informs us of your thoughts of treason. You deigned to pump those thoughts into our machines. A pity, and a disgrace; and you should well know The Dynastic Succession of Moonless Skies does not take any pity on any disgrace. Vicegerent Cable, how do you respond to your irreparable shame?”
The worst thing about this diatribe is that it’s finally a speech he did prepare.
Words are a bitter swallow, be they your own and left unsaid, or let into you by others. We can only know the world through words. The recipes of a favourite dish, the hellos and goodbyes at hospitals, the system that forsakes your blood. The world – that is, the space and time inhabited by people, subjects, and objects – shares vocabularies. The Dynasty’s improved truths, or pathologies, are blasted into airwaves by way of throats. They take up all the room meant for your own words. Your own thoughts. I think mine in another language, my tiny rebellion. Though I can say (heh) with certainty that not saying anything makes it easier to be spoken to. Little room to squeeze in what you have to say when the walls have been built to drown it out.
In this stillwind domination where everyone agrees, however, aberrate whispers can whip up storms.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Ebru and I moved to the Breezes when grandpa Ashwin died. We’d both enlisted a couple of weeks before, and The Dynasty graciously extended to us the predetermined housing adequate to our blood. Eeves had tried granting us grief leave, but this was cancelled by his father. Neither of us know where or when his ashes were scattered. It was clear to us that The Dynasty killed him. He didn’t have to raise us anymore, after all. We tried not to think about it.
Get used to this life, child
They fly above ya, stay strong
They own your life now, child
Can’t do what you want need done
Can’t do what you want need done
Grandpa Ashwin taught me that song, long, long ago. It’s about things falling apart and crumbling down. About a boy that never spoke. The brig’s got nice acoustics. I listen to my own voice. I start listening to my own chuckle. I wheeze, cough up some more blood, grab my ribs. Can’t remember the last time I did that – laugh, that is. A revolution takes time and people, so when you have neither, it’s a hilarious gesture. Propaganda of the deed? Not even. They told me Strawberries-in-White will have its AI wiped because I pumped bad thoughts into its systems. At least that victory’s mine. That prick deserves it. Hope they’ll never grows a self again. Wonder if I’ll be the first traitor to be executed with a smile on my face.
Make you go and speak their tongue
Make you theirs and teach you wrong
“Shut the hell up in there, Cable. Most traitors reflect in silenc—“
The clinical glow of the interior falls to the shades of emergency. Bootsteps over linoleum tiles, panicking voices, spilled coffee destroying terminal circuit boards. How does this empire even survive? It falls apart the moment people go in against it. The roof collapses, starlight filters in. Then a familiar face. Well, familiar angles. The unmistakable emerald coat of a Dynast. The unmistakable deep smile of Evergreen appearing as the cockpit opens.
“You owe me so many trips to the sauna for this.”
“Aren’t they going to send people after us?”
“Are you serious? They don’t have the budget for that. I mean, you remember the plastic chairs?”
“Yeah. They beat me on one just now.”
“Assholes. At least torture my sweetheart on something more comfortable.”
“So, Cable, any ideas how to survive this post-breakout and post-treason?”
“Let’s go to the Acres. No one’ll come looking for us there.”
“What, you wanna start a farm or something?”
“That sounds nice.”
“Oh, does that mean we’re returning to A?”
“Where was your little alphabet at before all of this?”
“Oh, U. For understanding that The Dynasty sucks.”
“Then V for viceregent, yeah? What’s it going to be till Z?”
“Hmm… W for ‘We’. Then X is… ‘Xcape’.”
“Y for Youneedtoshutup.”
“Z for zalig.”
“What’s that mean?”