Linden A. Lewis returns with this next installment of The First Sister Trilogy, perfect for fans of Red Rising, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Expanse. Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Aunts who run the Gean religious institution, but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected. Meanwhile, on an outlaw colony station deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but they are not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics. Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner, Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands. Back on Venus, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Souji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight. This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Gallery Books
Print pages: 352
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Linden A. Lewis
One may look at Val Akira Labs and see only its array of products and services. Another may look and see a legacy of scientific progress dating back to the discovery of hermium. But when I look, I see the cornerstone of mankind’s future, a map through which humanity will achieve true transcendence and the resulting immortality.
Souji val Akira, CEO of Val Akira Labs, End of Venus Rotation Shareholders Report
I can’t move in my coffin. Arms stuck to my sides, legs straight beneath me, toes pointed at ninety degrees. Glass mere centimeters from my nose. Beyond that, black. Trapped, and unable to do a damn thing about it.
Whenever the panic comes like an overwhelming wave, I do as Ofiera taught me: I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly. Of course, then I think of how I have at most fifteen minutes of air inside the cryo chamber and that makes the anxiety, and my breathing, heavier. Now it’s more tempting than ever to rely on my implant to erase my emotions. But for the mission, I need to be able to feel.
If Ofiera can do this, so can I.
Cold burning my lungs, muscles seizing as they reawaken, eyes adjusting from bright white lights to a hard face. A voice calls my name: “Oh-feaaaaaaaaar-uhhhhh.”
No, not me. Ofiera’s memories that I haven’t let go of after we shared thoughts through her faulty neural implant. They’re recalled more easily now than ever. A chamber just like this was her tomb, the ice box they locked her in whenever she finished her assigned missions, only now we’re both being wheeled into Val Akira Labs’ R&D facility in cryo chambers. Though we’re fully awake. That’s different, at least.
We had concerns with Hemlock’s plan, but we realized its brilliance at the same time. We couldn’t disappear without putting Sorrel at risk, and there was no way we could fight our way into the labs, get what we came for, and fight our way out. The odds were too overwhelming. So, during our trip from Ceres to Mercury, we fabricated false reports for Command, tales of Gean patrols that necessitated longer routes. Between the current rotation of planets and the speed of the retrofitted grasshopper, we bought ourselves four weeks.
They expected us to return to Cytherea, but at the end of those four weeks, we landed on Spero, where Hemlock had empty cryo pods and Aster agents at the ready. Each pod had an encrypted ID tag corresponding to the person to be delivered to the lab, only we would be taking their place. As I crawled into the pod, I wondered but couldn’t bring myself to ask what they’d done with the bodies.
The air is thin now, my breathing short. My legs cramp, aching to bend, but I don’t move, even for relief. It’s only been about ten minutes, not long enough for us to reach the inner labs, but there’s no telling our location when I can’t see out of the black canvas bag they have the chambers wrapped in. Instead of the mission, I think of the sea, the rolling of the waves as they wash in and out, brushing against the sand… a comforting thought, and one that settled me when I was a child watching holovids until I fell asleep.
As if I summon the sea itself, the pod around me hisses, spraying a wet mist over me. I suck in a sharp breath at the cold, only to hear it as a wheeze—the air is too thin, I can’t fill my lungs. Something even colder hits me—first on my sides, then pooling at my lower back—and while my muscles stiffen in response, I have nowhere I can move to get away from the liquid.
Shit—the damned cryo chamber has turned on. More frigid fluid pours into my pod, and I can’t get away from it—there’s nowhere for me to go—
I suck in my last breath, knowing I may never wake again. I sink into the liquid, letting it arrest the blood in my veins, my heart—
No, I’m not calm—I’m not Ofiera, and these are not my memories.
The sludge quickly fills the small space as I gasp for air and find none—it’s being pumped out as the liquid comes in. Instinct kicks in and I try to take one last breath before I’m submerged, but there’s no air—no air at all—and the icy solution, thick and stinging, rushes up over my head—I fight not to breathe it in—not to suck it into my lungs—I can’t hold on—I can’t—
I breathe in the liquid, freezing me from the inside out. My thoughts turn sluggish, ice crawling across my skin, stilling motor functions.
This feels like death.
Am I dying?
Then even that thought is lost.
WHEN I COME to, my last thought is my first.
Am I dying?
Then I correct myself: Am I dead?
The world around me is a bright light. Slowly other things filter into focus as my consciousness expands—my body, shivering. Voices, echoing as if underwater. Movement, zipping past the corner of my eye.
Not dead. No matter which stories you listened to, the Thousand Gods Below the Sun never described an afterlife like this.
I cough, and that vile, thick liquid stings coming up my throat, just as cold going out as it was coming in. I turn my head to spit, and my eyes slowly adjust to the figures—two Asters in charcoal-gray maintenance uniforms and one blessedly familiar face.
“O-O-Of-Offf—” I can’t manage her name.
Oh-feaaaaaaaaar-uhhhhh. I struggle against her memories.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s okay, Lito.”
She’s just as naked and sticky as I am, but she ignores her own state as the Asters—Peony and Elm, two of Hemlock’s agents on Spero—bring me a silver shock blanket. They wrap it around me, but it does little to help.
The smell of my sister’s coconut shampoo hits me. “Luce?” I manage through my raw throat.
“It’s okay,” Ofiera says again, and this time I believe her. At least, I can hear her better. “It’s hard coming out of cryo the first few times.”
Gods, the thought of experiencing this a few times…
“Your neurons fire strangely, make your memory play tricks on you.”
The scent of Luce still dances on the air. I close my eyes and try to focus on the warmth of the blanket instead.
“You’ll continue to improve over the next hour.”
Do we have an hour to spare? I don’t know. I don’t even know how long we’ve been under. Hours? Days?
As I suck in lungfuls of air and the control of my body and mind returns to me piece by piece, I run through what I know: Ofiera fon Bain is my Dagger. I was tasked with killing my former partner, Hiro val Akira. I followed Hiro to Ceres, where they were supposed to kill the Mother, the leader of the Sisterhood. When I found them, I discovered Hiro had been geneassisted into Saito Ren, a Gean captain. Together we killed the Mother and escaped to the Under with Hemlock’s help.
And that bastard Hemlock is the reason I’m here in Val Akira Labs, coming out of a frozen coma…
I sit up once I feel able to. By now, Ofiera has dressed in the same charcoal maintenance uniform that the Asters wear and is pulling her shoulder-length brown hair into its usual messy bun. “There’s a towel and some clothes beside you.”
“You’re way better at this than I am…” I slip off the table and force myself to drop the blanket. I shiver as soon as it’s gone.
“Practice makes perfect, as the old phrase goes,” Ofiera says wryly.
“Look at you, making a joke.” I towel the remaining cold slime off of me, and as my muscles work, I feel more in control of them. “Why did the cryo chambers turn on? That was only supposed to happen in cases of—”
“Emergency,” Elm confirms. He’s stocky and thick-shouldered for an Aster, making him appear more intimidating than he is. His voice is the exact opposite: soft and sibilant. “We ran into trouble. Had to store you until we could come back for you.”
“ ‘Trouble’?” I repeat. It could be anything from nosy guards to Souji val Akira himself.
“It would be easier to show you… Just a second while I connect. Can’t be too forceful or they’ll notice we’ve tapped the cameras.” Elm’s fingers drum on a compad, its screen reflected in the lenses of his goggles.
As he works, I pull on the waiting clothes, loving every stitch of them despite the Val Akira Labs logo embroidered on the chest. After the cryo chamber, I’d be happy to wear rags. At least they’re warm.
“Are we in the inner labs?” Ofiera asks.
Peony, who keeps her Aster-plaited white hair wrapped about her neck like a scarf, nods. “Main lab is just down the hall.”
“Good,” Ofiera replies. “That’s where military assets are kept.” Assets like Sorrel.
“And that’s where we’ll be able to plant the relay.” If the trouble Elm mentioned isn’t too bad… My brain may be sluggish, but I still remember that our mission here is twofold. If we can successfully install a relay for Hemlock, he’ll be able to snatch precious data right out from under Souji val Akira’s nose.
“That’s the problem,” Elm says.
I can feel Ofiera’s emotions spike through the implant. “What?” she asks in a low voice, doing her best to keep calm.
Elm hands his compad over to Ofiera, and I huddle close to watch over her shoulder. The video starts with a wide shot of a laboratory. In one room, a group of scientists in lab coats monitor screens; in the other, through a wall of glass, a figure sits in a cruel-looking metal chair.
“Is this live?” I ask.
Elm shifts from foot to foot. “Yeah, a live view of the main lab.”
Shit. Packed room like this means we aren’t getting in to plant the relay unless we can somehow get the scientists out. We were brought in during late evening. According to the clock, it’s just past midnight. We were supposed to be able to sneak through the lab without running into employees. “What the hell are they doing?”
No one answers me, and as I watch, my throat tightens. The footage zooms in to focus on the lab’s glass wall. As the lighting adjusts, I make out an Aster in the chair, the top of their skull removed, their brain exposed. At intervals, their eyes shoot wide before falling sleepily, back and forth, switching between exhausted and terrified. Strangely, it’s the Aster’s silence that sends a shiver down my spine. From the trembling that shoots through their body, arms straining against the straps that tie them down, open mouth gasping, they look like they want to scream but… can’t.
This has to be one of the off-the-books experiments; Hemlock will want us to gather proof for later. If we could just get the relay in place…
“We have to cancel the op,” Elm says, halting my thoughts. “There are too many people here. There’s no way someone won’t spot us if we try to pull Sorrel or plant the relay.”
“There has to be another lab where we can pull military assets,” Ofiera says, and the heat in her tone says she’s not giving up.
Elm looks to Peony. “There is,” she says, slender fingers picking at the fabric of her uniform. “But with the test happening, lab security is heavier than expected.”
We should call the op off. It would be the safest thing to do. But we can’t reenter cryo sleep and wait until a better time. The longer we’re here, the higher a chance that someone discovers we’re not the people who’re supposed to be in the pods. We can’t plant the relay with the main lab occupied. We can get Sorrel out, but only if we’re willing to deal with security while we have no weapons and our clothes aren’t shielded. One shot, and we’re dead. The best option is to leave empty-handed and try again at another time.
I turn to Ofiera, and her yearning reaches me through the implant, impatience to be reunited with Sorrel warring with the need to keep him safe—so close, we’re so close. Leaving has its drawbacks too. If we don’t show up in Cytherea within the next couple of days, High Commander Beron val Bellator’s going to know we’ve gone rogue, and the punishment for Ofiera failing her mission has always been Sorrel’s demise. That’s not a factor either of us wants to play with.
“Up for risking your life?” I ask Ofiera.
Her eyes narrow as she senses my determination through the implant. “Always.”
WE MOVE THROUGH the white hallways on light feet. The recessed lighting is turned low, a golden glow the only thing fighting back the overwhelming shadows. The corridors are nearly identical and the doors are labeled with both numbers and symbols, making the building look more like a maze than a sprawling laboratory. If not for Elm and Peony’s instructions, we would no doubt be lost in minutes.
We come to a T junction, but as I start to turn the last corner before we reach the secondary cryo lab, Ofiera reaches out through the implant and screams a warning. I hear the noise that alerted her a second too late, two sets of shoes clipping against the polished floor toward us. I press myself against the wall and freeze; the human eye has always been drawn to movement, easily missing people who hold perfectly still. I hope with all my might that they don’t turn down our hallway, that security doesn’t have heat scanners, as if I could impress my will on the universe through desperation alone. Though we’re wearing the maintenance uniforms, our faces aren’t in the system, so all it’d take to screw our entire plan is someone with com-lenses identifying us as outsiders.
The two people come to the T junction, walking slowly. They’re in lab coats—scientists. I hold my breath as one looks down the hallway, and my heart speeds as I feel his eyes land directly on me—but he doesn’t stop. Doesn’t really see me. In the dark uniform, completely still, I blend into the shadows.
They continue on and, within seconds, are gone.
Still, if security has noticed us skulking about in the dark, it’s only a matter of time before we’re hunted down… Tempted to erase my anxiety with the implant, I instead release a long, shuddering breath and steel myself. Ofiera nudges me forward.
We turn left, the direction the passing scientists came from. We don’t have to go far before we reach a door labeled 18C. My throat tightens as I press the compad Elm left with me before he and Peony returned to work, unable to risk themselves further, to the bioscanner. I wait for either the click of an unlocking door or the blare of alarms.
The door clicks. Ofiera enters, and I follow after.
Inside is a room similar to the main lab but far smaller. Rows of monitors wait in the dark like sleeping sentinels. The glass between the observation area and the temperature-controlled chamber is fogged from the cold. On the other side are rows and rows of cryo chambers hanging from hooks on the ceiling. From just a quick glance, I calculate that there are hundreds of them in this lab alone.
“Thousand gods,” I murmur.
Ofiera is silent as she crosses the room and approaches the glass. Set before it is a hulking control panel with a screen that wakes at her touch. As if she knows what she’s doing—she’s probably seen scientists do this before—she types a string of numbers, 4757828, into the field labeled ASSET.
The pods swing into motion, the belt on the ceiling shuffling the frozen occupants like they’re no more than clothes in a closet. I stiffen at the unholy amount of noise in the otherwise silent lab, expecting any second to be the one security comes to check out our unscheduled work. Finally the machine halts on one pod in particular, and the hook brings it forward, close to the glass, so that we can see who rests inside.
Ofiera’s emotions are like an electric shock through the implant. A pain in my chest grows at the sight before me. And though he looks different than in Ofiera’s memories—older, wearier, his white hair shaved close to his scalp—I’d know him all the same from her response: Sorrel.
My feelings rise to take the place of Ofiera’s. Outrage battles with guilt. Cryo ads always promise a peaceful slumber, but Sorrel’s face is contorted in a rictus of pain. I doubt he’s known peace for many years.
Ofiera jerks into motion, fingers on the screen again. Sorrel sways away from the glass and disappears in the shuffle of pods.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“We can’t wake him here. Security is too thick. But we came in on a ship marked for loading and unloading, so from here, we can send his cryo pod into our ship’s hold. We’ll wake him once we’re in orbit.” Over her shoulder I see her selecting a delivery route for Sorrel’s pod to dock three, the place our ship is parked. At the same time, a vibration in my pocket grabs my attention.
I pull out Elm’s hacked compad, slaved to the Val Akira Labs security system. There are no alarms blaring, no flashing lights—but there don’t need to be.
I swallow her name, tilting the compad toward her so she can see.
Moving Sorrel, an important military asset, has alerted lab security. The cameras capture the flurry of the guards’ movements.
They hunt through the hallways. They have guns at the ready. They’re moving in for the kill. And we have nothing but a hacked compad and our lives to lose.
It is with my abundant thanks that I receive your offer, Aunt Margaret. My affirmation on Olympus Mons cannot be postponed. However, if you are to oversee the Temple of Ceres and its Sisters, let me be clear: Because of the tragic passing of Mother Isabel III, may the Goddess welcome her into the Eternal Garden, no one has imparted the proper conduct to our dear First Sister of Ceres. She needs your guidance—your sternguidance, and a watchful eye.
Message excerpt from Aunt Marshae, head of the Order of Cassiopeia
Golden light falls through the greenhouse windows, tumbling through the leaves of tall trees and climbing ivy. Below, kneeling amidst the roots and stems, I am bathed in a calming green glow and wrapped in the loamy scent of wet earth. The morning broadcast, coming from a compad I left near the entrance, softly filters through the foliage and fills the air with swaying orchestral music. I am, in this place, in this moment, perfectly happy.
Of course, all things must end, and as the melody comes to a close, it is replaced by the dulcet tones of an Aunt. “Today, let us consider the Meditations,” a woman I instantly recognize as Aunt Margaret says. The broadcast must be an old recording, since Aunt Margaret is here on Ceres and not on Mars. “Specifically, chapter one, verse twelve.” She speaks clearly and forcefully for the recording; in person, she talks with a Gean clip, putting the onus of understanding squarely on the listener’s shoulders. Still, she is a welcome change from Aunt Marshae. By comparison to the Auntie in charge of me on the Juno, Aunt Margaret is as gentle as the Marian’s Fire roses I tend with their gentle yellow centers and orangey-red exteriors.
The recording catches the sound of turning pages. Aunt Margaret must be preparing to read from the Canon, as opposed to quoting from memory. But I know Meditations 1:12 by heart, and while I used to solely consider the scriptures in my head, now, with my voice, I join in as she reads. “ ‘Nature may be bent by mankind,’ ” I quote alongside Aunt Margaret, “ ‘but never broken.’ ”
While Aunt Margaret closes the Canon with a thump and goes on to speak of tenacity and faith, all the usual things associated with the verse, I continue to Meditations 1:13. “ ‘What is plucked may yet bloom. What is burned may yet nourish. What lies fallow may yet grow.’ ” They are words that have come to mean much and more to me on Ceres as the months have passed. As trials, one after the other, have set themselves before me.
This is what the people know: Four months ago, Mother Isabel III was slain by Saito Ren, the captain of the Juno gone rogue, in a protest against the Annexation of Ceres. This was a shock to everyone, but particularly the Sisterhood. Before her death, the Mother named me the First Sister of Ceres because of my valiant attempt to unmask the traitor Ren, with help from Aunt Marshae.
Those are all lies from the Agora, the seven Aunts who lead the Sisterhood. This is the truth: The Sisterhood suspected something traitorous about Saito Ren from the beginning and hoped to embarrass Warlord Vaughn, who had traded highly valuable political prisoners to the Icarii for her release, by proving it. Aunt Marshae and the Mother assigned me to spy on Saito Ren, but I never gave them the information they wanted. Undeterred, Aunt Marshae lied to her superiors to make herself look good and made me desirable as a side effect. She was named Aunt Edith’s replacement as the head of the Order of Cassiopeia, and I became the First Sister of Ceres. She is even now, I’m sure, working to undo my appointment as part of the Agora on Mars.
Perhaps the most startling facts are the ones that only I know. The person called Saito Ren was actually Hiro val Akira, an Icarii geneassisted into Ren. They had come not only to assassinate Mother Isabel III, but to influence someone who might rise to the status of Mother who aimed for peace between the Icarii and Geans. Someone like me.
Only Hiro did not kill the Mother. They failed in that task. The Mother was murdered by my hand.
After she revealed the illegal usage of Icarii neural implants within the Sisterhood to take away our voices—well. To say I reacted poorly would be an understatement.
My hands slip from the soil to the pocket of my dress. I feel the outline of the ring box there, a shape and weight that brings instant relief. After the Mother’s implant was turned over to me as First Sister of Ceres, I feared losing it, as small as it is, so I decided to keep it in something larger. But I fear to leave the box anywhere, knowing that, even now, secrets are hard to keep.
The door to the greenhouse opens with a whoosh, releasing both pressure and heat. Whoever has come, she—as only Sisters are allowed here—lets the stresses of the world in as well, and I am reminded of everything I must do. Everything I must be. She turns the compad’s volume down until I can no longer hear the morning broadcast, but it is not until the visitor says my name that the tension releases from my shoulders.
“Astrid.” My secret name. The name I have chosen, since I cannot remember the one I was born with.
“Good morning, Eden.” The Second Sister of Ceres, who was also my Second on the Juno, moves until her shadow falls over me. At one time we were enemies, but fate—disguised in the actions of Hiro val Akira—brought us together. Then we realized who our real enemies were.
“It’s after noon, Astrid, not morning.” When I look up at her, I see she is diplomatically keeping her face pleasantly blank. She is beautiful, my Second, as most who advance in the Sisterhood are, but her fiery-red hair and emerald-green eyes are particularly noteworthy on Ceres, where few look like her. “You’re due at the dedication ceremony in less than an hour… and you’re wrist-deep in dirt.” Ah, there’s the judgment in her tone I know so well.
I gently pat the earth over the newly planted rose seeds and clap my hands to rid them of excess soil. My fingernails are ragged, though; there’s no hiding that. “I can wear gloves,” I say with a shrug. Eden sighs, so I add, “Tending a garden is an important part of my worship.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” Eden begins, playing with a pair of gardening gloves I abandoned, “but it’s hard to get you alone lately.”
She has no idea. “About what? Caring for my hands?”
“No, no.” Eden tosses the gloves aside. “About the communications tower. I want to earmark some funding for it so we can improve the transmission speed between Mars and Ceres.” I keep quiet while I pretend to think about it. “Then perhaps you’d get your morning broadcasts in the morning instead of the afternoon.”
I cannot help but laugh at that. I have lost track of time in the greenhouse, and the broadcast didn’t help. “I’m sorry, Eden, but the next month’s budget has already been approved.”
Eden jerks upright. “What’re you spending it on?”
I take in a deep breath before I speak again. “I promised Lily she could build the shelter for Asters displaced during the Annexation of Ceres.”
I expect Eden’s scoff, so I’m not hurt by it. “It’s always her.”
I level a hard look at Eden. We have had this conversation many times, and I refuse to have it again. Aunt Marshae may have left for Mars to be trained and confirmed as Aunt Edith’s replacement, but that does not mean she didn’t leave eyes on Ceres. Keeping Lily happy with her pet projects ensures that, if she is reporting to Aunt Marshae, she will be more favorable toward me. Placating an asset is the first way of turning them. I learned that directly from Hiro.
“I should get ready,” I tell Eden as I stand up and brush by her, not inviting her to follow but not barring her either. After a moment, she falls in step beside me, and we walk companionably out of the greenhouse situated in the inner courtyard and across what we have renamed the Cloisters, filled with tilled rows of vegetables and skinny-trunked fruit trees. Eden plucks an apple, pink as her lips, as we pass through the miniature orchard and into the high-ceilinged stone hallways of the Temple of Ceres.
The Temple, once a building that housed the Icarii Senate, is the center of Gean worship on Ceres and the seat of my power. Perhaps that is why I feel kinship with it. Or perhaps it is that I aim to build myself in its image: to appear as one thing, but be another.
Eden takes a bite out of her apple, juice dripping down her chin, and tosses the rest to me with a playful smile.
THE PILOT WHO navigates our podcar through the streets of Ceres is unnecessary when the programming of the vehicle does all of the work, requiring him to simply watch the screens in silence, but we Geans adhere to one of the oldest Sisterhood laws: May no machine be set above a human. At least, openly we do. My right hand finds the square shape in my pocket, and even through my gloves, the feeling of the box is pleasing.
Step by step, I work toward becoming the next Mother. Step by step, I will make these neural implants illegal. I will change the Sisterhood, and the Geans, for the better.
Already I have left my mark. Ceres is much improved from when I took power four months ago. The streets are no longer rubble-strewn, the buildings no longer pockmarked from Gean bombs. Shelters have been opened for those displaced in the Annexation. Unemployment is lower than on both Earth and Mars; I wasted no time getting the people to work on rebuilding their communities. And Aunt Margaret brought Sisters to the city and helped me start the Green Garden Initiative. Even now, passing through rows of commercial buildings, I see the fruits of our labors: metal trellises amidst strips of green, covered in reaching tomato and cucumber plants. The GGI works on multiple levels but, at its most basic, ensures that Ceres produces its own food and no one goes hungry.
The months have not been without troubles, of course. The destruction of the Icarii warship Leander had many on Ceres fearing life in the asteroid belt. But if the Gean military knows what happened to the Leander, they have not felt the need to share it with the Sisterhood, and so I focused on increasing patrols around Ceres as opposed to panicking about the unknown something out there that destroyed the Leander. For all we know, it was an accident. Now the Leander Incident is but a memory.
Still, I believe my greatest achievement was my first. When I was the First Sister of the Juno, six Icarii quicksilver warriors boarded the ship looking for Saito Ren. After the battle was over and the Geans stood victorious, Ren decided to cage the warriors as opposed to killing them—the Warlord’s preferred method for dealing with prisoners. But then the Mother was assassinated, and the six Icarii were forgotten.
Except I didn’t forget. As soon as I had the power to do so, I released them with an unallied ship and sent them back to the Icarii bearing a message of peace. With one gesture, I opened a dialogue of friendship between us, resulting in the current cease-fire as our heads of state debate terms for a peace treaty.
Perhaps their release is the reason broken manacles have become the symbol of my rule of Ceres. As our podcar slows to a halt at our destination, I spot the sigil on flags and handmade posters throughout the gathered crowd: two manacles connected by a circle of chains, broken. Snapped in two. Fragmented, and thus useless. A symbol of freedom.
The pilot gets out to open the door for us. In our brief moment alone, Eden nudges me and gestures to the banner hanging from a lamppost, the chains a dark gray against the white background. “I’m sure that’ll thrill Aunt Margaret,” she says wryly.
I have no chance to respond—that it is not Aunt Margaret I am worried about—before the pilot opens the door and the noise of the crowd assaults us. As I step out, the cheers turn wild. Packed shoulder to shoulder, the people are barely restrained behind stanchions and thick velvet ropes. It is only the presence of soldiers that keeps them in their place, though a few residents reach across the line, hands desperately grasping for me as if power flows from a mere touch. I gesture at my bristling soldiers to leave them be.
Eden and I walk single-file on the packed-earth path beneath a wrought iron gate, away from the chaos of the crowd. Around us, the stretches of green hills are dotted with leafy chestnut and almond trees, while the trail is lined with cypresses, offering both shade and shelter. Above, the projected sky is bright blue and calm, a perfect day to dedicate a new park.
Before I’ve even found peace in the nature surrounding us, we break from the tree line into a stretch of field where a wide stage has been set. More stanchions guarded by soldiers keep the attendees on one side, while Eden and I approach from the other. I can hear a ripple pass through the crowd as a few spot us, but it is little more than low chatter from this distance. They are excited, and that is a good thing; it won’t be hard to whip them into a frenzy.
At the back of the stage, Aunt Margaret waits for us. Now that Aunt Edith has retired, Aunt Margaret is the eldest member of the Agora. With her short gray hair like the coat of a sheep and wrinkled, rosy cheeks, it would be easy to think of her as a grandmother figure and nothing more, but I know firsthand it would be foolishness to mistake her old age for softness. She has ruled the Order of Pyxis for the past twenty years, like steel thorns beneath silken petals. The golden medallion she wears around her neck, one of only seven, is evidence of her membership in the Agora.
Aunt Margaret gestures for the soldiers to leave us alone. They back away, but not far enough for me to speak openly; while Aunt Margaret knows I have been released from the oppression of my neural implant, its very use in the Sisterhood is still a secret to most. “Did you see them waving that symbol of yours, shouting, ‘Unchained! Unchained!’ like a bunch of idiots?” she asks.
Eden’s elbow digs into my side as if to say I told you so.
I lift my hands and flex my fingers. I had nothing to do with that, I sign. It feels strange using the hand language of the Sisterhood now that I am free, but sometimes I must.
“Well, letting them get away with it isn’t doing you any favors on Mars,” she says.
I’ve heard what they whisper on Mars, that the symbol of the broken manacles is meant as a reprisal against the Order of Andromeda’s chain-wrapped stone. Being that I am from that Order, it is almost as likely as the story that freeing the quicksilver warriors gave me the symbol. But truthfully, though I do not know where it came from, I like it, and so I cannot bring myself to do away with it.
What would you advise me to do? I ask instead.
“Bah,” Aunt Margaret spits. “It doesn’t matter now. After all this is over, we have more important things to focus on.” She pats my arm with a soft smile, once more calling forth the image of a doting grandmother—or what I would imagine one would be like; being an orphan, I wouldn’t know. “Afterward, we’ll talk. All of us.”
All of us, as in her, Eden, and me? But no, as she steps toward the stairs leading onto the stage, I spot the small Sister lingering in her shadow.
I shoot a look at Lily—short, plain Lily with her brown hair cut in a childish bob at her chin. Of all the people here, Lily is the only one who looks unhappy. Because Aunt Marshae is displeased, or because of the news Aunt Margaret wishes to share?
I do not have time to think about it. Aunt Margaret gestures for me to follow her up onto the stage. “Pull your head out of your ass, girl,” she says before offering me her arm. Onstage, she’ll affect an elderly shuffle, allowing me to brace her, to really pull at the crowd’s hearts. It is a song and dance we have done before, and one I am sure we will do again.
We have been planning this dedication ceremony for the past month, and today it comes to fruition. Everything goes smoothly, for once.
After Aunt Margaret says a few words and leads the crowd in prayer, we each take our place on either side of a silk-covered figure and grab hold of the golden ropes that hang beside the statue. Aunt Margaret nods at me, and we pull together without a word.
The sheet falls, revealing a statue with the likeness of our late Mother Isabel III. The crowd applauds politely, a few cheering in fervor for the Sisterhood.
And, with a beautiful smile on my face, I stare into the stone eyes of the woman I killed, knowing I would do it again if given half the chance.
BACK IN MY chambers at the Temple of Ceres, my ears ring with the thrum of the crowd, but better that than the overwhelming memories of the past. Though I have done my utmost to make the space mine, pulling down priceless icons and paintings and hanging plants in their place, this is the very room where the Mother greeted me four months ago and taught me that I could speak. The stark, hard leather chairs have been exchanged for comfortable divans and sprawling couches, but this was the sitting room where she forced her will upon mine and controlled my body.
The space does bring comfort at times, with its shelves of books in a variety of languages, its private bedroom with a spacious bed and bathroom with a deep tub, its office with its real wooden desk and glass doors that open onto the courtyard. But while the blood has been washed away, the memories remain.
Just there, I shot the Mother. Over there, Eden and I wrapped the rope around her neck to hang her body from the balcony. And there…
That is the place I stood as I discovered Ringer was not real.
There is no point in thinking about him, I chide myself. Hringar Grimson, the specter soldier, was created thanks to the neural damage from the Icarii implant the Sisterhood put inside my brain. But there is no need to consider his ghost, no need to ruin a good day such as this with thoughts of the harm done to me by the Agora.
I close my eyes and try to recall the overwhelming peace and happiness from the greenhouse this morning, but there is no chance of finding it when the day is far from over. Now that the dedication ceremony is behind us, we still have to meet with Aunt Margaret to hear the news. My head begins to spin when Eden sits at my side and tosses something into my lap. When I look down, I see her bare feet on my skirt. She wiggles her toes. “Rub them,” she says.
I snort a laugh. “Eden!”
Still, she has coaxed a smile from me. “Only if you rub mine.”
“Deal,” she says, patting her lap, “but I want you to rub my feet like you hate them.”
The two of us are giggling when the knock on the door comes. We sober at once, and Eden jerks upright as Aunt Margaret enters, escorted by Lily. Guards are stationed farther down the hallway, but none of them would dare stop an Auntie from going where she pleases. “Oh, stuff your formality,” Aunt Margaret says. “Sit down and relax.”
Still, when Eden settles at my side, she’s much stiffer than before. I fight the urge to reach for the little box in my pocket, to rub it in my anxiousness. “Can I offer you something to drink?” I ask. “I can call for some tea or lemon water.”
“Bah, at my age, if I drink anything, I’ll have to piss two minutes later.” Aunt Margaret sits on the sofa facing mine and Eden’s, Lily beside her.
The shorter girl straightens her skirt over her legs with fingers covered in itchy-looking pale patches. When she sees me noticing the scaly clusters, she shoves her hands beneath her thighs.
“Let’s get to business,” Aunt Margaret says, pulling my attention from Lily. “I’ve called you all together—First Sister, Second, and Third—because I have news about the future of Ceres.”
I rarely think of Lily as the Third Sister of Ceres, though she is. “Go on, Aunt Margaret,” I coax, as Lily turns her big doe eyes to me.
“The Agora has sent word that it will convene to consider the matter of choosing the next Mother.” I lean forward, unable to help myself. “Which means, as one of the sitting members of the Agora and head of the Order of Pyxis, I must go to Olympus Mons.”
Aunt Margaret’s green eyes sparkle with a mischief that belongs to a woman half her age, and I know she is not here merely to inform us that she is leaving Ceres. Anyone with sense can see that I aim to become the next Mother, and Aunt Margaret is a clever woman who has worked alongside me for the past four months.
“What advice would you give those who wish to put forward their name before the Agora for consideration?” I ask, keeping my tone light.
“Usually succession is a straightforward matter.” Aunt Margaret adopts the same inflection, a teacher explaining to her students. “The Mother chooses her successor and trains her for a period of years. Her second shadows her, gets to know the Agora, and learns how to rule. Of course, this time, with the tragic way Mother Isabel III passed, we have no successor.”
“Things,” Lily chimes in, her voice airy, “will not be straightforward this time.”
Aunt Margaret continues as if Lily did not speak. “Now, for the Agora to consider someone, their name will need to be brought forward by an Aunt.”
Eden leans forward as well until we sit shoulder to shoulder. Her warmth is a comfort to me. “Any Aunt, or an Aunt of the Agora?”
Aunt Margaret smiles as if pleased by the question. “Any Aunt may make a suggestion, but recommendation from an Aunt of the Agora will carry a certain weight.”
“It makes one a stronger candidate,” Lily says.
“Or a target,” Eden whispers.
Lily turns her swallowing gaze to Eden. “Yes, there are rivalries among Aunts of the Agora. One Aunt’s choice may automatically be dismissed by another, simply because of bad blood between them—”
“Politics,” Eden scoffs, cutting her off.
“However,” Lily continues, louder than before, “it still stands that a recommendation from an Aunt of the Agora draws attention, and one needs that to make a good impression. It requires at least four votes of yes for a Sister to become the next Mother.”
There is no chance that Aunt Marshae would ever recommend me for the position of Mother. Perhaps Aunt Delilah, my Auntie from when I was a Little Sister, would, but it has been years since we worked together. But if Aunt Margaret is taking the time to explain this to me, it must be for a reason.
I sit up straight, tilting my head to feign curiosity and smiling to encourage her to speak the truth. “Whom do you favor for the position, Aunt Margaret?”
“That depends,” Aunt Margaret says, “on what the candidate could offer me.”
Ah, yes. Politics. I look between Aunt Margaret and Lily. Surely Aunt Margaret would not back her over someone like me when I both outrank her and have successes to my name. No, this is just a negotiation dressed up as a discussion.
“What is it that you want, Aunt Margaret?” My curiosity is gone; now there is only the shrewdness that she has perhaps come to associate with me.
Aunt Margaret chuckles. “I admire your tact even when there’s no need for it. We stand at a river’s edge, and the only way to cross is together. So let’s be blunt.” She points a withered finger at me. “You want to be the next Mother?”
I do not hesitate in my answer. “Yes.”
She points at Eden. “And you?”
Eden looks between me and Aunt Margaret. There are things she could never tell—that she wishes to avenge Paola, the girl she loved on the Juno, and that she wants to make the neural implants illegal like I do—so instead, she focuses on what an Aunt would understand: power. “I want to be her second.” After a moment, she rephrases. “The Mother’s second.”
“And Lily wants to be the First Sister of Ceres,” Aunt Margaret says as she leans back into the sofa.
That is news to me. I do my best to keep the surprise from my face.
As if Lily is not sitting right beside her, Aunt Margaret goes on. “Lily was, at one time, Mother Isabel III’s second. It was Lily, through her outreach missions, who put the Mother into contact with the Asters of Ceres, and it was Lily who oversaw the negotiations that led to the Annexation.”
Now I know my face betrays my surprise. I had heard rumors, but had never given any heed to them. Lily is awkward at best, no grace to her at all; I could not imagine what the Mother saw in her. Knowing that it was not her but what she offered helps me to understand. “But she was not the Mother’s second when Isabel passed,” I say.
“Suffice it to say they no longer saw eye to eye after Ceres was annexed,” Aunt Margaret summarizes, but Lily clears her throat to get our collective attention.
“The Mother went back on her promises to the Asters,” Lily explains. “It was a point of contention. And I was assigned to… other duties.”
So goes absolute authority. Still, she could have supporters in the Agora who know of her and would make her the Mother now. But no… Aunt Margaret specifically said that Lily wants to be the First Sister of Ceres. Well, whatever her reason, I am fine with that.
“If I were the Mother, naming Lily the First Sister of Ceres would be easy to arrange.” I let my gaze flow from Lily to Aunt Margaret. “But I have yet to hear what you want, Auntie.”
Again Aunt Margaret chuckles. “I’ve seen your work these past four months. The Green Garden Initiative. The Mother Isabel III Memorial Park. You think like one of the Order of Pyxis.” I hold my tongue, knowing that she will go on if only I am patient. “I want a guarantee that you will increase our budget. I want to bring the same hope to Mars that you have given to Ceres.”
Eden stiffens at my side, but the request is a simple one for me. The Order of Pyxis, in charge of establishing gardens, farms, and parks, is one that I favor regardless of Aunt Margaret’s influence. I know I cannot guarantee what Aunt Margaret will do with the budget increase right now, but with careful wording in the future as the Mother, I might.
“It will be done, Auntie,” I say with a smile.
Like a businesswoman of old, Aunt Margaret holds out a hand. I take it, and, palm to palm like equals, we shake. “Pack your bags then, First Sister of Ceres. We’re going to Mars.”
We are not ruled by archaic laws, set in place by those who consider their words more important than an individual life. We give credence to common sense and the belief that every person, whether from a planet or the asteroid belt, has a right to govern themselves in a way they so choose.
From The Declaration of Autarkeia by Dire of the Belt
The target takes his sweet fucking time getting home, leaving me to stew in a closet filled with his stiff shirts that reek of smoke and sweat. Dire gave me a file with basic information on him—Alessandro Rossi, age sixty-three, former Gean military, now a weapons dealer—and I’ve filled in the gaps after a week of tailing the guy. He leaves his house at a quarter to eight, stops for a coffee, and walks to his warehouse rental while smoking. He has a dozen or so people working for him, and since this isn’t Cytherea, where I can tap the feed for their names, genders, or occupations, I have zero clue who they are, but they all clear out around six. After Rossi locks up, he heads to a bar for exactly two Martian whiskies before returning home around ten. He never drinks alone, always surrounded by friends his own age—playing cards and gossiping about so-and-so’s niece—and he never answers his compad when he’s off work.
For a guy doing illegal shit, he’s pretty chill.
Only now it’s half past ten, and I’m still waiting for him to get home. Of all the days for him to drink late, it had to be the one when I’d broken into his apartment and crammed myself somewhere small and stinky.
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