I woke up sweating, despite the cold. My soggy underarm itched. My throat ached, and I swallowed painfully. I pulled my blanket over me, but it wasn’t much more than a papery sheet, so I shivered from the chill gusts whispering through the wall cracks.
My room — if you could call it that — was barely bigger than me. A stiff mattress, a wooden chest for clothes, and a flaky cardboard box with knick-knacks: the sum of my existence.
Before I awoke, something had bothered me: a thought. I tapped my forehead as if that would reveal it.
Why do you want to kill the Emperor?
That was it. Why did I want to kill Raja Sanga? I hated him like everyone else, but a gulf existed between hate and murder. Whether that gulf was narrow or wide, I wasn’t quite sure.
I had my dream stone modified from a companionship program to a lightblade training program. I couldn’t quite finger the memory that pushed me over the edge and made me take such a crazy, and probably irreversible step. Haze suffocated my recollection of the past few weeks.
Could the bootleg modification have scrambled my memories? Damaged dream stones could cause memory loss, but if so, what other memories was I missing?
I pondered it as I shivered. The light of ever-dusk peeking through my window painted spindly shadows on the walls. So long as I lived here, I was better off dead. I was a slave building weapons for the cruelest man alive, a cog in an evil machine. As I’d lived doing evil, why not die doing good?
I felt so certain about it. But why all of a sudden? What had changed? Why couldn’t I remember?
It was almost time for work, so I pulled out the dream stone from my chest slot. Its weak light throbbed in my palm, dissipating as the crystal went from a somber orange to clear. Being stoneless, even for a moment, disconnected me from the sun’s spectrum. The world turned gray. The air itself lost its shimmer.
I reached into the cardboard box for my machinist stone: a dull green crystal. I pushed it into the slot in front of my heart. An electric jolt jittered my bones.
The air tinted green. Just what I was used to.
Got up to wash. Left my room and walked down the cold hall to the bathroom. A fellow worker faced a mirror and shaved with a rusted blade. We weren’t allowed to keep beards, but I’d shaven yesterday and could get away with stubble roughening my cheeks.
“Jyoshi,” the worker said with a smile. His name was Rahal. “Dream anything good?”
That was all anyone talked about. Well, life was either spent working or dreaming, and talking about what commands we’d inputted at the factory wasn’t exactly a more interesting topic.
“The usual.” I doused my face with discolored sink water. It burned slightly.
“Oh? You’re up early, though. Had a fight with the wife? What was her name again?”
The wife, whom I’d deleted to make space for the lightblade training program, was always agreeable…too agreeable. Dream companions, as far as I knew, were programmed that way, so I assumed Rahal must’ve been joking when he asked if we’d had a fight.
I rubbed my barely alive brown eyes, then stared at myself in the mirror. “Zau…Prisaya.”
“Oh yeahhh. My mother’s name was Prisaya. Not liking the image. Say no more.” Rahal snorted water out of his nose.
He’d been at camp a few years, whereas I’d been here over a decade. He was older, though, and so his hair had grayed more than mine, especially at the front. I wondered whether men in their twenties elsewhere had gray hair; but really, I was too ignorant of the outside world to know. Perhaps they had blue hair.
Rahal also had a bit of ear missing, like a dog that had survived a fight: never told me what happened, but it gave his face character, as did the pockmarks beneath his too-round eyes.
“I was searching this underwater shipwreck for the forty-fifth time,” he said. “Saw a golden mermaid — didn’t know my dream stone had one in its memory. Weird, eh? But when I tried to find her, there was some kind of…error, and I woke up. Couldn’t go back to sleep.”
I stuck my wet fingers in my tear ducts, tried to rub the tiredness away. “Mermaids? Really?” I’d seen bears dancing on sharks in my dream stone, but that was because it’d been modified. “Why would an error manifest that way?”
“Manifest. Look at you using a thousand emiril word. Hah!”
I’d gotten a highborn education until I was twelve, so knew a few expensive words, though I probably didn’t use them right. Most here at camp never had a formal education, but Rahal seemed a bit sharper than the average laborer.
I disrobed and used a bucket and pail to wash myself. No soap today — there hadn’t been any for three months. Whatever factories produced soap in Maniza had probably been converted to making weapons. Same reason we barely had food to eat. What was happening in the outside world…was Emperor Sanga going to war, or was he just being paranoid as usual?
Rahal buttoned on his uniform: a sleeveless, navy shirt and loose, navy pants. A few weeks ago, I’d been like him: content in my lot. As content as one could be in hell. Living for my dreams, living for something false. Though for Rahal and the others, perhaps dreams were more real than the waking world.
“You’re tired, eh?” Rahal said.
When had I not been tired? Must’ve been years ago. “I suppose.”
“When’s your next day off?”
I held up all ten fingers.
“Lucky you. Mine isn’t for a month. Gonna dream all day, or what?”
I nodded, though I didn’t plan on living until then. If I did, that was doubtless what I’d do.
Rahal grinned; I could count his remaining teeth on my fingers, too. “Next time, we should request the same day off. Would be fun to have a beer or two.”
That did seem nice. But as nice as it seemed, warning sirens sounded in my mind as if a light cannon strike was imminent.
“I’d enjoy that,” I said. “Beer is good. Perhaps we will. Certainly we will.”
Best to remain polite. I made a mental note to avoid having the same day off as Rahal. The sad truth is you could never be certain of someone’s intentions here. I’d learned that early on. There was a thing shrewd people did: have a few beers, get someone tipsy or drunk, and then watch the words flow. If a single word was a shadow of treason, you could be rewarded for reporting it. Rewarded with emirils, better living conditions, or — most cherished of all — a ticket out of the camp, back into society. Whatever that looked like, now.
But I didn’t know Rahal’s heart, so I just nodded and smiled and pretended to appreciate his camaraderie. Perhaps it was genuine. Perhaps it wasn’t. What did it matter? I was already dead.
Breakfast was curry. Or more accurately, a tasteless, brown goop with burnt pepper and a rather acidic mystery spice. Cleaning fluid, perhaps?
I scarfed it down, then left the mess hall and went outside.
The walk from my dorm to the factory provided respite. Best part of my day, to stare at the distant mountains and dream that I might one day climb them. That I might one day be free. I looked up at the sky, which was always the color of a swollen bruise. In the Duskland, the sun loomed on the horizon, never rising or setting or moving, always filling the sky with red.
And yet, with a machinist stone in my chest, I could absorb green – and only green — waves from the sun’s spectrum. Since I’d already put my machinist stone in, the air appeared to have a green tint.
I was supposed to know how to conduct green and only green. But because of the dream training last night, I sort of knew how to conduct red as well. Still, the machinist stone in the slot near my heart couldn’t absorb red. I’d need to get my hands on a combat stone to absorb and conduct red light. I’d also need a sword hilt. Only then could I create a lightblade in the real world.
From the outside, the factory was an ugly, metal rectangle. First thing you saw walking through the double doors was the golden statue of Emperor Sanga Surapsani sitting on his throne and waving.
You had to bow for at least ten seconds. And when you bowed, you had to get low: your back had to be at a right angle or less. Some asshole from the camp police stood in the corner and measured the angle of your back with his left hand, using his fingers. And he’d count on his right hand, tapping his finger creases, to make sure you’d bowed for at least ten seconds.
To be safe, I always bowed for fifteen seconds. I was young enough that I could bend my back so that my head was almost at my knees. Just to be safe. I’d seen them whip workers for failing to bow long or low enough.
After bowing to the statue, us workers assembled in an empty room for the usual prework speech from the manager. He wore the same uniform as us, save for a red gem sewn into his collar to signify rank.
“Remember why we’re here,” he said. “We’re all tainted. Impure. It is only by the deepest mercy that His Holiness has given us a chance to work. A chance to redeem ourselves.”
That was the lure: redemption. Perhaps one day you’d be allowed to leave camp and go home, back to your family, back to society. But I had no family, and society…I hardly knew what that was anymore.
No lure could ensnare me. I saw no way out.
When my shift started, I did all the usual motions. First, I ensured the gain medium crystal in the fabricator was in good order; I’d changed it last week, so the green crystal was still hard-edged and mostly translucent. After polishing it and putting it back in the bottom compartment of the fabricator, I stood and gazed at the sun, which gazed back from the east-facing glass wall. I closed my eyes and inhaled, pulling green waves into the crystal near my heart. I cycled the light through me. I pushed the light into my hand.
For whatever reason, green powered and spoke to machines. And as a machinist, I was meant to command machines, in this case a fabricator at the factory, to create whatever was shown on the blueprint.
I stuck my finger in the fabricator’s user port and pushed green light into the machine. It hummed as the sunsink within spun, as if the rhythm of my light and its spin were in concert.
A command console appeared in my mind’s eye.
I began the usual cycle to check for errors and ensure the machine was in good enough order to begin fabrication.
The conveyer belt began moving. The clinks and clanks and grmmm sounded normal enough.
Was there a more boring job in the world? I often wondered how people in Karsha or Majapahit or Zerastra or Demak or any other country earned a living. Was it as dull and hollow and pointless as this?
I often fantasized about a machine that could queue more than one item at a time; it would make my job so much easier. Having to reinput these commands every — single — time was agony. The fact that there was a command to queue more than one meant it was possible, but I also had to operate the machine at its slowest speed because it wasn’t in good shape and needed a careful hand. If I damaged the machine…well, I was worth less than it, so I’d be beheaded.
I opened my eyes as the fabricator did its thing. Metal came into the conveyer, a mold pressed down on the metal, and there it was: the mouth of a light cannon. Gleaming like a newborn.
Around me in the room, workers made the other parts of the cannon. Gears grinded, smoke belched, and conveyers hissed. The new guy behind me, I think his name was Kirat, whistled and it was pleasant enough amid all the cacophony. He fabricated cannon knobs, which conductors would grip to move their light into the cannon. Across the room, I eyed Parvin, who wore an eye patch, owned a deck of cards, and could hold his beer. He made reinforcement rings, which kept cannons from exploding as light beams passed through them.
Afterward, these and other parts would be assembled by hand because the machine that used to do it had caught fire a few days ago. The Big Beast, we called that machine — not the most creative name, but it was fitting. The thing loomed five times larger than my fabricator; only the best conductors could operate it, given its complicated and sensitive commands. Now it remained empty — almost ghostly — right next to my machine.
I inspected the muzzle swell I’d fabricated. Looked exactly like the hundreds I’d made these past few weeks. I carried it into the back room where we stockpiled the parts. It was the first part anyone had made today, so the room was bare. I took a breath and enjoyed a brief sense of aloneness.
I looked out the window; someone stood in the dirt field in the distance, facing our building. Just a shadow against the red sun. I could swear he was staring at me, but I couldn’t quite make out his face at this distance.
Cold nails slid down my spine. I shuddered and returned to my station.
I stuck my finger in the fabricator port, closed my eyes, inhaled more green light from the red sun, pushed it into the machine, and wrote the fabrication commands. Again, and again, and again, until it was lunch time.
Was expecting the same machine-cleaner-spiced curry from morning, but it was actually worse. Mulch, we called this bread. Biting down too hard on it had once shattered a front tooth. Since then, I’d learned to dip it into my water cup before biting, though that made my water nasty. Still, a worker must eat, and my water tasted weird anyway.
I was the first in the mess hall. Ironic, but I felt self-conscious eating alone. As if ghosts sat in the empty corners around me, and they all watched me chew.
Better than eating with others. As often as you could, you avoided conversation between shifts, especially with those you didn’t know well. I didn’t know anyone well, not anymore. You never knew who was undercover camp police, or who was willing to report you for saying something you never said. You especially avoided eating in threes or fours, so you wouldn’t have two or three witnesses against you. Eating in sixes and sevens was safest because larger conspiracies were harder to form.
I looked up to see the gray hairs poking out of Rahal’s nose. He clanked his plate of mulch across from mine and sat on the floor.
“Praise Sanga,” I mimicked.
We said nothing for five minutes. He’d been here long enough to know it wasn’t worth conversing in the lunch hall. The camp police have good ears. I enjoyed eating with others in silence. A comfortable, peaceful silence. As alone as we all were in this hell, we were alone together. That thought didn’t make it less lonely or painful, though.
“You going to finish that?” Rahal pointed at my mulch. It’d been a minute since I’d touched it.
I pushed the plate toward him. “Enjoy it, by Sanga’s grace.”
“By Sanga’s grace.” He chewed quickly and tap-tapped his foot nervously.
After burping, he said, “Tired?”
That wasn’t a question worth answering truthfully. I shook my head.
From behind Rahal’s messy head, I noticed someone staring at me across the room. He had small eyes, ball-like cheeks, and a flat nose. A familiar face, though I couldn’t quite place it.
Rahal turned to see what I was looking at, then turned back to me. “You make muzzle swells, right? What’d you make before that?”
Unwise to remember the past, here. Could be seen as dissent, aching for what was gone. Aside from your love for the Emperor, it was better to be reborn each day.
“I don’t remember. I make whatever His Holiness desires.” I peered over Rahal’s shoulder; the man was still staring at me, unblinking.
“What you looking at?” Rahal turned to look behind again while I rubbed my aching eyes.
The staring man was gone when I opened them. How’d he taken off so fast? Could he be camp police? Why would they be watching me? Was it because they’d found out about my illegally-modded dream stone?
“N-Nothing,” I said.
“Isn’t it strange how we’re all making weapons, suddenly? What do you think is going on?”
Oh dear. This was a trap, wasn’t it? I stood up. Camp police watching me, Rahal trying to get my opinion on something I had no right to have an opinion on — it was all too much and too obvious. I’d been a prisoner here too long to fall for that. Disappointing to see Rahal laying such an obvious trap, but I couldn’t blame him. We all sought ways to survive, even if it meant sacrificing each other. Solidarity wasn’t a thing.
“Praise Sanga. I should get back to work.” And so I did.
The rest of the day, I inhaled and cycled green light into the machine and input the same command again and again. By twelve hours, I was frayed. My veins ached. It started as a dull throb from the deepest part of my bones, and it got sharper by the hour.
I’d cycled too much light. It was getting harder to keep it pure, and thus to keep the machine operating. Our managers knew the limits of us underfed, sleep-deprived machinists. But they didn’t care. Instead of giving us respite, they’d declare some bogus charge and schedule a beheading. Plenty more to take the place of a worn-out worker.
When I began to feel as if my veins were on fire, I took an unauthorized break. Stared at the vacant Big Beast as if a ghost were standing there, operating it. Char and soot covered the arms that fit together the cannon parts. The conductor must’ve overflowed it, causing a fire, which happens either from carelessness or inexperience. I wasn’t on shift at the time and hoped I’d never have to operate the Big Beast.
My manager walked by, so I cut my unauthorized break short and stuck my finger in my fabricator’s user port. Did what I needed to do for the remainder of the day. By the end, my veins had gone numb, and what was once burning now felt cold and dead. I pinched myself and couldn’t feel it. Breathing became a labor.
I was used to it — though you never truly get used to it. I wanted nothing more than to rest, to sleep and dream. The one respite we workers had. I still couldn’t understand why I’d modded my companionship program into a lightblade training program. The memory just wasn’t there. Instead, a blank spot in my brain detached my present from my past.
It all felt…off. I wasn’t a violent person. Far from it. So what could have motivated me to do that? And why, of all things, had I forgotten it?
I pondered these questions as I took in the air on the walk to the dorm. Not the freshest air — it tasted like belched machine oil — but it was fresher than the air in the factory. Mountains sprawled in the distance, snow dotting the tips like the powdered sugar on the pastries my mother used to make. My heart endured a thorn prick every time I thought of her, of home.
Up in the sky, that’s where home was. In the floating city of Harska, seat of Emperor Raja Sanga Surapsani himself. I’d seen his father speak at a rally when I was a boy. Such memories were a painful reminder of my fall. My exile and imprisonment here. It wasn’t me who committed the crime, nor my mother or father or sister, and yet we all paid for what he did…
A bell rang. Each chime lingered, tingling my spine, until the next chime, the space between each exactly two seconds. Death Bell, we called it, because it only rang for executions. And it was mandatory to attend executions. Missing one meant the next bell would ring for you.
Luckily, I was less than a minute’s walk from the execution ground, which was just a dirt field outside the police’s lodging. A chill wind blew through, so I rubbed my hands together as I joined the crowd of workers, who sprung out of the factory and dorm and mess hall and streamed together. Despite the crowd, the silence was almost solemn. A tension choked the air and stuck in our throats. Who would it be, this time?
I took a seat on a stack of bricks behind the main body of workers. The dirt field stank of waste, and it wafted in the breeze. Soon it’d smell of waste and blood.
A week — I think — had passed since the last execution; there was a time when I thought of them as a much-needed break because they’d ring the bell during my shift. An unbelievably sad thought.
A camp policeman marched some guy I slightly recognized to our front, then pushed him onto his knees.
“State your crimes,” the policeman said. “And thank His Holiness for giving you an opportunity to serve.”
The poor fellow muttered his crimes. Something to do with smuggling.
I didn’t want to listen or watch. I didn’t want to remember another gray face in this place full of ghosts. But I had to at least pretend to watch; in actuality, I crossed my eyes into a blur. I sang a song in my head so I wouldn’t have to hear the condemned man’s final words.
The fire surged.
Room to room.
Red, yellow, orange, leaping.
Playful, free. An ecstasy of burning.
Mother used to hum this song about our ancestors to make me sleep. They were rounded up, put in lacquer house, and set alight. The lyrics may seem disturbing, but according to the legend, the fire couldn’t touch them. After stepping outside, their clothes having turned to soot but not a burn on their skin, they defeated their enemies and helped create Maniza, this nation. It was a reminder that we were a founding family of this country, of which I was now a slave. Because of what he did…
Most of all, the song reminded me of Mother, and that remembrance always pricked my heart. Sometimes even stabbed it.
The call cut through my thoughts. Who’d said it? I relaxed my eyes; my vision unblurred. I focused on the executioner: he held a lightblade, zealously red and dripping shadows.
“We’re waiting for you, Jyosh,” he said.
Waiting…for me? Why?
What did they want with me?
Everyone turned and stared at me. My limbs shook as a poisonous fear swamped my bones.
“Jyosh, come here.”
The camp executioner was not a man you disobeyed. I got up, walked through the dirt, and went to him. The condemned man remained on his knees; he’d pissed his pants, and I could smell how dehydrated he was.
The executioner, who wore the same sleeveless button-down shirt as the rest of us, brandished his lightblade in my direction. So monstrously red. Zauri’s image flashed in my mind, as if she were holding it, as if I were still on the beach with the bears dancing on sharks and headless, pot-bellied men flying on turtle shells amid other bizarre glitches.
“Jyosh,” the executioner said. He was so…old: white hair, no muscle in his bony forearms, cheekbones that jutted out. The only truly old man in the camp. And yet, his lightblade radiated heat and death.
“Did you forget?” he asked.
“Your duty. You swore an oath, in front of every man here, that you’d kill the next ten traitors who betrayed the Emperor. This wretch,” he waved his lightblade in the direction of the condemned man, “is only number two. Wavering so soon, Jyosh?”
The executioner softened his grip on his sword hilt; the lightblade fizzled and disappeared. He handed the hot metal hilt to me.
He glared at me. His toothy smile chilled my spine. His chuckle rattled my bones. What did he want? What did he expect me to do with this sword hilt?
“I know you can’t make one, Jyosh. And I know killing is hard. But we all must do our duty to the Emperor.”
Everyone was watching me. Even the clouds and the mountains. Even the ghosts.
The executioner put his hand over mine. He made me squeeze the hilt, just as Zauri had. The sun loomed on the horizon, a rageful crimson. He inhaled its red light, cycled it through his veins, and flowed it into my hand. As Zauri had taught me, I cycled the red light into the hilt. A hot beam of death erupted off the blade.
“Whoah!” The executioner looked upon me with wide, astonished eyes. “You’re getting better, I see.”
I gulped and nodded. Turned out I was missing more memories than I realized. When, and why, would I ever have agreed to be co-executioner of ten men?
This wasn’t the time to wonder. With his hand on mine, together creating the lightblade, the executioner and I lined the beam above the kneeling man’s neck. Poor fellow finished muttering and crying and now waited. Waited with eyes closed and a placid face, as if he’d already digested his death. I, too, believed that I’d die in this camp, but you don’t truly feel death until you gaze into it. Perhaps if we waited another minute, he’d be crying again. For now, he was calm as a monk. Still, the stench of his piss almost had me gagging.
I didn’t move the lightblade as it fell upon the man’s neck. Or maybe I did? It happened so fast. To the fiery beam, flesh is as thin as air. There wasn’t even a noise as it cut through. Or perhaps I was too horrified to have heard it.
The man’s head rolled at our feet, eyes wide open. Blood bubbled and spurted off his neck. The stench of lightblade-burnt flesh was somehow sweet, like a pastry of death. The headless body remained kneeling until the executioner kicked it into a lying position.
That’s when it really hit me: this wasn’t even my first execution.
I remembered him. The first person I killed. I remembered Vir.
Vir. He operated the machine next to mine. The Big Beast. The machine that put the cannon parts together. We’d take unauthorized breaks together and just talk to each other. Talk about our lives before this hell, about our dream companions, about our hopes if we ever got back to society. Vir: he had small eyes, ball-like cheeks, and a flat nose.
I wasn’t on shift when his conduction overflowed and burned the Big Beast. But I was watching from outside. I watched when the police seized him for damaging the most important machine in the camp.
A memory reemerged from a deep, dark sea: I was sitting in a smoky room with a camp policeman. My mouth ran endlessly. I told him about Vir’s treasonous words, how Vir had insulted Emperor Sanga Surapsani, and how he’d planned to destroy not just that machine, but other machines, too. It was all a lie, but I said those words to the policeman.
And I remembered coming early to work that morning, thirty minutes before the manager’s speech. I did something to the gain medium crystal on Vir’s machine. I sabotaged the Big Beast. I’d caused the accident that led to my friend’s execution.
And then, after they took him, after I fabricated his treason, just to prove my devotion, I swore an oath that I would execute him with my own hand. And the next nine men who’d dare defy the Emperor, as if making a mistake or being unable to conduct or smuggling was some kind of unforgivable sin and not flaws all of us suffered from.
But…why? Why the hell did I do these things? What kind of monster was I?