The palace is enormous.
I sometimes dubbed my Capitol as “The Temple” just because it has pillars. But Empress lives in what I believe an actual Temple to be. It has marble skin that’s overtaken by vines and cracks, much like my old city. The doorways are domed and the tops of the temple are shaped like old yellow onions. It’s just as faded and worn as it is grand, a poor forgotten remnant of the Old Earth’s splendor. I don’t know what gods were worshiped here but they must have been overly demanding to require something so lavish as this.
Before the temple is a great pond covered in water lilies. Cone-shaped trees line the edges, each one carefully trimmed away from the surface. I dismount my bike and walk to stare at the clear blue depths.
Underneath the water lilies swim two gigantic koi fish that are just as large as great blue whales. One is orange and one is white, their scales shine and sparkle in the water and it’s absolutely entrancing. The bottom of the pond must extend to the center of the Earth because I cannot see it through the crystal clear water, giving the fish plenty of space to explore their peaceful underwater world. They gently weave in and out of each other like yin and yang and I find that I cannot stop watching.
I decide to rest for a moment before going inside. I take a piece of bread from my pack that’s leftover from a meal I was kindly given by a small tribe a few miles back. I sit cross-legged and nibble on it a few pieces at a time, throwing a few of the stale crumbs to the fish as they fall. The pieces just sit there and grow soggy, a terrible waste, since they are too small for the dinosaur koi to notice.
“Hm that’s okay,” I tell them. “I don’t feel like eating all the time either,” which is true.
“I’m not a huge fan of food,” I continue as I stretch my arms over my head and then rest them on my knees. “These past two weeks I’ve been having to eat non stop you know, and it’s been such a fucking chore. It must be so nice to just swim around and have food given to you instead of having to hunt it,” I lean in so that they can hear me better.
“Anyways, I’ve been training like a motherfucker, see?” I lean back and put my hands on my abs as if to show them off through the dirty and ripped holes of my black suit. “Training and hunting by day, traveling by night, sleeping only when I have to... back to the old routine. Having to eat all the time just to get myself back to normal, it sucks and it takes so much time. I’ve been living off of rats and deer and gigantic snakes and boars and it’s all just so disgusting.”
“I guess I shouldn’t complain though, you two probably have it way worse. I can’t imagine having to eat the same fish food every day, or whatever you two eat. The same shit, all the time, and that being the only thing to look forward to. Never being hunted, never having to hunt, never having to starve, it must be so boring...”
“I agree,” says a voice behind me. I jump to my feet and prepare to defend myself, then relax. Empress stands over me with her arms folded across her chest and a judgmental look on her face. “However, I’ve always been jealous of Koi. They lead simple lives with little pressure.”
“Please don’t sneak up on me like that again,” I say as I put a hand over my racing heart.
She laughs. “I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. Sounded like a riveting conversation.”
“It was alright, was a little bit one sided though.”
“Can’t imagine why,” she chuckles. “Well, why don’t you come inside and I’ll hopefully entertain you a little better than the fish.”
“Good luck,” I say as we clasp forearms in greeting. “Those guys set the bar pretty damn high.”
“Understandable, I too could watch them for hours,” she wraps a cold arm around my shoulders and leads me to the Palace--one arm of four that is.
Empress is terrifying and ethereal. She stands proudly on silver prosthesis she modified herself, her feet are splayed into strange three-toed appendages. She has two sets of arms, one pair covered in scars from numerous infections and the second completely mechanical with gears and wires and pistons moving in and out of one another.
Her jaw is a metallic piece that extends over her cheeks and rests behind her ears. The rest of her face sits perfectly in it; her features are lovely and dark against her bronze skin. Her hair is so fascinating, wires mixed with long black locks that twist over her shoulders and down to her small of her back, the sides shaved with complex designs inked in green. She wears a cloak-like dress with a large collar that frames her metallic chest. Two bars attach from her collar bones and follow the tendons in her neck to the back of her head. She’s fascinating and beautiful, a clear representation of Earth’s willingness to survive and a symbol of stark defiance against the Martians and their technology.
“It’s lovely to see you King. It’s been so long, I do wish you’d come visit me more.”
“Sorry, I’ve been a bit preoccupied.” Small crabs skitter across the sidewalk as we pass and gulls scream from the beach in the distance where great stone mountains meet the sea.
“I’m so happy you’re here. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you but Saint hasn’t been transmitting lately.”
“Uh-huh,” I say completely distracted by the intricate arches of the temple as we walk underneath them. “Wait, what do you want me for?”
“I’ll tell you over dinner, how’s that sound?”
“Amazing,” I say as I trail off to take in the temple. Beautifully painted pillars scatter throughout the inside all carved out of gold, the floor is a faded mosaic with intricate designs that reach up the walls. It’s just as massive as it is empty; Empress not wanting to taint its history with her inventions and experiments. We walk through it with only our footsteps to follow as they echo off the stone arches.
The back of the palace opens up to an overgrown rose garden guarded by two gigantic silver Anubis-like dogs, both of them made of the same chrome metal that covers Empress’s excess limbs. As she passes by one of them comes to life and follows close behind, his paws lightly tap the stone beneath our feet and his eyes glow blue like hers.
“To what do I owe this pleasure, King?” she asks. “No one has heard from you in three years. I was beginning to think you were dead.”
“Trust me, there were some close fucking calls,” I reply. “I’m just here for some good conversation--and to sell some shit as always.”
“You found another monster? They’re becoming more and more scarce you know.”
“Yeah, I think you’re going to like it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” I say as we enter a small chain lift that takes us down to a workshop that’s much more appropriate for the world we live in, an utter contrast to the beauty that conceals it above ground.
A great steel warehouse-sized box with three tiered levels stretches out before us as the chain lift shudders to a stop. At the bottom level is a typical lab where glass jars line old metal shelves, pipettes are strewn across busy workbenches and notes are scattered everywhere. All of the machines are familiar to me, I gifted them to Empress many years ago when I found them in my underground city.
The second level contains jar after jar of mutants suspended in formaldehyde; some of them in pieces and some of them whole in great glass coffins. The third level, where we step off, is nothing more than a metal grate landing. Depressing white lights hang from dangerously unprotected wires that twist between the bars. Over to the right is a piece of plywood with a thin mattress covered in notebooks and empty bottles. It’s dim and depressing and cold down here, but an added level of mystery provides a strange sense of comfort.
“That’s where you sleep?” I ask as we step over the holes in the grates. “That’s pathetic.”
She laughs, then uses the wires in her hair and her four arms to climb down like a monkey. The jackal gracefully leaps through the air and lands only a few steps behind her. I fall between the bars myself and land lightly on a glass coffin, momentarily face-to-face with a yellow-speckled skeleton. I weave in and out of the rest of the specimens and follow both her and the dog to the lab below.
“Don’t do that,” I say as she brings extensions of her metal body back into place. “You look like Titan.” I put my backpack on the bench and start rifling through it, ignoring her sour expression.
“Don’t speak that name in here,” she says. “Titan is a machine, I am simply enhanced. As are you,” she points to the faded yellow spots that persist on my neck. “Now, what did you bring me this time?”
I pull out the rest of Drift and hand her to Empress. She picks up the four vials and holds them up to the dim white light, then empties all of them into a petri dish for a holographic computer to analyze.
“Was this someone I knew?” she asks as the machine whirs and displays symbols I can’t comprehend.
“It was someone I thought I knew,” I say as I chew off one of my long fingernails. Empress turns and smacks my hand out of my mouth.
“Go wash that,” she says abruptly. “You’re in a lab.”
“Oh, my bad,” I go to scrub the dirt from my hands in a small silver sink.
“So, how much will that get me?” I ask as I turn off the water and wipe my hands on my dirty pants. She doesn’t answer at first, just stands akimbo and reads the data that the green hologram spits out at her. I take a place by her side and pretend to understand the words just as well as she does.
“Well, it’s a nasty mutation for sure,” she comments more to herself than me. “I’ve never seen it warp cell walls quite like that, and this black gunk is so peculiar...”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that as we grow stronger and more immune to the virus, it does too. A trend I’ve been following throughout the past few deliveries. They’ve become more scarce, but more powerful and difficult to manipulate into modifications. I can’t take this.”
I glare. “What?”
“It’s too potent,” she says. “It’ll mutate any host, no matter how much I water it down.” She puts a lid on the petri dish and throws it in a silver canister. I hastily jump to save it right as she turns her back to wash her hands. Thankfully she takes forever to clean up; it gives me just enough time to dump the contents into a large vial and slip it into my pocket. Why didn’t you wear gloves if it’s that dangerous, dumbass? I think.
“Well shit, Empress,” I say disappointingly. “Guess I didn’t have a reason to come all this way after all.”
“What, am I not good enough for you alone?” she asks and she points a mechanical finger at her chest. I laugh and take a bit of pride in her overreaction.
“I’m kidding. You know, you could stand to come see me once in a while instead of making me drag my ass all the way out here,” I say as I search desperately through my bag for something I might be able to sell.
“How can I?” she replies. “You disappear for years at a time, you even desert your own people. All for what? Where do you go?”
“Hey come on, I can’t stand to be in one place for too long. You know that.” I find the two small grenades from Colossus and take them out. “I’ve been training, that’s all. Traveling and training.”
“You could stand to train a little less, dear. I’ve never seen you so small.”
“I’ve had a rough couple of months. You should’ve seen me two weeks ago.”
“Legion?” she asks.
“No, mostly enemy clans this time. Elsewhere and Zion were both gathering forces against me along with some others. Ever since I got that pipeline I’ve been fighting those greedy sons of bitches non-stop.”
“You fight them on your own?”
“I enjoy the challenge.”
She smiles and crosses all her arms across her chest. “That’s just like you, Eden. You’ve always been a narcissist, never willing to share your victories with others. It’ll be the death of you someday.”
“Hasn’t killed me yet,” I say distantly as I quickly change the subject. “How much will you give me for these? I picked them up not too long ago,” I hand her the two grenades and she clasps them in an iron hand.
“Interesting,” she says. “These are lasers, you know, it’s quite misleading...”
“Yeah I figured that much out,” I interrupt.
“I’ll give you five hundred for them.” She puts them on a shelf and takes out a small handheld glass device with various blue glowing buttons on it. She immediately transfers the credits before I can tell her no.
“That’s not enough,” I say. “They have to be worth more than that.”
“Enough for what?” she asks. “Aren’t you wealthy enough as it is?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve stolen enough from my kingdom already, people are starting to get pissed. I’m trying to get a border pass.”
“Oh,” she says with a grin as she slips the glass into her pocket. “Why didn’t you say so? Come here, Fifteen.” The dog sits before her and she slips an iron hand in between the scales of his back. She pulls out a small chrome disk with black lines in the shape of a Legion phoenix etched into the front and hands it to me. “I have a bunch of these,” she says.
“You just keep shit inside your dog?” I ask. “You know what, I don’t want to know the answer to that.”
She smooths down the metal on Fifteen’s back as if it were fur. “What’s your business on Mars?” she asks.
“I’ll tell you over dinner.”
“Oh, right you must be starving. We can dine in the rose garden and watch the sun go down.”
“How romantic,” I say right as my stomach rumbles on cue. “I accept.”