Chapter 55 WELCOME TO OUR CIRCUS
Amalfi. Like so many other planets, it had probably been named after some obscure part of Old Earth. Or a then-famous person. Or the pet of the ark-ship’s captain. Or something crazy the colonists dreamed up after they arrived.
It was a gloomy world of ancient arcologies and overcrowded sprawls, lying some two hundred light-years, almost directly rimward, of the Seventh Circle’s capital of Salerno, and a hundred lightyears coreward and anti-spinward of Akakios. Despite its remote location, it was by far the most densely populated of the region’s worlds, with an official population figure approaching the three-hundred-billion mark, more than twice that of any other planet in that part of the galaxy.
Amalfi resembled one of the core worlds ringing Earth more than it did a colony on the edge of the galaxy. The algorithms of population growth made it inevitable: Amalfi had been colonized during the First Flowering. The other worlds in the same area had been populated five centuries later, if not more.
Amalfi’s rulers believed their world should be the capital. Given its great age, majestic architecture, effete noble caste, vast population, and massive manufacturing capability, Amalfi’s claim to eminence seemed reasonable enough at first glance. Indeed, it had been the capital, but only fleetingly. The great Mikael, First Autarch of the Dominion, had selected the planet as an administrative seat in his new empire. The man appointed to oversee the region—Björn the Even, one of the Autarch’s many friends and political allies—had arrived, looked around, and immediately decided it wouldn’t work.
The fall of the Dominion made it worse. Despite vehement protests from Amalfi, the Archon of the nascent Coalition decreed that Salerno was the capital of one of his grand duchies, the Seventh Astro-administrative Circle. To make the lords of Amalfi shut up, or so the saying went, the Archon had named the ruler a Marquesa and given her control over the vast, but underpopulated, frontier. Thus was born the Amalfian star sector, one of the primary subdivisions of the Seventh Circle. Akakios was nominally under Amalfian rule, but never formally recognized the Coalition’s authority, and remained effectively an independent system.
The greatest city on Amalfi—indeed, one of the largest cities in the known universe—was Absalom, named after the ark-ship that settled the planet at the dawn of human colonization. The central pillar of Absalom rose nearly sixty kilometers into the air, all the way up beyond the stratosphere. Not a true beanstalk, like the one that connected the Tyrrhenian arcology on Salerno to space, but a hugely oversized city spire. It was said that human hands didn’t build the structure at all, that the colonists arrive to find it already there, a gravity-defying edifice of crystal, created by the Revenants. Around the spire, an acology grew, looking every bit like a human ant-hill. By the time the Dominion rediscovered Alamfi, any trace of the alien structure—if there ever was one—had been buried under layer upon layer of habitation.
When Amalfi was incorporated into the Dominion, pollution had long since made the air unbreathable. The Technocracy erected sixteen massive atmospheric processors in two concentric rings around Absalom. A thousand years later, the air was cleaner than it had ever been, and the processors were no longer needed. A great project was undertaken to take advantage of the nearly limitless geothermal energy still being generated by the processors. Sixteen lesser arcologies were built, one on top of each processor.
Fast forward five centuries and the atmosphere of Amalfi had again been reduced to a poisonous miasma. The processors were no longer operational. Even if they had been, there were billions of people living inside them. Another solution was needed, so a vast array of gravity-insulated macro-cables was strung between secondary spires until it looked like a multi-layered spider’s web. The network of cables was covered with lightweight, yet resilient panes, shutting out the foul air and letting in the light.
The result was that Absalom looked like the biggest fucking circus tent in human history: a sixty-kilometer high pole rising in the center, with two rings of twenty-kilometer bars around the perimeter, and great multi-colored canvas covering the whole thing. In Amalfi’s case, the coloring ran in shades of grime, filth, and toxic waste. Inside was the galaxy’s most infamous dog and pony show: the never-ending cacophony of intrigue and violence that was the Amalfian way of life.
The orbital spire and surrounding cityscape housed more than sixteen billion people, a population larger than most settled worlds. If you counted the entire hive structure, the number was closer to thirty billion. Those were the official numbers—there was no way the officials could account for all the vagabonds, vagrants, and general ner-do-wells that dwelled in the deep, dark layers.
The Rubrum dei Dextra settled into low orbit. Vessels more massive than a pinnace were not allowed to dock directly with the spire. Back in the day, there had been several incidents where ships had lost power or done a wrong turn, or even deliberately rammed the spire. The spire hadn’t taken significant damage, the loadbearing structure was practically indestructible, but the city below was a different matter. It would have sustained considerable damage, were it not for emergency activation of the spire’s impact screens. The ships, their crews, and cargoes had been vaporized, but collateral damage had been minimal.
Luck ran out in 3847 when a decrepit conveyor registered to an Amalfian company had lost main gravitics. The secondaries had failed to kick in, and the ship had smashed down into the Circus. The vessel had been loading ammunition and fuel—never a good thing to combine on one ship. The spire’s screens were undergoing scheduled maintenance at the time. The result was widespread destruction and a death toll that exceeded a hundred million. After this tragedy, the Marquesa of Amalfi had banned direct docking with the spire.
Instead of landing high in the spire along with the rabble and the bulk goods—then heading downtown by lighting rail—the Veiled Hand acolytes and their wardens traveled by lander directly to the Hand’s spire-hold. The amount of aerial traffic was astounding. The ban on docking might have solved some acute security issues but had created nearly insurmountable traffic control issues, as countless small craft carried people and materiel in vast quantities between the planet and the ships waiting in orbit.
Haides’s lander was only half full. The seventeen remaining recruits—including Diana, the girl he had cut and left to die, who the Hand had restored to life—and their four chaperones, sat on the right side of the aisle. Another group of recruits sat on the left. In the front section, there was a handful of support personnel.
One man stood out. He was dressed like a priest of the Conclave, cassock, holy symbols, and all. It was the first preacher Haides had seen since they left Akakios. What was he doing aboard? The Veiled Hand didn’t seem like they put much faith in the Gods, at least not in a traditional sense.
Haides snuck sideways glances at the priest. There was something off about him. First of all, he looked too much like one of the Vaxandii swine that had terrorized Thira. He’d shaved his head and sported a beard, but that couldn’t hide his origins. Not from the Ghost of Thira—it knew how to tell Vaxandii apart from more civilized peoples. But there was more, a sense of having seen him before. Not on the ship, but on Akakios. Those were the only two places Haides had ever been—it had to be Akakios. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite place the man. It was maddening.
The lander shot out of the launch bay. Haides was pushed back into the padded acceleration seat. There was a sickening feeling of weightlessness as the Right Hand’s artificial gravity let them go. It took several minutes before the lander’s gravity generators kicked in—not standard procedure. When they finally came online, the field didn’t hold properly, flickering on and off with irregular intervals and intensity. After five minutes of gravitic fluctuations, the malfunctioning gravitics were switched off altogether.
The first encounter with weightlessness was very unpleasant, nauseating in the extreme, but Haides managed to hold on to his last meal. Several of his fellow recruits did not. Globules of vomit drifted across the compartment. Murash was among those hit by the barrage of stomach content. It wasn’t hard to tell he was angry, but there was nothing he could do. Unbuckling and kicking around in weightlessness, in a shuttle about to hit the atmosphere, would only aggravate the situation. Instead, he sat there, fuming inside his visored black mask.
The priest was strangely untouched by the puke attack. He just sat there, alone on his own seat row, and the stuff sailed past or hit something else. The man suddenly turned his head and looked right at Haides. Their eyes met for a brief moment before the boy yanked his head around and pretend to gawk out the viewport. The face was not familiar, but those eyes—he had looked into them before.
By the time they hit the upper limits of Amalfi’s murky atmosphere, the planet’s gravity begun to make a difference, and the airborne filth settled down. The winged metal coffin started shaking violently, far worse than during the ascent from Akakios, and the world outside turned into a fireball as the lander streaked towards the surface. It was Haides’s first orbital descent, and not something he was keen on repeating.
By the time they leveled out of the fiery plunge, he was scouting out of the viewport. Amalfi’s soupy atmosphere made visual observation difficult—but he kept at it and was finally rewarded with a sight he would never forget.
Absalom was positively the biggest thing Haides had ever laid eyes on, a tower of metal, clearly visible from space, crawling with human life, so big it put every real mountain he had ever seen to shame. If the majestic Mastari Range of his childhood had been placed next to Absalom, it would have looked like nothing more than a series of foothills and mighty Othrys no more significant than one of Absalom’s satellite cities.
Closer and closer they flew, until the glare of the city-mountain drowned out everything. The next thing to happen was the lander hitting the metal deck—hard. Murash—positively enraged by now—was out of his seat before the vehicle had come to a halt. He gave orders to his three fellow assassins and then headed for the cockpit area.
The support personnel was the first to leave. The priest went with them. Next, the three remaining assassins started herding us recruits out of the lander. Haides lingered in the cabin for as long as he could. He could hear a heated discussion from the cockpit, followed by frantic screams of fear, then agony, then silence. Murash had finally dealt with the pilot, the way he should have done ten weeks ago. Haides got out of the seat and quickly joined the other recruits.
They formed up outside on the landing platform. Two other landers were already parked on a flat metal surface that protruded from the spire’s side. A fourth vessel was just making its approach, passing through the open shield doors that protected the blister-like landing aperture from Amalfi’s hostile atmosphere. It landed perfectly in its designated quadrant. Not all of the Hand’s pilots were idiots.
Haides looked about for the priest but didn’t see him. He’d probably gone through the airlock and into the city-tower already. When Murash returned a few minutes later, he carried with him the severed heads of the shuttle commander, his co-pilot, and the attending technomat. Haides would have settled for just one of them to make my point. Killing all three seemed excessive. Had Malachite been around, he would not have approved.
Murash tossed the heads to one of the flight deck attendants. “The shuttle needs a new crew. This one has been terminated on the grounds of gross incompetence.”
It was a grisly display, but Haides was fascinated. Murash looked quite striking, covered now in blood, rather than vomit. The assassin caught the boy staring. Haides bit his lip when he realized the gravity of his mistake. He had just broken two cardinal rules: One. Don’t attract attention. Two. Timing, timing, timing. Murash was pissed like a hung-over Thor, and his blood was up from killing three men. For ten weeks, Haides had stayed out of sight, out of trouble. And now he had stepped in it, big time.
You didn’t have to be a legate to sense the violent purpose building within Murash. Haides had to do something—the fact that he had done nothing to deserve punishment would not be enough. The opportunity came as a fifth lander, a large cargo model, came in on approach. It was going to be a tight fit. There were only four landing quadrants. The final shuttle had to land in the center of the platform, way inside the minimum safe perimeters of the smaller craft.
There was a bit of backblast as the shuttle’s main thrusters angled down to cushion the final descent. A couple of the recruits either lost their footing or had to take a step to stabilize themselves.
Haides stumbled—entirely on purpose—into one of the vomit-stained recruits. “You filthy oaf,” he screamed, voice drowned out by the noise of shield doors starting to rumble shut. He elbowed the other recruit over the nose, hard enough to break it. The injured lad reached up to protect his face. Haides put a knee into his now-unprotected groin. The other boy keeled over. Haides kicked the fallen recruit as he lay writhing on the cold metal of the landing platform.
None of the other kids wanted to get involved. Murash had moved closer but did not interfere. Haides pretended not to notice for a few kicks more, then snapped to attention once he felt it was the right thing to do. The downed boy lay whimpering at his feet.
The assassin regarded the victorious acolyte through the opaque visor. Haides was still in danger but had at least bought himself some time. He was trying to figure out something bright to say when Murash bitch-slapped him. The combat gloves were made of coarse, high-friction material and covered with sharp ridges. He struck again, just hard enough to make break skin and make Haides’s head ring.
He grabbed Haides’s face with iron-hard fingers. His other hand plucked away the concealed trophy shiv. He hadn’t seen the smaller self-made blade—or maybe he had and didn’t care. He pushed the point of the knife against an eyeball, short of actually puncturing it.
“Listen up, you little vermin. And I mean all of you, not just little Haides. Your lives, your blood, your flesh, your bones...everything belongs to the Hand now. You will not fight each other or harm one another through little ‘accidents’—unless you are ordered to do so.”
Murash stepped away, taking the shiv with him.
“But don’t worry. Soon enough, you will be ordered to harm one another.”
The ball-busted boy had managed to get back to his feet. Murash grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved the shiv Micor had made deep into his guts. The boy screamed and struggled, but the assassin clung to him like glue, twisting the blade around with enough force to tear flesh and intestines both.
“Another thing that will not be tolerated: weakness. You think you’ve been run hard during our voyage. Think again. The real hardship starts now. If you show weakness, you will be killed. If you fall," Murash put particular emphasis on the last word, “there will be no one to catch you.” He grabbed the gutted boy by the neck and started to haul him across the landing platform, towards the edge. The shield doors were closing but would take another minute to seal up.
Fall. The word lingered, creating a sense of anticipation for what must come. Haides walked after them. The rest of the recruits followed behind, mesmerized by what they knew was about to happen.
Murash threw the injured boy over the side without further ceremony. It was quite a drop: several hundred meters of free fall, a jarring impact, then a slide down to the roof of the Circus.
The air was thin, cold, and reeked of chemicals. A sudden gust of wind clawed at the watchers, trying to pull them over the edge. Several recruits reeled back, panicking, but found their courage when they saw Murash’s looking at them.
Haides peered over the edge. He had hoped to see the body hit the spire and tumble, but the demon winds took hold of the dying kid and swept him clear of the tower. He turned into a dot that disappeared in the glare from the shining city below. Haides stepped back to avoid being crushed by the closing doors.
And then we were sixteen.
The recruits walked back to the others, talking among themselves in hushed tones, but Murash stepped in front of Haides. “This is where we say goodbye. I go on to serve the revered Princess Ghaela, the finest blademaster amongst us.” He still had Micor’s shiv in one hand, deftly toying with it as he spoke. “You now go into the custody of Prince Malachite. He will make you into what you need to be—or he will break you trying. Perhaps, in time, you will make it and become an anointed assassin. If so, we shall speak again then, share drinks, and retell the tale of how you came to the Spire of the Hand.” He handed Haides the knife. “If not, I shall see you again on the other side of the Veil. Dead or alive—we both belong to the Red-handed God now.”
Haides dared not ask who this Red God of his might be. Could it be dead Ares? But he was...kind of dead, wasn’t he? That was his problem—the reason he wasn’t worshipped anymore. He didn’t exist, couldn’t hear your payers—or answer them. Might as well pray to a monkey doll with a drum.
The assembly process was a duplicate of the one aboard the Rubrum Dei Dextera. Malachite appeared. This time he stepped out of the last shuttle—no theatrical reveal from the shadows. He took roll call from the captains. Did a quick inspection of the troops. Didn’t kill anyone this time. Walked back to his position in front of the formation.
“I am Lord Malachite. We have met before—I’m sure you remember.” Haides certainly did. “The Princes and Princesses of the Hand have many important tasks to attend to. Mine is making sure that the Veiled Hand is constantly replenished with new men and women that are ready to take up the path of the Parting Veil.”
Malachite was very unlike Murash. Where Murash was young and lithe, Malachite older and massive. If the younger man had been a dancer or an artisan, Malachite would have been a wrestler or a stonemason. Haides had no illusions as to who was the more dangerous person. In a contest between the two, Malachite would win ten times out of ten. Murash’s fancy moves and elegant fighting style would break like waves upon a rocky shore, and Malachite’s brutal counter would punch through his effete defenses and end him with a single strike.
“That means that for the foreseeable future, I will be your lord and master in all things. I have many aides and assistants, but the power and the responsibility is ultimately mine. It is I, and I alone, who decides who lives and who dies. Who gets flung from the spire, who are gutted like pigs, who are skinned alive...fates that may well befall any and all of you, should you show weakness or fail to please your taskmasters.
“It is also I who decide when—if ever—any of you are ready to take the black and join the Veiled Hand. Work hard, do well, and keep on my good side. Those are the three things that might see you through training.
“You are now about to enter the sanctum of the Veiled Hand. It bears no official name, but many epithets—the Spire and the Sanctum being the least colorful and the most popular.” He stepped closer to the assembled recruits. “It is our home, our fortress, our monastery. It is where we train to become killers without equal. It is where we learn to know the secrets of the Red Right Hand of God. It is where we rest and recover between missions.” Malachite’s speech ended, and he watched in silence as we recruits were herded into the spire he had called home.
Home. What a strange word. Home had been the house in the hills. After that, there had been no homes, only places to live, and the memories of loss and betrayal.
Home. Yes, this place might just be that. A new home for a new Haides. A place for him to learn what he needed to know. Like he had learned from the men of the 57th Loches Brigade.
But like the house in the hills, it would not last forever. All things must come to an end; such is the nature of the universe. But when this place came crashing down, Haides would be ready.
No more surprises. No more weakness.