The Hadronic Empress is startled awake by the sound of bleating klaxons. When she opens her eyes the flashing lights stab her vision, and she throws an arm, thin and wobbly like a chicken wing, across her face. She tries to uncoil herself from her gilded Throne of a Million Triumphs, but her left leg is asleep, tingling with a thousand needles as if the client of one of her journeyman torturers.
The word of command rises slowly, like cold tar, in her throat. “Wa.. Wa… Wan!”
In an instant he is by her side, a curled up stick of a man. She can smell the perfume he wears, floral and bitter like medicine. “Yes, thou Exquisite Grace?” Despite his formal address there is something familiar and contemptuous in his tones.
“Where are… ” She hesitates, afraid to reveal the gray fuzziness in her mind, then clears her throat. “Have we arrived? The alarms woke me.”
Wan’s mouth is thin and papery, but it crinkles up at the edges. He seems to be trying to smile. “Yes, thou Exquisite Grace. We are in orbit around Chthon.” He starts to shuffle away, on those ridiculous curled slippers beneath his long metallic robes, but pauses and turns back. “I took the liberty of ordering the baryon cannons to be instantiated. The choristers have chanted the hymn of execution, and the weaponeers only await the final syllable of destruction from thy lips.”
“And then…” Her mind is still empty, a cavern. What is their purpose here? But she is afraid to ask, lest Wan challenge her authority.
The mouth opens slightly, the lips sodden pulp. “And the Republic of Time will be no more.”
She cannot help herself. A sigh slides out of her lungs and through her nose. “And then it will be at an end,” she murmurs.
“No, thou Exquisite Grace,” Wan says, correcting her with force. He bends his narrow face closer to her. “There will be no more ends, no more beginning. That is why we wage this war against the Republic.” He leans back, his yellow eyes bemused. “Dost thou not remember?”
She starts to protest, to say, Of course I don’t remember, I’m too old, but then she does. She does remember. She had been dreaming it.
She remembers a little hovel beneath a blue sky. The smell of earth and old wood and smoke. And she remembers the scratch of her father’s beard against her cheek when he kissed her goodnight, and the smell of oil and sweat on his skin. And she remembers the rise and fall of her mother crying, after the news of her father’s death, over and over again, repeating like a nightingale’s song. And the emptiness in her belly like a inverted stone, and how she walked up and down the streets with her mother begging for food until their feet bled. And how her mother knocked on a door and and a woman in fancy clothes answered and her mother offered to do things, anything, as long as they received food. The woman in fancy clothes shook her head, then pointed down at her and said, Her now, we could use a one such as her.
The Empress closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to remember any more.
“No ends and no beginings. That’s what thou promised, so many years ago,” Wan reminds her. “Thou promised to shatter the years, the centuries, the eons.”
“So I did,” she says, her voice a little tattered thread coming unraveled. “So I did.”