The Stars Are Legion
“THERE IS NOTHING I FEAR MORE THAN SOMEONE WITHOUT MEMORY. A PERSON WITHOUT MEMORY IS FREE TO DO ANYTHING SHE LIKES.”
—LORD MOKSHI, ANNALS OF THE LEGION
I remember throwing away a child.
That’s the only memory I know for certain is mine. The rest is a gory blackness. All I have, then, are the things I’ve been told are true:
My name is Zan.
I once commanded a great army.
My mission was to destroy a world that does not exist.
I’m told my army was scattered, or eaten, or blown apart into a thousand twinkling bits of debris, and I went missing.
I don’t know why I’d ever want to lead an army—especially a losing one—but I’m told I spent my life pushing hard to get to the rank and skill I attained. And when I came back, spit out by the world or wrenched free of my own will, I came back wrong. What wrong means I don’t know yet, only that it’s also resulted in my lack of memory.
The first face I see when I wake each period in my sickbed is full-lipped and luminous, like looking into the face of some life-giving sun. The woman says her name is Jayd, and it is she who has told me all I know to be true. When I ask, now, why there is a dead body on the floor behind her, she only smiles and says, “There are many bodies on the world,” and I realize the words for world and ship are nearly identical. I don’t know which she used.
When I wake next, the body is gone, and Jayd is bustling around me. She helps me sit up for the first time. I marvel at the dark bruises on the insides of my arms and legs. A broad scar cuts my belly in two, low near my groin, and there is something strange about my left hand; it’s clearly smaller than the right. When I try to make a fist, it closes only halfway, like a tortured claw. When I slide to the floor, I discover that the bottoms of my feet are mostly numb. Jayd does not give me time to examine them as she pulls a porous, draping robe over my shoulders. It’s the same cut and heft as hers, only dark green to her blue.
“It’s time for your first debriefing,” Jayd says as I try to make sense of my injuries. She takes my hand and leads me from the room, down a dark, pulsing corridor. I squint. I see that our entwined hands are the same tawny color, but her skin is much softer than mine.
“You were gone for a half-dozen turns,” she says, and she sits me down beside her in a room off the corridor. I stare at my palms, trying to open and close my hands. If I work at it, I can get the left to close a
bit more. The room, like the corridors, is a warm, glistening space with walls that throb like a beating heart. Jayd smooths the dark hair from my brow with comforting fingers, the movement as reverent and well practiced as a prayer.
“We thought you dead,” she says, “recycled.”
“Recycled into what?” I say, but the wall blooms open, the door unfurling like a flower, and an older woman beckons us inside, and Jayd ignores my question.
Jayd and I go after her and sit on a damp bench on one side of the great plain of a table. The woman sits across from us. Patterns move over the surface of the table, though whether they are writing or purely decorative or something else entirely, I don’t know. The more I look at them, the more my head throbs. I touch my temple, only to find that my fingers come away sticky with viscous lubricant or salve. I trace my finger along the ridge of a long scar that runs from the edge of my left brow to the curl of my left ear. I have still not seen my own face. I have encountered no reflective surfaces. There is indeed something very wrong here, but I don’t think it’s me.
“I’m Gavatra,” the older woman says, her voice a low rumble. Her black hair is shorn short against her dark scalp, revealing four long scars like scratch marks on the side of her head. She wears a long, durable garment of shiny blue fabric, like something excreted from the walls. It’s all held together with intricate knotted ties. She peers into my face and sighs. “Do you know who you are?”
Jayd says, “It’s the same as all the other times.”
“Other times?” I say, because how many times can one lose an army and get eaten by a ship and come back with injuries like these and live?
Jayd gazes deeply into my eyes, desperately searching my face for something. She has a broad, intense face with sunken eyes, and a bold
beak of nose. I feel I should know or understand something from her look, but my memory is a hot, sticky void. I intuit nothing. I flex my hands again.
“Eight hundred and six of your sisters have tried to board the Mokshi,” Gavatra says, tapping her fingers across the surface of the table. The patterns change, and she scrutinizes them as if scrying. “You’re the only one who ever comes out, Zan. This appears to be why Lord Katazyrna keeps sending you there, despite the fact that you’ve never successfully led an army inside. Only yourself.”
“The Mokshi,” I say. “The world that doesn’t exist?”
“Yes,” Jayd says. “You remember?” Hopeful or doubtful?
I shake my head. The phrase means nothing to me. It has simply surfaced. “How many times has this happened to me?” I say. My left hand trembles, and I gaze at it as if it belongs to someone else. It occurs to me that maybe it once did, and that chills me. I want to know what’s happened to my memory, and why there was a body on the floor in my sick room, and why I threw away a child. But I know they aren’t going to be pretty answers.
“You are blessed of the War God, sister mine,” Jayd says, but she is looking at Gavatra as she says it. It’s like being a child again, stuck in a room with people who have a deep history between them; too deep and complicated for a child to fathom. Even more curious is that if Jayd is really my sister, then the feeling that stirs my gut when she twines her fingers in my hair is entirely wrong.
I lift my gaze to Gavatra and firm my jaw. A grim purpose fills me. “I wish to know what happened to me,” I say. “You can tell me or have me wrest it from you.” I can make both hands into fists now. That action feels more natural than anything I’ve done so far.
Gavatra barks out a laugh. She swipes at the table and pulls a nest
of dancing lights from its surface and into the air. I watch them tangle above her, fascinated. She swipes them back onto another part of the table.
“You’re fulfilling your duty to your mother, the Lord of Katazyrna,” Gavatra says, “as are we all. But perhaps Jayd is right this time. Perhaps it’s time we retire you.”
“I feel you owe me a memory,” I say.
“Then you must retake the Mokshi,” Gavatra says. “We don’t have your memory here. That ship ate it. It seems to eat it every time. You want your memory, you take the Mokshi . . . and get a squad in there with you this time.”
“I will go again, then,” I say.
“Mother can’t afford to risk another squad,” Jayd says, “not with the Bhavajas lying in wait for us in orbit around the Mokshi. The Bhavajas have taken another ship since you’ve been gone, Zan.”
“What’s a Bhavaja?” I say.
Gavatra rolls her eyes. “These cycles get tiring,” she says.
“They are the greatest enemy of our family,” Jayd says. “A family we have been feuding with since Mother was a child. It’s only a matter of time before they take the Mokshi out from under us too. Maybe even all the Katazyrna ships.” This time, I am sure she says ship and not world, because taking an entire world seems impossible.
“The Mokshi has destroyed a good many people,” Gavatra says. “Your mother will just steal more from some other distressed world. If Zan is ready to assault the Mokshi again, I won’t deny her.”
Jayd slumps in her chair, defeated. Am I something to be fought over and won? “This is a foolish enterprise,” Jayd says. “It’s just as likely that Zan will die as it is she’ll retrieve her memory. Some of it comes back without you going to the Mokshi, Zan. If you stay—”
“No,” I say. I press my finger against the long ridge of the scar on my face again. “I would like to finish what’s been started.”
Gavatra waves her hand over the table, and the patterns of light fade, revealing the table surface for what it is: a smooth, stitched-together canvas of human skin.
I jerk up from the bench. The trembling in my arm becomes a spasm, and I lash out and smash the wall. The wall gives under my fist, as if I’ve mashed it into a lung. When I pull my hand away, it is moist. My body begins to shake; my breath comes hard and fast.
Jayd wraps her arms around me. “Hush, it will pass,” she says.
I feel as if I’m watching my body from a great height, unable to contain or control it. The panic is a monstrous thing. My body is trying to fight or flee, and I can’t allow it to do either until I understand what’s happening here. The attack is so sudden, so consuming, that it terrifies me.
Gavatra snorts and stands. “She’s going to pop again,” Gavatra says, and she scratches at the scars on her head.
My heart hammers loudly in my chest. A dark and twisted impulse seizes me; an uncoiling of everything I have held back while pushed and prodded in my sick room.
I leap across the table and take Gavatra by the throat. We collide with the wall and fall into a tangle on the floor. Gavatra writhes beneath me, gasping like a dying woman, and perhaps she is. As I straddle her and look at my hands, I fear my weaker left is not up to the task of strangling a woman to death.
I bare my teeth at Gavatra. “I do not believe a word of what you have told me,” I say.
Gavatra twists my weaker arm. Pain rushes through me, blinding my panic. She head-butts me in the face, so fast and unexpected that I
reel back in shock as much as pain, clutching at my face as blackness judders across my vision.
Jayd rushes between me and Gavatra. She slides across the floor to wrap me again in her arms, as if I am a prize animal gone feral.
Gavatra uses the table to lever herself up. She rubs at her throat and gives a wry grin. “Perhaps there is something of the old Zan in this one,” she says.
“My memory!” I say.
“You fool,” Gavatra says. “You have no idea what a gift that loss is for you.” And then Gavatra smiles, her wrinkles deepening, her face cavernous in the dim light. “The truth is worse than you can possibly imagine.”
“Get me out of here,” I say. The panic is subsiding now, but the pulsing walls feel closer, as if the room itself is going to swallow me whole.
Jayd presses her cheek to mine. I take a fistful of her hair and squeeze gently. “Who are you, really?” I whisper.
I feel her mouth turn up at the corners. “I am your sister, Zan mine.”
And I smile in turn because my face is throbbing, and a trickle of blood runs from my nose, and I remember my other injuries. I have two choices here: to fight them and risk being recycled—whatever that is—or to go along with it, to give them what they want, and figure out where my memory has really gone and why these people are going to so much trouble to pretend I am their kin.
“I’m afraid,” I say, and that is partly the truth. I am afraid of what I am going to have to do to this person who claims she is my sister, but who I want to take into my arms and fuck until the world ends.