Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

How to Become a Mars Overlord

Welcome, Aspiring Potentates!

We are tremendously gratified at your interest in our little red project, and pleased that you recognize the potential growth opportunities inherent in whole-planet domination. Of course we remain humble in the face of such august and powerful interests, and seek only to showcase the unique and challenging career paths currently available on the highly desirable, iconic, and oxygen-rich landscape of Mars.

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Query: Why Mars?

It is a little known fact that every solar system contains Mars. Not Mars itself, of course. But certain suns seem to possess what we might call a habit of Martianness: In every inhabited system so far identified, there is a red planet, usually near enough to the most populous world if not as closely adjacent as our own twinkling scarlet beacon, with proximate lengths of day and night. Even more curious, these planets are without fail named for war-divinities. In the far-off Lighthouse system, the orb Makha turns slowly in the dark, red as the blood of that fell goddess to whom cruel strategists pray, she who nurses two skulls at each mammoth breast. In the Glyph system, closer to home, it is Firialai glittering there like a ripe red fruit, called after a god of doomed charges depicted in several valuable tapestries as a jester dancing ever on the tip of a sword, clutching in each of his seven hands a bouquet of whelp-muskets, bones, and promotions with golden seals. In the Biera-biera system, still yet we may walk the carnelian sands of Uppskil, the officer’s patron goddess, with her woolly dactyl-wings weighted down with gorsuscite medals gleaming purple and white. Around her orbit Wydskil and Nagskil, the enlisted man’s god and the pilot’s mad, bald angel, soaring pale as twin ghosts through Uppskil’s emerald-colored sky.

Each red planet owns also two moons, just as ours does. Some of them will suffer life to flourish. We have ourselves vacationed on the several crystal ponds of Volniy and Vernost, which attend the claret equatorial jungles of Raudhr—named, of course, for the four-faced lord of bad intelligence whose exploits have been collected in the glassily perfect septameters of the Raudhrian Eddas. We have flown the lonely black between the satellites on slim-finned ferries decked in greenglow blossoms, sacred to the poorly-informed divine personage. But most moons are kin to Phobos and Deimos, and rotate silently, empty, barren, bright stones, mute and heavy. Many a time we have asked ourselves: Does Mars dwell in a house of mirrors, that same red face repeated over and over in the distance, a quantum hiccup—or is Mars the master, the exemplum, and all the rest copies? Surely the others ask the same riddle. We would all like to claim the primacy of our own specimen—and frequently do, which led to the Astronomer’s War some years ago, and truly, no one here can bear to recite that tragic narrative, or else we should wash you all away with our rust-stained tears.

The advantages of these many Marses, scattered like ruby seeds across the known darkness, are clear: In almost every system, due to stellar circumstances beyond mortal control, Mars or Iskra or Lial is the first, best candidate for occupation by the primary world. In every system, the late pre-colonial literature of those primary worlds becomes obsessed with that tantalizing, rose-colored neighbor. Surely some of you are here because your young hearts were fired by the bedside tales of Alim K, her passionate affair with the two piscine princes of red Knisao, and how she waked dread machines in the deep rills of the Knizid mountains in order to possess them? Who among us never read of the mariner Ubaido and his silver-keeled ship, exploring the fell canals of Mikto, their black water filled with eely leviathans whose eyes shone with clusters of green pearls. All your mothers read the ballads of Sollo-Hul to each of you in your cribs, and your infant dreams were filled with gorgeous-green six-legged cricket-queens ululating on the broad pink plains of Podnebesya, their carapaces awash in light. And who did not love Ylla, her strange longings against those bronze spires? Who did not thrill to hear of those scarlet worlds bent to a single will? Who did not feel something stir within them, confronted with those endless crimson sands?

We have all wanted Mars, in our time. She is familiar, she is strange. She is redolent of tales and spices and stones we have never known. She is demure, and gives nothing freely, but from our hearths we have watched her glitter, all of our lives. Of course we want her. Mars is the girl next door. Her desirability is encoded in your cells. It is archetypal. We absolve you in advance.

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No matter what system bore you, lifted you up, made you strong and righteous, there is a Mars for you to rule, and it is right that you should wish to rule her. These are perhaps the only certainties granted to a soul like yours.

We invite you, therefore, to commit to memory our simple, two-step system to accomplish your laudable goals, for obviously no paper, digital, or flash materials ought to be taken away from this meeting.

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Step One: Get to Mars

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to get to Mars. However, to be born on a bed of gems leads to a certain laziness of the soul, a kind of muscular weakness of the ambition, a subtle sprain in the noble faculties. Not an original observation, but repetition proves the axiom. Better to excel in some other field, for the well-rounded overlord is a blessing to all. Perhaps micro-cloning, or kinetic engineering. If you must, write a novel, but only before you depart, for novels written in the post-despotic utopia you hope to create may be beloved, but will never be taken seriously by the literati.

Take as your exemplum the post-plastic retroviral architect Helix Fo. The Chilean wunderkind was born with ambition in his mouth, and literally stole his education from an upper-class boy he happened upon in a dark alley. In exchange for his life, the patriarch agreed to turn over all his books and assignments upon completion, so that Fo could shadow his university years. For his senior project, Fo locked his erstwhile benefactor in a basement and devoted himself wholly to the construction of the Parainfluenza Opera House in Santiago, whose translucent spires even now dominate that skyline. The wealthy graduate went on to menial labor in the doctoral factories much chagrined while young Fo swam in wealth and fame, enough to purchase three marriage rights, including one to an aquatic Verqoid androgyne with an extremely respectable feather ridge. By his fortieth birthday, Fo had also purchased through various companies the better part of the Atlantic Ocean, whereupon he began breeding the bacterial island which so generously hosts us tonight, and supplies our salads with such exquisite yersinia radishes. Since, nearly all interplanetary conveyances have launched from Fo’s RNA platform, for he charged no tariffs but his own passage, in comfort and grace. You will, of course, remember Fo as the first All-Emperor of Mars, and his statue remains upon the broad Athabasca Valles.

Or, rather, model yourself upon the poetess Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One of Mur, who set the glittering world of Muror letters to furious clicking and torsioning of vocabulary-bladders. You and I may be quite sure there is no lucre at all to be made in the practice of poetry, but the half-butterfly giants of Mur are hardwired for rhyming structures, they cannot help but speak in couplets, sing their simplest greetings in six-part contratenor harmonies. Muror wars exist only between the chosen bards of each country, who spend years in competitive recitings to settle issues of territory. Oorm Nineteen, her lacy wings shot through with black neural braiding, revolted, and became a mistress of free verse. Born in the nectar-soup of the capital pool, she carefully collected words with no natural rhymes like dewdrops, hoarding, categorizing, and collating them. As a child, she haunted the berry-dripping speakeasies where the great luminaries read their latest work. At the age of sixteen, barely past infancy in the long stage-shifts of a Muror, she delivered her first poem, which consisted of two words: bright. cellar. Of course, in English these have many rhymes, but in Muror they have none, and her poem may as well have been a bomb detonated on the blue floor of that famous nightclub. Oorm Nineteen found the secret unrhyming world hiding within the delicate, gorgeous structures of Muror, and dragged it out to shine in the sun. But she was not satisfied with fame, nor with her mates and grubs and sweetwater gems. That is how it goes, with those of us who answer the call. Alone in a ship of unrhymed glass she left Mur entirely, and within a year took the red diadem of Etel for her own. Each rival she assassinated died in bliss as she whispered her verses into their perishing ears.

It is true that Harlow Y, scion of the House of Y, ruled the red planet Llym for some time. However, all may admit his rule frayed and frolicked in poor measure, and we have confidence that no one here possesses the makings of a Y hidden away in her jumpsuit. Dominion of the House of Y passed along genetic lines, though this method is degenerate by definition and illegal in most systems. By the time Harlow ascended, generations of Y had been consumed by little more than fashion, public nudity, and the occasional religious fad. What species Y may have belonged to before their massive wealth (derived from mining ore and cosmetics, if the earliest fairy tales of Vyt are to be believed) allowed constant and enthusiastic gene manipulation, voluntary mutation, prostheses, and virtual uplink, no one can truly say. Upon the warm golden sea of Vyt you are House Y or you are prey, and they have forcibly self-evolved out of recognizability. Harlow himself appears in a third of his royal portraits something like a massive winged koala with extremely long, ultraviolet eyelashes and a crystalline torso. Harlow Y inherited majority control over Llym as a child, and administered it much as a child will do, mining and farming for his amusement and personal augmentation. Each of his ultraviolet lashes represented thousands of dead Llymi, crushed to death in avalanches in the mine shafts of the Ypo mountains. But though Harlow achieved overlordship with alacrity and great speed, he ended in assassination, his morning hash-tea and bambun spectacularly poisoned by the general and unanimous vote of the populace.

Mastery of Mars is not without its little lessons.

It is surely possible to be born on a red planet. The Infanza of Hap lived all her life in the ruby jungles of her homeworld. She was the greatest actress of her age; her tails could convey the colors of a hundred complex emotions in a shimmering fall of shades. So deft were her illusions that the wicked old Rey thought her loyal and gentle beyond words even as she sunk her bladed fingers into his belly. But we must assume that if you require our guidance, you did not have the luck of a two-tailed Infanza, and were born on some other, meaner world, with black soil, or blue storms, or sweet rain falling like ambition denied.

Should you be so unfortunate as to originate upon a planet without copious travel options, due to economic crisis, ideological roadblocks, or simply occupying a lamentably primitive place on the technological timeline—have no fear. You are not alone in this. We suggest cryonics—the severed head of Plasticene Bligh ruled successfully over the equine haemovores of A-O-M for a century. He gambled, and gambled hard—he had his brain preserved at the age of twenty, hoping against hope that the ice might deliver him into a world more ready for his rarified soul. Should you visit A-O-M, the great wall of statues bearing her face (the sculptors kindly gave her a horse-body) will speak to what may be grasped when the house pays out.

If cryonics is for some reason unpopular on your world, longevity research will be your bosom friend. Invest in it, nurture it: Only you can be the steward of your own immortality. Even on Earth, Sarai Northe, Third Emira of Valles Marineris, managed to outlive her great-grandchildren by funding six separate think tanks and an Australian diamond mine until one underpaid intern presented her upon her birthday with a cascade of injections sparkling like champagne.

But on some worlds, in some terrible, dark hours, there is no road to Mars, no matter how much the traveling soul might desire it. In patchwork shoes, staring up at a starry night and one gleaming red star among the thousands—sometimes want is not enough. Not enough for Maximillian Bauxbaum, a Jewish baker in Provence, who in his most secret evenings wrote poetry describing such strange blood-colored deserts, such dry canals, a sky like green silk. Down to his children, and to theirs and theirs again, he passed a single ruby, the size of an egg, the size of a world. The baker had been given it as a bribe by a Christian lord, to take his leave of a certain maiden whom he loved, with hair the color of oxide-rich dust, and eyes like the space between moons. Never think on her again, never whisper her name to the walls. Though he kept his promise to an old and bitter death, such a treasure can never be spent, for it is as good as admitting your heart can be bought.

Sarai Northe inherited that jewel, and brought it with her to bury beneath the foundations of the Cathedral of Olympus Mons.

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In the end, you must choose a universe that contains yourself and Mars, together and perfect. Helix Fo chose a world built by viruses as tame as songbirds. Oorm Nineteen chose a world gone soft and violet with unrhyming songs. Make no mistake: every moment is a choice, a choice between this world and that one, between heavens teeming with life and a lonely machine grinding across red stone, between staying at home with tea and raspberry cookies and ruling Mars with a hand like grace.

Maximillian Bauxbaum chose to keep his promise. Who is to say it is not that promise, instead of microbial soup, which determined that Mars would be teeming with blue inhuman cities, with seventeen native faiths, by the time his child opened her veins to those terrible champagne-elixirs, and turned her eyes to the night?

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Step 2: Become an Overlord

Now we come to the central question at the core of planetary domination: just how is it done? The answer is a riddle. Of course, it would be.

You must already be an overlord in order to become one.

Ask yourself: What is an overlord? Is he a villain? Is she a hero? A cowboy, a priestess, an industrialist? Is he cruel, is he kind, does she rule like air, invisible, indispensable? Is she the first human on Mars, walking on a plain so incomprehensible and barren that she feels her heart empty? Does she scratch away the thin red dust and see the black rock beneath? Does he land in his sleek piscine capsule on Uppskil, so crammed with libraries and granaries that he lives each night in an orgy of books and bread? What does she lord over? The land alone, the people, the belligerent patron gods with their null-bronze greaves ablaze?

Is it true, as Oorm Nineteen wrote, that the core of each red world is a gem of blood compressed like carbon, a hideous war-diamond that yearns toward the strength of a king or a queen as a compass yearns toward north? Or is this only a metaphor, a way in which you can anthropomorphize something so vast as a planet, think of it as something capable of loving you back?

It would seem that the very state of the overlord is one of violence, of domination. Uncomfortable colonial memories arise in the heart like acid—everyone wants to be righteous. Everyone wishes to be loved. What is any pharaonic statue, staring out at a sea of malachite foam, but a plea of the pharaoh to be loved, forever, unassailably, without argument? Ask yourself: Will Mars be big enough to fill the hole in you, the one that howls with such winds, which says the only love sufficient to quiet those winds is the love of a planet, red in tooth, claw, orbit, mass?

We spoke before of how to get to Mars if your lonely planet offers no speedy highway through the skies. Truthfully—and now we feel we can be truthful, here, in the long night of our seminar, when the clicking and clopping of the staff has dimmed and the last of the cane-cream has been sopped up, when the stars have all come out and through the crystal ceiling we can all see one (oh, so red, so red!) just there, just out of reach—truthfully, getting to Mars is icing. It is parsley. To be an overlord is to engage in mastery of a bright, red thing. Reach out your hand—what in your life, confined to this poor grit, this lone blue world, could not also be called Mars? Rage, cruelty, the god of your passions, the terrible skills you possess, that forced obedience from a fiery engine, bellicose children, lines of perfect, gleaming code? These things, too, are Mars. They are named for fell gods, they spit on civilized governance—and they might, if whipped or begged, fill some nameless void that hamstrings your soul. Mars is everywhere; every world is Mars. You cannot get there if you are not the lord and leader of your own awful chariot, if you are not the crowned paladin in the car, instead of the animal roped to it, frothing, mad, driven, but never understanding. We have said you must choose, as Bauxbaum and Oorm and Fo chose—to choose is to understand your own highest excellence, even if that is only to bake bread and keep promises. You must become great enough here that Mars will accept you.

Some are chosen to this life. Mars itself is chosen to it, never once in all its iterations having been ruled by democracy. You may love Mars, but Mars loves a crown, a sceptre, a horn-mooned diadem spangled in ice opals. This is how the bride of Mars must be dressed. Make no mistake—no matter your gender, you are the blushing innocent brought to the bed of a mate as ancient and inscrutable as any deathshead bridegroom out of myth. Did you think that the planet would bend to your will? That you would control it? Oh, it is a lovely word: Overlord. Emperor. Pharaoh. Princeps. But you will be changed by it as by a virus. Mars will fill your empty, abandoned places. But the greatest of them understood their place. The overlord embraces the red planet, but in the end, Mars always triumphs. You will wake in your thousand year reign to discover your hair gone red, your translucent skin covered in dust, your three hearts suddenly fused into a molten, stony core. You will cease to want food, and seek out only cold, black air to drink. You will face the sun and turn, slowly, in circles, for days on end. Your thoughts will slow and become grand; you will see as a planet sees, speak as it speaks, which is to say: the long view, the perfected sentence.

And one morning you will wake up and your mouth will be covered over in stone, but the land beneath you, crimson as a promise, as a ruby, as an unrhymed couplet, as a virus—the land, or the machine, or the child, or the book, will speak with your voice, and you will be an overlord, and how proud we shall be of you, here, by the sea, listening to the dawn break over a new shore.

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Catherynne M. Valente

Valente, CatherynneCatherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Spectrum Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and an enormous cat.

12 Responses »

  1. really enjoyed listening to this story! Lightspeed has again delivered another great story! CONGRATULATIONS!!!

  2. Read this real quick at work – great first impression. Will have to pick over it more carefully tonight (and listen to the podcast with my boyf, of course!). Kinda want to see a companion story about becoming the scion of Venus or something.

  3. I really enjoyed Catherynne’s take on a science fiction story; the POV is so far removed from the more traditional hard-SF I also love (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is still one of my favorites). The lyrical, almost myth-like structure and descriptions of place are reminiscent of not only her longer works, but those of Caitlin Kiernan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others.

    And thank you for choosing Robin Sachs to narrate – the vocal inflection is a perfect fit. Another voice to add to the slowly growing list of readers I’ll search out; clear, understandable and an absolute pleasure to listen to.

  4. Aching lovely. I want to read this over and over and over again, just to feel the words on my tongue.

  5. A stunning story. CMV’s vividly imagined worlds are always a treat to visit — even when they’re sinister. I suspect I’ll always think of Mars now as a planet of indomitable will and seductive strength. I’m reminded of Holst’s The Planets; I saw a production, once, with a provincial symphony and accompanying visual arts. Reading this story, I hear Mars as clearly and as terribly as when I was only fifteen.

    I’ll be reading this again very shortly, I suspect. And listening to the podcast. And adding it to the list of reasons why I absolutely adore CMV.

  6. Freakin’ beautiful – and now I will spend days wondering what my Mars is, and whether I can ever understand my own highest excellence.

  7. “There is no lucre at all to be made in the practice of poetry”, and yet this is what this story is. And I’m not using poetry in the colloquial sense of ‘very good prose': Cat’s writing is an aesthetic experience in itself, and the plot a slave to the word-forging.

  8. Beautiful, impressive story about ambitions, to me.

    Imagine a globe filled with red pebbles that might be earth one day if we carry ambitiously on like this.

  9. Wow. Just gorgeous.

  10. Read it twice, listened once, and am unable to free myself from the spell of her words.
    Honeyed verse, yet dark as space, and red with ambitious intent.
    Thank you and more please!

  11. Almost hypnotic, beautiful and foreign. I loved this story.

  12. I listened to this today whilst leaning on a railing over the Mersey and watching a storm cloud break over the towering architecture of Liverpool city centre.

    The setting, combined with the story, combined with the reading, made this an awesome experience.

    I’ll remember this one for years to come. Thanks!

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