The Ninth Circle
A Novel of the U.S.S. Merrimack
Fifth in the hard-hitting military science-fiction series.
On the distant world of Zoe, an expedition finds DNA-based life. When alien invaders are also discovered, Glenn Hamilton calls on the U.S.S. Merrimack for help. But the Ninth Circle and the Palatine Empire have also found Zoe. Soon everyone will be on a collision course to determine the fate of this planet.
The blood on the wall was way too crimson. Didn’t really look like blood. Looked more like cardinal root extract.
Cinna was alone in the barracks in the dark before dawn with the gory writing on the wall. His seven brothers were gone, their bunks in order, inspection-ready.
The savage red scrawl issued coded instructions. The references wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside Cinna’s eight-man squad, except for the last line, triple-underscored and all in caps: TELL NO ONE!!
The slashing underlines dripped a bit.
The mission took Cinna outside. The Legion base was dark. Cinna’s night vision switched itself on.
All was quiet, the air warm, dry, still. A slight dust haze dimmed the stars. The rustling of Cinna’s drab fatigues and the crunching of his own footfalls sounded thunderous to him.
At the specified coordinates, between the privies and the recycling building, Cinna moved a flat rock to uncover a scroll. New instructions. And a warning to obey precisely and tell no one on pain of hideous death.
Cinna’s heart lifted.
After weeks of treating him as an outsider, Cinna’s brothers finally deemed him worthy of a hazing.
Cinna hurried back to the eight-man hut and washed the faux blood off the wall. That was the first instruction.
He wasn’t sure how his brothers had managed to paint the wall and slip out without waking him. They must have dosed him.
What were brothers for?
Brothers were for getting you into trouble.
The second instruction bade him slip out of the Legion compound under the wall.
Do not pass the guard shack. Do not get a pass.
Cinna’s nerves buzzed. Felt great.
He set off, hugging the perimeter wall, to the north end of the compound. In the blackness he found the designated escape route. He’d stepped in it.
It was a rainwater outlet. Dry as a bone now.
It hardly ever rained here. Maybe once a year. At those times the Legion compound became a forty-acre wading pool.
The egress was a shallow opening cut under the massive limestone block. Looked like a dog dug it. Cinna eeled himself under and out.
He ran all out across the flat hardpan of the surrounding badlands. He needed to get to the foothills in time.
Be quick about it, the instructions read. Miss the appointed time and you know what happens!
Cinna didn’t know what happens. Maybe he was meant to assume the implicit deadness in the line.
His brothers would kill him? Not bloody likely. But he knew he would wish he were dead if he didn’t pass this challenge. He needed to prove himself to these guys and become one of them.
Technically Cinna was already one of them. The Legion had assigned him to this squad. All but one of the squad members were variations on a single Antonian clone. And that one exception was not Cinna.
Cinna was the tyro on this squad, a year younger than the others at an age when a year was an eternity. He wasn’t a boy, but he wasn’t fully a man in Roman eyes. He was what Rome called an ephebe, a youth of eighteen or nineteen Terrestrial years of age. Cinna had just turned eighteen, just joined the training unit of Legion Persus. He had missed the war. So had his brothers. They were all sour about that.
He wasn’t truly in the squad until his brothers said he was in. Right now they were still “they,” and Cinna was still that new guy.
Cinna couldn’t say he was desperate to belong. There was no desperation in it. It was a thing he must do, and he wanted it done. Now.
His brothers were waiting for him at the edge of the salt flats. Looked as severe as the rocks behind them.
Out here the land rose straight up in a natural battlement, testament of a violent creation. The Roman colonial planet Phoenix lay quieter now than when the volcanic world first thrust the Dragon’s Back from the seabed and cooked off the waters.
Cinna’s brothers looked like him. And maybe Cinna was vain, but he thought his brothers were magnificent.
They were bronze-skinned. Tall. Built lean and hard and all in proportion. They looked at him with the same dark, dark eyes as he looked at them. Their dark hair curled more or less.
Clones were always given individual traits for recognition and accountability. Cinna and his brothers were similar but not exactly the same. And Cinna still couldn’t keep Leo and Galeo straight.
He had to wonder if the reproduction designers already knew the name of the subject clone when they doled out its distinctive genes. Did they know that Faunus was going to be a Faunus when they gave him that barrel chest, that wicked sybaritic face, and those curls? Surely they had to know he was going to be a Faunus when they gave him those curls. That head of hair was just begging for a vine wreath to crown it. Who but a Faunus could wear one of those?
Pallas was a regal, refined name. And Pallas the man was too civilized. He had a gentle look, a gentle air. His basic features were the same as the others’, but he had been drawn with an airbrush. Pallas was someone’s idea of ideal male beauty, and that was fine for Pallas. Cinna was glad that wasn’t he. Cinna’s own looks were of a sharper, rougher cut, and Cinna liked it that way.
Orissus was the hard-ass of the lot. Square, bulky, sardonic. His thick lips were made for sneering. Orissus took this insider/outsider division seriously. Orissus got clumsy with liquids around Cinna’s bunk, and he tended to step on Cinna’s parade-polished boots five minutes before inspection. Another reason to want this trial over with. It was getting hard not to hate Orissus.
Nicanor had a noble name, and he had nobility. Nicanor stood a gnat’s breath taller than the rest. He was perfect. Not as mean as Orissus. Nicanor was cold and lofty as a hero’s statue.
Leo and Galeo. Had the reprod designers gotten lazy when they cranked out those two clones? Physically, Leo and Galeo were Tweedledee and Tweedledee. But Leo was technically inclined, and Galeo was a head-basher.
And then there was Nox. He should have been taller, but there had been no choice. Nobody had designed Nox. He wasn’t a clone. Nox had been born. Really born. Not gently retrieved from an incubator at term, but extruded from a live woman’s very narrow you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me passage. Gotta love natural conception, but the final delivery? Cinna thanked any and all gods for giving him a penis.
Nox’s mother had to be insane.
Cinna could tell at first look that Nox was a wild weed. The naturally selected had a certain chaos about them. Nox stood a full handspan shorter than his brothers, and he was fair-skinned and blond. He had been born on Earth. American, but no one held that against him. Nox was not a blood brother, but he was a brother all the same. That he was adopted meant somebody deemed him worthy to be Antonian. The venerable line of Antonius hung its gens name on him and now he was Antonius Nox, every bit as Antonian as the rest of them. Maybe even more.
You could usually tell the converts from the natives. The adoptees and the novos had to prove themselves. They had a fanatical drive to out-Roman the Romans. Probably why Nox wore a traditional knee-length tunic with no trousers and sandals instead of boots. Sand under a sandal strap either ripped up your feet or made you tough. Nox kept proving he was tough. He’d already proved he was Roman enough for this squad.
Nox was in.
Cinna, the blood brother, was still out.
Orissus spat on the hard ground at Cinna’s approach. “You’re late.”
“I’m not,” said Cinna evenly. Knew he wasn’t late.
“Get moving then,” said Nicanor.
Cinna didn’t understand. “Move?”
Nicanor nodded his noble head sideways and backward toward the massif behind them. “Lead on,” said Nicanor.
“Just follow the path,” Pallas told him.
Cinna saw it now. A narrow footpath snaked up through rocks and weeds.
Cinna took the point position, though he didn’t know where he was going. He just followed the rough path that led around and up the sloped side of the massif.
The predawn sky was getting a bruised haze to it. Cinna’s night vision switched itself off.
His seven brothers hiked behind him at a distance.
As they ascended, Cinna heard them talking together behind his back. He couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Cinna set a brisk pace. The squad needed to be back on base before muster.
The Legion left its new recruits little unstructured time. The idea was to run the young men ragged so they wouldn’t have any energy to get into trouble. That was the plan. The squad was meant to be sleeping now.
Someone underestimated the energy levels of physically fit youths with a craving for risk.
So here was Cinna’s squad, forcing themselves on another march, out of bounds, against the rules.
Rules in the Empire were rigid.
But when caught between obeying the rules or following his mates, there was no real choice.
Cinna climbed nearly half a kilometer up the path that zigged and zagged over rocks, loose stones, and scrub weeds. He mounted the summit as the sky was paling from violet to blue.
Path’s end brought Cinna to the sheer eastern precipice of the rock. He recognized this place though he’d only ever seen it in pictures.
This was the crag called the Widow’s Edge.
As far as anyone knew, there was no actual grieving Roman woman to go with the name of this crag. But should one want to end it, Cinna guessed the drop from here would do the job. Thoroughly.
The air moved at this height, lifting Cinna’s hair from his brow. Gray-green leaves of stunted trees fluttered.
The wide vista took on color and detail, until sunlight lanced across the edge of the world and shut Cinna’s eyes.
He bowed his head. Opened his eyes a slit. Looked down.
The cliff face was vertical. Striated yellow-white rock blazed with a quartz gleam in the light of dawn.
The dry hardpan lay dead flat down below. A long way down below.
Gravity on the colonial planet Phoenix was stronger than on the Roman home world, Palatine. But this drop would be lethal anywhere.
A gust of air gave Cinna an unsettling push.
He took a step back from the edge. Looked up.
Seven of the world’s small moons shone in their own phases, strung across the thin dusty sky above them. The early sun threw the brothers’ shadows hard and long behind them where the western horizon hugged its indigo darkness. In between lay the nightmare of the Dragon’s Back, alternating jagged sharp ridges and deep pits of blackness.
The stars were fading. Only the steady white shine of a few planets and satellites persisted. The day would be clear. It always was.
Cinna knew he was up here for some rite of passage. He didn’t know what his brothers intended, but he was ready. He was going to be worthy.
Nox moved to the very edge of the precipice, leaned over, and peered down. The wind moved his blond hair. His tunic flapped around his thighs. He pulled his lips back from his teeth with an inward hiss. Spoke, not to Cinna. “It looks higher than I remember.”
“Well, I don’t think it grew,” said Pallas from the rear.
Leo (or was that Galeo?) glanced over the edge to see for himself and immediately shied back. “Nox is right. It’s higher.”
I’m supposed to be scared, Cinna guessed.
Cinna looked straight down.
It was scary.
Orissus stalked up behind Cinna and Nox at the edge and stood there for a silent moment. Without warning he seized Nox by the shoulders and shouted, “Watch it!”
Nox flinched. Then turned and spit in Orissus’ eye.
Orissus grinned and backed off with evil chuckles. Wiped his eye.
A smile curled into Nox’s snarl.
They were playing. Like wolf cubs.
No one played with Cinna like that. Yet.
There were eight men in this squad, like the old Roman contubernium, tent party.
In an ancient day the men of a contubernium shared a tent and a pack animal. These days they shared a barracks hut. Cinna’s squad would form a crew of a Strig when they became fully fledged legionaries, but the term for the squad remained contubernium.
Latin was Nox’s second language, and he was actually very good at it. He refused to wear a language module, so he missed words now and then. There was a story that when Nox first saw the word contubernium in print, he didn’t know what it meant, so he tried to parse it. “Con. Con. Con obviously means with. Okay then. Tuber. Tuber. Tuber.” He’d grasped about for meaning and finally guessed, “Are we sharing a potato?”
Standing now at the Widow’s Edge, Cinna asked Nox, “Is this where I get to do something with a potato?”
It was supposed to be a joke.
Nox didn’t laugh. None of them did.
Cinna deflated. I get it. I’m not one of them yet.
They wouldn’t laugh with him until he proved himself.
Well, then, let’s do it. “Are we rappelling?” Cinna asked.
The other seven remained silent. An ominous kind of silence that kept Cinna from guessing hang gliding next.
Pallas stepped forward, made Cinna face him. Pallas told him, “You are going to jump.”
Cinna had been afraid of that.
He took another look over the edge. “Then what?”
Cinna exhaled a feeble laugh.
Pallas’ expression, for all the softness to his face, was impenetrable. Cinna couldn’t read a thing on it.
Cinna looked to the others, faces like the one he saw in the mirror. Faunus a little broader. Nicanor handsomer. Orissus square and scarred. Leo and Galeo. Oh, hell, which was which? All of them looked solemn, remote, their expressions masked, tensed as if braced to sever a limb.
Cinna was afraid he was the limb.
Cinna asked, “Rope?”
“No,” said Pallas.
“What’s the trick?”
Pallas shook his head. “There isn’t one.”
Faunus, not a trace of mirth in his jovial face, said, “We’re telling you to jump.”
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