Today's Reading

NEWAGE MARA
THE KARENSA FEDERATION
Six Months After the Fall of Mara'

CHAPTER 1

TALIN

The place where my mother's house once stood is now a field of scorched dirt. I have a memory of her rows of green plants, fat pea pods hanging from their vines, water dewing on the lemon-scented leaves of her sweetgrass. That's all gone.

The rest of her old street is gone too—every leaning shack, every pot steaming over a fire. The narrow alleys crowded on either side with makeshift vendors, draped with faded fabrics and rusted tin sheets, arrayed with bags of spices and salvaged tools from the scrapyards for sale, the air pungent with the smell of frying fish, grease, and raw sewage. All gone.

The slums of Newage's Outer City were never a beautiful place, but now they're nothing more than mud and earth and debris. The only footprints are those of Karensan boots, the Federation coming through for their inspections. Off in the distance, their workers are hammering down new train tracks leading straight into Newage— once Mara's capital—now another city fallen to the Federation.

The National Plaza has been taken over by a sprawl of pallets, nurses caring for injured Federation troops and Maran prisoners of war. The apartment where I used to share quarters with Red has been converted into barracks where eight Federation soldiers are bunking together. And the underground prison pit, where Red was once kept and where I'd been held upon our return to Mara, has become a massive excavation site. I can see Mayor Elland of Cardinia standing beside the churned earth, talking with the head engineer about the logistics of shipping their findings back to the capital.

The Federation believes that the Early Ones left behind a powerful, ancient source of energy in the land underneath Mara, and Premier Constantine thinks they've found it here, in the depths of what used to be our prison. Karensan engineers have exploded open the entrance and sent their drill teams down into the silo. The lowest floor is now a pit leading into darkness, the space cut by dozens of ropes and pulleys.

The changes extend to everything. The wall where I used to crouch as a small child, eyes shining and legs swinging, as Striker patrols headed out to the warfront, is completely covered with papers from Marans searching for lost loved ones. It has looked like this since the city first fell six months ago.

'Lost: Damian Wen Danna, beloved father.'

'Has anyone seen Kira Min Calla, daughter, twelve, separated from mother in flight to the tunnels?'

'Errin An Perra searching for her baby, Seanine Min Perra, blue eyes, brown hair, 19 months old, separated near the south walls.'

'Torro Wen Marin looking for his parents, Karin An Tamen and Parro Wen Marin, both missing since the day of invasion.'

On and on. The papers pile so thick on top of one another, a stack of anguished searching, that it looks like the wall itself is made of paper. I wonder if Basea's walls were like this, too, after the smoke cleared. I wonder if there was even anyone left to search for us.

Every home has a door hung with the Karensan seal. Every storefront has prices written in Karensan notes. Every corner has at least one or two Karensan soldiers, most of them looking bored as they shove their hands into the pockets of their scarlet uniforms and complain about the chill.

Six months was all it took for my memories of a free, independent Mara to fade away. I had settled into the routine of life here, hopeful that things would stay the same, until I was reminded once again of how quickly everything can vanish. One instant, there is a society, a set of steel walls, and a home. The next, there is ash.

I stand beside Constantine Tyrus, the young Premier of the Karensa Federation, in the arena where I used to train with my fellow Strikers. This place, too, has changed—its sides draped with enemy banners—but its purpose remains the same. We're here today to oversee the punishment of prisoners.

Constantine's brother, General Caitoman, stands on his other side, the two speaking in low voices. Other soldiers stay at attention near us. I cast a brief glance toward them. A few catch my eye— immediately they lower their gazes to the ground in terror, their heads hanging in bowed deference to me.

I feel a tug of satisfaction at their fear. Then revulsion washes over me.

They're afraid of me because they see a monster created by their Premier.

From the corner of my eye, I can make out where the soft skin on my forearm between my wrist and elbow now has armor running underneath it. The bones of my body are now fortified with the essence of steel. My hair has taken on the same metallic sheen that Red's has. The backs of my hands bear a tattoo of a diamond shape, the symbol of something indestructible.


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