The little girl was humming quietly. Her name was Zoia, and she knew she shouldn’t make too much noise; it was dark out, and her mother needed to sleep. She’d thought about this before she left the hab unit and wandered towards the communal area outside. Zoia was a good girl like that. Her mother said she was considerate, which was a big word with a meaning she didn’t really understand. But it was always delivered with a smile, so it couldn’t be a bad thing.
The corridors were silent, draped in shadows that grew and shrank in time with the flickering lumens overhead. Yet Zoia had little fear, for the world was often dark, and the small doll she carried made her feel like she wasn’t alone. She sang it a lullaby, the same one her mother used to soothe her into sleep when her father came home full of drink and rage at the injustices of the world. Zoia knew by the dried tear streaks on her mother’s face that the song was as much for her as it was for her daughter.
Her mother had been crying that night too, though her father was absent now, gone to join the rebellion. Outside, visible through the small, grimy window, the smog layers had glowed, burning orange and red. Zoia had stared through the pane, mesmerised by the sight, while her mother stood behind her, taking small swigs from an old bottle. Eventually, her mother had sat away from the window, muttering “the Emperor protects” over and over until exhaustion claimed her.
As she took the last set of stairs down, Zoia wondered where everyone was. Shadows in the stairwells were often people engaging in things Zoia knew she wouldn’t like or want to be part of, but tonight every stair was empty. The lullaby faded to nothing as she poked her head out, and she frowned, unsure what to do. She could go back upstairs, but if she did, what would have been the point in coming this far in the first place?
Before she even knew she’d made the decision she was out, craning her neck and smiling with delight. The sky was cloudless and even the colours from earlier were gone. She’d never seen a clear sky before, never seen with her own eyes the lights glittering like diamonds against the wall of night. Zoia was captivated by the strange wonder of it. She knew the points of light could be joined to make patterns, but she couldn’t remember what they were, so she raised a finer and began tracing her own. She turned as she did so, following imaginary lines in her head.
She stopped when the shadow fell across her.
Her hand faltered, dropping to her side as her turn brought the giant into full view. It was silent and still, like a statue. Zoia’s jaw dropped a little as she took in the sheer size of it. Taller than anyone she’d ever seen, it was covered in what looked like slabs of gleaming metal, black against the ashen background of the hab block. It wore a helmet – she knew that’s what it was, from the picture books -and its eyes glowed red like the lumens in the corridors. It carried a huge, angular gun in one hand, and in the other a long, metal thing with triangular teeth around the edge. A symbol with spread wings stretched across its chest in pure white, a larger version of the icon her mother wore around her neck. The doll fell from her grasp, the rag that had covered it flopping into a shallow puddle at her feet.
“Are you the Emperor?” she asked it.
The giant said nothing but continued to gaze down at her with its baleful crimson eyes. Maia stared back, enthralled.
She flinched as the giant moved, so quick she couldn’t register everything that happened next. Its head rose and turned. As guttural shouts erupted from nowhere, it stepped forward, raising the gun. Two flat bangs echoed, impossibly loud, and Maia dropped to her knees, her hands covering her ears. She squealed in terror, curling up to make herself as small as possible. A revving grumble sounded, rising shockingly in pitch and volume. Zoia mumbled the lullaby, the words catching in her throat as she struggled to draw breath. Something wet splashed across her face and she began to sob.
The grumble lowered, then stopped, like a sentry canid being pacified. For a moment, all was quiet, then three metallic thumps sounded in quick succession.
The voice was metallic, the sound of an old voxvid played too many times. Zoia raised her head and saw men lying on the ground around her, inert shapes only half visible in the starlight. She counted four, though she flinched when she looked at the one lying closest to her. He looked as if he’d been chewed up, his sightless eyes fixed on the same stars she’d gazed at with such wonder.
She brushed her hair aside and stood up, stumbling back when she saw the giant on one knee beside her. In one hand it held her doll, miniscule against its armoured fingers. She hesitated, then reached forward to take it, clutching it to her chest. The giant stood, and Zoia took more steps backwards.
“Thank you,” she said.
The giant nodded once, then turned and walked away towards the darkness at the far end of the space. Zoia watched the night swallow it, and for a second, she thought she saw more glowing red eyes in the shadows.
Zoia turned too, running for the stairs she’d come down. As she reached them, she looked up, wanting to hold the image of the clear sky in case it never came again. And all the way up the stairs to the hab unit she called home, she wondered which one of those stars the Emperor had come from.