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Victory Condition

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Foreword to The Sacrifice of Violence And Other Works

The endeavor of translating poetry from one language to another is fraught with difficulty, and all the more so when attempting to convey the intentions and meanings of an alien species, much less an inorganic one. The translator in this case does not remotely claim to have done so with any real accuracy. Aside from the many untranslatable words and concepts, and the undoubtedly common instances in which subtleties have been misunderstood or confused, the original author deliberately avoids all established conventions of Cybertronian poetry except when he engages them for a brief moment only to jarringly break away again, which renders his work challenging even for the native Cybertronian readers who have formed her primary sources of assistance.

Complicating matters further, long sections of these poems cannot be experienced by humans at all because they require multiple sections—in one case as many as twenty—to be preloaded into memory and then processed simultaneously in parallel, an action trivial for the cybernetic mind and virtually impossible for our own. Several of these sections are actively contradictory and some are literally nonsensical; others are nontextual forms of input. Based on conversations with Autobots, the parallel processing of these sections induces sensations in Cybertronian brains completely unlike sequential processing of the same material, which they have not been able to articulate in human terms.

The translator offers this work, therefore, not as an accurate representation of the original, but rather as fragments of lost artworks gleaned from a shipwreck: difficult to retrieve, occasionally valuable in their own right, and perhaps conveying some faint suggestion of what the original might have been. But she is well aware the entire effort may be a failure both as poetry and translation, and apologizes to the reader in advance. The original poet could not be consulted for his opinion, for obvious reasons.


We woke today together on the soft crust of a borrowed world
Not for the first time, most of you,
so often shipped as soldiers to unchosen destinations
to die under a distant star.
You looked with easy disinterest on red-brown soil and an atmosphere so thick it scattered half the wavelengths of solid light into a haze
and wreathed us all in clouds of clinging gas,
and when you asked where we were, you didn’t really care about the answer,
some contrived name or set of coordinates.
What mattered was how far we were from home
And what we had to do before we could go back.

But here at least we’ve come by choice
Mine and yours, to do this work
And we’ll decide when it’s done ourselves
For ourselves, not for the lies they used to tell us
We’ve left them in the ashes of their own works
And though our world’s still dark, now it’s only for the lack of fuel.
Nothing left needs burning.

Soft cells still hold their shape until they burn,
blind trees climb fractals towards the sunlight.
Even the weakest, all life strives, without accepting the limit of its reach…

We are always lying when we say here is all that I can give
When it feels the most true, still what we mean is
Here is where my heart stops

But the universe doesn’t care where your heart stops.
That’s not the question it asks
It’s only the question we want to answer
But the universe asks us only
Where do your limbs stop?
Where does your breath stop?
Where do your eyes go dark?

The universe is patient
Again and again it listens to the lie
Again and again it lets us draw the line.
But the universe and its patience are not infinite
One day sooner or later it grows tired of waiting
It puts a hand on our back and pushes
And we find that we can go on past our hearts
We can leave them behind entirely, in fact
We can go on so much further that we can no longer look back and see them.

Let the fallen rise again, in silver ranks
Armored with truth, shining
Let them stand up in the dark and say
I didn’t deserve to die.
That their deaths were only the consequence of hunger
and the hidden knife called glory carved them
for another’s feasting.

Let them march ahead of us, a forward guard
Carrying no banners to block our sight…

Will you ask to live?
You will. You know you will.
When the hand closes on your throat, when the ash thickens your breath, you will ask, and ask again—

What promises will you make, when your shining dome comes down, that you withheld to see it rise?
Will you still value its bright curve, steel and stone, higher than a breath in freedom?
What will you then want more than the unbound hand and the open mouth?
Make ready your offers and your bargains. Breathe. Breathe now.

I didn’t know I was going to make it until I had
Until I crossed the threshold back to a single pair of waiting hands
With the cheering, disappointed crowd behind me.
They were glad for any blood, but they’d hoped for mine
A pleasure too long denied, become more sweet
And they’d come so close this time.

I didn’t know I was going to make it when I put the remnant of my last sword through its skull
And pinned it to the oil-dark sand to finish smothering.
It might have broken loose
It might have spat one last gout of slagging poison in my face
It might have already killed me,
Some toxin that hadn’t yet wound its way through my systems
I didn’t know I’d make it to the doors,
Even after it stopped twitching and I caught my breath.

And I didn’t know I was going to make it when I came out on the sand and saw it waiting.
But I knew that I wouldn’t unless I spent myself
Down to the last credit
Buying victory with pawned scraps of my armor and my strength and pain
A bargain worth the making, only I wouldn’t know until the end
Whether the offer was acceptable
And either way I’d have to suffer just the same.

Or I could give up, instead; go down easy.
After fifty thousand years of fighting for their pleasure
I was bored, and sick of it and them
And I didn’t have anywhere better to be.
I could have gone at it head-on, and let it take me quick
and taken that pleasure from them, at least.

But still I didn’t want to die.
So I spent everything I had and got paid back in kind
And when I made it out, this time I kept going,
Out of the arena walls into the streets of Tarn
Where the cheering crowd put me on their shoulders like an idol and carried me
And from that godlike height I first saw better in the distance
The empire that I could build upon their bodies
And I decided that they all deserved to die
At least as much as I did
Or the poor stupid beast I’d slaughtered for their pleasure
And all the ones before it.

So I’ll make the bargain for us all
And if there’s a way to that empire shining like an unsheathed blade with truth
Buy it with all we have
Though we won’t know if we’ll make it until we have.

This stuff’s boring as scrap, one of the bodyguards said to the other, out on the balcony,
while inside the room the others read my poetry.
Boring, but at least there’s good energon
and nobody’s trying to kill you.
Inside the nodding heads agreed with him.
The nodding heads, polite, who understood very well
That they were paying with poetry and boredom
With all the forms and appearances of delight
For their delightful situation

The other bodyguard said nah, poetry’s cool
You just can’t listen to the scrap they try to sell you with it
I was out in Mantira Chasm before I got here
And we were sure we were all gonna die
We were just waiting for them to get around to it
They were dropping the trench bombs one an hour
And there were six more left before us
Then one of the guys said let’s not just sit here
I’ll tell you a poem
And he told us the one about killing the durasteel slagger
That one they read ten minutes ago and said it was about being your best self
Nah, it’s about killing a durasteel slagger
And that’s what we were doing
All of us together in Mantira Chasm trying to get ahead of it before it slagged us
And all you could do was keep throwing everything you had and hope you got out ahead
So we didn’t just sit on our asses and wait, we started throwing everything we had
We weren’t supposed to, the ammo was supposed to last another month
But we opened it up anyway
And the guys on either side of us started doing it too
And trench number six got slagged anyway
But we didn’t, we got out ahead, so I got a medal and now I’m here
With people who don’t get poetry.

I went out on the balcony with them
They were alarmed, of course; I was a guest and they understood they too had to pay
With forms and appearances
For good energon
And no one trying to kill you
And those things were dearer to those who knew their alternatives more clearly.

You’re right, I said
It’s about killing a durasteel slagger
They know it too
Some of them saw it happen
Sixteen hours in an oil-soaked ring
But they can’t tell you the truth
They have built an empire of lies
Where the dead beneath are buried twice
To better feed the living above
And you can keep the teeth of hunger off your own neck
Only if you tell the ravening lies yourself
And they too want to live

I’ll tell you a poem
I said to them

Let us build together
The empire of unsheathed knives and hungers
Where we will not lie in small rooms and say we want poetry
When all we want is to live
Let us pave the streets in corpses
They are paved so already, and we cannot raise the dead
But let us leave them out next time
Let us bury lies instead of the living
Whose mouths we stop up with stories
Let us build it soon, if not today

They liked the poem
We shook hands when we parted
Soon, they said, if not today.

All this is true
That death is not a door but an end
And galaxies ten billion years away are fading into endless night
Flying from us faster than their light can shine
The stars one day will all go out
And all empires will be dust long since

And this too is true
It will not be long

And yet it will be longer than we have
Aeons, ends of universes, are beyond our grasp
All we can ever have is here
A moment where you and I
are stars not yet gone into the night
and can draw a constellation
by reaching out a hand.

I caught a glimpse of it again tonight
The nameless city that I’ll never see
It won’t be a city at all, of course
Walled and victorious
Nothing like the empire that I’ve had to leave behind
But I haven’t seen enough to tell you what it will be, so call it a city.
I saw only the shining on the other side of the mountains
That I only ever see in the dark
And that I already know I’ll never reach.

But I think I’ll find you the road. He built me to make a way in deep places
To find the smallest trickling gleam of impossible light
I’ve had to wonder now if he wasn’t trying to find it also
If he walked among his golden towers and saw the rot himself
And in his frantic selfish clawing at the foundations
Uncovered a paving stone or two

I hate the very thought of it, hate
How even that purest hate’s been stolen from me.
But I’ve seen my turn will come to take hope in my hands and hand it on
To someone I don’t yet know
Who’ll turn to me and hold out a half-seen hand demanding
And I’ll have to make his choice.

I’ll find the road.
I’ll put your feet upon it.
But tonight I knew—
a bitter taste of the road’s ash—
that even you won’t reach the journey’s end.
That I’ll have to give the gift whole, untarnished
To wipe off a few more of my fingerprints glistening with oil
Knowing that even you
Your heart wide enough to host the multitudes
Of flesh and bone and flickering life
Won’t find your way through the city gates.

You’ve opened your own gates, your heart, one time too many.
For now you don’t yet feel the mortal wound
Only occasional flashes of pain, sharp edges grating on the machinery
As you keep on pumping fuel
Only when it’s withdrawn
Will you finally pay
For taking in an unsheathed knife.

But when at last you read this poem, if you ever do
—oracles aren’t omnipotent, can only see
through windows into windows beyond, and not through solid walls when they misalign—
Walk on, without your heart
To where at least you can see the destination

I won’t say that I’ll be with you
Lies won’t travel any better on that road than on mine
Even ones told with love
And my absence will be the necessary precondition.

I will not even be
One of those voices you can reach inside to wake
The universe stands between our singularities
When you look you will not find me
And when you yourself one day are woken, by some new wide-open heart
If they ask you of me
You will have nothing to say.
You will only be able to tell them of a few hours in the dark
When you did not yet love me
And I still walked a road to walled victory
To a place that I could see from where I stood
And had nearly reached: my fingers straining, scrabbling at my empire’s gate
A colder light leaking around its edges
When you caught me in your heart and drew me down
Back through the underlayers
To the gift of an unpaid debt.

I won’t be with you.
You’ll look at a stranger standing in my place
With cleaner hands and a clearer view to guide you to the final turnings 
And all you’ll want is to stop in the ash-choked dark where last you saw me.
But leave behind the severed fragments of your heart, go on a little further
Take that one clear sight which is the most that I can win you
With this my accident of poetry
Let me write you a way out of the dark
By telling you that I knew this time as well
The bargain I was making
As when I bought my life with death.

You already don’t like to think of it, I know.
In your sight I shine silver with the light you needed
To see in the dark
And you would sooner blame others—by which you always mean yourself—for the choices I was given
But still I chose to live
To take the light out of others’ eyes
And here’s the truth I’ll use to break you this once to my will:
I’m not sorry.

You could take me back down to the uttermost dark inside
And wake in me unwilling love
But there’s only one way you could ever build into me the softness of regret
For all that oil wet on my hands, the weekly sacrificial rite
Where I offered up a heart that wasn’t mine.
I lived in that arena fifty thousand years
Each one a hundred tendays
Count them, now, as you’ve carefully avoided doing
Do you see them mounting up behind me now: five million lives
—for simplicity’s sake, leave out the times they fed me more than one—
Not slain at a distance, or in my righteous war, but one by one
With my own bare butchering hands
For nothing but the lust to live.

I owe them a debt too
The toll that stands between me and that shining place
And I could scrape the payment together
It wouldn’t even be hard
I could simply give you this poem tomorrow when you wake
And when the time came, you’d wash away all that oil with yours
Which you’d spill yourself, a offering made freely
To get me to the light.

It wouldn’t be today, not for a million years or more
It couldn’t be; that wouldn’t pay the price.
First I’d have your hand lingering in mine a long time
Seeing my own hunger in every moment of joy
Paying down the debt
Until the last payment came due.

And if you read this, when you reach this point, you’ll cry out
but I won’t get there either way
and you could have made it
It’s true. But I don’t make small bargains.
I won’t pay them back. Not with one single cycle of your breath.
Not even if I see in every road that’s left before me that you’ll lie down and die in grief beside my corpse
And never even read this poem.

So I’m not sorry, and I won’t learn to be
But I’ll do my best to see that you read this and learn before the end
That I loved you
More than the worth of five million lives
And the four left down below
And mine the one I bought with all of them together
And then you’ll go
And see whatever damned thing it is
Throwing up all that light out of the dark
Before you let your breath stop.

And who knows, maybe I’m wrong about all this.
Maybe there’s someone over there already
And if we just get close enough
They’ll come out to show us the rest of the way.
If so, I’ll give this to you when we get there
And watch you weep
And I’ll pay my last debt with whatever I’ll feel then
Equally impossible to imagine.