Original Work Never Surrender (The Empire's Corps 10)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jan 19, 2015.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Good news first - Eric Jalil Nuttall was born on the 23rd December, 2014, so I took a few weeks of break before going back to writing.

    Never Surrender is Book 10 of The Empire’s Corps, picking up directly after Retreat Hell (Book 8). It’s a mainstream book, but you will probably need to have read Reality Check too, as it ties in with the characters I left in that book.

    As always, comments, critical remarks, suggestions and encouragements are warmly welcomed.

    In addition, check out my blog, Facebook fan page, etc for updates and suchlike.


    The Chrishanger | Welcome to my Writing World – please read the 'about' page before proceeding.
    Christopher G. Nuttall | Facebook
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    From: The Day After: The Post-Empire Universe and its Wars. Professor LEO Caesius. Avalon University Press. 46PE.

    When the Empire fell, it fell into war. Planets that had been held under the crushing grip of the Empire fought to free themselves, military officers and planetary governors sought to claim power for themselves and old grudges, held in check by the Empire’s overpowering military might, returned to haunt the human race. It is impossible to even guess at the sheer number of human lives snuffed out by war, or condemned to a horrific existence in the middle of a war zone, located in what was once a peaceful sector. Indeed, there was so much devastation in the former Core Worlds that putting together a viable picture of what actually happened when seems impossible.

    However, of all these wars, the most important was, perhaps, the Commonwealth-Wolfbane War. It is also the one where we are able to access records held by both sides in the conflict.

    They made an odd pair. The Commonwealth, based on Avalon, was an attempt to escape the mistakes that eventually, inevitably, doomed the Empire. It was a capitalist society, based around maximum personal liberty; indeed, unlike so many other successor states, the Commonwealth never had to force a member world to join. And it flourished. Five years after Avalon was abandoned by the Empire, and the Fall of Earth, it was perhaps one of the most advanced successor states in existence. Personal freedom and technological innovation went hand in hand. By sheer number of ships, the Commonwealth was puny; by technology, the Commonwealth was far stronger than it seemed.

    Wolfbane, by contrast, was a corporate plutocracy. Governor Brown of Wolfbane successfully secured control of the sector’s military, once he heard the news from Earth, and worked hard to put the sector on a self-sustaining footing. His skill at convincing corporate systems to work together, and his eye for talented manpower, allowed him to save Wolfbane from the chaos sweeping out of the Core Worlds. Indeed, two years after the Fall of Earth, Wolfbane was already expanding and snapping up worlds that would otherwise have remained independent, after cutting ties with the Empire.

    It was natural that Wolfbane and the Commonwealth would come into conflict. In the marketplace of ideas, the Commonwealth held a natural advantage that Governor Brown could never hope to match, not without dismantling his own power base. Like other autocratic states, Wolfbane chose to launch an invasion rather than wait for their system to decay, or face violent rebellion when its population started to ask questions. The operation was carefully planned.

    The Commonwealth had an Achilles Heel - a world called Thule. Thule was unusual in that it had a sizable minority of people who resisted the idea of joining the Commonwealth, mainly for local reasons. However, it was also an economic powerhouse that could not be disregarded. And so, when the local government, faced with an insurgency that was clearly receiving support from off-world, requested Commonwealth help and support, the Commonwealth reluctantly dispatched the first Commonwealth Expeditionary Force (CEF), under the command of Brigadier Jasmine Yamane, to uphold the planet’s legitimate authority.

    Those who held misgivings were proved right, however, when the long-dreaded war finally began. Wolfbane’s forces surged across the border at several places, targeting - in particular - Thule and its industrial base. The Commonwealth Navy struggled to evacuate as much of the CEF as possible before it was too late, but a number of soldiers - including the CO - remained on the planet when the enemy ships entered orbit. They were forced to surrender.

    But while Wolfbane seemed to be winning the war, cracks were already appearing in the enemy’s defences ...
    Grizz-, Sapper John and rle737ng like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    It will come as no surprise that the Empire was disinclined to coddle prisoners of war. As far as the Empire was concerned, it was the sole human power and all other states were in rebellion against it.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    Jasmine was not used to being alone.

    In truth, she had never really been alone, save for her short stint as Admiral Singh’s prisoner on Conidian. Her family had been large, large enough for her to always be with her siblings or cousins, while no one was ever alone in the Terran Marine Corps. She had lived in barracks ever since joining the Marines, like her friends and comrades. But now, even though she was surrounded by hundreds of people, she felt truly alone.

    The prison camp wasn't bad, not compared to Admiral Singh’s dungeons or the cells used for the dreaded Conduct After Capture course. She had been primed to expect interrogation, perhaps drugs or torture; the Empire had shown no mercy to its prisoners and there was no reason to assume its enemies would do any better. But instead, the remains of the CEF had been transported to Meridian and dumped in a POW camp, some distance from whatever passed for civilisation on a stage-one colony world. It was a mercy part of her would have happily foregone.

    She blamed herself. Each and every one of her decisions had been the best one at the time, she was sure, taking into account her limited options and incomplete knowledge. And yet, it had ended with her and her subordinates in a POW camp, while the Commonwealth was under attack. She had failed. She had failed the Commonwealth, the CEF and her fellow Marines. Guilt warred within her soul, demanding retribution for her failures. She was a prisoner, isolated from the war by countless light years, yet she wanted - needed - to get back to the Commonwealth. But how?

    The POW camp wasn't quite standard, she’d noted when they’d been unceremoniously dumped off the shuttles and prodded through the gates. Instead of the standard prefabricated buildings, they’d been given barracks made of wood, suggesting the locals had built the POW camp for Wolfbane. They probably hadn't been given much of a choice, Jasmine was sure; a stage-one colony world couldn’t hope to defend itself against a single orbiting destroyer, let alone the battle fleet that had hammered Thule into submission. But, non-standard or not, it was secure. There was no way for the prisoners to escape.

    They don’t care about us, she thought. On one hand, it was something of a relief; she’d expected interrogation precisely because she’d been in command of the CEF. But on the other, it suggested the enemy were very sure they would remain prisoners. And they think we’re irrelevant to the war.

    She closed her eyes, then opened them and looked around the barracks. The guards hadn’t bothered to try to separate senior officers from their subordinates, let alone segregate the sexes. Jasmine wasn't bothered - she’d slept in the same barracks with men from the day she’d enlisted - but some of the other prisoners had taken it hard. Wolfbane had set up the POW camp long before the war had begun, she suspected, judging by some of the prisoners held behind barbed wire. She’d been in the camp for four days; they’d been in the camp for five years.

    Cursing under her breath, she rose to her feet and walked towards the open door. Outside, rain was pouring from the sky, splashing down around the various buildings and collecting in great puddles under her feet. It would have been fun, the child in her acknowledged, if she hadn't been far too certain that it was wearing away at the wooden buildings. How long would it be, she asked herself, before the roofs started to collapse, or simply leaked water onto the bunk beds? And what would the guards do then?

    She sighed, then walked into the rain and made her way slowly towards the edge of the camp, where the barbed wire held the prisoners firmly secure. It wasn't a bad design, the officer in her noted, even if she was on the wrong side of the wire. The POWs were all confined in one place, allowing the guards to keep them all under control - or simply hose them down with machine guns, if necessary. A prison riot might be left to burn itself out, or the guards would intervene with overwhelming force. Jasmine would have preferred somewhere more secure, she knew, but even if the prisoners overcame the guards they would still be stuck on Meridian. The only hope was to find a way to get off the planet.

    The rain ran down her face and soaked her clothing as she walked away from the wire and round the side of one of the barracks, where two of her former subordinates were waiting for her. Riflemen Carl Watson and Thomas Stewart nodded politely to her - they’d agreed that salutes would only draw more attention to Jasmine - then glanced around, making sure they were alone. Jasmine looked behind her, then leaned against the wall, trying to look nonchalant. There was no one in view, but it was far too easy to imagine microscopic bugs being used to track their movements and monitor their conversation. The guards might have good reason to assume the camp was inescapable.

    But if we assume we’re doomed, we are doomed, she thought, morbidly. It was their duty to try to escape, no matter the risk. And if the guards catch and kill us trying to escape, at least we will have tried.

    She knew better than to remain in the camp, if it could be avoided. The war would be won or lost - and if it were lost, Wolfbane would have a free hand to do whatever it liked to prisoners of war. The Empire had normally dumped POWs it considered to be beyond redemption on penal worlds, where they would either fight to subdue a world that could be later settled by the Empire or die, countless light years from home. Wolfbane might treat them better, but nothing Jasmine had heard from any of the other POWs suggested that Governor Brown was interested in anything other than efficiency. He might leave them on Meridian indefinitely - a stage-one colony world would welcome an influx of trained manpower - or he might just transfer them to a penal world. There were several candidates within the Wolfbane Sector alone.

    “Brigadier,” Watson said.

    Jasmine sighed, inwardly. There had been a time when she'd been a Rifleman too ... and she looked back to that time with a certain degree of nostalgia. She had been a Marine, one of many, and she hadn't had to worry about making more than tactical judgements in the heat of battle. Captain Stalker had been in command of the company and she’d just been one of his Marines. But the company had been scattered around the Commonwealth after they’d been abandoned by the Empire, leaving only a handful to continue serving as Marines. She envied Watson and Stewart more than she cared to admit.

    “Let us hope they are not watching us,” Jasmine said, curtly. “Have you met anyone interesting?”

    “A handful,” Stewart said. “It looks as though Meridian was used as a dumping point for quite a few people from Wolfbane.”

    Jasmine frowned. It wasn't common to put civilian and military prisoners together, but Governor Brown’s people seemed to have ignored that stipulation. Maybe they only had one major POW camp ... she shook her head, dismissing the absurd thought. It would have taken less effort, much less effort, to set up a POW camp on an isolated island on Wolfbane, well away from any hope of rescue. Anyone sent to Meridian had to be someone the Governor might want to keep alive, but didn't anticipate freeing for years, if at all.

    “And a couple from Meridian itself,” Watson added. “I think you might be able to talk to one of them, Brigadier. She won’t talk to any of us.”

    “Understood,” Jasmine said. She rubbed her scalp, where her short hair was itching under the downfall. “Anyone particularly important?”

    “We seem to be sharing a POW camp with a former Imperial Army officer,” Stewart said, with the air of a man making a dramatic announcement. “He claims to have been the former CO at Wolfbane, before the Governor took power for himself.”

    Jasmine felt her eyes narrow. “And he’s still alive?”

    “He was ranting and raving about how his clients wouldn’t let him be killed,” Stewart said, dryly. “I don’t know how much of it to take seriously ...”

    “None of it,” Watson said. “If he had enough clients to make himself a serious concern, he'd be dead, not mouldering away in a shithole on the edge of settled space.”

    Jasmine was inclined to agree. Patrons and clients had been the curse of the Empire’s military, before the Fall of Earth; senior officers had promoted their own clients into important positions, rather than using competence as a yardstick for promotion. Each senior officer had enjoyed a network of clients, which had allowed them to bolster their positions ... and probably set themselves up as warlords, once the Empire had collapsed into chaos. If this former CO had been outsmarted by Governor Brown, it was a wonder he was still alive. He wouldn’t be dangerous once he was buried in a shallow grave.

    And if he had enough of a power base to make himself a threat, he wouldn't have been removed so easily, she thought, darkly.

    “Talk to him anyway, see what you can learn,” she said. “What’s his name?”

    “Stubbins,” Watson said. “General James Stubbins.”

    Jasmine shrugged. The name wasn't familiar, unsurprisingly. There had been literally hundreds of thousands of generals in the Imperial Army, ranging from competent officers who had been promoted through merit to idiots who had been given the title as a reward from their patrons. The latter had been incredibly common in the dying days of the Empire, if only because everyone knew a competent officer was also a dangerous officer. She told herself, firmly, not to let prejudice blind her to the possibility that Stubbins had merely been unlucky ...

    But if he had a power base, she thought again, he shouldn't have been so easy to remove.

    “He has his aide with him,” Watson added. “Paula Bartholomew. Very pretty woman - and smart too, I fancy.”

    “Then talk to her, see what she says too,” Jasmine ordered. There was something about the whole affair that puzzled her, but there was no point in worrying about it. If Stubbins was a plant, someone charged with watching for trouble from the prisoners, they would just have to deal with him when he showed his true colours. “And see if you can separate her from him long enough to have a proper conversation.”

    Watson grinned. “Are you ordering me to seduce her?”

    “Of course not,” Jasmine said, dryly. “I would never dream of issuing an impossible order.”

    Stewart laughed as Watson glowered at both of them. “I don’t think she was hired because she has a pretty face, my dear Watson,” he said, mischievously. “And she certainly wouldn't have been sent out here if she hadn't been regarded as dangerous by someone.”

    “Unless they were making a clean sweep,” Watson objected. “There have to be millions of pretty girls on Wolfbane.”

    “And if they were making a clean sweep,” Jasmine pointed out, “they would have wiped out his whole patronage network.”

    She shook her head. “There’s no way to know,” she added. “Talk to him, see what he says ... and then we can decide how to proceed.”

    “Getting out of the camp will be easy,” Stewart said. “We just tunnel under the fence.”

    “Assuming they’re not watching with sensors for us to start digging,” Watson countered, darkly. “They might wait for us to pop up on the other side, then open fire.”

    “Then we will need a distraction,” Jasmine said. She had thought about trying to dig a tunnel out of the camp, but the soaking ground would make it incredibly dangerous. And besides, the guards hadn't been fool enough to leave them any digging tools. “Something loud enough to keep their attention away from any sensors they might have.”

    “A riot would do nicely,” Stewart said.

    He broke off as the rain started to come to a halt. “The girl I mentioned - Kailee - is in Building 1,” he said, quickly. “I think you should definitely talk to her.”

    Jasmine nodded, then glanced from Stewart to Watson. “We’re going to get out of her,” she said, firmly. “Whatever it takes, we’re going to get out of here.”

    “Of course,” Stewart said. “I never doubt it for a moment.”

    The rain came to a stop, leaving water dripping from the rooftops and splashing down to the muddy ground. Jasmine shook her head, cursing the prison uniform under her breath. It was bright orange, easy to see in semi-darkness ... and it clung to her skin in a manner that revealed each and every one of her curves. Being exposed didn’t bother her - she’d been through worse in basic training - but it was yet another problem. They would be alarmingly visible if they happened to be caught tunnelling under the fence.

    She nodded to them both, then headed towards Building 1. It was simple in design, nothing more than a long rectangular building. Judging by the jungle just outside the fence, Meridian was not short of wood; hell, clearing woodland was probably one of the first tasks the settlers had had to do, when they’d landed. And they’d thrown away a small fortune, if they’d been able to get the wood to Earth before the Fall ...

    Inside, it was no more elaborate than Building 8, where she’d been placed, but it had an air of despondency that suggested the inhabitants had been prisoners for much longer. They’d reached a stage, she realised, where they’d come close to giving up. A handful of bunk beds were occupied, mainly by women, either sleeping or just staring listlessly up at the wooden ceiling. There was nothing to do in the camp, save eat rations and sleep; there were no footballs, no board games, nothing the prisoners could use to distract themselves from the numb tedium of their existence. Given enough time, Jasmine had a feeling that the ennui would wear her down too.

    You expected torture, she thought.

    It was a galling thought. Conduct After Capture had warned her to expect torture, mistreatment, even rape. Admiral Singh’s goons had tortured her, intent on trying to break her will to resist. But the POW camp was nothing, but mindless tedium. There was no gloating enemy to resist, no leering torturer to fight ... merely her own mind. Perhaps, just perhaps, the true intent of the camp was to erode her will to resist by depriving her of an enemy to fight. And it might just work.

    “You’re new, I see,” a voice said. An older woman smiled at her, revealing broken teeth, although there was a hint of wariness in her expression. “What are you in for?”

    “I’m looking for Kailee,” Jasmine said, shortly. The woman sounded cracked, like so many of the older prisoners. “Where is she?”

    “There,” the older woman said, pointing towards a dark-haired girl lying on the bunk. “Be gentle, my dear. She’s had a rough time of it.”

    Jasmine nodded, then walked towards Kailee. She was young, around twenty, although it was hard to be sure. Like so many other colonists, she would have aged rapidly during the battle to settle a whole new world. She turned to look at Jasmine as she approached, her dark eyes fearful. Jasmine realised, grimly, that the girl had been through hell. No wonder she had refused to talk to either of the men.

    “I’m Jasmine,” she said, sitting down by the side of the bed. It reduced the height advantage, hopefully making it easier for Kailee to talk to her. “I understand you were born on Meridian.”

    “Earth,” Kailee said. Her accent was definitely from Earth, although several years of being away from humanity’s homeworld had weakened it. “I was born on Earth.”

    Jasmine frowned. “How did you wind up here?”

    Kailee laughed, harshly. “I won a competition,” she said. “I didn't enter the competition, but I won anyway. And they sent me out here, where I was happy after a while. And then they took me away and shoved me in the camp.”

    Jasmine frowned. She could understand imprisoning the planetary leadership, or anyone who might have military experience, but she rather doubted Kailee was either connected to the leadership or an experienced military officer. Indeed, Kailee held herself like someone from the lower classes of Earth, a sheep-girl who knew herself to be vulnerable. She wouldn't have survived an hour of Boot Camp, let alone six months.

    “If you’re from Earth,” she said finally, “why are you here?”

    “Because of Gary,” Kailee said. “They want to keep him under control.”

    Jasmine felt her frown deepen. “Gary?”

    “My ... my boyfriend,” Kailee said. “We came from Earth together and ... and ... I ...”

    She caught herself, then scowled at Jasmine. “There aren’t many people here who like modern technology,” she said. The bitterness in her tone was striking. “Gary’s one of the few who do. And they wanted him to work for them, so they took me as a hostage.”

    “I see,” Jasmine said. An idea was starting to flower at the back of her mind. “Tell me about him, please.”

    Kailee gave her a sharp look. “Why do you want to know?”

    “Because it might be the key to getting out of here,” Jasmine said. “And I need you to tell me everything you can.”
  4. bagpiper

    bagpiper Heretic

    Congratulations DADDY!
    (Was hoping you'd still have the energy to write... ;)
  5. DarkLight

    DarkLight I self identify as a Blackhawk Attack Helicopter! Site Supporter

    Congratulations and welcome to the world Eric! I would assume that both mommy and baby are doing well?
  6. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Congrats on the new addition to the family!
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    There was no distinction drawn between a previously-undiscovered human colony, that might object to being absorbed into the Empire, and members of an insurgency mounted against the Empire’s overseers. They were all seen, legally, as being illegitimate combatants.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Avalon, Year 5 (PE)

    “It isn’t going well, is it?”

    Colonel Edward Stalker shrugged. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said, seriously. “And the first impressions are always the worst.”

    President Gabriella Cracker eyed him sardonically. “And now we've gone through a whole list of clichés,” she said, “it isn't going well, is it?”

    Ed shrugged, again. “No one has fought a war like this for hundreds of years,” he said. He looked around his office, morbidly. “We’re still learning and so are they.”

    He sighed. “There are five worlds currently under occupation, but only one of them - Thule - is a significant issue,” he added. “The remainder don’t add much to our combat power ...”

    “But they look bad on the display,” Gaby said. She pointed a sharp finger towards five holographic icons, all glowing a baleful red. “The Wolves seem to be advancing forward in an unstoppable wave.”

    “But they’re not,” Ed said. “There’s a long way between the front lines and Avalon.”

    “You know that and I know that,” Gaby said, tiredly. “But I have to convince the population that we’re not losing the war.”

    Ed nodded, reluctantly. Avalon had always had a more stalwart population than Earth or any of the other Core Worlds, but even colonists, used to setbacks, could falter if they thought defeat was inevitable. Wolfbane had captured five worlds, after all, and Gaby was right; it did look bad. And yet, he knew the worlds were largely immaterial. The war wouldn't be won or lost until one side managed to destroy the other’s fleet, planetary defences and industrial base.

    “They’re actually being quite cautious,” he said, softly. “I was expecting a stab at Avalon itself as a way to open the war, but instead they’re proceeding carefully, taking system after system as they advance towards our heartland. That gives us time to rally and mount counterattacks into enemy-held territory.”

    “And take out their supply lines,” Gaby agreed. “Are you sure we can keep them from continuing the offensive?”

    “Nothing is certain in war, apart from the simple fact that professionals still study logistics instead of tactics,” Ed said. “They will need regular resupplies to keep their fleets advancing forward, everything from missiles to spare parts and replacement crewmen. And if we can impede that, they will be unable to advance further.”

    “I hope you’re right,” Gaby said, again. “The council isn't taking the latest loss too well.”

    Ed sighed, inwardly. It took nearly three weeks to get a message from the front lines back to Avalon, three weeks during which anything could happen. The Empire had had all sorts of problems because the Grand Senate had tried to issue orders from Earth, orders that were already long out of date before they reached the Rim. Avalon was closer to the war front, but three weeks was still far too long to do anything but allow the local commanders freedom of action. It was the only way to hold the line.

    At least we can trust our commanders, he thought. The Empire never felt it could trust anyone.

    “Tell them that we are rallying and readying our counter-offensive,” he said. It was true, although he had a feeling that it would be several months before the Commonwealth could mount more than heavy raids behind enemy lines. Trading space for time was the only practical course of action, but it wasn't very heroic. “Is Travis still being a pain in the ass?”

    “Travis isn't calling the war itself into question,” Gaby said, “but he’s insisting we need new leadership at the top.”

    Ed sighed, again. It was typical of politicians - opposition politicians - that they carped and criticised, while they had no power or responsibilities. Gordon Travis might have a point, but it was lost behind the simple fact that he could - and did - say whatever he liked. It wasn't him who had to make the plans work, or write letters to the families of men and women killed in action. And Travis blamed Ed for the death of his son.

    “Tell him to wait for the next election,” he said. “Unless he can put together enough of a coalition to rout you.”

    “I don’t think he can, yet,” Gaby said. “But if we lose more worlds, Ed, the councillors from those worlds will be out for blood.”

    Ed nodded, cursing under his breath. He’d trained as a Marine, not as a combination of Admiral, General and Politician. He’d had to learn to balance all three roles on Avalon, after they’d been abandoned by the Empire, but none of them really fitted. He wanted to get back into action, to get stuck into the enemy ... not to remain behind while men and women under his command went into danger. Part of him had almost been glad when the peace talks had blown up in their face, when he’d had to command a force under siege on a primitive world ...

    He shook his head, angrily. It might have been better, in the long run, if they’d been able to make a firm agreement with Wolfbane. But, knowing what he did now, he was sure that Wolfbane wouldn’t have honoured the agreement for long. They had simply far too much at stake to risk a firm peace.

    “Then we hold the line, in the council as well as the war,” he said. “I think ...”

    He broke off as his intercom buzzed. “Yes?”

    “Colonel Kitty Stevenson is here to see you, sir,” his current aide said. “She says its urgent.”

    Ed and Gaby exchanged glances. Colonel Kitty Stevenson had been stationed on Avalon long before Stalker’s Stalkers had arrived, simply because she’d managed to get on the bad side of one of her superior officers. Ed wasn't sure of the details, but he’d never doubted Kitty’s competence; she’d had almost nothing to work with, on Avalon, yet she’d built up the bare bones of an intelligence network from scratch. Now, she was in charge of both espionage and counter-espionage.

    “Show her in, please,” he ordered.

    “I’ll leave you to it,” Gaby said. “I need to go soothe a few troubled minds.”

    Ed smiled. “Good luck,” he said. “And I’ll see you tonight?”

    “Unless there’s another late sitting in the council chamber,” Gaby said. “I don’t get to steer matters all my own way.”

    Ed watched her go, smiling inwardly at how the former rebel leader had matured. His instincts had told him that he could compromise with Gaby, work with her to establish a lasting peace ... and he’d been right. But, at the same time, Gaby was as limited as himself when it came to building an interstellar government. The Commonwealth was a ramshackle structure in many ways, built from various planetary governments rather than something designed for genuine interstellar governance. It wouldn't be long before cracks started to show in the edifice.

    But changing that will require careful forethought, he considered, as the door closed behind his friend and lover. The Empire wasn't a very effective interstellar government either.

    The door opened again, allowing Kitty Stevenson to step into the room. She was a tall redheaded woman, wearing a naval uniform without any rank insignia. Her jacket was open, revealing a surprising amount of cleavage, something that would have gotten her in trouble if she’d been a genuine naval officer. Ed - and his fellows - had worked hard to ensure that the old patronage networks that had plagued the Imperial Navy found no root in the Commonwealth Navy. And trading sex for advancement had been a favoured practice for the Empire’s senior officers.

    “Colonel,” she said, as she produced a bug-sweeper from her uniform pocket and started to sweep the room. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”

    Ed’s eyes narrowed. “How bad? Should we go to a secure room?”

    “This room appears clean,” Kitty said. “I’m just feeling a little paranoid.”

    She returned the sweeper to her pocket and sat down facing him. “I think we have a rat.”

    Ed blinked. “A spy?”

    “Yes, sir,” Kitty said. “And someone quite high up.”

    Ed met her eyes, tiredly. “Explain.”

    Kitty looked back at him, evenly. “Since the start of the war, sir, Commonwealth Intelligence has been installing monitors on the various deep-space communications transmitters,” she said. “It wasn’t quite legal, but it had to be done.”

    Ed scowled. The Empire had been in the habit of insisting that all commercial encryption programs included backdoors, allowing Imperial Intelligence to read encoded messages at will. Unsurprisingly, bribes had changed hands and powerful corporations had developed ways to read messages sent by their rivals. And then pirates and news agencies had started cracking messages at will, too. It hadn't encouraged new businesses, already staggering under the weight of oppressive regulations, to enter the marketplace.

    The Commonwealth had banned the practice. Businesses, even civilians, could use whatever encryption programs they liked, without ever having to leave backdoors for Commonwealth Intelligence. If someone realised that Commonwealth Intelligence had been quietly reading their mail anyway, it would cause a major scandal. And yet, Kitty was right. There were almost certainly spies on the planet’s surface and those spies would have to send their messages back to Wolfbane somehow.

    “I know,” he said, finally. “Carry on.”

    Kitty’s eyes never left his. “We were watching for signs of data being beamed into space that might be aimed at a spy ship somewhere within the system,” she said. “Four days ago, we intercepted a communications packet that was heavily encrypted, so tightly bound that it took three days to unlock the encryption and scan the contents. It consisted of political intelligence from Avalon.”

    Ed smiled. “It took that long?”

    “The encryption program was unfamiliar to us,” Kitty said. “We’ve been checking message buffers to see if there were other encrypted messages, but if there were they were purged long ago.”

    She reached into her pocket and produced a datapad, which she passed to Ed. “As you can see, sir,” she said, “most of the data is political in nature.”

    Ed studied the datapad for a long moment, skimming through the paragraphs one by one. It read more like a detailed letter than a spy report, but that wouldn’t stop it being dangerous. Whoever had written the message had access to the council, or at least to a number of councillors ... he shook his head, then passed the datapad back to her. It was sheer luck they’d stumbled across evidence the spy existed before something far more sensitive was discussed in council.

    And we thought the council was above suspicion, he thought, numbly. Why did we choose to believe that again?

    “Very well,” he said. “Do you have a suspect?”

    “We’ve narrowed it down to several hundred possible suspects,” Kitty said. “However, that list would include nearly every councillor on the planet, as well as their aides and perhaps even their families.”

    Ed swore. “If we started investigating them all, Colonel,” he said, “we might well rip the Commonwealth apart.”

    “Yes, sir,” Kitty said. “I attempted to trace each individual piece of information, but I wasn't able to narrow the suspect list further.”

    “There was too much in the message,” Ed said. There had been no tactical data, which was something, but it was still worrying. Political intelligence - which councillors might consider surrender, which councillors wanted to fight to the bitter end - might be helpful to Wolfbane, particularly if Governor Brown started making peace offers. “Can you track where the message went?”

    “To one of the asteroid mining facilities,” Kitty said. “I suspect it was probably rerouted from there to a hidden monitoring station. Past then, we don’t know.”

    “I see,” Ed said.

    He cursed under his breath. It would probably be impossible to track down the final destination. Five years ago, Avalon had had a RockRat colony and a cloudscoop ... and little else. Now, the entire system swarmed with mining stations and industrial production nodes. It would be easy for the enemy to hide a monitoring platform within the system, ready to intercept messages from Avalon and hold them until a starship arrived to take them home. As long as they took a few basic precautions, it would be impossible to detect the platform.

    “A spy in the council,” he mused. “Who?”

    “Unknown,” Kitty said. “It was sheer luck we stumbled across the message, sir.”

    Ed would have liked to believe it was Gordon Travis. The man had been nothing more than a headache since he’d been elected to the council, even though he had a respectable record as a businessman before and after the Cracker War. It was hard to blame him for being angry about the death of his son, but it didn't excuse outright treason ...

    He shook his head. Travis might have disagreed with both Ed and Gaby, but that didn’t make him a traitor. There was no proof, apart from personal dislike, and that wasn't enough to condemn a man to death.

    “We have to find the spy,” he mused. “Do you have a plan?”

    “Yes, sir,” Kitty said. “Now we have a handle on the encryption program, I have reconfigured the monitors to watch for more encoded messages. I intend to start distributing pieces of false or compartmented information around the list of suspects, then see which pieces of intelligence are passed to the enemy. Once we know what the enemy knows, we can narrow down our list of suspects considerably.”

    “It seems workable,” Ed said. He sighed. The last thing the Commonwealth needed was a witch-hunt for a highly-placed spy. “Is there no way to cut down the number of suspects now?”

    “No, sir,” Kitty said. “I don't think it can be done, short of introducing arbitrary standards to the mix - like, for example, excluding everyone from Avalon. That would cause another political headache if it got out.”

    Ed nodded. “Yes, it would,” he agreed. “The other worlds would be understandably furious.”

    “Yes, sir,” Kitty agreed.

    She shrugged. “I could also dispatch a team of investigators to the asteroid mining colony, but it would tip off the spy ... assuming, of course, the spy knows which route the messages take to leave Avalon,” she added. “There might be an entire ring of spies on the planet’s surface, like the agents who helped poor Mathew Polk get down to the ground.”

    “Wonderful,” Ed muttered.

    “But whoever put that report together is very highly-placed,” Kitty added. “I’d put money on it being someone from Avalon.”

    “But why?” Ed asked. “Why betray the Commonwealth?”

    Kitty shrugged. “Money, power, revenge ... there are no shortage of possible motives,” she said. “A councillor might believe that he’d be promoted to local ruler when Wolfbane wins the war, assuming he serves them well beforehand. Lots of people dream of power and probably shouldn't be allowed to claim it. Or he may believe that Wolfbane is going to win and he’s doing what he can to make himself useful, just to save himself from the purge at the end of the war.”

    Her eyes darkened. “Or his child might be a prisoner, held hostage to guarantee his compliance, sir,” she added. “I’m going to start looking into their families too, Colonel, but I am frighteningly short of manpower.”

    “I know,” Ed admitted.

    He’d never had much use for Imperial Intelligence, not as a Marine. Intelligence estimates had often been massaged to produce the answers the Grand Senate had wanted, not answers that happened to bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth. And there had been far too many intelligence officers ready to alter their reports ... which had ensured that military units had dropped into maelstroms because they’d been assured the enemy would break at the first sign the Grand Senate was prepared to use force. Han wouldn't have been such a disaster, he was sure, if the intelligence officers on the spot hadn't kept assuring everyone that there was no risk of an uprising.

    And it had coloured his attitude towards Commonwealth Intelligence. The spooks could not be allowed to run amuck, develop their own agenda or start altering data to suit their political masters. But, at the same time, it had ensured that Commonwealth Intelligence was just too small to handle all of its responsibilities ...

    “Hire more manpower, if you can,” he said. It wouldn't be easy. Even now, five years after the war, there was still a shortage of trained manpower. The people Kitty would need were in high demand, while unskilled immigrants couldn’t hope to work for Commonwealth Intelligence, even if they could be trusted. “But keep this as quiet as possible. I don’t want to spook the spy before it’s too late.”

    “Understood,” Kitty said.

    Ed glanced at his wristcom. “I have a meeting with Emmanuel Alves in an hour,” he said, shortly. It wouldn't be a pleasant meeting. The reporter had been dating Jasmine Yamane before she’d been captured on Thule and he’d asked, every time, if there was word of his girlfriend. “This evening, I want a comprehensive plan for showing false information to part of the council. Let’s see what the spy hears, shall we?”

    “Yes, sir,” Kitty said.

    “I want this person identified,” Ed added, “but you are not to attempt to arrest him without my permission. We might be able to use this spy to our advantage.”

    Kitty nodded, doubtfully. “It will be at least six weeks before his intelligence reaches Wolfbane,” she said. “The situation will have changed by then.”

    “I know,” Ed said. He smiled, openly. “But I think I have the bare bones of an idea.”
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Yes, they are <grin>
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    This is, to some extent, a historical oddity. Very few states could reasonably claim to be the sole font of power and authority. Throughout history, mistreatment of POWs tended to backfire, particularly if the war was won and lost decisively.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    “Brigadier,” Watson said, as Jasmine entered the barracks. “Please let me introduce James Stubbins and Paula Bartholomew.”

    “General James Stubbins,” Stubbins said. “I have not been stripped of my rank.”

    He eyed Jasmine doubtfully. “I must say you’re awfully young to be a brigadier, young lady.”

    Jasmine eyed him back. Stubbins looked middle-aged, probably thanks to extensive biological engineering in his youth, but he didn't seem either fit or healthy. His brown hair was greying rapidly, while there was a hint in his expression that he was holding himself together by sheer force of will. If he’d been in the camp for over five years, Jasmine had a feeling that it was a wonder he’d lasted as long as he had. Maybe he was stronger and more resilient than he seemed.

    “I was promoted quickly,” she said, finally.

    “Then I will have to assume command of the breakout,” Stubbins said, firmly. “Do you have a workable plan?”

    Watson opened his mouth, but Jasmine spoke first. “I am in command of the CEF,” she said, sharply. “I will command the breakout.”

    Stubbins scowled at her. “I was appointed to my rank by Admiral Waterford,” he insisted. “A purely local rank does not, ever, take precedence over an Imperial rank ...”

    “The Empire is gone,” Jasmine snapped. “Your rank is of no value in the camp.”

    “General,” Paula said quietly, “it’s been years since you commanded in the field.”

    Jasmine found herself studying Paula with some interest. She looked younger than Stubbins, almost as if the camp hadn't taken such a toll on her. Paula wasn't conventionally pretty - she had long brown hair and a freckled face - but she had a force of character that was, if anything, stronger than her commander. And she was clearly smarter than him too ...

    “Very well,” Stubbins said. “I will allow you to continue to hold tactical command, young lady.”

    “Thank you,” Jasmine said, sarcastically. She had a feeling she was going to have trouble with Stubbins, unless Paula managed to keep him under control. Perhaps she could ... or perhaps she should simply tie Stubbins up in his bunk until they carried out their plan. “I would be honoured to keep the command I have earned.”

    She squatted down and motioned for the others to sit next to her. “Meridian has one major city and one spaceport,” she said. Kailee had been quite informative, once Jasmine had started running gentle questions past her. Most of the information was out of date, but Jasmine rather doubted a stage-one colony world could change so quickly. “Most of the planet’s population are hunters, farmers and stage-one industrialists. The handful of technical-trained people on the surface have either been taken away or forced to work for Wolfbane’s occupation force.”

    Watson frowned. “Taken away?”

    “Forced to work for Wolfbane elsewhere, I imagine,” Stewart said. “They’re probably quite short on technical experts, just like us.”

    “It was a major problem,” Stubbins said, suddenly. “We had ships going into mothballs because we didn’t have the men or spare parts to maintain them.”

    Jasmine wasn't particularly surprised. Between the Empire’s jaundiced view of education and the limited opportunities for a technician to work within the system, the entire Empire had been having a major shortage of trained manpower before the Fall. Avalon had been lucky, in many ways; they’d been able to call upon the RockRats for technical training, while setting up their own technical schools. For a sector capital, the shortages in both manpower and industrial production nodes had to be disastrous. She couldn't help wondering just how many worlds had starved to death in the midst of plenty.

    “I would have expected you to start training programs,” she said, shortly. “Why didn't you?”

    “Imperial Regulations forbade it,” Stubbins said. “I could not defy the regulations.”

    Jasmine sighed, inwardly. All of a sudden, she was sure she knew why Governor Brown had sent Stubbins to Meridian, rather than simply having him quietly executed. Stubbins simply didn't have the imagination needed to be a danger to his superiors ... but that same lack of imagination prevented him from tackling the problems facing his command. And to think, if he’d had any real imagination, he would have remained in power ...

    “Those regulations were killing your command,” she said, dryly. “Didn't you see the dangers of blindly following them?”

    She shook her head before he could answer. It was the way of the Empire. If someone defied regulations, his enemies would have all the ammunition they needed to bring his career to a shattering halt. No one would care if the victim had done what was necessary to save his command, not when there was political hay to be made by targeting him for breach of regulations. And, all over what remained of the Empire, starships and shipyards would be grinding to a halt for lack of maintenance and spare parts ...

    For want of a nail, a shoe was lost, she thought, morbidly. She’d been forced to memorise the poem at the Slaughterhouse. How had the poem ended? For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost ... all for the want of a nail.

    “They don’t have a large force on the planet’s surface,” she said, instead. “All they really have are a handful of men in heavy combat armour, based on the orbital station. If anyone down on the surface poses a serious problem, they can just call in strikes from orbit and obliterate them. In fact, apart from the POW camps and the small garrison, they’re not really oppressing the locals at all.”

    “But they don’t have to have a soldier on every street corner to keep the locals under control,” Stewart said, gruffly. “Not as long as they hold the high orbitals.”

    “No,” Jasmine agreed. “There’s a handful of locals who have been forced to collaborate, with their families held hostage in various camps to keep them obedient. Other than that ... Meridian is largely immaterial to the war. There’s no need to expend thousands of credits worth of resources on the planet.”

    “Right,” Stewart said. “So our real problem isn’t getting out of this shithole. The real problem is getting control of the orbital station.”

    “Yes,” Jasmine said. “Once we’re in command of the station, we can free the remaining prisoners and then decide our next step.”

    Stubbins snorted, loudly. “I think you’re forgetting something,” he said. “We’re still trapped behind the barbed wire.”

    “Really?” Stewart asked. “I don’t think we noticed.”

    Jasmine tossed him a sharp look. “Getting out of the camp will be simple,” she said. “What’s to stop us tunnelling under the barbed wire?”

    Stubbins gaped at her. “It cannot possibly be so easy,” he said. “They would have scattered land mines around, surely.”

    “I don’t think so,” Jasmine said. She’d spent two days watching the camp’s routines before starting to consider ways to escape. “The locals come and go, bringing food and supplies to the camp, and they don’t seem to watch their footing. There isn't even a second fence to keep outsiders away from a minefield.”

    “Careless of them,” Stewart rumbled.

    “They still have guards on the watchtowers,” Watson offered. “Guards with guns.”

    “We need to distract them,” Jasmine said. “If we stage a riot, or something else that will catch their eye, at one end of the camp, we can dig our way out at the other. And if we wait for rainfall, the guards will have far more problems tracking us once we get into the jungle.”

    “We’ll have to be naked,” Watson said. He pulled at his orange jumpsuit. “These things are far too visible in the gloom.”

    “It’s why they made us wear them,” Jasmine said. She couldn't help a thrill of excitement. Maybe they were still helpless prisoners, but at least they were planning their escape. “They want us to be visible.”

    “So we get out of the camp,” Stubbins said. “And then ...”

    “And then we proceed with caution,” Jasmine said. Kailee had given her a few names and address, men and women she was sure were part of the resistance, but her knowledge was badly out of date. It was quite likely that the people she'd known were dead ... or worse. “I think we would need to get to Sabre City, then decide how to proceed from there.”

    “We can't all go,” Stewart said.

    “No, we can't,” Jasmine agreed. She hesitated, then sighed. “Who do we have with us?”

    Stewart closed his eyes and recited from memory. “There’s a thousand people in the camp,” he said, flatly. “Two hundred of them are prisoners from the CEF or Thule; the remainder are people Governor Brown sent into exile, rather than simply killing outright. I don’t think we have any technical specialists among the prisoners ...”

    “Of course not,” Stubbins said. His voice was very bitter. “Technical specialists could be ... re-educated rather than simply sent into exile.”

    Paula leaned forward. “How many prisoners come from Meridian itself?”

    “Just five,” Stewart said. “They’re all hostages, held here to ensure their relatives stay on good behaviour. I don't know if we could trust them.”

    Jasmine had to agree. Hostages could become dangerously unpredictable, either through Stockholm Syndrome or simply feeling responsible for their relatives. Kailee had sounded broken, rather than desperate, but who knew what would happen if she was offered a chance to escape? And yet, if she was right about why she was in the camp, she might be the key to winning their freedom.

    “I think we three and Kailee will make a break for it,” Jasmine said, finally. “We’re the best suited to get back to the city, then plan our next move.”

    “Hold on,” Stubbins said. “I want to leave the camp too!”

    “Can you actually help us?” Jasmine asked. She didn't blame Stubbins for wanting to leave, but if Kailee was right they were several days walk from Sabre City. “You’d have to walk with us to the city, then blend in until we found out how to get to the orbital station.”

    Paula gave Stubbins a long glance. “You’re not suited to a commando mission,” she said, gently. “You really need to let them handle it, while you stay here and play dumb.”

    Watson snickered. Jasmine scowled at him and he converted it into a cough.

    “The guards haven’t bothered to count us since we were shoved in here,” Jasmine said, carefully. “They’re going to regret that, I think, but ideally we don’t want them to think that anyone has escaped at all.”

    She smirked to herself. It was clear that Governor Brown hadn’t bothered to assign his front-line troops to Meridian ... but really, why would he bother? Meridian was unimportant ... and even if the POWs did break out of the camp and scatter before KEWs could strike them from orbit, they wouldn't be able to get off the planet. She was mildly surprised he hadn't simply dumped them on the surface, without bothering with the camp. The locals could have found work for them, or simply shoved them away from settled lands, and there would be no hope of a return to orbit.

    Unless he thinks of us as bargaining chips, she thought, grimly. Who knows what he could do with us, if he thought he were losing the war?

    “We can try and keep them occupied,” Stubbins said. “But how do you plan to get them looking in the wrong direction, without simply opening fire into the camp?”

    “Let me handle that,” Jasmine said. She glanced at Stewart. “Perhaps you could walk General Stubbins around the camp? See if it gives him any ideas?”

    “Of course, Brigadier,” Stewart said. He was smart enough to realise that Jasmine wanted to talk to Paula alone. “Carl will accompany us.”

    Stubbins looked as though he wanted to protest, but wisely said nothing as the two marines escorted him away. Jasmine watched them go, then turned to face Paula. The older woman - and she was sure Paula was older than she looked - was watching her with a mixture of amusement and respect. Maybe, Jasmine reflected, if she’d had a different life she would have made a good marine. There was something about her that suggested she would never give up.

    “So,” Jasmine said, “what’s a nice girl like you doing with a scumbag like him?”

    Paula shrugged, running a hand through her brown hair. Jasmine had never cared much for her appearance - there were stories of recruits fleeing in horror when they discovered they had to have most of their hair cut short - but she had to admit that Paula had done a remarkable job of keeping her looks, despite spending years in a POW camp. Indeed, she could have passed for someone on the streets, if she’d wanted.

    “He’s not actually that bad,” Paula said. “All bark and no bite.”

    Jasmine gave her a sharp look. “Really?”

    “Oh, yes,” Paula said. “He let me run his life on Wolfbane and ... and I just went into exile with him, when Governor Brown took over.”

    “Exile,” Jasmine repeated. “Is that what you think of it?”

    “James thinks he will return in triumph, one day,” Paula said. “Governor Brown will run into trouble and need to recall him. On that day, he has grand plans for killing his enemies and securing his place once and for all.”

    She shook her head slowly. “I don’t think much of his old patronage network remains, if any.”

    “Governor Brown has more competent subordinates,” Jasmine said. Admiral Singh was working for him now and, whatever else could be said about Singh, she was a very competent Admiral. “There’s no hope of a recall, I think.”

    Paula sighed. “I thought as much,” she said. “But he did have a habit of putting friends in odd places. He might still have some contacts on Wolfbane.”

    “Keep him under control,” Jasmine said. “His contacts might come in handy, later on. If they’re still there.”

    “I’ll do my best,” Paula said. “But he sees you as his first real chance to make a break for it.”

    Jasmine rolled her eyes, rudely. Stubbins had been in the camp for five years; surely, he’d had enough time to spot the weaknesses in the defences. Maybe he just hadn’t had the nerve to try to burrow under the fence while wearing his birthday suit ... or maybe he’d clung so tightly to the prospect of being recalled that he’d purposely not considered trying to escape. Or maybe he was just an idiot ...

    “You stayed with him,” she said. Someone as intelligent and capable as Paula could have found another posting, surely. “Why did you stay with him?”

    “It was that or being reassigned,” Paula said. She met Jasmine’s eyes. “I had a feeling I would have been reassigned to the pleasure corps, if I were lucky. Staying with him seemed the better idea.”

    “I see,” Jasmine said. She would never have whored for her postings, but perhaps she would have felt differently if she’d joined the Imperial Navy instead of the Terran Marines. “We will see how it will all work out.”

    She looked up as she heard Stubbins returning, escorted by the two marines. “I have a plan,” he said. “I know what will distract the guards.”

    Jasmine lifted her eyebrows. “How do you plan to distract the guards?”

    “Naked ladies,” Stubbins said. He grinned, boyishly. “There are a number of women in the barracks. A couple of them can strip naked and try to seduce the guards ...”

    “Except the guards will almost certainly be suspicious,” Jasmine pointed out. She’d considered something similar, but her half-formed plans had always died when she’d realised the risks. A naked woman was an obvious distraction, while a dressed woman was simply not distracting enough. “They will think she’s trying to keep them busy.”

    “Or she will be raped,” Paula added, sharply.

    “Then we modify the plan,” Stewart said. “Have two naked ladies run out of the barracks, chased by a pair of half-naked men. It will look like a relationship gone badly wrong ... the guards will look and laugh, rather than think it’s a distraction.”

    “Particularly if we do it in the rain,” Jasmine agreed. “We’d want to do it in the clear, if it was a distraction.”

    She considered it, quickly. Nudity did tend to attract attention, unless the watchers had been brought up on worlds where public nudity was considered acceptable. But the women would be taking considerable risks, even if the guards were on the other side of the fence ... she didn't like the idea, but she couldn't think of anything better. A riot might be ended, quickly and brutally, by the guards pointing their guns into the camp and opening fire.

    “Very well,” she said. She looked at Stewart. “Round up a couple of women willing to bare all for the plan, then organise a pair of men to serve as chasers. Tell them we want it to look serious, but slapdash. Make the guards laugh rather than cry.”

    “Of course,” Stewart said. “When do you want to leave?”

    Jasmine looked up at the sky. It was a pale blue, but based on past experience it would be raining within the hour, perhaps sooner.

    “I’ll get Kailee ready, then we can finalise our plans,” she said. “We’ll have to strip off too and be waiting near the fence. It will take some doing.”

    “And then we will wait for you,” Stubbins said. “I will see you get medals for this.”

    Jasmine bit off the response that came to mind. “Thank you,” she said. She exchanged a telling glance with Paula. “But let’s keep them until we’ve actually escaped, ok?”
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    There were also practical considerations. If the only thing POWs could look forward to was slow torture, starvation and death, why would they want to surrender? Even if they were trapped in a hopeless position, fighting to the last might seem a better option than surrendering to certain death.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    “I hear thunder in the distance,” Austin said. “My infallible intuition tells me we’re going to be drenched in a few minutes.”

    Darrin snorted. Five years of practically being a brother to Austin and he still wasn't quite used to his friend’s sense of humour. But then, five years of having to fend for himself on Meridian had taught him more than he’d ever dreamed possible. Earth had been a joke, a bad joke ... and now it was nothing more than a fading dream. He tried not to think about Earth these days, even when the occupiers had offered rewards to anyone who could tell them what had happened before the planet died. There was no point in dwelling on the past.

    “Maybe it’s just someone farting in the distance,” he said, as he crawled up to the vantage point overlooking the camp. “They were feeding the prisoners beans last time I checked.”

    He reached the vantage point and peered through the camouflage netting, down towards the POW camp. The occupiers had insisted, at gunpoint, that the settlers build the camp for them and, reluctantly, the settlers had done as they were told. They’d built it some distance from any settlement, just in case the POWs proved to be violent criminals. But none of the POWs the watchers had observed had seemed anything other than pathetic white collar criminals, if that.

    It wasn't a very well designed POW camp, he knew. The carpenters hadn’t wanted to spend more than the bare minimum of time on the barracks, so they’d built very basic transit housing and little more. But it would suffice to keep the prisoners relatively clean and dry, as long as they didn’t spend too much time running around in the downpours that afflicted Meridian every three or four hours. And it would keep them in, as long as the guards remained alert and the prisoners remained listless. None of them, male or female, had seemed particularly bent on escaping ever since they’d been dumped on Meridian.

    But now there were new prisoners. And they looked like soldiers.

    “Makes you want to know what’s happening out there,” Darrin said, looking upwards at the rapidly darkening sky. “Where did these newcomers come from?”

    Austin shrugged. He’d been born on Meridian and would probably die on Meridian, utterly unaware or unconcerned about the greater universe beyond the atmosphere. Darrin didn’t really blame him; Meridian was a good place to live, but it demanded full attention from its settlers. The planet was nowhere near heavily populated enough to support a spacefaring civilisation or a space-based industry, assuming it ever got the chance. Wolfbane might have pre-empted any hope of Meridian becoming more than a stage-two or three colony world.

    “It doesn't matter,” Austin said. “All that matters is that they are here.”

    “I know,” Darrin said. “But we need to know if we can find allies to get them out.”

    He shifted position, carefully spying on the watchtowers surrounding the camp. The guards seemed content to rotate between the watchtowers and a tiny set of barracks, rather than try to visit Sabre City or return to orbit. It made little sense to Darrin, but then he’d been born on Earth. Maybe the guards had come from yet another colony world, rather than Wolfbane or Earth. Or maybe they were just afraid of the consequences for leaving their posts.

    “I make it fifteen guards within view,” he said, after a moment. “You?”

    “Sixteen,” Austin said. “There’s a guard walking around the edge of the fence.”

    Darrin followed his gaze, then nodded. “Still thirty guards in total, as far as we know,” he said. “The remainder must be catching up on their sleep.”

    He smiled as a peal of thunder split the air. Once, it had been hard to sleep on Meridian, when the silence of night was frequently broken with thunder and lightning, but now he was used to it. The guards had been there for nearly a year, since the last prison drop; they’d probably grown used to it too. Another peal of thunder echoed over the valley, followed by a gust of wind that blew warm droplets of water into their faces. The thunderstorm was growing closer.

    “Must be,” Austin said. “And do you have any bright ideas for getting them off our planet?”

    Darrin shook his head. Everyone was armed on Meridian, from five-year-old children to old grannies and granddads ... and it hadn’t made the slightest bit of difference when the Wolves had arrived. The settlers could overwhelm the POW camp and the spaceport any time they liked, but what would it get them, when the Wolves held the orbital station in their clutches. They’d wiped a couple of farm settlements off the map when they’d first arrived, just to make it clear who was in charge. And they could destroy much of the settled lands in short order, if they wished.

    “All we can do is wait and watch,” he said, finally. “There’s nothing else we can do.”

    He thought, briefly, about Gary, one of the handful of people forced to work for the occupiers. Gary and he had never really been friends, but he'd hoped that Gary would work with them against the occupiers. Someone working in the spaceport would have been in a good position to spy on the Wolves, yet the bastards had been one step ahead of the settlers all along. They’d taken Kailee as one of their hostages and Gary wouldn't do anything to risk her life.

    And that shouldn't be a surprise, he thought, as rain started to patter down around them. Who would have expected him to wind up with her?

    “So it would seem,” Austin said. The rain grew stronger, obscuring their vision. “Let’s get down to the shelter and wait.”

    Darrin nodded and followed his friend back down to the hidden shelter. There, they could wait out the storm and then get back into position until relieved. And then ...

    He shook his head. Watching the guards had taught them a great deal about just how careless they were, even on a harmless planet, but none of the intelligence was any use. They’d been idiotic enough to fall into routine patterns, all of which could be used against them ... if the goddamned Sword of Damocles hadn't been hanging over their heads. All they could do was wait, watch and hope that someone bigger and nastier than Wolfbane threw them off the planet before it was too late.

    Dropping into the shelter, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.

    “Wait,” Austin said. “What’s that?”

    Darrin looked up, sharply. Austin had far better hearing than him, as well as a handful of other minor genetic modifications; it was quite likely that Austin could hear something over the downpour, even though Darrin himself could hear nothing. The deluge seemed to be overpowering everything, hammering the shelter so hard that it might collapse, if it hadn’t been built by expert carpenters. And yet, Austin could hear something ...

    “Come on,” Austin said. “Hurry!”

    He opened the hatch and led the way into the pouring rain. Darrin sighed, then followed him back towards the vantage point, feeling water cascading down from the skies and soaking his jungle camouflage until it clung to his skin. Lightning flashed high overhead as they reached the vantage point and peered down towards the camp.

    “And what,” Austin said, “is that?”

    Private Victor Toal hated Meridian. It rained all the time, particularly when he was on guard duty, and there was absolutely nothing to do in their free time, apart from watching porn on his datapad and pacing around the edge of the camp. He’d hoped they would be permitted to visit the nearest city, or at least have some fun with one of the prisoners, but they’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that they were to do neither. They weren't even allowed to hire a woman or two from the city to cook, clean and serve them while they were off-duty. And, to add insult to injury, the lucky bastards on the orbiting station had far more leeway to do as they pleased.

    But he knew better than to question orders. He’d been inducted into the army after he’d lost his part-time job on Wolfbane and he’d seen enough examples of just what happened to people who questioned orders to keep his mouth firmly closed at all times. The sergeants who’d trained him had forced anyone who dared ask questions to perform hundreds of push-ups, while later officers had shot men who’d asked questions on active duty. All he could do was carry out his orders and hope the next posting, wherever it was, had beaches, babes and no actual enemies.

    He reached the top of the tower and nodded to Private Guzman, who passed him the binoculars with a smirk. Victor glowered at him; the lucky bastard could go back to the barracks and have a lie-down, before cooking something inedible for dinner. The settlers had plenty of food, he knew from bitter experience, but the guards weren’t allowed to eat any of it, just because it might be poisoned. Victor knew it was nonsense - the POWs had eaten heartily without getting ill - yet, again, he dared not question orders. He’d just have to put up with rations until they were finally sent home.

    “Most of the buggers have gone inside,” Guzman said, in his horrible accent. Victor had no idea where he’d come from, before he’d been conscripted into the army, but it had to be somewhere right off the beaten track. “Just a couple of fuckers at the edge of the fence, staring at the jungle.”

    Victor looked ... and sighed. They weren't women and that was all he cared about. A downpour turned the shapeless prison outfits into clingy bathing costumes, but there were no women in view. If they couldn't touch, at least they could look ... he shook his head, then half-heartedly scanned the barracks for signs of trouble. The prisoners hadn't tried anything in five years, but he knew better than to slack off too much. If the CO saw him taking a nap in his tower, or ogling women for longer than a minute or two, he knew he would be in for a beating.

    A scream split the air, dragging his attention towards one of the nearest barracks. A naked woman - two naked women - were running out of the barracks, screaming as though the hounds of hell were after them. Victor stared, watching in awe as their breasts bounced, trying to catch a glimpse of the space between their legs. The women were trying to cover themselves as they ran ... a man appeared, running after them, his pants hanging down around his knees. Victor couldn't help laughing as he tripped over his pants and fell face-first in the mud. Another man, wearing a pair of orange underpants and nothing else, followed the women, screaming something incoherent about strip poker and bets being bets. He tripped over the first men and fell on top of him, while the women ran, screaming and giggling, towards the end of the fence.

    Idiots, Victor thought, as he adjusted his binoculars as the women ran past him. They didn't look bad for girls who had been trapped in the camp for five years; their buttocks still looked shapely, as if they’d been working out constantly. He followed them as the men picked themselves up and gave chase, still screaming about bets. No doubt they’d been playing games with the women, Victor decided, and now the bitches were trying to welsh out of the agreement. Maybe they’d offered to put out if they lost the game.

    He watched the men as they chased the women in and out of the next set of barracks, alternatively helped and impeded by other prisoners as they stepped out into the open air, despite the falling drizzle. The other guards were watching too and calling out bets, trying to guess when the women would be caught and what would happen to them when they were caught. Victor wasn't sure what the guards should do if the prisoners started to fight each other; their orders were to keep the POWs safe, but also never to go into the camp itself.

    “Get a hose,” he said, as one of the women slipped on the mud and fell to her knees. Mud clung to her skin as she scrambled upwards, just before one of the men caught her and started to drag her back towards the barracks. “We might need to separate them before it goes too far.”

    “Or we could just watch,” another guard said. “This is better than porn!”

    “That’s because you’ve watched everything a million times over, wanker,” Victor said. The CO would not be happy if they woke him for anything short of a mass break-out, but he was starting to feel there was no alternative. “Get some more the next time you go home.”

    He snickered as the woman kicked her captor in the chest, then broke free and started to run again, mud slipping down her chest and clinging to her breasts. The other woman appeared at the far end of the barracks, shouted something rude about the man’s lack of manhood, then vanished again as the other man gave chase. Victor laughed and settled down to watch the show.

    Kailee had always been scared.

    It was something she had had to learn to live with, growing up on Earth. There was no such thing as safety for a teenage girl - or anyone else, for that matter. A person could be attacked, raped or even murdered in the giant CityBlocks and no one would really give a damn. She had known girls in her class who had been forced to have sex by boys and others who had just vanished one day, with only rumours to mark their passing. All she had been able to do was dream of escape ...

    ... And she had escaped, only to wind up in another nightmare.

    It didn't seem fair, somehow. She had survived a crash, a thug who had raped her and a gang of bandits who might have done worse, only to wind up a hostage for her boyfriend’s good behaviour. They’d told her, when they’d taken her into custody, that she would be unharmed as long as Gary behaved himself, but she'd known they were lying. Even if they never touched her, the certainty that she’d lost control of her life once again had destroyed her fragile stability. She’d dated Gary, she’d fallen in love with Gary, because he would never attempt to control her. She’d studied with Austin’s sister, she’d learned to shoot and look after herself ... and none of it had mattered because, once again, she was a helpless pawn.

    And now a new woman had arrived, offering her the chance to escape.

    She wasn't sure what to make of it. On one hand, she didn't want to stay in the camp; on the other hand, she hated the idea of risking her life once again. Life might be bad, but it could easily be worse. The guards might decide to use her for sport, the other prisoners might turn on her ... or they might escape, only to be killed for being collaborators. She could easily imagine the locals turning on her, calling her an Dirty Earther who had never truly adapted to Meridian. They had thought of her as a liability long before Wolfbane had arrived.

    “It’s time,” Jasmine said quietly, as she slipped into the barracks. There was a blithe confidence in her movements that Kailee couldn't help admiring - and envying. “Get undressed.”

    Kailee eyed her, doubtfully. She understood the logic, but she hated the idea of being naked. It made her feel hopelessly vulnerable, when she already felt far too vulnerable for her own peace of mind. If the guards caught them, or a bandit gang ... God alone knew what had happened on the outside, after she had been taken into the camp. It was vaguely possible that Gary and her friends were dead and no one had ever bothered to tell her. Nothing she’d heard from the moment she’d entered the camp had reassured her that Wolfbane was practical enough to release her once her value had dropped to zero ...

    “Get undressed,” Jasmine repeated. She shucked off her own prison outfit at the same time, revealing a lithe muscular body. “Hurry.”

    Kailee stared, even though she knew it was rude. Jasmine was built like a small man, not a woman. Her breasts were barely larger than a man’s, while there wasn't a hint of fat or wasted meat on her body. Hell, if she hadn't been completely naked, Kailee would have wondered if she was looking at a man pretending to be a woman. But she was very definitely female, just ... unfeminine.

    “All right,” she said. “But can we do this quickly?”

    Jasmine shrugged. Kailee nodded back, then removed her outfit and dropped it on the ground. It didn't smell pleasant - she washed and changed as little as possible - but she’d seen it as a way to defend herself, even in the camp. Besides, they’d always been hectored to save water on Earth ...

    “Come on,” Jasmine said. Outside, Kailee could hear someone shouting and screaming loudly. “Leave your shoes and hurry.”

    Kailee hesitated, then followed Jasmine out into the rain.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    In addition, the victors of the war would almost certainly seek to try the losers in court, if only to bolster their own claims. Mistreating prisoners, therefore, would come back to haunt the leaders of the losing power.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    Jasmine heard Kailee gasp behind her as Stewart and Watson, wearing nothing more than their birthday suits, appeared out of the rain. They’d covered themselves with mud, in the hopes it would provide some additional concealment, but the rainwater was washing it off their bare skin at terrifying speed. She glanced at them both, then nodded towards the place they’d picked beside the fence. One way or the other, they were committed.

    “Get digging,” she muttered, as the sound of female screaming grew louder. There was no way to be sure what the guards would do, even if the whole event looked more like fun and games rather than a rape in progress. They might have orders not to let the prisoners have too much fun. “Hurry.”

    Kailee hung back as Watson started to dig, pulling mud out of the ground with his bare hands. Water pooled around him as he kept digging, slowly widening a passage under the wire. Jasmine and Stewart knelt behind him and started digging themselves - it struck her, suddenly, that she must look terribly undignified - until the passage was wide enough for her to slip under the wire. She crawled underneath, careful not to actually touch the metal, then beckoned for Kailee to follow her out of the camp.

    The girl had frozen, staring at nothing. “Force her,” Jasmine hissed, as the rain started to lighten. “Hurry!”

    Stewart grabbed Kailee’s arm and pushed her towards the hole, then into it. Jasmine grabbed her arms as soon as she was within reach, then pulled her through a gap that was rapidly filling with muddy water. Stewart followed her, with Watson bringing up the rear; they paused long enough to push more mud into the gap, then hastened towards the jungle. Mud dripped off them as the rain washed their bodies, leaving them bare and alone. Jasmine glanced back at the camp, making sure that no one had seen them, then led the way into the foliage. There was no sign of any pursuit.

    Kailee staggered as soon as they were safe, half-falling to the ground. Jasmine sighed impatiently, then nodded to Stewart, who hefted the girl up and over his shoulder. Kailee looked alarmingly thin, even by the standards of the other women in the camp, but then women on Earth had been expected to be pencil-thin. It hadn't been remotely healthy, Jasmine knew, yet fashion had a life and a logic of its own. And besides, someone had probably thought it saved resources.

    “No sign of any pursuit,” Stewart said. “I think we made it.”

    “Let us hope they don’t count heads,” Jasmine agreed. If she’d been running a POW camp, she would have held headcounts every morning, noon and night, just to make sure that all the prisoners were where they were supposed to be. “For the moment, we’d better keep moving.”

    Stewart nodded, then looked at Kailee. “Should we keep carrying her?”

    “For the moment,” Jasmine said. Kailee didn't seem to be much of a fighter, but that too was a legacy of Earth. It was astonishing how wimpy most of Earth’s citizens, male or female, had become. But then, she’d been told that the brave and the bold had set out to conquer a galaxy. “She’s our only hope of making contact with the resistance.”

    She took a long breath, then peered up at the overcast sky. The rain was finally coming to an end - she could see chinks of sunlight burning through the cloud - and once the skies were clear, they could start navigating away from the camp. It was impossible to be sure, but they had seen aircraft flying over the complex, heading south, and it seemed likely there was something there, either a farm or a small settlement. Once they made contact with the locals, their options would get better.

    Or we will simply be betrayed, she thought. Conduct After Capture had focused on denying as much as possible to her captors, but Escape And Evasion had warned of the dangers of making their way through hostile territory. The civilians might be friendly, or hostile ... and they might be afraid to do anything but call the enemy to catch them. She’d had to make her way through enemy-held territory on the Slaughterhouse and she’d been caught far too many times. They’d all been caught before they’d learned not to take too many chances.

    “We move on,” she said. “I want to put some more distance between ourselves and the camp before they decide to check for any missing prisoners.”

    She sighed, inwardly, as they started to walk. It had been too long since she’d carried out a route march, but at least she’d managed to stay in shape. How long had it been since she’d run the two kilometre run she’d had to do when she’d entered Boot Camp? They’d been told that the only easy day was yesterday, but she hadn't understood what it meant until she’d realised that the Drill Instructors were upping the pressure every day. She’d joined a class of one hundred recruits, male and female; by the time she’d been accepted at the Slaughterhouse, only nineteen recruits had made it through. And seven of them had quit once they’d seen the Slaughterhouse ...

    The mud squelched below their feet as they kept moving, looking around for signs of possible threats. Meridian was a stage-one colony world, Jasmine recalled; the Empire probably wouldn't have cleared it for settlement if there had been any real dangerous native animals living on the planet. But the settlers might easily have imported something dangerous, something that might have developed a taste for human flesh ... her lips quirked as she recalled tales of biological catastrophes, caused by introducing Earth-native vegetation into undeveloped biospheres, but few of those had involved anything dangerous to humans. Rabbits and cockroaches had done more damage than lions and tigers.

    “Ouch,” Kailee said. “What happened?”

    She needs a proper doctor, Jasmine thought. She normally had no time for headshrinkers, but Kailee probably needed therapy. And perhaps a chance to strike back at her enemies.

    “We made it out,” Jasmine said. Kailee probably didn't like being carried by a man, but she wasn't protesting. It took her a moment to realise that the girl was too scared to protest. “Do you think you can walk for yourself now?”

    Kailee looked down nervously, then smiled weakly. “I think so,” she said. “Please.”

    Stewart put her down gently, then gallantly looked away as Kailee remembered she was naked. She wouldn't have lasted a day in the barracks, Jasmine thought mischievously, as Kailee struggled to cover herself. Modesty went out the airlock on the very first day, along with any illusions about going into Boot Camp on Monday and becoming a super-soldier on Tuesday. It was astonishing just how many would-be Rambo-types never completed Boot Camp, let alone the Slaughterhouse. Becoming a Marine was hard work.

    “Take the lead,” Jasmine ordered Stewart, who nodded. “I’ll bring up the rear.”

    Kailee eyed her doubtfully, but didn't attempt to suggest that she should bring up the rear. It wouldn't have mattered if she had; Jasmine knew she could keep up with the two men, but she didn't dare let Kailee fall behind. Route marches had been hellish until the recruits had gotten into the swing of them ... and this was unexplored territory. She nudged the girl forward as Stewart started to walk, then followed her slowly. There was no point in trying to run, not now. They’d just exhaust themselves for nothing.

    The rain came to an end, gusts of wind blowing final splashes of water into their faces before fading away into nothingness. Jasmine let out a sigh of relief as she looked up at the blue sky, then at the mountains in the distance. Navigating by the stars would have been impossible, even at night time, but she knew where the mountains were relative to the POW camp. It would allow them to make their way towards the settlement - possible settlement, she reminded herself - without delay.

    She stopped as something ran across the path, then vanished into the undergrowth. It looked like a large mouse or rat, she decided; she wondered, absently, if they tasted good when cooked and eaten. They might have to stop and harvest something to eat, which would have its own risks. It was quite possible that fruit or seeds that looked edible would actually be deadly poison. They’d have to carry out tests, all the time getting hungrier and hungrier ...

    “Kailee,” she said, slowly, “do you know what’s safe to eat?”

    “Not everything,” Kailee said. “It’s been too long since they told us what we could eat.”

    Stewart glanced back at her. “You live her and you don’t know what you can eat?”

    Kailee staggered, as if he had struck her a physical blow. Jasmine caught her and held her steady, studying the younger girl thoughtfully. Everything she’d undergone had broken her, piece by piece, until there was no strength or determination left. The merest rebuke would have her in tears, if only because she could fear worse in the future.

    “People on Earth don’t know where food comes from,” she said. It still seemed absurd to her that Earth’s citizens couldn't draw a line between the cattle in the farming zones and the beef they ate for dinner, but people could believe anything if it was hammered into their heads from a very early age. Besides, most of Earth’s population would have eaten algae-based foodstuffs rather than real meat or vegetables. “It must have been a surprise when you tasted real meat for the first time.”

    Kailee smiled, slightly. “I threw up,” she said. “It was not my proudest moment.”

    “I imagine it wasn't,” Jasmine agreed. She'd known a girl, back home, who had been violently allergic to chicken. No one had taken it seriously, apart from her parents, until she had almost died. Normally, allergies could be treated, but this one had proven surprisingly resistant to all kinds of treatment. “What do you eat normally, when you’re at home?”

    “I try not to think about it,” Kailee said. “How do you cope?”

    Jasmine shrugged. She’d grown up on a farm. Her family had learned, quickly, never to get attached to any of the animals, if only because they were eventually slaughtered and turned into dinner. They’d been allowed to keep dogs, but they’d been regarded as part of the family. It hadn't been until she’d gone to Boot Camp that she’d tasted algae-based foods and she’d considered them rather bland. The Marines had practically drowned them in spicy sauce.

    “Tell me about Earth,” she said, instead. Talking would keep Kailee’s mind off their predicament. “What happened towards the end?”

    “I didn't see anything special,” Kailee said. “All we really know is that Earth ... Earth fell shortly after we left. And that was the end. My family ...”

    She shook her head slowly. Jasmine understood. Kailee was clearly lower-class, at best; it was highly unlikely that any of her family had made it out before the end. Just what had happened on Earth was something of a mystery, although the Commonwealth had collected hundreds of thousands of rumours, most of which were contradictory. The only thing known for certain was that Earth had died roughly six months after Stalker’s Stalkers had been exiled from the planet.

    The Grand Senate did us a favour, she thought, recalling their last nightmarish battle on Earth, against the Nihilists. We could have been there when the shit hit the fan.

    “My aunt ... I used to think my aunt hated me,” Kailee confessed. “She was always telling me off for every little thing, while her husband was a freaking peeking tom. But she gave me credits before I left and told me to enjoy myself. I don’t understand her at all.”

    “She wanted the best for you,” Jasmine said. “You should have heard what the Drill Instructors had to say about me, when I started. And everyone else.”

    “Yeah,” Watson said. “My first day at Boot Camp, I managed to run out of the barracks without any trousers on. The Drill Instructor was very sarcastic.”

    Kailee glanced at Jasmine. “Is that true?”

    “Probably,” Jasmine said. God knew that she’d forgotten pieces of clothing when she’d been awoken and forced to dress at breakneck speed. She still recalled one particularly unlucky recruit being lectured for forgetting to wear her bra. “The first day of Boot Camp is always hectic.”

    “Oh,” Kailee said. “How did you handle it?”

    “You get used to it,” Jasmine said. “You learn to sort out your uniform before you go to bed, then you can just get dressed very quickly when the whistle blows in the morning. And then you learn to get your weapon ready for use, and then ...”

    She shrugged. “By the time you leave Boot Camp,” she added, “all of these little things are second nature to you.”

    “Or you get your head torn off until they are,” Stewart said. “Do you know how long it took me to learn to field-strip my rifle?”

    “I read your file,” Jasmine said. “You won the shooting award for your class.”

    “But I still took days to learn how to strip and clean it properly,” Stewart said. “The Drill Instructor practically stood over me and glared until I had it down pat.”

    “They treated you like that?” Kailee asked. “Is that allowed?”

    “We all signed up for it,” Jasmine said. Part of the reason Earth had so many problems was that no one was actually permitted to discipline children, who rapidly grew into unruly and unemployable teens. She wondered, absently, just how many Marines had come from Earth, before it fell into chaos. Colonel Stalker had been born on Earth, she knew, but she couldn't think of any others. “And if we really couldn't take it, we could just quit.”

    She looked up as another rumble of thunder echoed out in the distance. “There were times when I thought about just ringing the bell and leaving,” she admitted, softly. “But I kept going.”

    “It doesn’t seem fair,” Kailee said. “Don’t you have altered standards?”

    “The universe isn't fair,” Stewart pointed out. He nodded to Watson. “I am more experienced than Carl, but Carl is stronger and faster. I’d be wise to take that into account if I had to spar with him, rather than moaning about fairness.”

    Kailee looked at Jasmine, who nodded. “I’m faster than both of them,” Jasmine said, although she wasn’t sure if that were still true. “But I dare not try to grapple with them at close quarters. They’d break my neck.”

    “The enemy doesn't give a damn about any concept of fairness,” Stewart said. “If we hamper our own forces, out of a misguided attempt to make the universe fair, we only make it easier for them to hurt us.”

    Jasmine smiled. “Keep walking,” she ordered, as another peal of thunder split the air. “How often does it rain here?”

    “Every two hours or thereabouts,” Kailee said. “Austin used to say the planet was too close to the sun and there was more water entering the atmosphere, but I wasn't paying close attention.”

    Jasmine frowned. Did that make sense? She struggled to recall what she knew of how rain was produced, then shook her head. The world wouldn't have been settled if there had been a long-term threat to the colony’s survival. Given how intent the Empire had been on saving money, they wouldn't have risked having to evacuate the planet at a later date. Unless there had been corruption involved ... she made a mental note to check on it at a later date, then put it out of her mind. There was no point in worrying about it now.

    “I think we should keep going for another hour, then take a break,” she said. They could have travelled further, without Kailee, but she didn't want to risk exhausting themselves. “And then ...”

    She froze as something changed. Instincts honed at the Slaughterhouse, then strengthened on a dozen different worlds, were screaming, warning her that they were no longer alone. Stewart and Watson were glancing around, their fists balled and ready to fight, while Kailee was staring at her in confusion. Jasmine heard something - or something - moving behind them, coming up the trail. She cursed mentally, then motioned for Kailee to get down on the ground. The foliage was making it hard for her to see who was coming. Guards? Or someone else who’d make a daring escape? Or ...

    Stewart slipped to one side, using hand signals to indicate that he was going to try to flank the newcomer. Jasmine nodded back, ordering Watson to accompany him. If there were guards following them, their only hope was to fight, rather than surrender. The guards wouldn't be so careless a second time. Their superiors would be furious with them for allowing even one escape from the camp.

    “Quiet,” she hissed at Kailee. It was unlikely the Earth-born girl could escape, even if she had spent the past six years of her life on Meridian. But she had to try. “Stay as low as you can and get ready to run ...”

    The figure stepped into view, holding his hands in the air. Jasmine tensed, bracing herself for fight or flight. He was young, the same age as Kailee, wearing what was clearly intended as jungle camouflage of some kind. There was a nasty scar on his right cheek.

    Kailee gasped. “Darrin?”

    The newcomer stared. “Kailee?”
    bagpiper, Grizz- and Sapper John like this.
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    Therefore, all sides benefited, to some extent, from treating POWs reasonably well.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    Darrin wasn't quite sure he believed his eyes.

    It had taken them some time to realise that the entire show in the POW camp was a diversion - and if he was forced to be honest, he would have to admit that it had been Austin who had realised the truth. They’d hastily scanned the rest of the camp, just in time to see a pair of figures slip under the fence and make their muddy way into the jungle. And then they’d given chase, watching carefully for any signs the guards had also noticed ...

    And then they’d caught up with the escapees and realised that they knew one of them.

    “Kailee,” he said. “It’s good to see you again.”

    Kailee looked paler than he remembered from when she’d been seen as an unattainable ice princess, her naked body alarmingly thin. She’d never put any real weight on, even after growing accustomed to the idea that she didn't have to be thin to be pretty, but now she was thinner than ever. He looked at her companion and found himself staring, despite the presence of two other men. Kailee’s companion looked thoroughly odd, even by local standards.

    “Darrin,” Kailee said. “I ...”

    She clutched at her companion and tried to hide herself. Darrin looked away, embarrassed and ashamed. Life on Meridian had taught him that some of Earth’s social mores were not only disgusting, but wrong ... and actively dangerous, when every teenage girl carried a gun.

    “My name is Jasmine,” the companion said. Her accept was impossible to place; it wasn't Earth’s slurred speech or Meridian’s clipped precise tones. “We made it out of the camp.”

    “We saw,” Austin said. “I don’t think they noticed you were gone, but it’s impossible to be sure.”

    “They’re friends,” Kailee said, from where she was still hiding her face. That was odd, Darrin considered, although he had no idea what had happened to her since she’d been taken hostage. “We can trust them.”

    “We’re part of the resistance,” Austin said, shortly. “And yourselves?”

    Jasmine exchanged glances with one of her male companions. “We’re former prisoners of war,” she said. “Can you escort us somewhere safe?”

    “Yes,” Austin said. “There’s a hidden settlement not too far from here.”

    He strode past Jasmine, then started to walk onwards. One of the men followed him, showing no difficulty in matching his pace, while the other hung back, watching Darrin without ever quite seeming to look at his face. Darrin couldn't help feeling a little intimidated, remembering Yates and some of the other ex-military personnel he’d met on Meridian. For what was universally regarded, at least on Earth, as a pool for losers, the military seemed to have a habit of turning out competent and dangerous men. But then, Earth had been safe until the crunch came. Meridian forced people to rely on themselves, rather than help from an all-powerful government.

    But the government wasn't all-powerful, he thought, as he walked after Jasmine and Kailee, trying to keep his eyes firmly fixed to the ground. If it had been, Earth would never have fallen.

    “Tell me,” Jasmine said, without looking round. “What’s the situation in Sabre City?”

    It was Austin who answered. “The Wolves don’t have many people on the surface, at least not in the city,” he said. “But they have us under firm control.”

    “They must not consider you to be very important,” Jasmine said, slowly. “Have they been taking more people hostage?”

    “A handful of people from various families,” Austin said. “They asked for volunteers for work on the orbital station, but rejected all the applicants we tried to send them.”

    “Interesting,” Jasmine said. “Why did you pick them?”

    It was nearly an hour before they approached the hidden settlement, concealed within the jungle. Darrin had been there when the colonial militia had cleared the bandits out, either killing the bastards or sending them to a labour camp; now, the resistance had turned it into a base for their operations. The settlement had already been very well hidden, but the resistance had brought in camouflage netting and hundreds of other surprises, just to keep it safe and secure. A handful of scouts, male and female, were charged with gathering food for the settlement, without leaving any trace of their presence. Darrin had never quite stopped envying the children who’d been born on Meridian ...

    “Into here,” Austin said. “I’m afraid we are going to have to ask a doctor to look at you.”

    “I quite understand,” Jasmine said, as they stepped into a large building. “I think you should check Kailee first, though.”

    “Of course,” Austin said.

    Darrin smiled as he saw the interior of the building. The scouts had laid blankets on the floor and turned it into a sleeping cabin, then installed a table at one end of the room. A stove sat at the other end, where a young man was cooking stew; there was no point in risking a fire when orbital sensors might pick up on it and wonder why someone was using a fire, hundreds of miles from any known settlement. Austin motioned for Jasmine to put Kailee down on the blankets, then headed over to the cook. They exchanged a few brief words, then the cook passed Austin the spoon and headed out of the building at speed.

    “We should be safe here, for the moment,” Austin said. “Kailee can have one of the blankets, if she wishes to cover herself. We may also have some clothes for you all to wear ...”

    “Never mind that now,” Jasmine said. She was pacing around the interior of the building, like a caged tiger. “We need to plan our next move.”

    “Food first,” Austin said, firmly. “Darrin, can you get some bread and cheese from the storehouse? And tell the doctor and Scoutmaster Clarence that we need them.”

    “Of course,” Darrin said.

    He headed out the door and down towards the storehouse, passing a handful of scouts on the way. It shamed him to realise that the young men and women - the oldest was fourteen, he thought - knew more about survival than he did, even now. Earth hadn't had a Boy Scout Chapter for centuries, ever since the drive for more and more safety had forced the scouts to cut back on their activities until there was nothing left. He couldn't help feeling that it had been a dreadful mistake. Earth wrapped its children in cotton wool - or at least tried to - while Meridian gave them adult responsibilities from a very early age. And Earth’s crime rate had been appallingly high, while crime was almost unknown on Meridian. It hadn't taken him long to realise that there was definitely a connection there.

    Scoutmaster Clarence looked up at him as he entered the storehouse. He was a tall man, wearing a pair of spectacles and a uniform that couldn't disguise his heavyset bulk. On Earth, he might have been considered overweight, if he’d felt like claiming disability benefits for himself; on Meridian, it was clear that most of his size was muscle. Darrin had wondered, at first, why he led the scouts. It hadn't taken him long to realise that Clarence was respected as well as liked by his followers.

    “Darrin,” Clarence said.

    “We need bread and cheese, then you and the doctor have to come meet our guests,” Darrin said. “They made it out of the camp.”

    Clarence’s eyes narrowed. “You’re sure they actually escaped?”

    “I believe so,” Darrin said, and explained what they’d seen. “It would be a great deal of effort to fake such an escape, if they were intended to infiltrate us.”

    “True,” Clarence said. “Still, we must be careful.”

    The stew smelled very good, but tasted better. Jasmine practically inhaled the first bowl, then took a second and ate it more carefully. Beside her, Stewart and Watson ate their own stew, while keeping a wary eye on their new friends. There was no doubt that the resistance was inclined to be friendly, but they knew to be careful. The Wolves might threaten an entire city if the former POWs were not returned to the camp, which would force the resistance to surrender their guests at once. And that would be the end of any hope of escape.

    She looked up as an older woman, carrying a medical kit in one hand, stepped into the building and smiled at them. “I’m Doctor Cavendish,” she said, as she placed the kit on the ground and snapped it open. “I need to give you all a brief check, I'm afraid.”

    “Treat Kailee first,” Jasmine said. It wasn’t just kindness; it would let her get a sense of the doctor’s competence before she started to inspect the marines. “She’s had a rough time.”

    “The entire planet has had a rough time,” the doctor said. She knelt next to Kailee, then started to wave a scanner over her body. “How are you feeling, my dear?”

    “Tired,” Kailee said. “Do you have to poke and prod me?”

    “I need to check everything,” the doctor said. She pushed a scanner against Kailee’s forearm, then frowned at the datapad in her hand. “You’ve not been eating very well, have you? I’m surprised you managed to walk this far without falling apart.”

    “I did fall apart,” Kailee protested.

    The doctor ignored her. “You’ll need to take supplements every day for the next two months,” she said, firmly. “I’ll write you a prescription, then send someone down to the city to get it filled. Make sure you eat three full meals a day, even if you don’t feel particularly hungry. You really need to rebuild your strength.”

    Jasmine concealed her amusement at Kailee’s expression with an effort. Someone born on Earth would have been conditioned, from a very early age, to eat as little as possible, all in the name of saving the environment. The schools would have fed the bare minimum, perhaps not even that, while the parents might not have been able to obtain enough food to compensate. To eat three full meals a day would seem an impossible dream.

    “Do as she says,” she advised. “You are really in a mess.”

    Kailee sighed, but nodded.

    Jasmine allowed the doctor to poke and prod at her, then the other two marines. The doctor didn't have much to say, beyond a concern that Jasmine might be incapable of having children in the future. Jasmine had honestly not thought about the prospect; like other female marines, she’d had eggs removed from her body and held in stasis when she’d made it through Boot Camp, but those eggs had been on the Slaughterhouse. God alone knew what had happened to the training world.

    “You should really take better care of yourself,” the doctor reproved her, afterwards. “A woman’s duty is to produce children to populate the world.”

    “Depends on where you sit, I suppose,” Jasmine said, waspishly. Her mother had had seven children; her older sister had had five. A woman on Meridian would probably be expected to have as many children as possible, but a woman on Earth would be actively encouraged to sterilise herself. “And my duty is to get back home.”

    “I suppose,” the doctor said. She looked down at the scanner for a long moment, then smiled at them. “You’re healthy, but make sure you eat plenty over the next couple of weeks too. I hate to imagine what the crap they were feeding you was doing to your insides.”

    “Producing poison gas,” Watson said, with a wink. “We had beans for breakfast, beans for lunch and beans for tea. I’m sure that violates some convention on the use of torture on prisoners.”

    Jasmine shrugged. Under the circumstances, Wolfbane had treated its POWs remarkably well. The Marine Corps had built up the determination never to let someone remain in enemy hands through a grim awareness that any prisoner was likely to be brutally tortured, then murdered. Insurgents throughout the Empire had known, after all, what was likely to happen to any of them who fell into enemy hands and they’d been happy to return the favour.

    And Admiral Singh tortured you, her own thoughts reminded her. You’ve been very lucky this time around.

    “Probably,” the doctor said. She paused. “On a different note, you don’t seem to have been stung with any tracking bugs, but the gear I have isn't too advanced. I may be wrong.”

    “I know,” Jasmine said. She thought they hadn’t been stung, but there was no way to be sure without mil-grade scanners and some luck. A bug could be so tiny it could only be seen with a microscope... “We’ll just have to take our chances.”

    “And so you will,” the doctor said. She turned towards the door, then stopped. “I’ll have some clothes sent in for you, then assign you to one of the huts. I assume you want to stay together?”

    “Yes, please,” Jasmine said.

    “Then you shall,” the doctor said. “I’d recommend a day of rest, but if you’re anything like Old Hans, you won’t want to stay still for a moment.”

    She walked out of the door. Moments later, Darrin walked in, accompanied by a heavyset man who looked as if he was running to fat. Jasmine eyed him carefully and noted that, despite his girth, he was definitely surprisingly quick and strong. And he had a stance that suggested he knew he was both liked and respected. In some ways, he reminded her of Colonel Stalker.

    “Jasmine, this is Scoutmaster Clarence,” Darrin said. “He’s in charge of the local section of the resistance.”

    Jasmine rose to her feet, then held out a hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. Clarence took it and shook her hand firmly. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a scout.”

    Clarence smiled. “And were you ever a scout?”

    “Many Marines have been scouts,” Jasmine said. She’d never been one herself, but her homeworld hadn't really liked the creed of the Imperial Boy Scouts. “I was a Survivor myself.”

    “Ah, our dread rivals,” Clarence said. He gave her a smile that suggested he hadn't taken offense, then motioned for her to sit down. “As interesting as it would be to compare notes, I don’t think we have time. We need to talk, instead, about just how you wound up on this world - and why.”

    Jasmine nodded. “It’s a long story,” she said, “but I will do my best.”

    She hesitated, then started by outlining how the company had been exiled to Avalon - and how they’d started to build the Commonwealth to take the Empire’s place, now it was dead and gone. Clarence listened carefully, without interrupting, as she talked about the peace talks that had ended in failure, then the war on Thule. When she finished, he leaned forward and looked her in the eye.

    “Your Commonwealth,” he said. “Can it liberate our world?”

    “I think so,” Jasmine said, although in truth she knew it would be hard to be sure of anything now. Perhaps, once the POW camp was liberated, she would sit down with Stubbins and Paula and try to work out some hard numbers for Wolfbane. How many ships had been in the sector when Governor Brown had taken control? “But it may take years.”

    Clarence’s eyes narrowed. “How long?”

    “I don’t know,” Jasmine said. “The war was just starting when we were captured, sir. I don't think the Commonwealth will win or lose quickly; it may take years before one side gains a decisive advantage. The front will probably surge backwards and forwards hundreds of times before then.”

    She sighed. “I wish I could give you a timetable for the liberation of your world,” she added, “but I can't. All I can do is plan our escape and do it in a manner that ensures you can’t be blamed for helping us.”

    “I see,” Clarence said. “And what if we decided that it was too dangerous to risk allowing you to make a try for escape?”

    “We would respect your decision,” Jasmine lied. She knew she couldn't find a place to live on Meridian and stay out of the war, but she couldn't blame the resistance for having second thoughts about allowing them to risk the entire world. “If you truly wanted us to do nothing, we would find work here and stay out of sight.”

    Darrin took a step forward. “Wouldn't that get you in deep shit when you got home?”

    “Maybe,” Jasmine said. There was no maybe about it. Failing to try to escape could be considered a court martial offense. “But I won’t endanger your world without your permission.”

    “We will discuss the matter and make our decision known to you,” Clarence said. He rose to his feet. “Austin will show you to your hut. I would ask you to wait there until we have made up our minds.”

    Jasmine rose. “Of course,” she said. “We need to rest anyway.”

    She allowed Austin to lead her through the settlement and into a smaller hut, with a handful of blankets lying on the floor. There was no sign of anything else, apart from a primitive shower and toilet in the rear. She guessed that the scouts probably cleaned up their campsites pretty thoroughly, like the Marines had been taught during Escape And Evasion.

    “We’ll make sure Kailee is fine,” Austin promised as he turned to leave. “And I’ll have clothes sent to you.”

    “Please,” Stewart said. “My ass is going red from all the stares.”

    Austin smiled. “We don't normally have guests here,” he said. “You’re the first since this settlement was converted into a base camp.”

    Jasmine watched him go, then sighed. “Get some sleep,” she ordered. They were in seemingly friendly territory, but there was no point in taking risks. “I’ll take the first watch.”
    bagpiper, Grizz- and Sapper John like this.
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    However, this tended to run into other problems. For example, the early attempts to codify the laws of war found it hard to identify soldiers. They wore uniforms, true, but what happened when they didn't wear uniforms?
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Avalon, Year 5 (PE)

    When I come to write my memoirs, Ed thought, as he stepped into the briefing room, I will leave this year out completely.

    He pasted a smile on his face as the councillors rose to greet him. It seemed that he spent half his time in meetings and the other half attending or giving briefings, either to councillors who didn't understand what he was talking about or reporters who - if considerably better than the reporters who had infested the Empire - seemed to think they had a need to know absolutely everything. At least the Commonwealth had some pretty strong penalties for reporters who learned something they shouldn't and told the entire universe. God alone knew how many enemy intelligence operations back in the old days had consisted of nothing more than scanning the Empire’s newspapers.

    “Thank you for coming,” he said, keeping his voice level. He’d dealt with worse people, including the Grand Senate, and most of the Commonwealth’s politicians had some real experience of the outside universe. They might be stubborn and suspicious of interstellar alliances, but they had some common sense. “If you will take your seats, we can begin.”

    He slid the datachip into the room’s processor, then turned to look at the councillors. None of them looked guilty, but one of them had to be a spy. Who? He glanced at Gordon Travis, who looked back at him with cool regard, then at Marilyn Morrison. The latter had a good record of keeping small businesses going, despite the wars with both the bandits and the Crackers. It seemed unlikely that she would betray her homeworld, but God knew just how many seemingly-loyal people had turned their coat. And then there was Thomas O’Rourke and Howard Malevich ... Ed honestly couldn't say he knew either of them very well.

    O’Rourke is a farmer, he reminded himself, and not someone to take much interest in the outside universe. Malevich is a builder threatened by competition from the rest of the Commonwealth. Might they each have a separate motive to turn traitor?

    He sighed inwardly as he keyed the processor and displayed a holographic starchart in front of the assembled councillors. He’d trained to fight in battle, from stand-up encounters with the enemy to the far more common insurgencies launched in the midst of a civilian population, not to track down an enemy spy. No doubt whoever he was seeking was skilled in deceit ... he wished, suddenly, that there had been more time to assemble a counter-intelligence service before the war had started. But it was far too late for regrets. He’d played his cards the best he could and now all he could do was muddle through and hope for the best.

    While preparing for the worst, he thought, sardonically. And who knows what a witch-hunt will do to us?

    He could trust his fellow Marines, he knew. He could trust Gaby; if she’d wanted to sell out the Commonwealth, she could have done it without slipping information to the enemy. But who else could he trust? The remains of the Civil Guard? The Knights? Assorted local militia who felt they’d been overridden by the Commonwealth? The Traders? There were just too many places for a spy - or even a rumour of a spy - to cause havoc. It made him wonder if they’d been allowed to pick up the message, just to spread distrust and paranoia among his people ...

    Stop that, he told himself, firmly. He’d definitely been away from the battlefield for too long, even if he was needed on Avalon. Any more paranoia and you will go mad.

    “I am obliged to warn you that the following data is considered classified and must not be shared,” he said, without any other preamble. “Please don’t talk about it, even amongst yourself, outside a sealed room. We cannot allow word to spread to the enemy.”

    He paused, then began.

    “The war front appears to be stabilising,” he said, although he knew that most of the reports were three weeks out of date. So far, no one - not even the Trade Federation - had been able to enhance FTL speeds, let alone send messages from star to star without a starship to carry them. “We lost control of Elder, councillors, but we regained control of Preston and successfully contested Elision. In Preston’s case, the Wolves were unable to secure control of the system before we evicted them.”

    He watched the councillors carefully as he went on. “There were two more long-range exchanges of fire between our respective task forces,” he continued, “but both engagements were inconclusive. In the first encounter, the enemy decided we had the advantage and saw fit to retreat; in the second, both sides were apparently evenly matched. There were several volleys of missile fire before both sides broke contact.

    “However, there have been signs that the Wolves have been probing the Harper system,” he said. That was true. “As we have stationed a mobile foundry in the system, to support our war effort, I have ordered the dispatch of an additional squadron to the system to provide cover if the foundry needs to be withdrawn.”

    And that, he knew, was not true. Harper was largely useless, at least until someone invested in a cloudscoop and several hundred thousand new colonists. There was nothing particularly special about the asteroid belt, while the settlers were largely farmers who paid their Commonwealth dues in food and drink. Any CO who stationed a mobile foundry in the system, particularly one on loan from the Trade Federation, would be swiftly relieved of duty for gross incompetence. It wasn't as if Harper could afford the bribes it would take to convince an Imperial Navy CO to declare the system important ...

    But it would be interesting to see if that particular titbit of information made its way to the transmitter .

    It was an opportunity, he knew. The Wolves would have only a couple of weeks to take advantage of it before the mythical squadron arrived. They’d need to send a small task force of their own to the system, in hopes of catching the foundry before it was withdrawn ... and, as there was nothing to find, it would tie up one of their task forces for a few weeks. But the opportunity would be very limited ...

    “Colonel,” Gordon Travis said. “I was under the impression that the treaty we signed with the Trade Federation specifically states that the foundry ships are not to be risked.”

    Ed kept his expression blank with the ease of long practice. It was a shame that Travis was on the other side, a political opponent if not an outright enemy. He was smart, perceptive and alarmingly competent. God knew the Commonwealth’s industrial base wouldn't be as strong without him and his fellows, businessmen who had been able to expand now the dead hand of the Empire’s rules and regulations was gone. But he was also determined to wrest control of the Commonwealth away from Gaby and her allies.

    “The war has changed some of our agreements,” he said, instead. The Trade Federation wasn't exactly fighting by their side, but it had gone a long way to help the Commonwealth fight the war. “The foundry ship is required to produce war material that can be shipped directly to the front, rather than produced here and forwarded to ships and bases that may no longer be there.”

    “That is understandable,” Travis said. “But surely the risk of a diplomatic incident isn't worth the advantages of keeping the ship there?”

    Ed gritted his teeth, then forced himself to relax. Was Travis merely trying to make political hay out of a controversial decision ... or was he standing up for Avalon’s industrial base, which stood to lose a considerable amount of money if the Trade Federation handled most of the industrial production? In the long run, they had nothing to fear; in the short term, it might be disconcerting.

    “With all due respect, Councillor,” he said, “the consequences of losing the war will be a great deal worse than a minor diplomatic incident.”

    He waited to see if Travis would disagree, but the councillor didn't seem inclined to say anything further. Instead, he just waited.

    “Training programs have been accelerated on all threatened worlds,” Ed continued. They were no secret, not if the Wolves were monitoring the Commonwealth’s media. “I do not expect local resistance cells to be able to force the enemy off their planets, but it will force Wolfbane to tie down its armies to keep the planets under control. Furthermore, we have organised evacuation programs for skilled manpower ...”

    “Which causes no end of disruption,” Councillor Bunche muttered.

    “Better that than losing their services,” Travis sneered. He looked at Ed. “Has there been any change in the reports from Thule?”

    “No, Councillor,” Ed said. “The Wolves are still rounding up every scrap of trained manpower they can find. Those who can’t help to rebuild Thule’s industrial base are being shipped back into enemy territory.”

    “Stands to reason we should be probing enemy territory,” Travis said. “Is there a reason you’re not?”

    He was right, Ed reflected, sourly. The Commonwealth was probing enemy territory. But it wasn't something he wanted to discuss, not when he didn't know who he could trust. The enemy had to know the Commonwealth was trying to locate their worlds - or at least identify which ones had become industrial powerhouses - but they wouldn't be certain which worlds had been surveyed.

    “The navy is hard-pressed at the moment,” he said, which was true. “Our plans to survey enemy space have been badly delayed.”

    He paused. “With your permission, I will continue,” he added. “Military production levels ...”

    When he finished, he was surprised by a question from Councillor Morrison.

    “Colonel,” she said, “has there been any news regarding POWs?”

    Ed winced. He knew, all too well, that several hundred Commonwealth personnel had gone into enemy captivity after the Battle of Thule ... and countless others had been scooped up as the Wolves advanced into Commonwealth territory. The Wolves had promised to treat them well, but he had his doubts. Governor Brown was a product of the Empire, after all, and the Empire’s normal attitude to POWs had never been kind.

    “No, Councillor,” he said, bluntly. “We have attempted to open discussions regarding either an exchange of prisoner lists or a direct exchange of prisoners, but we have been rebuffed on both counts. I suspect they have calculated that holding so many of our prisoners not only gives them leverage, it gives them a definite advantage. Their manpower levels may well be much higher than our own.”

    Morrison frowned. “Is there no way we can force them to give up their POWs?”

    “Not until we win the war,” Ed said. “That’s the only way we can force them to the negotiating table.”

    Colonel Kitty Stevenson knew she was competent, although the entry her superior officer had entered into her permanent record had been enough to ensure she would not only never see promotion again, but be exiled to the very edge of explored space. The asshole had seen her as an easy lay, as someone who would trade sex for a promotion ... and when she’d declined, he’d set out to make an example of her. Maybe he’d succeeded, the nasty part of her mind thought, but there was a good chance he’d been stuck on Earth when the end came.

    And part of her rather liked Avalon. It wasn't as sophisticated as Earth, or any of the Core Worlds, but it was a decent place to live. She’d set out to do her duty, even before the Marines had arrived, hoping to embarrass her former superior. Even now, knowing she would never see the man again, part of her enjoyed proving her competence. Spy-catching was long slow work, but it was fun.

    “Colonel,” she said, when Edward Stalker stepped into her office. “Did you record the meeting?”

    “I did,” the Colonel said. “There were twelve people in attendance, not including me.”

    Kitty allowed herself a tight smile. There had been hundreds of possible suspects, but - if the tale about the foundry ship reached the transmitter - there would be only twelve. And the story was urgent, if the Wolves planned to take advantage of it. They would have to send the message off-planet within two days if they didn't want it to be anything more than a historical curiosity.

    “I understand you’re giving another briefing tomorrow,” she said, after a moment. “Can we insert another false fact into the briefing?”

    “Of course,” the Colonel said, dryly. “Just make one that will definitely attract attention.”

    Kitty nodded, then looked down at the transcribed message they’d intercepted. She’d tried to narrow the suspect list down still further, but she had to admit she’d failed utterly. The spy seemed to have an odd set of priorities; there were some military titbits buried in the message, yet most of it was centred on politics and political relationships. Apparently, Councillor Hammond and Councillor Burton were having an affair. It would be embarrassing if the affair was revealed, Kitty was sure, but it would hardly be disastrous ...

    Or would it? Hastily, she pulled up the voting records and ran a comparison check. Councillor Hammond and Councillor Burton had voted together seven times in the last four months, which meant ... what? Did they agree with each other or was one changing his vote to please the other? And if so, what did his constituents think of it? Hammond was married, if she recalled correctly, and colonists tended to be more intolerant of adultery than Earthers.

    Maybe the information is meant to imply blackmail, she thought. But it wouldn't really cost them anything beyond their posts if it became public ...

    Colonel Stalker cleared his throat. “Do you have anything else for me?”

    Kitty blinked, feeling her face heat. She always lost track of everyone else in the room when she was considering the puzzle in front of her.

    “I’ve been working on trying to eliminate as many suspects as possible,” she said, “but I have not been able to eliminate more than a handful. Councillor Martin’s son may be a POW, sir, but as we have no way to exchange prisoner lists with the Wolves there’s no way to be sure.”

    “Councillor Morrison asked me about the POWs,” Colonel Stalker said, slowly. “Could she have been influenced by him?”

    “She may well have several constituents who have lost people to POW camps,” Kitty said. It wasn't something she’d considered, but she made a mental note to add it to her list of possibilities. “Someone with a potential hostage in enemy hands could be our spy.”

    Colonel Stalker frowned. “How many people would that include?”

    “From the senior leadership? It depends on the factors,” Kitty said. “There’s several politicians who have relatives who may be in POW camps - I can give you a list, if you like. Then there’s people who have friends ... you would be on that list, sir. Brigadier Yamane was your protégée.”

    “I see,” the Colonel said, tightly.

    He looked down at the transcribed message, then shook his head. “I have work to do, so I will be back tomorrow,” he added. “Let me know if you manage to isolate a suspect.”

    Kitty looked at the files as he left the office, closing the door behind him. The encrypted message still struck her as odd, as if the writer was more used to thinking in terms of politics than military affairs. But there were only a handful of people on the council who had any pre-independence political experience, if one counted the Crackers as politicians ...

    But they weren't, she thought, not really. Internal insurgency politics are very different from the Empire’s politics ...

    “Maybe it isn't someone on the military oversight boards,” she muttered. “Just someone on the political side alone.”

    She turned to her list of suspects and started to work her way through the facts. The Commonwealth had never bothered to collect vast amounts of data on each citizen, which left her with tantalisingly little to go on. Her handful of agents were collecting information as fast as they could, but there were simply too many gaps in the datafiles for her to say anything for sure. She wasn't even certain just how many of her suspects had children, let alone where those children actually were ...

    “It must be someone who thinks he can benefit from us losing the war,” she mused, slowly. It narrowed the list of suspects, slightly. “Someone who thinks he can make himself useful to the enemy. Someone in a good position to collaborate.”

    One by one, she worked out a list of suspects. Gordon Travis had a good reason to hate the Commonwealth ... and, as a wealthy and capable businessman, had a proven track record Wolfbane could use. So did Morrison and Malevich ... and around thirty more, all of whom had to be considered suspects. All she could do was wait and see which false piece of information was forwarded to the enemy. That would allow her to narrow the list of suspects considerably.

    She shook her head, tiredly. Until then, she could keep tracking their movements. Perhaps one of them would make a covert visit to a data centre, one suitable for inserting a message into the transmitters. It would be nice if one did ...

    But she had a feeling that it wouldn't be anything like that easy.
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments would be nice, BTW
  15. whynot

    whynot Monkey++

    Congratulations on the baby. Hope you and the wife are getting enough sleep.

    Off to a good start so far on this story.

    I have a request. Can your next installment follow Yamane or your pathfinder that saved the young emperor (sorry can't remember her name) throughout the Slaughter house? I 'd even take following Stalker through the Slaughterhouse but I think one of the lady's would make a better story.

  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    This caused problems for anyone intent on following the laws of war. Was the man looking at the advancing troops from a distance, wearing civilian clothes, a spotter calling in long-range fire or merely a curious civilian? How were they meant to respond when it was clear that the opposing side was pretending to be civilians right up until the moment they opened fire?
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    “There are worse places to stay, I suppose,” Stewart said.

    “I suppose,” Jasmine agreed. They’d spent two days in the hut and, despite herself, she was growing impatient. The longer they remained at large, the greater the chance someone would notice they were missing from the camp. “But I would like to be on our way home.”

    She sighed, then looked at the paper books they’d been given to read. The scout manual was tame, compared to the marine survival guides they’d been forced to memorise as recruits, but the guidebook to Meridian had contained a great deal of useful, if outdated information. In some ways, she could see the attraction of settling down on a colony world, well away from the Empire’s mainstream. But it wouldn't have lasted indefinitely.

    “They’re checking us out, I suspect,” Watson said, from where he was leaning against the wood. “They may feel we’re spies ourselves.”

    Jasmine nodded, ruefully. If two days weren't enough to convince the resistance to help them, she wasn't sure what she could do. They’d have to break free, then make their own way to the spaceport, something that would ensure they’d be hunted by both the resistance and the occupation force. And the resistance would know the lie of the land much better than any of the Marines. She hadn't failed to note that they hadn't been given precise maps of the countryside.

    “Or trying to determine if they dare help us,” she agreed. “They’re totally naked if the bastards decide to start dropping rocks from orbit.”

    She gritted her teeth. She’d always felt sorry for civilians caught in the midst of war zones, particularly the ones who had come out of hiding to help the Empire’s forces. They tended to be abandoned to the tender mercies of their fellows, once the Empire had completed its mission - or at least claimed the mission was completed - and withdrew its forces. There had been times, early in her career, when she’d wondered why anyone dared help the Empire, knowing they would be left to their fate. Perhaps they’d dreamed of a better life without the insurgents who’d made their lives hell.

    “It could be worse,” Stewart said. “We could be running around the countryside, completely naked.”

    Jasmine had to laugh. “Yeah,” she said, as she heard someone at the door. “We could be naked.”

    She rose to her feet as the door opened, revealing Darrin. He’d spoken to them once or twice since they’d been asked to stay in the hut, but he hadn't known anything particularly useful or informative. As a first-gen immigrant from Earth, he probably wasn't trusted completely by the locals, no matter how much he’d done to prove himself. The planet’s home-grown culture would probably have responded badly to newcomers from Earth, particularly someone they regarded as useless.

    But they made him part of the resistance, she thought. They must have some faith in him.

    “Clarence will be along in a few minutes,” Darrin said. “I think he finally received word from higher up the chain.”

    Jasmine nodded. She wasn't surprised that there was more than one resistance cell on the planet - and that the lines of communication were rather vague. The Empire had plenty of experience in cracking resistance networks that were strictly hierarchical, simply by capturing one member and then working their way up the chain. A diffuse network had more chance of remaining intact, once the counter-intelligence goons got to work.

    But they might also have differences of opinion, she thought, sardonically. The Crackers had split after the peace talks, with some factions deciding to fight on rather than accept a share in power. One cell might want to go in one direction, while another might have different ideas.

    “That’s good to hear,” Stewart said. “And Kailee?”

    “She’s recovering, very slowly,” Darrin said. “She didn't have an easy time of it here.”

    Jasmine was mildly surprised. In her experience, the Earth-born tended to be immensely selfish and utterly lacking in empathy. For Darrin to concede that someone had had a hard time ... it said good things about him, she decided. But then, if half of Kailee’s story was true, he and his friends had all had to grow up in a hurry. And one of them hadn't made it.

    “Being trapped for so long couldn't have been good for her,” Stewart agreed. “Make sure she gets plenty of support and encouragement.”

    The door opened again. Clarence stepped into the room, looking tired. “There was some disagreement on how to proceed,” he said. “The short and final answer was that you could proceed, as long as we are not implicated in your scheme. We won’t risk the planet just to get you and your fellows home.”

    “You have a choice between helping us and having the Wolves breathing down your necks for the rest of your lives,” Watson said, sharply.

    Clarence gave him a sharp look. “When your side has a fleet of starships in the system, you can talk to us,” he said. “Until then, I am disinclined to risk my family and friends on a mad scheme to break us free of an interstellar power.”

    Jasmine nodded. “We understand,” she said, shooting Watson a warning glance. No matter what they did, Wolfbane would eventually notice that something was wrong and send a ship to investigate. At that point, if the Wolves decided to blame the planet’s settlers, Meridian would be hammered into rubble from orbit. “We will make them think we were acting alone.”

    “Good,” Clarence said. “It’s a minimum of five days from here to Sabre, assuming we stay away from the main roads. We’ll escort you down to the city and then let you sort out your own plans.”

    “We will need Kailee’s help,” Jasmine said, after a moment. There was just too much to learn in too little time. “And her boyfriend too.”

    “If they are willing to help, they can,” Clarence said. “But again, we cannot risk being implicated in your actions.”

    “Blame everything on the Earthers,” Darrin said.

    “I intend to,” Clarence said. “And I am sorry.”

    He looked back at Jasmine. “We have food, drinks and packs for you,” he said. “I think you should depart as soon as possible.”

    Jasmine nodded. They hadn't seen the sun since they’d been asked to stay in the hut, but she was fairly sure it was early morning. Good; they could make a solid start on the march before they holed up for the night. It wouldn't be anything like as bad as route marches and death trails on the Slaughterhouse, she was sure. They’d need tents to keep the rain off their heads while they slept, but they had practice in carrying plenty of weight.

    “I’ll get them organised,” Darrin said. He smiled at Jasmine. “Kailee and I will be coming back to the city too.”

    The settlement looked deserted when Jasmine emerged, blinking rapidly, into the sunlight and looked around. There had been young children, all scouts, playing in the village; now, they were all gone, along with most of the adults. A pair of men wearing jungle camouflage watched them closely, Clarence and Austin were standing with the doctor, but no one else was in sight. It was clear the resistance had largely decided to abandon the settlement, just in case. Jasmine felt a pang of guilt, which she ruthlessly suppressed. Meridian’s only hope for freedom lay in help from the Commonwealth.

    “I should have an intelligence packet waiting for you when you arrive,” Clarence said. “We have been gathering intelligence on the enemy, but ... most of it is arguably useless.”

    “We’ll see,” Jasmine said. She’d been taught there was no such thing as useless intelligence, but she had her doubts. Information on enemy terrain or political geography was always useful, yet other intelligence briefings had been definitely useless. Who gave a damn about the environmental impact of an engagement two years ago? “It might be quite helpful.”

    “Check the packs,” Clarence ordered, as he indicated where they were lying on the ground. “If there’s anything else you need, let us know now.”

    Jasmine nodded, then picked up and opened her pack. It felt surprisingly light to her, after a lifetime of carrying full combat loads from place to place, but it held everything she could imagine needing. There was a small selection of ammunition, plenty of ration bars, flasks of water and purification tablets, just in case they needed to drink from streams or ponds. At the bottom, there was a small medical kit. It was surprisingly comprehensive - and packed in waterproof packaging. She had a feeling they were going to need it.

    “We arrange for a number of rifles to ... go missing from a nearby farm,” Austin said. “The owners have gone into hiding, so if anyone checks it should look as though you raided the farm, killed everyone and took whatever you needed. I would advise you not to talk about that with anyone else, though, if it can be avoided. Shooting bandits on sight is considered perfectly legal.”

    Jasmine made a face as she took the hunting rifle and checked it, carefully. Living off the land was one thing, but stealing from civilians quite another. They’d been told, more than once, that there would be times when they would have no choice, but she’d never liked the idea. They might wind up stealing seed corn or vital - and irreplaceable - supplies from helpless men and women. And, once they got into the habit of stealing, they might never be able to break it.

    “Thank you,” she said, instead. She pulled her pack over her back, then tested it carefully. It definitely felt lighter than a standard combat load. “Shall we go?”

    “One moment,” Darrin said. “Kailee’s just getting ready.”

    “Make sure she takes her pills, every time,” the doctor warned. “She’s on the verge of simply giving up completely, something made worse by her lack of proper food. I think she will get better once she has a few dozen meals inside her, but right now she has little to live for.”

    “Gary will be glad to see her,” Darrin said. “I know he hasn't strayed in the years since she was taken.”

    Jasmine smiled as Kailee appeared, looking thin and pale in her jungle outfit. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the ground, as if she didn't dare look anyone in the face. Jasmine sighed inwardly, noting how she shied away from the men. It might well be a long time before Kailee recovered from her imprisonment.

    “Walk with me,” Jasmine said. She had to seem appallingly unfeminine to the younger girl, but at least she was a woman. “The others can lead the way.”

    “Of course,” Austin said. “I will take point; Darrin can bring up the rear.”

    Jasmine kept a sharp eye on Kailee as they walked out of the settlement and down a half-hidden trail, concealed from orbital sensors by the jungle canopy. The gloom descended rapidly, casting the trail into shadow; she couldn't help glancing around, even though the guidebooks had reassured her that there were few dangerous animals apart from packs of feral dogs. Austin set a good pace, but she’d been forced to walk harder and faster on the Slaughterhouse. But then, they weren’t being chased by an opposition force this time.

    “I could almost enjoy this walk,” Stewart muttered, as he dropped back to pace beside Jasmine. “But we could go faster.”

    “I think Kailee won’t be able to keep up with us,” Jasmine said, practically. If worst came to worst, someone could carry the girl, but it wasn't something she would have preferred to do. “Besides, we are going to be walking for several days.”

    She glanced at Kailee, then withdrew into her own thoughts. There were plenty of options for when they reached Sabre, but she didn't know enough about the situation on the ground to pick one. What were the occupation forces doing? Did they knew four of their prisoners had escaped? In truth, she knew it would be impossible to answer those questions until they reached the city.

    And if they are on the lookout for escapees, she thought, our task will become much harder.

    High overhead, she heard the sound of thunder. Darkness descended rapidly, followed by a pouring shower that rapidly drenched all of them. Jasmine took Kailee’s arm as she started to slip and slide as the ground turned to mud, then helped her along the way as the rainfall grew heavier. Small animals appeared from nowhere, running around their feet, then vanishing back into the undergrowth as the rain finally came to an end. She glanced up and saw chinks of sunlight peeking through the canopy.

    “They should call this world Rainfall,” Stewart muttered. “Or simply Wet.”

    “Wetter Than Thou,” Watson offered.

    “There are supposed to be places where it doesn’t rain,” Darrin said. He looked to be coping with the walk better than Jasmine had expected, for someone from Earth. “But most settlements were built in the tropical zone.”

    Stewart glanced back at him. “Do you know why?”

    “Some of the earlier settlers preferred to use boats and fish rather than farm,” Austin said, “or so I was told. There was definitely some confusion over the best place to set up farms and settlements. But we actually have two harvests in a year and plenty of other advantages, living here. There’s just an awful lot of rainfall.”

    They stopped long enough to eat ration bars and take a drink of water, then resumed the hike as water splashed down around them. Jasmine found herself almost enjoying the march, despite the weight on her shoulders and the need to keep a constant eye on Kailee, who seemed to have withdrawn completely into herself. It was surprisingly like her homeworld, apart from the ever-pouring rain. She felt a touch of homesickness, which she pushed away savagely. She’d known she might never see her home and family again even before she was sent to Avalon.

    “We’re approaching the first campsite,” Austin said. “Do you want to set up here for the night or carry on for another hour?”

    Jasmine glanced at Kailee. “Stay here, I think,” she said. The Marines could have gone on for several hours, but Kailee was not in a good state and Darrin didn't look much better. “We can press on tomorrow.”

    “No campfire, of course,” Darrin said. He gave Austin a tired smile. “Do we at least get to sing songs?”

    “Yep,” Stewart said. He threw back his head and started to bellow. “Oh, up in the north, there lived a great ...”

    “I think they’re not old enough to hear that song,” Jasmine interrupted, quickly. It started out as rude and went downhill from there. “And besides, you can't sing.”

    “Of course I can,” Stewart objected. “I’ll have you know the Drill Instructors wanted to turn my singing into a training tool. They were going to play it to young recruits who weren’t showing enough enthusiasm.”

    “And there I was thinking it was going to be played to prisoners,” Watson said, as they entered the clearing. “A few hours of hearing your caterwauling and they’d be begging us to let them confess.”

    Jasmine concealed her amusement as she unslung her pack, then started to dig out the tent while Kailee collapsed to the ground. She’d have very sore feet in the morning, Jasmine suspected, remembering her first week at Boot Camp. There had been odd bruises popping up all over her body until she’d grown used to pushing herself to the limits. And Kailee hadn't had a chance to walk for nearly five years.

    “We can’t set up a fire,” Austin said, once the two tents were erected. “There’s too great a risk of attracting attention. But I suppose we could sing, if you wanted.”

    A loud peal of thunder split the sky. “I think God is saying no,” Watson said, with a rude snicker. “And some of us should really get some sleep.”

    “True,” Jasmine agreed. She dug more ration bars out of her bag and ate one, then practically force-fed a second bar to Kailee. The younger girl looked unhappy, but reluctantly ate and then took a swig of water and a handful of pills. “I’ll put Kailee to bed, then get some sleep myself. Carl, if you take watch, wake me up in four hours and I’ll take over from you.”

    “Understood,” Watson said. He hefted his rifle, then sat down outside the larger tent. “Do you think we’re in any danger.”

    “There used to be quite a bandit camp up here,” Austin said. He picked up a shovel, obviously intent on finding somewhere to answer the call of nature. “There may still be stragglers, if they escaped the sweep afterwards.”

    Jasmine leaned forward. “What happened to them?”

    Austin shrugged. “Most of them were indentured prisoners who fled rather than work off their debts,” he said. “I have a feeling that any survivors would have tried to hide, rather than attack the newer settlements. But I honestly don’t know for sure.”

    “Keep a sharp eye out,” Jasmine ordered, as the rain started to fall once again. She urged Kailee into the tent, then sighed. They were going to have a damp night. “And wake me in four hours.”

    The following morning, after eating a brief breakfast, they started on their way again.
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    I was planning to do Ed's origin story, if that's ok.

  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    And when this happened, civilians died. They were shot down by advancing troops, who believed them to be insurgents or terrorists.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Meridian, Year 5 (PE)

    There were few times in Gary’s life that he could honestly say he’d lived without fear.

    Maybe he had felt no fear as a newborn baby, when he’d been too young to realise the dangers of growing up on Earth, but that time had passed too quickly. No one had defended him at school, no one had stood up for him ... not when it was safer to side with the bullies, instead of the unpopular loner. He’d never gone a day without someone doing something to him and he had known, one day, that eventually they would kill him. And he’d worked hard to escape, only to find himself on Meridian.

    There had been a time when he’d felt safe, after Barry’s death. But it hadn't lasted. The Wolves had taken Kailee from him, using her as a hostage to force him to work for them, which had made him a collaborator with an occupying force. It wouldn't be long before someone put a bullet in him, thinking they were striking back against the Wolves. The looks of hatred he received every time he went to the city were quite bad enough.

    He looked around the spaceport control room, feeling bitter hatred as he stared at the equipment. None of it was remotely modern; Meridian had never bothered to invest in a large spaceport, not when there was only a small stream of colonists coming down from the Empire. They’d even thought they would be completely isolated once the Empire had collapsed, leaving them alone. But the Wolves had had other ideas. Meridian could work for them ... or it could be bombarded into ruins. And then they’d taken hostages to force people to collaborate.

    There had been times when he’d considered destroying the equipment and killing himself, but he’d known he wouldn't be able to do that to Kailee. She’d been the only girl to show any real interest in him, after they’d arrived on Meridian. And he’d been happy in her arms, even when she cried at night, until she’d been taken away. He couldn't condemn her to death by refusing to follow orders ...

    He pulled himself to his feet and glared out of the window. There was really nothing to the spaceport, apart from a pair of wooden hangers, a tank of shuttlecraft fuel and a tiny control tower. One man could handle most of the spaceport’s operations by himself, if he was prepared to work hard; Gary had found it quite satisfying, before the Wolves had arrived and forced him to work for them. Now, he was effectively their slave.

    Shaking his head, he walked to the door and clambered down the ladder to the ground floor. The building had always struck him as incomplete - there were arrival halls that were nothing more than bare rooms, not even painted to welcome newcomers - but it wasn't as if anyone was interested in finishing the job of preparing the spaceport. Meridian didn’t want new settlers and had been trying to discourage them, before the Empire had fallen into ruins and their final links to Earth had been severed. At least the Wolves hadn't done more than set up POW camps and insist the prisoners be fed regularly. They hadn't dumped more settlers on Meridian.

    That will come, he thought, morbidly. Meridian had excellent long-term prospects, once the current unpleasantness - whatever it was - settled down. Wolfbane could dump a few hundred thousand settlers on the planet and to hell with what the prior settlers wanted. There would be resistance, of course, but what would it matter? Wolfbane could just hammer the planet from orbit until the battered survivors surrendered and begged for mercy.

    He peered into the empty hanger, then started the walk to his cabin, on the edge of the spaceport. He’d moved in shortly after Kailee had been taken, both to be closer to the spaceport and to be well away from the city. Darrin and Austin visited, from time to time, but no one else did, not when they distrusted him on principle. Even if he hadn't been evil, they knew he had someone held hostage for his good behaviour. How could they know how he would react to finding someone in his house?

    A gust of warm air blew into his face, followed by a scattering of raindrops. The sky was clouding over rapidly, once again. He hoped, sadistically, that one of the Wolves was flying a shuttle through the planet’s atmosphere, even if the odds of a crash were very low. There would be some turbulence, he was sure, which would make the flight unpleasant. But then, the flying doctor might have to fly to a medical emergency ... and that would be very far from pleasant.

    He paused at the gate, then peered inside. Darrin was standing by the doorway to the cabin, waiting for him. Gary hesitated - part of him would always be scared of Darrin, even though he’d never been the worst of Gary’s tormentors - and then pushed the gate open, striding into his garden. There had actually been next to no time to actually take care of the garden; he was mildly surprised that anything grew, given his lack of attention.

    “Gary,” Darrin called. “I have a surprise for you inside.”

    Gary blinked. The settlers believed, firmly, that a man’s home was his castle. No one, but no one, stepped inside without permission. He would have been quite within his legal rights to shoot anyone who entered, even if they had only come to beg for a cup of sugar. For Darrin to put something inside his house without permission ... Darrin might have been born on Earth, like Gary himself, but it was still odd. He should have learned better even before Barry had met his final end.

    “You put something inside my house?” He asked. “What?”

    “Come and see,” Darrin said. “I think you’ll like it.”

    Gary eyed him suspiciously - the last time he’d been told anything like that, it hadn't been remotely pleasant - then stepped through the door and into the house. It was a tiny cabin; the living room and the kitchen were combined, while the bedroom was tiny and the bathroom was barely large enough for a shower. But it was large enough for him ... he looked at the sofa, then stopped dead. Kailee was sitting there, staring back at him.

    “Kailee,” he said. “I ...”

    He ran across the room and enfolded her in his arms. For a moment, she didn't respond, then she hugged him coolly, almost robotically. Gary hesitated, unable to avoid thinking that she had fallen out of love with him, then held her gently. Her entire body was quivering slightly, as if she were terrified.

    “I brought another guest,” Darrin said. “She’s waiting around the back.”

    Gary wanted to talk to Kailee, but he suspected Darrin wasn't going to wait. “Show her in,” he said, as he slowly let go of his lover. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

    Darrin nodded and slipped out of the door. Moments later, he returned with another newcomer, a dark-skinned woman with very unfeminine features. If Gary hadn't known better, if Darrin hadn't told him, he would have taken the newcomer for an oddly-shaped man, rather than a woman. Her face wasn't conventionally pretty and her body was surprisingly masculine. And her arms, what little he could see of them, were heavily muscular.

    “My name is Jasmine,” she said. Her accent clearly wasn't local - or Earther. It didn't sound like anything he’d heard from the Wolves either. “I think we need to talk.”

    “Dear God,” Gary said. It all made sense now. “You’re from one of the camps!”

    “I told you he was smart,” Darrin said, mischievously.

    Gary shot him a sharp look, then busied himself making a pot of hot tea. Real tea was rare on Earth, but it was surprisingly common on Meridian and everyone drank it throughout the day. Even making tea had become a ritual, something that gave him time to think. He picked up a packet of biscuits, then looked around for cups. Luckily, he had a handful of mugs he’d taken from his old home, enough for all four of them. He poured the water into the teapot, then placed it on the table in front of the sofa.

    “I would have preferred not to drop in on you like this,” Jasmine said. “However, given your position, we need your help.”

    Gary nodded, then started to pour the tea. He had a feeling he knew what was coming.

    “I have sugar as well as milk,” he said. “What would you like in yours?”

    “Just milk,” Jasmine said. She gave him a soft smile. “My mother was always very fond of tea too.”

    Darrin cleared his throat. “When do you have to be back at the spaceport?”

    Gary shrugged. “There’s supposed to be another supply shuttle in a week,” he said. “Before then ... me being there is more of a formality than anything else. There's nothing to do, but study manuals and tinker with the computers.”

    Jasmine sipped her tea thoughtfully. “And can you do much with the computers?”

    “Not enough,” Gary admitted. “They might have been designed for bad weather, but there are limits. I think we will start losing them within a couple of years.”

    Darrin scowled. “You can't fix them?”

    “No,” Gary said, flatly. “I have neither the tools nor the expertise to fix the computers, should they suffer any physical problems.”

    He shook his head. What was the point of explaining, to Darrin, just what it took to build a computer? Meridian’s industrial base was laughable; it produced farm tools, a handful of primitive vehicles and little else. Even the dump of HE3 would have to be resupplied, eventually, from off-world. When - if - the fusion plant near the city failed, that would be the end, unless it could be replaced. It wasn't designed to allow someone to repair it in place.

    “I thought you were good with computers,” Darrin said.

    “Not that good,” Gary admitted. “I can do basic programming, which is more than I could do on Earth, but I certainly can't replace missing components.”

    Jasmine held up a hand. “Let me be blunt,” she said. “We need to know everything you know about the enemy, then we can start making plans.”

    Gary looked her in the eye. “And if I don’t help you, Kailee suffers?”

    “No,” Jasmine said. Oddly, Gary believed her. “But there will come a time when they realise she’s not in the camp.”

    “I see,” Gary said.

    He swallowed, nervously. The idea of risking Kailee was anthemia to him, but now ... he might succeed in doing nothing more than implicating them both in resistance activities. If they were caught, the best they could hope for would be immediate execution ... if, of course, the Wolves didn't decide to make an example out of a small farming village or two.

    “You said you could read their traffic,” Darrin said. “Do they know she’s escaped?”

    “I don’t think there was any reference to escaped prisoners,” Gary said, after a moment. “But they don’t have to route their messages through the ground-based transmitter.”

    “We can, but hope,” Jasmine said. “Tell me about the enemy.”

    Gary took a breath. “They have seven POW camps scattered over the continent,” he said. “Each of them has around thirty to forty guards, none of whom seem very happy to be living there. There’s almost no contact between the guards and the local settlers, apart from food shipments. They’re searched thoroughly before being allowed into the camp.”

    Jasmine nodded, impatiently. She’d probably heard it already from Darrin.

    “They have the orbital station under their complete control,” Gary continued. “The station was actually powered down and left in a stable orbit shortly after the Fall of Earth - I believe the original crew went elsewhere. They powered it up again, attached a bombardment module to the underside and turned it into a base. I believe there are forty or so crew stationed there, along with a handful of ... slaves.”

    “Sex slaves,” Jasmine said.

    “I think so,” Gary admitted. The thought of Kailee being added to someone’s harem had horrified him. Barry had gloated, openly, about his long-term plans. They had been completely impractical, Gary knew now, but they would still have been brutally unpleasant for both Gary and Kailee. “They took a number of girls from the planet when they first arrived.”

    “Don’t they always do that,” Jasmine muttered. “What about the other technical experts?”

    “I think they were just shipped right out of the system,” Gary said. “They certainly haven’t managed to get back in touch with me.”

    Jasmine took another sip of her tea. “Do they have anyone stationed here, in Sabre City?”

    “Not as far as I know,” Gary said. “They issue orders over the communications net, such as it is, and expect us to carry them out. I don’t think they cared enough to station an occupation force in the city itself.”

    “So it would seem,” Jasmine agreed. “What else do they do?”

    “Every two weeks, they send down a shuttle which we load with food,” Gary said. “I imagine they check the food before eating it ...”

    “I would imagine so,” Jasmine mused. “Is the shuttle crewed or automated?”

    “Crewed,” Gary said. “There’s actually an advisory against using unmanned shuttles in the planet’s atmosphere. The weather changes too rapidly for autopilots to handle easily.”

    “That’s a safety regulation, not a practical concern,” Jasmine said, shortly. “How many people crew the shuttle?”

    “Two,” Gary said. “They stay in the cockpit while we load the craft.”

    Jasmine looked at him, sharply. “And you never thought to include a large bomb in the supplies?”

    “It was considered,” Darrin said, before Gary could say a word. “The resistance decided there was no way we could guarantee destroying the orbital station ... and besides, they get a ship here every couple of months. They'd know what we’d done.”

    Gary nodded. The orbital station might have been tiny, compared to the giant battlestations that had surrounded Earth, but it was large enough to be dangerous, should pieces of debris start to rain down on the planet below. And even if it was blown to atoms, the Wolves would eventually send a ship to find out what had happened to their garrison. Darrin was right; they might score a short-term victory, but in the long term it would be disastrous.

    Jasmine shrugged. “What make of shuttle?”

    It went on and on. Gary felt exhausted at the end, as if he’d had every last piece of knowledge pulled out of his head, but he couldn't help feeling that he was finally doing something to strike back at the enemy. He sat next to Kailee and forced himself to relax as Jasmine paced the room, muttering to herself. She clearly had some kind of plan, but what?

    “I’ll need to check your emergency supplies,” she said, shortly. “Did you keep everything the law insisted you keep?”

    Gary shrugged. Legally, every colony world was to have two shuttles held in reserve at all times. Practically, one of Meridian’s shuttles had broken down years ago and the other had been confiscated by the Wolves. The secondary supplies might still be functional, but he wasn't sure how to check them. He’d just have to lead her to the underground storage dump and hope she knew what she was doing.

    “Right,” Jasmine said, once he’d explained all that. “You can take me there this evening?”

    She jerked her head at Darrin, who rose and took Kailee’s arm. Kailee rose at once, wordlessly allowing Darrin to lead her out of the room. Gary stared after her, torn between horror and a terrifying sense that his life was about to change once again. Kailee had held herself together before, when they’d faced Barry together, but now ...

    “She’s had a very hard time,” Jasmine said, catching his eye. “You will have to grow used to the fact that she isn't the person you knew, not any longer. I think she can recover, but ... but it will probably take years before she’s feeling any kind of confidence in herself. You have to make allowances for her.”

    “I will try,” Gary promised. “But ...”

    “But nothing,” Jasmine said. “People cope with trauma in different ways. Kailee seems to have largely zoned out of the world, not helped by problems with her diet. You will take care of her and try not to push her too far.”

    Gary nodded, wordlessly. He didn't dare disagree. There was something about Jasmine he found terrifyingly intimidating. He’d never really met a girl he’d thought could stand up for herself before, not when the only true protection for a girl on Earth was to ally herself with a strong man and pray he defended her against all comers. No one had ever looked to him for protection, of course. The whole idea was laughable.

    And you owe Kailee more than that, he reminded himself, firmly.

    “I’ll do my best,” he said. “I assume she will be kept out of sight?”

    “We have her in a boarding house at the other side of the city,” Jasmine said. “A doctor will take care of her, from time to time. I do hope she recovers, but ...”

    Gary nodded. He’d seen plenty of people on Earth just give up. There had been nothing to live for, not even children and grandchildren. He’d had his own escape plan, but ... in hindsight, being forced to travel to Meridian had saved his life. He would have died on Earth.

    “Me too,” he said. He took one last swig of his tea. “I’ll show you the emergency supplies now?”

    Jasmine smiled. “Why not?”
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    The laws of war, thus, insisted that soldiers had to be seen to be soldiers, if they were to be treated as soldiers. A soldier who wore civilian clothes could, legally, be shot out of hand as a spy. Furthermore, the moral blame for atrocities committed against the civilian population rested with the defender, rather than the attacker.
    - Professor LEO Caesius. The Empire and its Prisoners of War.

    Jasmine had learned to loathe the Empire’s bureaucracy from a very early age.

    It was maddening to have to do battle with both the enemy and people who were supposed to be on your side. Her father, the farmer, had known far more about running a farm than any of the bureaucrats, yet he’d sometimes had to account for everything he’d done to them, while allowing the bureaucrats any influence over military affairs was asking for trouble. The Commonwealth, at least, had managed to slim down the bureaucracy, although she had no idea how long that would last. Bureaucracies spread like cancers.

    And it galled her, as she looked around the storage room, to actually have to feel grateful to the bureaucrats.

    Imperial Law stated that colonies were to maintain a reasonable supply of expensive emergency gear at all times. On paper, it looked like a sensible idea, but the settlers - and not the development corporation - were responsible for paying for and maintaining the supply, something that only pushed the planet further and further into debt. They had to take out loans to pay for it ...

    But now it might have worked in her favour.

    “This gear hasn't been touched,” she said, as she examined a standard spacesuit. “Do you know if anyone bothered to maintain it?”

    “I think it was never used,” Gary said. “The Wolves certainly never demanded we hand it over to them.”

    Jasmine nodded, absently. There were thirty spacesuits, a small collection of deep-space survival gear and an emergency power generator, plus enough spare parts to be reasonably sure she could get at least ten of the spacesuits working. The medical kits, stowed at the rear of the compartment, were modern; she was surprised they hadn't been taken and put to use long ago. God knew the doctors on Meridian had to make do with primitive equipment and self-produced medicines. The collection of ration bars - enough to keep a small army fed for several months - was just the clincher.

    “We’ll have to come back and check everything,” she said. “Do they ever search the spaceport?”

    “They did once, when they arrived,” Gary said. “I don’t think they’ve bothered to be concerned with anything we did after that, once they reassured themselves that we weren't a threat.”

    “I see,” Jasmine said. There were no weapons in the chamber, merely a handful of tools that could be converted to weapons with a little imagination. The hoplophobic bureaucrats had probably refused to consider insisting that everyone kept a supply of weapons. “We can use these, I think.”

    “Good,” Gary said. “But how do you plan to get up to the station?”

    Jasmine smiled. “We will have to ride their shuttle.”

    Gary looked doubtful. Jasmine wasn't too surprised. Gary and Kailee both clearly had long-term problems stemming from their upbringing on Earth; it was unlikely, she suspected, that Gary was truly capable of bravery. People who were bullied relentlessly - and Darrin had made it clear that Gary had been savagely bullied - either snapped and tried to kill someone, or lost all hope they could direct their own lives. In hindsight, it was that lack of competence that might have attracted Kailee to Gary. He wouldn't have the nerve to force himself on her.

    “It sounds like madness,” he said, finally. “Are you serious?”

    “Yes,” Jasmine said. She had hoped there would be a shuttle on the ground, one they could use, but the Wolves had moved it to orbit. Besides, even if they had access to a shuttle, the station was permanently in place to spot anyone trying to get off the surface. A half-imagined scheme for transporting a shuttle to the other side of the planet had been nothing more than a pipe-dream. “There’s no other way to get to the station.”

    She eyed Gary’s back as he turned back to the door. Would he try to betray them? He had no reason to love the Wolves, but Stockholm Syndrome - and simple fear for Kailee’s life - might lead him to do something stupid. She’d been told, more than once, that there would come a time when she would have to make a decision between taking an innocent life and risking her mission, but she’d never had to do that. Now ... she feared that time might have come.

    You need him, she reminded herself. You cannot take his life now.

    “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Gary said. “They’re due here in a week. How do you plan to take control of the shuttle?”

    “Wait and see,” Jasmine said. “Now ... I want to see your databases.”

    Gary hadn’t been kidding, she discovered, when he’d described the computers as outdated and cumbersome. Someone had done their level best to prepare them for life on a very wet world, but it was clear the systems were on the verge of breaking down completely. Jasmine took the codes Gary gave her, then started to probe through the files. Most of them were completely useless - she rolled her eyes when she discovered the porn stash - but some of them were interesting. The Wolves had adapted a Mark-VIII heavy-lift shuttle for their supplies, rather than anything newer.

    “That’s the shuttle they took from us,” Gary said, peering over her shoulder. “But we don't have anyone who could fly it.”

    “I could,” Jasmine said. She’d never had the chance to fly a Mark-VII shuttle before, but it didn't matter. The Empire had standardised everything years ago. There were few differences, at least in the cockpit, between a Marine Assault Shuttle and a standard civilian model. “All I’d need are the control codes and some practice. But I would also need someone to speak to them on my behalf.”

    “Hold a knife to their throat,” Gary advised. There was an odd tremor in his voice. “A person will say anything if you threaten them with immediate death.”

    “It depends on who you threaten,” Jasmine said. When had Gary been threatened? A school bully? Knives were banned on Earth, if she recalled correctly, but it wasn't as though it would be hard to smuggle one into a school. A bit of imagination, used correctly, would make it easy. “Someone intent on being a hero at the wrong moment could get us all killed.”

    She looked up at him. “Do you know the pilots? Personally?”

    “No,” Gary said. “They never really talk to me.”

    Jasmine nodded. It made sense; the Wolves wouldn't want their people to form any kind of attachment to the settlers, not when it would make them reluctant to strike the planet if necessary. She had wondered why the guards - and she knew now that there was more than one POW camp - had been so isolated, but it did make sense. The only real question was why they hadn't abused the prisoners.

    They may think they can get some use out of us, she thought. Keeping us unharmed would be part of the deal.

    She checked the last few files, then stood. “I’ll go back to our base now,” she said, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. She looked like a teenage boy, rather than any kind of woman, but she had to admit it would probably draw less attention. “I will contact you later to discuss our plans.”

    Gary looked pale. “And Kailee?”

    “We’ll keep her safe,” Jasmine said. She knew, no matter how she chose to justify it, that she was effectively keeping Kailee as a hostage for the second time. Gary would know, of course, what she was doing. But she suspected they had no choice. “She will be fine, I promise.”

    “She won’t be fine if they turn the planet into ash,” Gary snapped. “Will she?”

    “They won’t destroy the whole planet,” Jasmine assured him. “It would be pointless devastation.”

    Of course they won’t, her own thoughts mocked her. It would be much easier to drop a rock on the largest city, then wait a few years. Everyone will either die or be reduced to barbarism. And then they will just drop a few hundred thousand new settlers on the other side of the planet.

    “They don’t seem to give a damn about anything, apart from power,” Gary said. He pointed upwards, towards the peeling ceiling ... and the stars beyond. “What’s happening out there?”

    “War,” Jasmine said.

    She told Gary everything she could about Avalon, the Commonwealth and Wolfbane as they made their way back to the cabin. Gary listened, asking questions from time to time, although he didn't seem to know much about the outside universe. Jasmine wasn't really surprised; Earthers weren't encouraged to learn for the sake of learning, while Meridian’s settlers had too much to do to worry about affairs light years from their homes. In many ways, the universe had become much bigger with the fall of Earth. Star systems that had once been known elements were now strangers ...

    I need to sit down with Stubbins, she thought, and go through everything, piece by piece.

    “Thank you for your help,” she said, when they reached his cabin. “We’ll get back in touch with you.”

    Rain was starting to fall, once again, as she walked down the road towards the city. It was the sole modern road she'd seen, although it was clear that it had suffered from a lack of basic maintenance. Water gushed down the gutter, heading to the sea, but levels were rapidly rising and muddy liquid was starting to splash against her boots. She looked behind her as she heard the sound of hoof beats, then smiled as she saw the horse and cart approaching from one of the side roads, the rider sitting under a makeshift canopy. It looked uncomfortably primitive, but horses were much easier to maintain on a primitive world - and self-reproducing too.

    “Hey,” the rider called. He was a young man, barely sixteen. “Do you want a lift?”

    Jasmine smiled. “Why not?”

    She scrambled up next to the rider and chatted to him, trying to keep her voice low. He didn't seem to have realised she was female, but there was no point in taking chances. It was clear that she didn't look typical, at least for a woman on Meridian, and being known as female would cause comment. She was quite happy to stick with the cover story - that she had grown up on an isolated farm - and politely deflect his questions.

    “My father wants more wood for the new barn,” Gavin said. He’d told her his name, along with so many biographical details that it was clear he was starved of company on the farm. “He’s planning a barn-raising this week. Will you be coming?”

    Jasmine shrugged. She’d done barn-raisings on her homeworld, back before she’d left for good, and they’d always been special occasions. The men would raise the barn, while the women would cook a feast and the children ran around getting in the way. It was a tradition she rather wished the Empire had seen fit to spread, although the cynic in her understood why the Empire had done nothing of the sort. Anything that caused unity among the population - a unity that could be easily turned against the Empire - was discouraged on general principles.

    “I’d like you to come,” Gavin said. “It would be fun.”

    “I’m sure it would be, but it depends on my father,” Jasmine said. “He really hates being in the city.”

    She sat back and watched as Sabre City came into view. It didn't look very impressive, not compared to Camelot on Avalon, but she had to admit it had style. The wooden buildings were designed to let water flow off them as quickly and efficiently as possible, while the gutters were deep enough to keep water flowing down to the sea without flooding the streets or washing against the sides of the buildings. They’d been treated, she suspected, to prevent rot, but it still struck her as an unsafe place to build. But then, the settlers might not have been given much choice.

    “You can drop me off here,” she said, as they drove into the city. “I’ll try and make it, but no promises.”

    She couldn't help feeling a flicker of guilt as she watched Gavin drive away, then turned and made her way towards the tiny house. It had surprised her when Austin had told her they could use the house, but she’d understood when she’d seen it. Sabre City often played host to visitors from the rest of the settlement, who would hire a house for a few days or weeks, then go back to their homes. And then there were transit barracks around the edge of the city ... she pushed the thought aside as she stepped up to the house, then tapped on the door. It opened moments later, revealing Stewart. Watson was sleeping on the sofa, one hand resting on a pistol he’d been given by Austin.

    “Kailee is in the next room,” Stewart said. “Did you find anything useful?”

    “We’re going to have to take a ride on the shuttle,” Jasmine said, bluntly. She coughed loudly to wake up Watson. “There’s no other way to orbit.”

    “Bollocks,” Watson said. “You’re sure?”

    “The only way up is in their shuttle,” Jasmine said. “Unless you have a plan to build a shuttle we can actually fly?”

    “I don’t think we can, not here,” Watson said, sourly.

    Jasmine shrugged. She’d once heard a story about a primitive world that had managed to build a spacecraft, but it had been insanely risky and probably mythical. By her most optimistic estimate, it would be at least two hundred years before Meridian was capable of producing even a primitive space rocket, assuming that Wolfbane just sat back and let them get on with it. The shuttle that had been stripped for parts was effectively useless, leaving them with one option. She could see no alternative.

    “Then we need a plan,” Stewart said. “They’re unlikely to let us stow away with the fruit and veg.”

    “I know,” Jasmine said. “That's why we’re going to be riding on the outside of the shuttle.”

    Watson smiled. “I like it.”

    “You would,” Stewart said. “Brigadier, with all due respect, we’re not Pathfinders.”

    Jasmine winced, inwardly. “I know,” she said. Pathfinders could survive in space without spacesuits, if the rumours were true. “But there are spacesuits in the storage dump, ones we can adapt for our use. Give us a handful of days and we should be able to prepare three of them. If worst comes to worst, we can simply patch them up and jury-rig an oxygen tank.”

    “It would work,” Watson said. “But wouldn't they notice the extra weight?”

    “They don’t seem very concerned about the precise weight of food,” Jasmine said. “All they really want is enough of it to feed forty-odd men and women. They don’t insist on it being precisely one hundred tons of crap.”

    “We’d have to disable the exterior sensors,” Stewart warned. “Or spoof them, somehow.”

    Watson smirked. “If it isn't a military-grade shuttle, we wouldn't have to worry about sensors,” he said. “Civilians don’t normally monitor for any vague bumps on the hull.”

    “Better to be careful,” Jasmine said. She paused, then outlined her plan. It was vague, but she couldn't think of anything better. “We will need some help from the resistance to make it work.”

    “They would definitely have to help us,” Stewart agreed, once Jasmine had finished. “And it could easily explode in their face.”

    “No, we could do it without them,” Watson said. “There are spaceport workers who will help load the shuttle, in any case. We can get them to do what we want without involving the resistance.”

    “They’d have to be walking up and down and around the shuttle,” Stewart said. He tapped the table, thoughtfully. “They’re not going to be doing that without a reason. We’d have to give them one.”

    “Yeah,” Jasmine agreed. “I’ll speak to Austin later tonight. If he agrees, we can start modifying the spacesuits and tools tomorrow.”

    “Better hurry,” Watson said. “I think they were actually trying to sell us on the virtues of staying here.”

    Jasmine shrugged. “How long could we stay here once the guards realise we’re missing?”

    “Besides, it would mean breaking our oaths,” Stewart rumbled. “I, for one, have no intention of just surrendering. Staying here after I retire would be nice, but for the moment ... we need to get back home. The Colonel is waiting for us.”

    “They may also be thinking about keeping us here by force,” Watson warned. “We are a danger to them, just by existing.”

    “They’re already in trouble,” Jasmine commented. “Us leaving might not be suspicious, as we know little about the planet, but Kailee will lead them back to Gary. They were committed the moment they chose not to call the Wolves and have us thrown back into the camp.”

    “Make sure they know that,” Stewart said. “Covering up their involvement won’t be easy.”

    “Yes, it will,” Watson said. “We evacuate the POW camps, them bombard them from orbit. It will look like we blew up every last trace of Wolfbane, then vanished. As far as they will know, the POWs would be dead.”

    “Let us hope they believe that,” Jasmine said. Would the Wolves really believe she’d been ruthless enough to slaughter the prisoners she couldn't take with her? “And for now, I’m going to get some rest.”
    bagpiper, Grizz-, rle737ng and 4 others like this.
  20. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Many thanks for your continued efforts...especially with a newborn to keep you somewhat, er, entertained. Hope you all are doing well, and our best wished for you and your kin!
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