“Clear! In here, sir!”
Commander Sela Tyron followed the voice of her sergeant through the inner shadows of the building. Strength waning, she half-carried Atilio, her team’s injured meditech, up the stairs into an oddly shaped room. Around her, the seven remaining members of her team called out as they cleared the structures beyond this one. So far, no hostiles.
Sweat stung her eyes and trickled between her shoulder blades under the restrictive harness of her field armor. The heat was palpable, collecting in the stagnant air. These things barely registered with her. For Sela, there was only the chaos of staying alive and keeping her people that way too.
She tightened her grip around Atilio’s waist. The young man had lost a lot of blood. Too much. His arm, slung over her shoulders, had become a limp weight. His head rolled forward.
Her heart clenched into a fist. I cannot lose him.
“Valen!” she bellowed for her sergeant.
She spotted a long waist-high table near the room’s center covered with tiny clay oil lamps. It looked sturdy enough a place to get a better look at Atilio’s injuries.
Wordlessly, Valen appeared at Atilio’s other side. Clay pots shattered to the stone floor as they heaved the injured man as gently as possible onto the table. She snapped open the hidden fasteners to his field armor and suppressed a gasp.
“Stay with me. Stay with me, Atilio.” Her plea was a frantic hush as she peeled away his blood-soaked shirt. The bleeding seemed to be slowing. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “What was the first damned thing I told you, sub-officer?”
“Try… try not to get killed,” Atilio wheezed.
His attempt at a chuckle turned into a wet bout of coughing. His hand, sticky with blood, weakly clasped hers. He was fading. His eyes slid shut once more. His skin was so cold, despite the nearly killing heat.
“Stay awake. That’s an order,” Sela snapped, digging her knuckles into his sternum. To her relief, the pain roused him and the young man’s eyes opened.
Not him. Not him. Not like this. A stupid mistake, a lucky shot with bad timing.
“What is this place, boss?” Valen asked under his breath. Sela had forgotten he was there.
Planting her hands on the table, she finally looked around. Sconces lit the circular chamber in intervals but the flickering light did nothing to dispel the shadows of the high domed ceiling. Low benches lined the walls. The floor was dotted with threadbare cushions. The cloying smell of sabet incense permeated everything. On the wall closest to them, a crude pictograph of three female figures dominated the room. Natus. Metauri. Nyxa. The mother, the maiden and the crone. A ribbon of colored paint flowed over and around the trio. It was the type of room that commanded reverence.
“A temple to the Fates.” She purposefully spoke at a normal tone. This was all rubbish. It was only a room, nothing more.
Valen blinked. “Never seen such. Is that why they’re not coming in here, because it’s their shrine?”
He panned a torch over the image of the three women. In the cast-off light he looked just as Sela felt, shredded and raw.
“I don’t know. We’re alive. That’s what I know. Understood?”
“Understood, boss.” He still sounded spooked.
“It’s just a room, Valen.”
She turned her attention back to Atilio, trying to dismiss the hairs standing on end on the back of her neck. Considering the building’s use it would not have been her first choice for a shelter, but it was a fortified location, easily defendable, with only one point of access barred with a heavy iron-banded door. Good vantage of the town’s lower streets from a walled courtyard. Despite all that, it felt wrong to be there. The reasons slipped her scrutiny at the moment. She had more pressing issues.
The other members of her team had dispersed throughout the structure and their shouts punctuated the heavy perfumed air. So far, it was all clear. There were no priests or worshipers here. If Deinde Company’s presence in this place angered the Tasemarin, eventually they might summon the courage to attack. But for right now, this would do.
Small arms fire popped in the distance, echoing in the valley of the tiny ruined hamlet outside. Valen and Sela turned to each other with the unspoken question hanging between them: If we’re all here… then who was that?
Everything had gone skew so quickly. The moment their boots hit the ground that morning, air support was withdrawn. “Sandstorms,” came the terse response to her inquiry over vox. Strykers were vulnerable in denser atmo and Fleet was not willing to risk the resource. Right off, the four teams deployed to government center had begun to fall victim to guerilla attacks that separated them in the unfamiliar terrain.
A nagging thought weighed on Sela: Tasemarin were being aided somehow and had been prepared for the Regime’s arrival. There was organization here, something remarkable in a settlement that had, according to intel, few armaments and a negligible populace with no military training.
Whatever the reason, before the first of Tasemar’s dwarf suns had slipped into the horizon of the stagnant red sky, her team had been forced into street-to-street fighting with no hope of gaining control of their target, the government complex.
She felt Valen’s silent stare. He was waiting for orders.
“Get the lay of it. Check on other wounded.”
“On it, boss.”
“Munitions check too,” she called after him, although she could have guessed the response on that: not good.
In the distance and conveyed by her vox, she heard him relay the orders to Simirya, one of the two heavy-gunners.
On the table, Atilio coughed. It was a weak sound. His eyes were open again and a thin froth of blood seeped from the corner of his mouth. She grabbed the depleted medistat kit. She had watched Atilio employ its contents three times today on lesser injuries to his fellow soldiers, before becoming a casualty himself.
“Here.” She leaned down, trying to keep her voice even. It wouldn’t do to have him sense the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. “I have the medistat. Tell me what you need.”
“You worry… too much.” The young man gave a feeble grin, showing bloody teeth. This seemed to set off more coughing. He turned his head to the side and shut his eyes.
Stubborn, too much like me.
“Atilio,” she whispered, watching the uneven rise and fall of his chest.
But he did not stir.
She slammed the kit onto the counter. The noise was explosive in the oppressive silence of the sanctuary.
Valen had returned. His hand squeezed her shoulder. The closest thing Sela had ever had to a friend, he had been her sergeant for six campaigns. In all that time he had never touched her or used her name in such a familiar way within earshot of the others until now.
Things were bad, steadily falling away to irrevocably skewed.
With arms as thick as runner bulkheads, Valen easily stood a full head taller than Sela. Although he looked lumbering and slow, his reflexes had saved her life more than once. He granted Sela a staggering level of loyalty that, at times like this, made her feel so unworthy. She had always suspected he harbored some sort of misguided romantic attraction to her. But to her relief, he had never acted on it. Decca prevented it: the list of rules all breeders like Sela lived and died by. The cresters and commoners had the Fates. Breeders had Decca. Every booter knew Decca by heart. And every conscript had the rules drilled into place.
“Something is wrong.” His voice was quiet, strained. “We should have done something by now. Fleet had to have a reason to just… withdraw.” He did not say the words, but she shared his fear. Sela, having survived through dozens of campaigns, had come to develop a trust in her instincts for danger. That sense now told her something dire: we have been abandoned.
When they’d reached the extraction coordinates, they had found only an empty field. Her team had been exposed there and had no choice but to withdraw. The hump up the hill to find their present shelter had cost Atilio along the way when he set off a jury-rigged trigger wire near a doorway.
“You don’t know that,” Sela said.
“Commander. They’re overdue—”
“Shut it.” She grabbed the yoke of his armor.
She released her grip.
“Maybe we can rally up with another team that’s been cut off too. Is there anything at all on vox? Other chatter?” she asked, removing her helm. She ran a hand through her short, sweat-damp hair. Valen frowned his disapproval at this, but her skull felt like it were baking.
He leaned against her, pulling the throat mic away from his neck so the others would not hear.
“Vox is a mess. Insurgents got some kinda scrambler, can’t make out a thing. I think Tertius and Quadra teams got extracted. Captain Veradin and his detail were first out.”
“So it’s just us, then.”
At least Veradin was safe. There was a flutter of relief to know that, although Sela had been the one to point out to him his strategically unsound decision to join a ground attachment at all. Protocol dictated he should have used the remote command node, the RCD, on the Storm King, the Fleet transport carrier. But Veradin could be incredibly stubborn. All cresters were like that. Sela surmised it granted them a certain level of cred among the other higher ups to be seen throwing themselves into the fray. But not Veradin; Sela knew him too well for that. He had come onplanet because he did not want to put others at risk, even if they were just breeders, while he called orders from the safety of the ‘King.
Valen shrugged. “If we hold out till nightfall, we should be able to see if our ride’s still in low orbit.”
“Of course he’s still there.” She didn’t remark on his lack of faith. Although protocols for subordinate-superior interaction were drilled into any breeder from day one, Sela seldom curbed the speech of those serving under her.
In her time as a platoon commander, she had developed her own philosophies of leadership. There were no parade grounds or inspections out here. There was life and death. The line between the two was only as good as your trust for the others that racked in the squadbay around you at night, and their trust of you. The cresters never seemed to grasp that.
“They’ll come for us.” She hoped Valen could not hear the unevenness in her voice. “Veradin is up there. He won’t forget us.”
“You believe that, boss?”
Her smile was grim. “As if there’s a choice.”
Sela glanced up from her vigil at Atilio’s side. He had stopped grimacing. Perhaps that meant the pain pharms were working.
Rheg shoved a robed figure into the center of the altar room. The amber lights shone on the shaven head and sun-ravaged skin of his prisoner.
“Found him hiding in a chamber on the spinward side. Says he’s a priest.”
“I’m not a priest.” The newcomer grimaced under Rheg’s heavy grip, actually managing to sound appalled. “I’m a minor sacerdos. I’ve not been joined in the Order yet.”
“Imagine my embarrassment,” muttered Rheg sarcastically.
“Sacerdos?” Sela viewed the newcomer skeptically. “You have a designation then, Citizen?”
“Citizen!” He scoffed, plainly insulted. “I am a free man. Not a slave for your Council of First.”
The man’s accent was slight, but evident to Sela. The stranger used Commonspeak, the expected standard language for any citizen of the Known Worlds, but his intonations were those of someone who had grown up speaking Regimental Standard. Much like a soldier. Sela had developed an ear for it. On a nearly daily basis she listened to crester officers slaughter Common and Regimental with their sing-song, affected Eugenes accents.
Rheg clamped down more tightly on the priest’s shoulder. “Commander Tyron wants your name!”
“Lineao… Jarryd Lineao,” he grunted.
“Where are the others?” she said. “There must be others here.”
Lineao drew his chin up and drew his shoulders back. “I volunteered to remain and care for the sanctuary. My brothers have fled to safety.”
“Bricky.” She snorted. “I’ll give you cred for that.”
He had to be lying. Only one remaining priest for a compound that seemed to sprawl well past the sanctuary? Whatever his reason to lie, she would deal with it later. For now there were more pressing matters.
“We have no directive for prisoners.” Valen reached for his sidearm. He spoke now in Regimental to Sela, as was protocol in hostile presence. “He’s a liability.”
She stepped between them. “No. We need him.”
Valen gaped. “Commander?”
But Sela was watching the expression on Lineao’s face. He understood Regimental. Had to. Yet there was no call for a common citizen to speak Regimental. Her suspicions flared.
“If you’re a priest, you must have healer’s training.” Sela returned to Commonspeak, continuing this newcomer’s ruse.
Lineao looked from Valen to Sela. When he noticed Atilio’s body on the altar, his eyes widened. “Yes… some.”
“My meditech took a hit. Lost a lot of blood.” Sela shoved the medistat kit against Lineao’s chest. “Help him.”
Valen snarled in protest. “Boss, you’ve got to be—”
“Sergeant, if you’ve discovered a miraculous means to restore Atilio, produce it now,” Sela snapped.
Valen squared his shoulders and sneered at Lineao.
“I’ve sworn an oath to help those that the Fates guide into my Path,” the priest said quietly as he took the kit from her.
“Well. They’ve dropped this one on your lap.”
The altar room, although it had appeared primitive at first glance, was constructed with a holo-clear ceiling. As the light of the powerful suns sank below the horizon, Sela could now see the purple shimmer of the night sky through its electric scrim. A single bright star hung heavier than the rest. Solid, unblinking, it drew a slow graceful arc. The Storm King. Still there. Veradin would not leave us. The knot of her heart loosened the slightest bit.
Lineao closed the case of the medistat kit and made another inspection of the bandages covering Atilio’s torso. Much of the bleeding had stopped. The young man continued to breathe in ragged hitches. But breathe nonetheless.
The priest shuffled over to her and extended the case. When Sela did not move to accept it, he left it at her feet like an offering.
“Well?” she asked. Will he live? Please let him live.
Lineao ran a grimy hand over his face. Without invitation, he collapsed beside her on the bench.
“I’ve done all I can,” he sighed. “His injuries are too great for the supplies you have here. I am only one. Another healer might do better.”
“I guess that’s a no,” she muttered, kicking the useless kit away. Her anger was indiscriminate: At Lineao, at the stupid inadequate kit, at the nameless faceless bastard who had taken out Atilio.
It was moments like this when she could understand why she existed. Sela suspected that she was made this way on purpose: easy to provoke to physical shows of anger. Her first impulse was often to rend and tear. But there was nothing here that had earned it.
And so she breathed deeply, slowly. She counted to a hundred. She did all the things Veradin had taught her to do. Sometimes it worked. But not in this instance.
Guess it’s just not my night.
Sela stretched her neck, flexed and released her shoulders. The heat of Tasemar was damning. Hours ago she had shed the upper portion of her field armor. It was a move that was not protocol. She had earned yet another disapproving frown from Valen. He could be too protective at times. But he had kept his argument to himself and sauntered off to check on the fortifications.
“The Fates may protect your boy yet,” Lineao offered, turning his gaze to the pictograph of the three women spanning the entire wall.
Sela sloshed the hydration matrix in her canteen thoughtfully. “Good thing he can’t hear you call him a boy.”
Atilio could be prideful, bordering on arrogant. In many ways he was still a booter with much to prove. He had put up a lot of swag at first, but she’d let the others in his team take care of that. The young meditech was good at what he did. He just needed to learn his place. It was an initiation of sorts; any soldier on her team had faced similar treatment.
“You regard him as such, like your child,” Lineao replied.
Sela did not care for how he watched her as he said it.
“My strength is the soldier beside me. I shall not abandon him,” Sela recited Decca. Eyes narrowing, she turned to focus on Lineao. “Your brothers don’t seem to feel the same, priest. Abandoning you here.”
“And your Kindred masters do not hold the same sentiment,” he shot back. “They have yet to reclaim you.”
“He will.” Sela jerked her chin in the direction of the Storm King. “They will.”
She knew it as surely as the breath that filled her lungs. Somewhere aboard that ship, her home for a large portion of her adult life, was an agitated Captain Jonvenlish Veradin. She pictured him storming the corridors, bellowing at anyone foolish enough to get in his way. That same familiar warmth filled her. For a moment, the worry about Atilio dulled.
“How long ago did you forsake us?” she asked the cleric in Regimental.
In the half-light, Lineao stiffened.
“I know you understand me. No need to keep pretending,” Sela pressed. “I doubt they teach clerics Regimental.”
“The years do not matter,” he answered after a thoughtful silence.
She tipped her canteen in his direction in a casual salute. “I never get tired of being right.”
“I imagine you have not told your men.” He cast a wary glance around. True enough, Rheg would have made a special point of rendering pain on a deserter.
“Relax. You’re no good to me or Atilio dead.”
“I have done little to help him. And I fail to see what intelligence I can offer you, Commander. I am but a novice, a student of the Fates now.”
“I’m not an Intelligence Officer, Lineao. And I’m not the torturing type. My job is to keep my people alive and get them back home.”
“Then we wish the same things, Commander. I serve the Fates and seek to end what hostilities I can toward my people.”
“Your… people,” Sela said with a dry chuckle. He had deserted an enemy to the populace of this back-birth world. Now they were his people. “Then tell me… satisfy my curiosity about your people. All the intel I’ve seen indicates they lack the resources or training to organize insurrection. Did they have assistance, then? Some breakaway colony looking for a foothold in this sector?”
Lineao shook his head. “I know nothing of these matters, Commander. I live the simple life of a priest now.”
“Uh-huh,” she muttered, unconvinced. “Then at least tell me why no one has advanced on our position yet. They must’ve figured we’re here by now. Why not?”
Lineao raised his eyebrows. “You know what this place is, Tyron. It is sacred to them, to us. They hesitate to perform a warring act on this soil, for it would be a desecration.”
“Desecration.” She arched an eyebrow at the room. Fragments of pottery peppered the floor. Broken furniture lay in heaps. Atilio’s blood soaked the altar cloth. “I’m glad we’ve preserved the site thus far.”
“Humor. Interesting in a breeder like you,” Lineao said, canting his head. It was the way he said the word, breeder, like a term for diagnosing an illness. He made it sound forgiving and damning in the same breath. The accepted term for the soldiers like Sela, who were specifically bred in the kennels, was volunteer. She suspected the term was used to make their existence more palatable to the cresters. Oddly, she had no recollection of anyone offering her a choice. Not that she or anyone of her team would have chosen differently.
“Use that word again and I’ll tell the others our little secret, Lineao.” She held his gaze. It was the stare she reserved for intimidation of quaking villagers. “They won’t be nice like me.”
But he wasn’t buying.
Lineao nodded. “Why are you here, Commander?”
Sela gave a derisive snort. He seemed to oscillate between amusing and annoying. “I have my orders. You remember what those are, don’t you?”
“Ah. Yes. Orders,” he mocked. “How would you know what to do without your orders?”
“First knows what’s best.”
“I doubt that, Tyron. I think you do too.”
“Be quiet,” she hissed, gesturing at Atilio. “He needs rest.”
Sela rose quickly, rocking the bench, and went to Atilio’s side. She watched the agonizing rise and fall of his chest in the uncertain light.
“Will your boy’s death be worth their orders?”
“Shut it!” She whirled, jabbing a finger at him. “You don’t want to piss me off.”
Lineao uttered an observant grunt and folded his hands inside his cloak. Another long stretch of silence rolled past, yet she still felt him watching her.
“The others have no idea, do they? Why you care for the boy as you do?” he asked.
Sela glared at him, feeling the blood build in her face. Who did he think he was?
“The boy… he’s yours, isn’t he? You may treat them all as your charges, but you know for certain that this one, Atilio, he is your flesh and blood. Your son.”
She cleared the space between them in two great strides. Leaning down into his face, she planted her hands on the wall to either side of his head.
“You don’t know a damned thing, priest.” She said, teeth clenched.
But he did. He had ripped the secret Sela carried out into the hot, listless air for anyone to see. None of her team knew, not Veradin, not even Atilio.
Lineao made a placating gesture. “The bonds of a mother and child are great. It is unnatural to sever them the way First does.”
Sela straightened but continued to loom over him. And still he did not recoil. He was on a mission now. Perhaps he thought he would manipulate her into freeing him, or, save her eternal spark, what they called a soul.
“Imagine, Tyron. In an army so vast, and the Council of First with powers so great, they cannot keep the Fates from reuniting you with your son.”
The Council of First was not genuinely loved out here on the frayed edges. Anyone knew that. Sela was not a wide-eyed innocent. But First, and the power of the Regime and Fleet, were the thin lines that kept the citizens of the Known Worlds safe. The Regime kept the monsters away. The Council of First kept the lights from going out. Yet the farther from Origin, the less gratitude was shown for this.
“Valen!” she shouted, still staring down at Lineao. This time the priest did flinch. Good.
Her sergeant was instantly in the room. She realized that, in all likelihood, he had probably been in the corridor just outside.
“Watch him. I need air.” Sela stormed from the chamber without waiting for a reply.
When Sela threw open the heavy doors that lead to the courtyard, the cool night air greeted her burning face. She nodded to the sentry.
Simirya rose. “All quiet here, sir. No movement.”
“Spell you,” Sela said. “Go eat. Rest.”
As the gunner turned to leave, she paused. “Sir, how is Atilio?”
Of course, she would ask after him. Sela had suspected the two had shared down time more than once. Not that it was any business of hers. They were same rank. It didn’t violate Decca.
Sela gave her a brittle smile. The word held all the trappings of a lie. “Fighting.”
“I’ll check him,” Simirya offered before fading into the dark. Her moves were quiet with trained stealth.
With a weary sigh, Sela sank to her haunches against the wall. Eyes blurring with tears, she studied the darkness of the street below for movement.
Lineao had spoken the truth. But how could this stranger have known?
Was I not careful enough?
Atilio was her son, the same mewling pink life that had been torn from her body eighteen years ago. The medic had presented her with a cursory glimpse and a glib rehearsed speech of praise before carrying the infant away.
A male. Sound body. Good infantry build for sure, Cadet Tyron. Well done.
It had been a relief. Not that the pain was of particular notice; she had been well-trained to deal with that. But it was a relief the boy was born whole. Because of the unregulated nature of his conception, she had heard rumors the child would be born skew, defective. This had been her punishment for a non-reg breeding and for refusing to name the father. Sanctioned breeding was a careful selection process. It was a nearly sacred art to the kennel wardens. In the end, the fear and rumors Sela had endured for the four weeks of the accelerated pregnancy had proved hollow.
She had not bothered to ask the designation that they had assigned to the child. Best not to know. Yet in the years after the boy’s birth, she wondered about him. Sometimes she found herself studying the faces of young men who would be close to his age and wondering, Could that be him? My son? Does he live and thrive? Does he ever wonder about me?
Over time her curiosity faded, driven to the back. It was something to conceal. It was a liability. Nothing good would come from knowing. She could not have revealed herself to him without facing reassignment or punishment. The child might have been of her body, but he was not hers. He belonged to the Regime, as did Sela. On that, Decca was quite clear.
Sela’s memory had always been solid. Things came to her like pictures, filed away for safekeeping. It mattered little as to the subject: numbers, coordinates, schematics. Everything got locked in. It never ceased to amaze her that others could not do the same. She had learned to use this to her advantage, but this was an occasion when she considered it a curse.
When the string of seven numbers was called out carelessly by one of the medics as they marked the infant boy with his ident, they became etched in her memory. And eighteen years later, those same seven numbers appeared on the index of Atilio’s file.
The young man had appeared across the logistics table from her one morning as she made her way through the hateful, yet unavoidable documentation expected of her rank.
“Atilio, Brin. Meditech class three. Reporting for assignment, Officer Tyron.”
“Commander.” Sela corrected, not looking up from her tasks on the logistics table. “You’ll address me as ‘sir’ or ‘commander’.”
She sensed him fidget before he replied. “Apologies. Commander.”
“Manners, even. I am impressed—” She looked up, finally tearing her attention away from the work. Her heart stammered.
Stelvick, in the flesh, stood across from her. But it couldn’t be. That man was long dead, a harsh memory from her past. Yet this could have been his twin.
His coloring was different, more like hers. Dark blonde hair. Clever amber eyes taking in everything. But the line of the jaw, that same patrician nose. Stelvick’s ghost.
Her eyes flitted over the ident number as her pulse raced. Not his ghost, but his son. The boy he fathered on her.
“Commander?” Atilio asked. He must have noticed something change, but did not move from his rigid stance of attention.
“Assembly at 0400. Report to Sergeant Valen for team assignment.” She looked back down at the table and feigned absorption with the notes there. Her throat grew tight. “Dismissed.”
“I just wanted to say, sir.” Atilio began. “It is an honor—”
“Honor. Got it. Try not to get killed,” she said quickly, gesturing at the doorway. Still she could not look up. She was afraid of what she might do. “Dismissed, sub-officer.”
“Are you skew, booter? Go!” Sela shouted, practically running him out of the office.
The moment he stepped across the threshold, she triggered the door closed and cycled the lock. She slumped against the doorframe, heart pounding, not sure what she was feeling. But whatever the strange feeling, it could be a problem.
She raced back to the table to examine his file. The numbers, those same seven numbers, identical. The birth date. The location. The kennel information was redacted, of course. That was always the case for personnel records. But had she the access, she knew what she would have found. Brin Atilio was her son.
Sela knew she should have reported the oversight and moved to have him reassigned. Or she could have simply rejected him as a candidate. Sela did neither. Her choice to keep Atilio with the team was born of selfish curiosity, she told herself.
For the first few weeks of his assignment, Sela watched Atilio for that connection, that thing that made knowing him so dangerous and forbidden by Decca. She chose to be harder on him in particular and resolved not to show him favor.