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First pages

Chapter 1

The soldier was tall and lean, with a sash that showed he was stationed on the eternal front. More than stationed: he was a trench-fighter, proved by the blood fringe along the inner edge of the sash.

From her desk in the archive chamber, Caulie Alexander watched the soldier edge through the door of her research lab. He was a Haphan but there was nothing imperious in his bearing. He entered slowly, one shoulder first, his eyes darting through the space. She didn’t need the sash or the fringe to know what he was. It was in his caution, in the lean flesh that revealed every tendon in his neck. When he found Caulie’s main lab empty he clenched his teeth, and the action played visibly across his temples.

“Some guy is here for you,” she whispered over her shoulder.

“Why do you think that?” Her friend Jephia didn’t look up from the glass book in her lap, but Caulie knew she’d already noticed and measured the man.

“Because he seems twitchy.”

“He’s fresh from the war,” Jephia said, turning a delicate page and running a finger over the glass. “Ed-homse province, to be specific. Based on how he flips the collar of his coat.”

Now she was just showing off. Caulie turned back to her own glass notebook, which was much larger than Jephia’s. She had to keep her notebook flat on the table to support its spine, so she couldn’t drape herself artfully across two chairs like her friend. Not that she’d be able to bring it off anyways.

They were going through a collection of Daggie memory glass that had finally arrived on loan from the imperial archive. Caulie’s notebook was a sheaf of ancient, paper-thin silicate that had once been a natural rock formation before its alien creator had peeled the layers apart and imprinted them with text and images. This notebook, and six others, had been recovered from mountain caves several decades ago by archaeologists near Front East, but they were much older than that—older by nearly a thousand years. Reading and deciphering them was tricky; the memory glass had to adapt to the reader’s touch. Thus far, Caulie had managed to elicit a few snatches of Daggie writing and only one moving image. For some reason Jephia was much better at it.

Caulie couldn’t help herself. She glanced at the soldier again.

“He’s just standing there, Jeph. He knows you’re in here.”

“Ye gods,” Jephia mumbled, “it’s like I have a homing beacon. Unless he’s carrying a fresh brainstem from Ed-homse province, I’m not interested.”

The soldier couldn’t hear them in the dust-free archive chamber, and the windows were currently set to look out rather than in. Still, he didn’t leave. Caulie watched, her interest captured, as the soldier went stiff and then turned her direction.

The man was front-line, so he’d spent time among the Polluted—the Tachba. Some of their mannerisms had rubbed off on him. A part of him didn’t seem to be present in the room at all, as if his body was something he’d sent ahead to check for danger. Was that missing piece still at the front, or maybe floating around like a Tachba ‘ancestor?’ Caulie knew about detachment syndrome from other behaviorists in her program who studied battle trauma. What if, until this soldier reintegrated into Haphan society, some fragment of his mind would always be searching, sensing, remembering?

It was irritating. He posed a question that Caulie couldn’t resist trying to answer, but she had no data to work with. She was bad with people, new people especially: she couldn’t ask direct questions in polite conversation and she also couldn’t simply dissect them. She was further annoyed by whatever buried, unscholarly sensibility was causing her waste time wondering about a random soldier—a soldier so intrusive he was now touching her favorite Tachba skull.

She forced herself back to her notebook and more page stroking. The memory glass disliked new people as much as she did, and it gave only anemic responses. Were her fingertips not warm enough to activate the sheets? Were all her sheets broken? Jephia’s notebooks were more friendly and forthcoming. Was there something wrong with Caulie herself?

Jephia spoke: “Now he’s talking to your boyfriends.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your pet nervous systems.”

Caulie looked up and he was! The fibrous mats of nerves were spread on display panels in the walls. They were kept alive in baths of nutritional broth, and stimulated with recordings from the eternal front—shouted orders, artillery barrages, repeater rifles, the whole ambience—in order to keep them alert and engaged. The nerve tissue had been stained to increase its visibility, and the larger clusters were painted with an expensive nano-agent from the medical department that glowed to show metabolic activity.

The soldier spoke again. Caulie couldn’t hear what he said, but the nervous system nearest him flickered in response.

“He’ll confuse them!” she exclaimed. She jumped to her feet and made for the door.

Jephia turned a glass page slowly, saying, “That’s it, Caulie. Go give him what for.”

* * *

“These are still alive,” the soldier announced as she strode up.

“Of course they are, and I’ll ask you to kindly—”

“Watch this.” He turned to the panel. “Stop!”

Light played through the raft of nerves. If they had still been in their original body, the Tachba owner would have hesitated. No intervention from the brain was required—the larger clusters could make certain decisions independently. Stop was a useful word when a Tachba did something inadvisable—and if the textbooks were to be believed, they were always doing something inadvisable.

“Once they’re stop-trained, the Pollution takes over,” Caulie explained, and then regretted being helpful. “You’ll forgive my incredible rudeness, but I must ask you to please—”

“Now watch this: Schaxx!

The nervous system lit like a flare. The Tachba who used to own it would have locked solid and immobile, like a cleaning bot with its power shut off.

“The young man speaks Tachbavim,” Caulie said.

The soldier grinned at her. She stepped back.

“Well, miss, I know how to say stop. Or more commonly, ‘Oh gods, for all love, please stop.’ ”

Schaxx doesn’t translate to stop,” she informed him. “That’s a common error. It’s more like ‘be receptive’ than ‘stop.’ Like opening a command prompt on a computer. You must follow up with more directions or the subject will gather environmental cues instead, and that’s a bad idea. You never know what the Pollution might decide.”

“Interesting.” The soldier studied the nervous system. “Where’s his brain?”

“For me, the brain only gets in the way.” Caulie flushed when the soldier raised an eyebrow. “I mean brains are complicated. Hard to study. You never get clear data, and you have to talk to living subjects. The Pollution is distributed processing, though. Those big clusters are rudimentary brains, and they’re all over the place like logic gates. At the top, those two strands plug into an auditory receptor. That’s all I’m interested in.”

The soldier was suddenly solemn. “This is the Pollution?”

“Some of it. The easiest part, maybe. Now again, I must please insist that—”

“What was his name?” This soldier was awfully good at interrupting before she could kick him out.

“You mean the name of the body?” Caulie glanced at the fibrous tangle but the soldier was much more perplexing, so she turned back. She also realized she had asked a direct question. Most impolite…but then, he had started it. He’d been peppering her with direct questions like an exam proctor, probably another habit acquired from the eternal front.

“I mean the name of the Tachba who once felt these nerves,” the soldier said softly, as if he was correcting her.

She puzzled for a moment, then shook her head. “I guess I assumed there was a warehouse somewhere.”

He seemed disappointed by her answer. “This one was from Ed-homse province, a clapper-dancer, a descendent of Queen Culleyho’s people.”

How did he know that? He was correct. Caulie said, “You wouldn’t know him.”

“Ah, miss,” the soldier said. “I would know him precisely.”

Silence bloomed between them. The soldier moved down the line of display panels, his boot heels clicking on the tile floor. He walked past the nervous systems as if he was at a memorial rather than looking at lab samples.

Caulie couldn’t help herself, though she knew she’d regret it. “A person might wonder how you knew the sample came from Ed-homse.”

“An educated insight. He’s obviously a clapper-dancer, and the clappers are all from Ed-homse province. A fat lot of inbreds.”

It was exactly as she feared: no answer and more questions. “Now the person wonders the same thing about being a ‘clapper-dancer.’ ”

The soldier returned to the first display panel. He raised his hands and beat out a soft rhythm, fingers against palm. The nerve tissue flickered.

“I saw it when I walked in. This fellow noticed my gait. The Tachba men in my unit—my boots, as we call them—told me about it. They told me how everyone has a signature stride, and that’s how they know when a Haphan overlord is approaching and they should make themselves presentable. With practice, I was able to change my gait and give them a few surprises. It was useful,” he shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe what the Tacchies get up to when they think they aren’t being supervised.”

Caulie already knew all this from her research. What was interesting was that the soldier knew it also and with such ease, as if her hard-won insight was a mere commonplace on the front. More questions, more and more, all of them proposing to steal time and attention she couldn’t spare. Caulie let her curiosity take hold. “I wonder what that rhythm was, which you just tapped out.”

“A mountain song. The Ed-homse Tachba are highly attuned to rhythm, all of them. Makes the feet move, the arms twitch. If you believe the folk tales, they don’t even have to be alive yet you can make them dance. Their music up in those mountains is like nothing you’ve ever heard. When it gets them dancing for real,” his eyes flickered to her, “it’s a goddamn nightmare to see.”

The door to the archive chamber slammed open, making Caulie jump. The soldier, for all his earlier tension, swiveled smoothly to the sound.

“Stop pestering those poor nervous systems,” Jephia snapped, striding forward. “The whole point is to isolate their inputs so she can study their response to stimuli.”

“Then turn off their audio receptors,” the soldier suggested.

“They need environmental exposure or they go wonky. You’re interrupting their playtime.” Jephia’s frown was replaced by a gleaming smile, but only for a moment. “Why are you here, soldier, and why don’t you have insignia on your coat? What are you trying to hide?”

“I’m not permitted to answer questions.” The man let that hang a moment. “If I wore my insignia, I’d be deflecting questions all day.”

“Instead you chat with nerve clusters in the wall?”

The soldier tipped his head as he regarded Jephia. Caulie imagined what this man had been like before the eternal front. He was tall for the average Haphan but several inches shorter than Caulie. Cute in a ruffled way, one of those almost-handsome guys you see with eyes that are just slightly too round. With his unimposing presence and slim body, he would have mixed unremarkably into the university crowds, except for those eyes. On a student, they would give the impression permanent exam-day anxiety. On this soldier, the eyes seemed to see everything.

Caulie also noticed Jephia’s looks going to work on the man. His all-seeing eyes studied her, then latched and didn’t turn away. Jephia was more than the university’s most important graduate assistant; she was also the acknowledged beauty of the campus. Her silver-blonde hair, the stylish outfits, the understated jewelry that a professor's salary couldn't buy, with those cheekbones and that figure—all of it made a captivating presence. It was as if her friend elicited a kind of benign Pollution in everyone she met. Her saving grace, in Caulie’s opinion, was how she quickly made others look past her beauty.

As she did now: “Stop leering at me and stop trying to impress my friend, you twitchy scarecrow. Your sash and your sob stories about the front will get you nowhere with us. Isn’t there a college bar where you can impress some coeds?”

“I’m sure there is,” the soldier said, “but I’m here on business.”

Jephia looked him up and down. “You don’t seem to be festooned with body parts from the front. Unless you have a delivery for my friend to sign, I’ll kindly ask you to get the fuck out.”

To Caulie’s surprise, the soldier wasn’t offended by Jephia. In fact, he remained calm throughout Jephia’s intervention. That was saying something, because Caulie flinched in autonomic sympathetic response on the soldier’s behalf every time Jephia spoke. Her friend’s brand of talk was simply not heard in Haphan society, and certainly not with that aristocratic accent. She had cultivated a reputation for bluntness, though ‘cultivated’ was the wrong word for something she couldn’t turn off.

“You remind me of the war, miss,” the soldier told her genially. “You’d be wonderful on the line. You already talk like a Tachba, and you’re a woman, so they’d treat you like a minor god.”

“There’s nothing minor about me,” Jephia snapped, though her facade faltered and a smile touched her lips. That was more artifice. The man was supposed to gather that he was on the right path with her.

“Indeed not,” the soldier grinned back.

Caulie knew where this was going and was grateful. It meant she’d return to her memory glass notebooks soon. On the scale that balanced a strange soldier who spoke a few words of Tachbavim, and a text written by an alien who had dominated a kingdom of Tachba a thousand years ago—well, she knew which would pay off down the line.

The soldier surprised both of them with what he said next. “You must be Dr. Caulie Alexandrian.”

“I must be?” Jephia traded glances with Caulie. “I wonder why a handsome young warfighter would think I am Dr. Alexandrian?”

“The students up the hall said I could find you here. They told me to talk to the social misfit.”

Jephia laughed outright.

“That would be me,” Caulie said, blushing. “They meant me. I’m Caulie.”

If the soldier was embarrassed, it didn’t show on his face. He turned back to her and gave a shallow bow from the hip. “My name is Lieutenant Seul Tan Luscetian, lately tasked to Front East, in Ed-homse. Acquaintance.”

Caulie had no choice but to curtsey in return. “Acquaintance. May I introduce my assistant, the Lady Jephesandra Liu Tawarna.”

“Lady?” The soldier finally looked surprised. “I would have never guessed.”

Now would have been Jephia’s chance to blush, had she been the blushing type. To Caulie’s admiration and slight frustration, however, her smirk never wavered.

“Dr. Alexandrian,” the soldier said, turning back to her, “I must speak with you in private.”

“Private.” Caulie’s knees trembled. “But why?”

Luscetian took her hand and looped it through his arm. Before she could understand the gesture—this sort of thing didn’t happen to her—he was already guiding her to the hallway outside the lab. She shot a frightened glance at her friend, who nodded with understanding.

“Lieutenant, a moment!” Jephia said. “You noticed our clapper-dancer…that bundle of nerves over there.”

Luscetian’s eyes returned to the display. He raised an eyebrow.

“Caulie didn’t know this man but I did,” Jephia said. “He was a young Tachba afflicted with exceptionally high levels of Pollution. He volunteered out of the trenches to be our test subject. He worked with my research group.” She touched the display briefly with her fingertips, as if she were stroking memory glass. “He was sweet. Baffling but sweet. He killed himself. I mean, he jumped off a twelve-story building, but we think he meant to kill himself. It wasn’t the regular daredevil sort of thing. He had complained earlier that the university was too quiet.”

“Quiet is a euphemism for crowded,” Luscetian said. “He meant the air was crowded with ancestors.”

Jephia continued, “We didn’t realize at the time. Our building is beside the parade field where the drummers practice. Someone left a window open.”

“Ah,” was all the soldier said.

Jephia said, “We called him Pherrie. His name was Phalantic Pherrusan.”

“Thank you,” the soldier said. “That’s a proper Ed-homse name.”

“It is.” Jephia’s softness evaporated. “Now that I’ve shown a moment of friendliness, can I wonder when I’ll get little Caulie back? We’re in the middle of delicate and long-overdue research.” She gave a wicked smile. “When will the young man be done using her?”

Caulie blushed in mortification but the lieutenant was unflappable.

“I’m afraid Dr. Alexandrian won’t be free for further research,” he replied. “She’s been inducted into the army. She’s going to the eternal front.”

Chapter 2

Caulie let herself be drawn down the hallway and into an empty classroom. Not knowing how to formulate the next step in the conversation, she was effectively struck dumb. She couldn’t have heard what the young lieutenant said, not properly heard it. Or if she’d heard it, she didn’t understand the joke. She often wasn’t included in jokes. That had to be the explanation.

Lieutenant Luscetian guided her to a table at the front of the room and, ignoring the chairs, set her on the tabletop. She knew her docility would seem odd, but then the lieutenant’s close attention was outside her fence.

“I’m sorry if I shocked you, Caulie. I couldn’t resist a jab at your scary friend.” Luscetian bent to study her, and turned serious. “Probably the young doctor has questions?”

Now she was supposed to answer. Caulie hoped she wouldn’t accidentally say something offensive. “Sir, it seems perfectly clear to me that you have gone mad from the front, and that I have put myself in grave danger by letting you separate me from my scary friend.” She hesitated. “Can we bring Jephia here with us? I mean Lady Tawarna. I have no secrets from her. She’ll understand everything I don’t.”

“She’s just your lab assistant.”

Caulie shook her head. A Tawarna could ever ‘just’ be anything in a university the family endowed. “She is my friend.”

He smiled faintly, as if he doubted her. “She, of all people, cannot hear what I tell you next.”

“A woman might wonder what’s wrong with her lady friend.”

“Nothing wrong with Lady Tawarna specifically. In fact, she meets my expectations and then some. But her family is the loyal opposition, as much as the empire tolerates any opposition. What she hears will percolate back to her father and his connections.”

“It’s always something like that,” Caulie muttered. The perks of having an aristocrat friend. “She’s always getting in trouble for flirting with the wrong people at parties, teaching the wrong theories in class—”

“Forgive me for having to continue,” Luscetian said, which was the polite Haphan euphemism for shut up. “Your expertise is needed in the province of Ed-homse.”

My expertise? I have no expertise, officially. I can teach undergraduate classes. For real expertise you would go to my professors or the residents.”

“Come now, I’ve seen your files. Yes, you have a big file, but are you surprised? Thank your parents for that. You were also recently investigated because you requested security clearance to see some memory glass notebooks. You, Caulie, have access to proscribed information that you can’t even share with your advisors. As far as we can determine, you’re the foremost expert on the Pollution and its effects. The foremost expert on the planet.”

“My friend Jephia—”

“She only studies the specific psychology of the Pollution. You have the whole picture, both behavior and biology, with all the distortions, emergent behaviors, and knock-on effects on Tachba cultural expression.” The way Luscetian rattled that off, Caulie suspected he had some academic background himself. “Besides, Lady Tawarna has already been claimed by one of the directorates. She’s on the military track. She’ll be an officer when she finishes her degree, and she’s only interested in ordering Tachba around. We need a more inclusive perspective. We need you.”


“You see we have a puzzle we can’t figure out.” He paused, head tilted to the side.

“What’s the puzzle?” she asked immediately. “No, wait. Tell me where you’re from first. You keep saying ‘we.’ ”

“I already told you where I’m from. Ed-homse province. I led a platoon in the trenches.”

“You mean you managed a platoon.”

He nodded appreciation of her question. “The Ed-homse front is different from the other provinces. Pollution like you wouldn’t believe. Fit Tachba of officer caliber are few and far between, and we Haphans work directly in the operations.”

That explained his twitchiness. In most of the Haphan expeditionary land forces, the Tachba units had Tachba officers—high-function, well-controlled and reliable servitors who did the dangerous work. These proxies operated under the guidance of Haphans who supervised from safer locations. Unlike most Haphan officers on the eternal front, the man in before her had lived under direct fire.

Luscetian continued, “I did my tour and didn’t complain. When I finished, I applied for a transfer out of Ed-homse.”

“I wonder if the soldier didn’t like the eternal front and wanted a desk job.”

“Do I seem like a desk job kind of soldier?” He didn’t seem offended, luckily. “I’ve heard worse.”

Caulie shook her head, frustrated. When she got anxious her mouth ran off on its own. She tried again. “Maybe you wanted closer access to female researchers, so you could frighten them.”

Luscetian laughed. “No. By the way, nobody likes the eternal front, and Ed-homse is the worst of it. But I’m a line officer. I merely applied for a transfer somewhere else on the front. Anywhere else.”


“Full disclosure. Until a spot opens up, I am liaised to Army Intelligence.”

Caulie shrank away from him. “The secret police.”

“No, just Army Intelligence. The secret police is run by the civilian government, the Gray House.”

It didn’t seem like much of a distinction to Caulie, and Luscetian noticed. He continued, “Believe me, if I was with the secret police we would be having a very different conversation—maybe about how you intend to use that proscribed information to which you’ve been given access for your research.”

“That sounds threatening, lieutenant.”

“And so it would be, if I were from the secret police, which I am not. I don’t care about politics or internal security. I am here to solve a puzzle with the progress of the war. It’s a military concern, and the military needs your help.”

That word again, puzzle, as if he knew how it would divert her attention. Were the files on her that thorough? She put aside the question of the secret police until she could ask Jephia about it, and said, “I wonder what that puzzle is.”

“A problem maintaining the integrity of a Tachba unit,” Luscetian said, a little anticlimactically.

“That sounds like only a military concern, and not something I can help with.”

“We believe it is connected to the Pollution.”

“I might possibly help with that,” Caulie grudged. “But what happened?”

Now that she’d finally brought him to the point, he seemed hesitant to speak it aloud. “A full battalion of Tachba has somehow fallen dead.”

He explained no further. She used the pause to consider his words: Fallen dead. That seemed a strange way to phrase it, but Caulie didn’t know how the Army explained things to itself. Maybe that was their operating euphemism, how they distanced themselves from what must surely be some trying moments of trench warfare.

Hoping she was being delicate enough, she said, “Surely death is not so infrequent in the war, with the fighting and the enemy and all that.”

“This kind of death is quite infrequent,” he said, watching her steadily.

“You said a full battalion—a battalion in numbers? Or a distinct unit, entire and together?”

“Closer to the latter.” His voice was empty of inflection. “The area of affect was roughly a thousand yards of trench line. It hit one of our prize battalions, one that was exceptionally steady and functional. It was led by native officers…it was really actually irreplaceable when it comes down to it. A thousand men, falling dead. A few other surrounding units caught some overflow, however, and reported what they called casualties.”

“That sounds horrifying,” Caulie said, perplexed.

“Not horrifying at first. We didn’t notice the attack because the trench was effectively empty. It had gone dark. Then the enemy exploited our ignorance by launching an attack in the sector. In the ensuing chaos, as we scrambled to hold onto the trench, we didn’t have much time to gather clues or investigate.”

“By that you mean…”

“We neither gathered clues nor investigated.”

That sounded very unscientific to her. No wonder he was so tightly controlled, his face carefully empty as he recited the specifics. She would be embarrassed too; it didn’t reflect well on the war effort, how their fighting got in the way of their research. “It sounds like the South has a new weapon.”

“Front East command shares that assessment. To make matters worse, it appears that the South specifically targeted the weapon to hit one of our rare full-Tachba units.”

“That makes it worse because…”

“Because there were no Haphan officers to report the attack. We Haphans tend to notice details that our Tacchies don’t. Details like entire units dropping out of the chain of communication. Even a timely hint would have helped.”

“There were no Haphan casualties?”

He shook his head. “No Haphan were present. Like I said, this was an elite Ed-homse unit, as elite as they get. One of the few that didn’t need coddling and micromanagement.”

“If the Tachba in the battalion had been simply shot or blown up, you wouldn’t be here.”

“The victims had not a scratch.”

If only he weren’t watching her face so closely, she’d be able to think. She murmured, “We haven’t heard anything about this at the capital.”

“It’s fairly recent,” Luscetian said, “but you won’t hear anyway, because we Haphans are supposed to be in control of the war. We’re supposed to be far more clever than the Southies. News shouldn’t leak about how, in this one minor instance, the South has us flummoxed.”

The way Luscetian was scrutinizing her, Caulie felt like she was back at her dissertation defense. Every question from the committee had a surface meaning that she could answer, but also a buried political component where they watched how she answered. It had been nerve-racking then to think one thing and speak another, and it was nerve-racking now. Jephia was so much better at this kind of doublethink.

She said, “Your concern is that this one minor instance will become commonplace. That this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Yes. The manner of the deaths. Even the least competent Haphan officer on the Ed-homse front, and believe me they move in herds down there, can imagine a hundred ways how this new weapon can be tweaked to destroy us. If it is a weapon.”

“What could it be except a weapon?”

“When news leaks about Ed-homse, it will be described as a discipline problem.”

Caulie frowned in disbelief.

“If it is not a weapon,” he continued, “it’s a new and unknown side effect of the Pollution. A rather bad side-effect if you want to run a war. Bad for the Empire on this planet and our local empress. A war-losing side effect.”

“Lieutenant Luscetian,” Caulie said, “if it’s that important, then there must have been some kind of follow-up. What did the bodies look like? You said they were untouched, but what did the doctors say? What was found in dissection—what do the postmortems show?”

“There were no postmortems.”

“Excuse me?”

“That is as much as I can share. Anything further, well, it’s just asking for a leak and then all hell would break loose. You will see everything when you get to the front.”

“I can’t leave…”

“You don’t have a choice,” he said flatly.

“I can do better work here, where I have access to records and references.”

“Bring them with you.”

She shook her head. “I can’t, lieutenant. I work with proscribed information. It’s not permitted outside the Haphan administered provinces. Most of it can’t leave the University, and my best resources can’t even leave my lab. This was explained to me by the dean herself, in terms that left no doubt. My information certainly cannot come near the eternal front.”

“That is waived,” he said.

“Just…waived?” She stared at him but he was serious.

“Put what you need on your computer tablet, Dr. Alexandrian. Make sure to lock the tablet so it only opens to your touch. Your living touch. Do this before you leave the city, because Military Intelligence will watch for it through the network. Put everything you need on the tablet, because I hope you remember your history: The Ed-homse mountains wreak havoc with communications. The tablet won’t be able to make high-bandwidth secure connections, and you won’t be able to access any further resources once you’re down there.”

Caulie was already drawing up a mental list, even if the larger part of her mind was still swamped with disbelief. Most Haphan technology was simply not allowed in the autonomous Tachba provinces like Ed-homse or Sessera, and it was never brought to the front. Her computer tablet might well be the first technology permitted in Ed-homse since the landing and the first expansion a hundred years earlier—when the Haphans were nearly defeated by the mountain Tachba and their Queen Culleyho.

The Ed-homse campaign was the episode of expansion history that school classes always covered, because it showed just how dangerous the Tachba could be when the Haphans lost their technology advantage. That Army Intelligence was making an exception in this instance and letting her bring proscribed technology, containing proscribed information, to investigate a suppressed incident…it was simply too much. It also made her wonder again about the secret police. Wouldn’t Military Intelligence need permission from the Gray House before she could carry proscribed anything to the front, since it would be a matter of internal security? She didn’t know. Jephia would know.

“What are my options?” she asked, without a shred of hope.

“You are subject of the empire and a servant of the local empress. More than that, I hope, you have a vested interest in our civilization not being eradicated if the South breaks through the trenches. Your options are either to comply, or comply cheerfully.” Luscetian softened this with a rueful shrug.

“That’s what I thought. I’ll start filling up my tablet up tonight, when I have finalized my list.”

“You should probably start sooner,” he said. “You’re leaving in an hour.”

Chapter 3

Caulie collected her jacket, tablet, and bag from the lab under the watchful eyes of the lieutenant. Jephia glared at Luscetian, and Luscetian opted—wisely, Caulie thought—for stolid impassivity.

Caulie had once been kicked out of a summer camp in the middle of the night. It was due to the stigma of being her parents’ daughter, but as a young girl she’d thought it was because she had bested the other children in the science quiz. The other children had no conception of calculus and biology, but they did have very elevated aristocratic accents. The guilt and mortification of that episode…the camp counselors, initially so understanding of her anxiety amid the other children, then suddenly so curt and distant…this was exactly that feeling. Caulie felt like she had done something wrong.

She didn’t have much to pack in the lab. She opened the network and dumped her entire research archive onto her computer tablet, then hung up her white coat. Jephia knew not to ask what was going on, and Caulie could not have answered her anyway.

Caulie hesitated at the end, turning to her friend. “Will you feed my nervous systems?”

Jephia darted a look at Luscetian, who watched hawkishly from the doorway, and said, “Typical girl talk.”

“I mean—” Caulie grasped Jephia in a fierce hug, surprising them both. Jephia felt small in her arms, like something brittle and delicate. There was nothing of the solidity that might have been expected from the way she talked to people.

“I’ll see you when I see you,” Caulie said, quickly letting go. She was astonished when Jephia clutched her arms and pulled her back.

“I want you to be careful,” Jephia whispered. “This is not your world.”

“I know,” Caulie said. “Obviously it’s not my world.”


About me

Walter Blaire writes military science fiction in the "Lines of Thunder" universe, which is like "WWI meets the Culture by Iain Banks." Talking spaceships, genetic soldiers, atrocious barbarism, atrocious humor -- stories steeped in the human cost of an interminable trench war. In the past, Walter worked with computers and taught college courses in intelligence analysis. Now he writes as much as possible, and to keep in shape he thinks about exercising.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
It started with the Cotard Delusion, which is when people believe they are dead and their bodies are decaying. Like a lie you wish you hadn't told, more and more lies were concocted to support it. At the end of the mad scramble I had a book! I'm now looking for more delusions to write about.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
I wanted to stress-test the most anxious, socially awkward character I could write by dropping her into the most brutal trench war imaginable. To my surprise she adapted and took over, and I caught a glimpse of how it works in real life. The trick to prevailing is to not have a choice in the matter.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
I can't get enough galaxy-scale, far future, hard science fiction with cool ideas, fast action, and beautiful writing. My go-to books are Iain Banks's "Culture" books, Herbert's "Dune", Vinge's "Fire Upon the Deep", and Miéville's "Bas Lag" stories. If I write a book on that level I'll die happy!