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 …
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.”