The Prince’s Alliance Sample

I’ve put the sample here because I’m currently in Malaysia and I don’t have access to the website. I’ll repost when I put the sample up there, in a week or so.

The Prince’s Alliance

(The Empire’s Corps – Book XXI)

Christopher G. Nuttall

Cover By Tan Ho Sim

All Comments Welcome!

Series Listing

Book One: The Empire’s Corps

Book Two: No Worse Enemy

Book Three: When The Bough Breaks

Book Four: Semper Fi

Book Five: The Outcast

Book Six: To The Shores

Book Seven: Reality Check

Book Eight: Retreat Hell

Book Nine: The Thin Blue Line

Book Ten: Never Surrender

Book Eleven: First To Fight

Book Twelve: They Shall Not Pass

Book Thirteen: Culture Shock

Book Fourteen: Wolf’s Bane

Book Fifteen: Cry Wolf

Book Sixteen: Favour The Bold

Book Seventeen: Knife Edge

Book Eighteen: The Halls of Montezuma

Book Nineteen: The Prince’s War

Book Twenty: The Prince’s Gambit

Book Twenty-One: The Prince’s Alliance

Cover Blurb

Prince Roland was on the verge of winning the war.

Assigned to New Doncaster to train the planet’s armies and lead them into battle, Roland brokered a political compromise that allowed the government to win hearts and minds once the rebels were defeated in the field, then built a formidable military machine that could – and did – push the rebels to the brink of defeat.  But Roland’s success bred hatred and his enemies, seeing him and his loyal troops out on a limb, launched a coup and left Roland stranded deep in enemy territory.

Roland isn’t one to give up.  But, with a government preparing to use desperate measures to obliterate the rebels on one side and a crude alliance of suspicious rebel factions on the other, he must act fact to save the planet …

… Or watch helplessly as the civil war rages on.

Prologue I

From: An Unbiased History of the Imperial Royal Family.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

Prince Roland did not have an easy life.

He was raised a spoilt brat, to use his own words, and was incredibly lucky to survive the series of disasters that culminated in Earthfall.  His escape – with the aid of Specialist Belinda Lawson, a Terran Marine Pathfinder – lead him straight to the Terran Marine Corps, an act that put a political hot potato in their collective lap.  Legally, Roland was the Heir to the Imperial Throne; practically, his family had surrendered most of its authority well before his birth and, even if they had continued to rule until Earthfall, the Empire was effectively gone.  The various successor states believed Roland to be dead and even if they had thought otherwise, the warlords and planetary governments would not have handed power to a young boy they believed to have nothing, save for a name.

The Marine Corps chose to accept Roland’s request for basic training, while waiting to see how the situation would develop.  It was quite possible, as was explained to me later, that Roland would either play a role in rebuilding the galaxy or vanish into the military and, as far as anyone outside the Corps knew, remain legally dead.  This would serve multiple purposes.  It would make a man of Roland, ensuring he didn’t fall back into the bad habits of his youth, and it would give him a solid grounding in practical military tactics and strategy, which he would need if he were to return to the public eye.  However, as Roland neared the end of his time in Boot Camp, it was difficult to determine if he should be permitted to continue his training at the replacement Slaughterhouse or be sidelined into a more political role.

It was decided, eventually, to send Prince Roland – now Roland Windsor – to New Doncaster, as part of a military training and assistance scheme.  It was not believed he would face any major problems.  He would be under the quiet mentorship of a team of experienced soldiers and under the direct command of Marine Captain Michael Allen, who had orders to override Roland if it seemed he was overstepping his authority or making serious mistakes.  It should have been a decent training ground for a prospective soldier, a chance to make mistakes and learn from them without having them blow up in his face.

This turned out to be misguidedly optimistic.

New Doncaster’s civil unrest turned rapidly to outright civil war.  The rebels, all too aware of the danger posed by the development of a proper army, struck first – and hard. Captain Allen and his men were blown up in a terrorist strike carried out by a deep-cover infiltrator, while large bodies of rebel troops were landed on Kingston – the capital island – and marched towards Kingstown.  Roland led his men in a defence of the capital, eventually defeating the rebel offensive … only to discover that, while they’d been battling for the major islands, the rebels had overrun the rest of the contested zones.  The war was very far from over.

Roland was appointed, somewhat to his surprise, as commander-in-chief of the government’s forces.  (It is unclear if he realised how much political manoeuvring went on behind the scenes, or if some of his backers only backed him because they thought he could take the blame if the war was lost.)  He rose to the challenge, building an army by reaching out to dissatisfied communities and offering major political concessions in exchange for loyalty, something that gave him the numbers to take the war to the rebels.  It did not, however, win him any friends among the government, some of whom suspected Roland was intent on either reshaping their society or taking power himself.  They saw his steps to rationalise the military as directly threatening and started planning their counteroffensive.  They soon had their chance.  The fighting rapidly grew worse, with early victories giving way to a long and grinding conflict.  Roland knew he had to act fast.

Putting together a strike force, and carefully misleading his superiors (and rebel spies) about where the offensive was targeted, Roland led a strike aimed directly at capturing or killing the rebel leadership and destroying their command-and-control network.  It would, he reasoned, buy time to build up his forces and establish political settlements that would slowly bring the simmering conflict to an end.  He had no idea his enemies were already putting their own plans into action, launching a coup to seize control of the government themselves even as the war seemed almost won …

… And, in doing so, guaranteed the war would continue indefinitely.

Prologue II

(Former) Porter Plantation, Baraka Island, New Doncaster

“I suppose the real question,” Steve said, “is if we should do anything.”

Sarah Wilde kept her thoughts to herself, silently gauging the mood of the rebel leadership as they listened.  It had been sheer dumb luck she’d survived long enough to regain her freedom and forge a brief, although limited, alliance with General Roland Windsor.  The outsider general had come very close to killing or capturing her when his men had landed on the island – she was still awed he’d led the mission in person – and, if his own people hadn’t turned on him, he might have won the war overnight.  Sure, there would still have been a lot of rebel forces out there, but with the command-and-control network shattered beyond repair the government would have been able to deal with them one by one.  And Sarah herself would be dead.

Steve pressed the issue.  “The government stabbed its own troops in the back, but it’s not like those troops loved us.  They’re townies.  They should have been with us from the start.  Instead, they traded their services for a handful of baubles and got fucked.  Why should we do anything to help them?”

“A valid question,” Colonel Lopez said.  He’d sailed from his home base to attend the conference, despite the risk.  A single bunker-buster missile could obliterate two-thirds of the rebel leadership … if the government had the nerve to take the shot.  It was galling, in a way, that the mansion’s greatest protection was the government’s reluctance to piss off the plantation’s former owners by blowing the property to hell.  “Why should we do anything?”

Sarah sighed inwardly, gathering her thoughts as all eyes turned to her.  It had taken every last scrap of political capital she had to convince the leadership to go along with the truce, even though they’d had little choice.  The government would have been delighted if General Windsor had been forced to continue the war against the rebels, despite being stabbed in the back.  And he’d have had no other option, if the rebels had tried to force him to surrender unconditionally.  Sarah might have done it anyway, if she’d calculated the rebels would win without major losses.  She doubted it.  Too many townies believed they’d be lucky to survive if they fell into rebel hands.

“Right now, our enemies have split into two factions,” she said, slowly.  “The townies – and General Roland – are prepared to be reasonable …”

“Because they don’t have a choice,” Steve interjected.  “They’ve been bent over and …”

“Quite.”  Sarah kept her face expressionless with an effort.  Steve was a brave man, and no one doubted it, but he had no head for politics.  “They tried to stay out of the fighting.  They only agreed to join the government because the government agreed to address their legitimate concerns, to cancel debt and restore political rights in exchange for service.  I think we can reasonably say those promises have been broken.  The townies have been betrayed by the aristocratic factions, by men who want to return to the days of yore.  We have an opportunity, a very brief opportunity, to reach out to the townies ourselves.”

Lopez leaned forward.  “But we could also let the aristos and the townies fight it out, then deal with whoever comes out ahead.”

“We can’t,” Sarah said, quickly.  Too many leaders already agreed with him.  “General Windsor does not have the shipping, after the betrayal, to get his armies to Kingston.  The government effectively controls the seas.  Without our help, and our own naval forces” – a grandiose term for converted freighters, sailing ships and motor torpedo boats – “he will effectively remain stranded until he runs out of supplies and his troops start to starve.  At that point, he will either have to surrender or start pillaging the islands for food.”

She paused.  “And in the meantime, the aristos will be building their own forces and readying themselves for the final conflict with us.”

“So he can surrender to us,” Steve said.  “Why should we even think of entertaining an alliance?”

“Because the townies were trapped between the aristos and our demands for a complete reworking of society,” Sarah said.  “The townies were – are – frightened of losing what little they had, either legally stolen by the aristos or simply repossessed after we won the war and took over.  It made them vulnerable, when the government pretended to take their concerns seriously.  We can at least try to recognise their concerns.”

“And we don’t have to keep our promises,” Lopez pointed out.

“That would set a terrible precedent,” Sarah countered.  “If the aristos had kept their promises, when this world was settled, the current crisis might never have arisen.”

She forced herself to wait and listen as the rebel leadership argued the question, hashing out the same arguments and counterarguments time and time again.  It wasn’t easy to refrain from speaking, to let them argue themselves, but she had no choice.  Her leadership position was nowhere near as solid as she might have wished, even before she’d been briefly captured by General Roland and his men.  The rebel leaders were both proud and practical men, reluctant to give up their power and fearful of the consequences if they did.  Sarah didn’t really blame them.  The rebels had always been a decentralised structure.  They didn’t dare risk the destruction of one cell leading rapidly to the destruction of the rest.

And yet, that limited our ability to take the offensive, she thought.  They’d worked hard to mount the offensive that had kicked off the real fighting and still lost.  It had taken months to get organised on Winchester and if the government had struck sooner … she shook her head grimly.  We have a chance, now, to win the war.  But only if we act fast.

“It’s time to vote,” Sarah said, finally.  “Do we ally with the townies, and General Windsor, or do we stand aside and hope for the best?”

She let the words hang in the air.  Time wasn’t on their side.  She was fairly sure the rebels had rounded up all the spies and informers on the island, but she didn’t dare assume they’d got them all.  The databases they’d captured could easily have a few names excised from them.  The aristos had been fucking careless to leave such priceless intelligence lying around … not, she supposed, that they’d ever believed they’d lose control of the island.  Idiots.  It wasn’t as if they couldn’t have encrypted the databases, or rigged the datacores to self-destruct.  The carelessness was enough to make her wonder if they were being misled.

“It’s risky,” Lopez said.  “What if they turn on us afterwards?”

“Then we’ll be in a position to fuck them,” Steve said.

“Charming,” Sarah said, curtly.  “Yes, there’s risk.  There’s always risk.  Anything we do, even nothing, has risk.  But this is our one chance to forge an alliance that might actually win the war.  We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”

She waited, silently tallying the votes.  It really wouldn’t be easy.  There’d been no time for debates over the post-war world, when victory seemed as far away as the end of the universe itself.  Now … if they won, they’d finally be in a position to make their dreams come true.  Sarah suspected she’d be fired, as soon as the war was over.  And then … she sighed inwardly, wondering how long it would be before the rebels started fighting each other over the future.  They were capitalists and communists, socialists and fascists, legalists and anarchists and theocrats and hundreds of other political aspects, some so different from the others they were completely incompatible.  What would happen, she asked herself grimly, after they won the war?

But we have to win first, she thought.  Or else the entire debate will be worse than useless.

“We will ally with General Windsor,” she said, when the voting was finished.  Some of the leaders were more enthusiastic than others, the latter probably planning fallback positions just in case things went to hell, but they’d go along with her for the moment.  “And while we will hope for the best, we will prepare for the worst.”

“Yeah,” Steve said.  “If they betray us, we’ll make them pay.”

Chapter One

Lighthouse #472, New Doncaster

Rachel is going to kill me, Roland thought.  I didn’t have to lead the mission in person.

He gritted his teeth.  He’d never been prone to sea-sickness – his genetic enhancements were top of the line – and he’d done a lot of water training during Boot Camp even before he’d been assigned to New Doncaster, but the boat was being thrown around so badly he was starting to think he was going to be sick anyway.  The storm was mild, by the standards of New Doncaster, but the combination of wind, waves and twilight was getting to him.  He knew himself to be a brave man and yet, he was starting to think he’d made a mistake.

The boat shifted again as a giant wave lifted them before dropping them back down again.  Roland swallowed hard.  Night was falling rapidly, the weird eye-aching twilight so complete that the rocky island ahead was almost completely invisible.  There was supposed to be a lighthouse on top, as well as a radar station and landing pad, but the light had been turned off long ago.  Roland understood the logic – the lighthouse was positioned along a major shipping route, used by rebel ships as well as government vessels – yet it still chilled him to the bone.  The risk of running aground, miles from help, was just too high.  He doubted anyone would survive if they fell into the churning waters, tides and currents threatening to throw them against the rocks providing they didn’t drown first.  On paper, the mission had seemed perfectly reasonable.  In practice …

Rachel really is going to kill me, Roland reflected, as the boat crashed into another wave, drenching him in cold water.  If I survive long enough to get back to base, she’s going to kick my ass.

He forced himself to stay calm as the boat continued to inch towards the rocky island, the helmsman carefully picking his way through the rocks and shoals.  The fishermen swore blind that the best pickings were always close to the lighthouse, sheltering amongst the underground pools and overhangs that provided a degree of protection from the storm outside.  Roland had believed them – the fishermen were the best sailors on the planet – and yet, it was hard to believe they were going to make it.  The wind grew louder as they inched closer, the rock funnelling the cold air into his face.  He shivered, despite himself.  New Doncaster was hot, almost unbearably so.  Here, though, it was cold.

The fisherman glanced at him.  “Nearly there.” The man was shouting, but his words were snatched away by the wind.  “Are you ready?”

Roland glanced at the rest of the team, who nodded.  The rebels had raised their own marine division, something that had struck him as funny until he remembered most of the wretched planet was covered with water.  They might have lacked the training Roland – and full-fledged Terran Marines – took for granted, but they were tough and experienced fighters who knew how to get the best from their weapons and equipment.  Roland hoped he’d have a chance to recruit them for the corps, when they finally got back in touch with Safehouse.  It still worried him the detachment had heard nothing from his superiors.  Captain Allen’s death – and that of his entire company – seemed to have passed unnoticed.

The Commandant has too many other things to worry about, Roland reminded himself, curtly.  New Doncaster was important to the New Doncastrians, but the planet was a very small and largely unimportant world in the grand scheme of things.  Whatever happens here is unlikely to affect the galaxy at large …

He swallowed, hard.  Earth was gone.  It was a disaster so immense he couldn’t even begin to wrap his head around it.  Eighty billion people dead … he couldn’t grasp the sheer scale of the loss.  They were just numbers.  He tried to think of the people he’d known, back when he’d been the Childe Roland, but few had made any great impression on him.  It was difficult not to feel ashamed of the royal brat he’d been, only a couple of years ago.  He’d had servants, a lot of servants, and he didn’t even remember their names!

And you have no time to worry about it now, he told himself.  You can fret about it later.

“Take us in,” he ordered.

The rocky overhang grew in front of him until it cast a long shadow over the boat.  Roland snapped his night-vision goggles into place, cursing under his breath as he saw waves crashing against the rock.  The island was deceptively large and yet, it felt almost painfully small.  He wondered, as he studied the rock to pick out handholds, just how the government had built the lighthouse in the first place.  His mind tossed the question around and around, then dismissed it as the boat bumped against the rock.  Up close, the island seemed impossibly huge.  It was difficult to believe it wasn’t that tall, not compared to the mountains he’d climbed during basic.  But then, it was all just a matter of perception.

Mount Easy is huge, but it is a very simple climb, so easy even a complete novice can walk to the top, his instructor had said.  Mount Doom is half the height of Mount Easy, yet it is so treacherous that even experienced climbers can get into trouble very easily and have to be rescued.

Roland took one last look at the boat, then clambered onto the rock and started to climb.  The fishermen had sworn blind it was easy to find handholds – they’d clambered up to catch seabirds, they’d assured him – but it felt slippery and unpleasant.  He forced himself to keep going, keeping his eye on the prize and careful not to look down.  The rest of the team followed, their grunting hidden behind the howling wind and outraged seabirds.  Roland cursed under his breath.  They should have expected the birds.  He hoped the enemy guards weren’t paying close attention.

There’s always something that goes wrong, something unexpected, he recalled.  The trick is to pick up after the unexpected hits you and keep going.

He inched up, step by step.  It felt as if he was constantly on the verge of losing his grip and falling to his death.  He had no illusions about his chances, if he fell to the rocks below.  Even if he survived the fall and landing, the waves would sweep him off and dash him against the rocks before he could recover or be rescued.  The fishermen had told him they did it all the time … he kicked himself, mentally, for not asking how many of them died in the attempt.  New Doncaster wasn’t Earth, where the middle and upper classes lived – had lived –in blissful safety, wrapped in bubbles of cotton wool.  The locals risked their lives every time they went on the waters and some of them never returned.  Their bodies were never found.

The top caught him by surprise.  He almost lost his grip as he scrambled onto the rocks before he caught his breath.  His heart was beating so loudly, he was sure it could be heard over the gathering storm.  Lightning flashed in the distance as the rest of the team joined him, their faces relieved.  It had been a nasty climb … Roland promised himself, grimly, that next time he’d listen to his instructors.  Taking the lighthouse intact was a worthwhile goal, but not at the cost of a dozen lives.

He forced himself to stand and check his weapons, then inch forward until the lighthouse came into view.  It was crude, like something out of the dark ages, but he had to admit that building the station on the rocky outcrop was a remarkable feat.  The station was bigger than he’d expected, a pair of small barracks flanking a radar station, a helicopter pad and the lighthouse itself.  His eyes swept the complex, looking for guards.  There were none.  Roland didn’t blame them.  The odds of anyone else trying to climb up the rocky cliffs were very low.  It was far more likely their enemies would either carry out an airborne assault or slam a missile into the station from a safe distance.  The lighthouse wouldn’t survive, but the government would know something had happened.  Roland hoped, as the team prepped for the assault, they could take the station without sounding an alarm.  It would make the war a great deal easier if the station fed the enemy comforting lies, rather than being replaced by airborne or ground-based sensor stations.

His eyes sought out the lighthouse high overhead as they inched closer.  No one was visible on the balcony, unsurprisingly.  The winds were just too high.  Anyone who stepped outside ran the risk of being blown away, of being sent falling to their deaths.  The lower buildings were in a hollow and yet, the shape of the surrounding rocks would make life dangerous for anyone who tried to go out for a walk.  Roland wondered, idly, just how well the government paid the lighthouse keepers.  He hoped they paid well.  The risk of cabin fever would be just too high for minimum wage.

They always were cheapskates, he reminded himself.  Underpaying the lighthouse keepers would be hardly out of character.

The wind howled louder as they reached the door.  The walls looked as if they belonged to a bunker or a pillbox, so solid he wondered if they were expecting attackers after all, before deciding it was intended to keep the lighthouse keepers safe.  He glanced at his team, then drew the multitool from his belt and pressed it against the lock.  There was a long pause – his heart skipped a beat, knowing the clock had started to tick down to zero – before the door unlocked.  He pushed it open, motioning for his team to sneak inside.  If there was an alarm on the door …

A gust of heat struck him as they piled through the outer chamber.  It was a bare room, save for a pair of heavy coats hanging from the walls.  It looked like an airlock … Roland heard someone moving in the next room and motioned for the team to push through the door.  A young man stood on the far side, gaping.  Roland zapped him with a jangler before he could get over his shock, wincing in sympathy as the man collapsed to the ground.  The poor bastard was going to be sore for hours … Roland shook his head.  There’d been no choice.  They dared not let anyone sound the alarm.

“Call the chopper,” he ordered, keeping his voice low.  “Tell them to come in ASAP, but safely.”

He glanced around the chamber, shaking his head in wry amusement.  It was more like a genteel – if shabby – sitting room than a military base.  A pair of old-style computer consoles rested against the far wall, linked to a flatscreen through a mélange of wires and adaptors; one wall was covered with pin-ups, some so old he couldn’t help thinking the models they showed were dead and gone.  There were no windows … he put the thought aside as he led the way into the kitchen, spotting a man bent over the stove.  Roland zapped him in the back, then caught him before he could land on the heat.  Behind him, he heard a crash.  He swore and spun around, dropping the man to the floor.  A door slammed before the slammer could be zapped or shot down.

Shit.  Roland forced himself to run.  Surprise was gone.  The enemy might have been caught off guard, but … how quickly could they send a message?  Roland wanted to believe they were lazy, that they were so confident they couldn’t be caught by surprise that they hadn’t bothered to set up emergency procedures, yet he dared not assume it was true.  If he’d been in command, he’d have made sure everyone knew what to do if the shit hit the fan.  If he gets to the command centre before it’s too late …

He kicked down the door and ran through the corridor, quickly updating his mental map of the complex.  It was small, according to the stolen plans, and yet it felt surprisingly large.  A man stepped out of a side door and stared; Roland slammed his rifle into the man’s chest, sending him doubling over in shock, and hurried onwards.  Alarms howled, the deafening racket shaking the complex as he crashed into the next chamber.  A pair of technicians dived for cover. 

“Stay on the ground,” Roland shouted.

He kept moving – the rest of the team would take care of them – and ran through the next door.  A flight of stairs led upwards, into the darkness.  Roland swore as he felt running footsteps, clattering down fragile metal stairs.  The runaway was fleeing to the lighthouse itself.  He was up to something.

Roland hesitated – there would be almost no room to hide in the lighthouse, no cover if the runaway had a gun – and then inched up the steps, moving as quickly and quietly as he could.  The alarms were still howling – he suspected the rest of the lighthouse keepers had awoken to discover it was already too late – but his footsteps shook the stairs.  He forced himself to keep going, wishing he’d thought to bring stun grenades despite the risk of damaging equipment they needed to take intact.  Right now, the mission was teetering on the brink of failure.

The world blazed blindingly bright as he reached the top, so bright he thought someone had called in a missile strike after all, then plunged into a darkness so absolute he thought he’d gone blind.  The runaway had come up with a plan … Roland barely had a second to sense something before an incoming body crashed into him, slamming them both into the metal safety walls.  Roland felt a flash of panic as the walls seemed to shift under the impact, convinced at a very primal level they were about to die, before catching himself and pushing back as hard as he could.  His vision was blurred, but … he blinked hard, thanking his ancestors for the visual enhancements spliced into his eyeballs.  He would have been blinded for good, without medical treatment unavailable on New Doncaster, if he hadn’t been enhanced.  As it was, his eyes hurt.

He growled, punching the runaway in the chest and brought up his knee to strike the man in the groin.  The enemy soldier howled; Roland drew back his fist and punched the guy out, knocking him to the ground.  Roland ducked as the giant light hummed, then found the emergency switch and powered it down.  The lighthouse would remain dark until they’d finished searching it, then they’d determine if the enemy crew had managed to get a warning off.

His earpiece buzzed.  “Sir, the storm is picking up,” the operator said.  “The helicopter cannot reach you until tomorrow morning.”

“Got it,” Roland said.

He nodded to himself as he picked up the unconscious man and carted him back down the rickety stairs.  It was unfortunate, but hardly surprising.  He’d devised his plans on the assumption the helicopter wouldn’t be able to reach them at all.  The rest of the station crew were lying on the floor in the sitting room, their hands duct-taped behind their backs.  Roland frowned as he counted the prisoners.  The lighthouse had clearly been reinforced at some point … if reinforced was the correct word.  He handed his prisoner over to the team, then glanced at his second.  The man’s face was very grim.

“They shipped a top-of-the-line radar and sensor kit into the lighthouse at some point,” he said.  “It’s light-years ahead of anything they showed us.”

“Joy,” Roland said, sarcastically.  Radar had never been particularly reliable on New Doncaster – the planet’s atmosphere was a boon to smugglers and rebels and a curse to everyone else – but a modern sensor platform might be able to see through the storms as if they simply didn’t exist.  Might.  “Where did they get it?”

“Unknown,” his second said.  “The spaceport?”

Roland shrugged, putting the issue aside for later consideration.  The sensor platform was in their hands now.  The lighthouse had been neutralised, ensuring the rebels could start opening up the sea channels again.  Even if the enemy knew what happened – and he hoped they didn’t – they’d have problems doing something about it.  The lighthouse would be blown to pieces if they tried to take it back.

His body ached, but he forced himself to walk through the rest of the complex.  The barracks were surprisingly comfortable, with beds larger than anything he’d seen during his own training.  There were more pin-ups, more computer games and VR headsets … he rolled his eyes as he spotted a pair of virtual experience discs, each so pornographic he’d been told that anyone bringing one to boot camp was guaranteed to be expelled.  Someone had either gone a little overboard, when they tried to make the lighthouse keepers comfortable, or they’d turned a blind eye to what the keepers had brought with them.  Probably the latter.  Roland had been taught there were times when an officer should look the other way and times when the rules should be enforced to the letter.  The lighthouse keepers weren’t brewing alcohol …

He returned to the command post, where he was hailed by one of his team.  “Sir, I think we have a problem.  The lighthouse network sent us a request for an authorisation code.  We don’t have it.”

Roland cursed.  The prisoners presumably knew the code … he wasn’t above ordering a field interrogation, if necessary, but even waking the poor bastards up would take time, time they didn’t have.  And that meant …

“We’ll assume the worst,” he said.  It would have been nice to turn the lighthouse into a lie factory, confusing the enemy commanders until it was too late for them to react, but he hadn’t counted on it.  “Signal base.  Inform them we have secured the lighthouse and we’ll be moving again as soon as the storm allows.”

“Aye, sir.”

Chapter Two

Kingston, New Doncaster

Colonel Angeline Porter wondered, as she followed General Vincent McDougal and Admiral Terrace Forest into the Prime Minister’s office, precisely what she was doing there.  It wasn’t as if she was a high-ranking officer, despite her rank.  She should be on the streets, leading the troops and security forces in a bid to round up the rest of the townie politicians and dissidents before they recovered from their shock and started to hit back.  It was true the military’s Table of Organisation – designed for a radically different world – had been revised twice at short notice, with both General Roland and Lord Hamish Ludlow having to fill in the holes with whoever they had on hand, but she couldn’t help feeling she was wasting her time.  It hadn’t been that long since the coup …

She put the thought out of her head as she nodded politely to the Prime Minister, seated behind his desk.  Lord Hamish was a surprisingly adroit man, for someone who’d spent most of his political career hewing to the realities of the pre-Earthfall universe, but Angeline suspected he was playing with fire.  The townies would react soon, as would the aristos and rebels and General Roland himself, who was currently stranded on an island that might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy.  Or so Angeline had been assured.  She had her doubts.  General Roland might be too soft where it counted – there was no fate too gruesome for rebels who’d raped and murdered people – but he had a military education and no shortage of nerve.  Angeline was all too aware she was little more than a gifted amateur.

You play the cards you are dealt, Angeline told herself.  It had been one of her father’s old sayings, in the days when she’d been little more than a debutante preparing for her coming-out ball and arranged marriage.  And you don’t get to whine about missed plays and lost games.  You just pick yourself up and keep going.

Her heart clenched.  Her father was dead, along with her mother and – as far as she knew – the rest of her close family.  She’d been lucky to survive, after the rebels … her stomach churned, the memories flashing through her mind despite her best efforts to banish them.  They’d taken their time with the aristocrat’s daughter, taking turns as they forced her down and spread her legs and … she felt her hand drop to her sidearm, even though she was safe.  Next time, she wouldn’t let herself be taken alive.  She had nine bullets in her gun and she could drop eight of the rapist bastards, before putting the final bullet through her own head.  Next time, she’d make a fight of it.

Cold hatred washed through her.  Her servants had betrayed her.  Her family had done so much for the servants, treated them as part of the family, and yet her parents had still been betrayed to their deaths, the entire plantation burned to the ground.  Angeline hoped those servants were all dead, killed in the skirmishing that had swept over the island before the fighting really got going, but she also hoped they survived long enough for her to find them.  She’d make them pay.  She’d make them scream, as they’d made her scream.  She’d make them watch as she hurt and killed their families, then …

“Be seated,” Lord Hamish said.  “Admiral?”

Angeline sat, resting her hands on her lap as she studied Admiral Forest.  He was a weak-willed man – she knew the type – who was competent at his job, but unable to handle something that required him to think outside the box.  The only reason he was an admiral, she’d gathered, was that he had the right bloodline and he could be relied upon to follow orders from his social superiors.  It didn’t help that Forest clearly didn’t know what to make of her.  Angeline was a young woman who should be wearing dresses and lowering her eyes whenever a man came to call, and should not be dressed in combat fatigues while carrying a sidearm.  He had to feel it was his job to look after her and yet … Angeline gritted her teeth as the memories threatened to overwhelm her again.  Her father had been supposed to protect her.  He’d merely been the first to die.

And the only mercy was that he didn’t live long enough to see what they did, she thought, fighting to keep her face impassive.  She’d punched one of her distant relatives for bemoaning the impossibility of getting Angeline married after everything she’d endured, a final disgrace to her family name.  Stupid bitch.  As if Angeline would want to get married now.  Or what I became afterwards.

Admiral Forest took a breath.  “The enemy forces landed on Lighthouse 472 and took possession of the military outpost on the rock,” he said, picking up a laser pointer and using it to mark the lighthouse’s position on the map.  “We don’t know precisely what happened, sir, but we do know the rock was taken by surprise.  The advanced sensor suite we shipped there provided no warning.”

Lord Hamish scowled.  “And how did they get so close?”

“Incompetence,” General McDougal said.  “The lighthouse should have maintained a careful watch at all times, instead of relying on a piece of glitchy machinery.”

“The sensor suite was checked and rechecked repeatedly before it was installed on the lighthouse,” Forest countered.  There was no love lost between the two men.  “We don’t know how the rebels did it, only that they did.”

“And your men surrendered without a fight,” McDougal snapped.  “They should have fought to the last man.”

Forest scowled at him, but – somehow – kept his voice tight control.  “The lighthouse rests on a rocky outcrop that is barely large enough for a handful of buildings and little else,” he said.  “There was no way we could establish proper defence lines, let alone station an entire infantry division on the rock.  There simply was not room.  The lighthouse should have been invulnerable, unless the attack came from the air, and we should have seen that coming well before it arrived.  We still don’t know how the attack was carried out.”

Angeline suspected she knew.  The most expensive fish – the fish her family had served to guests, whenever they’d wanted to show off their wealth – came from the most dangerous waters.  The fishermen had to sail into dark and treacherous places, just to find even a handful of fish, crustaceans and whatever else they could sell to the aristos.  The lighthouse rested on towering rock … if she was any judge, the waters below would be teeming with expensive fish.  The rebels would have no trouble finding men willing and able to sail to the rocky island, then help them clamber to the top.  It would be risky as hell, particularly in the middle of a storm, but doable.  Perhaps.

We know someone did it, she reminded herself.  And when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – no matter how improbable – must be the answer.

“They came on a boat and climbed up,” she said, bluntly.  “They slipped below the sensor suite.”

“Careless,” McDougal said.  “The lighthouse should have kept a watch.”

“In the darkness, in the midst of a storm?”  Admiral Forest shook his head.  “If the rebels were crazy enough to risk a landing, the defenders wouldn’t have spotted them until it was far too late.”

Lord Hamish tapped his desk.  “We believed the rebels, and General Roland, had been neutralised for the time being,” he said.  “Were we wrong?”

Admiral Forest looked unsure, even as he toed the party line.  “General Roland and his forces have been stranded on Baraka and Winchester, without anything like enough ships to transport his armies back here.  He has been cut off from the logistics network, forcing him to rely on what he’d already shipped to the two islands.  Winchester has enough supplies to last for several months, assuming they don’t have to engage in high-intensity combat; we don’t know how much he was able to transport to Baraka before the fleet withdrew, but we doubt he can last for more than a few weeks at best.  Our working assumption was that the rebels would finish them off for us, buying time for us to build up our own forces.”

“And instead, he launched an attack on a lighthouse,” McDougal said.  “Why?”

“We don’t know it was General Roland,” Forest pointed out.  “It could easily have been the rebels instead, taking advantage of the confusion to weaken our grip on the inner shipping lanes.  They have always been a decentralised force, even after the war started in earnest, and their leadership may not know what all their cells are doing.”

“Or they have already overwhelmed General Roland, or forced him to surrender,” McDougal growled.  “And they may be planning to come for us.”

Angeline shivered, helplessly.  If any of the men noticed, they said nothing.

“General Roland is not a man to die quietly,” Admiral Forest said.  “He’ll fight to the last breath.”

“Yes,” Angeline said.  She’d met General Roland.  The young man – he couldn’t be more than a few years older than she was, at best – had been quite impressive, to the point that she might have set her cap for him if things had been different.  And yet … he’d punished her for daring to treat the rebels like the vermin they were.  She admired the offworlder general, but she hated him too.  “He won’t die quickly.”

“He’s stranded on a rebel-held island, with no access to supplies or shipping,” McDougal said, curtly.  “What’s he going to do?”

“And yet someone attacked a lighthouse,” Angeline countered.  Once, she would have hated the condescension in his voice.  She was only a girl, someone who had no place at the manly table discussing manly things.  Now, she found it hard to care about the asshole.  She’d met worse people.  And besides, her record spoke for itself.  So did her connections.  “And not just any lighthouse.”

She waved a hand at the map.  “That lighthouse guarded the shipping lanes running from rebel-held territory to loyalist islands,” she reminded them.  “We put the sensor suite there because we needed to know if the rebels were running ships into loyalist territory, if – when – they put a navy of their own to sea.  And now we are blind.  We don’t know what’s happening in those waters.  We don’t know what might be coming in our direction.”

“On what?”  Admiral Forest was unimpressed.  “The rebels don’t have that much shipping.”

Angeline looked back at him.  “How much do they need?”

Her mind raced.  If she was in General Roland’s shoes, what would she do?  She’d been betrayed, hung out to dry by her own government … how would she react?  She knew what she’d done, when she’d felt betrayed … what would Roland do?  Boys took betrayal harder than girls, for some reason, and found it easier to lash back in response, heedless of their own fates as long as they had their revenge.  What would she do?  She would never join the rebels – the medical report that had made it clear she would never have children had guaranteed she would never forgive them – but Roland might have different ideas.  Would he join the rebels?  Why not?  What did he have to lose?

“They might have joined forces,” Angeline said, quietly.  “General Roland might have joined the rebels and taken his men to them.”

Admiral Forest blinked.  “He wouldn’t!”

“Why not?”  The more Angeline thought about it, the more she was sure she was right.  “He’s an offworlder, remember?  What happens on this planet isn’t that great a concern to him.  He has no friends, no family, nothing tying him to this world.  And he’s been betrayed.  His men, his townie soldiers, have been betrayed too.  Even if he thinks he can withdraw from the fighting and wait to be picked up, they can’t.  He has nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing his lot in with the rebels.”

“Assuming the rebels are prepared to deal with him.”  McDougal sneered.  “They are not likely to trust him, are they?”

“We know the rebels were trying to reach out to the townies,” Angeline countered.  “And if Roland hands over his stockpiles of weapons …”

Lord Hamish tapped the table, again.  “Admiral, in your professional opinion, can they launch an invasion of loyalist territories?”

Forest looked as if he was staring at a loaded pistol, aimed at his head.  Angeline would have felt sorrier for him if he hadn’t been so irritating.  “Right now, they don’t have the shipping to launch a major invasion,” he said.  “A great many ships were off the books, prior to Earthfall, but even our worst-case estimates suggest they can’t transport a sizable force in a single convoy.  Given time … they can gather the forces they need to invade loyalist territory, but we’re talking months if not years.  They don’t have that many factories under their control and if they start building ships, they won’t be churning out tanks and aircraft.”

“Which gives us time,” Lord Hamish said.  He keyed his intercom.  “Sally?  Please send General Flanders in.”

Angeline raised her eyebrows as General Jeanette Flanders was shown into the chamber.  It was rare, very rare, for any woman to climb the ladder and attain real power on New Doncaster, particularly if she wasn’t aristocratic.  Angeline was and she’d been all too aware she’d been unlikely to make it to captain, at least before Lord Hamish had taken her into his service.  General Jeanette Flanders was an oddity.  Angeline had no idea how she’d reached her position, but she had to be formidable.  There’d been a handful of female plantation managers and they’d had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be regarded as half as good.

She studied Jeanette thoughtfully as the older woman saluted, then took the chair she was offered.  She didn’t look like an experienced soldier, or even a part-time militiaman.  She looked more like a civilian playing at being a soldier, although it was hard to be sure.  The REMFs had always looked a little sloppy, even after General Roland had fired half of them and threatened the other half into doing their damned jobs.  Short dark hair, dark skin … Angeline wondered, suddenly, if Jeanette was an offworlder.  She just didn’t look like an aristo or someone with aristocratic ties.

“General,” Lord Hamish said.  “What is the status of the chemical weapons program?”

Angeline sucked in her breath.  That explained a lot.  Jeanette might have worked for one of the biochemical consortiums exploiting the planet’s rare and unique biological resources, at least before Earthfall.  The aristocracy had never been happy about looking for newer and better ways to exploit their world, but they’d had little choice if they wanted to keep the flow of offworld money coming.  And now …

“The program is nearly complete,” Jeanette said.  Her accent was impossible to place, but very definitely offworld.  “Given the limited supplies of protective gear, we concentrated on heavy-duty defoliant chemicals rather than outright poison gas.  There was too great a risk, we felt, of accidentally drenching our own people in chemical weapons.  It took a few weeks to put together a formula and then test it on a deserted island.  The results, however, were very good.  Large swathes of the island were rapidly and cheaply deforested.”

“Impressive,” McDougal said.

“And worrying,” Forest said.  “Am I correct in assuming the defoliant will … ah … wipe out everything, crops as well as jungles?”

“Yes,” Jeanette said, flatly.  “We did come up with variants targeted specifically on certain plants, but they were of limited value.  There’s no way we can take down the jungle, I’m afraid, without laying waste to the plantations too.”

“The plantations are in ruins,” Angeline snarled.  Her family’s lands had been effectively destroyed, the same day her family had been killed and her life had been torn to shreds.  “Let them die.  We can rebuild afterwards.”

“Can we?”  Forest sounded concerned.  “Will we turn the islands into barren wastelands?”

“The chemicals are not designed to linger,” Jeanette said.  “They will lose much of their potency when it rains, as fresh water will dilute the defoliant and ensure it doesn’t spread too far before it breaks down completely.  Given a year or two, the chemicals will be gone and the islands will recover.  Our worst-case projections, assuming no human intervention, suggest it will be five to ten years before the islands regenerate.”

Forest looked at Lord Hamish.  “My Lord, chemical weapons are banned for a reason.  The Empire …”

Lord Hamish cut him off.  “The Empire?  What Empire?”

“They could be used as an excuse for outside powers to invade and annex our world,” Forest pointed out.  “The Empire is no longer around to protect us.”

Angeline felt another flash of hatred.  Forest was a naval officer.  He’d never seen dead bodies, or ruined lives, or had someone … she forced herself to speak calmly, despite the urge to scream.  The men already looked down on her, damn them.  She didn’t need to give them another excuse not to take her seriously.

“The rebels use the jungle to hide,” she said, coldly.  “As long as they can fall into the trees and vanish, the war will never be won.  If we destroy their cover, we can hunt them down and slaughter them like bugs.”

“And lose the plantations on the affected islands,” Forest said.  “Your family …”

“My family is dead,” Angeline snapped.  She doubted she’d be allowed to inherit, even though she was the last survivor.  She didn’t care.  “And all that matters, right now, is stopping the rebels before they stop us.”

“True,” Lord Hamish said.  “General, you will begin mass production of the chemical weapons and prepare for deployment.  Colonel” – he looked at Angeline – “I have another mission for you.  I think you’ll like it.”

Angeline nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Chapter Three

Kingston, New Doncaster

Whoever had designed the cell, Sandra Oakley thought morbidly, had set out to make it very clear to the inmates that they were in deep – deep – shit.  The bed was uncomfortable, the walls were solid white concrete, the light constantly burning day and night … she was mildly surprised there was a proper toilet, fixed to the far wall, rather than a chamberpot under the bed or something equally disgusting.  It made a certain kind of sense, she supposed.  A chamberpot could be turned into a weapon, given there was almost nothing else in the cell she could use to fight.  The random searches of both her cell, and her person, had made sure of that.

She lay on the bed, staring at the white concrete ceiling, and waited.  There was nothing else she could do.  The guards had refused to bring her books, or a datapad, or anything else she could use to distract herself.  They rarely even spoke to her, even when they were searching the cell as if they thought she’d somehow smuggled a weapon into the complex when they weren’t looking.  It had bothered her, at first, when she’d realised the cell was under permanent observation.  She’d grown used to it, if only because there was no choice.  The cell was so bare there was nowhere to hide herself from watching eyes.

And I don’t know how long I’ve even been here, she thought, numbly.  Days?  Weeks?  Years?  She hadn’t had her period, which suggested it couldn’t have been more than three weeks in total, but that might be meaningless.  Good girls didn’t go on birth control, she’d been told, yet that hadn’t stopped her from taking the injection when she’d started to get close to Roland.  She didn’t want to be impregnated and then dumped, as had happened to a handful of other girls she knew.  How long am I going to stay here?

She shuddered.  She’d been her father’s assistant long enough to know there were secret prisons, dungeons for rebels, terrorists and people whose only real crime was trying to stand up for their rights.  It had never struck her, back then, that there had been something fundamentally wrong with arresting someone and holding them without trial, without even telling their families what had happened to them.  They’d been rebels, after all; they’d sought to tear down the world and dance on the ruins, rather than trying to work within the system.  But the system had been designed to ensure it couldn’t be changed …

Yeah, her thoughts mocked.  Anyone who tried to change the system was marked as a troublemaker and got dumped in a cell.  Just like you.

Sandra cursed under her breath.  She had few illusions about her father.  Lord William Oakley had been a compromise candidate for Prime Minister, someone everyone could tolerate even though they didn’t like or respect him.  Lord William had surprised everyone by being a moderately effective war leader, one who’d called in offworld help without conceding anything to offworld powers, one who’d even been on the verge of winning the war by making concessions to townies and the few rebels who could be won over.  And that his enemies had been unable to abide.  She clenched her fists, wishing for a clear shot at Lord Hamish Ludlow.  She’d known he was discontented, but she’d never expected he’d carry out an actual coup.

Her thoughts spun in circles.  Roland might be dead.  It was unlikely his enemies would risk leaving him alive.  And then … and then what?  The rebels might have been beaten, but they hadn’t been defeated.  The war would rage on and on, until outside powers intervened or the rebels actually won.  Sandra cursed Lord Hamish with all the venom she could muster.  The war could have been ended by now, if he’d given her father a chance.  It could be over and …

A loud knock echoed through the cell, the door rattling as her guards opened the hatch.  “Hands.  Now.”

Sandra sighed and swung her legs over the side of the bed, moving as slowly as she dared.  The guards had demonstrated, when she’d been marched into the cell, that they had no qualms about hurting her if she didn’t move fast enough to suit them.  They were experts on hurting someone without leaving any betraying marks, she’d discovered.  She wondered, numbly, just how many secret prisoners had received the same treatment over the years.  If she ever saw freedom again, she promised herself she’d work to abolish all secret prisoners once and for all.

She reached the door, turned around and shoved her hands through the hatch.  Strong hands gripped her wrists, pushing them against the metal before cuffing her hands behind her back and shoving her forward.  Sandra winced as the door was banged open, wondering sourly who they thought they were holding prisoner.  She’d been reasonably fit for a young and active woman, but she was neither a martial arts expert nor an armed soldier.  And she’d been half-starved for the past few days.  She could no more fight them off than she could teleport out of the cell.

“Search her,” a voice growled.

Sandra gritted her teeth as hands ran over her body, checking everywhere.  She’d cracked a joke the first time they’d searched her, asking if they were going to buy her dinner afterwards, but they hadn’t been amused.  The search finished, the guards giving her no time to recover before pushing her out of the cell and marching her down a long corridor.  She tried to look around, to memorise the route, but the corridors were an endless series of soulless concrete nightmares.  There were no signs, nothing to suggest where she was or where she was going.  The guards said nothing.  To them, she realised dully, she was just another piece of meat.

Her eyes opened wide as she was pushed into a concrete chamber.  Four prisoners stood ahead of her, wearing orange uniforms, shackles on their arms and legs and black hoods covering their heads.  She stared, trying to work out who they were.  Her father and his political allies?  Aristos who’d refused to go along with the new order?  Townies or rebels or … she doubted the latter, not given Lord Hamish’s attitude to rebels.  He’d openly said he wanted them all dead, dead and buried and …

“Strip her,” another voice said.  “And get her prepped for transport.”

Sandra looked up.  A young man stood in front of her, wearing a military uniform and carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder.  He looked wrong … she recoiled in shock as she realised he was actually a young woman, Angeline Porter.  She looked utterly terrifying, a deadness in her eyes promising no mercy whatsoever.  Sandra wanted to cry out, to ask her why she was helping abuse her fellow women, but she knew it was pointless.  God knew the older women were the ones who kept the younger women in line, when all they’d had to worry about were balls, finding good husbands and assisting their husbands behind the scenes.  How silly it all seemed now, with the war coming home.  How foolish she’d been, not to reach out to Angeline when she’d had the chance.  But no one had really wanted to think about what had happened to her.  The old social mores had been too strong.

Angeline watched, coldly, as Sandra was stripped, searched again, and then dressed in an orange uniform.  Sandra wanted to beg and plead, but she knew it would be pointless.  She offered no resistance as the shackles were snapped on, followed by a heavy black hood that made it difficult to breathe and impossible to see.  Strong hands shoved her forward, stopping her before she crashed into one of the other prisoners.  She heard someone start to speak, only to yelp in pain.  The guards seemed intent on making sure they had no chance to talk, let alone do anything else.  It felt like hours before she was pushed along a corridor, helped up a ladder and forced onto a bench.  The ground shook, a moment later.  She realised, too tired to be horrified, they’d been loaded onto a truck.

She listened, carefully, as the truck drove onwards.  The prisoners didn’t talk.  The guards didn’t say anything, beyond short and sharp orders.  She’d heard stories of men who could tell where they were going, just by counting the turns, but it was impossible.  She didn’t know the city well enough to judge where they were going … hell, she wasn’t sure of where she’d been held, after the coup.  She’d never visited one of the secret prisons.  She wasn’t even supposed to know they existed.

The truck rattled onwards.  Sandra felt her heart sink.  Where were they going?  Kingstown wasn’t that big a city … were they even in Kingstown?  The hours following the coup were a muddled jumble.  She might have already been taken out of the city.  The secret prison might have been quite some distance from the city itself, where the prisoners could be handled roughly with little or no oversight.  Her heart sank as she realised she was utterly alone.  Her father was a prisoner, her mother was probably a prisoner, too, while Roland was hundreds of miles away.  And she was on her way to an uncertain fate.

I will survive, she vowed.  And I will return.

But, in truth, she was unsure how she would even begin to keep her word.


It was hard, very hard, to resist the urge to unsling her rifle, switch the selector to full auto and open fire.

Angeline scowled, watching from her vantage point as the prisoners were marched from the cells, searched, dressed in prisoner garb and forced onto the trucks.  Once, it would have horrified her to watch an aristocratic girl get groped by prison guards, but that had been a very long time ago.  Now … she tried to keep her churning emotions under control as she clambered onto the truck herself and settled down to wait.  The prisoners were an odd mix.  Soft-hearted politicians unwilling to take the gloves off and hit back, their collaborators unwilling to bring them up short and force them to take harsh measures … and Sandra Oakley, who’d shunned Angeline for the heinous crime of being raped.  It would have been hard to come to terms with what had happened to her, after she’d been rescued from the burning plantation, but the aristocratic bitches on Kingston had made it worse.   They’d made it clear they wished she’d died too, rather than forcing them to grapple with realities their upbringings had left them ill-prepared to face.

She ground her teeth in frustration.  The nasty part of her mind wondered if Lord Hamish wanted her to kill the prisoners.  He was a master of hinting at things without ever giving direct orders … something that annoyed her, after having all her illusions about the world torn away in a single horrific evening.  Sure, it was important to maintain plausible deniability, but still … it wasn’t as if they weren’t committed.  Genteel political debates were all very well and good, yet they’d launched a coup!  There was no way they’d be allowed to return to normality, not after stepping so far over the line.  They would either win and reshape the entire world in their image or die.  There was no middle ground.

And we could just dispose of the bodies in the nearest swamp, she thought, although she knew it was wishful thinking.  Aristocrats might hate other aristocrats, but they’d never be comfortable with having them killed.  It wasn’t as if they were commoners, who could be used, abused and discarded at will.  Too many of our allies would switch sides if we started to kill our aristocratic enemies.

She glanced forward as the small convoy passed a checkpoint, then turned onto a road leading up to an aristocratic estate.  The owner had been one of Lord Hamish’s allies from a very early stage, she’d been told; his land had been earmarked as a potential POW camp by the government long before the coup had been planned, let alone launched.  A great deal of work had been done already – at the government’s expense, something that made her smile – before the coup had been launched, ensuring the remainder could be completed with breakneck speed.  She peered forward, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight as the camp came into view.  It was very simple, nothing more than a collection of wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guardhouses.  The combination of towers and mines would make it impossible, she’d been assured, for anyone to escape without being gunned down.

We’ll have to find something for them to do, she thought, mischievously.  Perhaps hard labour will give them a better idea of how the world works.

The trucks passed through the gates and came to a halt.  Angeline stood and jumped down to the muddy ground.  The prisoners shifted uncomfortably, sensing her passage despite the hoods and shackles.  Angeline half-hoped one of them would beg for her help, just so she could shove it back in their collective face.  None of them had come to her help, when she needed it.  Why should she help them?

“Get them out,” she ordered, curtly.  The prisoners wouldn’t enjoy their new accommodations, but at least they’d be relatively safe.  Relatively.  The guards would shove them around a bit, of course, but it wouldn’t go any further.  There’d be no way to know which of the aristocratic prisoners would be restored to favour and find himself in a position to extract revenge.  “Hurry.”


Sandra thought they were in the countryside, but it was hard to be sure.  The air smelled like the countryside, yet there was a nasty edge to it that bothered her.  Perhaps it was just the hood covering her face.  She was uneasily aware that she was breathing her own exhalations, that she might be permanently low on oxygen … it was a relief, almost, to feel strong arms yanking her to her feet and helping her down a flight of steps.  The ground felt unsteady.  Mud?  She didn’t know.  All that mattered was that she was being marched forward, again.

“We will shortly be removing your hoods and shackles,” a cold voice said.  It was hard to be sure it was female, but Sandra was sure of it.  “If you make any attempt to resist, or fight the guards, you will be gunned down.  Remain still until you are told to move.  There will be no further warnings.”

Sandra gritted her teeth, offering no resistance as the shackles were removed, followed by the hood.  The bright sunlight stabbed into her eyes, making her groan.  She wasn’t the only one.  She looked from side to side, almost blinded by the row of bright orange uniforms that were almost terrifyingly conspicuous.  If they managed to get past the wire fence, they would stand out a mile.  The guards would have no trouble shooting them down.

And if we strip naked first, we’ll be even more noticeable, she thought sourly.  Where were they?  She could see hills in the distance, but that told her nothing.  There was a single barracks on the far side of the fence, probably for the guards, then barren landscape as far as the eye could see.  Where they even on Kingston?  She didn’t think they’d been shipped overseas, but it was possible.  Where the fuck are we?

“Welcome to Penal Camp Five,” the voice said.  It took Sandra a moment to spot Angeline, standing on the other side of the gates.  “You will be held here until the current unpleasantness is over.   Should you behave, you will either be welcomed back into society or sent into exile; if you cause problems you will either be removed to a hard labour camp or simply shot out of hand.  Your guards have strict orders to treat you decently, as long as you behave, but if you don’t you will regret it.  Obey their orders, stay calm and you might see your friends and families again.  Do I make myself clear?”

Sandra winced.  She was all too aware she often needed to repeat herself when talking to older men.  They looked at her face, and pretended not to look at her chest, and then did their best to ignore her.  Roland had always taken her seriously, something that had endeared him to her … she hoped, prayed, none of the prisoners gave Angeline a hard time.  She looked ready to kill anyone who even looked at her funny.  Sandra understood, better than she cared to admit. 

“Good,” Angeline said.  She ran through a long list of details, making sure to repeat herself at least twice.  Sandra wasn’t sure if it was habit or if she was just trying to rub their noses in the fact they were prisoners, at least for the foreseeable future.  “Behave yourself, or else.”

Sandra sighed, looking from face to face as the prisoners started to scatter.  Her father was on the far side, looking like shit … she forced herself to hurry to him, even though she had no idea how he’d treat her.  She’d been a prisoner and … she kicked herself, once again, for not reaching out to Angeline.  How many problems might have been averted, she asked herself, if she’d tried?

A man caught her eye.  “Sandra, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Sandra said, carefully.  The man was weirdly familiar.  He didn’t look like an aristocrat or even a townie, and yet she was sure she’d seen him somewhere before.  She hoped he was friendly.  She’d never had to worry about being attacked until the coup, but now … all the old certainties had collapsed along with the government.  “I …”

She blinked as it hit her.  “You’re one of Roland’s men, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” the man said.  He lowered his voice, pressing his lips against her ear.  “And we have to get out of here.  Quickly.”

Chapter Four

Baraka Island, New Doncaster

Rachel’s expression said, very clearly, wait till I get you alone.

Roland tried not to wince as he led the way into the makeshift conference room, where the conjoined staff waited for him.  Rachel wasn’t Belinda, who’d been in a position of unabashed authority over him, but she was still fearsome and angry.  It hadn’t helped, Roland was sure, that he’d been careful not to give her a chance to veto the lighthouse assault before it began.  Rachel could hardly be blamed if he died on a mission, but … who knew?  The Commandant would be less than pleased with her, if she let him go into danger without her watching his back. 

He knew all that, but it had been important to him to do it without her.

And to show the rebels we could and would work beside them, he thought.  And to prove we trusted them at our backs.

He sighed, inwardly.  The army he’d built had been a ramshackle mess, a rickety structure that needed constant tinkering to keep from collapsing under its own weight.  There’d been no choice – he simply hadn’t had the time to build a whole new army from scratch – and yet, his army had been order incarnate compared to the rebel formations.  And … they’d come so close to winning, before the aristocrats stabbed them in the back.  Roland still wasn’t sure what they were thinking.  Had they been that scared of working with the townies?  Of giving up a little power to preserve the rest?  Or had they assumed he intended to take power himself and got their retaliation in first?  He just didn’t know.

His eyes swept the room.  Sarah Wilde, the de facto rebel leader, although her position wasn’t anything like as solid as his own.  She was a surprisingly pretty young woman, although her face had been hardened by years of insurgency and open warfare; she was, Roland had been surprised to discover, a native Earther like himself.  Captain Richard Collier, a townie who’d been Roland’s first ally on New Doncaster … a captain, Roland reflected, who’d been giving orders to colonels and majors, even generals.  Richard could be promoted now, with rank to match his authority.  His tanned face was grim, a reminder they knew very little about what was happening on Kingston.  Richard’s family might already be dead.  Or worse.

We need to know more before we make any solid plans, Roland thought.  He’d been told about the fog of war, back during basic, but he’d never really experienced it.  Now … anything could be happening over the horizon and he wouldn’t know a thing about it until it was too late.  What are they doing over there?

He frowned.  The news broadcasts had been so bland he was sure there’d been a major reshuffle.  The one piece of actionable intelligence they’d learnt from the broadcasts was that Prime Minister Oakley had retired on grounds of ill health, after nominating Lord Hamish Ludlow as his successor.  Roland feared that meant the former Prime Minister had been taken into custody, along with his staff.  It was hard not to wince at the thought of Sandra being rounded up too. She’d been his lover … Roland liked her, perhaps more than he should.  He knew she’d been pointed at him, he knew she’d had orders to seduce him, and yet … he liked her.  And he wasn’t sure what he’d do when he was finally ordered to leave New Doncaster and go elsewhere.

Right now, that doesn’t matter, he told himself.  We have to win the war before we start thinking about the post-war world.

He took his seat, feeling a twinge of unease.  How were they supposed to work together?  It had been sheer dumb luck they’d captured Sarah Wilde, sheer dumb luck she’d been willing to listen to him when he’d explained the government had screwed the troops and abandoned them to their fate.  He’d had a handful of very nasty moments as he waited for the rebel response, all too aware he could neither escape nor fight back if they chose to attack his position.  The rebels would have paid for their victory, but they would have won.  He was mildly surprised they’d agreed to the truce, let alone an alliance.  He hoped it would last long enough to win the war.

“The good news is that we captured the lighthouse without a single casualty,” he said, choosing to ignore the glower Rachel shot him.  “The radar and sensor suites have been dismantled and shipped elsewhere, along with the station’s staff, and we have disabled the lighthouse lamp itself.  We chose not to destroy the entire base, but we have rigged it to blow if they attempt to recapture the lighthouse before the end of the war.  I do not believe there was any point in trying to turn the station into a base for our own activities, as they learnt – unfortunately – that we overran the defences and took control.”

“Very impressive,” Colonel Lopez said.  “And does it take us any closer to the final goal?”

“It ensures we can move ships into loyalist territory without being detected quite so easily,” Roland said.  New Doncaster’s satellite network was primitive and the near-constant storms made it hard, although not impossible, for orbiting eyes to track ships as they made their way around the globe.  “It also reminds the government that we still exist.”

“And they still control the seas,” Colonel Lopez said.  “They can build up a new army and come after us, can’t they?”

“Which isn’t a bad thing,” Steve countered.  “We can engage them on our terrain and kick their asses.”

“We need to win the war,” Sarah said, curtly.  “How do we do that before they crush us?”

ColonelBryce Ambrose snorted.  “We invade Kingston and crush them first.”

Roland nodded, concealing his irritation.  ColonelBryce Ambrose had been a recruit, back in the days before the insurgency had turned into a full-scale war, who’d also been a rebel deep-cover spy.  The man had deserted his unit and fled to enemy lines. Even though he’d been on the rebel side from the start, Roland found it hard to tolerate him.  And yet, he had to admit Ambrose had a natural talent for warfare.  He’d taken his lessons and put them to work for his true masters.  Roland would have been happier about that if they’d been on the same side from the beginning. 

“Tricky,” Sarah observed.  “Can it be done?”

“We’re trying to make it workable,” Roland said.  “The government navy is strong enough to control the seas around loyalist enclaves.  We have to work our way around the navy and then land enough troops to crush the government forces on land.”

“And then we have to consider the future,” Colonel Lopez said.  “We are not fighting this war for you, offworlder.”

Ouch, Roland thought.  Sarah was an offworlder, too.  That won’t make it any easier, will it?

He leaned forward.  “We need to win the war first,” he said.  “And then you can argue about the post-war world.”

“And we have no interest in fighting and dying just to see someone else in power,” Colonel Lopez countered.  “What’s going to happen after we win the war?”

Roland sighed inwardly.  He didn’t really blame the rebels for wondering just what the post-war world would look like, not if they were putting their lives on the line to make it a reality.  The government had used, abused and discarded the debtors and indents long before Lord Hamish had stabbed the townies in the back too, ensuring they would sooner believe a pornographic storyline than a government promise.  And yet, if they had a falling out before the war was won, it would become impossible to patch up the cracks in the alliance.  The government might win simply by outlasting everyone else.

“All right,” he said.  “Cards on the table.”

He leaned forward.  “My orders were to build a force capable of stabilising the planet in hopes of crafting a political solution,” he said.  It was true enough, if one squinted at the orders in just the right way.  “The idea was that we would ensure the government would begin to reform, without either turning into a dictatorship or unleashing chaos.  I think we can reasonably say that we have failed.  The government has turned into a dictatorship, one that will either put the entire planet into lockdown or draw unfriendly attention from outside powers.

“I believe, therefore, that the right thing to do is to help you and the townies topple the government, then forge a new and better government.  It will not be easy.  There are factions with legitimate aspirations and factions that think they do, aspirations that will be completely at odds with your aspirations.  You will need to devise a system of government capable of ensuring a degree of fair play, one that everyone can live with even if they don’t get everything they want.  It will not be easy, like I said, but you have no choice.  In the short term, you have to appeal to the townies and even the low-ranking aristocrats; in the long term, you have to stave off outside powers and the only way you can do that is by having a fairly united front.  Does that answer your question?”

“No.”  Lopez met his eyes.  “How do we know we can trust you?”

“I intend to complete my mission,” Roland said.  “And to ensure the legitimate aspirations of the men under my command are met, as much as possible.”

He looked back at Lopez, evenly.  “I’m not a politician.  I don’t pretend to know what you want and I don’t pretend to know what you can live with, or what you will accept for the sake of peace.  I can’t dictate any final peace agreements to you.  But I can and I will attempt to complete my mission.  The planet must be stabilised before it is too late.”

“My father believed we could simply cancel all remaining debt, divide the plantations up amongst the workers and proceed from there,” Richard said.  “Even if we just cancelled the debt slavery system, the plantations would need to reform quickly or simply find themselves short of workers.  There are no more slaves coming from Earth.”

“There is no way in hell we are letting them rebuild the plantations,” Colonel Lopez snarled, his eyes flashing around the room.  “The workers were slaves in all but name, labouring until they broke and then being tossed aside!”

“I agree,” Richard said.  “But we sell the biochemical compounds from the plantations on the interstellar market.  What happens when we stop?”

“We don’t need an inflow of outsider cash,” Lopez snapped.  “We can supply all our wants here and now, without their help.”

“You had some help from offworlders,” Richard snapped back.  “What sort of price do you expect you’ll have to pay for that?”

Roland tapped the table, lightly.  “Your backers might be quite happy to let the civil war rage on indefinitely, so they can take over,” he said.  “They might not have been straight with you about their motives for lending a hand.”

“No,” Sarah agreed.  The bitterness in her voice surprised him. “But we had few others willing to help us.”

“I know.”  Roland cleared his throat, loudly.  “You can debate the shape of the post-war world later.  Right now, we have to decide how best to actually win the war.”

He paused.  “We have several problems that require immediate attention,” he said, after a moment.  “First, a sizable number of troops and their supplies remain stranded on Winchester.  There’s enough of them to be a fair match for the government’s loyalists, if we can get them to Kingston, and we need to secure control before the government manages to find someone who can appeal to the men.  It isn’t likely, but we have to take the risk seriously.

“Second, we need to gather the ships and sailors to transport the army to Kingsport before the navy has a chance to reorganise and mount a full-scale blockade of the rebel islands.  We must move fast, because we don’t know how long we’ll have before they get organised and start coming for us.”

Ambrose frowned.  “Won’t the sailors realise something has gone wrong?  That their officers are lying to them?  That they abandoned the army and sailed for home?”

Roland had no idea.  He’d sailed on ships, but he’d never truly served on one.  Ambrose had a point.  The officers might be aristos, some of the most capable aristos on the planet, but the crews were largely townie.  What would they do, if they thought they’d been betrayed by their officers?  Mutiny?  Take control of the ships and try to get them to the rebel islands?  Or would the aristocrats take precautions to ensure the mutinies would simply never get off the launch pad?  It was quite possible.

“A ship is largely a self-contained world,” Rachel said.  “For security reasons, sailors were never allowed to possess radio sets, let alone datapads and communications nodes.  They won’t have access to any independent sources of information, let alone anyone trying to make them check what their officers are telling them.  I suspect Admiral Forest has been keeping his crews in isolation even when on deployment, making sure they don’t have a reason to get suspicious.  They won’t see anything strange about it.  The ships are already isolated.”

“They must see something,” Ambrose said.  “The troops complained all the time.”

“So do sailors and spacers.”  Rachel shrugged.  “So what?  They have no access to any source of information outside their hulls, no way to know what is actually going on.  It’s quite possible even the majority of the aristos don’t know what’s really happened.  The fewer people who know the truth, the fewer who can blurt it out.  Admiral Forest must be hoping they can end the war quickly, before his crews start to wonder why they’re not being allowed on shore leave.”

And if he arranges for leave on a tropical island, with beer and hookers, everyone will be thinking he’s a jolly old soul, Roland thought.  He won’t need to do very much else to keep them from asking questions.

He felt a surge of hatred.  He didn’t hate very often – the men who’d manipulated his childhood and kept him from maturity were dead and gone – but he’d sell his soul for ten minutes alone with Admiral Forest.  The man had betrayed him.  Roland took that personally.  His lips twisted at the thought.  Sure, Admiral Forest had put his class interests ahead of the entire planet – and the armies landed on Baraka and Winchester – but it was the betrayal that really rankled.  Roland wanted Forest dead.  He intended to make sure the admiral didn’t live long enough to collect his pension. 

“We can try to reach out to the sailors,” he said.  “But that will not be easy.

“Third, we know almost nothing about what’s happening on Kingston,” he continued, dragging the conversation back in the right direction.  “The news broadcasts are unreliable and we have no contact with the military or civilian installations on the island.  My … my men may be isolated, or kept unaware of what is happening, or even held in custody.  We need to know what’s going on.  It is unlikely the townies are unaware that something has changed.”

“My father may have already been taken into custody,” Richard said.  “Or even shot while trying to escape.”

Roland grimaced.  Daniel Collier, Richard’s father, had been a major political figure even before he’d been invited to join the wartime government.  It was unlikely Lord Hamish had left him alive and free, not when there was no way in hell he’d betray his class.  And that meant … he tried not to rub his forehead in pain.  What would happen if the government threatened Daniel Collier’s life, in hopes of turning his son into a spy?  Or … or worse, what if they killed him at once?  Or … it was just another problem that couldn’t be solved in a hurry, if at all.

“Yeah,” he said.  “We need to know what’s really going on.  We’ll send intelligence agents that way as quickly as possible.”

“We do have some people in place,” Sarah said.  “Not many, thanks to you, but enough.”

“If we can reopen communications links,” Colonel Lopez said.  “That won’t be easy either.”

“No,” Roland agreed.  New Doncaster had never been a very connected world, even before the insurgency had turned into civil war.  Undersea cables were regularly cut, radios were unreliable when they weren’t being jammed, even microburst and laser transmitters had their problems.  “But we’ll think of something.”

“Quite,” Sarah agreed.  She glanced at the clock.  “I think it’s time for dinner.”

And you don’t want to be in one place too long, Roland added, silently.  He understood.  The government’s intelligence assets on the island were supposed to have been rounded up, but it would only take one spy in the right place to call in a missile strike.  And probably to lay plans with your own people.

He sighed, inwardly, as he stood.  There were limits to what he could do.  He could push the rebels in the right direction, as he’d tried to do with the government, but he couldn’t push too hard or they’d push back.   Better they did it imperfectly, than if he tried – and failed – to do it for them.  Sooner or later, he would leave the world behind.  They were the ones who would have to stay for the rest of their lives.

“We need to talk,” Rachel said, curtly.

Roland winced, feeling like a naughty truant boy who’d just come home to discover his parents had received a phone call from school.  “Yes, we do,” he said, reminding himself she couldn’t actually kill him.  “Richard, join us in thirty minutes.  We have a mission to plan.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter Five

Baraka Island, New Doncaster

The bedroom had once belonged to the master of the house, Roland had been told.  It was almost absurdly large by the standards of the planet, although quite small compared to upper-class hotel suites on Earth.  The original décor had been stripped long ago, after the rebels overran the defences and stormed the city; there were clear signs, everywhere, that paintings had once hung on the walls and large pieces of ornate wooden furniture had rested everywhere.  Judging by the one room that had been left largely intact, for reasons no one had disclosed, the bedroom would have been so ornate it would have challenged the bedrooms of his old palace.  The thought made him scowl.  The thought of surrounding himself with pointless luxury now seemed … pointless.

Rachel held up a hand, produced a scanner and swept it around the room.  Roland suspected she was wasting her time.  The rebels simply didn’t have access to first-rate surveillance gear, the kind of bugs so small they couldn’t be seen with the naked eye or microphones so sensitive they could pick up and record conversations on the far side of the building.  Their bugs would be low-tech, if they existed at all; they’d be so primitive it was quite possible they’d pass unnoticed.  He sighed, inwardly, as Rachel finished her sweep.  Part of the agreement he’d made with the rebels was that he’d stay in the mansion, rather than in the hastily established military camp outside the city.  The risks, he’d told himself, could be handled.  God knew, in the first week following the coup, they’d been teetering on the brink of complete disaster.  If the rebels had turned on them …

And they were certainly considering it, Roland thought.  They had no reason to trust us and a hell of a lot of reasons to want us gone after we stormed their city and captured their leader.

He rubbed his forehead as he sat down on the bed and waited.  The rebel leadership was a fragmented mess, a decentralised structure that had proven terrifyingly resilient during the insurgency and civil war.  Sarah was the closest thing they had to a true leader and Roland suspected, reading between the lines, that her position would end with the war itself.  The rebels had taken one hell of a gamble when they’d acclaimed her, a gamble that could easily have ended badly.  And yet, it had worked in their favour.  Sarah’s capture hadn’t brought the whole edifice crashing down.

Barely, Roland reminded himself.  We were lucky they were prepared to listen to her.

Rachel turned and met his eyes, her expression grim.  Roland couldn’t help thinking, just for a second, that she looked like a wife from a hit sitcom, the kind of intelligent woman preparing to berate her husband – again and again – for being a boob in the face of the enemy.  He tried not to roll his eyes at the thought.  The sitcoms might have been funny, once upon a time, but the grumbling about endless male bashing had turned them into sour propaganda and taught disrespect for female authority.  Or something.  He’d been told, during Boot Camp, that popular entertainment had spread resentment, hastening the chain of events that led to Earthfall.  Roland believed it.  Growing up in the CityBlocks was bad enough at the best of times.  It would be a great deal worse if you were surrounded by images of people living in luxury, a luxury you could never attain even if you worked yourself to death.   And being constantly told you were inherently inferior would only make things worse.

“Roland,” Rachel hissed.  She did sound like one of the wives.  “What the hell were you thinking?”

Roland kept his face under control, although he suspected she could tell he was more amused than afraid.  Rachel was incredibly perceptive, with the astonishing – and surprisingly rare – skill of keeping her mouth shut and her ears open, of blending into the background and observing what happened when people thought she was just part of the furniture.  Roland found it hard to believe it worked, although he had the advantage of knowing what she was.  The men who’d flirted, leered or winked at Rachel – or simply ignored her – would have been astonished if they’d known she could kick their asses with one hand tied behind her back.  But then, half of her talent lay in being underestimated until she needed to act.

“We had to act, and act fast,” he said, calmly.  It was an open question which of them was really in charge.  He was the titular head of the training mission, reporting to Captain Allen, but Rachel probably had orders to override him if he screwed up spectacularly.  And now … it would make for an interesting inquest, he reflected.  There was a case to be made he’d exceeded his orders well before the coup.  “And we have to convince the rebels we’re on their side.”

Rachel’s lips thinned.  “At the risk of your life?”

“They need to trust us,” Roland reminded her grimly.  Trust was in short supply on New Doncaster.  The government didn’t trust its own people, let alone the rebels; the people didn’t trust the government and the rebels didn’t trust either of them.  He cursed under his breath as he contemplated the mess.  The coup plotters might have stayed their hand long enough for him to win the war, or at least knock the rebels down for a few months, if they’d trusted him to do the job.  “And we had to prove we could be trusted.”

“By planning an insane mission?”  Rachel scowled.  “By carrying it out yourself?”

Roland nodded, shortly.  The rebels wouldn’t be impressed by a REMF.  They had to see him as a fighter in his own right, not as someone who sat on his ass and gave impossible orders to his troops.  If the mission had gone ahead without him and failed, there would have been so much blame directed at him that the entire war effort would probably have failed.  If he’d been there … he might have been considered an idiot, but also a brave man.  And the mission hadn’t failed.  Sure, in the grand scheme of things, one lighthouse wasn’t much of a victory – and no amount of propaganda would convince people otherwise – but it would remind the government the war was very far from over.  The rebels – and the troops the government had stranded on Baraka and Winchester – could not be discounted so lightly.

He held up a hand, trying to speak calmly and reasonably.  There was no point in trying to assert authority when he wasn’t sure he had it.  “We had to make a show of good faith to the rebels,” he said.  “We also had to show them we could be of service, that we could actually make a contribution to the war effort even after being abandoned.  And while I acknowledge the risks, and knew the mission was risky even as I planned it, it worked out for the best.”

Rachel smiled, so slightly Roland almost missed it.  “And so all’s well that ends well?”

“Yes.”  Roland grinned openly.  “We won.”

“Yeah.”  Rachel leaned forward.  “This time.  And what happens if, next time, you get shot to shit?”

“I die.”  Roland had no illusions.  Modern medicine could cure anything that wasn’t immediately fatal, but modern medical gear was in short supply on New Doncaster.  Even the aristos were forced to rely on medical treatments that had been outdated centuries ago, thanks to their reluctance to import modern technology. The less said about what passed for medical treatment amongst the rebels, the better.  “And Richard takes command and the war continues.”

“Without you,” Rachel said, flatly.  “You might be needed elsewhere …”

Roland shook his head.  He had no illusions about that.  Belinda might have saved his life, at the cost of nearly losing her own, but there was little hope of rebuilding the world he’d once known.  Earth was dead.  The Empire was shattered.  There were no loyalist factions looking for a leader, nor would any of them want the Childe Roland even if they knew he was still alive.  Roland looked back at his younger self and mentally kicked himself, hard.  The royal brat he’d been had inspired loyalty in no one.  Not one of his servants had come to his rescue and how could he blame them, after how he’d treated them?  Belinda had been the only one and she had had orders from her superior, a man she genuinely respected and admired.  Roland liked to think she’d liked him, but he doubted it.  He really had been a brat.

“There’s no way in hell my name means anything now,” he said.  There’d been an odd moment, in the calm before the storm, when he’d encountered the Windsor Family of New Doncaster.  They’d tried to claim they were his distant relatives … they might even have been right, although not in the way they thought.  “And I can’t hold myself in reserve until I’m needed, can I?”

His heart sank.  He wasn’t the one who would be making that call.  It would be the Commandant.  Or someone else, if they took custody of Roland and uncovered his true identity.  They’d make use of him, or simply put a bullet through his head and swear blind they’d never seen him at all.  Roland’s lips twitched, humourlessly.  He’d read enough history to know the last survivors of the old dynasty were always murdered, when they couldn’t be forced into marriage with the new.  Anyone who tried to use his name to bolster their cause was likely to regret it, as possible supporters fled like panicked rats leaving a sinking ship.  The Commandant might be wise to leave him on New Doncaster, secure in the knowledge no one would ever believe Roland Windsor was the Roland.

“No,” Rachel agreed.  “But you also have to be careful.  You, and you alone, are the glue holding this alliance together.  Next time, you let me take the lead.”

“Yes, Mother,” Roland said.

Rachel snorted.  “You’re not so old I can’t beat you,” she teased, in a manner very akin to a sitcom mother.  Roland hid his amusement with an effort, although it wasn’t that funny.  The mothers had been just as bad as the sitcom wives, their kids either ridiculously well-behaved or put in their place with a single word from their mothers … the scriptwriters, he recalled, had clearly been on the side of the mothers.  The real world was rarely so obliging.  “And you do need to be careful with yourself.”

“I know,” Roland said.  “But there is such a thing as being too careful.”

Rachel nodded and turned away, pacing the oversized chamber.  Roland studied her back, admiring her trim figure and silently tracing the muscles under her ill-fitting shirt and trousers.  It was odd, he reflected, how Belinda had been unmistakably female and Rachel was trim enough to pass for a young man, as long as she chose the right clothes.  And yet … he told himself, firmly, to look away.  The days when perving on young women in one’s service had been perfectly acceptable were long gone, if indeed they’d ever existed at all.  It was funny how he’d never realised how many allowances people had made for the heir to the throne until he’d lost everything.  But then, he could have been the wisest and most compassionate ruler in history and his reign would probably still have ended in disaster.  The Empire’s problems had been too great for one man, no matter how capable, to fix.

And God alone knows what’s happened to Sandra, he thought.  He had no illusions about the young girl who’d become his lover – she wouldn’t have given herself to him, not so openly, if her father hadn’t encouraged the match – but he still cared about her.  What should have been a very short-term romance had become something more, something that might easily tie him to the planet or cause complications when he left.  What are they doing to her?

He cursed the lack of actionable intelligence under his breath.  The coup plotters had done well.  Roland would have been more impressed if they hadn’t been plotting a coup against him – or, more accurately, the government he was charged with stabilising against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Roland was fairly sure only a handful of people had known what was planned, including Admiral Forest … his blood boiled at the thought.  Admiral Forest had betrayed Roland personally, abandoning him and his men to the tender mercies of the rebels … Roland intended to ensure, when the fighting was over, that Forest faced a traitor’s death.  Maybe he had been following orders.  That was no excuse for abandoning men in the hornet’s nest …

They probably expected the rebels to kill the lot of us, Roland thought.  He’d kept his own plans a secret, in hopes of surprising the rebels, but it was clear the plans had spread further than he’d thought.  And they might well have been right, if things had been different.

He closed his eyes, thinking hard.  The plotters probably wouldn’t have murdered Sandra, her father, and the rest of the government.  Probably.  The aristos, at least, were aristos.  They couldn’t be murdered, or even ‘shot while trying to escape,’ without setting an unfortunate precedent for the future.  Roland’s lips twisted, as if he’d tasted something sour.  He was sure the plotters wouldn’t have killed Sandra, but … what if he was wrong?  They might well have hung Daniel Collier, Richard’s father, the moment they realised who they’d caught.  He was a townie, after all, and a very uppity one at that.  The plotters wouldn’t want to keep him alive.

We need to know what’s happening, Roland thought.  And we need to know what they’re planning to do.

He opened his eyes.  “Rachel?”

Rachel turned to face him.  “Yes, sir?”

Roland inhaled.  She was an asset, one of the most capable and flexible people under his command.  He had to put her to work.  And yet, he knew she wouldn’t like her orders.  It would be interesting, if she didn’t want to follow them.  The inquest would be one of the most confusing ones on record, if they didn’t sort it out before higher authority caught wind of the dispute.  The records would probably be sealed, just to keep others from getting ideas.

“We need intelligence,” he said.  “I want – I need – you to travel to Kingston and find out what’s really going on.”

Rachel said nothing for a long moment.  Roland waited, studying her.  She would never be classically pretty – her face was a curious mixture of sharp-edged and so bland one’s eyes would just pass over her – but she was striking.  He wondered, suddenly, if her implants and genetic enhancements kept her so still, without even a single betraying twitch.  Her face was practically stone, when she wasn’t playing a role.  It was hard to tell what she was thinking.

“True,” Rachel agreed.  “It won’t be easy to re-establish communications.”

“I know,” Roland said.  Radios were in short supply – and radio transmissions would draw attention, if the planet’s atmosphere didn’t swallow the signals before they reached their destination.  “We might have to resort to couriers.  But we have no choice.  We need hard intelligence.  And we cannot rely on the rebels to find what we need to know.”

“Everything,” Rachel said.

“Yes,” Roland agreed.  “We also need to know what happened to the rest of the team.”

He scowled, clenching his fists.  The team consisted of a platoon of auxiliaries, all of whom had more years in the military than he’d been alive, all of whom could have carried out their mission without any direction from their nominal superior.  Roland had no illusions about that too.  The only reason he’d been given the assignment, he suspected, was that it was one that he couldn’t really fuck up – and if he did, his subordinates would handle it while Captain Allen tore him a new one.  His lips twitched in bitter amusement.  No one had expected the planet to go so bad, so quickly.  Captain Allen was dead, along with his men, and Roland’s team was … where?  He cursed under his breath.  They wouldn’t have been murdered, would they?  The plotters weren’t insane …

“Find them, find out who’s in charge, find out what – if any – resistance is already underway,” Roland said.  The townies would have been caught by surprise, but there were so many of them that it was unlikely they’d been crushed.  The government troops wouldn’t have been warned in advance, not about the coup.  There’d have been too great a risk of someone blabbing.  “And then tell us where they’re setting up their defences.”

“You did a good job for them,” Rachel said.  “If they keep your work …”

Roland nodded.  There’d been times, in the months after the first Battle of Kingston, that he’d feared the rebels would launch a second invasion.  It had never materialised, but he and his men had done a hell of a lot of planning to repel an enemy landing.  The irony would have been funny if it wasn’t so irritating.  He was now the one who would have to carry out the invasion and quickly, before the new government rebuilt its army, rearmed the troops with the latest weapons and resumed the war.  And that wasn’t going to be easy.  He was going, in a sense, to be fighting himself.

“We’ll see what things are like on the ground,” he said, firmly.  “And then we can decide what to do.”

“Yes, sir,” Rachel said.  “I’ll figure out how to get there, then be on my way.”

She pointed a finger at him.  “And don’t you dare take any more risks while I’m gone.”

“Risk is our business,” Roland said.  He ducked the mock-punch she aimed at him.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t do anything too stupid.”

Chapter Six

Baraka Island, New Doncaster

And which side, Captain Richard Collier asked himself as he strode through the corridors, are we meant to be on now?

It was a frustrating thought.  He’d been one of the very few townies to join the army, back when the insurgency had seemed a minor headache rather than a serious threat to the entire world order.  His father – MP for First Landing, Secretary of the Town League – had encouraged him to join, seeing it as a way of proving the townies were just as invested in the planet as the aristos themselves.  It hadn’t worked out that way and Richard was grimly aware he would have taken the blame for an aristo’s screw-up, before General Roland had come to assist the military’s preparations for war.  Richard had resented being assigned to him as an assistant, at first, but he had to admit it had worked out well.  He’d had power and responsibility, although he’d remained relatively low in rank.  Richard’s father had insisted.  It was important, he’d said, that there be no sense Richard had been elevated through nepotism or even simple desperation.  Richard had found himself in the odd position of giving orders to people who outranked him …

… And now, his father was dead or a prisoner or … or what?

He growled.  He’d never really trusted the aristos to hold a piss-up in a brewery, let alone fight and win a full-scale war.  They’d been too short-sighted to realise the planet needed immediate reform, that they needed to loosen their grip before the pent-up anger exploded and shattered their world.  The townies had been denied political rights and freedoms and they’d been the lucky ones.  Richard had no illusions about how the debtors and indents, slaves in all but name, had been treated.  They had had no hope of a better future, save through rebellion.  Why should they not rebel?  What did they have to lose?

Fight and die violently, or work like a slave until you exhaust yourself and die in the dirt, alone and unmourned, Richard thought, coldly.  It isn’t much of a choice.

The thought mocked him as he passed a pair of checkpoints and headed up to the master bedroom.  He should have seen the betrayal coming.  The aristos might have pretended they loved the general, and implemented reforms for his sake, but Richard had known they were just counting the days until they could turn back the clock.  He’d been right too.  He just hadn’t realised how quickly they were preparing to act, when they thought the war was over and they’d won.  They’d struck without warning, abandoning Roland and Richard and the rest of the landing force to a grisly fate.  Richard had been sure, in those first terrible days, that the aristos had won.  They controlled the navy, they’d decapitated the army and even crippled the rebels.  Roland, bless him, had saved them all.  And now …

Richard braced himself and tapped on the heavy wooden door.  He was surprised the mansion had been left intact, although the rebels had clearly vandalised the building and taken everything that might be useful or valuable.  Richard had seen stalls in the marketplace, selling everything from precious jewels and silverware to China cups and things he couldn’t even begin to identify, some of which had prompted a great deal of ribald speculation.  One aristo had apparently had a massive collection of pornographic material, ranging from genuine paintings to off-world datachips obscene enough to shock even hardened soldiers.  No one had bought them – openly, at least.  Richard wasn’t surprised.  They weren’t remotely useful.

And anything that was useful, he reflected, was put to use rather than being sold.

“Come in,” Roland called.

Richard pushed open the door and stepped inside.  Roland sat on a bed, Rachel sat against the far wall, arms crossed under her slight breasts.  Richard had always suspected there was more to her than met the eye, even before she’d carried out commando missions for the first counter-offensive of the war.  It was strange, but he told himself not to think too much of it.  The rebels had plenty of female soldiers and they’d all fought very well.  Rachel had proved herself time and time again.

“General,” Richard said.  They were friends, or as close to being friends as possible under the circumstances, but the formalities had to be observed.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’d tell you to take a seat, but the seats were cleared out of here,” Roland said, waving a hand at the patchy walls.  “We don’t even have a coffee machine.”

“Or self-heating coffee packets,” Rachel added.  Her lips curved into a brief smile.  “I’m sorry about the lack.”

Richard shrugged.  Self-heating ration packets had been rare on New Doncaster even before Earthfall.  They’d never been imported in any large numbers and the local factories hadn’t been interested in churning them out, not when there had been an abundance of food and water.  The rebels weren’t short of either.  There was plenty of fish in the sea.  Their diet might be bland, but it was survivable.

“I will live,” he said, a deadpan look on his face.  He sat on the floor, resting his hands in his lap.  “I’ve been in worse places.”

“Yeah.”  Roland leaned forward.  “We don’t have much time.  As I see it, our only option for winning the war in a hurry involves invading Kingston and occupying Kingstown before the new government manages to secure its grip on power.  For that, we need the troops on Winchester under our control, as well as rebel-controlled naval forces.  It won’t be easy.”

Richard nodded.  The townies had built up quite an underground organisation over the years, but too much of it had been exposed to government eyes even before the insurgency had turned into a civil war.  His father had been a government minister … Richard’s stomach clenched at the thought of how many townies were in a government database, marked down for arrest if – when – the aristos turned on their former allies.  Right now, the government could be rounding up everyone it knew about, shattering the links in the underground chain and ensuring they couldn’t reform before it was too late.  And his father … Richard didn’t want to think about it.  Everyone had a breaking point.  The old man could be made to say or do anything, given time.  He might be forced to betray everyone he knew …

“We will have allies,” he said.  The government might have turned on the townies, but they couldn’t put the cities into lockdown indefinitely without crippling their own operations and damaging the planetary economy beyond repair.  “We just need to contact them.”

“We do,” Roland agreed.  “Right now, however, I have a different task for you.”

He leaned forward.  “The rebels have assigned a light aircraft to us,” he said.  “I want you to fly to Winchester, assume command of the troops on the island, and prepare them for further operations.  It will not be easy.  The chain of command is a mess, thanks to the coup, and the troop commanders won’t know who to believe.  There’s a very good chance the government will be sending someone to take command too, in hopes of neutralising the troops before it’s too late.  We have to get there first.”

Richard sucked in his breath.  “And you don’t want to go in person?”

“The infantry is largely townie, or debtor,” Roland reminded him.  “They’ll be more likely to listen to you than me.”

“Good thinking,” Richard conceded, ruefully.  It was odd – Roland had been the one to convince the government to recruit debtors, in exchange for forgiving their debts – but probably true.  Richard had led the infantry in battle, his role veering between point man to troop commander and back again.  He might not have the rank, but he had a rep.  He was one of them.  “And once I take over, what next?”

“Keep the truce with the rebels, while prepping your men for departure,” Roland said.  “I won’t give you any more precise orders, because I don’t know what you’ll find when you arrive, but that’s the general idea.  If you can refloat any of the original landing ships, the ones we crashed into the beaches, do so.  I’m not counting on it, but they would be nice to have.”

Richard nodded.  Roland was a good commander.  The tramp freighters had been on the brink of being scrapped, when they’d been converted into military vessels and literally driven into the beaches to serve as makeshift landing craft.  No one had ever considered they might be needed again, ensuring their hulls might no longer be watertight … Richard scowled, inwardly, as he considered the problem.  The ships were designed to be easy to fix, if they had a proper shipyard.  There was no way to get the freighters to the nearest shipyard without carrying out a lot of repairs on site.

“We’ll do our best,” he said.  “But my feeling is that we’ll be wasting our time.”

“Do what you can,” Roland said.  “And keep me informed.”

“Of course, sir,” Richard said.  He silently contemplated the map they’d studied downstairs, when they’d been discussing their options.  “Can we land troops on Kingston without being detected and sunk?”

“Good question,” Roland said.  “And the short answer, right now, is I don’t know.”

“No,” Richard agreed.  The rebels had sneaked a sizable force onto Kingston, but they’d done it by cramming the men into a convoy of perfectly legitimate freighters and sailing them into Kingsport as bold as brass.  That trick wouldn’t work twice.  Or three times, given that Roland had copied it when planning his strike on Baraka.  They’d been lucky to get away with it.  “They’ll be patrolling the waters around the island, won’t they?”

“Unless they’re idiots,” Roland agreed.  “And Forest” – there was a flicker of naked hatred in his voice – “is no idiot.”

“Just an aristo,” Richard said.  Admiral Forest had clearly put his class ahead of his planet, when he’d betrayed the landing force and sailed away.  He was going to pay for it.  “We can use that against him, if we plan it right.”

“Quite,” Roland agreed.  “It’s nearly night.  Go get some rest – reassure the men we haven’t been kidnapped or killed.  You’ll depart tomorrow morning, at first light.  And pray we haven’t already left it too late.”

“Politics,” Richard snarled.  “If we’d moved faster …”

He shook his head.  He’d wondered, sometimes, what he’d do if the government turned on the townies?  Should he remain loyal to his oath or … or what?  Back then, there hadn’t been many townie officers in the army, let alone soldiers.  And if he’d turned on them it would have meant betrayal … he wondered, suddenly, how Forest slept at night.  He hoped the bastard slept poorly right up to the day he was marched in front of a firing squad and shot. 

“It doesn’t matter now,” Roland said.  “Bad rolls of the dice are inevitable.  It’s how you react to them that counts.”

He stood.  “I have something for you,” he added, reaching into his pocket.  “By the power vested in me” – his lips twitched, a droll reminder their entire edifice was crumbling into ruin – “I promote you to general.  May you bring honour to your ancestors and your family name.”

Richard blinked, torn between delight and a grim awareness he should say no.  “I … it’s a big jump,” he managed, finally.  “I shouldn’t …”

“You have been with me from the start,” Roland said.  He held out the insignia.  “You really should have been jumped up quite some time ago.  If you’d been promoted as you deserved …”

“My father was concerned about nepotism,” Richard said.  “And I was concerned about being jumped too high.”

“You have done well,” Roland said.  “And there is a shortage of candidates.”

He pinned the rank insignia on Richard’s chest.  “Congratulations, General Collier.”

Richard gave in to the inevitable.  “Am I still allowed to lead troops in combat?”

“Only if you must,” Rachel said.  There was a hint of irritation in her voice, although it didn’t seem to be directed at Richard.  “And watch yourself.  If you get killed, you could get everyone else killed with you.”

“I’ll make sure my second knows what to do, if I get shot,” Richard said.  “And thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”  Roland smiled, looking tired.  “And good luck.”

Richard nodded, recognising the dismissal.  He stood, saluted, and stepped through the door, his thoughts churning.  He hadn’t really wanted high rank, although he had wanted recognition for his skills and opportunities that were normally only given to aristos and their clients.  Roland had changed that, when he’d taken command of the army, but there’d been limits to what he could do in a hurry.  Too many senior officers, particularly those in the rear, were aristos.  And, right now, they had probably sworn loyalty to the coup plotters and their government.

How unlucky for the plotters, Richard thought.  They’d be better off without them.

He sighed, inwardly.  It was hard to feel he’d earned the rank.  It was all too easy to think others would argue it had been nepotism, or that Roland was showing naked favouritism or something, anything, that kept them from thinking Richard had earned his post.  And yet, he’d been a little resentful watching others shoot past while he’d been held in place … he told himself, firmly, there was little choice.  A regular military would never have jumped him up so high, but a regular military would have had a surplus of officers to promote if it suddenly had new billets to fill.  He’d just have to prove he’d earned it.

The guards on the door nodded curtly to Richard, then motioned for him to leave.  The streets surrounding the government mansion had been devastated by the fighting – a dozen rickety apartment blocks nothing more than piles of rubble, others covered in bullet holes or scorch marks or other signs of combat – and yet, the city still throbbed with life.  There were rebels training to fight, merchants trying to earn a living, even children running up and down with a freedom Richard could only admire.  The handful of visible guards didn’t seem inclined to do anything, beyond standing at the ready.  It was a far cry from Kingstown, where the police had been a clearly visible presence even before the insurgency had turned into civil war.  He felt a twinge of wistfulness as he made his way through the streets.  It would be nice if, one day, Kingstown became just as … free.  It had to be done.


“I’m glad they didn’t kill you,” ColonelBryce Ambrose said.  “I’m surprised, but glad.”

Sarah nodded, curtly.  Ambrose had been a spy, an infiltrator in the government ranks, before rejoining the rebels and teaching them everything he’d learnt in basic training.  He’d served as a commander too, leading the defence of Winchester and directing the counterattack that had almost pushed the government’s troops into the sea.  And she trusted him enough to take him to bed.  After everything she’d been through, after she’d been exiled to New Doncaster, that hadn’t been easy.

“They have been betrayed,” Sarah said.  It was simple to understand their reasoning.  The townies had sided with the government because the government had promised to respect their legitimate concerns and make concessions … and, also, because they’d had a great deal to lose.  “Right now, we are their only hope.”

She frowned, inwardly.  General Roland had assured her that his goal was planetary stability – and she believed him, because it matched what her spies had learnt when his mission had first arrived – but there was something about the young man that bothered her.  Sarah had learnt the hard way to trust her instincts and her instincts insisted General Roland was hiding something.  His biographic file the rebels had obtained months ago had been so bland she didn’t trust it, like the historiography files she’d been forced to study as a student.  If she’d paid more attention …

“We need them to win the war,” she said.  “And afterwards, we can think about the future.”

She met his eyes.  “For the moment, I want you to accompany the general’s messenger to Winchester and assume command – again – of the forces there.  Make sure the truce remains firmly in place, while securing the factories and retaking control of the occupied territories before we add our own men to the invasion force.”

Ambrose raised his eyebrows.  “You think they’ll be invading Kingston?”

“I don’t see how we can avoid it,” Sarah said.  “The townies assumed the government was dickering in good faith and look what happened to them.  The bastards have something up their sleeves, mark my words.  They took one hell of a risk stranding General Roland and thousands of their own troops and they wouldn’t have done that unless they thought they could get away with it.”

“So far, they have,” Ambrose pointed out.

“So far,” Sarah said.  The coup plotters were either insane – which was unlikely, as they’d pulled the plan off without a hitch – or they had something up their sleeve, something they thought would let them end the fighting before General Roland’s superiors arrived to ask some pointed questions.  And yet, she couldn’t imagine what.  They’d argued the point, time and time again, and drawn a blank.  “They are up to something.”

“But what?”  Ambrose sucked in his breath.  “What are they doing?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah said.  Nukes?  It was unlikely – the government would have to build a atomic plant and everything else they needed from scratch, which would take months at the very least – and yet, it was the only even remotely reasonable answer.  Or did they just think they could blockade the rebel islands indefinitely?  It was possible, she supposed, although what would they do when Roland’s superiors demanded answers?  “I don’t want to find out the hard way.”

“No,” Ambrose agreed.  “I won’t let you down.”

Sarah smiled.  “I know you won’t.”

Chapter Seven

Kingston, New Doncaster

“The troops are in position, Colonel,” Captain Dave Wooster said.  “They’re ready to go on your command.”

Angeline kept her face impassive as she stood in the makeshift Command Post and studied the street maps.  Kingstown was supposed to be under lockdown, with all civilians cautioned to stay inside, but there were still hundreds of people on the streets.  The townies weren’t following orders, even though – if the spies were to be believed – they hadn’t realised there’d been a coup, merely a terrorist attack that had badly wounded the Prime Minister.  Angeline was fairly sure the spies were full of it, if not enemy assets.  There were just too many townies in the civil service for them not to have a good idea what was going on.

She sighed inwardly.  The apartment block ahead of them was supposed to be a hotbed of townie activism.  It had been largely underground, she’d been told, before the civil war had forced the government to put up with a certain degree of dissent in exchange for military support.  She grinded her teeth at the thought.  The townies didn’t know how lucky they were to live on New Doncaster.  The bastards should be grateful they had what they had – certain freedoms, certain political rights – rather than working to undermine the government and damage the war effort.  They deserved everything they got, if they were guilty.  Angeline could testify precisely what would happen, through grim and painful experience, if the rebels took the capital.  Anyone who aided and abetted them, even indirectly, was the enemy.

“Remember, we need them alive,” she said.  She’d have preferred to lead the operation personally, and use her old troop to carry it out, but they’d been needed elsewhere.  The half-trained militiamen bracing themselves for the operation weren’t even remotely ready for anything that required a delicate touch.  “If anyone is killed, the person responsible will answer to me.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Wooster said.

Angeline eyed him darkly.  He quailed and tried to pretend he hadn’t.  His world didn’t include women who were anything other than dainty little dolls, treated as princesses by their parents in all senses of the term.  He had real problems wrapping his head around her, a woman his age wearing a military uniform, carrying an assault rifle and wearing an expression that would curdle milk.  She just didn’t belong in his world.  Angeline felt a surge of hatred.  Her father had loved her – she had never doubted it – but he’d also seen her as a family asset, rather than a person in her own right.  The rebels had seen her as something they could use too.

She made a show of inspecting the map, eying the troop positions in cynical detail.  The asshole hadn’t done too badly, she supposed, although she doubted his claim the apartment’s inhabitants didn’t know they were there.   They’d blocked off the roads and the sewers … there was no way the occupants were going to escape over the rooftops unless they’d learnt how to fly.  It wasn’t very likely, unless they’d somehow obtained a collection of jetpacks or antigravity nodes.  They would be so expensive it would have been cheaper to buy their freedom instead.

“Be very sure,” she said.  She didn’t care if Wooster thought she was a bitch with permanent PMS, as long as he did his job.  “Give the go signal when you’re ready.”

Wooster keyed his terminal.  “Go.  I say again, go.”

Angeline braced herself.  It was time.


The printer was so primitive, Jenny Glass had been told, that it wouldn’t have been out of place on Earth a long time before the first spacecraft left the homeworld and set out to find a new world.  There was almost nothing in it that required anything beyond a craftsman with decent tools and access to a good workbench, save perhaps for the paper and even that wasn’t hard to obtain.  It was cumbersome, compared to the computers and datapads she’d used elsewhere, but it had one great advantage.  The government’s sensors could no more detect it than they could pick up a powered-down starship in the middle of interstellar space.  There were no electronic emissions, no demand for power; nothing that might draw attention from the overlords.  The government’s spooks would have to lay eyes on the device to know it was there.

She frowned, inwardly, as she paced the chamber.  It was easier for a young woman to serve as a courier, in a world where women were rarely treated as equals to their male counterparts, but it was still frustrating.  She’d loved slipping around the city in the old days, leaving leaflets and newsletters everywhere to defy the censors and keep the population informed, but now … no one seemed to know what was really going on.  There’d been a terrorist attack, they’d been told; the PM was dead, half his cabinet was seriously injured and … and nothing, nothing else.  Jenny didn’t like it.  Where was Daniel Collier?  Where were the other townies who’d served in the reformed government?  And what the hell was really going on?

“You don’t have to pace so loudly,” the craftsman said.  Jenny had been careful not to learn his name.  The more she knew, the more she could be made to tell.  Everyone swore blind they wouldn’t say a word when they were questioned, her recruiter had cautioned her, but everyone had a breaking point.  The interrogators could and would use everything from verbal manipulation to drugs, brain simulation and old-fashioned torture to get someone to talk.  “You can go away if you like.”

Jenny scowled and turned to the window.  The streets weren’t safe, even in the townie districts.  There were just too many lowlifes – and government soldiers, which were totally not the same as townie soldiers – for anyone to feel safe.  The lockdown rules kept changing, making it harder to know when she was in the clear.  She couldn’t wait for nightfall.  She had every faith in her ability to slip back home without being caught in darkness.  It was …

She stopped, dead, as she saw the line of dark-clad men racing towards the door.  Policemen?  Soldiers?  Others were behind them, throwing barricades into place across the road with practiced ease.  Panic flashed through her mind as she realised it was already too late to get out before they were penned in and trapped.  The building was about to be stormed … a dull crash ran through the walls, the sound audible even five floors above the ground.  They were being stormed.

“They’re coming,” she snapped.  “Destroy everything!”

She turned and hurried back to the printer as the operator hastily started shoving papers into the stove.  The townies had never been entirely confident the government could be trusted and they’d devised all sorts of contingency plans … she heard banging and crashing from downstairs and hoped, prayed, they had time to implement them before it was too late.  The noise was coming towards them, moving with breakneck speed.  The door crashed open, a pair of townies crashing into the room and running to the printer.  They were only midway there before a set of dark-clad men rushed into the room, guns sweeping the chamber.

“HANDS UP,” they bellowed.  “GET DOWN!  GET DOWN!”

Jenny threw herself to the ground, expecting to hear gunshots within seconds.  A dull thud and a groan echoed through the air, followed by a string of curses.  The floor shuddered under the impact of running feet as more and more policemen forced their way into the room, racing to the stove.  Jenny hoped, savagely, that they were too late.  She had no time to think about it.  Strong hands grabbed her, yanked her hands behind her back and secured them with a plastic tie, before sweeping over her body and removing everything of value.  She cried out as fingers explored her underwear, poking into her privates.  The pain was like nothing she’d ever imagined.

“Just making sure you’re not hiding anything up there,” a voice said.  Jenny could hear the leer as she was yanked to her feet and pushed towards the door.  “We wouldn’t want to get hurt, would we?”

Jenny gritted her teeth.  What the fuck did the asshole think she could hide up there?  That happened in bad flicks and worse books, not real life.  It simply wasn’t possible … she grunted as her captor tightened his grip, shoving her though the door and down the wooden corridor.  The building had descended into absolute chaos.  A handful of prisoners lay on the floor, hands bound behind their backs; armed men, faces hidden behind cloth masks, kept a careful eye on them.  The building rang with shouts, as men screamed orders and others shouted back.  The world had descended into an absolute nightmare.

She felt the warm air brush against her hair as she was marched outside and around a corner, where she was made to sit with a handful of female prisoners, all looking as shell-shocked as she was.  The skies were darkening, suggesting it was only a matter of minutes before the clouds gave birth to yet another rainstorm.  Good timing on their part, she acknowledged sourly.  There was no way the police raid would remain a secret, but the rain would disperse any protestors before they could gather to attempt a rescue.  She hoped they would see sense and stay back, even though she was dreadfully afraid.  The policemen looked armed and ready.

“Hey, you caught a nice one,” a guard called to her captor.  “Well done!”

“She’s pretty tight too,” the captor replied.  “Take my word for it.”

Jenny wanted to shrink into herself.  There was no shortage of horror stories about what happened to captives, particularly if they were rounded up by the militia, but she’d hoped those stories were exaggerated.  The government had made an alliance with the townies, for God’s sake.  But no … she heard movement behind her and turned to see a line of male townies, as helpless as she was, being marched into a set of armoured trucks.  Behind them, the policemen searched the building, carrying out everything they could and loading it into the trucks.  Jenny felt an insane urge to laugh.  The building wasn’t just an activist stronghold.  There was enough legitimate crap mixed up with the subversive to make it hard for anyone to sort through and work out what was important.

She felt her legs begin to ache as she squatted, but didn’t dare move.  The guards had smacked a girl who’d tried to find a better way to sit, knocking her to the ground and then taking advantage of the situation to grope her as they pulled her back into position.  Jenny felt vulnerable, more vulnerable than she’d ever felt on the streets.  She’d had her share of nasty moments – every girl had, along with many of the boys – but this was worse, far worse.  She could taste the anticipation hanging in the air.  The guards were leering at the captives.  They were just counting down to the moment they had their fun.

And what will happen to us afterwards?  Jenny had no answer.  What will they do with us?

But she knew, deep inside, that all she could do was wait and pray.


“It isn’t safe, Colonel,” Wooster said.  “You should stay back.”

Angeline shook her head, curtly.  She was dressed in body armour specially tailored for her – more protection than most of the militiamen enjoyed – and carried a pistol and a dagger at her belt, as well as her rifle.  She’d been in combat, which was more than could be said for the half-trained men under her command.  Her previous commanding officer had led from the front, even though it had cost the poor bastard his life.  She owed it to him to set a good example now that she was the commander.

She ignored his further protests as she led the way towards the entrance, forcing him to follow like a duckling.  The search was well underway, the searchers removing everything that wasn’t nailed down … she allowed herself a moment of relief as she noted they were concentrating on documents first, rather than loot they could sell for a profit.  The men were paid well, but the planet’s military had always had a reputation for being corrupt.  She didn’t care what they looted, as long as they collected actionable intelligence first.  The spooks, damn them to hell, had been unable to list every last townie activist within the city.  She needed to find them before they rallied and struck back.

The building was a dingy death trap, the upper floors closed off over fear the floor would collapse.  The landlord was a cheapskate … Angeline ordered the upper floors searched anyway, just to be sure, then directed the men to inspect every last possible hiding place.  The building plans had been mislaid, suggesting a lot of money had changed hands at some point.  It didn’t matter.  The building wasn’t that large.  She had more than enough manpower to go through it, piece by piece.

“Good,” she conceded, reluctantly.  The operation had gone better than she’d dared hope.  One man punched in the stomach; another, seemingly, wounded after shooting himself in the foot.  Angeline had no idea if it had been a genuine accident or a bid for a coward’s discharge.  “Just remember, the next time we’ll probably face armed resistance.”

“The cowards won’t dare fight, Colonel,” Wooster said.  “They’re just … talk.”

Angeline hardened her voice.  “You will take them seriously, Captain,” she said.  It was hard to keep her anger from showing.  “I fought beside townie soldiers.  They fought bravely and well.  This lot had no time to prepare.  The next …”

She turned away.  “Take me to the prisoners.”

Wooster hesitated.  Angeline didn’t give him time to think.  “Now,” she ordered.  “I need to see them.”


“On your feet, bitch,” her captor growled.  “Now!”

Jenny had no time to argue as she was yanked to her feet.  She wasn’t the only one.  The others were being forced to stand too, their captors pressing against them … she recoiled in disgust as her captor breathed down her neck, his breath stinking of tobacco and rotten eggs and things she didn’t want to think about.  The man pulled her closer to him, hands roaming over her body, slipping under her clothes and coming to rest on her breasts.  She tried to kick him, but he only laughed.  Shame and humiliation washed through her as she felt his manhood press against her ass.  He was going to fuck her – he was going to rape her – and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

“Better hurry,” one guard said.  “The captain will want a go.”

“So will the bitch,” another said.  “But not until we’ve had our fun.”

Jenny tried to kick – again – as her captor pushed down her pants and bent her over into a crude, ghastly position.  The bastard wasn’t wasting time … she could see two more girls on their knees, their captors surrounding them … she gasped in pain as rough fingers swept over her rear, probing her most private parts.  She was a virgin and now … she made a desperate bid to escape, but she was held too tightly.  She heard his pants being unzipped, felt his swollen manhood press against her bare flesh …

A single shot rang out.

Jenny collapsed, hitting the ground hard enough to hurt.  Her captor had been holding her up and …and he’d fallen right behind her.  She managed to twist, just enough to come face to face with a shattered skull.  His face was a mangled wreck, his brains a leaky mess falling on the ground … with a sense of relief, Jenny blacked out.


Angeline lowered her pistol.

She’d fired on instinct, the moment she’d turned the corner and seen the sight in front of her.  She’d given orders – strict ones – that none of the prisoners were to be harmed once they were taken captive, both to make it easier to keep them under control and avoid atrocities that would be used as a rallying cry for their enemies in the weeks and months to come.  She’d carefully not admitted, even to herself, that she didn’t want what had happened to her to happen to anyone else, even people on the other side.  She would order them killed, or kill them herself, but raped?  Never.

Silence fell, so abruptly it felt as if she’d gone dead.  The man she’d shot was dead, his would-be victim lying in front of him.  The others had frozen … they’d thought, perhaps, she hadn’t meant her orders, or they’d risked ignoring them.  Perhaps they’d thought she wouldn’t have the stomach to enforce them, or that their connections would be enough to save them from anything more than a slap on the wrist.  And now … she nearly smiled, despite everything.  They’d never take her lightly again.

“Captain Wooster, place these men under arrest,” Angeline ordered, coldly.  For once, he was too shocked to object.  “Detail a squad of trusted men to ride with the prisoners back to the garrison, then hold them until I can decide what to do with them.  Assign a second squad to me.  I’ll take the female prisoners back myself.”

“Aye, Colonel,” Wooster said.

Angeline nodded, keeping her face impassive as the men scurried to do her bidding.  The new prisoners didn’t try to argue, probably still in shock.  Or maybe thinking about what their connections would do, if they knew their clients were in trouble.  Angeline intended to make sure they never did.  She’d never had the chance to punish her own rapists – she didn’t even know if they were alive or dead – but she could punish these rapists.  She’d make them regret the day they were born.

And yet, she asked herself, why did they even think they could do it?

Her heart twisted.  She had to speak to the Prime Minister.  And quickly.

Chapter Eight

Winchester, New Doncaster

Richard wasn’t sure what to make of ColonelBryce Ambrose.

They were alike in many ways.  They’d grown up in the lower classes, although Richard’s family had had hopes of bettering itself while Ambrose’s family had been trapped in eternal debt.  They’d both joined the army and served well, but while Richard had been loyal in the hope of a better future – and afraid of what a rebel victory would mean for his family – Ambrose had been a rebel spy who’d betrayed his comrades.  He might not have drawn a gun and opened fire in the middle of a command post, unlike a couple of others during the first Battle of Kingston, but he’d been quite bad enough.  Richard wanted to shun him.  And yet, now that the government had been captured by the worst of the reactionaries, they were in the same boat.

I didn’t leave the government, Richard thought, wryly.  It left me.

He tried to keep his face under tight control as the aircraft ploughed through the sky.  It was almost absurdly tiny, so small it was hard to escape the impression it was a toy.  The buffering winds shook the aircraft time and time again, the pilot ducking and dodging threats only he could see.  Richard prayed, as he looked down at the bright blue sea, there were no rogue loyalists with antiaircraft weapons waiting for them.  They’d signalled ahead to Winchester and there was a good chance the message had been overheard.  And if the government’s troops had reacted in time …

Ambrose seemed unbothered by the rough flight, somewhat to Richard’s irritation.  He’d never had problems on the land, or at sea, but flying left him feeling uncomfortably helpless even though he had a parachute and knew how to use it.  There was nothing he could do, if the pilot lost control of the aircraft.  Hell, he’d been told it was hard to tell the difference between random buffeting that came and went before it was even registered and something really dangerous, something that could send the plane plummeting out of the sky.  If that happened … he suspected the parachute would be pointless.  The storm would kill them and, if it didn’t, they’d drown well before anyone realised they were missing and went looking.

He shook his head.  There hadn’t been time to arrange to sail from Baraka to Winchester.  They had to get there before something happened, something that would shatter their plans before they even took solid form.  And yet … the plane lurched again, seeming to drop hundreds of feet before recovering.  Richard leaned forward, sucking in his breath as Winchester finally came into view.  The island was huge – really, calling it an island was an understatement – but it seemed tiny from high overhead.  It looked so safe and tranquil.

The radio crackled.  Richard couldn’t make out any of the words, if indeed there were words in the static, but the pilot seemed to understand.  The plane banked to the left, then headed down to the ground.  Richard watched through the porthole, spotting fishermen plying their trade as if the war – and all the attendant devastation – was on the other side of the planet.  He didn’t blame the fishermen for trying to carry on as if nothing had happened.  Between the government invasion and the rebel counterattack, large swathes of Winchester had been devastated.  The inhabitants would starve if the fishermen refused to go out to sea.

And the navy’s been withdrawn, Richard reminded himself.  There’s no major threat …

He sighed inwardly as they crossed the coastline, their altitude falling all the time until they were practically skimming the treetops.   The outer islands had always had a problem with banditry, from rebel factions too extreme for the official rebel alliance to runaway plantation serfs who’d turned into thieves, rapists and murderers.  The rebels had done a pretty good job of establishing law and order, when they’d launched their bid for power, but the island below had been torn up by the war.  God alone knew how many rogues were taking advantage of the confusion to prey on the locals, or even set up mini-kingdoms of their own.  Quite a few islands had dropped out of government hands, without – it seemed – immediately joining the rebels.

“We’re coming in to land now,” the pilot called.  “Brace yourselves.”

Richard blanched as he saw the landing strip – it looked too small for a tilt-rotor, let alone a plane – and closed his eyes as the plane dropped to the ground.  A dull thud echoed through the hull, while the entire structure seemed to scream in pain as the pilot slammed on the brakes.  Richard had the sense they were zooming straight towards a tree, that they were about to die spectacularly, before the shaking stopped so abruptly he thought someone had pushed a button.  He opened his eyes and tried not to wince.  They’d stopped far too close to the treeline for anyone’s peace of mind.

“It was worse last time,” Ambrose said.  “This time, at least, there was no risk of getting shot.”

Richard said nothing as the pilot opened the hatch and motioned them to jump to the ground.  The landing strip was so rough and crude … he told himself not to think about it as he spied a jeep, waiting on the far side of the field.  A pair of armed and uniformed soldiers stood guard, watching – and being watched by – a small force of rebel fighters.  The truce might have lasted – Richard breathed a sigh of relief – but trust was clearly in short supply.  He told himself not to be surprised.  The two factions had been trying to kill each other, less than a month ago.  It would be a long time before they were anything other than wary allies.

“Good luck,” Ambrose said.  “I’ll see you after you’re done.”

“And you,” Richard said.  He still thought Ambrose was a traitor, but … right now, they were all traitors.  It was easy to envy Roland’s cool dispassion.  “Good luck with your men too.”

They exchanged salutes, then headed in opposite directions.  The soldiers looked alert as he arrived, briefly exchanging signs and countersigns before shouldering their weapons and motioning for him to get into the back seat.  Richard obeyed, relieved the exchange had gone as planned.  Roland had commented they were far more vulnerable to deceitful allies than outright enemies, because the former allies knew far more about how their forces worked than any enemy.  The government’s troops used the same weapons, the same communications protocols … hell, they wore the same uniform.  Richard’s stomach churned as the jeep rattled to life, the driver steering the way down a muddy path and into the jungle.  It wouldn’t take much effort for infiltrators to turn the entire army against itself.

His heart started to race as they passed through a deserted battleground, scorched by explosions and fires and scattered with the burnt-out ruins of tanks, AFVs and trucks that had been caught in the maelstrom.  A handful of ruins suggested the two sides had fought over a hamlet, a place once home to farmers and workers … he hoped, as they drove onwards, that the inhabitants had escaped before it was too late.  It was easy, looking at the map, to lose sight of the people on the land, who would be slaughtered – accidentally or otherwise – during the fighting.  The hamlet was tiny and yet the people who’d once lived there would mourn its loss.  How could they not?

The trees parted suddenly, revealing an army camp.  Richard scowled inwardly as he spotted the signs of low, or no, discipline.  The camp was barely guarded, only a handful of men patrolling the surrounding fields.  His heart sank as he noted units mashed together, something Roland and his trainers had worked hard to avoid.  Men fought primarily for their comrades, for the men they’d trained beside before going into action; they didn’t fight so well, if at all, when there were strangers on their flanks and unit cohesion shattered beyond repair.  Richard let out a breath as the jeep came to a halt, the soldiers surrounding the vehicle and shouting questions, their voices blurring together into a roar that chilled him to his very bones.  If they turned nasty, they could tear him to shreds and then go on to devastate the entire island.  And then the people who’d abandoned them would win.

He stood, wishing for a loudspeaker as he tried to come up with a speech.  His father was a great speechwriter, rarely allowing anyone else to so much as look at his notes – when he had them – and speaking from the heart.  Richard knew he was good at his job, but he’d never had to convince anyone to follow him before.  The chain of command had been on his side … now, there was no chain of command and no one to enforce his will.  If they decided to lynch him … he wondered, suddenly, where the senior officers were.  Hiding in the camp near the beach?  Or fled?  It wouldn’t be that hard to find a boat and set out to an uninhabited island to ride out the storm.  Or maybe they’d gone back to Kingston to pledge loyalty to the new government.

Good luck with that, he thought, with a flicker of dark amusement.  It’ll be weeks before they even get there and that’s almost mindlessly optimistic.

He held up his hands for quiet.  Miracle of miracles, the racket quietened to a dull roar.  He braced himself, trying to choose his words carefully.  The men in front of him were townies.  They knew he was a townie.  They’d followed him into battle and yet, he’d been away when the shit hit the fan.  Never mind he’d been in command of an assault force that might just have won the war, if they hadn’t been stabbed in the back.  He hadn’t been there for them when they needed him and that was all that mattered.  And by now, the rumours had to be so far from the truth they were literally unbelievable.  There were probably men in front of him who thought he’d sold them out.

“The aristos stabbed us in the back,” he said, flatly.  It was true enough, although he knew not all of the aristos had been involved.  “Admiral Forest deserted us, as did many other aristocratic officers, leaving us to our fate.  They expected us to die, either at the hands of the rebels or by starvation.  And they have crushed our friends and families back home.”

He paused.  He didn’t know that was true – Rachel was still on her way to Kingston, unless she’d learnt how to teleport, and it would be weeks before any report got back – but he was morbidly sure of it.  The coup plotters wouldn’t want to risk an uprising in Kingstown itself, let along Kingsport and the rest of Kingston.  They’d crack down hard on all dissident movements, from aristos who wouldn’t go along with them to townies, debtors and all other activists.  His heart clenched at the thought.  His father might already be in prison, if he hadn’t been shot while trying to escape.  Why wouldn’t his captors kill him?  It wasn’t as if they had anything to lose.  They were committed.

“We joined the army because we were promised political reform,” he said.  “We were promised our debts would be cancelled.  We were promised that we would be full citizens, with the right to vote and demand political accountability; we were promised an end to the police state, an end to business-killing regulations, an end to the political and bureaucratic corruption that was dragging our planet into the mud.  We believed the promises would be kept.  We know, now, that the promises were worth about as much as a mug of spit!”

There were a handful of chuckles from the men. 

Richard smiled and pressed on.  “They used us, praised us and discarded us as soon as they thought they no longer needed us.  They expected us to die.  We did not die.  We survived.  And now we have a choice.  Do we surrender and return to the bad old days of being grateful for what little scraps they let us keep, or do we fight?  Do we turn the truce with the rebels into an alliance, and fight together for a common cause, or do we let them win?  Do we let them win?”

He paused, hearing shouts of ‘NO’ echoing around the growing crowd.  It felt … exhilarating and yet terrifying.  The crowd loved him, but they could turn on him at any moment, if he messed up.  They’d had all the old certainties pulled out from under them … although, in hindsight, he was sure some of them had expected the aristos to break their word.  Now … he felt a twinge of something he didn’t want to look at too closely.  He’d been betrayed himself, when his fool of a commander led his troops into a trap and his supporters had made sure Richard had wound up with the blame.  Would it have been different if he’d gone straight to the rebels?  Or would nothing have changed?  Who knew?

“I will not let them win,” Richard told them.  “General Roland will not let them win.  We will fight for what we were promised, for a better world for our families.  If you want to join us, you are welcome.  You have guns, you have training, you can make them pay for betraying everyone and build a better world.  Or you can stand aside now and let them win.  The choice is yours.”

He dropped to the ground.  The men closed in around him, shaking his hand or slapping his back or cheering him on.  Richard lost count of how many men shook his hand as he made his way through the camp, sighing inwardly at just how far the men had fallen in a few short weeks.  They were damn lucky the rebels hadn’t resumed the offensive or most of them would have been caught in the open and slaughtered in the first few moments.  The tankers were gathered around their vehicles, drinking tea and coffee rather than inspecting the tanks and making whatever repairs they needed; the pilots were swaggering around, instead of doing their jobs.  Richard snapped orders as he approached the command tent, telling the crews to get back to work.  There were thousands of men on Winchester, scattered over the occupied zone, and right now they were dangerously vulnerable.  The rebels weren’t the only looming threat.  The government might mount its own offensive if it realised how exposed the troops were to outside attack.

The guards on the tent looked pale as he approached.  Richard cursed under his breath – that was a bad sign – and stepped inside, making a mental note to reprimand them later for not checking his ID.  The air inside stank of alcohol, of booze distilled by halfwits who didn’t know what they were doing.  Richard’s teeth ached at the thought, as his eyes swept the chamber.  The booze tasted foul – at best – and threatened to ruin your teeth.  At worst …

He glared at the cot.  General Smyth sat on the portable bed, an unmarked bottle in his hand.  He stank … Richard shuddered, remembering how many lectures he’d had on the importance of staying clean.  It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of water on New Doncaster.  The general could simply wait for a rainstorm and stand outside … Richard shook his head and started to dig through his pouch.  It was sheer damned luck he made a point of carrying a sober-up with him at all times.  It had saved his bacon more than once, back when the world had made sense …

General Smyth yelped as Richard pressed the injector against his neck and pushed the trigger, his body shaking as the drug roared through his bloodstream and banished the alcohol at lightning speed.  Richard stepped back and looked away as the older man staggered to his feet and vomited into a corner, something Richard hadn’t seen since the handful of parties he’d attended as a teenager.  There was something oddly sad about an older man throwing up like a teenage boy who’d just discovered alcohol.  Richard would have felt sorry for him if he hadn’t sat on his ass, getting drunk while his men ran amok.  They were damn lucky the soldiers hadn’t gotten any more out of hand.  A handful of atrocities would be quite enough to restart the war, ensuring the townies and rebels destroyed each other while the government built up its forces and overwhelmed everyone else.  Richard sighed.  General Smyth would have to be relieved.  There was no other choice.

“Captain,” General Smyth managed.  “What are you doing here?”

Richard met his eyes.  “It’s General now,” he said, curtly.  “Why didn’t you do anything?”

General Smyth glared.  “You jumped up …”

“Why?”  Richard wanted to draw his sidearm and shoot General Smyth.  A strong man in his position could have accomplished much, if he’d had the nerve.  “Why didn’t you do anything when they abandoned us?”

“What could I do?”  General Smyth sounded like a whiny child.  “They’d have killed me if I stuck my nose out of the tent.”

“No doubt,” Richard said, sourly.  “General, by order of General Roland, I am relieving you from your post.  You’ll be flown to meet with him as soon as possible.  He will, I am sure, find a place more suited to your talents.”

Like standing guard on the edge of the habitable zone, his thought added.  Smyth can’t do any harm there.

General Smyth didn’t argue.  He was a broken man.  Richard was almost disappointed.  If the general had tried to fight …

“I have work to do,” Richard told him.  “You stay here until I send for you.”

“Yes, sir,” General Smyth said.  “And thank you.”

Richard scowled.  For what?

Chapter Nine

Kingston, New Doncaster

Angeline did her best to remain calm as she rode with the female prisoners to the POW camp, spoke briefly but harshly to the commandant to ensure the POWs were treated with a reasonable degree of decency, then took a few moments to observe the processing before calling a driver and ordering him to take her back to Government House.  She was perfectly aware of the need to protect soldiers and policemen – and she had no qualms about ensuring prisoners had nowhere to hide weapons, even something as tiny as a sharpened pencil – but there were limits.  Her blood boiled as she remembered the man she’d shot, every memory sharp and clear.  He’d been on the verge of raping a young woman when she’d shot him.  He’d deserved worse.  Angeline had no qualms about executing dissidents either – they made excuses for monsters – but rape?  She wished she’d thought to shoot the asshole in the gut.  A long and unpleasant death would have set a far better example for everyone.

She composed herself, with an effort, as the car pulled into the underground garage.  The guards took one look at her face and waved her through, without even bothering to search her.  Angeline made a mental note to chew them out later, after she’d finished speaking to the Prime Minister.  She didn’t want someone groping her, particularly now, but the PM’s security was paramount.  The townies knew, if she was any judge, that the raids had begun, that dissidents were being rounded up and marched off to an uncertain fate.  She wanted to think the raids had shattered the underground networks, but she didn’t believe it.  The odds were good the bastards would find a way to strike back shortly, if they weren’t already up to something.  A lone wolf shooter who didn’t give a damn about his own survival could be terrifyingly hard to stop.

There were more guards on the upper levels, roaming around as if they expected to be attacked at any moment.  Angeline’s lips twitched – it felt as if there were too many guards – as she passed through two checkpoints before being shown into the antechamber.  The PM was a busy man, she reminded herself, and she didn’t have an appointment.  The government had to be reformed, dissidents and weaklings purged before they could drag the government back into the mire, and then a new course set for a better future.  She sat and calmed herself as best she could, trying not to think about everything that had happened.  She might as well have told herself to do the exact opposite.  Her brain tormented her endlessly as she waited.

The PM’s secretary cleared her throat.  “Lord Hamish will see you now.”

Angeline nodded and stood, bracing herself.  The secretary eyed her doubtfully – she looked like a soldier, rather than a demure girl of good breeding – and stepped aside as Angeline headed into the PM’s office.  Lord Hamish looked up at her, his face a mask.  Angeline heard the door closing behind her as she headed to the nearest chair, her entire body feeling tired and drained.  She wanted to go back to the barracks and hit her bunk, or to find a hotel and have a long bath before going to sleep … hell, she could sleep in the bath.  She’d pushed herself too hard and it was starting to catch up with her.

“Angeline,” Lord Hamish said.  “What were you thinking?”

Angeline scowled.  She had had plenty of experience at hiding what she was thinking, when confronted by older relatives – male and female alike – but she was just too tired.  Someone had probably called the PM as soon as she’d left the scene, tattling on her for shooting one of her own men.  It was legal to shoot your subordinates if it was the only way to prevent an atrocity, something that would be fairly termed a war crime, but she just knew someone was going to argue there’d been other ways she could have stopped him.  She could have ordered him to stop, she could have threatened him with a gun, she could have even fired a warning shot … she’d heard some of the older soldiers bitching about nit-picking REMFs and she understood, now, what they’d meant.  It was easy to carp and criticize when you hadn’t been the guy – or girl – on the spot.  Right now, the dead man’s relatives were probably kicking up one hell of a fuss.

“He was about to rape her,” she said, flatly.  He knew her story.  He knew she’d been gang-raped and left for dead.  “And I shot him.”

Lord Hamish met her eyes.  “You shot a man with strong connections to the aristocracy,” he said.  “His patrons are not happy.”

“Fuck them,” Angeline said.  It was the sort of language that would have ensured her mother washed her mouth out with soap – or, more likely, delegated the task to one of the maids – but she no longer cared.  “He tried to rape her.  In public.  He deserved worse.”

She forced herself to think clearly.  She needed an argument that would actually touch him and that wouldn’t be easy.  “If the dissidents think they will be raped, tortured and executed, they will fight to the death when we try to apprehend them,” she said.  “They have to believe that we will punish our own people, when they break the rules.  And I have made sure they will.”

Lord Hamish studied her for a long moment.  Eighteen years of etiquette training told Angeline she should bow her head, without meeting his gaze.  She held it instead, silently daring him to punish her.  What would happen, she wondered, if he decided to fire her?  Or reassign her?  Or … she felt a twinge of doubt, which she ruthlessly suppressed.  She wanted – she needed – to believe she’d done the right thing.  And that her superior, the person who’d recognised she’d been railroaded by General Roland, would agree with her.

“I am not pleased,” Lord Hamish said, finally.  If he was disquieted by their staring contest, he didn’t show it.  “I understand your feelings, but what happens to the prisoners is of little concern when set against maintaining our political coalition.  The eyewitnesses swore blind you had other options.”

“Did they?”  Angeline’s mind raced.  Who had betrayed her?  Captain Wooster?  The dead man’s buddies, the ones facing hard labour – or even execution – if she had her way?  Or one of the other men under her command?  “It is easy to say that, if one is not the person in command.”

And harder too, her thoughts added, if one is a woman in command of a bunch of half-trained men.  If she’d ordered them to stop, would they?  Or would they have tried to rape her too?  Once, it would have been unthinkable.  Now … it was impossible not to think about it.  Would they turn on me if they thought I was stopping them having their fun?

She didn’t dare say it out loud.  Lord Hamish wouldn’t understand.  Worse, he might look down on her.  She had few illusions.  He’d recruited her because she was a trained soldier who’d blotted her copybook so thoroughly she literally had nowhere else to go.  And yet, in his world, women were seen but never heard.  He wouldn’t have recruited her if he’d had a male candidate on hand, someone who could project authority with ease.  Now … did he need her any longer?  She wasn’t sure.

“You are not to do it again,” Lord Hamish said.  “Is that clear?”

Angeline lowered her eyes.  There was no point in arguing.  Not any longer.  But … she kept her face blank, even as storms raged behind her mask.  What would she do, if she was ordered to commit another atrocity?  What would she do …?

And how many more girls are going to be arrested and then mistreated, she asked herself, because the government doesn’t give a shit about them?

“Is that clear?”  Lord Hamish’s voice brought back bitter memories – and anger, buried beneath her smile.  “Angeline, is that clear?”

“Yes,” Angeline said.  He wasn’t her father – and she wasn’t the young girl who’d respected her father’s authority as head of the house, not any longer.  “It’s clear.”

“Good.”  Lord Hamish leaned back in his chair.  “You may as well stay for the next meeting.  Your insights may be appreciated.”

And it will keep me out of trouble, Angeline added silently as the door opened behind her.  Is that what you have in mind?

“My Lord,” General Vincent McDougal said.  He sat next to Angeline, Admiral Forest sitting on her other side.  She couldn’t help feeling hemmed in and trapped as they gave her dirty looks.  “You really have put the cat amongst the pigeons and no mistake.”

“That matter is now done and dusted,” Lord Hamish said.  “General, Admiral.  You had an update from Winchester?”

“Yes, sir,” Admiral Forest said.  “We have a deep-cover agent in the troops who kept us updated.  The townie troops were coming apart at the seams – General Smyth was as useless as his file suggested – and we thought it was just a matter of time until they picked a fight with the local rebels or simply disintegrated completely.  Instead, we have just heard a General Collier arrived a few short hours ago, rallied the troops and single-handedly arrested the decline.”

Angeline leaned forward.  “Richard Collier?”

“That’s the one,” Forest said.  “He was on the short list for promotion, but his father blocked it.  He thought it would smack of nepotism.”

His father is in jail, Angeline thought, coldly.  I arrested him myself.

Lord Hamish steepled his fingers.  “I assume, Admiral, they no longer have access to shipping?”

“Yes, My Lord,” Forest said.  “Not much, not at the moment.  We pulled out everything larger than a motor-torpedo boat.  The landing ships were deliberately rammed into the beachheads, ensuring they cannot return to sea in a hurry – if at all.  Given time, the rebels can presumably assemble enough shipping to transport the troops elsewhere, but … we don’t know how long it’ll take.”

“I see.”  Lord Hamish sounded irked, his face darkening.  “And do you have a rough estimate?”

Admiral Forest hesitated, then took the plunge.  “No, My Lord.  Our shipping records were largely pre-war, and a great many ships were either renamed without the change being officially registered or kept completely off the books.  The fisher and sailing communities were not keen on being taxed, let alone being harassed by the government, and many of them joined the rebels.  We have very little intelligence on what happened to the ships, or where they are now, or what the rebels are doing with them.  They might be already heading to Winchester, or … or only now being assembled.  If the former, the troops could be underway within days.  If the latter …”

“I would assume weeks, at best,” Angeline put in.  She’d been taught it was rude for a young woman to interrupt a man, but she was done with that too.  “I was on one of the transport ships.  It took days to load everything and set sail and that was done with a great deal of careful planning.  The rebels, and General Roland, will be starting from scratch.  If they intend to land here, at Kingsport, they will need to do the planning before they start loading the ships.”

General McDougal gave her a sharp look.  “And what’s to stop them from simply throwing everything into the ships and setting sail?”

“It would be impossible for them to know where everything was, let alone unload what they needed when they reach their destination or even know what was lost, if one of the ships was sunk,” Angeline said.  “Even a few moments of confusion could knock the schedule back and back again until it collapses completely.  Realistically, I doubt they’d take the risk unless they thought they’d make an unopposed landing and even then they’d be leery about trying.”

“True,” Admiral Forest agreed.  “They’d need time to load their ships and set sail.”

Lord Hamish scowled.  “And once they’re underway?  Can we stop them?”

Admiral Forest hesitated, again.  “On paper, we have naval supremacy,” he said.  “The rebels put together a well-balanced force, to be fair, but it was designed more to engage our ships in close waters rather than fight running battles for control of the seas.  They made no attempt to produce outright warships and they lacked the yards for proper military conversions.  However …”

He paused, noticeably.  “There is a problem.  The planet is big.  Even the habitable zone is immense, with the biggest ships on the surface little more than dust specks compared to the sheer immensity of the waters.  If the rebels are careful, they might manage to ghost through our defences and get into attack range without being noticed.”

Angeline’s heart sank.  “That’s why they took out the lighthouse?”

“Yes,” Admiral Forest agreed, grimly.  The condescension she normally heard in his voice was gone.  “There’s no longer any radar coverage of that section.  They could slip an entire fleet through the gap and pass unnoticed.  We do have patrol boats out there now, but one violent storm and they’ll miss the enemy ships too.”

“Which means we need to hit them now,” Lord Hamish said.  “Admiral Forest, can you attack their positions?”

“We could land troops,” General McDougal said.  “It would be easy if we are in command of the seas …”

“Winchester is not Mountebank,” Admiral Forest countered.  “Yes, we could land a small force, but they’d be grossly outnumbered by both the rebels and the … townie troops and wind up being torn to pieces.  We’d be better off mounting a missile bombardment.  We’ve loaded the latest missiles on our ships, in a bid to keep the crews busy, and we can set sail shortly to carry out the strike.  It is unfortunate that we need to destroy so much war materiel, rather than recovering it for our own use, but I see no choice.  The townies will be much less dangerous without their tanks and aircraft.”

“Quite,” Angeline agreed.

Lord Hamish frowned.  “I was given to understand that weapons became ineffective if they were not constantly maintained.”

“Yes, My Lord,” General McDougal said.  “The townies are weakening with every passing day.”

“Don’t count on it,” Angeline said, bluntly.  “General Roland is a very practical man.  The vast majority of military technologies he pioneered” – more accurately, dug out of the archives and adapted for mass production – “are almost offensively easy to clean, maintain and generally keep in working order.  The tanks and aircraft are not dependent on offworld imports and, given time, engineers can produce most of what they need from scratch.  It will take quite some time, more than we have, for their forces to decay to uselessness even if they don’t bother to do any maintenance.  They’ll remain dangerous for quite some time.”

“I see.”  Lord Hamish looked at Admiral Forest.  “Deploy your ships as quickly as possible, so we can catch the troops before they set sail.  And destroy them.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Admiral Forest said.

Angeline tried not to wince.  Admiral Forest had blithely sentenced thousands of men to death.  Even if they saw the attack incoming and took cover, the missile bombardment – she’d seen the stats for the next-gen warheads – would do one hell of a lot of damage and leave the townies open to rebel attack.  She gritted her teeth, torn between conflicting feelings.  She’d been one of them once, only a few short months ago.  And yet, armed and dangerous townies could not be allowed to survive.  Better they died quickly, than worked to death on a slave plantation.  Or simply gunned down when they tried to surrender …

Her heart clenched.  Didn’t you gun down helpless prisoners?

She shook her head.  She’d had good cause.  The prisoners she’d killed had been murderers and rapists and looters, no more deserving of life than the man she’d shot only a few short hours ago.  They’d deserved to die … hadn’t they?  She told herself, time and time again, that she’d done the right thing.  Hadn’t she?

“General, prepare your forces to resist a landing, if the rebels escape destruction,” Lord Hamish added. “I want to be ready for anything.”

“Yes, My Lord,” General McDougal said.  “I’ll see to it personally.”

“Secure Kingsport as well,” Angeline offered.  “The rebels will almost certainly have an entire spy ring there, despite everything.  There’s no better place to slip a message in or out of the island.”

“I know what I’m doing,” General McDougal said.

“You’d better,” Angeline told him.  She might not have his rank, but she’d seen actual combat.  She didn’t think he’d ever been in any real danger.  “The rebels are tough, smart and very adaptable.  And General Roland does not give up.”

“He’s an offworlder,” Lord Hamish said, dismissively.  “He will concede, when it becomes clear there is nothing to gain by further struggle.  Besides, we are the government.  He cannot legally operate on our soil without our permission.”

Angeline had her doubts.  General Roland could have retreated to the spaceport – or what was left of it – and holed up there, waiting for a passing freighter to take him and his men home.  Instead, he’d helped build an army and lead it into battle and come very close to winning.  Angeline almost wished Lord Hamish had waited a few months.  They might have beaten the rebels so soundly they would never pose a threat again … instead, they had two different enemy factions, each one formidable in its own right, joining forces against them.

“We will see,” she said, finally.

“Indeed, we will,” Lord Hamish said.  He dismissed the two men, then shot Angeline an unreadable look.  “Go get some rest.  Your subordinates can handle the rest of the arrests.  Report back to me tomorrow morning.  I should have a new task for you by then.”

Angeline nodded, keeping her face blank.  “Yes, My Lord.”

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