I walked into the unlit drill hall. It was dark except for a hint of predawn light coming through the translucent upper windows, but thanks to the nano-ink on my eyes, I could see the man clearly. I didn’t need any special tech to pick up the sharp scent of his worry-sweat. That wasn’t unusual. Colonel Anais had been chronically stressed for a while.
His sad, deep voice boomed out in the hall. “Sergeant Singh. What have you been doing out so early this fine morning?”
I inhaled, came to attention, spoke quickly. “Warming up before I run with Captain Hart and the recruits. They’re not up to standard yet, so I need to push myself.”
Colonel Anais liked to snark at me. He was our commanding officer, the man in charge of the recruiting drive-slash-draft of the Colonial Protective Forces. There was a time he’d had good reason to have me executed—hell, he could still have me executed. I forced myself to remember that as I tried to keep my expression from being insubordinate.
“I’m watching you,” he said.
I didn’t reply to the obvious. He’d been waiting for me
to screw up for months now. On Titan, I’d acquired a reputation for going rogue. At times it worked out for me, and at times it didn’t. I felt that Anais regretted having to let me live, but there were more important things than smacking me down for refusing to follow orders. Like the PR machine of the Colonial Protective Forces that kept the war machine fed with eager new recruits. Like the rumors of organized sedition on Earth that grew louder as the Accordance turned its attention to the front lines farther out in the solar system. I knew that Anais had researched me thoroughly and knew my background. Perhaps he wanted me to be a model soldier, but it was more likely that he hoped I’d break and run and lead him and the CPF to the roots of the underground rebellion. I wished it were that simple.
Then he said something unexpected. “I’m going on leave for two weeks. Think you can stay out of trouble . . . and keep your friends out of trouble, too?”
Leave? We were fully at war. I didn’t believe him for a minute.
“You’ll find everything in place and in order when you return, Colonel Anais,” I said. I meant to sound neutral, but a little sarcasm leaked through.
He chose to ignore it. “Good. And, Sergeant, the longer you stay useful to us, the easier it will be to stamp your promotion as approved.”
“Colonel?” I asked warily.
He stepped in and spoke menacingly a few inches from my face, drill-sergeant style. “Come on, Singh. We all know your IT skills are beyond most of our specialists. Your qualifications aren’t the problem. You are. Prove your loyalty to the CPF, and you’ll be allowed to rise in the ranks. Is that clear enough for you?”
I stood my ground. I did not flinch. But for all that, I was still a little surprised. Anais wasn’t my favorite person, but, snarking aside, he wasn’t a natural bully. “Yes, Colonel.”
He drew back, gave a satisfied nod, and went. I watched his back and wondered. What do you really want, Anais? He might be tired of babysitting us and want us to move on—whether as dedicated CPF members or jailed traitors was our choice. But he was clearly pushing me to choose.
Devlin Hart—Captain Devlin Hart—arrived just then, in time to sketch a salute to Anais in passing and notice my bemused stare at the Colonel’s back. He frowned. “What did you do, Amira.”
I raised my hands in innocence. “Nothing . . . this time.”
He stopped short, glancing to the door as Second Lieutenant Mallory Jonse appeared, and the sergeants and their recruits began to file into the drill hall.
“Never mind,” said Devlin with regret and resignation. “We’ll talk later. Time to start the show.”
+ + + +
“Man down! Recruit Regis is down!”
Devlin reacted immediately to the distant wail. “Recruits, mark time! Medic to the rear.”
I stopped running, looked back down the line of thirty-odd sweating, gasping recruits that made up Second Platoon Charlie Company, and gave Devlin a glance that was all exasperation. This was an easy morning jog in the second week of easy morning jogs. Why were they so feeble?
Devlin waved Second Lieutenant Jonse over and lowered his voice. “Mal, from now on, when they start dropping, just call it in and let them get picked up by ground crew. We can’t delay the training schedule, not today, not next week, not ever.”
“Yes, Captain,” she agreed. She looked nervous as she ran off, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. She was almost as green as the recruits, and even though that wasn’t exactly her fault, it made me angry.
“Recruits, take five,” Devlin ordered. “Make it count—it’s the last you’ll get while you’re here.”
I bit my tongue and turned my back to the recruits. The bleak landscape of low buildings, gridded dikes, and ever-present marsh wasn’t much of an improvement. “What a horrorshow,” I muttered as Devlin came to stand beside me.
He reached into a pocket and took out a pack of chewing gum. I accepted the stick he offered and we both chewed in silence for a while.
“I’m surprised you’re still here,” he replied, his tone deeply morose. “I thought you’d find somewhere more exciting to be by now.”
“These days, everywhere is exciting,” I grumbled.
“There is that,” he replied, sounding even more depressed.
I stared at him. “You’re not regretting Titan, are you?”
“No!” he said with a sharpness that startled us both. “Of course not,” he continued more evenly. “It’s just . . . I had something to do. I had a task, a mission.”
“This isn’t task enough for you?” I said, tracing a broad arc of horizon with an eloquent, sarcastic hand.
We had a lot of names for the Orlando training base. Disney World, New Venice, the Magic Kingdom—those were the ones we said in front of the Accordance and their sympathizers. For bitter days, we used Walt’s Water Hell, Bleak Lake, Hastalavista and, when the wind got really fragrant, the Sewer. A rarer name—the Big Mistake. Never heard, no matter how eagerly I listened for it—Ship 503. But it was the Colonial Recruit Training Command, and its purpose was
to churn out cannon fodder as fast as possible for the Jupiter theater in the Accordance-Conglomeration War.
Devlin glared at the base, then glared at me. “Fuck off, Amira.”
I almost laughed. He was so pissed off, but so self-controlled. We had no choice. Surveillance was built into the DNA of the place, and we refused to perform—not out of any sense of secrecy or privacy, but out of contempt for the watchers. And yet . . . I wondered about that. He’d forced the evacuation of Titan with a little help from one of the ancient spacefaring Pcholem. Could the Accordance be worried that Devlin was perhaps too good at leadership, up to the point of gaining his own allies and coconspirators among the established Accordance species? Why else put him into the reverse-fishbowl environment of CRTC Orlando if not to watch him closely?
But the hero worship was also useful. Devlin Hart had saved a lot of human lives on Titan, and even though the Accordance didn’t really care about that, they cared enough to use him and build up the myth around him in order to get more human soldiers to fight their war.
“I could wait it out,” Devlin mused, “or I could just take off like you do sometimes. Maybe even find my parents, see what the Earth First movement is up to these days.”
I kept my face relaxed, but inside I was ready to slap him. He had courage and intelligence and I owed him my life, but he was still so damn young. I wouldn’t put it past him to go AWOL. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d done something stupid out of sheer, reckless restlessness, and I had too much on my plate to micromanage his behavior.
I faced him, forced my lips into a smile, and let my eyes spark fury. “Not yet. Be patient. Not yet.”
He gave me that look: guarded, uncertain, as if he was measuring out portions of trust onto a carefully calibrated balance. He also looked disappointed, which only irritated me more.
“Recruits!” he barked out suddenly. “End five, on your feet!”
I took a deep breath, exhaled most of my anger, and used the rest to spit my spent chewing gum at the nearest dike. Its darkly translucent surface was made to baffle human vision, but the gray nano-ink over my corneas caught the flinch and furl of tentacles withdrawing from the observation glass. I grinned in childish delight as the offended Arvani spectator swam off.
+ + + +
As we jogged along the road back to base, we sighted another platoon, First of Alpha Company, its recruits also visibly struggling with the pace while their sergeant screamed at them. I knew Sergeant Bright well, and in my opinion he didn’t live up to his name. He was one of the few people who went beyond loving the shiny tech and new space adventures into full-on, creepy adoration of the Accordance itself. The platoon was well ahead of us, and his lieutenant was nowhere to be seen, probably running with another platoon in the company. We were close enough to see Bright but too far away to do anything. He ran to the back of his group, whipped out an extendable stun baton from his belt, and began to nudge the stragglers with it. Their yelps drew everyone’s attention. I was uncomfortably reminded of the first time I met Devlin, both of us running like hell from an alien drill sergeant wielding an electric prod.
I glanced at Devlin. “Idiot,” I heard him mutter, and then there was a crash and I turned back to see one of the Alpha recruits sprawled out and twitching with blood running from his nose.
“Shit,” I said quietly. A ripple of distraction ran through our
ranks. “Keep moving,” Jonse yelled. Our medic peeled off to join Bright and his medic with the fallen body, and the other recruits of First Alpha slowed uncertainly.
“Don’t stop,” Bright roared, waving vigorously toward the entrance of the base. We ran past them and absorbed them as part vanguard, part ragged tail.
Devlin looked over his shoulder with a frown. “Later,” I said shortly.
Deal with Bright later. Get these recruits back now. He nodded reluctantly. We ran on.
+ + + +
After a shower and late breakfast, Devlin dragged me with him to visit the Charlie Company recruits in class. He hated going by himself, and unfortunately, I had a light schedule for the first three weeks, so I had became his unofficial adjunct. I understood when I watched Lieutenant Sigurthardottir, the alien biology instructor. Like Anais, she was a CPF consultant turned ranking officer, and as a result was probably one of the oldest lieutenants, but she showed Devlin, the youngest captain, full courtesy and only a little envy. Devlin had risen so far so fast that people still didn’t know whether they should brace for his fall or cozy up to him during the early years of a potentially great career.
The recruits were simply in awe, and when Sigurthardottir offered them a chance to show off their training to Captain Hart, enthusiastic hands shot up. She chose a second-row recruit. “MacLeod.”
“Drivers!” MacLeod began cheerfully. “Squamous, bare-tailed, body length about twenty inches—” Sigurthardottir glared at him. “Wrong,” the recruit acknowledged. “Zero point five meters long, tail length similar, height zero point two five meters, rear talons—”
Devlin was already shaking his head. “Squamous?”
“Uh . . . scaly, Captain.”
Devlin looked at the lieutenant. “I see. Let’s have the short version—the one they teach you when you first sign up.”
A front-row recruit spoke up unprompted. She had not been one of the enthusiastic hand-wavers, and her tone was soft and shy at first. “Drivers: cat-sized, scaly. Rear talons hook into your back, pink tail burrows into your spine—kills the brain and takes over your body. Shoot on sight . . . kill them and whoever they’re riding. Trolls: giant rhinos in bio-armor, unstoppable. Evade and call in a strike.”
Devlin’s attention was caught. He absently nodded approval and the recruit’s voice gained confidence and volume as she continued.
“Raptors: opposable thumbs and high intelligence, cyborg-enhanced, fast as a cheetah. Smell tasty when barbecued with a laser gun. Crickets: swarming robot insects, usually the first wave of attack. Shoot them, smash them, crush the pieces, and scatter them wide before they can reassemble—”
“Thank you, Brentley,” Sigurthardottir interrupted. “That will do. Captain, of course they have the basics to identify and engage with enemy combatants, but this class teaches much more than that.”
Devlin turned to her fully and lowered his voice. “Do they have time for more than that? Do we?”
Sigurthardottir’s face moved from respectful tolerance to outright irritation. I decided to make a diversion.
“Excellent work, class. But I think you’ve got a few gaps in your curriculum. For example, humans: allegedly called wise, more curious than sensible, thrive on adrenaline and make excellent cannon fodder.”
The class laughed, Sigurthardottir gave me a startled look, and Devlin stepped back a bit, watching me with a smile.
“Arvani,” I continued, mocking. “The Kraken’s revenge, our new squid overlords. Struthiforms: the hobos of the galaxy, a terrible warning of what happens when you lose your home planet. But they’re pretty cool, especially our feathered friends in Biomech. Carapoids: the less said about those big beetle bullies, the better.”
Again, the recruits laughed nervously. They were never quite sure whether I was joking or not. I preferred it that way.
“Pcholem.” I paused, came to attention, and said solemnly, “Amazing. Incredible. It is a marvelous thing, to know and be known by a Pcholem. If you survive basic training and get out into space, you may see one up close. It’s worth it.”
Next to me, Devlin exhaled. Some of the recruits remained uncertain, some kept the military stone face, but a few looked a little dazzled and dreamy at the promise of wonders in outer space.
“Thank you, Sergeant Singh. Lieutenant Sigurthardottir, please continue.” Devlin marched us out of the lecture hall before we could sabotage the class further.
Neither of us had said a word about Ghosts.
+ + + +
The day didn’t improve. I was working hard but no one knew it. I wasn’t officially due to train the recruits until week six, but in the meantime I kept up with the routine stuff: assisting at self-defense training, shuffling personnel files and progress reports, and doing recces for training exercises. That was easy enough, but there was more going on. Six years ago, there had been a flourishing detachment of the Resistance based in Orlando. Now it was part marsh, part drowned city, and all Arvani beneath the surface. Orlando was a wasteland rebuilt, a ground
zero of alien malice and climate consequences. Most of the civilian population shifted north to higher and more peaceful ground. Those who stayed behind became furtive and feral. The Arvani started extending their Miami semiaquatic megacity, and people gave up all hope of returning and reclaiming their property.
During every run and recce, I was mapping new information over old. The dike grid was a system of raised water tunnels for Arvani to stroll through and stare at humans in their natural habitat, but once, there had been a human tunnel system for drainage instead of flooding and occasionally for espionage. I was fairly sure it was gone—either sabotaged by the last of the retreating Resistance, or found and repurposed by the Arvani. But the Arvani loved to brag about their conquests, and the Orlando tunnel system was missing from their tally. Either I’d have to credit them with more subtlety than they’d shown so far, or the tunnels had been kept secret.
I had figured out four possible locations for entry points to the old tunnel system, but none of them could be accessed without the Accordance breathing down my neck. I needed help, but I wasn’t sure who to trust. Devlin was good to have at your back in battle, but he hadn’t really mastered the art of a level head. Ken . . . Ken Awojobi was another kind of problem. He was levelheaded. He knew how to keep his mouth shut and work step by careful step through a long-term strategy. He was also Accordance through and through, even when he hated them.
Like now. I found him in a corridor near the officers’ mess, yelling at Staff Sergeant Wu, who worked in accounts. Something about his last paycheck being the wrong amount for his rank. I could see that Wu was about to blow up, so I snagged Ken’s arm, telling him I’d been waiting for our lunch appointment, and dragged him off before the situation got worse.
“We don’t take our frustrations out on people who are just
following orders,” I reminded him as he struggled to calm down.
I liked Ken. We were on opposite sides of the war in some ways, but in others, we’d had the same kind of upbringing, the same kind of internal and external expectations shaping our beliefs and our ambitions. I understood him even when I didn’t agree with him, and I knew he was going through a bad patch. I just hoped he’d make it through without doing something to get himself court-martialed and executed. Not that it would be the first time.
“I’m going to keep leaning on them,” he told me between mouthfuls of lunch.
I eyed him cautiously as I hunched over my plate of food. The officers’ mess had one full wall of observation glass, and although chewing made lipreading a bit harder, it still didn’t make sense to talk about certain things in the open.
Ken shrugged at my wariness—he was backing the wall—and kept talking. “They make the rules, fine. So I’ll make them follow their own rules.”
“Yeah, Ken, I’m not sure it’s that simple.”
He leaned closer, his face coldly furious. “Listen. Our pay is less than two thirds of the standard Accordance pay for ranking struthiforms, carapoids and Arvani.”
“Why are you surprised? We are a client species. This isn’t news.”
He ignored me and continued his quiet, intense rant. “Our assigned quarters are up to 50 percent smaller than the space granted to other species.”
“They are bigger than us,” I muttered.
He slammed his knife down on his plate. Miraculously, nothing cracked. “Whose side are you on?”
“Ken, this is the story of your life. I have heard it many
times. The Accordance promises you something: rank, money, power. Instead, they make you a foot soldier, cut your pay, and act like you’re disposable and replaceable—because you are and always will be nothing but cannon fodder to them. Once, it mattered to you because it was you and your pride was hurt. Now it matters because you understand that’s how the Accordance sees all humans. But you keep going back to them, hoping to find some mythical golden rule that will get them to apologize and try to be decent to us. You keep being a hero and thinking they’ll respect you. When are you going to understand that this is a fight you can’t win? Why do you keep trying to win their approval? They’ll use us, but they’ll never accept us, and you are wasting your time on this shit for no fucking reason.”
He froze. He looked so stricken that I regretted my words. No—not my words, but perhaps how I had said them.
“Look . . . Ken . . . I’m sorry. It’s been a hard day and I need a drink. We need a drink. Let’s go.” I pushed my chair back and got to my feet.
He looked confused. “Go where?”“
I paused and frowned. Mirrors were suspect, and the walls were thin. At high tide you could hear the water sloshing under the flooring. Everywhere there was the sensation of being observed.
“Can I trust you, Ken?” I asked seriously.
He took a moment to wipe his mouth clean with a napkin. “Uh-huh,” he mumbled casually, but his eyes were sharp and curious.
“Then follow me.”