The Prince's War (The Empire's Corps) - Snippet

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chris
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Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

The Prince's War (The Empire's Corps) - Snippet

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Prologue

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

It is extremely difficult to trace the history of the Imperial Royal Family - as it became known - past the final stages of the disintegration and the early days of the Unification Wars. Part of this, of course, is an inevitable result of the wars and their attendant devastation; a great many records were lost and/or deliberately destroyed during the fighting. Certain factions, particularly during the opening stages of the conflict, believed that it would be better to erase the past so the human race could stride forward into a brave new future, and therefore set out to capture or destroy as many records as possible. Others simply ignored the danger of historical erasure, and revisionism, until it was too late.

But a far more significant problem was caused by the newborn Imperial Household’s determination to legitimatise its position. There were no shortage of academics willing to take thirty pieces of silver - or, more practically, lands and titles - in exchange for creating largely or entirely fictional genealogies for their patrons to use as propaganda. The results were quite remarkable. The First Emperor was hailed as the direct descendent of such figures as Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Elizabeth Tudor and many others, ranging from Albert Einstein to George Washington and Joe Buckley. Links were drawn between him and nearly every figure of consequence, to a truly absurd degree. He was not only the sole heir to every kingdom on Old Earth, but also lands that simply never existed, including little known fictional kingdoms such as Gondar, Narnia and Wakanda.

This had two unfortunate - and entirely predictable - effects on academic enquiry. An unwary student, more intent on getting a good grade rather than actually think about the material in front of him, might not notice the inconsistencies and frank impossibilities, such as a marriage between Queen Elizabeth Tudor of England (1533-1603, PSE) and Shaka Zulu (1787-1828, PSE), a marriage that would have been unlikely even if the two hadn’t lived and died nearly two hundred years apart. A more perceptive student, on the other hand, might realise there were just too many discrepancies to be accidental and come to the conclusion that the whole field was irredeemably damaged beyond repair. Such students would either leave of their own accord or, if they alienated their academic supervisors, would be pushed out or simply sidelined. The Imperial University’s administrators knew very well there were fields of enquiry that could not be touched, not without angering their patrons. What was the life of one student compared to the whole university?

Perversely, the truth is better than the fairy tale. The First Emperor - whose name was largely stricken from the records, to be replaced by a decidedly impersonal title - was a high-ranking military officer during the early years of the disintegration. Realising the endless wars were futile - his autobiography makes no mention of the burning ambition that was a mark of his career - he convinced a number of his fellows to mount a coup, seized control of the government and then embarked upon a series of increasingly sophisticated military campaigns to bring the rest of the settled worlds under his control. He was more than just a naval officer, it must be noted; his skill at convincing former opponents to join him, or at the very least not to oppose him, was quite remarkable. When he took the title of Emperor, he rewarded his followers by making them Grand Senators. They in turn rewrote history to make it appear they had always been part of the rightful ruling class.

Whatever else can be said about the First Emperor, he did his work well. By the time his son succeeded to the Imperial Throne, the empire was on a solid footing and could easily survive a handful of weak or clumsy rulers. There was enough of a balance of power, the ruling class felt, to ensure both a degree of stability and a certain amount of social mobility. It should have endured forever.

It did not. It took years - centuries - for decay to start to take hold, but it did. A trio of weak emperors allowed the Grand Senate to take more and more power for itself, then - worse - failed to play the different factions within the senate to right the balance of power. Social mobility slowed to a crawl, the successive emperors losing much of their influence as they were increasingly dominated by the aristocracy. Many of them lost themselves in mindless hedonism, whiling away the hours with wine, women, song and pleasures forbidden even to the aristocracy. The handful who tried to reclaim their birthright were swiftly slapped down by the new rulers of empire. Emperor Darren II was assassinated - it was blamed on terrorists, but the act was clearly ordered by the aristocracy - and Empress Lyudmila was held prisoner by her unwanted husband, then murdered when she produced a heir.

By the time the Empire entered its final days, the Imperial Throne was occupied - to all intents and purposes - by Prince Roland, known to the public as the Childe Roland. He was officially declared a great moral and spiritual leader, but the reality was somewhat different. Prince Roland - the Grand Senate hadn’t been able to decide on when he should be formally crowned - was, by the time he entered his teenage years, a useless layabout. The only good thing that could be said about him, it should be noted, was that he’d not fallen as far into depravity as some of his ancestors. It was generally believed that it was just a matter of time.

The Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, in a desperate bid to turn the situation around, made use of the Corps’s long-held power to appoint bodyguards to the Imperial Household and assigned Specialist Belinda Lawson to take care of the prince and, hopefully, make a man out of him. She was rather more successful than one might expect, knocking some sense into the nearly-adult prince, but it was already too late. Earth collapsed into chaos and it was all Belinda could do, along with the prince, to escape. The Empire died and, as far as anyone outside the Corps knew, Prince Roland died with it. In reality, he was transferred to a Marine Corps starship.

This was, as far as the Corps was concerned, an awkward position. Roland was the legal ruler of the known galaxy. However, practically speaking, he ruled nothing. The Empire was dead and gone. The Corps could not recover even the Core Worlds, already blighted by civil war, let alone the rest of the settled worlds. Roland was an Emperor without an Empire; an unfinished young man who might be an asset but might equally become a burden. And that left the Corps with a serious problem.

What - exactly - were they going to do with Prince Roland?

Prologue II

Sarah Wilde awoke, in pain and darkness.

It wasn’t the first time she’d awoken in a strange place, her head throbbing as she tried to recollect what she’d been doing the previous evening. The sorority motto was practically “one evening in heaven, the next morning in hell” and she knew from bitter experience, after a year at Imperial University, that it was more than technically accurate. She and her peers had consumed vast amounts of everything from alcohol to mood-altering drunks in pursuit of mindless hedonism, all the while doing as little actual studying as they could get away with. It wasn’t as if the professors cared. Sarah had heard, from one of the more radical student activists, that the staff preferred their students to be zonked out of their minds. It kept them from considering how little they actually learnt at the university.

She kept her eyes closed as she quietly accessed the situation. She was lying on a hard stone floor ... a relief, given how many times she’d woken up in a stranger’s bed. The air stank ... she didn’t want to think about what it might be. Her clothes were rumpled, but in place. Her body was aching. Her wrists ... a flash of alarm shot through her as she realised something cold and hard was wrapped around her wrists. Her hands were firmly bound behind her back ... she heard someone moan, the sound far too close for comfort. Her eyes snapped open and she looked around in panic. She was in a cage, surrounded by cold metal bars. And she wasn’t alone.

Her memory returned in a flash. There’d been a protest march. She’d gone because it was the popular thing to do, not out of any real conviction. She didn’t understand the issues, nor did she really care. She’d joined the marchers and then ... her memories were scattered, so badly jumped she wasn’t even sure they were in the right order. There’d been bangs and crashes and flashes of light so painful she’d thought she’d been blinded and then ... and then nothing, until she’d woken up in a cell. Her heart sank as she looked from face to face. She didn’t recognise anyone within eyeshot, but they were all clearly in the same boat. They’d all been arrested.

Sarah swallowed, hard. It wouldn’t be that bad, she told herself. The cops would realise they’d made a mistake soon enough. She’d heard stories of being arrested, stories told by activists, that made it sound like a grand adventure. She heard someone being sick behind her, coughing and spitting to keep from choking on their own vomit. An adventure? She promised herself, numbly, that she’d never go to another protest march as long as she lived, not after she’d woken in a cell. The activists could find someone else to march in their protests.

Someone catcalled. She looked up and through the bars. There was another cage on the far side of a walkway, crammed with male prisoners. They looked savage ... she shuddered helplessly, trying not to draw attention. The bars didn’t seem solid any longer. She lowered her head, wishing for water ... wishing it was just a nightmare, wishing she could wake up in her own bed. She heard banging and crashing in the distance and forced herself to look, just in time to see two uniformed women marching towards them. They were banging their truncheons on the bars, waking the prisoners from their slumber. Sarah groaned in pain as the noise grew louder. She wanted - she needed - them to stop.

The women stopped in front of the cage and peered at the prisoners. “You,” the leader said, jabbing a finger at a girl in a tattered pink dress. “On your feet.”

The girl shook her head. “I want my lawyer.”

“Hah.” The guards laughed. “She wants a lawyer.”

Sarah opened her mouth to protest, but it was too late. The lead guard pointed a flashlight-like device at the protesting girl. Her entire body jerked, twisting unnaturally. She screamed in pain, then collapsed in a heap. Sarah stared in horror, unable to understand what had happened. It was ... it was unthinkable. It was beyond her imagination. It was ...

The guard pointed at her. “You. On your feet.”

Sarah forced herself to stand, despite her fear. The guard beckoned her forward, through the cage door, then shoved her down the corridor. Sarah tried to keep track of their movements, as they frogmarched her through a string of unmarked corridors and elevators that went up and down seemingly at random, but rapidly lost her bearings. It occurred to her she was being marched in circles, just to confuse her, although it seemed pointless. The building was just too big. She wondered numbly just where they actually were. She hadn’t seen any large police station within the university sector, not on any of the public maps. But she’d also been told there was a great deal that was never put on the terminals.

They shoved her into a small room and pushed her onto a stool, then stepped back. Sarah looked up and saw a man sitting behind a desk, his eyes on a terminal in front of him. He looked bored and harassed, his face suggesting he no longer gave a damn about his job or anything. She shivered, despite herself. She’d seen that expression before, on the maintenance staff who kept the university running. They seemed to loathe the students they served with a white-hot passion. She had always wondered why they didn’t look for better jobs elsewhere.

The man spoke in a bored monotone. “You have been convicted of public disorderliness, taking part in an unlicensed political rally and various other charges. Your appeal has been filed, reviewed and rejected. The original conviction stands. You have been sentenced to involuntary transportation.”

Sarah blinked. It was hard to follow his words, but ... “I ... I want a lawyer.”

“You have already been convicted,” the man said. His tone didn’t change. “You were caught in the performance of illegal activity. The state-appointed lawyer made a valiant attempt to defend you and your comrades, but the evidence was damning. The appeal was unsuccessful. You have been sentenced to ...”

“I ...” Sarah swallowed, hard. “It was ... you can’t do this!”

“You were caught in the performance of illegal activity,” the man repeated. “You have been convicted.”

Sarah stared at him in shock. It ... she’d heard rumours, sure, about what happened to people who stepped too far out of line, but she’d never taken them seriously. No one she knew really believed them. The police were a joke. It was ...

The man didn’t wait for her to speak. “Your contract has been sold to the New Doncaster Development Corporation. You will be transported to New Doncaster shortly, once the remainder of the involuntary transportees have been processed. You may make a choice. As a young and presumably fertile woman, you may marry a farmer on the planet and assist him in developing his territory. If you agree to this, the corporation will forgive the debt you owe them. If you ...”

Sarah found her voice. “I don’t owe them anything!”

“They bought out your contract,” the man said. “They own you.”

“You can’t own a person!” Sarah tried not to raise her voice, but it was hard. “Slavery was banned under the constitution ...”

“You’re a convicted criminal,” the man said. “You have to pay your debt to society. The corporation has bought your contract and is offering you the chance to repay them ...”

“By marrying a man I’ve never met and ...” Sarah found it hard to put her thoughts into words. “It’s barbaric! My parents ...”

“Are no longer part of the issue,” the man said. For the first time, she heard a hint of exasperation in his voice. “The corporation owns you. You can repay your debt, in the manner they suggest, and the slate will be wiped clean. Or you will find yourself on contract duty when you reach the planet, which could be anything from working in the fields to slaving in a brothel. You would be well-advised to accept their terms and strive to make it work. This is the one chance you’ll get.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not a slave!”

“The corporation owns you,” the man said. “Maybe you are not legally a slave. The fact remains they can treat you as one until you repay their debt. Choose.”

“I can’t ...” Sarah tried to protest. “I don’t know ...”

“Choose,” the man repeated. “I have no more time.”

Sarah pinched herself. Nothing happened. It was ... it was a nightmare. She’d only gone to a protest march! It wasn’t as if she’d done something really wrong. And yet ... she recalled hearing, somewhere, that Earth was so overpopulated that the sentence for just about anything was deportation, unless one had a really good lawyer. She wanted to demand her rights, as a free citizen, but ... tears prickled in her eyes as she realised she wasn’t a free citizen any longer. She was property. She’d been sold to the highest bidder. Her family would never see her again. Would they ever know what had happened to her? Would they try to come looking? Or would they simply wind up arrested and deported themselves? Or ...

Cold anger burnt through her as she gathered herself. She’d survive, she vowed. She’d build a new life for herself ... no, she’d make the corporation regret it had ever enslaved her. She’d make it pay, even if it cost her everything. She’d make it pay.

“Very well,” she said. She needed to play dumb, for a while, until she knew what was really going on. And then she’d find a way to take advantage. “I’ll do as the corporation says.”

And then, her thoughts added silently, I’ll make them pay.

Chapter One

Marine Boot Camp, Merlin

The woods were dark, oppressive.

Roland, once Prince Roland of Earth and now Receipt Roland Windsor of the 7th Training Regiment, kept his head down as the squad picked their way through the trees. Visibility was terrifyingly variable, streams of light broken by pools of shadow that made a mockery of his enhanced eyes. The trees were large enough to conceal infantrymen below, their branches easily big enough to host a sniper or two. He swept his rifle from side to side, all too aware the enemy could be lurking anywhere. The mission had to be completed successfully. He wanted - he needed - to progress. He couldn’t go to the Slaughterhouse until he convinced his instructors that he could become a full-fledged marine.

Take it seriously, he told himself, sharply. You don’t want to get into shit because you were woolgathering when you needed to watch for trouble.

He inched around a tree, then darted to the next one. The mission was relatively simple, they’d been told, but the simplest things were often the most complex. The training company - broken down into squads - had to make its way through the forest, flushing out the enemy positions before they could rally and counterattack. Roland was tempted to wonder if they’d been sent on a wild goose chase - he’d heard shooting, yet they hadn’t seen the enemy - but he knew better. The fact the enemy hadn’t greeted them with a hail of fire was almost certainly a bad sign. They were probably dug in somewhere further into the forest, waiting for the recruits to stumble into their trap. Roland cursed under his breath as he paused, listening carefully for the slightest hint of movement. It was hard to be sure. The local wildlife was just too loud. A drunkard could pass unnoticed against the din.

Goddamned insects, he thought. He wasn’t sure who’d thought to introduce the tiny bugs to the training ground, but it was a stroke of evil genius. The clattering bugs provided all the sonic cover a hidden enemy force could want. If only we could get rid of them,

Recruit Walsh stepped up beside him, her face pale. Roland glanced at her, then held up a hand to signify she should remain behind as the rest of the squad advanced. They were dangerously spread out, and he was tempted to suggest they closed up, but he knew it would be asking for trouble. Their uniforms were supposed to make it hard for the enemy to detect them, yet hard wasn’t the same as impossible. A single drone, orbiting so far above them even his enhanced eyes couldn’t see it, would be enough to call fire down on their heads, if they slipped up and showed themselves. Better to remain spread out until they knew where there targets actually were. He nodded to the others, then resumed the advance. If he drew fire himself ...

Nothing happened. The treeline remained quiet. Roland frowned. He wouldn’t be happy if someone hit him - the instructors would be very sarcastic, even if he hadn’t fucked up - but the rest of the squad could unleash hell on their opponents. It would be better to know the worst at once, he thought, rather than remain in ignorance of the enemy positions. The training ground was huge, easily large enough for an entire army to remain hidden if it wished. Roland kept his eyes open as the squad moved up to join him, but there was nothing. It was all too easy to believe they were completely alone.

Or we’re lost, which puts us on track for promotion to lieutenant and a court-martial, he thought, with a flicker of amusement. He’d no idea why so many marines seemed to believe their lieutenants couldn’t read maps - his first exercise in map-reading had been a disaster, yet he’d gotten better at it with practice - but it didn’t matter. There’s no way we can simply march out of the training ground and get hopelessly lost.

The squad continued to advance, pushing through the trees and avoiding the handful of half-baked trails within the woods. Roland couldn’t tell if they’d been made by animals or humans, although they’d been taught to stay off the paths as much as possible. A smart enemy would have their mortars already zeroed on the path, ready to unleash hell the moment their targets came into view. Unless ... sweat continued to trickle down his back as the trees opened suddenly, revealing a grassy valley with a farmhouse and a pair of barns at the bottom. It looked deserted, but that was meaningless. The enemy could be using it as a base. They had to clear it before they continued the advance.

He glanced at the rest of the squad, then led the way forward at a run. Their uniforms were designed to provide a certain amount of concealment, but he’d been cautioned not to rely on it. The human eye was attracted to movement, even if it couldn’t make out what was actually moving. Roland had heard cautionary tales of defenders who’d been so keyed up they’d fired at shadows. He’d thought the stories were absurd until he’d been on guard duty himself. It had worn him down so much he’d nearly fired on a friendly convoy. And that would have landed him in real trouble.

Roland reached the side of the farmhouse, unhooked a flashbang from his belt and hurled it through the window, looking away as the grenade detonated. The flashbangs weren’t actually lethal, at least under normal circumstances, but anyone caught in the blast would be too busy projectile vomiting or trying not to collapse to worry about the intruders. He counted to five, then allowed Walsh to heft him up and through the window. He landed neatly, weapon raised and ready. The room was deserted. There weren’t even any tripwires that might be linked to IEDs or other surprises. He frowned as the rest of the squad joined him, then carefully led the way through the rest of the house. It looked oddly polished, for a building in the middle of a training ground. That worried him, although he wasn’t sure why. The corps was known for its attention to detail. The instructors would have gone to some trouble to make sure the building looked as though it had been abandoned in a hurry.

“Search the barns,” he ordered, as they completed their sweep and hurried outside. “Quickly.”

His heart pounded as they glided through the remainder of the farm. The farmhouse was nice and rustic, but it might also be a trap. They hadn’t had time to search it thoroughly. He checked his threat detector and saw nothing, but it wasn’t reassuring. There was an ongoing war between the techs who designed early warning and detection technology and the insurgents who tried to come up with ways to fool it. It was quite possible they’d missed something. The instructors were ruthlessly pessimistic. If there was even a slightest chance someone would be hit, they’d be hit. There was no room for the luck of the draw on the training ground.

Hard training, easy mission, Roland quoted, silently. Easy training, get the shit kicked out of you on a real mission.

Recruit Singh caught his eye. “It’s clear, sir.”

Roland nodded, turning his eyes towards the far side of the valley. Anything could be hidden within the trees, anything at all. He was tempted to call in and ask for support, perhaps even an update from the drones, but he knew it would be pointless. They’d been cautioned not to risk any sort of contact until they encountered the enemy, just in case. His superiors would not be amused if he risked contact just because he needed his hand held. They’d be very sarcastic.

He scowled as the squad prepared to resume the advance. His fellow recruits didn’t know him as anything other than Roland Windsor, a young recruit keen to be the best of the best, but his instructors knew who he’d been, only a few short months ago. Roland didn’t blame them, not really, for having their doubts about him. He looked back at himself when he’d been the Childe Roland, Heir to the Imperial Throne of Earth, and violently cringed. He’d been a spoilt little brat, a mindless pleasure-seeker who’d drunk and drugged himself constantly just to starve off the boredom of life ... he shuddered when he remembered everything he’d done, to people who didn’t dare say no. He’d been trapped in a gilded cage and he hadn’t even known it, not then. He’d been a puppet who couldn’t even see the strings!

His eyes swept the distant hills, although his thoughts were elsewhere. Specialist Belinda Lawson, a Marine Pathfinder, had saved his life and soul. She’d swept into his palace and transformed his life, knocking some sense into his head ... too late to save the planet, perhaps, but not too late to make a man out of him, Shame swept over him as he remembered how he’d tried to get her into bed, as if she’d be interested in a overweight princeling who could barely lift his own weight. And she was dead ... or worse. His superiors - his new superiors -hadn’t been entirely clear on what had happened to her, but he feared the worst. She would have come to see him, wouldn’t she? He wanted to believe she would have come.

Perhaps you were just another assignment to her, his thoughts pointed out. You were surrounded by people who were paid to keep you happy and dumb, people who didn’t give a shit about you. She might not have given a shit about you either.

He tensed, suddenly, as he heard the sound of rotor blades in the distance. A helicopter swept low over the hills, heading straight towards them. Roland swore as he saw the weapon pods hanging under its stubby wings; antitank rockets and heavy machine guns that would punch through his body armour as though it wasn’t even there. The training brief hadn’t mentioned helicopters ... not directly, at least. The instructors had a habit of throwing unpleasant surprises into the mix, just to make sure the recruits knew their intelligence, no matter how much the spooks vouched for it, couldn’t be taken for granted.

“Take cover,” he shouted. “Hurry!”

The sound grew louder as he hurled himself into a ditch, near the farmhouse. His mind raced as he saw Walsh take up position near the treeline. The farmhouse might have been a trap after all, although not in the way he’d thought. There could be someone on the hillside with a low-tech telescope, linked to a simple telephone line ... he sucked in his breath. His instructors had warned him, time and time again, that just because something was outdated didn’t mean it was useless. A pre-space telescope and telephone wire would be pretty much impossible to detect unless the marines got lucky.

He stayed very still as the helicopter thundered over the valley, the rotors chopping through the air. Insurgents had learnt to fear the ugly aircraft a long time ago, all too aware the pilots could rain down death on them from overhead in relative safety. It took a great deal of luck to take down a helicopter without MANPADs or other heavy weapons, luck the umpires wouldn’t grant in a training exercise. Roland gritted his teeth, hoping the helicopter pilot would assume they’d gotten into the treeline before the aircraft got into position. Between the camouflage and the local wildlife confusing the craft’s sensors, they might just get lucky.

They know we can’t have gotten that far away, he thought. It didn’t look as though the helicopter was carrying a squad of troops, but appearances could be misleading. The aircraft was big enough to carry six or seven men in addition to the pilot and gunners, if they didn’t mind getting very friendly. Roland himself had been crammed into tiny aircraft with his peers several times, during the last few months. And they might think they have us pinned down ...

The helicopter fired a machine gun burst into the trees. Roland frowned, unsure what the gunner had seen. None of the shells had gone anywhere near the recruits, not unless he’d misjudged where the other two had hidden. Perhaps they’d seen a fox or something move and fired on instinct or ... perhaps they were just trying to intimidate the recruits. It might work out for them. Roland didn’t dare move, which meant they’d be pinned down right until the exercise ended or they were caught by the bad guys and humiliated ... he peered towards the treeline, wondering if there was already a line of enemy troops moving towards them. It wasn’t as if they had to worry about being seen.

He frowned. He could hit the helicopter with a rifle-launched grenade, if he could get up and take aim before the craft blew him to atoms. But ... he didn’t have time. Roland knew, without false modesty, that he was one of the fastest gunners in the training company and even he didn’t have enough time to take out the helicopter, not unless something happened to divert its attention. His mind churned. He needed a diversion. If he did nothing, they were screwed.

A plan occurred to him. He put it into action before he could think better of it. He signalled Walsh, instructing her to send a microburst message to their superiors. The messages were supposed to be undetectable and untraceable, but he knew the helicopter would have the very latest in detection gear, manned by people who knew precisely what to look for. The aircraft rotated rapidly, bringing its machine guns to bear on Walsh. Roland didn’t hesitate. He rolled over, slotted the grenade into place and fired it at the helicopter. It went through the gunner’s hatch and detonated inside. A moment later, the helicopter rose into the sky and vanished.

Got you, Roland thought. The boot camp was supposed to be realistic, but even his instructors drew the line at using real bullets and grenades. The helicopter was officially dead now and would remain so until the exercise terminated. You’ll be buying the drinks when we finally get some leave ...

He tried not to feel guilty as he stumbled to his feet and looked at Walsh. She wasn’t dead, of course, but her training suit had locked up. She would remain immobile until the exercise ended or, depending on timing, the umpires collected her and put her on the sidelines. She’d be hopping mad afterwards, Roland reflected as the other two joined him. He promised himself he’d make it up to her, if he could. He would almost sooner have preferred to be ‘killed’ himself. At least he would have volunteered to serve as a human sacrifice.

There was no time to discuss it with her, he told himself, firmly. She’ll understand.

He gritted his teeth as they resumed their march through the trees. He’d been told, when he’d been a child, that it was his duty to look after the empire as a whole, rather than the individual people within it. He hadn’t realised, until much later, that it was a form of manipulation, that one could justify almost anything by insisting it was for the good of the empire. What was a single life compared to the uncountable trillions who made up the empire as a whole? It was nothing more than a number, perhaps even a rounding error. It was hard to argue that a single life mattered ...

And yet, Walsh was a friend. He knew her. He knew she’d had hopes and dreams of her own before Earthfall. He knew she wanted to be a marine, that she’d joined the training company in hopes of making it to the Slaughterhouse. She was a living breathing person, a friend and a rival, a comrade and an enemy ... no, never an enemy. They might have been on opposing teams, from time to time, but they weren’t enemies. He respected her and the rest of the company in a way he’d never respected anyone, back when he’d been the Childe Roland. And she was going to be mad at him in the aftermath of the exercise. She was probably going to punch him in the face.

Which is no more than you deserve, his thoughts mocked him. If someone had done that to him, without his permission, he would have been livid. Belinda would probably have kicked you in the nuts. It was bad enough when you tried to cop a feel ...

He pushed that thought out of his mind and forced himself to keep going, heading towards the enemy position. Time was running out. They had to flush the enemy out before the umpires called a halt, before ... he wondered if he’d be ordered to retake the training section again. He’d done some sections of boot camp twice now, at the whim of his superiors. Roland wasn’t sure if they were testing his patience, if they thought he’d tell them he wanted to quit if they didn’t let him complete boot camp and advance to the Slaughterhouse, or if they just wanted to be sure he knew everything he needed before it was too late. The Slaughterhouse was the final test, as far as the corps were concerned. And he was damned if he was failing. He owed it to Belinda to succeed.

Singh made a gesture as he peered around a tree. Enemy in sight.

Roland nodded, pushing his thoughts and doubts aside. They’d located the enemy lines. It was time to make war. He’d worry about the rest afterwards …

... And yet, as he braced himself for the advance, he couldn’t help wondering if he really had what it took to become a marine.
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