Over seven hundred star systems have been colonized by the Augment Empire, a cybernetic species that requires organic tissues to process food into usable fuel. When the cruel King Taen attempts to appropriate the lands of Lord Mavren, ne instead makes an enemy of the once-loyal lord, and turns all the power of the Empire against itself in a brutal civil war.
Young and ambitious Nact moves swiftly up the ranks of Mavren's rebel army to the coveted post of General. To cement nir position, and prove once and for all the lower castes are just as capable as the highest nobility, ne has only one task left to accomplish: capture Lord General Aiomonni, the brilliant, lethal head of King Taen's military... and Mavren's defected lover.
When the disastrous aftermath of a battle flings Nact and Aiomonni beyond the charted galaxy to land on a hostile planet, their only hope of survival lies in cooperation. But being enemies makes finding common ground impossible, and no matter how compelling Nact finds the beautiful, intelligent Aiomonni, it's hard to trust someone known not only for nir prowess in war, but for nir treachery...
Ne lay panting under a hedge with the ragged bite of a blaster wound spilling nir guts into dirt, the razor edges of nir own metals tearing the delicate organic tissues. Ne was going to die, and ne knew it. Ne was too hurt to be worthwhile to repair, even if a friend were to find nem. And what might Mavren’s rebels do to one who had killed their kind? The fluids of a Catalyst soldier were still thick on nir claws. Nir blaster, now trodden into the muck of the battlefield and damaged past repair, had claimed still more lives. Ne had been lucky, right up until nir dying opponent caught nem in the gut with a viciously clawed foot. Now, if ne was found, ne was dead. Ne was damaged beyond repair. Nir commanders wouldn’t bother with the transport of a wounded creature, the careful stitching and welds at the hand of a surgeon. Not for mere infantry. The enemy would want revenge for their dead.
I should have left, ne thought. I should have at least died fighting for something of my choosing. But ne hadn’t had the courage, and the thought gnawed at nem, a mental agony to go with the physical. Ne’d had enough courage to think defiance at nir masters, but little more. Now, that inaction seemed unbearable.
Ne flinched at the sound of feet outside nir hedge. Ne was unarmed, but perhaps ne could claw them. Then die pitifully. Ne hissed softly. Ne wanted no pity, but there was nothing ne could do.
The leaves of nir hiding place were lifted away, and another face peered down at nem, marked in Mavren’s dark pewters, dotted with white. A surgeon.
Ne stared back. Ne did not want to claw a surgeon, who was small and unarmed. It was wrong. Surgeons were to be protected. They were more valuable, worth dozens of Soldiercaste shells each. Even an enemy surgeon froze nem in place. Ne knew the creature was an enemy, here to humiliate or torture nem. But ne could not move; ne had been too completely trained to respect that speckle of white.
“Stay still,” said the surgeon, something ne most certainly did not need to be prompted to do. “I’m going to do something for the pain, after I get your gut back in.”
“Then what?” ne rasped. Ne didn’t understand. What use might a Catalyst surgeon have for nem? Ne shivered, nir armor flaring and settling, because all the things ne could imagine meant pain, fear. Ne remembered the rumors. Not a single creature taken by the Catalysts returned. Ne and nir comrades had speculated why. Medical experiments were most likely, they’d agreed. Why else would they take and keep Soldiercaste?
The surgeon pushed nir shoulders and arms into the space ne’d made in the hedge. Leaves rained down on both of them. “It’s a messy wound. I can’t clean it here, can’t do anything more than stabilize you.”
Ne tried to move, but pain slapped nem back down. “Then what?”
“Not my concern.”
Ne looked up at the surgeon with terror. Ne didn’t want to die here, in the dirt, but a thousand worse possibilities crowded nir mind: degradation, imprisonment, torture. The medical experiments. No one would care what happened to a damaged Soldiercaste.
The surgeon must have sensed nir panic. Ne finished the dressing of the wound and patted nir hand. “It will be up to you,” ne said. “But you won’t be hurt. Hold still.”
The tip of an applicator pressed against one of nir spiracles. A hiss. A few moments, and the pain began to recede.
How nir mind clung to the offer of reassurance! It was foolish; ne didn’t know whether to trust the surgeon. Ne was still trying to decide as the world slid away.
Ne took a name when ne woke. A political clerk offered it to nem, nir paint brown and pewter, going up and down the lines of cots with a book of common names. It wasn’t glowsheet but paper pressed between layers of plastic. Ne’d never seen real paper before, and here was this little clerk, offering nem the badly-bound volume—its pages held together with loops of metal threaded through holes on one side—as if it were disposable, not strange and wonderful and archaic. Ne poked at the names, expecting them to interact, to flash when ne selected them, and saw the clawmarks from others who had done the same. Ne curled nir claws into nir palms, embarrassed. The little clerk shook nir head and reached out to touch the nearest of nir hands.
“Touching is acceptable,” the clerk said. “This is meant to be touched.”
Ne looked around shyly. “But I’ll look a fool.”
“Even the nobles touch paper, to keep their place. There is no shame. Go on. Name yourself.”
So ne took the book and found a name—a simple name, a peasant’s name. Nact. Ne liked the way it felt in nir mouth. The clerk entered it in the glowsheet ne carried, and added a character. Ne wasn’t the first to have selected that name, the clerk explained, but ne was the first in nir group of rescued Soldiercaste, so that this planet would now serve as nir House name. Nact of Quen. Nact tried that aloud and liked it better still.
“But what will happen to us?” Nact asked again, and the clerk tucked the book of names and the official glowsheet under an elbow and smiled.
“You can remain loyal,” ne said. “To Taen King, who has denied you a name, denied you a House, denied you everything that makes you a person. Then we will imprison you, but treat you otherwise as well as our people. Or you can be neutral, and we will give you land to farm, to be your own. Your name will be yours to keep. Or you may join us and fight with us.”
It was no choice. Who would pass up a farm for more fighting? Even if nir inaction might gall nem, it was madness to return to the life of a Soldiercaste, however righteous the cause. But the little clerk was not done. Nact saw the smile in nir eyes, the tightening of metal around gleaming lenses.
“And if you fight with us, you are equal to us, and if you fight well, you may yet earn your way up your ranks. General Grea was a peasant on our King’s lands. Many of nir sub-generals were commoners. Mavren dislikes caste. If you fight well, you might one day stand with them.”
Nact had seen pictures of General Aiomonni, nir former master when Nact fought for King Taen, but only pictures. Aiomonni commanded hundreds of thousands of Soldiercaste, officers, all the empire’s military, nir power only second to that of Taen King nemself. In the pictures, ne was grand and heavily painted in the colors of nir House, flame orange and night blue, standing alongside Taen King. Nact tried to imagine nemself like that, but in pewters and blacks. Ne looked down at nir arms, the layered plates of metal, nir heavy claws, and imagined them in colors. Nact looked up into the face of the clerk.
“Take all the time you need to think,” said the clerk.
Nact shook nir head. “No,” ne said, and felt nir crest rise from clamped flat against nir head. “No, I don’t need time. When may I give—” and hesitated, the words were so odd to nem “—our King, Mavren King, my loyalty?”