The corruption of Cadet Lees Tarillion began with a single kiss.
As Meno drew away, her lips dewy and warm, Tarillion realized that he would have to go to war.
He would leave Bentham and its boundless, sun-baked prairies. He would go to Albion Secundus and join the Emperor’s navy. He would ascend to the stars. He would become an officer. Hell, he’d become a captain. For the first time in his life, he wouldn’t resist the future that he was born to–
Meno gave a soft exhale and tilted her head up, the wet cling of her lips making Tarillion’s head swim, as if he were trapped underwater in a deep, murky ocean.
“Lees,” she said breathlessly. “I have to confess something–”
He pressed his mouth against her throat. He could taste her pulse pounding underneath her skin. “Later.”
“This can’t wait.” She placed her hands on his chest as he reached for her. “Lees!”
He groaned low in his throat. “Meno, please…”
Her cheeks were flushed bright pink as she adjusted her eyeglasses. If he didn’t know better, Tarillion would think that she was nervous. The Tarillion family was ranked far above hers, and if Lees’s aunt found out about their secret trysts she’d likely boot the entire Arceneaux family to the moon on Bentham’s far side. She had plans for her nephew, ones that didn’t involve stringy prairie tomboys with poor families and no prospects.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he assured her, grabbing her shoulders. “Now that you’re going to Secundus, we have to make the most of–”
“I’m not going to Albion Secundus, you arse,” Meno blurted out.
For a dizzy moment, Tarillion thought he’d misheard. Not going to Secundus?
“But you’ve been working towards your medical certification for the last two years. You’re going to join the Imperial Medical Corps. On Secundus.”
“No, I’m not,” she said, brushing her black hair out of her eyes. She met his gaze with reluctance and determination. “I’m not joining the Medical Corps. Not the Imperial one, anyway.” Her voice was quiet, but determined.
An alarm was sounding in Tarillion’s head. “Meno,” he said, glancing around them. “What in all the hells are you talking about? I was just going to tell you–I’m going to Secundus, too. To the Academy. We’ll go together.”
She scanned their surroundings quickly as if she was worried that someone would overhear them, but there was nothing but the sound of the wind whistling through the rusting bones of the ancient Imperial starship. In the centuries since it crashed on Bentham’s surface, the long violet-green grasses of the prairie had grown through it, slowly absorbing the craft into the earth. Tarillion had always liked tumbling with Meno in the starship’s ruins, leaving the indent of their bodies in the soft grasses. By tradition, the ship was supposed to be hallowed ground. Instead, they met here whenever they could to flout every rule and expectation that their families pressed on them.
“I’m. Not. Going. To. Secundus.” She hissed softly. “Lees–I’m going to join the Federation.”
Tarillion felt as if she’d dropped a stone into his guts. They stared at each other as if they were total strangers instead of old childhood friends.
“You’re insane,” he said, when he realized that no joke or revelation was coming. “Meno–you can’t.”
“Can’t I?” She put her hands on her hips. “I’m eighteen, same as you. I can make my own way. And this is the way I’m choosing.” She had always been a quiet girl, absorbed in her studies. Even the teachers would barely notice her, so easily did she blend into the background. Lees had long known that she was more than the meek, reserved girl that she appeared to be, but this was a hell of a way to see her stubbornness manifest.
“It’s dangerous. It’s illegal. It’s treason. The Federation is a bunch of idealists and criminals.”
“Nothing wrong with idealism. And they’re only criminals because the people in charge call them criminals. It’s better than just…giving up. Doing what everyone else tells you to do.” Her tone was calm but firm. She’d been thinking this over for a long time.
Lees knew that it was futile to argue with her once she’d made up her mind, but he couldn’t help himself. I never thought she’d go and do something so…stupid.
A muscle under his eye twitched. “There’s no opposing the Empire, Meno. We’re a part of it–we’ve been a part of it for more than a thousand years. No one wins against them.”
“That’s what your family would have you believe,” she said, not bothering to hide the accusation in her tone. “Ah, the long and storied history of the Tarillions in the vaunted service of His Imperial Majesty. The Lords of the Dark know that I’ve grown up listening to your aunt prattle on about your noble ancestors and how it makes you better than everyone else–”
“You know I don’t buy that shite.” He said shite the way she would, biting off the syllable with his teeth.
The flush of red across Meno’s cheeks was now more angry than aroused. “You say you don’t. But you were just going to go along with tradition anyway.”
“They’ll conscript me sooner or later.”
“You can resist.” Her eyes were wide and unblinking beneath the antique bifocals. “Come with me. Go offworld.”
He reached out and fingered the yellow medic’s uniform that she was wearing, his mind in turmoil. This was supposed to be their final rendezvous before she left for Albion Secundus. He’d been keeping his plans from her for weeks now. It was inevitable that the Empire would come for him one day, but he’d delayed it as long as he could. When Meno declared her plans to join the Medical Corps, he’d submitted his Academy application in secret, through his father’s old connections. He was going to surprise her.
She’d beaten him to the punch.
He drew away from her as she reached back out to him, her fingers clenching in his shirt. “Lees, I’ve only got the one life, as far as I know. I want to make something of it. I want to do something that really matters. Don’t you?”
No, he wanted to say. What I want is to escape this wretched planet, my useless ancestors, my Lords-be-damned aunt, and this fool plan of yours–
“I’ve got no plans to die in the middle of a firefight,” he said flatly. “Honestly, I don’t want any part of it, if I can help it. I don’t want to take anyone’s side. I want to go to some frontier world with you and spend the rest of our days drinking and sleeping and eating cute animals and getting sand in unfortunate places. I don’t want to be involved in any of that.” He waved a hand above him, indicating the stars.
Meno’s face was pale and drawn, but she looked unsurprised. “Then this is where we have to part ways, Lees,” she said after a moment of silence. “This is the end of it.”
As if to underscore the gravity of her words, a low boom sounded above them. Both of them flinched, and Lees grabbed Meno, hugging her to his chest by reflex.
She stared up at the sky, even paler than before. They knew what that sound was. They knew that the Vehn threat had arrived on their doorstep–and the Empire would follow.
“You have to get to a shelter,” he said. “I’ll take you. Come on.”
“There’s no time,” she said instantly.
He yanked on her hand as they ran away from the starship’s skeleton. “We’ll take the aircar. When I’m done up there, I’ll come find you. I swear it. But you need to get to safety first,” he said.
“You don’t mean to go up there with the local boys’ brigade? It’s a miracle those wrecks that you call ships can get five inches off the ground!”
“I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll find you after all this is over. We’ll–we’ll figure things out together.”
She pulled on his hand, forcing him to skid to a stop outside his aircar. “Lees. Wait.”
They pressed their foreheads together. He could feel the warm, wet pant of her breath on his face and smell the sweat on her skin. He took an account of her face–her mouth, her cinnamon-colored eyes, the familiar spray of freckles that spanned her nose and cheekbones.
“You think you know how this will all go,” she said in that quiet, determined way of hers. “You think there’s an easy out. But you’re caught up in it just as I am. You’ll see–you’re a better man than you think you are. A better man than you’d like to be.”
“One last time,” she said, and kissed him.
“No.” He broke the kiss, stealing a moment to entwine his fingers with hers. “This isn’t the end. I’ll find you, Meno. I promise.”
No one cared about Bentham. It was one system over from the nearest portal, far from the river of goods that flowed through the trade routes to the heart of the Empire. It had little to offer thanks to the grass that grew in vast oceans that threatened to overtake the farming plots that Bentham’s inhabitants dug into its hard red soil. No manufacturing, no natural wonders, nothing but prairies and sun.
Why the Tarillions had chosen to make their home here, Lees had no idea. Still, it was home, and he’d be damned if the Vehn were going to destroy it before he left.
He grimaced as the alarm sounded again, feeling the vibration deep in his bones. The alarm was ancient, set up by Bentham’s first settlers generations ago. With sensors stationed in orbit around the planet, it only sounded when unauthorized ships breached the space around Bentham.
For all its insignificance, there was one thing that Bentham had: hundreds of thousands of human lives. The Vehn depended on human flesh to live, and Bentham was an easier target than the protected trade routes or the more valuable systems with a constant Imperial presence.
He aimed the aircar towards home, a single tall house in Satori fashion built in the middle of an overgrown steppe. It was stately but dilapidated from centuries of half-hearted care. The men spent their lives serving the fleet, while their offworld wives knew nothing about living on Bentham. Tarillions are gentlemen-officers, not farmers, his Aunt Egnathine would say to any suggestion that they should do something about the advancing prairie.
The aircar cut a burning path through the grass as Tarillion landed with a hard lurch. He scrambled out of the vehicle and made for the stables, the smell of scorched weeds behind him. Fire and caustic chemicals were the only things that kept Bentham’s lush grasses under control. Without careful management by Benthan farmers, the prairies would cover every inch of land on the planet.
He broke into an all-out run as he heard–no, felt–the alarm sound again, setting his teeth on edge. Meno was safe as she could be in the underground municipal shelter. Now was the time to make sure that the Vehn didn’t land–the shelters could only protect her for so long.
He could see his destination now: a flat pad a few hundred feet behind the house with small built-in alcoves for aircars. Aunt Egnathine liked to call it their stables, preferring the aristocratic flair of the word, but in reality it was simply an open air garage.
Grass pushed up through cracks in the pad. The whole estate would be doomed in a few years, if no one was here to care for it. Tarillion found that the idea didn’t bother him much.
He made for the farthest stall. A circular glob of metal parts sat there waiting, with Tarillion scrawled in patchy paint on one side of it. He felt a faint flush of affection for the old firecar. Every farming family on Bentham had one–the prairies caught on fire every summer and they had to be put out before they scorched the few crops that Bentham could grow. It was the responsibility of farmers’ sons to put out the fires. The Tarillions never farmed, but Lees bought the firecar himself when his father died and left Lees the lord of the manor. Fires threatened their estate too, even if they were soldiers rather than farmers.
Most of the firecar’s bulk was composed of the cockpit and engines; its underside was heavy with chemical tanks and a single grappling hook on the front, used occasionally to tow equipment around the farms.
A wreck, Meno had called it. Lees couldn’t bring himself to disagree. It was a wreck. But it would have to do.
He climbed into the tiny cockpit and began warming up the rickety engine. The firecar shuddered and rumbled beneath him. He opened the comms, immediately muting the line to the house, and instead opened the line to the boys’ brigade.
“Winstat, Poppo, Hewie–you there?”
“Eh, Leesy–we’ve been on for a half cycle, waitin’ for you. Where’ve you been?”
Lees’ thoughts turned briefly to Meno. “Nowhere.”
“Nowhere indeed,” jeered Winstat. “Lemme guess, Nowhere’s got a head of black hair and a nice set of–”
“Shut it, Win,” said Lees. “What’s going on?”
“Vehn, looks like,” Poppo replied. “They’re sending the big three up. That’s a bad sign.”
The big three were the local government’s only permanent defense, a trio of slow mining vessels that had been awkwardly repurposed for defense. Only Imperial ships and troops were allowed guns with any real firepower; the big three were only good for smashing into other ships, their hulls covered with layers of heavy armor. It was the only kind planetary defense permitted to Bentham and most other subject worlds by Imperial authorities.
“They don’t know when the Imperial guardship’s comin,’” Hewie added. “They’ll show up sooner or later.”
“When everyone’s dead and eaten, probably,” said Tarillion, checking his fuel gauge. The firecar’s tanks were filled to the top with corrosive chemicals for extinguishing fires and driving back grasses, but its fuel tank was only half full. This better be quick, or I’ll be falling out of the sky even if no one takes a shot at me.
“Probably,” Hewie agreed. “What’re we going to do, boys?”
“Same thing we always do,” Winstat cackled. “Put out the damn fire!”
Tarillion grinned despite himself.
Empire’s Scion is part of the Galactic Genesis anthology.