My best friend and I sit side by side on the intercontinental train. I’ve got my legs tucked up under me as I slump over the tablet that’s resting on my thighs, fiercely studying for the final exam. Solomon sits with perfect straight posture and feet flat on the floor, eyes forward, on schedule and prepared like the star cadet he is. Around us, other travelers work, listen, read, and doze as the train speeds through a seemingly endless expanse of coniferous forest.
Solomon touches his chin and tips his hand at me in the sign for good luck. He stands and walks toward the back of the car, out of my sight because I don’t turn to watch him go. I’m too busy with the tablet, which projects a three-dimensional model of the transportation system of the Republic of Chaonia. Interlocking threads create a shining network of transport hubs and lines across the surface of the planet and out into space, where they link up into the intersystem beacon routes.
A glitch burns through the model. It winks out, winks back in, then scatters in a fizz of bubbling sparks as the hum of the train stutters, kicks in briefly, and sputters away into an ominous quiet. I look up.
People start muttering as the train sighs to a stop like a huge creature letting out a death exhale. A man wearing the red-and-gold military uniform of the Republican Guard of Chaonia jumps up and presses both hands against a window.
“I saw something in the forest,” he says loudly enough that everyone stops talking and turns to look out the window he’s leaning against.
There’s a lull of thick silence. Everyone, including me, is holding their breath.
An explosion booms, the sound tearing through my body like shrapnel. The car shakes and the windows ripple but don’t shatter. The explosion is followed by another vibration with a pitch so low I can’t hear it except as a jolt. My tablet fizzes to life, visuals flashing, then goes inert.
Dammit. A premonition of disaster whirls through my mind as my heart hammers, but I manage to hold on to just enough self-possession to roll up the thin tablet and stuff it into my sleeve pocket. No emergency lights are flashing. There aren’t any lights at all.
The military man leans back from the window and glances around the carriage.
“Anyone here a transportation engineer?” he asks. “It looks like the explosion hit the power grid. Maybe if we go to the engine car we can figure out a workaround.”
I raise my hand like I’m in class and unsure if I have the right answer. “I’m a cadet, studying transportation engineering. I’ll go with you—”
A thunk interrupts my offer. The soldier recoils and flops onto his back with a slab of window sticking out of his chest. Just sticking there like a malignant sculpture.
My mind goes blank, and my skin goes cold. No one in Chaonia believes the war will ever come here, not after what Eirene has accomplished as queen-marshal. The Phene would have to slice through Troia’s gate and Molossia’s defenses to reach Chaonia Prime.
A packet of glowing ion fléchettes punches through the shattered window, slamming into the train wall and into several of the passengers too. Blood spatters onto my cadet’s uniform before I can register the scope of the carnage. Screams and shouts break out as people scramble for cover. A blood-spotted child sitting in the opposite row starts to bawl as their parent tries frantically to shove them under a seat.
Finally, finally, my academy training kicks in, and I drop to the floor. The military man is lying on his back not two meters from me. He convulses, and the slab of window stuck into his body tilts crazily and with a terrible sucking sound tears out of his chest. Blood bubbles up from the shocking gash. My mouth has gone dry and my hands are shaking as I crawl to him and press hands to the gaping wound, trying to stop the blood.
Another soldier slips in beside me. “I’m a medic. Didn’t you say you’re an engineer? Can you get the train running?”
“I am. I can.” Every citizen of Chaonia has a job to do, and I need to do mine.
Another spray of fléchettes hits the remaining windows. I twist onto my back, as if that would save me, but nothing hits me. According to the timer that’s always running in the background of my network it’s been 117 seconds since the glitch, even though it seems like an hour.
Focus. Focus. Check all parameters. Note all details. Find a way to the engine car and fix the power grid to get the train away from the attack.
Because I’m now on my back on the floor I see at an odd angle up through the banks of windows. Treetops seem to hang upside-down into the blue sky. Shade-striped gliders skim over the trees with an ease that strikes me as beautiful, until people drop down from the gliders’ rigging onto the railway embankment and launch themselves at the train cars.
They aren’t imperial Phene. That’s easy to tell because these invaders have only two arms. They are something worse, the Phene’s savage allies who seek honor through death in combat. We call them the Gatoi. These soldiers don’t feel pain because their bodies are threaded with some kind of neuro enhancers.
The invaders climb the slick sides of the train cars. They pound energy axes against the heavy-duty clear windows, bolts sizzling out from each impact like webs of lightning. When panes crack the soldiers launch themselves through, heedless of the gouges the edges leave in their flesh.
I grab for my stun gun as a young man looms above me. He’s no older than I am and yet already in the heart of the war, ready to die. The worst thing is his face, intensely focused and utterly impassive as he swings up the ax. I am nothing more than an object that’s gotten in his way and has to be destroyed.
I trigger the stun gun. Its net of sparkling current coalesces around his body. He spasms as the charge jolts through him. Then, of course, his enhancers suck it up and turn it into energy, and the ax slams down onto my head.