THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE HAS BEEN DECODED
CONFIDENTIAL, COMMAND CLEARANCE REQUIRED
Day 61 of Operation LAKER, Stage 3.
Operative: Colonel REDACTED.
Origin: Solmary, LL.
Destination: COMMAND at REDACTED.
-Operation LAKER completed ahead of schedule, deemed successful. Canals and lock points of LAKES PERIUS, MISKIN, and NERON under control of the Scarlet Guard.
-Operatives WHIPPER and OPTIC will control LAKER moving forward, maintain close contact, open channels to MOBILE BASE and COMMAND. Stand-and-report protocol, awaiting action orders.
-Returning to TRIAL with LAMB at present.
-LAKER overview: Killed in action: D. FERRON, T. MILLS, M. PERCHER (3).
Wounded: SWIFTY, WISHBONE (2).
Silver casualty count (3): Greenwarden (1), Strongarm (1), Skin healer? (1).
Civilian casualty count: Unknown.
RISE, RED AS THE DAWN.
The Colonel speaks to fill the silence. His one good eye presses to a crack in the compartment wall, fixing on the horizon. The other eye stares, though it can hardly see through a film of scarlet blood. Nothing new. His left eye has been like that for years.
I follow his gaze, peering through slats in the rattling wood. Dark clouds gather a few miles off, trying to hide behind the forested hills. In the distance, thunder rolls. I pay it no mind. I only hope the storms don’t slow the train down, forcing us to spend one second longer hidden here, beneath the false floor of a cargo car.
We don’t have time for thunderstorms or pointless conversation. I haven’t slept in two days and I have the face to prove it. I want nothing more than quiet and a few hours of rest before we make it back to the base in Trial. Luckily there’s not much to do here but lie down. I’m too tall to stand in such a space, as is the Colonel. We both have to sprawl, leaning as best we can in the dim partition. It’ll be night soon, with only darkness to keep us company.
I can’t complain about the mode of transportation. On the trip out to Solmary, we spent half the journey on a barge shipping fruit. It stalled out on Lake Neron, and most of the cargo rotted. Spent the first week of operations washing the stink from my clothes. And I’ll never forget the mess before we started Laker, in Detraon. Three days in a cattle car, only to find the Lakelander capital utterly beyond reach. Too close to the Choke and the warfront to have shoddy defenses, a truth I willingly overlooked. But I wasn’t an officer then, and it wasn’t my decision to try to infiltrate a Silver capital without adequate intelligence or support. That was the Colonel. Back then he was only a captain with the code name Ram and too much to prove, too much to fight for. I only tagged along, barely more than an oathed soldier. I had things to prove too.
He continues to squint at the landscape. Not to look outside, but to avoid looking at me. Fine. I don’t like looking at him either.
Bad blood or not, we make a good team. Command knows it, we know it, and that’s why we keep getting sent out together. Detraon was our only misstep in an endless march for the cause. And for them, for the Scarlet Guard, we put aside our differences each and every time.
“Any idea where we go next?” Like the Colonel, I won’t abide the heavy silence.
He pulls back from the wall, frowning, still not looking my way. “You know that’s not how it works.”
I’ve spent two years as an officer, two more as an oathed soldier of the Guard, and a lifetime living in its shadow. Of course I know how it works, I want to spit.
No one knows more than they must. No one is told anything beyond their operation, their squadron, their immediate superiors. Information is more dangerous than any weapon we possess. We learned that early, after decades of failed uprisings, all laid low by one captured Red in the hands of a Silver whisper. Even the best-trained soldier cannot resist an assault of the mind. They are always unraveled, their secrets always discovered. So my operatives and my soldiers answer to me, their captain. I answer to the Colonel, and he answers to Command, whoever they might be. We know only what we must to move forward. It’s the only reason the Guard has lasted this long, surviving where no other underground organization has before.
But no system is perfect.
“Just because you haven’t received new orders doesn’t mean you don’t have an idea as to what they might be,” I say.
A muscle in his cheek twitches. To pull a frown or a smile, I don’t know. But I doubt it’s the latter. The Colonel doesn’t smile, not truly. Not for many years.
“I have my suspicions,” he replies after a long moment.
“And they are . . . ?”
I hiss through my teeth. Typical. And probably for the best, if I’m being honest with myself. I’ve had enough close shaves of my own with Silver hunting dogs to know exactly how vital the Guard’s secrecy is. My mind alone contains names, dates, operations, enough information to cripple the last two years of work in the Lakelands.
We don’t use our titles or names in official correspondence. I’m Lamb, according to anything that could be intercepted. Another defense. If any of our messages fall into the wrong hands, if the Silvers crack our cyphers, they’ll have a hard time tracking us down and unraveling our vast, dedicated network.
“Colonel,” I respond, and he finally looks at me.
Regret flashes in his one good eye, still a familiar shade of blue. The rest of him has changed over the years. He’s noticeably harder, a wiry mass of old muscle, coiled like a snake beneath threadbare clothes. His blond hair, lighter than mine, has begun to thin. There’s white at the temples. I can’t believe I never noticed it before. He’s getting old. But not slow. Not stupid. The Colonel is just as sharp and dangerous as ever.