It was nearly time.
They were in the final preparations and the countdown had begun.
Everyone said this was a suicide mission; they were either going to come out heroes, having done the impossible, or they wouldn’t be seen again. Weathered troops had gone before and few had returned; those that had come back were shadows of the people that had left—apparently two of them still hadn’t said a word—and now the next platoon was heading towards the abattoir. With so few people left in the city eligible to recruit, it was no secret that everyone thought this would be their last chance to win this.
She watched them go into the main part of Necropolis, the giant warehouse that stood proudly above the mismatched buildings of the City of Suthchester; a landscape that had been irreversibly changed by The Breakdown. The warehouse was the hub of the army base of The Southern Company. It was really called The August Centre but nobody saw it as noble anymore; Necropolis seemed far more fitting and now there were very few who didn’t refer to the entire base as such. She had always wanted to know what was inside but civilians were forbidden unless employed directly, and even then, they were sworn to secrecy. The troops were rarely allowed to fraternise outside of the base, so there was no one to ask. It was a constant tease. She lived below the city and the entrance to her home was tucked into the city walls, just far enough up the hill that it required her to walk past the gates that gave her a view straight in. Every day she watched the soldiers walk in, coming up from the barracks at the bottom of the hill on the other side, each day looking a little more beaten. Most of the cadets left were only a little older than her, completing their initial training. She sighed and stood up from her perch on a bollard, knowing she couldn’t put off going home any longer—there was no way she’d get away with being late for supper again.
She skulked back towards home and the ornate metal gate built into the crumbling brickwork; behind it was a thin, winding staircase that you’d miss if you didn’t know it was there. She scurried down the stairs as quickly as her legs would allow, pausing at the front entrance to undo the catch as gently as possible and pushing delicately. She opened the door just enough to slip through, any further and she knew it would creak—she’d made that mistake too many times. She slipped along the hall and tried to dash across the kitchen doorway; thinking she had made it.
“Terrwyn. You’re late. Don’t you dare pretend that you weren’t outside of the gates! It is not proper for a young lady to be out on her own during the evening.” Oh great, Sister Cariad. Why was it never Sister Astrid who caught her?
“Sorry Sister, the troops went in late tonight…”
“You and those boys. If I didn’t know any better, Wyn, I’d think you wanted to be one!” Brother Aster chuckled, walking into the kitchen, squeezing her shoulder gently as he passed.
“You really need to keep away—it isn’t right for a young lady. The General wouldn’t like it.” Sister Astrid followed him in, but had a gentle smile lingering behind her words.
Wyn sighed with relief at being able to use the Brother and Sister as a buffer; she was safe from Sister Cariad’s wrath, for now at least.
“Exactly! Enough nonsense, it’s supper time—a Collectioner caught a rabbit, so we’re having rabbit stew,” Sister Cariad snapped, rolling her eyes. She gestured to the pot bubbling on the stove and the smell that rolled over to Wyn was ridiculously inviting as she realised she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Without being asked, she hurried round to set the rustic oak table that took pride of place in the centre of the kitchen. It was modest in design but the strength and weight behind it was a luxury compared to any other she’d seen in the city and it screamed ‘home’ to her. As she straightened the fourth place setting she looked up and saw Brother Aster had moved to the head of the table and was tracing the veins in the wood with his finger.
“Are any of the others joining us tonight, Brother?”
He jumped slightly, and looked at her flustered.
“Sorry, I was lost in thought, a conversation I had today just keeps playing on my mind… But anyway, enough about that. No, it will just be the four of us tonight, there are talks in the city that we must have representatives attend.” He chewed his lip and couldn’t stop the concern from casting a shadow over his face.
She smiled softly at him and continued in her task. The Retreat where they lived was split into two, and her end was generally reserved for taking in those in crisis—which is how she’d ended up being raised there, although she had rarely seen anyone else come in from the community. She always thought it was a shame that the Collections Children from the other end so rarely came to see them and she could tell that her Brothers and Sisters wished that they were more included.
It wasn’t long before she was called to collect a bowl and took her spot, taking in the scent of the rich broth that was rising up to warm her. The day had been rainy and miserable and she couldn’t have thought of anything better than a hearty casserole, especially Sister Cariad’s—she may be stern but she was a fantastic cook.
“Brother Aster, did today’s engagements go to plan?” Sister Astrid asked, briefly pausing to look at him.
“I cannot say that they were positive. Things across the water have gotten increasingly difficult, and the last company to deploy has suffered greatly. They’re saying that this will no longer be the final deployment; all bases will have to sign up another tour.” Brother Aster looked lost in the gravity of what he was saying. “General Baudin described what they are contending with as nothing but a massacre, bodies lining the…”
“Not in front of Terrwyn, Brother!” Sister Cariad barked, furious at such an inappropriate conversation being brought up at the dinner table. They finished the meal in silence.
Wyn was sent straight to her room once they were finished—she wasn’t even allowed to stay and clear away from dinner. Not that she argued about it, she hated washing up—especially the stew pot that was coated a deep brown from years of use—but she resented the reprimand nonetheless. She was sixteen and far too old to be treated like a child, but that was the ‘joy’ of the Collection.
She sighed as she sat on her bed and looked around the room; it was modest with a basic metal bed frame, wooden desk, and minimal belongings. Living with the Brothers and Sisters of the Old Collection, affectionately known as the Collections Children, meant that since she had been in their care she had lived in line with their lifestyle. Too many personal items were considered selfish and shallow but they had been lenient as she grew up, never completely denying her toys or art materials, and books were readily encouraged. She’d lost her parents when she was a baby and had no family that she knew of, they’d lived as workers in a countryside estate and that had left nowhere for her to go. She knew she should be grateful that they had taken her in but there was still a part of her that wished she could live out in the city. Much of it had been lost and restricted through the conflict that had been going on since before she was born, but there was still technology and a modern life that she had never been allowed to explore properly. She had only seen glimpses of the outside world through the odd day at a friend’s house and what little they could afford at school. It was all worlds’ away from how The Old Collection lived and even further away from what her life would have been before that.
Wyn turned out the light, lent back and stared at the ceiling; a thin shaft of moonlight was creeping into the room and casting shadows across the floor. She had often climbed onto the bed frame when she was younger to look out of the small, barred window, but had been disappointed to see nothing but the coastline, although it was soothing to her now—the sea breeze whispering of freedom and peace to pierce the containment of her room, and the lapping of the waves lulling her to sleep. Despite this, her sleep was always restless, full of words she could never quite understand and implausible stories that she couldn’t quite remember being told. And tonight was no different.
At school the next day, the new updates on the troops was all anyone could talk about. Kiara’s dad was on the council, the General’s right-hand man, so she got all the gossip first.
“So, daddy said that the new selection will be in the next few weeks. He told mother that the enemy had brought in new people that had taken them by surprise and that they were working to retaliate. Some of what they saw was gruesome and daddy thinks they’ve been doing genetic experiments on people. They’ve got logistics coming in from another base to bring new technology and training – out of all the bases, they’ve chosen Necropolis to be the next base of the Special Forces recruitment!” She sounded excited at the prospect, but none of them really knew who Special Forces were. “Daddy didn’t know I was listening so I don’t think we’re supposed to know anything yet!” Kiara smirked at the congregation of her classmates, satisfied at her insider knowledge; there was nothing Kiara loved more than holding an audience and being the centre of attention.
“So, when are they signing up? We’re old enough now, right?” Carter pushed past Wyn to get closer to Kiara, not even glancing in her direction as she stumbled away from his elbow.
“They just said ‘soon’, but it can’t be long, they’re absolutely desperate. But yeah, seventeen is the limit, so most of you are fine.” Her eyes scanned the rest of the boys in the huddle. “I didn’t know you were so desperate to sign up, Carter? I’d miss you…” Her voice had gone all girly and high-pitched as she flirted shamelessly. Wyn didn’t even try to hide her contempt as she rolled her eyes.
“It’s a man’s job to protect the community and be a hero. My eldest brother went, and Cole’s just finished his training so he will be going out on the next tour too. But we shall just have to make sure I have a girl to go out and fight for… and to come back to…” he winked at Kiara and sauntered off; she flushed pink and fanned herself dramatically.
“Isn’t he amazing, Wyn?” she gushed. Wyn stared at her in disbelief.
“Amazing? He’s so arrogant! I don’t know what you see in him Kiara, let’s hope he buggers off to war and we can find you someone better!”
Kiara did an unattractive squawk and looked at her best friend with disgust; beside her, the other girls giggled. The boys had already dispersed, following their arrogant leader, and Kiara turned on her heels with a huff and stalked off with her nose in the air. Wyn chuckled to herself; she knew she’d be over it by first break. Kiara was one of the few people Wyn had always had in her life; their parents had grown up together and Kiara was one final connection to a world she couldn’t remember. As such, she would never lose faith in the strength of that bond.
“She looks like one of those birds on the canteen roof when she walks like that, doesn’t she?” Wyn commented to Isabella and Cleo, who had fallen in step beside her, watching Kiara swing her hips as she stalked across the schoolyard. The girls giggled and chatted as they followed her into the tired-looking building.
Wyn couldn’t concentrate during class. Customer-facing roles of modern banking just didn’t hold her interest and instead, she was thinking about what Kiara had been saying. Special Forces; it sounded exciting. She wondered whether the cadets would look any different. They were running out of people to sign up so maybe all the strong ones were already gone and they’d only get the wimpy guys. Maybe there would be new things to watch with Special Forces coming in. What would the logistics experts even be like? She sighed. She knew she didn’t have much chance of knowing; if only she could get onto the other side of the fence.
“Okay ladies, so remember, if you do follow a career in finance, it is important to always check the customers’ credentials but also approach each individual with great caution. We don’t want you to get into a situation you can’t get yourself out of.” Even Mrs Clay sounded bored by her lesson, probably fed up with the patronising drivel that she had to cite. She was always so distant from her class. Her teaching style was strict and although there was the odd occasion when she was in the mood to laugh and joke, she generally kept them at arm’s length. Wyn could never decide if this was because she just didn’t like them or if there was something more to it.
The boy-girl segregation that came into effect due to The Breakdown was frustrating. It was justified as a requirement to prepare the boys for life in the forces, to help them understand the different roles and coordination, and whatever else they could get away with teaching in schools. However, according to Kiara, General Baudin had said the boys’ syllabus was pointless. The teachers didn’t have any idea what they were doing, or know anything about the army, and they had to be completely rewired when they got into training. Meanwhile, the girls were taught the basics of the roles they would have to fill to keep the city going.
“Okay girls, fifteen-minute break and then back in here for some Modern History with the boys.” Mrs Clay grabbed her coffee mug off the desk and scurried out of the room in search of a caffeine fix.
“I don’t think I’d mind working in a bank,” Isabella said as Wyn spun round in her seat to face her friends, “I like dealing with money.”
“You like spending it, more like! I think a restaurant would be more interesting, don’t know if I could manage in the kitchen though,” Cleo mulled thoughtfully.
“Ooh, I know what I want to do! I want to work somewhere in the Gild District, doing hair or nails or something, like mother used to do before she met father and moved back out to the country. Then I only have to deal with the elite, and I can marry an Officer. I’d get to use all the nice things instead of actually having to work.” This was so typically Kiara, she was definitely not naturally humanitarian. “What about you Wyn?”
“Ugh, I don’t know… I guess if I had to do something I’d teach, but only if I could teach the boys’ stuff... Our classes are so dull.”
“Oh Wyn, you’re so obsessed with what the boys do, it isn’t normal! Why are you so desperate to see what the troops do, it’s probably just messy and loud and unsanitary.” Kiara cringed at the idea, and something boiled in Wyn as she saw how happily they all just accepted the society standard for women.
“I just want to do something exciting…”
With that, Mrs Clay re-entered the room, joined by Mr Kane; interrupting Wyn from expressing her notion, and distracting the rest of the girls who began primping and pursing their lips, to ensure they were ready when the classes merged. The boys followed and took their seats, giving them the last few minutes of break to flirt across the desks. Once they had all settled down, Mr Kane took a seat at the side as Mrs Clay picked up the tablet and flicked across until a presentation filled the screen at the front of the classroom.
“Okay guys, today we are going to be recapping some stuff we’ve studied over the last few years and through it, create a timeline of women in history. Back when women were once allowed to actually do something—rule and lead and fight. Before that chauvinistic pig Lint took over the military and government… When women could actually think for themselves.” She spat the words out, her eyes misting over in anger.
Mr Kane took the tablet out of her hand in one clean movement that was too quick for Wyn to even notice him leave his chair.
“Enough Lydia,” he hushed furiously and moved on with the presentation.
The words rang in Wyn’s ears, ‘When women could fight’. Maybe she could fight. What if she put her case forward? If they were as desperate as Kiara made out, then they might just let her. Her head started spinning, but how could she convince them?
Wyn didn’t listen to the rest of the lesson, she was mulling and planning and pulling together everything she knew about the military base. Kiara’s father—he would be the best place to start, and at least she knew him from her childhood years.
“Kiara, would I be able to come over one day after school – Sister Cariad is driving me mad and I just need an evening away!”
“Sure Wyn, how about tomorrow? I’ll get Alana to do something nice for dinner.”
Brilliant, step one complete, now to hope that Major MacCulloch was home tomorrow.
By the next day, Wyn’s head was buzzing with ideas of what she could say and what reasons she could give. Should she ask him straight? The Major didn’t appear to be particularly fond of any female except his daughter, who he kept on a diamond-encrusted pedestal, and his wife, who he could simply keep happy with an endless shopping fund and glamorous lifestyle. He had only ever given Wyn the odd contemptuous sideways glance, apart from that one evening when he’d had a few too many glasses of brandy at a Majors’ retirement party and started to slur at her about how much he appreciated the female form, and that she would grow into a “fine young lady”. She had tried to keep out of his way since.
She spent the next day nervously shaking her leg in class—driving anyone near her crazy—as she stressed about how to tackle the topic with a man she hadn’t spoken to properly in years. But, all too soon, it was the end of the day and Kiara was waiting at the door to walk back to hers. It wasn’t too far, about a fifteen-minute walk if she was on her own, but with the girls gossiping about the day, it was more like thirty.
“Did you see the way Carter looked at me today? Do you reckon he does like me? There isn’t long left until we leave so if he does, then he’d better make a move and quick!” Kiara raved.
Cleo and Isabella clucked obediently about his obvious infatuation and how he must just be too scared to do anything about it because he thought she was out of his league.
“Well, what was it that Mrs Clay said yesterday about women doing their own thing? Maybe tomorrow I’ll speak to him about it!” Kiara stated triumphantly, but Wyn could detect the tiny wobble beneath the surface. Kiara’s confidence was hard to knock but the thought of going against the society-defined female roles clearly did just that. Wyn felt a nervous lump rise into her throat as she contemplated the conversation she was about to have, and how it was doing that tenfold.
They couldn’t have arrived at Kiara’s soon enough, as Wyn’s nerves snowballed with each step towards the house. By the time she’d reached the front door, she had trepidation fluttering all through her. They said goodbye to the other girls and went in.
Kiara’s house was grand and stood proudly on the edge of the city. They were a rich family and one of the few that seemed to still live well despite The Breakdown. They could still afford nice things, still had a housekeeper that they had brought with them from their country estate and who doubled as a maid and a cook, and Kiara had always been utterly spoilt. Standing in the hallway was always a reminder of the differences between the humble home she had with the Collection, with its plain walls and threadbare rugs, and that of Kiara’s house, with the strong, carpeted staircase that rose in front of her, encased by shelves full of the delicate statuettes and historical artefacts that Major MacCulloch collected. They were things from the wars they’d learnt about in history, and reminders of the world before The Breakdown started.
“Alana? Where are you?” Kiara shrilled through the house.
“In the kitchen, Miss Kiara,” the soft voice drifted back. Alana was always so polite and welcoming, despite the dismissive tone Kiara always seemed to use – she was definitely taken for granted. “Ah, Miss Wyn, it’s so nice to see you, we are well overdue for a catch-up! Are you staying for dinner?”
“If that’s okay Alana, you know I never turn down some of your delicious cooking!” Wyn smiled at her warmly.
“Where are my parents?” Kiara demanded before Alana could respond to Wyn.
“The Major is in his office completing paperwork and Mrs MacCulloch is still at The Gild, shopping.”
Kiara nodded and turned her back abruptly to flounce off up the stairs. Wyn followed obediently. The Major was in; she was really going to do this. Luckily, as Kiara headed straight for the office, she wouldn’t need to come up with a reason to go find the Major by herself. Now she just needed an in to the conversation.
“But daddy, it’s the last six weeks of school ever! I need to go out looking amazing!” She whined and pouted at her father.
“Alright, alright, speak to your mother and she can take you to the salon for hair and nails after school tomorrow! Anything to keep my petal happy … and quiet… Now, take Terrwyn to your room, I have work to do.”
“Um … Major … before we go, is it okay if I ask you a question? It was following a query Brother Aster had about the next sign up.” She could hear her voice tremble. The Major looked curiously dubious.
“Make it quick, if it’s for Brother Aster. But if it's sensitive then you will have to tell him to come to me directly, as it’s not like him to get a child to do his errands.” His brow furrowed. Panic flashed through Wyn as she feared she could get Brother Aster into trouble.
“It was just about the numbers required in the new sign-up. If there aren’t enough eligible males, then what would be the next move? Would you drop the age or just combine with the people from other cities, or could you even train up some hand-picked women?” The words rushed out of her mouth, muddling together. There was no going back now.
The Major was laughing, creasing up all the wrinkles in his face with the strength of his reaction. Wyn had never seen him lose so much composure before as he guffawed at the thought.
“Women? Why would we ever accept women, they are far too weak and too emotional!” He collected himself and continued, forcing his face back into his usual stern expression. “If Brother Aster has concerns over the sign up then he can speak to me directly, although we will not consider options until we know what numbers we have. I am horrified that he would even entertain the thought of women!”
“I must have got what he said wrong; I didn’t hear all of the conversation. He doesn’t know I’m asking… I was just trying to help. I’m sorry if I intruded, I…” she stammered and backed out the door, taking just long enough to see the flash of irritation and his mouth pursing as he considered how disrespectful and arrogant she was. He had thought leaving her in the care of the Old Collection would have ensured she was not brought up like this.
She knew she’d done that all wrong. She flushed red and breathed hard as she stood outside the doorway with her back against the wall, trying to regain her composure. So, convincing them to sign her up was not an option, but she wasn’t ready to give up. Mrs Clay was right; women should be able to do these things and she’d set her mind to it now – she was going to work something out.
“What was that?” Kiara demanded, rushing out of the office looking horrified. “Why would you talk to daddy about that? You know what he’s like, and how he feels about children and women getting involved in politics and military matters! You definitely can’t stay for dinner now, you need to get away and give him time to calm down.”
She escorted Wyn to the front door and waved her off. Self-preservation was completely innate for Kiara and she knew it was the best way to avoid her father’s temper.
Wyn felt deflated as she dragged her feet back home, barely looking up even as she passed Necropolis. What was she going to do now?