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The Quartermaster's Charge

Jessica Snell lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their four children. When Jessica's not writing or editing, she enjoys knitting, gardening, and traveling up to the mountains whenever she can. You can follow her on Twitter @theJessicaSnell. Her work has appeared in Compelling Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Tales from Plexis (DAW Books).

I lost my baby at home. I was not even far enough along that I was required to register the pregnancy, but the midwife was kind enough to come and attend me anyway.
I am glad she did, because the labor was hard and bloody, and if I had not been so exhausted, I would have been terrified.
She came to check on me the next day. And she brought with her a stranger, who was heavily veiled.
I ached, but I still rose and welcomed them and offered them drinks. And I began to thank the midwife again, but she held up one hand. "Do not thank me for something I have not done yet, love."
I frowned.
"Millie here is newly pregnant," the midwife said to her veiled friend. "I confirmed the pregnancy yesterday. She is two months along."
The strange woman's dark eyes stared at me hungrily, but I was just confused. I was not pregnant, not anymore. The baby that might have been... well, what I had seen the midwife whisk away had been too small even to bury.
"Her blood sample, if I take it today, will still say as much," continued the midwife. "And that is enough to get her registered. I can attend the birth in seven months--"
"And if it is in six," interrupted the strange woman, "that will still be close enough to believable."
The midwife nodded, and now both women were staring at me.
I was about to say that I did not understand, when the midwife said to me, "The government has started a new program."
When she said that, I still didn't understand, but I knew enough to be afraid.
"They are calling it an 'internship.'"
I had no doubt that someone really was being interned.
"They say it is to bring more unity to our world."
Unity meant us agreeing with them, of course.
"They say that, out of their concern for us, they are undertaking the burden of education for the children of the Great Houses."
My lips parted in dismay.
When our conquerors rediscovered our world, they did not understand us. We had left Earth centuries ago, and in the intervening time, they had changed. They were hardly human anymore. They were like cogs in a machine: all interchangeable. Each of them went here, there, everywhere. Anywhere in the galaxy, as long as it furthered their careers.
They did not understand fealty, or responsibility to the land. They were disgusted by the way we had adapted our genes to fit the parts of our planet where we had chosen to live.
We wanted to be here, and so we had made ourselves fit to be here.
But they did not understand that. Our way of living repulsed them.
"The government is now taking the firstborn child of every Great House in the undisputed territories."
Undisputed. They were called that because there were no active conflicts there. Not because we accepted their ownership of them.
"They are planning to raise those children in special schools, sharing with them all the great knowledge and wisdom of the Confederacy."
The midwife was so experienced at acting the part of a loyal subject that her voice didn't betray even a quiver of sarcasm as she quoted their lies.
"Then, as adults, they will be returned to their Houses, to guide their vassals with new and proper insight, to lead the next generation in a manner of which the Confederacy can approve."
They hated our Great Houses, but I saw that they had learned how important they were to us.
"A great kindness," I said slowly, "for them to so sponsor the education of our young nobles."
"I see you understand," said the midwife.
A whole generation lost.
I thought of the mothers of those taken children, weeping.
I thought of the fathers of those taken children, who must surely kill their offspring when they were returned.
The government would call me cruel and backwards for such a thought, but who were the ones who had chosen to become child-stealers?
The strange woman spoke for the first time. "You," she said, "are not from a Great House."
She smoothed the beautiful fabric of her dress across a belly that was just slightly swollen. It might have been from the quality of food that would, of course, grace the table of a woman who could afford such a dress. A woman from a Great House-a Great House that was allowed to keep some of its wealth and influence because they pretended to cooperate with our oppressors.
She might just be a woman who always got enough to eat.
"And my child," I said, understanding, and at the same time swallowing the grief that suddenly clutched at my throat--grief for a child too small even to bury. "My child will not be from a Great House."
"Your mother," said the midwife, "died at the last stand of Cross-Trees."
Her gun in her hand, yes. "And my father in the cavalry charge at De Santos," I agreed. His mount had been one of the great toothless whales of the De Santos sounds. The government still had not been able to mimic our training of them. "I am not of a Great House," I said, "but I am of a goodly heritage."
And I had not yet found a way to follow my parents into the war.
"I would trust you," said the woman, "for my House has trusted you--you and yours." And she reached one hand up and loosed the hook of her veil from behind her ear.
I recognized her. And as I did, I bowed my head in deference.
"Our greatest weapons," she said, "have always been our own selves. Will you take charge," she asked, laying her hand once more on her slightly swollen belly, "of hiding this one, till we have cause to use it?"
I understood. And, "I will," I said.
And so I became a quartermaster for the Great House which my parents had died serving. The lady, who never came to visit me again, bound her belly under the direction of the midwife, and wore increasingly elaborate dresses in order to hide what the binding could not. And I registered my pregnancy. Which, of course, did not exist. I took both the extra rations it entitled me to and I also took the abuse that was inevitable.
"Another gene-tweak slut," said the soldiers, as I stood in line for rations, my false belly swollen beneath my robes. "Sucking at the government teat." He winked at me, and added a few suggestions of other things I could suck.
In the days of the skirmishes my parents saw, someone like me should have killed him for saying that.
But the nature of the war had changed, and I did not look up. I did not answer back.
I was holding a place for a child who they would never steal away, and never control.
And who would be a great weapon in the war that still raged on the borders.
The war that would one day spill past the borders and back into our settlements.
And then flood over every government post on the planet.
The baby who was not mine was born six months after my miscarriage. I wailed and cried with false labor pains. I cried so loudly that all my neighbors could hear me through the thin walls of our complex. I cried so loudly that no one could doubt that I was in pain.
And I was. I was crying for the baby I would never have.
I was wailing for the noble mother who would not raise the child that she had carried for nine long months--and that she would ever after love and long for.
And when the midwife came, pretending to deliver me, she smuggled the child of the Great House into my apartment in her medical bag. He would be mine to raise, until he came of age.
He would not be reeducated by our oppressors.
He was lovely, and I would teach him the ways of his House as he grew.
He was beautiful, and he would be a weapon in the hands of my people once he was old enough.
I had found a way to enter the war.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 24th, 2018
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