The halftrack grumbled to a halt with a lurch; the driver was clearly new, and hadn’t yet gotten used to the slightly different handling. In the turret above, Mertens was knocked against the double coilgun and swore.
“Who let that fumble-fingered nuyak drive?” Mertens demanded, his voice muffled by armor plating.
“He needs the road time,” Corporal Gaumarus Pell replied. “I remember your first few musters, Mertens. Don’t make me start telling stories.”
There was a general chuckle through the halftrack’s troop compartment at that. Gaumarus looked around at his section. Well, not his section. Sergeant Verlot was the section leader. Gaumarus was just a fireteam leader.
He was glad he’d gotten a chuckle though. It had broken some of the tension, and he’d actually managed to relax a little bit himself.
On most days, he was responsible for two thousand acres of tillage on the Pell Family farm, both supervising the human workers and the remote tractors. The humans were easy; it was the bots that made him want to tear his hair out. Even after centuries of computer development, they were still frustratingly glitchy, overly literal mechanisms, that could plow up two months’ worth of crops in an afternoon if not monitored closely.
He missed that frustration right at the moment. He’d been part of the Provenian Defense Force for six years, ever since he’d attained his majority, like every other able-bodied young man of the Families. But up until two days ago, his entire service had consisted of his initial training, monthly musters, and the two-month yearly drills. He knew his job, almost as well as he knew how to run the farm. He knew it well enough that he’d been promoted quickly. Several of his squad mates were far senior to him in both age and time in service. But facing actual combat, he suddenly realized anew, was something different. And looking around at the rest of the squad, he could see that he wasn’t the only one with a fluttery, crawling sensation in his guts.
The back doors of the halftrack swung open on hissing hydraulics. “Everyone out!” Sergeant Eudes Verlot barked. Verlot was a grizzled old man, a foot shorter than Gaumarus’s own two-meter height, so skinny that he looked almost like skin and bones when he wasn’t weighed down with his tac vest, power pack, and helmet, like they all were at the moment. He was also the only actual combat veteran in the squad; he had fought rebels and indig mountain tribes both.
Verlot had been around a long, long time. Gaumarus sometimes believed the rumors told in the barracks after lights out, that he’d made a deal with one of the mountain tribes’ plethora of devils and was actually immortal.
Gaumarus was one of the first out, hefting his long-barreled coilgun and carefully threading it through the narrow hatchway. The decision to equip all the PDF’s infantry with coilguns had been made a few years before, replacing the more compact, chemically fired rifles they’d been carrying before, and not a few of the PDF riflemen were still grumbling about it. At least, that was the case among the mech troops like Gaumarus’s unit, the 121st Motor Infantry. He was sure the regular footsloggers were still grumbling, but the footsloggers grumbled about everything.
His shoulders chafing under the relatively unfamiliar weight of his vest and the coilgun’s bulky power pack, Gaumarus hit the ground and jogged around the left flank of the halftrack, finally able to take in the scene.
Company Aleph of the 121st was presently drawn up in a rough L-shape on the rocky ridge overlooking the tiny settlement of Bar. They were holding about eleven hundred meters from the nearest structure.
Bar was a new settlement, only a few kilometers from the spaceport of Furch. As such, it was mostly prefabs, though it already looked well on the way to ruin. Several of the prefab containers/buildings were already dingy and crumbling, with refuse piled against their minimal foundations and drifting through the avenues. Gaumarus couldn’t help but think, in true Family fashion, that that was what one could expect from the Latecomers.
He hurried to a rocky outcropping just ahead of the halftrack’s front bumper, where he lowered himself to a knee, laying the barrel of his coilgun across his thigh and looking to his right and his left. The rest of the riflemen and the support gunners, lugging their heavy-caliber railguns to firing positions, were forming a rough line, along the edge of the cordon that the halftracks were setting up.
Verlot strode up beside him. He couldn’t see the sergeant’s face behind his helmet’s polarized face shield, but he could imagine the man’s blunt features twisted into their habitual, semi-permanent scowl. Gaumarus waited for the inevitable, his shoulders tensing a bit as if anticipating a blow.
“Get your worthless carcasses down on your bellies and find some real cover!” Verlot snarled. “You think that just because these Latecomer scum are lazy nuyaks, living in their own filth, that they can’t still manage to shoot you, standing up straight like parade ground windup toys, skylined against the horizon?” He shook his head in disgust, and Gaumarus was sure that, if not for his helmet’s face shield, he would have spat in the yellowish dirt and prickly, gray groundcover. “This is what we get for driving the mountain tribes away; a bunch of children playing at soldier!”
Gaumarus sank down behind his rock, his shoulders hunched, feeling Verlot’s venomous eyes between his shoulder blades. Vegetation crunched under the sergeant’s boots, and Gaumarus felt him loom above him. “How are you going to shoot the Latecomers with your weapon pointed at the ground to your left, Corporal Pell?” Verlot asked in a low hiss. Terrible old man he might have been, but Gaumarus knew that he’d pitched his voice just low enough for Gaumarus alone to hear him. Verlot was many things, but unprofessional was not one of them. He might not think that Gaumarus was worthy of his rank, but he wouldn’t let that lead him to dress down one of his fireteam leaders in front of the rest of the men.
Flushing behind his own face shield, Gaumarus fumbled his coilgun around and aimed it alongside the rock, pointed down at the nearest blocky trailer on the edge of Bar. There was no movement below; the windows were dark, and there were no people on the rough, trash-strewn streets of the settlement. Which could only mean that the Latecomers were getting set to get hit.
For a long time, the PDF just stayed where they were, weapons pointed down at the ramshackle village. The wind whispered through the low ground cover and the rocks, rattling some of the windows and shutters below, the sound drifting faintly up to the cordon.
“Where are they?” someone muttered.
“Waiting for you to do something stupid,” Verlot snapped. “Be quiet.”
Gaumarus hesitated, but he was a noncom himself, so he turned slightly to ask Verlot, “What are we waiting for, Sergeant? If Central Command is certain that the bombers came here…”
“We have orders to set the cordon and hold, Pell,” Verlot said, his voice suddenly empty of its usual snarling disdain. “I don’t think that the Council thinks we can handle it.” There was a bitterness in that sentence that had nothing to do with the quality of the PDF soldiers under Verlot’s command.
Another set of boots crunched behind them, and Gaumarus heard Lieutenant Yuusen’s voice. “Status, Sergeant Verlot?”
“The squad is set in and ready, sir,” Verlot replied formally. Gaumarus could picture Yuusen, straight-backed and aristocratic, probably with his helmet off. The young officer was given to those sorts of theatrics. When he’d been asked why he insisted that his men keep their helmets on while he regularly removed his own in what was supposed to be combat scenarios, he’d always said that it was to inspire the men with his courage and disdain for death.
The thing was, Yuusen probably took that seriously. There were stories about him. Young as he was, he’d been on expeditions into the Badlands. He’d never gone so far that he hadn’t come back, but he had to have clashed with the mountain tribes a time or two.
“Good,” Yuusen said. Gaumarus could feel the platoon leader’s eyes on him. “Unfortunately, the orders have not changed. We are to hold position and wait for the Knights.”
Behind his face shield, Gaumarus grimaced. He knew that Verlot had a far nastier expression on his face.
“Why are we waiting for them?” the sergeant demanded. “This is a local matter.”
“The Council hopes that having the Knights crush this cell will put the fear of God into the rebels,” Yuusen said. He sounded tired, as if he’d been over all this before, and it didn’t get any better with repetition. “They want to make an example, and the Knights are willing enough to help.”
“Typical,” Verlot grumbled. “I’m sure they kissed the Knights’ feet at great length beforehand.”
“I’m sure,” Yuusen said dryly. “But we shouldn’t be speaking so of our superiors in front of the men, Sergeant.”
Gaumarus didn’t dare look around, and knew that he’d just see the dark orb of Verlot’s face shield anyway, but the old Sergeant’s disgust was palpable.
“So, what is taking them so long?” Verlot asked.
Yuusen paused, and in the quiet, Gaumarus could just make out a faint howl that wasn’t made by any Provenian vehicle. “While I am sure that the Order of the Tancredus Cluster arrives when it means to, and not a moment before or after, regardless of what we mere mortals might hope for, that sounds like their skimmers now,” the lieutenant said.
Gaumarus forced himself to watch the village below, as much as he wanted to see the incoming vehicles. It had been a once-in-a-lifetime event when the Misericorde had arrived in the Leuekin system. Up until then, the Order of the Tancredus Cluster had been little more than a legend to most Provenians.
The howling of the skimmers got louder and louder. It sounded like they were coming straight at the PDF cordon, and if not for the comm headset built into his helmet muffling the worst of it, the rising shriek of the ground effect fans would have been deafening.
Just as the noise seemed to reach a painful peak, even through his hearing protection, it suddenly tapered off, and the ground beneath him shuddered. The skimmer’s driver must have grounded his vehicle. A moment later, a loud, resonant, artificially amplified voice spoke behind him.
“Is the cordon set, Lieutenant?” The voice was halting and flat, utterly without inflection. It sounded artificial, like a bot was speaking.
“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Yuusen replied. “We are awaiting the scouts’ report, and then we will be ready to advance on the village.”
There was a long pause, and then the flat, mechanical voice spoke again. “That will not be necessary, Lieutenant,” it said. “Keep your men here, out of harm’s way. My Knights will advance and clear the village.”
It took Gaumarus a moment to realize, from the strange tone and the long pause beforehand, that the Knight must have a translator program built into his helmet. He probably did not speak Oxidanese, nor did the Provenians speak whatever esoteric language that the Knights probably spoke amongst each other. He was speaking his own language, and his helmet was translating for him.
“With all due respect, sir,” Yuusen began, but the Knight cut him off.
“Your Council requested that we take care of this situation, Lieutenant,” he said. “And so we shall. Be thankful that you may stay here, out of harm’s way.”
Gaumarus could only imagine how much Verlot was bristling at that, but Lieutenant Yuusen simply said, “Very well, sir.”
The Knight spoke again, his helmet speakers blaring what could only be orders in his own fluid, faintly sing-song language. Then the howling rose again, and dust and grit pelted Gaumarus where he crouched, as the skimmer lifted off the ground once more.
He got a glimpse of it as it passed through the cordon and started down the long, shallow slope toward Bar. Angular and sharp-nosed, it looked far sleeker and more high-tech than the Provenians’ own halftracks or wheeled assault carriers. The sides were folded up, forming a sort of armored wall around its turret, which had a single, blunt weapon muzzle pointed down at Bar. The Tancredus Knights were crouched in the open flanks of the skimmer.
They were dressed in full, articulated combat armor, far more advanced—and far more expensive—than anything Provenia could produce, at least as yet. Their heads were encased in faintly peaked helmets with T-shaped vision slits. Their armor, along with the skimmer’s hull, was painted a dull red that stood out against the brown, yellow, and gray dirt and vegetation of the Goderic Plateau.
They were nothing if not confident. Certainly more confident than Gaumarus felt. While he understood his superiors’ frustration, he couldn’t help but be a little bit thankful that it was the Knights going down into that Latecomer warren, and not him.
Movement stirred beside him, and he turned involuntarily to find himself looking into a quartet of completely black eyes, like obsidian marbles, set in a round, bristled face with a strange, three-sided mouth.
He managed to minimize his start. He took a hand off his coilgun and made a quick series of signs in the air.
[I wish you would stop doing that.]
If the indig scout had a facial expression, it was impossible for a human to read. [I am sorry,] Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff signed back. [I will never get used to human startle response.]
Communication with the indig tribes of Provenia had been difficult at first, since their mouthparts could not imitate human speech of any language, and vice versa. Over time, some humans and indig who had been dedicated to ending the constant brush wars in the aftermath of the first Families’ settlement had developed a sign language that both races could come to understand. It was the only way to communicate, except with expensive—and often unreliable—computer programs.
[What did you see?] Gaumarus signed, after indicating that he accepted Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff’s apology. Those sorts of manners were important, even among the indig who had accepted human presence on Provenia and begun to integrate with the human settler’s society.
[They are barricaded around the central power substation,] Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff reported. [They have explosives with them, and have taken several of the local residents hostage.]
That was a little strange; in the news reports of clashes with the rebels, if they took hostages, they tried to communicate with the authorities. To the best of Gaumarus’s knowledge, there hadn’t been any such attempt. There should have at least been calls over loudspeakers when the PDF had arrived. That had been the way it had always gone before.
Of course, a moment later, just as the Tancredus Knights’ skimmer got within a few meters of the first run-down prefab, a loudspeaker did start crackling from within the settlement.
“PDF pawns!” a shrill voice speaking Oxidanese shouted. “Is this how little the Families care about human lives? We have tried to negotiate, but you don’t answer! Do you want us to start killing the hostages now?”
“What does he mean, they’ve tried to negotiate?” Verlot asked Yuusen, still looming behind Gaumarus. “I’ve heard nothing.”
“I think that the Council has PDF jamming their comm signals,” Yuusen said grimly. “They want an example made.”
“That’s too costly a message!” Verlot snarled. “They’re really just going to sacrifice the hostages?” Gaumarus was a little bit surprised at that, but he reflected that Verlot was old-school. He was merciless to his subordinates who failed, but his code of honor was the PDF’s, and that meant protecting civilians.
Yuusen’s silence spoke volumes.
“So, we will be vindicated!” the voice over the loudspeaker shrieked. “When the word of this gets out, it will show all the emigrants and the downtrodden on this world what they can expect at the hands of the Families! This is our world, and all the so-called Latecomers will rise up with us, when they see how callously you sacrifice them!”
“Pell?” Yuusen asked. “Are the hostages really villagers?”
Gaumarus exchanged a rapid series of signs with Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff, then turned to address his platoon leader. Yuusen, as he’d expected, was bareheaded, the wind stirring his brown hair, his mustaches and pointed goatee impeccably waxed.
“He says that they appear to be, sir,” he said. “One of the scouts, at least, saw the rebels dragging a mother and child out of one of the prefabs, just as we arrived.”
Yuusen nodded, his eyes cold, his lips tightly pressed together. Gaumarus understood. The rebels were going to see their own slaughtered to make their point.
He turned back toward the village just as the Tancredus Knights’ skimmer entered the outskirts, the Knights themselves piling off and lifting their powerguns. More tech that the Provenians couldn’t afford.
Gaumarus settled in behind his coilgun, watching for an ambush to materialize. He was sweating, far more than he should have been with the cool breeze coming off the distant mountains to the east. His hands were trembling a little. He’d never actually shot at a human being, or even an indig, before.
The Knights were spreading out, their red armor glinting slightly in the sun. They formed a line abreast and began to advance into the village.
A shot rang out and was answered by a storm of powergun fire, which thundered like a lightning storm in the early afternoon. Gaumarus imagined he could smell the ozone, though the village was too far away. He just kept his eyes on the village, looking over his coilgun’s sights as he waited, trying to ignore the crawling feeling in his stomach, which was only getting worse.
The Knights were mostly obscured by the prefabs and shacks of Bar by then, but their skimmer was still hovering on its ground effect bubble just outside, the turret traversing slightly from side to side. The twin powerguns in the turret suddenly spoke, sending white-hot lances of plasma into the village, and Gaumarus found himself blinking the greenish-purple afterimages of the brilliant discharges out of his vision.
Something exploded deeper inside the settlement, a deep, heavy whump that vibrated through the ground even as a great, dark cloud of dust and smoke billowed into the sky above the shantytown. More powergun fire crackled and thundered, answered by the lighter barks of the scrounged, surplus PDF rifles that the rebels were using, accompanied by a few different, deeper cracks that sounded like coilguns.
The skimmer’s gunner opened fire again, pouring brilliant, golden-hued discharges into the prefabs and shacks. Thunder rolled and rumbled across the open ground, and Gaumarus had to shut his eyes against the bright flashes. Even his polarized face shield wasn’t quite enough to block out the sun-hot brightness of the powergun bolts.
Several more explosions thumped down in the town, and more powergun fire crackled and thundered, but the return fire sounded more and more sporadic. Gaumarus squinted down the slope, but the village of Bar was increasingly obscured by smoke. It seemed that several of the structures were on fire, belching ugly black fumes into the air.
The shooting started to die down. The skimmer’s gunner was no longer punching bursts of plasma fire into the prefabs. From the sound alone, it appeared that the rebels’ resistance had ceased.
Gaumarus glanced to his right. Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff was still there, watching with his unblinking, vaguely insectile eyes. His compact, rounded torso was close to the ground, his long, bristled arms and legs splayed out in the curiously arachnid-like position the indig tended to adopt when at rest. They did not sit like humans did. His old rifle was clenched in one clawed hand, off to one side. The scouts’ rifles were probably considerably older than anything the rebels had had down in Bar. Blue Moon Above the Salt Cliff’s was old enough that the patina on the metal was turning brown.
The fires below seemed to be spreading. The sun was now a weak, washed-out orb in a sky increasingly gray from the smoke. Gaumarus could see a few figures moving around down there, occasionally silhouetted by the rising flames. It looked as if the entire village was on fire, or soon to catch.
The red- figures were coming out of the smoke and climbing back into the skimmer, which was kicking the ground-level smoke into strange patterns as air leaked out of the ground effect bubble beneath its skirts. The Knights seemed unaffected by the blasts of air, but simply grabbed handholds and lifted themselves up into the skimmer’s troop compartment. Once it was loaded full, the skimmer rotated and started back toward the cordon.
Gaumarus felt the same fluttery, sick feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t seen the Knights bringing any of the hostages out with them.