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30th Battalion front line, Llael.
12th of Octesh, 611 AR.

One of the First Army’s mandates entering Llael had been a ‘no prisoners’ policy until further notice. This was SOP for engagements with Khador, and typically wasn’t a problem in most combat situations because Khadorans didn’t exactly surrender. Many would rather kill themselves than be captured and did so with shocking regularity. Grievously wounded or unconscious enemy combatants, though? That was not a circumstance that had any particular exception to standing orders among trencher divisions.

The trencher corps was the edge of the blade in most fights, and their low enemy capture numbers were proof of their grisly role. Enemy POWs were something command didn’t expect to hear about until some of the more traditional knightly orders entered the fray, where battle traditions of honor and justice were as much a part of military order as combat training.

On the slopes of Albyn, the rules were a little less complicated.

Trenchers often repeated a saying attributed to one legendary Captain Maxwell Finn, a man who had not once but twice lead a group of stranded soldiers home from behind enemy lines, earning him the title of “Toughest Bastard Alive” among the army. He was practically a deity in the corps and a publicized hero to the kingdom. Supposedly, he had once been invited by the commander of his brigade as a showpiece to help persuade Lord General Olan Duggan for more financial support. The Lord General was a monumentally wealthy duke who had personally helped fund the modernization of the Cygnaran army. While they watched a brigade exercise, Finn’s commander attempted to persuade the Lord General to expand their intake program for new recruits; the Duke loudly voiced his opinion that the true cost of the wars of the future was in mechanization, not men. Bigger warjacks, bigger artillery, more organized attempts to locate rare warcaster talent. Mechanika was way forward he insisted, not infantry. Mere men and women simply couldn’t compete on this new battlefield.

Upon hearing this, Captain Finn allegedly flicked his cigar butt at the Duke’s feet, looked him straight in the eye and said “sir, with respect, I ain’t ever seen nothin more brutal than an eighteen year old boy in a warzone.”

Nobody really cared if the story was true or who actually said it, because its moral truth was as honest as a mirror.

It was then no surprise that virtually every standing stiff in 30th Battalion ignored the gunshots echoing across the sky. A little self-selected group of trenchers walked casually across the northern field unmolested, and their execution of the wounded and dying enemy who still lay was conspicuously overlooked. Any man or woman whose conscience tickled at the sight of such work need only remind themselves of the rows of friends who lay in either screaming agony or permanent peace on their back: the killing of those enemy wounded on the field was simply fair payment. The moral lines of society shifted daily out there on the bleeding edge where civilization’s context dissolved into barely-managed chaos. Only the arithmetic of war reigned supreme in this cordoned-off universe of dirt and bullets, and whatever evil or noble desires guided the kill squad, those wounded enemy were just equations to solve. Scratches in a column titled ‘Enemy KIA.’

Nobody actually cared how the foe ended up on the correct tally sheet.

And yet, war or not, all of these people had once been civilians in a society where killing was considered wrong. The sound of every gunshot echoed in the loud silence of the mental justifications being made by anyone in earshot.

When the gunshots ceased and the victims were dumped into a mass grave, the thunder of artillery returned as outgoing fire produced clouds of debris and shattered tree trunks to the north and then the north-east. Any enemy hiding there had either been forced to retreat or were very dead.

Major Halleck authorized Captain Kasey to send out the Bearded Bastards. It was late afternoon now, the world slowly beginning to glow orange with an ailing sun. Staff Sergeant Swelt requested they wait until nightfall to scout but Kasey was under some great urgency he would not share with the commandos, so as the barrage ended they passed wraith-like to the the east and then dove into the sparse woods up from the south, using treecover through the whole journey up to Albyn’s defenses.

They walked cautiously, half-crouching through the disturbed undergrowth, careful with each step over the uneven ground. The world was silent aside from their passing. Their footfalls were soft and conscious– every broken branch was a landmine of sound that would reveal their position. The scents of freshly-broken wood filled the air: clean black pine, aromatic spruce, earthy larches, loamy cessil oak. Golden light streamed through new gaps in the canopy, illuminating glowing shafts through dissipating smoke and dust.

The beauty was lost on them.

Twenty paces ahead, Swelt observed Sergeant Walyam freeze in place and put out a hand signal: enemy spotted. Swelt threw up a clenched fist to the men behind him and they seized like lizards in sight of a predator. Slowly they crouched, rifles and carbines up, sweeping the trees watchfully. Without turning around, Sergeant Walyam made another series of hand signals at his unit leader: enemy prone. Thirty feet. Walyam slowly pulled his trench knife from the scabbard conveniently bolted to his left shoulder plate and crept forward. Watching him, Swelt scuttled to a downed tree trunk and steadied his carbine on the horizontal bark, peering down the sights ahead of Walyam.

A man was slowly– painfully slowly– pulling himself with one arm through the dirt and leaves on the ground. His back was peppered with six- to nine- inch wood splinters that stuck straight out like dragon spines. They were deep, soaking his clothing in dark blood. The wounded man released a soft moan and said something unintelligible but distinctly Khadoran. He wore a camouflaged greatcoat and a giant muzzle-braked sniper rifle lay maybe twenty feet behind him at the start of the furrow in the dirt he was painstakingly unearthing with his doomed escape.


Swelt pressed his body into the fallen log, scanning the treeline ahead of them for any indication of more snipers. This could be a trap. He didn’t have to communicate this conclusion to the rest of his team; they were already on swivels in search of even the faintest sign of a concealed shooter.

Walyam approached the downed target noiselessly. He squatted behind the man, jabbed the trench knife into the back of his head where his skull met his neck and dispatched the enemy with only a quiet chick of the blade passing through flesh. The widowmaker’s body went limp.


A puff of smoke appeared not more than seventy feet away and the front of Sergeant Walyam’s face burst open in a spray of blood, showering the body of the dead sniper at his feet. He fell back writhing. At almost the exact same moment, the entire unit opened fire at the retreating shooter. Carbines and rifles cracked in a rhythmless staccato. The transition from complete silence to deafening noise was overwhelming. Three rounds struck the target, first blowing out his calf and eliciting a scream then two shots to the back that cut it short. He died before he touched the ground. Sergeant Swelt cursed angrily.

“They know we’re coming now,” he whispered hoarsely. Corporal Steele rushed to Walyam’s side. He looked up at Swelt in surprise, eyes wide under the shadow of his helmet.

“He’s alive,” Steele said. Poor Sergeant Walyam’s mouth was open wide, hands over his nose to stop the fountain of blood pouring down the sides of his face, taking deep breaths in ragged gasps. “They blew off his hooter!” Steele exclaimed.

“Lucky bastard,” Swelt whispered. A disfiguring wound, but survivable. If Walyam had moved his head just a fraction of a second later his brains would have been on the forest floor. He’d be wearing a fake nose the rest of his life though. Swelt pointed at one of his other men. “Meyer, get him the hell out of here. Steele, get up and cover Meyer’s six. The rest of you: arrow formation, ten foot flanks, eyes forward. Move quick and stay frosty. Expect resistance at or near the treeline. Move.”

They walked quickly now, less careful to avoid snapping branches or heavy footfalls. Steele quickly checked to verify the second Khadoran was dead, jabbing him in the neck with a bayonet to be sure. Those with rifles popped their breech traps to reload. Swelt cranked the lever-action on his carbine with a routine snap and advanced on the left flank, scooping up the heavy sniper rifle of the second attacker and slinging it over his shoulder. One of his men did the same with the first sniper. Vislovski hunting rifles were excellent weapons. Better to keep them handy.

The snipers had probably been camping here waiting for a patrol and fled when the bombardment reached them. Obviously at least one of them hadn’t fled fast enough and the second one had probably just been returning for his comrade when he spotted the Bastards approaching. The little devil had used his dying friend as bait. Widowmakers typically operated in quads, meaning there were at least two more lurking somewhere nearby. This was deadly terrain to be facing the elite sniper corps of Khador; no hard cover, surrounded by heavy concealment and long angles of fire. Their only chance now was to move so quickly that they flushed the sharpshooters out.

Several tense minutes passed. The edge of the woods grew near. Albyn looming ahead of them, the shattered forest ominously quiet. There were no more sniper shots. Swelt let out a quiet bird whistle and made a series of hand signals: Low. Slow. Spread. Paulson: lead. Wooten: flank right. They received and followed their orders in total silence, crouch-walking with barrels up. Nearing as close to the town as they dared, Swelt finally ordered them all to go prone, staying a good forty feet inside the cover of the trees and brush. Swelt hunched behind a small rock and set his carbine down gently, unlooping the visolvski rifle from his back. He held it up and peered through the scope.

The treeline was mostly stumps. They looked recently cut. Probably thirty yards out from where the trees had been cleared was a long tangled fence of razor wire in front of a three foot ditch, backed by a second equally-messy string of more razor wire on the other side. Swelt pursed his lips. That would be nasty to clear. Small wooden homes were just beyond the fence, growing more clustered the further into town he looked. The outer lanes were curving and unplanned. Lots of corners. He pulled the rifle up a bit to get a closer look at the buildings at the center of town; three- and four- story apartment structures. The out-of-focus rooftops of the nearer buildings obscured part of his view.

He saw movement in one of the windows and observed a patrol on the widow’s-walk of one of the steep apartment rooftops. He scanned another building, trying to see any evidence that the town’s residents were still around. Sure enough, he saw an old lady beating a rug against the open windowsill. Ah, shit. She was far away but he was certain it was no soldier. The faint smack of the rug on the wood frame traveled faintly to his ears at a slight delay from the vision in his scope.

Frantic voices in Khadoran. He moved his scope back to the nearer houses. Four Winter Guard were gesticulating aggressively at a very scared-looking Llaelese man carrying a bin of laundry. They were… ordering him to hang up the laundry? He watched closely. What was going on? The man argued back in Llaelese but it was clear the Khadorans didn’t understand. He finally acquiesced angrily and began hanging his clothes up on a clothesline nearby.

The clothes were already dry.

Each Khadoran glanced nervously into the woods. They know where we are, Swelt realized. He watched their eyes. They hadn’t spotted him or his team yet, but they knew the commandos were nearby. The evidence of civilian presence became ever more prominent as he watched. A family was walking out into one of the narrow little streets with a giant Winter Guard soldier walking casually behind them. A little ball bounced from behind a house and a toddler went running after it. A nervous-looking spectacled man walked quickly from one house into another. It all felt very forced, very unnatural.

A patrol of five soldiers speed-walked along the edge of the interior fence, eyes watching the trees, hands gripping rifles and blunderbusses tightly. Swelt pulled the slack on the trigger. He didn’t fire. He finally pulled his face away from the scope and turned to Paulson who was laying flat underneath a bush twenty feet away. Swelt made a soft hiss to get Paulson’s attention. Paulson glanced at him. Swelt made hand signals behind his rock cover, careful not to move too much: circle north-east.

Paulson nodded acknowledgement with his fist and turned to the commando on his right to convey the instructions. A few heartbeats passed. Paulson waved his fingers at Swelt to draw his attention and them made more hand-signs: negative. Wooten back. Warjack guarding flank. Then he mouthed the word “Spriggan.”

Swelt released a breath of air in annoyance. There was no way they were going to bypass a machine of that size out in the open, especially not in the daylight. They could easily outrun the lumbering giant but the spriggan variant had hull-mounted grenade launchers that would blow his squad apart if they got too close. He needed to get a sense of the rear of the town. Maybe with a few more men they could create a distraction, try to lure the spriggan into the woods and send a couple of other men around… no, that was too risky.

Pull back. Go west. Follow. Waiting for the fence patrol to go by, they slowly backed further into the woods down-slope then turned west, following the line of the fence from inside the trees. Their cover began to thin once again and he had them all go prone. Putting the scope back up to his eye, he peered at the west-facing front gate of the messy fence. It was heavily guarded. They couldn’t move around that side in the open without being seen. He bit his lip. Time to call it. He made hand signs to the men behind him: going home. I lead. Paulson rear. Single line.


Major Halleck stood in front of his cracked mirror propped in the cigar box, gazing at his white beard of shaving cream, face warping in the moving shadows of a small oil lamp inside his tent. His daily shave was the only normal thing he was able to do no matter how bad things got. A mirror, a brush, a razor and soap. Slowly he held the sharp instrument up to his skin, carefully scraped off the cream and thin layer of stubble. Flicked it onto the grass. Adjusted the position of his head. Repeat. Adjust, scrape, flick. Adjust, scrape, flick. Whether in his little apartment in New Larkholm or in a battlefield or in a brothel bedroom, the rhythm, the sound, the sensation were the same.

Adjust, scrape, flick.

He heard footsteps nearing his tent. A shadow fell over the entry flap. He sighed.

“Come in.” He turned to see the intruder. Lieutenant Colbert entered, the top half of his specialized warcaster armor stripped down to his sweat-soaked gray undershirt. He stood at attention with a rigid salute. Halleck saluted him back. “At ease.” Colbert parted his feet and put his hands behind his back. Halleck motioned for him to speak. “What the hell is it, Lieutenant?”

“Sir, Colonel Swinburn’s orders were for me to assist here in the attack on the Khadoran fighting position and then return ASAP with the surviving ‘jacks.” His voice was tense.

Halleck nodded. He knew where this was going. “Yes, Lieutenant, I’m aware. As you may have noticed, the Khadorans aren’t all dead yet. We still need you.”

“I know sir, and I want to stay. Truly, I do. But I have orders.” Colbert was trying to hide his frustration and doing a poor job of it. Gods, the poor kid really felt bad. Halleck didn’t blame him for having to leave. Taking all the warjacks, though, was not going to happen.

“I understand, Lieutenant,” Halleck said kindly. “Unfortunately, as you are aware, we lost most of our armor in the advance. One ironclad is scrapped, the other is alive but can’t walk, the third is missing both its arms. Both defenders are dead. The grenadiers are operating, but those machines were supposed to be assigned to our companies and that is where they will stay.” Halleck shrugged. “We’re not going to take a town with no heavy assets, and even Colonel Swinburn knows that.”

Colbert closed his eyes momentarily. “Sir, I came down here with nine warjacks under my control. If I walk back up there with zero warjacks, the Colonel will eat me alive.”

Halleck just shook his head. “Four of those warjacks were originally requisitioned to our battalion, Lieutenant.”

“The grenadiers yes, but–”

“The cyclones too,” Halleck said. “Colonel Swinburn redirected them to Frénosel.”

“He has the authority, Major,” Colbert said plaintively. “They go where they’re told, just like me. If I were a full warcaster I’d have more… flexibility with my orders, and I would stay here without a second thought. I don’t have that option. Those ‘jacks were asked to be returned.”

Halleck nodded. “And the Colonel has returned them to their designated combat post, where they will remain,” he said firmly.

“Sir, please–”

Halleck held up his hand and Colbert stopped. “Lieutenant, I know the Colonel is a scary man, but a handful of half-busted junkers aren’t going to be missed up there. He’s getting additional warcaster support by tomorrow, and you’re probably getting a new warcaster overseer and being moved elsewhere. I’ve been assured this by a supply officer just a few hours ago. Colonel Swinburn will get to be angry for a full afternoon before he gets what he needs.” Halleck stared the Lieutenant down. “You see what we’re dealing with here.”

“It’s not any better up there, sir,” Colbert said. He steeled himself. “Sir, I have to come back with something.”

Halleck sighed. “I’ll have the gobber repair team reattach the ironclad’s arms. That’s the best you’re going to get,” he said. “The grenadiers stay here, and you can tell Swinburn that they were reassigned to us by supply. Tell the Colonel I’ll send the cyclone up as soon as its repaired.”

“When will that be, sir?”

“When we’ve taken Albyn,” Halleck answered.

“Ah.” Colbert swallowed and looked away. “So as far as the Colonel is aware, I’ve lost six warjacks in one attack.” The humiliation was plain in his voice.

“No,” Halleck corrected, “you followed our ridiculous battle plan as ordered, and the aggressive action cost us those assets but saved a lot of lives. You managed them admirably. I will make sure the colonel knows that,” Halleck assured him.

“Yes sir.” Colbert did not sound convinced.

“Listen to me, Lieutenant. There is a very valuable lesson in this for you. You may not have authority now, but one day soon you will be expected to make these sorts of decisions. Machines can be rebuilt and replaced. Human beings are a much more precious resource. You remember that.” Halleck poked Colbert in the chest for emphasis. “Machines are just machines.”

“Not when you can hear their thoughts,” Colbert answered reflexively, then cowed under Halleck’s harsh stare.

“Mhm,” Halleck muttered. “Can you hear my thoughts right now, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you need to?”

“No, sir,” Colbert repeated.

“Flesh over metal. Repeat it,” Halleck ordered.

“Flesh over metal, sir,” Colbert answered dutifully. Halleck patted him roughly on the shoulder.

“Atta boy. I know this is a bitter pill. Swinburn will be over it by the end of the week and you’ll have plenty more ‘jacks to work with in time.”

“I’m sorry I have to leave, sir,” Colbert said.

“Don’t be sorry. Just kill reds. Dismissed.” Halleck saluted the young man, who saluted back and left the tent. Halleck walked slowly to his shaving mirror, picking up the razor from the little bucket of soapy water.

Adjust, scrape, flick.


Captain Kasey waited anxiously for the Bastards to return. He’d heard gunfire in the woods followed by an extended silence. There was no doubt in his mind they would return, but under what conditions and with what information? Several minutes later, three of the unit came walking back, supporting a man between them whose face was saturated in blood.

“Report!” Kasey demanded.

“Snipers in the woods, Walyam got hit. Targets down, Swelt is moving forward.” Each word was clipped and professional, no more syllables than necessary. Kasey waited and waited for more to return.

Finally they came jogging up the back road at their farthest eastern guard post. Kasey met them there.

“Swelt! Give me a sitrep.”

“Captain,” Swelt said breathlessly, giving a quick salute. “One woun–”

“I know about the casualty,” the Captain interrupted. His foot seemed to be tapping of its own will. “What did you see?” The unit huddled around Swelt who dropped to a knee, grabbed a stick and began sketching the town’s rough layout in the mud, describing the fences, the patrol lane and the general distribution of buildings.

“It’s messy. A lot of blind corners, lot of odd intersections. One gate here–” he scratched an X at the western edge of the perimeter.

“Civilian presence?” Kasey asked. Swelt nodded grimly.

“The Khadorans had them out on parade for show,” Swelt answered. “That town is a hostage.”

Captain Kasey growled furiously. “Son of a whore. How many?”

“I observed seven, but there are almost certainly more than that,” Swelt explained. “Could be seventy. Could be a hundred and seventy.” He shook his head in disappointment. “If their goal was to use civvies as body shields, they probably captured as much of that town as they could. I’d anticipate a high innocent-to-combatant ratio.”

“I had a feeling,” Kasey sighed. “Did you see any artillery up there?”

Swelt shook his head again. “Negative. But we couldn’t move past the southern end of their perimeter. The trees thin on the western and north-eastern side–” he pointed to each location on his little map with the stick– “and we observed a spriggan warjack on patrol around here–” he marked another X at the northeastern side of the town. “Who knows what else they might be hiding back there. Good news is, nothing is pointed at us right now, and the nearest rail line is several miles north. It’ll be hard for them to resupply. If we can force them to keep those ‘jacks running, we might be able to run them dry.”

Kasey buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath. He looked at Swelt.

“Staff Sergeant,” he began, “neither you or your men are to repeat what I say next.” If they hadn’t been totally paying attention to the exchange, they were now. “I believe the Khadorans have a big gun up their sleeve.” He quickly explained the pieces of evidence: the craters on the field. The unusual retreat. The low numbers of enemy occupiers. The ineffectively straight trench.

Swelt listened carefully and scratched his patchy beard. “Seems a bit circumstantial, sir, but plausible,” he said at last. Kasey let out a breath, relieved for someone to believe him and simultaneously not at all relieved to hear he might actually be right. “Although if I had a potato launcher of that size at my disposal, I’d be using the hell out of it right away,” Swelt added.

“I wouldn’t,” Kasey answered. “I’d wait until maximum saturation of enemy in the target area. We don’t have the firepower to take that town right now and they know it, especially if we have to be careful of collateral damage. And now they know that we know there are civilians in there.”

Swelt clicked his tongue. “Or maybe they’re going to open fire any moment.”

“True,” Kasey agreed reluctantly. “Which only adds to my sense of urgency. Are they waiting for something, or are they just working out a mechanical failure? I have no way of knowing.” He scratched his neck. “Are you certain of the civilian presence? It’s not a bluff?”

“Absolutely,” Swelt answered. “They put on a show to make the town look occupied by its residents because they knew we were watching, but that doesn’t make it a lie.”

“The Major does not agree with my assessment of their capability,” Kasey said monotone, careful not to betray his reproach. “And if you didn’t see anything on the southwestern perimeter, that means whatever they have is here–” Kasey borrowed the stick from Swelt and scratched his own X to the far north of the town. “And if it’s there, then it has a high enough angle of fire to shoot over the town, which means we won’t know what’s coming until it’s in the air.”

Swelt winced. “So if you’re right, you can’t prove anything until it’s too late.”

Kasey stared at him. “You see my dilemma.”

Swelt looked up at the town. “That’s gonna be one hell of a big potato.” He bit his lip. “I’m guessing one of those double two-forties, although I’ve only ever seen those mounted on a colossal or a warship. With the right powder mixture, they can travel two miles.”

 Kasey shook his head. “No, too direct, too fast,” he said. “The gun emplacement would need line of sight to target.”

“Avalanche cannon?” one of the other Bastards suggested.

“I don’t even think those exist,” Swelt said, nonplussed. “And if they do, and if one is here, those craters on the field would be deep enough to start a small mining operation.”

Kasey rocked back onto his ass in the dirt, tapping his forehead, trying to knock the answer loose.

“Then what the hell are we dealing with here? Am I completely off-base?” he asked.

“If it isn’t a navy turret, then it’s a siege mortar,” Swelt replied firmly. “Has to be. Primary armament on the new Victor superheavies, so they’re in production and on the front.”

“Caliber?” Kasey asked.

“No idea, but it’s heavy. I’ve only seen one at a distance. Bore hole wide enough to fit a human being.”

Kasey laughed incredulously. “Something that big would need an auto-loader! There’s no colossal back there.”

“They’ve got ‘jacks, and Man-o-War,” Swelt countered. “They could have retrofitted it to load manually.”

Kasey groaned. “I suppose you’re right, but… why? Why go through the trouble? I mean a siege gun… You’d think they would save that to defend Merywyn.” He snapped his drawing stick in half and tossed it over his shoulder before standing up. “You know what this reminds me of?”

Swelt grunted as he also stood. “Sir, I could not even begin to imagine what this reminds you of,” he said.

Kasey crossed his arms. “I was once stationed in Corvis for a month and spent an embarrassing amount of time in their gambling dens,” he began to explain. “One night I walk in and sit down to a game of four captains. You play it?”

“I don’t gamble,” Swelt answered.

“Well, I didn’t have a lot of money and I stayed at the low-stakes tables,” Kasey continued. “There was this fellow at the table who started cheating in the first round. Bid most of his stash, didn’t discard any cards and then dropped four skulls. Wiped half the table out. A smart cheater would have let it ride the rest of the game, but he did it again the next round, same goddamn hand. Obviously impossibile.”

“I’m guessing he was caught,” Swelt offered.

“Yeah, and we beat the shit out of him,” Kasey said. “But you know what? It didn’t even feel good. We were betting coppers, Sergeant.”

Swelt’s face pinched in confusion. “Why was he cheating for copper bits?”

Kasey stared up at Albyn. “Sergeant, I haven’t got a clue.”

Swelt shrugged. “If this story has a moral to it, I’ve missed it, sir.”

“Some people just want to cheat for its own sake,” Kasey suggested. “They like not playing fair. They like seeing other people think they’re playing by one set of rules, and then changing the rules mid-way.”

Swelt looked unconvinced. “Nobody dislikes Khadorans any more than I do, Captain, but even they tend to have more complex motivations than just wanting to cheat,” he countered. “There have to be higher stakes here than just not playing fair.”

“Maybe there’s something in the town they want to protect?” one of the commandos offered.

“Can’t imagine what,” Kasey said. “Albyn is pretty, but it’s not important. This whole thing was supposed to be a pit-stop to the–” he paused suddenly.

“What is it?” asked Swelt.

“Thamar’s fertile pussy,” Kasey murmured. “They’re trying to keep us off the rail line.”

“The Merywyn-Elsinburg line?” Swelt asked. “That’s miles away, like I said.”

“Yeah,” Kasey agreed slowly, “but what if there’s no other defenses between here and there?” Kasey asked. “What if this is their last stronghold in the sector?”

“Alright, let’s say that it is,” Swelt conceded. “So what? Merywyn is almost certainly buttoned up by now, and we’re not tasked with retaking Elsinburg. That’s Storm Division’s job. But they’re still holed up at Riversmet. So even if you’re right, and even if they’re trying to keep us off the rails, what for? Can’t imagine there’s a lot of train traffic between Elsinburg and Merywyn right now.”

“And the fortress at Rynyr stands between Storm Division and Elsinburg,” Kasey agreed. He sighed. “Well, damned if I know what the point of all this is. Maybe they’re just cheating for coppers.”

“What’s your plan, sir?” Swelt pressed.

Kasey looked away, plucking nervously at his eyebrow. “Major Halleck is in charge, Staff Sergeant. We hold the position. Best I can do is move Hammer Company into those woods at nightfall and launch a counterattack if they open fire.”

“What’s the number?” Swelt asked.

“Dead or living?” Kasey asked.

“Living,” Swelt said.

Kasey balled his fists. “One-thirty,” he answered through gritted teeth. Swelt exhaled softly. “Don’t spread that,” Kasey added quickly.

“No, sir,” the crusty Sergeant replied.

Kasey looked back at the forest going up the hill. “You think those woods can hide three platoon’s worth of boys?” the Captain asked.

“Probably, but we should stay spread and quiet,” Swelt said. “If the Khadorans catch wind they’ll make us pay for getting so close. At least one of their destroyers survived, and we know they have a spriggan up th ere already.”

Nothing about this was ideal. But what choice did Kasey have? The Major wasn’t going to budge, and deploying anywhere near those impact craters was a death sentence.

“Alright,” Kasey said, mustering confidence he didn’t feel. “Then we’ll slip into the trees and see what happens.”