27th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Razor wire tore a deep gash into Kirk’s shin and snagged on his pant leg as he stumbled through the clouds of lung-scratching gas, coughing violently, eyes shut against the burning film. Stumbling into the open on the other side of the cloud, he scrambled to find cover. Realizing he was standing at the end of a long straight lane, he ducked behind a squat house sitting at the edge of the biting poison cloud, its plaster walls freshly cracked and crumbling from artillery shrapnel. Standing between an open doorway and a broken window, a rifle muzzle poked out of the window and fired blindly at him. Someone came up behind him and he whirled around to see Peter.
“Keep going!” Peter gasped, still choking on the acidic gas. “Don’t sit still!”
A sound came from inside the building he was braced against. His hands trembled viciously no matter how hard he squeezed his rifle. Merrimack stumbled up to them and braced against the wall right beside Kirk, panting.
“Clear this fucking building!” he shouted. Kirk edged closer to the open door, sucking air through his teeth, trying to still his shaking fingers. Releasing a grenade from his bandolier he pushed the timer and tossed it through the door. There was a shout in Khadoran from inside– and a shout in Llaelese as well. Too late. The bomb went off, shattering windows and sending shrapnel and wood splinters out every opening. Merrimack was first in. Kirk followed.
A Khadoran and a dead Llaelese woman were lying in the corner. Kirk barely registered anything else in the pitch-black smoking room. Merrimack put a bullet in the khadoran’s head just to make sure. The shot was deafening. Peter poked his head out the blown-out back door, yanking his head back just as a cluster of grape shot ripped through the wood doorframe.
Kirk slid over the debris-littered wooden floor to a blown-out rear window and poked his rifle barrel out, firing blindly as Merrimack leapt courageously through the back door and fired. Kirk reloaded and vaulted through the window onto the body of another dead Khadoran. The rest of Kirk’s unit emerged from an alley between two flaming buildings on their left and they wordlessly crossed the open street together, studiously ignoring the too-small bodies lying motionless in the dirt and rubble. Two seconds later an explosion erupted from the third story of one of the apartment buildings looming ahead of them; a field gun round screeched through the air into the building they had just left and detonated, blowing the house to pieces. Shrapnel peppered the back of Kirk’s greatcoat and bit into his armor. No pain. Not even his leg was hurting now. Adrenaline replaced all feeling with its cold, spiky grip.
They ran hard through another alley. A building detonated fifty feet in front of them just as another unit of trenchers entered it, tossing their bodies straight into the air. Kirk’s unit pressed on, desperate to overwhelm the enemy before they could take any more losses. They approached a line of hanging laundry.
“Watch the fucking clotheslines!” Merrimack screamed over the growing din. “They’re tripwires!”
A tip from Liliana, passed to them by Captain Kasey.
The ground-shaking thumps of battling warjacks, hidden field guns, and boobytraps were beginning to rival the noise of the artillery barrage from moments ago.
Peter suddenly fired into the hanging laundry and was rewarded with a wet smack of bullet on flesh. Without thought and on pure instinct, Kirk fired as well– two Khadorans fled their dead companions waiting in the trap. The rest of the trencher unit opened fire and cut the retreating enemy down before they could find cover. Another trencher unit converged and met with them as they entered a three-way crossroads and the group of men nearly all killed each other in surprise.
“Don’t clump!” someone in the other unit screamed. They all scattered like someone had tossed a grenade at them. Two seconds later, a field gun launched a shell at the cobblestones and turned them into dust, catching three men from the other unit in a firestorm of shrapnel. Merrimack screamed. Kirk pressed him against a wall for cover, peering up at the apartment the field gun was shooting from. He didn’t even have time to aim at it before it vanished in a fireball from a trench cannon artillery blast.
“Corporal!” he shouted into the other man’s bleeding face. A deep laceration had torn Merrimack’s cheek so far open Kirk could see his molars. Merrimack slapped his hand over the gushing wound. Kirk’s shaking hands dug for a bandage in his pouch and pressed it into Merrimack’s cheek so hard the blood made it stick.
“Fine! I’m fine!” Merrimack shouted back, spitting blood into Kirk’s face. “Let’s go!” They all rounded another corner just as an old man fell out of an open doorway. Gerard fired before anyone else even realized it wasn’t an enemy, killing the man instantly.
“Fuck! Fuck! No!” Gerard screamed in agony, voice breaking as he reloaded. Two more Llaelese civilians hurtled through the door but nobody fired this time.
“Gerard, get them the fuck out of here!’ Merrimack shouted, voice muffled by his torn cheek and the bandage. Michael bent forward to lift one of the civilians off the ground.
“NO!” Peter shouted just as he spotted the tip of a blunderbuss poke out from the edge of the doorframe, but too late. Grape shot blasted from inside the dark house into Michael’s spine, too close for his armor to block it. He gurgled and fell forward into the woman he was trying to rescue. She screamed hysterically under his dead weight. Kirk tossed a grenade through the window of the building the shot had come from, smiling angrily at the sound of a Khadoran dying in the blast. Peter tossed another one in for good measure.
One of the vets in their unit kicked Michael’s corpse off the woman and hauled her to her feet, shoving her into Gerard. “Get!” he barked. “Go!” Gerard hesitated– reluctant to leave his friends– before grabbing the poor woman by her arm and yanking her back toward the Cygnaran line even as more trenchers rushed past them through the smoking neighborhood.
“No escort missions,” one of the greenies reminded them. The vet made a rude gesture.
“Fuck off,” he said, bending down to pull up one of the other women who had been tossed out by the Khadorans as a body shield and shoving her off in Gerard’s direction. She fled. Another alley. Another ambush. No friendly deaths this time– they wiped an entire unit of khadoran riflemen hiding behind the shattered remains of a blacksmith shop with a couple of well-placed rifle grenades. Shots erupted from the apartment building looming directly behind the blacksmith, skipping off of the roof tiles of the workshop.
“We gotta clear it!” Merrimack spluttered even as he tried to swap out the soaking bandage on his cheek. “Fuck this,” he said, unable to keep it on his face and tossing it on the ground in frustration, gripping his rifle in preparation. Saliva and gore drizzled down his neck. Kirk blew out a shaking breath.
“What’re we–” one of the other men started.
“Gerard,” Peter cut him off. “We’re waiting for Gerard.”
“He even coming back?” someone asked.
“Stupid fucking question,” Kirk spat, trembling with fear and adrenaline. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.
Gerard came back, sliding up to the wall with the rest of them. Without a sound they charged through the next alley. Lightning flashed overhead and they split down the middle of the little roadway, trying to hide from the momentary illumination and pressing themselves into the walls as shotglass-sized blunderbuss rounds ripped through the air from the apartment windows ahead, blasting craters into the street. They raced forward while the enemy reloaded, leaping over a low wall into a vegetable garden at the edge of the apartment building. Shots from inside. Cygnaran voices. Another unit had already entered the building from the opposite end.
“Go go!” Kirk said, knocking the glass out of a tall window with the butt of his rifle. Peter launched himself through, knocking out the rest of the glass with his armor as he passed inside. Kirk followed right after him and was greeted with an orgy of violence.
The small, dim apartment was packed with bodies. Four trenchers and seven Winter Guard were brawling savagely, stumbling over furniture and firing wildly into the blind darkness. Kirk watched a khadoran land an axe blow into a trencher’s helmet, splitting it straight to the neck. Kirk screamed and charged the hulking northerner with his bayonet, piercing him in the kidney, driving him against a toppled desk with the force of the charge and sending him over the other side. He fired point-blank at the downed enemy, reloaded, and fired again. Someone bashed into his rear and sent him tumbling over the desk onto the bloody corpse. Struggling to his feet, he whipped around to see Peter frantically stabbing into the gut of a hulking bearded khadoran who had him pinned against the desk. Shick, shick, shick went the trench knife as the khadoran’s eyes went soft, blood drizzling out of slack lips. Kirk bashed him in the forehead with the butt of his rifle to get him off his companion. Peter leapt onto the fallen foe and slit his throat with a ferocious scream.
In less than fifteen seconds it was over. The iron scent of blood hung heavy in the air. The three surviving trenchers of the other unit paused to get their breath, struggling to absorb the shock that the rest of their unit were dead. One of the greenies in Kirk’s unit had taken an axe to his femur and was writhing on the dirty floor, gasping quietly in pain.
“You three,” Merrimack said to the other unit between gulps of air, “get him out of here.” He pointed to his wounded unit mate. They started to protest, reluctant to leave their dead friends, and then they noticed Merrimack’s corporal badges. He was the ranking officer in the room. They obeyed, lifting the young man up by his shoulders and boots even as he screamed and begged and cried for them to stop. Kirk was grateful for the cottony deafness that had taken residence in his ears from all the explosions. Nine of them left now. Gerard had a mean gash on his bicep that could have easily been a severed arm if he had been a millisecond slower. Merrimack’s face and mouth were bleeding profusely. Kirk’s leg had finally started hurting again, the slice from the razor wire burning with every motion. Everyone had walking injuries now.
Pausing to reload, wrap bandages and sip some water to wet bone-dry mouths, they proceeded out of the apartment into the pitch-black hallway. A pile of furniture had been erected at the end of the hall but was unmanned. They took turns tossing grenades into each apartment along the way, not bothering to check for occupants. Nobody wanted to risk another melee. More trenchers came bursting through an apartment at the end of the hall near a stairwell even as the building shuddered from some impact or blast.
“Friendly! Friendly!” Gerard shouted as they approached from behind. The other trenchers were barricading the door shut. Rhythmic thumps sounded outside. Ground shaking Footfalls.
“Destroyer!” one of the trenchers shouted at them frantically.
“Upstairs! Upstairs!” one of the vets in Kirk’s unit ordered. Both groups hustled up the narrow stairwell, barely escaping a brilliant explosion from a destroyer shell fired point-blank into the wall. The entire face of the building tore apart, revealing the glowing, soot-pumping monstrosity on the other side wreathed in flame and falling debris, engine hammering. Nobody stopped to gaze at the awesome sight, running hard through another hallway on the second floor, trying to escape the metal beast. Right into a trap.
A child came running at them through the hall, screams muffled by a gag, something bright and sparkly in his hand.
“Oh, fuck no,” the lead trencher muttered. He intercepted the child before she reached the group, trying to pry the lit alchemical blasting stick out of her hand. “Fuck no!” he screamed again, desperately trying to disentangle the impenetrable knot of razorwire securing the explosive device to her body. The wire tore at his fingers, unable to make headway against the savage knot. Her eyes were pleading, wet with tears. Terrified.
The building’s foundation shook with another impact but nobody even noticed; they were transfixed by the horrifying sight of one of their own trying to free a child from an explosive.
Realizing he would fail and with only seconds to act, the brave soldier yanked his trench knife from his belt, held the girl’s hand, and lopped it off. She screamed into the gag and fainted. He held the little severed hand to his chest, still strapped to its deadly payload, and ran down the hall as fast as he could. He leapt over another furniture barricade even as the stick exploded, shredding the furniture into a thousand high-speed bits of sharp wood. He vanished in a cloud of blood and smoke.
One of the men from the other unit picked the injured little girl up and hustled back down the stairs. Kirk turned to see the destroyer had moved on, either satisfied with the smoking hole it’d left in the building or distracted by some other errand.
“Morrow,” one of the men stammered.
“Keep moving,” Merrimack said, hoarse. “She didn’t strap that dynamite to herself. There are still reds in here.” They split up into seven groups of three, trying to unclog the narrow hallway and clearing each room separately. One group further up the hall was instantly killed by a tripwire attached to a grenade. Kirk, Peter and Gerard burst into another dingy apartment and swept for enemies or traps, but it was empty. Another explosion down the hall– they raced out, fearing another trap, relieved instead to hear “got ‘em!” from one of the trencher groups. Footsteps coming from downstairs. Another shuddering blast.
Kirk was losing sense of his larger surroundings, overwhelmed by the inescapable presence of what lay directly in front of him– no world existed outside this horrible building and its dark rooms. The building shuddered again and the wall at the other end of the hallway disintegrated to reveal the burning town below. Metal being pounded. Screeching. Someone cheered. “Ironclad! That destroyer is fucked!”
“We’re going back the other way,” Merrimack ordered over the banging of the two warjacks hammering on each other just below the lip of the shattered end of the hallway terminating in open space. He already sounded exhausted. Smoke billowed up into the room from the contest of giants.
“There’s still another floor above us,” someone pointed out.
“The stairs are blown up on both sides!” Merrimack fired back. “Can you think of any other way of getting up there?” Nobody had any suggestions. “If there are reds up there, they aren’t coming down and we aren’t going up. There are other buildings to clear. Let’s go.” He pressed another bandage to his cheek and backtracked down the corridor, leaping down several feet at the bottom of the wrecked stairwell and cautiously walking through the destroyer blast-hole into one of the wider streets of central Albyn.
Rain fell in sheets from clouds underlit by a brilliant fire blazing on the rooftop of the half-destroyed apartment structure directly across the street. The din of chain guns, rifle blasts, artillery, and warjack combat sounded all around them, but the street they were on was eerily deserted. It curved away from them in both directions, forming a gentle u-shape of three- and four- story buildings with shops on the first floor and residences on the upper floors. This was a pretty place, Kirk mused sadly, wiping a mixture of rainwater and sweat from his brow. It was not pretty anymore. Every window was dark or boarded up. Both ends of the street were crossed with heavy timbers and bolted and chained together in an x-pattern. A warjack could break the logs, but would risk getting tangled in the chains, and there were too many gaps in the logs to be good cover for infantry, not to mention the dozens of large iron nails protruding randomly from each log. Excellent roadblocks that offered little protection. The khadorans called them diakobra. ‘Porcupines.’
They scattered, shoulders hunched, glancing nervously from one black window to the next. Kirk’s neck prickled with imagined threats in every dark corner. Each man took a position in a doorway or alley.
“Where the hell is everybody?” Peter asked, louder than he meant.
“Sshh,” Gerard reprimanded, pressing his back into the doorframe of a furniture shop on the other side of the street. Cygnaran voices shouted in a charge on the other side of the buildings, the way they had come. Still they were alone.
“What do we do now, corporal?” one of the privates from the other unit asked. She was hiding just inside a doorway to Kirk’s left. Her voice was shockingly feminine for such a large, muscular woman. Kirk had mistaken her for another man in the dim light.
“There aren’t enough of us to move further up the street,” Merrimack said even as he coughed blood. He was leaning hard against the wall between Kirk and the lady trencher, breathing hard.
Kirk furrowed his brow in alarm. “Sir are you hit?” he asked, worried.
Merrimack spat angrily. “This fucking cheek wound,” he mumbled, wincing as he touched the bandage. His mouth sounded swollen. “Pouring blood down my throat.”
“Let’s see if we can push through this building,” the lady trencher offered, pointing up at the structure they were hiding against. “Maybe there’s a back door to the street on the other side. Thought I heard friendlies in a battle on that side.”
“The one on fire?” Gerard asked, pointing at the blazing rooftop. “Why?”
Snap! A rifle fired from one of the dark windows three stories above them. The trenchers on the opposite side of the street instantly jumped forward to find cover closer to the building. Terrible plan. The khadorans hiding above them suddenly opened up with rifles, peppering the cobblestones with bullets and sending four trenchers to the ground permanently. Everyone cursed in fear and panic. Kirk counted his friends: Gerard. Peter. Merrimack.
Was that really all he cared about now? That these three people survived? He wondered at himself.
“Guess we have our answer,” Gerard said, checking his weapon was loaded. Merrimack nodded gravely.
“Stack up,” their corporal said. “In and up.”
Footsteps sounded behind them. They whirled and aimed their weapons to see three more units of blue-armored trenchers pouring out of the hole in the apartment building they’d just left. The two groups made eye contact and recognized each other; all members of 4th Platoon. Lieutenant Reynolds was among them.
“WATCH OUT!” Kirk shouted even as the khadorans above them opened fire again, tearing into the clumped-up group of startled troopers. Bullets landed with sickening blasts of meat, bone, and splintered armor. The newcomers disbanded into the street, dropping to their knees to return fire and cover their friends as they raced to the safe side of the lane. Two more units emerged out of the hole in the building and took up firing positions. The khadorans were pinned now. A team was setting up a chain gun.
Lieutenant Reynolds charged into the street to help pull wounded to safety.
“Corporal!” he barked at Merrimack.
Merrimack stood up off the wall. “Yes sir,” he answered.
“Clear that goddamn building!” Reynolds ordered. “Now!”
“You heard him!” Merrimack shouted. They stacked up on the door. Gerard began loading a rifle grenade. The shop windows were broken but enough lettering remained for Kirk to see this had been an apothecary.
“No grenades,” he told Merrimack, pointing to the broken signage. “Possible chemicals in here.”
Merrimack sighed in frustration. “Goddamn it. Good call.” He whistled at Gerard. “Pull that off,” he said, pointing at the rifle grenade.
Gerard’s eyes went wide in fear. “How are we clearing the room?” he asked.
“Good aim. Now let’s go!” Merrimack replied, and the huge trencher woman nodded at him before blowing the door open with one powerful kick. She was first through, Gerard and Kirk right on her heels. Pure darkness. Chak chak chak chak went the chain gun outside, showering bits of brick from the upper story walls onto the street behind them.
They swept through the toppled shelves and apothecary racks of the first floor, barely lit by the glow flames from outside. Nothing. Up the stairs into deeper darkness and the back of the residential floors. Just as she reached the stairway, the lady trencher’s head disappeared in a flash of gore from a blunderbuss shot aimed by a khadoran lying flat on the top step.
Kirk charged up the stairs, screaming. The khadoran would have to reload. Kirk stopped halfway up, face level with his enemy. Their wide eyes met in the dark. Kirk’s foe was trying to cram another round into his weapon. He died as Kirk’s bullet passed through his brain. The chain gun screamed again and Kirk could hear the bullets ripping into the rooms above him. They swept the second story. Nothing. A group of khadorans put up a brave defense on the third floor, blasting through the thin walls with grapeshot as the trenchers entered the apartment, clipping two of them badly. Unable to seek cover near the obliterated windows, five reds charged them from an adjacent room and were cut down.
“Clear!” Peter shouted into the other room, voice carrying to the cygnarans on the street. The chain gun bullets stopped. Boom. Boom. Boom. Clanking metal in the distance. A roaring engine.
“SPRIGGAN!” someone shouted on the street. Rifle fire burst through the air below. Embers showered on his helmet as hot timbers cracked above him; the fire had spread from the roof to the fourth story. Kirk ran to a broken window, peering out and around the corner to see the giant metal shield of a spriggan lumber into view, stacks blazing fire and smoke, enormous lance pointed aggressively at 4th platoon’s vulnerable position in the center of the street. The chain gun turned its fire on the intruder, rounds bursting harmlessly against thick steel. The bottom of its shield kicked up bright sparks as it dragged relentlessly over cobblestones.
“Fall back!” Lieutenant Reynolds shouted. “Pull back!” everyone outside scattered, some running back into the apartment building they’d just come out of. Kirk pulled his head back into the room.
“Corporal, we gotta help them!” Kirk shouted.
“We can’t,” Merrimack said. “We need to get out of his building or we’ll be stuck up here.”
“Where are we going?” one of the trenchers who’d joined them earlier asked.
“Back door,” Gerard suggested. “Alley. Something to get us further into town.”
“Further in!?” Kirk said, incredulous. “We’re almost alone out here as it is!”
“Gerard’s right,” Merrimack said. “There are reds waiting for us in every building, we need to clear these ambushes before–” he interrupted himself with a wet cough, “–before the rest of the platoon moves forward.”
“What about them!?” Kirk demanded to know, pointing at their platoon retreating ahead of the approaching metal monster. Boom, boom, went its feet.
“They need ‘jack support and we can’t give them that,” another trencher said. “The corporal has the right idea. Maybe we can intercept another ambush.”
Kirk made a frustrated grunt but let go of any further argument. Merrimack led them back down the stairs to the second floor. Percussive bangs sounded from outside as the spriggan launched a salvo of grenades. Merrimack stopped suddenly and the rest of the men froze behind him, crouching low. Five seconds passed. A door creaked below them. Merrimack turned slowly to Gerard, gesturing to the rifle grenades on his belt and pointed down the black stairwell. Gerard nodded and gently slid the bomb onto the end of his rifle, wincing as the metal clicked loudly. Someone whispered below them. The words weren’t in cygnaran.
Gerard popped the rifle grenade down the stairs, illuminating a unit of khadorans in the flash; they stood dumb at the bottom of the stairs by the headless trencher as the grenade exploded at their feet. Flames roared up the stairwell as some dangerous alchemical in one of the cabinets ignited and flashed off, triggered by the heat of the grenade. Merrimack charged down the stairs into the smoking room just in time to see two Khadorans race out the front door, clothes blazing.
“Let ‘em burn,” Peter snarled. Merrimack stopped to look at the two wounded men in their unit, both of their arms bleeding profusely from grape shot.
“You two can’t hold rifles. Get out of here,” he ordered. They looked at each other. “That’s a fucking order!” he demanded. “Go get medical attention!” They sighed, stepping out the front door cautiously before running across the street behind the marching Spriggan, back into the blown-out apartment building that was becoming 4th Platoon’s main entry point into town. Merrimack watched them go, then turned to investigate an open door at the back of the shop and approached it, poking his head into a dead-end alley full of garbage. A tremendous boom rattled his guts, followed by a spectacular fireball that rose with a dragon’s roar into the air high above the rooftops at the center of town.
“The hell was that?” one of the trenchers wondered as he came up behind Merrimack. “Sounded like the siege mortar!”
“No,” Merrimack said, watching the fireball climb into the sky between the narrow walls of the alley, flattening out against the heavy rain clouds. It certainly reminded him of the siege mortar’s incendiary rounds, but there had been no shell impact… “I don’t think so.”
“Boobytrap?” Kirk asked.
“That had to have taken out a whole building,” the other trencher said, incredulous.
The clapping of boots announced two units of Winter Guard as they raced down the street at the other end of the lane, passing by the narrow gap in the walls without noticing the trenchers lurking inside. Where the hell were they coming from? Kirk felt all turned around. Merrimack crouched instinctively as they passed.
“Come on,” Merrimack said after the enemy was out of earshot, stepping lightly into the alley, weapon up. “Let’s see if we can set up our own ambush.” The mishmash group of trenchers– only fourteen of them now, made up of the remains of three separate units– advanced cautiously toward the next street. Another explosion vibrated their organs. Another fireball, this one closer– just one street over.
“What the hell is going on?” Kirk wondered aloud.
“That was definitely a siege mortar shell!” Gerard hissed. “I’d recognize it anywhere.”
The question hung in everyone’s minds as they looked at each other nervously: would the next building they entered be rigged with one of those shells? The bonfire on the rooftops behind them burned merrily, crackling like laughter in reply to their morbid thoughts.
“Let’s take a position up there,” Merrimack said quietly, nodding ahead of them toward a book shop, its windows heavily boarded. Kirk felt instantly queasy.
“I don’t like this, corporal,” he said. “Why is that one boarded up?”
“Stow the whining,” Merrimack bit. “We have a job to do.” Another unit of khadorans came running up the street and the trenchers flattened themselves into the shadows of the alley, bracing for a fight. Once again nobody saw them.
“They’re headed for 4th Platoon at the other end,” Kirk realized aloud. “This street loops around to the other side!” He’d studied the maps of Albyn and finally began to comprehend where they were. After what felt like hours of stifling confusion, the fog of war was lifting over his mind just momentarily.
“Let’s take up a position and hit the next squad that comes through,” Merrimack urged, charging across the open street toward the boarded-up shop. Several things happened simultaneously.
“Yam viznu!” a voice echoed off the city walls down the avenue to their right, followed by the crack of a vislov hunting rifle and the snap of a bullet into Merrimack’s shoulder pauldron. He stumbled. At that exact same moment the structure behind Kirk trembled violently, showering them with loose bricks and roof shingles. Four more trenchers burst through the back door into the alley.
“Warjack!” they screamed, shoving Kirk’s unit out of the alley even as they moved to cover Merrimack. Boom. Boom. Tremors signaled the return of the spriggan. A powerful crash sounded inside the structure, its stone foundations cracking, a waterfall of dust falling down the front-facing apartments. Kirk managed to get to the other side of the street just as the bottom two floors of the building exploded. Smoke and fire poured from the gap as the gargantuan khadoran war machine plowed straight through the building, crushing two unlucky trenchers against its huge pavise shield and knocking their broken bodies aside like dolls.
Caught between the sniper fire on the right and the charging monster behind them, the cygnarans had no choice but to flee down the left side of the street towards the diakobra barricades around the corner, hoping to stop the spriggan’s murderous advance. It turned to pursue. Kirk joined Merrimack in the doorway of the boarded-up shop. The corporal was wincing in pain, gripping his shoulder where the bullet had passed through.
“You need to get out of here!” Kirk shouted at him. “Come on!” Boom, boom went the spriggan’s grenades.
“Save the unit!” Merrimack coughed. Kirk looked from him to the spriggan to the barricaded door they were leaning against.
“What do I do!?” Kirk screamed.
“Distract it!” Merrimack said, pressing himself into the narrow doorway as another sniper round shattered the concrete lintel. Kirk grimaced. Flipping his rifle around, he slammed the butt into the door as hard as he could. Once. Twice. He smashed through the lock, causing Merrimack to fall inside. Grabbing a pair of grenades off his bandolier with one hand, Kirk armed them both and tossed them at the backside of the spriggan as it thundered away. The grenades exploded, barely chipping the machine’s paint. Its plodding footsteps halted.
“Fuck!” Kirk said, stumbling backwards into the dark shop.
“We got a problem,” Merrimack wheezed. Kirk spun around, eyesight still flickering from the grenades. Merrimack was frozen, rifle pointed at the corner of a room Kirk could hardly make out.
Two khadorans had their rifles trained at a llaelese family cowering on the floor.
“dvigatelya oni umir yut,” one of them commanded– a woman, her face hard as glass. Boom. Boom. The spriggan had turned around and was clanking back toward their hiding place, engine hammering. Dust rained on them from the ceiling.
“We’re going to be dead in five seconds,” Kirk said, voice buzzing with terror, neck prickling as the noise from the spriggan grew louder behind him. “It saw me come in here.”
“Brus oruziye!” the khadoran woman shouted at them, jabbing her rifle into the neck of a young man at her feet.
Kirk and Merrimack fired in perfect unison, headshots for both of them. The khadorans fell against the corner, splattering their brains against the plaster wall, and the family– five of them– screamed in horror. Kirk’s neck prickled as he heard the spriggan’s footsteps cease and whirled to see two glowing machine eyes peering at them through the door. He swore the monster grunted at him! Its six grenade-launcher tubes clicked.
“DOWN!” Kirk screamed, jumping into Merrimack and shoving him head-over-heels behind a bookshelf just as the spriggan fired six little explosive cylinders into the boarded-up windows, sending a fiery storm of splintered wood and brick into the room. The machine let out a piercing whistle and its grenade tubes clacked as they reloaded. “Let’s go!” Kirk shouted at the family in the corner, but they were dead; limp and bleeding, torn to pieces by flying shrapnel. Merrimack screamed as Kirk tried to pull him up.
“My leg!” Merrimack said, holding his leg straight. It hadn’t made it over the shelf in time: a five-inch shard of wood protruded from his thigh. “Aagh!” Kirk tried to pull him towards yet another stairwell leading up into yet another dangerous void– but Merrimack pushed him away, falling to the floor with a painful thud. “Go! Go!” he coughed. Gut knotted, Kirk raced up the stairs as the spriggan unleashed another blast. All the grenades made it into the room this time.
Gods, gods, not again! Kirk screamed mentally. He couldn’t bear to turn and see Merrimack’s corpse. Taking the steps two-by-two, he burst through a door into a rather luxurious open apartment on the second story. Hyperventilating and spinning in place, imagining khadorans lurking in every dark corner, he paused to catch his breath. Creeping to one of the tall windows, he spied the street, watching the spriggan lumber slowly around, apparently satisfied with its work. Kirk searched for a controller but saw none; the ‘jack was running autonomously, probably on standing orders to seek and destroy. The rest of his fellow trenchers were at the other end of the avenue, taking fire from khadorans positioned around the corner. The spriggan was headed back toward them. The window rattled as the machine stomped right below him, smoke drifting by the tinted glass.
Enraged by Merrimack’s unceremonious death and desperate to rescue his friends, Kirk did the unthinkable: he hurled himself through the window, crashing through the glass and landing on the spriggan’s hull. His boots struggled for traction on the smooth, sloped surface of its upper body and the spriggan suddenly stopped, rearing up and nearly tossing Kirk directly into its flaming stacks. He slipped down the front of the machine, grabbing the top lip of its cortex bay, screaming in pain as his hands seared on the hot metal in front of a boiler vent. Yanking himself up with herculean effort, bracing against the warjack even as it shook to free itself of its unwanted cargo, Kirk released his last grenade and tossed it into the open stacks, listening to it clatter down into the boiler. He leapt off, shin-guards barking painfully off the side of the machine as he fell hard onto the ground. The grenade exploded inside the boiler, firing a blast of burning coals into the air like a shotgun and detonating the firebox in a squall of buzzing shrapnel. The spriggan turned to him, joints halting and pistons freezing it in place as it burned, the delicate cortex hissing and popping. Its light faded.
Kirk gasped for air, resting his head on the ground, chest heaving. A cheer came up from his comrades as they charged back up the street, firing wildly at the sniper still hiding somewhere ahead of them. Kirk rolled painfully onto his chest, pushing himself up with great effort.
“Holy shit Kirk!” Gerard skittered to a halt, pulling Kirk up by his arm. “You’re getting a medal for that!”
“Corporal Merrimack,” Kirk wheezed, eyes watering in pain from the hard landing. Someone screamed from inside the book shop. Peter raced inside.
“He’s alive!” Peter shouted gleefully.
“Fuck off!” Merrimack said, voice muffled. Kirk began to smile but stopped when he heard Merrimack scream in pain again. He rushed inside. Peter was struggling to push the heavy bookcase off their friend. Kirk helped, putting his back against the bulky wooden object and sent it toppling off the corporal. Merrimack groaned. The bookcase had nearly crushed him, but it had also saved his life.
“Oh, thank Morrow,” Kirk breathed, pulling the corporal off the ground. Merrimack cried out. “Hey!” Kirk called to some of the other trenchers taking cover behind the spriggan. “Get him out of here!” They rushed in and supported Merrimack as they tried to hustle him out of the building. Rifles cracked with suppressing fire to stop the sniper from hitting their corporal again.
Rain was coming down in thick sheets now, soaking every bit of exposed cloth and flesh and puddling in the street, sending up a haze of steam from the seething corpse of the spriggan. A welcome veil against the sniper fire. Chain guns, artillery, warjacks, snapping rifles; the din of battle surrounded them and yet was hidden by the tall buildings of central Albyn. Kirk felt himself slipping into a twilight world, a liminal space between life and death. There was nothing outside of Albyn– the chaos extended in every direction for a million miles, war for eternity.
Khadoran riflemen fled directly towards Kirk and the cygnarans taking cover from the sniper, trying to escape a charge from several units in 4th Platoon who had rallied and were working their way around the loop now that the Spriggan was no longer on patrol. Kirk and his friends turned to fire enmasse and cut the enemy down, littering the street with corpses and filling the fresh rain puddles with blood. Reynolds led the charge with the group of trenchers pressing up behind the khadorans, trapping them in a pincer. Dozens of trenchers took turns firing into the windows where the sniper lay to keep their friends safe.
“Léandre!” Reynolds barked as he braced himself against the warm metal of the toppled spriggan beside Kirk. “Solve my problem!”
“Yes, sir!” Joffrey answered from down the street. Whipping out from a doorway he landed on one knee and fired a bullet in one clean motion. The whole rest of the platoon didn’t even wait for confirmation before leaving cover and pressing forward.
By now everybody knew that Joffrey didn’t miss.
Watching 4th Platoon streaming up both ends of the street loop, Kirk suddenly realized how little progress the company had actually made into the town. They’d penetrated the outskirts, pushed into a single block of buildings and had been fighting up and down this godforsaken loop of a street. That’s it. How many men had Kirk watched die just for this little scribble on the map?
“Lieutenant!” Kirk shouted, louder than he meant to. Reynolds jerked to look at him.
“I’m right here, private, don’t yell,” Reynolds said, annoyed.
“Sir, what’s the next move here?” Kirk asked, the ire in his voice leaking out. He continued before Reynolds could reprimand him for not studying the battle plan: “sir, the company is scattered, there are only four men left in my unit with no officer, and 4th Platoon is running out of bodies. At this rate we’ll have nobody left before we even get to the center of town!”
“Private, you–” Reynolds began, but Kirk’s adrenaline, fear, anguish, and rage weren’t going to let him stop.
“We need to regroup and find a safer path forward, we can’t just cut through every building we find!” Kirk said, shouting again.
“Private–” Reynolds said dangerously. Kirk knew he should stop. He couldn’t.
“We need to report the blockades on this road and the traps we’ve seen before more of our men blunder into these fucking ambushes!”
Reynolds had reached his limit. He slapped Kirk square in the face, hard. Kirk stared at his Lieutenant in shock and humiliation.
“Enough,” Reynolds said, biting the word like it owed him money. Kirk blinked hard. He was suddenly grateful for the downpour. “Remember who you’re talking to, Private Hobbs. The rest of the division is getting their ass handed to them on the north end of town and they are counting on us to apply pressure to the enemy and cause a rout. Sitting here bitching at me is not applying pressure, we clear!?”
“Yes sir,” Kirk said automatically, resisting the urge to rub his cheek. He had gone out of line. He knew it.
He also knew that he was right.
“Sir,” came a voice from behind them. It was a trencher Kirk didn’t recognize.
“What,” Reynolds snapped, aggravated.
“The traps have been even worse than we expected, sir,” the man said, “and we’re outrunning our warjack support. Had Kirk not taken out the spriggan you’re leaning against, we wouldn’t be standing here talking at all.”
Reynolds blinked, trying to decide whether or not he was angry or confused. He settled for both.
“What the fuck are you talking about? Kirk destroyed this warjack by himself?” he asked in disbelief.
“Jumped on its back and tossed a grenade right into the boiler,” the man said. “Never seen anything like it in my life. But I wouldn’t count on that kind of luck going forward.”
Reynolds paused and reassessed Kirk. He pursed his lips.
“Alright,” he said at last. “Let’s pause a moment and make sure everybody knows what we do going forward. But we are not slowing down, you understand? Every minute we stand here talking is another dead cygnaran. We regroup, clear up any confusion and push. Hard.”
“Yes, sir,” Kirk said. And where’s our warjack? Where’s Daisy? he wanted to add. He decided he’d pressed the Lieutenant hard enough.