He rushed up the hill a fifth time. Sweat ran down his body in tiny rivers, muscles he'd forgotten ached after days of training and the soles of his feet barely stayed whole. Heinrich didn't care. Running on his own was a luxury. This was for real, not the controlled lumbering of a body walker. This was freedom.
He threw a backwards glance. Four. Panopilis ahead of him, and Chang of course. Nobody beat Chang in a footrace.
Heinrich struggled the last meters to the crest and fell exhausted to the ground. He rolled over on his back and stared into the sky. Last time he wouldn't have been able to, but all trees had been felled since to give way to the new windmills feeding the port. He counted clouds. Five, six, no seven of them. As many as the cabins built from the logs. Not much in the way of hotels, but there had been none half a year ago.
He turned back onto his stomach and gazed east. A real port now, not just a landing pad and a walled concrete shed.
"Have you seen this?"
Heinrich searched for the voice. "Seen what, Liz?"
"The flowers. I love spring!"
And she loved making an issue of being female as well, and of being by far the best soldier in his command. Ran faster and farther than the rest, drove any vehicle he had encountered, made body walking look like dancing and scared the living hell out of their weapons trainer whenever they took those tests. Carried less, of course -- she was female after all.
"Yeah, yeah. Hard as rock. No seasons in the belt. You eat what you grow and all that. Dammit Major, can't you enjoy yourself for once?"
Heinrich barked a laugh. He enjoyed the hell out of himself right now, and she knew it. He was the one frantic to get planet side whenever they went past Earth. He was in love with the wilderness, the sheer open space available, and this was a spring day as gorgeous as any he could remember. And he enjoyed watching her.
"You thinking?" she purred, and stretched like a cat. Now there was beauty in motion.
"I'm thinking I could rest here for a while longer," he answered. He travelled her body with his eyes. Watching was fine. She had bedded him a few times, never the other way around. She made the invitations. He could refuse and had done so twice. She never sulked about that.
Heavy panting announced another arrival, and soon all seven of them sat in a semicircle looking at the launch port.
They were in horrible shape. Strange, considering that they'd been in the field since they arrived here. Not much in the way of physical training though. Body walkers required coordination. They were built to do the job instead of the TADAT strapped inside.
"How much more of this?" Mohammad wheezed.
Heinrich grinned. "Two more runs?"
"Show some heart!"
"Heart? Overrated!" Heinrich growled in his deepest voice. He drew air. "Eyes are always black as night, with soulless heart as cold as space. An evil smile that gives you fright, beats you once and shoots you twice. That's our TAAAAADAT commander!" he howled. They laughed and joined him. The song quickly turned incredibly ugly, describing most possible and quite a few impossible attributes of an officer in the Federation's finest.
The almost ordered march along the crest came to an abrupt halt when they turned east and down. Marching downhill on uneven ground was impossible of course and it soon turned into a race which broke up the singing. He fell, came back up with the help of a trunk he passed, made it halfway down the hill and fell again. This time he just rolled before getting his balance again.
When he reached the gravel road at the base he was laughing so hard tears ran from his eyes. Above and around him he heard laughs and shrieks as the rest signalled their success, or rather lack thereof.
We're TADAT, the scariest of the scary. And he bellowed again.
He gathered his dirty unit around him and began the march back to the port.
"Yes Major!" came the chorus.
He watched his sorry command in their torn and dishevelled jumpsuits. "Oh hell, just fall in line."
"As you say, Major!"
"And try to look like troopers!"
"But of course, Major!"
He laughed again. It was a wonderful day, and it was good to be in command of the best unit this side of Gatekeeper.
What remained of it. That thought soured an otherwise perfect moment, but he had to accept that. Joseph would never whine and laugh with them again. Ulfsdotir's thugs got him with a grenade in Belgera. Well, they'd sent that bitch back into space now.
A lot had come down from there as well. He looked at the inflatables where most of them lived. Were forced to live. They'd been evacuated from Orbit One soon after he reported back. And they had swelled with most everyone who could get out of Verd as well. Things were getting ugly there from what he heard.
A few days more and we're back in the fray. Damn, we deserved a day off, we did! He glanced over his shoulder, but he never had to give an order. They had all straightened up before they came into sight of the refugees. They were TADAT, the scariest of the scary.
"Gone, what do you mean by gone?"
"I mean," Mairild started, "that your precious little propaganda gem has vanished. Harbend de Garak is no longer in Verd."
Glarien blanched at her choice of words. Good for him. They were true.
"We don't know where," she continued. So, that wasn't the answer he wanted. "I don't know where." So, there it was. The spy master of Verd had not the slightest idea where the figurehead of Keen's first caravan to Braka in a hundred years had gone. She didn't care. Anyone caught up in Minister de Verd's games were probably better of gone. Anyone caught up in hers as well, she admitted ruefully.
"That is unfortunate," Glarien said after a while. "Still salvageable though."
You would use that expression. How I hate being right about some people! "If you say so. Trade is your area of expertise" If you could turn a corpse into money I'm certain you would know where to make the best profit. Oh, almost forgot, you already did!
She had known he was a master merchant when they elected him to take the seat of Commerce. She just hadn't calculated just how ruthless he was when money was involved.
His last idea of good business took the prize though.
Small temples and shrines in the capital were hidden away for more than a lifeyear. Sometimes behind store fronts selling trinkets you had to be a believer to recognize. Now they had all opened up for the public again. With a new god staring down at them at nights not even the Holy Inquisition were stupid enough to go on a slaughtering rampage. They would remember, and document, and eventually arrest and execute, but that would be long years into the future.
And enter Glarien de Verd, Minister of Commerce. He auctioned out the rights to bury the unknown dead to the temples. That made it officially sanctioned. Priests and monks of most every kind who eightdays ago had been delivering their services in secret were suddenly best friends with the traders of death. With a war looming the greedy monsters had even sanctioned a new house dedicated to the new trade.
Not all priests were friends with the traders though. Whenever one from Chach was found, Magehunting usually never even had a chance to get a squadron there before he was lynched.
Mairild suspected they weren't in a hurry. She suspected Minister de Gelven knew about that, and that he silently agreed. She kept those suspicions close to heart. She agreed as well.
The Midland church. They stabbed at Keen's very heart. In so doing they had caused misery and death, and they had almost broken the only person she still hoped was a friend of hers. Something in Trindai was still broken.
She hoped it would heal after he had done what needed being done.
Give me any pretext, Minister de Saiden had asked. He had received it. General de Markand was already marching south with the North Gate Regiment. Gelven and Krante would supply their regiments.
Dagd and Roadbreak had received message by farwriter. Two companies from each town were on their way to reinforce the city watch in Verd. A full regiments worth of professional soldiers. Hasselden had responded to their message by sending two of their finest to Krante.
Trindai, he trained his recruits. More arrived by the day. Olvar de Saiden ruthlessly marched any arriving refugee strong enough and healthy enough straight into one of the new units he was setting up.
And of course several fled the city. Mairild didn't even want to think about how the outworlders handled that problem around the sky port. And they had new problems of their own if the news Tenanrild sent her were correct.
Harbend rode east. The day before he had stolen the horse. Bought it, really, but the farmer didn't want the money. He accepted the coins, twice the value of the horse, at sword point. That made it theft, or robbery? Harbend didn't care. He didn't care about much any longer.
Throat still raw from screaming he had searched for his uncle some days after Gring's message. Or an eightday, memories of time came dizzy to Harbend. He vaguely recalled being told Uncle Garak had been killed during the riots. He'd find out who had done it, but not now.
He distinctly remembered sending couriers to Hasselden to find a mindwalker.
In a port, or anywhere where ships made to, there was always someone who could be bought to find anything you looked for, even a mindwalker and even with the Inquisition around. Maybe not in Hasselden, but in the countryside, or even across the inland sea. Somewhere close to Hasselden at least one hid away, and he'd sent enough money to find him, or her. One who could reach Khanati, or reach one who could reach Khanati.
He needed Khar Escha for the next step, and to take that step he also needed to leave Keen behind him. Anywhere east of Roadbreak would do. Anywhere the Inquisition didn't come looking for him.
Escha could find him with the help of a mindwalker. He had done so when they rescued Arthur. Half a year ago? Less? It mattered little. It had worked then. It would work again. Escha would find him, and then they would find Gring, wherever she was, and jump there. Then he would kill those who had killed Nakora and then he would kill their families and then he would kill those who had paid those who had killed her and then he would kill their families, and friends, and the families of the friends.
To do that he needed Escha, because only Escha had the power to jump anywhere, any time No jump towers, no mage sending a temporary receiving beacon. Escha could jump directly to where Gring was, and then Harbend could begin killing. Gring would help him. He had felt her fury when she told him what had happened.
He understood he was hating, and he understood that he was barely sane, and he didn't care. He fed from his hate. It kept him going, or since yesterday, riding.
Somewhere, deep inside of him, a remnant of the man he once had been called vainly for attention. It tried to tell him that Nakora wouldn't have wanted this, that she wanted him to love, as they had loved.
Harbend pushed that man deeper into the darkness of his soul. For now he only needed his hate, and so he rode on. East.
That was as horrible a turn as he could have feared. Boys! They were only boys. Most from the marches north of Verd, from parts of what had once been the duchy of Levs. Before the raiders strangled all trade they grew up to be craftsmen, merchants, some even sailors and not a few joined the very regiments Keen sought to replace. But not in the thousands, like this.
Trindai sat on his horse repressing a wince at one awful manoeuvre after another. The training fields hugged Verd's southern walls, and they were huge. With the dismal performance in view they had to be. The training spears were maybe half the length of the pikes they would be issued later but they could still inflict horrible damage when used right, or in this case wrong. The ranks were sparse, with enough room between each man that Trindai could easily have ridden his horse through the entire unit.
The spears could still kill though. And the way the boys handled them it was more likely than not that one of them would have unhorsed him by sheer happenstance.
Wiping rain from his face he glared at the subaltern shouting his commands in a frenzied attempt to bring a resemblance of order to what would hopefully become a unit one day.
Late spring had brought on of the torrential thunderstorms that usually heralded summer. The earth and gravel where the recruits marched in disorder would soon be a maze of shallow pools. It couldn't be helped. In battle you couldn't be picky about weather. Besides, they needed to train the green officers as well. And they were green, almost as green as the recruits they trained. The brigade hadn't seen service in his lifetime.
Trindai cursed silently and rode to another unit performing only marginally less abysmal than the previous. The slugged through mud and water with the determination only a promise of a hot meal later could bring. Soon enough that determination would be of a different kind.
The boys he'd forced through the only soldier's school worth mentioning only a few eightdays earlier were veterans in comparison. Veterans by any comparison, he corrected himself. Those who survived the mutual slaughter on the streets of Verd had solidified into a unit. A silent, solemn unit, but still. They would become the core around which he built his army.
Water splashed as Trindai's horse waded through an especially deep pool, and he had to right himself to stay saddled. Bastard day to be out here. A white spear of lightning and the sharp crack shortly after brought his thoughts back to the unpleasant scenes after he'd appropriated over a hundred men from the Merchant Brigade.
The merchants had pleaded and threatened, even tried to bribe him. He had answered by having one of them whipped in public. Minister de Verd's scathing words afterwards were like soothing balm to him. Minister de Verd was to blame for Verd lacking a full three professional regiments. Greed had sent them on a fools errand east. Trindai swore. There would be repercussions for that later. Vimarin was not organized enough to protest, but Erkateren would make demand after demand as soon as the imperial troops crossed their borders and vanished up the mountains, and Erkateren had the only friendly fleet still afloat.
Trindai ran de Saiden's errands now, and happily. He had a mission, and he wouldn't see any greedy merchant allow it to fail. That it turned out a legal impossibility to refuse a misfit named Arden de Krante to bribe himself to the commission of general, regimental class, was unfortunate, but if the man didn't perform he could always have an accident. If he didn't perform, well he was likely to have one on the field of battle without Trindai helping him anyway.
He pulled in his reins to let a column of recruits pass. A silent curse from their officer told him he hadn't been recognized. Should he dress the man down for insubordination? He dismissed the thought, he had ridden too close to the untrained men. Instead he just threw the soldiers an ironic salute. A few even made tried to return it. Their officer shouted at them and they quickly fell in line, or whatever made for a line considering the training they had received.
He needed his men to fight for Keen. Not for the merchant houses, not for Verd, not for himself but for the Empire. To do so he had to have have a unit the rest of the army looked up to. One that would carry the banner into the jaws of death and stick it up its ugly throat to choke on. That unit must be paid by the empire, not the merchants who had done the actual recruiting.
He rode on. It was time to bring out the Marble Dogs, Keen's finest, the boys who two moons earlier wouldn't have known which end of a spear to put on the ground.
General de Markand had promised to keep the Imperial Guard occupied elsewhere. It wouldn't do to have any unfortunate accidents, like five hundred men in the yellow and black laughing so hard they fell off their horses.
They'd do it twice, two hundred at a time, in perfect order, with the last hundred to salute the thuds, just to spite me.
Harbend stared back at Escha er Khanai, Khar of Khanati.
"As much as I share your pain I am not sure this is the path Lady Weinak would have chosen."
No, it is not. Listen to him your fool! Harbend trod on that inner voice with mental riding boots. "She was killed like an animal, used like an animal before that. They will die like animals!" he said instead.
"That is the voice of revenge, not that of vengeance," Escha said. He hesitated slightly. "I will do this for you. You stood by my side when I was mad with rage." Once more he hesitated. "Lady Weinak, sweet Nakora, I would honour her memory otherwise."
"I will be with you when and however you chose to honour her. This must be how I honour her." The inner protests were so subdued this time they hardly merited his attention.
It was decided then.
Escha had arrived only a short while earlier together with three more of his kind. Mindwalkers, Harbend guessed. He suspected Escha needed more than one. Neritan had been an exception, maybe even stronger a mindwalker than Escha was a jump khar. With the golden you never knew.
What did they call mindwalkers in Khanati? Thought khars? It didn't matter. They were here. That mattered. Harbend assumed the price would be steep. Khars didn't come cheap, but he had the money to spare for once.
Together they would find Gring with their magic, and with that knowledge Escha would jump them there. Harbend doubted the mindwalkers would join them. Escha had more likely than not dug up khars who already planned to travel here. They might even have paid him for his services, services that Harbend would have to pay for a second time.
Escha turned to confer with his colleagues and Harbend took the reins of his horse and started walking. They had jumped here and would jump from here when the four mages were ready. Harbend doubted Escha would want to bring the horse along. He had refused to do so when they were searching for Arthur.
Nakora's horse. I wonder if it is still alive? The thought came unwanted, like the tears to his eyes. He forced them back. With tears came weakness, and he couldn't afford to be weak.
He stared at the nearest farm. A year ago the devastation would have made him aghast, now it was just another reminder of an uncaring world. Besides, he was a thief himself now, he had to remember that. Revenge came at a prize. Well, he would pay it when that day came, but first he would have something worth paying for.
Whatever the army did well, behaving like proper troops was not part of it.
Heinrich led his men in dispersed formation across a muddy field. A night like this would have made that crossing a living hell, but for TADATs in body walkers it could as well have been an exercise ground in glaring daylight.
He knew the army were unfit to enter drop shuttles as anything but tourists, but he'd never dreamed of a civilian authority capable of the atrocity they had lived though that week. Able was the keyword here. It took years of training and an artists determination to commit all the awful mistakes he'd seen. The army alone had what it took to find the teachers who could invent the new ones he'd never known existed and make sure every student copied them to a fault.
They rumbled onto the white stretch of highway he had known were here and turned west.
No, no civilian authority could have done this, not more than once at least. There was something called responsibility hidden away in their instructions and not a single employee would have kept his or her job after the unholy mess they created here.
The army though, they dispensed with anything mundane enough as the sheer concept of responsibility. They had replaced it by something they called chain of command, which usually resulted in no personal consequences as long as the commanding politician was happy, or at least not too discomforted, and the Federation couldn't afford that, because that would mean admitting that the Federation itself had been at fault.
They ran in columns now. A thundering train of composite feet hammering on white stone.
Heinrich knew he was rambling. That he was ranting almost forgotten lessons by his old commander Radovic. Heinrich also knew why he'd do better than doubt whatever political assessment Radovic made. There was a reason one was an Admiral and one a lowly Major. Still, no way in hell Erwin could even have imagined what Heinrich had witnessed here.
No way in hell! An entire week to drop two hundred shuttles. Six fatal casualties when untrained shuttle pilots managed to miss a landing strip a mere three kilometres long and over five hundred meters wide. He shuddered. And then it had all gone worse, much, much worse.
He was on his way to Verd now. He and fourteen TADAT in full combat suit. No one, not even Ulfsdotir's thugs would even have thought about raising weapons against anything like that. These were not the lightly armoured body walkers for scouting missions he had used for half a year.
And of course you could trust the army's brains even less than paid muscles.
He had ordered his units not to return fire. They hadn't, at least not until some stellar genius had the brilliant idea to train one of the roof mounted stationary guns against combat body walkers. They had to return fire then. Those guns were powerful enough to rip even these walkers to pieces.
Heinrich hoped the poor idiot never knew what happened when the gun, the mount point and part of the roof instantly turned to plasma.
He had to get to Verd before the mastermind lunatic back at the base decided to excel even further in his display of witlessness. Like attacking a sovereign nation. The last attempt fifteen years earlier had shown with brutal clarity what happened when you tried to attack this one. Six thousand dead. Two carriers lost in orbit. Heinrich was one of eight humans to survive that drop.
Erwin was another, and he needed to know what was happening. He might be navy now, but he had been TADAT before the political backlash had separated TADAT from the navy permanently. Now they were the closest thing the Federation had of an internationally accepted police force. A real pity Erwin had taken the other route.
But Gatekeeper is navy. We fired at a hospital and a city ship. Quarter of a million dead civilians. Five hundred years of relative peace ripped to shreds by one madman in Gatekeeper, and he hadn't even been army.
Mairild greeted him sitting down in her chair. She had known this was coming. The reports were quite explicit.
"Madame, I have come to convey my most sincere apologies on behalf of our government," Rear Admiral Radovic said as soon as he had seated himself.
"And this apology is official?" she asked. This had to be done properly.
"Yes. The actions taken by Brigadier Goodard are illegal. The Terran Federation has signed several treaties regulating our conduct with autonomous organizations, not to mention sovereign states.
That was, as far as she was concerned one of her main problems. There weren't supposed to be a diversity of sovereign states of outworlders, and now one hung like gleaming stars over her head, as if she didn't have enough problems with the bright eye of the latest addition to the pantheon. "I'm quite interested in that part. You have to understand that we are quite upset with your withholding information about other nations for over fourteen years." You killed our men, and you killed everyone in one of your own sky cities.
Erwin winced. What was he supposed to do? She should have guessed of course. She took the presence of other kingdoms for granted. Why not outworlder ones?
"Am I to understand that the Federation is actively preventing a sovereign kingdom to make contact with us on their own terms?" She put as much ice into her voice as she could. This was supposed to be a scalding. The entire council waited next door and if half of them weren't flat against it with their ears at the very moment she'd be surprised. Of course they wouldn't understand the contents of the conversation, but she had to make it clear from her tone that this was a very one sided conversation. For once she didn't have to act. She was scared beyond reason. Almost half of the population in Verd dead in an instant. What kind of weapons do you have?
"As I said, his is an illegal decision. Besides, you haven't exactly been especially forthcoming with our attempts at making contact with other states here."
Good try, not good enough! "You explicitly asked that we contain your traders in Verd. Arthur Wallman wasn't an official trader? Correct me if I'm wrong?"
From Erwin's looks that cut his attempt short.
"What more have you to tell me of the illegal actions around the sky port?" This time the ice wasn't faked. She was so frightened she wanted to cry.
"I will make my utmost to make certain the bodies are recovered and sent here," Erwin said.
"You murdered a full squadron of the Holy Inquisition doing the duty we had agreed upon on the place we had agreed upon and under terms we had agreed upon!" So, she was showing her hand?
Erwin looked as if he didn't care. Maybe he had guessed all along that the council had sources of their own. "Yes, we did," he agreed. "Those responsible will be apprehended and brought to justice," he continued, and for the first time she saw a grim smile reach his eyes.
"How do you expect to prevent them from flying away?"
"Legal authorities are in command of the stationary sky ship. Any ship flying there will be searched and any ship refusing search will be destroyed."
She had to be satisfied with that answer. The young admiral was doing the best he could, but it wasn't good enough. "And what about the act of war?"
"I'm afraid I don't have the military means available to retake the lands illegally seized by Brigadier Goodard."
Mairild sighed. Of course you don't, you're alone, well, almost alone. "You have a small force here though," she said, once again showing her hand.
"Yes, Major Goldberger, I believe you've met him before," Erwin shot her am angry grin. She deserved that one, "apparently decided to report here with all the information and as much weaponry as possible."
"It's only in order that I apologize for our misdirection last year," she conceded.
"Misdirection indeed!" He laughed sharply. "How many ships did they sink on your behalf?"
He already knew. Her spies among the new kind of outworlder visitors who had become so usual lately had gathered rumours about equipment similar to those holo cams she had seen, circling around her world. "All but ten or so. They were never involved in the action at the Narrow Sea," she admitted.
"Thanks for small favours," he said, then he sunk into his chair as if hesitating.
He can't possibly have even more bad news? Or is he going to confess what happened to that sky city?
"There is one more thing. We apprehended the renegade newscaster as promised and had her transported off this planet."
"Yes?" Mairild did not like the way this was going.
"Brigadier Goodard had her awakened and attached to his staff. I'm afraid she's back." He shared the discomfort with her before continuing. "He also gave the illegal order to arrest Arthur Wallman on charges of treason. I'm aware that this order is illegal in both of our nations. I've therefore taken the liberty to attach Major Goldberger's entire unit as mister Wallman's personal bodyguard to prevent this."
"You have?" She felt her face trembling.
"Yes, and I'm afraid he doesn't get a say in it, provided you agree, of course."
"Provided I agree?" Part of the tension, far from all of it, but part ran off her, and she threw her head back and cackled with laughter. Listening council members or not, this gem was just too good not to enjoy.