Chapter 29 THE GREAT REDEEMER
Haides got bored waiting in the stairwell. Lasar wasn’t going anywhere, so the boy slipped up the stairs, all the way to the top. Hash, the other sniper, didn’t look pleased to see Haides, but Luca waved him over. Haides scurried across the roof, keeping low, and dropped down next to Luca.
“I remember hearing Sarge tell you to stay with Lasar in the stairwell,” he whispered.
“New orders,” Haides replied.
Luca chuckled and explained their position: enemies were gathering nearby, close to two hundred, according to his guesstimates. He figured it had to represent the bulk of the fighting men available to the Khiones.
“That’s quite a few,” Haides said.
“Quite,” said Luca, sounding none too happy. “More than twice what we planned for. They’ve grown big. Fast.”
Haides was equally surprised by the large turnout. He had heard Luca and Sarge discussing enemy numbers earlier, and Sarge believed the Khiones couldn’t have more than a hundred men—tops—under their banner.
“Fucking understatement,” mumbled Hash. “We’re in some deep shit now.”
“Just keep watching them. Let me know if anything happens,” came Luca’s calm reply.
This wasn’t normal behavior for the insurgents. It was by avoiding stand-up fights with the Coalition they had been able to grow. The Khiones usually operated in small groups, struck from hiding, and then faded away. They engaged in sniping and used improvised explosives to make movement difficult for the Coalition troopers. Luca called it ‘asymmetrical warfare.’ The rest of the GIs called it ‘terror.’ Haides wasn’t sure which was the better word, but the point wasn’t lost on him: when you must fight, do so on your terms, not the enemy’s.
This gathering of forces was a new development. But then again, this wasn’t a normal situation. Haides’s squad had taken a good long piss at whatever authority Preacher Ramush had managed to build up, both with his own followers and other Akakian survivors. If he didn’t act quickly and decisively, neither his men nor anyone else would ever take him seriously.
“Luca, I have movement,” Hash said. “Looks like they are about ready to go,” he said and handed Luca the binoculars.
“Not quite,” Luca replied after assessing the situation. “They are about ready, but they are holding. Waiting for something.” He turned to Haides. “Go sit with Lasar, boy. And I mean it this time,” he added.
Haides wandered down the stairs again. He checked on Lasar, but the soldier had fallen asleep. No point sitting around doing nothing, so he went to check on Mazzo’s team. They weren’t doing much except waiting. None of them wanted Haides around, so he went back up to the fourth floor to see what Roverto was up to.
Rat had persuaded Roverto to make some improvised barricades to protect their flanks and rear. He seemed convinced the enemy would find an alternate route into the building and fall them in the back. Roverto didn’t share his concerns but had agreed to put the man at ease. They didn’t seem to mind Haides’s presence. Shiloh patted him on the back, and Rat called the boy ‘his little canary’ and gave him a candy bar. It had been a long day, so Haides curled up behind one of the barricades and fell asleep. Good soldiers sleep when they can.
They came at Squad Haides’s holdout right before dusk.
Their officers must not have believed them to be sufficiently skilled to carry out a night-time strike. They compensated for the lack of darkness with a liberal dose of suppressive fire and home-made smoke bombs, plus a fully functional Phalanx AFV. The Phalanx was an armored fighting vehicle optimized for close-quarters assaults and urban combat.
Haides wondered where they’d scrounged it up from. It looked well maintained and still had its Coalition markings intact. Maybe they had taken out a Coalition patrol and stolen their ride.
First contact with the enemy, and already their plan was falling apart. The enemy infantry could advance in relative safety behind the vehicle’s heavily armored body, while the turret-mounted pulser provided covering fire. Haides knew from personal experience just how dangerous such a weapon could be. The one mounted on the AFV was more powerful than the one Rovo lugged about. It had a superior rate of fire and higher energy output. Plus, it had a virtually unlimited ammo supply; it drew power from huge energy stacks that were, in turn, recharged by the vehicle’s generator.
The Phalanx got to about eighty meters from the main entrance before Mazzo put an anti-tank missile into it. The AFV survived the hit—Phalanxes are damnably resilient machines—and started peppering the upper stories with straight-as-a-razor lightning bolts.
Mazzo’s fireteam relocated to an alternate position, and he tried again. This time he went for the gun turret rather than the more heavily armored body. The missile struck true, and the gun fell silent. The Phalanx continued to lumber forward, but at least the Coalition troopers didn’t have to worry about the pulser anymore.
Haides backed away, scurried over to the stairwell, and went down to check on Lasar. He was awake but seemed a little unfocused.
“You all right?” Haides asked.
“Yeah. I’m good.”
He didn’t look too good, but the conversation was cut short. Down on the ground floor, they could hear the first explosive charges going off. Soon after, Sarge’s automatic shotgun was chattering away, interspersed with more irregular booms whenever Vincenzo fired his piggy.
They waited to see if more enemies were coming, but Sarge had placed his charges well, and for a few confusing minutes, the first enemy push was halted in the entrance hall.
Lasar looked at Haides with feverish eyes. “It’ll be all right, kid. They are just where we want them.”
Haides could see the man was in pain. His eyes were kind of hazy, and his skin very pale. Haides dug out Lasar’s canteen for him and made him take a sip.
“Thanks, kid,” he said and handed back the canteen. “I’m just a little tired, is all.”
“Fuck tired,” Haides replied. “Soon, those assholes will be coming up those stairs. We gonna need that pistol of yours.”
“I guess you’re right,” he began. He shook his head a bit to clear it and groped around his trauma pouch. “Go find Ivo, see if he has some more stims. I’m all out,” he finished.
Haides spun around and headed for Ivo’s position.
“Friendly,” Haides screamed at the top of his lungs, “coming through!”
None of the soldiers turned to look at the kid. They kept their eyes on the enemy and their hands on their guns. Now that the Phalanx’s turret had been taken out, they could fire to good effect at targets in the streets below.
Haides skidded over to Ivo. “Lasar needs stims,” he shouted over the din of battle.
“Right back pocket, green auto-syringes,” he shouted back, continuing to fire all the while.
Haides grabbed two and closed the pouch. He started back, didn’t get more than two meters before something exploded inside an adjoining room. The force of the blast was unbelievable. The boy was thrown to the floor. Ears were ringing like crazy. Felt like a horse had kicked him in the ribs, then stepped on him for good measure.
When he got his breath back, Haides looked around. Ivo was also down, but he had been shielded from the brunt of the blast by a wall. Ribaldo wasn’t as fortunate. He lay there, motionless, covered in dust speckled with red. Several of his limbs looked like they had acquired new joints. Haides was sure the man was dead until he heard him moan.
Mazzo appeared from somewhere, all covered in a fine layer of grey dust. “Get the fuck out!” he shouted. So Haides did. He got up and ran crouched for the stairwell. Behind him, he could hear more, for Ivo to help drag Ribaldo to safety, for Jarra to keep firing.
Having tested—and breached—the Coalition’s defenses, the Khiones launched several consecutive waves of attackers across the Esplanade and the Champs. They were reasonably well organized and quick about it. There was no way a single squad could hold so many of them back. Any attempt to fire at the enemy was met by volumes of suppressive fire, including explosive ordnance from a multiple-launch missile system, the very one that had just screwed fireteam Mazzo.
Haides reached Lasar. The soldier lay there, slumped on the bench where he had left him. He was dead. The boy couldn’t figure out how the GI had died. Maybe he had been hit by something? Perhaps his injuries had been more severe than they had believed? Didn’t really matter. Dead was dead, no matter the cause. Haides shrugged and put the leftover stims in his satchel—Lasar had no use for them in the underworld.
While Haides was standing there, Mazzo and Ivo appeared, dragging Ribaldo after them. Jarra was not with them, and the boy realized her gun had fallen silent. That didn’t bode well for the female mesomorph.
“What happened,” Mazzo asked, nodding towards Lasar’s body.
Ivo checked Lasar for life signs but found none.
“I dunno. He was lying like that when I got back. I guess it was his time to go to Hades.”
Ivo turned his back on the dead man and bent down to examine Ribaldo.
“Too bad,” Mazzo replied, “we also lost the bitch. Sniper got her—I think Luca got him in return. And Ribaldo here is looking none too good.”
“Actually,” Ivo said, “he’s not as badly wounded as I feared. He’s got a broken arm and two broken legs, but his vital signs are decent. I think he’s voided serious internal injury. Body armor protected him from the blast.”
“Well, keep him sedated then,” Mazzo replied. “We’ll drag him upstairs. He can be evacuated from the roof—if we survive this.”
Ivo grabbed a blue syringe from his medkit and pressed it against Ribaldo’s neck. Both men took hold of the unconscious soldier’s webbing and made ready to drag him up to the fourth floor.
“You wanna be a useful kid?” Mazzo said.
Haides looked up and was pinned by the soldier’s gaze. Lasar was dead. Jarra was gone. Ribaldo out of the fight. The situation had turned from bad to worse, and Haides was trying to figure out a way to get out alive. Going downstairs seemed the height of folly.
“Sure,” he replied, somewhat reluctantly.
“Get your scrawny ass down to Sarge and tell him to get his big fat ass up to the fourth. You got that?”
Haides nodded, looked around for a way out, but Mazzo was having none of that, rechecked Luca’s sliver pistol, and ran down the stairs. If I’m going to die, I’m taking some of them with me.
Haides’s assessment was pretty accurate. The squad was at the breaking point. What the boy didn’t know anything about was the extent of support the Coalition could provide for the boots on the ground. Colonel Burness had dispatched a liaison over to the 10th Niamey Artillery Regiment to coordinate. Now they were conducting a fire mission, with Luca acting as a spotter and Hash calling in corrections over the long-range comm set.
On the streets outside, in the twilight of dusk, it started raining. Not an ordinary rain, but a torrent of anti-personnel submunitions scattered by cargo shells bursting overhead. The soldiers out on the Esplanade suffered horribly. Those on the Champs fared a little better, having more cover relative to the trajectory of the incoming shells. The survivors either retreated or crossed the remaining distance and into the relative safety of the building. There they joined the assaulters that were already struggling to get past Sarge and his explosives.
The good news was that no more enemies would be crossing the streets anytime soon. The bad news was there were already too many Khiones in the building, and the enemy still had soldiers providing covering fire on each side of the building. The only saving grace was that the damned missile launcher had fallen silent—either it was out of ammo, or the Coalition snipers had taken out the crew.
Sarge and Vincenzo had backed up to the first floor. Coming down, Haides caught the retreating up to the second. Sarge was dusty and covered in soot, but otherwise looked okay. His weapon smelled strongly of burnt propellant. Haides vividly recalled the last time he had seen the gun in action.
Suddenly there was movement, almost too fast for the eye to follow. “Ripper drones,” Vincenzo shouted and fired his plasma gun in full dispersal mode.
A dozen or so thumb-sized drones were vaporized by the blast, but he hadn’t caught all of them. The rest of the swarm came racing up the stairs. Vincenzo managed another shot before they were upon him—a good handful avoided the blast and sliced into his body. He didn’t so much scream as gurgle.
Sarge shoved Haides out of the way. As the boy scrambled to get away from the razor-sharp killer-bots, the soldier stood there, calm as a rock, swatting at the few drones with his shotgun as they tried to chew him up. He got cut up some, and his gun came away with two drones bored into the stock, but he didn’t look seriously injured.
“Move it, boy,” Sarge shouted, and then they ran, taking the steps two at a time like they had Kerberos snapping at their heels.
They reached the fourth floor, the enemy right behind. Sarge lobbed his last charge—held in reserve for just such an occasion—down the stairwell. There was a loud, satisfying bang, followed by even more satisfying screams of pain.
Rovo’s team—all of them miraculously still alive—joined the boy and the NCO in the stairwell.
Owen-Shiloh grabbed Haides by the arm. “Where is she?”
“Down there,” the boy said and pointed towards the stairs. There was shock on his face. “Dead. I’m sorry.”
Shiloh looked like he wanted to run downstairs, but enemy fighters were boiling up from below and peppering the stairwell with gunfire. He might love her, but he wasn’t suicidal.
The surviving Coalition soldiers made a fighting withdrawal up to the fifth floor. Soldier First Class Roverto deftly used the gun mount’s servo-arm and suspensors to full effect, covering every step of the way without slowing down. The enemy was reluctant to come after them as long as the pulser had power remaining.
But all clips run dry—Rovo was eventually forced to discard his primary weapon and rely on his hand cannon. A useful self-defense weapon, to be sure, but nothing like the multi in terms of firepower. Sensing their moment had come, the enemy surged up the stairs. Mazzo and Ivo returned from their trip to the roof, momentarily tipping the balance of power back in the Coalition’s favor. The enemy pushed forward, but they held them at bay.
It wouldn’t last, however. The defense was too precarious, like balancing on a line—one misstep and it would be over. Then Jarra reappeared with, quite literally, a bang. She tossed a brace of grenades into the thick of the enemy, peppered them with pulser fire, and ran up the stairs to re-join her comrades. It all happened so fast Haides could scarcely believe his eyes.
The boy chanced a glance at Shiloh. He seemed about to hug her, then got himself under control, but couldn’t keep the relief off his face.
Jarra punched him in the shoulder, hard enough to make him yelp.
“What was that for?” he objected.
“Nothing,” she replied. “Just happy to see you.”
Mazzo looked dumbfounded. “I...you...” he tried, but couldn’t find anything to say.
Jarra turned to face the GI. “Then don’t,” she said. “I don’t kill easy. But it would have been nice if someone had at least checked on me,” she added.
Mazzo mumbled something into his hand. It sounded a lot like “sorry,” but it was hard to tell.
“Whatever,” she said and moved away, but there was a smile on her face.
Haides got this odd feeling. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it; he just knew that something was wrong. It was like that day when Eli made Jan piss himself. The boy looked around and found Jarra watching from across the room. It was her. She was the source of the wrongness. Was she some kind of witch, like Eli? She knew that he knew—or maybe she suspected that he suspected.
Haides quickly looked away and pretended to be busy with his boot laces. Would she try to kill him to preserve her secret? Should he try to kill her first? Probably a bad idea if she was that hard to kill.
A lull in the fighting followed. Rat was convinced the enemy was working their way around the Coalition’s defenses. It seemed a reasonable assumption, so Mazzo ordered Rat and Shiloh to watch the flanks. Just as well, as the insurgents soon made a two-pronged attack, coming both up the stairwell and from somewhere on our own floor. They had indeed found an alternate route up. Shiloh managed to fall back to join the rest, but Rat was cut off by the enemy. Haides found it hugely ironic that the man who had kept them safe was the one to go. A twist of fate—or the Gods playing cruel games with mortals?
The only choice was to retreat up to the sixth and final floor. On the way, Haides shot a particularly eager Khiones who tried to throw a sticky-grenade. The sliver pistol wasn’t quite as powerful as the autopistol, but it was exceptionally accurate. The boy purposefully shot the girl in the arm, foiling her throw. The sticky went off at the poor woman’s feet. She screamed for a while until blood loss from the missing legs silenced her. The screams gave Haides the confidence he needed to keep fighting.
Luca joined the survivors shortly after that. There was nothing for him to do on the roof. Hash was up there, operating the comm set and keeping an eye on Ribaldo. Together they would hold the sixth floor or die trying.
Below, they could hear the insurgents gathering for a final push. When the offensive came, it was short-lived. Mazzo launched his second-to-last rifle grenade down the stairwell—the last being the traditional starshell—and it turned out to be a real hellfire grenade, rather than the prophesized confetti.
It filled the whole stairwell with fire. Those Khiones that didn’t die suffered horrible burn wounds. Some of them screamed for a long time. It was the sweetest sound Haides had ever heard.
“Get up on the roof, kid,” Luca said.
Haides felt like protesting. He had a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it.
“I need you to keep a lookout,” he said. “In case they try something sneaky. Can you do that for me?”
The boy realized he was being manipulated, but couldn’t well refuse. Plus, he appreciated the effort—it was nice to know that Luca was willing to sacrifice his life to keep the boy alive.
“Sure. Hash could always use a hand.”
Haides got up on the roof. It dark outside, but there was still barely enough light to see by. Haides was surprised—it was in the middle of the night—it should be pitch black. They had been fighting for hours, hadn’t they? He realized I had no idea what time the attack had begun, only that it was nearly dusk. How long had it really been then? Half an hour? Maybe an hour. Not much more than that. Did time slow down when you were about to die?
Haides found a good observation point and started scanning the streets below with Luca’s binoculars. The image was a little grainy, and the color palette off, but the light-enhancement module made everything as bright as daylight. There wasn’t much shooting, just some random tracers and DEW lines zipping around, fired by nervous men at imagined targets.
The building below was eerily quiet, until a sudden exchange of gunfire or shouted commands cut through the silence. The final attack had begun.
That’s when he saw them. Dark, winged shapes, like giant carrion birds gliding over the rooftops. The gunships had arrived. Heavy coilguns poured out a steady stream of fire. Haides saw an enemy fire team nestled in the building across the street torn apart—the hypervelocity coilgun rounds sliced through their cover, then feasted on flesh.
Accompanying dropships deposited their cargo of Coalition soldiers on the rooftop before peeling off. Haides faded into the shadows and let Hash do the talking and the pointing.
Within minutes the new guys were pouring down the stairwell. The remaining insurgents, probably no more than thirty or forty of them, faced twice that number of veteran soldiers, armed with every weapon in the Coalition arsenal. The balance of power had shifted dramatically.
The insurgents providing cover from the surrounding ruins fared no better. Those that survived the gunships had to face a column of Coalition Phalanxes, their heavy pulsers firing non-stop as they unloaded the soldiers of the 57th Loches into the streets below.
Haides had nothing better to do, so he continued to watch. The enemy put up an unusually spirited fight. Only when faced with two flame-spitting Phalanxes, did they break and run, right into the waiting guns of November and Lima companies, who had been deployed to prevent anyone escaping the Colonel’s trap. The rebels were cut down in droves. They couldn’t dodge coilgun rounds or outrun pulser fire.
The insurgents trapped inside the building proved even more resilient. They put up a very stubborn, if a little unpolished fight, keeping it going until they ran out of space and ammunition. They only got six of them alive, including the leader, the very man Haides had so vividly seen orchestrating Mother’s murder.
Preacher Ramush. What little intelligence the Coalition had on the man said he wandered in from the wilds one day and immediately set about organizing a resistance movement in Thira. Whatever his origins, his career as a rebel commander was at an end.
Haides’s squadmates did not participate in the final clean-up. Rovo was out of ammo. Sarge had taken a shrapnel wound to the scalp. His mates helpfully pointed out it could have been avoided by wearing a helmet. Mazzo had been hit several times. He wasn’t seriously injured, but not fit for combat. Ivo was in one piece, but busy vomiting his guts out. It was his way of coping with the downer that follows an adrenaline high. Ribaldo was stable and doing well, all things considered. He got airlifted out after the battle. Luca, Shiloh, and Hash weren’t injured at all. Jarra threatened to throw the medics from the roof if they tried to touch her.
They recovered the bodies of Vincenzo, Rat, and poor Lasar. Only three men lost in a battle against so many. It was beyond improbable. Haides heard some of the reinforcements muttering about ‘the miracle of Thira.’ Perhaps the Colonel’s gods had protected them after all.
Haides was uninjured. He had a few scrapes and bruises, but that was all. He was also feeling the aftereffects of too much adrenalin; it made him shake like a leaf, but he didn’t puke.
When they got down to street level, the Colonel was there, in his tall cap and immaculate blue uniform. He ordered five of the insurgents flayed on the spot. When the screaming died down, they were hung from light posts in the streets outside as a warning to other potential rebels. They looked eerily similar to Mother.
Colonel Joaquin looked down at Haides, then over at the preacher, who was being held down by two GIs. “This is the man responsible for your mother’s torture and subsequent death. He is also a rebel and a traitor to the Rose Throne. There can only be one punishment for that. You may carry out the sentence.”
He pulled out his coilgun sidearm, removed the magazine, leaving only a single round in the chamber, and handed Haides the weapon.
The boy looked at the gun. He looked at the Colonel. Joaquin looked right back. Haides realized with a start that he knew—knew Haides blamed him in part for Mother’s death, knew there was vengeance in his heart. That’s why he’d been given the pistol with a single round. Take your shot, boy, his eyes were saying, make it count. Do it now, or forever keep your peace.
Haides looked at Luca. Then he looked at the Preacher. He had long since stopped screaming obscenities about the false gods of the Pantheon and slaves yearning to break free from the Archon. The GIs had smashed his head into the ground until he shut up. The boy looked at the red ruin that was the man’s face. He looked him in the eyes, returning hate for hate.
The gun was heavy in Haides’s hand. He’d scraped up his arm again, and red droplets were oozing down along his fingers, smearing Joaquin’s immaculate weapon with blood.
Haides whipped the gun up and shot the preacher squarely between the eyes. The distance was only five paces—it was impossible to miss. The preacher’s head exploded like an overripe fruit in a spray of brains, bone, blood, and gore.
The Colonel reached over and plucked his pistol out of Haides’s hands. The headless corpse was strung up with the rest of the insurgents. “Another fine victory for the Archon, another laurel for the 57th. Gather up, we’re moving out in fifteen minutes.”
Luca came over and took Haides aside. “We’re returning to the compound now. Your mother is dead, and I’m sorry for that, but she has a grave, and vengeance has well and truly been served. Go to your sister and wait for me there. We’re leaving soon, and you’re both coming with us. And the dawg.” The sniper smiled.
Haides tried to speak, but couldn’t find the words, so just nodded. He could still feel that coilgun in my hand. The weight of it. The kick when the grav-coils fired. The majestic effect when it impacted the target. There were weapons more advanced and deadly, but there was something about the coilgun that appealed to Haides.
“Now get going, you don’t want to be hanging around here. Keep the sliver for protection. I can have it back when we move.”
Haides considered giving Luca a hug, just to seal the deal, so to speak. But he’d never been good at hugging, so dropped the idea. Maybe it would be too much, too soon. So instead, he turned and started walking towards home.
That the Colonel had known his true feelings was troubling, but he had weathered that one. He wasn’t as good an actor as he had believed. The boy needed to be more careful in the future.
What really gnawed was the fact that he hadn’t seen Jan among the dead. The Khiones had has been wiped out, but there was no sign of his brother. Some of the corpses had been too damaged or burnt to be recognizable, but still...Haides knew in his heart Jan was still alive. Had he not been trusted to take part in the attack? Or had he been present but somehow survived? The boy suspected the latter was the case. Set be damned!