It runs to 3,000 words and should have warnings for battlefield setting, injury, death, and discussion of both mortality and expectations of the/an afterlife.
Valentine Trugrove was working his way across a battlefield. He wasn’t dressed for it by any stretch of the imagination. For a start, if he’d started the day thinking that he would be doing this, he wouldn’t have put on a pair of dress shoes. If he’d known he was going to wind up wearing a pack, then he wouldn’t have worn a velvet coat – the pile over much of the garment was never going to be the same again. His trousers were made of velvet too but he wasn’t going to look at what state they were in until later, much later. Things could have been worse though, the ground underfoot lacked the squelch he’d come to associate with battlefields after several unfortunate episodes in his past, but then no artillery had been employed here and thus the ground hadn’t been churned and underlying utility pipes hadn’t been broken.
There were also, at first, fewer bodies than he associated with battlefields. The clear open break before the citadel’s outer wall had obviously been planned as a killing field, except it wasn’t. If things had gone to the defenders’ plan, there would have been bodies strewn across this field, and there weren’t. A few attackers had fallen at the point where the outer wall had been breached, killed no doubt by the overrun group of defenders whose bodies also lay there, unmoving and forgotten in their Protectorate uniforms. Interestingly, it appeared that the both defenders and attackers had been using melee weapons; there was no sign or smell of energy flash and neither was there the stench of used propellant. Trugrove paused at the energy cannon turret that should have anchored the defence of this section of the citadel’s defences and found the bodies of the original gun crew being removed from the structure while the attackers’ crew took over. Half the team were working to change the turret’s angle of fire back towards the citadel while the other half of the crew stacked their opposite numbers’ bodies on the ground, eyes carefully closed and arms folded across the chest, in a neat pyramid that they then covered with the cloth taken from the table in the turret.
Trugrove watched this housekeeping and then asked, “Any of you need me?”
The big, blond troop leader, looked Trugrove up and down as he pulled on a pair of leather gauntlets and replied, “Second sweep medic?” When Trugrove nodded he went on in a not quite educated Loringan accent, “We’re fine. The turret had already been cleared when we got here, and that lot out there are beyond your help or anyone else’s. The fighting’s moved further in,” he jerked a thumb in the direction of the central keep, “and I expect you might find some customers beyond the next wall.”
“Very well then,” Trugrove nodded. “Mayhap I’ll see you on the way out then.”
“Mayhap,” agreed the larger man agreed, “but belike we’ll be a bit busy to talk then.”
“As you say,” agreed Trugrove before he nodded and resumed his path in the wake of the main attack.
The two overwatch guns that should have supported the turret he’d just left hung oddly silent on the level above the pavement he was crossing. It was…almost as if their power supply had been cut which, in Trugrove’s admittedly limited understanding of such things, was supposed to be impossible unless you could access some tightly controlled small spaces inside the structure of the gunnery tower itself. Much more to the immediate point was the sprawl of bodies around the breach in the wall ahead of him, the breach that led to the same level as the overwatch guns. This fight had involved firearms on both sides and Trugrove could only surmise that whatever the Protectorate used to keep propellant from reacting near their outer perimeter had a limited range.
Going through the bodies he found one of the attackers recovering consciousness. The boy was younger than his daughter, and the holes and scorch marks on his coat and the weskit underneath showed that he’d taken almost a full clip at point blank range. Trugrove wasn’t sure whether the gash on his head was from an emptied firearm used as a club or something the ground had done to him when he’d fallen, but he bandaged up the head as well as the two bullet wounds to the torso and put a shock pack into the kid, knowing that if he was bleeding out inside it probably wouldn’t keep him alive long enough to get taken back to the aid post.
“I need to catch up,” Trugrove turned from what he was doing to find the boy trying to get to his feet.
“You can’t,” he told the boy brutally. “Your best chance is to get taken back to the aid post, and I’ll give you a pinger for our stretcher bearers but I can’t guarantee that their people won’t pick up on it too. Which is partly why I’m giving you this,” Trugrove handed him the enemy officer’s handgun he’d just scavenged from the dead and reloaded, plus three extra magazines. “Your job, until retrieved by the stretcher bearers or our other troops, is to hold this breach against our forces’ return. And you are to do it from a seated position in cover. Do you understand me?”
“I…can do that,” was the shaky reply as the boy examined the weapon in his hand. “I can do that, sir. Thank you. Not sure I…could walk.”
Trugrove nodded and then went on, muttering, “And I know you couldn’t, damn it.”
Further on there was another boy still alive, this one in the grey-brown of a Protectorate uniform. Trugrove watched as the freckled face braced for the inevitable, then he reached down and pulled the comunit off the soldier’s head and crushed it underfoot, making sure that crystals and electronics of the working parts were thoroughly ground out of shape. “You won’t be needing that,” he told the kid sharply, “but you will need this.” He slapped a surgical dressing over the leaking slash on the side of his neck, “Plus I need to have a look at how thoroughly someone’s tried to spill your guts.” They both looked down at the ominous red patch growing above the boy’s pelvis.
“Okay.” The voice was a quiet little tenor and the boy pulled up his tunic and shirt, incidentally pulling some of both out of the wound. Trugrove managed not to wince on his behalf.
“A stiletto or a misericorde,” Trugrove observed with his best imitation of clinical detachment. “I’m going to bandage the entry wound, then the exit if there is one, and give you a shock pack. Do you hurt anywhere else?”
“No, sir.” The boy shook his head. “Sir, you’re Padraian or from Heldigo, why are you helping our enemies?” He ended his question on a plaintive note.
Trugrove busied himself with bandages. “I’m on no-one’s side in this. I’m just here to look for someone and this is the only way I can do it.”
“You broke my comunit so I can’t call in the enemy’s movements!”
“That’s certainly a side effect,” agreed Trugrove, “but I really don’t want a set of fellows I hear are on the governor’s staff to know I’m here. They’re still holding a grudge about a card game we had a few years ago, or so I’m told.”
“You’re avoiding the governor’s staff.” The boy gave a laugh, then said, “Mustn’t do that again, I think. They’re-“
“In part, a very dangerous group of men,” Trugrove corrected gently as he applied the shock pack. “You should keep that in mind if you have any dealings with them.” He injected a vial into the shock pack and thus into the boy.
“What’s that?” The kid looked curious.
“A sedative,” Trugrove told him coolly. “You can’t be held responsible for stopping me if I’ve knocked you out.”
When the lad crumpled into unconsciousness Trugrove put him in the recovery position, activated a pinger so his own people would have no excuse to miss him and moved on.
A lot of bodies, a few patients and a little dodging of actual fighting later, Trugrove did manage to find his daughter whom Highguard knew as Slither. She was in some sort of minor control room, now sparsely strewn with the bodies of the soldiers whose duty station it had been. She was also fighting a Protectorate soldier for her life, or his. Ozone scented the air and a Protectorate standard issue sidearm lay tossed aside on the floor, a portion of the barrel slagged. One of a pair of shock sticks lay on the floor to Trugrove’s left and he supposed the other must also have been discarded for that odd, lower class weapon was only useful as a pair. Stripped of their apparent weapons of choice the two combatants were using knives, with the man wielding the standard issue blade of his army while Trugrove’s daughter had a long, slender but sturdy blade of the type her mother’s people called a fang.
Slither’s blade was slightly the longer of the two, but her opponent had the advantages of height, weight and reach. Her other advantage seemed to be not being where the Protectorate man expected her to be. As Trugrove watched from the doorway without bringing attention to himself, there was a close exchange of blows and she skipped away with a slash cut through the skirt of her coat while the Protectorate’s man took another slash across his lower ribs that cut through all the layers of his uniform to open the skin beneath and let his blood well through.
Trugrove swung the medic’s pack off his back and opened it for something he’d put into it earlier.
Slither and her crop-haired, uniformed opponent broke away from each other and started circling again. There was nothing wrong with the way Slither was moving, Trugrove had seen enough exponents of the style she was using to know that, but her opponent was less…something than he would have expected. A flash of a palm later and Trugrove realised that the other man was using his knife in his off-hand because the other was burnt from whatever had happened to the handgun he’d originally been wielding.
At that point the soldier realised that Trugrove was there and said in an accent as Padraian as Trugrove’s own, “A medic! Good, you can fix me up when I’ve dealt with this benech. She keeps cutting me instead of dying.”
Trugrove asked dryly, “Are you sure your problem isn’t that she’s trying to show that she likes you? Those don’t look like anything more than love bites to me. Mind you, I’ve found that that when a woman really wants to get a man’s attention he’ll wind up losing a few feet of intestines.”
“A benech?” He gave a laugh. “You’re assuming it has any feelings beyond unreasonable defiance.”
Slither made a feint at her opponent’s dominant side and danced back half a step behind her starting position when he went to block it.
At the same time Trugrove said, “It’s always dangerous to assume you know what another person thinks or feels. Perhaps she defies unreasonable oppression or control?”
“The benech doesn’t know what is good for it.” The blade was being moved through a smooth pattern in front of him as the soldier padded his way sideways and Slither turned in place to keep facing him
Trugrove asked conversationally, “So, how long have you had this feeling that people who disagree with you are only things?”
“Those who are too stupid to see the benefits of being included in the Protectorate are too stupid to be considered or treated as people.” The soldier charged at Slither, knife still in hand, with the obvious intention of tackling and stabbing her.
Slither was moving too, but Trugrove pulled the handgun he’d picked up off another dead officer out from behind the medic’s pack he was holding and shot the man three times in his centre of mass. The soldier dropped to ground.
“I did have a plan,” commented Slither, “but that works too.”
“It was worth it, even if it was the end of my medical neutrality,” replied Trugrove.
“Only if we tell anyone it was you and not me who killed him,” pointed out Slither.
“Surveillance cameras,” her father indicated the offending machines with an index finger.
“Which I had disabled before I was interrupted by a certain late gentleman of our acquaintance.” Slither cast a quick assessing glance at where her opponent lay on the floor in his own blood.
Trugrove responded with a gracious bow of his head and said, “You seem unsurprised?”
“I’ve read your books, and there have been several times when you being the sole survivor of your expedition has been very convenient.” She walked over to a work station and did something. “I am surprised that you’re here though. I’d have thought you have headed for somewhere with plausible deniability as soon as I left you back there.”
“If things go badly for you here,” he answered her simply, “then I have to take you home to your mother so she can find you a niche in the family tomb.”
Slither walked to another workstation, carefully stepping over the body of one of her enemies as she did so. “Frankly, I’ve been expecting to wind up in a mass pit grave somewhere.” She shrugged. “There are worse ways to spend eternity than supporting the Gesariad on the outer ramparts. I could hope to be assigned to the western wall, overlooking the Birth of Stars. That would actually be rather glorious.” She sent a sly glance in her father’s direction, “Have you seen the way they depict the Gesariad?”
“Your mother would be distraught to think of you so lost to us,” her father said quietly. “Maybe inconsolable.”
“I sometimes think that I am better suited to defending those I care about than being with them,” Slither clicked on something and changed some settings. “Besides, I don’t know that I qualify for the Land of Blessings anymore.”
“Oh?” A very neutral sound.
“I’ve been keeping track of my heart stones. Today will be another one.” Slither moved to another workstation.
“Why keep count, with what?” Comprehension flashed across his face. “Are you getting them tattooed on you?” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Your mother will be appalled, and as for your grandmother…. Can I be on another continent when she finds out?”
“I keep count because the day I turn up before the Judge is likely to be a busy one for him and it would be discourteous of me to waste his time.” She gave a wry smile as she toggled something on the panel in front of her. “I’m hoping to wrangle a western rampart posting after all, in amongst those cute Gesariad, and if I’m bad mannered I might not get it or anything like it.”
“You really need to try to fit in a trip home so you can reset the inside of your head,” Trugrove told her severely. “I’m sure that killing the enemy in battle doesn’t count as a soul weighting sin. Which reminds me, I really must get your mother something nice from this trip to thank her for saving me from having to live among these people.” He gave the dead around them a distasteful look. “They’ve gotten far too keen on dehumanising people who disagree with them.”
“That’s something we agree on.” Slither left the console and went to pick up one of the two dropped shock sticks from the floor. As she walked across the floor she added, “I’d much rather fight them here than wait until they’re on the family’s doorstep.” She bent down and picked up the second weapon.
“You think they’d try to invade the Kingdom?” Trugrove’s face had dropped into an emotionless mask.
“I’m sure it’s on their to-do list.” Slither flicked open her coat to reveal the reinforced belt slung around her over the long gunmetal-coloured weskit picked out with copper and bronze, resheathed her blade, and put the shock sticks back on their hooks before letting the coat fall closed again. “How else will they protect people from not thinking exactly the way they do?”
“That’s a juggernaut we can’t stop today,” her father observed. “Now, how do we get out of here?”
“We wait a few more minutes, I press a button, and then we take advantage of the general evacuation alarm to leave the way you came in.” She smiled sweetly and added, “I’m sure you wouldn’t fit the way I came in, not with that pack.”
“We’re just going to stroll out?” He couldn’t control his incredulity.
“We will evacuate briskly and in good order,” Slither corrected. “Letting other people do the screaming and running in circles.”
“But why would the Citadel be evacuated?” He was still incredulous.
Slither saw something on the control panel she was facing and said, “And that’s my cue.” She leaned over and toggled a switch.
Immediately a klaxon went off and a siren began a syncopated heartbeat rhythm. A mechanical voice issued from the inset ceiling speakers, “Evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate! Citadel self-destruct protocols have been activated! Evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate!” The voice paused precisely three seconds, then repeated itself.
Slither smiled brightly at Trugrove and said brightly, “Time to go look like we know what we’re doing and we’re going. Oh, and Fa?”
He returned her look and answered, “Yes?”
“If we run into any enemy who see us for what we are, let me go first. I’m dressed for this, you aren’t.” She smiled again.
He sighed dramatically, “I am really going to have a chat with you about…something, aren’t I?”
“Possibly, after we’re out of here. But now we need to move,” and she ushered him out of the door.