Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Page a Day: Ninety-Eight

            Start the roll call. Fire up the alternative battle reenactments. None of it is going to do anyone any good. But you’re going to do it regardless, Cassan Vala, because it continues the illusion that you have control in any sane or reasonable way.   
            I sighed. There would be no demotion after this. I was the Guardian. One hundred days were tick tick ticking away.
            I slid aboard and felt my hovering horse adapt. We rode the customary five feet above the floor. I led my column up after everyone else had followed suit.
            I was surprised to see that day had dawned entirely. Sometimes I think time flows differently in caches.
            Nogilian stood right beside the cache’s proscribed exit, bloody and victorious.
            “Polish up that armor, Nogilian,” I said. “Well done, very well done indeed.”
            He shrugged, a gesture of his I was pretty sure I understood. None of it ever good enough. He pointed back behind him to where a mob in black armor trudged toward the city square, escorted by Tevantes’ reserve. Those had been last to reach the city, and for all their running had achieved on the day little more than better physical condition. I had left the new recruits in his care. 
            “I will incorporate these men,” Nogilian said, lowly enough that no one else could hear, “and then they will also die.”
            “Nogilian,” I said “now we have cavalry. How many caches did you say there were, scattered all across this plain?”

Chapter Ten

            We whooped it up across the plain. Nogilia was good to us. Grasses made the foraging easy. The land coursed with streams for watering. And Nogilian was the greatest tactical mind of his generation fighting on the land of his birth. You can be damned sure we did what he suggested. I insisted only on seeing to the needs of my other commanders: logistics, operations, intelligence and communications. So we moved, we gathered information, and then we did what Nogilian said. Afterward, we incorporated new recruits. We established garrisons behind, ensconced in cities favored now by swarms of friendly white machines.
            Ki asked why we did not take everyone. She alone lingered past a nightly debriefing. 
            “Because if we win back this world, I need there to be someone left to enjoy it.”
            She went. She did not bother asking about the if. Each of my commanders knew I had no idea where the supposed lightships were. It’s one thing to encourage those who actually fight. It’s another to delude your command chain to the point of stupidity. They knew. They knew the same chances I did: certain death if we did nothing, slightly less if I happened to find those ships. I had told them Jerem Cozak conveyed not the slightest doubt that we would succeed. Which was true. I did not add the part where he also conveyed small cracks upon the surface of his sanity.
            One hundred days. Sixty until we met him. We’d spent twenty-four days in Redmarak and three in leaving it. We’d departed victorious from the first city of Nogilia on the morning of the thirtieth, halfway through the time we had to get our shit together.
            We spent sixteen more days warring across the plains. We attacked at any time of night. We attacked at dawn and dusk. We attacked during the changing of the guard. Once, we came in the middle of the afternoon, when the sentries were nodding off. The rank and file developed a preference for storming the gates in that bleak hour or two before the dawn, during which time defenders were prone to be shivering and exhausted and asking existential questions of themselves.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Ninety-Six

        I led my squad in a frontal assault that just as quickly vanished. Then the ends, front, and quarters again. By the time the sun breached the horizon I had the Augers more split and confused than we had ever been. I had to tell Hame’s column to enter the cache ahead of mine, because we were too damned busy. 

Then I let the White Swarm do its thing. Augers have no coms, you see, only the telepathic voodoo that the nightwind provides. But the nightwind has never been able to penetrate an energy shell, so to talk Augers needed to drop their electric defenses. By the time my squads had almost gotten back to the main street, not an Auger among them walked around with a woken shield. 

They dropped like flies, like sacks of sand. They cradled their heads. They knelt and vomited. They had become, of course, fair game for the Swarm, which had restrained itself until this point. I had gotten us some recruits. Though I’ll admit the conversion was less pleasant than I had supposed. 

What was that Jerem Cozak said? The Augers are obstacles only? Well, this is what the Academy taught us to do with obstacles. You get them on your side.    

Nogilian’s column poured out of the cache as the second one started pulling in. Mounted on valkyries, they hurried to relieve the stranded column. I cracked the last of the relics, and watched the town start rolling over white. No kidding, even the buildings began to turn. I wondered if the White Swarm now knew construction, or soon would. There seemed to be some delay involved. 

We had reached that part of the battle where there was little more for command to do. My own column was sweeping back east to crack more relics on that side of town. Within fifteen minutes the White Swarm would  have been brought to every corner of the city. Nogilian’s mounted cavalry had chased off the Auger patrols, and set up a circuit themselves.  

That’s when the despair hit. That’s what the Academy never tells you. After every battle you will feel horrible about making human beings do this kind of thing. You even regret success. You intimately understand how each your decisions could have been improved. And gods help you if you actually made mistakes. I remember names, a mantra in my head of all the dead I’d left behind. It’s only the soldiers, Elmy, who get hopped up on adrenaline and believe the world is beautiful. Officers get something else entirely. 

The hum of valkyrie engines as Hame’s column started sliding up from beneath the earth. There was no need for camouflage now, so this time I noticed the shine that meant that these had not been ridden, ever. So. The caches were replacing those machines lost during the war, but had not released them to the Augers. Better. The day warmed. I watched my breath on the air and could not tell if it was the White Swarm. The wind whipped it away in either case. Even forty-foot high walls couldn’t stop the howling of the plains. But I realized what I had not time to before: there were no smells other than the nitrogen smell of the White Swarm. They are strangely anti-septic, the Auger cities. Machines whisked all the waste away. Here, as in the Auger cities around Cibola and no place else in all the universe, there was no litter. 

The last of Hame’s valkyries cleared the cache. I led us in. Unfortunately, the ceiling of a valkyrie cache on Thaeron is the same as ceiling of any cache anywhere: the floor of whatever is above, without a door or window. At least I did not flinch as I went through. There are always a few seconds where you absolutely cannot breathe. 

The cache itself was vast. It must have extended under the entire city. Came the strange sourceless wash of white Profusionist light that neither helped nor hurt the eye. Valkyries lined the floor in quiescent rows, silver and backwards-bullet shaped. There were no different than those on Earth: two meters long, a meter in average diameter and flexibly molded for the human form. Row upon row upon row. I went to the nearest one and woke it. Maybe that despair backed up an inch or so. 

That’s when the messenger caught up with me. Not only the detected scouts had perished, though they certainly understood the risks. I had made damned sure of that. But Ki’s thousand, caught outside the city gate, had lost a tenth of its strength. Tevantes’ reserve, coming from the northwest, had not gotten there in time. No one had relieved them until Nogilian’s cavalry had come.   

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Ninety-Four

            I happened to lead the squad that found the first relic. I swung a little harder than I needed to. Like most good things, cracking it open stung: my quicksword bit back. Still getting used to my new Profusionist suit. My armor, when it showed, shone entirely white. My thanks to some departed Guardian.
            Obligingly, the nightwind sifted down like ash. And indeed, by the time it got to the bottom it was turning white too.
            I sent the men to sweep surrounding buildings. And went myself, leaving a trail of frantic messengers in my wake. Finally, reports were coming in. The scouts originally sent to open the gate had been detected and killed. It had taken Nogilian’s detachment to finally open it. But Ki had become entangled and could not reach the city anyway. The outlying valkyries had had enough sense to come together and stumbled on to them. Tamarand’s reserve column was en route, but had to avoid detection themselves until they arrived. The valkyrie riders could not see our men but made passing assaults on the areas of trampled grass. There were casualties each time.
            Meanwhile, Nogilian had gotten the cache to open. One of the reasons for his rank had been his facility for all types of Profusionist machinery, a wonder on this world. Supposedly, it only happened once or twice a generation here. I had not told that similar proficiency was a basic requirement for every cadet going into every Academy on Earth. He did not seem the sort prone to overweening pride. He had already begun leading his thousand into the cache.  
            I proceeded. There was no reason to alter plans. We clanged and clamored around a lot of empty buildings. Huh? In Ariel, the Augers had scattered all throughout the city. There was no reason for them to live concentrated here. But they must have, because we had not yet encountered the one to five thousand men reported by the scouts. My column had not yet encountered anyone at all. Of course, that we were invisible surely did not hurt.
            We were almost to the eastern gate when we finally met resistance. Several large buildings abutted the wall near its corners, as black as all the rest. Approaching, I assumed that they were warehouses, two or three stories high. As with all the nightwind’s buildings, these had no windows. I shivered and raised my eyes and saw, creeping up in the east, the first pale haze of dawn. Then came the clamor of men moving in Profusionist armor – it is not stiff or heavy, but makes a distinctive thud, like someone slamming down a sack of mud. At first, I could not see black armor moving against black edifice, but then the edges of their shields encountered the White Swarm just ahead of us. They whined and rolled over green, jade as the stones that line the fabled streets of Kasora.   
            The Augers outnumbered the men of my column. But they were disorganized and did not emerge in units of nine or any other kind. I wondered what they were after, then caught sight of the open gate. They meant to go outside to further mire Ki’s column. They were gathering in the main street. They believed they had an objective. If they all got together it would be trouble. My men were scattered by squads throughout half the city. I had an idea.
            I asked the White Swarm a question. It returned the standard feeling of machine acquiescence, a numbness near the back of one’s own neck. I have never gotten used to it. But it was the first of what passed for communication between the Swarm and I.
            I whispered a series of commands to my squad leaders. Then I shouted hello to the Augers. I had my men back away. The Augers followed in my general direction, but could not find the person. They did not come in formation. Excellent.

            One of the squads tapped their very loose line from either side. They still were not seen. A brief flourish, and two Augers cradled their sides, never having seen what hit them. Now my squads who had done the cutting fell back, each making unnecessary noise. The Auger units followed them. They split up to do so. Better and better still.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Ninety-Two

            We marched in cool twilight. The scouts and front ranks disappeared first. I looked down at my hand, and noticed it was see-through. Well, not transparent exactly. Sometimes, you caught a lag or flicker of delay. I supposed that bugs looking up would just see unbroken cobalt sky.
            We moved across the plain like ghosts. Wheat waved against our armor, green grass and brown, none more than chest high. Chlorophyll on the air, the scent of growing things. They say there are no seasons in Nogilia, and that every grass is edible. The human work is keeping all of them from ripening at once, by harvesting and replanting a region at a time. The things a world will think of.   
            The likeliest scenario had us splitting into five columns and coming at it from all four directions. Confuse. Overwhelm. Dump as many men into the cache as quickly as you could. And close the gates behind you, because we kept having to duck to let the enemy pass by unawares. What was it Jerem Cozak had called them? Obstacles. The Augers are coincidences only. Our enemies are not on this world. Right.
            It took a long time to walk to the horizon. Some of the gullies dropped down forty, fifty feet, and steeply. My dead and I discovered fairly quickly that everything ambulatory is harder when you cannot see your boots. The heavy mud at the bottoms forced everyone to slog. Then you climbed up the far side, whether the darkness let you see your chameleonic hands or no.  
            It was after midnight before I stood outside the northmost gate. The temperature was dropping quickly, as Nogilian had said it would. We were getting closer to the middle of the world, but clear nights on the plain do not retain the heat of the day. I shivered and waited for the scouts. I wondered why the machines of the nightwind did not report us as resistant. Likely it had something to do with this White Swarm, which seemed content for now to keep us camouflaged and uninfected. Later, of course, we had other plans for it.   
            The gate split open. They were all of the kind that opens that way, though those that open out are the most problematic for invaders. They just don’t think defensively, the Augers.
            It was a bright enough night where I could see all the way across the city, to opposite gate opening on a similar pile of nothing. For a while, the Augers would think there was just a problem with that system. I was astounded the streets were empty. The Augers of this world lacked sufficient organization for a curfew.
            I ordered the attack. We rushed toward each other, double time.  
            Well, three of the five thousand moved quite quickly. In the map of my mind, Nogilian’s southern column and Hames’ western one and my northern all closed the distance. Tevantes’ column stayed as reserve, to the northwest.
            Ki’s  column did not come. There was not, from the direction, the marching sound of boots. I glanced between the buildings, where that gate still stood closed. There came the sudden glow of energy shields, white and numinous.
            Contact. Our scouts had been discovered and prevented from achieving their objective. Before I gave the order Nogilian was on it, sending eight squads in that direction. Right. He had gotten there first. He was working on getting the cache to open up.
            So my column now had a different purpose. As did Hames’, if any of this was going to work. I swerved east, but into the smaller streets of this new Auger town. On Earth, my big habit had been cracking open relics, those centers of communication and control the nightwind relies upon. Smash one, and all the active nightwind around it comes crashing down.
            Nogilian figured it would make it easier for the White Swarm if the relics weren’t around. I agreed. So now I split my column to squads, had us scanning the western streets for those little knee-high black boxes that had given everyone so much grief.  
            Hame, doing much the same on the western side of down, reported no contact. Renly’s replacement, Hame was born Nogilian and knew weaponry and geography alike. He had distinguished himself in battle against the apes. His promotion on the way out of Redmarak had made as much sense as any.

            Never try to discern talent, Elmy. It’s a waste of time. Just reward success instead. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Two Pages a Day: Ninety

            Nogilian had not been wrong. That city stood exactly where he had thought it would, though his people had built no permanent dwellings. They had lived instead in the fabled tent cities of Nogilia, which moved wherever the harvest went.
            I found him again as everyone unloaded. “Thank you,” I said. “You know your land well.”
            He scowled. “My land is dead. Nogilia was her people, who are no more. But the scouts would show you something.”
            I don’t know that I’ve ever felt a more solid presence than Nogilian’s, a fact I was sharply conscious of as I followed him down the river. He stopped and motioned. And two soldiers stepped out of the riverbank beside me.
            Huh? I might not be the brightest observer in the world, but I know when I’m being stood beside.
            I looked again, and the scouts phased in and out of existence. I reached out my hand and grabbed.
            And latched on to solid Profusionist armor. “Don’t worry,” Nogilian said, “they are no illusion. Tam, Isolos, thank you.” The two men sauntered off, no doubt to swap shifts. Scouts got to rest during their downtime, no matter what anyone else was doing. “It’s spread through all the scouting parties. It will hit the main ranks soon.”
            What, like an infection? “What’s going on?” I asked. “Nogilian, what’s happening to us?”
            He frowned. “This White Swarm has the ability to learn. You said you were in stasis, but awoke when you arrived. From there you went to the Well that held Jerem Cozak and the White Swarm. It was then that these machines learned to revive us from those you carried in your body. You brought the White Swarm to wake us, and we fought the chameleonic apes. From the machines in those the White Swarm learned to camouflage.”
            I nodded. It made a certain kind of sense. “So what’s next? We all grow tough scales or get really good at smelling blood?”
            He shrugged. “We attack the city.” He nodded toward the departing scouts. “I suggest a nighttime raid.”
            “Indeed. Prepare the men. I want scouts on every side of it before we go.”
            Nogilian nodded, likely already having done half of it. His reports came back a few hours later. The city was square, like so many of the Profusionist cities on this world. It was just that it stood where no Profusionist city ever had before. It was composed entirely of nightwind. It had four broad avenues that came from the cardinal directions and met squarely over the city’s cache. Though its walls exceeded forty feet in height, none of its buildings topped more than two or three floors. It garrisoned between one and five thousand men who had likely not fought anyone or deployed anywhere else in the last eight years. There were a few sedentary lookouts. They sparingly used oculars. They were not expecting anything.
            But there were valkyries scything across the plain every hour or so. Their riders were likely bored. When everyone was hurried up and ready, I ordered us to sit through an additional day. I wanted the White Swarm’s new trick to filter through to every last damned member of my army. Nogilian returned five separate scenarios for assault, complete with percentages and attrition profiles.

            I opted for the plan most likely to succeed. If we failed, a good casualty report wasn’t going to matter anyway. Oh, a bad one would brutalize me, of course, but I’m no child. I knew that, in this campaign, my own feelings mattered just as much as an ant’s. I watched the sun sink, then I gave the order.