But praise all the gods that be, Ash’s artillery pulling up over the edge of the ramp, towed by their valkyries. Five hundred golden beauties. The ten breaths I gave them had been vital. Even Auger artillery takes a very definite time to recharge. By the time Ash had reached my devastation, the other firm hadn’t had anything to do other than volley a few lightspears at them, the worst possible assault against artillery disks in rapid motion. You can’t even see the operators. Ash was ready for combat.
The same could not be said for the rest. Many of my squads looked half strength, some did not appear at all. Few were entirely unscathed. I had them sort out by thirds. Three columns, about a thousand each. Dammit, we’d started out with five. But even now more of our brethren were dying down there.
“Right,” I said to them all. “No time, they’re trapped. This column, follow Ash when he takes the artillery down around the thirtieth tier. Dismount, keep them from coming up on our disks. Ash, don’t overextend yourself, take one tier at a time, cycle disks in and out. Center column, follow them, stay behind, keep the ramp clear so Ash can drop down when the time comes. This column, stay with me, we hold this control, we do not get surprised, we swoop down if it gets too hot down there. Got it?”
Everybody went. I nodded to the scout captain to hit the switch again. I took the oculars back from Ash, remounted, prepared to sit on my damn ass again. Nogilian’s furor still ringing in my ears. I will not be risked except in need. Curiously, I’d gotten that upbraiding while camped out in Sepira, in the depths of blackbrain, no one doing any fighting except me against myself. Had he been trying to break through? I supposed I’d never know. But it had helped. And I understood why my dead men held him so beloved.
Now I watched two thousand of them go down to join a fight already involving fifty thousand on each side. But their placement was important. One hundred artillery cannot be ignored. That was all Ash took down, in the end, with the leading ten pulling up on the twenty-eight tier. Between his disks and the men defending them, he occupied damn near every centimeter of that tier. Then began bombardment. He was methodical. He staggered the firing to maintain continuous pressure. There were attempts to climb, as Augers took up quickswords from our fallen men below. And the four Auger disks parked on that level turned to argue. But all of this took time, and the whole point of the Stair was that it made ascent unnecessarily difficult. By the time I ordered the ramp open again, the twentieth tier had been reduced to vacant territory. Nothing further moved.