And I broke clear. Free and clear of the fire of the artillery and the dead I left behind. Free and clear of enemy occupation. Seventy breaths remaining. Silence. Empty, still silence. Huh? Tiers twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two were all unoccupied. I couldn’t believe it. There were supposed to have once been half a million men on this plateau. Had the Augers sent them all offworld? I shouted full speed to those cleared of the wreckage. I dare not look behind, not yet. I concentrated on the open ramp and the small switch house at the top, just a blip at this distance.
The empty tiers rolled by. Sixty breaths, then fifty. The control building grew larger. Forty, thirty. There were men milling around it, a couple squads. Twenty breaths, I pulled back my quicksword, prepared to strike. Ten. Pulled up just in time to see new sunlight glinting on silver armor. Not a suicide mission, then. Not for these men. That was for the ones behind me.
“Report,” I gasped, slewing sidewise, terrified of everyone who would not come up behind.
“They left a couple squads up here,” the captain said, indicating bodies around a nearby outcrop. “We were thinking about moving in when the chameleon broke and they charged us anyway. They were dumb about it, we were up on some rocks. That done, we knew what it meant, so we hit the switch and hoped. Glad you came. Got lonely.”
I dismounted, giving him the eye. Pure deadpan, that. I have never known the White Swarm to diminish someone’s personality. Though I have suspected enhancement on various occasions.
“Hit the switch,” I said. He looked at me. “Heatwhips don’t climb.”
I wanted them trapped down there. He turned and stepped inside the building. Through the open door, I watched the sequence until I lost it, then turned away. To face what I did not want to. This part of the plateau was filling up with valkyries. But not as much as should be.
They sorted themselves without my oversight, rally grouping inside a perimeter of watchers, with a few scouts setting out to patrol the plain. Windy up here, and cold. My boots crunched a skiff of snow. I reminded myself it was winter in this part of the world. To the south, between valkyries, I caught glimpses of a land of short grasses extending to infinity. Mountains climbing up forever on either side. Through the narrow gate, indeed.