I let Ki sort out the bivouac, cold rations, no digging but the latrine on the north side, bedrolls only because of the white sand. The Swarm would cover them. Sentries posted along the beach with orders to let by and quietly execute. Whoever came this way could not get back.
I circulated among my dead. There would be no brave speech at dawn. Instead I walked here and there, offering reassurance, now and then a touch. I told them we were going to do a grand thing tomorrow, something not done since the wars between the cities. For them, that would have been a time of mythical heroism overcoming tyranny. I didn’t promise them a new Ariel, exactly, but I certainly let them think it. Most seemed encouraged. I suspected the play of the Swarm there, too.
When I got back Ash was waiting with the intelligence report. My lead scouts had returned.
“They’re definitely manned,” he said. “Three thousand just on the first tier, with artillery interspersed, and plenty looking down from above, far as the eye can see. Spearmen and infantry both. They have sentries posted and alert. They watch both the sea and the beach.”
“Yeah,” I said. Damn and absolute damn. How had they known?
Not that it changed anything. I thanked and dismissed everyone, laid down, rolled over to see the stars. It was what most everyone was doing. I could hear the low talking, not quite close enough to listen to. The strange weather of our crossing had persisted into a night of preternatural stillness and clarity. The stars fairly sizzled in their beauty. Fool that I was, I thought about Earth, five light years gone. It wasn’t the right time of year to even see old Sol from here. This sky was alien to me. A one-way ticket, I’d told Nogilian. True enough to count. I considered molesting Ash, thought better of it. Twice would be a correlation I did not want.
Soon enough he bothered me instead, a gentle shaking of my shoulder. I opened my eyes. There was a subtle tincture to the eastern sky. Ah. I’d had one of those dreams that leaves one with an impending sense of doom. I cracked myself awake, shook sand from my hair because no one has ever figured out how to sleep with a helmet on. We crouched together, waited for Nogilian and Ki to arrive. Confab time. Nothing had changed. The enemy – opposition – patrols of the night had not strayed more than a few paces from the Stair. They were playing it close. Our plan could not be improved. I wondered, for about the umpteenth time, how the docks of the wharf at the base of the Stair could possibly be empty.