Chapter 6, Part A
(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014
Caryn awoke the next morning with a dull throbbing in her forehead. As she groaned and rolled out of bed, the muffled thud of the shelling seemed louder, each blast resonating through her temples. She rubbed her head painfully and looked around the room. Lana was gone. Someone had left breakfast for her, but she didn’t feel like eating. Instead she dressed beneath the flickering electric light, then pushed open the door of her quarters.
Caryn found Reimund standing guard in the centre of the corridor. He bowed when he saw her approach. “A good night’s sleep, Minister?”
“Indeed,” Caryn replied. “Where are the others?”
“Lana, Janusz and Hans set out for Seppina half an hour ago,” the guard reported. “Marwin is taking breakfast in the mess.”
“Let’s go find him,” Caryn said.
Caryn’s head throbbed with each step she took, and she wondered if she had always been this sensitive to wine. Alcohol had been strictly forbidden in her father’s household. Caryn had taken her first sips while away at university, and she didn’t remember it being this painful, but whether it was the Well that had changed her or merely age, she could never tell.
The mess hall was buzzing with excitement. From the snippets of conversation she overheard, it sounded like the Brea artillery had ripped through parts of the barbed wire that guarded the emplacement from the north, and men were rushing to replace it.
They found Marwin chatting with a boy in uniform who she judged only a year older than he was. Marwin’s plate was nearly empty and he leapt to his feet at the sight of her. “My lady. Shall we proceed?”
Caryn smiled at him. “You were much less excited last night.”
“I’m excited to see the outside again,” he said. “The concrete is suffocating sometimes, and we have a long train ride ahead this afternoon.”
“I can’t wait for the train and the chance to sleep,” Caryn replied. Their route would take them back through the Hermann Gap to Czemers, then due west past the desert and out toward the sea. “Well, we don’t have all day. We may as well get started.”
Marwin led their way out of the mess hall, past the barracks to a series of winding staircases. As they climbed the steps, the shelling seemed to get louder and more intense. The main artillery batteries were stationed near the top of the fort, and the walls here had several slits open to the outside air, allowing the barrels of the guns to poke through. The wind was howling through the cracks and across the staircases, and the enemy shells, no longer dampened by the fort’s thick walls, were screaming and exploding.
The gunnery was a flurry of activity. Through the slits in the concrete Caryn could see the soldiers rushing to repair the barbed wire that had been torn apart overnight. The fort’s guns provided covering fire, and soldiers were running to and fro, loading the 75- and 125-millimetre pieces with shell after shell and then firing them with deafening blasts. Enemy shells were exploding around the fort and the repair workers darted around warily, diving into the protective moat when each volley arrived. Caryn grasped the rungs of the ladder that led up to the roof, trying to ignore the pounding in her skull.
At the top of the ladder stood the 210-millimetre howitzers resting on their giant rotating platforms. They stood open to the outside air, but walls of stone and concrete jutted out from the top of the fort just ahead of them. The howitzers could launch their angled, arcing shots over top of the walls while still enjoying a measure of protection from enemy counter-fire.
When she climbed off the ladder and onto the roof, Caryn immediately sensed that something was wrong. There was a team of gunners stationed there, but when Reimund waved to them, only one man gave a cursory nod in their direction. The others were all holding binoculars and staring out over the walls that protected the howitzers. Reimund shrugged and started toward the nearest gun. “They won’t want us moving the platform,” he called, “but we can measure the angles again, and calculate the arc of fire.”
“I’m on it,” Marwin said, and rushed to help him. Caryn was still staring at the gunners. She tried to follow their gaze without any binoculars of her own, squinting toward the horizon.
The view from the top of the fort was magnificent. Brealand spread out before her, rough mountains to her left, grasslands ahead of her, hints of forests and lakes in the distance. A warm orange glow out of the right corner of her eye told her that the Gateway Well was waiting, its ancient stones a testament to its power. She sensed the grim determination of the gunners, though, saw their heavy breathing, and almost tasted their trepidation.
Then suddenly her eyes picked up the specks darting back and forth, the almost imperceptible motion on the horizon —
There was a roaring blast and Caryn was flung against the wall. Her right shoulder smashed into it and a wave of pain rushed over her. She heard footsteps and men shouting, and then a crack and screams. Caryn pushed herself away from the wall and looked around wildly.
The quiet trepidation had been replaced by pandemonium. A shell had passed over the protective wall and smashed through the wooden platform that held the nearest howitzer. The twisted metal was knocked entirely off its moorings. It slid down the roof as frightened soldiers dove out of its path. One of the gunners leapt down the ladder behind her while the others dropped their binoculars and searched frantically for ropes to rein in the runaway cannon. Marwin had been thrown to his knees by the force of the blast and was struggling to regain his footing. Caryn groped for the nearest pair of binoculars, gazed out over the wall and gasped.
What had seemed only specks on the horizon was in fact a wave of humanity, masses of men darting and crawling as the fort’s shells exploded around them, but advancing, ever advancing. Interspersed among them were contraptions that Caryn had never seen before, huge vehicles on treads with cannons mounted on their backs, artillery that moved of its own power.
And there was Reimund, tugging at her arm. With his other hand, he readied the rifle slung over his shoulder. “Minister, it is not safe here. The fort is under attack. We must go.”
Caryn couldn’t tear her eyes away from the field before her. It was grassland, almost flat, with a slight rise halfway between the fort and the Brea onslaught. The other howitzers and the smaller guns were peppering the army with shells, and she heard shouts, and saw men fall. Still the Breas advanced. They came with covering fire from the stationary guns that had been shelling the fort all span, and with the mobile artillery too, following along ominously. “Minister!” Reimund insisted, shouting to be heard over the screaming of the shells. “We must go!” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her back toward the ladder.
She was almost back to it when she noticed a group of specks detach itself from the Brea army and break sharply toward the east. She shook off Reimund’s hand and held the binoculars up to her eyes. It was a large squadron of the mobile artillery, circling around to the east, past Eolanis satellite, past Armano —
As the volleys from the main thrust grew louder, Caryn saw a group of infantry, hundreds of them, suddenly emerging out of the Gateway Well. They were charging hard for the satellite fort called Seppina while artillery, guns that could not be manoeuvred through the Well, motored along their treads to join them.
Reimund shouted at Caryn again, and she finally relented and made her way down the ladder. Marwin was already at its base, tapping his foot anxiously, his young face full of fear. The gunnery was a madhouse, gunners loading and reloading shells, messengers rushing back and forth carrying orders from General Freed and bringing reports back to him. The guns were so loud that she couldn’t hear herself think, and her head felt ready to burst. With Reimund in the lead, they rushed down the winding staircases, brushing past soldiers who paid them no attention as they ran to help man the artillery.
“Seppina!” Caryn shouted when they reached the bottom of the steps, where it was just quiet enough that she could be heard. “They’re attacking Seppina!”
“Back to quarters,” Reimund insisted, marching forward. “Come.”
“No,” Caryn shouted. Her head was aching and she could barely think straight, but one thought was burned into her mind. “Lana’s in Seppina. Lana’s there, we have to get her out!”
Caryn didn’t wait for Reimund to reply. She took off down the corridor as fast as her legs could take her, wishing she was a few years younger, wishing that her knees didn’t creak and her calves didn’t ache so easily. “Marwin! Quarters, now!” She heard Reimund’s sharp voice behind her, and she glimpsed Marwin retreating from the corner of her eye. Caryn barely noticed. All she could think about was Lana, her strength, her passion, her devilish grin and her biting wit. She’d warned the general that the Breas might attack through the Well, she’d guessed that Seppina might have to stand alone, and now if Lana was stuck there —
She rounded a corner and bounded toward a staircase leading to the underground tunnel system that made up much of the fort. She could hear Reimund’s footsteps pounding behind her, almost as loud as the artillery shells that continued to crash against the concrete walls.
Reimund caught up with her a few paces from the bottom of the stairs. “Minister!” he shouted, racing in front of her and turning to block her path. “Listen to me. Listen. Hans is with Lana. He will keep her safe. It is not safe for you.”
Caryn was shaking and couldn’t tell whether it was adrenaline or panic. “I can’t leave her. Let me go.”
“Hans is with her,” Reimund repeated.
“Get out of my way, Reimund, that’s an order.”
“Minister Hallom.” It was a new voice, and Caryn started and wheeled around. The man behind her was wearing a full officer’s uniform. She had met him once before, though she could not recall his name. He was General Freed’s second-in-command.
“Major,” she begged, hoping that she’d gotten his rank correct. “Please. My colleague is in Seppina and she’s just a young woman.”
“And what in Lessandro’s name are you going to do for her if you get in there?” he demanded. “Are you going to fight off their tanks with your bare hands?”
“Do not mock me.”
“Go back to your quarters,” the officer said. “General’s orders.”
“Now let’s get one thing straight,” Caryn snapped. “I am here to speak on behalf of the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. I do not take orders from General Freed. He ought to take orders from me.”
“Be that as it may,” the officer said firmly, “there is nothing you can do for your friend.”
“He is right, my lady,” Reimund said softly, touching her arm. She tensed at his touch but could not bring herself to remove his hand. “I am sorry, my lady, but you are not a soldier. Those who are will protect her.”
Caryn sighed. She could see that he was right, that her presence in Seppina would not do anything to help Lana, that she was simply panicking during her first foray into a warzone. Nonetheless, she would not go down without a fight. “No, Reimund, they will not protect her. Neither will Hans. You will.”
“You go in there,” she told him, “and you bring her back to quarters. You will not allow her to die. Am I understood?”
Reimund looked as if he might still defy her. Then it passed. “I understand, Minister.” He went.
The look on the major’s face, if he was a major, was more amused than anything. “Now that’s sorted out,” he said. “Would you like me to escort you back to your quarters, Voice of the President?”
“The president!” Caryn exclaimed. In her panicked rush down the stairs, in her concern for Lana, she had entirely forgotten. “Has he been notified?”
“He will be,” the major said, “when the time is right.”
“He will be notified now,” Caryn said. She drew herself up to her full height. He might still think she was crazy, but she knew that her frenzied reaction to the attack was wearing off. She was starting to think clearly again. “The president needs to know that Deugan’s greatest enemy has crossed our border.”
“I’m just following the general’s orders,” the major replied, “but I don’t have any more time to argue with you. I have a battle to fight in Seppina. I strongly suggest you return to quarters, but as long as you don’t follow me to the battlegrounds, you can go anywhere you damn well please.” With that, he turned on his heel and left her.
Caryn shook with fury as the major walked off toward Seppina. The general’s orders, were they, to keep this debacle away from the president’s ears as long as possible? Panic was seeping back into her mind, though she strove to shove it aside and lock it down. If they really couldn’t trust their generals, where was the hope for Deugan? If the president himself was being kept in the dark, how could there be democracy, or principles, or anything? What in Lessandro’s name were they fighting for?
The walk seemed to take hours. Caryn’s knee was aching from her earlier run, her right shoulder tinged with every step and her head was pounding more from anger than from last night’s wine. It seemed that every few feet a messenger would race past her, or a squadron of soldiers would nearly bowl her over on their way to their stations.
Her journey took her past the northern entrance to the fort. The wide doorway was open and soldiers were streaming in, carrying the wounded on stretchers. Caryn saw men screaming as they were raced by her toward the fort’s medical bay. One man had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head and blood rushing down his face. Another’s stomach was ripped open, and he was grasping it with bloodstained hands.
Several soldiers were marching in the other direction too, making for the outdoors, for the machine guns in the moat. The moat was so engulfed in smoke that Caryn could barely make out any details through the open doorway, but she saw the flashes as the machine guns fired, saw Brea soldiers collapsing, saw mobile artillery units stopped dead in their tracks. Still the onslaught came. Caryn took another deep breath, tried to suppress the queasiness in her stomach, and pressed onward.
After what felt like an eternity, Caryn stumbled into the communications hub and into yet another scene of chaos. Rows upon rows of soldiers were typing furiously into their telegraphs. Messengers were running in and out, shouting to be heard over the din of the typists and the crashing of the shells.
“Eolanis taking heavy damage!”
“Carmel seeing first action!”
Caryn took a deep breath. Aside from Lessandro, it sounded like all of the satellites were in play.
In the midst of it stood General Freed, looking proper and distinguished as he shouted commands. He ceased for a moment when he saw Caryn. “Minister! What are you doing here? I sent Major Danzig to see you back to your quarters.”
So he was a major after all. “I have a duty to inform the president of what’s happening here,” she said, in the most authoritative voice she could muster. “Surely one of your operators could make himself available for a very brief cable.”
The general stared at her in apparent disbelief, but he was spared from answering when another soldier rushed into the room. Caryn recognized him immediately as Captain Toppel, the young officer who had given her a tour of the fort on her first day here. “Seppina’s fallen,” Toppel blurted out between ragged breaths. He put his hand on one of the telegraph desks to steady himself. “They’ve taken Seppina.”
Next chapter: Chapter 6, Part B
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