Chapter 6, Part B
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(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014
Caryn staggered backwards as though she had been punched. No, not Seppina. Please let Lana have made it out, she thought, please, Lana, and Hans and Reimund and even Janusz, please let them all have made it out. Please…
Freed’s yelling yanked Caryn back to the present. “Don’t just stand there, soldier, find some Gods damn men and take it back.”
“Can’t,” Toppel panted. “All respect, general, but they’ve bombed the tunnels. Direct hit on the ground above. Reinforcements shattered. We’d have to go outside.”
The general look at him as though he was insane. “Soldier, pull yourself together, and that’s an order,” he barked. Toppel recoiled, then snapped to attention. “Captain Toppel, Seppina contains an array of 75- and 125-millimetre guns as well as mortars, machine guns and stashes of rifles and grenades. If the enemy controls those weapons, he can turn them on the main fort within the space of two hours. I don’t care if you take it from the inside, the outside, or any other Gods-damned side, but you will take it back. Do I make myself clear, Captain?”
“Take as many men as you can find. Five hundred at least, more if you can get them. Assemble at Armano and await my command. Go!”
“Yes, sir!” Toppel ran off again, still panting heavily. Even more people will die in Seppina, Caryn thought, the nausea in her stomach growing.
“Yaro!” the general shouted, ignoring her. “Tell the main gunnery to give covering fire for the counterattack on Seppina. Howitzers to stay trained on the rise where the enemy’s tanks are having trouble. We still want those easy kills. Aside from that, we’ll need the other satellites and the machine guns in the trenches to hold their own.”
“And Yaro, when you’re done,” the general added with a bit of a groan, “send the foreign minister’s Gods-damned cable. She looks like she’ll be sick otherwise and our medical bay’s full enough.”
Caryn looked at him, startled, but before she had a chance to thank him, he had turned away to shout new orders. Instead, she made her way to Yaro’s telegraph bench and dictated a short cable: FORT UNDER ATTACK STOP ONE SATELLITE FALLEN STOP MAIN FORT HOLDING STOP. That wasn’t so hard, was it, General?
She took a deep breath and considered what to do next. She was hungry for information about what was happening outside, but she dared not head back to the vulnerable gunnery areas, and she would clearly be a distraction in the communications hub. It was time to head back to quarters, she supposed, much as she despised the thought. She had gotten a cable out to the president. She had done her duty. Now it was up to the soldiers to do theirs.
Thoughts of the battle were racing through her mind, though. Would the satellites be able to hold off the main thrust of the Brea attack without support from the main fort? Would five hundred men be enough to retake Seppina, a fort armed to the teeth and surrounded by enemy — what Freed had called tanks? Could they afford to lose such a huge portion of their garrison in a suicide mission? But on the other hand, if Seppina’s guns were relocated so they could fire on the rest of the fort, would any of them stand a chance? Or would the entire Gateway fall?
“General!” came a cry from one of the telegraph operators, so close to Caryn that she jumped. “We’ve lost contact with the guards at entrance B, repeat, lost contact with entrance B.”
“Who the hell’s at entrance B?” Freed shouted, storming toward them. “That’s the south end of the fort.”
“I don’t know, sir,” the operator replied. “Might just be a stray shell landed there. Or might be some Breas snuck around back while we were staring at Seppina.”
“Gods!” the general swore. “Last thing we need are Breas inside the fort. I need men, Gods damn it, I need men!” The operator ran from the room to search for some. Caryn started to follow him, but the general put a hand on her shoulder. “Stay a moment, Minister,” he said. “I’ll be sending a strike team to investigate the area around that entrance and try to lock it down. They’ll have to pass by your quarters on their way, so if you’re interested you’ll have an escort.”
“Thank you,” Caryn said. She wished that she could argue, but with Seppina in enemy hands and her telegraph to the president sent, she could think of nothing more useful to do — and if Brea soldiers had actually infiltrated the fort, an escort was probably a wise idea.
Soon she and a team of twelve soldiers had stepped into a different world. Where the rest of the fort was a madhouse, the southern end was eerily still. The sounds of the battle were muffled here, a dull methodical thudding. There was also a high-pitched ring in Caryn’s ears that she couldn’t place. They crept through the fort slowly, carefully, rifles at the ready, squinting through the dimly lit hallways for signs of the enemy.
They reached a staircase and split up, six of the soldiers continuing along the main level of the fort while the other six led Caryn downward into the vast network of underground tunnels. This place felt well and truly abandoned. The battle outside was nearly inaudible, and their footsteps echoed through the narrow corridors. Caryn placed a hand on the wall of the corridor to steady herself, her knees and her shoulder still aching. She tried to keep calm, but her heart was racing and fear rose inside her. The tunnel system was a labyrinth, and the Breas could be anywhere. The high-pitched noise was still bothering her. And that smell, Caryn thought, what was that new smell?
The others smelled it too. They were slowing, sniffing the air, and then their leader crept forward and peered around a corner. “Smoke,” he whispered to the others.
They all inched forward to look. The smoke was thick and heavy in the next hallway, and it was drifting toward them. “Shells?” a soldier asked.
“No, shells would never make it down here without busting through the main fort,” another said. “It’s a fire.” Then he added, suddenly realizing, “That’s the food storage, damn it all, they’ve set our food stores on fire!”
“Let’s go!” their leader called. “Adel, Karl, stay with the minister. Everybody else, gas masks on, with me.”
“Only four men?” Caryn said. She was scared, but she knew she needed to do the right thing. “You don’t know how many Breas there are and our food supply is vital. Take Adel and Karl with you.”
“And leave you alone?”
“Our food supply is more important than me, and the Breas can’t have gotten too far from where the fire is,” she said, pointing into the smoke that grew thicker and closer. “I can make my own way back without passing near them.” When the man still failed to answer, she put on her best General Freed voice and shouted, “Soldier, our food is burning. Stop arguing with me and go!”
“Yes, sir!” he snapped as if on reflex. “All of you, with me!”
The smoke had reached them and Caryn started to cough. The high-pitched ring in her ears grew louder and more furious. The soldiers donned their masks and disappeared into the smoke, making for the food storage rooms. Before they had gotten far, though, one of them re-emerged and ran back toward her.
Caryn could barely make out the man’s shape through the heavy smoke. She could see his black gas mask obscuring his features, and when he got closer, she made out his crisp Deugan uniform and his gloved hands. Caryn took a breath and coughed again. The man held something out to her, metal that glinted under the dim glow of the lone electric light. “If you are to be alone, Minister, you should at least be armed.” He was handing her a revolver, Caryn realized with a gasp. She had never fired a gun before, but there were Breas inside the fort — the sharp ringing in her head reached a fever pitch — she reached out her left hand and took it —
Fire shot through her hand where it touched the metal. Caryn screamed and looked around but the soldier had disappeared into the smoke. The wave of pain burned up her forearm, into her elbow. Caryn flailed and tried to fling the gun to the ground, but it wouldn’t leave her hand. The pain crawled up her bicep, through her shoulder, then down into her chest. It was going for her heart, she realized in terror, its fiery tendrils reaching toward her ribcage. She screamed again, and struggled — her other hand grasped at the shoulder, her mind zeroed in on the pain, she felt her heart with every desperate beat —
Then another feeling washed over her, a familiar one, and she seized it. She felt the burning tendrils between her ribs and suddenly she could grasp them and force them backward. She struggled and they fought back, trying to wrap around her barrier. She battled furiously, toning her mind to the energy, striving to remember the time years ago when it was in her always, shaping her and changing her, powerful and mysterious and sinister. She summoned all of her strength and made one final push.
The fire streaked back down her arm, blasted out of her hand like a comet and exploded against the wall of the corridor. Caryn was flung from her feet and her head smashed against the opposite wall.
She felt the power fading out of her as the world went black.
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