This begins a long series of updates I forgot to post, culminating in what Marina and I hope to be a big shocker for the readers.
Some are by me, some by Marina, and I'm sure our writing styles differ enough for you to tell.
The burning in Amber's left side was gone now, and she laid in the hospital bed that she had noticed on and off while slumbering, dressed in a hospital gown. She opened her eyes and saw the underground hospital room once more. Monitors around her beeped and did their thing, assuring the nurses outside that she was alive.
She looked up and looked into a pair of lovely emerald eyes. Dani looked down at Amber, wearing - most strangely - an easily-removed green silk band around her breasts and a similar skirt around her hips. She smiled at Amber and said, "Awake yet, tiger?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you to wake up, silly. So I could do this." And with that Dani kissed her full on the mouth. Amber couldn't move enough to resist, and deep down she didn't want to. She let Dani's tongue slip into her mouth and touched it with her own, enjoying Dani's taste.
The amazingly beautiful woman slipped onto the bed, barely breaking the kiss, and her hands traveled to Amber's gown, pulling it open and gently touching Amber's breasts. Amber's hands went up to take Dani's face at the cheeks, holding her closer for another kiss. After this Dani's head moved downward, her tongue moving along Amber's neck. "Oh Dani...." Amber moaned.
The voice cut through Amber's dream like a blade. Her eyes opened again and she was in the same room, in the same bed, but instead of Dani's luscious, barely-clothed body it was her very-clothed, uniformed sister Sarina. She looked at Amber with one of her "Just what the hell are you
thinking?" looks of curiosity. "Feeling better?"
"I was, until you rudely interrupted me," Amber mumbled.
"Ah, it was that kind of dream. I thought you were picking up your breath a bit." Sarina smiled sarcastically. "Well, the docs said you're okay..."
"What... what happened?"
"You won, mission successful, et cetera. The Marshal's life was saved by surgery, though she still hasn't woken up. Dani's alive and well, but unfortunately for you she's still in love with Jhayka and won't be coming by any time soon..." Sarina's smile was now that of teasing. "I'd ask for the sexy details but some of your sexual fantasies frankly disturb me, Sister."
Amber mock-frowned at Sarina. "Oh, you're asking for it. And I'll make sure the Baroness gives it to you the next time you're in her tender mercies."
"Unlike some female members of this family, sister, I have never been bound by a lover," Sarina responded with a smirk. "Another bit of good news, Sister, is that the International Forces have already made contact with us and will be landing in the next few days, perhaps even tonight."
Amber heard that news and a wide smile crossed her face. After all this time, I had begun to lose hope!
"Then maybe we'll survive all of this?"
"Yes," Sarina replied. "I think we all will."
"That's.... good to hear, Sister, good to hear." Amber took her hand. "Now, can you please get me something to eat and drink? I'm famished!"
"Oh, just give it a minute, but then I must be getting back to duty. With the Marshal incapacitated I've been given more duties, as His Majesty has been forced to take direct command for the time being and my services as Chief of Staff are invaluable to him."
"Well, then, Sister, I won't hold you back from duty to His Majesty. Please arrange for the nurses to send me something, and then go back to work. I'll talk to you later."
Sarina nodded at that. "Later then, sister." She promptly left.
AND POINTS EAST.
The steady blossoms of detonating nuclear weaponry lit up the sky around the port city as dozens of airbursts lit off. Craters were dug by the powerful energy bolts and railgun shots of the orbiting dreadnoughts, and volleys of missiles dug deep and annihilated the defences around the city. Cruise missiles dived under the defensive shielding, though most of them were shot down. A few got through, however, and their nuclear events proved sufficient to disable many of the disabling weaponry. Even far to the north around the capitol of Cranstonville there were numerous events.
Gilead had never invested in extensive shelters, and the result was that tens of thousands of civilians were already dead or dying from the bombardment. The arrival of aerospace fighters as the defences were attrited only increased the scale of the devastation, and working under the shields where the cruise missiles had disabled many of the defensive batteries they succeeded in knocking down the remaining theatre shields around Quanzhi. The only ones left were those around Cranstonville itself.
In all, the preparations for the landings had only taken six hours and the expenditure of about a hundred nuclear devices per hour over that period of time, along with a few hundred multi-megaton level cannon shots from the orbiting ships. Final civilian fatalities for the attacks would probably level off at one hundred thousand or so, and would mainly be the fault of the Gilean government for deciding to resist when they'd never invested in a major shelter programme. By this time nukes were very smart indeed, and with dial-a-yield and limited fallout, collateral casualties could be kept to a minimum, and the very weak and incomplete theatre shields over Quanzhi and Cranstonville had proved a minimal disruption in the overall operations. Only twenty-three aerospace fighters were lost.
There was no reason to delay the landings any further. They were planned for an area seven hundred kilometers east of Quanzhi, where the open plains of the central interior would, unlike with the coastal mountain ranges, allow for an unimpeded and sweeping crescent manoeuvre to carry the international forces into Cranstonville. Quanzhi itself, its defences destroyed, would not be directly attacked, nor would the forces around it and to the north of it, two corps in all, be assailed, in hopes that they would be lured out to rush to the aide of the capitol where thery could be more easily destroyed. These units amounted to about 300,000 men counting the remnants of the Quanzhi militia which had elected to fight for the new regime.
The force that was directly positioned facing the route of advance for the International forces consisted of eleven corps and some associated units, amounting to 1.5 million men after attrition in the civil war and the arrival of fresh replacements, which until recently had been fighting each other, four of them being rebel formations who had battled de la Hoya. They were suspicious of each other, and the new regime in Cranstonville was unpopular. Coordination was not good and their stocks of reasonably modern equipment had been exhausted in the internicine fighting.
Against them was arrayed two Slavian corps, one mechanized and one armoured, two Hispanic corps, the same, two British corps, one French corps, an Alliance corps, a Taloran corps short one brigade, a Habsburg division, a Catilinian Marine brigade, and a Devenshirite Marine brigade, around 1,350,000 troops in all. These were the forces which were now being landed on the flat farmland. The heavy landing ships burned the ground and set crops on fire as they settled down, and countless hovertanks and APCs, supply vehicles and hover-barges loaded with equipment, were soon being continuously offloaded.
Theatre shields and anti-missile missiles and energy weaponry were immediately established to defend against nuclear missile attacks by the Gilean defensive forces, which were not long in coming. Seventy missiles were fired at the landing site in twenty minutes, but only one of them got through, and the light 700kT warhead detonated several hundred meters from the nearest landing craft group, far enough that though they were crippled, there were only 18 fatalities, all in the British group that had been conducting the landings in that sector.
Around, most of the farmhouses had been abandoned by the families which had lived in them, fleeing, hiding anywhere they could. This was a modern area, and most of them had gone up into the woods in their trucks to take shelter until the storm had passed. In a few cases the officers of the international forces had walked into a country breakfast which was still warm, and enjoyed it where the prior inhabitants had not, bedding down in their homes before they'd have to move on the next day, leaving some money of a dozen nations behind as the payment the laws of war required.
Huge hovertanks were deployed defensively toward the enemy. They were up to 250 tonnes for the largest Taloran models, and the enemy had 150 tonne tracked tanks which, though nominally modern, were much inferior in all respects. The number of tanks between the two forces was also about even, heightening the disparity, and of course the Gilean Air Force had utterly ceased to exist, leaving the international forces to control the skies entirely.
Though the international forces were for the moment supporting the landings, by late the next day a concerted air campaign against the defending Gilean Army was being planned to annihilate it, or drive it out of its defensive positions, while the international forces raised to be into position to launch a vigorous assault the moment they had suffered enough, or otherwise work their way around the enemy's positions by the advantage of their much faster manoeuvring speed, and the fact that the Gilean Army moving from its defensive positions would expose it to a massed air campaign.
Even standing firm, the air campaign would take its toll sooner or later. The sustained assault would entail thousands and thousands of sorties every day while the ships in orbit rained fire down on the theatre shields. It would be possible to commence the moment that the landing forces had been entirely landed, and by evening of the next day the advance on Cranstonville would begin, with nearly three million soldiers clashing to determine the fate of the capitol of the Confederacy over a vast tract of rolling farmland rather larger than Nebraska.
With the Gilean Army so heavily outgunned and the skies dominated by the international forces, the evaluations of its commanders were extremely bleak. It seemed that only Covington and his closest circle retained any real hope of throwing back the international troops, but the President and his junta persisted, and the honour of the Gilean Armed Forces demanded the fight be sustained 'till the last resource had been thoroughly exhausted.
off East Port.
Initially the Gilean taskforce off of East Port had been ignored. After all, they were not involved in any attacks on the landing force, and they were moving off, away from the city. Then Covington had demanded of Admiral Benington, the overall commander of the Taskforce, to attack the Duchess of Medina's relieving army. A desultory effort with nuclear tipped cruise missiles had proved ineffective, but it had caught the attention of the fleet in orbit. Rather than try to pot at the ships from orbit, however, it was hoped to compel their surrender by a more impressive display of overwhelming force.
The Taloran Heavy Cruiser Jhuris
had been selected for the operation, primarily because essentially all Taloran ships were designed to make surface landings on water. Captain the Baroness Frilasuia itl Urasalia thought the whole plan was a bit pointless, but she could understand the humanitarian effort it represented. According, the Jhuris
descended into the atmosphere, covered by the guns of the fleet and escorted by J'u'crea type assault boats.
As she did the remaining defensive batteries of the Gilean army in the area which could bear on the ship salvoed off braces of nuclear missiles at her. The weapons of the fleet in orbit and the J'u'crea's engaged the incoming missiles, shooting most of them down in fast-paced intercepts with nuclear events flashing the sky brighter than a dozen suns as a series of them staggered out over the blue of the ocean. Some of the missiles got through, however...
And that's where the nuclear-tipped anti-missile missiles of the Jhuris
went into action, throwing up dozens of staggered and even interlocking fusion events which slashed through the incoming interceptors. Their real purpose in sending me down was to act as bait for the Gilean defensive missiles
, Frilasuia mused sarcastically to herself, strapped into the command acceleration couch on the bridge of the Jhuris
as the battle was fought.
Frilasuia watched the holo-plot as the last three missiles were chopped to bits by the flechette cannons. They were now only one kilometer off the water surface and dropping fast. “How close are we to entering the enemy's ship-to-ship missile range, Uras?” She queried to the ship's Astrogator.
“Approximately sixty kilometers, Captain.”
“Helm, institute landing protocols!”
“Landing protocols.. Commencing, Aye,” the helmsman responded, the ship now being readied for water touch-down, the ventral gun turrets swinging to present their streamlined rear casings ahead to prevent the development of friction, though they would not initially touch down.
“Bring us down!”
Instead, as the ship slowed to just below mach speed, the fins of the big cruiser, three times as long as an old American Supercarrier, dipped into the water, touched, struck, and stabilized. “Initial landing complete... Hydrofoil surfaces in water contact. Speed is six hundred kilometers an hour and decreasing.”
“Maintain hydrofoil operation regimen,” Frilasuia ordered, before keying the hotlink to central battery director. “Guns, stand by for missile-profile surface engagement.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
Ten minutes later the Jhuris
entered range and the taskforce gave her everything they had left. It wasn't much, considering the nuclear warheads had been largely expended at land and space targets and the conventional missiles bounced harmlessly off the doubled-shields of the hydrofoil-operating big Taloran cruiser as she sped toward the taskforce at 500kmh.
At the same time, Frilasuia began to broadcast a message she'd pre-recorded, again and again in a continuous loop. “Admiral Benington, this is Captain itl Urasalia of the Taloran cruiser Jhuris
. We can fight you wherever we are. I will be approaching your task-force soon and when I come into visual range if you aren't flying white flags I'll destroy you. Keep firing at me, but it will just demonstrate the futility of further resistance.”
And the fleet did salvo off their full missile stocks remaining, the nukes of the Jhuris
' interceptor batteries dealing with most, and most of the rest falling to the flechette cannon. Finally they were thirty kilometers off and closing fast, and the enemy fire had ceased.
“Bring us down to the surface,” Frilasuia instructed. Speed fell off, and the Jhuris
gradually lowered herself down into the water until she was floating with two-thirds of her hull submerged in the seas of Gilead. The process took several kilometers of forward progress to complete and by that point she could see the taskforce ahead, also slowing, having seen the transition from the hydrofoil mode to the surface that the cruiser had accomplished.
“Full magnification on the outer sensors, let's see if they've surrendered and finished this silly business...”
Suddenly the Jhuris
was thrown violently to port and her decks swamped through and through while a huge blossoming sphere of water rose out of the ocean and thoroughly drenched the cruiser as the tremendous shockwave produced unimaginable sheer and shock inside. Electronics were shattered and crewers were very lucky, indeed, to be secured in for battle. The Jhuris
would have capsized if it was a normal ship; of course the gravitic stabilizers avoided this, but in trying to counteract the huge pressure in the sea they threw the crew right back in the direction they'd just been jostled from.
“Heavy shock damage!” Damage control central reported immediately, and unwantedly. “We've got buckling of armour plates around frames sixteen and two eighty-one.”
“What was that?” Frilasuia snapped, ignoring the damage reports for the moment. But then a series of additional powerful impacts washed over the ship's shielding, rocking her in the water, though far less severely than before.
“A submerged nuclear mine, Captain! And now they're hitting us with nuclear artillery shells: They're only in the range of a few hundred kilotons but they've got a lot
So much for the idea that we could get them to surrender...
The bow of the Jhuris
was thrown out of the water by another huge explosion and several lower sensor blisters on the hull were stove-in by the power of the nuclear detonation which threw up an enormous column all around them. “Full stop!” Frilasuia shouted, only then realizing they must be in the hydrological equivalent of a minefield. “Use gravitic thrusters to make us exactly hold position
.” It was a very unpleasant realization...
...But the enemy fleet was still in range. She flicked the hotlink. “Guns, take them apart. And... Start firing the ventral turrets, flak-bursts at one kilometer.”
“Understood, Captain. Commencing main battery fire..” The gunnery officer didn't know the purpose for the second order, but Frilasuia had remembered something else
about nautical warfare...
...Fortunately just in time to utterly annihilate the first salvo of nuclear torpedoes fired against the Jhuris
. Those might have done some actual serious damage to the ship if they had been allowed direct impacts against the lower submerged hull.
Then the main guns opened up. The result was ghastly. The taskforce had consisted of two amphibious assault ships, thirteen nuclear missile cruisers, eleven destroyers, eight frigates, and twenty-six FACs. The first salvo of charged particle cannon fire from the two forward turrets, four bolts dead on target, simply utterly destroyed one of the amphibious assault ships. A cruiser was destroyed by the salvo of the aft turrets. Within five seconds another salvo finished off the section amphibious assault ship and another cruiser. Then another salvo, and two cruisers were gone. The next salvo smashed a frigate and two destroyers. The hulks were left steaming, burning, reduced to the water-line by the fire tearing through and vapourizing half of what was above, or in the case of the larger ships, simply smashed and cracked clean in two, sinking quickly or rolling off, hulls bent and twisted like jacknives.
Another salvo was got off that blew up a cluster of six FACs and took out another cruiser even as the remaining nuclear torpedoes proved unable to get through the barrier of continuously roiling steam and vapourized sea from the flak bursts of the ventral turrets. In contrast, the kiloton range nuclear shells of the railguns on the enemy force proved completely unable to make a dent on the shields of the Jhuris
despite the fact that dozens had hit.
By that point the surviving flag officer, a Commodore named Laura Wellin, was desperately broadcasting an all-frequency surrender message.
“Cease-fire, cease-fire!” Frilasuia shouted, staving off another murderous salvo—and then, a moment later she realized that the order had been general: “Flak-bursts at a half kilometre resume firing!” The order came just in time to resume the destruction of the incoming torpedoes, and the firing was maintained for another fifteen minutes until Commodore Wellin had confirmed that all the expended 'fish' had been destroyed or deactivated.
Three thousand Gilean sailors had been killed in less than a minute. The Jhuris
had sixty-seven wounded and none killed. Despite the botched effort to make the Taskforce give in peaceful, the example worked. The remaining Gilean wet-navy ships all surrendered over the course of the next day, now that their commanders had seen that the international force could fight them in a way that they understood—and still come out with a handy victory without a single loss.
It was humiliating, and at this point, fighting out of honour and pride, humiliation proved a far more effective way to obtain their surrenders than any kind of rational calculation of force ever could, proving the silly instructions to the Jhuris
to be most far-sighted in fact, once looked at in retrospect. This, however, made Frilasuia no happier for the risk that she felt her ship had been unnecessarily subjected to, but orders were orders, and once the taskforce had deactivated the minefield the Jhuris
safely returned to her proper home in space, well clear of the mess on the planet before.
On the Siege Lines.
Warleader Erqui and the Ubar Ikmen sat in a private room of their command bunker. Only one of Ikmen's prized kajira was with them, laying across his feet to warm them in the chill of the underground position. It was evening, and the two men were planning the final leg of operations on the south bank of the river.
“Do you think we can seize the bridges? If we do, the whole city might fall to us. It's certainly lightly defended on the north bank,” Ikmen opined as he studied a model of the layout of the city.
“I don't think we can, Your Excellency, but we will certainly try,” Erqui answered. “We have three very small enemy pockets left to reduce, and a division concentrated against each, with another one in reserve. All our other forces remaining on the south bank are concentrated against the Quay or the Warehouse. We should have ten divisions to shift over the river just as we've been shifting the other forces that were to the south of the river... The bulk of our troops are already to the north, and the main assault is planned in that direction.
“But three divisions in reserve is still a powerful force, and if we seize the bridges intact they could indeed make considerable gains which might see large swathes of the city come under our control. And the three divisions to seize the bridges should.. Not suffer casualties as to render them incapable of further combat operations. We can also go on the defensive around the Quay and pull all the troops off from the Warehouse and reinforce any gains across the river with another three divisions that way.”
“You're only planning on leaving a single division south of the river if we don't gain the bridges? But they'll be facing a corps,” the Ubar objected. “Which division is it, anyway?”
“The Ar Division, Your Excellency.”
Ikmen visibly winced. “No. Take one of your own off the Quay forces if you must. The Ar Division is my country's last hope.”
“And mine is marching to meet the Cartagenean corps and reinforce General Rulos' stand against a foe with powers that we can scarcely conceive of. You must make the sacrifice; they are the only division in all of our armies which can contain defensively even a weakened Kalundan corps for the period of time required for us to finish reducing the rest of the city. The final assault to the north will be made three days from tomorrow, regardless of the success in seizing the bridges or not.”
“A bitter pill to swallow,” Tarl Ikmen answered with a sigh, rubbing his feet up against the warm body of his kajira, who moaned from it in misplaced effort to improve his mood. He just ignored her, gazing at the asiatic face of the Warleader before him, and trying to discern the man's thoughts.
“Can we take the city? We will have besieged it for fifty-three days by the time of this great attack that you plan.”
“We can. But if we fail that day, we have no choice but to go on the defensive. We will not have the power, nor the time, for another grand assault. For the moment, the enemy's airpower has not returned to bother us. It is busy elsewhere. That means that we have a very good chance of succeeding, if we can launch the attack before their aircraft return. And that means soon. If they are there to provide support.. Well, we must roll the dice, and see if we win or lose it all. There is no chance of retreating now; we will be annihilated from above.”
“I understand. Then launch the attacks tomorrow with the utmost vigour and surprise. Wait until the afternoon, I should think, we tend to attack in the morning to have as much light as possible for the battle to come. But they have gotten used to that, and it may provide more surprise to hold off on the attack until later, when the defenders may have convinced themselves that an attack is not coming, and will let their guard down.”
“A very sensible suggestion, Your Excellency. I will issue the appropriate orders immediately.”
“Go, and do so.”
After the Warleader had left, Tarl pushed his chair back and stood with the help of the table, looking down at the prostrate kajira draped across his feet. She had gone without pleasure for far to long, as these last weeks of the siege had sapped Tarl's desire for sex with his girls. While the men might go wild with pent-up sexual energy, he just the will to do anything as he realized the utter severity of his nation's situation.
“My girl.... You will know pleasure again, but I fear not from my hands.” He walked off, leaving her sobbing in horror at the dread prospect that offered, her life having never had a frame of reference save as a slave, and her teenaged and adult lives, no frame of reference save as his
slave. But even the slaves attached to the army, now, were beginning to realize that this might change. For them, it was like the whole world had been turned upside-down, and their place in it was being lost.
For the men, they.. They fought with the desperation of the damned.
Near East Port.
The Duchess of Medina was up early in the morning, as she usually was, well in advance of her family on a particularly important day like this, and dining alone to compose her thoughts in advance of the battle to come. It was still in the pre-dawn darkness, and the assault would take place in only a few hours. That she could win, she was certain of. The question was how to minimize casualties...
And the ruminations on that were what distracted her while she ate her meal until one of her aides arrived, and in fact walked right up to her, completely ignored, or unnoticed. He bowed deeply. “Your Grace, forgive me, but the commander of the Devenshirite light brigade is here and wishes to see you in person.”
“Ahh..!?” Frayuia glanced up, ears flexing. “Odd. He's already inside the command vehicle?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Then send him in. At once.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Frayuia downed her dhpou in a solid slug of the drinking to get some warmth in her before facing this, and soon enough the man, in the uniform of a Devenshirite Colonel, now breveted to Brigadier, arrived and came to attention, offering a respectful salute.
“Brigadier Calhoun, I believe?”
“That's correct, Your Grace.”
“Please, have a seat...” She leaned over to grab the intercom handpiece off the wall to order up another breakfast, but he waved her off as he sat.
“Please, Your Grace, I want this to be made swift and succinct. I want you to arrest the commander of the armoured train force, the so-called 'General Arshon'. She's a wanted criminal on Devenshire.”
Frayuia started for a moment, her ears rigidly erect, and stared over at Calhoun. “Praytell, Brigadier, you realize that this, several hours before a major engagement, is an utterly inopportune time to make such a request?”
“Yes, but it is very urgency, Your Grace, lest it be found out by her and give her a chance to escape.”
“Well, she is in the service of a member of the Taloran nobility, and I will bluntly say that as a hired hand of my good friend's, I will not let you do a thing to her unless you provide a careful explanation justifying such measures. Immediately.”
The Brigadier took a breath and wiped some cold sweat from his brow. “Fair enough, Your Grace. I wouldn't expect anything less, I suppose...” And so he began. “General Arshon's real name, Your Grace, is Priscilla Laurentii—sometimes Priscilla Anderson, the name of the family that raised her. She is the illegitimate daughter of the Grand Duke of Pranton, the ethnic Arab Grand Duchy of the old Kingdom of Devenshire. Her father was His Grace the Grand Duke Johnathan Laurentii, the twelfth Grand Duke of Pranton, the Impaler of al-Cowhar.”
“The Impaler of al-Cowhar?”
“Eleven hundred revolting slaves impaled alive at his order,” the Brigadier answered. “Along with numerous other crimes, including gross sexual abuse of slaves and an extreme profilgancy which led to criminal skimming off the provincial budget which nearly got him charged under the old government. He was an exceptionally corrupt and evil man, the old Grand Duke.
“Priscilla was his daughter by one of his slaves, a girl who was only eleven at the time, twelve when she gave birth. Normally such a child would be raised as a slave, never knowing the exalted height of their blood. That was the typical and ruthless way of the Old Nobility in dealing with the results of their 'excesses'. But the old Grand Duke had a sympathetic streak toward her for some reason or another, and gave her as a foundling to the Anders family of steadholders, small-farming yeomanry who managed to ecke out an existence outside of the slave system.
“Now, you might at this point wonder what the fuss is. She should, be rights, be exactly the sort of person who was important in the post-collapse reconstruction, with ties on both sides of the fence,” Calhoun took another deep breath. “But during the uprisings as the Plymouthite forces advanced into Pranton province, she committed an act for which the locals call her, in the fashion of her father, the Butcher of umm-Karshash.”
“What did she do, Brigadier? You've provided the backstory. Just tell me.”
“The Ducal Palace was overwhelmed by the uprising, and the Grand Duke along with a few of his guards and hangers-on fled to the army barracks where he knew Priscilla was stationed. He'd helped her into the military as an officer, and she was a Captain at the time, serving as a Company commander and doubling as the executive officer of the local battalion. Being very popular with the troops in the area, she seized control of the battalion when the battalion Major vascillated on the idea of surrendering, and posted a strong guard.
“When her father came to see her, he came with the documents, and the DNA information, proving their relationship. She had at that point the chance to repudiate the evil of her family... Or join it. And she chose to join it. She embraced him, as the accounts of the slaves who cleaned the barracks go, and immediately organized a breakout attempt. In the breakout that happened, the liberated slaves tried to stop the battalion from reaching a light cruiser which had been down for repairs in the small shipyard in the city of umm-Karshash, which was going to try and take off and make a break for it.
“With such a force blocking her way, Priscilla, sheltering the Grand Duke in her command vehicle, led her APCs and tanks to massacre the escaped slaves. Nearly four thousand were killed and a square mile of the city's shanty-towns set on fire while Priscilla broke through in a hard fight to reach the light cruiser and get aboard with her forces, and her father. They blasted clear and shot their way through the Plymouthite blockade, the cruiser being nearly mortally damaged in the process.
“We never did track them down. Johnathan had enough resources, the old bastard, to always stay one step ahead of the law and every bounty hunter we could send after him. He finally died in the little two-planet Republic of Oranje you've probably never heard of before. Priscilla gave him a burial there and then disappeared. We found his grave, exhumed him, confirmed it was him, and reburied him—hoping she'd come back—but she never did. She took the money he still had stashed in hidden bank accounts and disappeared.
“But here she is, working as a merc commander whom the Princess Jhayka inadvertantly hired. And a General in the International Forces that you
command. There's no doubt that it's her. I confirmed her appearence with visual recognition software. She's right in our hands, someone as vile as the Normans themselves. A wanted criminal, and you can deliver her to justice immediately..”
“But I won't.”
Brigadier Calhoun stared at Frayuia in shock. He stuttered for a moment, and cleared his throat. “Your Grace, you've heard all of this—why not?”
“Have you ever heard of the concept of filial piety?”
The brevet Brigadier stopped short, and took a moment to carefully think his way through the answer. “I.. I believe so. You're saying it's a noble act to protect one's father at any cost?”
“Not just that, but how much of this did she really know? Did she know her mother was an extreme minor by human standards? Did she know that her father was a brutal rapist who indulged in torture? Or was his only public
crime the execution of those who had revolted against the lawful authority placed over them, as a natural part of his duties? And could an officer possibly be thought immoral for thinking such a thing acceptable, if perhaps distasteful?
“Tell me, Brigadier, how many offiers of the Army, who still serve now, thought that way?”
She was rewarded with silence, and it was telling that she was on the right track in this discussion. “She had just met her birth father for the first time. She was supposed to hand him into an outraged mob to be torn limb from limb, before she had even got his mettle? Brigadier, I won't have her arrested because I would have done the same thing myself. And, just perhaps, that is because I am an alien rather than a human. But I see here simply an impossible circumstance, in which she got her men clear at any price, and her father with them.
“What happened to her foster family?”
“They were killed at the hands of a mob,” Calhoun admitted quietly.
“And her mother?”
“I don't know. It isn't easily available in the fact records of the case that I researched when the sighting was first suspected in the media reports.”
Frayuia nodded. “Well, you have before you, at least, an example of the fact that she lost all she ever knew, due to her single effort to try and reach out to the parent she never knew that she'd had. I don't think that is immoral. Just pitiable. And she is under the Princess Jhayka's protection for the moment.
“What that means is that you may ask the Princess Jhayka. No-one else. I will retain her at her post, and you will speak nothing
of this, until the Princess Jhayka has been informed... Preferably, personally by Her Majesty Queen Minerva or someone else of suitable rank to speak with a noblewoman on matters of honour. I will tell none of it to Arshon—to Priscilla Laurentii—so that you may have the chance to make what entreaties as you think are suitable.
“But insomuch as the writ of Taloran law runs here by force of my presence if nothing else, she will remain free, and in command. Is that understood, Brigadier?”
Calhoun nodded grimly. “Very well. But the nation has understandably wanted her for a long time. Pranton is rebellious...”
“And a woman of noble blood is to become a sacrifice to appease their rebelliousness?”
“I wouldn't put it that way, Your Grace. Her father's behaviour scarcely warrants the term nobility...”
“Blood is blood. And those same mobs who I presume clamour for her now, are the ones who killed her foster parents, who had done nothing at all, save the morally commendable act of the raising of a foundling. I will give her asylum in the Imperial Starfleet before I turn her over to such a fate, or even to a jury comprised of such a mob, if nominally lawful. Refer this to your Sovereign, or some other legally constituted authority, and do not trouble me with it again. You may trouble Her Highness the Princess Jhayka with it, when you see her in person in the city of Kalunda. Until then, bear your knowledge with silence. Is that understood?”
“I understand, Your Grace.”
“Then return to your unit at once, Brigadier, and prepare them for action! We have wasted enough time on this matter. You are dismissed.”
In addition to the two great foot and vehicle bridges across the Kalunda River, there was the huge iron girder lift bridge of the interior rail line. All three of these bridges were to be assaulted generally by forces greatly in excess of the strength of their defenders. The pockets around each bridge had been reduced to about a regiment apiece over the night, except the one defended by Trajan's advanced battalion, where only that force proved more than sufficient to hold the bridge.
These bridges had connected the city, provided its prosperity. They had homes built onto them, long since evacuated, and they'd survived untouched, especially the old bridge, even the last siege. They were the lifeblood of the city, and now they were being rigged to blow. There was no question of launching a counterattack, and no question of holding out until relief with the remaining garrisons on the far side.
From the tunnels under the south bank of the river they were bringing everyone they could, all those who could still be moved. A few very sick were not evacuated in time, and they were given grenades. They could reach the towers of the bridges and make their way across under sporadic fire. A few of these civilians were killed. But by morning the last of them had been evacuated. Now there were scarcely six thousand Kalundan soldiers holding the perimeters around the bridges. It was time to evacuate them, too, but it would have to be done carefully, and only when the explosives had been properly placed. That would take several additional hours of work.
The exception was with the railroad bridge. It could easily be raised up to prevent the enemy from crossing. There was just the matter of getting all the soldiers across at once, and for that purpose a train consisting of elderly passenger cars was pushed by a switcher engine forward, with several of the cars, the last ones or more precisely those closest to the enemy, being armoured after an improvised fashion, mostly scrap iron wielded onto them. In the dawn's light the train was pushed all the way forward, and quickly attracted the attention of the Stirlin division in the circle around the regimental position.
As the regiment was shifted to board the train, and the men advanced along it from diaphram to diaphram, the cars forming a bridge across the rails to the other side, the opposite end of the train was soon brought under an intensive fire. Nothing more could be done, however, as the orders not to attack yet were strict, and the division commander was left in a desperate effort to get orders from Erqui to launch the attack early. In the meantime, an orderly fighting evacuation proceeded apace.
With the evacuation of the regiment finishing, the Stirlin division finally got permission to attack. It overran most of the area immediately, and the men made a dash for the train, which was already on fire from the sustained weaponry directed against it, the last of the defenders trying to get aboard and work themselves away from the burning cars. With an order, the train lurched into backwards motion, and the platoon or so worth of men who had not escaped, or at least got on board, had to run for it.
Close on their heels were the lead Stirlins. Ironically, the fact that the last cars were burning provided a deterrent for them to gain the cars as a means across the bridge, and the train was moving fairly slow, so that the platoon's worth of men could, by a dashing sprint, leap aboard just ahead of the flames. Yet in this process half of them were shot down, and a few more failed to make it aboard, and made for the bank that they might drift down with the current to one of the other pockets. As they started to roll across the bridge, the men in the last car realized that the best thing they could do now was to unhitch the burning coaches right where they were, and in doing so left a flaming mass of wrecked cars on the bridge, to burn through the ties and create a barrier quite impassable until the train had cleared the track.
On doing so, the drawbridge was brought up at once, and with its raising, one of the three pockets had been more or less successfully evacuated. Yet the city was scarcely out of danger, and more than thirty-five hundred soldiers were still in a situation of severe risk. For the support of the remaining regiment, the last armoured vehicles of Kalunda, five assault guns and two armoured personnel carriers, were sent forward to provide an armoured cover for their retreat. Trajan's power armour battalion would have to arrange their own retreat, and rely on their armour to remain safe in closing the low and old stone bridge. There were no more resources to send.
“Il... Ilavna..?” The voice was trembling and weak. The eyes did not open. But that Jhayka had spoken was very clear. She was awakening.
The girl 'heard' her from several rooms away, attuned to the sense of her Liege's mind, and came dashing. The first thing she did, though, was to check all the readouts, and confirm that it was quite safe and normal for Jhayka to be waking up. “I had expected you'd be unconscious longer,” Ilavna offered with a smile. “But you're very strong.”
“Did you... Take care of.... The Stirlin Brigadier?”
“She's under house arrest in your private apartment, Your Highness. Untouched and never interrogated.”
“Good. She was kind to me when I needed it most. I will make her life a comfortable one... If we live.”
“We will live,” Ilavna answered sharply, and then, stepped closer and smiled down to Jhayka. “Your Highness, a friend of your's is very close by.”
“Who?” Jhayka finally opened her eyes, but they were glazed over and unfocused without the real will to make herself see.
“The Duchess of Medina commands the relief expedition. It has arrived and landed, they took East Port yesterday, I understand. They must have started driving inland to relieve us this very morning.”
“Mmmf. Frayuia Risim. Something ironic in that old puritan coming to my rescue, though I love her dearly...” She couldn't even muster the strength to laugh.
But suddenly her eyes focused with some intensity. “What's the situation of the city?”
“A battalion is holding the Sackon Warehouse, that we rescued you from. Across the barge canal, the big Quay is held by a single corps. The rest of the forces are on the north bank.. There the allies have made no progress. But they've overrun the south bank, Your Highness. The railroad bridge has been lifted and the forces there evacuated.. All the civilians were taken out, the very last, over last night. But Trajan's battalion holds one, and a regiment with some armour the other, of the two road bridges.”
“When are they to be blown?”
“I don't think until a careful retreat has been planned, or perhaps if the enemy presses hard...”
“..Blow them...” Jhayka ordered. “As soon as can be done. The rear-guard can be evacuated by Danielle's ships....” A moment of terror clenched the Taloran through and through. “Danielle is alright, yes?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Thank the Lord, who is Just. She does not deserve to fall here.”
“He is all justice, Your Highness,” Ilavna agreed readily. “And I am sure the two of you will reconcile your places in all due time, when the siege is over. Do you want me to bring Danielle to you? I am sure it would make feel much better...”
But Jhayka cut her off: “No. Danielle is needed. Blow the bridges. This is the last use of the fleet.... Evacuate the rearguards by boat, after the bridges are gone. Dani must see to that...”
Jhayka lapsed back into unconsciousness, and the worried Ilavna Lashila spent several minutes checking to make sure all the readings were correct and in the normal levels. They were: She had simply exhausted herself already.
Heeding Jhayka's last instructions before unconsciousness, Ilavna dashed off to find the Admiral of the much reduced river flotilla of the nation of Kalunda. Her advice would matter more in the councils of War in the city, now, than her's could hope to. And that would, hopefully, be enough to avert whatever fear gripped Jhayka at the information she'd been told.