Authors: Gregg Vann
“You can go a little faster,” Barent said.
“Faster!” he yelled through the growing gale.
Tana heard him the second time and began increasing her speed. But without warning, a strong gust of wind hit the snowcraft and violently pushed it off to the side. The unexpected motion caused Barent to lose his footing and he staggered sideways, almost falling out of the vehicle. And as he fought to correct himself the plasma beam jerked upward, slicing into the canyon wall. It sent large chunks of rock and ice plunging to the ground behind them, where they shattered on impact. Tana regained control of the snowcraft, and then Barent pushed the beam back down to continue working on the path.
“Sorry,” she called out.
“You’re doing great,” Barent yelled, continuing to carve away at the ice as if nothing had happened.
They increased their speed three more times as they made the descent into the crater. And though the winds fluctuated the entire way, with occasional gusts threatening to throw Barent out of the vehicle, Tana did an admirable job keeping the snowcraft as stable as possible. Barent didn’t think he could have done any better himself.
“We’re almost there,” Tana yelled out. “I can see the crater floor just up ahead.”
It’s a good thing,
Because this plasma rifle is almost completely dead.
He was relieved when they finally exited the canyon and shot away from the crater wall, sliding to a stop once they cleared the worst of the winds. Barent turned off the rifle and dropped into the back seat, and then he instructed Tana to seal the canopy. He reached past her shoulder to adjust the heat to maximum as it swung closed.
“I’m freezing, Barent,” Tana said.
“I know, Tana. But you did great. I think we’ve given them exactly what they need.”
“So now what?” she asked, rubbing her gloved hands together and placing them near one of the vents.
“Now,” Barent replied, “we wait for our troops to come down the path and join us on the crater floor. And once we’ve all regrouped…”
“We go take Le’sant from the Collective.”
Sergeant Dura didn’t like running this operation so soon after the last one.
The seizure of the propaganda platform, and the deaths of the guards protecting it, had drawn unwanted attention to the Wardens—increasing their visibility and exposure. But more than that, it had shown the Collective that the purge hadn’t cowed them. The surviving Wardens intended to fight, and that made tracking down Dura and his troops an even greater priority now.
The attack in the Outland had also placed the Collective forces on a higher state of alert. And those not out actively searching for the Wardens were certainly expecting them to strike again. Dura knew there would be no element of surprise in anything they did going forward, making this operation even more perilous that it already was. But he also realized that they had no choice.
They had to make their move now.
General Malves had been increasing patrols throughout the city, and there was even talk about putting new curfews in place. This might be the last chance they had to drive through this part of Le’sant without running into any Collective checkpoints, and they needed to move about freely on the roads. Because without the cargo-haulers, this mission simply couldn’t happen.
The increased Collective activity wasn’t just limited to the affluent districts; they were tightening the screws everywhere. Soon, it would be impossible to go anywhere in the city without attracting their notice. They’d even begun pushing harder into the Outland now, ransacking and destroying the makeshift dwellings of the downtrodden as they hunted down the Wardens responsible for killing their patrol.
To Sergeant Dura, it felt like everything was coming to a head—as if a fuse had already been lit, and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable explosion. He just wished he knew for certain that Sergeant Barent was still alive; and if he was,
he was coming back to Le’sant. So much depended on the Great Betrayer’s return.
For the Wardens to have any chance in this fight they needed Barent to rally the people to their cause—so they could gain the manpower and support necessary to confront the Collective. And they had no choice but to attack them, because there were no viable defensive solutions left to the Wardens now, only stopgap measures that would eventually fail. In time, the Collective
track them all down and kill them—they had more than enough soldiers and resources for the task. If the Wardens were to survive, they needed to go on the offensive.
And they needed to do it now.
But what if Barent doesn’t come back?
Dura thought, a growing uncertainty seeping into his mind.
What if we’re all waiting—preparing and hoping—for nothing?
No, he assured himself.
The Great Betrayer will return.
I know it.
Dura shrugged off any lingering doubts and signaled to the others with one hand, and then the nine other Wardens he’d chosen for this mission gathered around him closely, forming a tight circle in the middle of the dark alleyway. They’d picked the spot carefully—positioning themselves directly across the street from the Collective armory, but in a place where they could observe the enemy’s movements without being spotted.
“It’s now or never,” Dura told them. “The Collective aren’t stupid. They know Barent’s return has given the people hope, and they’re calling in all of their troops to prepare for potential unrest. This armory is only going to get busier in the next few days, so we have to strike tonight.”
“What’s the mission, sir?” Kina said.
“We’re borrowing the Great Betrayer’s strategy from the Pardon War,” Dura replied. “I intend to open up the armory to the people.”
The Wardens looked around at each other and smiled.
“What are your orders?” Vane asked him.
“When the patrol goes around to the back of the building, we’ll use silenced sniper rifles to take out the stationary guards—the two at the front gate, and the pair on the outer perimeter. Then we’ll double-time it across the street and go straight in through the front door.”
Dura selected four Wardens. “Your group will handle the patrol, and then I want you to remain outside and watch for Collective reinforcements while the rest of us grab the weapons. ”
“What exactly are we after, Sergeant?” Kina said.
“Pistol crates and ammunition. And we’re looking for quantity, people, not quality. I want as many weapons as we can get our hands on to distribute to Barent’s sympathizers in the Outland. I fear too many friendly-fire casualties if we give them plasma rifles or automatic weapons, especially with the amount of remedial training we’d have to provide the downtrodden. So pistols make more sense. They’ll also be a lot easier for us to transport and conceal.”
“And what about explosives?” Vane asked.
“As much as we can carry. We’ll need them against the Collective APCs.”
“No doubt, sir. But how will we get through the front door, Sergeant? Our access codes are useless now.”
“They are,” Dura agreed. He reached inside one of the flap-covered pockets on his combat suit and pulled out a small shaped-charge. “So we’ll have to blow the door.”
“But that will set off the alarms,” Kina protested.
“We have no choice. Once the charge goes off, it’ll take at least eight minutes for reinforcements to arrive from the nearest barracks. That’s all the time we get, people. So we have to make it count.”
“And what if there’s a Collective patrol closer than that?” Kina said.
“Then we’ll be fighting our way back out of here.”
As everyone fell silent, Sergeant Dura surveyed the faces of his soldiers. He could tell by their expressions that they’d do whatever it took for the mission to succeed. The circumstances were far from ideal, but they knew Dura’s plan was the only way to get the job done. The Wardens understood that you rarely got to pick your combat situations. You had to play the hand you were dealt. So you fought hard…to the very best of your abilities. And hopefully, you survived.
It’s all you really
Dura looked across the road just as the Collective patrol disappeared behind the armory, and then he raised his voice slightly, speaking in crisp, sharp tones. “Alexi. Silbe. Sniper rifles.”
The two Wardens drew their weapons and knelt down in the mouth of the alleyway to choose their targets. And when Dura gave the signal, they fired simultaneously. Across the street, the two perimeter sentries quietly dropped to the ground. Then both barrels shifted in the direction of the front gate, and those guards went down as well.
“Go!” Dura barked, and all ten Wardens broke into a full run, crossing to the other side of the road.
When they entered the gate, the group Dura assigned to handle the patrol sped off toward the side of the building—on their way to eliminate their targets before they rounded the corner and discovered what was happening. Dura led his own team right up to the front door, and then he placed the explosive charge on the locking mechanism. Dura paused before triggering the blast, knowing the detonation would begin their eight-minute countdown. And when he heard a barely perceptible scuffle from behind the armory he knew the Collective patrol had been eliminated.
It was time.
“Back,” he ordered. And then Dura activated the five-second timer.
The team withdrew several meters before the armory door blew open—swinging out noisily on its reinforced hinges to push through a cloud of black smoke. Dura rushed into the building first, encountering a soldier stunned by the blast just inside the doorway. The man reached for his gun, but Sergeant Dura shot him in the chest twice and kept sweeping forward. His team fanned out all around him, flowing through the building like a lethal breeze. And they eliminated four more Collective soldiers in quick succession.
When they reached the back wall of the armory without encountering any further resistance, Dura called out, “Clear!”
The Wardens located the neatly stacked crates of pistols and began loading them onto nearby carts, and then Dura singled out two of the soldiers and instructed them to go grab explosives—stored in a different part of the building. He tapped his comm unit as he piled weapons onto the cart in front of him.
“Bring in the haulers,” Dura ordered.
Two Wardens waiting in a nearby garage heard the command and pulled their vehicles out into the street. And in less than thirty seconds, both cargo-haulers slid to a halt in front of the armory. The drivers jumped out, opening up the backs of the vehicles so they could be loaded.
Inside the building, Sergeant Dura glanced down at his watch. “Three minutes!” he yelled out.
The two drivers ran into the armory and started pushing the pistol-laden carts out of the building—taking them straight to the haulers, and tossing the metal crates into the back with little care. They understood that time was an even more valuable commodity than the weapons—especially now.
Dura’s alarm sounded.
“Time’s up!” he yelled. “Move out! Move! Move! Move!”
The Wardens grabbed a last few handfuls of whatever they could carry and headed for the door. When they reached the street, they threw the loose collection of guns and explosives into the haulers before jumping in themselves.
They were fast.
But not fast enough.
Five of Dura’s men were still standing outside the vehicles when two Collective APCs rocketed around the corner, slamming to an abrupt halt and flinging the side doors open.
Shots rang out immediately from both sides, but the Collective troops were well protected behind their armored vehicles, enjoying a significant advantage over the exposed Wardens. Dura reached inside one of the haulers and grabbed an explosive charge, and then leaned out from cover to throw it. He watched the device slide underneath the front end of the lead APC, directly under the engine, and then it detonated—bouncing the entire vehicle up in the air, and sending the soldiers using it for protection scrambling to get away.
The Wardens inside the cargo-haulers used the opportunity to lay down a heavy barrage of cover fire—so those still trapped outside the vehicles could jump in. But as Kina mounted the step, she grunted and her back arched unnaturally. She fell to the ground, and Dura raced around from the side of the hauler to help her. He leaned down to check her condition and a bullet struck his arm, sending it flying backward. Dura spun around to return fire, but another Warden had already suppressed the target.
“Get your ass up, Kina,” Dura yelled. “That’s an order!”
When she didn’t respond, Dura grabbed Kina’s vest and pulled her around to the side of the hauler—out of the line of fire. A quick glance down told him it was bad. And when Kina finally looked up at Dura, her eyes confirmed it.
“They hit me in the spine, Sergeant.”
Dura banged hard on the side of the hauler. “Get me another explosive!”
In between firing a Warden tossed one out to him, and Dura used his good arm to lob the device at the Collective forces. But they’d already moved their remaining APC further back to protect it, and his throw came up short. Although he’d missed, the smoke from the explosion gave Dura a chance to heft Kina up off the ground, and he tried pushing her into the hauler. One of the Wardens inside tried grabbing her arms to help, but Kina pulled away from him.
“No!” she yelled. “Move out, Sergeant Dura. I’ll stay behind and cover you.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Kina.”
Dura attempted to force her inside, but Kina used both arms to push herself away from the vehicle. She may have been injured, but Kina was still strong.
“My legs are gone!” she yelled. Kina’s voice was bitter, and full of hopelessness and anger.
“They can repair the damage,” Dura assured her. “Now stop fighting me and get your ass in the hauler.”
As the smoke cleared, bullets began striking all around them again; the Collective forces had recovered from the explosion and were renewing their assault. But Kina didn’t seem to care.