Authors: Gregg Vann
When the door opened up on the first floor, Tana ran past several of the building’s frightened residents—watching the battle unfold through the broken glass at the front of the structure. Tana ignored them and bolted straight through the front door, shooting the first Collective soldier she saw with her pistol. As the enemy noticed Tana’s arrival they began to target her, and then she heard a familiar voice yell out, cutting through the din of weapons fire and the agonized screams of the wounded.
“Get behind the damn APC, Tana!”
The fire triggered by the impact with the apartment building was already petering out, so Tana dove behind the wreckage of the personnel carrier as bullets struck all around her. She placed her back up against what was left of the APC, working to catch her breath, and through the vehicle’s broken body she saw the rigging Barent had fashioned to send it crashing through the Collective blockade. Barent came sliding around the corner to sidle up beside her, and several plasma beams just missed him, striking the front of the building instead. As more of the glass-front shattered away, the residents inside went running.
“I can’t leave you alone for a minute,” Barent said.
“Believe me,” Tana replied. “I’ve been thinking the exact same thing about you.”
They took turns firing, shooting from both sides of the APC. But it was all purely defensive. The coalition forces were facing much greater firepower now as the Collective troops stationed down the side streets began rushing out to the main road, replenishing the forces decimated by Barent’s attack. He knew they wouldn’t last long trying to fight a battle like this, not against these odds.
“Cover me,” Barent said.
Tana nodded, and then she leaned out to fire, laying down a heavy barrage that hit almost nothing. But it did force the soldiers shooting at them to take cover, relieving some of the immediate pressure. Barent used that opportunity to sprint over to the closest APC and hop on top of it.
It was a target he’d chosen for two specific reasons. The first was proximity. With this many people shooting at him, the less time Barent spent out in the open, the better. But the second reason was even more critical. The turret gunner on this particular APC was already dead, sagged over the side of the vehicle with an Olin arrow jutting from his neck.
Before Tana was forced back behind cover again she saw Barent toss the gunner’s dead body into the street, and then he leaned down inside the APC and fired off two rounds. Tana had just enough time to see Barent take control of the turret before a hail of bullets sent her flying back behind the wreckage. When it was safe to look out again, Tana observed Barent ignoring the bullets bouncing off the carrier all around him, and using the plasma gun to mow through the Collective troops with alarming accuracy. When the enemy realized what was happening they tried to respond with their own plasma turrets, but Tana’s unit targeted their gunners before the beams could swing in Barent’s direction.
Momentum is everything in battle, often enabling smaller forces to win as more powerful enemies lose their drive and confidence. And that’s precisely what happened when Barent commandeered the turret. The tide turned in their favor, and the coalition troops began pushing through the streets—almost with impunity. With Barent’s support from the turret, the battle was over in minutes.
As the smoke from the fight began to clear out, Barent leaned down and triggered the release latch on the APC. Tana walked over to join him as the side of the vehicle opened up, and she saw Barent drop down inside it to throw out the bodies of two dead Collective soldiers.
“Everybody inside!” Barent yelled.
Tana, one of the Wardens, and two Olin warriors, hopped up into the APC. None of the Exiles survived.
“Is this it?” Barent asked.
“Yes, sir,” the Warden replied. “Everyone else is gone.”
“All right, then,” Barent said. “Let’s go.” He placed his hand on the young Warden’s shoulder. “Can you drive this thing?”
“Of course, sir.”
“What’s your name, Warden?”
“Ennis, sir. Corporal Ennis.”
Barent smiled, remembering another Warden named Ennis. The man who’d saved his life from a Collective plot five hundred years ago.
A man who’d been dead for half a millennium.
“Take the wheel, Corporal. It’s time to join this battle. And this time, I intend to finish the damn war.”
Corporal Ennis slid into the driver’s seat as the pair of Olin dropped onto benches in the back of the APC. Then Tana followed Barent up through the hatch in the roof, and they stood together on the small platform used to control the turret. When everyone was safely situated, the vehicle lurched off in the direction of the Common Ring—where the main battle raged on.
“I thought you were dead,” Tana said.
“Then that makes twice you were wrong.” Barent chuckled.
“Yeah, but this time was a hell of a lot scarier than when I first found you in the tomb.”
“It was close, all right. But luckily, I escaped. How goes the war?”
“Rough. The reports I’ve heard over the comms say we’re holding on, but just barely. There are just so damned many Collective soldiers. And they have much better toys.”
“Who’s running the show?”
Barent grinned. “I’m glad to hear he made it out. That was quite a fight back at the breakdown yards.”
“So I heard,” Tana said, and then she punched Barent hard in the chest.
“What the he—? What was that for?”
do that again, Barent. I told you not to go there alone. We’re a team…from here on out. No more hero bullshit.”
Barent reached down and cupped Tana’s cheek in his palm. “I promise you, Tana. From here on out, we do it together.”
“Good,” she replied. “Live or die.”
They both fell silent and stared out at the skyline, noticing the distant glow of fires sprouting up from the ongoing battles. Billowing clouds of smoke drifted out across the city, indicating flare-ups in several different parts of Le’sant. Barent knew from his own experiences that plasma weapons often ignited those types of fires—frequently causing more collateral destruction than anything suffered during the actual battles. And it led him to wonder just how intense the fighting had become.
The majority of smoke appeared to be coming from the Common Ring, but there were bright walls of flame even further out, stretching across the horizon in both directions. Barent peered through gaps between the tall buildings as they travelled down the road, gazing down some of the long side streets as well. And to him, it looked like the entire Outland was ablaze.
The APC sped up a bit as Corporal Ennis led them past the scene of a skirmish between coalition and Collective forces. And then a large explosion nearby, well within the Middle District, caught Barent’s attention. He saw flames rising up into the night sky as another fire sprang to life, adding itself to the host of growing infernos already dotting the southern half of the city. Sergeant Barent just shook his head.
Le’sant was burning.
And he knew that if this war didn’t end soon…
They would all go up with it.
“What’s the situation, Sergeant Dura?”
“Sergeant Barent? Is that you?”
Barent heard the relief in Dura’s voice over the command channel. He also heard the sound of intense fighting in the background, blaring from the speaker. It was the all-too-familiar refrain of bullets and shouting…of people dying. And from the sound of things, it was a heavy engagement.
“It’s me,” Barent replied. “Report.”
“Things could be better, sir. We’re currently engaged with the main Collective force in the Middle District, just north of the gates to the Common Ring. They started pulling back to protect the inner rings when we blew open the side gates to the city, and it’s been a running battle ever since. S’to is missing, and may well be dead. And in his absence, it’s been hit or miss trying to control the Exiles. Several groups of them disobeyed my orders and went off on their own, moving deeper into the city. Then a few of the Collective units broke away to go after them, spreading the fighting in all directions. I have reports of skirmishes taking place in every part of Le’sant now, except for the Central District.”
Sergeant Dura paused to catch his breath, and the sound of fighting in the background grew more prominent, rising to the forefront. It subsided again when he resumed speaking, pushed aside by the strength of his voice.
“Fortunately for us, Sergeant Barent, Renik and the rest of the Olin have proven to be much more reliable. They are valuable allies. But between the heavy losses we’ve suffered and the insubordinate Exiles, we weren’t able to surround the Collective army as I’d hoped.”
“It sounds like an absolute clusterfuck to me,” Barent said sharply. The disappointment in his voice was obvious.
“Nothing,” Barent replied, softening his tone. “You’ve done remarkably well, Sergeant Dura. Especially given the circumstances.”
Barent knew that Dura wasn’t the source of his frustration—the Warden was actually doing an outstanding job with the forces he had available. Barent’s dissatisfaction stemmed from the situation itself, because it all seemed so far beyond their control.
“Where are you now, Sergeant Barent?” Dura asked him.
“On our way through the Middle District, heading south. We’re on the west side of the city.”
“Have you captured the Collective leaders? What about Minister Golen?”
“They are no longer our priority, Sergeant Dura. General Malves is. I believe that he is the key to stopping this war. If the Collective troops are as spread out as you say, removing the general will cause confusion in the chain of command. That lack of direction might give us the edge we need to get on top of this.”
But there was even more to Barent’s reasoning, something he’d decided to keep to himself. Barent secretly wondered if he could convince General Malves to give this all up—to put an end to the war, and stop the bloodshed. He knew that Minister Golen would never concede defeat, or agree to any form of compromise. It would cost him his power, and quite possibly his life. But during their conversation at the Ministry building, General Malves had expressed regrets about the past; he even held reservations about the current situation in the city. And Barent was willing to bet that those feelings were only intensifying as the fighting progressed—as more and more people died, and the damage to Le’sant grew.
But Barent didn’t share any of those suspicions with Sergeant Dura because he wanted to keep the man sharp—lethal and focused. And also because Barent understood that killing Malves was a far safer approach than trying to convince him of anything. His death provided them with nearly the same results, so that remained the plan.
“I’ll see if I can locate General Malves, then,” Dura said. “And for what it’s worth, Sergeant Barent, I think you’re right. The Collective army has never faced anything like this before. If they lose Malves, there
“Then let me know when you find him,” Barent replied. “We’ll continue making our way toward your position.”
“Yes, si— Hold, please.”
Barent heard Sergeant Dura speaking with someone else in the background. And even though their voices were excited, almost to the point of shouting, he couldn’t make out any of the actual conversation. When Sergeant Dura returned to the line, he was all business.
Sergeant Barent. We have troops pinned down near your location. They’re trapped in a building in the second block of the markets. Can you assist?”
“On our way now, Sergeant Dura. Keep your head down.”
“You too, sir.”
Barent bent down from the platform and instructed Corporal Ennis where to go, and then he turned to Tana. “How long will it take us to get to them from here?”
“Not even five minutes, unless we run into trouble.”
“Yeah, well trouble seems to be everywhere right now.”
“Yes it does,” Tana agreed. Something caught her attention and she leaned out over the side of the APC, peering past the turret. “What’s going on over there?” Tana said.
Barent looked in the direction she indicated and saw a group of men dragging a woman down the street. He recognized at once that they were Exiles.
“Stop!” he yelled down to Ennis. “Hold position!”
As the APC jerked to a halt, Barent hopped off the vehicle and into the street, running toward the group of Exiles. Tana leapt out to follow him but couldn’t match his speed.
The woman saw Barent approaching and began to scream. “Help! Help me! Please!”
Barent counted only four Exiles, and knew he could easily take them down with his pistols. But from what he’d just learned from Sergeant Dura, Barent also knew that he needed to send a message. He drew the knife from his waist and stormed straight at the group. And before they could react, one of the Exiles fell to the ground, clutching his neck where Barent had sliced it open.
“Do you know who I am?” he thundered.
Barent saw the recognition dawn on their faces, and the Exiles’ anger quickly turned to fear. They dropped their captive to the street just as Tana ran up to Barent’s side, and she reached over to help the woman stand up. Tana watched as the girl sprinted off into the distance without saying a word.
“It’s the Alpha,” one of the Exiles said.
All three of them glanced down at their comrade, still choking to death on his own blood, and then back up at Barent.
“Go!” he yelled at them. “Make sure the other Exiles know that I’m here, and that I’ll gut anyone who hurts the people of this city.” Then Barent stepped up closer to the trio and leaned in. “And tell them to follow the Warden’s orders…to do as they’re fucking told.”
“As you say, Alpha,” one of the Exiles replied in a broken voice.
Barent held the bloody knife up to their faces. “If word doesn’t get out fast enough,” he said menacingly, “I will hold each one of
Barent saw the terror in their eyes. All three understood him perfectly; they would spread the message.