The rebels had sheltered in crude tents of their own, made of the shaggy hides of native animals. As Tenlok approached, crawling through the snow, he could hear all the sounds of a military camp waking up. There were no more than twenty rebels in the little outpost, their tents huddled around three big snow-tracks. Massive, tank-like vehicles, they were well suited to this rough country.
There were no sentries posted, and approaching the camp was easy. Everything he’d seen of the Northern Union’s troops suggested they were amateurs. Some of them, like the three at the river, had talent, but even the best the rebels could muster were little more than bandits.
Then again, against people like the girl’s folk, all you needed were guns and numbers. Merchants and pampered nobles, with only a few bodyguards and militia between them. How they thought they could get away with antagonizing the populace forever, Tenlok wasn’t sure. He guessed there was something about having too much money and not enough work to do that made people short-sighted.
He halted in a low ditch, peering over the lip at the camp. A few of the rebels were warming the snow-track’s engines, others were breaking open crates of ammo for their weapons. Someone had started an old fashioned cook fire, and was heating up rations. He waited, and slowly about half the rebels gathered around the fire.
They began talking loudly, swapping jokes and insults. Then one of them got up on a crate and began to give a speech. She was a tall woman, broad shouldered and strong. She was calling them things like “Comrades” and “Heroes”, listing off all the atrocities they’d suffered. She was riling them up for the advance. Tenlok knew an opportunity when he saw one.
“Cover your eyes,” he whispered into the commlink. “And remember when it starts: center mass. Don’t get fancy.”
Two clicks on the comm. She understood.
He detached a grenade from his belt, judged the distance, then hurled it into the cook fire. It exploded immediately, engulfing the rebels in a cloud of white smoke. In seconds they were screaming. The gas was a phosphorous compound that could eat its way through almost anything. Tenlok’s armor would hold against it, but the rebel’s furs and cold-suits didn’t stand a chance.
He leaped from the ditch and sprinted into the camp, rifle at his shoulder. A burning man came staggering out of the fog, blackened flesh peeling off of his body. Tenlok shoved him away, and shot him in the chest as he fell. The Bondsman moved quickly, darting to a pile of crates and loosing a burst of shots into the throng of howling rebels. Most of them still had no idea what was happening.
A pair came running from the snow-tracks, weapons ready, shouting in confusion. He rose from cover and gunned both of them down, their bodies spraying into the snow. With practiced ease, Tenlok moved through the camp, efficiently slaughtering anyone he found. A few managed to return fire, but they were confused, panicking. By the time he had to reload his magazine, the phosphorous cloud had burned out, and the camp was still. He counted eighteen corpses.
“We’re clear,” he said into the link.
The girl emerged from her hiding place, cradling the rifle in her arms. She picked her way through the camp towards him, small and white, surrounded by blackened bodies. The smell of cooked fat was rich in the air, along with the iron tang of blood.
The girl stopped a few paces in front of the Bondsman. Her face was masked, but her eyes were wet beneath her goggles.
“I got two,” she said, pointing at a pair of dead men, scattered away from the rest. Clean shots through their torsos. It’d taken them a while to bleed out, but they’d been out of the fight the second they took a hit. One of them, he realized, had been coming at him from behind when he was hiding among the crates. Not bad.
“You need a minute?” Tenlok asked.
She shook her head.
“Okay,” he said.
Together, they climbed into one of the snow-tracks. It took Tenlok a few moments to figure out the controls, but then the girl helpfully pointed out that the emergency locks were still on. The machine lurched to life with a start, and they headed for the Port, leaving the burning camp behind them.
Tenlok’s rifle, fully loaded, lay across his lap. The girl clutched at her gun too, like a sacred talisman, or a doll.
When they reached the outskirts of the Port, the rebels had launched an all-out offensive. Missiles screamed through the air, and the glitter of pulse beams danced across ruined buildings. Tenlok drove the snow-track through the broken streets, hunching low in the cabin. Stray rounds bounced off the vehicle’s sturdy frame.
“Get low,” he growled to the girl, who ducked immediately.
His auto-cartographer told him the landing field was only a few blocks further. He was gunning the engine down a main boulevard, heading heedlessly towards one of the barricades when it suddenly erupted in a wall of fire. He pulled the brake and came spinning to a halt.
A massive strike, a low-yield orbital weapon perhaps, had hit the barricade and sent its shielded walls high into the air on a plume of black smoke. Before the dust had settled, rebels were emerging from the ruins, some mounted on vehicles, others sprinting along the ground. They hurled smoke grenades as they rushed into the breach. Some waved banners. All chanted the same words:
“UNION AND FREEDOM! UNION! UNION AND FREEDOM!”
Tenlok shifted gears. The girl looked at him uncertainly.
“We’re going right in after them,” he said. “This track looks like one of theirs. Gotta rush for your folk’s ship, and hope they’re too busy fragging the rebels to blast us.”
“We should call them on the commlink!” the girl said. “Tell them not to shoot at us!”
“Not yet,” Tenlok said. “Gotta get a little closer. We can do this. Trust me.”
The girl nodded silently, jaw set.
The engine roared, and they charged down the street. Rebels cheered them as they drove passed into the cloud of smoke. For a moment they were thrown into total darkness. The girl choked and sputtered, but Tenlok felt nothing behind his war mask. It filtered the air as much as it fed him his combat drugs. He even had a few hours spare oxygen in it, too.
Without a thought, he detached the mouth piece of his mempo and handed it to the girl.
“Breath deep,” he said.
Still coughing the girl took the mask and inhaled. Gritting his teeth against the dust filling his mouth, Tenlok gunned the engine harder and they lurched forward out of the cloud.
They were rolling across the cratered landing pad, streaking by burning ships and bodies. Rebels dug in to foxholes, firing at their retreating foes, who were pulling back to the last few undamaged ships. Tenlok sighted the LeNoy craft, its banners still hanging below its hull, a ring of troops holding a second barricade around its base. Suddenly, its thrusters ignited with blue flame.
“Call them! NOW!” Tenlok shouted, ripping his mask away from the girl and clasping it back in place.
The girl thumbed through her comm controls, finding her family’s personal channel.
“Mom! Dad!” she shouted. “It’s us! It’s us! We’re here!”
Shots ripped around the snow-track as it thundered forwards, breaking passed the foremost rebels.
“In the track! We’re in the snow-track!” the girl said. “Please hear us, please hear us, please hear us, please please PLEASE!”
The ship’s loading ramp suddenly lowered. At that moment, the rebels followed Tenlok’s lead and began to charge from their foxholes, a hail of shots before them. A massive round took the snow-track’s right tread out, and the vehicle spun wildly.
Without waiting for it to come to a halt, Tenlok grabbed the girl’s hand, kicked his own door open and pulled her out after him. They landed in a heap as the vehicle skidded away. Once he was sure she hadn’t broken anything, they leaped to their feet, moving at a dead sprint towards the LeNoy men’s position. Tenlok fired from the hip as he ran, blasting away a rebel who got close enough to recognize his strange armor and the terrified girl running at his side.
One of the LeNoy troops behind the barricade was shouting something, and suddenly they let out a burst of covering fire, every man behind the defenses emptying his magazine into the encroaching rebels. Tenlok arced to the right, keeping the girl ahead of him, shielding her with his body. A rebel round took him in the back, but his armor held. They were moving too slow. They’d be shot to ribbons before they made the last dozen meters.
He inhaled deeply, drugs spiking into his system.
The Bondsman roared, a new strength coursing through his body. Killer strength, berserker strength. The only thing that could get him through a storm of fire and across the barricade.
He dropped his weapon, seized the girl up in his arms and sprinted forwards. Shots shrieked passed him, into him, but nothing touched the girl. He was sure of it. As he thundered towards the barricade, his leg muscles tensed, and he leaped. He vaulted clear over the fortifications, landing on one knee, the girl still held tight to his chest.
The LeNoy troops cheered.
“The heir! The heir’s alive!”
“My lord look! She made it!”
A man, the girl’s father, came running down the loading ramp of the ship, low to the ground. He wore armor over an elegant blue uniform, and judging from the dirt and tears, he had done hard fighting in the siege. For the third time today, Tenlok found himself impressed with the LeNoy folk.
“Tara!” he shouted, falling to his knees beside the girl. “Tara! My sweet child.”
He wrapped her in his arms, and the girl returned his embrace fiercely. Father and daughter held on to each other a moment, while the battle raged around them.
“My lord, you must go!” one of the guards shouted. The rebels had pulled back, but their fire was becoming more accurate. Tenlok could see a dozen of them darting from crater to crater, moving to flank the barricade.
Lord LeNoy turned to the Bondsman.
“There… there isn’t room,” he said. “We thought you two were dead. We took on refugees. We could barely fit Tara, but-”
“Dad, no!” the girl cried. “We can’t leave him here!”
“Go,” Tenlok said, placing a hand tightly on the man’s shoulder. “But don’t forget my contract. I expect to be paid!”
“No, no, you can’t, you’ll die!” Tara pleaded.
Lord LeNoy looked helplessly between them. Tenlok stared hard at the girl. No tears on her face this time. Just fear: the terrible, all consuming fear that you can only feel for someone else, not yourself. Tenlok knew it well.
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that his money goes through. Now get out of here!”
Together, the LeNoys ran up the ramp. The girl gave him one last look over her shoulder as the ramp shut, and the ship took off. Staying low, Tenlok picked up a rifle from one of the fallen LeNoy troops. The rebels would charge again soon. He realized then that he had been wounded, hard rounds had managed to punch through his armor in several places. He looked down, saw where augmetic fluid leaked from his injuries.
Tenlok took another long drag from his stimulant tubes. Pressing his back against the barricade, he watched as the ship’s engines hit full thrust, and it burned its way up into the sky.