Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Chapter Four: Vertical Until Horizontal

Slipping out of the tower would be tricky, he thought. He would have to concentrate on the location of the anti-personnel mines and the lancer at the same time he pulled the door open enough to slip through. The ancient wood creaked and the lancer fired a tracer from his rifle into the darkened space between the portal and the door; its flash burning against the stone wall, informing him of the man’s location. Dropping to the cold stone of the tower floor, he released a burst of fire directly at the red point of the rifle’s barrel and heard first the flat thumps of his rounds pounding into the head, chest and right arm of the lancer and then the skittering, clacking of the reaper’s talons on the stones of the gorge tower steps as it grabbed the falling body and dragged it to its hole somewhere in the upper bailey. So, momentarily safe from the reaper, he slipped through the door, pulling it shut as he moved gingerly through the buried mines.
In the clear, he rushed to the stairs in the upper bailey that led to the wide allure on the dividing wall and worked his way to a point on the south end that granted him the greatest firing arc. There, he removed the intelligent poncho, freed the sniper rifle from his shoulder and attached a silencer. He then reloaded the machine pistol and placed it at his feet before counting his remaining ammunition. Only ninety rounds remained with maybe a hundred for the rifle.
He pulled the poncho back on and became virtually invisible. Now he would wait.
He didn’t see the first man over the west wall but he felt him slip over the wall south of the gorge tower, obviously using the tower as cover. He had a direct line of fire, if he could see him, which he couldn’t. Any shot he took would be a guess.
His com-cell vibrated and he fingered the red rune and heard Bleak’s voice loud and clear. “Rover, we are one kilometer south of the chapel. It looks like we might be able to scale either the western or eastern wall.”
“The enemy is climbing the west wall now. You must try the east wall. It will take some ropes to get over it, though.”
“Do the lancers have ropes?” asked Bleak.
“They are using ropes and grappling hooks.”
“Any estimate on numbers?” asked the corporeal.
“A hand full at most.”
“And they are scaling the west wall?”
“That’s correct, corporeal.” Raben paused and then said, “By the way, I saw another column approaching from the east.”
Bleak was silent but still connected. Finally, he said, “We are coming in. Don’t shoot.”
“Which way?”  Raben asked. “Which wall are you scaling?”
“We will be coming over the west wall, out.”
Raben lay the sniper rifle down and picked up the pistol. Opening his mind, he found the lancer crouched in the shadows on the south side of the gorge tower and aimed the pistol at the shadows and pulled the trigger. He scattered ten rounds in a loose pattern into the shadows and heard the man gasp and fall. His aura paled and disappeared.
A burst of rifle fire from the top of the east wall struck him in the left shoulder and knocked him back. He felt a searing pain but his armor had deflected and slowed the shot, minimizing the damage to his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and quickly bled the rest of the clip in the general direction of the shooter. He heard a groan from the lower bailey, as he replaced the spent clip and waited for the next man over the wall.
Minutes later a red and yellow flare illuminated the western wall of the Attis Chapel followed by a burst of shotgun and pistol fire. With the garish light of the flare, Raben quickly pinpointed two more targets within the shadows of the lower bailey but they maneuvered away from the flickering light deeper into the shadows before he could fire. For some reason he was unable to feel their aura.
As the flare touched the floor of the lower bailey and extinguished in a sputter of sizzle and flash, he sensed but could not see the first member of II Squad scale the wall and drop into the lower bailey. After a minute or two, he recognized Cioran’s silhouette and called out for him to join him on the dividing wall. Suddenly, he remembered the lurking reaper in the shadows of the main bailey and he shouted: “Cioran, a reaper is on the ground. Beware.” Cioran paused for a moment and then lifted his pistol in acknowledgement and continued toward the arched entrance of the main bailey.
A second flare sizzled up into the air and three more men wiggled over the wall simultaneously. Del Torres rushed to the gorge tower as soon as he hit the ground and set up his automatic rifle on the ledge of an embrasure to rake the steep hill with its thunderous fire, while Bleak and Doc moved toward the spiral tower. Raben warned them to stop. “Don’t go that way: mines.” The two turned and ran toward the arched entrance to the main bailey and Raben.
When they squatted next to him, Raben asked Cioran, “Is that all?”
Cioran nodded and then took up a position on the narrow allure a few meters toward the north.
When Bleak and Doc reached them, they squatted and shook hands. The men were filthy and unshaven, just as he was. Doc noticed blood on Raben’s armor and he moved closer to examine the wound but Raben pushed him away and said, “It’s all right, Doc. We can do that later.”
The medic nodded and Raben cleared his throat and asked, “Where is the rest of the squad?”
“Dead,” said Bleak in a whisper. “That bastard Drussus betrayed us and we walked into an ambush.”
Axel shot off another flare and del Torres opened up with his automatic rifle.
Later, a cool breeze blew over the chapel walls and Raben shivered. Doc said, “Winter is coming. We might see some frost by morning.”
Raben asked, “I thought del Torres was in charge of communications?”
“He is or was. We lost the com in the river. That where’s the CDF caught us.”
“So we have no way to communicate with the Kaiser Wilhelm?”
‘That’s about right.”
“What do you mean?”
“We might be able to contact a plane or Imperial Marine unit if we somehow come anywhere near them.”
“What do you think the chances of that happening would be?”
Bleak shrugged his shoulders.
The flare fizzled out and darkness shrouded the citadel.
“You’ve been here awhile. What do we suggest we do?” asked Bleak.
Raben rubbed the stubble on his chin and said, “Axel and del Torres are in a good position. I suspect the Lancers will eventually try to scale the eastern wall so we ought to put at least one man in the northeast tower. One man should stay here because this point provides a covering arc over both the lower and main bailey.
“One problem we have is that there is a reaper loose in the main bailey and we need to get rid of him. So far he has been more help to me than a hindrance but now his presence is restricting our movement.”
“What do you suggest we do, kill it?” asked Bleak.
“I would rather not,” replied Raben. “I have become quite fond of it and it basically saved my life a couple of times.” He paused and then said, “I will go down and urge him to fly away as soon as it is light.”
“One thing we must do is get some sleep,” Doc said, yawning.
“Maybe you would like to go first?” asked Bleak with a laugh.
“I slept a little this afternoon,” said Raben. “I would suggest three of you go and sleep for three hours and then relieve us.”
“Why three?”
“Two men can cover both walls. If they come in, you will hear the firing and relieve us, if necessary.”
“Where do you suggest we sleep?”
“The safest place is the northwest tower. I have planted mines around the entrance. They will not be able to sneak up on you and cut your throat.”
Bleak thought a moment and said, “Doc, you, del Torres and Axel go to the tower and sleep. Raben and I will man the walls.”
Raben led Doc to the tower and showed him the placement of the mines and then returned to the dividing wall and joined Bleak, who faced the west wall. Raben watched the east. Later, Bleak loaded a flare gun and placed it on the stone floor of the allure. “If you hear anything, shoot a flare at an angle over the wall.”
Raben dug half of an iron ration from his fatigues and bite off a hunk of the stiff bar and handed the remainder to Bleak, who stuffed it into his mouth. With his mouth full, he asked, “Have you discovered what all the fuss is about?”
“What do you mean?” asked Raben.
“Why did Kavka make such a big to do about this pile of rock and why are two brigades of CDF Lancers fighting like hell to dislodge us?”
“I haven’t found anything but a stone in the chapel covered with writing I cannot read.”
“I would like to see this stone when the sun comes up. I like to know why people are shooting at me.”
“Don’t you think it is simply because you are invading their country?”
Bleak laughed and almost choked on the dry iron ration.
They chewed silently for a long time and then Raben asked, “Corporal, how do you think we are going to get out of this mess? I don’t expect the Imperial Marines to counterattack anytime soon.”
“Frankly, I thought we would march in here, set up a listening post, and then wait for the attack. I mean, other than being high ground, I don’t see any military significance to this chapel.
“Drussus gave us away. That is obvious. Without that bastard, they probably would have never suspected we were here.”
“I knew there was something wrong with Drussus. Maybe I should have told the captain.”
“How did you know?”
“I sensed it.”
“You sensed it? They would have laughed you out of the program. You did best by keeping your mouth shut.”
Raben heard the clank and scratch of an iron hook digging into the rock wall, leaned toward Bleak and whispered into his ear: “They are coming over the eastern wall.”
“I hear them. Let’s wait till they are over.”
Raben picked up the sergeant’s pistol and cradled it against his chest waiting for the flair and he heard the flat slap of a Lancer boot hitting the stone floor of the main bailey. Bleak angled the flare gun over the eastern wall and fired. The flare illuminated at least ten lancers carrying carbines. In a blink of an eye, Raben sprayed the eastern wall of the main bailey with half a clip and Bleak dropped the flare gun and picked up his shotgun and pulled the trigger, spitting out hundreds of pellets per second.
 The flare sputtered out. Bleak picked up the flare gun and reloaded it and then fired a round over the western wall. They could not see any intruders in the lower bailey; however, pistol fire erupted from one of the embrasures on the spiral tower.
The pistol fire stopped as quickly as it started and Cioran gave the all clear signal.
The flares dwindled and died and they were soon enveloped in darkness. Raben shivered with the dropping temperature and pulled his poncho’s hood over his head.
The Lancers did not try again that night. At dawn, wet flakes fell onto the chapel, covering the floor of the main and lower bailey. At sun up the reaper, its stomach distended, waddled across the snow, sniffed the air, and then slowly took off. It flew toward the north, relieving Raben from having to deal with it.
Raben and Bleak did not wake the others; instead they remained on watch throughout the night. At dawn, after the reaper flew away to the north, they crossed the main bailey and climbed the steps of the open gorge tower and observed a brigade of lancers camped on the steppes on the eastern side. Hundreds of cook fires emitted ribbons of smoke into the frigid fall air and Raben’s mouth watered at the smell of coffee and bacon. They then moved to the western wall and noted white tents spotting the steppes there as well. Surveying the camp through the scope on his sniper rifle, he saw several tanks parked to the southwest.
“They are making themselves at home,” said Bleak.
Raben shook his head in agreement.
“Let’s wake the others and then you can show me the Chapel and this mysterious stone.”
“Did you notice the tents to the southwest? It seems a tank squad has arrived.”
“It is probably the ones that ambushed us at the river.”
They woke Doc first, who was wrapped in his poncho, snoring loudly, then the others. Cioran took Raben’s sniper rifle to the top of the spiral tower, while the others ate their iron rations and washed it down with brackish water from their canteens.
Doc said, “Water is soon going to be an issue.”
“No, it’s not,” murmured Raben.
“Why not?” asked Bleak.
“There is a well in the main bailey near the barracks.”
“Have you tried the water yet?”
“No, but I dropped a rock in it and there is water there.”
“I will test it later,” said Doc. “That is good news.”
Bleak swallowed the last of his iron ration and signaled for Raben to follow him. They descended the spiral stairs and headed toward the chapel, as del Torres checked the lancer bodies and rummaged through their packs and pockets. He collected all of their weapons and stacked them against the wall of the open gorge tower.
“These may come in handy,” he said.
“Get their canteens, too,” ordered Bleak.
They passed through the arched entrance of the dividing wall and hurried to the Chapel. Raben shoved the huge wooden door open and they entered. Light illuminated the stain glass windows and Raben led the corporal straight to the large carved stone, who walked around and around it studying the unknown words. He reached out twice to touch the stone and then drew back his hand, as if he suspected it would be better for him if he didn’t.
Raben studied the large stain glass scene above them and felt some sympathy for the Cyclopian creature being attacked and surrounded by imperial marines.
“You think the stone is what all the fuss is about?” asked Raben.
“Probably the stone and the chapel itself,” answered Bleak. “It is probably some religious relic, sacred to the Black Robes.”
“The lancers seem afraid of damaging the chapel. That is probably why the tanks haven’t opened up on us,” said Raben.
Bleak turned to him and nodded.
“Is this all there is? Have you found any doors leading underground?”
“No. But I haven’t really looked for any.”
“This hill looks manmade. I bet there is an elaborate underground structure and this Chapel is just the fa├žade.”
“I had a feeling,” said Raben slowly, “that this hill was really a pyramid or a ziggurat.”
“Ziggurat, more likely. It fits the culture of the indigenous tribes of this planet.”
“Are they still around?” asked Raben, running his hand over the stone.
“A year ago, when we were planning the invasion, we received some extensive lectures on the people, the climate, the life forms, and the history of the conflict.”
“What did they tell you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What did they tell you about the indigenous people?”
“The ones on this continent were nomadic tribesmen led by Hetmen. They were polygamous and dynastic. The first thing the Imperium did was to stop their movement, imprison their Hetmen, and stifle their pagan religions, which was basically nature magic administered by a shaman.”
“So these tribesmen built ziggurats? That doesn’t really jibe with shamanism.”
“No, the tribesmen couldn’t even build a house. They lived in tents. A pre-existing civilization built the ziggurats. The indigenous people call them the old ones and we know very little about them.”
“So who built the Attis Chapel?”
“My guess would be the first Imperial colonists.”
“When would that have been?”
“The Seneschal said the first colonial ship landed here ten thousand years ago.”
“This chapel is not that old?”
“I couldn’t say when it was built or who built it but I am guessing it happened during the falling away?”
“The falling away?” asked Raben.
“Don’t you know anything, kid?” said Bleak with a laugh.
Raben did not respond to Bleak’s rhetorical question as he blushed out of anger and embarrassment.
Bleak cleared his throat and explained: “The falling away occurred after the great period of colonization and exploration. The Imperium ran out of steam and money and failed to support many of the new colonies. The colonies realized quickly that they were on their own. Many descended into barbarity. Some developed coping mechanisms and began to support themselves. Because Camarones is so large, one and half times the size of Terra, the colonists split up in different groups and developed first city states and then countries.
“The Imperium returned to Camarones a hundred years ago and took back control. The colonists, however, had become accustomed to self-rule and some of the leaders didn’t want to relinquish their power to the Kaiser.
“The Administrators faced several problems. There were different countries, different factions, and different religions. Part of the planet readily embraced the Kaiser, while other regions resented him. The dictator of this eastern continent was nothing more than a glorified Hetman or satrap. He refused to surrender control to the Kaiser and he had to be subdued by force.
“It took several years to quiet his insurrection but the Kaiser eventually crushed all resistance.”
“And the CDF, who are they?”
“When the Kaiser reclaimed the planet, his administrators built an indigenous army to control and police the world, when the Imperial Marine moved on.
“Once the Imperial Marine left the planet, Stavitsky, a General in the CDF, declared himself Hetman and began to take over Camarones.”
The bark and rattle of the automatic rifle interrupted their conversation and they ran quickly from the chapel to the sound of fire.
Del Torres stood at an embrasure at the open gorge on the western fall spraying rounds in a wide arc. Bleak and Raben climbed the steps three at a time and took positions on each side of him, while Cioran, ensconced in the spiral tower, began firing at lancers pushing a large wagon, loaded with planking toward the moat in front of the gate.
Cioran yelled into his com-cell: “They have some sort of makeshift bridge. They obviously plan a frontal attack.”
About two hundred lancers struggled up the steep incline on the eastern side of the chapel wall, an obvious diversion to the action in the north, while four tanks started up the winding black road, their engines coughing black smoke into the air.
Pistol fire erupted on the east wall and Doc called out that the enemy was climbing the eastern wall in force.
Bleak ordered Raben to support Doc.
As Raben ran through the arched entrance between the lower and main bailey, he noted dragons circling in the northwest.
Doc was on the open gorge tower firing his pistol as quickly as he could pull the trigger and replace the magazine. Lancers fell like stalks of wheat on the steep hill. When Raben reached him, Doc ordered through gritted teeth: “Grab some grenades from my knapsack.”
Raben dropped his pistol and pulled out four grenades. He pulled the pin on one and lobbed it down the hill into a clump of lancers who had taken cover from Doc’s weltering pistol fire. The grenade exploded, spraying the men with shrapnel, tearing and shredding their bodies.
He searched for another group and once he found them, he pulled the pin on a grenade and threw it up into the air on a high arc. The grenade exploded a few meters above the lancers.
Even under Doc’s withering fire and Raben’s grenades, the lancers progressed slowly up the hill, stopping and firing their rifles at the embrasures. One burst creased Doc’s right cheek and knocked him onto the gray stones of the open gorge.
Raben grabbed his pistol and began spraying the hill. Suddenly a tank fired and a wedge of the spiral tower collapsed into the moat.
Doc roused himself from the floor and grabbed his knapsack. “I have to check on Cioran; he was in the tower.”
Raben touched Doc’s arm to stop him and said: “I’m out of ammo.”
Doc opened his bag and handed Raben two magazines, sixty rounds. “That’s it.”
As Doc disappeared through the opening in the dividing wall, Raben received a psychic jolt so strong he stumbled off the shooting step. A frenzied wail followed the jolt and several iron drains on the main bailey flew open and gray steam sprayed into the air. He covered his ears with his hands in a feeble attempt to squelch the piercing shriek. The charging lancers and the defending marines also dropped their weapons and covered their ears.  Many of the lancers began to back down the side of the hill, while others collapsed in a heap on the dead yellow grass.