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Seek and Deploy
The mood inside the barracks was equal parts trembling dread and absolute boredom.
On one side of the curtain wall, soldiers lounged on their bunks half out of their armor. Across the space, relaxing troopers darned socks or polished their boots. Those who could read did so, either letters from their families or dog-eared books bound in waxed canvas. Those who could write composed letters to their loved ones or took dictation for their illiterate companions. Several slept, filling the space between the bunks with their rattling snores.
The other side of the wall was a whole different world. The air was filled with the pulsating sound of apertures opening across the face of the continent and flares of brilliant purple light. Faint echoes passed through the apertures in the brief moments they were open. Watery-sounding cries of soldiers, far from home, carried through the portals in the brief moments they were open.
Alana Crowe ignored the noises from the other side of the wall.
“A pair of fours. The river makes three. Unless you’re hiding the Six of Stars up your ass, Dougal, then the pot’s mine.”
Across the table, Dougal scratched chipped fingernails across a sandpaper jaw of stubble. His wide-set eyes gave him the look of a great bovine, slowly chewing its cud, as he studied her cards. “Three’s good,” he mused. “I thought you might be pulling for a hand of horseshoes, the way you were throwin’ out your cards. Yeah, three is mighty good…”
Alana scowled at her fellow soldier. To her right, Morley was grinning like an idiot.
“Let’s see ‘em, you lunk.”
He finished by flipping the Six of Stars. A low straight, but a straight nonetheless.
“You son of a—”
“Remind me, Al, does this beat your three?”
Alana licked her teeth. “Yeah. Aren’t you the lucky one?”
“Yeah, a fistful of ‘shoes would have done you good, real good. But the thing is about cards? Cards love me, Al. They always have. They always will. Just… Wash your hands after touching that Six.”
She slid the pot across the table to Dougal as Morley laughed at her expense.
That’s the way the days went in the Empire’s army. Soldiers traded the same winnings back and forth through countless games of chance or distracted themselves from impending battles in other ways. But no matter how boring the days, there was always the nagging dread that one’s number would come up.
Eventually, Alana’s did.
She was just returning from the latrine and heading for her bunk when an amplified voice crackled over the barracks.
“First Company Fusiliers, Third Muster. Gather your equipment and approach the line.”
Other soldiers’ heads swiveled to follow as she rushed back to her bunk. Dougal and Morley were already preparing, checking the buckles on each other’s cuirasses and pulling the leather straps tight.
“I got your kit out,” Morley said. Dougal wrenching down the straps at the smaller man’s sides made him let out a grunt.
“Thanks. Any word on where we’re going?” she asked as she pulled on her boots and started locking on her greaves.
“Second muster went through a few minutes ago,” Dougal said. The bigger soldier kept his back to her as he spoke. “I heard roaring, some kind of Crag beast. If we’re going there, it’s the orcs.”
She swore under her breath. Several others in the barracks had faced the orc tribes of the Jagged Downs. Those who made it back through the apertures had described strength bordering on the impossible: towering warriors with a ferocity unmatched by any other enemy of the Empire.
Morley checked his fusilance as he rose, cycling the hammer several times, watching the smooth rotation of its cylinder. “I’ll take orcs over the dead. At least the Orrix keep their blades sharp.”
The trio performed final checks on their equipment and donned their helmets, walking to a gap in the curtain wall and the departure platform beyond. Dim, watery purple light from the aperture wall competed with signal lamps set above each of the ten circular arches containing a riven aperture. A yard from the apertures was a line of paint on the floor that indicated the mustering point. At a gesture from one of the coordinators, Alana and her companions stepped up to the line.
“Third Muster, Patrol Runner Esch has requested immediate reinforcement. Prepare for aperture,” the coordinator said, keeping his eyes on a silver pocket watch. Alana kept her own eyes ahead, fixed on the red signal lamp above the dormant portal. It flashed a series of lights Alana knew contained a coded message sent from the field: number of soldiers, field role, and more were all hidden in the series of blinks that only the coordinators knew how to translate.
“Aperture in three… two… go!”
The light switched to a brilliant green, and the portal wall swirled into radiant life. Holding her fusilance in a ready position, she rushed at the wall…
… The heat of the Jagged Downs struck her like a blow to the face. The humid air was a stark contrast to the dim and cool of the barracks. She scanned the battlefield ahead as Morley and Dougal emerged behind her.
They had arrived in a valley flanked by ragged orange walls of rock. Dense vegetation hung like curtains. A group of line troopers were holding position north of the aperture, sheltering behind a cluster of boulders, taking occasional pot shots with their bucklers. Their targets were a pair of massive orcs wielding heavy axes.
Alana sprinted a short distance, dropping to a knee and sighting at the nearest orc. “Morley, east flank. Dougal, advance on that position!”
The optic in her helmet flicked higher magnification in pace with a toss of her head. The orc suddenly filled her view, as if its roaring face was only a few feet from her own. She emptied her lungs as she squeezed the trigger, and the orc’s face vanished as the shot struck true. A moment later, Dougal and Morley began firing, giving her a window to rise and rush forward.
“What’s the situation?” she asked as she hit the cover the line troopers huddled behind.
A stubbled trooper responded. “Our patrol runner identified a large quantity of stone in the valley. We were sent to secure the site for harvesters to come get it. The orcs had different ideas.”
She peered over the boulders to assess the battlefield. A few fallen imperials, their white armor stained red, and a pair of dead orcs lay between her and a deposit of rivenstone. A small flock of leathery, winged beasts perched on the bodies, pecking at exposed flesh and ripping away strips of skin and muscle.
“Where’s the runner now?”
“She’s up there,” the trooper said, jerking his head to one of the cliffs. “Told us to hold position while she moves behind their line.”
Alana nodded. “Let’s make sure she gets there, aye?”
The battle dragged on for what felt like hours. The orcs were not willing to surrender, so the small clash turned into a brutal grind, back and forth. Alana and the other fusiliers provided covering fire for the line troopers’ advance once the patrol runner appeared, bounding down the irregular cliffside to crash into the orc forces. Gradually, the battle turned in their favor.
The sun was starting to settle to the west by the time Alana was given clearance to return to the barracks. It painted the landscape in brassy light, turning the sky a brilliant shade of red-orange. The trio of fusiliers waited for the aperture to awaken and take them home. A bit battered, tired, and reeking of gunpowder, they walked back through. In the deployment area, another group of soldiers waited for the coordinator’s cue to pass through to some other, far-flung corner of the world.
The trio moved back to their bunks, peeling off their armor as they settled in. Alana flopped back, covered with a thin layer of grit and sweat and wondered if she even had the energy to go wash it off.
Dougal had other ideas. He sat at the table they shared and began shuffling the cards left on its surface.
“Who wants to lose some money?”
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