Under the Rushes

 

 

THE boy should not have been there.

Dorjan almost stopped short, but the phalanx behind him was wearing steam-enhanced walking armor, and the subsequent crash-up and bottleneck would literally cripple the army. Still, the boy was not supposed to be there.

Dorjan was nineteen. He’d enlisted two years earlier, because the age of consent was sixteen, and he’d wanted to finish his university studies before he joined to serve his province. He was young, brilliant, and well trained. He’d also practiced for hours while using the steam-enhanced walking armor, and he had a few tricks the commanding officers were not aware of.

Fluidly, using some well-honed muscles he was justly proud of, he stepped sideways, taking all of the forward inertia of the steam system to propel both his armor and his body and redirect it. After two smooth steps, he disconnected the main copper tube tugging at the back of his neck, sending the steam into the frosty autumn evening. His armor suddenly drooped around him, pulling him down like weights in a quagmire. Of course, part of that might have had to do with the spongy ground and the tricky bits of gravity that rolled through the Karanos province.

The gravity was, in fact, one of the reasons Dorjan’s government, the Forum of Biemansland, had refused to quell this threat of usurpation until the steam armor was perfected. Dorjan’s friend Areau had participated in that development—in the development of most of the army’s new technology—and was justly proud of his creation.

The gravity was behaving at the moment, and that was good, because the steam armor without the steam weighed a bloody ton… but still.

The boy was not supposed to be there.

He was young—nine at the most—and Dorjan wouldn’t have noticed him, except his hair was blacker than sin-stained pitch, and he was hiding in some rushes that had gone brown with the chill of the season. The off color had caught Dorjan’s attention first, but as they’d made to pass, he’d seen the eyes—almost that same black, he thought, but then they glinted midnight blue.

And that was when Dorjan broke formation.

He squatted down next to the rushes and looked curiously into them. The boy had reached that age where his arms and legs were too long in proportion to his body, and his hands and feet were even longer still. But in spite of that protuberance of limbs and predominance of elbows and knees, he seemed small for his age, and quick, and the look he cast Dorjan was unfriendly and cautious but not frightened.

“What’re you doing here, boy?” Dorjan asked before he grimaced and lifted his visor so the boy could see his face. Bimuit, what a disaster. “There were to be no people here. We’re destroying a building, that is all.”

The boy’s eyes grew huge. “A building? The only building is mine!”

Dorjan frowned and tried to speak nine-year-old boy. “Yours—you mean you have a hut around here?”

The boy’s mouth pulled up in a sneer, and too late Dorjan recognized the fineness of his clothes: small-weave linen with leather patches at the elbows, and boots that were supple and had two buckles on the sides. “A hut? I’m not a bloody peasant, you prat bastard! You’re heading for Kiamath Keep—I live there. That’s the only place this road leads!”

“Lokargo!”

Dorjan swore to himself and looked up at his lokogos. “Yes, Lokogos Dre!”

“What are you doing out of ranks? Your battalion has gone on without you!”

Dorjan frowned at the man and gestured to the boy. “He says we’re not heading to a weapon stockpile,” he told the man, feeling lost. The stratego had been most clear—Dorjan had been in the room when he’d briefed Dorjan’s superiors. He’d said they were eliminating a weapons stockpile and that there should be no civilian casualties. It would be a righteous victory, Stratego Alum Septra had proclaimed, one they could be proud of.

It was, Dorjan knew, the only reason Areau had agreed to work so many sleepless nights on the armor. He wanted peace. Hell, all of the citizen soldiers wanted peace. It was the banner under which they’d enlisted. As young as he’d been, Dorjan had plowed through his studies like he was being ridden by a steam-powered nisket so he could enlist in the damned army and fight for peace.

The lokogos swung down off his mechanized cricket and flat-handed the spot right behind the creature’s ear. “Not a stockpile?”

To his credit, he sounded stunned.

“That’s my home!” the boy shouted, and Dorjan was right—he wasn’t stupid. “You’re taking all these scary people to my home? And the company that went before?”

Dorjan blinked at him, the full horror of the situation descending. His company was supposed to ride cleanup. Areau was probably approaching the compound now with the stratego, the better to simply destroy the place so Dorjan’s company could put out the fire and keep destruction to the surrounding marshland to a minimum.

“Lokogos!” Dorjan said, suddenly fearing.

“Connect your armor,” the lokogos muttered. “Connect it. Now. Get on the cricket—I said get on!”

Dorjan looked at the boy. “Boy,” he muttered numbly, “stay here.” He looked at the lokogos, who nodded. “Stay hidden. I’m going to try and stop a disaster, you hear me?”

The boy’s face had frozen, and for the first time, Dorjan saw fear. “My mum?” he said, sounding shocked. “My da? My wee baby sisters—there’s three of them! You monsters wouldn’t hurt the wee babies, would you?”

Dorjan didn’t know how to answer that. Two minutes ago he would have said no, but now? They’d been told no casualties. They’d been told a bloodless exercise—a warning shot. How could this intelligence they’d been given be so wrong?

He reconnected the steam pipe at the back of his neck and threw his leg over the cricket. He lifted his arse just so, plopped his bottom down, and felt the steam jack of the cricket fit into the port in the armor, and suddenly the generator that made the armor so heavy was now powering them both.

“Hide, boy,” he shouted and pointed the cricket toward the south, where Areau’s regiment had been heading. He rubbed his hands flat down the back of the cricket’s head. The legs—useful for hopping among the burdocks of weeds in the swamp—suddenly folded behind the cricket’s metal body, and the big rubber-gum covered wheels descended and began to whirr.

The lokogos shouted through his amplifier for the entire battalion to adjust right, and a corridor opened down the road on the left. Dorjan closed his eyes, said a prayer, and thumped twice on the cricket’s head to ride at full speed ahead.

It was a nightmarish ride, made worse by the cricket’s speed and its tendency to leap whenever an obstacle appeared. If Dorjan hadn’t been jacked into the generator port, he would have been thrown, and sometimes, in his worst moments afterward, he wished he had been. But that night, hurtling across the dirt road and through space, he still believed in honor and that this entire debacle was just an honest mistake.

The cricket arrived at Kiamath Keep after a particularly hairy bound. Dorjan actually had to close his eyes at the sight of battalion after battalion marching upon what he could see clearly from this vantage point was exactly what the boy had said: a compound, a simple keep, much like the one Dorjan had been brought up in. It wasn’t an armory, it was a country town house designed to cater to the farmers who were supported by the landholders, who did their duty in the Forums and Triaris of town.

It was a large farm with perhaps ten to twenty families. From the cricket’s terrible height, Dorjan had seen the people huddled against the walls of the compound, the better for the metal arrows of the infantry to miss them. He looked down at the beginning of the cricket’s descent and quickly surveyed the chaos of the night. It was war, filled with the magnesium flares of soldiers preparing to launch munitions, the shouts of the techs performing maintenance on their armor, and the scream of metal and gears as the machines of war defied inertia and began the slow hurtle to murderous momentum. Dorjan landed directly in front of the other crickets in the battalion, pretty sure of what he’d find: the three lokogos as well as Stratego Alum Septra, the man who had brought wars to the borders of Biemansland.

Stop!” Dorjan screamed, ripping off his visor so they could see not just the insignia of lokargo on his uniform but the human behind it, and the commanding officers all stopped in what looked to be a last-minute conference and stared at the boy wearing lokargo insignia and riding a lokogos’s cricket.

“Boy, you’d better have some explanation as for what in the hell—”

“It’s not a munitions warehouse!” Dorjan cried, gesturing to the castle walls, especially the fortifications with very worried-looking people on the ramparts. “Aren’t you people looking? I could see it myself from the cricket—it’s a keep! There are women and children in there!”

Dorjan would remember that moment. The three lokogos, they looked surprised and skeptical, their faces frozen in the glare and flicker of the magnesium torches and the arc-welding that was going on in the chaos of setting up for battle.

But Stratego Alum Septra? Dorjan saw his face, saw the way his mouth quirked up at the corners, saw the calculation in his eyes.

“You know!” Dorjan shouted, and Alum drew twenty years as stratego and counselor around his shoulders and lied.

“I know nothing of the sort, and I don’t believe you either.”

The three lokogos all jerked back, stunned, because now they were fucked. They could either believe the raw young lokargo or they could believe their stratego. What were they to do?

“Who gave you permission to ride a cricket?” the youngest lokogos demanded. Even Dorjan could tell he was dodging the point.

“My lokogos!” Dorjan snapped. “Even he felt this was important information!”

“Who told you this?” the stratego asked. “Why would you break formation, Lokargo, to learn intelligence that is obviously above your pay grade?”

Dorjan’s jaw hardened. “A child,” he said, making sure his eyes never left Septra’s. “A child who was afraid we were going to slaughter his family, because his family occupied the only dwelling within walking distance of the damned army! Now are you people too damned lazy to even get on your lousy crickets and look? Or are you so sure of your souls that you’ll risk demolishing innocent people for politics?”

The lokogos looked at each other uneasily, and for a moment Dorjan thought he might actually have their attention. And that’s when he saw Stratego Alum Septra push a button on the side of his cricket while the lokogos were all looking at each other in confusion. Suddenly the chaos of the battlefield was silenced as a single massive flare launched up in the eerie quiet. It was burning so brightly that its shallow arc—designed to descend a mere half klick away—could hardly be seen.

Dorjan gazed at Alum Septra in horror, seeing him for the first time. A handsome man with a long jaw and silver hair pulled back into a smooth queue, he wore his dress uniform trappings over his armor for what was supposed to be nothing more than a training exercise.

He looked, Dorjan thought in shock, like a man dressed for the copper glyph that would make him famous.

“Oh dear,” Septra said urbanely. “It seems that even if you’re right, you arrived a moment too la—”

Dorjan didn’t hear what else he said, because he had launched his own cricket straight up into the air, preparing the same flare Septra had launched—but preparing it to fire at the flare that was still gracefully arcing toward the innocent civilians in the compound.

“Can you do this?” he asked the cricket. The machine, which knew only what it had been programmed with, circled the probability dial slowly, even as they hovered in the air.

Dorjan looked at the dial and swallowed: 15 percent probability.

“Then do it,” he muttered and pushed the same panel Septra had.

The magnesium bomb traveled a lot faster and a lot straighter than Septra’s, and it connected, but not solidly, sending both projectiles spinning wildly into the brush beyond the castle.

There was an explosion so bright he closed his eyes behind the tinted goggles of his visor and barely had time to open them again to sight the cricket’s landing plane.

By the time the cricket touched down, the fire sparked by the magnesium bombs in the dry grasses of the autumn bogland had turned the horizon a fiery bronze-blood red.

The cricket landed hard and Dorjan was tossed off, his armor disengaging and pummeling his body as he landed. Without the steam to provide a cushion and protection, he knocked about inside the metal plating like a plum in a steel box. Odds were good he’d be the same color the next day, but it didn’t matter. He was running on adrenaline now, and he’d actually pulled himself up off the ground and was looking wildly around before the golden-haired god of his childhood intruded on his tinted vision.

“Bimuit and Karanos!” Areau thunked a wide-palmed hand on Dorjan’s shoulder and was hauling him around—probably to tackle him and pummel him some more, knowing Areau’s temper.

Dorjan yanked off his visor and goggles before he could try, and fought for breath. “People!” he gasped. “There are people in the keep!”

Areau stopped with his fist hauled back behind his ear and became a focused beam of stillness in the mayhem of the night. “People?”

“It’s a keep, Areau! There’re families in there, probably ten or so—they’re huddled away from the safety arrows—”

Areau looked up to see the blood-bronze flare of light, and a sudden new wave of bedlam washed over the battlefield. “Bimuit! Dorjan, the fire is heading right for them!”

They locked eyes, a lifetime of understanding between them. Dorjan’s father, Kyon, ruled the keep, but Areau’s father was his right-hand man. Their keep had been one of the most productive of Biemansland until the war had forced them to strip away most of their gain in the form of taxes, and there was nothing—horses, lessons, their first girl, Dorjan’s first kiss with a boy—that the two of them had not shared in their hearts.

They shared this too, without even a word.

Dorjan vaulted to the back of the battered cricket and made sure his port was securely attached. It was difficult to get in—the port had been bent with the fall—but he wiggled in and offered Areau his hand.

“I’ll vault the children out,” he called as Areau swung his leg up over the cricket. “You get the officers near the gate to help you with the others.”

“Deal!” Areau’s arms tightened around Dorjan’s middle, and for a moment Dorjan was reminded of the helpless, useless torch he’d carried for his best friend since he’d first kissed a boy and decided they were more fun than girls. Areau had undergone no such revelation, and Dorjan closed his eyes and hoped it wasn’t the guilt, Areau’s ever-present fear that Dorjan’s disappointment would sever their two hearts that so often beat together.

The cricket bounded up into the aether and landed solidly square in the middle of the courtyard.

Oh God. They were terrified. Without knowing what he was searching for, Dorjan found three girls, their hair as black as pitch and night sky, and thought of the boy, the scrappy, arrogant kid on the side of the road. He lifted up his visor as Areau scrambled down off the cricket, and called out to them.

“There’s a magnesium fire on its way! Give me the children—I’ll lift them out. Areau will try to get the adults out through the gate. We’re sorry—we thought this place was empty. Please… please let us help you.”

The mother had the same black hair and midnight eyes in the pale face, and the father was whippet thin and brown haired, so his blue eyes were surprising. They came up together with their daughters and about half a score of other children under twelve gathered before them.

“Please,” the mother whispered. “Please—can you?”

Dorjan nodded. Areau had slid off and was herding the adults under the ramparts, where the first wave of infantry had been stationed. Dorjan could hear his voice, commanding, strong, thundering over the objections of the lokogos there, but that was not his job. He had to trust in Areau as Areau had trusted in him from the moment they’d first enrolled in the academy.

“We have a son!” the father protested as the mother shoved her girls up behind Dorjan. Dorjan pulled at leather harnesses attached to the exoskeleton of the cricket. The harnesses were hidden under the top plate of armor but could be pulled out for passengers, and the mother and father used them to secure the girls.

“Make the attachment logical!” he warned. “I need to let them off so I can come back for the rest of the children!”

The father nodded, and he seemed an able man. “About our son—”

“He’s the one who told us your keep was occupied,” Dorjan said. “When I left him, he was safe.” His mouth quirked up, because that could have been the only bright spot in what was surely career suicide even if he and Areau survived. “Angry, but safe.”

The parents nodded, and Dorjan looked behind him. “Hold tight!” he ordered tersely, hoping the girls were secure. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the fire or his own fractured imagination, but he was sweating inside his armor, and the fire-illumined faces of the girls seemed flushed as well. “One, two, three!”—and with that, the cricket took its biggest leap yet.

The girls didn’t scream. He checked twice in flight behind them, and they were wide-eyed and looking past the brutal wind at their surroundings. The steam armor had served his battalion well, and Dorjan saw his own men, led by the lokogos who had given him the cricket, racing down the road as if to help. He aimed for them and landed in front of his surprised lokogos before he turned to help the girls slide off the cricket in his hurry to get back.

“What in the furry asscrack of Bieman….” Lokogos Dre stopped his swearing when he realized there were children on board, and Dorjan was so grimly determined to finish out his task he didn’t even smile.

“The stratego tried to blow the place after I told him,” Dorjan snapped tersely. “I kept the mag-bomb from landing, but the whole bloody bogland is on fire. Where’s the boy?”

Dre grimaced. “Wriggled out of my grasp as soon as you took off! Said he couldn’t trust you to do the job right.”

Dorjan found he was growling, mostly because it was true. “These are his sisters. I’ll be back with more. This could end badly for us, you understand?”

Lokogos Dre nodded. “I didn’t sign on to slaughter children,” he said. “You neither, even though you are one. You get them here; I’ll keep ’em safe. Their parents?”

Dorjan looked toward the keep and shuddered. “Lokargo Areau—with munitions. He’s getting the parents out. Ready?”

“Bimuit’s luck!” the lokogos wished, and Dorjan thumped his closed fist against his chest even as he bade the cricket to jump.

His next visit to the keep, it wasn’t his imagination—the fire was moving quickly and it was moving mercilessly. He’d seen the tech battalions hosing down their own environs with flame retardant, but he wasn’t a fool. They were staying carefully beyond the keep. Alum Septra was going to let those people burn, and take credit for the kill.

Not if Dorjan could help it.

The second time at the keep, the parents must have been as frantic as Dorjan—they shoved even more children up on the cricket’s back—five this time, two of them hanging precariously over the sides. “You can hold on?” he asked, and he believed their frantic nods because he had to. Up, up, and away he bounded, giving thanks under his breath when the little ones proved good to their word. He stared at the keep and the closing flames, not even speaking to Lokogos Dre as the man unharnessed the frightened children. (They had held on, but this batch had screamed, and two of the girls, tiny and terrified, were screaming still when he lifted off again.)

He landed in the courtyard, feeling his armor heat so badly his skin blistered beneath it, and saw that the children were drooping, semiconscious, in their parents’ arms.

“Where’s Areau!” he called, wincing as one of the smallest screamed upon touching the heated metal of the stressed cricket. Without a word, the lady of the keep ripped off her nightdress and stood, fat and middle-aged and bare in the center of the courtyard, so she could swaddle the boy from the heat. Her husband was not far behind with his own sleep tunic.

“Is that all?” Dorjan called, lifting his visor so they could talk.

The adults nodded, and two people came from the shadows with lengths of wet muslin in buckets that were already beginning to steam. “Areau!” he called. “Areau! What’s your status!”

He heard a hacking and Areau stumbled from the doorway. “We’re using a blow torch to get through the gate. They won’t help us open it, the fucking gits, but they’ve promised not to kill us if we get through!” Pained voices cheered beyond the ramparts, and Areau looked up and nodded. “Go—go, Dori! I’ll be there! I swear! We’ll face the Triari together, you and I, Bimuit’s luck!”

Dorjan reached down, seized Areau’s hand, and pulled him close with their clasped hands between them. They touched foreheads and Dorjan muttered, “Bimuit’s luck!” before he straightened and bounded upward one more time.

He barely avoided the magnesium missile that had been aimed and waiting for his exit from the keep. He pulled the steering stick to the right frantically, then pounded at the two stabilizer wheels on either side of the board to keep the thing from rolling in midair. The children screamed as the magnesium seared their skin and the heat choked their lungs. His armor protected him to an extent, but the five children bound to the back of the great metal beast—

He cried out as one of them slipped off and went tumbling down, and then another. Bimuit, oh hells! Two of them, and then a third, but she didn’t even scream, and he wondered if she hadn’t been dead or unconscious before she fell.

“No!” he cried. “No! Hells, Bimuit! Hold on! Oh hold on!” The cricket hurtled downward, preparing its legs for landing, and he saw that one of them was frozen, unable to support weight. He had just enough time to scream, “Jump!” as the cricket tumbled to the ground.

The children landed painfully on the soft bogland, but he was attached to the cricket. It thudded hard, throwing him against the windscreen before rolling over him twice, the force so great he felt his bones give and his skin split. He screamed in pain, and the cries of the children answered him, so for a moment he felt relieved—at least some had survived. The cricket twitched, rolling off of him, and he screamed again. With the cricket gone, he had a clear view of the keep, and now he screamed in rage.

He saw the final magnesium bomb arc gracefully into the air and fall and hit the keep, and he was still screaming as the inferno destroyed it all.

 

 

WHEN he stood before the Triari, he stood alone.

He’d been scooped off the battlefield in fractured pieces and had spent a month in recovery. Lokogos Dre was his first visitor.

“Lokargo,” the lokogos said tentatively, “it’s good to see you’re recovering.” He looked both ways in the infirmary, but Dorjan was the only one there. He’d been removed to a special ward for military criminals, and the gauze sheets separated him from… nobody. Not even nurses and doctors, whom he saw when it was necessary, but not enough to know them as people.

“The children?” Dorjan mouthed, because he was not sure how much anybody knew. Nobody would tell him.

Dre looked left and right and removed his cap, revealing blond hair cut short but not shaved. “Smuggled to my father’s keep,” he murmured. “Before we could get to you, Septra’s personal battalion ran in, calling you a war criminal and saying you were responsible for the deaths of our men.” Dre glared about him again. “This is the only military hospital anywhere near the Biemansland-Karanos border, and Bimuit, boy, I swear the only other person besides you is a boy with diarrhea. It’s a ruse, sure enough, to explain why we were trying to take out that keep.”

“Why were we trying to take out that keep?” Dorjan asked before the one thing he really wanted answered superseded the strategy of the people falsely accusing him. “And where the hell is Areau?”

He saw the tentative look of sorrow on Dre’s face and knew his heart was about to fail.

“He’s not—”

“No!” Dre muttered, and again, that fearful look about the place. “He suffered wounds—he was trying to drag the last of the people out when the mag-bomb hit. I heard him screaming as they carried him away, but he was still alive. As far as I know, they’ve taken him into the asylum in Thenis.”

Dorjan tried to scowl through the pounding in his head. “Thenis? Bimuit! Why there? That place is… it’s bedlam! Are they healing him, if he was hurt? Why would they shove him in that place?” His whole body ached and his soul most of all, but this… oh, God, Areau, who had followed him out of the same sense of duty Dorjan had been instilled with. “Why? Why would they shove him there?”

Dre leaned closer. “Don’t you see? They don’t think he has people—they think you’re it. Now see, I’ve been to your father’s hold. I know how it works there. You all have the mines, and the niskets, and that alone is a bond there, and you share that with the miners and the farmers and everybody. Areau’s yours, like kin, and I’ve sent word to your father, so he’s probably working on it, but he’s working on it legal.”

Dorjan remembered Lokogos Dre, back when the man was a young lokargo, seeking shelter at his parents’ keep on his way to his own keep, which was even farther out from Thenis, the principal city. “Why is that wrong?” he asked, and Dre’s look of pity would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Don’t you see? What they were doing? That wasn’t legal. Septra got found out—he’s not going to be happy, and he’s going to pin it on you and on your friend there, and on me—”

“No.” Dorjan looked at him and shook his head, his heart pattering against his ribs. “We can’t allow them to pin it on you, Dre. We’ll lie first to keep you there. We need an honest man in the army. Did this… this hieterfuck do it for Septra? Was he promoted to Triari?”

“No—which probably steamed him right through his armor plates, if you ask me. He had a reporter with a copper glyph and a wax mold for his phonograph, all ready to make a talking head for his announcement. He’s putting it about that two young cadets committed treason on his watch—which sends your credibility into the privy, but it’s not looking so great for him either. He’s not Triari, not yet. In fact, I think it put him down on the list. The other rumor is that he led us into an ambush, and there’s even another, that’s the truth, that has civilians in that keep.” Dre had pulled up a chair, his crisp brown uniform practically bending like pasteboard as he sat. He had gold braid at his shoulders, but he was, as far as Dorjan could tell, missing some of an officer’s treasured pins at his breast. No, Dre had not done well by this, but he hadn’t complained of it either.

Dorjan nodded. “We need you,” he said quietly, his brain churning steadily ahead. When Areau had been working on the steam armor with the other military alchemists, Dorjan had told him once that he wished someone could connect a steam pipe to his brain so it could move in those lovely, fitful leaps and bounds, like the soldiers in their armor and the transpo crickets. Areau had laughed and cuffed him in the ear. Your brain works fine and solid as it is. No leaping about for Dori’s brain—need to keep it on the true way and have it steamroll any shite that lies in the path before it. “We need you,” he repeated, his thoughts finding their purchase in the uneven ground of maybe.

“For what?” Dre asked, but he asked it eagerly.

Dorjan wished his head would stop pounding, and the breaks in both arms and legs and his ribs and his chest, but he began to form a plan around the pain. “We need to stop him,” Dorjan said. “If he’s not losing his commission for this, sooner or later, he will be the Triari—that must be it! The power, the money—”

“The way out of harm’s way,” Dre grumbled, and Dorjan remembered the man’s cowardly act of launching the mag-bomb.

“That too,” he agreed. “So he wants on the Triari, and we need to stop him, and to do that, we need information.”

Dre nodded. “So what’s your plan?”

Dorjan sighed. “Well, I’ll tell them I rescued the children and gave them to a soldier—a deserter. If you can fabricate a name for me, that would help. But I’ll sell them that pile of slop and tell them I stole your cricket—”

“Didn’t you already tell them I gave it to you?” Dre asked, upset, and Dorjan barely managed to tilt his bandaged head sideways.

“Do you think they’ll gainsay me?” he asked crossly. “If they try it, they’ll have to admit I told them civilians were in the keep, and at the moment, I think they’re tryi