Lestrade had always expected that the last great battle of the war would be fought dirt-side. He had not, however, expected it to be this particular sphere of dirt. The planet was a wreck, a wasteland. The crumbling tower around which his battalion was billeted stood as an analogy for the entire world. Earth was falling to bits, just like the curved stone wall that surrounded him for 320 degrees.
A roiling sky of poisoned clouds shadowed the blasted earth and acid sea alike. The Conundrum reps had the advantage here over their human adversaries; the environment alone would kill people, given time. Lestrade had no intention of staying long enough for that to happen. They had surprise on their side for once, and he would not allow the opportunity to go to waste.
He heard movement behind him and then Marquardson's familiar presence was at his side. "No word yet?" she asked.
"Our cavalryman hasn't been gone that long." They were running this op old-school style. The Conundrum could hack any and every broadcast frequency, but they couldn't hear a human voice unless it was right next to them. That meant cavalrymen were being used to relay messages among the battalions. On their small, swift gravbikes, they could move across the broken landscape like low-flying birds--not that there were many of those left, and those that persisted were mutated mockeries of their avian ancestors.
"Long enough. I'm sick of the waiting," Marquardson said. "I don't relish the coming fight, but we can't get through it until we begin it."
"I know." He felt the same way. Come what may, this would be the beginning of the end.
"Commander Lestrade?" The voice caused them both to turn and face the newcomer.
Donovan saluted, and Lestrade returned the gesture. "Let's hear it, Lieutenant."
"Cavalryman from Gregson's unit's just arrived, sir."
"Show him to the command tent. I'll be right there."
"He's a bit roughed up, sir. Doc's seeing him first. He said to let you know to come to the med-tent."
Lestrade tensed at her words, immediately on the alert for a drone attack. If the careless fool had brought the reps down on their camp, there'd be hell to pay. "Roughed up? By what?"
"Wildlife, he said. Not reps or drones," she added for the sake of certainty.
"All right. Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Sir." She saluted again and left them.
He turned to Marquardson. "Well, Captain? Shall we see what old Beanstalk's runner has to say?"
"Why is it that whenever you use Gregson's handle, it always sounds like an insult?"
He smirked. "Because when I use it, it is. You coming?" He headed out over the worn stones that were once part of the tower wall. Marquardson followed him.
The med-tent was set up inside another broken tower, this one square-shaped with an archway at one side. It was better protected from the sea winds and had fewer rocks that had needed clearing in order to find flat ground. Naturally, Doc had commandeered it straight away. Lestrade hadn't argued; it was smaller inside than the other tower, and he preferred the larger, round space for gathering everyone for battalion briefings.
"Doc," he said as he and Marquardson entered the med-tent. "I hear we have a visitor."
"Talk all you want," Doc said, glancing up only briefly from his patient. "His brain and his mouth are fine. It's his arm that needs mending." He returned to his work.
Lestrade averted his eyes from the sight of Doc's suture loom. He was too familiar with the flesh-weaving process to want to watch anyone else go through it. Instead, he focused all his attention on the cavalryman's face. He was a young bloke, dark, with hair cut close to his scalp. His rank insignia pegged him as a corporal, which was unusual. Cavalrymen were generally pulled from among the slingers and enlisted ranks.
"Welcome to Victoria Encampment, Corporal--?"
"Bainbridge, sir." The man winced as Doc placed another suture in the ragged slice that ran up his left forearm.
"Bainbridge. What's the news?"
"Signs of new rep activity, sir. Our scouts report production has increased by as much as eight percent since we landed two days ago." He winced again, more of a pained grimace this time, and glanced at his arm.
Lestrade's gaze instinctively followed and he regretted it immediately. The loom had done its work and a line of stitches now tugged the torn flesh together in a pinched line along the jagged tear. Definitely an animal attack, he thought. Probably a claw or a talon.
"Eight percent?" echoed Marquardson. "That's significant."
Doc rinsed the wound one more time before applying a layer of bind to keep the area clean and sealed. Lestrade yanked his gaze back to the runner's face.
"Yes, ma'am," Bainbridge said. "That's why Commander Gregson sent us out."
"He sent a runner to each of the battalions."
"He what?" exclaimed Lestrade in stunned horror. "Tell me you're joking."
"No, sir. They're not all officers like me, sir, if that's what you're worried about," Bainbridge added quickly.
It was only part of it, but: "Yes." He only just managed to keep his anger in check. Badmouthing a high-ranked officer in the presence of one of the man's juniors was one of the few lines even Lestrade wouldn't cross. "Anything else?"
"Only that I'm to return with your orders A.S.A.P., Field Commander."
"All right. I'll let you know as soon as I have some for you. Meantime, take it easy. Grab a bite or a kip, if you need it. Do whatever Doc tells you."
Lestrade left abruptly, one step shy of actually storming out of the med-tent. He took a deep breath of acrid air and let it out slowly, trying to get his temper under control before he completely blew his shit. What was that ass-eating moron thinking by sending out a runner to every encampment at once? Not only was he splitting his own force and lowering the number of gravbikes at his immediate command, but he was increasing the general troupe movement to a perilous degree. The more bikes they flew at one time, the more likely someone was going to be spotted by a rep scout.
He heard footsteps approaching from behind. "Come to tell me to relax?" he snapped.
He spun around in surprise. "Doc. I thought you were Marquardson."
"That would make for some awkward moments," said Doc dryly.
"Funny. So, what do you want?"
"None of that here."
Doc made a non-committal noise and stepped up beside Lestrade. "Any idea what you're going to do with this new intelligence?"
Lestrade sighed. "Nothing until we hear from Stripes, but it's a fair bet we're going to have to step up our scheduled assault. The last thing we need is for the Conundrum to release a new platoon of reps."
"I would argue that the last thing we need is for this to turn into a siege."
"Huh. You're not entirely wrong." They fell silent and stared out at the lowering sky and malevolent sea. It was a toss-up which was darker and drearier, the landscape or Lestrade's mood.
"Something's on your mind," said Doc eventually.
"What was your first clue?" Lestrade replied, sarcasm oozing from every word.
Doc ignored his tone and forged ahead. It was one of the things that Lestrade appreciated most about this doctor-soldier. "Are you concerned about Oracle?"
Lestrade glanced sideways at him. This time his voice held no scorn whatsoever. "You're especially perceptive today."
Doc shrugged. "I'm concerned, too. That's why I asked. I don't like it that he's gone in without you."
"Commander Dimmock is fully qualified to handle the op."
"Qualified?" Doc made another of those non-committal noises. "Maybe. I'd still feel better if you'd taken Sherlock in, yourself."
Lestrade couldn't have agreed more. He'd logged more data retrieval ops than any other officer, and all of them with Oracle, their most valuable receiver. To be stuck waiting and wondering while someone else took the man into the Nucleus itself, the heart of Conundrum power, was plain torture. But it was the trade-off he'd agreed to, and that was all there was to it. The Tops had made that clear when they'd offered him field command of the final push.
"Stripes can handle it," he said firmly. He almost believed it, too.
The distant hum of a light engine reached their ears. It was coming in fast. Lestrade and Doc both looked towards the sound.
"Cavalryman?" asked Doc.
"Sounds like it, but--" The closer it got, the odder it sounded. "There's more than one of them."
Their own runner was due back any time, but he ought to be coming in on his own. One gravbike was easy for the reps to miss. Several together became a potential target.
Lestrade hustled to the command tent and grabbed a pair of binoculars. He rejoined Doc and trained the lenses at the horizon. The dark spots became clearer. "Three bikes," he reported. One of the riders was glowing. "Satan's cock! It's Dimmock and Oracle! What the hell are they doing here?"
"He put Oracle on a separate bike?" Doc exclaimed, aghast.
"No, no. He's not stupid. He's got Oracle with him. Looks like a slinger on the other bike."
"And the third?"
"Ours." He lowered the binoculars. "Come on." They hurried to the landing area, which was roughly a kilometre inland, beyond a ridge of scrubby brown grass and ancient volcanic rock. The three gravbikes were pulling in as the pair reached them. The equipment drudges were there, too, immediately taking the bikes and hauling them under cover and out of sight.
"Report!" Lestrade barked.
Dimmock, the ranking officer of the small group, responded first. He saluted. "Field Commander Lestrade. We have the data secure. We were in and out clean, but weather patterns forced us to alter our return route. We encountered your cavalryman on the way. I determined that additional protection of Oracle outweighed the increased risk of the group being detected."
Lestrade gave a single nod. "Reasonable. Doc--"
"I'm on it." Doc turned to Oracle. "All right?"
Oracle, loaded and glowing with data, could only nod in response, his speech centre too overwhelmed to function.
"Good. I'll let you know the moment I've extracted the data," Doc added to Lestrade. He didn't wait for a response, leading Oracle at a jog back towards the encampment.
Lestrade looked at Dimmock, the young slinger with him--Lestrade recognised him as Shag, one of the team who'd helped clear out Lost Comet Base.--, and his own cavalryman, Evans. "Get yourselves cleaned up, gents. I want a full debrief in the command tent in ten minutes." It wasn't long enough for Doc to get the data, but he should have a rough cut by the time Lestrade had gotten the rest of the reports.
The battle was coming. He'd been too many years in this war not to feel it. The question was which side would move first?
Lestrade was determined it would not be the enemy.