Sorry, all, but it’s a short partial chapter this week. Last week I got nothing written due to holiday travel and this week I’ve been under the weather. :(
Also, don’t forget about the Voyager ARC Giveaway. You only have a couple more days to enter!
“Oskar Krystopa ordered you to test my diplomatic guest without my knowledge?” Valentin clarified, his tone dangerous.
“As far as I know, sir,” Natalie said. She stood at attention and wouldn’t meet Valentin’s eyes. “Commander Young grumbled about it.”
“And despite the fact that I personally asked you to keep Queen Rani safe, you continued to follow his orders over mine?”
Natalie flushed red. “Queen Rani was never in any danger. All soldiers were warned not to return fire in the event things went sideways.”
“The fact that you even had to give them that order meant you knew things could go sideways,” Valentin growled. “Why did you go ahead with it?”
Natalie seemed frozen in place, but Valentin waited her out. Finally, she spoke, her tone subdued. “From what I heard, Advisor Krystopa believes Queen Rani is a threat you refuse to see. I thought we were protecting you. Commander Young believed the same. He approved the test because it came with permission to use the active camouflage veil units which increased site security for you. He was worried about snipers, sir.”
“I will speak to Commander Young,” Valentin promised. Based on his tone, I would not want to be at the other end of that conversation. “Queen Rani is not a threat, and even if she were, that is not for you to decide. From now on, you will disclose any orders that may affect me or my guests. That is a direct order. Do not fail me again, Sergeant Major.”
She snapped a precise salute. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
Valentin turned to me. His visor was open but his face was unreadable. “I apologize,” he said formally. “Thank you for your restraint.”
“It was a near thing. I hope you make it very clear to your advisor that he nearly got a soldier killed today. He may not like me, but his orders were reckless.”
“It will be crystal clear,” Valentin vowed darkly.
“And then thank him for showing off your stellar active camouflage tech. I didn’t know you could hide entire buildings.”
A reluctant grin bloomed on Valentin’s face. “Only small buildings.”
I looked over my shoulder. I could see the transport behind us. I stepped back and crossed through the invisible line of the veil. The soldiers in the folly disappeared. When I stepped forward again, they reappeared. I’d seen Kos active camouflage in use in Arx when the Quint Confederacy attacked. I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was this good.
“Does the veil protect the upper levels as well?” I asked.
“Yes,” Natalie said. She had retreated behind a wall of ice. I didn’t much blame her. Being dressed down by the emperor in front of your troops had to sting, even if she knew it could’ve been much worse. People had been tried for treason for less.
At least we wouldn’t have to worry about distant shooters thanks to the camouflage. I could almost see Commander Young’s side of things, especially if he truly didn’t think I was a threat.
“Did the shots come from the second or third level?”
“Both,” Luka and Imogen said at the same time. He waved for her to continue. She said, “The explosives came from the third level, but the plasma rifles were shot from the second floor.” Luka nodded in agreement.
“Okay, then let’s see what we can see.”
In the middle of the folly, two sets of curving stairs spiraled up like a double helix around a solid central column. The staircases were beautifully carved out of what appeared to be solid marble. The vast amount of wealth displayed in this little building—nothing more than a pretty landscape piece—boggled the mind. I could feed my people for six months for less than the cost of the staircase alone.
On the second floor, an arched doorway opened out to the south side of the balcony. From here, I had a better vantage point to the attack site. I released the sniper rifle from my back. At nearly fifteen kilograms, the MK9 wasn’t exactly light. It was designed to be shot from a prone position, with a bipod on the front to hold the gun steady on the ground. In a pinch, the bipod could be propped on a railing, and I could also shoot freestanding with decent accuracy thanks to my strength augments, but when maximum accuracy was needed, nothing beat lying prone.
Because I didn’t plan on shooting anything, I remained standing and sighted the target area through the scope. There was a fairly small gap between the trees and shrubs where the transport would’ve been visible.
Waiting in a high alert state was mentally and physically taxing, but they’d gotten a shot off less than ten seconds after our transport appeared. We were either dealing with an elite team or they’d had another lookout, someone who had tipped them off that we were on the move.
I swung the gun toward the spaceport. Valentin was right; it wasn’t visible through the trees. Perhaps they didn’t have a sharpshooter on the team, so they’d picked this building because it provided some cover and was close enough to our route for explosive rounds. The gardens also provided plenty of opportunity to disappear once the attack was over.
But it just didn’t feel right. Was I missing something or was I thinking too much like a lone assassin and not enough like a military unit?
“What do you see?” Valentin asked.
“Questions,” I muttered. “Let’s check upstairs.”
The third floor didn’t shed any new light on the attack. From here, I could just see the tops of the largest spaceships in the palace spaceport, but that wouldn’t be enough to target someone on the ground. Most of the buildings to our north were dozens of stories tall. I carefully checked the rooflines with my scope, but they were clear.
Valentin had tagged the attackers as a team of six. Two were caught and four escaped. Perhaps the remaining four hadn’t had time to regroup and try for a second attack, but this was a perfect opportunity—one an experienced mercenary crew wouldn’t have wasted. The more I learned, the more I thought these weren’t normal mercenaries or assassins.
So who were they?