Chapter 44

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Trap

General Godfrey scanned the horizon with her field glasses. They were less than a day’s march away from the Pyramid and still there was no sign of the Paladin. The battalions left behind to defend against her First Brigade had been ably dispatched. She felt a twinge of disappointment at how easily the MEF compound had been overrun, wondering if they shouldn’t have tried it earlier. She had been right about one thing: without the Paladin, the MEF was no match for the Terran Guard. But he was still out there, waiting for them, she reminded herself. And so was the Enforcer Battalion. She had no intention of letting Colonel Dekker ambush her column and so she had moved slowly, changing course every hour and keeping a wide screen of carriers acting as skirmishers on her flanks.

After sweeping the horizon from one end to the other and seeing nothing but the endless sea of hills and dirt littered with dry scrub, she let her field glasses hang by the strap around her neck. She checked her surroundings, making sure she was alone before tapping her headset. She spoke in a low voice. “Arnhem Watch, Guard Six.” She slid her finger along the edge of her headset to reduce the volume of the static hissing back at her.

“Guard Six, Arnhem, go ahead.”

“What’s your status?”

“We’re still searching for stragglers, but haven’t found anybody in the last 29 hours. Prisoners are weak, General. I don’t know how many we’ll be able to keep.”

“Feed them.”

“Say again Guard Six.”

“I said feed the prisoners dammit. Guard Six out.”

An image of Shoahn’Fal’s face glaring at her flashed through her mind as her head began to throb. She squeezed her eyes, trying to push back the pain poking from behind them as she scanned the long line of vehicles of the Second Brigade stretching out behind her. General Kim stood next to her, contemplating the sunrise as he waited for her order to commence the day’s march.

“Do you have any water?” she asked.

General Kim pulled his water flask from its thermoplastic pouch and handed it to her. Godfrey pressed the spout latch against her teeth and let a thin stream run down her tongue, just enough to abate a mild thirst, but not enough to distract her from her headache.

  “Let me go round up our esteemed guest,” she said, handing the flask back to him. As she listened to the cadence of her boots crunching dirt and slivers of shale, she saw his antennae waving above his head. Her heart quickened as she sidled up behind him. He turned his head just enough to tell her that he knew she was there. Godfrey clasped her hands behind her back and swayed back on her heels. His antennae stopped, frozen as still as stone. Without looking at her, he said, “She sees me.” His antennae started to quiver. “She is growing stronger.”

“Who are you talking about,” Godfrey asked.

“A young priestess who is discovering the winds of Shoahn’mohkra.”

Godfrey arched her brows. “Another Shoahn’?”

Shoahn’Fal let out a wheezing sigh. “Yes.”

“You said you were the only one left.”

“Yes. I did say that, didn’t I?” He still did not look at her.

Godfrey frowned as she tried to decide if it was worth pressing the matter as questions entered the arena of her mind and collided. Did it matter?  How many more were there?  Was she the only one?  She winced when she thought of the one question that mattered. Why hadn’t he told her?  Why had he lied?

“Do not concern yourself with this, General,” Shoahn’fal said. She felt the stab of pain behind her eye surge and the questions vanished. “All that matters now is our mutual desire to free the Pyramid.” Godfrey squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push back the pain. He stood up and turned around to face her. His antennae settled back to his head and the pain disappeared. His eyes were hollow, as if he needed sleep. “There are others with her.”

“Who?” Godfrey asked. “How many?” She blinked, letting her eyelids flutter for a moment to confirm the pain had subsided.

Shoahn’Fal eased himself against his walking stick and took a step closer, placing his hand on her shoulder. “I do not know, but it would be good for you to investigate before we proceed.”

“Of course, you’re right,” Godfrey heard herself say. Her mind raced to catch up with her words. Tactically, the smart move was to follow up on his report. If he had found Dekker’s battalion, she would need to deal with him before he had the opportunity to link up with the Paladin. As she watched Shoahn’Fal walk back to General Kim, she tried to remember the last time she had made a command decision.

Shoahn’Fal leaned close to General Kim and seemed to say something. Kim nodded and then Shoahn’Fal stepped through the side hatch of her command carrier and disappeared inside. Her headset chimed. “Second Brigade, this is General Kim. Third Battalion will detach here to conduct a movement to contact mission south of our current position based on a possible sighting of MEF Second Battalion. The rest of the brigade will stand fast until we know more. Out.”

Godfrey stared at General Kim. He gave her a single nod and waited. Unable to think of any reason to countermand his orders, she nodded her ascent and started walking back to her carrier.

Her headset chimed again. “Guard Six, Eightball, we have your package inbound momentarily.”

She tapped her headset. “Guard Six copies.” She quickened her pace, scanning the sky behind the trailing elements of her column. A glint caught her eye and she stopped to focus on a speck floating high in the air. The shape grew until she could make out the stubs of wings and hear the distant whine of its turbines.

“Looks like our guest has arrived,” she said.

General Kim arched a brow. “What are you going to do with him?”

Godfrey rubbed her chin. “He’s kept his end of the deal. Maybe he’s willing to go a little further.”

“He kept his end, but we did not,” Kim said. “Why would he trust you now?”

“Because we haven’t killed him yet.”

“Do you want me to wait, then?” Kim asked.

“No, send in the Third Battalion. It’s easier to convince somebody when you have a stick in your hand. I don’t want Dekker to run if Lane can’t pull it off.”

“Pull what off?” Kim asked.

Godfrey smirked. “Being a general.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence