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Lighting Out for the Territories

Chapter Text

September 798 U.C., inside the Phezzan Corridor

Annerose was no stranger to the journey between Heinessen and Phezzan, but this was the first time she had felt its length so acutely. Perhaps it was the fact that some of the intricacies of their mission were still being changed and updated as they were en route, perhaps it was just because this was so much more involved than ferrying Ingrid away to Heinessen-- or running there herself.

Annerose’s quarters on board the ship were cramped. She could stand in the slim walking space to the side of her bed and touch the opposite side of the room with her fingertips without bending over, and her desk was a little fold-out section of the wall that she could just barely squeeze her computer and elbows onto. It was a privilege as an officer and a woman to have her own space; Schenkopp had his own room but Linz and Blumhart were sharing, and the rest of the regiment were stacked like sardines in the hold of the ship, a not unusual situation for them as ground troops being ferried from place to place.

On the dull grey wall across from her bed, Annerose had taped up a photo she had taken just before her departure, everyone crowded together on the couch in her living room. Ingrid was squished between Julian and her mother. Reinhard stood stiffly next to Schenkopp behind the couch, though Schenkopp leaned forward, resting one elbow comically on Julian’s head. Annerose herself had ducked into the picture just as the camera’s self timer went off, folding ungainly to the ground in front of the couch, smiling. 

She stared at the picture now. She doubted anyone else looking at it could see the force she had been exerting to keep the smile on her face in the camera’s freeze frame, but she could. She hadn’t even wanted to be in the photograph; it had taken Schenkopp’s goading and every ounce of willpower she possessed to agree to get in the picture. Even now, she was tempted to fold the photo over so that she couldn’t see herself and the tension in her shoulders, when at least Reinhard and Schenkopp were so calm about the future.

She had never felt this anxious about leaving Julian and Ingrid before, though she had tried not to show it when she had said her final goodbyes at the airport. Annerose was simply overcome with a nameless dread. Nothing good could come of this invasion of Phezzan, no matter how much Reinhard believed in it. 

Someone knocked on the door to her cabin, and Annerose bolted upright from her reverie to slide it open. It was Schenkopp, leaning on the doorframe with both his hands in his pockets. Annerose glanced to either side of the hallway (empty) and then stepped back to let him in. It was a tight enough squeeze in the room that he had to close the door behind himself, and the only comfortable way for them both to sit was on the skinny bed, cross legged, facing each other.

“Our final debrief isn’t for another hour and a half, right?” Annerose asked. She checked the time.

“That’s right,” Schenkopp said. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, this is you making your rounds.”

He grinned at her. “That it is,” he said.

“Am I first on your list, or last?”

“Oh, Commander, I thought you knew me better than that.”

“Last, then.”

“I’ll have my drinks with the rest of the enlisted men after the debrief,” Schenkopp said. “But I’ve been around to all the NCOs already.”

“And Linz and Blumhart?”

“They hardly need me to pat them on the back and say whatever the fuck,” Schenkopp said. “Not like the NCOs need it either, but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t. But yes, I have spoken to Linz and Blumhart.” He opened up Annerose’s footlocker and looked inside. “You still don’t keep anything good in here?”

“Not before our debrief I don’t,” she said.

“Your brother is more tolerable in two circumstances: when he’s focused on business, and when I’m drunk. I imagine both of those together would make me downright enthralled with the man.”

“Come on, Walter,” she said. “You like Reinhard.”

“I do. He hates me, though.”

“He respects you.”

“Sure.” Schenkopp grinned.

“So, what words of wisdom did you have for Linz and Blumhart on the eve of our landing?” she asked.

“You know, I can’t even remember.” He looked steadily over at her. “Do you want me here as your CO, or something else?”

“What’s the difference?”

“You never answered my question,” he said, half-smiling, but looking at her with intent.

“Which question?”

“How are you feeling?”

“Do you want me to answer that as your subordinate?”

“I’d like you to answer it.”

“Fine, sir,” she said. “Prepared for whatever’s coming. I know the regiment’s got my back, and I’ve got theirs, and the plan is sound.”

He laughed. “Now give me the real answer.”

“You don’t want the real answer,” Annerose said. She leaned back on her hands and gave him a long look. “I don’t think there’s any way this could go as smoothly as we’re planning it to.”

“No plan has ever survived contact with the enemy,” Schenkopp said. “That’s not news.”

“Reinhard--”

“Your brother is smart, but he’s gotta learn that someday. Might as well be tomorrow. He’s not the problem though. It’s everybody he’s been having to sweet-talk.”

Annerose just bit her lip. “This isn’t like Cahokia, or Kapche-Lanka, or anything else like that.”

“No,” Schenkopp said. “We’re storming paradise, rather than hell, for once. I’m planning to make the best of it.”

Annerose shook her head and was silent.

“Your trouble is clearly not just the fact that we’ll be around civilians, and infrastructure, and plans put in place by people you don’t trust.” He held up his hand to forestall the objection on Annerose’s lips. “I’m talking about the Earth Church, not your brother. So, what is it that’s eating you?”

“Do you really think this is going to end the war?”

“No,” Schenkopp said bluntly. “You’ll notice that we’re going to be remaining on Phezzan until told otherwise, not continuing on to take Odin.”

“That isn’t just because we wouldn’t be trusted in the Empire’s capital? It would look strange, wouldn’t it?”

“There would be great ways to spin it, if we were there, and your brother could have had us heading back out on ships as soon as we were done here, leaving a different force to occupy Phezzan. Probably would have been a better choice, and it’s not like he doesn’t want to give you glory.”

“Or something,” Annerose said. “He’s as eager to capture Odin as anybody. Probably moreso.”

“Yeah, well, he seems pretty certain that it isn’t going to happen. He wants Phezzan held, and he’s leaving us here to do it, and he’s expecting that everything else is going to go to shit.”

“Have you talked to him about that?”

“Of course not. But I know your brother. You see it too, don’t you?”

“I don’t know what I see,” she said. “It’s not clear how much sway Reinhard has.”

“More than he lets on, I think.” Schenkopp glanced at the photo on her wall. “Me saying that the war isn’t going to end tomorrow doesn’t seem to have helped you any. Can I say something else?”

“As my commander?” She tried to relax her shoulders. “You don’t have to ask me permission to speak freely.”

Schenkopp didn’t dignify that with a response. “Keep your eyes on today. Tomorrow, at the most. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen six months from now, two years from now-- that’s nothing you can control. Your responsibility is to the regiment, and yourself, and you fulfil those responsibilities in the moment. You’re going to have an axe in your hand tomorrow, and if your thoughts are lightyears away, on Heinessen or Odin, you’re going to be putting yourself at a disadvantage.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Annerose--”

“Walter--”

He smiled at her, then nodded at the photo. “Nothing you have is going to vanish just because you’re not looking at it and worrying about it. When something’s gonna go, you’re going to know.”

Annerose turned away. It was less comforting than he wanted it to be, she was sure. Schenkopp put his hand on her leg, and that was heavy, and warm even through her pants.

“And you know,” he said. “As long as we are both in this regiment-- today and tomorrow, and the day after that-- I’ve got your back, and I trust that you’ve got mine.”

He squeezed her leg, and then dropped his hand. The thin bed squeaked as he stood. Annerose looked up at him.

“You’re going?” she asked.

“I’m a man of the here-and-now, Annerose.” He leaned on the wall and looked at her steadily. “And I need you to be here-and-now for the debrief. You tell me what it’s going to take to get you there.”

She stood. They were chest to chest, the tiny room that much smaller, the closer they were together. “Stay,” she said. “I’ll be here.”

He nodded. “Can’t say I don’t appreciate that choice.” His tone was warm, the professionalism he had been wearing slipping off like his scarf as Annerose reached up to pull it from his neck. 

When he went to toss his jacket on the ground, Annerose stopped undoing his belt and pointed at the hook where her own jacket was hanging. “I don’t want you to make a wrinkled impression on Admiral Greenhill.”

Schenkopp laughed and shook his head. “You’re going to make me fold my pants, too?”

“Shut up.”

 He obliged and kissed her, though she squeaked in mild annoyance when his hand stroking her head tugged out her neat bun so that he could run his fingers through her hair. Still, his touch grounded her, made her feel real, in ways that so little else did. She was suddenly anxious to feel as much of her skin against his as possible; she was devouring his mouth.

Annerose tugged Schenkopp back, pressing herself against the tiny strip of wall at the back of her room. She was closed in, and when he stripped off her shirt, the cool of the wall trailed along her skin, too hot to stay inside of. She could feel the lines of tension in Schenkopp’s back, in his arms when she steadied herself on them, in his neck when she leaned her forehead on his shoulder, then kissed her way along his collarbone to his throat, tasting how salty and human he was, sweating despite the frigid ship’s air.

He was right: when she was with him, she couldn’t think about anything else, and she didn’t want to.

When they finished, they sat side by side on the narrow bed, Annerose’s head against Schenkopp’s shoulder. Some of the tension had gone out of him, and he didn’t object when she idly rubbed his back.

“You’ll come with me to the enlisted mens’ lounge tonight, won’t you?”

“Did you think I wouldn’t? Of course I’ll come. My team would have my head if I didn’t,” Annerose said. “Though I’ll only have one drink.”

He chuckled. “Sensible.”

“I don’t want to be hung over while we’re on our way down to Phezzan. Shuttles have always made me a little nauseous.”

“That’s what tank beds are for.”

“And you’re going to spend the night in a tank bed?” she asked, tugging on a curl of his hair.

“Might be more roomy than this,” he said. 

“You might be right.” She rubbed his shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

“About tomorrow?” He leaned back on his hands and looked at her. “Alright. Better than I was a few hours ago, and probably better than I will during our debrief.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“What were you unhappy with, a couple hours ago?”

He smiled. “You know, I don’t just go around to everyone for your benefit.” His tone was teasing, but he wouldn’t be saying it if he wasn’t serious. “I like to reassure myself that everybody’s in the right place. Of course, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be, but--”

“I get it,” Annerose said. 

They sat silently for a moment, then Schenkopp knocked her arm with his elbow, his moment of vulnerability concluded. “Better shower and get dressed. Debrief coming right up, and we have to shuttle over.”

“Yes, sir,” Annerose said. “I’ll be there.”

 


 

Annerose was not one to feel out of her depth in rooms full of superior officers-- her work under Cazerne had cured her of that instinct if she had ever had it-- but she did take a moment to take a steadying breath before she walked into the meeting room, then found her seat in between Reinhard and Schenkopp. Linz and Blumhart were sitting on Schenkopp’s other side, and they seemed more uncomfortable than she did, their stiff backs an unusual sign of them attempting to be on their best behavior.

There were several admirals in the room: Greenhill, who was at the head of the whole charge into the Empire; Vice Admiral Moore, supporting Greenhill; and Bucock, who was going to coordinate the occupation of Phezzan. There were other higher officers there too, but those were the ones she was most interested in. Reinhard had clearly had a hand in this selection-- she would have bet that Moore had only earned his place because of Fredrica’s presence as his staff officer-- but it was a solid representation of the Alliance leadership nonetheless. This plan, though Schenkopp thought it was not destined to succeed, was at least having as much support behind it as possible.

Commodore Fork, another face Annerose knew well, sat near the head of the table, next to Admiral Greenhill. While Reinhard had been responsible for much of the planning of the Phezzani operation, Fork was his counterpart for the Imperial invasion. Annerose had to wonder if that burned Reinhard; the Imperial invasion was a more prestigious assignment. But Fork was older, and higher ranking, and technically Admiral Greenhill’s staff, and not Trunicht’s.

Annerose didn’t expect that she, or any of the other Rosenritter, would have much to say during this meeting. Although they would be boots on the ground on Phezzan, everything had already been meticulously planned, and she doubted there would be any major changes. This meeting was almost more of a formality than anything.

The beginning of the meeting started with Admiral Greenhill calling the group to order, then immediately passing the presentation off to Commodore Fork, who stood up at the front of the room and ran through the complicated plan for how the Alliance forces should pass through Phezzani space. The vast majority of ships in their long fleet would be moving through, but there would be a moderate ground occupation force led by Bucock that would remain behind, performing the double duty of setting up a supply line between the Alliance, Phezzan, and the fleets headed into the Empire.

The largest question that remained with their invasion was how easy it would be to pass through the Phezzan corridor into the Empire itself. Though the Alliance had known navigation routes on their side of the corridor to Phezzan, they lacked up to date information on how to navigate into the Empire itself. Therefore, even more importantly than seizing the government headquarters on Phezzan and subduing the population, the Rosenritter needed to capture the computers inside the Navigation Office. Without that information, progress into the Empire would be dramatically slowed, as the Alliance fleets would need to send out scouting ships to trace a navigable path, leaving the fleet slow and vulnerable.

The main body of the fleet wasn’t planning to stop, plowing through the Phezzan corridor even before the Navigation Office had been seized, but they would be waiting for the data the Rosenritter were going to get them. It was this that made several of the members of the upper echelons of the leadership cast dubious glances at the four Rosenritters at the table. Schenkopp sat and smiled serenely under their withering gazes, and Annerose focused her attention on Commander Fork’s presentation.

“Now, for the critical ground portion of this, I will turn things over to Captain von Müsel to present the plan,” Fork said.

“Thank you, Commodore,” Reinhard said, standing. “As you are no doubt aware, the Rosenritter were chosen for three reasons: first, their exemplary record in ground engagements, especially under their current commander, Captain Schenkopp; second, because they are the only unit in the entire Alliance fleet that has experience performing operations on Phezzan itself; and third, because of their unit-wide fluency in the Imperial language, which will make it easier for them to navigate and communicate while on Phezzan. This will be vital when it comes to taking the Navigation Office.

“Although we have been provided information which we believe is accurate as to the defenses of the office, and have been assured that the computers will not be wiped, I understand that you have worries about the veracity of this information. There is only so far trust gets us. To that point, the Rosenritter will be entering the city by shuttle, on a single ship while the rest of the fleet remains out of detection range. This ship will be equipped with a commercial navigational beacon, and should be able to approach quite close to the planet without being recognized as a military target.”

Reinhard pulled up a map of the streets of Phezzan’s capital. “The Rosenritter shuttles carrying the team taking the Navigation Office will be able to land here.” He pointed to a large, empty green area on the map, with a lake in the center. “The water provides the ideal empty landing spot, closest to the Navigation Office itself, just three blocks south. Because we’re opting for this water landing, this part of the assault will take place on foot. Captain Schenkopp will be leading the team heading to the Navigation Office.” Reinhard nodded at Schenkopp.

Admiral Bucock interrupted Reinhard. “If I may, Captain?”

“Of course.”

“Captain Schenkopp,” Bucock said, “are you confident about taking this on foot? I’m not questioning your abilities, but you are going to have a very small detachment, and three blocks is not insignificant.”

“I’m confident, Admiral,” Schenkopp said. “Phezzan is not well defended. Their police force is smaller than that of Heinessenpolis’ and Phezzan’s charter forbids them from having any nationalized armed force outside of that, so there is no organized city defense that could stop us. Citizens of Phezzan may be armed, but I’m certain that they know it’s within their best interest to stay out of our way.”

There were some chuckles around the table at that.

“The Navigation Office has its own security force, I assume?” Bucock asked.

“Yes,” Schenkopp said. “And I expect that will be more troublesome to deal with, but it won’t be a problem until we’re at the building. And, even though we’ll be on foot, if the building is not as open as we’re hoping, we will be carrying plenty to get us inside.”

“Are you at all concerned about the possibility that the building could be equipped with some sort of emergency explosive?”

“We’ve considered it,” Schenkopp said. “If we were already on the planet and had time to get underneath the building, I would prefer that. But we don’t. If there is a detonator somewhere, I can only trust that the information we’ve been given assures us that it will not be used. And, if it is used” --he shrugged expressively-- “not the way I’d prefer to go, but it is how it is. There is a backup, or more than one, of the Nav Office’s computer system hidden in a much more secure location on Phezzan. It’ll be your job to find it then, if we can’t take this one.”

Bucock nodded. “Alright. You can continue, Captain Müsel.”

“Thank you.” Reinhard nodded at Schenkopp, then switched the slide. “The rest of the landing force will take the capital airfield, with secondary and tertiary locations on these fields outside the city. Since these landing forces will be able to use cargo descent shuttles, they will be equipped with vehicles and will be able to quickly move to our other primary locations.

“Commander Blumhart will be taking a team to capture the Imperial Embassy. We expect this to be the most well defended location, and for there to be heavy resistance within the building. The primary goal is to read data from the embassy’s computers. This will likely not be possible, but would be valuable. A secondary goal is to capture as many of the staff there as possible, especially the officers. His team has been provided with a list of targets of particular importance, based on what we know they know of internal Imperial workings.

“Commander Linz will be securing the base of the space elevator, while Admiral Bucock’s forces secure the top. The space elevator will be a vital piece of infrastructure for using Phezzan as a base from which to resupply our fleets out in the Empire. Although the port at both the top and bottom are large, and have their own defense force, they are unlikely to put up much resistance after they receive the order to surrender.

“That order will come from our last point of attack, the capitol building, and the Landesherr, Adrian Rubinsky. Commander von Müsel will be leading the team to the capitol, and will have the goal of forcing Rubinsky to sign an official statement of surrender. A small secondary team will surround, but not enter, the Landesherr’s residence.”

“Will he sign something like that?” Bucock asked.

“We’ve been given assurances that he will,” Reinhard said.

“Is Rubinsky aware of this invasion?”

“In order to avoid prematurely compromising their sources, the Earth Church has not provided us with information like that.”

“Not sure I like trusting those bastards,” Moore said, and there was general agreement from the table.

“Secretary Trunicht believes in this plan wholeheartedly,” Reinhard said. Several of the admirals at the table, including Greenhill, couldn’t manage to hide their twitches of distaste at the mention of Trunicht’s name. Bucock was the one with the best poker face, even though Annerose knew he personally disliked the man very much. “And, as far as we have been able to independently confirm, the Earth Church’s information has been accurate and complete.”

“Trust but verify,” Bucock said. He stroked his chin and looked pensive.

“Exactly, sir. But at the end of the day, it is irrelevant what Rubinsky does, or how accurate the Earth Church’s intel is. Phezzan is a soft target: by capturing its major government facilities, we will have it functionally under our control very quickly.”

“We’re not taking into consideration non-state actors here,” Greenhill said, interrupting at last. “Phezzan’s infrastructure isn’t nationalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the capital’s electric supplier, regardless of any official surrender, holds the city hostage.”

“As soon as the key locations have been seized, including the space elevator, the rest of Admiral Bucock’s ground troops will be able to begin landing. If any corporation tries that, it will be at most a day or so before we take control of the infrastructure.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much damage could be caused by encrypting the computer systems that control the water supply,” Greenhill said. “Or something equivalent.”

“Even in the worst case scenario, things like pumps and generators are physical equipment, and if it is necessary, we can bring our own experts in to put them on our own control systems. But I would hope that any corporation on Phezzan thinking of exerting their power in a stunt like that understands that there is a carrot and stick happening here: if they cooperate, their lives will be able to continue without much interruption from us. If they refuse to cooperate, it is their own people who are knocking out their electricity for however long it takes for us to repair it. And when it gets repaired, it will be our infrastructure. Part of the eventual goal is to nationalize most of Phezzan’s industries.”

“That’s a pretty bad worst case scenario, Müsel.”

“I don’t disagree, sir,” Reinhard said. “But I am hopeful that we will avoid it. And in an emergency, we are well set up to supply the residents of Phezzan with the essentials that they need to live: it’s one planet, and is the base of our planned supply line anyway. There is no long-term risk to the welfare of Phezzan’s citizenry.”

Greenhill nodded. “It would be expensive.”

“This entire operation is the most costly single enterprise the Alliance has ever undertaken,” Reinhard said. “It’s a bet against the future.”

“Let’s hope we don’t lose, then,” Greenhill said.

“Yes, sir.”

The meeting continued on. There were plenty of logistical details to step through, and Fork and Reinhard did a good job of answering every question that came up. Still, the questioning from Bucock and Greenhill had put a new seed of discomfort in Annerose’s stomach, despite how much she trusted Reinhard’s plan.

At the end of the meeting, she gathered up her things. Reinhard leaned behind her and said to Schenkopp, “Captain, may I have a word?”

Schenkopp grinned, the kind of expression designed to get under Reinhard’s nerves. “Of course,” he said. They walked out together, and Annerose could hear Schenkopp say, “So, you think you’ll make flag officer with this?”

“Do you?” Reinhard responded.

They were out the door before Schenkopp had the chance to reply. 

Admiral Greenhill came over to Annerose as she got up to go. “I see your brother managed to make sure you got the most photogenic assignment,” he said, leaning on the table. Linz and Blumhart laughed to hear it. Annerose shot them both a nasty glare, and they gathered their belongings and headed off.

“I don’t think he was in charge of deciding that, sir,” Annerose said. “And I don’t need special treatment. I would have been just as happy to trade with Linz or Blumhart.”

“I’m sure,” Greenhill replied. “My daughter says good luck, by the way.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Your brother did an admirable job, in my opinion. We’ll see how it shakes out, of course, but the plan is sound. It’s a shame he’s Trunicht’s protegee and not one of my staff.”

“You have Commodore Fork,” Annerose pointed out. “He’s talented, as well.”

“Of course. I’m just trying to pay your brother a compliment. He’s going to go far.”

“Well, thank you on his behalf.”

“He’ll be remaining with Bucock during the operation, I assume?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “He’s OPS only, and probably won’t be doing much except writing reports to tell Trunicht how things go.”

“I won’t be surprised if Bucock deputises him. He’s a man who hates to see talent go to waste.”

“Is that allowed, sir?”

“Is your brother likely to object?”

Annerose laughed. “No. But Trunicht might.”

“Secretary Trunicht, by never once setting foot on the front himself, has little idea of what push coming to shove looks like on the front. Your brother lived on Phezzan: he knows the place more intimately than Bucock does, so he’ll be an asset when figuring out the logistics of occupying the place. If Trunicht objects to that, he can summon him home.”

“I doubt he’d do that,” Annerose said. “This whole invasion is his brainchild--”

“His ticket to his political future, really,” Greenhill said. “But go on.”

“Either way, he’s not likely to do anything to jeopardize it.”

“You would think, Commander.” Greenhill gave a wry smile. “I look forward to your mission’s success.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Greenhill clapped her on the shoulder, and then turned and left to talk to Moore. Annerose headed out of the meeting room. 

Reinhard and Schenkopp’s voices were echoing down the metal corridor of the ship-- they hadn’t gone far-- so she turned in their direction to find them. Schenkopp was leaning against the wall, and Reinhard was standing in front of him, his face deadly serious. Annerose hung back, not wanting to interrupt, but she listened.

“No, I’m sure there won’t be massive armed resistance. There are plenty of people on Phezzan with private security, but they wouldn’t risk getting involved,” Reinhard said. “That, at least, I’m confident about.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“You don’t sound confident.”

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Schenkopp said. “No matter how good it is. I’m confident in myself, and in my regiment. That’s enough for me.”

“Be honest-- is this a good plan?”

“What, invading the Empire?”

“No, your street level assault tomorrow.”

“The time for you to ask me if I think it’s a good idea or not and get an honest answer is long gone,” Schenkopp said. He studied Reinhard for a second, and Reinhard stood stiff-backed under Schenkopp’s gaze. “Yes,” he finally said. “It’s a plan I respect and am happy to follow. I think tomorrow will be a success.”

Reinhard’s posture changed, relaxing fractionally. “Thank you,” he said. He held out his hand. “Good luck, Captain.”

Schenkopp grinned, then shook Reinhard’s hand. “Thanks, kid,” he said. Just to ruin what semblance of a moment there was between them, he turned down the hall to Annerose and called, “See, I told you we get along when talking tactics.”

Annerose shook her head and walked over. She smiled at Reinhard. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said, and there was no way to tell if that was an honest answer. “Do you know where Commander Blumhart went? I need to ask him a favor.”

“Hey, you don’t get to give orders to my officers,” Schenkopp said. Annerose punched him in the arm.

“They’ve probably headed back to our shuttle out already. You don’t want to miss your shuttle back with Bucock, though.”

“Right,” Reinhard said. He frowned.

“What was it you wanted him to do for you?” Schenkopp asked. “If it’s not too stupid, I’ll tell him.”

“At one point a couple years ago, I promised someone who works in the Imperial Embassy, Neidhart Muller, that when we invaded I’d save him a cushy spot in a POW camp,” Reinhard said. “I’d like to make good on that promise and not have him get killed.”

Schenkopp laughed. “Incredible. Yeah, I’ll let Blumhart know.”

“Thanks.”

“You were planning this that far ahead?” Annerose asked.

“No,” Reinhard said. “It was a joke.”

“Why were you joking like that with him?” Schenkopp asked.

“He did me a couple big favors,” Reinhard said. “As much as two people on opposite sides of this war could be friends, I guess we were.”

“Hunh,” Schenkopp said. “Well, I’ll see what we can do.”

“You’d better go,” Annerose said. “See you when you get down to Phezzan.”

Reinhard said nothing for a moment, then reached out and hugged her, his grip crushing. “Good luck.”

“I’ll be fine,” Annerose said. She felt better now than she had earlier in the day, some of the anxiety falling away to be replaced with the usual tight knot of excitement in her stomach. Perhaps the feeling was the same, but her interpretation of it was different. She could see tomorrow in her mind’s eye, picturing herself heading towards the capitol building that she had only ever seen from a distance, breaking down its doors. That was clearer in her vision than any hazy nightmare of the future. “You’re not allowed to worry about me.”

“Alright,” Reinhard said. “I won’t.” He released her and smiled.

“Good,” Annerose said.

Without another word, Reinhard headed off down the hall to take his shuttle back to Bucock’s flagship, giving a half wave over his shoulder as he went.

 


 

Once things were put into motion, they did not stop. Momentum carried Annerose from the moment she woke up early, too early, the next morning, squashed between the wall and Schenkopp’s heavy form in her slim bed, her alarm clock wailing that the appointed hour had arrived. 

Annerose and Schenkopp didn’t say goodbye to each other as they separated for their independent missions. Seemed like bad luck to say goodbye.

She didn’t have time to think, let alone make any decisions, as she dressed, ate, then assembled her squad of men in the shuttle bay, walking between them to check the fit of their armor, whacking them on the back as encouragement that they could barely feel through the heavy protection they were wearing. She had a rifle slung over one shoulder, and her own axe on her back. Her throat was already raw from yelling instructions by the time they were all loaded into the shuttles.

Their ship was alone, separated from the bulk of the fleet: any Imperial battleship could have killed them in one blow. But there was no Imperial battleship in orbit, and until their ship swerved out of Phezzan’s shipping lanes, cruising towards a close orbit as fast as it could, they were just one other massive ship in the line of merchant ships waiting to dock at the elevator. Phezzan had no true defenses-- it was forbidden by their Imperial charter-- so although Annerose couldn’t see or feel any of their ship’s movements from her position waiting inside one of the landing shuttles, she doubted they were facing much, if any, resistance. 

She looked down at the tablet in her lap as the mothership made its final approach, running over the plan and map of Phezzan’s streets, waiting for the pilot of their landing shuttle to hear the order to drop them out of the bottom of their mothership, then scream down into the atmosphere. The drop came, without any warning, with the ground-- the gravity that the mothership’s engine provided them-- falling out beneath them.

Nausea turned her stomach. She was pressed several different directions in her seat as the shuttle banked and turned to put them in position to descend. None of the maneuvers were more than a few Gs, but they were incessant. She put a grim smile on her face, though the expression would be barely visible through her helmet in the odd light of the shuttle interior. 

Her men were in good spirits. Many of them had lifted up their visors to yell over the throb of the shuttle’s engines to the people in the cramped seats next to them. Their conversations were inaudible, and she strained to hear the pilot’s announcements in the cockpit behind her.

“Coming close to the atmosphere now,” he said. And then the shuttle started to vibrate, banking to one side-- or maybe it was leveling out.

She lifted her own visor. “This is it!” she yelled. She received enthusiastic handsigns in response all up and down the length of the shuttle, and a few energetic whoops reached her ears over the noise. She pointed at her head. “Helmets on! We’re moving as soon as our wheels touch the ground!” 

Her visor came back down over her face, and she gripped the hard edge of her seat as the shuttle violently shuddered, chattering her teeth until she clenched her jaw together with what must have been enough force to snap bone. She couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the engine, or whatever this sound was, and her vision spotted in and out with the jolts and judders of their descent.

She wished there was a window in this shuttle that she could see out of, but she had to be content with blindness. The shuttle deployed its long drogue chute, slamming Annerose forward as they decelerated, aiming to land on a short runway that wasn’t designed to take shuttles coming in at this speed. It was all they had, and it was technically within the shuttle’s tolerance so long as they used the chute to slow them down just that much more, and she had to trust the pilot-- she had to.

They landed with a thud that made her knees ache, and her hands moved on instinct to unlatch her restraints, and she was up and yelling: “Let’s go, let’s go!”

She tumbled out into the Phezzani air: it must have been warm and wet, but her suit kept her cold. It was the middle of the local night. All around the airfield, other shuttles were coming to a stop and disgorging their passengers, their chutes flapping up from the ground like snakes, Rosenritter hopping over them as they ran across the tarmac to where vehicles were already being unloaded: fleets of airbikes that would hold two passengers each, then further back the tanks that she hoped they wouldn’t need.

It was chaotic, but a silent and practiced kind of chaos. Rosenritter took up stations around the shuttles, shooting at the few airfield security cars that dared to approach (why they bothered, Annerose didn’t know-- they were hopelessly outnumbered); while others in one of the heavy tanks cleared away the barriers that had risen up from the access road to block traffic, shooting or trampling them down to clear a path for the smaller vehicles. Annerose’s, Linz’s, and Blumhart’s teams found their squads and their vehicles and left the airfield and screamed down the road out into the city.

The lights and sounds were fragmented; everything had a jagged edge to it as they headed through the streets to the city.

The capitol building was lit, the slick Phezzani architecture glowing with an inner light. It was a beacon above the rest of the city, and while they had their route and alternate routes memorized, it was something visible to drive them forward.

A keening emergency siren sounded, echoing through the nearly empty streets. Lights came on in buildings in response. Annerose couldn’t see into the windows that high up, not with her helmet on, but she imagined that the residents of the buildings they were passing were pressing their noses to the glass. 

Cars swerved out of their way, hopping up onto the sidewalk as the Rosenritter barreled down both sides of the street. The Phezzani police force, what there was of it, was not prepared to resist an invasion, even one that was just a little more than one regiment in size-- hardly anything when compared to the thirty-thousand ship fleet now bearing into detection range.

The lack of resistance changed as they came closer to the capitol building itself. Police had gotten there in time to surround the building, heavy trucks barricading the way, and they were crouching behind them with guns drawn. Annerose ordered her men to halt just out of clean firing range. They were mostly on airbikes-- quick but not easily defended. The tanks were on their way, but they were slow; it would take another few minutes for them to arrive. If they could breach the capitol without firing a shot, that would be a much better look in the eyes of Phezzan’s citizens. 

“Set up a perimeter, outside their effective range. Don’t allow anyone else to approach. And give me the horn,” Annerose said. Around her, her men scrambled to obey, taking up positions in the intersections that led to the capitol building. One of her men passed her the megaphone, and it shrieked as she turned it on. “This is Commander von Müsel of the Rosenritter! If you value your lives, stand aside and you will not be harmed.”

There was no response for a long time, though there was an uncomfortable shuffling in the ranks of the police officers. She was about to repeat her hail when the capitol’s PA system crackled to life. “Phezzan is an autonomous nation. Your presence here is--”

“There are thirty thousand ships entering orbit around Phezzan,” Annerose said into her own mic. “Surrender now if you value your lives.”

The response was a few blaster shots that didn’t quite reach the Rosenritter taking cover down the block. 

“Should we charge them?” one of her men asked.

“Map,” she said, and held out her hand. A tablet showing the location of all their forces superimposed on Phezzan’s streets was pressed into her hands. The tanks were five blocks away, and inching closer. “No,” she said, jerking her head at the police forces. “They don’t have reinforcements coming. We can wait five minutes for the tanks.” 

“I don’t much like waiting, Commander,” the man who had given her the map said, glancing up into the sky. There were sounds of police helicopters circling overhead, dousing them with searchlights, but since they hadn’t been fired upon yet, it was clear that they weren’t about to be.

“Well, we all have to do things we don’t like, Carlsburg.”

They heard the tanks before they saw them, rumbling over the wail of the emergency sirens and the sizzling of the ineffective fire from the police’s guns. Shouting followed the tanks: the city had well and truly woken up now, and residents were opening their upper windows and yelling obscenities in whatever language they had to hand, chucking bottles down twelve stories to shatter uselessly against the gunmetal of the tanks, which trundled on without paying them any mind.

The tanks filled every intersection around the capitol building, and Annerose got on her squad comms. “I want just enough fire to clear a path in, and one shot to breach the main doors. On my mark, then hold. Units on foot, prepare to enter the building on my signal. Don’t chase anyone who runs.” Annerose held up her hand; though the street was noisy, the world narrowed to a silent point around her. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark.”

The tank fire roared, obliterating the vehicles that had parked themselves in front of the capitol building’s steps and cratering a hole in the building itself. Smoke poured out, and the police began running, looking for cover and finding none.

“In!” she yelled, running with her squad. Her armor protected her from the fire of scattered truck remains that she dodged past, but the heat pressed down on her, urging her up the steps, through the rubble. She was at the front of her unit, axe in hand. Operationally, she knew she should have been towards the back as the unit commander, but she wasn’t going to heed that logical thought. Someone tossed a zephyr particle canister into the wreck of the main entrance, and all the police remaining inside dropped their guns to the floor, clattering on the slick black granite tiles before a single shot had even been fired.

The Rosenritter worked like a well-oiled machine, clearing room after room of the building. The security forces offered token resistance. Although they were well trained, they were overpowered by the Rosenritter in the close combat axe fights that the hallways offered, as soon as zephyr particles were in play. 

Automatic defenses, reinforced doors that locked down hallways, a ventilation system that could be weaponized to poison the intruders-- none of these were any match for the Rosenritter, who knew well enough not to lift their helmets and how to breach the doors of any spaceship, sturdier by far than these.

At last, they reached their target, the Landesherr’s office and broke open the door. Unsurprisingly, they found it completely empty.

The office was neat and stylish, the kind of slick style of strangely shaped furniture and flat glass that Phezzanis preferred. It was an island of calm in the sea of chaos that was the rest of the building, with Rosenritter continuing to clear rooms and take prisoner anyone who happened to be in their way, on the off chance that they were someone important. 

Annerose looked around the office for a second, put her axe down on the Landesherr’s mirrored-glass desk, then hopped up to sit on top of it. Several of her men laughed. She chided herself momentarily for acting so relaxed and glib-- this was a deadly serious time-- but her men, despite their laughter, were guarding the windows and doors, alert as always.

“Did the secondary team have any difficulty surrounding the Landesherr’s private residence?” Annerose asked.

The NCO who she had placed in charge of coordination with the other teams, Durer, replied, “They’re in place, ma’am. They haven’t engaged any of Rubinsky’s personal security, but they haven’t attempted to go in, either.”

“Good. As soon as this building is secure, we’ll leave a reserve here and go meet up with them. What’s the status of the other teams?”

“Commander Blumhart’s team reports that the Imperial Embassy was empty, and the computers were wiped. He’s occupied the building, but is asking if any other team needs support.”

“Fuck,” Annerose said. “I wonder who tipped them off.”

“Should I tell Blumhart to meet us at the Landesherr’s residence?”

“No,” Annerose said. “We shouldn’t need backup for that. Any word on Schenkopp or Linz?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Tell Blumhart if he needs somewhere to go, he can feel free to pick one of them to go support. I’ve got this covered.”

She took some more time to check the status of her squads within the building: what their losses were, how clear the building was,what important prisoners they had managed to take; and then broke off several squads to make the longer trek to the Landesherr’s residence.

The journey on airbikes, while punctuated by occasional stops where the road had been blocked off by police, went by in a blur for Annerose. She kept checking the status of Linz and Schenkopp’s teams, but no report came in from them. She didn’t let this anxiety eat at her, shoving it out of her mind. A report came in that some of Bucock’s ships had forced a docking at the top of the space elevator and had taken it under control.

They arrived at the Landesherr’s house on the outskirts of the city, a strangely peaceful scene despite the tanks surrounding the house: the emergency sirens that continued to wail in the city center were inaudible here. The only sounds were the hum of the engines of their airbikes and tanks, and the insects buzzing and chirping in the trees and garden behind the house.

“What’s the status on house security?” Annerose asked, peering up at the building. All the windows were dark.

“There must be some,” the NCO who had led the team to surround the house said, “but we haven’t seen any of it. Nobody’s come out, and none of us have gone in.”

“Any signs of automatic defenses?”

“We’ve done a scan. Nothing deadly underground. We can’t see inside the building, but it’s unlikely to be any more dangerous than the capitol itself.”

Annerose rather doubted that was true. On Phezzan, the rather anemic governmental defense was likely surpassed by private mercenary forces protecting factories, and private weapons defending homes.

She ordered a squad of Rosenritter up to the front door. They were prepared to knock it in, but found instead that it simply opened for them.

“A warm welcome?” Annerose wondered aloud, slipping her visor down over her face as she jogged up to the door to join them, axe in hand.

With her squad, she stepped inside the house. It was dark, but spotlights from the vehicles outside penetrated the gloom, revealing minimal, luxe furniture. The noise from outside disappeared entirely, and it was an odd silence of their heavy footsteps clacking on the floors. 

The first floor of the house was empty. They cleared it cautiously, expectant for some sort of trap, but there was no sign of Landesherr Rubinsky, or any defenses.

Annerose climbed the central, open staircase, flanked on either side, emerging into the second floor, a wide open living room. The lights from outside didn’t reach all the way up here, so it took a moment for Annerose to register that there was someone here, seated on the couch, facing the approaching Rosenritter, whose white armor was a dark bulk against the plate window behind them.

“Took you long enough to decide to come in,” the person said, and Annerose realized the voice, low and sultry, belonged to a woman. She reached to her side, and the men next to Annerose pointed their guns at her, but all she did was press a button to turn on the lights, revealing her fully.

She was a strikingly beautiful woman, in the warm, dim light. Her hair was red-- like Ingrid’s, Annerose noted-- and she wore a black dress, one that clung tight to her sides, though the slit in the leg that allowed her to sit with her legs crossed went all the way up to her hip, revealing the edge of red lace underwear. She was smiling, looking directly at the men, and holding a wine glass in her left hand.

Annerose flashed a signal with her free hand to the men behind her, stepping forward so they could fan out into the room, checking through the second floor just as they had the first, giving the woman a wide berth. She remained seated, hardly moving anything except her eyes, watching as the Rosenritter made their meticulous search.

“He’s not here, you know,” the woman said.

“Who’s not here?” one of her men, Weber, demanded.

“Adrian,” she replied. “He’s long gone.” She was remarkably calm. Annerose kept her eye on her, even as she listened to the reports coming in over the squad comms and walked the perimeter of the room herself, getting confirmation down each of the hallways that the building was completely clear.

“Who are you?” Weber asked.

“Are you in charge here, big fellow?” She smiled at him, and when he didn’t answer, she said, “I’d like to talk to whoever’s in charge. Perhaps we could make a deal.”

“We’re not making deals,” Weber said.

“This is Phezzan. Everyone’s here to make a deal, whether they know it or not.” She took a sip of her wine, and then put the glass down. When she slowly stood, Weber raised his axe, but Annerose stepped in, giving him the signal to stand back.

“I thought you were the leader,” the woman said. Annerose didn’t know why, but she allowed the woman to circle her. The eyes of the squad were on them both, and Annerose’s axe was in her hand; if this woman tried anything, she wouldn’t have time to take another breath. But she just walked in a slow circle around Annerose, several inches taller than her in her stilettos. “We should talk in private.”

The woman stopped her circling in front of her, and reached out one finger to run along the edge of Annerose’s axe blade. When her finger reached the top, she pressed down enough to puncture the skin, blood welling to the pinprick injury. It was the first her blade had been wetted all day; she had only swung her axe to chop down doors so far. 

“You’ve wounded me,” the woman said. “How cruel.”

It was curiosity, Annerose thought, nothing but curiosity as to what the woman would say unprompted that had kept Annerose silent and still. But when the woman went to press her bloody fingertip to Annerose’s closed visor, Annerose finally grabbed her wrist to stop her.

“What’s your name?” Annerose asked.

Upon hearing her voice, the woman’s expression changed. There was now curiosity in her eyes, and a new shift in the sultry way she tilted her head, now eyeing the rank insignia near Annerose’s throat. “Dominique Saint-Pierre,” she said. “And may I ask who you are, Commander…?”

Annerose dropped Dominique’s wrist, then, against common sense, unlatched her helmet and took it off, holding it loosely at her side. She met Dominique’s eyes, trying to keep her expression blank. “Annerose von Müsel.”

“We couldn’t have met before, but you look familiar to me,” Dominique said. Her eyes traced Annerose’s face, in a way that made Annerose want to check her hair, the attention making her wonder if something was out of place.

“You must have met my brother,” Annerose said. “He was attached to the High Commissioner’s office.”

“Of course,” Dominique said, but her tone made it clear that she had already known exactly why Annerose looked familiar; she had been playing pretend. She must have an incredible memory for people. “He paid you a compliment, when I spoke with him. He said you were more beautiful than he was. I’m gratified to see that he was telling the truth.”

“Where is Rubinsky?” Annerose asked. She kept her eyes locked on Dominique’s face.

“Do you want to make a deal, Commander?” Dominique asked. “I know where he is, and I’m willing to trade that information.”

“I don’t have the authority to make deals,” Annerose said. “Nor would I want to.”

“Authority, now that’s a funny thing,” Dominique said. “It tends to mean very little, in the moment. If you made a promise to me now, I think your superiors would feel obligated to keep it.”

“Why?” Annerose asked.

“Because if you do not act now, you will never find Adrian.”

“And what kind of promise do you want me to make in exchange for Rubinsky’s location?”

“I would like you to appoint a certain person to be the civilian overseer of Phezzan, whatever that job title ends up being. Our representative among your occupation government, as it were.”

“I don’t have the authority to make that promise,” Annerose said. “And Rubinsky’s location is not worth that much to me.”

“It’s not?” Dominique asked. “I would think it’s worth a great deal.”

“A man who’s running because he does not want to face his people as his country is occupied--”

“Commander, you’re quite naive. He’s sold you out.”

Annerose silently waited for Dominique to explain, continuing to stare at her. Dominique’s smile only curled more hungrily.

“He knew about this plan. I know the plan was that he was going to surrender to you nice and quietly. But he decided he would have more to gain if he warned the Empire of the invasion, helped them evacuate their embassy, allowed them to put their own ships in position outside the corridor… Deal fatal blows to your strategy.”

“With a plan involving so many people, the information was bound to get out,” Annerose said. “It hardly matters if Rubinsky leaked it. We don’t actually need him to sign a surrender.”

“But you’ll want revenge,” Dominique said. “And you can’t have that without him.”

“I’m not the kind of person who needs to take revenge on a man trying to merely save his own skin. Rubinsky is irrelevant, if he’s not here to sign a surrender.”

Dominique’s eyes roved over Annerose’s face, then out the window. “You have ships in orbit, don’t you? Ones that can’t land, but are full of soldiers ready to occupy this planet with more than just the force you’ve brought with you.”

“Thirty thousand ships,” Annerose said.

“They’ll have docked as many as can fit at the top of the elevator, haven’t they? And they’ve pushed out all the merchant freighters to do it. There’s probably soldiers and supplies on their way down now.”

Annerose was silent, but her heart was suddenly pounding. It wouldn’t be unlikely for Reinhard to be in the port at the top of the elevator, or even on his way down with the first batch of soldiers, coming to celebrate her victory. “What are you saying?” she asked.

“Even if not you, someone will want revenge,” Dominique said. “And you shouldn’t be so quick to throw away their chance at it.”

“What’s going to happen at the spaceport?”

Dominique silently pointed out the window behind Annerose. She turned.

The sun was beginning to rise, and the horizon was a pink crescent, the stars now invisible against the lightening sky. The slick glass of the city glittered distantly. 

Annerose had seen the sun rise on Phezzan before. Normally, it caught one edge of the space elevator, making it glow, glittering and golden, with its other side in shadow, until the whole thing had caught the full light of the risen sun. 

Now, crawling down from the sky, the wrong direction to be lit by the sun, and a dripping, angry red, the elevator glowed from within.

“He described it to me,” she said. “He likes to brag, and I’m good at making men talk, if nothing else.”

“What’s happening?” Annerose thought her voice might die in her throat, but the words came out clear anyway.

“It’s a failsafe that was built into the elevator. If it was ever knocked too far out of position, it might come crashing down onto the planet and kill-- oh, I don’t know how many people it would kill. There had to be a way to render it harmless, quickly, in case something like that happened. That’s a chemical reaction-- it’s breaking the polymers that hold the elevator together. And the port itself-- it had a nuclear self-destruct. To prevent an invasion just like this.”

Annerose was transfixed, both by Dominique’s voice at her ear, and by the flaming sword that pierced Phezzan’s sky.

“It’s going to knock out all ground-to-orbit communications, if it hasn’t already. And it’s going to make detection of ships in the debris cloud very difficult, if not impossible.” Dominique let the silence stew for a moment. “Do you want revenge, Commander?”

Annerose closed her eyes, but the image of the burning elevator was seared into them. “Where is Rubinsky?”

“Promise me I’ll get what I want,” Dominique said. Her voice was low and quiet, directly in Annerose’s ear. “And you can have him.”

“You can be the--”

“I don’t want the position,” Dominique said. “I want Rupert Kesselink to have it.”

“Who?”

“Exactly,” she said. “Appoint him.”

Annerose turned away from the window. Her squad was silently watching, though some were looking out the window, their expressions hidden by their visors. “Weber,” Annerose said, and her voice did crack this time. “Can we raise command?”

There was a tense moment of silence as Weber consulted over the local radio with the coordinating group outside. She couldn’t hear the squad coms, her helmet still dangling from her fingertips. “No, ma’am,” he said. “We’ve lost contact with OPS.”

Annerose’s expression hardened, and she slipped her helmet back onto her head, locking it in place. She felt better as soon as Dominique couldn’t see her face anymore, and the hiss and chatter of squad coms were back in her ears. “Where is Rubinsky?” she asked.

“Promise me,” Dominique said. “Rupert Kesselink will be the head of whatever local government you put in place.”

“I promise,” Annerose said.

Dominique smiled. “The Imperial embassy keeps an emergency escape ship registered as a private cruiser at an airfield a couple hundred kilometers south of here. They’ll be waiting for the debris cloud to be thick enough that they can leave the area without being detected. You still have a couple hours to catch them.”

Annerose turned away from Dominique, heading back downstairs. Weber followed her. 

“Do you really intend to give her what she’s asking for?” he asked.

Now, outside of Dominique’s piercing gaze, Annerose could think and answer more clearly. “I don’t have that power,” she said. “She knows that better than I do. But I can get her in front of people who have that power. She’s betting that’s enough.”

Weber nodded. “You trust that this isn’t a trap?”

“Yes,” Annerose said, though she couldn’t say why. “Can we raise Blumhart’s team?”

“We can try. Communications have been--”

“I know. If we can get ahold of him, I want his support for chasing our missing Landesherr. And the Imperial embassy staff. We’re spread too thin, at this point.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And I need you to take a team, find this Kesselink, get him and her” --she jerked her head back towards the room where Dominique was-- “on a shuttle and up into orbit. Give them to Captain von Müsel.”

“Your brother?”

“He’s Trunicht’s appointee,” Annerose said. “And Trunicht is the one who has the ability to make political assignments, or at least the power to pull those strings.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She dismissed him, and Weber hurried to obey. Annerose walked back outside the house, her eyes trained on the disintegrating space elevator that split the sky. Despite the urgency of the situation, she just stood and looked, until one of her men came up to her. 

“Ma’am, we have Commander Blumhart on the line. He’s at the base of the elevator.” He held out a handheld radio.

“Blumhart, what’s your status?”

“Have you looked up into the sky recently?” he asked. “Fuck, Müsel.” He sounded exhausted, even over the weak strains of the radio, interrupted by hisses and crackles of interference.

“Yeah,” she said, looking into the red sky. “ I can see it. What’s Linz’s status?”

“He got a blaster bolt in his shoulder. He’ll be fine, but he’s pissed. The security here was tighter than you had at the capitol, I’ve heard. We just got this place under control, and by then-- Yeah.”

“Don’t think Phezzanis care if you assassinate politicians, but if you disrupt shipping--”

“I guess.”

“I need you to loan me some men,” Annerose said. “As many as you can spare. I’m thin on the ground, but I have some intel about where your missing embassy staff went, and we need to track them down before they escape.”

“Fine,” Blumhart said. “Send the details.”

“Blumhart--”

“Yeah?”

“Nevermind,” she said. 

 


 

A small number of aircraft had come down with the landing party, and Annerose commandeered several to take her and Blumhart’s loaned men to find Rubinsky. These were armed, light planes, with wings that folded up to fit inside the cargo shuttles. They had no information on the airfield other than it showing up on maps of Phezzan, and with communication networks down and the city in chaos, there wasn’t going to be any chance to get any more information, so Annerose had very little with which to brief her men. They took it in stride.

As they flew, the sun rose. Although it was a clear day, without a cloud in sight, the light was muted and strange, grey with the remains of the space elevator drifting into a new tenuous orbit around the planet. She wondered if they would fall down into the atmosphere eventually. The portion of the elevator that was within Phezzan’s atmosphere was drifting away in a grey plume, stretched out like a banner across the sky behind them. Annerose ordered her men to keep their helmets on whenever they were outside. Even upwind of that, she didn’t know what it was made of, and didn’t want any of them to risk breathing it in.

It took about forty minutes for them to reach the airfield that Dominique had named. It  was tiny, and surrounded on all sides by thick forest. It had one runway, without even a control tower, but there was one slick space cruiser tethered at the end of the runway, with people standing guard outside.

There was no preventing them from noticing the approach of the planes. As soon as they saw them, the watching guards ran pell-mell back into the ship, drawing up the ramp. The engine glowed to life.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Annerose said. “Fire on that ship. Do not let it take off.”

The ship was a relatively small passenger vehicle, luxe but light, and it lacked the heavy shielding that military ships had, even if it was financed by the Imperial government. It only took a few shots to cut into the engine chamber, and the ship’s pilot made the wise decision to kill the engine before it exploded under fire. It slumped back down to the ground. Several of Annerose’s men whooped, but Annerose just ordered the pilot to land as quickly as possible.

The fact that they had to land gave the Imperial cohort time to evacuate the ship, or try to, anyway. Some of Annerose’s planes remained in the air, and fired on the cars that the fleeing Imperials ran to, parked just underneath the treeline. They hit a few before they could go far, but a couple managed to get away, losing the tailing planes in the thick forest.

Annerose’s plane landed, and she and her men ran out of the plane, pursuing the Imperial staff who were now trying to escape on foot into the forest. This, at least, did not get many of them very far. 

Annerose saw a familiar-looking man extracting himself from the wreckage of one of the cars that had been trying to escape, the one that had made it about half a kilometer down the narrow road before the plane managed to fire on it. He was clutching his arm and limping as he stumbled out of the passenger seat. When he noticed Annerose sprinting towards him, he tried to pull his sidearm out, but he fumbled with it as he half stumbled, half ran down the road. Annerose tackled him to the ground before he could get off a shot, sending them both heavily down the asphalt.

Muller groaned, and Annerose wrenched the gun from his hand and chucked it into the undergrowth.

“Gods, you couldn’t let a man get away, could you?” he muttered in Imperial, laying limply on the ground beneath her.

Annerose flipped her visor up. “My brother wants a word with you.”

Muller lifted his head to look at her face, then thunked it back down onto the road, closing his eyes. “Müsel,” he said. “I should have fucking known.”