And now, back to writing. Some new players on the board: just a reminder that not all Brekken are bad guys.
* * *
Interlude: the Brekken garrison at Sal’zahar
“Commandant?” The Air Captain of the B.A.S. Hellebarde had waited until the others had left the wardroom, stepping back out of their way as they passed.
“Yes, Captain Wraithfield?” The Commandant barely turned back to look at her.
“Are they to be given a warning, sir?”
Now the Commandant turned back and gazed at her coldly. “You have your orders, Captain.”
“Yes, sir—but there are hundreds of people in those towers, sir! Women, children—”
The Commandant straightened and looked down at her. “Are you questioning your orders, Captain?” There was danger in the soft tone of his voice now, and she realized she had to make a hard choice.
“No, sir,” she answered, her voice thin.
Harouen saluted smoothly, and the Commandant responded with a negligent wave of his hand. She turned and exited the wardroom, heading out to the airfield with her mind in turmoil. She knew what her decision was for herself, but she could not choose for her crew. That had to be for each one to decide.
Once on the Hellebarde, she went straight to the bridge and took up the microphone for the airship’s address. “Attention, Hellebarde. Attention, Hellebarde, this is Captain Wraithfield. All crew report to the central airframe immediately, repeat, immediately. Lift crew: bring all ground crew aboard now and report to the central airframe immediately. This is not a drill. All crew check in with your sector chiefs as you enter the central airframe. Sector chiefs, be ready to log your crews. Wraithfield out.”
Ten minutes later Harouen strode through the hatch and entered the airframe. Fifty-four pairs of eyes watched her as she stood at the top of the steps, and she waited until all the mutters and shuffling stopped. Until there was no other sound but the creak of the airbags and the singing of the wind through the tie-down lines.
Until all she could hear was the beat of her aching heart.
She looked out over her crew, meeting those eyes one by one, and at last she took a deep breath and spoke.
“We have our orders,” she said, and waited until their reaction settled. “You may guess from all this that they are orders I disagree with, and that guess would be right. I’ll tell you those orders now, and why I disagree, and then you each have a choice to make.
“We are to board a payload of explosive ordnance and prepare for lift and engagement.” She paused, and then took a deep, hard breath. “In three hours time we are to lift and proceed to our target, Dorre Arantxa, the seat and residence for clan Arantxa and the surrounding area. There we are to discharge our armed payload and return to base.”
A third time she paused and waited for that return to uneasy silence. “To be absolutely clear: we are to bomb a civilian target with the intent to destroy it utterly.” Her voice went harsh and stark. “And we are to do it with no warning.” She raised her voice over their shocked reaction. “We are to give no warning and no chance to evacuate. We are ordered to bombard a target filled with hundreds of non-combatants. Men, women, and children.”
She waited for silence once more; a long time, this, several minutes, and once more took a deep, shuddering breath. “I cannot comply with these orders. They go against all the rules of engagement of honorable warfare.” This time, the silence held, and she went on. “I am giving you each a choice for your own actions. If I am alone in this, I will walk off Hellebarde and submit myself for court-martial. If enough of you are with me, we will arm and lift last, and once airborne we will turn out to sea with all speed until we are out of range of the flight. What follows then will be a separate decision. In that case, any of you who are willing to support those orders will be detained until just before lift, and will be put ashore peacefully.” She looked out onto fifty-four sober faces, and nodded once. “I would like to see a show of hands, please. Any who will follow those orders, please raise your hands?”
Not a single hand was raised; not a single crewman moved save to look around to see.
Harouen nodded once. “A show of hands for those who oppose those orders?”
Every single hand shot skyward without an instant’s hesitation. After a long moment she cleared her throat and gestured for them to put their hands down. She looked out over her crew, all standing in silence before her, and cleared her throat again. “You do understand that this is mutiny, mutiny and treason.”
The answer came back to her in a rolling growl of “Aye,” falling back into silence.
She looked down for a few moments before raising her eyes again. “You must know that if we do this, we can never go home again.”
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Captain,” one of the senior ground crew shouldered forward, “but how can it be home when they can do the likes o’ that?”
Harouen met the older man’s troubled eyes for a long moment, and nodded. “Aye. And speaking of home—another thing to consider. If we do this, our families back home may pay a price as well.” She shook her head and went on. “A last thought. Once the flight is finished with Dorre Arantxa—we will be the next target. They will hunt us down like a rabid wolf. There will be no quarter, just blood and fire and wreckage.”
Beside her, her first officer stirred. “Better that than roll over like a whipped cur or do their bidding like a savage dog.” She looked over at him for a moment, and then nodded soberly, and once again cleared her throat.
“So be it, then.” She clapped her hands once and gestured to the sector chiefs. “We go on as ordered until lift. Load the ordnance and take on any ammunition or supplies we need to top up our stores. Ground and lift crews, to your stations. Bridge and department crews, same. Let’s to it like the top crew we are. Dismissed.”
But instead of leaving, each and every crew member snapped to attention as if ordered and gave her a brisk salute, holding it until she gave the answer of a full, formal salute in return.
* * *