The military forces on Godrevy Island were pulling back; not off the island, but away from their former advanced positions. The islanders had been quite upset in many cases, fearing that as soon as the soldiers withdrew the Sons of Auros would punish them for not resisting. The Army had hardly noticed, distracted as they were with their own problems. The glaring flaws in the Expeditionary Force's strategy had become apparent to even the blindest of civilian observers as the casualties continued to rise in the wake of the Battle of Godrevy, as the newspapers in the capital had started calling. The latest count had put the casualties inflicted by heretic raids and sniping attacks at near again the battle's full death toll.
The Rangers' response to the bloody attacks had been to gather their scattered troops and concentrate them in a more defensible position. No one had intended to create of one of the most heavily fortified positions the Rangers had made in half a century, but concentrating their bloodied troops around the ruined village turned refugee camp of Revscar had led to it nevertheless. The layout of the fortification was inexpert and the construction crude; none of the battalions had been deployed with engineers, thanks to the Rangers' chronic shortage in that regard. Silvia and the rest had done their best, but basic light infantry training could only go so far. The orders to dig in had not been popular with the exhausted Rangers. Heavy fortification was atypical for them, but then so was facing numerous heavy war golems.
"Excuse me, ma'am," Kiers said, handing her a cup of tea. "But we just got a vox from General Teague's new headquarters." She nodded in thanks but grimaced at the drink's taste. The absence of coffee in the past few weeks had become annoying but was hardly abnormal. She had contemplated more than once asking one of the medics or alchemists for stimulants, but they were in short supply (along with everything else) and there were sentries who needed them far more than her. "Commander Alarson will be returning in a few hours. He wants to meet with you and Commander Andrew."
"Do we even know where he is?" Silvia took another unpleasant gulp of tea. "I haven't seen him in the better part of a day." Alarson had been recalled to meet with General Teague, leaving Silvia in command of the Rangers. Andrew had been scarce since then.
"Last I've heard he was going around trying to improve the perimeter and impose some sort of order on all the refugees. Some of them are starting to get violent, or so I hear."
"I can see why. Damn. Well, see if you can find him for me. Take the men from Lieutenant Kairan's platoon. They haven't had anything to do since he was evacuated, and they're starting to get restless. Just make sure they don't start any fights with the islanders." She finished off the tea with a long final gulp and handed it off to Kiers.
"I'll get on that, ma'am." Kiers saluted and moved toward the door. She finished scanning the latest after action reports. Something was missing.
"Ivan," she glanced over at the battalion intelligence officer. "Why are there so few patrol reports from third company?"
Ivan fumbled through a few handwritten papers before answering. "Lieutenant Tavish's company took the heaviest losses on the twelfth, ma'am."
"I know that, Ivan. I'd understand if she couldn't send out as many as the other companies. What I want to know is why she hasn't sent out anyone in the past two weeks."
"That's what I meant, ma'am. She suspended most patrols because of a lack of manpower."
Silvia sighed and pressed her hands into her face. Tavish was short a platoon, not on her last dozen men. She needs to pull herself and her company together or she'll be replaced. Silvia couldn't afford a company commander who was going to shirk her duties. This wasn't the first time that she had been unimpressed by Tavish's performance so far as a company commander. A shame, too; Tavish had already been up for promotion, but Silvia had apparently misjudged her readiness for the position.
"Excuse me. I need to go and handle this issue," she said. Outside she got another good look at the chaotic mess of islanders who had been rendered homeless by the wave of attacks. Revscar's population had more than double, while only a few buildings remained standing. The village church had been converted into a hospital and the Aurian priests and Army medics were doing their best to keep disease and injuries under control. The mansion formerly inhabited by Ishmal Shear had been taken over by the Rangers as a headquarters. The pathetic huts and shacks the villagers had lived in before the attack were grossly inadequate for any purpose, let alone housing nearly a thousand soldiers and even more islanders.
She headed down towards the church, where the third company was arrayed. Along the way she walked through the crowds of islanders living out of tents and ramshackle huts made from scrap and rubble. The looks on their faces varied, but none were friendly. Some looked desperate, some looked hopeless, and more than few a spared hateful words and looks for Silvia and the other Rangers patrolling the camp.
"You look distracted." Silvia detected the reek of tobacco that followed Andrew everywhere when he was stressed. She glanced over to see him straighten up from where he had been leaning against the church wall smoking.
`She gestured in front of her. "These people are a problem, and one of my company commanders isn't living up to requirements."
"Alayne Tavish?" Andrew guessed, extinguishing his cigarette against the wall. Silvia nodded. "I talked to her a few hours ago. She's shaken up after the mauling her company got. This was a bad time to have to replace an experienced captain. She doesn't know her job well enough to handle this sort of operation."
"I'd replace her, but I haven't got anyone better. She's easily the most experience lieutenant I have, but she apparently can't handle a company yet."
"Have you tried giving her the lecture? That usually straightens out underperforming officers." He gestured outward. "And how about this mess? Sanitation is terrible and some of them are starting to get violent. I don't know how many complaints I've gotten today about thefts, and on top of that I've got a half dozen reported murders. Everyone wants me to do something about it. I'm not a god damned constable."
"The complaints I've heard have been about food and medicine. The priests are doing the best they can, but I've got to spare our most important stuff for the men. Pretty soon this is going to turn into a breeding pool for disease and people are going to start starving as well." She shook her head and chastised herself for getting distracted. Whatever Revscar's problems might be, they were not why she was down here.
A small airship flew overhead, rotors buzzing near-deafeningly. It passed once over Revscar before turning around and heading toward the largest spot of open ground near the headquarters. The markings on the side put it as belonging to the Army, not the Rangers.
"Are we expecting someone?" Andrew said.
"Yes. Didn't Kiers find you?"
"Your errand boy? No."
"He's not an errand boy. He was supposed to find you and tell you that Alarson wanted you to meet him back at headquarters."
"You mean you didn't come down here just to talk to me? Better start heading back, then. Wouldn't want to keep his majesty waiting, and it's a long walk unless you can whistle up a cab."
An irritated Marcus Alarson was waiting for them at Shear's manor, but surprised Silvia by offering no rebuke. "We need to move this along. I'd rather not keep our new arrivals waiting." He headed inside.
"I'm impressed," Andrew said, smirking. "I was expecting something worse. But whatever annoys him makes me happy." His smirk quickly changed into a scowl when they followed Alarson inside. "Scratch that," he muttered. "I'll take Alarson over these idiots any day." Several army officers were inside, including General Robert Teague and a pair of army commanders Silvia did not recognize. A young captain was talking to the battalion intelligence officer and writing carefully in a data tome. "What do you think they're here for? General Teague doesn't usually leave his headquarters." Andrew asked.
"Not unless he thinks it's important," Silvia agreed. It didn't add up though. General Teague had no reason to come out to a destroyed village of minimal strategic significance. Silvia had an ominous feeling that she was not going to like what she was about to hear.
"Do you wish to make an inspection of the surrounding terrain, General?" one of the army officers asked. Teague waved him off.
"No need. I got a good look from the air, and I'm sure Lieutenant Commander Kurtsev will get all the information he needs once he starts to get settled in." Silvia didn't like the sound of that. The vicinity of Revscar was already overcrowded, and another battalion was only going to make it worse.
They all crowded in to the closest thing that Alarson had been able to approximate to a briefing room. It was not really anything of the sort, though. It had a small table with a few chairs and a rough map of the surrounding area provided by Air Force cartographers and Ranger pathfinders. The junior officers accompanying Teague stood at the back of the room for a lack of seats, except for the captain Silvia had seen writing in the data tome a few minutes before. He was speaking quietly to Teague, and she guessed that he was the General's intelligence aide. She glanced at Alarson; he was still as irritated as he had been when they returned, and now Silvia had a good guess as to why.
"The past few weeks have revealed some weaknesses in our current tactics," Teague started. Silvia suppressed a laugh. Teague clearly had a gift for understatement. "Poor intelligence provided by the Aurian Church and civilian organizations led us to underestimate the power of the enemy forces, but my analysts and I still believe that our fundamental strategy should remain the same: secure bases of operation and use them to launch patrols to hunt down rebel forces and flush out strongholds. Our mistake before was assuming that the heretics lacked the power to make major attacks, so we dispersed our strength too much." Silvia could barely conceal her disgust. Not only was Teague blaming someone else for his errors, he didn't even have the good grace to correct those errors.
"Instead of smaller platoon and company sized bases, we are going to shift to regimental bases with full artillery support for the surrounding areas. Over the next two weeks the 9th light infantry will be moving into this area and establishing a proper firebase. Commander Hendershot of the 9th will be assuming command here shortly. Lieutenant Commander Kurtsev's Sappers will be doing most of the actual construction of course."
"I recommend including an airstrip into the firebases," Andrew said. "It'll make supplying troops around here easier. And while you're at it, do something about all the people here. Either move them or bring in food and medicine unless you want disease to decimate your manpower."
"Your concerns are noted, lieutenant commander. We intended to do our best to make sure that the refugees gathered here are protected and kept in good health." Teague might as well have said nothing at all. He obviously intended to do nothing.
"And what are the Rangers going to be doing during this?" Silvia asked, dreading the answer.
Alarson spoke before Teague. "Withdrawing. General Teague has ordered us to withdraw in the next two weeks, and given the high casualties sustained in the fighting, our higher ups see no reason to contest this. We will be returning Arran for rest and replenishment."
"Offensive operations are suspended for the next four months," Teague said. "Don't send out anything more than security patrols—don't give these heretics an easy target."
Instead of giving them a target, you're giving them free reign of the island, Silvia thought angrily. It was going to make the situation even worse. It was a good thing the Rangers were leaving. She didn't want her men anywhere near these islands after the heretics had spent four months preparing.
"General, since none of this concerns me or my officers, may I go and handle the plans for our withdrawal?" Alarson started to rise.
"Of course." Teague waved dismissively.
"What a twat," Andrew muttered as soon as they stepped outside. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. "Makes me glad we aren't sticking around. He has no god damned idea what he's doing."
"Why do you think we're withdrawing?" Alarson said. "I worked out the same thing the moment I heard this plan. He's going to bleed his men dry and we aren't sticking around to watch." They started moving toward Alarson's office. "I expect to have both regiments start pulling out in the next two days. You two, however, are getting a different assignment once we're back in Arran." He unlocked a desk drawer and pulled out a data tome with sealing runes on the cover.
"This is keyed to five people, including both of you and myself," he said, handing it to Silvia. "The special service unit the two of you have been pushing for has finally been approved by the Old Man."
"Finally." Silvia smiled. "I'd given up hope of him ever approving it."
"Apparently you owe it to your new contract."
"What do you mean by that? Is a client paying for this?"
"Practically. I wasn't told who the client was or how much they were offering, but it must be quite a lot for the Old Man to finally let go of the money to get this project off the ground. The data tome contains all the information you should need. A list of candidates deemed acceptable and profiles of them, your budget, and the regulations these Special Service Rangers will be expected to follow."
"I see I've been relegated to executive officer," Andrew said, looking inside the tome. "Not that I mind terribly. I've spent my whole life shirking responsibility."
A thought occurred to Silvia. "When and who are we handing command over to?" The Rangers never had much ceremony associated with command changes, but the Wolfhounds had been a good unit and she would feel better knowing that whoever was getting them next was competent.
"As soon as we get back to Arran," Alarson said. "Your replacements have yet to be determined, however." He tapped his desk. "I need both of you to focus on right now. I want this withdrawal to go smoothly. We will be extremely vulnerable while we're moving to the airfield, and I don't want to lose any more men because we aren't organized. Start issuing orders and make sure your troops are ready." He made a dismissive gesture. "Get to it."
Hours later, long after the Rangers had finished preparing to move out, the Errynt twins were poring over the contents of the data tome. They were forgoing sleep that they could have used, but they were better able to deal with missed sleep than most.
"Well, they certainly didn't give us the dregs of the division when they assembled that list of candidates," Andrew said, grinning, as they finished scanning the tome's profiles.
Silvia agreed but said nothing for several moments. She was busy going over the list once again in her mind, pulling out the names of people who would had the skills she wanted and the right personalities to avoid internal conflict. Internal conflict would be the death of a small special service unit.
"I agree, but I think we should try to narrow it down to about a hundred people," she said. The data tome had almost three hundred profiles, and she didn't want to personally interview all of them. "Maybe a few more, to account for some just straight up turning us down."
"How many do you think are going to refuse? I know I wouldn't."
"This is also partly your idea. And not everyone is as quick to run towards danger as you are."
Andrew gave short laugh. "Maybe, but half the time I'm following you."
"Perhaps." Silvia gave a small smile. "I think that a lot of candidates are going to be averse to undergoing extensive augmentation, and plenty aren't willing to stick their necks out any farther than they already do."
"True. More than a few of our veterans are going to give this assignment a brief glance before they decide that being wired up and stuck further out in the middle of nowhere isn't worth the extra pay. I still don't think that we're going to have too much trouble filling fifty-eight slots, even with all the skills we need. I can name a half-dozen marksmen off the top of my head who'll be lining up to volunteer."
"We don't just need marksmen, Andrew. We need vox operators, puppeteers, medics, engineers, several types of thaumaturges, and officers."
"So? We'll have a lot of people wearing more than one hat. Both of us are already going to be doing that." He reached for the data tome. "Engineers and medics could be trouble. Give me a few minutes to figure out who I'd recommend, since I know you've already got everyone you want picked out."
Andrew had probably barely given it thought before, Silvia thought. He did not plan well, but what he made up as he went along was usually just as good. But she did need to remind him of new necessities. "You're going to need to do more planning for this assignment," Silvia said. "The sort of operations we'll have, we won't be able to run in and rely on quick reflexes and good aim to pull us through."
He glanced up from the tome. "I plan as much as you. The difference is that your plans are finely crafted machines where everything flows smoothly. My plans go terribly and I kit-bash something together to compensate. And I think we're going to need that just as much," he finished, sounding slightly annoyed.
It was a fair criticism and Silvia didn't have a reason to contest it. Andrew's improvisational skills almost certainly would prove useful. Instead of pursuing the question further she turned to transcribing her mental list of candidates onto paper. There were several long minutes of silence before Andrew spoke again.
"We're going to need weapons. If we'll be deploying sixty people at most, it'd be a good idea to have more firepower."
"I already thought of that. Templar burst carbines would be ideal, and supposedly they've developed a semi-automatic torque rifle."
"I didn't hear about that."
"They weren't advertising it, but I picked up on it from the Templars who were attached to the Wolfhounds. I suspect we can persuade them to let go of a few." They tossed back and forth several other possibilities while Andrew worked. But most of Andrew's comments were distracted, partly because he had never had Silvia's interest in weapons and machines, but mostly because he was focused on the data tome with an intensity that she hadn't seen in him since he'd been promoted to command a battalion. He never had quite the skill or quite the interest with higher command that he had in commanding a company. It was easy to see why a small unit the special service rangers aroused more intensity. It was a sentiment that Silvia shared. That she had done better in her position than Andrew did little to assuage the loss of excitement and connection that came with a larger command.
"Who did you pick, then?" Andrew said, reaching across towards her handwritten list. He passed her his own. "This isn't quite as long as mine," he smirked over the top of the page.
"Contrary to what you may think, I can't easily keep track of over a hundred people in my head, most of whom I've never met, so that's just the people who stuck in my mind."
"I can't argue with most of these," Andrew said. "Chief Sergeant Haviland is the perfect choice for senior noncom. Tough as steel and far more intelligent. You seem to have quite a few lieutenants on here, though. I thought we wanted officers with more experience than that."
"I don't want them for their leadership abilities, although I expect that all of them are intelligent enough that we'll have replacements available when one of the team leaders is killed." There was no point ignoring the fact that they were going to lose people, including their team leaders. The only thing to do was to make sure competent replacements were available. "All of them are rated experts in their thaumaturgical specialization."
"Who's this Artemis Gorgios? She sounds vaguely familiar."
"I'm surprised you missed her. She's a brilliant combat puppeteer. I've seen her handle multiple automata with more precision than most puppeteers can manage with one."
Recognition dawned on his face. "The pretty Dorian girl who joined from the Air Force last year. What about Michael Kairan though? I have heard of him; not very nice things either. Isn't he crazy or something?"
"If he was crazy he wouldn't have gotten a commission," Silvia said. "And he's one of the best alchemists we have." It was true, but memories of the relief of Revscar pushed their way to the front of her mind. Several villages had been killed by what was obviously Michael's alchemy—but accidents happen in combat, even more so if you were outnumbered and desperate. And then there was Father Goviri's accusation. She found it hard to believe that the lieutenant was fausthost; he exhibited none of the bizarre behaviors of humans playing host to metaphysical entities. Nevertheless there was a lingering doubt. Maybe the abhuman lieutenant was more adept at concealing faustian behavior than most fausthosts.
She shoved it aside. If Michael was a threat she would find out soon enough, and she would deal with it. "A more significant problem is that he is in the hospital recovering from aether burn. He pushed himself too far without an external power source, and the weather exacerbated the problem for him. I don't know how long it will take him to recover from that."
"If you think he's trustworthy." Andrew glanced at his watch and grimaced. "Only two hours," he muttered. "At this point we may as well keep going. I doubt I'm going to get any sleep tonight anyway."