It had been overcast and threatening snow, and, as Walsie said—repeatedly—colder than a penguin’s patoot the night Gideon and his Dirty Dozen made their way past the ever-moving Coalition lines to rescue General Rand’s wife, left behind during a rushed evac.
The colonel and nine of his company were closing on the point of Celia Rand’s last contact, while Lt. Fehr and the other two remained to guard the maglev engine that was to be their exit strategy, should all go well.
If all didn’t go well, Gideon had been assured no exit strategy would be required.
He and his company could damn well stay behind the lines if they didn’t return with General Rand’s wife.
“I have eyes on the CP,” Gideon said, lowering his telescope and deactivating the night vision, lest unfriendly eyes be roaming this particular bombed-out quarter of the Upper Allianz base.
“If it’d been anyone but a general’s wife left behind, they’d be planning the funeral by now,” Walsie muttered from where he was watching Gideon’s seven.
“Not now, Walsie,” Gideon murmured, then looked up, to where Sgt. Mulowa was perched atop a slightly higher pile of the broken wall Gideon had been propping his ‘scope on. “Any movement?”
“Not—wait.” Her left hand automatically clenched in a fist, and every member of the team flattened against the nearest available surface.
Gideon risked a glance over the ruined barracks house in which they’d gathered, and was pleased with the near invisibility of his team. He looked back up at Mulowa, her face a shadow amongst the shadows, and waited.
Her left fist opened, spreading to show all five fingers and then, after a beat, closed all but two.
She waited again, then pointed in the direction of the command post which they believed the asset, Celia Rand, was using as a safe house.
Apparently, it was not safe anymore.
Gideon raised his own fist high long enough for the company to note, flashing five fingers once. He then pointed once to himself before following this up with a circling motion of that finger around his head.
He didn’t have to look back to know that, when he broke cover to circle around the back of the CP, five of his company would follow.
Behind, Mulowa and the three remaining corpsmen spread out to provide cover fire, should it become necessary.
Less than fifteen minutes and one explosion later, cover fire became very, very necessary as, besides the seven Mulowa had spied entering the command post, there turned out to have been another six soldiers in the uniform of Midas approaching the target from the east, all of whom opened fire the second Gideon’s crystal det had blown open the rear door of the command post, forcing Gideon and the other five to dive for the nearest cover.
In Gideon’s case, the nearest cover had been the radio room of the post, which, interestingly, already held four people—three hostiles, and the woman now at Gideon’s side.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Madame,” Gideon said, taking aim at the Midasian who’d just planted an arrow in his right bicep, “you’re not exactly dressed for the occasion.”
As he spoke, the enemy soldier fell, but not to Gideon’s rifle. He was dropped by a plasma bolt to the chest from Celia Rand’s pistol.
Gideon thought the look of betrayal on the Midasian’s face as he collapsed was odd, but perhaps the dead man had been as appalled by Madame’s choice of combat wear as Gideon.
She looked away from the fallen enemy, already dismissing his existence. “Is this really the time to critique my choice of clothing?”
“Not so much the clothing as the color.” He ducked another flurry of enemy fire—plasma along with the arrows—from both his and the enemy forces, and tugged her around the frozen carcasses of several dead horses to the shelter of the tipped-over supply wagon.
He looked at his charge, with her black, black hair, and pale, pale skin—and then there was the coat. “Oddly, red is a very easy color to spot in winter,” he said, indicating the high-collared, ankle-length, blood-hued garment.
He didn’t comment about the way it was tailored to draw a man’s eye to every curve.
Focus, he reminded himself.
Beyond their hiding place, the sounds of weapons’ fire slowed up, then stopped.
“Be assured, the next time I’m left behind by our own troops, I’ll be certain to raid Corps Stores.” Her breath fogged the air as she whispered into the fresh quiet. Her expression was about as chill as the temperature, until she noticed the arrow sticking out of Gideon’s arm and her already pale face went deathly white. “You’ve been shot,” she announced the obvious, one hand tentatively reaching for the offending arrow, before Gideon shifted out of her reach.
“Not the first time,” he told her, then raised his rifle at the sound of boots crunching through the snow.
Madame Rand bit her lip and clutched at his left (unshot) arm, which unfortunately got in the way of his aim.
Before he could shake the woman off, Nbo Mulowa’s face peered around the corner, blotting out the first falling flakes of snow.
“We’re in the clear, Colonel, but we should bug out before any more Midasians arrive,” she said, then looked at the woman on his arm. “This her?”
“Her?” Madame’s eyes narrowed.
“Yup,” Gideon said, stepping between them.
“Nice coat,” Mulowa noted.
“We’ve covered that,” Gideon muttered, slinging the rifle over his unshot arm and starting out into the thickening snow.
“Wait!” Madame Rand ordered, then added an impetuous foot stomp when both colonel and sergeant ignored her.
“I. Said. Wait!” She dashed around in front of Gideon, and then glared at Mulowa. “No one is going anywhere until the colonel’s arm has been tended.”
Sgt. Mulowa looked at the civilian, then to her colonel. “Sir?”
Gideon felt the twitching that always happened in his jaw when he was trying not to swear. Then he shook his head, handed his rifle to the sergeant, and, taking a deep breath, shoved the arrow the rest of the way through his bicep. Over Madame Rand’s musical little shriek, he snapped off the fletching, and reached back to pull the shaft the rest of the way through. “Mind?” he asked, grasping at the fluttery (red) bit of scarf she wore over her hair.
“What? Oh,” she shook the frippery free. “No, but—let me do it,” and commenced to bind Gideon’s wound with surprisingly capable fingers.
In fact, from that point on, Celia Rand seemed to shuck the role of pampered wife, which should have been a relief. And would have, he thought, but for her unwillingness to let Gideon out of her sight and, more disturbingly, his inability to think of anything but what might be going on under that coat whenever she was near.