The Longest Shard, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers.
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Back in the Day
Northern Adidas Territories
December 3, 1441 AL
In the sheeting rain outside Fort Echo, Clarence waited for the portcullis to close behind Major Carillon, then returned to the gatehouse.
Pax Van Meer, the shadow trader with whom he had a long-standing relationship, was due any minute.
As he crouched in the gatehouse, double-checking the fastenings on the oiled canvas bags, he hoped that Pax hadn’t been scared off by Carillon’s company.
All in all, it would be best if he were quit of the stolen weapons before he radioed in the major’s arrival, and the potential attack by the infamous Colonel Quinn.
And when he did raise the alarm? Who knew, but he might even net a medal for his part in preventing the loss of the Bounty.
Possibly even a promotion.
Looking up from the bags, he caught sight of another light crisscrossing the icy plains and immediately dismissed thoughts of advancement.
Slinging his crysto-plas rifle over his chest, Clarence grabbed the two heavy sacks and stepped out into the rain to complete the night’s business.
“It’s about time,” he said, hauling the bags in the direction of the light. “Oy!” he complained as the light swept up, temporarily blinding him. “Watch where you’re aiming that, Pax.”
“Who’s Pax?” an authoritative voice boomed through the drumming rain.
Clarence stifled the curse. “Ahh, General Vern?” Affecting a confused tone, he let one of the duffels splat to the wet ground while he clutched the other in front of the rifle. “What are you doing out in this weather?”
“One of the exploring teams reported enemy movement within a kilometer of the fort. Who is Pax?” she asked again. “And what are you doing with those duffels?”
“Oh,” Clarence said with a smile the general couldn’t see. “That’s just the nickname I’ve given Master Sergeant Gifford. Because he’s always telling people to give him some peace, so—pax—peace. Get it?”
“That’s a terrible nickname,” Vern determined. “And the bags?”
“Extra rain kit,” Renny said quickly.
The general’s aide, a strapping young corporal named Tzitzin, dropped the torch to the bag on the ground.
“About those enemy movements,” Clarence said before Tzitzin’s light revealed anything, “I was just about to radio in that I’ve received confirmation of an active threat against the fort, and the Bounty.”
“And how would you know that?” The question came not from Vern, but from Tzitzin, which Clarence thought a bit cheeky.
“Boucher?” Vern prompted. “Answer the question.”
“Sir,” Clarence said, then took a breath. “Several minutes ago, I was approached by Major Carillon’s company, out of the Third Legion. They’ve intercepted a radio transmission between Colonial Epsilon Command and the Twelfth Company.”
“Quinn’s Dirty Dozen,” Vern murmured, her breath whisping through the sleet.
“The very same.” Renny nodded. “I have the transmission from Carillon’s second himself.” As he spoke, he dug the paper he’d received from his pocket. “As you will read, Epsilon has ordered Quinn to destroy the ARAS Bounty tonight.”
“That’s impossible,” Vern stated flatly, and Renny, holding the message outstretched, felt the hot spike of anger running up his spine at her off-handed rejection of the facts.
“Quinn’s a madman,” Tzitzin offered, “but coming this deep into enemy territory is off the apiary, even for him.”
“Not that part.” Vern held out a hand to her aide, who handed the general her night-vision spyglass, which she raised towards the sleeting skies. “The bit about Carillon.”
Clarence frowned. “What about Carill—?”
“Tzitzin!” Vern’s snap interrupted his query. “Radio the duty officer to sound the alarm.”
“What?” Renny asked while the eager Tzitzin unhooked his radio.
Vern lowered the spyglass. “Tell me, Sergeant, do you hear anything?”
Clarence began to protest there was nothing to hear but the never-ending rain, but then he caught the sound, faint at first, of an airship’s engines, their thrum almost masked by the storm.
Even as he identified the sound of engines, the general alarm began to shriek through the fort, waking the legion.
Renny sensed a change in the light and, looking up, spied the long, bulbous shadow climbing fast as it angled towards the northwest.
Several flashes of plasma shot skyward, to no avail… the airship was already out of range.
“I don’t understand,” Clarence said, though he did. Of course he did.
“I do,” Vern said. “Because today’s dispatches included the report that Major Carillon was wounded in action three days ago, when he and his company were attacked by marauders, who successfully made away with the company’s supplies. Including their uniforms.”
“But if Carillon is WIA,” Tzitzin asked, as if playing the puppy-eyed assistant in some detective pastiche, “who just flew away in the Bounty?”
“I imagine that would have been Gideon Quinn,” Vern said, then glanced at Clarence. “Wouldn’t you?”
Clarence, however, was already working the numbers.
On the minus side, allowing himself to be duped by an enemy was bad.
On the plus side, Quinn had obviously managed to get past Lieutenant Anapopoulis, and a minimum five other members of the legion to get aboard the ‘ship, which meant Clarence wasn’t the only smog-up in the mix.
On the minus side, and it was a big minus, he was standing in front of his commanding officer in possession of two sacks crammed to bursting with stolen weapons.
“Sergeant Boucher seems to have lost his voice,” Vern said, turning to Tzitzin. “Corporal,” she began. “Please remove the sergeant’s—”
But whatever order she was about to give her aide was never delivered, because Vern was suddenly preoccupied by the smoke emerging from the plasma bolt Clarence had just fired.
“Sorry, Tzitzin,” Clarence said, aiming his rifle at the corporal. “The numbers just didn’t work in your favor.”
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