HONOR LOST AND FOUND
Kaydyn Ramirez stared at the empty room in dismay and anger. For a few seconds, she was completely still, absorbing the scene and the implications that went with it. Then she slammed the heel of her hand into the doorframe in frustration. “Star! How could this happen?”
Even when she wasn’t in the middle of an outburst of righteous indignation, Kaydyn was the kind of woman who drew attention when she entered a room. If the rank displayed on her uniform didn’t make an impression, then her slim, athletic build and confident manner did. Her silky black hair, dark complexion and dynamic brown eyes gave her a classic Latin beauty that made the male soldiers she came into contact with do a double-take. Woe to the man, however, who failed to notice the tough glint those pretty brown eyes.
Star Malone, used to her commanding officer’s passionate outbursts, kept her face perfectly neutral “One of the other Kachina teams was responsible for the prisoner’s security.”
Kaydyn spun on her heel. “But the Storm Kachinas are responsible for every Kachina operation in this area.” Her light brown eyes snapped fire. “We’re the ones who will be blamed.”
Star’s bright blue eyes dropped, and her hands began to automatically straighten her uniform. “I know.” Unlike her friend, Star was blessed with the fair beauty of her ancestor’s home in Ireland and was less inclined to emotional displays.
“The Kachinas have a bad enough reputation without us losing prisoners.” Kaydyn’s voice became quieter. “It’s beginning to wear on the girls.”
“You think we could get him back?” Star looked up hopefully.
Kaydyn looked over the cell again. “He probably broke out after two minutes in this cracker box.” A hard laugh escaped her lips. “He’s long gone.” Silence reigned supreme for a moment.
“So what do we do?” Star asked finally.
“What can we do?” Kaydyn rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. “We have to tell the General.”
Kaydyn stood at strict attention as the General ranted on. She didn’t dare look at her girls or the women in the other Kachina. An anger burned in the twenty-three year old officer as she listened to the man obliterate the already dismally low morale.
Ever since its formation after the Draft Act of 2095, the Kachina special military units, made up entirely of female draftees, had been put down and largely misused. Assigned the most menial and degrading tasks, no one had ever actually ever given the women in the five Kachina groups a chance to prove their worth. They were simply warm bodies filling bureaucratic requirements, a fact they were continuously being reminded of. However, that didn’t stop men like General Oddyse Richman from chewing them out when they messed up.
“I’ve never seen such a deplorable excuse for an attempt at incarceration.” The General’s heightened tones reached to the back of the ranks. “That very important prisoner walked out of this camp like it has revolving doors! And the soldiers of the Storm and Coyote Kachinas did nothing to stop him!”
“Sir, we did our best with the facilities and the guards that we had available.” Maryanne Silven, the leader of the Coyote Kachina, finally spoke up.
“And what actions did you take to keep your prisoner here?” Oddyse asked in a mockingly sweet voice. “Did you perhaps try sewing him to the cot? Back in the old days, that’s what women were supposed to do, sew. Apparently, it’s the only thing they’re good for!”
Maryanne pursed her lips and said nothing.
The General finished glaring at her and turned his attention back to the troops. “I will report this, and corrective action will be taken.”
“Sir, yes sir!” The women answered with one voice.
Pleased with this verbal acknowledgment of his power, the General left.
Kaydyn’s lip curled as she watched the fat figure of the man waddle back to his vehicle and disappear in a cloud of dust. She was fed up with being treated like the personal slaves of World War Three. She turned sharply. “Kachinas, dismissed!”
Later that evening, the leaders of the two Kachinas met in Kaydyn’s command tent to discuss the turn of events. Lit by the single light bulb that seemed to be suffocated by the dark folds of the tent material, the room was as gloomy as the atmosphere.
“I knew we should have put more girls on that cell.” Maryanne moaned.
“We didn’t have more girls to put on that cell.” Kaydyn paced angrily. “I’m beginning to wonder if we were supposed to be able to keep that prisoner at all.”
“You think the General would set this up to embarrass us?” Maryanne stared at her colleague.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Kaydyn growled.
“I just don’t understand this.” Maryanne rested her head in her hands. “They tell us to do stuff and don’t give us the intel or supplies or anything to help us get it done.” She was relatively new to the Kachinas and hadn’t learned all the ropes yet, slimy as those ropes were.
“It’s simple.” Kaydyn pulled out a chair and rested a foot on it. “We’re the clowns. The patsies. If they need someone to take a fall, it’s us. They need us to look bad so everyone else will look good. They don’t really care what we can do for our country.” She kicked the chair over. “It’s disgusting.”
Kaydyn’s communication system beeped the code for new orders, and she walked over to look at it. The young Kachina’s eyes widened as she read the information. “Maryanne, look at this.”
The other leader took the thin data pad and scanned it quickly. She looked up in surprise. “They want us to take the Valley of the Cages?”
“That’s what it says.” Kaydyn stood there clenching and unclenching her fists.
The Valley of the Cages was a tactical nightmare. Cut into the desert floor like a section of wormwood, it was once a prison where different terrorists kept masses of slaves. There were holding pens, buildings, high security cells and other structures, both open-aired and closed, that were all connected by narrow alleys. Now it was one of the last stubborn strongholds for the remnant of terrorist groups. Once a person was in the Valley, there was no visibility unless they could climb to the top of a building. It was a maze and a deathtrap.
“But it would take twice our number to clear that area! Not to mention we’re not equipped for this kind of campaign!” Maryanne protested.
“It does prove one thing.”
“Someone is definitely trying to either make us look bad or…” Kaydyn’s voice drifted off, and she drummed the table with her fingertips as she stared off into space.
“Or what?” Maryanne prompted.
“Or the Kachinas aren’t meant to come back from this assignment.” Kaydyn finished grimly.
Maryanne was just experienced enough not to react dramatically to the theory. She sat back in her chair, silent shock giving way to a logistical analysis of the situation. “How did you figure?”
“The Kachina’s have always been the center of a political mess.” Kaydyn pointed out. “Maybe this is someone’s way of cleaning up the mess. Or making points with someone powerful. Or maybe someone is jealous and just wants us out of the picture.”
“By someone, you mean General Oddyse.”
A long, slow breath hissed from between Kaydyn’s teeth as she stared at her comrade. “I wouldn’t say it out loud.” She was too good a soldier to do that. “But all of that is extraneous. The question is not why we’ve been ordered to do it. The point is, we’ve been given orders.”
“So what do we do?” Maryanne looked to Kaydyn as the greater commander.
Kaydyn turned away for a moment. The gravity and weight of the situation were not lost on her. This was a pivotal point, not only in her life but in the lives of the women soldiers who depended on her. She had the chance to five them a reason to live again.
The leader of the Storm Kachina spun around, the embers of an ancient war fire glowing in her eyes. “Do what you wish with your girls. Mine are going to do what we came here to do; fight for our country.”
Kaydyn tested the edge of her combat knife for what seemed to be the hundredth time. The walls of the tent were beginning to close in on her as she waited.
There was a swish as Star entered. “They’re all here.”
Kaydyn shoved the knife back into its sheath. “Star, am I doing the right thing? I could be leading them to their deaths.”
“If you’ll pardon my saying so,” Star looked directly at her commander and younger friend. “We’re dead now. Only we’re still seeing and hearing and knowing how dead we are.”
Kaydyn sighed and put a hand on Star’s shoulder. “Thanks.” The two women embraced quickly.
Then Kaydyn turned and strode boldly out the tent door. She faced the two hundred girls of the combined Storm and Coyote Kachinas confidently, noticing Maryanne standing off to the side.
“Women of the Kachinas!” Kaydyn’s voice rang out to the waiting companies. “We have been ordered to clear the Valley of the Cages. Alone.” She waited for the inevitable murmurs of astonishment to die down.
“Now hear me!” Kaydyn held up her hands and the entire crowd still instantly. “For three years, we have been tossed from assignment to assignment like an old war hour that no one wants. We’ve been given the dirtiest jobs without a nod of thanks. We’ve been abused and jeered while no one stood by to help.”
Kaydyn’s eyes ran over the ranks of expectant faces before her. “We’ve been robbed of our dignity, our uniqueness as women, our very worth. We have been written off as completely useless. Well, today it ends!”
A rustle ran through the women as something aroused in them. Something that had been long suppressed and stamped out.
“We may not have chosen to be here.” Kaydyn continued. “It may be that we were not meant to be the ones defending our families in combat. But as long as we are forced to serve this duty, I say let us take pride in our calling!”
A few women cheered.
“Don’t give our adversaries among our own people an excuse to laugh at us!”
Another cheer, this one louder.
“Storm Kachina! Coyote Kachina! May our names be a source of pride for our daughters and their daughters’ daughters!”
Two hundred pairs of eyes were lifted toward Kaydyn with a fire and a life in them that hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier.
“For the home, for the love or our families, for the right, for our own honor- Who will follow me?” Kaydyn raised her fist into the air.
“We will!” Two hundred feminine voices answered in shouted unison.
Kaydyn kicked the door down with a grunt.
The shouts and random pops of gunfire echoed behind her through the canyons, courtyards, and buildings that had been carved out of the sandstone itself. Swarming through the anthill-like stronghold were terrorists and small groups of Kachinas. In theory, the plan was for each team of Kachinas to clear a section of the valley. In reality, the layout of the former prison was far too disorganized.
After checking the corner, Kaydyn signaled for the squad of Kachinas to follow her through the gate. They moved as a unit, wary of an ambush. This was the fifth and central building they were to clear and already they had lost three of their original eight.
They were between two buildings, briefly cloaked in shadow. An open space under the building to their right was an ominous black hole, filled with tricky nooks and crannies. A shaft of sunlight showed ahead, and Kaydyn realized that there was a courtyard adjacent to the target building.
A yell from the rear snapped her attention away from her mental map. Five swarthy men had appeared from the deceiving shadows under the carved out building and were attacking the last three members of the Kachina column.
“Star, let’s go!” Kaydyn turned and began running back, failing to notice the set of stairs that led up and away from the courtyard to her right. The two women plunged into the fray with a shout.
Kaydyn pulled her side weapon and shot a man who had just managed to wrestle one of her team to the ground. The bullet caught him in the temple, killing him instantly, but Kaydyn had no time to notice. She drove a hard fist into her next attacker’s solar plexus, causing him to double up as the wind was knocked out of him. The Storm Kachina leader finished him by slamming her knee up in the point of his chin, snapping his head backward. A burst of fire from Star’s assault rifle meant that two terrorists had foolishly separated from the group.
“Look out!” A high voice cried, and Kaydyn turned to find a new wave of enemies pouring from the stairs she had overlooked.
“Get out that door!” Kaydyn yelled, firing the last three rounds in her clip at the oncoming men.
The Kachinas were too hampered by the smaller fight to gain ground and only had time to bunch together before the rush had them surrounded. Back to back, the women desperately lashed out at the encircling foes.
Star’s rifle cut a bloody swath in the hordes, and several of them went down, only to be swiftly trampled and replaced. One of the terrorists charged straight for Kaydyn. In a flash, she had pulled her knife and sidestepped, stabbing in an upwards arc from her hip as hard as she could when he made contact. The razor sharp steel sliced under his ribs and burst his heart like a balloon. Kaydyn jerked the weapon free and felt blood gush onto her hand as she shoved the body away.
A scream from her right distracted her, and Kaydyn glanced over in time to see Star’s lifeless body hit the ground, her hands still reflexively clutching the rifle.
“No!” Kaydyn roared, a blinding red rage overtaking her. She didn’t even realize that she was alone as she grabbed the man closest to her and threw him to the ground. Faster than any of his fellows could react, she had leaped onto his back and grabbed his head with both hands, twisting and jerking back sharply, so his neck broke with a sickening crack.
Another terrorist grabbed Kaydyn’s arm, and she slashed the knife at his throat, opening an irreparable gash. All she knew was to fight; kicking, knifing, punching and breaking anything that came at her.
Then there were too many of them. Too many hands grabbing her and pinning her down. Too many people who were bigger and stronger pressing in on her. Her knife was gone, and suddenly, Kaydyn’s head cleared of the madness. Four men dragged her to her feet and held her captive.
One of the others stepped forward, jamming a gun into her jaw. Kaydyn glared defiantly at him as he smiled cruelly and started to pull the trigger. A voice in his own language halted him. The gunman turned irritably to the burly interrupter. A discussion began and even though Kaydyn didn’t understand the words, she knew it was about her.
Finally, the burly man seemed to win, and there were malicious chuckles all around. Kaydyn was propelled forward into the courtyard where rows of walls had been built. Each of these walls were studded with three pairs of shackles. Two of the men pushed her against the nearest wall while the other two pulled her arms out and fastened her wrists in the iron manacles.
Kaydyn felt her back pop as her captors left her stretched out against the wall. Another man brought out a small black box and began fiddling with something on the side. After a moment, he placed the box on the ground near Kaydyn and grinned at her maniacally. Then they all left the courtyard, laughing.
The sounds of battle were still clear, but Kaydyn was alone. She thought that she could hear screams in the distance. The campaign was not going well. Kaydyn looked down at the black box and knew what it was without too much imagination. She had been left to get blown up while the rest of the Kachinas were fighting a losing battle. The sun beating down on her might have well turned black.
“So, where are we going again?” Connor Foster questioned as he followed his buddy through the bustling military camp. Connor was fairly new to the field of combat, and he still carried an air of rookie innocence. With his close-cut, curly brown hair and honest green eyes, he seemed innocuous enough. But those closest to him knew that he was a fast learner and a strong fighter who thought deeply about the world around him.
His friend, Bernard Rogers, shrugged at his query. “All I know is that we’re supposed to report to the DragonCloud for duty. I’d have asked, but you know how the Sarge is in a rush.” Bern had a few months of experience on Connor, but he still was the more light-hearted of the two. With his spiky, slightly-longer-than-regulation-length dark hair and jovial blue eyes, Bernard was widely known as the company clown and took every opportunity to reinforce his reputation.
Connor nodded wordlessly, keeping an eye on their surroundings as they walked. All around them, men were suiting up with an urgency that could only mean an imminent firefight.
“Word has it that Ole’ Primp’n’Pomp himself is on the DragonCloud and heading out… somewhere.” Bern continued.
“General Oddyse?” Connor was surprised. “He never leaves base camp.”
“Not unless it’s a sure victory that he can take the credit for,” Bernard added. He grinned and slapped Connor’s shoulder. “So no worries! Whatever we’re doing is sure to be a breeze.”
“Even if it wasn’t, not much can hurt us inside that thing.” Connor pointed to the DragonCloud looming just ahead of them.
The DragonCloud was a military hovercraft the size of three tanks. It was equipped with a control room, small medical bay, a fully outfitted weapons room and a troop bay that could carry up to thirty men. The vehicle itself had fantastic firepower capabilities, including a missile launcher for long range and several fully automatic machine guns for up close. Using the latest air-cushion technology, it was the ultimate all-terrain vehicle, making it an ideal mobile command post.
Connor looked around in awe as they walked up the ramp to the ramp into the troop bay. “Never been in one of these before.”
“I have. Only once, though.” Bernard knocked on the armor plating. “They’re pretty safe.”
“Right.” Connor chuckled at his buddy’s know-it-all tone. “Let’s go find the General.”
A few minutes later, both men were standing at attention in front of the pudgy officer.
“Our goal is to go in and rescue those blasted Kachinas.” Oddyse barked as he paced in front of the control panel. “Somehow, they took it into their heads to move on the Valley of the Cages and now they’ve just made a mess of it.”
Connor stared straight ahead as he was expected to, but his mind was running a mile a minute. The Valley of the Cages had a bad reputation. No one simply decided to try and clear it.
“You’ll be dropped into the center of the Valley with me to provide a rallying point for our troops when they close in.” the General continued. “And we’ll do it right! Not like those Kachinas!”
He glared at the two as if expecting them to disagree which, of course, they did not. The thought did strike Connor that these Kachinas must be at least somewhat competent if the General felt safe dropping into the middle of the Valley. But Oddyse was known as a ruthlessly power-hungry man with a short temper and Connor refrained from voicing his opinion. No one took the chance of offending the General.
Seeing that the two soldiers made no response, General Oddyse grunted his satisfaction. “You’re assigned to Sergeant Andre Gomez for this mission. You’ll find him in the equipment room off the troop bay. Dismissed!”
Connor and Bernard saluted stiffly as the engines hummed to life and the craft lifted smoothly from the ground. With this new movement, they marched somewhat unsteadily from the control room.
Bern spoke up as they walked through the troop bay. “So… do you know what on earth a Kachina is?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Connor answered, sliding the door open and stepping into the compartment containing several rows of racks holding weapons and body armor. “Maybe this Sargent will know.”
“Maybe this Sargent will know what?” A deep, gravelly voice said from behind one of the racks. A well-built, middle-aged man appeared, his olive-skinned face seemingly set into a permanently gruff expression stepped out. With his buzzed dark hair and snapping black eyes, he was the picture of a tough veteran.
Connor and Bernard saluted mechanically at the sight of the Sargent’s stripes on the man’s shoulders. Just then the ship gave a lurch, nearly sending the two young soldiers crashing into each other.
Andre, who seemed to have no trouble at all keeping his balance, eyed the pair calmly. “You are young pups, aren’t you. Come on.” He led them around the corner to the niche where he was suiting up.
“My name is Andre Gomez, but you can call me Sargent Gomez,” Andre said, resuming his work without bothering to face the men. “And you’d be Privates Connor Foster and Bernard Rogers,” He grunted. “They said they were sending me a couple of greeners.”
“I don’t know Sarge,” Bernard said cheerfully. “You might even get to like us.” Gomez turned around and sent him a glare that made Bern gulp. “Sir.”
Andre rolled his eyes. “What’s this that you want to know?”
“We were just wondering who these Kachina guys are that we’re supposed to be pulling out,” Connor answered.
Andre stared at him for a moment. “I guess you wouldn’t know who they are. They’re fairly new in this sector.” He dug out a flat tin can and opened it. “Then again, so are you.” The sergeant began smearing black paint on his face. “The Kachinas are a joke. A mockery. A product of twisted politics.”
Connor and Bernard waited silently for the older soldier to go on.
“Back when the Draft Act of 2095 was made, the Women’s Lib movement pushed the legislature to include women ages eighteen to forty-five as well as men in the draft requirements.” Andre continued. “The idea was that if women were equal to men, they could fight just as good, I guess. It was arrogance and politics really. Well, some of the lawmakers didn’t appreciate being forced into a decision. So they formed the Kachinas, five units of all female soldiers, one hundred soldiers per unit.”
“All girls?” Bernard interrupted elatedly, and Connor elbowed him sharply.
“Girls and women.” Andre frowned. “They were taken out of their homes- the place they were designed to be- and put into a man’s world, a world of war. If you think, that’s funny…”
Bernard stopped smiling. “No sir.”
“But women can fight,” Connor argued. “Not saying they should, but they can.”
“Oh sure they can.” Andre picked up his rifle and began cleaning it. “But this unit was never designed to fight. It was formed to make those Women Libs a laughingstock. The Kachina’s were never taken seriously. Sure, they’re trained and armed, but they’re more of the Army’s ‘whipping girls’ if you know what I mean. No one shows them any kind of respect. And so five hundred women are just getting kicked around this war for no reason. Just because some fools higher up want to feel big.” The distaste was obvious in his tone.
“What about this particular attack?” Connor asked.
Andre paused and looked up, his dark eyes serious. “I don’t know. It could be that this is their way of standing up, of regaining their purpose and self-respect.”
“You think they could actually take the Valley of the Cages?” Bernard asked in disbelief.
“No one really knows what the Kachinas are capable of.” Andre peered down the barrel of his weapon. “No one has ever given them a chance to prove themselves. But I’ve met some pretty tough ones over the years.”
“I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot of action,” Connor said, interested in learning from the veteran soldier if he could.
“Me and this ship.” Andre fondly patted the wall. “Spits fire like a dragon. Floats like a cloud. If there’s anything that can clear out that rat’s nest of a Valley, it’s the DragonCloud.” His grin faded. “I just hope we get there before those Kachinas are wiped out.”
Kaydyn leaned her head back against the wall. She hadn’t been tempted to cry in a long time, but the thought of letting her girls down was getting to be too much. A worthless three years ended by getting blown up wasn’t a comforting thought either. She shook her head, banging it against the wall in the process.
“Not giving up,” Kaydyn said through gritted teeth. She looked down at the bomb. “Ok, I can’t move. So obviously the bomb is going to have to move.” She stretched out as far as she could and bumped the box with the toe of her boot, half expecting it to go off.
Gingerly, Kaydyn rolled the bomb toward her until it was right on top of her foot. “Right then. I can’t just lob it off into the distance. I need a barrier between me and it.” She thought out loud. The courtyard was empty except for the wooden walls like the one she was chained to.
Kaydyn eyed the one in front of her appraisingly. It was only seven feet tall. She didn’t know how much time she had left, and it seemed like it was her only hope.
“Good thing I like soccer,” Kaydyn muttered as she positioned the small bomb on her foot. Luckily, she had been chained at the end of the wall, so she could slide sideways a little and get some back-swing. She held her breath as she lifted her foot carefully, moved it backwards and then kicked forwards with everything she had. The black box flew through the air in a neat arc and landed on the other side of the wall in front of Kaydyn.
She just had time to think, “I’m still stuck here,” before the bomb went off.
The wall splintered into a thousand pieces down the center, sending shrapnel-like shards of wood flying back at Kaydyn. She felt a few rip through her gear and bury themselves in her body below the protective chest plate. Another tore a gash in her left leg, just above the knee. The force of the blast crushed her against the wall. Kaydyn struggled to keep from screaming in pain.
Then the wall began to lean toward her. Through a haze of shock, Kaydyn realized that it was going to fall. In the insanity of the moment, she wanted to laugh. “I won’t get blown up. I’ll get flattened to death instead.”
But the stockade didn’t fall directly on her. Instead, it twisted and crashed into the planks where Kaydyn’s left arm was shackled. She turned her face away to avoid more falling timber and felt the iron cuff give a little. As the dust and the noise were settling, the Kachina knew that she had to try to get free before someone came to make sure she was dead.
Kaydyn jerked her arm downward and ground her teeth at the wave of agony that rippled through her. She was determined, focusing on one thing and one thing alone: finishing her mission. She pulled again, and her left arm fell to her side, still weighed down by the metal shackle. She let out a breath and winced.
A movement caught her attention and Kaydyn saw a figure exiting the stairwell. She sagged against the wall, hoping she looked convincingly dead. All the while, she peered out from under her eyelashes, an art perfected by generations of women before her. The man came closer and closer until he was only a foot away.
Steeling herself against the pain that she knew was about to ensue, Kaydyn suddenly kicked at his head with all of her strength, reaching out with her left hand at the same time. The toe of her boot connected solidly with his jaw, sending him swiftly to never-never land. Kaydyn pulled him forward, relieved beyond measure to see a keyring at his belt. She fumbled to remove It with the terrorist slumped against her. As if in slow motion, she finally got the key and unlocked the metal band that she was hanging from.
Kaydyn nearly passed out as she fell to the ground. Her arms and legs felt like lead, and it was torture to move. For a few moments, she lay still. But one burning thought broke through the darkness that threaten to incapacitate her: they had to take the Valley. It was accompanied by the General’s sneering face.
With the willpower born of the driving need to restore her honor and that of her unit, Kaydyn pushed herself to her feet. She refused to die. She felt nothing and knew nothing but taking the building in front of her. Stooping to retrieve the fallen guard’s assault rifle and extra clips, Kaydyn began to assess the situation.
The building was two story, the lower level being open. Pillars supported the upper level. Steps led up into the black beyond. It took Kaydyn mere minutes to reassure herself that there was no one hiding in the dark space under the building. She decided that the upstairs couldn’t be more than one room, given that the entire structure was carved from rock. The only way to finish clearing her section was to go up.
Silently, Kaydyn limped to the foot of the stairs. There was a door at the top, and it looked miles away, even though there could have been more than ten steps. She drove herself forward.
Kaydyn was almost to the top when the door opened. A thin, dirty man took one step down and then yelled in astonishment when he saw Kaydyn. It was the last sound he made as she punched his knees out with the stock of the rifle. She nailed him again in the back of the neck as he rolled down the stairs.
Knowing that her edge of surprise was gone, Kaydyn rushed up the last few steps and burst into the room. There she found four more men in different stages of reaching for various weapons. In that split second, Kaydyn knew that she was outnumbered and would die if she didn’t act first. She raised the rifle, pulled the trigger and held it, sending a hailstorm of bullets flying into the room.
Two of the men were cut down and died in the first volley. A third screamed in pain and fell to the floor, still thrashing. The fourth ran towards Kaydyn, firing a pistol at her as he did so. Had it been normal combat circumstances and had he aimed more carefully, he would have won. As it was, the bullet hit Kaydyn’s shoulder, and half spun her around, but she barely felt it.
Another shower of bullets from the semi-automatic at close range all but separated the attacker at belt-line. Kaydyn watched him fall and looked past the body to the last man living. He was prone on the floor, positioning a rifle for a shot at her. Kaydyn was struck with the thought that she really didn’t want to kill him now that it was an even fight. But she really didn’t have much choice. She deliberately raised her weapon and sent a single bullet flying between his eyes.
Kaydyn stumbled across the room in the sudden silence, heading for the open doorway on the other side. It led to a balcony, the reason they had chosen this location for the team’s final destination in the first place. Kaydyn stepped outside and looked out over the Valley, spinning to see in every direction.
The streets below here were filled with lines of marching terrorists, armed Kachinas prodding them towards the rendezvous spot on the far side of the Valley. Smoke rose from a few buildings. Bodies lay in the narrow alleys, all unmoving. This section was clear.
Kaydyn glanced at her watch, vaguely surprised that it still worked. Her fingers scrabbled at the side pouch on her uniform, and she was relieved to find the flare gun. Wearily raising her arm and pointing the barrel towards the sky, she squeezed the trigger and felt the signal gun kick as it went off.
For a few moments, nothing happened. Kaydyn held her breath, an unspeakable fear rising in her chest as the bright red beacon hung overhead. Then, from various parts of the Valley, other flares appeared. A smile grew on Kaydyn’s face as she counted all twenty teams report their sections clear. They had won.
The ground rushed by nearly twenty feet below as Connor clipped himself onto the line. Bernard, Andre and the General were all doing the same, preparing to take the jump into the Valley of the Cages. The DragonCloud couldn’t land, but Oddyse had insisted that they descend on the center of the stronghold even though the main masses of troops were still getting into position around the Valley.
Bernard slung his machine gun onto his back and grinned at Connor as the ACV came to a halt in midair. “And we’re off!” He shouted, jumping through the opening in the floor of the troop bay.
Connor followed, the whiz of his clip sliding along the cable filling his ears. The earth rushed towards him, and he slowed his descent to land with a soft thump beside Bern. Connor freed himself from the line while Andre landed cat-like behind him. The General had a bit more trouble, nearly falling over when he hit the ground.
The hovercraft stirred up the dust around them, and Connor gripped his weapon nervously. He wouldn’t be able to tell if someone was coming at them in this storm. Finally, General Oddyse disentangled himself and signaled the DragonCloud to move on. The shadow of the giant craft passed over them, and suddenly, everything was quiet.
Bernard edged closer to the group as he scanned the walls on either side of the street. “This is creepy,” He said in a low voice.
Nothing stirred, and the only sound was the retreating DragonCloud.
“This building has a balcony overlooking most of the Valley.” The General pointed to the sandstone edifice they were facing. It was flanked by a high wall, also of sandstone, with a door that looked like it had recently been kicked in.
When the General made no move to enter, Andre readied his weapon and moved forward cautiously. The other three followed in a tight knot at his back. After passing through the gate, the veteran only took a couple steps before his eyes adjusted to the shadow of the building and he stopped cold. When Connor and Bernard saw what he was staring at, they too halted in revulsion. The General looked like he was going to be sick.
Four women in Kachina uniforms lay on the ground in a bunch, surrounded by at least twice their number in enemy guerrillas. Blood stained the ground around them, and weapons were scattered around the gory scene. For a moment, the men were at a loss for words.
“They can’t even make it far enough to clear one building.” The General’s contemptuous, albeit shaky, tone finally came.
Connor started to turn on the officer in angry incredulity when he felt a pressure on his arm. He looked over to meet Andre’s black gaze. The sergeant gave a tiny shake of his head and squeezed the younger man’s arm as the General began to pick his way toward the courtyard, avoiding the bodies.
Bernard was still starting at the massacre. “Some of them are barely more than teenaged girls,” He said, appalled by the entire scene.
“I know.” Andre pushed past him. “Come on. There’s a chance one of them is still alive.”
Kaydyn wasn’t sure how long she stood there, leaning against the wall and basking in the relief that they had not failed their mission. She was only partially conscious when the DragonCloud flew by. But her senses came awake, and her fingers tightened on her weapon when the sounds of human voices reached her ears. Then she relaxed as she realized that the people were speaking English.
A familiar, detested voice broke into Kaydyn’s mind, and she knew who was in the courtyard below. She forced herself to stand upright and make her way back through the room full of dead enemies. The full impact of her wounds hit her as she started to move and she almost caved in. She noticed with an abstract part of her mind that blood was soaking every part of her clothing. But Kaydyn wasn’t willing to give in to the mind-numbing pain. Not yet.
“This is absurd!” The General shouted from the courtyard, obviously having recovered control of his lunch.
Connor picked himself up from where he had been checking for signs of life among the fallen. There were none to be found. His green eyes flashed angrily as he followed Andre and Bern towards the demolished wooden wall. The three soldiers stood in a group as the General strode toward them.
“They had an explosive, and they took out one barrier! One barrier!” General Oddyse ranted. “They could’ve planted it under the building and solved their whole problem, but no…” His voice trailed off, and his eyes grew huge as he stared at something behind the trio.
Andre, Bernard, and Connor whirled, guns coming up and muscle tightening as they prepared for the worst. What they saw had them frozen and dumbfounded. There stood a Kachina, bloodied and leaning against a support to stay upright, but still alive.
Kaydyn looked at the small group before her as if she was peering down a long tunnel. The fighters wore the uniforms of the Army regulars and their faces clearly registered shock. The General looked stunned, but also vaguely disappointed.
Slowly, painfully, she pulled herself to attention and saluted. “The Valley is cleared, as you ordered, sir,” Kaydyn said loudly and clearly. The last of her strength gone, she collapsed. Dimly, she had the impression of someone bending over her and a hand touched under her jaw. Then, there was nothing.
Andre was the first to recover as the Kachina dropped to the earth. He moved forward swiftly, speaking into his communication link as he did so. “DragonCloud, I need medical support here three minutes ago.”
“Wait a minute, you can’t order the DragonCloud back here!” The General whined loudly. He was ignored by the sergeant and the two young soldiers who followed Andre toward the Kachina. The fact that the General had ordered the Kachinas to attack, and to be slaughtered, was not lost on any of them.
Andre came down on one knee next to Kaydyn and gently turned her onto her side, noting the multiple injuries as he did so. Her chest rose and fell unsteadily; she didn’t even have the strength to breathe. Connor and Bernard knelt beside him, watching anxiously as he felt for a pulse. It was weak and irregular, but still there.
“How is she?” Connor asked softly.
“Not good,” Andre answered shortly. “Even if we get her to the DragonCloud, she might not make it.” A voice spoke in his com-link, and he pulled back to listen to it.
Connor studied the girl lying in the dirt. A dark red stain covered her abdomen, and another was spreading over her right shoulder. He knew her lifeblood was rapidly spilling onto the ground. Her face was cut and bruised, yet it bore an unmistakable, fiercely triumphant look of contentment.
Andre leaned toward his two men. “DragonCloud says that they’ve been in contact with the Kachinas. They know what happened. And the Kachinas have already completely secured the Valley of the Cages. Our boys will just be reinforcements. But it’s looking like up to half the Kachinas died in the assault.”
Connor shook his head sadly. “They paid a heavy price for victory.”
“Why?” Bernard slammed his fist into the ground. “Why did they take orders from that… thing when they knew it could wipe them out?”
“Didn’t you see her when she reported that they had cleared the Valley?” Andre nodded toward Kaydyn. “They found something in this battle that they had lost. The Kachinas found their honor.”