titusnowl: (Harper's Jig)
[personal profile] titusnowl
another of my Errant Valour stories (first, second). this is a prequel and takes place when brekt was around



Base camp covered an expanse of unevenly-paved ground outside the reclaimed city, a mass of black tents of various sizes huddling close together under the open sky. The narrow paths left between the tents were filled in with white gravel, making it easy to navigate at night. Errant Valour were currently engaged in maintaining those paths, tamping another layer of limedust into the surface and straightening the edges with stiff-bristled pushbrooms. They'd been at it for three hours, ever since Haas had accidentally disrespected a lieutenant colonel whom he'd mistaken for one of their own out of the corner of his eye.

"Lord Death vants you guys," said a voice. Kees, from Errant Throne, the next tent over but one. He looked at Sander, who was working in his shirtsleeves. "And you're out of uniform."

"You ain't rank me, you can't say shit," Sander retorted, instantly dropping his broom against the nearest wall and whipping a handkerchief out of somewhere to wipe down his hands and face.

"He vas vorried about getting his chacket dusty," explained Duiker, joining the brooms.

"Yeah, vell." Sander gestured downward. All of them were graduated shades of grey from the knees down, with limedust caked in the tooling of their gaiters. He crouched down to wipe his own as clean as he could with the handkerchief, then handed it off to Brekt before jumping tip-toed at the corner of the tent to unhook his coat from the skull-shaped finial on one of the wall poles.

"I bet ve're in more trouble," Brekt said long-sufferingly. Sander's handkerchief was effective only in smearing the dust around his ankles. "Somebody probably koeked all of us 'cause Miss Fancy here vas out of fuckin' uniform."

"Nah, he's handing out orders," said Kees. "Us guys are rollin' in ten, I chust got sent back to grab some shit and tell you guys to report."

"More shit? Ain't five pieces of shit enough for one unit? T’rone - "

"I'll owe you an ass-kicking," Kees promised. "I ain't got time right now."

~

The acting secretary in the field office was just a regular, and they fixed him with five cold stares in an attempt to cow him into saluting them. When it didn’t work, Jens deigned to speak.

"Fireteam Errant Valour reporting to Captain van Moorden."

They were waved through and marched in single file down the cramped hall that bisected the semipermanent structure. Iron uprights with two feet of space between them supported a ridgepole from which the black weatherproofed material of the roof and walls descended tentlike to the outer wall of uprights, then the ground. Base camp had been in this location long enough that some minor adjustments for longer-term living had occurred: the walls were no longer pegged through the ground outside, but had been wrapped carefully around long iron basepoles which held them flat to the earth, preventing so much as a draft or a puddle from sneaking in; a floor had been laid out of some kind of planking material that clinked beneath their heels. The floor, at least, was new. The walls had been repinned across camp - even on the smaller barracks tents - by a crew of regulars on penal duty a few days ago, but they were still sleeping on cots over pavement.

They had to wait between the uprights for just long enough to get annoyed before they were called in to the room on the end. The captain was sitting behind an ornately-carved folding desk stacked high with paper; despite having just summoned them himself, he made them wait, lined up at attention and holding their salutes, while he marked something down in a dataslate, then ordered them at ease without looking up.

van Moorden was a scion of one of the lesser baronies - his family owned one of the factories in Vloer 2, the one where Duiker's family worked, in fact - and everyone knew that the instant he came into money he would be buying his way up into a major and forget the SASS. Once EV were sufficiently impressed with how incredibly unimportant they were in comparison with their commanding officer, they were briefed and given chits to collect all necessary materials for their upcoming mission, effective immediately. Another round of salutes was followed by a quiet march out of the tent, and as soon as their boots touched the gravel outside they broke out in a chorus of chatter.

“Ve’re getting airlifted! My broders, ve are movin’ op in de vorld.”

“Fiver says dey chust toss us in de cargo hold.”

“Golden Scrote, Brekt, you’re such a fuckin’ party pisser.”

“Doesn’t matter, getting airlifted. Chust us, too - you know Kees voulda been all over it if dey vas flying in.”

“No shit dey ain’t vaste an airlift on Errant T’rone, dey’re useless hufters anyvays. Lord Death knows vich of his guys is gonna do someting so badass he gets a promotion.”

“Yeah, de real qvestion is vy’s he bodering to send de rest of you along vit me?”

~


When they had their gear and reported for pickup, Haas silently reached into one pocket, pulled out a paychit, and passed it to Brekt. Their aircraft was very obviously a cargo lighter, no bigger than a delivery wagon. A couple of corpsmen were loading ammo crates into it under the eye of the pilot, who gave the EV men an assessing glance and told them shortly, "Big guy and you, one side, de rest of you, oder side," before turning away and apparently forgetting about them.

They climbed in through the hatch and found seats atop the crates. The last few boxes were settled in between their feet. The hatch closed and left them in darkness, a single strip of red hazard lamps along the center of the roof the only light.

"Ve're movin' op in de vorld, alright. I tink I'd’a radder took a truck."

Sander and Jens accidentally twined their fingers together while trying to get a good grip on the rope netting holding the cargo in place. When they realized what had happened, they pulled away from each other sharply.  The crack of Jens' skull against the lighter's bulkhead, and his subsequent curses, echoed through the hold.

“De hell are you doing back dere?” The pilot’s voice, muffled and tinny through the speaking-tube to the cockpit.

“Jens is feelin’ me up!”

“Oh, fucksake, like you wouldn’t trow a fuckin’ party if I did.”

“Sure, he talks like dat, but soon as de lights go out he’s all handsin’ me - “

“No gay shit in my lighter! It don’t like carryin’ passengers anyvays, and I ain’t putting up vit you guys being stupid. Get your hands outta each oder’s pants and hold on, ve’re taking off.”

“Chust for de record,” Sander said as they all clawed for the cargo netting again, “if any’a you guys get airsick ‘n’ trow up on my shoes, I’m gonna pull your stomach out your t’roat and feed it back to you.”

~

All of them were looking slightly green when they disembarked; Sander’s shoes remained unsullied, but that certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on somebody’s part. Either the lighter really didn’t like carrying passengers, or its pilot had flown roughly on purpose - any time things smoothed out enough for the men to start chattering, things had very shortly unsmoothed, and the last hour of the ride had been spent in tense, queasy silence.


“Close de hatch behind you,” the pilot ordered through the speaking tube as the last man climbed out. “And don’t fuck around, I got places to be. Dis ammo von’t deliver itself.”

Jens had a map out and unfolded as soon as his feet touched solid ground. Sander leaned around him to look at it, and after a quick look around and consideration of where they were (a narrow patch of flatland between a shallow, rusty waterway and a steep cliff) and where they were supposed to be going (an X on the map past some woods which began on top of the cliff), he hopped back to the lighter and banged on the cockpit shielding.

“Hey, you kluiveduiker, you got us on de vrong side of de fuckin’ hill!”

The pilot probably couldn’t hear him through the shielding, and if he had any verbal response it wasn’t audible for the same reason. The gestures he made, however, were quite clear: “fuck you” and “go away.”  Sander returned the first in kind before turning back to his squad.

“Dey probably built de trees too close togedder to land op dere,” Haas suggested, shouting over the din of the lighter’s engines as it spooled up from idle to takeoff.

“Or he chust didn’t vant to get shot at by de enemy,” said Jens.

“Ve gotta climb all de vay op dere...” Sander looked up the cliff with something very close to despair.

“Yeah, poor baby’s gonna have to get his hands dirty.” Jens’ voice was snide, but he wore a very similar expression. It was going to be a huge pain in the ass.

“Ve’ll get halfvay op, Duiker’ll fall down, ve’ll have to climb down and get him and start over...” Brekt, also despairing.

“Vere is Duiker?” Haas asked suddenly, his expression shifting from shared unhappiness to active concern. They all spun around, cursing at various decibels and calling Duiker’s name. Can’t turn your back on him for a minute - probably fell in that canal and got washed out to sea - did anybody actually see him get off the lighter?

Fifteen minutes of searching later, and the mood of the group had gone from annoyance to anger to genuine concern. Jens was in the middle of tuning their vox to report a man missing when they heard a distant shout.

“Hey! Hey, you hufters! Look up!”

Four spines stiffened in surprise; four heads slowly turned; four pairs of eyes slid up the face of the cliff, to where Duiker was perched swinging his feet over the edge.

“I can’t believe it,” someone breathed. “He managed to fall up a cliff.”

~

It took an hour and a half for the rest of them to make it up the slope. The ground was silty and dry and had a tendency to break off in chunks beneath hands and feet no matter how carefully they were placed. Duiker sat and swung his feet all the while, giving smugly cheerful advice. At one point Sander tried to throw a clump of dirt at him, and succeeded only in making himself slip several feet backward. “No, see, you’re doing it vrong,” Duiker informed him. “You’re supposed to fall de oder vay. It’s okay, dat’s a professional move, I’m not surprised you don’t know how.”

When they reached the top Haas went straight over to Duiker and yanked him away from the edge of the cliff by one arm, leaving him sprawled on his back on the ground with the taller man looming over him. “Vat de hell did you do?”

“I fell up,” Duiker said, his smug grin faltering.

The other three arranged themselves around him, staring down.

He sat up and brushed dirt and tree-bits out of his hair. “I, uh, got stuck in de cargo net,” he admitted. “Dere vas some of it sticking out of de hatch and I vas going to try to put it back in, but I couldn’t get de hatch to open back op, and den he vas taking off... so I vaited until he vas close to de hill and den I let go.”

They stared.

Finally Haas reached down and gave Duiker a hand up. Jens turned away with a scowl and dark mutterings about getting some work done now that everyone was done fucking around. Brekt and Sander made eye contact and shook their heads in amazement.

“He fell up a cliff.”

“Duiker, you chust out-Duikered yourself.”

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titus n. owl

February 2015

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