They were English special reserves, white coats and all, though most of them had taken the bulky outer layers off. Assembling one of the infamous long guns, from the looks of it, grease up to their elbows and black spots all over their faces from wiping sweat away. Maybe twelve of them total, one officer, four patrolmen and the rest experienced artillery men.
Harold was tugging at his coat in an urgent way, and Colin shrugged it off while he stared down at the scene.
The two apartments on this rise were long constructions, somewhat parallel but nearly meeting at their western ends. Three stories of well-decorated rooms, a fourth of slatted walls and low, corrugated metal ceilings; trees filling the courtyard, and a perfect view to the old city. Colin had managed to get to the northern building’s uppermost layer, wedging himself between two dusty chimneys; Harold had made the summit as well, and it looked like she meant to leave.
“Harold,” Colin whispered, “are there any empire patrols nearby? Any … walking, fighting men, who would help us?”
She gave that sentence, mangled amalgamation of two languages that it was, a good amount of thought. Then she shrugged.
For her benefit, Colin thought out loud. She’d pick up English eventually. “Twelve men here. They’ve got the long gun almost built; can’t be more than a couple hours until they start bombarding, and they’ve got a great view of the entire old city. They might even have some knowledge about the layout of the city, depending on whether they’ve picked up defectors.”
He peered over the edge again; they were making a lot of noise down there, and one of the taller ones had managed to catch his fingernail on a rivet. That would slow them down a bit; the guy was being a real baby about the loss of the fingernail, and Colin watched as they fumbled around inefficiently with bandages and medical tape.
“This can’t be the only emplacement, though. They’ve got nearly a dozen miles to spread these out over, if they want to remain in range of the whole city. So we could just leave this, send a message to the Pasha, and get somewhere safe.”
Colin had seen a lot of people try to get somewhere safe. On the way out of Byzantium, there had been nearly twenty solid miles of humans, baled by fear into knots that huddled around the tracks, hoping for one last train to arrive. Maybe they imagined ending up in eastern Babylon, or just continuing onwards to the Indian Empire. Maybe they thought they’d juke the invading army, get down to Eritrea, or pray that the aggression was short lived, last it out in Ankara.
But he’d seen rails from a couple miles away hit those tracks. Not many were dumb enough to stand on the actual tracks, just in case a train came, and if they had been that dumb they sure weren’t anymore. He’d seen the wreckage of the last train to leave, thirty miles down the road; sappers had been sent forward, maybe on boats from Romania, and he’d seen families trying to pull each other out of splintered wood.
The empires had more soldiers, better training, and even some recent experience with wars from their Siberian frontier. None of that mattered, because no soldier could fight against three feet of iron that appeared from a clear sky straight into his lungs.
“Harold, go get Ammanuel. Tell him about this, and get some soldiers to help you. Also, I’m going to need the gun.”
She nodded, and handed the rifle over. That was a good sign.
“Then, and this is very important, come back here. We need to get rid of these guys.”
Hopefully that had been clear enough. A couple weeks living with these people ought to have made him halfway intelligible. Assuming, of course, that she was from the Byzantine Empire, and not somewhere far deeper in the east. And that all their dialects were close to one another. And that there was no equivalent of the Welsh in Ankara, with their own little orthography and petulant ignorance.
Colin approached the camp from inside the north building, making as much noise as he could. He stumbled into a table, and swore a bit, relishing the idea that he might finally be understood. He smashed a pane of glass, carefully, and then walked to the door. It opened before he made it there, and a moustachio’d man grabbed him.
“Hey! What the hell,” Colin offered, “is this all about?”
He was shoved into the courtyard bodily, and took a look around while he tried to kick the huge man in the shin. They had a lot of tools spread out, a couple regimental cutlasses, guns aplenty and some grenadoes. There was a cart, and stacks of metal components. This place looked ripe for interference.
“Somebody get that rifle off of him,” said a bored man in regalia; a Lieutenant or better.
“That’s my rifle, jerk. You give … give that back! Do you know who I am?”
“Do you know who we are?”
“Um,” Colin thought about it. “No, not really. Special reserves? Fourth regiment, I guess, since you’re not somewhere in Africa. First company, if there’s still only one, seventh squad, judging by your jackets. I don’t know your names, though. Probably something with a ‘Mc’ in front, with that accent.”
That got him a nod of approbation; the men working on the long gun were watching, now. “McRoy, actually. Not bad. Are you supposed to be some kind of bedouin polyglot?”
“I don’t even know how to reply to that. I’m from England, you roughneck. Hear this enunciation? That’s first-class native dialect, there.”
McRoy smiled, and waved his hand to the gun crew; they started working again, and the moustache let him go. “I apologize. It’s simply that you are incredibly filthy.”
“Oh, that. Well, you know, foreign countries and children, two things that never get clean. Can I have my rifle back?”
Colin did his best to look downcast, and then canted his head to the east. “So, you’re thinking about shooting into downtown Ankara, eh. A bold plan.”
Another one of the soldiers, a woman with her hands filthy, sat back on her heels and started talking to the Lieutenant. The long gun was taking shape, now, and it looked like they might actually finish it fairly soon. They’d be able to start shooting in the fading daylight, if they kept their pace up.
“Say, is there any … uh, very fragile piece to these guns?” Colin ran his finger along the barrel. “I just ask because they look so solid, but I’m told they’re quite complex. Maybe some little pin that could be removed?”
The moustache gave him a fierce look, almost lost among a pair of huge eyebrows. The lieutenant was sending two of the patrolmen out with orders; they were whispering, clearly worried about people hearing them. They’d already been heard, the idiots, but further caution didn’t hurt them any.
“Curiousity is my great failing, of course,” Colin said, in case they were getting suspicious. “I wonder many things. Like, how do you power these guns? Is the power source volatile in any way?”
They continued to ignore him, and he started rummaging through their stuff. It wasn’t until he made it to the Lieutenant’s cutlass that they recognized his presence in the slightest. McRoy had finished talking to his men; they had some plan afoot, and now he could finally waste some time talking to Colin.
“What are you doing? Put that down.” He slapped Colin’s hand away sharply. No recognition of common courtesy from this lout. Luckily, Colin had two hands.
“Hey, you’re the one who stole my rifle.”
“How’d you get here, kid? Are you somebody’s batman? Do we need to get you sent back to the regulars?”
“Ah, mine is a long and impressive story.” Colin thought for a bit, and then launched into the most colorful lies he could imagine. His rifle, that he’d stolen in Baghdad during some riots. His clothes, loaned to him by a dying orphan on the very eve of the bridge’s fall in Byzantium. The rest of his things …
“Did you hear that?” said the moustache, and heads snapped to the west. They’d all heard it, several clunking noises from the wall.
Colin smiled to himself: it was just as he’d planned.
“I guess the jig’s up, you dirty jingoists,” he said. “You’re surrounded.”
McRoy didn’t ignore him this time. He walked quickly over to Colin, grabbed him by his collar, and pulled him to eye level.
“What do you mean by that, exactly?”
The patrolmen were shouting; they’d lost one of their number, and now they were worried. With good reason. Everything was going exactly as Colin had planned. They’d be able to shut down this emplacement, steal the long gun, and maybe even get information about the other emplacements from their new prisoners.
“I mean, I can’t stand by and watch you kill innocent men and women. I won’t.” He tried to give McRoy a steely gaze, but it was difficult; his neck was pinched, and his eyes were watering at the pain.
“Rodger, Illson, you’re with me. We’ll head through the north building, try to catch them out.” McRoy didn’t even blink. “You, kid: don’t waste my time. What is happening past that wall? How many?”
“Not a waste,” Colin managed, with the last of his breath. “You underestimate me.”
With his left hand, he flicked the pin to the side; with his right, he raised the grenadoe into McRoy’s vision.
McRoy dropped him like a hot iron, and waved to the rest of the men. They fanned out immediately, moving to the sides and walls, while Colin caught his breath. The safety lever was extremely difficult to hold down with one sweaty hand, so he didn’t rub his throat, just concentrated on not blowing himself up for a moment. Soon Ammanuel would be here, and he’d bring soldiers. People to help out.
Colin’s audience was captive; there wasn’t anywhere in the courtyard he couldn’t manage to throw to, and they knew it. Some were behind him, but he felt safe; this grenadoe, in this enclosed space, wasn’t something they’d survive. It wasn’t something he’d survive, either.
His heart was loud enough in his ears to drown out his other senses; his vision was tunneled, and everything prickled with the anxious beating.
When his concentration was broken it felt like a great weight was lifted. Windows shattered, a brutal shock to his ears, and for a few moments he couldn’t even see. Somebody must have set off an explosive inside the buildings. When he could see again, Ammanuel was there, just the top part of his head peeking through a window, and guns were firing in a constant fusillade. The English soldiers were reacting, moving to fight the new threat.
McRoy nodded, gestured to Colin, and then turned, his pistol appearing in his hand. Something metal touched the back of Colin’s neck.
He threw the grenadoe before he had a chance to think about it, tried to get it as close to McRoy as possible, twisted and ducked as much as he could before the soldier standing behind him could get over shooting a child. Not something Colin would be able to get over, but these soldier types had to do a lot of sick shit.
The concussion of the grenadoe reached him at the same time as a pain in his right collarbone.
Colin reached up, hardly noticing he was on his knees. There was the collarbone, right where he’d seen it in the hospital tent, rough where it had shattered. There was a flap of skin, squirming under his fingers, hot and wet. Maybe this was an vein? God, it’d better not be an artery. That never went …
His head hit the pavement.
Oh, god. Oh, fuck. Man down.