Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)

Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)

Yoon Ha Lee


LIEUTENANT COLONEL KEL Brezan’s general had just been tapped to deal with the Hafn invasion. Brezan had expected chaos, just not this much of it. General Kel Khiruev had had to scramble her swarm after the Hafn assassinated General Kel Chrenka eighteen days ago. In Brezan’s experience, assassinations never made the situation less chaotic.

Brezan was one of Khiruev’s personnel officers. It was a better position than Brezan had ever hoped for, given the equivocal notes in his profile. As it stood, Khiruev’s swarm was immense, in keeping with the threat that Kel Command anticipated. Brezan was impressed they’d scared up so many people on short notice. They’d given Khiruev one of the hexarchate’s six cindermoths, its largest and most powerful vessels of war, as her command moth: the Hierarchy of Feasts. The swarm contained an additional 119 bannermoths and 48 scoutmoths. Kel Command had informed them that the Hafn had advanced to the Severed March, a region of space that had been quiet for as long as Brezan remembered, and which was therefore less well-prepared for the event than anyone would like. Yet here they were, cooling their heels at a transfer point because Kel Command, in its infinite wisdom, had decided that it was so important to add a single captain with secret orders that it was worth holding up Khiruev’s swarm.

Brezan had spent the last seventy-three minutes reviewing the damnable woman’s profile and refraining from kicking the terminal. He didn’t care how good she was at calendrical warfare. If he didn’t hear from her transport in the next twelve minutes, he was going to recommend that they head out anyway, with a side of telling Kel Command to go hang. The Hafn had already left population centers on eight planets in crystallized ruins. The priority was fighting them sooner rather than later.

Captain Kel Cheris. Her early record showed that she was competent, as infantry officers went, with one oddity, her mathematical aptitude. The Nirai, the faction that contained most of the hexarchate’s scientists and engineers, had tried to recruit her on the strength of it. Her heart had been set on joining the Kel, however—something that Brezan knew a little about—and, as the joke went, the Kel never said no to volunteers.

More interestingly, Cheris was a Mwennin, a member of a minority that no one had heard of. Granted, in an interstellar polity containing uncounted systems, this wasn’t difficult, but the Mwennin additionally kept their heads down and avoided faction service. Brezan had no doubt that their existence was tolerated only because their numbers were minuscule even in the one system where they had settled, and because, between the heretics and the foreigners that might as well be heretics, the hexarchate had enough trouble to deal with. Still, Cheris had acquitted herself well enough, given her origins.

Brezan couldn’t help a twinge of bitterness when he thought about it. He came from an honorable Kel family, an older sister on General Inesser’s staff for fuck’s sake, but he would never go far and he knew it. Some of the soldiers made disparaging comments about the fact that he was a womanform when they thought he couldn’t hear them. But his fellow officers were civil about it, which was all he cared about. Rather, the notes in his profile about impulsiveness and unconventional thinking had impeded his advancement.

Cheris had not been able to stay out of trouble either, for all that her record had previously been good. She had recently been involved with the Siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles, which had been taken over by heretics colluding with the Hafn. Brezan suspected that the record was leaving out something important, but most of the relevant segments were classified. Even General Khiruev’s direct inquiries had been stonewalled.

Even better, Kel Command had fielded the undead general Shuos Jedao at Scattered Needles. No one denied Jedao’s brilliance at tactics, but he was also mad, and he had once massacred two armies at Hellspin Fortress, one of them his own. The Kel swarm sent to deal with the Fortress’s heretics had been wiped out, probably by Jedao himself. He was supposedly dead for good now, but who knew how true that was. Kel Command had been reviving him through mysterious means to throw at emergencies for the last few centuries, after all.

Cheris had tangled herself in that disaster, and something in that accomplishment had convinced Kel Command that General Khiruev would find her vitally useful. They just wouldn’t say how. Brezan would rather they had sent a shipment of extra boots. Because, with all the marching they did in space, the boots would be more useful.

Brezan looked around the cindermoth’s command center with its faintly glowing terminals, the impatient officers, beetleform and deltaform servitors performing maintenance. General Khiruev was a dark-skinned woman with an untidy streak of white in her hair and disfiguring scars showing pale along the side of her face where she’d never bothered getting them fixed. Unlike the others, she looked unruffled. On the other hand, the moth commander, Kel Janaia, kept checking her terminal for the time even though her augment’s internal clock should have been synchronized with the mothgrid.

Seven more minutes. Shouldn’t they have heard from the transport by now? Brezan resisted sending a note to Communications, who wouldn’t thank him.

Of course, this was business as usual. It was no secret that Kel Command, being a hivemind, frequently made questionable decisions. A few centuries abusing composite technology would do that to you. Brezan functioned indifferently as part of a composite, one of the reasons he had expected to land at a boring desk dirtside instead of here, but he conceded that that sense of utter humming conviction, of belonging, was addictive. At least things weren’t likely to get worse.

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