Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(3)

Stop listening to them, Brezan begged silently.

“Oh, don’t tempt me to make a Kel joke,” said Jedao or Cheris or whoever the hell they were, “there are so many to choose from. Why don’t you set me a test?” The corner of their mouth tipped up. Brezan had seen the same smile in a four-hundred-year-old recording of a completely different face.

One of Brezan’s problems was that he was, despite his competence, a marginal Kel. Brezan possessed weak formation instinct. The injection process wasn’t entirely predictable, and sometimes cadets failed out of Kel Academy because they couldn’t maintain formation. He had spent his entire time there convinced they’d kick him out. Formation instinct, the emotional need to maintain hierarchy, made Kel discipline possible and allowed the Kel to use formations to channel calendrical effects in battle, from force shields to kinetic lances. A Kel without formation instinct was no Kel at all.

But for once, his deficit was an asset. He went for his sidearm.

His enemy was faster. Brezan was aware of fragments: the noise of their gun going off. The world dimming at the edges. A sudden shock running from hand to wrist to arm. The bullet singing as it ricocheted off Brezan’s gun’s slide; the gun itself flew out of his hand. Everyone ducking.

Brezan’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“Shit,” Brezan said with feeling. His ears were ringing. “I have Captain Cheris’s profile memorized and her aim isn’t remotely that good.”

“Overkill is something of a personal defect,” Jedao said, not modest in the least.

All the Kel in the command center were watching them. General Khiruev was watching them. A terrible yearning filled her eyes.

Brezan was fourth-generation Kel. He knew what a Kel looked like when hit between the ears by formation instinct. He should have kept his fucking mouth shut.

“General Jedao,” Khiruev said, “what are your orders, sir?”

It was an open question who was the worse master: Shuos Jedao, arch-traitor and mass murderer, or Kel Command. But Brezan clung to the compass of duty. He dropped the useless pistol and scrabbled for his combat knife.

He wasn’t alone. The Doctrine officer was a Rahal, but they were even slower than he was. Soon every Kel in the command center had a gun trained on one or the other of them. People he’d served with for years. He was threatening their new formation leader. The only reason he and Doctrine weren’t full of holes already was the novelty of the situation.

Hell of a way to die. At least he wouldn’t be around to hear his insufferable sister Miuzan ribbing him about it. He dropped the knife.

“Hold,” Jedao said before anyone could change their mind and fire. His eyes were thoughtful.

Brezan recognized the are you or aren’t you? expression of someone trying to decide from his severely cropped hair whether he was a man after all, or a woman who preferred masculine styles. Ordinarily Brezan would have clenched his teeth. In this instance, however, he enjoyed the petty pleasure of confusing Jedao even in such a small matter.

“What’s your name, soldier?”

No point keeping it to himself when the other Kel would rat him out. “Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan,” he said. He had the petty satisfaction of watching all the Kel twitch at his failure to say “sir.” “Staff officer, Personnel, assigned to General Kel Khiruev of the Swanknot. If you’re going to shoot me, you might as well get it over with. I won’t serve you.”

Brezan heard an inner whisper urging him to trust General Khiruev’s judgment; to serve the new formation leader the way Kel were made to serve. Damningly, he quelled it with ease. His proper loyalty belonged to Kel Command, not an upstart undead Shuos general possessing a Kel captain.

“You might be a crashhawk,” Jedao said insultingly. He was perfectly relaxed, but given how the situation was playing out, he had no reason not to be. “Hard to tell. Still, there are people like you”—his gaze flicked to Doctrine”—and the seconded personnel who don’t have formation instinct. I won’t be able to rely on them.”

Brezan gritted his teeth. There were eighty-two Nirai on the Hierarchy of Feasts alone, more in the rest of the swarm, to say nothing of Shuos and the occasional Rahal and a couple Vidona. If Jedao was going to—

“I’m not going to kill them,” Jedao said, “but I can’t bring them with me, either. I need a list of people to let off. I assume we have sufficient transports for the job. They’ll have to have everything but minimal life-support and navigation disabled. Won’t buy me much time, but every little bit helps.”

Brezan could fight, but he’d die the moment he twitched a muscle. If, for whatever incomprehensible reason, Jedao intended to spare those he couldn’t control with formation instinct, there was a chance of getting word to Kel Command. Even if Kel Command was responsible for this mess to begin with, or more likely, Jedao had played some trick to set it up.

General Khiruev and the chief of staff were calmly discussing logistical options to offer to Jedao.

Holes opened in Brezan’s heart.

“All right,” Jedao said. “I suppose we had better send Colonel Brezan off before we bore them further.” He gestured toward a pair of junior officers.

Brezan didn’t resist, but he did say, bitterly, “Congratulations, Jedao. You’ve hijacked an entire fucking swarm. What are you going to do with it?”

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