“We’ve had a stroke of luck,” Toreas said. “Someone reported some suspicious activity near Roc Sarat, a ruined fortress not that far from here. Turns out, a lot of carts have been going in and out, some containing weapons. We think this is a major storehouse for the rebels. You all will attack it today.
“So,” Michael said, his voice neutral but clear, “how do we smash them?”
Toreas’s eyebrows shot up. “We will not smash them. We cannot.”
“You want this over, right? So why shouldn’t we?”
Toreas sighed. “Because you’ll be fighting our own people. Smash them and they’ll hate Duke Suranta forever.”
“They won’t fight back ever again, though.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Toreas said. “Can you predict the future?” Michael frowned, sensing an insult. “Even if they never rebel, they’ll talk about Duke Suranta’s handling of this rebellion until the day they die. Break a man’s hand, and he’ll hate you. Block his fist, and he respects you.”
“I get it,” Sam said, a quick grin on his face. He began to hop in place, as though his energy had nowhere else to go. “So we do just enough to keep them from hurting anyone. Should be fun to try in a big robot.” Michael looked forward to seeing Sam in his Armor, working out some of that energy.
“Impossible,” announced Dirk. Everyone looked with surprise at the dark-haired boy, who was scowling at the map. It was his first word all day. “Those Armors are siege weapons. They’re meant for large-scale annihilation, tearing down walls and throwing boulders at armies. All we have to do is take one wrong step and one of these rebels becomes a red puddle.”
“I can handle it,” Sam said, meaning every word. “Didn’t you feel how well we can control those things? Inch by inch. We’ll be fine.”
“Maybe you,” Michael said. He was more firm than he intended, so he softened his tone so he wouldn’t offend Sam. “Look, you can control your Armor really well. What about the rest of us?”
Dirk waved a hand over the map. “This whole thing will be even worse a year from now if we go out in those Armors,” he said. “No matter what we do, it’ll just get worse.” Henrietta’s big eyes got bigger.
Michael gave Dirk a hard look and said, “What, can you predict the future?” Dirk gave him a poisonous glare, but he shut up. Michael didn’t want to tick him off, but he had to shut him up before everyone got too discouraged.
Sam looked back at Toreas. “I’m not afraid. So what do we do first?”
Toreas paused to collect his thoughts. Michael and Dirk stewed. Toreas opened his mouth, and Kayla interrupted, “Wait a minute.” All eyes turned to her. “If we can’t just do anything to the rebels, what can we do? How much is too much?”
Toreas nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of her question. “Destroy their resources. Prevent them from hurting others. Herd them like frightened sheep. They may not move easily, but they will move.” He paused. “The Armors will frighten them. Take advantage of that, but don’t provoke them. A cornered animal will fight to the death.”
Michael’s frown deepened. Sam was listening with half an ear, waiting for the cue to leap into action. Dirk didn’t seem to be listening at all, just brooding over the map. Kayla and Henrietta were paying attention, but how much of this would they truly understand, out on the battlefield? When they look down at a crowd of angry, frightened peasants, would these girls really “herd” them?
There was only one way to find out.