“Dingo-Alpha closing on intrusion zone, Deep-Den. Telltales still negative. Switching to firecells.”
With a beep the single-use auxiliary cells ignited and the pulse fusion core shut down. A countdown appeared, adjusted by the anchor’s current speed and activity. Pack-Commander Aysha Theron, top-rated anchor pilot of Zdar Army and proud Irtrallan Warsister, had at most 31 minutes of low-heat power with which to locate an Imperial force, assess its strength, and break away.
All around her, trees the size of houses blurred past. Under her, waist high green-black grasses whispered as the feet of her anchor swept through them. Behind her, five other anchors followed in her footsteps, all blending with their surroundings, all quiet despite their size and speed. It wasn’t perfect, but in the woods, from more than three-hundred meters away, their stealth was almost impenetrable.
A click in Aysha’s ear signalled an incoming reply. The source, Command, flashed to one side of her vision. She twitched one long, pointed ear to listen even though the sound was coming in direct on her nerves.
“Deep-Den to Dingo-Alpha,” a bright feminine voice said. “Skyguard still getting numerous rad tells. Forest seismics indeterminate. You are almost to the source. ETA six minutes. Zdar-Prime orders maintain breakaway speed. Limit contact to surface probe. Do not engage further.”
Slap them and run away. Mother’s sake. This was the third probe from these stick-brain males in two days’ time. She wanted to break them, not just see how many there were.
“Confirm orders. Limit contact to surface probe?”
A new woman’s voice came on the line. Deeper, older, harder, and very familiar.
“Our sources confirmed reports of stealth tanks involved in the Ambrin action,” First Mother Mesra Trayl said. “They’ve been clearing roads out there. It could be to bring in some of those tanks. I want you to keep your scouting attacks shallow until we know what’s there. Understood?”
“Orders received and accepted, Zdar Prime. Dingo Alpha out.”
The radio connection closed.
“One-forty seconds to intrusion zone, Dingo Pack,” Aysha announced. “Maintain breakaway speed at all times. Tactics are purely hit and run. If you divert, you will be left behind. Hold fire until ordered. Confirm.”
“Hit and run, zero diversion, hold fire,” echoed back at her from all five packsisters.
She poured on a little extra speed and felt the nanocarbon legs deliver. In response, the countdown showing her remaining power dropped by a minute. Up ahead her computer outlined the remains of one of the long abandoned highways running out to the Emprin Isthmus, the territory her sisters now controlled.
Aysha turned to parallel it. A fallen tree, tall as her anchor, barred her way. She cleared it with a flameless leap, ignoring the pain as the G-forces pounded her into her crash chair. A moment later her advanced sensors picked up the telltale x-rays of active fusion reactors. Faint, but higher than background.
Probably anchors with good camo.
Aysha kept several rows of giant trees between her and the pavement as she looked for the intruders. She spotted the first one crouched beside the road, scanning the surroundings with an autocannon in its hands. Danag Mk2, one of the older Imperial anchors. A little bulky. Probably armored with kring-composite. Cheap but effective.
It hadn’t spotted her yet.
She targeted it and sighted with her carried rail-rifle, but didn’t give the computer firing permission. Now that she was actually at the stingers’ nest she felt less inclined to kick it until she knew how big it was. Even late-trained stick-brain males could kill if there were enough of them.
She saw other Imperial anchors appear as her packsisters’ sensors found out more of the enemy.
Aysha calmed herself. This was more than just a scouting mission. Along with all the anchors she saw a railtank on the road guarding two interdiction tanks, a number of APCs, and a command tank.
No sign of stealth tanks. All the heat and radiation seemed concentrated on the road.
They had to have a goal, somewhere. But where?
She re-issued the order to hold fire and put a few more rows of trees between the Imperials and her team. This was not a group to antagonize lightly.
She recorded a quick report to Command and sent it as soon as they were past the Imperial force and had all the data they were going to get from the first pass.
Several minutes passed.
“Deep-Den to Dingo-Alpha. Looks like a reconnaissance-in-force. Any sign of those stealth tanks?”
“Dingo-Alpha here. No sign. All forces on road.”
“Did hostiles spot you?”
“Negative on visual contact, but hostiles are wise.”
“Zdar-Prime wants you to hit them on the way back in. She commends your self-control, but wants their command vehicle destroyed. Steady?”
Thirty anchors, seven crawlers, probably a bunch of crunchies.
But her pack had surprise.
Time to smash those thashing stick-brains.
“Steady, Deep-Den. One softcom head, inbound.”
She turned sharp, swinging toward the road without slowing. When she reached the hard surface she cleared it in a single leap to avoid slamming across while still so close to the enemy. Her pack repeated the maneuver after her. Running on grasses and forest loam was much quieter.
“New orders, Dingo Pack. Deep-Den wants that command tank guts-out. Still breakaway speed and minimum engagement, so we’re doing it in one pass. Targets for five shots. All dingos, first two shots on interdiction turrets. All dingos, third shot on command tank AML. Fourth and fifth shots, follow up where appropriate. Dingo Delta, lance the command tank when you have a clear sky. All others, drop anything you can once Delta fires. I have cleanup. Confirm.”
Dingo pack confirmed.
Aysha slowed, letting her pack move ahead of her. Cleanup meant it was her job to make sure the command tank was destroyed if Delta failed, so she had to be the last through. Hers was also the only other anchor equipped with a piledriver missile made for killing tanks. Mostly they weren’t carried, as one hit from an anti-missile laser could defeat them, but sometimes they were useful. Like today. Nothing else they had would get through the command tank’s armor at range.
Back past the enemy, same speed, same distance, other side. Most of the Imperials had their main sensors pointed in the direction her pack had first come from.
Not all of them, though. Stick-brain Imperials could be stupid, but not that stupid.
She designated the armored laser turrets on the interdiction tanks and the command tank. Her packsisters queued up on their targets, preventing crossover.
Aysha took aim at the nearest interdiction tank with her railrifle and shoulder laser.
800 meters and closing. Seven minutes power left.
“Dingo Pack, open fire.”
Thundercracks split the air as six railrifles shot between the trees and tore chunks off the armor covering the interdiction turrets. Six green flashes followed, burrowing through those scars to chew out the turret interiors.
The recoil of Aysha’s own railrifle was incredible, but her anchor absorbed it smoothly, sidestepping in line with the momentum while the internal gyro kept it stable. She didn’t drop more than a single kph in speed. The laser had no recoil but was more problematic as it pulled from internal power. The first shot from that ripped a minute off her remaining time.
The enemy reacted before the debris from the turrets had hit the ground. Those who were already looking in their direction moved for cover behind trees and opened fire with their autocannons. 39mm armor piercing rounds filled the spaces between the trunks.
Aysha dodged her path behind a large black-barked murako, keeping as many trees between her and the Imperials as she could while she locked onto the command tank. Several of her pack sisters were already shredding its anti-missile laser with more railgun and laser shots. She added her own shots and watched its active defenses dissolve, then a few more for good measure.
Range, 600 meters.
Ahead, Dingo-Delta angled into a slight clearing where she could launch her missile.
There was a mighty thundercrack and Dingo-Delta stumbled. No missile launched. A damage warning for her packsister flashed to Aysha’s vision instantly, accompanied by a dip in the pilot’s lifesigns. Bad.
“Delta here. Targeting computer offline, and the shot clipped me. Watch out for the railtank. It can aim!”
“Break off and retreat, Delta. Max speed.”
Aysha locked her own missile onto the command tank and angled for a thin spot in the canopy cover. Launch. With a roaring flare it shot straight up , spearing through the trees into the sky before flipping ends and pounding back down toward the turret of the command tank.
Two purple flickers touched it. Infrared beams from the AMLs on two of the anchors, highlighted by her sensors in a color she could see.
They didn’t stop the missile, but the damage put it off course.
An explosion shattered the air and rocked the command tank.
One corner only. Front left track sheared.
Not good enough. The mission wasn’t finished.
300 meters. 2 minutes power.
How to kill a tank with no piledriver? Aysha zoomed on the command tank. Aside from the sheared track and busted defense turrets it had acquired nothing more than heavy laser scoring. Its armor was too thick.To kill it, she would need a better angle.
Aysha turned her path inward.
“Dingo Pack, zero divert, smoke target, cover fire. Confirm.”
“Zero divert, smoke target, cover fire,” came the reply.
Aysha queued smoke grenades in her shoulder AGL. She saw power armored troops piling out of the APCs. Autocannon fire still tore through the air around her.
Return fire from her packsisters was just reaching maximum intensity. Three Imperial anchors were already on the ground. Two more dropped as she watched. Grenades fell amidst the power armored troopers, making them run for cover. More grenades filled the road clearing with hot smoke. Aysha added her own.
A cloud of smoke covered the road and most of the space between her and the enemy.
As the air blacked she went to intuitive mode. Her vision became a world of white blurs in absolute black, marking where the computer thought things were. The command tank, missing a track, stayed crisp and clear. Everything else was up for grabs.
200 meters. Minimum distance to the command tank on the course she had set for her pack.
She turned ninety-degrees, straight toward the tank, fighting the pull of momentum that wanted to drag her into a slide along the forest floor. An extended burst of her plasma jets kept her up and moved her through.
The sound of fire continued from autocannons, now joined by the small-arms from the PA troops. A moment after her turn passive sonar told her she was surrounded by enemies. They had run into the woods to close the distance.
She cut her jets.
A warning blinked up in her vision. Her power reserves were critically low.
She checked the countdown. At present use she was going to fall over about ten steps past the command tank.
She put the pulse-fusion reactor into startup. From standby it took ten seconds. She didn’t have ten seconds. She drained the capacitors and sent all power to the motive systems.
White blurs flew past.
100 meters to command tank.
One anchor stepped into her path. Barred her way.
She ducked and slid low, slapping its reaching hands away with a strike from one arm.
Up and forward. Her anchor was far faster than the Imperials’ old things.
An auto-cannon shot slammed into her armor.
Another punched into her side. Warning alarms blared.
She hooked her railrifle to a magslot on her back. Reached up with a hand and pulled an anti-tank mine off her back hip.
20 meters. Almost to the command tank. Still big and sharp and waiting for destruction.
Its main turret blurred.
She ducked and sidestepped.
A shell went right past one arm, leaving a projected trail in the air.
It would have taken her under the chest armor. Probable kill.
Pavement smacked against her feet.
She flipped the mine in her hand, armed it for timed fire.
Reached the tank. Hopped. Buttslid across its rear.
Left the mine on the top, right over the crew compartment, pointed down.
Feet to ground. Running again.
“Null Power” flashed in her vision.
2 seconds to reactor start.
The mine blew, primary and secondary explosions confirmed.
Take that, you thashing three-legs.
1 second to reactor start.
Her anchor stumbled.
Power flooded her anchor as the pulse fusion reactor spun boron and hydrogen into pure golden energy.
She recovered and went to full speed, backed up by her plasma jets, leaving far faster than she had come in. Active sonar lashed out, revealing a tree about to ruin her day. She dodged around, as autocannon rounds continued to track her.
She put a tree in between herself and them. Another.
The distance opened.
The shots trailed off.
“Deep-Den, this is Dingo-Alpha. Command tank killed. Some injuries, zero losses.”
“Good work, Dingo-Alpha. Zdar-Prime says come home with pride.”
But what are they after?
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.