Dan sat in the snow, the cold sinking into him. Snow fell from the sky, covering everything around him bit by bit. He pressed against the door for warmth, but it wasn’t enough.
His hands hurt from the cold. He rubbed them together to get them warm, but they were slick.
He looked at them.
They were covered in blood.
Where was his ring?
He looked for it on the ground, but everything was covered in snow. He had dropped it somewhere, and now it was hidden.
No. He had wagered it.
Wagered it and lost it.
But… someone would be coming. He knew that.
Someone had before.
Footsteps. He looked up.
A man. Standing at the entrance to the alley.
It was the old man. HarRukora.
He looked so sad, just staring at Dan.
Then he shook his head, turned around, and walked away.
Suddenly Dan knew. His ring was gone.
And there was no getting it back.
Dan woke shivering and more exhausted than when he had gone to sleep. The dream hung in his mind, heavy and dark. He wanted to dismiss it, but HarRukora’s face remained, pinning him with a look.
3,000. The rough population of that town.
And he had helped.
He almost stayed in bed. He wanted to. But twenty years of waking at predawn for Teachings, physical training, and the first song insisted that the schedule be honored. Even if it was the old man’s schedule.
Even more because it was the old man’s schedule.
He sat up in his bedroll and snapped his fingers. A red light came on, suspended from the peak of his tent, revealing its contents as him, his sleeping bag, a short folding workdesk, and a small stiff-sided duffel. He slid his legs out from under the warm covers, letting the morning chill wake him up more. This close to the equator it shouldn’t have been cold in the lowlands, but the peninsula holding Ambril province took the brunt of the antarctic current that ran up the coast of Eastern Okend, and Dankar was just moving into the far point of its orbit.
In Velgrin, up in the mountains, it would be snowing again.
He shook off the feel of that old, lined face watching him and reached for the e-reader lying on top of his desk. He crossed his legs as it booted and stretched his neck from side to side. Options came up on a dim screen backlit with red. He tapped the options for his morning reading plan, calling up a selection of the Teachings for that day chosen by some Keva who had probably been dead for two-hundred years or more. Large letters, in the simplest, easiest to read font available, spelled out a passage from one of the old prophetic books.
“Cursed be the man who treads upon the weak, who hears the cries of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, and lifts his hand against them, though they have done him no wrong. Aihay himself shall be his enemy, and he shall find no rest.”
Dan’s fingers went limp, and the reader slipped through them. He felt with his thumb for his father’s ring.
It wasn’t there.
He reached up and flicked the hanging light to full white, then spun around in place and searched through his sleeping bag. Not there. He stood up and shook it out, tossing the reader across the tent. Not there. He searched the desk. In the desk. The duffel.
Where? Where had he lost it?
He stepped on something and looked down.
He swooped and picked it up, then stared at the worn platinum, the etched sapphire. Heavy memories glinted on its surface.
The first tear hit his chest and left a dot of cold.
More followed, until he couldn’t see for the water in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the face that wasn’t there. “I’m so sorry.”
He clenched the ring in his hand.
“I failed you.”
He set the steaming hax cup on the folding mess table with a click. Eyes tracked him, then dropped back to food, mostly half eaten. He hadn’t held morning PT. The first time in ever. He hadn’t had the strength for it when he finally made it out of the tent, or the heart for it once he saw how his own men avoided his eyes like kicked dogs.
One set of eyes did meet his. Bright green, set in an olive-toned oval face under dark brows, framed between perked ears focused on him.
Darra Krisga HarRukora, daughter of Tegar HarRukora, current owner of the company, and the woman who kept everything running behind the scenes, in and out of battle. Also, though he would never tell her, beautiful in a hundred ways other women just couldn’t compare to. Even when her eyes were red rimmed.
She looked at his hand, where the skin normally covered by his ring glowed even paler than the rest of his light flesh. He saw where her gaze was going and hid the absence against the cup. He had put the ring in his pocket, unable to make himself wear it.
He lifted the cup to take a sip of liquid that he knew was too hot.
She caught his wrist, pulled his hand back down, and covered the ring’s absence with her palm.
“We didn’t know, Daneth.”
“We knew what HarMakeg was like. You said it yesterday. We shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place.”
She lowered her head and pressed her ears out to the side in shame, but didn’t let go.
“It’s my responsibility,” she said.
“I’m the commander,” he replied.
“I’m the owner. I should have blocked you.”
“You wouldn’t, and I know it.”
“Fifty-fifty. That’s my offer.”
“You’re bargaining over this?”
“If you give me half the responsibility, then you can only half kill yourself with regret.” She lifted her head and showed him a smile so broken it had to be cutting her to wear it.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, knowing it changed nothing.
“I know.” She squeezed his hand and let go.
They were all damned. And they knew it.
He drank his hax, still too hot, and got up with the liquid burning in his stomach. No matter how he felt he had to make sure the company was in order. They were in a war zone, and they might be called to action at any time, or have action come their way.
As he made his way toward the mobile anchor bays, Geven, one of the black and gray warhounds, fell in beside him. He spared the dog a pat as he looked for Jekin NarGossen, the chief mechanic. There. Four meters up on a truck-mounted scaffolding with his head buried in the open pulse reactor of Koo’s anchor.
“How’s it look, old timer?”
Jekin didn’t bother to back out of the chamber.
“Electrodes are good. Thank Kai. We can’t afford new ones. Toxin buffer’ll need dumping soon, but the Imps can handle that for us.”
Between the echo from the chamber and a light breeze, Dan caught only half that, but he put it together into an accurate translation of “all fine”. He looked around at the thirty-nine other anchors standing around the clearing, all of them Makeg Mk1s. A little heavier than the Danag Mk2 used by most Imperial forces, the Makeg Mk1 benefitted from better deflection angling and articulation on the armor, as well as a little more travel in the shoulder-laser mount and a better array of interdiction lasers. Despite the extra mass, mostly found in their armor and some extra motive equipment in the legs, they looked sleeker than the Imperial standard anchor. At a glance he could tell they were all rearmed and ready to go.
Beyond the anchors was their command tank, a long, slab-armored, wide tracked monster with a central turret bristling with weapons and arrays, two heavy tanks with hi-vee 90 millimeter cannons, and their four remaining interdiction tanks, as well as the tables where the powerpacks for powered armor sat recharging off a line running from the command tank. Two other mechanics were working on one of the interdiction tanks, cleaning lenses and fine tuning the servos, but the rest had the bored look of men with nothing to do that moment.
Trust Jekin to have it all under control once he actually had the parts to fix things with. Working for HarMakeg had given them that, if nothing else. If Dan wanted something to keep himself busy with, he would have to look elsewhere.
He turned and headed for the command tent to see how HarMakeg’s campaign was going. Brad caught up with him on his way there. The tall, hunching west-coaster normally lead the men in the morning song, but Dan had thrown the whole schedule into the dirt. This was probably about that.
“Sir, we just got something weird with the radio. I thought you might wanna know.”
Not about the song, then.
Dan kept walking and motioned Brad to follow, tilting one ear to listen.
“What’s with the radio?”
“We found an FM station out of Dorgen, to the north. One of the Keva channels. Most of those do a morning song and sermon, but the speaker on this one skipped all that and said that the Council of Kevas had made a decision on the Preparer.”
“So they confirmed Orlin. That isn’t news.”
“Well, he didn’t say that. He made it sound like a big deal, whatever they decided, but then the station got jammed.”
“Jammed? Are you sure?”
“I know what jamming sounds like, sir. The station went from clear to nothing but pulsed static. We ran it through the computers and it’s an Imperial jammer, covering that station only.”
“Maybe it’s one of the jammers in Ambril?”
Brad shook his head.
“Source was toward Dorgen.”
Dan hmmmed, then shook his head.
“That is odd. Tell me if anything changes.”
He dismissed Brad, turned the incident over in his head for a moment, then put it aside. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with him. If it did, HarMakig’s command base would be best equipped to tell him.
He started toward the command tent again. When he was almost there Koo ducked out from under the flap. The platinum-blonde Snowlander had a printout clutched in one hand. He locked onto Dan immediately and held out the missive as he approached.
“HarMakeg has another assignment for us, Dan.”
Dan took it, controlling the urge to throw it away without looking at it, and read. The large letters laid out a strange scenario.
“Did you read this already?”
“Move company to Massi Port,” he said. “Take two barges to Polain. Deploy anchors and help Black Wolf Legion intercept two fugitives in stolen anchors.”
“Did you read the last part?”
“Destroy fugitives on sight.”
Dan reread the orders. Setting aside that they meant his whole company had to pack up and head out in half-an-hour, a major feat in itself, who would request that two stolen anchors be destroyed on sight? Most of the anchors in existence were rebuilds based on frames dating from just before the Night of Storms, and factories that could make new ones were hardly common. Killing two thieves couldn’t be more important than getting the vehicles back intact.
Dan shook his head, sick with the feeling that this was another mission from HarMakeg that he was going to regret participating in.
But, what choice did he really have? They still needed the money.
And they were already in too deep as it was.
“Go tell Kris to get everyone packed up. We have a barge to catch.”
“Ok.” Koo paused and looked him over. “Dan. We can handle this.”
“I know, Koo. Just go tell Kris.”
Damned. Well and truly damned.
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.