Zem could still see Rixken standing there on top of his anchor, begging to be shot, holding that sword up with the words on it blazing like little chips of the sun.
How had that worked?
She had known they were dead the moment that mercenary commander said he’d make it quick.
Now they were fleeing South with that same mercenary commander, surrounded by a solid company of armor. With support units.
Ankad’s dirty bed!
Things like this happened in stories and legends, not real life. There were no magic swords. Life was just tech, and pain, and people who used or got used. She had screwed up, Orlin had outmaneuvered them. They should be dead.
Get it togetha, Zem. All tha’ matters is tha’ yar still alive. Use yar head and keep it tha’ way.
Maybe sometimes things went right. Maybe sometimes there were answers.
Bristi growled and turned around in her lap, trying to find a more comfortable position.
“Sorry fox-face. We aren’t getting outta this thing for a while yet.”
Zem slipped a hand into the featherfur on Bristi’s side and gave the kerchax a scratch. The cockpit of her lunger filled with kirring. She let the sound and the feel of a warm fuzzy under her fingers soothe her nerves.
Sending back the barges had bought them time, but not much. An hour, at best. Presently they were moving through the old buildings on one of the smaller artery roads so they would be less likely to be spotted, and making good time, even with the support vehicles which topped out at 140 kph. That could work out to well over a hundred kilometer lead on the Black Wolf company that had been on their tails, but that lead would be no good if they didn’t use it well.
If they just used it to run, they would hit one of the Imperial forces ahead of them, eventually, and then their pursuers would close the distance and hit them while they were recovering. Or worse, smash them against the Imperials. In fact, that was almost certainly what would happen. Orlin had already anticipated them once. There was no reason to doubt he would do it again.
Zem activated the circuit for the command channel.
“So, Tegar KarLagren, now that we have some distance on the Wolves, what do ya say ta a little more planning and discussion?”
“What do you suggest, Agent NerMagten?” Daneth’s voice still sounded rough, but calmer now. Unstrained. “We’re already heading to Lake Baergan like his Majesty ordered.”
“That was my idea, but Orlin will have patrols out, there. Anywhere else, as well. If we’re ta get past them, we’ll need breathing room so we can look for a weak point ta break through.”
“You think we should take out anyone still behind us.”
“Orlin will set the Wolves after us again as soon as he figures out the trick with those barges. If he hasn’t already.”
Silence. Zem got the impression that there were extended conversations going on over private channels.
“My command crew agrees. Your Majesty?”
“You think we need to take out the Black Wolves before we move on?”
“If we catch them in an ambush, we should be able to wipe them out. But if they catch us while we’re looking for a way through, they’ll have the advantage and we might get hit from both sides.”
The pause was brief. She wondered what was going through the mind of a man who would stand up on an anchor and wave a sword in front of a bunch of mercenaries.
“Do it. Work with Agent NerMagten and your command crew and find us the best spot.”
Good. He might be crazy, but he was still being decisive.
Zemril received an invitation to a full tactical link. She opened it, and a moment later a detailed map of the region appeared in front of her, hovering in the air.
“This is the Clisto metroplex,” a thick, high-tree contralto said. Zem checked the source, but the only name she could see was Command, which meant it was someone in the long command-and-control tank hiding in the middle of their column. “Except for a few fishing communities, most of it has been abandoned since the Night of Storms, due to lingering radiation and the fact that it was mainly a tourist region, among other things. This means it is very unlikely that someone will report our passage. This is good for escaping, but it makes setting up an ambush problematic. We have no way to guarantee that the Wolves will follow where we lead.”
Correct. There were any number of roads the Wolves could take in trailing them. If they set up an ambush in one place, the Wolves might pass by in another. While that would also give some of the space they wanted to scout the enemy lines, the Wolves would still be hunting them, and the time lost would just allow Orlin to get more reinforcements to the region.
They needed a draw.
“One of those fishing communities maintains a fairly large trade station,” Daneth said. A square near the water that had probably once been the center of a business district lit up in her view. A name tag marked it as Serin Village. “If we pass through it, HarMakeg should have contacts that will let him know. The Wolves will follow.”
“You know Reggs,” Command said. “Will he walk into an ambush?”
“Not as easily as we’d like. He’ll hold back a reserve if he expects any kind of trouble.”
“An’ if he doesn’t expect trouble?” Zem said.
“What do you mean?” Daneth asked.
“They don’t know that you’re still with us. Not for certain. You could have just chosen not ta shoot Rixken and ran off ta find your own escape in another direction, hoping Orlin would focus on Rixken an’ let you go.”
“Too moral to pull the trigger ourselves, but too cowardly to fight,” Command said.
“So,” Daneth said, “you think we should run you and the Preparer through town alone, while we come in a different way and set up an ambush out of sight? Will that work, Kris?”
Kris. Command was named Kris.
“We’ll have to go wide enough to avoid the town’s perimeter sensors,” Kris said, “but it could work. It has a better chance for success than just plowing through and letting them know where all of us are.” Serin Village went dark and a spot about fifteen kilometers past it, on the same major road, lit up instead. The view zoomed and went to a three-quarters angle, revealing a wide intersection surrounded by a variety of medium to high buildings. “We can deploy our troops on the roofs of these buildings, and hide our tanks in these parking complexes. There are plenty of alleys for our anchors, as well. If we can get the Wolves to run through on this road, we can take our first shots at their backs. The difficulty will be making sure they take that road and catch up with us where we want them to.”
“If we lure them down ta the village first, but leave before they get there, then we should be able ta lead them right past you.”
“We can’t let the Preparer get caught,” Daneth said.
“I won’t.” Zem smiled, even though no one could see it. “It’s my job ta keep him alive. But you let me in that town with him, an’ I’ll make sure HarMakeg knows where we are, an’ I’ll get us out in good time, too.”
A pause. Probably another private conversation.
“Alright. Run it past the Preparer. If he goes for it, that’s what we’ll do.”
Serin Village didn’t look like a village at all.
More like a giant ramshackle fortress, actually. A square of old apartment and business towers bound by rope bridges into a single unit all the way around the intersection, armored at the ground and second story levels with plating stripped from old military vehicles and anything else, and spiked at the tops with gun turrets that had probably come from those same military vehicles. At the base of the buildings there were wooden awnings covering a bazaar that filled every part of the square but the actual road.
Piecemeal as they were, most of the ‘improvements’ were pretty well constructed. The people who had put it all together had skill.
The bazaar itself had the same feel of competence to it. Well kept stalls with food, supplies, firearms, tools, armor, and even some electronics. And of course fish. Piles and piles of fish. Definitely a major trading post for the region.
Once they got past the heavily armed guardposts they parked their anchors in a lot for visiting military vehicles. Zem couldn’t help but notice the large hyper-velocity cannon pointed down at them from a roof mount. It looked like the 100 millimeter gun from an Emperor’s Fist Main Battle Tank. Guns like that wouldn’t be much against the overwhelming force of the full Imperial Army, but they would take out her and Rixken in a blink. She doubted the whole town would turn on them in less than an hour…
Okay. Hoped. If it did, Rixken was done for.
Come on, Zem. Keep moving.
She popped the hatch and let in the outside air.
Flipped the faceplate on her helmet up, took a deep smell.
Fish stew. Seared silverfin. Fresh brewed hax. Murako-nut pie.
Ohhh! Kai. She hadn’t eaten in a day. They had to fix that.
The kerchax leapt out of the lunger to look for anyone hostile standing around the base.
Two yips. All clear.
Zem grabbed her rifle and shoulderbag, pushed the hatch all the way open, deployed the field ladder, and climbed down. A tap on the access panel in the leg sealed the lunger back up and put it into autonomous security mode. The flexible ladder rolled back up into the armor under the hatch.
Rixken joined her a moment later, sword on his hip.
“Come here.” She grabbed him by his armor and pulled him close, checking him over to make sure all the plates were tightened right. It was good stuff he was wearing, light kring-composite with its own liquid cooling system.
She slapped his bare head.
“Get your helmet, ya fool.”
She looked around while Rixken remedied his oversight. No one was paying much attention to them.
Except a guard on one of the lower towers, who was eyeing the splotch of green paint on the shoulder of Rixken’s anchor where the Imperial crest used to be. She watched him, but he went back to scanning the road a moment later.
Not someone she was looking for, then.
She checked the broadcast signals for anything outgoing, but her unicomm hadn’t spotted anything that varied from the baseline she had recorded with her lunger’s sensors on the way in. Most of the signals were radio on the bands used by ships, or local FM, wireless networks, and unicomms. There didn’t seem to a be a data tower, which wasn’t surprising. They were high maintenance and unreliable at any distance over 100 kilometers. This didn’t seem like a place that would have its hardline connections restored, either. There were still whole cities that didn’t have their hardlines fixed. That meant any signal to Imperial forces would stand out.
The plan was to get food and water, enough for a few days so it looked like they were on their own, then hack into the perimeter sensors so they would know when the Wolves were in the area. However, unlike hacking the Imperial network at the border station, which she had override codes for, the security network at Serin Village would be something cobbled together from old software and hardware, just like the rest of the town.
And judging from how most of that cobbling had been done, the cracks were going to be tighter than she had expected. Her best hope was that they had used something old with plenty of exploits and didn’t have a creative programmer adding new protections.
If they did…
They probably did, with all the electronics she had seen out front. Her first few probes at their wireless network had already partially confirmed it.
Well. Her backup plan would save time either way.
When Rixken came back with his helmet on he glared at her.
Hmmm. She really wasn’t ingratiating herself to him so far. Imrien would want her to work on that.
She pulled a holstered pistol out of her bag.
“You know how ta use one of these?”
“Strap it on then. I’m not losing you ta some barfight.”
After a moment he nodded and took the gun.
“Alright. Stay close.”
Moderate crowds of tanned seafolk manned and flowed through the stalls of the bazaar, mixed with a few lighter low-tree and underlander Okendans and one odd man with cream colored skin and white hair manning one of the weapon stalls. All along the awning surrounding the square tame and wild kerchaxes sunned themselves in a riot of colors, while the occasional feral dog wended through the forest of legs on the ground. Zem let her nose lead her to a sizzling grill with kettles of soup on the side, tucked in halfway along the north end of the square. All the stools were full, but the only person in line walked off with a bowl moments after she got there. She dragged Rixken in by his arm.
“Your treat, your highness.”
Rixken shot her a sideways look.
“I don’t have any money.”
“Right. Of course.” Zem caught the cook’s eye. “Silverfin on two with grilled veggies, cheese, an’ fish sauce, an’ a bowl of fish stew an’ a loaf for high-tree here.”
The cook held out his hand and she fished in a pocket for a silver trade coin. He looked at the mark on it, then passed her two smaller coins made of gun-brass. A silverfin steak and a big helping of vegetables went on the grill a moment later.
She went to pocket the change. Bristi kirped.
Zem swung her other hand back and caught five small fingers that had been reaching for her wallet. She yanked the boy around and bent his middle finger back between thumb and forefinger.
Big brown eyes met hers, wide over teeth gritted in pain.
“I know all the tricks, kid. Try it again an’ I’ll take your digits down ta nine.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
She glanced at Rixken, saw his narrowed eyes.
The small hand yanked hard in hers but didn’t get free. She jerked its owner back, switched to a wrist bend and drove him to his knees.
“I don’t tolerate thieves, yer highness.”
“Look at him.”
Her lip twisted up.
Rixken broke eye contact and stared at the boy kneeling beside her, his hand on the hilt of the sword still at his side.
She stared at Rixken’s cheek for several seconds.
Cursed pek-head richboy!
Zem looked down at the urchin. Thin clothes. Hands rough from weather but not work. No shoes. Hollow eyes. Thin, frayed dark hair. Ribs.
She pulled him up, reached back in her pocket with her other hand, and slapped another silver on the counter.
“Silverfin with stew, and fill out the rest with loaves.”
She stared at the kid until the food arrived and he ran off with arms full to eat someplace safe and hide a pocket full of Zem’s spare silver. When she looked for Rixken his hands were full with her sandwich and his own meal. He tried not to look at her.
She snatched her sandwich and took a bite.
“We have work ta do, your holiness. Stuff your face so we can get ta it.”
Ten minutes later her unicomm sent an alert to her visor. Her hands were still full with half of Rixken’s loaf, which he’d given her when she finished her sandwich and looked at his food. She pulled the alert up and saw a spike in the military bands, trying to be a tightbeam but not doing it well enough.
Zem pointed to the other side of the square.
Bristi flew off, crossing the square in a few seconds and latching onto the side of one of the buildings. Zem activated the sensor rig in Bristi’s armor and turned it over to a triangulation program.
Ten seconds later she had the position, three stories up in one of the southern buildings.
“What have you got?” Rixken asked.
“A shortcut ta the sensors. Stay on me an’ keep that gun handy.”
She sent Bristi to scout through the window and strode through the crowds, dodging around the people in her way. The main doors of the building, once glass but now sanded and stained wood, weren’t locked. She pushed through and found the elevators in working order.
The third floor had sealed hardwood floors. Amazingly nice for a town in the middle of nowhere. The signal had stopped, but she knew which room by Bristi’s location.
Thick wood door, probably original, but two hundred years wouldn’t weaken solid murako. Good hardware on the doorknob, one deadbolt.
She switched to the view from Bristi.
One man in the room. Make that two. One at the tabletop military radio next to the window, the other lounging against the wall near the door. Military bearing. Both armed with pistols, probably knives. No armor.
She put her lips to the sound pickup on Rixken’s helmet.
“Cover me,” she whispered. “And don’t shoot me in the back.”
She powered Bristi’s laser, backed her off along the side of the building, and targeted the window. Then set her bag and rifle on the ground away from the door, pulled a large suppressor out of the bag, and drew the short barrelled semi-auto shotgun she kept on her lower back under her jacket. Magazine out, two breechers on top, two electric under those, rest heavy shot. Suppressor on barrel. Round in chamber. Barrel to doorknob.
She hear Rixken draw the pistol and click the safety off.
She fired Bristi’s laser. Glass shattered in the room. The men yelled.
Two breachers broke the knob and deadbolt.
Boot to door. Door flew in, brass bits clattering across the floor.
Both men were crouched, pistols out, eyes toward the window, turning her way.
They fell twitching, shock darts attached to their backs.
A minute later they were both tied up and gagged in a different room of their apartment and the door was pushed closed. Hopefully no one would come looking. That could get messy.
It could get messy anyway.
Zem squatted in front of the radio man. He glared at her.
She drew a pistol and slapped him across the face with the butt of it.
“You think you know what you’re about, don’t you?” she said. “Helping the new Emperor catch an’ kill his own brother. What are you getting? Money? Or is this loyalty ta that clegmokker?” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. You’re going ta give me the codes ta the perimeter sensors. Don’t tell me you don’t have them. I know all about ImpMil agents. You’ve wormed your way into everything in this town by now. So, just give them ta me, and you both get out of this alive, an’ we get out of this alive, an’ the only one unhappy is Orlin. If either of you think that’s good, just nod an’ I’ll get your gag off.”
The silence and the glaring continued.
“Alright. Guess I’ve gotta cut the balls off one of you.”
She holstered the pistol and pulled a knife.
“Quiet, your highness. This is my job. If you can’t handle it, step outside.”
She had tied the men in a kneeling position that kept them from closing their legs, just for this moment. The moment she extended the knife toward the Radio Man’s crotch he shot a glance at the computer sitting on a desk in the room.
“Your highness, if you want to be useful, check that computer.”
Rixken went to the computer.
“It’s on, but it’s asking for a password.”
“Good. For a moment I thought this was gonna be easy and I wouldn’t get any fun.”
The radio man closed his eyes.
Two quick motions with the tip of the knife parted the fabric at the inner thighs, and one more dropped a flap revealing his underwear.
The radio man started screaming into his gag.
Nat. He probably wanted to talk now.
No fun at all.
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.