“We could just make a run for it, you know.”
Koo’s suggestion tugged at Dan from a private line. At that point the Preparer and the Neralene agent should have been in the town for a little over forty minutes. In that same time the Kerchaxes had bypassed the town and moved into the selected ambush zone. That left them at least half-an-hour before the Wolves were likely to arrive at the town pursuing the Preparer. In that time his people could cover at least eighty kilometers, enough to put the Wolves well off the trail. With the Preparer dead, Orlin probably wouldn’t devote much extra effort to running Dan and his people down. Not with so many other military actions going on in the region.
They could get away. Possibly. It was better odds than they had of surviving direct conflict with Orlin.
Why hadn’t Dan just shot Rixken? His people would have been safe, then.
Instead he had broken his contract with HarMakeg, not something that caused him much pain, but definitely something that put everyone he was responsible for in terrible danger. It was one company against the entire military might of Okend, half of which seemed to be moving into battle that very day. They could never survive. Someone was going to catch them, and at some point that someone was going to have an unstoppable weight of arms.
They weren’t committed yet. They still had a chance. Koo was right.
He was right.
Dan fisted his right hand, feeling the empty place where his ring should be. He remembered the sword, burning in the sun like a beacon.
What the Old Man would have given to be there, seeing that blade held up. The blade over forty generations of Preparers had carried into battle before this one. The stories still surged in Dan’s mind. Ankad coming to ArPallik’s rescue at the battle of Kemtran, cutting the enemy army in half with his royal guard. Dereg at Chimfan pass, holding off the Hartorin horde for ten days despite forty-to-one odds and a wound that killed him even after his son arrived with forces rallied from the warlords. Dozens, hundreds, more like those. Some of them too wild and miraculous to believe.
It was foolish to bet the lives of his men on old stories, especially ones where half the time victory came at the cost of fifty-percent losses.
But those battles had meant something. They had stopped men like HarMakeg, not helped them. And always the sword had been there, clutched in the hands of a Preparer willing to hold it high and at least stumble after what the promise on it meant.
Dan himself didn’t know what it meant. He read the Teachings, he worked at the study sheets, he went through a list of prayers each day to keep the bases covered. He knew what the Teachings said was right, and what they said was wrong. That the Name meant there was hope for all the people like him who couldn’t ever quite measure up. But he never quite felt it. Never saw it all come together.
But the Old Man had. He had believed, running himself and his company and his family in that belief. Somehow he had always had an open hand for anyone needing him, and the hint of a smile even in the worst of times. He had known what was right, and somehow he had done it.
Dan would have given anything to have him back right then.
“Dan, you were right about not killing him,” Koo said. “We couldn’t have just shot an ArdAnkadia like that. But we won’t survive a fight with the whole Empire. If we go now, we might just make it out. If we get to Jedremi or Loktan we should be able to get work and avoid whatever craziness takes over Okend.”
The dead didn’t come back. Not unless what the Kevas said was true. And what they said was someday. Not today.
But he did know what the Old Man would have done. Could almost hear what he would have said.
“You see that sword, boy? It’s been around for two-thousand years now and hasn’t broken yet. Think of that. Aihay gave it to us, and it’s pointing to something so good we can’t even imagine it. Follow where it goes and you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Dan didn’t know what he was looking for. But he remembered his father’s ring in the Old Man’s hand, those stone chip eyes that had looked into the sky for the Home Star every morning, and he knew that whatever the Old Man had seen with those eyes was better than anything he could think of.
“Abandoning him now is the same as killing him,” Dan said. “And we won’t be taking the whole Empire head on. It’s a slim chance, but if we move fast we can get him off the continent before Orlin can get all his forces here. If we do, we might actually put a stop to all the warlords like HarMakeg.”
“You can’t stop men like HarMakeg. There are always more.”
“Maybe most times that’s true. But today… today I think we can. And if we die, at least it won’t be helping someone like him murder another city.”
There was a long pause from Koo.
“You’re the boss,” he said at last.
That he was. Kai have mercy on them.
The line closed and Dan turned his attention to the disposition of his forces. The office towers of the ancient commercial intersection rose high above him, shading the streets below from the late morning sunlight. They were arranged in a square block formation on a wide North-South avenue crossed by a slightly narrower East-West street. Plenty of alleys cut between the buildings on each block and screens of ornamental arches overgrown with vines ran along the edges of the roads and made it hard to see down the alleys from the stonetop. His anchor was hidden in an alley with four others, crouched down in full standby, impossible to see without leaving the road, but within ten short steps of a good shooting angle. The rest of his anchors were crouching in other, similar alleys, all ready to run out the instant he sent the signal.
His tanks were split between two parking garages on either side of the main road, at the ground level where they could drive out through the short safety walls if needed. Two blocks further south and high above them, on the tops of the towers on either side of the avenue, his troopers crouched behind the parapets with their weapons at the ready. Most of them had swapped assault rifles for heavy anti-material rifles and lasers and the few man-portable anti-armor missiles they had. They also had a few light hi-vee cannons that could be mounted on tripods the moment they were needed.
Another block south from them, his demolitions experts had rigged up a surprise with a narrower building. It had taken a fair amount of their loose explosives, but it would make sure the Preparer could break away, while stopping the Wolves from doing the same.
The command tank, the interdiction tanks, the APCs, and the support and mobile maintenance crawlers were in a separate square entirely, hidden from either the main road or the crossroad. With the troopers up on the rooftops there was no no reason to expose the lighter combat vehicles until the enemy was heavily engaged, and putting a command tank out in the open was always just a bad idea. He checked all the preparations again, but couldn’t find anything that could be better. That left him with nothing to do but wait.
Waiting was always the worst part of any operation. Minutes ground on, while Dan’s nerves tried to burn him out. He listened to music to soothe himself, gentle orchestral pieces that had been composed at least a thousand years ago. His father had liked to listen to similar pieces while reading.
Fifty minutes. They were getting close to when the Preparer and his bodyguard should be showing up. He powered his tight array and linked to Command.
“Command here,” Kris said.
“Any sign yet?”
“Nothing so far. No disruptions in the radio station running out of Serin, either. It’s on an automatic playlist, though, and the jockey doesn’t speak very often, so they might not mention a company of anchors coming through.”
“Alright. Comm me when you have something.”
He closed the channel. It reopened as a private line.
“You’re nervous.” Kris’ voice was soft. She was probably speaking so that no one else in the command tank would hear her.
“We have fifty Black Wolf anchors headed our way, if our plan works out and the Preparer himself doesn’t get killed leading them to us. Yes I’m nervous, Kris.”
“We’re doing the right thing.”
“That doesn’t mean it will turn out right. If that were true, your father would still be here.”
“Things haven’t turned out right for my family in two-hundred years. I think we HarRukoras stopped expecting it to at least a century ago. If today is the same as all the others I won’t be surprised.”
“He told me to keep you safe, Kris.”
“There are different kinds of safe, Dan. He didn’t mean going along with HarMakeg and Orlin.”
Dan’s gut twisted.
“Dan. I don’t want to beat you up. You’ve done enough of that already. I just want you to know… I’m glad to be here. Even if the HarRukora line ends here, today, let it be written that we answered when the call came. That Aihay looked for someone to stand in the gap, and found my family. My father would have given anything to be with us today. And he wouldn’t have told you to keep me safe from this. This is what he raised me for.”
Dan’s throat and eyes ached. Kris… She was right. Her father had never kept them out of the hard battles that needed to be fought, even when victory wasn’t sure. Safe for the HarRukora’s meant something different.
“He’d be proud of you, Dan. I want you to know that. I’m proud of you.”
He looked for words, but his throat wouldn’t work.
“Fight hard, Dan.”
The line closed. His eyes continued to ache for several minutes.
A double-click ricocheted through the tight-beam network. Their charge had been detected, moving through as planned.
Dan thought of that young man piloting his pristine anchor. Could he live up to this? To the meaning in that sword he had brandished? Was he worth the end of the HarRukora’s?
Too late now. He had decided, and the battle was here.
Dan put his fusion core into warm-up and kept an eye on the seismics. A minute later two anchors went pounding past on the main avenue, headed South. There didn’t appear to be anything behind them for five minutes, but then the seismics picked up the Black Wolves, coming south as fast as they could.
He put his finger on the switch for the fusion core. His body wanted him to breath fast, but he kept the rhythm slow, looking for the balance point between fully awake and berserk. The sensory link to his anchor helped him find it, the input from the giant body absent all the tension present in his own. He switched from seismics to audio and listened.
Listened until the Wolves drew even. In that moment the world slowed for him.
He opened a channel on the tightbeam network.
Explosions tore the air in sequence. For a moment more nothing happened, then the street rumbled as a hundred thousand tons of stone and steel fell onto it, blocking the southern avenue just ahead of the Wolves.
“All units engage.”
Electricity surged through his anchor as his finger hit the switch and ignited the fusion core. Dan lunged out of the alley, took cover in one of the vine-decked arches, and looked for a target.
The large bore hi-vee cannons of his tanks split the air with thunder on either side of him. Dan spotted a Black Wolf Danag Mk2c and watched it’s back dissolve from a high velocity cannon strike before he could take aim.
He looked for another. His computer helped him see through the dust and pick out the column two blocks down the road. He chose one black anchor and fired a controlled burst. The armor on its back ripped open and the anchor fell.
All around him other Kerchax anchors joined in, dropping one Wolf anchor after another while the enemy looked for cover. Half the Wolves fell from back shots before the rest dodged into the alleys.
A moment later the sky came alive with small arms fire as Dan’s power-armored troopers dropped everything they had on the anchors hiding in the alleys. Kill reports for five more flashed in the corner of his vision in seconds.
“They’re suppressing us!” his infantry commander said.
“Stay covered. We have them boxed and outnumbered. Hold them while we flank.”
Small arms fire from the rooftops lessened but didn’t stop.
Dan ordered half his anchors to keep the Wolves suppressed while he split the rest into two teams and sent them out through alleys they had already scouted to flank the Wolves via the side streets. He sent a tank with each team as backup, and watched as the huge tracked vehicles burst through the walls of the parking garages and zoomed after the anchor teams.
He saw their projected forms move along the side streets until they were in position.
Distant cannon fire joined the small arms fire from the roof, punctuated by the boom of the tank guns.
He signaled the anchors surrounding him on the main avenue.
“Advance in cover.”
He dodge out from his archway and ran forward, staying close to the stone screen. As he neared the end of that block he dropped back into another archway.
A Wolf anchor poked it’s head around the corner of a building up the avenue.
Dan blew its main camera out with a burst. Its reply ripped some of the armor off his right shoulder.
“Keep pressing them!”
Two more Wolves went down. One of Dan’s anchors lost its fusion core.
“This is Swamptoad. I’m hit. Losing power.”
“Pull back, Swamptoad.”
Dan moved up another few archways, then sprinted through the intersection and dropped behind the corner of a building. His men followed in staggered runs, keeping the Wolves under continuous fire.
Dan lost a handful of his troopers over the next minute, and two more of his anchors. One was a straight kill. Wan PirMelsen. Just a kid.
Despite the losses, the Wolves kept dropping. The Kerchaxes were winning.
No. They had won. A moment after he dropped the anchor he had shot the head out of the Wolves’ surviving commander called for terms.
“Cease fire!” Dan ordered. “Tegar PirTakkit, my terms are simple. Power down your anchors, get out, and start walking. Do that and you have my word you won’t be fired on.”
“Hard terms, Tegar KarLagren.”
“Better than death or imprisonment, and I can’t afford better.”
He saw the Preparer’s Girden Mk1b sprinting in along one of the cross streets, flanked by the Agent’s lunger. He had told them to hole up somewhere as soon as they heard him signal the ambush. Why were they back?
He almost hoped it was because the Preparer had ignored the plan. The other option was big trouble coming their way.
“I accept your terms, KarLagren. My men are dismounting now.”
“Thank you, Tegar PirTakket. I’ll see that all of you are safely dropped off a kilometer north and then released.”
He signaled for his troopers to round up the survivors and get them disarmed and cordoned in one of the buildings while the hospital truck got set up to treat the wounded. At the same time, he ordered his backup anchor pilots to man the abandoned Wolf anchors that were still in good condition, all eleven of them. He also called the command tank and all the support vehicles into the killbox they’d made for the Wolves. He had a feeling he would want those vehicles somewhere he could surround them with firepower.
“Tegar KarLagren,” Rixken commed.
“You’re supposed to be hiding. Did something go wrong?”
“We did hide. Then we picked up seismics for a huge force coming North up the road, running radio silent. We think the agents in Serin may have called in one of the Imperial divisions that was down by Emprin at the same time that they called in the Wolves.”
“How big a force and how far out?”
“Maybe twenty minutes out, and at least a battalion from the sound of it, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.”
At least a battalion. Four companies.
And they had nowhere to go.
“You might want to start praying, Preparer, because unless we get a miracle, we’re dead.”
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.