The test results were in.
And Orlin’s best analysts still had no answer.
After days of bombardment from every direction they knew that Emprin interdiction lasers engaged artillery rounds as soon as they rose above the horizon in an optimally efficient pattern, as if they knew the rounds were coming before they possibly could have been detected by any line-of-sight radar. That would require a way of seeing beyond the horizon, but his closest scouts and ships had been unable to spot any kind of drones or radar planes.
Could they have some kind of stealth blimps hovering at several kilometers up and watching for artillery fire? It had been done before, but stealth always had its limits. Once something’s general location was known, it could always be found. Especially when all it had to hide in was open air.
Perhaps they just had solid tracking systems up on the mountains and exceedingly good prediction routines in their computers. That would explain some of it. But not the sheer impenetrability of their laser envelope. No. They had to have some way of seeing beyond the horizon of even the kilometer-high peaks centering Emprin.
Could it be…
No. No one had any of those.
And the mad cloud of debris orbiting the planet made sure no one would. Anything low enough to avoid destruction would make enough disturbance to be found, and anything high enough to hide in complete vacuum would be smashed.
Especially after two-hundred years.
His stomach growled. He had been thinking rather than eating, and his lunch was probably cold.
Orlin left the problem to his analysts and turned back to his desk where a medium-rare beef-steak covered in baked dawfruit and murako-nut gravy waited for him. It had cooled, but he was hungry enough not to care, and the giant mushroom beside it, stuffed with sharp grassleaper-cheese, herbs, and little bits of shellfish, didn’t need to be hot to be good.
He ignored the steamed reshin greens and finished with a glass of dark purple haxberry wine, a rich vintage from vines in the western mountains. At first he almost downed it, but then he made himself slow, sit back, and enjoy each sip. Dry, with a touch of sweet. Rich, deep fruit that opened up as he rolled it around his mouth, with the characteristic smoky aftertaste of hax showing up a moment after he swallowed.
His steward would give him a look for leaving the vegetables, but reshin was terrible cold.
His computer flashed with a call. HarMakeg.
He tapped the receive button.
“Niril. What news?”
“Apologies, your Majesty. Rixken entered Akati last night in the company of the Kerchaxes. They were backed by a battalion of Warsister anchors and another of Danag Mark 2C rebuilds. They avoided the ambush the raiders set and tore them to pieces, then the Kerchaxes headed deeper into the old cities. I am not sure of their destination.”
Orlin gripped the arm of his chair hard enough that it creaked.
Breathe. Just breathe.
“I asked to be informed of that when it happened.”
“The Warsisters killed all of our watchers at the same time. I didn’t hear about the raiders’ defeat until some of the survivors made it back and their superiors reported it to me.”
Orlin relaxed his grip.
“Not your fault, then. Have Fifth and Third fleets finished deploying around Akati?”
“Then our agents in the ports should be able to warn us in time if he tries to take a freighter out.” He ran through the likely destinations again. “Place Sixth fleet on standby near Kolt. If he does break through and make a run for Lokan instead, they should still be able to overtake, but if he makes it any distance into Koltan waters their navy will interfere.”
“What if he makes a deal with Ardis?”
“We have plenty of agents in Ardis’ forces. We’ll know.”
He pushed his chair away from the desk and turned so he could look out at the red garden and think.
A sea of blood. That was exactly what this was turning into. Less than a week had passed since the Council of Kevas’ decision, and already fires were starting all over the Empire. If Rixken made it away… Orlin would probably have to replace a good quarter of the Imperial Army, at least. Several of the peripheral provinces would need full pacification. Some of the lost Northeastern provinces would probably offer to take Rixken as their Emperor and unite. The Warsisters on New Irtralla might see the signs of weakness and finally mount the Great Invasion that they had been planning for two-hundred and fifty years, rather than just sending the occasional raiding party against the West coast.
Unacceptable. It could end up being worse than the outcome from the Grand Reunification.
How could he reach his brother and put an end to it before it started? Orlin had no direct power in Akati. He could try landing troops, but then he would have to face Ardis directly, as well as deal with the raider tribes that he didn’t have alliances with… And he was already stretched thin getting enough troops for the Emprin invasion.
Could he put that off?
Could he move troops fast enough for it to matter?
Cleaning out Akati would allow him to hit Emprin from both sides. But it would require moving forces away from the mainland side of Emprin. The Warsisters had already been conducting regular raids, vanishing patrols with uncanny effectiveness and costing him another two battalions worth of Imperial armor so far. If he moved a significant number of forces to Akati they might spot the temporary weakness and mount a more costly strike, making off with an even bigger chunk of equipment and lives. Which, judging from the obviously stolen Danag Mk2C rebuilds Harmakeg had mentioned, would mean that when he finally got around to attacking them, his forces would have shrunk and theirs grown even more.
He thought of the forces he had in play. Hmmm. There. He could spare four battalions of veterans to sit offshore of Akati at the ready. They were on the way from the Southeast and could be picked up by troop ships before coming within range of the Warsisters. But that would be his only direct force, and he would have to hold them until he knew exactly where Rixken was, or risk them getting tied up with something else. And if Rixken still had over two battallions supporting, they probably wouldn’t be enough.
To bolster them, he would have to work with what he could hire in Akati itself.
He turned back to the computer and the open call.
“Niril, I’ll be sending you a fast response force to hold in reserve. You’ll have them in two days. Before that, I need you to arrange a direct call between me and Zarteg ParThanek.”
“The leader of the Black Maw Raiders?”
“Yes. Tell him I’m willing to negotiate.”
“He’s notoriously hard to reason with. What are you offering?”
Orlin leaned toward the microphone.
“All of Akati is the limit if he can give me Rixken.”
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.