“So, there it is. Every time I try to talk about what happened she has something else to do.”
Dan fiddled with the crash harness running over his chest as he waited for a response. Brad usually thought about his answers for a while when he was giving out advice. Around Dan sixty freshly upgraded anchors, two Imperial heavy railtanks upgraded to use Warsister technology, and over a hundred-and-fifty PA troopers backed by armored personnel carriers waited tucked into rubble filled alleys and behind abandoned buildings. They had already made final checks and gone over the plan several times, so now it was just waiting until the signal.
He heard a grunt from Brad as the man settled on something to say.
“We are in the middle of a campaign.”
“We’re always in the middle of a campaign,” Dan commed. “She was born in the middle of a campaign. We were in the middle of a campaign the first time this happened.”
“The first time?”
“Four years before the Old Man died. During the Wertan border push.”
“With the stampede?”
“Yes. With the stampede.”
“I remember that… cows everywhere…”
“We spent a lot of time together planning, late into the night. Fell asleep together in the command tent a few times. And one day… it was just there. I don’t know when it happened. We just couldn’t stop looking at each other.”
“Yeah. Sometimes it’s like that, I hear. What made it stop?”
“I was busy running all of squad B, and she was the Old Man’s daughter. It went on for about a month, and then we both quietly agreed it wasn’t a good time.”
“Like right now.”
Dan shook his head, even though Brad couldn’t see him.
“Not like right now. This is the third time. I need to fix it.”
“When was the second?”
“After the Old Man died. Right after. When ParSalkrand was running command and training me to take his place.”
“Oh. Oh! That explains that. You two were around each other all the time… Nat, I’m blind. I can’t believe I didn’t see that. Did it just start up again?”
“She needed someone to listen, I think, and then… we couldn’t stop looking again. And it got further that time.”
“We kept our clothes on. Barely.”
“I see. And it stopped because…?”
“I don’t know. I told Kris that I wanted to marry her, and the next day she told me we had to agree to stop, for the company.”
“Huh.” Brad paused for so long Dan checked to make sure the line was still open. It was. “Why aren’t you asking Koo about this? He knows you two better than I do.”
“Koo isn’t in the mood to talk. I think he’s mad that I’m running with full operational security and haven’t let him in on the plan.”
“You haven’t let me in on what our goal out here is, either. I’d like to know too.”
“One mission at a time. If even a whisper of what we’re after gets out, we’re all dead. We need total surprise.”
“Yes, sir. But it would be nice to know why we’re knocking off raider camps.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“I’m not much for relational advice.”
“You were an apprentice keva and you’re married. You’re in a much better position to give advice than Koo or me have ever been.”
“I really only have one line: get married or stop. I took the first.”
“I tried the first!” Dan slammed the side of his cockpit for emphasis. It hurt. “It’s worse this time. It’s like…” He struggled for words, trying to define the wall she’d put up between them. Normally they had a warm, steady connection that was like food, like home. It helped them and the company keep moving when things got hard. And now it was gone.
“It’s hurting us, Brad. We need to work together, and we can’t like this. And I don’t understand.”
“Alright. Kris… doesn’t seem like the kind of woman to… play around. Forgive me if I say anything…”
“I don’t think she is.”
“Okay. Has she said anything about why she might not want to get married?”
Nothing since the night at the party. He thought about what she had said on the night of the party. Hmmm.
“She said something about being the end of her family.”
“The last HarRukora.” Brad breathed it like it was a revelation. “Right. She’s a noble.”
“Why is that important?”
“You’ve never paid attention to any of that, have you?”
“Kris deals with the nobles.”
“Well, her family has held onto their noble status all these years. They have to take a test every generation, you know, and pass it once every three generations, to keep it.”
“Oh. Right.” Dan remembered Kris’ brother disappearing to the Capital for a month when he turned twenty-five to take some test. And coming back triumphant.
“They’ve held onto that title for two hundred years, and Kris is going to lose it no matter what.”
“How… oh… I see.”
“Exactly. Even if the family name wasn’t important to her, there are privileges that come with that title. The only mercenary companies running without a titled owner have a noble sponsor, a very rich owner, or an Imperial grant that they guard ferociously.”
Dan reached into his pocket where his father’s ring was hiding and felt the platinum band. The last sign of a family that had climbed out of the squalor of Jedremi five centuries ago and made a name for themselves in Academia. He still wasn’t sure he could put that ring back on. He had done something that could not be fixed, and even what he was doing now… would it be enough?
What was that word?
He had… probably had… ended a legacy. His father had been the last KarLagren professor, and whatever honor came with that… but if Dan somehow salvaged that, and married someday, that family name would go on. What would it mean if he was to put an end to it, to make sure the KarLagrens would someday be forgotten? Even more, what if ending that name meant the whole company ceased?
If that was what Kris was feeling, he understood it.
And he didn’t have any answers for her.
“What do I do…”
An incoming call broke in. “Command,” flashed in priority red. The Preparer.
“Tegar KarLagren, the infiltrators have engaged from the South. Commander Serlan is already bringing the Warsisters from the East and Tegar RarChegren is moving the militia into position for fire support. Advance Southwest and take the slave complex. I’ll be right there with you.”
“Understood, Command.” Dan switched back to the line with Brad. “We’re moving out.” He closed the line and opened one to the entire company. “All forces, advance in pattern alpha. Kai be with you.”
Dan checked the power cord for his new railrifle–curse that Patalla, he missed his rapid fire–then shouldered it and set out down the main street at an easy run in the middle of four of his anchor squads. Behind, the two tanks split, each guarded by another anchor squad, while the infantry moved through the wider alleys to keep out of sight of any long-range heavy weapons that might direct some attention their way, though so far the raiders seemed oblivious to their approach.
The high northern gate of the base came into view, far up the street. The heat rising from the fire the infiltrators had set made a plume in Dan’s vision, marking what would be the eastern middle of the base, but the fire itself was hidden behind the walls. A lack of building lights meant the little Neralene and the blackhairs had done their job nicely. Long experience, personal, borrowed, and some painfully recent, told Dan there was no such thing as a simple mission, but this one was starting out favorably.
He zoomed in on the gate and spotted a pair of guard anchors standing on the wrong side, facing the wrong way, with nothing between Dan’s anchors and them but air.
Left their posts, had they?
Turned their backs to shoot at the distraction?
He almost felt bad for them. But gratitude for the advantage this gave his people wiped it out.
“Weapons free. Squad C, take the shot when you’re certain.”
The point squad leveled their railrifles at the distant guards. Two shots went off, double thundercracks that shook the buildings around them.
The guards fell.
“All units, maintain full advance,” he commed. “Engage targets as they come in sight. Gentle on the Northeast quadrant, there are friendlies in there. That’s the buildings on the left, for those of you who are slow.”
Reports filtered in as squads spotted targets. More shots sounded.
“Squad C here,” Koo commed. “Got two squads of D-twos running for the gate. Engaging. Add fire?”
“Read you, Snowtop,” Brad commed. “Squad B adding fire.”
Dan watched as the other squads moved up, picking targets and dropping them while the raiders were still trying to figure out what was going on. Small arms fire started up as a half-company of raider PA troopers climbed over the walls and ran for cover in the city.
“Troopers, enemy crunchies in the field. Advance in cover from now on. Call for fire support as needed.”
“Confirmed, Phantom,” Jaffo “Rootsnapper” ParHasken, the PA commander, commed in reply.
Dan sniped a few of the raider troopers that were trying to shoot at his anchor squads. The shock of the railrifle firing punched his vehicle in the shoulder and forced the automatic balance to compensate each time. The rounds from the cannon carried enough force to knock the tiny troopers over when they hit them, even though they went clean through. Definitely overkill.
He shot a few more of the little hardshells and lased the weapons of several others before they got wise and hid completely.
“Commander Serlan here,” came a woman’s voice in the clipped hakat of the Eastern Seafolk. “My packs are into their eastern bay zone. Some of them powered up in time and broke out. They’re rallying at the western bays. Advise pressing the attack before they pull together.”
“All armor, press through at full speed. Infantry, get in there and clear out those crunchies.”
All his units confirmed their orders. He checked the tac map and saw the green dots of his anchors and tanks pouring through the streets into the unoccupied North of the base with little opposition. He also saw another squad of six, one with a yellow VIP marking on it. Rixken was right behind him with his Warsister bodyguards.
He switched to a private channel.
“Are you sure you should be here, your Majesty? It beats the point of this if you get killed.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep my distance and snipe. But I’m not letting your men take all the risk.”
Dan hoped this wasn’t a glory thing. Commanders hungry for glory tended to get their men killed in large numbers in all the histories he had read. He wondered if there was a way he could find out without offending. Perhaps push just a little more and see how he justified being in the middle of things.
“We’ll accomplish your orders whether you risk yourself or not.”
“I won’t send your men someplace I won’t go myself.”
Honor, then, not glory. Honorable commanders might get themselves killed, but they were careful about their people. That made more sense with what he’d seen of Rixken already. And, there was something to be said for a young commander facing battle with his men. At least until he had more than a passing acquaintance with war. If that was the reason, Dan couldn’t argue against it. But he wanted to. Thinking of the ring still in his pocket, he wanted to do whatever he could to make sure the Preparer made it to Kolt alive.
That, at least, would be something.
“If I may make a request, please restrict yourself to the center ranks, your Majesty, so that we can cover you from all sides. Things can change very quickly in the the front and rear.”
“I’ll do that, Tegar.”
Dan closed the line and set his full attention on the approaching gate. A spray of small arms fire from one of the buildings spattered his anchor, but did nothing. He ignored it in favor of rushing through the gate after his first two squads. Past the high walls the interior of the base came into view. His computer highlighted groups of raider anchors on the western side, taking cover behind vehicle bays. Warsisters were already engaging them, and some militia anchors were backing them up.
“Squads A through D, flank the bays from the North. Tank squads, guard the slave complex. Root, are you done with those crunchies yet?”
“Crunchies are in pieces. Orders?”
“Get into that complex and keep the guards from getting any ideas.”
Dan dashed for cover behind a nearby bay, surrounded by squad A. He quickly worked his way around from bay to bay until he could stick his railcannon around a corner and see the massing raider anchors from the sides. He waited until the other squads were in place around him, then targeted one of the more distant anchors, aimed at one of the vulnerable side plates under the left arm, and gave the order.
It was over in less than a minute. Facing overwhelming numbers from the front and flanked from one side, the raider anchors broke and ran. None made it more than a dozen meters.
Dan received a transmission on a parley band, coming from nearby.
“This is Rixken ArdAnkadia to all raiders. You are defeated. Surrender and you will be spared.”
No reply came, though Dan did spot a few unarmed raiders walking out of a nearby bay with their hands up. Dan looked around for Rixken and spotted his anchor half in cover behind another bay a little further back. It looked like he had been firing on the flanked anchors as well.
“The raiders outside the base are running away,” Commander Serlan announced on the command frequency. “Do we let them live?”
A moment passed. Dan imagined the Preparer thinking.
“If they’re on foot, let them go,” Rixken commed, “but don’t let any armed vehicles escape. They’re too dangerous to the civilians.”
“Let the runts go. Confirmed. We already handled all the vehicles.”
Kai, those Warsisters were efficient.
Dan sent his anchors out to sweep the bays, checking for activity. From a glance at the tac map he could see that the Warsisters were doing the same, while the militia split into companies and took up station in the open center of the base, helping round up and guard the surviving raiders.
“Root, how are the slaves?”
“All rescued. The guards decided they wanted to live pretty quickly.”
“Very good.” He switched to the general line for his company again. “Good work, everyone. The base is ours. However, we’re still rounding all the raiders up, so don’t drop your guard. Someone might do something stupid.”
He approached the Preparer, who had come out from behind cover with his bodyguards and was headed toward the slave complex.
“Another successful mission,” he commed to Rixken.
“Yes. Very well done. And it looks like they barely got a third of their vehicles fired up, so most of the salvage can go right into action.”
Perfect salvage was a rarity. This was a lot of perfect salvage. Almost three companies worth, that would probably go right to the Emprin militia. With the Warsisters and the militia in the picture, the Kerchax’s cut of the credit for it all would be smaller, but Dan estimated it would still be enough for a few more tanks and maybe some extra support vehicles. Where he would get the crew… maybe a little recruiting in the coastal cities?
The door of a bay next to him disintegrated. Dan shouldered his railrifle and dodged back in the same instant.
A squad of… Girdens! Those were Girdens! With old Imperial railrifles!
“All units! Breakout, North gate! Add fire!”
Dan started to run for cover.
He spotted Rixken’s anchor moving backward for cover, plasma flaring from the barrel of his railrifle as he fired point blank. Half his Warsister guards were moving for cover and firing at the same time.
Dan locked onto the nearest Girden and shot it in the arm. The round bounced. He switched to its back as it passed and shot again.
Power core destroyed.
But it kept moving. How much backup power did one of those have?
Dan pulled the trigger again. Again.
Rixken was surrounded.
Dan fired his jets and charged, shooting the railrifle as fast as it could. Shoulder checked one of the raider Girdens right off its feet and dropped two shots point blank into its back.
Two of the Warsister anchors were grappling with other raider Girdens.
Dan saw one of the raiders grab Rixken’s railrifle by the barrel and push it aside. Then jam its own against the side of Rixken’s anchor.
There was a flash as it fired.
Rixken’s anchor stopped grappling and went still.
Dan aimed. Fired.
The Girden fell.
All the Girdens fell.
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.