My Kai is with me.
What did he mean?
Aysha pressed her smallest gouge along the curve in the tiny piece of tasala wood held in her fingers, shaving off an amber gold curl. She turned the piece around, judging its shape. In Doga, it was the letter chel.
It would fit.
She slotted the gouge back into her small carving kit and slid out a small piece of sanding cloth. Felt the grit with her finger without looking. Midgrade. Too rough. She put it back and pulled out a piece lower in the stack. There. Fine grade.
She rolled the stiff cloth into a tube, then ran the grit along the rough edges of the letter until all the burrs were gone. Replaced the cloth and pulled out another, even finer. Repeated the process until the wood took on a dull shine. She put the second sanding cloth away, pulled out a glue pen, and traced the edges of the letter until they glistened. A little dab on the underside, and she put the pen away.
The letter slid into the place she had carved for it, in the fuller of a sword done in silver-gray harex. A touch with a cloth wiped away excess glue. The low hills of Akati, done in dark gray brown, rolled away from the sword until they slid into the ocean, done in rare blue algrin wood. A replica of the Vorendrayg floated just beyond the point of the sword, its angles picked out in white kring, and its guns done in blood red evnig. The ship was absurdly large in relation to Akati, but was outmatched by the blade.
Aysha looked over the work, a rectangle two hands wide. All the pieces were finally in place. She traced the words in the blade, their Doga form unintelligible and memorized from the original, but the Hakat translation now familiar to her after studying the Book of the Promise from the Teachings of the Ankadarul.
“The promise will surely remain until the Name is known and the fullness of my mercy is revealed.”
She pondered the words as she began the final sanding on her piece, smoothing every join until the whole work looked like it had been carved from a single board containing many colors. What did those words have to do with the barely competent weakling lying in the mobile hospital back at their camp? He had beaten her. He had almost gotten killed. He had chosen the path of bravery. He was a late-trained male. Weak? Or Strong? Or both? How could he be both?
My Kai is with me.
In the Teachings, Aihay had promised to maintain Ankad’s descendants as rulers until the name of his sacrifice came to them. Two-thousand years later, the ArdAnkadia’s still ruled the Empire. Moreover, he had promised to be with the Preparer, to guide him and strengthen him.
Zdar Army had abandoned mandatory worship of Mother after the storms. Most paid only lip service to the mainland belief that she had ascended to another dimension. There were no kais. Not even ones made by humans.
She paused in her sanding and stared at the Sword. A road made from a promise, cutting through the murk of Akati. Unbroken words of gold, as sharp and unyielding as steel. Had a kai truly given them? Had a kai kept them?
“What are you making?”
Aysha glanced at Zemril, sitting across from her in the Warsister stealth APC currently running them to the Northeastern coastal city of Lanlin.
Aysha slipped the polishing cloth back into its place and closed the kit, hiding her intarsia project. She had been very glad when her pack returned her precious carving kit to her. Traditionally a sister who lost a full forfeit match had everything she had owned given away to others or destroyed, as she was not allowed to own anything while she was a slave. However, typically packmates made off with anything they knew was truly important and restored it in a gifting once the sister had combat status again.
As soon as they had handed her the kit, she had known she had to recreate the image of the Sword covering Akati. Perhaps she would give the finished piece to her new commander if they actually succeeded. It would make a good memorial for a victory.
But until then, it was a secret for her heart to wonder at.
“Art? Yer making art?”
Aysha had noticed that Zemril’s accent always got thicker when she was surprised or emotional. Except when she was lying.
“Yar serious? Does it help ya ta kill people?”
Aysha heard Vyzle shift forward. She flicked an ear at her packsister and the woman relaxed.
Onda Pesrolaya, one of the Blackhair agents helping Zemril out, was sitting next to the Neralene. She leaned toward the Okendan.
“Redhairs think you’ll stop being a person if all you do is kill people.”
Zemril glanced at the Blackhair, then at Aysha.
“So all a’ you do art? Every one? Is that where all the flowers at the party came from?”
“Vyzle does flowers. Nakena and Yilan are painters. Lelri is a woodcarver like me, but she does sculptures.”
“What does the First Mother do?”
Zemril’s mouth fell open.
Onda slammed Zemril’s chestplate with an armored elbow, forcing a cough out of her.
“Only the Redhairs get to call her ‘Old Steelface’.” She said it with a smile.
Zemril shut her mouth and reached up with a bare hand to scratch the kerchax draped around her shoulders.
Aysha stowed the dark murako case in a gear net under her seat and put the heavy armored gloves for her powered armor back on. The gauntlets locked onto the primary connections near the elbow and came alive again. She checked to make sure all the fingers were responding correctly and then did the same with her helmet, pulling it down until it mated with the collar mount and locked her in darkness.
The world reappeared in moments, routed directly into her brain through the same implant she used to connect with an anchor. The suit was far smaller than an anchor, but it was still a powerful secondary body. She made sure her power was topped off from the APC, her jets were fueled, and her life support was all running, then activated the tac net.
Her pack appeared throughout the APC, their powered armor outlined in green, along with Zemril and the two Blackhairs, their lighter stealth suits also outlined.
“Final review. Zemril, lay out our target.”
“Right,” Zemril commed. “One more time. Our target is Daymo TarGeltis.”
An image of a thin male with a pinched face, his skin the pale tones of low-tree and his ears long and pointed like high-tree, flashed in front of Aysha’s vision. It had the harsh look of an ID photo. Another picture appeared next to it of the same man walking through a crowded street, dressed in dark blue longcoat.
“He’s an engineer on the Vorendrayg. High enough ta have administrator codes for the electrical network, an’ low enough that they won’t change everything if they think he’s died.”
The pictures vanished. Aysha could get them back if she needed to.
“Ta arrange for his disappearance, we’ll be taking advantage of certain habits of his. Every time he’s in Lanlin, he visits the same bordello an’ stays for a few days. Because of the particular clientele it caters ta, this type of bordello isn’t welcome in Lanlin, so it’s located on the edge of the city where the police can be bribed ta not visit. As most of the city is still abandoned, we can capture him there an’ burn the place ta the ground without anyone seeing.”
An image of the bordello appeared, an old three-story mansion with patched stone privacy walls. She wondered again why Zemril used euphemisms like, ‘particular clientele’ when talking about what the bordello did. It specialized in children. Why not say so?
“The Mayor gave the Preparer quiet permission ta kill everyone in the building. He wants the place gone. Rixken wants us ta bring out the prostitutes an’ anyone who isn’t dumb enough ta shoot at us. It makes our job harder, but those are the orders. Once we’re out, we’ll set some small incendiaries an’ make it look like a hot fire that came up from the basement. Lanlin doesn’t go in much for investigations, so when Ardis’ crew chief hears about the fire, he’ll likely assume Daymo is dead an’ move on. He’ll change Daymo’s codes eventually, but we should already be into the Vorendrayg’s computers by then.”
The next image showed the back entrance to the mansion, with a reinforced cargo gate leading to a freight driveway that ended in a loading dock.
“There are only four guards. Heavy tactical armor, standard firearms. Twenty prostitutes, four staff, an’ the manager. Any number of clients. You’ll know the prostitutes because they’re all young. No hardlines, so we should be able ta jam locally and keep any messages from getting out. The Blackhair on site will have a full tactical update for us when we get there.”
The picture of the mansion disappeared.
“Objectives go in this order: Take out the guards, secure Daymo, herd all the survivors into the APCs, burn the place ta the ground. Our APCs will block the entrances, so it won’t be too hard to keep in any runners. Any questions?”
Aysha and her pack sisters had already asked all their questions. They were ready.
“Alright,” Zemril commed. “Final gear check. Tac map says we’re there in five.”
The Blackhair on site had hacked the back gate so it opened when their nearly-invisible vehicles rolled up. Their APC backed up to the loading dock and dropped its ramp. Zemril and the Blackhairs went out first, vanishing into green outlined ghosts before they reached the door. Aysha and her pack activated their own camouflage, less effective but still adaptive, and flowed out of the vehicle to line up along the walls to either side of the agents.
The mansion rose above them, worn stone facing over a post-and-beam frame. From the looks of the stone it had been cleaned recently, though repairs were lacking. Someone took a little pride in the place.
“As soon as we have Daymo, you can begin clearing,” Zemril commed.
The door lock beeped and the door opened in. The ghostly agents ran in. Zemril’s kerchax launched off as she went through the door
Aysha watched for a moment as their green dots proceeded into the building on the tac map. Yellow dots started appearing, then red. The green dots avoided the red and headed up the stairs to a long hall lined with doors. A few yellow dots appeared behind each door. The agents split up and moved along the hail, checking doors.
“Found him. Filthy clegmokker’s having a good time with some friends. Start clearing.”
“Vyzle, watch this door. The rest of you, on me.”
Aysha shouldered her short-barrel railrifle and went around the doorframe into the storage room. She jogged past boxes, stopped at the door to the main hall until Nakena formed up opposite her in. Aysha signalled with a click on the line and Nakena plunged into the hall, clearing the corners in the first room she came to while Aysha cleared the room opposite, Lelri and Yilan keeping watch close behind them.
Aysha’s room was the kitchen, all stainless and brass with electric stoves and big sinks. It contained a cook, a scruffy fisherfolk woman who opened her mouth to scream when she saw Aysha’s hulking, faceless form.
A stun shot from Aysha’s shoulder laser collapsed the woman. Aysha cleared the corners and left the woman on the floor. Nakena and Lelri had taken two in the next room, both staff like the cook. Aysha moved down the hall and swept the next room, an empty dining room stocked with worn furniture that had been expensive once. Next room a modest ball room, also empty, but clean like it was used. Who danced in a place like this? Did they hold parties?
Aysha and her pack piled up at the end of the hall, where it split into a narrower side hall leading to the servant’s stairs and the wide, open doors to the front entrance hall. The front entrance held a desk with a middle aged woman in a professional wrap dress and two guards in full tactical armor. Their suits would include conductive mesh to defeat stun, so they would have to be killed if they didn’t drop their weapons. The other two guards were in a small room to the side of the entrance. They would come out when the first two went down.
Aysha selected the closest guard in the tac net and targeted the woman with her laser. Yilan selected the other guard. Nakena and Lelri would move around and deal with the other two.
Aysha charged into the entry room, dropping her camouflage.
The woman fell out of her chair.
“Drop your weapons! Now!”
The guard in her sights stumbled back. In Aysha’s experience the sight of an attacker in powered armor usually caused anyone with less armor and half a brain to throw down their gun and give up.
This guard did not have a half a brain. He shouldered his weapon and fired.
Aysha dropped him with a shot right through his chest plate. His rounds had all spanged off her armor without effect.
The other guard’s weapon skittered across the polished stone floor. He’d had the brain to give up.
The door burst open and the other two guards ran out. Nakena and Lelri were already in position on either side of it and tackled the armored men from behind as they came passed. A few seconds with contact stunners made them both cooperative.
“Guards are down. Staff too. No sign of the manager,” Aysha commed.
“Manager was up here,” Onda commed. “He’s down. Clients are down too. Daymo took a hostage and is making trouble.”
Aysha checked the tac map and spotted the green dots of the agents facing down two yellow dots in the second floor hallway. That hallway went right above the servants hall.
Aysha ran back to the servant’s hall, leaving her pack to tie up the guards. As she got under the spot where the confrontation was happening she focused her audio and wall-penetrating RF sensors through the ceiling.
“I work for Ardis PirGevgen! The Pirate King! You won’t get away with this!”
A high pitched tenor voice. The male had the distinctive Talat lisp to his Hakat.
“Get back! I’ll kill the kid!”
Aysha spotted him backing away from the three agents. From the image her computer generated, neither he nor the young male he was holding by the neck in front of him had any armor on. Or clothing. But the gun in Daymo’s hand was solid enough. Standard pistol, probably. And he was smart enough to hold it against the kid’s back, where it was hidden from laser attack. Someone could try stunning him, but people tended to convulse when they were stunned, which wouldn’t be good if anyone wanted the boy to live.
Which Rixken did. And he was her commander.
“Ya think anyone cares abou’ one little catamite in this nathole world, ya geg head?” Definitely Zemril’s voice, and so thick with that accent of hers it was hard to understand her. “Kid like him is already too broken ta fix. Ya should do him a favor an’ shoot him now before he grows up an’ finds out ya can never get away from all tha usin’.”
Did she actually mean that? She sounded like she might.
“I’ll do it! I’ll really do it!”
Daymo seemed to think she did. It was putting him off balance.
Aysha positioned herself about two meters behind where he was standing and set her shoulder laser for a circle cut. It had the size preset. She targeted the ceiling.
“I’m waiting, ya baby-raping tash. Don’t take all day.”
Aysha fired her laser.
A blazing point appeared on the ceiling and swept around with a hissing roar. It didn’t cut all the way through, but Aysha didn’t need it to. The cut was deep enough.
She bunched her legs and leapt, firing her jets at the same time. Wood flooring cracked under her as she rocketed up and hit the circle in the ceiling with her helmeted head. Actuators connecting her helmet to her armor took the shock rather than her neck, and a circle of wood as wide around as she was launched up with the sound of splintering and bounced off the second floor hallway ceiling.
Aysha popped up through the hole and caught the edges with her feet before she could fall back in. Daymo, skinny and pale, tried to turn and see her, but she crossed the distance to him in two quick steps and snatched the gun away from the kid’s back, hand covering the barrel.
Pain exploded in Aysha’s palm, but she didn’t let go. It was a standard pistol. There was no way the bullet had made it through the palm of her gauntlet. She’d have a nasty bruise at the worst. Maybe a fracture.
Daymo’s eyes went so wide they almost popped out of his skull. He let go of the pistol and the kid and tried to run past her.
Three different stun lasers hit him at the same time. He collapsed on the hardwood floor and skidded a few feet.
She would be very angry if he was dead.
Aysha walked over to the target and checked his pulse. Still alive.
“Target secure,” she commed to her pack and all their support.
She straightened up and looked at Zemril.
“Took yar sweet time, didn’t ya?”
The Neralene was standing hipshot, railrifle pointed at the ceiling.
Aysha glanced at the boy, who had pressed himself against the wall when she grabbed Daymo. Dark olive skin, long ears, maybe twelve at most. He didn’t appear to be wounded.
She looked back to Zemril.
“Did you really not care?”
Zemril cocked her head to the side, as if thinking.
Aysha thought about that for a moment, then nodded. She hooked her railrifle to her back and began securing Daymo with pull ties on his wrists and ankles.
“What was that nod, for, ya crazy Redhair?”
Aysha gave the last tie a tug, then pulled off her helmet and looked at the faceless agent.
“You have problems, Neralene.”
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.