The streets were empty.
Alleys clear too.
Aysha jogged her anchor along the edge of the main avenue at the head of her pack, Rixken’s Girden protected in their middle. The last scans had put two squads of raider anchors between them and their main force, but the raiders didn’t appear to be anywhere. Had they fled the field?
It was possible.
“Keep close to cover,” she commed. They needed to make it back to the rest of their forces, but they couldn’t afford to get caught out.
Dingo pack and Rixken confirmed.
Aysha scanned the edges of the buildings ahead of them, noting a few thicker apartment complexes made with stone or reinforced concrete. Every few seconds she identified the best place to get Rixken to if they were attacked, just lie Tegar Kar… ArLagren had told her. He had said she would eventually do it without having to concentrate, but for now it felt like a distraction.
Up ahead the street split, forcing them to choose a fork. The right looked like it offered more cover, and on the map both lead to their destination. She signalled for that direction and lead her force along it. They had covered several blocks when her vision flashed red and her computer blared explosion warnings.
Debris sprayed across the street ahead as the lower stories of two narrow office towers bracketing the stonetop blew out. The buildings tipped in and started down.
Aysha marked an alley for Rixken.
“Get to cover!” she commed.
Anchors were already emerging from alleys all around them. PA troopers stood up on building tops and aimed down with heavy anti-armor railrifles. Aysha sighted on the nearest group and swept the rooftop out from under their feet with her laser. A stream of grenades devastated another rooftop while she backed up, firing at the nearest anchor.
Had he made it to the cover?
She checked his location. Still backing toward the alley, trying to keep his front toward a flanking group of anchors.
“Vyzle, get him in the alley!”
Vyzle’s anchor started to move, just as a shot took Rixken’s girden in the back. Then another.
“Simulation halt!” Tegar ArLagren commed.
Everything on the street froze, even Aysha’s own anchor. As if in mockery, she saw a large penetrator dart that had to come from a tank hovering in the air a few meters from Rixken’s falling anchor. If he hadn’t already been dead, he would have been microseconds later.
“What are you nat-brained idiots doing? That’s the third time in a row!”
Aysha’s face burned with shame.
“I expected better from the elite of the Warsisters. Nat! I still expect better! But every single time we jump you, Bam! It’s VIP splattered all over the map in the first ten seconds! Thank Kai you won’t be guarding the Preparer when we take the Vorendrayg. He’d be a dead man!”
She had thought she had hit a low when she lost to Rixken, but this was worse. Not only was she getting yelled at by a late trained male, but he was right, on every single word. If he hadn’t been doing the yelling, she would have been doing it herself.
Why couldn’t they do this? What was wrong?
“He’s not getting into cover fast enough!” Vyzle commed.
“Are you talking back to me, Packsister Kestrallian?” Tegar ArLagren commed.
“It’s true. I’m not moving fast enough,” Rixken chimed in.
“Don’t say a word!” Tegar ArLagren snapped, then added, “Your Majesty. You don’t apologize. Keeping you alive is their job. If they have to pick you up and throw you into that alley, that’s what they do. Is that understood, Packleader Theron?”
Aysha winced. Why couldn’t Rixken move faster? Why did he have to be so… mediocre?
But no. No. If she focused on that, she was missing the point. She had one job, and whatever it took to do that job, that was what she would do.
“Yes, Tegar ArLagren.”
She saw the line from the Tegar switch from the group line to a private one.
“Additionally, you keep hunkering down for an extended fight. Getting the Preparer out is your priority, not beating us. Next time, I expect you to find a way out, not just cover. And I mean what I said. If you have to, pick up his anchor and throw him where he needs to be. Literally. Understood?”
“Good. Get ready for another scenario.”
The line closed.
Definitely a low point.
Two hours later Tegar ArLagren ended the training session. There had been improvement, but not enough, and they all knew it. As soon as the sim link shut off, Aysha’s sisters all climbed out of their anchors and headed for the camp mess to drink haxwine and beat their heads against the tables. Rather than join them, Aysha begged permission to take her anchor for a jog around the perimeter. She needed to think, and she would do that best moving.
“Permission granted,” Tegar ArLagren commed. “Go get your head together. In three days we’re taking on the Vorendrayg. Tomorrow we’ll be doing simulations on that, instead.”
Three days until the Vorendrayg would be in Mirik Bay. Three days until they would be going up against a force that could smash them all with ease if they didn’t hit it just right.
Had their agents done their job and stayed hidden?
If not, none of them were getting off Akati. Simple as that.
Aysha moved her anchor out of the maintenance line and headed for the perimeter of the camp. Broken buildings and more broken buildings, many being reclaimed by plantlife, some still giving off faint rad signatures. Not enough to really be dangerous, but she wouldn’t want to live in them.
Why did raiders choose to exist out here? Pillaging. Kidnapping. Thashing their way through life.
Maybe it was just simpler?
She could see the attraction in that.
Aysha found a sidestreet that left the main avenue and wound up a steep hill. Once the area had held luxury houses, but now it was just burned out rubble leading to a flattened plateau where she could get a view. She turned North and took the path.
As long as she had a place with her sisters and a proper military, the raider way wasn’t for her, but if she lost that… What if she had murdered Rixken and been exiled? Could she have punched her way to an understanding with people like these? Or would they have just made her their toy like she feared?
Mother! Why did he have to be so incompetent? He was going to get killed.
How had he beaten her with that level of skill?
No. Stop. She was being dramatic.
Lelri was dramatic.
She reached the top of the hill and looked out across the ruined city. Shattered skyscrapers and crumbling, vine-covered apartments went on to the horizon until they merged with the low, dark storm that hung there flinging clouds across the sky. Aysha pulled up the weather images from Skyguard and checked them again. The cyclone that had been churning its way along the southern coast of Akati for the past two days had almost reached Chosa. Weather analysis from the Purplehairs back in Emprin estimated it would blow through the coastal city in no more than a day.
If Ardis was smart he would keep the Vorendrayg buttoned up in that city until the winds fell, then head for Mirik Bay just a little behind schedule. If he wasn’t… Everyone on the ship would probably have a miserable night of seasickness ahead of them. Including their agents.
She thought of her little intarsia showing the Sword pointing at the battlecarrier.
Such a bold move.
But from someone who couldn’t seem to not get shot in all their exercises, it was madness. What made him think he could do it?
Or whatever had let him beat her?
Was his kai really there?
She had seen him stand before the armies when he dressed down Tegar Kar… ArLagren. Rixken had been straight and strong, bold and fierce, just and merciful. As steely as the first mother in his way. Close up, he had crackled with something Aysha had never felt before. Then, after his ruling, he had collapsed into his ordinary, breakable self.
Was that his kai holding him up, making him able to lead?
But if it was…
Why had it let him get shot?
“Why am I so uncertain?” she whispered. She didn’t usually talk to herself, but she could feel the fear running along her spine and didn’t know what else to do. “It’s just a ship, Aysha. Just a mission. Just a male. A stupid, stupid, male. Focus, and get it done.”
Rixken’s anchor flashed in her mind, riddled with the holes from twenty failed simulator runs. The realization was clear. She couldn’t get it done. Whatever had seen her to victory in every battle she had faced before was gone.
Victory was the only assurance of control. The only assurance of freedom.
And now she had no victory. None at all.
Nausea surged in her middle.
Aysha put her anchor in stand mode and unhooked her harness. A touch on the hatch button tipped the chest armor open and cold air rushed in heavy with dust and nell vine and distant moisture. It steadied her, but not enough. The queasiness increased.
She stood and climbed up onto the right shoulder of her anchor, between the low head and the huge pauldron, and leaned against the huge automatic grenade launcher that nestled there while she fought against the urge to dry heave.
It passed, in time.
But it left her exhausted, and hot tears followed in it’s wake. What had happened to her? Where had her skill gone? Where was her will? Her strength? She was looking at the boldest, most amazing challenge of her career, and all she felt was uncertain and afraid. The world ahead of her was as hazy and dark as the clouds on the horizon.
There was no mother.
No kai for the Warsisters.
Just a burned out computer and a huge thashing lie that Zdar Army had abandoned centuries ago. But where did that leave her?
Something had beaten her.
Something had stomped her in the arena and left her as this crumbling nothing.
She knew it.
She’d known it the moment that three-legs had slapped her gun away and shot her in the back.
“Who are you?” she whispered to Rixken’s unknown kai.
The terrifying maker of all, according to what she had read in the Teachings revered by the Ankadarul. Judge of the wicked and destroyer of the evil, not just once but forever. Overthrower of cruel and degenerate civilizations, such as Rangora, Oprien, and Tellemay… as well as the old Irtrallan Hegemony if he was indeed the one sustaining the Ankadian Imperium. Not a being to be crossed, if possible.
So, what kind of things would cross him?
Most of it looked like her life.
A woman who lay with other women. A rapist on several occasions. An unbeliever. An oppressor of his people. Most of that was just a matter of course in Zdar Army, their traditions that they had lived by for centuries. But this kai didn’t seem to care much about that when he laid out his judgements.
At least Zdar Army had done away with the infanticide and the execution of males who failed their tests.
But, if this was the one who had knocked her down, her situation didn’t look hopeful. Or Zdar Army’s.
Sunlight caught her eye and she looked up. Lor, mostly hidden, turned the cloud obscuring it into a towering landscape of blazing white and shadowed grays. Aysha watched the light shift as the cloud moved, the landscape changing, dimming in places, sunlight showing through in others trailing through the air in sharp beams.
The view was crushingly huge, but floated with still majesty. Staring up at it, she felt impossibly small. Small and naked, like the night she had first waited for Rixken to come take her.
How could she live like this?
How could she live without victory?
She would fall there, in the field, all her responsibilities failed and the rest of her honor forfeit. If her new commander was threatened, she would not be able to protect him. If she was faced with an army, someone stronger would overcome her.
It had all happened once already. Why not again?
Why not worse?
Her computer beeped at her from the cockpit below. She looked down and saw a priority warning on the auxiliary screen. It thought it had detected something important. She slid down off the shoulder and back into the seat. Tapped the screen to load the event and hooked herself back in as data filled up the screen.
Her anchor had detected a tightbeam communication using Imperial military codes. It was programmed to warn her of any comm signs that would point to local Imperial units, but this didn’t look like a threat. More like…
She told it to track the origin and likely endpoint.
The first was easy.
It was coming from the camp behind her.
Aysha had her anchor running, full burn from her jets pushing her faster, before the cockpit had finished closing. She didn’t know how long she had before the person stopped transmitting, but it could be only seconds. She had identify the source before that happened.
Buildings blurred past. She dodged through an alley and leapt up over a wall to keep from stepping out of the beam from the transmission. Tightbeam meant tight. She had to have been standing directly between the transmitter and their target to detect it. If she didn’t move along the line of the transmission, she would lose it.
Her computer detected a confirmation signal from the endpoint. The communication would be over in moments, she was certain.
She put everything into a leap from the street to the building tops. If she could catch sight of everything along the transmission line…
Windows fell past her as she rocketed up.
She reached a roof.
It started crumbling as soon as her anchor’s feet touched it and she burned forward, keeping her jets on rather than trust her weight to the ancient material.
Her computer buzzed at her. Her jets were overheating. Anchors weren’t made to fly.
She ignored it bounded across the roof.
Reached the stronger support of the wall on the opposite side.
Hopped to the next building.
She saw the camp spread out below. And an anchor at the edge, one of the Kerchaxes’ Mataks, just inside the sentry route with its tightbeam array folding back into the storage position.
Her jets cut out at that moment, rather than overheat and explode. The roof under her anchor was too weak and she fell through.
Six, seven, eight floors.
Crashing all the way.
Rubble raining down around her as she punched through old concrete that had been made for people rather than leaping giants.
She slammed to a stop in the basement when her feet hit the foundation. The knees took the shock automatically and she was nothing but shaken. Aysha waited a moment while things settled and pulled the sensor log of the transmitting anchor.
She had him, a clear image with the array out. There was no one else it could have been.
But she still had to get there before the spy got out of that anchor.
And she had no doubt he had seen her spot him.
Aysha pinged the sentries and the command tanks, sending them an image of the Matak with transponder number and a rogue tag. If they could move fast enough, they might figure out where the anchor was before the pilot could ditch. At least they could cut him out of the network.
She crawled up out of the basement a moment after that, glad the building had stayed up overhead, and dashed the last hundred meters into camp, active radar screaming.
Where was he? The camp was set up in what had once been a huge parking lot for a sports arena, so there wasn’t really anywhere to hide an anchor. There would only be so many moving…
She saw two militia anchors running in from the perimeter, dodging between tanks, tents, and supply vehicles. They were hot on the trail of something. She followed them, but stopped when she saw the head of the Matak over the top of one of the double-decker logistics trucks.
It wasn’t moving.
It had to have been abandoned already.
She switched to thermal for human tracking and put her computer on the task of inventorying everyone nearby. It’s camera’s swiveled as it sucked up faceprints of all the people looking out of their tents or walking around.
“All personnel, remain where you are!” Her speakers blared her voice across the area. She switched to the main command channel and heard Krisga ordering all guards to form a circle around the abandoned anchor and keep everyone inside that zone. She sent a confirmation and stayed where she was, keeping watching over her own location.
The spy couldn’t have made it far.
He couldn’t have gotten away.
Unless he had.
And she had failed again.
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.