“Dear sweet Kai, man, why?” Daneth asked.
They had found the spy.
It had taken an hour moving at top speed, but after Aysha had flushed him he had abandoned the stolen anchor in a hurry. The name on the login for the machine was false. Naven PirKorin from squad B had fifty witnesses putting him in the mess tent at the time. But, the data in the anchor’s emergency recorder was unaltered, and the techs were able to reconstruct the pilot’s neural pattern from that. It wasn’t as perfect as a fingerprint, but it was close, and it matched with records in the Kerchax database. The man it pointed at had no alibi, and was also one of those trapped in the cordon around the stolen anchor.
Now Koo Letenwi was sitting in the command tent, tied up in a chair, facing Rixken and the Kerchax commanders under the soft overhead lights. Minutes passed as they waited for an answer to Daneth’s question, with only the whisper of the air conditioner to fill the silence, but Koo’s only response was to drop his blond head lower and lower.
Finally, Daneth slammed his hand on the conference table. Rixken jumped, and he heard the chairs of those around him squeak and bend.
“Answer me, Koo.”
Koo hadn’t moved, but now he gulped.
“This isn’t what we do, Dan,” he said. “We fight small battles. Guard borders and raid bases. Sometimes we escort VIPs that have a good reason to be scared. Sometimes we die.” He looked up and met Daneth’s gaze. “But we don’t fight the whole Empire. We don’t get in the middle of a civil war where all the guns belong to the other side. We don’t charge battleships. We don’t commit suicide.”
Koo was still hunched over, arms crossed over his stomach, but his gaze didn’t waver. After a minute, Daneth looked away, face twisted in disgust. Koo winced and dropped his eyes again.
Rixken ached for the traitor. He didn’t want to, but he understood. He had felt the fear all through the camp all along, twisting under the bravado. He knew what they were all facing, and he still wondered that anyone was standing with him. At the same time…. more would die because of what Koo had done. It was betrayal, and there could be only one answer to it.
“Why couldn’t you have just run away, Dan?” Koo whispered. “Dammit. Maybe he would have died, maybe not, but we wouldn’t be here. We would have gotten away.”
Daneth clenched his right fist on the table and his ring sparkled.
“This is where we’re supposed to be,” Daneth said.
Krisga, next to Daneth, looked at him, eyes shining with unshed tears.
“Nat,” Daneth said. “Didn’t you stop to think that we might win? We’ve won everything so far…”
Koo said nothing, only hunched over more.
Rixken wanted to copy him. He knew this man wasn’t just Daneth’s second, but a friend. He felt for the sword at his side, gripped the hilt and steadied himself with it.
“How much did you tell them, Gar Letenwi?” he asked.
Koo said nothing.
“You’re dead no matter what, now, Koo,” Dan said. “You know that. But you can tell us what we need to know and get some honor back.”
Rixken watched the exchange. Saw the muscles in Daneth’s cheek twitch as he tried to keep his anger in check. If his ears could have gone any further back they would have merged with his skull. He saw Daneth’s arm start to move and caught it before the man slapped his friend across the face.
Daneth looked at him, then relaxed and let his arm fall to his side.
Rixken leaned toward Koo.
“Gar Letenwi, please consider your comrades. They have no place to go but forward. Tell us what my brother’s forces know so they can have a chance.”
“A chance.” Koo shook his head. “Nobody has that, now.”
“How much?” Daneth said.
Koo glanced at Rixken, then looked at Daneth again.
“I told them everything. The contact knows about the Vorendrayg, that we’re planning to hit Mirik Bay in three days. Also how large our forces are and which directions we’ll be coming at the city from. And where we are right now.”
“Did your contact hint at what their response will be?”
Koo shook his head.
“Too much to hope for.” Dan looked at Rixken, lips thin but ears forward again waiting for his decision.
Aihay. This is a disaster. What are we going to do?
Thoughts flew through his head. The first was that this was not the moment to deal with Koo. If Orlin’s agents knew what Rixken’s forces were going to do they had to change their next move. If those agents knew where they were right now, their next move had to be to leave. Immediately.
Rixken ran the options in his head. There really was only one.
“Take him and lock him up for now,” Rixken said. “Then tell all the commanders to get their forces ready to move on the Vorendrayg tonight and send them in here for planning. Also, send a message to the sabotage team telling them what happened. They may be able to kill communications on the Vorendrayg if Orlin hasn’t already called Ardis. That could give us time.”
Krisga nodded to two of the guards standing nearby and they grabbed Koo and dragged him out of the tent. She ran out after them.
“We’re moving today?” Daneth asked.
“The first thing Orlin will do is tell Ardis we’re coming after the Vorendrayg. He may have already, but if he hasn’t, tonight is our only chance. He’ll be stuck in port with the storm and most of his men should be holed up in the city while it blows over.”
“We’ll have to cut through Chosa. The port is in the middle of the city.”
Rixken thought of all the people who might get caught in the battle. Was he worth that? He wasn’t, but the Empire was.
Aihay, protect them.
“We’ll do what we can. But we still have to go.”
Giants danced outside the command tent as anchors and tanks moved into transit formations on the stonetop running through the camp. Bolts squealed under the scream of powerdrills as workmen broke down semi-permanent structures and fabric shushed without ceasing as thousands of popup tents settled over collapsing frames.
Rixken ignored the bright ripples that shivered in his haxcup each time something large rumbled by and hunched over the holographic map covering the center of the table, looking for a way through Chosa. Broad streets cut through a mess of old skyscrapers and reconditioned apartments, with occasional clear spots where something large had gone down and not been replaced. The port was central, perhaps a little closer to the edge of the city to the North. Jutting cliffs reached out into the bay to either side and sheltered the port from the rougher waters of the channel. Combat would be close and brutal once in amongst the buildings, which wasn’t anything new after the past weeks chasing raiders, but this time the buildings were reconditioned and filled with people, rather than burnt out husks. That fact gnawed at him as he looked up and took in his officers, now gathered.
Commander Asel Serlan of the Warsisters stood across from him, scanning the overhead view of the city with the impassive focus of a bird-of-prey, eyes glinting obsidian framed by two sweeps of red-tipped white hair that just touched her jawline. Tegar Zadt Rarchregren, of the Emprin Militia, stood next to her, fingering graying mustaches and muttering under his breath as he flicked his eyes over the field, glancing at the Redhair next to him from time to time as if looking for cues. To Rixken’s left, Bala Yillain, Blackhair commander and Rixken’s intelligence liaison, hovered, black braid swaying and long ears twitching to some song that only she could hear as she scrolled through reports on her tablet. Opposite her, Daneth loomed over the table with his hands on the edge, tracing lines of fire with his eyes when he wasn’t looking at something only he could see. Krisga stood next to him and leaned into his side, shoulder touching Daneth’s just enough to reassure him she was there.
And at Rixken’s right hand stood Aysha, a sculpture of stone awaiting his command.
Rixken turned to Bala.
“Did our team confirm?”
The Blackhair set her tablet down on the table.
“They got the burst and sent two clicks in reply. They think they can do it. Or they’re crazy enough to try anyway.”
Rixken grimaced and thought of Zem on a ship full of pirates, alone except for two other women. All agents, all combat trained, all deadlier than he could ever hope to be. But even so, he had hated sending them in with so little support, and now he hated it even more that they were asking those three women to put their plans in motion ahead of schedule. Somehow they had managed to sneak onboard, but would they have enough control by now to shut the ship down without getting killed? Three days early?
He pushed the thought away. If they didn’t, a lot more people than just those three were going to die. They had known going in that the plan might have to move sooner or later. Kai willing, they had kept that in mind and truly were ready.
He turned to Asel, the most experienced commander in the room .
“What’s your analysis, Commander Serlan?”
She glanced at him for an instant, then turned that cold gaze back to the map.
“The storm makes it possible. Everything hinges on our agents, but assuming they cut power to the Vorendrayg’s guns, then the rain will allow our forward elements to reach the city without being detected and we can engage PirGevgen’s ground elements with an advantage.”
She leaned forward and swept two red lines onto the map along major arteries running through the city.
“PirGevgen has light scouts at the city perimeter, but nothing that can actually stop us. As soon as we engage them, though, we will have only minutes before he can gather what he has in-city. Our main forces will have to press through these avenues at full speed to hit him before that happens. The winds might make that difficult for the anchors, but as long as we stay low once we get into the city, we should be able to keep our speed up.”
She tapped a hill leading up to the northern cliff, adding another red mark.
“We can put tank squads and anchors with long range weapons up here for fire support. They won’t be able to see past the skyscrapers, but once we get to the port they’ll have a clear line over the warehouses. All the heavy tanks plus the Kerchaxes with railrifles should be sufficient. We only want experienced soldiers shooting over that distance.”
Daneth grunted in agreement, but said nothing.
“Civilians?” Rixken asked.
“Most are indoors for the weather,” Bala said. “Our agents in the city can activate the tornado sirens to drive them underground just before the fighting starts.”
Tornado sirens. He hadn’t thought of that. With the weather it might not even tip PirGevgen off before they were spotted.
“Will it disrupt PirGevgen too?”
“It might,” Asel said. “But if he sends to the Vorendrayg he’ll know there’s nothing really out there. We can’t count on it.”
Rixken nodded. He looked at Zadt. The militia commander jumped a little under his attention.
“Are your forces ready for this? They’ll be bringing up the flanking prong from the South, but it will be a close engagement once PirGevgen’s backup makes it out of the Vorendrayg.”
The militia commander pulled himself upright.
“None of my men have wavered in the past three engagements. We are ready, your Majesty.”
Asel flicked a look at the shorter man, then gave Rixken the barest nod. Zadt saw it and drew himself up even straighter, a blush burning on his cheeks.
“That just leaves the boarding force.” Rixken turned to Aysha.
She stepped up to the table and drew a line just South of the cliffs and the overwatch force.
“With cover from the storm we should be able to run right into the water along here. The APCs can run along the bottom most of the way until we get to the dredged out area where the pier is. Our main forces should have PirGevgen’s forces well engaged by the time we reach the ship. If our agents can get the small craft bay opened, we drive the APCs up into it. If they can’t, we hit the sides and climb up to one of the access points on the top deck.”
Asel Serlan nodded.
“Little has changed with that part of the plan.”
Rixken returned her nod, then thought about his place in the engagement. Even with accelerated healing he still had a limp and had to wear the exoskeleton. That would be true for several more weeks at least. But a limp was nothing to stop him from piloting his anchor, and the concussion was gone. With his anchor ready for combat again thanks to the Girden parts recovered from the raiders….
Thoughts of a squad of Girdens charging at him filled his mind. Shots like thunder. An explosion. Pain.
Go forward. He had to go forward.
Waking up, unable to move. Next time…
“I should be with…”
Daneth cleared his throat. Or attempted to cough up a lung, from the sound. Rixken shut his mouth and waited for the man to stop.
Daneth met his eyes and raised an eyebrow.
“Could you use another railrifle up on the cliff, Tegar ArLagren?”
“Of course, your Majesty.”
That was it. That was…
Aihay. There’s so much that can go wrong. We might be charging into a slaughter. Help us.
“Commander Serlan, I want you to set a rear guard. Orlin may have forces in the area, and now that he know where we are, we can’t count on engaging without interference.”
“I was thinking the same thing, your Majesty. I’ll see to it.”
That was everything.
Rixken drew a deep breath.
“Put your forces through final prep. We leave in an hour.”
Kai alone knew if they would survive the night.
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.