The ping of an incoming message knocked Zem from a restless dream. In it she had pounded at the double doors into the Daughters of Neralene Headquarters in the Capitol, begging Imrien to let her in while an angry crowd gathered around her, shouting curses as they stared at her dirty, naked body. Imrien had just laughed at her and locked the door. She had been having dreams like that ever since the “party” with the Vorendrayg’s technicians. And her own private encounter with one of the guards on the way out. It was best not to make a fuss, or break the act, or leave a bad impression that people would talk about. So what if she had spent an hour in a bunk with the guard she had promised to. After all, she had enjoyed it, because she did like big, strong, men.
Kai, she was a dirty chasit.
She had to stop thinking. Stop thinking and focus on the job.
Not that this job did much besides give her time to think.
Stop. Do the job.
Whatever it was.
She tuned in to her surroundings and heard the thrum of machinery, the gurgle of pipes, and the creak and ping of flexing metal all around. Also, a low hum, almost a howl, that rose and fell, and muffled crashes followed by rumbles–the storm. Under her the ship rocked slow and deep in time to its rage, still anchored in port where it was safe. Somewhere above her, footsteps clanged past and faded, but there was no movement nearby. She cracked her eyes and blinked the grit out of them, then flicked them around, scanning her dim surroundings without moving. A low steel-walled alcove surrounded her, barely high enough for her to sit up. On one side was the heat of a bank of shielded power converters. On the other, a grate leading into a maintenance tunnel barely lit by yellow guide lights.
She was in the same position as when she went to sleep, curled around her railrifle with her head pillowed on her slim equipment pack. She was wearing her armor, just as she had been for the past four days, and her visor was down, sealing in her voice in case she cried out in her sleep. It was a bad habit of hers, especially when her dreams were bad. She reached out a hand and felt for Bristi. She found the Kerchax curled up just beyond her helmeted head. The small creature stretched and yawned when Zem scratched her, stretching her head high and pulling back her lips from four long, ivory canines.
Zem stretched as quietly as she could, first pointing the toes on one leg, then the other, tugging her left arm across her chest, then the right, twisting her neck one way then the opposite. She would be able to move. She pulled up the message on her visor and found it was from Onda. She tensed and cold flashed along her skin as she read the contents.
Orlin might tell PirGevgen about them at any minute?
The attack was tonight?
At least it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been in the plan from the first. Except for Orlin telling PirGevgen. They had to stop that, and that meant engineering a failure in the communications systems.
She checked the transmission line attaching her to the steel skeleton of the ship. Good and tight. Letters danced in front of her face as she wrote out a quick conference message on her visor and sent it out to Onda and Keslin. Only someone directly wired to the ship’s skeleton, like they were, and listening would be able to pick it up, so it was about as safe as they could get.
Zemril: How are we doing this? Sabotage or override?
Onda: Tapped in, Kes?
Keslin: Have access to comm system now. Cut it and they’ll see me, though.
They couldn’t afford to waste their surprise. Once they made a move, especially a major one like taking down comms, they would have little time before the techs running the Vorendrayg’s network figured out what was happening. Then it would be a full hacking battle to figure out who gained full control of the ship’s systems, with PirGevgen’s techs backed by hundreds of men with guns who would be looking for Zem and the blackhairs. Unless they had their own men with guns by that time, they would be dead.
Zemril: How long to reinforcement?
Onda: Unknown. Several hours at least.
Keslin: I can be sneaky.
Zemril: Can’t risk it. One chance.
Onda: Yes. Other options?
Zem thought, pushing her mind for some other way to shut down the long range comms that wouldn’t give away their network control. If they bombed it, then it would again be obvious there was a saboteur. Same for cutting the data lines, if they could get them all in the first place, as the Vorendrayg had a large amount of redundancy in its internals. Same with some of the towers. Could they get all of them?
Her mind hit a block. She worked at it, tried to figure out a way around. Nothing.
Onda: Major sabotage out. Same problem. Less is too little, also. This ship is built to survive.
Zem lay her head back against the steel underneath her. Let the problem go. Hard with all the tension, but she knew how to meditate. Or at least how to let her thoughts wander.
The ocean. She had never been on the ocean before. Rivers, lakes, yes, but Okend was practically an ocean of trees in itself and she had spent her whole life dealing with the problems in the depths of it. The water rocked the vast boat as the wind howled. She had expected to get sick. Many people new to sailing got sick. Keslin had, and was on medicine. But she hadn’t. The roll had been dizzying, but she had gotten used to it after a day.
Now it was comforting, even if she knew the fury raging outside would have swept her off the deck and into the depths in an instant if she went up there. The storm would not sink this ship, and the rolling waters carried it in a vast embrace. Somewhere there was an Imrian willing her into things that she did not want to do. Somewhere there was an Emperor plotting her death. Somewhere there was another who might kill her for deserving it. But here, in the ship, on the ocean, she was floating apart.
Bristi butted her and she reached up and began scratching the Kerchax again, keeping her mind tuned to the howl of the storm and the rumbles of lightning whispering in through the steel. Soft pings in her ear told her Onda and Keslin were still pitching ideas back and forth. A particularly loud bolt sent an audible crash that rang a little in the metal confines. It sounded like it had hit the ship.
Were the bolts getting more numerous?
The interference from the lightning would help suppress the comms, narrowing the reception options to all but the primary long-range tower. That might allow them to be more specific in which parts they destroyed, but they would still have to figure out how to destroy the tallest comm tower.
How to destroy a comm tower and make it look like…
Zemril: We can wreck the main comm system with lightning.
There was a pause of a minute. Zem presumed it meant the other two were noticing what she had and running through the possibilities and problems.
Onda: That’s crazy.
Keslin: It could work.
Onda: The ship has already been hit by lightning nine or ten times. Or more. Nothing has even flickered.
Keslin: The ship is grounded into the ocean. Every major system is attached to that ground. So lightning just goes through. But if we interrupt the ground from the main tower, the electronics would probably get fried in the next hit.
Zemril: Exactly. Total accident.
Onda: They’ll figure it out. They’ll see where it was cut.
Zemril: But they won’t think of sabotage right away, and if we put the break somewhere in the tunnels, it will take them hours to find it.
Keslin: It’s the best option so far.
Another pause. Onda was thinking. Zem was technically in charge, but she almost never operated on rank with anyone, unless she was scaring people, and the Warsisters seemed to run with a sort of rapid consensus system when making plans, so she had fallen into that with them.
Keslin: Great. Zem, you’re closest to the heart of the comm systems. You should make the cut.
Zemril: Get me directions.
Keslin: On it.
Onda: Make the break look natural.
Onda: Think of something.
Think of something. Great. She was not a mechanic. Natural, natural… A route flashed onto her computer and she pulled it up on the internal map. A green line showed the path she would have to take through the maintenance tunnels to get to where the majority of the hardware for the long-range comms was located. A red line plunging down through the schematic of the ship, and meeting the green line in a T, showed the path of the ground wire connecting the main comm tower to the central ground for the ship. She gave Bristi the command to follow, opened up the grate into the tunnel, and set out through the narrow pipe-filled passage.
Keslin: Best place to disconnect is at the conjunction. It may be spliced in, but if it’s not you can make it look like it came loose.
Zemril: And if it’s spliced?
Keslin: We’ll think up something else.
It was spliced.
Zem stared at the wrist thick cable that dropped through the ceiling of the tunnel and merged into a waist thick braid running through the spine of the ship. An army of rats could spend a year and make no progress on it.
Nat. Gegging nat.
“Care to take a bite at it, Bristi?”
The kerchax kirped at her in confusion, then sniffed at the cable.
“Nah. Don’t. You’ll get toasted.”
Zem tapped the cable with the barrel of her gun and looked for a way to destroy it. It was possibly the most over-engineered piece of equipment she’d ever seen. At its heart it had to have some kind of conductive wiring, but it was wrapped in rubberized kring ribbon, the type used for armoring outdoor power lines against animal damage. Her combat knife would go dull trying to cut through it, and any saw that didn’t have diamond teeth would do the same.
It was going to take a laser, and there was no way of making that look natural.
Kai in heaven, why bother?
She should just go with the pirates and be a whore. It was the only thing she’d ever really been good at.
Zemril: It’s armored.
There was a pause in which Zem waited on one of the other women to come up with something to say. In that time lightning struck the ship again. Zem’s EMF meter spiked as billions of volts charged the cable and poured through it.
Onda: Cut it anyway.
Onda: Best option. When the tech comes, make sure he dies. Make it look like an accident.
She could do that.
Zem pulled a laser from her pack and put it in precision mode.
Keslin: Don’t cut it all at once. Let the lightning melt the last thread.
Keslin was right. The arcing would melt the ends and make it look like something had gone wrong. Zem turned the laser on and cut slowly. She saw the invisible beam as a white line, picked out by the infrared sensors in her helmet. As it touched the kring fiber sheathing, the rubberized fabric parted and pulled back, exposing the wiring underneath. Metal wires glowed and popped and pinged. Soon there were only a few thin strands left, backed by a narrow bit of kring sheathing that could have held up a ground car.
Zem left the wires and backed away. She did not want to be anywhere near the cable when a lightning bolt went looking for someplace to ground out.
Time passed. Zem waited for lightning to strike again but it didn’t come.
Messages arrived, armies arrayed themselves against her, and doom descended in that time, all in her mind. And she could do nothing.
She did not control the lightning.
When the second hour started, Zem was huddled back in a corner clutching Bristi to her chest, the kerchax kirring against the stress tensioning every inch of Zem’s body. Around her the ship rocked and rolled. Through the metal and composite structure she heard the storm roar, but no lightning came.
“Gemigstak,” she whispered. “Ya want me ta ask, don’t ya?”
To ask. To beat on a door that wouldn’t open.
Not for a dirty whore like her.
“Why? Why’d ya put me in this place? If you don’t want me whoring around, why’d ya put me in a place where I have ta?”
The storm rolled on, and the lightning didn’t come.
Keslin: We may need another option. The tower is picking up an Imperial hail.
Onda: We don’t have time for another option.
Onda: We have to move.
“Nat nat nat. Ya want me ta crawl on my belly? Ta admit I’m dirty an worthless an beg ya ta save us anyway?”
Keslin: We’ll get killed.
Zem rocked double-time to the ocean and squeezed the kerchax until she squeaked.
Onda: Still have to. Kill the system in…
“I’m sorry, Kai. I’m sorry I’ve been doin’ all this… I said I wouldn’t, and I’ve been spreadin’ my legs for every man I find. I don’t… I don’t know how… I’m sorry.”
She let go of Bristi before she broke her companion and the Kerchax swarmed onto her shoulder. Zem curled in around the empty space.
“Please. Please, Kai. Ya called Rixken out on this. Ya called us all. It’s your task. Ya promised ya’d bring these things through. He’s your preparer. Open tha way.”
Light flared, crackling and booming and dancing in jagged arcs from the half-cut cable as it blazed and parted the rest of the way. Zem stared as the room filled with it, stunned and terrified to the depths of her soul. Death danced inches away from her face, missing her and Bristi by a few handspans, but that wasn’t what scared her.
No. No. It couldn’t…
Lightning danced through the room again.
A third time.
After that the lights went out.
Onda: Nothing and then three at once. I’ll take it.
Keslin: Main antenna is down. A lot of the comms are cooked. It’s going to take hours to get any of it running again.
Zemril sat in the darkness left by the lightning and wept, cursing Imrien and men and herself and wondering what she was going to do now. She kept up like that until a sound outside the cable room made her stop. She went silent and waited.
Boots scrabbled in the passage.
Moments later a young man emerged into the cable room. He dropped down and stood up, tools shifting and swaying on the belt around his waist as he did. He stared at the cable, eyeing the melted ends.
“What…?” he whispered.
He approached the broken ground line, reaching for the upper end with a bare hand. Then thought better of it.
Zem crept around behind him as he looked at the damage. She would have one chance. If he called for help on the radio, they would know she was there.
He reached for the comm at his waist.
Zem stared into the same green eyes she had held for half-an-hour several nights previously. So much like her own. They belonged to the youngest tech at the party, new and not used to the rewards Arden showered on his men. She had given him an experience he had never had before: A night held in her arms, lost in her eyes, unable to breathe as she became his whole world. His mouth fell open as he saw her.
She snapped her knuckles into his windpipe, crumpling it.
Barring medical help, he was already dead.
Even as he struggled to breathe, he reached for the pistol at his hip.
Zem knocked him down and straddled him, pinning his hips with hers, his hands with hers. He strained under her, green eyes as wide as they had been then and locked on the armor covering her face. She held him between her legs, firmly, until he slumped, spent, and was dead.
Zem didn’t know she was sobbing until she felt her middle convulsing.
Didn’t know she was going to throw up until nausea seized her and she ripped her helmet open and vomited in the corner.
Didn’t know she was broken until she collapsed and couldn’t get back up.
Outside, the storm roared, and the waves rolled.
And she was drowning in it.
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.