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Hell Hath No Fury: Chapter Three
Last updated: Sunday, December 3, 2006 14:12 EST
Commander of Five Hundred Cerlohs Myr, CO of the First Provisional Talon, Arcanan Expeditionary Force, settled himself even more deeply into the cockpit hollowed out of Razorwing's neck scales. He felt the deep, subterranean rumble vibrating through the accelerating battle dragon, felt the prodigious power of Razorwing's sweeping pinions, and a matching flood of eagerness poured through him, for t here was nothing—nothing in all the universes mankind had ever explored—which could equal the sheer thrill of piloting a battle dragon into combat.
Not that anyone's had all that much combat experience over the last couple of centuries.
The thought flickered through the back corners of his brain as the air stream began to scream just above his head. Battle dragon pilots didn't use the saddles transport pilots favored. They rode their mounts in a prone position, strapped into their cockpits—the depressions which centuries of careful breeding had formed in the backs of their dragons' huge, scaly necks. Carefully sculpted scutes in front of that depression acted as baffles, protecting it and fairing the airflow. At a battle dragon's maximum speed, that airflow could severely injure any limb which strayed into it, but the curved scales bent it up and around, leaving the pilot in a pocket of absolutely calm air, like the eye of a hurricane.
Of course, Myr could count the number of times he'd taken Razorwing to the dragon's true maximum speed on his fingers. That kind of flying was frowned upon during peacetime, even in the combat strikes, because of the potential for injuries. And not just injuries to pilots. In fact, replacing a dead or crippled pilot was the easy part; a fully seasoned and trained battle dragon like Razorwing took literally decades to hatch, raise, and train.
That was part of the reason the Air Force never had enough of them. They were expensive, they were irritable, they were dangerous, and—in peacetime—they were far less useful than the bigger, slower, more placid transports. There were those who'd argued for years that the combat strikes should be reduced even further. Aside from providing occasional support against unusually large and well-organized groups of brigands, they didn't really have a peacetime function which couldn't be filled just as well by the transports. After all, a properly trained transport dragon could fly aerial reconnaissance missions just as well as a battle dragon, and battle dragons were poorly suited to transport and SAR operations. Their function wasn't to carry or rescue things . . . it was to kill things.
The Air Force had fought off the pressure to completely dispense with battle dragons, but it hadn't been easy, especially after so many years in which no external threat to the Union of Arcana had ever been encountered. The decisive argument, in many ways, had been the time and incredible expense which would be required to reconstitute an aerial combat capability from scratch if the breeding and training programs were allowed to lapse. The fact that certain members of the Union Parliament had been determined to protect their constituencies' lucrative Air Force contracts hadn't hurt, either, of course.
But if the Air Force had managed to keep the breeding programs going, it had still been forced to accept severe reductions in total numbers. The slow, steady build-down of the combat forces had been going on for better than ninety years now, and the Air Force's ability to project fighting power and provide ground support was at an all-time low.
Which, of course, explains why Ekros dropped a godsdamned war into our laps now, Myr thought sourly. Or, at least, as sourly as it was possible for a man to feel as the incredible power of the dragon under him carried him through the endless heavens at better than two hundred miles per hour.
The lumbering transports were already out of sight, left far behind as the battle dragons sped ahead at two-thirds again their maximum speed. Not even a battle dragon could sustain that sort of sprint speed for long, but Two Thousand Harshu had stressed the vital necessity of hitting the enemy as quickly as possible.
Myr would have preferred to spearhead the attack in person, and his Razorwing could have flown the mission. Razorwing was a "black," after all—a lightning-breather. But a commander of five hundred had no business getting entangled in the opening stages of an attack like this one. Myr's job was to coordinate everyone else, and no one had commanded an attack on this scale since the unification wars.
He'd selected Commander of Fifty Delthyr Fahrlo for the most ticklish aspect of the operation. Fahrlo's Deathclaw was a "black" like Razorwing, and he was also well over eighty years old. Still in his prime, for a battle dragon, but with decades of experience behind him. It might be experience acquired in training missions, rather than on actual combat operations, but Deathclaw was still the most qualified beast for the mission, and Fahrlo had amassed an enviable record in his strike's exercises over the three years he'd piloted Deathclaw.
Now it remained to be seen just how good Myr's choice would turn out to be. As he gazed ahead, the five hundred saw the swamp portal looming up, growing rapidly closer and bigger, and wished his mouth didn't suddenly feel quite so dry.
Petty-Armsman Harth Loumas checked his watch.
It was just about time for another sweep, and he yawned and stretched deliberately, locking his fingers above his head and twisting his back to encourage the kinks to depart. Then he settled back on his haunches, closed his eyes, and once more reached out across the miles of water and mud with his Talent.
Loumas had always taken his duties and responsibilities seriously. Given the . . . energy with which Company-Captain chan Tesh had stressed Platoon-Captain chan Baskay's concerns over the Arcanan diplomats' attitude, he was more attentive even than usual today. And he also regretted the fact that they didn't have a decent Distance Viewer even more than usual.
But they didn't, and they couldn't get one, which meant Loumas' Plotting Talent was the best they could come up with, and he frowned in concentration as he "felt" for the presence of living creatures. As always, he was bombarded with thousands upon thousands of flickers of life essence—birds, mammals, lizards, crocodiles, jaguars . . . The list went on and on, but all of those essences, all of those glittering points of light in his Talent's field of view, were scattered randomly. They lacked the organization, the formation, which would have indicated a human presence.
Still no sign of the bastards, I guess, he reflected. Good. I know some of the other guys are awfully full of themselves. Well, they can be as eager for another round with these people as they want to be. I'd just as soon not see a sign of them until our reinforcements get here.
He opened his eyes and straightened, and Junior-Armsman Tairsal chan Synarch cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Nothing, huh?" the Flicker asked.
"Don't sound so disappointed," Loumas said dryly.
"Oh, I'm not, believe me!" Chan Synarch shook his head, hard.
"Good, because in that case, I don't have to throttle you for being an idiot."
Chan Synarch chuckled. He and Loumas had been teamed for lookout duty ever since Company-Captain chan Tesh had taken the swamp portal away from the Arcanans, and they got along quite well, despite very different backgrounds. Loumas was a New Farnalian who'd joined the PAAF almost fifteen years before, whereas chan Synarch was a Ternathian who'd been born less than fifteen miles outside Estafel, the imperial capital. He was an Imperial Marine on temporary assignment to the PAAF, and there was a lively tradition of rivalry between the Marines, who considered themselves a corps d'elite, and the Portal Authority Armed Forces' long-service regulars.
Upon occasion, that rivalry had spilled over into even more lively brawls, but not this time. Chan Tesh had pinched Loumas from Hulmok Arthag because he desperately needed a Plotter. Well, actually he'd needed a Distance Viewer, but he'd had to settle for the best he could get. Although chan Synarch was senior to Loumas, he'd confessed at the outset that he'd never worked with a Plotter before. He'd been refreshingly ready to ask questions in order to figure out how their Talents could mesh most effectively, and the two of them had quickly established a lively mutual respect.
"I wish we were on the other side of the portal," chan Synarch said now, swatting vainly at the insects whining about his head and ears.
"Well, if you can figure out away to make a Talent work through a portal, I'm sure we can get the Company-Captain to sign off on it. For that matter, you'll end up filthy rich, I imagine."
"Instead of just filthy, you mean?" chan Synarch said, grimacing at one muddy boot, and it was Loumas' turn to chuckle.
Commander of Fifty Fahrlo felt himself trying to curl even more tightly against Deathclaw's comforting solidity. He'd never before dared to take the dragon to his maximum speed, given the bloodcurdling penalties awaiting any Air Force officer foolish enough to lame or cripple one of the expensive, almost impossible to replace battle dragons in a mere training exercise.
I hope to all the gods that Neshok knows what he's talking about this time, Fahrlo thought. If he doesn't, if these people are maintaining any sort of a decent sky watch instead of concentrating solely on ground threats, things could be about to get pretty damned messy.
Fahrlo would have been more confident of the Intelligence officer's assessment if he hadn't decided that Neshok was one of the half-dozen biggest pricks he'd ever had the misfortune to meet.
You don't have to like him, as long as he manages to do his job, the Air Force officer reminded himself. Of course, if he were half as bright as he thinks he is, he'd probably be a Two Thousand himself by now, wouldn't he?
Fahrlo gave his head a mental shake. He had other things to be concentrating on at this particular moment, he reminded himself, and pressed the tips of his gloved left fingers into the control groove along the side of Deathclaw's mighty neck.
Transport pilots used reins and dragon prods to control their beasts, but the men who piloted battle dragons flew by the tips of their fingers—literally. Just as the dragon breeders had created the cockpit in which Fahrlo rode, they had formed two grooves, each just a shade over two feet long and conveniently placed for the pilot's hands. Those grooves were deep enough that Fahrlo's fingers touched Deathclaw's actual hide, not just the thick, protective scales which armored the mighty beast. That hide was acutely sensitive, and Deathclaw had been trained to respond to even the lightest touch. Fahrlo, like most battle dragon pilots, had long since developed the manual dexterity of a concert pianist, and after so long together, he and Deathclaw literally thought as one. The dragon knew exactly what each touch through one of the control grooves meant, and now he lowered his left wingtip, arcing into a steeply inclined bank, and lowered his head.
Fahrlo removed his right hand from the starboard control groove just long enough to press the sarkolis crystal embedded in his flight helmet, and a circular window-like image appeared on the helmet's faceplate. It didn't look quite like anything Fahrlo had ever seen with his own eyes, because dragon vision was different from human vision. The color balance was subtly skewed, and no human being had ever been able to pick out such minute details from so far away.
Delthyr Fahrlo's father had been a battle dragon pilot. So had two of his uncles, and his grandfather. And his great-grandfather, for that matter. It was a calling which tended to run in families, because it absolutely required a particular Gift. The image projected across Fahrlo's helmet faceplate wasn't quite like something a scrying spell might have produced, although there were similarities. But the crystal embedded in the helmet contained no scrying spellware. Instead, it reached out to another sarkolis chip, surgically embedded in his dragon some three months after its hatching, which linked the two of them directly when activated. A pilot literally saw what his dragon saw, and the linkage worked both ways. A crosshair floated in the window, moving as Fahrlo moved his eyes. By turning his own head, directing his own vision on a specific object or creature, and marking it with the crosshair, the pilot was able to designate targets for his dragon's attack.
Nor was that all the crystal did. No one in his right mind wanted a battle dragon's breath weapon to come online without direct human supervision. The weapon itself was an integral part of the dragon's structure, but the dragon couldn't use it without his pilot's consent. It was the pilot's job to select the target; it was the dragon's job to hit the target . . . but only when the pilot triggered the release code through the helmet crystal and allowed the dragon to attack.
Now Deathclaw's impossibly powerful vision focused on the pair of enemy soldiers so far below. The two men who had to be the first to die under Thousand Toralk's operations plan.
Something made Tairsal chan Synarch glance upward.
He didn't know what it was. Certainly, it wasn't because of any Talent, or because he'd heard anything. Perhaps it was some primitive instinct which cut deeper than any Talent, any Gift.
Whatever it was, it came too late.
The Marine's eyes went wide as he saw the incredible beast arrowing down out of the heavens above him. The thing's sheer size—and the fact that he'd never seen anything remotely like it—made it impossible to judge the range accurately. At first, for a few brief moments, he'd thought it was only some distant hawk, or possibly an eagle. But then he realized that it was far, far larger than that. And, as the sun caught it, it glittered with a peculiar, metallic sheen no feather had ever produced.
He never finished the question.
In many ways, Deathclaw's selection for this particular mission cut against The Book on Air Force operations. Blacks were aerial-superiority dragons, not ground-attack beasts. That sort of attack was supposed to be the province of the fire-spitting reds and gas-spitting yellows. But Five Hundred Neshok and Thousand Toralk had made it clear that the lookout post they'd identified had to be taken out in the very first moments of the attack. One of those lookouts clearly had one of the Sharonian "talents" which allowed him to send messages back and forth almost instantly over at least short distances. According to Neshok, he didn't seem to be what the Sharonians called a "Voice," which meant he shouldn't be able to send messages over longer distances. But they couldn't be certain of that, and Arcana couldn't afford to let him relay a warning up the chain of universes behind him if it turned out Neshok was wrong.
That was why Five Hundred Myr had assigned a black. Reds and yellows were both shorter ranged than the blacks, and their weapons were appreciably slower in reaching their targets even across their lower effective ranges. That was especially true for the yellows, yet even the reds' fireballs traveled no more quickly than an arbalest bolt, which, combined with their short effective ranges, made both weapons relatively ineffectual in air-to-air combat.
But that was precisely the mission for which the blacks had been created. Their lightning weapon inflicted less damage than the reds' fireballs, but their attacks reached their targets at literally lightning speed. There was no time for evasive action, no time to dodge. If the bolt was accurately aimed, it would strike its target.
Fahrlo had fired Deathclaw's lightning more than once in training operations, at wood and canvas targets on carefully delineated training ranges. He'd never unleashed that weapon against a living, breathing target.
Harth Loumas had just begun to turn his head to see what had so startled chan Synarch when a lightning bolt as thick as a man's arm came hissing down out of the cloudless sky. It struck directly between the two Sharonians, and its dreadful power dwarfed anything any Sharonian had seen out of the Arcanans' infantry weapons.
Their mouths opened in silent, agonized screams as the lightning enveloped them in a blinding corona of destruction. For an instant they writhed, their bodies convulsing in helpless reaction to the massive blast of electricity searing through them. The "CRACK!" as the lightning bolt struck was like a cannon shot, and heads turned towards the sound just in time to see Lomas and chan Synarch collapse like broken puppets of seared, smoking flesh, singed hair, and tattered clothing.
Five Hundred Myr saw the blinding streak of Deathclaw's bolt rip across the heavens. From Razorwing's present position, it looked perfect, and the five hundred triggered the spellware that released the brilliant red signal flare behind his dragon. It exploded in a spectacular burst of crimson light, and the 3012th Combat Strike obediently peeled off and dove into the attack at maximum speed.
Balkar chan Tesh was on his way back to his command bunker opposite the center of the portal's northern aspect when he heard the sharp, explosive sound. He spun toward it, and his eyes widened in sudden speculation. The sound wasn't quite like any explosion he'd ever heard, but it was too violent to call anything else.
He was too far from Loumas' and chan Synarch's position to see what had actually happened, but he knew. Somehow, he knew.
He stood for one more moment, and then some instinct made him look up.
Commander of One Hundred Horban Geyrsof watched the lead elements of his 3012th Strike separate and dive steeply.
The entire First Provisional Talon had approached the objective from the east. That had kept the portal itself between them and the enemy's lookouts, who'd been located at its western end. No one knew whether or not a portal would have the same effect on these "Sharonians'<thinspace>" so-called "talents" that it had on spells, but according to Five Hundred Neshok, it appeared to. Geyrsof wasn't particularly fond of phrases like "appeared to" when it came to planning operations, but given the description of the enemy's horrific weapons, he was more than willing to play for any possible potential advantage.
Now, as Five Hundred Myr's flare announced initial success, all eight of the 3012th's reds split into two separate four-dragon flights which broke left and right, then came slashing back in diving turns. They stooped upon both faces of the portal simultaneously, wings swept, approaching speeds of two hundred and fifty miles an hour as they used the advantage of their altitude ruthlessly.
Geyrsof would have preferred to lead the initial attack himself, and not just because he possessed an abundance of the aggressiveness and self-confidence which were the fundamental qualities of a successful battle dragon pilot. This was the first Air Force attack on a regular, organized military opponent in two hundred years, and Geyrsof's Graycloud was a yellow. His poisonous breath weapon had been expressly designed for missions just like this one, but he was one of only three yellows—all in Geyrsof's strike—which Thousand Toralk had been able to scare up.
That was the problem. This wasn't just the first attack in two hundred years; it was also the first Air Force attack ever on an enemy from an entirely different universe, and they had too few yellows to risk losing them in the very first attack. Especially when no one had the least idea how well Air Force doctrine was going to work against such an opponent, or how effective the other side's weapons were going to be against Geyrsof's dragons.
Those were two of several things they were about to find out.
The instant he saw the impossible beasts screaming down out of the very heavens, Balkar chan Tesh knew the sledgehammer about to come down on his positions would be far worse than any attack even he had imagined in his worst nightmares. The. . . the dragons, for want of any better word, would be horrendous opponents even if they simply landed among his men with talons and fangs. He'd never imagined anything outside a whale which could possibly have matched their size, and the mere fact that anything that big was actually capable of flight was enough to flood his mind with atavistic terror. But it wasn't just their size, for something gibbered in the back of his brain that if they looked like dragons, and if they flew like dragons, then they probably breathed fire like dragons.
Yet even as the primitive part of his mind recoiled from those horrifying images, the thinking part of his mind had already grasped a far more terrifying implication. If these people could fly, then every calculation and estimate of the relative mobility of the two sides had suddenly become meaningless.
And if that explosion-like sound had come from where he thought it had, then he had no way to get a message out to chan Baskay for Rothag to relay to Halifu's Voice. Which meant no one else could possibly know what he'd just discovered.
Those thoughts blazed through him like thunderbolts while he watched the trio of dragons coming straight at him.
And then they began to belch fire.
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