Chapter One Part Two

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There was no better way to tour Brundt than from the cockpit of a Raptor. At four kays up the view seemed limitless, and the expanse below was all his. From equatorial jungle to this stretch of high plains desert, the biggest and best part of Dobruja's largest continent belonged to Brundt. Below him, the new northern road snaked across the pink and tan desert, heading toward the Harn mountain stronghold. It was not one of the more hospitable regions in his demesnes, but the desert had a compelling strangeness that never bored him.

The sandy ground sparkled with quartz chips and mica bits in the afternoon sun. A brighter, larger glint on the road marked Olwyn and Seriah's vehicle making its way toward the gorge. He had made good time.

An inverted dive brought him into better range. The APV and the dark, scraggly high desert plants snapped into focus on his visor as the Raptor reached hovering altitude. He made his way over to the bridge, thrusters whining as he changed their vector to hover. The Harns had been busy. Ragged holes pocked the bridge, some piercing the deck. His com beeped, and he was glad of a momentary distraction from his soured mood.

"We're here, Boss," Olwyn reported. "Looks like old Crosslyn was right for a change. Those pylons are wired to blow."

Ran scowled down at mangled side rails. "Crazy Harns. A lot of that looks like mortar damage. They must have run out of heavy artillery ammo again."

Eventually, Jorge would have to settle down and accept the inevitable. However much he might like to style himself as President Harn, the Dobrujan Republic was long dead. Jorge was simply one of many warlords, and not even one of the top three. Warlord's council was the closest thing Dobruja had to a planetary government. The presidents of the Republic were all long gone to the Ancestors. Nobody was in charge, not anymore. But even crazy Harns needed trade. Ran was doing them a favor, linking them up. Let Jorge keep his tiny "republic", as long as mountain metals shipped down the road.

"All this pavement is a do-over," Olwyn said with a sigh. Olwyn hated do-overs. He often said that it was easier to plan and grade a whole new road than it was to repair one that had been shelled.

"Great. Let's call in the demolitionists and get this project moving again."

On the radar, two blips appeared, moving in fast from Harn territory. Ran squinted at the dark rise of mountains, but the angle of the sun and the heat shimmering from the desert floor below made havoc on his line of sight. He flipped his visor back into place and found them, closing in fast.

"Boss, looks like you got company. Fly away home!" Olwyn said.

"There are only two of them. I can handle it," he replied as he broke his hover and started to climb once again.

"Those are H-2s," Seriah said. "Better not risk it."

"I know. Stand by." He slammed the throttle to full, pulling gees as he rocketed up to cruising altitude. H-2s were bigger, faster and better armed than a Raptor. It didn't matter. All he had to do was out-fly them. The adrenaline rush of sky and ground whirled around him as he plummeted in an evasive maneuver. Being better was what he did best. In the back of his mind, his more rational self was reminding him that as warlord, he could not afford to fly combat, not anymore. But the lure of being in exactly in sync with his Raptor caught him, the joy of enemies that he could face down directly was alluring. He yanked back the throttle, pulled the canards to the stops, and flipped and rolled to confront one H-2 head on.

The pilot made a desperate, futile dive as Ran strafed it. He let out a whoop as it went down in flames and spun into the sand below him. The other H-2 was cannier, peeling off to avoid a nose on confrontation. Its pilot flew a complex figure and slid in behind him. Ran opened his engines full out again. A plunge at the ground in a corkscrew turn left him lightheaded and strained the engines to a whining roar. He looked around, praying for cover.

It was a beautiful, clear day. No friendly concealing clouds or helpful fog around to aid him.

"Please don't fly out over the desert by yourself," Seriah said, barely audible over the engine noise and the burst of shots from the H-2. Fortunately, the gunner had terrible aim, wasting ammo from the front guns at a dizzying pace.

"Boss, where are you? We've lost visual!" Olwyn added. "I told you flying out here on your own was a bad idea."

An H-2 had guided missiles. Ran couldn't figure why the gunner hadn't locked on to him already. The pilot was sticking to him; if he couldn't shake him soon the dreadful gunner was going to get in a lucky shot.

"We can't get a good lock on your com," Seriah said. "Where are you?"

"Don't know, I'm kind of busy at the moment." The H-2 was closing in. He zigzagged desperately, looking for the gorge, a canyon, a big helpful rock to hide behind. Nothing but kays and kays of rolling hills dotted with scrub stretched out before him.

"This is bad, Boss. We don't have backup in range," Olwyn said.

"I said, I'm busy! Can't talk right now!" Whatever else his seconds thought to add was lost in the sudden humming of the lock-on warning from his com. It seemed the gunner had remembered his guided missiles after all.

Ran launched his countermeasure a fraction of a second too late, but the explosion did scuttle the missile. Less helpfully, the concussion flamed out his engines. For a moment he fiddled with the engine restart. He was out of time. The unfriendly ground was coming up fast. Raptors were not built to maximize their glide ratio.

The decoy ejected first. Fast moving wind currents whipped the sail away, luring the Harns along with it. Then the Raptor spat him out into the air, parasail blossoming above him just as it should. The decoy's jetpack had driven it far afield and so he had the skies to himself for a moment. His own jetpack chose that moment to be less cooperative. It gave two fitful coughs and then expired.

"Shit, shit, shit!"

"Boss?" Olwyn's voice was faint without the Raptor's booster for the com. "You've lost your plane, haven't you Boss?"

A cloud of acrid debris and smoke washed over him from the remains of his Raptor, and for a moment he thought the parasail would collapse and take him down to join it. He corrected the lines. His best plan was to glide down on a reasonably straight path, find the road and have Seriah and Olwyn pick him up.

"We're losing you," Seriah said. "Where are you?"

"Don't know. I can see that big purple sand lake off to the east of me." An updraft sent him spiraling off into yet another direction.

"What? Tuzla lake? You're way off course, Boss." Olwyn's voice was barely audible. The northern desert did bad things to coms. His visor was dead. Even its glare-reducing polarization feature was offline.

"I know. I'm having a few problems. Gusty today," he said as his sail tried to tangle again. He had to get down and lose the sail before the Harns figured out they were chasing the decoy.

Seriah's voice sounded in his ear, so blurred by static that he couldn't make out her question. He opened his mouth to tell her to resend, but the Harns were back, peppering his sail with gunfire. The sail half-folded and he yanked with all his strength on the lines, trying to straighten it out. The ground came up hard. After that, there was nothing but blackness.

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