Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Tue May 03, 2011 8:56 pm Post subject: War Worlds, redux
|It occured to me that War Worlds, though not the favorite of Frizz by any means, is definately my favorite story from TW/DS, being the first and the one I thought out for two years before i put finger to keyboard. I thought I might re-write it a bit, edit some more, change a few minor things, and see what some of the newer players think of it. I doubt many of our newer players have read it, and I must confess to some pride in the work, wanting others opinions. I am of the opinion that all writers never truely believe they have "finished" anything, but I am hoping this is better than the original, more readable, and easier for non game players to understand.
This is the first segment I have edited, will do another segment tomorrow or the next day until the first story has a new polish on it.
New readers, this story starts right after the Shadow Wars update to TinyWars, when cloaking was new and deadly.
I hope you enjoy this revisit to the past.
edit to add, for some reason I am having the worst time uploading this, will do it tomorrow morning from a different machine. oops.
Joined: 04 Feb 2010
|Posted: Wed May 04, 2011 4:20 am Post subject:
|I love you.
Also, if you need any assistance with editing and such, I'd be happy to help. War Worlds is one of my favorite stories for sure.
*puts on his ban-hat*
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Wed May 04, 2011 6:05 am Post subject:
|THE WAR WORLDS
Ships do not creak in space, but this one did. The traveler looked around in distaste at the ancient vessel, measuring his time in space against his likelihood of seeing planet fall again, and whether planet fall would be a noun or verb. The huge ship shuddered again as it pulled away from Earth Station, lumbering into its exit orbit from Sol’s gravity well, and the traveler shrugged, stowed his gear in his tiny stateroom, and consulted his ship’s map. There were few diversions offered on this ship, not like some liners the traveler had sailed on before, but there was a lounge on Deck 15, advertised as Earth Normal. He could use a drink.
The traveler made his way down dimly lit corridors to the fall tube, and settled into the lift as it protested its entire journey down the spine of the transport. No brightly painted slogans adorned its walls, no advertisements for the various empires attractions, no political exhortations, and the traveler sighed – that much, at least was welcome. Empire wide war was something nobody wanted, and The Treaty still held. The traveler shook his head – The Treaty. A treaty from five different huge empires, though some clung to names like Democratic Republic, or Peoples Alliance, but empires nonetheless. All stopped cold at one system. The traveler pushed away a small twitch – that was a system this hulk was swinging through, and nothing he could do would push away a tiny feeling of dread. Nobody, absolutely nobody in their right mind went to the War Worlds with confidence, unless they were a resident. The traveler snorted – who would be a resident, but a psychotic or malcontent, instantly scheduled for brain wipe or personality adjustment in any other civilized place.
A warbling tone warned the traveler that he had arrived at his destination, and the lift groaned open. Typical dim ship lights illuminated a corridor like any other on the behemoth, and he followed the flickering signs lit on the bulkhead, advertising, “Earth Lounge, 270 meters this way!” Well, he did need the exercise.
At the door, he paused. A small sign at human eye level advertised, “Weapons may not be used, remember The Treaty.” That was not a confidence builder. He pushed his way into the room.
A rush of pulsing music, flashing lights, and, the most shocking of all in a spaceship in flight, smoke, various hues, smells, and almost textures wafted through the thumping air, and the traveler quailed, remembered his spine, and he resolutely entered. Just because faction members maybe present, does not mean violence is too, he reminded himself sternly. A throng of human men and women swarmed and moved inside to the heavy electronic beat, mostly wearing heavy dun colored leathers, some emblazoned with various faction badges, some not, though the swirling lights made positive identification difficult. He did spot one crusaders white shield with red cross emblazoned across one husky fellows chest, which identified him as a member of the fanatical Knights Templar faction, another sported the stylized crimson heart of the WLF . The warnings shown on entertainment across the Empire of Man liked to show faction badged actors engaged in unspeakable acts.
The traveler moved forward into the murk, when he bumped into someone, and automatically turned to apologize. He stopped dead in his tracks, staring at a short muscular boy, clad in leather and whipcord, with a devil may care gleam in his eye. Whatever faction badge adorned his leathers was obscured by the gleaming harmonics knife he held in from of him, molecular field blade glowing deep red.
“Frap you, stranger! Meet me on Wulf, meka on meka!”
The traveler attempted to back pedal, was blocked by the crowd, and tried desperately to come up with a response to this deadly child, when a deep gravel voice rumbled loud enough to be hear over the screech, “Peace, Cory, remember The Treaty.”
The boy looked over at the tall man who stood there, scarred face, and gray shot beard.
“Naj, A-man, he’s bandit meat!”
One eyebrow shot up on the older mans’ face, and he growled, “Maybe you would care to face me on Konu, again? Put the blade away Cory.”
The youngster’s head lowered slightly, and beetled brows turned to the traveler, “You I find on the surface!” And he was gone, swallowed in the living crowd.
“You should not be here.”
The traveler turned to his benefactor, and said simply, “ Thank you, and this was the only lounge advertised as Earth Normal”
“There is another on Deck 28 that caters to more of the…’business’ class”, the warrior said.
“Didn’t see it on the ship’s map,” the traveler said weakly.
He paused, swallowed hard, and stated “I owe you, may I buy you a drink?”
The warrior simply nodded, reached out and took the travelers elbow.
They threaded their way through the throng towards some tables that sat scattered in odd clumps in the middle of the room. When the traveler made to go to one, he found the grip on his elbow had tightened to steel.
“Not there, those are faction tables. Sit at one of them, and you’ll be identified as loyal to them. Bad move for you.”
The traveler shrugged, and allowed himself to be steered through the human sea to a table in the back, against a stained and peeling bulkhead.
The warrior sat down hard in the creaky seat, straining the bolts that held in to the deck, activated the sound dampener, and punched up a menu on the auto servitor in the middle. He stared at the traveler, who obediently waved his U-card at the reader, and the machine chuckled to itself, waiting. A few pecks in the air at the holo menu, and a drink rose up from the middle column of the battered table. The warrior took it almost gently, and sipped eyes half closed.
“Earth Budweiser, hard to come by out here. Longest continuously brewed beer in the galaxy.”
The traveler, having had many of the same brew on his home planet, and never having had this affection for it, merely waited for the man to drink his fill.
The warrior emptied the glass, and dropped it in the servitor chute, and said almost formally, “Debt repaid.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Anything not in violation of Tianwarz rules.”
“Thank you. That boy that pulled the knife on me, he’s a child, correct? They let children do this?”
The warrior shook his head, a grim smile on his face, “A child? Cory? He’s young, a kid, barely fourteen in Earth years, but he hasn’t been a child since he got here. You don’t have to be a six foot power lifter to pilot a meka. Fast reflexes, ability to think on your feet, but size, age, naj. I am the unusual one here. There are no rules in the Tianwarz system about how old you have to be to come here, merely that you be willing to do what needs to be done, and live by the rules.”
“Not on the planets? I have never been there, but I though the surface of all the planets was uninhabitable.”
The warrior smiled grimly, “The surface is where we work. Nobody lives there, unless you count the machines as life. Each faction has a battle station in far orbit around Tianwarz, what you would call a space station. First time I saw one, I about crapped my suit; they are that huge, heavily armed and armored. That’s half to ensure The Treaty holds, and half against each other. All in a row, on Life Side”
The warrior paused, remembering, while the other watched with wondering eyes.
Life Side. Death Side. Two sides of an impossible coin, a galactic mystery, a twist of fate and physics that was flatly insane, yet existed. A G Class sun, with several planets in close orbit, blasted desert worlds of heat and blowing sands, normal the universe wide. All would be normal, except that a tiny reversed singularity of an Einsteinian white hole lay attached by a gravity bond to the tortured star, where it vomited radiation and particles onto the passing planets and deep space. Deadly to anything organic, no matter how well shielded, one hemisphere of near space had been labled the Death Side, and the other, Life Side. Anyone on a planet when it reached Horizon, as it was called, would have to leave immediately, or never leave alive.
When Captain Tianwarz surveyed the system 200 years ago, he declared it an uninhabitable nightmare, and stated it would likely only be a curiosity, a quirk of nature to amuse the physicists. Still, he landed a research team on one planet he named Taris, after his beloved wife. That’s when they found the Ore.
Nothing like it was found anywhere in the galaxy, deposits of a material scattered n the surface, a metallic ore that could be manipulated into anything from zero resistance conductors, to super strong armor alloy, light and tougher than titanium, to the most spectacular jewelry seen. Many speculated it was actually material spewed from the white hole, dragged from some far universe by its wormhole connected collapsar, and expelled violently here. A mining team was sent down by Drop Ship with a shielded excavator to sample it, and that’s when they turned up the other joker in the deck. The machines. Alien creations, placed inside the planets, by who was never known, or why, but they had one goal. They spawned robot vehicles to issue forth from the ground, to mindlessly attack the scientists, destroying their excavator and environmentally armored trucks. Almost all of the dropped teams died, but enough survived to report to Captain Tianwarz what had happened. Subsequent investigation revealed that the machines, quickly dubbed bandits by the teams, were on every planet, and that Man would have to come up with something to fight them with, if he wanted the ore. Tearing winds and violent sudden sandstorms ruled out any low atmosphere craft, and the metal contaminated cloud covers prevented accurate readings of the surface for orbital bombardment, so the only practical way to stop them was on their own playing field. Tanks were built on machining decks of the world transporters, armored vehicles on treads and hover fans, sent down to the surface to fight, and die. The alien war machine factories spawned forth mekas, walking armored monstrosities of metal and fire, and man relearned the art of war in the desert. Space stations were built by the Empire of Man, and operations began in an orderly fashion. Then the other Empires learned of this impossibly rare metal, and the advantage it would give their hated enemy in combat. An unholy alliance was formed, and a war of titanic proportions was fought, over this one lonely system. A spiral of death and destruction ensued, drawing more and more into it, until Salvatore, called The Inspired, created the idea of The Treaty, to make Tianwarz independent of all nations, all Empires, where anyone who wished could start a faction to mine the Ore, but no one could control it. They made alliances, did battle with the bandit machines, salvaged their blasted remains, mined ore, and lived, if it could be called such, in the most insane place in the most insane universe. Thus was born The War Worlds.
“What is it like?”
The question dragged the warrior back from his reverie, “Where, on the surface?”
“Sand. Heat, blowing winds, fast furious violent action, depending on where the Drop Ship lands your team. If you get a good spot, you may be able to mine for many minutes before bandits find you, or an enemy faction comes your way. All depends on where the Ore lies, and where you land.”
“Why do it?”
The warrior looked at the traveler, who quailed under that iron glare.
“One rule of Tianwarz is no questions about personal history. Do you remember from Earth, years back, an outfit called the Foreign Legion?”
The traveler nodded.
“We have one hard rule we copied from them, that anyone may change their name, erase their history, and start over here. I’ve met several I recognized from interstellar news. We have at least two deposed kings, many serial killers and other homicidal maniacs, plus I think three former movie stars, all here, the only place to get away from all the Empires.”
The glare grew sun hot, and the growl was the rumble of an annoyed wolfhound, “You don’t listen well, do you.” The heat died, the warrior shrugged, and said simply, without rancor, “My family was on Rayzon”
The traveler dropped his head in sympathy. The entire population of Rayzon had been put to death during the Empires War, for daring to try to stay neutral. The executions had taken years, with the Empire of Dukaks bringing in hunting parties of Dukaks nobles, tracking for the homeless survivors, and broadcasting their “sport” across the stars. Cities were leveled, and every living thing killed. Fifteen years later, still nothing grew on its barren and blasted soil.
“I am sorry.”
“History back, gone and lost.”
The words seemed a formal pronouncement, so the traveler ordered up two more drinks, and they drank to it.
A cruel hoax, a savage joke on humanity, that vile vicious thing called alcohol, thought the warrior, blearily focusing heavily bloodshot eyes across the closet sized compartment at the blinking, red lit beeping com center. Gah. Too far to reach to crush it silent. Gah.
He swept one arm across his face, discovered his shirt was at least not vomit encrusted this time, and pushed his highly rebellious body off the thin metal excuse for a bed, croaking.
“Shipboard AI has a Priority Call, Interstellar, for one Major Manning, do you accept charges?” said the flat machine voice.
Oh, joy. How much was left in the account after last night?
“Negative”. The machine hummed for a moment, “The charges may be paid in a number of currencies from Earth Dollars, to Slivagian Dubwales, or..”
“Never mind, I'll, *urp*, I’ll pay in Tianwarz credits.”
“ Very well, charges are 35 credits per Tianwarz minute, have a nice shipday.”
Great. That’s just a little like having your left eye gouged out slowly by a maniac armed with a dull butter knife. Wonderful.
The warrior briefly wondered where the traveler was, but the effort hurt too much. Guy's probably stuck in the ships' main engines by now, by all the juice he drank last night...or was that him?
The com cleared, and a clean cut young male human face looked out from a neatly organized office.
“Great Ore, you’re a sight."
Manning croaked hoarsely, “Nice to see you too, boss.”
A not-quite smile played across the younger mans’ features, “You must have really enjoyed this down time, didn’t you? I got three news boards saying five more police agencies are looking for you on at least as many planets. "
“Wasn’t me, Warfe, I mean Commander Warfe”
A slight smile, “ You’re off planet, Major, don’t worry to much about titles, especially the way you look, Manning. Last time you looked like that was that day after you got your baptism under fire on Taris”
The warrior remembered abruptly, eyes closing under a sudden flood of memories...
“Manning!” the driver yelled frantically, “MANNING!, Shoot something!”
The sands whipped furiously past the scarred plastisteel armor glass, driven by the Viper hover tanks’ howling fans, desperately trying to find a safe refuge, anywhere, as bolts of machine made lightening fused sand to solid glass, and shrieking projectiles threw up gouts of sandy dirt hundreds of feet in the air. Manning wiped his armored goggles furiously, as a near miss, narrowly deflected by the rapidly diminishing shields, had cracked the gunner’s dome, and sand had slipped through the holes to burrow into his unprotected face.
“Where’s the convoy?” he screamed.
“They made it, Drop Ship’s got ‘em! We gotta get the hell out of here, now, he’s GAINING ON US!”
Rhythmic thumping behind the frantic craft betrayed the huge metal form of the pursuing meka, a vaguely man shaped two legged Pirata, far heavier than seen on Taris before, a huge monster, although no real threat to a serious heavy meka, but to the little Viper and its one medium range energy cannon, more than a match. The bandit machine drew closer, metal legs pumping relentlessly, and Manning looked again at the smoking ruin of their left engine access cover, bitterly regretting the lost speed it represented. At least the other convoy guards had left their dents and holes in the Pirata, before they died. Lucky bums.
“Can you keep this thing straight?” he yelled into the wind.
“Can you shoot that thing?” the driver screamed back.
“Give me a shot, and I’ll fragging SHOW you!”
Thirty years of dodging bullets on twelve planets to die here, under some alien built machine? Naj, ain’t happening!
Manning pushed his goggles tight against the Eagle Eye targeting computer, hoping desperately its incredibly limited warrantee hadn’t run out, and twisted the ranging tables into view. The looming Pirata fired again; a flight of missiles blasted an outcropping of dun colored rock to ruin to his left - missed again. Life was not going to stay this lucky for long.
“Stand STILL, you rampaging three legged turtle turd!”, and Manning fired, a hissing beam of pure energy from the Viper’s turret scored a searing line across the Pirata’s left side armor, and precisely through a hole made by a dead companion. Manning was rewarded with the sight of a large billow of black smoke from deep within the mechanical monsters’ innards, and the bandit meka immediately began to fall behind.
“You got his main engine! Way to go man!” whooped the semi- hysterical driver.
“We got about thirty seconds before we can pull out of his range, so drive like the Lords of Gallager are on our tail at tax time!”
The driver pulled the red emergency handle for overdrive, and the shrieking fans howled to an even higher pitch. The Viper pulled away from its’ crippled, tormentor, which slowed silently in the darkening sands, spewing smoke and fluids from its shattered plates.
As the driver whooped and hollered his glee at mere survival, Manning quietly plugged the holes in the turret glass, using the bits and pieces of the shattered targeting computer, cemented with the blood drying on his scalp. Lifetime warrantees are relative, it seems…
“Manning? Hey, WLF to Manning, snap out of it.”
The warrior shook his head, wool gathering was bad thing to do when talking to the boss. Ouch, shaking the head while hurting isn’t too bright, either.
“Sorry, boss, too hung over to think straight.”
“I am sure of it. By the way, I already reversed the charges for this call to the faction account, wouldn’t want to stop you from tying it on again tonight. I know how you get.”
“Gee thanks, what a pal. Now, oh great and powerful Oz, what did you drag me from merciful sleep for this time? I am still several days out of Tianwarz space.”
“I know. There’s a new faction member who boarded at Earth, a guy called Sliver. Background is, of course, non existent. He is about five Earth feet tall, blonde, blue eyed, and listed sixteen Earth years old. Real ice killer at combat hockey, too, apparently. Find him before Stealth Recon or Contra Elite try to hire him away. His test results are near the top of the heap. He’s for leadership, not crew.”
Well, that ruled out the pudgy guy who was buying last night, or did he end up buying later? Oooh, thinking hurts, dammit.
“This Silver kid, he got bonused already?”
“His account was credited, and he signed at Earth Station yesterday to our factor there, that little weasel Danzigger. They rescinded the Reformed Parental Rights Act again, so nobody stood up, this time.”
Good, he hated it when crying parents followed their little lost darlings across the stars, only to find out what twisted psychos they’d become. Snicker.
“No personal weapons but a small survival knife. Outfit him from that walking arsenal you call a warbag. I’ll recoup you later”
Yeah, at a profit, too.
A gut wrenching feeling told him to end the call.
“Sure, Warfe, I’ll go look for this Sliver. Later, right after I puke.”
And sure enough, Manning followed word with deed, splashing barely used beer and popcorn bits across the camera pickup. At least, he thought through his misery, he could hear his boss choking back his own vomit as he cut the connection…oh, ouch, laughter hurts, too.
0700, shipboard. Good time to be sleeping off a hangover, especially a hangover that seemed to be boasting of the men it had killed before.
But Manning was up, fully dressed, with every med he could find crammed into his aching system. His beard was neatly trimmed, and hair combed, and the formal black and gold WLF combat jacket rode on his broad shoulders, the crimson heart of his faction picked out with gold highlights, and the slashed silver and blue oval that denoted his Major’s rank shining on his left shoulder, shield side. His breath, on the other hand, was lethal at ten feet.
Around his waist sagged a heavy gun belt made of the finest Earth leather, with a worn and perfectly functional 8mm coil gun, rail cannon in miniature. The one hundred and seventy five grain slugs it flung by magnetic force alone could punch through fifty millimeters of cold rolled steel, if anyone was so backwards to use something so weak as steel for armor. It could possibly even damage the hull of the rusted relic they were shipping in, so the blinking light of a Captain’s Lockout lock winked from the trigger. For manning, that didn’t matter as the huge handgun was mostly for show, other, as lethal and far more concealable weapons rested in various hiding places in Manning’s leathers and light armor. And none would be pulled to break the Treaty.
Manning waited in the Purser’s office, where the harried little civilian wrested data from a computer older then he was. A small bribe got him this far, normal practice here and on the rim of the Galaxy.
“Yes, I found him, a young man by the name of Jason Silver, on Deck Thirteen, steerage passage.”
The little man smirked, “Steerage, guess he didn’t get much of a hiring bonus, did he?”
Manning smiled, pretended to examine his fingernails, “Have you ever visited the sands of Aldus, my friend? I could arrange a nice, personal tour.”
The Purser paled, and sweat beaded the top of his balding head.
“That won’t be necessary, Major Manning, I assure you.”
“Oh, just offering.”
Manning stretched up to his full height, and smiled down at the little fat official, “Thank you, see ya round.”
As he left the cramped office, he could hear the sound of sweat droplets hitting the man’s paunch, and almost laughed out loud.
Twenty minutes later, he was in no mood for laughing, as the elusive Deck 13 seemed to be on another plane of existence. None of the normal lifts stopped there, and he was forced to use a service lift, over the scandalized glances of regular crew.
The doors wheezed open to a dimly lit corridor, with the oddest sight – graffiti. Spray blazoned logos and signs were everywhere on the unkempt bulkheads and overhead, while trash littered the floor.
He looked back at the lift, and saw the regular call button was caged over with a locked bar, and a barely legible sign that read, “Ship crew only.” Might be a bit hard to get out, he guessed.
Manning shrugged, and pulled a small silver tool from his left pocket, and pressed it against the Captain’s Lockout. At this point the Purser would have fainted, as the Lockout popped of with no more than a slight sigh, not the shipboard alarm it should have raised.
“They really need to update their equipment.” he mused aloud.
The corridor was eerily quiet, and Manning’s combat senses went into overdrive.
Three steps into the gloom, and the silence was shattered.
“Aiigggh!” split the air, as three young men sprang at him from hiding places in the garbage.
They made almost the same sound flying back down the hallway, two helped by fists of solid rock, and one by a lighting speed boot.
The one who landed closest to Manning slid to a stop against the bulkhead, tears welling out of tightly shut eyes from the pain of his crushed abdomen.
Manning walked up to him, and almost gently lifted the boy’s head up.
“Where is Jason Silver?” he asked quietly, even as the boys’ two companions beat a limping, gasping retreat down the passageway.
“Naj, balls you, scum lord!” the teenager said around wheezes.
Manning shook his head, “Not a smart move, little frog.”
He whipped the would-be attacker’s head back into the passageway bulkhead, making the metal ring, and the boys head bounce. He caught the hair on the rebound, and stared into his fluttering eyes.
“Let’s try this again, okay? I need Jason Silver, and you really need to breathe. I will get what I want, will you?”
“Roj, *ULK*, okay!” the kid screamed.
“And?” Manning prodded.
“Him laager in fifteen thirty two.” The kid gasped.
Manning nodded, and dropped the boys head to bounce off a rusted can in the trash. The gutter boys’ eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and he lay perfectly still.
Manning stood, brushed his hands off on his pants, and looked down at his jacket.
“You got spit on my orb. I got that personally from Commander Deylon himself. If you weren’t already out, I’d put you there for that.”
Manning went on combat patrol down the passageway. Five minor confrontations later, with only one concussion, Manning found a dirty door with “1532” barely visible, shut tight.
Knuckles to the door, “Silver, open up. Major Manning from WLF.”
The door swished wide, and Silver looked at Manning, “Hello, Grandpa.”
Silver’s look was of total arrogance, from his carefully coifed blonde hair, to his gleaming truleather boots, and the baggy grey clothes in between. Manning’s’ eyes narrowed, wondering how such a fop had managed to stay alive on this deck. Then he noticed the bloodstained knife in the boys not-quite-hidden right hand, not a little pocket folder, but a true combat blade. His estimation went up one and a half notches. Out of a thousand.
“Gotcher gear? Let’s jet.”
“Why? My playmates and I get along so well.”Silver said with a lilt.
“Kid, I am in need of a drink, and you need to kit up for WLF, so can the bandit garbage, and let’s move out.”
Silver sheathed his knife in an almost nonchalant move, and leaned against the doorpost.
“And how would you make me move if I don’t want to, Grandpa?”
Mannings left hand shot out with a speed a cobra would have admired, and closed on Silver’s neck before the boy’s half formed defensive move materialized.
“I have been in a killing mood since I got up, kid, “ Manning said with the whispered growl of a grizzly bear, “I have killed more men than you have met. I would have to pay Commander Deylon your sign on bonus if I kill you, but so help me, Treaty, I am considering it!”
Silver actually smiled, albeit a bit shakily.
“Now I know who you are. You’re call sign is Armoredman. Play on your name, A. Manning?”
Manning’s’ hand never relaxed.
“Same as Sliver is a play on Silver, same as Commander Warfe is Warfhammer, and Commander Deylon is known on the sands as DEY123. Now, shall we play word games here in this pisshole, or do we get out of here? Or, more importantly, do I leave you here?”, and his grip tightened ever so slightly.
Sweat popped out on Silver’s brow.
“Alight, you have my attention. I have nothing in this cabin, ready to go?” he half squeaked through the pressure on his throat.
Manning stepped back, and waved down the gloomy passageway, “Shall we?”
“This is called a Simulator Room, the one reason all the factions love flying this old rust bucket. In here we can replicate the control rooms of any meka, and whatever you might face.”
Silver looked around in mild distaste at the large echoingly empty compartment, the walls and overhead covered with silver facts.
“This thing creates holograms of mekas?”
“Hologra…what crap do they teach you kids nowadays? This manipulates molecules in the air to create solid temporary interactive forms. They don’t last long, but can react and interact with normal things like people and nervsuits through that control console. Holograms are nothing more than laser light, great at a party, but useless here. We’ll create the meka cockpit, and you will learn how to use it. We have about ten days to get you up to level.”
“Ten? I thought we’d be there in two?”
Manning ginned evilly, “I know the captain of this turd bucket, and he ALWAYS skirts the Welsomey System, something about gambling debts. Somehow there is always an ion storm in the way, and we just casually divert.”
Silver half smiled, looked around the room uncertainly, and asked, “Well, do we get started?”
“With you in your skin? Crap a duck, kid, if you can write a sonnet while riding a unicycle on a log shooting through rapids, one handed, then you can pilot a meka without a suit, but if you aren’t quite that, ‘talented’, you will need the nervesuit.”
Manning pulled a silver suit out of a battered blue bag on the deck next to him.
“Now strip to whatever you use for underwear, and get this thing on. The nerve suit turns your meka into an extension of you, your movements, muscle twitches, subvocal commands, all become part of the battle.”
Silver picked up the suit with a very strange, almost fearful look.
“Is, there a place, I can change?”
Manning shrugged, “Shy guy, OK, there’s a closet over there.”
Silver closed the door behind him.
Manning began emptying the bag, and swore a particularly sulphurus oath.
“Forgot the helmet hookups!”
He grabbed the leads in his hand, stepped to the closet, and opened the door.
“Hey, kid you gotta put these….”
The slender young woman made no attempt to cover her small breasts, as Manning’s speech sputtered into silence. Silver cocked her head to one side, and said quietly, “Please wait outside”, with all the dignity she could muster. Manning merely nodded and closed the door.
A few minutes later, and Silver walked out the door fully suited, the helmet leads Manning had dropped in one hand. She stopped, and looked at him with absolutely no expression on her face.
Manning’s face began to cloud over.
“Kid, I don’t care what you call yourself, what you do on your own time, or how you get your jollies, but rule number one is TRUST! We work together on the surface, and if your crew doesn’t trust you, they might just leave your little ass down there! Lying to people about basic facts is a great fragging way to destroy trust right away.”
He closed his eyes, and grabbed hold of his graying beard.
“OK, I am willing to bet your name isn’t Jason.”
She looked at the floor, and in that musical voice – how had he mistaken that for a man?
“My name is Jessica Alicia Silverline.”
“Oh, great futtering Buddha, no relation to the Sol system asteroid megamining guy Alac Silverline?”
“My uncle. He would never have let me leave, so I used some money to change things on my background, and here I am.”
Manning shook his head.
“Kid, we have some women already kicking ass in Tianwarz. Rose Thorn is one hell of a fighter, so is that girl who goes by Pounce, so you don’t need to keep in drag. If you want to stay, great, we’ll train you, keep you, and hide you. We’re a lot like the old French Foreign Legion, that way. Old Alac can’t get you in Tianwarz.”
Jessica nodded, and asked, “So, now can we get started?”
Yeah, but we have to get those helmet leads snapped in right, there’s a trick here….”
Jessica swung the command columns in a frantic maneuver, trying by sheer force of will to move the Viper to the right, away from the looming Gatlinger assault meka.
“Damn, no target lock, no speed, how do I get out of this?” she screamed into the dark cockpit, hellishly lit by emergency lights only.
Mannings’ disembodied voice chuckled evilly, “You don’t.”
The Viper rocked with the explosions of 75 millimeter shells tearing up the landscape, as the Gatlingers’ namesake arm mounted main cannons fired, sending sprays of rock into the air, and then pieces of the doomed hovertank. Jessica fought the bucking beast, trying desperately to bring any control to bear, when the display broke into shreds, leaving her seated on a plain chair in a silver faceted room, sweat pouring off her face, dampening the nervesuit, gasping for breath from a death that was almost too real.
“Damn you, you did that deliberately!”
Manning stood up from his console, and said with no humor in his voice, “Yes, you have to know what it’s like right from the get go. I have had good recruits walk out right here, because that Gat had them dead to rights, and they couldn’t handle it. If you can handle that losing is a possibility, then you can go forward.”
Manning manipulated a control, and a precise half Viper Cockpit formed next to Silver’s chair.
“First things first, let me introduce you to your new best friend. This is the standard SUZ 130 communications console, with the sensor suite we all use, complete with EMP emitters for punching through bad storms.”
Jessica looked at the console he was pointing at, a mass of computer generated accessors and manipulators, and shrugged.
“And, this baby can do all kinds of oddball things, once you figure out how to make it tweet, cause the bad guy to drop some shields, lose shields entirely, point out weaknesses, make his engine run half speed, lose targeting on you, create energy barriers around you, shove energy into your shield recharge, all kinds of interesting things we figured out down here.”
Manning shook his head, “That’s the bitch of it, everyone finds their own way to make Suzy sing, and when you stroke Suzy right, she can win the battle for you. The longer you play with her, the more you learn what to do.”
Alright, back in the Viper, let’s do a quick test run.”
The cockpit closed in on Jessicas’ apprehensive face.
The screen cleared, and the viewport showed tan sand dunes under a blazing white sky.
“Welcome to Wulf.”
She started, “Wulf’s a planet in the War Worlds, isn’t it?”
“Nope, it’s not, not anymore. Wulf is a computer generated training construct all the factions use. We even battle each other in here, no winners, no losers, sometimes just fighting for fun. We can access only the base data from here, but when we get in system, you’ll be able to meet with other faction members in here. Usually there aren't any bandit units here, but for you, we supply some. The real Wulf is an asteroid belt of absolutely no use to us, lost when Captain Tianwarz found this fraggin place. Now, say hello to an old friend…”
Jessica groaned as the Gatlinger heaved its way above the dunes, “Damn you!”
“Now, let’s learn how to run, shall we?”
Jessica entered the training room slowly, in disbelief. The usual silver faceted room had been converted into something straight out of Imperial Japan of the 14th century, complete with wooden floors, and Manning standing in a blue and white dragon kimono, in the middle of the dojo. Thrust through his sash of silver was two Japanese styled swords, one short, one long. Nowhere was there a meka, nervesuit, or any other modern technology present.
“Ok, I give up.”
Manning bowed, “On Tianwarz, most weaponry is proscribed for use on board battle stations, by Treaty. So, we use ancient weapons for duels, which is, of course, completely legal there. As a certified member of Faction WLF, you can and will be called out for duels both on and off the station. If called on board station, you will need some passing familiarity with a blade, pole arm, or some such.”
Jessica unexpectedly grinned, and bowed to Manning, “Doma arigato, Manning san. Question, the weapons we use here are constructs, correct?”
“Yes, tell the computer what you would like, if you have ever used anything beside that hunting pig sticker I found you with.”
Jessica grinned even bigger, and whispered to the empty air. Shimmers of light coalesced into two wicked poniards; 18 inch polished steel triangle blades gleaming in the flickering light of the rice paper lanterns.
“My father told me once I had to learn to fight, if my bodyguards were taken down. I chose something a little lighter than he wanted.”
Manning bowed again, waved here to a section of floor. When she stopped, he drew his katana, and moved to Open on Eight Sides.
“You may begin."
Jessica was standing/was moving at near light speed under Manning’s guard to strike, but Manning was no longer there, twisting in a graceful slide that left Jessica stretched out into empty air, and katana slicing to the back of her neck – to ring off the second poniard, gracefully twisting his blade to a harmless arc.
Manning had time to raise one eyebrow in appreciation, and then the fight took his full attention. Steel rang on steel, sweat flowed and sprayed, and the lanterns swayed in air displaced by rushing bodies and slicing blades. They moved back and forth over the rough wooden floor, locked in a deadly dance.
Abruptly, Manning stepped back, and said with a gasp, “Enough.”
Jessica disengaged, bowed, and cocked her head to one side. “Yes?”
“There is nothing I can teach you here, that is obvious. My compliments to your instructors, you are excellent with those poniards. Do you have an actual set?”
Jessica grimaced. “Not here, on Earth, somewhere.”
“I’ll have a set waiting for you on the station.”
She looked stunned, and surrounded by Ancient Japan, bowed, “Domo, Manning sama.”
Manning inclined his head, and said, “It is nothing. Commander Warfe stated you were to be outfitted. Do you have a pistol?”
“I will get you one, and leather. There is a firing range on board the station.”
“I thought you just said modern weapons were proscribed on board?”
Manning grinned, “Yep, but we keep in form, just in case someone does want to break the treaty. Handguns may not be much use on the surface, but I never drop without one. There has been more than once that a good solid sidearm spelled the difference between life and death.”
“Last is a formality. You have demonstrated your skills in this simulator over the past many days, and have graduated to advanced mekas, in simulator. You have passed all tests as placed before you, and are in full compliance with WLF policies and procedures. You were bonused in under the combat name of Sliver. A sliver is an insignificant piece of wood, an irritation, an annoyance. You have demonstrated you are definitely not insignificant, but I hope you are severe annoyance to our enemies. I hereby change your combat name to one that better suits you. Henceforth, you are known as Dagger.”
Jessica bowed again, with a smile that threatened to slip into a full blown wicked grin.
“You, girl, are IN.”
The ancient freighter moaned into normal space outside the Tianwarz boundaries, and shuddered to a relative stop in the deep blackness.
Jessica Silverline, outfitted in a black and gold jumpsuit marked with the WLF crimson heart, and a small gold orb on her left shoulder denoting her rank as a WLF lieutenant, waited nervously in the main lounge, her one small bag on the floor by her booted feet. On her side, a finely tooled gun belt and holster hung, empty. Manning stood next to her, once again decked out in his formal uniform, huge warbag hanging on one shoulder, rail gun holstered to his right, and a bored expression on his face.
Jessica turned to him, “Why here, so far away?”
“Treaty. Only ships belonging to the System Administrator may enter Tianwarz space. Anything else will be hunted down and destroyed, and the Monolith has done that more than once.”
“Leviathan class dreadnaught, last one in space. Her crew are Warrantors, the System Administrators force, loyal only to him and the Treaty. They will kill out of hand anyone threatening it.”
She pointed out the view port at an approaching ship, “Is that it?”
Manning laughed out loud, “Great Ore, no! That’s a Drop Ship! They are the back bone in this system, they move everything. Drop Ships are named after famous battles on Old Earth, and that one’s the Gettysburg, one of my favorites. Good crew.”
Manning looked over at her, “Grab your bag, because as soon as she docks, we’re off this tub, and in Tianwarz legal domain. From here we go to the station, about an hour on normal drive.”
The Drop Ship docked with little formality, and the freighter’s crew watched the departing War Worlders shuffle off with no small relief. The rag tag rabble crowded aboard the hulking drop ship, some newcomers amazed at the huge empty spaces inside the hull.
“Morons," fumed Manning, “Where did they think we put the mekas, on the hull?”
Manning pulled Jessica up a ladder to a small observation deck near the upper spine of the tubby vessel.
“Senior staff go here, and I billeted you with me, to save time and hassle. Now, we are inside Tainwarz space, so here is your first gift from WLF."
He reached in his warbag, and withdrew a flat black pistol, slender and deadly looking.
“It’s unloaded now...” and his voice trailed off as Jessica quickly and expertly checked the sidearm, made it safe, and holstered it, a perfect fit, of course, “...but you already figured that out, I see. Nice, they taught you small arms too, I see.”
“Yes, but I am unfamiliar with the specifics on this one, a metallic slug thrower, but what make?”
“It’s a copy of an ancient pistol from Old Earth, called a CZ PCR, made in a country that was called the Czech Republic. This one is made with modern alloys and updated ammunition. Popular design to last this long. It’s yours. Here’s two spare magazines, and oh, your ID.”
Manning handed over a flat card with Jessica's picture on it, the WLF logo, and her physical data.
She looked at him, “And when did you get my picture?”
He grinned, “Someday you’ll see. Show that when we dock at the station. We’ll stop at a few others before ours, so you’ll see some of the system.”
They moved to the observation viewport, and she stared at the stars.
“Of all places I never expected to be, this is it.”
“And of all places your uncle won’t look for you, this is it,” he remarked back.
She smiled up at him, “Yes, and thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, it’s almost time for you to start earning that paycheck you already got.”
He snapped his fingers.
“I almost forgot, speaking of time, it’s almost time for the annual Faction Ball on Armageddon.”
Manning laughed, “Armageddon is the System Administrators asteroid. No battle station for him! Armageddon was moved into position after the Treaty was signed, the battle stations came later. Armageddon is where Monolith lives. Every Tianwarz year the System Administrator hosts a banquet for faction senior staff and invited guests. Gets out of control every year, but he keeps on doing it. As our newest faction member, you’re invited, otherwise you’d have to be captain rank or higher to get in. It’s a big dress up affair. You can go in your uniform, or in a dress. I can get you one from our tailor shop, if you need one”
“We have a tailor shop?”
“It’s a lonely little old battle station, with no inhabited planets around. We have to have everything right there, or go a loooooong ways to get it. I’d recommend the dress, Frizz would like it.”
She stepped back, and looked quizzically at him, “Who the heck is Frizz?”
“He’s the System Administrator. His real name is very long, and very Russian, like the country on Earth, and nobody can pronounce it right, so he picked up the nickname decades ago. He doesn’t mind, very easy going old guy, as long as you stay on the right side of the Treaty.”
Manning looked out into space, eyes unfocused.
“It’s said he was a junior member of Captain Tianwarz ship.”
“Sacre bleu, that makes him old!”
“Little bit, little bit. Make sure you get your poniards before we go, no projectile or beam side arms allowed there, only Warrantors carry firearms of any kind. Ancient weapons only, and duels are frowned on, but can be called, by Tianwarz law. However, showing up unarmed is also a bad idea, says you’re weak. Nobody wants to look weak, not in front of Frizz.”
Jessica shrugged uncomfortably, “OK.”
The Drop Ship began a stately dance towards small dark spots in the midnight black of space that rapidly grew to great hulking spheres of armored metal, spiked with antennas, missile launchers, energy weapon projectors, and gun mounts, silent behind massive shield generators that distorted the very space around them.
“Those look tough.”
“They are. Every faction has one, some big, some small. Everything we own is inside, including the garage. Your mekas will be in the garage, in a partitioned area set just for you, like everybody else. Some of these things have changed hand over the years, as some factions die out, merge, or are sold off. And rarely, very rarely, some are driven off,” and his face took on a grim set.
Jessica looked up, “Driven off?”
Manning nodded, “A faction convicted of attempting to break the Treaty can be called to the surface of Aldus by Frizz, to defend themselves against the charge by other faction, or factions, only if the charge is supported by his investigation. It's the ancient trial by force. Or, they can leave Tianwarz space in disgrace, to be shot on sight if they return. Anyone actually breaking the treaty is dead on sight, of course, but by that time, everyone will be shooting everyone anyways.”
The Drop Ship floated past a huge battle station, with a giant spinning galaxy symbol picked out on the armored hull in blazing blue lights. Manning gestured to it casually.
“Paranoia Galaxy Force, known as PGF. Good bunch, currently our allies. Stand up good fighters, and honorable.”
He turned slightly, and gestured at another station sliding by, “Phoenix Rising, long time fighters, lots of very, very tough people in that group, but also very honorable, good people. Currently not our allies, but off planet we get along pretty good. They had a heck of a dance over there a few months ago.”
Jessica gaped at him, “A dance?”
Manning looked back at her, “Great Ore, you thing all we do is get drunk and fight? Just because the rest of the galaxy cast us out is no reason to be complete barbarians. Sure, I got pretty fouled up out there, but I don’t touch the stuff in system here, always a chance I am needed on the surface in an emergency. It's available, and gonna be at the Ball, of course. But yeah, we have all kinds of entertainment around here, old style flat screen movie theatres, multi faction events like grav ball, or formal unarmed combat events. Heck, Fifth has a great barbershop quartet going in his spare time!”
“Fifth?” she said faintly, looking completely confused.
Manning smiled, “Good guy, he’s our Cavalry Marshall, the light fast machines, kinda odd, but good guy. Fifth is his combat name he took when he arrived in system years ago, and he never told anybody his real one. No need for it, no worries. Don’t let his head throw you off, though.”
“We think it was an old combat injury, half his skull and his left eye are cyborg replacements, rad looking.”
Jessica looked out the viewport at an approaching battle station, feeling very small, very vulnerable, and very unsure of herself in this new and frightening place. Manning noticed her expression and thumped her lightly on the shoulder.
“Relax, kid, you’ll do fine.”
“By the way, before you can go to the Ball, you have to do one drop, that’s the rules, no combat virgins on Armageddon”
Jessica smiled tentatively, and said, “Well, when do we go?”
“As soon as we get you settled in, no sooner”
The Drop Ship sidled closer to one battle station, and Jessica saw the giant crimson heart in red and blue lights on the dark hull. Manning stretched his shoulders back, and picked up his warbag.
“Get your gear, Lieutenant, time to go home.”
Disembarking had as little formality as showing her new ID to a bored guard in full assault armor at the bottom of the docking tube. Entering the cavernous gray painted battle station receiving bay caused her to reflexively clap her hands over her ears at the cacophony of sound, and a tap on her shoulder showed her Manning pulling yet another item out of the almost magical warbag – hearing protection. She slipped the muffs on, and he adjusted a control on one side. Suddenly all the noise was filtered out, and his normal speaking voice came through as clear as a quiet room.
“Noisy, isn’t it? I never get quite used to it, sorry about the ears, I actually forgot. Something about repressing bad memories.”
Manning gestured around, at once encompassing the busy repair section, welders and torches flaring in the brightly lit bay, scurrying over the draped hulking forms that surely must be various combat mekas. Jessica squinted at the small figures, and realized with a shock that the repair center alone must be hundreds of meters across.
"You break it, they fix it, and never ever let you forget it."
Manning gestured to the other side, where mobile partitions cut across the huge space, all with locking barn style doors.
“That’s the garage. When you get your first issue assigned, the garage guys will set you up a spot. Even with our current membership, we still have plenty of space in the garage.”
She looked up at him, “What happens when we run out of space?”
He chuckled, “The newbies will be parking theirs outside on the hull.”
She smiled nervously, and followed him through the bedlam of people, machines, and machinery, towards a double door set in the massive far bulkhead, marked ‘Level One’.
The doors slid open silently, though Jessica couldn’t be sure with the noise canceling earmuffs on, and admitted them to a far smaller white painted corridor. The doors slid shut, and Manning tapped her hearing protection. She slid them off with relief, and handed them back to him. They disappeared once again into the warbag.
“Ok, now what?”
“You meet and greet a few important people, we get you billeted, you get your meka issue, get checked out on it, then we set you up for a drop. Why?”
She smiled weakly, “Because I really gotta pee….”
With a slow grin, he pointed to the left, and a door marked with the ancient but still universal sign of a stick figure woman.
Jessica emerged from the restroom in some relief, not just physical, as the room had had absolutely nothing unusual or different from any other facility, and that slight sense of familiarity gave her a little bearing. Shoulders back, she stepped up the patiently waiting Manning, and saluted in her best military manner, “Ready to begin, Major”.
He looked down, and smiled, “We use ranks and pay grades, but don’t do much real formal stuff, unless there’s an inquiry or investigation of conduct. But it’s good to keep in practice. “
They stepped down the corridor to a lift, which open and closed quietly behind them.
“Command Deck,” Manning ordered, and with no noise, they felt the lift begin to rise.
“The lifts are programmed to respond to commands from authorized users. It won’t do anything for you yet, but we’ll get you imprinted on the ship mind, known as Doris, soon enough. She’ll take directions to investigate emergencies from anyone, but that’s about it. We also use fall tubes, if you’ve ever used one of those before.”
The lift gently slowed to a halt, and the doors slid open, revealing a pleasant area much like any office building on Earth, complete with cubicles and reception areas, and a pleasantly dressed secretary, whose professional smile burst into a huge grin and shout when she saw the doors open.
“Major Manning, welcome back! Hey, everybody, the Major’s back!”
Heads turned, and conversations died, as people looked towards the commotion, grins grew, and feet moved as they congregated to greet their missing faction mate. Jessica tried vainly to melt backwards into the battlesteel bulkhead as the flood of people came to a halt in front of them.
“Hey, old man…”
“Didja get my message on that wine in France…”
“You never call when you’re on vacation…”
“ Got arrested again, eh, old timer...”
“And who is this little flower?”
That last came from a man dressed in a uniform completely unlike any other she had seen. He was slightly built, and judging by the gray in his Van Dyke beard, not too few years younger than Manning. His gray and white trimmed severely tailored uniform was totally unfamiliar, with the exception of the WLF crimson heart on one shoulder. His voice echoed with an accent from another era, it seemed.
Manning shooed the well wishers back with some neutral comments about updating everyone later, and pulled Jessica up closer to the smiling gray man in front of them.
“Lieutenant Jessica Silverline, meet Kommander Ulrich Von Baderhausen, currently on loan from His Imperial Majesty Roger the Third’s First Imperial Shock Army, on New Weisbaden, Empire of Man. Ulrich came here to study meka use in small unit combat, and ended up sticking around for a while to become a combat mining expert. Combat name, very unimaginatively, Ulrich.”
Jessica almost giggled, got a hold of herself, and rendered a military styled salute. Baderhausen came to a ramrod straight attention, and returned her salute with laser like precision.
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Silverline, and welcome to WLF. I can say my time here has taught me many things I would never have learned on New Weisbaden.”
He glanced at Manning.
“Including never ever play poker with this man.”
Jessica lost control, and giggled. Manning put a theatrical look of total innocence on his face, which failed miserably
“Moi?” he cried in mock innocence.
Baderhausen resignedly signed and smiled, turned to Jessica, and tipped his head in a very Prussian manner, and said almost formally, “Very nice meeting you, Lieutenant, perhaps you would like to learn of combat mining sometime? It is the reason we are here, yes, Major?”
“Ja, Herr Baderhausen,” Manning replied with a long suffering glance at the ceiling.
Baderhausen came to attention again, and saluted, “I must be off to see my new shipment of mining gear, should have come in on the Gettysburg as well as you two. Welcome again, and I hope you stay.”
And with that, he preformed a precise right face, and set off at a military march.
Manning watched him go, and commented, “Don’t let him fool you, he has a great military mind, and a one heck of a twisted sense of humor. Whatever you do, don’t let him talk you into watching his collection of old movies; he’s got groaners in there from the dark ages. ”
A voice called out across the reception area, “Major, a moment of your time, maybe?”
Manning grasped Jessicas' elbow lightly and gently propelled her across the deep padded carpeting toward the speaker, a trim muscular young man in a plain WLF black and silver uniform. Jessica came to a halt in front of him, seeing short blonde hair and a very square jaw, a silver diamond on his left shoulder, silver rope on his left shoulder and a name plate that simply said Warfe.
Manning rendered a formal salute, the first she had seen him give.
“Commander Warfe, I brought the new recruit. I uploaded all her scores and test results from the trip, and forwarded my official recommendations.”
Warfe waved off the formality, and looked intently at Silver.
“I will, of course, concur with your recommendations, old friend, but let me meet the new Lieutenant. Silverline, I am Commander Warfe, number two for WLF. Commander Deylon is unavailable right now, but will meet with you at a later date. Your cabin has been assigned, and rather unsurprisingly, Manning is assigned as your Field Training Officer. The stations’ AI will answer any questions you have about this station, the mekas, and Tianwarz in general. You’ve been checked out up to advanced mekas in simulator, which used to not mean anything, but certainly does now. We have a meka waiting for you in garage 37A. Major, she’s all yours.”
And with that, the intent young man vanished into an office. Jessica almost gasped with holding her breath during the entire spiel. Manning grinned again.
“Yeah, he’s like that. Damn good man to have at your back, favors mostly Claymore mekas for combat.”
“Those are the ones you call ‘missile boats’?”
“Yep, that and Katana X variants, for the range on the energy weapons. Good infighter, too. He’ll grow on you, kinda like a fungus”, he added almost musingly.
From deep within the office came, “I heard that!”
Manning gently grasped Jessica's elbow again, and stage whispered, “Let’s get out of here before I really get into trouble.” This of course set Jessica to uncontrollable giggling again, and the two of them went down the corridor towards crew quarters amid amused looks from the office staff.
Jessica grasped her bag strap across her shoulder, and nodded once. The small cabin had all the basics, plus a compact shower, which looked to be, surprisingly, water based, not sonic. Manning stepped back out, and said, “Get situated, comfortable, relax for an hour or two, while I get all checked in myself, and then I’ll introduce you to your meka and command crew.”
She whipped around towards him and asked, “I get a crew?”
“Real meka doesn’t run itself, you need a driver, commander, and in some, gunner, depending on how big, or how it's setup. Remember, we got most of these designs from bandit junkers, and made them fit us, so some have kinda offbeat cockpit designs. Remember how confining you said that Wolfhound cockpit was?”
There ya go, redesigned for us, not a computer, so not much room. Wolverine's even tighter. I’ll see you later. If you need anything, tell Doris to page me. Or ask her for any other information you need. See you in a bit.” And he was gone, the door sliding silently shut.
Jessica dropped her bag, and hugged herself tightly, willing the tears not to come. Too many changes too many people, too much different, all too fast, she said silently to herself.
She lay down on the surprisingly comfortable mattress, and dropped instantly into dreamless sleep.
“Major Manning?” a toneless voice called from Manning’s hand accessor. He glanced at it, and saw it was the stations AI.
“Lieutenant Silverline has fallen asleep, as you predicted. How long shall I let her stay asleep?”
“Until she wakes up naturally, Doris, her whole world just got turned upside down. Get her something to eat when she gets up, show her how to use the facilities, and let me know. I’ll come up then.”
“Very good Major."
Jessica was emerging from the unexpected luxury of a real shower, when the door chime sounded. Furiously toweling dry her short blonde hair, she called, “Just a minute!”
Finally dressed in her uniform, rank badge and ID tag correctly displayed, she opened the door, to find Manning standing there glowering.
“Lieutenant, I am not accustomed to being kept waiting by junior officers.”
She smiled weakly, “Sorry, Major, I was in the shower.”
“Yes, by Doris’ timing, for thirty seven point two eight minutes. Water is not unlimited on a battle station, even if we do mine it from the ice asteroids nearby.”
She stood at attention, “Yes sir.”
He glanced at her ID, and commented, “Another thing, you came in under the fiction of Jason Silver, age fifteen. You are not fifteen Earth years old, are you?”
Jessica shook her head, and a few missed water droplets shook loose, “I am twenty two E years old. It was easier for me to pretend to be an early teen boy.”
Manning shook a finger in her face, “And they’ll be no more of that. Agreed?”
“Good, we have a lot to do, so let’s get started.”
And they did; a whirlwind around the vast battle station, a visit to the uniform shop to be fitted for battle armor and nervesuit, a stop at Personnel to get all her pay and bonus details straightened out, and a swing past the giant simulator room.
“Big sucker, isn’t it, mused Manning. Jessica could do nothing but gape through the view port and nod, seeing what looked like hundreds of battles going on simultaneously inside the massive silver faceted room.
Then it was to the tailor shop, a charming throwback of a tiny store, complete with wizened old man with glasses and a kindly face who clucked as he took her measurements. Manning whispered something in the tailors’ ear, and slipped him a note. Jessica looked askance at him, and he shook his head.
“You’ll see,” was all he’d say.
Down to the lower decks to the armory, where she drew enhanced nine millimeter ammunition for her pistol, and shot one hundred rounds on the range, to which Manning’s only comment was, “Could be better. Schedule more time in here.”
And they were off again.
Through the massive cafeteria deck for a quick breakfast, a tour of the warehouses and gigantic storerooms, followed by a sweep through Command and Control, with its darkened rooms, beeping view screens, and hushed conversations.
Manning pointed to one operator staring intently at three screens at once, and speaking into a microphone intently, “He’s updating out people on the surface of whatever planet with information of what factions have dropped, how many allies and enemies, how long until horizon, weather conditions, and Drop Ship locations. That information can save your life.”
Jessica nodded, confused, but learning.
Another dizzying run of lifts and catwalks lead to a berthing area, where people of all description ran around on unknown errands, sat and read, or snored from open cabin doors. Jessica looked up at Manning.
“You crewmember is here,” he rumbled.
Manning raised his voice, and yelled through the crowded crews’ lounge, “Sergeant Sims, front and center!”
A stocky female figure with graying hair in a neat coif approached, black and gold uniform ablaze with ribbons and commendations. She gave Jessica a quick professional once up and down, and nodded. Apparently Jessica had passed some silent test, though she couldn’t figure out what one.
“Reporting, Major, this is my new boss?”
“This is Lieutenant Silverline, fresh here from Earth. Her scores were three point eight better than Lancer from last T year, by the way. She has qualified on simulator only, and needs some sand time. I need you to work your newbie magic again.”
Sims cocked her head, and peered up at Manning, “This one special, sir?”
To Jessica’s utter amazement, Manning colored slightly, and said quickly, “I am her FTO, so I need the best.”
Sims nodded once, one up, one down, “Absolutely sir, do my best.”
She turned and faced Jessica, and saluted, “Ready when you are, ma’am.”
Jessica shot a bewildered look to Manning, who stood silent with a faintly amused look on his face, and said, “Um, I guess that’s fine, Sergeant.”
Manning said, “Excellent, you two head down to the garage, I’ll meet you there, Sims, do make sure her nervesuit is done up right, she has trouble with helmet leads sometimes.”
Oblivious to the furious look Jessica shot at his retreating back, Manning walked off, whistling a tune outdated five hundred years earlier.
Sims favored Jessica with a pitying look, “El Tee, don’t worry, I’ve worked with lots of new Command staff. You’ll do fine. Now let’s get you kitted up for a Drop.”
The Garage was still a wall of sound, but this time Jessica had her own hearing protection on, and walked calmly through the noise and apparent confusion, to where Manning stood at the entrance to the bays. He stood easy in his own nervesuit and custom battle armor, and looked approvingly at Jessica’s own setup.
“Good, Sims does good work.”
A massive barrel chested man with immensely long arms, stepped out from behind Manning, with a face so ugly Jessica was taken aback, until the hideous features split into a beauteous smile, “Ah, this is the wee lass we’re takin’ to Aldus, Major?”
“Yes, Oscar. Silverline, this is Staff Sergeant Oscar Laird, head of my chief crew, the Brutal Baboons. They are one of the top crews on the whole faction, and I’d bet on them against any other crew in Tianwarz.”
The huge man shook his head with a sad smile, and said, “Och, Major, me and Snuffy are good, but none so good as all that!”
“There’s a reason you are the Guard Captain, Oscar, and it isn’t your good looks!” Manning said with a laugh. Oscar looked down, mock sorrowful.
Last edited by armoredman on Wed May 04, 2011 7:31 am; edited 3 times in total
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Wed May 04, 2011 6:11 am Post subject:
|Jessica looked at both of the, “Guard?”
Oscar shook his shaggy head, “The Major has his own Guard, top crews in the best Battle Axe Two mekas we can lay hands on, with the best weapon and armor systems we can buy, borrow, or salvage. We drop to help other faction members in trouble, to do base defense, the like. We are the best of the best, and they all know it. There’s been sommat who have run just from hearin’ the wee Guard is comin’.”
There was no false pride in the burly mans voice, but the unconscious knowledge of absolute truth.
Jessica stepped forward, and stuck out her hand, “Then I am proud to meet the Captain of the Guard, Staff Sergeant Laird.”
“Please, lass, just Oscar, ranks around here just confuse my puir head. We Baboons try to keep it simple, me and Snuffy over there.”
Jessica then saw a skeletally thin man standing totally motionless beside a column, nervesuit and armor emblazoned with the same howling baboon badge on his chest that Oscar was wearing. The thin man waved quickly and lifelessly, without smiling or speaking.
Oscar saw her look, and noted, “Snuffy is a quiet lad, but the best driver in this part of space, you’ll see. We’re going to be with ye lass, for today’s Drop, per Major’s orders. And I see you brought my favorite beauty along. How are you, darling’?” He bowed dramatically to Sims.
“Stow it, you great ugly ape, I’d sooner bed a Killfox meka than you.”
Oscar beamed all around, and said proudly, “She’s comin’ around, she’s comin’ around, last time it was a Cyclops!”
Jessica stood in front of her first ever combat command, a light and fast Wolverine meka, painted Konu sand blue, a trim and well designed scout meka, with a cockpit reminiscent of a pre spaceflight fighter aircraft,sported twin energy weapon mounted on small ‘wings’ on each side of the sleek armored flanks. Jessica grinned up at the war machine, towering seventy five feet above her head on two bird jointed aerodynamic legs and splayed claw feet, lean, trim, and deadly.
Sims thrust an electronic clipboard in front of here, and said, “Sign here, El Tee, there, now you are the proud new owner of one slightly used Wolverine, ADE class, formerly known as Lady Luck.”
“Her previous owner ran out of luck. We salvaged her on Konu, you see. Disregard any stains on the seats, they are NOT blood.”
“Oh sure, sure…” Jessica said faintly, the magic of the moment lost forever. Then she cocked her head slightly, a small smile playing on her lips.
“Sergeant Sims, do we have time to paint a new name on her?”
Sims raised one battleship gray eyebrow, “Yes, barely, what did you want?”
Jessica looked up at the meka, and said simply, “Dagger.”
“Get aboard, WLF, Agincourt leaves in five minutes!” the scarred man in Warrantor brown and white bellowed through the garage bay. Mekas began stirring from their garage cradles, including the newly rechristened Dagger, with Jessica marveling at Sergeant Sims smooth piloting, hardly a jiggle from the huge legs moving up and down.
“Very nice, Sergeant,” she said formally over the intercom circuit to the woman seated to her left, and Sims replied just a formally, “Thank you, ma’am.”
The mass of huge moving metal coalesced into a line at the docking tube, which ran to the waiting form of the Drop Ship Agincourt, hovering just outside the shield wall. The mekas stepped gingerly into the tube, balancing the artificial gravity of the tube against the switch to the Drop Ships gravity generators. Six WLF mekas trooped on board, to be greeted by the sight of twelve other mekas already ranked in docking cradles along the cargo bay, a few wearing the burning wings of Elite Resistance, a few others with the friendly spinning galaxy PGF logo, to one lonely battered Claymore with the barely visible scuffed markings of the almost defunct Contra Elite faction. Manning led the way in Fast Times, his heavily modified Lightfoot, EMS class, a four footed heavy scout machine followed by the Brutal Baboons in their customary Battle Axe Two, a huge human form assault meka christened Howler, sporting twin heavy ballistic cannons and the now familiar howling baboon logo on its massive left breast plate.
Armored figures in brightly lit docking assist suits waved and directed meka movement into the various cradles. Jessica heard unfamiliar voices over the Common Frequency known as All Chat.
“Oscar, you great tub of lard, they let you out again?”
“Manning, a rematch, eh? Wanna bet Lighting Lady can torch that pisspot you’re driving?”
“Who’s the new guy?”
Mannings voice cut through the chatter, “Alright, gentlemen, ladies, this is Lieutenant Silverline, on her maiden Drop.”
Hoots and laughter cut through the channel,
“I love virgins!”
“Fresh meat for the grinder!’
Fast Times moved slightly in its cradle, and the voices stopped as if cut off by a switch.
“Wait till we get on the sands for that, but some of you might be surprised.”
A timid voice came across the channel, “Armoredman, Contra Elite Fighter Dorman, peace on planet, please?”
Sims cut in a private channel, and leaned conspiratorially close to Jessica, “They call for peace when they know we can blast them into component atoms. CE has been everyone’s enemy for so long, it’s amazing there’s any of them left.”
Manning’s voice came back, sounding resigned, “Peace, Fighter Dorman.”
“Thank you, Armoredman.”
Sims looked over to Jessica, and noted, “As of this time, you go by your call sign, Dagger. You have command once we hit the sands. This is a big force to just go bandit hunting, but you will have fun.”
She tapped the modular controls, “You have the standard energy mounts, with this model the recharge very quickly, range with our upgrade, 400 meters, and you can get Suzy to dump some ergs in there to speed up recharge, too. We also added a Crusader Long Gun, nice longer range ballistic cannon, range 500 meters, and a Burster heavy turret, mounted under the cockpit, range 400 meters, but sometimes we can tag with that one out to almost double that, with luck. That little jewel uses three different energy weapons to make a weird effect, almost pretty to look at, packs some good punch. Top it off with a Kite Medium Shield generator to add half again your shield protection and we have a pretty nice little scout. Armor is kinda thin, so I’ll be using speed to keep from getting tagged too much. Armoredman and The Baboons will work to keep the flow of bandits from getting too much for you, so you really have nothing to worry about. I’ll massage Suzy on my side to get some better controlled speed out of this crate, and we’ll have some fun.”
Sims tapped a small readout in between them, “This is the newest thing, a Combat Analysis System, gives instant feedback from on your performance as a Commander, lets you catch on twice as fast, if you listen to it. Nifty device.”
Sims stretched back, loosened her seat belt, and closed her eyes.
“Thirty five minutes to Aldus Drop, think I’ll grab a nap.”
All Jessica could think was how much she wished she had gone to the bathroom before leaving the station, as the giant sand colored orb that was the Bandit Planet of Aldus, slowly moved closer and closer in the view screen.
“Five minutes to planet fall, Elite Resistance, first drop!”
The voice echoed tinny in Jessica’s ears, and she looked over at Sims.
“All factions are dropped at different locations, prevents any crossover in mining, or instant battles once we hit the surface.”
“But won’t we know where they are?”
Sims shook her head, “Nope. You saw how the crew jacked us into their system when we got in the docking cradle?”
They override our cameras, and blank out the windows when we let off the other factions. Nobody knows where anybody is, unless a faction member or allied member finds them.”
Jessica cocked her head slightly, “And the Drop Ship crew won’t tell you?
Nobody tries to slip them a few credits?”
Sims looked genuinely shocked, “El Tee, don’t even BREATHE that! Warrantors serve the System Administrator, nobody else. Trying to bribe a Warrantor is automatic grounds for getting booted out on the next rust bucket that calls outsystem. If a faction is accused of trying to manipulate Warrantors, the whole faction can get called to Aldus, or run out of system by Monolith, so, not don’t even think that too loud!”
Taken aback, Jessica quickly nodded, and said, “Thank you, Sims, you might have just saved my can.”
Sims, looked over with a slow smile, “Could be the first time of many, so keep in mind I like Weisbaden Dark beer and lemon chiffon pie. “
Jessica giggled, “So noted.”
“Brace for entry!”
The thin atmosphere howled around the tubby Drop Ship as it battered its way through the metal rich clouds, down towards the unseen surface, and Sims and Jessica gripped their seat arms, unaware their faces had matching grimaces.
Sims muttered, “Done this more times than I can count, I always hate going atmo.”
“Sims, coupla quick question.”
"Ah, bless you for taking my mind off the possibility of this thing loosing power, and smearing us like raspberry jam across some bandit spawn point.”
Jessica gulped, “That's a pleasant thought…”
“You were saying, El Tee?”
"When Fast Times moved, he wasn’t about to shoot, in here, was he?”
Sims shook her head again, “Total weapons systems lockout, same as the window thing. He could no more shoot a weapon in here than I could make a buck dancing naked on Asylum’s battle station.”
“Oh, okay. Also, I didn’t see Major Manning’s partner?”
“Rose was already on board Fast Times, she practically lives in that meka.”
Jessica’s mouth went thin.
Sims caught her look, and shook her head, “Don’t go pining over that one, El Tee, the only thing he loves is combat and drinking out system. Get your head straight on that now. His love died 15 years ago, but I won’t tell you any more, not unless he does.”
Jessica said quietly, and completely unconvinced, “Thank you, Sims.”
The shriek of tortured air faded, to be replaced with an odd sensation, until she realized she was feeling the plant’s gravity, not the Drop Ship.
“Yep, we’re a bit lighter. Always nice for one like me.” Sims said.
“Didn’t realize my face gave it away.”
“That it does, and another piece of advice.”
“Don’t play poker. Especially with the Major.”
A thump up through the floor was the only sign of the Drop Ship grounding, and the armored windows abruptly blanked. Orange cockpit emergency lights came on automatically, and the cockpit grew stuffy and crowded instantly.
Clanging came through the armor, and dimly heard thumping told of giant metal monsters moving off the lowered ramp. A few minutes later, the heavy sounds ceased, and a jolt told of a quick liftoff. The windows cleared, and Jessica could see several mekas were gone from the dimly lit bay.
“WLF, next up, three minutes!”
“That’s us girl, do a final systems check.”
Jessica scanned her board, just like the long hours in the freighter’s simulator, and came up green.
“All check good, faults on your side?”
“Here, put this in your pocket.”
Jessica looked over at Sims, who was holding out a small metal cylinder.
“Locator beacon. We have to punch out, your command helmet will close over your head and neck, and give you about fifty E-minutes of breathable air, but this baby will let the Evac Shuttle find us. That’s that little winged thing at the back of the bay, picks up crew only. Faction might be to drop a salvager to get your meka, but don’t count on it.”
“I just got this thing, let’s not talk about losing it.”
“Roger that, El Tee.”
The Drop Ship grounded again, and this time Jessica watched the massive armored ramp grind down, and felt the docking cradle restrictor arms retract. Sims smoothly guided the Wolverine away from the bulkhead, forming up in line behind the four legged Lightfoot, with its long center line mounted cannon and small side mounted energy cannon, and the hulking Howler fell in behind. Calls of good luck and good hunting echoed from the All Chat channel, and Jessica made the Wolverine wave one “wing”.
The three war machines walked down the ramp into the open air, and bright light flooded the cockpit, making Jessica blink reflexively. The Wolverine stepped lightly on the tan desert sands, and Sims said, “Welcome to Aldus, Lieutenant Silverline.”
“Fast Times has the lead.” Manning’s voice cut across the airwaves, and Sims leaned over to tap Jessica’s panel.
“Turn to channel three, that’s faction communications only.”
Manning’s voice came through again, “Mamma bird, Mamma Bird, what do you see?”
Jessica raised one eyebrow. Then the voice of Commander Warfe echoed back, thousands of miles above in the WLF battle station Command and Control center.
“Little lost chicks, you have three ER, one Contra Elite, two Deliverance, and two Marauders on the surface.”
Sims grimaced, “Marauders, scumlords.”
Jessica didn’t comment, taking in the view of the gently rippling sand dunes and occasional fractured rocks.
“Copy, Mamma Bird, any idea on who the Marauders are?”
“Be careful, Armoredman, I think Mauler is down there.”
Jessica looked at Sims, who was smoothly piloting behind the much larger Fast Times, snorted in disgust.
“Mauler! That guys is the most hideous pile of human garbage, no, I can’t call him human, either, sub human piece of trash, runs the Marauders. He’s the little white dot on the top of the chicken turd.”
“I might be missing something, but I get the idea you don’t care much for him.” Jessica said lightly.
Sims shot her a hard glance, “You’ll know what I mean if we run into him. This is a little training drop, and we’re not guarding a convoy or mining team, but if this piece of filth hears Armoredman is down, he’ll come sliming this way as fast as he can. They go waaaay back.”
Jessica swallowed, and said with false brightness, “Well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”
Manning’s voice cut across the speakers as Fast Times slowed down.
“We’re nearing a bandit spawn point, and we should be on their sensors by now. Anything real extreme, Armoredman and the Baboons will handle it. Medium and light mekas are for Dagger. Any Shak show up, we all run for the hills and call for emergency evac, fast. Dagger, you copy?”
Jessica keyed the mike, and said her first official words on Aldus, “Dagger copies.”
“Good, Fast Times has the lead, move at controlled speed only, Howler, do try to keep up.”
The hulking Battle Axe Two swung it’s ponderous legs slowly and deliberately, but Jessica heard the lilting voice of Oscar come across, “Aye, Armoredman, we’ll be doon th’ mine with ye.”
Jessica looked at Sims, “Huh?”
Sims shook her head, “Never mind, you’ll get used to him.”
“Sure I will.”
The three mekas advanced across the blazingly lit sands, as the heavy metallic clouds cut not one whit from the merciless sunlight but actually magnified it to a point of almost painful intensity. Jessica tried to look all directions and at her scanners simultaneously, until Sims laid on hand on her shoulder.
“Peace, El Tee.”
And they came.
From deep within the planets surface, the ancient and senile alien artificial intelligences ‘felt’ the intruders on the surface, and screamed electronic orders, ‘ Find them kill them!’ The massive groaning alien factory machinery, forever cloaked in stygian blackness under the sands, spat three armored vehicles through chutes towards the spawn point, the almost undetectable tunnels that lead to the surface, and towards the only thing the machines understood.
“Hold, I’m getting a reading.”
Manning sounded cautious, and then Sims pointed to a screen with a wolfish look.
Jessica keyed the mike, “Dagger copies, I see a Porcupine, Long Rifle, and a Gatlinger, approximately seventeen hundred meters, relative bearing two forty eight.”
“Copy, correct, Dagger. Howler, move up to me, we have the Gat. Dagger, the Porky and Long Rifle are all yours.”
Jessica whooped, as Sims grinned, “Showtime!”
The Wolverine swung out at full speed, closing the gap towards the blue painted Porcupine, a light assault vehicle with bulbous launcher on its back deck, buoyed on six fat sand tires. The porcupine was only meters distant from the green Long Rifle, a small standard bi pedal meka, sporting an outsized long barrel ballistic cannon in place of a right arm. The bandit Gatlinger assault meka was nowhere to be seen, but in the headiness of the moment, Jessica chose to ignore it, and Sims said nothing. From the corner of her eye, she saw Fast Times move across the dunes with blistering speed at an angle away from them, as Howler trudged along behind.
Sims called, “Weapons range in thirty seconds, up load terrain data, El Tee!”
Jessica’s finger flew, and the meka’s movement became abruptly smooth and controlled, though still flying across the ground at breakneck speed.
The Porcupine became aware of the Wolverine at the same time as the Long Rifle, and swiveled to bring its missile launcher to bear. Three flights of missiles spat out in shrieking flights, one actually exploding on Dagger’s shields, causing six shield circuits to temporarily overload.
“Damn it, I just painted this thing!”
The Wolverine came in weapons range as the Long Rifle’s single shell sailed harmlessly overhead to explode on a distant rocky outcrop.
“Hit him, El Tee!”
Arm mounted energy beams snapped their fat hissing coils across the sands, the Crusader spat an eighty millimeter shell in a flat arc, and the weird tri colored Burster beam smacked into the Porcupines lightly armored side. Flash heated armor ripped away, and the light vehicle exploded violently, scattering smoking bits and pieces on a wide arc.
“Recharge, hot wire this bitch, boss!"
Finger flew again, and the guns thundered again at the Long Rifle, trying vainly to line up a shot on the wildly maneuvering Wolverine.
The Long Rifle’s main gun spun lazily through the air, to land muzzle down in a sand dune, as the decapitated metallic corpse fell to the sands.
“Score two for Dagger!” Jessica screamed joyfully.
Sims leaned over, and patted her shoulder, “No more ‘combat virgin’ for you, boss. Welcome to WLF full time.”
“Thanks. Sims, that was great.”
“But, where is the Gat…?”
A thunderous explosion ripped from the other side of a sand dune, and Fast Times appeared at the top, gun barrels glowing with residual heat.
“Gat scratch fever, one down.”
Jessica leaned back in the command chair, and stretched her arms as far as the tight cockpit would allow.
“Always this easy?”
“Don’t kid yourself, boss, this was way easy, but that’s what you needed.”
Manning’s urgent voice cut through their casual chatter.
“Red on screen, twenty two hundred meters, relative one ninety six!”
Jessica reflexively checked weapons status, saw all weapons armed, charged, and ready, and noted absently Sims was also double checking the engine and propulsion systems.
Jessica tapped on the readouts, and saw the small red framed icon of a Bright Lance, a bi pedal assault meka with twin heavy energy cannons arm mounted, and a small energy weapon mounted centerline.
Sims muttered, “Don’t kid yourself, that’s no more factory stock than this is.”
“Didn’t realize I was thinking out loud.”
The icon moved slowly across the screen, and Jessica scanned through the windows, not seeing it.
Sims breathed out, “Son of a bitch.”
“It’s Mauler. When he comes into view, take a look, that’s Lubricated Goat he’s driving.”
“What a name!”
“Suits him perfectly.”
Manning’s Light Foot meka moved to stand between Dagger and the still unseen enemy meka.
“Stand back, don’t get involved,” Manning called over the radio, “That Bee Ell will rip you apart. If I go down, run like the wind and make the call for Emergency Evac. Drop Ship will respond in three minutes or so. Watch, but don’t come too close. Howler will be backing me up. If Oscar can get that heavy pig over here in time, that is.”
A voice came across the speakers, a voice like rusted metal being pulled slowly across a blackboard.
“Armoredman, I am here. Get over here, you frazzing ducka shine. Hey, Armoredman, remember your wife? I killed her slow!”
Jessica’s mouth dropped open, and Sims said grimly, “Mauler was a Dukaks noble who helped hunt down civilians on Rayzon for fun, fifteen years ago. He swears he killed Manning’s whole family, no one can prove or disprove, but he throws it at him all the time. Mauler was kicked out of the Dukaks Empire for being too revolting for even them.”
Fast Times rotated slightly, and Jessica saw movement over the Light Foots forward deck, as a brightly blue painted metal head heaved above a dune, followed by the rest of the huge assault machine. The LightFoot seemed to quiver, gather itself, and then sprang like an attacking wolf, going for the throat. Missiles shrieked from a concealed launcher from the back deck, and Fast Time’s main cannon belched fire as the two antagonists closed. Sparks flew from the Bright Lance’s shields, but they held easily under the assault. Answering missiles flew back, and whip crack snarls of energy beams sawed at Fast Time’s defenses.
“He’s going for optimal energy range, he has a few surprises in that thing.”
Fast Times closed to within four hundred meters, and blinding pulses of pure white hot energy snapped across the sands, which fused to solid glass under the intolerable heat.
“See? Death Lance and EMP cannon, rips his shields to shreds. Oh, got armor that time.”
Fragments of blue painted armor flew off, and Jessica had a glimpse of an obscene painted cartoon of an agonized goat being foully violated from behind, before one burst erased the crude bestial pornography from the blasted metal.
“Nice shot, always wanted to do that.”
The Bright lance recovered, and shields pulsed back into almost full strength immediately.
“Crap, he used some serious ergs to power burst and surge his shields like that.”
The Bright Lance unleashed it’s own volley, missiles, beams, and shells hammered at Fast Time’s shields, but twisting evasive action led most to waste themselves harmlessly on the ground. As the Lightfoot danced away, a shimmer out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and Sims screamed.
The outlines wavered into shape as the Silent Death meka popped fully into rational space, directly behind Fast Times. A fusillade of energy and shells hammer across the short space, battering the Light Foot almost to its rear knees, shields dangerously wavering thin, as Manning found himself caught between two enemies.
Howler strode above the far dunes finally, and the one hundred millimeter cannons thundered their roar, smashing into the ground near the far lighter Silent Death’s rear.
The cloaker meka began wavering again as it began shifting back irrational, and Jessica screamed.
The Wolverine jumped forward as if kicked towards a goal, weapons raised. Jessica unloaded a full broadside into the shimmering ambushing mekas back, fingers flying as she threw command after command through the Suz 130. Tortured metal erupted in smoke and fire, and two shapes rocketed from the cockpit area, as the Silent Death consumed itself in fire and smoke.
His ally destroyed, his own machine damaged, and his enemy’s reinforcements having arrived, Mauler decided retreat was the order of the day.
“Endit. I will see you again, armored duks shine!”
And the Bright Lance retreated over the dunes at a speed Jessica could hardly believe, given its bulk. She looked over at the smoking remains of her kill, and the two figures standing in their black nervesuits and battle armor looked back. One tiny figure waved, then obscenely grabbed its crotch.
“That little pile of…”
“Easy El Tee,” Sims said, pulling Jessica’s hand away from the firing switches, “Nobody shoots at crew after they eject. They get picked up by the Evac Ship, unless they get killed, or worse.”
“We can see with remote cameras, after the planet cycles to Death Side, bandit machines come out and salvage all the debris left over. Rumors have been heard of live crew members who survived the Death Side for a time actually being salvaged INTO new bandit mekas. Hideous. Never saw it in all my time, but I believe it.”
Jessica shivered as well at the horrifying thought.
Manning’s voice spoke.
“Well done, Dagger, you get full credit for that SD, good shooting, and don’t think I don’t know I owe you. Sheesh, first drop and you already saved my rear, looks like a great start. Drop Ship is on the way. Ulrich is going to try to get a salvager down here to grab that SD before Mauler gets one in, but we’re heading back to the garage. Well done, see you on the station. Howler, we need to talk about speeding that hunk of junk up!”
Jessica hugged herself in her seat, as Sims beamed.
“Now THAT’S the way to do a Drop!” Sims said in a very satisfied voice.
Drop Ship Yorktown hung motionless off the battle stations armored side, as the returning mekas trooped back into the garage. When Fast Times cleared the view in front of Dagger, Jessica saw something she’d not expected – ranks of people in various uniforms smiling, waving, and cheering.
Sims said in a conspiratorial growl, “That’s for you, you know.”
“But why, I figured this was old hat for everyone. Well, everyone but me.”
Sims guided Dagger through the open barn door to their garage, and began the slow process of backing into the docking cradle.
“Yes and no,” she remarked offhandedly, “The bandits are normal, we blow them up to keep them off the miners, or just to blow them up. It’s the faction combat that isn’t so normal, plus you whacked a brand new stealth meka on your first ever drop.”
The older woman paused, and looked intently at Jessica, “You don’t know, do you…”
Sims completed docking, and began shutting down the massive engine, as the meka settled into place.
“That was Mauler’s right hand slime, The Sexecutioner. That stinking bat guano is rumored to be on the run for sex crime convictions on a dozen systems, and quickly got a rep here as one sick twisted pervert. He and Mauler are definitely a pair.”
Jessica undid her seatbelts, as the meka reverted from an almost alive being back to an inert hunk of metal, as the throb of the engine faded to silence.
“Sexecutioner, what a name.”
Sims, reached out and took hold of Jessica’s arm, stopping her before she could open the side hatch.
“Watch yourself off station, Lieutenant. You just humiliated a powerful pervert, who has killed hundreds in duels and outright murder. I think you did a great job, and I wish I could have let you wipe the sand with his face, but Tianwarz rules are here for reasons. He will challenge you to a duel, if he sees you. He won’t ever come here, but if you leave here, be careful, please.”
Jessica reached up and squeezed Sims hand, genuinely touched.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Manning waited in front of the barn door to Dagger’s docking cradle, helmet swinging in one hand, and a grin threatening to crack his bearded face wide open. As Jessica neared him, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist, swinging her into the air one handed as she gasped in surprise.
“Yee hah, DAMN that was good! Well fraggin’ done!”
He set her down, and Jessica could feel her heart hammering in her chest as he stepped back, so the people around come move in, big smiles, shaking hands, full of congratulations and well wishes. She quickly lost track of how many hands she shook, and was almost falling back into the garage bay, when a huge shambling figure moped into view.
“Och, wee lassie, we left ye hangin, and tha’ will be our shame fore’er,“ Oscar said in a mournful voice.
“Nonsense,” Sims said matter of factly, bustling up behind Jessica, “Your machine doesn’t have the speed to keep up with either a Wolverine or a Lightfoot, that’s the facts. You weren’t supposed to keep up, you were our bastion to fall back on, just didn’t work out that way.”
The hangdog expression on Oscars’ hideous mug lightened slightly.
“Do ye mean that, darlin’?”
Sims gave the huge man a sharp look, “When have YOU even known me to say something I didn’t mean, you big ugly ape of a missing link!”
Oscar beamed, “Ach, I know all’s good when she uses such sweet words!”
Sims harrumphed like the firing of a broadside.
Manning took Jessica’s hand, and said softly, “We do have a few things for you, Lieutenant Silverline. Sergeant Sims, if you would do the honors?”
Sims nodded her precise military nod, and accepted two small items from Manning’s hand.
She moved in front of Jessica, and carefully pinned a small gold sunburst to the front of her battle armor.
“The Gold Sunburst, signifying blooded Command Staff!”
She then pinned a similar red enameled sunburst next to it.
“The Crimson Sunburst, for destroying an enemy faction member in fair battle!”
Sims stepped back, and rendered a crisp salute. In shock, Jessica realized the whole bay had gone stiff at attention, hands in rigid salute. She snapped a salute back, slightly tear blinded, and cheers erupted again, while Manning moved in, gently pushing her towards the exit.
“Well done, Jessica, well done,” he said very quietly so only she could hear.
With shock, she realized it was the first time he had called her by her first name.
“There you go, boss, all done.”
Sims looked critically at Jessica’s quarters, cleaned and straightened, in military order.
Jessica looked up from the bed where Sims had plopped her almost an hour ago, and said rebelliously, “I can clean a room, Sims.”
“Yes, boss, you can, but not to regulations. I’ve played this game in three different militaries, so let an old career sergeant take care of you, okay?”
Jessica relented, “Alright, not like I can tell you no.”
Sims smiled beatifically, “See, you’re here for two days, and you’re already trained in the natural order of things. Sergeants run the universe, lieutenants are there to get blamed for things, and majors are just in this galaxy to look handsome leading from the front. Otherwise they couldn’t find the battle.”
Despite herself, Jessica giggled, and clapped a hand over her mouth.
“I hate it when I giggle, sound like a schoolgirl.”
The thought of the stocky, stern and forbidding Sims giggling was enough to send Jessica into another peal of laughter, while Sims threw her hands to the ceiling in mock plea.
“Why me, Ghu, why me?”
Jessica Silverline quickly settled into the daily routine aboard the WLF battle station, escorted to morning lessons in military methodology, WLF policies and procedures, and battle tactics, followed by afternoon training Drops to either the tan dunes of Aldus, or the blue and white grounds of Konu, where she quickly fell in love with the sweeping vistas over the canyons and plateaus of pale blue. Love lasted little when bandits boiled out of spawn points at her, though. She learned the finer points of running mekas at full speed over shifting sands, in Aldus unstable terrain, the ghostly Konu, and frozen far deep orbit planets Hellion and Infernus. Sergeant Sims kept her focused on her goal, while Major Manning became remote, and rarely came around.
A station week passed like a blur.
Jessica sat in her cabin, studying deep space case law, when the entrance chimes sounded at her door.
The panel slid back, and a grinning Manning strode through, with two brown wrapped packages in his arms.
“Good evening, Lieutenant Silverline, do you remember you are to go to the Faction Ball on Armageddon?”
Jessica stood, and said uncertainly, “Yes, sir, I remember, but I don’t know when, and I haven’t gotten around to getting a dress yet.”
Manning gestured for her to back up into the small compartment, and lay the first flat package on her lap table.
“Go ahead, you earned this one.”
Confused, she lifted the surprisingly heavy package, and tore open the paper. A flat wooded box was revealed, with a simple silver lock on the front.
One eyebrow raised, she opened the box, and gasped.
The twin gleaming eighteen inch poniards nestled in a cushion of deep blue crushed velvet, traditional leather wrapped hilts surmounted with highly polished brass skull crusher pommels, side by side with their matching midnight black leather and silver chased scabbards. She ever so gently lifted one out, admiring the perfect blade and balance.
“They’re beautiful…” she said reverently.
“Ought to be, the machine shop really outdid themselves this time. I’ll tell the boys you like them.”
“Like them? They are perfect,” she breathed.
“The set I had on Earth were twenty three hundred year old relics rescued from a smashed castle of royalty,” she said, oblivious to Manning’s startled look, “and they weren’t near as nice as these.”
Carefully hugging the lethal weapon to her chest she turned shining eyes to Manning, and said quietly, “Thank you, Major.”
Manning grinned, and handed her the other package, and announced proudly, “Don’t thank me yet, one more to go!”
Reluctantly she set the poniard back in its case, and opened the second package.
Another gasp rang out, and she stood, letting the dress flow down her front.
Sleeveless and belt less, the soft midnight blue form hugging dress had a golden star stream that began her right shoulder, spiraling around her body ever widening to form a spray of gold across the front of the heavy skirts. The left shoulder was adorned with her rank orb, but this time of pure burnished sterling silver. On each side of the narrow waist, suspended by a hidden belt, small golden chains hung, obviously to connect with the silver chased poniard scabbards that lay next to her. A small ruby heart was worked into one gleaming golden star on the left breast.
She looked up at Manning, eyes bright.
“My uncle never thought I should dress up, said it was pretentious and snobbish, no matter how much money we could flaunt. I never had anything like this, ever.”
She hugged the dress to herself in pure feminine glee, and Manning grinned widely.
“Well, then, I supposed you should try that on, but don’t let anyone see it. Not yet.”
She looked up, expectantly.
“Lieutenant Silverline, Tianwarz Faction WLF requests the honor of your presence at the Faction Ball, to be held this station night on Armageddon Asteroid.”
Manning’s grin got even wider.
“Tonight, you’re meeting Frizz!”
The fourth hour, station time, chimed, and as the last echo faded in the tiny cabin, the entrance chime sounded.
“Enter,” she called, fighting the tremble in her chest.
The door slid its silent way back, and the breath caught in her throat as Manning stepped in, flanked by Commander Warfe and another man she did not recognize. Manning was in a full dress uniform, black trousers with gold stripe tucked into boots of highly polished black leather, formal black and gold WLF jacket fastened to the neck, several unidentifiable awards and medals hanging in crystalline and jeweled splendor. A gold sword belt and hangar was tight around his waist, and instead of his traditional katana, a marmaluke style dress saber hung, only the well worn leather of the hilts giving away that this was indeed a working blade.
Manning wore a formal expression as well, which covered any thought he had, as his eyes took in Jessica.
Her short blonde hair lay to one side in a frozen wave of gold, thin gold and titanium earrings dangled to brush her shoulders, and the star stream surrounding her dress wavered with each breath to throw themselves to the floor at her feet. The scabbards of her poniards, polished to the look of wet onyx, hung steady on the deceptively thing gold anchors chains. A small gold clutch purse accented the ensemble, and she cocked her head expectantly.
"Good evening, Major Manning, Commander Warfe, and…”
Manning had the grace to look embarrassed at being caught woolgathering, and swept his arm to one side, “Lieutenant Silverline, Commander Warfe and Captain Fifth.”
Warfe and Fifth were dressed identically to Manning, but there the resemblance ended. Warfes’ jacket bore the intertwined gold and silver rope of High Command on his left epulet, and the sword he bore was an infantry man’s saber. Warfe also carried a small box of finely worked silvered metal.
Fifth… Jessica had to stop staring.
Fifth was tall and gaunt, his boots accented with gold cavalry spurs, and a cavalyman’s plain saber hung to his left, but all eyes were drawn to his head, where a simple burnished silver shell covered the left side of his head from front to back down to just above his neck. One eye winked red and green from the edge of the shell, and the other winked a pale blue amusement.
“I get it all the time, no worries,” he said in an oddly accented gravel voice.
Jessica blushed furiously as she lowered her eyes.
“Please forgive me, Captain.”
“No worries, child, after thirty years I am quite used to it.”
Manning pointed dramatically to the doorway, “The System Administrator awaits our presence on Armageddon, Lieutenant, let’s not keep him waiting!”
Warfe growled softly to Manning, “Always with the drama with you, always with the drama!”
The three of them went quickly through the lifts and corridors to the garage deck, and as they walked through the bedlam, noise canceling headphones firmly in place, Jessica noticed a freshly painted Silent Death meka being wheeled across the deck in a huge gantry frame.
“Nice,” she said, with a wave towards the ninety five foot tall machine.
“Yes,” answered Commander Warfe in an equally casual voice, “What are you going to name it?”
Jessica ground to an abrupt halt
Warfe grinned, “Lieutenant, you caught it, you keep it. That’s the one you blew off Sexecutioners back on Aldus last week. Ulrich salvaged it, and Hermann in the repair bay got it all put back together. ”
Manning quickly leaned in, and said, “We did steam clean the cockpit, doesn’t smell at all.”
Fifth interjected in his dry rumbling voice, “Unless you want to donate it to the Cavalry…”
Jessica looked back and forth between the three highly amused officers, and laughed out loud.
“Well, then, I’ll think of a name when we get back. Sergeant Sims will get a KICK out of this one.”
The four linked arms, and strode to the docking tube, laughing.
Drop Ship Kursk slowly pulled away from the WLF battle station, her decks not filled with giant war machines, but three layers of temporary decking with chairs and tables firmly fastened down. Gaily clad members of WLF and several other factions mingled and talked, while soft music played on the Drop Ship’s speakers.
Manning pulled Jessica along a familiar route, up to the upper observation deck.
“Warfe and Fifth have seen this hundreds of times, you haven’t.”
Jessica looked at him, then out the port at the stars.
“Wait for it.”
As the Drop Ship moved, she noticed a section of stars slowly blanked out, and the blank spot grew larger and larger. She didn’t notice she was backing up until she bounced off Manning’s chest.
“What is it?” she whispered.
Abruptly they passed through the massive cloak, and the view port was filled with a moonlet, covered in blinking lights and structures, a fairy castle of broad arches of spun steel and ore, drifting space taxis and hovering cylinders above the gleaming metal ground, buildings and machines whose functions she could not even guess at. Massive weapons systems pocked their lethal snouts between crystal structures and onion domed buildings, but almost stealthy, so as not to detract from the stunning visual effect. Then a shark swam into view.
Jessica gasped as she realized what she was looking at, and Manning nodded his head.
“That’s her, Monolith.”
The Leviathan class dreadnaught was the last of the super massive warships, built to reduce planetary fortresses unassisted, and with some assistance, quite capable of destroying an entire system. The ships incredible shark like length was impossible to grasp, until she saw a mote moving along one gleaming armored flank and realized it was a Drop Ship larger than the one she was riding in. Huge turrets and weapons ports spoke of firepower to make the WLF battle station seem as a child’s toy. The monstrous engines were dark and quiet, and light shows played across the hull in welcome, not destruction.
“Sacre bleu…” was all she could manage, and Manning nodded again.
“Of all the things I have wished in my misspent life, the one I wish the most is to never, ever get that huge mother mad at me.”
The Drop Ship moved in line to join others in a stately dance of portly dowagers to enter through a gaping port, the huge armored doors drawn back to allow them access to Armageddon’s interior. Jessica realized she was holding her breath as they were swallowed whole by the moon.
Inside was a smooth man made cavern holding a platform covered in docking cradles and Drop Ships, more than she imagined could be in one place. Orbital attack fighter ranked on one far cavern wall, and everywhere the brown and white of the Warrantors, those who warranted the peace of the Treaty with their very lives.
The Drop Ship came to rest in a cradle, and a docking tube extended out to the hatchway.
Warfe and Fifth came up the stairs.
“Major, Lieutenant, if you don’t mind, the party IS this way, “Warfe called lightly.
“Coming,” they answered together, and the four of them headed down to the exit.
Jessica was simply overwhelmed by sights and sounds. Faction members of all types and sizes were everywhere, uniformed and not. At one place, a giant of a man wearing the formal pre space flight steel armor and broadsword of a knight of the Crusades, and the sideways red cross shield of Knights Templar. He was speaking, face plate raised, to a young intent man in a white uniform bearing the crossed royal blue chest belts of the Paranoia Galaxy Force Auxiliary, and a plain short sword. Here walked a woman barely dressed in gold mail, small mace riding on her pretty haunch, and the burning Phoenix of the mighty Phoenix Rising emblazoned on her chest plate. A cascade of dark hair fell to her waist, and a cross crafted of a single massive diamond adorned her brow.
Warfe nudged Manning.
“I see Rose Thorn is going all out this year. Must be a good year for PR.”
A man cloaked in white and red walked by, his features completely covered in a silk mask and tinted view plate. The crossed swords and red square of Deliverance crested his cloak, and he gave a bow to Warfe, who sketched a salute back.
Manning whispered to Jessica, “Mysterious, from Deli. It’s his name, and how he lives. Weird guy.”
A voice rang out above the babble, from the speakers set meters above the receiving room, “Ladies, gentlemen, faction mates, please move through the main doors to the main hall. The System Administrator bids you welcome to Armageddon!”
Cheers burst out, and the group began its slow movement towards tall silvered doors that swung open slowly and ponderously.
Manning whispered to Jessica, “Everything here is for defense. Those doors are built of solid collapsed Tianwarz ore. They can stop a full broadside from Oscars Bee Ay Two without even showing a dent.”
Jessica whispered back up to him, “I have two questions, where are we going, and when do we eat?”
Manning laughed, the sound lost in the crowd.
“You certainly do fit in, yes you do!”
The groups slowly made their way through the portals, into a stunning silver and white adorned room of tables covered in snowy damask, side tables groaning beneath plates of food and tureens of gravy, and everywhere, gaily uniformed Warrantors served drinks and appetizers. As they passed through the door, Jessica gasped at a strange feeling that passed as quickly as it started.
Last edited by armoredman on Wed May 04, 2011 7:41 am; edited 2 times in total
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Wed May 04, 2011 6:12 am Post subject:
|Manning caught her reaction, and said, “Nerve field, connected to a weapons detector. If you were carrying a projectile, energy, or chemical weapon on you, you would right now be being carried down that hallway by Warrantors to unceremoniously dump you into space. Frizz does NOT like people bringing guns to his parties.”
Jessica swallowed her reaction, and moved with Manning away from the deadly doorway.
One end of the gigantic chamber was a stage, shrouded in the brown and white gold surmounted bars of the Office of System Administrator. As the WLF party settle towards a table, near enough to the food, Jessica decided judiciously, the lights dimmed, and a commanding voice broke out over the hushed crowd. All eyes turned towards the white draped figure now standing on the suddenly brilliantly lit stage.
“Welcome, all of you, welcome to my home! Welcome to Armageddon!”
And cheers rang out amidst thunderous applause.
Jessica craned her neck to see the stage, but lighting and distance told her only a tall man with long white hair was speaking, and with a voice heavily accented from her home world, Earth, but from the other side of that old blue globe.
“Welcome, please, be seated,” the speakers boomed, and the crowd quieted down, chairs scraping in the sudden stillness as the mass of gaily dressed people found seats. Manning held a chair ceremoniously for Jessica, while Warfe and Fifth remained standing in gentlemanly conduct. A server floated by, and whispered for drink orders as everyone sat, and they placed theirs, a soft drink for Manning, white wine for Fifth, a Weisbaden beer for Warfe, and Jessica chose ice water.
“I want to remember this, not get sloshed.”
“Thank you all for coming, “the voice said, and large view screens came to life over the stage, so Jessica could see the man talking. She unconsciously smiled; he looked like her grandfather!
“For years I introduce myself with ‘hello, I am System Administrator’, and add my name, but spend half the night having people ask me, ‘so, how DO you spell that! So, I say now, hello, I am Frizz.”
And the crowd erupted in laughter and applause, as Jessica took a good look. Frizz smiled at all the guests beneath bushy white eyebrows, craggy face glowing, and flowing white hair that reached his shoulders. His simple System Administrators’ formal gown of barred white, brown and gold was circled with a belt of solid gold, and a ceremonial olive tree branch, the universal symbol of peace, thrust through it. Gnarly hands were held wide as he smiled down on those who lived and died on the worlds he was charged to protect.
“So welcome to Armageddon. Some of you never come here before, welcome to you. Some of you been here many times, welcome back. I know this Ball will probably get out of control like last year, but, please, let an old man go to bed first, I hear all about it tomorrow!”
More laughter came, and Warfe guffawed hard.
“That was the one where Mysterious got hammered, whipped out that Saracen sword he carries on Rose Thorn, and she thumped him upside the head with that mace of hers. Lights OUT! Rumor has it he sent her a dozen roses as an apology the next day, but where he got them out here, I don’t know.”
Jessica giggled, and then leaned forward to hear Frizz’s next words.
“So please, have good time, very good band this year, from Faction Sanctuary, thank you, lots of good music. But first, faction leaders please stand.”
Manning leaned over to Warfe, “Where is Commander Deylon?”
Warfe whispered back, “Discipline. We caught two new people pilfering the storage areas, and selling the stuff on the black, and he had to care of it, so he sent me with the Heart. I am his stunt double.”
A rustle in the room as several people stood, including Warfe, and faced Frizz. The rooms overhead lights dimmed to a low glow.
Simple silvered boxes adorned with golden locks opened, and people gasped as brilliant colors played over the darkened room.
The WLF Faction Heart was cut from a single enormous ruby, and lit from within, so ruby rays shot over those nearby. Jessica had to remember to breathe again, seeing the beauty within that plain box.
The PGF double ended galaxy symbol shone a bright pale blue from its box, a single enormous sapphire, likewise the brilliant glowing fire opal Phoenix of Faction Phoenix Rising awed those nearby. Shining gemstones played their gleams over nearby tables all through the room, and Frizz clapped his hands.
“Thank you. Warrantors, if you please?”
A tall young man in a Warrantor formal uniform bent a knee at Warfe’s sides, “Commander, may I take the Heart to the front?” Other Warrantors bent knees at all the faction leader’s tables, boxes closed, and were presented as the room lighting returned to normal.
Manning leaned to Jessica, “The Treaty says factions may only form with permission of the System Administrator, so he came up with a simple jewel identifier for each one formed. Nobody knows where he gets them, or how, but every faction has its jewel. At the ball, they are gathered and verified by Warrantor staff, and then displayed in a locked display case until tomorrow, just in case anyone gets REALLY flattened and might forget theirs. You should see Phoenix Rebirths’ jewel, half ruby, half sapphire, ruby phoenix rising from a sapphire egg. Incredibly beautiful.”
The parade of Warrantors merged into a line going to the stage, where senior Warrantor staff waited with a long table and locking transparent armor display case. Each faction jewel was individually examined by a Warrantor Colonel, a nod given to Frizz, and placed in the long box, carefully, by seniority. Jessica noted proudly that the WLF Heart was only twelfth out of over one hundred.
Frizz opened his arms to the crowd again, and smiled, “All of you, have good time, now go, eat, music in one hour.”
The stage lights dimmed, the floor lights came up, and the Warrantors began allowing guests three at a time up to the stage to view the Jewel case. Jessica also noted a Warrantor in full assault armor and Mark IIA energy rifle stood in plain view at the back of the stage.
“That was as incredible as the last time, never gets old,” Manning breathed.
Fifth nodded, “I remember when someone dropped their Jewel a few years ago and everyone thought it was broken. It didn’t break, but it broke the foot it fell on!”
“I am going for some chow, Frizz puts on a great spread!” Warfe said, and the four began to rise, when a kindly voice cut through the babble of the crowd.
“All this way, and you not introduce me to this new one? Warfe, what’s matter with you, eh?”
Frizz stood next to them, tall and saintly looking, beaming at Jessica.
Jessica caught her breath and completely unsure of herself, managed a respectable curtsey, despite her dress.
Frizz laughed, and bowed deeply.
“I have heard of you, my young flower, Lieutenant Silverline, I have heard of you. Well done on Aldus, you fit in well. I did need to see you, to tell you I received communiqué from Earth about you, from a man named Alac, I believe? You know this name?”
Jessica felt her heart drop and tears rise to her burning eyes, all this for nothing, her uncle was going yank her back to that sterile boring life on Earth, all wasted.
Frizz cocked his head, silver hair flowing like silk, and smiled that beatific smile, and said, “I say, I know nobody by that name. He says he comes himself to take you, and I ask, what fleet will you bring? He thinks Earth law run on Tianwarz. I explain if he shows up as polite guest, I show him around. I also explain he shows up as a demanding, what is word, ‘yagoff’, he can get lifetime tour of Aldus. He was quite upset. I am sorry; I hung up on him.”
Jessica burst into tears and laughter at the same time. Manning tendered a napkin for her eyes, while the other two WLF officers patted her shoulders and said word of encouragement and congratulations.
She faces Frizz, standing straight, and said through her tears, “Thank you sir, more than you can possibly know, thank you.”
Frizz smiled again, and tapped the side of his head, “I know more than many here think I do, but it is all right. Now, go, eat, have fun, and get that Major Manning on the dance floor, he needs it as much as you.”
And with that, Frizz vanished into the crowd, leaving an astonished Jessica and Manning behind, while their friends laughed.
“He has your number, Major!” Warfe gasped out.
Manning growled, “Just because of that time four years ago..”
Fifth cut in, in his gravel voice, “…and she really DID want to dance with you, you kept telling us, over and over, and you so drunk you were using your sword as a cane!”
Jessica began giggling hard as Manning’s face darkened, and he buried his face in his soft drink.
“Now you know why he doesn’t drink in system anymore!” Warfe crowed, which set the two to laughing again.
“I hope nobody is laughing at me?” a soft melodious voice asked.
The three WLF officers turned from the table and bowed in the direction of the young lady standing there. Jessica faced her as well, and stared in frank awe.
Long soft brown hair bound in a complicated bun shone under a tiara crested with tsavorite garnets and emeralds. A brilliant red ball gown complimented her figure, and slung on her right side by a diamond encrusted belt hung a light bearded war axe, its silver polished blade adorned with gold old English writing. Jessica realized with a shock that the letters spelled out a simple word - DIE.
She raised here eyes to find a pretty smiling face looking back at her, devoid of any guile or complicity, a simply friendly face with nothing to hide.
Warfe sketched a salute, as did the others.
“Good evening, Your Highness.”
“Good evening gentlemen, and…” her voice ended on a rising note.
Jessica stepped around the table, and curtseyed again, ‘Lieutenant Silverline, Faction WLF, Your Highness.”
The pretty young woman inclined her head.
“These fellows are too busy gaping to introduce us, as usual. I am the leader of Faction Asylum. Sometimes I am known as The Princess Lady Emerald, but more often, just called Pounce.”
Manning bowed again, and said to Jessica, “Asylum is not an ally, but we rarely if ever face each other on the field. Pounce, er, her Highness is a valued member of Tianwarz, even if she is fond of screaming, ‘DIE’ on Common Channel during combat.”
Emerald laughed, a musical tinkle of crystal, and laid a hand on Manning’s arm, and said, “And who arranged for me to get this lovely axe? I remember a younger man, a WLF Captain, if I remember correctly…maybe I am wrong.”
Manning actually blushed slightly, and Jessica felt an unexpected twinge of jealousy.
“I remember, Pounce, and it fit you all too well.”
Pounce looked up at him with a soft smile, “And you also arranged for me to meet my intended. For that I am eternally grateful. You will be at the wedding, won’t you?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for all the Ore on Konu!”
A loud commotion jarred the moment, and all heads turned towards the double doors.
“I demand to be allowed entrance, I have my precious Jewel!” came a familiar scraping nails voice.
Warfe, Fifth and Manning growled simultaneously, “Mauler!”
A large man in black leather and metal burst forth from the crowd at the door, and into an instant opening, as people flowed away from him in fear. A long dirty blond beard plaited in two forks flowed down to stick in his heavy black leather belt, where a giant two handed vicious pointed war hammer was slung in a black and twisted thong. Long hair blew unbound across his leather clad chest, and flowing black silken cape. Piercing black eyes went laser straight towards Manning. A smile, if such an evil expression could called such, crossed his scarred face.
“Armored duks shine, I see you here of all places, I was hoping you were dead.”
Manning growled in a low menacing tone, “Not until I see you dead first.”
Mauler cocked his head, and asked in tones of tearing rusted metal, “IS that a challenge?”
Warfe placed a hand on Manning’s chest, and said formally, “WLF does not issue challenges in these halls, while under the favor of the System Administrator, whose favor you are also under if you are here, and still yet live!”
“Oh, I am here under favor, yes of course!” Mauler crowed, “Faction Marauder has been left out of this event for some time, but my ‘associate’ begged to come this year. He so wants to meet that pretty lady hiding behind you!”
Jessica felt the heat rise in her face as she began to respond angrily, and speech died as the crowd parted behind Mauler to allow another figure through.
The person was encased in solid black leather from head to booted toe, polished leather adorned with silver and gold skulls, a face mask emblazoned with a broken sword across the brow, full red lips that protruded through the mouth hole, and a long tongue continuously wet them, almost nervously. A long black hand and a half sword hung on its right side, the hilts twisted into a disgusting phallus of leather and steel. But the thing that silenced her was the vileness he thrust before him, a black metal codpiece below his beltline, formed in the shape of an erect penis, over a foot long, malformed and hideous.
Sibilance flowed from the sensuous mouth, “Oh, there you are, my darling, you left so soon, when we last met…didn’t you!” and the thing tittered in obscene glee.
Jessica felt her mouth go dry, and her heart hammer, as she realized who this could only be.
“Sexecutioner, you lost under Tianwarz rules, end of story.” Warfe began.
“Oh, not interested in you, naughty boy, but someday I will teach you what I like, yes I will!” and the obscene titter sounded briefly.
The crowd parted, and Frizz walked through like a biblical prophet.
“What would you do here, Kennah?”
Mauler’s face darkened into fury, “I no longer recognize that name!”
Unperturbed, Frizz folded his arms, and remarked conversationally, “Funny, I remember it well! If you want in, present your Jewel!”
Mauler reached under his cloak to produce a dirty box, and contemptuously flipped open the lid to reveal a shape of a primitive iron nail, cast from a perfect onyx. A Warrantor stepped forward, hesitated before formally bending a knee, and taking the proffered box nervously.
“There, my play pretty, now may I be allowed in!”
Frizz looked at the WLF officers, and shrugged, “By law and custom, I can not bar him, but you need to be good or be tossed out!”
And the Sexecutioner tittered, laser red eyes fixated on Jessica.
“And good it is, as we only came for one thing. You see, you took something of mine, little girl, and I want it back”
Warfe stepped partway in front of Jessica, and said, “You lost it, she took it, get over it.”
“Get over it? Hardly, big studly one, but I will get what I came for.”
A long leather clad arm pointed straight out to Jessica, and the sensuous mouth twisted in naked fury, “By Tianwarz law and custom, I challenge you, Silverline, to a duel, here and now!”
A roar of fury erupted from the gathered crowd, as the word passed back of what was occurring by the entrance. Steel scraped as swords were half drawn and sheathed again, brows darkened, and mouths uttered foul oaths.
Warfe stared at the Sexecutioner, “You cockroach, you dare to do this, here?”
“Pretty boy, someday I will smash your pretty face and drink your pretty blood, but for now, get out of my way.” The mouth said sweetly, the eyes never leaving Jessica’s face.
She struggled to get past Warfe, and was stopped by the iron bar of Manning’s arm.
Manning cocked his head, and said almost conversationally, “She is not dressed for combat, slime, care to name a time and place, and I will act as second.”
The obscenity lost his self control, and the high pitched voice shrieked, “Now, that is the time, here, that is the place! I will not be denied my rights!”
Manning shook his head in deceptive mildness, “No, rights only matter to you when they’re yours, not when they’re somebody else’s. I don’t think so, slime. Crawl back to your hole.”
Mauler crowed in his bass rasp, “Are you AFRAID, little gut pile? Are you afraid your little pretty one might want to leave you to be my good friend’s very good friend, eh? Do you think she remind you of the one you lost, eh? Look at the great Armoredman, trembling in FEAR! Duks shine, you will lose this one, too!”
Manning’s hand clenched into fists of solid iron, and he took a half step forward, and the Sexecutioner twittered his foul giggle.
“Oh, lover, what fun we could have, big strong one!”
Frizz moved forward between the two groups, brow thunderous, transformed from a kindly grandfather to a vision of a medieval god of war.
“Silence that talk in my home! Close that mouth, before I burn it closed!”
The Sexecutioner looked as if to speak, saw the armed Warrantor closing in, and bowed, sweeping one leather gloved hand across the floor.
Frizz turned to Jessica, and said sadly, “He has right, he can do this, I am sorry, but it is safety valve in our society, abused by this, this, thing.”
Jessica opened her mouth to reply, and was cut off by Manning again.
“She has the right to appoint a champion, as she is not prepared nor dressed for battle.”
Frizz pondered very briefly, and nodded, “Yes, this can be done, who steps forward?”
All three WLF officers stepped forward as one, hands on sword hilts, and the Sexecutioner cried, “Not fair, duel one on one, just like the mighty WLF to try to cheat me!”
Frizz’s roar quieted the entire hall, and the only sound in the room was breathing.
“You speak ONCE MORE in my presence, and you will grease the front feet of my Overlord, you understand?!”
Finally cowed, the leather clad obscenity nodded once.
Frizz turned to Warfe, Manning, and Fifth, and said, “Only one may step forward. Major Manning, I think this IS your fight, you will accept?”
Manning trusted himself only to make a single curt nod.
Frizz nodded as well, “Good, then is settled, Warrantors, move the crowd back, prepare area…”
All turned to where Mauler glowered next to the twisted one.
“If she can have champion, then so can he, BY LAW!”
Frizz cocked his head, “He challenged, Kennah, what is your issue!”
Mauler pointed at Manning, “He stands champion to her, then I stand champion to him!”
Warfe whispered to the other two, “We have been set up but good.”
His right eye blinking a malevolent red, Fifth said back, “I will avenge any who fall.”
“As will I.”
Jessica all but stamped her feet as the three made room, and Warfe and Fifth moved her out of the way. She whispered furiously up to Warfe, “Stop this, I can take that scumbag!”
Warfe looked down at her impassioned face, and said, “Peace, this was a setup so these two would duel, and to make us look bad. This has been a long time coming.”
The Warrantors finished peeling the carpets back from the bare polished rock of the moonlet, and dusted a chalk outline in a wide circle.
Frizz clapped his hands, a worried expression on his ancient face.
“Rules have not changed in fifty Tianwarz years, but I explain for all. Combatants must use weapons of the hand, no darts, arrows, blowguns, though weapons may be thrown. A thrown weapon outside the circle is lost. Fight is to first blood or victim steps out of circle.”
Mauler howled, “To the death!”
Frizz turned on him, and said, “You call duel in my house, I set rules. You don’t like it, want to walk in space in your skin, eh?”
Mauler backed down, “Fine, but first blood will be, how you say, messy,” and his features twisted in an evil smile.
A tall blond young man pushed through the crowd, the double ended PGF symbol brilliant on his chest of snow white satin, and emblazoned on his cape. He stood ramrod straight, and pointed one white gloved hand at Mauler.
“Mauler, at this time Paranoia Galaxy Force places a kill on sight on you, and your sidekick, should you survive. I, Sir Stephen, leader of PGF, declare you among the dead.” He said in a soft voice.
Rose Thorn moved next to Sir Stephen, and extended her gold mail clad arm towards Mauler.
“Faction Marauder is kill on sight to Faction Phoenix Rising. We will cast your ashes to the winds, so your souls will rest uneasy for eternity.”
Mauler laughed, “Must we go on with this drivel? Fight now!”
Steel whispered against steel as Manning drew his blade, and he took two steps forward into the ring.
“Now,” he whispered, eyes bright and shining, “Come on, you nightmare!”
Mauler howled in unholy glee, and leapt into the ring, war hammer whipping out under his cloak in a flat deadly arc towards Manning’s head, but Manning was no longer there. Weapons clashed and rang, and the deadly dance began. Mauler flipped the hammer back from each gloved hand, snapping the wicked pointed hilts end towards Manning’s chest, to be slapped aside by a ringing blade. Mannings slipped a point under Maulers guard, only to slide off his chest, scraping the leather from the hidden metal breastplate.
“Foul!” Warfe cried, “He has armor!”
Frizz shrugged, “Was not stipulated at beginning of duel, is of no account now.”
Mauler recovered, gave a mocking half bow to Manning, and began circling, the heavy hammer rotating smoothly around his wrists.
“Manning, you tell them about me, eh? You tell them how you lick my boots in your own hall to spare your family? You tell them about you running in night, chased by my dogs? Dukaks owns your soul!”
Mauler sprang forward, hammer a blur, only to dance back with a howl, clutching his wrist, where a trickle of blood flowed, He stared wild eyed at Manning, who had appeared not to move.
Manning whispered across the circle, “And should I tell them how you were kicked out of Dukaks, your name and honor taken by the Emperor, your family hung as traitors, and you whipped into the desert you made on Rayzon, naked and bleeding? Shall we tell them that, as well? You lose!”
Mauler roared with range, and whipped the hammer towards Manning, and at the height of it’s arc, a small steel dart snapped from the claw face across the space between them, burying itself in Manning’s upper right arm, who staggered back, clutching the injury.
Frizz, Warfe, Fifth, and Jessica cried “FOUL!” simultaneously, and Mauler stepped forward contemptuously, raising the evil black hammer as Manning’s sword slipped from nerveless fingers, weapon held high to cave in the older man’s skull, and the air split and rang, the head of the war hammer vanishing in a blaze of white and blue light. Mauler cried out, and flung the burnt handle away, so that it fell, smoking on the bare rock floor.
The Warrantor in assault armor lowered his energy rifle.
“Sorry, sir, perhaps you didn’t hear the foul call?” he asked politely in the stunned silence.
Frizz stepped forward, and spat, “You disqualified for cheating! Your faction Jewel is forfeit for investigation on your conduct here, and your future is in doubt! Leave my hall!”
Jessica stepped forward, and asked loudly, “His champion is disqualified, and mine lays injured, does this mean our quarrel is not settled?”
Frizz turned to Jessica, his elderly face strained and sad, “I think not, do you wish to push this, little one?”
Jessica looked at where the Sexecutioner simpered and smirked, and said in a matter of fact voice, “Yes.”
Her right arm blurred, and the Sexecutioner shrieked in agony, sinking to his knees, clutching the diamond sharp poniard that transfixed his vile codpiece lengthwise, blood now spilling out of the pierced tip.
“Well, what do you know, there was something in there, I thought it was empty!” she remarked with a gleam in her eye.
Warrantor medical staff appeared seemingly out of nowhere to treat the woulded while Jessica gulped a glass of ice water. They finished cleaning and dressing Manning’s would and turned to the thrashing leather sex toy.
A Warrantor colonel approached Jessica, her poniard, wiped clean and disinfected, in his hand.
“System Administrator, this duel is finished, point to WLF,” he said formally.
Frizz clapped his hands, and smiled, “Now that makes up bad beginning to party!”
Applause and cheers filled the room as the faction members realized the hated Marauders had been thoroughly humiliated, and were being escorted out under Warrantor guard, the Sexecutioner whimpering as he kept both hands on his bandaged member.
Warfe and Fifth looked over at Jessica from where they were assisting Manning to his shaky feet, and she stamped her foot, eyes flashing as she glared at them.
“Blasted over protective MEN!”
The bulk of the WLF battle station grew in the view port of the Drop Ship Normandy, and Manning moved stiffly to stand next to Jessica, his arm bound against his side.
“I owe you an apology, from the depths of my heart. I should not have let hate blind me..”
She placed one small finger against his lips, and said softly, “Peace, it’s over. Heal up so you can teach me more.”
He smiled down at her, and said as softly,” That I will.”
She cocked her head, and asked, “How do I get in touch with Hermann in Repair? He is the one who handles paint jobs, right?” her eyes shone with a wicked gleam.
“Yes, just dial Hermann repair on the accessor, and send him a message. We’ll be on board ship in two hours, why the hurry?”
She tapped out the message, hiding it from his eyes, then smiled mischievously up at him.
Warrant Officer Hermann jerked in his chair as his accessor vibrated furiously against his side, in the din and bedlam of the Repair bay. He checked the message, and his eyes widened. Reflexively he checked the time, and a slow smile spread across his broad face.
“Jules, Basher, fast job you two, need a special paint job on that Silent Death over there, gotta be done in an hour!” he hollered through the chaos. Two young men looked up from their work, nodded, and made their way over to him.
The docking tube was silent and still in the vastness of space while the four WLF made their way back aboard their battle station, Fifth supporting Manning, who was groggy from the pain medication. The docking door held the noise canceling headgear, and they placed it on as the lock cycled.
They began the walk across the massive garage floor, when Warfe stopped abruptly, and stared.
Fifth and Manning staggered to a stop, and turned to what Warfe was starting at, jaw open. Manning struggled to focus, and he asked blearily, “A chicken?”
A painting of a small rooster, with one leg in a cast, adorned the side of the captured Silent Death’s cockpit.
Jessica shrugged, “You said I could name it, right?”
“Yes…” Warfe dragged out..
“There you go. Gentlemen, meet Splinted Cock.”
The next few days resumed her normal schedule of classes and training drops, including one where her badly damaged Wolverine was hoisted aboard the Drop Ship by one bent and twisted leg, her and Sims hanging onto their frayed seatbelts for dear life. When Manning asked about it, Jessica only said, “Oops.”
Two days after the Ball, Manning was trying to assemble a small model in his cabin, becoming quite frustrated with only one working arm, when his door chime sounded.
The door slid back, and Jessica stood in the doorway, in a trim black and gold shipsuit, looking unsure of herself this far up inside Senior Officer’s Country.
Manning smiled broadly, and waved her in.
“Please, Silverline, come in, this model is about to kick my rear end, or end up as so much plastic junk in the recycle bin!”
She stepped in, and eyed the mass of plastic junk suspiciously, “What is it supposed to be?”
Manning looked at the box cover, squinted on eye, and said, “A Juggler meka, or…” and he rotated the cardboard box cover one hundred and eighty degrees, “A tree with a glandular problem, can’t tell.”
Jessica giggled a bit, in spite of herself, and then brought herself under control.
“Just wondering when you’ll be able to return to the surface again, Major.”
Manning tossed the box top over onto his unmade bed, and shrugged, “Whenever this damn thing heals. Mauler stuck me pretty good, and the fast mend is working as well as it can. Doc says maybe another week, maybe not. I did hear you might need a hand down there,” he finished with a mock scowl.
“That’s all you said.”
Manning threw up his good arm, and muttered, “Egad!”
“Dagger is ready to go, even after Hermann tore a strip out of me.” she said mournfully.
Manning wagged his finger, “You earned it, too. Be careful, just because bandits are stupid kill crazy machines doesn’t mean you can treat them without respect. Seen many people go down to bandits doing weird things at weird times. Always watch your six, always watch your recharge.”
“And always watch your manners!”
Manning growled wordlessly, and then became serious again.
“Faction Marauder has been very conspicuous by their absence, not reported on any planet. I’d say about half of their members quit and left the system after the Phoenix Rising and PGF kill on sights were announced. It’s never a good idea to seriously irritate two of the biggest and best funded outfits around. I haven’t caught word, stuck here, about any sightings of Mauler or his perverted buddy, but I think that that sexless scum lord will be in the hospital a longer time than I was.”
Jessica looked at the floor, “I know that was a little over the line, but it did solve the problem.”
“True,” Manning granted, “But if you’d have ‘accidentally’ aimed for his heart, that would have been one less scumbag out there lusting for our blood. And that is the ONLY thing he’ll be lusting for, for some time, thanks to you and that wicked arm of yours. You did get that blade autoclaved, didn’t you?”
“Heated and dipped, don’t want that scum’s blood rusting my steel.”
He stopped, and looked at here until her face began to heat.
“So, why did you stop by?”
She stared at her feet, and said in low tones, “Because I needed to say thank you. Nobody ever stood up for me like that before. Always it was guys who wanted to be noticed by one of the heirs apparent of the Silverline Mining Empire, or trying to make good with my family, or, frankly, get in my pants, but the way you stepped into that ring, you didn’t do it for those reasons, did you,”, and she raised her head to look into his eyes.
Manning shook his head.
She continued, staring directly at him, “You went in there for me and you. You went after that maggot, and I was mad because I wanted to, but you were trying to protect me, just for me.”
Manning said with forced lightness, “You are a faction mate, and a Lieutenant under my training, so of course I had to step up!”
A light slowly died in Jessica’s eyes, and she lowered her head again.
“Of course, Major, thank you. I need to be going, hyper spatial geometry is not my best subject, and I need to study.”
“Of course, Silverline, come by anytime.”
Jessica turned and quickly went out the door.
Manning turned back to his model, and stared into space for some time, before beginning to curse softly under his breath.
Two weeks after the Ball, a gong sounded throughout the battle station, and all work ceased, as heads cocked to hear a quiet voice of dignity from the speakers.
“All faction members of WLF, the Day of Remembrance is upon us. At eighteen hours off duty members will muster by section on the garage deck.”
The gong sounded again, and work resumed, with a muted undertone.
Jessica looked up from her class work, and tapped her neighbor on the arm, an intent young man with glasses askew, the double oval of a First Lieutenant, and the name DARKRIDER II picked out on his black and gold shipsuit.
“Hey, D.R., what is that about?”
“Hey, hum, what? Oh, Jessica, it’s Remembrance Day, where we commemorate those we lost, and why we’re here, that kinda thing. What time did he say, I was concentrating.”
“Jazz. That means we can still snake some chow. Get your dress uniform ready, and meet me down there, we’ll be in the junior officers section. After the ceremony is over, we get two days off, no Drops, no school, just watch standing and eating, ‘turning inward’ last year’s professor tried to call it. I call it a great way to catch up on sleep!”
Jessica looked unsure, but smiled at the boy, anyway, “Sounds interesting, see you there.”
The gong sounded at seventeen forty five station time and the quiet voice announced, “Stand down all station work, with the exceptions of watch stations and power section at full duty. All off duty station personnel muster on the garage deck in full dress uniform in fifteen minutes.”
She stood up from her bunk, and straightened her formal dress jacket, the first time she had worn it. It looked awfully bare compared to some, but she touched the two sunbursts proudly. She had earned them. She stepped out her cabin door to see a stream of formal attired WLF personnel quietly heading for the lifts. A tug at her sleeve, and she whirled, automatically reaching for her poniards, which were nestled in their case back in her cabin.
“Strak down, Jessy, it’s me!”
“Gripes, D.R., you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”
“Radar low, no prob. Let’s Drop to the garage deck.”
And the youth was off, pulling her by one arm through the crowd, over her mild protestations.
On the garage deck, the machinery and vehicles lay dark and quiet, and the noise canceling headphones stayed racked in their places. People murmured and spoke quietly to each other, and Jessica marveled at the acoustics of the place. Almost good enough for a music hall, if the mechanics were not trying to sound like a train crash all day long!
Darkrider pulled her into line with a small group of other junior and middle officers, as the senior officers clustered in front, facing a small raised stage, placed next to the airlock door. At the center of the stage was a gold coffin, surmounted by a framework holding the glowing Faction Heart. Commander Warfe stood stiffly in front of the casket, next to a podium bearing the Heart Seal on its front. Manning and Fifth stood rigidly at each side, bared swords held across their bodies in a guard position, leather and brass gleaming in the dimming light.
Dimming light? Jessica looked up, and the giant overhead floodlights were dimming down, as the crowd grew still. Jessica was astonished to see over a thousand people standing with her quietly in ranks.
A distinguished gentleman stepped out of the shadows behind a dark and quiet Wolfhound meka, and made his way to the podium. His short salt and pepper hair accented the creases deep in his coal black skin. His manner was grave, but his stride was sure and his posture erect. His WLF formal dress jacket bore a blaze of awards and medals, and the solid gold rope at his left epaulet of Faction Command.
Commander Deylon laid his strong hands on both side of the podium, and spoke softly, but every ear heard his words.
“Welcome, to Remembrance. We come here once a Tianwarz year, to remember who we are, and why we are here, and to pay respects to our fallen. And our respect they do deserve.”
He cleared his throat, and went on, “Many of us came here looking for riches in harvesting of the ore, and we found it. Many of us came looking for a way out of a failed life, or a vain one, and we found it. Some of us came here because nobody else would have us, and we craved companionship. And so we found it. We came in, in our ones and twos, in groups and singly, some on the run, some running to something, all not quite sure what we first thought when we saw the awful display of Life Side and Death Side during that first Drop Ship ride in system. But we came anyways.”
Deylon shifted slightly, and gestured over the hushed crowd.
“And here we are, outcasts, unwanted, the unneeded of five empires, gathered here on this deck, as one. We came to this hunk of metal floating in the void, all looking for something, and we found, well, we found ourselves. And it gives me the greatest of honor to look over you, the ones the rest of the worlds spurned, and say, I would rather be here with you, than anywhere else in the galaxies. Faction mates, I am honored to stand here with you today, and every day.”
Deylon looked down at the podium, and Jessica realized she was holding her breath, in awe of this large and gentle man’s intense emotions. D.R. was stock still at her side, completely entranced.
Deylon looked over the crowd again, and spoke, “ And we began our journey as a faction, as a small space in a rented beat up station, and we expanded, and we prospered, and we grew, to be now one of the ones others point to, and say, ‘see, it can be done!’”
He pointed over the crowd, and said in stern tones,” And we live by our code of honor, of justice, of fair play, but above all, honor, courtesy and respect, to the weak and strong. Some have disparaged those notions, and they are no longer here. Some would change our ways, and they are no longer here. And because you support it, and live it, you are here.”
Deylon dropped his arm.
“Mercenaries, they call us outsystem, thugs in mechanical nightmares who fight and die for no more than fleeting glory and gold.”
He paused, and gazed over the crowd.
“And they are partly right. We do get paid, and paid well, with the Ore we harvest, and some people do look at our mekas as walking nightmares…”
Deylon paused, and smiled slightly, “…or off color cartoons…”
A slight titter ran through the crowd, while Jessica felt her face heat and D.R. snickered very softly at her side.
Deylon gestured gently again, and the sound died, “But we don’t have to be here to do this, if all we wanted was money we could have stayed in our home systems and robbed banks! If all we wanted was to kill and wear fancy uniforms, well, there are five empires worth of armies who are always hiring. If we wanted to be known as cave dwelling thugs who murder for money, there are much better places and ways to do, rather than here.”
He paused, and raised a supplicating hand, “So why us, why here? Who do we fight for, if not all these things?”
His hand fell slowly.
“Perhaps for the one thing they don’t understand out there, for each other.”
A ripple of soft agreement sighed through the assembled people.
“You who make this faction great, you Command staff, you crew members, you repair technicians, you supply specialists, you support personnel, you make this work, not for glory or for gold, but because we are, in the final word, a family alone in the stars. Peace and hope to you, my brothers and sisters.”
Deylon stepped away from the podium, and gripped Warfe’s outstretched hand, “Peace and hope, Commander Warfe,“ while Warfe murmured the words back to him.
The crowd moved, as neighbor turned to neighbor, and gripped hands, and hugs, whispering.
D.R. grabbed Jessica in a full hug, and whispered, “Peace and hope, Jessica.”
She hugged him back, and answered softly, “Peace and hope.”
Deylon faced the crowd again, as the quiet voices and movement fell still, and gestured towards the Faction Heart glowing quietly above the golden casket.
“Our Heart rises above the grave, but many of our hearts have gone to the grave. Those who fell in battle to save one another shall never be forgotten, but always remembered, on this day. Sergeant Laird, Sergeant Sims.”
The lights fell completely, until only a single spotlight illuminated a patch of bare deck. Into this patch strode Oscar, dressed in a formal plaid kilt and tartan of Ancient Earth, carrying an odd looking assemblage of a cloth bag and some pipes. He began to blow into the mouthpiece, the bag began to fill, and a mournful sound began to echo through the garage deck. Oscar began to play, and the haunting opening phrases of a song far older than spaceflight began to play. Sergeant Sims stepped into the light, her eyes closed, and with a surprisingly sweet soprano voice, began to sing,
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”
Not a person moved, not a word was spoken, transfixed into place by the ageless tune of mourning, and a tear glistened on more than one cheek in the dark. As the last notes trailed away, the lights rose again, and Deylon stepped back up to the podium.
“Come, and pay your respects.”
The ranks turned as one, and began to file past the golden casket, each person stopping to lay his or her hand briefly on its surface. When Jessica reached it, she touched the metal, and almost jerked away as the metal was warm, almost hot to the touch. When she saw nobody else had apparently noticed, she hid her surprise, and moved along.
When the last person had filed past, past the stock still guardians of Fifth and Manning, Deylon gestured to the crowd.
“Dismissed for two days, station watch only. Thank you all.”
The crowd dispersed, and normal conversation began to fill the air as people walked away.
Jessica looked around, shrugged, and began to head towards the exit, when a hand laid on her shoulder.
“Jessica,” Manning said softly, and she turned into his arms as he hugged her.
“Peace and hope.”
Tears started from her eyes, and greatly daring, she whispered up into his ear, “Peace and hope. You big lug, I think I’m falling in love with you
He hugged her closer, together lost in the milling crowd, two alone surrounded by people, and whispered back, “Now you know why we add hope to peace.”
The second day of the stand down, Jessica found herself on the garage deck, looking at the scarred framework of her Wolverine, silently picking out the marks of her mistakes, when she felt a presence behind her. She turned, apprehensive, and saw Manning leaning against the barn door.
“Weld scars make a machine, don’t they? Shows where you screwed up, where someone else screwed up, and sometimes, where you did everything right, and it still went south.”
She straightened, unsure of herself, after the brief sharing of emotions the day earlier, and said hesitantly, “I guess I’ll learn, and someday my mekas will look like yours.”
Manning straightened up, and laughed, the sound loud in the still and quiet garage.
“Have you ever seen my garage?”
“Then come with me.”
He held out one hand, and she took it, heart pounding.
He led her through the silent and dark sections of the enormous garage deck to a barn door that looked no different than any other, save the painting of the slashed oval of his rank at eye level.
“This is where I park a few things,” he said lightly.
The doors swung back noiselessly on their well oiled hinges, and a few lights quietly murmured on, illuminating the ranks of hulking war machines in a dim glow, standing silently at attention.
He drew her inside the bay, as she stared in awe at the serried ranks of battle mekas. To her left stood twenty equally massive shapes, Battle Axe Twos, marked with both the Crimson Heart, and a solid gold shield painted just below each cockpit.
“The Guard. All ready to go at a moments notice. There’s Howler.”
She noticed the baboon painting on the first gigantic assault meka in the dim light, and smiled.
“He takes good care of it.”
“He’d better,” Manning mock growled, “Or I’ll find a new Captain of the Guard!”
A gentle tug on her hand, and they went in deeper.
“Fast Times you already know.”
Jessica play bowed to the quiet Lightfoot, and said, “Someday I’ll get one of those.”
An odd expression played across the older man’s face and he remarked off handedly, “Yes, someday you will.”
He gestured at a large and fearsome looking black meka, standing in the twilight shadows.
“My Shadow Assassin meka, great cloaked fighter, but no honor in it. I have taken many with it, but it just doesn’t have the, what’s the word, ‘soul’, of a normal fighting machine.”
She looked apprehensively at the strangely built machine, long sensor whips deployed over its horned head, the giant energy cannons in it arms peaceful and quiet.
“There is my first serious meka, my baby.”
Manning gestures to a tall and stately machine, towering above them, huge ballistic cannons where arms would be, and giant sensor spikes projecting like protective wings on either side of its head.
“Sentry, ADM class. Bought it, actually. Made some serious money with it on Aldus. Uncanny shooter, named her Rifleman.”
Jessica turned, and caught her breath at the sight of the gigantic metal form rising from the shadows beyond Rifleman. Fully four meters taller than the massive Battle Axe Twos, the stupendous assault command meka stood silent in the gloom, one hundred and twenty millimeter main guns protruding from the armored chest, and a small painting, incongruously of a dapper Earth butler, standing with one arm holding a silver platter, the other draped with a snowy towel.
She looked back at him in question, and he laughed quietly, “Baxter. He’s a Battle Axe X Class, very expensive hunk of junk, works well with the Guard when I take them down.”
Manning pursed his lips, and continued, “Got three faults in the main communications trunk, can’t seem to isolate the problem, but Hermann swears he’ll get this one back on line soon. Man hasn’t lied to me yet.”
Jessica noted a form in the back corner, swathed in white cloths, the approximate size and shape of a Lightfoot, but subtly different.
“What is that one?”
For the first time, she saw an expression flit across his face that could only be described as fear? No, she must be mistaken, as he shook his head.
“Leave that one be, an aberration, a mistake, something I haven’t had time to deal with properly.”
Jessica recoiled in shock, as she saw the cloth above the hidden meka move.
Manning grabbed her arm, and held her tight, “No fear, nothing in here will hurt you.”
She recovered, and smiled apprehensively up at him.
Manning abruptly walked away, and busied himself brushing dust off of Baxters huge metal foot.
“He was right, you know,” he said lightly.
“Mauler. I did lick his boots in my own hall on Rayzon.”
Fists of iron opened and closed helplessly, and his eyes shut tight against horrible memories.
“They smashed our pathetic defenses in minutes, and marched in, in all their barbaric splendor, those nobles of Dukaks, and demanded we surrender to be slaughtered. Mauler, known as Duke Kennah then, held me down in my own hall while his men raped my wife and daughter, and tortured my son.”
His face strained with the effort of keeping his eyes closed, as memories boiled up.
“He was only eight, my son Richard, he who was to succeed me to the throne of Prefect of Rayzon, we who prided ourselves on our neutrality and peaceful ways, who spurned the weapons of war, proudly proclaiming ourselves to be better than the rest of the Empires because we would not fight. We learned, oh Great One, we LEARNED, how wrong we were.”
Jessica moved forward, and stopped, unsure of herself as Manning slowly began to swing one fist against the unyielding metal of the command mekas foot.
“That man held me there, and told me to lick his boots clean, and he might spare the life of my family, and so help me, I did, I did, choking on the slime and rock, and he laughed. His men took me, strapped my into my own Great Chair, and forced me watch them slaughter my family like hogs. Duke Kennah walked out, leaving me there, surrounded by death, still alive, trapped, and I will never forget him, turning to me, and calling, ‘I keep my promise, you alone of your family shall live. Enjoy your life.’”
Jessica did step forward, and wrapped herself tightly against the man she was sure she loved now, and whispered, “It’s over, all over.”
Manning swung back to face her, and said fiercely, “No, as long as that creature draws breath, it will never be over! I cannot hunt him, I cannot break the trust I have been given here, I cannot abuse my position, my rank, my friends, to give that thing the death he deserves, but must wait for the chance, like I almost had your first day on Aldus. Then I will avenge.”
He looked down at her against his side, and said, softly and sadly, “You know that curse he keeps throwing at me, calling me ‘duks shine’?”
“Don’t torture yourself…”
“Dukaks nobles have a practice," he went on relentlessly, “They take the scalps of their enemies and make boot brushes out of them, to shine their boots with the hair of their vanquished.”
Manning lowered his head, closed his eyes and said through clenched teeth, “Mauler has a boot brush made of the scalp of my son.”
Jessica let herself cry then, her tears streaming down her face as Manning fought against his own sobs, and they clung together in the twilight, facing the dark together.
She looked up at him, her tear streaked face shining, and said softly, but with the whisper of hidden steel in her words, “We will take him down, together, and end the nightmare.”
The morning reveille call woke the WLF station back to normal duties and with the usual grumbles, and men and women went back to work. Well, most of them did.
Jessica arrived at the classroom door, books in hand, and found an electric note playing across the top, “Class canceled, no instructor.”
“Jazz, Jessy, what you gonna do?”
Jessica turned, and sighed at the half rumpled figure next to her, “Hi, D.R., I don’t know, go find something else I need to check off. I really didn’t know there was this much stuff I had to know to promote in this outfit!”
D.R. looked up at her slyly, “Ever done a base drop?”
“Primo, Kommander Ulrich is Dropping a mining base today, betcha tonight’s dessert he’ll letcha play tagalong.”
Jessica shuddered, “You can have it, the cafeteria is serving liverwurst and onions tonight, I won’t be anywhere near there.”
“Oh, snarf, that blows chunks. But still, how about it?”
Jessica said “Not a bad idea, thanks, D.R.”
“Nae prob, just hook me some pie sometime? See ya, gotta Drop to the Entertainment Deck!”
The teen was gone, snaking through startled traffic like a speed racer on a downhill slope, and Jessica giggled. He was active, but such a likeable kid.
Jessica turned in surprise, and smiled at Major Manning standing behind her, a twinkle in his eye. She almost blushed, and lowered her eyes.
“Morning, Major. Class is canceled, so I have nothing to do. D.R. suggested I go on a mining drop with Kommander Ulrich this morning.”
Manning snapped his fingers, “That’s a great idea! I’ll take out Ninja-To for a work out, and you can try something new out of the faction storage, if you want.”
Jessica tilted her head, and asked, “A Wolfhound OK?”
“Wolfhound? Dinky little things, all legs, no armor, no weapons worth a darn, why that?”
“Well, the base is armed, right?”
Manning frowned, “Yes…”
“And you’re in a command assault meka, right?”
She smiled mischievously, “Ever had a sports car, Major?”
Sims grumbled all the way to the Garage deck, “Wolfhounds, nothing but trouble, all legs and tail, two little headlights for guns, what do we need with the things, Wolfhounds!”
Instead of becoming upset, Jessica inexplicably found the older woman’s tirade incredibly amusing, so when the two went through the entrance to the Garage Deck, both were red faced, one from ranting, the other from laughter. Manning waited, suited and ready, smiling at the two as they came closer.
“Trouble in paradise?”
Sims came to full military attention, and saluted, “Sir, no sir!”
“Ah, yes, you don’t like Wolfhounds, do you, Sergeant.”
“Sir, I will drive whatever the faction gives me to drive, sir!”
Jessica dissolved into giggles again, earning a ten point glare from Sims, and Manning chuckled.
“Easy Drop, should be OK, but I need Silverline to come down to the Building Deck with me for a minute, want to show her how this works. So, if you could check out a Wolfhound for her, and maybe throw some add-ons you like, Sergeant, eh?”
Sims looked as if her head was going to pop, as she saluted with laser like precision, “AYE AYE SIR!”
Manning dragged Jessica away from the fuming sergeant as she giggled helplessly, “I can’t help it, she so FUNNY when she’s mad!”
“She’s gonna kick you out the door on Konu, if you’re not careful,” Manning mock growled at her.
“Here, no, this way.”
Manning guided her to a smaller elevator door set near the Repair bay, and they racked their hearing protection inside the elevator.
“Building Deck,” Manning said.
The elevator dropped quickly, and Jessica grabbed a railing.
Manning noticed, and smiled, “Sometimes we have to get units and buildings out fast, so this is a quick dropper.”
The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened.
Jessica stepped out, and stopped, in awe.
“I thought the Garage was big!”
“Only mekas there, this is our Base storage.”
The Building deck was too long to see the end, and tall enough that gigantic floodlights looked as motes in the sky. Neatly lined up gigantic white boxes lined every possible open section of floor, some stacked on top of each other, a few reaching up towards the ceiling.
“This feels like New Denver, gigantic! Just no pollution.”
“Nice, isn’t it? Each faction building is complete inside its Drop Box. Those boxes fold out flat when it lands, provides ground space and enables connections to the power stations. Everything is inside, and we service them on a regular basis. Some, like the headquarters buildings, we keep plugged in here, to keep their computers updated, and the refrigerators running.”
Manning smiled, “Nothing like stopping at a Command Tower for a cold soda right after some light combat.”
A figure appeared in the nearest corridor, and Jessica recognized the figure of Ulrich, in a cream and faun battle armor setup.
“Silverline, Dropping with us to Konu, ja?”
She saluted, and said, “Yes, Kommander, I’ve never been on a base drop before, and this looks interesting.”
Ulrich nodded, “Mining is what runs this whole exercise, what we are all about, the Ore. I am taking a good sized base today; have a good Dropper coming soon.”
Manning leaned over, “Bases are dropped by special drop ships, made to drop three buildings at a time, can hold sixty building boxes of average size. You can take a few on a regular Drop Ship, but it is a major pain in the rear. So we use the special built ones, have to call Armageddon to get one, costs a bit of change. Each Dropper, as Ulrich calls them, is named after a famous fortress.”
Ulrich beamed, and said, “Ja, this one is a favorite of mine, Camelot!”
Jessica smiled, and said, “Looking forward to it, Kommander!”
Manning clapped Jessica on the shoulder, “Camelot will be here in a few minutes, so let’s get you up in the coffin with legs you insist on riding in today, while the good Kommander gets his mining base together, and see, the lifters are coming already.”
Large electric vehicles, armed with gravity canceling polarizers, began negating the gravity of the building boxes, and moving them very, very carefully down the long passageways, one at a time.
“Where are the crews?”
They’ll be inside the boxes when we deploy them, and they are the ones to get it all hooked together. A good crew can get a base up and running in twenty minutes, easy. On a combat drop, that can be a lifesaver.”
Manning led Jessica back to the left, as Ulrich moved down to speak to the workers.
Jessica looked up at him, and asked in some confusion, “Why don’t we ever drop bases to Aldus?”
As he got the elevator moving, Manning continued, “Ever notice that when you come back from Aldus, Hermann’s repair bunnies are always degaussing the feet of your mekas?”
“Yeah, didn’t pay much attention.”
“Aldus soil, not the Ore, but the dirt is highly magnetic and conductive, as well as acidic to cable insulation. Every power cable we lay to a building gets eaten alive by Aldus soil in a matter of minutes. We did find a coating to save mekas feet and tread, and the nervesuits are also proofed for forty five minutes, but no matter what we’ve tried, we cannot get a building power line to stay safe long enough to justify any Drop. We keep working on it. So mining on Aldus is by mobile units only.”
“Oh, thank you, wonder why they never covered that in class.”
Manning grinned, “Because the eggheads thinks it’s their fault, and don’t want to tell anyone.”
The elevator door opened on the renewed chaos of the Garage deck, and the two quickly grabbed their headphones, grinning their embarrassment to each other.
Manning gestured, “Go get in with Sims, and I’ll meet you on the Drop Ship, looks like Gallipoli is docking.”
Jessica saluted, and sprinted across the decking where a lone brown and tan striped Wolfhound stood waiting. She easily climbed the short ladder, as the low slung lizard tailed speed meka hunched over only thirty feet high, the two arms held forward with their small energy guns inside, too small to really be called cannon. She saw an add on weapons pod on the roof, and another slung under the belly as she slid in the cockpit door, to strap in next to Sims.
“Hi, what’s our load out?”
Sims looked sourly at Jessica, but replied crisply, “Carnivore Gatling cannon, Leech laser, some extra armor, and a Buckler shield generator. Can’t strap the really good stuff on, power connections won’t fit, and some are too big and heavy. Yes, it’s fast, but right now still not worthy much of a fart in a windstorm.”
Jessica giggled again, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The speaker popped, “Gallipoli loading at this time!”
They moved out, only to stop as the massive Shadow Assassin meka moved out in front of them.
“Sorry,” Manning’s voice came over the speaker, “Didn’t see you down there.”
Sims growled wordlessly and Jessica giggled again, as they made their way onto the waiting Drop Ship.
Jessica lounged back in her command chair, as the Drop Ship rumbled through space.
“Sims, how many Drops have you been on?”
“Don’t remember, never counted.”
Jessica lolled her head over to look at Sims, likewise relaxed, eyes closed.
“What would you do if you left this place?”
That opened Sims eyes.
“I don’t know, retire to some nice place in the country on a peaceful planet, with a man stupid enough to put up with me, raise some crops and cows, and enjoy a sunset or two. Why?”
“Don’t know, just curious.”
“Lieutenant, you ask some weird questions sometimes.”
“That’s what someone else said.”
The Drop Ship ramp rumbled down and the Wolfhound leapt down to the surface. The blue and white sand crystals whipped around in the thin carbon dioxide winds. The cabin pressure warning bell hooted once, and quit as the pressure equalized.
“I hate these things.”
The Wolfhound stepped away from the ramp as the massive Shadow Assassin thundered down to the sands. The small painting of a straight Japanese sword looked very small on the side of the cockpit, and abruptly Ninja-to wavered out of sight, vanishing into cloak.
“MAN, I hate that!” Sims muttered.
“Them darn scientists, ‘oh, we’re only unlocking the secrets of a dead civilization nothing to worry about’,” she said in a high squeaky voice, “and here you are,” she continued, reverting to her normal gravelly voice, “changing everything we knew about meka combat. Damn sneaky stuff, gimme the good old days when you saw each other coming, and the better crew walked away a winner.”
“There were good old days?”
“Oh, never mind. Darn kids.”
Jessica giggled again, and then gasped as Base Drop Ship Camelot fell out of the sky.
The immense boxy ship came to a hover only a few feet of the ground, and a ramp wider than Jessica imagined possible dropped out the back. White building boxes began sliding down the frictionless ramp three at time, side by side, according to a master plan in the Drop Ship computer, The huge boxes thumped to the cold ground with barely a quiver while the ship moved forward, looking like a huge alien laying eggs. The building box sides began to fold down even before the next set landed, falling away to blow up swirls of blue and white dust, and work suited men and women began rushing about, connecting cables, erecting antennas, and checking systems.
Huge raw ore refineries lay in rows, long hasty conveyor belts were laid connecting them to the massive Ore Processors, gigantic toothed rock crushers. Fusion generators began whining up, most other crews maintaining a healthy distance from the barely contained continuous nuclear implosions. Cables were flung across flattened box sides to neighboring buildings, and quickly locked in, lights flaring on, belts snapping tight, and motors whining up to speed.
Sims did smile at that, “These guys are good, the Kommander only hires the best. But he doesn’t skimp on defense, since other factions want the Ore too.”
Sims gestured, Jessica following with her eyes, and a giant box that was opening to reveal one of the truly ugliest big guns she had ever seen.
“Hybrid ballistic cannon, evil thing, but deadly.”
Last edited by armoredman on Wed May 04, 2011 7:46 am; edited 2 times in total
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Wed May 04, 2011 6:13 am Post subject:
|“Yep, he also has a heavy thumper going, and an Interdictor, strips shields by ionic interference with enemy shield circuits. Ours are tuned out of its frequency. Should have a couple of Defense Platforms, those are mixed gun/missile setups, good stuff, captured tech from the Shak.”
“How does a thumper work? I don’t feel any tremors.”
Sims grinned wickedly, “And you won’t. Thumper doesn’t actually hit the ground, it sends out grav waves to play havoc with enemy gyros. Ours are tuned out, and spies try very hard to find out each faction’s thumper frequency. So, you don’t feel anything, but the main computer will swear on its mother’s electronic grave there is a huge earthquake going on.”
“Nifty. OK, number two. Shak.”
Sims shuddered, “Huge evil purple beasts, aliens, THINGS, some seem to live inside Aldus, others show up on Hadeas in big mean bases sometimes, don’t know where they’re from, or why they come here, or even how they just frakking appear, but they are huge mothers, size of an assault meka, and ten times as nasty. I run from them if I can. Only thing they do that isn’t bad is they don’t recognize humans as enemies, only mekas. So if they blow your feet out from under you, you can still get away, they must think we’re like parasites or something.”
While the two conversed, the base came fully powered up, and another normal Drop Ship lowered a ramp nearby. Down came two Loggerhead ore transports, a massive Hermit salvager, and a hulking Deep Sensor Command meka.
“Vilcome to Konu, Lieutenant Silverline,” sounded the happy voice of Kommander Ulrich through the little speaker, “You meet me in the command tower, ja?”
Sims smiled, and Jessica answered, “Of course, Kommander, lead on, as I have no idea where anything is, here in your instant city.”
“Follow my Deep Sensor, thank you.”
The sensor wing of the command mekas began rotating like an old fashioned radar emitter, and the multiple missile bays doors peeled back like flowers, readying the machine for war. It turned, and lumbered down a space between two lines of refineries, and led them through the maze, to a two story building ablaze with lights. The Deep Sensor, backed up to an extended docking tube, and Sims guided the little Wolfhound to a lower set one, grumbling over the size difference.
They docked, and set the machine on standby, ensuring they could be back in and headed to combat in less than two minutes, “Though I wouldn’t want to fight anything bigger than a Ground Hog scout in this thing!”, Sims groused.
They entered the docking tube, and were met at the lock by a smiling man in WLF black and gold assault armor, with a gold badge shaped like a tower on his left arm, signifying elite building crew.
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant, Sergeant, Kommander Ulrich is already on the second deck.”
“Tell me about it, youngling,” Sims said in a low voice, while Jessica returned the man’s salute, and they followed him to the small lift.
Up they went, and the doors opened onto a small control room, complete with enormous bay windows overlooking the sprawling base. Kommander Ulrich leaned against one window, watching one Loggerhead maneuver its way to an Ore outcropping only a few hundred meters away.
“Good luck to drop this close to ore, always good luck.” he said happily.
Ulrich turned around, and gestured to Jessica to come up next to him.
“See, the Loggerhead grabs up the whole Ore deposit, and dumps the thing into that processor, then the ground up Ore goes to the refineries, where we turn out the highly purified stuff, suitable for machining into electronics, jewelry, or combat armor. Wonderful stuff, Ore, wonderful.”
“And we guard them when they have to go a long ways to find a deposit?”
“Absolutely. Also, we haff to guard against any attacks here, as all factions war on each other for Ore. It is, after all, the whole reason we are here!”
“Yes, I see that.” Jessica said with a smile.
Without taking his eyes off the men and machinery working below them, Ulrich said in a low voice, “He cares for you, you know.”
“I know.” she said simply.
He turned and looked at her directly.
“There are no rules in WLF about fraternization, not like in my home regiment, but do be very careful, things like this can end badly. Expect too little, and so be happier with what you get. And don’t hurt him; make me quite upset, ja?”
Jessica smiled up at the older man, “Thanks, Kommander, I appreciate that. It shows more of a man when his friends will stand up for him.”
“Don’t thank me, you the one on this roller coaster…what ever that is.”
A speaker flared into life, murmuring code, and one of the control tower crew looked up at Ulrich.
“Sir, the Defense Matrix has a stealth sighting at extreme range.”
Suddenly all business, Ulrich strode over to the man.
“Not just Herr Major’s Shadow Assassin?”
“No sir, flared red, and I think I got an ID as a Silent Death, possibly coded for McNasty from Resurrected.”
“Sound General Alert, gun crews to their guns. Knight Lieutenant, I think you get a little more than you asked for, ja? Let’s get to work.”
And they ran for their mekas.
Sims and Jessica began strapping themselves into the Wolfhound, as horns hooted across the complex.
A carefully trained level voice spoke across the speaker in the cramped cockpit, “Reinforcements on the way, ETA twenty five minutes.”
“Good,” Sims said with a satisfied tone, “Major mentioned to me he had Fifth waiting on deck for something like this.”
“Why don’t they shoot at the Drop Ship, stop them from bringing more mekas?”
“Because the last guy who shot at a Drop Ship was strapped naked in a cargo module, and shot into a low orbit around this systems primary. We had a pool going on if he died from radiation, or was slow broiled first, but the thing burned up before we could get a remote over to check. Frizz does NOT like you to break his toys.”
“Thanks for the warning!”
“That’s my job, along with trying to not get us killed piloting this tin can in combat!”
“Only for twenty four minutes.”
Sims looked at Jessica with a sour expression, “This could go very sour in that amount of time.”
Manning’s voice spoke, “Dagger, I have point, approximately three hundred meters from the sighting. Ulrich, can you fire a revealer?”
The Deep Sensor showed no signs of activating the anti cloaker, but in seconds two bright red icons stood out on the little Wolfhounds’ display, two Silent Death mekas, both labeled as McNasty from Faction Resurrected.
“Damn, that guy’s good. Those are just scouts, he’ll be somewhere just around the corner. Watch for a speeding Farseer meka, looks like a teeny Deep Sensor clone 'bout as fast as that lizard you're driving. It’s his favorite cloaker spotter.”
The Wolfhound navigated the maze of buildings to emerge in open space, with the lumbering Deep Sensor close behind.
“Open ground, boss, whatcha want to do?”
Jessica grinned, “Well, we know where they are, so let’s see if this thing is as speedy as they say. As long as we stay inside the range of the base electronics, we should be good?”
Sims heaved a sigh, “Optimist with a speed fetish. OK, boss, hang on tight!”
Sims goosed the emergency override on the little machine, and Jessica was thrown back in her seat with a squeal of pure delight as they zoomed across the sands towards the wavering icon of the Shadow Assasin.
“Wee, hoo!” she cried out in glee.
“It’s fast,” Sims allowed, “but still a tin can on legs.”
“Dagger, not so close to the edge of the defense network, we’re not sure what’s out there.”
“Dagger copies,” Sims said in a professional voice, and began slowing.
The Shadow Assassin, visible only on the display, moved slowly towards the sightings of the Silent Death mekas.
Sims pointed out, “Inside one hundred meters, cloak doesn’t work, but you’re practically on top of them. Not much advantage, a cheap machine can gut shot an expensive one if you’re not careful.”
“Ulrich to Armoredman, two minutes until we can fire revealers again. The Defense Matrix blew a secondary coil, cannot operate as a locator for approximately seven minutes.”
“Armoredman copies, and dammit.”
The level voice of the Command Tower came again, “Twenty minutes for reinforcements.”
The Wolfhound slowed to a crawl, and Sims peered around nervously.
“McNasty can see us, but not Armoredman, so he’ll think we’re the primary responder. Kinda like semi-protected bait, but he can’t hit us here, not unless he’s got a cloaked Claymore out there we didn’t see him get in position. Doubt it.”
“You are the soul of pessimism, aren’t you?”
“Kept me alive a looong time.”
A siren wailed in the cockpit, and Sims paled.
“Cloaker! RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!”
The shadows twisted, and a Silent Death meka wavered into existence only a few meters in front of the little Wolfhound, but instead of the expected blue and yellow colors of Resurrected, the evil machine bore the solid black barbed wire logo of the Marauders, one energy cannon armed appendage carrying a glowing energy gladius, a contact weapon that could slice armor with ease.
“Marauders on base!” Jessica screamed into the mike as Sims frantically back pedaled the little meka.
And evil sibilance hissed through the speakers on Common Channel, “Little sweetheart, remember me?”
Manning roared into the airwaves, “Sexecutioner, I will kill you!”
A familiar rasping voice cut through the channel, “Duks shine, I will kill all close to you, and you as well!”
The gladius swept down, as Sims frantically maneuvered and Jessica futilely fired the small vehicles light armament.
The glowing blade cleaved the shields as if they weren’t there, and crushed through the Wolfhounds armor, cutting the light meka in two directly behind the cockpit.
Thrown forward in her command chair, Sims dimly heard Jessica scream in pain as the front half of the destroyed meka was contemptuously flung away by the swords swipe. Lights blew out, arcing circuits filled the cabin with smoke, and their helmets slapped shut around their heads and necks as the atmosphere blew out the gaping holes behind them.
The howl of rage almost blew out the Command Tower’s speakers, as men and women went pale at the sight of the destroyed Wolfhound’s wreckage.
An evil sensuous laugh swept across Common Channel, “Farewell, my pretty, have a nice death!”
The Silent Death began to waver back into cloak, and suddenly solidified back into reality as Ulrich fired the revealers again.
“Nien, not so fast, shiesskopf!”
The Silent Death spun on its feet, and began trying to race out of the base perimeter. Shadows twisted, and the massive Shadow Assassin shimmered into existence directly in front of it.
“Now you learn why this is called an ASSASSIN, you pile of puke.”
Manning spoke calmly into his mike.
The energy cannons fired, a whiplash of unbearable brightness as a desperate howl filled the airwaves.
Human eyes refocused, computer generated screens cleared, and the top half of the Silent Death was gone, vaporized. The legs stayed upright for a long second, then tottered over into a pile of wreckage on the sands.
Manning looked over at the wreck of the Wolfhound, and saw two figures on the ground in front of it, one holding the other up, the slenderer of the two with a long red stain down one leg.
“Sims?” he asked almost desperately.
“She needs evac right away, Major,” Sims weary voice came back, thin and reedy from the tiny suit transmitter, “Her leg got sliced bad by that thing.”
Ulrich spoke, “Drop Ship evac ship is en route, arrival in five minutes.”
The horrifying laugh of Mauler cut through the airwaves again, “Ha, one more down, eh, Armored duks shine? You kill Sexecutioner, but your precious is dying, and you cannot even find me, plus you have big enemy force coming to kill you. I sit back and watch, yes, watch you get killed here! HAH!”
A cultured voice with a distinctive English accent came across Common Channel.
“Armoredman, old boy, what say we have this little party some other time? I think I would like to hunt down this little beggar who wrecks my assault like this. I do not like party crashers.”
Manning said softly, “I owe you one, McNasty.”
“Rot, I have a score to settle with this piece of rubbish. You tend to your man, and I think after I find this one, there might be a base a few kilometers away that looks a little less well defended. Good luck to you.”
A scream of rage echoed from the speakers, and went silent.
A delta winged shape flew in towards the two WLF crew, and Manning could only watch helplessly as the Warrantor medics loaded Jessica aboard, heavily sedated with her left leg wrapped in a temporary cast, and hurtled up through the cobalt sky.
Jessica swam in and out of consciousness, ears dutifully relaying what they heard to a mind not capable of understanding.
“Pressure stable, make orbit for Antietam…”
“Doctor, WLF command is calling…”
“Docking, stand by for transfer…”
“...but how did he know to be right there…”
“Stand by, LIFT!”
Bumps and rolling motions, lights changed from bright white, to gentle yellow, back to bright white. Her eyes hurt. She closed them.
“…Captain, I despise the word, ‘co-incidence’…”
“…weak and thready, electric shockl damage evident…”
“Doctor, WLF High Command is standing by for an update…”
“…possible prep for surgery…”
“Colonel, there needs to be an inquiry…”
“…and that has been relayed to the System Administrator…”
“Let’s get her completely under, shall we?”
The sterile world of the WLF hospital section was as different from the rest of the station as it could be. Staff and visitors spoke in hushed tones, alerts were quiet and non-disturbing to patients, and colors were white and yellow, bright and cheerful. Nursing staff wore light colors in their garb, and live plants in strategic areas refreshed both the air and the atmosphere.
Major Manning stood nervously shuffling his feet, just inside the hospital entrance, a bouquet of station raised grown flowers in one hand, formal dress jacket tight and confining, as he waited nervously to be noticed by an orderly, a decidedly unusual experience for him.
The young man raised his head from his hush phone and work area, and asked politely, “Yes, major, may I help you?”
“I am here for, I mean to see, dammit, how is she?”
The orderly’s composure did not waver, and he punched up a chart on his screen.
“Lieutenant Silverline, who I believe you are referring to, suffered a large laceration of her left leg, acerbated by atmospheric poisoning, and a severe electrical shock. Post operational datum suggests she was not actually hit with the gladius weapon, but a piece of cockpit debris, and electrical shock from the weapons’ nearby energy field. Doctor Teng suggests that if she had actually been struck by the blade, she would have suffered both total loss of the leg, and fatal electrical shock, and that in her professional estimation the blade missed her leg by an approximate distance of five to twelve centimeters. Also, I have the vase here for your flowers, sir.”
Hearing the slim margin of survival caused Manning to grip the counter in an effort to stay upright, but he placed the flowers in the proffered vase without difficulty.
The orderly looked up, professional concern in his eyes, “You do know she listed you as next of kin, sir?”
“No,” Manning muttered in confusion, “No, I didn’t know that…”
“Doctor Teng asked to be notified when you arrive. The doctor will be out to see you shortly, and would you have a seat over there, please?”
Completely disarmed by the young mans’ evident confidence in his command of the area, Manning meekly nodded, and went to a comfortable chair in the small waiting area. A screen showed a running loop of children’s broadcasting, of three funny fuzzy characters arguing over a ball, and the funny human teaching them how to share. The funny fuzzy characters agreed with the funny human, and burst into funny song, all made ludicrous by the fact that the sound was off.
A short young woman stood next to his chair, long blonde hair draped over her professional white medical jumpsuit, WLF heart on one sleeve, and the gold heart-in-hand of WLF support medical personnel on the right.
Manning stood, and reached for the young woman’s hand.
“I was expecting Doctor Teng?”
She smiled, obviously used to the mistake, “I am Doctor Teng, good to meet you Major Manning, though I wish it wasn’t quite this way.”
“I agree there!” Manning said fervently.
“Please, sit down.”
Back dropped by the funny fuzzy characters doing something inexplicably funny, the two sat in the small waiting area.
“Jessica Silverline suffered a severe electrical trauma to her leg, heart and brain. The physical damage is really not that bad, big deep cut down the left leg that goes away in about a week and a half with fast mend, not really deep, but the atmospheric poisoning made it a bit worse than it could have been. The gladius nailed her with the electrical discharge, how ever, and that's what whacked her good, to use really professional medical jargon.”
Despite his feelings, Manning did smile at the doctor’s obvious attempt at humor.
“She needs darkened room bed rest for two weeks minimum, and constant monitoring. We implanted a heart and brain wave monitoring system to perform checks for conductive nerve damage as well, and if she can sleep normally tonight in her room here, we may release her to her quarters with those monitors in place. She was placed under anesthesia for the implantation and leg repair surgery, and is right now in the recovery room, sound asleep, which is the best thing for her right now. She is young, very healthy, and quite strong, and I have full faith in a complete recovery, in time.”
Manning sat back in his chair with a heavy sigh, “Thank you, Doctor, I guess it’s good to know it’s not as bad as it could be, but still worse than I’d hoped.”
Doctor Teng reached out, and gripped Manning’s hand in sympathy, “Time will tell, just hold on, and I’ll let you know through your accessor when she’s awake and being moved to her quarters.”
“Thank you Doctor, thank you very much.”
Manning’s’ accessor beeped at him, and they both looked down in surprise, Manning laughing, “That was fast!”
He lifted it, and saw Warfe’s grim visage.
“Major, we have a visitor who needs to speak to you as soon as possible.”
“Who’s that, boss? By the way, Jessica is going to be alright.”
“That’s excellent news, but I need you up here in Command Central. Warrantor Colonel Smythe needs to speak with all of us.”
“On my way, boss,” and Manning was out of the chair, leaving the slightly bemused young doctor and the funny fuzzy characters alone in the waiting area.
Manning entered Command Central, and was struck by the tense atmosphere. Men and women continued to work at their duty stations, but with furtive looks, and some scratching as if at too tight collars.
Manning went over to the Commander’s office, knocked, and entered through the old wooden door.
Commander Deylon looked up from behind his antique wooden desk. Warfe stood next to the desk, a worried look on his face, and Fifth lounged in a overstuffed chair on the other side of the room. A tall bald man in the formal brown and white dress uniform of the Warrantors, bearing the silver talon insignia of a full colonel and an enormous walrus mustache, looked over at Manning as he stepped in the room, gently closing the door behind him.
“Ah, you must be Major Manning, excellent performance at the Ball, good show, missed it, was on board Monolith, but well done!”
The man extended his had, a genuine smile on his face, and Manning shook it uncertainly.
“Thank you, Colonel…”
“Smythe, once of Her Majesty’s Fusiliers on Sharina Five.”
Colonel Smythe’s manner became abruptly businesslike, and his huge brown mustache hung down almost comically.
“I do apologize for asking you here like this, but the System Administrator is understandably concerned about the two recent incidents between Faction WLF and Faction Marauder, one on Aldus, and one on Konu.”
Commander Deylon gestured at the Warrantor, “Colonel Smythe tells me the error of coincidence is unusual in this pattern of meetings planet side.”
“Quite right, Commander Deylon. The first can be written off to plain bloody bad luck. The second, the mining drop to Konu, was another thing entirely. War Leader McNasty was kind enough to provide his Drop records,” and he turned, and half bowed to Deylon, “as was Commander Deylon. We have ample evidence that War Leader McNasty was simply on his way to attack another base when WLF so conveniently set up shop next door. So he waited to strike, well within all parameters and policies. No issues there, this IS the War Worlds, after all! However, Drop records for Faction Marauder indicate a sudden Drop Ship request at their battle station, for a two meka drop to Konu, and even though that in of itself is not strange, the fact that movement records indicate the two moved into a space just south of your base are, and waited.”
Manning pursed his lips and asked, “They also saw us setting up?”
“No, Major, that’s the issue, they were there before you were.”
Manning’s eyes widened, “The blind chance of that is a little unlikely?”
“Highly, yet Faction Leader Mauler swears they happened to stop there so one of them could, ah, ‘commune with nature’, as he put it. The only communing I can think of either of them doing is something I would not advance in polite company.”
Deylon half smiled, “I agree on that count.”
Smythe turned back to face Manning.
“So, this may only be a severe coincidence, but I do dislike that bloody word. And so does the System Administrator. Was the Marauder drop planned to intercept WLF staff, or was the Marauder drop planned by someone else to destroy the Marauder staff? Either can be a valid possibility, especially in light of the outcome, and please, let me say, bloody well shot, Major. Never could stand that little weasel. However, both possibilities require something neither faction has, and that is access to Warrantor records and personnel.”
Colonel Smythe paused, gazed down at the three hundred year old desk, then raised his head back up with a resolute expression and faced Commander Deylon squarely, “So, gentlemen, it truly pains me to say this to this fine faction, but per order of the System Administrator, Faction WLF is herby placed under Investigation for the purpose of investigating whether tampering of Warrantor staff or machinery was conducted by WLF personnel.”
Warfe exploded, “Investigation! What the…”
Fifth grated out, “Us? What about those skatha scum?”
Deylon merely bowed his head, and closed his eyes, while Manning stepped in front of the infuriated Warfe.
“Sir,” he said formally, “please.”
Colonel Smythe handed a rolled parchment to Commander Deylon, who took it wordlessly.
“Gentlemen, it truly pains me to invoke this, but you and Marauder are both implicated in this situation, which could involve a Treaty violation. I do trust all here are aware of what a Treaty violation could result in, yes?”
The four WLF senior officers merely nodded, and Smythe continued, “According to the charter, a faction under a current investigation may not send any members to other factions, or out system, without permission from the System Administrator. Mining Drops may be conducted as long as they are not joint ventures with other factions. Non mining combat drops are suspended. Contact with the other parties involved may only be done through Warrantor staff.”
Colonel Smythe paused, and a look of pain crossed his face, “I have no doubt whatsoever that WLF is completely innocent of all charges and specifications of tampering, but I must make sure of fairness in all regards. I anticipate our investigation to take only a few days, depending on how overworked the computers are between now and then.”
The Colonels’ attempted joke fell flat in the heavy silence, and the man harrumphed uncomfortably, “I am sorry, truly sorry. If you will excuse me, I must get back to Monolith, and Gettysburg is standing by.”
The four WLF stood, and saluted the Warrantor, who returned their salutes gravely, opened the door, and followed a WLF orderly who escorted him out of Command Central.
The office door closed, and Warfe erupted.
“What the Hades is going on? We get jumped, and they want to shut US down? Naj, we did nothing wrong!”
Deylon stood, and raised his voice slightly over the babble, “Gentlemen, yes, I know Major Manning, Kommander Ulrich, and Lieutenant Silverline did nothing unusual or wrong, but somehow we have been implicated in a possible Treaty violation. This is a very serious matter, so we have no options but to wait for the verdict from Frizz. In the meantime, stand down, relax, if you can, and catch up on your reading. Manning, I would prefer you to stay aboard, unless someone calls you from the surface to handle an issue.”
“Yes sir,” Manning growled out.
“Major, I strongly doubt you did anything illegal or wrong, but we must comply with the orders of the System Administrator, is that clear?”
Stung, Manning came to full attention, and said smartly, “Sir, yes sir.”
“Good. I know when we do these small mining drops, that sometimes junior staff gets a little overwhelmed with bandit machines, so please keep your self ready for such a call. Blowing away bandits isn’t the same as going after Mauler, but it might help. You other two, work out a plan of what we can drop in a hurry when war does come between us and Marauder, even as reduced as they have become, keeping within treaty, of course. When we are exonerated, I want that little bug squashed. Are we clear?”
And his piercing eyes lasered every man in the room, until they looked away, chastened.
A few days later found Manning wrestling with the ever stubborn plastic model in his quarters, when his accessor buzzed. Grabbing it, he saw the smiling face of Doctor Teng.
“Major, just wanted to tell you that Knight Lieutenant Silverline came through the night in good shape, and was moved to her quarters this morning. She is awake, a little grumpy, but more than able to receive visitors.”
Manning grabbed the accessor and kissed the screen, to a startled exclamation from the doctor.
“Thanks, Doc, I needed some good news, talk to you later.”
Manning grabbed his jacket, and fled the room.
Jessica rolled over in the darkened room, and glared at the door, which had just chimed.
“Come in, I guess.”
The door slid back, and Manning entered slowly, uncertainly, the drooping bunch of flowers in his hand again.
“Jessica?” he asked softly.
She sat up in bed, and smiled, “Come in, please.”
He came all the way in, and the door closed behind him. He set the vase down on the small table, and said sadly, “They looked better a couple of days ago, but you weren’t really with it.”
“They’re lovely, thank you.”
Manning looked over to the bed, where she lay under the sheets in her rumpled night clothes.
“I apologize, should I come back later, when you’re dressed?”
“According to the doctor, this is the most I am going to be dressed for a while. Can’t wear pants for at least a week, but the meds kill almost all of the pain.
Manning looked around helplessly in the cramped cabin for a chair, and Jessica laughed softly, patting the bed next to her, “Sit down, you big lug.”
Manning crossed over, sat down, and looked at her smiling face.
“Jessica, I, Great Ore, what I mean to say is I’m sorry.”
“I should have been right there, I should never let you take that hunk of junk Wolfhound, I should have done something!” he exploded, and she raised a small hand against his lips with a gentle shushing sound.
“I am a big girl, Major Manning, and made my choices. You did kill that pile of garbage, and you have my undying thanks. Do you think I would hate you for not being impossibly perfect?”
Manning closed his eyes, and bowed his head. The words came out slowly, and with great emotion, “I can’t lose you, not like I lost her, to them, to him, not again.”
Jessica sat further up in bed, and moved next to him.
“And you won’t”, and she kissed him.
Manning responded slowly, uncertainly, rusty with years of no practice, but the kiss ended with a grinding passion. She gazed into his eyes, and whispered, “Make love to me.”
“But your leg…?”
“Meds are great, now get down here.”
Doctor Teng checked another record at the nursing station, when her accessor buzzed. She saw a text message from Doris, the ShipMind, and grinned, just as the orderly began to frown, and tap one of his monitor readouts.
“Doctor, Silverlines’ stress indicators are going up rapidly, should we investigate?”
Doctor Teng reached over, and to the tech’s utter horror, turned off the monitor.
“No, I think not. Doris is watching over her right now. List it as an equipment fault.”
“But doctor, if she’s engaging in some stressful activity that could upset her recovery, we should step in, correct?”
“Oh, I think this ‘strenuous activity' will do wonders for her recovery.”
She gazed off into the distance, smiling, and remarked, almost to herself, “Actually, for both of them.”
WLF quivered like an attack dog on a leash. Mekas were prepped, armed, and powered, personal weapons checked, cleaned, and loaded with fresh ammunition. Swords were sharpened, and bayonets racked with the rifles. Ammunition was turned out by the ton in the bowels of the machine shops, and extra shifts worked overtime pushing out spare parts and armor plate. Classes were canceled in favor of combat drill, and the simulator room ran around the clock. Warfe and Fifth spent hours in Command Central arguing troops disbursements and tactics, with Deylon played both devils’ advocate and referee. Ulrich cut back major mining to prepare combat buildings for hostile drops, and the big guns got bigger.
WLF was getting ready for war.
Not a soul on the steel decking didn’t know that a gauntlet had been cast, a punch thrown, a spit in the eye, and the factions’ good name dragged through the mud. Battle armor was readied, and personal survival supplies updated. Live fire drills were conducted on cargo bays evacuated to space, with flitting target drones vanishing into colorful soundless explosions. Doctors ran through medical checklists, and ordered heavy re supply from Armageddon on all combat related items. Some crew made their way to the non denominational chapel located at the very top of the battle station, formed their private peace, and returned to their work with a vengeance.
This one was going to be very personal.
Manning was on the firing range, sending big slug after big slug from his coilgun pistol blasting through the paper target, when his accessor buzzed. He swore, made his sidearm safe, and stepped off the firing line to a quiet zone, away from the ranks of the other shooters.
The face was blurred and not quite familiar, but with multiple shifts of commo people, he couldn’t know them all.
“I said yes?”
“Sir, First Lieutenant Darksire has requested you to do an assist drop to Konu, he states he has a large spawn of bandits that are threatening to overwhelm his small mining base.”
“Bandits bothering D.S.? Must be a lot of them.”
“That’s what he said, sir.”
“OK, here’s what you’re going to do. Alert Commander Deylon and Commander Warfe I am going to do an assistance drop, his idea after all, and then send a page to Lieutenant Silverline, same info, tell her I’ll meet her for dinner tonight in her quarters, and then update the system. Have Rose prep Fast Times, and get me on the next Drop Ship to Konu. I got some steam to burn off.”
“Right away, Major.”
Manning broke the circuit, and began putting away his gear, whistling a happy little tune with incredibly dirty lyrics.
Up in Command Central, a communications tech sent a message to Sergeant Rose to meet Major Manning on the Garage Deck, and alerted Drop Ship Bull Run to receive one for Konu. Then he quietly isolated Manning’s accessor from the system wide net.
Fast Times waddled aboard the Drop Ship, and backed into a cradle. Few other mekas were racked and waiting, and Common Channel was deathly quiet when they saw the WLF machine.
Finally, the silence broke with a growl like armor plate being torn apart by hand, “Armoredman, nobody at Sanctuary buys this bulltripe. We fight, sure, but you guys don’t cheat, and you sure as Hades don’t break the Treaty.”
Manning keyed up, “Thanks, ThunderZ, I appreciate it. If you’re going to Konu, mind giving truce now? Need to work out some aggressions on some bandits.”
“Truce accepted, A-man, hope it all works out soon.”
Bull Run moved out towards Konu with the characteristic rumble.
On Armageddon, the sprawling Central Dispatching, a young Warrantor tech advised Bull Run of Drop co-ordinates, and wished the traditional good luck. Then she carefully re routed all commo traffic, directing all of Bull Run’s communications through her terminal, and looped it into an infinite holding pattern, leaving the big ship sailing blind, without a clue they were offline. She then routed another Drop Ship to a set of co-ordinates only three kilometers from one of Bull Run’s Drop Points. Another shift in commo traffic, and a second Drop Ship was quietly slipped off the net.
She looked around nervously, wiped her sweating face in the suddenly stifling heat, and set back to work.
Drop Ship Bull Run thundered through the thin atmosphere of Konu, and touched down in a swirl of blue and white crystals, quickly lowering its ramp to the sands. Fast Times walked down the ramp carefully, and stepped away from the already departing Drop Ship.
“Rose, I have a heading of three twenty actual, about twelve hundred meters, where D.S. has his base. Be looking for bandits, he said he has a bunch.”
Switching to faction channel, he called out “Armoredman to Darksire, we’re here, load me into your net so I can see what’s going on.”
Static fed back to him.
“D.S., if your commo is out, at least send up a red flare, so I know your alive.”
Far off ahead of them, a small red flare arced into the sky, and burst a shower of sparks.
“Great, his commo is out to, going to be fun coordinating the fight.”
Armoredman to Mamma Bird, what do you see?’
“Garbage, does anything work today?”
Fast Times began moving across the sands towards the guttering flare.
Sims stretched out her hands over the poker chips, and smiled a shark like grin across the table, “Okay, shafta babes, cards coming ‘round now!"
The traditional rectangular pasteboards flew from her fingertips in the crew lounge. Another crewmember, absently toweling her head from the shower, stopped to watch.
“As usual, got money to burn?”
“Nah, figure I’ll wait until First Lieutenant Darksire gets back, his driver is usually good for a few easy bucks.”
A voice called out across the room, “Whaddya mean, get back? I’ve been here, why, you need to lose some more money to me?”
The young woman looked confused, even as her hands continued to mechanically dry her hair, “I was right there on the range cleaning up when I heard Command Central send Major Manning down to Konu to give Darksire a hand, his mining base was being overrun with bandits!”
The lanky man got up, and said with a scowl, “Help with bandits? Darksire? That’ll be the day! But we’ve been on down time today, no drops.”
Sims reached out and caught the younger woman’s’ arm, “You said Command Central sent him?”
“Yeah, Sergeant, that’s kinda odd…”
Ignoring the confused looks and growing chatter, Sims grabbed her accessor, and punched up Manning’s code. Instead of his glowering features, a simple text message greeted her.
‘Code not recognized. Try again in five minutes.’
“Hey, Grumpy, I am sending you a text message, lemme know if it comes through,” and she tapped out a quick obscenity.
“Real nice, Sims, real nice!”
“OK, it’s not me,” she muttered, and tapped Manning’s code again, and received the same message.
She stood, and handed her pile to the startled crewman to her right.
“Don’t lose my money, Barney, or you lose a testicle, I gotta check on this,” and she stepped away from the table towards her cabin.
She tapped another code, and Commander Warfes face appeared, looking first startled, then concerned.
“Sergeant Sims, this is odd, what can I do for you?”
“Sir, Major Manning is not answering his accessor.”
She quickly outlined the facts, and Warfe looked confused.
“First Lieutenant Darksire is running tests in the computer room, we have nobody on Konu. Stand by.”
His head disappeared from the tiny screen, and abruptly reappeared.
“I can’t raise him either, and Command Central says his accessor is offline. You said she said he took Fast Times down to Konu?”
And Sims waited, fuming silently, until Warfe reappeared.
“OK, he got on the Bull Run about thirty minutes ago. Armageddon says they can’t raise Bull Run, but she was scheduled four Drops on Konu, and a side trip…oh. My. God.”
“Side trip scheduled to pick up at Battle Station Marauder. Sims, get your ass up here now.”
“On the way!”
Warfe called across Command Centrals hushed core to Deylon, who was just leaving his office.
“Dey, we have a real problem here.”
It took less than a minute to brief Commander Deylon, who raised his head from where Warfe was sitting, and called out to the Senior Communications Officer.
“Get me Frizz, now. And nobody leaves this room”
He then looked at Warfe, “Get Security up here now, it started here.”
Warfe said quietly, “Sir, we’d better hurry, Konu goes to Death Side in twenty minutes”
The sands whipped around the metal legs of the Lightfoot as it crested the dunes one at a time.
“Rose, you see a thing?”
A grunt came from the driver’s compartment, located below Manning’s feet and forward of him. He had been with the taciturn woman for so long that each grunt was an open book to him. This one was a bored expression of another bust of a Drop for no good reason.
“Yes, OK, could be, but the beacon should be right ahead. This sand storm isn’t great, but I think I should be able to see a building by now!”
A grunt of assent, and concern.
Abruptly she stopped the Lightfoot.
And for the first time in two years, Rose Mount spoke, and pointed using a remote laser dialed down to pencil beam.
A small pole stuck in the sands, wearing a black streamer tied to it. Next to it laid a standard WLF beacon all by itself, beeping alone in the waste.
Manning observed casually, “Rose, you ever get that sinking feeling at the pit of your stomach that says you are well and truly screwed?”
Grunt of assent.
“We are well and truly screwed. If we can access common channel, let’s see if we have any friendlies on this dirt ball.”
Manning changed the channel to Common, and called, “Armoredman from WLF, any allies in the area?”
A grating laugh came back, and the butterflies in his stomach gave birth to elephants.
“Allies? Oh I say not, duks shine! But we are here, let me give you NICE welcome to KONU!”
Shadows twisted, thin air howled, and four hulking mekas sprang into view only two hundred meters away, point blank distance. Three skeletal Silent Death Meklas framed Fast Times, and a savage Shadow Assassin squared off directly in front of him.
“What was it you said to poor Sexy? Ah, yes, ‘this is why it called ASSASSIN!’”
And the energy cannons roared.
But Rose was not Sexecutioner, and Mauler had done one thing wrong. He had given her time to react, and though Rose Mount was known as simply a quiet grumpy old woman with a passion for old racing machines, she was the absolute best driver in the entire War Worlds.
Kilo ergs of energy fused blue and white sand to glass and shattered it, missing the rear leg of the dodging Lightfoot by centimeters. But even Rose’s inhuman speed could not dodge the fire of four mekas, and Fast Times shields flared in ever redding colors, as circuit after circuit overloaded and blew.
Manning swore in four languages as his fingers flew over the SUZ130, and targeting reticules sprang to life.
“Rose, ninety left, SD gotta go!”
The wounded Lightfoot bounded left, and landed directly in front of one Marauder Silent Death, startling the masked driver, who threw up his arms in horror.
Manning stroked the triggers, and the howl and crash of pure energy ripped the lighter machine to smoking shreds.
Mauler yelled in rage, and the Shadow Assassin fired again, slamming the Lightfoot down to the sands, shields collapsing, armor flaking, and circuits snapping and popping.
“Rose, back two hundred, SD gotta go!”
The crippled meka sprang backwards with difficulty, avoiding another blizzard of bolts, and landed beside a Silent Death. This driver did not try to shield his eyes, but threw a laser pointer on the cockpit of the Lightfoot.
Manning stroked the triggers again, and a hurricane of energy sent fragments of a second Silent Death shrieking through the air to land hundreds of meters away. Rose cried out in pain as another bolt of man made lightning smashed through the canopy of the Lightfoot, as the Shadow Assassin struck again.
Manning knew an awful feeling. He was losing.
“Dammit, nothing nearby, nobody?”
"Commander Warfe, there is not one ally on Konu at all, and no reported ‘friendly enemies’ nearby the suspected plot for Major Manning, and the nearest Drop Ship is on pickup at Aldus, scheduled to pick up Konu at horizon in thirteen minutes.” the commo tech said in a shaky voice.
Warfe snarled, and wrapped his hands around the commo desk edge, as if by sheer will he could alter the unforgiving picture displayed. Nobody could help. Security had swept in to find one commo tech missing, his partner swearing he’d said he was stepping out to get a bite from the cafeteria. This event had led to Commander Deylon letting loose some invective that had awed even the veteran Security troops.
Warfe whirled to another commo tech, who pointed at her screen, trembling.
“Monolith is moving,” she whispered in fear.
The Leviathan class dreadnaughts’ engines roared in fury, as Frizz sat in the admirals’ chair on the bridge, distinctly uncomfortable in Warrantor space armor. Colonel Smythe stood next to him, a worried expression on his walrus mustachioed face.
“Sir, it’s highly unlikely we will arrive in time to do anything but watch them go ‘round the bend.”
Frizz snarled, “Yes, Colonel, but they kill by treachery, then I make sure they ALL go, no Treaty Breakers get off that planet!”
A bridge officer turned to the Colonel with a puzzled look, “Sir, I am picking up position signals from both the Bull Run and Waterloo, but neither is acknowledging my transmissions.”
Frizz asked, “Where they are?”
“Sir, Bull Runs position is Faction Marauder’s battle station, but they have been there quite some time. Waterloo is directly over Konu!”
Frizz’s eyebrows drew together in thunder, and his eyes flashed.
“Colonel, we find traitors NOW!”
Fifth leaned nearer to the quaking WLF crewman, held by the Security man in powered battle armor. Warrant Officer Hermann stood nearby, fingering the large wrench he held in his hands.
“I found this one, and one of mine, hiding in a cargo mod scheduled to be picked up by Antetam for delivery out system. I got the other one in my office, Basher and Jules are sitting on him. Literally. That one admitted to sabotaging Fast Times commo gear.”
The captive drew back in fear from the expressionless shell of Fifths head, and Fifth asked ever so gently, “And where were you going, little traitor?”
The man stuttered, “D,d,duke Kennah has lands and titiles waiting for us in Dukaks! We are rich, and will be Dukaks nobles! Our lives will be long and happy!”
Fifth shook his head slowly, “You life will be short and violent, as you are terminally stupid. Hermann, put this one in an empty cargo mod, and let’s have a look at the other one, shall we?”
He looked over at the expressionless Security officer.
“No need to be gentle.”
Manning could hold a bandage across his bleeding arm, but the emergency shut helmet made him unable to staunch the steady blood flow from above his right eye. His undimmed left eye watched the Shadow Assassin as it moved closer to where Fast Times lay in smoking ruins. Below his feet Rose lay unconscious, bleeding her life out in widening pools. The engines had auto shut down to prevent an explosion, and backup power had failed. A few trembling emergency lights flickered inside the cockpit, in the gathering shadows over the ground as the planet hurtled on inexorably in its path.
Through the smashed view port window, he observed the Shadow Assassin meka point its main guns directly at his face, walking casually through the ruins of the last Silent Death meka.
The radio crackled, fading and popping, on emergency battery power.
“Duks shine, I win. From here, I go to glory, and you, you do not. I must say you help me quite a bit to get good with Emperor, well, all but killing poor Sexy. But no matter now. So, I give you last favor. I leave you alive. Enjoy. You have three minutes until Death Side!”
Behind the Shadow Assassin, a Drop Ship loomed in the howling winds, the scarred brow bearing the name Waterloo.
Manning grabbed the mike with his good hand, and yelled, “Waterloo, Waterloo, WLF Lightfoot requests immediate medical evac!”
The grating laugh came through again, “Duks shine, they not hear you! My people took care of that! Enjoy your life.”
Manning closed his eyes against tears of helpless rage.
He whispered softly, “Jessica, I love you.”
Warfe stared in disbelief as the planet vanished into the hellstorm behind the primary. Beside him a commo tech sobbed.
“Sir,” another called softly, “I have Colonel Smythe on comm. From Monolith.”
Warfe switched the screen in front to receive the call, to see the haggard features of Smythe, his mustache drooping in sorrow.
“Commander Warfe, Drop Ship Waterloo lifted off Konu at horizon, headed to Battle Station Marauder, and she’s not answering our hails. Drop Ship Bull Run just left Battle Station Marauder, heading out system, apparently hijacked. Monolith will reach Battle Station Marauder about two minutes after the Drop Ship gets there, so whoever is on it is going nowhere. I don’t know if they took your man or not, but if he’s there, we’ll bloody well get him. We also located two communications technicians and a Drop Ship mechanic working for Marauder in the Warrantors. They are in custody as we speak, and Investigation is officially lifted from Faction WLF.”
The screen abruptly widened, and the kindly and drawn features of Frizz looked out.
“You take care of that girl, Commander, she will need all of you. You need anything, you call. I am so sorry.”
"Thank you, sir"
The renegade Drop Ship rumbled away from Konu as the planet swung around to the other side of the impossible system. As deadly radiation and particles began to pour down, the machines sent their scavengers out, to take the wreckage of mekas and buildings off the surface to be dragged down to the giant subterranean factories and be hammered and twisted into new bandit war machines.
When one destroyed Lightfoot was fed into the recyclers, a human ear might have heard something, an inhuman howl of unbearable agony.
But no ear was there to hear.
Joined: 09 Nov 2008
|Posted: Thu May 05, 2011 4:09 pm Post subject:
|Story still amazing as ever, I took the time to reread it all throughout school today lol.
Current name is now BitProdigy
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Sat May 07, 2011 7:32 am Post subject:
|Commander Deylon looked over at Warfe, “You know what must be done.”
“Sir, if you don’t mind, I think Fifth and I should handle this one.”
“Are you sure?”
Jessica lay in her bed, reading an electronic book, humming happily, as only those newly in love can do. She thumbed a page to turn, when the door chime sounded.
“Come on in, Manning!”
The door slid back, and she rolled over to stare in disbelief as four people tried to crowd through the narrow doorway at once, Warfe and Fifth in rumpled working uniforms, Sims in an a blue off duty sweat suit, and a madly protesting Doctor Teng in her white medical jumpsuit.
“No, she’s recovering, you can’t, this kind of shock could be devastating in her condition!”
Fifth grabbed the doctors’ waving hands and wordlessly led her off to the side of the small room as the doctor began sobbing quietly.
Sims bulled past the doctor to come to Jessica’s side, and wordlessly grasped her hands, tears pouring down her lined face.
“What is going on, what are you…” and her voice died, as she saw what Warfe was carrying. Manning’s three thousand year old personal katana lay in his arms in its ornamented ceremonial scabbard. He walked slowly to her, dropped to one knee, and extended the ancient sword with both hands, eyes in silent pain, “I am so sorry, Jessica, I am so sorry.”
She reared back away from the proffered weapon, eyes wide in shock and horror as understanding seeped into her soul.
“No, this is a joke, right, some sick twisted, MANNING, what do you think you’re doing, MANNING GET IN HERE, no, NO NO!”
“System Administrator, Drop Ship Bull Run has cleared the system, boarded on a tramp freighter named Jersey Shore, headed towards the Dukaks Empire. Drop Ship Waterloo has docked at Battle Station Marauder, and is still not answering any hails on any frequency. Battle Station Marauder Command Center has stated it will fire if this vessel closes to within five kilometers.”
The bridge officer paused, and said grimly, “As if we needed to get that close.”
“Well done, Lieutenant. Colonel, what do you say?”
Colonel Smythe whuffed his mustache out, and stated, “ I have four hundred Shock Marines aboard, not enough to clear yonder pig sty, but I don’t believe we need to clear the beggar, do we, sir?”
Frizz shook his ancient head, wearily looking his impossible age, “Nyet, Colonel, we start by blowing off their Building Deck and working our way up. Signals officer, what was, again, chance Waterloo picked up Major Manning, his driver or machine?”
The young man looked haggard, but professionally re-ran the same numbers, “Sir, based on limited surface scans and commo intercepts, Major Manning’s Lightfoot was certainly disabled, possibly destroyed, and highly unlikely to have walked up a Drop Ship ramp. Waterloo had only three minutes to effect pickup before Horizon, and it would take twice that to remove a conscious man, much less unconscious, from a Lightfoot cabin. I’m sorry, sir, chances approach near zero.”
“I was afraid of that, hoped my old ears had heard wrong, thank you, “Frizz muttered.
“You’re welcome, sir.”
Frizz turned to Colonel Smythe, “Colonel, my investigation is complete. By Treaty, I direct you to call Faction Marauder to the surface to answer charges of Treaty violation.”
Colonel Smythe snapped to full attention, and saluted, “Aldus, sir?”
Frizz grimaced, “No, the scene of the crime, Konu! And ready my machine, this one I see in person. I want that station cleared! I want every motherless son of a goat in that gut pile on those sands. Signals Officer, put out request to Factions, volunteers for Trial by Fire. I think a few step forward for this one, no?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
A warning horn sounded as Monolith warmed up her main battery, and the emitters for the massive energy cannon in the heavily armored forward turrets began to glow.
“We have reached optimal energy range, Colonel.”
Colonel Smythe whuffed his mustache again, and called out, “Signals, commo again to that great stinking pile of rubbish, ‘surrender and prepare to be boarded’.”
“Faction Marauder Battle Station, you are ordered by the System Administrator to lay down arms, lower shields, and prepare to be boarded. All personnel will muster on the garage deck, no exceptions. Faction Marauder Battle Station, you are ordered by the System Administrator to lay down arms, lower shields, and prepare to be boarded.”
A voice crackled through the air a voice rich with glee and evil, “Monolith, long time I not see you, welcome! Faction Marauder will comply, shields are dropping, we will be at the garage, I. Mauler, Faction second in command, certify it!”
Smythe spoke savagely, “Mauler, you are Faction Leader, and will be held accountable!”
“No, Colonel, Faction Leader is Globgyl, he left with Bull Run after ordering me to Konu, all in official logs, and change of command is listed in Armageddon, too!”
Frizz leaned forward, and snarled at the unseen pickup, “You skatha puke, Mikhail Globgyl is toady to you, no leader, you lie!”
The voice continued in barely restrained laughter, as the glowing shields around the battle station began to disappear.
“So sorry, old man, but records are records, I was merely following orders! Globgyl is one to hold accountable, but he on his way to Dukaks! Perhaps you write him nasty note for stealing your ship, eh?”
The speaker rang to the full throated rasping laughter, as Frizz ground his teeth in fury.
Jessica lay quietly in the dark hospital room, tenderly covered up by Sims who hovered nearby refusing to leave.
Doctor Teng, looked over at Warfe and Fifth.
“Gentlemen, she is sedated for the next several hours, but I cannot be held responsible for what happens when she comes out of sedation.”
“No, of course Doctor,” Fifth murmured, and Warfe shook his head.
“Then maybe you should leave her be, and I will call you when she awakens. We will have Psych standing by in case of need, and grief counselors are being called in.”
Sims spoke up in a rasping choking voice, “She has all the grief counselors she’s gonna need right here.”
“Nay, lass, one more will be here for the wee bairn.”
The large shambling figure slid sideways into the room, and Oscar sat down heavily next to Sims, “I failed me job, and let her man be blown away doon’ on Konu, but Ah’ll be damned if Ah leave her tha’ same way.”
Warfe expected a super sized Sims blowup, and was stunned when she just laid a hand on the Scots scarred wrist.
“Then we will wait here,” she said quietly.
Warfe and Fifth turned back out of the room, and left the two silent figures holding desperately to a third, surrounded by soft beeps and tones in the darkened room.
Frizz looked out the view screen at Deylon and Warfe.
“That is that. Bull Run made it out on tramp freighter nobody ever heard of with most of what was on Marauder Battle Station, under new leader, Mikhail Globgyl. Mauler was on station with only mekas and some troops, waiting for us. They are all in custody now. He has me, damn him, he has me, under terms of Treaty, I can execute out of hand only Faction Leader, but for violation of Treaty like this, whole faction is required to report to surface for trial, every one, spelled out in treaty just that way. Since I cannot execute him, I must give him chance to defend on planet surface, but he not going to Aldus, this one will be on Konu, where he murdered most foul.”
Warfe exploded, “That’s garbage, semantics, he’s twisting the Treaty to wipe his behind!”
Frizz raised a cautioning finger, “Yes, young one, but he is on the right of it. Warrantors swear to preserve Treaty, not Frizz. Second I go against Treaty, I go out airlock, and rightly so. Too old to learn to breathe vacuum. Treaty must stand, or five empires go to war, billions dead. I cannot let that happen.”
Deylon laid a coal black warning hand on Warfes arm, and gave him an understanding glance. Warfe subsided with a glare, and held his peace as Deylon turned back to the screen.
“Yes, sir, when will the trial be?”
“As soon as Konu cycles, fourteen hours. Complete list of Marauder personnel and equipment forwarded to you, now.”
Frizz leaned forward closer to the unseen camera, “Drop Ship Gallipoli on the way to pick up your two traitors, take them to Armageddon. They I can deal with right now. And Commander, you will not be alone on those sands, you will not be alone!”
The connection severed, and the screen blanked.
Deylon looked at Warfe, and Fifth, who sat in the overstuffed chair in Deylons office.
“It’s not the war we wanted. But it’s the one we have. Ready the best.”
“Silverline needs to be there, boss.”
Deylon nodded, “She won’t be fighting, but she’ll ride in my Sentry. Stalwart has more room, and is taller than a Lightfoot, so she’ll be able to watch Mauler get blown away.”
The Warrantor sergeant stepped forward to the back of the cargo mod, alone on the Monoliths’ shuttle deck, and rapped on the doors, avoiding the still glowing welds across the locking mechanism.
“All comfy in there?”
Barely heard shrieks and pleas penetrated the thick walls of the heavy duty module.
“Oh, you have plenty of air in there, nothing to worry about! Don’t you fuss, Treaty Breakers, nice short trip!”
The sergeant snapped the face plate closed on his assault armor, anchored himself to the deck with a heavy cable, and waved at the crewman in the command center two stories above him. The crewman nodded, and activated a control. A whistling wind filled the room with sound, sound that died away quickly as the air was pumped into storage tanks, and the deck fell into vacuum.
The armored shuttle doors began to ponderously slide open, and alarms hooted, warning lights flashing as Monolith opened herself to space. A cable pulley and hook began tugging on the cargo mod on its hastily welded on castors, and it began rolling towards the opening doors, picking up speed until it was flung out the massive hatchway into space on course to eventually collide with the nuclear hell of Tianwarz primary.
The sergeant waved at the rapidly departing, madly tumbling cargo mod.
“Have a nice flight!” he said cheerfully.
Sims was dozing when she felt her hand being squeezed. She snorted, blinked, and looked up to see Jessica gazing uncertainly at her.
“Is it real? Please tell me it’s not real?”
“Yes, it is, honey, it is, I’m sorry,” the older woman said softly and gently.
“Mauler did this?”
Jessica stifled a sob, and asked haltingly, “What, what happens now? What am I going to, supposed to do now?”
Sims leaned closer to the bedside as Oscar snored in the chair next to her, oblivious.
“Frizz called them all to the surface, all of Faction Marauder, but back down to Konu, not Aldus, for the trial. All concerned factions can send fighters. Most of Marauder escaped in a hijacked Drop Ship, but they caught Mauler and some of his slimers. They will be down when Konu cycles, whether they like it or not, then we will tear them apart. Any who survive are kicked out of the system, but when this happened last time with Faction Blooddrinkers, there wasn’t a single survivor.”
Jessica’s eyes became hard, and bright as diamonds, “Mauler had better die down there, or I will, no,no, I won’t threaten to kill him. I’ll do worse. I will destroy him,” and her voice rang with fire and steel.
“Be right there beside you, boss.”
Deylon looked at the exhausted members of his command staff, “Great Ore, you two look like hades, go get some sleep. We’ll be down on Konu in ten hours.”
Warfe stood, swaying gently and fighting his eyelids, “Are we doing anything for Manning?”
Deylon nodded, “Quick thing before we drop, so everyone knows why. Much bigger deal later, but for now, just those dropping will attend.”
Fifth yawned jaw cracking wide, “Sounds good, sir, now I need to turn in before I turn off.”
“Good night gentlemen.”
The alien machines analyzed all materials present and allotted them accordingly. Some materials seemed to function better when retained in the presence of similar materials, and the recyclers thousands of years of memory gave weight to this concept. So, even though it was highly irregular, some unusual materials were kept in close concert, although certain functions and items deemed irrelevant were deleted from the finished product.
The day began on the WLF battle station like any other, but this time, the personnel walked as if in a dream. One of their own had been brutally betrayed and murdered by two of their own members, and it hurt all of them. Tempers frayed a bit, moods faltered, and people kept their faces turned in shame and sorrow. Echoing in their subconscious was a single thought – the balancing of the scales would come soon.
“All personnel assigned to the Trial Drop report to the Garage Deck,” the voice echoed throughout the corridors. People stopped and stared at the speakers, some prayed, some merely gave silent well wishes and others gawked at something they had never seen. WLF was not going to war but to judge and avenge.
The ranks of Command and crew on the Garage Deck seemed to swell with anger and pride. All carried their personal weapons strapped to their body armor and nervesuits, all wore their medals and insignia burnished to a high gloss.
Deylon moved to the front of the ranks, “At ease.”
He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable in his black and gold body armor and nervesuit.
“We go forth to do a distasteful thing. We must remember what it is we do, and why, just as on Remembrance Day. We factions make war and peace with each other day in and day out on these worlds below us, but rarely is it personal. We have hosted many an enemy and former enemy here for parties, and have been hosted on other enemy stations as well.”
Deylon cleared his throat, and glanced down at the worn and gleaming polished deck, then looked back up.
“One man perverted an entire faction to his ends, and used them to do one thing, murder one man. It seems clearer with every passing moment that Mauler used his faction mates as pawns in a perverted and twisted game of chess, with the sole intent of killing Major Manning. He has succeeded, but was caught before he could escape the system, as many of his faction mates did aboard the hijacked Drop Ship Bull Run. Now Mauler and his faction mates will face the consequences for what he has done. I will feel no satisfaction in the destruction of the rest of the members of Faction Marauder. But I must break with professionalism just this one time.”
Deylon leaned forward, and his voice dropped to a menacing whisper, “Mauler had better not leave those sands alive!”
A growl crossed across the assembled WLF warriors.
Warrant Officer Hermann stood at rigid attention in a gleaming dress uniform at the docking tube lock and announced formally, “Drop Ship Gettysburg has arrived.”
Deylon gestured to the dark and waiting machines, and called, “Mount up!”
A cry came from a hundred throats, a noise more animal than human. The howl of a pack of hunting wolves rose and fell in the air.
The mekas racked themselves in the waiting cradles, and Jessica noted with a tiny portion of her mind that this was the only time she had seen only WLF vehicles in a Drop Ship. She sat in the tiny communications jump seat in the cockpit of Deylon’s tall Sentry meka Stalwart, the elegant machine sliding into place next to the hulking figure of Howler. Jessica noted with renewed grief that rose and threatened to choke her, that the gold shield of The Guard had been defaced with a crude slash of black. This was the last drop of Manning’s Guard. Across the bay, four legged Claymores waddled backwards, easing their heavy missile launchers into retaining clips, next to the menacing bipedal Ares of Fifths' Heavy Cavalry with their distinctive sensor crests flaring over their heads above the bulbous cockpits, a boxy missile launcher replacing one arm, while the other arm terminated in a heavy short range energy weapon.
On the other side of Stalwart, a massive Battle Axe X racked itself, marked with Kommander Ulrich’s name and the triple headed war eagle of his home regiment. Below the cockpit was stenciled the nameBrunhilde
Jessica looked at Deylon ensconced in his command chair, “Sir, I hope I don’t get in the way.”
“Lieutenant Silverline, I hope I don’t get in your way. I want you to see this because you have earned, by God you’ve earned the right to see this. I won’t participate in the actual fighting, more of command and control, so you can see what’s going on. I routed a small board to that station so you can follow all the updates from the station as well as from our machines.”
“What about bandits?”
Deylong gestured to the racked Lightfoots, “First Lieutenant Darksire was not happy when I told him I needed bandit guard, but he gave in. He’ll take care of any bandits that are dumb enough to wander up.”
“I see, thank you sir.”
Deylong turned in his seat, and reached across the short space between them, and lay his hand on Jessica’s hand, “I am sorry, Jessica, I truly am.”
“Thank you, sir, really..”
A familiar tinny voice echoed through speakers, “Faction WLF, Drop Ship Gettysburg is now departing for Konu, direct flight.”
Monolith stood by several kilometers off the dark Marauder battle station, as mekas filed aboard the waiting Drop Ship. Frizz’s eye narrowed as he watched, and he waved to Colonel Smythe, “Is Great Ape ready?”
“Good. When all aboard Kassarine Pass, move to stand off distance, and blow that abortion out of my sky.”
“With pleasure sir,” and Smythes return salute was razor sharp.
A tone sounded in Stalwarts cockpit, and a pleasant voice said, “WLF High Command, please switch to video channel three five.”
Deylon looked at Jessica, and then brought the channel up on his display.
Frizz looked out of the small screens at them.
“Members of WLF, greetings. I have all Marauder that were left behind on board Kassarine Pass, on way to Konu. All other factions are off Konu at this time, no drops. My men went through Marauder battle station to make sure none were hiding, and some of my most veteran troopers are throwing up at what they found. I will not say what they saw, but if they had not earned this Trail before, they have now, double or more. I will not try to clean that station, but will show you what I do with it.”
The screen abruptly blanked, and became a view over the bow of the massive warship. The enormous main energy batteries glowed with full charge, and smoothly swiveled in their heavily armored mounts towards the dark and quiet battle station.
“Here, System Administrator.”
“Young lady, would you do an old man the honor of giving order to fire?”
Jessica’s eyes narrowed, and she said, “Colonel Smythe?”
Her voice snapped out like steel shattering in the ice of underworld, "Fire."
Enormous snapping coils of pure energy wrapped the brooding battle station with fire. It seemed to writhe and flow in the crackling hell it was engulfed it, then it was gone in an expanding globe of molten debris sparkling among the stars.
Deylon whispered softly, “Good job.”
The screen shifted back to Frizz, who was nodding in satisfaction, “Well, done, Colonel. Well done, Lieutenant. I see you all on the surface.”
Drop Ship Gettysburg was joined in space by the Drop Ships Anteitam, Kursk, Bastogne, Leningrad, and Kassarine Pass, carrying the disgraced Maraduers. Monolith moved in at a substantial fraction of light speed to take her place at the head of the progression. The massive dreadnaught assumed orbit around the spinning blue world beneath it, as Konu emerged from behind Death Side. The Drop Ships waited patiently in orbit behind Monolith. Giant sliding armored doors opened on the dreadnaught’s assault deck, and a single oversized Drop Ship emerged.
Deylon gestured at the screen, “That’s the System Administrators’ personal Drop Ship, the Stalingrad. Rumor has a distant relative of his died in that city in the Second World War on Earth a very long time ago.”
Jessica nodded, too overwhelmed to answer.
Stalingrad took her place at the head of the line of Drop Ships, and they began the long drop through the howling metallic cloud cover to the waiting sands below.
For once, Jessica could watch everything as nothing was blanked out by the Drop Ship crew, and watching the canyons and plateaus rush by at breakneck speed was thrilling, succeeding in diverting her mind for the moment. The Drop Ships hurtled towards a wide flat plain, bounded on all four sides by high rocky mountain walls. There, they began to settle.
Gettysburg landed at the apex of a triangle formed by the Antietam, Kursk, Bastonge, and Leningrad. Straight ahead, and one full kilometer away, the Kassarine Pass landed, facing the Gettysburg. Stalingrad landed to the left but between the groups, and engines howled down into silence, as Drop Ships prepared to do the unthinkable – stay on the surface.
Ramps began to moan down on all the faction vessels, and Jessica felt the retaining clamps from the docking cradle abruptly release Stalwart. The WLF machines began to exit the Drop Ship, forming ranks directly in front of it, wind whipping the loose blue and white sands around tireless metal legs. Behind the mekas came the low massive tracked shapes of the Hermit salvagers, fully four times as long as any meka, and capable of hauling up to ten of them at a time, preferably in pieces.
Kassarine Pass stayed buttoned up tight as WLF formed up. Silence hung momentarily in the air, and a cry rang through the airwaves, a call that had caused strong men to look to their feet in the past, a cry that would never be repeated again.
“Guard, form the wall of battle!”
Twenty identical heavily armored and armored Battle Axe Two mekass marched to the front of the WLF ranks, fully four hundred meters ahead, so the enemy lay only six hundred away. They lined up in rigid line formation, and waited. Their battle honors were painted thick and deep on their metallic chests, and their names outlined in gold. All bore the single black slash across the gold shield.
“Commander Deylon, what are they doing?”
“Oscar insisted they lead, as they feel disgraced by the fact they weren’t there to save Major Manning.”
“But that far ahead? According to that list, Marauder still has some substantial equipment left, isn’t that a little exposed?”
Deylon reached back, and placed his hand on Jessica’s hand, “Then they march to their deaths. The Guard will be no more when we leave, either lost here, or moving to new Command staff, but they have this last task. I will not take their honor away from them.”
“I don’t want to lose any more friends!”
“Neither do I. But this is a place where we do lose friends, all the time, which is why we have Remembrance Day. We all make our own choices in the end, young lady, one of life’s truly hard lessons.”
She swallowed hard, fighting back tears anew, “Yes, sir.”
The other Drop Ships in the triangle gaped open, and more mekas spilled out onto the sands, Lightfoots, Claymores, Ares, Battle Axe Twos, Puma four wheeled scout cars, floating Lone Eye probes , boxy and ungainly Ballista missile mekas on spindly legs, and Brightlance mekas, with their arm mounted energy cannons already glowing with charge. A full squadron of Leopard Assault Tanks ground forth on their synthetic titanium treads, deadly cannon questing for targets.
Their colors ran riot, the brilliant emerald green of Asylum, the white and red of Deliverance, the fiery reds of Phoenix Rising, and several in the pale blue and white of PGF. Then the command mekas came forward, a low slung and evil looking Necromancer, a black hunchbacked dreaded Nightstalker on heavily armored legs, the silver white form of a Palestar, both arm mounted missile bays gaping open and waiting. The twisted form of a Shadow Assassin walked out, and Jessica recognized the colors of Mysterious of Deliverance.
“Wow, Marauders really don’t have any friends, do they.”
“After what they did, anyone claiming to be their ally has already left the system or committed suicide,” Deylon said grimly.
Darksire said softly over the faction channel, “Assuming perimeter patrol, sir,” and his three Lightfoot mekas ran lightly across the blue and white sands to begin circling the area.
The ramp of Stalingrad ground down, and five hulking command mekas burst forth, three Battle Axe X class, and two Shadow Assassins, all bearing the brown and gold of Warrantors, with a brilliant red stripe down each metal leg.
Deylon looked over at Jessica, “Warrantor Shock Marines. Best of the best. Those five could whip half the forces in Tianwarz.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, with a lump rising in her throat.
Then down the ramp came the giant waddling form of Great Ape, the titanic Overlord meka that bore the System Administrators personal seal. The quadruped machine moved easily over the sands to stand between the group and Kassarine Pass.
Jessica leaned forward, dialed up the magnification on her screen, and saw the painted symbol on the side of the Overlord, a giant silverback great ape standing on his hind legs, arms spread wide, mouth opened in the killing gape. She shivered.
Deylon said softly, “They made a joke of that once, calling Frizz the Space Monkey. Then he killed an army with that thing, and I haven’t heard any jokes since then.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
A voice came over the air, and it took a moment to recognize the kindly Frizz in this stentorian pronouncement of doom, “Marauder, COME FORTH!”
The ramp on Kassarine Pass lowered slowly, coming to a rest. Nothing moved.
“MARAUDER COME FORTH!”
A lone Long Rifle meka stumbled down the ramp. It hit the sands and narrowly avoided falling. The driver over corrected, and barely got his machine out of the way of a swift moving Howitzer II, its twin heavy cannons pointed almost straight up. A third meka stumbled down the ramp, a Pirata with its radar wing rotating madly, walking almost sideways as if the driver couldn’t see straight.
Deylon frowned, and keyed to Warfe, who sat in his distinctive bipedal Katana X next to him.
“These guys look like clowns, where’s the real fighters?”
Warfe’s figure in the screen could only shrug.
By that time fifteen light and medium mekas had stumbled and crawled out on to the sand, and formed a rough and ragged line facing the Guard.
Jessica leaned forward, “The heaviest thing they have is that old Battle Axe One, and it looks like it has already been through a fight. I don’t get it.”
Deylon ground his teeth in cold fury, “I think I do, and I pray I am not right. Great ORE I pray I am wrong!”
The Shadow Assassin that he had been captured in gracefully capered down the ramp, spinning and pirouetting, and despite herself, Jessica could not help but be impressed with the agility Mauler demonstrated with his machine.
“Hello, Frizz, hello, DEY, Warfhammer, and I bet the lovely Dagger is in there somewhere, hello!” the rasping gravel voice caroled in their ears.
“What is meaning of this, MAULER!” Frizz bellowed.
“Meaning? What could you mean? These are all that was on my poor battle station, here we are! All the rest are on board Bull Run with my terribly traitorous leader, that evil Globgyl, remember? Only me and my personal slaves are here for your entertainment, eh? They don’t look like much, but all of them successfully pass thirty minutes in simulator, should be good fight, yes?”
Frizz growled, sounding much like the ape on his meka, “Mauler, what is your game here...”
The Shadow Assassin raised its arm mounted cannons to cover it’s cockpit in mockery of horror.
“Me? No game here! I come as ordered, to face Trial on Konu, so here I am!”
Darksire’s voice whispered in Deylon’s ear, “Three bandits approaching, Sentry, Lightfoot, and Wolverine. I got it.”
Quietly, “Good, take care of them.”
Maulers evil cackle came out the air again, “So, here I am, per Treaty, when we get started?”
Jessica whispered, “Can’t he just slip in to cloak and escape?”
“Cloak's disabled, and where would he escape to? No Drop Ship would pick him up.”
Great Ape backed up awkwardly, and Frizz called out, “Trial is begun!”
Oscar’s voice cried out in cold fury across the WLF frequency, “Guard, prepare to fire!”
And Maulers voice came again.
“WHAT?” Jessica shrieked.
The Shadow Assassin went to its knees, and the cockpit doors flew open. Two black suited figures exited, and leapt to the sands below.
The Marauder mekas behind him all collapsed, figures running out of the cockpits, some immediately heading at a dead run to the hills as if to find safety in that inhospitable waste.
Mauler crowed, his voice made tinny from his command helmet emergency radio.
“Per your precious Treaty, Frizz, I surrender at Trial. Per YOUR law, I may not be killed, but must be exiled as a survivor. You love your Precious Treaty so much, now be BOUND with it!”
Deylon sagged in his command chair, and whispered in ragged breaths, “Oh, that scumlord gutpile, oh dear GOD, oh no.”
Jessica pounded the seat arm in frustration and confusion, “Commander Deylon, what’s going on, I don’t understand!”
Deylon turned to her, his face tragic, “Marauder is using the Treaty against Frizz, claiming he is a survivor of this trial, and must be exiled. He throws his slaves against us in bandit scrap machines, junkers you could take in Dagger without breaking a sweat, and makes a complete mockery of the whole deal. All a waste, all lost, he escapes again…”
Frizz howled on the radio, “Mauler, I BREAK YOU!”
“No, old man, you can’t. You break your precious Treaty, YOU down here with me. Meanwhile, my legion is going to Dukaks to wait for me, my treasury, everything except this Shadow Assassin, and that’s good, I have more. You cannot do anything but exile me to my home Empire, who will welcome me with open arms after I humiliate you, the System Administrator," and Mauler spat on the mike, “The precious System Administrator of the Treaty of Salvatore the Inspired, HAH! Emperor will be honored to give me my titles back and I will be made Duke Kennah once more! All thanks to you precious Major Manning, and your Treaty!”
The figure made a mocking bow.
“I win again, old man.”
Jessica collapsed in her seat, sobbing, as Deylon slammed his fist against his command console in naked fury. Cries of anger and outrage filled Common Channel, and the tiny figure of Mauler continued to make his mocking bows to the impotent firepower surrounding him.
The weary voice of Frizz came across a direct channel, “Lieutenant Silverline, I am truly sorry. I will make sure he is out of Tianwarz space by this station night, but I am truly sorry.”
Jessica controlled herself long enough to say softly, “Thank you, sir, I don’t blame you, not one bit, just him.”
“Thank you, young lady. Those good people over there, they will take care of you.”
A Warrantor Battle Axe X meka moved up to Great Ape, and the Warrantor Captain asked Frizz over the Common Channel, “Sir, how do you want us to move these persons?”
Frizz snarled at the capering Mauler on his screen, “Naked and in chains!”
The Marauder prisoners were being herded up the ramp into Kassarine Pass, when a voice sounded, “Commander Deylon?”
Deylon looked down, and saw the handsome young Philippino face of Darksire, with a worried expression.
“Sir, I hate to bug you, but I have something really weird here.”
“Now isn’t a great time, Crusader Darksire, what’s going on?”
“Those three bandits I told you about? Well, the Sentry and the Lightfoot, typical bandits, easy kills.”
Deylons patience was razor thin, “Yes?” he growled.
“Sir, the Wolverine, well, I can’t hit him, and he isn’t shooting at me.”
Deylon stared back at the young man, “That’s odd, but not stunning, so why tell me?”
“Sir, you have to look at this to understand, here’s the last two minutes from the gun cameras.”
Deylon watched the screen change to typical grainy gun camera footage of a dirty bandit Wolverine, dodging and weaving, easily avoiding the Lightfoots’ fire. Not once did the medium energy cannons on each truncated wing even glow, much less fire. Deylon’s eyes narrowed as he watched, and then, as the Wolvering executed an impossible running backflip, he grunted.
“I knew someone who could do that in a Wolverine, only one person who would try something that crazy. I need to get a closer look at this.”
Jessica looked over his shoulder, sniffling, “What, sir?”
“We need to go see this Wolverine.”
Stalwart stepped out of the ranks of WLF machines, and Warfe signaled in confusion, “What’s up?”
“Remember what happened to Ceres from Faction PGF several years ago?”
Warfe paled slightly, “Yes, horrible.”
Deylons' face tightened, “It might have happened again. I’m going to look. I’ll keep a video going.”
“Dear God forbid.”
Stalwart moved out at an easy running pace, and Jessica watched through the main view port in confusion as they closed on where a Wolverine meka ran back and forth between shots from Darksire’s Lightfoot.
“Darksire, cease fire and ground in place!”
The Lightfoot stopped firing and became still, weapons trained.
The Wolverine stopped moving as well, and stood, quivering with mechanical tremors that shook it like a wet dog.
Deylon walked Stalwart up to within fifty meters of the lighter bandit machine, and looked at it carefully. Nothing stood out, typical bandit construction, bad welds, blank black plate over where a view port would be, but no bandit craft ever sat and did nothing with enemies in sight.
“Bring Howler over here.”
Jessica leaned forward again, “What is this?”
“I am hoping we’re dealing with a really bad bandit computer, but I need a meka with hands right now. No bandits behave like this as a rule, but there is one more thing I need to check before we just blow it away.”
Howler strode over, shaking the ground with each massive stride.
Deylon used a pencil laser as a pointer, “I think this one’s gone rogue, but I need to see inside that cockpit. Grab that panel and pull it off, will you?”
The one hundred millimeter guns elevated up out of the way with a metallic groan, and the titanic assault meka leaned carefully over the quivering bandit machine. One gigantic hand reached out, and with the skill of long practice, grasped one edge of the Wolverine cockpit plate with two fingers. Howler leaned back slightly, and the plate ripped away in a shower of sparks.
Jessica screamed, Deylon howled in fury, and Oscar called out harsh oaths to long forgotten pagan gods. Cries of horror ripped through the links as the echoed images reached all the mekas on the plateau and through them to the battle stations rotating in their orbits so far away, sending almost physical shockwaves throughout the system.
Nestled in the maze of twisted wiring and discolored tubing that occupied the cockpit of the bandit meka, the upper half of Major Manning’s face looked back at them, covered by a clear plastic mask.
The eyes blinked.
The bandit Wolverine abruptly collapsed on the sands, and the engines began to power down in a whine and shower of sparks. Jessica frantically unstrapped her seat belts.
“Silverline, what are you doing?”
“Sir, I have to go to him, I HAVE TO!”
“Yes, you do.”
Stalwart knelt, and the cockpit door flew open with a whoosh of atmosphere as Jessica’s suited figure burst out onto one shoulder. A giant metal hand extended, and she hopped up with difficulty into Howlers’ metal paw. She slapped at her helmet, which had automatically extended around her neck and face. Straining against her wounded leg, she hung onto the metal fingers as Oscar gently laid her down on the sands next to the Wolverine.
Jessica crawled out of the hand, and walked on shaky legs over to the horror that gazed back at her. She activated the external speaker on her command helmet.
“Manning?” she asked unsteadily.
The eyes blinked.
She had to smile through her tears, “Just like in school, one blink for yes, and two for no?”
“I can’t save you, can I?” she whispered into the speaker mike.
“But I love you!” she cried.
A long blink and a single tear leaked out from one pain filled eye.
“What can I do?”
The eyes gazed back at her, and then shifted slightly down, and to her right. She looked down where Manning’s gaze rested, on the pistol strapped to her side.
She looked back up, and shook her head.
“I can’t!” she whispered into the complete silence.
“I can’t, I love you!”
Nearly blinded by her tears, she clawed at the pistol, finally drawing it from the holster, and limped two steps over to the cockpit opening which lay almost at eye level from her.
“May you and God forgive me!” and she fired.
The bullet smashed into the forehead of what had once been a man, and blood and fluids exploded out in a spray. The eyes fluttered, and closed, but not before she saw a change.
Jessica screamed in fury and pointing her pistol at the sky, she fired, firing at the pain, at the agony of soul until the magazine ran dry and the slide locked back.
And the mekas answered. Bolts of man made lightning ripped the sky, cannons roared, missiles shrieked from their tubes, and the clouds writhed and tore under the assault. Great Ape reared back on its hind legs as Frizz emptied the missile launchers at the boiling sky, and unleashed the devastating energy cannons. Ulrich’s Battle Axe X threw huge projectiles to rip holes in the metallic atmosphere. Warfe’s Katana boiled steam with long bolts of raw power. Screams and howls of anger filled the airwaves, and the Marauder captives went flat in their prison ship, sure their moment of death was at hand.
Jessica fell to her knees, sobbing, clutching the empty pistol to her chest desperately.
Howler moved over to the Wolverine, and gently picked up the lighter machine in both huge hands. A Hermit salvager came up, offering its huge deck, but Oscar bypassed the long low vehicle, cradling the bandit meka to his machines chest tenderly, unmindful that both cannon barrels had bent and twisted up out of the way. Oscar began walking a slow and measured tread to the Drop Ships, and the rest of the Guard fell in behind. The other faction mekas stepped respectfully out of the way as Howler went up the ramp of Gettysburg, and waited to be locked in the cradle.
Jessica sobbed until she ran short of breath, and began hiccupping, when a suited figure dropped to the sands next to her.
“Boss, I got you, I got you,” and Sims wrapped her strong arms around the grief torn girl.
“I got you, honey, I got you.”
Jessica stopped sobbing long enough to hiccup out, “No, now we get him! Now we get HIM!”
The Drop Ships began closing up, as the various faction mekas racked in the massive holds, some of them feeling cheated. Kassarine Pass took off first, heading for Armageddon. Stalingrad buttoned up tight with Frizz and his Warrantor Shock Marines aboard, and roared off to Monolith.
Deylon made sure Gettysburg had the retaining clamps tight around Stalwart, then turned to the quiet figure beside him in the cockpit.
“Anything we can do, Lieutenant Silverline, anything we can do.”
A ghost of a smile played across her drawn and haggard features, “Thank you sir,” she whispered.
Then her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Sir, by Tianwarz law and Treaty, we can’t touch Mauler, none of us?”
“That’s correct, though I’d give my right arm to change that.”
Jessica grew thoughtful, and Deylon shivered, seeing a growing light of hellfire dancing deep within hers eyes.
“Do we have interstellar communications?”
“Back on the station.”
She leaned forward, and with sure and steady fingers, summoned up Monolith’s communications code. The Signals Lieutenant gazed back out at her.
“Yes, Lieutenant Silverline? My deepest sympathies, ma’am.”
Jessica nodded, and asked, “When will the Marauder captives be shipped out?”
“Next freighter due in," the Signals Lieutenant looked away from the pickup at another screen, “is approximately thirteen T-hours away.”
Jessica leaned back, “Not enough time, any way we can extend that?”
The Warrantor officer shook his head, “Not without involving the System Administrator.”
“Can I talk to him?”
The officer looked mildly scandalized, “Lieutenant, I realize what a time you have had, but the System Administrator is not simply at anyone’s beck and call! I will pass a message…”
A gnarled old hand fell on the young Signal Officers’ shoulder, and the weary and kindly face of Frizz bent down to look out the tiny screen at her.
“These young ones, they try so hard to spare me any work, good job, Signals, good job, but I am right here. What can this old man do for you, Lieutenant?”
“Sir, I need Mauler delayed for a day or so.”
Frizz frowned, “There is no revenge, young lady, Treaty does not allow for it, no matter what.”
“Sir, I can guarantee you I will not attempt to physically harm him or any of the others in any way. I just need a little time.”
Frizz nodded, “Very well, I give you two T-days. After that he goes in belly of whatever rustbucket is heading to Dukaks.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Deylon looked warily over at Jessica, as if at a normally docile animal suddenly snarling and flashing claws. Jessica leaned back and hugged herself, as Monolith cut the connection.
“Something I should know about?”
“Not yet sir, but I promise, you will.”
The fire began to burn brighter in her eyes and she whispered to the stars, “You will.”
Gettysburg docked, but not a single meka moved. Retaining clamps hissed back, and still not a metal leg quivered.
Howler stepped forth, the shape of the bandit Wolverine still cradled in his arms. The other nineteen members of the Guard stepped forth and with a slow and measured pace, as if to a distant drum, they walked down the docking tube. At the end, the lock cycled, and a somber medical team waited, complete with crash cart and surgical team. Howler bent slowly, and placed the Wolverine on a lifter vehicle waiting for it. The medical team swarmed over the stricken vehicle, hoping for a miracle, but their rapid movements quickly gave way to the same quiet helplessness. The Wolverine was lifted over to the Repair Bay. The chief surgeon and Warrant Officer Hermann turned to the waiting Battle Axe Two.
The meka nodded, and Oscar began moving his damaged machine to his garage.
Jessica sipped some hot soup in Command Central, while commo techs warmed up the interstellar rig. One turned to her half apologetically, “Sorry, ma’am, but we only use this about once a year, so we have to bring it up from cold, be a minute or two.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
Warfe made to lay a hand on her shoulder, then stopped, and let it fall.
“I don’t have the words,” he said simply.
She looked up at him, “Have you ever had to kill someone you loved?”
“Then you couldn’t have the words. There aren’t any.”
She reached out and took his hand, “But thank you for trying,” she whispered.
“Ready, Lieutenant Sliverline.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
She smiled the predatory smile of a hunting animal.
“Get me Earth, North America region. There is somebody I need to talk to.”
The notice went out around Tianarz space that a funeral was to be held. Invitations were made. Responses were granted. Frantic preparations were made. Deep within the Repair bay, Hermann himself slowly peeled back the metal monstrosity that encased the mortal remains of Major Manning. A mortuary team stood by, tears running freely down their faces.
The screen cleared, to display the red white and blue Earth Eagle. Jessica leaned forward, and tapped in a long and obscure com code. The screen blanked, and as abruptly switched to an office, where a distinguished silver haired gentleman was writing on an old fashioned foolscap pad. His head rose up in annoyance at the disturbance, and then his features cleared.
She nodded, “Uncle Alac, we need to talk.”
Alac Silverline looked deep within his niece’s eyes, and nodded, “Yes, we do.”
Jessica stood in her cabin in her dress uniform, staring through her mirror. She had not moved for many minutes. The door chime sounded, and she did not move. The chime sounded again, and became insistent. The door abruptly moved back, protesting as rock hard muscles ovverode mere motors.
“Lass? Are ye alright?”
Jessica started, as if awakened from a dream, “I’m sorry, Oscar, I was just checking my uniform.”
She looked at him sadly, “It has to be perfect this last time.”
“Och, no talk of last times, wee one. Somber enow it is today.”
The huge man held out a scarred paw, but Jessica disdained it, flinging herself full into the surprised mans embrace. He carefully folded her into a huge hug, as she sobbed with total abandon in his arms.
“Oh God, I miss him!”
“Aye, lass, so do we all. This is the curse of the War Worlds, ‘tis.”
He gentled her back a step, and smiled down at her, a soft sad smile, “’Tis why I am thinkin’ rather than go to another Commander, I will be buyin’ me way out. Snuffy and I are thinkin’ of goin’ to his homeworld, not too far from here. We can buy a meka to take wi’ us, and hire oot as security or sommat.”
“Oscar, you’re leaving?”
“I may, I may, doon know, yet.”
He gently tousled her hair, “But it’s getting on, and we have to be going.”
“Yes,” she said, a small sad smile, “Yes, we do.”
Jessica stepped through the entrance to the Garage Deck, and stopped.
The Garage Deck had been completely redone by frantic support staff in mere hours. Huge white curtains hung from the overhead, covering the Repair Area and the Garage, leaving the wide blank decking in front of the docking tube, an enormous space now covered in green carpeting like soft spring grass. The giant floodlights were dimmed to half their customary brightness. The Faction Heart shone like a beacon in the night over the golden casket. Fifth and Warfe stood to each side of the casket in gleaming dress uniforms, bared swords held across their bodies, rigidly at attention.
Jessica stared in awe as people rose from ranked chairs as one, and turned to face her.
Rose Thorn stood in her formal swirling red gown of office, brow crested with a massive diamond, surrounded by fifteen Elite Phoenix Swordsmen. Sir Stephen of PGF wore his snowy cape and tabard, gleaming mail shining at wrist and throat, and ranked behind him stood ten shining plate armored Picked Knights of the Realm. The Lady Princess Emerald of Asylum gave Jessica a half bow, resplendent in her emerald robes, silvered tiara gleaming, flanked by her highest ranking Berserker Warriors in white bearskins and heavy double headed gold plated axes.
More Faction leaders and followers stood in silent rows than she could count or even recognize the uniforms, and she felt her heart hammering in her chest as she realized everyone of them was looking straight at her.
A familiar voice asked from very close to her right, “Lieutenant Silverline, may I?” and Commander Deylon stood there in his perfect dress uniform, offering her his arm.
She looked up at him in relief, “Yes sir,” and took it.
Oscar slipped away behind the rows of seating as Deylon escorted her to the front of the assemblage in total silence.
He led her to three chairs set in the front. On one side Sims stood waiting, her dress uniform ablaze in medals and awards from three Empires. Sims face was a study in tragedy as she looked at Jessica in sorrow. In front of the other chair Kommander Ulrich waited at attention, in a beautifully tailored dress uniform of softest faun leather and cream accents, a large bearskin shako in his arm, partially obscuring the ranks of medals and awards from his home regiment.
“Lieutenant Silverline, these two have asked for the honor of standing in for you in this time of grief, will you accept them?” Deylon asked formally.
Jessica stifled a sob, and said haltingly, “Yes, sir, of course.”
“Then take your place, Lieutenant.”
Sims reached out, and gently drew her in to stand between them.
"Ladies, gentlemen, honored guests, faction members, please, be seated.”
A rustle of cloth and murmurs filled the air as the thousand people sat.
Jessica looked askance at Sims, “Stand in?”
“We stand in for your family,” Sims whispered, “as many of us here have none left.”
Jessica cried softly, “But I have a family…you.”
Sims said nothing, but squeezed her hand tightly.
Deylon stood behind the podium again, weariness and grief evident in every crease of the craggy ebony features.
“Welcome faction mates and honored guests. I wish these were better times, when a welcome meant more than misery and sorrow, but misery and sorrow have been handed in full measure, and must be savored to the last bitter dregs. And in the sharing with us, you help lessen the pain of that misery and sorrow, and I say for that, thank you all for coming this day.”
Deylon looked down at the podium, and cleared his throat.
“The War Worlds are a violent place, a place that scientists claim cannot exist, a place outside of politics as usual, a place like no other in five known Empires. A place where vast fortunes are made, and our oldest adversary, death, is never more than a heartbeat away. This is the place where we, Faction WLF, and all of you,” Deylon said, gesturing to the crowd, “make our homes and lives. This is home. And this is a home that some never leave.”
He looked over at the Heart.
“Our Faction Heart rises above the grave again, as another goes into it.”
Jessica stifled a sob, as Sims put her arm around her.
“Death is not an unusual companion, never far from our minds as we do battle. But sometimes death comes to us in ways even we cannot foresee, and we must deal with it as all humans do, in our own unique ways. And so we gather here today, to deal with a death of a man who was revered by some, respected by others, feared by more, and loved by many.”
Deylon grasped the edges of the podium, and looked intently over the crowd, “Major Manning came to us like so many of us did, lonely, hurting, on the run, looking for a place to call home, a place that would hold him safe. We gave him that. Over the years, he grew in stature and experience, rising in rank from a warrior to a leader, one whom heads of state would treat with respect. He learned, and taught, and gave more of himself than any could ask.”
Deylon cleared his throat again, and glanced down at the podium, then back up, eyes bright, “He was also my friend, a man with a great laugh, who would gift you the shirt off his back if you were in need. And I miss him, too.”
The silence was so total the distant gentle hum of the floodlights was the only noise.
Deylon stood abruptly straight, and called out, “In WLF, we have Remembrance Day, where we hold back the night with our friendship and trust for each other. And we have a saying we give one another. Peace and hope."
Commander Deylon spread his arms wide," WLF, guests, peace and hope to you.”
Sims hugged Jessica close, whispering brokenly, “Peace and hope, sweetheart.”
Kommander Ulrich, laid an arm on Jessica’ shoulders, and squeezed, “Peace and hope, young one.”
She let the tears fall, sobbing as her friends held her up. Sims tendered a handkerchief to her face.
The WLF faction members murmured the phrase to each other, and some of the guests did as well, many looking thoughtful.
Commander Deylon stepped back from the podium.
Oscar stepped up to the podium as the lights dimmed to a single spot, resplendent in his tartans, and began to play his bagpipes. The skirling notes of the ancient song of mourning swept through the assembly, and Oscar stood, eyes closed, playing for the last time, for the commander he had lost. The pipes wailed from a time lost in the mists of ages, and some swore later they saw not a man on a steel deck, but a warrior standing on a rocky crag over a deep loch in a shadowed, distant land.
The last note faded off into a deafening silence. Oscar bowed formally to Commander Deylon, who saluted. Oscar withdrew soundlessly.
Deylon once again faced the crowd.
“Major Manning’s mortal remains were placed in an interstellar torpedo, as he had requested. This torpedo is aimed to fall through the skies of Rayzon in due time, and be consumed in its atmosphere, so Major Manning’s ashes will be scattered over the home he lost for this one. The torpedo is loaded aboard Monolith at this moment, awaiting only the order to fire.”
Commander Deylon pressed a control on the podium, and a screen suddenly appeared above his head, showing the bridge of Monolith, the craggy face of Frizz, and the mustachioed face of Colonel Smythe.
“System Administrator, Colonel Smythe?” he asked, without looking at the screen behind him
Both men stood formally, and Frizz said sadly, “We are here, Commander.”
Colonel Smythe looked straight at Jessica from the screen.
“Lieutenant Silverline, it is truly your place at this helm. Will you give the command?”
She nodded, too overwhelmed to speak, and then concentrated hard to control herself.
Jessica looked up at the two men on that distant warship bridge.
“Gentlemen,” she said in a clear voice, “Send him home.”
Colonel Smythe looked off to his left, and nodded.
The screen blanked, and then became a remote probe showing the front of the awesome dreadnaught. A single silver streak shot out from her bow, and vanished among the stars. The screen blanked, and disappeared.
Deylon looked over the gathering.
“Major Manning has gone from us, and with our love and farewell."
The gathered group bowed their heads and a young WLF bugler wearing the spurs and saber of Fifth's Heavy Cavalry sounded the Last Call from the rear of the assemblage, the mournful strains of a song once known as Taps filling the cavernous chamber. As the last note faded into silence, Commander Deylon visibly shook himself, as if coming back from some dark and distant vision.
He looked down at the podium, and back up, "These proceedings are now closed. I invite our honored guests and faction mates to join us on the cafeteria deck for refreshments and conversation. Thank you all, more than you can know, thank you.”
The quiet was shattered by the shove of chairs, voices began talking, and the lights quickly rose to their customary brightness. Jessica stood with difficulty, with Sims and Ulrich steadying her.
“Lieutenant Silverline?” Deylon asked, coming close.
“Yes sir,” she said, mentally marveling at the steadiness of her voice.
“There is another matter we must discuss.”
Jessica looked quizzically, and at Warfe and Fifth, who moved in to stand next to her.
Deylon cleared his throat.
“Major Manning’s will.”
Deylon gave her a sad half smile, “He changed his will last week. You are the sole heir. I realize now is not quite the time for it, but you needed to know, especially after that call. I received an answer from that gentleman right before I came down here, and the answer is simply, ‘agreed’.”
Jessica lowered her eyes.
Fifth looked over at Warfe in some confusion, and Warfe mutely shook his head.
“Thank you, sir.”
“WLF, let’s join our guests. Lieutenant Silverline, let me know when you are ready, and I’ll call a Drop Ship.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Quietly the six of them headed to the gathering.
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Sat May 07, 2011 7:33 pm Post subject:
|Three hours later, Jessica Silverline stood on the Garage Deck, her formal uniform embellished by the black leather weapons belt that held her twin silver poniards at the ready. To her side stood Commander Deylon and Commander Warfe, both still in formal attire with the additions of their dress swords, Deylons’ a long gleaming straight blade with cross hilts that would have done justice to a Crusaders’ belt. They stood stiffly, waiting.
A Warrantor in brown and white entered through the lock door.
“Gentleman, lady, Normandy is at your disposal.”
The three entered the docking tube, Jessica marveled in a small corner of her mind how odd that she should be walking a docking tube in her boots, and not a meka. They traveled in silence, escorted by the Warrantor, to the cavernous meka bay, which stood empty.
“Commanders, Lieutenant, the observation deck is up that ladder.”
The three went up to the observation deck, and stood at the view port in silence.
Jessica suddenly spoke, “He brought me here, my first trip in.”
Deylon looked down at her, “And what did you think?”
She swallowed hard, “How alone I was, how strange this place was, how bad did I screw my life up to be here.”
She looked up at Deylon, “And what was this big gentle man doing taking care of me?”
A tear rolled down her cheek.
Deylon laid a hand on her shoulder.
“We all take care of you now.”
She looked up with a wan smile as Warfe grasped her other shoulder. Reaching up, she took both men’s hands in her own.
“Arriving Armageddon in five minutes,” came the Warrantor pilots’ voice over the intercom.
The three silentlywatched the cloak fall away from the planetoid.
Jessica caught her breath again at the fairy structures, as Armageddon loomed in the view port. No friendly light show greeted them this time, as the man made moon remained quiet and gray, forbidding and massive. The Drop Ship slid slowly towards the same armored portal as before, which slid back battle steel doors to receive them.
Normandy docked, and a Warrantor sergeant appeared at the ladder to the observation deck.
“Gentleman, my lady, this way, please.”
The gray painted hatch door slid away as the armored Warrantor sergeant at the desk touched a control. Jessica suppressed a shiver as she stepped through the deliberately forbidding gateway into Armageddon’s prison wing. She looked up at Warfe and Deylon.
“I think it best I do this alone.”
Warfe asked anxiously, “Are you sure?”
She smiled a small sad smile, “Yes…”
And the hellfire began to glow deep in her eyes.
“I think it best he knows it’s from me.”
A uniformed Warrantor officer stepped forth, and mutely gestured for Jessica to follow him. They stepped through another armored hatchway, to a sterile white room, divided down the center with a thick transparent wall, which was divided as into alcoves with chairs. Not one other person was in the visitation room.
The Warrantor gestured to a chair in one alcove, “Here, Lieutenant, I’ll have him brought out.”
Jessica nodded, and sat in the hard brown plastic chair.
A door on the other side of the barrier opened, and a Warrantor in powered exoskeleton half dragged a disheveled and naked creature forth, weighted down with heavy chains. The thing shook off the officer’s hands, and stood, visibly gathering some dignity, then turned to Jessica.
Mauler smiled a thin evil smile, and then crudely thrust his groin forward.
Jessica let the trace of a smile cross her features, and keyed the microphone.
“I’ve seen those before, but usually a lot bigger.”
Mauler snarled, and plopped down in the chair opposite the barrier with the air of one forced to do a distasteful task.
“What do you want, little slug?”
Jessica leaned forward, her eyes burning.
“I think I forgot to introduce myself in all the fighting and killing going on, and I wanted to make sure I had done so.”
Mauler sneered, “What of it? I am Dukaks noble, not interested in crawling slime like you!”
The Warrantor leaned in with one augmented hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, until Mauler winced in pain
“You’ll be speaking kinder to the lady, you, or you will regret it,” the man said softly.
The captive grimaced, and then waved one chained hand airily, “Speak then!”
Jessica looked at Mauler with a predatory grin, “I am Jessica Silverline. My uncle is Alac Silverline, the president and owner of Silverline Mining. Do you know him?”
Mauler looked slightly uncomfortable as the information sank in, “I dealt with his company in Dukaks, yes, what of it?”
Her teeth showed as she continued.
“Silverline Mining does a great deal of business with the Five Empires, including your Dukaks. Many of the refined metals your Emperor requires for many of his most important projects can only be found through Silverline Mining. The Emperor knows my uncle by name, treats with him as a near equal, names him friend in public and in office. Do you see where this is going, slime?”
Mauler yawned ostentatiously, “I care not, but to be returned to my quarters until I can assume my rightful place!”
“Oh, you will, I assure you.”
Jessica stood, and looked down at the chained man, “By the way, I can tell you one important thing. You did not kill Major Manning. I did. What you did was more evil. You destroyed him. Therefore, I return the favor.”
She leaned down, and stared Mauler in the eyes through the transparent armor, “Emperor du Dukak was most interested to hear that one of his friends and business partners had a neice who had been so badly treated by a former Dukaks noble, a disgraced ex noble who claimed to have the Emperors ear, even. Emperor du Dukak was most displeased at that thought, especially when the person in question had been whipped out of his dominion many years earlier. When he was told that a very favorable contract on a particularly choice rare item was available for a price far below market, with one little request attached, he listened, rather intently I am told.”
Jessica moved closer to the glass, the hellfire leaping in her eyes like twin bonfires as her voice deepened in anger.
“You see, when the Emperor was told what the little request was, and why, well, he was most happy to oblige. So, yes, you are absolutely right, slime, you are going back to Dukaks, but not as a noble. You will be taken, in chains, to the mining asteroid of Kamath, to spend the rest of your days as a slave, mining ammonium ice in the dark.”
Jessica leaned up against the barrier, and whispered fiercely, her words dripping with fire and hatred, “Enjoy your life!”
She turned, and walked away, as a figure howled and shrieked against a barrier, a figure struck down and hauled back to his cell in scraping and rattling chains.
She never looked back.
Jessica sat, feeling uncomfortable and slightly out of place, wrapped in the ancient overstuffed leather chair in Commander Deylons antique themed office. Warfe and Fifth perched on wooden filigreed chairs, and a couch nearby held Oscars’ bulk next to the ramrod straight form of Sims.
Deylon looked across his desk.
“I understand why you want these witnesses here, as they will shortly. But to the matter at hand.”
Commander Deylon reached in his ancient desk drawer, and pulled out a thin official parchment document.
“This is Major Manning’s last will and testament. You, Jessica Alicia Silverline, are to inherit all his worldly goods on this station and elsewhere in space, which includes a rather sizeable acreage on Rayzon, if it is ever made habitable again. This also includes his balance in our treasury, and all the mekas on the Garage Deck.”
He slid the small document across the desk to Jessica, who took it reluctantly, “It doesn’t make up for your loss, but you will never suffer for lack of funds.”
She looked down at the document, and gasped. It was signed in large, strong letters, Major Alvin Manning.
“So that’s what the ‘A’ stood for…” she breathed.
“I wish you the best from it, but I know better, as these do not,” Deylon said sympathetically.
She looked down at her hands, and then up into the confused faces of Fifth, Oscar and Sims, and she began to speak slowly and haltingly, “The deal I made to make sure Mauler would get his cost me something very dear to me, the one thing I really didn’t want to give up. I have to leave the War Worlds immediately, to any neutral planet of my choosing within the Empire of Man. My uncle was very strict on that. At least he didn’t insist I return to Earth.”
Sims, sniffled, a very un-sergeantly looking tear running down one leathery cheek.
Jessica looked over at Deylon, “Several machines I will not be taking, such as the Battle Axe Twos of the Guard. They deserve to stay her. But many of the others I will take. Including the one he preferred not to speak of.”
Commander Deylon looked relieved, “Get that thing off my battle station, and I’ll throw in an extra case of ammo with every meka!”
Fifth leaned over and whispered to Warfe, “Thing? What thing?”
Warfe merely shrugged, equally confused.
Jessica smiled at Deylon, “He thought there was something good in it, but he hadn’t gotten around to finding out what it was, so I will do what I can.”
She looked back over at the others, “Frizz has offered me the use of a Drop Ship to take all of this wherever I am going, but that depends on one thing.”
She looked steadily at the large Scot hunkered down in his couch, “Oscar, you and Snuffy can go to his homeworld, and you won’t need to buy a meka. I am going with you.”
Oscar began protesting feebly, until an iron hard arm landed across his chest.
“Quiet, you,” Sims growled, and then turned to Jessica.
“I am going too,” she said simply.
Oscar looked down at her in shock, and began, “My wee dear…”
Sims stopped him with a look, “My name is Harriet, get used to it.”
She then turned to Jessica, and nodded her precise military nod, once up, once down, as Jessica stifled a giggle, “Now that’s taken care of, we’ll pack.”
She stood, grabbed Oscar by his hand, and half dragged the huge man out of the room, his weak protests echoing through Command Central.
Jessica controlled her giggles as the others smiled, and then looked over at Deylon.
“I am sorry, sir, you, all of you, you did more for me in this short time than anyone ever has. I truly felt like I had a home.”
“And you still do, but there is one other small thing I need to do.”
Deylon stood, walked around the desk to her side, and reached down to her rank insignia. He lifted the single orb away, and replaced it with a gleaming double silver orb.
“You completed all your class work and field exercises to be promoted within WLF, so before you go, may I salute you, First Lieutenant Silverline?”
Jessica sat, choked up, as the three men came to attention, and rendered her a crisp salute.
Warfe leaned forward, and whispered, “Fastest time to promotion by merit, ever. Well done.”
Jessica stood, and weeping, flung her arms around the three WLF officers.
“Jessica, you will always have a place with us in The War Worlds, should you ever need us,”
Warfe, Deylon and Fifth stood at the view port, watching the Drop Ship engines flare, moving towards a distant freighter waiting beyond the Treaty Line.
Warfe observed, “She’ll always land on her feet, that one. I hope she can find love again.”
Fifth looked over at Warfe, his cybernetic eye shining with the pale blue of amusement, “Ah, she will have love soon, not quite what you’re thinking of, though. I saw her mustering out physical.”
Deylon said, “Oh my,” and shook his head as a wide grin split his face.
Warfe looked back and forth at the two of them, “This story really isn’t over, is it?”
Deylon cocked his head thoughtfully, “Bull Run is still out there, with all of his men and equipment, and Mauler has powerful friends in the Dukaks Empire. No, I don’t think this is over yet. But we three may never know the ending.”
Warfe threw his arms across the other two men’s shoulders.
“Let’s go down to the lounge for a drink, I’m buying. Fifth, what are you drinking, forty weight, is it?”
“Always the jokes with you!”
Laughing, the three friends headed for the door.
End Act I, intermission.
Joined: 18 May 2008
Location: AZ, USA
|Posted: Fri May 13, 2011 8:58 pm Post subject:
|Begin Act II.
Planet Sandria, Empire of Man, five point eight light years from Tianwarz.
Seventeen Earth years later.
The old yellow hover taxi threw up a roostertail of dust on the winding country road, and the young girl in the back looked out the dirty window, straining for a glimpse of her destination through the thick green trees and rolling hills, framed by the jagged snowcapped mountains in the distance. The taxi bucked and bumped as its terrain following drive struggled to maintain with the uneven surface, but she rode out the rollicking ride with no comment, just a smile on her face as familiar landmarks hove into view.
“Hello, look! Mount Lemox has snow again!”
The taxi driver said back over his shoulder, “That’s right, little miss, there was good snowfall this year, won’t be any problems with the water pack for summer. Have you seen him without the white in his hair?”
She grinned, and yelled back over the whining drive, “Yes, but not for a while, been away to school off planet! It’s great to be home!”
“Well then, welcome back, little miss!”
The young lady wiped her long dark hair back from her face, and her grin was as wide as the skies she surveyed.
The taxi bumped up to an unmarked narrow road off the main way, and he turned down it, repellers protesting at the even rougher surface.
“Daresay I hope they know your coming, young lady,” the driver called back, “It’s a long way back to Central Town.”
“Oh they know, thank you.”
She pressed her face to the dusty glass as the little car bounced up towards a long low house, red tile gleaming in the crisp air and green fields surrounding it in all directions. She whooped out loud when she saw the hulking bipedal Long Rifle meka walking through the fields slowly and carefully, “Yes, they got it working right!”
The driver muttered, “Dadgum machines, ain’t natural like that. Humans should drive tractors in fields!”
She paid no attention to his comment as they slid to a stop in front of the house amidst a cloud of dust. She threw an outsystem bill far in excess of what the ride cost to the driver, who made no comment and pocketed it swiftly, “There ya go, little miss, need help with your baggage?”
"This little thing? I think I’ve got it,” and she slipped out of the car, oversized green day pack slung over one shoulder, brushing her hair out of her eyes. Her light brown boots and the lower half of her denim pants were immediately covered in dust blown up from the taxi as it sped away, but she paid no mind. She pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her red plaid shirt pocket, settled them across her eyes and looked around in great satisfaction.
The thick wooden front door to the house burst open suddenly, and a huge barrel chested man with impossibly long arms and graying hair ran out of the house and swept her off her feet until she squealed.
“Great Ore, it’s good to see ya!” he bellowed.
“Uncle Oscar! Uncle Oscar!” she howled in glee.
“Oscar, you great ape, put her down this once!”
A stout matronly woman in a light blue plaid dress and stained apron stood in the doorway, waving a stirring spoon like a sword, scattering droplets on the porch.
“Put her down, you missing link, or you can sleep in the barn! Again!”
Oscar Laird put the girl down gently, a soft smile on his face, “Och, the barn, I keep forgettin’ to repair that roof, so I’d best be doin’ what she says.”
She smiled up at him, “That’s okay, Uncle Oscar, I’m just so glad to be home!” and hugged him again.
She turned, and flew up the steps to grab the older woman in a great bear hug, causing her to whoof in surprise.
“I love you, Aunt Harriet, I am so glad to see you.”
Harriet hugged her back, and then eased back, “Alyssa Marie Manning, you should be a little more careful with an old warhorse like me, I damage easily nowadays.”
Alyssa giggled, and covered her mouth, “You damage as easily as a Battle Axe Two, Aunt Harriet!”
The young woman turned, and pointed to the plodding Long Rifle meka slowly and carefully walking the dirt rows between the plants, “I see you got it working, all of it?”
Oscar came up the steps slowly, favoring one leg slightly, “Aye, but it took a wee bit of time, it did. Replacing the gun with a sprayer was a hard task, it was. And the local bobbies keep thinkin’ I am building an army oot here.”
As if on display, the light meka stopped in its tracks, and turned, aiming its namesake long barreled ballistic cannon at one section of the field. Instead of a seventy millimeter armor piercing shell bursting forth to geyser dirt and foliage, a light spray of water and insect killer gentled out over the plants with a sibilant hiss.
Alyssa laughed out loud, “And you’ll invade Center Town with a bug sprayer! That’s rich, Uncle Oscar!”
Harriet glared at the huge man, “I hope ideas like invasions are the last thing on what he loosely calls a mind, but I can never be sure. Here, give me your bag, your room is ready.”
“Thanks, Aunt Harriet,” and she hugged her again, “It’s so good to be home!”
“Soo, how was Earth?” the older woman ask, head cocked to one side.
Alyssa looked up at Oscar, “I did go to see the New York Crater, but it’s still mildly radioactive still, so no real tours of the ruins. New Denver is REALLY crowded, in fact, the whole planet feels like elbow to elbow people! Hated it, but I finished my school there. I tried to hit every beach and mountain I could find, but there’s even a restaurant at the top of Mount Everest now. No room anywhere to stretch my legs. I hated it. I did see Glasgow for you, and a whole land of people who talk funny like you!”
Oscars face stretched in a grin, and he said in his broadest accent, “Dinna be attackin’ me accent, or I’ll siccin’ me wife on ye!”
Harriet swatted him on one arm, “Oh, you!” and Alyssa giggled.
She then looked up, suddenly sobered.
“I need to go say hello to my mother.”
Oscar nodded, looked over at Harriet, who stood holding Alyssa’s bag, and nodded thoughtfully, “Aye, at that you do. Let’s go.”
The wind swept softly over the green hill, under the tall ash tree, and the small stone marker placed there. Alyssa stood looking down at the name engraved on the granite.
Jessica Alicia Silverline
Loved mother of Alyssa Marie Manning
Alyssa reached into her daypack, and pulled out a slender frosted over silver metal cylinder. Gently she opened it, and a whoosh of cold air blew out of the tiny travel freezer. Carefully she reached in, leaned down, and placed the single red rose in front of the marker, “I brought you a rose from Earth, Mother. Great Uncle Alac sent it for you. I love you, always.”
She looked up at Oscar, wiping a tear away, and said, “Let’s go inside.”
“Aye,” the old man said, and wrapping one arm around her shoulders, he walked her back to the waiting farmhouse.
At the wide solid wood table in the comfortable kitchen, Alyssa closed her eyes and drank in the sounds and smells of her Aunt Harriet’s cooking.
“Mmm, that smells good, what is it?”
“You’ll find out soon enough! Teenagers, all stomach!”
Alyssa grinned, and looked over at Oscar sitting easy on the other side of the table, a steaming mug of tea in front of him, “Great Uncle Alac sent a letter for you. He did say to tell you, umm, ‘yes, no, and maybe’, whatever that means.”
Oscar grinned, “That’s whether or not he’ll be payin’ for your next level of schoolin’, and what ye might be wantin’ do with it!”
Harriet came up behind Alyssa, and laid her hands on her shoulders, “And what is the next level? You already broke some records for this sleepy planet, graduating high school at fifteen, completing four years of college in two on Earth. Do you want to try graduate school? Doctorate maybe? You have so much ahead of you…”
She sighed, and former compatriots would have been astounded to see the loving expression on her weathered and lined face as she looked down at the young girl, “Child, you got your father’s height, your mother’s looks, and your great uncle’s smarts. Seventeen years old and already a college graduate. You mother would be so proud.”
She became abruptly brisk and business like, “Well, enough wool gathering, this meal isn’t going to cook itself, and I am not about to let that great tub of lard cook anything! Last time he almost set the house on fire!”
Alyssa giggled while Oscar tried unsuccessfully to look repentant, “It’s not me fault, that I dinna know duck cooks greasy!” He looked over at Alyssa, “One little fire…” and shrugged helplessly while Alyssa giggled.
He drank a long swallow of his tea, set the cup down and asked carefully, “And?”
Alyssa looked down at the table, then back up at Oscar directly, uncertain and worried, “EarthGov confirmed it, the Red Raiders are the Bull Run and what’s left of Mauler’s crew. Dukaks finally let slip that Mauler escaped the asteroid with help a few years after he was sentenced there, and has been seen with the Red Raiders, though no one will say if he’s in charge or not. I have some vid caught on Soltan Three, all energy weapons, no missile or projectile weapons used. He is probably out of ammo, or hoarding what he has left, not many places he can steal meka quality ammo. No rhyme or reason to the raids, but the last one is only two light years from here. Empire of Man officials said they can’t seem to find one Drop Ship that doesn’t even have interstellar capability, one that seems to show up in systems far apart. Great Uncle Alac says they couldn’t find their rear ends with both hands and a mining surveying tool. I agree.”
Oscar drank his tea, eyebrows drawn down and thunderous, “I had hoped to be rid of tha’ scumlord.”
Alyssa said softly, “One of the last memories I have of Mother is her holding me on her lap, telling me the story about him and Daddy. He’d scare me to death in the middle of the night, and I’d start crying, until she’d come in and tell me it was okay, that Mauler was in prison far away in another empire, and that Daddy was right there, watching over me.”
Alyssa looked over at Harriet, “I wish I’d met him. She loved him so very much. You know, sometimes I thought I could feel him in the room, standing guard. I always slept well those nights.”
Oscar reached out and took her hand as she fell silent.
Harriet harrumphed from the stove, “And they listed the cause of death, ‘unknown cardiac event.’ Unknown cardiac event, my left foot! I know your mother died of a broken heart, and that gutpile Mauler is responsible!”
Harriet then turned and shook her ladle at Oscar, “Now don’t start your worrying, Oscar Laird, nobody is looking for us here on this practically empty planet! And don’t you start pining for all those mekas we used to have either! We’re retired, they’re gone, and we will just sit here, old, fat, dumb and happy!”
“Och, my bonny wife, I agree with ye, but I canna help but wish I could get him in my gun sights just one more time.”
Alyssa looked back at Oscar, a sly smile creeping across her face, “Speaking of gun sights, maybe a little one on one?”
Oscars face split in a wide grin, “Aye, that’ll take the edge off!”
The two of them, leapt from the table, racing down the hallway, as Harriet hollered behind them, “Dinner in one hour, and I’ll eat it myself if you two aren’t here!”
Alyssa and Oscar entered the small silver faceted room, and she looked around with satisfaction, “I could not find a single meka simulator on Earth. They have another ‘peace’ movement going on, down with all weapons and such. Take another few years to get rid of those idiots again.”
She squared off to the older man, “OK, what’ll it be, Uncle?”
Oscar grinned, “You’ll be seein’, now won’tcha?”
He grabbed a nervesuit and helmet from a wall locker, “Hope they still fit!”, and gestured to the small changing room, “After you!”
When Alyssa closed the door behind her, Oscar whispered to the air, “Jessica, if you can hear me, your daughter is a wonderful lass, smart and pretty. Just like you.”
Alyssa emerged, “Your turn, oh, never mind, you changed out here.”
A wicked grin crept across her features and her eyes lit up, “Alright, lets program!”
The sand of Wulf blew across the Lightfoots windscreen in gusts and eddies, and Alyssa turned on the static repellers. The view cleared somewhat, and she tapped her displays thoughtfully.
“Dear Uncle, you’re not running stealth, are you?”
A disembodied voice echoed in the cockpit, “A course not, canna stand them things. Here I come!”
And two one hundred millimeter shells arced in to splash sand harmlessly to the right of Alyssa. She activated the optional computer driver, and sped off in the direction of the incoming fire. She spotted the Battle Axe two closing inexorably, and grinned, “Uncle, you’re so predictable!”
“Aye, sometimes lass, but I go with what works!”
Missles arced in from the giant war machine’s chest, and spattered with little effect on the Lightfoot scout meka’s shields. The massive cannons belched fire again, and Alyssa danced her meka to the right, easily avoiding the explosions.
“My turn, Uncle!”
She raced the fast meka around to the Battle Axe Twos right, forcing the much larger vehicle to start a ponderous turn. Throwing extra ergs to Suzy, Alyssa stayed just inches ahead of the geysers of explosions following her, until she reached four hundred meters, and opened up her battery.
The twin light energy weapons flashed writhing coils of pure energy at the Battle Axe two, melting long furrows in the breast plate. A rail cannon slug snapped across the windblown ground at close to the speed of light to blow great fragments of armor off in wind milling sheets. The Reaper assault cannon chattered its war song, and collapsed uranium sabot slugs ate through more armor like an army of termites on wood. The Lightfoot’s main gun slung it’s eighty millimeter slug to enhance the damage, and it slipped through a crack in the massive armor, creating an instant billow of smoke as Oscars’ massive engine took a direct hit. The Battle Axe Two staggered at the assault, and Oscar’s next shots went wide.
Alyssa goosed the Suz, and grimaced, “No flashlights this shot, still recharging, oh well.”
A second volley of high velocity steel savaged the hapless assault mekas armor, splintering off into glowing shards as Alyssa goosed the Lightfoot again to a fast run, four legs pumping smoothly in the sands. She did not escape unscathed, as a flight of missiles fused several shield circuits, but her heavy screens held easily under the assault.
She whooped out loud as she watched the severely damaged meka begin a long fall to the waiting ground.
“Gotcha, Uncle Oscar!”
The cockpit abruptly disappeared, and the two of them sat in light chairs in a silver faceted room, grinning at each other like maniacs.
“Tha’ was incredible lass, I ne’er been taken doon tha’ fast before.”
Alyssa stood and bowed, grinning like the Cheshire cat, “That lucky critical hit on your engine sure helped!”
“Aye, tha it did, but tha’ Lightfoot of your is a bit faster than I thought?”
Alyssa stood and curtseyed, “Integrated Hellburn overdrive and Cerebus shield system is a wonderful thing, don’t you think? I found the design specs on Earth, latest thing, this integrated equipment, but apparently quite difficult to accomplish. I programmed it into my handcomp so I could have it, oh, kinda for occasions like this! I have great speed, defense, and good controllability, eh?”
Oscar clapped his hands with a wide smile, “Good job, niece, good job, but I didna know about this integrated thing. Perhaps we should rematch?”
“That’s three out of four battles to me, Uncle, I think you are deep trouble!”
Alyssa flashed an evil smile at her uncle, “Last one there has to sleep in the barn!”
“Och, get back here, yon scamp!” he bellowed as she raced down the hallway while he limped along behind.
Alyssa shoveled another heaping forkful of chicken and rice in her mouth, cramming it full almost to overflowing. Harriet looked over sternly, “No food in that fancy school? You eat like you haven’t seen food in months!”
Alyssa swallowed hurriedly, and wiped her face, “Food, yes, the replicated garbage the masses get, reprocessed seaweed and plankton, gah. Nothing like real food, like here. I had to wait two weeks to order a steak, it’s a long line for real food. You have NO idea how much I couldn’t wait to get your cooking again, Aunt Harriet!”
The old woman beamed, “That’s my girl, keep eating up, Oscar, you big lummox, don’t hog all the food!”
Oscar heaved a long suffering sigh, and pushed the steaming pot back over to the teenage girl, who immediately began scooping more on her plate.
“Girl, I hae nae idea where you put all that food!”
“Hollow leg,” Alyssa mumbled between bites.
“Aye, I’ll bet!”
Alyssa paused to look at Oscar, “Is Snuffy still with the Constabulary?” she asked around a mouthful.
Oscar preened, “Wi’ my help, he is Lieutenant of Constables! He’s still foolin’ wi’ tha’ Gatlinger we gae them, some local kid as his partner.”
“Nice, good to see that old hunk of junk is still working.”
“Hunk o’ junk? Hunk o’ junk!”
Harriet leaned across the table and rapped Oscar’s knuckled with her spoon, “Don’t repeat yourself, DEAR. It was a hunk of junk, until Snuffy and Chuckie spent so much time fixing it up. Not everything out of the garage was in top shape.”
Alyssa sat, fork halfway to her mouth, and frowned, “What DID happen to all the stuff Mother brought with her? I know you sold some of them, but not all of them, right? Other than the gardener meka out there, that is.”
Oscar sighed, “The local gendarmes made us get rid of most of them while ye were gone, took quite a loss, Snuffy forgot to tell us they dinna like mekas out here. Canna afford to keep most in ammo, anyway, and, nae anyone to fight, anyway. Yer mother gave the BAX to Warrant Officer Hermann, threw the access card at him and said, ‘Maybe now ye can fix it?’ Laughed my head off at that one, I did.”
Alyssa cocked her head, the forkful of food momentarily forgotten, “So what’s left?”
Harriet ticked off on her fingers, “Well, your fathers Sentry, Snuffy’s Gatlinger, I think a Howitzer Two with maybe ten rounds left, and that ‘thing’.”
Alyssa looked at Oscar while Harriet suddenly covered her mouth with her hand, reddening at Oscars glowering expression, “Thing? I remember someone saying something about a ‘thing’ in the Constables’ garage. What is it?”
Oscar shuddered, “An abortion, something that should nae ever been built.”
Harriet leaned forward to catch Alyssa’s eyes, “That is one machine nobody needs to touch. Why your father or your mother never got rid of it is a mystery to me, but before your mother passed, she said it was supposed to be yours when you come of age.”
Oscar slammed his hand down on the table, “We discussed this, we were nae going to bring tha’ up!”
Alyssa’s eyes flew open wide, “I have a meka?!?”
Harriet looked sheepish, and cast her eyes down at the table, “Sorry, Oscar, but she does deserve to know.”
The older man looked at the ceiling in askance, “Ah, well, ye gone and done it anyway, might as well tell her the rest!”
“Rest of what? What do I have? What is it?”
Alyssa sat watching her aunt expectantly, as chicken and rice slowly leaked off her fork.
Harriet took a deep breath, “It’s a Lightfoot, similar to the one your father used so much, Fast Times, but it’s different.”
“It’s a DEX class, experimental.”
Alyssa looked puzzled, “I never heard that anyone made an experimental Lightfoot.”
Oscar grunted, “That they did lass, one of them.”
Alyssa looked back and forth, “One?”
Harriet nodded said slowly, “One only. It was an experiment to remove the driver from the command crew, make a true one man vehicle, for a commander who liked to do his own stunts as it were. It was equipped with an experimental advanced artificial intelligence designed to take over the driving.”
Alyssa frowned, “Lots of mekas have AIs on board.”
“Not like thi’ one, lass, it was meant to direct mind link wi’ the commander through th’ nervesuit link.”
Alyssa’s eyes opened wide, and she squeaked, “Eek.”
“Exactly. Oscar, quit looking like that. This Lightfoot was built to interface with the commander at a neural level, but it went too far, went too deep. The AI was far too powerful, and they thing it became somewhat self aware. It began killing commanders assigned to it. They would be hauled out of the cockpit, eyes open, drooling, mental vegetables the rest of their lives.”
“And my mother WANTED me to have this thing?”
Oscar leaned his head up on one giant fist and sighed, “Yer father and mother both thought the AI was looking for someone specific, someone different fra’ anyone on the War Worlds. They canna remove the AI, destroys the whole system. It can be trusted to do very limited movement. Moves docile enow when asked, like when we came here, but anyone goin’ in that cockpit is askin’ for hell on Sandria.”
“Alyssa, darling, please just leave it alone, someday we’ll find a way to deal with it. Until then, it’s a deathtrap.”
“Yes, Aunt Harriet,” the young lady said, with a gleam in her eye.
Harriet sighed, “I’ve seen that look before. Young lady, I still hold a reserve commission in the Constabulary, and I will make sure they do NOT let you get near that thing yet.”
“But it’s mine?”
“When you reach your majority, which is eighteen on this rock! Next year we’ll talk about it again, understand?”
“Yes Aunt Harriet.”
Looking as docile and obedient as possible, Alyssa bent to her food with a will.
At the outer limits of the system, a small ripple rent the fabric of space time as a ship forced its way back into rationality. If anyone would have been there to see, they would have noticed the tramp freighter was dark and quiet. Her plates were scratched and bent, some showing actual rust and scales of some unknown substance gleaned on worlds without names. A single Drop Ship mated to its hull like a remora to a dilapidated shark. The ship began stealthily moving in system and a chance gleam of distant star light glanced off the name still faintly stenciled on the Drop Ships bow.
Alyssa stretched on the porch as Oscar filled his pipe, and began puffing contentedly.
She pointed at the now quiescent Long Rifle, “Who drives that?”
Oscar said around his pipe, “Robotic, follows a specific set program, very limited AI. Senses the path and where it needs water and bug spray, saves me a bundle on crop sprayin’. Was gonna use a local lad, but once he figured hae to drive a meka, he was gone to tha War Worlds. Ne’er heard from again. We said we’d ne’er do that to another family again, but lotsa locals are still upset o’er that.”
“That’s too bad.”
She looked over at Oscar, his eyes half closed, “Uncle Oscar, what if Mauler came here, what would we do?”
He shrugged without opening his eyes fully, “Die a lot. We hae little equipment left, that’s for sure. Be me and your aunt in Rifleman, an’ Snuffy in the Gat. Nobody wants to learn hae to drive or shoot the Howie Two, but it’s almost oot of ammo anyway.”
“That’s not very reassuring, Uncle Oscar,” Alyssa said with worry in her eyes.
He smiled, and closed his eyes all the way, “Dinna fash, lass, he’s light years from here.”
Joined: 05 Apr 2006
Location: somewhere with trees
|Posted: Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:07 pm Post subject:
|Moar Plz ^.^
-following since the beginning.
Joined: 26 Sep 2009
Location: Behind you!
|Posted: Wed Nov 09, 2011 8:00 am Post subject:
|fleshless wrote: |
|Moar Plz ^.^
-following since the beginning.
More Please!! awesome story Armored.
^this guy is crazy^
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Death before dishonor.
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