“It makes no difference what men think of war…war endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the perfect practitioner.”
-Cormac McCarthay, Blood Meridian
God damn I hate rollin’ low cash.
Knew this badass named Wolverine, back in the day. Had this whole paradigm all to his own where vernacular seemed a completely separate language, but somehow he got his point across. No money, but tons of opportunity?
You’re rollin’ low cash.
I was on Antares, with my girl Cecile, and I had a job offer that was too real to be honest, but yet it was. Take out a communications outpost on the planetoid I was on, and get paid, and the contract was by a major clan, New Dawn. That outpost was out of the way of every major clan in this part of Fringe space, right? ‘Cept, of course, Clan 58th Wraith Squadron, which used the communications to coordinate ops for most of their major engagements, light years away.
The planet was relatively civilized. Nobody would hit this place in force and risk disturbing the commerce that was abound. But Clan New Dawn wanted it hit, by any merc who’d do the job, and they were gonna pay 70,000.
Man, I wanted that cash.
The connection that gave it to me was one of the thousands of brokers that contracted mech jocks throughout the Fringe. He threw me the offer, because I was one of the few jocks around, and because he knew that I could get this done in two weeks, but because that’s how I made what little name I have in this part of the galaxy. I’m fast.
Let’s put it this way. I fought in the Dead At Birth War, right? I was in no less than seventeen engagements, in three different ‘mechs, and only made a measly 27,000 creds, even with the Iconian Knights footin’ the bill. So 70,000 was sweet, sweet, sweet.
But, no lie, my Loki had taken some hits in my last little bout of garrison duty. I ran out of all the LB10X ammo I had, ‘cept for six salvos in the left arm. No problem, fresh reloads would be about 1,000…
No way I was walkin’ into anything with six LB10X shots. My Loki had two LB10X’s and two ER large lasers, right?
I had 2,000 creds.
Took my Loki into the big shop, to get it refitted.
The mechanic called me out of the bar I was in, said it was major.
What would Wolverine say?
Oh yeah. “If it’s major, have an extra beer.”
I didn’t follow that advice, and just went down.
The place was all rust and ordinance burn. Like a warehouse on steroids, all reactors, smelters, and chrome colored walls of dermoplast to contain the macro construction.
The mechanic’s handle was Sir Prince. He had an arm that was a Russian prosthetic, gleaming plasteel and bolts of titanium, with a damn digital ammo feed for his gyrojet rifle, if he ever held it again. His eyes were Zirosky 6000’s…nice ones.
“Right there.” He said.
The screen was a blue monochrome display, all gauzy and indistinct, part X ray, part schematic. The hairline crack running down my port LB10X was there, like a damn fault line.
“You like heat? There you go. Maybe PPC aftershock, maybe flamer. Or your reactor. Regardless, my old jock, one more shot and you are one less arm.”
The feed glinted our face in ultraviolet neon quicksilver. Beyond was the megalithic clank-rattle-thrum of heavy industry and factory sub-audibles. Like the dissonant underground ambient thumping of an old Earth New York subway.
Remember my *****ing about the Iconian Knights and Dead At Birth? I just remembered…they repaired all my damage…IK, that is. Clans are cool like that. If you fight for them, they repair whatever ails your ‘mech. I needed 7,000 to replace the rifling stock in the LB10X.
I didn’t have it.
So I went back to the bar, rollin’ low cash all the way, and thought about how this deal with the communications grid had to happen in one week.
My glass emptied. I thought of my girl, Cecile. I thought of how maybe this was all good, ‘cause if the deal went through I would have to move off planet, fast. So now I could stay put, but all of my livelihood had come down to a hairline crack, and the techno du-wop humming from the speakers above just mocked me.
7,000 to get 70,000.
I thought of my Loki, and I thought of how I needed them.
Then I looked up from my glass and there he was, the mythical bad ass returned back to Valhalla after drinking all the mead in the place.
I had worked with him once, back during DAB. So I thought of poverty and Lokis and creds and clans and rolled up.
Beyond his head, the sports vids were all amber monochrome. Holofeed of hydroball, from SOL space.
“Eight-track. M’man. How’s your girl?”
“Good, Wolverine, uh, sir. Hey, you on a job?”
He had the dead pan expression of a back from the dead veteran who’d seen the deepest of the darkest, with all the blood to cover it. His mouth was tight and thin. Like he had a secret or three.
I explained to him the sad, sad circumstances.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Gotta save for those rainy days, bud.”
He was like one of those aloof motherf*ckers you talk to on a phone that don’t answer you right away, so you feel like a silly idiot.
“Well, I thought you could finance the op and take a percentage.”
That was my plan. Better than getting nothing, right?
“You ran guns near Madoria, right?”
I realized that he had an old Earth southern drawl, or at least the memory of it, faint and indistinct, residual echo despite galactic Diaspora. It made him seem more lethal.
“Yeah.” I answered.
“You still carry? You still handle yourself?”
“First, we have to make a trip, and you gotta move like I move when I move…got it?”
“If you fund this, you’re in charge. It’s cool.” There, I said it.
“I’ll pick the pilots. We are going to keep it small. You, myself, and two others. We’re going to move fast…75 kph minimum. No laggers. We’re going to do this, it’s going to piss off many people, so we’re going to have no witnesses. That means paint jobs and fake tags. Plus, once we’re done, we all walk off in separate directions and keep our mouths shut. The 58th are not going to like any of us, you know. I’m going to pay for your repairs, so that’s 7,000. The two other guys get 15,000 each. You get 20,000, I get 20,000. The 7,000 is your finder’s fee. I know some guys on a dropship that are Dominion Ops certified, and they don’t care a funk about local politics. They’ll be discreet. ”
Somehow, the numbers didn’t add up quite right. Sure, he was getting a profit…but not as much as the other guys. What was his angle?
There was also the heavy thud of having to say goodbye to 50,000, but there was no getting around that. I had known I would have had to hire a lance to take the outpost, and that lance would have been paid out of the purse money for pulling off the mission. But I was getting hooked up plenty. Better to get that much and live, than to try for the whole amount and end up watching the wreckage of my mech from the rearview of an escape pod…
But that was the mystique of Wolverine. Aside from that drawl, and his cool demeanor during DAB. He had flying saucers full of cash holed away, and some said he was like a lot of clan boys, who just did it for the fight.
I’d be a clanner, but their rules are too many, their oaths too damn long, and sometimes they are a little too goody two shoes, for me. You also had to pay dues and go to meetings and recruit, so it’s like Amway mixed up with the Boy Scouts and the Masons…funk, some clans have all sorts of tidy religio-philosophical notions that puts them right beside Scientology. Still, they are the big dogs in the Fringe. One could reasonably argue that SOL was just one big earth based clan. Hell, clans put Star Patrol out of business, you know. You can’t argue clans don’t civilize the places they park.
Wolverine was drinking coffee, so he finished it. The amber feed kept going up above on sixteen separate vid screens hanging on antigravs from the walls. Someone floated upside down, somersaulted, and planted a shot. A few patrons of the bar cheered.
Wolverine leaned in, like he was going to bite off my nose.
“I gotta make some contacts. Call your girl, tell her your going to be home in a week with lot’s of cash, and then you are I are going to hit the depot. Some of my clan are there, they get first dibs.”
Wolverine wore a spent uranium signet IK ring, like they all do. He toyed with it with his thumb, looked to his side, and squinted, like he was trying to hear something beyond the bar, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to like what he heard. The amber light washed over the place, I was starting to come out of my drunk, and we had places to go.
I stepped back from the table, feeling lucid. Wolverine’s boots were knitted from the hide of an alligator’s skin. The pattern of it was unmistakable, even in the half-dark of the bar. It made me apprehensive.
Life is a strange, strange drop. I had gone from being under to being on a job. One instant, you could be walking tall, rifle in hand, pointed at the back of someone’s head…the next instant, you’re face down in a swamp, missing an arm, and some carnivorous reptile has it’s teeth in you, dragging you into the murk.
“Where are you?”
“On a job, baby.”
“Listen, I will be back in a week or so. There’s a few grand under my pillow. It’s a ruby quartz wafer, untraceable and good anywhere. Use it. I’m going to come back soon, with more. Pack everything. When I get back I’ll call you and we’ll go to Bora space for a stretch…or maybe SOL.”
We’d done this, before.
“I’ll have everything ready. I love you, baby.”
“Love you to. Stay cool, Cecile. After this, you and I are going to live high, a while.”
Antares was one of those perfectly hospitable planetoids that required no terraforming whatsoever. Years ago, explorers showed up, tested the water and atmosphere, and set up shop. A year later some corporate conglomerate moved people in. Antares was the kind of place that drove physicists and planetologists googly-moogly, when it came to deducting the odds against such an earth-like environment fit for human habitation.
Huge sprawls of urban creation, museums, art zoos, malls, apartments, corporate sectors and other modern human convenience juxtaposed by even grander stretches of natural landscape. Jungle archipelagos, mountain ranges, canyons dotted with coniferous plantlife and odd iron constructs oddly carved with geometric patterns, left by…who?
No one knows. They weigh five thousand tons, they’ve been here for a million years, and they don’t rust. They look like perfect cylinders, and they drive scientists just as googly-moogly as the physicists and planetologists. Theories abound. They look funky, you roll up on them and you put your hand on them, tracing your finger across deeply etched hieroglyphics, and wonder.
Biggest oddity in the cities of Antares is the fact that the designers went nuts for brass colored ferroconcrete, and antigravs.
There are almost no conventional buildings in the cities of Antares. They float a mile into the air, at most, or a story, at least, and when you go under them you feel like a couple thousand tons of structure is going to come down like the stone and steel hand of some Maker. There they are, up high, connected by tubes and ramparts, and to think of it, checking them out from this angle as the sun rises silver through a chrome colored mist horizon, they look like space stations and Capitol Ships, are parked in orbit with one another.
No surprise, there. The architects probably saw so much of them on the way to Antares it was the only thing they could think of. When I can’t see the ground, and I am high up checking out the Ellis Superstructure or 9OR MechaConglomerate, Inc., I feel as if I am back in space, except space is blue and white, or, when the mists of the many oceans settle in, it’s brushed aluminum and burnished platinum.
Wolverine drove all the way to some Palatial Estate in a Fabrio 5K Hovercar. One of those crimson and matte black monsters that gangsters drive in ‘vids.
He had a cell pendant, and he made about sixteen calls in the ten minutes it took to get to the Palatials. They were all in some language I never heard of…maybe Farsi tradespeak or some Bora derivative. His sunglasses were perfect mirrors, angling down as if he was some bipedal alien predator, twin reflections of the brass building and chrome sun beyond the windshield.
I closed my eyes, and thought of how I would soon be at the controls of my Loki. In my mind, the targeting reticule is always there, fluorescent ghoul green, like the eye of an electric specter.
The elevator opened, and we were facing an apartment door.
The guard, with a uniform of basalt gray, didn’t even look up from his coffee and email. But I felt his eyes bore into my back all the way to the elevator.
The suit was pure corporate, down to the ruby cufflinks. The diamond tooth he had could have bought a Pegasus Interceptor, since it probably had a comm. link, to go with it. Maybe even a cranial audio hook up.
The bodyguard sat in a chair on the right, wearing a burnished looking gunmetal blue sharkskin suit. His hair had a slick vinyl glossy look. He was filing his nails.
The corp spoke.
“Wolverine, are you still on that job?”
“Here to talk about that. This is my partner, Eight. He doesn’t speak. Can your chap here get me something carcinogenic?”
The bodyguard got up smoothly, the file disappearing. The corp seemed very casual. Behind him was six vidscreens, of various sizes, all showing newfeed from Sol and Fringespace, plus a number of stock reports.
“Would you like to add to the contract? The money has already been transferred-“
Wolverine shot him with the ring gyrojet pistol he had hidden in his palm. The corper’s face disappeared with the sound of ceramic burning and breaking, at once. Blood painted the walls and screen behind him as if it was always there.
The bodyguard was holding a tray of some glassy material, pink and see-through, with two philters of wine on ice in them, an Antares specialty. He dropped the tray, going for a hidden firearm-
I had a sonic pistol. It cuts holes in you the size of Old Earth CD’s, at short range. I gave him three blasts of it, the thrum of air being cut, flesh and bone suddenly chopped into cylinders of severed matter.
He was down before he knew it, legs giving unceremoniously. He looked like he wanted to say something. Then that was that. The pistol he pulled was an onyx colored las deal. They are quiet, dependable, reliable, and clean. My ‘pistol was not, but that hardly mattered in the current discussion.
“F*ck.” I said.
“You weren’t lying. Good.” Wolverine had the pistol trained at the spot where the guard had been. The carpet beneath our feet was getting redder. For a microsecond I got queasy, and felt like the IK was going to give me one in the forehead, like the other guy got it.
“Shut it. One more word about this and there’s no deal. Pick up that guys pistol. Use a piece of paper…don’t touch it with your bare hands. DNA.”
I did as I was told, slowly and quietly.
“Good. Put the paper in your pocket.”
He dropped what looked like an olive green hockey puck on the ground. There was a high pitched sound, like a dentist’s drill, and all the lights went out, like the vid screens.
A localized ecm emitter.
“We’re out.” He said, in the sudden dark.
The door opened, a square of florescent white in the black, and we stepped into the corridor.
“Here.” He handed me what looked like a wafer the size of a Zippo. It was damn heavy, for how small it was.
“Vid warbler. Don’t want to be seen. Makes our image hazy. Not that anyone is going to investigate this, long. Corpers kill each other five a week. But we want to be meticulous, you understand?”
The southern drawl was conversational. Friendly, even. The enormity of the two murders still hadn’t landed on me. I just had that vapid, empty-from-the-sternum-down watery legged effect you get with an extreme adrenaline jolt. I felt my blood humming like electricity in the circuitry of my circulatory system.
We walked back from where we had come in. No one had seen us. The quiet was stifling.
He shot the guard with the laspistol, two to the head, two to the body. A jolt of small fusion and the brightness reminiscent of an oxyacetylene torch. The man fell forward across the crème colored console, and then back, to disappear behind the desk.
I was frozen, waiting for someone to come around the corner. What if a woman or some dumb wage slave came upon us? Could I shoot someone who didn’t have it coming?
Wolverine walked around the desk and fired twice more, his face expressionless. Than he dropped the pistol on the body.
Nobody came, and we slipped out into the cool of the night.
“Give me your sonic.”
I did so.
We were parked by a hydrogen plant. The smell was chlorine and pine, the forest beyond barely lit by the fluorescents that glinted off the surging waters below.
He put everything into a box the color of old lead. It had a series of buttons on it’s side, and a handle like a lunch pail on it’s top. A digital readout graced the other side.
My door popped open. He got out of the car.
The drop on the other side, deep into the dam, must have been 400 feet. My insides felt like cool dishwater. I hate heights.
He set the box down, and placed the pistols in it. Than he stripped off the skin of his right hand. I realized it was a very thin glove, maybe only a few molecules.
“Ever seen one of these? Condenses everything in it. Crunches the atoms ‘til there’s nothing between them. One shot deal. Open, close, push handle down, hit coded sequence, and mush.”
The box made a groaning sound, as if a djinn that was sequestered inside was groaning at it’s confinement. The box was one foot square.
“Help me lift it.”
It took the two of us. I’d struggled with spent uranium gauss shells that had weighed less. The size of it threw me off. We jerked, braced, and finally heaved it over the side.
“There. The only investigative forensics experts that could do something with that live in SOL space. We’re done.”
I didn’t move, staring deep into the aquatic black, the light reflecting off the eddies below like liquid lightning. I thought of an ERPPC jolt firing off towards it’s target…
“That corp was trash. He got where he was by blowing up a freighter full of pioneers, because it contained clone material products from a rival company. He’d space you, his mother, and a thousand Jewish Luddites for a profit margin. The security guard used to be a slavemaster for Hajod. I tracked his bio a few days ago. Used to cattle prod new arrivals…break ‘em down for easy brainwashing. He got a job here after Hajod got aced. Don’t cry for that sorry f*ck. He saw our faces, and that makes him expendable.”
“Yeah.” I said.
I thought of the hairline crack in my Loki’s titanic barrel. Blue feed, gauzy and indistinct, in my mind.
We held the mission interviews in a rented VERTOL locker. 20’ by 20’, poorly vented. The walls were an institution green. The air was sweaty and metallic. Musty.
The first ones were indy mercs, like me. But dumb.
“Whattya got?” I asked.
“Daishi.” He was dim looking. Trying to look tough, he rolled a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. Had a twin lightening bolt tattoo on one forearm. KILLZ in bold letters on the other.
“Nope, too slow.”
“I can snipe.”
The fifth was a little brighter.
“I’ve done runs for Davion and Enhanced Breed.”
“Nice.” Wolverine said.
“I was with DE for a while.”
“Really?” Wolverine seemed interested. “You do time on Vagos?”
A confused look fell across the man’s face like a dim shadow.
“Yeah. The moon.”
“Oh. Yeah, screwed up some. Had to see the inside of a brig.”
The guy made a face like a man who had just swallowed a mouth full of hydraulic fluid by accident, and left.
“Vagos?” I asked Wolverine, whispering.
“It’s a brothel/casino cruiser we owned at the time. Every fifty days service you got a weekend there. Big parties. I was in DE.”
“No liars. Liars are undependable, and can’t keep their mouths shut, besides.”
“Spike, of the Void Alliance.”
He had a vibrant accent. It had an authoritative ring to it.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
I had never heard of the planet.
“What you got? This is fast. 75 kph. No laggers. We’re not going to stay long. Hit and run, waaaay off planet.”
“I like travel. My mech goes that speed, no worries.”
“What you got?”
“Sunder, good up close and far away.”
“Your Sunder goes that fast? That’s 90 tons.”
“I don’t lie.”
Wolverine motioned to some chairs in the back.
“Have a seat, you’re in.”
The man’s eyes narrowed.
“I know you. You’re IK. You were on Fevel-6, during the Voice War.”
“Yeah, we lanced together.”
“Nice to see old faces.”
The next guy walked in kind of late, while I was having my fourth cup of coffee. He looked kind of short, maybe. Young, but…how do I describe it? Efficient. He had a face like a person who has dry wit for any situation.
“Scooby, of the Iconian Knights.”
“He’s in. My clan.”
I shook his hand. He had the same ring Wolverine had.
The other IK jerked a thumb at me.
“This is Eight-Track. He’s an indy.”
The guy had almost the same accent as Spike.
“What you fly?” I asked him, as he settled himself in.
He took a while to answer, and when he did, looked up and away, not making eye contact.
“A Madcat, Eight. I’m long range fire support. Twin ERPPC, twin LRM20, and I don’t miss. I installed a new Icarus class BAP just yesterday.”
“Oh.” I said, impressed.
Spike seemed to be listening intently, trying not to appear to do so. He said nothing, but nodded to himself, as if agreeing with some mental decision.
The other mechwarriors we had pulled left the same way the came. Little fuss, no talking. Mech operatorsare different from pilots. Less bravado or something. Space jockeys die more often than Mech guys. I guess it’s the ejection pods we have.
Not that it matters. Ever seen a pod eject? You’d think there was some honor, and mech jocks are gonna let the poor schmuck get away. Nope, nope, nope.
If the pilot is bad, he’ll probably get away. Why kill a good pilot? Maybe that bad pilot will someday fight you in a different mech, and you’ll blow him up again…Ha!
But, if he’s an ace, if he’s known, if he’s ELITE, then it looks like a God-damned skeet range. Pop, pop, pop, his pod goes up and everyone takes a shot. Hell, pods aren’t that armored, ya know…
We picked up another guy. A Thor pilot.
“What about our limit?” I asked Wolverine.
“That guy’s elite. He’s good. Captain Scarlet, of the Void Alliance. He’s tagging alongside Spike.”
“Can we pay him?”
“Don’t have to.”
Right then, I knew what was up. My affair had turned into a clan affair, and that’s politics within politics, like so many boxes that you opened to find more boxes, ad infinitum, ad redundum.
It occurred to me, right then, that I should ask why would IK and VA want to run a mission for ND to take out a 58th communications outpost?
I was getting’ paid, right? Why did I care?
Scarlet seemed to get along famously. Scooby gave him a high five. Wolverine almost smiled, and shook his hand. Spike gave him that man-hug act, where you it’s only at the chest, two pats on the back, and you break after two seconds.
I suddenly felt pretty third wheel.
Scarlet was kind of young looking. Maybe he had his DNA recycled every couple of years, like most of the known universe.
“You fly a Loki, Indy?”
“Yeah, cool. Wolverine says you’re all that and a bag of bolts. What do you pack on your action? Twin LB10X? I got a set of 20’s, myself…”
“We’re gonna mess them up. In and out. Boo-yah. I even have old vids of some of the 58th’s defensive action, on this moon where they had a communications post, and whipped the snot out of these guys called Fuzion. Kind of cool. Fuzion got their clocks cleaned, but we can learn where they left off. Ever heard of MisterFour? Know what he’d say? ‘We’re gonna funk them up.’ That’s what we’re gonna do.”
“How’s Four been?” Scooby asked.
Something in the air got tense. Wolverine threw a toothpick on the ground. Overhead, a rocket took off, probably to drop a corporate satellite.
Spike finally spoke. “Ain’t seen him. Some new gig, some-other-planetside.”
“Yeah.” Scooby said.
We moved again, some nameless high rise. Spike arranged it.
The sky turned molten gold as the day waned and night started to hold dominion over Antares. The river was a stretch of silver, turning to blood as it hit the horizon. The city was a collection of derridium blocks, the mist rushing in from the ocean to partially obscure it. Meanwhile, the hum of traffic was just white noise, from up here.
I turned from the window.
“Look at this.” Spike said.
The vid screen had a readout like a HUD. Arrows showed intent. A series of blue inscriptions gave a play by play of who was dyin’. Fuzion was getting’ the shaft from the 58th. It was disheartening.
I thought of Cecilia. I missed her. Damn.
No, gotta think of the job.
“Raven comes in with the NARC. Base let’s loose with the LRM’s…the mech in the back pop snipes, and a Shadowcat outflanks, radar off, with a gauss. Signature 58th. One less Thor.” Wolverine said, his southern drawl punctuating the staccato sound of ordinance.
Scarlet took a sip of his ale.
“They let the base soften up the attack, then move in. The 58th is fresh and ready, Fuzion is worn down. That’s where Fuzion put their d*cks in the mashed potatoes; they got too close and then fought the base, first. They didn’t make use of what we have; long range weaponry.”
Scooby looked at me. He gave me the look clanners gave indy’s. Like older brothers give their snot nosed siblings.
My Loki was repaired and outfitted. New armor and an ECM. Ready to rob and mob.
Wolverine and Spike had made the arrangements. In one day, we’d be within attack range on the 58th outpost. Our dropship, the Tsunetomo, departed in three hours.
I still hadn’t slept. No one had.
Wolverine stopped the tape. A Black Knight took gauss shots from three separate directions to it’s left kneecap. Leggers.
“Let’s watch this all again, and pool ideas.” Wolverine said.
I looked at the Spike guy. He wrote down a few notes on a steno notepad with a blue felt pen. He seemed bored.
“I don’t get it…why didn’t Fuzion bring in some of their own fire support?”
Spike’s accent gave his statement a kind of professional authority that made me wish I had come from the planet Liverpool. Some accents have that capability, but I have to admit a Southern drawl is perfect for telling someone, slowly, succinctly, and just as mellow as a man in a diner asked for a piece of banana cream pie, “I am going to lay a hurt on you, son.”
“Bad intel. They thought that particular outpost was in a forested area, with hills and whatnot, and that they could make use of the terrain. But 58th had cleared it. You don’t put an outpost in a place where invaders can have cover until they’re in your ear. We can assume 58th did the same with our target. Plus, I know Fuzion. They’re close assault all the way. Thor’s, LB20X’s and not a gauss at their disposal. They would have been better letting the drop pod land ten feet from the damn base.”
“To their credit, Fuzion had a notion that wasn’t bad. They dropped a duo of Shadowcats in on the delta sector of the base to rush in and stir things up. Problem was, their diversion came after the main attack. Someone in the cavalry blew their cool. By the time the Shadowcats arrived, 58th had already regulated proper. Two Shadowcats against a communications base and five mechs? Don’t blame those guys for bookin’.” Scooby said.
Wolverine looked almost half asleep, his eyelids almost closed, like a Buddhist monk in a temple in Kyoto. He swiveled his chair about five inches to face me.
“Eight-Track, give us the Mousekateer role call of what 58th has.”
“I ran some Antares satellite feed, but it was old, maybe a year. It’s not much of a base…58th is fairly confident nothing is gonna happen on this planet. You got two Ziggurat style LRM’s, but they have that improved lock design left over from the Dead At Birth war, that Simon invented. Two Twin Heavy gauss pods (Scooby let out a low whistle, and Scarlet shifted uncomfortably) and a man-powered ERPPC. Not bad. You got a Raven and a Shadowcat. Chances are the Raven does regular perimeter patrols, and we know it has a narc Waiting in the wings are some bad boys= a Thor and a Thanatos. But here’s the kicker, yo. Inside the main hangar bay is typically an assault mech. My guess is a Daishi. Industry standard.”
Spike stopped scribbling and looked at me. As he spoke, he pointed at me with the pen he was holding. The pen was a ruby metallic color, inscribed with a gold VA symbol.
“That’s a lot. Especially for a communications post. That feed has to be wrong.”
“58th has the creds, they can afford it. They believe that the best way to handle things is to have such a defense that attackers will have to show up with quite a bit to take you out. That means that any attackers will probably give their position away. Finally, remember, the 58th likes to keep lances squirreled away here and there, in the event they have to make a major offensive. The Daishi babysits.”
Scooby was watching the vid with an interest as intense as the rads from a solar flare. I wondered if he wasn’t just going to set down his nitrolite and climb into the screen. The feed-gauzy, blue, indistinct/distinct in fluctuating eddies of flickering video imagery.
“Check it. Notice the attack pattern 58th uses? The invaders arrive, and the Thor and Thanatos go right and left, respectively, almost as if they’re running away.”
He used a ring laser pointer to punctuate his marks on the screen. The blue dot followed the mech’s routes in their wide arcs.
“They let Fuzion come in close, after hammering most of their forces. The Raven and the Shadowcat harried them, the base blasted them, and they saved the Thor and Thanatos for later. Even let the base take a few hits. Fuzion had to turn around, their butts to the base, to deal with the heavies, and that’s when they really got their asses shot off.”
I watched again as the Black Knight took gauss shots from three separate directions to it’s left kneecap.
The glow from the vidscreen highlighted the IK’s face in blue, green, then the orange/red flower of demolition.
Again and again, for the next hour, until we hit the drop pod hangar, Fuzion died at the hands of the 58th.
I reached for more coffee.
Scooby put his hand over my mug with a deft move. Like a video edit; instantaneous.
“Nope. We’re gonna have about eight hours on the drop. You’ll need sleep. We’re going hiking, near the base.”
The IK pilot said nothing. Like some hypnotic effect, I began to feel drowsy. My last thought before sleep came over me was about how Scarlet was getting paid. Probably by Spike, or maybe funded by his own clan. I thought of my 20,000, plus the 7,000, plus the repairs that had been done on my machine, and it all made sense.
A dropship is a dropship. Bell shaped, ball shaped, hexagonal, or even your conventional capitol ship clone, the basic idea shapes the basic design- move 2,000 tons of mechs from one place to another, trans-galactic, if need be, move them out, and come back after some metal has been knocked around.
Every dropship I’ve ever seen was as ugly as a junkyard dog licking piss off a urinal, and often looks as if it were welded together in the same working environment the said urine-consuming canine would inhabit.
The depot stretched for three miles in either direction, the floor a derridium surface, ultra dense ferro-concrete, the slate landscape broken up by mechs, components, vents, engines, dropships (six of them) and both heavy movers and tea kettle shaped anti-gravs lifters, their workers attending them diligently, focused, their tangerine jumpsuits smudged by rust and electrical burns.
The sound in the place was constant and discordant, ‘lifter sirens droning, the klank of bolters, the steel on steel groan of surfacing kinetics, the burning metal scorch of a dropship launching off on some mission you’d never know about unless you had some juice.
The sound of a quick mech refit had a buzzsaw zzzzzzzzz sound that made your spine telescope and filled your mouth with a metallic flavor, resounding and amplifying until the final punctuating screech of myomers and/or endo-steel plates meshing on a molecular level until the whole project was finished, it’s resolution signified by the sound of what felt like a ten ton block of gold falling on a vast, superheated iron plate. Always sounded to me like an egg being fried, the ozone-oxide stench of it impacting your sense of smell; gold/iron/fusion.
Spike seemed to revel in it. As some tech jocks machined the housings of an aft leg heavy myomer, he inhaled deeply, like it was Cuban tobacco or lightly smoldering cherry wood.
I decided that our dropship looked like a Bora smelting scow. It could carry ten mechs easy, which put it straight into the stealth class of dropships, which is really funny considering how motherin’ big that mofo truly was. Mother of mercy, that gouged up rust hacked trash compactor looking ‘dropper was baboon’s ass-ugly. I could see spire rocket impact craters up and down it’s thrice ablative derririum flanks. It’s nose was an immense, bronze, thumbless fist.
Our mechs were already stowed. My Loki’s arm gleamed with fresh construction, the Clan LB10X refurbished, refitted, and heavy tooled. I had recalibrated the brace of heavy lasers, and reloaded the LB10X on the other arm.
The personnel locker was a series of plasteel walls with head-sized titanium cogs holding it all together. The sleeping foam mats seemed clean enough. I really didn’t want to sleep on them, though. Not that I have standards, or a decent sanitary regimen when I am on the job. I just have this morbid fear of dying in my sleep on some damn mech pusher.
We each had a mat and plexaluminum rack. Maximum utilitarian/minimum comfort. Made me feel apprehensive. I had seen a casualty cooler array once that had looked just like it, years before. Cockpits were armored, well. You could be as dead as a hyena-gnawed zebra carcass in the dust of some Serengeti, but you would look nice and pretty if your mech went up into scrap and thermal detritus and the ‘pod didn’t fly out in time.
Scooby threw a duffel onto his. Spike and Wolverine had already crashed out. The IK pilot hadn’t even taken off his boots. They were 12 hole Gripfast, each one with a sole riveted by ten steel screws.
Scarlet was a friendly guy.
“Hey Scooby, weren’t you on Armitage during the Schare-Kaledos summit?”
“See some shooting?”
“A lot. Took a couple of rounds.”
“Damn. Heard Cooper was some badass from nowhere. Killed some fools with his own bare hands.”
The VA pilot squinted at me. He looked young.
“Were those Madorian signature badges on your Loki?”
“Yah. I flew with the Tigershark’s. Desert and arctic. Mostly fascist rebels.”
“Pre-Comerca or post-Comerca?”
“Post, man. Way post.”
“Rightfully so, Indiot.” Scooby said.
“That’s not cool, Scooby, we’re all friends on this drop. Right?” Scarlet seemed perfectly at ease. He sat on his bunk the way an Emperor would sit on his throne.
“Sorry, man, I, uh, wasn’t here. Thinking.”
Indiot, that’s what Clanners call us.
“It’s all good, man, I get it everywhere.”
“Are you IS?” Scarlet moved the subject back around.
“Used to be. I upgraded to clan a year ago.”
“Pretty rough goin’ IS, right?”
I threw my boots under the plastic/aluminum fiberweeve bunk. Some of the avocado colored paint was scratched away, revealing bright silver.
“Yeah, but it forced me to improvise. I did a lot of ambush ops, early on.”
“Nothin’ wrong with that. This whole arrangement is an ambush op.”
I walked over to the view portal and looked upon the gloss black hulls of our mechs, their new decals gleaming with the manticore and triple crown of Dead At Birth.
Dead At Birth. A group of university kids who’d took a small cult under Madoria’s splinter group fascist rule on the nearby sand moon of Dedaboruth, and had boiled the blood of the whole galaxy in a fever pitch of total and absolute confict. A programmer, a physicist, a media mogul and a psychosocial militant strategist had pulled off what was simply to be a multiple thesis pan-doctorate, and maybe things had so very gotten out of their combined hands…
How many died? Five billion? Does it really ****in’ matter after the first two or three?
They were gone, but you always hear rumors, ghost story whispers, haunted eddies in the info stream…
Wolverine knew his counter-intel. He was black ops, somewhere in his bio. This whole mission was already encrypted. All of the bills were being sent to a dummy mech outfit, paid by an even dumber corporation façade. Our communication was a cloaked Madorian code derivative. Our mechs were jet camo, the joints and bolts hit with brass electroplate. You looked at them, and I must say you could get this palpative sense of doom that was as menacing as it was morbid.
Even the IFF signature license was altered accordingly.
Well, now you know. That’s what clans and indy’s do. Got a black op? Wanna smash up some other clan, corp, or vengeful government regime? Slap on the badge of a dead fascist/terrorist/fanatical cult/clan/merc movement, and go bust some heads. You’re Iconian Knights, The Void Alliance, New Dawn, or whatever, you’ve slagged some metal and turned some enemy into so much bio-mechanical dross, and you’ve hit the dropship, countin’ the creds, you’ve left all that destruct in your rear-view, and what are the survivors screamin’ what caused it?
Dead At Birth!
Dead At Birth!
Dead At Birth!
I had f*cked up dreams.
I thought of Wolverine and myself in the apartment. Only this time, I was the one who killed that corporate guy. I took out a sonic and aimed it at his face, only it cut a scarlet rimmed circular hole in his head, and it dropped onto the ground near my foot and made a metal-on-metal wibble-wobble sound.
(A Black Knight took gauss shots from three separate directions to it’s left kneecap-it hit the ground head-first, the weight of itself crushing the pilot into gelatinous pulp-)
The dead corp looked at me, he still had an eye and some teeth. His mouth was a quarter-crescent of freshly severed skin and bone.
“You’re dead, man. My company is going to ace you and your girlfriend, Indiot.”
“Last year we released a cloned synthetic neutrino that had a defective amino, through a sub-corp called Clax. The amino killed 10,000 people through most of the galaxy, although they don’t know it, yet. We covered it up through a media sweep so insidious and total that Noam Chomsky himself would have never seen it coming. Then we released a counter-synthetic neutrino to counteract the side-effects-“
(A Black Knight took gauss shots from three separate directions to it’s left kneecap-)
“-through another sub-corp, which doesn’t cure the ultimately lethal effects of the amino, of course, because that would be too expensive-“
I shot another hole in him. There was a hollow thrum and the impact of sound severing bone and tissue. Wet.
“-my point being, of course-“
(A Black Knight took gauss shots from three separate directions to-)
I could see the vid behind him. Gauzy, blue, indistinct/distinct in fluctuating eddies of flickering video imagery.
“-that if my corporation could kill 10,000 unaware people-“
(A Black Knight took gauss hits from three-)
Why did Wolverine-?
The hole in his chest was gauzy and indistinct. Blue feed, flickering.
“-murdering your girlfriend and you will be nothing-“
(Gauss hits from-)
Why did Wolverine kill-?
Red rimmed. Gauzy. Blue feed. Flickering.
Why did Wolverine kill that guy?
Was I really going to ask him?
I woke up, sweating, the mechanical pulse of the dropship thrumming hydraulically below, around, and above me. Everyone else was asleep.
Couldn’t sleep. No sleep. We’d be going, soon.
Beyond the plasteel, into the mech bay, I could see the outline of my Loki, impenetrable and blackly august in the tenebrous expanse of the hold.
Eventually we would drop back onto the surface of Antares.
There, we would find the 58th, and do what we were going to be paid to do.
Wolverine was going over a holo of the surface of the planet.
He had taken a plastifoam chair in front of a series of vid screens connected by coils of matte black cable to it’s system rig, like the rubber veins of some machine beast…it had a low tech paradigm to it that drew me in, the light behind eclipsing the loops and whirls of data feed. I recognized the rig, a Sony Dumonte that was capable of Tachyon channel communication.
He was in Levi’s and a cotton weave ballistic t-shirt, smoking a cigar that gave off a heavy aroma of vanilla and brandy. I cold imagine the moist tobacco, stored in beer colored casks after being cloned in some Sol space styled green house.
I had slept four hours, but it felt like twelve. There was coffee, thank the Titans.
The others were still logging in some hours on the unconsciousness channel. I had walked past Scooby Doo’s bunk, as he had turned onto his side, muttering a curse in his slumber.
“We’re going to do some marching.” Wolverine said, in a manner not without it’s cryptic qualities.
“Yes.” He had a ruby light pen, like the VA one Spike had used, but it was sapphire, with an IK on the side.
Ok, so it was a sapphire light pen. I screwed up. I’ve seen too many ruby ones, you know.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“I don’t want to march in there in our mechs, without knowing what the 58th has for us. ECM or no, I want to get some eyeballs going. We got weapons, and the 58th is way too confident to patrol on foot. We’ll analyze the landscape, and then move in with the machinery.”
“Can you hit the ground?”
Every clan pilot was ISBT (Industry-Standard-Basic-Training) licensed, which was a three month course anyone who went anywhere near a mech or starship accomplished before he could use either. The ISBT license was necessary to purchase anything related to mechs or starships. Kind of a joke…why learn infantry tactics if you are going to pilots 75+ tons of cold fusion driven ordinance? But ISBT was f*cking far more thorough than the basic training most infantry jocks got. Fight sims, twenty-hour plus drills and marksmanship, psychosurgery and chemical assisted, of course. Then finally, The Anvil, a hell-week of NO sleep, NO food, bare minimum water and nothing but shooting, moving, fighting and digging in. It did a number on your medulla, and it got to where you almost had frikkin’ flashbacks, but it virtually guaranteed that if someone handed you a gyrojet rifle, you could put a hole in someone’s head a mile away and march home to tell the tale…
“Yah.” I said. “I’m IS-“
“Cool.” He said.
I didn’t ask him.
The dropship vibrated about us, almost at the edge of our perceptions, and I realized we would be hitting the LZ in two hours.
Checking back into the shadows of where we had got our sleep, I could see the
plasteel window to the mech bay, a cool gray rectangle in the half-light. The arm of Scarlet’s Thor, it’s surface a grid of ferro-fibrous and rivets of admantine-galvanized titanium.
I looked back to the IK pilot. He was getting ready to make a planetary Tach communication via a series of quantum encrypted gamma channels…standard issue for a Heavy Corporate Industrial rated clan.
“We have to move if we’re going to make your mission. The 58th has been pretty hot in the radar and communications category, and New Dawn is starting to sweep.”
“I told you we didn’t have long.”
I thought again about asking Wolverine about that corporate, and then dismissed the thought as he produced a genetic locked Matroxx Gauss Pistol. It was big, like you could just hurl the sucker like a brick and cave in someone’s skull if you ran out of ammo.
I knew that it was banned on every Capitol Ship and base in Fringe and Sol space- planet only, not even Hajod would let his troops carry the weapons- on the off chance a shot would penetrate the hull of anything in space and risk atmospheric decompression.
There was no flesh wound with a gauss pistol. While the depleted uranium slug was no bigger than your fingernail, if it grazed you it’d still take a Pomeranian-sized hunk out of you.
He set it on the desk in front of him, a piece of frosted jet plasteel on the scratched olive nickel-aluminum composite surface, and began to type, the tip of his cigar smoldering like the orange red eye of a mephit.
The liquid metal of the screen’s atom/xenon display warbled and froze, whirls of quantech TCP/IP Tachyon Class Encryption, glacier blue/white, oscillating in a trilligon maelstrom in eddies of boiling vinyl hue, gravitating until an IK live feed conference script loaded.
“Stay put and shut up. You’ll learn a thing or two.” He said.
I stayed put.
“Archon Wolverine, status?”
“Magenta. Orbiting dropzone, 2 hours.”
The face was that of a man of some indeterminate middle age, bald, his features etched and distinctly European. His left eye was a military class Magnus optic, his other unblinking eye perfectly human, the iris a gunmetal blue.
I could see a map of faint scars on his face, one of which curled his lip slightly. His collar was high and marked with Overlord symbols.
Jesus, was this a Dominion?
IK Dominion, covert op cyborg bogeyman. Every clan and independent knew somebody who had a story about a Dominion whacking someone with impunity in full view of family, friends, and domestic law enforcement, only to fade off in the bureaucratic mist, as gossamer and quiet as the dreams of dying men.
“Excellent, I have patched a live feed from Excalibur op channels into New Dawn space. They are flexing, mostly fulfilling ancient corporate obligations, as well as expanding trade.”
“The 58th is a threat to our terra forming projects a decade hence, according to our Dios A.I. New Dawn is wise in eliminating a potential threat, as well as bringing about a lucrative opportunity to further trade in relation with our intended colonies.”
“I’m on it, sir. The team is ready to roll, and plausible deniability is in effect. Scooby is here, and we got a few VA.”
“VA?” The Dominion’s lip curled slightly.
“I trust your judgment. Their mecha operations exceed our own, yet our goals are certainly parallel.”
“In ten days the 58th won’t have a radar base, here. I have contracted an Excalibur team to watch our intel when we return, but I don’t anticipate any serious planet-side static.”
“My sources tell me the team is led by Arioch. You have little to fear from any potential opposition.”
“Any word on those organic spontaneous fission cases?”
What the hell did that mean?
“We are still compiling data, but there is a report of one event in the Lunar colony, and another near Hajod Barony Space. All eyewitness report indicates they are similar, but it has yet to warrant and man pan-galactic attention…it’s too fantastic, too sporadic, and too isolated.”
I was lost.
The IK puffed his cigar in the long knowing silence between them. Smoke rose and curled, obscuring the screen.
“Roth Shalla, Archon Wolverine. Success to your operations…and I hope your friend in that chair 5.5 meters to your right can keep his lips sealed.”
I felt a jolt in my spine of distant electrical fear.
The feed cut, and Wolverine muttered “****” under his breath, crushing the burning ember that was the end of his cigar into an ash tray of dull gray iron, shaped like lotus leaf.
“What was that about?” I asked.
There was a pause as Wolverine seemed to go into some mental save mode, like a computer. Storing info, squaring away facts…you got warm from being in the vicinity of so many firing neurons.
I could hear the waking sounds in the other room. Zippers being undone, Velcro being ripped, coughing, and the occasional muttered swear word. The supercomputers in racks of two’s and three’s, linking to the display, warbled and beeped like electric Theravadian monks. I could hear the machine rattle sounds of our mechs being prepared for departure. It was the clamor of drills, the din of calibration and maintenance routine.
Wolverine’s speech abilities seemed to come online.
“The usual bag of factors= commerce, popularity, politics and power.” He said, his gaze on the charred remains of his stubbed cheroot.
The screen rippled wetly and began to scroll an E-trade logic schematic.
“How’d he know?”
“He heard your heartbeat. Dominion operatives are half hardware, half synth-organic, and that’s all you get to know. He’ll hold it over my head that you were here, but it ain’t the Sword of Damocles.”
The IK pilot punched a button on the screen, and it diffused to a flat gray, like melted vinyl cooling to become a square of dead-digital clay.
“Let’s motor.” He said. “We’re planetside.”