12

Tumbled Heights, Near Halifax

Vanderfox, Adhafera

Prefecture VII, The Republic

14 July 3134

The bivouac bustled with energy.

Technician castemen scrambled across mud-slicked ground, uncomplaining of the same conditions that elicited moans of protest only yesterday. Laborer castemen worked hard to clean up the mess the monstrous, gale-strength storm (whose claws tried to drag even the multiton ’Mechs across the ground) wreaked across a half week. Hauling away logs, righting tents, cleaning off vehicles, making small repairs where needed: a veritable labor of Hercules.

They bounced with anticipation.

An ancient J-27 ammo truck procured from the locals churned through the mud in a vain attempt to bring its metal food to the hungry bins of a waiting Thor. Spinning, slipping tracks kicked up a rooster’s tail of goop and slop that shot four meters into the air and a good ten meters back, splattering vehicles, ’Mech legs and personnel alike.

Nothing could dampen the mood.

Though the Trial of Bloodright began several days ago (an honor for all, whether one participated or not), today would be different—a different honor altogether. An honor—unlike the Trial of Bloodright—that allowed nearly every Sea Fox warrior, along with a significant percentage of the laborer and technician castemen, to directly participate.

Today began the Rituals of Combat, live-fire training exercises pitting everything from battle armor to ’Mechs to aerospace fighters against one another. Because they were so often in the depths of space for long months, if not years, Aimags took any opportunity to test their warriors’ edge, ensuring they did not become dull from lack of use. The Rituals of Combat were so much more than mere exercises—imbued with mysticism and invested in tradition; points won and lost in the Rituals impacted an Aimag’s honor and glory within a Khanate and even the rest of the Clan

Petr walked gingerly, trying not to splatter mud onto his calf-high ’Mech boots. Though the temperature had dipped precipitously during the storm, it now sat at a balmy 35 degrees and almost 100 percent humidity. Petr breathed deeply.

He stepped around a particularly large puddle and into shadow, recognized the dark embrace of his own ’Mech. Petr walked another half dozen paces toward the metal trunks towering before him and stopped. Slowly ran his eyes over the metal giant he called his own.

The Tiburon stood nine meters tall, the sun baking away the last of the moisture; Petr smiled at the idea of the ’Mech stepping from a fresh bath, air drying and priming for the coming show. A show far too long in coming.

“She looks ready. Strong.” Jesup stomped up through the muck. Petr watched him approach the last few meters to his side, obviously unconcerned about the droplets of mud flung onto his legs or caked on his boots.

“You are going to drag that into your ride?”

“Uh?” he responded, looked down, back up. Smiled.

“Unlike your prissy ’Mech, oh fastidious one, my Thor does not mind a little mud on the floor mat.”

Petr shook his head and felt the still-wet strands of his hair slap his bare shoulders, almost stick in the webbing of his coolant vest.

“It is not about prissy, my slob of a friend. It is about respect. I respect her and she respects me.”

“My Thor respects me because I control it.”

“You think you control it, but as in combat or negotiations, such control is fluid at best. In such situations you work within the confines of the circumstances to achieve victory. Never truly controlling them, only planting your strengths of will and knowledge in such a way as to create an outcome to your liking, quiaff?”

“Aff.”

“There is no difference with a ’Mech. You work with it to achieve victory. Quiaff?

Neg. I do not see it.”

“Perhaps that is why you have yet to defeat me, though your ride outweighs mine two to one.” Petr spoke without even turning toward his aide, and so missed the bitter look that transformed Jesup’s features at his words.

“Are you prepared for today? I would hate for Beta Aimag to defeat my aide. It would look bad,” Petr continued, turning his head and smiling.

“Me, defeated! Never! Only you, great ovKhan, can defeat me. A defeat I bask in.”

“I am serious.”

“And so am I. You have no need of fear from this quarter. Do you fear defeat in yours, oh omnipotent one?”

Petr waited for the normal irritation, but found none; nothing could bother him this day. “Why should I fear a loss?” Of course, he knew why.

Jesup returned the look, no emotion on his face.

Petr attempted to hold that gaze, but for once pulled away first, felt his breakfast sitting heavy for a moment, tasted the tang of bile before swallowing it away. “It will not happen again.”

“Of course it will not, oh mighty one.”

Petr’s anger sparked momentarily and he brought his jade eyes back online with Jesup, no evidence of sarcasm in voice or face. But always the hint of it, despite the apparent innocence. Always the stab into his sore spot. “Do you doubt your ovKhan?”

“I never doubt my ovKhan’s abilities.”

“That is not the same thing,” Petr ground out, trying to hold on to his good mood.

“Is it not?” Jesup responded, raising a quizzical eyebrow, though something danced in his eyes.

Petr drew in a harsh breath to respond, then bit it off; he would not let his aide’s propensity for pestering ruin this day. Of course Jesup did not doubt his abilities… or him.

“Then let us be about shaming Beta Aimag.”

Jesup hesitated for a moment, then nodded and moved away toward his Thor. Petr turned back to his own magnificent ride, the cooling balm of the moment washing away any vestiges of ire.

As ovKhan, he could choose to pilot literally any ’Mech within his Aimag. Yet he fell in love with the Tiburon in his first Trial of Position, and only death would separate the two of them.

Approaching the back of the ’Mech, he grasped the aluminum chain-link ladder dangling from above and began the ascent; the cool metal caused goose bumps to sprout along his bare arms and legs. Reaching the top of the ladder, he stepped onto the back of the shoulder, right where the head met the neck. Spinning open the dogged hatch, Petr swung it out with practiced ease; the sunlight splashed playfully into the dark interior, partially illuminating the metal cave where Petr lived more often than not (not enough now!).

Stepping through the hatch, he swung it back, sealing out the sunlight and fresh air, dogged it closed. Sidling around the command couch, he eased himself over the side of the chair, careful of the throttle mounted there. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

Stale odor of his own dried sweat; acerbic tang of spilled chemicals from a torn coolant vest; slight musk from the synthetic material in the seat; slick whiff of lubricants; dull, flat aroma of metal and polymers; something (there!), barest hint of his own blood, spilt and forever wedded to her: home.

Opening his eyes, he reached up behind and pulled down the neurohelmet from where it rested, placing the light helmet upon his head, adjusting the fit until the neural receptors found their accustomed positions. Leaning to the right, he grasped a large yellow lever and pulled it firmly down, locked it into position; the growl of an awakening beast echoed up beneath his feet, as the first sequences of the fusion reactor initiated in preparation for startup. The aluminum ladder slapped the Tiburon’s rear armor plating as it automatically reeled in; it sounded like gnashing metal teeth.

A hunger needed to be satiated: the ’Mech’s, his… the same.

Opening a small hatch in the right arm of the command couch, he pulled out several wires and a small bag. The first cord he plugged into the bottom of his coolant vest. Next, he took several medical monitors out of the bag, stowed it, then stripped off their covering and adhered them to the insides of his upper arms and thighs, smoothly attached alligator clips, then ran them through a pinch loop on his vest to keep them from tearing out during combat, ran the ends to a central plug. Finally, he jacked in the neurohelmet.

Stretching, he felt the weight of the helmet and the slickness of the seat under him, sensations that increased his regret for being gone too long. One of the great joys of his life sacrificed for the glory and honor of his Aimag.

Within the ’Mech’s bowels, the initiation sequence terminated and the reactor spun online; power surged in abundance, yet still lay trapped for the moment. Leaning slightly forward, he keyed the identification sequence. Her warm voice filled the cockpit with its embrace.

“Voice Identification, initiated.”

“Petr Kalasa, ovKhan of Delta Aimag, Spina Khanate, Clan Sea Fox.”

“Voice authorization confirmed.”

Petr knew most warriors did not even notice the mechanical voice as they went through the motions of unlocking their ’Mechs. For Petr, however, the voice was part and parcel of his Tiburon. The first sign of the power about to be given into his hands: power to destroy, to kill… yet the power to create and build.

He bathed in the sound, luxuriated in it.

“Code Identification, initiated.”

“There is always a price to be paid.” Despite the constant prodding by his aide, Petr knew well the price to be paid for any action. Any warrior held such knowledge, or he did not live long; any merchant courted the knowledge, or he failed. As both, and leader of an Aimag, he was doubly aware of it. Confusion swirled within for a moment at the doubt that surfaced in his mind; he wrenched it about with the force of his will. Of course, I do.

“Code authorization confirmed. Command is yours.” The voice went silent and power poured into the cockpit, igniting a rainbow of colors across the control panel. Leaning slightly forward once more, he brought the various ’Mech systems online. A quick glance through several screens showed weapons fully loaded and charged, while the armor schematic portrayed a pristine picture, ready to protect against the hellish energies about to be unleashed.

Almost squirming with glee, Petr settled back into the command couch, grasped the throttle in his left hand and moved it partially forward while using the foot pedals to direct the movement. The vibrations welling up from the first footfall spread a savage grin across his face.

Too long since he sat in this seat. Too long since his own Aimag encountered another, thus initiating the Rituals of Combat. Too long had this warrior been gone from his home port.

Petr returned to his true calling.

Petr waited impatiently for his turn. Staring out the forward viewscreen at the one-on-one duel unfolding a half kilometer distant, he could almost taste the tang in the air from discharged particle projector cannons and the cordite from exploded missiles and spent autocannon shell casings.

“I see Beta Aimag has improved since our last meeting.” Jesup’s voice exploded in the neurohelmet, dislodging Petr’s thoughts.

“And I see your sarcasm is improving as well.”

“Of course, oh great ovKhan.”

“Regardless of my distaste for Sha, they are Sea Fox Clansmen. Of course they would improve. It has been almost three years since our last chance to test our mettle against them, of—”

“There,” Jesup interrupted, as the arm of Torrin’s Mad Cat III tore away under the horrific assault of twin hypersonic Gauss rounds from the Beta Sun Cobra. The fight ended immediately, the Beta warrior victorious.

Petr gripped his joysticks, infuriated by the loss.

“Stravag.”

“Torrin or the Beta MechWarrior? After all, the other warrior clearly held the upper hand.”

“You, Jesup.”

As usual, Jesup’s loud laughter actually managed to loosen the tight knots across his shoulders and neck, to cool his temper rather than boil it.

“Come now, oh magnificent ovKhan, surely Torrin will learn from this exercise. He will not be so quick to confront a superior foe next time without using the terrain to his advantage, quiaff?”

“Aff,” Petr managed to growl out. A smile even peeked out momentarily from the thundercloud of his face following another merry burst of Jesup’s laughter.

How does he manage not to be killed by my own hand?

“It would seem to be my turn,” Jesup said casually.

Petr once more gripped the joysticks, wanting, needing to take his place.

“Seize the day, Jesup.”

Aff, ovKhan,” the response came back, for a wonder free of its usual embellishments.

The Thor next to Petr’s Tiburon lumbered forward and quickly picked up momentum; it could not match his ’Mech for mobility, but considering its seventy tons, Jesup’s Thor held respectable speed.

Almost a kilometer and a half distant, a Beta Warhammer IIC began to make its way forward. Though Jesup’s opponent was considerably outside his weapon range, Petr couldn’t help but bring up the targeting reticule on the forward screen; centering on the enemy, he zoomed in, waiting, hoping for it to flash the golden tone of a lock. After a moment, he pulled the reticule off target, lifted away his hand. Jesup would claim this victory, not him.

His would be waiting, as he knew it would from the beginning, against Sha Clarke.

Strange.

The difference between watching combat and finding yourself in the thick of it was like reading about an interstellar jump and experiencing the heart-stopping, wrenching reality of having the fabric of your existence torn asunder, then to be pummeled and prodded until you reappeared light-years distant. The two could not compare.

For Petr, combat consisted of a series of time dilations that spun down and back in jerking scenes that could be disorienting, to say the least. Fifteen minutes could pass between one eyeblink and another.

Now, as he watched the fight between Jesup and his Beta opponent unfold in the distance, the time dilation gyrated in the opposite direction, the minutes elongating until each second felt like a life’s age, each minute a living, breathing epoch, ready to devour him with his own impatience. His own need to fight.

Two cerulean beams of man-made lightning cut only swaths of air, as Jesup used the Thor’s superior mobility to keep just a microsecond ahead of the Beta’s gross firepower. Even while jumping, Jesup managed to land several laser shots and half a barrage of missiles into the lower flanks of the Warhammer, burning and blasting away armor.

A game of armor and firepower versus mobility. A game requiring the utmost from a warrior. A game he desperately hoped Jesup would win, tipping the balance of wins and losses firmly into Delta’s camp.

A game he did not believe Jesup could finish.

Another flurry of fire drew his eye once more. Azures, crimsons and flickering oranges filled the sky as the battle unfolded. Another leap with its jump jets launched the Thor across a rocky ravine, dropping it down desperately close to the Warhammer, but on its flank, where it would take precious seconds for the Beta ’Mech to turn in order to bring both PPCs to bear. The Thor unleashed everything at its disposal. Terrible energies washed over the Warhammer, stripping armor and shaking the behemoth as though it still stood in the storm only recently petered out.

Though he appreciated the gutsy move, Petr winced at the oven he knew the Thor’s cockpit became with such weapons fire.

Jump. Petr leaned forward. Jump. Tried to will it. “Jump,” he said out loud.

Whether because, in his arrogance, he believed he had sufficiently damaged the Warhammer, or a moment’s hesitation brought on by the crippling heat, the reason did not matter; the Warhammer made the torso twist in almost superhuman time and unleashed cobalt fury before the Thor could escape. Both PPCs’ cascading energy converged on the already damaged right leg.

Armor sublimated, liquefied, ran in sluggish rivulets, bared the internal structure to the sun-hot energies that destroyed the right leg bone with equal ease: the upper leg simply ceased to be. For a moment the Thor stood—a tree that had lost its battle against the logger but for a moment refused to yield, desperate and ashamed to give in to gravity.

Petr imaged he could feel the impact of it slamming into the ground even at this distance.

Petr’s fists slowly tightened until tendons creaked and the blood pounded in his forehead like the thundering of the Tiburon’s feet sprinting across the tundra. Now it would be up to him to tie. An overall win was no longer possible.

Pushing at the rage, unclenching his fists, he slowly brought it back under control. As any good Sea Fox merchant could tell you, at times a win was not possible. In such circumstances, a tie would have to do.

And since defeating Sha would be a win in Petr’s book, it would more than do.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям