|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
The heavily customized, chrome-plated, smoke-belching, full-of-sound-and-fury Groundhog Work Gear soared through the air, its wheel systems missing the backs of the stampeding wild springers by a mere few centimeters. The air was alive with their panicked cries and the thundering of their hooves on the dry, packed earth; the noise echoed off the walls of the small Badlands canyon. A pair of the terrified beasts turned away from the airborne Gear so fast and sharply that the weight of the cartilaginous humps on their backs flipped them over sideways, further confounding the already stricken herd.
With a solid THUD, Rex landed beside the larger of the two, narrowly missing the creature. The pilot of the Gear, Gekko Skovran, laughed hysterically and cut loose with another rebel yell: "Yeeeeeee-ha!" Gunning the Gear's oversized engine and switching back to walking mode, he slowly advanced on the wide-eyed springer struggling desperately to get to its feet before him. Smoke and noise bellowed from Rex's chrome-plated exhaust pipes, momentarily drowning out the sounds of the crazed animals.
CRASH! Rex lurched sideways as the forgotten second springer plowed into the machine from the left, knocking the Gear off balance.
While Gekko struggled to keep the Gear upright, his quarry managed to regain its feet. With a contemptuous snort, the beast charged directly at Rex, veering away at the last moment and rejoining the retreating herd.
Gekko had gunned the engine again and dropped the wheels back to the ground, preparing to give further chase, when the second springer struck once more. The Work Gear collapsed to its knees, then slowly keeled over forward to the dirt. The plastic windscreen shattered on impact and Gekko tumbled out of the cockpit to end up face down in the dirt beside his Gear, mimicking the latter's pose.
A sharp snort and a burst of foul-smelling, warm air on the back of Gekko's neck reminded him of the presence of the second springer. Rolling over sideways, Gekko managed to miss the worst of the sharp blow from the creature's foreleg hoof; instead of crushing his skull, the blow merely stunned the man, who found protection beneath his Gear.
CRACK! The sound of a gunshot peeled off down the canyon, bouncing back and forth, reverberating off the rocky slopes. With a heavy THUMP, the springer dropped solidly to the ground beside the Gear, sending a puff of brown-red dust scudding under the Gear to thoroughly coat Gekko Skovran. Apart from a fit of coughing from Gekko, all was quiet and still, the herd long gone.
A deep, booming voice broke the silence: "Don' know what's worse, Gek: That a damned springer kicked yer ass, or that Gears like this piece o' shit here kicked our asses back in the War." A pair of heavy boots crunched pebbles as the owner of the voice made his way towards Gekko's prone position; the sheer mass of the body supported by the boots was enough to shatter some of the weaker rocks. The owner of the voice, the boots, and the incredibly huge bulk of a body grunted, then continued, "We shoulda had us springers insteada hovertanks. Mighta won, y'know."
Gekko watched the Gear shift slightly above him as his companion leaned up against it, but he didn't reply.
"Hey, Gek?" The harsh tone of the voice had vanished, replaced by a level of concern most folks wouldn't expect from the owner. "Gek? You okay?" A huge, meaty hand reached under the Gear and found Gekko's shoulder, dragging the man out into the open air beneath the noonday sun. "Gek?"
Gekko stared up into the purplish face of his friend. "Fuuuuuuck, Mordy. That's a helluva lotta fun. Ya really gotta try it someday."
Mordred Rock, known to his few friends simply as Mordy, frowned and spat on the ground beside Gekko's head. "Fuckin' jerk. Had me worried there for a minute. Fragile lil' human." He grabbed Gekko's arms and dragged him to his feet. "How the hell did pipsqueaks like y'all beat us?"
Gekko gestured towards the vanishing cloud of dust that marked the herd of springers. "I think it's cuz we's willin' ta jump inta the middle of a herd o' stampedin' springers just ta get us our kicks, huh?" He wobbled a bit, then reached out for his friend.
The GREL caught him, kicking his heavy rifle out from its place leaning up against the Groundhog, where he had dropped it upon reaching Gekko and Rex. "Eh, dunno. Gotta be more 'n that, y'know. Shit, a fuckin' Morgana'd do that kinda shit inna minute."
"Yep, butcha gotta git the idear in'er head, m'friend."
"Bastard." Rock punched Gekko lightly in the shoulder, sending the human stumbling backwards a few paces. "That's low, inaccurate, and misinformed."
"Heheh. I know, I know. I'm just givin' ya shit." Gekko rubbed his shoulder, thankful for the hundredth time since meeting the GREL fifteen cycles ago that he was his friend.
Rock grunted again. "Yeah, well, you know that kind of stereotyping just pisses me off." The GREL had completely thrown away his fake accent, a sure sign of frustration. "'Can't teach an old GREL new tricks,' they say. Bullshit. What an insult! They have an expression just like it on Earth, you know: 'Can't teach an old dog new tricks.' I guess I've heard 'dawg' around here, too. Like we GRELs are some kind of stupid animal. Makes me spit." To emphasize the point, Rock spat once more.
"Easy, Mordy, easy! I was jus' kiddin'! Didn't mean nothin' by it!" Gekko slowly approached his friend and slapped him on the back, then gestured at the dead springer. "Nice shot, by th' way."
Rock frowned, like he wanted to vent more of his frustration, but apparently restrained himself. With visible reluctance he slid his gaze across the carcass. "Hm. Yeah, I guess so, huh?" He kicked the dead beast in the spiked hump, cracking the carapace in the process and reminding Gekko that there was still a lot of pent-up anger in the man.
Gekko shook off the last of the effects of getting kicked by the springer and waved his hand in the direction of his prized Work Gear, his 'Graown Hawg,' as he called it. "Say, let's get ol' Rex here back on 'is feet and take this critter back to th' town, eh?" A clear goal was what Soldier Rock needed, and the effort to get the Gear rolled over and then standing again would be sure to burn off a lot of his energy.
"I see right through your scheme, human," the Mordred said menacingly.
Gekko gulped and started backing away slowly, wondering exactly what the odds of him getting away from the GREL were.
Rock broke into a wide grin, his tone of voice becoming his more usual friendly one. "Okay, now we're even, Gek, for that comment about my people. Yeah, let's get this piece of shit back on its feet and back to Johar Ridge. Before we left this morning, Britt told me his ale was probably just about as good as it would get. I could sure use a couple of liters right about now, and this pissant springer'll barbecue up real nice in the pit. I reckon I know what the House Special'll be at the ol' Desert Skillet tonight." His grin widened even further.
Gekko sighed with relief and laughed. "Yep, sounds good t'me. Ya had me goin' there fer a minit, y'know?"
"Yeah, I know. Sorry. You know I wouldn't hurt you, friend." Rock reached forward and poked Gekko's sore shoulder. "Not intentionally, anyway." He kicked his rifle out of the way from where he had kicked it previously, and put his back up against the Gear's side. "Okay, here goes..."
"Mamoud be damned, this shit's foul, Britt!" Gekko punctuated his claim with a loud belch that echoed loudly in the backyard patio area of Mordy's Desert Skillet. Soldier Rock had opened the restaurant shortly after his arrival in the tiny Badlands community of Johar Ridge. Gekko took another swig of the ale. "Ugh! Man, and put some damned clothes on!" Another belch punctuated that statement, too. "Rock, tell 'im t' put some clothes on!"
Mordred Rock's hairless, purple forehead, piggy eyes, and tiny pointed ears peeked up from within the Desert Skillet's barbecue pit. He wiped a hand across his dirty face, leaving behind a fresh trail of blood and grime. Rock shook his head with half-hearted disgust at the pair, grunted, and bent back down to return to the process of cleaning the springer's corpse and preparing it for roasting.
Technician Isaac Britt lowered his sunglasses and let his head roll casually over to face Gekko Skovran. The two friends were lounging casually in the evening sunset. Britt yawned and sipped from his mug, which Rock had fashioned from an artillery shell casing "to give the Skillet some atmosphere."
The technician GREL shoved his sunglasses back up and looked away. "First of all, Skovran," he said, "I'll have you know this brew is the perfect combination of beverage and fuel--Rex can get as much use out of it as he could from regular high-grade gasoline, and at the same time, you, Rock, and I can get roaring drunk off it without getting too sick. It is absolute perfection, I tell you, and this batch is the best I've made yet. You are drinking the revolutionary alcoholic beverage that will put Johar Ridge on the map, sir.
"Second," he continued, gesturing languidly at his nude body, "this is how they dress in Ashanti, and I plan on retiring to that heavenly city-state once I've gotten Britt's Combustible Liqueur properly patented and marketed." The GREL smirked.
"Gads, man," replied Gekko, laughing. He took another swig of the stuff. "Hey, I put Johar Ridge on the map with Rex." He gestured towards the direction of Gekko's Garage, where Rex was parked and awaiting some detail work after its tumble with the springers. "And wouldja really desert me an' Mordy?"
Britt grunted. "Hmph. First of all, that write-up in the Rapid City Quarterly hardly counts; while it certainly got our little town noticed, the whole article had an insulting overtone. Rock didn't help any by playing the halfwit GREL, either. Second, of course I wouldn't desert you. You two will be welcome to join me in Ashanti." He lowered his sunglasses to the tip of his nose, and Gekko caught a twinkle in his eyes. "I think the Skillet here could give the Weird But Tasty a run for its money..."
Gekko caught the cue and nodded conspiratorially at the GREL. "Oh, sure, th' Skillet's certainly weird," he said, loudly. "But I'd be hard pressed ta call it 'tasty.'" He smirked back at his friend.
"HEY!" Rock's head popped back up from the pit. "You fuckin' shitheads cut that crap out!" His clenched fist held what was probably the springer's heart, which he waved around angrily.
Gekko and Britt clinked their mugs together, laughing.
Rock scratched his head, slowly realizing they were kidding and he'd taken the bait. "Yeah, yeah, haha, made the Mordred look. Very fuckin' funny." He grunted and returned back to his work. "Buncha assholes," he muttered.
Gekko burst out into hysterical laughter, thankful Britt was present, especially after the experience with Rock earlier that day. Rock didn't have much of a sense of humor, but he never seemed to mind so much being the butt of a joke if Britt was involved. Gekko choked down another mouthful of Britt's brew, wondering once again about the pair's past and why they were so strongly attached to each other. He shrugged off the thought; he'd asked once, back when he'd first met them, but they'd evaded the question, and he'd never bothered asking again.
Britt interrupted Gekko's reverie. "Hey, how's the Airhog coming?"
Gekko sat up straight on his recliner, a proud smile on his face. "Heh. Almost done. Almost done. All's we need now's a proper coil power booster an' a power modulator, an' we'll have us a workin' gun, m'friend. Wanna take a gander at 'er?"
Britt stood up, his expression eager. "Let's go!"
Gekko stood up more slowly, grabbed a towel, and threw it at the GREL. "Fer Mamoud's sake, man, cover yerself up. Dang shameless GREL..."
"And they said Rex was an eyesore!" Technician Britt, wearing only the towel, ran his hand along the smooth fiberglass contour of the new Gear's superstructure.
The secondary service bay of Gekko's Garage smelled strongly of oil and gasoline. From his position in the corner of the dark garage, standing in a pool of light beneath the only working lamp in the cavernous bay, Gekko Skovran admired his handiwork. While the body of a salvaged Groundhog made up the Gear's underlying structure, Gekko figured the casual observer would have to look pretty hard to guess it. He frowned, noticing that the legs still looked like Groundhog legs, apart from the oversized feet and their curious ductwork that might be thrust ports. Still, that was a detail the average fella wouldn't ever really pick up on; they could be any Gear's legs, though they were pretty small for, say, a Grizzly.
Gekko had fashioned a shell of fiberglass molded in a shape reminiscent of a grassrunner's snout, and he had fitted it over the Gear's torso. The shell protruded a few meters in front of the Gear, like the prow of a boat. He strode forward and rapped on the shell, which made a satisfying THUMP. "Heh-heh," he chuckled. "She's a beaut, ain't she?" He, too, ran his hand along the curved surface.
"What's the design on here?" asked Britt. "I can hardly make it out in this lighting..." The GREL peered at the side of the shell from several different angles.
"Eh, that's Mordy's doing," replied Gekko. "Here." He grabbed a flashlight off the wall and switched it on.
A fearsome grimace gradually took form in the murkiness as Gekko ran the light across the hull. He had painted the fiberglass shell a dark green color, but Rock had insisted on adding the grinning shark face. The GREL's artistic talent wasn't any good, and it was hard to tell if was a failed attempt at a comedic smile or a failed attempt at a fearsome, toothy snarl. Gekko had left the design on anyway.
Britt snorted with amusement at the sight of Rock's endeavor, then cast his eyes upon the structures that jutted out over the vehicle's shoulders. "Did I ever tell you how glad I am you added the wings?"
"Heh." Gekko swung the light up to follow Britt's gaze. The 'wings' had been the GREL's idea, a way to add some thrust and control to the Gear's unorthodox secondary movement system. Not actually wings, the twin devices were large, graceful, arcing booms of fiberglass and metal that arched out over the upside-down V-engine from behind the shoulders. Like the feet, the booms were dotted at intervals with swiveling thrust ports, four to a boom. A system similar to a Gear arm's shoulder joint actuated each boom.
The booms and the oversized feet formed the core of the Gear's secondary movement system: The Airhog, as Gekko had decided to call it, used ductwork and thrusters pilfered from an old, wrecked Colonial Expeditionary Force hovertank. The Gear was the holy grail of a select, small minority of Gear designers and technicians who were thought deranged by their peers: It was a Hover Gear.
Gekko smiled smugly, anticipating the expressions on the faces of his comrades at the upcoming Badlands Gear Rally, but his grin quickly melted into a frown. The Rally would have been held in Ashington this cycle, but the war raging between the North and the South had effectively put it on hold pending the location of an alternate site. Surprisingly, the paranoid government that ran the independent city-state of Timmins had offered that city's services, but the BGR committee had, rightly in Gekko's mind, turned down the offer.
"Hey, Isaac?" he asked.
"Yeah?" Britt drew his attention from the Airhog's hover system.
"D'ya think the war'll reach us here in Johar Ridge?"
The GREL rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, that's the sort of question you ought to ask a Jan, of course... But, no, I'd say we should be fine here. We're too small to be of any use to the North, and we're way too far north to be in much real danger from the South. Of course, given the present situation between the UMF and the Dominion that we keep hearing about, who knows what will happen? Still, I think our size will keep us safe for the time being."
"Hm." Gekko walked slowly to one of the garage's workbenches, where a large assembly of parts lay spread out like a dissected electronic critter. He propped the flashlight up on the bench, shining it on a carefully placed piece of polished, reflective sheetmetal he'd attached to the garage ceiling. Thinking about the war only made him depressed, so he studied the collection of parts carefully, hoping to distract himself. He picked up a ceramic circuit chip and spun it lazily on his fingertip. "I hope you're right," he said at last.
Britt strolled up beside him. "Yeah, me too, Gek. Me too." Changing subjects, he added, "This is it?"
"This is it," confirmed Gekko. He pointed at one end of the collection. "Chamber the capacitor down there. Pull the trigger, excite yer proton source here, a canister o' compressed liquid hydrogen in this case, accelerate the stream o' particles along this here beamguide, and KAZAK! Ya gotcherself one crispy particle beam comin' outta this here dohickey. Gotta prime the path with the coherent light source here, a'course..." He picked up a low-power lasing tube, inspected it, then gingerly set it down. "Well, it's all moot without the goll-dang power modulator, I'm afraid. Can't hardly keep the two power supplies in synch without it. Damn this CEF crap anyhow!" He spat on the floor.
Britt chuckled and pointed to the far edge of the table. "A power modulator? Like that one?"
Gekko looked over at it. "Shit!" He swiped up his flashlight and hurried over to the package. "Yeah, this'll do nicely! Where the hell'dja git this here thing, Britt?" He quickly spotted a second package sitting next to the modulator. "Mamoud be damned! And a coil power booster! Where in blazes..."
Britt was laughing gently. "Thought you'd like those. I've got a friend in Khayr ad-Din. He's got a friend in Port Arthur, where, of course, they're regularly adapting Earth technology to Terra Novan. My friend in Khayr ad-Din wrangled the parts out of his buddy in Port Arthur."
"Well, goll dang! Ain't that somethin'?" Gekko scratched his head. "How much d'I owe ya?"
Britt snorted. "Eh, nothing. You've got a birthday coming up, right? Call it an early birthday present." He smiled pleasantly.
Gekko scratched his head again, kind of embarrassed. "Well, shoot... Thanks." He picked up the parts and inspected them carefully. "You don't mind if I, er..." He nodded at the dissected particle cannon. "You know..."
Britt nodded his head, laughing. He glanced at the pieces of the disassembled gun, his eyes lingering for a few moments on a particular ceramic chip. Finally, he shook himself and said, "Don't strain yourself, okay?" He clasped Gekko briefly on the shoulder, turned, and left.
Gekko watched the retreating GREL's back, silhouetted by the setting sun, then glanced down at the weapon. He stared at the cerachip Britt had been eyeing, and frowned. "Dang," he said, prying it loose from the control system motherboard where he had installed it. "Damned thing's upside down." He snapped it back in rightside up, then looked back up towards the street. Britt was nowhere to be seen.
Gekko was surprised that Britt had restrained himself from jumping in with help and advice; one of the technician GREL's main areas of expertise had been CEF weaponry, especially particle weapons. Both Britt and Rock seemed pretty good at that sort of thing: They only really showed off their training when it was strictly necessary--like when Rock had shot the springer. Both had taken up hobbies and vocations in town for which they had absolutely no experience and for which they repeatedly had to ask humans for help. Gekko thought he understood why they acted that way: It sure seemed to put most folks at ease around the pair, and when you get nothing but contempt and fear from folks, you'll sometimes do anything to get them to like you.
"Shit," he muttered. "That ain't any damned fair at all..."
Wind ripped through Gekko's wispy, thinning hair. Despite his authentic springer-leather aviator goggles, the wind made his eyes water, too. He whooped for joy and increased the throttle a notch.
In the small rumble seats on either side of him, wearing identical goggles, his GREL friends whooped and hollered with the thrill of the ride, too.
The Airhog roared over the open desert, kicking up clouds of dust and scrubland debris behind it like a dustdevil. As it crested a low ridge, the Hover Gear's fiberglass shell caught a resonance and started vibrating violently. Gekko laughed and gunned the engine again, pushing even more power out of the machine, driving it faster and faster, taking it out of resonance with the skipping motion. The speedometer had pegged itself at 100 km per hour; Gekko was pretty sure the machine was moving faster than that.
"Okay," he hollered at his companions, "I'm gonna take us a tight turn now, so hang on!" He glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed the port boom would probably catch Rock on the top of the head when it swung. "Rock! Duck!"
Over the roar of the engine and the wind, he heard the Mordred's shouted reply: "What?"
"DUCK!" shouted Britt, pointing at the boom.
"DUCK!" the mechanic and the technician GREL yelled simultaneously.
Gekko shook his head and let out a rebel yell, then pulled hard to the left on the control stick.
The Gear slued left, the booms swiveling out to the right to do so, keeping the Gear from toppling over and adding a little bit of controllability to the maneuver. Without the control booms, the Airhog had originally proven too difficult to handle, and had toppled over on tight turns. Nevertheless, despite their presence, the vehicle now skidded sideways several dozens of meters before finally settling down on the new bearing.
"Haha!" shouted Gekko, gunning the engine again.
"Damn it!" cried Rock. "Why didn't you morons tell me to duck?" In the rearview mirror, Gekko noticed the Mordred rubbing his head.
Gekko also noticed Britt shaking his head and laughing, so he laughed too. "Okay, guys, hang on again! This time, we're goin' up!" He flipped open a safety cover on the side of the control stick, revealing a red switch. "Here we go!" He stabbed the switch.
The Hover Gear noticeably dipped a few centimeters closer to the ground, accompanied by the sudden roar of an auxiliary, high-powered turbine, then a blast of compressed air rocketed out from the oversized feet. The Airhog soared into the air, ten meters, twenty meters, thirty meters--
"Holy shit!" cried Isaac Britt.
--forty meters, fifty meters! The turbine compressor roared to life again atop the inverted V-engine, furiously pumping air out of the nozzles in the now-extended booms, slowing the machine's fall.
"Oh, shit! Shit shit shit shit shit!" cried Britt as the ground rushed up at them.
WHAM! The Gear landed, the legs absorbing most of the impact as it squatted closer and closer to the ground, the turbine pumping air furiously out of the wings and the feet. At last, after what seemed like forever despite the moment's having lasted only a fraction of a second, the vehicle bounced back up a few meters into the air as the legs flexed. Clouds of dirt and sand erupted as the foot-mounted thrust ports cleared the ground.
The Gear skidded along the ground for a hundred meters or so until Gekko was finally able to bring the machine to a halt. The hover turbines wound down as the machine settled slowly to the ground, and the booms relaxed to their undeployed state. Gekko slapped the side of his Gear, giggling and laughing with glee. Behind him, he heard Rock laughing deeply.
Gekko finally caught his breath and turned around to face his friends, only to discover Britt was no longer back there. Suddenly very worried, he asked, "Where's--"
Rock gestured over his shoulder.
A couple of paces away, the other GREL was on the ground, bent over on his hands and knees, vomiting.
"I think Britt gets airsick, come to think of it," remarked the Mordred, who then burst into laughter and jumped down from the Gear. "Aw, c'mon, Britt," he said, walking towards the Isaac, "get a grip on yourself. You think that was bad? Imagine comin' down to this miserable planet from orbit on a ride like that! With, I might add, an extremely excited and over-zealous Minerva at the controls..." He slapped the technician gently on the back. "Now that was a ride!"
Gekko climbed slowly down, using the Airhog's recessed handholds, dropping the last few centimeters to the earth. He reached out and gently patted the fiberglass hull. "Good girl," he whispered, then jaunted over to join the two GRELs.
"Well?" he asked. "Ya okay, Isaac?"
"Ugh," grunted the GREL.
Rock stood up straight. "Man, that's one fun ride, Gek. Chasing springers in that thing'll be a cakewalk. Hooooo-yah." He clasped Gekko firmly on the shoulder. "Mighty fine work you do there, human." He grinned broadly, then nodded at the Gear. "So when do we get to test the main gun?"
From the ground, where he had rolled over onto his back, Britt added, "Can we do it while walking, please?"
"Aw, where's the fun in that, Britt?" asked Gekko, teasing the GREL. "Here's some water," he added, holding out his canteen.
"Humph," said the Isaac, sitting up and taking a swig from the proffered canteen, washing out his mouth.
Gekko chuckled and headed back to the Airhog. "C'mon, guys, let's get outta here. We got a lot a' testin' ta do yet." He started climbing up the handholds.
Behind him, Britt yelped. "Hey, wait a minute, guys!"
"Oh, come on, Britt," chastised Rock, a few paces behind Gekko. "Don't be such a wimp. Gek won't jump the 'Hog on the way back. Will you, Gekko?"
"Nope, I promise."
Britt replied, "No, it's not that. Come back here and take a look at what I see. No, wait, better yet, keep climbing! I'm right behind you!"
Gekko had paused in his ascent, and was watching the Isaac running towards the Gear. "What's gotten into him all of a sudden?" he asked Rock.
"Got me. Better keep climbing, though. He's almost here."
As soon as all three were standing atop the Gear, Britt directed their gaze back to where he had been sick. "See it?"
"Uh, what? Your vomit?"
"No, no. Not that. Look at the ground all around here. Especially in that direction. Notice anything?"
Gekko scratched his head, wondering what the GREL was driving at. "Nope. Don't see nothin'. Just a bunch o' tracks. Looks like a caravan or somethin' came past this way." He took a more careful look at the series of wheel tracks he could see in the earth. From atop the Gear, he could see the tracks quite clearly, once he thought to pay attention to them. "What? What're ya gettin' at?"
"Looks like a bunch of bikes came through here..." said Rock, his voice trailing off. "Hm, yeah, several bikes, maybe a few trucks. Antelopes or Springers, probably," he added, referring to the common utility vehicles of the Terra Novan Badlands.
"Right!" exclaimed Britt. "Bikes and light trucks. What kind of caravan is that?"
"Mmmm..." murmured Gekko thoughtfully. "I think I see your point. Not a caravan, then. Rovers?"
"Yeah! That's what I'm thinking!"
"Hm. We'd best keep on the lookout, then. Lucky thing we're in the ol' Airhog here, huh? We can easily outrun them if we need to. Plus we've got this here particle cannon." He whacked the right side of the Gear, from which the barrel of the particle cannon jutted.
"You know," began Rock, "judging from how the tracks are laid out, it looks like they were headed in that direction." He pointed off toward the horizon. "They're probably long gone."
Gekko started feeling a little uneasy. Something was gnawing away at him. Something mighty important. "Hey, how long ago you guys reckon they came through here?"
Britt answered, "I don't know. Maybe a few hours ago, tops? The tracks looked pretty fresh, despite the wind..."
"Hm." Gekko reached down to the floor of the cockpit and pulled a memcompass out of his pack. He consulted it for a few seconds, then knew what was bothering him. "Shit! Johar Ridge's off in that direction!"
"What?" Britt sounded stunned. "I thought we came from that direction!" He pointed back the way they'd come.
"Yeah, but we been swervin' and drivin' all o'er the place out here. Shit!" Gekko slammed his fist into the Gear's frame. "We gotta get back! Strap in, fellas." He slipped his goggles over his face and started the Gear up. The V-engine roared to life, followed shortly by the hover system's turbines. Gekko checked the fuel guage. "Damn, we'd better have enough gas ta get back home!" He checked the memcompass again. "About, oh, eighty klicks or so," he muttered to himself. "This thing's a fuel pig, too. Shit!"
As he gunned the engine, Gekko asked Rock, "Ya got yer rifle with ya, right?"
Grim-faced and deadly serious, the Mordred replied, "Yes, sir. It's here."
The fact that the Mordred had addressed him as a superior wasn't lost on Gekko, but he was too preoccupied to think much about it. "Good. Hang tight back there." He kicked in the hover system, and the Airhog roared out across the Western Desert, following the rovers' trail.
"Tell brave deeds of war."
Then they recounted tales, --
"There were stern stands
And bitter runs for glory."
Ah, I think there were braver deeds.
Stephen Crane (1871-1900 CE, Earth)
From The Black Riders and Other Lines
The Airhog's particle cannon discharged its second and last time, turning an Antelope light truck, two dirt bikes, and a half-dozen rovers into a spectacular conflagration in the town square of Johar Ridge. Gekko trained his Gear's machine gun on another group of rovers who came running around a corner at the sound of the explosion and the screaming. The newly arrived rovers took one look at Gekko and his Airhog, and dropped their weapons, surrendering. Gekko toggled the safety off and started to squeeze the trigger.
A gentle, purple hand restrained him. "They've surrendered, Gek," said Britt.
"Fuckers. Tear up m'town and then surrender? Hell no. Shoulda thought o' that before they started killin' and robbin' Ridgers. They's dead." He started to squeeze the trigger again.
"Gek!" cried Britt, wrestling the controls away from Gekko.
"Damn it all, Britt! What the--"
"Be better than they, man. Be better." Britt's eyes pleaded with Gekko to release the controls, to spare the rovers' lives.
"Shit." Gekko let up on the switch and turned the machine gun away. "Shit," he repeated.
Two men from the Johar Ridge Irregulars darted out from their cover in the town's small, run-down hotel. They had been holed up there, engaged with the now-ablaze rovers in a losing battle when Gekko and Britt had roared in on the Hover Gear. The pair of foot soldiers took aim at the bandits with their rifles. "Gek?" cried the shorter of the two, Ezekiel Owens, who was also the oldest member of the Irregulars and their nominal leader. "What we do wi' these fucks?"
Gekko killed the Gear's hover system, switching to walker mode and revving down the engine. "Shit," he said a third time. "Shit, spare 'em Zeke. Spare th' bastards. We'll give 'em a goll-dang trial, I reckon. Git us a marshal out here or somethin'. I dunno." His initial rage was spent, and he wiped his brow, suddenly very fatigued. They had arrived in town just when the tide of battle had turned bad for the defenders, and already he was exhausted.
To Britt, he muttered, "Thanks for keeping me human, buddy."
Britt chuckled ironically. "Imagine that! A GREL teaching a human how to be human!"
"Yeah," replied Gekko, sheepishly. "Yeah. Let's go. There's gotta be more out there." He pushed the Airhog forward, the Gear walking carefully around the flaming wreckage in the square. The smell of buring metal and charred flesh turned Gekko's stomach.
Britt reached forward to grab the Airhog's microphone from the console. Speaking into it, he asked, "Hey, Rock? Are you there? Do you read me?" The Mordred GREL had debarked from the Gear as soon as they reached the outskirts of town, to wage his own style of war on the rovers.
Rock's voice came back with some static. "Yeah, I'm here. Hang on."
Over the receiver, they heard a WHOOSH followed by an explosion. Gekko saw a column of smoke erupt from the north end of town.
"Yeah, okay, sorry. Had to rub out another one of these punks. Too bad, too. It was kind of a nice bike."
Gekko grabbed the mike. "I think I see where y're at, Mordy. Want us ta join up with ya?"
"Nah. I'm fine. Got me a squad of Irregulars backing me up. They're doing okay for humans."
A deep voice boomed out from somewhere in town. The voice echoed off buildings and down streets, obviously broadcast from a public address system. "ATTENTION, JOHAR RIDGE!" it cried. "We have your mayor. I will accept your surrender at her domicile." The PA clicked silent.
"Uh-oh," whispered Britt.
"Shit," he said. "The mayor. Where th' hell're 'er guards, damn it!"
"It's worse than that, Gek," said Britt. Gekko caught a sense of dread in the GREL's voice. "I recognize that kind of voice; it was a Jan. Rock and I are screwed."
"A Jan. A leader-class GREL."
"Yeah? He's not yer leader, right?"
Britt shook his head. "It's not that simple, I'm afraid. A Jan is every GREL's leader." He tapped the side of his head. "It's part of our, um, programming."
Gekko mulled that fact over for a few seconds. "Shit. Okay, you stay 'ere." He picked up the mike. "Mordy? Stay where ya are, bud. Don' go in."
Rock's reply was angry. "Screw you, Skovran! She's my mayor, too!"
"If Rock's going, I'm going, too," said Britt.
The Airhog pulled up outside the mayor's house. It was just like any other house in Johar Ridge, except that it had a sign over the entrance that proclaimed, "HON. IRIS J. ARPIN, MAYOR."
As Gekko stood up in the open air cockpit, a brief flash of red light blinded him momentarily in the right eye. He glanced down reflexively and saw a bright red laser dot holding steady in the center of his chest. He slowly raised his hands, looking in the direction from which the laser was coming.
Atop the roof of the mayor's house crouched a lithe, feminine form wearing a skintight, black, synthetic fabric suit and a helmet that concealed her face. She held a rifle trained on Gekko.
Beside Gekko, Britt emitted a low moan and slumped to the floor of the cockpit. Gekko turned, surprised to see another feminine form standing behind him. She raised her helmet, and a purple face peered out at him. He was startled at how pretty she was.
His infatuation was short-lived as she punched him in the gut. "Quit staring, human," she said icily.
Gekko doubled over with pain, gasping for breath. He reached for Britt.
The GREL, obviously a Morgana, slapped his hand away. "The Isaac's alive. Knocked out. Move. Into the house. Now." She shoved him roughly towards the handholds in the side of the Gear.
Gekko reached for the handholds and started his descent. He immediately cried out in pain, surprised to find that the Morgana had broken his wrist without him noticing it. "This is bad," he muttered as he struggled to climb down.
As soon as he reached the ground, the Morgana leapt from the Gear's cockpit, doing some kind of apparently perfect and graceful flip in the process. She landed lightly beside Gekko and kicked his feet out from under him. He landed on his back. "Get up," she hissed. "Now. Inside."
"Unfriendly bitch," he muttered, which earned him another kick, this one to his back. He stumbled roughly into the house, landing on his knees.
"Well, well, well," said a deep, calm, arrogant voice. "What have we here? Another miserable cretin. Another waste of a gene pool." A firm hand grabbed him roughly under the chin, jerking Gekko's head upward to stare at the face of what he assumed was a Jan. "You wish to surrender? You'll be treated as fairly as you deserve."
Gekko managed a grin. "Sorry, bud. I'm here ta rescue th' mayor."
The Jan snorted with amusement. "Ah." He brought his face in closer to Gekko's. He smelled of cheap cologne. "Good luck," he whispered with venom. He shoved Gekko backwards. In a low voice, he asked, "And how do you propose to do that? You can surrender and I'll spare her life. Not her dignity, I'm afraid. She refused to call off this little hamlet's poor excuse for a defense force. For that, she will of course pay. I have need of a plaything, even if she's merely a human."
Gekko struggled to his feet. "The Irregulars seem ta be doin' a decent job o' keepin' you rovers busy. They ain't so bad."
The Jan snorted again. "Rabble fighting rabble. The humans in my employ are merely fodder."
Gekko didn't know what to say to that, so he just spat at the GREL.
He blinked his eyes and rubbed his jaw. Gekko was surprised to find himself on the floor again, up against the interior wall across from the entrance to the house. He struggled once more to his feet, wondering how he'd gotten there so suddenly. He slowly remembered being kicked by the Jan, and had apparently blacked out.
The Jan himself was nowhere to be seen.
Gekko heard a faint, muffled cry from an adjacent room, and staggered towards it.
When he stumbled into the mayor's dining room, he was surprised to find the mayor herself bound and gagged, lying on her side atop the table, struggling. The mayor's two bodyguards were slumped over in a corner, dead. The Jan was inspecting a shelf of knickknacks with unconcealed disgust.
"Ah," said the GREL as Gekko reached unsteadily for the mayor. "You're still here. Very well. Iris, meet, er, another one of your lot. He appears to be the human equivalent of an Isaac--a pretty poor excuse for one, I might add. And you, meet your mayor. Now that the introductions are out of the way..." He withdrew a large pistol and aimed it at Gekko's head. "If you'll be so kind as to die."
"Sir." One of the Morganas stood in the entrance to the dining room.
The Jan looked annoyed at being interrupted. "Yes? What is it?"
"We've apprehended the Mordred who's been giving our forces some trouble." She stepped out and shoved Rock into the room.
"Ah... Very good. A lost sheep come home at last. Welcome. You obviously didn't realize the nature of my little gang here. Now that you do, of course, you'll immediately join us. Fellow GREL, today is the first day of your long and hard struggle to avenge our race for the misdoings of the human race. Embrace your freedom!" The Jan shoved the pistol back into its holster.
Defiantly, Rock said, "I am free."
The Jan raised a hairless eyebrow. "Are you, now? And what, pray tell, are you doing with this lot?" He waved his hand casually, indicating Gekko and the mayor.
"Amusing." The Jan walked around the table to stand before Rock. "Fighting me? You know what I am, correct?"
"Your natural leader."
"I listen to him," said Rock, nodding at Gekko. "And I answer to her." He nodded at the mayor.
The Morgana, still present, snorted.
"Do you, now?" asked the Jan, sneering. Without warning, he shouted, "Soldier! State your name and unit!"
Rock snapped to attention, saluting the Jan. "Soldier Rock, sir!" he shouted. "Most recently with the Second Korps Mechanized Infantry, sir!"
Only Gekko noticed the dismay evident on Rock's face.
"Soldier Rock, you are now under my command. You will fight for me and my cause, which is now your cause as well. You will serve me faithfully and do my bidding. Am I clear?"
The Jan nodded. "Very well." He withdrew his pistol once more and handed it to Rock. "Kill the human male, Soldier."
Rock mechanically took the pistol and aimed it at Gekko. His eyes were wide with fear, his hand shaking and unsteady. Gekko closed his eyes, waiting for the end.
After a long wait, he peeked open on eye.
Rock stood, still shaking, the pistol still aimed at Gekko.
"Well?" asked the Jan, annoyed. "What are you waiting for? You're a GREL, I'm your leader, your orders are to kill that human. What don't you understand? Get on with it!" He sighed and called over to the Morgana. "Big and dumb! I always said that was a mistake in their design."
Rock remained where he was, his shaking becoming more violent. His internal struggle to resist his hypnoprogramming thrall was evident in the expression on his face.
An explosion from outside shook the house, rattling the dining room windows, jostling the lighter knicknacks on the shelf, and startling everyone. The Morgana turned quickly on her heels and took one step out into the hallway before she was dead, a gunshot to the back of the head. Her body hit the floor with uncharacteristic grace and inelegance.
Rock trained the still smoking pistol on the Jan and fired it a second time, but the Jan was already running, heading out the back door of the house. Rock snarled and chased after him.
Gekko was left alone with the mayor. Stunned, he carefully undid her bindings. He had just removed her gag when Britt staggered into the room. "Ah, there you are! That'll teach them to ignore an Isaac weapons specialist again, won't it? I'm afraid I wrecked the particle cannon, Gek. And, um, the Airhog took a fair beating, too. But I got that damned Morgana. " He smiled charismatically at Gekko and the mayor, then nodded at the corpse of the Morgana who had been in the room when the explosion went off. "I see you took care of the other one. Where's Rock?" he asked.
A revving engine drew their attention to the backyard.
Gekko and Britt left the dazed mayor in her dining room and followed Rock's path out to the yard and into an alley. Rock was just mounting a small, four-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle as they rounded the corner. He revved the tiny vehicle's V-engines, saluted, and sped off down the alley, roaring past them.
Gekko and Britt ran after him, unable to catch up with the fast little vehicle. They reached the main street out of breath, and came to a stop, wheezing. Britt tapped Gekko on the shoulder and pointed down the road: They could see Rock's ATV chasing another vehicle, a light scouting vehicle of some kind.
"Shit," wheezed Gekko.
They caught up with Soldier Rock a few kilometers west of Johar Ridge, sitting on the ground, leaning over against a brown-yellow sandstone rock, clutching his stomach. A pool of red fluid had formed around him where he sat. He looked surprised. A few meters behind him, the mangled wreckage of his ATV and the scouting vehicle, an Elan, still smoldered. The Jan had been dragged from the wreckage; from the looks of things, Rock had made brutally sure he was dead.
Technician Britt jumped down from Rex and ran to the fallen Mordred. The Isaac stumbled the last few meters and landed on his hands and knees, bawling. "ROOOOOCK!!!" he cried.
Gekko dropped more carefully from the Groundhog and approached slowly, not quite sure of how to react.
The Mordred turned his gaze towards the pair and grunted. "Fuck. Fuck, this hurts," he whispered. His breathing was slow and ragged.
Gekko rushed to Rock's side; Britt crawled the rest of the way. "Mamoud be damned," Gekko said softly, looking at the wound and the pooled blood. "Mordy... Mordy, hang on," he said lamely. "We'll, uh, we'll think of somethin'. We'll getcha patched up in no time, won't we, Isaac?" He patted the sobbing Britt on the shoulder.
"Fuck," said Rock. "Fuck, this hurts. Fuck. Oh, fuck, I'm dead. I'm fucking dead." He coughed harshly. "You're on your own now, Britt."
"Easy, Mordy, easy--" began Gekko, kneeling beside the fallen GREL.
"Hah," the GREL chuckled morbidly. "No, no damned use, Gek. I finally bought it. Guess I'm about to find out...what's on the other side...for a GREL. Shit." He coughed again and spat out a red gob. "Ah, damn, it hurts..." He grabbed Gekko's shoulder. "I told you...I wouldn't ever...hurt you." The hand dropped to his side, and the eyes stared off into nothingness. His massive chest had stopped its uneven rise and fall.
Britt wailed and shrieked, his hands clutching tightly the collar of Rock's cloak.
Gekko slumped down to the earth beside the technician and joined in the Isaac's grief.
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
Heavy Gear is © 1999, Dream Pod 9, Inc. All rights reserved. APAGear is not affiliated with Dream Pod 9 in any way. Submitted material remains the property of the creator.