APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 3 April, 2001


Heads, Tails

Tom McGrenery

Friedrich couldn't believe his senses. He saw the tracers come flashing towards him and felt his leg go hot, as his ears were filled first with the metal spattering of his Hunter's armour and then with the soft crump of an ammo pod exploding. Over the radio, Stellan screamed. Friedrich looked right in time to see his friend's Gear, a Ferret, gutted by thrust after thrust of the MILICIA Jäger's vibroknife.

Something had pierced the cockpit wall by Friedrich's left hip, and a cold tang of pain dug, barbed, into the side of his torso, just above the bone. He calmly looked down to see what was causing the cold sensation on his thighs, and wasn't too surprised to see his own blood seeping through the cloth of his overalls. A sharp shock of motion brought his attention back to his head-up display and the outside world. A round from one of the Jägers had smashed into his Gear's shoulder, spinning it round with a violent crash. Barely thinking, Friedrich hit a long-practised macro combination on the joysticks. The Hunter staggered, but stayed on its feet.

As the Hunter's omnicamera snapped up to face its attacker there was a thunderous roar. Jenna, in her Cobra, had unleashed a massive volley with rocket pods at the hapless Jäger, which had been to occupied with Friedrich to notice her. At least one of the missiles took the MILICIA pilot's Gear directly in the chest, and the rounded form was smashed backwards and off its feet.

Momentarily exultant, Friedrich's relief was short-lived. Seconds later, Jenna's Gear was shredded under sustained fire from the two remaining Southerners.

Friedrich's Hunter was limping, the right arm was useless. He moved forwards a few steps, and the MILICIA Gears turned to face him. This was the end, then.

The boss was unhappy. He paced back and forth. He flicked his wrist up to look at his watch, and then continued to stalk around the office. His secretary chose not to say anything. This was probably wise. Although Pierre-Yves Marceau was one of the wealthiest men in Marabou, it seemed that money couldn't buy a long fuse.

"One damned driver!" he shouted, apparently to no one in particular, "One lazy employee is going to ruin this day! On the one day that I have to rely on one man, he's late for work. Brilliant. Just brilliant."

He looked at his watch again. The advanced arms deal of the last five cycles, as far as Marceau was concerned, was scheduled to begin five minutes ago. If he hadn't cavalierly given the rest of the staff a day off, maybe he wouldn't be in this pickle, but he had done. So there it was. And money was slipping through his fingers every minute that the MILICIA officials sat waiting in the lobby of the White Swan Hotel. Waiting for him, who didn't have a car. Brilliant. Getting the military to buy anything new, let alone advanced in technology, was far more difficult than most people would believe. He'd got so far. To have everything go to pieces at the last minute was enough to drive a man to despair.

Garner Weissenbruck was terrible at making decisions. This was part of what he hated about himself. He was a vacillating, timid little man. Pathetic. And could he do anything about it? No, no, that would require choosing a course of action and setting out upon it, wouldn't it? No wonder things were as they stood.

Twenty-five cycles. All that time, alone. Twenty-five cycles since flames and metal had eaten away his life, their faces fading from his vision as his legs went cold while his face became hot. When there was light again, where his children and wife had been, now there was an aching, hollow pit. It formed right below his heart, sucking heavily at his breath on the days when Garner was at his lowest ebb.

Today, there was no procrastination. There could be none. Garner had forced himself into a decision, hiring half an hour's time on the Marabou South shooting range. The gun, the tool was there, but he could not take it away. Inside his booth, with gunfire on either side, Garner had to choose one way or the other. To die, or not to. To be, or not to be. There was no chance of going home to ponder further. He looked at the clock. Twenty-five minutes gone.

Six minutes to decide.

A third of that time elapsed. Garner took on a feeling of detachment. He was terrible at making decisions. Reaching into his pocket, he found a thirty centime piece. New and shiny, the Southern Republic coat of arms gleamed up at him. He pressed the cold barrel of the gun up against the underside of his jaw, and flipped the coin.

The spinning blur resolved into the image of a soaring eagle.

No-one saw or heard the end of Garner Weissenbruck.

Friedrich was crouched and motionless beside the carcass of a burnt-out Camel. The lorry's paint was peeling off, showing leafy patterns of metal to the sun, and was boiling hot. Friedrich had leaned against it earlier and burned his hand. Hot enough to fry an egg on.

Friedrich adjusted his goggles, settling them more comfortably on the bridge of his nose. The grime that covered his face had slipped under the goggles' edge, causing an uncomfortable, slimy feeling where the goggles rubbed beneath his eyes. As he squinted into the distance, the skeleton of Azov, the ghost city, hovered grey on the horizon.

Motion caught Friedrich's eye. He looked south, through his binoculars. As predicted, the caravan's escort consisted of two Jägers and an Anolis. No problem. But then something else caught his eye. The southern Gears were carrying something different. Friedrich cranked the magnification all the way up, trying to identify the patrol's guns.

He stowed the binoculars in his jacket and scrambled over the dune behind him. The cockpit of his waiting Hunter was open - he got in as fast as he could, ramming on his helmet hard enough to make his ears burn even as the VISUP started.

"We're out of here," he declared to the microphone.

"Wha' for?" Jenna's voice came through his cockpit speakers, with her distinctive Livingstone accent, "More o' them than y'thought?"

Now he could see Jenna's Cobra as he ran towards the others.

"No, no," he replied, "Scary guns. If they had a normal payload, we'd cream them. No problem. But better safe than sorry. I don't know what those things are, but they look bad."

There was a disappointed silence from Jenna.

"There'll be another caravan another time."

The two Gears fell in with Stellan's Ferret, and together the three of them ran for the hills.

Marceau walked out of the White Swan Hotel with a skip in his step and the insouciant hint of a smile. He tipped the doorman generously as his car pulled up and he got inside. As the car pulled away, he lost no time in fixing himself a celebratory cocktail from the mini-bar.

"Any luck, sir?" inquired the chauffeur, in his usual deferential tone.

"I think we have quite the deal on our hands, here," Marceau replied, "Now, if you don't mind, I should like to go home, Garner."

"Very good, sir," said the driver.

Six minutes to decide.

A third of that time elapsed. Garner took on a feeling of detachment. He was terrible at making decisions. Reaching into his pocket, he found a thirty centime piece. New and shiny, the Southern Republic coat of arms gleamed up at him. He pressed the cold barrel of the gun up against the underside of his jaw, and flipped the coin.

Tails. The coat of arms was face up.

Fifteen minutes later, Garner was across the road from the shooting range, reading a paper and enjoying a cup of Yung-An cawfee.

"You look rather chipper, love," remarked the waitress, placing a grilled hopper sandwich on the table in front of Garner.

"I've just made a life-changing decision," replied Garner. There was just enough time to finish lunch and get to work.

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APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 3 April, 2001