Note: Jules wants to note that this story gets a little bit graphic towards the end. -Ed.
Sunlight glinted off of the harsh anodized finish of autocannon's rounded barrel, another flare beside the blossom of rimfire that erupted from the powder blackened muzzle. The day was another harsh Terranovan day, and the sun was high above the ground, a blazing sphere that burned the sands that spread to each horizon and shed shadows that stretched for ever.
The Nemesis Jaguar was at a dead run, bouncing with each stride upwards and falling in the wake downwards. A stream of tracers followed it, a tracery of geysers in the desert sand; the Jaguar always seemed a half step ahead of them, occasionally breaking its pace to lean back as the gunner led his fire over where it would have been. Each time, it pulled to a stop as the shells kicked up dust in front of it, and then resumed at a dead run, racing to a concrete windbreak. With a dive, it disappeared behind of the curved expanse of wall, sheltering itself behind the cool stretch of white.
Ducking back behind the metal shed it had braced itself against, the Warrior as well disappeared from sight, dragging a fresh clip for its autocannon off of its hip skirts and inserting it as the spent one dropped spent to the ground, discarded in the pilot's focus on the enemy at hand.
She could almost feel the other pilot tensing, somewhere beyond that concrete wall. She knew what he would be thinking. Matching that thought pace for pace, she acted, stomping on both of her foot pedals as she pushed her sticks down into a favorite macro.
The Warrior came out from behind the shed, rifle cannon held braced at the hip, tracking for the Nemesis Jaguar. But the Nemesis was already hurtling over the decaying cube of metal that was the shed, somersaulting with all of the ability that lay within its Shaian made actuators. Curling with the forward throwing of its body, the lithe gear let its legs pass its head in the somersault, and landed fully on its footpads with a shock that sent her lurching forward in her seat restraints, breath and breasts painfully constricted for a moment, and then she had the other gear in her sights, and she was squeezing the trigger down and laughing out loud.
But the other gear folded its left arm across its chest, shielding its rifle and chest. The gear gave a jerk with each rapid jackhammer impact, and the shield disintegrated under the hale of fire, ripped to shreds. But it had absorbed enough ammunition, and the Warrior discarded the remains as it slipped behind the wall.
Cursing as the Warrior disappeared once more from her view, she rolled around the opposite side of the hut, unwilling to use her gear's leap once more, or to follow the enemy around the same corner. For a moment, she considered reloading, but she opted against it; she had over half of a clip left her count was on the mark, and that would be plenty.
Slipping around the next corner, she caught a view of the Warrior as it slipped behind the same wind break that she had hid behind earlier, firing from the hip with its autocannon to keep her ducking. For a moment, the strategy evaded her as anything but a cowardly withdrawal, but then she realized that the other Duelist perhaps simply had learned a different method of fighting then the whirlwind blurs that most military duels were. Maybe it was a PRDF thing. Prosecuted every duel like it was a war in itself.
* * *
The infantry rang up a number in the brig, cooling their heels a few days for fighting with civies. Everyone agreed that the civie had started the fight; just, infantry weren't supposed to mess with the locals. Didn't seem much of a problem.
Things started to happen. Vehicles started to lose air as the locals started to lose patience. It had been easier to get along with these locals compared to some of the problems that she had seen in integration in the past, but things were starting to slide. It had been easy in the beginning; holding station after the Interpolar War blew over, they stood garrison in what was left of a Badlander oasis that didn't last a single battle. When the natives trickled in, a few returning from a temporary home away from home somewhere else amidst the rolling dunes and endless sand. The North was a comfort, a vigilant presence and a protective set of arms.
Until the newcomer. He didn't enter the town so much as a person so much as an intangible presence of ill will and revelatory hatred. He seemed to exude dark feelings and a smoldering hatred, a working aura of anger. There was something about him that the locals recognized, some kinship that they shunted aside.
One of the mudsloggers said it all: "Walked in like he lived there every day of his life. . . Ordered a glass of water with the three finger sign that anyone but the locals gets pasted out back for using. Took one of the front stools, leaned all over the bar and got comfy."
Then he started asking questions, eyes locked forward on the tap of water where it sat alongside alcohol and other luxury drinks. As the questions went on, the townspeople began to work restlessly from place to place, working around in little loops that retraced each other. Innuendo worked itself in deeply, and as the stranger pushed the reason for the Guard's presence to meet with the reason the townspeople left, the brawl started. Brawl, to term it; a few jumped the stranger and spent the night.
The tavern closed after the last soldier left. So did most of the town, most of whom had eventually filtered into the tavern for a look-see.
* * *
She crossed her fingers, then worked the macro. With a lurch downwards as the gear coiled its legs beneath itself and gathered tension, and then a lurch upwards, she was flying once more. The windbreak sloped down to just above gear height where she was, and the Nemesis easilly crested it, legs leading over the edge. Body following, the gear settled down in the sands, already lining its rifle up on the retreating back of the Warrior.
Except it wasn't its back.
Firing at the Nemesis as it settled down on its metal haunches, the other hand of the Warrior rolled an underhand, a spinning grenade that tumbled at the feet of her gear. Dodging left from the autocannon, it was an impossible move. Armor tearing like paper and the whistling of a metal wind snapped her head away in a terror brought reflex; her helmet came against the inside of the gear's head and she clenched her teeth against the unexpected impact, feeling a slight resonance build in her skull from the abrupt motion. It was out of the very edges of her vision that she could see the Warrior retreating behind the windbreak again, hosed across the chest by her own burst.
Then the grenade exploded, metal canister flying apart in a rushing hailstorm of shrapnel.
* * *
The gear had stood there, plain as day, a five meter imitation of human grace and human passions. Fury, affection; grace, strive, want. It was powered up, watching her arrive with the baleful glare that was lent by its emotionless opti-cams. One hand curled around an autocannon, hanging lightly in its grasp with its barrel to the ground. By fortune or by intent, the hand was rotated so that the cant of the rifle's barrel was away from the direction of the blowing sand; a concern that only appeared with large bore weaponry and by the most finnicky of veterans. The other hand hung loose on the opposite side of the gear, a metal and ceramic set of digits that curled and uncurled lightly in an imitation of the pilot's own unseen hand. The hand was empty, but there was still a small shield clipped on the forearm itself, long enough to cover the entire section, and wide enough that it could be used to cover both arms if the gear folded its arms across the center of its chest.
It was a Warrior IV, a step up by the Warrior to the commando role. Not gifted with the lithe nature of her own Jaguar, or with the armor and stealth of a Mamba; the Warrior's gift was speed. Light rocket pack on the shoulders, standard. Reinforced L-pieces of armor reinforcing those shoulders, non-standard; ramplates. Autocannon, a step above the normal light loadout, 30 something millimeter? A duelist, then, like her; calling suit to honor like so many other duelists in the now and in the past.
Her Nemesis Jaguar almost seemed like an unfair advantage, a technological edge that would overshadow her own skill against this pilot. But her face hardened inside of her helmet at the thought, and the processes of her mind became darker. If the Prophet willed it, then the day would be hers or theirs, and she could think of no better conclusion then for herself to be victorious over the arrogance of the other, gears be damned.
* * *
Sunlight was pushing itself through the rents in the underside of the gear, coherent rays that drew harsh paths through the swirling dust. She blinked, blinked again, and came awake with a start. For a single moment, she had blacked out.
Awakening more with each passing moment, she attempted to stand. No success. Blinking again, she realized that she was still in her gear, still dueling, still lying in the open, still exposed, still alive...
Working the sticks back to brace her gear's arms against the ground, she then worked the pedals and coaxed her gear to its feet, slipping it back off of the ground and into the air. If it were just her, then she would have been fine, but as a gear jock...
She stood, still blinking the dazedness away. According to the glimpses she had caught from the now vacant region down near her feet, the Jag was missing most of its armor down near the legs. Checking the displays, the NNet agreed, showing exposed internals and the probability that there was sand damage. Funny how the maintenance warnings pop up in the middle of battle. She knew that the readouts weren't telling her the whole truth; she could feel the lie in its assessment of the chest, even as she felt the center of balance shift as some of the last remnants of the pauldron stripped away to fall to the ground, a cratering in the dust.
Not a Badlander in sight. Damn.
Somehow, as she weaved and dodged away from the Warrior's hasty shots, no matter how futilely, she had dodged away from the grenade. She was still alive, and still going; honor was still at stake, and honor could still be saved.
Standing and becoming increasingly alert, she gathered her gear's rifle, and ran, loping across the packed sand with the whine and squeal of its exposed Shaian-12's.
* * *
He spun the loop of fine mesh around his index finger, watching it describe a silvery circle in the air above his head. Jewelry, a sample of the decadence he denied himself deliberately. It wasn't his, actually; kept things within the ideals running inside of his head. It was his sister's. Was?
It was, oh, a week before things had happened that it had arrived in the mail at the barracks, a lonely envelope delivered with everyone else's subscriptions and notices. He had opened the envelope and upended it, letting the silvery trace puddle in his palm, a tracery of memory working its way upwards to identify it. It had been his present to his sister at her wedding, some long or short time ago. A short notice dropped out of the envelope after it, announcing that her husband had died in the War, and that she was moving back in with the family. A week? Maybe it had been a month.
Her husband had been PRDF as well; local posting, back in the wide expanse of the still-frontier. Dead, the note said, a terse statement that he had used his cadre to hold his tiny protectorate against the Polar forces sweeping in from either side. Gathered time for the Badlanders to become refugees. Well, some of them; the final lines of the card listed the contact info for a collection for the families of those who hadn't made it out, even with a Bear and two Warriors holding their backs. The Bear pilot wouldn't be rejoining his wife; instead, she would be rejoining her family, in mourning. Would have.
A week, a month, who knew - the next notice. It wasn't a letter from her, describing how well she was fitting in, back in the Ward household. It was a posting from one of the PRDF's internal departments, an automatic notice to all of those who had had family and relatives in a certain quiet little Badlands community. He had read it, folded it back into the card sized form in which it had arrived, and then he had crumpled it in his fist. Let it drop to the floor. Kicked it underneath the bunk adjacent to him. Then, he had lain back in his bunk and stared at the canvas ceiling. He stared at if for two days, they said, only breathing and blinking. No sleep, no responses. They asked himself what was going on in his head during those two days, and he asked himself that question as well.
He felt tired. The War left him tired. Everything left him tired. Tired.
* * *
The Warrior was always slinking about, moving to keep away from direct contact with the lethal melee that the Nemesis thrived in. The whole strategy seemed so distant from dueling, so much more like the strategy of a war then the brutal tactics of a duel.
For a moment, she wondered if she was even fighting a duelist.
You'd have to be a damn Republican to be that obessive about honor. It was precious to her, as she upheld the regiment's own, but it was her duty, and more so, the honor of the entire regiment. Against the honor of one man, one gear, for one article of the distant past.
For a moment, she nearly missed it. The slick trail of leaking fuel, puddling from around the corner. A half second vision of metal silver streaked from a near miss, and she was firing as she threw her ravaged gear to the side, letting the cannon rise to track from hip to shoulder across the Warrior's exposed body. Raising a defiant arm to cover itself even as she perforated it, armor and servo disappearing into the metal storm that punched cookie cutter holes through flat armor plating, the Warrior dropped down as a shattered knee gave out.
Sometime, the rifle cannon had switched to the other arm, a singular threat surrounded by a dying null.
Somehow, the Warrior was raising its cannon even as fluids of black and red spilled forth from its rents, even as fire exploded from the back of its wrecked v-engine. She had hit everything except the vitals, always striking the limbs or around the cockpit, but never into the heart that drove the metal form on. As her cannon clicked emptilly, she did, centering the rocket pod that rose like a scorpion tail over her gear's back on the cockpit and firing.
* * *
The cockpit had peeled back, sharp toothed edges pushed inwards from the rocket barrage. The entire forward glacis had been torn away and destroyed beneath the hail of rockets, each of them impacting at a range where a miss was nearly as impossible as the chance of the target surviving. Yet, staring back through the yawning gap in the front of the gear, the pilot stared back at her, naked eyes meeting the red stare of her gear's cameras, and through them, her own stare.
For a moment, the pilot averted his eyes and coughed a mouth full of blood to the side; it didn't clear the wreckage of his body, and instead joined the fluids draining from his chest in staining what was left of his flak suit, another stain alongside the deeper and darker colors that came from within. He returned his gaze to her, however, somehow seeking out her own eyes through the layers of optics and armor, locking them in an endless loop of her his hatred, and him her surprise. Wheezing through shattered lungs and a perforated chest, he yet hated her.
When the rockets had exploded against the chest of the Warrior IV, the detonation of their warheads hadn't penetrated the inside and erased its inhabitants in a wave of explosive fire, but had instead detonated by some strange quirk on the outside, in an event that was nearly as deadly. Razor shards of shrapnel had exploded into the confines of the cockpit, a storm of knives that for an instant had torn at the vitals of the gear. The pilot's head and neck were, for fortune or for misfortune, protected by the rotational collar of the gear's neck, upon which the turret head was mounted. Below... The protection that the gear jock suit provided was minimal compared to the modern armor of the soldier, but neither would have protected a person against the whirlwind rush of metal fragments. However, full flak would have made the injuries somewhat less than the slaughterhouse rush that they were now.
The PRDF pilot's chest was laid open, the suit and skin blasted back from bleached white ribs, polished by the edged force that had pushed back the flesh atop of it. Crushed backwards, ribs jutted out at odd angles, served as a frame to the horror below. The abdomen, soft flesh without a cage of bone, was punctured and let loose, opened and exposed. Blood, bile, and worse dripped in a slurry from within, and black seemed to condense in the corners of the seat as the mixture gathered and slid outwards. It was as if a man had been taken and transformed into an embodiment of the war's shadow, a testament to the death and agony of thousands in the body of but one man. But he was but one.
Yet, even now, he stared back at her! His arms were laid bare and stripped of the muscles that would have given them motion, and his legs were a mystery beneath the mess that was above them, but yet he stared! And as he coughed once more, he spoke. Or tried to, another mouthful of fluids spitting out to trace another trail of ichor over its predecessors.
"Why did you want to duel?"
Somehow, she felt compelled to speak and voice her sentiments, give actualization to the accusations that had half formed in the duel that seemed not a duel.
"You're just like the South, another monger about honor above everything else. You would rather fight for your precious honor then for what it stands for, for the people. You'd forget what makes honor so precious." She was angry. He had dirtied the concept of honor, made it unclean. A vendetta, a march across the desert face of the Badlands, for what? A meaningless point of honor. She didn't feel like she fought a duel. She felt like she fought a war, bloody and gruesome, face to face.
Another cough of dark blood, dribbling down a shattered chin and a broken jaw, and the Badlander heaved himself up in his seat, leaning forward. "You think was this was for honor? You think that honor meant anything in this?" How he could speak seemed unfathomable, how he could nearly yell seemed impossible.
Leaning forward, now almost resting in the remnants of his straps, the pilot continued, stretching out his last sentences. "You damn Polars. You don't give a rat's ass about any of us beneath the edges of this damn world, or honor, for that matter. You burned my home to the ground and killed my people, and you think that I care about honor?"
Another convulsive heave, this time a dry retch, and there was a pause in the air. Beneath Helios, the world seemed so distracting, so far away, so else where, as she slipped into the memory of a forgotten report, filed away in the aisles of her memory.
* * *
The landship, a light destroyer or a heavy escort was hiding behind the oasis tower; no problem, they hit it with deck launched missiles. But the contingent it had been guarding had already dispersed into the settlement that surrounded the base of the massive conical structure, and they had to enter to take them out.
The first tanks got taken out by ambushes and firetraps, though, so they bombarded them with the deckcannon and let the tankers draw lines across the town at waist level for gears. Then they entered the town themselves, wading in with sword and fire.
It wasn't as bloody as fighting in a real city; the Southerners were as impaired by their surroundings as the arm of the Prophet were, or perhaps more so. The town was a ramshackle, insubstantial thing, and its' buildings were no shield against an autocannon's short burst. Find the telltales of a gear's presence, and you fired, knowing that their cover might as well not be there.
The fighting dragged on for a short while, and then lanes had been cleared through the town for the tanks. They moved in, and under cover of shoulder launched rockets from the gears, cleared the last of the snakes out into the open where we could cut them down. The infantry took a little longer, pulling the last of the MILICIAmen from their hiding places inside the local housing, but not that long.
In the end, it was all about patience; the last of the Southern forces in the area had barricaded themselves in the oasis tower, wrecking the first few levels and littering them with enough booby traps that the infantry opted not to go any further. Stand back for shelling, came about the order, but they just waited it out. Waited for weeks as the remnants of the battle in the open grew ripe, and then a little longer as rearmament and repairs continued.
During that time, the regiment counted the enemy dead to get an estimate of how many were yet hiding. Stretched them out in a row and counted; had to do something. That was when we started to notice it. In the dead, in the endless stretch of the rotting, there weren't enough of the locals. There were to few left, of those that had died in the crossfire as we rushed in to clean the city of the South, just to few.
When we opened the tower up a week after that, we knew where they had gone.
* * *
It was never for honor. It was just to stop you...
The last drifting words of the Warrior pilot, silenced in a descending crescendo, seemed to hold an empty meaning. They seemed to encompasse some great statement, some free blowing secret that disappeared with the drift of the wind. They seemed blasphemy; they could even have been truth.
The Warrior's pilot was as dead as his gear, a cruciform ornament dangling in the empty chest of the blackened wreckage of another effigy given meaning beyond purpose. The venge
The mysterious Badlander had died to soon, perishing with words unsaid. She didn't know what to make of his actions, his manners, his words. Didn't know which of the feelings he had inspired was the key to understanding. Disgust, hatred, revelation, filthiness. She had to fill in the gaps, finish what he had said for herself to understand. She wondered if he had said as much as he had said, hanging twisted and broken. Wondered if he could have said as much. Wondered if that look of incredible tiredness could have reached out and communicated, driven by the great hatred behind it. Or if it had succumbed to the limits of the flesh, leaving her to consider a void in thought now greater than before.
But she knew what she said, silently in her mind, to herself. She had fought no duel beneath Helios that day. There had been no reconciliation. And she knew that she hadn't defended her regiment, though she had won. As though, the very banner that she fought for was sullied.
There had been no honor in this.
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