Monday, March 18, 2013

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter VI: One of the Crew

14 Summer, 1926

The cheering rattled Lyta’s eardrums, the sound of thousands of spectators shouting, booing, and banging on railings. One thing you could say for Gear dueling: it wasn’t quiet.

She’d watched Gear duels before, of course. Broadcast over radio on long caravan rides, on trideo in hotel rooms, and even on the big screens at the Lucky Shot. But she’d never watched them like this, in the Web Arena with Antoni Mor’s pit crew, so close to the action that she could practically feel the shock waves with every collision.

The garage was bustling with activity. One technician was mucking about with some of the mechanics in Fang’s firing arm, another was manipulating the finicky little circuits in the neural net, a third was at the fuel tank. Solitaire had his game face on and was in serious conversation with someone whose name Lyta had never caught, but she gathered he was some sort of manager or handler. She was mildly annoyed to see that she was not the only fan invited to watch the match; there were another half-dozen girls huddled off to the side, laughing and drinking and staring at the action. The technicians kept stealing glances over at them.

Solitaire had the headline match tonight, the show-stopping finale against Wu Lao, a hot-shot up-and-comer from the Mekong Dominion. The fights had already been going on for nearly two hours as competitors entered and tried, as best they could with their low-impact weapons, to beat the shit out of each other. Lyta had divided her time between watching the show and looking over the shoulder of the techs, trying not to get in the way too much.

The second-to-last match was winding down. Smokestack was out of ammo and had a severed knee servo, causing his pilot Miranda Shaye to hobble awkwardly, taking swipes with her vibro-sword while waiting for the inevitable. The tempo in the garage ramped up as everyone got into last-minute positions. Fang’s hatches were snapped shut and bolted down, fueling wrapped up, and someone handed Solitaire his helmet as he jumped up into the cockpit. “Knock ‘em dead!” shouted one of the groupies from the corner of the garage.

Antoni Mor caught Lyta’s eye and nodded as the cockpit slid shut over him.

A massive shock wave nearly knocked Lyta off her feet as the Widowmaker slammed into Smokestack and they reeled back. Whatever advantage Shaye might have hoped to gain from the close-quarters fight was knocked away as Widowmaker’s more powerful engines slammed Smokestack’s arm against the stone wall. The other fist punched directly below the crew compartment, into the armor plating around Smokestack’s sensitive electronics. Blue sparks exploded from the hole, followed by white smoke.

The crowd roared.

EMTs and crewmembers ran out onto the field to make sure Miranda Shaye and Smokestack were all right, while Widowmaker practically sauntered around the arena, lapping up the applause.

The announcer’s voice came over the PA: “Your winner, piloting the Widowmaker… Derrin Chang!”

The roaring got louder. Widowmaker pumped its arms in the air, strutted around the area a few more times, and then made its way out through the champion’s door, back to his own garage. Some of the arena’s crew hustled in to reset the arena field, righting ramps, lighting the fire rings, adding in barrels and clearing away debris from damaged Gears. Advertisements played, and no one listened.

It took barely five minutes before a voice came over the loudspeakers. “And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for! The match to make history! The blowout finale! The battle of champions! In the challenger’s corner, all the way from Mekong, Wu Lao and Silver Ghost!”

The Basilisk’s form strode out into the arena, shining silver under the bright lights of the arena, its sponsor patches reflecting like jewels. Silver Ghost pumped its arms in the air as the crowd cheered.

Solitaire was already moving, charging down the long ramp before the announcer even started speaking.

“And in the champion’s corner, you know him, you love him, Solitaire and Fang!”

Fang blasted into the arena as soon as the crowd heard his name. What had already been loud cheering cranked up to eleven. Lyta resisted the urge to cover her ears.

“Game time,” muttered a voice beside her, and Lyta realized it was the man Antoni Mor had been talking to before the match. She moved closer to the edge of the garage to get a better vantage over the arena and found herself in a press of bodies as the rest of the crew did the same.

The match started with a bang, with rockets arcing towards Silver Ghost and a hail of gunshots towards Fang. Both Gears rolled out of the way as the crowd chanted for their favorites.

Lyta watched, fascinated. She was not, herself, a fantastic Gear pilot. She was capable of keeping herself and Dervish from getting blown up most of the time, but she was no duelist, and she knew it. But Solitaire…

She had seen him in action, real action with real stakes. She’d seen the way he fought, the way he moved. He was formidable, as she’d expected from the lead pilot of the Desert Wolves. He was quick, and he was deadly.

But he didn’t fight like that now.

He was no less formidable than he once was, but he wasn’t as eager for the quick kill. He took his time, leaving fatal openings unexploited to go after lesser targets. Lyta had no idea what he was doing until she realized that every time he shot up some armor plating or took out a flashy auxiliary system so that it sparked and exploded, the noise level got twice as loud. Solitaire was playing the crowd, and doing it brilliantly.

He was clearly better than Wu Lao, and he knew it. And it was his cockiness that did him in.

Fang charged up a ramp, preparing to make a final, crushing jump onto Silver Ghost, guns blazing and fans cheering. But in a move better suited for hand-to-hand combat than Gear-to-Gear, Wu Lao maneuvered himself to the side, whipped out his vibro-sword, and caught both of Fang’s legs in a single sweep.

Solitaire went down. The vibro-blade had lodged itself in Fang’s left leg. Both legs, just above the feet, were torn open, the gears and servos grinding uselessly. He wasn’t getting up.

There was a collective groan in the garage. Lyta barely heard the announcement that must have been coming over the loudspeaker, announcing Wu Lao as the winner and new champion. She stared at the face-down Gear in the middle of the arena, her mind flashing involuntarily to a massive Grizzly, face-down at Nazarene, before she clamped down on the thought and brought herself back to the present.

The crowd was already dispersing. EMTs helped Solitaire out of his Gear. He brushed them off. He didn’t look injured. At the very least, he was walking under his own power. Stomping. Assessing the damage. A flat-bed truck was already lining up to bring Fang back to the garage. Antoni Mor looked pissed.

There was a brief moment of quiet in the garage as Antoni stormed up the ramp, his Gear following behind him on the flat-bed. His handler walked over to him and they exchanged a few words of quiet conversation. Antoni Mor ground his teeth, then nodded.

“All right,” he said to his crew. “We’ll get this shit fixed up tomorrow. Right now, I need a drink.”

The techs left their equipment, gathered up their girls. The other people in the garage were already moving towards the elevator, ready to ride up to Solitaire’s room in the Oasis Hotel for the after-party.

Lyta felt someone standing next to her. She pulled her eyes away from Fang’s mangled legs and realized it was Antoni. He nodded towards the garage’s exit, where his crew was trickling out. “You coming?” he asked.

Lyta hesitated a moment, but only a short one. “Yeah,” she said, as nonchalantly as she could, and let him lead her away.


Antoni Mor had a gigantic hotel room, capable of hosting thirty or forty people. About half that many had come back after the match, Solitaire’s pit crew and their chosen guests. Platters of finger food had been sent up by room service and, more importantly, bottles of beer and hard liquor. The alcohol had helped lift the dark mood from Solitaire’s loss, and his technicians were already discussing how they were going to beef up the limb plating and augment the legs’ circuit shunts. Other technicians had girls on their laps and had other things to think about than shop talk.

Lyta stood at the window, her second beer already half-finished, feeling out of place.

Antoni Mor caught her eye. He sat on a sofa a little removed from the rest of his crew, looking over them like a noble holding a particularly raucous and undisciplined court. “Kes,” he called out over the noise of his crew, “come on over here.”

Lyta made her way across the room. No one really looked at her, busy as they were with their own conversations. No one but Solitaire, whose eyes followed her as she walked. She sat down on the far side of the couch.

“It’s been a while,” he said by way of opening. He did not have his brother’s charm, Lyta reflected. But he did have a following, and he did have groupies, and right at the moment, he did have the good booze.

Lyta nodded. “Yeah.”

“What’s it been, four cycles?”

Lyta tried to do some quick arithmetic in her head. So much had happened recently. “Something like that,” she said.

“You look different.”

Lyta shrugged. “I guess a lot can happen in four cycles.”

Antoni Mor gave her a look that made her distinctly uncomfortable without actually being lewd. “That it can,” he agreed.

Lyta took a swig of beer, and Antoni moved closer to her on the couch. He touched the side of her head, where Virgil’s bullet had grazed her barely eighteen hours before. “Didn’t have so many bruises last I saw you.”

Lyta pulled her head away from his hand, and he dropped it. “Yeah,” she said, her voice thick. “Bar fight.”

“Bar fight?” asked Antoni in genuine surprise. “What’s someone like you doing getting into bar fights?”

Lyta bit her lower lip a moment before replying. “It happens. Shitheads like to pick a fight sometimes.”

Antoni’s eyes narrowed, trying to remember something. Then they lit up. “Right,” he said. “I seem to remember you gettin’ into more than your fair share of fights, come to think of it. Right little hellcat, you were.” He took a sip of his whiskey, contemplating this. “In fact,” he continued, “I seem to remember one fight in particular that got talked about for a while. Dronath told me. Something about you and my man Frederick’s pendant.”

He leaned forward and looped a finger under the silver chain Lyta wore around her neck, drawing it slowly along her clavicle until the pendants that had been hidden under her shirt were pulled out and rested on top of the fabric, a wolf paw and a gold ring. “More of a Wolf than I am right now,” he said softly. He did not move his hand away from her neck.

Lyta swallowed, and she felt Antoni’s hand move with the action. It tingled where he touched. “I never was a Wolf,” she said. “I won it.”

Antoni shrugged and sidled closer. He massaged the wolf paw pendant with his thumb, his other fingers resting lightly on her chest. “That’s good enough for some,” he said. “You won it, you keep it. And if you keep it, it must mean something to you.”

He leaned forward and Lyta tried to lean back, further away from him on the couch. She realized her back was already pressed up against the arm.

Antoni Mor locked eyes with her. “Hey,” he said softly. “You could do worse. You could do a lot worse than someone like me.”

Without warning, he pulled her in and kissed her, full on the lips. His lips were rough. His hands, the one at her chest and the one she suddenly realized was holding her shoulder, were calloused. For just a second, she let him do it, wondering what it would be like to let him keep kissing her. She felt warm, and her skin tingled, and she felt herself wanting to lean forward into him. Then he tried to put his tongue into her mouth, and she snapped out of it.

She pulled away, pushed off his hands, and stood up. She thought about slapping him but decided, at the last moment, that it would be a stupid thing to do in front of all his people. She pressed her lips together and tucked her pendants back into her shirt. “Thanks for inviting me,” she said, trying to keep her voice from cracking. “Better luck next time.”

Antoni Mor looked shocked. Maybe it had been a while since a girl said no to him. Lyta didn’t care. She spun around and walked out of the room, the redness still in her cheeks. Eyes were on her as she made her way to the door. She didn’t look at anyone. She could hear the murmurs, feel Solitaire staring at her. She reached the door and opened it, stepped through, and let it shut behind her. She walked down the hallway, past the elevator, and took the stairs. She wanted to walk. She wanted to sprint and cry and scream. She wanted to talk to Alain, who would calm her down and make her laugh.

She took a deep breath. Fifty hours, maybe even less, until she got to see him in person. No matter what Lukas said, he wasn’t the sort to stick his tongue into somebody’s mouth without asking first. He was a Southerner. He was a romantic. She surprised herself by wondering what kissing Alain might be like and realized she wasn’t cringing at the idea.

She exited into the cold night air of Khayr ad-Din. Behind her, Solitaire had probably stolen away one of his tech’s girls and forgotten all about her. She clenched her fists a few times, wiped her mouth with her sleeve, and started making her way back to her hotel.

Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game


Hermes 72 - Heavy Gear RPG - Most artwork Copyright 2002 Dream Pod 9, Inc.