Sabledrake Magazine

August, 2003

 

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Feature Articles

     Preview of Naughy & Dice

     A Candle for Imbolc

     Possession: Nine Tenths

     Shadow Flight

     Summer Fading

     CTF2187: The Lion's Maw

     The Ways of Magic, Pt. II & III

     Grim Discovery

 

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     Fantasy Artwork

     What's Your Fantasy

     Vecna's Eye

     Off the Shelf

     The Play's the Thing

 

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CTF2187: 

The Lion's Maw

Copyright © 2003 By Shannon Muir

 

 

ABOUT THE GAME: CTF2187 from Advanced Gaming Enterprises features teams of Battle Bots pitted against each other in Arenas. Two or four sided contests are possible, as well as a yearly Free-For-All contest where a group of Bots fight to see who's "the Best in the Arenas". Some players act as Independents, allowing the GMs to put them with anyone. Others organize themselves into teams, either official (on record with AGE) or unofficial. This story centers on actual Pilot characters in CTF2187, with moderate basis in game play; mainly it captures the historical and political climate in which the ‘backstory’ of the game is based. The events come not much long after "Spectres of Darkness," previously published by Sabledrake Magazine in May 2003. Some material contained within is copyrighted by Advanced Gaming Enterprises and used by permission. I’ve been playing the game for over ten years, but that’s my only association with the company. For more information, write Advanced Gaming Enterprises, Post Office Box 214949, Sacramento, CA 95821-0949 or see their website at http://www.ageforfun.com.

 

---

 

The last day of classes, and Johnathan Blaze -- or John, as he preferred to be called -- found himself having to spend it with family. Well, most of his family. Older sister Indigo Blaze, better known as Indigo Girl, currently battled in Arena 372. In place of her, the congratulatory dinner included Lieutenant Colonel Femme Fatale of the Sisters of Silicon and newly promoted Lieutenant Rus Sterling of the Hornets, whom for all intents and purposes his parents considered family.

"I talked to Sledge Hammer," Rus told John, referring to the leader of the Hornets subteam of WASP. "The invitation's open to join the Hornets tonight at the team sign-up event if you like. I'll be manning the WASP table for him."

"Ambassador-General Marlena Shadowhand mentioned to me she was sure her son Richard could put in a good word if you were interested in joining The Line," his father told him, referring to the military ambassador on the High Council delegated to European military interests, herself the only woman currently on the High Council and daughter of a former European Representative on the more socio-economic oriented Council of Nations.

"No pressure," noted Femme. "We just thought maybe, since there's so many places to choose from you might want to start with people you knew."

"Hmm," grumbled John, his mouth full. He saw that Femme noted his disinterest and she tried to change the topic.

"I asked my Mom if she knew anything at all about the Forsythe family," Femme said. "I'd like to get in contact with them."

John could almost swear his father nearly choked on his food.

"What brought that up now?" Lieutenant General David Blaze asked.

"I'd just like for my children to know some relatives other than just Grandma Aria and Rus' parents. When we have children I mean."

Rus patted Femme's hand.

"Getting a second chance like this, it's making us re-examine a lot of things before we consider getting married again."

"That's understandable," John heard his mother Wyndi reassure the couple. "You've been through a lot."

"Like maybe you should reconsider being in the Arenas at all," John's sixteen-year-old sister, Dayndi, piped up. "That'll all but guarantee your kids are without parents sooner or later, unless you're like Dad and chicken out for an administrative job."

"Dayndi!" snapped their mother. "How many times have I told you, no politics at the table. Besides, your father made his decisions after a lot of experience in the field. He learned over time he could do better making policy changes and advising recruits than being on or leading a team."

"Leading a team?" Femme and Rus both said in unison. John was surprised that they were surprised. He thought those two knew everything about his Dad.

"Oh, I tried for a while right after Darian Blackheart left active duty to teach. Thought that was how I was supposed to make my difference in this world," his father replied. "Another story for another time."

"The peace movement will make that difference! It's having an impact! Look at how there are less and less Arenas now. It is working, people are listening!"

"Enough!" commanded Ambassador Blaze.

John tried to hide a smirk as his younger sister sulked. Older sister Indigo often got the best of him, but he knew that sensitive Dayndi could get her buttons pushed easily and relished in it. He waited for everyone to turn their attention back to him, the graduate of the evening, but conversation wandered off to other topics. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore.

"I thought tonight was about me," John grumbled, pushing his chair back. "I'm the one who graduated from Academy."

"Of course it is, sweetheart," insisted Wyndi. "We just wanted to catch up with Femme and Rus for a moment."

John got up from his seat.

"At this rate, a few moments will stretch into all night. Me, I got places to go and people to see."

John walked out of the room in a huff, and retreated to his old bedroom. The place looked pretty vacant these days, save the childhood trophies and memoirs that didn't make the move with him to the Academy quarters. Still, it was his sanctuary.

From a uniform pocket, John removed a rolled-up parchment paper, which had originally been sealed with a wax imprint of a lion in profile with its maw open wide.

"As the son of an Ambassador and a JAG, you understand the importance of our fighting system like few others can. Yet, living in the shadow of that, does not allow you to reach your full potential. I offer you the opportunity to discover yourself as you truly are. Let E.C. know if this appeals to you. She will lead the way."

John's eyes scanned the invitation again. He remembered when E.C. Vileslayer came up to him between classes and secretly slipped the parchment paper into his hand. No one really used paper anymore, so that alone got his attention.

The promises the paper offered piqued his curiosity even more, and what put it all over the top was how the previously shy E.C. Vileslayer recently seemed to find a new, mysterious sense of drive and determination. He had wondered if that, too, was tied into the promises being offered to him in the parchment.

John remembered cornering E.C. at the end of their class day and telling her that yes, he did want to know more. She told him how to sneak out of the barracks at night to meet her, and then she took him to meet the man in charge. What a surprise that turned out to be.

"Are you in there, Johnathan?" he heard his mother call out, interrupting his thoughts. "We'll be late for the Team Recruitment Event!"

John quickly pocketed the parchment paper and headed for the door. Though his team future already decided, he knew E.C. would be waiting for him there.

 

+++

 

Sure enough, he found E.C. waiting for him at Lazer's over in the shadow of the stage as prearranged. Around the room, various teams looking for new memberships set up informational tables with literature and representatives to answer questions.

"Why are we even bothering to be here?" John grumbled to her. "I mean, hey, our futures are decided. We made our choices."

"Only to round up the little whiner," E.C. told John. "For our date with the big boss. I'll bring my car around and we'll hit the road."

"Me?" John said, aghast. "Why is it always me?"

"Everyone trusts you because you're the top brass' son, that's why," E.C. said, pushing John out toward the main room. "Doesn't matter how you look at me. Cartwright or Vileslayer, I'm not to be trusted. Period."

Annoyed, John scanned the room for a slender young woman, his own age, with long ebony black hair and lightly tanned skin. Soon he saw her across the room, staring at a table bearing the emblem of the Lion's Maw. Other than sporting a banner with the team crest, a golden profile lion with its maw wide open against purple, no representatives or advertisements were featured.

On his way over, John passed Rus Sterling manning the WASP table, talking to a relative newcomer. Rumor had it his new buddy's name was an Independent pilot named Miles Zillio, pronounced "Meelays Zillayo" thank you very much, and bad things might befall he or she who misspoke it.

"I like the look of that one," John overhead Miles lean over and told Rus as he pointed across the room. "Perhaps you could, ah, introduce us?"

"Maybe you should ask I.M. Shirley Wright," John butted in, mischievously.

Miles gave John a puzzled look.

"You did fight alongside I.M. Shirley Wright recently, didn't you?" John pointed out.

"I do not see what that has to do with anything," Miles responded in a tone John found rather pompous.

"That's her daughter over there."

Miles doublechecked with Rus, who nodded at him. John could have sworn Miles looked sheepish.

"Not into robbing the cradle, eh dude?" John chuckled as he walked toward Kristi Wright, who preferred to be known as Speedy, still staring at the Lion's Maw table. John grabbed Speedy's wrist, started forcefully dragging her along.

"Stop messing around," he harshly told her between gritted teeth. "E.C.'s waiting to take us to the meeting."

Speedy struggled to break free of his hold.

"I can take myself places, thank you," she spat back. "Now let me go before you start making a scene."

John obliged, realizing people were already starting to stare. The two of them left the room quickly.

"None of this makes any sense. I don't know why we have to meet with him, I mean, we got our orders weeks ago for placement pending graduation. And I just couldn't figure out the deal with the table," she whispered to John. "I mean, why bother putting anything when you have no official rep there, or even recruitment flyers? And he's admitting we exist, so why all the secret meeting stuff?"

All John could do was shrug, and wish Speedy would just stop asking questions.

 

+++

 

John, E.C. and Speedy entered a massive control room filled with monitors. A command chair, looking not unlike a gilded throne with all the buttons on it, faced the giant screens.

On one of the giant monitors, the young trio watched an Arena unfold.

"Welcome to Turn 4 of Arena 373, the Twelfth Championship Tournament!" Grumio Camaletti, one of the foremost Arena announcers, said as the Arena returned from a commercial break. "Already up to Moderate Damage and Critical Heat on only Turn 4, Arena Insiders predict Pilot Number 988 Gorrik Vileslayer, recently declaring himself part of the mysterious Lion's Maw, is down at the bottom of the points heap and will be the first to go."

From the shadows came a voice. "It is my hope that you will do better for the Lion's Maw than this pathetic nothing has."

A midsized yet muscular man, walking with a refined and pompous step, entered through a door barely able to be made out between two of the monitors.

John watched E.C. shake a fist at Petruchio.

"Watch it, that's my brother you're talking about."

"Stepbrother, my dear," Petruchio chided back. "Hopefully your Cartwright blood will shine through and show you the better of the two."

John gently reached out and coaxed E.C. back down.

"I know I'm ready for the challenge," he heard Speedy brag, and hoped she would live up to her boasts. John felt he could trust E.C.'s judgment, but saw this whiny brat as another matter, not seeming to live up to her mother I.M. Shirley Wright's reputation.

"I know you are too, young Speedy," Petruchio reassured her. "I, Brigadier General Petruchio Camaletti, son of the legendary Grumio Camaletti, possess the acute awareness to see what you are capable of. All of you are ready, born from some of the best pedigrees the Arena has to offer." He walked past each, making eye contact, as he ran off their credentials.

"Kristi Shirley 'Speedy' Wright, daughter of praised Sisters of Silicon pilot Inez Margurite Shirley Wright and acclaimed Arena physician Dr. Lawrence Wright, crying to be seen as an adult and not a child in need of protection. E.C. Vileslayer, last of the living blood of 'Dark Horse' Cartwright, adopted into the legendary Vileslayer treachery, seeking her place in life. And Ragin' John Blaze, son to High Council official Ambassador-Lieutenant General David Blaze and his acclaimed Judge Advocate General wife Wyndi Blaze, burning inside to make his own mark on the world outside his parents' shadow."

He spread his arms wide, gesturing to the room all about them.

"Built on the legacy left behind by the visionary Ryker Lorne, we stand in one of his previously undiscovered hidden strongholds. After his death, I was convinced not all of his holdings were destroyed. Disappearing from the spotlight for a time, I set on a quest to find them, claim them, and build an empire worthy of reforming the Arenas forever."

Petruchio pointed to the young trio, watching in amazement.

"Together you are the seed that shall enter Arena 375 and enter the Lion's Maw into history!"

 

+++

 

John thought people usually got really psyched about graduation, but he just wanted it over with as quickly as possible. Especially when his mother, a high-ranking Judge Advocate General, was chosen as keynote speaker this time around to address legal and ethic considerations when taking mercenary assignments for Arena combat contracts. Booooring.

"Where is Dayndi?" asked Wyndi Blaze, concerned. "She said she would meet us here."

As they came closer to the staging area, they noticed a group of protestors marching in a circle, with a flashing reader board above their heads.

"No more Arenas! Time for peace! No more Arenas! Time for peace!" the protestors chanted. The flashing reader board echoed the same sentiments.

John watched his father shake his head in dismay.

"They don't understand," Ambassador Blaze sighed. "This whole Arena system was built as a compromise, to end conflicts in combat without putting a world at risk. Take away the Arenas and things will go out of control. It's just a matter of time."

Just then, John noticed one of the young female protestors marching and chanting was none other than Dayndi, his own sister. Relishing the idea of getting her in trouble, he raced to point her participation out to his father.

"There she is! In with the protestors!"

All eyes turned as Ambassador-Lieutenant General David Blaze marched over to a still oblivious Dayndi and pulled her out of the crowd.

"Hands off her, military man!" screamed some of the protestors as they struggled to pull Dayndi free.

"Desist before I have you arrested," he sternly replied. "You will not prevent me from removing my own minor child from this demonstration."

John watched the protestors immediately backed off as if his father carried some deadly disease. Right now, David Blaze served a double threat as father and military figure. He wondered how many of the protestors realized who Dayndi really was before that moment.

Media cameras swarmed the Blaze family as they entered the graduation ceremonies, the press eating up the fact that one of the High Council's children opposed the Arenas staunchly, even as her sibling graduated Academy.

John just loved getting all the camera attention, people trying to grab a sound byte out of him. It made him feel important.

 

+++

 

No sooner had the pomp and circumstance ended, that John announced to his parents his orders to immediately report to Arena 375. He carefully omitted any team memberships, implying he'd gotten hooked up as an Independent. Mom and Dad would learn the truth soon enough after he left with their brand of detective work, but John had to ensure he could get away.

In the Arena 375 Pre-Game Room, John and E.C. took a private moment in the shadow of her Hornet, away from most of the security cameras and out of Speedy's sight. John ran his fingers through E.C.'s cropped, blond hair.

"So what do you think--"

Before John could even finish his thought, E.C. grabbed John and held him in a powerful, passionate liplock. Though not wanting to let go, John struggled to breathe through his nose for fear he'd collapse.

When at long last she finally let him loose, he remarked, "You kiss me like you think we'll never see each other again."

"We got into this fast and loose relationship thinking we're going to live forever," she reminded him. Then, more quietly, "Knowing I'll never see Vienna again, well, that's made me look at things a little differently."

"I'll see you on the other side," John told her confidently.

"Yeah," E.C. responded with a heavy sigh. "In this world or the next, I'll see you on the other side."

 

+++

 

Arena 375 got under way. John listened to E.C. lay out the opening moves: She would move forward, then right and forward, then forward three more times to Light Woods at Sector 20-10, while Speedy would go right and forward, forward three times, ending in Sector 23-8 in the shelter of Heavy Buildings.

"And you, Rage-man," E.C. told John, "how about going forward twice, do a little right and forward, then go forward twice more to those Heavy Woods in 15-9? Just set to shoot the nearest enemy Bot that comes along the first couple rounds, then shift to Bot 12 since he's closest to you. Got it?"

John agreed with the plan and input the orders. The lights came up and the game began.

He moved forward to sector 12-5, but found no Bots in scanner range. Bot 8 just moved into the range of his Mega Missile S-Pack as he moved forward to sector 12-6, but his shot missed the target. Next came a Turn Right and Move Forward to 13-7, but Bot 12 now sat out of range for his Mini-L Missile Pack; John chastised himself for his overconfidence and not using the Mega S-Pack again, which had a slightly better range. The fourth phase brought another forward move and brought Bot 12 back in Mini L-Pack range, but again a miss. Then, to top it all off, on the last phase, after he moved forward who should be blocking his line of fire but E.C. herself!

"E.C., sheesh! What you doing getting between me and the target?"

"He didn't move the way I expected," she communicated back as they readied for the next turn. "But I got him three out of five, once to the Left Front Torso, once to the Right Rear Torso, and a Left Leg hit too. Bet he's not happy."

"Any word from Speedy?" he asked.

"She's not talking to you either? No, I can't figure her out. She thinks she can take them all on her own and doesn't need us. No concept of teamwork. Can tell you this, though. Based on what I see, the little whimp's already got a damaged Mega-S Pack, 'cause I saw some Left Front Torso explosions a couple of times."

"Luckily we haven't seen any scrapes," John responded thankfully. "I don't know if she'll last, but we'll just fend for ourselves. What now?"

E.C. agreed to take up residence in a nearby Lake at 20-12 while John decided to move farther forward into a Heavy Building at 18-13 to get closer to the action and help E.C. work on Bot 12. He missed the first phase and found some interference from the Heavy Buildings for some of his shots, but did manage a two Left Rear Torso hits that set off secondary explosions each time.

"Tell you what," E.C. told him at the end of the turn as they compared notes. "You're doing better with Bot 12 then I am, only hit him once on the Left Front Torso. The Command Post is at Range 9 from me. Why don't I let the lake keep me cool while I give it some grief?" John agreed that seemed like an excellent plan. By the end of the turn, he found Speedy standing adjacent to him in sector 17-13; based on her direction, her sights also clearly were set on Bot 12. John hoped she wouldn't become a further nuisance, though he did note she got in some Heavy Laser hits on 12's Right Front Torso and Right Arm, so at least it wasn't a total loss. As for John, he hit Bot 12 four out of five attempts, causing secondary explosions for two of them.

"Four for five on the CP, baby!" relished E.C. "And it couldn't touch me! I'm going to stand here another turn and see what more I can do."

"And what about me?" John asked her. "Bot 12's headed downfield to team up with his teammate, Bot 11."

"You can think for yourself, can't you? What would you like to do?"

John looked at the readouts. Bot 12 was already showing up as Moderate damage and Critical heat, looking worse than Speedy's Moderate damage and Medium heat. Bot 11, at Light and Low, seemed more than ready to play backup though.

"I don't want to lose this good cover of Heavy Buildings. There's another one next to me at 18-12 that should get me better shots at Bots 11 and 12."

"If you want to play it safe, it's your call. Is Speedy working with you now? She still won't answer to me?"

John replied Speedy hadn't contacted him.

"Boy, the moves sure look like you two are coordinating a lock on making Bot 12's life miserable. Hopefully she'll help you out and not get in your way."

John programmed his moves and waited eagerly for his shots... only to be constantly blocked by the Heavy Buildings around him.

"Bot 12 ran for it!" cursed John. "He's much farther out of range!"

And there, standing right in front of him to block any potential shots if he held position, was Speedy at Sector 17-13, continuing to be a maverick.

"No good, I missed across the board," John vented to E.C. "And Speedy's limiting my options. How are things there?"

"Missed the first three, got the last two. But this can't last. I see Bot 6 closing in to try and take the CP Kill. I have to get it for us to get us into top position. I'm racing for the CP and grabbing it for the Maw."

"Let me go with you," John begged. "Leave Speedy to fend for herself. Bot 12's pretty beat up anyway."

"With Bot 11 to help him out," E.C. reminded John. "Listen. I know you're not going to like this, but you go with the little wimp, she can't hold her own. Someone has to watch out for her."

"What! After you said let her fend for herself?"

"Fending for herself did not mean leaving her to die, and she sure seems bent on a suicide mission. There's been enough lost families lately John, let's not add to it. Don't let her stupidly off herself. I'll be all right."

Knowing he couldn't win the debate with E.C., John reluctantly let her go and decided to move to another adjacent Heavy Building that would guarantee him a clear shot for a wide arc. The first phase he moved forward and stumbled, his next planned move to face Bot 12 now overridden by the automatic order to stand up. For those two phases and the one that followed where he faced Bot 12, John failed to strike his target. All this quickly seemed made up for when John's Mega Missile S-Pack attack on Bot 12 struck directly in the Head, reporting internal explosions, which almost guaranteed Pilot injury on all but the hardiest or luckiest opponents. The last phase brought a hit to Bot 12's leg with secondary explosions, and Bot 12's attack missing John, the first real attack he'd received all during the game.

He noted Speedy ended the turn by hunkering in a Gully at 15-13, the first signs that perhaps she acknowledged her weakness, though she didn't publicly admit it when he tried to contact her; John remained ignored. Meanwhile, E.C. reported in that she was at sector 26-17, just above the Crater, and was eyeing a Light Building at 27-18 to take refuge in; she'd hit the CP four out of five times. Bot 6, holed up in a Heavy Building at 23-20, also worked on the CP. E.C. continued to insist she was all right, and her status as Light Damage/Low Heat seemed to support that.

"Get down to the Lake at 12-9 and close on Bot 12," she suggested to him. "He's Moderate Damage, Critical Heat. Too good to pass up."

"Even with Bot 11 guarding him?"

"Yeah. You'll do fine. Go for it!"

John swallowed hard and figured out to accomplish E.C.'s suggestion. He'd been lucky so far, but worried his luck would run out fast. He moved Left and Forward, hitting Bot 12 in the Right Arm, then Forward with another hit to Bot 12's Right Front Torso. For three more phases John moved toward that Lake, missing Bot 12 next then following up with another Mini-Missile hit to the Right Arm with internal explosions. Then, unexpectedly, a Ridge at 9-8 stood between John and Bot 12, canceling the Attack Order as the Arena officials refused to unnecessarily waste ammunition. Amazingly, he'd taken no additional hits.

John checked quickly for Speedy's status; with Heavy Damage and Medium Heat, she'd stayed in the Gully but for some reason ended the turn standing up instead of kneeling. His concern, however, was for E.C. who was off his long-range scanners. John called her up.

"E.C., how you doing after turn six?"

"Still working on the CP, but it's hurting bad. It'll be down for the count before the next turn's over."

"What about that Bot 6? And fire from the CP?"

"Oh, he's pelted me with a Heavy Laser or two. No biggie. CP's favoring the Particle Beam Cannon."

"So we're talking Moderate damage already? PBCs can heat you up."

"No, no, still at Light Damage and Low Heat. It's fine, really. Keep your eyes on Bot 12. Any good terrain?"

John told her about a clump of Heavy Woods down around Sectors 10-6, 9-6, and 9-5. E.C. told him to go camp out there, if Speedy had any sense she'd make a run for the Lake he was in or the one next to it.

"Got to give the girl a chance to survive," she insisted again.

John took E.C.'s advice and set his sights on the Heavy Woods at 9-6. On the way down, he took a couple his Right Arm from Bots 8 and 4, who up until now hadn't been a problem, resulting in some internal explosions and damage to his locomotive systems. Unfortunately, that's also where his Heavy Laser was that he'd chosen to use this turn, now operating at 75% efficiency. Despite the damaged weapon, he was able to hit Bot 11 in the Left Arm and Left Front Torso right before reaching Sector 9-6. As he came to the Heavy Woods, his Wyvern Bot stumbled and fell into the midst of them. He lost a Phase with the override to Stand Up, but luckily that had been an order to face Bot 12, as he did again on Phase 5; both times, though, his shots at Bot 12 missed.

Again, with E.C. farther and farther from his sensor range, he tight beamed her again.

"I got it the first phase," she told him, referring to the CP. "But now it's gotten kind of ugly. Bot 6 came up right on me and has started Battle Fisting. Hits to the Right Rear Torso and Left Arm, though luckily I anticipated he'd come down and shifted to attacking him at the end and turned toward him. Right Rear Torso's gone already."

"How many engines left, E.C.? You've done a good thing, if you've got under 9 then get out now."

"I'll be OK," was all she said. "Just keep on Bot 12, you're holding up fine."

Noting Speedy had indeed moved to the Lake he was in and likely would stay there given her Heavy Damage and High Heat, John decided to stay in the general area. He did exactly what she suggested, setting himself to Move Toward Bot 12 and fire at Bot 12. The first Battle Fist hit took out Bot 12's Left Rear Torso, a Right Leg hit followed with a Heavy Laser, then the next phase Bot 12 wasn't in range of the Heavy Laser.

The display panels reported the explosion of their team's Command Post not long after, which would have an effect on their targeting capabilities. John felt relieved things were almost over.

However, at Phase 4, John changed E.C.'s suggestion slightly. Figuring Bot 12 would have ejected or died by then, he programmed the last two phases to concentrate on Bot 11. Bot 11 took hits to the Right Rear Torso and Right Arm, but it turned out by turn's end that Bot 12 still stood. John decided maybe he better listen to E.C. more, and he called to apologize.

"Don't apologize, good thinking," she told him. "Me, I gave Bot 6 a little headache. A couple hits in the Left Leg, Right Leg, and Right Arm too. He's Moderate and Medium now. Just go after Bot 12 or 11 as feels right. Trust yourself."

"What about you?" John asked concerned. "You've been taking the lead until now."

"It's time we find out what you can do, John. I know you'll survive, and it looks like the wimp may just too, if she stays in that Lake. Me, I'm going to set to Eject and work on Bot 6."

"Eject on how many engines?" John asked back, then realized E.C. had cut the transmission.

John decided to work on Bot 12 for the first three phases and switch to Bot 11 for the last two. A couple Battle Fists to Bot 12's Right Front Torso, a Heavy Machine Cannon hit in return to his Left Front Torso--

"Bot 1 Explodes and Is Destroyed!" announced a synthesized voice in his cockpit. "Bot 1 Explodes and Is Destroyed!"

John froze a moment, that system only kicked in when your team's CP was destroyed or when a teammate's Bot exploded. When the teammate safely ejected it was prefaced with an announcement that "Bot 1's Pilot Ejects!" -- but he'd heard no such mention.

His confused mind scrambled to think. Bot 1 is Speedy, right? The little fool--

John glanced down at his display. Speedy was Bot 3 and still in his sights.

He slumped in his seat as he realized Bot 1 was E.C., not even paying attention to his missed shots on Bot 11.

"In this world or the next, I'll see you on the other side," E.C.'s words echoed through his mind. And then, during combat, "You go with the little wimp, she can't hold her own. Someone has to watch out for her."

John tight beamed Speedy, fervently hoping he'd get a response out of her.

"Speedy, listen to me! You can't let this shake you right now. We can't win, but you can't die, either!"

Speedy's sobbing voice replied.

"E.C. was better than me and they got her. They're going to get me next, John, I know they are!"

"Do your best not to let them. There's only one turn. One turn, you got that? I can't lose you both! Don't leave me alone!"

There, he'd said it. His own greatest fear, spoken aloud.

"I don't know what to do," she pleaded. "Help me!"

John tried to collect his scattered mind. They'd gone into this with E.C. calling the shots, Speedy so confident of her skills based on her simulator points and ignoring help, and him just wondering what he was doing in this existence anyway. Nothing turned out the way they'd thought.

"You've already taken some hurt in the cockpit, so we have to worry about that. And Bots 11 and 12 are being pretty ruthless. Eject on four and hope for the best, covering yourself with your Heavy Laser."

"Four?" came the hesitant response. "That high?"

"E.C. went for one engine remaining and died, Kristi," he said forcefully, underscoring the point by using her real name. "You want to live, play it safe. I've got seventeen engines, let me take the risks."

He knew he was taking the biggest risk in the world... that Speedy would listen for a change.

John programmed a sequence of moves he hoped would work: face to the northwest, back up into the Heavy Woods at sector 8-3 and then shoot whomever was nearest for the last three phases. The strategy worked out with mixed results, with three hits on Bot #12 in the Right Leg, and a couple to the Left Front Torso. In exchange he took a Left Arm hit with Bot 12's Heavy Machine Cannon.

Mainly, to his relief, he saw Speedy eject on Phase 3 and safely exit the Arena before her Ronin bot self-destructed.

Ragin' John Blaze, who thought himself least likely to survive the contest, sat in his cockpit in awe and shock realizing that from his team, he ended the game as the last one standing.

 

+++

 

Hospitals made John nervous. Most of the time people go in when things are bad, and sometimes they don't leave.

He fidgeted with the greenhouse bouquet in his arms from the hospital store. John didn't know what types they even were. Would Kristi even like them? Could she even be allergic?

Even worse, he wasn't sure why he'd started thinking of Speedy as Kristi.

John entered to see Kristi staring out the window at the front entrance to the Gamestown hospital. Her vitals readout held halfway between 1 and 2 Hit Points, some system of health measurement he'd never understand but apparently the military people and politicians did. At least it was better than the 1 Hit Point she came in with; no points left meant permanent Arena checkout.

"Kristi," he said nervously. She turned to look at him, a puzzled expression on her face.

"Didn't expect to see you."

"Same here," he said, setting the flowers on a nearby table. "But I think E.C. would want me to see things through. She told me to watch out for you."

"I don't understand, John. Why would E.C. tell you to do that?"

"She said there's been enough lost families lately, and let's not add to it."

"Like Bot 12's Pilot didn't? She was basically telling you to focus on and kill him."

John didn't have an immediate answer. After moments of reflections, he uncertainly replied, "I think learning who Alias was, and knowing her opportunity was right under her nose and she missed it, got to her and she saw something in you."

"But she had a family too!" she pointed out. "What about Gorrik and--"

"Maybe to her it just wasn't the same thing as her birth family. Some people adjust to that and some don't, at least from what I've seen. She might not have been a close to Gorrik as he was to her. Or maybe she wanted to save you since she couldn't save Vienna. For some reason, she saw herself as more expendable, somehow."

Kristi 'Speedy' Wright turned and looked away from John, looking back out the window.

"I still don't get it," she said.

"Me either," he sighed.

 

+++

 

John knew he'd seen bigger memorial services. All the ceremonies held here at the Wall of the Fallen that had been for deceased Sisters of Silicon pilots were packed to standing room capacity and stuffed in the press like a pack of old-fashioned sardines. Today, the Feral Feline Memorial Hall filled only with silence.

He knew of only one other time this had happened, and that was when they chose to hold no ceremony for the mounting of Cadet Alias' plaque, E.C.'s blood sister.

Only he, Gorrik Vileslayer, and Speedy stood ready to mount the plaque on the wall. Femme Fatale, though not attending, made sure that the spot adjacent to Alias' name was prepared for E.C.'s plaque. As sisters who never reunited in life, at least they would be close in death.

John swallowed hard as he watched Gorrik walk towards the wall with the newly engraved plaque. He so wished he could have mounted her name, but Gorrik was E.C.'s brother through adoptive law if not in blood and he didn't wish to provoke an argument. Each step Gorrik took made John's own chest feel heavier. As soon as that plaque became attached to the cold wall, E.C.'s death would be made far too real.

Then, unexpectedly, silence shattered with a clatter.

Gorrik, in his own nervousness and emotion, had dropped the plaque. Still stunned by what had happened, John watched Gorrik slowly lean down to retrieve it. Then, from a side entrance, a familiar woman entered, ran over to Gorrik and helped to put the plaque back in Gorrik's hand.

It was Lauraic Vileslayer, Gorrik's estranged cousin, leader of the Sisters of Silicon subteam the Women of Weaponry.

John watched as Gorrik pushed Lauraic away when she reached for the plaque.

"She was my cousin too," John heard Lauraic tell Gorrik. "I may not have been close to either of you, but I know you cared about E.C. I'm slowly learning from Damian Blackheart how valuable family is. Please, Gorrik, we're the only family members active in the Arena now. Let's respect E.C.'s legacy by being there for each other."

"Not as long as you side with Blackheart," Gorrik muttered angrily. "Just get out."

John watched Lauraic her sadly turn and walk away. John bit his lip, watching Gorrik place the plaque on the wall, identifying with Lauraic's sentiments. He wished he'd had her courage to approach Gorrik about them doing it together.

Gorrik stepped back and eyed the plaque on the wall. Cautiously, John walked up beside him, and could hear Speedy doing the same.

 

"E.C. VILESLAYER"

ELISE CARTWRIGHT VILESLAYER

a.k.a. ELISE VICTORIA CARTWRIGHT

Cadet

Member of the Lion's Maw

Fell in Arena #375

Killed by Enemy Bot

Daughter of Victor "Dark Horse" Cartwright

Sister of Vienna "Alias" Cartwright

Stepsister of Gorrik Vileslayer

 

The three of them continued to stare at the plaque, not wanting to take their eyes off it and not knowing what to say. John knew that this event would bond the three of them and change their lives forever.

 

+++

 

"A pity Vileslayer refused to live up to the potential in her veins," Petruchio brooded as he strode back and forth in front of John, Speedy, and Gorrik. "The rest of you, do not fear what you can be, or you will continue to be nothing but a disappointment. Dismissed!"

With heads hung down, the three Lion's Maw members left Petruchio's sight.

John let Speedy and Gorrik get ahead of him, moving ever slower and slower until they were out of sight. Hurriedly, he raced back towards Petruchio's chambers. The more he thought about it, the more he couldn't let Petruchio treat E.C.'s death so trivially.

As John approached the door to Petruchio's chambers, he heard obnoxious female laughter.

"You were so right about her, so gullible," the female voice said. "Even though one of her righteous women killed my sister in battle, she still believed my sob story of forgiveness and took me right in. Soon, your greatest threat to Arena supremacy will fall. But too bad you lost the Vileslayer girl."

"Oh, I disagree. Her death has already written The Lion's Maw in the history books, along with the CP Kill to our credit. That was the idea of taking three rookies to the field. I gambled all along that one of them would die to further our name and cause, and I had my bets on that wimpy Wright child, though we almost did get a two for one special there. However, given her pedigree, Miss Vileslayer was a more than acceptable sacrifice."

"Brilliant!" Ssella laughed obnoxiously.

The door began to slide aside, so John slipped into the shadows to watch Petruchio exit arm in arm with a medium-built European woman with dark hair and eyes. John knew he'd seen her before, and after a few moments recalled where he'd seen her... introduced as a member of the Women of Weaponry by Femme Fatale at a presentation at Lazer's.

Petruchio's female companion was Ssella Doomstalker of the Sisters of Silicon.

Part of John wanted to rip Petruchio apart; the other, to collapse in tears. Hurriedly, he slinked away into the shadows and made his way out the hidden access way to the Lion's Maw fortress.

"You get lost in there, loser?" a gruff voice said. John jumped and turned to see Gorrik leaning against Gorrik's car, Speedy by his side.

"No... yes... none of your business!" John spat back.

Gorrik dug into his pocket and produced a small rectangular package.

"She left you this," Gorrik said in a voice mixed with bitterness and puzzlement as he handed the package to John.

John quickly snatched the package from Gorrik and hurriedly unwrapped it. In his palm he held two rectangular-sized holo-diaries. One was engraved "E.C. VILESLAYER [PN209]"; the other, "ALIAS [PN209]".

"Alias?" gaped Speedy in awe. "I understand her diary, but Alias' too?"

"Play them back," Gorrik demanded.

John pocketed them instead.

"Not here, not now. Who knows what they might contain? With all due respect, Gorrik, you may have been like a brother to her but she left them for me. For Ragin' John Blaze, do you hear me!"

With that, John raced away from Gorrik and Speedy before they could see his tough exterior break into tears. Eighteen years old and John felt himself growing old way too fast.

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