Final part of Chapter 3.
Seth jumped over the narrow alleyway and continued across the rooftops. He could only hope that Nadeshiko was alive and creating a sufficient distraction. As he jumped the next, slightly wider street, he was finally able to see the Isolde‘s pad and the six AMWS surrounding it. He was trying to guess the AMWS’ armaments from their configurations when he reached an unexpectedly broad jump and nearly missed it. His hand brushed against the wall, and then he was slipping down it, curving away, falling so very slowly but inevitably.
The fire escape swung suddenly out from its slot in the wall, and Seth struck with a resounding crash that practically vibrated his fillings out. “Ow,” he moaned as he sat up, touching his nose gingerly to make sure it wasn’t broken. He looked around at the providential fire escape, but it offered no explanation as to its timely emergence. “Must have hit a trigger or something scrabbling at the wall,” Seth surmised. There wasn’t any time to wait and ponder; he had to get to the Isolde.
He pulled himself up to the roof and surveyed the spaceport. It looked fairly deserted, except for the soldiers. “Izzy, you have a fix on my location?”
“Gotcha, boss. Catapult?”
“Give me a second, first.” Seth carefully sighted with the zoom scope on his gun. He didn’t recognize two of the models offhand, but one of the AMWS was definitely on the Hyams pattern, a PG-460, it looked like. Not surprising; the Hyams design was cheap and sturdy, and its one major flaw almost never showed up. How often did people use snipers against mecha, anyway?
There it was: the break in the armor under the left arm, necessary for the hinge mechanism, that exposed the fire control. Seth squeezed off a shot; his luck held.
The AMWS began firing in erratic sprays of shells, and the other AMWS moved immediately to a defensive ring facing out, uncertain where the attack was coming from. As soon as their attention was away from the Isolde, Izzy fired Seth’s AMWS from the catapult, straight toward him. Under her control, it fired its maneuvering jets and came to a hover, directly below the roof he was on. Its cockpit slid open, and he jumped in.
The radio crackled to life. “Are you Captain Seth Mikra of the salvager Isolde?” asked a clipped, resonant voice.
“Yeah,” said Seth. “Who are you?”
“I am Father Comry, Dean of the Holy Church of the Fleet Invisible on Bethel. You are in possession of stolen Church property and have attacked Church exorcists in their sacred duty. However, we believe in forgiveness, divine and human. Return what is ours and you and your crew will be permitted to depart this planet peacefully.”
“Hey, I know my rights,” answered Seth. “That ship had no living crewmembers aboard. Salvage laws in these parts say that means everything on her belongs to the first person that finds her–me. Besides, that box isn’t mine to give. I’ve already sold it. If you want it, take it up with Scientia.” Seth grinned, though Comry couldn’t see him. That ought to give them pause. The Church might be able to cow a little planetary government like Bethel into letting them play vigilante, but even they’d think twice about taking on Scientia.
“The Church recognizes a higher law, Mr. Mikra. I am most sorry, but if you do not agree to hand over the box immediately I will have no choice but to order my men to attack.”
“Funny,” said Seth. “I thought exorcists were supposed to fight Divs, not humans.” He fired at the nearest enemy AMWS as he kicked his own sharply upwards, then spun over and fired again before swooping down low. The Church AMWS scattered and returned fire, but Seth was able to dodge. He kept one eye on his thruster fuel; with his AMWS’ legs still out, he needed to be able to stay airborn.
All but one of the AMWS was between him and the Isolde, trying to block him from getting back to her and taking off. Of course he and the ship could go off separately and meet up elsewhere, but that was risky. Without AMWS cover and with its maneuverability restrained by the gravity well, the Isolde‘d be a sitting duck.
Of course, that assumed she’d be without AMWS cover.
“Now!” Seth ordered, and the other two AMWS erupted from the Isolde‘s hangar. The battle was ready to begin in earnest.
“They’re mostly sticking to the ground,” Izzy said. “Typical planet-bound thinking.”
“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, we can’t actually take this many guys in a fair fight, so let’s not make this fair. You two stick to the ground, save your fuel in case we need to escort the Isolde out of the well. I can’t really land anyway, so I’ll stay high and hit anybody that tries to get out of your reach. Go!”
Explosions rippled through the air as missiles swarmed up after Seth. On the ground, his crew had problems of their own, as the exorcists were apparently over their reluctance to get close, and giving the slower, jury-rigged mecha a pounding with short-range weapons intended to wear down armor.
But from his high vantage point Seth could see something the others couldn’t: foot soldiers, working their way from one patch of cover to the next, trying to reach the AMWS battle. That didn’t make any sense. One stray shot and they were dead. Were they suicidal? Sure, they volunteered to fight Divs, but — crap.
“Guys! Get off the ground, now!”
Seth had to hand it to his crew; they both took off instantly, and only then Wehj asked, “What is it?”
“Ooh, good call, boss. Yeah, I’m scanning, and those bayonets are ceramic composites, all right.”
“Huh?” said Vix, dodging a spray of bullets. “Crap!” she shouted as a missile burst a little too close. “Cap’n, our mechs are too slow up here. At least on the ground we have cover!”
“No, he’s right,” said Wehj. “Those are Hilbert Atrophy blades. They’ll cut right through our armor like it isn’t there!”
“Shit,” said Vix. “What do we do?”
“Izzy, where’s our passenger?”
“There’s a human woman behind a shipping container two hundred meters east of you.”
“Right,” said Seth. “Okay, Wehj, I want you to land. Fake thruster trouble. Vix, cover him.”
“But, Captain–” protested Wehj.
“Just do it!”
Wehj spun his mech horizontally, cutting his thrust at the worst possible moment. He fell tumbling to the ground, firing his thruster once more, just in time to land upright. Seth immediately began peppering the ground with laser fire, tearing through the small group of twenty or so ground troops, while Vix intercepted the AMWS trying to catch their wounded prey.
“Wehj, grab her and head for the ship! Izzy, launch as soon as they’re aboard, Vix and I’ll handle escort.”
With the men on the ground dead or forced into hiding, Seth swooped down to join Vix in covering Wehj. Shells thudded against his armor, but it was holding for now. Unfortunately, outnumbered three-to-one as they were, he and Vix could not get into a position to do any significant damage in return.
Nadeshiko, watching the battle from behind her crate, could not take her eyes off the burnt, twitching corpses of the ground soldiers. She saw, in her mind’s eye, the refugee camp’s children, burning and twitching as that strange green AMWS destroyed them. She felt dizzy and sick from exhaustion or horror or both. Keeping her eyes open was getting harder and harder, and her entire body ached. And, to add insult to injury, she’d figured out what she’d torn at the beginning of her fight with the exorcists: the seat of her pants was split wide open.
Wehj’s mech clanked around the crate and then knelt, dropping its hand for Nadeshiko to climb on. Shakily, she clambered aboard and clung. She was aching and embarrassed, and, as the hand swung jerkily through the air as Wehj sprinted back toward the Isolde, she desperately wished she could throw up. She dry-heaved a couple of times, but there was nothing in her stomach.
Seth and Vix attacked furiously, trying to keep a column open for Wehj and Nadeshiko. Unfortunately, that left them fully exposed. Seth took a bad hit to his secondary coolant line that came within a hair of setting off a fuel explosion, and Vix was knocked clean over by a punch when she got too close to one of the enemy.
“You all right?” Seth asked.
Vix’s mech rolled back to its feet and barely avoided a plasma burst. “Yeah. Nasty bump on my head, but I don’t think it’s bleeding.”
“Hurry up, Wehj,” Seth said. “We’re getting hammered!”
“I’m trying, Captain!” Wehj shouted.
“They’ve got my AMWS bay door covered,” said Izzy. “I’m not opening and letting them shoot up my insides!”
“Damn!” Seth considered for a moment, dodging and weaving and trying to get off a clear shot at the AMWS watching the door, but he had three on his tail to shake off first. “There has to be something we can do to get out of here!”
He spun to fire at the AMWS behind him. There was a flicker of green, and the leading of the three craft exploded. A second flicker, and a hole appeared, punched through the torso of one of the other two. It exploded as well.
“What the hell?” said Seth.
In a matter of seconds, five of the enemy AMWS exploded. The last, which had been covering the Isolde, spasmed as a green spike slammed through its torso from behind. It lifted into the air as the tall, insectile green mech to which the spike belonged raised its arm above its head and began rising slowly.
Seth stared, wide-eyed, his knuckles whitening on his controls. “All of you get back into the ship. Now.” His voice was strangled, strained.
“Boss –” Izzy started.
“No,” he said. “Everyone get on board. Izzy, launch immediately. I’ll catch up.”
“But Cap’n –” protested Vix.
“No buts. He’s too fast for your AMWS or the Isolde.” Seth’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry. There’s no way I’ll lose this fight.”
His AMWS’ computer beeped. There was a video signal coming in on a public channel. Seth acknowledged.
“Seth Mikra,” said Aser. “I wanted you to see the face of your executioner.” The Hod flung the AMWS it had impaled to the ground, where it exploded. “It is time for you to pay for what you’ve done!”
“What I’ve done?” asked Seth. “What I’ve done? You son of a bitch!” He opened fire, but his target was gone. “What the hell? Nothing can move that fast!”
“My U.R. Hod can,” said Aser, and slashed Seth’s AMWS from behind.
“Shit!” yelped Seth, but fortunately the blows damaged only his armor. “Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Aser,” he said. “I am the Chosen of God.” He laughed as the Hod teleported all around Seth’s AMWS, slashing and stabbing, carefully avoiding critical systems. Seth tried to take evasive actions, to fire whenever the Hod appeared, but no matter how he bobbed and weaved and spun, every one of the Hod’s blows struck, and none of his own.
“Dammit, he’s just playing with me!” shouted Seth over the private channel. “Hurry up and get out of here!”
“No, boss,” said Izzy. “The sweep time on my scanners is faster than yours, I can get a lock before he disappears again!”
“And do what with it? You can’t bring your guns to bear fast enough!”
“No, but you can. I can feed you the sensor data.”
“You have any idea how long it would take to slave my AMWS to you? It wasn’t built for it!” Seth swerved again, firing more or less at random, but Aser flicked back and forth rapidly even between attacks, making him practically impossible to hit.
“So don’t slave it! You’ll know his position a few microseconds earlier; use it to catch him!”
Seth’s armor was taking a major pounding. It was only a matter of time before Aser got bored and went for the final blow. “All right,” he said. “Do it!”
Meanwhile, on the Cygnus, Dasra fed her vision of the battle to Nasatya and Mia.
“Aw, crudnuggets,” said Nasatya. “You’re sure there’s not even an itty-bitty resonance?”
Nothing beyond normal levels.
“Poopy. It’s not going to happen. Aser’s pro’lly gonna kill him.”
Nasatya began chewing her hair. “It’s, like, seventy percent or so.”
“Calvie gets mad when I’m too precise and all. Seventy-four point eight one three one nine percent and rising.”
Seth focused on the sensor scans Izzy was streaming to him, trying to ignore the flickers of green outside, the continual screeching of tortured metal every time Aser sliced off a bit more armor. He pushed his AMWS’ cannon power past all safety limits, ignoring the warnings; he had to take the Hod out with the first shot, or Aser would switch to killing blows immediately after.
He bit his lip, waiting for the precisely right moment — there! He pulled the trigger; a column of lethal red light — air superheated by the laser’s passage — erupted from the barrel of his gun straight for Aser’s current position.
Except that Aser was no longer there.
Seth spun to see the Hod hovering beside him, its spiked arm drawn back to strike the killing blow. “Well, hell,” he said.
Aser shook his head. “Go away, Dasra. He’s useless to us — he can’t even defend himself! I’m exterminating a pest.”
I’m sorry, Aser. We have our orders. Stop.
“Never!” screamed Aser. “I’ve waited too long to find him again. He dies–” His screaming turned incoherent as Mia’s power poured into his head, channeled there by Dasra. Pain erupted through him, until not even his hate of Seth could carry him through it.
For his own part, Seth had no idea what was happening. U.R. Hod was just hanging there, ready to kill, but not moving. He looked down at his fire control: no missiles, and the rifle was in emergency cool-down after that last blast.
“Boss, come on! Let’s get out of here!” Izzy was half-frantic.
“Right,” said Seth. He shook his head. “Right! Launch, already! I’ll fly escort until we’re well out of this hole.”
The Isolde fled into the sky, flanked by Seth and Vix’s AMWS.
This is the end of Chapter 3, which means it’s time for music!
I’m actually holding back Nadeshiko’s theme, because the right moment for it is rather later.
The Bethel spaceport definitely has a theme, though, one of my favorite tracks from the Xenogears soundtrack.
And then once it becomes a more hostile place due to the Church showing up, that gets a slightly harder version.
And lastly we get the music for the fight between Seth and Aser. It’s stylistically jarring, violent, discordant, fast-paced, and bizarre, yet also a hymn. It’s Aser through and through, and one of the first character themes I picked way back when I first started thinking about this a decade ago.
Final part of Chapter 3.