“You have one purpose here, human. Fight. Fight, and die, and we'll sell the composite sensory feeds to millions of worlds in our trade networks.
So, enough of this 'contracts' and 'rights' pablum. Do what we brought you here to do. Fight.”
“All systems online, Jered. I am ready to fight for the honor of this house.”
“Good, Judah, I am too. Last diagnostic checklist reads green across the board. Let's go get some,” Jered said.
“Agreed. Let's 'get some,' as you say. Your father liked that phrase, too,” the smooth robotic voice said.
Jered squinted as the artificial red sunlight poured through his mech Judah's tinted canopy as he and his armor stepped through the grand archway. The sides of the towering grand entrance were carved with elaborate flourishes of stone alien vines surrounding battle scenes of raise relief, like giant coins. Some depicted death, others victory, others the portraits of the arena's greatest fighters. He hoped to add his name and visage to the laser-carved portal someday, even if the place was just a bottom-tier dump and slaughterhouse. Today's victory would mean that they were half-way to freedom.
“Yeah, that's probably where I got it from, Judah. The old man. I wish he was here to see me, now,” Jered said.
“Your father does not approve of this arena, Jered. He and Mikralos never saw eye to eye,” Judah said.
Pock marks from projectile weaponry were scattered along the arch. They were never repaired. The Gatekeeper who ruled over Berva Proxima Arena, Mikralos, thought it gave the place character and an edge of danger, keeping the stray round impacts uncovered and the targeting safeties disengaged. Jered thought it made the place look shabby and run down, and the management reckless, but he and Judah's contract of indenturehood was linked to the floating techno-blob of a Gatekeeper and the arena he presided over. Besides, he was more interested in making a scorched stain on the floor out of his opponent's armor than putting errant rounds into the walls.
It was the same type of giant portal that his family’s armored gladiator team had strode through for generations, even if it wasn't in the normal social stratus that they were accustomed to fighting in. Despite his fall from grace, Jered was a Kramer. He was a killer clad in steel and hydraulics, piloting the helm of the family's inherited death machine. Jered had bested seventeen other pilots in death matches here at Berva, all in the pursuit of paying off his steep debts. He ran his fingers over Judah's control yokes, flipping off his weapon safeties as he moved the giant armored monstrosity into a slow, thundering jog.
His display panel remained red and black. The safeties weren't disengaging.
He hit them again, trying to bring his weapons online. Judah's control displays blacked out, and “Pilot Compromised” began flashing over and over in his heads-up display.
Jered thumped the side of his cockpit's electrical control panel.
“Gate damn it, not now, Judah!” he said.
Static and electronic noise poured out of Judah's control audio feedback. Jered unbuckled his harness and began to pull circuit chips out of the control panel, trying to hard-boot. If he lobotomized the armor, hopefully Mikralos or the staff would notice something was wrong. Hopefully, he could stop the match. The arena's crowd roared as Judah came through the arch. The shielding they were behind blocked noise and shrapnel, but speakers all along the ring of transparent armor boomed the applause and cheers of a thousand different species.
Judah continued its slow, plodding gait to his engagement point half-way to the center of the arena. The red lights in the arena's ceiling turned bright white for maximum broadcast illumination. Small camera drones flew in strangled orbits around Jered and his armor, and the main spotlight in the arena's armored camera turret flooded over him.
The ring announcer's voice boomed an introduction in a number of languages and data streams, but Jered continued to work at Judah's controls to no avail. When the semi-sentient control computer failed to respond, even to him stomping on the large red emergency/duress button, Jered opened his microphone to address arena control.
Jered and Judah came to a stop on a floodlit circle of the steel arena. Judah was now in autonomous mode, but the external lights that signaled that condition were not flashing. Judah drew its large chain-saw sword as a salute to the Gatekeeper Mikralos in his floating capsule. The red and white mech across the arena, bristling with cannon and missile launchers, did the same with the power claw on its left arm.
A white pulse from every light in the arena signaled that the match was starting, and Jered Kramer was smashing his fists bloody against his armored cockpit glass. No one saw him, though, as the thick blast shields slid over his transparent carapace, and he screamed.
He pulled the ejection handles on either side of his headrest, but they came off in his hands. The enemy mech was facing off against him and Judah, now, taking cover behind a cluster of large granite rocks that dotted the mile-wide arena floor. The skylights returned to red, and small exhaust plumes flowered bright yellow from a cluster of launch tubes on the enemy mech's back.
Judah, still not under his control, sidestepped behind cover the instant before impact. The missiles tracked into the face of the wall barricades the twenty-foot-tall mech sheltered behind. The two-foot-thick composite barricades had a half-dozen glowing spots on the far side of the wall, facing him, the result of shaped charges that came just short of drilling through the edifice.
Jered bellowed in fear and rage, yanking and bucking against his controls. The sturdy armor which had borne his family into conflict for generations continued to rebel. If he made it through this, he was going to kill his crew chief, Prath. The anti-sabotage checks were supposed to keep crap like this from happening.
Prath would have to wait, though. The hijacked mech popped exhaust nozzles from compartments in its lower legs, and Jered could hear the microturbines begin to spool up in the mech's large backpack-like dorsal housing.
“No, no, Judah, what the hell are you doing? Why aren't you listening? You're going to use up all the reaction fuel too early, and we'll be sitting puddleflaps! This is a gate-damned nightmare!”
“Je-red...This. Not...not...Me... >bzzt< Exterior Overri-” Judah's audio speaker managed to say in jerking tones between bursts of garbled electronic gibberish.
“Judah! Judah, initiate control system purge! Blow the main reactor manifold bolts! Vent it!” Jered said, screaming to his console.
Jered and Judah were now screeching across the steel deck of the arena, dodging bursts of autocannon fire and missile volleys. The drone cameras were hard-pressed to keep up with the jinking and maneuvering, and the jolting acceleration forced Jered to push his arms back through his seat's restraints. The enemy mech was looming, the distance closing.
Judah's chainsword deployed by itself into the mech's right manipulator hand, the whining keen adding to the flood of noise coming from the turbines. Jered watched the fuel level drop to just over a half tank of reactant, and the jets cut out. The massive combat robot rolled as its feet caught purchase, and it came up out of the headlong controlled tumble with its giant sword arcing overhead, as if to cleave the opposing mech-gladiator's armor in two.
But the jets had cut out short. Jered saw the distance was too far to engage in close combat. His involuntary ride was about to come to a sudden end. The red and white mech brought its main gun to bear. There were no rocks, there was no barricade, no protective cover at all. Time slowed. Jered felt Judah still charging for the kill, but they weren't close enough. None of it was enough. The barrel came up, almost so that Jered could see right down the maw of the cannon. It looked as like a water pipe a construction crew had installed near their habitat when he was a kid. The picture he kept pegged to his dashboard, the one of his kid sister, had been knocked loose during the furious and useless charge.
He reached for the photo. The cannon muzzle flashed. Jered's world was reduced to cold pain as he bucked against the seat's restraints. He looked down. His lower body was a shredded wreck, and the cabin was filled with flame and smoke. The last thing he saw was the red and white power claw breach through the blast shields, through the armored glass, through the display screens, and through his chest. Blackness swallowed him as the crowd roared and Judah continued to jibber a mindless staccato into his dead ears.
* * * * *
“...and in our countdown of the Top Ten most spectacular arena defeats in recent memory, here's number four, Jered Kramer piloting Judah at Berva Proxima.”
“That's right, Chred, we've all seen it, over and over, but let's look again at the footage. Experts are still perplexed to this day why Kramer, who came from the fighting clan of the Fourth Gate Kramers, just threw caution and tactics to the wind with a straight-boost charge to his death.”
“His fellow human, Masamune, was waiting for him, though, Denk, and the result was not pretty. They never recovered Kramer's helmet camera or interior cockpit footage, you know. It was completely destroyed when first the open-field cannon shot, then that power claw-”
“'Oh' is right, Denk, look at that thing sink into the cockpit, right up to the elbow. You can't even read the sponsorship stickers, Masamune's in so deep.”
“Truly dread, Chred. You hate to see a fighter as accomplished as Jered Kramer go out in a flash-and-crash.”
“Truly. Oh, that's not nice, pulling the corpse back through the hole and washing it down with the jets. That's got to affect one's afterlife, I don't care what you believe.”
“That's become one of Masamune's signature moves, Chred, and this is the match where he earned the 'Desecrator' nickname. Up next, arena fans, stay tuned for the top three in our countdown...”
I'm about 10000 words into it. We'll see where it goes. I still have The Peacekeeper to finish, too.