The Black Rider - Chapter 1
A city once prosperous. Several square miles covered with industrial complexes, mighty skyscrapers and other, far less awe-inspiring structures. Usually, at noon, its streets would have been filled with countless people and hovercrafts, heading towards every possible corner of the urban jungle. Yet, there were no civilians outside that day. Not living ones, anyway.
Smoke rose from many buildings. Soldiers marched through the area in groups, supported by military vehicles. Each was clad in a set of azure armour, completely hermetically sealed, to protect against chemical weaponry. They gazed at the world through golden visors on their helmets, while a different beast watched from their shoulders – a black lion, spewing fire from its open maw. The Emblem of the Leonide Empire, two centuries old, yet unchanging. Unlike the empire it represented.
Still, the armoured, imperial fist did not hesitate to strike at the slightest hint of rebellion, its armies raining from the skies, without number, without mercy.
And so, the tale begins, within the dark alleyways of this ruined city.
Her eyes shot open. After a small struggle, she managed to sit up and looked around on the ground. A few shards of glass were nearby, casting her reflection. Yup, it was still her old self. Short, brown hair, with matching eyes, a few freckles on her cheeks, next to a... small trail of blood, coming from the back of her head. Well, that explained the pain. But why? Last thing she remembered, she had been running away...
She turned to the left and spotted part of a brick, covered with dried blood. A look upwards revealed a sizeable hole in a nearby building’s wall. Trigger-happy imperials, typical. She was lucky to be alive. She dusted off her brown jacket and jeans, then tried to stand up, but a sudden uneasiness brought her back down onto the ground.
Suddenly, the roar of a distant engine could be heard. But the girl could not tell where it was coming from. In panic, she tried to get up, but was still too weak and fell back. The vehicle stopped and its sounds were replaced by several voices. Slowly, her eyes looked to the right and she immediately whispered a curse. Three pairs of light blue boots approached. It seemed almost like an eternity, but they did reach her. One was only a foot or so away. The soldier spoke:
“Well, look what we have here,” he prodded her with his foot, “stupid bitch doesn’t know she should hide during a bombardment.”
The other two laughed, then one added, in a strange, high-pitched voice:
“Hey, it’s been, what, two weeks since we got shore leave on some decent starport? I say we teach her a lesson.”
The first agreed:
“Oh, yeah. Let’s make it quick, otherwise, the commander will-wait,” she, too, could hear it. Another engine, even louder than the first, “the Hell? There aren’t supposed to be any other patrols in this sector. Stay sharp.”
She could hear three clicks, as they readied their rifles. The second vehicle stopped, as well. The driver’s slow, heavy footsteps echoed within the alley. Suddenly, black boots appeared from around the corner and the soldiers lowered their weapons. She could see up to the figure’s waist. On their belt rested a pair of pistol-like weapons. The third imperial finally spoke:
“Oh, it’s him.” who, she wondered?
Whoever this figure was, his voice was deep and extremely calm:
“I see you’ve found a way to slack off. As your sort always seems to do.”
“Watch your mouth, merc,” the first was quite annoyed, “I don’t care how important you think you are, you’re talking to military personnel.”
“Whatever you say,” a brief silence. He spotted her, probably, “she is hurt.”
“So?” again, the first.
“She needs medical attention. She’s coming with me, somewhere safe.”
“Not before we have some fun, she isn’t,” came a high-pitched shout, “we got here first, merc.”
“I won’t repeat myself.”
The first imperial went from annoyed to enraged:
“Are you intimidating me?! I should have you,” he never finished that sentence. With incredible speed, the newcomer reached for his guns, aimed and, somehow, shot with pinpoint precision, twice from each gun, “agh!”
In the blink of an eye, the trio was dead. The most verbally active had received two bullets right in his black visor, while his comrades had only got one. She stared at the standard-issue helmet, now coloured in a crimson hue. Still, the job was done. The winner approached the bodies and reached for their weapons. He shot a few times from each rifle, hitting the APC and the surrounding walls, before quickly stepping over to her and kneeling. His hand extended to her own:
“Can you walk?”
Not wanting to be rude to a supposed saviour, she replied as best as she could:
“I t-think so. Who are,” she looked up and gasped, a bit startled. The man stared at her through a round, black helmet. Instead of a visor, it had two small, green, glowing discs where she expected his eyes to be. Realising she was staring, she finished her question, “you?”
“That question can be answered later. Right now, we need to leave before they find what’s left of these three. Come.”
Gently, he pulled her up and supported her, as they walked towards his vehicle. His armour was quite peculiar, with few edges. Everything, from his shoulders, to the joints on the moving parts. She had never seen such a design. His voice came, once again:
“You live here?”
“No, not from the planet at all.”
“Good. Staying here would be risky.”
The large, military APC, also painted in imperial blue, seemed huge. Its reinforced tires were almost as large as her, as was the cannon-like weapon mounted on its top. And then, she spotted the much smaller vehicle right next to it.
Small, yet not hover-based, it had only two wheels, the second located behind the first at the opposite end. The chassis itself was from another age, but the systems within were far more advanced. A lack of an exhaust indicated, that it did not run on inefficient fossil fuels and its dashboard had been replaced by a single, large screen. But it was still a centuries-old relic, painted jet-black and, apparently, the transport of choice for her saviour.
The armoured one sat down first, and motioned to her:
“Normally, you’d sit in the back, but in your state, you could faint and fall.”
She just nodded and sat right in front of him and almost immediately fell off, her headache worsening. The seat wasn’t that comfortable, nor was his metallic armour, but she was just glad she was gonna’ get out of that hellhole.
His hands clutched the handlebars, his left foot rested on some sort of lever, while his right disengaged the bike’s side stand. From a small compartment on his arm-armour, he pulled out a small metal card and inserted into the screen. Several green windows appeared and displayed row after row of text, before settling on a single phrase:
“All systems nominal. Ready for ignition.”
A switch was flicked, his left hand closed around the clutch. The other hand was ready to turn on the thrust, but not before his left leg switched to first gear. The engine roared. It didn’t make sense to her. It probably ran on electricity, but then what made such a powerful noise? Slowly, he let go of the clutch and the motorcycle started moving. Information about its speed appeared in seconds. From less than a crawl, it soon accelerated to eighty miles per hour.
The wind almost bashed her against him, but she found enough strength to resist. It bit into her wound like a dagger, though. Suddenly, she started having doubts. What if this had been a bad idea? What if this ‘knight’ in dark armour just didn’t like sharing? Such thoughts vanished when she spotted imperial blue in the distance. An entire roadblock filled with imperial blue.
They stopped in front of a hastily-erected gate and an officer came closer, with a golden star visible on his chest. The rider spoke first:
“I wish to get back to my ship, sir.”
The man was looking at her, she could feel his gaze even through the visor:
“And what do you have there, merc?”
“Just a little spoil of war. You know how it goes.”
“Heh, that I do,” he waved towards a group at the gate, then turned back to the pair, ”contact command about your payment on the way out of the system.”
“As always,” the gate opened and they blasted off once again. Her doubts came back, but then she heard him shout, “pigs, all of ‘em. Hold on tight, I’m gonna’ accelerate.”
He wasn’t kidding. Soon, the speedometer read one hundred and twenty, but the rider did not go any faster. And in spite of the now-crushing force of the wind, she felt better. For that short comment had sounded sincere, almost venomous. “An enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the saying went.
The city’s skyscrapers were soon replaced by suburban homes, most of them still intact. In the distance, she could make out several large landing areas, covered with a small army of imperial transports. Each was a winged cylinder larger than several of the surrounding homes put together, with several sets of thrusters on both its underside and rear and the Imperial Lion painted proudly on its sides. At least a hundred or so had made planetfall, bringing with them over eight thousand ground troops and vehicular support. More than enough to wipe out any miniscule rebel presence.
They rode onto the nearest pad. The many pilots and mechanics tending to their craft paid them no heed. Slowly, the motorcycle came to a halt in front of a black, rectangular ship. It was dwarfed by the surrounding vessels and its paint was missing in places where weaponry had struck its armour, but the rider seemed happy to see it, nonetheless. A key pad appeared on the bike’s screen, more precisely, it was a touch screen, and he entered an eleven-digit combination. It must have sent a signal to the ship, because its landing rap soon descended onto the pad. Slowly, he rode up and came to a definite halt, the ramp closing right behind them.
“Home sweet home,” he exclaimed, retrieved his card from the bike and got off, before looking back to her, “the infirmary is over there to the left. I’ll be right back.”
She nodded and watched him enter a door to the right. The room was at first only illuminated by a set of small emergency lights, but more came to life within moments. She could make out four distinct rooms, as well as a door with a large ‘WC’ written on it.
The one she was in was by far the largest and a mixture between a machine shop and a living room. Around the bike was a set of tables with a myriad of tools, from simple wrenches to complex calibrators and even what looked like a small lab for making compounds. A large screen was attached to the furthest wall, with a large sofa in front of it. Then, she also spotted a small bar in the corner. She immediately remembered she was thirsty.
The door to the right remained closed, but the two rooms on the left were visible. In one, she could see the end of a bed. The other was her destination. She stood up and slowly walked towards the infirmary. It seemed rather advanced. Several cabinets hung from the walls, undoubtedly filled with all sorts of medication. In the middle stood a white table, perfectly clean, and above it, a set of lights and scanners, all located on long, metallic arms, the kind which had always given her chills. She couldn’t wait to get it over with.
She heard a door slide open and turned to her rescuer. He approached and spoke:
“Let’s take a look at that wound, shall we?”
“That would be appreciated.”
He motioned to the table and she instinctively lay down, proceeding to stare blankly at a nearby table. A click sounded and soon, that table was decorated by the rider’s helmet. Her gaze was then pulled to one of the metallic arms, which descended from above, before relocating over her head. A green light filled her immediate surroundings as the small scanner did its work. A minute or so later, its job was done. He sounded relieved:
“Well, you’re in luck, somewhat. The skull only cracked, so no bones are making their way to your lovely brain. A bit of healing magic and you’ll be fine,” she saw the armour move to a nearby cabinet, but couldn’t quite see his head. He pulled out a container filled with some sort of gel and moved closer, “I won’t lie. This is gonna’ sting. A lot.”
An understatement. As soon as the government-approved salve was applied, the wound might as well have burst into flames, but she managed to restrain herself. In a moment, she sighed with relief:
“Ahhh, much better.”
“Good to hear. It should be fine in a day or two.”
“Thank you, I,” she sat up and looked and finally looked at her knight, only to gasp ever so slightly. She had imagined many faces. A rugged, yet charming outlaw, like in so many of those sappy novels. Maybe a young, daring hero, also from the same novels. Reality was more... realistic. In front of her stood a man around his thirties, without a single trace of hair on his head. The most prominent feature was a large scar, a line which stretched all the way from his chin, over his left eye, and onto his brow. Said eye also had no pupil or iris to speak of, just a pure white, blind surface. The other eye, however, was healthy and emerald green. She was staring again, “I-I’m sorry, I...”
His lips curled into a grin:
“Don’t worry. With a face this ugly, I’m used to that. We haven’t been properly introduced. Darken Tensei.”
His right hand awaited a handshake and her own gladly provided it:
“Haven’t heard a name that nice in quite a while.”
“And I haven’t heard one as interesting.”
“One as strange, you mean,” he chuckled, “we should take off soon. The shorter we stay on this rock, the better.”
Breaking the atmosphere had been turbulent, to say the least. At times, she could have sworn the craft was about to shake itself into little pieces and she had clutched the safety restraints with all the force she could muster. But the ship held and soon, the dense clouds of gas gave way to something far grander.
The stars shone in the otherwise endless darkness of the universe, illuminating even its farthest corners. Many were being blocked by the humongous vessel which was busy maintaining an orbiting distance from the planet. Shaped like the tip of an arrow and bristling with countless weapon batteries of all shapes and sizes. The lion stared at them from the hull, proud as ever.
He input some commands into one of the consoles and one of the many screens now displayed a series of numbers. He adjusted a small microphone connected to the control panel, just before a female voice sounded:
“This is the L.E.S. Purity. You are leaving a quarantined zone, identify yourself.”
Darken answered almost by reflex:
“Purity, this is Black Rider, fleet ID three-two-two-eight-A. Returning from cleansing operation with twenty-one confirmed kills.”
The other remained silent for a while, then continued:
“Verified, Black Rider. Your payment shall be sent to your account. However, scans indicate an extra passenger on your craft.”
She froze at that point. What were the repercussions for helping people escape a quarantined area? It was death, she was sure, but could not remember whether a swift or an agonizingly slow one. Her knight remained perfectly calm:
“We passed through a guarded checkpoint, number 18. We passed inspection with flying colours.”
“A moment,” Maria had forgotten about those. In a minute or so, the operator continued, “understood. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Just doing your job. We request permission to leave the system.”
“Permission granted. We look forward to working with you once again.”
“Same here. Black Rider, out,” finally, he turned back to Maria, “now that that’s out of the way, where may I drop you off?”
“I’ve got a friend on Leonis V, in Ryloth,” a neighbouring system, fortunately, ”Is that alright?”
“Alright? It’s splendid, I was heading there myself, actually.”
“Cheapest damn ammunition in the sector. As a bonus, only source of orange juice in the sector.”
The passenger finally emitted a chuckle, after what seemed like an eternity, and closed her eyes for the shortest of moments. She then looked back at the panel in front of her. The readings said they had accelerated to a mere five miles a second and that increased further, as more and more auxiliary thrusters joined the main ones. Yet she did not feel any change, thanks to advanced stabilisers present on the small ship. The massive gates in the distance were growing larger by the second.
It was akin a massive ring made of the finest alloys of many different metals. Larger than all but one city, these gates were the key to swift interstellar travel, the crown achievements of humanity’s scientific advancements. And powered by the most expensive of materials.
The space in front of the nearest ring was unusually empty, with only a handful of merchant carriers waiting for the opening. One of the consoles beeped and they both glanced to it. A set of numbers, once again, but this time, they defined a location, which their ship assumed in a matter of moments. The inner walls of the gate soon lit up. The light changed colour constantly and slowly filled up the entire area in front of them. The ships approached the wormhole and entered the tunnel through space and time one by one. Soon, even their ship was enveloped by the bubble. Darken sat back in his chair and undid his safety belts:
“Well, now we just have to wait an hour or so. Feel free to pour yourself a drink or something. I have to take care of some duties.”
With a wave of relief still coursing through his body, Darken exited the toilet, only to pause for a few seconds. There she was, the pretty refugee from the surface, crouched next to and ogling her, the most awesome vehicle in the galaxy. It was an interesting sight, to say the least. He spoke:
“See something you like?”
Maria didn’t even turn her head:
“An understatement. I’ve never seen such a small sila-powered engine,” that surprised him further, “where did you get it?”
“Nowhere. Designed it myself, since I couldn’t find the right size for the chassis.”
She finally gazed in the rider’s direction:
“Well, ain’t you full of surprises.”
“Look who’s talking. I never thought I’d see another mechanic this close to the Core worlds. Robots are all the rage around these parts.”
“Tell me about it,” a faint smile made her face even prettier, “I was lucky to get a small job on Magenta. Didn’t think I’d have to run from artillery shells, though.”
“Life is strange sometimes, isn’t it?”
“Heh, yeah,” her attention returned again to the bike, “I have to ask, though. I haven’t seen a vehicle of this type anywhere but in a history book, but now that I look at it... you’ve changed everything but the chassis.”
“Yeah. And I fiddled with that a bit, too, to make more room for new parts. The rest, I just replaced with better stuff.”
“Why not just get a hoverbike, then? Surely, that would have been cheaper and easier.”
It was his turn to smile:
“Purely sentimental reasons, I assure you. See, where I come from, these modes of transport are common. Heck, fossil fuels are still being used,” worlds farther from the Core were like that. Poor and old, “just a bit of nostalgia. Plus, a hoverbike couldn’t carry half as much as these wheels.”
She nodded, then remembered one of the bike’s attributes:
“One last question, I promise. What makes the engine roar so much? The whole thing, as far as I can tell without taking it apart, runs on electricity from the crystal.”
“Oh, that. I installed extra loud speakers for that. No one can tell the difference,” he noticed the look she was giving him, “hey, the nostalgia wouldn’t be complete without it.”
“But installing a sound system for...”
A triumphant grin appeared under the scar:
“If it didn’t make any sounds, the imperials would have done something else than prepare for my arrival,” she froze for a few seconds and Darken mentally slapped himself, “I’m sorry, I...”
“N-no, it’s okay,” she staggered, “it’s just... thank you, again.”
“Saving cute damsels is what I do,” she chuckled. The rider’s brain complimented him for a change, “now, let’s get our minds off such things, shall we,” he walked close to the bar in the corner, “want a drink?”
He hadn’t been kidding about the orange juice. She had to admit, it tasted great, though. He had several other kinds of juice and a few mixed drinks, but no really strong alcohol, something she had considered peculiar.
“A bit of alcohol is fine,” he had said, “but I don’t need it killing my brain. Would affect my effectiveness.”
A dangerous thing in his line of work, certainly. He sat next to her on the couch, still fully clad in his armour. After questioning him about it, she had received another unexpected answer:
“I’d consider undressing in front of a lady most rude, wouldn’t you?”
Truly, this mercenary-slash-bounty hunter was full of surprises. Even his hand, rising to change the channel on the wall-mounted television, seemed to be surrounded by an aura of mystery. Or perhaps the brick had hit her a bit more than they both thought.
The channels proved uninteresting. Cooking with John Scorpion, Galaxy’s got Talent, some sort of robot deathmatch. Suddenly, the GNN logo flickered to life in the upper right corner. More important, however, were the happening on-screen.
The reporter had dark skin and long black hair. Her face was void of any imperfection, no doubt thanks to the magic of modern surgery, her eyes the darkest shade of green. Dressed in a set of dark blue business wear, with the GNN shining a bit above her left breast, she was conversing with an imperial officer, with over a dozen different honours on his chest and still fully encased in his armour. A small recording robot hovered just close enough to be seen, with a large microphone connected to its torso.
“...resistance have you encountered, general?” the reporter finished a sentence with no beginning, in the eyes of some viewers. The man replied in a deep voice:
“Over fifteen thousand rebels have either been taken for questioning, or disposed of, while we’ve lost less than three hundred men,” which probably meant they had lost two hundred and ninety-nine, “the operation was a massive success. The Purity hopes to bring many more victories in the future. As long as these fools continue to revolt, we shall bring the empress’ hammer down upon them.”
“Thank you for the interview, sir,” the imperial nodded, ”this has been Rebecca Smith for the GNN. Back to you, Alexis.”
They disappeared within a few seconds, replaced by a view of a news studio. A blonde woman sat behind a silver desk, this time in crimson business wear, her eyes a sky blue, the same as the rather bland wall behind her. Attractiveness seemed to be a requirement for the GNN.
“Thank you, Rebecca. We now cut to a press conference on Leos, where lord Archangel himself is addressing our concerns.”
The change was even faster than before. The chamber itself was beautiful, with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, with the walls painted into a golden hue. The lion was everywhere, on posters, banners and especially on the armours of several dozen soldier, whose armour was black as night, their lions gold like the surrounding walls.
Most prominent, however, was the figure in the front. He was not just decorated by the beast. He was the beast. The golden helmet was dominated by a large open maw, in which two green disks shone, the rest fashioned after a female lion, the more vicious member of the family. His gauntlets had a set of blades built into them. The set was made of the finest alloys and polished enough to almost make him shine. A rather large backpack was the only thing ruining the aesthethic, unlike the large rifle hanging from it.
The rider’s growl was quite audible. He almost chocked on his juice and immediately went to get a refill. Maria eyed him for a bit, but then returned to the lord onscreen. She finally noticed the many people, dressed in unimpressive garbs. Reporters for countless channels. One of them, a male, asked:
“Lord Archangel, these rebellions are becoming more and more common. Has the empress considered any other ways to remedy the situation, other than brute force?”
The living lion looked in the man’s general direction and the worm started trembling:
“She tried to do so in the past,” his voice was stern, yet entrancing. A voice one could listen to for hours without getting bored, “but the Rim worlds could not be satisfied. Gradual social reforms were scoffed at, private audiences with their representatives turned into assassination attempts. There is no way to tame a rabid beast. It must simply be put down. Next.”
A woman, this time:
“There are currently two hundred ships ready to strike against any uprising. But with the size of the entire Rim, is such a small number enough?”
“The rebels are rarely well-armed and are easily routed by even a handful of our well-trained troops, as the incident on Magenta clearly proves. Even if they rebel across the entire rim at once, we have several thousand more ships which are waiting for just such a scenario to head into battle. The rebels are outclassed, outgunned, even outnumbered. They stand no chance. One more question.”
The question sounded from next to her:
“Why is your damned armour worth more than a spaceport?”
A real one arrived soon enough, again from a woman:
“Can we hope to see the empress in public any time soon?”
The lion’s answer was filled with boredom, annoyance
“As has been stated, empress Leona shall appear before the you once the uprisings die down and the rebel leaders are caught, not a day sooner. Her safety is our utmost concern and we will not endanger her for a simple broadcast. That is enough for today, farewell.”
And with that, Archangel walked off, flanked on both sides by the black troopers. Immediately, they cut back to the news anchor, whose smile was nowhere to be seen. A picture of a small star system with four planets could be seen:
“In other news, evacuation procedures continue within the Numeris System in preparation for its star’s approaching demise. Experts predict, that Numeris shall become a red giant-class star within...”
She stopped listening and turned her head to the left. The knight’s mouth was still curled into a frown. After a brief silence, she spoke:
“Well, I see someone dislikes Archangel for mysterious reasons.”
“Indeed, I do. That’s a long tale, from over a decade ago. I’d rather leave it there.”
“What shall we talk of, then,” she gazed right into his eyes and seemed to pierce his very soul, “your hatred of other, non-specific imperials, maybe?”
Immediately, he remembered the words she was referring to:
“Well, they are pigs. Dressed in pretty armour and wearing imperial sigils, but still pigs. With guns, no less. They just mimic their higher-ups, I suppose.”
“Then why...” the rider answered faster:
“Why work with them directly? I know your head got hit a bit, but think a little,” his voice slightly, ”who has the largest military? Who has bottomless coffers? Who organizes the easiest hunts this galaxy has to offer. And I gotta’ eat.”
“Listen, I have nothing personal against the rebels. But when I look at how the cards are stacked against them... their uprisings won’t do anything, in the long run. Whether I personally kill a few doesn’t matter. I admire their courage and all, but I’d rather stay alive and without a bounty on my head.”
Maria did not know what to say for a few moments and looked back at the TV. They were showing a poorly-animated representation of the star’s explosion. She sighed, then finally responded:
“I understand. Nothing to gain, too much to lose.”
“You could say that. Now, you can watch what you want. I think I’ll take a little nap before we arrive.”
She merely nodded and he retreated into his quarters. Before the sliding door managed to close, she could see him open a drawer and pull out a small, shiny object.
The tunnel abruptly died around the ship and the stars again came into view. The craft they had departed with were back once more. In the distance, a miniscule one in an astronomic scale, was a green globe.
Leonis V was a very strange place. Many said they lived there, but no one actually lived on the planet itself. Untold amounts of industrial waste in the atmosphere made sure entering without some sort of environmental suit was a death sentence. Or attempted suicide. Depended on the person in question. Still, the planet was rich in resources and a population of miners needed to be nearby. And so, a second home was built, in the planet’s orbit. One of the largest space stations ever built by mankind, easily the size of a small moon, able to support a population of over two hundred million workers and several dozen rich mine owners. And those rich people sure liked their oranges.
The station grew ever larger. Soon, it almost seemed like it could dwarf the planet it orbited. A brief chat with the operators at one of its many docking bays later, the landing procedure commenced. Darken flew them closer to a humongous, reinforced door, with a huge yellow number, fifty-six, painted on its surface. Large mechanical arms suddenly grabbed hold of the craft and held it in place. He turned off all thrusters. The first gate started opening, revealing a large chamber and another set of doors. The hands brought them in and the first set closed behind. Air was then pumped into the chamber. Afterwards, the inner dock finally revealed itself.
Revealed all the commotion of a large trade hub. Dozens of ships of all sizes were being carried to different landing platforms, located on three levels. The lightest, like their very own transport, were brought to the top and gently set down.
The shuttle’s landing ramp landed with a rather loud thud and they exited, Darken back in full combat gear. A small terminal stood nearby and Maria immediately hurried towards it. Darken grinned within his helmet:
“I’m sure your friend will be quite surprised.”
“Not really,” she started typing, “I stop by here quite a bit. Good location and all.”
“Can’t deny that,” the Ryloth system was home to an unusually high number of wormhole gates, over fifty, which made it a possible stop for traders from all across the sector. Having up-to-date information about its neighbours also meant finding a new job was relatively easy, “your friend a miner?”
“No, he likes comfort too much, in his own words. He owns a restaurant in block Alpha. The Trader’s Treat, it’s called.”
“I think I’ll check it out, it’s never too soon to get the taste of rations out of your mouth,” sure, they provided all the needed vitamins, but a little taste was needed now and then. He suddenly sighed, “so, I guess this is goodbye, eh?”
Her fingers stopped dancing on the keyboard and the damsel turned:
“It seems like that, doesn’t it? Well,” she quickly closed the gap between them and gave the armoured knight a hug, “thank you again. And don’t get shot, ya’ hear?”
“I’ll try not to. One lost eye is motivation enough for me,” she gazed up, “long story, unfortunately. You should get going. You have quite a tale to tell.”
“That I do.”
“Farewell, Maria. And good luck with job hunting.”
She slowly, almost reluctantly let go, gave him one last smile and turned to walk away into the space station’s bowels. And just like that, she was gone. He approached the terminal himself and input some commands, his fingers striking with more strength than he had intended. As always, he let himself grow attached to someone. A common problem in his life.
Refuelling, some basic inspection for damage. Now he just had to wait for the dock workers to process the order. That usually took an hour, if one was lucky. And so, he followed a painted blue line on the steel walkway towards block Beta, where his favourite establishment was waiting. All the while, his brain just would not shut up about the female mechanic.
Mark V Environmental Armour:
Over eighty years ago, at the beginning of the twenty-third century, our glorious empire felt the need to improve its armed forces. To perform a much needed standardisation, to be precise. Our troops fought on countless worlds, against primitive tribes and fearsome beasts, many of them inhospitable to humans. Terraforming could not commence before the dangers were taken care of, so environmental suits became a necessity.
However, there were just too many types and patterns, usually provided by the closest possible manufacturer. Repairing such suits became a costly, time-consuming process, since no two factories made identical suits with interchangeable parts. The emperor Helios the Second saw this flaw in an otherwise glorious military and sought to eradicate it. A little contest. News spread across the empire at the speed of light.
The many manufacturers were to present their suits, or design completely new ones, to a small host of experts in the emperor’s employ, who would rate and choose a single, winning design. The owner of the suit would then earn exclusive rights to supply the imperial army, practically letting them take care of all their competitors in a single blow. Naturally, thousands of manufacturers responded, with just as many varied creations.
One man, however, took his time and entered at the last possible moment. No one gave him a chance, really. A minor figure from a backwater world, he went unnoticed. But his creation became legendary soon enough. His name was Emil Vargas.
Having served briefly during the terraforming operations on his own home planet, he knew what the suit needed to provide. It couldn’t be too heavy, since trudging around in uneven terrain would have become a chore, nor too light, to provide a reasonable amount of protection. But he also realised a simple suit, like many his competitors provided, couldn’t provide the mobility a human could use in dangerous situations.
It took him months to design what would become one of the most notorious armours in the galaxy. Fully closed, with a whole array of medical sensors to monitor its user, attached to the most advanced air conditioning system available at the time. The joints were all round and could shift into any direction with minimal effort, yet even still, small servo motors were fitted into the limb areas, to help move in particularly difficult terrain and to aid the user with aiming.
Emil’s close friend, Herman Schultz, a cyber engineer, helped design the helmet. Two large, disk-shaped scanners were placed in front of where one’s eyes would have been and several microcameras were embedded into its surface in a circular pattern. Herman then created a portable AI, small enough to fit among the life-support systems already present, capable of processing information about the user’s surroundings and displaying warning messages within the helmet itself, alerting them to movement from any angle.
And finally, in a small, almost unnoticeable backpack, a very rare power source was embedded. A small green cube, a processed silas crystal. With such a power source, each individual suit could function without pause for half a century.
The masterpiece was brought to Leos without a minute to spare. Once there, it quickly gained the attention of judges and competitors alike. Its powered nature let it match the lighter suits in speed, while the unique shape and alloys chosen provided above-average protection within its own class. However, it had one crucial flaw. Its manufacturing cost. Between the extremely intricate design and expensive power source, it would have cost the empire nearly twice as much as its military expenses at the time to outfit all of its soldiers with the model. The prize was instead taken by the Leos’ own Neo-Arms and their ‘Justice’, a model somewhere between a light and medium suit.
The Vargas-pattern, as it came to be known, was not forgotten, however. After gaining much-needed renown during the challenge, it quickly became a favourite among both the shady lords of the underworld and bounty hunters hired to dispose of them. A brilliant balance, if you ask me. The suit itself has undergone four upgrades, which enhanced its AI, energy efficiency and even defensive qualities. If you’re looking for the best of the best, then look no further. You might need to sell an organ or two to afford it, of course.
- from the writings of Leon Sakul, traveller and researcher