by Rich Hanes
One commander faces another in this thrilling mech battle piece of leftover stragglers.
| "Den Lieutenant Starvek, I find your course of action highly suspect."
The towering pure-white bipedal Alaskan wolf turned to gaze down at her second-in-command. "You are speaking out of order, Brother Baines."
"Forgive me, Den Lieutenant," the smaller red wolf said. "But do you not find this somewhat dangerous?"
Starvek stopped halfway down the corridor, her massive paw-like hands folded behind her waist as she gazed through the plastiglass observation window at the scene beyond. The planet Kell spread its desolation before her. The empty, red clay desert wasteland had no special meaning to her. After so many jumps, the planets blended together. Just another world.
The Kell system was just a strategic position, a jump-point system to acquire, that would secure the Lupine Order's thirst for expanding territory. and deny the Star Alliance access to other worlds beyond it.
The populace? Citizens? They were nothing of value. They did not contribute to, nor did they hinder the Lupine Order. Leave them as they be. Most of the civilian foxes, confronted by the Lupine war machine, had evacuated already. They left everything as if it were a ghost town, abandoned buildings, shopping centers, hospitals, police stations, arenas, all of them quiet. Silenced by the wolf.
The foxes knew. The wolves were coming.
Starvek thought it better that way. Leave the fighting to the fighters. She did not relish in civilian casualties, it was not the Lupine Way. To use oneself for the fullest, to give all that one had. To cut down civilians? It would be a tragedy, a great waste of potential. And yet still, the stories filtered out, to the non-wolves, that wolves were bloodthirsty, savage, barbaric That they killed without meaning, that they ate the fallen troops of the other side.
She cringed inwardly at the thought of such an indignity. But perhaps there was value in the lore. It would strike fear into the hearts of foxes. The big bad wolf was coming, and this time it was armed with lasers and missiles and autocannons.
But otherwise, the planet was quiet. Silent and still, save for the occupied command center they now stood in. Down three stories below, Lupine Order soldiers scurried about, moving supplies in and out. Dropships, with the glorious wolfshead emblem emblazoned upon their sides, were already landing and offloading. Troops. Cargo. Rations. All the wolves moving in quick, coordinated actions, high-efficiency, little wasted time. And so many wagging tails.
The wolf intended to stay for a long time.
"This is the Lupine Way," Starvek said. "To fight without honor is to attain a hollow victory. Words to live by."
Baines nodded, tagging along as Starvek continued down the hallway. "I am familiar with Vurren's words, however in this situation I do not believe it is wise to trust that the foxes will adhere to our code of honor."
Starvek reached the end of the corridor, and pressed the button for the elevator. "Baines," she said. "You are still young. I have done this many times."
"Never with a belligerent enemy."
"Regardless, this is how we conduct ourselves. I understand your concerns regarding the trustworthiness of the foxes, but given the situation, I believe they will comply."
Baines frowned and tapped his hand nervously on the edge of his data tablet. "Yes, but would it not be simpler to just declare their unit as captured and be done with it?"
Starvek sighed heavily and leaned against the wall. She folded her arms across her chest, covering up her Gamma Pack insignia, and frowned. "To show respect for a fellow warrior is to show respect for oneself. Did you learn nothing in Devcom?"
"I did not mean to imply--"
"Never mind what you imply," Starvek said. "We are wolf, we are lupine, and we conduct ourselves in the Lupine Way. That is why it must be done this way. You would do well to watch and observe."
Baines frowned, fidgeted in place, and nodded. "Apologies, Den Lieutenant."
Starvek nodded, and glanced out the plastiglass again. Somewhere, off in the distance, was the Star Alliance's 371st Titan Strike Squadron. They had not met, face to face, yet they had already discussed the terms of battle. Starvek was eager for the upcoming battle. She had not faced a worthy opponent for several triads.
"Now then," Starvek said. "All units are accounted for, correct?"
"Yes, Den Lieutenant."
"And in position?"
Starvek chuckled to herself, a low, predatory rumble. "Very well. I have been looking forward to this all morning."
The elevator doors opened, and they stepped inside. They were quickly whisked to the Titan Ready Room, where she and her best tacticians would discuss the upcoming battle. Methodically planned for every variable, to the last centimeter. She would be ready.
"Sir, with all due respect--"
"Muzzle it, Higgins."
The bipedal fox stalked across the small clearing at the rim of the Innsbruck Canyon. His entire unit, the 371st Titan Strike Squadron, had taken shelter for the night, all of the titans hugged as tight as possible to the rocky edifice to reduce their overhead profile. The high canyon walls would offer some protection from air strikes and discovery.
There they stood, silent, as if hibernating, the fifteen titans of his unit. They had once been so pristine, clean, parade-ready. A show of pride for the vulpine kind, something majestic. And now they were dirty, huddled under a canyon as if they were kits terrified of a thunderstorm. And yet, the titans seemed so peaceful like this, as if this were their natural state. There was a subtle elegance to them when they were powered down, less discarded, more statuesque. Like a monument.
Commander Bayley hoped that his titans would not become an abandoned, forgotten relic, like Daversport.
"You're thinking about Daversport, aren't you, sir?"
Bayley's thoughts were interrupted by Captain Higgins. Bayley glanced back at the other, younger fox. So much potential. Bayley was showing his age, a few silver grey strands of fur interspersed along his otherwise pristine pelt. But he felt larger, taller when he was standing on the edge of the canyon, looking down. It was the first time he'd felt that way in many triads. It was all he could get at his age. He was nearly forty, after all.
Bayley sat down wearily into the dirt. He ran his fingers through the soil, the red, iron-rich clay. He scooped up a small pile in the palm of his paw-like hand, and let the grains fall slowly through his fingers, along his finger pads, down his digits, down to the dirt.
"This is my home. This is the only place I know. The soil, the dirt..."
Bayley exhaled slowly. "You're still young. You've got so much life left in you. You probably don't feel so tied down to a place like I am."
Higgins walked over and sad beside his commander. "Being able to adapt, to thrive in all conditions, is what makes us foxes great. Our people have been through tougher times than this, and we've maintained our resilience. Our flowers blossom across the galaxy in all terrains."
Bayley smiled a little. "You're one of those Restorationist types, aren't you?"
"I've read the literature. I don't find fault in it. Foxes should be running the system, it's our legacy from the Creator."
Bayley chuckled and slapped a paw onto Higgin's shoulder.
"You're a good kit, you know that?"
"I am hardly a kit, sir."
"You know what I mean."
Higgins stood up and brushed the dirt from his jumpsuit. The plasteen coating on his Star Alliance uniform kept most dirt from clinging.
"I'm not sure that I do, sir."
Bayley closed his eyes and leaned back on his hands. "Sorry, sometimes I forget how young some of you are. So few memories. So few things tying you down. Not like me."
"I'm pretty sure your family was among the evacuated last triad."
Bayley shook his head. "It's not only family. I was born here, my parents were born here, their parents... well, I don't know where they were born."
"With all respect, sir, foxes are meant to move."
Bayley looked up at the younger fox for a moment. "You really think that, huh? Well I guess I can't change your mind now."
"Not that we have a choice."
Bayley nodded. He scooped up another handful of dirt and let it trail and sift through his fingers. He couldn't help look at his titans, once so powerful, clean, shiny, and now shut down and dirty, and not draw parallels to his last few patrols of his hometown. He'd known Daversport as a hustling, bustling metropolis, hundreds of thousands of foxes all about their daily duties, the fastways full of cars, the polished monorails shimmering in the sunlight, taking people here and there for what they had to do. All the things that made a city live.
And he'd seen it, all abandoned, evacuated with typical vulpine pragmatism. His people had always seemed to forced to move. One Volpa House assimilating another, rearranging the people within. The bloody Canid Uprising, when the canines rebelled against the foxes rule and lead to the four Contraction Wars. Painful times. Always running.
"I just wish we could stay in one spot for once," Bayley said. "settle down, enjoy life..."
"You're sounding like an elder. Ahem, sir."
"Maybe. Maybe I am."
Bayley stood up, brushed the dirt from his uniform, and looked at Higgins.
"Something on your mind?"
Higgins sighed, shook his head, and rubbed at his temples with a gloved hand. He looked down along the canyon walls at the war machines assembled there, some of the finest the Star Alliance had to offer, and knew it wouldn't be worth anything. He stared at the scene for what seemed like an eternity, watching the tech-foxes of their unit scurrying about on the canyon floor, lashing down anything they had managed to salvage from Daversport during their hasty retreat. From his vantage point on the canyon's rim, they looked like ants.
The fox turned about and ducked his head. "Sorry, Commander Bayley. I was just thinking."
Bayley forced an uneasy smile as well, and loped over to his second in command. "There's no good way out of this," he said. "I've gone through all the options in my head. We're pretty much stuck here."
Higgins scowled and shook his head, peering into the oncoming desert sun. "Isn't there something we can do? Some kind of... ambush? We can't just roll over like this --"
"It's a bad situation, but there's nothing we can do about it," Bayley said. "We've just got to make the best of this."
"Yes, but, doesn't this strike you as archaic?"
Bayley rolled his shoulders in a shrug. He brushed a bit of silvery-grey fur away from his eyes and adjusted his titan commander's uniform, idly trailing a finger along the Distinguished Battle Cross he'd earned so many years ago.
"Would you prefer we just slugged it out? Throw all our titans into the teeth of the Lupine Order?"
Higgins shook his head and looked down. "Well, no, that'd be suicidal. They outnumber us significantly already and they control every starport on the planet."
"Frankly, I find it rather generous of their Den Lieutenant Starvek to even offer us this. I don't understand much about the way those wolves conduct themselves but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt."
The Innsbruck Canyon spread seemingly infinitely before the two foxes, yet they both knew it ended in the jaws of the Lupine Order's Gamma Pack. The wolves were secretive about their ways, so he had no idea how large a Pack was, but it sounded pretty big. They probably wouldn't drop the whole thing on to his little rock of a homeworld, though. Just enough to smash the fox defenders and scare away the civilians. Wolves were efficient like that.
"It's just that..."
Bayley glanced over to Higgins. "Yes?"
"Well, do you have to be the one to represent us? With all due respect sir, you're not exactly the best titanist we have."
Bayley chuckled softly, twitching his nose as the wind hit it just right. "I know that. But the wolf has invited me to dance. I can't complain that I don't like the song."
"Well, realistically, they wouldn't be able to tell who was piloting..."
Bayley interrupted with a sigh. He folded his arms behind his back and tipped his muzzle up toward the sky, to bask in the warm sun flowing down. It might be the last time to feel it.
"From what I hear," Bayley said, "wolves are very particular about their honor. If there's going to be the slightest chance of any of us getting off this planet alive, it's best not to cross them."
Higgins nodded softly. Bayley clearly had his mind up, and nothing he would say could change that.
"Best of luck then, sir."
A slim smile formed its way on Bayley's slender muzzle, and he nodded. "I'll need it."
With Higgins in tow, Commander Bayley turned and made his way down to the canyon floor. His titan was waiting.
The silent stillness of the desert afternoon was abruptly broken by the thundering footfalls of bipedal mechanized war machines. The mouth of Innsbruck Canyon yawned to accept its newest visitors, Den Lieutenant Starvek and five full titan hunts of Gamma Pack's Tertiary Strike Den, twenty-five titans in all. Starvek led the way, her forty-eight megagram Adjudicator titan striding to the edge of the long-dry riverbed that snaked its way along the canyon floor.
She checked the radar display in her titan's cockpit. Fifteen contacts -- fourteen of which gathered along the canyon's upper ledge -- appeared on the scope. The last one, a lone Hurricane titan, waited dead ahead.
Starvek keyed her microphone on an encoded channel. "We are ready. All units, take formation on the canyon's edge, within range of the fox non-combatants."
Without a word, the remainder of the wolf units dispersed. Twenty-four heavy titans broke formation and assembled as ordered.
Starvek watched them, holding her position on the canyon floor. Her opponent held his position just out of her weapons range, some twelve kilometers ahead. Her units greatly outnumbered those of the Alliance's. Were any of them to break duel protocol, they would pay dearly.
When all her comrades titans were in position, Starvek flipped her radio to an open channel, and let off a long, wailing howl into her microphone. The call to hunt. The wolf communications systems were designed to overwhelm their enemies, for this purpose, to strike fear in their hearts. To let them know the wolf was coming and they could not stop them.
Over the radio, thirty-seven of her fellow wolf warriors joined in, harmonizing in the howl of impending battle. Then, the howl ended as suddenly as it began.
Still on an open channel, Starvek spoke. "Commander Nigel Bayley of the Star Alliance's 371st Strike Squadron, this is Den Lieutenant Diana Starvek of the Lupine Order's Gamma Pack Tertiary Strike Den. This is a call to a challenge of single combat between commanders on the field of honorable battle. At stake is the fate of the 371st Strike Squadron. Victory for yourself will grant you departure from this world via any of this planet's starports, unimpeded by the Lupine forces occupying them. Defeat will mean unconditional surrender of your remaining forces to the Lupine Order. Do you accept the challenge?"
Commander Bayley's voice came over the radio. "I accept your challenge, Starvek."
Starvek grinned slightly and licked her fangs. The terms had already been negotiated, this was just formality. The fall of the planet's starports to the Lupine forces was swift and calculated, and now left this entire strike squadron of Alliance titans hers for the taking. She would gain much honor for capturing such a large number of relatively-intact Alliance titans, especially for holding true to the Lupine Way. Pack Commander Flint would be pleased.
"Very well," she said. "The rules of the duel are simple. This canyon floor represents the battle arena. We shall battle using any means necessary, including terrain, until one of us is no longer capable of engaging the other. Ejection shall constitute immediate forfeiture. Any attempt by either duelist to flee the arena, or any entry or interference of any non-combatant of either side into the arena, shall constitute a breach of protocol. Subsequent breach shall result in an immediate termination of all duel rules and wagers and constitute a resumption of open hostilities. Do you understand?"
"I do," Bayley said.
"Do you have any final questions?"
"I do not."
Starvek tightened her grasp on her titan's control stick. "So be it. Let the duel now commence. Justice through combat."
With a hard shove forward of her throttle, the Adjudicator leapt into a full sprint. Starvek peered through the HUD on her visor. A red bounding box hovered over the distant speck of the enemy's Hurricane. Heat distortions wavered and danced across the canyon floor.
She trained her reticule onto the box and toggled her weapons to active. From what she knew from her briefings, the Hurricane had a similar weapons load to her Adjudicator, but at nearly twenty megagrams heavier, it was slower and less maneuverable. It didn't matter yet, but when she closed to within range of the Hurricane's heavy-caliber assault cannon, it could be critical.
Her forward shields briefly flickered in front of her eyes. The fox had struck her with his ion rifle. The long-ranged stream of particles barely damaged her shields. She eased her left foot forward onto the steering pedal, pulling her titan into a slow left-hand turn.
Still aimed at the Hurricane, she selected her class-V laser and squeezed the trigger. A white-hot beam of light burst forth from the laser cannon over her head. She held the trigger down and kept her aim steady, watching the target display on her visor for the results.
The heavy laser struck the Hurricane's forward shields, draining them quickly to nearly nothing before the Hurricane turned away, leaving the beam to gouge a long furrow from the canyon wall.
Starvek smiled. This would be easy.
High above on the canyon rim, Captain Joel Higgins watched the battle unfolding below. At the corner of either end of his Typhoon's cockpit, both combatants were charging toward each other. The distinct orange paint scheme of his commander's Hurricane made it blend in slightly to the red clay, but he could clearly see the Lupine Order's commander's blue Adjudicator.
Only a minute into the battle, and it already looked lost. The enemy held the advantage at long range with its heavy laser. Bayley's ion rifle was like a pea-shooter. The Adjudicator was superior at middle range as well. Despite its greater mass, the Hurricane was clearly outclassed by the Adjudicator.
Higgins muttered to himself. Lupine technology was superior to theirs in every way. The Adjudicator represented everything that his own fox-kind would aspire to in a titan -- more weapons, decent shields, and more speed in a smaller package. How had the Star Alliance and its vulpine scientists allowed themselves to fall so far behind?
The Adjudicator struck again, bleeding away Bayley's shielding with its class-V laser. Higgins watched on his HUD as Bayley shied away again, trying to evade the beam. His shields were nearly depleted. Shielding and armor were the only advantages the Hurricane had over the Adjudicator.
Finally, Bayley struck back with his titan's arm-mounted lasers. At the edge of their effective range, both missed. At least he was firing back.
The Lupine commander cut a long left-hand turn, taking advantage of the canyon's width to maneuver. Bayley echoed the movement, turning to his left, and the two traced a slow lazy half-circle on the canyon floor at six kilometers apart.
Out the left side of his Typhoon's canopy, he could see the gathered Lupine forces in their blue-painted titans. Less than a half-kilometer away loomed an Akela, a large two-seat titan nearly twice the mass of his own. Either arm carried an immense class-V blaster, a weapon that would tear through his Typhoon's shields like they weren't even there. To speak nothing of the rest of its weapons...
Much as he wanted to fight his way out, he knew Bayley was right. They'd be no match for the wolf titans.
Down below, the circling titans were nearly parallel to him. A quarter of the way through the circle, the deadly dance partners had closed to within five kilometers. Bayley had grazed the smaller titan several times with glancing shots from his class-III lasers, but the wolf had pounded him in return with its four arm-mounted blaster cannons. Blasters produced a distinctive flickering, machine-gun like pattern of laser fire, doing much less damage per hit but hitting much more often. With four of them, the Adjudicator could keep up a withering barrage of fire.
Another blast from Bayley's lasers struck the Adjudicator, cutting its shields down to nearly half. The wolf responded, its main laser cutting across the Hurricane's jutting hull, slicing cleanly across from left to right. Unhampered by the shields, the beam cut into the titan's armor, sending out trails of sparks visible even at this range. With his shields completely drained, Bayley would be cut to ribbons in no time.
Smoke began to drift from Bayley's titan.
Higgins chewed his lip. The Adjudicator was barely damaged. He started to wonder what life in a Lupine Order prisoner of war camp would be like.
His thoughts drifted. The slow turn had put the Adjudicator right in front of him, almost below his titan's feet on the canyon floor. It couldn't be more than two hundred meters away. So close he could catch every minute movement, every twitch of its arms as the pilot aimed its guns, every step of its graceful reverse-jointed stride. Handfuls of baked desert clay puffed out from every mechanical footfall, leaving deep footprints in its tread. It really was a beautiful war machine, still unmarred from damage where its shields had protected it.
Subconsciously, Higgins let his titan's aim wander. He hovered his target reticule over the Adjudicator running before him. He felt so powerless in the situation, nothing he could do as he watched his freedom tick away. Had he really labored all his life for this moment? Had he excelled in titaneering at the academy, joined the officer corps, ascended the ranks to be second-in-command of an entire titan strike squadron -- no small feat in a military as large as the Alliance's, whose membership was listed in the billions -- just to become a Lupine Order POW in his first actual combat assignment?
And yet, he knew that it was beyond his control. The wolves had descended on Kell so quickly there was nothing they could do. The foxes abandoned their cities, Daversport among them, and tried to put up a defensive front outside Central City, but they'd simply been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the very Lupine titans that now hovered vulture-like around the canyon rim, waiting to claim their captured quarry as soon as their commander finished off his.
He wanted to fight, do something, but they would've simply died on the run as Bayley had said. Retreating from the city hadn't seemed like such a bad thing at the time, but none of them had expected the rest of the planet's defenders to fall so swiftly to the Lupine invaders. Now they were trapped...
The Adjudicator ran past in front of him, so close he felt like he could touch it. With its back to him, it was the perfect shot, especially for his Typhoon. Under Higgins' seat, and taking up the majority of the center hull, was the most powerful weapon any titan had ever fielded: the electro-magnetic cannon. Using a series of magnets, it fired a solid metal slug at enormous velocity, nearly four-thousand meters per second, doing tremendous kinetic damage. The Typhoon was essentially wrapped around the gun, an otherwise under-armored titan with weak secondary armament and precious little ammunition for the main gun.
But none of that mattered when he got a target in his sights. It would be over so suddenly. An EMC slug wouldn't be affected by shields, and would punch easily through the thinner rear armor. At this range, it would go all the way through and out the other side.
Higgins' reticule followed the Adjudicator as it sprinted past... if only he could do something.
Suddenly, a thunderous boom jolted Higgins from his seat. He nearly leapt out of his fur, straightening up in his command chair. What the--
His heart stopped as he saw what had happened. The Adjudicator, stunned by the surprise attack and now with a gaping, smoking hole through both sides, stumbled awkwardly mid-stride and fell face-first into the hard canyon floor, instantly crushing the cockpit. Debris from the machine lay scattered for a hundred meters ahead of it. Smoke and flames billowed from the gaping wound.
Higgins had squeezed the trigger without thinking and buried an EMC round into the Adjudicator's exposed backside.
Enraged by the death of their commander, and the violation of duel protocol, the Gamma Tertiary Strike Den unceremoniously butchered the remains of the 371st Strike Squadron. There were no survivors.