Pain. A dull, throbbing torture which twisted Jax’s face, as he squirmed into a better pillow position. Now he pushed his legs out, relieving the pressure on an already overstrained bladder. What had he drunk last night? Nothing strange, he hoped. Truthfully, though, recollection of any physical memory was impossible in his current state.
His football-shaped alarm spewed forth its strident merriment and he savagely smashed it with his fist. It bounced back off the wall straight into his face, all the while cheerily killing him softly. Returning the favour he grabbed the thing, pounding it time and again against the floor, until its squealing turned into a death rattle. Satisfied he let it go, preparing himself for the banging protest he was sure would follow. The old lady below was constantly knocking a broom handle against her ceiling, the most trivial of transgressions rewarded with a sweeping symphony. Surprisingly enough, nothing. Sighing, Jax drifted back into sleep, the booming of his headache fading as he found his pillow’s sweet spot.
With a start Jax woke, what time was it? Groaning he realised that his earlier actions had caused him to be late again. This time, there would be no reprieve. He lay spread-eagled for a while, then roused himself, half-falling from the bed in a tangle of sheets. Cursing he kicked his feet from their prison and stumbled to the bathroom. Each and every sound was raised to a decibel level way above local standards and Jax had to rest his head against the cold tiles in front of him, for at least some relief.
Once fortified with painkillers, dry biscuits and coffee strong enough to chew, he felt ready to brave whatever disaster faced the world today. There was no saving his job, so Jax had decided to be sick. The way he felt right now, no-one could accuse him of lying. Remote in hand, biscuit in mouth and coffee close by, he sank once again into his pillow and pressed the red Power button. A three note chime announced the machine’s preparations and he sipped his coffee gingerly, the liquid making his dry biscuit more palatable.
White static wiggled across the flat screen, a roaring of no-noise accompanying it. Channel after channel was the same and no amount of frustrated tuning would cure it. At last Jax gave in, he needed proper food and the Café on the Corner could provide him that, strong liquor and video feed. His resolve strengthened he headed once more for the bathroom and a hot shower.
Once rugged up; heavy coat, scarf and balaclava optional, but essential, he was ready to venture out into the cold. Winter had struck early this year and refused to stop punching; its icy grasp clinging tightly to the city. Yesterday, when his vid-screen worked, the weather lady had been less than optimistic; cloud, sleet and snow. Locking the door to his flat behind him, Jax pressed the button to call the lift and waited. He was thankful for the quiet, no screaming children or noisy neighbours, unusual in itself, but welcome all the same.
It was when the lift doors opened onto the foyer that Jax began to notice that something was wrong. Not even that, more different and unexpected. Dave the Doorman was missing, an absolute first which worried him a little. His grumbling stomach helped him to dismiss his anxiety and so objective fixed, he pushed open the front door.
Silence. No railcar, no transports, not even a bird chirping. Absolute absence of noise enveloped him. Swiftly he ran back inside, shouting for Dave, but there was no answer. He banged on the doors to the ground floor flats. Nothing. The com by Dave’s desk gave a dialling tone, but a desperate call to the local switchboard was met only by static. Confused and not a little scared, Jax decided that his first idea was the best, the Café on the Corner would solve everything. With a grunt, he levered himself out of Dave’s chair and tentatively opened the door onto the street.
A quick look left and right showed no traffic, zero movement in fact of any sort. At the bottom of the street was the local transport, skewed across the path and semi-ensconced in the baker’s front window. The concertina door was half open, yet when he tentatively poked his head inside there was only empty space. He had seen no human life to date and then it struck him. No life of any kind.
Jax stood in the middle of the road, eyes flickering all around; no pigeons, no dogs, not even the buzzing of a fly. He screamed a desperate hello and his voice never even registered an echo.
His shuffling feet stubbed against a discarded walking stick and he grasped it, relief washing over him. Mock weapon in hand he continued, now and again swishing the wooden staff through the air in warning. It took him longer than normal to reach his favourite Cafe, but that was accounted for by the cautious approach to each corner, dropping to all fours and peering knee-high around the brickwork.
Using the stick’s tip he opened the door, letting it swing back twice before holding it ajar. This time his voice echoed when he called, the answer though remained the same. A search showed he was alone. Angrily he tossed money onto the bar and reaching across grabbed a half-full whisky bottle. Disdaining a glass he poured the raw alcohol down his throat, choking and spluttering. After a time his perseverance was rewarded with spinning walls, vomit and unconsciousness.
The singing woke him. It was dark and the unlit interior of the Cafe allowed him a clear view of the street whose automatic lighting was definitely functioning. Nose pressed against the front window he stared, breath misting the surface and momentarily clouding his vision. A quick wipe confirmed what he was seeing; vague, distorted shapes stumbling in and out of the shadows. Their bodies strangely hunched and humped. Step by step they moved in file towards a nearby alleyway, as though drawn by an irresistible siren song. It was then he saw her, screamed in warning and with no thought for his own safety, rushed to her aid, walking stick grasped firmly in his hand.
“Do you see her?” The voice was cold, metallic.
“Yes, Star Captain.” And then a pause, “There is no honour in this.”
“Just follow your orders. There’s a lesson here for them all to learn. No-one can escape from the Clans with impunity.”
He saw the woman’s shape, heard her deranged singing and, just for a moment doubted. Then the golden reticule tightened on her, adrenaline surged through his system and he fired.
“No-o-o!” Jax screamed as he saw the armour-covered figures and the pulsing, dancing beams of destruction.
The metallic clang of his improvised weapon sounded futile, as was its effects. A huge arm struck him, smashing him off a nearby wall and it was then he heard the heavy sounds of Mechs and knew his worst nightmare was realised. The Clans were here.
When he woke again, he knew his nightmare was real. Jax was chained to the wall of a dank and ill-smelling cellar. All around him were the smells of fear and despair. Bodies packed close together, his fellow inhabitants of the city moaned and wailed. A noise of marching feet drew his attention and with a protesting screech, the metal doors were opened.
There had been news of what the Clan members looked like, but he was ill-prepared for the reality of the huge man who bent and entered. Bull-necked and arrogant he stared into the semi-darkness. His eyes locked onto those of Jax and he grunted with laughter.
“That one.” He said and Jax was roughly dragged out into the early morning light.
“Quiet, Bondsman,” growled the big man, “you were man enough to face up to us last night, don’t shame either of us now by your mewling.”
The square outside the building in which he had been held was a hive of activity. Men and women in their Clan uniforms hurried to and fro. A group of armoured men, as big as his captor, stalked past. There was an overwhelming hubbub of sound, broken only by the thump and whine of enormous feet. Jax looked on in awe as the semi-human Omnimech entered the area.
Where are our forces? What had happened to the planetary resistance? As if in answer to his question there was a scream of LRM’s and explosions blossomed. He saw the Omnimech’s head turn and then its body shudder as it responded in kind. Then it began to pick up speed, the crash of its movement joined by others of its kind.
“You!” said the Elemental to one of the cowering Techs, “take this one to my quarters. It looks like there are some malcontents still to be subdued.”
“Yes, Star Captain,” came the meek reply.
“Eagle One to Eagle Base, over. I repeat, Eagle One to Eagle Base, over!” Nothing, there was zero response. Captain Marius cursed as he pounded his fist against his control panel. He had seen the Base Mechs implode under the vicious enemy barrage, and had heard the frantic transmissions from the Command Centre as the invaders smashed their way through the final defences.
His wing had responded to his call, flying close to the automatic anti-aircraft systems of the dropship hovering overhead, relying on their own friendly identification transponders to protect them. They had flown tip to tip, their autocannons blazing a metallic path of death in front of them. The enemy fighters had been unable to resist, yet the ploy had not been without casualties.
Two of his Wing had been downed on the first pass by enemy missiles, another blown apart by the dropship’s own defences. It was irrelevant now though, they had nowhere to land. The landing strip had been destroyed. Basically there were two choices, die here or try and link up with any remaining ground forces, a slower yet no less certain death based upon the vast superiority of the enemy.
Marius was leaning towards a more glorious and rapid end, here amongst the last remains of his companions. Not because he was the most heroic of men, rather the most practical. Signal strength was minimal and therefore he could not contact anyone on the planet, he had three SRM remaining, his autocannons were less than half-full and his laser was all but useless.
There was no certainty his men would feel the same way, but he had to at least give them the option. Drawing in a deep breath he reached to active his transmitter, but was forestalled by an incoming message.
“This is Colonel Walters calling all surviving Navy personnel. You are to disengage, I repeat, disengage from enemy contact. I am assuming overall control for this mission. You will lock on to the signal which is currently being transmitted from my temporary headquarters. Walters Out!”
Captain Marius looked curiously at his com, he must have subconsciously flicked the switch to transmit after the message had finished. Cautiously he responded, “Marius here, can you verify? Over.”
“Captain, make your choice,“ replied the voice flatly, “accept my invitation unconditionally or die out there. Out!”
This was more than strange, thought Marius, he had never given his rank, or had he?
“Do you think they fell for it?” asked one of the armoured men.
“Of course they did. These Freebirth are less than human. Thinking is an impossibility for them,” replied another.
“The Star Captain won’t like it…”
“Well he’s not here and I am. You’ll do what …?”
“They’ll do nothing Karl. What dishonour have you concocted this time?”
The group turned to see the large imposing figure of the Star Captain appear, but further discussion was cut short as the fighters roared into view.
Jax knew something was wrong. It was not the fact that he was forgotten about, although that in itself was annoying. Rather, it was the manic rush, the press of bodies in Clan uniform and his lack of understanding. The cord tied around his wrist hinted of slavery and no-one was willing to explain anything to him. He had been on the receiving end of a really bad last twenty-four hours and his head still thrummed in protest.
Now the dropship seemed to resonate with his own pain and it finally seeped into his numbed senses that the craft was leaving, with him on it. He was kicked to one side, glared at and cursed. Then he was alone. A roaring of engines was transmitted through the hull as the ship clawed itself free from the gravity well of the planet and Jax slumped to the floor, overwhelmed by a futile rage.
Star Captain Otho Pershaw squinted as the sun reflected off the silvered wings of the fighters. This was idiocy. He knew that Karl was up to his usual tricks, his jealously had recently become outright rebellion and Otho determined to settle this once and for all when this was over.
At his order, SRM’s screamed upwards. The first craft flew straight into them, one wing torn away and arcing up. It hung for a moment and then span to follow the rest of the fighter as it ploughed into the earth. More missiles hit their targets and the Wing of fighters split, desperately trying to avoid their impending doom. It was already too late.
He saw two pilots eject clear, the others in the Wing had little chance. The pulse of a laser scorched past him, too close to have been a mistake. There was no apology, but Otho could have sworn he heard a grunt of laughter.
Heat rolled over Al Sheehan in a palpable wave. He had seen the missiles streak towards the fighters; they had come from just over the ridge. Whoever had fired was the least of his worries right now. The left foot of his Mech was hanging together by a few threads of miomer and the constant pounding of missiles and laser fire was boiling him alive. He cycled power to his Gauss rifle. It was about the only thing left working.
Stories about the Clans had proven to be woefully inaccurate. Their fire-power was awesome. Before he could close the distance between his Mech and the strangely familiar shapes of the metallic monsters before him, he had been cut apart. It was impossible to know where the rest of his men were. Communication had become useless amid the twisting and turning of battle.
At last he got a green light and aimed for the centre of the chest of the Mech in front of him. Teeth clenched, he fired. The silver mass projectile lanced forward, a deadly blur as it punched through armour. There was a puff of smoke and the enemy staggered. He felt a momentary elation as the thing wobbled and then was amazed as it straightened. Its torso twisted, its right arm extended and then all hell let loose.
Alarms blared and he saw the danger signal flash for his fusion plant. Without a second sort he punched his ejection button and was slammed back into his seat as explosive bolts did their job. As he flew upwards, he saw the headless remains of his Mech crash to the floor. The force of its destruction buffeted him and he tried his best to control his wayward flight. This did not look good.
“What now, Star Captain?”
Otho could hear the sneer in Karl’s voice, but chose to ignore it.
“We move out. Our orders are clear. This is only a small part of our real objective. The recall will be sounded shortly and I for one have no intention of remaining as part of the imposed Garrison. What about you?”
“I am a warrior,” said Karl, “I go where the fighting is.”
“Yes, I see,” said Pershaw, indicating the smouldering remains of the fighters, “like today. I heard your challenge, or rather deception. When we return to the dropship, you will consider yourself under arrest. I have had enough of your cowardice.”
“I think not.”
Pershaw relied too much on the warrior’s code. Karl, on the other hand thought only on the final objective, winning. He raised his hand and the laser pulsed once. The rest of his group joined in and Otho crumpled under the barrage.
“Fallen in battle,” said Karl, looking at each of the rest of the Elementals with him in turn, “right?”
There was a muffled agreement and Karl pointed his laser at Pershaw’s head, the reticule flicked active and he smiled evilly.
Sheehan thought that his day could not get any worse. That was until his retro’s failed, followed by the tearing sound of the canopy above him. His escape trajectory was cut short and he plummeted earthward. A sound blocked out the roaring of the air as it tore past him and he realised that it was his own involuntary scream.
Otho stared at the laser pointed into his faceplate and forced down the acrid taste of fear in his mouth. So this was what the Clans had come to. Their internecine war would rip them apart and, not for the first time, he challenged his leaders’ manic determination for victory.
He watched the reflection of his own image stare back at him and his neck muscles tensed. Then all went black.
Cracking open the exit port, Sheehan half-stumbled, half-fell out of the now vile smelling cockpit. There was the sweet smell of vomit, tinged with that of burnt flesh. His own, he was sure. He forced himself to poke his head back into the craft and pulled out the backpack, containing the standard survival kit. As well as this he unclipped the laser pistol from its fixings on the wall and buckled on the belt and holster.
It was only then that he began an investigation of the surrounding area and what he saw brought him up short. It appeared that there had been a battle here, or at least a fight of some sort, which his arrival seemed to have curtailed.
Miraculously the escape pod had ended up in a sparsely tree-lined grove, finally coming to rest against an enormous rock. There were one or two mangled bodies to be seen, obviously the result of his precipitous arrival, but here and there he saw the evidence of a vicious encounter. To one side an armoured form lay sprawled, thick black liquid bubbling from the cracked ceramic. Nearby was a corpse, covered in the same material, yet crushed and broken. It was like one of the scenes from an old Trivid movie, depicting some historical battle.
Gingerly he stepped round and through the remains of the men and approached the edge of the grove. He heard the muted sound of laser fire receding into the distance. A low moan wafted from beneath a pile of snapped branches and he hastily combat knife. Al poked aside the splintered vegetation and revealed a huge man, dressed in the strange armour he had seen in the grove. Sheehan prodded the man with the end of the blade and was rewarded with a groan.
Jumping backwards, he drew his laser pistol, transferring the knife to his left hand.
“W-w-where am I?” asked the individual in a dazed fashion.
“That’s exactly what I was going to ask you,” replied Sheehan, watching as the man struggled to his feet, holding one hand against the fresh looking wound in his side. He saw him scan the underbrush, probably looking for a weapon of some sort.
“Enough of that!” snapped Sheehan, waving his pistol for effect.
To his surprise, the man seemed more concerned about what might be hidden in the surrounding vegetation than his pistol. The giant shape tensed as though about to attack. Sheehan quickly snapped off a shot, which whistled past the man’s ear, causing him to drop onto one knee and bow his head.
“Forgive me,” he said, “I meant no dishonour.”
“You not only beat my enemy, but have also spared me. You have every right to expect me to accept the role as your Bondsman.”
Sheehan stared at the enormous bulk of the man. Who was he and what the ****** was a Bondsman?