A Novel of the Armor Wars
Matt Lowell is in hell-and there's no place he'd rather be. At a training camp on the backwater planet of Earth, he and his fellow cadets are learning to ride Mechas: biomechanicals sporting both incredible grace and devastating firepower. Their ultimate aim is to combat the pirates of the Corsair Confederacy, but before they survive a battle, they have to survive their training.
Because every time Lowell and his comrades "plug in" to their Mechas, their minds are slowly being twisted and broken by an unseen power that is neither man...nor machine.
This is stupid, Matt Lowell thought, as the airlock cycled down to vacuum.
Bright red letters on the hatch read UUS MERCURY SURFACE–ACCESS PORT 3A—NO EGRESS AT DISPLACEMENT. And yet here he was, getting ready to go outside, with displacement only minutes away.
Matt licked dry lips and took a deep, shuddering breath. Yeah. It was dumb. But he had to do it. This was his last day as a civilian. It was time to say good–bye to his old life.
The air–lock screen flashed bright red: AIRLOCK EVACUATED. But Matt stayed on the steel bench a moment longer. You don’t have to say good–bye like this, he thought. Go back inside and watch the displacement from the viewports, like everyone else.
No. He’d already slipped the digger a twenty for his ill–fitting space suit. And displacement was close. He might not have time to unsuit and make it to the viewing deck.
Matt sighed and levered the air lock open. The surface of the UUS Mercury looked like any other Displacement Drive ship: dusty, brittle gray rock, punctuated by air locks, hatches, antennae, and reconnaissance towers. A converted asteroid. So much like the refugee ships he used to call home.
Matt slipped out onto the surface and tugged the lock closed. Mercury’s bridge rose against the short horizon, a shining metal cliff with bright–lit windows. Uniformed crew members gathered around colorful displays beyond the glass.
Matt’s heart hammered. Could the crew see him? He shuffle–stepped behind the air lock, cursing the microgravity. If he moved too fast, he could build enough velocity for a one–way trip into deep space.
On the other side of the air lock, Matt crouched, taking big breaths of suit air that stank of recycled sweat and asteroid. He expected warning Klaxons to blare on his comms and blinding security lights to flare any second.
But nothing happened. Matt’s thundering heartbeat slowed. On this side of the air lock, the brittle gray–white rock and dust of the UUS Mercury’s surface was unbroken. It was as if he were alone on a pristine asteroid, whirling through space.
Matt smiled. This was right. He needed to be here. It might be dangerous to be outside during displacement, but it wasn’t that crazy. Yeah, everyone had a story about an uncle who lost a hand or a head when the Displacement field went unstable, but when you pressed them, they’d waffle. You’d find the uncle had been standing on a five–meter scaffold, or hanging ten meters out on an unauthorized dock. If you stayed near the surface, you were pretty safe. Matt had done it a hundred times as a kid, lying on the rock and watching the stars change. It was the best view in the universe.
Beneath him, the UUS Mercury shivered slightly. Most likely the last of the heavy cargo ships arriving. Matt imagined the giant freighter nestling into one of Mercury’s titanic bays, and the steel doors grinding soundlessly shut. It wouldn’t be long before Displacement.
He lay down on the surface. In the microgravity, it took several long seconds for him to settle. He put his hands behind his head, like he was relaxing on a beach in the sun.
But this beach was ash colored and frigid, under a pitch–black sky sparked with a million chill stars, and lit by a blue–green world covering a quarter of the sky: Aurora. Only a few jewel–like city–lights on the dark quarter of the planet showed the presence of humans. Even though Aurora was one of the oldest worlds in the Universal Union, it had never grown to the size of industrial giants like Geos or Eridani. It was a world dominated by Aurora University.
Matt’s past three years had been spent on Aurora. It was the longest time he’d ever stayed on a planet. But even at a breakneck pace, even with his gifts, a degree in analytical business took time. He’d graduated summa cum laude with a half–dozen rich offers from the biggest corporations in the Union already in his pocket.
And on that same day, he also received an invitation to Mecha Training Camp.
Matt never had to weigh his options. Those employment offers were sitting in a trash can in his dorm room. His training camp invitation was inside his space suit, tucked in his breast pocket.
The UUS Mercury vibrated violently, sending Matt skidding over the dusty rock of the asteroid ship. He instinctively reached out and grabbed a large rock to stop his slide. No problem. Displacement would happen any second. They always docked the largest ships last.
The space suit’s communications unit lit up with a bright red ALERT light. A scratchy voice filled Matt’s helmet: “All personnel, prepare for Displacement in thirty seconds.”
Matt imagined huge energies gathering in the fusion core of the UUS Mercury. But the energies were silent, buried deep in the center of the asteroid. He saw nothing, felt nothing.
The scratchy voice blared again: “Displacement in twenty seconds.”
A sudden thought hit Matt. Maybe this wasn’t dumb just because of the danger. He was breaking the rules of a Universal Union ship. What if they found out? Would it keep him out of training camp?
“Displacement in ten. Nine. Eight. Seven—”
He had no time to get back in the air lock and cycle it. Matt was committed, for better or worse.
As the last seconds sounded, Matt suddenly remembered a childhood countdown rhyme. What they used to say on the Rock, the Displacement Drive refugee ship that had been his home.
Five, four, three, time to flee.
Two, one, zero, nobody’s a hero.
Above him, the sky changed.
Aurora disappeared. Earth filled Matt’s entire point of view, its brilliant blue–white surface seemingly close enough to touch. The sun shimmered off waves in the oceans, and lightning flashed under cloud banks at the terminator between day and night. They’d Displaced directly into low Earth orbit.
Matt’s veins thrummed. He’d made it.
Here and there on Earth’s surface, splotches of gray concrete and sparkling glass marked sprawling cities. Broad highways traced spidery lines across the continent. It was like seeing close–up photos of Eridani, the first–settled and most–populous world in the Union. But unlike Eridani, many of the highways were broken and incomplete, as if they’d fallen into disrepair. Some of the cities on the night side of the terminator were only dimly lit or completely dark.
Matt frowned, gripped by sudden sadness. Earth was humanity’s first home, but time had passed it by. In the Universal Union, everyone knew the opportunities were on Eridani in politics, or Geos in technology, or Aurora in academia. You could have a quiet, comfortable life on one of a dozen second–tier worlds like Fedora or Epsilon. Or you could try to make it big on any of twenty frontier worlds, as long as you didn’t mind the chance of tangling with the Corsair Confederacy.
But Earth? Earth was an end. The only thing new on Earth was Mecha Training Camp. Or, more accurately, BioMecha Pilot Candidate Training Facility No. 1, a Division of Advanced MechaForms, Inc., a Universal Union Exclusive Contractor.
As the clouds shifted, three huge lakes in a clover–leaf pattern came into view. Matt realized what he was looking at: the continent of North America. Which meant that the ancient state of Florida should be in the Southeast.
Thick clouds piled on Florida’s eastern coast, and lightning flashed inland. Strange lightning. Green tinged, it shot horizontally through heavy mist.
With a start, Matt sat up straight. That wasn’t lightning. That was a battle.
That’s Mecha Training Camp.
Matt gulped, losing his breath in a rush of pure elation. That was where he was headed. That was what he was going to pilot a weapon powerful enough to be seen from orbit.
He watched green sparks arc through wispy clouds, crossing half the peninsula. That was several hundred kilometers! Were Mecha that fast? Mecha technology was the most carefully guarded secret in the Universal Union. Mecha didn’t march in parades. Mecha specs and capabilities weren’t released. Even the videos of Mecha taking out a Corsair terror cell in a sprawling frontier town were carefully edited.
Not that it mattered. They didn’t need heroic video or over–the–top propaganda. An invitation to Mecha Training Camp was one of the highest honors in the Universal Union, given across both civilian and military ranks. In the words of Union Congressperson Tomita, it was for the “most exceptional individuals, so we may build the most irresistible force.” Application to Mecha Corps began with an agreement to allow possibly decades–long surveillance and auditing of academic, military, or business records. From there, only a small percentage of candidates were chosen.
Matt stood up and shuffled back to the other side of the lock. He had a shuttle to catch and Mecha to learn. And he had the best reason in the universe to do it.
As Matt reached for the hatch, the air lock opened. Inside stood a figure wearing a crisp blue space suit. Across his chest, stark white letters read SECURITY. The man’s black utility belt held a stun stick, handcuffs, and a bright orange Spazer gun.
Matt’s stomach lurched, and he had time for one clear, resounding thought: I am in deep shit.
Then he saw the officer’s face. His eyes were wide and darting with fear, his jaw set in a grim line. White–blond hair only partially hid a rash of acne on his forehead. He wasn’t much more than high–school aged.
They sent the new kid, Matt thought. But that was dumb. Scared people did stupid things.
As if reading his thoughts, the guard leapt at Matt. The kid came at him like a linebacker going full bore at a quarterback, but one important thing was missing: gravity. And this kid had just jumped hard enough to escape the UUS Mercury’s microgravity.
Matt saw the perfect chance to dodge his misfortune. All he had to do was step out of the way of the security officer, slip back in through the air lock, and get on his shuttle. It wasn’t his fault the kid had decided to take a flying leap.
Matt stepped in front of the guard. He couldn’t let the kid go. That jump might be a one–way death trip into outer space, or a fiery plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.
The guard hit him like a hammer. Their helmets impacted with a resounding crack, and Matt’s feet came off the ground. The young man grabbed desperately at Matt as they tumbled over the surface of the UUS Mercury, slowly gaining altitude. Blue Earth and gray asteroid wheeled in Matt’s POV.
If the kid was frightened before, he was terrified now. His lips skimmed back over chattering teeth. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. He yelled at Matt, spittle spraying on his faceplate.
Matt cursed. It wasn’t his problem if the kid didn’t know how to use comms. Talking was pointless anyway. Their trajectory would take them close to the top of the bridge. With any luck, they’d hit it. That impact would sap their momentum and they’d fall back down to the surface.
It would be close. The bridge swelled in front of them. Inside, a crew member looked up from her screen, her mouth agape in surprise.
Matt stretched hard, but his fingers only brushed the edge of the bridge as they passed over it. That didn’t do anything except make their tumbling worse.
“Hey!” Matt’s comms crackled alive. The guard had finally found a clue.
Matt looked down. They were about ten meters off the asteroid and still rising. That was bad. That meant they probably weren’t coming down.
Matt turned on his comms. “What’ve you got to throw?”
“What?” the kid’s voice was high and screechy.
“Throw! Something to throw! To get us back down.”
The kid shook his head. “I—I don’t get it.”
Matt sighed. “This is microgravity. We have to slow down, or we’re going on a long trip in a space–suit spaceship.” Matt felt along his own suit, hoping the digger had left an anchor. There was nothing. “We need to throw something in the direction we’re going, or we aren’t going to come down. Heavy things. Got anything heavy?”
The kid shook his head. “I— Uh, I don’t know.”
Matt groaned. They didn’t have time for this. He pulled the stun stick off the guard’s utility belt.
“Hey! You’re under arrest!” the kid grabbed for the club.
“Let’s save ourselves now and talk about that later.”
The kid looked doubtful while Matt weighed the stick in his hand. It was heavy, but not nearly heavy enough to make a difference in the velocity of a 150–kilo mass. Unless he could launch it fast enough.
“Give me your belt,” Matt said.
“Because you don’t want to die.”
The kid pulled off his belt. Matt looped it through the wrist strap of the nightstick and twirled it over his head, like a video of an ancient cowboy about to rope a steer. He’d have to release it at exactly the right moment. That would be tough. They were still tumbling over the asteroid’s rough surface.
“Hold on,” he told the kid. “And don’t move.”
Matt threw the nightstick. It rocketed out toward Earth, disappearing almost instantaneously into the brilliance of the clouds.
He’d timed it well. They were falling slowly toward the surface of the UUS Mercury.
The guard saw it. “How’d you know to do that?”
“I learned a thing or two growing up on Displacement Drive ships.”
The kid nodded. He looked down at the surface, now only a few feet below them. They passed over a deep pit where a Rhino–class Union warship crouched. Dark gray and angularly utilitarian, it was intended for close–range combat in deep space. Lights glowed dimly through tiny, slit windows, deep–set under thick armor. Long gouges in its sides spoke of recent combat. Matt wondered where they’d been fighting. Some frontier world too insignificant to make the news? Or perhaps near one of the fleets of independent Displacement Drive ships?
It didn’t matter. Battleships were single–purpose machines, whether they were slow Rhinos or fast Cheetahs. The decisive victories, the ones people cared about these days, came on the ground, via Mecha. Mecha were the only things that could protect the tiny number of habitable worlds in the Union without the wholesale destruction of nuclear weaponry. Even the Corsairs weren’t insane enough to poison a valuable planet. Mecha were used when the fight mattered the most.
Matt and the kid grazed a rocky outcropping, spraying dust and rock chips in glittering, sunlit plumes. Matt pinwheeled his arms to change their orientation and dug his heels into the ground. More dust ballooned up as he brought them to a stop.
“You can let go of me now,” Matt said.
The kid blushed and released him, taking two unsteady steps away. He grabbed for his Spazer gun at his belt. Of course, the gun and his belt were both gone.
“I still, uh, have to arrest you,” he said.
Matt shook his head but said nothing.
“It’s dangerous, what you did. Against regulations.”
Matt could tell the guard that he’d been safe, that he’d done it before. He could remind him that he’d still be on an unplanned tour of outer space if it weren’t for Matt. But all that didn’t matter.
Only one thing mattered: Would this keep him out of training camp?
The kid found an air lock and escorted Matt down the passenger corridors to the security center. His Velcro–soled shoes scritched on the fuzz of the floor. Happy passengers dressed in bright tourist colors passed them with curious glances, heading toward their vacations on historic Earth.
The holo–posters in the hallways seemed to mock Matt. VISIT AMAZING WASHINGTON, DC, AND SEE THE FOUNDATION OF THE UNION CONSTITUTION one read, showing gleaming white marble buildings. ROME/ATHENS COMBO TOUR: SEE COLISEUMS, TEMPLES, CATACOMBS read another, which displayed fantastic ruins. DISCOVER ANCIENT CHINE: FORERUNNER OF TAIKONG LINGYO offered a third.
The security center was a large room carved directly out of the raw gray rock of the asteroid. Stainless–steel desks stood in rows, manned by blue–uniformed staff. On the far wall, a giant holoscreen streamed hundreds of video feeds from inside the UUS Mercury: docks, corridors, restaurants, rec rooms, bridge and command centers, even feeds showing the stony surface outside. Yellow icons floated over some of the feeds, calling out minor problems like lock malfunctions and suspicious behavior.
A large, red–faced man stomped up to meet them. He wore a blue uniform and an intricate badge that read UUS MERCURY SECURITY: LT A. HARPER.
“What the hell you think you’re doing, kid?” Harper shouted at Matt. “Trying to get yerself killed? Trying to get Pete here killed?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Matt said. “I didn’t mean—”
“You didn’t mean shit!” Harper bellowed. Everyone in the room turned to look at them. “We saw you bribing the digger—we got you on the vid! You knew what you were doing. And you meant to do it.”
“Look, sir. I really didn’t want any trouble. I shouldn’t have been out there, and I’m sorry. It’s just, well . . . You see, sir, I’ve got to get down to Earth.”
“Ha! Like hell you do!” Harper said. “Put Earth in your memory bank! You’ll be a digger the rest of your life right here on the ol’ Mercury!”
Matt’s stomach flipped. His chance at being a Mecha cadet was flying away like a paper airplane in a zero–G hangar.
“But . . .” Matt trailed off. What could he say? How could he justify it? NO EGRESS AT DISPLACEMENT. Simple as that. Stupid.
“But what? What you gonna tell me I don’t already know?” Harper picked up a glowing slate. “Rich kid from Aurora U thinks the rules don’t apply. Well, money ain’t a get–outta–jail–free card!”
“Sir, I’m not—” Matt’s anguish made his voice crack. “Look, I have to get down there! I’m going to training camp!”
“I don’t care where you—,” Harper began, then stopped himself. “Wait. What did you say?”
“I’m going to Mecha Training Camp.”
Harper went beet–red. “You’re a Mecha cadet?”
Harper glared at Matt, his expression shading to purple. “You got proof?”
Matt nodded. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the laser–etched holographic invitation. Gasps erupted in the room around him. Pete leaned over Matt’s shoulder to gape at the gilded e–sheet signed by Kathlin Haal, the Union’s Prime.
Harper snatched it out of his hands and ran it under a scanner. All color drained from his face as he read the screen.
“You’re a goddamn Mecha cadet.” Harper grated low and rough.
Matt nodded, afraid to say a single word. Was that good? Bad? Would Harper tear up his invitation and laugh at him? Would there be more penalties from the Mecha division itself?
Harper thrust the invitation back at Matt. “Go.”
Matt took the paper with numb fingers.
Harper nodded. “Get on the shuttle.” Then he blew out a big breath, all his anger gone. “Go save the Union.”
“Yes, sir!” Matt said.
“Just don’t pull any dumb shit like you did here,” Harper called after him.
Matt shook his head. No more dumb stunts. He smiled. He was a Mecha cadet, and the Universal Union needed him.
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