November 2799, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Milan Metrozone, EARTH
The Herc shuddered and stumbled in a blast of flame-tortured metal. Col spit off a curse and leaned hard to the left, trying instinctively to use his own body’s weight to regain balance. The thirty-five ton Herc didn’t respond to such a meaningless gesture, though, and continued to follow the laws of physics. Col managed to fire his lasers one more time before his whole world toppled over with a crash. The holoscreens flared and winked out, leaving him alone in a dead cockpit.
"Christ and Hunter," he mumbled, frantically flipping switches. Auxiliary power from backup cells cut in and the control panels flared to life once again. "Aww…no!" The status readout showed his Herc’s image colored completely scarlet, with the right side armament and leg completely gone. Power wavered at fifteen percent, shields were blown stone dead, and his left side weapons pod was only at thirty-percent capacity. A flash and a shudder illuminated his cockpit then, and the weapons pod vanished from the holo. Another flash and his view flicked to an impossible vantage. From about 100 meters overhead, Col watched helplessly as his Starblade exploded, taking him with it.
"Exercise terminated at thirty-seven point three seconds." The computer’s voice, a soft feminine contralto, sounded almost regretful. "Falcon Two, you have been destroyed."
"Tell me about it." The cockpit began to right itself quietly as the lights came on, revealing the smooth gray interior of a virtusim-training pit.
Blastblastblast! What the hell went wrong? I had him, damn it! Didn’t I?
"- suffered eighty-three centimeter penetration at central thorax, directly into the power plant. Surface temperature reached 1500 degrees Celsius, enough to vap-"
"Belay that." Col didn’t want to hear the grisly details. Damn computers, always too literal. Besides, he’d hear enough about this encounter, all right. Enough to make him sick. He punched the arm of his wombchair in frustration. Hunter’s bones!
The cockpit side popped open, and Col’s shockharness retracted into the wombchair with a chorus of snicks. As he levered himself out of the pit, Col was pleased to note his knees held up. The adrenaline rush of combat usually left him shivering for minutes afterwards. The pit closed softly behind him, a gray egg embedded in a metaplas housing containing datafeeds and kinetic replicator pods. His own personal domain, usually, but not today.
"You call that piloting, boy?" His Grace the Duke Leonidas Eun Alba stood in front of him, his face splotched with fury. A tall man with a regal sweep of graying hair and a finely trimmed beard, he wore a dark blue battleskin with the Imperial Angel blazing gold from the left shoulder, the family ship and stars gleaming silver on the right. His callsign was Lionback, sprung from his displays of terrible strength and ferocity.
Leonidas shook his helmet at Col. "That wasn’t piloting! That was stumbling! Like a drunken farmer pawing his maggoty wife! And that last shot into the hillside? I wasn’t anywhere near there, by good sweet Christ and holy Hunter! Nowhere! Aside from killing trees, you’re worthless! Worthless, damn your -"
"Father, I –"
"You dare to interrupt me? Drop and give me a hundred!"
"Now! Are your ears filled with pig scat? I said drop!" Leonidas hurled the helmet aside and struck Col hard across the face with his other hand. The helmet clattered somewhere off to the side. An ashen-faced tech stooped to pick it up, but Leonidas waved him off. "Leave it, damn you! Begone!" The tech and his assistant fled.
Face stinging, Col quickly got down and began the push-ups. The blow was only a warning that Father meant business. Col wondered how far it’d go. A hundred push-ups he could do easily, but there’d be more ass chewing, and then more push-ups. Then a hard twenty-kilometer run. At least. He gritted his teeth and tried to direct his resentment into his arms.
His father’s voice thundered over him. "Thirty-seven seconds! Fah! If this were real, you’d be dead now, boy. Dead and honorless." A boot thudded into Col’s ribs, startling him. The voice snapped out like a whip. "Keep up the pace! If you stop, I swear by Hunter I’ll kill you now. I’ll not tolerate the loss of honor, d’you hear? I’d sooner you die today rather than risk you disgracing the family!" Another kick, harder this time. Col grunted with pain, forced himself to continue pushing. It took serious effort not to jump up and strike back.
"Do you hear?" A boot stepped hard on his outstretched fingers. Pain.
Col stifled a yelp. "Yes, Father!"
"Yes, what?" Col’s fingers felt like they were being ground into the duracrete floor.
"Yes, Honored Father!"
The boot remained. It was all Col could do to keep doing push-ups. "You mocking me, boy?" Leonidas sounded quiet now, deadly. Col could feel the tension reach near the breaking point. His father had never blown this far before. Another kick nearly cracked a rib. Col resisted he almost overwhelming urge to cry out and leap to his feet. Rage was building in him now, and he struggled to contain it. His hand – damn it!
"How many push-ups is that, boy?"
"Twenty-nine… Honored… Father -!" Col had learned years ago never to lose count. A superior ability to divide one’s attention was among the most important components of Herc piloting, and all potential Knights practiced from an early age. Col could crack out push-ups or beta-drills forever while thinking through classwork, Herc weapons arrays, even girls. Right now he was trying to figure out his father’s temper. Why this beating, far harsher than any Col had received before?
"Agh…!" Col couldn’t help it. His fingers felt like they were ready to crack. He squeezed out the next push-up and bit down on his traitor tongue. You won’t scream, he told himself. Won’t. His vision blurred.
"So it hurts. Good! I mean it to, boy! Disgrace our name again, I’ll kill you with my own blade. You’ve had hundreds of hours of training. You’ve had the best instruction we can afford, the finest simulations Sung Industries makes. Another performance like today’s and I’ll not waste another Imperial credit!" Another kick, this time in the stomach. Col’s taut abdominal muscles soaked the impact harmlessly, but it still hurt. Worse, it threw off his push-up rhythm. The boot moved off his hand — finally. Relief sliced through the anger. Col wanted to curl up around his injured fingers, but that would be disastrous just now.
"Get up, boy."
His own temper flaring suddenly, Col executed another push-up. "Thirty-two," he gritted.
A brutal grip closed on his shoulder and hauled him to his feet. His father slammed him up against the curved surface of the pit. Cold metal pricked his throat. Leonidas held the combat knife easily but firmly, the point just over the carotid artery. Col knew the edge was sharp enough to cut silk in the air. It would slide into his flesh like butter.
"Never mock me, boy." His father’s voice was flat now, emotionless. Col had seen that look almost a year ago, just before Leonidas had challenged another Knight to a duel and killed her. He swallowed. His fingers throbbed.
"Papa!" A child’s voice chimed into the room. "What are you doing?"
Leonidas stepped back, his eyes still locked with Col, the knife still touching Col’s throat firmly. "I’m teaching your brother a lesson, Elena. A lesson about honor."
Elena Constanza Eun Alba walked up to them. She was young, about six years old, but she carried herself like a queen despite the rough work linens she wore this afternoon. With her curly black hair and delicate features, she promised to grow into a real beauty. She looked up at her father bravely. "Honor’s very important, Papa. I’m sure Col understands now."
Leonidas nodded slowly. "Yes. I agree, little one." He sheathed the blade fluidly and quietly, his attention remaining on Col.
"I agree Colossa has learned his lesson today." Leonidas stepped back, still regarding Col flatly. Col stood straight and tried to ignore his hand.
His father continued. "The Emperor has decreed a Century Tourney this coming winter. The Knight-candidates of all the great houses will be competing there. Including you, Colossa. Including the Sicano, the Hassan-Holzer, the Thau-Yuros, and many others. Your abilities will be measured against others of your age. Today’s performance was doubtless a… deviation from the norm." Leonidas smiled thinly. "You will not repeat it."
"No, Honored Father." Col’s chest felt tight and cold. So that was it! A Century Tourney. That explained a lot. The Emperor would be in attendance. And so would the Thau-Yuros, whom his father hated.
Elena piped up. "Mama wants you, Papa! She says she needs you to look at some horses!"
Leonidas nodded brusquely. "Very well." He ruffled Elena’s head absently as he withdrew. At the door he turned as if to say something, then changed his mind and simply left. Col and his sister listened to the footsteps dwindle away before either spoke.
"Does your hand hurt a lot?" Elena asked quietly.
"Your hand, silly. You’re holding it."
Col looked down. He was indeed cradling his injured hand against his stomach. When had he done that? "It’s alright, ‘Lena. I’ll take a Mederipil later."
Small, cool hands took his hand gently. Elena peered down at his fingers, then carefully turned the hand around. "You lost a fingernail," she said matter-of-factly. "The whole finger might be broken." She continued to examine the hand. "Why was Papa so angry?"
Col sighed and sank down to the floor with his back to the ‘pit. Elena looked down at him solemnly. "How much did you see, little star?" he asked.
She bit her lip. "A little." Her voice hid a hint of tears. "A lot...."
He gathered her in his arms. "Ahh, glitches. Don’t cry, ‘Lena. Don’t." He felt her holding it in and pride swelled in him at her strength. "Shh. It’s all right, little star. Big brother just had a bad day in the pit."
She looked up at him, wet-eyed. "When I saw him tromp on your hand, I thought you were going to get up and hit him, Colly. I did."
Col smiled at her use of her pet name for him. It always reminded him of a sheepdog. "I almost did," he admitted, hugging her.
"I’m glad you didn’t." Her voice was muffled now, her hair soft on his neck.
"Me too." Leonidas would have killed him, could have accomplished it easily. Col was sure of that much. If the Thau-Yuros were going to be there – well, that explained a lot of it. Count Delos Thau-Yuros and Col’s father hated each other beyond measure, and that hatred was well on its way to being passed on to the next generation. Col had met the Thau-Yuros brat Titus exactly twice. Titus was a few years older and acted like he was a Knight already. They’d disliked each other independently of their fathers’ feud, so it wouldn’t take much to start one of their own. Col looked forward to such a development. It would give him someone else to hate besides his father.
"Papa shouldn’t have gotten so mad, Colly."
"It’s honor, ‘Lena. He’s afraid I’ll screw up and hurt the family name."
She got off his lap and sat down next to him, holding his hand – the uninjured one, thank Hunter. "You won’t," she said simply.
"I know." Suddenly he felt really tired. And he still had an evening run to do. The push-ups would wait. The question came back to haunt him now that things had calmed down. Where had he gone so wrong in the V-sim?
"Honor’s important, isn’t it?" Elena’s question broke into his thoughts.
"Yeah, little star, it is. It’s the most important thing in the world. Without honor, there’s no life." Hunter’s knobs, he sounded just like his father!
"I think there’s something more important."
Col snorted. "Yeah? Like what, o’ queen of wisdom?"
"Love," she said importantly. "Love’s bigger than honor."
A smile stretched over Col’s face. "Honor is love, little star," Col said gently. "Love of family, love of self. Honor’s everything. Everything. Love is nothing without it."
"I love you, big brother. Does that mean I honor you, too?"
Col laughed. He didn’t feel as tired now. "It does, squirt! And I love you too!" Col stood and lifted Elena up onto his shoulder with his good hand. "Now why don’t we walk down to the orchard. I bet Fra Girofino will let us steal a couple of peaches before I go for my run."
He looked back at the silent shell of the pit as they left the room. I’ll be back for you later, he promised silently.
* * *
The Starblade was an obsolete class of Herc, a middleweight carrying a standard loadout of paired laser cannon, a light autocannon, and a six-rack of missiles. It was damn sluggish compared to newer models like the Talon, but it made a good all-around trainer, which was why his pit sessions concentrated on using it. You had to learn about energy budgets and ammo conservation, as well as deal with the Herc’s limited mobility and defensive vulnerabilities.
Col ran through the recording of the day’s pit run for what felt like the hundredth time. Step out of the startpoint and around the stand of forest. Hill sloping up on the left, river on the right. Radar showing nothing, no heat signs – then the motion sensor picking up a trace in the rock formation. The valley had been downloaded from scans of Val’Carzano, about sixty kilometers from the Eun Alba manor. The family had a villa there, and Col remembered hunting in the woods there as a child. Now, however, the familiar scene had an entirely different feel.
There! His father’s Armiger came out of the rocks, darting for the cover of a sharp ridge about 300 meters away. Col linked, locked and fired the lasers while urging the Starblade into a lumbering run. The Armiger was smaller but swifter, armed with a twin four-racks and a single laser cannon. Col’s laser bursts lanced in and vaped the dorsal missile pod, and Col remembered feeling triumph at seeing the Armiger’s right leg trail a flare of sparks as well. Now he just shook his head. A missile volley, fired too eagerly, exploded harmlessly on the rocks as his father dodged the limping Armiger behind them.
Col froze the sim. This was the crucial time. What had happened, exactly? His father was piloting a smaller Herc with impaired mobility and reduced weapon capability. Col, on the other hand, was undamaged, with plenty of weaponry and armor. How had his father done it so quickly? Radar still showed no other hostiles, no snipers came up on the heartbeat scan, no unusual heat signs. He sighed and unfroze the scene reluctantly.
His father’s Herc popped up on the other side of the ridge, fired a single missile and a couple of zaps from the laser cannon. Suddenly Col was losing control, his Herc status blazing red everywhere, then his shameful fall into the hillside. He’d flamed a tree with that last laser shot, true. Chalk one kill up, at least. After that, Father had simply finished him with the laser.
How had Father done it? Theoretically, the laser and the missile could breach some weak point in the Herc’s defenses to cause a near-instant kill, but that would suggest a cockpit hit – which didn’t happen here. Plus the damage radiated up from the legs, which would account for the massive loss of control. The missiles shouldn’t have penetrated the shields, but the shields went before the missiles hit -
Waitaminute! The legs…. The answer had been there all the time! Delayed detonation proximity mines. His father had added a different twist to the program, picked out familiar ground, set a trap. And Col had run straight into it, guard down. He hadn’t even run a magscan. Father must have dropped the mines and set them for cascade detonation triggered by concussion. The Armiger’s missile would have set off the entire cluster right under the Starblade’s feet, where the shields offered no protection.
Col felt his face heat. Father had been right. He’d been an idiot. It’d have been better to move to higher ground and wait for the Armiger to offer another target opportunity for the Starblade’s missiles or lascannons. Then, once he’d been hit, Col had continued to charge ahead blindly for a couple of seconds, offering a perfect target. He hadn’t even attempted a new target lock!
He exited the pit and leaned dejectedly by the doorway. Hunter’s knobs, how could he have been so careless?
"Young Lord," came a mild voice from the shadows.
Col snapped into a defensive crouch, slipping a knife from his sleeve. He could call out to the manor security system, if he had time. Guards would be here quickly. Fully automated systems were, of course, never used. No one would ever trust his or her security completely to a computer.
A chuckle. "You can put the sticker away, young Eun Alba. It wouldn’t help, anyway."
"Name," Col switched the knife to his other hand. "Come out and name yourself."
A lean man wearing a Knight’s duty uniform sauntered around the nearest row of V-sim units and walked up to Col breezily. "Danzig. Riet Danzig, Knight-Prime. Callsign Bedlam." He had thinning hair and a scarred face that spoke of years of hard living. He smiled. "Your father sent me."
Col straightened and relaxed. The manor security system still didn’t react, so this fellow must be on the persona grata list. "Father sent you? What for?"
Danzig’s foot snapped out suddenly and sent Col’s knife clattering away. Before Col could react, Danzig took him down in a blur of motion, slamming his face into the duracrete.
"Because, lad, you’re in need of some bloody serious training changes. Lionback’s afraid he’ll lose his temper again and kill you before you learn." Danzig coughed. "Y’needn’t worry about that on my account, though. Not bloody likely." He chuckled. "That is, I’ll never lose his temper."
Col smelled Danzig’s breath, a spice of smoke and beer. Danzig breathed his next words in Col’s ear, articulating carefully. "But mistake me not. You’ll learn, by Jesus and the Hunter. You’ll just wish I’d kill you before we’re done."