No Way Back – Chapter 11 – Posted 08APR2010

A-HA!  I got it proof-read, then finished and re-worked a day ahead of schedule!  And, boy, is it a long one!

And, without any further ado, here’s Chapter 11! 

Chapter 11

The screen’s landing cut-scene comes to an abrupt end, showing my Bot discarding its orbital entry armor, and landing with a whine and a whirr amongst the trees, and finally swinging the camera behind my Bot, through its rear armor and into the cockpit.

I smile as I feel myself falling into my usual play habit, which is to zone out of the rest of what’s going on. I might as well be sitting in that cockpit myself with a yoke, paddles, and keyboard for its controls. I twist the yoke’s grip to make sure that my controller is registering the input, the most common controller failure I’ve ever encountered with this system. When the Bot reacts as planned, twisting its upper body with the yoke’s movement, I knew I was ready.

I look up at the HUD’s radar display, and see the expected ghosts, shadows, and pings from the trees I’d landed in. This was going to be a hide-and-seek match, and I welcoming it. I bring up the map, which shows the position of my Bot in relation to the game’s map. Most of the planets in the game were small enough to be divided into four maps, but the one she’d chosen was the largest planet in the game, and took eight maps to show its entire size, and our engagement area was in four of them. Quite a distance to cover, but it made for a very interesting game when it was amongst people who were looking for a fight. This configuration was usually used for four-teams of up to 5 Bots, making the action usually much faster. But, one-on-one? This could be hours.

“Come find me,” she teased over the intercoms.

I tap the microphone key, bringing my own mike to my lips. “Oh, so, you’re hiding now?”

“Not quite. But we’ve got a long way to cover. I hope you’re ready for me.”

“Less, I’ve been ready for you for a long, long time. Too bad you were too busy to try me.” I throw the throttle up on the controller base, moving my Bot at about half-speed. Any terrain I damaged would leave a trail right to me, and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I also refused to fire my jump jets. I wasn’t about to give away my position that easily.

It appeared that she was thinking the same thing, because I caught no tell-tale signs of motion from a heavy machine, just the static, ghosts, and false images from the trees. “Oh, come on, you know that I really like you.”

“No, really, I don’t,” I reply, my voice showing my irritation at her assertion. “You treat me like a brother, always at arm’s length.”

That seems to get her attention. “I… I…,” she stammers, trying to think of the right word to say. The next thing I hear is a loud curse over the communications channel. “Damn it, Robert, I just didn’t want to be hurt by anyone. We’re friends, and I didn’t want to lose that.”

I recognize the reasons for concern in the area, with the landing points usually surrounded by heavy foliage. Odds are, the curse came from her slamming into one of the area’s plants. I smile, then bring my targeting reticule upwards and launch one of the probes I was carrying. It is detectable, but only if they’re looking for it. It doesn’t show up on radar, even on a clear map, but if you see it, you can target it, and it’s virtually armor-free. Within seconds, the radar display filters, and I get a clearer overhead view of the area two and a half kilometers our from my Bot. “Oh, Less, I didn’t realize that I made you feel that way. I wish there was some way I could have known that. Oh, there was! You should have told me! We could have talked about it, Less, there was no reason for the game.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice is strangely honest. Her tone surprises me, but I don’t let that implication distract me. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d let her words throw me off. “What if I tell you that I’ve always been interested in you? That you’re the one I’ve been holding out for. Robert, I could have had so many other people. But I chose to wait for you. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

I keep moving through the forested planet, carefully avoiding the small and medium sized tree trunks as I let the overhead scout do its work. I hear the sounds of the wood, the crunching of the grass, the sway of the wind through the trees, and I know I’m not being tracked yet. I turn my Bot into a new direction and carefully track towards another map. “It would have, had you bothered actually trying something. I told you, Dannielle and I are dating now.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t have any kind of a chance, Robert. And I’m sorry for making you try so hard.” She almost sounds desperate, yet still quietly in control of how she’s feeling. “Look, let’s just try it, one way or another. I don’t care if you win, Robert, I want you to take me out and I want it to be with you.”

“No.”

She sighs in the microphone, then goes quiet. Instead, I hear the sound of a laser blast forcing its way through the trees at a distance. My drone picks up a heat signature, just outside of the border of this map and into the next one. I turn hard and make toward the direction of the weapons fire and press on at half speed. I know it’s another tactic to lure in a combatant, especially in this kind of arena, since that kind of infrared is hard to cover, even at great distances. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of an option, and needed to get closer to let my scout drone accurately track the heat signature from her Bot.

— —

She fired off her heavy laser, partly in irritation, partly as part of her surrendering to her need to go home. She didn’t want this anymore. She was pretending that she was interested in him so he’d still continue with his training. His practice. She needed him to be in tip-top form, or they would reject him as a suitable trade.

So, why, then, did it feel real to her? Why, then, did her plan to hurry this though feel like a betrayal of her own feelings?

Chi’bi angrily shoved the thought away. That kind of thinking was for the weaker person. Granted, she had to feign being weaker than she was, but that was all according to the plan already in motion. He was ready for the transfer off-world. She was ready to have her Djarn back. She wanted this nightmare over. She sat for a moment, letting her now hot cannon cool, and began plotting her next move. He’d surely be coming. Sitting in one spot too long would be a dead giveaway about her surrendering. It was fine to sit for a moment, planning, setting traps. This time, however, she’s not setting anything that would be too damaging to his Bot. She’d need to put out some fire, make it look real, but she needed to fail. Her armor, while still the proper weighting, was positioned slightly differently, leaving a slightly more exposed engine housing, torso, and cockpit, but leaving her legs and arms capable of taking one hell of a beating. She looked over the condition of her systems, already knowing that she was in perfect condition, but wanted a reason to wait another moment. She turned her Bot and slowly began picking a path between the tree trunks.

Her waiting to be discovered came to an end before she was actually ready for it, as she took a weakened long-range laser blast to her Bot’s left arm. Without any kind of scanning setup on her Bot, outside of her standard radar, it was very difficult to gauge where the blast came from, but she turned anyway, hoping that any other rounds would strike her in another area, getting an idea of his position. She smiled as another blast slammed into the rear armor of her Bot. She turned the opposite direction, and was rewarded with another two blasts to her front, but finally managed to see the actual shot as it struck her. She smiled, then opened fire in return of where she was getting hit from. She didn’t think she’d actually scored a hit, but fired off her blasters in slightly varied angles. “Lucky shot,” she growled into her mike, then punched up and jumped out of the tree canopy. No sooner had she taken to the skies was she met with the precision-tracked fire of long-range missiles. Not only did she see where they fired from, but she realized that she hadn’t expected him to switch to a scout probe! She scanned the sky, simply taking the bursts from the missiles, each one doing more damage than the previous, and found her target, the flying probe. She quickly brought her medium-range lasers to bear and destroyed the targeting drone. As she lowered herself back into the canopy, she brought her Bot hard right, aiming not quite away from Rob’s war machine, but more perpendicular to his route, hoping to throw off his expected routes. She threw the throttle to full and began a dash forward, running down the smaller plants and trees, and leaving a heavy path. Not the most dignified exit, but it was needed to make some room between his Bot and her own.

“Where do you think you’re going? Still trying to be difficult?” His voice sounded unusually powerful, even for him. She’d been on the receiving end of a surprise hammering from him before, but never did it seem so determined, so strongly executed. She was impressed by the tenacity in his attack, and it made her glad to see that he wasn’t letting up, even though he felt there was nothing to gain.

She cleared her throat, deciding to not allow her pride in her handiwork show. “Well, since when do you waste your weapons load-out on a spy probe?”

“Since I needed a leg-up on you.”

“Not going to help now, is it?”

“Don’t need it to, I’ll be able to finish it on my own.”

She dropped her speed and cut left between some larger trunks, setting up for a return. She knew he didn’t have much of a choice, he’d need to trail her, and she’d be ready for him. She cut her engines and dumped the emergency cooling reservoir into her system. She needed to run cold to strike him back, and that burst of speed had her systems running rather hot. She held her hand from the controls for a moment, then activated the control to drop her Bot into a crouch, planning on using the shade from the trees to hide her combat rig. Then, she waited, her options rather limited at the moment, because she wouldn’t have the ability to just take off if she was caught, her unit in the crouch it was.

She was rewarded shortly after with a slowly-moving opponent. It was obvious that he was expecting the launching of her own surprise attack on him. She watched, controlling her impulse to hammer him as he walked into the end of the valley she’d left in her escape. As he slowed to a crawl, she pressed a key on her board, slaving all her weapons to a single trigger-pull. She watched as the Bot slowed to a crawl, turning slowly towards her bot. She eyed her damage display on her Bot, knowing that she could take a few hits, but the missile hits she’d suffered had damaged her armor severely, and a well-placed heavy blast to the engine housing would end her round before she was ready. It almost looked as if she was trying to lose, and she couldn’t have it be obvious that she was.

She held her breath, watching the Bot’s virtually undamaged cannons point directly at her cockpit. It paused for just a moment, and she expected the cannon to open fire. She waited another few seconds, and it began turning away from her, re-centering, then looking the opposite direction. She exhaled hard, then laughed into the microphone as she smacked the crouch control, bringing her Bot to a stand. No sooner had she done so did she see his Bot attempt to bring itself back around. She pulled the trigger, unleashing a powerful barrage of weaponry at very near proximity, meaning there wasn’t a single shot that missed. Several medium and long ranged lasers, and two racks of medium-ranged missiles slammed into his Bot, knocking it off balance and sending it tumbling to the ground, bouncing off of larger trunks and crushing or snapping smaller ones. She didn’t wait to see if it was a critical hit, and hit the jumpjets, quickly tearing off and repositioning herself to get ready for her planned hard run at him, the plan to miss the important strikes and have his targeting hit her, knocking her out for the final shot.

The part she hadn’t expected, however, was his landing. His Bot slammed to a stop against a large tree, then fell to the earth, but aimed upwards into the air. He quickly aimed at her Bot and fired from the hip, since he didn’t have the time to target her machine. The blast was not the flawless hit he’d hoped for, but managed to catch her war construct in the leg, destroying two of the four jumpjets on the machine, and sending her to the ground before she knew what was happening. Before he pressed the keystrokes to right his downed Bot, he fired off the second spy. He knew she discovered the first, but no one carried a second. He stood, then quickly disappeared into the woods again, effectively hiding him again as she landed hard.

She snarled in frustration into the mike, and was responded to with a strange laugh. She turned her Bot around to see that, not only had he stood, but had already moved. She growled, moving quickly towards where she’d dropped his Bot, and into the woods, moving quickly in hopes that he had simply gone slow and stealth through the trees. As she re-entered the undamaged tree line, she was surprised by the targeting warning tone, and a radar signature from behind. She began to quickly bring her Bot around, but, it was too late. The first two missiles catch her back, another three hit her right arm, another two catch her right leg, and one slipped past and into the left leg. The remaining four, however, managed to slam into her engine cowling, shattering the armor, and cracking the engine block.

She watched as the auto-eject sequence began, and the screen showed her damaged Bot surrounded by explosions, then changing to a brighter, much larger explosion, taking the rest of the Bot with it. She smiled, looking at the screen, showing her long-awaited loss. He had fulfilled the requirements that he was unaware of, and she was ready to turn him over.

— —

I won.

I watch the ensuing destruction, seeing the machine’s engine go critical and showering the area with components. I simply can’t believe it. That drone showed her hard drive towards his previous position, and he simply jump jetted over the trees, leaving a clear shot towards her rig. I quickly targeted and fired his missiles, being just outside of the minimal safety range. I expected to miss, or for her to have kind of defense. I suppose there was no time for defense. It’s just… Strange….

“So, you beat me.” The smile and happiness behind her voice through the microphone is unmistakable. “When would be best to go?”

I’m left stunned. I actually managed to finish the round. Not only had I done so while suffering minimal damage, which would only cost me a few thousand credits instead of the normal hundreds of thousands, but I had beaten her! I feel my heart pounding, and I’m barely able to savor the victory before the loud voice in the back of my head pipes in: “But you’re already with Dannielle.”

“I… I…,” comes my stuttered response, no longer needing to hold down the chat key, since we’d already exited the arena. “Allessa….”

“Well? When do you want to go out with me, Rob? I’m yours. Claim your prize.” She sounds so excited, so honest, as if she’d been waiting for this moment for a long time.

“But, what about Dannielle? What am I going to tell her?”

The tone of her voice surprises me. It’s harsh, almost as if I’d insulted her. “Don’t tell her. We’re friends, we can hang out if we want to. Besides, you told me it would be just the one time. I’m gonna have to make it count.”

I look at the calendar in my dropship’s display. It’s Saturday night, so we could go tonight. But, I decide I need some time to think about the whole thing. “How about Friday night? Eight o’clock, after school. We can go have something to eat.”

“Sounds perfect! Oh, I have to get things ready! I’ll see you later, Rob. I can promise you one thing though. It’s going to be a night that you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.” Then, she’s gone, signing off of the game.

I stare blankly at my computer screen, slowly lifting off the headset. I’m going out with Allessa. She’s finally giving me the opportunity I’d wanted for years. I smile, knowing that I can have my one time with her, and then be happy with Dannielle. No more games. No more hiding. Allessa will be the friend she always wanted to be, and I’d finally have a chance at happiness.

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