CTF 2187: Choices, Changes, Challenges
Copyright © 2002 By Shannon Muir
"Thank you all for coming here this evening," Sisters of Silicon team commander Femme Fatale announced from the performance stage at the popular bar Lazer's, addressing a packed house. "Tonight, I'm proud to celebrate the continued perseverance of the Sisters of Silicon by announcing a brand new subteam, the Women of Weaponry. Made up of Arena veterans who have earned awards and honors, we want to recognize the best of the best. Help me welcome these brave women, led by Lieutenant Colonel Lauraic Vileslayer."
The audience broke into applause as Lauraic Vileslayer led four other women on to the stage: one slender and Middle Eastern, with a blond rotund woman on her heels; a weathered Russian female; and a reserved, European medium-build woman with dark hair and eyes. Femme announced each of their nom de guerres in turn: "And now, meet some of our shining stars -- Lela, Kibitz, Tatiana Romanov, and Ssella Doomstalker!"
Derrick Deathex watched his sister announce from the stage. His attention was so transfixed on the stage he nearly missed hearing someone whisper in his ear: "Mind if we join you?" He turned to see that the person was Derrick's friend Damian Blackheart, accompanied by his longtime pal Richard Shadowhand.
"Glad to see you both fare well," Derrick Deathex told his friends as they joined him at the table. Now of The Line, both of these men originally had been with a short-lived team called Blackdeath, which Derrick briefly had also been affiliated with.
Meanwhile, Femme summed up her speech on stage. "The Sisters of Silicon pledge to continue to be the first and foremost female team in the Arenas. We're scheduled to appear in several upcoming Arenas soon. Again, thank you for coming and good night!"
Damian leaned over and tried to speak to Derrick Deathex through the applause's drowning thunder.
"Not going to say anything about your and HAL's big announcement?"
Derrick sternly put a finger to his lips.
"Oh," Damian said, surprised, as the applause died off. "You mean Richard and I are the only ones that know?"
"Helen's father doesn't even know yet. We have our reasons."
"Well, get around to it soon," Richard added in. "Before we slip and say something ourselves."
From across the room, they heard the sounds of a young woman's protests.
"Let go of me, you jerk!"
The three men turned in the direction of the sound. Damian drew a sharp breath.
"That Gorrik Vileslayer. How did they ever let him in the Arenas?"
Derrick hurriedly got up from the table.
"I do hate to cut our reunion short, my friends, but I have to deal with this."
"Don't they have bouncers to do that?" Derrick heard Richard whisper to Damian as Derrick stormed off. "You have a bigger beef with Gorrik and you're sitting still."
"Believe me," Damian seethed. "I want to get up and join in. But the best way to honor Dorian and my father is to keep it cool and play it straight."
Derrick barged through the onlookers to confront the man holding a young Pilot-in-training by her arm. Another woman, slightly older, and a young man of similar age fled the scene together.
"E.C. Vileslayer and Johnathan Blaze," Derrick hissed under his breath. "I can't believe she's hanging around with those people." Then as he got closer and recognized the man as Lauraic's Vileslayer cousin, Gorrik, who hadn't been in the Arenas since #283.
"Gorrik Vileslayer! Let go of her this instant!" Derrick barked at him.
The pilot with grungy long brown hair and a goatee pushed the young woman away.
"Tease," he grumbled and stalked off towards the doorway. Two military police bouncers blocked his path, each taking an arm as they led him off.
Derrick asked the young lady, "Did he hurt you, Candidate?" using the formal form of address given to Academy students, as the young lady examined a gash in her clothing caused by Gorrik grabbing at her clothes.
"He ripped my friggin' uniform!" she said, tossing her ebony black hair back and turning to face Derrick Deathex. Immediately, she gasped and covered her mouth.
"More worried about your clothes than trying to explain to your father what you're doing here, Candidate Wright? I believe you are supposed to be studying for finals."
"It was my friend E.C.! She dared me to sneak in with her!" Kristi Wright protested as she turned to point an accusing finger at... empty air.
"Some friend. It appears Candidate Vileslayer left you in the lurch, along with Candidate Johnathan Blaze. I'm sure his father will like hearing about this."
"I can't believe that creep she tried to introduce me to! What was she thinking?"
"That creep is her stepbrother, Gorrik. And I think the question you should be asking is what were you thinking?"
Derrick started to lead Kristi toward the stage. She tried to kick him in the shin but Derrick easily dodged.
"Where are you taking me?" she demanded.
"Since your mother is currently in an Arena, and I currently do not know who your instructor is, I am going see that your father deals with you."
With that, Derrick pulled Kristi along towards the side of the stage, where Femme Fatale spoke with the new Women of Weaponry members who had attended the public gathering.
"Excuse me, but do you need your eyes checked? That's not my father."
"My sister has his on-call number. He served as her physician back in Arena #218 after a nasty ejection, which I believed you were aware of."
"Who cares? She's just one of Dad's many patients."
Femme saw Derrick and Kristi approaching and waved them over eagerly to where she, her best friend Helen Annie Lynne Mayne, and the newly introduced Women of Weaponry had gathered. The eagerness faded, however, when she saw Kristi's reluctance.
"Seems we have a young lady who snuck out of studying for finals, and nearly got in trouble tussling with Gorrik Vileslayer. Could you perhaps help me contact her father?"
"You know your father's going to be heartbroken to hear about this. You mean the world to him."
"You're not my mother," Kristi spat at Femme. "So don't bother looking out for me."
Just then, an unrecognized female voice said, "Guess we've got a couple fathers to track down here."
Everyone turned to see a tomboyish woman with a blond spiky haircut, accented by indigo blue highlights, dragging a young man in his late teens and wearing a Candidate uniform, towards the gathered group. The young man yelled and screamed up a storm, threatening great things to come down on the woman if she did not let him go.
"I don't think you should be handling a Candidate that way, or you could get in a bit of hot water yourself," pointed out H.A.L Mayne. "He is the son of Ambassador-Major General Blaze."
"I've always had to handle my baby brother like this. He's always been a pain in the arse, haven't you John?"
Femme took a second look at the woman.
"You're looking at her. Indigo Girl, if you ask around the Arenas. Kept myself out of sight since I chickened and bailed in 295, so I understand losing track of me. Anyway, I nabbed John here trying to cut through the ladies gym showers and gave Dad a ring. He'll be here like ASAP, so he can help you out with this other troublemaker too. Unfortunately, that annoying Vileslayer girl got away. She's the worst, if you ask me."
Femme turned to Derrick.
"We'll take care of this. Thank you, brother. Now go enjoy yourself."
Derrick headed for the doors; as much as he wanted to cheer his sister on he'd had enough for one evening. As he approached the doors, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I don't know if I should say thank you or not, for what you did for Fran."
Derrick turned to see the buzzcut blond hair and deep blue eyes of Racubus Sterling, his sister's former husband.
"She's holding up fantastic, isn't she?" Racubus asked Derrick.
"As well as one can, after suffering all she has. I do not think the word fantastic is appropriate."
"I hope the new man in her life is bringing her what I couldn't."
Racubus pointed down by the stage, where Dr. Lawrence Wright arrived to retrieve his daughter from the company of Femme Fatale.
"Dr. Lawrence Wright is Francine's physician," Derrick reminded Racubus. "Due to their professional backgrounds, the idea that she would allow any interest to develop is ridiculous."
"Are you that naive, Derrick? Love and fascination are greater than rules and logic. Just ask Helen Mayne. Her, me, and Fran were friends for years, and yet she managed to develop a crush on me though my feelings for Fran were obvious!"
Derrick stood stoically, not responding.
"You telling me you didn't know that? I may be out of this game now, but you came in late. Better go get the highlight reel, Derrick."
"Do you really believe that you are doing me a favor?"
"You saved my life, man. I owe you that much, despite it all."
Derrick exited into the main hallway, leaving behind the man whose life he saved at the hands of Ryker Lorne and his crony Victor Cartwright. Back then, Racubus Sterling was his newly-discovered sister's beloved; now, the same man was her former husband after the elder daughter of Victor Cartwright infiltrated the Sisters of Silicon, and betrayed the trust between husband and wife.
That was why he dared not share his own life-changing news with his sister, not yet.
"How much longer must we wait?" Derrick practically pleaded to Helen as she visited him in the Deathex family compound he still maintained. "I want this place to be the home that we share. I want to announce to the world that you are my wife."
"We already agreed, not until we think Fran can handle it. And things have just been so intense for her. That's why we secretly got married in the Southern Lands after Arena 354 . Enough about the serious stuff though. How do you think Fran did with the whole presentation thing?"
"I believe there is a saying, 'Don't give up your day job.'"
HAL playfully pouted.
"It was not that bad, seriously, but the Sisters are meant to fight, not be stage entertainers," Derrick told her. "By the way, I saw Rus Sterling there tonight."
"Oh?" she replied, not sounding terribly interested. "I didn't notice him."
"He said something very intriguing. Did you really have an attraction to the man at one point?"
"I don't think it's really all that important," she said, snuggling up next to him. "After all, you have me. And as you've said, the past is the past, right?"
Helen reached over and kissed Derrick before he could respond.
Back at his office, long after having left Helen Annie Lynne Mayne Deathex at her separate apartment, Derrick began to run searches in his extensive network of databases containing a wealth of data obtained by less than orthodox means by the Deathex family over generations. He still hadn't told his wife that his computer systems weren't destroyed; perhaps she just assumed so. She'd never asked. Nor had she asked who had been in his life before her. Then again, he'd never bothered to ask if anyone had been in her life before him either.
I would not have seen myself as one to be blinded, Derrick thought to himself as he punched in search parameters. But at least I am removing the veils from my own eyes dispelling fantasy and myth before it is done for me
H.A.L. had thrown the spear of truth back in his face, even in the midst of her love. Derrick had insisted to her before that the past is the past, as he'd tried to reshape his with his newfound sister. Yet, he could not kick the addiction of the power of knowledge by less-than-legal means.
And what if he couldn't convince her to move in to the Deathex stronghold with him, once they publicly were together? What then?
Even if she did agree, Derrick realized he hadn't even thought ahead to how he would reveal this place to his wife.
He called up the details of the Arena where he and his now wife had met as foes, Arena 115. Derrick scanned over the list of his own former teammates, some of which no longer lived, including Lauraic's distant cousin Loric Vileslayer. Then he checked out who his wife's teammates had been, and stopped upon finding a name he hadn't seen in ages, but one he knew his remaining underworld contacts could locate for him: SLEDGE HAMMER.
Derrick Deathex sipped his last bit of cocoa in a Swiss Sector ski lodge as a face he couldn't forget but hadn't seen in ages entered. Sledge Hammer -- born Sven Hamer -- once leader of the Hornets subteam of the Washington State Pilots (WASP), now taking on the challenge of the slopes. Sledge's brawny Nordic heritage made him prominently stand out, even in a crowd where by all rights he should have blended in.
"Greetings, Sledge," Derrick called out, catching the elder Pilot off-guard.
"What are you doing crashing my vacation, Deathex you cretin?" Sledge grumbled. "And how did you track me down?"
"I will address the second part first. Someone like you should not be surprised as to what kind of resources the Deathex family has as its disposal. As to locating your whereabouts, your trail proved not to be challenging, after disappearing from the Arenas after 136. Filed a lung disability claim after the contest, paid off a physician to sign that you needed to move to the mountains and recuperate. What I don't understand is why the authorities have not seen through you. They must not be putting much effort into verifying your claim. What I do know is that your funds are running low, Sledge Hammer, because you can only buy off so many physicians. What ruse will you execute next?"
"Because of your Deathex blood, you think you know it all, eh? Blackmail and high treason in the genes. Tell me this, if you know so much, why are you here to get the 411 on one woman? Can't your deep connections tell you squat?"
"There's no record of why Helen came to WASP. Or why the group took her on."
"Hey, we were desperate. And that hurt girl jilted by her boyfriend came in talking the talk, though as we all saw that wimpy child couldn't walk the walk."
"You've been gone too long. That wimpy 'child' is a Lieutenant General, one step away from being the first full General in the modern Arenas."
Sledge Hammer drew a sharp breath.
"You haven't heard the kickers. I'm a member of WASP. After you came here to 'recuperate,' I was accepted. Not to mention, so was the guy that hurt Helen's feelings. She's all over that now. In fact, for a while he was married to my sister."
An overwhelmed Sledge took a seat.
"Now when did you go off and get a sister?" he asked, puzzled.
"You've been gone a long, long time. I'll tell you that story if you tell me what it was like serving with HAL Mayne in Arena 115. You don't, and I'll squeal. I carry a lot of clout these days."
"What's it matter to you? Why put out your neck to find all this out?"
"You do not strike me as the marrying kind," Derrick replied. "But if you were married, and opportunity arose, would you not be slightly interested in finding out more about your wife?"
Derrick expected another snide comeback from Sledge, but all he got in return was a strong dumbfounded stare. Sledge shook his head like a dazed boxer and then began to talk.
Derrick and HAL held each other for a long moment in the Pre-Game preparation room. This would be their first fight as husband and wife.
"It feels so strange," H.A.L. told him. "I mean, we've fought alongside each other before. But this is different, somehow."
"I know," he told her. "But we must release each other now, before 'Guns' or anyone else gets here. We're already on the security cameras, who knows what gossip spreads already."
Derrick and HAL separated and straightened their uniforms.
"After this Arena, may we take a breather?" Derrick asked HAL. "I am very worn out these days, always on the move it seems."
"We just took a fairly good break, not a huge one. You mean you want more of a honeymoon, right? Maybe the Swiss Sector. I love the slopes there."
Derrick turned on HAL before he even realized what he was doing.
"Do not speak of this now, Helen. Some other time. Besides, I've just been to the Swiss Sector. Skiing is bad right now."
Derrick noticed HAL throwing an inquisitive look his way.
"You said you had some urgent business to take care of, when you could have taken me there for a honeymoon and gotten business done? What were you doing there?"
"This is not the time."
"I'm married to you. Make time. This is about us, our future."
"There was just someone it was important I speak with."
HAL stepped in closer to Derrick.
"Most business that gets done in the Swiss Sector is high class under-the-table dealings. You're still tied up in that? Oh, Derrick."
"It was just some information, nothing more."
"You don't need to know."
"I'm your wife. I need to know. Your problems are mine too."
Derrick sighed and shook his head.
"Please remember, you demanded this. As your husband, I felt compelled to independently confirm some information Racubus Sterling had given me, about you and feelings you had for him. Sledge Hammer, your old commander, was in the Swiss Sector."
Derrick looked over at HAL, whose expression changed to anger. She balled her fists in rage.
"Why didn't you didn't ask me about my past with Rus Sterling to my face? Instead you took a trip to find Sledge Hammer! You went to the scum of the earth instead of asking your own wife!"
It was only at that moment Derrick realized someone had walked in during H.A.L.'s tirade.
"Did she just say 'wife'?" they both heard Femme Fatale say as they turned in shock and surprise.
"Fran?!?" H.A.L. asked concerned. "Are you OK?"
"I was until just now. 'Guns' is delayed at the Equipment Issue room. Her helmet interface failed the safety check and they are replacing a couple of modules because she won’t go out without her custom add-ons. I was asked to pass on the word.”
They all smiled a little because ‘Guns’ was known to be addicted to an old mechanical disc player that she used to keep her pumped during combat. She claimed it was virtually immune to the damage an electro-mechanical pulse from a particle beam cannon caused in a modern solid-state player. So, ‘Guns’ was also addicted to the old songs that could be obtained in that ancient medium.
“But.” continued Femme, “apparently I'm really out of the loop these days. I could have sworn Helen said you two are married."
"We are," Derrick told his sister. "We eloped."
"Who saw you get married? I mean, you need witnesses when you elope. Was it just two strangers off the street?"
"No, not strangers," H.A.L. immediately tried to reassure her friend.
"Then who else is in on this little conspiracy?" Femme demanded, grabbing her brother's uniform shirt. "Tell me!"
Derrick averted his gaze from Femme's demanding look.
"Damian and Richard," H.A.L. finally whispered.
"Louder. I didn't hear that."
"Damian Blackheart and Richard Shadowhand," Derrick replied in a louder tone, still unable to look at Femme. He felt Femme's grip on his shirt loosen.
Then silence. More silence.
Finally, Derrick slowly moved his flowing raven hair aside and peeked over at Femme. She stared at him, tears welling in her eyes.
"We're all the family each other has. And you couldn't share this with me. I don't understand."
Derrick watched Femme turn her quiet anger on H.A.L.
"And you, my best friend, became my sister-in-law but thought this joyous news was worth keeping a secret? Why?"
"Fran, it hasn't been that long since you and Rus... we thought a wedding might bring up too many bad memories. But we love each other so much."
"We also did not want to surround you with the pressure of going public," Derrick explained. "What might be said about two former enemies as husband and wife? You are well familiar with how the press handled things when the truth came out about you and I."
Just then, a harried 'Guns' ran into the room, singing breathlessly off-key.
"Head ‘em up, move ‘em out, Raw...” Her song broke off as her puzzled eyes took in their serious faces.
"My trust," Femme said as she walked out of the room.
"Mine too," H.A.L. told Derrick as she marched off towards her Cyclops bot.
Derrick thought it little wonder that Arena 366 turned into such a travesty. Any time he tried to raise H.A.L. directly, she wouldn't answer. Apparently she wasn't quick to forgive his little visit to Sledge Hammer. So, any strategy thoughts he had Derrick shared with 'Guns,' who found herself acting as mediator to pass them on to her teammate disguised as if the ideas were her own. Also, Derrick would have to prod 'Guns' for insight to what his wife's strategy was, but 'Guns' often didn't want to divulge. He was thankful 'Guns' had played with them so often before; he'd hate to be putting a new Pilot through this stress.
Around Turn 5, H.A.L. decided to race past Bots 1 and 3 and take on Team 1's Command Post. Unfortunately, not only did they continue to defend it while backing away, but Bots 7 and 8 from Team 3 also came within range and thought her Cyclops bot the optimum target. So, in one turn, H.A.L. moved from Light Damage and Low Heat to Moderate Damage and Critical Heat. Not to mention the destruction of the Heavy Flame Cannon in the Right Rear Torso of her Cyclops bot.
Derrick wanted to go rescue her, but suffered his own ambush earlier on Turn 4, when all of Team 3 had decided Derrick was the prize target while racing in the direction of the Command Post. Derrick loved H.A.L.'s gumption, felt drawn to her ever since Arena 115 when she boasted to all his team: " To Deathex Deadmen of the Bloodguard from H.A.L. Mayne: if your goal is to force me to eject, no such luck. I'm one Helluva Assertive Lady -- that's what H.A.L. stands for, don'cha know --who has EVERY intention of hanging in there until I'm one with the Universe. Do what you will, I'll fight to the end." Yet she changed her mind at the last, and for a long time Derrick deemed her a gutless chicken.
That was before he met his half-sister Francine Forsythe, better known as Femme Fatale, and when he started to see her best friend H.A.L. through a whole new set of eyes. He learned a clearer backstory of why H.A.L. ejected after hearing her best friend launched the Sisters of Silicon despite the odds; she had promised to be alongside her if the dream became real. H.A.L. had lost heart and hope and given her all to team WASP, but once presented with hope, revealed herself as a woman devoted to her causes and who stands by the promises she makes.
Now, here they both were in Arena 366, struggling to survive and almost enemies again despite being lawfully wedded husband and wife. Derrick wished they would pull through and strengthen their young, fragile marriage.
The sounds of the Arena indicated that the sequences programmed and strategize over for Turn 6 were about to come to fruition. Derrick held fast and turned to face northwest, but not before Bot 3 struck his Bot's Right Front Torso with a Mega-Missile L-Pack. He then tried to back up and fell, after the less injured Bot 3 got in another missile hit, this time to the Left Arm of Derrick's Bot. The third phase, an automatic Stand Up command to get Derrick's Avenger Bot on its feet, overrode all his carefully laid plans and threw off the rest of his moves. In the remaining phases, he struck Bot 11 a couple of times with his Heavy Laser and Bot 11 returned that favor with a Heavy Laser hit to the Left Rear Torso.
Derrick worried about HAL, who still refused to make radio contact. She held fast in the Lake, only turning once as she first attempted to take on the CP, and apparently switching to single out nearby Bot 12 believing she would have taken out the CP in three phases. But that hadn't transpired and the CP held firm at Heavy damage.
"'Guns'?" he tightbeamed over to his other teammate. "Has she told you anything about her situation?"
The first thing that came back at him was 'Guns' Anne Rosas's exasperated sigh.
"Her Right Rear Torso is gone. Took a Head hit from the CP."
Derrick pounded the console.
"She needs to get out of there!"
"Got twelve engines, she feels like she can handle it. She's faced greater odds and you know it."
Derrick knew he couldn't win on that one. He'd been the one to inflict those greater odds, a long long time ago.
He analyzed the situation, ran calculations, weighed the odds... then programmed his next move. Feeling the need to practice his own preaching, Derrick moved back into the Heavy Buildings for protective cover. He successfully hit Bot 11 the first phase with Heavy Laser to the enemy Bot's Left Arm, but the Bot was out of range the remaining phases. Derrick found himself too far to charge in and help HAL, because he was just too beat up to need cover himself.
Checking the scanners at turn's end, HAL still showed up on the map. Derrick tried hailing her again on a direct tightbeam, trying not to have to use 'Guns' as a constant mediator. She still refused to pick up.
Derrick started to assess if there was anything he could do to alleviate HAL's situation while still protecting himself. With thirteen engines remaining, ejecting could not yet be an option for Derrick -- nine was the threshold set forth in Arena regulations. No telling how many remained for HAL now, not unless she shared that information. If she'd taken many hits, HAL could easily be below nine engines now.
A small relief was that somewhere during the turn Bot 12 disappeared from the Arena landscape, more than likely ejected. So that would be one less Bot to put pressure on HAL. She might not be cooperating for his help, but she would get it regardless.
However, a very hungry Team 3 -- made up of Bots 7, 8, and 9 -- headed his direction in search of targets. Both he and HAL would come into their range, as easy and crippled pray. Derrick refused to go down without a fight. He decided to concentrate his fire on Bot 9, since it was nearest to him. He got a hit on a Right Leg and once on the Left Front Torso, but missed the other three times. His damage remained Moderate and High. Though he stayed on Bot 9 all of the next turn, Bot 9 moved too far out of range of Derrick's cover in the Heavy Buildings early on -- though by turn's end Bot 9 came back into range again. Derrick assumed that since Bot 9 turned on him instead of HAL despite moving in HAL's direction, that Bot 9's last command likely was Last Bot To Target Me.
As long as I'm keeping them away from HAL, he thought. Nothing else matters. This is turn 10, there can be no more turns per Arena regulations. I must make sure HAL survives.
Derrick decided to keep his aim on Bot 9, and programmed a sequence that had him intermittently Facing Bot 9 and standing still, firing his Heavy Machine Cannon.
The claxons rang, the turn began. His Heavy Machine Cannon hit Bot 9 in the Left Rear Torso, with secondary explosions detected, on the first phase. To Derrick's amazement, Bot 9 wasn't facing HAL; his best guess was that 'Guns' had become the last minute target for reasons he didn't know. By all rights, HAL should have been the easy kill. That's what Derrick would have done, another lifetime ago.
The next shot missed, but the third Heavy Machine Cannon shot hit Bot 9 in the Left Leg with secondary explosions as well. Phase four he missed also, but Phase Five ended the game with a strike to Bot 9's Right Leg with the Left Front Torso mounted Heavy Machine Cannon.
Then it was all over.
Hesitantly, Derrick looked at his display. Where he expected to see the ruins of HAL's Bot on the radar from an ejection, her battered Cyclops bot remained in play. She'd completed the game.
Now if only their marriage would survive.
Derrick somehow missed HAL getting out of her bot at the conclusion of the contest. That amazed him, given the pounding she'd taken. He went down the hall to his team's Green Room, where Pilots freshen up before the post-Arena press conference where the winners are announced and the press dig for behind the scenes dirt.
As he entered, HAL was in the process of removing her helmet. Derrick and HAL looked at each other, neither saying a word for a long moment.
"I do not advise telling anyone about our union until we work things out between ourselves," Derrick said to HAL. "I just wanted to confirm this before the press has their say."
"Finally, something we agree on," HAL replied.
"I must tell you, I am pleased you survived. From what I saw on my scanners, things did not look well for you."
"I'll say! It wasn't quite as tight as when you led the team against me way back when. I ended this with five engines compared to the one I was down to back in Arena 115, but being Heavy Damage and High Heat and nearly missing my whole backside, no picnic I tell you."
The door slid open and Ambassador-Major General David Blaze and Femme Fatale entered. Blaze held a hand behind his back. All saluted including Helen Mayne; though she outranked him in combat, his Ambassador status took precedence.
"At ease," he told them. "But we must make it brief. I can only keep the press at bay so long. It was challenging enough getting to Femme Fatale and exerting Ambassador privilege to expedite our arrival here."
"Good to see you, Sir," Derrick acknowledged. "But I do not understand all the effort. Certainly our performance wasn't worth commending."
"I came to invite you to a promotions ceremony, actually. All of you."
"Thank you, Sir," HAL replied. "It will be wonderful to see you finally become an Ambassador-Lieutenant General."
"While I will be among the promotions, I'm not the highlight I thought you might want to see."
Blaze revealed what he had been holding behind his back. A display box contained the metal rank insignia for a full-fledged General.
"It will be my honor to see these pinned on you, General Mayne. Everyone in the press corps knows that you're a candidate for this. I thought you should realize that staying in gave you the points you needed to make rank before they rip into you. Last thing I want to see is you getting broad-sided."
HAL bit her lip, then her hand shot to cover her mouth, shock evident in her eyes.
"I hope you'll understand her break in protocol, Sir," Derrick spoke on her behalf. "It's not every day you find out you've been made the first female General in the modern Arenas."
"You can refuse it and hold the promotion points for later," Blaze pointed out
"I don't deserve it," she finally managed to say. "Sheer luck got me through to the end, I played a bad game. An honor like this should go to someone else."
"Don't do that!" Femme begged her. "It's been your dream, remember! I form the first all-female team, you become its first General. I'm not exactly cream of the crop myself, but I achieved what I set out to do. Grab on to this, Helen!"
Helen looked doubtfully at Femme.
"Last we were in the same room, you gave Derrick and I earfuls about broken trust and not wanting to speak to us again. Now you're trying to woo me into taking a promotion? Is this about me at all, or is this all selfishly for the Sisters of Silicon?"
"Well, yeah, it's for the Sisters. The publicity couldn't hurt. But let's face it, isn't part of everything we do selfish? You and Derrick getting married, me ejecting out of Arena 368 so I could make sure I could apologize and set things right--"
"Stop a moment," Derrick interjected. "Did you say Arena 368? We just completed Arena 366. I knew the Sisters were slated to fight in that Arena, but you did not inform us you would be in out on the lines."
"That's part of what I came to tell you before you left, but things unexpectedly went south. We lost after eight turns, but Angel of Death did get the Individual Victory. "
Femme made sure to turn her full attention on Derrick.
"Big brother, I'm sad you and Helen made the choices you did, but we're all the family we have. And now you've made it bigger. That's what matters."
Then, Femme walked over and embraced HAL with a large hug.
"Welcome to the family."
As she stepped back from the embrace:
"Now, come on Helen. What do you say about becoming General H.A.L. Mayne?"
"Let's do this," H.A.L. smiled back. "Not just for me, but for the Sisters of Silicon and for all female Pilots in the Arenas. It's time."
In Capitol City, the symbolic heart of government as most political actions transpired over vidlinks, a historic ceremony of monumental proportions broadcast to the world. Cameras captured the moment from every angle as the newly promoted Ambassador-Lieutenant General Blaze pinned General's stars on the first woman to hold that honor since the era of Battle Bots came into full.
As H.A.L. Mayne came off the stage, she found herself swarmed by reporters and could barely navigate the crowd. A hand reached through the madness and pulled her into the safety fold of her friends -- Derrick, Femme, Lauraic, Damian, and Richard. They formed a human wall around her and pushed against the tide and to waiting transports.
H.A.L., Derrick, and Femme shared a car back to their hotel together.
"I can't believe how crazy that was," H.A.L. said.
"Fortunately we chose not to publicly announce our marriage," Derrick commented. "I do not want to begin to comprehend the amount of insanity we might have experienced."Both turned to notice Femme wasn't joining in the conversation, but instead gazing out the window at the sights of Capitol City.
"I'm sorry," H.A.L. whispered to her friend. "I didn't mean--"
"It wasn't about you two, I'm OK with that now. I'm just remembering the last time I saw Capitol City. You and your Dad came too, Helen, remember?"
Helen drew a sharp breath. Derrick looked back and forth between the two silent women.
"They shouted in the streets on the way to the posthumous trial," Femme continued, lost in her own thoughts. "Traitor! Traitor!"
"Those people were wrong. And everyone knows Frank Forsythe wasn't a traitor. He was a good man."
"But they told me to my face my father was a traitor. And they were right. They just weren't talking about the right man."
"Ryker Lorne and Lorne's Lions are long gone," Derrick tried to reassure her. "As reaffirmed by Helen's stripes today, we are in a new age."
Femme leaned back against her seat, saying nothing as the car continued to speed through the city. Derrick struggled to find something else comforting to say, but no words would come.
Derrick, H.A.L., and Femme came back to Femme's hotel room to find the message light blinking on her commscreen.
"Give me a sec to check this," she told them, and punched in the activation code. "I had my comm mail forwarded to the hotel."
"You have two recorded messages," a synthesized voice told her.
Soon the first message came onscreen, from Dr. Lawrence Wright.
"Francine, I just wanted to thank you for bringing the matter with Kristi to my attention. I had no idea how far peer pressure had corrupted her. When she and I sat down to speak, she told me she'd put in for initial orders to go out with these friends of hers under an unofficial moniker of the Lion's Maw. I firmly suggested perhaps she should rethink her career path if she were so intent on destroying it with those irresponsible ruffians. Help me watch out for her, Francine. You and her mother may both be in the Arenas, but Shirley sees far more combat than you due to your administrative role. I need all the help I can get. Thanks again."
Femme activated the second message. Rus' face appeared on the commscreen.
"Fran," the message began, attempting to sound monotone but clearly tinged with sadness, "I know you've been off in an Arena as I send this and I wish I'd been able to do this in person. But I know I never would have found the guts. It's funny, I used to act so full of myself and now I realize that was all a smokescreen for being a coward. If I'd had guts, I would have fought that doctor guy for you, even after all we've been through. He better treat you right."
Femme bit her lip and struggled to fight back tears as she continued to listen. Derrick didn't know if he and HAL should keep watching or just quietly go to another room. They stayed in case their support was needed as Femme continued to listen.
"Listen, I just signed up for an Arena with two newer fellows, total Indies who needed help. And I need to get back in the game. It's 369, if you want to bother to keep track. I hope to make you proud of me. I've never done anything right, whether it was fighting in the Arenas or taking care of the people I love. Maybe this time I will. Take care of yourself."
The image faded to black. Femme leaned against the wall and slid to the floor, drenching her face in tears. Derrick could do nothing but look over at her helplessly, realizing this was a part of his sister's life he could never share. He'd not grown up with her, didn't share the kind of bond that Rus and HAL had by virtue of childhood friendships.
At that moment, he realized that not even his marriage to HAL would help him make that one last step to be totally within that circle. He would always hover just slightly on the outside.
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