Captain Caruthers sat in the dark and silent cockpit. The entire enclosed space was isolated from any outside noise. Only the rhythmic tapping of his fingers against the only red shade in the space bounced off the metal walls.
Bounty hunting was a tough business for any upstanding mech pilot to pursue. It went beyond the basic jobs like guarding outposts or patrolling conflict zones. In many cases, pilots simply had to wait long hours standing by and only occasionally get into the cockpit to deter a couple of opportunistic raiders.
The amount of incidents happening in the outskirts of the Bright Republic was fairly low. Most people thought the nearby systems and asteroid fields were barren of high-value resources. Only a couple of the more common exotics could be found, and small mining concerns eked out a small profit from exploiting them at a low cost.
"Even a barren hinterland like the Bright Republic can be squeezed of resources if you make it worthwhile enough."
The pirates that were shabby enough to operate in this space sector came in three flavors.
Local criminals made up the most of the numbers. Hooligans who went down the wrong path, these delinquents mostly piloted whatever mech they could get a hand on and generally didn't last very long due to a lack of support structure or any kind of long-term strategy. They generally made a big splash at the start but got hunted down quickly enough.
Caruthers considered these amateurs his bread and butter. Hunting them down offered very little risk but only paid enough to make ends meet.
The second type of pirates blended semi-legal identities with occasional illegal forays. Most people considered them organized crime, though the actual workings of these groups was a lot blurrier than that. Often it meant companies that dipped into the dirtier side of competition or mercenary companies that decided to turn against their employers. Naturally you also had the classic organized crime groups, often centered around the planets they based.
As a captain of a small bounty hunting group, Caruthers generally stayed away from messing with these so-called pirates. Many groups often relied on deeper backing. Defeat the son, provoke the father. Defeat the father, provoke the grandfather. And on it went until you ran into a solid wall.
The last type of pirates represented trouble. Foreigners used to operating in more developed space sometimes fled to galactic backwaters to shake off pursuit and lie low. If you were lucky, these losers only carried a basic mech and whatever else they haul off on short notice. If not, then they came fully prepared, with large spaceships, ample supply and advanced mechs an entire generation ahead of what the Republic's Mech Corps used.
These giant wrecking balls basically showed no regard to the local balance of forces. With a technological edge and a mobile base that allowed them to skulk the outskirts, these snobby exiles often acted as if they were in charge.
Often times the Mech Corps took them down a peg. Just because the Bright Republic used the least advanced mechs among all the human states, didn't mean that anyone could push them over. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The pilots of the Mech Corps worked hard to get in their position and fought many small skirmishes in their active service. The local space sector was a hotbed for low-level troublemakers.
Consider the the latest major sortie of the Mech Corps. The Red Feet, A top mercenary group of some second-rate state, lost their occupation rights to a lucrative mining planet due to collusion by their vassals. These smaller groups normally acted like rats, but one of them had the bright idea of banding together and rebel against their masters.
Evidently, they succeeded, because the Red Feet fled like sailors abandoning a sinking ship. One of their splinters managed to cross through six star sectors before finally arriving at the borders of the Bright Republic.
They quickly made themselves home by violently displacing the local interests group of a nearby planet. As their advanced mechs and other equipment was expensive to maintain, they did as many other outsiders had done and demanded excessive 'taxes' from the local populace. A few riots and bloodshed later, the Mech Corps finally smashed their remaining ship and much of their mechs apart.
Naturally, that wasn't the end of the story. A couple of individual mechs aboard private shuttles managed to escape to FTL range and transitioned to other star systems. It didn't matter which one, they only cared if it had no presence. If the Mech Corps had to split up and hunt them all down, they had to waste a massive amount of time.
Better to employ bounty hunters like Caruthers to do the dirty work for them. Though the risk of facing a superior mech was substantial, Caruthers trusted his team to beat this foreigner the same way the Mech Corps smashed their whole group. With teamwork and superior numbers.
The cockpit rumbled a little. Sounds from the outside made it clear the shuttle Caruthers boarded with his mech had finished landing.
"Let's get this show on the road."
He pressed the red gem in the middle of his console and made his mech come to light. Bright red colors unfolded in his projectors like a flower coming to bloom. The entire cockpit lighted up as Caruthers breathed deeply and let his brain sink into the neural interface.
The warm, familiar presence of his personal mech embraced his return. Despite owning the Phoenix Cry for a few weeks, Caruthers already considered it to be his home.
"You're also likely to be my last mech." Caruthers endearingly spoke to his mech as he caressed the console's surface. "I'm too old to go out and hunt the scum of the galaxy. Let's have a blast and make it to the end."
The Marc Antony model progressed through its startup with rapid efficiency. As Caruthers finished booting up his mech, he connected to the audio channel where his six teammates were already present.
"Miley, how's your big one?"
"I'm still hearing creaking from my left knee. I swear the grease monkeys have been slacking off again!"
The other pilots in the channel exchanged their own usual banter. Caruthers paid little attention to them as he reviewed the information his sources had gathered once again. "Pipe down, boys and girls. Let's go over the job. We've got a tip that there's a Red Feet squirreling away in an abandoned mine in whatever fucked up place this is called."
"Don't you think you should call him a Red Foot?"
"Ah, whatever." Caruthers waved his hand. "Despite being cornered, the Red 'Foot' that's in the mine has enough knowledge to use the abandoned gear inside to build himself a makeshift fortress. Any attempts by the local militia to oust this Foot came back with a bloody nose and millions worth of damage. Don't be too complacent. This guy's a tough cookie."
"What's his loadout?"
"That's the troubling thing. This guy's mech is all set for extended engagements. His machine is a medium rifleman with a souped up laser rifle. And before you hope he's run low, he took away the husks of the mechs he downed and scavenged all their energy cells. And that's not taking into account whatever energy he could scrounge up from all of the mining equipment available."
All-in-all, it sounded like a bad situation. With a powerful laser rifle pointed in the only entry point of the mine, no casual group of mercenaries could take on such an opponent and come out ahead.
Too bad Caruthers encountered plenty of bastards in his career, many of whom pulled much worse out of their horrid bag of tricks. Holing up in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere was nothing special.
"Miley, how's your digger?"
"It's all set. You know I'm always harping out replacing this dinky old model, right?"
"Hey, if it works, it works. I'll think about replacing it once the one we got breaks down completely. It's not as if it's the end of the universe if our digger hits the dust."
"Yeah yeah, whatever you say boss." Miley rolled her eyes as she guided the wheeled drill-like machine out to a low hill. "The topography doesn't quite match the data we got. I can already tell you there's been a few shifts or landslides."
"It doesn't matter. The mine is largely the same so our entry point should still work."
Miley fudged a bit with her placement before choosing a random spot that looked somewhat promising. She set the digger machine at a shallow angle. It was just enough to allow mechs to walk without tipping over while still be able to dig downwards to hit the underground tunnels.
When she finished setting the machine, everyone took up their positions with some looking out in each direction. Others gathered at the entrance of the tunnel.
Though none of the intel gathered so far suggested that the rogue pilot had a partner, nothing was certain.
Caruthers took up the front position with his mech facing the digger. He readied his mech and did some last-minute checks. "Everyone ready?"
The digger engaged once the team finished all their checks. The cylindrical digger machine rotated its screw blades and dug right into the soil. With the speed and noise it emanated, the everyone in the area could guess what was going on from the rumbling alone. This was never about stealth. It was all about shock and awe.
"Seven minutes until we hit the tunnels!"
"Keep an eye on the entrance, report if you see anything suspicious, and I do mean anything!"
The foreigner must have known what was going on, but he prudently stayed in the depths. If he unwisely chose to expose himself, he'd be easily mobbed by Caruthers and his crew.
"Five minutes remaining. No response detected so far."
"Three minutes left on the clock. Hardly a peep."
The digger machine eventually breached the mining tunnels with a thump. The team went into action. One shield-bearing mech kept close to the entrance of the mine to keep an eye on it while Caruthers led the way into the newly excavated tunnel.
The digger dug a tunnel barely wider than the top of their mechs, so the team that went in only consisted of two shieldbearers. Caruthers led the way, with Miley close behind.
"What's he going to do? Will he face us or escape the tunnel?"
Caruthers felt sweat pour down his neck. No one ever liked to be on the receiving end of an advanced laser rifle. Though he tested his newly purchased mech extensively and even had his own technicians comb over it for any defects, he still felt he was taking a huge gamble.
The dark and narrow tunnel lit up like a firework as a white-hot beam splashed against his Marc Antony's shield. Caruthers cried out even though the deadly beam carried no force. Instead, he imagined his mech's arm growing warm as the heat of the energy weapon spread out onto its entire surface.
"Contact! I'm hit!"
"Shit, that beam's measuring fifty percent higher than my own!"
"Follow plan A. Enter the tunnel from both sides and pincer that bastard from two directions!"
Another laser beam hit his shield, scorching several layers of HRF armor into slag. The overall temperature of the shield also increased, though its thickness afforded it plenty of time.
The rifleman was not in an ideal position to shoot. Miley had cleverly programmed the digging module to increase its slope as it dug further downwards. This meant the tunnel looked more like a crooked banana than a straight cucumber. This forced the rifleman to enter the tunnel and come close if he wanted to get an unobstructed firing line.
Caruthers tried shooting back with his free wrist cannon, only for his laser beams to go wide. His wrist-mounted lasers simply couldn't compete with regards to accuracy. The mere act of moving forward spoiled his aim at this range. The rifleman on the other hand not only enjoyed a superior weapon, he also boasted real marksmanship. Almost each and every single beam shot landed against the same spot on the Marc Antony's red shield.
"This bastard's a really good shot. My shield is halfway from getting its bottom half melted off."
"Hang on, Caruthers. We're two-thirds of the way."
Perhaps the rifleman regretted choosing to fire down the new tunnel. Caruthers resolutely made his way forward as he put his complete trust in his mech. He showed no hesitation in enduring the brutal barrage of laser fire. His shield might be cheap, but it was also fairly thick and possessed plenty of mass to absorb the heat.
By the time they came into spotting distance of the end of the tunnel, the enemy pilot abandoned his initial aggression.
"Looks like he got on to what we've planned." Caruthers cursed as he failed to trace his target. "It's going to be a pain hunting him down these side tunnels."
"Hah, at least your shield served its purpose. We got in without another scratch. If the only thing we need to replace is a shield, then this job paid off in spades."
As they almost came upon the entrance, Caruthers felt something amiss. He normally felt as comfortable as a baby when piloting the Phoenix Cry, but suddenly he felt a nudge of some sorts that warned of danger. Following his instincts, he readied his old mech's sword that he used to replace the crappy mace and braced his mech for a surprise.
The tunnel exploded into flame as some kind of explosive set off just in front of him. The shockwaves bounced off the narrow walls and buffered the shield and the mech that was holding it with pressure and flame. Caruthers held on to his shield with dear life, hoping that it would hold against the violent boom in front of him. By the time the lower end of his shield started to bend dangerously inward, the danger passed.
"We've encountered an improvised explosive. Careful at the main tunnel. Don't get fooled and step on something you shouldn't."
"We've heard the explosion from our end too. We're slowing down and scanning ahead."
Just as Caruthers set his mech upright, a blur approached his front and smashed against his shield, almost toppling the Phoenix Cry over.
"SHIT! He's here!"
Unusual among mechs, the advanced model in front of him wielded a blunt but heavy staff. It took a while to get it going, but it possessed devastating reach and could deliver a large amount of kinetic energy with each strike.
The narrow tunnel prevented Miley from coming up to the side to help. Even firing her weapons was out due to the risk of hitting her own side. As long as the enemy held position, it could bottleneck their team from this side.
"Miley, don't come close. Just ready your shield and sword and get ready to back me up."
"Your shield is almost a goner, Caruthers. That staff will smash it apart in three or four moves!"
"I can handle it! This guy spent weeks on the run. I've got a fighting chance."
With the backup team forced to slow down in order to avoid setting off traps, Caruthers fought with gritting teeth against one of the most challenging opponents of his career.
The enemy pilot evidently mastered both ranged and melee mech combat. His staff moves dazzled the mind. His dextrous mech was able to handle wide sweeping moves as well as fast jabs and turns like an actual human. Only the extensive wear and tear and the lack of maintenance slowed the advanced mech's reactions enough for Caruthers to keep up, somewhat.
"I never imagined baptizing this my new mech with a fight against a machine two generations ahead."
His shield received too much damage. The enemy mech prioritized speed and dexterity over power so his staff strikes were not too overwhelming. However, the technological gap between their two models gave the foreigner a distinct edge. The shield eventually broke into two halves.
"Fine! Let's play it your way!" Caruthers growled and recklessly charged closer while throwing the remaining half of his shield against his opponent. To his credit, the foreigner anticipated the move and deftly redirected the spinning slab to the side. The mech then continued on with its rotation, borrowing the force of the impact to spin the other end of the staff straight down the Phoenix Cry's crested head.
If that staff hit his mech's head, he'd be crippled for a couple of seconds, enough time for the foreigner to launch another critical strike. Caruthers felt his heart pump faster as his mind threw away all other distractions.
There was only him, his mech and the staff in his eyes. A spark of red seemed to flash and he took advantage of his lightened load to rapidly lean backwards. At the same time, he emptied his shoulder launchers in one go, disgorging a haphazard payload of long-ranged missiles.
Such weapons usually required a hard lock onto the enemy mech in order to be effective. Despite the close range, the missiles pretty much flew blindly. Some of them impacted the walls of the tunnels, causing a couple of explosions to spread out all over the narrow environment. Some of the missiles impacted the foreigner's mech but failed to detonate due to the minimum safe distance set in their programming. Only a handful finally managed to explode the enemy mech, causing minor damage that hardly amounted to any loss of function.
What the missiles did achieve was to blow the enemy a little back, delaying his incoming strike. Still, the momentum behind the attack was so strong that it kept swooping down.
The time those missiles bought allowed Caruthers to come up with another measure. He let loose a scream as his mech held its sword with both hands and struck the head of the staff with the flat side of his blade. The impact stunned both mechs, the Marc Antony model more than its opponent.
The medium mech took a couple of steps backwards as it tried to shake off the impact. The Phoenix Cry on the other hand fell down in an undignified way. The sword held, but Caruthers wouldn't trust it to last a couple of years.
As Miley was about to hop over his fallen mech, the captain grunted out a signal. "No! He's mine. I can finish the job!"
With proficient handling, he guided his mech up to its feet with a firm push of the hands. The Phoenix Cry then thundered forward while blasting the front of the tunnel with a twin barrage of lasers. At this range, missing was no concern, and every blast landed somewhere on the enemy mech's surface.
The foreigner was unprepared for the assault and faltered a little. The advanced mech received more scorch marks and even lost a few layers of armor. The attack gave Caruthers an opportunity to get close before his opponent built up his momentum again.
With the initiative on his side, Caruthers fiercely pressed his opponent with a couple of rapid sword strikes. While the foreign pirate skillfully fended off the attacks with the staff, his mech kept getting pushed backwards. They eventually exited the narrow tunnel and came into a larger central mining area.
"I'm on it, boss!"
Miley's mech entered the area after the two and rapidly moved to the sides. Smelling trouble, the foreigner knew he ran out of time. With a renewed resolve, the enemy mech pushed into the next sword strike, allowing it to land cleanly on its shoulder. With the Phoenix Cry's sword half-embedded into the advanced mech's shoulder, it let go of its staff and punched the Phoenix Cry's chest.
"Hah, is that supposed to do something?" Caruthers laughed as he endured the impact in his cockpit.
With bloodthirsty eyes he commanded his mech to twist its sword arm and pull back the weapon. With another swipe the blade hit the advanced mech's head, cleanly slicing it in half.
His opponent went berserk. The staff flew in every direction but Caruthers took advantage of the uncoordinated assault to get some distance.
By now, almost everyone in his team had reached the open cavern.
"Everyone, open fire!"
An avalanche of lasers and ballistic shells engulfed the poor pirate.