By Heather Rogerson
It was all over. The smoke was a sinuous black snake that curled its way around sparking electrical equipment and the single figure who stood on the bridge. The Kefeinzel was destroyed. Its guns were a shambles, its crew evacuated all save one. Vanderkaum stared ahead, eyes blank, mouth slightly parted. His arms hung at his sides loosely. If not for his uniform and the paraphernalia of rank, he might have been suspected of being an escaped mental patient.
He had lost. There was no redeeming himself from this disgrace. Commander Ramsus would be furious. Vanderkaum felt tears sting his eyes and he couldn't be sure if it was from the acrid stench of the smoke wafting into his nose or his own sense of shame. He'd already been demoted once. After this, he'd probably be cast out of the military completely.
He sucked in his breath, blinking back the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. No! He wouldn't let that happen! This ship, his command...it's all he had! And hadn't he tried his hardest? That Gear...How was one supposed to defend against something like that? Why, Ramsus himself wouldn't have-
A shuddering groan echoed through the ship as it started to sag to one side. His balance shifted, and the man was forced to catch himself on one of the control panels to keep from falling. The metal was hot under his hands, and it hurt, but somehow his brain wasn't registering the pain. His eyes drifted downward and he raised his hands to view them with a dull sort of appreciation. The material of his gloves was burned to a golden brown and smelled a bit like scorched toast.
These gloves had never been white. No matter how often he washed them, they were made dull by the black powder that rubbed off from inspecting the guns. Parts had become a faint yellow from sweat. Here and there were traces of rust from bloodstains. These weren't the hands of a man who sat by and let others do the work for him. These were the hands of a warrior.
Ramsus' gloves were white, immaculate, perfect. No stains, no marks of hardship. He had flown through the ranks, kicking aside older, more experienced soldiers in his mad dash for power. Now he was at the top, and he hadn't even earned it.
The commander was a handsome man, with hair the color of wheat, a firm jaw, and eyes that always seemed to glimmer in a no-nonsense sort of manner. He was a fencer, or as the admiral put it, a dancer. Fancy sword moves and graceful gestures were as foreign to him as guns were to Ramsus. Swords seemed like a cheap, nonsensical way to win. Obviously not suited to a real warrior. They were too dainty, too flimsy. Nothing could match the feel of manning a missile turret or aiming a gattling gun at your enemy. Ramsus considered such methods crude, unintelligent, and base. But for the admiral, they were the very meat and bones of war.
Vanderkaum made no excuses for his own looks. He knew he was...unattractive, ape-like, unappealing to the fair sex. It was part of the reason he had the blue-gray cross tattooed on his face. People seemed to spend less time staring at him now. His body was bulky with muscles and, he admitted, some fat that age had decided to tack on around his gut. But he was still out here, manning his ship on the very front lines of battle while Ramsus played dignitary to Shakahn.
Yes, the commander was safe from the hell of war, living it up in the palace like a pampered animal that never had to fight for a single thing it was given.
How much do I hate you, Ramsus? You, with your airs and your aids and your arrogance...You stuck me out here as punishment for something I had no control over. You insulted my ability to fight. You gave me these idiots to serve under me. You may think that your so-called intellect can turn the tide of a war, but it's not as easy as all that, Commander. In the end, a war is won by the person who is the strongest, not the smartest. Sheer might will always overpower the weak, no matter how clever they think they are. And I'm going to prove that right now.
Yes, now everything was clear. Vanderkaum let his hands drop back to his sides, gazing at the dark view screen. It was cracked, and gave the occasional flicker of static, but he didn't need to see outside to know that the enemy Gears were still nearby. If the admiral eliminated them, Ramsus would have to see that he had been wrong in his estimation of Vanderkaum. Maybe he'd even get a new command post, or a new ship. Warming to such thoughts, the man felt his heart beat a littler faster.
How to beat them...how...? Ah, yes.
"Right," he murmured to himself, a feverish glow coming to his eyes. "I still have that...I still have that." In the twisted mess that was left of his rational thinking, a plan was developing, one that he felt sure would fix all his problems forever. He nodded to himself as he spoke, not realizing how truly mad he sounded, nor would he have cared if he knew. After this, no one would ever accuse him of being a lousy soldier ever again. "Yes...I still have that...I still have that."
Turning on his heel, he marched with quick, deliberate steps. Down the short flight of stairs, through the doorway where the smoke hunched down in wait for a fresh victim to suffocate with its toxins. He rush through the inky blackness, often stumbling into walls or parts that had fallen through in the earlier explosion. There were fires dancing their mad little jigs of destruction, licking scattered papers to ashes and melting iron like candy on their crimson tongues. Heat stroked Vanderkaum's neck and face like a possessive lover, stealing his precious air with each of his gasping, coughing breaths.
After a jog that seemed far too long to be real, he reached the hangar bay where the remaining Sand Trippers and Gigafeet loomed over his diminutive body. He was not a small man, by any means, but beside the mechanical giants, he might as well have been a silly brown beetle. But these weapons were not what he had come for. No, what he wanted was the specialized suit, his suit, the only Gear he would ever consider piloting.
The ugly, hulking thing resembled its owner to the letter. The soldiers often joked how both were hard-shelled, strong-willed, and slow. To Vanderkaum, who never once thought to ponder why they said this about him, the brutish machine seemed like a goddess. She was his only love, the only thing as close to a woman as he could call his own.
"Dora," he whispered, rubbing his burned left palm over one of the claws. "My beauty. Let's go into battle together. We'll show him. We'll show that bastard Ramsus just what we're made of!"
Hitting the cockpit release button, the hatch slid open and he clambered up into the pilot seat. Hitting a few of the necessary buttons and switches, the Dora powered up and closed the hatch. The hangar bay door was blocked by a rubble pile of broken Sand Trippers that had been destroyed as they tried to return to the ship. It would take too long to drag it all away.
"So, we'll use the direct route!" Taking hold of the joystick, Vanderkaum adjusted the angle of his guns and let loose with a large volley of bullets. No good. The rubble shifted a bit, but not enough to squeeze through. "How about this?"
His thumb hit the cannon control button and fired. Light reflected off of the metal surfaces everywhere, creating a momentary rainbow-like distortion before the rubble was blasted to smaller pieces of scrap, along with part of the wall. The Dora shuffled it's way through the dust and the smoke until the camera lens could detect three enemy Gears.
"I knew you wouldn't run," the man said under his breath as he flipped on the communications system. He wanted them to know just who it was they were going to deal with. "I will kill you!" The beast was awake, and the Dora emitted a savage cry as shrieking joints, long disused, moved to life.