"Morning!" The word made him jump. He turned to find Jofuran standing behind him in a blue denim jumpsuit, the kind with the zipper that ran all the way down.
"Hi," he said.
"Hey, don't act so down," she said. "We'll kill these guys."
"We're the good guys, remember? Pure of heart and intention, ready to knock down the bad guys as they come up. Maybe we should go to the clothier and get some white hats."
Nickolai smiled; she seemed to have this talent for making people feel better. Or did it just work on him?
"Got your card?" he asked.
"Right here," she said, handing him her character card for this session. Printed on it were her present combat qualifiers, and from the looks of things she was pretty good. He handed her his card.
She whistled. "Lioness S1-A?" she said. "You like the expensive ones, don't you?"
"It's only play money."
"But how long did you have to sit in a simulator to get that much play money?"
Nickolai nodded and said, "A long time. Your mech's not so cheap either, y'know. SDC Ogre?"
She smiled and said, "I've never piloted anything except a KenWood Suicide Death Commando since I found the SDC Special, and I'm not likely to change now."
"But they're so expensive to repair!"
"That's what makes them fun. I once had an SDC Whizzer."
"You mean the 25 ton Mech with a 20ton Autocannon and the ammunition in the head?" She nodded. "Now that's a crazy mech."
"Not really. It's a great arena mech. Think about it. I mean, nothing in the 20 to 35 ton weight class can survive more than one or two AC20 rounds, and the head is so hard to hit I never had to worry about ammo explosions. It cleans up in the arena."
Nickolai nodded and climbed into his simulator. It was a long day.
"Furry?" he asked.
She looked up from the gargantuan antipasto she had ordered. "Hmm?"
"Were you making a pass at me last night?"
Jofuran's ears lay back along her head and her nose grew a little darker; a blush. "Uh-huh," she acknowledged.
He thought back to the article that claimed Pendorians were "indiscriminate." "How come?"
She shrugged. "I like you. Do I need another reason?"
"Well, why?" he asked.
"What do you mean, 'Why'?"
"I don't understand."
She shrugged and said, "Cruises are supposed to be romantic. I used to read romance novels a lot when I was on Earth; I really like the ones that were set on far-off worlds and things like that. And the historical ones are great, too. But I guess when I got on board I was looking for someone to spend some time with, and an excuse to get away from my parents. When I was in Israel I didn't have much fun; Homo Sapiens still views furries, even their own, with a little suspicion." She paused. "I really like the digs, y'know? The archeological sites where I get to see things that are actually older than Shardik Castle, or D'Tangent Arcology. Traveling over to Cairo or seeing the pyramids, thinking about the thousands of people it took to build all that stuff by hand. But I didn't have many friends."
"So, why me?" he asked.
"It's almost annoying that you're as famous as you are, Kolya, 'cause I like you just the way you are. You handle a mean mech. And you're the first human to act like I'm not weird."
Nickolai smiled, but inside he was both thrilled and frightened by what she was saying. "Well, maybe that's because I'm weird," he said.
"Having a mother doesn't make you weird, Kolya," she said. "I guess it's because you don't know me."
"Why would that change anything?"
"Oh, I don't know. I guess..." she let it trail off. "Look, let's just be friends, okay? Let's mechslaughter those bastards tonight and then we'll see."
"Okay," he said. He dug into his meal, hoping that she wouldn't notice the slight disappointment on his face.
Nickolai slid into the cockpit and closed the door, strapping himself in. He pushed the 'NETWORK' button and specified who his teammate was and who his opponents were. After a few seconds of waiting, the words "ALL AGREED" appeared on his screen. The mission status board came up next, and he read it to make sure it was at the agreed setting.
Environmental Difficulty: 5
Random Terrain, Random Weather. Full Weather Degrade for Terrain Effects. No Satellite Coverage. Line of Sight Combat Only. No Modifications to Combat Effectiveness.
Mission Objectives: Destroy All Enemies.
Mission Objectives of Enemy: Known: Destroy All Enemies.
The worst kind of battle. He smiled; it was also his favorite kind of battle. The words "Dropping" came on his screen, and there was a sudden perceived lurch; the gravitics in the simulator kicked him around in his chair a bit. The screen cleared, and he swore violently. "Snow!" he said into his mic, cueing the green button.
"I see it," Jofuran said.
"And that's about all you'll see, slime," the voice of their opponent said. "Wait until you die. And that's all the talking you two get to do, either."
Nickolai smiled. It was an old trick to tape down the red button on the mic, thus jamming the enemy's radio communications. The trouble with this technique was that the person doing the jamming couldn't hear his own people, either. Both he and Jofuran had been playing this game enough to know ways around it.
I:tell:you:he:do:that:he Jofuran signed to him, her mech's fingers dancing over the faceplate.
Not:surprise Nickolai agreed. We:talk:when:we:see:we::but:he:deaf:he.
Jofuran's mech nodded. They headed out across the snow carefully, taking their time in case a patch of ice presented itself to the mechs' ponderous feet.
A bolt of light from his left side caught his attention as Jofuran signaled him with a laser. He turned to see her point the left arm of her SDC Ogre and release an AC10 shell downrange. Her other hand signalled 10:10:H.X. The last two letters were a recognizable snap of the mech's wrist. He took the cue and programmed in the coordinates she indicated, releasing a full salvo of LRM20's to the hex she had indicated. The scream that came over the radio was gratifying.
"Hey, you two shouldn't be able to talk to each other! How'd he know where to hit?"
Jofuran dropped into a full run, and Nickolai joined her, making for a ridge of hills that might well give them a full view of the range on the other side. As they ran, the other enemy mech, an older-model Lion, appeared in the sky, opening fire as it did so. Missiles snaked toward Jofuran, and Nickolai cursed. "Eat this!" he said, firing the LRM20's without bothering to recalibrate for flying targets. His missiles snaked passed the flying mech without much effect, and he swore again. He rethought his attack and began bringing up the Particle Cannon when the mech he was targeting on flared and dropped from the sky. He laughed aloud.
They made it to the backside of the ridge. What:? Jofuran signaled.
He:... Nickolai cursed. Sign was an inaccurate language compared to Anglic. D.E.V.I.A.T.E.D.F.R.O.M.C.O.N.T.R.O.L.L.E.D.F.L.I.G.H.T, he signaled. You:O.K.?.
She nodded, running the second and third finger over the front of the faceplate. I'm laughing, she was saying. He:stupid:he.
Nickolai agreed, bringing up a fist and rocking it. Yes:. You: ready:you?
Yes:. They assaulted the hill together, climbing it as fast as they could. When they reached the summit, Nickolai heard another curse over the radio.
"I don't know how you two are talking to each other, and it doesn't matter. You're still dead." Nickolai looked down to see the Lion that had fallen out of the sky still crawling to it's feet, and the other mech, which he now identified as a Slice'N'Dice 100, heading towards them at full run. The Slice opened up with it's lasers. Nickolai brought up his AC20 and fired, hitting the target. A leg hit!
Indicators on his tactical showed that the Slice was going mostly after Jofuran; he couldn't understand why, he was the better target. Jofuran replied by popping the weather covers off her Short Range Missile Rack Sixes and sending four fast waves downhill. It took Nickolai less than a second to realize that they had just barely holed his left leg, but none of the missiles had done any critical internal damage yet.
The cannon was reloading; he racked the LRM20 and sent them downstream as well. Sixteen struck home! There was an incoherent scream of range as the Slice was staggered.
A rain of LRM20's struck Nickolai's mech in response. The Lion had its chest weapons active. He cursed again, but was thankful the Lion hadn't fired anything really major.
A blue bolt of light struck him square in the chest, and his cockpit lights blinked in response. "Homygod," he said. That was no standard Lion to be packing a Particle Cannon. He brought up his own PPC and fired back; it was a painful thing to do; the heat was extravagant. But it was also dramatic, and it took none of his precious ammunition. Missing, he cursed and kicked at the command console.
"Gotcha, pet," he heard over the radio.
The Lion lurched back into the sky, flying toward him at high speed. He brought the AC20 to it, calibrated, and issued the fire command. The Lion struck his Lioness almost simultaneously with the cannon fire, and the gravitics went wild, dizzying him as the display spun about. The Lion was so close he couldn't fire the critseekers he would have used after a PPC/AC20 combo.
He punched at the enemy mech, and his own mech came back "WRIST ACTUATOR DAMAGED, RIGHT HAND."
"Damn!" he swore again. Now he might not be able to use some of the signals he and Jofuran had agreed on. He opened up with the chain guns; they were cheap, fast on the recycle, and they worked only at point blank range. But work they did. And since they filled all seven remaining hardpoints, they were almost as effective as an LRM10.
The Lion rolled away, trying to get out of the hail of depleted nuclear core that streamed past it. Nickolai rose and kicked at it, and it went over the edge of the hill, rolling. There was an indignant grunt.
Nickolai looked up to see Jofuran's mech down on one knee, a hole visibly rent in the right leg. Nickolai found her target, the Slice'N'Dice, and fired the LRM20 rack, hoping to even the odds. He succeeded. A series of small explosions went off in the Slice's legs as a missile found its way in to an ammunition hold. The leg was critical; the Slice wouldn't stand up much longer. The PPC was recycled; he could risk a heat of 2200. He fired.
The shot went wide, and Nickolai ducked back out of sight to avoid any return fire, circling the far side of the hill to come up on Jofuran from that side. His heat display was screaming in blinking red lights, and the fusion plant suddenly read "OFF LINE."
"NO!" He screamed as his mech went into a barely controlled fall. He argued with the controls, and brought it into a crouch; it wasn't a complete fall, and it wouldn't take a complete action to come back online, either.
His Lioness-S1a had eighteen heat sinks. Almost as soon as he had the mech in a controlled crouch the fusion plant read "FUNCTIONAL." But what kind of fire was Jofuran taking in the meantime?
He ran around the hill to find Jofuran still kneeling, plugging away at the Lion with the AC20. The Slice was nowhere to be found. The heat of the run was minimal; he released another salvo of LRM20's. The Lion's arm exploded. The explosion traveled to the shoulder, which promptly exploded on its own. The torso followed suit, a blinding white-hot light that Nickolai instinctively shielded his eyes from.
"Furry!" he shouted, running towards her mech. She'd been close; close enough to take heat effects from the enemy mech's engine popping it's bottle.
He waved his hand in front of her faceplate. You:O.K.?
Warm:me:inside:, she signed. But:O.K.
He smiled. Where:S.N.D.:where? he asked.
Know:not:, she replied.
Not:want:, she replied.
He nodded. We:wait:we:here.
Yes:. Nickolai could almost hear her say "Uh-huh!"
The end of the battle was anticlimatic. They waited, and finally the computer ruled "Enemy Mech One had retreated. Mission 50% successful."
"He ran away," he said into the microphone, now that the jamming effect was gone.
"Did you really think he was going to stay and fight? You're almost untouched," she said.
"That's because you took all the heat."
"Yeah, the SDC's aren't known for their armor. Come on, let's do maintenance."
Nickolai dropped his electronic persona off at the electronic factory and crawled out of the simulator. Jofuran was standing next to it, waiting for him, a huge smile on her face. "We did it!" she said, hugging him.
"Where'd they go?"
"They weren't here when I got out. I guess they didn't even bother to do maintenance. Just took their cards and left."
"They'll be back, y'know."
"Aw, I know. They're part of the tour, and they'll probably show up somewhere," she said. "But they've got bloody noses now. They'll just be a nuisance from now on."
He smiled and looked down at her. Her big black eyes were wide and happy, and he hugged her close. "I hope so."
"Kolya!" he heard a voice in front of him. He looked up; his mother was standing in the door of the arcade. He started grinding his teeth again. "Kolya, come here, now!"
"Just a second," he said to Jofuran. He turned and walked to where his mother stood. She stepped back into the hallway. He followed; she pushed the door to the arcade shut.
"Kolya, I came down looking for you because you missed lunch and I wanted to make sure you were eating, and I find you in the arms of that, that creature."
"She's called a Markal, Mother, and she's a friend."
"Friends don't touch each other like that, Kolya. What have you been doing with her?"
"Don't tell me that, Kolya. Stay away from her; you never know what she could do to you. She could be a telepath, Kolya. She could have SANS."
"Mother, SANS is curable now. Besides, Pendorians don't get SANS."
"Do you know that for certain, Nickolai?"
"No, Nickolai. You will listen to me. You will stay away from that... I can't even call her a girl. That creature."
"Try calling her Jofuran, Mother. And I'm not going to stop seeing her just because you tell me so. She's the only person on this entire ship I can talk to."
"I just saw four boys your age leaving the arcade."
"Kolya! Watch your language."
"Mom, those kids were threatening to beat Furry up. They're not the kind of people I want to call friends."
"Kolya. I'm telling you for your own good. Stay away from her."
"Or what? You'll lock me in my room? Spank me? C'mon, Mom, I'm older than that. I think I can make my own decisions on who I talk to."
"Kolya, things are only now coming out about the kind of perversions Pendorians do. I don't want you getting caught up in that."
Nickolai sighed and said, "Look, Mother, I'm stuck on this trip for the next sixteen days. Don't try to separate me from the one person I've found this whole trip to talk to."
"No, Mother, you listen to me," he snapped, starting to get angry. He decided to play his last card. "I'm old enough to make my own decisions. But until I'm eighteen, I have to put up with you. Just remember that when you try and advise me." It was a rehearsed speech, and it sounded like it.
"Mother, I don't like saying that. But I like Furry, and I'm not going to tell her that I can't see her."
"Kolya, I have done my best to raise you as a moral, responsible adult. I don't want you getting into trouble."
"And I'm not going to, Mom. I'm just trying to enjoy my vacation."
"Okay, Kolya, have it your way. I'll be here when you come to your senses." She turned and swished out of the room, her long cape trailing behind her.
"Hopefully, that will be never," he muttered under his breath. He turned to enter the arcade, searching for Jofuran through the glass as he opened the door. She was nowhere to be found.