Emmrich smiled. This was going to be the best fight yet. As he
pulled at the Gladitorian's controls, the several tons of metal
which surrounded him respond eagerly. The screen filling the
front of the cockpit wheeled across a vibrant landscape of sand
and rocks, deeply furrowed by gullies and fissures. It was a good
place for this.
The ruddy afternoon light glinted off metal for a moment and then was gone. That massive blue and black shape could only have been his foe. Always in motion, Barden never stayed in the open for long. He was making good use of the terrain, and that sleek custom machine of his was fast. Only occasionally had Emmrich yet seen him. Not that it would do him any good. Emmrich was still going to win.
A faint hint of motion drew Emmrich's attention toward a large formation of stone.
"Quill, hit him with a full barrage!" Emmrich cried as he thrust the Gladitorian's massive arm in Barden's direction.
The Quillgoyle's dutiful yelp of acknowledgement rang out from the speakers and the top of the Mecha's bulbous forearm split open to expose the Monster-Module inside. There, Quill's digital form drove the malleable compounds stored within to create an array of barbed spines, similar to, but many times larger than, those of a normal Quillgoyle.
Emmrich chuckled with glee as the spines shot forth and reduced Barden's cover to rubble. However, his foe's distinctive Mecha wasn't there. The tiny image of Barden in the lower corner of Emmrich's screen smiled smugly as his voice came over the comm channel.
"You'll have to do better than that old trick!"
"I was just getting you into position to finish you off," Emmrich said.
With the Gladitorian filling the mouth of a steep-sided gully, Barden was trapped inside with nowhere to run. It was time to finish this little game of cat and mouse.
"Quantum Sunburst!" Emmrich cried as he slapped the corresponding image on the screen of his PCR. He'd been dieing to use this card ever since he'd found it in that old tomb.
"Heh, you think that will work?" Barden said. "I've got just the card to -- what the hell!"
Blinding rays of light shone out from the Gladitorian's OEP emitter plate. Even in the desert sun, it was still bright enough to phase the best shielded optics.
"Hey, watch it with the friendly fire!" On the ridgeline, Claire's Merhiran threw up its arms in a futile attempt to shield her from the flash. She was likely blinded now too but that was unavoidable
Just a short distance away, Barden was flailing about with his Razor-Sword as a string of curses came over the comm channel. Now Emmrich had him right where he wanted him. As he closed with the blinded fighter, a wide slash of the sword didn't even come close to connecting. Emmrich drove the Gladitorian's fist right into Barden's plastron. The bulkheads shuddered from the impact and a satisfying metal on metal clang could be head even inside the reinforced pilot's compartment.
Emmrich loved that sound. Hand-to-hand combat was so much more fun than blasting away at a dimly seen enemy from a distance.
Barden's dazed face cried out from the screen as his Mecha went over backward and crashed to the ground. Emmrich was quick to pin his opponent beneath the knee of his much heavier Gladitorian. As Barden's sight returned to him, he found himself staring directly into a fresh batch of Quillgoyle barbs.
"I'd call that a win for Emmrich," Claire said, her face on the other side of the screen rubbing her eyes. "Again."
Emmrich's Personal Combat Register pinged with yet another win. He'd lost track of how many times he'd heard it, but he still loved that sound too. How many wins in a row did that make now? Emmrich had lost count a while back. With the number of times he and Barden had already fought, this one wouldn't even count toward their total entry scores. All that mattered was he was still undefeated.
"Good fight," Emmrich said as he brought the Gladitorian back to its feet and offered Barden a hand up as well.
Barden growled and righted his Mecha by himself. "What's so good about it?"
"Well, I won, and that always makes for a good match if you ask me."
Claire's garish Mehiran came shuffling down the rocky side of the gully. With all those cobbled-on Monster-Modules sticking out around its shoulders, it looked distinctly top-heavy. Emmrich knew the only way she could have afforded a Mecha with that many was by getting a second-hand machine which had been modified beyond what any reasonable fighter would ever consider, but surely she could have scratched together enough money to have it repainted. In this light, that salmon and red color scheme kind of worked as desert camouflage, but in any other environment, it just looked hideous.
"Hey, what happened? Claire said. "That had to have been the shortest match-up you two have had yet. I thought for sure you were gonna get him this time, Barden."
"My PCR didn't activate the card when it was supposed to!" Barden said. "Stupid piece of junk!"
"Now, now. Only a sore loser blames his equipment," Emmrich said. "Besides, you should be happy. Years from now, fights like this will be the history books. People are going to wanna chronicle every detail about the rise of the greatest Mecha Tournament Fighter of all time: me!"
Barden's scowl on the screen was almost audible. "Has he gotten heat stroke again?"
"He's got something," Clair said, shaking her pink-streaked bangs back and forth across her eyes.
In long, gangly strides, the two of them walked their Mecha's back to camp. Emmrich lingered a minute, however, soaking in as much of the scene was he could. The site of a victory was a special place -- practically with holy significance. He didn't want to miss any of that magic.
"Some people just can't deal with true genius," he said to himself. Prancing around in a large circle, he raised the arms of his Gladitorian skyward, playing to the throngs of imaginary fans. "Yeah, folks! Autographs will be available in the press tent after the fight!"
Back at camp, Emmrich brought his stocky grey Gladitorian alongside Claire and Barden's Mechas. There in the middle of the otherwise desolate landscape, their three inward-facing machines formed a triad around an impromptu courtyard more heavily armored than any medieval fortress.
With practiced familiarity, Emmrich powered down all the secondary systems and dropped his Mecha into standby mode, reducing the light in the cabin down to only a few glowing switches. Several taps of the PCR screen recalled Quill from where he'd been deployed in the Monster-Module. Like always, that portable little computer was logged tight in its port on the main console. He had to wiggle it back and forth vigorously before it finally popped loose.
Emmrich pulled himself out of the formfitting chair and had to twist himself around to get a grip on the hatch release lever. Before pulling it, he paused and took a deep breath. The cabin was stuffy and smelled faintly of oil but he never found it unpleasant. If anything, it was the most comforting place he'd ever experienced. If he could spend all his time in there, fighting and racking up victories, that would be a good life.
Pulling the lever caused the top hatch to pop open. Dust, dry air, and sunlight streamed inside. Back to reality, then.
He climbed out onto the shoulder of the Gladitorian and pulled down his sun goggles from where they'd been perched against his bandana. Taking a seat on the edge of the hatch, he squinted as he tapped at his PCR's screen. Instantly, the digitizing crystal on the front flashed and Quill was rematerialized from its data banks, looking none the worse for wear. The five slender quills protruding from the back of his head stood on end as he shook out his yellowish fur, and then gently settled back into place, laying flat against his neck once more.
"How you doing, boy?" Emmrich said.
He shoved the PCR into the leather holster hanging from his hip and patted the velvety fur on the underside of Quill's beaked snout. The Quillgoyle waged his bushy tail and he let out a happy yip.
"Glad to hear it," Emmrich said. "You did real good out there today. Now come on, let's see about some supper."
Obligingly, Quill bounded down the thirty or so feet of the Gladitorian in a series of short hops from one protrusion to the next. Emmrich was right behind him, only slightly slower. On the ground once more, Quill fell in beside Emmrich, trotting along on his hind legs with his front paws and their long dexterous fingers tucked up under his throat.
Standing near one of the gigantic feet of his Mecha, Barden was glaring at the readouts on his PCR. That sleek black tablet didn't match the rest of his Mecha at all, but then, the only thing that made anything on that Frankenstein's monster look like it belonged to the same machine was the color scheme. It was amazing to think that not only had Barden built the entire thing by himself from salvaged parts, but that it was also one of the most powerful Mechas Emmrich had ever gone up against. He was a real artist when it came to Mechas. If he was as good a fighter, he might have been a little more of a threat.
Looking over Barden's shoulder, Claire knocked the dust out of her pants with her gloves before tucking them back into her belt.
"Looks like it never registered an activation," she said.
"Stupid piece of crap." Barden knocked the side of the PCR with his palm. "I know I hit the activation button. I practically hit it hard enough to break the screen."
"Hey, guys, where's my press tent?" Emmrich said. "My fans expect a certain degree of professionalism from me; I don't want to disappoint them. Honestly, what do I pay you guys for?"
Claire pulled her goggles down around her neck and glared at him. Barden dropped his PCR to the ground and stormed right up into Emmrich's face.
"Oh, so that's how it is now? All this time I thought we were friends, but here you've just been thinking of as your personal servants!"
"Hey come on, I was only joking," Emmrich said. It was always hard to tell when Barden was really pissed and when he was just…well, a little pissed. Maybe Emmrich had pushed things a little too far.
"You know how he gets after a fight," Claire said, half-heartedly
"You mean how he is all the time?" Barden said without backing off an inch. "Let me tell you something, Emmrich: I don't work for you and I'm certainly not your punching bag!"
"Then maybe you shouldn't keep challenging me to fights." Emmrich never suspected Barden could be such a sore loser.
"Screw you," Barden said. "I had that fight. If my PCR had played that Blackout Bomb when I told it to, you never would of come close to winning. In fact, I've had you beat every time we've gone up against each other."
"That's not what the stats say."
"Yeah, I know: four losses in a row to you. The only way you could manage that is by cheating!"
"Come on, I won every one of our matches fair and square," Emmrich said. Barden must have been really, really pissed to be making accusations like that. "How would I even be cheating?"
"You must have messed with my PCR or something."
Emmrich laughed. "Listen to yourself."
"I have a brand new MX-34. It has twice the response time of that antique you use! And I've used that same card a hundred times against other challengers. It's never failed before."
Emmrich had heard enough of this. "Maybe it wasn't the computer, maybe it was the pilot. Admit it: you're just upset because I'm that much better than you."
"No way are you better than me! I'm twice the fighter you are!"
"Claire?" Emmrich said. "What do you think?"
"Well, you do kind of telegraph your moves," she said, with a shrug. "And screaming out which attack you're gonna use before you do it probably isn't the best technique either."
"A baby could counter your moves!" Barden added.
"You're just jealous."
"Why would I be jealous of a backwater little hick like you!"
Oh, that was it. "Because I'm such a good fighter even though I am from a backwater little village. Because, I fight in stock a Gladitorian and I'm still better than you and that custom monstrosity of yours. Because my dad was undefeated in the tournament five years in a row and yours is just a Mecha-stealing bandit!"
"You wanna see who the better fighter is, let's go, right now, no Mechas!"
"Gladly," Emmrich said, mentally nudging his Hyper-Thalamus into action. Instantly, the hyper-adrenaline starting to surge through his body, causing his senses to sharpen and his reflexes to quicken. The world around him sprang into sharp focus. "Come on, Quill, let's show this jerk who's really better!"
Quill whimpered and backed away, his head to the ground.
"Quill? What's wrong?"
"Looks like he doesn't want to fight Barden," Claire said.
"And that's another thing," Barden said. "Your Quillgoyle has the most unoriginal name ever!"
"I was six when I named him! What do you expect?"
"Maybe you boys should just calm down." Claire said. "This probably isn't a good idea when both of you are like this. Someone's gonna get hurt."
"Yeah, him!" Barden said.
Claire stepped in and tied to separate them. What did she think she was doing?
"Oh, so you can throw down with anyone at the drop of a hat but not the rest of us? When did the little pit-fighter become such a hypocrite?" Emmrich knocked Claire's hands off him and she immediately dropped into a defensive stance. The way the veins were standing out on her temples and her pupils were dilating, she'd triggered her Hyper-thalamus as well. "Oh, so you too?" Emmrich said. "Sure, I can fight both of you. At the same time if you want."
Claire rolled her eyes and scoffed. Shaking her head, she turned and walked away, waving a dismissive hand over her shoulder. "Whatever. You two can kill each other for all I care."
"You know what, Claire, I think you're right," Barden said, following after her. "This little punk isn't worth it."
"Running away from a fight? I knew you guys weren't in the same league as me! I can't believe I ever let you hang out with me this long!"
Emmrich stalked off in the other direction, heading for the massive canyon their camp overlooked. As he eased back on his Hyper-thalamus gland, he could feel his pulse slowing to a more normal rate. The world around him become drab and boring once more.
Barden just needed to realize the truth. Each time they'd fought, Emmrich had wiped the floor with him. Clair hadn't faired any better the two times they'd spared either. She knew how to fight, Emmrich had the bruises to prove it, but in Mecha matches, she relied too heavily on her Combeasts, letting them do most of the fighting while also depending on them to protect that clunker Merhiran of hers. When were they going to learn they just didn't have what it took to defeat Emmrich?
Why had he ever started hanging out with they anyway? They were holding him back. He needed to get out there on his own again and rack up some more wins before the tournament. If he had to keep fighting alongside them, his rating would never go up. He needed to use these preliminary qualifying rounds to take down some big hitters, not baby-sit a couple of wannabes.
The three of them might have had a few adventures together, but that didn't mean they had any obligations to each other. This wasn't a team competition. The only thing any of them had to worry about was winning that tournament for themselves. Let them go their own way and see how long they'd last without Emmrich there to bail them out when they got into trouble.
"We don't need them, do we Quill?"
Quill mewed uncertainly.
Emmrich kicked a stone and it went sailing over the cliff. He walked over to the edge and sat on one of the large boulders. The setting sun painted the banded rock in more vivid shades of red and orange than the canyon walls usually displayed.
Had it just been a few days since he'd defeated the arrogant Marquis over there on the far side? It seemed like months ago, but it was only yesterday that the three of them scaled down the cliff in order to find a way over to the this side. They'd found a path but they'd also unexpected found that colony of Fire-Bats too. Emmrich had laughed so hard when Barden fell in the river that he lost his footing and fell in right after him. And then Claire jumped in as well, just for the hell of it. They'd looked like a trio of drown rats by the time they got to shore.
Emmrich chuckled to himself. He'd miss them if he was out on his own again. Despite what Barden might have thought, they were still his friends -- maybe the best he'd ever had.
Growing tired of looking for kangaroo rats among the boulders, Quill trotted up beside Emmrich and laid down at his feet. Absently, Emmrich stroked his lush fur. At least he'd always have Quill by his side. They'd been together since he'd been given to Emmrich as just a tiny little kit.
That was probably one of the last things his father did before he left Emmrich, Lucy and their mother. There had been no warning. No indication anything was wrong. One night he was there, and the next, he and his Mecha were just gone. If he hadn't left his PCR behind, Emmrich and his mother might have thought that he'd simply gone back to train for the next tournament like was so often the case. For a long time Emmrich was convinced his father would eventually return for it, but he'd given up on that hope a long time ago.
He pulled that same PCR out of its holster and idly tapped the screen to bring it to life. It had been nine years since his father had left. He'd spent so many hours staring at that intricate little piece of electrics that he knew every sharp line and bulky contour by heart. As a child, he'd been amazed by everything it could do.
He ran his fingers over the card reader slot and the digitizing port, smiling at the list of Combat Cards stored inside and at the memories of the adventures he'd gone through to get each one. All his Combeasts except Quill were in there as well, safe and snug in digital format, just waiting to aid him in a fight. Records of his past matches, complete with detailed logs of every move executed by both himself and his opponents, scrolled across the screen; every one of them a resounding victory.
It might have been old, but it was still as good as any newer model. It was going to take him just as far as it had his father -- maybe even farther.
The nearby skittering of a kangaroo rat drew Quill's attention with a start. As his head shot up looking for the source, one of his long, tufted ears knocked the PCR from Emmrich's hand. It clattered against the jagged rocks at Emmrich's feet and bounced once before landing face down.
"Hey, watch it!"
His elusive prey suddenly forgotten, Quill slunk to the ground in shame.
Emmrich snatched up the computer and hurriedly blew off the dust. If something had happened to it, he wouldn't know what he'd do. Fortunately, everything still seemed to be working okay. There wasn't so much as scratch on the screen. The only real damage appeared to be a small panel on the back that was hanging loose by a bent hinge. It might take some force to get it back into place, but it didn't look any worse than superficial.
The PCR was such a solid piece of equipment, Emmrich had never needed to look inside before. Now that it was open, the intricate inner workings were exposed. However, there wasn't much there for him to see, just a random assortment of circuits and wires like any other piece of electronics. It was probably best just to put the panel back on and hope nothing else had been damaged.
But then he noticed a familiar shape tucked away behind a tangle of thin wires. He was almost certain it was a Combat Card. Had one of them gotten knocked out of the storage deck during the fall? It didn't seem possible, but yet there it was.
Gingerly, he tried easing it out from the nest of wires. It almost seemed like it was caught on something. A few gentle tugs freed it, but he could now see it was actually locked into a crude frame which was connected to the rest of the system by its own array of wires.
Emmrich had never seen anything like it before. He pulled it as far out of the panel as the wires would allow and turned it over. Reading the title on the back of the card, Emmrich nearly dropped the entire PCR yet again.
It was a Victory Card.
But that wasn't possible. They didn't really exist. They were just myths -- extremely illegal myths.
It had to be a fake, like those stupid decals they sold at all the souvenir booths. It wasn't even loaded into the standard card slot. It must have just been his dad's good luck charm. He never wanted anyone asking questions about it so he kept it hidden in a secret compartment on the back of the computer. That had to be it.
He slipped it out of the fake reader slot and turned the computer over. His hand hovered over the real slot for a just a moment. What was he afraid of? It wasn't real. It might have had that same silvery smooth finish of a real combat card, but the computer was going to reject it as if it were just a piece of cardboard.
The leading edge slid right into the slot with the machined precision of real card. Well, it was an authentic replica, in any case. The computer hummed as it sucked the card inside. It pinged and the screen flashed an icon of an animated hourglass. Just give it a second. The rollers would grind a time or two as it tried and failed to identify the coding, then it would spit the thing back out and give Emmrich an "Invalid Card Format" error. Just give it another second.
The computer pinged, but in approval, not rejection. The PCR flashed the animated initiation screen that it always displayed when installing a new card. Maybe it was just a different card painted up to look like a Victory Card. The twirling graphic enlarged and stopped with the logo "Victory Card" emblazoned right across the top.
"This card guarantees victory to the holder, regardless of relative fighter skills, equipment, terrain, or weather," the scrolling stats read. "Do you wish to install?"
Emmrich hit the "no" button as fast he was able and snatched the card out of the computer before it was even fully ejected. He held it at arm's length, as far from the computer as he could get it, like it was poison. The evening sun glinted off of the silvery edges of the card.
It had to be some kind of trick. Barden must have planted it there to get back at him. It wasn't like Emmrich had even been suspicious of him. He would have had plenty of opportunities.
But that panel hadn't been opened in years. Emmrich had never even known it existed. There was no way Barden could have. And the card was even plugged into a jury-rigged card reader slot. What reason would Barden have for going through all that trouble?
But if he wasn't responsible, that would mean it had always been there. Those modifications were old. Maybe it had been there since before his father had gotten the computer. Except Emmrich remembered his father telling him with pride about how he'd bought this particular unit direct from the factory. He'd also seen that same type of wire on his dad's old work bench.
His father had been undefeated for five years in a row. It had been unprecedented. No one had ever been that good. His father was the best there ever was. A genius of the tournament. There was no opponent he couldn't beat. There were books written about his techniques. He was a legend. A hero.
And apparently, also a liar; possibly the biggest cheater of all time. Barden's dad might have been a bandit, but stealing Mecha's was downright honest by comparison.
Emmrich's hand began shaking.
He'd always wanted to be just like his father and now he was: a cheater. It didn't matter if he'd known about the card or not, it had been plugged into the PCR.
If the tournament commission found out, he'd be disqualified and barred from the tournament without a second thought. He'd be a joke. His entire village -- the neighbors who'd sponsored him, they'd all be disgraced. He'd never be allowed to fight again except maybe in unsanctioned pit matches. People died in those fights, but he didn't know what else he'd do if he wasn't allowed to fight anymore.
This wasn't fair. He was supposed to be the greatest tournament fighter of all time. Now he was just a fraud who was going to end up dead in some underground cage match fighting for a handful of change and a hot meal.
Emmrich crumpled the card in his fist. With a scream, he tossed it over the cliff and watched through tear-filled as it returned to its proper shape and drifted away on the breeze. Quill looked up with a questioning whimper but there was nothing he'd be able to do to make this any better. Emmrich's life was as good as over.
It was dark by the time Emmrich returned to camp. Claire was sitting in a hammock slung between the arms of her Mecha while her pair of Silver-Wolves lounged on either side of her. The two sleek Combeasts looked up and eyed Quill and Emmrich with the same suspicion they always displayed toward them. In Clair's lap was the pink, tripdic-style PCR on which she was idly playing with her massive collection of digitized Combeasts. Over by the fire, Barden poked at the logs with a stick.
"I was sure you weren't coming back," Claire said, barely glancing up from her screen.
"I thought about it," Emmrich said. "But I wanted to apologize to you guys. I've been acting like a jerk lately. All these fights we've been winning have kind of gone to my head. I know that's just an excuse, but I'm still sorry."
They didn't have any reason to forgive him. He hadn't been a very good friend the last couple of weeks and that had absolutely nothing to do with the Victory Card. He really had started to believe his own hype. Claire and Barden looked at each other but said nothing.
"Come on guys. I didn't mean to say those things earlier. I really am sorry."
"Okay, fine," Claire said. "Apology accepted. Besides, I can't stay mad at you while you still have Quill. He's not that bad a judge of character."
"Yeah, I guess," Barden said. "It's your first tournament. That's a lot excitement to handle."
Emmrich was lucky to have met them. They really were true friends. But that was exactly why he had to tell them about the Victory Card. They might have been willing to excuse his conceited behavior but what would they do when they found out about that? No one would be able to forgive him for that. Even if they could, they'd never look at him the same way again. Every match he won, they'd always ask themselves whether or not he'd done it fairly.
But he had to tell them. He been deceiving them long enough. They deserved to know the truth.
"Um, there was something else I wanted to tell you guys." In the flickering firelight, the eyes of his two companions bored into him. If he didn't say it now, he'd never be able to. Just get it over with already. "I…I was just wondering if you wanted a rematch."
What an idiot. For a Mecha fighter, he really was a coward sometimes.
"A rematch?" Barden said. "Now?"
"Y-yeah. I was thinking about what you said and you were right. You have a lot more experience than I do. That last match wasn't as good as it should have been. You deserve another chance."
Barden mulled it over and then nodded. "Okay, yeah. I haven't fought a night match in a while. This'll be fun."
"Great," Claire said, "Guess I get stuck playing referee…again."
"Don't worry," Barden said, pausing as he climbed up to his Mecha's cockpit. "I'll let you have what's left of him after I'm done kicking his ass."
"We'll just see about that!" Emmrich said.
What was he thinking? He should have told them about the Victory Card, not challenged Barden to a match. Now there was no way out of it.
But wasn't this actually the perfect way to prove himself?
It wasn't the Victory Card that had allowed him to win all those matches. Even if it had helped once in a while, his own skill had more to do with all his wins than a stupid card he never even knew he had.
He'd beat Barden without any help and then he wouldn't need to tell his friends anything -- because it hadn't been the Victory Card at all. The only reason Barden had gotten mad earlier was because Emmrich was acting like a jerk. He knew that now and he wouldn't let it happen again -- no matter how many times he defeated Barden.
Claire's Mehiran took up position on the same ridgeline as before. Her smiling face filled one of the tiny comm windows. She wasn't taking part in this match and even she was excited about it.
Yes, it was going to be a good fight; the best one yet.
"Ready…" Claire said.
In the other window, Barden's expression was set firmly but his lips pressed into a thin smile. This is the kind of thing a tournament fighter lived for; a worthy foe and a noble battle.
Emmrich twisted his hands around the grips. Neither of them were going to go easy on the other but Barden was still going to lose, just like all the other times before.
Emmrich mashed the controls and the Gladitorian charged forward. On the screen, he could see Barden's Mecha doing the same. Neither of them were going to hold anything back. That was just fine with Emmrich. He was going to give Barden the fight of his life and then some.
"Quantum Sun -- what the -- !?"
Before Emmrich could even activate the card on his PCR, the main view screen when black. Frantically, he checked the controls, but it wasn't a malfunction.
Barden's Blackout Bomb. Apparently he'd managed to get it into play this time. That was a bit unexpected, but it was no big deal. Emmrich could counter that.
The whole cockpit shook with a jaw-rattling bang as something collided with the Gladitorian. Flailing about in the direction the attack had come from, Emmrich felt the Gladitorian's arm glance off something metal. It must have been Barden's Mecha. He regained his footing and lashed out with a three ton fist of solid metal. It hit something hard that shattered under the impact.
That wasn't a Mecha. What did he just hit?
"Hey, moron!" Claire said. "Watch it with the landscaping, you almost took me out with that one!"
Landscaping? Had he just attacked a rock? He should have been doing better than this. He needed to get rid of this stupid blackness. It was throwing off his entire game. A Quantum Sunburst might do the trick.
As he reached to activate the card, another loud clang rang through the Gladitorian's frame. He really hated that sound. The entire machine lurched wildly and Emmrich could feel himself falling backward. His hand came down on the PCR's screen just as the Gladitorian crashed to the ground. The flash of light did indeed burn away the Blackout Bomb, but as it cleared, he found himself staring at Barden's drawn fist.
What the hell had just happened? Emmrich hadn't been able to get in a single decent attack. It was like the complete opposite of all their previous fights. Emmrich had never had a match go that badly before -- ever!
"And that looks like a win for Barden…I guess," Claire said. She sounded nearly as confused as Emmrich felt.
The combat computer made a sound he'd never heard before. He looked at the screen to see the first mark ever in his losses column.
"What the hell was that!" Barden said, his face on the screen was contorted with rage. "I thought you were gonna give me a rematch, not a pity win. I want a real fight!"
"No…no…it's not that…oh jeeze, it really was the Victory Card …"
"Victory Card?" Claire said. "Emmrich, what are you talking about? Are you okay?"
Their shouting faces, their urgent words, Quill's questioning mewing, the pinging of the combat computer. It was too much. He couldn't deal with it all.
All he knew was that he wasn't a prodigy, or the best fighter of all time. He wasn't even a half-way capable fighter. He was a cheater, just like Barden had said.
"I'm-I'm sorry." Emmrich pulled the Gladitorian back to it's feet. He backed away from the other Mechas but it didn't remove the faces of their pilots from his screen. How would he ever be able to look at them again? "Guys, I'm sorry. I didn't know about it. I just found it. It was my dad's. I didn't know about it. I didn't really win any of those matches. I'm…oh jeeze…I'm…sorry. I didn't mean to!"
"You're not making any sense!" Claire said. "What are you talking about?"
Emmrich wheeled the Gladitorian around and set off at a dead run away from Barden and Claire. It didn't matter where he was headed, he just needed to get away from them.
"Emmrich, what are you doing?" Barden said.
The darkened landscape flew past. Emmrich had little interest in it, though he wouldn't have been able to see much anyway with his eyes blurred by tears. He'd turned off his transmission before the others could see him like that, but for some reason he couldn't bring himself to stop listening in on them. In time, Barden and Claire's pleas for him to stop and explain himself were replaced by speculation about what had happened and arguments about what to do next. However, the short-range combat channel quickly passed beyond the lay of the land, reducing their transmissions to nothing but static.
It was sometime later, as Emmrich was passing over a ridge, that the comms crackled and suddenly Claire and Barden's images sprang back into focus. With the immense desert and the star-filled sky overhead, he paused and listened to his one time friends.
" -- out of range," Barden was saying.
"Come on," Claire said. "He obviously wants to be left alone. The last thing he's gonna want right now is us butting in. He'll come back once he's figured out whatever it is that's got him riled up."
"Something's not right." It was strange to see Barden looking almost concerned. Why he'd feel anything other than anger, however, Emmrich couldn't fathom. "I've never seen him like that before. And what was he talking about before he left? He sounded hysterical. I think we should make sure he doesn't go and do something stupid."
"He's a big boy, he'll be fine," Claire said, though she didn't sound as confident about it as her words might have indicated.
With a deep breath to compose himself, Emmrich reached out and dropped his hand onto the transmission button.
"Emmrich, is that you?" Claire said, her eye's opening wide. "Where are you? Your signal's barely coming in."
"Why are you broadcasting voice only?" Barden said.
"Just listen. I have to tell you something. I found a hidden card in my PCR. It must have belonged to my dad. I didn't know it was there…"
"Emmrich, what are you talking about?"
"It was a Victory Card -- a real Victory Card. That's how my dad won all those matches. It's how I was able to keep winning. I really was cheating you guys all this time. I thought I could…I thought I… I'm sorry. I didn't know about it but it's better for all of us if I'm not around you two anymore. I'm probably gonna get banned from the tournament and I wouldn't want any of that spilling over onto you."
"Come on," Barden said. "Running away is for cowards. We can help you figure this out."
"No, this is for the best. It's my problem and I need to deal with it by myself. If we ever really were friends, please, don't come after me."
"Emmrich, we'll always be your -- "
Static cut Claire off before Emmrich could hear the rest. It was probably just as well. They'd figure out that they were better off without him and then they'd move on. If they stayed together, he'd only hold them back. They had a better chance of getting into the tournament than he ever did. He couldn't be responsible for keeping them from their dreams like that.
He turned the Gladitorian toward the horizon. The desert seemed to stretch on forever. A man could get lost out there. He could lose himself even if he knew right where he was. That's what Emmrich needed now. The images of Claire and Barden were gone from the screen, but how much farther would he have to go before he'd no longer see them staring at him? Emmrich eased the Gladitorian forward, the rhythmic plodding of it feet carrying him away from an unfortunate past and toward a uncertain future.
Emmrich smiled. This was going to be the best fight yet. As he
pulled at the Gladitorian's controls, the several tons of metal
which surrounded him respond eagerly. The screen filling the
front of the cockpit wheeled across a vibrant landscape of sand
and rocks, deeply furrowed by gullies and fissures. It was a good
place for this.