Character backstory fic for #XenogearsRPG, which has subsequently vanished into the black hole that is IRC. Emka's got angst. She's also kind of a bitch. Hmm. I'd kind of like to use her again, but it's tough to say how I possibly could.

Gear Jockey

"How's that knee joint, Beowulf?" the girl asked, glancing up from where she tended the fire to gaze through the gloom at the bulky figure just outside the cave.

-Much better, Mistress,- the red letters printed in the right side of her visor, and she grinned.

"Good. Think your internals can handle the integration?"


That was good too. Incompatible parts were a bitch to deal with. Not that she had much choice, since legitimate Gear shops charged a good bit of money -- and that was something she didn't have a lot of. Not that smugglers and pirates were much better about prices, but she had friends there. And besides, she was sitting on the best scrap yard this side of Bledavik. There was always stuff to barter and sell. Or use. Whichever.

"So what else is the matter with you?" she asked conversationally, turning the stake that her dinner was roasting on.

-I need minor repairs to my booster,- the Gear replied. -It can wait.-

"Yeah. I don't imagine we'll be scrapping too much." Not unless they ran into another bunch of Kislev morons who thought she was a soldier. Not that she could blame them too entirely. Beowulf was a military Gear. And a damn good one. She grinned. Her commander had been such an ass.

She pulled the spit out of the fire. "Dinner time." She glanced out at the shadowy form. "You can shut down for the night, if you want."

-Very well, Mistress. Good night.- The text blinked for a moment in the corner of her visor, then vanished, and his connection status went to idle.

She sat down, dumping the bird onto her tin mess plate and running her tongue over her lips. You out-did yourself this time, Emka. Cooked a bird and didn't burn it. Beautiful. Then she started to eat, reflecting more cheerfully than usual on her lot in life. This was good. Food, security, and nobody around to bother her. It was as good as life had been since she'd left the army.

She uttered a mental snort. Left the army. Deserted, they're probably saying. Of course, if it hadn't been for her stupid-ass commander, she probably would have stayed. At least, longer than she did stay. She bit into the bird viciously. God, I hate him. She supposed a person could say they'd hit it off badly, but for the most part, she hated just him.

"Pink hair? Was your mother on LSD?" the man laughed uproariously at his own joke, moving down the inspection line at a slow enough pace to make a vicious, sniping comment for every soldier. Most of them took it quietly, but family was a sore spot for a fresh-from-the-farm teenager who was trying to forget about that very thing.

She'd delivered a cutting smile in response and said, "No, but I'm pretty sure my father was." It completely slipped her mind to say 'sir'.

Oddly enough, that hadn't gone over well. Apparently, new recruits weren't allowed to insult anyone -- not even themselves. That was solely his jurisdiction.

"So the bitch here's a smartass?" he'd said in response, bringing a heavy hand down on her shoulder.

"Smarter than you, sir." She realized even as she said it that it probably hadn't been the best thing to say. Remembering the sir had probably added insult to injury, at that. She didn't have much time to reflect on it, though, because his parting shot was a blow to the jaw that sent her sprawling.

The other soldiers stepped out of her way and let her hit the floor. She got up without a word, trying not to rub her hand against the painful welt that was undoubtedly welling up. She was going to have a sweet shiner tomorrow, but there was no way in hell she'd let him have the satisfaction of knowing it hurt. No way in hell.

Emka shook her head and picked her dinner up from where it was rapidly cooling on the plate in her lap. She glanced out the rocky entrance, putting the bird up to her mouth and taking a nibble. Her appetite was close to gone. The moon's pretty, anyway, she observed to herself. It was about as close to appreciating nature as she ever got.

Pretty. Almost like the night she'd left home. Left home. She giggled to herself. They probably told all the neighbors I ran away.

She nipped at the bird again. And to think, if her father hadn't pissed her off that morning, she wouldn't be where she was today. No, I'd probably be married to the butcher's son. Charming. She took a moment to spit over her shoulder.

"We've finally got enough money for a dowry," her father said in a numbly proud sort of way. "We can finally marry her off."

He hadn't known his eldest daughter was in the room at the time, but even if he had, it probably wouldn't have mattered. He was a very practical man. He had four daughters and two sons. What were the daughters for but to get married? Of course, that didn't stop him from making them work the fields, just like his two boys, but their proper place, he reasoned, was exactly the place his wife was. Bearing children and cooking dinner.

As each of them came of age, it was one less mouth to feed. He was a poor man. It only stood to reason.

Her little brother glanced over at her, a sort of apologetic blankness in his gaze. She'd always liked him, the poor kid. He wasn't likely to get much in the land settlement when their father died, because he was the younger son. The elder, of course, was more important. She didn't respond to his gaze but walked out of the kitchen and back to her room -- which she shared with her three sisters -- and slammed the door. Her mother noticed, but she didn't say anything. She never did.

Without regard to the odd stares from the two of her sisters actually in the room, Emka began to pack.

"I'm joining the army," she said to her father some eight hours later, and she marched out the door. As she was leaving, she heard him mumble somewhat bemusedly to his wife, "Well ... at least we can use the dowry for one of the others."

She had been seventeen. She was twenty-two now -- twenty-three? She'd lost count along the way. Not that it mattered. The bird had again dropped into her lap, and she again picked it up. It wasn't very warm anymore -- closer to tepid than anything else. If a bird could be tepid. Lukewarm, maybe.

For a while, she concentrated on picking one side of the bird clean, because that was better than thinking. She reminded herself not to let Beowulf go to sleep before she did anymore. Not that she ever remembered. She stared at the moon, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a greasy finger.

Pink hair. She uttered a disgusted sigh. Just lucky, I guess. She supposed it helped sometimes, when she was on a con. Men seemed to find it a very innocent color -- that somehow a girl in pink would be incapable of doing anything bad. Men were stupid that way. It hadn't worked with her commander, of course. In fact, it had infuriated him.

Emka stared moodily at the fire, which was down to its last flickers. The hostilities between herself and her commander had only escalated since that day they met. He thought she was a smartass, she thought he was a jerk. But he was her commander. So she took it. She had revenge in her own little ways. She and one or two of the other squad members took pains to make his life just a little more miserable.

Of course, she got all the credit. Emka grinned, biting another bit of meat off the bird. Latrine duty was nothing. Nothing at all. Extra training hours were practice. Practice for when she could kick his ass straight to hell. Not that she got the chance.

She probably would have left anyway. It had only taken six months for her to decide that war was not her thing. She'd never even been to the front. They trained in Gears, out of Gears, around about the capitol, but she saw the wounded. Once or twice. She had to go to the medics when a lucky shot from her commander splintered her arm.

And while they were fixing her up, she decided to leave. The nurse had babbled incessantly about how she should report him, that she didn't have to take this kind of abuse.

"And she was right, I didn't," Emka observed out loud, then glanced at Beowulf quickly to make sure he hadn't heard her. Nope, still idle.

It was the dead of night when she slipped into the Gear hangar, arm still in a sling and eyes half-dead for lack of energy. She hadn't even told her friends, not even them. She slipped toward her Gear. Robbery was wrong, but she figured she'd need a little bit of protection if she wanted to get away from the Kislev forces clean.

But as her eyes drifted around the hangar that one, last time, they lit on him, that one Gear that stood out from all the others. The one that had repeatedly knocked her down in training, kicked her and told her to get up again and fight. His Gear.

Her mouth bent into a feral grin, showing her teeth. She'd pay him back, the bastard. She'd pay him back ten times over.

At least, she thought that was what she thought. She wasn't so sure after that. But she liked the idea that she had stolen the Gear for revenge, so she stuck with it.

She had almost been out of the hangar when the alarms started to scream. He was in the room almost immediately, trying to override the Gear's functions by remote. She wouldn't let him, and he finally gave up, but he sent a radio transmission through.

She caught a glimpse of his face before he spoke. Livid, almost mad with anger.

"You little bitch," he swore at her as she turned the Gear out of the hangar and ran. "You little bitch, I'll tear you apart. If I ever see you again, I'll beat the shit out of you. I'll break every bone in your goddamn body." His voice was shaking with rage, controlled rage, and she could tell this was not a threat, but a promise.

And she was terrified.

She shook her head. That hadn't been a pleasant memory. She stared at the bird, which was again in her lap and now completely cold. Yum. She walked outside the small cave -- barely a hollow, really -- and threw it out into the bushes. There was undoubtedly something hungrier than her out there.

Then she walked back inside and threw herself on her pallet, tugging the ratty blankets up to her chin. So I've been hiding out for five years. Think he's forgotten me yet? She snorted and rolled over to face the wall. Hell no. She closed her eyes and went to sleep.

But she still had to go out for parts. Which was part of what she was doing this morning.

"Think Alleycat's gonna have anything new, Wulf?" she asked, hopping into the cockpit from his outstretched hand.

-She might, Mistress. There has been heavy fighting in her area lately.-

"Yeah, you're right. Let's head out."

Beowulf was heavily modified from when she'd first gotten him. In a way, she had had to win her small patch of home, sweet home from both Aveh and Kislev. Beating off trespassers was somewhat of a hobby. But Beowulf was a heavy-duty army Gear, equipped with a high-power rifle, bulky armor, and not much else.

For a fugitive on the run, it was not a good thing.

The first thing she did was strip the armor down, modifying his joints and limbs for speed as best as she could. Then she got rid of the rifle. It was fairly impractical for a hand-to-hand fighter like herself. A few times used as a club and the thing was useless.

Beowulf would never be a light fighter, but he was fast. No one yet had been able to outrun him in a flat-out chase. As a matter of fact, Emka was extremely proud of that record. Even if the high speed and knocking about was hard on him, thus requiring constant repair.

She had hot-wired him to bypass the security checks. And after a month of living on her own, with little to no human contact, she stole a shopkeeper 'bot's AI and installed it, doing her best to modify it to something she could hold a normal conversation with. Although every once in a while, the shopkeeper overrode him. That led to interesting results.

"Maybe she's had Spook on the prowl. Spook turns up good parts."

-Perhaps so,- Beowulf agreed.

It was Spook who'd given her her name, come to think of it. She was a foreigner of some kind, and her speech was broken at best. The first time they'd met, four years ago, the pale, willowy girl had nearly bent herself into a knot trying to say 'Emilia Keranyn'. As a matter of fact, all she could get out was 'Em-ka'.

Emka grinned to herself. Emilia was a stupid name anyway.

Beowulf skidded slightly, hitting the bottom slopes where the mountain began to turn into desert. "You okay?" she asked him, receiving a short affirmative in response. It was going to be a sweet trip across the desert to get to the beach where her smuggler pals were holed up. It might have to be a two-day trip.

Even though the fighting had inexplicably lessened between the Aveh and Kislev forces, there were still Gear patrols running around the desert -- most of them hostile. She had to watch her step crossing near Bledavik.

"Should we make it a two-day, Wulf?" she asked suddenly.

-I can make it in one, Mistress.- The Gear seemed offended.

"I know that," she said patiently, swallowing a laugh. "But it'll take hours to fix you up."

-It is safer to travel in one day,- Beowulf insisted.

"All right, all right," Emka muttered. "It's your body. If you wanna bash it all to hell and gone, there's nothing I can do about it."

-Except for the manual override,- the Gear supplied helpfully.

"Very funny, Beowulf." A one-day run would sap a motherload of fuel, not to mention hours of sleep, and it was easier to sneak when you weren't running full-tilt in one direction.

After a few minutes of silence, while Emka calculated exactly how much work she was going to have to put in to keep her Gear up and running for the twelve hours it would take to make the trip, the Gear spoke up again, apologetic.

-If you wish, we can take two days,- he said. -I simply thought you might want to hurry.-

"Why would I want to hurry?" she asked, looking blank, but his response was silence. "Oh, don't worry about it, Wulf. We can go it in one if you want to." She shrugged eloquently. "'Sides, I just finished calculating the route."

-Do tell,- said the Gear with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Sometimes Emka swore she'd gotten the most demented shopkeeper AI in Aveh; he loved to challenge himself. Though how she could tell that through words printed in a panel on her visor was anyone's guess. She and the Gear had been together for some time.

"It's an easy, buffer route," she said quickly, feeding the data into his navigational panel. Before he could voice his disappointment, she continued, "Look, you said your boosters needed repair, right? I don't want anything blowing up on me halfway."

-It brings us very close to Bledavik,- Beowulf said doubtfully, already adjusting his course to match hers.

"Only for a few minutes. That's why I want a booster burst on the western turn." She smiled apologetically. "We'll have to get out fast."

-And without them noticing?-

"Very good."

She got the sensation of a laugh. There was his challenge. The security around that city was remarkable, but if anyone could get past it, Emka was positive Beowulf could. "I'm gonna take five, Wulfy," she said with a yawn and a stretch. "Wake me when we hit critical." Critical was when they were on the approach to Bledavik. That was when she might have to take a little manual control and help with manuevering and thrusters. She wouldn't get much time to sleep, but it would be something.

-Good night, Mistress,- the text blinked in her visor, and she shut her eyes.

She'd learned to drink under the instruction of the Aveh soldiers. Which meant she was a pretty poor drinker. She hadn't taken up their habitual smoking, however, much to their disappointment.

Most of the soldiers in her unit were male, which made her edgy sometimes, but mostly they were polite. They weren't at the front, which meant that whorehouses were relatively abundant, and they could get by without bothering her. Once or twice they got rowdy when they'd had too much to drink, but a swift kick or a slap generally calmed them down or sent them searching elsewhere.

None of the other women ever went drinking. To Emka, it seemed odd.

"No, no," one of the soldiers laughed at her, when she observed this one night to most of the company, "the women -- y'see -- they're much purer than us." He grinned at her, completely unaware of what he was saying. "They can't take a drink or they'll destroy their reputation." He slung his arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze, which she permitted. "Us ... we have to drink or we'll destroy our reputation."

"So where does that put me?" Emka asked drily, pushing his arm off when he didn't remove it after a few moments.

He roared with laughter, gesturing for another drink. "You're one of us, baby!" he told her, trying to put his arm around her again.

"You drunken ass," she retorted, shoving him away and declining the refill offered her by the barkeep.

The commander never drank with them, either, which was just as well. If he had drunk with them, she probably would have cloistered herself away with the other women -- wherever they were.

She'd also proved to be a pathetic shot with a gun. Her commander made her work with a pistol once or twice so he could ridicule her, then he got orders to train her in hand to hand combat. He took it upon himself to train her personally. It made for a great excuse to beat the living shit out of her daily. Even the other soldiers started to feel sorry for her, not just the babbling medics.

The training helped, though, she had to admit. When the options were to let him beat the crap out of her or to learn how to fight, she took the latter. He was the abusive father she'd never had.

It was the jolt of something striking her Gear that woke her, eyes snapped open to catch anything her visor had printed. "Beowulf?" she said sharply. "What the hell was that?"

-I am not sure, Mistress,- he replied placidly. -There is only minimal damage.-

"Are we anywhere near crit --" She broke off and glanced at the nav panel instead. They were half a mile off Bledavik and approaching rapidly. At a quarter of a mile, they veered off, skidding toward the shelter of a gutted archaeological site. Whatever had struck them vanished without a trace and didn't return.

"I hate scares like that," Emka muttered softly, pitching a choice swear-word toward whatever had interrupted her nap. "How are we doing on fuel?"

-I am close to full capacity, Mistress,- Beowulf answered her, seeming proud of that fact.

"Good," she muttered. "We might just make it after all."

-Of course we will.- She'd offended him again.

"Right, of course." She yawned. "Think you can get us the rest of the way there alone? I'm bushed."

-Naturally,- he told her. -I will wake you in the event of an emergency.-

"You'd better." She pulled her visor off, revealing blue eyes behind the fuschia screen, and shook her hair out, running her fingers through it. "Loudly." That said, she slid out of the chair and down to the floor, where she kept an extra set of sleeping gear.

Since voice commands had made most of the controls in the cockpit unnecessary, she'd removed them. And that left a lot more space for other activities. Like sleeping. She kicked the bedroll open and flopped down on it, punching her pillow before lying down. Inside the Gear was one of the few places she felt safe. With a friend I guess, said part of her mind, to which the other part replied, Bullshit.

Emka yawned again and rolled over, closing her eyes, the soft throb of the Gear lulling her to sleep. When she woke again, it was to the thin beeping sound of the navicomp, announcing their arrival at their destination.

She startled from sleep, barely managing to stop herself from smacking her head on the underside of the panel. Muttering softly, she groped one hand over to the pilot's seat and fumbled for her visor. "What time is it, Beowulf?" she mumble blearily, fitting the device on her head.

-Close to eleven,- came the reply.

"So we made pretty good time?"

-Yes, Mistress.-

Yawning, she shoved the bedroll back in the corner, not bothering to fix it up again, and crawlled out from under the panel. "How are you holding up?"

-My joints need a thorough cleaning, my engine is under strain, I am low on fuel, and that knee joint is out again.- It was as close as he ever got to complaining. She felt him land, a release in pressure on his legs, and she slid into her seat, tapping the radio on.

"Great ..." If they had to fight along the way, he'd probably freeze up. "Special clearance Rook-seven-three-four-two-Cunning," she chattered into the radio, "and make it snappy, Al."

~ Long time no see, Emka, ~ came Alleycat's semi-familiar voice, laughing. ~ Drop on into the hangar -- we're ready for ya. ~

Emka tossed off a lazy grin, and Beowulf manuevered forward over the drop shute. She felt her stomach jump when they started to fall, and she hoped the Gear's joints could take the landing. She could almost detect a wince from the Gear as he touched down, and his knee joints gave an unsettling creak and wrench. "Damn," she muttered softly. "Are you okay --?"

-No,- Beowulf supplied politely. -My left knee joint just ripped out.-

"Great." He opened the cockpit without prompting, and she sprang out lightly, bounding off his oustretched hand to his knee and dropping to the ground. Glancing up again, she saw that he was correct, that his knee was a complete mess.

She caught a flicker of shadow out of the corner of her eye, and she spun sharply, a sudden, wary grin on her face. She padded forward, eyes glinting in the half-light of the cavern. Then a flash of darkness at her shoulder, and she spun again to face a small shadow, wide eyes filled with laughter, pale face smiling.

"Heya Spook," Emka snorted, resting her hands lightly on her hips.

"Yim, Em-ka," the small girl smiled, touching her right temple. "You come -- to buy?"

"Yeah," said the pink-haired girl. "Beowulf needs some repairs and upgrades."

"Bad hurt?" she asked, looking concerned.

"No worse than usual," Emka shrugged in response. "Where's Alleycat?"

"At store. Told me come -- take you there." The small girl reached up and took Emka's gloved hand in hers, smiling, and proceeded to pull her down the long hallway.

"Get to work on a damage report, Beowulf," Emka called to the Gear.

-Of course, Mistress.-

"How have you been lately?" Emka asked the small girl, in an attempt to keep a conversation going. How Spook had gotten so attatched to her, she didn't know, but she had no desire to upset her by asking.

Spook released her hand with a slow smile. "Tuhgri, Em-ka," she said. "Very well."

"Buzzer been messin' with you lately?"

She laughed, darting forward to open the door that led to the main shop. "He is -- nice," she smiled.

"Bullshit," Emka retorted, amused. "He's a jerk."

"He is nice to me," said the girl, and she slipped quickly inside. Emka followed her, smile fading from her face.

"Hey, Alleycat," called a male voice, "Emmie's back!"

"Don't call me that, Ramrod," Emka snapped. "Al, you have new parts?" she called into the room, and a few more lights blazed on overhead.

"Yeah, yeah," yawned out the voice she'd heard over the intercom, and a tall, gaunt woman stalked into the room, stretching her arms over her head. Her pale-blond hair hung in a whip-like tail down her back, and a scar ran its way across her face, from the center of her forehead to the bottom of her jaw. "Geez, Emka, what the hell kind of hours are you keeping?"

"Beowulf wanted to make it in one day," the girl shrugged, spreading her hands in an insincere gesture of helplessness.

"You woke us all up pretty good," Alleycat snorted, rubbing at her single eye with a sharp grin.

Emka shrugged, and Spook reached up a small hand to touch her wrist. "You stay -- night?" she asked curiously, and the girl nodded.

"I'll have to." She gave Alleycat a sharp look. "Can you get me the parts I need tonight?"

The blond woman snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "Of course, of course. Don't be an idiot, Emka."

Emka let that pass, and two male figures trotted out of the shadows, one from a hallway, one from the far corner of the room. Ramrod was tallish and dark-skinned, offset by his light-brown hair. His companion, Buzzer, was of shorter build and thickly muscled, possessing a wide grin and charming, dark blue eyes. Emka viewed them both with suspicion.

"So, whaddya need?" Al asked mildly, hands on hips. "And what have you got in the way of payment?"

"Payment?" Emka tried a joke. "I'm supposed to be paying?"

Ramrod roared with laughter. "Hey -- hey, she's loosening up! She's joking with you, Al!"

Emka snorted and shrugged, but Alleycat was already on her way to a large pile of what appeared to be scrap. Humming tunelessly, she knelt next to it and began sifting through it, tossing unwanted parts over her shoulder at intervals. "It so happens," she drawled, "that I've had some stuff in storage especially for you, Emka."

"Oh?" Interest sparked in her voice.

"Yeah." She thrust her arm into the pile, up to her shoulder. "The last Aveh group traded in a couple of sweet pieces."


"Sometimes they wander in here when the Ethos isn't giving them the parts they want." She laughed.

"You're not our only customer, yaknow," Ramrod drawled, rolling an eye lazily around the room. "If you were, we'd be broke by now."

"There was a guy in just a couple day sago wanted some weird weapon installed," Al muttered, still fishing around. "That was a pain in the ass."

"But we're the best!" Ramrod announced, grinning, and waved his drink in the air. "So we got the installation done."

"In record time," was Al's commentary.

"He'll probably be in for repairs in a matter of weeks," Ramrod continued. "His Gear's nearly as buggy as yours." He nodded at Emka, who smiled briefly.

"We've actually got another group scheduled in tomorrow," Buzzer put in, grabbing a can of beer from where he'd left it on one of the supply carts.

"From Aveh?" Emka's voice grew sharp, and she tapped her visor up from her eyes.

"Yeeeah," Buzzer said slowly, eyeing her with boredom. "What's your beef with them, anyway?"

The girl shrugged. "Let's just say I ... have had a few run-ins with them in the past."

Buzzer snorted. "Whatever."

"Here we go," Alleycat announced, pulling forth from the scrap pile a slightly battered engine coil. "This oughta put a little more pep in Beowulf's run." She tossed it at Emka. "Ya think?"

The pink-haired girl caught it easily and hefted it, turning it over and over in her hands. "Fuel usage?" she asked.

"Minimal," the blond woman supplied. "I was keepin' an eye out for ya."

"Right." Emka nodded. "How much?"

"I dunno." Alleycat reared back on her ankles, rubbing her fingers thoughtfully across her chin. They left a smear of dark oil in their path, which she didn't notice. "Got anything good for trade?"

"The usual grab," Emka replied with an indifferent shrug. "Engines, armor, weaponry."

"How much?"

"Most of it's in good condition, but one of the engine casings is cracked, and some of the armor is worn or blasted." Emka tossed the coil back to the illegal Gear merchant.

"Should we go look --" Al began to ask, but a small yawn broke into the conversation.

Spook was seated on the edge of one of the supply counters, swinging her short, slim legs back and forth. Her pale eyes blinked blearily for a moment before she yawned again, rolling her head on her shoulders. Alleycat laughed.

"Point taken," she said. "We'll talk business tomorrow, Emka. Need a room?"

"I'll sleep in Beowulf," the girl replied immediately, and she began to turn.

"Aw, don't try to tell me a bedroll in a cramped cockpit is more comfortable than a roomy bed," Ramrod objected, making his way toward her.

Emka's eyes flickered dark for a moment, awaiting the punchline. It came moments later, in the form of an arm thrown cozily around her waist and a chin leaned comfortably against her shoulder. "Come on, Emmie," Ramrod purred liltingly. "There are warmer places than the inside of a Gear."

The girl responded only by reaching up to the side of her head and flipping the magenta visor down over her eyes. She then walked forward, and Ramrod released her, concealing a look of disappointment behind a rippling shrug and a toss of his head. As she walked out, Buzzer snickered, "You are never gonna score with her, man -- just give it up!"

"Please," Ramrod retorted, only half joking, "There's only so long a woman can resist me. It just takes time."

He regally ignored Buzzer's snort of laughter, goosing Alleycat on his way back to his quarters. She slapped his shoulder as he walked past, barking out something uncomplimentary regarding his mother.

"Beowulf, how many of the repairs can you get done tonight?" Emka asked, walking at a quick, clipped pace down the hallway.

-I am not sure, Mistress,- the Gear replied dubiously. -The knee will require a great deal of -- -

"Forget the knee. I mean the rest of it."

-Most of it,- he replied immediately, then, -Will there be any new installations tomorrow?-

"Depends on how long that knee joint takes. We may have to take the new stuff with us."

-Is there some trouble with the suppliers?-

"No more than Ramrod's usual shit," Emka replied dismissively. "There's a group from Aveh coming in tomorrow."

The Gear was silent for a moment. -Do you know which?-

"No. It doesn't matter which."

-Are they from the capital?-

"I don't care."

She got the vague impression of a sigh. -Very well, Mistress.-

A momentary surge of guilt prompted her to say, "Look, next time I'll make sure we're clear, then you'll get the royal treatment."

-That would be pleasant.-

Emka snorted. She had reached the hangar, and she made her way quickly to the Gear a half-frown on her face. She wasn't sleepy, since she'd slept most of the way there. "We can get started on those repairs tonight."

-You should sleep, Mistress.-

"No, Wulf, I slept most of the way here."

-Very well.-

"Stop sulking."

-A machine cannot sulk, Mistress.-


Emka didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until Spook's small hand reached her shoulder to give her a gentle shake. "Wake, Em-ka," the small girl said. "Morning."

"Damn," the girl uttered aloud, and Spook drew back. "How are we for repairs, Wulf?"

-All but the knee are complete,- the Gear replied crisply, prompting her to ask, "How much did I get done before I fell asleep?"

-You have only slept for two hours,- said the Gear, and she relaxed, dropping to the floor from where she'd been seated on Beowulf's foot. Spook jumped down beside her.

"Buzz fix knee," she volunteered, and Emka nodded in agreement. Buzzer was annoying, but he had his uses -- one of them being structural repairs. Ramrod, on the other hand, was just annoying. "Al have all parts," Spook continued as they started up the hallway. "You have?"

Emka blinked for a moment, trying to follow her train of thought. "Oh -- yeah. Wait a sec." She turned around quickly and ran back to Beowulf. "Open up, Wulfy, I need the parts," she called, and the cockpit sprang open. She caught the crate as it dropped down to her, winced slightly at the weight, then walked back to Spook, who was eyeing her curiously.

"Heavy, Em-ka?" she asked, and the pink-haired girl replied with a strained nod. "Buzz carry? Ram-rod?"

"I'll be fine," Emka gritted.

When they reached the main selling area -- a veritable smorgasboard of Gear parts -- a mildly irritated groan reached her ears.

"Aw, geez, Emka, why didn't you ask --"

"I'm fine," the girl grated before Ramrod could continue.

"Just set 'em down by the corner there," Alleycat said quickly. "We'll go through it all in a sec."

"Want anything to drink?" Buzzer offered, but she shook her head.

"I need food in my stomach first."

"Weeeaaaak," Ramrod laughed at her.

She shrugged. "What can I say? I learned to drink from Aveh soldiers."

Alleycat snorted. "Anyway, shall we do business?" She tossed Emka a bread roll, which the girl caught and took a bite out of, nodding her thanks. "Besides that engine coil, we've got some new armor -- lightweight -- a couple of hydraulic joint mechanisms, and a couple of dust shields."

Emka smiled faintly. "Sounds like a good list."

"Yeah, it's pretty sweet," Al laughed. "That's okay, Emka, we owe you a couple."

"No," the girl told her, but she wasn't inclined to argue too stubbornly against herself. If their so-called debt saved her money, the more power to it.

"Do you want to just call it an even trade?"

Emka stared at her suspiciously. "It isn't one," she objected, but the smuggler shrugged.

"So you'll owe us a little this time around -- we like you, Emka, so what does it matter?" The pale-blond woman looked uncomfortable, and she darted a quick glance at Ramrod, who shrugged.

"Why are you in such a hurry to get this deal done and over with?" It was unlike her. Alleycat loved to haggle.

Al looked helpless for a moment, then she should her head and waved at Buzzer. "Well," Buzzer said unhappily, "remember that Aveh group I mentioned yesterday?"

Emka drew back slightly. "What about them?"

"They're getting in earlier than we thought." Buzzer gave a depressed sigh. "They might be here as early as an hour from now."

She couldn't stop the sharp intake of breath, but Alleycat jumped in hurriedly to prevent her from bolting to her Gear. "Buzz can help you get that knee joint together, and someone can go with you to help install the rest."

"I go," Spook volunteered immediately. "I go, I come back."

"Aw, Spooky ..." Buzzer mumbled. They had probably had something planned.

"I come back," the small girl smiled at him. "We go tomorrow."

"If ya say so, Spook," the man said, looking as much like a hurt puppy as a man of his stature could manage. Spook giggled at him.

"Come now, work Em-ka's Gear!" she commanded.

"Oh, all right," he said, pretending sulleness.

Emka, who had no time to waste on their silly game, had already run for the hangar, reporting everything to Beowulf as quickly as breath would allow.

-This could prove problematic,- the Gear observed to her, a statement which prompted the reply, "No shit, Sherlock!" She vaulted into the room and climbed up his leg, crouching next to the gutted wiring of his knee.

"Crap ..." she muttered, then looked up as Buzzer and Spook walked into the room.

"How bad?" he asked her, and she shrugged.

"Bad," she said shortly. "Gutted and fried."

"Welp, let's see what I can do with the hydraulics." Emka moved out of the way, and he took her place. "He gonna behave himself?" the smuggler demanded, and she shot him a ghost of a smile, nodding.

The first time he or any of the smugglers had worked on Beowulf, the Gear's AI had registered their tinkering as an attack on its systems. The results could have been messy, if Emka hadn't demanded a manual override from inside the Gear, then had a long talk with him about threatening and non-threatening situations.

"Good," Buzzer muttered. He'd been at the center of it all. He had shifted one of the main circuits in the Gear's motor system, installing a new engine after Emka had blown the first one out.

"Is there anything I can do?" Emka asked him mildly.

"Naw," he replied, shaking his head. "I can handle him. If he doesn't try to smack me into a wall, anyway."

Emka smiled again and jumped to the floor, nodding to Spook. "Is your Gear ready to go?"

"I prep her now," the girl replied, darting off. Emka watched her go, mouth half open to ask if she needed any help. Shrugging it off, she walked over to the far wall and leaned against it, staring at the floor. This would make her closest run-in with Aveh troops since ... She leaned her head back, uttering a half-chuckle. That had been the time she'd broken Beowulf's rifle.

Dead midnight, and she was wandering around in the desert, kicking up scraps to use for target practice. She sucked as much with a rifle in Gear as on foot, but as long as she had the thing, she might as well learn how to use it. She supposed.

She'd had the AI installed for nearly a month now, and that had been her last time in Bledavik -- her very last, if she could manage it. They were having a rather lively conversation -- primarily about why the Gear couldn't use a rifle any better than her -- when the proximity alarms went off, and a Gear went screaming past Beowulf's shoulder, firing off a warning shot into the sand.

Hissing a curse, Emka spun the Gear, nearly dropping the rifle into the sand. Then the radio transmission came in -- no visual.

~ Unauthorized Gear, please identify immediately. ~

"Shove it up your --" Emka broke off slapping the radio on. "Tamara Bender," she lied into the comm, "ensign, second division."

There was a pause as the soldier checked her I.D. ~ We have no such -- ~

"So shove it up your ass!" Emka snapped, charging forward to attack during his moment of distraction. The attack took him by surprise -- especially from a Gear designed for sniper combat rather than hand-to-hand. Without thinking, Emka had the Gear grab the rifle by its muzzle and swung it, overhand, at the soldier's head. A satisfying crunch of metal followed the action, and Beowulf leapt away, still holding the gun.

The enemy Gear reeled, recovering in time to raise his rifle and fire just as Beowulf charged again, this time swinging the gun at his midsection. Another crunch, and he darted away, though not as far. Next, he swung in from behind, turning the rifle around and shoving its muzzle into the small of the enemy Gear's back. In a flash of inspiration, Emka gave a short, barking order to fire.

The other Gear convulsed for a moment as the gunshot ripped through its internals. Emka spared a moment to wonder if she'd killed the pilot. Apparently she had -- or severely wounded him -- because the Gear pitched forward with an earthshaking thud and didn't move again.

Emka sucked in a weary breath. "Beowulf, are we okay?"

-The gun was damaged beyond repair,- he replied somewhat dolefully.

"That's okay," the girl muttered. "I could use the thing anyway."

A few moments later, they were gone, leaving the Aveh soldier and his broken Gear to be buried, without ceremony, in the shifting desert sand.

Emka started, looking up at Buzzer, who was staring down at her quizzically. "Hey," he said. "I'm almost done here. Just gotta refit the wiring and seal the plate."

She nodded. "How much time --"

"A good half hour -- you should miss 'em completely if you head the right direction." He turned back to his work, and Spook slipped out of the shadows.

"Rabbit -- ready," she grinned, eyeing the pink-haired girl with a knowing grin. "Emka sleeping?"

"No," was the retort, "I was just thinking."

"With eyes closed?"

"Yeeesssss," Emka replied, baring her teeth, but the girl was not intimidated. She laughed, instead.

"Live far?" Spook asked.

"No. We can make it in a day, if we push." Emka cast her a sideways glance. "Can Rabbit keep up?"

The pale little girl in black shook her head dismissively. "Rabbit keep up," she said firmly. "Rabbit no keep up -- hitch a ride!"

"Heh," said Emka.

Rabbit was a small Gear, nearly half Beowulf's size, and built for speed. If Spook said it could keep up, it undoubtedly could. Emka wondered idly for a moment where they'd come up with that name, because the Gear looked nothing like a rabbit. Because it's fast, I guess. How trite.

"All right!" came Buzzer's voice, and Emka shifted her gaze over to him. He leaned back on his ankles, slapping the last bolt into place. "We're good to go, Emka!" He jumped to the floor and jogged over to her. "I'll go get your stuff."

Emka nodded an assent, and he disappeared down the hall at a steady lope. Spook watched him for a moment, then touched Emka's hand. "I go to Rabbit. Tell when ready." With that, she hurried off down the hangar.

The pink-haired girl slid over to her Gear. "Are you prepped for the trip?" she asked.

-The repairs were quite professional,- Beowulf commented. -I am ready.-

"Good." She turned her head as Buzzer ran back into the room, closely followed by Ramrod, who winked and blew her a kiss, which she ignored. Buzzer skidded the crate of Gear parts across the floor to her, and she stopped it with her foot, picking it up and clambering up to the cockpit. Her ascent was less than graceful, due to the heavy burden, but the pair below spared her any snickers of amusement until she was settled inside.

"Ready to go, Wulf?"

-As always, Mistress.-

She smiled faintly and tapped the radio. "You all prepped, Spook?"

~ Yes, Em-ka! ~

"Good." Without another word, Emka tapped off the radio and gave the order to take off, which Beowulf immediately did. While he concentrated on manuevering out of the underground, she keyed Rabbit's code into the proximity alert to prevent it from sounding off if the girl was in range.

"Should we make it one day or two?"

-I can -- -

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But we have an escort, remember?"

-Then perhaps you should ask her, Mistress.- He was miffed again.

Shrugging, Emka tapped on the radio again. "Hey, Spook?"

There was a pause before the visual popped up. ~ Yulih, Em-ka? ~

"Can Rabbit make the trip at a one-day stretch?" she asked without preamble, and the young girl's forehead creased.

~ Brought extra fuel, ~ she said consideringly, then nodded. ~ Can make trip! ~ A sweet smile broke through on her features, and Emka attempted to respond with a similar expression. She fell woefully short. Smiling was not something she'd had a lot of practice with.

"All right," Emka shrugged. "Keep in my path, and keep your noise to a minimum." She nodded, then signed off. Guess it's no sleep for me this time around. "Beowulf, warn me if anything happens," she said, then she slid out of her seat to the crate of parts and began to sift through them.

She was right. Definitely a good set this time. She hefted the new engine coil with a grin. I came out on top of the deal, this time. Or maybe she had. Who knew? Alleycat was a shifty bugger.

On impulse, she glanced back toward the base, utilizing Beowulf's radar. A heavy transport was pulling into the smuggler's cave, decked out in full battle array. Well, wasn't that interesting. Narrowly preventing a sneer from twisting her lips, she switched the radar off and concentrated on plotting a route home.

At her request, Spook had set her navigational system to null, so she'd have no way of tracking the route to Emka's home. It was pointless, yes, Emka had realized soon afterward, because she would have to supply the girl with a route home anyway. But it didn't much matter. She didn't imagine the smugglers would squeal on her. She hadn't squealed on them, after all.

The radio beeped, and she tapped it on.

~ Em-ka? ~ Spook's voice came questioningly.


~ Will sleep at -- your home? ~ It seemed oddly important to her.

Emka sank back, considering the question. "Yeah," she said finally. What's she gonna do about it anyway? "It'll be a little cramped, but it'll serve."

~ Thank-you, Em-ka, ~ the girl murmured, then she broke the connection.

They would probably make the bulk of the trip in silence. Emka was not given to conversation, and Spook had a great deal of trouble speaking at all. They made comfortable travel companions, neither getting on the other's nerves in the least. Emka started looking through the parts again, setting her radio up to auto-receive transmissions.

She probably would need help installing several of them. Charming. Utterly charming. She was glad the small Gear pilot had accompanied her, despite her suspicion of an ulterior motive. I wonder if she really did turn her Navicomp off. Oh well. It didn't matter.

Emka sighed, rising and sliding back into the pilot's seat. "Nothing to do now," she commented to the Gear.

-For you,- he replied, somewhat tartly.

"Heh," she snorted in response. In a way, he was right. Installing the AI had taken most of her work out of piloting a Gear, and put a great deal of tedium into it. She helped him in battle and with repairs, and she could enhance his manueverability and navigation on certain occasions. That, however, was the most she ever did.

She stifled a long yawn and glanced down into her lap. She should have brought something to read -- something to do. But she hadn't. When no transmissions from Spook came in the next few minutes, she drifted off to sleep. If she had any talent at all, it was the ability to drop off anytime, anywhere, no matter how much -- or how little -- sleep she'd had already.

It was several hours later when she was jarred awake, the proximity alarms shrieking next to her head. A second explosion threw her forward, and she crashed across the dashboard. The impact felt a great deal like the first time her commander had struck her down in training.

She sucked in a ragged breath. "Beowulf?"

-Something is wrong,- the Gear informed her unnecessarily.

"Are we under -- attack?" She pushed herself away from the panel and back into her seat, pressing her hand carefully against her ribcage. Nothing broken, apparently.


"What --"

-There has been a malfunction in the engine shielding. I must land before I overload.-

"No shit." She tapped the radio. "Spook, we're making an emergency landing. Get ready." She tapped it off again without waiting for a response. "See anyplace good, Wulf?"

-There is a rocky outcropping a mile or so ahead.-

"Can you make it?"

-In a pinch, Mistress.-

"Great," she muttered. "Try not to explode on me or anything ..."

The Gear refrained from responding, clearly insulted, and Emka leaned back, trying to relax. Her shoulders hunched wearily, and she dug her fingers into the sides of her chair. This day is getting worse every minute.

Through some great miracle, however, they landed without too much trouble, sheltered from sand and spying eyes by a large outcropping of desert rock. Emka leaned back in the shade, closing her eyes, and Spook glanced at Beowulf critically.

"Why no say?" she demanded. "Why no say -- hurt?"

"I didn't know there was a problem with the engine," the older girl replied, opening her eyes to stare upward at the expanse of pale sky beyond the darkness of the rock. "He didn't say anything.

-I was not aware of an engine problem, Mistress.-

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered, and Spook looked at her oddly. Emka shrugged. "He just said the same thing I told you. Neither of us knew."

Spook looked doubtful. "Is Gear!" she argued. "Should know what wrong with self."

"Tell that to him," Emka told her shortly, then, "Hey, Wulf. Can we fix the problem yet?"

-It will require a great deal of work,- the Gear suggested doubtfully. -Full replacement would be ideal.-

"Out here in this mess?" the girl snorted. "Hell no. Can we make a temporary patch or something?"

Spook was making her way back to her own Gear in order to snatch up her basic repair kit. Emka observed her with weariness, for a moment wishing she was on her own. The thought of sabotage had been so brief she wondered if she could even count it as a thought. But she's just going to get in the way.

-A temporary patch would probably get me home.- He didn't sound too happy about the idea.

"Got any better plan?"


"Didn't think so." She leaned her head back and watched Spook spring lightly to the ground. "He says if we can get a temp patch, he'll make it home -- so we can do full repairs there."

Spook nodded and smiled briefly, then marched over to Beowulf.

Momentary irritation flared, then subsided. What the hell. If she wants to do my work for me, then fine. Truth told, Emka wasn't much of a Gear mechanic, either. She depended on Beowulf to tell her what was wrong and how to fix it when she did repairs back home, and her smuggler friends handled most of his upgrades. Funny how little she knew about the internal workings of her best friend. If you can count an Artificial Intelligence as a friend. She cast about briefly, wishing for a drink.

"Em-ka!" Spook sounded alarmed, and the girl jumped to her feet immediately, running over.

"What's wrong?" she asked sharply, wondering if Beowulf's engine really was shot all to hell and would have to be replaced here and now.

"Em-ka look," the pale girl said, voice somewhere near bewilderment. "Here --" She pointed inside the engine casing, and Emka leaned her head over. She blinked at what she saw, then laughed.

"Beowulf, did you know your engine's been warming a snake for the past couple of weeks?"

-I beg your pardon, Mistress?- Apparently, he didn't find that at all amusing.

"One of 'em must have crawled in while you were cooling from your last engine repairs ..." Emka reasoned, shrugging. "Well, he's deep-fried rattler now." She reached in with one gloved hand and took the dessicated body between finger and thumb. Spook made a disgusted face, and she tossed it over her shoulder. "That may have been part of the engine problem there."

-Undoubtedly,- the Gear suggested in dire tones.

"Well, I'll let you get to work," Emka directed at Spook, then she hopped down and went back to her seat, closing her eyes. Working with the girl reminded her of life with her family -- mostly her youngest brother and sister. How old would they be now? Sixteen and thirteen? Something like that. I think I actually liked them, she said to herself. From what I can remember, I liked them.

Maybe she even missed them. Which was part of the reason that working with Spook made her so uncomfortable. She didn't want to remember them. Her family made her sick. She opened her eyes and stared at the sky again. Just plain sick.

If she concentrated hard enough, she could remember their faces -- Marcus and Trieste, she remembered their names -- not that she wanted to. Her other siblings were vague and hazy, her father was a blur of dislike. She stared at the sky, filtered to an odd shade of purple through her visor. Her mother she couldn't remember at all. The woman had been a non-entity anyway. The only reason she remembered her father at all was that she found him detestable.

He had waffled his way through life, scraping enough money to get by and keep the farm, doing a minimum of work with his own hands. And when her mother had daughters instead of sons three times in a row after one son, he couldn't even muster up enough politeness to kiss them and give the blessing at their birth. He left it to the priest and the midwife and went outside to have a smoke on his pipe.

She remembered hearing him say once that at least his eldest was a boy, because the inheritance could be decided easily by age. And he could pretend not to be the backward bigot he was.

Emka gave her shoulders a jerk. She was having trouble losing that train of thought. Damn it, she growled to herself, half-closing her eyes. I try for six years to forget them, and now all I can do is remember. She sat up sharply and got to her feet, stalking out of the shade of the rock to face northeast, where she had left her family a thousand miles behind her.

I got away, you bastard! She threw the bitter thought toward the sky. I got away from you and Mother and your damned chunk of dirt! She squinted in the close to noon-day sun, turning a little westward to where she thought Bledavik might be from here. Yeah, and I got away from you, too. You sick bastard.

Her shoulders gave a jerk and a shudder, and she slid back into the limited shade of the boulder. Spook was watching her silently from over Beowulf's shoulder. "Em-ka okay?" she asked, and the pink-haired girl nodded shortly.

"I'm great. Just peachy-keen."

The pale girl gave her a doubtful stare. "Engine fixed. We go now?"

Emka stared down at the dirt. "You ready, Wulf?"

-It will hold until we reach home.-

"Okay." She looked to Spook. "Let's get going."

The smaller girl nodded in agreement and jumped down from Beowulf to return to her Gear. Emka walked over to Wulf and made her way to the cockpit, sitting in the pilot's seat as it closed. "Wulf, I'm going to sleep for days when we get back."

-Why, Mistress?- The question was slightly perfunctory, as he was prepping himself for flight.

"I've been thinking too much lately."

-Ah.- There was a hiss of heat as he took off. -The repairs were quite adequate,- he said, pleased.

Emka glanced around the cockpit, restraining a sigh and wondering if an AI was supposed to be able to ignore her. "Beowulf?"

-Yes, Mistress?-

"I'm not feeling really good right now." Her voice dropped. "Maybe that crash jacked up my insides."

-No more than mine, Mistress,- Beowulf disagreed. -You are troubled. Did the close brush with Aveh troops disturb you?-

She glanced at the ceiling, looking dazed. "I guess so." She doubted it, but she didn't know much about the workings of the human mind, herself.

-They cannot harm you,- the Gear informed her. -I will not allow it.-

There's that First Law of Robotics kicking in ... She smiled faintly and patted the dashboard. "That's a nice thought, Wulf." Owning a Gear with an AI is like having a large, over-protective dog. Her mouth twitched drily. Very large.

"How soon will we be getting home?"

-It will be some time, Mistress. I cannot afford to push my engine too hard.-

"Good point." Emka closed her eyes, hands tensing on the chair again. She wished she hadn't spent all that time remembering while Spook did the repairs. I should have done the repairs. Thinking about her family was never very good for her outlook on life. It allowed for the dredging up of a great many things she'd rather spend time not thinking about.

Her chin dropped to her chest, and she stared into her lap. "Wulf ... I'm going to sleep ..." It was the only way she could think of to stop the downward spiral of her mood. Her hands clenched over the chair, and she pushed herself up, tapping the comm to inform Spook of her intentions.

-As you wish, Mistress,- the Gear said agreeably. -You have been sleeping a great deal lately.-

"I know, I'm sorry." She slipped down to her bedroll and pushed it into place. "We'll talk when we get home. While we do the repairs." God help us all if my Gear starts feeling neglected. She tugged the visor off her head and set it on the chair, curling up tightly in the limited space.

"You sorry little bitch."

She paused, on her way to her quarters, fresh from training. He was a few feet behind her, leaning against the wall. What had she done this time? Oh yes. Beaten him in a sparring match -- for the first time. It had even earned her a few cheers from the rest of the troops -- it was her bet that those cheers were half the reason he was hounding her now.

"Yes, commander?" she answered him pleasantly. She wasn't afraid of him then. Until she looked at him, saw his eyes. The expression was somehow familiar. Sheer hatred warring with -- something else -- across his face.

"Think you did real good today, don't you?" He took a step forward, she a step back.

"No, sir," she responded, a sick feeling building in her stomach, much as it always did right before she got a beating from him. Not that she wasn't used to it. But her body never responded very well to being tossed around like a rag doll. She threw up frequently.

"Lying bitch."

Emka bit back an answer and took another step away from him. She knew she could run faster than he could, but her endurance was less than glorious. If he decided to rush her, running was about all she could do. There was no way she could match him in straight combat, especially tired out from training. But he usually didn't mince words when he came to attack her. So what was the bastard planning now?

He had slunk closer while she was considering her options, so close she could smell him, and before she could dart away, he had snapped one hand to her shoulder to slam her against the wall she discovered she'd pinned herself against. She squirmed, trying to relieve some of the pressure, then looked into his face to discover that his mouth had twisted into something resembling a leer.

"Do you know," his voice rasped, unpleasantly close to her ear, "what I could do to you?"

Comprehension dawned in a pale expression of horror. It had suddenly become abundantly clear to her what he intended to do to assert his masculinity. He drew back slightly, grinning at her. "And nobody could do a thing to me."

Before she could bolt to the relative safety of the barracks, a blow to the temple sent her spinning to the ground, stunned and unable to defend herself. No one heard her when she started to scream.

Emka opened her eyes and stared into the half-lit darkness of the cockpit, feeling ill. She reached her hand to the pilot's seat and pulled down her visor, sliding it over her head. "Beowulf?" she asked, voice uncharacteristically soft. "How close are we to home?"

-Not far, Mistress,- the Gear answered obligingly, and she looked over the com panel.

"Is Spook okay?"

-She is quite well, Mistress, if a little fatigued.- Beowulf was far too polite to ask what was wrong -- primarily because he already knew. Close brushes with Aveh rarely gave his Mistress anything but nightmares.

Emka leaned back in the seat. Maybe talking with Spook would help. It would keep the both of them awake, which was the necessary part of the deal, and it might distract her from remembering. Probably not. "How many hours?" she asked finally.

-Seven at most,- Beowulf told her.

Seven hours. And I've managed to scare myself past sleeping again. Great. "Feel like talking about anything?" she asked the Gear sarcastically. "Maybe a game of poker?"

-I would win, Mistress.-

She startled herself by laughing, then sank back in her chair, staring blearily ahead. Laughing helped, but now there was nothing but staying awake to keep the monsters at bay. That was exactly what she resolve to do, but seven hours later she found herself waking up to the sound of Beowulf landing next to the cave she'd made her home.

Rabbit landed beside him, ejecting its small occupant within moments to meed Emka at the foot of her Gear. "This home?" the girl asked curiously, and Emka nodded, waving a hand absently at the cave entrance.

"Make yourself at home. I'm gonna go check my traps."

Even if Spook wasn't hungry, she was, and the only place to get food was from her traps -- unless she got lucky and a bird came in range of her pistol. But then she had to get even luckier and actually hit the thing. She'd probably used the last of her ammo on the last one anyway.

Spook had already darted into the cave, and she was searching industriously for some repair tools when Emka walked in. "Box in the corner," the pink-haired girl said blandly, taking care not to let her general jumpiness at having her home invaded show in front of the child. She caught up her pistol, saw that it was empty after all, and walked back outside.

"Beowulf, I'm gonna run the circuit. Keep your sensors up."

-As you wish, Mistress.-

"Oh, and Spook's probably gonna try some minor repairs on you. Let her."

-Yes, Mistress.- He sounded somewhat sour at that.

Emka smiled faintly as she hoofed it out into the half-lit sand. Beowulf hated being fooled with, sometimes even by her. Men, she thought drily. Her route ran along the edge of the foothills and past a steep overhang -- sometimes desert critters took a wrong step and, well, another free meal for her. It cut across the only open area, the entry to where her cave sat, comfortably defended, then ran back along the foothills to her home.

At her first trap, she found nothing, which wasn't too much of a surprise to her -- the animals had gotten wary of venturing near her cave. The second trap held only a dead snake, as did the third. This is just my day for snakes, she growled to herself. She wasn't in the mood to eat them, either. They were a pain in the ass to cook. Maybe something fell off the cliff.

Something had -- two days ago. It was beginning to rot. "Damn it!" Emka growled aloud, then she stopped, tensing, at a familiar and unwelcome sound -- the thud and pressure-releasing hiss of a pair of army Gears landing nearby.

They must have seen us come in ... shit! I shouldn't have been asleep! She crouched down between the cliff face and the rotting thing, trying to ignore the smell and listening intently. The Gears didn't appear to be coming any closer -- in fact, she heard the distinct sound of cockpits opening to disgorge their occupants.

The sound of crunching sand reached her ears, and she could hear the pilots talking.

"This is were I saw 'em go ..." one said. He sounded young, probably very new at this job.

"That's great," the other said sarcastically, "but I sure didn't, and my Gear didn't pick up anything weird on the radar." That one sounded a bit older, but age didn't mean much as far as experience went.

"Your radar's been broken for a month," was the rejoinder. The voices were approaching, slowly.

Emka thought it was a little stupid for them to be talking this close to a possible enemy. Maybe they didn't intend to come any further into her cleft. Maybe they wouldn't see her traps in the dark. Shit. She glanced along the cliff wall and caught sight of a familiar edge, where she'd waited for an animal kill on numerous occasions.

If they came any closer, they were fair game. She made for the overhang, a soft hum of energy starting at her wrists and ankles. As she slid herself into position, the pair came into view, looking warily from side to side and in front of them -- but not above.

"Look, it's dark and it's late," the senior said waspishly. "We've spent enough time chasing your boogeyman. There's nothing --"

"Look, sir," the youthful voice objected, pointing at something.

Emka hunkered down. One of her traps. The game was up.

"What the hell ..." muttered the elder, then the younger screamed.

"Behind you!"

Emka leaped from the concealment of the overhang, a blaze of white light arcing from the backs of her hands and over her shoulders to crisscross and meet up at her feet. A lovely little hand-to-hand enhancement she'd found scouting around in the desert one time -- she called it Light Blade. It was more effective than any knife for cutting people up.

The older man turned, but not soon enough to raise his pistol in defense. Emka was on him in a flash, one fist winging past his neck while the other planted itself in his gut. Blood splashed red, and he dropped into the sand, his life pouring out from his opened throat.

The younger man stumbled back, fumbling for a weapon, as she sprang at him. A small sound of terror started in his throat, and he dove aside at her lunge, giving up, momentarily, on the gun. When he was on his feet again, he dropped back into a fighting stance, jaw trembling.

Emka felt a momentary qualm of conscience at this killing -- right before her self-preservation instinct kicked in and she jumped at him, darting sideways to kick him in the ribs. She deactivated the Light Blade immediately afterward, catching him by the throat when he threatened to tumble, then twisting his head sharply to one side. His neck snapped, and she dropped him.

She then dropped to the ground on her hands and knees and retched -- an unpleasant sensation, since there was nothing left in her stomach to throw up. After allowing her body its fair chance to express its displeasure at her previous activities, she pushed herself to her feet to deal with her new dilemma -- what do to with the bodies.

Drawing a deep breath, she leaned against the rock face. "How are things over there, Wulf?" she asked through the visor's radio.

-Quite well,- the Gear responded almost merrily. -Mistress Spook is completing the repairs to her Gear, and she will start on mine soon.-

"That's good." Her gaze drifted to the bodies, but she felt her stomach clench up, so she drifted it away again. "Couple of soldiers got nosy," she said. "Where can I ditch their Gears?"

There was a long pause from Beowulf, who was undoubtedly processing the ramifications of her statement. -Perhaps your smugglers can make use of them,- he suggested slowly. -The soldiers?-

"I'll put 'em in the sand." She glanced skyward, taking a brief moment to murmur the prayer to speed their souls to God. It hadn't been anything personal. "Good suggestion about the Gears. Think Rabbit can haul them home?"

-I very much doubt it, Mistress.-

"Looks like we're making another trip tomorrow, then."

She got the faintest impression of a sigh. -As you wish, Mistress.-

"Think of it this way, Beowulf," Emka said, walking back toward her cave, dinner forgotten, "It'll build character."

-Bullshit,- the Gear responded.