The old city burned under the hot summer sun.
Summers...they had always been too long. Heatwaves extending from late may to early November, turning the bricks and ancient concrete buildings red with warmth, while the waves washed against the shore, coruscant waters under the steel-blue sky.
The car rolled in silence down the street. It was an antique, a luxury automobile equipped with modern electric engines, a wasteful and mostly useless machine, part of a vast theater play the city was an integral part of. The car bore the emblems of the Open Hand, the USRE office tasked with enforcing the laws of the Union, when the socialist republics did not or could not do so. In this case, the Open Hand official carried by the old vehicle wasn't an enforcer, a judge or a field agent, but a Pale Referee, a Flower War arbiter, as the white poppy on their grey suit indicated. Their face was one of serene certainty, as was the case for every referee ever sent by the USRE. Sometimes, Eshe Kollontai wondered if they weren't androids, or clones — a funny idle thought, of course, considering that human cloning was strictly forbidden by most polities in Communal Space. She was also experienced enough in matters of robotics to determine who was an android and who wasn't, even when dealing with very life-like avatars. Still, it felt weird to find herself in the presence of a person that looked exactly like the referee she had met decades ago during her first Flower War, far away under the dying sun of a lone icy planet at the edge of known space. As she turned towards Amin, who sat right next to her in the car, she wondered if he felt the same. Amin Aqsa, sometimes known as the Asp, independent mercenary with a preference for small, neatly contained Flower Wars and a marked taste for spectacular melee engagements. His mech was a Type 117 — a simple, fast bipedal design whose radiator array had been modelled to look like one of these flags carried by samurais in ancient times. Eshe had yet to face him in this specific war, and while she did not really look forward to it, she knew it would be quite interesting, as always.
"I've seen your records." smiled the referee, hands crossed above a little haptic display. "You are, and by very far, the most experienced dogs of war in this Flower Conflict. Honestly, isn't such a squabble a little bit above your pay grade?"
One of the bird-shaped q-augs on Amin's forehead spread its wings in answer.
"What are you insinuating?"
"Oh, nothing demeaning, trust me. I am just quite surprised that the Socialist Republic of Occitania and the Solar Sea dedicated the funds and time to drag you both from Elora."
"What if we just enjoyed being here?"
Eshe tilted her head to the side. She knew very well that the arbiter was concerned with the possibility of their confrontation stealing the show from the rest of the mercenaries engaged in this Flower War. The pretend conflicts were a serious matter and they rightfully feared that the two high-profile fighters would rob the other belligerents of their catharsis. It was, after all, the real point of a Flower War.
SLITHER AND SURGE
The car came to a halt on the scattered pavement.
"Why did we stop?" asked the arbiter. The car's quasi-AI answered in a deliciously neutral, seraphic voice.
"It appears we are dealing with construction drones."
"Construction drones? Who schedules renovation works in the middle of a Flower War? I issued safety orders six months ago. Could you identify these drones, please?"
A small beep answered.
"Their ID hasn't been renewed in two years. I can't trace it to an active commune."
Eshe and Amin exchanged a gaze. They did not need to vocalize their fears: this looked like the perfect setup for an ambush. Of course, they both thought at the same time, no one would ambush an arbiter in a Flower War. It would not bring anything to any of the parties involved, but a swift exclusion from the conflict and an USRE-mandated defeat.
"Tell these drones to move."
"Already done. They won't bulge. Transponders are offline. They look very old and battered. Rogue units, perhaps? The city still maintains an automated plant for minor repairs."
Now, evidently, considered Eshe, if it was an ambush, such a setup was incredibly crude...though precisely, the crudeness combined with the context would have made it a rather great move. Too obvious and too meaningless to be considered as a possibility. Yes, she had used similar tactics in the past.
And then, the sea trembled.
At first it was just a rumble shaking the street, then the car itself, and finally a large dome of water bulged through the surface of the Mediterranean. When it burst, the dome revealed the bipedal shape of a semi-organic combat machine. Its legs were shaped like those of a bird, arched against the ground as it compensated for its jump on the paved shore. The cockpit was triangular, reminiscent of a spearhead, and a pair of multipurpose limbs emerged from its rubber-like surface, halfway between the animal and artificial reigns. Two weapon pods bearing rapid-fire coilguns deployed as the machine stabilized itself between two buildings. The referee told the car to accelerate, but Eshe could very well see that the old vehicle did not stand a chance in a race. A series of scattered sounds echoed across the street, like droplets sprayed against a warm wall. Coilgun shells, realized Eshe and Amin at the same time when they saw how effortlessly the badly adjusted shots had pierced a brick wall, missing the car by a few meters. She saw the bipedal mech jump above a house block, using its bird legs as gigantic springs, before firing another burst. Eshe switched her pencil on.
"Saiph, bring yourself over here, now!"
THE SWORD OF ESHE
Another six-shot burst followed. Eshe caught the blue-ish sparks in the corner of her eyes. This time, the projectiles hit the back of the car, piercing through a tire and disabling the rear batteries. The vehicle came to a screeching halt against the main wall of an old hangar by the sea, and Amin quickly grabbed the referee by the hand to pull them outside. Eshe opened the door and rolled outside, hurting her shoulder on the pavement but dodging a third burst that — she had little doubt about it, now — was specifically destined to kill them. The hangar door was open; Amin rushed inside with the referee, trying to put as many centimeters of heavy bricks between them and the attacker. The mech fired another burst, but found it hard to get a clear angle, so decided to jump again to relocate itself. Eshe could clearly hear the screeching sound from the biological spring-legs. In any other context, it would have been ridiculous. Here, it felt terrifying.
"Eshe!" yelled Amin while trying to keep as low of a profile as possible. "Are you armed? I don't have anything bigger than a knife!"
Eshe looked at the opposite door, the one that led to the inner city. The pencil in her pocket buzzed twice.
Another burst was fired by the mech, probably a random shot, as it was way too high to hit the humans in the hangar. One of the flechettes went right through the wall, then a steel pole, and finally pierced the city-facing door. This time, however, it wasn't followed by the metallic sound of a projectile bouncing against the pavement, but by the muted echo of a flechette deflected by medium mech armor. A second later, the door burst open and Eshe's own Flower Mech entered the hangar. Saiph was her main Earth-based mech, a medium-sized bipedal machine calibrated for terran gravity and conditions. It looked quite archaic to the untrained eye, with its heavy arched legs, grey plate armour with ballistic coating, droplet cockpit reminiscent of an industrial Mi-24 helicopter and paired weapon mounts. Much like a lot of what defined Eshe's public Flower War persona, it was a carefully crafted deception. She ran towards the mech, and the machine extended one of its streamlined arms to grab Eshe and pull her towards the cockpit. As soon as her q-augs established a remote connection with the controls, she ordered Saiph to surge forwards, putting itself in-between the referee and another hail of flechettes. She felt their impact on the armor, like rain on warm concrete. Then she fired her mech's coloured smoke canisters, putting a cloud of infrared-blocking particles between the hangar and the attacker — just enough to get a bit of headroom. While the armoured canopy lowered down and the mech secured its pilot in her seat, Eshe considered her options. Saiph was fresh out of the container where she had put it to rest between two engagements. Its equipment was minimal — smoke canisters, a few thousand rounds of low lethality shells and a regular combat blade. Just enough to ward off a few drones, or for a sparring match.
The hangar's roof exploded, shattered by the spring legs of the attacker. Stepping on the enemy. Crude, but very effective, she noted — Amin and the referee had almost been crushed, but the mercenary had been fast enough to pull the arbiter to safety. Saiph itself had balanced itself automatically, but Eshe still felt the ground tremble under her. In a single thought, she ordered her mech to unsheathe its blade and struck. At the scale of a Flower Mech, it was a simple combat knife — two meters of heavy steel and carbon fibre that she used to give the attacker a vicious slash, aiming for the centre of mass.
Several litres of fluid immediately sprayed the front plates of Saiph. Red. Blood.
The machine fired its twin coilguns, point-blank into Saiph's armor. Eshe felt the impacts in her chest and recoiled slightly in her cockpit.
"Right leg, exposed joints!" said Amin on the local radio. Yes, thought Eshe. Good suggestion. The attacker pushed against her mech, trying to block its knife-carrying hand. She didn't bother trying to free it, instead throwing the blade into Saiph's right effector. She moved to the side, using the attacker's weight against itself, then struck deep inside the leg, looking for tissue to cut. Saiph's hydraulics surged with power, and the attacker's leg finally gave out. The semi-biological machine collapsed to the side, spraying high-pressure blood all across the hangar. Eshe disengaged the blade and finished the machine off by disabling its second leg, then ripping the coilgun pods off. The attacker fell on the ground with a strange organic sound, like leaves rustled away by a storm.
HANGAR 17B, SEASIDE BOULEVARD
The afternoon light poured over Saiph’s ablative armor, casting colored shadows in the hangar. The semi-organic attacker had only inflicted minor damage on the mech, and Eshe was busy calibrating the hydraulics again — some of the systems still had to be adapted to the Earth’s gravity, she could feel it. With time, she could catch minute problems in Saiph’s systems way before even her mechanic djinns could spot them. The Pale Referee looked at her from a rocking chair they had seemingly conjured out of thin air. They had recovered from the attack just fine, despite — as Saiph’s recorded battle data had proven later in the afternoon — coilgun flechettes having split the air open just a mere centimetre above their head.
“Considering what you can do with this machine, I am quite eager to see what you may achieve with a proper Flower Mech.”
“Hey. Don’t trash-talk my old Lumia like this. It’s fast and reliable.”
“I know! I was merely making an observation. Sorry. It’s obvious this mech has been through quite a lot of adventures. Anyway. You will be thrilled to know that I may have a positive identification on the mech that attacked us. It wasn’t manned.”
“I noticed. Strange features, too. It seemed both outdated and cutting-edge to me, if that makes any sense.”
“That is correct. Genetic sampling from the outer organic shell shows that you disposed of a Type 05 urban combat bipedal drone. If the denomination isn’t familiar to you, it’s normal. We are dealing with an early Low Age war machine. A historical piece, I might add. There were no genetic markers correlated to modern manufacturing processes.”
“So it is at least three centuries old...I don’t know many machines that are still usable after three hundred years.”
“Biomechanical mechs are quite different from regular ones. Their muscle parts can be frozen and kept in storage for a long time. This could very well be from the AUSCOM arsenals, for example. A pure hypothesis, of course. I do not have the beginning of the idea of an owner. Both your employer and the Solar Fields deny any involvement, and considering the political and legal price attached to an attack on an arbiter, I trust them.”
“Right. Will you be taking additional security measures?”
“What are they?”
“None of your concern at present. Trust me, it is not the first time a referee is threatened by a third party. I suppose I am going to receive an anonymous letter shortly, either an offer of corruption or a threat, or maybe both. It is a fact of life.” The referee smiled and stood up from their rocking chair. “You may carry on with your work, Kollontai. And do not steal the show too early!” The arbiter left the hangar, and Eshe turned the music back on.
Eshe checked the pressure indicator on her cockpit, then made sure the hydraulics worked correctly. Underwater operations were not her forte, but she could not deny that they had a certain allure, especially in the wreck-ridden bay of the old city. Saiph’s twin headlights rested on the iron wall of a Low Age battleship, sunk during one of the numerous wars for the Mediterranean. In a few hours, Occitania would formally ask the Solar Fields for an additional engagement in the bay, with the battleship used as the main defensive point over which the score would be settled. The skirmish would be quite a sight, especially with her mech thrown into the fray. The cold water made most ranged weapons useless due to how fast they’d lose velocity, and the battle would favour close range duels. Regardless of the winner, it would be quite the spectacle.
A diffracted laser pinged Saiph, and Amin’s face appeared in a corner of Eshe’s screens.
“Hey there, siren.”
“I don’t feel that I really look like one.”
“No, you don’t. Except when you’re wearing that ugly sweater with a dolphin, like on Smyrnia.”
“Indeed. I’m mildly concerned that you remember details like that, however.”
“I am merely gathering data on my enemies.” He winked. Eshe wasn’t really sure the word was appropriate, despite the relationship they had in the public eye. “We’ll have that duel, one day.”
“As promised, and in due time. Hey. Did you pick that up?”
“Indeed. Faint heat signature, coming from the continental shelf. Climbing?”
“Definitely climbing. Towards us. I have no clear IFF, so I am going to classify this one as neutral.”
In the corner of her eye, she saw Amin’s mech, Condottiere, ready a two-handed sword. Yes. Neutral. Her q-augs strengthened and she ordered Saiph to take a step backwards, leaving the dark mud to position itself on a rocky shoal. She loaded a micromissile burst and made sure her spear was ready. Eshe preferred it to Amin’s sword — it did not have quite the same symbolic appeal, but she liked the spear’s subdued nature better.
When the incoming machine appeared, Eshe felt her heart skip a beat. It was a good five meters taller than both of their mechs, and had a strikingly human appearance. Its outer skin was pitch-black, barely distinguishable in the darkness of the bay. It carried a single, high frequency sword in its large, elongated hands. The machine’s head was triangular — it likely contained the sensor package.
“Duellist,” uttered Amin, moving slightly closer to Eshe and the battleship wreck.
The organic mech rushed forwards. Its steps made the salty mud tremble, filling the water with heavy, dark clouds. Amin moved first. His strike was clean and straight to the point — the duelist parried it effortlessly and moved to the side of the battleship. Eshe moved in a combat stance, spear tracking the duelist, and entered the fray. Normally, a two on one duel against pilots such as Amin and Eshe would have been a quick, bloody affair, but the duelist was faster and more powerful than both of them combined. It moved in a quasi-unnatural way, thought Eshe, as if its hydraulics were capable of twisting in ways her own systems couldn’t — and in fact, if they were fully organic, it was the case.
“It’s bleeding energy” commented Amin, his mech reeling after a vicious counter-strike. “I can see its sugar pouches drying up with the naked eye. Ten minutes, tops.”
“We won’t hold that long.”
Eshe and Amin circled the duellist for a combined attack, but the machine saw it coming. Its parry was brutally effective, and Saiph lost its footing. Amin struck and his zweihander cut through the duellist's triangular head, spraying a strain of blood in the cold water. No effect, noticed Eshe — either it was a decoy or the duelist had more than one sensory suite. The organic machine raised its sword, trying to get at Saiph’s left arm. Eshe did not bother to parry. Instead, she left the duelist cut her arm’s hydraulics, bleeding thick black fluid, and lunged her spear through its chest. The tip encountered more resistance than she anticipated, deflected by the bone pillar that formed the duellist's main central structure. Had Amin not been there, the organic machine would have had enough time to swing back and shatter the cockpit — but the zweihander struck a second time, and severed the duellist's spinal stack. The machine froze, then slowly collapsed, leaving Saiph pinned on the seabed, its disabled arm twitching while losing long strains of hydrocarbon fluid.
HANGAR 117, SEASIDE BOULEVARD, REPRISE
Saiph stood upright in the hangar, afternoon lights gleaming on the colourful strands of ablative armour that covered its shoulders like a cape. The severed arm’s stump was a mess of quasi-organic hydraulic veins and carbon scaffolding. Seen from the side, it had something of a space station, left unfinished by the collapse of some ancient empire. The referee observed the mech with a keen eye; Eshe could see that they knew what a wounded war machine looked like.
“How long will the repairs take?” they asked, and Eshe answered with a tired sigh.
“Two weeks at best. Lumias are ancient tech, spare parts have to be imported from Mars or Luna. And I don’t have another mech on this planet.”
“I’m sure you could use someone else’s.”
“It doesn’t work that way. The neural link alone would take months to properly set up.”
“Well, you’re also a wardancer.”
“But Occitania hired me to pilot a mech, not to waltz between them. This is not the same role, and this is not the same responsibility. You should know that, of all people.”
“Well, in any case, this is mostly irrelevant. The USRE has taken the decision to postpone this Flower War for at least a month, as the Open Hand investigates the third party that got the jump on you. No one claimed responsibility, so our leads are pretty rare.”
“These mechs were fairly peculiar in their design. Fully organic combat forms are not exactly common.”
“In the Traverse, perhaps, but this is a different story on Earth. Organic mechs were somewhat common during the early years of the Low Age; weapons of intimidation, the heralds of ancient superpowers that thought they could rule the post-apocalyptic world as gods. Many of them were destroyed, but a few remain. Hidden. Hibernating. Waiting for a good fairy to wake them from their slumber. Such is the Earth, Eshe. The gods have fallen; and yet, they persist.”
“So whoever decided to disturb this Flower War is...what? One of your ancient gods?”
“The gods aren’t here anymore, mercenary. The gods have failed. The gods are dead. They came, they ran, and they burned. But some of their tools remain, ready for the taking. This is the Earth! Dig for a while, anywhere, anytime: ruins will come up, and some of them can still be awakened. It could be anyone, really, playing with the ghosts of the industrial age. Random mercenaries looking for a pretend fight. A bored AI. A Solar Envoy with grudges to settle. You. Me. Anyone.”
“I hate your planet.”
“Oh, trust me, she hates herself way more.”
THE SKY WAS THE COLOUR OF TELEVISION, TUNED TO A DEAD CHANNEL
...and the sea below sent its waves against the meaningless remnants of a seawall, once built to protect the megalopolis from the ever-encroaching ocean. It now lay here, led bare to the storms; seagulls nested in the cracks of the concrete slabs, adding layers of guano to the grey structures of sea-torn pillars. Coral-grown towers surged towards the sky in the east, sovereigns presiding over an assembly of colourful districts and small terran world-trees gathered in leafy urban courts. The new city had been built much further inland, sheltered from the undying rage of the ocean. Between the seawall and the outer layer of world-trees, there were the ruins of what had once been one of the jewels of the western European shore: now a liminal space, frozen in condensed time. There were tilted columns of steel, shattered glass and concrete, dead skyscrapers under the afternoon sun. Floating buildings were anchored between them, displaying the striking colours of a myriad of local communes. Between the buildings were thousands of small bridges made of transbiological ropes sewn out of algae and q-augmented linen, and Eshe found herself sitting on one of these contraptions, legs dangling over the troubled water. In her hands she held a cup of local tea, brewed from the golden-leaved algae she could see undulating under the foam and sand. Small winged creatures slithered between the rocks and ruins — recycling djinns, masquerading as legit lifeforms. There was an AI’s avatar — an anima, in terran parlance — sitting next to her. Black and white clothes, hair like gills breathing in the wind and, on the back of her hand, a q-aug tattoo. It was a raven, wings folded, head turned to the left, blind. Callista worked for Ur-Algorab — the lesser raven, the one that dwelt on planets and concerned itself with the trivial matters of humankind.
“Where did you get that tissue sample, Eshe?”
The AI’s voice was like honey, poured on hot sand.
“It doesn’t really matter and you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I just need to know where it comes from. Algorab owes me for that time on Smyrnia, so I’d like a straight answer.”
The AI blinked.
“Of course. I have forwarded your sample to one of our labs on Luna. The original DNA belonged to an organic combat drone, a Type 04, 05 or 06 — more specifically, artificial muscle grown from stem cells gathered on several species of bovines. That, you probably already know, but we’ve been able to identify a potential manufacturer. Cross-analysis with USRE databases showed that this organic mech was built at the height of the collapse by a pan european military conglomerate. It was a lesser god, made to safeguard borders with holy terror and the wanton slaughter of immigrants. A silhouette emerging from the sea at night, blade in hand, taller than a house.”
Eshe nodded, and didn’t ask how they had accessed classified USRE data. Algorab knew. Algorab provided. In exchange, Algorab only asked for silence.
“What conglomerate was that?”
“The name is irrelevant and I am afraid it would not ring any bells to you. What is more interesting is that we also know where this drone and its brethren were manufactured, judging from the environmental markers in their DNA.”
“I don’t see how that helps me.”
“Well, consider that organic mechs are closer to wild creatures than war machines. They aren’t piloted or programmed, they’re tamed. In order to initiate one of these drones to a new mission — and remember they were originally created for terror and crowd control, nothing more — you need to recondition them, and there is no better place for that than the facility where they were first assembled, and probably spent centuries in hibernation. Of course, USRE or Laniakea laboratories could also recondition an organic drone, but if they had done it, we would be aware of that fact.”
“Right. Where is that facility?”
“Do you like sand, Eshe Kollontai?”
RULES OF NATURE
The Type-67 advanced recon drone was a semi-organic flying machine that, in the depths of the industrial era, would have been effectively invisible to military radar. In the interstellar age, it was still hard to detect for civilian equipment — or, and it was the reason why Eshe had chosen one of these to cross the Mediterranean, outdated military sensors. The drone’s simple AI talked to the flower pilot through her q-augs. Its voice sounded like sand on dead rock.
“Reaching drop point in 15 seconds.”
She blinked in response. It felt strange to be back in the belly of a Type 67, lying prone in the drop bay of the drone. Hot combat drops weren’t rare in Flower Wars, but it was quite unusual to let out a single soldier. Most of the time, Eshe would be dropped from orbit with her mech, or in the middle of a phalanx formation, and certainly not under the cover of the night. Combat drops in a Flower War didn’t have a tactical role: they were a purely aesthetic tool, colored thrusters firing in unison above the theater of war.
“How are we, 67?”
All Type 67 were named 67. They had no individuality — they were sub-sentient, and their perception of the world was purely utilitarian.
“We are alright. Our radar signature is minimal. USRE deep sky drones painted us with a laser two seconds ago, but did not scramble. I sight a passive radar over the target area. Detection is unlikely. Drop point in 5 seconds. Are you ready?”
The Type 67 didn’t blink. Catching doubt or sarcasm was way above its pay grade.
“Greenlight for drop.”
The cargo bay opened, and Eshe saw droplets of rain splatter on her helmet for a second, until the cameras started clearing up her field of view with interference-suppressing algorithms. She let go of the Type 67 and hurled herself towards the ground, a thousand meters below.
The rain and the wind engulfed her almost immediately. She didn’t have to think, as her wardancer suit corrected her trajectory before she even formulated a thought. The neural link at the back of her neck gave her full control over the semi-organic exoskeleton embedded within the suit and the impulse thrusters of her enhanced mobility harness, but she preferred leaving flight controls to the autopilot. That way, she could focus on the target ahead: a concrete structure, shaped like a series of triangles embedded within the white, flat-roofed buildings and exotic gardens of an ancient resort station by the sea. It wasn’t a ruin, yet wasn’t populated either. There were many facilities like this one alongside the northern shores of the Maghreb region. The majority of them were USRE property and were dedicated to water treatment, sealife monitoring or shallow sea mining, but some of the facilities did not belong to the same time and space. They came from the Low Age. Concrete shadows of the ancient world, left alone out of boredom rather than fear.
Five hundred meters above ground, Eshe fired a short burst from her impulse thrusters, then deployed her parachute. She glided for a few minutes, suspended under the pouring rain. The Type 67 had left the drop zone, ascending towards a stratospheric orbit above the Mediterranean sea. The facility below had something of an abandoned amusement park, albeit Eshe could guess that its true purpose had been — still was? — different. The trees looked artificial, made of painted steel and plastic. The resort’s buildings were well-maintained but empty, their windows showing shadowy hallways and staircases as a meaningless fac-simile of human settlement. The concrete triangles gleamed very slightly in infrared, where heat sinks protruded in the shallow water by the sea. There was nothing on ultraviolet, but her false colour composite showed concentration of lichen and algae alongside the seams on the sea-facing side of the bunkers. Hangar doors, perhaps.
Seventy meters above ground, Eshe let go of her parachute and fired her impulse thrusters, bracing for touchdown. In a Flower War, she would have considered doing a good old superhero landing — bending one knee, arms extended like wings — but there were no spectators here. Her mind was focused on her surroundings on the beach, ready to fire flares or deploy micromissiles. Drop-killing flower pilots or wardancers wasn’t very polite, but she couldn’t vouch for the politeness of Low Age ghosts. Eshe stood up, feeling her exoskeleton move in unison below her combat jacket. In a Flower War, she would have deployed her colourful flag and donned a cape or a scarf bearing the emblems of her employer — but right here, right now, her role was different. She didn’t wear a wardancer’s attire, but an Enhanced Mobility Infantry combat suit, not unlike that of an USRE commando. Eshe looked around in several wavelengths. Aside from the heat sinks, the dead station was cold and empty, except from a slight surge underneath the grey waves by the beach. She braced, getting ready for a confrontation — and, suddenly, a massive organic shape bulged from the water, screaming on several radio channels. An organic combat drone, the same model as the one that had attacked them on the other side of the sea. When the machine touched down on the beach with a heavy, muffled thump, Eshe had already moved. The state of flux kicked in a split-second later, as her neural link gathered the various inputs from her combat suit and turned them into semi-conscious perceptions, to the point her thoughts and the machine’s complex analyses were one and the same. She fired a cloud of multispectral flares, then switched on her impulse thrusters, using the closest concrete wall to gain vertical momentum. The organic drone tracked her with its railgun pods, but the multispectral flares prevented the machine from getting a clear lock, while Eshe’s shoulder-mounted laser emitter kept blinding its sight. The flower pilot ordered her suit to launch two pairs of micromissiles in quick succession. The dagger-sized projectiles left the pods in her back and surged towards the drone. Two dome-shaped close-in defence systems ignited, pulverizing the first pair of missiles with superheated shrapnel. The second pair moved around the drone, preceded by another cloud of projectiles.
Eshe jumped, combining a push from her exoskeleton and an impulse from her mobility harness. Thanks to her micromissiles, the close-in cannons now faced the other way; she touched down on the head — a complex sensor pod — of the organic mech a millisecond later. She anchored a proximity mine to the carbon-protected layer of transbiological material, armed it and jumped down. The shaped charge exploded a second later, turning the upper half of the drone in a flower of dark red artificial blood and carbon nanotubes. The machine stumbled, tapping its arched legs to keep its balance while a flurry of subroutines activated to try and compensate for the sudden loss of sensory inputs. The mech’s sharp tail slashed in the rain, missing Eshe by a good meter. She didn’t leave the machine time to reorganize. Reaching for another charge, she ran at the mech’s left leg, then glued a third mine to the right limb before impulsing away. As Eshe dropped down in the shallow water, two flashes of light hissed and the mech collapsed on a nearby building, legs instantly severed. It twitched; tried to stand up; then finally gave up as it ran out of blood, pouring on the sand at the rate of several tens of litres per second.
Eshe took a deep breath and reloaded her flares.
The engagement had lasted eight seconds and a half.
Eshe looked around, like a predator seeking another victim, but there was nothing else to witness. The sea was silent. Eshe walked towards the concrete triangles. It was hard to give them an age. The polished layer of concrete at the top of the bunker was the work of centuries — but how many of them? One? Three? Five? There were emblems on the sides of the buildings. Carved, not painted, and thus they had been spared by the storms. They said EUROFRONT, or something to that effect. Historical references appeared in Eshe’s mind. Some sort of coast guard agency, tasked with protecting the borders of Fortress Europe. At some point in the collapse, it had turned into an autonomous defence system, a smaller AUSCOM. At which point had EUROFRONT decided to churn out biological mechs to prowl its long-gone borders, Eshe had no idea, but she suspected it was a leftover of its original intent. EUROFRONT had not been created to wage a war, but to crush insects under an iron fist: gods prowling the shore were well-fitted for this task.
Eshe walked closer to the hangar.
The door opened.
Another mech hissed and slithered its way outside. Its frame was familiar, but the overall shape was weaker and leaner. It was only half-finished. Skeletal structures appeared underneath its flexible, armoured skin. In truth, it looked as if it was in pain. Eshe moved in a combat stance, ready to drop flares, but didn’t even have to follow suit. Something surged beneath the drone; a vague presence, only made manifest by the synchronized detonation of two shaped charges, cutting right through the legs and ending the machine’s brief, agonizing life. Eshe reached for her sidearm and locked her gaze on the human shape that appeared a few meters away from her, still draped in the vanishing visual patterns of their optical camouflage. The dust settled around the mech’s already rotting body, and the silhouette stepped forwards.
“Amin,” she said. He wore a grey combat suit not unlike hers, that had traded the micromissile launchers for a full-body cloaking surface.
“Eshe. What an entrance.”
“I reckon that’s my speciality.”
“Indeed. How did you come here?”
“I borrowed a Type 67. You brought a mech?”
“An old Lumia, yes. Did Occitania send you to hunt me down?”
“So I guess we’re here for the same reason, then.”
“Likely. What put you on this trail?”
“I collected a blood sample from my mech and sent it to a friend for analysis. She’s an Omphal sister. They know their way around ancient things. The DNA sent me to this EUROFRONT ruin.”
“I went through Algorab, but aside from that...same story for me. What did you find inside?”
The concrete bunker was old and decrepit — even more so than the mock resort station surrounding it — but Eshe could easily identify its nature. It was in equal parts a hangar and an incubation chamber. Beyond a blast door and a storage room, she found six mech-sized tanks. Four of them were filled with sand and dust, and she could make out the eerie shape of giant skeletons underneath the dirt. The other two contained a buffer solution, colourless and odourless. Blood plasma, or maybe artificial sap.
“Suspended animation chambers,” commented Amin. “The superstructures date back to the Low Age — I can tell that from the manufacturing quality — but the fluid inside is evidently much more recent. I think the facility was originally capable of breeding new mechs, but the reactivated chambers don’t contain the nutrients and raw biological material to build an organic walker. They’ve only been used as storage, either for new individuals or old mechs kept in suspended life.”
“I didn’t know you were versed in historical mechs.”
“My nun gave me a crash course. Sadly, I wasn’t able to extract more information from those chambers and the rest of the facility is not usable. It seems we’re at a dead-end.”
Eshe opened a direct channel with her Type 67 drone. The aircraft had stabilized itself on a stratospheric orbit, observation pods turned towards the ground. USRE air defense satellites had pinged it once again, without any further action. They didn’t seem to mind its presence.
“67’s cameras tell me there’s another facility, about twenty kilometers south of our current location. My maps only mention generic Collapse ruins. Could it be the origin point of our drones?”
“These ruins are located right inside the old EUROFRONT border. Twenty kilometers with the Lumia, that’s half an hour away. Can’t hurt to check.”
“Let’s go. This place makes me nauseous.”
WIND, SANDS AND STARS
Three shapes moved in the rocky desert, under the afternoon sun peeking through the scattered clouds. Amin’s Lumia drone towered over the arid plain, giant walking among the stones. Amin and Eshe were perched on the mech’s shoulders, turned towards the faint black line they saw in the south — an ancient tower, standing in the yellow winds. The mech’s joints whispered, its steps muffled by the dust.
“None of this makes sense,” whispered Eshe.
“I don’t see why you’d use antiquated bio-mechs to disrupt a Flower War. You’ve seen it yourself: these things are useless. We’ve been able to vanquish their duelist with nothing more than Flower War weapons, and we just ran circles around these drones at the beach. Even in their prime, they were more like intimidation devices than weapons of war. You don’t need to be combat-efficient to stand guard at the edge of a bunkered border.”
“Could be an impoverished commune.”
“Come on,” she slapped the Lumia’s outer armor. “You got this thing in exchange for a rusty spacecoach, one ton of whitewood and a long night of love and I’m ready to bet it’s vastly more efficient than any Low Age mech. It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Maybe a rogue Low Age intelligence? A very lame AUSCOM, if you will.”
“And it would cross a sea to engage random Flower War mechs with duellists? I know ancient minds are arcane, but they’re not that illogical.”
“Alright, the best option I have is someone trying to cover their tracks. You can’t hack a biological drone and we do not have the knowledge required to question one of them, if it’s even possible.”
“Cover their tracks with mechs that can be tracked by an Omphal nun? With all due respect, of course.”
“I feel like I’m part of a theatre play where I don’t know the scenario in advance. It’s been a while. I find it quite refreshing.”
The concrete shard towered three hundred meters above the desert. For a good minute now, the Lumia had stepped on semi-buried panels of steel and silicon — it was obvious the building had once been a solar tower, dedicated to powering an underground facility. In infrared, she could see several heat sources underneath the sands — full-fledged incubators, maybe, or perhaps a power source, or both. Several kilometers beyond the tower, following the rose-coloured horizon, there was a wall. A thin black line, cutting the world in two. The southernmost limit of Fortress Europe, built half a millennium ago. On their side, there was the ruins of what had once been the global North; on the other side, there was the heart of the USRE, and a space elevator reaching for the stars. Eshe felt a painful shard emerge somewhere deep in her belly. Her ancestors had suffered and died alongside this black line, against the borders of Fortress Europe, against the inane carelessness of the western world.
Then, the sands started to sing.
The mechs attacked.
Four of them. Two-legged, but strangely animal-looking; black and muscular, armed with giant biomechanical bows. Type 08-A, codenamed ANUBIS, told them the Lumia’s basic AI. Advanced EUROFRONT warform, wardens of the border, designed by a man from Paris who’d thought what would stop the desperate and dispossessed would be the echoes of an even older world.
The Anubis drones fired their bows in unison. The arrows shattered mid-flight in a swarm of micromissiles, a hail of projectiles zooming through the cold twilight. Eshe tapped Amin’s shoulder and they jumped in unison behind his Lumia. The bipedal mech activated its close-in defence systems, then leaned towards Eshe and Amin, protecting them with its bulky frame. Eshe heard a flurry of metallic raindrops all around her as the few micromissiles that had survived the active defenses shattered on the Lumia’s armor. The mech shrugged off the impacts and stood up, combat knife in one hand, 40 millimeter cannon in the other. The Anubis drones howled and moved in unison, single-bladed khepesh in their inhuman hands. Amin snapped his fingers and activated his optical cloak before lunging forwards. Eshe fired her impulse thrusters to relocate herself before launching three pairs of micromissiles. The Lumia turned its back to the wardancers and its belly towards two of the four Anubis drones, bracing for impact. Everything connected seamlessly. Amin decloaked in-between his two targets, arming his shaped charges on their legs. Eshe detonated her micromissiles in the belly of the two other Anubis mechs, stopping them mid-run. The Lumia took a step backwards, finishing off the mechs with four shots from its cannons, aimed at the sugar pouches in their backs, splattering the sands with black entrails.
Eshe and Amin exchanged a smile. The Lumia seemed to look around, then bowed.
The fight had taken six seconds to unravel.
THE KING IN BLACK
At the base of the tower, they found a fallen king.
The mech was a duellist. Thirty meters tall, it was the biggest mech Eshe and Amin had ever seen, and yet it was entirely unable to hurt them. It rested against the concrete wall, sitting with its blind face turned towards the north. Its three-fingered hands were locked around the pommel of a sword, seven meters in length. The weapon itself was buried in the sand. Eshe briefly felt like an ant facing Excalibur. She covered her nose. The mech, however majestic, was rotting. Its artificial muscles and sugar pouches had started to melt and disintegrate, drenching the sand with a thick, black liquid. Grey, metallic bones were visible underneath, protruding from the holes in the skin. The stench was almost unbearable. The king was decomposing.
“Mother of Kadija…” cursed Amin, voice muffled by his atmospheric filters.
“The head is strange. Are those protrusions pheromone emitters?”
“They are. It’s a coordinator. A pack leader, in a sense. Well. Was.”
“The brain is already melted. It’s a dead end.”
Another voice echoed in the wind.
They stood atop a small dune, next to the fallen king, having just deactivated their full-spectrum cloak and jamming suite. They clapped. Slowly, and there was a kind smile on their lips.
“Dead end? I call this a wonderful conclusion!”
THE ART OF DECOYS
Twenty kilometers away, the tower pierced the dying sky.
The fire crackled in the cold night, nested between two dunes and a concrete slab. Far above the desert, the stars gleamed as distant snowflakes. The Lumia stood guard above the three humans sitting around the fire. It was busy oiling its 40 millimetre cannon, its large armoured fingers moving in a delicate, precise way. The two wardancers had abandoned their combat suits. They now wore the colourful clothes of Eloran immigrants, gleaming under the faint starlight. Amin held a bowl of instant noodles above the fire, while Eshe prepared three rice rolls to go with them. The referee watched over the two mercenaries, their lips still curved in a smile.
“So you restarted the flower war without our presence...how did the communes take the sudden absence of their two main pilots?”
“Not too badly. It took a bit of talking, and lots of legalese, but I could convince them to keep going with the Flower War without you. Officially, you have been taken into custody by the Open Hand for your own protection, alongside the referee who had been originally assigned to this war. The strange circumstances surrounding these mysterious mech attacks justified such exceptional measures. Your contracts will be maintained, and paid in full by the USRE. It wouldn’t have been very nice of us to force the communes to pay for pilots who do not fight for them any longer, wouldn’t it.”
Amin nodded while stirring his noodles. Eshe considered her rice rolls, then the referee, then the rice rolls again.
“How did you reactivate these mechs?”
The referee shrugged and answered with a simple, plain honesty.
“We — the USRE, I mean — have spent the last century and a half rebuilding the planet we could once call home. All the ruins, all the ghosts, are familiar figures in our eyes. We even consider one of them as our equal: AUSCOM, the spectre of America. We know the remnants by heart. We know how to access them and how to manipulate them if need be. We are the gardeners. They are the flowers.”
“Spiky, ugly flowers.”
“EUROFRONT is dead and buried, and with it the world it had tasked itself with guarding. Good riddance. The organic mechs are convenient. Easy to build, easy to manipulate.”
“If the goal was to lure us here and away from the Flower War, why not use regular flower drones, or a mercenary team?”
“Well, first because these mechs are utterly useless, and I couldn’t risk hurting you. No offence, I think very highly of your martial abilities — even outside of a pretend war — but while the threat needed to be credible, it had to be weak. Mercenaries holding back in battle could have made you suspect something. Ancient organic drones were perfect in the role of the elusive threat. They were also easy to track down due to their very nature.”
“Perfect pawns, then?”
“Perfect actors in the play I wanted to stage, rather.”
Amin passed her the noodles and grabbed a rice roll.
“Fair enough, but there’s one last question: why did you want to remove us from this Flower War?”
“Ah, Eshe, Amin...you’re very good pilots, and I think you’ll be remembered as some of the best flower war actors of all time, but you’re not exactly businesspeople, aren’t you? You never considered that medium-sized communes like the Solar Sea and Occitania finding enough funds to hire you and a full complement of Flower Mechs for their little war was slightly hard to believe? The reality is that an unknown actor influenced the communes into purchasing your services, providing resources and incentives through sleeper agents. The objective was clear: disrupt and ridicule this Flower War by turning the political clash between the communes into a duel between two of the most famous flower pilots in human space. Rob Occitania and the Solar Sea of their catharsis by relegating it behind your own fight, your own story. Send the narrative off the rails.” The referee took a bite from her rice roll. “The Open Hand is still unsure as to the reason for this manipulation. Occitania and the Solar Sea are nothing in the grand scheme of Earth affairs. It might be a simple joke. It might be an act of protest. It might be an idle bet. It might be an exploration of a new attack vector against Flower Wars. Whatever it is, we had to stop it, if only to show that Flower Wars are, indeed, a serious matter and not just a glorified bar fight.”
“You could have talked with us.”
“I could. But...you travelled five hundred lightyears for this Flower War and it’s wasn’t only for terran money. I didn’t want to rob you of the thrill of a tale of war and destruction. Thus, I gave you one. It was bit rushed, and I understand your opponents were a bit lacking, but I hope it was entertaining, at the very least.”
Amin and Eshe exchanged a gaze. Then, they both smiled.
“Considering the circumstances...yes. We’ve known worse.”
“And now, what will become of the ruins?”
The referee only answered after having finished their noodles.
“EUROFRONT has outlived its final purpose.”
BRING THE CURTAIN DOWN
The referee stood up and snapped their fingers. Four hundred kilometers above, the Luciole-class Interceptor And Thus, Lights Went Out fired a single orbit-to-surface missile. Amin and Eshe looked in silence as the projectile entered the Earth’s atmosphere, trailing a faint line of gold in its wake. When it made contact with the tower, the missile shattered the concrete structure as if it had been made of paper. Eshe and Amin saw it crumble in the sand, blown away by a will falling from space, a message from the new world to the old one.
Amin leaned towards Eshe.
“Hey. Don’t you owe me a duel?”
“Aye. You’re up?”
“Pick your weapons.”
“I don’t have my mech, and combat suits are too dangerous.”
“Aw. You’re right.”
“How about a game of tic-tac-toe?”
“Fine by me.”
History doesn’t recall who won.
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