I go from forum to forum. Posting this series I started writing, in search for the most interested audience. I hope I find some interested fans here. They are instances in the lives of different Ravens and those who are in their lives. To what extent they begin to combine, and what direction I take the next story of the series is completely in the hands of the readers. Please provide input on preferred directions to take. Such as characters stories to expand on/explore their pasts, events that have taken place, questions you have gathered why reading, etc. Thank you.
Raven Portrait I
He walked through his servicing bay, his footsteps echoing back to him with a hollowing, ringing sound imparted by the massive metal and concrete walls. Elsewhere, he could faintly hear the grinds and whirs of work being done on other machines, the machines of his brethren. For the time being, however, this hardly concerned him.
In his hand, he held a clipboard. He absently scanned its contents as he walked towards the end of the bay. It was a dossier, packed with information about his opponent for today. Equipment selection, fighting style, the location of the battle, odds of winning based on previous performance and equipment choice, it was all there. He knew that his opponent and, indeed, all the Arena fans, had access to identical dossiers on himself. He gave the clipboard a final glance, then tossed it onto a nearby tool cart with a contemptuous flick of his wrist, disturbing a pile of tools, which spilled to the ground in a cascading clatter of metal.
He looked up, and into the eyes of his baby.
Flame Wind, he called his Armored Core. In combat, it was a thing of beauty and terror, streaking around the battlefield and unleashing hordes of firepower with a speed and ferocity that fitted its name. Right now, however, it was just so many tons of inert metal.
The AC was in shutdown mode, resting against a massive scaffold that held it in an upright position. A thick umbilical cable, easily twice the width of his leg, snaked along one leg and disappeared just above the boosters, providing auxiliary power to the AC while it waited to be powered up. The core door was open and a ladder leaned up against it; apparently the Global Cortex techs had already run their diagnostics on the machine, which meant he could board it at his leisure. He took a moment to admire the odd duality of it all, his beloved war machine, currently blind, helpless, and immobile. But all that would change soon enough. He stepped to the ladder and started to climb.
The cockpit of the AC was, as one might expect, not very spacious. It didn't quite qualify as "cramped," but it was close enough. The cockpit was dark, cold, and silent, and his breath escaped from his mouth in a thin wisp of steam as he settled into the chair. The only light came from a tiny monitor placed over the main view screen, it glowed faintly with the Crest logo.
He reached over his head, experience guiding his hands rather than eyesight, and found a bank of toggle switches. He flipped the first one, and a small amber light winked on, the only light besides the pale glow of the status monitor. The Crest logo winked out, replaced by scrolling lines of system messages and start-up check results. He knew that the same data he was seeing was being pumped to a Global Cortex team who would analyze it, and abort the start-up should anything be too amiss.
He passed the time by counting down from 10 to himself, slowly. Sure enough, right as he hit zero, the amber light winked to green and the monitor reported to him, in friendly blue letters "SYSTEM READY." He reached up and flicked the next switch, subconsciously bracing himself in the seat as he did so.
The entire AC shuddered, as if it had been hit by a bazooka round. New Ravens had a tendency to panic the first few times they started up their AC, thinking they'd missed some critical part of their pre-mission checklist and had just crippled the machine. The reality was much more mundane. A faint, rising whine confirmed what he already knew; the main generator had started successfully. A few moments later, the main display came alive.
He absently watched the energy gauge slowly build on the left-hand side of his monitor, the generator charging the capacitors to their ready state. He busied himself in the meantime with adjusting and securing his straps, and finished with 20 seconds to spare before the marching red bar finally reached the top of its range and turned green. Two more switches to go.
At the flipping of the next switch, he heard a loud clang and rolling noise; the massive umbilical cable detaching from his AC. The last switch caused another massive shudder of his AC; this time as the scaffolding relaxed. The AC sagged forward for a moment, and then stood on its own. Various whirrs and hisses emerged from the machine's limbs as movement ranges were tested and verified, and then the AC settled down, assuming the comfortable, familiar hum that was many a Raven's only solace in times of incredible danger. A smoothly modulated computer voice spoke to him, and he reminded himself again to get a head that didn't have a computer that sounded like an English schoolmarm.
"AC start-up complete," it intoned, "System switched to normal mode." He smiled slightly; everything had gone off without a hitch, just like it usually did. He was meticulous in maintaining his AC, too many Ravens had died during AC start-up because they skipped routine servicing and checks to save money. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of what had happened to Brickyard, just a few weeks ago. Brickyard thought he could skimp on AC service, too. Then his core door latch had failed during combat, and the hatch had literally fallen open, exposing the helpless Raven to the full fury of the flamethrower his opponent had turned on him just moments before.
The image of the unrecognizably melted cockpit, with its equally unrecognizably melted pilot, lingered in his head as he steered his AC towards the elevator. As the ankle latches secured, he shoved the vision from his mind. He had slightly more pressing matters to attend to.
As the elevator rose towards the surface, his external audio sensors could already pick up the roaring of the crowd. He allowed himself a moment of vanity, to believe that the crowd was cheering for him and him alone. He knew better, of course. The crowd hardly cared who won in an Arena battle; they just wanted to see the action.
He hardly blamed them. Arena battles were one of the few high parts of a life that was otherwise dominated by oppression at the hands of the corporations that ran the world. It didn't particularly matter to the crowd who won or lost, he and his opponent were nothing special to them. Just another Raven, just another fight.
He considered begrudging them that opinion. But it was hard to do so when he knew that the person cheering lustily for him today might die by his hands tomorrow, the cheers turned to screams of terror as the metal skeleton of an MT melted to slag or shattered into millions of slivers of razor sharp metal all around them.
No, he did not begrudge the crowds their depersonalization of the men and women risking their lives as Ravens in the Arena. He came to this decision as the elevator reached its destination with a jerk and a thump. The gate before him began to slide open, drenching the elevator and its passengers in light. Beyond, the roar of the crowd was almost deafening, he had to turn down the gain on his audio sensors to not be rattled out of his cockpit by the ruckus. All that noise for just another Raven, he considered, but he didn't mind.
"In fact," he thought to himself, "I think I like it better this way." His AC stepped through the gate and disappeared into the light.
“Raven Portrait II“
"This is an outrage!"
He was more than a little angry. Youthful features, betraying that he couldn't be far past his 20th birthday, were contorted in rage. The flame-red hair that made his choice of a call sign both easy and obvious waved as he pounded his fist on the desk to drive his point home. His face was as red as his hair, and he shivered.
He was a pilot of a multi-ton war machine; an Armored Core. His name was Pyro, and he was beyond upset.
The target of his rage was a nondescript man, his close-cropped brown hair just beginning to silver at the temples. Dark eyes peered out at the young Raven, a mixture of boredom and annoyance on the older man's face. Pyro didn't know the evaluator's name, but he knew that he was the proper target for his wrath.
"Now listen, Raven," began the older man, before Pyro cut him off.
"I have a call sign, you know," Pyro sniffed, his tone dripping with injured pride. The evaluator seemed not to notice his interjection, pausing just long enough for Pyro to get out his quip before continuing.
"Yeah? Well, I have one, too. Do you know what it is?" Pyro stopped for a moment, taken aback. It had never occurred to him that this relic, this fossil, had ever been anywhere near an AC, much less been a Raven. In fact, this whole exchange was beginning to unnerve him. He had expected the evaluator to be cut from the same cloth as the Global Cortex techs and contacts that he usually dealt with; people who treated him with the mixture of fear, awe, and respect due a Raven. Instead, he found this grizzled old bear sitting at a desk, looking completely unimpressed that the pride of the D-Rank Ravens was standing before him. The man continued. "As I was saying, Raven..."
"You fired off nearly every round of ammunition you had. You drained your capacitors three times in the course of the mission. And your AC suffered so much damage it’s a miracle it didn't fall apart when they loaded it in the transport to bring it back. We've already had to assign two work crews to 18-hour shifts to try to make an AC out of the mass of wreckage that you brought home." The evaluator stopped for a moment, then rested his chin on steepled fingers. "But I'm sure your balance sheet has already alerted you to that fact."
Pyro winced in spite of himself. He had, indeed, noted that nearly every credit he had made on this mission wound up going to cover his ammo and AC repair costs. The shame of just barely breaking even only served to further heighten his rage. Yet still the evaluator wasn't done talking.
"In fact, if the pilot of that Assault Tank hadn't gotten a little too trigger happy, you never would have taken out the reactor Mirage sent you to destroy in the first place."
"That was a ploy!" cried Pyro in protest. "I knew I was low on ammo--"
"So you lured him into destroying the reactor for you, right?" The evaluator had once again cut him off. The man's ability to predict Pyro's next words added to the surreal atmosphere of the confrontation. "And the other eight times he tagged you dead-on, that was just a trick to lull him into a false sense of security, right?" Pyro fumed in silence, staring sullenly at the man across the desk, which for his part seemed to be slightly amused by the whole situation. The evaluator leaned back in his chair, the leather creaking with the motion.
"What, did you think you're the first Raven to kick down my door offering to trade excuses for a better grade on a mission?"
"Dammit," Pyro shouted, "I'm the D-1 rank Raven!"
"Yeah?" countered the evaluator. "Well, if this and your previous performances are any indication, you're going to be there for some time, assuming you don't die first." Pyro blinked for a moment, and then his face re-colored with fury.
"This is crap!" he shouted. "I'm ready for the C-ranks! The D-rank Ravens are no challenge! The missions are for chump change! I'm ready, dammit!" His outburst, he noted with increasing frustration, had absolutely no effect on the evaluator at all.
"Ready?" he responded. "Don't make me laugh. Have you seen what's left of your AC, Raven? Hell, I don't think I can even call that twisted mass of scrap you brought back an AC anymore. By all rights, you should be as full of holes as it is."
"But I'm not," retorted Pyro smugly, "so does that tell you I'm better than you thought?"
"Hardly," replied the evaluator. "It tells me that you have the Devil's own luck. And one day, that luck is going to run out, and then you're going to be a corpse." He continued before Pyro could even take a breath to protest. "The C-rank Ravens would laugh you out of the Arena. Missions that we assign to C-rank Ravens would kill you in minutes, if not seconds. The D-rank on this mission stands, and your request for a Raven Rank increase is denied."
Pyro finally snapped. He slammed both hands on the desk and leaned over it, screaming into the evaluator's face.
"This isn't possible! I'll make you see I'm ready for the C-ranks, even if I have to pound your face to--"
Pyro was going to say "a bloody smear," but somewhere between "pound" and "face," something had changed.
In retrospect, Pyro would liken it to the striking of a snake, like he'd seen in his surface survival training classes. It happened so fast that by the time his eyes had registered the motion, it was already done. The evaluator had, in a flash, stood, smoothly drawn a small pistol from a holster at his waist, and deftly lodged the barrel just underneath his chin, a bullet poised to tear through the soft, fleshy part of his jaw, penetrate his brain case, and kill him instantly.
Pyro froze. The evaluator didn't have the nervous jitter of someone afraid of the gun, nor did he brandish it over-confidently like a weapon. The cold, steady way the gun stayed pressed to his flesh, never wavering, told him that this man would pull the trigger and end his life without hesitation or remorse.
"Let me tell you something," the evaluator began. His tone had changed. It was smooth and soft, professional. Pyro allowed his eyes to shift to the evaluator, no, the Raven, across the desk from him. "The other evaluators and I have the most important job in all of Global Cortex. More important than the techs, more important than the contacts, more important than you. Do you know why?"
Pyro moved his head slightly side to side, acknowledging that he didn't know in a way that he hoped would not provoke the evaluator into pulling the trigger.
"Because we are responsible for ensuring the future of Global Cortex. That means we only promote Ravens who are ready for the next rank. If I gave you that C-rank and you went out on a C-rank mission, and you died--" the man paused for a moment, "--well, that would give us the reputation of sending out Ravens who weren't qualified to do the job. The corporations would stop relying on us to handle settling their disputes, and the delicate balance of power that came into being after the Silent Line Incident would be destroyed."
"That's why all Global Cortex evaluators are selected from retired Ravens." Pyro's eyes widened in surprise. "I know you are aware what the chances are of a Raven surviving to retirement age. They drill it into you in training. Most of us were at least A-ranks, and some of us were even S-ranks. There's more than one Arena champion among the evaluators, as well. We evaluate the next generation of Ravens, because we know what it takes to survive."
Pyro nodded slightly, a small wheeze escaping from his mouth as the barrel of the gun temporarily blocked part of his windpipe.
"Now, the way I see it," the evaluator continued, "is that someone with your temper, attitude, and decided lack of skill won't last long. You're weak, slow, and sloppy. Face it, Raven. You're already dead; you just don't know it yet. So, whether you die right here, right now, or out on some godforsaken battlefield, you're still going to die, and I don't really care which way it goes."
Pyro wanted to cry. He wanted to flee, to beg for his life. He wanted to wet himself. Instead, he summoned up all of his courage and choked out a reply.
"I'm a Raven, same as you," he said. "If you don't kill me right now, I promise you that I will kill you. And if you do kill me, I'll see you in Hell." Much to Pyro's surprise, the evaluator smiled and nodded slightly.
"See," he said, "now you're figuring out what it means to live like a Raven. As for seeing me in Hell?" The man allowed himself a slight chuckle, "Save me a seat."
Then he pulled the trigger.
Raven Portrait III
The AC crept, as well as any multi-ton war machine standing two stories tall could, through the shattered remnants of the ancient city. Judging by the building style, and the odd, arcane writing left behind on fragments of masonry and pieces of old billboards, she had to assume that this decrepit, sprawling megalopolis was a remnant of the Great Destruction.
The Great Destruction...she couldn't help but shiver at the thought of it. Even though records obtained from the quaintly named 'Another Layered' indicated that the last, great war, the one that drove mankind into sunless exile for generations and left the surface a charred, uninhabited wasteland, was now safely buried under at least 2 centuries of time, it was still chilling to think of.
A muted blip snapped her from her reverie. Her eyes flicked to the radar, confirming what her ears had already told her. Contacts. She maneuvered carefully, doing her best to avoid crushing overturned cars and shattered storefronts. No need to draw attention to herself yet, she decided. Besides, charging in half-cocked was a quick way to get killed, especially on the wild, wooly surface where anything could happen.
"Raven," a soft, male voice spoke in her ear, his voice coming through the earpiece tucked under her helmet.
"Tarot here," she replied, eyes still on the radar, keeping the shattered hulks of buildings between her and the contacts. "Go."
"Kisaragi intelligence reports that the Crest transport just landed. The research team and their escorts have been deployed."
"Roger that," she replied. "I have them on radar. Do you have any details?" There was a brief pause on the other end while, she assumed, Hal, her contact, checked his sources.
"Affirmative," came the reply, a few moments later. "Intelligence indicates 3 transport vehicles, 4 guard MTs, and 2 assault MTs. There've been reports of those new split MTs Crest designed being around, but none have been confirmed in the operational area. Wait, hold on..." Hal sounded distracted, like something had just flashed on his monitor or something had just been handed to him. Tarot wondered if the mission objectives would be changed halfway through. Corporate slime liked to change their mind a lot, depending on which way the winds of greed were blowing at that given moment.
A few more seconds passed before Hal's voice came back through her headset. "Alright. Kisaragi has just confirmed that these are the targets. You are cleared to begin your attack."
"Confirmed," Tarot replied. "Commencing hostilities."
Less than 2 minutes later, it was all over. Taken by surprise, the Crest team never had a chance. A few well-placed shots from her bazooka had crippled the assault MTs. One was still listing to the side, its upper half a melted, molten mass from where the massive shell had punctured its armor. Smoke spewed from the wound, and oil and other fluids gushed from the shattered machine, spreading in shiny pools along the fractured pavement.
The guard MTs had fared no better. One had been dropped with a single bazooka shot, the mass-produced war machine nearly torn in half by the force of the shell. The other three, their pilots still slowed from the shock of her ferocious attack, had left themselves wide open. A few slices of her laser blade, and Tarot left the MTs even more wide open than they were before.
The transports, to their credit, had tried to escape from the moment her first shell hit home. The vehicles were especially swift, especially for research trucks, but the ground was rough and broken, and they had wheels, not legs. She had been on them in seconds, and they fared no better than their protectors.
Tarot's AC stood in the midst of a circle of mechanical carnage, gouts of coal-black smoke scarring the sky with the twisting signals of destruction. That had been ridiculously easy. She wondered for a moment what Crest was hoping to find out here, and what Kisaragi was trying to protect. In this line of work, however, those who wanted to survive learned quickly to stop caring about the reasons and focus on staying alive.
"Tarot reporting," she said calmly, surveying the site of her ambush for any additional hostiles. "All targets destroyed, returning to base."
"Confirmed," Hal's voice said in her ear. "I'll notify Kisaragi to send a trans--huh? Raven..."
Before he could finish, her computer was speaking to her, too.
"High energy output signal detected. Analyzing." A small inset appeared on her view screen, showing the analysis of the EM radiation. There was no mistaking that waveform. It was the generator of an AC.
"Hal!" she snapped into her microphone, "What the hell is another AC doing out here?" It was a minor breach of protocol, Ravens never referred to their contacts by name, and the contacts in turn referred to their charges as Raven, unless more than one happened to be on the same mission.
"I don't know," his voice came back through the headset, as calm as ever. "Running AC verification now." She kept an eye on her radar, waiting for the moment when the contact appeared at the outer ranges of her detection ability. She imagined Hal typing quickly and calmly, dredging up every bit of information he could about the unknown on the battlefield, comparing it against every known AC registered to every known Raven in Global Cortex.
Then she heard the sound no Raven ever wanted to hear.
Global Cortex contacts were a lifeline for Ravens in the field; their first line of defense and their last resort. With access to corporate intelligence, longer-range sensors, and multiple data streams, they served as the eyes and ears of a Raven beyond the range of their AC's sensors. They were all subject to rigorous training and psychiatric screening, to make sure they didn't freeze up or panic in high-pressure situations, situations in which a moment's hesitation could cost them the life of the Raven they were working with. For a contact to be taken by surprise like that...
Well, that couldn't be good.
"A-AC identification complete," Hal managed to stutter out, his voice odd. "It's Icepick."
"What?!?" Tarot was practically shouting into her headset now. Tartarus and his AC, Icepick, had disappeared over two months ago; they had lost contact with him during a routine recon mission, his AC had never been recovered.
Tarot's shock was cut short, however, by the blip that alerted her to a radar contact. She swore, and then hit her boosters. She didn't know how Tartarus had survived or what he was doing here, but odds were it wasn't to make pleasant conversation. She checked her ammo stores as she closed range, bouncing with an unearthly lightness across the shattered ground. Then she saw Icepick, and her shock came back all over again.
The AC looked like it had been run through a piece of industrial machinery. The head was partially split, the outer armor skin curled inwards in the characteristic tunneling burn of a high-power beam weapon. The left arm was crushed and mangled, dangling uselessly from the shoulders of the AC. An occasional spark played along the shattered limb, severed wires still attempting to carry current to the servos and attenuators that would normally allow it to function like a normal, human limb.
But the core, the core was worst of all.
It hung open, two enormous tongues of armor and metal peeling outward from a central point on the core. It looked for all the world like somebody had punctured the core's armor, and then simply tore it open to get at the soft, fleshy pilot inside. The cockpit was a shambles, full of bullet holes, scorch marks, and blood. But most of all, it was empty.
Yet Icepick was moving.
"HQ, are you getting all this?" Tarot whispered breathlessly into her headset.
"Affirmative, Raven," came Hal's voice in reply. His calm demeanor had returned, but it carried an undertone of extreme urgency. "Abort mission. I repeat, abort mission. Emergency transports have been scrambled for immediate dust-off. Leave the area of operations at once for rendezvous at--", then Hal's voice was cut off by a sharp burst of static, a burst of static likewise reflected on her main view screen. The cockpit lights dimmed for a moment, emergency suppressors kicking in as the characteristic EM pulse of a high energy weapon washed over her AC.
She cursed her foolishness. In her shock, she had forgotten that Tartarus had named his AC for the icy-blue wavelength of the beam produced by his weapon of choice, the MWG-KARASAWA. She threw her AC into a series of defensive maneuvers, ducking and dodging between buildings, trying to put as much distance between herself and the ruined, pilot less AC as possible. At the same time, she was yelling into her headset.
"Transmission garbled," she said, another blue bolt whizzing just past her AC's head. "Please repeat rendezvous coordinates. I repeat, transmission garbled, please repeat rendezvous coordinates." Hal complied, and she allowed herself a quick glance at the map displayed above her view screen. Not too far, she thought, but not too close, either. This wasn't going to be easy.
Especially because Icepick wasn't moving right. It was moving too fast, making direction changes and boosts that would crush an ordinary pilot under the intense g-forces. She remembered the yawning gap in the core and the empty cockpit within. There wasn't a pilot to crush. The AC could operate with all its safety limiters released. She knew it was risky, but she didn't have a choice.
There was a small red button, under a sheet of thin plastic, located just to the right of her control stick. She smashed the plastic, and hit the button. Immediately, the lighting in her cockpit turned red and an alert flashed on her screen. Her computer spoke to her.
"Danger. AC performance limiters released. All safety measures have been disengaged. In the event of pilot injury or fatality, please be aware that Mirage cannot be held liable..."
Just like the corporate swine, she thought to herself, grunting as she threw herself through a smaller building to escape another bolt. Always have to cover their ass.
It was better, but still not enough. Icepick still didn't have a human pilot inside of it, one who had physical limits to the acceleration they could withstand. It could still move faster, turn harder. Almost all the status indicators on her display had turned yellow. The damage was racking up, and she still had a ways to go before she reached the escape point.
She only had one last trick up her sleeve. She didn't know if she could survive trying it, but at this rate, she'd be dead soon, if not worse, anyway. Tarot spin around a building, then suddenly changed direction, coming back out the way she came. She felt wetness in her ears and on her lip and knew without having to look that she was bleeding; delicate blood vessels rupturing under the crushing force of 3 times the normal pull of gravity. She squeezed off a bazooka round.
Icepick tried to pivot to avoid it, but was just a little too slow. The shell smashed into the left shoulder of the AC, tearing the mangled remains of the arm from the core and sending it spinning back off into the distance. Icepick rocked back momentarily, the impact forcing it to check its forward motion to retain its balance. That small window of opportunity was all Tarot needed.
She flipped the switch, and the computer voice became more urgent. "Warning! Acceleration will exceed maximum pilot tolerance!" She muttered an obscenity, directed at whoever had programmed the computer on this thing. She heard and felt the hatches on the back of her core open, heard the turbines winding up. Then it felt like she had smacked into a solid cerasteel wall, and then it didn't feel like anything.
Tarot groaned and opened her eyes. She was on her back, looking up at a row of cold fluorescent lights. There was something soft underneath her. She could make out a figure standing over her, but not who it was. Then a familiar voice spoke through the haze of pain and grogginess.
"Welcome back, Raven. We didn't know if you were going to make it."
"Hal?" she asked weakly. "What happened?"
"You survived," he said. "You know, triggering an Over boost with your safety limiters off wasn't very smart. You could have been killed."
Tarot tried to shrug, but found that even attempting to move sent white-hot lances of pain screaming through her body. "Was dead anyway," she muttered through gritted teeth. "What about Icepick? Tartarus?"
Hal shook his head. "Luckily, the rescue team determined you were having trouble and moved in closer. Your AC ran out of energy right in front of the transport. They found you inside, unconscious but somehow still breathing. Icepick got there about 30 seconds after that."
"It wiped out all 12 guard MTs, but they bought the time we needed to get the transport airborne and out of there. They had you in emergency surgery the whole way home, and you were taken to the infirmary immediately on your arrival. You've been unconscious for two weeks."
"Two weeks?!?" Tarot tried to sit up, but once again found that even the slightest movement left her gasping in pain. Hal shook his head slightly.
"I wouldn't try to move, Raven. Every bone in your body was broken or crushed by the acceleration of your Over boost." His voice became softer and gentler, "You won't be piloting an AC for quite a while. In fact, there's a chance that you won't be piloting anything again, ever." He brightened slightly. "On the other hand, your evaluator, based on the combat data, elected to give you an 'S' rank on the mission."
"But I lost," Tarot mumbled miserably, resigning herself to a few months of healing. Hal shook his head.
"This incident was completely outside of anyone's experience. They teach you how to fight a lot of things in an AC, Raven, but ghosts are not one of them."
Tarot managed a weak smile. "So, how do you fight a ghost, then?"
But Hal had no reply.
Raven Portrait IV
(Wherein the author gets a bad case of narcissism)
The instructor looked out over the members of the latest graduating class. Standing on a large, armored scaffold, he regarded the 5 recruits arrayed on the windswept plain. They stood at the edges of their cockpits, looking up at him, the five Armored Cores arranged in a rough semi-circle around him.
He studied them briefly, and nodded to himself. This class had started with 50. Of them, only 5 had made it to the end of the training. A 10% graduation rate was actually about average, after all.
A little over half of the class hadn't lasted the first 2 months. Either unwilling or unable to endure the brutal physical training that would prepare them for being thrown around inside the cramped cockpit of an AC locked in mortal combat.
He'd lost a few more during simulation training; latent claustrophobia that the psychiatric evaluations had missed showed itself in the form of screaming fits and bouts of hysteria. A few more had discovered that their initial success in the aptitude test was little more than beginner's luck, they didn't really have the knack for piloting an AC.
There were a few deaths in training accidents, and a few suicides, too. Regrettable losses, but ones that he had come to expect. A few more had trickled out with each new fatality, and the last large group to leave did so after the odds of a Raven surviving to retirement age were explained in their cruel entirety. The brutality of the life of a Raven was often only overshadowed by how brief it was. It happened with every class, people weighing the odds and deciding that a long life under corporate rule was better than a life of freedom with the potential to end much more quickly and suddenly.
In the end, only 5 had lasted through the 6 month training course and proven that they had the skill and determination to truly be called Ravens. And those five were arrayed before him now. Just like he always did, before moving into his final speech, he said a little prayer for each of them. He knew full well that of the five newly minted Ravens in front of him, two, maybe three would survive the first 3 months.
Still, the life of a Raven was never thrust on anyone. Those that walked the path did so of their own free will, in full knowledge that any given moment could be their last. And it was for this reason that the Ravens were afforded the fear and respect they were. Walking corpses, every single one of them, living on stolen time until the one shot they never saw or heard coming reminded them that their life had ended when they joined Global Cortex.
He was only slightly disappointed with this crowd. No 'naturals' in this class, he knew. And certainly no naturals on a par with the Raven that was the source of both his greatest pride and shame. The kid had taken the call sign Foxx before he even took the aptitude test. He was the natural's natural. "Born in an AC," the other instructors would say, shaking their heads in disbelief.
Upon becoming a Raven, Foxx had amassed one of the most incredible mission completion records ever seen, and tore through the Arena with unprecedented speed and ease. He had been sure that that Raven would change the world. But then, on the day after he assumed the mantle of Arena Champion, Foxx had walked into the administrative offices, dropped his badge on the desk, and resigned his Arena rank. When asked why, he merely smiled and walked out. The instructor's disappointment with the Raven was immense. The fact that a Raven of such incredible talent would turn his back on what was obviously his calling was a bitter pill to swallow.
But that was almost 20 years ago now. Foxx had survived, and retired and the instructor was not in the least surprised to find the Raven's name listed among the Global Cortex evaluators. After today, these 5 new recruits would be their problem, and he would turn his attention to shepherding a new crop of green recruits through the weeding out process that would separate the Ravens from the rest. For the time being, however, he had one last duty to attend to with this class. He switched on his microphone, and addressed the recruits.
"Congratulations," he began. "You have completed your training and from this moment on are officially Ravens." He paused to allow the recruits, Ravens now, he reminded himself, to celebrate. They'd earned it. "However, I'm not quite through with you yet. You all have been through a lot together, these last six months. You probably think of each other as friends, maybe even family." He paused again, watching a ripple of assent move through the Ravens. He hated this part, but it had to be done.
"Now you must banish all such thoughts from your mind. You are all Ravens now. The man you spent 8 hours in survival training with yesterday could very well be doing his level best to kill you tomorrow." He paused again; waiting for the reaction he knew would come. It didn't take long. He watched their joy turn to dismay as the truth sunk in, and then turns to suspicion and hostility as old rivalries, disputes, and general mistrust took over. He let this simmer for a moment, and then spoke again.
"Stop that!" he snapped at them. "You're all Ravens now, not common murderers! Stupid thoughts like revenge will only get you killed." He watched the hostility subside as all eyes turned back to him. "As a Raven, your primary obligation is the fulfillment of your contract. Anything that stands between you and this obligation must be destroyed. This includes other Ravens."
"You will meet other Ravens soon, ones you've never seen before. If you meet on the battlefield, they will neither ask for nor give quarter. Is it out of malice or hatred for you? Of course not. You are standing in the way of them completing their objective. Not only will they do their absolute best to kill you, they will expect nothing less from you. This is the respect we show our brethren. We are professionals doing a job, nothing more, nothing less." He paused for a moment.
"You do not understand this yet, I'm sure. But it will become clear in time, if you live that long. The highest honor you can do your fellow Ravens, should you meet them on the battlefield, is to give your all to defeating them. That shows them that you understand that it is nothing personal. They are in your way, you are in their way, and one of you has to die. If you hesitate, if you consider mercy, they will kill you. They will do it without hesitation, mercy, or remorse. And they would expect the same from you if the situations were reversed." He looked at them. They had all sobered considerably. A few were nodding slightly, beginning to grasp the concept. He knew exactly how they felt. He'd felt it to, back when he first joined.
Somewhere out there was the Raven that would kill him. There was no turning back now. They were Ravens, each and every one of them. They would live and die like Ravens. One of them might, just might, survive long enough to retire, at which point they would be offered a job as an instructor or an evaluator, to tend to the next generation of Ravens; to pass on the skills necessary to survive.
"I have one final field test for you all. Your ACs have been loaded with modified training rounds like you've been using for the last 2 months. Your ACs have been programmed to react to the damage like the rounds are live. The last Raven standing gets to start his career with an extra ten thousand credits in his account." He looked at them, each of them looking at each other. They nodded to each other briefly, and then climbed into their respective cockpits. One by one, the core hatches closed. Once all the Ravens were seated and ready, he spoke to them for the last time.
Raven Portrait V
The old man was an anachronism, the grizzled Raven thought to himself as he waited. A living fossil, a ghost from an age best forgotten. The old man's very existence was an affront to nature and time, as impossible as finding a living, breathing dinosaur taking a midday stroll down the streets of Layered.
From all outward appearances, the leader of the Raven Order and the commander of Global Cortex appeared to be nothing more than a very healthy, and very old, man. His body was still fairly trim, and he had a healthy glow about him. A long mane of white hair flowed from the old man's scalp, brushing up against his broad shoulders. The only unusual characteristics about the man were odd musculature on his arms on neck. Most would dismiss it as a benign mutation; even now the ambient radiation from the war that forced mankind underground still caused people to be born with some deformities.
To anyone who didn't know better, he would simply be an old man. But this Raven knew better. He had already announced himself. It was redundant, he knew, the old man already knew he was there. In fact, the old man had known the Raven was coming from the moment he stepped onto the elevator that whisked him down, 50 miles below the surface of the earth, to the sub-basement that only a handful of people even suspected, much less knew, existed. Still, it was a formality that he clung to, and he waited patiently for the old man to open his eyes. Yes, the Raven thought to himself, the old man hadn't changed a bit in the entire time he had known him.
This wouldn't be so strange if he hadn't known the old man for almost 50 years.
The old man had never given a name when he first turned up in Layered, just over century ago. After he had founded Global Cortex, he still never gave a name or took a call sign. The others called him Adam, the First Raven. He had accepted that, and the name had stuck. After a few decades, however, Adam had gone underground. He disappeared from the public eye, consumed by, it was said, the day-to-day management of Global Cortex. This was true, after a fashion. But the Raven knew the whole truth. And strangely, he didn't feel burdened by the knowledge. No one would believe him if he told them, anyway.
The Raven knew that the man they called Adam was not a native. He had, in the murky past, infiltrated Layered from the surface; a feat that was unprecedented in the history of the massive underground city, and one that was not repeated until after the destruction of the Controller and the release of the people of Layered back onto the surface of the earth. The man came to Layered, bearing the memories of a place called Raven's Nest and the scars of a program he barely spoke of, a phrase that the very mention of would make the old man's eyes cloud over with memories of pain and insanity still vivid after all these decades.
The Raven didn't know much about the program; Adam rarely spoke of it, and what he did say of it was laced with pain and anger. He knew the program was born from the chaos that reigned in the years after the Great Destruction, an experimental way to increase the ability of a human to control machinery, extending the link from the physical realm of control sticks and pedals to the purely mental. According to Adam, 99% of the subjects died, or went insane, turning into uncontrollable killing machines. Adam himself had been lucky. He had regained his sanity and escaped, wandering the surface for untold decades until his implants, longing for mechanical contact, had informed him of the location of Layered.
The Raven knew that it was these same implants that allowed Adam to do what was impossible. It was not through skill or stealth that Adam came to Layered. It was nothing more than desire. The old man desired the gates to open, and they responded. He wished to not be seen by the Controller's many sensors, so he wasn't. Another side effect of the program was that Adam had become effectively immortal, or at least his aging was retarded to the point that if he was still aging, it was too slow to make a difference anytime soon.
The Raven caught a flicker of motion behind the closed eyelids of the old man. He was finally emerging from what he called "communion," immersing himself in the massive data flows of the Global Cortex organization. The Raven wondered how lucid the old man would be. Lately, he had spent more and more time in communion, and when he wasn't, Adam spoke mostly in riddles. In his more lucid moments, the old man would ramble on about
disturbances and imbalances in data flows and resources. The Raven sometimes wondered if at long last time was catching up to the old man, or if he was losing his battle with the nemesis of all those who do not die; boredom. However, this time he was summoned, so he was expecting Adam to be at least somewhat stable. The old man's eyes opened slowly, and then fixated on the form of the Raven before him.
"Ah," he rasped. His voice was always rough when he first emerged from his 'communions,' though the Raven would not venture to guess why. "Good of you to come on such short notice."
"Is there something I can do for you, sir?" responded the Raven. The old man shook his head for a moment, and then fixed his gaze, now coming much more into focus, on the younger man before him. Even now, after almost half a century, it still made the hairs on the back of the Raven's neck stand up when Adam did that.
"I need to tell you something."
"What's that, sir?"
"What comes, sir?"
The Raven looked at Adam, and recognized in his eyes the shadow of pained memories dating back to a time before his grandparents were born.
"The fruit of their labors. We must be ready. I must commune further." Adam closed his eyes, and his body visibly relaxed as he slipped back into his fugue state, leaving the Raven alone with his thoughts and his questions once again.
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