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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 32
Attacks and tactics

     Words, rising and falling like hilly terrain, gently rolling up and down in curves so smooth that Fei could almost see the rich verdant grass covering them.  The priest was a small ineffectual man, almost swallowed by his dusty black vestments and seemingly weighed down by his own self-importance.  But Fei had to admit that he seemed genuine in his faith, his words, voice, nondescript face and aging body seemed suffused with divine peace as he worked his way through the benediction.
     “Sand to sand, body to body, spirit to spirit.  Receive Oh lord, our dear departed brother, staunch his wounds, and end his pain, that he may receive from thee his everlasting and eternal purpose, by your name and to your greater glory.”
     The little man lowered his hands and stalked down the rows of wooden pews that ringed the bare insides of the tiny prison chapel.  Fei stood, feeling his stiff joints crack like breaking ice, and beside him Citan stretched upwards like a white and green tree.
     The Priest fixed them both with a disapproving glower from under his hairless dome.“Well --- it’s done.  And my honorarium please?”
     A woody claw thrust out from between the black robes with the swiftness of a greedy striking snake.
     Citan sighed and reached inside his gunge splattered medical uniform, producing his thick scarred leather wallet and scraping out some galrays.  
     sFei watched in mild astonishment, as the cleric snatched the scuffle of notes and rifled through them with the hard efficient claws of a beast tearing into it’s prey.
     “Don’t know why you wanted a service for a mutant anyway --- waste of time and money if you ask me --- and we’ll have to get the seats cleaned.” The priest cast a jaundiced eye over the spreading pools of sewer gunk that marked the pew where Fei and Citan had sat.
     “As a man of the cloth, I would have thought it your pastoral duty to revere and love all living things, as creations of the almighty.”
     The priest sniffed, short ad disapproving.   “Mutants aren’t creations of God, they’re unnatural monsters.  I know --- ” His reedy voice rose in a insectile whine.   “I know --- I was an Etone once and --- ”
     “Thank you.” Citan’s voice was uncharacteristically curt, and with a brief nod he walked briskly from the chapel, Fei trotting behind him, out into the darkening compound.  

     The main dorm was empty, despite the heavy pawl of dusk that seeped idly through the windows, and the bare poverty-stricken glow of the hanging light bulbs.   The big room was quiet and tranquil, the noisy smelly mob of prisoners that usually gave the room a raucous life of it’s own were gone, as if the area had suddenly been stricken with some virulent plague.
     But that wasn’t surprising Fei thought, for the massive cliff-like scowl on the Champ’s brutish face struck him with an almost physical force as he entered, and like the plague, it certainly promised suffering to whoever got in it’s way.
     “Where you been?”
     Fei took a nervous step forward, brushing a curtain of hair from his eyes, ignoring the sewer guck that transferred itself greenly from his hand to his already matted hair.   “I was waiting for Doc, --- he had a funeral prayer said for the monster.”
     Rico grunted, and to Fei’s relief his scowl turned down a few notches from positively murderous to its usual setting, mildly murderous.   “Well --- at least the bastard thing’s dead, and the sewers are safe.”
     “From my observations, that statement is something of a logical contradiction.”
     Rico spat out a harsh barking gobbet of laughter.  
     “Well, no longer suecide”
     Fei relaxed slightly feeling tension slide out of the room like a cold salty wave leaving space to breath.
     “And Fei is no longer in danger of assassination”
     Rico nodded, easing the twisted arm that hung, like a grotesque bulky rifle, in a sling across his broad chest.   “Yeah, I gave out the word when I told ‘em the sewers were safe.  Anyone goes for you kid and I’ll rip off their arms and beat them to death with the shoulder joints.”
     Fei grinned uncertainly --- hopefully Rico was joking, --- yes he must be joking.
     “Lurid but affective.” Citan added.  
      Rico turned to Fei, his green snake-like eyes grim as granite, any hint of hilarity gone as quickly as sunlight on stone.   “That’s it Fei, --- alliance ends here.   Next time we meet, we’ll be opponents.” The big Demi-human stood, his green and rust stained leathers creaking, and with a slow clomping tread began stalking intimidating towards the door.  
     “Rico.” Fei’s voice was uncertain, approaching the mountainous figure like a bird flying close to a jagged winter peak.  The Champ turned, and Fei felt a trembling concern well up in him as his gaze ran over the white linen sling, painfully obvious against the black leathers.   “Can you fight with your arm like that?”
     Something strange flicked across Rico’s face, something quick and surprised and vulnerable.  But then it was gone, hidden behind the hard-bitten heavily sardonic mask of years of brutal life.   “It’s not wise to get all gushy over your opponent kid.  Don’t expect me to hold back --- ” That twisted smile snaked his lips.   “--- In fact, I’d kinda like to see you try and settle your scores with me.” Abruptly Rico turned, hair whipping flamingly about his shoulders.   “Worry about yourself before you worry about others.” And with several massive strides --- he was gone.  
     Fei slumped down tiredly on one of the empty bunks, then quickly stood as he remembered the mess of his clothing.
     “Are you worried about his arm wound Fei?”
     Fei lowered his eyes, feeling a bone weary exhaustion flood through him.   “I know he’s right Doc, and I know that I’ve got to try my best --- ”
     “Then do that Fei --- the sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
     Fei stood straight, fixing his gaze on his friend’s lined pale weary face.   “I’ll try”
     “Well no one could presume more than that from you Fei --- but remember, Rico is not the only person in this tournament you must defeat.”
     Fei nodded, remembering his baptism, the hard people in their garish leathers, their cold, dead prisoner’s eyes.   “I know Doc --- it won’t’ be easy”

*  *  *  *  *  

     “That was amazing!” Fei climbed nervously out of Weltall’s cockpit, cocking one leg over the ladder running down the purple gear’s broad back he slid lithely downwards not bothering with the rungs, the rough cloth of his red overalls rubbing against the metal with a soft shushing sound as he half fell the 20 feet or so to the gear docks floor.  
     He landed beside the girl, boots clacking neatly together, knees bending slightly to absorb the last shock of impact.  It was a silly childish gesture, but Fei felt good, a quiet warm exuberance flooding his body as the swift battle rhythm of his heartbeat slowly steadied.  
     “Well --- I suppose I ---”
     The girl grinned sunnily at him, wide light brown eyes glowing enchantingly.   “--- There’s no suppose about it.  The way you just charged at that grey gear, even though it was so much bigger than yours.”
     Fei shrugged, his face flushing slightly, the calm quiet happiness he felt acquiring a not unpleasant tinge of confused pink embarrassment under this salvo of praise.   “I --- er --- well I was lucky, that’s all.   If she had been faster.”
     Catrina Marin shook her head, the high arc lights of the Gear bay highlighting the fuzz of her platinum blonde crew-cut like diamonds in a pile of silver coins.  “Too slow and clumsy” Her tone was derisive.“I’ve seen her fight before, she just charges straight in like some great stupid sand worm! --- No tactics.”
     A dull clank came from behind them, Fei turned, lank sweat streaked hair falling across his face for a second.  Two huge gears entered, lugging between them the subject of Catrina’s derision.  It was an immense grey gear, box like and squat, more like a moving bolder than a humanoid fighting machine.  But its smooth square chest was marked by a wide pattern of dents and twisted edges, some cuts blackened by the accuracy of Weltall’s ether shots.  The heavy grey steel mace that the gear held in it’s crane like right hand, a clumsy leaden ball the size of a small car set at the end of a thick metal rod, was bent askew by a shattering downwards chop which Fei had aimed at the heavy monster’s neck.
     The pilot who walked beside the battered behemoth was a thin wispy creature in her mid forties.  She turned to glance at Fei from beneath heavy black brows, her severe hatchet face sharp and grim as her gear was squat and clumsy.  For a moment, Fei thought she was going to spit at him, or rush forward and poke at his eyes with those long needle like fingers, but instead she only glowered, then turned and flounced off after her gear’s funeral procession in a series of long birdlike strides.  
     “She’s just sour,” Catrina turned and started walking towards the doors that lead to reception.“she got to the semi-finals last year.  Though --- ” Catrina gave Fei a sidelong look as they crossed through the heavy double doors into the reception area.  “--- A couple of her opponents did have little accidents if you know what I mean.”
     Fei flinched, his eyes widening like spreading pools.  
     Catrina laughed thrillingly as the grey metallic daylight washed across her slim figure in it’s plain forest green overalls.  “I wouldn’t worry.  Rico and his battlers have put it about that anyone who interferes with you will get interfered with --- by them!”
     Fei winced, the thought of the champ and his gang dealing out death threats on his behalf made him uneasy, for an instant he remembered fire and darkness.   “I don’t want that kind of --- ”
     “I don’t want anyone to get hurt” He said allowed, his voice slow and hesitant.  
     Catrina stopped and turned, a strange surprised expression on her pale oval face.  Then her eyes met Fei’s and she smiled, a warm winning smile.   “No, --- I don’t suppose you do, even when they’re trying to kill you.”
     Fei flushed, he didn’t know why but every time Catrina Marin gave him that wide penetrating stare from those soft amber-flecked eyes he felt somehow clumsy.   “ I --- I’ve got to get back.”
     “You’re right.” Catrina’s voice was light again, as she turned and started towards the D-block gates.   “They don’t like it if riff raff like us hangs about in C-block for too long.”
     When they’d passed into the familiar dun compound Catrina gave Fei an impish grin.   “Well better be going --- I’ll see you tomorrow after you’ve won the semi finals”
     Fei gave an embarrassed smile.  “Well, I’ll try.”
     But then again, the past day’s fights had gone well, Fei thought as he rounded the dormitory building and started up the long bleak corridor with it’s bare hanging bulbs and dusty floorboards.  Better than he had hoped so perhaps Catrina was right and there was a chance that ---
     “Hey, Wong!”
     Fei stiffened, imperceptibly edging to one side of the corridor, bending his knees slightly, bracing his shoulders, a dear scenting a wolf, poised for fight or flight.  It made no difference that the voice was female, Fei remembered the hard faced girl in the purple sequined overalls and gritted his teeth.  
     “Relax man.” A nonchalant figure in creaking scarlet leathers slouched through the dormitory door ahead of Fei.  A sinister looking dark bundle clutched under one arm, the hard uncompromising light of the overhead bulbs picking out the thin scar across the girls face, and highlighting the straggles of unruly blonde hair falling about her broad shoulders.
     “Suzarn.” Fei’s voice was wary as he remembered the sudden swish of the scythe in the alley where he had been baptised, and the sharp wet pain across his upper arm.
     “Relax ---” Suzarn repeated, stopping in front of Fei and holding up the dark bundle like a stiff dishevelled shield.   “I just came to give you these.”
     Dazedly Fei took the proffered bundle, and he felt the distinctive half plastic suppleness of leather under his fingers.  
     “Battler’s outfit.” Suzarn explained tersely, stepping backwards, her hands still held protectively before her as she twisted one of the paste silver rings she wore between thumb and forefinger.   “Previous owner didn’t need ‘em no more.”
     “Er --- thanks.” A little dubiously Fei shook out the one piece leather suit,thinking of spikes sequins chain male or steel wrist cuffs.  But for D-block the leathers were positively plane, having only white bands at wrists, elbows and knees, and a large FFW embroidered across the back in what looked like white imitation silk.   Fei glanced up from the leathers to see a strange, wistful expression slicker in Suzarn’s hard grey eyes, like a small flower growing between cracks in a hard weather-beaten wall.
     “I did the letters on the back.”
     Fei’s eyes widened as he tried to imagine Suzarn’s squat calloused fingers in their heavy gaudy rings holding needle and thread --- it was a little like imagining a ranker dragon with a pink frilly bow about it’s neck.  
     Suzarn smiled, the grey eyes lighting up with sudden silver, and for a moment, she wasn’t a battler, or a prisoner, just a blonde girl giving a simple gift.  
     “Thanks.” Fei’s voice was a little more certain now, and his strong face split into its shy warm smile, liquid eyes gleaming.
     “Can’t look like D-rank scum when you fight the champ.” Suzarn turned abruptly and marched out of the corridor, hair bobbing behind her like a flag, leaving Fei holding the heavy dark leathers and wondering.   

*  *  *  *  *  

     The next morning Fei walked a little self-consciously into the battling arena reception, his new leathers creaking.  Though in the dingy corridor they had appeared black, Fei now saw they were the colour of a summer evening sky, midnight blue and shimmering with the foggy sheen of expensive leather.   Fei stood quietly before the heavy metal reception desk with it’s snowfall of paperwork like a pilgrim at an altar, waiting for one of the receptionists to look up from the glossy colourful magazines they were flicking through.  Fei slid his hands protectively into the pockets of the leather suits jacket, wondering how to attract the girl’s attention.   Nervously he cleared his throat.  
     One of the girls shot him a quick venomous glance from over the top of her magazine with two gem-like dark eyes, a sniper bobbing up from cover to fire a quick blazing burst towards the enemy.   “Oh --- it’s you.” From her tone, pilots were about as welcome in her life as influenza.  
     Fei shuffled nervously, wishing Citan could have come with him, what had he said? A wash of warm sweet embarrassment flooded through him like steam pumping through a boiler.  “I’m sorry if I’m disturbing --- ”
     “Pilot F.F.  wong?”
     Fei nodded.  
     The receptionist reached one languid hand into the stacks of paperwork on the desk and scrabbled one sheet off the top, her long red painted claws making an unpleasant scraping sound on the cheep filing paper.   “Says here your equal on points with the three other finalists, Hatamoto, Firewheel and Silver Star.   There’s an all play all today and the one who’s most on points will face the champion tomorrow evening --- clear?”
     Fei nodded again, his eyes distant as cloud.  The previous day’s fights hadn’t been too difficult but something told him that the three finalists wouldn’t be any kind of a push over.   
     Hatamoto, Fei’s first opponent in the final was a slim cunning gear similar in design to Weltall.   Fei’s heart sank as he saw the sleek elegant figure facing him in the grim daylight of the arena, it’s limbs and head a slightly lighter purple than Weltall, Yellow sunburst symbols outlined in green adorning it’s shoulders like military insignia.
     But he had more pressing problems than his opponent’s lack of taste Fei thought sullenly, noting the long blood-colorer spear held professionally low in Hatamoto’s left hand.  Nor could Fei hope for gunning the gear down from a distance, for Hatamoto’s body armour was a thick sheet of heavy grey metal that swept down like a barbaric battle kilt almost to the gear’s knees.
     Trying to catch his opponent off guard, Fei blazed forwards jets flaring, but as he had suspected the flashy gear’s speed was almost the equal of Weltall’s.   Hatamoto spun backwards even as Fei advanced, extending the lethal looking point of the red spear in a clever defensive thrust.
     Fei swayed aside, but even as he moved he knew Hatamoto had planned the manoeuvre and his next spear thrust would be almost impossible to avoid.   Even as thethrust began Fei acted, his hand moving of it’s own accord out of the gear’s handgrip and onto the firing stud of the ether guns.
     The discharge of Weltall’s main etheric armourment at almost point blank range hit Hatamoto like an incandescent wave, licking and charring across the heavy grey body armour, in a solid sheet of radiant power.  
     Hatamoto staggered, swaying like a drunkard and Fei charged in ready to deliver a precise and lethal smash to the blackened hole in the body armour with one of Weltall’s dark heavy fists.
     But Fei wasn’t the only pilot with quick reactions, the spear came up once more, and Fei was forced to retreat.
     Like a recurring sequence in a musical rhythm, that first attack set the pattern of the fight.  Weltall slamming in, trying to hit that damaged section of armour, Hatamoto back peddling swiftly and defending with the long needle pointed red spear.
     Fei backed round one of the heavy dark spires of rock that stood at the center of the arena like islands in a dead calm green sea.   Sweat broke out beneath his long matted dark hair, his hands slipped on Weltall’s grips.   If he didn’t end the fight soon he would have to stop to refuel.   The huge etheric discharge that had damaged the gear had taken a large greedy bite out of Weltall’s reserves, but Hatamoto’s reactions seemed unhampered by the gaping sparking grease in the thick grey armour. 
     Fei glanced down at the fuel gage, eyes dark with worry.  He gritted his teeth his mind working, thoughts and plans and bits of strategy chasing each other around and around the inside of his head like shards of glass from a shattered window.
     Then suddenly a cool calm voice, and the smell of cigarette smoke, floating into view like the sail of a ship to a castaway came Sigurd’s creased amber-skinned face beneath it’s neat snowy hair.   “I’ve been teaching him throws --- and how to disarm opponents”
     And Fei knew what to do.
     Once more he threw Weltall forward, like a massive midnight hawk, and once more Hatamoto retreated, jabbing the spear forward like a foot soldier of yore wielding a pike.  But this time Fei aimed Weltall’s fist not at the gaping wound in the grey chest armour but at the light purple hand holding the spear.
     For a brief second, Hatamoto was swung forward by the force of the blow and Fei caught a glimpse of the pilot, a dark skinned man wearing a sleeveless shirt, his heavy featured face contorted with effort.  Then the Gear’s hand released the spear and Fei moved Weltall in close, bringing one knee up to thud into the jagged edged maw in Hatamoto’s chest.
     The gear spun backwards in a whirl of contrasting colours, grey purple green and glinting yellow.  Then, with a heavy ’whump’, Hatamoto sprawled on the turf, wires sparking in it’s gaping eviscerated innards, limbs moving weakly like the kicking legs of a dying insect.
     Fei brought Weltall down to rest, easing his breathing as he pressed the few switches to initiate a fresh fuel intake.   Now he knew what delineated finalists from casual competitors, finalists had a knowledge of strategy.  He remembered Citan’s reassuring smile, his abstracted voice: “remember that the battlers here have had no direct combat experience --- ” But as Fei remembered Hatamoto’s speed and clever use of weapons, He silently groaned.  These finalists were experienced, and perhaps more experienced than he was.
     As if on cue, Weltall’s Radio cut through Fei’s musings with a nasty little crackle.  “Pilot F.F.  Wong wins, as your gear has sustained no damage stand by for your next opponent.”
     Fei stood Weltall and walked slowly to the shade of the monolithic columns of rock.  At least he could begin the fight from a good defensive position.  
     But as it turned out, Fei’s decision to stay in the shelter of the pillars almost cost him the fight.  The first he knew of his next opponent was a beam of searing red ether crackling towards him at terrifying speed.  Frantically he dodged round the pillar, hearing Weltall’s engines protest as he threw body and Gear sideways.  But the pillar prevented him from making full use of Weltall’s impressive turn of speed, and even as he rolled, Fei knew he was too late.  The beam of scorching light sliced into Weltall’s left shoulder, and on the control board Fei saw red lights starting to beat their insistent warning, like a heartbeat approaching death.
     Fei ran forward, trying to get a sight of his opponent, but as he reached the open, he only had time to see something enormous and brown bearing down on him like a bolder hurled by a giant.  Frantically, desperately, Fei skidded to one side, hoping that something that appeared so enormous would be slow and cumbersome in changing direction.  But though Weltall’s quick reflexes had saved him the previous day, when he fought the club wielding grey monster, the same trick wasn’t going to work twice.  Fei circled round to the right, but the mass of brownish metal swerved with him coming closer.  
     Fei turned to face his attacker, and saw that it was a huge wheel, broad and brown as a barrel, rolling across the short cropped turf of the arena floor with the inexorable speed of a falling bomb.
     Frantically Fei stabbed at the firing stud, but the light streak of blazing energy seemed hardly to scratch the thick turtle shell of the barrel bearing down on him.
     Before Fei had time to launch another attack, the wheel hit, and Fei felt Weltall slammed backwards, even as Hatamoto had so recently been smashed across the arena floor by the force of Fei’s knee strike.  
     With that unthinking reflexive speed that all the best fighters have, Fei smashed his palm down on the jet ignition button, and before Weltall had time to strike the floor, the massive purple gear staggered in mid air, jets howling like demented wolves.   Weltall’s backward arc slowed, as the jets checked the hurtling gear’s momentum, teeth gritted in effort against the heavy pressure of wind resistance, Fei dragged his feet down so the gearhovered, upright above the arena floor.
     Fei zoomed skywards, away from his heavy lumbering opponent.  Frantically his eyes scanned the damage panel.  Apart from the scorched left shoulder, no systems seemed to have sustained heavy damage, Fei grinned as he remembered Doc’s admiration of Weltall’s internal design, but then his eyes narrowed, darkening like pools of shadow haunted water.  
     Even if Weltall was more strongly built than most gears, he knew that more attacks from the huge slamming wheel, or blasts of fiery ether would soon wear down the dark gear’s defences.
     If only there was a weak spot, if only ---
     With the same uncanny speed as before a pillar of fire seared up towards him, blazing into the dull Kislevian atmosphere like a rocket determined to pierce the clouds.  Fei hurled his body left, stooping in mid air like a hawk, the blazing energy bolt climbing past him into the greyness.  
     On the ground a small grey gear stood, the sections of heavy brown metallic armour bolted to arms legs and back, aiming one hand upwards.  To Fei’s surprise the gear looked small, almost insignificant, as dull grey and average as the work-a-day pirate gears comprising Bart’s force.  But another flaming blast whistled from the gear’s hand, forcing Fei once more to dodge speedily to one side, reminding Weltall’s pilot that whatever it looked like, the Firewheel gear had some impressive weaponry.  
     Suddenly Fei knew what to do, cutting his jets he dived downwards like a thunderbolt, feet ready to strike.  But before he hit the gear the small grey machine raised it’s arms with their weight of heavy protective armour, and curled into a foetal crouch, so that all Fei saw was the huge featureless curved surface of the wheel.
     The jarring shock of Weltall’s feet striking that heavy armour threw Fei backwards, almost breaking his right leg.   The purple gear once more swayed drunkenly in the air, slammed backwards by the force of it’s own momentum.  Dizzily fei looked down at the control board, now there were red lights flashing, some of those black circuits inside Weltall had been shaken loose by the impact.  Fei sawed tiredly upwards, his mind once more reverberating with questions: how could you attack an opponent who was strong on offence and defence.  Idly he dodged right to avoid a burning shaft of flame ether, then left to avoid another.  Thankfully, Firewheel’s rate of fire seemed slow and Fei knew that he could dodge shots in the air indefinitely but he had to do more than survive, he had to win.   Fei pushed one hand out of the grips to slip through his sweaty hair, trying to stop his breathing, trying to think.  Firewheel’s pilot was plainly extremely wary of entering hand to hand combat, but with that thick heavy armour and scorching power of ether, Firewheel didn’t need to.  Fei knew that his only chance of winning would be to engage the grey and brown monster in a fist fight, but the speed at which his opponent could cringe beneath that massive shield neatly countered Fei’s only advantage.   It was like being a queen and two rucks down in chess, Fei thought dully, no advantages ---
     Then once more, another memory, another face bobbed to the surface of Fei’s confused stormy sea of a mind, but not Sigurd this time, Citan, his small gold glasses glowing in the light of a setting summer sun, his bronzed muscular arms resting on the folding table a few inches away from a fizzing glass of lemonade.  They were sitting outside his mountain home, in the lavish warmth of an early evening in July, the scent of moan grass and the zing of insects wrapped around them like a costly quilt.  
     Between them on the table Fei remembered the old wooden chess set Citan used, the pieces carved fantastically as king Roni with his knights and soldiers, the miniature gears that were the rucks exact to the crossed lines of Aveh painted on their backs.
     “I achieved victory then because I was able to succeed in distracting your attention.” Citan leaned forward, one finger resting caressingly on the head of Fei’s king, which stood forlornly in one corner of the board, Citan’s knight, bishop and pawns ringing it in a threatening circle.
     “Your focus of attention was so heavily directed towards my remaining ruck, that you failed to notice what my noble knight and brave bishop were doing.”
     Fei grinned at the memory his sweat streaked face growing calm, for now he would put the doctor’s lesson into practice.  
     As the next pillar of flame burned up towards him, Fei banked right to avoid it, but circled back, pushing down on the jets to bring Weltall a little lower in the air.  Then he set off a quick ether blast, hammering down at the earth like blue white lightening.   Firewheel raised one huge armour plate like a great brown bat’s wing to block the shot, then with lightning speed stabbed upwards again with a thick finger of fire.  Once more Fei circled, dropped ether blasts and came a little lower.  
     Fore the next ten minutes, Fei edged slowly closer, dodging each shot as it came, but more red flashing lights on the control panel told Fei this ground air gun battle couldn’t go on much longer, the closer he got, the less easy it was to avoid those stabbing tongs of red ether, already several of Weltall’s armour plates were badly scorched.  
     If he was going to do it, it must be now.
     Fei banked round for the last time, and as Firewheel responded with it’s usual red ether shot, Fei gritted his teeth, tensed his shoulders cut his jets, and hurtled downwards, both feet pounding in a crushing dropkick, all of the midnight gears steely weight behind it.
     He felt Weltall judder and shake as the full force of the scolding energy struck his back plate, but then both feet were hammering downwards into Firewheel’s chest, crumpling the cheep grey armour like tin foil.  Even over the howl of Weltall’s engines and the hissing roar of Firewheel’s ether, Fei could hear the rending tearing crash as he delivered the deathblow.
     Once more there was that crump as a gear flew downwards, striking the earth to land spread eagled and kicking, the huge panels of armour waving from the spasmodically moving arms like giant withered autumn leaves.
     The third fight was short sharp and nasty.  Fei had half expected them to pull Weltall out of the Arena and conduct some preliminary repairs, but once more the radio gave it’s desultory crackle and the uncaring voice spat into Fei’s ear.
     “Stand by for your third opponent.”
     Fei felt a small twinge of anger as his eyes scanned the board with it’s array of hard winking red lights.  Didn’t they see that Weltall was damaged?
     But the gear that tripped across the smooth verdant lawn of the arena floor, must have sustained about as much damage as Weltall,.  It was a slim insectile gear, it’s long segmented arms and legs moved in spasmodic jerks like a dying fly, and the huge round melon of the head sagged and bobbed.  Fei tensed, hunching forward hands outspreadtense and taut as a bowstring.  But even as he moved his body in the creaking leather he could feel the stiffness in his gear’s joints, noting a slight resistance in the knees as he bent forward, and he knew that however quickly he moved, and however lightning fast his reflexes were, the damaged gear, usually seamless with his body’s movement, would slow him down like a suit of heavy clanking armour.   Nervously he waited, trying to imagine what strange and alien natural this new opponent had concealed in it’s battered body.   But the bug like machine neither paused nor launched any ether attacks, it’s huge burnished steel figure, still limping slightly streaked across the arena straight at Weltall, extending one spindly arm tipped with a lethally jagged blade.
     From then on the fight was almost easy.  Fei didn’t know whether this gear --- Silverstar the reception had called it, had had any special attacks, but the only strategy it’spilot seemed to want to employ against Weltall was a pure out and out old fashioned fisticuffs.
     Admittedly the sharp jagged metal blade and the long insectile arms gave Silverstar a minor advantage, but Fei was a natural martial artist, his reflexes keen as hair triggers.  
     After only a few seconds thrust and parry Fei landed a glancing kick to Silverstar’s burnished belly, sending his opponent reeling, long wispy limps flailing.
     One length of flexible steel arm flashed past Weltall as Silverstar danced backwards, and Fei reached forward both of Weltall’s heavy purple hands to grip and throw.  
     The term Arm-breaker when used of unarmed combat is usually a misnomer, the grip on wrist and shoulder, the quick backwards twist, only occasionally results in the breaking, or dislocation of the arm, and is mostly employed only to throw the opponent off balance, and perhaps sprain or twist their wrist to avoid a counter attack.   Even when the arm is broken, it is usually only the bones that break.  So Fei was surprised when the thin segmented joints riveting Silverstar’s blue-burnished steel arm to it’s body tore away and sent the length of flexable metal spinning off into the distance like an ungainly boomerang.  

*  *  *  *  *  

     Fei grinned tiredly down at the small figure prancing around Weltall’s feet like an overexcited flee.
     From this high up, Fei could get an impression of how high the little Demi-human fixer could jump.  As he clambered down the ladder, Fei noted that with each exuberant leap Hammer’s pointing snout almost reached the scorched armour plated cylinders of Weltall’s back jets, perhaps 10 feet off the ground when the gear was in the landing position.  
     Fei stepped off the ladder and glanced around, the harsh light of the gear bay’sflorescent strip lights gleaming on his leathers.  The huge grey hall once full of the competing gears in the tournament was now far emptier Fei saw.  In corners the massive functional box shapes of the Arena gears --- the same that dragged beaten competitors from the arena lurked on stands, but the rest of the gears were gone.  Fei briefly wondered if they were put into some kind of storage bay until the next tournament, or just chopped up for spare parts.  But either way with out the compliment of waiting gears the gigantic room seemed large and empty and exposed.  Fei suddenly had the unpleasant idea that he was being watched, that somewhere, near the ceiling, among the small strips of florescent tubing, was a pair of unfriendly eyes.
     Hammer stopped capering and came to rest in front of Fei with a neat quick spring, landing like a dancer on his small light feet in their leather boots.  Over his usual dark green felt jacket and tight shorts he was wearing a baggy black nylon anorak, which had swirled and swung dramatically during his impromptu dance routine.  Now as he came to rest it slowly settled into place about him.  Fei grinned as he saw that the overcoat, probably normally only thigh length, trailed almost to the floor on Hammer.
     “You done it bro! You the man!!!”
     “Well I --- ” Fei grinned uncertainly.
     “Ya gonna be champ!!!” Hammer’s voice rose, and he went into another pirouette on the dainty toe of one leather boot, the cheep coat flying out behind him.
     “Well I don’t know --- I won somehow today but --- ”
     Fei shrugged resignedly, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot.   “He’s been champ for three years hasn’t he?”
     Hammer stopped jumping around and looked seriously up at Fei through his light executive spectacles, his furry forehead crinkled in a frown.   “Ya shouldn’t think like that bro, ya gotta! --- be! --- possative!” He emphasised his words by punching one balled furry fist into the other, dislodging the tight roll he had made of the overcoat’s long sleeve and sending thin black fabric falling over his hand like a thin dark liquid.
     “I know Hammer, but ---” Fei paused, remembering that huge brutish face, the way Rico had heaved the full weight of the towering Redrum creature in his massive muscular arms.   “He’s really powerfull ---”
     Hammer cut Fei’s uncertain words off with a quick chopping motion of one furry hand.   “Don’t talk like that bro, if ya’ start doin’ yerself down, we’ll never get outta here.”
     Fei raised his eyebrows at the demi-human.“We? --- I didn’t know you get freed too?”
     Hammer grinned and danced a jig on the concrete, his leather boots clacking in counter rhythm to the constant thrum of machinery.
     “Well bro, ya see --- ” His voice trailed off mysteriously as he raised his small snuffling nose skywards in a distracted mock-lecturing gesture.   “Suppose ya’ had a sorta like essential member of ground crew, some guy who ya’ absolutely couldn’t get along without.   --- It’d be kinda unfair just to get ya the pardon and forget all about ya’ hard working pal wouldn’t’ it?”
     The little demi-human bared curved yellow teeth in what was unmistakably a grin.“Well Bro, with us bein’ such good buddies an’ all.  That was why I buttonholed ya in the first place.”
     “Hammer you mean?” Fei felt confused, he knew Hammer like all prisoners was just trying to survive D-block, but the idea that Hammer had used him without telling him was somehow shocking.
     “Well look bro --- ”
     Hammer squared up to Fei tilting his nose upwards to look directly into the young man’s confused brown eyes.   “I ain’t strong, I ain’t a good fighter.  As soon as I heard about you givin the Champ and his goons a good poundin’ I saw an opportunity, and then when ya’ got the battlin’ place --- ” He shrugged, sending waves across the nilon overcoat.
     “But how?” Fei asked weakly.
     “Well --- ” Hammer’s voice returned to it’s familiar lecturing tone.   “After ya first decided ya’ was gonna sign up I went and got some guys at the battlin’ committee to talk to my good friend --- ” He winked mysteriously and rubbed two fingers together, creating a small sandpapery noise.   “Mr.  Bribe.  They was kind enough to stick my name down as your essential ground personnel --- not mechanic I’m no good with machines, just sorta like --- your good buddy what ya’ couldn’t do without --- essential!!!” He grinned again.  
     Fei sagged against the ladder, putting both hands into the pocket of his leathers.  He supposed he shouldn’t feel annoyed, after all, the Demi-human hadn’t done any harm, it just meant that if he won Hammer could finally get out of D-block --- which was hardly a bad thing.  
     Fei felt a small pleased flush suffuse his face, and his brown eyes glittered with that strange half guilty pleasure people feel when they feel pleased for doing a kind act.
     “Okay Hammer --- but why didn’t you ask Fico? It wouldn’t have done him any harm and --- ”
     Hammer shook his head decisively, almost dislodging his spectacles.   “The Champ! He wouldn’t do something like that for me --- and like you say he’s been champ for the last three years.”
     Fei glanced around nervously, and saw a surly looking grey haired man in overalls clumping across the concrete towards them, a kit bag over one shoulder.  “Well --- I’ll try my best, I just hope my gear gets fixed for tomorrow, I think I took some quite serious damage today.”
     Hammer glanced up to where the grey haired mechanic was pulling a soldering iron out of his kitbag and beginning to work on Weltall’s scorched armour plates.
     “This mechanic’ll do his best.”
     Fei shuffled embarrassedly, his face flushing slightly as if splashed by sudden sunlight.   “I didn’t mean that Hammer --- maybe we ought to go and get Doc to take a look at it.”
     Hammer jumped upwards and landed facing the double doors leading to the reception.
     “Okay Bro, like you say, we gotta have the best possible chance --- tomorrow’s fight’s gonna be tough.”

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~ End of Chapter 32 ~

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