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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 33
Battling Champ

     Oil, thick and sticky flowed in a sinuous stream over Weltall's bared circuitry, the drops disappearing into the sharp angles of wiring and metal like rats running into a dark maze. Gingerly Fei turned the oilcan and played the black jet across some of the machinery, which Citan had just replaced. Like scar tissue the newly repaired circuits looked bright, tarnished and ugly against the complex mass of black. Fei grinned tiredly as he sprayed the oil across the thin cheep metal and newly soldered wiring, coating them and making them indistinguishable from the rest of Weltall's internal systems. But it wouldn't do any good, even Fei who knew comparatively little about the inner workings of Gears could see that the parts Citan had used to repair the damage from that day's battles were hardly up to standard. The metal cogs and coils were thin, cheep and tacky, crudely etched and slightly rusty, often having to be reshaped or filed smooth by Citan before they could be forced into place. The wiring of the electronic parts was sagging and soft, rubber insulation peeling away from the bare copper coils like skin sloughed from an elderly snake.
     Fei stretched his arms out, leaning backwards and feeling his spine snap with tension. Bending down he handed the half empty oilcan to Hammer who stood at Weltall's base. "I don't think much to these parts Doc, I know you're doing your best but -----"
     Citan blinked up at Fei from behind a metal stand a few feet away from Weltall. Pegged to stand like a particularly heavy piece of laundry was a plate of Weltall's purple black armour. Citan paused, panel-beater's hammer raised above a particularly nasty burn mark, a memento of Fei's fight with Firewheel. "Don't apologise, I have doubts about the integrity of these parts myself."
     Hammer shook his head, wiping oily paws down the front of the cut down overalls he was wearing. "These're the only sorta parts ya' can get around here. That's part of Master Rico's advantage --- always gets the best of everything."
     Citan frowned, whacking the dent a few times with the heavily weighted hammer, dull percussive thuds ringing out across the concrete. "That hardly seems fair."
     Hammer grinned wolfishly, his protuberant yellowish teeth showing in his ratty snout. "Who said anything about fair? Rico's got a special Gear too, provided by the committee."
     "Special gear?" Fei's heart sank, as he remembered Firewheel and Hatamoto, if Rico was the Champ then his Gear must be ---- a parade of misshapen gears stalked across Fei's imagination, waving pincers, tentacles or spouting dragon like flames.
     "Stier's not that special." Hammer flicked one furry hand, sending oil splashing across the floor. "---- Just kinda bigger an' stronger, like the Champ himself. Though ---- it has got that claw." The little demi-human hooked his right hand into a rigid stubby mass of fingers and thrust and swiped at the air in front of him, making unpleasant ripping noises. "Almost tore last year's challenger in half ---- ssssslash." He swept his imaginary claw down in a great hacking chop.
     Fei jumped down from Weltall's bent knee, lips pursed in worry, oil stained fingers tightly gripping the dark red overalls he had changed back into.
     "I don't believe you are inspiring confidence, Mr. Hammer." Citan muttered mildly between hammer blows.
     "No! Way!" The little demi-human clacked across the floor to Fei and put a companionable arm about his waist (the highest part of Fei he could reach), thumping the young martial artist exuberantly in the small of the back. "I'm behind bro here all the way. I mean, Rico's Gear's bigger an' stronger, and he's really mean but ---"
     "Thank you! Mr. Hammer." Citan said loudly, glancing meaningfully at the small enthusiastic fixer.
     Fei stepped away from Hammer, his dark eyes introspective and downcast.
     "Look ---- do I really have a chance here?"
     "I think so." Citan put down the panel-beater's hammer and walked across to Fei, gripping his shoulder with one bronzed hand. "A pilot's fighting style reflects upon his Gear. From what I saw of Rico's fighting style in the sewer I do not see any reason why you would not win if you employ your full array of skill and battle experience."
     Fei's eyes remained clouded, his hands picking morosely at threads in his rust colored overalls. "But if I'm fighting with below standard equipment ---"
     "No way, Bro." Hammer cut in. "--- You can do it. Just believe in yerself"
     "Sound advice." The voice was deep sorrowful and melodious, the voice of a statue floating down to them from the high vaulted roof of the Gear bay with it's florescent tube lights. Looking up Fei caught a glimpse of a dim shrouded, figure standing on top of a heavy steel pillar, metal catwalks and gantries radiating around it like the spokes of a gigantic wheel. "You should listen to your friends, Fei ---- you might learn something."
     "Wiseman!" With the suddenness of a Vision, the unsettling memory of their last meeting swam into Fei's mind, the hot raw smell of sweat and fried food, the beating pressure of the sun, the mysterious figure in his heavy midnight blue cloak, standing squarely in the stone arena, seeming hardly to move but still avoiding Fei's furious attacks. In all the myriad excitement of the escape from Bledavik, and then the rebellion, Fei had almost forgotten the incident, but now the memory of the calm dull voice shot through him like an amplified base drum.
     "Your final opponent in the Aveh tournament?" Citan asked hoarsely.
     Fei nodded, not taking his eyes off the brooding presence atop the pillar. "Yes."
     The figure on the pillar raised one gauntleted hand in solute, the folds of cloth obscuring its outline like great shadowy wings. "And between that tournament and this, you seem to have learned nothing. Even if you had the stronger Gear, you would not defeat Ricardo Banderas."
     "How'd he learn the Champ's real name?" Hammer muttered sullenly.
     "I know many things"
     "Yow!" Hammer jumped backwards with a leap like a startled rabbit,
     Fei and Citan whirled swiftly at Hammer's yell, hair flying, oil being shaken from their overalls. Behind them the tall angular figure stood quiet and cool, arms folded beneath his deep blue cloak.
     Instinctively Fei glanced over his shoulder, at the pillar, which was empty. Somehow Wiseman had neatly and quietly transferred himself from pillar to floor, almost in mid sentence. Fei squared his shoulders and looked into Wiseman's sorrowful dark eyes, emphasised by the whitish mask that covered most of the man's face. "What do you mean?"
     Wiseman laughed softly, the folds of indigo material covering his mouth and nose moving slightly, as if he were smiling. " You are ready to learn."
     Fei wasn't sure if it were a statement or a question. Dumbly he nodded.
     With an abrupt graceful motion, Wiseman threw back his blue cloak, the heavy material fell loosely from his shoulders to gather behind him in a long flowing cape. Beneath the cloak, Fei saw his body was hard angular and bony, a long robe of the same midnight blue as the cloak falling to his ankles. Across his torso, Wiseman wore a heavy clinking mass of antique bronze chain mail, which tinkled brassily as the tall man turned and started stalking towards one side of the Gear bay, well away from detritus of tools and spare parts around Weltall.
     Fei cast a quick bemused glance at Citan who shook his head, abstracted eyes puzzled. Obediently, Fei followed Wiseman to a clear area of concrete near the Gear bay wall, an acolyte following a priest to the altar.
     Wiseman turned, his pale mask impassive, his cloak lightly swirling. "Defend yourself!!"
     With an uncanny suddenness the blue robed man arrowed forward at Fei, one gauntlet extending in a well-balanced punch at Fei's belly. Deftly, but clumsily Fei blocked, feeling his arm bruise beneath the red overalls. The force of the blow made Fei stagger backwards a few steps as if struck by a heavy gust of hurricane force wind.
     "What? --- You want to fight?" Shock ran through Fei in a quick bleeding tide. At the Aveh tournament this mysterious stranger had shown infinite skill in avoiding fighting but now ---- ?
     "Indeed."
     Wiseman jumped upwards, one leg in dark trousers extending from beneath the divided skirts of his ankle length robe in a crushing drop kick. Fei rolled, cat like, hardly thinking, coming to his feet hands ready, body tense.
     "Why?"
     Wiseman paused, recovering smoothly after the kick, skirts of his robe settling cloud like about him. "Because I must."
     "But I thought you were on my side."
     Fei's voice was almost plaintive as he backed away, fists raised.
     "What makes you think I am not? You have it in your power to defeat me Fei Fong Wong. Enough of this! Defend!! Yourself!!" Wiseman dashed forward, hands outstretched to grab.
     Fei ducked, then came to his feet, swinging an uppercut at the dull white surface of the facemask with its deep liquid black eyes.
     One gauntlet moved to block, but using one of the techniques Sigurd had shown him, Fei used his momentum to strike sideways at Wiseman's bronze mailed ribs with the steely edge of his other hand. The blow cut into the armour, but the blue robed man had still managed to be one step ahead of Fei, instead of striking soft yielding flesh, Fei's hand smashed into hard tensed muscle, and a blow that should have winded Wiseman, merely sent him staggering backwards a few steps.
     Wiseman ghosted forward, stiff fingers jabbing for Fei's throat. The young man swayed lightly aside, then reached up to seize the overextended arm in a textbook arm breaker.
     But the same tactic couldn't work twice in one day. Fei felt one hand grip his shoulder, then he was pulled off balance as Wiseman threatened to use Fei's own arm breaker as a leaver for a counter throw.
     Half falling, Fei swept one foot out at knee height, and Wiseman was forced to release him, and once more back away.
     Just as earlier Fei felt calm voices and plots whistle through his head, against the clear glossy background of the ice cold, calculating battle calm, which is felt by all combatants. Somehow, Fei knew he was fighting a far more dangerous enemy than any of those he had faced in the finals league that day.
     Like a rising trumpet call Wiseman's words at the start of the fight hit him squarely between the eyes. "---- You have the power to defeat me."
     The Power!!"
     Fei didn't think, didn't think of the cold dark figure in the steel mask "thy power!!!"
     Didn't think of the tower room in the citadel where he had last used this form of attack. "One ---- two ---" He didn't even think of the bright golden friend who's life he had saved with it.
     Extending arms he let it happen.
     A violent, pulsing jerk thrilled through Fei's nerves, then a sudden quick vivid warmth, then the ball of harsh white light crackled from his hands, sizzling through the air towards Wiseman, lighting up the whole dim expanse of the Gear bay like a small sun.
     But Wiseman, it seemed, had faster reactions than the Solarian commander. With a flurry of blue darkness he swayed aside, even as Fei had swayed aside from Wiseman's own punch earlier in the fight.
     "Impressive."
     Fei heard the statue's deep voice coming to him as if from a great distance, he felt sick, tired and drained, the after effects of the desperation of etheric energy taking their toll on his nervous system.
     "You have increased in strength since our last meeting. But an increase in strength is nothing without an increase in wisdom." Wiseman reached his arms out in front of him in a way Fei recognized.
     Ignoring the screaming demand of his body to rest, Fei threw himself sideways and downwards an instant before the ball of ether splashed from Wiseman's hands. The ball was not white, as Fei's had been, but was shot with a deep aquamarine blue, the color of a tropical sky. The thunderbolt like blast flew through the air, whistling over Fei's head to impact shatteringly with the far wall of the Gear bay, scarring and blackening the concrete and sending up clouds of dust.
     Fei got to his knees, just in time to see Wiseman rocketing forward, foot extended in another dropkick, robes flying around him like storm clouds. Fei tensed himself, waiting, then smashed upwards with one fist in another uppercut, aimed to parry and disable. But though he struck with all the force he could muster, it was not enough. He felt his fist slam home into Wiseman's belly, an instant before a heavy boot caught him in the chest, flinging him over onto his back, stamping the air out of his lungs and leaving him gasping for breath.
     Fei looked up, clutching at his chest and trying to control his breathing. Above him, he saw the white mask punctured by it's sorrowful eyes, gleaming down at him like a cold uncaring full moon in a velvet sky. "You see, Fei." The voice was gentle, almost reproving.
     Fei got his breathing under control and sat up, rubbing his chest. "See what?" He puffed, wiping dishevelled hair out of his eyes.
     Wiseman reached down to gently grasp Fei's arm. For a moment Fei expected a wrist-breaking crush, or to be hurled contemptuously across the concrete floor, but as the hard material of the gauntlet's fingers closed about his arm, he felt only an insistent pressure, pulling him to his feet.
     Numbly he stood, blinking in the suddenly bright light of the Gear bay's florescent tubes, looking hazily around the concrete room, at the two matching clouds of rouble and dust against opposite walls where the two ether shots had impacted on the thick grey concrete like artillery shells.
     "The point of this lesson." Wiseman's tone was reproving. "Strength is only as valuable as the wisdom with which it is employed. To meet brute strength simply with brute strength is futile. Your body has slightly less weight and mass than mine, and you see the difference? --- "One blue glove moved in a quick expressive gesture, encompassing Fei's defeat with a wave of a hand.
     "You said --- you said I could defeat you."
     Wiseman nodded slowly. "Exactly, I said you could! --- Just as you could defeat Ricardo Banderas." Wiseman started walking back towards Weltall, drawing his heavy blue cloak about him once more, hiding the gleaming bronze chain mail like treasures beneath the waves of a dark sea. His voice floated back to Fei like smoke on the wind. "But, the Champion's body has several times the weight and mass of yours. Your body is light, and your advantage is in speed and technique rather than strength. Therefore you must focus all your strength on a single final attack that thrusts at a fissure in your opponent's defences."
     "But we'll be fighting with Gears --- "
     Wiseman turned, almost angrily. "Have I shown you nothing? A Gear merely amplifies the knowledge and skill of it's pilot. Like Banderas himself, Stier is a large and powerful machine, with it's chief advantages in strength supplemented by technique. Like you, Weltall is a lighter, faster build, with speed skill and agility as it's main attributes."
     "Oh." A slightly embarrassed smile flicked across Fei's face. "Right." He walked past Citan and hammer to lean heavily on Weltall's dark flank.
     "Well now I must depart ---- use your lesson well Fei, and you cannot fail to succeed in tomorrow's fight."
     Fight!
     The word struck a chord in Fei's mind. Once again he saw Wiseman's stance, the way he leaned his weight forward, the stiffening of the lean shrouded body as each blow struck, true, Wiseman's knowledge of throws and counter throws seemed greater than his own, but then.
     Fei saw again Wiseman's ether attack, the two arms extended taught and rigid at the height of his shoulders, the tall straight body quivering, focused and tensed like a bowstring. The bolt itself, a compact explosive sphere of burning energy like a flaming cannonball even though Wiseman's was a different color ---- "Wiseman--- when we were fighting, I noticed some of your techniques were ---- "
     "Similar to your own?" The deep brassy voice was low and pleasant. "Well that is not unexpected. Your father and I trained under the same master."
     "My father!" Grahf's words smacked back at Fei like stones thrown out of darkness. "Thy father. He died most deliciously --- "
     His father.
     Wiseman turned quickly to Fei, his dark eyes swift and searching. "You have forgotten,"
     Once more Fei was uncertain whether Wiseman was asking a question or making a statement, dumbly he nodded.
     "That is not surprising." Wiseman turned his back on the young man, and for a second Fei thought he was leaving.
     "What can you tell me about my father? ---- Is that how you know my name?"
     "Yes." Wiseman replied, not turning to face Fei. "I knew Kahn well as I knew you"
     "You knew me?" Fei strode forward, walking around Wiseman to face him, his brown eyes amber with furver. For the first time, he had found someone, someone from his past. It didn't matter that he couldn't in the least remember Wiseman, that there was no tingle of familiarity at the sight of that white mask or blue cloak. Questions he had been asking for three years swarmed about him like stinging flies.
     "Yes I knew you. It was I who carried your battered bleeding body to Lahan Village three years ago." The cloth covering Wiseman's mouth twitched again as if with a smile, but he kept his deep sorrowful eyes downcast. "They had a good doctor."
     Citan bowed uncomfortably, sliding his already oily hands across the equally smudged front of his dark green overalls. "One does one's best." He murmured. But there was a certain reserve about the Solarian. Just as during Fei's first confrontation with Grahf Citan had kept in the background, now he hovered beside Weltall, like a reluctant bird of prey, his experienced face unreadable and his eyes clouded. Hammer stood as if transfixed, moving his long snout from side to side, staring first at Fei then at Wiseman with wide button like eyes.
     "Tell me about my father --- and what happened?" Fei's voice was sharp and intense; he clasped his hands behind his back and gripped as if trying to wring the story of his past from them. His eyes were full of a concentration more cold and intense than the battle calm of a fighter.
     "I'll tell you what I can." Wiseman shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot; it was a slight motion, though all the more striking in a man who was usually so still. "Your father's name is Khan Wong and he was an officer in the military of Shevat."
     "Shevat?" Fei asked distractedly, the name meant nothing to him.
     "The floating land where the one's who failed live behind a wall of force--- "
     For an instant Fei's eyes widened, then narrowed again, like black flowers blooming and dying in the same second. Though what Wiseman had said was almost nonsense to him, it didn't seem to matter; it was his father he wanted to hear about.
     "There your father met a young woman. She was about twenty years old and like a flower in the first bloom of spring." Wiseman sighed, a long drawn out deep toned sound, like wind blowing through bamboo.
     "She was beautiful?" Fei asked, his voice quiet. Though Wiseman wouldn't meet his gaze, Fei knew by the longing in the deep rich voice that there was something painful in speaking about the young woman.
     "Extraordinarily so judging by the poetry." Citan murmured distantly.
     "Karen was indeed beautiful, and in more senses than the mere physical."
     For a second, Elly's image swam into Fei's mind, but not just her pale face with it's glistening violet eyes and autumnal hair. Combined with the memory was something shy and warm and courageous, something Fei didn't understand. "And ---- And she was --- ?"
     "Your mother." Wiseman was very still, his eyes downcast as if in meditation. "Karen passed away when you were but a child."
     A subtle pang swept quickly through Fei, an echo of the strange unknown grief that had struck when Grahf had told him of the death of his father. "Oh."
     Wiseman sighed again, long and deeply. Then he shrugged, as if shifting some enormous weight on his angular bony shoulders, and continued. "Kahn married your mother, and you were born. Kahn noticed that you had certain special powers --- certain --- abilities ---" The masked man circled one gloved hand slowly in the air. "--- Then another came, one who desired to use your power for his own ends."
     "Grahf." Fei's voice was soft and low again, but not with sympathy. As if conjured by the name, the image of a shadowy figure hovered before Fei, even in memory radiating a smouldering malevolence.
     "You have met him?" Wiseman's voice was suddenly sharp. He raised his masked head and scoured Fei's face with his dark soulful eyes. Fei shifted uncomfortably, like a new religious convert who has just accidentally uttered a mild blasphemy.
     "Yes ---- twice, no three times."
     Wiseman chuckled, a hard bitter sardonic sound. "You are lucky to be in one piece"
     Fei glanced towards Citan and Hammer, the Solarian was now leaning against Weltall, arms crossed tiredly behind his head, his ponytail sprawling and disarranged.
     "I think Grahf wants me to get more powerful before I'm of any use to him."

     "Then if I were you I would remain weak." Once more Wiseman chuckled harshly, then turning half away from Fei his eyes grew distant behind the white mask. "When you were young, Grahf took you away from Kahn and Karen. Naturally Kahn searched for you, but his search was long and fruitless. I was away on a journey at the time, but Kahn sent me a letter requesting my help. It was three years ago, during a night of raging storm that I was drawn to a hilltop near the Blackmoon forest. I felt as though I were preparing for some great conflict, some conjunction of destiny. But when I reached the spot all I found was you and Kahn, both badly injured. Grahf was gone --- presumably driven away by Kahn."
     Fei imagined the seen, the rain and wind lashing the earth with uncaring force, his body lying cold and stricken, blood mingling redly with the rain soaking his white T-shirt. A few feet away from his own body, he visualized the man he had dreamed of while lying captive in the Aveh Sand cruiser. A tall athletic man in the pale baggy dress of the martial artist, lashed and scarred by rain, a man with a kindly tanned face and a black moustache.
     "My father beat Grahf." A strange shy pride filled Fei like warm sunlight, his father had fought with that dark being of his nightmares ---- and won.
     Wiseman nodded slowly. "Yes --- I believe he did. I treated both of your wounds, but Kahn insisted upon following Grahf. I placed you in the custody of those village people and then set out after Kahn myself."
     "What happened?" Fei asked tensely, his two hands once more gripping each other like small feral animals locked in mortal combat.
     Wiseman shifted his weight again. "I do not know, I have been plagued by other considerations these past few years, and have not seen Kahn since that night."
     Fei's eyes grew troubled, darkening until they almost seemed to resemble Wiseman's deep ebany pools. "Grahf said my father was ----- "
     "Hmmm. It is unfortunate." Wiseman turned around, his cloak swirling, so once more he faced away from Fei, towards the rubble strewn scorched corner of the Gear bay where Fei's own ether shot had landed. "I warn you Fei, beware of Grahf. I do not know what his intentions are, but Kahn said in his letter that it was for the sake of the world, as well as for his son's, that Grahf must be destroyed."
     "I'll remember." Fei said fervently.
     "Tell me --- do you recall anything about your fighting skills?"
     Fei shook his head, setting his dark poneytail to swinging. "No ---- I just sort of act on instinct."
     "Often the body remembers what the conscious mind forgets. I do not doubt that some of your skills came from Kahn, and that would account for the similarity in our technique. ---- Now I must leave --- farewell." As before in the sun drenched stony arena, Wiseman swirled his cloak about him and vanished, as if by drawing the midnight blue material around his angular body he somehow folded himself away into the fabric of reality.
     Fei turned back to hammer and Citan, but before he could take a step towards the hulking purple gear Hammer was bounding towards him in consternation, kneeling the boots flying across the dirty concrete of the floor, almost as if Wiseman's departure had released the demi-human from some binding spell. "Hey, what's! goin' on here?! Who was that guy? And what's this Aveh tournament you was in bro?"
     Citan uncrossed his arms languidly and walked stiffly over to the section of Weltall's armour, picking up his panel-beater's hammer.
     "A most enigmatic person. I must say Fei that your father had a rather obscure taste in friends."
     Fei felt oddly annoyed by the comment, it seemed somehow out of character for the usually tactful Citan to suddenly be flippant about something so important as Fei's father.
     "My Father's dead!" The young man's voice was dull and sullen as he brushed past Hammer and walked woodenly up to the stand holding Weltall's armour.
     The doctor raised his hammer, and then lowered it looking up, startled. "We cannot know that Fei." His husky voice was gentle. "I will grant that the possibility seems likely given Wiseman's story, but while I am inclined to believe Wiseman I do not think Grahf is trustworthy."
     "You believe him then." Fei walked across and took up the doctor's place against Weltall's flank, feeling his mind flag with exhaustion as it tried to grasp all the things that Wiseman had told him.
     "I do Fei."
     the young man leaned back heavily, resting his head on the hard metal of his gear's bent knee. "Then my mother's --- "
     "Yes." Citan said simply. The Solarian's angular eyes met Fei's, dark and warm and sympathetic. For an instant Fei felt an echo of the felling he had had when he had thought of Elly, and as empathy flowed from the Doctor in a warming draught, the Gear bay's colors seemed to run into one another, grey and purple, black and florescence.
     "Hey!! Look man, I didn't quite understand what that guy said, but if ya' mom is dead, ya' shouldn't beet yerself up about it bro. You got things to do remember?" Hammer scuttled towards Fei, his nose probing forward like the streamlined fuselage of an aeroplane, cutting through the grimy throbbing air.
     "Your right Hammer." Fei's voice was thick and slow.
     "The hell I am" Hammer interrupted. "Just ya think about what that guy said about a final strike. Wait till ya' see a weakness then --- Wammmm!!" Hammer leapt into the air and threw himself into a furious furry mock punch at Weltall's chest. He struck like a small green bullet and then slid ungracefully down the purple gear's torso to land spread eagled across Weltall's other bent knee.
     Fei couldn't help laughing. "Well ---- something like that Hammer."
     Citan glanced across, his dark eyes twinkling, his lips crinkling into an amused smile. "Perhaps it would not be tactically sound to base your final strike upon Mr. Hammer's demonstration."
     "No bro --- not like that." Hammer jumped off Weltall's knee and landed chirpily beside Fei, straightening his executive spectacles with one paw. "Ya' know how to land afterwards --- but that's why yer the pilot, and I'm just essential ground personnel."
     Citan raised his eyebrows delicately.
     "Oh never mind." Fei said quickly, he wasn't sure if Citan would approve or not of Hammer's dirty dealing. "Now at least I have an idea about how to win."
     "I wouldn't place all your hope in one strategy Fei, tomorrow's battle will be hard, and overconfidence on your part could result in swift defeat."
     Fei shivered as he remembered Rico at his baptism, tall and indomitable in shining black leathers, crowned with sprouting fiery hair like an active volcano. "I know that Doc, but at least now I won't worry so much about not having the right Gear parts."
     Citan nodded satisfied, turning to the armour and striking it a few times rapidly with the hammer as if typing a message. A few seconds later he paused, frowning intently at the armour as if daring it to be anything but perfect. "If nothing else, that is an advantage. But Mr. Hammer is also right, you must concentrate totally on tomorrow's battle, we can worry about Grahf at a later point." Citan nodded to himself, pounded the armour a few more times, then with a sudden wrench, unclamped it and hopped nimbly up onto Weltall's knee where he began riveting it into place with deft aggressive movements of his engineer's hands. "You better go and get some rest Fei, I'll finish up here."
     "Thanks, Doc. --- Ether really takes it out of you."
     "Ether? ----- oh!"
     Abruptly, Citan turned and jumped off Weltall's knee, letting the plate of armour swing down, hanging precariously from the few rivets the doctor had fixed like a badly damaged door. "I have a medicine specially designed to counteract the draining effects on the nervous system caused by performing etheric discharges ---- now if I can only locate my satchel --- " Citan's voice trailed off as he began prowling around the Gear bay peering about for his black medical bag.
     "This it Doctor?"
     "Thank you, Mr. Hammer."
     "Hey --- " The Little demi-human scooped up the doctor's black bag from behind Weltall's left foot and scuttled with it across to Citan. "Just call me Hammer, okay?"
     Citan nodded absently, rewarding Hammer with a slow vague smile a he began rummaging through the bag. "Aha!" The Solarian whipped a small bottle out of the bag with the speed of a conjurer producing an unexpected rabbit. "Roseol." He explained tersely to Fei, plucking a spoon seemingly out of nowhere, and measuring a few drops of viscous pinkish liquid into it.
     Fei peered nervously at the spoon full of goop Citan was levelling threateningly at his face. "I hope it tastes better than aqasol."
     Citan wagged an oil-stained finger paternally, somehow holding bottle, spoon and stopper in the other hand, and not spilling one drop of the thick sticky liquid. "It is the efficacy of pharmacological compounds, and not their aesthetic quality that dictates their aptness for use in particular situations."

     "Huh?" Hammer glanced across at Fei, small beetle-like eyes wide.
     Fei grinned, tiredly, reaching out to take the spoon from Citan's hand. "He said it's what it does, not what it taste like that counts ---- right doc?"
     "Indeed."
     The medicine tasted strange, it was no less vicious than the aquasol, but it had an odd clinging sharp taste like a razorblade dipped in honey.
     Bubbles of rose coloured light swam around Fei in a bright bursting stream, gentle bobbing about for a few seconds, then flying outwards and vanishing like lost dreams.
     "Cool light show!"
     Fei grinned at Hammer, shaking the last few bubbles of gently glowing light from his fingers as if they were soap after a relaxing bath. He still felt tired, but it was a warm wholesome tiredness, sweet dark and soft as down. The hard aching bone wary exhaustion of the ether attack seeming to fade away with the bubbles and become nothing. "Hey Doc, why didn't you use any of that stuff in the sewer?"
     Citan frowned, the lines of experience on his weather tanned face deepening to form hard fault lines as he leaped up onto Weltall's knee and picked up his spanner. "I didn't have any --- I suspect the authorities didn't really expect prisoners to use that many ether spells so the medical facility didn't stock any Rosesol. After I used that old wind spell on those mutants ---- " he waved a spanned expressively, raining oil and bits of solder down onto the concrete floor like an ugly metallic snowstorm. "--- I recalled how damaging to one's energy reserves etheric discharges can be so --- "
     "Thanks doc." Fei said contritely, staring up at where Citan pearched on the Gear, kneeling down now like a supplicant at the altar.
     "You are most welcome." Citan said vaguely. "Now, I suggest you go and sleep while I complete this task --- tomorrow won't be easy."

* * * * *

     Wum!
     Fei woke with a start, his breathing heavy and quick, disorientated and confused. Something ---- something had been there, something or somebody.
     He raised his head and peered out into the darkness, clutching the thin bedclothes around his body like a cold child.
     What had it been?
     Memory slowly dribbled back to him, oozing into his conscious mind like a polluted river. This was Kislev, D-block --- he was in the A-rank bunk behind it's rough curtains --- that was why it was so dark.
     He lay down slowly, interposing a thickly muscled forearm between head and pillow, tangled hair matting on his outstretched hand like strange jungle vegetation.
     Tomorrow he would have to fight.
     Fei sighed, pulling his legs up protectively to his chest. Once more he remembered Rico, towering high in his rain-washed black, hands whirling about him like psychotic wrecker balls.
     But hadn't Wiseman said ----
     He imagined himself, finding a sudden break in the pattern of flying fists, plunging forward like an arrow through a narrow gap to strike the Demi-human down with a meaty thud.
     But Citan had thought Fei could win.
     Anxiety washed over him, an uncertain background thrum to his thoughts, mirroring the slow rise and fall of the other prisoner's breathing --- the occasional rustle of bedclothes. Kislev --- grey as cloud. It seemed he had been here for years, watching eyes slide off him like slow dribbles of moisture. He couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life here --- even if Citan would stay with him --- even if! A sick queasy feeling rushed through Fei, making him gasp for breath. - Citan leave!
     But how could he ask Citan to stay with him ---- Citan would have to go back to Aveh, to look after Yui and Midori ---- and Margie. Margie, with her brown hair and forthright manner ---- and Bart! Surely he couldn't be dead. "Maybe he is." A voice seemed to whisper through the darkness. Fei turned over restlessly, fingers playing nervously with the edge of the scratchy blanket.
     He couldn't be ---- he couldn't!
     "But what if he is --- what then?" Fei squeezed his eyes shut, as if trying not to look into the gaze of some hideous monster, a gaze that would turn him to stone.
     Bart wasn't dead, he wasn't he wasn't, he wasn't!
     Then another image swam into Fei's mind, a pale-skinned girl with autumn colored hair and sweet violet eyes in a delicate face. No! ---- Bart Couldn't be dead! He'd go back to Nissan and his friend would be waiting there for him ---- and somehow Elly would leave the Solarian military and become his wife and they would live in a small house in Nisan with ---
     What!
     Where had that idea come from? He'd only met her three times, and two of those she'd try to kill him!
     But still ---- somehow!
     A warm flush suffused Fei's body, starting at his stomach and working outward, what would it be like? ---- Being married! ---- Kissing her.
     But before anything else he had to beat Rico, had to ---- as if in reminder of what was coming the next day, Fei rubbed at the smooth ugly bronze collar about his neck, feeling its cold surface with his fingertips. --- tomorrow he might be rid of it forever --- or condemned to wear it.
     His thoughts spiralled and whirled like a carousel, Rico Became Bart, Margie became Elly, and Citan's kind bronzed face grew leaner and paler, the glasses disappearing, a curling moustache adorning the upper lip, a frown line growing between the round dark brown eyes.
     Before Fei knew it --- he was asleep, his face loosing all it's lines and becoming relaxed under the protective darkness, the face of a young boy, innocent as nature, vulnerable as a flower --- with a strange shy sweetness in the curl of his smiling lips.

* * * * *
     Fei opened his eyes to the usual darkness of the curtained off A-rank bunk. But something about the shaft of light streaming through the slight chink in the curtains surprised him. Like a lead weight slamming down, he remembered his fight with Rico, the background anxiety settled heavily around him like an empty grey-green net.
     But he had to go, had to win.
     Automatically he stood and pulled the curtains aside, a worried rumpled figure in his pyjamas. Then what had surprised him about the light came suddenly clear, and he squeezed both eyes shut before opening them slowly, Sun! A golden shaft of sunlight spilled through the windows like a radiant liquid, pooling silent and hot on the dun brown floorboards and white ruffled bedding.
     Somehow the sun changed the whole aspect of the dormitory, bringing out the pale delicacy's of grain in the wood, and the sardonic smile of prisoner's grim faces as they got yawning out of bed to face another day.
     Picking up his stiff midnight blue leathers from under the bunk, Fei padded across the dormitory to the bathroom, feeling the warmth of sun on his bare feet as he strayed through the bright patches on the floor.
     He showered, sleep sluicing off him, and dressed in the creaking battler's outfit, combing out his newly washed hair into a thick damp rope and tying it with a strip of dark green material from his pocket.
     There --- ready --- almost. First breakfast.
     The compound was less cheerful under the sudden spell of good weather than the dormitory appeared. No amount of light could alter the grey stained concrete, and the warm sun only served to cast the grim square buildings into harsh rectangles of shadow like squares on a chessboard.
     But the prison café --- for the first time Fei had seen it, was full of another sound than the nervous arrhythmic clatter of cutlery --- people were talking! And not just desultory gossip, but a warm excited hum. From one or two of the scarred wooden tables, laughter rang out across the plain room. As Fei entered, several heads turned and the general noise level increased.
     The young man walked slowly to the serving hatch and leaned his bare elbows on the counter.
     "You're him --- aren't you?" Behind the counter was the same wide eyed young man in his black stained overalls who usually served at the café, dishevelled toe colored hair straggling around his thin face.
     "I'm Fei, if that's what you mean."
     The man in the stained black grinned uncertainly from above his bronze collar. "Er, can I have your autograph?"
     "Huh!" Fei took a step backwards as if struck --- his what?
     From somewhere the prisoner produced a slip of paper and stub of pencil.
     Awkwardly, Fei scrawled his name, wondering if this was some kind of joke.
     "Thanks." The prisoner breathed admiringly, "I'll get you my best breakfast."
     "But why?!" Fei's voice was almost plaintive.
     The man in black's eyes widened even more in surprise, like ponds which stones had been dropped into. "They reckon you're gonna beat the Champ --- it's on the radio --- listen." Turning, he slapped his hand onto a black scratched box sitting coolly on a shelf behind him, wide speaker grill grinning out in a fixed smile beneath it's dials. Hard masculine music filled the café, and behind him Fei heard several conversations stop to listen.
     The music was tough and quick, brass and strings making a washing four four rhythm under a dissonant string melody. Then followed quick percussive chords like hammer blows in a gear fight. At the end it slowed, a harp joining in on a descending string scale before the tidal beat started again.
     "Welcome to N.R.N. --- Nortune Radio Network. This's Brook Videlle bringing you news, views and relaxation around the clock. And of course the big story today is the upcoming match between F.F. Wong and our very own Champ of three years --- Ricado Banderas. And the question everyone's asking is: Can young Wong wrong foot Ricado? We asked our own God of Gears --- Max Crag --- " The announcer's voice was replaced by another, the thumping tidal music carrying on in the background.
     "Well Brook old buddy --- I reckon the Champ's got his work cut out this year, young Wong technique is faultless, --- most new pilots have problems adjusting to the Gear's controls --- but Wong works seamlessly with his machine --- "
     "Fei!"
     Fei whirled, startled. Outlined in the doorway of the Café was a short figure with platinum blonde hair glowing in the sunlight like a silver coronet.
     "Catrina?"
     The girl glided across the café to him and nestled close beside Fei at the counter.
     The young man in black gazed from Fei to Catrina "Is she with you man?"
     "Err --- well, er, if you mean --- well." Fei was suddenly flustered. Catrina's round face beatifically smiling up at him didn't help --- particularly as she was standing so close he caught a whiff of some musky perfume she was wearing.
     "I mean --- shall I do her my best breakfast as well"
     "Yes!" Fei nodded gratefully, his ponytail bobbing. "Yes --- er --- yes." Hurriedly he moved away from the counter towards a scar topped wooden table against one whitewashed wall, Catrina walking faithfully beside him. Today, rather than her usual green leathers, the battler-girl wore a knee length sky-blue skirt, and a smart grey blouse. As they walked through patches of sunlight, a small silver broach on the blouse winked tantalizingly at Fei.
     "Er ---Hi." He sat down, and she sat opposite, resting her elbows on the table and twisting her bomb-collar.
     "That was really nice of you Fei - ordering me breakfast I mean."
     Fei shifted uncomfortably, resting his chin on one hand, midnight leather gleaming.
     "Well --- er, don't mention it."
     "It's your big day today isn't it Fei? --- The fight with Rico I mean!"
     Fei nodded glumly, the grey green net of Anxiety settling around him again. "Yeah, --- it's today."
     "You'll win." Catrina's voice was confident, her eyes blazing like copies of the sun.
     "I don't know --- maybe but --- "
     "Oh don't be silly. I was here last year, and I saw Rico fight --- Stier's big and powerful but it hasn't got your grace."
     "Well, we'll see." Fei replied inadequately, thinking of a huge flame haired figure in lack leather.
     Breakfast arrived then --- a surprisingly appetizing array of toast, marmalade, quasants and boiled eggs, washed down with instant coffee.
     To his surprise the queasy empty feeling in his stomach didn't stop Fei from doing it justice. Fei stood, pushing his plate away. He almost expected the dull ache of anxiety to make him tremble and stumble like an old man.
     "I better go." Catrina stood, coming around the table to look up at him with wide liquid eyes beneath her crew-cut platinum hair. "Good luck Fei --- you'll be fine."
     "You'll be fine." Citan's voice was a husky whisper, as he pulled Fei into a corner between two angular buildings, hiding in the chessboard square of shadow. "Look, I can't go with you, there's been an accident in a factory and I'm needed --- anyway it would look suspicious if we were seen together"
     "Doc!"
     Citan shook his head, pushing his hands into the pockets of his Kislevian medical uniform. "I have confidence in you Fei. Just remember your lesson and the reason for which you fight --- I'll pray for victory."
     Unhappily, his lips pursed in a miserable frown, the anxiety shining from his eyes like a mirror of grey cloudy weather on this day of unexpected sun. "Okay --- I'll try my best." Turning he walked away, sun beating down on his head, not looking back.

* * * * *

     "F.F. Wong --- "
     Some things, Fei thought distantly, didn't change. The two girls behind the paper little red metal desk still looked at him with expressions of condescending boredom. Whatever the rest of the Battling community thought of him, clearly the receptionists would only ever see Fei as an errant peace of paper, to be quickly grabbed and filed away in accordance with the great and almighty procedure.
     "Yes --- I'm Fei." The Martial artist's voice was weary, his eyes properly downcast at the metal floor.
     "It's the final round of the games today, and you get the chance to challenge Ricado Banderas."
     Fei nodded and, without waiting for the order tramped morosely up the thin metal corridor to the double doors of the Gear bay. The condemned man had eaten his hearty breakfast, said goodbye to his friends and well wishers and prepared to go to his execution.
     "Hello! Scum!" Vargas grinned nastily, hands thrust beneath the red bandoleers crisscrossing, his chest. "the champ's gonna kill your ass! --- Aaagh!" A bark colored hand the size of a tennis racket swatted Vargas contemptuously aside. The battler reeled across the floor his brown leather cap sliding off his crew cut to spin across the oily concrete.
     "Shut! Up!!" Rico glowered malevolently at Vargus, big hands on hips, leathers pristine and shining. "Maybe Fei'd like to kill your! Ass! --- And if he doesn't --- I will."
     Vargas hurriedly retrieved his cap and scampered away, pushing past Fei through the double doors and out into the corridor. "Sorry about that ----- Come and meet Stier"
     Wordlessly, Fei followed the hulking form of the Champ across the huge empty Gear bay to one end near the Gear-sized doors that led out into the arena.

     There was Weltall, trim sleek and deadly, all the scratches and scrapes of yesterday's fights smoothed away.
     Opposite, stood Rico's gear. Fei's anxiety rose as his gaze travelled up, and up and --- up!
     He fingered the white elbow pads on his leathers nervously, his face becoming drawn, pale and wan with worry.
     Gears always resemble their pilots --- So Elly had told him in Blackmoon forest, and so he'd seen himself.
     Brigandier, like it's owner, was tall willowy and foppish, martial red with it's white plume, painted eye patch and elegant whip.
     Weltall, as Wiseman had said, was swift and lean relying on speed and skill more than strength, in it's utilitarian smooth purple armour.
     Rico's Gear --- Stier, was massive! It towered like a squat building, 70 or 80 feet above floor level; it's broad shoulders like derrick gantries. Also like it's pilot, Stier was honestly, unashamedly ugly! Most of it's bulky body was a ghastly, boggy green-brown colour, with blocks of vivid orange at shoulder's, knees and wrists in imitation of the flashes on the Demi-human's leathers. Atop it's head, was a wide cylinder of dark green metal like the cooling tower of a power station. The unrelieved boggy green was mitigated by patches of cream on legs and lower body like stretches of rock protruding from mud, and what looked like two pairs of painted yellow eyes, gleaming beadily out at Fei.
     "Good aint' it?"
     "---- Er --- "
     Rico stood in front of his grotesque machine, steel cuffed hands wide in an expansive gesture, his gritty face cracked with a sudden boyish grin. "This's my pal, Stier!"
     Fei was relieved when the tanoy blared before he had a chance to answer --- what could he say?
     "Pilots F.F. Wong, and R. Banderas, get in your Gears and prepare to move out, fight begins at my signal."
     Fei extended a hand --- feeling strangely calm, a weird almost disembodied clarity seemed to settle over him, almost as if he were watching some other young man in white and navy leathers, preparing to go out and fight.
     "Well --- "Rico engulfed Fei's hand in one greenish paw. "May the best man win. I've been lookin' forward to this"
     The arena was close and tense. The pinnacles of red-brown rock reared into the curdled sky, where the sun was doing battle with legions of cloud and the ever-present Nortune smog. The rsesult was a strange yellowish blurred mass that made distant objects seem misty and faint.
     At the arena's center the two Gears turned to face each other --- Weltall, panther like and keen, and Steir, hulking with menace like a Ranker Dragon. Across the city, cameras and observation glasses were trained on the two machines, as a thousand Kislevians waited, faces tense with excitement in anticipation of the battle.
     Fei ran his gaze across Stier, his warm eyes disinterested as scanners. He noted the other Gear's bulk and massive reach. Looking down, he saw that the feet were large and flat with two protruding toes, and at the back of each foot was a wheel --- obviously Stier would be extremely mobile on the ground.
     Looking up, Fei saw that though Stier's right hand was a bunched fist of green, the left arm ended in a triangular set of grey pincers like garden shears, glinting sharp and dangerous. He sighed, moving uneasily in the straps, his leather's creaking in the cockpit's silence.
     Then abruptly, the radio crackled into life. "Begin!"
     Stier skated forward, faster than Fei would have thought possible, huge arms held low, the evil-looking pincers ready.
     sFei back-peddled swiftly, zig-zagging round one of the pinnacles of rock, his hand reaching for the firing stud of his ether weapons.
     Bolts of bluish incandescence streaked towards the Champion. Rico swerved, the wheels on his Gear's broad feet compensating for Stier's bulk. But before he could recover from his dodge, Fei fired again, and this time Steir wasn't quick enough. The bluish bolt seared across the green armoured flank, scorching and warping the heavy plates like melted plastic.
     But before Fei could attack again, Rico charged in, a huge green tower on the move. The massive green fist smashed for Weltall's head, but just as Fei swerved aside, he realized this had simply been a feint. He threw himself sideways, as the wicked steel shears whistled past him, grazing a scratch along Weltall's upper arm.
     Fei slammed down on the jets, and the straps cut into his leather clad shoulders as Wetall rocketed upwards to settle on top of the pinnacle like a huge raven atop a gatepost.
     Fei calmed his breathing, turning Weltall slowly so that he could keep a watch on Rico who was circling his ugly war machine about the pillar like a praying mantis.
     Perhaps Rico didn't have any jets --- perhaps.
     Then bolts of Ether crackled up at Fei. It is usually difficult to aim at an enemy atop a wall, but the Demi-human's aim was perfect, and Fei was forced to duck swiftly downwards, out of range.
     But When he reached the ground, Rico was there waiting for him, the curdled light glinting on his pincers as he struck upwards, fending off Fei's dropkick even as he spun Stier lightly around, the wheels on the broad feet giving the huge Gear the delicacy of a ballet dancer.
     The duel raged on. The two Gears were well matched. Weltall's speed and jets compensating for Stier's ground manoeuvrability and stout bulky strength.
     They moved across the arena, skirting the towers of rock, emerald turf blistering under the barrage of ether shots the two Gears hurled at each other, so many that it seemed neither machine could escape undamaged. But the damage on both sides was minimal, a plate of Stier's armour crumpled slightly, bruised by one of Weltall's dark fists. Weltall's midnight skin scratched by Stier's lethal blades.
     The fight lead into the sandy desert type area, close to one massive metallic wall. Briefly Fei wondered if the sand would impair Stier's wheels --- charging in with Weltall's midnight fist aimed for Stier's head. But he was proved wrong about the sand when the champ jumped slightly upwards, both broad feet pistoning forward. Fei dodged with his usual speed, and once more rocketed skywards.
     Remembering his fight with Firewheel, he cut his jets and fell like a diver, metal feet poised to crush. But the Champ simply cut upwards with the pincers, and Fei was forced to quickly angle his plummeting Gear away from Stier before turning on his boosters again.
     But Fei had victories too. He managed to crowd Stier up against one rock column, pinning the green Gear down beneath a salvo of ether while he lanced forward. It was only a quick parry of Rico's right hand that turned aside Weltall's punch at his belly to land on Stier's thick shoulder, denting the armour beneath the lurid orange paint.
     Sweat pooled beneath the collar of Fei's leathers, and his breathing grew laboured ad hot like a long distance runner reaching the end of his strength. Pulling a hand off the strap he wiped it across his eyes.
     This couldn't go on much longer. Glancing down at Weltall's controls, he saw a worrying array of red lights --- including the fuel meter. In the small steely box of Weltall's cockpit the Gear's engine thrummed and roared like a bear at bay.
     So he would have to take in fuel --- but that would mean a few seconds when he was completely vulnerable, a sitting bird for the Champ to finish at his leisure. Fei gritted his teeth, wondering if Stier's bulky body held extra fuel tanks --- another damn unfair advantage.
     Wiseman's advice floated back to him --- a Fissure in your opponent's defences. --- But how?
     Once more he weighed into Rico, once more the Champ blocked, countered, and Fei swayed lightly aside
     There was no way! No Fissure in his defences.
     And then Steir was charging again, remorseless, relentless, pincers held low ready to slice cut and tare ----
     Before, when some scrap of tactics had come to Fei's rescue, he thought it through, seizing upon the knowledge, but now there was no thought, just a shimmering cold clarity, remote and icy as a star.
     Everything in the cloudy arena suddenly became defined, every splotch of paint on Stir's ugly armour, every dent and scratch, the sound of Weltall's thrumming engine, the smell of oil and his own sweat.
     Fei punched down on the jet button, but instead of rising skyward, he hovered, only 20 feet above the emerald turf, so that his head was on a level with Stier's.
     Then he attacked, one final strike. A charging punch, huge Gear body tensed, left fist ready. Before he hit, Rico raised the pincers, gnashing deep into Weltall's armoured side, but even before he registered the red lights flashing, Fei struck!
     Weltall's fist plunged into Stier's head, crunching into the heavy green cylinder like a pile driver. The side crumpled under the blow, sparks flaming from torn and batter armour, several components flying free to scatter across the scorched grass like drops of congealed blood.
     The huge Gear reeled, staggering, and through the cockpit window set into the chest, Fei could see the Demi-human in his and orange black leathers, sweat stained, flaming hair tangled and knotted. Rico's face twisted with rage, pounding his huge fists on his Gear's controls, sharp white teeth bared in a feral snarl. At that moment, Rico seemed utterly sub-human, bestial and dangerous, consumed by fury.
     Then Stier fell, legs and arms twitching, to rest on the scorched turf, sparks still spluttering from its injured head.
     Fei had won.
     "Cheat! --- He cheated!!"
     Fei leaned tiredly on the padded bench in the Battling arena's waiting area, sipping gratefully at a beaker of iced water Hammer had pressed on him. He stretched out luxuriously across the padded bench, feeling his heart rate slow and his limbs stiff and heavy with exertion.
     The arguing voices echoed around him like noises in a vast cavern.
     "Cheated! --- How would Bro cheat! Ya' fool!!" Hammer's voice was indignant, he danced a furious little jig in front of the two grim faced battlers in their weird leathers.
     "He must've had illegal parts or something ---" Vargas eyes slitted in anger, and his voice rose almost to a scream. "No one! Can beat the Champ!!"
     "That's! Damn Right!!" Vargus's friend --- a short swarthy man in sand colored leathers insisted.
     "Shut!!! Up!!!" The room was suddenly silent, the two battlers took a nervous step backward as Rico prowled through the door, sweaty hair hanging over his eyes. The Demi-human took a swig from a beaker of water he was holding, and then glared at the battlers from out of his green snakelike eyes. "I lost. --- Get used to it."
     "But champ --- illegal parts --- "
     Rico turned round a stared at the swarthy man, who visibly paled under his glance.
     "Where would bro here get illegal parts? --- We can't leave the Capital remember?"
     Hammer clipped across the floor to stand over Fei, his small black eyes cold as onyx.
     "That's right! --- I lost fair 'n' square." Rico glanced towards Fei, swigging off the last of his water. "You won, kid."
     Fei sat up slowly, locking his brown eyes on the Demi-human's. Something glinted in the depths, something cold and lonely, something that had for a long time been hidden behind layers of calloused armour.
     "I won out of luck --- and because I had a good teacher --- " Fei's voice was slow, his eyes clouded. "Look --- remember your arm --- it's not properly --- "
     There was a snapping sound, the huge fist holding the empty beaker constricted slowly, and bits of thin plastic tinkled down to the floor like parts falling from a broken Gear. "Don't make excuses! --- I lost." Rico's gravely voice was hard and abrupt. Suddenly he turned, flaming hair whipping about him like a comet's tail. "I got some things to see to."
     Fei watched him go, the two battlers trailing after him. --- It was done.
     Suddenly, like a sunburst the knowledge hit him, he was free! --- He!! Was!! Free!!
     He could go after Bart now. Go back to Nisan and meet Elly. He stood up, a broad smile making his young face shine. "Come on Hammer --- let's go"
     The Gear bay was still and silent, Rico's footsteps echoed hollowly around the massive space as he walked slowly, heavily across to his battered machine.
     His ugly face twisted in pain, as he saw the scratches and abrasions of the fight marking his machine's skin. Poor Steir! --- But he'd fix him alright, he'd be fixed by tonight.
     Memories of old pain washed through him, ugly! Demi-human! Unwanted!!
     He would show them.
     The big man strode to the side of his battered Gear and patted its foot with one heavy hand --- his face was full of a deep ache.
     "Well Steir, old buddy --- hang in with me --- We'll get him together." Rico bent to the tool bench in the center of the room, picking up a panel beater's hammer. But as he begin climbing up his Gear to get at the battered sections of armour --- he wasn't thinking of Fei --- wasn't thinking of his loss. All his thoughts were full of revenge --- revenge on the one who had started this! "We'll get him together!"

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~ End of Chapter 33 ~

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