Saturday, 30 July 2011

Starfall: Prologue

“It’s about to start,” calls out the father, resting comfortably in his recliner, his body angled towards the view-wall.

“Coming,” shouts back his wife from the next room of the apartment. The thump of running footfalls across the ceiling and down the stairs heralds the arrival of his son, who leaps onto the long curved sofa, excitement flashing in his eyes.

“Hayleigh? You coming down?” inquires the father.

No response.

“Leave her be,” scolds his wife tenderly as she enters the living room, relaxing on the sofa next to the boy. “She’s going through a phase.”

The father raises his hand, twisting his wrist intricately as he activates and controls the view-wall. Meekly obeying his commands, the frame of the picture blossoms until it fills the entire side of the room, the lights dimming automatically, ghosts of illumination flashing from the screen on the viewer’s faces.

The HappyFortune CorpGov logo ripples across the wall, its trademark soothing tone melting through the air. The tranquillity is shattered as the 'Triumph Challenge Battle Contest' theme bursts out of the hidden speakers, the view-wall pumping vibrant flashing images into the room. Giant humanoid machines clash with one another, buildings and structures crumbling to dust as the automatons indiscriminately unleash volleys of deadly projectiles. A massive metallic fist looms up towards the screen, pounding an imprint of the jagged TCBC logo onto the viewer's retina.

A stylish vertical fade transition reveals the face of a young and impeccably handsome man, wearing a rich blue suit and matching regal cape, the HFGC logo emblazoned on its lapel. He stands on the white pristine deck of a Hyparrion C-Class Cruiser. The constructs and consoles surrounding the man are sleek and smooth, wide teardrop viewports opening onto shadow of space.

“Good morning, evening or night to all our viewers across the universe,” says the man, smoothing back his greased blonde flop of hair. “I'm Maximilian Herald – you can call me Max – and this is the first preliminary round of the thirteenth Triumph Challenge Battle Contest.”

The screen jumps to a shot from outside the cruiser, which hangs in the dark like a ghostly cloak of metal. A military ProTek Escort Frigate scuds alongside, its dull grey hull and blocky protrusions a striking contrast to the Culture-Class vessel. Below the spacecraft, arcing across the lower half of the screen, lies a brown muddy planet, a dusting of misty atmosphere hanging on its curvature.

“We've begun to orbit Gantian VII, named after the famous explorer and terra-former Atthuew Gantian,” continues Herald via a voiceover. “This planet was one of the lucky few to be chosen from thousands of applicants, blessed to be used as a battle arena for the Contest.”

“Bet it's a right scub-hole,” sneers the son.

“Language,” remarks his mother without any real commitment.

“It was one of the first colonised worlds,” murmurs the father. “They tested the terra-forming EdenSpheres there – doesn't have much value now.”

The view cuts back to the interior of the cruiser, Herald's plastic grin looming across the view-wall.

“Let's reacquaint ourselves with the contestants who'll be competing in the first preliminary.”

The angle swings round to reveal a row of seven youths, no older than fourteen or fifteen. Each one wears a brightly-coloured jumpsuit, the emblems and logos of their endorsements and sponsors plastered over every available space on the clothing, a large corporation team logo on the chest of each child.

The boys and girls each hold a grim sternness upon their faces, looks that speak of innocence lost too quickly. Or maybe that's what they've been told to display...

As the screen centres on each individual youth in turn, a glowing stat file pops up beside their face, a pre-recorded voice proclaiming their feats and experiences so far in the TCB Contest.

“Lambs to the slaughter,” utters a sharp quiet voice from the doorway of the living room.

Father, mother and son turn to see Hayleigh watching the view-wall, the disgust in her voice matched by the black look of her face.

“Don't you think that's a bit dramatic, Hay?” asks her father.

“Not really,” she replies icily.

“It's not a lethal sport, you know they're illegal.”

“Doesn't stop a child from dying unnecessarily though, does it?” Hayleigh spits back.

“That's a rarity,” retorts her father, a mocking smile on his lips. “Any high-intensity game has risks.”

“I think you should probably stop,” the mother says quietly to her husband, a hint of danger in her level tone.

“Hayleigh wants a smelly Battle Contest orphan for a pet,” sniggers the boy.

“Better than having a fat ugly pig for a brother,” snarls his sister.

“Hayleigh, I know you're not not a fan of the Battle Contest, and that's fine,” says her mother, “but you don't have to be rude.”

“He started it,” Hayleigh shouts incredulously.

“Yes, and both of you need to give it rest,” says the mother, glaring at her son, then back at her daughter.

“But-” begins Hayleigh.

“That's enough,” snaps her mother. “If you don't have anything good to say, just keep quiet.”

Hayleigh remains silent, not out of obedience, but because her rage has immobilised her, anger billowing within, fists clenched and shaking. She stares at the youth on the view-wall. Will this one be the next to die? She looks at her family, watching as they drink in the scene.

Tears rushing down her cheeks, she runs back up the stairs, slamming her bedroom door behind her.

- x -

Thousands upon thousands watch, a colosseum of spectators that spans the stars. They yearn for blood. They'll never admit it – they're too proud for that. But within each man, woman and child there lies the same unholy desire: to live, whilst watching others die.

- x -

You stare into the lens of the egg-shaped cam-bot as it hovers in front of you, begging to be smashed out of the air and stomped into a heap of scrap metal and plastic. Last in line, you wait for the viewers to finish analysing you, leeching off you for entertainment.

“We're going to have a chat with each of our contestants' guardians now,” says Herald, gesturing to the group of roughly and burly men standing at the side of the deck, the cam-bot gliding across the room, away from the youths.

In comparison to the white-suited deck officers, the guardians are a motley ragtag bunch, looking like they fell out of the backside of the universe, regardless of the best efforts of the hair and make-up team.

“Contestants; I'm sure you've got lots of preparations to be getting on with,” oozes Herald. “Aim for Triumph, face the Challenge and win the Battle.”

Heeding your cue, you follow your fellow contestants towards the door. As you pass the assembled guardians, you catch Dee's eye. The grizzled chubby little man flashes you a grin, so brief only you could see it.

“Now, you've all been working on your AuGArma suits, but what-”

Herald's syrupy tones are cut off by the door as it swishes shut, leaving you in the corridor with the other contestants.

“Stay here,” orders the deck-hand gruffly, as she turns and walks away down the corridor.
You glance around at the other young people. They must still be filming you surreptitiously, try to catch some little morsel of conflict. Why else would they leave you all alone in the corridor, no deck hands or guardians available to keep the peace?

Turning to the viewport, you try to pretend your opponents aren't standing so close, ignoring the tautness in the air. The Escort Frigate is visible through the window as glides lazily beside the cruiser. Everyone knows its only here as a gesture, giving the impression that the C-Class needs protecting. Anyone with half a brain knows that HFCG ships carry enough firepower and shields to match anything the military can muster.

Peering down, you gaze upon the surface of Gantian VII – a broken old world, a relic, no longer needed, no longer important. The HFCG claims that these Battle Contests will bring much-needed economic revival to the dead planets they deem worthy of being used as arenas. Tourists will flock to watch the fights, and industry will once again thrive. Not likely. No, this place was chosen because there was no voice to defend it, no power or influence to stop it from being exploited. Much like you...

Using the reflective surface of the viewpoint, you carefully watch the six other youths.
Caleen sits on the ground, absentmindedly playing with the straps of her jumpsuit – she's the youngest, probably only twelve or thirteen, but that isn't any reason to underestimate her.

Hale and Danny are discussing tactics, gesturing animatedly. They still seem to see this as a game – or maybe that's what they want each other to think...

Josha paces back and forth moodily. Bigger and heaver than the rest of you, he likes to throw his weight around. Best not to attract any unwanted attention from him.

Leaning on the bulkhead nonchalantly is Kursh. Thin and tall, she's a bit of a mystery. You've heard she's from Ballas or Jayriel, but who knows. You've never heard her talk, that's for sure.

Standing beside the doorway like a statue is Reylan. He's the only contestant you'd heard of before entering the contest. Could have won last year, but let his guard down and lost in the semis. If he'd landed that final blow, he'd have been through – but his opponent would probably have died.

You remember watching the battle amongst the throng of people in front of the public view-wall, squeezing your head through the bodies to catch a glimpse of the action. Reylan's Arma froze, the huge man-shaped machine about to punch into the opponent's chest; a sure knockout. The crowd shouted, roaring for him to finish it. The image zoomed in on the other AuGArma suit, focusing on the crack across the front of the CommandCore. The pilot would definitely be brutally injured, if not killed, should one more attack be made.

Reylan still didn't move.

His opponent took his chance, releasing his last remaining shell from his shoulder cannon, the blast sending the Reylan's Arma flying backwards into the building behind. That was it. He had lost.

Looking at him now, you wonder if there's a shred of mercy left in the boy. What would you have done? Could you kill to win?

“There something fun going on out there?”

You turn to see Josha looming over you.

“Want to float away? I could arrange it.”
Remaining silent, you look into the brutish boy's pudgy red face. In another life he could seemed jolly. Staring up at him, you know you cannot appear weak. You feel the eyes of the other contestants watching, waiting for a show. The hidden cameras gaze down upon all of you, hungry for a show.

“Why don't you calm down?”

Reylan's question sounds like an order. The eyes and camera lenses shift away from you. Josha turns from you, his cheeks fiery with anger.

“What do you care, loser? Afraid someone might get hurt?”

“You? Yes, I've very afraid that you'll get hurt. It keeps me up at night.”

Josha strides across the corridor, fist balled, arm coiled back to strike.

Reylan stands still and calm, smiling peacefully.

Just as Josha is about to reach Reylan, the door to the deck slides open, the guardians entering the corridor. Josha halts clumsily, stumbling as he tries to pull back from his momentum. He glares at Reylan, but turns away, following his guardian away the corridor.

“Come on, pup. We've got work to do.”

Dee takes you firmly by the arm, leading you away from the other youths. He keeps a rough grip on you until you round the corner, then lets go, relaxing as he walks beside you. You know it's all a pretence; he wants the other guardians to think he's mean and cold.

Dean Paravakhesko is the only adult you've ever been close to – and you've known him for less an a month. Close is a little bit of an exaggeration – he's the first adult you've known for an extended period of time that hasn't beaten you, sold you or tried to do worse to you. He's a corps man, an employee. You can tell by the metallic cyBall in his left eye-socket. Corps are very distrusting of their employees; they like to know what you're up to. You shudder to think what else they replace or remove. Maybe it's better being owned rather than employed...

“How are ya feeling? Nervous? Calm?” he asks.

“Dunno,” you reply.

It's all happened so fast. One minute you're being grabbed by a CorpPol officer after stealing a neuround battery from the market sprawl, then you're being paraded in front of the Fel-Judge – he waves his fat little finger, gesturing that you be removed from the queue of juvenile delinquents, away from the corridor leading to the transport from the Labour-Reclamation Centre.

Then you're washed, dressed and introduced to Dee, who gives you hundreds of tests, physical and mental, shoves you into a Jump-Puncher and makes you fight in mock battles over and over. Four weeks later and you're taking your first ever space flight, sick and giddy, but trying to hide it as you feel the engines fade from a rumbling roar to a dull hum.

Now, you're here. On the eve of the event that could change your life forever.

Reaching your assigned staging dock, you follow the stubby man inside. Dee has made every effort to make the large dock his own, the clean sparkling surfaces tarnished with oil and dust, wires and machinery cast here and there in an organised array of chaos.

Towering some twenty feet in the air, stands Ragnarok, your AuGArma suit. Painted in the red and black of your corporate team, it has the appearance of a giant angular man, great metallic limbs stretching out from its broad abdominal section, a fearsome chiselled face – for decoration and intimidation only – cut upon its head piece. Bits and pieces are missing from the Arma – a leg plate here, some wiring hanging loose, one of the fist modules lying on the deck next to the robotic machine.

“Still got a fair bit to do,” mutters Dee. He must feel you're judging his slap-dash approach, but you trust him to do his best.

“I wish you would hurry up,” chimes a voice from above. Looking up, you see one of the eyes detach from the head of the Arma, bobbing down to float in front of you and Dee. The little round ball winks its mechanical eye at you, its slender mandibles clicking impatiently.

“Hello Ray,” you smile.

'Good to see you young master,” says the orb in a shrill happy tone.” It spins around to face Dee.

“I've been strapped in there for ages,” the robotic ball warbles angrily. “When are you going to let me get some exercise?”

“Curse the day I uploaded your A.I., you little scub,” growls Dee, taking a swipe at the floating ball. “You can wait until I'm ready.”

Ray dodges, hovering back up to the AuGArma head, emitting of buzz of electronic muttering as he goes.

“Grumpy little git, isn't he?” chuckles Dee. “But he does take care of some of the harder interfacing issues, so I guess we're stuck with him.”

You nod, looking up at the giant piece of technology. You'll be riding inside of it tomorrow, dropped down onto an alien planet, pitted against six other children in a game that could easily lead to the death of one of you – or all of you.

“Is it alright if I try the CommandCore again?” you ask?

“Sure, why not,” says Dee. “I'll get on with prepping the suit.”

You roll the gantry over to the Arma suit, climbing up the stairs. Pressing the release switch on the side of the torso, you lean back as Ragnarok's chest whooshes open, thick metal plates folding back to reveal the soft cocoon of the CommandCore. You clamber inside the fleshy pouch, relaxing into its surface. The protective plates close around you, encasing you in darkness.

Were the circuits active and connected, every slight twitch of your body would translate into a movement from the gears and mechanisms of the Arma. You've had intensive training in the spindly Jump-Puncher suits – primitive training Arma with limited capabilities, as the name suggests. You know the claustrophobic closeness of the CommandCore, seen the world through the extended eyes of the head piece, logged hours of training and sparring. Are you ready?

“We need to pick a load-out,” shouts Dee across to you as you descend the gantry ladder. “Come over here and see what feels best to you.”

You jog across the staging bay to the older man's side, surveying the various arrangements of the AuGArma components on the computer display. All your corp's best civilian equipment is here – their next season's stock. No energy weapons or shields, they're off-limits to contestants. The military are still a little nervous of rogue pilots attempting a coup of sorts, so they want to have the edge over any weaponry in your armoury.

“It's up to you, pup,” says Dee, gesturing at the selection laid out in front of you. “What would you like to choose?”

To be continued – by you!

Choose your AuGArma specifications during the 'Character Creation' process – first voting session begins on Wednesday the 3rd of August, at roughly 8:00am GMT.

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