It was all over. The smoke was a sinuous black snake that curled its way around sparking electrical equipment and the single figure who stood on the bridge. The Kefeinzel was destroyed. Its guns were a shambles, its crew evacuated all save one. Vanderkaum stared ahead, eyes blank, mouth slightly parted. His arms hung at his sides loosely. If not for his uniform and the paraphernalia of rank, he might have been suspected of being an escaped mental patient.
He had lost. There was no redeeming himself from this disgrace. Commander Ramsus would be furious. Vanderkaum felt tears sting his eyes and he couldn't be sure if it was from the acrid stench of the smoke wafting into his nose or his own sense of shame. He'd already been demoted once. After this, he'd probably be cast out of the military completely.
He sucked in his breath, blinking back the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. No! He wouldn't let that happen! This ship, his command...it's all he had! And hadn't he tried his hardest? That Gear...How was one supposed to defend against something like that? Why, Ramsus himself wouldn't have-
A shuddering groan echoed through the ship as it started to sag to one side. His balance shifted, and the man was forced to catch himself on one of the control panels to keep from falling. The metal was hot under his hands, and it hurt, but somehow his brain wasn't registering the pain. His eyes drifted downward and he raised his hands to view them with a dull sort of appreciation. The material of his gloves was burned to a golden brown and smelled a bit like scorched toast.
These gloves had never been white. No matter how often he washed them, they were made dull by the black powder that rubbed off from inspecting the guns. Parts had become a faint yellow from sweat. Here and there were traces of rust from bloodstains. These weren't the hands of a man who sat by and let others do the work for him. These were the hands of a warrior.
Ramsus' gloves were white, immaculate, perfect. No stains, no marks of hardship. He had flown through the ranks, kicking aside older, more experienced soldiers in his mad dash for power. Now he was at the top, and he hadn't even earned it.
The commander was a handsome man, with hair the color of wheat, a firm jaw, and eyes that always seemed to glimmer in a no-nonsense sort of manner. He was a fencer, or as the admiral put it, a dancer. Fancy sword moves and graceful gestures were as foreign to him as guns were to Ramsus. Swords seemed like a cheap, nonsensical way to win. Obviously not suited to a real warrior. They were too dainty, too flimsy. Nothing could match the feel of manning a missile turret or aiming a gattling gun at your enemy. Ramsus considered such methods crude, unintelligent, and base. But for the admiral, they were the very meat and bones of war.
Vanderkaum made no excuses for his own looks. He knew he was...unattractive, ape-like, unappealing to the fair sex. It was part of the reason he had the blue-gray cross tattooed on his face. People seemed to spend less time staring at him now. His body was bulky with muscles and, he admitted, some fat that age had decided to tack on around his gut. But he was still out here, manning his ship on the very front lines of battle while Ramsus played dignitary to Shakahn.
Yes, the commander was safe from the hell of war, living it up in the palace like a pampered animal that never had to fight for a single thing it was given.
How much do I hate you, Ramsus? You, with your airs and your aids and your arrogance...You stuck me out here as punishment for something I had no control over. You insulted my ability to fight. You gave me these idiots to serve under me. You may think that your so-called intellect can turn the tide of a war, but it's not as easy as all that, Commander. In the end, a war is won by the person who is the strongest, not the smartest. Sheer might will always overpower the weak, no matter how clever they think they are. And I'm going to prove that right now.
Yes, now everything was clear. Vanderkaum let his hands drop back to his sides, gazing at the dark view screen. It was cracked, and gave the occasional flicker of static, but he didn't need to see outside to know that the enemy Gears were still nearby. If the admiral eliminated them, Ramsus would have to see that he had been wrong in his estimation of Vanderkaum. Maybe he'd even get a new command post, or a new ship. Warming to such thoughts, the man felt his heart beat a littler faster.
How to beat them...how...? Ah, yes.
"Right," he murmured to himself, a feverish glow coming to his eyes. "I still have that...I still have that." In the twisted mess that was left of his rational thinking, a plan was developing, one that he felt sure would fix all his problems forever. He nodded to himself as he spoke, not realizing how truly mad he sounded, nor would he have cared if he knew. After this, no one would ever accuse him of being a lousy soldier ever again. "Yes...I still have that...I still have that."
Turning on his heel, he marched with quick, deliberate steps. Down the short flight of stairs, through the doorway where the smoke hunched down in wait for a fresh victim to suffocate with its toxins. He rush through the inky blackness, often stumbling into walls or parts that had fallen through in the earlier explosion. There were fires dancing their mad little jigs of destruction, licking scattered papers to ashes and melting iron like candy on their crimson tongues. Heat stroked Vanderkaum's neck and face like a possessive lover, stealing his precious air with each of his gasping, coughing breaths.
After a jog that seemed far too long to be real, he reached the hangar bay where the remaining Sand Trippers and Gigafeet loomed over his diminutive body. He was not a small man, by any means, but beside the mechanical giants, he might as well have been a silly brown beetle. But these weapons were not what he had come for. No, what he wanted was the specialized suit, his suit, the only Gear he would ever consider piloting.
The ugly, hulking thing resembled its owner to the letter. The soldiers often joked how both were hard-shelled, strong-willed, and slow. To Vanderkaum, who never once thought to ponder why they said this about him, the brutish machine seemed like a goddess. She was his only love, the only thing as close to a woman as he could call his own.
"Dora," he whispered, rubbing his burned left palm over one of the claws. "My beauty. Let's go into battle together. We'll show him. We'll show that bastard Ramsus just what we're made of!"
Hitting the cockpit release button, the hatch slid open and he clambered up into the pilot seat. Hitting a few of the necessary buttons and switches, the Dora powered up and closed the hatch. The hangar bay door was blocked by a rubble pile of broken Sand Trippers that had been destroyed as they tried to return to the ship. It would take too long to drag it all away.
"So, we'll use the direct route!" Taking hold of the joystick, Vanderkaum adjusted the angle of his guns and let loose with a large volley of bullets. No good. The rubble shifted a bit, but not enough to squeeze through. "How about this?"
His thumb hit the cannon control button and fired. Light reflected off of the metal surfaces everywhere, creating a momentary rainbow-like distortion before the rubble was blasted to smaller pieces of scrap, along with part of the wall. The Dora shuffled it's way through the dust and the smoke until the camera lens could detect three enemy Gears.
"I knew you wouldn't run," the man said under his breath as he flipped on the communications system. He wanted them to know just who it was they were going to deal with. "I will kill you!" The beast was awake, and the Dora emitted a savage cry as shrieking joints, long disused, moved to life.
At first things seemed to go as planned. The red gears were no match against the armor of the Dora, and their puny attacks bounced right off. Even the slender, blue-black Gear was having a tough time. Victory seemed inevitable. And then, a lucky strike caused the head cover to break off.
Inside the cockpit, Vanderkaum felt the blood drain from his face. In his gloves, his palms were drenched with a cold sweat. "W-what?! This can't be happening! The Dora was built to withstand even the harshest assault!" In desperation, he used the claws to grab hold of the two red gears, and jabbed the cannon's firing button with his thumb so hard that his knuckle kept popping.
The slender enemy Gear rocked back on it's heels from the force of the blast, the feet leaving furrows in the soft sand as it recoiled. The tattooed face broke into a pleased smirk as he saw some of the paint crack and peel from the front of the machine's shoulders and torso, leaving behind pale strips of silver metal that looked like nothing so much as wounds.
He knew the other fighter wouldn't attack so long as he held the two other soldiers captive. However, such a cheap tactical ploy would not be tolerated. He could win this fight without resorting to such cowardly methods. With contemptuous flicks, the Dora hurled the red Gears to the sand. There they skidded to a halt and floundered like broken toys to get up.
Without warning, the thin gear raced up and performed a devastating series of punches and kicks which virtually shook Vanderkaum's very bones. He heard the sound of his camera lens cracking. The Dora shuddered, the sad wail of straining metal and tearing wires echoing over the dunes as it crashed to the ground in a flurry of blue electrical currents.
For a moment, he couldn't move. Some of the current had shot up his legs and they felt numb and heavy. He felt like screaming, crying, beating his head against the lifeless console until sweet oblivion claimed him. He had thus been twice defeated, and by the same person.
It's not fair! Life is against me. I...I just wish that I could have been stronger. Maybe I would have won then. Maybe...
He could see Ramsus's face as it had been on that day. There was contempt in his eyes and in his voice as he had called Vanderkaum a fool to his face. "Know when to use that big gun, and on whom! You failed because you try to solve everything with force. You have muscles instead of brains."
The helpless man gave an almost spasmodic shake of his head. "Uh...I..." A flash of yellow light seemed to pass through his field of vision, and the sight of it made him feel dizzy.
"Do you want the power?" a voice asked.
Forcing his stiff lips to obey, the man managed to grate out, "Wh-who are you?!"
An imposing Gear descended from the sky. It swooped down in a graceful dive before angling upward sharply. It came to a contented hover in front of the cockpit of the Dora and crossed its arms. All this, the man could see through the distorted image his camera lens was giving him. Somewhere inside, his brain said that he should be afraid, very afraid, but his awe was overwhelming him. He was, after all, a simple man.
"I am Grahf," the speaker said. "The seeker of power. Doth thou desire the power?" Deep, cold, commanding. The sound of that voice made goosebumbs raise all along Vanderkaum's body, partly in fear, partly in excitement. Was this an offering? But who was this strange man, and why had he come to help Vanderkaum now? Could he be trusted?
What am I thinking? I don't know this person. He has no affiliation with me or my army. But yet, a part of the wounded soldier's brain twitched at the mention of that one word, the one he never could seem to get his fill of...
"The power..." he croaked. The words were cautious, questioning.
Grahf's reply was smooth, deadly, but to a man who had given up all hope of living a life filled with glorious victories, it was a lifeline cast out to him in his sea of despair. "Yes," the man echoed. "The power."
Vanderkaum wondered if this Grahf was an angel of death sent to take him to the afterlife. His vision was wavering in and out, and his throat wasn't working so good now as he stuttered over the words. "P-power....the power..."
But what do you want from me? he asked in the silent recesses of his mind. What is it that you will gain by helping? The admiral didn't know why, but somehow he knew that the watching stranger could hear him. Maybe it was his imagination, but he felt as if he could see the cold, cold eyes that went through is own and into his brain, touching his thoughts with an intimacy that made him feel both violated and dizzy. Queasy. He moaned and let his head roll against the back of the seat, fighting against the nausea and a flush of warmth over his face like a fever.
I can help you achieve that which you seek. I am the giver, and you are the ricipient. You have been chosen. I ask again, do you want the power?
A half sob, half laugh choked him. He felt delirious. I don't understand! The power to do what? Save myself? Defeat my enemies? The touch on his mind began to withdraw, but not before leaving behind an image and four words.
The power to destroy.
Burned into his eyes was the sight of himself standing tall on a pile of bodies. Some belonged to the stupid peasants who dared to oppose him, and some were of the underlings who had served him without bothering to conceal their contempt for his methods. But at the peak, under his booted foot, was a glint of gold. A blonde head splashed with blood and eyes that stared sightlessly. A body impaled on its owner's own sword. Ramsus.
This is who I was meant to be, he thought in a dreamy state. A god of war. No one would laugh at me then, or try to tell me that might doesn't make right. I could cut down those who got in my way with a mere sweep of my hand.
The tattooed man stretched out a hand, reaching to pluck the forbidden fruit the serpent was offering. "I want it..." he gasped. Vanderkaum forced the words out, clenching his teeth down hard to make himself enunciate each word, each syllable. "I want the POWER!"
"So be it!" A flash of light and Grahf's Gear gathered red energy into the right hand. "My fist is the divine breath! Blossom oh fallen seed, and draw upon thy hidden powers!" Slowly, the fist stretched out and rotated so that the palm was facing the Dora. The red glow was now brighter than ever. "Grant unto thee the power of the glorious 'Mother of Destruction'!" Red energy flew out of the Gear's palm and engulfed the Dora with its light.
Vanderkaum stared into the illumination for as long as he could, but the intensity only made his eyes hurt. He gave a loud groan, certain that this was all some sort of trick and he was now being vaporized into oblivion. However, there was no feeling of pain, only the sudden tingle of...energy? Testing his limbs he felt a surge of adrenaline, a feeling that made him giddy on the rush of it all. He could move again, and every muscle jerk or tendon flex gave its own unique sensation. Never before had he felt so alive!
He looked up with a wide grin, ready to thank Grahf for what he had done. But the mysterious Gear was gone, and with it, its strange, benevolent pilot. He had left without so much as a farewell or a chance to be asked what he had done. He had simply vanished into thin air.
"Is this it?" the soldier whispered to himself, looking down at his messy gloves, seeing how each thread was interconnected over the others, woven together into a perfect harmony with each other. "Is this the power?"
He moved his gaze away from his hands to the control panels. They were alive with light, unusual light, not the normal type he'd always been used to when using the machine. Now, the colored gauges were darker, more ominous in appearance, as if the they were only a trick of the mind or a ghostly illusion.
Fine rays of greenish energy seeped all over the place, looking like tendrils of electricity. Yet as they moved over his body, Vanderkaum felt only increasingly rejuvenated and alert. All his senses seemed to be heightened. He could feel every fiber of clothing against his skin, the silky smooth texture of the leather seat against his back, the metal under his boots. His sight was so sharp and clear that even the distorted images on his cracked view screen could not affect him. His hearing could detect the rushing sound of the wind hissing against the sand outside the Dora, and could smell the sun-baked dust of it even through the thick metal and glass cockpit walls. He licked a drop of sweat from his upper lip and gave a twisted smile at the bitter salt tang of it on his tongue.
Yes, this was what he had always wanted. This was the very thing he had always sought to attain, that ultimate high that no drug could duplicate. Raw, unadulterated power. The energy to crush whole mountains into dust. A laugh bubbled at the back of the man's throat.
Look at me now, Ramsus. In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine such a thing?
The three Gears had become four, and they were no doubt in shock of what they had witnessed, unsure of what to do. One of the red ones turned to the others and looked to be sharing a transmission. Too bad it was about to be cut short. Powering up a blast, his cannon fired a ray of blue energy, hitting the red Gear. All that was left of it was a fine dust that soon scattered on the wind.
Opening a channel, Vanderkaum said, "You there...What're you doing ignoring me and messing around...?" He wanted to fight. This new strength could not be left unexplored. He had to try it out! "I'll kill all of you!" He gave them a demonstration of the type of opponent they'd be up against, showering the ground with waves of blue energy. There was a brief pause and the remaining two red Gears charged at him.
It was easy work to dispatch of them this time. He captured them in his claws, crushing metal like paper, rending off limbs and armor plates till the ground resembled the aftermath of a child's model kit gone horribly wrong. All the while, the slender Gear stood helpless, watching their friends being killed as slowly and painfully as possible.
Paralyzed with fear, no doubt, he thought, finishing off the last of his attackers. Now for dessert. He had barely taken two steps when the slender Gear seemed to go berserk. It rushed him, delivering hard punches and kicks. Mental dented. Parts flew through the air as they were broken off. Oil and gas leaked over the sand like spilled blood. The cockpit windows cracked and glass started to rain down on his head. The cannon was ripped from the body of the Dora, leaving behind a gaping wound filled with hissing steam and terrible malfunctioning wires.
The machine was out of control. It danced and heaved its massive bulk in death throes that no powerful magic of Grahf's could ever hope of repairing. Vanderkaum could only hang on for the ride. He was tossed back and forth in the chair. A fast lurch to the side and his neck whipped to the right. There was a moment of sharp pain, and the sound of a bone popping out of place in his neck before all feeling went dead from the shoulders down. His body slumped in the chair, no longer able to do anything for itself. The enemy Gear grabbed onto the Dora with a strength that only the superhuman posses and held it immobile.
"Who....arrrrre....you?" The words came out slurred and a thick dribble of saliva dripped from the corner of Vanderkaum's mouth. A scratchy transmission came over the intercom, leaves scraping over a headstone.
"Your worst fucking nightmare, dead man."
The Dora squeaked and moaned, popping more joints in a last ditch effort to escape the vice-like grip. Little did the beast know it was already dead. Placing a foot against the side, the enemy Gear tore the engine out. Everything shuddered as the main power source was cut off. The engine ran for a few minutes longer, a heartbeat of life growing fainter by the second. And then...nothing.
There was a moment of utter still as the slender Gear dropped the now useless piece of scrap to the sand. The last thing Vanderkaum ever saw was the impression of red hair behind the cockpit glass of the enemy machine, and a cruel, mocking smile.
Not too much time had passed before another visited that area, though not by choice. Citan walked the Heimdal closer to the burned-out shell of what used to a combat Gear. He stared at it with a mixture of worry and pity. The calling card was the same. Destruction was the only thing left behind where "he" had passed.
Shaking his head, the doctor was about to move out when something caught his eye in the wreckage. It was a white scrap of cloth, a torn glove that was missing two of the fingers, blowing gently away across the sand on the wind.