Five: The Prowler

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Report: Quinn
The interior of Dropship 0-13.
Russian airspace.

The metallic-grate flooring of the catwalk dug into my knees as I landed, gasping for breath. You never noticed how suffocating it was inside a mech until you were outside once more. I stood shakily, slick with sweat and laughed, raising my arms and enjoying the cool air on my skin.

Below me hung the Prototype. The mech's once mirror-smooth armor was scuffed and chipped, pitted with dents from bullets and other projectiles. The Prototype's one remaining plasma launcher, a bulbous cannon with a rear-mounted holding tank, was scratched and bent. The other launcher, however, was much worse for wear. A twisted hunk of metal hung limp, emitting sparks as power ran uselessly through the crippled unit. Lucas wouldn't be pleased.

Judging by the string of curses that burst from the cockpit of the dropship, he was already in a bad mood.

The dropship itself was a tiny unit, with space enough for several mechs. Though I referred to the dropship as my own, in reality it belonged to Lucas, who cared for it deeply. I piloted the robots in battle, he piloted the transport that brought me there.

We made a hell of a team.

My boots clattered against the loose metal flooring as I marched up the stairs out of the hangar, through the adjoining airlock and into the cockpit.

As I stepped through the metal door and into the spacious cockpit, an old recording began to play. Old twentieth-century music saved for years on a disk called a 'CD'. Lucas' favorite songs. The youngest Stonewood brother had a shorter fuse than his brother, but music seemed to help. I'd heard that Lucas had been an aspiring pianist before the Iron War. Usually he played the songs himself, but there wasn't much space for a piano on a dropship.

There wasn't much space for anything on a dropship.

War took precedent above leisure.

I plopped down in the copilot's and propped my feet up on the navigation console.

"So," I said, quietly, "we didn't die. I’d consider that a success."

The music stopped.

Lucas Stonewood spun his chair around slowly, reminding me of the villain in a sci-fi movie I loved when I was young. His short stature kept him from being physically intimidating, but the scowl plastered across his face was menacing enough.

"A success?" He growled, leaning forwards in his seat until his brown eyes were inches from mine.

"You damaged the Prototype, drew fire from every mech on the battlefield, killed another pilot and violated the rules of war in the span of an hour."

I played my best card.

"New record!" I smiled.

It worked for a moment. Lucas chuckled and relaxed for a second, but the smile disappeared just as quickly.

"When the hell are we going to find the time to manufacture a new plasma launcher?" he sighed. "I will not stoop to equipping a lead shield. We don't need one."

I frowned. He had a point. That missing weapon severely unbalanced the Prototype. Without a replacement, piloting it would be a challenge.

"We'll survive,” I smiled, “I can reattach one of the machine guns we started with."

Lucas raised an eyebrow.

"We?” He chuckled. “That's assuming you survive General Mallet when she finds out you were exposed. Those enemy pilots got a good look at the Prototype while you were escaping- who knows if they got close enough to snap a photo?"

I had forgotten about that.

Every mech destroyed, though often unsalvageable, could be scanned and reverse-engineered slowly but surely. Some of the more common mechs, like the tiny TCC Regiment I had been piloting earlier, were easy to duplicate. Their designs were cheap and easy to manufacture, but other mechs needed specialized parts that were unique. Rebuilding them was difficult, but possible.

Then there was the Exodus. Nobody knew how it worked, because anyone close enough to get a good photo usually ended up in pieces, or worse. Because of its rarity nobody could duplicate it, meaning its origins remained as mysterious as ever.

Lucas' frown brought me back to the present.

Faking a casual smile I pulled the coin from my pocket and began tossing it from hand to hand, enjoying the shimmer it made mid-flight.

“No need to worry, Luke,” I lied, "I doubt they'll be able to remake the Prototype for a long time."

Lucas huffed, seemingly placated, and turned back to the dropship controls.

"I'm also sick of calling it the Prototype," he added.

"I'll call it John," I responded, thoughtlessly.

My attention was on the coin as it balanced on the tip of my index finger. Lucas spun in his chair to face me again, and the breeze from his movement was enough to tip the coin off my hand and into my lap. Lucas glared at me through a loose lock of blond hair.

“I’m serious,” he sighed, “name it or I will.”

I raised my hands in a position of surrender and slid the coin back into my pocket.

“Point made,” I said, “I’ll give it a name.”

Satisfied, Lucas turned back to his his controls.

I glanced back through the open door and into the hangar, where the Prototype hung from it’s mechanical arms, swaying gently.

"What shall I call you?" I mused.

Ten minutes later we arrived at our destination. Ten thousand feet above sea level, a few kilometers off the Atlantic coast of Canada. Home.

Lucas leaned into his headset’s microphone, his voice taking on a serious tone.

“This is Stonewood L, returning from an operation, over.”

There was radio silence for a few moments as Lucas listened to some unknown voice through his comms headset. He nodded.

“On our way in. Deactivate retro-reflective camouflage.”

A moment later the sky outside the cockpit window seemed to shimmer. An immense shadow overtook our dropship and our base emerged from the clouds like it had been birthed by heaven itself.

Every time I saw the Firmament it took my breath away. It’s name did it justice. No larger vehicle had ever been manufactured. A hulking mass of hovering steel and metal easily ten times the size of a football field, packed with buildings. It was nothing short of a floating city, lifted miraculously by four gargantuan jet engines. The Firmament was the crown jewel of the Chinese-Canadian secret military, and our secret mobile base. Much like dropships held mechs inside them, the Firmament could hold seventeen dropships within its own, massive hangar and refuel and repair them mid-flight.

A small portion of the Firmament’s outer wall, easily the size of a tennis court itself, slid aside to reveal an opening into the floating platform’s inner workings. Large, white numbers etched into the ship’s metal door designated the area Hanger 0-13. Lucas grinned as our momentum slowed, and moments later we glided through the opening and into the Firmament.

As we pulled into Hanger 0-13 Lucas leaned back in his chair to catch my eye.

"So," he smiled, "what did you choose to call the Prototype?"

"It's stealthy, isn't it?" I grinned back. "Let's call it Prowler."

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