Famous Last Words
“That’s what we Ninebreakers have become.
We used to be known as the strongest, most skilled fighters.
Honourable men and women who could be counted on to do the right thing. But now?
Now we are little more than animals on a leash.
Monsters who corrupt others to become monsters themselves.
I am the fifth Ninebreaker.
I will be the last.”
Berlioz Lamond, 2112
Raven’s Ark, Hangar
The sound of rapturous cheering and applause filled the transporter hold as the ramp ahead of him slowly fell. As the brilliant lights of the Ark hold hit his eyes, Berlioz Lamond raised an arm to shield himself from the glare.
The audience was the more unexpected part of the experience. The fact that a crowd of over a hundred Ark staff were currently whooping and clapping was still somewhat unreal. As he began to step forwards he could make out what some of the voices were actually saying.
“S-Rank! Nice one!”
“You fucking rock man!”
S-Rank? Had he actually done it? Berlioz knew that he was approaching the point of overtaking the current No.5 and S-Rank Raven, Julius Emery, but apparently he had been far closer than originally thought. He’d have to pay closer attention to the leaderboards from now on.
Everyone knowing his advance into the S-Ranks wasn’t uncommon. For the regular rank ups, it was kept between the Raven and the Operator for that particular mission. They would notify the Raven if their position had increased or decreased as and when it happened. But for someone to pass into the elite S-Rank, it was a given that the general population of the Ark would be told of this rare occasion.
The people here had little to cheer for these days, at least an internal event like this could be celebrated without the niggling guilt in the back of your mind that someone else paid for your jubilance with their life.
Berlioz had barely taken a step off the ramp when people were reaching out to shake his hand, pat his back, wide beaming smiles on their faces as they herded him forwards.
Hangar staff wormed their way through the crowd to get to the transporters hold as Berlioz’s AC was due for its regular maintenance.
The Armored Core [????] used a Rayleonard 003-AALIYAH frame which required frequent tuning and repair due to the high stress put on the machine’s structure and components. Rayleonard’s frame was favoured by Ravens who fought using extremely fast manoeuvres in close-quarters battles against numerous opponents. Its speed and power came at a cost as only the more successful Ravens could afford to keep it running.
A loud booming voice echoed through the hangar over the speaker system, he recognised it as Governor Desmond Archambault, the man who led the Ravens, “Congratulations Berlioz, you have advanced from position No.6 to No.5, entering the S-Rank category. I hope to see your success continue into the future.”
At that, the crowd’s cheering renewed with a vigour. Part of him felt bad for Julius, as his accent into the No.5 position would displace her back into the A-Rank category. She would likely lose the exclusive contract that she held with Rayleonard in a few days and all the privileges that came with it.
But right now, that wasn’t his primary concern. Trying to make his way to his debriefing on time was the more important problem at hand. He needed to part the crowd somehow.
“Alright guys,” He tried to raise his voice, “I need to get going! I really appreciate this but I have a debriefing to get to!”
To say this was ineffective would be an understatement as it took him another fifteen minutes to escape the hangar. However once he was in the elevator to the upper floors, Berlioz took the time to breathe deeply.
He’d done it, he had entered the elite position all Ravens aimed for, second only to the coveted position that the No.1 held. The person at the very top held the title that inspired both respect and fear in all those who fought on the battlefield.
Ninebreaker. The Ninebreaker was the most powerful Raven in existence, a title that without fail had only passed to its next owner at the demise of the previous. The current Ninebreaker and No.1 Raven was Wynne D. Fanchon, pilot of the AC Reiterpallasch. She was exclusively contracted by Leonemeccanica who were the leading Corporation and had held the Ninebreaker title for over four years, the
He’d seen her on the Ark a handful of times but never actually spoken to her. The position and title she held alone was enough to command an intimidating presence. Trying to speak to her would be like trying to hold small talk with royalty.
Berlioz felt his insides shift with the deceleration of the elevator as it came to a halt, the doors sliding open silently.
The sterile interior of the Ark’s upper levels stretched on and on as he worked his way through endless corridors, looking for the room that his Operator was waiting in.
It was only a few minutes and several wrong doors later that he found the correct room. Chiming the door speaker he cleared his throat before saying, “This is Berlioz, reporting for debriefing?”
There was only a short pause before a reply came back, “Ah! Berlioz, please do come in.” The sound of the door unlocking clicked before it slid open. It was a small, dimly lit room, the only furnishings being a plain desk at one end and four or five chairs scattered about in front of it.
The sole occupant was an older woman who looked to be in her late thirties or forties, black hair flecked with grey and wrinkles lining her dark skin. Wearing a white dress shirt, he could see a black blazer draped over the chair she was sitting in, the glinting of an Operator’s badge on the lapel catching his eye.
She gestured to the seat closest to the desk with one hand, the other, a mechanical prosthetic holding a tablet computer. “Please, take a seat Berlioz.” Her voice was soft but he couldn’t tell if he could hear hints of what sounded like excitement.
“Thank you,” he said quietly before taking the seat indicated. It wasn’t exactly comfortable but he didn’t expect to be long, he checked his watch.
Thirty minutes? I should have time.
The Operator cleared her throat, “Now, I’m going to get the obvious out of the way as I’m sure you know by now, but your performance in this mission was enough to push yourself into the No.5 position and the S-Rank category. You’re now eligible to sign an exclusive contract with a Corporation if one is offered to you.”
He nodded as she spoke. She was correct in that this was everything he already knew. She continued, sliding her fingers up the tablet, “You achieved all primary and secondary objectives and sustained minimal damage. Your expenditure was also low, the operation review board has seen fit to give you an S-Rank for this mission.”
This wasn’t the first S-Rank he’d been given for a mission, but they weren’t exactly common, he usually averaged A’s or the occasional B for the more difficult missions.
“Regarding payment, BFF’s reward for the mission was seven hundred and fifty thousand credits, your expenditures on repair and refit come to thirty nine thousand credits, leaving a total profit of seven hundred and eleven thousand credits. You should find the amount in your account in the next half hour or so.”
She smiled warmly at him, an unlikely act from the majority of Operators who typically came across as detached and mechanical. A side effect of having to work in a job that occasionally meant listening to those under your care dying.
Berlioz returned the smile after a slight pause, “Thank you, I appreciate it. Was there anything else that needed to be discussed?” He checked his watch visibly to both see the time and also to give the Operator the impression that he was in a hurry.
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow at that, “Do you have some prior obligation?”
Berlioz gave a wry grin and looked away, scratching the back of his head, “Yeah, sort of. I’ve got someone waiting for a call from me.”
“A special someone? You know I don’t know of a single happy relationship that involved Ravens, you ought to be careful you know.”
Her heart was in the right place but she was way off the mark. Berlioz waved his hand dismissively, “It’s nothing like that, you don’t need to worry.”
There was a pause before she nodded and looked back down at her tablet, like she was trying to work out if he was lying or not.
“I see, well everything here checks out. There were no issues during the mission and there were no queries from BFF regarding the operation so I think that’s everything.”
Berlioz stood up from the seat, leaving it where it was as there was nowhere to tuck it in. Taking a look back at the Operator from the door he said “Thank you very much again.” Before leaving, shutting the door behind him.
Over seven hundred thousand? That’s a nice windfall, I’ll have to remember to send what’s left to the savings account.
He’d set up a second account in his name when his incoming began to far outstrip his outgoings. As a Raven, particularly a highly active one, he didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate many luxuries. The excess funds were put away in case anything happened.
Checking his watch again, he saw that he still had fifteen minutes until he was needed, enough time to get back to his room but perhaps not enough to get changed. That wasn’t a huge problem, getting changed wasn’t absolutely necessary but it would have been nice to get out of the now well-worn jumpsuit and into something a little more comfortable.
Berlioz began the walk back to the elevator as the personnel quarters were on the lower levels in the outer most layers of the Ark’s structure. His own quarters were designed only for a single occupant as he had quickly found living with others to be disruptive and moved out of the shared accommodation he had been put into after passing training.
As it was coming up to the time that the regular staff would have their dinner, the walkways were busier than usual with most people heading in the general direction of the cafeteria.
It was strange sometimes, hearing people talking about mundane things like what their parents were up to, how much the cost of food had changed for the better or worse, if some character in a TV show was going to survive the current season.
He’d made the mistake of dedicating himself to missions and little else, meaning even the few people he’d spoken to in training quickly forgot him as he passed on social events and gatherings to make more money.
That was a long time ago now, over six years at this point. He’d been on the Ark for 6 years now and didn’t have a single person to call ‘friend’. His dedication had cost him dearly, but he could cope with that.
Finally making his way to his quarters he input the code on the door lock, stepping inside immediately after the door opened. Taking a minute to peel his boots off, enjoying the feeling of being free of them, he checked his watch again.
Five minutes left… But… Walking to the closed laptop computer on the desk in his bedroom, he opened it and the screen flashed to life. Instantly, he was made aware of two things.
One, he had three missed calls in the last seven minutes.
Two, there was an incoming call right this very second.
Pulling the chair out from under the desk, he sat down with a long sigh and a small smile on his face.
Answering the call, Berlioz was greeted by the scowling face of his younger sister Alicia, “You’re late, asshole.”
He took the time to slowly roll up his jumpsuit sleeve in a dramatic fashion, making a big deal of looking at the watch on his right wrist and saying, “Actually, sister dearest, you’re early. Still three minutes until six thirty by my watch.”
She reached off camera and brought a small digital desktop clock in front of her face pointing at the time it displayed. “Actually,” she repeated in a mocking imitation of his own voice, “You’re nearly ten minutes late, as you can see. You need a new watch.”
Exactly as she said, the clock she held now displayed six thirty eight. His watch was an old mechanical piece, he didn’t know the brand or its material worth, but as far as he was concerned, it was invaluable.
He took it off and held it in front of the camera on his laptop in the same way she did with the digital clock.
“Oh? You want me to replace this? Well I guess I could…”
He got an instant reaction, “Woah shit, you still have that? I’d have thought it got smashed up years ago.”
Berlioz slipped the watch back on and fastened the metal clasp. Of course she’d assume that it would have been broken by now, she’d given it to him roughly six years ago as a present for passing the Raven’s training course.
What he didn’t mention was the fact that it actually had been broken a couple of years back, but he’d paid probably three times the watch’s value to get it repaired.
Alicia set the clock down and reclined in her seat, spinning a pen between her fingers, “So,” she began, swivelling in the chair, “You look like you’re still at work, did you just get back?”
He nodded, “Yeah, I thought I might have time to get changed but apparently I was running ten minutes behind.”
Absentmindedly, she put the pen in her mouth, chewing the end, “Huh, sorry about that. Was it a rough day?”
The expression on Alicia’s face was innocent enough, but as a nineteen year old student at Rayleonard’s top university, she wasn’t an idiot. She knew what his line of work was.
Back then, when he passed the training, he’d struggled to try and explain what exactly it was that he would be doing day in and day out. The concept of killing for money wasn’t a pleasant one. When he’d been in the Rayleonard armed forces, she’d been too young to really understand the bigger picture.
In the end, she did the work for him after she told him that she already knew what the Ravens did. It was probably the thing he was most grateful for, that she accepted him despite the things he did.
At first, she had openly expressed concern for the fact that one day he might not make it home, but his experience in the military meant that he quickly proved that he was safe enough for the time being. She might not mention it anymore, but he suspected the reason she made the request for these calls every other day was so she could make sure he was still alive.
“It was a little hairy at times but I came out with a decent paycheck. Nothing to worry about really. How’s class going?”
She slumped in her seat, “God I hate it, I know I need to do it but couldn’t they make it a little more interesting? Sometimes I wonder if you chose the better career path.”
He wouldn’t admit it but her saying that felt wrong considering how well she was doing on her end. She was studying biochemistry and anatomy to become a surgeon, her hands were destined to save lives, not end them.
The inverse nature of their lives wasn’t lost on him.
“It might be a little boring but I think you’re going to do more good in this world than I am. Also I like the idea of you not being shot at every day.”
He was trying his best to not make it sound like he was coddling her, but Alicia could on occasion be as stubborn as him. Thankfully today she appeared to yield without much effort.
“I guess that makes sense, but I’m sure there are a lot of people still alive because of what you have to do.”
Maybe, but I don’t tell you how many die either.
Berlioz shifted in his seat, “Perhaps, I don’t like to think about it too much.” Turning off during a fight was something that he’d started doing towards the end of his military service, it came in handy when he became a Raven.
They continued talking for another twenty minutes or so until Alicia had to go back to her studies. Berlioz didn’t mind so much as his bed was looking particularly inviting after spending over two hours in the cramped space of his AC’s cockpit. Sometimes you had no choice but to sleep in the small seat, but he’d held off on the broken slumber for the opportunity for something a little more comfortable.
Eventually being able to drag the jumpsuit off, he crawled under the covers, not bothering to set an alarm. He could check the mission posting board when he woke up, no need to look now as the listing could be completely different by the time he got up again.
For now, the best thing for him to do was to close his eyes, and sleep.
The sound of Berlioz’s door alarm was what woke him, someone repeatedly pushing the button every five seconds. He lifted his right wrist above his face, wincing at the pain and waited for the watch face to slowly focus in his bleary vision.
Six… Six twenty three? Shit…
He’d ended up sleeping for nearly twelve hours, an extremely rare occurrence these days. Normally he wouldn’t allow himself to sleep in that long but obviously he needed the extra rest. However extra rest was no longer on the table as the door alarm continued to ring out through the quarters.
Almost every joint in his body hurt. The price he paid for his over-enthusiastic acceptance of mission requests. It was a similar issue to the one that twenty first century fighter jet pilots suffered after years of pulling high-G manoeuvres, their bodies began to wear down at an accelerated rate, losing the strength in their muscles and joints. The speed at which Armored Cores moved, particularly those using high speed frames like the 03-AALIYAH, subjected Ravens to G-forces in nearly all three dimensions, peaking around eleven to thirteen g’s.
The Ark medical staff had warned Berlioz that he likely only had a year of unsupported movement before he’d need a walking stick or cane to remain upright without someone to help him. If he carried on regardless, within a few years, he wouldn’t be able to move without a constant dosage of painkillers.
Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to hear him through the door, he ignored the alarm and pulled himself out of bed, picking up a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a plain white t-shirt.
He wasn’t going to dress up for strangers at his door with no forewarning. It took him a few seconds to get to the door, turning on the external speaker.
“Yes? Can I help you?” There was only a second before the reply came back. It was a woman’s voice, sounding clear and confident.
“My name is Ms. Sanders, Is this the quarters of Berlioz?” He could hear her trail off slightly as she realised there was no second name. He’d deliberately gone to the trouble of scrubbing his surname from all public records the moment he became a Raven. Stories had been told of personal attacks against the families and relatives of Ravens when their targets survived and came back for revenge.
The thought of Alicia getting caught up in something like that terrified him, so every precaution was taken to ensure her safety. Not even the family that had raised her for most of her life knew her real surname.
“Yeah,” He said quietly. “Who’s asking?” Berlioz had turned the door monitor on so he could see who he was speaking too. At the front was the woman he assumed he was Ms. Sanders, behind her was a man, both wearing jet black suits with deep crimson ties. He couldn’t make it out on the man, but on Ms. Sander’s blazer lapel was a small red pin in the shape of Rayleonard’s symbol, a long red line with a loop at the end, another short red line going vertically through the loop.
“You could say that we are part of an interested party who would like to make you an offer, may we speak with you inside?”
So far they seemed legit, but he wasn’t going to let anyone just stroll in. “Do you have any official identification?”
He could almost see the annoyance flicker across her face as she turned slightly to look back at her partner. The man reached into his blazer and handed over a small plastic card, before crossing his arms and looking away from the monitor.
Ms. Sanders held up both cards to let Berlioz see them. He took the time to look at them closely. Both Ms. Sanders and Mr. Kingshott were apparently from Rayleonard’s Experimental Research and Development, the AkvaVit group. AkvaVit was the division of Rayleonard’s R&D that handled the creation and improvement of theoretical and prototypical weapons and equipment.
Rayleonard’s most advanced weapons were designed, built and tested by AkvaVit scientists. The fact that they were visiting him begged several questions.
“Is everything in order?” Ms. Sanders asked calmly, despite the fact she was clearly irritated that he’d drawn this entire procedure out.
Berlioz didn’t want to have to deal with whatever it was they wanted but having taken the time to make them identify themselves, he felt somewhat obligated to hear them out.
“Yeah alright, door’s opening.”
He switched off both the monitor and the speaker, unlocking the door and allowing them to enter, stepping aside as they came into the hallway.
“Thank you Berlioz, I apologise for arriving unannounced. I hope we didn’t interrupt anything important?”
He shook his head, “No, nothing important.” Leading the pair into the small living/dining room, he offer them a seat on the sofa against the far wall, “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”
They both sat down as Berlioz went to the kitchen area, “Can I offer you anything to drink?” He asked more out of politeness than an actual desire to serve them.
Mr. Kingshott was silent but Ms. Sanders replied, “No, thank you.” Berlioz nodded before pulling a glass out of the cupboard above his sink and pouring himself some water.
Returning to the room where the two representatives were, he lowered himself slowly into a plain leather armchair.
He was about to speak when Ms. Sanders beat him to it, “You walk with a slight limp, old injury?”
The question caught him off-guard for a moment, “Huh? Oh, no it’s not. A side effect of the job. Joint erosion.” He took a careful sip of his water, now very aware of the subtle ache in his fingers.
“Oh, my apologies.” She looked away slightly, Berlioz took the opportunity to speak, setting down his glass.
“So,” he began, leading back into the armchair, “What brings AkvaVit and Rayleonard here to the Ark?”
Ms. Sanders turned to her partner, who pulled a small unmarked envelope out of his blazer’s inside pocket, handing it to her who in turn, passed it to Berlioz. “You’ll find all the details you need in there.”
Giving her a slightly confused glance, he peeled open the envelope and pulled out the single folded piece of paper. He began reading.
To whom this may concern,
You have been selected to participate in a special testing program hosted by Rayleonard and the AkvaVit Research Group.
This program is to improve the capabilities of Rayleonard’s 03-AALIYAH Armored Core frame. As a noted regular user of the 03-AALIYAH frame and as an A-Rank or higher Raven, you have been selected to participate.
For your time and effort, upon your acceptance, an advanced payment of two million credits will be forwarded to your account, with a later payment of ten million credits should you complete the program.
Additional bonuses will be discussed further upon your arrival.
Please inform the representatives that delivered this message of your decision as soon as possible.
Berlioz reread the letter again before folding it back up and putting it back into the envelope. He let out a long sigh before looking at the two representatives.
“Do I have to give an answer right now?”
The two million upfront was a sizable amount to give for simply accepting this program. But if the mission board was favourable, he could make that amount in a week.
It was Mr. Kingshott that spoke this time, “You’re not obligated to answer now, but the number of slots available in the program are limited as Rayleonard’s own in-house test pilots are also participating alongside any Ravens that accept.”
Ms. Sanders followed up with, “Meaning that it’s in your best interest to either accept or decline now to secure a place.”
He wanted more time to think it over, perhaps to discuss it with Alicia to see what she thought of the whole thing. But apparently they wanted an answer there and then, despite the offer to wait.
“Can I ask how exactly this is going to work? I don’t want to accept this blindly.”
Ms. Sander’s glanced to her partner before answering, “Shortly after accepting, we will take you to an underground testing range that we built for this program. The entire testing process should take roughly three months. The facility will provide you with everything you need during your stay. I’m afraid at this stage those are all the details I can provide at this time.”
He had only just advanced to S-Rank, did he really need to push himself at this stage? Would he be seen as reaching too far too fast?
“Berlioz?” Ms. Sanders looked expectantly at him. Berlioz flipped the letter in his hands for a second until he came to a decision, passing it back to her.“Ok, I’m in.”