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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter Four: Trials Of Combat

(Third revision)

PERSONAL LOG: "James Z. Sinclair", Cmdr., 102nd Remote Division
0540 Local Time, TUESDAY, Feb. 12

Personal log, James. I... I don't know what to say. Is Reed's project a failure or a success?

The robotic frame -- Reed's "meta soldier", is functional now. I can't explain it. Reed can't explain it either, and he's the one who built that system. Is this the result of a freak accident, or did someone upstairs give him a hand?

-- I don't know. I'm tired. It's 5 in the morning and I'm getting some sleep.

It was midday, after an unusually thick morning snowfall, when Reed unveiled the result of his experiment, their new "metasoldier", and all staff were invited outside for a presentation and demonstration. James delayed a little bit in Ops, long enough to set up a video recording and put it on remote; shortly after he went downstairs and outside to watch it himself.

"I'm not a man for speeches, so this will be quick," Reed began. He then signalled to Mark, "Lieutenant Commander, you take over," and stepped down from the platform.

"What?" Mark questioned aloud. He shook his head. "Anyway.... um...," Mark stuttered, not having considered what he should say. "Okay." Mark pointed out into the snowfield. "Our morning crew has set up a few targets today for a standard marksman challenge." Mark picked up a targetting rifle -- little different in shape from a plasma rifle but designed for targetting rather than firepower -- and handed it to the robot.

The robot took the rifle and grasped it in its right arm, then inspected it carefully. It switched the rifle on and off, checked the battery level, and sighted off through the rifle's scope. Apparently, it needed no explanations as to the rifle's operations.

Mark pulled out a small remote, pointed it out into the snowfield, and entered a two-button command. An array of seven small, metallic targets popped up out of the snowfield, the nearest being about fifty feet and the farthest about two hundred.

Mark turned to the robot and gave it a simple query. "Do you know what to do?"

The robot looked back at Mark and nodded, indicating yes. Then, almost without warning, it switched the rifle back on, took aim at the nearest target, and pulled the rifle trigger. Instantly a light on the target lit up, indicating a successful "shot" from the targetting rifle. A split second later the robot took aim at the next target and painted it. Then the third and fourth, the fifth; no sooner than one could say "six" had it also painted the final two. All together, it had hit seven targets in nearly three seconds, a new base record.

Mark glanced to James. "Did you get that?"

"Yes, we got it," James nodded.

"Okay, then...," Mark began, as he took a few steps aside and picked up two dummy plasma cutters, the same ones they used for training. "Next, we will evaluate its duelling abilities." Mark tossed one of the cutters to the robot, and the robot caught it easily in one hand after setting the targetting rifle aside. Then the robot made a few practice swings with the blade, as if to warm up.

Mark nodded. "En garde!"

Mark stepped forward to attack the robot as it waited for him. But once within range, the robot quickly parried the move and countered, nearly hitting Mark in return. Then, gripping its blade in both hands, it charged forward in a frenzy. Mark backed up, quickly -- almost frantically -- deflecting blow after blow. He wasn't expecting that. Soon he was backed up to the base wall, nowhere else to retreat.

The robot seemed to smile, and backed off a few steps. It gestured for Mark to come closer.

Mark approached and attacked, anticipating for the robot to counter. He was right, but unable to take advantage of it -- the robot acted too swiftly, forcing Mark back without a hit. Mark needed a different tactic....

And soon he had one: Block and evade. As the robot closed the gap between them Mark deflected its attack and evaded to the side. For a moment he had an opening, but no sooner did he try exploiting it but the robt spotted it and jumped aside.

Mark repeated this tactic several times, through several of the robot's attacks. This time though, there weren't any openings he could exploit for an attack. So instead, after another deflect and evasive, Mark feinted a counterattack. The robot fell for it, and Mark quickly landed a hit against its shoulder plating while it was open.

Again, the robot seemed to smile at the hit. Now the robot attacked, but it was a feint as well. Mark swung at empty air and, realizing his error, quickly dodged to the side as the robot almost landed another hit. The robot tried again, feinting one, two, three moves one after the other. Then suddenly, when Mark was expecting another feint, it landed an hit on Mark's arm.

Mark held his hand up to yield. "Okay, that's enough. You win"

The robot nodded and tossed the blade aside.

"That shall do, for now," Reed spoke up. "I don't know about you but the air out here is a bit chilly. Let's head back in."

Roger that. Mark picked up the other dummy plasma cutter from the ground and called for the midday crew to retrieve the targets from the snowfield. Reed escorted the robot back inside while the other soldiers dispersed silently. Mark and James were the final two to head back in. "So, how was it?"

Mark shook his head, a bit bewildered. "The robot fights well. But, there's something strange about it. Its choice of moves, tactics...."

"Yes?" James wondered.

"I don't know. It's -- it's like the robot has taken a few pages from Adrius's book of tactics. Could've sworn I was fighting old Silver Phoenix and not some machine."

Later that day, after finishing a conversation with Reed about the new robot -- specifically, why the robot did not speak -- James stopped by the practice arena to see what was up. Two of Mark's men were currently practicing maneuvers against each other, while Mark was sitting at the console, monitoring the performance and giving an occasional bit of advice.

Mark noticed James as he entered. "Ah, Jim. Nice of you to drop by. Since you're here, there's a question I want to ask you. More of a favor, actually...."

"Fire away," James granted, not expecting what Mark was about to ask.

"I want to fight you."

"What?" James responded as his train of thought hit an obstacle and de-railed.

"C'mon, Jim," Mark said as he stood up and walked over to one of the lockers. "I've got some time for it, and you must have too, otherwise you wouldn't have stopped in. Right?"

"Well....," James thought. Mark was right about having some time, but James didn't feel like having a duel. He never did.

"You can be my sparring partner," Mark said as he picked out two practice weapons from the lockers. He offered one to James, handle first.

"No thanks," James waved back at Mark.

"Take it."


The hint of a smile dropped from Mark's face as he became serious. "Fine then, I'll say it. Jim, you're the only soldier on base to be out of active combat training, but somehow you find the time to come here every day just to watch."

"What, have you been counting?" James inquired.

"Me? Nah..., well actually, not by myself, but all of my men have been telling me when you've come in to watch. Not a day's passed that you've missed watching training. Why not join in?"

James shook his head. "Just an old habit, I guess."

"Jim, you're not one to stay behind a desk. You're a soldier, like us all, but you haven't fought in any capacity since the Leogryph was totaled. I know you don't take to the Link. You don't have to; and they can't make you. But Link or no Link, you have to be able to fight, and by 'fight' I mean with one of these. What if a bunch of Raiders showed up and we needed extra manpower?"

James gave a blank sigh as a response.

"Look at it this way, Jim: You can either agree to duel now, or I'll be asking you again when you stop by tomorrow."


"Yup. I'm scheduled for running drills; I'll be here all day tomorrow."

James shrugged. "Alright...." Hesitantly, James took the weapon. "Just don't complain if you win."

"Oh," Mark chuckled, "I'm not going to let you off that easily.... Four Swords never go down that easy...."

What? How did Mark know about the Four Swords? Curious about it, James threw off the hesitation and decided to take the duel.

Mark whistled to grab his men's attention. "Okay, boys, clear the mat. The Commander and I are going to have a private duel. You're free to watch, but no joining in." Mark's men, intrigued by the idea of seeing their base commander in a real duel, quickly moved to the sidelines, leaving just the clear green mat in the center of the arena.

James took a stance near the center and so did Mark. "Okay, Jim, since you've been out of practice for so long, we'll start with the basics. First..." Mark began walking around James from a distance of about three feet. He pointed his blade at James's legs. "First, never stand locked like that." Mark walked back to James's front and demonstrated a ready stance. "Always keep your feet apart and legs bent at the knees. You get better control and don't sumble as easily."

Mark then pointed at how James was holding his weapon.

"Second, since the blade handles are double-length; you should grip them either by both hands, or by the lower portion of the handle. You never know but an extra two inches of range just might be what gives you victory in a tough fight." Mark walked closer and adjusted James's grip for him.

Mark looked James over. "Okay, now you're ready."

"First principle about swordplay is range." Mark stepped closer to Jim, and then held his blade out, so that the tip of it rested firmly on James's left shoulder. "This distance here is my attack range, about two, two-and-a-half feet or so." Mark removed the blade and asked James to do the same. James held his blade out and Mark adjusted his position until he was just within range as well. "And this will be your range, about the same."

Mark stepped back and then gave a brief explanation of the mechanics. "Plasma cutters, you know, aren't quite like the swords of old. In the heat of combat you can attack at any range you want. But there is a trade-off. The shorter the range, the more powerfully you burn through the target -- but, it also means that the enemy can burn through you more powerfully, as well. No point in killing yourself while striking at a target. Always be on defense, near the extent of your range; move in for a kill only when it is completely safe to do so.

"Next, the basic moves." Mark demonstrated an attack. "There is your slash, it does only light burn damage but covers a decent large area. It is also effective for defense and countering. The thrust, on the other hand, is a good means to finish off an opponent quickly , but it is quite risky, and vulnerable to a counter-thrust.

"And for defense, you can either parry or evade. Parrying is easy, just mirror the foe's attack and hit their blade with yours -- unless it's a thrust, which you should evade. Evading is easy, provided you have a clear zone to retreat to. And don't evade too much, or you'll get trapped with noplace else to go.

"So, ready for some practice?"

James nodded.

"Try to hit me!"

James thought up a few attacks, then approached to within range and swung his blade from right to left. Mark blocked the swing, their two blades coming together with a metal clang. The recoil caused James to lose balance, and he shifted his position to compensate.

James tried again, a lower swing this time. Mark blocked it as well, but as James anticipated this, he kept balance.

"Keep going...," Mark encouraged.

James made a third attack, then a fourth. After this, a fifth and sixth, then a seventh. Mark blocked each attack in sequence with hardly any effort. "Good enough," Mark signalled. "Now for some defense." Mark held his blade up in preparation for a swing. He swung it slowly, until it was pointing straight at James, at shoulder level.. "Here is where you should try blocking it, for now. Come on, hit it."

James took a swing and clashed against Mark's blade. "Good. Let's try that again, faster this time." Mark repeated the move, and James intercepted it. Mark and James repeated the same move two more times.

"I see you're getting the feel for it. Good," Mark observed. "Next, I'll call out an attack; you deflect it any way you want. Ready?"

James nodded.

"Go!" Mark executed an attack quicker than James was expecting. Mark's blade hit James in the shoulder and knocked him aside slightly -- but not off balance.

"What was that?"

"Huh? Oh..., that's right. Let's try that again."

"High--" Mark repeated the move. This time James knew what to do, and counterswung with his blade, deflecting it.

"Low..." Mark stepped to the side and swung at a low angle. James mirrored the movement and deflected the attack.

"Right..." And James deflected another of Mark's attacks.

"Thrust --" Mark paused, "-- that means evade -- " and after the warning, Mark lunged forward. James stepped aside and, spying an opening, landed a soft hit on Mark's backside.

Mark laughed. "Good counter. Now, let's switch. Come at me..."

James nodded as Mark moved to a different stance. James swung high at first, and Mark blocked it. James tried swinging low, which Mark evaded. Picking a few more attacks, James clashed blades with Mark a few more times. James's rythm of attack seemed to be improving.

After several more, Mark announced they should switch again: Mark attacked while James played defense. Slash and block, thrust and evade, Mark practiced the basic moves against James, and James practiced basic defense in return.

"Switch again," Mark instructed after another minute, and James returned to offense. He volleyed a few more attacks in Mark's direction, deflected or evaded of course. Then without warning, Mark went on offense himself, catching James off guard and landing a blow against him.

"That should do it for the basics," Mark noted. "Now for something real. I'll attack when I'm ready, and you defend. You attack when you're ready, and I defend. And we'll see who scores better."

"Okay, but you'll probably do better still," James said, humorously.

"Don't count on it. You've seen most of our tactics, you should know at least something on how to defeat them. Right?"

"Ready whenever you are," James noted.

Mark was the first one to attack. James blocked one attack, then evaded a second. Next, Mark paused to give James an opportunity to attack. James thought he shouldn't though, and after a few moments Mark went into another series of attacks.

During another short pause, James decided to fill the silence with some attacks of his own. He stepped forward, made one attack, blocked, then backed off just before Mark executed a counter attack of his own. James figured it made a good opening, and he was right -- he landed a hit to Mark.

Mark backed off, smiling. Then he motioned James forward. James took a step and two in and attacked. Mark blocked and countered again, this time landing a hit against James.

For the next ten minutes they proceeded in a similar fashion, executing attacks and defense more or less in pairs. Mark landed a few hits against James, and vice versa. James was no slow learner to the process: soon he was performing his own attacks two at a time, rather than one at a time, forcing Mark to use a higher degree of deflects and evades.

Finally, though they had each landed comparable numbers of hits, James landed a low hit against Mark, knocking him down on to the mat.

"Okay," Mark smiled as he waved to James in a 'yield' signal. "That's enough for today. You did well -- outstanding."

James gave Mark a hand standing him back up. "Perhaps...."

James realized the one questio nhe should have asked earlier. "How did you know about the Four Swords?"

"That's a story for tomorrow," Mark responded.

"Tomorrow?" James asked.

"Sure, tomorrow. You do have time, don't you?"

"Well...," James began.

Mark gave James a questioning look. "Don't you?"

"Yes, I can afford some time tomorrow."

"Settled, then. We'll talk about it tomorrow."