Artificial Encounter: Capricorn Versus Artemis

June stood with her eyes focused high. She wore a clean pair of blue jeans and a brown jacket with a white shirt underneath. Her waist long black hair was still wet from the shower, but the bandages had to be replaced. Gauze pressed into her cheek and above her eye, and her right arm hung close to her abdomen, wrapped from her shoulder with a makeshift cast.

She stared at the Gladiator that had made it to the finals, her Gladiator. The Capricorn was a monstrous machine, equipped with range and melee weapons. For range she preferred the HA-42 Railgun, with a mass driver sub attachment. When she needed to close in on her opponent, a large red broadsword, custom made from Gretchen Unlimited, was more than enough. The Capricorn had gotten her this far, but it still wasn't over.

"Nervous?" Page asked.

June didn't answer.

"Who wouldn't be?" her sister said. "How's your arm?"

"It doesn't hurt anymore." June moved her fingers to demonstrate.

The Capricorn was humanoid in shape, though did not have the feminine frame preferred by other female pilots. Its head resembled a crusader helm and its shoulders were broad. Long metal extensions protruded from its elbows and knees, and the rest of its body was covered in a thin layer of heavy plate. A shield generator coated the metal skin with an absorption buffer. The body was colored red and white, with patches of black for the joints and optional colors. But red and white were optimistic, because the truth was it looked like dirty pink with red highlights, and an ugly grey. June's team had been an underdog from the start of the series, so even a new paintjob was a luxury. No one had expected her to win. No one sponsored her. All the money the team made went to repairs and refit costs.

"We don't have much left," Page said, as if reading her mind. She was younger, nearly identical to her sister, but chose to keep her hair short. While June was physically adept, Page was smarter and better suited as a tactician. With June as the pilot and Page as the operator, it wasn't a surprise they made it far. "We can fix up the internals, but what you see is what you'll get."

Various dents and scars peppered Capricorn. The most noticeable were the bulge in its left chest, the broken extension of its left knee, and the crushed armor of its right arm. June rubbed her cast and turned to Page.

"Let's go," she said.

They walked to a their command tent off to the side of the hangar. Various hangars were situated around the main arena. St. Albus was picked to hold the final matches, between the semi-finalist, and then the finalist. It was a large city on the planet of Oroval 3, and one of the more heavily populated sectors of the Holy Gelis Empire. The St. Albus Arena was located at the center, and many people from all corners of the empire and the other geo-nations came to watch.

"Like I said, no good will come out of looking for other options," Ursa said. He waved his hand across the large white sheets on the table and pointed to a spot.

"If we only had a little more time," Ean said. He stretched his back and saw June. "How's your arm?"

"My arm is fine," she answered. She stepped close enough to see the table and the large sheets. They were blueprints for the Capricorn. "What's wrong?"

Ean looked to Ursa, who returned a groan. As diligent as the Capricorn had been, it suffered one too many fights. The generator had been punctured in the fight with their last opponent, Echelon. Its overall energy output had been reduced by nearly twenty percent. Without the time to overhaul the capacitors and drive components, it couldn't be fixed. The main problem was that the damaged sections linked to the boosters.

"So we want to take it out and use our backup Gemini," Ursa said. "The Gemini engine isn't as powerful as the Orion model, but at least you'll have reliable boosters."

"Leave it."

All three of them stared at June. Page shook her head as she glanced over the blueprints.

"You can't be serious," Ursa said. "There's no way I'm letting you risk it like that—"

"The Atlas is the only engine strong enough to handle the weight of the HA-42, and still match the speed of a middleweight. My tactics revolve around speed."

"Use the Henkel cannon then," Ean said. "It's lighter and fires faster."

June shook her head. "I'm going up against Vargas and his Artemis. Nothing short of an HA-42 will puncture his shield. And it's the only weapon big enough to allow the mass driver attachment." June stared at her comrades with determined eyes. "I need that engine."

"Why do you have to be so stubborn," Ursa said. "Page, can't you make her see reason?"

Page shrugged her shoulders.

When the debate settled down, the four of them talked seriously about how the Capricorn in its current state could possibly fight their final opponent and reigning champion, Artemis. Vargas was the champion for a reason. The arena matches were single elimination and Vargas swept through his competition three years ago. He had been defending the title since. June exhaled with the entirety of her breath. He was not an easy opponent by any means. The Capricorn would have another tough fight and losing was more than a reality.

"I'll beat him," she said.

The others looked at her and stiffened. Her determination and drive was enough to choke fear from the room. Ean and Page smiled. The nodded their heads and reminisced about their previous fights. June had beat her first two matches with ease, and then almost lost the third. She made the careless mistake of counting on her opponent to run out of ammunition. Since then, she had been cautious every fight. Although their last fight was their toughest yet, June still made it out in one piece. Page glanced at June's arm. Almost one piece.

Page left the meeting room to sleep in her room. All the competing teams in the semi-finals and finals were treated as guests of honor. They had proven their worth and made a name for themselves. Because of that, even Page felt like a celebrity.

"I'm going to talk to the mechanics about the engine," Ursa said. He heaved and scratched the bald spot between his thin grey hairs. "I need to retire."

June smiled and waited for Ean to leave as well. He bid her goodnight and also went to the guest suite in the Blue Ridge hotel. It was one of the sponsors for the matches, so naturally took in the competitors. June stood and walked to the corner of the room. She poured herself a cup of coffee, dark and unsweetened, and then drank it slowly. Now that she had nothing to distract herself with, fear and anxiety were taking their toll. Her determination was something only in the company of others. Alone, she was helpless.

June took refuge at the hotel's bar. It was late and few people bothered the barkeep for drinks. June sat at a stool on the far end with only mixed drinks to keep her busy. The next match weighed heavily on her mind. Above all else, she didn't want to let her teammates down. Ursa took a chance on her, and she guaranteed him the championship. She took a gulp and laid her head against the counter.

"I can't lose," she said.

"You cannot win either," a voice answered.

June straightened her posture and turned with a scowl. When she saw who had spoken, a stifling fear held her breath. Vargas was as unmistakable a man as his Gladiator. His long silver hair was dull in the low lights of the bar, but his yellow eyes remained striking. His body was slim though muscular. He wore a tight black shirt with no sleeves, showing off an assortment of tattoos and scars. June swallowed. It would be a lie to say her heart wasn't beating fast because of him. She had no idea he was much more intimidating in person. While her mind attempted to fend off his silent charm, he raised a hand to her head. She grabbed it before it reached her cheek.

"Forward aren't we?" she said.

"I have fought many Gladiator pilots, but you are nothing like the others." He drew back his hand but kept his relentless stare on her. "I have been watching your fights. You are an excellent pilot, a strong contender, and a beautiful woman."

June curled her lips into a grin. She would have blushed, but she was used to guarding her feelings. "Is that what you say to all the pretty girls you oust?"

"It is not," he said. He sat down beside her and looked to the barkeep. The man began pouring a drink. "You were injured?" he asked, turning back to June.

"It's nothing I can't handle." June lifted her glass but didn't drink.

"I will be honest; I only approach you to find out if you can continue with your fight."

June clenched her teeth but answered his question with a threatening glare. "I'm not backing down for anyone. If you think you can just approach me to try and convince me I'll lose…" She wasn't really sure where she was going with the statement. "Well, forget it."

June sighed internally, unsure of why she just insulted the champion of champions. She took a long drink and was about to set it down, when she heard a laugh. She looked to Vargas in surprise. He wasn't just amused, he was genuinely laughing.

"What's so damn funny?" she asked. She was feeling the tingle of shame. She couldn't have said something stupid, but the way his face brightened, his shoulders shook, and his hair jostled, made her uneasy.

When he stopped, he took a breath, and then downed his drink. "Excuse me, I meant no offense."

"You're doing a fine job aren't you?" June said.

Vargas stood and set down a gold coin. "June, it would be an honor to fight someone of your skill. I wish you luck in the match."

She didn't answer his kindness. She didn't know how to, it was too sudden a thing to say to your opponent the night before a match. Maybe he was plotting something. She stared at the back wall. She held a hand to her cheek and tapped it. For someone to come out and greet their opponent in such a way, if he were planning something, it was a really strange way to go about it. June continued to reminisce until the clank of her ice-cubes drew her gaze.

"This isn't like you," she said to no one. "Good lucking guy, your opponent at that, says a few words and already you've forgotten about the Capricorn." She stood and also paid for her drink. The match wasn't for another two days, but there was little else she could do with her time.

"Who's there!" Ean shouted. The figure at the computer jumped to their feet, knocking the chair over. "What are you doing? Get away from that!"

Ean stepped forward, but paused when the person drew something from their back. He ducked as gunshots pelted his cover. The metal drawers clinked as bullets ricocheted into the floor and wall. The figure stopped and aimed the gun at the computer. Ean leaned his head and heard the shot. The computer fizzed and blew apart.

"You sonofabitch!" Ean shouted. The figure aimed, and then the gun clicked. Ean took the chance and darted forward. The intruder hurled the weapon at him and retreated out of the tent. Ean gave chase, but shouted wildly. Ursa was the first to wake up, coming out of the tent flap where he liked to sleep.

"What's all the ruckus about, Ean?" he asked. Ean ran past him with a heated face. "Ean? Hey, what's happened?"

His engineer disappeared into an adjoining service plaza. Ursa looked to the command tent and went to the flap. He pushed open the heavy tarp. The smell of heated metal, burning wires, and smoke stung his nostrils. He waved a hand in front of his face and turned on the light. It illuminated the fried computer on Ean's workdesk.

"What the hell?" Ursa asked. He went over to the computer and rested a hand on its frame. Shards of black glass littered the table and floor. There were small holes in the tent's fabric walls, and large dents in the filing cabinets and drawers. He stepped around the table and bent down. A small gun, a silenced pistol to be exact, seemed to be the culprit. He picked it up with a dirty rag and turned it over in his hand.

Ean came into the room out of breath. "Got away," he wheezed. He took a breath, pain in his face, and then walked to his computer. "Damnit all, he got everything. He destroyed the computer."

"What were you working on?" Ursa asked. He was still inspecting the gun.

"It's not what I was working on, but what was already on it." Ean took a seat and waited for his lungs to catch up. "The programming sequences for the Capricorn were stored on that computer. Her movement and firing calculations, as well as her leg and limb adjustments, were all coded. Without any of those, she might as well be a newborn trying to walk."

"Can you do anything about it?" Ursa asked.

Ean fought his cynicism teeth and nail. "Gah, I can. If I work all night until the start of the next match, I think I can have everything re-programmed."

Ursa set the gun down on the table and dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Get on it. We'll let June and Page rest until then. No need to add to their anxiety."

Further away, in the hotel where June and Page slept, a figure strolled down the halls of a different floor, garbed in black with a heavy cloak , their mouth and head covered. Only turquoise eyes kept pace with the door numbers. When the right one came up, they stopped, unlocked it, and stepped inside.

"What were you doing?" Vargas called. The intruder flinched and turned. Vargas slipped out of the darkness and circled the lone figure. He kept his eyes on the person, watching for the slightest hint of disobedience. The figure exhaled a muffled giggle, and then undid the cloak covering their face. It was a woman with short, tangled brown hair. She ditched the outfit, revealing a slender build with a black tank top, leather miniskirt, and long fishnet covered legs. Her arms had spiked bracers and her belt was of similar design.

"I went to pay our friends a visit," she answered in a malicious yet melodic voice.

"What exactly did you do, Celia?"

"Don't worry, Lord Vargas," she answered. She turned and smiled with satisfaction. "I deleted their Gladiator's programming codes and then shot the computer to hell. There's no way they'll reset all those systems in time."

Vargas stepped close to Celia and touched her shoulder. His eyes bore into her gaze. Then he frowned. The hand tightened around her bare skin and she whimpered. Celia looked up as her mouth quaked with terror. She couldn't keep still. Even her knees were ready to give.

"I thought I told you not to do anything unnecessary," Vargas said in a low voice.

"But, my lord." Celia shook violently as tears welled in her frightened eyes. Vargas remained motionless and unimpressed. Celia could only stare into them, helpless and silent, begging for forgiveness. Vargas released his grip from her shoulder and reached for her face.

"Do nothing more then," he said. He wiped the tears from her cheeks with a gentle thumb and went back to his room.

Celia stood alone for a long time. She contained to shake with anxiety, nearly driven by madness at the thought of angering Lord Vargas. She had only meant to please him, but now he was disappointed. She sat on her bed and rubbed her fingers. She then turned and focused on the arena in the distance. It was a large coliseum, lit from all sides.

"I won't fail you again," she whispered.

The arena was packed to capacity. The spectators with the highest standing were seated along the ring's edge, in special booths operated by technicians to allow them the best shots of the battlefield. It was too dangerous to be close to the environment, so they had to settle with cameras and screens. Inside the arena, large pillars served as cover. There were also many traps and hazards for the combatants, erected to serve as an added danger in the fighting. The arena was circular with inclines and ramps leading through the maze of obstructions. The finals match was created for brutality; spectators paid well to see a Gladiator battle with higher stakes.

"Capricorn is running fine," June said through her radio.

"Fantastic!" Page answered.

"I'm surprised Ean was able to finish in time, but he has no idea who sabotaged us in the first place?"

"June, we'll worry about that later," Ursa cut in. "For now, concentrate on the fight. Page, update her, Artemis is coming out of its bay."

A screen flickered to life in June's cockpit. A large white Gladiator stepped out of the darkness, illuminated by a hellish green aura, permeating from its eyes and engine reactor. The mist fell away from its body as it stepped into the sunlight. The Artemis was also a humanoid design, but appeared much more armored and imposing. It had large layered pauldrons that curled outward, up and down. Its arms were thin, but near its wrists, it widened into large gauntlets with thin metal fingers. The chassis was a modified Aegis torso, with double the normal number of vents on both sides of its chest. It had a metallic serrated battle skirt and thin thighs which widened into armored calves and winged boots. The helmet, the most distinguishing feature, had bright green eyes and one thin network array. A silver horn pointed forward.

"June, be careful with this one," Page instructed. "The Artemis uses heavy plate armor and twin Phalanx Plasma Batteries. It's powered by an Athena reactor and uses custom coolant systems. Trade secrets if I remember correctly."

"How did he fit an Athena reactor in that thing?" June asked. The Artemis stopped at the center of a white circle and waited. June moved the Capricorn to her own circle.

"They probably stripped the inside of the Aegis design and filed down the size of the reactor. I wouldn't be surprised if it was missing some layers of coolant pipes too. That's why he has so many vents. He utilizes quick dashes so he probably doesn't have the energy to keep that hunk of junk moving constantly."

June stopped the Capricorn and raised her left hand. Earlier, there had been a debate of whether she could even pilot her Gladiator. Her arm was still broken, so Ursa had to make a few modifications to fit her disability. The right arm was perpetually stuck, with hers strapped to the console. She couldn't move her mechanical copy, but the fingers were enough to aim and pull the trigger. At least she was ambidextrous.

The Artemis raised its right arm and Emperor Noel began his speech to the spectators. June didn't care for the formalities. She checked the inside of her cockpit. All the most important controls worked fine. The floor pedals, the thruster panel, and the gunnery stick, all were given a green light before the match started. Unfortunately, the air conditioning didn't survive. June had to resort to her undergarments and sweat to keep as cool as possible when the fighting started.

"June, are you ready? Emperor Noel just finished," Page said.

June lowered her Gladiator's hand and bent forward. Wheels lowered from her feet and pushed against the ground. She checked her HA-42 and pulled it down from her shoulder. It was a long dirty grey canon with rows of blue slits on its sides. The end piece branched out in two prongs and a watery blue generated between them. The ammunition canisters, three of them with five shots each, sat on top in a neat row. The mass driver attachment was to the right and down, appearing like a minigun with cables running to it. June normally carried the weapon on her left shoulder, but now she'd needed the free hand to operate her broadsword.

"He's moving," Page said.

June pushed her thrusters and the Capricorn sped down a ramp. In the distance, she caught flickers of white metal and green jets. The Artemis was weaving in and out of the large pillars. June saw a build up of light, and shifted the Capricorn's weight. A long thin beam cut through the air, searing a metal wall. The Capricorn had easily evaded it.

"He's loaded up with energy weapons, isn't he?" Page asked. "That was a pulse cannon, weak but fast firing. I don't know what type it is, it looks custom."

June skid to a stop near a pillar and reversed. She readied her main gun and spotted the outline of Artemis coming straight at her. She pulled the trigger on instinct. The round, moving nearly at the speed of light, missed. The Artemis had sidestepped with incredible speed, as if Vargas had seen the shot before she fired.

"His reaction time is incredible," June whispered.

"Watch it June, he dropped a jamming beacon," Page answered.

The mini HUD of her radar beeped and turned ashen. The Capricorn had a powerful ECCM system, but the Artemis was utilizing its own powerful stealth systems. June backed away as she searched the area for Vargas. She increased speed and skated into an arc.

"Picking up traces. Behind you!"

The Capricorn spun on its heels and turned. Glowing gases lifted from the back of the Artemis' left shoulder, then four flat barrels unfolded from its back, resting across its shoulder. Green beams erupted from their barrels. June clenched her teeth and stomped hard on the floor pedals. Her boosters cut out.

"June!" Page screamed.

The Capricorn took a portion of the beams across the left side of its body. The superheated gases swallowed the shielded armor, then ate through some of the coating. The Capricorn appeared locked in place, as if the beams had entangled it. Then the Gladiator ricocheted off, landing hard on the metal surface of the arena. It slid to a stop, clanking and scraping.

"I'm fine, I think," June muttered. She opened her eyes and pushed her left hand down. The Artemis dashed and then slowed. It lowered its other Phalanx Plasma Battery. June growled and lifted her gun. As the Artemis' winged cannons unfolded onto its shoulders, a thin blue beam sliced through one of the barrels, blowing it apart. Shrapnel littered the air, then rained down in clusters. The Artemis increased its speed and took cover.

June could hear Page's heavy breathing over the radio. "I'm fine, really," June said, trying to comfort her sister. Every battle was similar, June accepted that. Page would always throw a fit when she was knocked down or appeared injured. The Capricorn righted and made a dash to an adjacent pillar. June had told her she didn't want her as an Operator, but Page wouldn't let it go. Every fight the Capricorn had taken a heavy hit, Page was the first to burst into tears. June relaxed for a moment and smiled.

"Page, where is he?" she asked calmly.

On the other hand, the young girl wiped her eyes. She laughed a broken giggle and sniffled. "The jamming beacon is still up, but it's about 200 meters to the right of you, take it out and I can get a better fix on him. Watch out for the hazards. June, I'm glad you're alright."

"Will do," June replied.

Page wiped her eyes and sighed in relief. Behind her, Ursa looked to the ceiling in frustration then walked to the side of her. He bent over her panels and monitors, but did so just to have something to do. He didn't know one button from the other. Page looked up with worry, but Ursa gently touched her shoulder. He nodded his head silently. The two of them gazed forward from their tower window overlooking the arena and silently prayed.

The Capricorn shook off the excess steam from the armor, still searing, and skated between a long line of pillars. She kept an eye out for anything white or green and gripped the trigger tightly. Then an axe almost took off her head. She cursed and ducked another another hazard.

Vargas watched from atop a high ramp. Artemis knelt down on one knee, but followed the red and white Gladiator with its eyes. "The beacon?" he asked.

"Yes, she's going for the beacon, now's the perfect chance to ambush her," Celia answered. "She doesn't know where you are, but you know where she is. Use it to your advantage."

"Celia, why is she fighting, what does she hope to accomplish?"

"Eh? Lord Vargas, now isn't the time to second guess her. You know she's good, letting your guard down—"

"I will ask her."

"Wait, Lord Vargas—" Celia heard his radio cut out. She looked at her console in fright but knew it was no use. She held her head with both hands, and then attempted to reconnect. "Why must you do this, Lord Vargas," she whispered. "I've been your Operator for three years and yet you continue to look at others. Why won't you look at me?"

The Artemis stood stiffly. The left Phalanx system was too damaged to try and fire again. The explosion had misshapen the other cannons. Vargas pulled a switch above his head. The leftovers ejected and fell straight down. It thumped against the ground, pieces sliding down the ramp. The Artemis lowered its other set of cannons and sped forward.

Page lifted her head at the sound of a colored button. She adjusted her headset. "June, the Artemis pilot is trying to contact you."

"Is he?" June asked. She turned sideways, brandished her gun, and then flipped around. She continued to move backward toward the beacon, but saw no sign of the Artemis.

"I don't think you should answer it, it's probably nothing more than mind games."

"Put him through, no buts about it, I want to hear what he has to say." Her radio buzzed and then a slight humming droned in her ears.

"Ah, June, you are fighting well," Vargas said. "No doubt your Gladiator has suffered previous damages and you are now paying for it."

"What is it you want, Vargas?" June seethed.

"I wish to ask why you fight," he said. "Why do you push yourself to perform at these mindless games, for the enjoyment of the nobles who pay and watch? Is it the money, the recognition, do you have something to prove?"

"Something to prove?" June saw the beacon ahead. It was a floating disk, one that was probably stored in one of the Artemis' internal storage bays before it expanded when used. The Capricorn pressed its back against a wall, wary of the trap sure to be.

"You are fighting with the ferocity of a cornered tiger; surely you want to prove something."

"Maybe you were always taken care of, but this team is my home," June answered. "We were the mocked from the very first battle, people said we'd never make it this far. Even now those same idiots don't believe in our worth. Yes, I have something to prove. I'm going to prove that those who counted on me, Page, Ursa, Ean; I'm going to prove to them I can make it through these games and win the title of champion."

"You are naïve," Vargas said.

"What was that?" June asked. She glared at the beacon only a short distance away.

Vargas slowed his Artemis and looked into the distance. He could barely make out the Emperor's box, his special seat to the disgraceful matches he watched. "Do you know what is happening in the Empire, while we fight each other like dogs?"

Overhearing the conversation, Ursa and Page looked at each other.

"Poverty, corruption, greed, pestilence; all of these run rampant across our states. The Emperor knows this, as do the aristocracy. Yet, they indulge themselves in our deaths. They grow fat while they watch us die. These times are nothing more than a mirror of the Rome of old Earth."

June couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, you're good, I'll give you that. The champion of champions is actually an activist."

"I am merely doing what I can," Vargas said. "This position has allowed me to create pathways to remodel the Empire. Emperor Noel has enjoyed his tyranny long enough."

"You want to rebel?" June asked in shock.

"June, you and your team were not given the respect you deserve. You know of the hardships of those from a lower class. I posses the title of Lord but I was only given it because the people wanted me. Help me June, help me create a true empire, where we do not have to needlessly kill ourselves for entertainment."

"That's a tall order," June said. She eased her throttle forward and kept her eyes on the beacon. Boosters, don't fail me now, she prayed. The Capricorn dashed forward, unclasping its large broadsword. All she needed was one swipe. The beacon was immobile, an easy target. She raised her sword just as she bore down on top of it. Then a blinding volley of green plasma cut her off. The beams struck the ground in front of her, melting the metal floors into bubbling green pools.

"June, this is a deathmatch," Vargas said. "If you will not let me help you, you will die here."

The Capricorn lifted its eyes. The Artemis was atop a pillar, looking down with its barrels pointed. Its hand was held out, a gesture of friendly agreement. The Capricorn raised its railgun.

"I can't believe this is how it'll end," June answered. "I will defeat you to become the new champion."

"I am sorry to hear that."

The Artemis jumped off and activated its boosters. The Capricorn dashed back but fired its mass driver rounds into the beacon. It exploded as another shower of green poured down. The Capricorn evaded and dodged, but left it's back exposed. Another hit took out her boosters for good. At the same time, she spun, falling, but managed off one shot from her railgun. It struck the Artemis in the chest.

"Now!" Ursa shouted.

June woke from her incredible shot and lumbered forward. The Capricorn tilted and swayed, but raised its sword high for the final blow. Then the Artemis leaned and ejected its other Phalanx Plasma Battery. The Capricorn's broadsword sliced through it as it exploded. In the shower of light, the Artemis procured two rapiers, and then stabbed them into the Capricorn.

When the dusty particles cleared, one rapier had punctured the Capricorn's right arm. The other was embedded into its neck. June took a jagged breath as she swiped her sword hard. The Artemis retreated momentarily, but eyed its opponent with dissent. The Capricorn stumbled but defended its spot on the ground.

The two pilots exchanged silent glares, but June was the first to make a move. Her sword thrusted and slashed, but Vargas easily parried them. June was tired. She was also injured. Blood seeped down her cheek. The immeasurable pain in her arm also indicated it had been broken again. She shivered but attempted another swing.

The Artemis held both its swords close and battered at the Capricorn's large flat sword. The hit was strong enough to knock it out of its grip. Vargas recoiled and stabbed at the Capricorn's leg joints and head. The blade entered clearly through its single eye socket, tearing internal systems as it did. The Capricorn was knocked onto its back with a grinding screech.

"June! June!" Page called. Even Ursa was shouting in the background. The radio cut out and only silence was left in her cockpit. June watched the flickering display of the large white Gladiator loom over her. It was a beautiful machine, pristine in color with no blemishes. She cursed. She couldn't even put a scratch on it.

Vargas lowered his swords to the Capricorn's cockpit and held it there. He looked away until his eyes went to a large black pillar at the center of the arena. It was silent. The pillar was used to indicate the heroism of the loser. If it showed green, they were allowed to live. If it showed red, the champion was to kill the opponent. As far back as he could remember the matches always finished with red at the St. Albus Arena. The tower came to life, showing a red marker.

Page buried her face in Ursa's chest. She screamed loudly, squeezing the corners of his shirt. The pain remained. Ursa looked on with hesitation and fear. He had managed several teams, but none had a prodigy as good as June. He watched the Artemis stand over the Capricorn and waited for the coup de grace. It never came.

Vargas lowered his swords and sheathed them. From her cockpit, June looked up with weary eyes. Her mind wandered through a torrent of questions, from mercy, to pity, to unworthiness. Her lips pursed and tears rolled down her cheeks.

"That sounded intense," Ean said. Page hovered over June with a bright smile, pressing a bloodied cloth into the wound above her temple. June sat and stared with a blank expression.

"You passed out; couldn't be helped," Ursa said. He sat down on a metal chair and swept his hands over his face. He groaned between his fingers. "Now would be a good time to retire."

"Retire on what?" June said bitterly. "I didn't win us anything. We're as broke as we were at the start of this stupid series."

Page bent down and hugged her from behind, a chin resting on her right shoulder. "You're still alive June, thank God for that."

"I'm sorry Page," June answered. She leaned away but tried to push her sister off the shoulder. Tears glittered down Page's cheeks. "Alright, I get it, go ahead and cry."

"I will!" Page shouted. She sniffled but remained attached to June.

Ursa laughed but didn't interrupt. Page was right. The fact that June was spared by Vargas, during a deathmatch, when Emperor Noel had already decided her death, was more than extraordinary. "Vargas is some guy," he said. "Talks big, morally motivated; I bet Emperor Noel had no idea he would become as influential as to refuse a death in a deathmatch."

"I don't get it," June said. "What was the point in sparing me—" her chest was squeezed tightly by Page, who still hadn't let go "—I mean, I'm not that important of a person. I can just pilot Gladiators well."

"Your determination," a voice answered. They looked to the entrance of their command tent. A man with silver hair and yellow eyes stepped in. Beside him, a woman with short brown hair held onto his arm. Vargas showed little motion. Celia let go and stood idly by, a smirk playing on her lips.

"Your determination," Vargas repeated. "You will fight for what you believe in until the dying breath, against all odds. That is why I spared you. I will ask you again, will you help me?"

Page let go of June as all eyes fell upon the injured woman. June looked to the others, but they remained silent with intrigue. She gazed down at the floor. Secretly, she had always admired Vargas. His fights against his opponents were brutal, but not without honor. He treated them with respect, and had always remained silent to publicity. He lived by a different code, and fought with the entirety of his being. Even the fight with him felt one-sided. But now she knew, what made him go on, why he never gave up. He really wanted change. June raised her eyes and stood uneasily. What was it about him that made her hesitate?

Alright so this is a one-shot, a short story I decided to do. I had fun writing it and the ending was unexpected. Yes, a writer didn't even see his own ending coming. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed it. But for the truth! This story was done to Artificial Encounter, a collection of short stories with mecha as the theme. They will be radically different from one another, I think. But most importantly, this story was done as an advertisement to Space Orchestra, a new C2 community for all fans mecha. If you liked what you saw, please come by and join. We'll be posting people's mecha stories, and hopefully we'll get a forum to discuss things! If you're a mecha fan, don't care which kind, come by. Natsuhime is the manager and is a fan of gundam. I'm a fan of Battletech. So I'm sure you fall somewhere inbetween. Thanks for enjoying this story! And even if you didn't, well, thanks for making it this far.