Well, this should be interesting – my first foray into original Science Fiction. Wish me luck, because I'm vastly underprepared to deal with this. The only true Sci Fi books I read are the DUNE novels.
I got started writing this story after a friend (and mentor) of mine, Morohtar, put up his story "The Lady's Guardian," and I, who cannot resist the siren call of a good idea and a chance to come up with a cool OC, jumped on his ship with the intention of sailing a little ways and jumping off before any real damage to a fine idea was done.
I made the mistake of announcing my presence on his ship, and now he won't let me jump off the boat without giving up this story, so finally I got tired of fending off his requests and figured, aww, heck, why don't I just post the darn thing. So, here it is – modeled on an idea by Morohtar, A MechKnight Story, THIS BLESSED PLOT.
Men don't come to England for the weather.
I only remembered that after I stepped off the boat and was greeted not by cheering crowds, or even one familiar waving hand, but instead by a steady and solemn sheet of rain. Typical. There aren't many reasons why anyone would come to England -- it's not the money, certainly, the constant war with the pagan Saxons have made the Treasuries of His Britannic Majesty near bankrupt. And it's not the weather, or the locals, as I've mentioned, because both are cold, with good reason. No, the only reason men still troop to this sad little island, this "blessed plot" as one of their crackpot national authors called it, is the prestige. Fame and glory are made here. Sentiment's another reason, but not as strong as the first. If you want to make a name for yourself, the saying is, go to England and die trying.
Some hundred years ago, when Scotland decided to secede from the United Kingdom, enlist some German leftist aid and rename themselves the Saxons, after their legendary predecessors of old, it was decided (given the military capabilities of some of the Germans who joined them) that most of the important national military pursuits should be moved underground. Windsor Palace, Whitehall, and Parliament were gone overnight, vanished under the soil into cathedral-like bunkers.
Just in time, too -- the bombings started a year later, leaving most of the urban areas of south Britain devastated. People left in droves, fleeing to Ireland, America, and, if they could make it there, Australia. England became a desert almost overnight, and the new national motto, found accidentally when a curator was packing the British Museum, became "Home Again," after an inscription on a piece of scrimshaw.
It was the new Crusade- the 'Saxons' abandoned the staunch Scotch Presbyterianism of old and reverted back to the older, pagan ways, and the older rules of war, paying back England for what they called centuries of repression. When they began encroaching south, a call at arms went up. Few came -- they were too busy in the Balkans, in Afrique du Nord, in the Russias, fighting Muslims where the pay was good and the glory comparable. I know that's where I was. The bunkers were dug deeper to accommodate the new arrivals.
When you first visit these tunnels, your tour guide will probably remark to you with a wry grin that badgers and moles dug them. Invariably you will look at him with a confused look, and he will laugh, because this is an old joke they play on new fighters, and explain to you that it was not actual badgers and moles, but rather B.D.G.E.R and M.O.L.E units, Burrowing, Digging, Ground Excavation Robots, and Mining, Outer Land Excavators.
But the tunnels are not simply holes in the ground, as detractors will have you believe. The tunnels that cover most of the southern part of the island are a complex military and social network, heated by geothermal cores dug even deeper into the earth, and it is England, underground. It has rules and guidelines, laws and strictures. There is a code of honor there amongst the men and women that fight. When you are on your tour, your guide will probably tell you about another room, a room you will never see again unless you prove yourself-- the Table Hall.
When the badgers and moles were excavating this room, he will say (sometimes the joke is allowed to persist for some time until it is explained), they found a rather curious table here, the Round Table that you see before you. This find evoked strong feelings of national pride, and recalled for many how Arthur, the legendary king of Britain, repulsed the Saxons with the help of his Knights of the Round Table. George the Sixteenth, who was king at the time, took this as a sign, and named his infant son (who had been born a month or so previous to this) Arthur, instead of the more traditional Charles, Henry, or Edward. The Tower Foundry began building 'mechs with names like Galahad and Excalibur, and the prestige of England was born. If you could prove yourself against the Saxons, if you were good enough to pilot a Gawain or a Lancelot 'mech, you were entitled to a seat at the table, and a Seat at the Round Table (not a thing easily earned) was, in the world of the fighting 'mech, as good as being crowned king.
Of course, the table's been altered some -- that first table was a simple ring, and the first Arthur filled in the center with a massive stone center, a map of England sent with semi-precious stones and the words of that cock-and-bull national author around the edge, "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." Shakespeare, I think the man's name was. More of a poet than a spear-shaker, if memory serves.
Now we have Arthur the Fifth, and England is still fighting the Saxons, and still remains the place to win your name. Which, of course, was why I was here. Dispossessed Italian heiresses don't bring what they used to, and my recent marriage to Lady Monica had left me with a wife to provide for, a child soon, God willing, and no real money. I needed a job, and quickly. But no one's going to hire a mercenary on the Vatican black-list, not even if you're a desperate group of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans. Even Russians have standards. Reputations need to be mended before that kind of work is available again. So here I was, standing on a dock in Portsmouth with several pieces of shipping machinery that had seen better days for company, dripping with rain, and wondering where I might find the man I was looking for. In typically unhelpful British fashion, all the signs were in-- language of languages! -- English.
I asked the nearest dockworker, in my best Latin, for directions to the nearest church, thinking I could find someone there who could give me directions, and, seeing the man's confusion, crossed myself and mimicked prayer. I hate sign language, but it worked -- he nodded and pointed down a street. I nodded, thanked him, and scrambled up into Maugrim's cockpit, reving her into drive to pad through the streets to the church of Saint Brendan the Navigator. Fitting choice of patron saints for a port town, even if it was a little odd to find an Irish saint on English soil. The Catholics won out after the Anglican church couldn't contend with the pressures of being a nation under siege, and weakened by internal divisions, broke down while the Catholics trundled on the same way they had for the last two thousand years.
Shutting Maugrim down outside the sanctuary, I entered and crossed myself, genuflecting to the crucifix and whispering an Our Father in thanks for the safe passage across the notoriously bad Channel.
"If you're seeking to make confession, brother, the priest is not here now," a middle aged nun said gently in very clear Latin, coming up behind me wordlessly. "He's gone to bless one of our parishioners."
"I've not come for confession, Sister. Just directions. I'm from the Continent, and I'm looking for ...a family friend."
"A Catholic? I know every family in this parish," the nun said, looking at me intently. She would -- Portsmouth was one of the only above-ground cities left in the South, and was still small. There were perhaps four parishes. A priest would have been better, but I'd take what I could get.
"Not a practicing one, as far as I know. Frank Kingsley. He served in the Balkans nearly twenty years ago, and once piloted an Agammenon 'mech." I didn't know how much information I should give the sister in order for me to be helpful -- for all I knew, Frank Kingsley was dead. Not a surprising possibility -- my father had spoken of him as a risk-taker.
"He lives in Borter Street. We take him bread sometimes. May I ask...how you know Mister Kingsley?" the sister asked cautiously. "You speak with a Balkan air."
"He fought alongside my father," I said gruffly, trying not to sound evasive. The nun nodded, probably wondering if I wasn't some assassin sent to kill him for an old score.
"I'll draw you a map," she said, disappearing behind the altar and leaving me in the candle-lit nave of the church, the lights flickering. It was a simple building, not like some of the churches I'd had the honor of being inside -- the Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint John Lateran in Rome, the Basilica of Saint Stephen and the Church of Our Lady in Budapest. At the end of one transept, a statue of the patron, Brendan the Navigator, gazed down, holding his right hand in blessing while his left held out his compass to the passing supplicant, ready to guide them back to the path of salvation.
The other transept's niche was filled by Saint George, the patron saint of England. Holding aloft the dragon's head, sword in hand, he stepped forward from his pedestal, stone cape waving. At his feet, his shield lay forgotten, the true cross filling its field. Brendan's kneeler wasn't nearly as worn as George's, and I wondered how many knights who had stopped in this church to pray were still out fighting and killing the dragons they'd asked Saint George to help them with.
The nun returned with a slip of paper, handing it to me and making a quick sign of the cross over me. "God's peace be with you, Knight."
"And also with you, Sister. Thank you," I added, bowing and heading back out into the street. Her directions were precise, written out in a fine, academic hand that one rarely sees nowadays. The streets were just wide enough for Maugrim until Borter Street proved to be a small, one lane affair, little more than an alleyway. I'd have to get out and walk.
The door to the ground-floor flat was unlocked, swinging open when I laid hand to handle. It was quiet, and there was no call of "Who's there?" as I had hoped there might be. A fire was laid in the hearth, and someone was sitting in the chair, but whoever it was did not speak. I took another step into the room, and then the mysterious person decided to break the silence.
"Boyar Vladimir Hunyadi?" It was too calm, too calculated to be Frank Kingsley. The Latin had a polished sound. Had the Count of Saxe-Eisenach sent someone to kill me? It wasn't an impossibility; I had stolen and married his future Countess.
"Do you know him?" I asked, playing it safe.
"We've been sent to find you, Boyar Hunyadi. Your presence is requested by the Tower."
"What business do I have with them?" I asked sharply; it was pointless to deny I was who I was – evidently they'd known I'd come here. Maugrim is somewhat suspicious cargo; she'd been declared to the port authorities, no doubt, and where a man's 'mech is, the man is also.
"They heard you were in England, and they wish to speak with you about your purposes here. You and your 'mech will come with us," the man said. "Please don't worry about Francis Aaron Kingsley – He's being held elsewhere for his protection."
"Protection?" I repeated, just a little confused. I hadn't come to kill him – I wanted a job reference, not his head! He'd served in the Britannic Home Guard, and I thought starting at the bottom and working my way up would allow me to at least gain my good name back.
"He very nearly assisted a dangerous fugitive, Boyar Hunyadi," the man said with a growling laugh. "Now if you will please come with us?"
Two more men emerged from the shadows, wearing armor marked with the black and red of the Tower, the Military headquarters for southern England and the location of Table Hall. It seems I wasn't going to need Frank Kingsley's job recommendation after all – I was being taken to the seat of the Round Table Knights themselves.
As the magnalev cars bore you away from the city proper and the buildings of Portsmouth dropped away, you began to notice how much this war has changed the countryside. This was no longer a blessed plot of any kind – years of intense bombing have dried the earth to cinders and aside from the occasional tufts of dry, lifeless grass, nothing much grows aside from where the water can pool. Any rivers are choked with mud and silt, the runoff from what used to be verdant green hillsides. The topsoil that once supported thriving agriculture is floating out to sea.
The magnalev cars jostled along over electrically charged magnets buried in the ground. These magnets cross the whole south, creating tracks towards any number of destinations you care to visit. My escort and I rode in one car while behind us Maugrim's lev-platform swung back and forth, magnetically linked to ours. It's a quick jaunt from Portsmouth to the remnants of London, and as you near the city, the sight of it almost makes you want to laugh. This was once the greatest city on this sad little island, and look at it now. It's like looking at an ancient ruin – bombed out buildings, skeleton frames. And in the midst of it all, the great, black smokestacks that are the only signal to life below. This is the mythic Tower; we'd arrived.