“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 leader boards 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.
His own Armored Core used a Rayleonard 03-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.
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 pay check. 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 offered 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.”
Raven’s Ark, Berlioz’s Quarters
“Hey Sis, just leaving you a message to say you might not be able to reach me for a while. Something pretty big has come up and I’m gonna be away from the Ark. I’ll try and contact you in some way the moment I’m able to so don’t panic, alright? Ok I’ve gotta go now, love you.”
Hanging up, Berlioz slipped the mobile into his pocket before walking out the door, letting it lock behind him. Waiting for him outside his door was Ms. Sanders, having come to collect him for Rayleonard’s test program.
“Everything in order?” She asked. He’d realised that he needed to leave Alicia a message as she wouldn’t know what was happening. Berlioz wasn’t allowed to tell any the details of what he was doing, but at least she’d know he was alive instead of dropping off the face of the Earth.
Nodding, he answered, “Yeah, I’m good now. Let’s go.” With that, the two of them walked towards the central elevator.
“Do you know roughly how long the trip will be?” Berlioz was asking more because it was fairly early in the day and losing hours to travel was one of the worst parts of the job.
He didn’t get an immediate answer, leading him to glance at Ms. Sanders. Her face was unchanging, like he’d never spoken in the first place. “Uhh…”
She gave a short sigh before finally saying, “I’m afraid I can’t say any more than it’s a not exactly a short flight.”
As they left the elevator, a thought struck him, “I’m not sure how effective this whole security deal you’ve got going is. If someone wanted to find your research facility, then all they’d have to do is track the transporter surely?”
Turning the corner to the hanger, a small smirk spread across Ms. Sander’s face, “Transporter? I never mentioned a transporter.”
Berlioz never had the chance to question this comment as the bulkhead to the Hangar opened to reveal their ride to Rayleonard’s testing facility.
It was obsidian black, almost completely flat and angular, like a cut stone. An aircraft he didn’t recognise in the slightest sat ready to taxi onto the Ark’s runway.
“I won’t bore you with the details and specifications,” started Ms. Sanders as the pair approached the plane, “But in this, I highly doubt anybody will be able to follow us.”
None of the Hangar staff appeared to want to go near the thing for fear of some unseen reprimand, like a great force would smite them for their curiosity.
Entering through a small ramp that dropped out of the underside of the plane, they emerged into a lavishly decorated passenger area that looked to be designed to hold four or five VIPs.
So this is some sort of business jet? A private aircraft?
Ms. Sanders, almost as if reading his mind said, “We use these to move important people to and from locations while keeping their route unknown. Independent strikes against Corporation board members has been on the rise in the last few years and the Rayleonard Corporation wishes to keep those in its care as safe as possible.”
“These? You have more than one of these things?” Berlioz could only imagine how much something like this cost.
“We have a handful as often meetings and transfers take place at the same time, we need enough of them to be able to have one on hand to cover all events and persons.” She waved her hand dismissively before gesturing towards one of the seats, “Please take a seat. I will be in the cabin with the pilot if you need anything.”
With that, she left him. He made the mistake of sitting in one of the large plush looking armchairs, only to almost get swallowed by the furniture due to its extreme softness.
As he adjusted himself to get into a more reasonable position in the unreasonably soft seat, the aircraft began taxiing onto the Ark’s airstrip.
In moments he could see the crystal clear sky out of the window to his left, not a cloud in sight. From nearly three kilometres in the air, he could see for miles and miles across the baked ground of the North American continent.
For the time being this would be all he’d see as the jet’s afterburner lit, an almost overpowering roar filling the cabin space as they pulled away from the Ark’s runway.
Berlioz didn’t know when exactly he’d fallen asleep, but he was awoken by the sound of Ms. Sanders speaking to him. “Berlioz, we are beginning our approach, please be ready to disembark soon.”
The line cut and he slowly sat upright in the seat. Straightening out his jumpsuit, he looked out the window again. Instead of the endless desert that stretched out underneath the Ark, he saw a vast forest, a sea of green flecked with white in the distance.
A thin mist had settled around the base of the forest, giving the trees the impression that they were swaying in an ocean churned into a foamy grey.
However, he didn’t get a long time to appreciate the view as the aircraft banked to one side, leaving him with nothing but the dull, overcast sky to look at. It was pretty in its own way, but the sudden anxiety of knowing that they were about to arrive spoiled the experience.
As their altitude dropped, more and more questions started running around his head.
What exactly was going to happen during this program? Who else had accepted? Was it going to be dangerous?
Berlioz didn’t have any of the answers to those questions, but as they suddenly touched down, he knew that he’d be getting them soon enough. The deep rumbling of landing gear against tarmac was overpowered by the roar of the engine flaring as the thrust-reverser was engaged, the deceleration almost pulling him out of his seat.
The entire process was swift and professional, over in minutes as the slowly taxiing aircraft came to a halt and Ms. Sanders opened the cabin door.
“Now Berlioz, if you’d like to follow me?” She walked past him while saying this, lowering the same ramp that they had walked up. As he stood up, he checked his watch, noting that just over three hours had passed since they left the Ark.
At the speed they were likely travelling, they could be almost anywhere in North America or even further.
Before he lost sight of Ms. Sanders, he walked after her down the ramp and out into the cold mist that covered the runway. While his visibility was barely twenty metres in front of him, the piercing lights of the runway cut through, along with several equally bright lights that appeared to mark out a small bunker that was situated alongside the tarmac.
Ms. Sanders said nothing further, instead, making a beeline for the bunker, with Berlioz forced to trail her with no explanation for what was happening or where they were going.
She had mentioned that the facility was underground, leaving him to assume that this bunker was perhaps the entrance. After walking a short distance, the figures of two soldiers wearing body armour and full face helmets faded into view.
They shifted as she approached but didn’t raise their rifles. Slowly, Ms. Sanders pulled out the same ID card that she had shown Berlioz and held it front of her. Berlioz stood behind her, off to one side as one of the soldiers reach out, plucking the card from her hand and holding it in front of his face.
“Alright you’re clear, who’s the guy behind you?” A crackly voice sounded out from the small speakers embedded in the soldier’s helmet as he looked around Ms. Sanders at Berlioz.
She glanced back at him before answering, “He’s the last member of the program. I’ll be taking him to the meeting once we’re inside.”
The soldier looked between Ms. Sanders and her ID before handing it back to her, “Alright, go on through.” His partner turned around and input a code into a panel next to the large bunker blast door. A moment later the door lifted roughly seven foot, allowing the two of them to enter.
The second they crossed the threshold, the blast door lowered, closing with a deep boom that Berlioz felt in his bones.
Clearing his throat, Berlioz asked “Is security this tight throughout the entire facility?” The thought of having to prove his identity at every corner wasn’t appealing.
“In some areas you’ll need ID to pass through, but for the most part the security of the facility is ensured due to the secrecy surrounding it. Most people aren’t aware that it even exists.”
He could count himself as part of that group, he knew that AkvaVit existed, but as for the details surrounding it and any of the facilities that the division used he was just as clueless as anyone else.
They continued walking at a slight downwards incline, small lights lining the bare rock wall, spaced roughly two metres apart. After roughly a minute of walking in silence, they approached a second set of blast doors, also flanked by a pair of armed guards. However, Ms. Sanders didn’t need to fish her ID out as it became apparent that the earlier set of guards had called ahead to inform the two of them of their arrival.
These blast doors were considerably smaller, parting in the middle rather than a single mass sliding upwards. They didn’t rattle Berlioz as they came to a halt.
Still wordlessly, they walked through onto what looked like a service elevator, a metal platform ringed by a rusted yellow barrier and a thin chain link grate that slid across with a grinding screech.
“What happened?” Berlioz started with a slight grin, “Rayleonard run out of money when they built this?”
Ms. Sanders apparently either missed the joke or ignored it, “No, we’re using a secondary entrance, the primary one isn’t designed for use by human sized objects. No need to spend the same amount of money here.”
Maybe it was just him, but the silence that followed was more awkward than before his inane statement.
The speed at which the elevator descended felt reasonable, but after nearly two minutes of just standing, he almost wanted to ask how long it’d take. The chance was taken from him when they came to an abrupt halt in front of a pair of sliding doors with frosted glass filling the centre.
Ms. Sanders walked forwards and the doors parted automatically, the sound of people walking, talking and going about their lives suddenly filled the space where Berlioz stood.
He quickly stepped forwards to keep pace with her as they moved into a very cold and clinical looking corridor full of recessed lighting and steel panelling, metal railings along all the walls. It reminded him of a hospital.
“Ok,” said Berlioz quietly, “I’m here, what happens now?” He was beginning to feel nervous as his unfamiliarity with the situation set in.
She turned to face him properly for the first time since they left the aircraft on the surface, “First things first, you have a meeting to attend with the rest of the test pilots, I will take you there and after that you will be in someone else’s care. They will show you to your new quarters and make sure that everything is in order for you.”
“Who is giving the meeting?” Berlioz asked, the reply from Ms. Sanders was immediate and had a strange lilt to it.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to find out when you get there.”
From there, the two of them weaved their way through people wearing lab coats or sealed full body suits like the ones worn by chemical plant workers. Stainless steel trollies loaded with computers and assorted electronic components were scattered around with people moving them from room to room.
Fortunately, there was no need to take yet another elevator somewhere, and after only a few minutes, Berlioz and Ms. Sanders found themselves standing outside a room marked ‘Conference Room 3’.
“Here we are, I’m sure you can handle yourself from here, Berlioz.” The thin smile she wore turned to surprise as he extended his hand to her.
“Thank you for your help Ms. Sanders, I appreciate it.” He tried his best to sound genuine as he really was grateful.
She gave a warm smile and took his hand firmly, “It’s Vivian, I wish you all the best, Raven.”
With that, she turned away from him and walked away, taking the first right hand corner. Now with nothing left to stop him, Berlioz pressed the small button next to the door, letting the cool air from inside the room flow over him.
Inside, was what looked like a lecturer’s hall with concentric ascending rows of seats all facing a stage with a podium at the centre. The fact that a research base had even one of these rooms, let alone potentially more than three seemed bizarre at best.
Scattered across the seats in single or pairs were people wearing the same or at least similar jumpsuits to the one he wore.
Remembering that Vivian mentioned Rayleonard’s own in-house test pilots would be taking part in the program.
Corporation test pilots were the only people aside from Ravens who were permitted to use Armored Cores, and test pilots were only allowed to use ACs inside designated testing ranges, nowhere else. Any Corporation found to be operating ACs independently from the Ravens would be in breach of the Raven’s Declaration of Independence and while Berlioz didn’t know the consequences, he was sure that severe was an appropriate descriptor.
Those in the same coloured jumpsuit as him were outnumbered by those in the slightly different one, and for the most part those in the same were predominately the ones sitting alone. He made the assumption that they were the other Ravens who accepted the same offer as the one that was given to him a few days ago.
Choosing to follow their example, he moved to a row roughly in the middle, a few feet away from another Raven.
Typically, your identifying patches were worn on your right hand shoulder, meaning that this other Raven would be able to know exactly who he was, but Berlioz would be totally in the dark.
For now, at least, this other Raven seemed disinterested in making conversation, so Berlioz simply ignored him and faced forwards.
Roughly a minute passed before the lights dimmed. If it weren’t for the spotlight illuminating the podium, he would be convinced he’d accidentally taken a seat in a theatre or cinema.
From the right-hand side, a somewhat portly man in a pinstripe three-piece suit with thinning hair stepped out onto the stage, the bright light making his pale, wrinkled face looked sallow and discoloured. He looked to be in his forties, maybe even his fifties, but his train of thought was derailed the moment this person began to speak.
“Good afternoon pilots. My name is Victor Rayleonard, I am the CEO of the Rayleonard Corporation and the one that organised this event.”
He had a voice similar to Governor Archambault, deep and resonating. Amplified in the conference hall, it reverberated through Berlioz’s entire body.
Victor continued, “I do apologise for this, but I’m afraid I need to ensure that all attendees are here. Think of it as taking attendance.”
As he started to read out names and their respective owners answered, Berlioz zoned out for a moment. It was strange to think that so many years ago, he killed in the name of the man standing before him. Now once again, he was working directly under him.
He was wondering if working for Rayleonard was going to be a permanent feature of his life, when he was shocked back to reality with two words.
He sat in stunned silence before quickly stammering, “Uh, here!”
What the fuck? I know he’s the CEO of a Corporation but he shouldn’t have access to files that still have my family name!
Berlioz didn’t have the time to contemplate further as Victor continued, “Good good, looks like everybody is here as planned.”
He shuffled some papers on the podium, “Now, let’s get down to business. As you all know, you are here to participate in a test program that will allow us to push Rayleonard’s 03-AALIYAH frame to its absolute limits and to then to surpass those limits.”
It was roughly five years ago that Berlioz had been able to afford his own AC, choosing to use Rayleonard’s 03-AALIYAH frame. Even then, there were those who considered the design dated and flawed. Being the first true AC design originally completed just before the Great Destruction, at this point it was over fourteen years old and almost every other Corporation had based their initial designs on the AALIYAH with the intention of surpassing it.
In some ways they did, and others they couldn’t. The AALIYAH was never built with the intention of fighting other ACs, as originally it’s only opponents were the disorganised and fractured forces of the former world nations. Its lightning speed and manoeuvrability were its greatest strengths, allowing it to cut through any and all opposition without taking a single hit.
During the National Dismantlement War that immediately followed the Great Destruction, not a single Corporation AC was lost to enemy fire.
Those same strengths were utilised against its targets today, but the rate at which Ravens were being deployed against each other was slowly increasing as the Corporations put more and more pressure on each other, for workforce population, mineral sites, and fertile land.
That was likely the reason for this program, with the potential threat of facing other Armored Cores on the battlefield in the near future, Rayleonard needed to be able to compete on the same level as the other Corporation’s AC frames.
The 03-AALIYAH’s speed was enabled by the fact that it’s armour was paper thin and its boosters were extremely powerful, however to cut down on weight and size, it’s generator was the smallest on the market despite having one of the highest outputs.
It sacrificed its capacitor size, meaning that the usual heavy booster usage that an AALIYAH pilot would use could deplete his energy reserves in a very short amount of time, leaving them vulnerable.
Inadequate armour and low capacitor size. It was likely these two core limitations that Victor looked to overcome with this testing program.
Victor shuffled his papers again, “However,” he looked up at them all with a confidant grin, “We can create the most powerful Armored Core in the world, but without the world’s greatest pilot, we’d be doing a half-baked job. Here at Rayleonard, we don’t do half-baked jobs.”
Wait what? Concern flooded through Berlioz. There had been no mention of anything to do with pilots, he was under the impression this had been all about the AALIYAH frame and nothing else.
He listened intently, “You may remember the additional bonuses that were mentioned in the letter sent to you? This is where that comes in.”
Again, he shuffled his papers, moving to the next page, “Due to the mix of both Rayleonard test pilots and Ravens here, the bonus for passing will differ slightly for each.”
One of the test pilot’s raised their hand nervously, obviously worried about interrupting. Victor noticed and nodded, allowing the man to speak, “You said ‘bonus for passing’? Are you saying that we’re being tested as well?”
Smiling, Victor nodded, “Indeed that is the case. This is not only a program to gather data on the 03-AALIYAH frame for its improvement, we will simultaneously be putting you all through a series of rigorous trails to see which, if any of you, are fit to pilot the product of this program.”
His smile shifted to a wry grin showing teeth at one side.
“For the test pilots that manage to achieve the passing grade, we have arranged with the Raven’s Ark for an immediate opportunity to begin training as a Raven with all charges covered by the Rayleonard Corporation.”
Even Berlioz’s eyes widened at that, there were thousands of applicants every year for people seeking to join their ranks. The amount of people that actually were accepted just to begin the harsh training was a tiny fraction. From that, only groups in the single digits made it through that.
To be able to bypass the initial selection process was a huge advantage if the pilot was particularly skilled. It was his three years of piloting MTs for Rayleonard’s military that enabled him to quickly adapt to the conditions of piloting an Armored Core.
Victor still had to say what the bonus for the Ravens was though. Berlioz was wondering if agreeing to this program was a mistake, he didn’t sign up for a competition.
“For the Raven,” Victor started, “that achieves the highest score among their peers, we already have written up a very lucrative exclusive contract that will be available to the A-Ranked Ravens here as well, not just the two S-Rankers here.”
Several questions exploded in Berlioz’s mind. The fact that they were offering an exclusive contract meant that as he thought, Julius’s demotion to A-Rank had cost him his contract with Rayleonard and was now up for grabs.
The offer of an exclusive contract to A-Ranked Ravens was unheard of as well. Originally it was only the S-Ranked Ravens that were eligible for such an offer, for Rayleonard to wave an exclusive contract under the noses of A-Ranked Ravens meant that they were desperate to get this supposed, best pilot in the world.
It was the mention of another S-Rank Raven in the program that caught Berlioz’s attention. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he was under the impression that the only S-Ranked Raven without an exclusive contract was himself.
The current Ninebreaker and S-Rank 1 was Wynne D. Fanchon was signed to Leonemeccanica. The S-Rank 3 Raven was David ‘Unseel’ Brooke, signed to BFF and finally there was the S-Rank 4 Raven Dario Empio who was signed to Rosenthal.
Wait who was the S-Rank 2 Raven? The fact that Berlioz couldn’t even remember who the S-Rank 2 Raven was meant that it was entirely possible that they were the other S-Ranked Raven without a contract. He hadn’t been paying attention when Victor was reading out the other names, so he completely missed who it could have been.
Berlioz turned his attention back to Victor, “For now, that will be all. You have the rest of today to settle into the facility and get your bearings. I look forward to seeing the results of all your hard work.”
With another smile, he gave a shallow bow before them all and walked off the stage from the same direction as he entered.
Immediately the low murmur of chatter set in, mostly between the Rayleonard test pilots, only a couple of Ravens were talking. Taking a longer moment to look around him, he counted eight Ravens and just over twenty test pilots, so the rough total count of program members was around thirty.
As Berlioz finished looking around, he caught the gaze of the Raven that was sitting to his right.
The Raven gave him a thin smile, “You must be the new S-Ranker that cost Julius his contract? I’ve got to admit I’m grateful you did as now there’s a contract that I can finally get.”
For the first words to hear from someone, they were not what Berlioz expected. “Um, excuse me?” He needed to back up and assess who exactly was talking to him.
“Oh, my apologies. I simply mean that I haven’t been offered an exclusive contract despite being the S-Rank 2 Raven, it was beginning to become somewhat disheartening to hear people talking about me behind my back but now I finally have a chance to achieve what I’ve been denied.”
Berlioz was still clearly out of the loop. This person was unlike any other Raven he’d spoken too, not that he’d actually held a decent conversation with many Ravens.
“Wait, why would people be talking about you behind your back?” Learning more about this strange character was imperative to not getting lost in the conversation.
The Raven looked away slightly, breaking the eye contact Berlioz didn’t notice they’d been holding, “I like to ensure that all mission objectives are completed to the highest degree, but apparently others refer to that as overkill.”
“Overkill? How so?”
He looked back at Berlioz, that thin smile returning, “I reduced an entire BFF firebase to ash in ten minutes. The Raven they hired to protect the position still hasn’t woken up. What was the word they used? Ahhh, yes… Brutal.”
If someone had poured ice over Berlioz at the same time as he heard this Raven speak, he would have thought a warm shower had started. The chill that flowed over his skin was unreal, just from his words. That smile.
All of it was wrong.
He stood up, looking down at Berlioz, “Now,” the Raven glanced at the patch on his shoulder, “Lamond was it? I look forward to working with you.” He stretched out his hand to Berlioz.
Berlioz hoped that this Raven didn’t notice the shiver in his hand when he took it. “I’m sorry but I didn’t catch your name?”
A flash of shock shot across his face before he answered, smiling.
“Apologies, my name is Maximilian Thermidor, pilot of the Armored Core Stasis.”