Level 4Nur Dutchung - pt. 1
By Thane Barnier

August 30, 2071

Major Ghardoki snarled as he ripped the sign from the Regents' office door. He looked at the bright red writing, sloppily painted on the paper taped to the door. The makeshift sign read "Rigel's Rejects Main Office". How often had he heard that taunt around the base lounges, how often had he blown it off? He had seen tricks like this often enough over his long tenure as a mercenary, so why did this latest attempt at low-wit humor infuriate him so much?

"Probably because it rings awful true right now," he thought to himself. He took in a deep breath, let it whistle out through his teeth and tossed the crumpled paper over his shoulder as he opened the door and entered the office.

On the Duty Officer's desk was a pair of scuffed maroon combat boots attached to a wrinkled uniform, worn by what appeared to be a cigar smoking hat. A cloud of smoke rose from the cigar to encircle the sleeping officer.

"Ten-hut," barked Major Ghardoki, "on your feet soldier!"

From the newspaper escaped a retort, "Blow it out your bolt gun, Rigel Did you finally bring home the bacon then?

Ghardoki snorted, "As usual, we got the shaft to a more popular, higher profile unit."

Captain Tomas Spiro put down his newspaper and dropped his feet from the desk. "What was their excuse this time?"

"Apparently," said Rigel with a smirk, "Mitso-Ta didn't feel we could uphold their corporate image as they require of their subcontractors."

"Well at least they didn't give us some lame excuse about transport capabilities."

Ghardoki plopped down in his chair, noticing the fresh stack of forms sitting in the middle. He picked up the stack and waved them in Spiro's direction. "What the hell is this?"

"Bail request forms from last night's debauchery," laughed Spiro. "Lieutenant Langford and his platoon had a philosophical disagreement with some members of the Black Cobras that ended in some rather lively discussions. Voices were raised, tables were thrown, a bar was severely damaged, and you know how it is when a group of intellectuals are discussing politics."

"Damn!" Ghardoki shot to his feet and began to pace. "How am I ever supposed get this unit to function? We can't get any decent work because of the reputation of the men in this unit. We can't hire any decent men because we can't get any work to afford decent men."

"Now hold it Rigel," said Spiro, "these men are all top notch fighters. They're just a little rambunctious."

"They're a bunch of malcontents. Maybe we should leave them to rot in the brig. Damn those guys. All they do is drink, fight and make my life a living hell."

"Yes," agreed Spiro, "but when they aren't terrorizing the local gentry, they can certainly kick ass on the battlefield."

"A fact I would love to show off," growled Ghardoki, "if I could ever get anyone to hire this mess of spilled hydraulic fluid. How'd I ever get suckered into this command anyhow?"

"Oh I know the answer to that one too," said Spiro cheerfully. "Major Franks couldn't take the pressure anymore and blew his head off. Since no other unit would hire you with your own slightly tarnished record of causing trouble, you had two choices. You could keep the unit running yourself, enjoying the great hike in pay and power, or you could get a job as a used CAV salesman on some backwater world."

"Smart ass. So since you're second-in-command, why don't you set a good example for the men? Would it kill you to at least shine your boots once every six months? You know what I mean when I say 'shine,' right?"

Spiro looked mournfully down at his boots. "I suppose you're right Major." He bent over, loudly spitting on the tips of his boots. He then wiped each one in turn on the back of the other leg and presented them to Rigel for inspection. "How's that Major, better?"

"Maybe I should just shoot myself too, and let you see how you like command."

"Go ahead," goaded Spiro, "but don't forget I can always go work with my uncle at Rocco's House of CAVs. I have job skills." He sat back down, put his feet back on the desk and flipped his paper open once more.

Rigel stared at him for a moment. Then after shaking his head in resignation, he started muttering under his breath as he signed bail request forms to get the team's commando platoon out of the local brig.

He tossed the completed forms at Tomas's feet. "There, go spring those losers."

"Actually they won the engagement quite handily," said Tomas. "So shall we go grab some lunch?"

Rigel glowered at his XO. "No thanks, I've lost my appetite. I'm going back out to look for work."

Rigel slammed the office door and headed back to the hiring hall. It had been months since the unit had done anything constructive, and his troops were getting restless. The men (lately he used that term loosely) had taken out their frustrations by attempting to out-drink and out-carouse every other unit on Tor-Nor, since they weren't being given the chance to out perform them on the battlefield. If he didn't figure something out soon, they were going to get tossed off the planet.

Every member of this unit, including himself, had been kicked out of at least one unit or another. With their shady service records and nasty reputations for causing trouble wherever they were stationed, the Regents had been unable to get work even hunting pirates out on the rims.

Though there were no real open hostilities brewing, there were always skirmishes between the major nations and UCOR's. Most used mercenaries as proxy forces these days, and this made contracts plentiful and lucrative. Even given the high demand, Major Ghardoki still couldn't get anyone to bite, even when he reduced his rates. He was ready to offer the services of the unit for free just to get the Regents some exposure. They needed a break... and they needed it badly.

Ghardoki stopped at a newsstand and picked up a copy of today's MercNet flashes. Flipping through he saw a flashing green ad that caught his eye.

"Need a Break? Want to make your mark? Do you feel that your unit is losing contracts to larger units with bigger advertising budgets? Well here's your chance to make that big first impression! We offer mass media exposure, in-depth analysis of unit strengths and first hand demonstrations of your unit's effectiveness. Did we mention the fee? There is none. In fact we'll pay YOU! Earn good money for your participation along with hefty incentive based bonuses! For more details contact Trach Rognlan, TRI Media at UI-2365-1234-67."

Ghardoki stopped dead in his tracks. This was it, exactly what his team needed. He found the nearest data terminal and punched in the code for TRI Media. It was almost too good to be true.

"TRI Media," said a bright-eyed receptionist, "how may we help you?"

"Trach Rognlan, please."

"I'm sorry," said the receptionist mournfully, "he's not available right now. Can I help you perhaps?"

Ghardoki winced as he hated dealing with intermediaries. "My name if Major Rigel Ghardoki, CO of Rigel's Regents. I saw your ad on MercNet and would like additional information regarding the details of the offered contract."

"Certainly sir, let me forward to you all the details. You can peruse them and I will have Mr. Rognlan get back to you as soon as he returns tomorrow."

The receptionist signed off before Ghardoki could say anything in reply and the terminal spit out a small chip. Rigel quickly reached out and snagged the chip out of the air before it could fall to the garbage strewn sidewalk. He stared at the chip for a few moments before he sighed and headed back to the office.

 

August 31, 2071

Captain Spiro came into the office slowly, slightly staggering and in obvious pain. The dark glasses shielding his eyes, the droop to his shoulders, and his dragging pace were a dead give away to his condition.

"Are we a bit hung over today Captain?" Ghardoki was grinning broadly, obviously enjoying Spiro's discomfort. "Well Spiro, snap-to, we have work to do!"

"Begging the Major's pardon," said Tomas, "but if I had wanted to work for a living I'd have joined another unit."

Ghardoki let roll a laugh that started deep in his belly and sounded as though it was being ripped from a throat that did not wish to let it go.

Spiro stopped his moaning and pulled off his dark glasses, staring at his commanding officer. "You're laughing... but you never laugh," he said. What's the deal, you cracking up or something?"

"No, no," said Rigel, "I found us a contract."

"You what?" Spiro shot to his feet, hangover forgotten.

Ghardoki tossed him a file. Spiro opened it and began to read. Rigel watched his second-in-command closely, trying to gauge his reaction. He would be a barometer for the rest of the men. This was a gamble to be sure, but it was the best they could do.

Spiro's excitement faded with every page he turned. He closed the file and stared straight at Ghardoki. "Let me get this straight, Major. You want us to go on a game show and get ourselves killed for the entertainment of a bunch of outworlders? Are you mad?"

"Look Tomas," said Ghardoki, "we're out of options. No one will touch us, not even the smaller companies. Hell, the Templars even turned us down for a suicide mission!"

Rigel stood and began to pace. "This deal will give us great exposure. If we could win this thing it would be like winning the Warmaster! Or maybe something even bigger..."

"Yeah sure," retorted Spiro, "except without the fame, glory, renown across the galaxy, and the large contract waiting for us at the end. Come on Rigel, this show is only going to be seen by a few dozen systems at most out on the outer rims. None of them have any money to hire a unit for anything, so there is no point in doing this."

"You're being pessimistic, Tomas. At least it's a paycheck." Ghardoki opened the file and flipped a couple pages. "Look here, these are the projected possible earnings if we win the championship. It's all incentive based. The better we do, the more we make."

"Yes but did you see this clause here." Spiro ripped the file away and flipped to the second to last page. "This is the part where TRI Media is offered indemnity against all losses we may incur during the course of our participation in this contest.

"Not to mention that we are to provide our own equipment, personnel, munitions and transportation. Plus having to repair or replace any equipment lost during the course of each round, just so we can go out and get it shot up the next week?" Spiro looked disgusted. "Come on man, that's a black hole just waiting to suck us in and crush us.

"The base retainer will cover all our initial expenses."

"Sure," said Spiro, "but it won't provide us any profit. We'll be lucky to break even. We won't get enough press coverage to make it worth our while, so just breaking even isn't good enough."

"It is INCENTIVE based," growled Ghardoki. "All we have to do to make a profit is WIN."

"And what if we can't?"

Ghardoki sat down and looked at Tomas. That thought had been plaguing him too but he had been trying to ignore it. He knew the answer, but hadn't wanted to say it even to himself.

"Then," he began slowly, "the unit is dead. But if we don't take this job, we're dead anyway, so what's the difference. We might as well go down fighting."

"You do realize you're turning us into a bunch of damn gladiators, don't you Rigel?"

"Yeah Tomas," said Ghardoki with a sigh, "I know."

"Just one more thing, Rigel. You don't speak Rach do you? Do you actually know what the name of this show, 'Nur Dutchung', actually means?" After Ghardoki shook his head, Spiro said flatly, "Blood Sport!"

"Oh great... in that case, why don't we just keep that between us for the time being?" said Ghardoki.

"What, you don't think anyone else in the unit can speak Rach?" asked Tomas with a cheesy grin.

"Oh I know a few can," said Rigel with a chuckle, "but I doubt they can read."

 

September 2, 2071

Rigel stood on the gantry lift, surveying the collection of scruffy looking warriors and technicians arrayed across the hanger floor. He sighed at their slovenly appearance, and the caustic nickname, Rigel's Rejects, came unbidden to his mind. This was their last chance, and Rigel just hoped they'd see it the same way he did.

He raised his hands for quiet, but the rabble did not desist. Tomas whistled loudly, still to no avail. Disgusted, Rigel pulled his sidearm from his holster and fired a shot into the roof of the CAV hanger. Men hit the deck and Tomas sprawled to the right at the sound of the gunshot.

"Well," said Major Ghardoki, standing with a smirk on this face, "now that I have your attention, shall we get down to business?"

Tomas slowly got back to his feet, as did the rest of the men. "Are you freaking nuts?" asked the XO.

"Oh grow up, Captain." Rigel holstered his pistol and leaned on the rail to address the men below." Here's the deal, men. It's been months since we had a contract, and at this point, this unit is financially in the crapper. In a month we will be unable to meet our fiduciary responsibilities."

"What did he say?" asked a junior technician of the man standing beside him.

"The Major's sayin' we broke, kid," replied the older man. "Better start checking the want ads."

"That being said," continued Rigel, raising his voice above the growing din, "there is a glimmer of hope. I recently received an offer for our unit to compete in a tournament of sorts. It's similar to the Warmaster, but less well known. The kicker is, it will be broadcast across a number of systems within the outer rims. This could mean not only monetary gain, but exposure as well."

There was an excited murmur that ran through the crowd. Ghardoki paused to let them take in the upside before he brought out the downside. As if on cue, a voice rose from the floor.

"Excuse me, Major," said Sergeant Major Goran, the chief of the unit's security forces, "But what's the catch? You wouldn't set up a meeting like this unless there was more to it. Why not just post our orders?"

"Thanks Sergeant, I was getting to that." Ghardoki let out a sigh as the crowd became deathly still. "The catch is this is a live fire tournament. Imagine a Warmaster with real combat conditions. Instead of safe gladiator-style combat, this event is made of real battlefield situations. You get shot, you die."

The silence was palpable. There were no murmurs, no whispers to neighbors, just a hundred men looking up at their commander, trying to comprehend what he was saying. He was asking them to go to some remote system and die on live video for the entertainment of others.

"Look men," continued Rigel, "this isn't the best deal in the world, but it's our last chance as a unit. For many of us, this is our last chance period. The fact is I know what we are capable of, but because of our colorful pasts, we never get the chance to show how good we really are. This contest is a gathering of cast off units, units like ourselves, because no self respecting unit would need to take this kind of contract. That is our advantage. These games are to be fought on real battlefields to simulate real warfare. They aren't expecting a unit like us.

"Men, in every engagement we have managed to get, your performance has been exemplary, and I believe your skills rival any on this planet. Yet we are held back from our chance to showcase how good we really are. This is it, our one real shot.

"Now, I know it's not the ideal situation, and I'm not about to order anyone to follow me into such a shaky situation. I'm going, and any man or woman who wants to come along is welcome. Anyone who doesn't will receive a month's pay and a thank you for your service thus far. There is no dishonor in deciding to walk away at this point. I mean that will all sincerity.

"I just love this unit, and I believe in what we can do. I believe that we have an advantage over the other units in this tournament, and I believe that we can cash in on that. More importantly, I believe this is our last chance to make a name for ourselves. I'm going even if I have to go alone. If you want to come along, just sign on with Captain Spiro."

With that Rigel turned and strode away toward the Command Center, leaving his men buzzing with excitement and apprehension.

 

September 10, 2072

The meeting with the men had gone far better than Rigel had hoped. Most of the Regents were a rowdy bunch and as such were natural gamblers. They didn't see this as anything more than another game of chance. Quite to the contrary to being disgruntled most were ecstatic at news of a contract, and of a paycheck. War was dangerous, and as one of the non-commissioned officers remarked, at least this one might get them on MercNet. All told, only 4 soldiers decided to cash out their contracts.

Preparations began for the long trip to Torauc. Technicians started tuning and testing their equipment, and then retested and retuned it again. Munitions and other supplies were procured as well as spare parts. Ghardoki, calling in the last of his favors, was able to get his hands on a couple of older CAV's. They were in need of repair, but they would give them something to fall back on if they lost a unit and had to have a quick replacement.

He was walking through the CAV bay overseeing the loading of the CAV's into the transports when he ran into Captain Spiro and Captain Yu, the head of the unit's air forces. Spiro reached out and grabbed Ghardoki by the arm. "Major," he said, "the unit has a little present for you."

The captains led him around to the back of the hanger. "We would have wrapped it," said Yu, "but we were running out of time."

Standing proud and tall was a Gladiator II, a monster of war weighing over 100 tons. Although it was an older Hughes-Marietta machine, this was still one of the most durable and potent CAV's in the galaxy. It sported exceptional range and a better than average targeting system. The thick hide offered great protection as well, and Rigel could see that extra plating had been added to key component areas.

"We thought it only fitting since we're running off to fight for the entertainment of others," said Spiro, "that you arrive in true gladiatorial form."

"Where did you guys get this?" asked Rigel incredulously.

"Um... won it in a poker game," said Tomas, with a nasty, open-toothed grin on his face.

"Yeah," agreed Yu, "that's it! A poker game..."

Rigel glared at the two of them with his unyielding, steely gray eyes. "Well," replied Tomas, "the access code anyhow."

The major just rolled his eyes as the two captains laughed. "Just get it on the transport before the owner comes looking for it." He turned to walk back across the hanger. "Oh and Corporal," he said to the technician currently applying a fresh coat of paint to the Gladiator, "you missed a spot over there."

"Where, sir?" the tech replied.

"On the thigh," said Captain Rigel while pointing up, "right where that half of a black cobra's head is."

"Oops," said the tech giving a cheesy grin, "my mistake sir. Thanks for catching that!"

"Uh huh," sighed Rigel. His mind was racing, and he just knew that this was going to be an interesting trip to say the least. He wondered how much other ill-gotten booty would find its way aboard Regent transports too. This might turn out to be more of a quick get-away than a controlled, safe lift-off...

 

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