Level 4Nur Dutchung - pt. 2
By Thane Barnier

October 2, 2071
Touragnul Space Port

The first of the unit's two Hercules assault ships touched down softly on the tarmac of the Torauc spaceport. As the doors to the CAV bays lowered, Major Rigel Ghardoki flipped the final switch to bring his CAV online.

"Ok Cleminsi," said Rigel to his wizzo, "smile pretty for the cameras."

"Yes sir!"

Keying the all-hands circuit he said, "Regents disembark and form ranks for parade. Command section on me."

Rigel started the Gladiator forward. After being the Major's wizzo for over a year, Cleminsi was still amazed at how the man could move even the most cumbersome of war machines with little or no bobbing of gait. To those watching outside, the Gladiator would have appeared to be a 30 foot tall tin soldier marching in perfect precision to an unheard cadence.

Ghardoki brought the CAV to a halt 50 yards from the Hercules. To his left, Lieutenant Russell's Archer moved into position, to his right, Lieutenant Hernandez's Knight. Behind him, casting a shadow across the Major's viewport, came the lumbering presence of Lieutenant Movra's Rhino. Not normally a part of the command section, he had joined them today for the parade, a show of strength for the other contestants.

"Captain Yu," Rigel said into the comm, "you may begin your fly-by."

Rising from their hiding place behind the twin Hercules craft, Captain Yu's air forces rose like a flight of silver ghosts driven upward by their bellar fans. 10 strong, the flight was a formidable array of airpower with a quartet of Kikyu fast attack gunships, four Tsuiseki heavy assault planes, and a pair of Fenri fast strike troop insertion gunships. The flight hovered for a second, and then burst forward to soar over the heads of the arrayed crowd. Then it looped back around to hover once more at the rear of the formation.

Seeing that all his units were formed up behind him, Rigel strode the Gladiator forward toward the quartet of waiting CAV's. Painted red and gold, they bore the markings of the Hell's Gate Brigade, a unit of which had been hired by the Torauc government to provide security on this world during the Nur Dutchung. The local officials were none too pleased to be holding such an event on this fractious and volatile world, but Trach Rognlan had connections. After a bit of political pressure and a number of well-placed bribes, the system legislature had ultimately agreed to host the event. However, they stipulated that an independent and reputable security force be hired to protect the local populace.

The Hell's Gate Brigade was indeed reputable. While they weren't well known by the normal citizen of the galaxy, the Brigade was near legendary within the mercenary community. A unit comprised primarily of Rach warriors, they had rebelled against their tribal leaders and broken away to become independent. A disagreement between their former leader and the tribal elders had led to their actions, but the specifics were long since lost to legend. Immediately they were deemed outlaws and deserters, and although several attempts were made to bring them to justice, those attempts failed.

But this was the Rach Empire, a people who honored the warrior spirit above all else. The warriors of the Brigade became mercenaries, and tales of their exploits and great victories filtered back to the people of the Empire. They became folk heroes, amassing such fame and respect for their defiance and fighting prowess that soon they were pardoned for their transgressions and invited back to the Empire. Rorack eventually accepted, leaving the unit to take over as leader of the tribe he had once turned his back on. The Brigade, however, stayed independent yet loyal to its former commander.

That it was Rach fighters that were hired for his unit did not surprise Rigel. This world, while independent, had a sizable Rach population after all. They would be admired by the Rach citizens of this world, and their reputation would mean that the mercs who would compete in the competition would respect them as well. They were the perfect unit for this duty.

Rigel brought his CAV face to face with the ‘70 Dictator standing at the forefront of the Rach formation and opened his external speakers as well as the comm channel. "Colonel Jorl," he said in flawless Rach, "permission to disembark and enter the city."

"Granted," the Rach commander replied, "may you fight well and die gloriously. Please form up your men. Sergeant Utonch has the honor to lead you to your home here on Torauc."

He stepped to the side and a small red and gold CAV which Rigel recognized as a Kahn stepped up to face his Gladiator. The major called his men to order and they formed up into a tight two abreast column, with him at the head and his XO, Captain Spiro, in the rear of the formation piloting an Assassin. Seeing them ready, the Kahn spun on its heel and started down the wide boulevard.

As the column moved on, Rigel gazed at the people gathered around the streets, cheering as they passed. He began to have thoughts that maybe this wouldn't be as bad as he had first feared. The further they got from the spaceport however, the more he began to realize that the mood of the people gathered on the streets had changed.

The cheers were becoming jeers. People were now shaking fists at them as they past. He could not read the Rach writing on the signs some people held, but he doubted they were words of welcome. Flipping on the all hands circuit he spoke to his men. "Regents, keep your cool. Whatever happens do not, I repeat, do not retaliate in anyway. We don't want any messy incidents in our first 10 minutes here."

Other than a few pieces of rotten fruit tossed at his CAV as he strode by, the protestors made no outwardly aggressive acts toward the passing mercs. Still, the atmosphere concerned Rigel enough to speak to Colonel Jorl upon reaching the Regents' new base of operations.

"Do not concern yourself Major," said Jorl, "we will take care of any local difficulties you may have."

"I've been meaning to ask Colonel, how could a backwater world like Torauc afford to hire the Hell's Gate Brigade, and why? I mean, it seems a bit extreme to have a unit of your prowess here to watch over a competition."

"Well Major," said the Colonel carefully, "I mean no offense, but the units that Mr. Rognlan has gathered are not the most reputable in the galaxy. My primary responsibility is to the people of this world, to be sure that the men of lesser character who permeate these units do not cause harm to the people of Torauc."

Rigel straightened his shoulders and looked about to explode when the Colonel quickly added, "My apologies Major, that was not directed as much toward you as others. I have read your unit's dossier thoroughly, and I must admit that I have certain apprehensions about events that may occur with your unit, but those concerns are minor in comparison to some of the other units. I fully expect that we will have some minor disturbances caused by the Regents, but nothing that could not be handled by the local security forces. My concern is with some of the seedier units which Rognlan has gathered, namely the pirates he picked up from the outer territories."

"I see," said Rigel, still a bit put off by the suggestion that his unit could not behave itself. He had admitted to himself that were he in the Colonel's position, he would have gathered the same thing and drew the same conclusions from the men's records. However, he also knew the truth of their situations could not be garnered merely from reading those files. All of these men were soldiers who had been cast off by commanders that used them and tossed them aside, and were less interested in molding them into something stronger. They were jaded, surly, and on the edge of out of control; in short, the perfect fighting force. Since he had taken over command he had worked hard to give these men a purpose, to rebuild their self-esteem, and to make them remember that they were soldiers. If they had to live and work with Rach soldiers standing over them like hall monitors waiting to catch a truant child, things would degrade rapidly.

"Like I said Major," said Jorl reaching out and placing a hand on his shoulder, "that was not directed at you or your unit as much as some of the lesser units that are arriving on-planet. While your men may lack a bit of self-control, there is no doubting your leadership abilities. Given proper leadership even the most unpredictable of men can be formed into good soldiers. Proper leadership is what most of these units lack, and that is what really concerns me.

"I must admit Major," Jorl said raising an eyebrow, "that given your unit's abilities I am surprised your would participate in this endeavor."

Rigel was surprised at that statement. "To be honest Colonel, we didn't have much choice. We couldn't get work anywhere else, not with all the squeaky clean spit polished and shined units running around Tor Nohr. Our reputation doesn't really lend itself to security details, and since there isn't a war going on there is little need in the galaxy for real fighting men."

"I see your dilemma."

"And the fact that we aren't exactly on the Templars' A-list meant they weren't going to be any help."

Jorl chuckled, "Another point in your favor my dear Major. Those pretty boys on Tor Nohr would not know a true fighting unit if it blasted its way through their latest dinner party."

Rigel chuckled as well. Against his better judgment, he was beginning to like this Colonel. "You mentioned two duties here."

"Ah yes, well," he began slowly, "you see Major, your unit is one of only three non-Rach units participating. In addition, you are in fact the only unit commanded by a Terran. This planet suffered greatly in the Vela War at the hands of the UDF. Yes, I know atrocities were perpetrated on both sides, but the people of this world do not. Did you notice the protestors on our way in? That sentiment, an anti-Terran sentiment, is widely felt throughout Torauc.

"I'm not saying that your men are in danger, but do not be surprised if there is an outward prejudice against you. Most people will not do anything to antagonize you, but we are Rach after all." Colonel Jorl smiled as he continued. "Some young men with more balls than brains that may find it amusing and patriotic to try and get a little payback for their people by attacking your fellow soldiers. So, my second duty is to ensure that you are undisturbed, and can concentrate on competing."

"I see," Rigel said again, "in that case I will alert my security teams. We do have our own security force, and I feel it would be beneficial if you were to brief my chief of security."

"Of course," said Jorl.

"It might also be prudent for me to put a few restrictions on my troops' movements off-base. Never traveling alone, perhaps a curfew, that sort of thing. Better safe than sorry."

Colonel Jorl nodded. "A wise and prudent maneuver, Major, but one I would not have been so bold as to suggest to you. I see the opinion of you which I formed from reading your service record is indeed deserved."

"Opinion of me?" Rigel raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Jorl smiled again. "That you are an excellent commander who was a brash and impulsive youth, but has put aside those ways and learned the even-keeled skills needed to command. That you have not cracked under the pressure of running a unit which has already driven one commander to suicide. That you are a commander whose first concern is always his men, not his own reputation."

"I noticed you did not comment on my daunting battlefield prowess," Ghardoki said sardonically.

"I have no proof as of yet," said Jorl in all seriousness, "having never seen you in combat. However, I think my assumption that you are a superior warrior who is daring and selfless in combat will be proven correct. That even on the battlefield you will put your men before yourself, even unto your own death, and that your reputation and ego will take a back seat to securing your objective. All of these opinions I do believe will turn out to be correct. I am an excellent judge of character."

"Well in that case," joked Ghardoki, "I don't want to hear your opinion of my XO."

The two men shared a laugh. "I must be going Major," said Jorl, "but should you need anything, please contact me."

"Thank you Colonel, I will."

October 10, 2071
Regents HQ
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

Rigel stood leaning on the rail looking down at the CAV bay and the industry below. A change had come over his men the moment they had belted in to touch down on this world. They no longer had the lazy gait of someone who was trying to do as little as possible, gone were there the nightly scuffles in the barracks, absent was the endless list of infractions presented at the morning meetings by Sergeant Major Goran. The men carried themselves with a sense of purpose, a sense of pride. The inactivity on Tor Nohr had worn on them, and he wondered how much of their unruly behavior was because of a lack of direction and purpose.

"What exactly are you smiling about, Major?" His XO had quietly walked up and leaned on the rail beside him.

"I was just wondering for a second where all these soldiers came from and what happened to the kindergarten class we brought with us from Tor Nohr."

Tomas chuckled. "Amazing what they can do given the right motivation."

"Yeah but we haven't done anything yet," said Rigel, "I would have thought it would take more than a speech from me to get them to behave themselves."

"Don't sell yourself short," said Tomas, "you asked your men to not embarrass you, not to behave themselves. There is a significant difference that I don't think you realize. These men respect the hell out of you Rigel. And while their definition of "behaving" may differ from one bar to the next, they all know what it means not to embarrass you. Whether in the local bars, or on the battlefield, they'll do all that they can to keep their promise to you, because you kept your promise to them."

"What promise," asked Rigel, "when did I promise them anything?"

"When you took command of this zoo you said this was a second chance for all of us, and that you would see to it that we got that second chance. You delivered, and here we are."

"Yeah," said the Major softly, "here we are."

A trooper wearing the uniform of the unit's security team strode up and saluted. "Sirs, your car is here."

"Shall we Major? The enemy awaits."

October 10, 2071
TRI Media Center
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

Rigel and Tomas were seated at a large ring like table. Seated around the table with them were a collection of other warriors, all commanders of the units involved in the Nur Dutchung. An uneasy tension filled the room as the men stared at each other, sizing up their competition. Of the 24 units participating, only three of the commanders were not Rach.

He glanced at Major Jorhat, the big Malvernian CO of the Dagger Stars. He was a seasoned commander that was known to have side-stepped a number of indictments for atrocities through intervention of some highly placed members of the Malvernian theocracy. The Dagger Stars was a nasty unit that was known for its rabid devotion to only two things that mattered (to them) in this world; Khardulis and Major Jorhat. They would be well-suited to the stakes in this game.

Jorhat was the epitome of the religious zealotry, a figure whose devotion to Khardulis was so stereotypical that he was almost a caricature. It speaks to the true nature of the Malvernian military that this zealous nature was what led to Jorhat's demise. Rigel's own intelligence reports showed that too often he had questioned the decisions and motivations of his superiors. Rather than put up with his interference infuriated by his constant questioning of their loyalty to the Church, his superiors had taken steps to remove him. These included charges of atrocities against civilians. Some ultra-conservative members of the Church had managed to get the military to allow Jorhat to resign rather than face the court, a move which surely saved his life. When he left to form a mercenary unit, other soldiers of his same ilk followed, and rumors were that those same highly placed friends had bankrolled the start-up costs. Though the Dagger Stars had enjoyed minor successes since then, the specter of the alleged atrocities still hung over the unit like a thunder cloud.

Seated next to Tomas on Rigel's right was Gerald fos Frenir, the Ritterlich commander of the Angels of Flame. He and Tomas had actually served together while a part of the Avalorr Joint Defense Force, and Spiro painted a very unflattering picture of Colonel fos Frenir. He was a foppish aristocrat who had no business being in a CAV, let alone commanding a unit. His unit was full of over-privileged cry babies who made the most outlandish demands in their contracts regarding support and billeting during duty. Their mobile headquarters was a palatial mansion of a place which Spiro said reminded him more of a house of ill repute than a place where wars were conducted.

Across from him he saw General Irlkan Rotan, CO of the Dire Wolves. Rotan had been a highly placed and well respected commander in the Rach Imperial Guard until he had lost an entire regiment. It was a classic story, poor intelligence causes an entire unit to be destroyed, and the surviving CO is cashiered as a scapegoat for the failures of his superiors. Ghardoki had met the man on more than one occasion and respected him; not only for his intelligence and fighting ability, but for the way he carried himself. Rotan was not your typical Rach soldier, bristling with bravado and aggression, but was very sophisticated and even-tempered. He made a mental comparison to Colonel Jorl and found the similarities striking. Rigel wondered again why warriors such as they were here.

Of the other units he knew very little. It was easy to pick out those who were more pirates than mercenaries, as they lacked the military bearing and the rigid posture of the other commanders.

He was roused from his thoughts as Trach Rognlan; head of TRI Media, entered the room. The Nur Dutchung was his brain child, and he ran the event personally. He was big for a Rach, rotunda and with none of the warrior spirit one usually attributed to even the most civilian Rach. What struck Rigel most profoundly was the suit he was wearing. It was a pale grey pinstriped suit of a Terran cut which had been out of style for at least a century. On his lapel was a large pink flower which Rigel did not recognize, probably something native to this world. The whole ensemble gave him a foppish and distinctly unmilitary style, which was perhaps the idea, Rigel thought.

"Please gentlemen," Trach said raising his hands unnecessarily for silence, "let us begin. My assistants are now passing around the press kits which are being distributed to local media outlets detailing the history and highlights of all units in this round of the Nur Dutchung."

Rigel took a folder from the stack and passed the rest over to fos Frenir, who accepted them with a courteous nod of his head.

Rognlan continued. "Now, in recent years the ratings of the annual Warmaster competition have sharply declined. The reasoning is simple; the Templars have so sanitized the engagements as to take all danger and excitement right out of the contest. It is obvious that what viewers want is more realism. They want to view actual warfare, to see soldiers fighting and dying, and that is exactly what we are going to give them."

Tomas, after hearing this and having caught a glimpse of what appeared to be an autonomous video recorder, slowly turned his head to face his CO. He stared into Rigel's eyes and gave him the "what did you get us into" look. Even though Rigel knew that the true point of this show was to give the viewers the entertainment of watching men in actual live combat fighting for their very lives, the off-handed way Rognlan referred to these warriors' deaths was disturbing. It belittled all that they stood for, and gave Rigel an instant insight into the persona of this man.

"To that end we are doing away with the gladiatorial style of play and moving to more of an objective-based format. Each round will have a different task, a different battlefield and a different set of victory conditions. These will remain secret until the pre-round briefing of each battle."

Aids then began passing around a trio of large booklets. "My staff is now distributing to you our price and availability lists for the various suppliers with whom we have current contracts. You may use them for your resupply and refitting needs, but I'm afraid all transactions will have to be on a cash basis. No lines of credit will be permitted."

Rigel heard fos Frenir scoff at the idea of needing a line of credit, and fought the urge to open the top book to see what kind of prices they would have to deal with. Supply lines out this far on the Rim were thin at best, and they would almost assuredly be forced into using TRI's contacts for any of their needs.

Rognlan then continued. "The first battle will take place one week from today. All intelligence, including your objectives, terrain details, time and place can be found in these packets." Trach held up a sealed blue plastic packet which bore no markings other than a black number, and the stamp of "Top Secret". He also held up a small black silk bag.

Reaching into the bag he pulled out a small steel coin. "Each of these coins bears the markings of one of your units. I will pull the coins out randomly, and which ever unit is chosen will receive the next numbered packet. To this end, all placements and objectives remain random."

Rognlan then pulled the coins, one by one, while his aids distributed the packets in order to the selected units. When the Regents' coin came up, one of the packets was handed to Captain Spiro. He accepted it unwillingly as if it were a bomb, and placed it gently on the table. Rigel's unit had drawn the ninth packet, whatever that meant. Hearing tearing of plastic, Major Ghardoki looked and saw that many of the other CO's had already begun to open their packets and leaf through the contents.

Idiots, he thought, just share your intelligence with all your enemies. He looked over and saw that General Rotan has looking in his direction. He gave Rigel a sardonic smile and looked skyward slightly, conveying that he was having the same thoughts that Rigel was about their neighbors' stupidity.

"Gentlemen, you may contact me with any questions on the intelligence you have just received." Snapping his fingers as if forgetting something he said, "One more thing which I forgot to mention about the new format. The Nur Dutchung is single elimination. You lose, you're out, so be careful. There are no second chances."

With that, Rognlan and his staff left the room amidst a barrage of angry demands for explanation and a score of stunned faces. Tomas once again turned to Rigel as if to say, "What did you get us into?" and Rigel was thinking exactly that same thing.

Trach strode into his office and unbuttoned the pinstriped jacket. He flopped down in the chair behind his desk and gleefully watched the chaos in the briefing room on the large wall monitor. "Well, Marag, what do you think?" he asked the room's other occupant.

"I think you just stirred up a nest of angry Kharls!" The other man was livid, his anger dancing in his catlike yellow eyes. "Do you know what those ruffians could do to this planet? And you go and purposely get them angry?"

"Oh do relax governor," said Trach smoothly. "Security is taken care of. You have my assurances that nothing untoward…"

"Nothing untoward?" The Rach politician looked as if he were ready to leap the desk and throttle the media mogul. "What about that little incident in Gaesa last week? Or the assault in New Mohr just yesterday?"

"Those are minor occurrences, Marag," said Trach dismissively.

"Minor? They burnt a man's business to the ground; a woman is nearly…well…" Marag couldn't bring himself to finish the statement. He was squeamish about such things, a character flaw which defied his Rach heritage. He had the Rach temper, but not the spirit, which is why he'd landed here in this backwater system.

Trach put some steel in his voice and leaned over the desk, sensing weakness. "Such incidents seem to occur with shocking frequency on this world, regardless of the presence of my contestants or not. How many other assaults have there been this year? How many other incidents of arson in Geasa? How many murders this week alone which had nothing to do with any of the units in my event?

"Marag, you are acting like some pitiful Terran politician." Trach let his voice drip with derision. "I chose this particular world in this fleabag system because the majority of the citizens were of Rach descent. I had this flawed vision of a world that still followed the Rach traditions without all the stodginess and lack of progressive thinking. Instead what I find is a sad mix of Rach with the snobbish attitude of the Ritterlich and the decadent nature of Terrans. They say a people mirror their leaders and I have to say that's true in this case.

"Snap out of it and act like a Rach. Stop worrying like an old woman about what might happen and just deal with it if something does! With the amount of money we're bringing to this world, and to your pocket specifically, you can show a little spine now and then."

"You're a fine one to talk," Marag spat back. "Look at you in that archaic suit. You look ridiculous, yet you pass it off as style. You are going to lecture me on what it means to be Rach?"

"I am not the leader of a planet," said Trach defensively.

"No you aren't, are you? You are a sad little man, so hungry for power and fame that you have concocted this ridiculous spectacle. What they are saying is right, this little farce of yours is an insult to every true warrior in the galaxy." Marag stood straighter and raised his nose in a distinctly Ritterlich action. "I for one am ashamed to be a part of it."

"Then you are free to return that 3 million T-Reds we put in that Templar account for you last month." Trach sat back and sneered at the man. He was a snake, worse than any Terran politician he had ever met. "This conversation is over Marag. You've been bribed, your planet's economy has flourished, and the victims of any minor incidents will be duly compensated so as to cause you no lasting problems. Now please, be gone and let me finish my planning."

Marag bared his teeth in a growl and marched from the room scowling. Trach shook his head, trying to clear those instinctive combative thoughts that were the curse of his race. Anger was bad for business, he told himself, rubbing his forehead. He punched the intercom and called his production manager.

"Terrance, a wonderful thing has happened! That Terran unit is going to be defending one of the objectives, isn't that fortuitous?"

"Yeah, fortuitous," said Terrance sardonically in heavily accented Adonese. "It is amazing how your luck continues to run so. Now how exactly is this a wonderful thing and what do you want from me?"

Trach smiled. "Well, as you know the systems in this part of the galaxy have a slight, shall we say, distaste for members of the Terran race. Those poor souls will be in a very tough position. I dare say they will be handily defeated. This should be very well received, wouldn't you agree?"

"So you set this match up so we highlight these Terrans getting crushed?"

"Not at all," said Trach. "The pairings were totally random. Still, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth. What can I say, fortune smiles upon us."

"Indeed," said Terrance sarcastically, "how lucky we are."


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