Queen Bea shielded her eyes against the unrelenting sun, clasping a wrench in her oil-stained hand. From the observation deck atop the command station between the enormous venting stacks, she watched the outlines of the distant rigs circling in their individual skirmishes. Outright war on the western plains, when it finally came, would be short and violent. A cacophony of unstructured savagery. Their only chance of avoiding a bloodbath lay with the council meeting in a week.
In defiance of her position and the unwritten rig-leader grooming rules, her black-and-grey hair was a tangled nest piled on top of her head. She existed in a mechanic’s overalls, with her face often painted with sweat lines trickling soot down her face. The striped pattern had the effect of placing her face behind bars or, from her point of view, everyone she saw in a cage.
She’d never worried about survival in her youth. The rig, Lady Moonshine, was the biggest megaRig out on the west coast; twenty-five towering metres of rust-coloured steel and fire that no one dared challenge. Once, trade had been good. Times had been good. The Moonshine mined and processed an unmatched amount of ore, allowing it the luxury of a static location. Everyone came to the Lady Moonshine, and thriving communities assembled around its base. Until the flood came and washed them away. A hundred thousand people dead in five minutes. With a population already decimated in the Reckoning a thousand years before, it was a loss the region couldn’t take.
The Moonshine had survived because its gas-exploration drill secured it to the rock. Everything else had been lost. Trade dried up, and the mad-genius engineers modified the rig to be mobile, with towering tank tracks to drag it around the countryside. Life used to be about the ore and trade; now it centred on survival, both political and physical.
The territories reigned by selfish and frightened family heads formed mechGang alliances, shifting and breaking as quickly as the sands when opportunity and greed shook hands. Nothing was forever out west. Moving the Moonshine became a necessity, although it dug at every fibre of the queen’s predilection of strength through stability. Up close, the rig’s mammoth size generally dwarfed and discouraged attackers, and although robust, it reacted slowly in the occasional skirmish, resulting in dents and metal scars. Lady Moonshine was built for production at the rate of a crawl.
Then something new changed the world. A quantum happened. Dread crawled out from the east1 on little more than whispers, and terrified the smaller rigs into treaties, which integrated to form mechCities. In their newfound conjunction, might made them ruthless. The mechCities’ crews and general population numbered in the high hundreds, outstripping the three hundred-odd in the Moonshine, with rumours of one rig, the Hawkesbury, carrying thousands and being able to self-repair with the excess steel it produced.
But life moved on, and combat was today’s reality. The Moonshine had new features that set it apart from the other rigs. With the uncertainty of living where the rivers ran dry, Bea had confidence they’d outlast all the others.
There was news that someone was attempting to initiate the Omen. It was a horrific weapon. Bea would know; she’d ordered it to be built. But the Geigers, the mad scientists and friends who had designed it, became turncoats and ran away with the instructions after they finished fabrication. Because of who she became, on reflection Bea considered the abandonment had been a Good Thing. The world was a safer place. Everyone had recognised the significance of the Good Thing and memorialised it in law: Peace Alliance Declaration 157, or PAD-157 for short, and added several other clauses about how to respect one another. Everyone hated it. It was going to be Bea’s challenge and responsibility to bring the heads together, settle their differences, remind them of the PAD, and form an alliance. Easy, if she had about ten years. It was a pity she only had a week.
The air hung heavy, drenched in humidity and soaking up every sound. The eeriness reminded her of the quiet morning prior to the tsunami; an ominous feeling of danger pervaded the light mist and put everyone on edge. Hence the threat of impending war. It hardly seemed worth the sacrifice for what amounted to little more than epic expanses of wasteland.
In front of her, an ancient CAT-MD6310 rotated on the spot and sounded its attack sirens to challenge for the territory. Deep below the other rig was an enormous aquifer; the winner would gain the lease entitlement and drilling rights.
The two rigs turned to face each other for a megaRig confrontation, dirt thrown wide as the caterpillar tracks tore at the dry ground, bringing the opponent’s name into view: DESTROYER. The central drill lifted and prepared for a spear attack on the Lady Moonshine. Bea counted half a dozen drillers operating the primary weapon—more than usual, and a drill bigger than expected. The suspended habitats pocked the subframe, allowing fifty to a hundred to live on the rig. Bea shook her head. The other rig’s commander was irresponsible, leaving so many unprotected. The confrontation was pointless, and a lot of people were going to die. Only one rig would walk away.
The Moonshine was powerful, but the spindly Destroyer moved quickly. Would this be her final fight? It was the question she asked herself before every confrontation. Bea’s eyes darted to the right. A dust storm approached; it was still miles away but they moved quickly these days, and dangerous things lived inside them.
She reached for her communications tube and threw a marble into the opening. The rattling echoed for several seconds, haunting in its solitude, before she heard the cursed response from the command deck.
‘Control, prepare for battle.’
The storage tanks released a steady flow of gas over the igniters, producing an intense billowing flame. A pall of black smoke was ejected from the nozzles and drifted toward the other rig.
The Moonshine’s feed conveyors, positioned on either side of the drills and rock cracker, twisted up and over the caterpillar tracks, whipping the battered scoops around the conveyor on rattling chains. The noise became deafening, forcing Bea to turn her head to lessen the brutality.
The Destroyer burst through the black cloud and speared its massive drill at the heart of the Moonshine. As the rigs collided, the Moonshine’s scoops smashed into the frame of the Destroyer and gouged deep tracks in the fading yellow metal. Sparks fountained as they ground together.
The air filled with the intense screaming of tearing metal, combined with the roar of the engines, blocking out all other sounds.
The rock cracker speared out, but Control misjudged the angle and it buried itself in the ground, missing the Destroyer by metres. The retractor pulled back, but the cracker remained fastened, anchoring the Moonshine in place.
The enemy moved in; its prey was now unable to escape. The other rig’s stabilisers locked down into the ground and its drill bit tore into the Moonshine’s red facia. Rope bridges were launched between the two, and soldiers from the Destroyer streamed across, searching for entry points. The drill ripped an opening in the Moonshine’s protective plate steel and drove toward the engine’s water supply. The soldiers forced their way through and jumped at the Moonshine’s defenders. They clashed, using a combination of power tools and shields. Blades slashed into skin and blood sprayed out over the walls.
One of the Moonshine’s crew, a huge bare-chested man hefted a heavy-duty power saw and rammed it against the Destroyer’s spinning drill bit. The saw blade shattered, shearing off into the surrounding metal. Steam billowed out from the incisions, searing invaders and defenders alike.
Queen Bea watched the altercation unfold below and counted the number of attackers. There were enough on board. She grabbed the tube and shouted, ‘Fire!’
Projectile Division One released the harpoon. The tip caught fire as it launched through the Moonshine’s roaring furnaces and sailed across the gap, leaving a trail of dark smoke in the air. It pierced the enemy rig’s subframe and sliced into its pressurised fuel chamber. The gas erupted, rocking the Destroyer to the right. The subframe buckled, sagging the rig to the side, twisting in on itself. The escaping gas shrieked out from the punctured chamber, the flames boiling into an intense fireball that consumed the rig. People were jumping free, some not surviving the fall. A fire defence team crawled over the subframe, spraying foam and carbon dioxide to restrict the burn.
A siren boomed out from the Destroyer’s command deck and the rig wrenched itself free, tearing away part of its body in the process. It toppled to one side, catching its balance as a stabiliser stabbed into the sand. The rig’s caterpillar tracks bit into the sand, and the Destroyer limped away as fast as its charred and shaking remains could tolerate.
The command tube whistled. Bea picked up the receiver and listened, then glanced over at the retreating rig.
‘Stab it in the heart and burn it to the ground,’ she replied.