by Brian K. Asbury
Feinting to his right, Lionheart tried a desperate riposte in a last-ditch effort to get past his opponent’s invincible-seeming defensive technique. However, his left foot stumbled into a pothole in the crumbling concrete wharf, causing him to fumble the move and leaving him wide open. In a single masterful stroke, the Knight swept the energy sword out of Lionheart’s grasp. Its phased plasma blade died as the dead man’s switch in the hilt tripped in, and it skittered across the derelict quayside.
Lionheart tried to back away, dodging the swishing sword of the Knight as he tried to regain his balance. However, he found himself teetering toward the water and was forced to drop to one side, sprawling onto the concrete.
“Round three and KO, I think,” said the Knight, looming over him with his sword blade pointed at Lionheart’s chest. “Now, surrender. Don’t force me to humiliate you further.”
Desperately, Lionheart stabbed once more at the contact on his left gauntlet. Nothing happened. Damn! he thought. What’s wrong with this bloody thing? It can’t be the water: it was designed by the Atlanteans! Surely, of all the equipment in this suit, it shouldn’t be affected by a soaking!
Of course, he thought, his heart sinking, this is why Stacker didn’t want to use me yet. But I had to go and convince him that the suit was ready. Me and my big mouth!
“Well?” the Knight was saying. “What’s your answer, Richard?”
“Go to Hell,” Lionheart replied, stabbing at the contact again. It must be the switch, he thought. The water has caused the switch to jam. That’s the only explanation!
The Knight sighed. “Richard, you just have to be the single most exasperatingly stubborn man I’ve ever met! You’re beaten! Surrender and tell me what I want to know, and you can get out of this with some honour intact. Otherwise, I’m going to strip that suit off you and hand you over to the police.” Silence. “Damn it, man, what’s happened to you? Is working for Stacker worth this? Have you got any idea what that man stands for?”
“He stands for authority. He stands for the state. Which is more than I can say for you, mate!”
“Oh, I see,” said the Knight. “And you’re back in military mode, then? ‘My country, right or wrong’? I thought that was why you quit the SAS in the first place? Because you didn’t like the morality of some of the things they were asking you to do in the name of Queen and Country?”
“What would you know about that? You’re not even human!”
“I’m human enough to know that no state, no government, is right one-hundred percent of the time. I thought you believed that, too, Richard. I guess I was wrong. I should have realized when you walked out on our partnership after the Crisis that I was mistaken about you being a man of honour. It could have been very different, Richard. If you’d stuck with me, it could have been you wearing this armour, not me, and you wouldn’t be beholden to a man like Edward Stacker. This knight’s tale could have been yours.”
“Oh, spare me, Perry,” said Lionheart, stabbing in exasperation at the jammed contact. “You know very well why I walked out. Our so-called partnership never meant anything to you! You just wanted somebody to test your bloody gizmos for you. When the shadow demons attacked, you showed your true colours. I risked my life trying to hold them off with just my old service revolver for protection, and when I came to in the hospital afterwards, what did I find? You weren’t even there! You were by the bedside of some complete stranger!”
The Knight groaned. “I tried to explain that to you at the time, Richard. You wouldn’t listen. You just shouted and ranted and then just walked away. You weren’t badly hurt — you’d just got knocked on the head by a falling beam from the ceiling when it collapsed.”
“So… have you got any idea who that man was in the other bed?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care!” Lionheart thumped the contact with all his strength. Work, damn it! Work!
“Well, you wouldn’t listen then, but by God, Richard, you’re going to listen now! It was–”
The sentence was never completed. Lionheart’s left gauntlet suddenly flared with a blue radiance, which lanced out and struck the Knight squarely in the chest. The armoured man staggered back, sparks playing all about his armour. Then his sword dropped from his hand, and he crumpled.
“What the hell–?” gasped the Knight as he went down. He landed in a clattering heap on the concrete, the metal of his helmet ringing in his ears. His visor displays had suddenly gone out: in fact, he realized, all of the armour’s systems were completely dead. It had shut down.
Struggling against the armour’s weight, he raised himself into a half-sitting position. He knew he was strong enough to stand up in the armour without the assistance of its servos — after all, it was much lighter than real medieval plate would have been — but it would take some effort. And suddenly having its full weight to bear had taken him completely by surprise. It had been like suddenly having the weight of another man drop onto his shoulders.
He saw Lionheart, now back on his feet, walking over to where his energy sword had fallen. As he picked up the weapon, it flared back into life. Lionheart started to walk back toward him.
“And now, Perry my old mate, the tables are turned. It’s my turn to call on you to surrender!”
“What — what did you do?” the Knight said, fumbling behind his back for his own fallen sword. He doubted, however, that he could wield it effectively at the moment. He was not used to fighting in non-powered armor. That’s something he needed to practice at — assuming he got out of this fix, that was.
Lionheart held up his left hand. “An Atlantean EM-pulse blaster built into my gauntlet. Limited range, but very effective against an enemy relying on electronics even to stand up! It’s knocked out every circuit in your armour, as I knew it would!”
Perry nodded. “I congratulate you. Down for a count of nine, but still with a knockout punch in reserve. Don’t think that I’m helpless just yet, though!” He suddenly brought up his sword to guard.
Lionheart snickered. “Don’t be a chuffing fool! I can run rings around you now. How long do you seriously believe you can hold me off? You can’t even stand up in that ironmongery unless I let you!”
“Even so, I have no intention of surrendering.”
“Then on your own head be it,” snarled Lionheart. “I didn’t want to fight you, Perry, but you insisted, remember that. Remember it when I peel that tin suit off you one piece at a time!” He started to advance, his energy sword held in a fighting stance.
“Wait!” said the Knight, dropping his own sword.
Lionheart stopped in his tracks. “You surrender?”
“On one condition.”
“You’re in no position to demand conditions, sunshine. To paraphrase Ulysses S. Grant, it’s unconditional surrender or nowt!”
“Just let me explain about what happened after the Crisis.”
“What the hell for? It’s ancient history, Perry!”
“Maybe, but you can afford to be magnanimous. You wouldn’t let me explain then, but let me do so now.”
“If this is a trick…?”
“No tricks. Well?” The two men stared into each other’s helmeted faces. After a few seconds, Lionheart nodded. “All right,” said the Knight. “It’s like this…”
“Make it brief,” said Lionheart. “I’m in no mood for long speeches.”
“I intend to. As you said just now, Richard, at the height of the Crisis, two years ago, shadow demons attacked and wrecked the electronics workshop we’d set up together as business partners. You tried to protect us from them with your revolver, but the bullets seemed to have no effect. Then you got knocked out…”
“I just said that. And I also said that when I woke up, even though you weren’t hurt, you weren’t at my hospital bedside. You were with somebody else.”
“That’s right. Somebody you didn’t know at the time, Richard, but you’ve met him since. It was Percy Sheldrake, the Earl of Wordenshire. The man you kidnapped yesterday!”
Lionheart raised his eyes to the heavens. “I know.”
“You just said you didn’t know.”
“All right then — I didn’t, but I suspected it. Our partnership breaks up, I find myself out of work, but what do you do? Land straight on your feet with a plumb job working for a millionaire earl. You really seized the main chance there, mate, toadying around Sheldrake while he was in hospital. Secure yourself a cushy new job and stuff your old friend who got his head bashed in trying to keep you alive!”
The Knight sighed. “You just don’t get it, do you? You still don’t get it at all. Your injuries were minor, Richard. You were in no danger. Percy, on the other hand, was in critical shape. His legs were mangled. He was, and still is, crippled, unable to walk.”
“So? He was still nothing to you. What reason did you have for being at his bedside rather than mine other than to suck up to him after a job?”
Perry felt anger starting to well up inside him. Would this blockhead shut up and listen? “Richard,” he said slowly, “I’d taken you to hospital after the attack. You know that. But not just you. I’d taken all three of you in!”
“Three! You, Percy Sheldrake — and Percy’s son Cyril. His late son, I should add.”
Lionheart’s mouth formed an O of surprise.
“That’s right, Richard,” the Knight said, nodding. “Percy’s son died in that attack. You got a couple of stitches in your scalp, but he lost his only child. And do you know why, Richard? Do you know why they were there?”
Lionheart shook his head. The hand that held his energy sword drooped a little. It looked as if realization was beginning to dawn on him.
The Knight eased himself up a little more. “They weren’t there as Percy and Cyril Sheldrake, Richard. They were there as the heroic Knight and Squire. After you were knocked out, the shadow demons were coming straight for us. It looked as though we were dead, but just then the Knight and the Squire burst in and drew their attention away from us long enough for me to pull you clear of the rubble and out of sight. When I went back to see if I could help, they had both fallen. They were in bad shape, but still breathing. I somehow got the three of you into our company van and ferried you to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, it was too late to save Cyril.”
“Oh, my God!”
“You see, Richard? That is why I was at Percy’s side, not yours. Not because I was after a job — I didn’t even know who he was in his civilian identity — but because I owed him my life. As do you, Richard. How does it feel, knowing you’ve abducted the man who saved you from dying in the Crisis?”
“Oh, my God!” Lionheart repeated. The energy sword dropped from his numb fingers, its flare dying again as it shut off and clattered upon the crumbling dockside.
At the same time, a flashing light blinked on the Knight’s visor display. “About time!” he breathed softly. “Reboot all systems!”
A second later, he sprang to his feet in a single, smoothly agile motion.
“What the hell?” cried Lionheart, springing back in alarm.
The Knight smiled grimly. “I fought the Atlanteans, too, Richard. My armour’s systems are perfectly capable of repairing themselves after an electromagnetic pulse shutdown. It takes a minute or so, but it works quite well, as you can see.” He bent down and snatched up the fallen energy sword. “I think I’ll take this,” he said.
“Then this was all a trick to gain yourself time?” said a shocked Lionheart.
“No,” replied the Knight, sheathing his own sword. “Every word I just said is the truth. And I’d have explained it all to you two years ago if you hadn’t flown off the handle and stormed off before I could get a word in edgewise.”
Lionheart nodded. “I’ve been a bloody fool, Perry. I was hurt when I found out where you were when I came to. I thought, we’ve been friends for three years, and this is all the loyalty you show me.” He dropped to his knees. “God! How could I have been so stupid? So selfish? I didn’t know, Perry. I didn’t know!”
The Knight offered him a hand and pulled him back to his feet. “I know, old friend.”
They stared at each other for long moments, then embraced. “What can I do, Perry? What can I do to make amends?”
Perry pulled back. “For starters, return Percy to where he belongs. Then you might consider telling Stacker where to shove his job. Come and join the Paladins, Richard. We can use a good man like you.”
Lionheart tugged off his helmet and shook his blond locks. “The one I can do, mate, but the other…? You may have designed bits of this outfit, but Stacker’s people put it together and made it work. It belongs to them, not to me. Richard Plante could join you, but not Lionheart.”
“Then let Richard Plante join us.”
“I don’t think so. Stacker would put somebody else in this suit, and I don’t want to see that. And besides, inside his organization, I can keep an eye on him. I think that might be pretty important.”
“You acknowledge, then, that he isn’t exactly on the side of the angels?”
Richard closed his eyes. “I’ve been turning a blind eye to it, but I reckon he’s into some pretty dubious stuff. I can maybe help to keep it within reasonable limits if I’m still working for him.”
“It’s your decision,” said the Knight. He handed his friend back his energy sword. Lionheart clipped it back onto his utility belt. “And now — where is Percy?”
“I think you can probably guess,” said Lionheart, smiling faintly.