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A Warrior's Family (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 27[]

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A Warrior's Family[]

Startled and Concerned[]

October 3029

Hap felt relieved as he and Anastasia walked down the stairs outside the ComStar office. He was glad to see Mags and Joker waiting across the street. He looked at Anastasia, "Do you have any idea what just happened?"

"No. I was hunting for my passport and when I looked up, that short, stocky man was looking at you with extreme malevolence, the Precentor looked at me like I was a paradox that shouldn't exist, and the young woman appeared puzzled and annoyed with me. I initially thought she was mad that I hadn't shown the Precentor the proper respect, but I think something else was going on. I wonder what that terminal actually said about me." Anastasia took Hap's arm and held it tight as she walked close to him.

"Yeah, I didn't believe the story about the system saying you were some dead Primus." Hap said.

"We should talk to-" Anastasia stopped herself and looked around, "We should get back to base."

Hap nodded "Let's get lunch first," He said as they crossed the street, and met up with Joker and Mags.

"What did you guys do?" Joker asked as they started walking briskly away from the ComStar Office.

"No idea." Hap said, "Something went wrong with their system and they had to call the Precentor."

"They had to call security too?" Mags asked, "That short guy in the black robe, he's a fighter."

Hap nodded, "Yeah I thought the same thing, he had the marks of a career boxer, and I thought for a moment he was going to reach across the desk and choke slam me. The woman looked like an actress, but she could type fast, so I guess they were techs, not security. The whole thing doesn't make sense."

"Yeah, that's how I always feel when I go to church." Joker replied.

"I saw how he was looking at you Jefe. If shit went down. I was going to mess him up, but Joker said we should wait outside in case we needed to post bail or tell the Commander what happened." Mags said.

"Thanks, Mags" Hap looked at Mags. He had no doubt she was sincere, and would have been at his side in a fight. She tended to be aggressive and reckless in a 'Mech, and if she fought like that in a street fight, it would be to her advantage. But the man in black had the air of a determined killer. Alone, Hap was certain he'd lose to the man in black, even with Mags, he didn't think they'd fare much better.

"Given the height of the steps there are at least two floor beneath the main business floor, and I'd rather not know how many sub-floors." Anastasia said, "I believe if we had an altercation with the ComStar order they would take us down stairs never to be seen or heard from again."

Joker laughed, "So you're saying I was right. Oh I'm going to remember this day."

Anastasia shook her head, "I'm going through a lot today, and in no mood to verbally spare with you. Given the circumstances, yes, you chose wisely. Can we get lunch now and go back to the base?"

Joker looked annoyed, "When you put it like that, it doesn't seem as funny or good."

They walked for a few more minutes along cold damp streets. Hap wanted to get lost in the crowd.

They found themselves in front of the diner. It had large windows facing the street. The Coyotes walked in to find a few people enjoying a mid-morning meal or cup of coffee. The dinner had a long L-shaped counter that ran most of the length of the store, and wrapped around the side to give the store patrons access to restrooms in the rear of the diner. There were stools around the counter, and booths lined the walls beneath the windows. It was poorly heated, but the windows gave it a bright atmosphere.

There was a matronly waitress wearing a pink short-sleeved dress with white trim and a white apron tied around her waist. She smiled warmly and invited them to sit wherever they liked.

Hap chose a booth in the corner of the diner where he could sit facing the door. He wanted to be ready if the man in black or someone else from ComStar walked into the diner. They had no real weapons, so they would have to try to slip out the back, assuming that was possible. Hap would talk to Roweyna about Monhegan's laws for carrying weapons. He'd also ask her if the company had any rules about walking around armed. He would have assumed the company would want their personnel to avoid fights, but he couldn't remember it ever coming up in conversation or in the contract.

The waitress came by and passed out menus. "Y'all know what you want? I don't believe I've ever seen you four around here. You new to the starport? What can I get you to drink?"

Hap glanced up, the woman was middle age with auburn hair and a friendly twinkle in her brown eyes. The name tag pinned to her dress read "Ruby." Hap tried to remind himself to act normal as Joker gave Ruby a deceptively boyish grin, "Yeah, we're new, Ruby. I think I'll have coffee." Mags and Anastasia asked for the same. Hap forced himself to smile as he ordered.

Ruby nodded and went to the other side of the counter to retrieve mugs and the coffee pot. Hap inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly trying to calm himself. Anastasia was sitting on the inside of the booth, and she was so close to Hap he could just as easily read her menu as he opened his own. She was studying the breakfast selection. The diner seemed to specialize in hashbrowns and had a half page describing various gravies, sauces, cheeses or meats that could be cooked and served on the hashbrowns.

There was a second page of omelets, skillets and other breakfast dishes. Anastasia turned quickly past this to a page of diner sandwiches. She studied it carefully as Hap saw what he wanted, a classic bacon cheese burger. Ruby returned and set mugs of steaming coffee in front of everyone and placed a small creamer pitcher and sugar packets in the center of the table as she asked for their order.

Mags wanted a southwest skillet, Joker ordered a complex combination of things to cover and smother his hash browns, and a side of bacon. Anastasia requested a patty melt with potato salad that Ruby told her she personally made with her secret ingredient, dill. Hap asked for a bacon cheeseburger with fries.

The food came out quickly and Anastasia and Hap started to feel better as they ate. Ruby came by and asked where they were from, and general things about their mercenary unit. She explained how Monhegan had seen a lot of mercenaries come through lately. She had heard that a Fourth Succession War was starting and mercenaries were gathering along border worlds to be near the action.

When the meal was finished Hap and Anastasia decided they needed to find Cody. Since his father was a ComStar member she reasoned he could help them make sense of what had happened at the ComStar offices. Joker and Mags were going to look for something to use for doors in the barracks. Anastasia gave Mags some money and told her to find something for their room.

The cab ride back to McFinnigan and Sons area was short and uneventful. Although Hap and Anastasia were both a little leery to get into the cab. Hap knew on some level, they were being paranoid, but his experience with the Precentor and the man in black had been profoundly troubling. Hap knew it was the same for Anastasia. They hadn't talked, but she had kept herself close to him since the ComStar facility.

Hap and Anastasia went to Ops and asked if they knew where to find Cody. John was pretty certain that he and Mal were working with the techs on a remote drone in the 'Mech hangar. Hap and Anastasia went to the hangar to find Cody, Jim Hawkins the Leopard pilot, and Erik standing around a small air craft that was in pieces. Hap noticed it didn't have a cockpit. As they approached they could hear the men arguing.

"I don't know why we bother." Erik grumbled, "This drone is made by Quickscell, a company with a legendary history of cutting corners to provide the cheapest military hardware that almost meets the design specs. If it flies one time I'll be amazed, if it can take-off for a second flight I may consider rethinking my opinion about Quickscell, but my daughters can tell you, I rarely change my opinion."

"Yeah, probably not since mom divorced him" one of his daughters said from the corner where her and her sister were repacking a giant 'Mech gyro with a thick lubricant.

Everyone looked at Erik waiting for him to respond, and he just shrugged, "She's not wrong."

Cody looked over at Anastasia and Hap, "You two look like you've seen a ghost."

"Yeah, can we talk to you?" Hap said. "We had an odd experience at the ComStar office today."

Cody looked concerned and motioned toward a metal staircase leading up to the gantry. The hangar's gantry was a system of cranes, block and tackle attachment points, and walkways for accessing the 'Mech cockpits. There were also a few offices and a loft that had couches and boxes of equipment. Mal was working on a noteputer that had "Quickscell" etched on the back. When she saw Hap and Anastasia walk by with Cody she put the noteputer down and followed them.

"Let's get the wings on, and mount the SRM pods." Hawkins said as Cody reached stairs.

Cody stopped, "No. The Commander only wanted sensors and cameras."

"Yeah I don't want to bolt a bunch of missiles to something that is going to fall on my head." Erik replied.

"If you want to fly something with weapons, go fly the Leopard." Cody told Hawkins.

"I only get to fly that to drop 'Mechs. This thing is made to 'loiter' over a battlefield." Hawkins said.

"Right. And it's to record the battle data and give Ops a battlefield picture when we can't get satellite coverage. If you arm it, you won't focus on the whole picture, and it'll get shot at." Cody said.

"It's another fine 'quality Quickscell product' so getting shot at is the least of its worries." Erik said.

"Exactly no weapons pods, just sensors. Even if we were going to arm it, which we aren't, we need to give it a test flight with no payload. Master Pilot Mitchellin, was clear about that before he left."

Hawkins grumbled but turned to help Erik assemble the drone, "I still get to fly it, right?"

"Of course you're the only qualified pilot here." Cody said

As they started up the stairs Mal said quietly "I think I can automate most of the take-off and landing procedures, so we may not need a qualified pilot in the future, assuming Erik is wrong and its reusable."

"Good. Pilots can be almost as needy and bitchy as MechWarriors." Cody said. Hap cleared his throat as they began walking across the Gantry toward the loft.

Cody looked over his shoulder, "Not you two, you've helped us a few times. Its-" Cody stopped suddenly, "You know what it actually is? It's the fact that I may not know exactly how all this shit works, but I have a damn good idea. The problem is, I'm constantly badgered by people who don't appreciate how I'm maintaining or improving technology that wasn't designed last decades, let alone centuries."

Hap nodded, "I haven't always treated my techs as well as I should. Sometimes, as a MechWarrior, you get distracted by being shot at, or losing a weapon system, and you forget about how much effort it takes to fix it, or just how many man-hours it takes to field a 'Mech."

Hap's tone placated Cody. "I know, you guys risk your lives, and if I'm being honest I am treated pretty good, most of the time." Cody said. "McFinnigan appreciates my skills, and looks out for me like a father. Here in the family everyone does help, which can be unique even in a small company. Sometimes I just get annoyed." As Cody spoke they watched Hawkins help Erik bolt it a wing onto the drone's fuselage.

"What did you guys want to talk to me about?" Cody asked.

They walked to the loft area and sat down on the couches as Hap recounted their experience at the ComStar office with the computer error and the strange techs. As they got comfortable on the couches Mal said, "Maybe it was just what it seemed, their database happened to get corrupted, and one of their techs is a psychotic boxer, and the other happens to be a gorgeous genius, like me."

Cody shook his head, "No. Techs or Adepts wear yellow, ROM agents wear black." Cody leaned forward and started talking quietly. "Listen, the last time we talked I may have overstated how incompetent some Precentors can be. ComStar is a big organization; it has some very capable, and very evil people that keep it running. There are a lot of 'smoke and mirrors' to the whole mystic cult like trappings, and many ComStar members are useful idiots who believe in it, but there are some very smart, and very cunning men and woman with everyone's secrets looking to protect ComStar's interests."

"So what did that terminal say about me?" Anastasia asked.

"I have no idea. I was never in ComStar, I just know what my dad told me and what I saw growing up in a ComStar enclave. I can tell you if it freaked out an acolyte enough to run to the Precentor and he brought back two ROM agents, it wasn't anything you wanted to have on your file."

"Why didn't they kill us on the spot?" Hap asked.

"Well it's one of two things. It could be you're more use to them alive, and now they're going to track you and ensure you do whatever useful thing they need you to do."

"What's the other option?" Anastasia asked

"You have to understand, ROM isn't like other counter-intelligent agencies. There is a certain level of brinksmanship that LIC, Maskirovka, MIIO, or ISF has in doing business. When they kill someone they want to make sure whoever that person worked for gets a clear message. Maskirovka finds an LIC spy snooping around their chemical weapons site, they interrogate him, and poison him with the chemical weapons they claim not to have. When LIC's guy turns up dead in his bathtub poisoned with some unknown illegal bio-agent, LIC responds by ensuring a Maskirovka spy master has an "accident" with a chemical truck. Everyone important gets the message, but to the rest of us, it's meaningless."

"I'm not sure I follow.." Anastaisa said.

"When it comes to people outside of ComStar ROM is the opposite. When they kill someone they don't want anyone to trace it back to them. They don't send messages, they just take care of business. They'll send a sniper to a warzone to kill an apostate while he's fixing a 'Mech. Or one day your house fills with toxic gas from the furnace, and the batteries in the detectors just happen to be dead. They want things to look like a tragic accident. Failing that they may try to pin it on one of the Houses, or a random crime. They'll do what it takes to get their person, but not have anyone suspect them, and they know it's best if no one thinks it's foul play. My point is they wouldn't kill anyone in broad daylight on ComStar grounds, they'd prefer to kill someone in way that no one would ever guess it had anything to do with ComStar."

Anastasia nodded, "So you're saying I'm a dead woman?"

"I'm saying you are dealing with a very determined and methodical counter intelligence organization that doesn't make impulsive choices. If they decide to kill you, they'll wait, they'll plan, and they'll execute you at a time and place of their choosing."

"I know you told us ComStar doesn't want anyone to recover lost technology, and I thought maybe they would kill someone to stop it, but is that something ROM really does?" Hap asked.

Cody nodded, "ROM does a lot of shady things in the name of protecting ComStar. Listens and reads everyone's messages, manipulates the great Houses, hunts down adepts and precentors that 'fall away' from the teachings of Blake. They wouldn't think twice about killing someone about to make a technological breakthrough that would tip things in the favor of one house lord. I don't know what ROM thinks you're up to, but you definitely have their attention."

Anastasia shook her head and drew closer Hap. She pushed into his side, and put his arm around her. "I helped my father. He was the genius, he saw solutions where most people just saw inscrutable limitations in technology they barely understood. But even with that, we worked primarily on communications equipment, and had a small role in a very limited weapons program. We were years away from even trying to make a prototype HPG, we were only doing research. Nothing we were doing was galaxy changing."

Cody shrugged, "Well whatever you and your dad were doing it was enough."

Anastasia stared at Cody for a long moment. The silence was broken by the sound of the public address system set up around McFinnigan and Son's part of the star port. "Will Mr. and Mrs. Vallois report to Ops." The system died for a moment then "I repeat, Mr. and Mrs. Vallois report to Ops."

Hap glanced at Anastasia. She was clearly lost in thought. He nudged her, "I think our clothes are here."

She looked at him with a blank expression, "Our what?"

"Our clothes that we purchased yesterday. I think they just got delivered to the Ops center."

"Oh yes," Anastasia said slowly, "last night suddenly feels like a lifetime ago."

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