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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 43 - By the Horns[]


Export Transshipment Warehouse
Pinard Protectorates Limited Facility Eight, MacLeod’s Land
Taurian Concordat
November 16th, 3025


“You’re certain that those SOBs haven’t rigged the engines to blow? Or the magazines? Or whatever?” Captain Walter Isaac Grey—known to his fellow soldiers of McCarron’s Regiments by the nickname of Wig—asked Jethro Harper as the wounded and dispossessed MechWarrior stood on the lowest rung of the boarding ladder, clad just in shorts, boots, and a cooling vest.

“For God’s sake, Captain,” Jethro spat. “We’ve spent the last thirty-four hours digging into the machines—there ain’t no explosives aboard them! The magazines are empty; there are no pressure triggers on the fusion engine to cause a catastrophic detonation . . . my Techs know their jobs, Wig!”

“Sorry, Harp,” the MechWarrior answered glumly, his right forearm still encased in a cast and bandages wrapped around his neck and head. “These bloody Taurians have got me twitching at shadows—it’s like the whole bloody planetary population has taken a course in building improvised explosive devices and made a pact with the devil himself on how to use them in the most fiendish ways possible.”

“Didn’t mean to snap at you, Sir,” Jethro answered as he ran one hand through his hair. “Haven’t had a lot of sleep these past few days, Sir,” he stepped up closer. “Look, we’ve checked every nook and cranny for explosives and even had a bomb-sniffing dog poke his nose inside. If they have anything rigged, it ain’t explosives or the fusion engine. The magazines are empty and my folks have even disconnected the laser from the power supply—just so that can’t be overpowered.”

“You’ve bypassed the lock-outs?” Wig asked, and then he shook his head and held up his uninjured hand at the angry expression on Jethro’s face. “Sorry, dumb question. I’m just surprised you managed to break forty-four encryptions in the time you had.”

Jethro snorted. “I’m good—but not that good. Turns out that these export models have the same access key . . . and Mac persuaded one of the execs to provide us with that information.”

“Yeah, heard about that when I was getting the arm patched up—didn’t realize it was for all of the command codes for these ‘Mechs.”

“SOP for any manufacturer—the end-user selects his own access codes; the machines all get the same primary code when they walk out of the factory. Of course, that changes every shipment, so it ain’t as easy as it sounds to steal one and walk away, but it sure as hell made my job easier,” Jethro said as he aided the injured warrior up the access ladder and opened the cockpit of the 30-ton Bandit.

Wig whistled. “They might all be stubborn bastards who don’t fight fair, but damn if they don’t make a good-looking cockpit,” then he paused. “Where’s the ejection seat?”

The chief technician for McCarron’s Armored Cavalry snorted. “No ejection seat—no jump seat either,” and he grinned at the shocked expression on the face of the MechWarrior. “But you can still eject, Wig. The Taurians decided to make the entire cockpit itself detachable—the ejection rockets are beneath this . . . tub that contains your seat, the control systems, the main computers, AND the canopy. Yank the ejector and the whole thing is blasted clear—it’s more complicated and costs more than standard ejection seats, but the Taurians swear by it.”

“Yeah,” Wig answered with a far-away look in his eyes. “I busted the arm when I struck the edge of the canopy ejecting out of my old Quickdraw—this sounds safer . . . if it works.”

“It works,” Jethro said with a drawl. “God knows enough of the Taurians here on MacLeod’s Land have punched out, after all.”

Wig stepped into the cockpit and the tech began to strap him into place—and then he saw the controls.

“Dials? Gauges? Where’s the Multi-Function Display?”

“You’ve got two small displays on the right and left sides,” Jethro explained. “The Taurians prefer old-school controls—all of the gauges are analog, not digital, if you can believe it! But they work,” and Jethro sighed. “And if something goes wrong with the computer, they STILL work, because they aren’t run by the computer—this puppy doesn’t have the hair-trigger response of most ‘Mechs, but it’s good enough . . . and a lot cheaper. Plus, if something goes wrong with a gauge, a good tech can fix it with a caliper and pair of pliers—modern MFDs you have to yank the whole damn thing and hope you have a spare in storage.”

Wig shook his head. “Same with the weapons—manual arming for the separate systems? God damn, the Bulls are paranoid aren’t they? Still, the leather seats are nice,” he continued as Jethro plugged his cooling vest into the cockpit interface.

“Go ahead, fire her up.”

“Access code?”

“Printed on that piece of duct tape,” Jethro said as he pointed at a combination of letters and numbers stenciled in black ink on the grey strip.

“Hail Mary full of grace,” Wig whispered as he began to flip switches and then gingerly depressed the red key labeled FUSN IGNT. There was a sudden hum coming from beneath the cockpit, and then the needles on the various gauges twitched, jumped, and settled on idle. He entered the sixteen digit alpha-numeric combination on an old-fashioned key-pad and, after a moment to think and confirm the code, the main computer brought the gyro on-line.

“All systems looking good,” he reported as Jethro set the heavy neuro-helmet over his shoulders and plugged it into sockets built into the cockpit. “HUD is . . . active,” Wig broadcast.

Jethro stepped back and he closed the cockpit canopy, giving the MechWarrior a thumbs-up, which Wig returned with his good hand. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered, and engaged the motive system—the 30-ton BattleMech took first one step, then a second, and (with confidence building by the second) Wig pressed the throttle forward until the machine was moving at its full normal walking speed of 64.8 kilometers per hour.

Wig began to sweat as the heat from the engine bled into the cockpit, and he glanced down at the air circulating vents—nothing was flowing from them. His cooling jacket was working, but without the high-pressure air circulating from the cooling unit, the cockpit was rapidly becoming a sauna. He began to curse, and then he saw that there was a separate control for the chillers. Blushing, he activated the unit and it began to hum, and with the surety of any veteran MechWarrior, he twisted the dial to allow for maximum air-flow—and then he froze as a spray of fine mist erupted out of all of the vents.

“SHIT!” he yelled, and he brought the Bandit to a halt as he checked his chemical-warfare detection strip built into the cooling vest—all green, he realized, his heart pumping wildly.

“Problem, Wig?” crackled the radio.

“Negative—the chiller vents discharged an oily mist when I turned them on.”

“Acknowledged,” the voiced said and then paused. “Others are reporting the same—Harp says it might be oil in the ventilation unit . . . any chem-markers registering?”

“Negative. Proceeding to the DropShips, Central.”

Taking the throttle in hand once more, Wig began to accelerate, and then one of the two display screens flashed.

LEAVING PPL GROUNDS. ENTER SECONDARY SECURITY CODE.

“Central, it’s asking me for a secondary security code,” Wig broadcast—and he could hear cursing over the radio, including the voice of Harper in the background, “No one has TWO BLOODY DAMN security codes! No one!”

“Wait one, Wig,” Central answered. The screen blanked, and then the message repeated. And then it blanked again, and was replaced with blocky 5, then 4, and then 3. “Oh shit,” Wig whispered, as it counted down to zero.

GOOD MORNING, DAVE, the screen flashed, and then everything died—except the access panels in front of the primary and secondary computers. Those sparked and crackled, and then the fusion engine went into emergency shutdown and all of the controls died. “Fuck,” growled Wig, as he activated the emergency radio.

“My computer just fried itself, Harp!” he barked. “Gyro is dead, engine is off-line—but, yeah, the gauges still work and it’s hotter than hell in here!”

That was the moment, when he was waiting for a reply, that Wig realized his skin was itching—he looked down and saw his naked arms, chest, and legs were bright red and already swelling.

“SHIT!”


“HARP!” Archie bellowed.

“Look, no one uses two security codes, Mac!” the Tech yelled back. “We’ve got to pull the computers and . . . damn, we don’t have enough spares.”

“HARP!”

Ignoring his boss, the Chief Tech raised the microphone. “Get the heavy transporters out there—we are hauling the ‘Mechs the rest of the way by hand, people!”

“How long?” Archie said through clenched teeth.

“Six hours? Maybe eight?” Harp said with a shrug. “We are talking about more than fourteen hundred tons of ‘Mechs, boss.”

The sudden cacophony of screaming and cursing from forty-four cockpits interrupted Archie’s answer.


“I hate Taurians,” Archie muttered. “What the hell is urushiol and why didn’t the chem-strips detect it?”

“It’s the active agent in poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac, Mac,” the senior medical officer attached to the Armored Cavalry said. “Non-fatal and no one uses it in chemical weapons—but those MechWarriors were covered with the oil from head to toe. None of them are going to be fit to pilot a ‘Mech for weeks. And I hope to God I have enough anti-histamine ointment for all of them.”

“The oily mist,” Harp muttered. “They planted liquid urushiol in the cockpit blowers. Those miserable damned hateful sadistic SOBs.”

“God damn, I hate Taurians,” Archie swore once again.


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