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Free Fire - By JA Baker[]

Free Fire
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written May 2020
Story Era Succession Wars Era

Sometimes, when you're out in the field, you see things that, well, the Brass doesn't like you talking about.

I'm not talking about stumbling onto some experimental prototype or covert operation, but rather something they don't want to admit happened because there's nothing in the regulations to explain it. Times like that, you're encouraging to get creative with your after-action reports, find something that fits the events but is a bit more palatable to HighCom. Not that every soldier has experienced something odd, just that you hear stories.

Stories like this one.

My battalion had been shifted to the Periphery boarder to work back up to fighting strength after the end of the Fourth Succession War. We'd given as good as we got against the Combine, but needed time to integrate the replacements into our existing unit structure before we were ready to go back on the line. So they had us out there on the edge of the Greater Darkness, passing on our experience to the local militia units. Now I know that a lot of regulars like to rag on 'weekend warriors', but those men and women are ready to fight to protect their homes the same as the rest of us, so I tend to be willing to cut them a little slack if they're not exactly up to Nagelring standards.

This one operation came up on, well, I don't want to say anything that might help identify anyone else who was there, so let's just say 'a planet on the Periphery border, far enough away from the League that we didn't have to worry about them paying us a surprise visit' and leave it at that. Bandits were using a series of deep valley's in a mountain range to strike out at isolated communities, grabbing food, parts and anything else they thought they could sell on the black market. We didn't have anywhere near enough troops to garrison every town, village and hamlet in the area without stripping the rest of the planet clean, and the bandits seemed well enough connected to know which towns were more trouble than they were worth.

So instead the Kommandant comes up with what was actually a pretty decent idea: a lance of Regulars and two of local Militia were to go out into the valley's orbital recon had indicated the bandits used to move from their hidden camps deep in the mountains and catch them before they reached open country. We were given rather open ended orders, allowing us to deploy as we saw fit, so I split my lance into two sections: I took one of the veteran enlisted pilots with me and six of the militia pilots, while my Sergeant and the FNG took the remaining two locals to act as our fire-support. They had the Sergeants Orion, the Rookies Crusader and a pair of militia Dervishs, meaning that they could put down a decent missile barrage to cover us if needed. That unfortunately left my two detachment with just my Rifleman, a Shadow Hawk and a Griffin for a big punch, the rest of the unit consisting of nothing bigger than a Valkyrie, being mostly Stingers and Wasps. We had a single Locust, which I deployed half a click ahead of us, covered in all the camouflage netting we could scrape together, its pot had orders to keep her head down and not fire unless fired upon first.

Rifleman (Firing In Desert with Water - Miniature painted by Kazdok)

Rifleman heavy 'mech

We pulled off a couple of successful ambushes like this, only taking light damage from a few bandit 'Mechs that looked like they'd been pulled from the local junk yard when we were told to move to a different valley, as the bandits were getting wise.

And that's when it all started to come undone.

Couple of the local pilots came to me, unofficially, and said it was a bad idea to move to that particular valley: it had a bad reputation amongst the local population, who avoided it unless absolutely necessary. People had gone missing there, never to be seen again, and sometimes even the search parties got lost and needed rescue. There were also reports of equipment malfunctioning, giving conflicting readings or just shutting down and refusing to work full-stop. All in all, the locals considered it a bad place, somewhere best avoided. Some even went as far as to say it was cursed, that evil spirits roamed there.

Now I'm not one to take such talk at face value, but there was something about the way the two of them sounded, the look of genuine fear in their eyes, that made me do a little digging.

At first the locals didn't want to talk, claiming it was all just campfire stories, but they all seemed on edge, so I kept asking. Eventually a local sheriff invited me for a drink one night and told me that a lot of the stories were true, and that nobody was willing to venture into the valley, especially at night, if they could possibly avoid it. And again, I wasn't going to accept talk of evil spirits, but you sometimes encounter areas where the local weather or geology can conspire to mess with your equipment. And even with new parts, there was the possibility that even our front-line BattleMechs might be susceptible to whatever was causing trouble in the valley.

So I contacted the Kommandant and requested that we move the option to somewhere else, siting reports of equipment malfunction in the valley. But he shot down the idea, so in we went.

The militia were a little skittish, but sitting in the command couch of a BattleMech tends to steady the nerves somewhat. And following the standard plan, the Locust found a hiding place further down the valley while my unit dug in behind a low ridge line, the fire-support lance setting up on a flat area up one side of the valley. Everyone was in position, their 'Mech's hunkered down and on standby to minimize the chance of the bandits spotting us before it was too late. Which meant that we were reliant on passive sensors, which can be twitchy at the best of times, and soon started to give conflicting reports, so we shut them down and switched to night-vision only.

There's not really much to do when you're just waiting for someone who may or may not appear out in the middle of nowhere, especially in the middle of the night. You can't sleep, because you need to be ready to go in an instant, and you can't read a book or listen to music in case you miss something. All you can do is keep checking your 'Mechs systems while keeping one eye on the HUD. There's a lot of truth to the old saying that life in the army is 99% boredom and 1% abject terror, and it can start to play tricks on you after a moment.

Unsurprisingly, it was my fellow regular who first sounded the alarm over the hardwire connecting our 'Mech's, and I set my main screen to cycle through the various passive sensors. Magscan found nothing, nore did seismic or neutrino, but night-vision clearly showed eight objects moving up the far end of the valley in single file. They were too far out to make out any details, but they were certainly big enough to be BattleMechs.

I switched to the channel linking me to the pilot out in the Locust, asking if she'd been able to make out any details, maybe let us know what we were facing. But she insisted that she couldn't see anything, and I didn't want her to risk giving her position away by moving. So instead I powered up my Rifleman and went active with her Garret D2j, still one of the best sensor suites ever produced. It meant taking a risk, because there's just no way to hide that much EM output going down-range, but the 'bandits' didn't seem to notice at all. Which meant that they were either asleep at the controls, or unconcerned that someone was trying to get a targeting lock on them.

But nothing appeared on my screen.

I contacted my Sergeant, and he confirmed that they had the unknowns on visual but nothing else. This was starting to concern me, because you hear all kinds of stories about people digging up caches of lost Star League tech, so there's always the risk of coming up against someone with some unexpected edge. But that would have required that every single one of them had lost-tech ECM, and that kind of find would be worth more than they could possibly hope to get by raiding farm towns.

I was still trying to work out what was going on when the emerald flash of a medium laser slashed through the night from somewhere on my left: one of the militia pilots had panicked and fired by accident.

With the elements of surprising lost, I ordered weapons free, dropping my crosshairs over the leading target and opening up with both autocannons. Soon everyone was letting rip with everything they had, lighting up the night with a barrage of lasers, missiles and autocannons. The Griffin to my right fired its PPC, spending a bolt of man-made lightning down range as the support lance unleashed more than eighty missiles at once. The air was filled with the crack and fizz of weapons fire, everyone doing their best to hit the flickering forms on their screens. I could see tracers bouncing off rocks that were then pulverized by missiles or PPC blasts, trees and bushes exploding or bursting into flames as lasers speared them. It was hell, pure and simple, but not so much as a mouse-fart came back the other way.

After what felt like an hour, but my mission clock said was only a couple of minutes, I gave the order to advance towards the 'enemy', and my double lance began leapfrogging forward in pairs, one 'Mech covering the other in turn. The support lance followed suit, working their way along the side of the valley, laying down a sporadic barrage of missiles and laser fire. We reached the point where the Locust had been hidden, and it added its limited firepower to our own.

Still nothing in return, even as the flickering images on the night-vision started to move away.

Then I realized something: our weapons fire seemed to be passing through them without meeting even the slightest resistance. And they weren't walking, but rather floating maybe half a meter above the ground. I cycled through all my active and passive sensors again, even resorting to using the standard issue MK.1 eyeballs the Good Lord saw fit to issue me with, but only the night-vision showed anything. I gave the order to hold fire, and the night grew strangely quite, with only the popping of hot metal and the faint roar of the countless fires we had started. Certainly not what should have been the rumbling of almost a company of BattleMechs moving off at the quick-march.

I called for a quick roll-call, and once everyone reported in, I asked if anyone had taken any hits. The radio was deathly quite, everyone waiting for someone else to speak up.

"Lieutenant," my Sergeant asked somewhat hesitantly, "What the hell did we just shoot at?"

That was the same question the Kommandant asked when we reported in a little after dawn, having not once found a single trace of the 'bandits' we had opened up on. I did my best to put into wards everything I'd seen, but he just looked at me like I'd grown a second head or something. Even after the others backed up my story and the techs had gone over our battleroms, there just wasn't anything concrete to put in our report.

The Kommandant ended up calling the entire incident a 'nighttime live-fire exercise', praising the militia for how well they had executed the battle plan. Then he ordered us to set up an ambush in a different valley almost a hundred kilometers away, and told us never to mention what we had seen in any official reports or documents.

It's been almost ten years now, and I still don't know what we saw that night... and I'm not sure I really want to. But it certainly wasn't some group of bandits with lost-tech ECM gear, that's for sure.

The End

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