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Chapter 2 - My Vanity[]

Part 1[]

Stum's Bar
Crossroad’s Oasis
Astrokazsy
7 February 3056

Nimaj tapped at the sign-up board. A spot which was normally his didn’t have his name on it. Sign-up for the free-for-alls didn’t start until the morning of the event. Nimaj was good at sending his people early, because they were usually taken in the first ten minutes of the bar’s opening. So, someone had to have beaten his fellow tribesman to the sign-up.

He looked at the name in place of his.

Alius Cad’ver.

Odd spelling. Nimaj mulled over how it was pronounced while he surveyed the assemblage. Stum’s Bar was packed, as usual. There were plenty of new faces. He nodded to his bodyguard and friend, Darran Grinn, tilting his head toward the bar proper. The two found an open spot and leaned in. Stum stepped over to inquire of his customers.

“Someone’s taken my spot,” Nimaj said.

Stum understood what Nimaj meant. As a free-for-all regular, Nimaj’s spot was a given. Nobody touched it.

Stum pointed, and Nimaj’s gaze followed. Seated at a table near a far wall was the ignorant new arrival. Young, probably in his twenties, the newcomer wore something loosely resembling a combat uniform representing no recognizable force.

Nimaj was well versed in uniforms. Astrokaszy brought in adventurers from almost every military branch known to man due to the rumors of LosTech and the prospect of a rich find. He was sure he had never seen a blue tunic under a drab ballistic vest complimented by desert tan cargo trousers. Yet, true to military form, it had enough pockets and belts to hold any gear a field soldier might need. The way everything was unbuttoned, unzipped and untucked suggested the young man wasn't expecting to be in a fight any time soon.

Nimaj signaled Darran, and started across the room.

The young stranger shared the table with a couple of regulars. The way he slumped in his chair, not saying much as the regulars chatted suggested that this Mister Cad’ver didn’t normally associate with them. Regardless, all three heads looked up when Nimaj’s imposing figure cast a shadow over their table.

Nimaj was a big guy. From hardy Nordic stock, he was the tallest, largest man in the room. Few others matched him. And, he liked to use that to effect. The turban and cloak he wore over his normal clothes also lent to the image, suggesting he was as savage as the stories surrounding his nomadic lifestyle indicated.

Nimaj scowled down at the newcomer with barely contained irritation. “You took my spot.”

This time all heads in the bar turned in Nimaj’s direction. The place went quiet. Part of Nimaj was a little miffed that he had just become this moment’s pre-game entertainment.

The newcomer's blue eyes looked up unflinching and uncaring. He glanced down at his steel chair while commenting. "Funny. I don't see a name written here, anywhere. But, if this is your favorite spot, I guess I can move."

His flat, clean accent definitely painted him as an off-worlder. This prompted a couple chuckles from the crowd, including one at this very table. Nimaj's prominent Nordic brow furled, darkening his eyes further. "I mean in tonight's games. You took my spot. I want it back."

The newbie shrugged. "Well. I suppose we can talk to the owner and have him swap our spots."

"You don't understand, stranger," Stum's voice echoed across the open room. "Tonight's roster is full up. I don't have a spot."

“It’s first come, first served, Nimaj,” a man said from behind him, somewhere among the crowded tables. “Let it go.”

“But,” Nimaj said, lightening his tone. He didn’t take his eyes off Mr. Cad’ver. “He said he would swap spots with me.” He adopted a grateful tone, playing the dumb local, seeing if the ruse might actually work. "You would do this? The son of Nimaj never forgets those who aid him."

The stranger turned his gaze to the table. He looked deep in thought. Then his sandy brown eyebrows knitted as he came to a decision.

"No. I honestly was looking forward to this. I've never been in one of those things, but always wanted to try." He lightened up. "Look. You're here a lot, right? I might not be here next week. It's just one night."

This was the moment Nimaj expected. He let his expression harden into a grim mask. "Then I challenge you for it.”

The stranger didn't rise to the challenge right away. For a moment, he looked sad, reflective. Finally, he asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Nimaj said. "Sounds fair," the stranger said with a shrug. "Not in here!" When everyone looked to the bar owner, Stum eyed his two security men. They were already on their feet. There was plenty of room in the bar for a brawl, but Stum didn't take any chances with his money-making set-up.

Nimaj and the stranger moved toward the door, and more than half of the nearly dozen patrons followed.

As a nomad, Nimaj knew how to fight in a lot of ways. The son of the leader of a nomadic band, however, he was never alone. Darran and another spectator were there to keep Nimaj safe. Darran was a grizzled veteran with an eye patch. In spite of being on Astrokaszy for a couple years now, his distinctive outback drawl still held strong while he huddled close to Nimaj, giving needless advice that Nimaj had learned a long time ago. The other made his appearance, keeping close. Khamal’s hawk-like face turned, dark eyes roving over the crowd and the stranger. He paused momentarily to nod a conciliatory bow, letting Nimaj know he understood his failure from this morning.

It was mid-afternoon, the sun well on its way to the horizon. Crossroads was at the edge of the desert, where the rolling grass hills slowly dried out to turn into wind-swept dunes. The streets were of sand and dirt packed hard from travel and baked dry from the heat. A refreshing breeze sweep in from the north.

The stranger, though he showed no emotional signs of discomfort, was already sweating profusely.

Darran finished his advice, slapping Nimaj on the shoulder.

Everyone else save the stranger backed away when Nimaj stepped forward. Nodding to the gun harnessed on the stranger's thigh, Nimaj said, "Since I challenged, I give you the honor of choosing your weapon."

Looking down at the gun, the stranger reached down and unfastened the holster. Eyeing the rest of the crowd, he settled on Darran. "Here," he said, and tossed it. The vet caught it, surprise written on his face. "I want it back," Mr. Cad’ver said. To Nimaj, "I'm fine as I am. Take whatever weapon you want."

Someone whistled, and many people murmured.

Nimaj nodded, studying the stranger further. Finally, he said, "Fisticuffs, it is." With a nod from the stranger, the fight was officially on. But, from the way the young man stood there, nobody would have guessed. He took up no stance. He didn't even tense up. With no weapon in hand, he was completely open, and didn't seem to care.

Though he felt elation and mirth at the man’s apparent lack of skill, Nimaj was a study in caution and form. His arms came up in a guard, and he slowly inched forward until he was just in reach.

With Nimaj’s greater size, he anticipated this would end quickly. To his surprise, Nimaj's first swing missed. A jab square at the stranger's head didn't lay him out on the ground like it should have. But Mr. Cad’ver had barely moved. He didn't flinch. He didn't even step away.

Unphased, Nimaj took advantage of his greater reach, and loosed a flurry of blows. Like a tall strand of grass in the soft desert wind, Mr. Cad’ver weaved fluidly around each blow. Shots at his face met empty air. Body blows only caressed cloth.

Switching tactics, Nimaj lunged in, arms wide, to tackle. This time the stranger moved. Like a fabled matador in trivid documentaries, he spun aside. With a deft motion he pushed Nimaj sprawling into the loose sand along the street edge, then stepped away.

Though normally honorable, Nimaj wasn't averse to taking advantage of any and every advantage he could get. Some of Darran’s advice was that anything was potentially a weapon. Mr. Cad’ver had given him permission to use whatever he wanted. His fingers closed around a pile of sand while he rose. Twisting, he whipped it into the stranger's face.

An arm went up to block the attack, but it wasn't enough to keep granules out of Mr. Cad’ver’s eyes. The stranger blinked rapidly, tears running down his cheeks. Nimaj wasted no time, using his distraction to get close and grapple with his opponent.

Too late, Nimaj realized suddenly that the stranger's hands never went to his face. Without looking, just as Nimaj was on top of him, the newcomer let out a quick series of five blows that deflected Nimaj's tackle, arrested his motion, and sent him to the ground.

It happened so fast that none of the bystanders was sure exactly what happened. No amount of careful recollection could recreate the sequence of blows Mr. Cad’ver had used.

In his stupor, Nimaj did here his two men trying to wake him. He was just cognizant enough to here Mr. Cad’ver utter concern over his fallen foe.

"Awe crap! He isn't dead, is he?" Nimaj stirred enough to sit up, but it took a few more seconds to clear his senses.

Darran looked up and shook his head. "No."

"Good," Mr. Cad’ver said.

As the newcomer strapped his gun back around his hip, a tall dark man approached him. This was another new arrival, but Nimaj had seen him at the bar for the past few months. This man called himself Casey.

"So, stranger, know anything about piloting a BattleMech?" Casey asked.

Nimaj was momentarily confused by the question. With all the dispossessed roaming Astrokazsy, it was a good assumption that someone who could fight with such ease was equally proficient in a BattleMech cockpit. Word was going to spread before the games began of Mr. Cad’ver’s display of prowess.

Everyone would be betting on the new guy.

The thought made Nimaj pay closer attention to the exchange.

Taking a moment to rub his eyes once again, Cad’ver muttered, "Gah. This is going to be annoying." Blinking, he looked Casey over with teary, red eyes. Shrugging, he smiled and answered. "Only what I've read about and seen in video games."

Casey blinked, staring blankly for the few seconds it took for the information to sink in. Then, he laughed. He turned away, his laughter building.

"Is this true?" Nimaj asked, serious. The sudden ache from the action forced him to bring a hand up to his head. However, this was a major concern. This man had his spot, and he won it fairly. Nimaj continued voicing his thoughts. “You don't stand a chance.” He paused to look over Mr. Cad’ver. “We have time. I can teach you. Give you some pointers."

"This from the guy whose spot I beat him to?" the stranger asked.

"You won it fair. The son of Nimaj honors his losses as well as his wins. You have my spot, now you can fight and win in my name.”

Casey quieted himself, suppressing fits of laughter into giggles. "This I want to see. In fact, I'll buy you a round in the pods. Let's see if you can master a crash course in piloting.”

The stranger looked at Casey, then at Nimaj and his two followers. "Sure. Why not?"

"Then come with me, friend," Nimaj said. "What is your name?"

"Elias Cadver," he said. "Call me Al."


Nimaj and Casey stood next to Stum's master technician observing the simulator control terminal. Al sat in a borrowed chair, a neurohelmet covering his head, obscuring everything but his eyes and nose peaking through the open faceplate. It was hooked into the master terminal by a thick cable bundle.

The tech, Phil 'Zip Finger' Denton fiddled with controls while watching wavy lines fluctuating on a projected holowindow. At first eager to set up someone new, the almond skinned Free Worlder looked increasingly frustrated. Casey and Nimaj exchanged glances.

"Alright," Zip said, his nasal voice resigned. "We're done." Al pulled the helmet off his shoulders and stood up to look at the screen. "I'm sorry," Zip added. "You're incompatible. I don't understand. Most people register enough signal. Your nerve impulses seem muted somehow. Barely distinguishable."

"Wait," Al said. "Muted?"

He handed the helmet to Nimaj, reached up and popped his head to the left. Working his shoulders a bit, Al reached for the helmet again. Puzzled, Nimaj let him put it back on. Al sat down and said to Zip, "Try one more time."

Zip looked dubious. He shot longing glances at Casey and Nimaj, asking for somebody to step in. When neither offered to speak reason, Zip sighed. "All right," he said, resigned.

He started the process all over again. "Whoa!" His exclamation was immediate. Nimaj and Casey both leaned in to see. The original nearly flatlines were wildly active, fluctuating all up and down the scale.

"What did you do?" Nimaj asked, impressed.

"A technique I learned to increase awareness of my surroundings," came Al's muffled answer.

"Well, it worked," Zip said, excited. "You don't wear prosthetics, do you?" Al looked up at Zip. He raised his hands. "Does it look like I have prosthetics?"

"Huh. Funny. Only time I've seen impulses this strong is on people who've worn bionics for years. Something about the interface forces the body to create stronger signal output." He looked Al over one more time. "You look too young for that kind of familiarity. Some of the older vets have signals like this. Anyway, that's it."

Al took off the helmet and stood, taking off the helmet one more time.

"Your file is in the system," Zip continued. "It will always be available whenever you want."

"Good," Nimaj said. "Time for you to learn the controls. Zip?"

"Which pod do you want? And what ’Mech do you prefer?" "You wouldn't happen to have a Warhammer in the system, would you?" Al asked.

Part 2 - A New Home[]

Stum’s Bar
Cross Road’s Oasis
Astrokaszy
31 October 3058


Stum’s Bar had an interesting layout. Once the town hall for Crossroads Oasis, the public amphitheater used for public speaking and other events or presentations was dug into the ground. The balcony housing the bar proper was actually the ground floor, and it also had some office rooms in the wings leading from the bar. These rooms were often used for private gatherings, though Stum had a couple offices reserved, one for back-stock, the other for his own business.

To Casey’s surprise, the mercenary commander had taken him seriously. Instead of putting Casey through the gauntlet, the took one more call for challenges. When none came, the merc commander asked for a room, beckoning Nimaj and Darran to follow.

The group was giving use of a large conference room. A central table carved from local wood and lacquered to smooth perfection sat in dark complement to the dark green paint on the walls and the colored-glass diffusers tinting the overhead lights a rainbow of shades on all surfaces. The windows to the outside were curtained, but any gap showed that nighttime had fallen outside.

Once everyone had taken a seat, the mercenary commander had turned to Nimaj and asked about being able to vouch for Casey and Al. Nimaj promptly started recounting how he first met Al, and incidentally, Casey. During the brief tale, Casey watched the three mercs react.

The Asian seemed to perk up at the story of Al’s close combat prowess. The other guy was unreadable. The commander, however, was an open book, impressed where he needed to be, enraptured the rest.

“So, that’s how you met,” he said. “Over a duel.” Nimaj and Darran both nodded. “And, did he perform as you expected?” Nimaj shot Darran an apologetic look. “No. He was taken out early,” Darran said.

“But not before TACing your engine out completely,” Nimaj said barely containing his mirth. “The kid is insane lucky,” Darran’s outback drawl thickened. “Hang on,” Al said, interrupting. “Before we go any further, can I get your names? Right now, I’m thinking of you as Carmen,” he pointed to the leader, “Antonio,” he pointed to the other guy, “and Lucy,” he indicated the Asian woman.

“My apologies,” the commander said. “I was under the impression you knew who we were.” Al was already shaking his head. “Nope. Not a clue. But, I’m new around here.” The commander was speechless for a second. The other two shifted ever slightly.

“Well. Let’s correct that. I’m Damien Strangeman,” the commander indicated himself. “My associates are Javier San Paul and Rumiko Nakagami.”

Al smirked. “Strangeman? That’s not your real name, is it?” “No, it’s not,” Damien said with a smile.

“No more real than Alius Cad’ver,” Javier said, his Spanish accent noticeable. “I give you points for creative spelling. But, ‘Another Name for a Dead Man’ isn’t something parents give to their children. And, I strongly suspect Cad’ver isn’t a real surname. Much like I highly doubt Putnam is your real surname.”

Casey froze, taken aback by the forthright confrontation. What was really sad was that the accusation leveled at him wasn’t true. He was actually using his proper name. But, he decided to roll with it, since most of the people present were apparently under assumed names.

Damien held out his hands in a placating gesture. “As you can see, we’re used to people having things they’d rather not let out in public. It only becomes a matter of whether those things will come to hurt our operation.” He turned back to Nimaj. “You said you could vouch for them.”

“I can,” Nimaj replied with a nod. “Do they have their own ’Mechs?” Damien’s stare was intense.

Nimaj didn’t flinch. In fact, he looked equally excited, though his response was bland. “Yes.” “So, the Warhammer’s real?” Javier said, eyebrows raised. “I will want to see the specs on that.”

“In due time,” Damien said with a quick glance at Al, before returning his gaze to the tribal leader’s son. “But, is it true?”

Nimaj nodded. The intense gaze blinked before turning on Casey. He felt the scrutiny, and forced himself not to squirm. He still took the cue.

“I pilot a newer GRF-3M Griffin,” he said. Javier and Damien both nodded appreciation.

“Good,” Damien said. “Gentlemen, you don’t know how long I’ve waited for people like you to show up. If you’re willing, I’d like to hire you on as part of my mercenary team.”

Casey nodded, lightly at first, but increasing the depth so that his intent was clear. Al studied Casey a moment, then the mercs. Finally, he nodded and said, “Sure.” He turned a touch more serious than normal. “But, if I don’t like a mission or a particular order, will we have problems if I refuse to take it?”

Damien turned diplomatic. “Don’t worry. You’ll be on a probation for a couple months anyway, so you’ll be free to leave at any time. I’m sure we can work a clause into your contract. But, I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed in the work we do.”

Al studied Damien a few seconds longer before nodding. “All right. I’ll give it a shot.” Damien smiled openly. “Excellent.” He pointed at Casey. “We’ll want to run you through your paces, as well, but that won’t affect your status. Probably best we do it during the day.” He looked everyone over. “Let’s go have some fun in the sim matches. Tomorrow morning, you get to see our headquarters, and your new home.”



Part 3[]

Legion of the Damned Nomadic Territory
Dragonback Ridge
Astrokaszy
1 November 3058

Crossroads Oasis was a small town of only a few hundred people. However, it was situated at the end of one of Astrokaszy’s major mountain chains, at the transition point from the rolling, fertile Nishihara plains to the harsh, hard-scrabble and dune-covered Estersand Dune Sea desert. It was as its name implied, a cross-road, equal parts stopping point for nomadic bands and trade hub.

About a mile outside of town, deep in the desert foothills, Casey and Al hopped out of Nimaj’s jeep. A couple more wheeled vehicles sat nearby, a small number of men and women dressed for the heat and sun manning heavy weapons mounted in the back or sporting firearms of their own. They had greeted Nimaj’s jeep warily, until he showed himself.

Behind them, in kneeling positions, sat two BattleMechs.

Casey and Al had hired Nimaj’s people to safeguard their BattleMechs while the two MechWarriors were in town. After the fateful day that Al showed up, Nimaj and Darran had proven themselves in Casey’s eyes. There had been a risk that the two dispossessed nomads could have tried taking the two machines for their own ends.


Astrokaszy wasn’t a very civilized world, unlike many inside the Inner Sphere. Out beyond the Free World’s League rim-ward border, it was a frontier world, and gateway to many smaller, uncharted systems that had fallen backward in time, technologically. Out here, dated tanks and jeeps or even mounted animal cavalry were no match for a cutting edge BattleMech. The various warlords and self-styled sultans dotting the Astrokaszy countryside with their city-states maintained their meagre power with just a handful.

“The Legion of the Damned keeps its bargains,” Nimaj said when Casey got out. “I expected nothing less from someone I consider a friend,” Casey replied. “And, once you are mounted up, we will guide you to the mercenary compound, as also agreed.”

Casey smiled and started toward his Griffin. When he had purchased it, he’d had it painted in blue on the heavy armor plates, with white on the transitional points along the limbs. He had wanted to honor his service lineage and Lyran heritage. The look made it appear that much more human, like a space man in heavy armor.

It stood out against the browns and tans of the surrounding desert hills. But, so too, did Al’s Warhammer with its dark blue scheme and dark gray highlights on the boxy side torsos and around the arm’s gun ports.

“We won’t be hiding very well on the way,” Casey mused. “It’s a BattleMech,” Darran drawled. “They’re not meant for hiding. Or stealth.” Casey conceded the point with a nod and started his climb up the Griffin’s lowered arm.



Legion of the Damned Territory
Dragon Back Mountain Range
Astrokaszy
1 November 3058

The Dragon Back range was given its name by a surveyor with a fanciful imagination when he saw it from a distance. Upon first arrival, Casey agreed that it looked like the spined back of a giant lizard out of fantasy. Up close, it still kept that feel only loosely. Small piles of loose rock were scattered everywhere. There were also well-worn trails from the passage of nomad vehicles and animals.

Nimaj’s Legion of the Damned kept their jeeps to these trails, making the three hours of travel relatively easy, even for BattleMechs. The Griffin kept an easy seventy KPH. Al’s Warhammer, on Casey’s left also kept pace, though, true to design, it was running a tad warm according to the holographic HUD overlay. Casey had given it a try one day, under the designer’s supervision. The cockpit remained comfortable in spite of any weapons output or sustained internal heat build-up.

Of course, that was true for any proper military hardware. The way actors and actresses in the various historical dramas and action adventure flicks burst into sweat was purely HoloWood trick to make the good-looking people look better. He heard and felt the coolant vest start up a cycle. Hooked into his newer model helmet, not only did his torso start to feel the refreshing cool touch, but his scalp and neck as well.

The Griffin’s cockpit was relatively open and airy, having a giant, reinforced glass bubble canopy. It offered a great view that was only useful when the Neurohelment wasn’t covering Casey’s entire head. But, the coolant vest and linked neural helmet were required in the cockpit. It had less to do with the sunlight or ambient desert heat, which Casey didn’t really feel.

All the computers were crammed into any available space, like between his thighs, along the walls by his legs, behind the command couch and even in front of him. The strongest AC in the world would only cool a person’s exposed skin, and with so many close heat sources pumping out body-level heat, something more efficient had been required in the BattleMech’s design. Though an AC system did keep the air breathable, the coolant vest covered the torso and remained in constant contact with the skin. Even the command couch would get drastically uncomfortable after a few hours, absorbing and reflecting a pilot’s body heat. The coolant vest kept that from happening, and was a standard feature in all ’Mechs, including industrial.

In the distance, Nimaj’s lead jeep took a hard right, turning west. The trail seemed well worn, looking more like an old road that had aged with only intermittent use. They were now travelling up hill, heading deep into the Dragon Back Mountains.

“Only another half-hour’s travel,” Nimaj announced over the radio.

As Casey’s Griffin topped the edge of a rise he spotted the makings of a base. It was a large flat tarmac at the bottom of a valley between three mountain tops. It was big enough to support any dropship with VSToL capabilities. On one far end, at the base of a cliff, he spotted the remains of an upward leaning conveyor. He recognized it from his experience in the shipping business. The belt was gone, leaving only the rollers and side rails. It came out of a building that was built into the cliff face. Next to that building were a couple of doors. One was low and flat, tall enough to allow a wide variety of conventional ground vehicles. The other was tall enough to allow a single BattleMech through at a time.

“Looks like an old mining complex,” Al commented aloud over the comms. “Will be interesting if we have to fight our way out of this.”

“No need to worry,” Nimaj answered, his voice raspy from wind passing over his mic. “And, you’re correct about the nature of this place.”

Ahead, the Legion jeeps approached the larger door, which started to split open. The doors widened, casting light on a built-up and reinforced interior. The building on the outside extended inward, showing windows and doors both lit and dark. The tarmac continued inward, split only by the tracks for the heavy-duty blast doors. On the opposite side were ’Mech gantries, as well as a large area full of crates in piles and stacks. Deeper in, the tunnel continued at a shallow slope, ending with a giant concrete wall blocking off the mine proper.

The gantries were double sided, and six long, making for twelve total cubicles. Four were already occupied. Casey recognized the Highlander and Jenner, though their colors didn’t match what he’d seen in last night’s simulator match. One other light ’Mech looked in ready condition. It was a Firestarter with stylized flames working up its legs and arms over a dark paint scheme. Two glowing eyes were painted on the head just above the viewports. The last ’Mech didn’t look operational, the head completely missing. It was a Crusader, though Casey couldn’t tell what variant.

He strongly suspected the missing head had everything to do with the mercenary absence for the last couple years.

“My grandfather discovered this place, and the Legion of the Damned took it over, fixed it up and made it our home. Welcome to our capitol and home base. Pick out a gantry and park your ride.”

On the ground, Nimaj waited for Casey and Al.

Casey didn’t wait to speak. He had been hanging with Nimaj long enough that he felt like they were good friends, and he wanted to make sure he understood what was going on. “I’d heard that you had bested them in a sim challenge. I always wondered what they offered you for winning. So, you let them stay here?”

Nimaj smiled ruefully. “It was my father who won and made the arrangements. We normally keep the details secret from outsiders.” He looked Casey and Al over with a quick glance. “But, since you’re now on their payroll, I suppose I can make an exception.”

He gestured for them to follow while he walked toward the interior building. Casey guessed it was once the office and barracks for the mining firm that ran the place god-knows how long ago. As they walked, Nimaj talked, and the place darkened with a clang as the ’Mech bay doors shut off the outside world. The temperature also dropped a couple degrees.

“Our tribe started out as a group of dispossessed wanderers, here looking for the rumors of LosTech treasure. I was born into the tribe, like many of the other younger members, but a lot of the elders, like my father and grandfather, remember what it is like to have been a MechWarrior, and look forward to that day again. We still take in strays who have a similar history. In fact, we picked up a couple women wandering in the Westersands a couple days back.

“Anyway, my father won one of the mercenary challenges. When they learned he didn’t have a ’Mech, they were about to leave. When they learned he was the leader of a nomad tribe with a secret base, they changed their mind. The deal arranged was that they would have a safe place to stay while here on Astrokaszy. In exchange, we would get first dibbs on manning any functional salvage they brought back.”

Nimaj paused, and gave each warrior a stern look. “You can imagine that if everyone knew about this, they would be scouring the sands trying to find our base to join. So, I want your promise to remain silent about this matter.”

Casey and Al both nodded and assented to keeping the secret.

The tribe was sizable, numbering around one hundred and change, a mix of adults and children. A few were out in the cavern when Casey and Al had arrived with the Jeeps. Many more were spilling out of doorways to have a look at the new arrivals as they approached the building. Many of the kids were racing across the tarmac to have a closer look at the new ’Mechs in spite of vocal protests from different parents.

Casey only recognized the ones that traveled to Crossroads with Nimaj. They greeted him, and he greeted them back. He got introductions to family a couple times. Many others kept a respectful distance. All of them looked like capable fighters, and Casey expected he would get to know the rest in time.

Nimaj cut the remainder of the meet and greet short with a comment and a wave. To Casey and Al, he said, “Quarters have been arranged already. I’ll take you to them first, so you may change before I take you to Damien.”



Part 4[]

Down a long hallway populated lightly with members of the tribe and their family members, Al and Casey were led into one of the many doors which regularly lined the corridor. The room was modest, with only a pair of bunk beds on either side, as well as a dresser and a desk for the occupants to divide. A couple armoires for hanging uniforms filled the wall between each bunkbed and the door.

Upon entering, the two MechWarriors were greeted with a couple of familiar faces. Blue, Al’s personal technician was first on his feet. In spite of his odd, actual name, he looked normal, the name maybe matching his eyes. His wavy dark brown hair didn’t have a blue tint. He didn’t wear blue clothes or any other form of decoration. The middle-aged man wasn’t much younger than Casey, who was in his early thirties. From what Casey remembered Blue said he was named for the color of the sky the day he was born. Odd sentimentality.

“So, how did she handle?” Blue asked Al as soon as he was in the door. “This was the first long distance test. Any problems crop up?”

The question came as no surprise to Casey. Blue had been behind a lot of the design modifications to the Warhammer Al had purchased. The fitting of the Tripple Strength Myomer was his biggest accomplishment on what amounted to a FrankenMech design, even if the parts were all from the same general chassis.

“As far as I could tell, everything ran smoothly,” Al said. “The TSM didn’t glitch anywhere along the way. Everything seems to’ve held up. But, the Demon’s out in the bay if you want to run some diagnostics.”

Blue nodded appreciatively and moved toward the door, giving Al an excited slap on the shoulder.

“Hey,” Al said, before Blue left. “I need a change of clothes.” Blue pointed toward the armoire to the right. “Put everything away, nice and neat. Pretty easy since you don’t have much.”

With that, the door shut and Blue was gone.

Casey eyed Al’s armoire, then the other one, before putting eyes on his own personal technician. The broad Asian man lay on the lower bunk on the left, looking asleep, though he didn’t breathe heavy enough for someone in slumber. In fact, Chin was known to snore on occasion. Of course, they all four did at times. Something Casey had learned from their brief stay together at one of the Crossroads Inns.

Casey moved to check on his armoire. “Chin,” he said, greeting his tech.

“Yes, I packed everything away, too. It’s all there,” Chin said without moving. While Casey dug out some civvies, the tech sat up suddenly. “Case, we’ve been hanging out for a couple years, now. We should be friends enough to be on first name terms. Maybe even nicknames.”

“Like Leno?” Al asked. Chin shot the nearly redressed Alius Cad’ver a strained look. “Not that one.” Al smiled nodded. “Don’t worry. I know the sentiment. People would try calling me all kinds of weird names that I didn’t like too.”

“Like Allie,” Chin sniped.

Amused, Casey asked, “Tell us again, Al, how you came up with ‘Leno’?”

“Well,” Al said, looking eager to explain. “ ‘Leonard’ is the ‘leo’ version last I saw him spell it, so there’s an ‘o’ in the name. And, Jay Leno was a famous comedian from way, way back in the day on Earth -”

“Terra,” both Casey and Chin corrected him in near unison.

“Right,” Al acknowledged, barely losing stride. “Anyway, Leno was largely known for having a large chin.” He finished adjusting his shirt and open flack vest, looking back and forth between Casey and Chin. “Leno. Chin. Leonard Chin?”

Leonard Chin gave a disgusted sigh, shaking his head. “Just call me ‘Lenny’.”

Casey finished adjusting his own clothes. “Okay, Len. I’ll try to be a little more relaxed. Have a look at the Griffin for me when you’re ready. Al and I have to go finalize our contracts.”

Chin suddenly looked concerned. “Why? Something happened on the way?”

“No,” Casey reassured him. “But, you can’t be too careful. We’re in a new place. I don’t want to take any chances.”


“No questions asked,” Al mused aloud.

Casey stared at the thin volume of a contract on the brown painted tin desk in front of him. Al's statement hung in the air like an echo, though the room was too small to carry an echo that long. But it was fresh on Casey's ears enough to still echo in his head. The room was just big enough for the desk, butted up against one wall, and the three chairs. There was just room enough on the open end for anyone to walk around to the proper chair, while two guest chairs sat in front of it, along with a few book shelves on the wall.

Damien sat in the only chair that looked even remotely comfortable. The two guest chairs, occupied by Casey and Al, were of the molded steel variety which could be found around the old mining building. Casey smiled when he noted that the same kind of chairs could be found at Stum's Bar in Crossroads Oasis.

That was before Damien started laying out the details of their potential employment. Casey stared at the contract in front of him. Having long since read the short, simple clauses, he was focused on one phrase, which Al had read aloud.

"No background checks?" Al continued.

Make that two clauses. They were important to Casey. He was looking for employment, but there were issues with his past that would undoubtedly raise questions. Issues he didn't want to have to deal with. Like the possibility someone else might let slip who he really was and where he was now. There were some people he didn't want to have to deal with. The thought pained him, but it was necessary. Casey wanted anonymity, and he found it out in the periphery, far, far away from home. He wanted to keep it that way, until he was ready to return.

It was right there in the contract. In writing. It was as he had been promised. Part of him found it hard to believe.

And, neither could Al, who had openly commented. It was more of a surprised mutter than an actual inquiry, the young man’s sandy-brown eyebrow shooting up while he was thumbing through the pages.

Damien leaned back in his chair, folding his arms which had propped up his head on the desk a few seconds ago.

Casey look over to his friend when Al dropped the page he was looking at. He was still on the second of the three page document. As slow as he was, Casey couldn't help imagining other people thinking Al couldn't read. But, not only could Al read, he could write. Fluently. Quickly. With only a few grammatical or spelling errors. There was no question he knew how to read. It just seemed Al liked to absorb the material.

"How would you know we were trust-worthy?" Al asked Damien, looking serious and intrigued. "You have no idea who we really are, where we're from."

Casey refrained from letting his shock show. If there was any question that could ruin Casey's chance, that was it. He could feel the heat rising in his neck and cheeks. Wanting to reach over and throttle, or at least smack his friend, he instead gripped the cold metal arm of the chair. Tightly. Now that it was in the air, all he could do was wait and see how this unfolded.

Damien smirked. "Well, we already know you can pilot a Mech from that little sim battle at Stum's Bar. And since he," Damien pointed to Casey, "really taught you all that, he's a shoe-in."

Al's gaze didn't waver, his eyebrow still raised. "I mean, even if we sign this contract, what's to stop us from breaking it?"

Damien turned serious. "We have our ways of keeping things in the company. Should you prove to be untrustworthy, you won't be working for us. Should you take anything, we will find you and take it back."

Al's face was suddenly blank, the quirked eyebrow back in uniform position. He leaned over toward Casey, obviously wanting to ask something. Knowing that no matter how quietly they talked, Damien would hear everything in this small room, Casey still obliged. With a quiet sigh, he leaned over.

"Are you sure about this? You know how much I spent on the Demon. And you know I can't do that again."

"I know," Casey replied just as quietly, which wasn't near the whisper he wanted. "I'm in the same boat you are, man. Look. Trust me. If I had any suspicions, I wouldn't be here, and neither would you. My sources said they were legit."

"The way I understand it," Damien said catching both their attention, "you two want to remain anonymous. Anyone out in this part of space that isn't local most likely has questions they don't want asked. We know that. We're trusting you with our lives by hiring you on without a question asked. It only seems fair that you trust us enough to let us have our secrets."

Al stared at Damien for a minute, his face unreadably serious. "All right," he said after a second or two of silence. "But under one condition. I want right of refusal."

The question on Damien's face said he didn't understand what Al meant, but it was enough to prompt a response.

"I want the right to refuse an assignment if I don't agree with it."

Casey finally saw what Al was getting at.

"You don't want to go into a mission blindly," Damien said, echoing Casey's thoughts. He sounded impressed.

He looked at Casey, obviously applying the sentiment to him, too. Considering that there were some things Casey would not do no matter what, he wasn't necessarily wrong. They had no clue what kind of contracts this unit went for. They had no clue what kind of battle code Damien, and by extension his other employees, adhered to.

Casey didn't like the idea of being ordered to inflict senseless slaughter or senselessly throw himself away. If he knew Al at all, the kid was the same. He wasn't trying to find an excuse not to fight.

Damien quietly harrumphed. "Idealists or cowards? Considering I don't know you, I'm not sure if I can trust your judgment enough to add that clause to your contract. It's a shame too," he said, almost musing to himself.

He paused, looking idly down at the desk, appearing to Casey like he was deep in thought. Then, the mercenary's black eyes brightened, and he looked up.

"I do have a compromise that I think might work. If you're not up for this contract, why don't we put you in a trial period. Work with us on our next mission, and if we like your performance, I can add that refusal clause you're asking for. Or, maybe you'll like what you see and change your mind.

"We'll give you room and board, supply your 'Mechs with any armor and ammo they require, and pay you half what you would earn if you signed this contract today. If you sign the contract after it's all said and done, we'll pay you the other half. If you don't and decide to leave, whatever armor and ammo used to repair your machines should be recompense enough. How does that sound?"

Casey couldn't quite answer when he tried. He opened his mouth, shaking then nodding his head and puffing out some air before saying, "That's more than fair."

And it was. A chance to see what they were about was not something a person could normally expect from a mercenary command unless they were under the fair practice clauses of the MRBC. Of course, the MRBC had strict application policies to protect such employers. Such policies barred Casey because of his questionable past. From the wild tales Al had regaled Casey and the Legion with, he would also be restricted. So, they got a chance to see what these people were about, and to prove themselves in a baptism by fire. He could certainly feel more comfortable about his decision then.

But how long would he have to wait? "When's the next mission?" Casey asked "You're in luck. We have one already lined up, and we're leaving in a week. You'll have to decide today so I can make arrangements for two more machines." "What is it?" Al asked.

Damien leaned back, settling into an explanation. "We've been hired to hunt a small band of pirates that finally messed with the wrong planet. We'll be joining a large number of other small mercenary units and will be doing a sweep of this sector of space, each one taking a different system. Our ride, ammo, armor and other expenditures will all be paid for, although the pay itself is minimal. The real payout, of course will be the salvage. Whoever finds them first gets to keep what they kill, and our employer keeps the rest. Of course, that contract applies to the company.

"But," Damien clapped his hands together, "I'm getting ahead of myself. If you want the details, you'll have to join us in the briefing. And to do that, you have to either agree to the trial period - and I will provide a contract for that today. Or! You sign the contract."

Al looked at Casey and shrugged. "It sounds like we're hunting criminals, so I have no real problem with it."

Casey nodded. “Actually, the salvage situation brings up another concern I have. I heard you have a working agreement with the Legion, here. Salvage is one of the reasons I’m out here. I have a debt to repay.”

Damien started to look concerned, but Casey waved a hand. “I don’t have to make a return payment anytime soon. In fact, I have all the time I need. But, it is a matter of honor for me. Anyway, I’m sure we can work out the details after the trial-period.

"I will be taking the trial period," Casey finished firmly. "I will too," Al added after confused glance at Casey.

"Good.” Damien leaned forward. “Give me a few hours to write up the new contracts for you to sign. We'll have a briefing after that." He smiled for a brief instant. "We'll finally be an air lance again, even if it's in the wrong proportions." Looking back up, he asked, "Any other questions?"

"Just one," Casey said. "What happened? You were once an air lance, but not anymore?"

Damien's tanned face went grim. He nodded idly while he thought, giving both Casey and Al considering looks. Finally, he inhaled.

"We had complications during our last mission. Let's just say our last employer gave us faulty intel. We barely escaped, losing an aerospace fighter and two pilots. As you've seen coming in from the ’Mech bay, we were able to get away with the BattleMech. The Fighter was destroyed in our escape, and the ’Mech pilot bled to death from the injuries sustained when his Crusader was crippled by a devastating head shot. And, the DropShip that gave us a ride won't work with us anymore."

He paused, giving Casey and Al one more serious look. "That's what it means to take on this trade. This is your chance to back out now." Al nodded. Casey didn't say or do anything. "Is that all?" They both nodded.

"All right. A word of advice,” Damien said, grimly conspiratorial, “I wouldn't ask anymore about what happened from anyone else. Give it a while. It's still a little fresh, and some probably wouldn't take too kindly to outsiders nosing around."



Part 5[]

As he and Al walked away from Damien's office, out into the big cavern that served as the mercenary's ’Mech bay, Al stepped up and caught Casey’s attention with a question.

“Why didn’t you say something? You know how much I got for that dropship. I could have helped you pay it off. I’ve got plenty left over, I still could.”

“It’s not that simple,” Casey said after a second to compose himself. His heart fluttered at the offer, but the honor ingrained into him from childhood took over. “It’s an uninteresting story that I’m not ready to discuss, yet. I’ll tell you sometime in the future. Suffice it to say, this is something I want to do myself.”

Al didn’t look convinced right away, but after a second, he shrugged with a frown and spoke nothing more of it.

“So, are you a big bad mercenary now?” a woman’s voice called out.

Casey couldn't help his surprise at finding Jennifer Rainier there to greet him when he turned to investigate. Jenn was another dispossessed warrior, one of Nimaj’s personal guard. He’d spent so much time hanging out with them at Stum’s Bar that he considered them all good friends.

Casey stopped. Al continued on a couple paces before turning as well. "So, did you get hired on?" Jenn asked, her brown eyes sparkling intently.

"We're on a trial period," Casey answered truthfully. "But, if everything goes well, I think I'll be signing on."

She smiled, the small crows-feet at the corners of her eyes and mouth becoming apparent. It was the only sign of age on her he noticed. Otherwise, she carried herself like a woman half her age.

"I look forward to working with you."

Casey frowned, puzzled. "Wait. You're part of the Legion, aren't you? Not with-" He pointed toward Damien's office to finish his statement.

"No, I'm not part of them,” she answered with mirth. “We have a deal with Damien. When they finally get a spare head, I'll be piloting that." She finished by waving her hand in the direction of the Crusader. The headless mechanical humanoid stood in one of the stalls, looking freshly repaired and painted. But the head was still missing.

Looking at it reminded Casey of how he got here. He didn't have to be here. Far away from this place, from the battlefield, he could be living a life of comfort. He knew that his mistakes would be forgiven. But, he had to be here. For himself, if for no one else. It was the only way he felt he could really atone.

He looked at Jenn, but she was already walking over to Al, asking him the same thing. Suddenly, a woman came up Casey. She was about as young as Al, in her mid-twenties. She wore the desert garb of one of the nomads, but her face was red from sunburn. Her dark brown hair was long and wavy. She certainly was attractive, and carried herself with confidence.

“Excuse me,” she said in a pleasant voice. “Would you happen to know what will become of that BattleMech?”

She sounded very much like Al. The realization piqued Casey’s interest. She had the same flat, clean accent that Al used. No detectable dialect like with any of the locals, or any of the off-worlders. Even Casey knew he had a slight accent in his English. He decided to answer her question before offering one of his own.

“I think they plan on repairing it. But, if you’re wondering if there’ll be an opening for a pilot, I think it’s already taken.” Casey shot a meaningful glance at Jenn. To the young woman, he asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be from Earth, would you?”

She looked momentarily confused. “You mean Terra?” Casey nodded.

She suddenly turned sheepish. “No. I am not from such a precious place. I do wish to visit. Someday.”

A blonde came up and put a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. They exchanged glances and both left without a word.

Perplexed, Casey strolled over to his friends. “Al. Did you hear that?” “I did.” “She sounded like you,” Casey said. “Think she’s from Terra?” “Oh, yeah. The two new girls. Rumor has it they might be clan warriors,” Jenn said conspiratorially.

Casey’s heart froze. “Clan?” he asked, deadpan. Then logic kicked in. “What would Clanners be doing in a place like this?”

Jenn shrugged. “Why are you here? Or, why am I here?” Casey took the point with a nod.

“As newbies, they’re under constant surveillance, so you don’t need to worry yourself,” Jenn said.

Casey could detect a hint of mockery in her tone, and smiled.

“Eventually, they’ll come clean,” Al added. “Just a matter of time and trust.” The thought of a couple of Clanners in the Legion’s ranks didn’t sit well with Casey. He partly hoped the rumor was false. But, then, if they were Terrans, why were they here? Any extended stay at the Legion’s compound would prove to be interesting.




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