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Chapter 4 - My Vanity[]

Part 1 - Aftermath of Battle[]

Search Grid System 7
Planet 5
Rose Quartz LZ
4 April 3059

One of the ore bins in the Quartz’s hold had originally been filled with excavation equipment just for the chance the plan went all the way. Now, while that equipment was at work, it had been converted into an ad-hoc holding cell. Overhead, the canvas tarp was rolled back, allowing the flood lamps to shine uninterrupted on nearly a dozen ‘pirates’ of all ages and genders.

Al was on interior watch while a marine was posted outside the door, just in case something happened. The prisoners were all bound, but this was not a proper jail by any stretch of the imagination. None of them had been searched beyond a pat-down, so any one of them could he hiding a potential weapon or tool.

Regardless of the risks, Al had been working up the nerve to start a conversation. These were people he didn’t know. He highly doubted if only one or two individuals in the lot were hard-core criminals.

Finally, he worked past his complacency and strolled casually over to the one he recognized as ‘Snarl’, the Hunchback pilot. He halted about fifteen feet away from the group. Small conversations hushed while heads turned and speared him with wary looks.

“So, who are you, really?” Al asked.

Snarl, in spite of the Call-sign, was a clean-shaven man, with strong Caucasian features. His sandy blonde hair was short-cropped, though thinning in places. He cast around with his greenish brown eyes, hesitating to answer.

Finally, Snarl answered with his own question. “Why do you wanna know, eh?”

It was still interesting to hear the accent. Al decided to call it British Canadian, with all the trappings of American Canadian, but with a light Londoner lilt. Snarl’s baritone made it all the more charming.

“Look. The way I see it, once we blast off from this rock, our paths will never cross ways again. You’re part of this world. You have a story. I’d like to hear it. I find it hard to believe that you just one day woke up and decided, ‘t’is the pirate life for me’.”

Snarl looked around at the people nearest him. The two closest were the girls. They were just kids. Not quite children, the youngest was just early into puberty, while the oldest was mostly likely sixteen or seventeen. Both had strong resemblances to Snarl, thought the youngest had really dark hair.

Though they didn’t say anything out loud, there was some sort of conversation going on, especially when the youngest shrugged. Snarl turned back.

“All right. Sure. We have some time to kill. We were a mercenary unit, much like yourself. It was a family affair. Me, my wife and kids, and her brother, Barnstormer over there.” The man in question reacted to hearing his name and looked up at Al, bored. His dark hair matched the youngest daughter. “We called ourselves the Brown Family Circus.”

Snarl had started to look distant while narrating. He paused to look at Al directly again, for a brief moment. “I’m Dustin Brown, by the way. You’re that Warhammer pilot, eh?”

“Yeah,” Al replied. “Call me Al.”

“Well, Al, nice to meet you.” Dustin turned distant again. “Stace and I had come to the end of our tour of duty. Figured the mercenary life would help supplement income for our family estate. The kids were in training at the time, so having them along in a heavy or assault ’Mech didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. But, things went south on our first mission. A simple corporate raid gone bad. Our ship bailed on us. Effectively fugitives, we stole a ship of our own. By the time we hijacked a jumper, there was no turning back.”

“How so?”

Dustin looked up at Al, looking sincere. “Because the raid had been conducted inside our own national borders. But steeling a jump ship, we disrupted national traffic. Such things were most definitely unforgivable.”

He went on to explain how they made it out to the sticks and started conducting raids to survive.

Al knew it was only a matter of time before someone would try to use his fixed attention. The youngest daughter, Geneva, thought she was being sneaky, fidgeting around on the ground to get beyond his peripheral view. She hadn’t gotten far enough. Al kept tabs on her through his peripheral vision with minor shifts of his head.

Suddenly, she stiffened.

“Don’t do it,” Al drawled in warning, interrupting Dustin’s story.

Unsurprisingly, her arms came up, unbound, and she launched at him, something in her left hand. Instinct kicked in, and he dodged the make-shift weapon, entrapping the arm and the girl in a couple deft moves. Then, he wrenched the weapon from her hand with enough force that she gasped in pain.

“Y’know,” he said, taking a moment to observe the weapon, wrapped in clothe, “it’s going to take something stronger than this to take me down.”

Still keeping the young girl restrained with one arm, Al went to snap the stick between thumb and both fore- and middle-finger on the same hand. It was a moment too late when he realized the object was metal. From the way it bent, it was probably something like a copper tube, which would normally take most people both hands to bend slowly. When it bent in half with no effort on his part, the reactions were varied and immediate. Geneva quit moving. A chorus of gasps and curses went out at different volume levels.

Cat out of the bag, Al added more conversationally, “Something much more explosive. Much more.”

Dustin had a look of open disgust on his face. “A cyborg, eh?” Then the man’s look softened. “Prosthetics to replace injuries?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but apt.” He looked at Geneva. “Time to get those restraints replaced.”

Part 2 - Decisions and Consequences[]

Search Grid System 7
Planet 5
Rose Quartz LZ
26 April 3059

At the end of Casey’s watch, when Al came in to relieve him, Geneva “The Escape Artist” Brown attacked Al again. She hadn’t tried the trick on anyone else, only Al. It had become a daily affair. Security was baffled by how Geneva had found her way out of every restraint they put on her.

Over the weeks, people higher up had given up on fancy restraints. Simply recuffing her and keeping double watch over the cameras was the final solution. The event took on a recognizable pattern, quickly becoming routine. Each time, Geneva slipped her restraints just at the moment Al entered the pen. Each time, he readily and easily rebuffed the young teen’s attack.

“What did you find, this time?” Al droned, bemused. He wrested an object from Geneva’s hands, proffering a bolt.

“Where did she find that?” Casey exclaimed. He recognized what it was, but after her first attempt on Al, the place had been scoured for loose debris. Each time she found something to use as a potential weapon.

“Probably one of the floor seals along the wall.” Al waved the bolt in an indicative sweep. He looked up at the camera. “Somebody has been snoozing, because it would’ve taken time to work it free.”

“She’s sneaky,” Casey said, defensively. “She’ll sit in places, looking like she’s doing absolutely nothing.”

“Anyway,” Al said, “restraints! Casey? Want to do the honors?” Casey reapplied the cuffs a little extra tight. “Ow!” Geneva exclaimed, sounding severely pained. “Don’t go cutting off my circulation!” Casey smiled at her venomously. “Better you trying to free yourself than be running around freeing everyone else.”

He started to walk her to the center of the pen when he heard activity at the door. It creaked with the weight of heavy metal on strained hinges as it swung open. In stepped McMurty, the Liaison. Behind him were a quartet of guards Casey didn’t recognize. He pointed at Dustin and his two girls.

“She wants to see those three,” he said. The guards moved at his indication. McMurty strolled over to Casey and Al. “What’s going on?” Al asked, looking as confused as Casey felt. “Your job is done mercenary. My mistress has arrived. She wants a private meeting with the MechWarriors. If you want, you can help with the transfer of the rest of the prisoners.”

“Something tells me there should be a mercenary representative at this meeting,” Al said, a touch defiant.

Casey suddenly clued into what Al might be hinting at. “Yeah,” he added. “Our job’s not done until we’re off this rock and we have the final installment. We brought these three in alive. Wouldn’t want the employer to suddenly say we didn’t.”

McMurty studied them with a blank expression made even more unreadable by his black sunglasses. Considering where he just came from, they weren’t that out of place. And the bays of the Quartz were well-lit.

With a sigh, he shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

McMurty turned and left before Al and Casey could consult, following the guards and prisoners through the door. They were quickly replaced by more Magistracy soldiers who moved toward the rest of the pirate band sitting scattered throughout the pen.

Al quickly turned to Casey, and said, “I’m going. You want to stay and help with the transfer?”

Al was already starting to walk toward the door. Casey moved to keep up. “It’s probably a good idea that you have back-up. I’m coming with. Looks like these guys have the rest handled.”

It didn’t take but a few quick steps to catch up with McMurty and the entourage. As they made their way down the wide central cargo gantry separating the different ore bins, they quickly ran into Damien. Their leader quickly took up stride with McMurty.

“What’s going on?” Damien asked. When he didn’t get a reply, he shot a look at Casey and Al.

“The sponsor has requested a private meeting with the Brown Family Circus,” Casey said. “We weren’t invited, but it stands to reason there should be mercenary representation at this meeting.”

“Astute,” Damien said, sounding mildly irate and glaring at McMurty. “Keep with them. I’ll get Jav and Miko. I think we should all be there.”

With that, Damien stopped at a wall-com while Al and Damien followed the Magistracy soldiers and Browns to the port airlock down a side gantry.

Outside, the bright light of the system’s sun bleached the colors of practically everything, and Casey wished he had glasses which matched McMurty’s. They had to walk down an extended ramp. The long slender hull of the Rose Quartz was suspended in an open, brown grassy field on its own landing gear. Well behind the ship were piles of dirt and scattered heavy excavation machines. Huge square troughs marked where the machines had burrowed into the ground to open up the landing gear doors allowing the ship to eventually right itself. Once on the ground, Casey took a moment to look back, watching some of the Quartz Technical staff working on repairs to the undercarriage hull. Thankfully, the pilot pulled off a nice skid that didn’t tear up the ship too badly. Even a Buccaneer Class dropper would have been a very expensive write-off.

Darrin’s voice echoed in Casey’s head about Al’s insane luck. For a moment, Casey wondered if they would have been so lucky had Al not been here. That kind of luck felt a little unreal, however, and Casey quickly dismissed the thought when Damien, Javier and Miko came racing up.

The mercs followed the soldiers and prisoners only a few more yards, where a woman in regal livery stood with two other soldiers. Both men had their weapons at the ready, though not aimed at anyone in particular. McMurty confirmed Casey’s suspicions when he addressed the woman.

“The prisoners, as you requested,” he said with even deference. The woman looked like she was probably in her forties or fifties, but Casey knew that the Magistracy had a reputation for good medicine. It was possible she was far older than she looked. It was hard to tell, even when she spoke. She had been fussing with a lock of brown hair, but now she let it go and studied the family Brown with a light squint.

“Good,” she said. Her eyes then went to the mercenaries. “Who are these dropship crewmen?”

“These are actually the mercenaries who fought the pirates and won,” McMurty replied.

“We brought these prisoners in alive,” Damien said boldly. “We don’t want anything happening to them that would suggest otherwise.”

She frowned. “I’m sorry, but this is a private meeting. Guards!”

The six soldiers snapped up, guns trained on the mercenaries. Casey’s pulse quickened as he tensed. The whole group was flat-footed. If she ordered them shot now, there would be nothing anyone could do.

“Make sure they don’t move. McMurty, bring the prisoners.” She cast about, and pointed to one of the excavation mounds. “Over there, out of sight and earshot.”

“Yes, Madame,” McMurty acknowledged.

Pulling his gun out, he signaled to the Browns to start moving. They hesitantly complied. Dustin looked back on the mercs, fixing on Al with a worried look for a moment before a shove forced him to watch his step.

“We have justice already,” McMurty said to his mistress while they walked. The rest of the conversation was muffled by distance and wind.

Casey watched the group until they turned to disappear behind the mound. Al then turned to leave, but Miko whipped up an arm to stop him. She gave him a direct look and shook her head, nodding at the soldiers with guns trained on each of them.

“You’ll get us killed,” she said, quietly. “We have a chance to walk away from this alive.”

Al looked on Miko with a surprised, contemplative look. Before anyone could say anything further, the hiss-snap of laser fire came unmistakably from behind the mound.

“But, they won’t,” Al said.

McMurty and the sponsor came from behind the hill, strolling calmly. None of them appeared injured. Casey wondered what kind of story they might spin to cover three murders.

“Don’t worry Casey,” Al said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Casey studied Al intently for a few seconds. Al merely looked intent, studious while he took in the surroundings. Mind going back to Geneva’s attacks, Casey wondered just what Al though he could do if things went south. Shifting his gaze to the guns, he noticed they were all laser carbines. Anyone in front of the barrel would be dead the moment a soldier pulled a trigger.

A minute passed by like an eternity before McMurty and the sponsor stopped not far away. The sponsor eyed the group. “And, what should we do with them?”

“We brought those prisoners in alive,” Damien said, defiant.

McMurty brightened. “And, it’s not their fault the Browns were shot trying to escape from our custody. Their job was finished.”

“Yes,” the madame said, gaze distant while she contemplated. “You did bring them in alive, and you will be rewarded accordingly. Also,” she said, turning whistful and looking at Damien directly. “I would like to invoke the priority salvage clause. I want to keep Snarl’s and Swoop’s personal ’Mechs. The other two are yours.”

Damien shot a look at Javier, who shrugged. “The Hunchie is a write-off,” Javier said, “and the Pixie is a medium design needing a whole new head assembly. Not that big of a loss.”

“Except maybe for the advanced equipment,” Damien muttered. He turned to the matron. “Sure. It’s part of the contract. As long as we’re properly compensated.”

The sponsor nodded, suddenly at ease. “Very good. Let them go! I need a detail to handle the bodies.” The soldiers lifted their guns and a sergeant started listing off a trio of the guards to follow him.

“You’re free to go,” McMurty said.

He didn’t wait, following his mistress and two guards as they departed for a nearby ground vehicle. With the soldiers moving to deal with the bodies and the sponsor’s entourage driving away toward their DropShip, the mercs were left to their own devices.

Casey finally noticed the Magistracy ship while he watched the ground vehicle drive over the tough brown grass. The Union Dropship poking out above a distant set of trees behind a low swell. It was well outside the Quartz’s potential take-off path, thankfully. Being a spheroid design, it could just blast off whenever it suited the crew.

“I don’t like how she said we’ll be ‘compensated’ “, Damien said. “We’ll need to watch our backs until the Quartz is off this rock and docked successfully on the Lucky Tramp. Pair off, and don’t let your partner leave your sight for the time, being, understood?”

“Al and Casey, and Me and Miko,” Javier said. “What about you, boss? You and Jeun?”

“No. We have our technical staff with us. Each warrior and his or her Tech. I’ll inform Captain Black of the situation.”

Part 2 - Return to the JumpShip[]

Search Grid System 7
Transit Toward Zenith
Rose Quartz
26 April 3059

The Quartz’s mess was practically empty. Under a full gravity, it felt as if nothing had changed while Casey sat in one of the steel chairs, leaning an arm on a matching metal table. His shift was over and he was taking a moment to relax before getting a bite to eat.

Al walked up to the table and sat down across from Casey with a full tray of food. The younger warrior, dressed in Quartz crew coveralls, mumbled something over the meal before digging in. Casey sat up, observing his friend eat, while a topic came to mind.

“You’re still praying, after what we saw today?” “Everything in my life is providence, Case. So, yeah.” Casey was silent a few seconds while he pondered Al’s answer. Eventually, he voiced his own opinion, his own confusion. “I get that there’s a creator. But, I have a hard time fathoming a god who will let good people die like that.”

“Oh, there are all kinds. Thank God they’re not here. Anymore. But, you’re talking the Creator All-Father God. Now, that’s a little more complicated.” Al took a bite of meat and chewed it down, swallowing before he continued. He looked contemplative, his eyes only in Casey’s general direction as he spoke. “As for them being good, everyone’s good, in their own way, Case. And, everyone’s bad, or evil, in their own way. Let’s look at their rap sheet for a moment.” Another bite.

“The Brown Family Circus committed acts of piracy. Not only did they do it outside their home empire, but inside it as well. Other people were killed in their raids, whether intentionally or by accident. As pirates, what kind of punishment do most planets have for them?”

“Generally, they’re executed,” Casey answered with a conceding nod. “And, even if they were extradited from the Magistracy, they would be going back to convictions of acts of treason. What kind of fate would they have in the FWL?”

“I can’t say for sure, but generally, treason is an executable offense.” “So, in general, what would their fate have been?” “They would have died.” Casey looked down at the table, not very happy with this line of reasoning. But, it was unavoidable. Al took another bite and swallowed. “Now. Are the laws by which they are judged artifacts of a god, or man?”

Casey tried to brighten up and answer lightly. He barely succeeded. “Men.”

Al waggled his head to the side in a half-shrug. “Actually, the answer would be both. A lot of the codes of conduct we base our laws off are derived from Judeo-Christian laws and edicts, which, in a world with a God, would have been dictated by him.”

“But, man is involved,” Casey concluded.

He studied his friend a moment. Al had paused in his eating to study Casey in return, looking for all the world like nothing had happened earlier today. Casey felt curious, a sense of wonder at how Al could treat that moment so academically.

“You seem to be taking this well enough,” he said.

Al shrugged. “I guess it’s easy to forget I’m well-traveled. I’ve been in a couple situations like this before. It wasn’t easy to accept that I couldn’t do anything, that an atrocity like that was part of my life, my journey, now. But, it is. I’ve been through the mourning process a few times.” He took another bite, which got swallowed quickly, with gusto. “Besides, I imagine our ‘Sponsor’,” he emphasized her title with a very slight toss of his head, “will come to regret her decision in the future. Whether it’s karma or answering to a higher power, it’s a matter of time.”

“You’re right,” Damien said from the doorway.

Both Al and Casey turned to look at the mercenary commander in near unison. The swarthy Mediterranean man strolled casually to the table and sat down on the end, pulling up a chair from another table. He eyed Casey and Al openly, looking like he had a secret he was about to divulge.

“Countess Maria DuVall will come to regret her decision. Sooner, rather than later, I suspect.”

“Any idea why she took matters into her own hands?” Casey asked.

Damien brightened even further. “That’s what I came to discuss. I figured you,” he indicated Al, “should know. Good ol’ Captain Black had made an inquiry of the Lucky Tramp. Turns out a courier had shown up while they were on their way here. It’s hard to say whether this is true or not, but scuttlebutt has it that a rival noble on her homeworld of Bass had discovered the pirate hunting operation. That rival had discovered the identity of our quarry, the Browns, their story, and was planning to put in a word to exonerate them during their trial. Maybe even go so far as to let them free, giving them amnesty in the Magistracy.”

“So, if she wanted justice for her lost daughter-in-law, it had to be done here and now,” Casey said with an understanding nod. “I take it the bodies are still back on Grid 7 Planet 5. And, without that evidence, the report of their aborted escape will go through without a hitch.”

The bad taste in his mouth killed any appetite Casey had built up from the day of work. “Any idea whether the Browns are who they say they were?” Al asked.

Damien shook his head. “We won’t be able to verify until we have access to an HPG. But, their tactics match up with what we encountered.”

Casey took a moment to reflect on the battle, a couple weeks back. He smiled and harrumphed. “They put the girls in the heavier ’Mechs to protect them with the thicker armor. But, they would often have the girls use that armor to scout out any trouble, the parents ready to jump in and help them out as necessary.”

“They weren’t expecting us, or the fight to be as one-sided as it was,” Damien said, smiling ruefully.

“ ‘Hudini’, the escape artist escaped the fire, while ‘Swan’ the diver hit the dirt,” Al added, reflective. “ ’Snarl’ the lion tamer, and ‘Swoop’, the trapeze artist. I admit, when I first heard ‘Snarl’ and ‘Swoop’, I was thinking something a tad more prehistoric.”

“What do you mean?” Casey asked, though he knew right away he probably wouldn’t get the reference.

Al shrugged and waved it off. “Eh. An old cartoon. Don’t worry about it.”

As the younger warrior went back to polishing off his meal, Damien looked him over, then did the same with Casey. Casey looked at the merc commander in open curiosity.

“Well,” Damien said, drawling the word out. “I hope you’re not worried that every mission will turn out like this.”

Al shook his head, his mouth full.

Casey also shook his head, adding, “no real worry.”

“I’ve had some jobs where the worst possible things I’d ever have to face was during training or the probationary period,” Al said, mouth empty. “This is nothing new.”

“I’m glad,” Damien said. “You both handled yourselves very well. When we get back, we can sign you on properly. Have Miko and Jav run you through some basics to see where you stand with physical combat and your knowledge of mil-tech.”

Both men nodded. Damien stood, clapping them both on the shoulder. He departed, while Al finished his tray. Al got up and left, also.

On his own, Casey mused over the good news. With any luck, he would have his debts repaid in no time, and then he could finally face his ghosts. With things looking up, his appetite returned, and Casey went to the kitchen window.

Part 3 - Trial of Grievance[]

Vagabond Legion of the Damned HQ
Dragonback Ridge
4 June 3059

The trip home was a mix of monotony and testing. Javier took the weeks of zero g to run through Al’s and Casey’s tech evaluations. Casey, having been brought up in a MechWarrior family, complete with academy training, as well as a short stint of service in both his planetary militia and a Lyran front line regiment had him acing a lot of the quizzes. Al, however was a mixed bag. His chassis recognition of BattleMechs, Tanks, Vehicles, and even some of the new production BattleArmor was really good. He even identified some of the new OmniMechs which Casey had never seen before. His grasp of tactics and history were mixed, and he even threw in event references from obscure entertainment to match some historical outcomes. But, his grasp of modern engineering was next to non-existent. Al proved to be a quick study, however.

Now that everyone was back at the Legion’s HQ in the old mining complex and packed away, time was approaching for the hand-to-hand and physical fitness evaluations. Casey had been able to ignore the pending date, until Miko summoned both he and Al and their technicians out into the bay. Casey was the first one out and headed toward the cargo area. Al was not far behind. Casey had no idea where the Techs were.

One his way over to the cargo area, he looked over at the two Crusaders in adjacent ’Mech bays. The head of the most recent acquisition had been restored from the damage the ejection had caused. It now hung from the overhead pully system, suspended over the pristine shoulders of the first Crusader that hadn’t moved from the first day Casey arrived.

He spotted both Chin and Blue down at the feet of the ’Mech, talking with some Vagabonds and the other technical staff. One of them spotted Casey and waved. Casey waved back and indicated the cargo pad.

“Eval,” he shouted. Both Chin and Blue looked at one another, said a few words and broke away from the group.

Amid the stacks of ammunition and parts containers, a lot of Vagabonds sat, stood or leaned around some mats that had been laid out. Casey guessed that nearly all of the Legion turned out for the evaluation. He spotted people placing bets. For a moment, he thought about putting some down of his own, but decided against it.

This was the kind of spectacle that Casey had dreaded. He knew he was average at best when it came to hand-to-hand. Partially trained in a couple techniques, he could block some punches, throw some kicks, and maybe pin or take someone down. Nothing like what he saw Al doing. It would be a poor performance if he had to follow that.

“Everyone’s going to have a hoot watching my ass get tossed around,” Blue said casually as he stepped up next to Casey.

Chin had also joined him, along with the rest of the Tech crew from the ’Mech Bay. With the kids also running around, Casey was pretty sure the entire Legion was now present. A few seconds later, Al joined them.

“I hope none of you placed bets on me,” he said.

A quick study revealed an open, studious expression on Al’s face. Before Casey could ask what he meant, Miko walked out into the middle of the mat, a notepad in hand. She looked around at the crowd and then at the two warriors and their technicians.

“Alius Cad’ver,” she said. “From what I saw on the security feed for a month, as well as testimonies about your fight with Nimaj outside Stum’s Bar, I’m giving you a pass.” There were a lot of groans and some currency exchanges on the side. Miko continued on, pausing long enough for the din to die down. But, she was quickly interrupted. “So, that means, Casey -”

“Wait a minute. How is that fair?”

The woman who interrupted was the blond Clanswoman that he had first met a couple months back. From what little exposure Casey had to Clan people and culture, he was sure she fit the bill. She called herself Down.

Down pressed on when Miko looked at her. “I had to undergo an evaluation of my prowess. We all did.” She waved her arm to include her dark-haired friend, though she included the rest of the legion. “I’m fully versed in four styles of hand-to-hand combat, and I had to show it. And, yet, he gets a free pass from mere hearsay?”

“I’ve seen what he’s capable of,” Miko said. “And, I’m satisfied.”

“But I have not!” Down blurted, irritated. She paused long enough to compose herself. “We have not. For all I know, he just got lucky.” She speared Nimaj with a pointed look. “We never hear the end of the tales of Al’s luck from Darran, after all.” She turned her jade green eyes to Al. “There may come a time when we have to fight together. I, for one, would like to know in which situations I can trust your skills.”

Casey couldn’t help noting how proper Down’s English was, even though her accent was as flat, as Terran, as Al’s. Not a single contraction. Yet, it sounded as perfectly natural as Al’s constant use of contractions. One more point in favor of her being one of the SLDF in exile returned.

Even more worrisome to Casey, he partially agreed with her.

“Valid points,” Miko said in a conceding tone. That quickly changed to a matter-of-fact delivery. “However, the chances of the Legion having to fight alongside us in any capacity is slim. The only real time that may matter is in four months, when you’re finally eligible to test for manning any company salvage we bring back, correct?”

“They arrived early November,” Nimaj stated. “More like five months.”

Miko nodded. “Five months before you even get the chance at manning a BattleMech. That’s the only situation I foresee you in fighting alongside us. The Legion has its own methods, separate from ours. My statement stands. Al gets a pass”

Down’s brows furrowed as she visibly turned miffed. “I -,” she started to say, but suddenly became conscious of everyone else, looking around like a startled hen. She finished with a mutter. “I still don’t like it.”

Al sighed, then breathed, “Better take care of this now.”

Casey eyed his friend. “Or what?”

“They’ll jump me in the hallway, or something like that,” Al said in a quiet voice. Louder he addressed Down. “You don’t like it. So, you could say you have a grievance with the decision?”

Down looked at Al, open surprise all over her face. “I do,” she replied hesitantly. “Enough so that it’s worth dueling over?” Al asked.

A flash of raw insight passed over Down’s face before she stiffened with resolve, a sudden twinkle in her eye. “A Trial of Grievance over the decision. I would like to issue one.”

Al stepped out of the crowd, pausing just short of the mat. From what Casey could see, he, too had a twinkle in his eye. “Well, as I see it, by challenging me to a duel, you’ll have achieved what you wanted. So, what would you want should you win?”

Down had stepped out of the crowd as well, but hesitated at the question.

Her comrade, Perry, grinned mischievously, saying, “Take his ’Mech.” Down shook her head. “No. Something more reasonable.”

“You jaded turkeys have no sense of humor,” Perry replied with a mock frown. Down ignored the verbal barb, deep in thought. “If I win, I would like to be eligible for the trials to man the Crusader.”

“I don’t have that kind of clout,” Al said, looking a little disappointed.

“Done,” Nimaj Junior said from his seated spot on a crate. “If you win, that is.” “And if you win?” Down asked, sounding wary. “If I win, you get to tell me which Clan you’re from, and how you, as a Clansman, ended up in this part of the periphery.”

Down blinked a couple times, stunned. Then she smiled wickedly. “Bargained well and done. I accept.”

“Likewise,” Al replied.

With that decree, the crowd started to buzz with excitement. Casey spotted a new exchange of bets with a small number of bookies. For a moment, he thought about putting down a bet on his friend. But, then he recalled the strange statement Al made when he arrived. Studying his friend, Casey caught Al look in his direction and slightly shake his head.

“What do you think?” Blue asked. “Should I put some money down on Al?” “No,” Casey said. “The Clanner.”

Blue looked at Casey in surprise. “Wait, what?” “You’re still sticking with that?” Chin chided. Casey gestured at Al and the two women. “She has effectively proven she is.” Chin simply grinned.

Blue looked out at Al and Down. With a sigh, he said, “If you say so.” He disappeared behind the crowd.

Casey returned his attention to the mat and the duel being prepared. Al and Down both walked to meet with Miko at the heart of the mat.

“So, what are the parameters for winning?” Al asked. When Down shot him a confused look, he added, “It’s not like we’re fighting to the death. How do you know when you win?”

Down pointed to the well-defined three-meter circle on the mat. “First one to land bodily on the mat or leave the circle loses.” She looked at Miko. “You should choose one or two others to help you referee.”

Miko nodded. “Take your positions,” she said before gesturing to Father and Son Nimaj. After a quiet consultation with the two tribal elders, they all took up positions. “When you are ready, you may begin.”

Al and Down stood a meter apart in the center of the circle. Down took up a ready stance, something Casey recognized from karate. Al also took up a guarded stance. Then, Al gave a slight nod before launching at Down. The strike was a basic punch, which Down deflected handily. Al managed to retract just in time to counter a strike from Down.

They went back and forth for a couple minutes. The strikes turned into grapples and grabs. At one point, Down managed to toss Al over her shoulder. He managed to land on an extended arm, whipping his feet down to keep from landing bodily on the mat. It was an impressive move.

After approximately twenty exchanges, Down finally got the best of Al, catching him and flipping him to the ground sideways. To Casey, it looked like there was nothing Al could have done to prevent the fall. However, as Miko called the match, Down paced away, looking frustrated, maybe angry.

“The results are void,” Down finally declared.

“What do you mean?” Nimaj Junior asked. “You won.” “I did not win,” she snapped. With a hard gesture at Al, she said, “He let me win!” The crowd went silent.

“How do you know?” Miko asked, openly curious. More calmly, Down replied. “I have seen it with my training instructors. They want me to succeed in executing a move, and they would have to reign in an impulse, a trained instinct, to let me follow through.” She turned to Al, who slowly rose to his feet, “I saw the instinctive start to a defense, a counter, and then you would stop. But, that was not hesitation.”

“Are you sure I wasn’t just getting lucky?” Al asked. “Holding my own as long as I did against such a learned opponent?”

She flashed a derisive smirk. “I am not sure whether to be insulted or impressed. It takes far more control to fail a move you know so well that it does to simply let your body react on instinct. No. I did not win. This is a mistrial. The results are invalid.”

“I am impressed that you noticed when the rest of us failed to,” Miko said. “Even though I knew he had thrown the fight.” “You knew?” Nimaj Junior looked surprised. “Oh, yeah. When you see the security footage, you’ll see why I was willing to pass him without this duel.”

From Casey’s vantage, he could see the confusion on Down’s face when she turned to Al. “Why?” Al lightly shrugged. “If not now, I would have had to deal with yours and others’ curiosity later.”

“I mean, why purposely fail?” “It was an unfair match-up. There’s no fun in showing that off. Besides, when you made your request, helping you along felt like a neat idea.”

The elder Nimaj chuckled, his base rumbling in the open space of the cave. “A gift. He didn’t throw the fight. He was giving you your prize.”

Casey had mixed feelings about the sentiment. He still harbored resentment for what the Clans did to his home, and his family’s BattleMech. They were the reason he was in the mess he was in. But, Casey knew from personal experience that Al had the upper hand in hand-to-hand combat. To see him use that ability to help somebody else brought a welling of pride and respect inside Casey. He smiled and nodded in Al’s direction.

Al seemed to notice and nodded back.

“Kindness,” Nimaj Junior said with open relish, laying a hand on Al’s shoulder. He then laid a hand on Down’s shoulder. “Honesty. Such character is definitely worthy of joining our tribe. Father, with your permission, we will honor the results.”

The elderly Nimaj nodded his approval.

“Then, Down is the victor, and she is now part of the Vagabond Legion of the Damned. She’ll be eligible for the tests to man the -3L Crusader.”

There was applause from the spectators. Casey robotically added a couple claps of his own, but no more. As part of the Legion, he would have to get used to working with the two Clan women. How long it would take for him to get over his resentment was something about which Casey had no clue.

Al moved to join Casey and the Techs while Miko marked off some notes on her notepad. But, Down caught up with Al. Her face was stony, and Casey guessed this wasn't over.

“Now, show me what you really can do,” Down demanded. Halting, Al looked in Down's general direction. “You don't want that.” The idle chatter and exchanging of bets went silent as everyone tuned in. “The match is over,” Down said. “But, you have failed to really show me what you are capable of. Show me.”

Down hadn't stopped moving toward Al. When he closed his eyes in a sigh, she was close enough to whip out a punch. Casey saw the simplest of Hay-Makers. It would have connected with the side of Al's head. But, in the instant she lashed out, shouting, “Show me!” one more time, Al reacted with lightning reflexes.

The move was simple enough for Casey to recognize in the after image burned into his memory. He was familiar enough to see a typical Aikido block-and-lock take down. In the span of a heartbeat, Al had chicken-winged her, and sent her to the floor on her back. The room resounded with the slap sound as she hit the mat.

There was no other sound in the area for many seconds.

Casey saw the dazed look on Down's face, and wondered if her head had hit a little to hard from the fall. She should have been thankful that was the extent of her injury. The shoulder lock Al used had some much nastier applications. Broken bones in the arm or shoulder were an easy possibility if extra force was put into applying the lock. Instead of tripping her to the ground, Al could have stomped into the outside of her lower leg, snapping her shin. She had received the humane version.

In the next instant, Al grabbed the fallen Down by both shoulders. With no sign of imbalance he lifted her upright and settled her to her feat. It took a couple seconds for Down to steady her footing before he let go.

“Will that suffice?” Al asked, quietly. In the silence of the training circle, he was still clearly audible.

Down gave a very small nod, wide-eyed.

“Make sure you get that looked at,” Al said, patting the arm he had locked. She nodded again, more confident.

Al turned and finished his journey toward Casey and their technicians. As he did, people started talking again, a little more animated than usual.

It wasn't the move that was impressive to Casey. It was the speed and precision. And, then the display of strength. Al looked strong enough, but Down wasn't a lightweight, for a woman. It was beyond normal, though Casey still felt it was a stretch to think it might be super-human.

His silent stewing was interrupted when the two Clan women arrived, both looking anxiously at Al.

Down was the first to speak. “You were right,” she said, apologetic. “I imagine if you had shown me what you could really do, I would be dead. Thank you.”

Excitement and curiosity filling her voice, Perry jumped in. “Which Clan are you from? How did you get here?”

“I’m not Clan,” Al answered. “I'm from Earth.”

“You mean you are Terran,” Down said to clarify. Al smirked lopsidedly. “I mean Terran, born and raised. Where I'm from, it was called Earth. Always will be Earth as far as I'm concerned.“

“But, you know about Clan trials,” Perry said.

Al flashed a fuller smirk. “It’s complicated, but I am familiar with the lore behind your people, the children of Kerensky, and the form they took after the SLDF-in-exile’s exodus. In time, I’ll explain it to you, and you,” he finished with a look at Casey.

“Then, were you not interested in my history, and how I got here?” Down asked, sounding doubtful, looking slightly hurt.

“Oh, I do,” Al said, serious. “But, I figured there would come a time when I could just ask, and you’d be willing to tell me. I don’t need to force it out of you as a prize in a duel.”

Down calmed down, giving Al a considered look. “That may very well be the case. In time.”

She flashed a slight smirk, and went to lay a hand on Al’s shoulder, but paused. For the first time, Casey noticed a slight twitch from Al, the beginnings of a move away from her hand. Then Casey noted the controlled expression on Al’s face. His return smirk was slightly strained for the duration of the twitch. Down’s smirk took on a serenity, a sage-like look of understanding. She finished laying her hand on his shoulder as she moved away.

Then an elbow nudged at Casey’s ribs. He turned to find Blue nodding out toward the mat, and Miko.

“Good call,” Blue said, visibly counting the local scrip.

Casey offered him a lopsided smile while he headed out to his own evaluation.

“Well, folks,” he said, loud enough for the crowd to hear. “Don’t expect anything similar that. Maybe the first part. But, it won’t be self-control when I mess up.”

The crowd chuckled and laughed at his joke.

“Well, gentleman, what do you think?” Damien asked.

Both were in the little office again, and two individual contracts sat on his desk, waiting for Al and Casey to read and sign. Al picked up his and started reading. Casey knew there were no changes from the last time at a glance. He made to reach out and take the paper document, but hesitated with a visible wave.

“Do you remember my statement about salvage?” Casey asked. “It’s important that any that I kill becomes mine. After all, I have a debt to pay, eventually. It’s a matter of honor and pride for me.”

“I did, and I included a clause on page three about salvage and ownership.”

“It’s there,” Al said. “ ‘Any confirmed, uncontested kills give the pilot who scored said kills right to claim any materials as personal salvage, barring mission contract restrictions.’ “

“That’s why I have you here,” Damien said, looking up at Nimaj senior

Standing just behind Damien’s shoulder, the elder Nimaj looked very similar to his son. His faced was weathered and wrinkled with age, and he was a touch wider around the middle than his progeny. Otherwise, the two were a spitting image of each other.

“With your approval, I’m offering the same deal to the Legion,” Damien continued. “Any kills your people make stay theirs. But, it has to be uncontested and confirmed. Otherwise, the material becomes company property. Sound fair?”

Nimaj remained stoic, but his eyes looked watery. For a moment, his voice momentarily wavered when he spoke. “This is truly a blessed day. A day of gifts, all around. I approve.”

Damien beamed. Out of the central drawer, he pulled out a third contract, which looked different on the face from what was offered to Casey and Al. He set it on the corner of the desk within Nimaj’s reach and laid a pen on it.

“I had an amended deal written up.”

Nimaj didn’t even bother reading. With apparent faith in Damien’s word, he took up the pen, found the signing line on the last page, and scrawled his signature and the date. He then offered the pen to Al, who was closest.

Al took up the pen and signed his contract.

Casey picked up the document and quickly scanned the area in question, making sure of what he already knew. It was there. Everything appeared in good order. When offered the pen, Casey quickly took it and applied his own signature and date.

Gathering up the documents and tapping them against the desk to even out the pages, Damien looked pleased. “Gentlemen, you won’t be disappointed. And, the timing couldn’t be better. We’ve got another contract lined up, and our employer should be here in a couple more days to work out the details.” To Nimaj, he said, “You might want to hurry up the trials for manning the Awesome. I hear you’re still in the running.”

“I am,” Nimaj said with pride. “But, it’s only to maintain my skills as a MechWarrior. I will defer the position to one of the other contestants.” Nimaj looked at Casey and Al. “Only when I’m the last dispossessed warrior in the Legion will I take to the cockpit once more.”

“No man left behind,” Casey said. “By the way, what’s the deal with the two Clan women? Why aren’t they part of the tribe, yet?”

“They are under probation. We don’t induct them for a year. This gives us time to confirm their identity and intentions. It also gives us time to figure out how to handle any spies we might find.”

“I doubt those two are Watch,” Al said, idly. “The Clan intelligence arm?” Damien said, perking up. “That’s what I heard it called,” Al said. “I may be wrong.”

Damien didn’t press the issue. His eyes didn’t leave Al for many seconds when he said, “Well, gentlemen. Welcome to the company.

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