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Chapter 12 - Mechwarrior: Wild Rose[]

Uncharted Wilderness, Altitude Nap-of-the-Earth
New St Andrews IV, The Periphery
Rimward of the Circinus Federation
May 28th, 3077

Caradin brought them back to Plant One shortly after Marie landed from her test flight. There, the Blossom was parked while the Hussars hastily retrofit the LAM with some extra parts. To be effective aerial reconnaissance, the Blossom's sensors and communications gear had to be in top condition. The latter part was relatively easy; Jain had upgraded the Blossom's communications suite, putting it on par with that of a current-model Phoenix Hawk. The sensors were more complicated. With Meridian's components being so out-of-date, the Hussars needed to take sensor parts out of the Commando, Charger, and Raptor, patching them together to upgrade the Blossom's sensor capacity. Marie could tell none of the Hussars were happy to have parts taken out of their 'Mechs, but they went along with it all the same.

Marie supervised the work, doing a lot of the rewiring and retrofits herself. When she wasn't working on the Blossom, Caradin had her poring over topographical maps of the area, looking for promising spots to do a fly-over. It made sense in principle, but with so much untamed wilderness out there, Marie felt like it would have been just as productive to throw darts at a map.

Once the retrofits were done, Caradin finally sent her out on patrols. Despite all the hassle of preparation, Marie still jumped at the chance to get airborne. As soon as she lifted off on the first real flight, it felt like a part of her she'd been putting aside was finally coming alive again.

Caradin agreed to the Blossom's AirMech form as an acceptable compromise for the aerial sweeps. In that shape the LAM's jump jets were precisely controlled, using the wings and ground effect airflows to help itself stay aloft. As a result, the AirMech could fly while using relatively little of her fuel reserves.

Unfortunately the AirMech proved to be a clumsy nightmare to pilot. On the ground she handled like an aerospace fighter trying to walk, and in the air she handled like a BattleMech trying to fly. The enormously complicated control board and double control sticks suddenly made sense, since piloting the AirMech meant managing arms, legs, wings, weapons, jump jets, and the engine, all while trying to stay balanced and fight the extra drag from the limbs hanging off the fuselage. On top of that, to get any benefit from ground effect airflow Marie had to keep the AirMech low, skimming just over the trees while fighting the clumsy controls.

The patrols lasted six hours at a time before returning to Plant One or Two for a debrief and meeting to plan out the next flight. Then Marie could get in a few hours' rest while the Hussars pulled the contents of the Blossom's black box and did a maintenance check before she went up again. Marie ended each day with a sore back and a splitting headache – the former a result of sitting unmoving in the command chair with her eyes focused on the screens, and the latter from her neurohelmet struggling to adjust to the alien AirMech. She told herself it was getting better as the days went on. The Clans built their neurohelmets to quickly adapt to any mech they were plugged into – an essential quality when Clan Omnimechs could change weapon loadouts and capabilities from one day to the next. She hoped her helmet would get over the learning curve soon. She had grown used to the smooth, natural feel of the Blossom when she was ground-bound, almost like the 'Mech was an extension of her body. With the wings unfolded she felt disconnected from the Blossom, leaving her trying to fly an enormously complicated piece of equipment with unresponsive controls and a wobbly sense of balance. It was a frustrating experience at best, and even after all her simulator training she still hadn't gotten used to it.

Flying the AirMech was only one complication in a very difficult mission. Even with the Blossom's newly-upgraded sensors, detecting tight-beam communications was tricky. Marie would be looking in all directions for a flicker of energy that would only be visible for a fraction of a second. And, as if that wasn't enough, Caradin also ordered her to stay off the comms while in flight except for emergencies. The reasoning was, if the pirates had advanced communications gear then they might be able to crack the encryption on the Hussars' comms. Marie would be left to her own choices up in the air, unable to call back to the lance to report in or receive orders. With all that in mind, it quickly became clear that Marie would need support. After the first day of flying, Caradin started assigning another Hussar to ride in the cockpit with her.

The arrangement was awkward at best. The Blossom's cockpit technically had room for someone else to sit behind the command chair in a hastily-installed jumpseat with a net of crash webbing to serve as a harness. Unfortunately they were close enough that Marie could smell her passenger's breath. She thanked her stars that she'd been able to find an air freshener for the cockpit.

Her passengers rotated out by the day. Each one was in charge of monitoring the sensor readouts and maintaining the flight plan while Marie focused on piloting. She grew used to sharing her cockpit; it reminded her of the time she'd spent learning to fly with her mother after she'd lost her legs.

Each passenger was a different experience. Hoshino was good-nature about flying in the back of the cockpit. He would crack the occasional joke, like how she was doing a combat drop backwards flying away from the ground. Marie did her best to laugh politely at the jokes, but having him sitting behind her left her with a feeling of ants crawling up her spine. What Caradin had said about him kept playing through her head, and she couldn't stop thinking about how they were all alone, locked in the cockpit with her back to him.

Thomas rode for exactly one flight, which had been long enough to find out the man got violently airsick. Marie still rankled that she'd been assigned with cleaning out the Blossom's cockpit after that incident. Now Thomas stayed on the ground, filling whatever seat was open on the scouting patrols.

Caradin had ridden once in the Blossom as well, on the rare day that no other business was keeping her occupied. The woman was all business, but seemed at least understanding that Marie was learning the Blossom as she went along. She said she had worked with aerospace support before, but had never had a fighter under her command, so they were both learning how Marie would work with the rest of the unit. That was oddly comforting to know. On top of that, although Caradin was solidly built, she was physically the shortest of the Hussars, making her company the least intrusive.

Last was Wolfgang, who was nothing if not the quietest one. Unlike his sergeant, he wasn't physically sickened by flying; if anything Wolfgang had the strongest stomach of any of them. That being said, Marie got the strong feeling he resented being on the airborne patrols. He spoke very little except for short commands about the next coordinates to fly to. He often had his jaw clenched when she managed to steal a glance at him over her shoulder.

"Was it your first time?" Wolfgang suddenly asked one day, his gravelly voice breaking the awkward silence that usually accompanied his presence in the cockpit. Marie gave him a confused look over her shoulder in response. He was distracted looking at sensor readouts, but he still glanced in her direction. "In the woods last week. First time in combat?"

"…what's it matter?" she asked.

"It's different, isn't it?" he replied. "In a simulator you know it doesn't matter. When it's real, with the lasers and autocannon slugs flying, well…you got to come to terms with a few things, don't you?"

"I did all right."

Wolfgang snorted dismissively at that. "Sure, and I'll bet that MRE tasted just as good coming back up." he said. Marie shot him an angry look, which he met with a smirk. "BattleROMs record everything that happens in here, kid. So what got in your head more? Fear of getting killed, or having to kill someone else?" Marie stayed quiet at that. "Maybe both?" he asked with a knowing chuckle.

"What do you care?" Marie asked. "You were a rookie once, too."

"Yeah, and that's why I can tell you don't got what it takes for this job. You froze, girl and then you puked. All you really did was run into a fire and shoot the air a lot. That's sure a hell of a MechWarrior. Damn lucky the pirates didn't feel like sticking around, or you and this silly toy 'Mech would be done."

"I did more than you did," Marie shot back. "Finding those guys was supposed to be your job, and I still ran them off on my own. Now I'm up here cleaning up after you."

Wolfgang smirked and shook his head at that before sipping from the cup of coffee he'd brought. "Looks like there's nothing here. Next nav point, let's go."

Marie followed his instructions, banking towards the next area on the flight plan while Wolfgang went quiet. She had just concluded he had resumed the silent treatment when he spoke up again.

"You know you're just a temporary, right?"

Marie tensed. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You thought the el-tee's gonna keep you around just because you can pilot this gimmick of a machine?" he asked, tapping the wall of the cockpit with his foot. "Anyone can see you can't even move this thing in a straight line."

"…yeah? Caradin sure seems to like these patrols. Maybe she knows when I'm up here I can give you guys an advantage you didn't have before."

Wolfgang snorted again. "Yup, up and away from the rest of us out on maneuvers. Flying around and looking nice for the cameras, just the way she likes you. You're not in anyone's way up here."

"What, did you miss a briefing or something?" Marie asked. "There's a few dozen Meridian drivers who're pretty happy I've been around and the higher-ups love the Blossom."

"'Course they do. Blossom, love that name by the way. Real pretty-looking, then crumples the second it's put under any stress."

"Sorry, whose 'Mech did I spend days rebuilding after we landed? I know it wasn't mine, and the cockpit sure smelled like ass."

"My ride's a combat machine, girl. It's made to go into a fight and get shot at. It breaks, I get it fixed. I'll duct-tape the SRMs back on if I have to. That's how these things go. This machine might make the civvies get all starry-eyed, but it's not made for a fight. How you gonna fix this thing the first time you take a real hit? Where you gonna get replacement parts for something no one makes anymore?"

"I'll figure something out."

"Sure, kid. Keep tellin' yourself that. But we all know the second we can find a new ride for Thomas, Holly's bringing him back in and she's selling this overgrown toy to someone who'll scrap it for parts. And then you think she'll need to keep you around?"

Marie ground her teeth at that. "Shut up." she snapped at him.

"Wish you had your buddy Hoshino out here instead? He knows your days are numbered, too. He'll just make a joke and avoid telling you." She heard a sickening slurping noise, undoubtedly him drinking his damn coffee. "This ain't a real 'Mech, and we can all see you don't got the nerve for a real fight."

Marie felt her blood boiling at his words. She tried to tune him out by concentrating on flying. She had switched the wing controls to the foot pedals, keeping the Blossom level with careful touches from her toes while leaving her hands free to control the AirMech's arms and help her balance. Unfortunately even with all that to keep track of, it wasn't enough for her to completely forget about Wolfgang. After a few minutes she broke her silence.

"You know Caradin likes me," she said. "She didn't have to hire me. And after how I did at the convoy she trusts me enough to risk letting me fly, with you in the back."

"Sure, kid. We all know Holly means everything she says," he said, a cynical edge to his voice. "Don't tell me you bought the line that she can't afford to keep you gassed up? Meridian's scared and they're asking one little lance to guard three Plants at once. It would've been easy for Holly to get 'em to pay for something like fuel, but she didn't do it. What's that tell you?"

"What's that? I have my hands full here," she replied flippantly, banking the Blossom into a hard turn and throwing Wolfgang against the safety webbing he was strapped into. He just snickered at the move. "How'd you get this duty, anyway?" she asked annoyingly. "Did you lose a poker game or something?"

"I did, but Holly also ordered me up here." He sipped his coffee. "My Commando doesn't have LRMs."

Her brow furrowed in response to that as she wondered what he could mean. Her confusion evaporated when her lock-on alert blared. Her HUD flashed with red lights and warnings filling her vision, making her start. She realized it was the warning of an incoming long-range missile flight and banked hard, but it was too late to make a difference. The Blossom shuddered, her status flashing to yellow in multiple places as over a dozen missiles impacted with her. Marie's eyes swept the viewscreens for a clue of where the attack had come from. Her HUD flashed an arrow over the view as the computers tracked the missiles back to their point of origin. She spotted Hoshino's Charger skulking in the trees below her, its bulk sticking out from between the branches as its targeting system tracked her.

Mechwarrior Wild Rose - LAM Fight (Chapter 12 by Hatchy)

"What the hell is Hoshino doing?!" she shouted. The computers tried to paint the Katamari and give her its distance and relative speed. She blinked as her targeting reticule started jumping around the screen, the computer unable to draw a bead on the big 'Mech. "My sensors are jammed!" she shouted.

She could practically feel Wolfgang's eyes on her as she scrambled to think of what to do. I don't have the nerve for a real fight, huh? she thought.

She set her jaw and switched her targeting over to manual. With the Blossom's sensors blinded she would have to line up a shot solely by eyeballing it. At her airspeed and distance from the Katamari it would be an impossible shot. She would have to get closer.

"Hang on, Wolfgang!" she shouted, and pushed the control stick forward. The Blossom's engines roared as she banked towards the Katamari and dove straight at the big 'Mech. She saw the Katamari hesitate, seemingly intimidated for a second before it fired its own jets, leaping up over the trees to reposition itself and launching another flight of missiles from the air. As the Katamari grew on her screen Marie squeezed the triggers, sending her lasers lancing down at him. The laser bolts passed Hoshino's missiles, dancing over his armor. She tried to turn out of the way of the missiles, but they were already peppering her. Hoshino followed up with his own lasers as she shot by him, passing so close she nearly scraped his paint off.

Alarms blared as the Katamari's lasers chewed through the Blossom's armor, and part of the wire frame turned red. Marie's heart stopped when she heard one of the powerful thrusters on her back sputter and die. The AirMech began to tilt, angling uncontrollably towards the ground.

"Hang on!" she shouted, fighting the controls. The wind howled over the wings as the Blossom fell out of the sky. She slammed the throttle forward, pushing the remaining thruster as hard as she could to get enough speed to keep control. The wings weren't damaged – yet – but with alerts blaring over the strain on her remaining thruster, she realized that wings or no, she couldn't stay in the air much longer. Her eyes quickly picked out a clearing big enough for a landing. She banked towards it, keeping the Blossom steady while rapidly descending. At the last second she thumbed a button to switch the foot pedals back to controlling the legs. With a final burst of thrust to brake, she landed on the AirMech's feet, stumbling with the speed of the impact and staggering into a tree.

Marie was breathing hard and sweating. She shoved the mode selection lever up, starting the conversion back to a BattleMech. The Blossom started to reconfigure, but then the moving armor panels suddenly screeched to a halt, a sickening thunk vibrating through the whole 'Mech. Marie's eyes darted to the wire frame to see red flashing all over her right side. As another alert blared she looked up to the viewscreen, seeing Caradin's Raptor crouched in the trees just off her right flank, all of its lasers pointed at her. Bower's Arbiter was just behind her, a pair of camera drones hovering over its shoulder.

"Bang," Caradin's voice said over the comm. "You're dead, Pilot."

Marie twitched. "Lieutenant, what the hell?!!"

"Get back to base immediately for a debrief." Caradin went on, ignoring the outburst.

"Oh, yeah, we'll be doing training operations. Forgot to mention that," Wolfgang said from behind her. "In case you couldn't guess, you just failed that one." She turned around to glare at him. The man hadn't even spilled his coffee. He casually pointed at the screen. "LT's getting away, kid."

Marie looked back to the displays to see Fleetfoot disappearing between the trees with Bower's 'Mech in tow. Within a minute she was left alone in the woods.

She pulled on the mode lever and the Blossom made another grinding noise, remaining stuck between a BattleMech and an AirMech. Marie swore, unbuckled herself from the command chair, and yanked off her neurohelmet and cooling vest. She shoved her way past a smug-looking Wolfgang and climbed out of the cockpit onto the Blossom's shoulder. Using the handholds built into the armor she climbed down the 'Mech's body to the chest, where she could see the interlocking panels that made up the lifting surfaces. As she'd feared they were jammed open, half-converted.

What followed was over two hours of work as Marie struggled to get the Blossom into a useable shape. Using the tool kit in the Blossom's cockpit she made adjustments to the armor panels, then climbed up to the cockpit to change the hydraulic pressure on the linkages that moved them, then went back down to work on the jam again, over and over. The armor was covered in dents and blast marks, she guessed from the dummy warheads Hoshino must have been firing. Marie found the sensor override boxes hidden in the 'Mech's internals that had helped simulate the missile and laser strikes. She also found a box wired to her jump jet controls, clearly the culprit for her in-flight engine failure.

Finally, her muscles sore and her blood burning with anger and frustration, she hung down from two of the handholds and kicked at the jammed panels. After a few solid hits, something shifted enough for the panels to slip past one another with a loud grinding of metal-on-metal. Sweating and breathing hard from the exertion, she climbed back to the cockpit again and tried the mode conversion lever, this time being rewarded with the Blossom standing up straighter, her armor plates closing back up into the body of a BattleMech. The diagnostics were still going haywire though, registering internal errors everywhere.

"What did you guys wire into my 'Mech?" she hissed at Wolfgang.

"Dunno. Training op stuff," he answered. "Try kicking it some more. You've got some real horsepower in those pins." She grit her teeth and ignored him, pushing the Blossom up to her top speed.

She was still livid by the time she made it back to the 'Mech bay at Manufacturing Plant One. Caradin, Bower, and Hoshino had arrived well ahead of her, and their 'Mechs were already parked in various bays. Marie pulled the Blossom into a bay and powered down the reactor. Wolfgang was out ahead of her, slipping out the hatch while she was unbuckling her safety harness. She stormed out after him.

Caradin was waiting for them as the lift brought them down to ground level. Marie stomped right up to the woman.

"You cut off my jets?" she snapped at Caradin. "I'm flying at low altitude and you shut off my engine? What the hell was that?! Are you insane?!"

Caradin's expression was flat and emotionless. She sighed in annoyance, and glanced over at Coghill, who was standing nearby watching bemusedly, with Thomas interposing himself between him and Caradin. Also nearby were Wolfgang and Hoshino, standing at attention.

"It was a training mission. Calm down, McCloud," Caradin said icily. "Outbursts don't help your score."

"Yeah? What's my score if I'm splattered over half the planet? Do you know how fast I was going? And what did you do to my 'Mech? She's scrambled up everywhere! Look at her!" Marie screamed, waving her hand at the Broken Blossom. The 'Mech was only technically converted; the armor plates on her chest and shoulders were partially separated, leaving it looking like a child's toy that had been dropped too many times.

Caradin's eyes narrowed. "Finished yet?" she asked. "Or are you going to waste more of my time?"

Marie blinked. "What?"

"First, I thought I was clear about this, that is my 'Mech," Caradin said firmly. "I allow you to pilot that Phoenix Hawk because you claim you're the most qualified."

Marie tensed at the sharp tone in the lieutenant's voice. "Yes sir, I am."

"And I thought any good Pilot knows to check their machine before taking it up. Did you check the Blossom before you went out?" She went on before Marie could say anything. "You know if you had done even a standard maintenance check you'd have found the training overrides that were wired in."

"With the flight schedule I didn't have time to – "

"You know to make time when it's important," Caradin interrupted, her voice steely. "And I'd say I just did you a favor now. I never send my people out alone against unknown forces. Would that be a smart move?"

"Well…no, sir."

"But with these aerial patrols I have no choice but to send you out on your own. We don't know what's out there, that's the whole point. You're up there with one of my people in the back, I need to know you can handle yourself if things get dicey. And now I know. You're not ready for this, are you?"

Marie felt her heart sink, but resisted the urge to step back from the angry lieutenant. She clenched her jaw and shook her head. "What do you mean? I'm ready for whatever you throw at me!"

"Oh really? Because one training mission and you're making a scene in front of our employer," Caradin said icily, gesturing at Coghill. She half-turned to look at the small man. "I'm sorry for my Pilot's outburst, I'll be right with you," she said, her voice suddenly polite.

Marie swallowed, becoming very aware of how many eyes were on her right now. "You want to test me, fine. Run me through every test you can think of on the simulator. Why would you actually switch off my engines?"

"I don't have to explain myself to you, Pilot." Caradin replied. "But anyone who actually knows the job would understand the simulator only goes so far. It's not training if you know a sneak attack is coming. We're hunting pirates, McCloud. Sneak attacks are their bread and butter. Are you too bullheaded to see I just saved all of us a lot of trouble?"

Marie clenched her fists at her side. "Sir, I have to – "

"Enough. I can't deal with you when you're like this," Caradin said, waving her off. She stepped away from Marie. "You're dismissed, Pilot."

"…wait, what?"

"We'll finish the debriefing when you're in a state to talk. Now get off the tarmac. Please." she added with a hard stare.

"Lieutenant, I – "

"Please! Please," Caradin repeated, not blinking.

Marie saw the muscles in Caradin's jaw twitching as the woman stared her down. She took a step back, lowering her gaze. Hoshino's big hand touched her shoulder. She looked up at the man to see him solemnly shaking his head. She looked back at Caradin, but the woman had already turned away from her, walking over to Coghill and putting on a smile as though nothing had happened.

With a final look at Caradin's back, Marie allowed herself to be drawn away from the lieutenant, and out of the 'Mech bay.

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