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Chapter 13 - Mechwarrior: Wild Rose[]

Uncharted Wilderness, Altitude Nap-of-the-Earth
New St Andrews IV, The Periphery
Rimward of the Circinus Federation
May 29th, 3077

Marie woke up in a haze with her head pounding. As she tried to roll over she became aware that the pounding was not all in her skull, but from a ringing on her nightstand. With a slurred groan she tried to reach for the noise, but her arms felt numb and wooden. Her vision swam as she lifted her head off the pillow. Through the blur she saw her wristcomp on the nightstand, chirping insistently with an incoming call. She groaned again and fumbled with the little device, managing to raise it to her ear.

"Hello?" she slurred.

"There you are," a familiar voice said with audible relief. "Are you all right?"

Marie's head hit the pillow again as she lost the strength to hold it up. "G'morning, Mom," she mumbled.

"…Sorry. Did I wake you up?" Rachel asked.

Marie's eyes focused on the chronometer on her wristcomp. 0806. She groaned again and rolled over, checking the bed next to her. From the smell she could tell a man had been there recently, but there was no other sign of her companion beyond a hastily-scribbled note left on the pillow. Classy.

She briefly glanced at the note before crumpling it up and tossing it into a corner of the room. "It's all right Mom, I needed to be up anyway," she mumbled.

"I haven't heard from you in over a week. What's going on? Did something happen?"

Her mother's voice felt like a screwdriver being shoved through her eardrums. Marie winced and massaged her forehead, hoping to knead her brain into something useable. "It's been really busy over here," she answered. "Sorry I didn't call…I barely have time to do anything between flights."

"Flights? Are they finally let you go up?"

"Yeah…hang on…" Marie said weakly, putting the wristcomp down and grabbing the wastebasket to spit out the contents of her stomach. If nothing else, the taste that left in her mouth helped her wake up. She dragged her legs over from where they'd been charging and clicked them into place on her thighs.

"Yeah Mom, they're letting me fly," she answered after retrieving her wristcomp. She stood up and set about getting dressed, gathering up her uniform off the floor.

"You don't sound too excited about that," Rachel commented suspiciously.

"…I mean they were letting me fly," Marie corrected. "There was a problem. Turns out I've got a bad attitude when I get shot down."

"You were shot down? What happened?"

Marie sighed and tried to rub the sleep out of her eyes. After a few seconds' hesitation she took a breath and caught her mother up on what had happened in the last week, ending with the most recent flight. Rachel stayed quiet while she spoke, haltingly and stumbling on her words.

"That's not right," Rachel finally said once Marie had finished. "They shouldn't have done that to you."

Marie grumbled. "It was a training operation, Mom. They were seeing how I react to bad situations. Didn't dad do the same thing to his people? He loved a good surprise attack."

"No, Marie," Rachel replied, her voice firm. "He'd test them, but he never put them in that much danger. You could've been killed. What's the first rule of aerospace piloting?"

"If it's not flying, you need more thrust," Marie said simultaneously with her mother. "Yeah, I know, Mom," she added on tiredly.

"If you don't have enough thrust, you're not flying. And they shut down your engines," Rachel went on. "You're lucky you managed a landing at all. Let alone on your feet. That's not what a commander should do to their MechWarriors, ever."

Marie finished pulling on her uniform and sat back down on the bed, giving her head time to stop spinning. "Well I tried bringing that up, but the lieutenant wasn't having it."

"Does that seem right to you?" Rachel asked. "I don't know about this lieutenant, but when your father had someone with a problem, he'd call them to his office to talk in private. He wouldn't have a screaming argument in front of everyone, and especially not in front of a client."

Marie sighed. It was too early to be reliving the argument she'd had with Caradin. She'd hoped getting out for the night would help her clear her head and get over it, but the whole night was a blur in her mind, leaving nothing but the frustration and a lingering sense of self-loathing.

"I started the fight," she said. "And she's the commanding officer. I shouldn't be going for her like that in front of everyone. I should've asked to talk to her later."

"Don't make excuses for her. This woman almost got you killed, and for what? Do you think she's mad at you?"

"What reason does she have to be mad at me, Mom?"

"Off the top of my head…maybe she feels threatened? You're the one who came up with the idea for aerial patrols, and she stole that."

"She had to present the idea politically, Mom. I was on thin ice with Meridian already." Because of calls like this, she mentally added on.

"According to her, you were. "Have you talked to anyone else in the unit? Has anyone else mentioned a problem?"

Marie was quiet at that. She knew a completely honest answer would just get her mother even more worked up: Wolfgang's the asshole who thinks I don't belong, Thomas is the asshole who wants me to wash out, and I'm afraid to be alone with Hoshino.

"They trust Caradin," she finally answered.

"Do you?" Rachel asked. "The day of this training op, your passenger is the man she's sleeping with, and he's suddenly a lot more talkative, and gets you all wound up just in time for you to get back to base? And when she intercepts you, she happens to have a literal camera team waiting there to record it? Doesn't the whole thing seem strange to you?"

Before Marie could answer, her wristcomp beeped with a message. She glanced at it, seeing it was Caradin: My office, ASAP

Marie grimaced at the message. "I've got to go, Mom. LT's calling me to that private meeting right now. I'll talk it over with her."

"Why?" Rachel asked. "What reason do you have to keep working for these people, if they'll treat you like that? You need to go in there and resign, immediately. I'll come out there and get you, we'll be on the next dropship out of here."

"And then what, Mom?" Marie asked sharply. "I don't own the Blossom. I leave the Hussars, they keep the LAM, and I'm left with nothing." And Wolfgang would be right about me, she mentally added on.

"Well maybe you've got a future in entertainment," Rachel suggested with an awkward laugh. "Just the other day I saw this holo-ad from Meridian, and you looked pretty good in it."

Marie cringed. After suffering through so many holo shoots and producer's notes, she'd been avoiding watching anything coming out of the marketing department. She vaguely recalled seeing an ad while she'd been out last night, but the details were fuzzy. Now her stomach turned from the embarrassment.

"Come on, Mom. I can't do that. I can make this work, I just need to talk to Caradin. We've both had a night to calm down, it'll go fine."

"Marie, this woman put you in danger and then blamed you for getting upset. What do you expect her to say?

"It'll be fine," Marie repeated sharply. "What I know is that right now there are people all over this planet who are trusting me and the other Hussars to protect them. Caradin knows I can help, she wants me around. She just doesn't know how to handle an aerospace unit. It was a misunderstanding, it must've been." She took a breath. "You didn't see her, Mom. The way she handles herself, and how she talks…she puts out so much power with everything she does, it's like she can make the world revolve around her. I know she's a good commander, I just have to make this right."

Rachel made a concerned noise. "Don't mistake anger for strength, Marie. You might see a commanding officer who wants you around, I see someone who puts you in danger and expects you to apologize for it."

Marie patted down her pockets, breathing a sigh of relief as she felt her credit chip in one of them, right where she'd left it. "I know what I'm doing, Mom. I'll straighten things out and then we'll be fine."

"I don't like this," Rachel said. She sighed. "Look…if you really want to give this a go, fine. See what Caradin has to say. But try to look at her. I mean really do."

"All right, Mom. I'll try to call later, all right? I've got to go."

"All right, honey. Be saf – "

Rachel's final word was cut off as Marie ended the call. She threw her wristcomp to the bed and ran her hands through her hair. Her ears were ringing and her head was pounding, and her thoughts were all jumbled up in her head. She tossed back a few painkillers for her headache and then lit a cigarette, thankful for the smoke getting the taste of vomit out of her mouth. She quietly sat there smoking, taking the time to try and straighten out her thoughts and only being partly successful. Once the cigarette had burned down to the butt she ground it out on the floor and took a few minutes to put on her makeup, trying to at least look less obviously hung-over. Then with a final breath to steady herself, she headed out.

The overhead lights of the Plant hit her eyeballs like nuclear explosions. She slammed her eyes shut and put one hand on the wall to help balance herself. Keeping her gaze low, she made her way down the hall, trying not to wince as every sound echoed off her eardrums. She remembered countless Meridian employees offering to buy her drinks last night. From the way she was feeling, she must've taken all of them up on the offer. At least the headache was slowly losing its edge as the painkillers kicked in.

She headed to the small office Meridian had afforded Caradin for her unit operations. Taking another breath to steady herself, she knocked on the door.

"Come in," Caradin answered almost immediately.

Marie opened the door and stepped inside. The office was spartan, with a desk and a few chairs. A holo-projector sat on the desk, its housing cracked and status lights blinking. The overhead lights were thankfully switched off, with the only illumination coming from the window at the back of the room. Caradin herself looked perfectly composed, not a hair out of place as she sat calmly behind the desk.

Marie snapped a salute. "Pilot McCloud reporting, sir."

"You're late," Caradin said. "I expected you to double-time it here when I called you."

"I walked as quickly as I could, sir."

"Hm," Caradin replied noncommittally. "Heard you had a busy night."

Marie paused. "Just some stress relief, sir. Following your advice."

Caradin looked her over. "Careful wearing that uniform when you're out. I understand it gets you some attention, but you represent my unit when you're in our colors." She sighed and shook her head. "Did last night help you get your head screwed back on straight?"

"Yes, sir," Marie answered. She paused, summoning up her courage. "Sir, permission to speak freely…"

"Denied. I have some things I need to say first," Caradin replied. She slowly stood up and lowered her head.

"I spent last evening watching the Blossom's battleROMs," she said quietly. "I can see things got out of hand on that last deployment. I didn't realize how bad it was for you." She took a breath, looking like she was struggling with something. "This is a risk of sending you up alone like that. I don't know what your situation is until after the fact. Believe me when I say I didn't mean to put you in so much danger."

"Sir, if I can speak…" Marie tried again. She waited for Caradin to nod before going on. "In the air I depend on my jets to keep control. You shut them off, I crash. Me and Wolfgang would've died, not to mention losing the Blossom."

Caradin nodded. "You know I've never had an aerospace unit under my command," she replied, sounding regretful. "The intent was a Momentary engine error that gives you a scare, nothing more. I suppose it was a risk of getting Meridian's people to set up the override boxes in the Blossom. It's not like I could ask my best tech to set up a surprise attack in her own ride," she said with a shrug. When Marie's expression tensed, she went on. "The techs must've crossed a few wires. I'll have to talk to them later, but for now, please accept my apologies on their behalf."

Marie processed that for a Moment, caught off-guard at the lieutenant's sudden mood change from just a few hours ago. Gone was the hard woman with barely-repressed rage. This was someone who was in full control of herself, looking contrite and thoughtful. Her own head was still swimming with the hangover, and the lieutenant's words were getting jumbled up in her mind. She could only numbly nod in response.

"I never told you where I'm coming from, did I?" Caradin asked, seeing Marie spacing out. When Marie shook her head, the lieutenant gestured to a chair facing the desk. The two of them sat down, Caradin resting her elbows on the desk and folding her hands together in front of her face.

"I clawed my way into a military unit on Skye back when I was about your age," Caradin began. "I'll bet you know exactly how hard it is to convince someone to take you on when you've got no 'Mech and no big noble title to flash around." Marie nodded in sympathy at that. "They started me out in light 'Mechs because they're cheap. Lucky for me I took to them like a fish to water, because I was ready just in time for the Federated Commonwealth to fall apart." She gave that a Moment to sink in before she went on.

"You know light units like the Hussars have the highest mortality rate of any other 'Mech unit on the battlefield? We're expected to go out alone to find superior forces, and then engage them while reinforcements are supposedly coming in. We are always outnumbered and outgunned, and the higher-ups treat us like expendable grunts." She shook her head, clenching her jaw at a memory. "My old CO's favorite move was sending a light 'Mech out alone on a harassment mission against an enemy formation, to distract them and get them to divide forces to keep it from shooting them in the back. Nine times out of ten the light 'Mech got shot to pieces, but it's still called an 'acceptable loss.' Just pop in some new rookie in another cute little Locust, rinse, and repeat."

"Sounds rough." Marie commented.

Mongoose Light Mech (Fighting In Urban Ruins - Front by Philbobagginszzz)

Mongoose Light 'Mech

One corner of Caradin's lips turned up. "I was the assigned 'sacrificial lamb' for a dozen runs before my Mongoose got shot out from under me. No one else ever got that many. So when I left that unit and started the Hussars with Thomas, I swore all my people would know how to handle themselves out in the field. When we get a client who's ready to throw us away like my old CO would, I want to know we can all get home. So," she said, her smile falling, "do you get why I had to test you?" She leaned in at that question, getting close enough Marie could practically feel the woman's breath on her.

Marie swallowed nervously. Her words were slipping out of her mind before she could form a sentence. "Yes, sir," she answered, before blinking and forcing her mind to focus for a Moment. "But you went too far. Not just killing my jets, but jamming my sensors? I was flying blind."

"That's exactly why," Caradin answered. "Your 'Mech doesn't even have a canopy window, you depend on your sensors to even see. So you need to know what to do if those sensors go down. Our enemies don't fight fair, McCloud. From reports I've seen the pirates employed Electronic Countermeasures in their attacks on both the Plant and the convoy. It's why no one could see them coming until they started shooting. And Hoshino's 'Mech has an ECM suite. It seemed like a no-brainer."

Marie's brow furrowed. "Chargers don't have ECM," she mumbled, confused.

"Maybe not off the factory floor. But that old pile of spare parts has a few tricks," Caradin replied. "That's a lesson for you. You've got to be unpredictable. Give the enemy something they're not ready for, and you've got the advantage. It's something I'm sure you can bring us with that LAM. I just needed to know you had what it takes."

Marie looked at her skeptically as she tried to remember the details of yesterday's argument with the lieutenant. "Weren't you were saying I don't have what it takes?"

"I might have said some things," Caradin answered. "Understand this job is all about optics. When there's BattleMechs stomping around, the civilians want to see someone in charge, who knows what they're doing and projects strength. They can't see me getting chewed out by one of my own people, even if might deserve it. Like I said, I didn't know what the situation actually was. All I knew is we were in front of the client's rep. I had to put you in your place if I wanted to keep the Hussars' image intact." Her lips went tight again as she thought. "I'm sure you know you didn't deserve to get chewed out like that. The truth is, you did a great job."

Marie blinked. "Sir? I got shot down."

Caradin shook her head. "Everyone fails that test the first time. You were ambushed by an assault 'Mech that had a hunter/killer OmniMech as backup. You handled yourself pretty well, especially considering you're almost entirely self-taught and riding a machine that no one understands. I'm curious though…why'd you dive-bomb the Katamari like that? You almost took Hoshino's head off."

"I could tell it was a training op in the first two seconds," Marie answered with a shrug. "And I wanted to show you I was ready for a real fight."

Caradin made a small noise of acknowledgment. "This have something to do with the conversation you were having with Wolfgang?"

Marie tensed; apparently Wolfgang had not been lying when he said the BattleROMs recorded everything that happened in the cockpit. "Yes, Sir."

"Then that's another lesson. Wolf is a distraction, to be tuned out whenever it's in your way. Don't let someone like that get in your head and get you to make a mistake." Her attention flickered down to Marie's legs for a Moment. "You've had those prosthetics since you were twelve?" Marie nodded mutely at that. "I recognize the model. You're not a very fast runner, are you?" Marie shook her head.

"You've had to grow up believing you can't run when you get into trouble. We'll have to work on that." Caradin went on. "The Blossom is more mobile than any land unit, there's no reason for you to stick around to fight a 'Mech that has 30 tons on you. And as a scout, you always need to have an escape plan in mind for if things turn against you. For you that means watching the ground for good landing zones, and after you land you need to confirm the area is secure before anything else. You split your armor open to change modes, and that leaves you wide open to an internal shot. But we can chalk that up to learning a new machine. So aside from a few speed bumps, I think you handled yourself admirably."

At the lieutenant's words Marie felt a bloom of pride in her chest, strong enough to clear some of the cobwebs out of her head. "Thank you, sir," she said.

"Just make sure to call it in when you get in trouble," Caradin warned. "If I don't know what's going on up there, I can't help you."

"Well…like I said, I knew it was a training op. And you said to stay off the comms except for emergencies, sir."

Caradin shook her head again. "Never assume you know the whole situation. Maybe Hoshino went rogue, how can you be sure? And for future reference, getting missiles shot at you counts as an emergency."

"All right, sir. So, about what Wolfgang was saying…"

"He was out of line with that. I'll be talking to him later, too," Caradin replied, one hand clenching into a fist as she spoke. "Don't let him get you rattled, he doesn't know what he's talking about." The lieutenant was trying to sound encouraging, but Marie ground her teeth, looking unconvinced. Caradin's lips tightened at the expression.

"Units like the Hussars have two kinds of pilots," Caradin went on. "Smart ones, and crazy ones. Wolf is definitely a crazy one. Take my word for it, he pilots that Commando like he stole it. Of course he's asking about repairs, he's had that thing rebuilt so many times I've lost count. You? You pilot smart, and that's why he can't figure you out. And I think he's pissed off that you're a celebrity around here, while he'll never be more than a man that likes to blow things up. He thinks you're a threat to his spot on the team."

Marie nodded. "Scary what people will do when they feel threatened."

A small smile touched Caradin's lips in response, as her eyes stayed unwaveringly on Marie's. "You have no idea."

After a few seconds Caradin chuckled. "Wolf serves a purpose, that's why I keep him around. There's thousands of men just like him in the galaxy, and they all think they're far more important than they really are. Take my advice, tune out men like that if they're not doing anything for you." She took a breath, letting it out through her nostrils. "Look, Pilot…I was the one who posted him to your cockpit, and I was the one who set up the training op. I'm going to make that right. I've talked to Meridian and they've agreed to loan us another Arbiter if you need a backup ride. I need my people in the field, and that includes you."

Marie nodded again. "Thank you, sir. But I won't need one of those walking tractors. Give me a day with the Blossom and I'll get her running better than ever."

Caradin's eyebrows raised in appreciation of the confidence in Marie's voice. "I'll see you get all the resources you need, then. I promise you won't need to fix it your feet this time." Marie smirked at the half-joke, but Caradin went on. "That's the attitude I need from you, McCloud. I need my people up and ready to pilot my machines."

Marie nodded in acknowledgement. "All right, sir. But about that…" she said, reaching into one pocket of her uniform. Her head felt clear for a Moment, and she had to act while she could think straight. She removed her credit chip from her pocket and set it down on the desk in front of Caradin.

"Starting immediately I'm putting half my paycheck towards buying the Blossom," she said. She pointed at the credit chip. "That's my downpayment. Starting today, 'your' LAM is part mine. So you, the Hussars, or any of Meridian's goons do not touch her without me being there."

Holly thinking (by PhearTheHam)

Caradin was quiet for a long moment. She did not look at the credit chip, instead folding her hands again and keeping her eyes firmly on Marie. The lieutenant had a way of staring unblinkingly that was more than a little unsettling. Marie struggled not to flinch under the stare.

"That's a big step," Caradin finally said. "It'll take you a while to buy it, you know."

"I'll be fine. It's the family tradition, anyway. Mom spent half her life flying a dropship she only half-owned," she said, pushing the credit chip towards Caradin.

Caradin finally reached out and put her fingers on the chip. "I assume it's the one you're named after," she said. "Your middle name. The Bristol, right?"

Marie felt a chill. She tried to say something, feign ignorance somehow, but Caradin was going on.

"Your father must've been the one who named you Marie. After his mother, right? Marie Rose." Marie remained frozen in place. "I'm a scout first. Finding out things is my business. And I thought I recognized that logo on your neurohelmet," Caradin said. Her gaze bored into Marie's. "When were you going to tell me who your father was? Even I've heard of the Black Thorns. Shouldn't I know their CO's daughter is in my unit?"

Marie wavered, going lightheaded as her heartbeat accelerated. "I…" she stammered. "…I just didn't think it mattered."

Caradin's eyebrows quirked up again. "You realize having you around could be a problem for me? Even on their best day the Draconis Combine's not known for its love of mercenaries. And last I heard, the Thorns are wanted by the Dracs for breach of contract."

"They didn't breach anything!" Marie protested, stopping short before she could say more.

Caradin nodded at her placatingly. "Don't worry, I'm not calling in the DEST squad to take you away. I just want to know who you are, and you've been making that tough. I like to think of my unit as a family," she said with a little smile. "A home for those who have nowhere else to go. We Hussars look out for each other, but to do that we need trust. I can't have secrets in my unit." Her eyes met Marie's again. "So do you want to fill in a few blanks in your story for me? If the Mercenary Review and Bonding Commission starts asking me why I'm employing a contract breacher, what should I be telling them?"

Marie sighed to herself, trying to think. It's good to tell your story to someone, her father had said. It passes the burden on to them. Maybe it would be easier to talk like this, safe and separated from the rest of the unit.

"They were on Galedon," she admitted. "Dad, the Thorns, all of them…when the FedSuns invaded, the Thorns were there. They were protecting the planet, just like they'd been contracted to do," she said firmly. "And they were still there when it all went wrong."

"But you weren't?"

Marie shook her head, hesitating as her mind flashed back to one day in particular. "They were just outside the city. I…my brother and me, we snuck out to watch the fighting. From a distance, I mean. We borrowed a pair of binoculars. Why read about 'Mech battles when you can watch the real thing, right?" she asked with a self-conscious shrug.

Caradin's expression did not change, and she said nothing. Marie took a nervous breath and kept going.

"Problem is, battlefields are fluid. By the time we realized something was wrong, the missiles were already hitting the building we were standing on. We almost got out before the whole thing collapsed. I was pinned under ten tons of rubble. Three crushed ribs, a broken arm, exploded eardrums, skull fracture, a severe concussion, and, oh yeah…" she said, clapping one hand on her plastic knee, "…a little less of me left at the end."

Caradin nodded in sympathy. "Did your brother…"

"He got out fine," Marie answered with a thin smile. "He always was a little faster than me. It worked out for both of us, since he was able to get help." She shook her head. "Well…my father was a tough guy, but he took every loss personally. When one of his people got hurt, he felt like he'd failed them. So you can imagine how he handled watching his daughter sawed in half and struggling on life support. He had mom load up the Bristol with me, my brother, and the first load of cargo she could secure, and take off for An Ting, where a lot of refugees were going. This is secondhand, by the way. I was still unconscious. I'm told dad came to say goodbye before I was loaded up, but I don't remember it."

She shook her head again and blinked her suddenly wet eyes. "We got to An Ting safely, but we were only there a few weeks before we heard from dad. HPG was down by then, so he'd sent a message out to a departing dropship to ferry on to my mother. It told mom there'd been a breach at an old lab, and a lot of people were getting sick with something really bad, spreading fast. An Ting was still the place refugees were being sent off to. Mom put two and two together, and loaded us onto the Bristol again. We flew out of there almost empty…I think that scared me more than anything else. She never flew empty. Bad for business." Marie hesitated, lost in memory for a moment. Caradin waited patiently, keeping her eyes on her.

"You know the rest," Marie finally went on. "Quarantine got called on Galedon and An Ting. Then Clan Snow Raven blasted both planets to glass. Next the Combine starts saying there's nothing to see there, and any units that were on-planet when it all happened are listed as deserters and contract-breakers." She chuckled mirthlessly. "My dad worked with the Combine for years, and that's the thanks he gets. Now my Mom and me need to stay away from them, just in case some crazy samurai decides the whole Rose family needs to be punished for something we didn't even do."

"And your brother thought otherwise, that's why he left you?" Caradin asked.

Marie flinched. "Hoshino told you about that?"

"I told you, I don't want secrets in my unit," the lieutenant answered, before looking at her expectantly.

Marie clenched her fists in her lap. "He got an offer," she said quietly. "He had talent on a 'Mech simulator, anyone could see it. One day some no-name merc unit offered him a spot in their ranks." She hesitated. "Mom had sold her dropship by then…her heart just wasn't in it anymore. She didn't get much for it…the bank owned most of it, and there's that whole stigma of coming off a plague world. It was supposed to help us start a new life. It was also just about enough to buy the Thunderbolt these mercs were offering him."

Caradin winced in sympathy. "He didn't."

Marie sighed. "I tried to stop him. We'd always stuck together. We were born five minutes apart, for god's sake. The plan had always been that we join a unit together. I'd fly the jets, he'd drive the 'Mechs, and we'd look out for each other. I told him we weren't ready, we couldn't just leave mom behind. Dad was a Northwind Highlander, he'd taught us family is everything, and we were the only family mom had left. I thought I'd convinced him to wait, but the next morning he was gone. And so was our bank account balance." She held up her hands. "I don't know how things worked out for him. I only hear from him two, maybe three times a year, when the stars align and he manages to get a message through the white noise on the HPG network, and most of the time he's just saying 'I'm fine, still working things out.' Not that that stops mom from obsessing over him," she added on bitterly. "She changed back to her maiden name the month after Galedon got quarantined. But years after Daniel left us he's still all she can talk about." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "So, there. That's my story. Good enough for you? Or do you still think I'm keeping secrets?"

Caradin considered that for a long moment. "So now it's just been you trying to carry on the family legacy? That's a hell of a burden. Does your mom appreciate you staying around for her?"

"Sure. All the time she's telling me how I'm all she has, how she couldn't go on if she loses me. You know, things that help take the pressure off." She sighed again. "And when she's not doing that, she's second-guessing everything I do. She's got no real plans for the future, and every time I try to make a plan she's pulling me out of it. It's like I'm not allowed to want to do anything with my life because she's terrified I'm going to break. A building fell on me and I'm still breathing, I'm tough enough."

Caradin smiled at that. "I can see that," she said, as she finally pocketed the credit chip. "Don't let your mother hold you back. Things change, and she's going to have to accept that. Her little girl's a 'Mech pilot now, with a promising future. And as for your brother, he abandoned you. You're the stronger one." Marie lowered her gaze and nodded quietly, while Caradin went on. "That anger you're feeling at him? Hang onto it. Make it a weapon. It lights a fire under you that nothing else can, and pushes you forward. Don't let the cowards weigh you down."

Marie nodded again. "Thank you, sir," she said quietly.

"Now, are you in shape to pilot?" Caradin asked.

"Of course, sir."

"I'm serious. A concussion and a cracked skull leaves injuries that don't heal. The kind that make it hard to control a 'Mech."

"Do I have brain damage?" Marie asked, reading between the lines. "No, not really. I get headaches, and I don't sleep much, I get weird dreams. But no, my head's on straight, sir. And once I get a neurohelmet calibrated I have no problem controlling any 'Mech I'm in." At Caradin's skeptical look, she went on. "I'm still learning the Blossom. Anyone would have trouble with her. When she's a 'Mech we are in total sync. When she's not…well, I'm figuring it out, but it's like we're talking different languages."

One corner of Caradin's mouth turned up. "Well you better learn Flying Mech language fast, because we got a lead." Turning away from Marie, she tapped the holo-projector on the desk. The little device hummed and displayed a topographical map of the area. Tiny images of the Katamari and the Blossom appeared, the latter angling over the trees as it rapidly descended after Hoshino's surprise attack. A red arrow appeared in the distance, pointing into the trees.

"Just before the attack, your sensors picked up a thermal plume," Caradin explained. "The kind you'd get off an internal combustion engine like on that ForestryMech. So unless someone was out racing tractors through the woods…" she said, trailing off with a shrug. "It's not the satellite communication you were looking for, but it's something worth looking into. We'll be headed there as soon as you can get your 'Mech field-worthy again," she said, putting special emphasis on 'your.' When Marie looked back up at her, she smiled again. "Time's wasting, Pilot."

"Y…yes, sir," Marie replied. She stood up, and gave Caradin another salute. When the lieutenant nodded at her in acknowledgment, she turned and left the office, heading straight for the 'Mech bay.

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