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Chapter 4 - Mechwarrior: Wild Rose[]

In Transit
Huntington System
Free Worlds League
6 February 3077

              Marie sat in the Sirocco’s aerospace fighter bay, a small toolbox near her.  Around her were collected bags, boxes, and luggage from the dropship’s passengers.  After a few days under way the aerospace bay had ultimately become a spare cargo area to free up some elbow room for the overcrowded ship.  At least it was quiet; the aero bay was not cleared for human habitation, so the passengers had to stay outside, only coming in to drop off or retrieve bags.

              Even with the luggage piled up everywhere, the huge form of Bessie still dominated the room.  Caradin’s people had given it a once-over and confirmed the fighter was secured and stable.  Now that they were done, Marie was left alone with her thoughts.  The bay was noticeably smaller than the big ‘Mech bays in the center of the ship, with a low ceiling and narrow launch doors.  Bessie wasn’t going anywhere though, with the powerful transportation clamps secured around its rear landing gear.  Another clamp had been affixed to the fighter’s nose to hold it in place against the dropship’s floor, a necessary step until the front landing gear could be repaired.

              Marie held a cigarette between her lips, slowly burning down to the butt.  In her hands she held a rotary engraver, using it to carefully trace out a stencil she had affixed over her right thigh.  She’d drawn the stencil herself: it was the Huntington flag, but she’d added a pair of triangular wings to the sides.  The symbol joined the dozen-odd others that covered her legs, each a flag of a planet or an emblem of one mercenary unit or another.  She was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t look up when she heard the door to the bay open.

              “Quite a masterpiece you’ve got going there.”

              Marie smiled a little at the appreciative tone in Caradin’s voice, but did not look up.  “Grows every time I leave a planet,” she said.  “Keeping a diary seemed so dated.”

              Caradin pulled up a chair and sat down near her.  “I see Marik, Davion, and Kuritan systems on there.  You get around, don’t you?”

              “Mom and me work dropships, what do you think my life’s been like?” she asked.

              Caradin leaned back and regarded her appraisingly.  “So you’ve seen a few things in your time.  I could tell you weren’t just some wet-behind-the-ears kid.”  She pointed at Marie’s cigarette.  “Are you sharing?”

              Marie glanced at her suspiciously for a moment, then shrugged and extended her pack of cigarettes towards the older woman.  Caradin obligingly took one and allowed Marie to light it for her.

              “Careful with those,” Marie said as she turned her attention back to her thigh.  “The captain hates anything that burns oxygen.  He barely tolerates the people on board.”

              “You’re one to talk.  And my people are the reason this ship’s even breaking even after the captain decided to run off the planet with his tail between his legs.  They can let me have a vice or two.”  Caradin took a drag on the cigarette and coughed lightly.  “Been a while.  Managed to quit a few times, but then something like that dustoff happens.”  She gestured at Marie’s work.  “That’s a good way to remember the things you lived through.”

              Marie nodded mutely at that.  The rotary tool finally stopped buzzing and she set it aside.  She picked up a paint sprayer and carefully shot a few blasts of black paint onto the engraved part of her leg, before carefully peeling off the stencil and regarding her work.

              “Were you making sure that thing’s still in one piece?”  Caradin asked, looking over at Bessie.

              “Just wanted some privacy.  And she’s good company.”  Marie looked up at the aerospace fighter.  “I wonder what kind of story she’s got to tell.”

              “Me too,” Caradin said, softly.  “What do you know about it?”

              “It’s called a Land-Air Mech.  LAM for short.”  At the curious look this earned her, Marie elaborated.  “I’ve been talking with my mom.  Apparently my dad saw machines like this on Tukayyid.  Confused the hell out of the Clans.”

              Caradin nodded.  “Did your father pilot one, too?”

              Marie shook her head.  “Not his style.  He was an assault mech pilot.”

              “The big guys,” Caradin replied with a knowing nod.  She looked back at Bessie.  “I’ve heard about machines like this one, too.  It’s Star League technology if there ever was any.  This ‘Mech-fighter was probably around to see Kerensky’s Exodus.”

              Marie’s eyes widened, but she nodded.  “Sounds about right.”  She shook her head.  “These things have been out of production for years, and they were hard to find even when they were still being made.  How the hell did one end up at Huntington?”

              “I can field that one, actually,” Caradin said.  “I’ve been on the horn with anyone else who flew off-planet, asking around about that ‘Mech.  Sounds like the last pilot found it in an old supply cache just a few years back on another job.  Must’ve been tucked away for a rainy day back around the Succession Wars.”  Marie nodded at that; it had been fairly common for militaries and survival-minded individuals to hide supply caches around the fall of the original Star League, especially as time went on and spare parts started getting hard to find.  It was also common for those caches to be forgotten, as the people who’d stored them were vaporized before getting a chance to benefit from their foresight.

              “I’m guessing there were a few ‘accounting errors’ that ended up with him walking off with it,” Caradin went on.  She shrugged at that, the simple gesture speaking of years of experience of dealing with so-called ‘accounting errors.’

              “So I stole something that was already stolen,” Marie muttered.

              “You didn’t steal it, you took it as a prize,” Caradin said forcefully.  “From a man who was ready to kill you just because it was the easy answer.  And you fought to survive when a lot of other people would’ve just rolled over and died.”

              Marie nodded mutely at that.  It had been a week since getting on the ship.  Caradin had put a word in with the captain to let her walk around without a guard, letting Marie see outside of the cabin her mother was still confined to.  Even with that modicum of breathing room, every day the experience of leaving Huntington was at the front of her mind.  It still felt like some kind of horrible dream she was expecting to wake up from.

              After a moment, Caradin took a breath to speak.  “Sirocco’s going to be docking with the jumpship in twenty-four hours.  I’ve just about got business on my end tied up.  Do you have any thoughts on the offer?  If you’re transferring to another dropship, we’ll need to settle up by the time we dock.”

              Marie raised her eyes up, briefly glancing at Caradin before she looked away.  The lieutenant had been spending the last week working the Sirocco’s communications array into overtime.  A battlemech was a pretty big asset, and no military was content to just let one sit around unclaimed.  Caradin had made it no secret that she wanted Bessie as the fourth mech to fill out her lance.  She’d been negotiating with the Rangers over rights to the ‘Mech, and she’d even made an offer to Marie for Bessie’s activation code.  It was a pittance next to the value of a Phoenix Hawk, but it was still more money than Marie had seen in a very long while.  Marie had been staring at the contract for hours now.  Coming to sit in Bessie’s bay had been a break from stressing over the offer, and that reprieve looked to be over.

              Marie sighed quietly and looked at the datapad next to her, displaying the offer for Bessie’s code.  She was sure her mother would approve.  The captain had decided not to throw her or her mother out of the airlock, but there was no question they were going to be kicked off the ship at the earliest possible opportunity.  The payout Caradin was offering would help the two of them get by until they could find new jobs.  And life could go right back to normal, just like her mother wanted.  Marie hated the sick, cheap feeling that left in her stomach.

              “So can we wrap things up?  I’ve got some paperwork I need to straighten out,” Caradin was saying.

              Marie only vaguely heard the woman.  She found herself thinking about her father, and wondered what he would have done.  For him, it wouldn’t even have been a question – he had been a mechwarrior with a mercenary unit and a family to care for.  A part of her echoed the feeling.  That part had been able to keep Bessie under control and fly it to the Sirocco.  That part had kept her from going to pieces until she was alone with her mother.  And that part, which had been silent since then, suddenly spoke up again.

              “I can’t sign this,” Marie admitted quietly.  She handed the datapad back to Caradin.  “Sorry.”

Caradin cropped

Lieutenant Holly Caradin.

              Caradin sat still for a long moment, staring unblinkingly at Marie.  “All right,” she said icily after almost ten seconds of tense silence.  She took the pad, but did not move to get up, or even to take to her eyes off of Marie.  “You know that doesn’t change anything,” she said.  “I’ve just about got the transfer of ownership sorted out.  Having the activation code would be nice, but on a ‘Mech this old the security lockout’s more of a suggestion.  You can scramble the computers on that thing with a magnet in the right place.” She let that sink in.  “I like you, so I’m giving you a decent offer for the code anyway.  It’s a damn good deal for you.  You’re starting over wherever this boat drops you off, with whatever you were able to carry onboard.  And your mother’s going to need you too, you know.  After the stunt she pulled she’ll be lucky if she’s even allowed on another ship as a passenger, let alone crew.  She’s never going to fly in another dropship again.”

              “Yup,” Marie answered with a sullen nod.  Her mother had said as much to her just yesterday.  She’d acted like it was no big deal, but Marie had still seen the pain in her eyes.  Dropships had been a part of her mother’s life since forever.

              “So here I am, being so generous that I’m handing you money for something I don’t even need, and you’re saying you’d rather have nothing,” Caradin said.  “Can you at least tell me why?”

              Marie looked at her, seeing the frustration written openly on the mechwarrior’s face.  “Because you don’t actually want the ‘Mech,” she answered calmly.

              “I’m sorry?  Were there not enough zeroes on the offer?” Caradin asked.

              “I mean none of your guys are aero pilots, so none of you are qualified to pilot Bessie.”

              “No offense girl, but neither are you.”

              “No offense lieutenant, but I’ve been flying since before I had these things,” Marie said, patting her plastic kneecap as her voice hardened.  “And I grew up in my dad’s merc unit, I’ve spent as much time around battlemechs as anyone.  I might not be as experienced as you, but I’ve got over a thousand hours of simulator training.  And I’ve been on plenty of test missions in whatever rust bucket the merc unit of the week will let me sit in.  I’m the only one who can pilot both aerospace fighters and battlemechs, which makes me the only one on this ship who’s even close to qualified to drive Bessie.  So yeah, I know you don’t actually want the ‘Mech for any of your guys.  You want to sell her, probably for spare parts.  And I’m not going to be a part of that.”

              Marie knew there was some truth in her accusation when she saw Caradin flinch.  It wasn’t much, just a slight tightening around the eyes, but it was there all the same.

              “What’s that matter?” Caradin asked.  “Yeah, I’ve got a few connections.  I’m sure I can find someone who’s desperate to get a few spare parts.  It’s not like the factories are running off more ‘Mechs like that one.”

              Marie sighed.  She was so tired from the trip, from the battle, and from worrying over her and her mother’s fate.  She didn’t have the energy left to be impertinent, so she just went with the truth.

              “Because Bessie deserves better than to get chopped up,” she answered.  “She saved my life.”

              Despite herself, she felt her eyes get a little wet at the admission.  She resisted the urge to look away or wipe her eyes.  Let Caradin see she was upset, what did it matter anyway?

              If the emotion had any effect on Caradin, the woman didn’t show it.  Her face was blank and her eyes were hard.  Still, after a few seconds she shook her head, chuckling a little.  “You’re a sentimental one, aren’t you?” she asked.  She sighed.  “You’re just making my life that much harder right when I didn’t need it, you know.  And where does that leave you?”

              “I don’t know,” Marie said, shrugging helplessly.  She took a breath, finding her nerve again.  “Look, I’ve got to ask so I can say I asked.  Are you looking to hire a fifth pilot?”

              Caradin regarded Marie curiously for a long moment.  “You’re too young to have graduated an academy, unless you’re some kind of a prodigy,” she said.

              Marie rolled her eyes at that.  The same old conversation.  Yes, you’re impressive.  That’s very nice, you can pilot ‘Mechs and aerospace fighters.  Oh wait, no formal training?  No ‘Mech? Well, thanks for your time.

              “Do I look like a prodigy?” Marie asked, resigned.  She was too tired to have this conversation for the millionth time.  Might as well skip to the end.

              “You’ve learned everything from hands-on experience then?”

              Marie shrugged.  “Girl’s got to learn fast to get by,” she said.  She tilted her head towards Bessie.  “I had to learn how to fly that thing when I didn’t even know what it was.”

              Caradin’s expression remained unreadable for a few more seconds.  “Ask me again.”

              Marie blinked.  “What?”

              “Ask me your question again.  And this time make me believe that you mean it.”

              Marie hesitated a moment before meeting Caradin’s eyes and taking a breath.  “Lieutenant, I’ve been training on battlemechs most of my life.  I’m a good technician, too.  I know I don’t have a service record, but I’m a fast learner.  So…are you hiring a fifth mechwarrior?”


              The answer, though expected, came so bluntly that it felt like a slap in the face.  Marie shook her head and covered her disappointment as best she could with a bitter smile as she looked away from the lieutenant.  Another chance gone by.  Another ‘well, better luck next time.’

              Caradin quietly slid a card into her datapad and tapped on the screen for a few seconds.  “The thing is, I just came into possession of a machine that could only half-qualify as a battlemech,” she finally said.  “I don’t know what to call the pilot of a machine like that, but ‘mechwarrior’ doesn’t sound right.  I guess we’ll have to come up with something.”

              Marie looked back at her curiously as Caradin handed her the datapad.  She glanced over the text displayed on its screen.  After reading the first few sentences, her brow furrowed, and she looked at it more closely.

              “Maybe you are the most qualified pilot for that thing,” Caradin said.  “So, McCloud…are you ready to ride with the Hussars?”

Zenith Jump Point
Trondheimal System
Marian Hegemony
10 February 3077

              The next few days were full of activity.  Marie had read Caradin’s employment contract over and over, looking for loopholes and thinking about her options.  In the end, she had accepted it.  With the rapid exit from Huntington and the prospect of starting over, she knew Caradin had been right: she had to think about her next steps.  It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a paying job lined up, and Caradin’s job offer was much better than any dropship crew or part-time job at a ‘Mech bay would be.

              The contract was clear that Bessie was the property of the Hussars, though Marie had the option to buy the ‘Mech off of them. She didn’t want to think about how long it would take to buy a battlemech, even if her wages were triple what she’d been making as a deckhand.  There was also a clause giving a payout if she became ‘unable to pilot.’  That was the technical term used in the contract.  Marie guessed ‘shot full of bullets and/or incinerated by a breached fusion reactor’ was too wordy.  Apparently if she became ‘unable to pilot’ the Hussars owed a severance package to her, or her heirs.  So at least her mother would get a payday if her luck ran out.

              She was sure the contract was less than ideal, but it still made her heart race.  She could barely believe this was happening.  For years she’d been trying to get a spot in a unit, and now after one of the worst days of her life, someone was finally willing to give her a chance.  She knew she was beyond lucky to have even gotten this far.  A bigger, more established unit would have just kept the ‘Mech as a reserve machine, with no need to hire a pilot for it or negotiate with anyone for the access code.  Holly’s Hussars was just small enough to be willing to risk hiring a rookie so they could field a full lance.

              The Sirocco had flown to a jumpship that appeared at the Huntington system’s nadir point, joining a handful of other ships that had launched from the planet.  There had been a mess of activity then, as some people unloaded off the Sirocco to get on other dropships, taking their belongings with them.  The jumpship would be making several jumps to distant stars, dropping off ships on different planets.  The Hussars’ next contract would bring them to the far end of the jumpship’s route, to a little world called New St. Andrews IV, light years away from the Free Worlds League and the madness of the Jihad.

              Most of the civilians on board the Sirocco would transfer to other jumpships long before New St. Andrews, going to other planets closer to the rest of human civilization.  A few of the civilians were actually headed back to Huntington, hoping things might have settled down by the time they got back.  After Caradin had a word with the captain, Marie’s mother had been released and allowed to stay on board, though she was forbidden from going anywhere near the bridge. Hearing that news had made Marie feel a little lighter inside.  She would never admit it out loud, but she was overwhelmingly relieved that her mother could follow the Hussars to their next contract instead of getting kicked off at the first chance.  If Rachel left on another ship, there was no telling when Marie would be able to find her again.  The McCloud family was already too small in Marie’s opinion.  They didn’t need to go breaking it up even more.

              Her mother had been surprised to hear about her accepting the Hussars’ offer, but after some cold minutes considering it, she had told Marie she had her support, so long as she didn’t take unnecessary risks.  All told, it had gone smoother than Marie had been expecting.  She guessed her mother was as impressed as she was at Caradin’s ability to twist the captain’s arm.  It also didn’t hurt that Marie’s wages would help them keep their heads above water a while longer.

              As for the job itself, Caradin described the next contract as an “aggressive garrison” position shoring up planetary defenses.  That was a relief; garrison jobs were boring, but straightforward.  Marie couldn’t blame Caradin for wanting a break after Huntington.  The Inner Sphere seemed like it was in the middle of blowing itself up, and nowhere was safe.  Already down a ‘Mech, Caradin was probably happy to get a safe, boring job somewhere away from the hottest action, at least until she could get her new pilot integrated into the unit.

              The Hussars had been trying to make Marie feel welcome, throwing an impromptu welcoming party for her in the aerospace fighter bay at the first jump point after Huntington.  They’d even managed to buy a bottle of something strong off a refugee, and split it up into drinking bulbs for the party.

              Marie stood awkwardly with the other Hussars, with Bessie looming over them.  Around them, tools and the luggage of the ship’s remaining passengers were floating gently, held in place with straps.  Sitting at the jump point, they no longer had the benefit of the dropship’s engines to provide gravity.  Marie and the Hussars all wore dropship-issued slippers with magnets in the toes, allowing them to stay anchored to the floor.

              Marie had been making awkward conversation with her new teammates, trying to learn who she would be working with.  Hoshino was the easiest to talk to; the big man had an easy smile and loved to talk, usually making some attempt at a joke.  Thomas was blunt but polite, welcoming her with a nod and a wish of good luck.  Caradin seemed cheerful, happily talking about past missions the Hussars had gone on.  Marie wondered how much of it was true, but she was encouraged that there was very little turnover in the unit; Caradin must be doing something right if her pilots weren’t quitting or getting killed.

              Wolfgang was the odd man out of the group.  The man was gruff, making no effort to even pretend at politeness.  Any effort at conversation was rebuffed as he became overly involved with sampling the liquor.  Marie ultimately shrugged and ignored him, deciding he wasn’t worth her time if that was how he was going to be.

              Through all the conversations her attention kept flickering back up to Bessie.  Caradin had managed to get a few dropship technicians to help repair the aerospace fighter, but the Sirocco was such a beat-up old ship that she lacked any kind of real battlemech or aerospace fighter repair facilities.  Marie had had to settle for a few haphazard patches over the worst of the laser scars.  She counted herself very lucky that the armor hadn’t been breached, so Bessie was still sealed against vacuum.

              Most of the repairs had been focused on the front landing gear – Marie had had to rebuild the entire front strut with whatever parts she’d been able to find.  The end result was an obvious aftermarket fix – a clumsy set of steel rods supporting a wheel, clearly standing out from the sleek lines and angles of the fighter.  The techs swore it would work and would even fold up into the fuselage, but it looked questionable at best.  Still, looking at the repairs, Marie smiled to herself.  “I know the feeling, old girl,” she whispered to the machine.  “You’ll get used the clunky replacements.”

              “Talking to the metal?”

              Marie turned her head to see Caradin had come up to her, a pair of drinking bulbs in her hands.  The lieutenant passed Marie one of the bulbs, replacing the empty one she’d been holding.

              “More talking to myself,” Marie admitted.  “Still getting my head around it all.  Thank you again for giving me a chance,” she said, offering Caradin a little bow.

              Caradin chuckled at the move.  “What’s this for?  We’re pretty far from Kuritan space, McCloud.”

              “Just being polite.  And my dad liked working with the Kuritans.”

              “Sounds like quite a guy.  You’ll have to tell me about him some day,” Caradin said.  She raised her drinking bulb, touching it to Marie’s in a quiet toast.  “But don’t worry about thanking me.  Ask any of my guys, they’ll tell you I’ve got a habit of picking up strays.”

              Marie gave her a skeptical look.  “That’s what I am?  A stray?”

              “Maybe…” Caradin replied, smirking a little.  “But that thing sure is,” she said, nodding at Bessie.  “Reminds me a little of my ride, actually.”

              “I’ve been meaning to ask about that.  No offense, but how does a one-lance merc unit get a top-of-the-line omnimech?”

              “It was top-of-the-line twenty years ago,” Caradin replied, holding up a finger.  “Lately the Kuritans have been unloading them on anyone with the C-bills.  I found Fleetfoot out on Galatea.”  At the raised eyebrow this earned her, she held up her hands.  “Hey, that place was a lot more legitimate then.  Turns out a lot of people prefer working off a planet the Blakists haven’t bombed.”

              She and Marie exchanged a tired look at that.  Despite its reputation as a haven for the scum of the galaxy, Galatea had enjoyed a brief renaissance as the center of the mercenary trade up until 3072 when the Word of Blake had finally invaded it.  Mercenaries and dropship crews alike had come to understand that nowhere was safe these days.

              Caradin shrugged again.  “Anyway, I found Fleetfoot in a failing gladiator stable.  They were about to send it out to get blown to hell in one last moment of glory for the holovids.  They didn’t know what to do with the machine, and I figured I did.”  She looked at Bessie, then back to Marie.  “I’m thinking you feel the same way about this machine.”

              Marie nodded quietly at that.  “Yeah, I think I do,” she mumbled.

              “Good.  I’ll be expecting you to show me,” Caradin said with a nod.  “Now, one more order of business…” she cleared her throat loudly, getting the attention of the other three mechwarriors.  Caradin walked to the middle of the hangar bay and raised her drinking bulb towards Bessie.

              “We Hussars don’t use names on the commline.  Same for our ‘Mech models, there’s no reason to advertise what we’re fielding.  Our ‘Mechs get callsigns to use when we’re out there.  So, McCloud…what are you naming this machine?”

              Marie nodded at that.  She’d seen something about mech callsigns in the employment contract.

              “How about Flying Freak?” Wolfgang suggested.  Marie just rolled her eyes at that.

              “Thing’s got a name already…” Thomas muttered.

              “I am not riding around having you guys all call me ‘Bessie,’” Marie sharply retorted.

              “Oh, I have thought long and hard about this one,” Hoshino said, beaming.  “How about ‘the Tree Trimmer’?”

              Marie gave him a look.  “Thought long and hard about that one, huh?” she said with a little grin.  “No, I’ve got something else.”  With a careful flex of her ankles she pushed off from the floor, floating up in the microgravity towards the craft’s nose.  She touched down there, adhering her feet to the fuselage.

              She had thought a lot about it herself.  While watching the machine get repaired she had felt close to her father, fuzzy memories of him and all.  She wanted some way to honor him, finally bringing a battlemech back into the family after so many years. ‘The Rose’ had been sticking with her for a while, but her mother had warned her against that.  The name ‘Rose’ could bring attention, especially for anyone looking for her father.  Her mother had similarly vetoed ‘the Black Thorn.’  But eventually Marie had come up with a name she and her mother both liked.

              “I dub thee the Broken Blossom,” she announced, and mashed her drinking bulb into the side of the nosecone.  It broke with a less-than-satisfying splat, leaving a puddle of spirits over the fuselage with droplets floating in the air.  Still, the Hussars gave an emphatic cheer and raised their bulbs.

              Her journey had begun.

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