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Chapter 6 - Mechwarrior: Wild Rose[]

              New St Andrews IV, The Periphery
              Rimward of the Circinus Federation
              11 April 3077  


              The morning after landing Marie was in the ‘Mech bay, sitting at the Blossom’s feet with her new neurohelmet on a worktable.  Next to her was a set of tools, a cooling cup of coffee, and a bottle of painkillers.

              The behind-the-eyeballs headache from yesterday had matured into a full splitting migraine by the evening, leaving her dizzy and sick to her stomach.  She’d gotten the relief of a few hours of fitful sleep before waking up with her head still throbbing.  The sun had not been up yet, but she’d known it was pointless to lie in bed any longer.  So she’d gotten dressed and headed out to see the Blossom.  To see my ‘Mech, she’d thought to herself, liking the sound of it.

              The Blossom’s true nature looked so obvious to her now.  In the ‘Mech bay on Huntington she’d thought it was just a funny-looking Phoenix Hawk.  She’d mistaken the folded-up wings as extra armor plates protecting the back thrusters.  Now she couldn’t see how anyone could miss what they were.  The extra joints were right there after all.  She shook her head at it.  Just a design no one expects anymore, she thought.

              She’d connected a diagnostic computer to her neurohelmet and was making adjustments when she heard footsteps approaching.  She looked up to see Hoshino walking towards her, a cup of coffee in each hand.  She spared him a wave and a halfhearted good morning.

             Ohayo,” he replied cheerfully, and set one of the coffees down by her.  “What brings you out of bed so early, young one?   Are you adjusting to the planet’s cycle?”

              Marie winced at his volume.  It was too early for anyone to be that energetic.  “I don’t sleep so well on a good day.  Also, my machine hates me,” she answered sullenly.  “I’m trying to convince her to go easier on me.”

              “Ah, I know of temperamental machines.  My Katamari needs constant recalibration to walk straight,” he said with a chuckle, pointing over at the beefy Charger parked next to the Blossom.  “Does the rose mean something?” he asked more quietly, eyeing the symbol on her helmet.

              Marie shrugged.  “It was a gift, that’s all I know,” she answered, hoping she sounded convincing.  “And every neurohelmet I’ve ever used has needed some tweaking.  My brain’s a little busted,” she said with a tap on her skull.

              “Oh?” Hoshino asked, pulling up a seat next to her.

              “I took a bad concussion when I was twelve,” she answered.  She gave him a bitter grin.  “For a while they said I wouldn’t be able to pilot a ‘Mech or an aerofighter.  Turns out I just needed a little more work to get my brain in sync with it all.”

              “Hm,” Hoshino rumbled.  His expression turned more somber.  “Twelve years old?” he asked.  She felt less than saw him glance down at her legs.

              “Yeah, they’re related,” she admitted.  “Lucky for me, it takes more than a building falling on me to keep me down.”

              “That much I have figured out for myself,” Hoshino said.  He turned his attention to the Blossom, looking the ‘Mech over.  “I do not know what I would do if I were thrown out of a DropShip in a ‘Mech that decided to stop being a ‘Mech halfway down.”

              “You would’ve been able to find the eject,” Marie said.  “Me, I didn’t know what was what.  All I could remember was the first rule of aerospace piloting: if it’s not flying, you need more thrust.”

              Hoshino laughed at that.  “Wise words to be sure.  You will have much to teach us about flying machines.”  He took a drink from his coffee and went quiet for a few seconds.  “How is mercenary life working for you and your mother so far?”

              Marie shrugged.  “I only just landed.  Give me a few days before I really screw something up.”  Hoshino laughed at that – it was an honest laugh, not polite or forced.  It was enough to lower Marie’s guard a little bit.  The trip to the planet had taken two months, but in between learning the Blossom’s controls, triple-checking the repairs, reading employment forms, and keeping her mother company, she hadn’t had much time to talk with her new teammates.  She appreciated that Hoshino was making an effort, so she decided to say a little more.

              “Honestly, mom and me have been hopping around on DropShips for almost a decade, and I’ve been riding around with mercenaries since before then.  This,” she said, gesturing around at the ‘Mech bay, “was my play pen as a kid.  The only difference is this time I’ve got a ride of my own.  Actually, my aunt drove a Phoenix Hawk for the longest time.  Maybe she’s watching out for me.”

              Hoshino nodded sagely.  “I believe my ancestors watch over me as well.  Did your parents plan for you to be a MechWarrior?”

              Marie’s mouth went tight, and she shrugged.  “Let’s just say plans changed a few times,” she answered.  “How about you?  Grand family plans riding on your shoulders?”

              Now it was Hoshino’s turn to shrug.  “I am from a proud family of samurai, and as you say, plans changed as well.  Fortunately my parents had the foresight to give me a fortuitous name.”  He tilted his head up, a twinkle of pride in his eye.  “Heihachi is the name of one of their favorite characters in an old-world film.  He was a noble samurai, a ronin like myself, cursed to ride the whims of an uncaring universe with no master or home, yet he still fought on the side of the weak and the defenseless.  And he always knew how to smile, lift the spirits of those around him with a kind word or a funny joke.  He was a light in dark times for all his allies.”

              “Sounds encouraging,” Marie said.  She made a final adjustment on the neurohelmet and unplugged it from the tester.  “I’m sure Caradin finds a use for you.”

              Hoshino was silent for a moment, taking a sip from his coffee and thinking.  “Caradin is a unique leader,” he finally answered.  “She uses strategies many would find unconventional.  But she gave this old ronin a home.”  He chuckled.  “I think all the Hussars have a similar story.  Each of us is looking for somewhere to belong.”

              Marie turned her head to look at him and offered a thin-lipped smile.  “Sounds like the story of my life,” she said.  “You guys are just the latest people to try and make me fit in somewhere.”

              “Spoken like someone who’s used to being told she doesn’t fit.”

              Marie and Hoshino both looked up at the new voice, to see Caradin walking towards them.

              “Nice gear there, McCloud,” Caradin commented, giving the Clan neurohelmet an appraising look.

              “Yeah, something I was saving in case I ever steal a BattleMech that flies,” Marie responded with smirk.

              Caradin gave her with a polite smile.   “Seems to me you need something to go along with that,” she said.  Producing a tightly wrapped package from under one arm, she tossed it to Marie.  Marie caught it, recognizing the dark blue and orange piping of a Hussars uniform, matching the color scheme on their ‘Mechs.  The name “McCloud” was prominently emblazoned on the breast, right under the title “Pilot.”

              “I called up a shop on our way in from the jump point and had them do a rush job on that.  Had to take a few guesses at your measurements,” Caradin explained with a shrug.  “Sorry they only had time to make one, so take care of that.  You were turning heads yesterday.  Best if people know who you are.  Now get changed, mission briefing’s happening in the conference room in ten.  Client’s going to be there, so let’s all look our best,” she added, winking at Marie.

              Marie looked down at her own rumpled casual clothes before hastily gathering up her things and heading off to the locker room near the entrance of the ‘Mech bay.  Inside she found a locker bearing her name scribbled out on a piece of tape.  She changed quickly, taking a minute to get used to the feel of the fresh uniform before stowing her clothes and neurohelmet in her locker.  She noticed that her uniform was a simpler cut than the other Hussars’, and reasoned it was the best the local shop had been able to do.

              Hoshino was waiting outside of the locker room for her.  He made small talk as he led her out of the ‘Mech bay and to the conference room in the spaceport administration building.  Wolfgang was already there, standing with his shirt half-unbuttoned.  In contrast to him, Caradin looked completely put together, not a hair out of place.  She glanced briefly up from her datapad as Hoshino and Marie walked into the meeting room.

              “All right Hussars, fall in,” she said to them.  “Wolf, straighten that up.”  Wolfgang shrugged and grudgingly started buttoning up his shirt.

              Marie fell into line alongside Wolfgang and Hoshino, standing up straight and squaring her shoulders just like she had seen countless other MechWarriors do when being addressed by their commander.  Caradin gave Marie a brief nod in appreciation of her formality.

              They stood at attention in silence for a few minutes before the door opened.  Thomas walked in, stiffly turning to hold the door for the two men that followed him.  One was tall and muscular, the other was small with dark greasy hair.  Marie felt a pit in her stomach as she recognized the latter as the man from the tarmac yesterday.

              “Good morning,” Caradin said to the room.  “Hussars, the sergeant and I have just spent the last hour going over the latest intel with our employer liason.  They’ve asked to meet the unit, to make sure we’re all straight on the mission orders.”  She gestured to the two men who had followed Thomas in.  “These are the representatives from Meridian Manufacturing, Mr. Angus Bower and Mr. Donald Coghill.”

              “Co-hill,” the shorter man sharply corrected on her pronunciation.  His annoyed expression did not change as he swept his eyes over them.  “Are there any more of you, or is this it?”

              Caradin’s face twitched before she put on a polite smile.  “Holly’s Hussars is a one-lance unit, Mr. Coghill.  This is everyone.”

              Marie tensed, the pit in her stomach deepening as Coghill looked them over.  He had the look of someone who was never happy with what he saw.  He glared at the assembled Hussars and adjusted his glasses.

              “I’ll tell you what I just finished telling your sergeant,” he said.  “I didn’t want an offworld unit on this planet.  Meridian has its own defense force in place, and it’s been keeping the peace on this planet for years without a problem.  I’d thought the decision had already been made not to hire mercenaries, but here you are.”

              Lucky us, Marie thought, only just barely keeping herself from muttering that under her breath.  Coghill gave her an annoyed look, as though able to read her thoughts.  

              “You know what I hear every time I check the news?” Coghill said.  “Another group of mercenaries who’ve broken contract.  And more who took a job under false pretenses, while they were really working for the Word of Blake,” he said, the vitriol clear in his voice.  “Bringing mercenaries onto New St. Andrews means the board of directors is rolling the dice.  They have put me in charge of making sure you are as trustworthy as you say.”

              “Hey, we got a solid C-plus rating,” Wolfgang commented.  Despite herself Marie snorted a barely-repressed laugh.  Thomas loudly cleared his throat and gave them both a sharp glare.

              “…and so far I’m not liking what I’m seeing,” Coghill went on.  His eyes snapped to Marie.  “You’ve barely been on-planet for twenty-four hours and you’ve already flown in a fighter jet without clearance, and put me in danger with it!  Is this the kind of people we’ve hired?!”

              “I thought it best you get a real taste of our capabilities,” Caradin answered before Marie could say anything.  “I apologize there may have been a few bumps yesterday.  Pilot McCloud is our newest hire.”

              The larger man, Bower, suddenly piped up.  “Were ye the one in tha’ jet ‘Mech yesterday?” he asked.  “Tha’ was a bonnie show ye gave us!  When are ye flyin’ it again?”

              Marie drew back at the man’s boisterousness, while Coghill scowled at him.  Caradin smiled and met his attention.

              “Pilot McCloud will be getting acclimated to the planetary environment, just like the rest of us,” Caradin answered.  “You’ve seen what the LAM can do if need be.  But for the moment it will be grounded, at least until I get a better feel for what we’re up against.”

              Marie’s brow furrowed; she hadn’t heard anything about being grounded.  After flying in yesterday she’d been assuming Caradin wanted her in the air.  She tentatively raised her hand for attention, but Caradin did not see it, instead keeping her attention on Bower and Coghill.

              “Now that we’re all here, I was about to start the mission briefing,” Caradin said.  Coghill nodded and gestured for her to go on.

              “So our client is Meridian Manufacturing, the biggest business here on New St. Andrews,” Caradin began.  “They make a little of everything, but they’re mostly an arms manufacturer.  They took over the production lines for Scorpion and Vedette tanks a decade ago, and have been doing good business arming this planet and its neighbors against raiders and pirates.  More recently they’ve been getting into BattleMech production.  They’ve just about got the kinks worked out on their flagship model, a light ‘Mech they’ve named the Arbiter.  Meridian is billing it as a pirate buster, and lately they’ve gotten the chance to test that claim.  In the past months there’s been a serious ramp-up in pirate activity in nearby systems.  We were originally hired to reinforce and train the security teams on-planet, with an option to ship off to neighboring systems for some pirate hunting.  But the situation’s changed while we were en route from Huntington.

              “A couple weeks ago a DropShip with no IFF signature entered the New St. Andrews system from a pirate point and landed out in the wilderness.  It lifted off about an hour later, and burned hard on its way out.  By all indications, it was on-planet long enough to unload a decent-sized raiding party.  Meridian security forces have intercepted a couple of light ‘Mechs so far, but by all indications the raiders have plenty more forces in the woods, and they’ve already started hitting isolated targets.  So we’re going to be skipping straight to the pirate-hunting part of our contract.”

              Wolfgang grunted.  “How bad are we talking?”

              “Answering that question is part of our marching orders,” Caradin answered, an unimpressed look on her face.  “The best we have to work with right now is scattered reports from security forces and long-distance sensor sweeps.”

              “What kind of DropShip was it?” Marie asked.

              “That would be the bad news,” Caradin answered.  “According to initial reports, the DropShip that came in was an Overlord-class.”

              The rest of them tensed, and Marie didn’t blame them.  An Overlord was a frightening beast, able to hold a full battalion of thirty-six BattleMechs and half a dozen aerospace fighters, along with support staff for both.  On top of that the DropShip itself was a mobile fortress, loaded with enough guns to hold off a whole company of BattleMechs on its own.

              Wolfgang let out a low whistle.  “That’s not a raid, that’s a goddamn invasion force.”

              Caradin held up a hand placatingly.  “It’s safe to assume they didn’t deliver a full battalion.  By the reports I’ve gotten from neighboring systems, SOP for this particular band of pirates is to make a quick pass on the planet to drop off a raiding team.  Then the DropShip leaves for another planet, where it drops off another raiding team.  Rinse and repeat a few times, then the DropShip circles back to pick all the teams up.  The raiding teams are in charge of hitting targets and setting up a dustoff point for when the DropShip comes back for them.”

              “The DropShip is unseen except for when it comes and goes,” Hoshino commented, nodding.  “Perhaps these pirates ride aboard a ghost.”

              Caradin ignored the attempt at a joke.  “Overlords aren’t easy to come by out here in the Periphery, so they’re getting their money’s worth out of this one, and going out of their way to keep it safe from return fire.  Basic understanding for each raiding team is ‘have an LZ ready for us or get left behind.’  So expect people who fight like they’re cornered, because they basically are.”  She paused, giving that a minute to sink in.  “Now Meridian’s security teams will be focusing on protecting their manufacturing plants.  Our job is to go out into the woods and sweep for whatever that DropShip left behind.”

              Marie did her best not to flinch at the order.  “Go out and look around” seemed like a very vague order, especially when there could be as much as three companies of BattleMechs out there.

              “When do we expect this Overlord to be coming back?” she asked.

              “It left a couple weeks ago.  Factor in jumps to other systems and time for the jump ship to recharge in between, and I’d say we’ve got two, maybe three months before it jumps back in-system.”

              Marie blinked.  “The pirates leave their teams on-planet that long?” she asked.

              “Pirate buster’s not up to doing some real busting,” Wolfgang muttered.

              Coghill’s expression darkened as he glared at the man.  “Meridian has an eight-month backlog on new Arbiters.  Dedicating enough of our machines to fend off these raiders means delaying our shipments even more.  The cost to company goodwill alone would be too much to justify.”

              “Remember people, this is the Periphery,” Caradin added on, cutting off Coghill from saying more.  “They don’t have House militaries or huge mercenary units to rely on for garrisons.  Meridian might have the metal on-hand, but they’re not a MechWarrior academy,” she said with a nod at Coghill.  “They don’t have the manpower to go scouting through thousands of square kilometers looking for pirates, and the pirates know that.  They’ve landed expecting they’ve got the upper hand and can do as they please until their DropShip’s ready to come back for them.  That’s why we’re here.  Meridian wants to turn the tables, and they’re paying for our experience with these kinds of missions.”

              Coghill drew back a little at the interruption, but then nodded in grudging agreement.  “Yes, that’s it exactly.  Bringing you in means we get to focus on what we do best.  But we at Meridian Manufacturing want to make sure you are a good investment.  “Maybe the Great Houses can burn their money on some lackadaisical unit that sits around all day, but we at the company want to see results.”  He crossed his hands imperiously behind his back.  “Our security teams are more than up to protecting our factories.  We need someone who will take a proactive stance, and take steps to stop these raiders before they mount an attack on any of our facilities.”

              “Don’t worry about that, my people are professionals at this kind of thing,” Caradin replied before turning her attention back to Marie and the others.  “Now whatever’s out there is moving quickly.  They hit isolated targets, and by the time any defense force can respond, they’ve already faded back into the woods.  Meridian’s security team is doing its best playing defense, but as Mr. Coghill says, they want someone more proactive.  So it’s on us to show them the Hussars are fast enough to intercept these raiders.  That goes double for our new blood,” she added on as she turned her attention to Marie.  “Don’t expect me to go easy on you, McCloud.  You made a hell of an entrance, but I need to know you can keep up with us.”

              “Ready for whatever you’ve got for me, sir,” Marie answered.  “I’ve seen my fair share of rough days.  It’ll be nice to be the one handing out the trouble instead of taking it.”

              Caradin gave her an approving look.  “See, that’s the attitude I need to hear from all of you.”

              Wolfgang got an irritated look on his face, but Hoshino shot Marie a smile.  “The youngest often try the hardest,” he said.  “I think McCloud-san will be an excellent addition.”

              Wolfgang grumbled in annoyance.  “All right, the kid’s excited and all, but what about the sarge?  He going to be riding around in a jeep while we’re tromping through the woods?”

              “Thomas can handle himself,” Caradin answered.  “I will say that salvage rights on this contract are solid.  We get to keep a big chunk of anything we bring down.  So if we find him a new ‘Mech out here, great.  Until then, he’s going to be riding shotgun with one of you.  Thanks for volunteering your back seat, Wolf.”

              Wolfgang crossed his arms and smirked at Thomas.  “You better bring a breather mask along.  I like me some good breakfast beans.”

              Hoshino laughed at that, while Marie rolled her eyes.  She sympathized with Thomas; BattleMech cockpits were far from spacious, and they were quickly filled with the smell of body sweat and damp breath, especially with two people squeezed in.  She made a mental note to double up on her deodorant routine and find a decent air freshener for her cockpit in case Thomas ever got assigned to her.

              Caradin looked to Thomas.  “Sergeant, break down the mission specifics for us.”

              Thomas nodded.  “There are multiple high-value targets we can assume the pirates will try to hit.  Primary targets include our employer’s three manufacturing plants.  Apparently they’re all working around the clock to build their Arbiter, which makes them prime targets for any pirates looking for spare ‘Mech parts.  As for secondary targets, we should watch the mountain ridge going north-south on the main continent for any mining operations.”

              “Pirates want to go home with bags of rocks?” Wolfgang asked skeptically.

              “New St. Andrews’ mountain ranges out are rich in titanium ore and palladium,” Coghill answered, cutting off Thomas’s reply.  “They’re both key elements in BattleMech production, and we have been protecting them for years.”

              “Also that Overlord might even have manufacturing facilities on board.  If they find any ore out here they could refine it in-flight,” Marie interjected.  She paused, seeing how they had all turned to look at her with expressions ranging from annoyance to surprise.  “I saw a DropShip with an onboard foundry once.  Made the lower decks hot as hell, but they could fabricate BattleMech parts right on board.”

              “As you can see, my people understand the situation out here,” Caradin said to Coghill.  “Just like we understand the mountain ranges are big enough that it’s impossible to guard the whole area.  If this raiding team brought the right equipment they could do very well for themselves pulling out ‘bags of rocks’ to take home.”

              “What are you going to do about it, then?” Coghill asked her.

              “The plan is to do what we do best,” Caradin answered confidently.  “Hussars like to move.  We will be patrolling through the likely targets.  The raiders are working with limited supplies and no backup, so we can assume they’re very skittish about seeing BattleMechs on their sensors.  We keep moving and make sure we’re seen, and the raiders will be off-balance.  They shouldn’t have time to make any serious strikes.  If we keep up the pressure, someone’s bound to make a mistake.  And as soon as they give us an opening, we’ll take them down.”

              “Aye, tha’s what we wanted ter hear from ye,” Bower said proudly.  He smiled a practiced smile that flashed his blindingly white teeth.  “Soon as me ‘Mech arrives I’ll be ready ter mount up an’ kick some arse with all o’ye.”

              Caradin returned the smile.  “I’m sure Meridian’s security forces are lucky to have you, Mr. Bower.”

              “Mr Bower is not on the Meridian security team,” Coghill said, annoyed.  “He is one of our test pilots.  The company has decided that even if we are hiring mercenaries to deal with these pirates, this still represents an unprecedented opportunity to show the Periphery what the Arbiter can do.  That is why Mr. Bower will be accompanying you on your operation.”

              Marie felt the mood shift in the room.  Thomas, standing behind Bower and Coghill, looked like he’d just been forced to swallow something slimy and still alive.  The rest of the Hussars managed to keep their composure.  Caradin and Wolfgang stayed stone-faced while Hoshino cracked a forced smile, though Marie could almost hear the man groaning internally.

              For his part, Bower looked proud.  “It’ll be a damn pleasure ter be workin’ with ye,” he said.  “Ye’ll all be trying ter keep up with me once I get oot there.”

              “Mr. Bower is our most skilled test pilot,” Coghill added on.  “No one knows our Arbiter better.”

              Caradin was visibly clenching her jaw, but managed a smile.  “We’ll all be looking forward to seeing what you can do,” she said politely. “Sergeant, what’s our unit readiness?”

              Thomas straightened up as Coghill glanced at him.  “Still doing maintenance checks,” he answered.  “We’ve got some repairs to make before we’ll be back up to 100%, though.”

              “That’s what I thought.”  Caradin looked at Coghill and Bower.  “We had a rapid withdrawal from our last deployment, and unfortunately the DropShip we took here wasn’t equipped to do anything beyond superficial repairs en route.  I’m sure you understand, we need some time to get ready before we move out.”

              Surprisingly, Coghill did not look annoyed at this admission.  Instead, he merely nodded.  “That is fine,” he said.  “We are preparing Mr. Bower’s ‘Mech for deployment at the moment.  We expect it to arrive in another week.  In the meantime I’m authorized to let you know Meridian allows you to use the repair facilities here at the spaceport.”

              Caradin made a noise of acknowledgment.  “Sounds like more than enough to get our machines in order.  Pass my thanks along to your superiors.”

              “A week, sir?” Marie asked skeptically.  From what she’d seen of the Hussars’ ‘Mechs so far, a week would be barely enough time to get them back in fighting shape.

              Caradin glanced back at her.  “Less time than that, Pilot.  You better get ready quick.  We’ve got some new equipment to break in and make sure it can keep up.”

              Marie raised her eyebrows at being called “equipment,” but held her tongue.  Out the corner of her eye Marie could see Hoshino and Wolfgang exchange a glance, then look at her.  When Marie returned the attention Hoshino abruptly looked away, while Wolfgang smirked.  She ground her teeth at the look, and wondered what she was being left out of.

              “We’ll be deploying for Manufacturing Plant Alpha as soon as our liason’s ‘Mech arrives,” Thomas was saying. “In the meantime, here’s your assigned reading material.”  He stepped forward, passing out data chips.  “That covers the topography and atmosphere of this hemisphere,” he explained.  “I expect you all to know this area like the backs of your hands before we move out.  No one’s tripping over tree roots on my watch.”

              “McCloud’s already seen the aerial view,” Caradin added.  “I’ll bet she’s ready to get out there and take care of business.”

              Marie managed a smile at the compliment, but she was also trying to keep her balance as she was suddenly lightheaded.  Her heart was accelerating at the thought of being deployed against a mystery force that could strike from anywhere.  She had to hope she was ready, because she got the feeling she wouldn’t get many second chances.

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