BattleTech Fanon Wiki

Suomi Warders
By: Dave Waino

Chapter 1: The Wages of Honor
Chapter 2: A Wager with the Clans
Chapter 3: A Trap of Imagination
Chapter 4: Trials of Loyalty
Chapter 5: Eye of the Storm
Chapter 6: Twists of Fate
Chapter 7: Domestic Issues
Chapter 8: Fateful Choices
Chapter 9: Deadly Objectives
Chapter 10: Hard Truths and Harder Questions
Chapter 11: Major Decisions
Chapter 12: A Call to Arms
Chapter 13: Allocation of Resources
Chapter 14: Special Delivery
Chapter 15: Seize and Rescue
Chapter 16: Combined Arms
Chapter 17: Battered 'Mechs and Broken Bodies
Chapter 18: Matters of Perspective
Chapter 19: Deals of Life and Death

Suomi Warders: 3057

Innocence Lost - Part One
Innocence Lost - Part Two

Chapter Index[]

Chapter 3: A Trap of Imagination[]

Planetary Landing Pad Area
Coleson’s Orb
18 March 3052

They had returned to their DropShip in victory, but not to cheering crowds or thronging fellows. Nor had their return from besting the Nova Cats looked especially triumphant. Naoko Fujiwara, whose BattleMech had been literally shot to pieces around her, had returned to the Baltic Serenade on a stretcher. It would be easier to catalog the few locations where she wasn’t cut, scraped, or bruised than to list her many pains. Her worse injuries were a dislocated shoulder (which had been painfully set back into place in the field) and a neck that refused to properly support her head. She was now in a brace to keep her head still. The Doctor had taken a look before sending her in. He was pretty sure it was mainly muscle strain from having her heavy neurohelmet snap lose from it’s docking cradle. It would take X-rays to confirm his diagnosis however.

It hurt to do so, but she could move her fingers and toes. Paralyzation was a much worse fate to contemplate than death for a MechWarrior. Luckily – after a fashion anyway – when a MechWarrior lost a ‘Mech they tended to either emerge banged up but otherwise intact or have most of their body vaporized by the huge destructive power of BattleMech weaponry. In her case she was banged up very badly but would live to pilot and fight again. The same couldn't be said for several of the Nova Cat warriors.

The medtech said something to her she didn’t fully catch. The gist of the comment was that they’d have her in sickbay in a few more minutes. She smiled and painfully created a thumb’s up gesture with her right hand. Talking hurt way too much at the moment. For someone that had almost been blasted into small pieces of protein matter she was in good spirits. Sure, she’d lost her fight. That stung her pride even though her opponent had outclassed her in size, technology, firepower, and skill. But Jason Nellson, the first person to climb into her shattered cockpit, had informed her that collectively the team had won the honor fight. They’d beat the Clans. To her knowledge it was only the third time it had happened. Well, perhaps other small units had won other small fights like this on far flung worlds as well. But today she had been part of an Inner Sphere lance that had met the Clans on their own terms and won. Won the fight and won the right to leave this planet and go home. It didn’t matter that she was no longer sure were home was for her. All that mattered was that they had won.

Jason walked along behind Naoko’s stretcher thinking much the same thoughts. Or rather limped along. His destination was the same as hers – the Serenade’s sickbay for X-rays and other exams. His BattleMech had been left out on the proving grounds near Naoko’s and was in only marginally better shape. He hadn’t suffered the cockpit hit she had, nor had his neurohelmet tried to break his neck. But he carried many of the same bruises she did. His ‘Mech had tried to strain him through the seat harness like a garlic press as well. In fact, the dual crossing pattern of his upper restraints was still visibly imprinted across his chest.

He walked stiffly but with pride. This had been his first real combat and he felt he had performed well. His few small mistakes fighting a group of armored Clan Elemental troopers had not proved critical and he had destroyed them. He had then managed to put a good hurt on the Clan Vulture with his smaller Inner Sphere Vulcan before the Clanner’s superior firepower had blasted his ‘Mech into a mound of junk. As they were being brought in the Captain had told him how their combined damage had allowed the rest of the team to take out the Vulture in a single salvo. As they neared the DropShip he realized that he had never actually visualized himself some twenty minutes after a combat. Often he had dreamed and fantasized about starting a battle or heroically winning one. But the fantasy always stopped on the battlefield. He’d also had a few nightmares about getting killed in a battle. But he’d never given any thought to what it would be like a little while later. The sudden return to normalcy felt somewhat odd. The ground crew and support Warders all gave them smiles and waves with a few quick shouts of welcome– but they were all intent on specific jobs and obviously busy. For the support personnel, the action was just starting rather than just ending.

A quick moment passed when he wondered what all the commotion was about, but then he let the thought go. Right now he was just happy. Happy he hadn’t screwed up, happy they had won, happy he’d kicked some butt, happy that the Chu-i hadn’t been dead as he had first feared when he had crawled into her cockpit, and the biggest "happy" of all: happy to be alive. Of course, he wouldn’t have been nearly as happy had he known that the same Vulture that had trashed Naoko and him had then marched up to his CO’s ‘Mech. While the rest of the lance was talking to the pilot within the Clanner had calmly shot the Major in the face before anyone realized the Nova Cat MechWarrior did not intend to engage in honor combat. Happiness being fleeting it is best not put off. There was plenty of unhappiness lurking about the universe for later consumption. In fact, a good amount of it was sitting only meters away.

Unlike Cadet Nellson, Lieutenant Rajanen knew of the near fatality of their CO. Vilho Rajanen had spent the fight at the DropShip rather than in his ‘Mech. The Lieutenant had wandered out onto the landing field in a daze upon first hearing the battle report and had found himself sitting alone on a crate of fastener rods without remembering approaching or sitting on them. Alone was how he spent most of his time now. Since he had lost it within the cockpit back in Jeddah he’d been a pariah. His friends of several years avoided him. He couldn’t say he blamed them any. All in all he pretty thoroughly despised himself. He had imagined himself as many things- but never as a lowly friggen coward. But that’s what he was and he knew it. Sure, he’d volunteered to go out and fight the Nova Cats. He’d even meant it one hundred percent. But in his heart he knew the dark secret. He had been extremely relieved when the Major turned the three volunteers down while in contrast his two fellow officers had been very dejected. A flue virus had temporarily messed up their inner ears, affecting their balance and thus their ability to pilot a ‘Mech. His only excuse was that his hands shook uncontrollably now when he tried to climb into a cockpit.

He knew because every shift rotation coming out here on the Serenade he had waited for the tech crews to call it a "night" and had then secretly climbed into his BattleMech. It literally sickened him that he couldn’t even manage to sit calmly in the powered down cockpit. He kept seeing the flash of hot death, feeling his flesh melting away, hearing his own screams merging with those of his new wife’s. Vilho had hoped that if nothing else, the dreams would stop now that he had been pulled from active duty. Not even that small relief had been granted him. As the injured pilots neared the DropShip Vilho could see the new kid limping along behind the stretcher. Even with the limp there was pride and swagger to the kid’s gait. A boldness that said I faced death and won. A boldness he himself had walked with for over five years. Vilho buried his face in his hands because he couldn’t bear to look anymore. Maybe the woman on the stretcher wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t lost his nerve. Maybe the Major wouldn’t have almost been killed.

The whining sounds of hydraulic lifts caught his attention. Looking up he saw that one of the mobile repair trucks was being deployed. It was one of the newest types. It’s segmented trailer could be anchored to the ground at the rear then tipped upright off of the chassis to form part of a repair derrick. Three of them together could totally enclose a BattleMech allowing a repair team to refit armor, reload ammo, and perform other work. Apparently the tech crew had decided that whatever it was they needed to do to the Major’s Camelot was easier to do outdoors than inside the slightly cramped ‘Mech Bay of the Serenade. A reoccurring vibration began to rumble through the ground, announcing the three moving BattleMechs of the Warders before they came into view around the far side of the DropShip.

This was why he was out here. A morbid fascination, an undeniable need, to see the damage to the Major’s head. As the very humanoid shape of the Camelot appeared Vilho winced but couldn’t look away. A jagged hole maybe two meters wide had been burned through the curved plate that served as the Camelot’s face. Other burn marks were visible around the hole, easy to see against the slight metallic sheen of the goldish mesh. The cockpit viewports of the ‘Mech were hidden behind the mesh. The effect was that of an opaque face shield on a giant helmet – albeit one with a gaping hole right between where one could easily imagine the eyes to be. With a shudder Vilho realized that someone was actually riding up inside the burned out sensor area. It had to be the Major’s tech, Chief Harding. Despite his years of training with and piloting BattleMechs, Vilho couldn’t think of a single good reason why the Chief would need to ride in the burned out compartment. There certainly wasn’t a seat of any sort there. But techs were often odd birds and the best ones seemed to have the most quirks. The Camelot walked itself up to the waiting repair rig and carefully settled into it face first. It powered down while Lawman’s battered Bushwacker and Goose’s Granny carefully entered the open Mech Bay of the ship.

Vilho Rajanen couldn’t imagine how Major Linna could suffer such a nearly fatal shot and calmly prepare to fight again. And because he could no longer imagine such a feat, someplace deep inside Vilho knew he was no longer a MechWarrior.

Major John Linna carefully transferred over to the mobile repair derrick and took it’s lift down. Sergeant Harding was beside him, having rode back in the Camelot with him. The Sergeant had joked that he was John’s back-up sensors for the trip as John had gotten the main ones melted into slag. But John suspected different. During the entire trip Harding had been looking down through the hole in the cockpit’s ceiling rather than out the hole facing forward. Tensed and ready, John was sure, to jump down through that hole and slap in an emergency stop command should John suddenly falter.

Truth be told John was back to feeling rather well except for a slight headache. It was most likely from a bit of neurohelmet feedback. The nausea had ceased and the world had stopped spinning well before he had retaken the controls to return. A bit of a sore throat had come on but that had nothing to do with the cockpit hit. Overall, planning for his duel with the Nova Cat Star Captain had re-energized him. His mind was whirling with activity as he stepped off the lift and onto the tarmac. Captain Woods was there to meet him, having returned in one of the hovertanks.

"Captain," started John immediately. "I want to start with a quick update on our readiness plus an update on what the remains of the CORDF, the local civilians, and ComStar are up to at the moment. Then I’m going to let the Doctor have that exam of me he wants while you find a local with planetary info so we can pick a good place for this little match of ours. Chief? Aside from stuffing a new sensor array in my head I want you to yank the C3 master and if there’s time pull the extra display consuls from the cockpit as well. If the Nova Cats do get their hands on the Camelot I want to make sure all they get is a good looking but under gunned medium ‘Mech. Make sure the command programming is erased from the cockpit computer as well."

"You got it Sir," replied the Sergeant.

"Oh, and sorry about bringing it back with a big hole like that," smiled John.

Chief Harding just shook his head ruefully. "Just as long as you bring yourself back in one piece Sir the ‘Mech is no big deal. In fact, maybe I need to change my lucky saying to something like ‘Forget the ‘Mech, just save yourself’. ’’

John faked shocked dismay. "You can’t do that Chief. Techs the galaxy over have been admonishing MechWarriors and AeroJocks not to scratch their machinery. You’ll unbalance the cosmos if you try to change that now."

The Sergeant laughed. "Well, I suppose that after today you’ll remember not to let anyone shoot you in the head again. But seriously Sir, what’s the rush? That Star Captain said she’d wait a day or two if necessary."

The Major leaned in a bit. "Just between the three of us? I think I’m coming down with whatever bug Parks and Dhafar have. I’m afraid that come tomorrow I’ll be too sick to fight. I don’t want to push my luck by asking her to wait a week or two."

"Major," started Osmo Woods, "if you’re sick…."

John waved him quiet. "I passed Doctor Sengali’s med check this morning and unless I pass it this afternoon I won’t go. But in the meantime I’m on the roster Osmo."

"Understood sir," Osmo sighed. He’d never seen the Major this animated before. The only way to stop John from this battle now would be to knock him out and tie him up. Or get either the Doctor or maybe Lieutenant Aukland to tell him to lay off.

Sergeant Harding watched the two officers walk away for a few moments then turned his attention back to the wounded ‘Mech. Organizing his thoughts to deal with the task at hand he called out several orders and questions to his team before he noticed Master Sergeant Phil Hernandez headed his way.

"Hey Chief," called Phil as he stopped before the Chief Tech.

"What’s up Top?" Although Harding was the lead Tech and supply master, Phil was actually the top ranked non-com.

"Just wanted to let you know I deployed the guards with the retrieval teams," supplied Phil.

"Who’s with the team drifting by that Vulture?"

"Who else," snorted Hernandez. "Sergeant Cascade and her merry band of hoodlums."

"Good. If anyone can pull it off its Sammi and her boys." Despite the required duel preparations Harding believed in taking advantage of any side situation that presented itself.

"I hope so," sighed Phil. He looked up at the ‘Mech as it stood with it’s face in the lattice of walkways. "Pretty close one huh?"

"Damn straight brother," agreed Harding. "It was almost lights out permanently for the Major."

"Hey, why are your folks pulling that chest armor off? It looks OK to me."

"To get at the C3," explained Harding. "The command computer unit is in a frame that we can pull out. The Cats won’t be getting it no matter what goes down later."

"Kind of like their OmniMechs. I get it," smiled Hernandez. "Then what, you put some weapons back in?"

"I wish," spat Harding. "It’s supposed to be a command ‘Mech, not a blinking Solaris Gladiator. We have an extra C3 master and a frame with 5 tons of ballast but not a frame cube with any weapons. I’m kicking myself Top. We’re going to lose five tons of payload because we didn’t think to pre-build a weapons module."

"You’re the one they call the Magician. Can’t you just whip up something?"

"Sure, if I had more like 5 days instead of 5 hours. Despite some modular sections that’s no OmniMech. Sure, there’s power and control feeds in the chest cavity but any weapon stuffed up there would need it’s own servos and myomar bundles so it could be aimed. Those would normally be attached to the frame cube and have to be carefully plotted for any given weapon type. There’s not enough time to calculate then fabricate the required control parts that would allow him to aim it worth a damn."

"Well, what about our Spray Boxes?" Phil wanted to know.

"Your what?"

"The portable pulse lasers for perimeter defense we lug around. They’re ‘Mech grade pulse lasers mounted in an armored box on a trailer. Since we fire them by a wired remote from a dozen meters away and they can track all over every which way they must have control stuff already attached right?"

Harding’s head snapped up. That was brilliant. The main question would be if the frame the pulse laser was already mounted in would fit in the chest cavity. "Top, remind me to never call you infantry guys slow witted again. Well, except when we’re playing poker. Get some of your folks busy tearing one down for me. I’ll get my lead programmer and something to measure your Sprayer with. Then we’ll see about giving the Major an extra gift to bring to his party."

Star Captain Lauren Gallagher stood on the flat plain several hundred meters from her DropShip. Idly she gazed at the mountain range in the distance but her mind was really seeing images and calculations pulled from within her head rather than digesting what her eyes reported. Within her burned twin angers right now; one for the loss her inept Star Commander had endured and the other for the stravag stunt her MechWarrior James had pulled with his ambush of the Inner Sphere leader. At least Star Commander Helzig had had the good sense to die in his pathetic loss to the tall freebirth woman who had so handily outgunned him. Although Lauren was on record as having warned her Commanders not to underestimate these Warders, Helzig’s failure would still reflect on her overall command. James’ action was a puzzle. Ambitious and talented, James had angled twice for reassignment to a more prominent unit. His victories against the Warders and his willingness to carry on bravely against what had become superior odds had won him much honor. Enough that he could have challenged for Helzig’s command or even had his transfer with her blessing. Then he ignored two properly issued challenges and fired a surprise shot at the IS Major. The medical personnel had informed her that it would be two or three days before MechWarrior James regained consciousness to explain his action.

The anger did not control her though. It wasn’t even the primary driver of her mood or decisions. It lurked and waited; it would find proper relief in it’s time. But there were larger concerns and questions at hand. Even deep in thought she heard the light tread of someone approaching her from behind. She was a Nova Cat warrior after all. Barring an important communication that required hand delivery it could only be one person. The others knew not to interrupt their Star Captain when she was off thinking.

"You have something on your mind Helen, Quiaff?" spoke Lauren when she judged her friend to be sufficiently near for easy conversation.

"Aff Star Captain. Several things actually. But the foremost is this fight with the Inner Sphere Major."

"Ah yes, their Major." She turned so that she could see her sibkin’s face. "Tell me Helen, what did you think of this Major Linna?"

Helen had merely observed the enemy officer from the ground cars when her Star Captain had briefly spoken with him. She wasn’t sure that she thought much of anything about him.

"I do not have anything other than first impressions really. He seemed rather collected for a warrior that had almost let himself be vaporized by an enemy. I expected more anger or accusation from him. Someone that does not let his emotions rule him perhaps. Being freebirth, he obviously has a weakness concerning the freeborn population of this planet."

Lauren nodded absently at her friend’s observations. It had taken the lure of letting the planet’s population flee as the prize to entice the Major into dueling her. "And those around him?"

Helen smiled at the thought. "Despite the suicidal nature of doing so they seemed quite ready to take on our Elementals on the spot. A –what would be a good word – ‘feisty’ bunch. Much better disciplined than anything we’ve seen so far. And if eyes were lasers that tall MechWarrior standing with him would have melted us all down the way she glared. Very defiant, very protective. Likely she is as formidable as freebirth warriors come. Although I noticed a small infantry woman that ran the pilot a close second in intensity. That one was more like ice while the taller woman was more like fire."

"Indeed. An unusual bunch for Inner Sphere warriors from the supposedly decadent Free Worlds League. It is too bad that they won hegira from us and we must let them go. Still, perhaps our warriors learned something about underestimating enemies that will be useful after Terra is won on Tukayyid and the invasion widens. And I may yet salvage something of the situation."

"You mean your combat with their Major," observed Helen. "This is what is on my mind Star Captain. Is this fight wise?"

"Wise?" repeated Lauren in amusement. "I suppose that is debatable. But I am not exactly a ristar Helen. My career has been detoured – perhaps by my caution as others remark when they think I cannot hear. We are here rather than preparing for Tukayyid quiaff? The Star Colonel won the bid to attack this planet mainly because our unit is thought of as reserve rather than front line. The Star Colonel will be in system any day now to observe our progress. I wish to settle the matter of these Warders before his arrival if possible. Once Terra is ours I hope for our unit to be used in the bidding of the next phase. To accomplish that I need results."

Helen considered her commander’s words silently for a moment. It was true that they were not a highly ranked unit. Not dezgra but not front line either. Barring entry as a melee contestant, if Helen was to win her own Bloodname their Supernova Trinary would need to find itself in battles where she could distinguish herself. "You believe this Major is possibly important then?" she asked finally.

"I am not sure what I think," admitted Lauren. "Do you remember when we were sibko kittens and got punished for inappropriate laughing by being requiring to memorize and repeat all of the Bloodnames?"

"Aff," smiled Helen at the memory. They had been a bit over curious about their trainer’s personal possessions, a bit under cautious about how they went about securing them and very much too unrepentant when discovered. Then she frowned as the names cascaded through her mind and formed a connection.

"I see that you do," commented Lauren. "It is singular to the Cloud Cobras- but Linna is a Bloodname. I have heard rumors that both the Crusader and Warden factions have sent agents into the Inner Sphere over the years. The Cobras do not speak their mind often, but they support the Warden cause. Now we find a cadre of MechWarriors functioning as a Star being lead by an officer named Linna in a BattleMech that we do not have record of but by the style lines appears to be of ancient design. And they are named the Warders. It may all be coincidence – but I am not sure that I believe in coincidence. I would like to take this Major Linna as bondsman and examine his ‘Mech to ease my mind if nothing else."

As a bondman this Major Linna would be the Star Captain’s personal prisoner of sorts. A servant if used as such, a potential warrior for the Clan in some capacity should he prove himself worthy through his actions while bonded. Either way, the truth of his history would be forthcoming. The presumably ancient ‘Mech design could prove useful as well.

"Then that is what you must do," Helen agreed simply.

Naoko lay fairly comfortably in the medbay bed. Her X-rays had proven negative and she could expect to be out of the stiff neck brace in a few weeks. Her senses were somewhat dulled by pain killers but she was tracking fairly well the running narrative of the battle Cadet Jason was sharing from the bed opposite hers. He was ambulatory, but the Doctor had put him in the bed for twenty hours of observation. It hadn’t been until he was examined in the ship that anyone noticed that Jason had a slipped disk in his lower spine. It had not caused any pain but Doctor Sengali wanted to make sure that it stayed where it was supposed to be now that it had been coaxed back into proper alignment. Lieutenant Aukland had been through earlier to check on their spirits and update them on the current situation. Both injured pilots had been chagrinned that they had failed to stop the Clan Omni that had almost killed the Major. But Aukland had pointed out that if anyone should be feeling guilty it was herself and Sven for letting an enemy stroll up that close. Both Naoko and Jason had done exactly what had been asked – damage the heavier enemy unit as much as possible.

Jason was just getting to the first missile strike when the hatchway opened and Doctor Sengali entered followed by Major Linna himself. The Doctor smiled as Jason abruptly shut up. "Ms. Fujiwara. I regret to inform you that these are the only sickbeds we have on this ship. However, if you feel endangered of having your ears talked off by the good cadet there I am sure we can arrange to sedate him."

As Jason blushed red Naoko smiled as well. "That is kind of you Doctor but if my ears survived basic training I think they can survive Cadet Nellson."

"Hail Mech Warriors," greeted John as he entered deeper into the room. "I’m very pleased to see you two in such good shape."

He approached Jason’s bed first and produced a Digital Assistant Pad that he handed to the young man.

"What is this Sir?" asked Jason as he looked at the noteputer.

"It’s your approved application. I think Goose and Ranger are still making up new initiation rites to subject you to but we all agree that your performance today showed what you’re made of. I’m still going to expect you to finish the class load equivalent of an academy before I give you officer rank but while you’re working on it you’ll be an active MechWarrior with us. That is, if you still want to sign up with the Warders."

"Yes Sir!" cried Jason joyously.

John actually had to lay a hand on the Cadet’s chest to keep him from bouncing out of the bed. "As you’re now officially under my command I expect you to follow orders. And the Doctor ordered you to lie still so you don’t throw your back out."

Jason gulped. There was no missing the hint of steel riding behind the Major’s light tone. Jason decided then and there he never wanted the Major seriously angry with him.

John saw that he might have put a little too much force into his tone and spooked the kid. He smiled to soften the impact a little. "Now rest easy Jason. You’ve earned it. If you need something to keep you occupied you can start making a list of subjects you consider yourself well versed in for academic credit. I imagine your science background is pretty good for instance."

"Yes Sir," Jason repeated as the Major stepped over the Naoko’s bedside.

"And you, the next time I think I’ll let you get your own ‘Mech trashed," he joked. "Just kidding of course. I really appreciate your pinning down that Vulture for so long. I wouldn’t have wanted to go one on one with it like you did. You have done your family name proud. The DCMS will have no reason to doubt your bravery or honor once we finally get you to someone who will listen."

Naoko was uncomfortable with his praise though it felt wonderful to receive. Too wonderful in fact. She wondered if she was responding on a deeper level than just to a fellow officer. "Domo arigato Major-san. I can only wish that I was able to do more than I did."

He smiled. "So now we’ve slipped in formality from John to ‘san’ huh? Well, don’t berate yourself Naoko, you did enough and that’s all we needed. We don’t need any more dead heroes around here. We have enough as it is."

She blushed. She hadn’t meant to add the Japanese honorific to his title. It had slipped out on it’s own. "Please take care then to follow your own advice today. I would not care to have you become a dead hero either, …John."

Their hands brushed and both were startled by the faint tingly jolt sensation from the light contact. Each wondered if the other had felt it. The Doctor interrupted the moment without knowing it was even occurring.

"I’m afraid I must borrow your CO MechWarriors. We need to make sure he’s cleared for action so he can finish arranging this afternoon’s engagement."

John gave both of them a goodbye smile as he let the Doctor usher him behind a flimsy curtain that was pulled across the room to separate the examination area in front from the beds farther back. Doctor Sengali’s yank on them was hard enough that the trail end rolled slightly away from the wall near Naoko’s bed. Thus she could see a small sliver of the exam area, including part of the Major’s back at the moment. As he stripped off the cooling vest and what she recognized was some sort of sporting jersey she gasped.

Luckily her involuntary reaction was covered by John’s own voice lamenting to the doctor that the Nova Cats had just ruined his jersey for the company football team. He joked that he’d have to play goal keeper instead of striker until he got a new one. Doctor Sengali laughed mainly because they both knew that John was rarely around to play any position with the team. There was always something or other demanding his time when he wasn’t away chasing pirates.

The Doctor was thorough but quick. After the physical checks they had attached the light neuro-analyzer cap to test for potential glitches or problems that might arise from using a real neurohelmet to pilot a ‘Mech. Both Naoko and Jason could hear the two men talking during the exam and except for a quarter degree rise in body temperature and a few shallow burns and nicks the Major was in good shape. After the two men said their good-byes and left the ward Jason looked over to Naoko with concern. The Major and the Doctor may have been unaware that Naoko had seen something alarming but he had noticed. There hadn’t been much for him to look at other than her and he’d seen her face.

"Uh, Naoko Ma’am," started Jason, "what was wrong?"

She started to deny that anything was – but that would be an obvious lie. Besides, lying to a warrior compatriot was not of Bushido. Taking a moment she worked on formulating an answer that would both sooth Jason’s concern and curiosity while protecting something that the Major apparently did not wish to be common knowledge.

"The Major is fine, Jason," she began. "It’s just that I was taken off guard by the scars he bears. I am sure that the Doctor would not let him pilot if they were more than cosmetic. I was just surprised is all. But as the Major wears a shirt when piloting he obviously does not choose to have people comment on them."

Jason nodded and leaned back. "I understand Ma’am. It’s a ‘don’t talk’ subject like just how low a fare the ship captain is really prepared to take. Look, I’m already going through this list of academic credits and forgetting about the whole examination thing." He waved the noteputer at her.

"I think that is best," she agreed. She closed her eyes to rest but her mind supplied the image. His back held several long scars that she could only envision as whip strikes of some sort while she had glimpsed what appeared to be healed laser and bullet wounds and at least two long jagged scars on his front torso. Her mind couldn’t conceive a plausible scenario for such wounds given what she knew of his history. But that didn’t stop it from trying long into the day.

Vilho had not stirred from the crates on the tarmac as the morning wore on. He had noticed with dull interest that Third Platoon was tearing down one of their pulse turrets and that the crowd of locals hovering near the edge of the landing apron seemed to be growing. The scuff of boots on pavement alerted him that someone had just stepped up to him.

"Huh..Sorry. Didn’t mean to be in the way," he started to apologize automatically. Then he realized that it was Gracie and not some tech staffer standing before him.

"Hey Kissa, how are you holding up?" she asked quietly.

"Making your usual post action rounds, hey Mother Goose? Well, since I sat this one out you might as well skip me." His tone held more bitterness than he had intended.

"Well excuse me for caring you mountain bred jackass," she shot back.

It was an old "nick name". A variation of ‘mountain bred’ something was what she had always called him when she was about to rub his nose in a mistake or call him on a card bluff. "Sorry Gracie. It’s myself I’m disgusted with, not you."

"I figured Vilho. Look, you can’t just sit on crates by yourself the rest of your life."

"The others don’t want me around Goose. It spooks them and you know it. Hell, it spooks me. I don’t know Gracie. I just don’t get it. One moment I’m cool as snow lining up my shot and then all I can see is hell’s balefire coming for me and I totally lose it. It’s not like I was traumatized by piles of dead children or watching my friends get cut to pieces or anything like that. I mean that’s the big illusion of piloting a ‘Mech. You can easily tell yourself it’s a machine you’re trying to kill, not a human being."

Other than Doctor Sengali he hadn’t tried to share this with anyone and he found himself unable to continue as great sobs began to rack his body. Gracie just knelt by him with her hands resting comfortingly on his shoulders.

"I’m useless – a waste," he finally managed to choke out. "Oh Gracie, I’d be better off if that shot had punched through and killed me. How can I live with myself?"

Gracie knelt so that their heads were at the same level as she wrapped her hands over his.

"Hey, remember when a young new lance leader was suffering through a core breach in her love life? She was thinking of tossing it all and heading for the deep Periphery never to be seen again. Seems to me there was a mountainside hillbilly of a snot nosed MechWarrior that had some sound advice. Do you know what it was?"

Vilho smiled weakly. Of course he knew what it was – it had been a paraphrase of an old saying from of his home. "Just because one trail ends you don’t jump off the mountain. You find a new trail and keep walking."

"That’s what you told me," she nodded. "So are you going to take your own advice or are your eyes brown because of wht you’re full of? We both have to admit it. Something’s gone wrong in your head. Or hell, who knows, maybe something’s gone right. But I imagine that living with the guilt or fear or whatever is going to be real hard. Especially as long as you’re around the rest of us.

"But once we get back to civilization we can get you a real head doctor that can help you with this. You’ve got a wife, a new life – and you told me just before we left on this tour maybe even a kid on the way. So what if you never pilot a ‘Mech again? We aren’t the friggen Clans. There is life after piloting. Your wife won’t care if you stop chasing around the galaxy exchanging laser blasts with pirates. She’ll probably see it as an improvement. Yeah, you might have to learn to like a new you. But it won’t mean losing all of your old friends. I’ll still come by your place when I’m on planet. Have a few beers, kick your butt at any computer sim you want to try."

Her voice took a harder edge as she finished. "But you will not do anything stupid or fatal. And that’s an order. Because if you do I will kill you myself. Am I clear soldier?"

Vilho wiped at his eyes. "You’re clear Ma’am."

Her tone went soft again. "Sisu Vilho. It means a different thing to you now. But what must be done must be done and it’s no use to count the cost. For your wife, for me, for your lancemates, and for you: you can’t give up on yourself. You just can’t."

He looked up and could see faint tears glistening in her eyes as well.

"And for the Major too," Vilho added. "If I’ve learned anything from you two it’s that your circumstances may change but you never give up on yourself, your family, or your friends. Sisu, Gracie. And Thanks. I may have a tough road in front of me but I’m going to walk it."

She smiled. Beamed might be a better description. A great fear had finally fallen away. Vilho might not share her life path any longer but he was willing to fight to create a new one for himself. He might not succeed but at least he would try.

"That’s better then. Hey, it looks like Captain Woods has just pulled up with that liaison officer from the CORDF. They’ll probably be conferring with John about places to stage this fight. I’ve gotta run Vilho."

He managed a faint smile. "I understand, duty calls. Tell the Major I said to scorch that Cat but good. See you around Mother Goose."

"Catch you on the return leg Kissa," she promised as she stood and strode toward where Woods and General Administrator Lanker had disappeared into Bifrost.

Woods, Aukland and Linna had squeezed into the rear seat of the open topped vehicle while GA Lanker of the newly dissolved Coleson’s Orb Regular Defense Force and a driver of the same ex-military occupied the front. Their intention had been to drive over to the university where the most complete digital maps of the planet could be found. As they attempted to cruise out the exit road however they found their path barred by a group of citizens that quickly enveloped the ground car.

An officious looking man wearing a furred cap that denoted government ranking stood squarely in the car’s path. "I am People’s Representative Lorning and I demand to speak to your commanding officer," the large frame bellowed.

John stood in the rear and attempted to address the man but someone else from the side managed to loudly over-ride the crowd with his own yelling.

"Peoter, you old fool. Stop this foolishness. The People’s Council has already voted on this!"

"And they voted to do nothing but vote later," shot back the large man. For the moment his attention swung from John to the voice from the crowd. "But I will not stand by as this capitalistic imperial…"

A different voice managed to shout him down. "Enough of your party clap-trap. Tell it to the Clan and see how socialistic they…"

The general babble of voices all yelling at each other drowned out the rest of the statement. John had faced down an angry crowd or two in his time but this one was more intent on arguing with itself than with him. Occasionally he caught shouted questions about what was to become of the townsfolk but his attempts to answer kept getting drowned out by all the voices. John looked helplessly back at Gracie and Osmo. Suddenly they both reached up and yanked him back down toward the seat.

GA Lanker had risen in the front seat. Carefully he checked the position of the safety, then he pointed his semi-automatic pistol in the air. Closing his eyes he fired it rapidly four times. That immediately silenced the crowd and brought the aim of several troopers deployed around the DropShip. Luckily for Lanker the infantry of the Warders was well trained and they took the time to access the situation before dropping him and mowing down half the crowd just to be on the safe side.

"Enough!" yelled the GA as he holstered the weapon. "Peoter, you and everyone else will get out of the way or I swear by the ghosts of Marx, Lennin and Tormay that I will shoot the next idiot that gets in our way. In only a few hours the brave Major Linna will battle the Nova Cat Commander for the right for anyone that wants to leave the Orb to have safe passage to do so. He does this despite the fact his people have already won the right to leave when they wish. They could fly away and leave us all here to rot. Peoter, if you want to stick around and discuss the greater glories of socialist enlightenment with the Nova Cats be my guest.

"But right now we need to get to the university so the Major can find a place helpful to winning. And we have a short amount of time to do this. If he wins we get a year in which to leave. If he loses…well, I don’t think we want to think about it. Now give clear up there."

Lanker made a waving motion at the front of the car with the pistol. The crowd parted, dragging a resisting representative Peoter with it. Eyes wide with surprise the driver accelerated away from the crowd. GA Lanker looked back over his shoulder at the astonished Warder officers.

"Well, that was exciting. Didn’t think I had it in me really," noted Lanker. The Warders stared at him blankly.

"That was only the fifth time I’ve fired a gun you know," Lanker admitted as an afterthought.

It was Aukland who recovered her wits first. She leaned forward and tapped the sidearm that the GA had holstered.

"You might want to put the safety back on so you don’t accidentally shoot yourself in the leg," she suggested.

"Oh yes, a good idea that," replied a flustered Lanker as he dug the weapon out once again.

Several minutes later they were all gathered around a large flat-screen display as the Lead Administrator of Geography listened to their story and adjusted some controls on the ancient map projector.

"So you would like someplace preferably uninhabited with either heavy geologic or radioactive properties. Broken terrain a bonus. Well, how about the old radioactive metals mining facility on Little Petersberg?"

"Sounds promising," said John. "Can you show us?"

"Sure," said the professor as he made a few menu choices. Soon a top view of an island appeared. "This is Little Petersberg. As you can see it’s a roughly kidney shaped island about 50 kilometers long by only 20 kilometers wide at the narrowest point. It lays eight kilometers from the mainland. The island was volcanic in origin so it’s rough terrain that’s now covered with light vegetation and Troika trees. Until about sixty years ago it was still an operational mine for uranium, plutonium, and other radioactive ores. They didn’t need to tunnel much as piles of the stuff could be scrapped off the surface. No one ever lived there permanently as there’s no fresh water and the background radiation is actually high enough to be harmful after a few years of exposure. There are a few hot springs but the water is too sulphurous for safe consumption. Several buildings and large vehicles were left there to rot. Marked on this map you can see a small pad for DropShips but no one has been there in my lifetime that I know of."

A small part of John’s mind wondered what combination of circumstances had lead to the abandonment of such a valuable facility. But most of his thoughts were focused squarely on the battle implications of what he was being shown on the map projector. The three Warder officers grinned at each other. They had just found their battlefield.

John keyed his personal comm and punched in the Chief’s contact number. A few moments later Chief Harding was on the line.

"Hey Chief, it’s me John. On the repairs don’t worry too much about magscan or the passive sensors. I don’t expect either to be very useful where we’ll be fighting. But make sure the seismic sensors and the 360 cameras are all top drawer. Double check the Starlight scopes as well on the off chance it gets dark. And rig for the auxiliary oxygen mask just in case…….Thanks Chief. We’ll be back in around fifteen." John turned his attention back to the professor.

"What file formats is that map available in?"

John stretched out on the bunk in his stateroom. Before the Clan battle against the CORDF yesterday the Warders had removed their belongings from their guest billets on the base and returned them to the DropShip. He had the second biggest quarters on the ship – but there still wasn’t much room. This particular DropShop hadn’t wasted space on luxurious VIP staterooms like some of the other corporate ships. He didn’t mind one way or another though.

There was still more than an hour before departure. The captain of the smaller Coleman’s Orb DropShip had volunteered to ferry him across the continent to his chosen battle arena. He’d reviewed the maps, conferred on tactics with Woods, Aukland, and Jorgensen, gotten something to eat, and then had found himself with time on his hands. His first thought had been to hover around Sergeant Harding and his team working on the Camelot but he was worried he’d just end up being a distraction. Although he was actually a fair hand as a tech, there wasn’t anything he could do that Harding and his folks couldn’t do better. So finally he had retreated here to his cabin, thinking he might try to catch a quick nap. Which was a fruitless endeavor as he did not usually take naps and he was too keyed up to fully relax anyway. John was a far cry from those fabled veterans that could fall asleep anytime and anyplace.

His door chimed and he hopped up and hit the entry key on the desk control panel. Gracie was standing at his door with a yellow and red bundle of some sort in her hand. Curious as to the purpose of her visit he waved her in.

"Hey John," she greeted and she stepped inside. "Since you got your lucky jersey a bit scorched I thought maybe you might need this."

He caught the fabric she tossed to him and opened it up to realize that it was a shirt. A replica jersey actually, from a professional football club back home. It was the expensive kind made of the same high tech fabrics the real things were sewn of; a lightweight weave of synthetic fibers designed to wick away sweat. As soon as he recognized the insignia he had to laugh. The jersey was for the Aussielund Bull Dogs – the divisional arch rival of the Suomi Lions, John’s hometown club.

"You know your Bull Dogs got lucky with that last minute goal to knock us out of the Cup finals last season. Besides, after all your years living in Suomi I thought we’d converted you by now."

"Hah. I always side with the winners, you know that," she retorted. "Another couple of years and I’ll have all of you yahoos converted to Bull Dog fans."

"Well thanks for the jersey. I’ll wear it just to prove how open minded we Lions fans are toward those of you with lesser tastes."

She pointed a finger at him. "It’s just a loaner you know. I want it back without any holes in it."

He smiled. "Somehow I knew that was coming. Next is the part when you segue into how I’m feeling about my upcoming battle right?"

Gracie frowned in dismay. "You’re the second person today to call me on my act. But yes, I’m checking up on our Major to see how he’s faring."

"The Major is faring fine," John reported. "I admit I have entertained some second thoughts. After all, it’ll be hard to share my daughter’s life or rescue my sister from the wrong side of the Clan invasion lines. But the Star Captain dangled the chance to help these people escape in front of me and I had to take it."

"You could always discover that you’re more injured than we first thought and offer up a champion to fight in your place," Gracie suggested.

"That thought crossed my mind too," he admitted. "I’m not so full of myself that I don’t realize that both you and Sven are hotter hands at the stick than me. But on the other hand, I’m no slouch. In fact, I’m damn good. But it had to be me because there’s something weird going on with that Star Captain. I could tell when we met that she seemed, I don’t know- fascinated is the best word I guess, with me. Maybe I look like someone she knows or match some weird Nova Cat vision or something. If I tried to beg off now my guess is that she would just wait until my excuse had run it’s course. But I think that whatever is up with her is going to be a big factor in our little dance. Her extra baggage is going to keep her from coming after me with all guns blazing. On that island I’m going to be able to negate most of her equipment advantages anyway."

Gracie forced a smile despite her concern. "I suppose there’s not much to worry about. If a whole JumpShip of Pirates couldn’t stop Cadet Linna then some snotty Clanner isn’t going to be able take down Major Linna. Especially now that I’ve taught you everything you know about piloting."

"I’ll remember to credit you in my victory speech," he nodded wryly.

"Credit is fine but just remember my pay raise next cycle," she joked in return. "So what I’m hearing is that you’re good to go."

"I’m good to go Gracie. And although I fully expect to win, no silly heroics from you or the others if something goes wrong. I want your promise on that. You and Osmo pack everyone up and jump planet if I go down in flames."

"Your word is my command. I promise," she lied easily. She only lied to John when it was in his best interest and she didn’t want him worrying about what might become of the Warders while he was tangling with the Cat Lady. Gracie had already figured that the Cats would be willing to go another round with them in another wager if it became necessary to get the Major back.

John eyed her skeptically but chose to accept her assurance. "Good. Now let’s go out and check on the Camelot or something. I’m tired of staring at these walls anyway."

On their way out to where the BattleMech was being working on both Sven and Osmo fell into their wake. As the officers stepped onto the tarmac they could see that the repair rig had been pulled away from the Camelot and the work completed already. Curiously, the infantry of Third Platoon was standing around the feet of the ‘Mech intermixed with the Warder techs. In the tightly knit Warders the various occupation groups – MechWarriors, tankers, infantry, techs, and such – got along better and interacted more often than in many other outfits either Merc or House. But John couldn’t shake the impression that the jumble of techs and troopers looked downright smug.

"Anybody have a clue here," John asked the officers with him. None of them knew what was up either.

Sergeant Hernandez was at the Camelot and he called everyone to attention as John neared. The techs rarely bothered with such adherence to military detail as all of the Warder MechWarriors were officer grade and it slowed the work down too much if they dropped everything and came to attention every time one of the pilots wandered by to check on something. But the techs snapped to as quickly – if not as smartly – as the infantry did on this occasion.

John returned the Sergeant’s salute. "At ease everyone. Now, would one of you Sergeants like to tell me why everyone looks like they just won the Company lottery? Or do I have to guess what…., hey," John interrupted himself as his eyes were automatically sweeping across his ‘Mech, "why is there a new hole in my chest armor?"

Harding and Hernandez exchanged glances that communicated that Harding would have the honor.

"Your new pulse laser needed a gun port Sir," replied the Chief Tech with mischievous pride.

The three MechWarriors looked up in shocked wonder. "I know you are the Magician," breathed John. "But I also know we never got around to fitting a weapons rack to replace the C3. It’s only been a couple of hours. How in the world did you manage this?"

Harding nodded to Hernandez with satisfaction. Phil took up the story. "Well Sir, the Chief there happened to mention that he didn’t have anything rigged to replace the computer stuff they were pulling out so I got to thinking that one of the pulse lasers from the remote turrets looked like it was about the right size. So I had my folks tear one down out of it’s armored carriage."

Sergeant Harding took back the narrative at that point. "The entire self targeting unit actually fit inside the frame cube so we cut the ballast out of the empty frame and welded the medium pulse laser unit within it. A half hour of programming had the target controls talking to your cockpit controls and there you have it – instant firepower. But I have to warn you that the myomer and servos of the turret pulser don’t react as fast as the ones on your other weapons so the new laser will track to target slower. At long range it will probably be off somewhat as well. But it definitely will spit out the kilojoules when you pull the trigger. I wanted to stuff an extra heat sink in to-boot but it just wouldn’t fit and there wasn’t time to try anything too fancy."

"Well I am most seriously amazed. Thank you very much – all of you. It looks like I have something to do with my extra time after all. A bit of target practice to sight in my new weapon." John strode forward to shake hands with and thank the techs and troopers individually as both Sergeants beamed with pride.

Captain Woods just stood back and watched as the MechWarriors mixed into the others at the feet of the Camelot. When he had decided to join this unit he had expected to see some of the League’s advanced equipment firsthand. That was a big reason for moving to the Free Worlds League in the first place. But this was truly heartening. The ability to change weapons and some equipment in hours rather than days or weeks had been a big advantage for the Clans and their OmniMechs during their invasion of the Inner Sphere. As more and more of these modular designed IS 'Mechs like the Bushwackers or this Camelot went into production that would be one less advantage the Clans held. While most of the Warders were content to chase pirates, Osmo’s personal mission had always been the Clans. Once they finished with John’s quest to rescue his sister then it would be time to start carefully working on John to build up the Warders and turn them toward the invaders. Hopefully their experiences here on Coleson’s Orb would provide a sound basis to build from. As long as they still had a Major Linna to lead them.

Central Coordination Area

Island of Little Petersberg

Planet Coleson’s Orb

18 March 3052

John watched the sphere of the Orb DropShip push itself from the cracked landing pad concrete on four pillars of flame and rise slowly into the late afternoon sky. There, he commented to himself, went his ride. With a little luck it would also serve as his ride home rather than the Clan DropShip he expected to deliver Star Captain Gallagher any minute now. He played his torso back and forth to get a good view of the area around him. He had pulled archived pictures of the island to try to get a feel for the place but the flat-image digital shots had failed to do justice to the riot of colors and plantlife that teemed just outside the concrete apron of the old coordination complex.

The surrounding ‘woods’ were closer to what John would call a ‘tropical forest’. Applying the term ‘jungle’ didn’t feel quit right as the predominate tree of the island was unlike anything he had seen in either of the two jungles John was familiar with. They somewhat resembled a cross between bamboo and palm trees. Except they were as tall as the Fir and Pine trees of his home though not nearly as large as the old growth Redwoods carefully tended in the national parks of Suomi. The ones he could see ranged upwards of 35 meters tall with a girth he estimated at two to three meters. He’d have to try pushing one over before the duel started. If they had a deep root structure then trying to run through a tight group of them might prove hazardous- even for a 55 ton BattleMech.

Each tree had a bloom of large palm-like leaves topping it to resemble a bushy shrubbery on a pole. Long tendrils cascaded down from the upper reaches that would help obscure line of sight but would not impede anything from brushing through them. The file he read said that a coconut type seed-fruit grew on them but no one bothered to harvest these because of the radiation taint. From the size of the trees and abundance of smaller flowered shrubs below it appeared that nature had designed plants immune to the continual radiation bombardment on this island. Perhaps he should take a few samples back home for testing to see if they could survive in any of the poisoned lands of Sampsa.

A touch of regret for the damage they were about to inflict upon these grand trees drifted through him. But after today it was likely that nature would get many years to repair what they were about to destroy. John couldn’t see anyone bothering to push the Clans off this little world for a long, long time.

As he went through his tenth systems check since he’d boarded the DropShip for the trip here his mind started chipping at the same questions he had told himself to shelve only twenty minutes earlier. Had ego or pride lurked beneath his quick acceptance of the Star Captain’s offer of battle? Was he trying to prove something to himself or his people? Guilt over standing around while Jason and Naoko got bombarded by a Clan missile-boat ‘Mech? Well, he’d almost paid for the standing around part sure enough. What in God’s name had he thinking to just smugly stand there while a large pulse laser was being waved around at his cockpit? The fact that the Nova Cat had played by the Clan book all of the engagement up to that point had lulled him into a false sense of security. But a big part of command was reading people and his sense was that their Star Captain was true-blue to her own honor code. There would be no such tricks from her.

He had better be right. And she better have a strong hold on her troops. The little gleam in Gracie’s eye back in his cabin told him that at least some of his people would be trying something to retrieve or avenge him should he lose this fracas. The thought both warmed him for their willingness to take great risk for him personally and chilled him to know that in some circumstances his core officers were more than willing to ignore his orders. Extreme circumstance perhaps – but willing to disobey none-the-less. He’d have to see what he could do about that situation in the long run. Yet perhaps at some point personal convictions would always override orders. Maybe that was even for the best. If the Star League troops had decided to disobey orders and not nuke a backwater colony world whose primary export was wood furniture during the Reunification War in 2579 then there would be one third more of Sampsa habitable today. And if the Nova Cats had a notion to avenge their Star Captain’s loss here today there would be little that his Warders could do about it other than go down fighting. He had to win without killing her if at all possible.

His lips ghosted a smile as he realized the irony in his meandering train of thought. His troops or the Star Captain’s troops disobeying orders they disliked was bad. Naoko or the ancient Star League troops disobeying theirs was good. He was going to have to do some more thinking and become a bit more precise in his beliefs on this matter. But not right now. The radar portion of his newly installed sensor suite was getting fuzzy returns but the interference was not great enough to mask the huge signature presented by the Overlord class Clan DropShip rumbling toward him low across the horizon.

To watch one of the wingless DropShips performing atmospheric maneuvers on raw engine power alone always impressed John. A part of him had always wondered why the universe had shifted to fighting with it’s machines on planetary surfaces rather than above them. Even when you win the battle the surrounding countryside is usually a co-loser with the defeated enemy. Maybe it was a psychological thing. Maybe it was easier to get people to fight when they could see and be part of what they were fighting over.

Then again, mankind hadn’t had too much difficulty finding warriors willing to fight and die over it’s history. So it was probably something else that had pushed AeroSpace assets into a secondary role.

He moved the Camelot up to the top of the nearest ridgeline so that he would be able to see the Star Captain when she touched down but would hopefully be far enough away that she couldn’t spot his newly mounted weapon. He hoped it would prove a tactical surprise at some point. The Clan DropShip hovered some thirty meters above the landing pad and a green and tan OmniMech rode it’s jumpjets down to the surface in a solid display of piloting skill. What he should infer from the little bit of bravado John wasn’t sure. The ‘Mech had a distinct silhouette and his eyes identified it a split second before his onboard warbook did. A bit of John’s confidence drained at the sight of it.

It was a Clan Black Hawk. The body was slung low from high hips with a forward cockpit riding the front top of a torso section that stuck out like a jet’s nose. It looked similar to the IS Bushwackers John liked to employ in his unit. This particular Black Hawk was a 50 ton piece of Clan-tech that was going to be looking to blow his legs out from under him within fifteen minutes. He had really been hoping that she would concede him a greater mass advantage than just five tons. While it was true that the Clan ‘Mech used neither endo steel or ferro-fibrous armor, the Black Hawk mounted more firepower than John’s Camelot. The base configuration mounted an incredible twelve ER medium lasers. Of course firing more than six at once courted shutdown, but the Black Hawk could lay down a withering continuous barrage of laserfire by carefully cycling through them in groups of three or four to keep heat down while avoiding lost target opportunities to recharging cycles. Some configurations mounted the powerful Clan ER particle projection cannon. As the weapons went into an armored housing on the arms John could not tell from this range what weapons it mounted. He’d have to wait until she started shooting at him to know what he faced.

On the maneuvering front they’d be fairly equally matched. His was slightly faster on foot while hers had a slightly better jumping range. He’d need to use his EMC gear and the natural terrain to advantage to put some good hits on her before finally closing. Once they engaged at closer ranges that would likely be the end of the fight. Barring an unusual terrain feature such as a large drop off, disengaging from a determined opponent without cover fire from a lancemate was not a realistic possibility. He flicked on his comm gear to the agreed upon common frequency.

"Welcome to Little Petersberg Star Captain."

"I show twelve minutes and thirty seconds before engagement," came her business like reply.

"Twelve-thirty, marked," he responded in like tone as he shifted mental gears.

"Do you wish to make our starting points the middle of our halves?" she asked.

"No, I figure that four clicks back from the midline is good enough."

"Aff, agreed. I look forward to this contest."

"Then I won’t disappoint. Linna out." Within a few moments she had disappeared behind a hill that blocked his radar while her electromagnetic emanations were effectively masked by the deposits surrounding her. The red dot representing her position grew into a circle to show uncertain contact in the area then left his screen entirely. He knew that the same would be occurring on her threat display as well.

Star Commander Lauren Gallagher glanced at the timer running down numbers, peered out of her canopy for all of 20 seconds, then started the Nova down the old access road she had predetermined to use to reach her desired starting location. The Nova wasn’t a particularly fast ‘Mech. In fact, the 70 ton Summoner she usually piloted had the same speed and jump characteristics. For the quick knife fight of a ‘Mech battle she was expecting however, the quicker reacting Nova with it’s bundle of lasers was a more suitable choice.

Still, she felt somewhat…less…as a warrior for having brought Helen’s Nova to meet the Spheroid Major. In a single combat such as this even a newly minted Clan warrior should be able to defeat an Inner Sphere rival while accepting upwards of a fifteen or twenty ton disadvantage. Her caution over this trial had won out over flashy battle plans however. The degenerating effect of the landscape on her sensors was even worse than predicted and the Warder ‘Mechs were known to mount advanced equipment such as double heat sinks, extended range PPCs and on the Major’s unknown ‘Mech even ECM gear. The terrain of the island worked against the speed advantage of a light quick ‘Mech as well. When she finally hunted down this Major Linna she wanted as much armor and firepower as she could reasonably have for the short and telling melee that would ensue.

The Nova was no longer in it’s most common configuration. Nor was it in one of the lesser common ones. For this combat Lauren had ordered a blend of the primary and alternate A configs with a slight twist. This was the big advantage of OmniMechs; their flexibility. Almost all Clan weapons were made within housings that were always the same for that weapon type. Extra equipment such as additional heat sinks were also modular in design. It was an easy and straight forward matter to place whatever weapons fit within the given space into any OmniMech. Thus she had been able to have this one mount a ER PPC rather than the lasers in the right arm and pull an extra heat sink that commonly rode within the right torso for an active probe system to better sniff out her prey.

While she might expect a short ranged fight, Lauren would be prepared for a longer ranged exchange as well. She was a little reluctant to resort to the particle cannon as a single head hit could melt the entire cockpit and destroy her prize. But she would hate to lose even more; thus she had resolved to pull that trigger if tactics called for it.

The unknown ‘Mech that she had dubbed a "Wraith" until she could learn the Spheroid designation quickly disappeared from her scopes. She tried messing with the gain and frequency settings but all she got for her efforts were a bunch of false contacts. Backing off to the settings the techs had first entered she saw that she had reached the specified distance and stopped her ‘Mech. Turning it in place she studied the map display and worked at guessing where the Major would elect to hide his ‘Mech. They had previously agreed to using the middle third of the island as the combat zone to ensure that they could find each other within a reasonable amount of time. That made a position around the open bowl of the central processing facility the most likely ambush location in her mind. Thus that is where she would go look first.

John loped into the central processing area with his radar on full active to get an idea of what sort of return would be produced. He was surprised to have an active radar contact up on a steep hillside that either wasn’t powered up or was powered down enough that the ambient interference was masking the engine emissions. Whatever it was didn’t generate much of a thermal signature either. Warily he edged around the main building, using it for cover as he swept around closer to the contact for a better look. Whatever it was stayed stubbornly hidden by the trees. He saw that he still had six minutes left. Well, if it was a trap of some sort he might as well flush it out now. He broke into a trot on an angled course that would make him a more difficult target while tracking his weapons up the hillside. As he got behind the large ore crushing plant a new contact suddenly popped up immediately to his left rear, very close to the building.

Although the Camelot was equipped with the full 360 degree digital imaging system with the compression software to project a "wrap" view above his actual viewport he rarely used the system. He usually found the digital map with enhanced contact information fed from other sources to be a better way to "see" what was behind him. Today however, he was using it for the first time in quite a while. His was programmed to show an image from the front edges 45 degrees to either front side and all the way behind, giving a slightly compressed "rear view mirror" effect. Thus by looking above his main view and HUD he could see what menaced him from his left rear. It was a large orange ore-hauler.

His tension fled as he realized that the abandoned boxy vehicles were his radar blips. In most environments the combat computer would have interpreted emission and heat information to provide some form of ID but here that was not possible. A plan flashed into his mind and he quickly moved over and gave the truck an experimental shove. It moved, so he pushed it all the way against the wall to damp it’s return then made for the one hidden in the trees. That one had to be on an access rode that wasn’t on his old maps.

Although he was quickly running out of time he carefully pushed his way up the hill through the trees. He thought of jumping for the presumed road but nixed that idea to avoid potentially starting a fire. With only around 45 second left he broke through onto the dirt road and spotted the expected derelict giant truck. Taking careful aim he fired a laser into the box carrier section several times until he saw that there was a good sized pool of slag dripping down the rear. He was into positive engagement time now so he only had maybe five minutes before she might arrive. He spun and ran down the road until he was behind a different hill then crashed his way up to the ridge line near the bowl. While shutting down his active scanning systems he fired up the ECM gear and planned his escape route. His reactor he left at full power. Between the background radiation and the ECM she would not know exactly where in the area he was until he got his first shots off.

He would need to actually take several steps forward to see through the trees before him. But this screened him from visual observation and he planned for his little ‘secret weapon’ to tell him what he needed to know. He settled back and flicked on a display panel to his right side that he rarely had use for but was banking heavily on for this battle. The seismic sensors were useless when moving and generally poor to terrible as a targeting sensor. What they were very good for was letting you know when a multi-ton ‘Mech was stomping around the area while you hid your multi-ton machine behind something very tall. Like a hill full of trees. The best of such sensors would even provide fairly accurate range and bearing on multiple moving targets. John not only had top-of-the-line seismic sensors, he only had one target to track on the entire island.

Lauren moved up the main road toward the processing plant at her maximum walk speed while keeping a careful eye on both her enhanced sensors and the view outside. The active probe was proving to be even more confused than her regular ones by the ores about this island and kept reporting hidden Elementals to her. She really hadn’t expected it to sniff out his hidden ‘Mech and paint a picture of him on her radar scope. What she was hoping it would do occurred as she neared the plant area close enough to visually identify the large central building. His ECM gear was broadcasting across a large set of emission bands including those usually used by specialized sensors such as missile tracking radar. The higher band tracking radar operated above the general interference and would be detected by her probe. Her extra sensor gear couldn’t tell her where he was but it would know when he was in the general area when his ECM was active.

With moderate surprise she realized that a faint radar contact was blipping on then off her display as the computer tried to decide if it had really found something. Warily she drifted to the right of the plant, keeping an eye on it in case her opponent should suddenly charge from behind it while searching the hillside that seemed to be hiding a radar return. His ECM should distort a normal band contact but at close range in a bowl like this she could conceivably pick something up. On a hunch she switched to infrared and could detect the faintest of heat sources behind a stand of trees on the thickly forested hill.

Lauren smiled to herself at his placement. It was a good choice. If she elected to wander past the plant or stop to explore around it he had a good line of fire in decent range for his PPC while if she followed the road off to the far right toward the seafront then he’d get a longer ranged shot at her rear armor. In a single challenge such as this if you could outmaneuver your enemy for such an advantage then rear shots were fair game. Both combatants knew that the other was lurking about looking for the best chance to score a kill. The question now was what to do about it. When the high energy, narrow cone ranging radar was in use for targeting an enemy could usually detect it. Thus for now she targeted by visual only, although she’d try the infrared enhancement as well. She’d already tried Magscan on the way here and all she got was multicolored snow.

To try to circle around a different way invited him to move someplace else. Keeping a steady walking pace she angled toward one of the other hills and paced the istance down to a solid mid ranged shot for her ER medium lasers. Each step was deliciously agonizing as she wondered if he would break cover and fire before she dropped her act of ignorance and fired herself. It was she who fired first as she placed her targeting cross over the digital circle painted by her HUD over some trees. She paused her steps and quickly centered the crosses on the faint heat signature she was reading and fired four of her lasers. Her aim proved excellent as she watched the emerald shafts sliced through the trees and raise a mist of vaporized metal. A warning light started blinking as a high band targeting radar alerted her sensors. On a crowded battlefield that light was almost constantly blinking and generally ignored. But here it could only mean one thing. She reacted immediately, side stepping for lateral movement to make herself a more difficult target but the return fire came not from behind the now burning trees but rather from farther to her right off an entirely different hill.

The blue-white lightning of a PPC bolt caught her right arm while armor was burnt off of her right leg and torso by laser hits. A flash of green in front of her viewport told her that a laser had missed in front of her. The impact on her arm levered the torso to the left which she managed to counteract by dipping the right rear of the Nova to let gravity act on mass to arrest momentum. Stepping back in a quarter circle in the same direction of her dip she saw movement on the ridgeline through the side canopy but was unable to bring any weapons to bear before her attacker slipped back behind the hill. Though confused and curious about what she had just burned with her lasers Lauren knew that she couldn’t stay in this open bowl. She broke the Nova into a run, bringing it around to her right and headed for the road toward the sea.

As she approached the V cut through the hill for the road two new radar contacts jumped onto her scope. Ignoring them as false targets she crested the passage and suddenly knew what she had just blasted. Parked in a little clearing next to a small building were two huge soil pushing machines, each of which had enough size for a decent radar return. Apparently she had just cagily blasted a stravag truck or bulldozer or somesuch. The Major had been more crafty than she had suspected. The torso and leg hits were minor but she’d lost over half the armor on her PPC arm. Had that been a Clan machine up there the damage would have been far worse.

"First blood is yours," she conceded over the open comm. "I will draw final blood though." She was somewhat disappointed when he failed to respond to her call but shrugged it off and concentrated on her next move.

John would have been tempted to answer her had he not been fully absorbed with keeping his ‘Mech on it’s feet as he half slid, half walked down a steep embankment of lose rock and soil. Once he finally gained the dirt road he had been angling for the comm line had been quiet for almost a minute and it seemed to him that the time to comment had past.

He was feeling pretty good about things at the moment. He might even change his original game plan. If he could string together enough strikes like that he might not need to charge in for a final trade of fire to finish her off. The seismic sensors had worked like a charm. With nothing else banging around or blowing up he’d even been able to use the external microphones to hear her walking along the ground and fire her lasers. Because of the range he’d held off on the pulse laser and missed with one of his medium ones. But that still left three unanswered hits. He’d dropped back and froze long enough to discover that she was charging toward the sea, presumably on the main road. He’d already killed his ECM on the off chance she was carrying an active probe. As he raced down the dirt track in the direction she was heading at the moment he admitted to himself his little ambush had turned up one bit of chilling information. Star Captain Gallagher was a damn fine shot. She’d drilled that hidden truck but good.

His track ran uphill. Several minutes later he was standing near the top of a cliff that dropped down to a black sand beach which he would have found breathtaking had he not been engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse at the moment. From his current vantage point he could look down onto part of the sea access road where it cut through a steep gorge before dropping to the beach farther down. Now that he was standing still again the sensors mounted in his feet told him that the Black Hawk was moving up the road at a decent clip. Too fast for any sort of decent shot during the short time she’d flash across the sliver of roadway visible to him. He was mildly disappointed but it was really down on the beach that he wanted her anyway. About to turn away he stopped and took a closer look at the tall rock outcroppings that lined the far side of the narrow gorge. It was a low percentage attack but his ER PPC produced its own ammo in the form of high energy protons thus there was no worries about wasting munitions.

Lining up his targeting indicator he waited and waited…then fired. The energy bolt smashed into the base of a good sized rock column and threw up a rain of small rock bits but otherwise had no effect. Trying to drop a boulder on her had not been the most likely idea he had ever had but it had seemed worth a shot. He turned to face toward the ocean and fired his jets to lift him clear of the lip for descent. That was almost his last action of the battle. His computer informed him that he was being targeted just about the same time that his back armor registered hits. His ‘Mech started to rotate backwards as almost a ton of armor melted and ran down his left and center rear, shifting his center of balance in mid-jump.

Or at the top of his jump to be more precise. Acting more on instinct than conscious planning John was able to cant his leg mounted jumpjets forward to arrest his backspin while the torso mounted ones kept him from gaining too much downward momentum to safely arrest the fall. As it was he still landed hard and had to touch one hand down to steady the ‘Mech as he flexed the knees to absorb impact. Landing in sand helped as well. As quickly as he could he charged into the surf then angled along just inside the wash towards a set of large rock formations. Someplace around 90 meters above him a crack shot might start raining down energy on his head at any moment. He gained the safe haven of the rock formation without further incident however.

Lauren reached the cliff edge somewhat south of where the Spheroid had jumped off but could not see his ‘Mech. The way it had started to list backwards after she caught him with a laser or two had her half expecting to discover BattleMech parts strewn about by a harsh impact. Using her optics she zoomed in and could see where he had landed then moved into the surf by the marks on the otherwise pristine beach. Her first impulse was to follow him down but she hesitated. He had been in the process of jumping before she had fired on him; he hadn’t jumped as a last ditch recourse to avoid her fire. Thus he likely wanted her down on that beach for some reason. This had become more of a high stakes chess game than the quick and dirty brawl she had been expecting.

His attempt to drop a landslide on her had been quite audacious. The main question was by what technologic sorcery had the little surat known when to fire at the rocks? There had been no line of sight and between being hidden by the gorge and the interference of the radioactive ores she had to wonder at his timing. Had it been blind luck? A shot to get her attention that just happened to crash just above her Nova by chance? Then suddenly the answer hit her. Seismic Sensors. He must have a ‘Mech equipped with seismic sensors. Due to their aggressive fighting style Clan designers didn’t mount them to any but the smallest Omnis as such often serve scout roles. A Clan Star rarely stands still long enough to bother with seismic readings if it’s anywhere near a fight. And it’s assumed that if a warrior really wants them for some reason a set can be mounted to most Omnis with minimal fuss just like the active prove she was currently carrying.

If he was tracking her with such equipment then following him down onto that beach would be a poor tactical choice. Assuming that he was still water tight he could be submerged under that algae coated water right now waiting for her. She’s never spot him while he could track her footsteps along the beach then pop up and rake her rear quarter with everything he had. Or from behind some of those big rock formations. Wondering what the range on Inner Sphere seismic sensors might be she backed away from the edge and plotted a course toward the far end of the beach where the cliff shortened to a mere six meters. The best path required her to move back toward the center then arc back.

John soon determined that she wasn’t coming down after him and left his ambush spot. Staying on the hard packed sand along the surf he ran the Camelot down to a point that he had picked earlier as a good spot to jump back up from. He then crossed the loose sand and fired his jets to rise some forty meters back up and re-enter the forested hillsides. Somehow the Star Captain had reacted quickly enough to jump up out of the gorge, land, and snap off a shot at his back just as he started to drop out of sight. And hit him twice. Had he known she had fired before actually landing to chase after him he’d have been even more impressed. Reading the armor bars he saw that his now even his nine year old daughter could hull him from the rear with her slingshot and small stone. Now that he was back up topside he was picking up enough ground vibration to plot the Clanner’s general direction. Time to re-enter the hunt. Might as well let her know he was still in one piece.

"Round two to you Star Captain. My turn again."

"Neg. I think you are done with your turns. We are done playing with trucks and rocks Major. The next time we engage I shall finish this."

"You’ll have to find me first," he taunted.

"You cannot hide forever surat," she spat back.

Whoops. The moment he had uttered his retort he had regretted it but it was too late now. He’d been warned earlier by his Intel officer against trying to anger her with words and he would still need enough of her goodwill that she would honor their bargain when this was over. But it was too late now; better to let the conversation drop at this point. He kept any further comments to himself as he concentrated on moving his huge machine up through the broken terrain.

The area they had entered now was much rougher and held far less greenery. The lava flows had cooled long ago but from the series of sharp ridges and crevasses it seemed that some ancient volcano had spent it’s fury through a series of sideways venting blasts towards the sea. The jagged rock was difficult for the BattleMechs to traverse and both pilots had to resort to their jump jets to clear small areas that were too broken for a ‘Mechs large feet to settle on without being angled sharply enough to threaten ankle actuators. John had two brief sightings of the Black Hawk in which he snapped off an ER PPC shot at extreme range but neither attempt found it’s mark. For her part Lauren held her return fire as he always ducked back after firing and she wanted to hold her own ER PPC as a surprise.

After almost twenty minutes of the hide and snipe routine the sudden frenetic exchange they found themselves embroiled in surprised both MechWarriors. They had been working their way back toward the flora and more easily accessible ground of the central island when John had popped up onto a ledge to fire over a crevasse lip and found the Black Hawk much closer and farther to his left than he had expected. Standing only 120 meters away, also partially covered by lava formations, stood the Nova Cat Captain surveying the lavascape like a prairie dog overseeing it’s domain from a borrow. Though a 50 ton prairie dog with very dangerous fangs in this case. His first weapon to track on target was his Extended Range PPC which was just as capable blasting targets at close range as it was at long range. Enough energy to light up the homes of an entire neighborhood for a week spat from his chest mounted weapon and speared her central torso.

A shudder ran through the Nova as it absorbed the impact of the PPC strike. While noticeable, the damage was not of great concern as Lauren brought her laser bearing arm up and touched off four of the medium lasers mounted within. Iridescent green burned across the dark green paint of the Warder ‘Mech as armor plates were cut from the left arm in two places while the left and center torso each suffered a hit as well. She expected him to drop down but instead was treated to a light show as a pulse laser spat a hail of red at her Omni. Armor boiled and hissed as it was burnt from her already injured right torso.

Surprise jolted through her even as she brought her own PPC on target. She had stood mere meters away from his ‘Mech only this morning and it had not mounted any weapons where that pulse laser had just fired from. Concern over the implications of this new development occupied too much of her concentration and she fired right when her target lock turned positive- forgetting to cheat her aim upwards to account for his cover of lava rock. The mighty lance of bluish energy smashed and burned rock at knee level of the Warder ‘Mech rather than catching the legs themselves. Snarling epitaphs to herself she adjusted her aim and let lose with her remaining two lasers just as his three lasers flared to life.

Each ‘Mech suffered more laser burns, the Warder one taking hits to the right arm and torso this time while the Nova Cat machine took the same hits to the opposite side; losing armor on the left arm and torso. John’s third laser had missed. Both pilots were forced to lay off firing as each struggled with their balance to keep their ‘Mechs perched on the ledges as the energy weapons recharged. Lauren had the added burden of entering the command codes required to instruct her computer to over-ride the shutdown her excessive heat was trying to trigger. John’s ‘Mech had built more heat than it could shed as well. But having fewer weapons which fired at lower power levels the only ill effects he suffered was his own discomfort as the cockpit temperature swelled.

Lauren spared a quick glance at her measured heat levels and grimaced. Most BattleMechs – OmniMechs included- had a layered safety system regarding heat buildup. In her Nova the ammo explosion warning equipment was currently disabled as she carried only energy weapons. The hardwired reactor safety equipment was a compromise between letting a warrior push the performance envelope and protecting the expensive machine from either an unconscious pilot or one that was overly reckless. She had just over-rode the first of five levels. Heat Condition Two was only a few ticks of the scale away. Chances could run as high as 20 or 30 percent that the extra shunting and over-ride protocols would not be enough to stop a shutdown at HeatCon Two. She habitually left her thermal scanner on and it showed that the enemy Wraith was running far cooler than her ‘Mech at the moment.

Grinding her teeth in distaste she did what she knew was the soundest tactical move. She fell back. Firing off just two lasers before she dropped off her ledge she scored one more hit to his right torso. Two of his three lasers struck her before she fell below his line of sight, melting more armor from her left arm and torso. Backing away she covered the ridge line above her while keeping a sharp eye on her radar. It should give her a split second’s warning before he came soaring down into her crevasse. The ridge above was too narrow for a ‘Mech to perch upon so if he wanted her he’d have to come down inside. Belatedly she thought to turn on her external recording microphones. There was a good chance she’d be able to hear the roar of his jets when he jumped.

John watched the Black Hawk drop from sight in surprise. He had been considering doing the same himself after she had blasted a huge hole in the lava with her ER PPC. The Clan version hit almost 50% harder than his. He counted himself lucky that she had missed at such short range. Now he had to quickly decide if he should press his attack or fall back to try again elsewhere. The first reason he could think of for her to act as she did was to draw him into the close confines of her crevasse. Perhaps it had a deep fissure she hoped he might step in or good cover to shoot at him from while he was trapped with none. He fired his jets again but used them to move farther toward the center of the island rather than over to where she was. He’d try his luck at the central plant again.

Knowing he had a faster flank speed, once he was clear of the lava area and was sure she could not fire on his tattered back he pushed hard up a dirt road he had found until it ended near the plant. He slowed then, wanted to take a good look at the surrounding hills to see if any particular place presented itself more than another. It was just starting to grow dark now. This battle had taken far longer than either had expected. A glow behind the main building caught John’s attention and as he drew closer he could see that a good portion of the hill was aflame from the Star Captain’s earlier laser fire. He flipped on his infrared cameras to get an idea of the ambient temperature – then slapped an open palm against his neurohelmet. Luckily the sophisticated movement analyzers of the control systems recognized that he did not intend for his ‘Mech to duplicate the maneuver. He had just realized that she had probably retreated earlier not to set up an ambush but instead because she was overheating. He had flipped his HUD’s thermal projection off earlier to better see the lava flow while he had been picking his way through it.

Stopping to get a read from his seismic sensors he could tell that she was still a ways off but seemed to be coming in his direction. His mind clicked through several ideas quickly as he contemplated their relative strengths and weaknesses. He still had one last trick of advanced technology to employ and if he could survive her first strike she would be hampered by her own heat restrictions. His Camelot was balanced against it’s heat shedding capacity to run cool allowing him to repeatedly fire his full weapon load even with the extra medium pulse laser before shutdown would threaten. On the other hand she could pick him apart with her ER medium lasers if he gave her long enough to do so. So he would have to finish it moderately quickly.

He reached down and unclipped the rarely used oxygen mask he had asked to be rigged from a cradle low on his seat and fixed it into place over his face. Although BattleMechs had filters and forced air supplies to let a pilot operate within the armored cockpit in extreme locations up to and including outer space, John had been worried about relying too much on those. The rough welds around the plate slapped down in his cockpit ceiling had not been tested for air tightness. That was one of the reasons he had not tried to submerge in the ocean. Looking at the gleefully burning trees he wondered if they had some sort of sap or oil that was unusually combustible. Maybe he wouldn’t want these things on Sampsa after all. Giving the hills a few moments of careful study, he took aim and opened up carefully with his lasers.

Star Captain Lauren found she was able to follow her opponent’s ‘Mech by a very ancient method. She followed his footprints. Even from high inside her cockpit the scuffs and depressions left in the dirt road by a 55 ton machine were easily visible. Lauren did not follow too quickly however. Even if these tracks lead directly up to his next hiding place he would be able to shoot at her long before she realized the tracks ended. He had headed back to where they first made contact, meaning they had completed a circle to the seaward side of the processing plant. She would lose his tracks in the fading light soon unless she used her floodlights – which no warrior ever used except for parking. They gave you night blindness to everything not in the light and made you an inviting target. The dirt road inexplicably came to a dead end before the light was gone but she was convinced he would be around the central center waiting for her.

There was a curious glow coming over the hill ahead. She moved to her right until she linked up with the main roadway into the center then eased herself forward- and froze. The bowl of hills around the open flat was an inferno. Her saKhan’s strange prophesy to her came haunting back even as her comm carried the calm tones of the Spheroid Major.

"I usually see too little," the saKhan had said. "But this time I have seen perhaps too much. You shall perish by fire, MechWarrior Lauren, or perhaps in some way serve the fire. This I have seen. Make the best use of this vision that you can."

Those had been the words spoken to her just after she completed her Trial of Position. They had been etched in her mind at that moment. Now, staring into a ring of fire, they returned again full force.

"Say again Major," she was forced to reply. The voice from her past had drowned out whatever his comment had been.

His tone sounded slightly curious as he repeated himself. Perhaps her voice had not been as firm as she had meant.

"I said, close in and finish this if you think you can," he repeated.

The challenge had been laid out plainly. Come fight him around and perhaps within the processing plant. With the fires raging all around retreat would only be possible through two places; where the roadway entered the center and where it left for the sea. Using either would invite a likely fatal attack to the rear. She could either enter the ring or withdraw and wait until the fire burned down or the Major finally chose to come to her. He must have decided that he had gotten the better of their exchange on the lava bed after all. Ignoring the creeping fear that tried to grow within her she started forward into the clearing. A Clan warrior does not surrender to fear, and if she was to die today then so be it. An honorable death in combat was a good ending for a trueborn Nova Cat warrior. Almost 150 years ago a Nova Cat Khan had found herself surrounded by superior forces but her and her Star chose to stand to the last rather than submit to defeat. The famous quote of that leader she found herself using to answer his challenge.

"This is a good place for endings. Either to win, or to die."

John was troubled by his communications with the Star Captain. She seemed distracted and her tone sounded contemplative rather than belligerent. His plan required for her to close on him. He was lined up to use the main building for cover but rather than being next to it he was over a hundred meters back from it and using the looming structure to block line of sight. His ECM was on again so he was confident she could not pinpoint his exact location. If she had seismic sensors of her own so far she had failed to use them to any noticeable effect. Well, if he couldn’t talk her into action maybe a little direct persuasion might be effective. He slowly edged sideways until he spotted her and fired the ER PPC once again.

The shot was a little low, but on target enough to clip her left leg. She responded with only a pair of lasers and started to close quickly on his position as he stepped back out of the line of fire and urged his ‘Mech into a run that kept the building between them as he got closer to the fire. He’d taken a leg hit and arm hit on the right side. Her cumulative damage had stripped away all the effective protection from both his upper limbs but as his Camelot didn’t mount anything in the arms he didn’t worry too much about it. Still, he hoped to have at least one working arm when he finally closed with her. His torso and leg armor was holding and that was the most important requirement for his plan. He stopped long enough to get a reading on her location then plunged directly into the fire before him.

Lauren closed on the processing building with a wary eye on her heat gauge. The ambient heat of the surrounding fire was actually high enough to slightly affect the rate at which her heat sinks could cool her Omni. Guessing which direction he might travel behind the building was foolish as with his sensors he would know which way she decided to go and set himself up accordingly. Thus she took the most direct course, bearing to her left somewhat and was ready to fire along the back length of the building as she swung past the corner. But he was nowhere to be seen. Just another stravag orange truck. Her sensors were truly useless at this point as heat and smoke combined with the background radiation to confound them. Radar still worked on line of sight but he wasn’t anyplace within her current detection arcs. But she knew the main system was still working because she was getting a reading from the truck she had blasted up in the trees earlier. Also, her active probe reported the activity of an ECM system. That and a horde of Elementals and unarmored infantry scattered within the fire. So much for Clan technical superiority.

She paused uncertainly. Her best choice seemed to be to back away from the building to a distance from which she could cover both visible corners. That would mean getting closer to the fire though. He had to have circled around the other side by now.

Inside the smoky cockpit of the Camelot John had closed the blast shutters over the viewport . There wasn’t anything to see outside his ‘Mech but flames at the moment and staring into the intense fire had proven unsettling. He had gotten himself up to the dirt road he had discovered earlier and was hunching next to the badly abused ore carrier that had found itself lasered twice already today. He could actually hear the roar of the fire through the thick skin of his BattleMech. His double heat sinks were actually doing a good job of keeping his overall heat in check now that he wasn’t standing in active flames. Almost too good in fact. He planned to use the triple-strength myomer of the Camelot’s construction for a burst of speed and power that should combine with tactical surprise to let him close on her. Even though he was told that Clanners disliked melee combat between ‘Mechs, he might even try to get a few punches in if he could get close enough.

He’d monitored his heat buildup carefully on his trip up here. He had a careful balance to maintain. Too hot and his targeting systems would become impaired and he risked shutdown while too cool and he wouldn’t have the special myomer fibers hot enough to take advantage of the extra strength they could generate. The walk back through the flames would be insufficient to heat him enough unless he fired or turned off some of his sinks. That was an easy one to solve- pull the triggers. He kept his attention on the seismic readings and tried to ignore the stinging his eyes suffered from the smoke sneaking into his cabin. She had moved to a place that would suffice for his plan. It was time to take the plunge again.

The Star Captain watched both corners of the building. Her PPC was lined up on one and her lasers lined up on the other. She’d tried the microphone again for a clue to his location but the dull roar of the surrounding fire made the mic useless as well. Perhaps he truly was a Wraith, she mused. Disappearing and appearing at will. Movement caught her eye out the left side view port and she turned to look just as a monstrous flaming apparition crashed out of the trees trailing fire and throwing sparks. Her Nova rocked with several hits and she looked around wildly, unsure if she had been fired upon by the flaming demon charging her or if the Major had taken advantage of it’s appearance to attack her from elsewhere. She thought she saw something to one side and fired her PPC at it while she unloaded all her lasers at the flaming ‘Mech coming her way.

Stumbling her Omni backwards away from the oncoming menace she reacted to the shutdown warning automatically without fully realizing she was doing so. Frantically checking her displays she saw that her center hull was nearly breached and that the flaming giant closing on her had a radar return. In fact, the digital imaging and recognition computers had tentatively identified her attacker as the Wraith she had been battling for so long.

"Fire-Wraith," she whispered in correction to herself.

Looking more closely she could see that it was indeed the Major’s BattleMech trailing burning tendrils and almost on top of her. Her targeting radar system had a firm contact now. He was closing as if shot from a cannon at a speed higher than what had been logged as his best flank speed. She had no idea what that might mean – she just knew she had to stop him. She lined up everything she had and hit the alpha strike trigger just as the flaming figure erupted in weapon’s fire aimed at her.

The exchange was part Wagnerian epic and part Dante’s Inferno. Surrounded by smoke and flames two giants exchanged spear strikes of red, green, and cobalt. Sparks and burning embers drifted on the thick smoke swirling between them as each great machine added sparks and flashes of their own from the wounds burnt into them. The Fire Giant was spun sideways and crashed down while the other staggered back and managed to keep it’s feet only to slowly slump forward until it’s nose was pointed toward the ground while it settled into a squatting position.

Coughing and gulping oxygen from his facemask, John blinked his eyes to clear the tears from the smoke while his computer’s synthesized voice automatically listed off the damage starting with the top priority systems then moving to offline weapons before running down the preprogrammed priority list.

"Reactor on line and fully functional. Heat Sinks all operational."

As the running list sounded off John checked the visual displays to see if he still had all his limbs. The right arm had suffered severe damage and lost the elbow actuator. Using the left arm as much as possible he levered his ‘Mech into a position from which he could see the Black Hawk.

"Life Support functional. New Weapon Destroyed." No one had updated the program with the actual term ‘pulse laser’.

Even as near to the fire as the Black Hawk was, his infrared systems could still read the intense heat radiating from the Clan OmniMech. There was an extreme hotspot behind and above it’s cockpit where the power plant rode in the center torso. A breach and engine hit he thought, contributing to her overheating problem. It also looked like his PPC had scored just under the cockpit to the left side as not only had the armor been melted away but the cockpit frame had been buckled and bent in by the force of the strike. The clear armored canopy looked intact however. He didn’t see any lights or movement within.

"Computer," he ordered out loud, "Stop verbal report."

He could read the displays quicker and he already knew the two most important things- he could move and he could shoot. Clamoring unsteadily to his feet he looked over his opponent closely to determine if it was still a threat. The damage he had caused to it had been fairly evenly spread around. Armor was blasted and melted from all portions he could see and it looked like it’s PPC arm was hanging at a funny angle indicating some internal damage. Both the right and center torso had been fully holed. In the firelight he could see the greenish-yellow of coolant draining steadily from the right side and smoke puffing from the center. The part of the cockpit that actually held the pilot looked intact but he had scored just beneath it, likely taking out a related system or two. Overall it was probably capable of limited activity. The pilot within must be incapacitated – or worse.

His own damage was moderate but would have been dangerous had any more opponents been about. His centerline torso was exposed and had suffered internal damage. Ironically, the ECM suite packed there for maximum protection had been totally destroyed. His right torso had been laid open and taken light internal damage as well. The ER PPC mounted there was still on line but the two Sergeants’ handiwork had been slagged. It looked like he owed Third Platoon a new perimeter defense turret as well as his thanks. The right arm was a total mess. But it could be rebuilt and luckily he didn’t mount anything important in it. Leg armor on both legs was down more than 50 percent and his left arm was functionally armorless but was operating fully. The right torso had some armor loss while – he noted happily – his cockpit showed mean and green this trip. With a startled gulp he realized that he had somehow managed to loose the last good section of his rear armor. It must have happened when he crashed onto his back after losing control under the Star Captain’s withering attack.

Speaking of which…he moved the Camelot to the Black Hawk’s side where it couldn’t easily threaten him should it spring to life and keyed the comm line. "Star Captain? Can you respond?"

There was no response. He shined a working spotlight into her cockpit but she didn’t respond to that either. Well, the Omni looked top heavy the way the torso hung from the between the tall hip-pivots. He moved behind it, carefully took hold, then stepped back and pulled. He was able to rock it backwards over it’s "heals" and carefully lay it on it’s back. Then he shifted position and grabbed a shoulder and leg then rolled it onto it’s side. The torso/cockpit section pivoted sideways until the nose touched the ground. Now he could get to the cockpit fairly easily.

"If you can hear me Star Captain, I’m about to climb down to pull you from the cockpit."

There was no sign that she had heard. He hadn’t expected any. Checking the ambient temperature he frowned but it wasn’t hot enough yet to make him change his mind about going after the Star Captain. Although her Black Hawk wasn’t in danger of being consumed by the fire around them, breathable air was a different issue. John had actually twice used ‘Mechs to help fight forest fires and he knew that with the ring of fire around them the air could easily become too foul to breathe. With her ‘Mech off line she only had whatever air was trapped in her cockpit as her scrubbers wouldn’t have power. He quickly made his preparations. The air-mask he separated from his neurohelmet and switched from the ‘Mech supply to a small portable bottle from the emergency stores. He also grabbed a small tool kit and a pair of sturdy gloves from the storage bin. Slipping into the lift harness he popped his hatchway and attached the lift-line.

As his cockpit had already been sweltering inside, there wasn’t that much of a difference to face outside. He lowered himself down with the electric wench and jogged the short distance to her cockpit. Hoping that Clanners weren’t so paranoid they disabled the emergency rescue controls he twisted the yellow handle then jerked it back. He had expected the hatch door to pop loose but instead the entire canopy bumped up and came free. Tilted down like it was, the armored material fell down and away from the framework. Her helmet was knocked a glancing blow but deflection bars high on the seatback forced the canopy up and over her head. Wincing at the touch of the heated metal he pulled himself within, thankful that he had tipped the undamaged side down by happenstance. The other side was all live wires and jagged metal.

His arms felt like rubber but he managed hoist himself up and catch his leg over the sill. An awkward embrace ensued as he had to bodily prop her in place while fumbling with the harness releases then unlock and discard her neurohelmet. He couldn’t find any obvious wounds but she was unconscious. Her breathing was shallow but her pulse strong. The next phase was going to be a little rough but he didn’t see any alternatives. Securing his legs to hold himself in place he let gravity pull her from the seat and wound up lowering her as far as he could by the arms before having to release her. Her butt was almost on the ground but her torso had to fall the rest of the distance. He tried to slide her down the outside shell but he heard a definite clunk that was probably her head knocking against the outside armor. He lowered himself down with aching arms then dragged her over to his ‘Mech.

Now came the hardest part. He had to bodily carry her up to his cockpit then stuff her limp form through the hatch. Most pilots would be sending a silent prayer of thanks to whatever nameless member of the design team had seen fit to install a lift system capable of simultaneously hauling two people in his position. Not John though because he knew who had designated the lift specs – himself. He sat down, got her sitting with her back against his chest, then wrapped his arms around her torso and keyed the remote he held in one hand. The winch smoothly pulled them up to the hatch – but slowly enough that John swore to himself that the next upgrade was going to be a faster winch. He was tired and battered with the adrenaline of the final showdown already starting to wear off. It was a close thing and he almost dropped her to what would certainly be serious injury; but he managed to wrestle her into his cockpit and into the jump seat. During that time he thought he heard her murmur something but he wasn’t sure.

He’d thought she’d said "fire" something just before unloading on him but had failed to catch that either.

John hadn’t been thinking about it when he pulled her free but now he realized that he hadn’t bothered to pull off her cooling vest. With a jolt of surprise he discovered that the feed end of her cooling lines were the same as standard IS ones. So he plugged her vest into the cooling system and switched the breathing mask from himself to her. Feeling her forehead with his hand he thought he knew what had happened to her. Her life support systems must have gotten fried with the cockpit hit. Between the heat from her weapons and the extra heat from the damaged engine she had nearly been boiled to death. Coughing from the smoke he squeezed into his seat and soon had the Camelot striding down the roadway back towards the landing area. He switched his comm to the designated channel.

"This is Major Linna. I have defeated the Nova Cat Black Hawk and am currently bringing the Star Captain to the landing area for medical treatment."

Cheering could be heard in the background as Captain Wood’s voice replied. "Understood Sir. We’re lifting as I speak. Congratulations."

A moment later a more subdued voice unknown to John replied that they would send someone for the Star Captain.

Star Captain Lauren drifted back towards consciousness as the cooling vest lowered the temperature of her body core. She became aware of the rocking motion caused by riding within a moving ‘Mech. Her mind conjured the image of the flaming ‘Mech charging at her, of her weapons playing true across it’s body as it spun and fell, then struggling to keep her’s upright as she tried to fire again and again until it seemed that the heat of the surrounding flames had burned the life out of her. The world had faded to black. Her arms and feet began to reach for controls that where not there as her befuddle mind tried to understand why the canopy had been replaced with a blank wall and the displays panels removed from around her.

"Sounds like someone’s awake again back there," said a voice.

Her thoughts and senses began to sharpen and notice things. Such as she no longer wore a neurohelmet.

"Aff. Who are you and where am I?" she demanded.

Was that actually her voice she asked herself? It sounded so weak, so tired.

"Try to relax Star Captain. It will take a few minutes to get your bearings again. It’s me, Major Linna. You’re inside my ‘Mech and we’re almost at the dust off."

More of reality clicked into place as she realized she must be riding backwards in some sort of auxiliary seat. Thus the lack of controls or displays. "The Fire Wraith." she breathed to herself.

Apparently she had spoken loud enough for him to hear as he asked, "Fire Wraith?"

"It is the name I attached to your BattleMech." She felt too worn out to explain how it had been simply Wraith at first.

There was a chuckle behind her. "Hey, I like that better than it’s real name. We call it a Camelot. But I might talk to Marketing about changing it."

"I do not know anyone named Marketing," she replied dully with little interest. It was just settling within her that she had lost her battle with the Spheroid officer. She imagined that she should feel more angry but right now she felt too tired to pull forth the energy.

He laughed at her answer for some reason but must have decided to let the subject drop as well. For a while they rode on in silence once again. She spent the time searching her memory of the final minutes and trying to put together a picture of what had happened. Excess heat must have rendered her unconscious. She remembered the first warning, going to HeatCon Two and the flicker of warning on her boards about a hull breach while she was busy fighting to adjust and keep the Nova on it’s feet. Just as she had succeeded and begun to work on the other problems such as the HeatCon three warning she must have had blacked out. Obviously he had left his cockpit to retrieve her from hers.

"Why did you pull me from my ‘Mech?" There, that was better. Her voice was becoming stronger now.

"Several reasons. Maybe most would not mean much to you. But mainly because we have a deal Star Captain. I wanted to make sure you were still around to honor it."

She bristled at the implication that her command would possibly reneg on the arrangement. Honor would require them to let the freebirth population of this planet leave as desired. This Linna couldn’t be Clan if he believed otherwise.

"My death would not have made any difference," she spat. Now she found the energy to be angry. "Clan Nova Cat always acts with honor."

"Tell that to my last sensor suite," came the calm retort. "And a death always makes a difference."

That took some of the fire from her anger. Not the philosophical gibberish at the end but the reminder of her own warrior’s dezgra act this morning. She had to admit to herself that he had reason to be cautious. It was time to try to calm herself. Warriors lost Trials of Refusal all the time. Most lived to fight another day. She would too. Her path would be difficult now but it was not in her nature to give up.

They did not speak again until just before she winched herself down from his cockpit. They were standing at the open hatchway, pressed close together when she impulsively remarked on a trivial matter.

"You look very much like a warrior I once fought," she noted to him.

The sudden interest and intensity that lit his face surprised her. "Male or female?" he asked.

"Male. A MechWarrior of another Clan," she shrugged. Dead opponents held little interest to her.

The interest immediately faded from his face. "Couldn’t have been anyone related to me then. With my parent’s dead all I have left are my brother and sister and I can assure you that neither is a Clan warrior."

Such casual mention of direct family relationships prompted a sour lump at the back of her throat. He had fought well and bested her, but he must still be freebirth. Then again, the thought of a freebirth defeating her was difficult to credit.

"You were ..born…in the Inner Sphere Quiaff?" The question was distasteful but it had to be asked.

He looked at her curiously. "Yes. And my family before that, and so forth all the back to the early days of Terra."

A bitter laugh escaped her then at her own folly. He seemed about to ask her something but she spoke first.

"Do you believe in coincidence Major?"

From the look on his face it was obvious that he had no idea what this conversation was about. But he shrugged and answered. "Sure. Happens all the time. Somebody in your unit has the same birthday as you or an aunt from the same place. You’re thinking of someone and then they comm you. A rival brings a similar product to market just before you do. A friend you haven’t seen in ages bumps into you at a mall. Life can take some pretty weird twists."

She couldn’t help but grin and shake her head at the flight of imagination that had prompted all of this. Many of the concepts he had just mentioned were alien to her but she understood his gist and he was right. Strange arrangements of facts did occur without reason. This man might be a skilled warrior but he was no Clan agent. His small group of mercenaries was not some secret Clan project. Her own imagination had led her to this downfall. Both by instigating this contest and then by interfering with her judgement at the last.

"It seems that you Clanners have a sense of humor after all. Care to share the joke Star Captain?"

"The joke is myself Major. Silly things that I imagined. They would be insulting to you perhaps so I will keep them to myself. Farewell Major. As we retake Terra and reform the Star League I look forward to battling with you again."

"We will resist," he warned.

"That is as we would have it. I hope there are many warriors on your world with the spirit your unit has displayed. It will be a fine battle."

"We’ll try to make it worth your effort," he replied dryly. Sarcasm was rarely used among trueborn and she was ill equipped to recognize it.

"Aff, that is good." She leaned back out the hatch against the line.

"Hey, before you go. Yesterday you said a ‘Star of Warders’ was ironic. What did you mean?"

She shrugged to herself. There seemed no reason not to explain. "The faction with the Clans that would prefer not to invade at this time are called the Wardens. We, who recognize Kerensky’s true legacy are the Crusaders."

He absorbed that and made the obvious connection. "There you go, another coincident. Fare well Star Captain."

Yes, another coincident. She elected to keep the irony of that fact to herself. But she had one last question.

"At the processing facility. You purposely ran into the fire to deceive me, Quiaff?"

This time he shrugged. "Yes..or Aff. I did. I’ve run through fires before. I gambled that I could stay there long enough to get the drop on you."

Although she was not familiar with the specific term "drop on you", she understood. Purposely entering a fire was not a tactic she could recall having encountered before. It was quite daring.

"You are a most unusual freebirth I think," she decided out loud as she prepared to depart.

John just shrugged. "That’s the beauty of natural selection. With untold billions of us out there procreating random chance is going to produce a very large number of ‘unusual’ MechWarriors. Perhaps your methods have produced a fine strain of warriors but is ultimately an evolutionary dead end."

With a nod she keyed the small hand control and rode the lift line down to the pavement below. She was actually queasy from the thought of literally billions of freebirths all in the act of creating billions more of themselves. She had never really imagined the scope of it all before. As to evolution, the Science Cast’s job was to see that each generation of Clansmen was better than the last. Suggesting otherwise was heresy that could bring swift punishment.

But doubts nibbled at the edge of her thoughts. Could it really be said that the warriors of her sibko were measurably better than those of the ones before it or the one’s after? Did not the Remembrance speak of the greatest of warriors as having existed in the past? Why did some truebirths wash out of warrior training when fighting was what they had been genetically created to do? These were all questions that were too dangerous to pursue. A Clan warrior lived mostly in the ‘now’ for good reason.

As she stepped out of the harness she focused on the ‘now’ and mused that this lift line assembly was quite clever. Sure, it was mainly a creature comfort. One might expect the Spheroids to be good at creating such. Still, she could see the potential military use of lowering or raising injured pilots from cockpits. She would mention this to someone of the Merchant Caste for future design consideration. Stepping back and looking at the victor’s BattleMech she could see how close she had been to winning. Ignoring the cosmetic marks from having it’s paint burned off she could see several places where the armor was completed shredded and noted that the right arm was nearly severed. There was also dirt ground into it up high, indicating that her final salvo had been enough to knock it down. Had she not overheated and blacked out, it would have been her pulling him from the fire. And with a start, she realized that she would have actually done just that. She wondered if having such a feeling for his welfare should be cause for concern.

As he used a wall mounted control to reel the line and attached harness back up she put more distance between her and the ‘Mech. The Camelot, she corrected herself. She would update the databanks with the IS name for this unit but she knew that to her, it would always be the Fire Wraith. MechWarrior Helen, she found herself thinking, will probably spend much time trying to decide how this episode fit into Lauren’s fire prophesy. As for herself, Lauren figured she would be too busy planning and fighting Trails of Refusal to keep her rank to spend much time worrying about the saKhan’s predictions.

As John walked his ‘Mech carefully up the ramp into the waiting DropShip he took one last look at the proud Star Captain standing alone on the pad far to one side. He wasn’t sure what had been so fascinating about him to her, but he had sensed that somewhere during their short conversion most of it had been satisfied. He couldn’t help but wonder if that was a good thing or a bad thing. And her insistence that the Clans planned to take Terra and reform the Star League sent shivers down his spine. It was the Star League Regular Army that had sown destruction on his world. Although why she believed that simply taking Terra would somehow bring about a new Star League was unfathomable. Many things about her was curious. It made his head spin to consider the whole Clan invasion thing. These were supposedly the descendants of Kerensky’s lost army? It was mind boggling. He’d deal with it after he took care of family matters first. The number one question that had been preying on his mind was why hadn’t his sister contacted him if she was roaming freely about the Periphery. Answering that meant finally brushing off the last tangling threads of their Draconis Combine involvement. It was time to go home. Well, to go to Outreach anyway.

The first greeting of triumph he got over the comm upon entering the ‘Mech bay was from Sergeant Harding.

"What in the world did you do to that ‘Mech Sir? Run it back and forth through the forest fires a couple of times?"

The remaining battle tension fell away as John laughed heartily. Sampsa, Outreach – it didn’t matter. When he was with his people he was home. "As a matter of fact Chief – yes I did. Finally picked up a personal name for good old Camelot One here as well. When we get back Gracie’s Granny can shake hands with my Fire Wraith."

There was a brief pause as Harding considered the moniker then he was on the line again. "The Fire Wraith. I like it Sir. Slip the Fire Wraith into Niche One and we’ll lock her down. Great job and welcome back Major."

"Thanks Chief. It’s good to be home."

By the time the DropShip returned a full fledged party had spontaneously erupted across the landing field. The city’s denizens had produced tables, food, beverage, music and even gotten a giant bonfire going off to one side. The Warders were being treated to the hero’s welcome they had been denied on Hamano or after their first skirmish with the Nova Cats. Perimeter security was totally shot by all of the activity. Two troops of Suomi Youth Scouts armed with walking sticks could probably have captured the Baltic Serenade with little resistance. But John didn’t try to change anything once he had set down n the pad. If the Nova Cats wanted them, they had them. A few troopers on guard or a BattleMech walking the perimeter would make no difference. Only a fool swims against the flood and sometimes it was simply time to party.

Weary as he was he accepted his required role as guest of honor with grace and good humor. What he really wanted to do was go to his cabin and sleep, but he smiled and allowed himself be seated on an elevated platform that let him watch the festivities. It also served to keep too many people from trying to approach him for which he was grateful. His other officers had seats at the table as well, but most had returned to the crowd after first greeting and congratulating him on his win. Luckily Gracie refrained from delivering another rib cracking hug. Plenty of other local dignitaries pumped his hand and embraced him however.

A long line of mixed Warders and locals were dancing shoulder to shoulder in an unsteady sort of Cossack chorus line when John noticed GA Flanker of the CORDF approaching with several other local military types in tow. To his left Naoko and Osmo were engaged in conversation while the Doctor sat farther down keeping a hawk like eye on Cadet Nellson. Jason had been released from observation for the occasion but the Doctor had sternly warned him against any activities such as dancing. Naoko had been released from sickbay as well but there wasn’t any danger of her trying to dance. She was in a wheel chair designed to support the neck brace she wore. John didn’t feel much like dancing either. His body felt like someone had tied him up in a sack and rolled him down a steep embankment. Two or three times.

"General Administrator Lanker," John greeted the now ex-liaison officer as the man mounted the platform. "It’s good to see you. What can I do for you?"

He smiled. "These folks would like a quick word with you if they may Sir."

John had been on the planet long enough now to have familiarized himself with the CORDF ranks and MOS tabs. Four non-commissions officers, all equivalent to what Warder’s called Sergeants, were arrayed behind Lanker. One was a MechWarrior while the others represented the armor, infantry, and tech ranks.

"I haven’t had a chance yet to offer my condolences on your losses. Your men and women fought bravely," he told them solemnly. "What’s on your minds?" he invited.

A blond woman stepped forward. "MechWarrior Misty Rhodes Sir. I originally signed on here because I wanted to do some good for someone rather than just sign on with a mercenary outfit. I obviously failed to do much good here but your unit made me realize that I was hasty in my judgement concerning mercenaries. What I’m saying Sir that if you have any openings I would like to apply."

"A number of us feel that way Major Linna," Added the infantry sergeant. "Many of the home grown troops might stay but a number of us are professional soldiers that need a new home. I know our showing against the Nova Cats might cast doubts on us but we’d be honored if you would consider taking us on."

"We didn’t want to say anything earlier," added the Tanker, "because we didn’t want it to look like we were trying to sneak off the Orb hiding under Warder uniforms. But now that the Cats have announced anyone can leave we’d like to apply."

John was impressed by the willingness of the infantryman to group himself with the tankers and MechWarriors. He could have rightly claimed his troops never got the chance to prove themselves as they had not been deployed. That they all had been willing to accept the consequences of their loss rather than try to skip planet at first opportunity spoke well of them as well.

"Well, as it turns out I had already decided to expand the Warders so we definitely have openings. But I want you to spread the word to those considering applying. Anyone looking for vengeance against the Clans might as well go to Outreach and sign on with someone else. I have no doubt that the Warders will eventually face the Clans again – but we have prior commitments against pirates to deal with first. Plus refit and training time to undergo. It could easily be a few years before we cross swords with the Clans again and when that happens no one under my command better be on a personal vendetta. I’ll have Captain Woods set up a application center at 09:00 tomorrow for those that…"

A rousing chorus of "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey…Hey" from the dancers drowned him out and John looked down to where the revelry seemed to be picking up momentum. He smiled and continued.

"…Actually let’s make that more like fourteen hundred. This party looks like it’s going to run for quite a while. Go enjoy the party folks. I’m sure plenty of ex-CORDF troopers will be wearing Warder blue when we lift planet."

Happily they saluted and took their leave. Those that had others to report to went to relay the Major’s words. John happened to notice that MechWarrior Misty skirted the party, stood watching it for a few moments, then walked off alone toward the mostly deserted base. Osmo’s voice broke into his contemplation.

"We’re going to have to come up with a plan to deal with your rank system."

"What?" John called back above the din of those below.

"I said we will need a plan to deal with your MechWarrior ranks. Your tradition of only having officer grade personnel as pilots doesn’t dovetail with the common practice of using enlisted grades for the same thing through most of the ‘Sphere. When we build up that could be a problem."

John pursed his lips. Osmo had a point. Creating "Cadet" for Jason had been a spur of the moment act. The Warders, like many Free World militaries, had several layers of Lieutenant. Three grades in the Warder’s case. Most other Inner Sphere units had just one and used Sergeants, Corporals and often the title ‘MechWarrior’ itself as ranks to organize their BattleMech pilots.

"We’ll have to work something out. Maybe have Sergeant-Cadets or use Brevet ranks or something. I think it’s probably the least of our worries right now."

Osmo laughed. "Actually I think for a little while at least I’m going to officially have no worries."

"A sound strategy Captain. I approve," grinned John. He raised his beer mug. "For tonight I officially order it implemented. No Worries."

By some strange fluke of luck- an odd coincidence on a day that had been filled with them- the song had ended and just then a brief quiet had ensued as the dancers and revelers paused to catch their breath. Thus the Major’s voice had carried across the party loud enough to be heard by most. Gracie Aukland jumped from her place in the line of dancers up onto a nearby chair, snatching a drink from an observer’s hands on the way.

Raising it high her strong voice echoed John’s toast. "No Worries!"

The crowd roared it’s approval and took the toast as a cheer in a loud rumble.

"I think you just accidentally coined a new Warder phrase," Osmo gleefully told John once the noise had reduced to a level they could yell over.

He laughed ruefully. "I’m afraid you might be right." Looking off into the blackness beyond the lights around the party John wondered if someplace out there a Nova Cat Elemental watched from a hiding place to report on the strange doings of the locals. He hoped so. Hopefully such a report would confuse the hell out of them.

When the JumpShip Martha’s Pride finally returned twelve days later three DropShips were there to meet it. The smallest one, a heavily modified Intruder class late of the CORDF, had- after a quick contract buyout - become the first AeroSpace asset the Warders outright controlled in many years. It was carrying the newly recruited troops with their families and personal effects. The Baltic Serenade was stuffed full of the original Warders while the third carried most of the young children as well as some other Coleson’s Orb residents that were deemed the highest priority to get off the planet. It had not been a move taken lightly. John took his vow to see that the children were well cared for until arrangements could be made for their families to join them very seriously. He had issued a number of instructions to his people both on Outreach and back on Sampsa via the ComStar relay to get the ball rolling before their trio of DropShips arrived.

In the Serenade’s ‘Mech bay Chief Harding was carefully tending to two new children of his own. Two Clan pulse lasers that Sergeant Sammi and her hand picked rouges had liberated from the wreckage of the Clan Vulture. The Chief had made sure that no poor slob of a Clan crew chief was going to catch hell for losing two pulse lasers. Sammi had left two IC ones in their place. Admittedly, they had been melted practically beyond recognition with a laser. But if anyone did bother to account for destroyed weapons as well as working ones then the count would be true. Nobody, the Chief smiled to himself, would ever miss them.

Combine Consulate Compound


22 March 3052

Council Taki leaned back in his desk chair and let his eyes slowly loose focus as he gazed at the small Bonsai tree displayed on a small stand to his left. His primary duty on Outreach was to oversee Combine relations and contracts with the numerous mercenary forces of the Inner Sphere. With the Clan invasion carving up Combine space in large gulps he had been a very busy man of late. In fact, it had been quite a while since he had dealt with a non-Clan related issue. The latest communications delivered by ComStar had held such an issue among them. A very difficult one.

One Tai-sa Yamoto, acting Military Governor of the planet Hamano, was taking time out from his duties to travel here to Outreach to personally pursue a claim against the Suomi Warders and a Chu-i Fujiwara. This activity was actively supported by Warlord Vederman, who had further more ordered the Draconis Consul on Mercenary Affairs to relay all reports directly to his office rather than sending them to Luthien. This was to ensure that such a trivial matter as this did not get lost among the greater concerns of the Capitol of course. To further make sure the matter was properly attended, all communications regarding this matter were to be sent through Tai-shu’s Vederman’s office.

Sent the day after the message from the Tai-sa was one from an Emir of Hamano. Due to the complexities of the batched transmissions of interstellar communication, Emir Dahfar’s message had arrived with the same group of messages that held the Tai-sa’s and the Tai-shu’s. The Emir’s message painted a rather different picture. It was noteworthy that it had come addressed personally to him rather than through official channels. There would be no official record of the message in Council records.

Heiro Taki reached forward and flipped a switch to activate the office communications system.

"Ms. Jones? Please have Information Services prepare a report on a mercenary unit called the Suomi Warders for me. Late tomorrow afternoon will be fine. And I will also need the service record of Chu-i Naoko Fujiwara, currently of Tai-sa Yamoto’s command on Hamano. Send that request through Tai-shu Vederman’s headquarters. Also, contact Outreach AeroSpace Control and see if there is any word on the arrival of the Warders."

"Hai Taki-san," came the reply.

"Thank you Mai." Heiro closed the link. He would contact the Warders liaison office here himself. It was his job to be familiar with the mercenary companies and he found it difficult to believe that the training related Warders would wantonly break a contract as the Tai-sa claimed.

As always, he would perform his duty as required. He had hoped that the old ways of the Invisible Battles between the various Lords had ceased with the Clan invasion. Such squabbles had a way of blurring the requirements of giri. He pressed the control that raised the computer screen from his desk and pulled forward the keyboard. He would make a few discrete inquires from certain friends to see if he could more clearly understand this matter.

The Rold Building, 23rd floor

Planet Drayson, Free Worlds League

23 March 3052

Goering Schmidt opened the ornately carved doors and entered the office with precise moves. They closed silently behind him as he stepped up to the large mahogany desk and assumed a parade rest position. The old man seated behind the desk had been gazing out the wall length windows. Turning his powered wheel chair, he speared the visitor with a fierce glare.

"Hauptman Schmidt, so good of you to answer my call so quickly." Sarcasm dripped from the greeting.

Schmidt suppressed a heavy sigh. Whenever the Chairman stressed his rank like that it meant the conversation about to ensue would be one the mercenary leader was not going to enjoy.

"Chairman, a pleasure as always. I arrived as quickly as transportation could be arranged." His own tone was as carefully neutral as he could make it.

"I have been reading the after-action report from Hamano, Hauptman. It seems that your vaulted Blitzkrieg Company got it’s tail handed to it by a couple of tanks and some local rabble," accused the Chairman.

That old, bloated, fool thought Schmidt in disgust. What did the old spider know of military matters? No, he reminded himself. Maybe old and bloated and a spider but nobody’s fool. A hint of anger did manage to creep into the Hauptman’s voice though.

"With all due respect Chairman, the situation was more complex than that. The Warder tanks were supported by anti-‘Mech trained infantry as well as the BattleMechs that your associates failed to detain- much less destroy. They also managed to field two extra ‘Mechs from someplace. Additionally, may I remind the Chairman that we did not employ the entire company but only two lances."

"And may I remind the Hauptman that before I found you floundering about the Periphery with two rusting BattleMechs you were well on your way to starvation."

"And I have served you faithfully and usually successfully every since then Chairman," Schmidt reminded him.

The Chairman gave a little. "Yes, I suppose you have. And it is true that Malkite’s pirate bunch proved quite disappointing. We would have needed to eliminate them shortly in any case. Two of his smarter Mechwarriors were starting to ask too many questions. Still it rankles that after I arranged to take care of the DCMS forces we failed to even fire a shot at that factory and Major Linna continues to be a danger to me. At least you recovered all of your pilots. Having lost one could have proved disastrous."

"This Major Linna will be on Outreach soon if he is not there already. My Company is already there. I can take care of this problem for you if you wish Chairman."

The old man merely shook his head. "No, Hauptman Schmidt. I do not wish for your Company to become generally known at this time. Go to Outreach, gather your forces, and then take them to SandStar Station by the usual means. New equipment will have been arranged for you. I am sure we will have more suitable missions for you within a few months."

"Yes Chairman. I will leave immediately."

Schmidt clicked his heels and took his leave from the Chairman. Goering had expected a rougher time of it from the Chairman after the humbling defeat they had suffered at the Warders’ hands. Had he actually been there he could have salvaged the situation but it had probably been for the best his second had cut their losses and bugged out. The Chairman must have a budding hostile takeover or such other promising sport underway to have been in such a forgiving mood.

After his pet mercenary departed the Chairman punched up his executive secretary.

"Mister Hellis, contact our electrical engineering consultant Mr. Ong and have him meet me tonight at the club. I believe he is on planet and staying at the Stethman-Wialakola currently. Inform him that I have an unexpected problem that requires his attention."

Folding his hands in thought the Chairman turned his seat to face the vista out the window once again. He had thought that the eldest Linna child had taken himself out of the picture with his desire to play soldier as his grandmother had. It was his bookish brother that had appeared to be a potential threat and that had been watched. But now John Linna’s escapades had put him squarely in the path of one of the Chairman’s more "private" deals and it was likely that John would use his very considerable resources to press his own investigation. Linna even had one of Schmidt’s toys on hand to examine. The Chairman had been uneasy about releasing those Flashmans from SandStar to Schmidt. He should have listened to his gut on that one. Well, it was water under the bridge now.

John Linna was almost as dangerous now as his father had been some eight years ago or so. A similar solution would likely be required. That was the main trouble with the extremely wealthy - they couldn't be bought like normal people. The Chairman should know as he had bought more people than he could possibly count over his years of keeping Rold Technology Investments Group at the top. The Clan invasion had curtailed his need to continue to stir the various fractions and rivalries of the Inner Sphere along to keep conflict brewing. Conflict brought higher sales and kept money pouring into military research. But there were plenty of old skeletons in the storage room to keep hidden. And now a new one to add.

The Chairman wouldn’t know the details of course. Plausible deniability. The enigmatic Consultant Ong would handle the actual deed as he saw fit. That was Ong’s way and the Chairman had always found the Consultant’s ways successful. If possible it would be arranged to appear an accident. But if not, there were various players that could be used to take the blame.

Most fools thought that it was the Great Houses and the BattleMech that decided history. The Chairmen and a few others like him knew the truth. Political boundaries were an illusion, public opinion was created by clever marketing, and concepts like honor had been outdated long before mankind even first took to the stars. Whatever the chosen currency type, it was the all mighty C-Bill that really shaped the Inner Sphere. And he controlled more money than perhaps any man or woman alive.

Potential threats were not left to fester and grow by the Chairman. The Linna family of Danielle Electronics and Weaponry was about to lose another heir. John Linna would die on Outreach.

Chapter Index[]