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 5: Eye of the Storm[]

Synopsis: Previous sections are Wages of Honor, Wager with the Clans, Trap of Imagination, and Trials of Loyalty. The Suomi Warders. lead by Major John Linna, have won half of their legal battle with the Draconis Combine. The fate of Chu-i Naoko Fujiwara still balances between the ComStar Review Board, Combine Council Heiro Taki, and her own heart. Meanwhile three assassins plan for their second attempt on John’s life while the Warders begin to realize the true nature of their hidden foe. Mixed into the distractions of trials and killers, the unit’s normal business must still go on. While Captain Woods and Lieutenant Fosters worry about the Major’s safety, Lieutenants Aukland and Jorgenson along with Sergeant Harding work to rebuild the ‘Mech lances.

Redison Hotel
DropPort Area
Harlech city, Outreach
2 May 3052

John walked into the private banquet room being used to feed the visiting Warders and looked about. Only three people were there for the early breakfast; Sven, Naoko and Misty. Plus the armed guard at the door of course- but he wasn’t eating. After last night John would have to get used to having some form of security hovering about where ever he was. A message in his in-box this morning from the Dragoons had offered him an officer suite in a secured part of the DropPort. Although reluctant to do so, John figured he’d probably take them up on it. In fact, he’d likely move all his officers out of the hotel and into a secured area as well.

The food was laid out along a table along one wall. As he collected some fruit, a helping of eggs and a cup of tea a light giggle drifted over from the table his MechWarriors shared and John found himself feeling somewhat awkward. He could either go sit by himself and appear aloof or invite himself to their table and be rudely intruding.

“Hey Major, come grab a seat with us,” called Sven from the group. That solved that problem, thought John. He hoped it was a portent for the rest of the day.

“Good morning everyone. I hope I’m not intruding.”

“Not all Major,” smiled Naoko. “Sven was just sharing a childhood story with us. Apparently farm animals and he do not get along well.”

“City boy born and raised,” agreed Sven. Lieutenant Jorgenson was more interested in Naoko and John than his own story however. He’d been able to deduce from earlier breakfast conversation that the Combine MechWarrior had returned to her shared room with Misty early last evening. It seemed that Gracie had gotten soused then gone a couple of rounds with two AeroSpace jocks last night for no reason. Then again, there was a connection of some sort between John and Naoko this morning. Sven hoped he wasn’t going to have to repeat the process of watching Gracie get drunk and start fights too many more times until she worked it out of her system. He knew from past experience that he couldn’t sell her on meditation to soothe anxieties.

Misty interpreted Sven’s pause as an invitation for someone else to offer a story. She had decided last night that it was time she started letting others see more of her personal side. Too few of her last lance mates had been offered the chance. Now it was too late.

“I grew up in a Periphery world. Most of us were farmers but my family was a ‘townie’ bunch. My folks were ag-techs. I spent a lot of time looking at tractor engines, water pumps, wind-turbine generators, and crawling around inside the one AgroMech the colony co-operatively owned.

“One of the farmers was a chicken rancher. Well, they weren’t really terran chickens but they sorta looked like them so that’s what we always called them. Anyway, I was helping my dad with the fuel injector on a wheeled transport and had accidentally left the drive gear engaged. He fired up the engine and it shot off across the yard, throwing both of us off the sides. Dumb thing made a 30 degree turn and rocketed right into the main coop. Wood splinters and feathers everywhere. I spent the next five hours chasing down chickens with farmer Cortez glaring daggers in my back the whole time. To this day I still see flying feathers and hear chickens squawking in my head every time I get anywhere near a farm.”

“My family has an ancestral farm,” offered Naoko. “But I spent very little time there. We lived on various military bases as my father’s posts were rotated. My grandfather retired there though, and his father before him. The tenants that actually work the land have been the same families for many generations. I do not know that I have ever seen a live chicken – terran or otherwise. But I do recall catching waterbugs in the rice patties and walking in my grandmother’s gardens. What about you John? What was your childhood like?”

“Like Sven, I’m mainly a city boy. Although we do own some land here and there. And I’m a bit more handy around animals. For some obscure reason it was very important to my mother that we all learn to ride horses one year. But mainly I remember summers at the lakes. Both with my family and when older with friends. We’d boat and hydroski. I got quite good at it actually – but it’s been a long time since I tried. I don’t even know if I could get up on hydroskis these days.”

“What is ‘hydroskiing’ Sir?” Misty inquired. Naoko was curious too. Neither was familiar with such a sport.

“Hmm? Well, you use a fast boat to pull a person on a line behind you. Special skis allow the skier to rise up and hydro-plane across the surface. I’m sure they do it at the lake here too. We could go down there and rent a boat…” John frowned as he remembered the current situation. “Actually, I suppose we can’t. Too great a security risk. But remind me when we get back to Sampsa and we’ll have a Warder skiing excursion. Might be a good bonding experience for everyone.”

“I’ll keep reminding you John,” agreed Sven with a big grin. “You promised us a ski trip.” The big MechWarrior preferred cross country snow skiing to the lake variety. But a day on the water was always enjoyable to his way of thinking. Might even sneak in some fishing on a quieter part of the lake.

“Speaking of memory,” John mentioned after swallowing the last of his eggs, “have you seen Gracie this morning? I seem to recall that she had a MechWarrior she wanted me to check out for her new lance. But we haven’t set a time.”

“I’m afraid Gracie’s not feeling very well this morning. I know who she’s interested in though. I’ll contact the warrior and get her in our sim session today. I’ll try to set up a formal interview for this afternoon or evening and buzz you.”

His concern was evident in John’s voice. “I hope she’s not coming down with that same bug we had at the Orb. I was sick for almost a week.”

“No, no,” Sven replied hastily. “I’m pretty sure it’s more of a local 24 hour flu-like thing. She’ll be on her feet soon.”

“Good. Make sure you call the Doc if she gets any worse. Well, I’ve got a calendar full of appointments today so I’ve got to run.” John stood. “Sven, put out the word to everyone in the hotel that we’ll probably be moving to the DropPort base tonight. I’m going to try to arrange some secure housing for the rest of our stay here.”

Everyone exchanged good-byes. As John exited Sven wondered how much bad karma he’d just accumulated for misleading his CO. Probably not as much as Gracie had accrued for knocking a pair of pilots off the active flight list for two or three days of recovery time.

Across town In a small flat located both Thomas Chan and Mark Timmons held themselves motionless. Each was in a kneeling position with their face to the floor. Lynx stood behind them against the wall, unsure how he should behave before the Triad official silently contemplating their failure. Although Lynx had been working with Mark and Thomas for over a year, he had not been offered actual membership with their shadowy group. Thus he was beneath the notice of the slight man that seemed to hold heavy power over his friends and had only been allowed to attend this meeting to report his observations directly. And then only when asked a specific question.

Jiang Wu considered the report he had heard carefully and thoughtfully. Success had not been achieved, which was regrettable. But unlike more unreasonable organizations like the Combine’s Yakuza, the much smaller and newer Triad organization Ong had formed recognized that failure would occasionally occur. The question was the extent of a failure. In this case the element of surprise was now lost but the three assassins appeared to have withdrawn in good order and left no clues to be followed.

“Where he here the Master would be most displeased,” began Wu. “Your planning was sound but execution flawed. You should have identified the MechWarrior that successfully disrupted your attack as a potential threat despite her dainty appearance. Stand now and tell me your thoughts on how you will proceed.”

The pair regained their feet, but kept their eyes downcast.

“Honorable Wu,” began Thomas, “we can assume that the target will take precautionary measures now. If the Review Board decides about the Combine warrior as quickly as they did the contract issue, then the Warders could be off this planet in less than four or five days. We feel that our best chance will be while the target is in transit, and that a major effort will be required.”

Wu’s eyes narrowed as he considered Thomas’ words. The analysis of the situation was sound. But ‘major effort’ was a euphemism for a messy attack likely to cause collateral damage - such as a bomb or missile attack. These attacks were to be avoided when possible as the Triad survived on secrecy. They had no need to advertise their existence to attract customers. Master Ong’s connections where enough to keep them very busy. The more bystanders that got killed, the greater the public pressure to find the culprits and the harder the local security worked at solving the case. Still, the Master had expressed the Chairman’s strong desire that the work be finished on Outreach.

“Very well. You may proceed. You must make sure of the kill however; no chancy drive-by shootings or firing missiles into his front window hoping for a random kill.”

“It will be as you order, Honorable Wu,” agreed Mark.

Lynx wasn’t sure what to do but gave his best bow as Wu swept out of the small apartment. There was no indication that Wu even noticed him. Still, it seemed that they were still in business. Blowing the Major up from a distance wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as knifing him and watching him bleed, but dead was dead. Now that he had important, honorable friends Lynx knew he had to become more professional about his work and leave his personal desires at the door.

Mid morning found Sergeant Sammi marched evenly across a large exercise mat, wincing slightly to herself at the poor form of the man practicing kicks against a large bag. As she saw it there where three very unfortunate things about the scenario. The first was that she couldn’t even identify which kick the man was supposedly performing. The second was that the man was her boss’s boss, Major John Linna. The third was that he had almost assuredly asked her to meet him here because he wanted to her to turn him into a sudden master of the martial arts.

“Sir, Sergeant Cascade reporting as directed,” she rapped smartly as she snapped to attention.

He jumped slightly, startled by the unexpected intrusion into his concentration. Taking a deep breath to compose his face, John turned around and returned her salute. “At ease Sergeant. This is more unofficial than official so it’s OK to be a bit less formal. As I gather you might have guessed, I’d like you to help me improve my personal combat skills.”

Sammi coughed slightly as she stalled for a little more thinking time. “If I may ask the Major; why me? What I mean to say is that I hear that Chu-i Fujiwara is an excellent martial artist and I know that Lieutenant Jorgenson is very good with Tae Kwon Do. Perhaps one of them would be a more comfortable sparring partner Sir.”

John couldn’t help but smile. If he was a sergeant he wouldn’t want to be tussling with the unit CO either.

“I’m sure they would be Sergeant. Or at least they’d be more comfortable as they batted me around the dojo. But it’s not sparring partners I’m looking for. I found one last night and didn’t enjoy it too much. I need instruction, not practice.”

“Did you have any specific instruction in mind Sir?”

“I don’t have the time to learn a full martial art from the ground up. What I’m after is a set of combat effective techniques I can practice and, should it ever become necessary again, use to kick the other guy’s butt be before he kicks mine.”

Sammi considered a moment. He wasn’t asking for miracles, just some useful moves and pointers. “What sort of training have you had already Sir?”

“I’ve had the basic self defense stuff from the academy plus I competed on the Judo team while I was there. Took two semesters of Jujitsu as well. That’s about it.”

“I know the head self defense instructor. He teaches a Bok Fu influenced system,” mused Sammi as she warmed to the challenge. “Well Sir, that’s not a bad base actually. With Judo and Jujitsu you’ve learned the most important self defense technique –falling correctly. It’s amazing how many people never learn that. You should also be used to moving from under your center of gravity rather than making lunging attacks. Circling foot patterns with your steps I’d imagine. Why don’t we start with reviewing the kicks and punches you know. Then we’ll start putting together a few attacks that mesh well with the way your body has already been trained to move. Try to work in the throws and holds you learned from Judo and Jujitsu.”

Two hours later John hurt in places he didn’t even know he had places. And she’d never even laid a finger on him. He’d drilled repeatedly in forms until he couldn’t move that part of his body any more then they’d move to something different. More and more of his earlier training had come back to him though. It was mainly a matter of re-mapping the muscle memory so he didn’t have to consciously think about all the individual components of a kick or punch. When the basic form became automatic the mind was freed to worry about tactics and reading the opponent rather than lifting the knee a certain height or keeping an elbow in just so. Rather like piloting a ‘Mech actually. The more controls you operated by instinct the more of your concentration was available for fighting.

For her part Sammi decided this wasn’t going to be much of a problem after all. The Major didn’t expect her to make him a master martial artist. He just wanted to be a tough SOB to take hand-to-hand. That she could do. Turning men and women into certified ass kickers was her stock in trade.

Military Hangar Area
Harlech DropPort, Outreach
2 May 3052

Lieutenant Aukland limped into the ‘Mech hanger holding a chilled gel-pack over the left side of her head. There was a fair amount of activity within the structure, all of it far too noisy for her throbbing headache. She should have grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen or something back at the hotel gift shop but now that she was here she should be able to scrounge something out of a medkit. Still, back in her bed would have been a better place for her than a bustling hanger. But she had work to do. She’d abused herself on her own time, she’d have to recover on her own time. Gracie did reserve to herself the right to be grouchy however.

“Good morning Lieutenant Aukland. Or should I say good afternoon?” asked a voice from behind her.

Turning her head painfully she saw Sven sliding into step behind her. “There’s still three minutes of morning left funny man. I notice that you don’t seem to have any marks on you. Why did you let me take on both those joeys by myself anyway? What ever happened to one for all and all for one and all that?”

“I believe that applied to Musketeers, not Warders,” he grinned. “Besides, you said if I interfered you were going to whip my tail next.”

“I did?”. He nodded yes. “Well, the next time I’m drunk ignore my orders. And that’s an order.”

An eyebrow went up in inquisition. “Are you still drunk now?”

“No,” she snorted. “Why?”

“Just wanted to know if I should ignore your order to ignore your orders Ma’am.”

“Ha, ha Lawman. Sometimes you’re worse than Parks. And that takes some doing. How long do I have until the rest of them get here?”

He glanced at his wrist chrono. “I’d say about twenty minutes. I have ‘Cowgirl’ scheduled to play on your side.”

“Good. We can see how she might fit in if John hires her. Now how ‘bout you be a pal and find me something for this headache while I find something immobile to lean on.”

“You got it Gracie. While you’re waiting you can stroll down to the end there and check out my new ride. The Chief picked it up late yesterday.”

Her interest was stirred despite her headache. Any MechWarrior or Mech-tech was always interested in kicking the ankle plates of a new BattleMech. Waving her agreement she made her way down the docking cradles while Sven wandered off to find her some pain killers. He returned to find her sitting on a folding chair before his ‘new’ ‘Mech.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked. Despite his attempt to sound nonchalant a trace of pride was in his voice.

She nodded in appreciation. “A LCN25 Lancelot. An “01” model if I’m not mistaken. They’ve been around for quite a while. Good reputation as a durable and reliable fighting machine. I do notice that this particular one has a big ugly hole where the PPC usually rides in the torso and seems to be missing it’s left leg from about the knee down.”

“You do get right to the heart of a matter don’t you. The leg’s in that crate over there. Harding says reconstructing the knee actuator won’t be a problem at all. As to the torso, the internal structure is only minimally damaged. I’m going to need to stuff five tons of C3 master in that ‘Mech anyway. This way the main demolition work has already been finished. Still leaves me with the two large lasers and a medium one plus around two tons of payload for something else. I’m going to miss not having a LB-X cannon but it’s just too big a mess to rework the entire innards to mount one. Harding said that given some time he could craft a new arm to hold a cannon and jimmy a magazine above the C3 master but it’s too late to add cellular ammunition storage. So I’ll just learn to love lasers. If you have a bowl of lemons, make lemonade.”

Gracie frowned slightly at the reminder that something was going to have to go from within Granny as well to make room for the same specialized computer gear. John’s Camelot could directly handle four other ‘Mech feeds but now they fielded eight. Just like the tank lances had done, each new ‘Mech lance would require someone to carry a master unit. “Other than maintaining a King Arthur theme was there any particular reason you picked a Lancelot?”

Sven shrugged. “With the Clan invasion gobbling up big chunks of Inner Sphere real estate there really isn’t that much premium hardware available right now. There’s plenty of old junk floating around that we could fix up but the tech crews are going to be plenty busy as it is the next few months. The Lancelot’s Krupp KBC battle computer was the kicker though. We’ll replace it with a DEW system but the KBC has many extra internal data feeds. There’ll be far less extra wiring required to mate a C3 into it.”

Gracie nodded. Then made a note to herself to lay off the head movements. Going with the KBC wired model made sense though. While they had the hardware and know how to do virtual magic with a BattleMech there wasn’t any reason to create extra work for themselves. They already had almost twice the ‘Mechs than the tech staff to handle them. Until they got back home and hired some more techs anyway.

“What about the rest of your lance?” Gracie grinned as she put special emphasis on the word ‘your’. She knew Sven had silently been pining for his own lance to command. And he deserved it. After several roundtable discussions between herself, Sven, Osmo and John it had been decided that Frank, Basem and Jason would form under Sven while she took Misty and some new hires. Probably Keena if John liked her and Naoko. But no one knew how long Naoko would be with the Warders. That was yet another question Gracie willfully ignored.

“Well my lance,” he mimicked, “will use two of what we got plus whatever Basem decides to buy. He’s out with Chief Harding as we speak. Ranger takes over my Bushwacker while the modified Vulcan will be pieced back together for Jason.”

“Frank whine very much when you told him he wasn’t getting an Atlas?”

“Not too bad. At least not after I told him he could have the weapon layout reconfigured and one of the Clan weapons.”

“What Clan weapons?” demanded Gracie in surprise as her head snapped up. Which brought a wince. No sudden head movements she reminded herself again.

“That’s what John said too. Guess you didn’t read the salvage report from the Cat Fight either?” The ‘Cat Fight’ had become the unofficial name for their honor combat with the Nova Cats.

“What salvage? All we collected were our own wrecks.”

“If you’d bothered to scroll all the way to the bottom you would have seen that we accidentally picked up two pulse lasers from one of the Clanner Omnis. I believe the Chief’s official line item comment was ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’. John said since I spotted them I got to claim them for my lance.”

Gracie shook her head ruefully (and very slowly). Chief Harding was forever pulling rabbits out of hats. Forget a bowl of fruit, that man could make lemonade from Mech coolant. “All right Lawman, you aced me this time,” she admitted in good humor. “I’m not used to having competition for upgrades around here. But I’ll be watching you next time bucko.”

The warning siren that indicated a ‘Mech was about to enter the hanger sounded, making Gracie wince.

Sven whistled. “Is that what I think it is?”

Through squinting eyes Gracie watched the squat, square legged ‘Mech walk into the hanger and head for an empty docking station. Bell-flared shoulders helped protect the wide domed cockpit/head section. A ten tube LRM extended from midchest while one arm ended in the business end of an extended range PPC. A hand adorned the other arm with a laser grafted onto the forearm.

“If you think it’s a Grand Dragon then it’s what you think it is. This should be a good story. I was under the impression that they were only available to the DCMS.”

“Then let’s head over there and hear the story,” suggested Sven.

As Basem went through the power-down checklist the Chief pulled up in a wheeled cart. The rest of the MechWarriors began filtering in for the planned sim session as Lieutenant Dhafar exited the ‘Mech and rode the niche’s lift to the ground.

“It is wonderful friend Sergeant,” beamed Basem in answer to the question Harding was about to ask. “I can not believe my good fortune today and how much I have learned in just one morning. You should have seen him in action fellow Warders. He was most impressive.”

“How so?” Parks wanted to know.

“To start, I did not realize that there were so many … alternative… ways to discover what is available,” noted Basem. “Then Sergeant Harding’s ability to quickly size up the contents of a bone pile and file away what might be useful is quite uncanny. And his bargaining skills; I dare say that many are the merchants of the central Jeddah Bazaar that would find themselves out a camel for a wheelbarrow ride should the Sergeant ever pay a visit. But all of this pales to his knowledge of BattleMechs. I was trained by DCMS instructors and even I did not know about the hardwired over-ride in Combine ‘Mechs. It was obvious that the gentlemen who owned this great machine did not know either. Their surprise was most delicious and helped our bargaining position greatly.”

Gracie and Sven exchanged knowing looks. It was unlikely that such an over-ride existed. It was more likely that the man they called the Magician had known something tricky to quickly punch into the main computer when no one was looking. While Gracie was willing to let the matter go at that, Sven asked the question that he knew John would be asking.

“So what’s the deal Sergeant? Somebody else going to come looking for our ‘Dragon friend here?”

“I don’t think so Lieutenant. The guy’s story was they got it from the Dragoons who took it in trade for some busted up Omnis they’d recovered. No idea why the Dragoons decided they no longer need it. Maybe the guy was totally on the square or maybe not, but I ran the core numbers against the ComStar public registry and they came back negative. Somehow, someway this particular one has been pulled from official Combine service. At least as far as the buying public is concerned. Which is good enough for us.

“The cockpit’s marked in Japanese – obviously not a problem for Lieutenant Dhafar - and keeping it in service will require the occasional fabrication of parts. Something we can do but many outfits can’t. Keeping it was more trouble than it was worth for it’s last owner. His unit wanted to build a scout lance anyway so I traded them some parts and weapons plus the Commando and good old credits on the barrel head. And quick as a blink, the Warders had another heavy ‘Mech.”

“Uhm, you traded my Commando?” asked Jason in surprise.

“Actually, I bought it first,” explained Basem. “The parts too. Then I traded them plus credits for the Grand Dragon with the Sergeant’s help.”

Harding handed Jason a noteputer. “You told me to sell it. Take a look for yourself Cadet. That’s your account balance with our credit union.”

Jason looked at the figure and swallowed hard. Sure, big numbers like that had washed through his parent’s accounts running a JumpShip. But this wasn’t coming in then going out again. It was all his and had nowhere it needed to go.

“If you need some financial advice with your windfall,” began Lieutenant Parks.

“You can ask me or Gracie,” finished Sven was a sharp look at Frank.

Jason was still staring as the view panel. Sven doubted he had heard either one of them. The warning siren broke him from his ruminations as yet another BattleMech approached the Warder hangar. This one was not broadcasting a ‘friend’ signal so the revolving lights over the doorway were red rather then green.

It was against regs to wander around the DropPort in a ‘Mech with charged or armed weapons. Sensors spaced about the military section checked for transgressors and sentry ‘Mechs stood by to deal with offenders. Still, sensors weren’t foolproof and somebody had a grudge against the Warders. As they first sighted the unfamiliar BattleMech there wasn’t a person in the hangar – tech or warrior – that wasn’t wondering if they should be running for the protective cover of parked ‘Mech legs. The visitor came to a stop in the open doorway. But rather than open up with it’s weapons it opened a hatchway and a young man shimmied down a knotted rope.

Shane Washington lit on the ground and ambled over to the grouped Warders.

“Excuse me Ma’ams and Sirs. My sister, uh- that is, MechWarrior Keena Washington, will be here in a few minutes. She’s, uh, closing out our tie down fees right now. I don’t suppose we could park Starman here for the rest of the day?”

Sven shot a sidelong glance at Gracie. The tie down apron was an open area with hooks set in the ground to which ‘Mechs or aircraft could be secured. It was the cheapest legal place to keep a ‘Mech on the DropPort grounds.

“So what does it prove if they’re a little short on cash,” Gracie hissed at him. “Not everyone’s as lucky as us you know. Hey Chief, whatdaya think? OK if the kid racks his sister’s ‘Mech here while we test and interview her?”

Harding shrugged. With no tanks yet they still had plenty of room. “No problem Lieutenant. All right kid, put ‘Starman’ over there in Twelve.”

Shane didn’t respond right away as he walked towards a free-rolling piece of test equipment. “Is this really a FireBird 3000 multi-resistance myomer conductor test unit?”

The MechWarriors exchanged confused looks as Harding and two of his techs drifted protectively toward the machine.

“You know the FireBird?” asked the Chief.

“Whooww, I wish. Been stuck mainly with early model Claivetrons but I’ve read everything in the trade-sheets on the ‘Birds. They are some serious rad-tech. I mean…hey, is that actually a portable wafer presser over there.”

“One of two we usually haul around, why?”

“Oh-you-have-got-to-be-cheesing-me!,” came out in one excited rush. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to press my own chips rather than always having to cross-graph some junky discard silicon to do what I need it to do.”

“You design control chips?” Harding asked dubiously.

“Well, not exactly. I mean I have designed several chips, but I’ve never been able to press one and find out if it really works. I started messing with them at a tech school on Solaris and just sort of kept my hand in as much as I could. With a FireBird and a chip presser I could finally solve that little tic in the left arm.”

“The left arm?” prompted one of the other techs in interest.

“Yeah, the myomer just above the elbow actuator got burned up but we didn’t have any new bundles to swap it out. So I grafted some I pulled from a few other places and rigged a spare foot pressure controller I found to regulate the current.”

“A foot-press board can’t take that kind of voltage flex,” argued a different tech. “It’d blow inside ten minutes.”

“I know,” agreed Shane. “That’s why I had to hard-solder two half gig flux capacitors through a daughter board I rigged from a pulse laser regulator. Handles the current load but there’s an ohm drop across the capacitors that sometimes disrupts the voltage levels and causes the myomer to jerk slightly. But with this kind of gear I could make a board and control chip to deal with the resistance problems.”

The tech force was impressed by the jury-rig and started to discuss among themselves the likely specifications such a board would need.

“Of course, you could always just replace the myomer bundles with new ones rather than calculate and fabricate a circuit board,” Harding suggested mildly to everyone.

Shane grinned sheepishly. “Well yeah. That would be the best way to fix the problem,” he admitted.

“Say, do you think we could peek at your flux-arrangement?” asked one of the techs.

Soon a small group was on it’s way to clamor around and within the Orion on their doorstep. Harding told the ‘Mech officers that it looked like keeping the visiting ‘BattleMech and it’s tech occupied wasn’t going to be a problem.

Gracie looked about the other warriors and shrugged. Techs lived in a bizarre little world all their own as far as she was concerned. Her own lead tech, Sparky, was the first to disappear into the Orion’s arm. “Well, the kid seems odd enough that he must be good,” she said to no one in particular.

“Reminds me of some ship’s engineers I’ve met,” agreed Jason.

“Well I like him,” announced Frank. “I haven’t the slightest idea what he was talking about but he obviously thinks way out of the box.”

“It’s a target box you need to be worrying about Ranger,” said Gracie. “Let’s grab our gear ladies and gentlemen. We’ve got a private bus to the sim pods. It’s rematch time fellas. And this time the Lady Killers aren’t going easy on you.”

“Ha. Lawman’s Steel Posse has your number sister,” taunted Frank.

“Is a ‘posse’ some kind of animal?” Misty wanted to know.

“No,” sighed Parks in exasperation. “In the ancient days when the lone lawman of a town needed help tracking down a desperado he’d gather a group of armed men and deputize them. The group was called a ‘posse’. Get it? Lawman’s Posse.”

“This ‘desperado’. He was some form of criminal I take it?” asked Naoko innocently.

“All right, no one’s that illiterate. You two are just messing with me now.”

Both female warriors quickly asserted that they had no knowledge of the Terran Ancient West nor ability with Spanish.

“Enough, enough,” interrupted Gracie. “I see Cowgirl walking this way. Now everyone scoot and get your gear. The heat will be turned on so bring your vests. We meet at the hangar door in five minutes.” After the warriors split up Gracie raised an eyebrow at Sven. “The ‘Steel Posse’ lance?”

“Hey, that was a surprise to me too,” protested Sven. “To tell the truth I hadn’t given a lance name any thought. Sounds like Frank has though. You’ve been thinking some too I see. The Lady Killers?”

“Hey Big Guy, you suggesting that I don’t act like a lady?”

“Never in a million years,” laughed Sven. “I don’t want to wind up in the same urgent care ward as those two AeroSpace jocks. But on a serious note Gracie; do you want to switch out Naoko to my lance? Take maybe Basem instead?”

Her good humor fled and her headache seemed to surge again. But she shook her head negatively. “Thanks Lawman, but the unit comes first. You need to be working your boys into a true team. Every day counts; you never know when the shooting will turn real. I’ll be fine with the Chu-i.”

“Let me know if you change your mind.”

She just nodded – slowly. Glancing back at Keena she noted that the flamboyant warrior had wisely turned her costuming down a few notches. Cowgirl was dressed in a set of common combat fatigues that zipped open to allow a MechWarrior easy exit just before climbing into a cockpit. The ebon skinned pilot still wore the fancy double pistols however. Gracie absently rubbed at her temple with one hand. The ex-Solaris fighter had proven her individual prowess yesterday but seemed a bit lacking in real world military tactics. Still, judging by her devotion to her brother Mother Goose felt that other woman’s heart was probably in the right place. To the Goose a warrior’s heart was the most important component of the pilot/’Mech combination.

Mercenaries Hall, Sim Center
Harlech city, Outreach
2 May 3052

Though separated by only a few meters in the real world, almost two thousand meters lay between the two groups in virtual reality. Lawman and his ‘Posse’ stood in a circle with their virtual ‘Mechs, conferring on what would be the final battle of the session. In the electronic hills across from them Mother Goose and her ‘Lady Killers’ performed the same ritual. Despite the ‘Mech weight and piloting advantage the women held the score was tied with three scenarios apiece for the two lances. This was final overtime – literally as they had run past their allotted sim reservation. But unlike many of life’s problems, this difficulty was easily solved with a small application of money. They’d bought some more time from the sim techs.

Neither lance fit neatly into pure definitions, although the Lady Killers did by the more open interpretation of lance classes brought about by centuries of almost constant warfare. They classed as a heavy lance, although Katana’s 55 ton Kintaro was most commonly classified as a medium and Goose’s Awesome considered an assault ‘Mech. Misty “Storm” Floren’s Flashman and Cowgirl’s Orion both fell in the heavy category. As a group they had good long-range hitting power and strong armor – but lacked mobility. The Posse had been able to use that to their advantage in the scenarios that rewarded speed over brawn.

For their part the Posse was more mixed in both individual BattleMech design and lance composition. Ranger had elicited a raised eyebrow from the sim-tech when he had submitted his Bushwacker’s parameters for the run. The arm mounted autocannon had been replaced with a Clan spec large pulse laser. The ER large laser remained on the other arm and the LRM 5 was intact, but the rest of the weapon layout had been changed to include two medium pulse lasers, a standard medium laser, and one machine gun. The tech had looked at Lieutenant Parks dubiously and asked, “does this thing really exist?”

“Not yet,” Frank had grinned. “But it will within a month or so.” Wanting to start practicing with his new machine as soon as possible, Ranger had even left the C3 slave in the cockpit even though they weren’t simulating C3s in the exercises. He could have squeezed another virtual medium laser in but wanted to use it the way it would actually exist once the Warder techs got through with it.

To one side of the 55 ton Bushwacker stood Racker in the heavily modified 40 ton Vulcan. It too had mass allocated to a currently useless C3. But it was also stuffed full of electronics gear including special sensors and electronic counter measure items that could be used in the virtual environment. Three medium lasers and one large laser now comprised it’s armament. Plus a rarely used small laser. It also represented the specs of a real machine, the one he had piloted on the ‘Orb. It’s extra armor had allowed it to take a beating then. It ha also repeatedly taken a beating today. Luckily virtual damage was far easier to repair. The real Vulcan was still far from combat ready.

To the other side of Ranger was the electronic replica of a Grand Dragon. Basem Dafar, ‘Sirocco’ by com-tag, had elected to use the 60 ton machine totally stock to evaluate it’s strengths and weaknesses before deciding what changes he might want. Lawman had made he same decision about the 60 ton Lancelot he piloted, leaving it in it’s stock LNC25-01 configuration. Later he’d need to give up weapon mass for a C3 master – but not today.

Ironically it was the second lightest machine, the Bushwacker, that was the slowest of the group. But Ranger still had a speed advantage over the two heaviest Lady Killers. Tactical surprise and clever maneuvering had brought the Posse their three victories over the more heavily armed opponents.

“How you holding out Racker?” asked ‘Lawman’ Jorgenson over the comm.

“I am a little tired of getting killed Sir,” admitted Jason. “They keep ganging up on me.”

“I’d noticed,” agreed Lawman. “Cowgirl especially seems to have a thing for wandering off after you looking for a kill. Storm keeps gunning for you too.”

“Makes it easier to separate them and bring them down when they do that though,” added Ranger.

“Still hurts a guy’s young tender ego a bit,” sighed Racker. “But the team is the thing.”

Lawman smiled to himself. Actually, he’d been impressed with Jason’s willingness to continually play bait and usually be the first one knocked out of each melee. “Well, there’s only one more to go Racker. Let’s see if we can’t do things a bit differently this time. Here’s what I have in mind for operation ‘Racker’s Revenge’.”

Gracie considered the tactical display quietly for a moment, trying to divine what Lawman would use for a strategy. She hadn’t expected a sweep against him, but she was mildly surprised at how closely things had run – even in the matches her lance had won. Goose had seen Lawman’s tactical thinking ability displayed in numerous planning sessions. But he seemed to have taken his on-the-fly decision making to a new level now that had his own lance. Being a bit stiff in his planning had always been a shortcoming she’d been able to exploit against him. But the Lawman had learned some new tricks.

She keyed her comm. “Well Ladies. We out mass and out gun them, yet find ourselves even at three. Any opinions?”

Naoko was the first to respond. “They have done an excellent job of using their superior speed to separate us, Lieutenant.”

“And that Bushwacker hits a lot harder than I thought it would,” added Misty.

There was a brief pause before Keena finally chipped in. “And it doesn’t help that two of us keep wandering off on our own agendas.”

“Two of us?” questioned Gracie.

“Yep,” confirmed Keena. “One of them is me. I keep getting caught up in scoring kills and do silly things like chasing their lightest ‘Mechs trying for a quick score.”

Goose smiled to herself. That must have been a difficult admission for Cowgirl “And the other screw-up?” she prompted in a light tone.

“Uh, that would be you Mother Goose,” supplied Cowgirl.

Gracie squashed her impulse to immediately deny the accusation. “How so?””

“Almost every mission you end up in a long range pissing match with Lawman. He draws you away then the others try to concentrate on us one at a time.”

Goose’s pique cooled instantly as she realized that Cowgirl was right. She and Sven had been doing a lot of long range shooting at each other. Gracie had written off it off to the two leaders simply setting the tone for their lances. But Sven would be crafty enough to bait her by gunning for her first. There really was only one good way to face up to Cowgirl’s observation. She laughed.

“Now that you mention it, I think you’re right. I’ll watch that in the future. O.K., in this final scenario the name of the game is capture the flag. Or in this case, the central plaza of a ruined town. Winner is either the last team standing or the team that controls the plaza when time runs out. The computer has adjusted for relative cruise speeds and placed our starting point closer to the town than theirs; but some or all of the Posse can get there first if they run. But they need to cross a river to do it. No bridge, might slow them down enough for us to reach our side of the town if we hustle or split our forces. Or either team could do some long range firing from the bluffs to either side of the town. Any suggestions before I pick a plan. We’ve got eight minutes of planing time left before the light turns green.”

Eight minutes later they rumbled down the road in a lose diamond formation with Katana in the lead. Storm and Cowgirl had the outsides while Goose brought up the rear. The Lady Killers had made flank speed – based on their slower units – towards the town. They figured that the lighter force would race there first then use their ECM to hide and start a close in engagement to negate the Killer’s advantage in long range firepower. The plan was to reach the buildings of their side of the town before the Steel Posse crossed the entire urban area and caught them in the open.

“I’ve got contact ahead to the right,” reported Katana. “Looks like Lawman. Target lock, target lock! He’s going to fire on me!”

She pushed her throttles the rest of the way open while trying to sneak shutter steps into her gate to throw off his aim. The domed head and wedged shoulders of the Lancelot rose above a hill top as two green laser blasts followed by the blue-white maelstrom of a PPC bolt slashed in toward the Kintaro. It was the edge of effective range for the lasers and a difficult deflection shot against a moving target. Still, one of the lasers caught her dead center in the torso. The other, as well as the PPC blast, passed uncomfortably close but missed. Somewhat less than a third of the armor was melted away. In a stroke of incredible luck – good for Lawman and bad for Katana – the area struck was right over the firing port of her large laser. A red light warned her that the weapon was unsafe to fire.

“Lost my large laser,” she automatically reported while pausing to line up her long range missile launcher. Toggling up the zoom mode she could see that he was already backing down behind the ridgeline. Before she had a solid tone she pulled to a stop to better dead-reckon aim the pod and fired off the 5 LRMs. Cowgirl faced the same retreating target from the edge of the formation but had more weapons available. Choosing to save her missiles she held off with her own LRM system but tried a quick burst with her LB-10X cannon. Both Katana’s missiles and Cowgirls cannon fire found only dirt at the far end of their trajectory.

The formation came to a halt behind Katana. Gracie frowned in thought. A probe strike like that wasn’t normally Sven’s style. What was he up to? Trying to draw her into a shooting match again? Whatever his plan was the luck seemed to be on his side. Taking out a weapon system with a single shot like that was very rare. But it did happen. Well, the one thing she was sure of was that they better not just stand here.

“Katana, Cowgirl, move into the town. Watch yourselves, Racker’s had plenty of time to get there and he may have brought friends. Misty, swing over and flank me. We’ll drift out and provide cover fire against the hill line.”

Three different versions of ‘will comply’ echoed back as her temporarily stalled lance moved back into action. Her Awesome and Misty’s Flashman drifted towards the sensor return that marked the retreating Lawman while the other two resumed their dash for the town. Gracie watched her threat display intently. Where the heck where the other three? Lawman wasn’t the lone gunman sort. The return from his active sensors showed that he was moving in an arc towards their rear.

“Contact bearing three-twenty,” reported Storm.

“Roger, I see it. Looks like Ranger has joined the party. Let’s start backing toward the … watch it, here they come again!”

At the ends of a roughly a forty-five degree angle from Gracie’s position, both Posse ‘Mechs rose once again into firing position.

Misty and Gracie both targeted the opponent they happened to be facing. As her finger tightened on her trigger Gracie grinned as she found herself shooting at Sven yet again. With Granny the Awesome moving at a slower speed, she made a better target and Sven’s fire splashed across Goose’s ‘Mech. Even as Gracie’s three bolts of bluish destruction leapt hungrily for his Lancelot, a fierce green lance burned a half ton of armor from her center torso and his PPC blast blasted and melted around another half ton from her right front. The third laser missed slightly to her right. Her return fire only scored one hit. By using the hill to hide the lower half of his BattleMech the Lancelot presented less of a target than Granny did. The single hit to his left arm was enough to strip most of the armor however. The next in the same place would draw blood – or coolant at any rate.

Storm gulped but held her cool as she targeted her three large lasers amid a veritable hail of laser pulses being spit out by the Clan pulse laser. Images of her losing fight against the Nova Cats kept trying to sneak into her mind but she kept the memories shut away. A few of the red darts pitted her armor here and there to little effect but the center of the storm chewed away at her right arm, stripping almost half the armor. Then the deadly light show was over and she centered her crosshairs on the low slung Bushwacker and opened up. To her chagrin, she failed to land a solid hit on him. Range, movement and cover had combined to protect him. It was risky but she elected to stand still for a better ability to aim. He’d likely score more hits on her but she would rely upon her solid armor to take the punishment. She had the heat sink capacity to fire the three lasers all day long standing still.

On their next exchange Ranger added his 5 tube LRMs to the mix. Something must have gone wrong with the firing system though as all five took off at a 60 degree angle upwards and flew off far above her head. He raked the pulse laser across her again and stabbed the green of his large laser into her as well. His fire continued to concentrate on her right limbs, again catching the arm and melting armor from her right leg as well. But this time she put a shot on Ranger’s left arm, slicing more than half the armor from it. It had been an uneven exchange, but unless someone else joined their duel she felt she could slug it out. She did turn herself and rotate her torso a bit to present her unharmed left profile however.

Goose and Lawman exchanged fire at roughly the same time. Lasers and PPC bolts flashed across the sky. Gracie suffered laser hits to her right arm and left leg but in a strong display of shooting skill gave better than she got against the shielded Lawman and slammed shots into his right torso and right arm. The Lancelot was spun back slightly by the hits and swayed with Lawman’s attempts to bring the great beast back under control. But long before her weapons recycled to fire again he was under control and re-sighting on her. Armor verse weapons she could stand up to his barrage. But on the heat sink front he had the edge. His ‘Mech was balanced to allow him to continuously fire his heavy weapons. She was slowly building up internal heat. Already the controls had become sluggish and her targeting reticule wavered from the combined effects of heat and system feedback from the multiple PPC bursts. Her options were to retreat, advance, let him pound her while she reduced fire and cooled, or blaze away and hope she got lucky before her machine shut down. And whatever she did had to be done with the rest of her lance in mind. Speaking of which, they should be hitting the town’s edge right about now.

“Storm,” ordered Gracie, “start backing towards the town. Increase the range and force them to come after us. If either does we concentrate on that one or if both come then combine on Lawman. His ‘Mech is faster than Ranger’s.”

“Understood Goose,” replied Misty.

Naoko trotted towards the first buildings with all of her medium and short ranged weapons linked to fire together. “I advise caution Cowgirl, the Vulcan’s close enough that Racker’s ECM is producing feedback on my sensors. He and probably Sirocco are already here.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Keena groused to herself. The shooting was going on behind her. Still, there would soon be battle here as well. Motion out to her left caught he attention. “There, I just saw him ducking back. The Vulcan around 600 meters to our left.”

Without consciously doing it she began to veer off towards where she had seen the smaller BattleMech.

“Cowgirl, we’re supposed to secure the target area,” reminded Naoko.

Keena realized she had changed her heading and turned back in towards her lancemate. “Roger. Closing up again Kat.”

“Visual contact with Sirocco,” Katana suddenly reported. “He’s lurking up ahead by a building corner between us and the target zone.”

“I’ll cut left and flank him. Hold until I get around forward a bit,” called Cowgirl excitedly. This is what she lived for, the thrill of the hunt.

“Don’t forget that Racker is stationed off to that side,” Naoko reminded her.

"So what,” snorted Cowgirl. “He’s half my weight. What’s he going to do, gnaw on my ankle actuators? If he gets in my way one alpha will take him down then we can tag-team that Grand Dragon.”

“That Vulcan and it’s MechWarrior went toe-to-toe with a Clan Vulture,” warned Kat. “Racker’s a tougher target than you think he is.”

“I’ll watch for him,” sighed an exasperated Keena. “I’ve already nuked him about three or four times. I can handle him. Just worry about that ‘Dragon.” She flicked switches and made some selections on her HUD that grouped her medium lasers with the short range missiles, then assigned trigger switches to the Narc missile beacon system and the autocannon. Her twenty tube LRM system she didn’t expect to use in the close confines of the town but it had a trigger assigned as well.

“Famous last words,” Naoko muttered to herself as she slipped across an intersection and waited for her lancemate to position herself. To keep Racker from sneaking up behind her she backed up against a building and kept her attention split between the streets to her right and left. Jason had to be pretty close for his ECM system to be distorting her scanner lock on Basem. Well, he could be close to Basem instead she conceded to herself.

Keena walked her machine expertly around a tight corner and down the narrow street. Despite the inherent dangers of moving about tight confines between buildings taller than her ‘Mech she was comfortable. To provide a more exciting match for spectators, many Solaris venues were designed to limit the usefulness of radar and sensors. It provided for more surprise encounters and frantic firefights. She’d fought in similar circumstances many times. Even with Kat’s lost laser, Cowgirl expected a win in the town. They had more combined firepower and a decent chance to isolate it on one foe at a time. Then they could sweep out along the hill line and help roll up Ranger and Lawman.

Jason wiped sweaty palms on his thighs as he watched his threat display. It was on passive reception mode but there were enough electromagnetic emanations from the hulking Orion for him to know that she had just turned the corner on the opposite side of the building between them and was now starting toward Basem. Going after an Orion in his far lighter BattleMech seemed somewhat suicidal on the surface of it. But so far Lieutenant Jorgenson had been on the money with his plan. Besides, Jason had to admit to himself he was excited about a chance to even the score a bit. Lighting his jump jets he popped up onto the top of the building, steadying himself before edging close to the far side. The structures were too weak to hold any of the other ‘Mechs. Not that any of his opponents had jump jets.

On the far side he could see the Orion trudging alertly away from him, it’s weapons sweeping side to side as it advanced. Until earlier today he would have locked his targeting computer on her and jumped down behind then opened up. Depending on her reaction time, he’d get a shot at her rear then suffer through a frontal assault before he could jump out again. Instead he followed Lawman’s advise and stayed where he was perched above her, letting her walk out to 60 meters away while he carefully lined up his shots using only the targeting dots from the HUD. This close he didn’t need ranging information from his targeting radar and he didn’t want to give her any warning before firing. By staying above her he decreased the chance of scoring leg hits. The Orion’s legs were better armored from the rear than the ‘Mech;s broad back. Holding his breath he gently pulled back the main trigger – the one rigged as his ‘alpha strike’. Three medium, one large, and one small laser flashed down at the unsuspecting Cowgirl.

Some sixth sense warned her of danger just before her warning klaxon sounded in response to multiple hits across her back. There was no penetration but the effective armor protection over her rear center and left was history and something had dinged her left arm as well. Her Orion threatened to pitch forward as a ton of armor ran off it’s back but she managed to performed a tight spin in her 75 ton BattleMech while keeping her feet. She knew it had to be that stupid little Vulcan. He’d gotten lucky just now, presumably thanks to a faulty threat system in her Orion that had failed to register his radar lock. But now he was going to be facing down the business end of her weapons loadout. That should be the end of that she thought to herself.

Except as her forward view port came around she found the street behind her empty. Her threat system was now finally registering targeting band radar and there was a radar return but no ‘Mech. Suddenly the buildings reminded her of pillars and she looked up in time to see his Vulcan blazing across the sky on streaks of excited plasma. Damn kid was using her own tricks against her. Even as she swore and tried belatedly to bring a weapon to bear she felt a wash of respect for the plucky rookie. It took some big brass cajones to tackle a ‘Mech twice your size. One mistake and you’re toast. She wondered if he was skilled enough to avoid making that fatal mistake. Tracking his arc she started to crouch down thinking he was planning to crash into her then realized he was headed over her to land in her rear. He must have misjudged his jump a tad. Not quite a fatal mistake but unless he put her down with his next barrage she’d be able to finish him.

“Engaged, engaged!” called Jason excitedly as he fired his jets to soar over the Orion.

“Almost in position,” replied Basem’s calm voice over the comm.

Jason feathered his left side jets as he fought to spin his machine around mid-jump and land facing back the direction he had jumped from. In doing so he accidentally eased off both jump pedals too much and began to dip down towards Cowgirl but realized his danger in time to apply more thrust and clear her head by a scant four meters. She had already started turning again and by the time he recovered from his hard landing he had lost his chance at a second back shot. He still had a good free side shot before she could come to bare on him though. He’d locked his targeting system on her just before jumping so he waited until the display reported all his lasers lined then hit the firing stud again. Even after jumping, at less than 60 meters there was little chance he’d miss a basically stationary target.

His firing was a bit high and left but scored. The large laser seared into the left torso while the left arm suffered another hit from a medium. One of the other medium lasers struck high on the chest and just under the cockpit. Another struck just above the forward view port on the top of the head area. The small laser nicked a leg, doing so little damage that the Orion’s computer didn’t even register the hit. Dazzled by the laser flash across her canopy and fighting the loss of nearly another two tons of armor while spinning her ‘Mech Cowgirl lost control for a moment and bounced into one of the buildings. That stopped and steadied her however, and she straightened her machine up and finished her turn as she grinned wickedly. Play time was over for her little Vulcan friend.

But before she even lined up her weapons she spotted the Grand Dragon stepping into the street some 230 meters away. In stead of guarding the victory zone he’d been maneuvering to support Racker’s attack. Now things were starting to get a bit hairy Keena decided.

“Katana, I’m under attack from two Posse ‘Mechs somewhere off to your left about two blocks. I could use some support.”

“On my way,” replied Kat. Being in her combat void now, her mind didn’t even think the “I told you so” that the Solaris pilot had just earned.

It looked like the Cowgirl would have to keep the party going until then Keena figured. She split her fire, targeting her lasers and SRM on the nearby Vulcan while seeking a target lock for her LRMs on the Grand Dragon. Basem would gain the favor of her auto-cannon as well. Sirocco locked first however and fired on her.

Despite long range for the medium laser Basem used it along with his LRM 10 and ER PPC. He had two other medium lasers but the base configuration of a DRG-5K pointed them to the rear. A waste he would have the techs correct on his real ‘Dragon he decided. But that was for later. His targeting dots pulsed gold and he fired. The balled lightning of his PPC struck the Orion in the left torso while the medium laser managed to score on the left arm. Most of the missiles went high but a few impacted on the upper center torso. He braced for impact as the muzzle flash of her cannon flared from the hip mount and a flight of missiles spat from the end of her left arm. The anti-armor shells stitched along his left arm just before the missile barrage struck. As the warheads blossomed across his front torso from the center line and to the left, his arm was struck again. With little armor remaining, one of the missiles passed through an opening and detonated inside. The forearm blew off, destroying both the hand actuator and his medium laser. He staggered back two steps as the squat Grand Dragon was buffeted by the multiple hits but kept his feet under him.

Pleased with her hit on the ‘Dragon, Keena was unsure whether she simply managed to miss or if Jason had somehow managed to dodge them, but her short range missiles flew past him to blow holes in the structure behind him. Her pair of medium lasers burned angry scars in the armor of his left torso and right arm but the smaller Vulcan was still full of fight. Her own condition was deteriorating fast. While the structural damage indicator was bright green, the left torso armor flag was black on her damage display. That meant no discernable armor remained. As there was a ton of SRM ammo housed in that section she was one good hit from taking a forced ride in her ejection pod. It looked like Basem was busy keeping his balance. Her fingers flew through the command routines to blow off the rear of the ammo bin and eject the missiles.

Moderately surprised he hadn’t been on the receiving end of the potent cannon, Jason centered his targeting reticule on the smoking left shoulder of the Orion and hit it with everything he had once again. He was rewarded with two laser blasts finding the damaged section while the others caught center chest and arm. But two were enough. The small laser touched off the solid propellant of the specialized NARC beacon missiles and that small explosion touched off it’s fellows. The larger explosion captured the attention of the spilling SRMs that then began to touch off and fire away in many directions. But several others still caught higher up in the magazine simply detonated with the rising heat. The left side of the Orion exploded from within and took a third of the XL powerplant with it. Jason jumped away as soon as he was able, worried that the Orion might explode with enough force to damage his ‘Mech but the safety devises wired into the fusion plant’s core shut down the reactor. As Keena was buffeted about by the simulation of her ejection she glanced at the low set screen that carried sim info and sighed heavily to herself. Jason had been credited with killing her. She’d been downed by the self-same 40 tonner she’d so lightly dismissed to Katana.

As Katana moved toward Cowgirl’s last known location she saw the exhaust streak of the ejection pod. Without all the extra data feeds and specialized tracking gear the Warder’s usually mounted in their ‘Mechs she’d been unable to locate her missing lance mate quickly enough to help.

“Mother Goose, this is Katana. It looks like Cowgirl has been downed by Sirocco and Racker. Your orders?”

Goose swore to herself then flicked on the comm. “Understood Katana. Find the best defensible place you can and we’ll come to you.” Easter said then done. She’d managed to blow off one of Lawman’s arms and place a few damaging hits on him but Granny had paid dearly. Her armor had been tattered after several exchanges and she had light internal damage in one leg. The tough Flashman was scarred but unholed. Neither Lawman nor Ranger had elected to press down out of the hills to follow their Ladies backwards retreat.

“As ordered,” came Katana’s reply.

“Storm,” called Gracie. “On my mark turn and break for the buildings at top speed. Link up with Katana. Three, two, one, Mark!”

At her own call of ‘mark’ Gracie fired one ER PPC Sven’s way followed by one towards Frank. Then she turned her own machine and put it into the slow 65 kph lumbering action Awesome pilots called a “run”. Although periphery vision from the AWS models was very poor, she did catch a glimpse of Misty’s Flasman making it’s turn and pulling ahead of her. Her radar clearly showed Misty’s machine but without the C3 gear operating the scanner couldn’t give Gracie information on a unit’s facing. She punched the control that displayed the wrap-around rear view she rarely bothered with for an early warning if either enemy came over the hill but neither swooped down. They both fired although neither managed to score on the fleeing Lady Killers at the extreme ranges involved.

Her radar display began to provide fuzzed results and she realized she was entering the sphere of ECM being generated by Racker’s ‘Mech. It looked like she had passive returns from Basem and Naoko to the ‘west’ side of the town which meant that Jason had to be somewhere in the vicinity of the buildings dead ahead unless he’d perfected the art of hiding a 40 ton ‘Mech in open ground.

She spotted him edging out around a building and fired two plasma balls his way as his lasers lit up. One tore up the building he stood next to while the other slammed hard into his right torso. His three medium lasers scattered harmlessly around her, but his single large laser lanced into her damaged leg and melted through the main weight bearing spar. As that leg came down again the weight of her own ‘Mech snapped the limb off just under the knee and her electronic steed did a great impression of a face plant into the hard turf as the sim capsule flung her down and crashed to a sudden stop.

“Storm, I’m out of it. Link with Katana and withdraw if you can. Save us a few victory points.” Gracie shook her head in disbelief. She’d been legged on the run by Jason. Maybe if she played dead they’d forget about her until time ran out and she could salvage some victory points. Her movement ability was history but her sensors worked just fine. She could see that Lawman and Ranger had finally decided to venture out of the hills.

“Storm, make your first left when you hit the buildings. I’m pulling back to join up,” commed Naoko.

“Wilco,” replied Misty as her Flashman rumbled into town between the buildings. Whether by accident or design, Ranger had spread his fire out pretty evenly over her abused BattleMech. Nothing had penetrated yet, put the cliché about paper-thin armor applied to just about every section of her machine. While her lance was getting it’s tail whipped, she had no complaints about her simulated ‘Mech. The Flashman was a fine model. Shot up as it was it still had plenty of fight left in it. Originally she had thought something was wrong with the Buzzsaw anti-missile system when it failed to engage the LRMs that Ranger had occasionally lobbed at her but when she tried a hasty systems diagnostic she’d realized she had simply never turned it on. Although she felt foolish about her mistake, her pragmatic side reminded her that the reason for simming was to make your stupid mistakes in a computer world rather than on a battlefield. It was on now and still had half an ammo load.

Jason ran past Basem where Sirocco had taken up a stopping position at the end of town.

“That was fine shooting against Goose my friend,” congratulated Dhafar as Jason sped by.

“Thanks. Bagged her in one salvo,” replied an excited Jason.

Ranger’s voice filled the comm-line next. “That’s two scores little buddy. One more and you have a hat trick. Two more and it’s time to throw the octopus out on the ice.”

There was a slight pause as Jason negotiated a tight turn at speed before he replied. “Uh Ranger? I think I speak for Sirocco as well when I say we have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Indeed,” agreed Basem. “Why would we throw an octopus on ice?”

“They’re ancient hockey terms,” interrupted Lawman’s deep voice. “And now’s not the time for them. The closing action is where lives are lost unnecessarily so stay sharp. Ranger and I are about to close down this end of town. You two position as planned and stop up that end. If they try to hole up in the victory zone then we’ll come in from both sides. And don’t stray out from the buildings. Goose is still sitting out there with three live particle projector cannons.”

Chastened, Basem and Jason wilcoed in while Ranger cut the chatter but by the tone in his confirmation it seemed he was amused by Lawman’s admonishment.

Misty made the directed turn and saw on her radar that Katana had dropped in thirty meters behind her. The narrow street really only allowed for one ‘Mech abreast. Up ahead the Grand Dragon stepped out into their exit path. “What’s the plan?” called Misty as her targeting system painted a threat circle around Sirocco’s ‘Mech. Although exact ranking within the lance hadn’t been discussed, Misty found herself naturally deferring to the more experienced Combine officer.

“Give him a good blast then peel off down a side street. My armor’s pretty fresh so I’ll charge down on him while you swing back parallel as soon as you can. We try to fight clear to our starting nav point.”

“You got it. Here we go.” Misty could see the stubby arm that ended in an ER PPC barrel coming up to point at her. She brought her own handless arms up to point back and the street was lit up with green and blue-white energy. Basem’s artificial lightning ball smashed and melted what was left of her right chest armor then spent the rest of it’s energy chewing on myomer and steel supports. But the sturdy Flashman pressed on as her three large lasers jabbed out and slashed across the Grand Dragon’s left side vaporizing armor from the leg and chest while the third beam charred most of the remaining myomer of the left arm. The limb dangled loosely now, nonfunctional for most practical purposes. Ten missiles sprung from the ‘Dragon’s middle and flared down towards her. The Buzzsaw knocked three from the air but four others struck home. They chewed up most of the remaining armor over her right side.

Pulling at her controls as hard as she ‘envisioned’ a leaning turn at the gyro interface, she spun the 75 ton machine around the next corner and started down the new street as Naoko passed behind her. Katana fired her own weapons at Basem now that Misty was out of the way. Two flights of SRMs and a pair of medium lasers bashed at Basem, combining with Misty’s hits to force him to one knee. But Sirocco gamely held on and steadied his ‘Mech as he waited for his weapons to recycle so he could fire on the charging Kintaro.

Misty was just starting to pick up speed again when the Vulcan stepped into her path. His lasers spat green bolts at her just as she targeted the lighter ‘Mech and fired her brace of medium lasers in return. She connected with three of four but only managed to melt armor from a leg and across his midsection. Nothing had managed to get through the Vulcan’s hide yet. The same couldn’t be said for her Flashman as it’s weakened armor finally succumbed to enemy fire. Both her left and right torso sections suffered internal damage, with a critical hit spiking her heat and drawing dark black smoke from the left side where the large laser had hit.

“Katana, I’ve been cut off by the Vulcan. Have engaged, will advice.”

Misty heard Kat grunt a quick acknowledgement as the Combine MechWarrior engaged the Grand Dragon. But Storm’s mind was focused on her weapon and heat displays. With no maneuvering room and his ‘Mech standing only 20 meters away aiming wasn’t much of an issue. Despite her internal damage the cooling system was still fully operational. But the damage to her engine shielding was letting heat escape directly into the chest cavity and stressing her heat sinks’ ability to expel any heat she generated. An all out fusillade of everything she had was out of the question if she planned to move again after firing.

Within the sim cockpit , just to the side of her right arm rest was a panel of several rows of red and green lit buttons that could be used to manually choose weapons. It was the “oldtech” way cockpits used to employ for weapons designation but Misty found herself happy the Flashman designers had kept the old panel as a backup system. That meant that worked in the sim capsule as well. For a quick change she found the push buttons faster to use then cycling and grouping with one of the joystick toggles. She punched the green buttons for two large and two medium lasers, each glowing to confirm their selection then hit the main button at the top of the panel to activate her choices. The rest lit up red to show they were not chosen. Damaged weapons were designated by an amber light at the end of each row. None of those were lit.

Cruelly coherent light flashed between them again as each shuffled slightly in the confined space in an attempt to disrupt the other’s aim. Scarred and pitted as it was, the Vulcan’s armor finally gave way under the large lasers. Energy burned through to char away myomer and secondary support ribbing in two chest cavities. In a puff of smoke and a shower of yellow-green coolant one of the extra heat sinks stuffed into the Vulcan’s left torso blew out. In the center section the fibers and power connections to the medium laser were severed by molten armor chunks. One medium laser failed to penetrate as it only burned armor from the undamaged arm Jason had drawn in to protect his ravaged left breast while the second burned through the right torso and took a jump jet off line when it slashed through the plasma ducting.

The Flashman was answered in kind however. It too suffered a large laser breach to the center front but suffered the far more serious damage of a gyro casing hit. The right arm was breached as well and lost a shoulder actuator while some more internal damage occurred to the left torso without immediately taking out anything critical.

Like too punch drunk fighters the pair of ‘Mechs staggered toward each other as the pilots within fought stubborn controls and manually adjusted the outer gyro rings to keep on their feet. Misty was having a harder time of it as her gyro fought against her control inputs but Jason was unaware of her difficulties at the moment. He was looking at a diagnostic display that told him he had no frontal armor, moderate internal damage and a better armed foe. He was also looking at several large rends in the Flashman’s armor through which he could actually see interior sections of the ‘Mech. As he was staggering towards her anyway Jason decided it was do-or-die time. He regained most of his balance and rushed in the last few steps between them as he balled and raised his fists. Misty was unable to do anything to counter his advance as he plunged both hands deep into her torso.

Her cockpit shuddered in an odd way as metal tore and screeched beneath her. Had they been in real ‘Mech’s she probably could have seen into his cockpit as the fronts of their machines seemed to bump together. Lacking hands or lower arm actuators her Flashman wasn’t much of a brawler but she swung her one good arm around and down in a chopping motion that seriously damaged his right shoulder and pushed the lighter ‘Mech away from her. But a quick glance at the damage display as multiple warning tones warbled through her cockpit told her what she already suspected. This battle was over for her. She’d taken further engine damage to her fusion plant and the heat was going to spiral out of control and force the reactor to shut itself down if the damaged gyro didn’t dump her on her back first.

“Storm here. I’m ejecting,” she reported quickly as she pulled the yellow and red handle.

Naoko’s first exchange with the Grand Dragon had punished it greatly. Her two flights of SRMs had hit almost to the last missile and reduced his side torso armor to minimal levels and blasted loose the heavily damaged left arm. One even exploded directly above the wide frontal viewport. Her medium lasers vaporized armor from his center just above the LRM tubes and threatened to burn through his left leg for the knee actuators but failed to penetrate the well armored leg. She’d caught a PPC blast to her front left in return but the untouched armor stood up to the assault.

Bassem’s ‘Mech staggered back and fell under the multiple blasts as the concussive force that vibrated through his cockpit armor momentarily stunned him. He regained his senses quickly enough to direct his fall so that the Grand Dragon went down on it’s side and behind the corner he stood near to provide him cover while he wrestled the war machine back to it’s feet.

Katana fought her controls as well, her Kintaro slowing slightly as excess heat slackened the myomer muscles that drove her forward. Although she was equipped with the newer model heat sinks as well, her Kintaro carried only the base ten commonly built into an engine’s core. Her targeting data started to wander slightly as well, but that was simply another heat effect rather than Jason’s ECM gear.

She figured her machine was fresh enough to stop and slug it out with the Grand Dragon. But a prolonged exchange would let the rest of Basem’s lancemates close on her. Katana vectored into the last side street available before coming up on Sirocco’s position to cool her ‘Mech and assess her options. Maybe Misty would be able to provide support. But that hope quickly evaporated with the ejection message.

“Lance Leader, this is Katana. I’m the last one on my feet. Do you want me to go down fighting or try to retreat to our LZ? I could try to draw them out where you could get some shots off.”

“Negative Katana, don’t stay and fight. If this was a real engagement I’d want to get at least one ‘Mech back to report so we’ll play it that way in this sim too,” replied Gracie. “Make a run for it and I’ll cover you as far as I can.”

“Roger Goose. Starting my run.”

Naoko took up a new facing and pushed her Kintaro into a run. She’d go up a few streets before bursting out onto the open plain. She would have preferred to try to take down at least one of the opposing ‘Mechs but she had her orders. Despite the grand act of defiance against her Tai-sa that tied her fortunes to the Warder’s back on Hamano, she was still a Combine trained officer that placed orders above personal desires. At the next intersection she briefly glimpsed Jason’s Vulcan which had so successfully used the tight spaces of the town to his advantage. His ‘Mech was faster than hers but he seemed to be stumbling around in the aftermath of his close-range slugging match with Storm so she chose to ignore him. She did go down one more street before breaking left to make sure he didn’t regain his equilibrium and start firing on her retreating back.

She broke cover with her torso twisted to the left but Basem stayed back until only her arm mounted SRM could be brought to bear before venturing forward and opening fire on her. His PPC bolt missed but several long range missiles exploded against her armor while her SRMs failed to find his BattleMech. Despite being five tons heavier the Grand Dragon actually had the speed to slowly reel her in and run her down. But the medium ranged fire from Gracie’s prone Awesome drove him back to the cover of the buildings. His armor was too damaged to face very many blasts from her well aimed ER particle projection cannons.

Naoko felt her shoulder blades involuntarily clinch together tightly as she headed up the slight rise and exposed her back armor to Basem’s fire. He didn’t disappoint her and caught her with both his long range weapons before she cleared the rise. Her worse fear had been a lucky breach that touched off her missile ammo. The Kintaro was an older design that had been updated in many areas but lacked the Cellular Ammunition Storage Equipment that would keep such an explosion from ripping her BattleMech apart. Luckily she suffered only minor internal damage to one side and safely slipped over the hill and out of the line of fire.

Lawman called Gracie over the com line they shared for cross-team discussion.

“Are you ready to surrender to Racker or do I have to make him jump out there and stomp on your back?”

Gracie chuckled. “I’ll yield to Racker. He’s earned the kill after the way we’ve been knocking him around all day.”

She heard Sven laugh as well. “Well, I figured he could use a little morale booster so we tried to set him up with the starring role this time. I think he’s coming along well. What about you? Did you find out what you wanted to know about Cowgirl?”

“I think so,” she replied as she began to unbuckle the sim’s neurohelm. “I think so.”

Shortly later Keena sat in the woman’s locker room studying a datapad with the session’s results on it. Near her Naoko and Misty had already stripped down and were about to head for the showers.

“I don’t get it,” sighed Keena as much to herself as the other two MechWarriors. “We had bigger ‘Mechs and if you match up the single pilot scenario scores from before the contest Goose edges Lawman, Kat edges Sirocco, I beat out Ranger and Storm outdoes Racker.”

“Not in our last encounter,” shrugged Misty. “He slugged it out with me and I’m the one that took the parachute ride.”

“Yeah, but that was the one time. Overall we should have won easily,” complained Keena. Not only did she hate losing, she was unsure how the lance’s loss would affect her attempt to find a new home for herself and her brother.

“That’s why they fight the fights at Solaris,” replied Gracie as she entered the changing area. “If you could always pick winners by the stats they could just set up computers to provide the simulated outcomes. Besides, I wouldn’t put it past Frank to sandbag his baseline scores a bit figuring you’d look them up and use them decide his threat potential. We did a little worse than I had expected but overall not too bad.”

“You expected to lose?” asked a surprised Keena.

“I never expect to lose,” snorted Gracie forcefully. “But neither did I expect a cake walk and I was aware of the possibility of losing. Anyone care to guess why we lost?”

Naoko and Misty exchanged glances. It was pretty clear to them.

“They fought better as a team than we did,” answered Misty. “On Coleson’s Orb at three to one odds my CORDF lancemates lost repeatedly to the Warders because you all made better use of your ‘Mech capabilities and kept separating our forces. Same thing just happened again but on a smaller scale.” Misty was mildly surprised when the sharp stab of loss didn’t pierce through her at the thought of her dead comrades. Mentioning them produced a dull ache – she’d never forget them - but she was finally moving on.

Gracie nodded. “That’s about the whole of it. Sven and Frank have been working together for years while most everything Jason knows about tactical ‘Mech combat has come from Sven. Even though Naoko and Basem started training with us about the same time and Misty’s simmed with us too is was usually with five of you in the five sim pods we had on the Baltic Serenade while Sven or I rode the control computer.

“Lawman’s used to having that modified Vulcan in the lance and piloted the Lancelot much like he used his Bushwacker. Only Basem’s Grand Dragon was a seriously different addition and I think we saw that as the sessions wore on they made better use of it. When we set this up Sven and I figured that two of the sims would favor his lance, two ours and two could go either way. Which is exactly what happened with our two lances splitting the ‘even’ ones but we lost the overtime match. That’s the only one that really surprised me. I figured the last scenario gave us a slight edge but I underestimated Jason and Lawman fooled me by going with a tactical doctrine that was very unusual for him.

“But that’s what the sims are for,” finished Gracie. “Blow a sim; live and learn. Blow a battle; die and forget.”

Gracie realized that Naoko and Misty were hovering, trying to decide if she had more to say or if they could head for the showers. With a smile and a shooshing motion Gracie sent them for the spray stalls and then sat down next to Keena.

“I got skunked by a rookie in a machine half my weight,” sighed Keena. “Not a good selling point for a girl looking for a new unit.”

“It’s easy to get careless towards the end of a long sim session,” nodded Gracie.

“You’re not exactly trying to repair my fragile ego,” observed Keena.

“Your ego doesn’t strike me as being very fragile.”

A deep chuckle sounded from the dark skinned MechWarior. “No, I suppose it isn’t. I hope you noticed that I did ‘dress down’ for this party.” She paused for a moment, lost in thought about the scenarios. Gracie simply sat silently and waited. Finally Keena looked up, locking eyes with the other woman. “You know, I really don’t think my problem is that I can’t be a team player or that I don’t understand the power of solid group tactics. I’ve just never been anyplace that could teach me. My lower rung career on Solaris was all single and free-for-all work. The merc units I’ve been with weren’t much for training. It was more like ‘hey, we have a contract and need a pilot. You’ll do’. I can do this Lieutenant. I really can.”

There wasn’t a hint of pleading or desperation in her voice. Only firm conviction that she could retrain the way she fought if someone was willing to teach her.

“Well, I like your spunk Cowgirl. And I think you can do it. Hell, if we could teach Ranger then we can teach you. But it’s going to take more than your willingness to learn to convince Major Linna to sign you on. So…without any ego fluff or image building lay out the simple truth between you and me. Why are you here on Outreach trying to be a mercenary MechWarrior instead of chasing glory on Solaris?

Military Section
Harlech DropPort, Outreach
2 May 3052

As the sun sank into the horizon Osmo sank onto a lobby bench, grateful for the quick rest. He’d been running all over today. Checking with his WolfNet contact on the Flashman info, working with three different security forces on protection issues, double checking the security measures for the children they’d brought back, making sure the commo team was checking over the Bifrost systems, trying to keep track of John’s whereabouts, lodging issues for moving the MechWarriors….the list had seemed endless. Now he had exactly twelve minutes before an internal Review Board meeting John and Gracie had called. Luckily there had been a conference room available for them to borrow in the military terminal of the DropPort. He hoped he hadn’t been too rushed with Lieutenant Laidie earlier in the day. She’d begged off for more time to think about contracting with the Warders. Osmo figured they’d be selling their VTOLs and looking for work with a house unit soon from the looks of them but it was her call to make.

His eyes had been closed for several minutes when a semi-familiar voice interrupted his light doze.

“Excuse me, Captain Woods?”

He looked up to see the dazzling smile of Lieutenant Laidie shining down on him. Smoothly be rose to his feet. “Yes Lieutenant? I was just resting my eyes before a review meeting. What can I do for you?”

“Your communications team told me I could find you here. That’s an impressive rig you folks have there by the way. Your tech setup is top notch too. My gang’s talked it over and we’re in agreement. I’d like to accept your offer Sir.”

“Great. I’m sure Lieutenant Fosters will be happy to hear he doesn’t have to walk everywhere anymore. I’ll get the official paperwork over to you by fourteen hundred tomorrow. We don’t know exactly when, but we’ll hopefully be leaving within a week or two. I’ll arrange DropShip space for your folks. Have someone put together a lift-list so I know how much mass we’re talking about. As we discussed there are some security issues right now so it would be best if your unit keeps to it’s tents right now and avoids talking about the contract too much for the moment. Welcome to the Warders Lieutenant. I hope you’ll be happy here.”

“Thanks, I’m sure we will. Hey, is that your Major?”

Glancing toward the glass doors Osmo saw that it was indeed John entering the lobby. The same John he hadn’t gotten around to telling about the VTOL contract yet. Gracie was two steps behind him. Osmo tried to cut Laidie off but couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say before she launched herself toward John in a determined march. John pulled up short in surprise as she stopped right in his path and saluted before offering her hand.

“Major Linna, it’s good to meet you at last. We’re all proud to be aboard Sir,” she announced jauntily.

“Yes, yes indeed,” stalled John. “I’m glad to hear it…lieutenant.”

Laidie could plainly see the confusion on the MechWarrior’s face. She turned to look back at the Warder Captain. He looked slightly embarrassed. Jenny returned her attention to the Warder CO. “You have no idea what I’m talking about do you?”

“No, I don’t,” admitted John.

“I’m afraid I was under the impression my VTOL unit had just signed on with your outfit.”

It was John’s turn to look to Osmo. “I thought you guys were looking for tanks?”

“We were. Or still are. Lieutenant Laidie’s unit is more like armored personnel carriers. Uh, flying armored personnel carriers Sir. We got a little busy and I never got around to telling you last night…or today.”

“Hey, if the contract was unauthorized I understand…” started Laidie but she trailed off when he raised his hand, palm out in a sign to let him interrupt.

“Your VTOLs are designed to carry infantry?”

“Yes Sir. RedHawks. Each one can carry a full platoon and is armed with a LRM 5, medium laser, and mini-guns.”

John seized immediately on the potential uses. “How many do you have Lieutenant?”

“Ten birds Sir, with enough aircrews to put them all up at the same time.”

“Two stars,” he mused. He noted her confused look and smiled. “You caught me off guard but I have complete trust in my senior officers to do what’s right for the unit. Whatever deal you and Captain Woods worked out will get my signature. Your VTOLs will provide great tactical mobility for our ground forces and a nice dose of suppression fire when needed as well. I’m afraid we’re a little pressed for time at the moment but I look forward to meeting with you soon to flesh out a role for your unit. Welcome aboard Lieutenant.”

“Thank you Sir. It’s good to have a home. I’ll be available at your convenience.”

“I bet you will,” Gracie snorted quietly to herself as Jenny departed.

“Hmm? Did you say something Gracie?” asked John.

“Nothing important. Just that she’s a real stunner.”

“Guess you’re right. I didn’t notice. Now let’s take care of business folks. I’ve still got a full slate of conference calls on my schedule for tonight.”

The three of them took seats at the table after John’s bodyguard detail made sure there were no other doors or windows then stationed themselves outside the entryway.

“Looks like our agenda is just a unit update and then a MechWarrior application. Anything new to add?” asked John.

“Some friends of mine have turned up some interesting data on that Flashman and the Combine raids. I’d like to brief both of you,” noted Osmo.

“That sounds promising. Let’s start there then. Any objections Gracie?”

“Huh? Nope. Fine by me.” She scrutinized Osmo for a quick moment before turning her attention to her portable computer in case she wanted to take notes.

“Incredible as it may sound, that Flashman was ComGuard property until two years ago. It, presumably the matching three we fought on Hamano, and a bunch of other equipment was recorded as lost when two DropShips full of military gear disappeared in what was assumed to be a failed jump. Obviously someone either found the JumpShip or orchestrated the entire thing from the start. Neither the JumpShip or the two DropShips have been sighted since and all three are recorded as destroyed in the Jaynes Guide.”

“Who’d have the brass to pull one over on ComStar?” breathed Gracie.

“Not a House government I’m thinking,” opined John. “Too much risk if the op failed. A communications interdiction would be crippling to any of their economies. Besides, they have plenty of ‘Mechs- why steal a few from ComStar? It’s hard to imagine a pirate force having the money and insider information to pull such a stunt. And I find it hard to believe that ComStar has splinter groups within it.”

“So what does that leave?” asked Gracie in annoyance. As far as she could tell he’d just ruled out everyone except Periphery states. They didn’t seem to be likely candidates.

“A multi-national conglomerate,” supplied Osmo. “The only other entity powerful enough to do something like this is one of the giant interstellar corporations. Somebody wanted their own private army. Plenty of corporations have long term contracts with merc outfits or operate ‘security forces’ that resemble planetary militias. But those forces can be traced. They have a face and a name. We have the faceless ‘Black Bolts’ and two lances of unmarked tan ‘Mechs.”

“It seems a little far fetched,” argued Aukland. “I mean, why would they need a secret army. The way the universe runs these days if somebody drops on your turf you’re allowed to use whatever you can field to blast them to pieces. Heck, that’s been our specialty the past few years. Blasting raiders.”

“But the point is to be the one dropping on other people’s turf Gracie,” countered Woods. “I don’t know the ‘why’s’ yet, but the string of attacks we caught the tail end of at Jeddah where all against Combine worlds within Warlord Vederman’s domain and all the worlds had some form of indigenous protest movement. We’re guessing that the industrial targets that got hit all belonged to moneyed sympathizers who were backing the protest movements. Rather than try to dissuade the individual protestors they went after the funding sources.”

“Pretty smart,” mused John. “You stop the money flow while showing the general population how much they need a greater Combine presence for protection from pirates and raiders. It’s obvious what’s in it for the Warlord, the question is what’s in it for the mystery raiders.”

“That one is still a blank. Thousands of information bits on supplies, pricing, tariff / duty changes, unusual equipment releases and so forth will have to be compiled and examined for a pattern. It could take a mainframe,” finished Osmo, “a long time.”

“And that’s what makes an outfit like us and someone like John so dangerous to them,” realized Gracie out loud. “He has the time, money and staff expertise to do such an analysis and us as a military arm to deal with a private army. But that means…”

“That I’m not the only one in danger,” finished John. He was tempted to burst from the room right then and head directly for the ComStar facility. But he knew it would be days until a message got to his brother. An extra hour or two wasn’t going to change anything. Still, he felt inclined to hurry things up. “We’ll table this for now so I can think on it. Let’s save Osmo’s explanation of the VTOL hiring for tomorrow too. Right now let’s hear Gracie’s comments on this Cowgirl and read Sven’s remarks then finish the interview. The nuts and bolts items have to come first. Our shadowy enemy will have to wait for now.”

Out in the lobby Keena Washington was nervously pacing the small area. Such activity was unusual for her. She was, after all, used to waiting for Solaris matches to begin. That could really sweat the concentration out of you if you didn’t learn to handle it. And after drifting through five different units she’d have thought she was used to being interviewed by now. But somehow this one was different. No, not somehow she told herself. This one was specifically different in one very special way. Her brother Shane.

Shane had never expressed any care about what unit they were in as long as they were together. This was the first time he had any interest. He’d practically implored her to take any pay, accept any rank, and say anything they wanted to hear to get a contract. Shane had never wanted to be a mercenary. But after they got forced off Solaris they had to do something for a living. He’d called his day with the Warder techs just about the best day he’d had in years. Shane would have been a tech at one of the top Solaris stables by now if it wasn’t for her. She desperately wanted to find him a place where he fit in, a place that he could call home. A place that would take care of him should she suck an autocannon round through the canopy some day. This was his place. She could sense it.

It was an OK place for her too. The general deal was about as good as a MechWarrior could hope to find. Admittedly, she was happier with assault missions than garrison duty. The Cowgirl was the type of MechWarrior that needed the occasional touch of adrenaline from flirting with death from 60 plus tons of angry metal. But if she had to pull a couple of years guarding industrial compounds until her brother was settled in then that was exactly what she was going to do. She’d be the best building babysitter these Warders ever saw. Their lance set up seemed a little odd though. That Ranger guy along with herself and the Goose lady would seem to make a better, more aggressive team. But then again, maybe that’s why their CO had them split up the way they were.

“They’re ready for you Ma’am,” interrupted one of the guards into her musings. Squaring her shoulders, Keena prepared for a mental battle. That was pretty much how she viewed most of life’s endeavors these days- as contests or battles.

Major John Linna hadn’t been as impressive as she had expected from the news stories. Still, it was obvious that he was used to being in charge and knew what he was about. She sensed quickly that he was sharp. Trying to outguess him and parrot what he wanted to hear was likely a losing strategy. Earlier Lieutenant Aukland had given her what had seemed like screwy advice about this interview. The Goose lady had advised the Cowgirl to just answer from her heart. That wasn’t the way the Cowgirl was used to playing her hand. Still, it seemed like her best option. Hard as it would be, this was for Shane so she’d buckle down and do it. As best she could anyway. When you get practiced as hiding your heart from others sometimes you automatically hide it from yourself as well.

“Why do I want to be a Warder?” Keena repeated as she tried to order her thoughts. “Well, y’all have a fine reputation and I’ve been very impressed with both your equipment and your MechWarriors…”

Keena risked a peek at the Major and saw that he wasn’t terribly impressed with her transparent flattery. From the heart she reminded herself. The truth, as best she could articulate it anyway. She paused and gulped, then mentally unlocked the heat safeties and opened up with all barrels without worrying about where her answer was aimed.

“Ah hell Sirs, y’all know you have a darn fine outfit and that I’ve been drifting around for a spell. And I guess that’s the heart of the matter. It’s time to find a home. A place where I let myself make friends and cry when they die and maybe be cried over if it’s my turn to buy the farm. And find a home for my brother Shane. He never wanted this life but he stuck with me because all we had was each other and all I’m good at is fighting. Shane’s the one that aches to be a Warder. He’s seen a place where he can contribute and grow and family’s the most important thing in the world to me. If I have to sign over my Orion to get us in I’ll do it. I’ll work for nothing but spare parts and grub if need be.

“I trained to pilot where it’s always every jock for herself. Then I had to learn the hard way that outside the arena it’s teamwork that makes sure you survive to see the next morning. I’ve been trying real hard to show that Lawman fellow that I know how to play like a good girl. And I do Major, I really do.

“If y’all will have me I can’t promise I’ll be a model soldier with the salutes and neat uniforms and all. But I’ll never let you down Sirs. I’ll always be where y’all want me to be doing what y’all want me to do. But the main point is this. If I don’t measure up somehow then at least take Shane. He’ll be the best darn tech you’ve ever seen. If he won’t sign without me then I’ll be a tanker or a grunt or whatever.

“An I guess that’s about all I have to say on the subject.”

Ten minutes later Keena burst out the lobby doors clutching a signed hardcopy in her hand. She’d meant to hightail it back to the Wader hanger and find Shane but wasn’t surprised at all to spot her brother sitting on a bench by a public comm booth across the roadway. With a big smile she signaled him with the universal thumbs up gesture.

His excited jump must have cleared over a meter as “YeeeeeHaaawwwww” filled the evening air.

Back inside the conference room John leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. “So, anybody got an idea about what to do with her rank now that we signed her on? She’s too experienced for ‘cadet’ and not experienced enough in the leadership department that I’m comfortable making her a brevet officer.”

“I suppose we’ll have to institute ‘MechWarrior’ as a rank. Maybe a high end non-com equivalent,” opined Osmo.

“Well I’ve got an even bigger problem,” groused Gracie.

“What’s that?” asked John.

“I’ve just been reading through this file on Osmo’s new VTOL company and I see that they’re the ‘Laidie’s Hawks’. I had finally decided on calling Alpha Lance the Lady Killers after three weeks of contemplation. Now it sounds like we shoot our own people.”

As Laidie and ‘lady’ were pronounced the same way, she did have a point John conceded. On the other hand, Gracie was supposed to be third in command around this growing zoo.

“You’ve got the ball with that one Gracie. Let me know how it works out. I’ve got to make my calls home then balance our books tonight and see if Harding spent all our money yet.”

The sergeant hadn’t of course. But despite their large cash reserve someone still had to check the accounting. One of these years he had to get around to hiring a funds analyst for the unit John told himself for about the umpteenth time.

Harbor Lights
Harlech city, Outreach
02 May, 3052

Perry Tortuga leaned against the chrome bar with polished ease as he scanned the other patrons. No one he was interested in so far. With his last little romance down in flames he was out scouting the possibilities tonight. Of course the Harbor Lights probably wasn’t the best place to be doing so; he’d been a regular here for many years and was well known. Any lady interested that frequented the swank bar and eatery had already given him a whirl by now.

“Hello there, this is new,” he said to himself as a trio of new arrivals caught his eye.

Two of them were young Asian women, very attractive although he usually preferred to date closer to his own age. It was the man with them that captured his imagination though. Heiro Taki, Combine Council for Mercenary Affairs. Perry had rarely seen the man publicly and certainly never here at the ‘Lights. Heiro glanced around the scene and made eye contact with Perry. But rather than shy away the Combine functionary spoke briefly with his two dates and then headed directly for Perry.

“Mr. Tortuga, it is a pleasure to see you tonight. I hope all is well with you,” greeted Heiro.

“Domo arrigato Mr. Taki. All is well with me. And with you I hope. I do not recall having seen you here before.”

“Hai. This is my first occasion to visit this establishment. My niece and her roommate wanted to dine here. Such places are usually not to my simple tastes but with her parents bound for Luthien I felt obligated to entertain them tonight. It is a curious tale actually. My niece would prefer to stay outside the Combine to pursue her studies but influential powers within her family would compel her to return. Still, if the situation could be stretched out a few more days then I have reason to believe the family patriarch would speak on the subject. Then perhaps the young lady would be free to make her own choices. Still, if family honor calls before that time we are all duty bound to obey.

“Ah, but I must be boring you with the rigid matters of our ways. I imagine they must seem quite odd to a worldly man such as yourself. But still, I believe you understand my meaning even if you do not share my culture. It seems a table is ready for us, I must go. Good evening Mr. Tortuga.”

“Yes, thanks. Good evening to you as well Mr. Taki.”

As the stately Combine representative rejoined his party Perry ran the odd dialog through his head once again. It hardly seemed possible; yet what else could Taki have meant. Perry tossed some money down on the bar and strolled outside looking for a convenient place to use his hand-cell.

“Hello Paul, this is Perry. Hey, on this Fujiwara case…I think we need a new strategy. …No…..No….listen to me Paul. All of that is still true. But I just had a little conversation that convinced me we need to stall the decision back if we can. I’ll fill you in on the details tomorrow. Right…..Good night Paul.”

Freefall Lounge
DropPort Area
Harlech city, Outreach
2 May 3052

Sergeant William Harding leaned onto the bar from his stool. He sighed contentedly, focusing on nothing in particular as the sounds of the bar rolled across him. This had been his favorite watering hole on Outreach for many years. He didn’t actually get here that often of course. Most of the time he lived on another planet. But practically the same staff had been here since his very first visit and they had an uncanny ability to remember patrons two and even three years between visits. Harding admired things that ran well and this establishment ran very well indeed.

Thinking of running well, on his side of the field things were coming together well for the unit. He’d found plenty of spare parts for ‘Mechs they had and done well bartering the extra weapons and equipment away. Despite being understaffed for the number of machines they now owned everything would be up and running by tomorrow night latest. Having the tank techs available to help with the less demanding ‘Mech work had helped. The C3 gear and any weapon mods would have to wait until they got home though. That kind of stuff was best done in the full shop environment of the main base. Anytime you took a ‘Mech away from it’s factory weapon layout you inevitably had to fabricate a mount bracket here and a power feed there.

Then there was that Shane kid they’d just picked up. Some people were natural fighters, some conmen, and others writers but Shane was a natural born fix-it guy. He had an incredible talent for inspired jury-rigging. That Orion of his sister’s was mute testament to the kid’s skill. That he managed to keep it operational basically by himself with ducting tape and fencing wire was notable. But the reactor output read 1.5% above nominal maximum. Not that any ‘Mech needed an extra percent or two; energy was the one thing they usually had in spades. But whatever Shane had done to the power delivery system was a trick even Harding hadn’t heard of. Some sections of the ‘Mech were questionable – there were actually climbing style D-rings holding one component in place – but the thing was ready to fight. Given proper tools and materials the kid would be unstoppable. His biggest handicap would be his tendency to think of alternative, jury-rig solutions over the obvious common fixes.

There was a growing rough edge to the unit overall though. They didn’t take kindly to anyone fixing on killing the Major and there wasn’t an obvious target to fight back against. Heck, if he didn’t know better he’d swear that Goose had been in a brawl last night. She’d looked pretty rough this morning when they’d brought the Grand Dragon in. This was one of those times he wished that so many of his fellow Warders weren’t such straight shooter types. From his own past William knew what it meant to live on the wrong side of the law. Hired hitmen were outside most of the Warder’s experience. Still, the ground pounders were all tough customers and Third Platoon was trained for anti-terrorist security. And Captain Woods had always struck William as somebody who knew the darker paths. They’d look out for the Major. Besides, after all the close scrapes John Linna had survived it seemed that the man was unkillable. William hoped so. He owed the father a debt that could never be repaid and now only the son was left to collect what was due.

“Mind if I join you?” asked a husky voice.

Harding straightened up and took in the speaker. She was a sweet looker, wearing a Dragoon tech coverall and a smile that spoke more of professional interest than personal.

“No, go ahead. Sergeant Harding with the Suomi Warders.”

“I know. I’m Sergeant Millie Hays of the Wolf’s Dragoons. I heard you guys had some adventures on your last contract. I was hoping that if I was buying you’d be talking.”

“I suppose I can live with that arrangement.” He signaled the barkeep to set him up with his “number two” drink of choice while Hays ordered a local beer.

“Anything in particular you want to hear about?” he asked as their drinks were delivered.

“Let’s start with the miracle pulse laser they say you grafted into your CO’s ‘Mech with a soldering iron and bailing wire,” she grinned, “then maybe you can tell me how you outsmarted a DCMS tech team and fixed what they couldn’t solve on one of their own ‘Mechs.”

“Both interesting stories,” nodded Harding as he warmed to the telling. “You should have seen the look on my face when I realized that the Major had purposely ran his ‘Mech into a forest fire then waltzed around the flames for a while for extra measure. It took us three days to get all the carbon scoring stripped from the actuators. But as to the pulse laser, it all started when……”

It was a good three hours later before Millie bid him farewell and staggered out the door. By his own count William figured he’d killed eight or nine tall glasses and she’d quaffed seven beers. But he might have forgotten one or two he admitted to himself. Well, it was about time he put himself to bed too. Another busy day tomorrow. He signaled the barkeep, who ambled down to stand opposite Harding.

“One more for the road. The real deal this time.” The mixed drinks William had been drinking tasted slightly of alcohol but contained only trace amounts of any real booze. They did give him a sugar rush though.

“You got it Mr. Harding,” nodded the barkeep. Everyone was always Mister or Miss here. William loved that. It was a nice touch of class.

“Mr. Corning,” he asked the bar tender, “have you seen my visitor in here before?”

The man paused to think about it for a moment. “Three or four times. Never in a uniform before tonight. Always asking questions of somebody. Do you know her?”

“Nope. Private investigator for someone or another I’d imagine. Seen her type before.”

“I hope she wasn’t any bother for you Mr. Harding,” offered the barkeep as he placed the fresh drink on the counter.

“None at all my friend,” answered Harding as he dropped a few extra credits on the bar top. “None at all.”

Military Hangar Area
Harlech DropPort, Outreach
6 May 3052

“Dis is stupid,” growled Gunther. “Ve vill get caught.”

“Look, either stop complaining or get out now,” snapped back Gary. “But I’m going in that hanger to see what’s there.”

“Da Hauptman vill not like dis,” grumped the taller man but he made no move to climb out of the open topped cargo-cart.

Gary Mitchell pushed the transmission level into forward and the chunky little cart started off from between the shadows of two hangars on a direct line for the open doorway of the hangar assigned to the Warders. Both MechWarriors wore generic olive drab fatigues that could be purchased in dozens of places around Harlech. They didn’t bother with disguises. Theoretically no one would know them except Jason Nelson and only a few Warder techs seemed to be in the hanger at the moment – and the guards.

Private Thurnson waved at the approaching work cart to stop as it came toward him. His other hand was wrapped around the grip of his Lahti A-12 assault rifle as it hung from a sling off his shoulder. He couldn’t see any obvious weapons on these two guys but the defense condition was set at three. At DefCon 3 guard duty was no longer a chance to sneak a snooze while your buddy covered for you. In fact, at 3 your buddy covered you all the time. Standing several meters back inside the hanger behind a wheeled tool box heavy enough to stop small arms fire Private Tells was alertly watching over Thurnson. The second guard was ready to raise his weapon and fire at the first sign of trouble.

The small wheeled vehicle pulled to a stop around two meters from Thurnson.

“Hey pal, hate to bother you but this stupid thing is on the fritz. Can you point us towards the Gold row?” Gary held up a digital display pad commonly used for downloading public maps and other such information.

Thurnson moved around to where he could see the display pad, but was careful to keep the same distance between them. The Lahti was held in a manner not quite threatening – but certainly in a way that wasn’t inviting. Gunther watched the young ground pounder nervously, his eye on the weapon’s muzzle.

The private could see that the ready light was on, but that the LCD screen was dark except for several bands of blue. “Looks like the display chip died on you. Head down the lane behind me to the next big intersection then go left. Gold hangers start at the following intersection on the right hand side as you approach.”

Thrunson didn’t need to consult a map to give the directions. Everyone in the platoon had memorized not only the general DropPort layout but the general run of the streets for a few surrounding blocks. Just in case.

“Thanks pal. Have a nice evening.” Gary cranked the liquid propane engine back to life and chugged off in the direction the guard had indicated.

“Log the contact,” called Thurnson to Tells. “Two males, no unit markings, looked like ‘Mech or Aerospace jocks. Asked where Gold hangers were and left. Mark the time too.”

“Got it,” called back the other. Tells looked around to make sure no one would overhear him. “That’s the problem with pilot types. Always relying too much on computer gadgets and instruments instead of their eyes and brains.”

Thurson grinned. “You got that right.”

As they turned the corner and left the Warder guards out of sight behind them Gary looked across at Gunther. “See, that wasn’t so hard was it.”

The big man shrugged. It hadn’t been but he wasn’t going to admit it.

“Did you see a Commando?” prompted Gary.

“Nein, but I did see our Flashman.”

“Me too. They haven’t even bothered to repaint it yet. Better start upping your sim time Gunther. If I know the Hauptman he’s going to start planning a raid to destroy the evidence.”

Gunther’s brows drew together in surprise. “On Outreach? That vould be crazy thing.”

“No, not on Outreach you big galoot. Probably on what ever planet they call home.”

Gary sighed silently to himself as he drove past the Gold hangers and headed for the service area they had ‘borrowed’ the cart from. Gunther was big, brave and handy in a ‘Mech cockpit but sometimes it seemed he was dumber than a box of rocks. Only a fool or an idiot would try to kill the Warders here in Harlech. And he didn’t figure himself or the Hauptman as either.

Gunther rode in silence for many minutes before he finally asked, “ vat is dis ‘galoot’?”

Chapter Index[]