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Chapter 18[]

State of the Union[]

Part Four - Crucis March
This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I'm alright song
My power's turned on

Proximity Jump Point, Logandale System
Crucis March, Federated Commonwealth
27 April 3063

Searcy grinned as he saw the Mackie moving up the canyon. It wore the red-and-black of the Robinson Rangers but that was an artifact of the simulation - each mechwarrior saw enemy 'Mechs in those colors and friendlies in the blue-and-gold of the Royal Guards.

The 'Mech in question was moving awkwardly, something that marked the pilot out more than any coloring would. The Clarent's small cargo bay was tall enough for a pair of full simulator pods obtained from the Addicks DMM base to be installed, so simulated combat had moved to the Excalibur-class ship with most mechwarriors cycling through one pod to keep the basic skills sharp while otherwise relying on Holstein's more limited simulators (now up to six in number).

The only complete novice on the roster of the 5th Royal Guards had primary access to the second pod: as a complete novice, Catherine's training had to be as realistic as possible, so she split it between the simulator pod and when conditions allowed, heavily supervised practice in the Clarent's small mech deck with one of the completed Mackies.

She was still greener than grass though and no one was following her, which meant that Searcy had a chance to pick her off alone and drop the enemy force to only three 'Mechs.

It felt a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but he'd be doing her no kindness to go easy on her.

Moving his own Mackie forward slowly out of cover, he reached the corner she'd gone behind and darted around it.

He expected to see the red-and-black shape of her Mackie only a few hundred meters away, perhaps even facing him. Instead she was facing him almost right behind the turn and the two ninety-ton machines ground against each other, torso lasers slashing into each other at point-blank range.

Damn! Searcy thought and back-pedalled hastily. This close, the arm mounted weapons could barely be brought to bear and she could hardly miss with the chest lasers. Better to get back around and engage under more favorable conditions.

That was then a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eyes warned of more Mackies moving in. Searcy whipped the his 'Mech around as fast as he could, barely shielding his vulnerable rear armor, but he couldn't avoid taking a full salvo from two more of the enemy lance.

A pair of PPCs ripped into his left side, followed by lasers and autocannon. Almost a ton and a half of armor protection all but evaporated - and beneath that were three full tons of autocannon ammunition.

The explosion almost dropped his 'Mech to the ground. If Clovis hadn't updated the simulation to reflect the CASE being fitted to the real thing, the Mackie would have died then and there.

Back was deadly, to the side almost as exposed - Searcy flung his Mackie forward, jinking around Catherine's Mackie and using it as cover until he could reach the next twist in the narrow canyons. "Baker lance, this is Lead!" he snapped. "Engaging three hostiles at grid reference golf seven."

An instinct had him glance aside and he swore, throwing the Mackie to one side just before a PPC bolt nearly skewered his cockpit from above and behind. "Make that all four of them."

"Roger that, sir. Moving to join you."

"Negative. I'm retreating into foxtrot seven." He considered the map. "There's one up top, get yourselves into foxtrot six and catch him from the flank."

"Yes, sir."

Sir. He could get used to that. Searcy shook his head and slowed his Mackie, moving to shield the ravaged right flank. Punch the first 'Mech around the corner with his remaining weapons and then duck back. All he had to do was slow them down while his lance took on the 'Mech up top...

Waiting... His fingers tensed around the joysticks and he could feel sweat on his brow, not from heat as the temperature in this pod didn't alter appreciably...

Where were they...?

Telemetry from Baker Three disappeared from his monitor. "Baker Lead, this is Four. We've just been flanked from Foxtrot five! Three is down, we're falling back!"

Dammit! They'd suckered him! He turned the Mackie and started scrambling up the steep but not impossible slope of the side. It would have been easier with both arms, easier still if the Mackie had hands but at the cost of some superficial damage to his 'Mech he managed to get it up to the top.

Smoke marked the wreckage of one of his lance tracer fire identifying where the battle was still raging. Searcy opened his throttle and raced towards the sight and sound of the guns. He'd have the high ground now...

When he reached the next gorge though, all he saw was a pair of blue and gold Mackies, colors visible around battered armor and in one case the stump of the left arm. They snapped their weapons up as he reached the edge and he had to backpedal. "Situation report?"

"I think we lost them." Baker Four's voice was wavering with uncertainty. "They pushed us back down the slope and we took cover here and..."

"Okay, got it." He flicked his sensors to magscan, thermal... nothing. "Hit and run. Nicely done too. We'd better stick together now."

Searcy had thought the three less experienced Mechwarriors would slow him down so he'd gone ahead to scout alone. Big mistake, he acknowledged as he worked the Mackie down the canyon side.

His first sign that this was a trap was a flare around the cockpit as a fusillade struck his Mackie's chest. He tried to back up, but the canyon side was far too steep to reverse his descent. With no alternative he let himself slide, dropping down below the rim of the canyon and avoiding further fire.

"Sir." Baker Two's Mackie tried to help him right his 'Mech. "I think they have us pinned down."

"You think?" Searcy looked at the map and then at the status of his lance. "Did you cause them any serious damage?"

"I don't think so."

If this was just combat training, Searcy thought, he would press on and do all the damage he could before the three of them were taken down. But right now he had next to no frontal armor left and the other two survivors were barely better - and this was lance on lance, with command performance being evaluated.

"Control, this is Baker Lead. We've tangled with a lance of enemy assault 'Mechs currently somewhere in the echo five grid square." he reported, fighting to keep frustration from his voice. "We got the worst of it and we can't push through to the objective. I request permission to withdraw."

He couldn't help but think back to another request he'd made along those lines. One that had seen him discharged from the AFFC for cowardice. The silence dragged on and then.

"Confirmed, Baker Lead. Pull your 'Mechs back to base. No use throwing your lance away."

Long before the three Mackies reached the original starting location, the screens went dead and the simulator hatch opened. Captain Gordon was looking down into it from above and extended his hand wordlessly.

Unbuckling himself, Searcy removed the neurohelmet and accepted the help in exiting.

"You've seen action before?" asked Gordon. The blond Mechwarrior still had the badge of the Assault Guards on his jacket, patches for the Royal Guards not having been readily available.

"A few times." Searcy answered him.

Gordon grinned unexpectedly. "Good call pulling back. The best a new lieutenant usually manages is pushing harder on instinct... which can work. But it can also cost us men and machines for no real gain."

"I have to give Steiner-Davion credit," Searcy admitted. "He mouse-trapped me pretty well."

"Yeah. You both learned something today." Something cold played behind Gordon's eyes. "Keep learning and you might be ready by the time we reach New Avalon."

"I'll do that, sir." Searcy told Gordon

And that'll be the last time you lure me in with a wounded duck, your highness, Searcy thought sharply. Fool me once, shame on you. But twice? Not happening.

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