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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 2
[]


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PLANT MY FEET AND BITTERLY...


Jump and a Betrayal[]

JumpShip, Hasenpfeffer
Alpheratz, Outworlds Alliance


And you may find yourself on the bridge of a starship.

And you may find yourself with a gun to your head.

And a pirate’s hand on your ass.

And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’

The day had started well, as had the week. We’d gotten everything and everyone packed aboard Shipping Report, the DropShip that had carried the survivors of my father’s mercenary unit back to Alpheratz, and lifted for orbit.

We’d spent a half hour or so in orbit, for me and the other native Alpheratzi to say goodbye - I’d blubbered, I’m not too proud to admit it - and then burned for the Nadir Jump Point.

Kearny-Fuchida Hyperspace Jump Drives, to give them their proper full name, did not like gravity. Trying to activate one in a measurable gravitational field would, if you were lucky, brick the drive like a high-amp busbar shorting into a computer’s motherboard.

If you weren’t, well, imagine the consequences of splinching in a universe that didn’t run off of Harry Potter’s semi-slapstick magic.

For ease of navigation, ease of search-and-rescue, and simplicity, JumpShips tended to concentrate their arrivals at the ‘safe’ distance from the north and south poles of the local star, relative to the local ecliptic plane.

Those who were in a great hurry, and dead to all caution, could instead aim for the balance point between two major bodies, the first Lagrange Point, where the gravity of both dominant bodies - moon and planet, planet and star, or what have you - was exactly equal…

But my father and his survivors hadn’t been, so they hadn’t. Nadir it was.

Four days in transit brought us all the way out - Brachistochrone trajectories are a hell of a drug - and I and the rest of the spent another couple days keeping out of the way of the ‘ship crews as they juggled loading and organization. One of the jumpship reactor techs was an older man who’d made a hobby of martial arts, and I was able to puppy-eye him into giving demonstration classes for me and the infantry boys on how that worked in zero-G, so that kept our free time occupied with something other than being bored and nauseous.

He visited the sparring groups in the carousel gym a few times, too. He wasn’t bad, but it was pretty clear that zero-G was his strongest field.

I didn’t spend all that wait playing, of course, anymore than he did. Most of our people, by numbers, were techs and medical types, who hadn’t been in space before any more than I had. All of us had a lot of adapting to do, and inevitably a certain amount of that adapting caused enough trouble to filter up to me.

Fortunately, it was all the kind of trouble that most people’d be able to laugh at after the fact.

What wasn’t funny was the fact that, when the Jump finally happened and we were officially an interstellar operation, every light and screen on Hasenpfeffer’s bridge winked out like the proverbial pulled plug.

There was a nervous moment of absolute blackness before, with a click and a buzz, the battery-powered emergency lights at the corners of the bridge snapped on, casting everything into ruddy, deep-shadowed dimness.

“The fuck?” one eloquent member of the confused babble filling the small space asked. I could only agree, silently, and stay hanging safely out of the way with my foot through one of the anchor loops.

The Jumpship’s skipper bounced from station to station for a moment, then spun and rounded on me. “What the fuck did your thumb-handed fuckstick dropper jocks do to my ship?” he demanded.

One of the key points that made me so bone-deep certain that me-me was different from older-me was social perception. Subverbal cues, contextual implications. Older-me had often thought of it as a magical superpower assigned to most of the human race whose delivery envelope with his name on it had gone mysteriously missing.

But younger-me, now, younger-me had been a butterfly, dancing through the zephyrs of the party-flowers like they’d handed her a five-page report on each interaction - one inch margins, double-spaced, twelve point Times New Roman - with enough agonizing detail to satisfy even the most joy-hating lit teacher.

And, since me-me lived in her body, I could do that, too.

You have no idea how much of a relief and revelation it was.

Anyway, the upside was that the skipper wasn’t nearly angry enough - he was nervous, and he was trying to divert attention from it.

So I just rolled my eyes at him. “Okay, first. I really doubt that a hard docking is gonna take down the entire computer system,” I said. “Especially, since we can still hear the air cyclers going. So we know it’s not power grid. Second, whatever it is, it’s coming out of my pocketbook, not yours, so the fuck you care? Third, blame later, fix now.”

Neither tactful nor productive, in retrospect, but there was no me that didn’t have at least a bit of a temper.

He swelled up like a bullfrog and almost took a swing at me, then throttled it back, probably using the knowledge that I’d have just fed it to him, and kicked himself across the room to hover over one of his people’s shoulders while they worked, and I tried not to worry.

That was really all I could do; younger-me’s college degree was in something useful, if at an undergrad level, but a Jumpship’s systems were too large and interconnected for a warm body that didn’t know the particular ecosystem in question to be of much use. They’d lose more time explaining and teaching me than they gained from the work I could do.

...Actually, there was one thing. “Let’s go see if the DropShips have power.” I suggested to Rakis, and he nodded.

By the time we got back with the news that all three Unions were just as blacked out, diagnostic work had proceeded to theorizing a misjump or some kind of EMP weirdness - which sparked a furious debate between most of the bridge crew about which piece of evidence did or didn’t match which theory.

I’d reached the point of trying to work out a way to interrupt and muffle the useless fight that didn’t step on the skipper’s toes too much when one of the few bridge crew that wasn’t taking part perked up and said, in a promisingly triumphant tone, “Ah-hah.”

Before I could bumble my way over to ask what he’d found, the lights came back up.

“...What?!” the skipper said, even more surprised than he’d been when they went down in the first place.

“The hardware tests weren’t working,” the crewman who’d fixed everything said, “because there’s nothing wrong with it. It was all a software lockout, so when I hotwired the console right…”

“It all came back,” I finished for him. “Come see me about a bonus, later, OK?”

He glanced over his shoulder and shot me a surprisingly shy grin while the rest of the crew returned to their station and got to work.

Two more bits of news were announced, close enough to almost overlap from different ends of the compartment:

“This isn’t Mitchella; spectral class is M8 Star, not anything like a G2. But we’re right at the zenith anyway…”

DropShip inbound, estimate two thousand tons, acceleration one gravity. Three-plus escorting fighters, ETA assuming zero-zero one hour fifteen plus-minus.”

In a situation like this, only one quote would do.

“...It’s a trap,” I Ackbar’d, then took a breath and let it out. “But we can deal. Okay. Okay. We’ve got intercom back, right? Call Sasagawa, make sure she can have her people ready to fly by the time they get here-”

There was a rippling hiss, and an unpleasant crackling rattle of shattered metal, glass, and plastic. The woman at the com station recoiled as her panel exploded into low-velocity shrapnel.

“Call no one,” Rakis ordered, and I turned to look at him just as he swung the needler in his hand to point at me.

“...What, pray tell, the fuck?” I managed to ask, around the panic choking my throat.

“You really are as dumb a bimbo as you look.” he told me.

Behind me, I heard the skipper huff. “For fuck’s sake, Rakis.” he grumbled. I didn’t take my eyes off the gun. I couldn’t take my eyes off the gun, even if expending the effort of will to do so wouldn’t have been a terrible idea.

“Shut up and get the meat tied up.” the traitor replied, then went back to looking directly at me - a lewd, raking elevator eye. “C’mere, Tits McGee,” he ordered, and sighted down the needler when I hesitated.

I pulled my foot out of the anchor loop and pushed off, gently drifting over into arm’s reach. He grabbed me, not gently, and pulled me close for a kiss hard enough to cut my lip against my teeth, trapping my body against his. With my head tilted all the way up, I could see him look around the room before he slung his free arm over my shoulder, hand reaching down to squeeze my bottom with even less in the way of consideration. The gun in his other hand rested against my temple.

“Figured it out yet?” he sneered.

I swallowed, a hysterical corner of my mind wondering if he could feel my heartbeat hammering through my chest the way I could. “The Roughriders never fought that pirate group at all,” I guessed, my mind racing the proverbial mile a minute. “You joined forces. Took over, were taken over, one of those. Sent… infiltrators, scouts, back into civilized space. Looking for opportunities. Having gear and needing people, I qualified. Some, most, all maybe, of the hires you brought were just like you.”

I tilted my head back a little, to indicate the skipper. “And since he’s one of them, one of your hires, he could go in and edit the navigation settings for the jump, send us… wherever else, rather than Mitchella.”

I swallowed. My throat was dry enough to almost hurt. “You’d already set that jump point up as a rendezvous. You have at least one JumpShip of your own, you have to to move infiltrators and so on around, and to do raids… It’s here, it was waiting, with the Leopard docked. But a jump point’s pretty big, and it had time to drift, there’s a gap - you know it’d be an hour, two hours away.

“So, you didn’t just change the destination. Once we’d arrived, the computers were set up to lock everyone out, turn off all the lights, create confusion, make it look like a tech error. Make sure that we were all too busy doing diagnostics to get ready to fight… So when the Leopard got here, with a boarding crew, they’d have an easy time of it.”

Rakis had an ugly smile, when he wasn’t trying to hide it. “Mechs, fighters, and ships, all mine for the taking.” he agreed. “Put a bullet into the head of that brainless coward Sangnoir. I’m Lord of the Band… with a nice little bit of ass right in my bed where it belongs.”

Another squeeze left no doubt who Rakis was referring to. I was probably going to have bruises. “Roll right over the playacting brats while they’re still staring at the spotlights like blinded neardeer… Easy fucking money. But some clever little shit-” he snarled, looking off in the direction of the technician who’d gotten the computers unlocked, and pulling the gun away to start aiming in his direction.

So. From the top. At least two pirates, Rakis and the skipper. Rakis certainly armed, skipper probably - at the very least I’d have to treat him as such.

Positioning. Skipper was somewhere behind me, well out of reach - the exact distance was irrelevant, only that I’d have to travel to reach him. Once I moved, I’d have exactly as long as it took the skipper to draw, aim, and fire to either deal with both of them, or find some way of getting into cover. Fortunately, being small could work for me there…

Rakis himself was more troublesome. He was a little under thirty centimeters taller than me, and fifty kilos heavier, very little of it fat. I knew, because I’d seen him practice, that he was decent in a fight, in the unpolished but effective kind of way that an experienced brawler would be, which meant that even aside other factors, like, oh, loaded guns, trying to get in anything even remotely like a wrestling match with him would be very, very dumb. He had my face pressed into his shoulder, full-body contact against his along the front for both of us, with one arm thrown over my shoulder and down my back to molest me…

But my arms were up, next to my chest where I’d curled in from the ‘hands raised don’t hurt me’ posture, and he’d just taken the barrel of his gun off of me.

Most importantly, he thought I was bed candy, not a threat. Time to demonstrate why that was stupid of him.

As the needler came off of line with my head. I reached up with my right hand and grabbed it around the barrel from below. Shoving sharply upwards and twisting so that it curled right out of his grip. It hissed like a live thing in the process as I dragged his trigger finger across and off of its perch, spraying about a dozen darts upwards to decorate the ceiling, but that was OK. There wasn’t anybody hanging off of the ceiling - the JumpShip’s bridge had been designed with a very definite up and down, front and back, despite the fact that the thing would never be out of microgravity without something going very terminally wrong.

Using that hand and an ankle hooked around his as anchors, I leaned back a few inches to get room to move, and drove my knee right up from between his legs to somewhere around his kidneys.

Not really, but from the strangled scream as the boniest and hardest part of my leg landed right in the tenderest possible place, he probably wished it had been literal. The sudden impetus shot him upwards and me downwards, and left me the proud owner of a brand new needler. I flipped it around, tried to aim up at his center of mass, and walked a long burst up one leg and across his chest before I pushed off the ‘floor’ and launched myself up behind his now thrashing, blood-spewing body.

Not a moment too soon, as the Skipper had been armed, with a laser pistol that strobed almost painfully in my lower peripheral vision as he shot where I’d been split-seconds earlier. I reached out with my free hand and caught the back of Rakis’s shirt to still myself and put his body between me and that threat.

There was a scuffle starting as one of the bridge crew pulled out a hidden holdout and started to aim at me, only to have the woman next to him push off of her station and tackle him hard, both of them drifting off across the room under the impact.

The laser fired again, this time with a crackling hiss added in as it burned its way through the drifting mist of different-sized blood droplets, and missed somewhere over my shoulder. I could feel the sparks of melted metal from the wall land on the back of my neck and go cool, like bacon grease, with a shadow where my braid was drifting.

I had the gun, and Rakis’s body as a shield. Thinking about the way he was twitching and starting to go still as vast amounts of blood leaked out of his blown-open chest didn’t occur to me; I was busy.

It’d come back that night, and a lot more, later.

I peeked out to start thinking about taking a shot - the skipper was aiming at me, and I barely ducked back in time for another laser blast to hit the corpse in the side, spraying my face with steaming, sticky wet stuff, which meant that I couldn’t see.

I scrubbed frantically at the eyes with the heel of the hand holding the gun, then froze as the shouting from the hand-to-hand scuffle was overridden by sharp, popping snaps, loud enough to make the ears hurt but too short to really register as it.

Someone had a slugthrower, and I could only freeze and hope that they were on my side. Bullets would go through what was left of Rakis, and I could only keep his body between myself and one threat at a time.

What felt like a very tense minute or so ended in wet gurgles. I risked another peek, blinking my relatively-clear eye against the stinging… stuff… and saw that one of the bullets had caught the skipper in the head, and a growing blob of blood clinging to the still-pinned body of the pirate who hadn’t gotten his gun out; he had three of the bridge crew holding him down, one of them hugging each arm with their legs twisted through his to pin him, and the third knifing him in the chest over and over.

I closed my eye again and let go of both Rakis and the needler to scrub properly. “Okay,” I said, raising my voice to project, “Three pirates on the bridge, all accounted for? Is anybody else hurt?”

“No.”

“I’m fine.”

“Think my wrist’s broken, but I’ll live.”

“I’m okay.”

“I want to throw up.”

“We can all take turns later,” I said, trying for ‘dry’ and mostly getting ‘shaky’. “Right… so, okay. Somebody help her get that set and splinted… and the rest of us need to get on the intercoms and find out how many more traitors we have.”

Not all that many, it turned out. Aboard Hasenpfeffer, the pirates had concentrated on the bridge crew, while there had been too few aboard Montresor for the ‘fight’ to be more than a quick, hopeless scuffle when the lights came back on. The ones on Davos Seaworth had kept their head down until after I called. Two had ‘given themselves up in return for good treatment’, and fingered another four aboard, who hadn’t put up a fight.

El-Ahrairah, though, had been the scene of several running gunfights. About half of her crew and tech staff were injured, along with a couple of the MechWarriors… and there’d been three deaths.

I took a moment to close my eyes and swear internally, then opened them again and told the intercom line, “Okay, here’s what I want you guys to do. There’s only so many docking ports that Leopard can be coming for-”

“Two on each Union, four more on the ship...” one of the bridge crew chipped in.

“-so I’ve got a plan for dealing with them…”


Repelling Boarders[]

One of the pirates we’d captured had mentioned that the Leopard’s name was Heartripper.

Charming people.

With all of Hasenpfeffer’s docking collars full. They couldn’t do a full hard link, but with careful maneuvering it was possible to get a shirtsleeve seal between ordinary airlocks… as long as the relative velocities were low enough.

“Definitely Montresor Airlock 4,” came the voice of the bridge watch we’d left, over the intercom handset. A radio would have been more convenient, but even with all the JumpShip’s mass wrapped around it, the extra transmission would have had a (slight) chance of spooking our targets, keeping them from coming in fat and happy like we wanted. The handset was good enough, so there was no sense risking it.

<<“Right, we’re moving, Blackwing out.”>> I said, and hung it up before turning to face the motley band of MechWarriors, techs, and ship crew that we’d gathered together in Hasenpfeffer’s cargo bay.

“It’s Montresor,” I told them, raising my voice to be heard, and followed the JumpShip crewmen who took off down the correct passageway. “Airlock Four!” I called after them.

On the rushing way through the corridors, our improvised mess of anti-boarding ‘troops’ strung out into three more or less synchronized globs - the JumpShip crew, who spent most of their working lives in microgravity, raced ahead, zipping the entire length of each passageway without even touching the walls. The spare bodies we’d pulled to a central location from the DropShips spent a lot of time in transit, or swinging around on the bola-style centrifuges built into docking collars, but had to deal with free fall often enough to know what they were doing and make good time…

And the groundsiders like me, well, we tried.

When I finally caught up, not quite tail-end charlie but close, after I’d stopped a couple of times to hook fellow groundlings into grabbing range of something they could use to continue, I found my people bunched up behind a couple of armor plates that had been basically held in place and anchored with tack welds - one of the techs in the crowd was still wearing his mask, and holding a portable welding kit in place of an outright weapon.

I wasn’t sure if he meant to use it on things in the environment, or on pirates, but either way, I figured it would work.

I hadn’t asked for the plates, but what I had asked for was even better than expected.

“Where did you find a mounting pintle?” I asked. The thing might have been held up by a pair of pipes and a ruined crowbar, but it was unmistakably a purpose-made swivel mount, meant to let one person direct the massive 20mm cannon that MechWarriors laughably called ‘a machine gun’.

“They came with the trucks, apparently.” said one of the two techs crouched by the thing - the one holding onto the back end, not the one holding what looked like a noteputer, a battery, and a couple of wires leading off into the firing mechanism at one end, and taped to the battery’s terminals at the other.

That didn’t explain why the things were aboard the BattleMech transports, rather than with the trucks themselves aboard Shipping Report, but the clanging from the airlock hatch suggested we didn’t exactly have time to get into it.

I kicked myself into the cover of the armor plates and settled in to wait, absently staring at the charred discoloration around the nearest weld spot.

Eventually, with one last clang and a whirr of its motor, the airlock opened, revealing a crowded mass of variously washed and tattooed bodies, all of them holding a dizzying array of weapons. And flashlights.

“Th’duck?” one brighter-than-the-rest example towards the back of the pack mumbled, “Shouldn’t the lights be off?”

The female pirate - I wouldn’t dignify her with ‘woman’ - at the front of the crowd was staring at the machine gun like a mouse trapped in a terrarium with a hungry cobra.

For a moment, I thought about ordering them to surrender, but one of the others in the front rank swore and tried to swing his rifle up. At which point the biggest problem with my plan became apparent.

Namely, pretty much nobody in that little corridor was wearing ear protection when the twenty millimeter cannon went off.

I ducked behind the shield panel again as the thunder went on for what seemed like an hour. A wildly swinging laser tracked into my field of view, across the corridor, and up the far wall, interrupted by the shield on that side and the additional one fitted to the machine gun, but by the time the ammo ran out, there was nothing. I waved the men forward, shouting ‘get ‘em’ at the top of my lungs, but I couldn’t hear my own voice as I swung around the shield, needler in my other hand… and checked in place.

The airlock wasn’t splashed with blood; it was painted. I swallowed carefully - throwing up in zero g would be bad - and kicked forward, trying to aim for a path empty of bodies, and… pieces.

It didn’t really work.

Probably fortunately for me, the job the long burst had done on the pirate crew was just as complete as it looked. I came out into the open of the Leopard’s cargo bay from ‘below’ and took a quick look around as my people followed. “No one in sight,” I said to myself - or tried to, through the ringing in my ears - and used waves of my arms to part off smaller teams to head fore and aft from the bay, sweeping through the ship to deal with its crew.

The next problem was a doozie. The entire frame of the ship shivered, easy to feel through my hand on the handhold… and then gravity came back.

Somebody on the bridge had lit off the main transit drive.

The floating horror in the airlock hit the bottom with a pattern of thuds and a splatter; some of the latter painted itself down the ventral wall of the cargo bay like the early stages of a Jackson Pollock piece. Next to the big exterior doors, the BattleMech gantries swung and swayed, metal groaning as its weight grew. They were empty, the four Stingers that had been in them deployed into open space to maneuver under retrofitted reaction control systems and what had been designed as ordinary jump jets, but they hadn’t been locked down properly after the mechs were deployed, either. One of my people snatched for a dangling hose and caught it just as it swung free, pulling themselves up against it and wrapping themselves around it with their boots braced on the rim of its nozzle.

Another missed her grab, and fell the full length of the cargo bay. The sound her body made as it hit the aft bulkhead was horrible.

I pulled myself closer to the grab-bar next to the airlock and ignored the cooling wetness painted across my leg and arm, in favor of hooking the other elbow through and around the bar. I already weighed more than I should; Heartripper’s main fusion torch couldn’t spool up from nothing in an instant, but a Leopard’s maximum acceleration was three full gravities.

I could hear someone swearing at the top of their lungs through the ringing in my ears, the terrified and incoherent screaming that I honestly do not know if it was or wasn’t me, and the roar of the drive. Certainly the handful of faces with me at the airlock looked just as scared as I did - and as pained, as spiking agony started to build in the shoulder supporting my weight.

I reached up with my free hand, getting a grip to try and haul myself up enough to take some of the ache off…

...and the man next to me slipped.

There was every reason not to grab for him; my own position was precarious at best. We had to be up to two Gs by that point, we were hanging by our literal fingertips over a forty foot drop, and…

And I’d caught his wrist before I even realized what was going on.

He was a big guy, probably twice my weight, and I felt something give unpleasantly in my left shoulder as the jolt from stopping his fall snapped through my arms and body. I started running through every bad word I knew, in four different languages, and hung on, ignoring the bruising force as he latched onto my hand with both of his.

Fuck, that hurt. Fuck, that hurt. And it went on and on without any break. I didn’t know how long we’d been under way, or if there was any chance of the team that had already headed for the bridge interrupting and taking control, or if my hands would start sweating and slip, dropping him to…

The tech on the guy’s far side, the same one who’d been hacking the 20mm’s firing control, took one of her hands off the grab bar and reached down to catch Faller’s wrist, latching on and hauling with me. It didn’t actually make the situation better - both of us together weren’t strong enough to pull him back up, not with that much acceleration pulling against it, and there still wasn’t any hint of relief - but it made me feel better about it.

And probably him, as well, come to think of it.

Despite my fear and, let’s be honest, despair, it was less than a minute before the acceleration died away to nothing. One of the teams had taken the bridge.

Slayer Heavy Fighter (in storms)

Slayer Heavy Aerospace Fighter

I drifted next to the hatchway for a moment, rubbing at my shoulder like that would somehow help the pain inside it, then went to find a radio and find out what the hell had happened outside.

After the excitement of boarding and the Nantucket Sleigh Ride, what that turned out to be was an anti-climax.

Sasagawa and her wing, a short and rather Mongolian looking guy named Tamman Cruz, had popped out of their bays on Davos Seaworth and swung right onto the tail of the most dangerous of the pirate fighters, a big, agile Draconis-built Slayer. With room to work and fair warning, the Slayer would have had fairly good odds, as long as the wingmate ahead of it, a slow-footed Lucifer, didn’t slow it down dangerously. Slayers had enormous fuel reserves, and their main gun was effective at a longer range than the 165mm autocannon Sasagawa and Cruz had aboard their Lightnings - a good pilot could make a solid go at kiting them to death.

Sparrowhawk (by Colourbrand & Nuclear-Fridge 2-2018)

Sparrowhawk Light Aerospace Fighter

With them already in its weak quarter and at point-blank range, and the fact that the Slayer’s pilot just plain wasn’t as good as they were, though, the end result was never in doubt.

One of the other pirate wing pair, a Sparrowhawk, only barely survived the opening pass as the rest of our own fighters had launched, and that pilot, and his remaining fellows, had seen the writing on the wall. By the time the bridge team had taken over there and gotten Heartripper’s drive shut down, the Sparrowhawk and his companion in the Centurion (The 30-ton aerospace fighter was actually the older design to use the name, by about three centuries. The BattleMech type in our inventory had originally been named for it, despite the fact that a licensee in Lyran space still produced the things) had surrendered, along with the four apparently not absolute lunatics who’d gone spacewalking in their mechs.

The Lucifer had pointed his nose in the direction of the pirate Jumpship - ‘Bloodspiller’ - and opened his throttle all the way. Whether he was intending to save enough fuel to slow down, or if he’d just panicked, would go unanswered; something critical gave in the fighter’s overstressed hull about the time I reached Heartripper’s bridge, and ripped the craft apart in a brief flare of light.

“Damn,” I said, once I was sure I was interpreting the bridge screens right. “Lucifers may be shit, but a fighter’s a fighter. I’d rather have captured it.”

I hadn’t realized that the bridge team had Sasagawa on the line; her reply out of the speakers startled me. “I figured as much. Will it be a problem if I made promises to get the other six to cooperate?”

“Not in principle,” I replied. “What did you offer them?”

“Just their lives, technically, but I came pretty close to promising to let them go free.” she said.

I thought for a second. “Nothing about where?” I asked.

“...No.” she confirmed, sounding amused and speculative.

“I’m sure we can find someplace that doesn’t have a mandatory death sentence for piracy,” I said. That wouldn’t be anywhere in the Outworlds, though. “And what we tell the authorities there can… depend on how helpful they are.”

I paused. “Note to self. Look up an interrogator smart enough to not default to torture, once we’re grounded and recruiting again.”

Sasagawa laughed. “Ghengis-” I had no idea why her wingmate had that as his call sign, “-isn’t terrible at it.”

“I don’t think I want to know which ‘it’ you have in mind.” I replied. “Besides, I’d bet that somebody in this scummy crew will be rattled enough to vomit out everything we could ever possibly want to know.”

“I doubt there’ll be anything important,” she said, “but I’m not letting you take my money over it.”


Ground Assault[]

Sasagawa had been wrong. There was something important.

This pirate band weren’t just pirates… They were slavers, too.

That wasn’t, in itself, surprising. It was a common vice for pirates. Also common were isolated bases in otherwise uninhabited systems, places to set up repair gantries and sprawl out, everything from food and water to microchips brought in by raiding or trading spoils to other scum. The pirates would laze about getting drunk and expend just enough effort to make sure that their captives were doing the work properly.

Most pirate bands, though, had only a hundred or so victims at any one time, or rather, fewer slaves than they had fighters.

This lot had set up on a planet a lot like a hotter version of Mars - about a third of a standard gravity, no liquid water to speak of, and a thin atmosphere of pretty much entirely carbon dioxide, but rather than being outside the standard habitable zone, it was right along the inner edge. The usual temperature during the daytime was about a hundred and ten, centigrade, or two hundred and thirty Fahrenheit, dropping by close to thirty degrees during the night - or, on the high plateau we were at, an average of thirty degrees less than both of those.

Their central base was a looming piled mass of concrete and rock, built from blocks that had obviously been slagged free from a nearby outcrop with Battlemech lasers, then assembled in place by the same machines, before the concrete was sprayed in the gaps as sealant. Probably, by hostile-environment standards, it leaked like a sieve, but with a touch of positive pressure and a fusion-powered enviro plant to crack oxygen and nitrogen out of the air, it would do well enough.

Another pirate DropShip, Flesheater, was grounded in the open as we hit high atmosphere. I’d half expected them to try to run, but they’d been able to see that we had aerospace support. Despite her vicious name, Flesheater was just an ordinary cargo hauler, barely armed and barely armored - and even if she hadn’t been, and we hadn’t had an ASF squadron, three Unions like we were coming in would have eaten her alive… and there was no Jumpship for them to run to.

Their best hope was to try and fight it out with us on the ground.

It was tempting to try to put down on the same impromptu landing field the pirates had put together for their own DropShips, but I’d decided against it. First, I knew that landing under fire was risky, and I didn’t want to expose my people and ships to interference from any defenses set up around the field.

Second, and more prosaically, the cleared and leveled area had been set up to hold only two DropShips, not four, and I didn’t want to crowd things.

Fortunately, the pirates had made their base in an area that saved them the maximum possible effort - the only major rock outcrop for miles around was their quarry, the tallest thing short of the horizon or visible over it the looming bulk of their base.

“Hey, Boss?” asked one of my pilots (Name started with a T, probably? Native to one of Alpheratz’s outback agricultural settlements, the equivalent of an Australian sheep station. A skinny guy with a blotchy red birthmark across his face.) over the company channel as we walked in along the top of that rocky ridge. “I get why we didn’t just land on top of ‘em, by why walk in this way, rather’n just in from the west or something?”

The stony footing was weathered and a little uncertain, and every now and again I or one of the other two newbie MechWarriors would stumble and have to fight to catch our mechs before finished tripping. Originally, of course, we’d had a full company of trained MechWarriors, but…

Two of them - including Rakis - hadn’t made it through the boarding action, and a third had been shot badly enough to be unable to pilot for the foreseeable, so the three best of the trainee squad had been dropped into spare cockpits.

I’m not sure which aspect of the fact that I was one of those three terrified me most; there were far too many competitors.

“A couple of reasons,” I answered, once I had my balance back and could be sure I wouldn’t swear into the open channel. “First, since we’re moving over rock, we can have more confidence that they haven’t dug mines or IED cavities into the approaches - the voids’d be easier to detect. Second, this is the only vector that isn’t full of those greenhouses.”

The pirate stronghold was surrounded by low, wide buildings walled in more stone-and-concrete, and roofed in billowing transparent polymer sheets. The bad guys almost certainly had an industrial roller to push the stuff out for them.

“So, if they’ve got an infantry component in thermal suits or something, they can’t pop out at us with inferno missiles. Or fill the greenhouses with misted diesel to turn them into fuel air bombs.”

Somebody, not the guy who’d asked the question, swore quietly at that thought.

“And,” I went on, “Even if there isn’t a threat there, we know they’re using manual labor to work those fields, and if they fight us out there, that’d put our rescues in the crossfire.”

There were a lot of greenhouses; there were probably several thousand farm workers tied up in operating them, plus whatever technical plant had to go into chilling the things down to something humans and human-edible crops could survive in. The central citadel wasn’t big enough to hold that many people, not without conditions I’d bet money the pirates wouldn’t put up with for themselves.

“Actual?” asked a different voice (Female, cute, dyed her hair in contrasting teal-and-scarlet stripes. Pity about the mohawk, future of the eighties, go fuck yourself. From somewhere in the FedSuns.) Under most military com regimes, the commanding officer of a force or unit would be referred to as the actual bearer of that unit’s call sign. “What’s the plan for those rescues? We haven’t got anywhere near three thousand bunks.”

“We move the jumpships to planetary L1,” I said. “Including docking and other farting around, that makes for about two hours of flight time. Once they’re charged to jump, we fit everybody at standing room only, and head out. We took one jump from Alpheratz to dead space, then another to get here - and that puts us one jump from Loparri. So if we head to that pirate point, total time from ground-to-ground will be about four, four and a half hours. With emergency scrubbers and canned oxygen, it should be doable.”

((“That’s… gonna have consequences,”)) a third man said slowly. I recognized the voice as Captain Clair, the most experienced MechWarrior we had left, a fireplug of a man from Baliggora, as far into the back of the beyond as it was possible to get. ((“It’ll put us still in Outworlds space when the deadline runs out and they get to declare us illegal and confiscate all our gear. We’ll be lucky if we don’t end up shooting our way out.”))

“Yeah,” I admitted. “But what can we do? Just abandon these people?”

((“Outworlds’d send a proper evacuation, if they knew they were here,”)) he pointed out. ((“And these habs’ve been stable this long.”))

I thought it over. “Maybe,” I admitted. “We’ll see, after we’ve got control sorted. Speaking of which, I see the top of that tower, so game faces on. Able Club One, you have field command.”

<<“I accept field command.”>> Clair said formally. <<“Break. Spades, are you ready for a recon pass?”>>

[{“We are.”}] Sasagawa confirmed from where she’d had her fighters orbiting at high altitude. [{“Looks like you’re still about a half-hour away.”}]

Looking up, I could see three contrails bend and dip as the craft making them dove to start their approach. A minute or so after they vanished, one of them - a Lightning, I couldn’t tell whether it was Cruz or Sasagawa - scorched by overhead then pulled up and started climbing.

A minute or two later, Clair came over the line. <<“Okay, this is Club Actual. Everybody put datachannel D up on a monitor.”>> There was about enough of a pause for me to start reaching for the right control. <<“Now, you can see here that the greenhouses have some kind of bunker pod in each of ‘em-”>>

I got the right screen pulled up, showing an aerial photo of the slightly jumbled radial pattern of greenhouses surrounding the central pyramid of the pirate base, along with the scaley-looking scar interrupting the pattern where our rock outcrop had been quarried away. Sure enough, each greenhouse had a glittering metal box or can tucked into each corner. “-so we can guess that hitting the rest of the place won’t kill anybody. Be careful anyway, but don’t feel like you gotta hang yourself out to stop it.”

Outside, the first greenhouses were coming into view.

“Most of you’ve heard it over and over again, but to make sure you got it straight. We’re lookin’ at one heavy, three medium, and five light ‘mechs. No sign of ‘em on the overhead, so keep your eyes out on all sides.”

At forty kilometers an hour, and a horizon as close as this, we were in among the outermost greenhouses while the briefing was still going on.

The PPC bolt came as far more of a surprise than it should have. Off to the sides, additional silhouettes rose to their feet amid clouds of dust, Battlemechs, pirate mechs, standing up from where they’d lain prone in the lee of the greenhouses under actual-for-fuck’s-sake mech scale ghillie suits.

<<“Fuck,”>> Clair said. <<“Ambush! First lance, turn right! Second lance, turn left! Third lance, find that heavy and crush it!”

As I understood it, there were two kinds of ambush. The first kind was taking place from too far away for the victims. In this case, us, to reach the enemy, and was dealt with by taking cover and holding things in place until the ambush-ee could recover from the surprise and start planning.

The second kind, the kind we were in now, was sprung from close enough to turn and charge straight into the teeth of it, disrupting the ambusher’s mental plan for how things would go and turning the surprise back on them.

BattleMaster (Cargo Docks - MWO version)

BattleMaster Assault 'Mech

The eight Battlemasters that were leading our company split up, thundering out to meet the light mechs that were swarming forwards from their cover with a storm of fire ahead of them. It was ridiculous to watch a Locust scramble out of the way of an assault mech four times its size, but there was a real chance that the threat could have worked. Every mech had a good end and a bad end - not just in terms of weapons arcs, but armor biased forwards, where the pilot would want to point towards the enemy. Even a light mech, if it got around behind a larger one’s rear, could do real damage.

If things had been going the way the pirates intended, they’d’ve been popping out and pouring damage into our most vulnerable quarters from point-blank range, using their superior speed and maneuverability, along with their greater experience, to cut us apart from inside our guard.

But, on the other hand, we outweighed them over four to one, and outnumbered them twelve to nine besides. Quantity, as the cliche went, had a quality all its own. I had to think that if they’d had an alternative other than outright surrender, or running into a deadly wasteland that would kill them in time, they’d’ve had better sense than to pick this fight at all…

But there was nowhere to run, and long experience meant that most human worlds allowed only one penalty for piracy, leaving them nothing to lose.

<<“Ostsol on the right.”>> called one of the other members of my lance, and I swerved with the others, between us laying six particle beam blasts and nine hundred millimeter shells downrange at the pirate - who, from the flashy paintjob under his coating of dust, was probably the bad guys’ commander.

Most of that, given our inexperience, missed horribly, but a few of the cannon shells sparked their way across the Ostsol’s torso, and one of the PPCs carved a glowing trench a bit lower. The effect was visually spectacular; Battlemech armor was ablative against energy weapons, and white-hot sparks blasted their way free as the material vaporized under the stream of excited electrons.

Marauder (Side View while in Combat - meltdonw14)

Marauder Heavy 'Mech in combat

The pirate had to know that that was only the beginning, but he didn’t let it keep him from returning fire. The internal coating on my cockpit windows polarized along the path of the 8cm laser beams, with a great dark blotch lingering where one impacted against the Marauder in front of me.

Meanwhile, I was coping with the way my mech reacted to firing its weapons in anger for the very first time. The rush of oven-like heat that I’d seen described in novels was real, as was the mushy feeling from the controls as myomers overheated and then cooled back to safe levels again.

Future of the eighties, go fuck yourself, I thought. A sweatband of some kind would be absolutely a good idea, and I made a mental note to invest in one, despite how cliche it would make me feel.

Because I’d held myself back to just one PPC and the autocannon, I was able to fire again relatively soon as I stomped forwards. This time I hit with the energy cannon, as did the more experienced MechWarrior assigned to ride herd on us rookies. Alas, hitting the same area of a moving, jinking battlemech was a lot more of a challenge than just hitting it at all, so neither that or the additional lucky autocannon burst actually made a breach in the plating.

This time it was my turn to eat the lasers, as the Ostol lunged forwards into short range and opened up in a full alpha strike. The world went white and purple, my entire forward view blotted out by the glare protection and flying sparks as the barrage ate into my armor. The controls shuddered under my hand like antilock brakes, and I could feel that shuddering echo through the full frame of the machine around me as the balance systems and gyroscope went berserk trying to compensate for the relative pittance of weight lost in evaporated and displaced armor.

There was no individual detail that resembled being in a car fishtailing its way across black ice, but the overall experience felt much the same anyway, including the stunning crash at the end as my mech lost its footing and measured a full length across the dusty stone.

I’m not sure what I yelled as I came up brutally short against the cockpit straps, dangling face-down from the seat, but I know it was obscene, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in French. I tried to struggle back into motion as quickly as I could, but I can’t say that it was as quick as I’d’ve liked; slamming all your weight against the coolant-piping and bulletproof panels of a cooling vest was uncomfortable on its own. Having squishy, tender boobs in the middle hurt.

I braced both of the Marauder’s arms on the ground and used them for balance as I got one of its feet under it, forcing myself to ignore the light show I could see out of the corner of my eye as I fought to get my mount moving again.

I did, eventually, just in time to see the lance-leader’s… What was his name? Green? Grimm? Greer? Something like that? Anyway. In time to see his Marauder rear back and boot a visibly ragged and scarred Ostsol in the chest, knocking the lighter heavy back on its heels to stagger a couple of steps away. Which was more than enough space for the remaining two members of our lance to unload an alpha strike each, at close enough range that almost half the fullisade actually hit, blasting through the eroded remnants of the pirate’s armor and all but ripping the machine to scrap in a single volley.

I looked around as the wreck crumbled, trying to find the next target, only to see the handful of lights still standing bolt for the hills in practically the same motion and instant, leaving our company, a bit scarred but every one of us still battle-worthy, holding the field, and a clear shot to the central base.


Debriefing with AMC Officer over Drinks[]

Ramora Star System, OutWorlds Alliance


“Anyway,” I said, sitting back in my seat aboard Al-Ahrairah and letting the Alliance Military Corps rep who’d flown over from the charging station at Ramora’s nadir jump point accept the glass I’d poured, “after that, our part of the fighting was pretty much over. We gave the remaining pirate MechWarriors the same terms we’d agreed for the ones that surrendered in space. I figure we’ll put them all ashore into the hands of the law on Melcher; they don’t have the death penalty there, and it’s more or less on our way.”

Olympus Space Station (Solar Sail Deployed)

Olympus Recharging Space Station

Station keeping in deep space as she was, physics said that Hasenpfeffer and her dropships would have been in microgravity conditions. Biology, though, said that spending weeks or months of voyage time in full microgravity would have ruinous effects on the bones and muscles of her crew and passengers, so the long-ago designers who created the Invader-class JumpShip had found solutions, more or less.

The crew quarters for the Jumpship herself were built into internal carousels, rings that rotated to create what felt to the body and the inner ear like a slightly screwy kind of gravity. For docked DropShips, the docking collars were designed to come apart, playing out long cables so that the dropships swung around at the end like bolas while the JumpShip did an easy one-RPM microgravity spin. Only the docking collars and the structural frame linking them needed to be reinforced against the illusory weight, but it kept passengers at a full standard gravity, up to the mechanical limits of the system’s ability to take strain.

The Merchant class had been the first Jumpship fitted with the system, and the sixty-thousand ton limit, rooted in engineering and materials, had been carried forward when other designs copied it. Which neatly explained the rule ambiguity older-me remembered from studying the rules of the Battletech game; the mass limit for the booms that extended a JumpShip’s KF fields over a dropship was one hundred thousand tons of mass, give or take, while the limit for a standard dropship collar’s bola was 590 million newtons of force, IE, about equivalent of sixty thousand tons at one standard gravity.

The AMC officer sipped her brandy, then gave it a pleasantly surprised look. Younger-me had done more than enough drinking to know a good brandy when she found it, even if older-me had teetotaled. “The way you put that implies more fighting from, what, factions of the Bloody Hands?”

“Without the threat of Battlemechs,” I said, “and without ‘Lord’ Sangnoir to keep things in line personally, the slaves rose up. Their supervisors and so-called ‘masters’ were too busy worrying about getting away from us, so, there wasn’t much blood on the part of anybody I’d weep for.”

I couldn’t help making a face at some of the wrecks we’d found when the worst abusers’ victims had been done with them. “Not that it wasn’t ugly,” I admitted. “Sangnoir’d recruited most of his men by promising them harems of pretty girls and generally living like kings, and the way they decided to take advantage of that left a lot of scores to settle. The ‘field hands’ he had growing food and feeding the narcotics operation didn’t have as much reason to hate, but we still only got one of the four MechWarriors that tried to go to ground back.”

“How many bodies?” she asked, looking like somebody’s concerned grandmother. For all I knew, she was.

“Three,” I said. “One dumped outside without a breath mask, the other two with farm tools… Anyway. The serious medical cases, you’ve already got, and there were a couple of hundred that asked to sign on with us.”

She looked uncomfortable. “I’ll have to ask if some of my people can interview those persons,” she said.

Ah, so that was the angle. I smiled. “We’re on a time-limit. Of course,” I said, “but you’re welcome to speak to anyone you have time for before we’re ready to jump. We’ve been perfectly frank about our difficulties with the Office of Procurement, and the tactics they pushed on Alpheratz… And they’re free adults. They can make their own choices; while there are contracts, they allow no-fault withdrawals as long as the unit isn’t under employment.”

For a customs officer, she didn’t have much of a poker face. But on the other hand, all she had to work with was a quartet of unarmed shuttles and a single pair of Sholagar light fighters. Her ability to stop me was purely based on the rule of law. “We do have a responsibility to our people to make sure that they’re not being taken advantage of while they’re vulnerable,” she said defensively.

I made a petting motion and a shushing noise. “Drink your brandy,” I said soothingly. “I know it’s not your fault. I promise, we’ll be out of this system long before the deadline.”

She huffed and started to swell up, offended - then caught the reaction, actually thought it over, and laughed. “All right,” she admitted. “I’ll take that. My people would probably stage a ridiculous number of convenient malfunctions if I asked them to get in your way after you pulled off a rescue this big, anyway.”

“I’d rather not be responsible for doing that to your discipline,” I said, and has some of the brandy myself. “But yeah, go ahead, talk to anybody you want to. This business is going to give me enough trouble sleeping without shanghai’ing anybody.”

“Boarding actions are… ugly,” she agreed. “But you know you don’t have to sign up for them, and for the rest, right?”

I looked at her face; she was genuinely concerned. I thought about that for a second - turning over everything, maybe taking the not-so-small fortune that’d still be left and going relic hunting on New Dallas and bringing that Core home, forgetting about Helm entirely and leaving the Sphere to stand or fall against the Clans, and against fucking Comstar, on its own merits.

But…

“I’ll take trouble sleeping over never looking in a mirror again,” I said. “And there’s way too many worlds left to save.”

She shook her head and smiled sadly. “You’re a good kid,” she said. “Where will you go next?”

“There’s a recruiting center, a gather point for mercenaries and hiring offices, like Galatea but smaller and closer. A planet called Hoff.”


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