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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 6
[]


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GATHER UP THE GOLD YOU FOUND...


What to do with "Deadly Gold"[]

Star League Bunker - Outskirts of Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“All right,” said the head of the largest armed force on the planet of Fianna, sitting back in one of the flimsy chairs of this temporary command post by the scenic sewer entrance leading to our shiny new Star League bunker. “You’ve fed some of this gas to the gadget. What is it?”

Doctor Clarissa Ndele, head of the chemistry department at the University of Saint Cabrini, looked pained. I sympathized; the chemical analyzer she’d brought out of storage was itself a Star League survivor, capable of taking even a few molecules in, breaking them down, and producing a chemical formula and model along with a database referent - in the twentieth century, it would have taken an entire chemistry lab to duplicate the trick. “Madame Prefect-”

“Chief Codrescue is fine,” the stocky woman grumbled.

“-I still don’t know. Think of it as having found a fingerprint on a murder weapon; we now know that we’re dealing with a ‘pseudo-conotoxin’, but my department is still searching for referents to clarify what that is.”

I held up one hand. “I’ve heard of actual conotoxins,” I said, and both of them looked at me. “They’re the active ingredients used by a group of venomous snails from Terra.”

Doctor Ndele nodded and made a note. “That will help,” she said.

Codrescue looked relieved, so I figured I’d better expand on it before she got too relaxed. “As far as I know, cone shells are about the only thing in the Terran biosphere that can literally kill you dead before you hit the ground, poison-wise.”

“How big are these ‘cone shells’?” Codrescue asked.

I measured a couple of inches between thumb and forefinger. “Fit in the palm of your hand, easy.” I said. “Five, ten centimeters, maybe, for a big one? But the mouthpart they use to deliver venom can reach any part of their shell, so, I wouldn’t handle one with anything but tongs for love or money.”

“And the Star League put forty tons of this in the suburbs of Saint Cabrini,” Codrescue said, looking disgusted.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I looked at Doctor Ndele. “More importantly, do you have ideas of how secure the existing tanks are and what agents we’ll need to destroy the stuff?”

Up to and including fusion plasma; I’d strip down one of our bugmechs if I had to.

“We won’t be.” Codrescue said.

“...hey what now?” I said cogently.

Her expression was even less pleased than I’d have expected from her grim tone. “I’ve already spoken to the Duke,” she said. “He’s made it quite clear that this ‘precious military asset is to be preserved for the future use of the Commonwealth.’”

Jesus fucking Christ.

“The good news,” Doctor Ndele said weakly, “is that the tanks are as stable as they ever were. Unless the entire roof comes down on them, they should hold for another two centuries without trouble.”

If I had to guess, I’d say that ‘bring the entire roof down’ is exactly what Redjack Ryan’s scum would have done.

“What about moving them?” I asked. Both of them looked at me like I was insane, and in answer I pointed down the empty street outside the tent - and at the water visible at the end of it. “Dropships float just fine,” I said. “We have tugboats push Norway’s Greatest Son right up to the end of that street and load the tanks into her. Have her crew work in full vac suits, and get the tugboats to move her out to sea - then they do a nice, gentle plus-point-one lift to orbit and set her down on one of your moons. Unload that shit safely away from anyone.”

Doctor Ndele looked thoughtful. “That… We could get them onto the DropShip, but I’m not sure about the lift to orbit.”

“What if you end up with a crash?” Corescue asked.

I shrugged. “I’d rather have that happen outside the city,” I said. “Or if there’s another dropper that’s in better repair I’ll borrow it at gunpoint if need be. But for something like this, we can do a lot to make sure those risks are minimized.”

“Try not to say that where I’ll have to do something about it,” Codrescue ordered, then got to her feet. “I’ll need to go brief the Duke. Both of you, make the preparations for moving the tanks.”

“Bracing, shock casings, and levers to move them an inch at a time if need be,” I agreed, standing too. “And… I’ve still got two of the one-time-pads LCAF command issued me. I’ll write up a report in one of them and drop it by Comstar for Tharkad, see if they have anything to add.”

Codrescue gave me a sharp, thoughtful look, then nodded. “Good,” she said. “Do that.”


Hunting down Leaguer Mercenaries[]

Camp Robichaux - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


Setsuka Carter and her brother Albert had joined the unit on Hoff, right after the Combine raid. Bert and his boyfriend had settled neatly into Charlie Company as mechwarrior and tech respectively, and I’d fitted Setsuka and the Carter family ‘mech into the command lance, mostly because that way I minimized the impact its lack of speed had on deployments. With only the other three mechs of the command lance forced to stay close, the actual frontline companies could maneuver more freely.

The Carter sibs had grown up on the base housing of a merc unit working a long-term garrison assignment on some FedSuns planet I’d otherwise never heard of; high gravity, high temperature, and with a vigorous jungle ecosystem that had swallowed most attempted Terran imports whole. Bert was only about five foot six, and at four nine, Setsuka was the shortest person in the entire unit, thanks to the gravity they’d grown up in.

Naturally, she piloted an Atlas. Equally naturally, she dressed in ruffles and petticoats.

Basically appointing her as my secretary had been Reyes’ idea - and largely his doing. I’d found out after the fact, when I came in to my office (on Galatea, at the time) and found her setting up a new desk in outer area.

Now, she poked her head in my door. “Boss, got a call for you to make?”

I looked up from the ‘Gas Moving Day’ plan I’d been working on with relief. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Boende camp has a stomach bug going around. Captain Clair’s saddling Roland up right now to send out a filler lance, but, number four on the list is the Champ.”

Boende was the largest city - not much of one, less than twenty thousand people - on the continent of Nouveau Congo, the second-smallest and least settled of Fianna’s four continents. A couple of days before, when Duke MacLaine had finally given the OK to root out the Free Worlds League-employed merc company that had been stooging around in the wilds of Nouveau Congo since before we landed. He’d only been willing to allow one mech company, but since he hadn’t thought to mention other assets, I’d had one of our heavy armor companies, one of the Goblin companies, and the Long Tom battery sent along with… And, of course, ASFs could be on-site in less than an hour via suborbital hops.

Long Tom Artillery - Battery (Lance) painted by war4rged

Battery (Lance) of Mobile Long Tom Artillery Pieces

Explaining the name I’d given our Leopard-class, and playing the Warren Zevon song it was a reference to, had made the ship’s nickname inevitable.

The ‘filler list’ was a listing of whose turn it was to fill in for people unable to carry out their regular duties, rather than leaving gaps or pushing it onto the same people every time.

Sophitia, meanwhile, was neck-deep in getting the documentary series we’d commissioned up and running, to a degree that had surprised me.

“Sounds good so far,” I said. “What’s the catch?”

“You’re number five, Boss,” she said, smirking. “Gotta keep your op hours up!”

On the one hand, it’d be nice to get out of this office. And I really did need to spend more hours in the cockpit; I was starting to fall behind on training.

On the other, this shit I was working on actually did need to get done.

...And on the gripping hand, I kinda felt like making the implicit statement that the rules didn’t apply to me would be bad for morale and I had an idea.

“I’ll go,” I said, and started dashing off a quick memo asking my ‘department heads’ - Sasagawa, Clair, Suzuki, Rosenkreutz, and Singh - to each put together their own take on how they’d recommend moving the gas canisters to the abandoned shaft mine we’d located on the largest of Fianna’s three moons. A couple of quick commands attached the handling guide Doctor Ndele had put together for me, and a whack of the enter key sent the lot winging on its digital way.

“Call the bays and let ‘em know, okay?” I said on my way out.

“Will do.” Setsuka confirmed from behind me.

One of the advantages of working out of the pre-existing Camp Robichaux was that we had access to permanent, full-featured mech bays, each built into reinforced structures that reminded me intensely of submarine pens. Three-hundred-year-old thumbprint scanners on the lockers in the MechWarriors’ changing room, and all the other minor details they implied - about half of them still worked, but I didn’t stop. I could change in my cockpit on the way, and that way I’d have two uniforms with me rather than just the one to last however long it took people to get over that stomach bug.

Permanent mechbays used the same catwalk system as dropship bays - two swinging, telescoping gantry arms, whose hinges were on elevator tracks so that they could be set at any height for easiest access to the mech in the bay. Inactive in its bay, though, Marauder No. 2 was crouched to less than half its usual height of eleven meters or so, with the torso slumped forwards a bit, which put the cockpit about six feet or two meters up. Swinging up onto the already-deployed mounting ladder beneath wasn’t any harder than mounting a horse - easier, in fact, since an inactive Battlemech wouldn’t shy away like a nervous animal might.

Flopping into the command couch, I flipped the comm panel on while I waited for the reactor capacitors to charge. “Filler four, beginning startup,” I said, after a quick riffle through the available lines and their labels.

“Boss?” Lu Clair said. “I thought Braun was next on the list.”

“She was,” I said, “but she’s busy wishing she wasn’t a movie star and I’m next after her.”

“Works for me,” he replied. “Weren’t you working on the gas thing, though?”

“I’ve got about three quarters of a draft plan, but I want to see what you and the others come up with on your own first,” I said. “It’ll be on your desktop.”

“...Colonel, are you playing hooky?”

“Would you let anybody else go back to their office on the grounds of ‘I was doing paperwork’?” I replied, deliberately evasive.

“She is.” came the cheer from one of the other warriors on the line (Kaniela Niel, hired on Galatea, originally from somewhere out towards former Rim Worlds space). “Oh, wow, Colonel.”

“Don’t you start,” I grumbled. “I’m already behind on my proficiency log anyway.”

“How be-” Clair started to ask, then broke off and sniggered, I presume because he’d just looked it up himself.

“Fucking paperwork.” I grumbled.

“All right, objection withdrawn. Boss, I know you know this, but for the rest of you. We finally got the OK to track down the League merc unit that’s been bumming around on the jungle continent. PCA-” Planetary Command Authority, AKA the Duke of Fianna “-thought one mech company would be plenty, and our darling worrywart commander thought that’d be too fair a fight, so besides Baker, we’ve got Quebec, Sugar, and Nan 1. Baker picked a shitty restaurant, so we’ll be slotting in for people with the shits.

“Captain Toshi-” Toshiro Hannah, with Lira Suzuki and Moses Rosenkreutz one of the first three people I’d met in the unit “-has everbody dug in at Boende until we get there, but after that, Knight’s come through for us and found the base we’re looking for…”

While Clair explained, I flipped the boot-up switch. The computer thought to itself for a few moments, randomizing its presets, then said in its flat monotone: <{“What? What are you worth?”}>

“The things you love,” I replied, “or the people you hurt?”

<{“Voiceprint and neural handshake confirmed.”}>

Marauder (by blue)

Marauder Heavy 'Mech

A flick of my thumb stopped the music player from cuing up the song I’d just finished quoting - a function that had seemed cute when I set it but turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass in practice - so that I could keep one ear on Clair’s briefing. As he’d implied, I knew most of it already, but there was no sense being sloppy.

<{“Reactor, Online. Sensors, Online. Weapons Systems, Online. All functioning systems, nominal.”}> the computer announced as Marauder No. 2 straightened to its full height.

One of the small civilian pickups we’d bolted flagpoles on top of as ‘guide cars’ pulled up in front. The flashing lights on top of the pole were yellow, so I just jiggled the steering joystick enough to tell the computer to shuffle its footing. No red flags came up, so I knew that things were working right.

When the pole flashers went green, I lumbered into motion and followed the pilot truck out and onto the apron, and from there to the private loading road that led right from the base to the spaceport.

It was after school hours, and I could see clusters of human figures appear in the yards and windows overlooking the road as the impromptu lance tromped towards our ride - kids admiring the titans of war. That changed even less than war itself did.

Breaking out onto the the blast-scarred ferrocrete of the spaceport tarmac did wonders for the stress levels; not only was there less to run into or step on, but against the flat, predictable backdrop of the pavement, a mech’s limited machine vision systems could actually do a worthwhile job picking up obstacles or intrusions to feed to the neurohelmet checksum. Less stress was a good thing; it gave us time to brace for dropship loading.

I hated dropship loading. It had all the ‘don’t step on that’ issues of crowded streets, matched with close quarters with no room to maneuver and lots of expensive equipment to smash if you got anything wrong. I’d take it over being shot at, but only just. Star League 'mechs had been able to run loading on autopilot, letting special markers and sensor feeds from the dropship tell the mech exactly where it was so the idiot box could get the machine where it needed to be for the crew to lock the attachment points down.

(There were straps involved, but also cables, and latches that linked feet and rear hardpoints directly to matching brackets in the bay. I didn’t know whose children the SLDF had threatened to get that bit of standardization through, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had to follow through at least once.)

Once Marauder No. 2 was slotted in, I put her to sleep and started changing. I’d sweated enough in my day-to-day clothes to need to launder them already; no sense making it worse on myself. There was a chance that the crews working to get the other 'mechs of the fill lance put to bed would glance in the cockpit and catch an eyeful. However, 1) it wasn’t like I’d be showing a lot more than standard piloting gear. 2) Younger-Me had given shows that put that kind of awkward peeping to shame so what was the point? 3) What did I have to be ashamed of, anyway? So fuck it.

If any of them noticed and used the opportunity, they had better sense than to make it obvious to me; I finished by shrugging on my cooling jacket and strapping in, then pulled out the keyboard GM had thoughtfully provided on a dentist-chair arm and pulled up the file I’d been working on.

Launch interrupted that project. It wasn’t that hard to move under the leisurely gravity-and-a-half that took us up to orbit, but typing would have been so awkward that I’d’ve ended up deleting everything afterwards. Less than twenty minutes in freefall in the middle, and then we were braking towards a landing on the ferrocrete of the Boende city airport. Even a tiny dropship like a Leopard was bigger than that was really designed to handle, but the Star League engineers who’d laid the pavement had reinforced it enough to take the weight without damage, and ferrocrete’s temperature-resistance was enough to absorb the head from the landing thrusters and vectored main drive… for a little bit. Long enough.

Toshi had Baker Company - or rather, all seven effective still left in it at this point - ready and waiting by the time we touched down, and we literally walked off the dropship and fell into traveling column, stepping carefully over the fence that surrounded the airport and out into the raw jungle that covered its back sides. What little sprawl Boende had all moved up the banks of the river, south of us.

We had been moving most of the afternoon and were almost to the laager point we’d picked outside of what we thought was the Night Heat’s operational area when the ambush hit. We were crossing the same river that eventually ended at Boende for about the fifth time, this time by a bridge rather than having to ford.

I knew the tankers would be glad of that; Sugar’s Manticores could just button up and roll across the bottom, since they were fusion-powered, but Quebec’s Goblins had to go through an entire fafftastic fording procedure every time they did it, which frustrated everybody. And getting Nan - both the Scorpions and the Long Toms and ammo trailers they were dragging - across was even more of a hassle. Each time we’d had to ford, there had been a ferry - which had spent the entire time it took everyone else to cross hauling the artillery pieces back and forth, back and forth.

It would’ve been better if we’d been able to just stay on one side, but with the way the river meandered through the jungle, that… wasn’t really practical.

Anyway. This time, there was a bridge. Toshi led the mechs across it and we were all standing around waiting while the first lance of Manticores rolled after us, at which point the charges in the bridge supports went off and dropped forty meters of span straight in the water, along with the two Manticores that had been on it. The two that had been following them skidded to a halt, the one in front coming to a final rest with the first couple meters of its bow over the edge.

Manticore Heavy Tank (HBS version, going up hill)

Manticore Heavy Tank

Naturally, there was much swearing.

Equally naturally, that wasn’t the end of it. Long range missiles erupted from the trees along the shoreline, flickers of motion showing as camouflaged mechs came to their feet and fired on the cluster of tanks and trucks that made up the artillery element, rockets falling all around the thin-skinned ammo carriers like rain.

<<“Dealer, bug out, now!”>> Toshi snapped, swinging his Marauder around to acquire the nearest of the LRM platforms and opening up with both PPCs. <<“Quebec, cover them! Sugar, go hull down on the bank and prepare for fire support, and get off the bri-”>>

His orders cut off with brutal suddenness as a Hunchback lunged out of its own cover and opened up, its burst of autocannon fire landing across the vulnerable rear plates of his armor - and joined, moments later, by the blaze and flash of laser and PPC bolts from the same direction.

Stinger Light BattleMech (Battlefield - by Justin Kase)

Stinger Light 'mech

More mechs, two lances worth, stood up out of the river and started firing; the hammer of SRM warheads landing on my armor filled my ears as I tried to work out what the fuck.

Okay. Okay. We were under attack. Ambush, at least one company… I laid my crosshairs on a Stinger that was bounding out of cover, fired both lasers and a PPC. The PPC missed; both of the lasers tracked quick slashes across his torso armor, each getting maybe half of the intended energy on-target.

That was when I got a good look a the livery it was wearing.

Under the coat of mud, leaves, and branches, now shedding off of it like rain, was a black and scarlet badge of a slavering cartoon wolf’s head…

Wolf's Dragoons (Emblem)

Emblem of the Wolf's Dragoons

And behind the Stinger, a Warhammer shouldered out of the woods - solid black.
Mo-ther-fuck-er.

“All Bakers, fall back into the water.” I ordered, “Sugar, focus fire, Warhammer first-Fuck!”

Warhammer (Firing Weapons in Lake region - Papercraft) Green-Blue

Warhammer Heavy 'Mech

I’d been obeying my own instructions, backpedaling towards the river with a fine disregard for the risk of tripping over something, and laid down my very best barrage in Kerensky’s direction.

I swear to fucking god, the woman managed to dodge particle beams in a seventy-ton battlemech. How the fuck? Her reputation was not exaggerated, apparently.

The Commando in the river sent another salvo my way, even while ten PPC bolts flashed across two-thirds of a kilometer of water and all but filled the air around Kerensky’s Warhammer. The area was so saturated with electrical charge that you could see the beams bend crazily as the magnetic fields interacted. All the evasive maneuvers in the world were useless with that much pain flying around that randomly; she took three hits and made a hard swerve to the left, getting most of the way out from under the company-wide torrent of LRMs that followed the beams in.

I was backpedaling furiously as all of this happened, and the proximity warning barely got my attention in time to shift to one side and turn, swinging one of No. 2’s blocky forearms around to catch the Stinger behind me - in Night Heat colors, so they were here, too - across the top of its head. The impact probably wasn’t enough to destroy it, but from the way he went down, it had well and truly rattled his cage.

To my right, a Centurion blew up, a concussive fireball of propellant-orange and capacitor-silver staggering the Hunchback and every other mech nearby.

Another salvo from the Manticores cast the entire battlefield in stark black-and-white, two shots hitting Kerensky again and smashing armor free from the other side of her Warhammer’s torso, and another three all but annihilating the unwary Dragoon Wasp that had been cutting in front of her. My intention to follow up on that salvo failed as the criss-cross of dozens of mechs trying to fight in brutally tight quarters broke my line of sight.

Rifleman (Firing In Desert with Water - Miniature painted by Kazdok)

Rifleman Heavy 'Mech

Instead I took a split second to track the Rifleman that was emerging from the woods next to her her and broke my own rules by hitting the alpha strike button. The air defense mech twitched under the assault - I’d missed with my lasers but for a wonder both PPCs and the autocannon burst had all hit - but didn’t stagger or fall. I wouldn’t have expected him to; the Black Widow Company was famous for a reason. But it did delay his evasion long enough for the LRM flight that had been crossing the river to land, saturating him and his armor with explosions until the automatic safeties jettisoned the entire front-torso glacis before it could shatter into a wave of shrapnel even more dangerous than the missiles themselves.

My core temps were high enough that firing either PPC would have been unwise, but that didn’t stop me from raking laser tracks across the Rifleman’s body, one beam starting low and finishing high and the other zigzagging across center and right body and finishing on the arm. Neither shot would have been enough to more than warm up an intact armor section; lasers needed more time on target to start affecting those - but the structural framing and subsidiary equipment that lay under that armor was less enduring. Burning a hole straight in would still have been better, but that was a challenge at the best of times.

I didn’t expect much from the autocannon burst that I sent on its way downrange after the lasers had finished, but he zagged at just the right - or, from his perspective, wrong - moment and walked straight into all three shots, one of them finding the magazine serving his own cannons and brewing the entire machine up in another spectacular fireball.

Instants later, one of our remaining Marauders went down, its leg wrecked by the damned Hunchback. Even as its pilot struggled to haul himself back up to foot-and-stump, a barrage of fire from all directions started to pour in, everything from a Wasp’s medium laser to a storm of missile contrails from the ambushers still dug in along the shoreline as they turned to focus on the weakest member of the herd.

Kerensky added to the mess, pouring everything she could into a Centurion and somehow - my leading theory was malignant witchcraft - getting almost all of it into the center-torso plating and boring through to the gyroscope in one go.

No. 2 rocked as it stepped backwards into the soft mud of the river bottom and its battle-churned waters, wobbling to compensate for the suddenly steep bank and swearing as the uncertainty of the motion drew the attention of several of the Night Heat mechs. I picked out one, a Hermes II, and gave it my usual ‘sustainable’ salvo - a PPC, both lasers, and an AC burst. The long-range guns both missed, but I was able to hold the lasers on target as I took another step back into deeper water.

Hermes II (Blender Game Version)

Hermes II Medium 'Mech

I risked a glance around, seeing how much of the company was left - and how close we were to being free. Four down, but all of us were into the water, and as I looked I could see Sargeant Ritter - easy to pick out because he was piloting his own Thunderbolt, Crusher, Inc., rather than one of our standard types - lock onto the Hunchback and give it his short-range bracket.

I looked back at the Hermes and its friends and took another step back, now into water almost up to my waist. I fired again, lasers and cannon and the PPC from the right arm rather than the left, this time having the lasers jiggle uselessly across its armor and managing to land smashing hits from the particle beam and cannon shells.

Hunchback (MechCommander)

Hunchback Medium 'Mech

The Hunchback had turned his attention, and the monstrous firepower of his 165mm autocannon, towards the water, and lucky lucky me, I was the winning contestant. Malign luck or his skill put the burst right into the left-torso plating that protected my own AC magazine, and probably would have breached it outright if No 2 was still stock - but we’d moved some of the heavy protection on standard Marauder’s legs to shore up the weak torso plating, and it held. Barely.

If I took another hit there, I’d be in real trouble. “Okay, everybody,” I started to say as the last rearguard reached the depth of water I had in mind. “Go ahead and du-”

As though she’d heard my worried thought, Kerensky turned her PPCs onto me.

The event happened too fast for senses or memory to separate the timing; my cockpit flashed white-purple as particle beam radiance fought with protective polarizing layers, and sheer brutal agony lit off in every nerve of my body, flowing in through the sides of my skull and down my spine to flood out to the extremities.

I screamed, flinched, convulsed. The world vanished into a helpless impression of motion, confusion, and violence.

The pain filled the left side of my chest and arm, somehow, impossibly, growing worse. I staggered, fell.

The world went dark.


How am I Alive?[]

Jungle Battlefield - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


I came to with a splitting headache and the feeling of one of my feet soaking in water, and the smell of wet mud.

I opened my eyes, but it was what felt like several seconds and was probably ten times that before I could process the slow brown leak trickling into my cockpit from the bottom end of the crack that ran right across the left-hand window pane.

Water was leaking in. That was why my foot was wet; it had pooled in the bottom of the cockpit and my foot was dangling into it. I was on my side, half lying on the command couch’s armrest and half hanging from my straps. I could feel the discomfort stabbing into my side.

My head hurt.

Most of the cockpit displays were yellow, running on battery power. A couple more were red, warning of real trouble. The left torso and arm were black.

Gone.

Water was leaking in. That was bad, I knew. I struggled to remember why, glanced at the readouts. One of the red ones was cockpit integrity, and… I squinted to read the text. Humidity. Humidity was bad for…

Electronics.

My head hurt. The neural backflash from the ammo explosion was fading, slowly, but it still hurt like hell, made it hard to think, made trains of thought stutter and skip.

Focus, Ash. Water in the cockpit, rising in a slow leak, flooding…

Flooding. Once the water level reached the main control console, it’d short the inputs. No 2 would be dead until they could be dried out and checked, reset, by a tech.

How long? I didn’t know and couldn’t make an estimate, not with the pounding in my head and the way I was fading in and out.

I couldn’t just stand up.

I tried to remember why. What had I seen up there the last time-

An ambush.

Fuck! Where were my people? What about the unit? I tried to punch open a radio connection; bruised my finger poking it full strength into the console next to the button instead. Hit it second try.

Nothing on the frequency we’d been using.

I hadn’t hit the button I actually wanted; the console automatically cycled to the next tuning, seeking a strong return like a car radio. That wouldn’t do any good. That wouldn’t help.

Help what? Water was leaking in.

Right. Electronics, damaged. I needed to stand up, get out of the water. Or patch it?

I looked around. Clothes, drinking water… my fridge was flooded, I realized with a spurt of hysterical annoyance. Uh… Rations, medkit, survival kit… Nothing to patch a seal with. I made a mental note to try to remember to have those added to our equipment list.

<<“-erstand what you’re saying, but there’s no way on this world or any other that we’re gonna pull it off, Kerensky.”>> the radio said, in a man’s voice that I didn’t recognize. <<“They’ve still got at least nine Manties and all those Goblins, and more importantly, they’ve got that Long Tom battery set up. We poke our noses into their sight and the entire grid square turns into a shooting range. It doesn’t matter that we beat the half of their mechs that are left right up to their CLG. I lost an entire lance worth, including my Bellringer, and don’t try and pretend you didn’t take a battering even if you only lost two.”>>

A moment of silence, then he finished, resolutely: <<“I’m invoking my unfulfillable clause, and if you’re smart, you’ll do the same.”>>

The woman’s voice that answered him sounded like melted chocolate, if chocolate could get pissed off. {“And what about the secondary objective? Will you walk away from that obligation, too?”}

Dammit, Tasha K, why you have to be so hot?

<<“Duke Jason MacLaine is a treacherous, backstabbing asshole and my ‘obligations’ to him weigh very lightly on my mind, employer or not.”>> the first speaker snapped, then sighed. <<“But fine. If you want to sweep the river and make sure we got Blackwing herself, my boys will back you up… As long as you do the actual wading with your heavies. I’m not losing anybody else to this pisspot of a job.”>>

{“Fine,”} Kerensky bit off. {“Command lance, with me. We’re going fishing.”}

...I was going to die, wasn’t I?

I was really going to die. It was real.

My head hurt.

Water was leaking in.

I couldn’t stay.

I couldn’t go.

No way out.

I desperately wished that Sophitia was there, wanted to put my arms around her and curl against her strong body until we both fell asleep. I was desperately glad that she wasn’t trapped there with me, held at bay by something even she couldn’t fight.

No way out.

In retrospect, I could see the fuckups. Not bringing enough backup, not holding the aero forces overhead. Trying to focus on Kerensky rather than her more vulnerable backups.

I guess it didn’t matter.

No way out.

The other mistake, THE mistake, swallowed them all.

I hadn’t told anyone. Hadn’t left any records. They’d’ve been impossible to explain, ridiculous, insane claims… But now they were going to die with me. Helm. New Dallas. The Clans, and Comstar…

I’d fucked it all up. If only I could -

Could I?

I fumbled at the console, diving into settings…

Yes. Yes, there was an option to add data to the black box recorders. Make sure it survived the destruction of the mech.

I hit the toggle and started talking as fast as I could. My voice was slurred, almost drunken. My head still hurt. I couldn’t think of a better way to organize it than stream-of-consciousness, reeling madly from one topic and fragment of thought to another, trying to remember and record everything, every critical piece for the people who’d need it.

The signal-monitor I’d set to follow the intensity of the hunters’ sonar spiked. They’d found me.

“-aaand I’m out of time,” I interrupted myself. “Soph, I love you. Phil should have papers saying that everything’s yours, now. Take care of yourself, and of the rest, okay?”

I hit the toggle again, then swatted for the transmit function with one hand while the other whacked the big yellow EMERGENCY REACTOR RESTART button.

The computer made an attention tone. <{“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.”}>

That was…

My voice provided the right lyric without consulting the rest of my brain. “We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.”

There was a flush of heat - what it did to the smell in the cockpit was indescribable but tragically very memorable - and the lights brightened, most of the board going from yellow to green.

<{““Reactor online, sensors-””}> the computer was saying. I spoke over it as I got Marauder No. 2’s feet under it and surged up out of the water - though not much out, it was deep here.

“Dealer, Dealer, Joker Actual here calling final protective fire, location-” what were the grid coordinates? No fucking clue and I really doubted that I could read the numbers off right in the state I was in, “-western bridgehead, sensors…” I flailed at the console. Channel F came up. “Channel Fox.”

The mech that had almost stumbled over me was the Dragoon Crusader. I lifted No 2’s arm up out of the water and punched the blocky club-limb against its chest, then pulled the triggers. At that range, the biggest divergence in their targeting was the literal distance between lens and muzzle, and both were aimed squarely at the missile mech’s cockpit. The particle beam bloomed insanely at that range, not so much a beam as a short-lived vortex of ball lightning that left melt and char across head, torso, and arm alike, and the laser beam kept working on what was left to finally chew through with fatal results.

Firing a PPC at that range put more wear-and-tear on the weapon than ten thousand normal cycles; if I tried it more than three or four more times, I’d be running a real risk of failure.

<{““-systems online. Ammunition storage compromised. Portside-””}>

Crusader (Unseen version by SU-SMD)

Crusader Heavy 'Mech

The Crusader dropped, boneless as a marionette. “Heeeere’s Johnny!” I caroled.

<{““-laser destroyed. Autocannon: Winchester. Armor breach: Port arm. Armor breach: Port Torso. Armor low: Starboard leg. Armor low: Starboard arm.””}>

I could see the cluster of Night Heat mechs on the shoreline, mixed in with the lighter Dragoon ones, and I turned towards them, rolling the throttle up - and then back as my screwed-up brain, the missing torso section, and the mud and water around my legs conspired to turn a run into a drunken, reeling lurch. Walking worked better.

“Who wants to play the game?” I asked the empty cockpit. “It’s time to play the game!”

Was I a Texan? Being a Texas sounded awesome. Best armor, forget the cheesefest McKenna. Not a Texan, though. Fuck those pretentious ignorant jackasses. Alaska largest state, Hawaii only real nation.

“I am the game, you don’t wanna play me!” One or two of the gathered mechs was reacting, lifting their arms and sending laser beams - the tracers were Marik purple - in my direction. I lifted my remaining arm again and singled out the fucking Commando to receive the next dose of my own fire. “I am control, no way you can shake me!”

Lying filibusters didn’t deserve to be remembered, and neither did their legal fictions.

More of them were moving, firing. I was too dizzy to realize they were missing. I fired again, this time at the Griffin that was trying to turn and withdraw. “NO ESCAPING! That is not approved by the committee!”

The first Long Tom shell landed, cratering the well-churned mud of the battlefield in a fountain of dirt clods. Another landed squarely on top of the Night Heat Locust and smashed it entirely. Two more fell in the river, another in the forest beyond. I didn’t see where the last one landed.

PPC fire added itself to my world, burning through the air in front of me from one side. I guessed at the angle and turned towards it - and there was Kerensky again.

“Hey, hey, Tasha K! How many kids did you kill today?!” I demanded, and fired at her. I missed, of course. I probably would have even if the world hadn’t picked that exact moment to swim and diverge, everything doubling as my eyes stopped tracking together for a second.

Something about the Warhammer seemed surprised, but I wouldn’t’ve have been able to figure out what even if I’d cared. I fired again; one good thing about being down to half my weapons was that I still had most of my heat dispersion and could use everything all day.

When Kerensky dropped both PPCs and the longer-ranged half of her in-close battery in my direction and missed with all of it, that I noticed, if only to go what-the-fuck at.

More artillery shells landed, but I was focused in on Kerensky. “Black Widow! Natasha, shouldn’t your name be Romanoff? No, wait, Romanova. Fucking gendered Russian bullshit.” I fired back, and this time I managed to land a hit, my own PPC blasting a gouge out of one of her upper arms while the laser traced a line of steam along the surface of the river. “Widowmaker, Widowmaker, Personne n'échappe à mon regard!”

Her second salvo was less synchronized, missiles roaring in and missing long, then the lasers slashing by without more than a blip on the armor monitor, then the PPC - she’d left one out, probably cooling down - scorched by as I flinched.

“Your mother was a test tube and your father was a knife!” An artillery shell landed between us; I fired through the spray, artificial lightning boring a flash-boiled hole in an instant while I left the trigger pressed down until the laser finished recharging to burn at her hip. “And your tits aren’t even as good as Friday’s!”

There were worse universes to end up in. I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to share a universe with Lazarus fucking Long. Fuck time travel anyway no not like that you dirty old man in space.

Christ, 90s X-men, you really poisoned that well, didn’t you?

This time, she managed to hit me with one of the PPCs. Right torso armor went from green with yellow speckles to solid yellow with a red blot. “Your Great Father was a fucking coward!!” I told the uncaring universe and dead pickups, and fired back, advancing even as she swerved, torso-twisting to keep me targeted, and made for the shoreline at a run.

I fired after her, missing in the change of angles, and started to turn to follow.

Then a malignant God booted me in the side of the head and I fell again, swearing and screaming in pain. I just barely managed to catch the fall before my cockpit went under, a good thing given that the overpressure had blown in the cracked panel.

I was pretty sure I was bleeding in a couple of places as I struggled back to my feet. Artillery shells were landing in the forest, now, rather than along the shoreline. The one that I’d just eaten the fringe of had fallen short. The only enemy mech in sight was Kerensky’s Warhammer, disappearing into the treeline.

I snap-fired one last lightning bolt at her, and by some dumb luck managed to hit the same arm I’d damaged earlier, blowing it the rest of the way off - and then she was gone.

I stood there and stared mindlessly until the artillery fell silent, too.

I was alive? How the fuck?


Aftermath of an Ambush[]

Base Hospital, Camp Robichaux - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


In the end, aside from the fact that eight people were dead, it seemed like nothing had really changed.

We were still holding onto the main continent, there was still a BattleMech company under contract to House Marik ‘occupying’ the least significant of the others, and there was still an uneasy feeling to interactions with the Duke, our own employer’s representative.

The proverbial devil was in the details, though.

The Night Heat were a Regular rated unit, competent but in no way outstanding. Kerensky’s Independent Company of the Wolf's Dragoons was a very different beast. They were already famous as hard-fighting elites, the roughest and toughest shock troops the Dragoons had. Their being here said very different things about Marik’s intentions for and on Fianna.

Ominous ones, combined with the fact that their Marik-paid contract was going through the same Duke I reported to. Next to that, even the fact that he’d added a rider to kill me personally was fairly minor news.

Obviously, I’d used up my last one-time-pad to send a copy of my cockpit recordings of the conversation between Kerensky and her opposite number. The file size and priority routing had been pricy, but under the circumstances I could only count it as money well spent.

I, and the rest of our pilots who’d been injured in that kerfluffle, were all goofing off under the gimlet eye of the formidable Doctor Enrico Tiber. He was one of the people we’d recruited back on Alpheratz - former head of Neurosurgery at Marisa Avellar Memorial Hospital, not the largest but the best regarded of the four hospitals serving the capital and largest city of the Outworlds’ capital. If he’d had more tact or a better beside manner, he’d probably have even kept the job, rather than finding himself displaced by a wealthier, better connected relative of the selfsame Avellars.

He’d even been pissed enough to look at completely off the wall options like, oh, running the medical department of a mercenary regiment. Definitely good luck for me, though I could have done with at least some information about what the ammo explosion feedback had done to my head.

But nope, not a bit of it. Just walk in, read the charts, maybe tell me to eat this or drink that or avoid the other, walk out. Definitely an example of expertise winning license.

Anyway, while I was more or less on bed rest, he’d said there was nothing wrong with my eyes or judgement, which meant that there was no escaping from the dreaded specter of paperwork. I had one of the lap desks the infirmary kept around for eating installed and covered in paper and dataslates - and the attachment that had latched herself onto my hand while I was unconscious sleeping off her worry in the other bed - when a knock at the door of my cel- er, room disgorged a rail-skinny basketball player in early middle age and a different camo jumpsuit from the one that had become the unit’s bulk-ordered default.

The unit patch was a silver crescent moon with three four-pointed stars, surrounded by black flames.

“Hello, Colonel,” he said quietly, in a voice that I had last heard arguing with Natasha Kerensky.

“Hello, Colonel,” I replied, and waved at one of the visitor’s chairs. “Have a seat.”

He limped over and did, his knees folding almost double to tuck his long legs and feet entirely under the seat. “I wanted… Three things, really. First, to thank you for the honors for Max and Yona,” he said quietly.

I’d arranged for the dead of both sides to be interred with all ceremony in one of Boende’s cemeteries. “If we can’t be gracious to the dead, who can we?” I asked, and sighed. “What a damned stupid mess.”

He scrubbed a hand through thinning hair with a hint of salt. “Heck of a way to make a living,” he agreed, then girded his figurative loins and met my eyes. “I also wanted to talk to you about ransoming Bellringer, my Hunchback, back.”

The cannon-bearing medium had taken nearly as ferocious a battering as it had dished out. I shook my head. “My crews have been looking at it, but they’re not optimistic. Probably the Hermes will fight again, but the others are scrap.”

He looked like he’d just heard of a death in the family, which if the Hunchback was ancestral wouldn’t be far off. “I would be willing to let it go, on terms, if you thought your techs were enough better than mine,” I added.

“What’s the price?” he asked, bracing himself.

“Your contract records,” I answered. “Paymaster, liaison, the orders they gave, everything you can document about them and formal testimony of the rest.”

He started, then stared at me for a moment. “...You were listening in before you powered up.” he concluded.

“Not for that long,” I admitted, “but long enough.”

He sighed. “I’ll put them together,” he promised. “The real break was your doing, not mine, so the rest Comstar can just lump.”

I nodded. “We’ll have your Bellringer ready. You’ve got a recovery vehicle? Send it by Boende with the documentation and we’ll load it up. I can’t do anything about Comstar, but I expect to be able to put in at least a small positive word with Steiner.”

He clearly didn’t expect that to go very far, but he nodded. “I’d appreciate it,” he said. “Galatea isn’t far, at least, even if getting a lift will be… a pain.”

A part of me wanted to wish him luck, but Toshi Hannah and another three dead kept my tongue between my teeth.

After a moment, he looked at me again. “The last thing… How in Blake’s name did you pull off that targeting spoof? It was like something out of a ghost story.”

I blinked at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I said, with absolute sincerity.

“...You hacked straight into our com lines and started raving like a madwoman and-” He cut off and leaned forward, looking concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“You heard that?!” I demanded; I could feel all the blood draining out of my face.

He blinked at me, then courteously refrained from laughing out loud no matter how obvious it was that he wanted to. “You hit the general broadcast,” he concluded.

I grumbled, then shook it off. “Yeah, OK, I screwed up the comms.” I said. “What was that about targeting?”

“The damndest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “We couldn’t lock on to you. Just… slid off, like there was nothing there as far as the computers were concerned. Like you were some kind of ghost. Even Kerensky was just shooting over dead sights.”

“...Well,” I said automatically, “I guess that explains why she didn’t slaughter me.” Why did that sound familiar, though?

“Mallory’s World...” mumbled a sleep-fuzzed voice, and Sophitia sat up, shrugging the sheet that the nurses had tucked her under, uniform and ruby-red hair and all, down into her lap. “Kell and… Yorigana Kurita?”

“Yorinaga,” I corrected automatically now that she’d prompted my memory.

Our guest shook his head and unfolded from his seat. “I guess that that’s the best answer I’m going to get,” he said, and extended his hand. “I hope next time we meet, the circumstances are better.”

I reached up and accepted the handshake. Each of his fingers could probably have wrapped all the way around my wrist without stopping. “That, I’ll drink to,” I said.

And out he went.

Sophitia got up and gave me a kiss just as warm as the one I’d woken up to. “Don’t scare me like that.” she said, which was also a repetition.

“I’ll try not to,” I said. Then, “And… there’s some things I wanted to talk to you about. Kind of churned to the surface by-”

There was another knock at the door. We looked at each other and started giggling.

“Come in!” I called, and was surprised to see that it wasn’t just one person, but Lu Clair, Io Sasagawa, Dimitri Raven, Ph.D. (Fusion dynamics), and Risha Shao, the same mechtech who, back during the boarding actions that had been our first taste of battle back in the Outworlds Alliance, had hotwired a Battlemech machine gun to fire off of a spot-welded pintle using nothing but a pair of wires and her noteputer.

The other techs called her ‘Trigger’.

All of them looked very serious. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I was testing the black box on Number Two,” Trigger said. “And I found… well.”

She lifted the infamous noteputer and hit a button. I heard my own recorded voice start to play.

<<“I don’t have much time. Water’s leaking in and they’re hunting me and I should’ve written this someplace else but how the fuck do I explain ‘oh I had fucking visions’ because that makes sense. Forget it. Important part. I’ve checked some of this, most of this. Helm. Famous story, Star League military depot goes missing, Psycho McKurita glasses the place because he can’t steal everything, right? So what you need to do is-”>>

The click of the pause button was loud in the silent hospital room.

I sighed. “You’d better go get some chairs,” I said, “because this is going to be a long story."


...YOU FOOL IT’S ONLY MOONLIGHT...​


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