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by MohammaedAsZaman - See The Cat in the Mirror, Part 1

The first exchange of fire was at long range, Stephen cursed as his volley of missiles flew wide while the Crab’s particle cannon stripped some armor from the Mad Dog’s left leg.

The Crab backed away while Stephen pushed his omnimech forward at a walk. The Crab’s particle cannon missed while his autocannon raked the Arkab mech’s torso and he could see the armor stripped away, exposing internal components. Still backing away, the Crab scored a hit on Stephen’s Mad Dog’s right arm while his laser missed. Missiles struck the Crab’s right arm twice, shattering bits of the limb’s internal frame.

As the Crab passed through a grove of maple trees, a squad of DCMS infantry stood up and saluted. The Azami officer keyed his loudspeaker, “Take cover, soldiers –and dare not interfere. This is my fight.”

The Mad Dog suddenly broke into a run and fired all of its weapons. The autocannon and missiles flew wide, but a searing energy bolt burned its way through the Crab’s left torso. A heat sink exploded with a shower of steaming coolant. The Crab’s medium laser missed while the particle cannon melted away layers of armor from the omnimech’s left torso.

The Crab backed through light woods, the Nova Cat Mad Dog followed, walking cautiously.

The Mad Dog managed to strike the Crab’s center torso, flaking away at its frame. Another left leg strike bit off more armor.

The Azami battlemech backed out of the protection of the wooded area and into the open meadow of gracefully waving grass. The wide circle of omnimechs moved to keep the combatants in their center.

Stephen’s Mad Dog stepped out of the shading canopy of trees and squinted his eyes for a moment. It was a beautiful afternoon, the skies blue with silvery clouds slowly making their way to the Southwest. Numerous condensation trails crisscrossed the skies denoting another battle raging far above the one in which he fought.

The omnimech tapped into the planetary MilSat display, which showed countless aerofighters locked in combat as well as dozens of emergency location transmitters indicating pilots who were forced to eject from their stricken craft.

In a violent exchange of weapons fire, the Azami battlemech shuddered as its right arm was sheared away, taking the precious particle cannon with it. The Crab’s left arm was without armor and took more damage to its already weakened frame. The Crab’s laser stripped away all but a thin layer of the Mad Dog’s right arm’s armor, the particle cannon’s burst struck the omnimech’s head and tore it open.

The Mad Dog staggered as if dazed. Stephen remembered a bright flash, followed by pain. He could feel the warm sun on his face and feel the breeze that moved the tall grass in green waves, he could feel the blood trickle down the right side of his face. He ignored the flashing lights on his console and spun his omnimech’s torso to face his opponent.

The stricken Crab backed toward the ring of observing Clan Nova Cat omnimechs, swung its torso and fired its large laser at the closest, stationary Dire Wolf and the medium laser at a nearby Gargoyle. “Allahu akbar!”

The Mad Dog stood immobile, Stephen was stunned for a few seconds as the huge omnimechs, without thinking, reacted to the unexpected challenges. Their torsos turned, weapons instinctively snapped into position and fired at point blank range. Struck from all sides, the Crab collapsed as its cockpit, right torso and right leg were torn asunder by the torrent of concentrated fire.

The Nova Cat mechwarrior fought back the tears that welled in his stinging eyes and tried to shut out the voices of his comrades congratulating his victory.

“I have failed my Clan.”

Noon

Stephen knelt beside the wreckage of the Azami Crab, long after the circle of omnimechs had broken up and continued on their way to Waseda Hills. He felt the approach of Elementals before he heard them.

“Cheer up, Stephen,” said one of the Elementals through his tinny, external speaker, “Star Captain Drummond told us to bring this casualty bag for the fallen mechwarrior, and she ordered us to stand by and guard the site until his people come to recover him.”

The Clan mechwarrior slowly rose to his feet, “Thank you, Morris, but I must apologize for denying you the opportunity to fight.”

“Do not worry yourself over it, Stephen,” answered the other Elemental, whose gentle, female voice seemed incongruous with the massive battle armor she wore, “The Star Captain says that you have to get back to the dropship and have your omnimech repaired…and I will give you a big hug later.” Stephen smiled, “Aff, I shall head back,” he turned to face the ruined Crab and saluted. “Thank you, Katya, I look forward to that hug.”

Clan Nova Cat Landing Zone

The Medical Science Officer handed the mechwarrior a small bottle, “Take one of these after each meal.”

“Thank you, Nigel, I feel better already,” Stephen said, “It may take a while before my omnimech is ready, they decided it would be faster to replace entire limbs than repair them.”

“You, my friend, are lucky to be able to get back into the fight,” commented Nigel. Stephen shook his head, “I am still depressed, that fine warrior chose death over capture.”

“I saw that!” exclaimed the Medic, “Those two boys are in for a serious scolding, as the word had been put out to take that Crab’s pilot alive.”

“You saw it?”

“We were getting live feed from the first arrivals on the scene,” Nigel said, “some of our media technicians are already piecing together a full-length holovid of the ‘Heroic Crab’,” he told Stephen, “They have probably pulled data from your battlerom to add to the production.”

“As much as I appreciate all the congratulations I have received,” Stephen said, “I still feel horrible about it, and people keep bringing it up.”

“I see,” said Nigel softly, “well, get to your bunk and try to rest.”

Stephen stopped off at the mess for tea and a buttered scone and closed his eyes as he took a sip of his tea and savored its subtle flavors.

“Attention, all personnel: Please refrain from offering your well-meant comments to Mechwarrior Stephen, as he is rather vexed over the outcome of his recent fight,” it was Medical Science Officer Nigel’s calm voice, “give him some quiet for a day or so, if you please.”

The mechwarrior shook his head then smiled, “Good old Nigel.” One of the servers approached his table, “Forgive me, Stephen, I was so insensitive!”

“No worries, Molly,” he replied, “you were unaware, at the time.”

“More tea?”

“Please.” Stephen felt much better.

Early Afternoon

The annoying buzz from the intercom prompted Stephen to force open one eye. He slapped the button on the console, “Mechwarrior Stephen,” he grunted, as he rolled upright in his bunk.

“Hey Stephen, this is Greg in the repair bay, you may saddle up, it is in the Prime configuration.”

“Warm it up for me!”

The Nova Cat pilot was already fully dressed and wearing his shoes as he jumped from his bunk and grabbed his neural helmet on his way out the door.

The repair bay was unusually quiet, Stephen realized that of his star, his Mad Dog was the only machine to incur damage, so far. He mounted the catwalk and practically leaped into his cockpit and grinned as the displays glowed with data; His trinary was still advancing through Waseda Hills.

“Restraints away!” shouted Greg, his team members stood back and saluted as the Mad Dog strode out of the bay and down the ramp. The shadows were long as the heavy omnimech loped swiftly across Tairakana Plains and past Basin Lake, where dozens of wrecked battlemechs lay strewn across the field.

“Star Captain Drummond, Mechwarrior Stephen, on my way to Waseda Hills.”

“Good to hear from you, Stephen,” answered Drummond, “We are looking at pausing at our current position for reorganization,” she added, “We may have a rough time since our allies have almost depleted their promised aerospace assets by noon,” she continued her report, “Clan Smoke Jaguar has also reported a Combine force had penetrated behind their lines and inflicted almost two stars’ worth of omnimech casualties to their reserve elements; They were abandoned in the field in exchange for the loss of two Combine machines.”

“How did we ever agree to fight alongside them?”

Afternoon

“We are going to halt here for a while as cluster command awaits updated orders,” said Star Captain Janet Drummond, “Stephen and Lawrence shall be on first watch,” announced the captain, “Enjoy your rations and get some rest.”

Stephen pulled the sliding table from under his console and removed the ceramic teacup from its padded container. He pulled the teabag from a cooling vest pocket and brushed the lint off it before placing it in the teacup, held the cup under the small tap beneath the right of the dashboard and filled it with steaming hot water. While his tea steeped in the small table, he fished a scone out of one of his trouser cargo pockets and unwrapped it. The scone wasn’t fresh, but the sweet, buttery flavor put him immediately at ease.

“Hey Stephen!” It was Lawrence, “Which ration box do you have…what do you have to trade for a tin of biscuits and blackberry jam?”

“Seriously?” Stephen was hesitant, “That is not worth a tin of pound cake and you know it.”

“Pound cake? Please, please, please! What if I give you tomorrow’s dessert too?”

“Alright, but it had better not be the granola bar.”

The pulse from the alarm caused Stephen to emerge from his nap to a full state of alertness almost immediately. He felt rested and commenced his startup sequence.

“Listen up, my war kittens,” began Star Captain Gwenneth Carns, the Trinary’s commander, “Star Colonel Thara Lossey, has declared a contest for the recovery of the best ‘venir’ of the campaign, entries beginning immediately and ending when our last dropship lifts off.”

Stephen laughed, he loved the 119th Striker Cluster’s way of commemorating their campaigns by collecting mementos, or souvenirs. Each unit would hunt down and retrieve some item that best represented their participation; it didn’t have to be extremely valuable, just a suitable symbol of their campaign. The unit members would gather items and submit images upon which the unit members would cast their votes. The reward was a simple plaque and a notation in the unit’s historical record, while the ‘venir’ was eventually placed in the Nova Cat museum back on their Homeworld.

Stephen wondered to where the enemy had run off, “They cannot have pulled all the way back Luthien city.” There was an unexpected whoop over the radio, the 17th Striker Binary captured an armored car parked under camouflage in a stand of trees. They called for a cargo VTOL to pick it up. “Good show, lads!”

“Stephen, there is a village in our path,” mentioned the star captain, “take Mira with you and see if it is clear.”

“Aff,” replied the mechwarrior, “Mira, dear, we get to visit yonder village, please watch my back while I scout ahead.”

“My pleasure, Stephen,” Mira replied, “flush out something for me to shoot at.”

The village was a collection of low buildings around a small park, most of the inhabitants appeared to live on the farms that surrounded that village and as the Mad Dog crept along the paved street, Stephen surmised that the village had already been evacuated. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a small shop with its doors open.

“Mira, I am going to investigate something.”

Mechwarrior Mira’s Timber Wolf was about a hundred meters behind the Mad Dog when she saw the omnimech kneel and the pilot dismount. She scanned the surrounding buildings and expected militia snipers to cut her friend down at any minute.

“Irrashaimas’!” a cheerful, elderly woman greeted Stephen with a humble bow as he sauntered through the open door. The shop appeared to contain a variety of goods, from small farming tools to canned food, to clothing.

“Good morning, old woman, I thought you would be evacuated by now,” said Stephen, he looked at a case of plastic-wrapped products, “What are these?”

“I’m eighty-five years old,” the woman replied, “I would rather rest at home instead of an uncomfortable cot in a refugee station…” She picked up a package to show him, “This is instant ramen, it tastes very good, you know,” She suddenly grinned, “You like try some? I make for you!”

Stephen was suddenly touched by her sincere hospitality, “If it is not too much trouble, dear lady,” he thought for a moment, “Could you prepare two meals? I have a friend with me.”

The Timber Wolf halted outside of the store and paused beside the parked Mad Dog. “Mira, come in and try this.”

The omnimech knelt carefully and the mechwarrior emerged from the cockpit.

The Clan Nova Cat woman entered the shop and saw Stephen seated at a little folding table across from the oldest human she had ever seen, her skin was incredibly wrinkled, her hair white as the clouds in the sky. Three steaming bowls of soup sat on the table.

“Have a seat, Mira,” Stephen motioned to her, “this stuff smells delicious!”

“Honestly, Stephen, twenty cases of Tomoe-chan ramen?”

The mechwarrior replied, “You loved it too, right?” He pushed a hand truck loaded with a stack of cardboard boxes.

“Well, it is better than the boring rations and easier to prepare,” she assented.

Yukiko-san was so nice and gave us an awesome deal, as well, Mira,” said Stephen, “we get her entire inventory of ramen, the twenty liters of soy sauce, the fifteen cases of mochi candy you liked…”

“Oh, that mochi is heavenly!” she popped a little square of the chewy candy into her mouth. “Mmmmm!”

“All that for a two hundred-fifty-gram ingot of gold,” explained the mechwarrior, “and Yukiko-san let us borrow this hand truck to load all the goods into your Timber Wolf.”

Mira rolled her eyes, “Yeah, yeah, because your Mad Dog barely has room for a pilot.”

“That reminds me,” added Stephen, “I have to ask Yukiko-san to use her latrine before we leave.”

“How did you get the idea of trading the gold ingot?” asked Mira.

“If you must know, I once met a Clan Diamond Shark merchant caste member and asked him about dealing with Inner Sphere civilians in order to obtain venirs without having to fight for them,” Stephen told her, “He told me that gold or silver were universally accepted mediums of exchange.”

“So, how did you get your hands on an ingot of gold?” she asked, “I figured they would be controlled.”

“Gold is strictly controlled, due the massive black market that we all know exists,” answered the mechwarrior, “but certain techs, such as the electricians, use a lot gold repairing and electroplating crucial components,” he continued, “the ingot cost me half a year’s worth of ration pound cakes I had saved up.”

Stephen’s Mad Dog rose to its feet, “One last inspection before we head on out,” he announced. His omnimech turned and crossed through the small park.

“Mira, look at that!” he exclaimed. The Mad Dog spun to its left and pounded across the parking lot's pavement.

“What is it?”

“Follow me,” he said, “we found a winner!” The Mad Dog trotted across the well-manicured grass and halted before a marble pedestal, upon which an ancient, verdigris covered, bronze statue stood, a samurai warrior in full armor, his katana raised in defiance, with an ornate, engraved bronze plaque that read, “Coordinator Urizen II (2590-2710)”.

“Hey Gary, this is Stephen,” he transmitted, “here are the coordinates, send out a VTOL and an engineer team to retrieve my ‘venir’ entry.”

Gary exclaimed, “Wooo! Awesome find, Stephen! We are on our way!”

Stephen rejoined his star, which was made up of his Mad Dog, Mira’s Timber Wolf, Elissa and her Storm Crow, Lawrence with his Hellbringer and Sofia in her Timber Wolf. Mira made sure everybody got a sample of mochi candy and promised that nobody in their star was eating rations for dinner that evening.

“The town up ahead is called Bernoulli,” instructed Star Captain Janet Drummond, “at the entrance to Kado-guchi Valley, with a population of about one hundred thousand, we expect the defenders to be merely a couple of battalions of militia infantry with some vehicles,” she reported, “the First Elemental Binary and the 17th Striker Binary have been committed, while we have been relegated to serve as the reserves, as needed.”

Late Afternoon

Mechwarrior Stephen could not believe the tenacity of the defending Kurita soldiers. The units were dug in and camouflaged, heavily armed with VLAWs that inflicted incredible damage to Elementals and Omnimechs alike, and when attacked, often fought to a man, without yielding a millimeter.

Of the cluster’s two Binaries, only three points of Elementals survived and Star Colonel Thara Lossey bitterly pulled them from the battle after a company of infantry holed up in a hospital, which turned that valuable resource into a valid target. That forced the cluster commander to break her own order to preserve valuable assets and level the collection of medical buildings with volleys of Arrow IV missiles.

Stephen’s cluster was finally thrown into the fray in order to cut off a handful of surviving vehicles as they fled toward Luthien. Slaughtering the helpless personnel carriers made him ill.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Stephen was shocked at the reports of the presence of the notorious Wolf’s Dragoons and the powerful Kell Hounds, two huge units that ComStar failed to include in their report of Luthien’s defenders. “How long will it take that nincompoop, Khan Furey to revise his bid to match the latest data?”

There are two, massive, unexpected units, surely there is no shame at adjusting their forces to match the current defenders? There were several, uncommitted galaxies aching to land and fight, currently sidelined due to the false data provided by ComStar.

The news of the 32nd Assault Cluster’s breakthrough followed by headlong retreat in the face of a strong counter offensive left Stephen slack-jawed. The campaign was suddenly turning into disaster at every level.

With Clan units in retreat on nearly every front, Mechwarrior Stephen expected a recall order. His Striker Star hunted down a pair of vehicles that managed to slip through the cordon of Clan Nova Cat omnimechs. The vehicles sped across a bridge, followed by the eager star. Mira’s Timber Wolf carried one of the remaining points of Elementals from the abortive assault on Bernoulli.

The vehicles crested a berm and disappeared from sight. Heedless of the risk, the Mad Dog bounded over the rise and Stephen beheld an amazing sight.

Stretched out before his omnimech was a vast tent city, perhaps a regimental marshalling point, where masses of soldiers stood in neat formations while awaiting to board dozens of transport lorries. Instinctively, Stephen swept his weapons from one side to another, raked the enemy infantry and vehicles to deadly effect. Mira’s Timber Wolf opened up a split second later, the Elementals leaped into the massed formations and delivered flaming death to the panicking militia.

The lorries scattered like so many cockroaches after the lights were turned on, they plowed over the tents in an effort to escape the wrath of the invading machines that had appeared out of nowhere.

Mechwarrior Elissa in her Storm Crow sprinted after several escaping lorries then reported, “Stephen, you are not going to believe this…”

“Go ahead and report, Elissa.”

“Just beyond the tent city is a huge, I repeat, huge, depot,” she reported, “I mean munitions, fuel, supplies, components, even vehicles!”

“Mira, have our Elementals rig the depot for demolition, posthaste!” Stephen suggested.

“On it,” Mira replied.

The carnage lasted only a few minutes. Their sudden fury cooled, the Nova Cat omnimechs found themselves standing over hundreds of surrendered and wounded militia soldiers.

“There is no way we are taking this planet,” said Stephen, “Have those unfortunate people find operational vehicles to load the wounded and get them to all Luthien.”

As twilight began to fall, the first fuel tanks exploded among ammunition crates and a dozen columns of black smoke rose into the sky and soon, the light of the flames reflected off the clouds above Kado-guchi Valley.

“Stephen, report your position.”

“Hello, Star Captain Janet,” answered the mechwarrior, “We crossed a river between Bernoulli and Luthien.”

“Well, get back here, immediately!” she ordered, “The Smoke Jaguars are furious that a Nova Cat unit made it further than any of their assets, and they reminded me that our role in this campaign is supportive or as reserves, and you are certainly not permitted to cross that river.”

“Well, what do you want me to do, put out the fires and fix all the damage too?” This day was beginning to get to him.

“Just reposition on the Bernoulli side of the bridge.”

“Whatever you say, Janet,” he replied glumly. “Mira, we have to move out,” he informed her, “Get that regimental banner before we leave.”

Dusk

As the star of omnimechs crossed back over the river, Stephen noted two pairs of targets approaching the burning depot at high speed.

“Hurry up people,” he warned, “we trespassed into the enemy’s back yard and left a huge, smoking dump.”

“Thank you for that image, Stephen,” commented Mira, “I am probably going to dream about it.”

“Every time I see a huge, smoking dump, I will think of you, Stephen,” added Elissa.

Stephen laughed nervously, an eye on the targets that made a several passes over the enemy camp. He was thankful that darkness was falling and the aerospace fighters that buzzed around the area like angry hornets would have difficulty spotting his fleeing star.

Mira found a tranquil hill overlooking the town of Bernoulli and the exhausted star laagered at that position, along with the other two stars of their trinary.

There were grills and picnic tables at the site and the trinary shared bowls of ramen, pickled vegetables and a variety of candies that Stephen and Mira had crammed into their omnimechs.

Star Captain Janet Drummond looked weary, “Another victory like Bernoulli and we will surely lose the war,” she said, “our cluster lacks the Elementals for another urban fight and tomorrow, we may be involved in a street to street battle against several regiments of fanatical Draconis Combine infantry, armed to the teeth.”

The very thought made Stephen shudder.

End Part 2

See The Cat in the Mirror, Part 3

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