Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
Ingrid smacks her lips and winces at the foul, stale taste lingering on her tongue. She does not remember stuffing one of her used socks in her mouth before she fell asleep, because that is exactly what it feels like. Blinking in the half-level lighting, she fumbles around until she finds her glasses and puts them on. Better.
She sits up and winces. Muscles in her neck hurt. Scientist Ingrid gingerly touches her swollen and aching cheekbone. It brings back a recent memory: Point Commander Adrian’s hand whipping across her face. Without meaning to, Ingrid flinches. Then she remembers other things. She looks around at her unfamiliar surroundings cautiously. She sees a bottle of water at the foot of the bunk. There is a note taped to it:
Room service. Tyler.
The visphone next to her on the bunk lets out a beep.
I do not own this item!
She glances at the screen, which informs her that she has missed four calls and two text messages addressed to her from Valentine. She accesses the texts.
“Ingrid. This is Valentine. You’re holding my spare phone. Hope you slept well and long. Water at the end of the bed. You’ll like freedom!”
She grins as she thinks of him and opens up the second message.
“Crap! Sorry! Meant to tell you that you’re in my daughter’s cabin. If you need me, come find me or use this phone to ring me. You’re safe. You’re under my protection now. Hope you’re okay.”
Despite the reassuring nature of the texts, Ingrid finds herself very, very, frightened. She has betrayed her entire upbringing. Her culture. She is a Jade Falcon.
Albeit of the Scientist Caste. And now isorla…
She hesitates, as her trembling hands seem to take on a life of their own. She is calling Valentine.
The two men exchange a glance and turn to look down over the safety railing of the repair platform parked in front of Brigitte’s Axeman. Standing on the decking at the base of the platform is Cameron, looking back up at them. Next to him is a slender young woman from the former Black Raptors unit.
Carson clears his throat. “Cameron? What is it?”
“Can you come down here, lads? I need you both for a job.”
They turn back to where Jerry Bishop is inspecting the forward torso plating of the Axeman. He looks up from the gouged ferro-fibrous armour and shrugs.
“You might as well, fellas. This whole section is gonna have to come off, and I can’t really do that with you boys crowding me. Besides, I’ll need to go get the cutting gear.”
Once Jerry has lowered the raised platform back to deck level of the ’Mech bay, all three of them climb down to join Cameron and his companion. Her name is Rosannah.
“How may we help you, Cameron?”
“Me and Rosannah here are headin’out to the supply depot together. Some of those machines from yesterday’s battle seem in decent enough shape, so we need to get them back here. Fancy saddling up a couple of captured ’Mechs for a wee walk?”
Carson grins. “Sounds good to me. Oliver?”
“When do we leave?”
“Hey, you. You okay?” Valentine Tyler speaks into his visphone and listens intently for a few seconds before replying. “Don’t worry, it’s all okay. I’m on my way. Stay there. Be with you in a moment.”
“Stars above,” Amber Tyler nudges her brother’s forehead with her sock-clad foot. “I’d forgotten just how much you fracking snore.”
Liam wakes up with a start.
“Amber?” He looks up from the far end of their father’s bed. It’s like they’re kids again, topping and tailing on a transport bunk somewhere between systems.
He shrugs. “I seem to remember Uncle Del coming round earlier to take her out for a walk and a squat. I remember feeding her in the wee small hours.”
“Last time I saw him, he was on his way to see Mike,” admits Liam. “Don’t worry. He left all his guns behind.
“More importantly, how are you doing, Amber?”
“Not good,” she admits honestly. “I keep seeing that bastard Vulture coming after me every time I close my eyes. We got any beer? I feel like getting really fucking drunk.”
“Amber? We’re in Dad’s cabin,” he grins at her warmly. “Of course we’ve got beer. It’s like a booze singularity in here.”
“Good,” she smiles weakly back at him. “I want to get trashed with my brother and listen to some of Dad’s crappy old music files.”
“Now you’re starting to sound more like you.”
“Beer, now,” she snaps her fingers at him. “I’m gonna text Dad to let him know we’re drinking up all his booze.”
The door opens and Tyler bursts into the stateroom. He looks feverishly around his daughter’s quarters. “Ingrid?”
“Up here. Where I woke up,” comes a very tiny voice from the top bunk.
“Did you find everything okay?”
“Neg. I am isorla. And very frightened! Why are you being so kind to me? You are Warrior caste!”
He rubs at the stubble on his chin, thinks of Amber, and lets out a sigh.
“I’m just a tired old man, worrying about two pretty young women who have just experienced life changing events. My son is looking after my daughter and I came here to see if I could help you.”
“I am scared, Valentine! You should have struck me several times for speaking out of turn!” Ingrid sobs, as she buries her face in her hands.
“Oh, frack that horseshit,” he says irritably as he climbs up to sit on the bunk next to her. He wraps his arm around her shoulders. “I told you already: I’ve never liked bullies.”
Ingrid’s body is starting to wrack and twist with distress and the tears are flowing freely. The enormity of it all is starting to hit the girl.
“You’re under my protection now,” he tells her quietly. “I will not allow anybody to hurt you. They’ll have to answer to me, Amber or Liam before they get close to you. They’ll have to get through Del, Grizz and Adele before they meet us.”
“I am lost, Valentine...”
“No, you’re not, Ingrid. You’re found.” He smiles as he rocks her, ever so gently. “You’re found.”
The tension and anxiety seem to flow out of the young woman in his arms and he feels her physically relax against him. Within a few, fitful minutes, the teenager is fast asleep, holding onto his wrist.
The battle site does not look any better in the early morning light. Between the sprawled, wrecked heaps of machines like the King Crab, and the upright, deactivated ’Mechs like the Loki, the landscape is a miserable shot-torn shambles.
“That Archer is in a right old state, but it can still walk,” Cameron says to the three MechWarriors with him. He nods at the big 70-ton machine that is missing its entire left arm and all of the heavy armour protecting the Doombud LRM-20 in its left torso. “Which one of you wants to take that?”
Oliver shrugs. “I shall, Cameron.”
“Good lad,” Cameron says and hands him a bulky duffel bag from the flatbed truck’s cab. “Once you’ve got it running, stay put. Malky and Krysta will escort you back to the DropShips. Don’t want you getting blasted to bits just because you’re driving a Falcon machine.”
The former Smoke Jaguar nods. “Understood.”
As Oliver sets off on foot towards the stationary Archer, Cameron turns back to Rosannah and Carson.
“There’s a Stinger over that way I want moved as well. I’d like you to handle that, Rosannah; you’re a light ’Mech pilot. I’ll drive you over there in a minute.”
“Very good, Cameron.”
“Which machine am I taking?”
Cameron Mackenzie shrugs. “Which machine would you like, Carson?” He waves his hand at the two inactive Bombardiers nearby. “They’re both a bit chewed up, but their internal systems seem fine.”
“Not the Hellbringer over there?”
“Which one is that?”
Carson points at an abandoned OmniMech just visible past a copse of trees. “That one.”
“Oh. The one we call a Loki.” Cameron shakes his head. “No. The pilot ejected from that one. The cockpit is a complete loss.”
Carson nods. “One of the Bombardiers it is, then.”
“Right. Here you go.” Cameron pulls a second bag from the flatbed’s cab. “Coolant vest and a lightweight neurohelmet; the exact same stuff I gave Oliver just now. Enough for you to get that thing up on its feet.” He looks at Carson and Rosannah both. “When you get your machines on line, walk them over to join Oliver. I want you all going back together, with the escorts.”
“Gyro, engine, heat sinks... Totally wasted. They really gave it a going-over. The only things holding this pile of junk together are fresh air and wishful thinking,” says The Bomb.
Examining the mangled hulk of the Vulture, Angelica has to agree. “The arms can be salvaged,” she points out. “The lasers all seem to be intact.”
Jacqui Chiang nods slowly. “They’re modular pods, aren’t they?”
“They are. We could fit them into one of the Omnis we have.”
“Okay, we’ll take the arms off; forget the rest of the thing. It’s way beyond screwed.”
The two women pause in their inspection as the overlapping sounds of BattleMechs in motion reach them from the middle distance. Shading her eyes with one hand, The Bomb watches as three of the more-or-less operating Falcon machines move into formation with Malky’s Excalibur and Krysta’s Battle Hawk.
“Fracking shame, that,” she says, half to herself.
Jacqui waves her hand at the damaged Archer in the middle of the group. “That Archer there. It’s lost its left arm... just like that old pile of scrap from Jacobs’ base camp.”
Angelica gives the big machine a closer look. “So it has... You were thinking of grafting an arm from the junked machine onto that one, correct?”
The Bomb nods. “Yeah. So much for my bright ideas.”
Her companion is giving the matter some thought. “Maybe not... The ’Mechs that were aboard the Iron Tower included an Archer. They had a considerable amount of spare parts and equipment for them. Perhaps there is a spare arm we can use.”
“That’s right! When we get back to Camelot, we’ll go digging, you and me.”
“When were you going to tell me?”
Juno looks up from the packed lunches she is in the middle of preparing in the Lodestar’s galley, a little surprised. Standing on the other side of the counter is Silver, her hands jammed into the pockets of her jacket.
“Tell you about... what?”
Silver shrugs as if it is obvious. “You and Monique, of course.”
Juno sets down the knife she has been using to cut sandwiches. “I... I do not know, Silver. I felt awkward. I did not know...” She trails off.
“You did not know how I would take it?”
Silver takes her hands out of her pockets and sits down on one of the counter stools that is bolted to the decking. She regards her sib with something like fond exasperation on her face. “You really are your own worst enemy, you know that, Juno?”
Juno gives her an embarrassed shrug. “The strictures against relationships with those of the lower castes...”
“Don’t apply any longer. Not to us. We are not of the Smoke Jaguars now.” The unexpected contraction in Silver’s retort makes Juno shiver in reflexive unease. Her sib is quiet for a beat. “Juno?”
“Just answer me this: does Monique make you happy?”
Of all the questions Silver could have asked her, Juno did not expect this. She nods, then feels that she has to say something. “She does, Silver. She... When I wake up in the night, afraid, she is there for me. Always. She holds me until I can sleep again.”
Silver leans across the counter and lays her hand over Juno’s. She knows just how much that admission cost her. “That is all I need to know, sib. I am glad for you. Glad for you both.”
“Thank you.” Juno reaches up to wipe at her eyes with her free hand. She manages a smile. “Monique has spoken of... of formalising our relationship, when our tour at Camelot is over.”
“You mean marriage?” Silver grins at Juno’s look of surprise. “I have been reading books, sib. Would you like me to stand with you when the time comes?”
Still feeling awkward with her injured arm bound up in a sling, Yesukai manages to keep her reflexive shudder of distaste hidden as she rides the turbolift car down to the Lodestar’s primary ’Mech bay. Next to her are two of Brigitte’s freebirth underlings, a male and a female. She cannot recall their names, and she finds herself trying not to stare at the lurid tattoo the female sports on her face; it surrounds her left eye like a massive bruise.
“The Black Buck is three-quarters full,” the woman is saying to her comrade. “We had to reorganise some stuff when Bish asked us to load that pile of Uller body parts aboard.”
“Do what you can, Rainy. We may have to leave some stuff behind.” The man shrugs. “It sucks, but there it is.”
‘Rainy’ nods. “Something we are not leaving behind is all that fancy repair gear for Toad suits. That’s packed aboard the Snow Leopard right now.”
“Good to know.”
The turbolift halts at that point and the doors open. ‘Rainy’ follows the man out, and Yesukai trails them both. She glances from side to side, feeling very much out of place. Everyone she can see in the ’Mech bay is busy with something or other: reloading ammunition bins, making repairs to damaged armour plating, or carrying out routine maintenance.
She, on the other hand, has nothing to do. After Brigitte scrounged up some spare clothing for her to wear in place of her ruined coolant gear and combat footgear, she had taken Yesukai to a double-occupancy cabin. She had told the injured Jade Falcon that this was her berth, before she had been called away on some urgent matter.
Right now, Yesukai feels utterly useless. Her forearm aches inside its cast, as if it has been listening to her. She scowls at the reminder of weakness. Perhaps she can do very little with only one good arm, but she really should not be standing idle. It reflects badly on the woman who has claimed her as property.
“Ben? Got a minute?” The voice snaps her out of her ruminations. The man with ‘Rainy’ has stopped and is talking to a Tech who has stepped away from a powered cart loaded with repair gear.
Taking a closer look at the dark-skinned man speaking to ‘Ben’, Yesukai notices the crude-looking things he wears over his eyes. Freebirth devices called ‘glasses’. She has seen several of the citizens of Persistence with them, and they just seem to emphasise the inferiority of Spheroids compared to Clansmen.
She turns away and walks across the floor of the bay, mindful of the work going on around her. Brigitte would no doubt react with great anger if she were clumsy enough to injure herself again, or interfere with the Techs as they work...