Jade Falcon Replenishment Depot Five, Bowerton’s Barrier
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
6 December 3053
Malky Duncan flicks the controls on his weapons array, disengaging the safeties. A set of little red lights turns green to confirm his Excalibur is ready for battle.
The tactical plot being provided by his ’Mech’s KBC Starsight tracking array shows the oncoming Falcons quite clearly. They’re in an awful hurry to get into firing range, which more or less ties in with the idea that they’ve been bored out of their tiny minds standing garrison duty.
Malky shakes his head. The three Stars of Falcon machines – and their attending Toads – are spreading out. The lake to the west of the supply depot, along with the wooded hillocks, present a barrier that even Clan technology can’t easily overcome.
Well. Not his problem.
Lunging up and over the low hill at Brigitte’s ten o’clock is a Wasp, dressed in Jade Falcon livery. It lets go with its shoulder-mounted SRM pack as it descends for a landing, but the warheads go wide of her Axeman.
She ignores it as a flight of LRMs from Tyler’s Crusader brackets the Clan recon ’Mech. The Wasp has bigger, heavier comrades backing it up. Crashing through the straggling trees capping the hill come four more ’Mechs – a medium and three heavies. All of them are blasting away as they catch sight of the mercenaries waiting for them.
The heavies are a Bombardier, an Exterminator, and a Lancelot. They’re packing enough weaponry to pose a credible threat, mostly lasers and LRM pods. The medium – a Kintaro – poses a danger all of its own, Brigitte realises.
Since reaching Camelot Command and seeing some of the Star League vintage machinery used by the Irregulars, she’s been reading up on the BattleMechs once fielded by the old SLDF. The Kintaro is a machine designed around its central weapons system: a Narc beacon launcher, just like the one carried aboard Amber’s Raven.
Given that the Jade Falcons are supposed to be ultra-conservative when it comes to their tactics, Brigitte isn’t sure if they’ll be even trying to use that Narc launcher to best effect. It doesn’t really matter; she wants that machine down and out.
She takes a moment to brace her ’Mech’s legs and swings her targeting crosshair onto the 55-ton Clan BattleMech. She hits her main trigger the instant she gets a lock.
“Gah!” Sharyl yelps as a hail of laser shots slams into her Dervish’s upper hull and arms. Chunks of armour, most of them burning, are blasted away. “Bastard!”
The EXT-4D Exterminator, its arms held out before it, is drifting around to the left. Its pilot is obviously trying to get around behind the Norns’ machines, and it has the foot speed to do just that.
Not while I’m here, Sharyl decides. She opens up on the heavier ’Mech with everything she’s got. Most of her LRMs go wide, and those that do lock on are cut out of the air by the Clanner’s high-speed Buzzsaw anti-missile gun, but to her astonishment every single one of her medium lasers converge upon the Exterminator’s right arm, slicing upwards from the elbow to the shoulder joint. There’s a cloud of white-hot sparks and then the arm is neatly amputated at the shoulder. The Exterminator lurches sideways, almost falling as its gyros are thrown out of cycle by the sudden loss of so much mass from one side of its frame.
As bad as that is, it pales compared to the shattering explosion way off to Sharyl’s right. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches sight of a massive fireball that can only be the result of an ammunition bay hit.
Is that one of ours, or one of theirs?
Trading fire for fire with the Bombardier, Valentine Tyler doesn’t really have time to offer colour commentary on his commanding officer’s marksmanship… but he has to admit that Brigitte Olafsdottír has outdone herself this time. A sustained burst from her Axeman’s heavy autocannon brought the Kintaro to a sliding halt, plates of ferro-fibrous armour shredding and splitting away from its right torso, moments before she achieved a breach on the ’Mech’s starboard missile storage bin.
The Kintaro’s pilot barely had time to eject before their machine tore itself apart in flames.
Tyler puts his attention back on the Bombardier. The Clanner at the controls has brought their ride to a stop on the near slope of the hill, and is launching another spread of LRMs at his Crusader. Thankfully, it’s a pretty lousy spread. Less than a quarter of the rockets actually strike his ’Mech, and all they do is chip away at the shins and left forearm.
“You okay, Sarge?”
“I’m good, Midge. Take care of that Lancelot for me, will you? I’ve got this idiot.” Tyler grins as his targeting system reports a solid lock with both of his Streak SRM launchers. He fires them off, and a moment later follows up with the LRM packs.
The Bombardier’s anti-missile system engages the oncoming hail of high explosives, but it’s only able to detonate two of the Streak rockets before the LRMs arrive. The overlapping detonations ripping at the Bombardier’s central-front torso look like the engine exhaust of a small DropShip.
There’s a secondary explosion that vents a shower of burning shrapnel and red sparks out of the spine of the Bombardier, and the stricken ’Mech topples over backwards. The moment it hits the hillside, it breaks apart. The left arm and torso section actually split away from the mangled, smoking framework, as does the right leg.
A cold shudder runs down Dawn Kester’s spine as her targeting system sounds an urgent warning. Toads!
Bounding towards her position are twenty… no, twenty-five of them. Worse, they’ve got ’Mech support. A Thor is moving up behind them, skirting the edge of the lake, while behind it to the right, a hulking Gladiator is churning its way forwards through the water, struggling to make headway in the shallows.
“Could really use some help here,” she says anxiously as she opens up on the incoming Toads. Her pulse laser shots sweep across their armoured hulls, and one of them is blasted into blobs of glowing slag.
“Right with ye, hen,” comes Malky Duncan’s voice. “Just as soon as I… There we go!” Dawn rolls her eyes as a Falcon Uller is blasted clean off its feet by a gauss rifle hit, the projectile tearing straight through its centre of mass and slamming the fusion engine and gyro out the back of the torso in several pieces. Score another one for the Highlander Hooligan, she admits. Malky really seems to have developed a major hatred for those Falcon scout ’Mechs.
SRM and pulse-laser fire from her Battle Hawk wingmen rip into the Elementals before Malky’s Excalibur adds in its LRM rack. As tough as the Clan battle armour may be, it hasn’t really got much of a chance against so much concentrated firepower.
Then the interior of her Battle Hawk’s cockpit lights up with a hideous electric-blue radiance and every display and screen turns to static for an instant. Instinctively, Dawn throws up one hand to shield her eyes.
Particle beam. It missed her ’Mech by less than a metre. If it had hit, it would have torn a hole in the Battle Hawk’s hull or even destroyed an entire arm.
It came from the Thor. The OmniMech’s pilot is out for blood, she guesses, for how the mercenary ’Mechs have treated their Toad comrades.
“Break right!” It’s Malky’s voice. “I’ve got the bastard.”
Dawn doesn’t need to be told twice. She opens the throttle all the way and sends her light ’Mech into a lurching run that will take it out of the Excalibur’s line of fire… and past the left side of the Thor.
“Neg! You are not getting away from me,” Star Colonel Yesukai snarls as she tries to track the Spheroid ’Mech with her main guns, traversing the Summoner’s torso and reducing forward speed at the same time. The overwhelming need to shoot something is making her vision turn red at the edges.
Then something hits her OmniMech like an asteroid collision. Yesukai has a moment to register a rash of red warning lights, the wail of an alarm, before her head slams back to strike the frame of her command couch and it all goes black.
The Gladiator is still slogging onwards through the shallows, but it is getting close enough now to take an active part in all the shooting. Brigitte, urging her autocannon to reload faster, puts as much power as she can to the Axeman’s leg actuators. She needs to intercept that monster, and quickly.
Then she notices what Dawn Kester’s doing, and her blood runs cold.
The Battle Hawk, weighing a little more than a third of the Gladiator’s mass, is charging the thing head-on. Emerging from the lake, the Gladiator simply cannot miss.
Except that it does. A barrage of LRMs streaks over and past the racing Battle Hawk to scatter a hail of explosions across the Omni’s upper hull. Its aim spoiled, the pair of large-laser shots from the Clanner machine misses Dawn’s machine by a whisker.
Then she’s in close enough for her lasers to be effective. The trio of wrist-mounted Defiance P5M medium pulse lasers hammers out a volley of high-energy shots that capitalises on the damage already done by Malky’s Excalibur. A ping announces that her Streak launcher has a lock, so she fires that as well.
The pulse lasers chew a line of smoking holes in the Gladiator’s torso, at a diagonal from the waistline up to the right shoulder. The weakened armour is vapourised, exposing the Omni’s innards to view.
Then the two Streak missiles detonate right inside the breach, and a vast plume of white-hot steam erupts from the Gladiator’s guts. Twisting around, the 95-ton ’Mech pitches over flat on its back, making the ground quake as it hits.
“Nicely done,” comes Brigitte’s voice over the comm. “You must have fragged his fusion engine.”
Dawn manages to let out a breath; her heart is pounding fit to burst. She realises that she’s still alive. “Whoa,” she sighs. “It looks so much easier in the ’vids.”
“Yeah, it does. You okay there?”
She looks at her hands on the Battle Hawk’s throttle and joystick. They’re trembling from adrenaline overload. “Yeah. I will be, Skipper.”
“Good. Check back in with Tammy before she blows a valve. I’ve got something I need to see to.”
Yesukai comes to in a rush, her eyes rolling as she tries to focus. All she can see is the bleached-out, cloudless sky of Persistence. She can smell smoke, ozone, and the distinctive scent of expended rocket propellant. She tries to sit up.
A sudden blast of white-hot pain seizes her and she gasps. Yesukai slumps back in her command couch’s five-point harness, groaning as cold sweat breaks out on her skin. She can see the source of the pain now: her right forearm. At least one of the bones is broken there.
She rocks her head back against the headrest. Through the cracked visor of her neurohelmet, she can just catch sight of the oily black smoke that is billowing up from the wreckage of the training cadre’s Bombardier. Then the breeze changes direction and the view is hidden by the flapping folds of her command couch’s parachute.
Struggling with her left hand to shove the fabric aside, Yesukai realises something, something she had not noticed at first. It is remarkably quiet. No gunfire. No more explosions. That means…
Neg. Neg neg neg. It cannot be… She swallows down on a surge of bile. They are Jade Falcons. They cannot have lost to a pack of hired guns. They cannot.
Except… They just have.
There is a sudden, heavy thump off to her left, the footfall of a large BattleMech. Then another, closer now. A shadow falls across her.
I cannot let myself be taken by… by mercenaries. Not with my blood future at stake! I have to enact bondsref before they reach me. The thought spurs Yesukai to scrabble at the pistol holster strapped to her right thigh… with her off hand. Her right hand is useless. Perhaps if she can just get the gun free…
She gets the flap open and plucks at the butt of the handgun with thumb and forefinger, trying to slide it out. A single round is all that she needs.
Except that fate, and the awkward angle at which her command couch is lying, conspire against her. The pistol slides out – and clatters away off the buckled side frame, falling out of her sight.
Yesukai throws back her head and lets out a howl of pure distress.
“What a mess,” Cameron says as he climbs down from the flatbed’s cab an hour later. The vehicle’s parked up in the lower bay of the Lodestar. “From what I’ve been hearing over the comm, that depot’s a scrapyard of Falcon machines.”
“Yeah,” Delaney says. “I saw some of the gun-cam footage. Malky’s popped yet another one of those 35-ton clockwork toys. Blasted a hole clean through it.”
Cameron Mackenzie chuckles. “He hates those bloody things.”
Del glances past Cameron at the passenger in the flatbed’s cab. He’s put in mind of an owl… maybe an owl chick. “We’re recruiting again?”
Cameron blinks. “Oh, right. This wee young hen’s called Ingrid. Scientist caste. She got handed over to me by Tyler, by way of Zoë back there.” He indicates the quintet of armoured Elementals clambering down off the vehicle’s cargo bed.
“Val’s a damned bad influence,” Del notes wryly. “He corrupts people just by being around them.”
The lid on Zoë’s armour unlocks and swings up to reveal her face as she clomps over to join the two Techs. “You speak from long experience, then,” she says.
“Sure, I can… Hold on.” Del’s eyes narrow and he reaches up to prod at the chipped and scarred armour protecting her right biceps. “You didn’t say that you’d taken a hit out there.”
Cameron manages to keep a straight face as he watches Zoë’s confident expression turn to one of embarrassment. He really wouldn’t want her to thump him one.
“I… Well, it really is nothing. A scratch,” she replies hastily.
Del’s forefinger traces down to the inside of the elbow joint. “Three centimetres farther down and that idiot would’ve put a slug into you. The joints are the weakest point of these suits, you know that better than I do.”
Bloody hell, she looks like she wants the ground to swallow her up, Cameron realises. He glances at Delaney’s face, reads the look he sees there, and decides to turn around and help Ingrid down from the cab’s bench seating. Zoë would only smack him. Delaney, he’s sure, would shoot a hole or two in him.
“Shit and biscuits,” Liam Tyler says with no small amount of surprise. “I got a live one here!”
“That makes three so far,” Sharyl says as she picks her way around a half-buried chunk of broken ’Mech armour. She’s got a machine pistol slung over her shoulder, and a pack of gear on her back. “How’d you spot it?”
“She just threw up,” Liam explains, indicating the broken-open torso armour and visor of the downed Elemental before him with the business end of his shotgun. Half of the occupant’s face is visible through the breach. Her mouth and chin are coated in vomit. She’s lucky she hasn’t choked to death.
Sharyl glances at the weapons mounted on the suit’s hard points. They’re wrecked. The missile pack has been blown off, the battle claw is a fused lump of alloy, and the big support laser’s barrel has been split apart like a kid’s joke cigar.
She kneels down in front of the disabled suit. Thick, gluey trickles of HarJel have congealed around every joint, sealing off potential damage… and locking the occupant’s arms and legs in place.
“Can you hear me? Are you in any pain?”
The Elemental coughs, and then hiccups. “I can hear you. I… I think I am hurt. I cannot feel my legs or below my waist.”
The Tech-turned-MechWarrior nods, and pulls the pack off her back. She fishes out a bottle of water. “Okay. First thing we’ll do is clean your face up. You’ve got a cut on your eyebrow there. We can rinse that spew off at the same time.”
Standing off to one side, keeping an eye on the proceedings, Liam isn’t too worried that the Toad trooper will try anything… but he’s also a big believer in caution. Besides, if anything happens to Sharyl on his watch, Ben Gleason would come after him with a welding torch.
“What’s your name?” Sharyl asks as she dampens a folded gauze wad with water and starts cleaning the immobilised Toad’s face with it.
“Dorota,” comes the reply as soon as her mouth’s clear.
“I’m Sharyl. That’s Liam. Here. Just a sip… Swill your mouth out and spit. Get rid of that shitty taste.”
Dorota obeys without a murmur. Now that her face is clean, the two Norns can get a better look at her. Pale skin with a smattering of freckles, brown hair, sky-blue eyes… and to Sharyl’s amazement, the lingering traces of puppy fat in her cheeks and along her jaw line. For all her formidable size, she is very young.
“How old are you, Dorota?”
“I am eighteen, Sharyl. Almost everyone in our training cadre is the same age.”
Liam raises an eyebrow. “Training cad… You mean, those old-style ’Mechs back there?”
Dorota nods. It’s all she can do for right now. The HarJel has her stuck fast, like a fly engulfed in amber.
Sharyl reaches down to a bulging wad of the stuff that’s swelled up and out of the joint under Dorota’s left arm and taps it with a fingernail. “This crap’s like cured ferrocrete,” she observes. “We’d better get Angelica and Daniel over here to show us how to crack through it without hurting Dorota.”
“Hold on,” Liam cautions her. “We don’t know for sure if that black shit is plugging any serious injuries. We could do her some major harm if we open it up.”
That gives Sharyl pause for thought. “Huh… Okay, we bring a truck over here, and have one of the ’Mechs load Dorota into it. We get her back to the landing zone and turn her over to the medics. Sound better to you?”
“Sure. There were two or three cargo wagons at the depot we didn’t shoot the living shit out of. One of them should do.”
Sharyl nods, and then turns her attention back to the young woman in the ruined battlesuit. “Hang in there. We’ll get you out of there.”
Dorota looks down, seemingly flustered. Her fair complexion reddens. “Thank… Thank you. Thank you both,” she says.
“No problem,” Sharyl says as she rips open a sterile dressing packet to treat the facial cut. “Now, you’ll have to close the eye for me. I need to tape this down.”
Liam steps back a little to get out of Sharyl’s light and shakes his head. How’s that for bedside manner, he wonders. She should have been a medic… or maybe a full-time mother.
“I will need to run a scanner over the arm as soon as possible,” says the Medtech from the Iron Tower. Brigitte can’t remember his name at the moment. He’s one of Leonard’s small staff.
“Fine. The skimmer’s due back from the Lodestar shortly. You’ll have priority on it.”
The Medtech nods and straightens up from the woman secured to the gurney, allowing Brigitte Olafsdottír her first good look at the Jade Falcon pilot who had tried to blow her own brains out in front of her approaching Axeman.
Her broken forearm has been wrapped in a preserving sleeve to protect it from further harm. She’s still wearing her lightweight coolant gear, a lime-green weave of tubing that covers her body from collarbone to toes. Strands of long black hair are plastered untidily across her forehead and cheeks.
Her features make Brigitte think of Katsumi, if Kat were maybe two or three years older. Strongly Asian in looks, with good cheekbones and dark, fierce eyes. There are small subtle creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes that make Brigitte think of stress rather than smiles. The restraints fastened across her legs and chest seem hardly necessary. The woman seems somehow… listless… as if something vital has been removed from her.
“I’m Brigitte Olafsdottír,” she says, and waves a hand at her parked-up Axeman. “You were in that Summoner… Star Colonel.”
The mention of her rank sparks a momentary flash of life in those black eyes, and the Falcon woman glances up at Brigitte’s face for the first time. “Aff,” she says at length.
The Summoner – or Thor, to use the Inner Sphere name for the design – got dropped in its tracks by Malky Duncan as it tried to get a firing lock onto Dawn Kester’s Battle Hawk. A tight grouping of LRMs had savaged the upper torso of the OmniMech before a Gauss rifle round slammed into the chest plating less than half a metre below the cockpit section. The ’Mech, resting on its knees not too far away, looks like an angry giant grabbed ahold of the top of its body and peeled it back.
“You tried to take your own life. I saw you.” Brigitte folds her arms. “I thought that Jade Falcon warriors viewed suicide as the coward’s way out.” The verbal jab hits a nerve, she can tell. The injured woman visibly tenses.
“Not… Not always,” she replies through gritted teeth. Her good hand has balled into a fist at her side. “Sometimes, it is the honourable way. I tried to commit bondsref before you could claim me.”
Bondsref. It’s yet another one of those baffling Clan concepts that Juno and Zoë have tried to explain to her, and Brigitte is sure that she hasn’t really grasped yet. Refusal of the bondcord, Juno had said. Warriors defeated in battle had the option of taking their own life rather than submit to servitude. Once their new master placed the bondcord on their wrist, the warrior was committed to serve with honour. Suicide after being claimed was seen as a despicable, craven act.
“It must be very important to you,” Brigitte says softly. That gets her a surprised look. “The reason you wanted to die as a warrior instead of being taken alive as isorla.”
The Falcon turns her face away, but not nearly fast enough to conceal the look of despair Brigitte sees there. She makes a choked-off noise that might be a cough, or a sob.
Olafsdottír kneels down at the side of the gurney. “Look at me,” she says to the wounded trueborn.
When the Clanner finally does, her eyes are streaming with tears and she is struggling not to start wailing aloud. The reaction, this depth of violent emotion, takes Brigitte aback. She hadn’t expected any of this.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
It takes the Falcon MechWarrior a minute or two to regain her voice. When she does, she looks even more exhausted than before.
“My future,” she says simply. “My children. I have lost them.”