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About Digital Art / Hobbyist Chris Price52/Male/United Kingdom Recent Activity
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Literature
23 - Road to Recovery
DropShip Lodestar, Departure Vector Epsilon-106
Persistence System, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
9 December 3053
    “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
    Technician Daniel straightens up so that his head and shoulders clear the open escape hatch in Woody’s head assembly. He holds up a circuit board in one hand; the broken device shows the telltale marks of massive electrical overload, and his fingertips are covered with soot.
    “It is, Benjamin,” he agrees. “The control circuits for the jump jets are shot, and I think the same can be said for the primary servos.” The Clan-born Tech shakes his head. “I am sorry. There is very little I can do until we get back to Camelot.”
    Ben Gleason, tethered by his belt harness to the side of Woody’s head, feels his shoulders slump. Getting blasted by that Falcon ’Mech’s advanced autocanno
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Literature
22 - Exit, Stage Left
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
9 December 3053
    It doesn’t look right to Brigitte Olafsdottír; not at all. Valentine Tyler’s Crusader is docked in its usual place, next to Amber’s torn-up Raven. The next cradle along – the place assigned to Liam – is occupied by the blocky chassis of a salvaged Bombardier. She has no idea how much damage the thing has sustained, because Del and his technical team have not had half a chance to examine the ’Mech. It could be moved under its own power and loaded aboard the Lodestar; study of the machine will have to wait.
    It is sometime after local midnight, in that dead time before the dawn. Outside, the night sky is huge and brilliant with stars. Sited as the Norns’ DropShips are out in the wastelands beyond Persistence’s settled zones, there is no town or city illumination to interfere with th
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Literature
21 - Blindspot
Norns’ Landing Site
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
    The moment the Lodestar’s lift platform reaches ground level, the two skimmers are off and away, picking up speed as they set a course for the latest combat site, just beyond the replenishment depot. Strapped into the passenger seat of one skimmer, Anton Delaney notices on the basic scanner display that a third skimmer – this one from the Iron Tower – is racing to join them.
    That would be the medics from Leonard’s team. He looks back up, squinting through his goggles at the featureless dusty expanse of land ahead of them. He has to force his mind to stop coming up with all manner of nightmare scenarios about what he’s going to find once he gets to the Enforcer and cracks its cockpit open…
    Tyler’s Crusader is standing right next to the broken wreck of Liam’s machi
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Literature
20 - Third Strike
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
    Zoë’s expression is grim as she listens to the comm chatter over her earpiece receiver. Things are not going as well as might be expected and she suspects she knows the reason why.
    Fatigue. She knows all about that, having suffered from its grinding effects herself over the extended front-line service she had provided to the Jade Falcon Clan during the invasion. It had been noticed, and exploited, by one of her sibkin. Her very own Founder-damned sister. Thanks to that backstabbing bitch, Zoë’s prospects in the warrior caste had been flushed down the latrine and she had been sent down to the Black Raptors…
    She realises her hands have locked up tight into fists, and forces them to relax. As bitter and raw as the old anger still is, it has no relevance here. There are people out there taking fire; people s
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Literature
19 - No Holds Barred
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
    If this were an action holovid, there would be flashing red lights and wailing alarms going off on every deck of the Lodestar. People would be charging to and fro, section doors closing off, and terse intercom messages about battle status crackling over the speakers.
    There is none of that here. The MechWarriors and Techs have been expecting yet another round with the Jade Falcons before leaving Persistence, and the miserable bastards have not disappointed.
    “Be careful,” Sharyl says to Ben Gleason as he laces up his coolant vest in their cabin. “Don’t take any chances out there. Please.”
    He grins. “Me, take risks?”
    “I’m serious.” Sharyl glances over at her own coolant vest, hanging up in a storage locker. She isn’t part of the force heading out to
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Literature
18 - Past and Present
DropShip Iron Tower
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
    Dorota, late of Star Colonel Bosha’s Eyrie Cluster and one of Point Commander Hugo’s charges, has to duck her head as she steps through the hatchway onto the quarters deck of Iron Tower. She has to remind herself that these old Star League-era DropShips had never been intended to accommodate engineered infantry troopers such as she.
    Thankfully, there have been some modifications made to allow for Elementals to travel aboard Iron Tower. She had had images of having to fold herself in double just to fit into one of the bunks… assuming that the bunk would have been able to support her weight.
    She is still stiff and sore from the after-effects of the battlesuit’s medical systems. Her fingers and toes are still slightly numb from the pain blockers, and she feels so terribly tired; her eyes are having a l
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Literature
17 - In The Middle of the Madness
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053
    Yesukai might be very surprised by the scene playing out in Brigitte Olafsdottír’s quarters. Pacing restlessly to and fro in front of her desk, the commander of the Norns pauses only long enough to shoot a furious glance at the visphone resting on top of a thick sheaf of hardcopy reports. Her hands are opening and closing from sheer frustration.
    That terse voice message from Liam Tyler and the lack of any useful contact from her senior NCO since have rattled her far more than she cares to say out aloud. Why do I worry about him the way I do?
    She knows the answer to that, even if she doesn’t much like it. Without Valentine Tyler at her back, she simply would not be able to keep this mongrel collection together. It’d be difficult enough if all she had to deal with were pilots and Techs from the Inner Sphere. Th
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Literature
Billy's Big Day
"Billy's destiny was at hand. He had the X-99 solution set to be filtered into his 'transmutation chamber'. The NASA-vintage storage tapes were all programmed and ready. Very soon now, he would be granted awesome powers beyond the grasp of normal men!
"How do I know all this? Well, Billy decided that his transformation really ought to be recorded for posterity. He set up a few cameras for the big event; I got hold of the video files. This first bit I've had to edit. Heavily. Sorry for that, but I didn't think you'd like seeing his naked, skinny butt as he climbs into the chamber. He looked worse nude than he ever did fully clothed. Note my use of the past tense.
"The master control console's on a timer at this point. Once Billy slams the chamber door shut, the whole thing's on automatic. It can't be shut down... A minor detail that Billy comes to regret in the next sixty seconds or so.
"Now me, I'm all about the details. Like, 'Hey John, what if you needed to get out of this thi
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Literature
16 - Burdens of Command
DropShip Lodestar
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.
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Literature
Billy's Big Invention
"Billy had the chamber all ready to go. He just needed a liquid catalyst to transform his cellular structure. A magic potion, if you will. Important safety tip here, people: 'Magic Potion' only works if you're in an Asterix cartoon.
"Of course, Billy couldn't get what he wanted from legitimate suppliers. He had to do a lot of legwork; go black market, track down crackpot conspiracy theorists. He spent six months on his hunt before he found what he was after: Formula X-99.
"Formula X-99 was one of those big-budget research ideas that didn't work out. I have a copy of the project summary right here. You can see the word 'Cancelled' in red ink on the cover.
"Billy fixed on what X-99 promised to do. He didn't bother to read the whole thing. If he had, he might have learned a few things... like why it got cancelled.
"X-99's full name is about eighty-five letters long; a liquid compound of truly ferocious potency. It was meant to be used on trees, for crying out loud, an
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Literature
15 - Clan Tyler
Jade Falcon Replenishment Depot Five, Bowerton’s Barrier
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
7 December 3053
    Marc Campbell shakes his head. “This place is looking more and more like a breaker’s yard.” He studies the nearest of the ‘training cadre’ BattleMechs with interest. The captured machine is a Bombardier, sporting heavy armour damage to its right torso and right leg. As a missile boat, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the familiar Archer design… but it packs an XL engine, CASE for its missile bin, and where the ARC-2R Archer would carry a pair of rear-firing medium lasers the Bombardier has a high-speed anti-missile gun.
    Lying sprawled across the crumpled chain-link fencing that surrounds the supply depot is a second Bombardier, in slightly better condition. As far as Marc can tell, neither machine suffered any internal hits during the
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Literature
Billy's Big Idea
“Hey there, kids! I want to talk to you about superpowers. You know, invisibility, mind-reading, laser blasts, all that kind of cool shit?
“Well, I really want to talk about how you acquire superpowers in the first place. All manner of ways that can happen, and I gotta warn you, most of them aren’t very pretty. Or enjoyable. Cybernetic surgery you have no say in. Saturation in deadly chemicals. Radioactive insect bites. Disintegration by prototype teleportation device. You get the idea.
“The dumbest way to get superpowers, though, is when you decide to do it yourself. Like this kid named Billy Baxter...”
"Kind of a cliché, I know, what with the alliterative name, but Billy was destined to achieve international notoriety. Here's a picture from his school yearbook. That's him right there: third from the left, with the acne and the bad hair. He was the smartest kid in his class. That's where it all started.
"Had Fate dealt Billy a different hand,
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Literature
14 - The Bones of Achilles
Crawford Fort Landing Field
Achilles (Co-ordinates Deleted), Federated Commonwealth Space?
7 December 3053
    The first impression she has of Achilles as the shuttle’s pressure hatch opens is of dry, dusty heat. Michaela Stoyanova sneezes before she has the presence of mind to fasten her humidifier mask into place.
    Shading her eyes as she steps down from the KR-61 shuttlecraft, she takes in her surroundings with interest. She is standing in the ruins of what used to be an airport. Two hundred years of neglect and exposure to the elements have left the place wholly useless. Just another worthless remnant of the lost era of the Star League, stripped bare of technology long ago and left to rot.
    Michaela smiles behind her mask. Not nearly so worthless as one might think
    She studies the unloading operation going on some three hundred metres to the east. Parked on a patch of ferrocrete apron, a B
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Literature
The Norns' TOE, 6 December 3053
Command Lance
    Captain Brigitte Olafsdottír, Regular, Axeman
    Sergeant Benjamin Gleason, Regular, Clint (Woody)
    MechWarrior Juno, Regular, Stormcrow
    MechWarrior Silver, Regular, Black Hawk
Reconnaissance Lance
    Corporal Amber Tyler, Regular, Raven (Blackie)
    MechWarrior Carter “Grizzly” Morton, Regular, Valkyrie
    MechWarrior Rhianne “Rainy” Ó Máille, Regular, Commando
    MechWarrior Reinhardt “Olds” Olsen, Regular, Commando
Combat Lance
    Lieutenant Marcus Campbell, Regular, BattleMaster
    Staff Sergeant Valentine Tyler, Veteran, Crusader
    MechWarrior Midge Fairchild, Regular, Zeus
    MechWarrior Malcolm “Malky” Duncan, Regular, Excalibur
    MechW
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Literature
13 - Amber to Red
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
7 December 3053
    “God damn it,” mutters Ben Gleason as he hears the alert signal pinging sharply away from his earpiece comm, currently hanging on a coat hook. It’s matched by the same sound relayed via Sharyl’s comm, in the pocket of her overalls thrown over the back of a chair.
    Flushed, breathless and very annoyed, Sharyl leaves off kissing her way down over Ben’s bare chest and props herself up on her elbows. All she’s wearing are her socks and her dog tags, which gives Ben a truly wonderful view. Unfortunately he hasn’t got the time to enjoy it.
    “C’mon. We got work to do.”
    Sharyl rolls off the bunk with a curse in French. “I just spent five long hours doing stupid BattleMech maintenance,” she gripes. “When am I gonna get serviced?”
 
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Critiques


This sketch definitely has Firefly overtones to it, what with the scruffy jacket, gunbelt and holster. In keeping with the character, h...


Inverting the character truly 'sells' the idea of zero-G without giving the impression it's all done with wires or green-screen camera ...

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Activity


DropShip Lodestar, Departure Vector Epsilon-106
Persistence System, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
9 December 3053

    “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
    Technician Daniel straightens up so that his head and shoulders clear the open escape hatch in Woody’s head assembly. He holds up a circuit board in one hand; the broken device shows the telltale marks of massive electrical overload, and his fingertips are covered with soot.
    “It is, Benjamin,” he agrees. “The control circuits for the jump jets are shot, and I think the same can be said for the primary servos.” The Clan-born Tech shakes his head. “I am sorry. There is very little I can do until we get back to Camelot.”
    Ben Gleason, tethered by his belt harness to the side of Woody’s head, feels his shoulders slump. Getting blasted by that Falcon ’Mech’s advanced autocannon hadn’t just torn a sizeable amount of armour clean off the Clint’s framework, it had set off a series of electrical shorts that had bounced around inside the old machine’s systems like a ricocheting bullet.
    “Damn,” he says softly, rubbing at his forehead. Woody hasn’t been hit this badly since the time that Capellan Vindicator zapped the war machine’s left arm into white-hot splinters with a particle cannon. The only thing that had kept the Clint from winding up like Liam’s Enforcer back on Persistence was the extra armour it was carrying.
    He looks around the cramped confines of Lodestar’s lower ’Mech bay, at the three other BattleMechs locked down in their cradles. The sight of Silver’s inactive Black Hawk, directly opposite Woody, still gives him a mild shiver. The medium OmniMech is flanked to the left by Tammy Stanley’s Wolfhound, and to the right by Lisa Doyle’s old militia-issue Centurion. He can see Lisa and Cameron Mackenzie over there right now, poking around inside the opened workings of the ’Mech’s primary weapon, a Luxor D-Series autocannon mounted in the right arm. Judging from the way they keep stopping and exchanging words, the gun’s giving them some serious grief. Ben isn’t surprised. Those old Luxor autocannons are notoriously unreliable…
    “Sorry, Daniel,” he says, turning back to the younger man. “I missed all that.”
    “I was wondering if you might not consider a thorough overhaul of all the internal systems. It would take time, but I think this ’Mech really needs it.”
    Ben gives it some thought. They’ve been so busy these past few months, trying to keep things working, patching and fixing where needed, that there has been very little scope for full, proper servicing. He knows for a fact that the ’Mechs brought over by Jacobs and his ramshackle mob are in dreadful condition – witness Maya Sieberg’s issues with her Archer’s LRM targeting – so it’s only a matter of time before something, somewhere, gives out on them with possibly dangerous results.
    “We would need to be down on a planet,” he says, thinking it through. “I know there are repair facilities at Camelot, but I just don’t like the idea of doing major refit work without some real gravity. Far too much chance of a big accident for my liking.”
    Daniel nods. “I concur. We also need to inspect and catalogue all of those Falcon machines we took as salvage. Again, that will take time, and it would be much easier to do on a planet.”
    “Makes sense to me,” Ben says. “I’ll have to take it to the Skipper, but I’m pretty sure she’ll agree with you.”

    “What the hell are you doing awake?”
    Brigitte Olafsdottír opens her bloodshot eyes and peers at the man standing in the open doorway. “I could ask you the same thing,” she says. “I outrank you.”
    Valentine Tyler steps into the outer room of Brigitte’s quarters and lets the door panel close behind him. “I’m being serious here. You’ve had like, what, three hours sleep? Now here you are, propped up behind your desk like an old dressmaker’s dummy. Gita, you look about ready to collapse!”
    She hauls herself up a little bit straighter in her chair. “I think I did exactly that.” She breathes out a long, unsteady sigh and closes her eyes again. “My brain is just spinning around in circles, Val. I can’t make it stop.”
    Tyler settles down in one of the two seats facing her. He takes a moment to examine her features, and is not encouraged by what he sees there. There’s a grey tinge behind the warm brown complexion; a sense of exhaustion that has sunk deeply into every cell of her body.
    “I’d suggest you go see Crayford and ask her for something to help you get some rest,” he says at length, “but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
    “Really?”
    “Really. I think she still has some of those horse sedatives she picked up while we were stuck at the Donegal transfer point. She might get all confused and give you some of them instead of proper sleeping pills. You’d be foaming at the mouth.”
    Brigitte chuckles and looks at him. “I can never tell when you’re joking, Val. Horse sedatives? Honestly?”
    He shrugs. “I’m not too sure, Gita. All I know is that they’re big, they’re blue, and they’ve got a thoroughly strong-sounding name. There’s probably a section in the Ares Conventions somewhere saying that these things aren’t ever meant to be used on people.”
    That starts her laughing in earnest.

    It’s the background sound of machinery that wakes Liam Tyler. It doesn’t sound right to him somehow.
    He tries to open his eyes… and finds that he can’t.
    “Shit,” he croaks and reaches up to feel at his face.
    “Hey! Stop that!” A hand grabs hold of his wrist. Liam turns his head in the direction of the voice.
    “Amber?”
    “Yeah,” comes the reply. “Now, don’t start poking at your face. You’ve got dressings over your eyes.”
    “Okay,” he says, trying – and failing – to relax. “I got hit pretty bad, didn’t I?”
    Amber lets go of his arm. “You did. That Thunderbolt cut your ride to pieces. There wasn’t much left of it.”
    Liam’s quiet for a moment. “Did Dad dig me out of there? I think he was there.”
    “He was. Him, me and Zoë,” says Anton Delaney’s deep voice from the foot of the bed. “I had to cut the whole front panel off the head so we could get to you.”
    “Oh.”
    “We’re aboard the Iron Tower,” Amber tells him. “Right now we’re on our way out to link up with the JumpShip and get the hell away from here.”
    “Sounds good to me,” Liam says. He sighs. “I guess the ’Mech’s a write-off?”
    “We left it back there,” Delaney replies. “It was pretty much scrap metal anyway.”
    “So what happened with me?”
    “The Thunderbolt hit the side of your ’Mech’s head with that large laser, just before your ammo storage got breached and blew out.” Amber pauses. “We think you had a partial failure in the view port shielding.”
    “I remember that… I think. I got my arm up and looked away.”
    A new voice joins the discussion. “That is probably going to help a great deal.”
    “Who the frack are you?”
    “I am Senior MedTech Leonard, Liam. I helped your father pull you out of that ’Mech.”
    Liam Tyler takes that onboard. “You don’t really know how my eyes are, do you?”
    “Not right now,” Leonard has to admit. “We needed to get you here safely first, and up off of the planet. My people are getting the scanning gear ready as we speak.”
    “How long is that gonna take?” Liam can’t keep a faint tremor out of his tone.
    “Half an hour,” Leonard tells him.
    “We’re staying right here,” Amber says in a manner that Liam knows only too well. His baby sister is not about to take ‘no’ as an answer, and that is that.
    As Leonard steps away from the bed, Liam turns his bandaged head towards the source of Amber’s voice. “You guys here all on your own?”
    “No, we’re not. Zoë and Tomasz came over with us, and Marc and Jacqui were already here. I brought Lucy along as well.”
    Liam sighs. “Great; Dad’s fun-sized hellhound of hate. Just what I needed.”
    Amber snorts. “She’s here for me, not you, stupid. Not everything that happens is all about you.”
    “I know. Hey,” he says, reaching up with his left hand. “Thanks. Thanks for this.”
    He feels Amber’s slender, smaller hand catch hold of his fingers before Uncle Del’s massive paw covers his knuckles.
    “We stick together, kiddo,” Delaney tells him. “We always have. We always will.”

    Zoë is just about to step into the sickbay when she sees Amber and Anton with Valentine’s injured son. The open, uninhibited display of concern and… affection… sets the Elemental back on her heels.
    Before anyone can see her, she moves away down the corridor. She feels far more unsettled than she cares to admit – even to herself. What is wrong with me?
    Perhaps there is nothing wrong, Zoë supposes. Perhaps she has just witnessed something that she, as a trueborn, was never meant to know: honest friendship and care. Nothing but useless freebirth sentiments – or so her instructors have told her. Warrior caste trueborns are above such nonsense.
    She shrugs inwardly. Ever since that moment when she realised that she and her comrades could not hope to survive – much less prevail – against Brigitte and her MechWarriors, her life has been an ongoing disruption of the values and certainties that she has grown up with. Zoë is sure, now, that she could never fit in again with her former Clan – or even any Clan. She has seen too much, learned too much… and now she has additional responsibilities: those five young fools dragged off of the battlefield. Leonard had informed her that none of the Elemental trainees had been seriously injured; that child, Dorota, had been the most affected by the malfunction in her suit’s medical-support package. Given a few days of rest and recuperation all five will be fit again.
    Whether Brigitte will allow them to return to warrior status is another thing. Zoë knows, thanks to Jacqueline Chiang, that the storage facility at Bowerton’s Barrier included several sets of battle armour and a stockpile of spare parts. Combine those with the stockpile of HarJel that was found aboard the Black Buck, and that gives them the scope to field ten Elementals…

    Brigitte Olafsdottír sloshes a generous measure of clear liquor into each of the two shot glasses she has fished out of her desk. Valentine Tyler eyes the label on the bottle in her hand, and finds that he can’t read any of it. The top half is written in Swedish; the bottom half in Japanese. For some reason, the bright red lettering and kanji make him uneasy.
    “What is this stuff, again?”
    “Aquavit,” Brigitte says, screwing the cap back onto the bottle. “I picked up a few bottles when we were on Solaris.” She picks up her shot glass. “Down the hatch.”
    Tyler lifts his glass, and matches her as she slings the drink down her throat in a single move. Then his eyes start streaming.
    “Frack me,” he gasps hoarsely. “Is this shit even legal?”
    Brigitte sets her glass back down. “Probably not, but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.” She leans back in her chair and exhales noisily. “A couple more of these should knock me the hell out.”
    “Knock you out, or maybe burn away your liver,” Tyler says. “I thought Kuritan whiskey was rough going, but this is in a class all of its own.”
    Olafsdottír laughs quietly. “Don’t tell me you can’t handle your booze, Val. That would ruin your reputation completely.”
    He shrugs. “There’s booze, and then there’s stuff you can clean drains with.”
    “I guess so.” She’s quiet for a moment, thinking. “Am I imagining things, or is Amber not aboard this DropShip right now?”
    Tyler nods. “She caught up with me about an hour before we lifted off, down in the ’Mech bay. Told me to my face that she was going over to the Iron Tower to keep a close eye on Liam. No arguments. I had to stay here, she said.”
    “Why was that?”
    For maybe only the second time she can recall, Valentine Tyler looks genuinely embarrassed. Brigitte straightens up, her eyebrows raised.
    “Well… You’re gonna laugh, or maybe curse my ass. More than likely curse.”
    She makes a beckoning gesture at him. “Out with it.”
    “Amber told me that I had to stay put to look after you. End of discussion.”
    Brigitte can’t think of a single thing to say.
    Tyler waves his hand at the cabin bulkhead. “I sent a couple of people over with her, just in case. Zoë and Tomasz. Those two are the next best thing to a Regimental Combat Team, and I trust them. Del insisted on going over there as well; he’s worried sick about my boy.”
    “Del’s run recovery jobs before, surely? Back when you were both in the Grave Walkers…”
    Val nods. “Yeah, he has. But it’s a different story when it’s one of your own.” He snorts. “Listen to me: a self-pitying butt plug.”
    Brigitte shakes her head. “You’re anything but.” She studies the empty glass in her hand. “I thought it was bad, back on Skandia, you know? Having to take over company command when my Kapten’s ’Mech got decapitated. Wasn’t all that much of a company left by then, but everyone was still looking to me for answers, for some kind of miracle plan that would get us away from the bastard Wolf Clan… I didn’t have anything, Val.”
    He nods as she speaks. Her words match up with what he went through back on Apollo, up against the Jade Falcons: a real-life nightmare that refused to let up for a single minute.
    “This is different,” she concludes. “Kusaka, Bergman, Parry… They were my colleagues. We fought side by side against the Wolves, and we lost. Now…” she shakes her head. “Now, the people strapped into those machines are my friends.”
    “Even me?”
    She glares at him without much conviction behind the angry look, before picking up the bottle again. “Keep talking like that, Staff Sergeant, and I may just have to stick you with a commission.”
    “Hell, no!” Tyler is horrified. “Do not do that to me, Gita. Punch me in the face, take a few shots at me, whatever, but don’t ever do that to me!”
    She grins from ear to ear at his distress. “Why ever not? I think I’m due a little revenge for that promotion stunt you and Ben pulled on me back on New Exford. You disreputable fracking pirate!”
    Val has a pained look on his face. “Can’t we just have another drink instead?”
23 - Road to Recovery
Drinks with your commanding officer may pose a risk to your health.
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DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
9 December 3053

    It doesn’t look right to Brigitte Olafsdottír; not at all. Valentine Tyler’s Crusader is docked in its usual place, next to Amber’s torn-up Raven. The next cradle along – the place assigned to Liam – is occupied by the blocky chassis of a salvaged Bombardier. She has no idea how much damage the thing has sustained, because Del and his technical team have not had half a chance to examine the ’Mech. It could be moved under its own power and loaded aboard the Lodestar; study of the machine will have to wait.
    It is sometime after local midnight, in that dead time before the dawn. Outside, the night sky is huge and brilliant with stars. Sited as the Norns’ DropShips are out in the wastelands beyond Persistence’s settled zones, there is no town or city illumination to interfere with the starlight.
    Well, not quite true.
    The area surrounding the DropShips is lit up with work lamps. People are tired, exhausted, but they are working as hard as they can to finish up the loading operation. No one wants to contend with another group of Jade Falcon ’Mechs come daybreak.
    They have salvaged ’Mechs secured in next to stacks of supplies and spare parts. The Black Buck’s cargo bays are filled to the deckhead. Smaller pieces of gear – including a few suits of Toad armour recovered from the armoury at the replenishment depot – have been crammed into the Snow Leopard’s storage hold. How Cameron and Angelica have managed it, Brigitte has no clue.
    She glances up at the Bombardier again and sighs. Tyler had been… insistent… about leaving the wreckage of Liam’s Enforcer behind. Even if they had found the space for it somewhere, the ’Mech was a disaster. Delaney had spoken of the machine more than once, about how it seemed to develop serious faults at the most undesirable times.
    And now it has conspired to get Tyler’s son hurt. The large laser had shut itself down, distracting Liam at the exact moment he could not afford to be sidetracked. That had been the final straw; Valentine Tyler can put up with an awful lot of shit, but almost killing his boy? That’s unforgivable.
    She rubs at her burning eyes and tries to focus in on the display of her data pad. Two hours. That’s the estimate on the time they need to finish up and seal the hatches. Then they can blast off and kiss Persistence goodbye. Brigitte smiles a little at that prospect. She certainly isn’t going to miss this crappy world. Not for a second.
    “What’s the word on departure?”
    Brigitte looks up at Tyler’s question. He’s walking across the decking from the central turbolift core, hands jammed into the pockets of his jacket. She can’t help but notice the dark smudges under his eyes.
    “Two hours, according to Del’s latest update,” she replies, holding up her data pad. Tyler nods.
    “Two hours it is then,” he says. “I’ve learned to trust his estimates.”
    Olafsdottír tucks the pad back into the cargo pocket on her left leg. “I spoke with Seth earlier. He thinks we ought to have Snow Leopard lift at the same time as Black Buck. Just in case of trouble.”
    “Good idea. Once they’re up and away, we’ll follow.”
    She catches the line of his gaze; he’s looking past her shoulder, at the… “Is something wrong with my ’Mech, Val?”
    He doesn’t reply for a moment or two and when he does, he sounds drained. “Yeah, I think there is. You ever thought about getting it upgraded?”
    He’s lost her. “Sorry?”
    Tyler waves a hand at the Axeman looming over them both. “Refitting your ride. For a ’Mech you’re using as a close-in brawler, its armour is just too damned thin. You’ve only got, what, three-quarters of the armour that thing’s frame can carry?”
    Brigitte shakes her head. “It can’t be modified. That ferro-fibrous armour is too bulky to –”
    He shrugs. “So, lose the ferro armour. Go with old-fashioned standard plating. It would be a damned sight cheaper to replace, and way easier to acquire.”
    “Huh.” She looks up at her dormant BattleMech for a moment. “It still can’t work,” she says. “Something would have to come out to make up for all the added weight.”
    “The whole weapons array.”
    “Say what?”
    Tyler points up at the trio of medium lasers mounted on the back of the Axeman’s right forearm. “How often do you use those? Even in a simulator session?”
    That makes her pause to think. “I… Once, I think. Back on Solaris, in a ’Mech duel. Almost a year ago now.”
    “There you go. Most of the time you just go storming on in with the monster autocannon and your ‘serial killer’ hatchet. Why not ditch the lasers?” Val regards her doubtful expression. “Look, I’m not having you on here. We get on back to Camelot, unpack all of the gear we’ve taken, and see what we’ve got. Cameron told me that he’s loaded a couple of those Clan-made autocannons into Iron Tower’s main hold. Maybe we can figure out a way to install one in your machine.”
    “One of those dual-ammunition guns? Thanks, but no thanks.”
    He shakes his head. “I’m talking about an ultra autocannon. Double fire at the flick of a switch, kicks out the same damage per shot as the gun you’ve already got, and it comes in two tons lighter. Plus, it’s got better effective range.”
    “You mean, like on that Steel Viper Hunchback you tangled with on Parakoila?”
    “Exactly. We keep the frame, engine, and jump jets as close as we can to standard, but we give the rest of the thing a serious makeover.”
    Brigitte sits down on an equipment case resting on the deck next to the Axeman’s right foot. “You’ve thought this through.”
    Tyler nods. “I’ve kind of had to.”
    That makes her wince. “Sorry…”
    “Don’t be.”
    She’s quiet for a second. “How is Liam?”
    “He came around for a couple of minutes when we were pulling him out of that pile of scrap. His mouth hasn’t been affected. He’s strapped down tight in Leonard’s sickbay right now.” Val stares at the decking before his boots. “Leonard’s worried that the laser hit might have damaged his vision. The faceplate on the ’Mech was fused all to hell and gone, and his helmet visor wasn’t that much better.”
    “Damn,” Olafsdottír says softly.
    Tyler rubs at his face with both hands before looking at her again. “I just want us off this shit-heel ball of rock. I think it’s cursed. Persistence has tried to kill both of my kids, nearly blown Ben to pieces, and I think that if we stay much longer someone is going to die here.” His tone is deadly serious.
    Brigitte can’t bring herself to disagree with him.

    “I should be doing something to help. Anything.”
    Sergeant Benjamin gives Yesukai a weary look and sighs. “You’re injured. You’ve got one arm strapped up in a sling. You ought to be in the sickbay or your berth.”
    The mention of her damaged arm makes it ache fiercely in its cast. “It is nothing,” the trueborn woman insists with a frown. “I cannot let it get in the way of my service to Captain Brigitte.”
    Benjamin does not seem all that impressed by her sincerity. “You got blown out of a busted OmniMech, all of what, two days ago? You’ve got a broken arm and Adele told me most of the rest of you is a giant bruise. How is doing yourself more harm going to ‘serve’ Brigitte?”
    Yesukai looks down and away from him, feeling her face burning with intense shame. By rights he should strike her for her brazen behaviour…
    “Look… Yesukai? If you really want to help, then walk with me.”
    “Where are we going?”
    Benjamin starts walking along the corridor. “The canteen, first of all. I need something to eat and drink or I’m going to just fall flat on my face.” He glances at her. “I think you could do with some of the same. When was the last meal you had?”
    “Um…”
    “Exactly. We turn left here.”
    He ushers her into a mess that is not so very different to those found aboard Clan DropShips. The major difference that she can see is the five or six seated people, male and female, picking at the contents of their ration packs. They look as worn out and fatigued as Sergeant Benjamin.
    “There you go. Sit down.”
    As she obeys, Yesukai studies the others. Three males, two females. One of the women looks almost ready to fall asleep in her seat. None of them spares her as much as a glance.
    “One for you, one for me.” She starts a little, alarmed that her attention has wandered so that Benjamin can surprise her. He sits down opposite her at the table, with a self-heating ration packet in front of him. He has put an identical pack down at her place setting.
    “Not really fine dining, I have to admit, but beggars can’t be choosers.” He pours her a glass of juice from a carafe before filling one for himself. Before she can stop him, Benjamin reaches over and rips off the foil seal from her pack.
    “I… Thank you,” she says lamely, realising that the packet needed two intact hands to open.
    “You’re welcome.” He picks up his fork. “Dig in.”
    Yesukai does as she is told. The first mouthful makes her eyes widen in wonder. She has to chew and swallow before she can speak.
    “What is this?”
    Benjamin glances at the foil seal. “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy. Same as mine.” He gives her a quizzical look. “You’ve never tried it before?”
    She has already devoured a second forkful. “Neg. It is… I do not know. I simply cannot believe rations can taste so good.”
    “Just you wait,” says one of the males as he drops his fork into his empty meal packet. “Horst’s beef goulash is going to make you weep tears of joy.”
    Benjamin shoots him a wry look. “Don’t you start, Manny. The thought of Horst’s cooking is just about the only thing keeping me going right now.” He shakes himself. “Where the hell are my manners? Yesukai, this is Manny. Manfred Clarke. He pilots our Phoenix Hawk. Manny, meet Yesukai. Right now, she’s the bondswoman of our crazy commander.”
    “I’d offer to shake hands, but…” and Manfred looks meaningfully at Yesukai’s damaged arm.
    “I understand, Manfred,” she says with a bob of her head.
    The MechWarrior glances at her ration pack. “Our rations taste that good, huh? Then yours must be made out of burnt shoe leather.”
    She pauses with her fork halfway up to her mouth. “They… serve well enough.” She feels so uncomfortable suddenly. Here she is in a social situation, with – with freebirths. It is enough to make the skin on her back crawl.
    “Are you okay? You look… edgy.” Benjamin’s tone and expression display concern.
    Yesukai sets down her fork and bites her lip. Her warrior’s instinct, ingrained in her heart and soul, makes her wants to lash out – but she does not have that option. Not as isorla, as Brigitte’s spoils of war. Freebirths these two may be, but they are warriors. They have privilege. She does not. She has to obey them. That, too, is a truism that her instructors went to great lengths to hammer into her.
    “I… I am sorry,” she says after what seems to be a very long time. “It… All of this… It has come as such a shock to me.”
    “Okay,” Benjamin says after exchanging a look with Manfred. “I think you’d better finish up your food and go get off your feet. Get some sleep.”
    “But, Brigitte…”
    “I’ll talk to her,” he says in a tone that does not allow for disagreement. “Finish up and I’ll see you back to your berth.”
    She nods, not trusting her voice at that moment. Inwardly, she feels nothing but disgust at how stupidly weak she has become – and that she has allowed these freebirths to witness her failing.

    “Green lights, bridge,” Claire Klassen-Ward says into her earpiece comm. “Aft ’Mech hatch is secured.”
    “Copy that,” comes the reply. “We show green lights here, too.”
    Claire consults her checklist for the next step in the pre-launch sequence. As with every other operation aboard Lodestar, there is a strict chain of actions to follow. Trying to skip over a step or two will not just endanger your life, but the lives of everyone else aboard.
    She snorts softly as an ugly memory returns to her unbidden: that free trader DropShip at Tikonov, the last time Lodestar had visited the world. A Mule class transport, as she recalls. Some half-trained moron of a deckhand had screwed up during their launch prep, and none of the officers had bothered to check on their status before drive ignition.
    The deckhand had left one of the loading ramps lowered. When the engines fired for launch, the exhaust tore the whole ramp free from the side of the Mule – and caused a disaster. One of the fuel tanks ruptured and fragments from the ramp took out the DropShip’s starboard attitude thrusters. Result: the Mule reached an altitude of almost nineteen hundred metres before its crew lost all semblance of control. The transport smashed straight back down, killing most of the crew instantly and demolishing an entire docking bay. Over eleven thousand tons of falling DropShip will do that…
    She shudders. Not a nice image to have in her head right now.

    Valentine Tyler unbuckles his gun belt and hangs the thing up in the bulkhead storage locker. Every last part of him aches fiercely, or so it seems to him. He hasn’t felt this rotten since Apollo back in 3050.
    He glances over at the cabin’s wall display, noting the time: half an hour to main engine start. The Snow Leopard and Black Buck have already lifted off, and have just cleared the atmosphere. Lodestar and Iron Tower are next.
    Okay. He’s tired enough to sleep straight through the launch. He’s done that before. He is just about to sit down on his bunk when the door chime sounds.
    Letting out a grunt of annoyance, Tyler opens a drawer underneath the small desk set into the wall and retrieves one of his Python automatics. As the door chime sounds again, he quietly works a round into the weapon’s chamber before stepping over to unlock the door panel.
    The door slides open to reveal… “Ingrid? What the hell are you doing up at…” Tyler checks the chron strapped to his right wrist. “This ungodly fracking hour?”
    The girl is staring at her feet. Her face still shows the mark from where that dead Falcon asshole struck her. She’s trying to decide what to do with her hands; she can’t seem to settle on sticking them in her pockets or clasping them together behind her back.
    “I… I woke up. I was… scared, Valentine. I kept seeing the Point Commander and he, and he…” She draws a long, shuddering breath and reaches up to her bruised cheek.
    “Come on in,” Tyler says to her, stepping to the side to allow her entry. The move allows him to shove the Python in his left hand into the back of his waistband without Ingrid seeing the gun; no sense scaring the kid any more than she already has been.
    The young Scientist is venturing guarded looks around the cabin; her native curiosity is too strong for her to suppress it for very long. She looks down at the battered dog basket in the far corner, close to the bunk.
    She points over at the basket, her face lighting up. “You have a dog?”
    “I do… But Lucy isn’t here right now. Amber’s made off with her.”
    “Is she a spaniel?”
    “No, she isn’t. She’s more like a small furry bundle of angry. Why do you ask?”
    Ingrid blushes. “I… really like spaniels.”
    “Huh.” Tyler closes the door and regards his visitor thoughtfully. “How did you find out where my cabin is? I don’t think I ever told you the door or deck number.”
    “You did not, Valentine.” Ingrid looks guilty. “I found out by breaking into the mainframe from the cabin terminal. I overcame the access locks. It… wasn’t very hard.”
    He blinks. The fact that he hasn’t heard a dozen alarms going off all over the ship means that she didn’t trigger an alert on the bridge.
    “I think we’ll keep this between the two of us,” he says finally. “Don’t tell anyone else, okay?” Not until I’ve had a chance to talk to Brigitte. Over a stiff drink or two, probably. He has a sudden mental picture of Seth Klassen going completely crazy if he ever finds out what Ingrid’s done.
    She nods, doubtfully.
    Tyler scratches at the back of his neck. “I’m guessing that you really don’t like the idea of being stuck alone in a cabin all by yourself?” She nods. He looks away from Ingrid at a narrow door set in the bulkhead behind her. “Tell you what… I do have a spare cot through there. It ain’t much – the compartment isn’t that much bigger than a shoebox – but it’s yours if you want it.”
    “Really? You mean it?”
    “Yeah. Of course, I’ve got to clear some things out first. I’ve been using it for a storage closet.”
    “I should help you…”
    “Better not. There’s not a lot of space to work with in there, and one or two of the things I’ve got in there… Well, I wouldn’t want you handling them. They might explode, and that would ruin your whole day.”
    “Oh.”

    “Trim… is good. Guidance is green.”
    “Copy,” Seth Klassen says, keeping one eye on his systems display. All around him, Lodestar is shuddering like a small seismic quake, her main drives thundering away far beneath his feet.
    He studies his main console. Altitude: fifty kilometres and increasing. The predawn surface of Persistence is falling away below, and it won’t be long before Lodestar is far enough away from the world for sunlight to reach her hull. The notion makes him smile a little. Seth’s mother always saw that as a good sign during a launch. Black-water sailors have just as many superstitions as their ocean-going predecessors ever did. Hard not to be superstitious when you’re flying through space in a big metal bubble, he reflects.
    Seth takes another look at the holographic image of Persistence. He realises that he hasn’t even set foot on the surface; he’s been too busy running things aboard Lodestar these past few days to even think about going outside. He shrugs inwardly. From what he’s heard, he hasn’t missed out on very much…
22 - Exit, Stage Left
An important note: all of the Tylers are left-handed...
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Norns’ Landing Site
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053

    The moment the Lodestar’s lift platform reaches ground level, the two skimmers are off and away, picking up speed as they set a course for the latest combat site, just beyond the replenishment depot. Strapped into the passenger seat of one skimmer, Anton Delaney notices on the basic scanner display that a third skimmer – this one from the Iron Tower – is racing to join them.
    That would be the medics from Leonard’s team. He looks back up, squinting through his goggles at the featureless dusty expanse of land ahead of them. He has to force his mind to stop coming up with all manner of nightmare scenarios about what he’s going to find once he gets to the Enforcer and cracks its cockpit open…

    Tyler’s Crusader is standing right next to the broken wreck of Liam’s machine. The BattleMech is a candidate for the scrap yard; he can tell that just by looking at it.
    It looked bad from the vantage point of his command couch. It looks a lot worse from ground level as Tyler hurries across the broken turf to reach the medium ’Mech’s head assembly. The entrance hatch in the back of the head is useless; with the Enforcer flat on its back, there’s no way to get it open. Nor does he want to screw around with the explosive bolts on the top of the head, which would blow off the emergency skullcap panel in the event of a pilot ejection. With all the damage suffered, there’s every chance the system’s inoperable or worse, live and ready to blow.
    That leaves the faceplate. Fine.
    He clambers up onto the ’Mech’s left shoulder – the only one still connected to the main chassis – and gets a closer look at the mess caused by that Falcon Thunderbolt jockey.
    The majority of the Enforcer’s view ports are now useless; fused and vitrified by the Thunderbolt’s Sunglow large laser, what isn’t blackened and coated in soot has been turned a milky, dull opacity. Tyler climbs across onto the ’Mech’s chest plating and checks the smaller view ports on the right side of the cockpit, from the pilot’s viewpoint. They are reasonably intact, but he can’t see much of anything in there.
    His earpiece transceiver chimes; incoming call. He taps the device. “Go.”
    “Val, it’s Del. I’m about five minutes out. I’ve got a pile of gear with me and medical support coming as well. How… does it look?”
    “Like Apollo, brother. Get here faster.” Tyler kills the link and studies the angle of the laser blast. The shot struck across the upper left side of the Enforcer’s head, not quite hitting the faceplate head-on.
    “Fracking cheapskate piece of FedScum shit,” he snarls under his breath. From the very get-go back on Galatea, Liam’s ride has been nothing but an ongoing headache. Okay, it’s the only machine he was able to get his former commander to part with, but Tyler can see why Colonel Rubinsky had been happy to let Liam have the damned thing. It’s a death trap.
    He looks up as he hears the high-pitched whining of skimmer engines on the approach, like mechanical wasps or outsized hairdryers. Three of the light hover vehicles are closing in on the downed BattleMech. One of them, he notes, is painted in standard Jade Falcon green… although the Clan icon on the nose fairing has been sprayed over and obliterated. Tyler turns his attention back to the faceplate of the demolished ’Mech.
    “Hold on in there,” he says to no one in particular.

    Since she started her new career as a professional military contractor – or mercenary, if you felt like saying the word just before spitting on the ground – Brigitte Olafsdottír has spent a great deal of time talking with people who have grown up in the life. People like Ben Gleason and Stephen Billings. They had regaled her with some tales of smaller mercenary commands that had sounded like the basis for a holovid comedy show. One unit, for example, had had a full company of twelve ’Mechs… and no Techs. The commanding officer had got it into his thick skull that his pilots could carry out their own repairs; it would save a great deal of money on salaries.
    “Whatever happened to them?”
    Ben had shrugged at her question. “Their very first contract, half their machines broke down before they could deploy from their DropShip. Leg actuators, gyro systems, you name it; it failed. Once the bandits they were supposed to be fighting figured out what was going on, it turned into a goddamn massacre. ‘Captain Catastrophe’ just stood there while the ’Mechs he had operational were being cut to pieces alongside him, trying to give orders to the machines that had broken down. He couldn’t figure out why they were still inside the DropShip. Pathetic.”
    That example had impressed upon her the need for a solid, skilled support element to back up the Norns’ fighting assets. Not just Techs; medical personnel as well. Claiming the Iron Tower and its crew had been a godsend in that department. The sickbay aboard the second-line Clan DropShip was equipped with medical hardware that far surpassed anything the Inner Sphere’s finest could offer. Thankfully, MedTech Leonard and his team were fully trained in how to use the equipment.
    For maybe the tenth or twelfth time, she almost opens a channel to Valentine Tyler… and stops herself. Pestering him will not help matters any.

    Tyler reaches down and grabs Delaney’s hand, helping him up the last metre or so onto the Enforcer’s cracked hull. He has a pack of tools slung on his back, and to Tyler’s mild surprise, Zoë is right behind him, toting another bag of equipment. The Elemental scales the side of the downed BattleMech with the ease of someone who has done so a hundred times before.
    Del takes a careful look at the Enforcer’s faceplate. “We’ll cut there and there first,” he says, pointing at the lower two corners of the faceplate. “We’ll sever the latches before we move upwards.”
    Zoë unslings her pack. “How heavy do you think the panel will be?”
    “A hundred-twenty, maybe a hundred-forty kilos? You reckon you can lever it free all on your own?”
    Zoë gives him a dark, exasperated look. “What do you think?”
    Delaney looks up at her, opens his mouth, and then shuts it again.
    “Let’s get this done,” Tyler says to them both. He isn’t in the mood for byplay.
    Del opens up his own tool pack and fishes out a reinforced face shield, a pair of heavy gloves and a laser torch. “I don’t really have to say this, but when I fire this thing up, I want both of you to turn away.”
    “Got it,” Tyler replies.
    Zoë nods. “Aff, Anton.”

    A shift in the breeze wafts oily smoke from the ruptured BattleMech towards the parked skimmers. MedTech Leonard wrinkles his nose at the biting stink of charred metal and expended propellant, pulling his filter mask up over his nose and mouth. The smell is all too familiar to him.
    When was the first time he encountered it, he wonders? He glances at his companion, Imani, one of the orderlies from the Iron Tower’s infirmary. Probably back when he was the same age as she is now. She is standing next to him, watching the work proceeding up on top of the ’Mech’s head with cautious attention.
    Leonard follows the youngster’s line of sight, and recognises the equipment that Anton is making ready. “Better turn away,” he suggests.
    The girl startles, and looks at him. “Senior?”
    He nods towards Anton. “He is going to use a laser cutter now. You do not want to be looking at it without a face shield, believe me.”
    Imani turns away from the Enforcer as he does, biting her bottom lip, clearly self-conscious. A moment later, they both hear the fizzling crackle of metal being superheated as Anton sets to work.
    Leonard remembers where he was when he first attended such a site. A Trial of Grievance on Strana Mechty, between the Jade Falcons and the Smoke Jaguars. The reasons for the combat were never explained to him; not that he much cared. All that mattered was recovering the wounded Falcon warriors from their downed machines. He recalls the deathly pale features of a female trueborn pinned in the wreckage of her Hellbringer’s cockpit, doing her absolute best to keep from screaming aloud at the pain of shrapnel fragments lodged in her side. He remembers that very clearly, because as he climbed in to assess her wounds she gave him a look he had never expected to see from one of the warrior caste: desperate, wet-eyed gratitude.
    He wonders whatever became of her. They got her to surgery, and he heard later from Senior MedTech Winston that she recovered well enough to return to active duty, but he never saw her again. She is probably long dead by now, killed in combat or deemed too old to be of any use except as solahma. Such is the way of the warrior caste.
    Leonard glances down at the snub-nosed hull of the skimmer he piloted out here from the Iron Tower. He looks at where the Jade Falcon crest has been painted over and has to remind himself again that it is all different now. His first few meetings with Adele had driven that realisation home.
    Within each of the five castes of Clan society, there is a very clear hierarchy; a ‘pecking order’ as Adele termed it. A Clan’s scientist caste, governed from on high by its Scientist General, is no different. Superior performance is rewarded. Failure is punished.
    On top of the pressure from above, there is also the competition to contend with. An ever-present concern is the scarcity of resources. There are always too many projects that need to be worked on, and never enough means to devote to them all. Priorities have to be set for the good of the Clan…
    Adele had leaned back in her seat at that and rolled her eyes. “In other words: project leaders learn to cover their lab-coated asses while also looking for ways to stab their rivals in the back. Upset or maybe sabotage a competitor’s progress so that they get busted back down to junior lab assistant and have their funding reassigned to a ‘more deserving’ endeavour. Am I right?”
    Leonard had laughed at her caustic – and accurate – observation. “You are,” he had said. “That infighting is the main reason I decided to train for trauma surgery. I figured that the warrior caste would never want to deprive itself of medical care for its wounded.”
    “You went for job security. Smart lad.”
    He comes back to the present when he hears the creaking of stressed plating.

    “When I lift it, wedge that jack underneath.”
    Tyler, kneeling down next to Zoë’s braced feet, nods. “Ready when you are.”
    Pausing just long enough to loosen the muscles in her shoulders and upper arms, Zoë sets the business end of the pry bar underneath the lip of the faceplate. She glances back at Delaney, who is standing away from them both on the Enforcer’s sternum.
    “We are not keeping this piece, are we?”
    “No. It’s useless. Dump it.”
    She nods and throws her entire body weight down onto the bar. The bottom edge of the faceplate raises clear of the ’Mech’s cockpit framework, giving Val enough free space to slide the compact powered jack into place.
    “Got it,” he reports and Zoë eases off, allowing the faceplate to settle down onto the jack. Once she pulls the pry bar away, Val picks up the small control pad linked to the jack by a cable and hits a tab. A moment later, it starts to lift the slab of armour and ruined view port.
    “Get ready to catch the jack,” Zoë tells Tyler. She has shifted her position to stand on the charred ‘cheek’ left view port flanking the central faceplate, and she’s eyeing the rising angle of the loose panel for just the right moment…
    Del’s eyes widen when she plants both hands against the edge of the faceplate and shoves. Val’s just barely quick enough to grab the jack clear as the panel slides across and away from the cockpit, tilting as it goes. With a clank and a rattle, the faceplate falls down off the right side of the Enforcer’s head. It drops to the turf with a very final thud.
    “Holy shit,” Del mumbles as Zoë recovers her balance and reaches out to catch the powered jack from Tyler. “You’ve had been a natural in the salvage trade.”

    Tyler can’t see any blood or obvious wounds on Liam as he lowers himself into the lifeless cockpit space. The neurohelmet’s still in place, so checking for a pulse in his throat is out. Ripping away the straps securing the gauntlet on his son’s right hand, Tyler pulls it off and presses his fingertips to the inside of the wrist.
    He sags in relief, for just a moment. There’s a pulse. He grabs at the central buckle for the command couch’s five-point harness and unlocks the thing. Part of his awareness is tracking Zoë’s voice as she calls to Leonard and his assistant to join them, but for right now his priority is set: find out if Liam’s hurt, and how badly.
    Tyler hears clambering noises up on the outer hull as he takes his first real look at Liam’s neurohelmet. The visor is down, so his eyes are covered… make that hidden. The reactive layers in the visor are discoloured very badly, in a similar way to the ’Mech’s discarded main view port. His eyes could be…
    No! It takes every last scrap of self-control Valentine Tyler has built up over the last twenty-five years to stop himself from howling. Not that. He makes his hands move, makes them do something useful; unlocking the control leads for the now-useless neurohelmet and reaching down to disconnect the hook-up for Liam’s coolant vest. A dribble of fluid spurts from the coupling, disregarded.
    Tyler looks up as Zoë comes back into view. She’s lowering a young woman into the cockpit, down on the other side of the command couch. The girl’s hand vanishes inside Zoë’s grasp, her feet dangling, and she looks clearly anxious. The Elemental isn’t really showing off; her other hand is holding the medical orderly’s supply bag. Once her charge is down and safe, Zoë passes the bag down to her.
    Val takes a moment to observe the kid. Not all that much older than Ingrid, he supposes. She’s an attractive girl of African descent, with rich brown skin, black eyes, and dark hair that has been shaven back on the sides. Her jumpsuit shows the telltale marks where the Jade Falcon patch has been removed from the breast pocket and upper arm.
    He also notices that she won’t meet his gaze.
    “Are you okay?” Val asks her. She just nods. He sighs. “What’s your name?”
    She mumbles something that might even be an answer. Val catches sight of Zoë above, just about to bark a demand at the young orderly, and gives her a hard look. He shakes his head. Shouting isn’t going to help at all.
    It’s the fracked-up caste system thing once again. This kid is in close proximity to a pair of scary warrior types, so she’s frozen up. Tyler’s starting to see why Brigitte hates that asshole Nicholas Kerensky so much. Too bad he can’t travel back in time and put a few hard rounds into the crazy bastard’s worthless guts before he could cook up the ‘perfect society’ that he dreamed would rebuild the Star League…
    He tries again, with a softer tone of voice. “What’s your name?”
    “Imani,” she says after a moment of panicky silence.
    “Imani,” Tyler replies, trying the word out. “We need to make sure we can move him without making things worse. Can you check him for injuries?”
    She bobs her head in a nod and sets to work, making sure that there are no apparent burns or bleeding wounds. Her next move strikes icy dread into Tyler’s heart.
    “Whoa!” He catches hold of her hands just she’s about to remove Liam’s neurohelmet. “Don’t do that, sweetheart!”
    Imani lets out a yelp of pure fright. She looks just about ready to wet herself.
    “This whole damned thing went over onto its back,” Tyler explains before Imani can pass out on him. “He may have picked up a neck injury. Let’s leave that bucket in place for now.”
    “Staff Sergeant Valentine is right,” says Leonard from above. He’s standing alongside Zoë, peering down into the cockpit. “Better to leave that be, Imani.” A thought occurs to the Iron Tower’s medical officer. “Come on up out of there. I will take over from you. You can go get the skimmer ready.”
    Imani can’t climb out of the cockpit fast enough. Leonard takes her place and assesses Liam with the speed of long experience.
    “Thanks,” Val says to him.
    Leonard shrugs. “She was scared so much I was afraid she would do something to make matters worse,” he admits. He consults the display on a small monitoring device he’s attached to Liam’s upper left arm. “I think we can move him safely. I need to get that helmet off him and examine his eyes – and I can only do that on the Iron Tower.”
    Tyler looks up at Zoë. “Can you get the backboard?”
    “Hey,” says a groggy voice, “what did I miss?”
    “Liam? This is Leonard. Keep your eyes shut for now.”
    The battered MechWarrior in the command couch manages to give him a thumb’s up. “Got it. No problem.”
    Tyler feels every single part of his body want to collapse in relief. He looks down and sees how much his fingers are trembling from stress.
21 - Blindspot
We couldn't keep you waiting until next Monday for this chapter...
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DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053

    Zoë’s expression is grim as she listens to the comm chatter over her earpiece receiver. Things are not going as well as might be expected and she suspects she knows the reason why.
    Fatigue. She knows all about that, having suffered from its grinding effects herself over the extended front-line service she had provided to the Jade Falcon Clan during the invasion. It had been noticed, and exploited, by one of her sibkin. Her very own Founder-damned sister. Thanks to that backstabbing bitch, Zoë’s prospects in the warrior caste had been flushed down the latrine and she had been sent down to the Black Raptors…
    She realises her hands have locked up tight into fists, and forces them to relax. As bitter and raw as the old anger still is, it has no relevance here. There are people out there taking fire; people she has – to her own surprise – begun to care about.
    Zoë looks across the compartment to where Anton, Jacqui, and Angelica are standing. They are shooting unhappy looks at one another, listening in on their own receivers to the audio feed from the CIC located above the main ’Mech bay.

    Mike Holznecht reaches out to touch the holographic status panel displaying a graphic breakdown of Ben Gleason’s shot-torn BattleMech. It’s a simplified outline of the Clint, split into seven segments including the limbs, head section, and the front three facings of the torso. Too many of those sections are now a solid red indicating total armour loss and he doesn’t really like the way the head section keeps stuttering between a healthy green and a damaged yellow; it suggests that some system or other in the cockpit is out of service. Probably a side-effect of that last massive barrage the Clint has sustained.
    He slides the holographic panel across to his right, moving it away from the distraught Sharyl. Mike glances at her face and has to look away. She looks as if she’s living her worst-ever nightmare right now.

    The missile-boat Uller wobbles as sixteen long-range missiles, following their Artemis-IV guide beam, detonate all across its torso and left arm. Amidst the cherry-red flames of exploding warheads, steam from shattered heat sinks erupts from a deep gash in its hull. Almost as if it’s a child’s toy that has just had its batteries removed, the OmniMech sags and topples flat on its face with a crash.
    Maya Sieberg lets out a long sigh of relief. “Thanks, Malky.”
    “My pleasure, hen. Are yer sensors makin much sense yet, lovely?”
    “Yeah. I guess they are. I just can’t seem to hit worth a shit.” She has to fight down the urge to punch a hole in the side of the Archer’s primary console.
    “Try and adjust yer… Shite. Tyler? Gotta break off. Jessie needs help with her mockit bastard.”
    “Got it, Malky. Go. I got this.” As Malky’s Excalibur turns and moves off to assist Jessie Danvers’ Banshee, Tyler’s Crusader takes its place at Maya’s side. “Maya?”
    “I’m here.”
    “Okay, now I want you to bracket that big-ass Mad Cat shooting at Juno. Odds are that’s their commander’s ride. Don’t worry if you can’t hit him. I’ll do that.”
    “Roger that.” Maya scowls at her weapons board, daring it to screw up on her again…

    A second sizzling impact from the Black Hawk’s gauss rifle finds its mark. Katsumi winces as almost a ton of Starshield armour is blasted apart on the Banshee’s torso. The assault ’Mech lurches back a step.
    If that had been my ’Mech... “Jessie! You okay there?”
    Jess Danvers’ voice fades back in out of a sizzling burst of static interference. “Yeah. I think. Frack me blind, that’s some cannon he’s got there!”
    “Hang in there.” Katsumi curses in Japanese as the Dervish’s LRMs detonate in a ragged ripple pattern up across her Dragon’s upper hull. One warhead actually cracks her view port, the impact shock slamming her backwards in her command couch. She tastes blood in her mouth; she’s bitten her lip.
    She takes an extra second or two to adjust her aim. The Dervish is carrying a great deal of blast damage across its left side now, so Kat does what she can to focus in on that area...

    Brigitte has to marvel at the ruinous amount of damage sustained by Juno’s Stormcrow. The enemy Mad Cat has pounded her machine with missiles and laser fire, trying to blast an arm or leg off the smaller OmniMech. Broken fragments of ferro-fibrous armour, the largest of them weighing maybe five or six kilogrammes, litter the ground all around the Stormcrow’s feet. How the hell are we going to replace all that?
    She pushes the thought aside. “Silver, I need support, right now.”
    Even as Silver acknowledges, Olafsdottír triggers her Axeman’s jump jets. Leaping from the rocky outcrop overlooking the battle site, she guides her ’Mech towards the Clan Omni. Hopefully she can draw the pilot’s attention away from Juno. If not, well, she’ll just have to ‘get mediaeval’ on them.

    This is insane, Jessie Danvers realises.
    The pilot of the Black Hawk seems hell-bent on taking her Banshee apart, a piece at a time. Never mind that she’s about to get backup from Malky Duncan and his Excalibur; it’s like the Falcon jockey wants the glory of killing an assault ’Mech and is ignoring everything else. She triggers another stuttering blast from her class-5 autocannon, and blasts chunks of armour from the OmniMech’s flank.

    Liam Tyler triggers another blast from his large laser, and curses as he misses again. The Dervish and Black Hawk are engaged to his left with Kat and Jess, so that leaves their slower-moving comrade to deal with: a 65-ton Thunderbolt. There’s another heavy ’Mech out there, a Crusader, but he’s lost all track of it.
    He’s always respected the Thunderbolt design. Having one fixing its attention on him now is not doing wonders for his sense of calm. He just hopes the damned thing hasn’t been equipped with Clan-made guns and heat sinks.
    Liam lines up his crosshairs and fires his Enforcer’s autocannon and large laser. The laser shot gouges deep into the Thunderbolt’s dense torso plating, while the burst from his autocannon rips a string of craters down the bigger ’Mech’s arm from shoulder to wrist.
    Yeah. He’s got the dirty fucker’s attention for sure. The bigger ’Mech lines up with its main guns and unloads a hail of long-range warheads and a blast from its large laser in his direction. The laser misses – barely – and seven or eight of the LRMs detonate against his Enforcer’s left shoulder and hip. Superficial damage… for now.
    He chances a quick glance over at Kat and Jess. They seem to be holding their own, so he puts his full concentration back onto the approaching Thunderbolt. What worries him is the sheer density of the machine’s armour; each of its legs can absorb two or three direct hits from his large laser before being breached. The main hull is similarly hard to crack open.
    By contrast, his smaller Enforcer carries maybe seventy per cent of the Thunderbolt’s armour. It only has to get one really good barrage in to stop his ride in its tracks.
    All of that goes through his mind in an instant, as he tries to judge the best moment to trigger his jump jets. As Liam braces himself to act, a warning tone from the Federated Hunter targeting system distracts him. A flashing message appears in his holographic display, one he does not want to see.
    Critical temperature surge detected in large laser charge coupling. Weapon offline.
    Damn it! The stupid fracking laser has just gone and died on him again! Before he can react further, he catches sight of the Thunderbolt again. It’s halted in place to line up another volley, and –

    Katsumi’s particle beam cuts into the left-torso munitions bin on the Dervish and ignites a single LRM warhead. In a matter of moments, it triggers a cascade explosion that guts the BattleMech, sending the entire left arm spinning ten or twelve metres through the air. The pilot barely has time to punch out of their doomed machine. As it is, they just barely stay ahead of the fireball.
    She takes a look at the Black Hawk and nods as it lurches sideways under a massive barrage of detonating LRMs. Malky Duncan is still at long range for his Excalibur’s big guns, but that never seems to slow the Highlander MechWarrior down. The particle beam strike from Jessie Danvers simply finishes the demolition job. She breaches the main hull just to the side of the Omni’s cockpit and hits the ammunition bay for the modular SRM rack.
    The Black Hawk doesn’t go up like a fifty-ton landmine as the Dervish just did, thanks to the integrated CASE protection shielding its ammo storage… but it’s down for the count, with serious internal damage that includes ruptured heat sinks and all power to its left arm cut.
    “Kat, at your three! Liam’s in trouble, bad trouble!”
    Jessie’s urgent voice snaps Katsumi’s attention away from the disabled OmniMech just in time to –

    Overlapping alarms are shrieking in his neurohelmet’s headphones. Liam Tyler recognises one of them as the armour-breach warning. The rest of the clamour is just noise; the Enforcer is screaming at him like a wounded animal.
    He can smell melted insulation and fried circuitry. Ozone and smoke. As far as he can tell, the ’Mech is still on its feet. All he can see is… nothing…
    Move it, stupid. Move! That Falcon is still out there!
    Liam forces his right arm down and away from his faceplate, scrabbling for the Enforcer’s throttle control. He finds it, grabs hold, and thumbs the directional control set into the handle, flipping the ’Mech into reverse motion. Then he opens the throttle as much as he dares. He has to try and get out of the Thunderbolt’s line of fire…
    “Liam!” It’s Jessie’s voice in his ears. “Hit your jump jets! Angle west, I’ll give you covering fire!”
    “I can’t,” he replies, wondering if his transmitter channels still work.
    Katsumi cuts in on the link. “What’s wrong? A control problem?”
    “No,” he has just enough time to say. “I can’t see where I’m going.”

    The Falcon MechWarrior blasts the smouldering medium ’Mech with all four lasers and their short-range missile pod. Katsumi never does find out which shot it is that breaks through into the Enforcer’s autocannon magazine. She hardly cares. What matters is the result.
    A vast blood-red gout of fire maybe five metres long erupts from the Enforcer’s back, carrying fragments of armour, structural members, and loops of shredded control wiring along with it. The machine crumples up like a paper doll around the frightful damage site before toppling backwards to hit Persistence’s topsoil with a crash.
    Someone is howling like a maniac over the company command channel and it takes Katsumi a moment to realise that it’s her voice. She locks onto the Falcon ’Mech with her main weapons and fires, even as Jessie and Malky do the same.

    Mike Holznecht swallows down hard on a surge of bile as he recognises a sound that he last heard back in the headquarters wagon on Sevren. A sound he prayed he’d never hear again: a flat electronic tone.
    The tactical hologram’s dispassionate advisory message doesn’t help him any either.
    ENF-4R telemetry interrupted.
    Negative signal.
    Negative ejection.
    Negative emergency beacon.
    No active reactor reading.
    Mike forces himself to react. He opens a priority line to Del down in Lodestar’s ’Mech bay. A rescue detail has to be organised… Cutting gear, medical help…
    He’s never felt quite as useless as he does right now.

    Maya Sieberg opens her Archer’s external speakers and addresses the pilot of the Jade Falcon Crusader. “Stop moving and shut down. I won’t tell you again.”
    The dented heavy machine is sprawled on its back, sparks and coolant spitting from the wreckage of its right knee. It can’t get back up, but that’s mainly down to the massive left foot of the ARC-2R planted firmly on its chest plating. Maya has the medium laser in her Archer’s right arm lined up on the Crusader’s faceplate. Any attempt at clever stuff and she’ll fire.
    The Falcon pilot knows it, too. After a tense moment or two, he pops the escape hatch and throws out his disconnected neurohelmet before he climbs down onto the ground. Maya makes sure her speakers are off before she lets out a heartfelt sigh of relief. She really doesn’t want to burn the idiot alive in his seat.
    She has the time to take a look up from the downed Falcon Crusader. The ’Mech had tried to bracket she and Val Tyler, maybe to take the pressure off the Mad Cat they had been fighting. It hadn’t worked very well. Brigitte’s assault on the Mad Cat had torn up the big Omni and occupied its pilot long enough for Maya and Val to disable the Crusader.
    The Vulture, sporting serious LRM impacts across its upper hull and cockpit, had revived as Brigitte smashed into the Mad Cat. Its pilot was lining up to fire on her rear quarter when Silver arrived. Her medium-laser fire stripped away the remainder of the cockpit armour and blew out the LRM magazine in the left torso, blasting the Vulture sideways off its feet. The combination of feedback damage and impact with the ground has left the pilot in no shape to continue the fight.
    Maya flips up the faceplate on her neurohelmet and wipes at her face. Her cheeks are wet, and not all of it is due to nervous sweat. She casts a look at her tactical plotter and sees where each and every one of their ’Mechs is right now – bar one.

    Standing watch in her Dragon, Katsumi regards the immobile pair of Jade Falcon ’Mechs without much interest. The Black Hawk remains where it fell, smoke wafting up from its ruptured ammunition bin. The pilot had given up when he’d realised how badly outmatched he was by two heavy ’Mechs backed up by the assault design he had been trying to knock out. Kat supposes the machine might be useful as a source of spare parts for Silver’s ride.
    The Thunderbolt looks like it’s been dragged through a blast furnace. From the knees upwards, there’s barely a section of armour on its frame that hasn’t been burnt, blasted or cracked. The faceplate sports a ragged line of cracks from where Jessie’s light autocannon scored a direct hit.
    The heavy ’Mech stands upright, its crew hatch open and the chain link ladder hanging down to the ground. It’s maybe two hundred metres from the ruin of Liam’s Enforcer, its pilot sitting on the ground with her hands on top of her head.

    Ben Gleason has had his share of welcomes on returning to the ’Mech bay aboard the Lodestar. This one, though, is a first.
    He’s never been dragged off of the shoulder of his ’Mech onto the crew gantry before. Nor has he had someone run their hands over every last centimetre of him to make sure he’s still all there.
    “Oh thank God,” Sharyl moans as she straightens up and wraps her arms around his neck. “You’re all right.” She buries her face against his neck.
    Ben rests his hands on her hips for a moment, before pulling her into a tight hug. He can feel her trembling against him. He realises, belatedly, that she’s scared to death. Oh… Crap. He remembers now: Sharyl was in the CIC during the battle. She must have seen everything... including the part where his Clint almost got shot to bits around him.
    He feels terrible. He’s just frightened her terribly. They haven’t been a couple for very long now, and Sharyl’s just had to stand and watch his ’Mech get blasted.
    The side of his neck is getting wet. He can feel her shaking now, and starting to sob. All he can think of to do is to rub her back and hold her close.
DropShip Lodestar
Persistence, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
8 December 3053

    If this were an action holovid, there would be flashing red lights and wailing alarms going off on every deck of the Lodestar. People would be charging to and fro, section doors closing off, and terse intercom messages about battle status crackling over the speakers.
    There is none of that here. The MechWarriors and Techs have been expecting yet another round with the Jade Falcons before leaving Persistence, and the miserable bastards have not disappointed.
    “Be careful,” Sharyl says to Ben Gleason as he laces up his coolant vest in their cabin. “Don’t take any chances out there. Please.”
    He grins. “Me, take risks?”
    “I’m serious.” Sharyl glances over at her own coolant vest, hanging up in a storage locker. She isn’t part of the force heading out today, because of damage done to the communications systems aboard her Dervish. She’ll be waiting out the battle in Lodestar’s CIC, sitting next to Mike Holznecht.
    “So am I,” Ben says, serious now. “Old Woody may have better guns and armour now, but he’s still no assault ’Mech. I’ll take care.”
    Sharyl wraps her arms around him and rests her forehead against his chest. It’s all she can do to keep from crying.

    Brigitte Olafsdottír casts a look at her Axeman’s instrumentation, taking in the status of the heavy BattleMech almost by instinct. The Magna 260 extra light engine is running at peak efficiency, the weapons are primed and ready, and Jerry Bishop’s repairs to the damaged torso armour seem to be holding up just fine.
    Here we go again…She opens a comm line. “Ben? Val? You guys up and running okay?”
    “I’m here, Skipper,” Ben replies. “Good to go.”
    “Likewise,” reports Tyler.
    Brigitte looks at her hands. They’re trembling, ever-so-slightly. Fatigue, or nerves, or maybe a combination of the two; she isn't sure. She’s reminded of Skandia, almost two years ago now.
    She closes her eyes for a moment before willing herself to be calm. She can’t afford to lose it out there. Too many people are counting on her today.
    “As we discussed,” she says. “We stick with a loose defensive formation; overlapping fire patterns. Grizzly says that they’re aimed for the supply depot rather than our landing site.”
    “They either want to stop us scavenging the wreckage from the earlier fights, or they want to seize the depot itself,” Val’s voice says as she guides her ’Mech onto Lodestar’s forward elevator platform. “Grabbing their toys must have really pissed them off.”
    “We’re playing to their stereotypes, Val.” Ben sounds amused, in a resigned kind of way. “Dirty, loot-grabbing scum, remember?”
    “You just described the first ten years of my so-called career, you know that?”
    Despite the weariness gnawing away at her bones, Brigitte Olafsdottír finds a smile forming on her lips. She realises that she truly meant what she had told Val in Amber’s cabin earlier: she can’t do this without him.
    The elevator reaches ground level and she pilots her ’Mech away from the DropShip to where Silver’s Black Hawk and Juno’s Stormcrow stand waiting for her. The names of the captured OmniMechs make her think of old, old stories that she’d heard as a small child. Stories that go all the way back into the distant pre-spaceflight past. A pair of crows following me into battle… So what does that make me?

    Mike Holznecht rubs at the back of his neck and winces as his eyes adjust to the holographic displays in Lodestar’s CIC. He’s better than he was, but he still feels tired. He just hopes he doesn’t mess up again.
    Not that Sharyl seems any more at ease than he, Mike notes as she sits down to his left. The Tech-turned-MechWarrior is wound up tight, biting at her bottom lip as she surveys the tactical feeds coming in from the ’Mechs as they move out for the half-emptied supply station.
    “Here,” he says, passing her a spare wireless headset. “It’s been linked in.”
    She accepts it from him. “Thanks,” she replies. “Any idea on what’s coming their way yet?”

    “Looks like another – Binary, is it? That’s ten ’Mechs, on the approach from zero-seven-zero.” Ben Gleason goes quiet for a moment as he consults his scanners. “Yeah, ten machines. It’s a mixed bag, Skipper. Mostly Omnis, but they have... three old Inner Sphere designs as well. Design classics. Must be trying to plug holes in their force roster.”
    Brigitte looks at the list of names scrolling down across her heads-up display. There are a few fast-moving light and medium machines in the oncoming Falcon force: a Black Hawk and a pair of Ullers, for example. They’re starting to split up, spreading out into a pair of five-’Mech formations.
    “Okay, the heavy Star is slower. That Crusader and Thunderbolt aren’t as fast as their OmniMechs. Looks to me like they’re swinging around to the left. That fast Star is shifting around to our right. Ben, Juno, and Silver: you’re with me. The fast group is ours. Tyler? You and Katsumi turn to... zero-five-five and take the heavies. No heroics.”
    “You’re talking to the wrong guy for heroics,” Tyler replies. “By the numbers; Norns style. We all heard the Major, so let’s get this done.”
    Brigitte opens her private line to Tyler’s Crusader. “Stop doing that,” she tells him, trying to sound stern and not succeeding. “At this rate you’ll be addressing me as Commanding General of the SLDF.”
    “I don’t see why not,” he replies. “You’d look pretty good in one of those old dress uniforms.”

    A mixed bag, Ben Gleason thinks as the basic details of the oncoming Falcon ’Mechs flicker across his primary display. A pair of light Ullers, a medium Fenris, and a spindly 20-ton Dasher that is probably the fastest little BattleMech he’s ever seen in the field.
    Following in their wake is a 60-ton Vulture… or a Mad Dog, according to Silver and Juno. Whatever you choose to call the thing, it’s an effective fire-support heavy. A 20-tube LRM pod is located either side of the narrow cockpit, and each arm carries a large and medium pulse laser in tandem. The superior Clan technology that goes into its construction means that it can carry all that firepower and travel just as fast as Sharyl’s Dervish.
    Ben feels a moment’s concern as the ‘fast’ Star splits up. Three machines are heading across his line of advance, moving into an area of rocky outcrops and scattered trees surrounding a small body of water. Line of sight is restricted. The other two – the Vulture and one of the Ullers – is moving due south, apparently intent on engaging Maya’s and Malky Duncan’s ’Mechs.
    He forces himself to focus on the problem at hand: take these guys down first. He glances to his left, and sees that Silver, Juno, and Brigitte are still advancing. Ben has to admire the way the two Clan expatriates pilot their machines. The damn things move almost like living creatures.
    “Engaging!” Juno’s voice is matched by the red and green flicker of lasers the instant she gets a clear shot. The first Omni to break into view from behind a stand of trees is the Dasher. The scout ’Mech pivots its torso to bring its own guns to bear, and the pilot manages to get a salvo off before their machine is torn to pieces.
    The Dasher’s right arm is incinerated, Juno’s laser fire cutting laterally into the side of the torso, burning away armour, structural members, and the outer casing of the Omni’s XL engine. The large laser strike to the centre torso is almost unnecessary, and the light ’Mech collapses in a cloud of grey and black smoke, hitting the ground with a rattling crash.
    By comparison, the Dasher’s return fire does little but chip a little armour away from the arms and left leg of Juno’s Stormcrow.
    “Shit!” Ben flinches as the ’Mech following up behind the Dasher – the Fenris – takes a snapshot at him. A blistering proton bolt from its PPC rips through the air less than a metre behind his Clint’s head. Half his cockpit displays turn to fuzz and static for a moment.

    Maya Sieberg scowls as she adjusts her targeting system. The Archer is running better now than it has in years, but there are still a number of problems with the tired old monster. Delaney and his staff have done their best with what they had on hand at Camelot but it doesn’t overcome the fact that most of the Archer’s components are, well, old… old and worn.
    She braces the 70-ton ’Mech and prepares to fire her LRMs. Directly due south of her position are two Falcon Omnis, dressed in a lurid lime-green paint scheme. “Firing!” she announces into her neurohelmet’s microphone.
    The Omnis are already launching flights of long-range missiles back at her and Malky. Forty LRMs from the Vulture, and to her unhappy surprise, the Uller launches almost as many warheads itself. Damn! The little fracker’s a walking rocket battery!
    Out of the corner of her eye, Maya catches a pulsing flash of light as the point-defence cannon built into Malky’s Excalibur locks onto the incoming missiles and starts firing.
    She nudges her targeting joystick forwards just a touch and hits the trigger. She wants that Uller down and out of the action.

    “Benjamin, keep moving!”
    He doesn’t need telling twice. Heeding Silver’s warning Ben wrenches at his controls before stamping down on his jump-jet pedals. Venting from ports in the legs and back of his ’Mech, superheated plasma blasts downwards. Woody lurches into the air, thrusting away from the immediate threat of the Fenris.
    Gleason adjusts his trajectory, turning the rebuilt Clint in mid-air. He’s just in time to see Silver’s Black Hawk turn and engage the Fenris.
    White-hot lumps of hull armour tumble away from the Falcon machine before its right arm, molten and misshapen, is torn clean off under Silver’s assault. As he reaches the zenith of his jump, Ben catches sight of a massive exchange of long-range rockets between Maya, Malky, and their Clan opponents.
    Woody touches down on the western shore of the small lake. Ben takes a moment to steady the ’Mech, and catches sight of the second Uller. Unlike the machine fighting Maya, this one isn’t rigged out to be a missile boat. Its right arm is carrying a hulking autocannon that looks to be twice as powerful as the antique Armstrong class-5 that Woody used to pack. The six-tube SRM pod slung underneath the autocannon is almost an afterthought.
    He targets the Uller with his lasers and fires... just as the Falcon ’Mech starts firing at him. The jet of flame strobing from the autocannon’s muzzle spits out a massive stream of shells. The impact is like getting kicked in the chest plating by an Atlas.
    Woody reels and staggers, with clouds of splintered Durallex Medium armour flying from its torso plating. Red lights flash across Ben’s primary and secondary displays, and he’s all too aware that something important has just ruptured in the back of the cockpit; he can smell insulation burning. He hopes to hell it isn’t something toxic. It’s all he can do to keep the Clint from falling. He can hear a voice, probably Silver’s, yelling in his earphones but he can’t make out any of the words.

    Brigitte Olafsdottír’s heart is in her mouth. Ben Gleason’s transponder signal winks out for an instant. When it flickers back on again, there’s an amber warning marker next to it. Severe damage detected.
    “Silver, go get that bastard! The Fenris is mine.” She triggers her own jump jets, leaping her Axeman up and over the outcrop screening the Fenris from her. She’s firing her primary weapons even before she touches down.
    Pulse-laser fire and class-20 autocannon shells hammer into the damaged Falcon Omni like the impact of a crash-landing DropShip. They split open the armour from ankle to hip on the right leg before damaging the actuators.
    As serious as that damage is, it’s nothing compared to what comes next. Brigitte, snarling, swings her Axeman’s namesake weapon up and over, slamming it down into the smaller ’Mech’s sternum. The advanced ferro-fibrous composite cracks open underneath the impact like it’s thin plywood.

    Away to the west, skirting a large stand of hardwood trees, Katsumi Kuramoto takes her first shot of the battle. Coming into view up ahead are two Falcon ’Mechs. Directly in front of her is a Dervish that’s almost identical to Sharyl’s machine. Slightly behind and to the left is a Black Hawk that is sporting a giant cannon in place of its right arm.
    “Spread out a bit, Jessie, Liam. Don’t bunch up,” Katsumi says as she targets the Dervish and fires. Her particle beam misses high, but six of her ten Artemis-guided rockets explode against the Falcon ’Mech’s chest and right shin.
    By way of reply, the Dervish’s chest-mounted LRM covers flip open and twenty missiles are launched directly at Katsumi’s ’Mech.

    “Wow,” Maya Sieberg mutters as the stationary Vulture’s torso pivots to the side. The big Omni rocks a little in place and the arms seem to go slack. Malky’s return fire went in a bit too high, most of it missing altogether. The handful of long-range rockets that did acquire detonated against the Vulture’s cockpit module and upper left torso.
    “Musta knocked him out cold,” Malky observes. “How are ye doing, hen?”
    Maya is tempted – just for a second – to ask for a translation. Half the time she has to guess at what Malky Duncan’s saying, and she usually gets it wrong.
    Most of her own LRM fire isn’t even going where she wants it to. Something is wrong – badly wrong – with the Archer’s fire-control system.
    She’s just about to answer him when a hail of missile fire blasts past her cockpit, heading in towards Valentine Tyler’s ’Mech.

    Ultra autocannon, Ben realises, a little groggily. The armour on either side of Woody’s torso has been all but destroyed. His own laser fire, in return, has only scored one hit.
    The Uller isn’t about to let him go. It’s moving in closer, circling the southern boundary of the lake to get a better line of fire on him.
    Ben Gleason braces himself. He’s only got one chance left, and it’s all down to how he times it...
    An instant before the Uller fires again he hits the jump jets again. Woody lurches into the air, wobbling, and its gyros are still badly out of synch. Ben finds the abused ’Mech wanting to lean to its left and he has to compensate.
    Blitzing out another stream of shells, the Uller misses with half of them. It yanks its arm upwards to track the soaring Spheroid BattleMech, and catches the Clint with its autocannon. Every last piece of armour on Woody’s left arm is blown away, and a chunk of internal support is chewed away from the ’Mech’s structural framework.
    Two SRMs slam into the Clint’s upper torso, one on both sides, and Gleason realises that the hull’s been breached. Son of a bitch.
    How he doesn’t lose control altogether and slam headlong into the ground is a mystery that stays with Ben for the rest of his days. Somehow, he’s able to use the loss of weight on the left side of his ’Mech to pivot Woody in mid-air, setting down maybe fifty metres behind the Falcon OmniMech.
    Coming to a dead stop at the very edge of the lakeshore, the Uller turns on its heel to swing its main weaponry to bear on the badly damaged Clint. At this close range, it simply can’t miss.
    Its pilot takes a little too long to line up their shot.
    “Benjamin, now! Hit him!”
    Splashing through the shallows, water streaming from its feet and shins, Silver’s Black Hawk levels its arms and opens fire on the Falcon light ’Mech from behind. Clan-made medium lasers bracket the Uller, before Silver can adjust her aim and hit the Omni.
    Ben Gleason needs no second invitation. He fires his own lasers, trapping the Uller between them. He catches sight of the ’Mech’s right arm being torn to fragments, flying apart in a cloud of sparks. Then the torso structural framing melts under Silver’s assault, and what’s left of the Uller collapses in a heap of charred metal and ceramics.

    “Well done, Silver!”
    Olafsdottir reaches out with her Axeman’s left hand and braces against the burnt and broken hull of the crippled, stationary Fenris. She wrenches her hatchet free and a pressurised stream of ’Mech coolant squirts free of the dreadful wound she’s just inflicted.
    The Falcon pilot has had enough. Before she can swing the hatchet again, the Omni’s escape hatch blows off and the command couch ejects, carrying its pilot clear of the mangled Fenris. Brigitte allows the inert machine to topple over onto its side before turning her attention to the next target.
    “Captain, you’d better have Ben fall back.” Mike Holznecht’s voice sounds grim. “His ’Mech’s in a mess. I’ve got multiple breaches on the telemetry.”
    “Copy that,” she acknowledges. “Ben? Find yourself some cover and sit tight.”
    “Skipper, I can still…”
    “No, you can’t. As soon as it’s safe, get out of there. Understood?”
    “Understood.” His disappointment is plain to hear.
19 - No Holds Barred
    Attrition catches up with any military force, sooner or later...
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I've been ably assisted all the way with the Norns stories, and now it's only fair that I hand over the keyboard to my partner-in-crime, Rob...

              Hey, guys! It's Rob Price here. First and foremost, a big and bad-assed shout out to you fella's who've taken the Norns into your hearts and your minds! Despite what Chris tells you, it's him that has done most of the leg work with our little MechWarrior fables. I write stuff when I get the time, which ain't often at the moment!

            We do game all our battles, and it's me playing the Norns.We stop after each round to note down who has hit whom, take a slurp of beer and chuckle about some of the crazy tactics we're trying on each other. Problem is, at the moment, I'm working 6 days out of every 7. Which is a bitch. Volume 6 is proving to be problematic but Chris and I have written a ton of stuff for it! It's up to the Master Editor (Nuclear Fridge) to edit the frack out of it.

            He'll do it. He's Chris. He sorts out my cracked ideas.

            One thing I've only just realised upon re-reading "Reaction Time" again and we'd both missed it was at the start when Ingrid hears 'someone howling in agony' was obviously Val at work with his combat knife on the guy who hit him with the hand flamer. How the heck did we miss that one? I'll leave it you fella's to work out where Tyler stuck the blade in! 

            Anyways, couple of questions for you guys...


            Popandchips: Thanks for your replies dude! Gotta ask you a question. I seem to remember Chris telling me that you're ex-Navy, like me. Or did I imagine it? Love your comment about 'Point Commander Corpse'! Top man!

            DBrentOGara: You, Sir, are a gentleman. You've fallen in love with Ingrid as much as I have! And, yes, to answer your question, Ingrid and Valentine will have a lot more screen time together. Frack, I'd invented Ingrid and the whole Clan Tyler. I think you'll like the episode of "Clan Spaniel". And "Dakota". And "Fall from the deep". And "Trading day". Think I may have used too many ands... 

            DrOfDemonology: First contact. Chris speaks highly of you, dude. Wait until you read Val and Adele's exchange at the start of 'Persistence at Rest'. Think you'll like it brother! It's not often I can get Chris laughing at something I've written!

            Hope you got the e mail from Chris regarding the moment back in the nineties when Tyler finally came into focus for me. I literally had three things: a surname, a Crusader and a Sternsnacht. Then the mean old bald bastard broke through the fourth wall and has been getting me into more scrapes than I care to mention...

            The-Colonel-382: "Bore da" (Welsh for good morning as I'm writing this at 00.15 hours). Like you, buddy, Yesukai's reaction in "Highlander Fling" left me actually stunned. Chris, as is his wont, smiled at me and told me that he'd written something that 'might catch me off guard'. My jaw literally hit the keyboard when I read that!

             Oh, and like you, I'm always drawn to the characters that seem to be bouncing along rock bottom with no obvious chance of redemption. Yesukai's path ain't going to be easy is all I'm saying 'cos I've just seen some bits Chris has written...

             To everybody who has read the continuing (mis)adventures of the Norns, thanks a lot from both of us in Wales that seems to have been transported into the Arctic circle!

            P.S. One of you has got it right about who 'liberates' something very big!

            P.P.S. Take care guys. Respect.

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Chris Price
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:iconlikhaluna:
LikhaLuna Featured By Owner 11 hours ago  Student Digital Artist
Thanks for the points :love: :D
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:icondrofdemonology:
DrOfDemonology Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2018  Professional Writer
Many thanks for the points, mate! :handshake:
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:iconnuclear-fridge:
Nuclear-Fridge Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2018  Hobbyist Digital Artist
As a certain fellow would say: no problem!
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:icondrofdemonology:
DrOfDemonology Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2018  Professional Writer
Happy New Year!  Party 
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BradGB Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2018
Happy new year :)
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:icondrofdemonology:
DrOfDemonology Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2017  Professional Writer
Just to say hi :D

Harebell Broomstick Emoticon by DrOfDemonology
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:iconnuclear-fridge:
Nuclear-Fridge Featured By Owner Dec 15, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Hi right back! ;)

Stay tuned... things are about to get a bit sticky for Brigitte and company!
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MartyMartyr1 Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
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Nuclear-Fridge Featured By Owner Nov 30, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for accepting me! :D
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Laspe Featured By Owner Nov 9, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for the watch!
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