A Story in the BattleTech Universe by Tamarallion Arothlin
24 March 3067
As soon as Liam stepped in the door, he knew that something was wrong. His parents were sitting on the leather sofa in the entryway. Both of the had that look in their eyes, the look that was part concern and part “you’re-lucky-that-we-don’t-have-a-mind- to-disown-you”.
Whatever it was, Liam knew that he was in deep. Very deep.
“Have a seat, son,” his father Bryan ordered, motioning to the tiled floor in front of the sofa. His neutral tones did nothing to thaw the lump of ice that Liam felt forming in his gut.
The fern was gone, Liam noticed. Strange that something so insignificant and unrelated could catch his attention like that. His eyes fixed on the space formerly occupied by the fern, he slowly sank down to the floor, turning his attention at last to his parents. An entire minute of silence passed, silence broken only by the tweedle tweedle tweedle of some bird or other in the distance. He saw nothing to reassure him in their eyes or their body language. Even more, now that he looked closer, he could see a hint of inevitable dread. Whatever he had done or whatever had happened, they had been expecting it and fearing it for a long time. But what? What did I do? Did they finally find out…?
At last, Liam nervously cleared his throat and shifted his position. “What… what is it? What’s happened?” Fear and anticipation filled the hollow in his stomach.
“I talked with David’s mother today,” his mother Shelly started, brushing away a stray strand of hair. Her attempt to sound casual and light failed miserably. “It seems that all the time you said you were over there studying for Interdimensional Math and History of the Inner Sphere… you were really using David’s BattleMech simulator. I looked though your room and found books about battles and weapons and ‘Mechs…” She took a breath. “You know how much your father and I don’t approve of the military, especially MechWarriors. We’ve tried to teach you how bad they are your entire life.” Her voice took on a questioning, almost plaintive tone. “Why, Liam? Why must you obsess so over those awful machines?”
Liam felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his chest. Finally, he need no longer keep his activities secret. It had been wearing at him to get up at local midnight and steal all those hours in the simulators, to sneak time in the library reading about the exploits of Victor Davion and Kai Allard-Liao, to stay up late memorizing technical diagrams and designing loadouts by the flickering light of his old flashlight.
At long last, he would be able to tell them.
He took a deep breath and leaned forward slightly. “Mom, dad… in two days when I turn eighteen Terran years, the Lyran Alliance will recognize me as an adult. I’ll be able to work for passage on a JumpShip, sign a legally binding contract… and join a unit like the Kell Hounds or the Wolf’s Dragoons. I’m going to be a MechWarrior.” He plunged ahead, trying to ignore the stunned expression on their faces. “I know how much you dislike them and all that… but it’s what I was born to do. I’m faster than everyone else is. I can think on my feet and use the other members of my lance. I can create loadouts and configurations that work well together. But most importantly… This is what I want to do.” He looked into their eyes in turn. “I’m not like you. I will never be happy as an average citizen of the Alliance, turning the wheels of our economic engine. I want to see new worlds, meet new people—”
“And blow them up,” his father cut in harshly.
Liam shook his head. “Dad, you’re not being fair. You know perfectly well that our realm needs warriors to defend it. The Clans will be coming before long… the Free Worlds League is dangerously powerful…”
“But a BattleMech is so expensive! There is no way that you could ever afford one! The only way is for you to enter a military academy, and that takes even more money. We barely have enough C-Bills to keep the mortgage paid, not that we would ever spend any on something like that anyway. Liam, use your head here!”
“I’ll find a way,” Liam replied, bunching his fists. “I can always find a way if I work hard enough. This is just something that I have to do.”
His parents looked at one another for a long moment. Liam almost imagined he could see tears forming in his mother’s eyes. Somehow, Liam felt that he was missing something.
“We’ve always tried to raise you right,” his mother said, sounding as though she might indeed break down at any moment. “We’ve always tried to teach you right from wrong. And now, you go running off to senselessly trade your life for—”
“Enough,” his dad cut in. He hugged Liam’s mom close. “Honey, this day was due to come for a long time. Maybe we were wrong to put it off.”
“But he didn’t have to turn out like one of them!” His mother finally broke down. “He was such a happy, normal child… he cried the first time he scraped his knee… he loves to paint… Oh, Bryan, he’s not like the rest of them! He can’t be!”
Liam watched them. Confusion had well and truly replaced his fear. What was going on?
Maybe I’m the descendant of some great MechWarrior, Liam chuckled to himself. Maybe Dan Allard had an affair and left me some money and a BattleMech. Oh, and while I’m at it, I might as well be the heir to the Lyran Alliance and the Federated Commonwealth and the Khan of Clan Wolf-in-Exile while I’m at it.
Although it was a favorite fantasy of Inner Sphere children that they were the unwanted offspring of nobility, destined to make their fortune as a hero on the battlefield, Liam knew perfectly well that it was only a fantasy. He was just some commoner who was blessed with above-average strength and dexterity who had a knack for piloting BattleMech simulators. He’d never actually set foot in a real ‘Mech, and had only seen them from a distance as the local garrison lance ran through training activities.
“Come on, Liam,” his father spoke at last, rising from the couch. “There’s… something you need to see.” As he walked by the patch of tile where the fern had formerly rested, he pried up a loose tile and took a data chip out of a tiny recess.
Liam felt the first stirrings of excitement. What’s he doing? What is that? Could it be…?
“Where are we going?” Liam asked, trailing after them.
“You’ll see,” his father answered tonelessly.
Liam wasn’t sure whether to be elated or terrified as they made their way to the maglev station a block away from their house. Was it some kind of reward? Some form of punishment?
Maybe something that was both at the same time?
You’ve been reading too much, Liam reprimanded himself. This is real life, not one of those novels you snag during your spare moments at the local library. They’re probably just going to take you out on the Parkway and show you how much you’d be missing if you went off world or some such.
Still, what had gone on so far had defied Liam’s expectations completely. He had come in expecting to be chewed out… after all, the rule against BattleMech-related literature and games had been one of the oldest in their household, and the one Liam had most rigidly observed. At least, the one he had most rigidly observed until he reluctantly agreed to step into David’s ‘Mech simulator some three years ago. His parents seemed more upset than he’d ever seen them before, but not at him.
Normal was the last word he would have used to describe the situation.
“Here,” Bryan spoke as they came to a halt in front of a large U-Stor-It building. It was the first word he had spoken since the invitation to come along. The entire trip on the maglev train had been silent, save for his mother quietly crying. Liam knew for sure now that something far beyond the ordinary was about to happen. He glanced at the dimensions of the building, trying to puzzle what might be stored within…
His father turned to him and gave him the data chip. “I had intended to give this to you sometime when you had decided not to become a MechWarrior. However, fate has conspired against us.” He smiled, although it was a bit strained. “It seems that you were meant to use this after all…”
Liam studied the chip, turning it over and over in his hands. It seemed a rather ordinary sort of high-security electronic key. But what does it open? Liam looked again at the storage building. Excitement and anticipation overwhelmed him, but he restrained himself and managed to walk casually up to the door in the side. He slid the chip into its notch.
The computer thought about it a moment, then the light blinked green and the door opened.
Holding his breath, Liam stepped into the vast empty darkness.
At first, he thought that the building was empty. Then, he realized that there was a large shape of something against the far right wall. With trembling fingers, Liam pressed the light panel next to the door and light flooded the room, revealing the storage building’s contents.
The chip dropped from Liam’s nerveless fingers, clattering a couple of times before coming to a stop. Echoes from the clattering chip reverberated and died away.
“I don’t believe it,” Liam whispered.
The enormous shape was a Cauldron-Born BattleMech. Not just any ‘Mech, but a state-of-the-art OmniMech deployed only in the highest echelons of Clan Smoke Jaguar. Even in a crouch, it towered more than twenty feet above Liam. The ‘Mech was painted in a color scheme of dark and light blue, with the clenched fist of House Steiner emblazoned boldly on the Cauldron-Born’s lower legs and the side of its cockpit.
As part of his mind reeled from disbelief, another part of his mind catalogued the ‘Mech’s deadly arsenal and noted that it carried a configuration that he had never seen in any of his bootleg technical reference manuals. The right arm ended in a large, snub-nosed muzzle that looked like it belonged to a laser weapon – it was just three sizes too big. Two smaller weapons similar in appearance were carried by the ‘Mech’s left arm. Those have to be Heavy Lasers. Amazing… that’s new technology even for the Clanners. The Cauldron-Born’s most imposing weapon, however, was mounted along the center axis of the ‘Mech. It actually displaced the tapered cockpit to the left side of center. All that was visible was an enormous muzzle, which Liam figured was big enough for him to crawl into. An Ultra Autocannon 20, the most feared close-range gun available to any chassis. A single salvo of shells could obliterate lighter ‘Mechs. Even mighty assault designs like the Atlas and the Annihilator had to tread lightly around the UAC-20. Another laser weapon, probably a medium pulse laser, was mounted just under the cockpit. The machine sitting in front of him had enough firepower to erase Carlisle’s entire garrison force from existence and level the capital city on the side.
Had someone plopped a catalogue full of ‘Mech designs and configurations down in front of Liam, he could not have done a better job picking his favorite one.
It’s just like the stories, Liam thought in wonder. Have I wandered into a novel by mistake? He pinched himself and winced – well, there went one possible explanation.
Liam heard footsteps coming slowly up behind him. “Happy birthday, son,” he heard his father say quietly.
Slowly, Liam tore his eyes from the Cauldron-Born and turned to face his parents. He gathered in a breath. “I know it can’t have been easy for you to let me see this. Thank you.”
His father shook his head. “The infernal machine is yours by right. It would have been wrong to withhold it from you, especially now that you have made the decision to become a MechWarrior.” He smiled again, and this time it seemed a little less forced. “I have heard that this particular variant is especially powerful, and I would not want you to go into battle with inferior equipment while this thing sits here and collects dust.”
Liam nodded, still hardly daring to believe that all this was happening. Suddenly, a detail caught his attention. “That ‘infernal machine,’” he began as he indicated the Cauldron-Born with a wave, “is a Clan OmniMech of a design that is rare even among the Clans. Only Clan Smoke Jaguar fielded these chassis in any sort of considerable numbers. More, it is armed with weapons that surely must have been prototypes at the time of its construction. How did anyone come to possess this ‘Mech? And how did it come to be mine?”
His mother and father exchanged another long glance. “Why don’t we go to a restaurant or someplace for supper first?” his mom asked, forcing cheerfulness. “I’m starved. That okay with you, honey?”
Liam immediately knew that something else was up… but he decided to let whatever revelation his parents had in store wait for after supper. It couldn’t be anything too bad – at most, a ‘you-are-actually-not-our-son’ speech, and he considered Bryan and Shelly to be the only parents he would ever have. Whether or not he was biologically related had nothing to do with the equation.
Here I am, calmly contemplating whether it matters that I’m adopted, Liam thought, chuckling to himself. How things can change in the space of a day…
“Sounds great,” he replied. “Let’s snag something at the train station.”
Liam bent over to retrieve the chip, tucking it safely into his pocket. As he straightened, he took one last look at the Cauldron-Born – his ‘Mech – before he brought down the lights, plunging the storage building into darkness once more.
Robert H. Burns Memorial Maglev Station
25 March 3067
Liam finished dinner and sat back slightly, waiting with some anticipation as his father also finished up. His mother, unfortunately, had been taking the whole thing rather badly and had only picked at her food. For a moment, Liam though about seeing if he could have any of it, then decided that it would be a rather insensitive thing to do at present time.
Finally, his father finished and leaned forward slightly. "I suppose you know all about the Clan invasion of 3050," he started with a wry smile. "Despite our feelings against such things, you were surely taught about it in history of the Inner Sphere."
"Of course," Liam affirmed with a nod. "Then again, a lot of what we covered falls more into 'recent events' than history…"
"I'm glad it's over," his mother murmured. "Civil war is the worst kind of conflict. Brother against brother… parent against child…"
"Yes, well," his father broke in, turning back to Liam. "Thom, your second cousin once removed, was in one of the MechWarrior units that launched counterattacks into Jade Falcon space along with Victor Davion and his happy gang of murderers." It took no genius to tell that Bryan's attitude about war and the Davions had not changed a bit. "His ship, however, ended up arriving at the wrong jump point… surrounded by Clan vessels. They barely had enough energy to make a hastily-calculated jump to get them out of there."
Liam nodded, listening intently. He'd heard most of this story before, but it was always fun to hear it told again.
"They ended up arriving at an uncharted star somewhere that their star charts could not identify. So they recharged their drives and jumped again… and again… and again. Unknown to them, they were driving almost horizontally across the wedge of Clan occupied worlds. Finally, they arrived in an inhabited system that had been taken by the Smoke Jaguars."
"Their JumpShip was running low on liquid helium to cool their jump drive, so Thom's unit decided to take the fight to the Jaguars. After a long string of bloody battles, the remnants of the company finally defeated the garrison forces and secured their objective. But when they reached the spaceport and wrested it from the Jaguars, they found something which they did not expect…"
Liam leaned forward, paying keen attention. He'd never heard this part before. Somehow, he sensed they were getting close to the point.
"Evidently, the Smoke Jaguars were in the process of bringing academy units – what do the Clanners call them?"
"Sibkos," Liam supplied.
"That's right, sibkos. The Jaguars were beginning to locate them on conquered worlds. One of their higher officers—" A Khan or a saKhan, Liam mentally supplied. "—was of the opinion that having the action closer to the sibkos would inspire the warriors-in-training and excite them with the prospect of imminent battle. It would also mean that they had a reserve of warriors to throw into the battle if things went ill. In the aftermath of the action on the spaceport, Thom found that they had destroyed one of these sibkos by accident. There were only a few survivors. Although war is war, the unit felt bad about the entire mess and each one of the surviving MechWarriors adopted a Clan child. So their JumpShip, laden with captured Clan equipment, eventually made its way back into the Draconis Combine."
"I remember that," Liam commented. "In History, the comp-text mentioned that the granting of safe passage for their JumpShip was one of the things that led to rapprochement between the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine. Of course, since it was around the time of the Battle of Tukayyid, it was rather overshadowed in the news…"
"Mm-hmm," Bryan agreed, taking a sip of tea. "Of course, the loss of a sibko convinced the Smoke Jaguars that it was really better for them to keep new recruits in the Clan homeworlds, so that experiment turned out to be rather short-lived. I think that most of the other Clans never even knew of the program. But anyway… the sibko children were about five or six years old at this time and their training had not been going on for long at all. Their conscious memories of the Smoke Jaguars were removed so that they could have normal, happy childhoods.
"Thom had a good heart and wanted to raise the child that he had adopted, but he also knew that he had to keep fighting the Clans. So he turned that child over to relatives of his and took the Cauldron-Born as his own 'Mech. He, of course, fought in many more actions and had the chance to equip his 'Mech with the latest equipment just as our horrible civil war was breaking out. Unfortunately, he died in a bar fight and the 'Mech passed on to the child that he had originally extracted from the sibko." Bryan looked across the table with a serious look. "Those relatives were us… and the child was you."
Liam nodded, then jolted upright as the statement's full implications hit home. "Wait a minute… that would make me… a Clanner!" He burst out laughing. "Born in a test tube, bred to be a homicidal maniac!" He adopted a mock-pretentious tone. "You uncivilized stravag barbarians must be taught the ways of the blessed Kerensky, quiaff?" Liam continued laughing, unable to stop. "That's great! Tell me another one!"
As he looked into his mother's eyes, Liam's laughter trailed off. "Wait a moment. …It's true?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"But it's not," Liam protested, suddenly feeling all hilarity drain from the situation. "I don't feel the need to kill everything I see…"
"No," his mother replied sadly, "only the need to destroy every enemy 'Mech you see."
Liam shook his head again. "But Clanners are genetically bred for strength, quickness of reflexes—"
"Do you think that it was an accident that you took so naturally to the BattleMech simulator?" his father asked tiredly, mopping at his forehead with a napkin. "Back at the house, when you said you were born to do this, you were absolutely right." He let out a sigh. "Maybe we were fools to try and hold you back. Maybe all we did was hurt…"
As Bryan continued talking, Liam stared down at the table dumbly. He recalled with horrifying clarity the holos of the Smoke Jaguar command ship lasing the city of Edo on Turtle Bay. Concrete running like water… fortified buildings slumping and vaporizing…
There had been a reason that the new Star League had erased the Smoke Jaguars from existence. None of them deserved to exist… perhaps not even him. They were too violent, too eager to kill, too impatient. Of all the Clans, their campaigns had been the most brutal and merciless.
Could he claim to be any better? Liam considered in a new light the brief flashes of murderous rage he had felt at various points in his life. He remembered all the times when he had gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, wishing very much for a blunt object with which to beat a certain someone into a bloody pulp. Normal, or the product genetics refined for the sort of controlled rage needed to make Clan warriors?
Did he even deserve the chance that he had been given? Did he deserve to take charge of the awesome power of his Cauldron-Born? Could he be trusted not to go into some sort of murderous rage and kill everyone who he held dear?
"Liam?" his mother asked quietly.
Liam glanced up and blinked. Outside, the last colors of the fading sunlight stained the western sky. He must have been sitting there in his silent reverie for an hour or more.
"I… I'm okay," Liam said at last. "I just have a lot to think about."
He and his parents hugged each other, and for a moment, things were normal again. Liam held onto that moment of normalcy as long as he could before they broke and headed for the train station.
Still numb from the shock and engrossed in thought, Liam did not speak a word on the whirring ride back home.
It had been a long day.
25 March 3067
Liam turned to look at the clock once more. The glowing numerals on its face read 12:07. With a muffled curse, he rolled back over in his bed.
There was no escaping the fact that he wanted to be a MechWarrior. It was what he desired with all his heart. When he had looked upon the Cauldron-Born the previous afternoon, there had been no doubt in his heart that he was meant to pilot the awesome weapon of war.
Sighing, Liam shifted his blankets into a new configuration and stared at the ceiling. Tiny dancing motes of color flickered across his vision as he peered into the darkness. No matter how much he might try to come to a conclusion, he could not. He had argued himself in circles all evening and all night long.
Two more days – well, actually one more day – was left until his eighteenth birthday. Liam felt that he should come to a decision by that time, a decision with which he could be comfortable. He wanted to be sure of the course of his life before he set out on it. It had been so easy to think that back when he hadn't known any of this, of course…
A flicker of light from outside Liam's window attracted his attention. Curiosity overcame his inertia and he slowly rose from his bed with a yawn. He drew back the window curtains, peering into the night.
Liam's first thought was that strange flares were shooting stars. But as he continued watching them, they did not die out. They also appeared to be decelerating on their own.
Funny, Liam thought. DropShips entering at combat speed would look something like that. Then it hit him: perhaps they were DropShips entering at combat speed.
The prospect seemed insane, of course. Even during the height of the FedCom civil war, Carlisle had never seen a single bit of action. Their planetary governor had been steadfastly easygoing and neutral in the interplay between House Steiner and House Davion. Still…
Liam threw back his covers and came a little unsteadily to his feet. He caught himself on the edge of the nightstand and turned on the local comm transceiver. Immediately, a signal so strong that it was distorted at the edges came pouring through the speaker.
"—has been neutral in this struggle too long. Against the tyrants of House Davion, there can be no neutrality. We of the Crimson Fists are here to return your world to its rightful alliance – by force, if necessary. House Steiner does not seek the conquest of other realms, but will tolerate no cancer within the heart of its own territory. You have one hour in which to declare total surrender… then, we will bring you to your rightful alliance. Again, this is a message from the Crimson Fists, the true voice of Steiner authority and values. Carlisle has been neutral in this struggle too long. Against—"
Liam frowned as he switched off the set, troubled. Their planetary government would never get its act around to doing anything within one hour. For that matter, no planetary government in the entire Inner Sphere could make that claim. Surely, these Steiner radicals knew this.
There's only one explanation, he concluded grimly. They came here looking for a fight. For what purpose, I cannot guess… but the facts seem to point to it. After all, if they just wanted the allegiance of Carlisle, they could have stayed in orbit and threatened a landing without ever having to do anything.
He had seen three DropShips touching down. Three DropShips could hold anything up to an entire battalion of 'Mechs between them. As far as Liam knew, the only forces that they had on their planet were a number of mechanized infantry units, some medium and heavy tanks, and four old BattleMechs.
The addition of a Cauldron-Born OmniMech with the latest in laser technology would certainly shift things a little…
Liam stood frozen a moment in indecision, a moment that seemed to last for at least two lifetimes. His decision had to be made now. Would he trust himself to fight against these self-proclaimed Steiner loyalists and thereby give his inner Smoke Jaguar the chance to emerge? He tottered on the brink of indecision. Images of Edo burning flashed though his mind again, and he shook his head. No. I dare not. He sank to the foot of his bed and put his head between his hands, trying to convince himself that he had made the right decision.
A hollow boom echoed through the air and loose objects on the dresser rattled. With a frown, Liam opened his curtains again. An enormous plume of smoke backlit by fires climbed into the sky not thirty klicks south of the city. Liam's mouth went dry. Blake's Blood! They just hit the refinery!
A sudden thought crashed into Liam's mind. These Crimson Fists weren't intending to take the planet. After all, the petrol refineries were one of Carlisle's major resources.
They were intending to scour the planet clean.
A part of Liam nagged at him that it was too quick a judgment based on the one strike, but Liam knew that it was true.
And here I sit, the owner of a 'Mech that could stop them, with enough training to do at least a little damage, Liam chastised himself, rising to his feet. There is no time to doubt myself – someone needs to do something. That someone is me.
He snatched the chip from the dresser, taking the stairs two at a time as he ran down towards the door. As his hand hovered over the doorlatch, he considered turning back and bidding his parents farewell – but time was of the essence, and they would know exactly where he had gone. He punched the release button, bolting out the door and down the street. By the time it shut again, he was halfway to the train station at the end of the block.
If the maglevs are still running, I'm in business…
Distant rumbles sounded as though from a summer thunderstorm, and Liam knew that some of the garrison forces had joined battle. Time was growing short.
Gaither and Sons Self-Storage
South of Johannesburg, Carlisle
25 March 3067
Liam flexed his bare hands, glancing over the panel in front of him. The soft green of the status displays, calibrated so that it did not hurt his night vision, bathed the cockpit in a soft glow that provided just enough light for him to orient himself in the endo-steel and composite coccoon.
Showing everything at full charge and readiness, he noted with satisfaction. It's a good thing that David's simulator included the start-up sequence with the switches instead of cheaping out – otherwise, I would have been half the night figuring out how to get this thing running.
He reached behind the seat and pulled out a black vest lined with tubes both inside and out. The bulletstop fabric felt coarse against his skin as he pulled it on and secured it. As he finished velcroing the last restraint, his free hand found the activation switch and thumbed it. Liam gasped and shivered as the sensation of a million frozen worms raised goosebumps all over his body. Blake's Blood! I don't see how they stand these things! I mean, how hot can a 'Mech cockpit get, anyway?
Every illustration and holovid that he had ever seen had MechWarriors wearing these blasted things, though, so there must be a reason.
Now, for the final part. Liam reached behind the seat again and fished out a bulky helmet with all manner of trailing wires and leads. Huh. Let's see… if I remember correctly, those patches are for the arms…
Liam hooked himself into the neurohelmet as quickly as he could, finally nodding in satisfaction. He took the final jack in his fingers and plugged it into the corresponding port in the console. Almost immediately, a blinding wave of pain washed over Liam, centering with a throbbing agony in his skull. Desperately, Liam groped from the console plug, but his fingers couldn't find it. His vision was going red around the edges and swam with each new agonizing pulse. Blood thundered in his ears. Almost at random, his hand found a knob up under the console and he twisted it. The pain immediately ebbed and Liam fell forward, gasping in relief. "Well… that wasn't nice…" he commented to the air as he took deep breaths, noting that his voice was hoarse. Liam got the eerie feeling that he had been screaming his head off during the first bit and hadn't had the presence of mind to know it.
There was still a distant ringing in his ears that refused to go away, but the console read a good link with the neurohelmet and he wasn't being assaulted with migraines. That was good enough for Liam.
Now, he mused, time to find a way out of here… Unfortuantely, there was no way to open the doors at the far end of the warehouse from inside the cockpit, and there was no way that Liam was ever going to unhook himself from the neurohelmet, now that it was working. He settled his left hand on the throttle grip and his right hand on the primary joystick control, taking one last moment to check his weapons groupings. Everything was charged, loaded and ready.
Now, the question: was he ready?
I guess I'm going to find out, Liam thought as he took a deep breath and edged the throttle forward.
With an almost-silent whirr, the cold myomer contracted and the Cauldron-Born took a lumbering step forward. The jolt clicked Liam's teeth together, and he closed them together for good to avoid biting his tounge or something equally unpleasant. Another step, and another jolt. Liam figured that if he hadn't fallen yet, the neurohelmet was probably working. He slammed the throttle wide open, aiming straight for the doors at the end of the warehouse.
The Cauldron-Born leaped forward at his command, crushing a crate under its left foot and casually throwing aside a stack of assorted other goods with its upper right leg. Liam squinted in concentration, trying to ignore the jolts as the 'Mech came closer to the doors. Closer still… almost on top of them…
Gaither and Sons had fortunately cheaped out on their bay doors. Designed to withstand nothing more than an eighty-kph wind, they were no match for 65 tons of endo-steel and myomer moving at combat speed. With a scream muted by the Cauldron-Born's enclosed cockpit, the doors tore. Sparks showered around the BattleMech as it broke free of its prison and into the open night air.
Liam took a deep breath as he saw the open spaces around him, realizing that the storage warehouse had instinctively made him claustrophobic. It was insane, of course; the warehouse was a huge building. Liam still couldn't shake the feeling of freedom, and with a grin accepted it.
Now, it was starting to come back to him. He instinctively leaned into the turn as he brought the Cauldron-Born to a heading of 210 degrees. If he remembered correctly, that was the location of the local millitia headquarters. Two of the planet's four 'Mechs – not counting his – as well as a fair few light and medium tanks were sheltered there. Either the Lyran loyalists would strike there or the local forces would be planning a counter-attack. It made as good a destination as any.
Lyran loyalists… With a sinking feeling, Liam realized that his Cauldron-Born was painted rather conspiciously in Lyran blue with the crimson fist of House Steiner splashed all over it. Boy. Just what I need, he thought to himself grimly. They'll probably mistake me for those Steiner nut-jobs and start shooting at me. Another thought occurred to Liam. Wait a bit, those Steiner nut-jobs will assume I'm one of them, too. Hmmm… I sense the potential for a bit of mayhem here.
As the minutes passed, Liam found that all of his time in the simulator was beginning to transfer to the real thing. He no longer even noticed the movement of his hands on the joystick and throttle; he simply guided the 'Mech without really thinking about it. The pounding rhythm of the Cauldron-Born's feet on the packed ground underneath stopped becoming bothersome jolts and became a regular beat, almost like a second heartbeat. Still, Liam knew full well that successfully navigating an open plain was a long way from engaging in actual combat.
His reverie was broken by a cheep from the targeting computer. With a start, Liam realized that he was already nearing the depot… and his guess had been correct. Ahead, he could see the landscape briefly lit by flashes of light from lasers and PPCs. His radar showed a dizzying number of contacts – ten, fifteen, maybe more. Liam's stomach clenched at the thought of having to face all those BattleMechs with only the aid of a few broken-down garrison units to help him.
A moment later, the first target was tagged and Liam drew a breath in relief. Only a Bulldog. Good. A medium tank – or any number of medium tanks – would make a poor match for his Cauldron-Born. If most of the targets were armor or infantry, maybe they could win through after all.
He cycled through the targets, nodding. It looked as though this unit of Lyran loyalists consisted of heavy and medium armor assets, led by a pair of Demolisher II tanks. Liam had faced them in traning and defeated them with ease; he expected little trouble.
"Punisher One," the comm crackled. "This is, ehhh, Hauptmann Burke. We're having trouble with the garrison lance. Where is the rest of your unit?"
Wheels turned in Liam's head as he realized that he'd had a miraculous stroke of good luck. One of the Lyrans had immediately identified him as an ally. Now, if only he could give a satsifactory response…
He cleared his throat and put as much of a growl in his voice as he could as he thumbed the switch. "Hauptmann Burke, the rest of Punisher Lance is dealing with… other targets. These old machines and senile pilots will fall to our combined assault easily enough."
"Uhhh… yes, sir. Orders?"
Yessss, Liam thought to himself as he replied. "Form up on me. I will lead the way. Burke, I want you and the other Demolisher to flank me. We'll take out their Victor and move onto the easier meat."
The tanks shifted and began moving towards him. Liam smiled as he saw a Catapult fire a full volley of SRMs into one of the retreating tanks, blowing it sky-high. A PPC carrier turned to fire on the Victor and took a Gauss slug in the turret. Capacitators discharged in arcs of electricity as the weapons were rendered useless. Liam chuckled to himself, tensing his fingers on the trigger buttons. The two Demolishers were in the lead, just as he'd hoped, coming up the ridge right towards him.
Liam dropped the reticule over the first Demolisher, hit the two firing buttons under his thumb, and prayed to whoever was listening.
The heavy lasers on each arm whined for a brief second as the charge built up in their barrels, then with a scream, unleashed their energy in angry beams of amber light. The large heavy laser missed just high, but the two medium heavy lasers and the medium pulse laser hit right where the turret met the body. The entire body of the tank seemed to swell a moment, then burst outward in sprays of orange fire as the ammunition detonated all at once.
Before Liam could even grin victoriously, the heat hit him like a sucker-punch in the stomach. Liam gasped as the temperature in the cockpit rose to oven intensity in the matter of a tenth of a second. It began cooling almost immediately, but he could still feel sweat forming all over his body. Forcing himself to focus, he twisted the joystick right and bracketed the other Demolisher. He pulled the trigger almost convulsively.
The entire endo-steel skeleton of the 'Mech vibrated as deafening thunderclaps sounded with frightening rapidity. A stream of depleted uranium shells the size of trash cans burst from the Ultra autocannon in the center torso, tearing into the Demolisher. Liam gritted his teeth and forced the joystick downwards, fighting against the recoil of the enormous gun. The stream of shells was a bit high, but effective nonetheless, removing the Demolisher's turret and all of its capability to do damage. It would play no further part in the battle.
Panicked voices sounded over the comm system, but Liam paid them no heed. He slammed the throttle forward, attacking on instinct. Many of the tanks weren't even firing in the confusion, and some were shooting at each other. He destroyed each one in turn, the smile on his face widening after each violent explosion. The heat from the heavy lasers coated him again and again in sweat; he did not notice. The only thing that mattered was the next target… and the next… and the next…
Liam blinked as a Burke PPC carrier exploded into a roiling ball of argent flame, realizing that there were no more targets. Heat alarms cheeped in his cockpit and the canopy was starred from machine-gun fire. Liam unbuckled himself and sagged forward, dry-heaving again and again in the oppressive heat. His entire body was shaking from the aftereffects of the adrenaline overload and his heart hammered like the discharged of the Ultra AC/20.
"…unidentified BattleMech, this is Captain Kristian Landover. State your name and affiliation or we will be forced to destroy you."
With a blink, Liam realized that the comm was for him. Gritting his teeth, he hauled himself upright and clicked the comm switch on.
"Captain, this… this is Liam Jenkins of the First Johannesburg Irregulars. Do not fire… I am on your side."
There was a pregnant silence, then Landover came back on with a note of doubt in his voice. "The First Johannesburg Irregulars? Never heard of 'em. As far as I know, we're the only unit on the planet other than the Dragoons at the spaceport and these Steiner bastards. And where did you get that—"
"Captain," Liam cut in, wearily summoning all the authority into his voice that he could, "you saw my performance and you've seen my 'Mech. If I wanted to, I could destroy you and your lance where you stand. But I don't. I'd really rather help you destroy these Crimson Fists, okay? Now, report."
Liam held his breath, frantically hoping that the captain wouldn't call his bluff. OmniMech or not, simulated experience or not, three opponents at once would cut him to shreds and leave the planet almost totally undefended.
"Okay, MechWarrior… I don't suppose we have much choice but to trust you." Liam released a breath that he didn't realize he'd been holding. "As far as we can tell, the enemy force split into two groups. The first group was headed south to secure the spaceport, while the other group is headed in our direction to take the captial. Our best guess has most of their units consisting of tanks and second-line BattleMechs, but we think they have at least a few of the newer assault models. Overall, that means about twelve 'Mechs and ten lances of armor – now seven lances of armor."
Liam shook his head in despair. There's no way we can protect both objectives at once, especially against so many!
"We do have some good news, sir," one of the other MechWarriors broke in eagerly. "A full company of Wolf's Dragoons happened to be in port, along with two of their DropShips. Even now, they're defending the spaceport. If the governor can push through the contract soon enough, they might even bring their DropShips north before the loyalists can get in the city."
"Yeah," the Catapult's pilot snickered. "Talk about a case of lousy timing."
Captain Landover laughed derisively, cutting off the hope that welled up in Liam's heart. "Don't count on that, people. The Dragoons won't take to the field a moment before they know they're getting paid. And the government around here can't push something like that through in a single night to save its life – literally. We're defending the city on our own."
The situation was becoming more and more clear to Liam as his cockpit returned to normal temperatures. He plotted out what he knew of the area in his head and nodded. It's not gonna be easy, but it's what we have to do.
"Here's how we work this," Liam began tentatively. "We know that the second group will be heading towards the main city gate about fifty klicks north of here. The nearest point for the main road, however, is only ten klicks north-northeast. We find a good spot, shut down, and prepare to unleash hell on them as they go by."
Landover barked a laugh. "They'll be coming up the main road, eh? Right towards the front door? That's the last thing any sane commander would do. We need to spread out and search for them—"
"No," Liam cut in sharply. Everything made sense to him now – well, not everything, but many things. "These Crimson Fists did a combat drop and a whole-world broadcast when it would really have been easier for them to take everything as quitely as possible. They head right towards the two biggest and best-defended targets on the planet. They broadcast on open frequencies. They even choose to drop in here when there is a full company of Wolf's Dragoons on the ground, which they really should have seen from orbit. What does that suggest to you?"
"That they're frickin' idiots?" one of the MechWarriors suggested helpfully.
"That they're running this entire thing like some sort of publicity stunt," Liam countered. "Like they want it to be all over the ComStar HPG News Report. Like they were filming a holovid to capture the interest of a bunch of teenage wannabe MechWarriors instead of fighting a real war." Hey, I know I'd go to see a film like that…
Thick silence prevailed for a long moment. Finally, it was broken by Captain Landover. "All right, Liam whoever-you-are. You've convinced me. We'll do it your way." His voice hardened. "And if you're wrong and they get to the city and start slaughtering innocents, it'll be on your conscience. Let's move out."
Liam shuddered as he throttled up. He remembered vividly the feeling of euphoria that had overwhelmed him as he had burned the tanks. Now, he was implementing a scheme that could end up destroying an entire city – just like Turtle Bay. I really am a Smoke Jaguar, aren't I?
May God have mercy on me.
Connecting Route Four
25 March 3067
The waiting was really starting to get to Liam. Checking and rechecking his system status could only keep him distracted for the first thirty times that he did it, and there were too many doubts gnawing at his brain. What if he had been wrong? What if their commander had suddenly come under attack from common sense? What if they couldn't stop the Fists in time? What if the Dragoons didn't come soon enough?
Once again, Liam reviewed his 'Mech's status displays in an attempt to calm the butterflies in his stomach. He had lost some armor over his left torso and arm sections, and one of his legs had lost a significant amount of armor from a double PPC attack. The Ultra Autocannon had enough ammunition for five more volleys at double rate, which should be plenty unless his luck ran sour. Every internal system looked good.
"Contacts," Captain Landover broke into Liam's reverie, his voice hushed out of habit even though it would make no difference if the enemy had broken their encryption. "Six BattleMechs and assorted armor assets. Wait – what the heck?"
"What is it?" Liam hissed. His heart froze. Surprises were not a good thing at this point.
"Those 'Mechs are handling like they're a unit of six, not a lance and two stragglers." Landover seemed geniuninely puzzled. "The only forces that handle like that are the Com Guards and—"
"Speculate later, Captain," Liam snapped. "Cut the chatter and prepare to ambush them. We can't afford to screw this up."
A full minute crept by as the 'Mechs and their armor escorts made their way along the connecting route. Liam visually picked out two assault-class 'Mechs at the rear of the formation, with four mediums and lights leading the way. One of the leading heavies had the distinctive profile of a captured Clan Thor, and Liam's gut chilled. An equally powerful Clan OmniMech with a pilot who was probably far more experienced could ruin his day quickly – very quickly. He brought it up as the target.
Instantly, the targeting computer painted red brackets around the Thor's center torso and provided a lead indicator for where to shoot with the Ultra Autocannon. Liam's face split into a grin. This thing has an advanced targeting computer? He patted the command console. 'Mech, you just made my day.
Flares lit the landscape as the Catapult pilot fired an LRM salvo at one of the other 'Mechs. "Go go go!" Liam transmitted, mashing his finger down on the Ultra AC/20's firing stud.
Although it would have been a tricky shot under normal battle conditions, the regular course of the Thor and stationary firing position made it child's play. The storm of metal slugs ripped great sheets of armor from the Thor's center torso, slewing it back and to the left – and exposing a wonderful shot for his laser weapons. Liam jammed his thumb down on the secondary firing buttons, sending the remainder of his arsenal towards the opposing 'Mech. The heavy large laser missed just high, but both medium heavy lasers stabbed deep into the center torso and set off a string of secondary explosions. The medium pulse laser provided the coup de grace, sending a stream of laser pulses that melted through the engine shielding. Blue light burst from seams in the Thor's torso a moment before a roiling storm of plasma consumed the 'Mech. Liam whooped, not even noticing the oven heat. One volley, one kill! We're halway to evening the odds!
A moment later, two PPC bolts struck dead center on his 'Mech's center torso, slagging armor and sending a flurry of static through his displays. The concussion slammed Liam's head against the side of the cockpit. Liam swore, searching for the target as he backed behind a hill. His fingers danced over the controls, attempting to override the shutdown procedure – shutting down on top of a hill with five other enemy 'Mechs in a ticked-off mood was not a good idea.
With the immediate danger out of the way, Liam evaluated the damage to his 'Mech. That single volley had reduced his center torso armor by over half. Had this been one of David's simulator missions, Liam would not have heistated to charge back over the hill – after all, he had succeeded in missions with his virtual 'Mech a walking scrap heap with a single remaining functional weapon.
This time was different. He was facing real BattleMechs with real enemy pilots, each machine a genuine threat to his – and if he pushed things a little too far, he could die for real.
The thought was chilling.
As Liam debated whether or not to go over the hill, the opposing pilot made his choice. A broad-shouldered 'Mech with two oblong arm pods leaped over the hill on streams of reactor exhaust, both PPCs discharging into the Cauldron-Born's left torso. A computer alert warned of possible internal damage as Liam reeled with the attack. Stravag! This guy's good! Too distracted to notice his unconscious use of a Clanner word, Liam backed his 'Mech up and brought up his enemy's sillouhette.
The computer reported the other machine as an Uziel. Liam felt some of his confidence returning – there was no way that the lighter 50-tonner could confront the full firepower of his Cauldron-Born. Liam twisted to face the Uziel as it landed, almost contemptuously pressing down on the primary trigger as his reticule drifted over its torso.
There was a wrenching scream of overstressed metal and overworked computer circuits – the autocannon spat a single shot and no more.
What the hell? Liam fired his large heavy laser as he backed away, but the shot was poorly aimed and did nothing but vaporize a nearby sapling. Data scrolled onto his screen – the Ultra Autocannon had suffered a catastrophic malfunction in its loading system and would be offline for the rest of the battle.
To make things even worse, the cheep-cheep of a missile warning lock sounded as six short-range missiles slammed into his 'Mech, blasting away even more armor fragments. Liam fired his heavy medium lasers in panic more than anything else, scoring a good hit on the Uziel's missile rack. However, his heat was once again beginning to creep up into the yellow.
Before Liam could take a deep breath and concentrate on fragging the infuriating 'Mech, it fired its jump jets and soared into the air. Liam gasped as he realized the 'Mech was headed on an arc straight for his. Death from above… It was a risky maneuver, but whoever this pilot was, Liam knew that he could pull it off. He slammed his 'Mech into reverse, nearly tripping over a downed tree in his hurry to get out of the Uziel's way.
Too late, Liam realized that the pilot's intention had never been to land on his 'Mech. Both PPCs discharged their ion bolts, one carving into the right torso and another blasting what little armor remained off his nose. "Damn you!" Liam snarled. He was angry now – angry and frightened. Two more PPC shots would probably send his 'Mech sky-high. Nervousness ate at the edges of his mind and made his hands start to tremble.
Snarling, Liam brought up the targeting brackets and centered them squarely on the Uziel's center torso. He triggered each of his weapons in turn, backing away as he did. One heavy medium laser and the medium pulse laser stripped armor and began eating into the Uziel's endo-steel bones. The heavy large laser, of course, missed. "Stupid weapon!" Liam snarled aloud in vexation. "What good is it to have a stravaging heavy large laser if it never hits anything?!"
Liam slammed his stick to the right, just in time to miss another PPC salvo. Both bolts missed and Liam grinned as he saw wisps of vaporized coolant rising from the Uziel's ravaged center torso. You have to be running hot, he thought smugly. Then, a glance at his own heat gauge revealed that he was in similar shape – he had stopped noticing the scalding heat in the Cauldron-Born's cockpit.
The Uziel's pilot must have sensed that the end was coming, for the 50-tonner suddenly accelerated into a lumbering run, the best it could manage at such high heat levels. Liam reflexively triggered a heavy medium laser, which finished the job of his earlier volleys and cut deep into the 'Mech's reactor. However, the Uziel's momentum carried it forward even as the reactor's contaiment failed. Liam cried out as blue light seemed to consume everything, instinctively raising a hand to his helmet faceplate as though to ward it off. Blisters raised on his exposed forearms and heat alarms sounded as the light faded, leaving afterimages dancing in Liam's eyes.
He didn't punch out, Liam realized with a jolt. He died to have the chance to take down my 'Mech. A sudden wave of trembling hit Liam's limbs. It hadn't come home to him in quite the same way when the tank crews had died. However, the opposing warrior in the opposing 'Mech had been a MechWarrior just like him. It could have been him, strapped into the Uziel as it died its firey death.
The damage display did nothing to improve Liam's mood. Red lights blinked all over, indicating crippled systems and systems with critical damage. The advanced targeting computer was offline, as was his medium pulse laser and one of his heavy medium lasers. His armor had been reduced to paper-thinness or nonexistence over his 'Mech's entire body, except for the rear torso and the right arm. His two remaining weapons still gave him as much firepower as some Inner Sphere heavy 'Mechs, but that was still not a reassuring thought.
"…Liam, this is Captain Landover… Liam, are you there? Answer me, dammit!"
Liam realized that he had been neglecting the status of the garrison 'Mechs. With a pang of guilt he flipped the switch. "Here, Captain. What's your status?"
"Thank God. I thought I was the only one left." Landover's voice, even reduced in clarity by the comm, made it clear that he was in pain. "We—we fragged the other 'Mechs and armor except for two assault 'Mechs that are on me right now. An Atlas and something else big. I… gaagh!" There was the characteristic snap of gauss fire in the background. "I'm the only other one left. Lujayne managed to punch out of her Quickdraw, but Casey died in his Catapult when his LRMs exploded."
Liam swore quietly, then jammed his throttle forward. "Hang on a bit longer, Captain. I don't have much armor left, but my heavy lasers can still mess something up. Just a bit longer."
"No can do, kid." Cresting the hill, Liam saw Landover's Victor exchanging fire with a massive skull-faced Atlas. The smoke and sparks pouring out of each 'Mech made it abundantly clear that the battle was drawing to a close, one way or another. "There's no way you can kill both the Atlas and the other thing, and if even one makes it to the city, a whole lot of good people are going to die. See you on the other side."
"No!" Liam exclaimed, but the Victor already started forward just like the Uziel had done to him. However, the Victor made it all the way to the Atlas and crashed into it before the reactor detonated. The flare of blue light surrounded both 'Mechs in a halo of radiance for a moment before the Atlas' long-range missiles went off like fireworks, bursting through its torso in all directions. When the explosions finally cleared, only twisted skeletons of the two 'Mechs remained, ringed in burning grass and shrubs.
Liam felt like retching, but his stomach had been empty for hours. A good man – a comrade in battle – had given his life to give Liam a chance to win it all. Liam felt his reserve harded. His eyes narrowed and his hands tightened on the controls until his knuckles went white. I must not fail.
Lumbering out from behind a hill came the unidentified assault 'Mech – and Liam's resolve wavered like a candle flame in a gale. The fifteen-meter-high monster turned to face him, looking for all the world like a double-barreled shotgun ready to blow his 'Mech into tiny shards of nothing much. The only damage to its exterior was a little superficial laser scarring that only added to the BattleMech's terrifying presence.
It was a Fafnir, an experimental Steiner assault chassis that massed as much as an Atlas or a Daishi.
And its two heavy gauss rifles were pointed right. At. Him.
Strange. Now that his time had come to die, Liam wasn't afraid at all. An odd sense of peace enveloped him as the Fafnir lined up its shot. This wouldn't be a bad way to go at all – he'd barely have time to feel anything.
Landover's last words jolted home, breaking the cocoon of peace. "…if even one makes it to the city, a whole lot of good people are going to die." Without even realizing it, he pressed his thumb down on the secondary firing buttons. The heavy large laser speared through the night, missing the Fafnir by inches and blistering paint. However, the medium heavy laser was a perfect shot, blowing chunks of armor off the center torso. Not, of course, like the Fafnir had any shortage of armor.
The shot skewed the Fafnir's aim just enough. Silvery blurs streaked past to the top and right, the thunderclap from the passing of the hypersonic shells penetrating the Cauldron-Born's cockpit and rattling Liam's teeth together. He refused to be intimidated. Throttling up, he ran forward and fired again, shearing off a medium pulse laser with his heavy medium laser. At the last moment, he slammed the stick back to the left and both Heavy Gauss rounds missed again. Liam knew that he was living on borrowed time and honestly didn't care.
By now, the Fafnir pilot was surely getting quite unhappy with the damaged Cauldron-Born that was proving such a headache. Liam grinned as the heavier 'Mech tried to match his turn rate and failed. If I can get behind him, then maybe… just maybe…
A hammer of sonic agony struck Liam as his neurohelmet began feeding back just like before in the warehouse. This time, however, it was ten times worse. Frantically, Liam scrabbled for the adjustment knob. Before he could find it, the Cauldron-Born lost input and collapsed on its face. The cockpit glass shattered and Liam was flug forward against the control panel. As he screamed uncontrollably, his trembling fingers finally found the jack and ripped it free. The relief was so great that Liam felt like fainting then and there. Slowly, dull aches began to creep into Liam's awareness where his 'Mech's fall had bashed body parts into sharp edges or hard objects.
He looked out the small part of his window that showed something other than packed dirt and saw a giant metal foot land right next to his cockpit. The Fafnir towered over the disabled Cauldron-Born, a Goliath preparing to contemptously dispatch its smaller adversary. Liam closed his hand around the joystick – and suddenly realized that the impact with the ground had slewed the right arm with its heavy large laser so that it was pointing right at the Fafnir's center torso. There was no way that a single shot would disable the other 'Mech, but… something in Liam snarled in defiance, refusing to give up now that he was so close.
He tugged the joystick one last time to try and get a better angle as the Fafnir lined up its Heavy Gausses for the kill. This is it. Goodbye, mother… goodbye, father… I hope I made you proud. As the thought flashed through his mind, Liam pulled the trigger.
The heavy large laser's amber beam sliced deep into a furrow made by his earlier shot, eating into a seam in the armor and continuing to stab deeper and deeper into the Fafnir's center torso. For a moment, Liam dared hope that his departing shot would core the engine and bring down the behemoth, then the beam died and the Fafnir remained standing tall, an impregnable fortress of a BattleMech.
Standing tall and wavering slightly… wavering a little more…
Liam realized that his parting shot had not taken out the engine but had instead destroyed the Fafnir's gyroscope. One hundred tons of BattleMech swayed one last time before beginning to fall directly towards him.
What would you know, Liam thought idly. I finally hit something with that blasted heavy laser…
Outside, there was a roaring sound and the scream of metal tearing, but Liam did not care. A smile found its way onto his features as he slumped backwards, consciousness slipping away and gentle darkness taking its place.
Lieutenant Vladimir Yukov of the Wolf's Dragoons lowered his Ryoken's Ultra Autocannon as he watched the Fafnir, nudged by his shot, collapse to the ground nearby. A sense of disbelief tinged his vision as he looked around and saw the devestation, parts of BattleMechs and tanks littering the cratered ground. Three broken-down garrison 'Mechs and this one Cauldron-Born had singlehandedly annihilated the northern pincer of the Crimson Fist attack.
"Silver Arrow," he radioed the DropShip hovering overhead, "it looks like all remaining elements have been cleaned up by the garrison 'Mechs and…" he frowned, "…an unknown pilot in a Cauldron-Born with Steiner markings."
"Understood, Lieutenant," the comm operator chuckled. "I know how you hate it when your job gets done by someone else before you get to it."
Vlad looked at the fallen Fafnir and shuddered. "In this case, I didn't mind a bit, Control. Do you have any information on the pilot of that 'Mech? I think he's still alive in there."
There was a momentary pause, then the comm operator's voice came back. "Blood of Kerensky," she breathed. "You are not going to believe this one, Lieutenant…"
DropShip Silver Arrow
Frederick Steiner Memorial Spaceport
27 March 3067
Liam glanced up from his repair work on the Cauldron-Born's right knee actuator to see Lieutenant Yukov striding across the space, a broad grin on his features. Ahhh, that would be good news, then. He greeted the Lietuenant with a cheerful wave, which Vlad returned.
"Good news," Vlad called up over the crackle of arc-welders. "Got an HPG transmission directly from Outreach. The Old Wolf has examined your casse and believes you'd be a perfect fit for the Dragoons. We'll be burning for orbit tonight and back on Outreach in about two weeks. We can make it official there, but for the time being, congratulations."
Liam dropped from the Cauldron-Born's leg, wincing as he landed on a bruise but quickly getting to his feet nonetheless. "Thanks, Lieutenant. I appreciate it." He glanced up at his 'Mech and chuckled. "Thanks also for letting me use your repair facilities and Techs in the time in-between. I must admit, she was in pretty sad shape at the end of the battle."
Vlad waved away the thanks. "Not a problem. Heck, it's the least we owe you for completing half our contract for us."
"Me and Captain Landover and the others," Liam corrected him, sobering somewhat.
"Don't worry about it, kid," Vlad replied, stepping up next to him and also looking over the half-repaired BattleMech. "The Dragoons and the planetary government will both see to it that their families are well taken care of. Most garrison units would kill to get a chance to see action like that… and when it was their time to act, they did their duty well."
"I suppose you're right." Liam sighed and shifted his weight. Mom, Dad, Captain, all of you… I'll never forget you. I'll remember you and keep the Smoke Jaguar in me exactly where it belongs – on a very short leash.
I'll make you all proud.
Liam turned to Vlad with a grin. "By the way, do you know of anything I could swap in for a traitorous UAC-20 and three tons of ammo? Something a little less demon-possessed?"
"Oh, I imagine we can think of something… Let me take you to our engineer, Karl. He loves to do modifications. Half the 'Mechs in the company aren't stock… including mine…"
Liam turned and followed Vlad towards the engineer's office, a content smile on his face as he contemplated future contracts and future friends in the Dragoons.
From his point of view, the future had never been brighter.