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I, Kerensky
Facts
Author RogueBaron
Year Written 2006
Story Era 3058 - 3061




==Description==
* Amnesia destroyed his memory. As he struggled to recollect his forgotten past, new life awaited for him. Would it be better to live like he used to, or should he just embrace his future and never look back?
* The first and only one with 1st-person POV. My finest work so far.

StoryEdit

424px-Kerensky

Transferred from Sarna

ONEEdit

Unknown Place, Unknown Time,

Day 1


When I opened my eyes, I saw only light.

It lingered on for some time, showering me with its dull pallor until my eyeballs sunk deep into the sockets, or so I thought. Then it faded, and everything else took shape. Plastic fluid-filled containers, boxes with green and red twinkles above my head, drab plastic pipes dangling from the containers, docking in my arms. Looking further, I saw a bench with metallic objects scattered about, things that my throbbing head could not even begin to comprehend. As the light subsided, more and more shapes came into view. But instead of clueing me, they just made my eyes burn. Even worse than the light.

“Finally,” a soft voice tickled my ears. I looked up, and there it was, a face with long curly hair bundled into a tight bun. It hovered above me, closer and closer, until everything I could see was a blurry, yellowish hue. Then a bright light, similar to the one that I saw before, stabbed my right eyes. I shut my eyes and tried to turn away but the support underneath my body creaked and shuddered.

“Oh, oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you,” I heard the voice soothe. Slowly I opened my eyes, and the face was now perched on top of a slender figure, draped in white cloth. Before I could absorb any details, she moved forward again, waving something in front of me, and spoke again with that gentle, velvety voice. “Do you know who you are?”

As confused as I was, I understood what she was asking. This stranger wanted to know about me. The curiosity was mutual. There was so much I needed to know.

I did not remember………anything.

“Doc! He’s awake! Come quick!” she shrilled. Another one, also dressed in white, quickly burst into the room. This one was much bolder than the first, putting his cold appendages on my face. Nasty little buggers! If only I could move, I would rip them apart and throw them across the room.

“Heart rate normal. Temperature normal. Pupils are dilated, maybe still in shock,” he boomed while scratching something on a piece of paper. “Whatever he went through, it must’ve been a real hell.” He bent over and spoke right in front of my face, “Hello. Can you understand me?”

I could only respond by staring into his dark eyes.

“My name is Doctor Kim. This is Nurse Lin, my assistant. We’ll take good care of you. Do you remember your name?”

Name. I did not even remember if I had a name, let alone remember what it was. Again, I could only stare blankly at the good doctor and his assistant, and I could see how their flame of curiosity flickered to pity. I hated being pitied but I could not help feeling a little bit sorry for myself.

“Blunt-force trauma, Doc?” Nurse Lin suggested.

“Could be. Or could be just shock.” The doctor swung by me to check the blinking things on top of my head. “His vitals are normal. I suspect it’s mental. Something traumatic, like losing someone he loves. Heavy mental trauma has been known to cause temporary amnesia. Give him ten cc’s of neurovillacine and get him to rest. We’ll see if he can remember anything tomorrow.”

As the doctor left, the nurse took a small glass tube with a sharp metallic object on the front end. She stabbed me with the metal, and I felt a small twinge on my lower body. But whatever she did to me, it worked. I felt relaxed, and I actually came to a point that I did not care about anything anymore.

“Poor guy,” the nurse said, right before I closed my eyes. “I gave you nerve-relaxing serum. Some rest may help you retrieve your forgotten past. But let’s leave that for tomorrow. Now just relax and take a good rest. I’ll be here to take care of you.”

I did not want to rest. I wanted to know a lot of things. Who am I? Where am I? How did I wake up here, in the middle of these strange people? But as hard as I tried to stay awake, I could not fight the serum. I drifted farther and farther away from where I wanted to be, and before long, I yielded to sleep. The last thing I saw was Nurse Lin smiling at me.


Unknown Place, Unknown Time,

Day 5


It had been five days since I woke up in this bizarre world. My body had regained some of its vigor, although not as I had hoped. My knees were shaky, and my hips could barely support my body. Nevertheless, Nurse Lin said it was normal to a certain extent, considering I was out for a long time.

A long time.

I did not know how long because I could not remember anything. I did not have any recollection of who I was, what I was, or what I did prior to this. I did not even remember my name. Nurse Lin said that a local trapper found me several weeks ago at a river bend north of this small town, apparently frozen to death in the cold winter. No identity, no friends, nothing. Just like that, lying in the snow.

“It surprised everyone that you were still alive,” Nurse Lin said to me one time. “Ordinary people would’ve been frozen solid. You have a remarkable resistance to cold. Lucky for you, Mr. Skyami got you before the nolans.”

“Nolans?” I said, surprised that I did not lose my ability to communicate with these locals.

“Nolans are predators unique to Engadine,” Nurse Lin explained. “Fearsome animals, thick armor-like skin, long nails, ferocious appetite. Since the first settlers set their feet on Engadine, we humans have been fighting constantly with the nolans to be the sole sovereign of Engadine.” She paused for a moment, scanning my face. Catching my utter confusion, she smiled and said, “You’ve never heard anything about nolans, have you?”

I replied with a faint shrug.

“Then you must be an off-worlder. A lot of outsiders don’t know about nolans. That’s understandable. Engadine is a remote world, close to the Periphery, with no particular value to any industries within the Inner Sphere, except for The Rooting. Anyway, do you remember your affiliation? Lyran? FedSun? Draconian? Capellan? Free World? Taurian? Mercenary?” When she saw my blank stare, she knew that her words did not mean anything to me. “You don’t remember any of those states, do you? My god! Don’t tell me…are you a Clanner?”

“I…”

“I’m sorry,” she retreated, knowing that she had pressed her curiosity too hard. “Maybe it’s too hard for you. Just rest now. We’ll try that again later.”

That was two days ago. Within two days I learned a lot from Nurse Lin. This place was called Hogye, a small town in a world called Engadine, on the border of Melissa Theater, in Lyran Alliance territory. I learnt that Hogye used to be a decent-sized village, one of the hottest spots in Engadine where off-world tourists and thrill seekers spent one month for a bloody hunting game called The Rooting. I learnt that since The Clans invaded Inner Sphere, Hogye had been partially deserted, and what were left behind had to struggle to fight the nolans, the undisputed kings of Engadine before humans came to this cold, arid world. I learned that The Clans, though more advanced than most armies in the Inner Sphere, had been defeated six years ago on a world called Tukayyid. And I learnt that today was the year of 3058, and it had been six weeks since Mr. Skyami brought me to this town.

Six weeks.

Basically, that was when my life started. I had no life before then. I did, obviously, but it was dead. Lost. Forgotten. Nurse Lin and I had been trying vigorously to scavenge what was left about my previous life, but our joint effort had been vain. Doctor Kim mentioned that I had a bad contusion on my head when I was brought to Hogye, and he hypothesized that I had a massive head-blow. It might be temporary, but from the amount of memory loss, he wondered if I would ever remember anything at all. Might as well start a new life.

So here I was, in a foreign world, standing in front of a mirror, looking at a total stranger. I was looking at my own reflection, yet I did not recognize anything. I was a nobody in front of my own eyes. A man without a face. Such a misery was almost unbearable. I spent hours standing in front of the mirror each day, trying to dig the deepest cache in my mind, searching for the elusive truth, but ever time I came up empty handed.

“Anything?” Nurse Lin said gently.

“No,” I sighed. “I still do not remember anything.”

“Pictures usually work better,” she tapped my hand. “Here, I brought a lot of pictures. Why don’t you sit with me and look at the pictures together. Who knows, maybe one of them will trigger some memories from your past.”

I agreed. I followed her to a small table and took the seat in front of her. She opened up a large binder, and pulled out a stack of pictures. She handed some to me, and asked me to go through each one slowly, in case I could get something out of the picture. She explained that the pictures were emblems of different factions: Clanners, Inner Spheroids, Periphery States, Mercenaries, Bandits, everything. She good-naturedly gave me a short explanation about each faction, from the political view, social life, military units, and even the most basic difference between Inner Spheroids and Clanners.

When these pictures failed to bring something to me, she pulled out another stack of pictures. These pictures depicted faces of humans, individuals that founded the course of human lives through the universe, starting from Kerney-Fuchida, Alexander Kerensky and Stefan Amaris, Jerome Blake, to the leaders of today’s Successor States. She knew every little bit of them, and how they contributed a piece to the history of mankind.

“How do you know so much about everything?” I asked curiously.

“I read history during my breaks,” she answered in a wink. “You might’ve already noticed that Doctor Kim is rarely here. Sometimes I finished my work and I had to wait until he returned to the sickbay. So I read.”

“Where can I read some of this history?” She had piqued my interest.

“There’s a computer terminal in the next room. You can access an HPG uplink from there, including the most recent information across the Inner Sphere. But of course, the information is weeks old. But some information never changes, like history.”

“Are these individuals on the uplink too?”

“Most of them,” she replied, stacking the pictures. “I printed them out for you. Anyway… anything from these?”

“No,” I bit my lips, afraid to disappoint her. “I think I have never seen those faces before. I might have, but no one seems familiar.”

“That’s OK,” she forged a smile. “Let’s see if these bring out some memories. I don’t know much about these, but I hope you may recognize some of them.”

She pulled out the third stack. These pictures were images of beasts, mechanical beasts, with weapons stacking up on their bodies. Some of them were like humans, although the proportions were sometimes off. Sometimes their legs were too short, other times their heads were just too small for their bodies. Others resembled grotesque birds, with inverted limbs and joints and boxy shoulders. Most of them had tubes and holes all around their bodies.

“What are these?” I asked.

“Those are BattleMechs,” Nurse Lin explained. “They are the primary machines of war. When two factions dispute over something, more than likely they go to war, and BattleMechs are their primary weapons. They stand between 8 to 12 meters tall, and weigh anywhere between 20 to 100 tons. These machines are piloted by MechWarriors, highly trained pilots that become the brain of the 'Mechs. The fastest BattleMechs can run up to 120 kilometers per hour, and the heaviest can actually mount weapons powerful enough to wipe out Hogye within minutes.”

“Why would anyone destroy Hogye?” I asked, and I knew it sounded like a really dumb question.

“Well,” she retracted, a little sheepish. “I don’t mean that. Nobody would, you know. It’s just an analogy of how powerful these BattleMechs can be.”

“I see,” I nodded, and flipped through the pictures. Then I felt something. A sensation. Though faint, it ran through my entire body. I could feel its ripples running along my skin. A sensation that built up from deep inside my core, and emanated to every nerve ending. A carnal feeling, lying in the border of fear and wrath.

“What is it?” Nurse Lin said, catching the change in my façade. “Do you recognize any of those 'Mechs?”

“I… I am not sure,” I stammered, still trying to figure out everything while looking at the pictures.

“But you felt something. What did you feel?”

I paused for a moment. I could not describe what I felt, so I just shook my head.

“Come on, what did you feel? Fear? Anger? Desire? Thrill?”

“Nurse Lin, please,” I pleaded. “This is a very hard situation for me. You gave me a lot of pictures, and no one helped me so far. I am still lost.”

The nurse leaned back in her chair, and realized that she had pressed me too much. She let out a long sigh before saying, “You’re right, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to rush you. Let’s do this again some other time. You need to rest.” She started to pile the pictures, then looked at me with a victorious smile. “But at least we know something.”

“What?”

“You were a MechWarrior.”

“I what?” I was utterly baffled. “How did you end up with that conclusion?”

“Only a MechWarrior would look at a 'Mech with passion as strong as yours when you looked at the pictures,” she looked at me sincerely. “So I’ll see if you can work at the 'Mech garage. I’ll talk to Trejo, the garage manager. He is a hospital regular, so he knows me well. At the 'Mech garage you can be around BattleMechs all day. You might remember something when you work with them in the past.”

“So do you think that I piloted one of those before?” I asked. “What if I did not? Will I just waste my time?”

“No, you can also interact with more people. To this date, you just talk to me, maybe a little bit with Dr. Kim. By working at the 'Mech garage, you’ll talk to pilots, techs, managers, guards, different varieties of people. Maybe you can strike a conversation that brings back your memory. How’s that sound? Do you like it?”

“I guess,” I concurred.

“So let’s just take a rest today. I’ll see what I can do.” She got up, but then went back to the chair with a smirk in her face. “You can’t work at the 'Mech garage without a name. People have to call you by something. Do you remember your name yet?”

“No.”

“Then how should we call you?”

“I… uh…” I did not know what to do.

“Alright, what if we call you… Parker?”

“Parker?”

“Why? Don’t you like it? We can always find another one…”

“Parker is fine,” I forced myself to smile. “It is nice to be called by something, even if this is not my real name. Thank you, Nurse Lin. You have been a great help for me.”

“Hey, it’s my job,” she walked to the door.

TWOEdit

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

March 21, 3058


So, I was Parker.

It was funny, being called something that I had never heard before. What kind of man had a name like Parker? I hated it. I wish I could remember my real name. But until then, I just had to settle with Parker.

So there I was, standing in front of the 'Mech garage, looking for a man named Trejo. This was Nurse Lin’s idea, to work close to BattleMechs. She still believed that I was a MechWarrior, and she thought I would recognize something through the job. I had to disagree, but I was in no position to negotiate. Although I thought this was a bad idea, I had no choice but to go to the 'Mech garage to talk about the job with Mr. Trejo.

Yes. Bad idea.

“No! No! Vete al infierno, anos!” a loud voice echoed from inside the garage, sorting through metal clanging and whirring. Then I heard some other voices, but it became too cacophonic to figure out everything. I was about to return to the hospital when a short, stocky man blasted out from a double door. His face was all flushed with rage, and his moustache seemed to curl up on the tip. His eyes were red, a sure hint of sleep deprivation, and although he was a lot shorter than me, he looked at me like a teacher looking down on a slow student.

“Que qierres?” he asked.

“Mr. Trejo, I presume? Nurse Lin sent me here for a job,” I replied frankly. “Is this a bad time?”

“Oh no, no bad time. It’s just some 'Mech salesmen that won’t take no for an answer.” He glanced back and stuck his head through the double door, shouting, “Pendejos!”

“I can come back anytime, when everything is better,” I suggested.

“No need to worry, Senor,” he tried to smile. “Si, I remember talking to the nurse. You are the stranger guy, no? The one that Skyami loco brought home two months ago? What’s your name?”

“Parker,” I said reluctantly. “It is not my real name. Nurse Lin gave it to me. I cannot remember my real one.”

“Parker, hm?” he grinned. “So tell me, what makes you come here for a job? Were you a MechWarrior? A mechanic? A part salesman?”

“I wish I knew, Mr. Trejo,” I explained. “I do not remember anything about my past. Nurse Lin thought I would remember something if I worked at your garage. She suggested that I try different things and see if I can remember something.”

Mr. Trejo let out a sharp breath, epitomizing his aggravation. “This is not a playground, amigo. I pay my employees by the hour. However,” he paused while catching his breath, “the nurse took a good care of me when I was sick. I will repay her kindness this time. But I expect you to work hard like my other employees. And one more thing… I don’t have money for an extra employee. You are here for your amnesia treatment, no? So consider working here as a product of my good heart.”

I looked at him, thinking of what I was supposed to say. Nurse Lin never mentioned about the money, and honestly, it never came to my mind either. This was utterly disturbing, thinking about all possibilities why I could forget about the payment. Perhaps, in my previous life, I was a spoiled kid who never had to worry about money. I might be a prince, an heir to an emporium that spent days after days sitting on a throne, watching money flow freely into my vault. Or I might be a spawn of a fascist, militaristic society that did everything for the country, for the emperor, the prince, the duke, the coordinator, whatever they called it.

“So,” Mr. Trejo croaked, robbing me from my daydreaming. “Wanna start now?”

“I do,” I said hesitantly. “What do you want me to do, Mr. Trejo?”

“One of my techs quits. I have to put Cedro on double shift. See if he needs help.”

“If I may ask, Sir, which one is Cedro?”

“You have a mouth, Parker! Ask!” Mr. Trejo snapped, then disappeared behind the double door.

I could clearly see that Mr. Trejo was not a nice man. He would suck a man dry for his own benefit, and I was next in the suck line. Although he complained about paying me, he had also let slip that one of his techs had quitted so he should have a little cash surplus. How hard was it to understand that he was simply taking advantage of me? Of my condition, nonetheless?

However, I was powerless. I decided to play by his rules and went through the double door. I walked down a narrow corridor until it ended up at another double door. When I pushed it, an awesome sight greeted me. Behind the doors was a vast hall full of equipment. Large mechanical arms hung from the ceilings, while crates and tools lay scattered on the floor. Trucks with large tanks parked side by side. And four colossuses, each stood about ten meters high, perched on different sites on the hall, among half a dozen battle tanks.

I had seen the metal giants before, when Nurse Lin tried to revive my memory using pictures. They were BattleMechs, the crown jewels of military technology. The biggest of them all stood idle in a corner, with two big guns as its arms. It was a big 'Mech, easily dwarfing the other three on the hall. Two of them were comparable in size, as if they were made as compliments to each other. These two were more humanoid looking than the biggest one. The last 'Mech was the shortest; the shoulders of the humanoid 'Mechs were taller than the cockpit of this 'Mech. Techs swarmed the 'Mechs, checking parts and weapons.

I stood there for about five minutes, frozen by thrill and wonder, marveling at the colossus quartet that monopolized the hall. Looking at the 'Mechs made me tingle. It was similar to the feeling that I had when I looked at the 'Mech pictures at the hospital, only more real. For once, I agreed with Nurse Lin. There had to be a connection between me and BattleMechs, one way or the other.

“Hey, you!” I heard a curt voice. “Trejo pays you to work! Get your ass down there!”

I turned around and saw this big brute walking toward me. He was about my height, but his weight easily beat mine by 50 pounds, if not more. He wore a sleeveless shirt, which I quickly noticed why. His arms were all muscles, and his biceps were twice as big as mine. Although his lower body was not as developed as his upper part (excessively large stomach and short legs), his posture was intimidating, especially with long hair, dark complexion, and unkempt moustache.

“What are you looking at, prick?” he roared. “I said get down there and make yourself useful!”

He tried to grab my neck, but I flinched. “My name is Parker, and I am new,” I said while backpedaling. “I am assigned to Cedro…”
The big man looked at me with a sinister stare, then bellowed from the top of his lung, “Is there a Cedro here? You’ve got a greenhorn looking for you!”

“Si, si Senor! Over here!” a faint voice rose up from the clamor. A thin man in his forties came running through the crowd, greeting me and the big man in a rush. Sweat running through his face, and his shirt was totally soaked. I could imagine what Trejo put him through.

“Soy Cedro, como esta,” he said in his raging breath. “Senor Trejo said that he’d find a substitute for Raoul. I’m glad you came! We’re desperately shorthanded down there.”

“Good! Then take this loon with you!” the big man grumbled. “And don’t forget to clean up the leg struts on my JagerMech. I want it done and I want it done in two hours! I’m already late for my routine patrol, because of you lazy sonsofbitches!”

“Si Senor, consider it done Senor!” Cedro bowed and hauled my hand, tugging me away from the big man. He led me to the biggest 'Mech in the hall, and gave me a toolbox. “Here, we need to clean up and oil up the struts. You do the left leg, I’ll take the right.”

I froze, completely froze. There were dozens of tools inside the box, but I had no idea what they were for. If I had a close encounter with a BattleMech before, I was sure that it was not at this side. Even when I tried so hard to recognize the tools, none of them gave me the scantest idea of what I should do with them. I was completely lost. I felt like I had never touched any of the tools before.

“What’s the matter, amigo?” Cedro queried.

“I… I do not know what to do,” I said frankly.

“What? Then why are you here?” he snapped. “Why does Senor Trejo employ you if you don’t know how to use tools?”

“My name is Parker, I was brought here unconscious, and I cannot remember my past,” I explained. “I am sorry if you misunderstood, Mr. Cedro, but I am here to find out about my past. Nurse Lin thought I might remember something if I work with BattleMechs, and Mr. Trejo employed me to pay homage to Nurse Lin. I am not even paid to work here.”

“Estoy hasta la madre…” Cedro sighed, staring at me with blank eyes, not believing his hard luck. “Senor Trejo knows that I’m working two shifts back to back. Why in the name of God does he assign somebody that doesn’t know squat about 'Mechs to help me?”

“I will try to help you,” I felt guilty for taking part in his misery. “But you have to teach me. Cleaning and oiling struts does not sound complicated. Give me a chance, and I will assist you the best I can.”

Cedro gave me a strange stare, as if he was weighing up my proposal. But I knew he would give me a chance. He was in serious need of help, and at this point, any help would do. He sunk his face into his chest for a while, then rose up and said, “Very well, amigo. You can sit and learn how to do this. I’ll do this one.”

As Cedro deftly took the leg apart, I sat there and watched how he did everything. He was a short thin man, even shorter than Nurse Lin, but he worked fast. His hands danced around the 'Mech parts, and I had a hard time following what he was doing, so fast was his movement. I felt that it was too much to learn in an hour, so I decided to learn something else.

“If I may ask, who was the big man that I talked to before?” I asked.

“That would be Hauptmann ‘Viper’ Viveros, leader of the Hunt Lance of the Combined Arms Mercenary Regiment,” Cedro explained. “He’s a cabron, a real troublemaker. Some rumor says that he was a soldier of Lyran’s 4th Donegal, before he was discharged dishonorably. I suggest that you stay away from him.”

Cedro’s explanation piqued my interest to learn more about the history of this town. “Why do you need mercenaries? Are you in a war with somebody?”

“It all started during the Clan Invasion,” Cedro wiped away the sweat that beaded on his forehead. “Before the Invasion, Engadine was a tourist attraction, because of The Rooting. Each year a lot of rich people came to Engadine to hunt the nolans, the native habitants of Engadine.”

“I know about the nolans and The Rooting,” I interjected.

“Si, Senor, The Rooting. It was a big party around. They hunted the nolans until they were not many of them left, but many enough to avoid extinction and breed, so the next year the riches could come back for another Rooting. Hogye was a tourist camp back than. You see this garage? It was a shop, selling hunting gears and weapons to kill the nolans. We also had haciendas, cantinas, bars, and all sort of entertainments for the tourists.

“When the Clans came, every good warrior was called to fight them. Less and less people came to Engadine for The Rooting, and in 3056 The Rooting was canceled, the first time in two centuries. The nolans grew uncontrollably, and we Hogye citizens had been terrorized by the predators. So the ruler of Engadine, Lord President Alistar Daniel, had to hire the Combined Arms Mercenary Regiment to help us. The Hunt Lance and two lances of tanks were assigned to defend Hogye and Kinst, Hogye’s neighboring town. But the Viper is not a nice guy. He helps us fighting the nolans, but he and his caballeros demand a high ransom. We have to pay them money, fix their 'Mechs for free, provide food and entertainment.”

“Can the sheriff train the citizens to defend themselves?” I inquired.

“You don’t understand,” Cedro paused a moment. “We don’t have 'Mechs. We do have several units of Cutlass battlesuits that were modified specifically to fight the nolans in The Rooting. But the number of nolans have increased so far that the Cutlass are not sufficient anymore. We need BattleMechs to fight them. Hogye has only one 'Mech, the sheriff’s Commando, but that Star-League junk is not enough to defend the entire town against the nolans. Kinst only has several old tanks.”

“There has to be a way to control the nolans without external help,” I contemplated. “The root of Hogye’s problems is its inability to defend itself against the forces of nature, so the citizens had to import stronger predators. It is understandable that the CAMR act like princes and princesses of Hogye. They know that Hogye is depending on them. Without them, Hogye is lost. If Hogye can find a way to defend itself against the nolans, the CAMR will lose their bargaining power. They have two choices: leave Hogye, or try to maintain their domination by showing off their 'Mech power. But if Hogye can fight the nolans, Hogye may be able to fight back the CAMR. Combining strength with Kinst, I think even the Viper will think twice to enforce his power over the two cities. We solve two problems with one solution.”

“Ay mierda…” Cedro mumbled, his mouth agape.

His reaction was mostly unexpected. But as a matter of fact, I scared myself too. I could not believe what I just said. What I said was simple logic. But how could I come up with a systematic military analysis just by listening to Cedro’s babbles for ten minutes? I was a stranger in this town. And I was naïve if I thought that I was the first one who came up with this idea. People like Cedro and Trejo that lived here for a long time must have thought about this plan, too. The fact that they still lived under the oppression of the CAMR told me that maybe – just maybe – this plan was unfeasible.

But still, I was awed – and scared – by the way my brain worked.

Nurse Lin told me that I might find something by talking to different people. I did. I had a very sharp analysis mind, almost felt like a militaristic leader. But now I was too scared to continue. What if I were a ruthless commander? What if I were a fascist that regarded human lives like crap? What if I were a sadistic duke? And what if I were… a Clanner, a human being bred solely to war?

“You want to talk about fighting?” Cedro blurted. “Maybe you should work at the sheriff office instead of here! Otherwise, no chingados mames! I have five kids, man! I do no fighting!”

Maybe I overlooked the fact that Hogye was a peace-loving community, so the citizens preferred being abused by the mercenaries than raising the weapons themselves. Maybe this was their choice. I felt like a complete idiot.

“You are right, Mr. Cedro. It is not my place to discuss such a brusque topic with you. My sincere apologies. Tell me what I can do to help you.”

Cedro looked at me with pity in his eyes. His wrath had long gone, replaced by fatigue. He reached his toolbox to get a rod with a tube on one end. “I’m done with this part. Can you reattach the panel?”

“I watched you dismounted the panel, and I think I can put it back together,” I nodded.

“Then do it. I’ll do another panel, and when I’m done, you reattach it. Comprende?”

“Si, soy comprende,” I replied instinctively, and once again I was surprised at what I just did. But I decided to let it go. From the corner of my eyes I watched Cedro throwing a perplexed look at me, but I pretended that I did not notice him. I took the nuts and bolts that Cedro left scattering on the floor, and started to mount them on the BattleMech’s leg. It was hard at first, but after the third bolt, I thought I could survive being a 'Mech technician.

For now, at least.

THREEEdit

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

March 25, 3058


Working as a technician assistant was not that bad. Over the course of five days I had learned four things: one, BattleMech repair and maintenance; two, Hogye did have authorities (a mayor and a sheriff), but in the street, the tyrannical Hunt Lance of CAMR was the ruler; three, Cedro was obnoxiously loquacious but honest, which served my purpose best if I wanted information; and four, Engadine was more than 50 parsecs away from Tharkad, the capital of the Lyran Alliance. No one would hear our plea for help, even if we screamed it until we lost our voice. Cedro told me that the closest help we could get was the Morrison’s Extractor, only a jump away from Engadine. But what was the point of getting help from other mercenaries?

“Why do you keep staying at Hogye?” I asked Nurse Lin while she was prepping up a box of drugs. “Life has been cruel to you these past few years. There are other worlds that promise wealth, dignity, and future. I do not see them in Hogye.”

“You don’t understand.” She turned to me. “We had a life, a rich and abundant life, several years ago. I was still a kid back then, but I vividly remember how festive Hogye was in the heat of The Rooting. Rich counts, barons, dukes, earls, princes and princesses came down to this little town to test their virility against the forces of nature. Then the Clans took them away. Suddenly those genetically engineered bastards became more appealing targets than the nolans. What makes a better target than a clone inside an unstoppable war machine?”

“Are you blaming this situation on the Clans?”

“Can I not?” A hue of cynicism and desperation adorned her voice. “They were the ones that abandoned Terra hundreds of years ago! They and their holier-than-God code of honor! Who do they think they are, fighting us like we are some kind of pests? They have no right to reclaim Terra!”

“What about the Viper and his lance?” I asked. “Are you letting them take away your dignity?”

“In time, my new friend, in time,” Nurse Lin tapped my shoulder. “When we drive every single Clanner out of the Inner Sphere, and kill those who persist. When we beat the Clans, we can have The Rooting again. Then we don’t need the CAMR anymore.” She turned around and grabbed the box she had been working on for the last hour. “I need to take these drugs to Kinst,” Nurse Lin stated. “I don’t mean to cut our conversation short, but I really have to go. Why don’t you go home? It’s late, and you’ll need to be fresh tomorrow.”

“Very well,” I got up and bid her farewell. “I will see you tomorrow.”

As Nurse Lin walked toward a jeep, I started thinking about the Clans. They had ruined the harmony of life in Hogye. Those war-like people had never come to Hogye, but their invasion in 3050-3052 virtually destroyed Hogye’s infrastructure. I sympathized for these simple people. I wish I could remember something about the Clans from my previous life. I must have had encountered them, one way or another. Everybody did.

I had not walked long when I heard a ruckus on the side of the road. I was so caught up with my thinking that I did not realize where I was walking. I was in the countryside, and five large men were standing at the gate of a house. Judging from their outfit, I could guess that these were the mercenaries. A little man, who I conjectured to be the host, stood just inside the gate. People from other houses peered from their window, but it was clear that they preferred being invisible to lending a hand for the little man.

As I walked closer, I noticed that the little man was Cedro. His voice and his gesture told me that he was being pressured by the mercenaries. And one of them was, the Viper himself, escorted by four other men. The distinct alcohol stench in their breaths told me that they were intoxicated.

“It is not my problem!” the Viper boomed. “I want my 'Mech done now!”

“Senor Viper, tenga misericordia, por favor,” Cedro replied, a slight tension was imminent in his voice. “My son is sick. He needs me at home.”

“Hey, you are the one who promised to give us free repairs!” the Viper advanced even more. “It is insulting enough for me to come to your cabin. Now get your ass moving and take care of my 'Mech!”

“I swear I will do it first time in the morning,” Cedro said, half pleading. “But my son needs me.”

“And other people don’t?” the Viper started to ramble. “I’m risking my ass everyday, and you can’t give me a little respect? See what you’ll do if I pull out my troops out of this little sinkhole, you ungrateful maggot!”

It was enough. I could not tolerate him anymore. He had been insulting everybody that he met, everybody that did his order wholeheartedly, everybody that just would not stand up because they needed him. I felt this carnal desire overwhelm my mind, blocking my common sense, and urging me to stand up for the Hogye countrymen. I knew how important the Hunt Lance was to Hogye, but I did not care anymore. All I wanted was to stop the Viper’s atrocities. So I walked by and said, “Sir, I can take care of your 'Mech. Mr. Cedro taught me a lot of things. I am just as capable as he is.”

As I expected, the big man turned to me, and his stare looked like a thousand knives flying straight into my heart. “Who the hell ask you to speak? Get out of my face, you moron!”

“Sir,” I took a deep breath, “Mr. Cedro has worked long days for you. Please, respect his wish to stay with his family.”

“Respect?” the Viper screamed his lung out. “RESPECT? What do you know about respect, you sonofabitch! Here, I’ll show you respect!”

The big man cocked his right arm, and catapulted his fist toward my face. This is unexpected. I never thought that he would take it this far. But I did not know how to react. I could see his fist as it flew toward my face, and I even knew where it would hit me. But I did not do anything. I just waited until it hit me right under my right eye. A sting of pain surged into my face, and I could feel my head jerked behind. The Viper was a big man, and he surely knew how to punch. I felt my skin thickened under my right eye. But I mustered all energy to stay upright.

“You’re a tough guy, aren’t you boy?” he mocked me while taking up a fighting stance. “Let’s see how you handle this!”

He swung his club-like arm again. His movement was slow and predictable. However, I did not flinch. I never expected a fight, and now that I had one, I did not know how to get out. I let his fist hit my face again, this time on my left cheek. I could feel the crack on my jaw, and I could taste the saltiness of blood when the fist impacted. The momentum threw me back two steps behind. I felt my neck strained to sustain his hit. But I absorbed it. The mercenary leader chuckled, thinking that I was nothing different than any other Hogye’s citizens that would not stand up against him.

“Parker!” Cedro screamed in panic. “Senor Viper, stop it! You’ll kill him!”

But instead the Viper launched another shot at me. This time, it was serious. He used his waist as a gyro when he swung his right arm. This punch was ten times harder than the previous two. It was a lethal punch that could put me in hell. I could not let this blow hit me. And something moved me out of the way. When his arm swooshed in front of my face, my right hand impulsively grabbed it and twisted it down. Then my left elbow, as if moving by its own will, sank into the back of his elbow.

The result was devastating. A loud crack ensued, and blood sprayed into my pants. The Viper’s elbow was shattered, and two of his arm bones busted out of his cartilage, tearing out his skin.

“Arrgh! My arm!” the Viper screamed while holding his arm. “Kill him!”

The four men that came with the Viper boxed me and drew their pocketknives. They moved in on me with their knives pointing at my midst. One of them lunged forward and shoved his knives at my midsection. I sidestepped to the right, letting the knives flew inches in front of my body, then raised up my left knee. I did not even have to kick. His momentum brought him straight at my knee, and before he knew it, my knee gouged his solar plexus. I heard a muffled scream and gastric fluid sprayed from his mouth. He fell on his knees, gasping for air while doubling over to ease the pain.

Another one came at me from behind, using up his advantage. His movement was predictable and slow, so slow I could see where he was planning to jam his knife. He was attacking my left shoulder. So I ducked low and kicked his ankle. His left foot twitched, and he lost his momentum before crashing to the ground. I got up, and another one was already in a position to stab me. I raised my hand to stop the blade, then jammed my right leg into his crotch. His knees buckled as he keeled over, and his face turned pale before sinking into the dusty ground, whimpering like a puppy.

The last one decided not to press the attack, and helped his friends to escape the scene.
I stood there, totally befuddled by what just happened. I just knocked out four highly charged mercenaries, warriors that fought for a living. I never knew I had it in me. The way I fought my battle gave me the creeps. How did I know those maneuvers? Did I go through a military training in my past? Or maybe it was the mercenaries that were just too drunk to fight? Anybody, including Cedro, could easily do what I just did.

The fight had awakened the neighborhood, and as the last attacker hit the ground, I was surrounded by dozens of spectators, including some children. The adults stared at me with venom, because they knew what would come up from this fight. But the children gave me smiles. They knew that one day somebody would stand up against the mercenary scoundrels, and for tonight, it was worth the watch.

Then came this man, wearing a drab tan uniform with a star on right chest. He had a gun on his belt, and it was the first time I saw a man with a gun since I woke up at Hogye. He must have been the sheriff. He was in his early forties but clearly well exercised. He curtly grabbed my arms and forced me to lean on the hood of the jeep, grumbling, “What the hell did you do? Do you realize what you’ve just done?”

“Sheriff, I was just trying to help Mr. Cedro,” I complained.

“Yeah? How? By breaching the contract with the CAMR?” the sheriff snapped.

“Hauptmann Viveros wanted Mr. Cedro to fix his 'Mech tonight, but Cedro’s son is sick. I offered them my service, but instead they attacked me. Mr. Cedro can validate my claim.”
Much to my dismay, Cedro dipped his head to his chest, and without looking at me, he weakly said, “Senor Viper and I were having a little disagreement, that’s all.”

“That’s what I thought!” the sheriff snarled, then cuffed my hands behind the back. “Now get up, big guy! See if you can stand my brig! Cedro, you come along!”
The sheriff hauled me to his car and put me in the back seat. He dismissed the crowd, and drove to his office. I could not understand these people. I fought for them. I took the blows for them. And for that, they treated me like a criminal. I understood that I might have breached the contract between the CAMRs and Hogye, but I refused to believe that the CAMR mercenaries were the only solution to Hogye’s problem.

As we arrived at the sheriff office, the sheriff hauled me to the jail and started a long questioning for Cedro. Through the cell bars I could hear the mechanic explained over and over about what happened. He was insistent that I was the one that started the fight, not the mercenaries. He never said anything about being forced to leave his sick son. I could hear people murmuring outside the office, waiting for the sheriff to handle this situation. But the aura in the sheriff told me how serious this matter was.

I felt like a complete idiot.

Then somebody else came into the office. She was a woman, clearly in the mid forties, and I could see from her gait that she held a high position in Hogye. She inspected the office, and quickly caught the intense atmosphere inside. She threw a quick look at Cedro, then came to the sheriff’s attention. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Our ‘visitor’ mauled the Viper and his goons,” the sheriff explained.

“How bad?”

The sheriff did not answer. A simple headshake was enough for the lady to understand the gravity of the situation.

“Senor Viper and I were having a conversation,” Cedro tried to defend me. “He wanted me to work on his 'Mech tonight. Out of nowhere Parker came and got Senor Viper really, really mad. Then they got onto a fight. What’s gonna happen to us now, Senorita?”
“I don’t know,” the mayor stated, looking at me with pity. “But are you sure you were just talking, and nothing else?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the sheriff shot a perplexed look at the mayor. “Are you taking his side?”

“Just want to be sure about what really happened…”

Before the mayor could finish her sentence, two men and a woman entered the office. By the way they dressed up, I knew that they were the rest of the Hunt Lance. And I knew that they came to avenge their commander. They swept the office with their eyes, and when they spotted me, they lowered their hands to grab their knives. But before everything went out of control, the sheriff drew his gun and cocked the hammer. The ‘click’ sound served as a warning for the mercenaries. They stepped back, and one of them walked toward the mayor. He was a young man, barely passed his twenties. But being the spokesman for the mercenaries, in the absent of the Viper, showed his inner strength. He might be the best MechWarrior in the Hunt Lance, even better than the Viper.

“My name is Wade Avery, second-in-command of CAMR Hunt Lance,” the man spoke arrogantly. His posture showed no respect whatsoever to the middle-aged mayor. “This is John Hunter and Evee Ridinghood, my lance mates. I am speaking on behalf of Hauptmann ‘Viper’ Viveros. As we both know, our commanding officer was mauled by the outsider under your protection. Hauptmann Viveros suffered a severe broken arm, and three other MechWarriors were also beaten. I want the perpetrator to be held responsible…”

“You shall get your justice,” the mayor boldly interjected. “Parker will be detained here while Sheriff Fercyn conducts investigation of this matter.”

“I don’t need investigation, old lady,” Wade said curtly. “That man brutally attacked and bludgeoned my commander along with three of my lance mates. I don’t want your justice. I want my justice… a warrior’s justice!”

“Bludgeon is a rather strong word, Mister Avery,” the mayor replied. “And neither of us saw what really happened, so let’s wait until the investigation is finished. Parker will stay here until we can settle our differences about it. You are welcome to contribute to the investigation, but until then, he stays!”

“I thought we had an understanding,” Wade hissed.

“The way I understand our contract, Mister Avery, is that you take care of the nolans while my people provide you with everything you need. If you try to interfere with our justice system, you are breaching our contract. If I report your conduct to the CO of CAMR, he may revoke your privilege and your 'Mechs.” With a defiant smirk the mayor approached the mercenary. “Your choice. And if you think that I am bluffing, you are sadly mistaken.”

It was clear that the mercenary was not a good negotiator, but a persistent warrior. He paused for a moment, pulling himself together, then spoke with a venomous tone, “You have one week to hand him over. I will withdraw the CAMR forces from Hogye, and I will come back seven days from now. Should you decide to retain him, I will flatten Hogye until no stone is left on another. That is, if the nolans haven’t gotten you first. Now excuse me.”

As the mercenaries left, the mayor and the sheriff looked at each other as if they were discussing something. The sheriff’s eyes were raging with rage and desperation, and his face flushed in a reddish hue. The mayor maintained her cool attitude, although I captured a glint of doom in her eyes.

“How could you possibly choose the outsider over your own people?” the sheriff roared, his hands clenched so hard I could hear his knuckles cracking. “Just give them what they want!”

“They’ll kill Parker,” the mayor replied calmly but firmly.

“So what? It’s better him than us!”

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d hold you accountable for that comment!” the mayor snarled.

“Why not?” the sheriff rebuked curtly. “He’s ruining everything! Because of him, the CAMR left Hogye. We are defenseless against the nolans without them. That’s what I’m concern about, because that’s my job! And you have made my job so much more difficult than it should be! What do you see in him that make you think he’s worth more than Hogye’s citizens?”

“It’s my job to nurture everybody that needs help.” The mayor paused to take a deep breath, then spoke slowly, “The Hunt Lance won’t leave Hogye until tomorrow. I suggest you start doing your job and plan your defense against the nolans.”
The sheriff shot a fiery stare at the mayor, then left the office. The mayor looked at me and Cedro interchangeably before walking toward my cell. After what happened to her and the entire town of Hogye, it was remarkable that she could maintain such a calm attitude.

“I don’t think we’re properly introduced,” she spoke to me without any sign of feelings. “I am Mayor Megi. I see that you and Cedro have made quite an acquaintance. And I see that you met Sheriff Fercyn. Don’t get him wrong. He’s a temperamental old dog, but inside he’s a good man.”

“Mayor, I never meant this to happen,” I said sincerely. “I only meant to help…”

“I know…” Mayor Megi nodded. “Still, you’ve damaged us more than you helped us.”

“Then why did you hold me?” I asked, completely puzzled. “You could have sent me to the CAMR and fixed the damages I did. You could have saved the whole town.”

“No redemption should be made upon another’s blood,” the mayor sighed. “The damages had been done since the first day the Hunt Lance came to Hogye. Now stay here and behave. I’ll see if I can help Fercyn. Cedro, why don’t you come with me.”

The mayor went out of the office, followed by the mechanic. He shot a quick glance at me before leaving me alone in the sheriff’s office. I caught his glance, filled with regret and sorrow. But he quickly got out of the office, and I was alone, locked up in a cell.

FOUREdit

Sheriff’s Office,

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

March 30, 3058


Five days was a very long period, especially if you sat in a 2-by-3 meter cell and did nothing. Sheriff Fercyn was hardly in his office, and when he was, he just stared at me with hate-filled eyes.. Mayor Megi visited me once in a while, but her focus was the safety of her people. Not even Cedro, the man I stood up for, bothered to come by. My only regular visitor was Nurse Lin. She came twice a day, in the morning before she went to the hospital, and in the evening after she was done with her chores. She was the only one that had not condemned my stunt against the CAMR, the stunt that ultimately put Hogye into peril.

Nurse Lin kept me up to date with what happened outside the bars. Since the Hunt Lance left Hogye, nolan’s activities had increased, which proved her statement that nolans were intelligent beings. I eavesdropped on a conversation between Megi and Fercyn discussing that, in the event of nolans attacking Hogye, all civilians should go the city hall. Fercyn would single-handedly defend the city hall with his BattleMech, while several trained citizens wearing their Cutlass battle armor would guard the building from the inside, in case the nolans broke through Fercyn’s defense. This plan was deemed best for everyone.

Sadly, everyone but me.

Tonight was the second time Nurse Lin did not visit me. I knew that the nolans had overwhelmed Hogye, and all citizens took refuge on the city hall. All night long, I heard shuffling sounds on the office roof. I knew that the nolans smelled my presence, and they were trying to get into the office. Nurse Lin always said that the nolans were intelligent and cunning predators, and if that was true, they must have been taking precautions. They must have known, scouted, or saw that this place was the home for the only BattleMech left in Hogye, and they were no match for the BattleMech.

I knew that Hogye citizens had taken refuge in the city hall, and nobody would fetch me. I knew that I was alone. In order to survive against the nolans, I had to exploit their weaknesses. But I had never seen a nolan before. So until I saw one, I decided to stay in the cell. This cell provided a strong defense for me while I observed the situation and determined the best action for my own sake.

The nolans sniffed the office all night long, and when dawn broke, they were sure that the 'Mech would not return to its home. They were ready to make their move. I heard them receding from the roof methodically, then I heard nothing of them. It was quiet for about half an hour, and when the sun started to shine, I heard creaks from the door. Behind it, I saw two humanoid shadows, and I heard sharp breaths huffing from their orifices. Moments later the shadows moved cautiously into the room, and for the first time, I stood face to face with the natives of planet Engadine.

They were tall, easily twice as tall as me. They had three long, sharp talons on each hand. Their bodies were covered with thick sable hide. I could see their eyes on their squat head. They were black, cold, dark, but sparkling with intelligence. They scanned from side to side, making sure that I was the only one in the room, then they moved slowly toward me. I could hear mischievous growls from their short snouts, like they were taunting me.

I was scared. I felt my knees trembling and cold sweat beading at the back of my neck. But I knew I could not let my fear take control of my body. I had to find a strategy to exploit their weaknesses. The nolans were big and lanky, so I assumed they were slow and vulnerable to low blows. They had long arms and talons, which I suspected to be their primary weapons. They would swing their arms to cut me to pieces. Arm swinging, though powerful, was slow, which might give me time defend myself. I had no weapons to threaten them with. A vague memory twitched in my mind with the image of a campfire.

Fire.

As they approached the cell, I looked around to see if I could start a fire. My rudimentary bed was an excellent fuel. All I needed to have was a match or a zippo. Luckily, Sheriff Fercyn was a smoker. There were cigarettes and a lighter scattered on the table. Unfortunately they were out of my reach. I had to find a way to reach them before the nolans shredded me with their talons.

By this time, the nolans had reached the cell door. They smelled me, and they smelled my fear. They could not reach me inside the cell, so they banged the bars with their talons. I witnessed their impressive power with awe as the ceilings started to crumble. They jarred the bars again, and the bars screamed. Parts of the ceiling plummeted to the ground as the steel bars twisted under the assault of the two nolans. They were so close to me that I could feel their hot breaths. I could see trains of sharp teeth on their face as they hammered the bars.

I lowered my posture and bent my legs to my chest, ready to make a hasty escape once the bars went down. My heart was pounding in my ears, racing with the nolan’s breath. As the nolans gave their final push, the bars collapsed, and I fired my muscles as hard as I could, keeping my posture low. The closest nolan swung its long arm, trying to catch me with its claws. The arm whooshed inches away from my face, and for a moment I thought the nolan got me. I slid on the floor, and as the nolans pivoted, I got up and quickly snatched the lighter from the table.

I realized now a fault in my plan. I had a lighter, but the bed was back in the cell, with the nolans between me and it. They started advancing toward me, and I could see their eyes full of rage and fury. I glanced behind me and saw the open door. I had a chance to escape.

But I did not turn.

Something burned at me from the inside. It was a carnal feeling, just like the one before I broke the Viper’s arm five days ago. I knew the odds were overwhelming, but something would not let me run from these two predators.

So I stripped my shirt and set it afire. The nolans stopped their advance, watching the cloth in my hand turning into a blazing rag. They knew the fire would hurt them. I realized I only had a moment or two, and then my advantage would be gone. So I had to act fast. I jumped toward them, and I flung my flaming shirt at one of the nolans. The tall beast swerved to the left to dodge the flame, but instead rammed the other nolan. They tripped on the bars, and together they tumbled onto the bed, the fiery shirt still stuck on a shoulder and blazing away. The bed held them for a second, then collapsed under their weight, the concussion of its impact on the floor stunning the creatures.

The shirt fell onto the ratty blanket, which quickly ingnited. My brain was working at light speed as I scanned the room. Somehow I had missed the half full bottle of whiskey the sheriff had been working on the last few days. I grabbed it off the counter and whizzed it over the wiggling nolans and watched it smash into the wall, spraying their bodies with fuel for the bonfire.

The room reverberated with agonizing cries as the two nolans writhed, flaming, trying to get up. But their big statures and erratic movements thwarted their attempt to get out of the fire quickly. As they squirmed, I quickly ran toward the cabinets, hoping to find some sort of weapon. There were only papers on the cabinet. I rummaged the drawer of the table, and I found a small, rusty pocketknife. It might not sharp enough to pierce the nolan’s skin, but it would sure enough burst an eyeball.

Meanwhile, the two nolans had finally risen. The fire was still burning somewhat but was more sputtering smoke and now ………..they were pissed!

Red blotches covered their upper bodies, the gooey sign of burn wounds. Their black eyes were flaming, just like the wall that started to burn. They picked up a fighting stance and extended their arms, showing off their foot-long nails. I stood still and waited for them to come to me.

One of the nolans lunged forward and swung at me. I ducked hard, almost touching my chin to the ground, letting the big long arm swerved inches away from my head. The other one joined in with a massive overhead swing. I jerked backward as hard as I could, and the three steel-hard talons sunk into the floor. I could not believe how sharp they were. But there was no time to admire this predator. The nolan was in a crouching position, exposing its upper body to me. I knew it was my time. I lunged forward and jammed my measly pocketknife into its right eye. The giant let out an excruciating roar while covering its right eye. Greenish fluid trickled in between its claws. It stumbled by the sheriff’s desk and careened to the ground, knocking out the cabinet on the wall.

The other one jumped at me at full speed. I flinched as had as I could, but the tip of its claws gouged my bare chest. I felt chunks of flesh being ripped out of my body. I lost my balance and slouched to the floor. Three long wounds adorned my chest, which started to ooze blood. I felt a sting of pain running through my entire body. I bit my lips to ease the pain, but every move I made felt like a dozen knives on my chest. I slowly got up, and saw the nolan was already in position for the next attack. Its eyes twinkled with excitement. It knew I was hurt, and the smell of my blood gave it a boost to end this fight quickly so that it could feast on my flesh.

As I got up, I realized that the floor was covered almost entirely by paper from the knocked over cabinet. The other nolan, the one I blinded, managed to get up and now took the attack position, as if its punctured eye did not bother it a bit. For a moment I wondered why I took on these two savage beasts when I had a chance to escape. Did this have something to do with my past? If yes, then what was I before? What did I do for a living, that I moronically fought two nolans barehanded? These questions spun in my head while the nolans inched toward me.

The half-blinded nolan leapt forward and tried to clobber me. I mustered all energy to dodge that attack, and I jumped toward the tumbled desk. The other nolan followed suit with a mighty swing. I rolled to the side, and the sheriff’s desk flew to the wall, swept by the awesome power of the nolan. I quickly got up, and I realized that I was standing near the flaming bed. The fire had consumed the wall, and it was a matter of time before the entire building burned to cinders. Disregarding pain, I stripped the half-dusted bed cloth and hurled it toward the nolans. The flame incinerated the papers on the floor, and within seconds, the papers caught fire.

As the nolans retreated in panic, I spotted a loose bar from the jail that was knocked down by the predators. One of the edges was already glowing red from extended exposure to fire. I picked it up, and I brought the battle to the nolans. I drove the hot steel bar into the gut of one nolan. The bar went cleanly into the belly, and exited at the back, close to the vertebrae. The nolan bellowed horrifically, then swerved its arm to ward me off. I sidestepped to the right, and its claws jammed into the floor. The beast yanked its arms up, and two of its talons broke. The talons were about a foot long, so even after breaking halfway, they were still impressively long. And they were sharper than any blades I had ever seen.

Now I had their weapons.

I picked up one of the broken talons and quickly stabbed it into the nolan’s belly. The talon went in without much resistance. Then I made a curve, slicing half of the nolan’s abdomen. A glob of innards burst out of the wound, spilling into the floor. The nolan cried a long perilous scream as it went down to its knees, trying to stop its guts from spilling out of its body. But the more it moved, the more entrails it lost.

The half-blinded nolan stood in shock, watching its kin struggling with its bowels. This gave me a chance to attack. I swung to the back and stabbed the back of its feet, slicing its achilles tendons. It screamed and dropped to the floor, wailing and writhing to get rid of the fire. Kneeling, its head was as high as my shoulder, so I swung the talon at its neck. But its neck was almost as big as my body. I only cut off half of its neck. Green fluid jetted out of the wound, and the nolan thrashed uncontrollably, flinging its limbs in every direction. But it quickly lost its power and crashed to the floor, breathing erratically for several moments, then stopping altogether.

By that time, the sheriff’s office had set ablaze. Smoke obscured my vision, and the heat had made my head spin. I knew it would crumble any minute, so I had to work quickly. I cut the remaining neck of the half-blinded nolan, then approached the other one. It was still alive, swimming on its own body fluid, gasping for air, watching me come with a look of defeat in its eyes. I ended its misery by cutting off its head Then I took both of my trophies and headed out into the street.

The cold air outside gave me another sting at my chest. For the first time in five days, I was out again, and it was the first time I saw what happened. The town was virtually empty. I did not see a single human, only dark shadows that were nolans. In the distance stood Fercyn’s Commando, loitering about the city hall where the entire population of Hogye stayed. The nolans kept the distance far enough from the 'Mech’s longest weapon.

The moment I stepped out of the burning office, Hogye stirred to life. The nolans smelled my blood, and started to box me from all direction. I knew I did not have a chance against a horde of these ravenous creatures, but I might have something to destroy their morale. I halted and waited until the nolans got closer. I counted no less than three dozen nolans coming toward me. I could hear their rasping breaths. When they reached five meters from my position, I hurled the two nolan heads to the ground in front of me.

As I hoped, the nolans stopped their advances. They looked at me with wonder, awe, and respect. Yes, respect. I could see it clearly in their eyes. They stood still for some time, then retreated methodically into the jungle near the town, leaving me alone with the two heads.

I was tired, hurt, and cold. My torso was soaked with blood. My vision started to tunnel down, and I careened to the ground. Torn between consciousness and oblivion, I felt several hands grabbed me and covered my body with cloth. I could hear the voice of Dr. Kim and Nurse Lin. I did not know if it was my hallucination, but next thing I knew, I was inside the city hall, lying on a warm bedding on a table. A myriad of people gathered around me, including Mayor Megi, Dr. Kim, Nurse Lin, and Cedro.

“How messed up am I?” I whispered.

“Very much,” Dr. Kim replied, “but not enough to kill you. You’ll get up before you know it.”

“The nolans?”

“Gone,” Nurse Lin said. “They’ve given us another day.”

“We must maintain the momentum,” I mumbled while trying to get up. “We have to strike them before they can regroup and find…”

“You’ve done enough for today,” Megi said, pushing me back to the table. “No one has killed two nolans… barehanded. You’ve set a standard on how we have to fight for ourselves, Parker. But let’s leave that for tomorrow. You need rest.”

I could not agree with her more. After staying alert all night and battling the beasts in the morning, I felt my body did not have energy left. I surrendered to the comfort of sleep.

FIVEEdit

Mayor’s Office, City Hall,

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

March 31, 3058

“Like I mentioned before, we have to maintain our momentum. The nolans are confused, momentarily panicked, and retreating. This is the best time to strike them. Even if we do not kill many nolans, at least we give them a strong message: we are not afraid of them.”

By this time, I was confident that I had intense military training in my previous life. It was the only logic behind my aggressive yet methodical behavior. My barbaric stunts against the CAMR and the nolans spoke for themselves. Riding this wave of respect from the townspeople, I asked them to listen to my plan to solve the nolan threat without the mercenary’s aid. The nolans, though fearsome, were flesh and blood. I had proven that they could be killed by a human not piloting a BattleMech. I wanted to prove to Hogye citizens that they did not need the CAMR to defend them against the predators.

But the problem was: the people of Hogye were not ready to think and act militaristically. The broad city hall, quiet as a graveyard when I put my thoughts forward, suddenly erupted into dissonance. It was hard to hear what they were saying, because they yelled and grumbled at the same time. But I caught their main idea. These simple people had been isolated from weapons and strategy for years. My simplest, rudimentary tactic felt so foreign to them that they considered it almost blasphemous. I had asked for only five minutes of their time. Now it seemed that I would need it a lot longer.

“Doesn’t it occur to you that we don’t have the necessary weapons to quench this bloodlust of yours?” a curt response rose up from the crowd.

“We can make weapons,” I replied confidently. “In fact, we may have BattleMechs, but weapons and BattleMechs do not kill nolans. We, humans, do.”

“Cojeda tu, vos guevon pendeja!” Trejo yelled, advancing toward me with blazing eyes. “The Hunt Lance left Hogye because of you, and now you want us to fight the nolans ourselves! Loco, mucho loco! You’re the one who are responsible for this mess, so you do the fighting, not us! I refuse to take part in this insanity, and I ask every other Hogye citizen to rally behind me!”

“Fercyn, escort this chickenshit out of my city hall!” Mayor Megi suddenly blurted.

“What?” Trejo’s head snapped, not expecting Megi to stand against him. “Senorita Megi…”

“You heard the lady, Senor,” Fercyn hissed. “You can walk out of here and save yourself from humiliation, or I’ll drag your ass so hard you won’t be able to sit for a week.”

Trejo looked at Megi, Fercyn, and me interchangeably, trying to comprehend the sudden change of situation. But he knew that he did not have a choice, so he walked briskly, muttering profanities too disgusting to mention. All eyes followed the manager of the 'Mech garage until he disappeared behind the door.

“Now look at the reality, Parker,” Megi came to me. “No one in Hogye is like you. We are just ordinary citizens. Most of us haven’t shot a gun before. You can’t expect us to run your battle scheme, because we are not warriors. We just don’t have the weapons, the skill, and the heart.”

“I can not give you the heart, but I will give you the skill,” I stated sincerely. “And Mr. Cedro mentioned about the Cutlass battle armors. We can use them.”

“There are only eight units of them, two are barely operational,” Cedro raised his voice. “What can we do with eight battle armors?”

“We do not have to make them extinct. This is not a Rooting. We just have to strike them back to show them that we are not afraid of them. Fear is what fuels their rampage on Hogye. Strike them and fear will be theirs.”

“How do we know that this is not your ploy to get out of Hogye?” Fercyn joined in. “The Hunt Lance is coming tomorrow. How can we be sure that you are not trying to escape the Hunt Lance by planning this strategy?”

It was a hard question to answer. I did not blame them for thinking ill of me. I screwed them once, and it was hard to regain their trust. I had to choose my words carefully. “I can not give you more than my words, Sheriff Fercyn,” I said slowly. “But please consider that I had a chance to escape when you left me to die in the hands of the nolans. I did not take that opportunity. Instead, I made them leave Hogye, and I am still here devising this plan, so you will never depend on the CAMR again.”

The city hall was suddenly quiet. I had gained their attention.

“This is my plan: I will lead seven of your ablest men in Cutlass battle armors to attack the nolan’s stronghold. We only hunt them down as long as we do not put ourselves in danger. So stay close to me, and do exactly what I say. I promise, I will bring everybody home. If this plan fails, then I will surrender myself to the Hunt Lance so they can resume the contract with you. If it succeeds, then…” I paused for a moment, giving them a chance to grasp the most important thing of this plan. “If this plan succeeds, then you get yourself an army.”

“An army of eight?” Fercyn skeptically scoffed. “What can you do with an army of eight?”

“End the contract with the CAMR,” I could not help but smile. “Then you are forever independent. Is it not your wildest dream, Sheriff Fercyn, to take control of your own fate? Do you not want to go back to Hogye’s golden age? Building an army is the first step to reclaim everything that had been lost because of the Clan invasion. It is a small army, but it is yours to command.”

I could see in Fercyn’s eyes that he started to see the light in my idea. The city hall broke out in murmurs, and I sensed energy rise up from the crowd. I could feel their trust growing. Of course, if this plan ended up in catastrophe, they would certainly kill me. But it was a risk I could not avoid if I wanted to see them free from the nolans and the despotic Hunt Lance of the CAMR.

As they bathed in high spirit, I took a step back and wondered what I was doing here. These people were certainly not my kin. I did not act like any of them, and they certainly got on my nerves with their slow, retarded way of thinking. But here I was, trying to help them get on their own feet. I wondered where this soft nature came from, considering how violent I was against the CAMR and the nolans.

Maybe I was just being appreciative.

“A good plan, Parker, but I can’t let you do it today,” Megi spoke after a long hiatus.

“We do not have time, Mayor,” I argued. “The Hunt Lance will come tomorrow…”

“I’ll deal with the Hunt Lance,” Megi interjected. “You can’t go with those wounds. If you want to do it, you’re doing it in three days.”

“Three days? We are losing the momentum in three days…”

“Three days, or there will be no hunting at all!” Megi fizzled. “We both know that you’re an avatar, Parker. But you’re only human. So stop being turgid and start acting like you’re supposed to be. I’ll let Doctor Kim take a good care of you. Cedro, you have three days to fix the battle armors to nominal condition. Fercyn, come with me. Let’s discuss our plan to deal with the Hunt Lance.”

“Si, Senorita,” the small mechanic rose to his feet. “Coming right up.”

I wanted to rebuke. I was hurt, but I could not afford to rest for three days. The nolans might have been regrouped in three days. We were wasting the momentum. But I realized that Megi had the last call on this matter. She was the mayor, the leader of Hogye, and I could not get around her authority, no matter how imperative it was to press on the attack. I just had to wait for three days.

While I was developing a new strategy, Dr. Kim and Nurse Lin came to check on my stitches. The doctor shook his head, muttering, “You are one doggone sonofabitch, you know that? You can’t go out hunting like this! You’d be jeopardizing yourself and your “army”, if that’s what you want to call them.”

“I am just trying to help,” I argued.

“We know, we know,” Nurse Lin replied while gauzing my stitches. “And we appreciate what you’re doing for us. But if you’re taken down, the others will be lost. They don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll look up to you. You have to be in pristine condition when you lead your men to battle. And by pristine I mean not only your body, but your mind as well.”

I conceded. I could not assume that these people were commando units who dared to wade through fire with minimal protection. They were just ordinary citizens. I might have worked with elite soldiers in my past, but it was not the case with Hogye citizens. I had to devise a plan feasible for these people, while maintaining the standard that I would set for myself. And fortunately, I had three days to do that.

“There, you’re all fixed up,” Nurse Lin stated. “I know you’re hot-blooded, but try to be timid for three days to heal completely. If there is any problem with the stitches, you can call me or Dr. Kim.”

“I will,” I said, forcing myself to smile. As I got up, Cedro came to me. I knew what he wanted to say, but I let him do it anyway.

“I am sorry about what happened last week,” Cedro said, his eyes were gloom with regrets. “It was very kind of you to defend me, but in return I speak ill of you. You didn’t deserve it.”

“I understand,” I replied truthfully. “You were scared. After today, you will not afraid of anything anymore. This much I promise you.”


Outskirts of Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 1, 3058


The discordant steps of BattleMech feet vibrated through the ground. They were scant at first, more like heartbeats, but as time went by they became quakes that rattled the windows of Fercyn’s car. In the distance, the lumbering shadows of three BattleMechs advanced toward Hogye. The CAMR Hunt Lance had come to avenge their leader, bringing with them the entire tank company to back them up.

I sat in the back seat of Fercyn’s car, with a chain on my wrists, watching these lethal machines wade through the light forest. The biggest one was a short 'Mech, with long-barrelled arms and a missile tube on its left torso. The other two were humanoid, with multiple missile tubes on their torsos and barreled guns as their lower arms. The tanks prowled through the forest in line formations, giving them a wide firing arc. Their armors gleamed under the morning sun, and if they had come with any intention other than to collect me, I might have enjoyed the view.

About 100 meters from where we parked, the BattleMechs stopped their advance, and regrouped in line formation. They stood shoulder to shoulder, with all guns trained toward Hogye. It was intimidating and scary. I did not know if these people were capable of doing something dishonorable, like killing unarmed civilians, or not. Personally, I would prefer them as far away from Hogye as possible, but Mayor Megi and Sheriff Fercyn had another thing in mind. I just hoped that whatever it was, it had been thoroughly considered.

“Alright guys, it’s showtime,” Megi said, and walked from the car.

Sheriff Fercyn cocked his sidearm, then assisted me out of the vehicle. Together we walked toward the BattleMech line. The canopy of the largest BattleMech popped open, and the pilot climbed down. It was the Hunt Lance second-in-command, Wade Avery. The pilots on his right and left side also exited their 'Mechs and accompanied him to the ground. They met us right in the center between their 'Mechs and Fercyn’s car.

“I wish the Viper were man enough to come here and ask himself,” Megi said.

“Hauptmann Viveros is still undergoing medical treatment,” Wade replied tersely. “And don’t try to be cute with me, Mayor. With a flick of my finger, my war machines will advance toward Hogye and destroy everything. The only way you can prevent that is by giving me him.” He pointed at me.

“We are not done with our investigation,” Fercyn answered back. “I can’t confirm your story that this man bludgeoned your commander. It would appear that Hauptman Viveros drew the first blood. We need two more weeks.”

“Two more weeks? Do you think I’m stupid enough to withstand this joke?” Wade made a small advance, causing Fercyn to graze his pistol with his thumb. “What is he to you that you put everybody in my crosshairs just to save him?”

“It’s not even his words, Mr. Avery,” Megi spoke sternly. “Words on the street are very much different from your claim. Your drunken commander harassed the tech that has been faithfully obeying his command. Parker offered his service, and in return, the Viper attacked him. When he could not defeat him, he ordered the others to swarm him… with knives! I don’t know what you name such an act, but I call it cowardice.”

“You lying bitch,” Wade harshly snapped, and he raised his right hand to cue his lancemates to attack Hogye. “There’s no way Hogye citizens have the balls to say that!”

“Oh, but they do, Mr. Avery,” Megi continued with incredible self-control. “Do you know how big Cedro is? The man your commander insulted in front of his family? He’s 5’3”, 125-lb. Your commander needed the accompaniment of four men to come to Cedro’s home and disgrace him. And look at Parker. Do you think the Viper needs four men to subdue him? Don’t you think your commander alone is capable of beating him? I don’t know what you see in him, Mr. Avery, but if I were you, I would question my judgment.”

It was a very critical moment, as I could see in Wade’s eyes that he was very close to give the cue to his lancemates. But somehow Megi’s last comment about the Viper stirred something in his mind. A shadow of confusion clouded his eyes as he lowered his right hand slowly. He gave me a straight look, then came back to Megi, “You don’t know how close you are from being pulverized, Mayor! How dare you insult my judgment?”

“The moment you open fire on Hogye, my men will send the battleROM of our conflict to MRBC from Kinst,” Megi replied, as if Wade’s 'Mechs and tanks did not intimidate her. “It will tell them how much you crossed the line by interfering with our internal system, and the fact that you opened fire on unarmed citizens. That’s against the Ares Convention, if you haven’t noticed. A serious war crime. If MRBC sees everything, you can spend the rest of your life cleaning filth from jump jet nozzles.”

The power of Megi’s words finally won over Wade’s common sense. The young MechWarrior took a step back, hissing, “One more week, Mayor. I give you one more week. If I don’t have him by then, I will besiege Hogye until you all die of famine. Not even MRBC can be your saving grace anymore.”
Wade cued his lancemates to climb into their BattleMechs, then took them out of Hogye’s outskirt.

“That’s a very dangerous game you played, Megi,” Sheriff Fercyn said, wiping his cold sweat. “Wade Avery knew you were lying, and even if he didn’t, he will sooner or later.”

“He’s young, he’s honorable, but he’s inexperienced,” Megi replied, smiling triumphantly. “I know I can manipulate him.”

“Still, what if it wasn’t him?” Fercyn blurted, irritated. “What if it was the Viper, and he skipped the negotiation? Hogye’s gone by now! I can’t believe you did this, Megi!”

“But it worked, for now.” Megi responded while setting my hands free. “The bottom part is we have another week. It’s half what we wanted, but it’s still plenty of time. Now let’s get back home. We have a lot of things to do.”

“Mayor, if I can have a moment of your time,” I halted her. “Why are you doing this? Why are you so adamant about keeping me from the mercenary? Do you know who I was?”

My last question seemed to give a shock to Megi. She froze, looking at me with a blank stare. It was the first time I saw her caught off guard. She stood still for several moments, until she came back to her senses. “Don’t be stupid, Parker. I will do the same for every Hogye citizen. Now let’s head back.”

I was about to ask more, but she quickly got into the car, as if she was avoiding me. Sheriff Fercyn lit a cigarette, heaved and puffed the smoke several times, then got into the car. So I followed them. The journey back to downtown Hogye was quiet as everyone was busy thinking of what just happened.

I remembered what Wade Avery said about Megi’s willingness to jeopardize her own town just to save me. I remembered Sheriff Fercyn expressed similar curiosity the day I beat the Viper and his goons. I did not pay attention at that time, but now that two people had said it, I began to wonder: did Megi hide something from me? Did she know who I was, what I was, or where I came from? So far I knew that I was a military man, that I had had strategic and tactical military training, and that I had had intense combat training before. Exactly how much these traits were related to Megi, I did not know for sure. I just have a strong feeling that she knew me more than I thought she did.
Some other time, maybe, when she was ready to tell the truth.

SIXEdit

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 2, 3058


Megi’s far-fetched negotiating tactic had earned Hogye another week to live. For most, a week would make little difference. But for me, yesterday’s incident was a pivotal moment in planning my next move. We have seen the strength of the Hunt Lance: a lance of BattleMechs, backed up by two lances of battle tanks. We knew that much, and we had a week to think about the best possible defense. The tanks should be easy to handle. They would not be able to travel across extreme terrain, such as cliffs, lakes, or steep hills. The BattleMechs were the main problem. If we could find a way to neutralize the 'Mech’s mobility, we stood a chance, although slim, against the Hunt Lance.

But all of those could wait. Since the day I killed the two nolans, their activities on Hogye’s perimeter had increased. They had never come to Hogye, but recon said there were more nolans than ever. I guessed that these intelligent animals were investigating us. The incident three days ago must have given them quite a shock. I hoped that they were still just as shaken as when they saw their friends decapitated by a mere human.

My mind wandered as I was being outfitted with the Cutlass battle armor by Cedro in the 'Mech garage. The Cutlass was more of exoskeleton armor rather than full-blown battle armor such as Gnome or Elemental. But again, it was designed as sport armor. The people of Hogye constructed this armor as a protection against the nolans in the Rooting. It had a high tensile strength to withstand the nolan’s sharp claws, and it increased the human’s power and agility. But it did not do well against heat or direct impact such as bullets or shrapnel.

“There, all set up,” Cedro smiled, then handed me two kinds of weapons. “Here’s your primary weapon: an assault laser rifle. The laser beam is strong enough to cut through the nolan’s skin. But it has a slow recharge time, just like laser weapons in general. Here’s your secondary weapon: a submachine gun. The bullets won’t pierce the nolan’s skin, but it will scare them away until your laser rifle is ready.”

I holstered my submachine gun on a small rack on my belt, and slung the laser rifle on my shoulder. Giving Cedro a thumbs up, I strapped on my helmet and walked outside the garage. The Cutlass gave me considerable ease in moving, almost felt like I was walking on cotton gauze. Outside, there waited seven other Cutlass armored men, ready to deliver hard punishment to the nolans. I tapped my helmet twice and spoke to the microphone, “Can anyone hear me?”

A burst of response flooded my speaker.

“Good. Let us divide ourselves into two groups. Bane, Yanthe, Lyu, you go with me. Pirse, you lead the rest. I want diamond formation, so we will have 360-degree field coverage all the time. Our laser rifles are powerful but recharge slow, so when you see a nolan, wait until you get a clear shot. The nolans are very intelligent. They know we have weapons, and they will try to trick us or set up an ambush. When in doubt, shoot. You know that there are no humans within two kilometer radius so if it’s furry, don’t hesitate.”

“How long this is gonna take?” one of them asked, a slight tremor in his voice.

“It depends,” I replied. “We will go to the east and kill as many nolans as possible. If the situation becomes out of control, I will call Sheriff Fercyn for fire support while we retreat back to downtown.” I pointed at the Commando that towered over Hogye’s short buildings. “If you still have doubt in me, have faith in Sheriff Fercyn. He will not let you down.”

My mentioning of the sheriff gave them significant confidence. They stretched up and checked their weapons, making sure that there would be no malfunctioning at the critical moment. I switched the safety off, then led our march to the eastern part of the town.
Hogye was a small town, with a population of roughly 500 citizens. The size of the town was barely 2-kilometer in radius. The town was surrounded by hills and light forest, which was a perfect place for the nolans to wait, snoop, and set up an ambush. Hogye’s topography was also the reason that it was one of the hottest spots during the heyday of The Rooting, before the Clan Invasion.

Along the way to the eastern perimeter, I could feel that we were being watched. I knew that the nolans were there, scouting us, measuring us up and down, but letting us make the first move. When we got there, we immediately climbed up a hill and set up a defense line. The hill provided good view coverage of the plain. We waited for almost half an hour, but we did not spot any nolan activities. All we saw were insects, birds, and some arboreal creatures. I did not like what I saw. Too much quiet made me nervous, and I knew it made everybody nervous too. I knew that the nolans were intelligent enough to set a trap. I wish we had infrared goggles to detect their body heat.

“Maintain formation and stay covered,” I whispered on my mike. “Be ready with your guns, but do not shoot until I say so.”

Slowly I got up while looking at every direction. It was still quiet. I could smell the faint stench of nolans. So I grabbed my submachine gun, and fired a short burst at a bush about 50 meters away from my position. The rattling sound echoed through the light forest, and the bullets chipped the wood and the leaves, tossing splinters to every direction. But as much as I wanted to see a movement, I did not see anything else.
I fired another short burst, then another, and another. I covered as much area as possible without wasting my bullets. It was hard to see in the forest, because everything was dim. But on a corner, I saw something strange. My bullets did not seem to pass through the thickets. I knew there was something behind the brush. It could be a rock, or a dead tree stump, but it could also be a nolan.

“Yanthe,” I whispered, trying not to startle the very nervous guy. “Do you see that brush near the big tree? Hit it with your laser.”

I saw Yanthe’s hands shaking when he hoisted his laser rifle, and fired at the brush. A cloud of greenish ooze sprouted from the thicket, followed by an agonizing scream. A second later a big shadow jumped out of the brush and zipped to the right. I tried to hit it, but before I could make my shot, it slipped behind a large tree. I could not see where Yanthe hit it, but I knew he hurt the beast.

“Stay calm!” I hissed, seeing the Hogye citizens started to panic. The wood suddenly went alive. I saw a lot of movements in the brush, heard crunching sounds and low growls, and often a taunting bellow. I knew they were trying to draw our fire, squeezing us until we were frustrated. I had to keep my lance mates cool. “They are trying to intimidate us. Stay low, keep alert, and do not…”

My lips were still wet when I caught an erratic movement on my left. A big shadow leapt into the air, hit a tree, then launched itself at me. It was a big nolan, bigger than the ones I killed. Its humongous claws were spread wide open, ready to slice me. I ducked and fired my laser from under my armpit. The beam streaked through the air and hit the beast dead center. The beam bored through the thick hide, and a shade of green mist burst from its chest. The big beast flew past my head and crashed with a hefty thud. The gaping hole on its chest puffed green steam.

I did not have time to marvel at my handiwork. Two more nolans burst from behind the trees, one landed in the midst of the formation. Driven by panic, two people fired their lasers, but missed miserably. The nolan swung its large claw and scraped a man. The Cutlass armor prevented the talons hitting vital organs, but the tip of the talons blasted through the armor and sank into the flesh. The man screamed in terror as the nolan tried to retract its claws, but they were stuck on the Cutlass armor.

“Fire at will!” I screamed my order while firing my submachine gun at the nolan. Even though my bullets bounced at the thick hide of the beast, I could see that the nolan was hurt. I knew my laser rifle had not finished charging, so I jumped ahead, trying to grab the poor man. But the nolan was quicker. It leapt onto a tree – with the man stuck on its claw screaming and crying – and ran deeper into the forest.

Logically, I would assume that the man was a loss. I could not abandon the six Hogye citizens alone to pursue the one that had virtually no chance of survival. But I had given them my words. I promised to bring them home, all of them. This was a difficult choice, and for a moment, I froze. My heart prompted me to jump into the darkness and trail this nolan. It would not go far, considering the burden it carried on its hand. But my common sense forced me to stay and fight these beasts.

My moment of pondering was disrupted when another nolan attacked me from the right. I aimed my rifle at its midst, but it swung its arm and hit my arm. My vision blurred when the pain stroke my hand. My laser rifle flew several meters away. I jumped to the side, but the nolan got my left feet. The beast grabbed my left ankle and heaved me toward it. That huge claws dashed toward my face, and I knew my visor would not hold the onslaught. I flexed my abs muscle to flinch as hard as I could, and the mighty claw slammed into the ground just millimeters away from my head. I grabbed my submachine gun and shoved it into the nolan’s mouth. I pulled the trigger, and green fluid showered from the beast’s mouth. It screeched in mortal agony, and crashed to the ground, writhing while grabbing its jaw.

I got up and tried to find my rifle, but in the mean time a nolan had been bludgeoning one of my lance mates. The beast held the poor man at the ankles and slammed the body around, first into the ground, then into the tree, using it as a club. The Cutlass armor held the man together, but I knew that he was dead. His laser rifle was on the ground and I saw the green charge light, signaling its readiness. I scrambled for the rifle and fired at the nolan. The big predator screamed, then reeled to the ground with a steaming hole in its chest.

By this time, the nolans had swarmed our hill. My team members were reduced to five, and although they could hang on, the nolans were getting closer and closer to them. The nolans, on the other hand, did not seem to be deterred by their casualties and our firepower. They were determined to exterminate us. Somehow I thought they knew that if we fell, Hogye would be theirs.

I could not let that to happen.

“Regroup to the center!” I commanded my team, who quickly followed my lead. “They have numbers, but we have range! Let them come and blast them before they get into range! Make every shot count!”

I spotted the closest nolan and blasted it with my laser. The nolan roared in its death throes, then slid down the hill, spurting smoke from its chest. Another team member fired his laser, and hit a nolan right in the head. The nolan died before it crashed to the ground. Two nolans came from the left, and my team greeted them with two well-placed salvo to their midsections. As the two tumbled, three more came from behind. My rifle had recharged, so I blasted the closest nolan while other team members disposed the others. Their confidence had grown considerably, and I did not sense uneasiness anymore. Comments like “Yeah! How do you like it, huh?” or “Who’s the daddy now?” filled up the comlink.

This battle lasted about half an hour, when the nolan carcasses had littered the ground. Knowing that they were outgunned, the beasts retreated into the depth of the forest. My teammates opened their helmets and watched the nolans retreating, awe gleaming in their eyes. They had been oppressed by the nolans for so long that it was hard for them to believe that today they had triumphed over the beasts.

“I don’t believe it,” one murmured. “Jesus Christ! I don’t believe it!”

“We did it!” another one added. “Mr. Parker, we did it! Sonofabitch, we won!”

“Look at the bodies down there! You go to hell, jackasses!”

“I told you,” I stripped my helmet. “There is nothing you cannot do if you believe in yourself.”

“My wife’s gonna be thrilled! Let’s get home!”

The simple men from Hogye started to scatter when they spotted the mangled heap of flesh that was their fallen comrade. They stopped for a moment, lamenting in their own way to commemorate the valiant effort this deceased had given.

“What about Elbil?” somebody asked. “I saw he was taken by a nolan.”

“Poor Elbil,” another replied. “But he’s dead. Nobody had ever come back after being hitched by a nolan. Let’s just go home…”

“Go ahead,” I said. “You deserve it. Leave Elbil to me. I promise to bring everybody home.”

One of them handed in his laser rifle to me. “Here. You need it more than I do.”

“Thank you,” I slung the rifle on my shoulder. “We meet at Hogye.”

As the men happily sprinted toward Hogye, I inspected the ground, looking for any trail of blood that could lead me to Elbil. It was hard, considering most of the ground were covered by the greenish fluid that was nolan’s blood. But at last I found it, small drops of blood on the ground and swaths of blood on the tree trunks. I paused a moment, thinking that it might be another nolan trap. But I had no choice. I might still have a chance to bring Elbil back alive if I move fast. So I readied my rifles and started to run, following the blood trail.

The smears of blood eventually led me to a strange ruin, about one click away from the battle scene. It was a large structure, nothing like I have ever seen. It looked almost like a giant cylinder, but the wall was utterly shattered. Cracks and holes pockmarked the wall, and at some point, I could smell smoke. The blood trail went straight into the heart of this ruin through a large crack on the wall. I knew that I would be extremely vulnerable if I went into the ruin. There were a lot of places where the nolan could hide and ambush me. But again, I did not have a choice. I would not gamble with a human’s life. So I readied my rifles and delved into the ruin.

It took several minutes to adjust myself to the dimly lit surroundings. The interior was wide, almost 15 meters tall. The air inside was soggy. Fortunately, my helmet was equipped with oxygen purifier, so I could go on without fear of intoxication. I walked slowly, knowing that the nolans might have been watching me, waiting for me to make a wrong move. I felt like a dozen eyes were watching every step that I made. In a sense, it was true. I could spot hundreds of crawling insects on the wall, but the one that I wanted to see – or kill – had not shown up yet.

Five minutes passed and I started to smell the familiar stench of a nolan. I stopped, opening up all of my senses to spot the predator, but I could not see it. I had seen their capability to blend in with their environment, much like a chameleon. But no matter how cunning, adaptable, and devious a nolan was, I was even more so.

Slowly I lowered my rifle from my shoulder, and held it with my left. With two rifles in both hands, I crouched on the floor and assumed a low position. The ruin was not my turf, but it was not the nolan’s either. I assumed that the nolan had figured out the recharging time of my laser rifle, and it was waiting for me to shoot blindly in the dark. I fired the rifle in my left hand.

I was right.

As soon as the beam bounced off the wall, a low growl echoed in the dark room. I smiled victoriously as I turned around to face the incoming nolan. I caught a glimpse of dread in its eyes as I fired my other rifle, and sliced its throat with the laser. The big predator skidded on the hard paved floor, gurgling uncontrollably as green fluid spurted from its neck. I waited until my rifle recharged, then I shot the head of the beast, ending its misery.

I collected my other rifle and swept the ruin, looking for any hint of Elbil. But strangely enough, I could not find any trace of human being. I began to wonder if this nolan was the same nolan that hitched Elbil. If it was not, then what was the trail of blood at the mine entry? This puzzled me for some time, and I began to wonder if this was actually another trap by the nolans. I went deeper and deeper into the mine, and was about to give up when I saw something at the end of the tunnel.

I came into a broad hallway, with debris lying around. It was not until I paid closer attention that I realized what type of debris it was. BattleMech parts. I could make out arms, legs, chips of armor, gearboxes, tubes, cockpit glass, belts, gun shells… By the amount of parts, I reckoned there were at least two-dozen BattleMechs, shattered, mutilated, and abandoned. Unspeakable carnage must have happened here.

And then, there was the big shadow on the corner. It was a BattleMech, a huge one, with two gigantic cannons as its lower arms and two smaller cannons on its torso. Even bigger than the largest BattleMech I have ever seen, the Viper’s JagerMech. It was in terrible condition. Its armor was almost shredded to the internal structure. But nonetheless, it was the only 'Mech intact. Its head almost touched the ceiling, and this 'Mech had two windows as the cockpit, closely resembling eyes. There was a grill below these eyes, giving the 'Mech an impression of a sinister grin.

I was so mesmerized by the 'Mech that I did not see someone coming. Suddenly I was jerked aside. My body hit the wall, and through my visor I saw a man, a human being, pinning me to the wall. He was about my size, but I have never seen him before. His eyes shot unprecedented hatred toward me. I was so caught off guard that I did not know what to do.

“Leave! This 'Mech is mine!” the man croaked.

“My name is Parker, I am looking for my…”

“Leave! Go away!” he fizzled even more. “I will kill you all! This 'Mech is mine!”

“Do you know me?” I asked. “Who are you?”

“Get out! Get out!!” he screamed, then hopped into the darkness. My subsequent effort to find him ended up in total failure. I guessed this place was his turf, and I would not be able to find him if he decided to disappear. But I wondered what kind of man lived in this condition. And then, there was this 'Mech. What was this 'Mech doing down here? If Hogye had this 'Mech, why did nobody use it? A BattleMech of this magnitude would solve Hogye’s problems easily. And what about the other 'Mechs, the ripped-apart 'Mechs that littered this ruin? Where did they come from?

I spent about two hours searching for answers to all my questions, and still I could not find anything. Just the mysterious 'Mech, looking at me with its cynical leer. It seemed that Elbil was never here, and neither was the strange man. In fact, I never found Elbil. When I decided to come back to Hogye, it was already dark, and a big celebration was underway. I came to Megi, hoping to get some explanation about my strange encounter in the ruin, but she was just too caught up with the party. I just had to wait for another day.

SEVENEdit

Mayor’s Office, City Hall

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 3, 3058


Yesterday’s excursion was a rousing success. Everywhere I went people exulted our triumph over the nolans. Sometimes the stories blew up into exaggerated epic. But the bottom line was that the somber mood of Hogye had lightened with hope. The fact that two of the warriors were killed in the battle did not stop them from singing, dancing, and chanting of miracles. The deceased were soon forgotten and, sadly, were left to be mourned only by their families.

While most of Hogye’s citizens were out partying, Megi demanded a follow-up meeting regarding the future of Hogye. Only Fercyn, Cedro, the Cutlass warriors, and myself attended the meeting. Unlike the rest of the citizens, Megi and Fercyn did not show any emotion at all. I could see their point. Beating the nolans was only the first step towards their independence. The hardest part was still waiting to fall upon us.

“So we did bring the battle to the nolans,” Megi muttered. “Did we solve this problem, or do we just put it off for a while?”

“I believed we delivered a crushing blow to the nolans yesterday, and we can be assured that they will not come back for a long time,” I spoke confidently. “We can use the hiatus to train more citizens, make more Cutlass battle armors, buy more weapons, and set up a defense grid. Turrets are a good idea, as well as city wall or electric fence. Your budget may be stringent, but with this adequate defense, you might be able to pull off the Rooting next year.”

“That’s certainly good news, Parker. But we still have a problem,” Megi said. “The mercenaries will come in five days to demand justice.”

“I will surrender myself in exchange for your freedom,” I suggested. “I caused the problem, and I will take full responsibility for everything. They can take me as long as they do not come back to Hogye. But that should pose no problem since you have the capability to build your own unit to defend Hogye from the nolans. I think this is the best course for everybody.”

“You know I can’t allow that, Parker,” Megi persisted on her point of view.

“I don’t understand how you can be this pig-headed, Megi,” Fercyn sighed in exasperation. “You heard him yourself: he’ll take the full responsibility. Now you’re not just putting everybody in peril, you’re preventing him from do the only thing that can be done! Why, Megi? Why?”

“You know what kind of man Viper Viveros is, Fercyn!” Megi shot up from her seat. “He’s a man with no honor whatsoever! Think of the most demented torture possible! Think of how Parker will go through the final moments of his life in the hands of Viveros! And remember, we’re talking about Parker who gave us back our dignity as humans! How the hell do you think I’m supposed to live knowing that I’m allowing this disgrace to happen?” She paused for a moment to catch her breath. “No, Fercyn! It’s not gonna happen! Parker stays, and that’s final!”

“It is obvious to me that you are not the same Megi I knew two years ago,” unexpectedly Fercyn put his badge on the table. “You make my job so damn hard that I can’t do it anymore. I’ll leave the Commando for you. You need it more than I do. Call me a coward, but at least I won’t die as a fool. However, I’ll be cheering for you. All the best.” He bowed, then walked out of the door, leaving behind a macabre silence.

Fercyn’s leaving was a deathblow to our plan. He was the only experienced MechWarrior in Hogye. He had been the backbone of Hogye’s defense and the rock where Hogye’s citizens put their hopes on. I turned to look at the Cutlass warriors. Doubt flickered in their eyes. Suddenly their confidence shrunk, replaced by the same reluctant facade that they had worn for a long time. I could understand why they felt that way. They were not soldiers. Fighting the mercenaries was a whole different league than fighting the nolans, especially without Sheriff Fercyn at the Commando.

“If anybody wants to follow Fercyn, now is the time,” Megi finally spoke after minutes of bone-crushing hiatus. “I understand what I’m putting you in, and I won’t hold a grudge against you. Walk now, or forever be silent.”

“But Senorita, how can we fight without Sheriff Fercyn?” Cedro moaned.

“Alright Parker, can you drive a Commando?”

I paused. If I were a MechWarrior before, piloting one should not be a problem. Everything would come back eventually. But if I was not, then I only had five days to learn. I did not think it was possible. So I had to devise two separate plans, one assuming I were a MechWarrior, the other one I was not.

“I do not have the answer until I try it, Mayor,” I gave my answer. “But assuming I can, one Commando can only carry so much firepower. We are fighting a mixed company of 'Mechs and tanks. We need more firepower. Is there a way we can end this conflict in negotiation? Talk to the CAMR CO?”

“All communication in and out of Hogye had been knocked out,” Megi groaned. “And even if we make contact with the CO, I’m not sure if he will reason with us. It may take more than five days. I can pull off another negotiation with Wade Avery, but if Viper Viveros resumes command of the Hunt Lance, there’ll be no negotiation at all. He’ll just march into Hogye until he gets what he wants. We have to slow them down, if we can’t hold them at all.”

“Kinst has five tanks,” Cedro suddenly spoke gallantly. “They’re rusty, but I think I can make them work just fine. I know the technician who works on the tanks. He’s pretty good.”

“That’s not much, but certainly helps,” Megi nodded. “Plus we have six Cutlass battle armors.”

“We are still outgunned,” I reckoned. “There is a hole we can exploit, but it is extremely risky, and we will need a lot of luck. But if we succeed, we will give the Viper and his crews a blow they will never forget for the rest of their lives. Our lives will not be the same.”

I knew I sounded too optimistic. But I had to flare their morale after being abandoned by Fercyn, their guardian angel for so many years. I knew that giving them false hope would only make them fall harder if my plan did not work. But I had no choice. I could not handle the mercenaries alone, and Megi would not let me do the only thing I was certain would help. So I gave them the most plausible scenario I could think of, and hoped that they would accept and do it wholeheartedly. It was the only way.

“When they came the first time, the Hunt Lance took the entire company to intimidate us,” I unveiled my strategy. “I would assume that it would happen the same way this time. If that is correct, then Kinst is left unguarded. So, assuming Kinst is willing to help us, the tanks can follow the mercenaries from a safe distance. That way, they have the element of surprise.”

My mind was racing to come up with something to convince these people that we had a chance.

“If the Kinst tanks can hold their own against the CAMR tanks, we just have to find a way to neutralize their 'Mechs, which is a whole different ballgame. But as insane as it sounds, I have a plan for dealing with them. Cunning and trickery seem to be a part of my past as well. But bear in mind that this scenario is extremely dangerous and needs very good coordination between us and Kinst. Too many mistakes may spell disaster.”

“I will go over the details with you all shortly. And remember our overall objective is to declare that Hogye can take care of itself just fine. If the Lord-President hears that we can beat the mercenaries, he hopefully will review their contract and terminate it.”

I paused, giving them time to think while wondering myself what in the world I was doing. I was taking a huge risk, even bigger than they had to. These people had never had military training, let alone working together in such a critical mission. Assigning them to jobs that needed extreme precision was reckless. There were holes where my plan could go wrong. But I did not have any other way. If I wanted them to be able to defend themselves, if I wanted to cut their bonds, I had to trust them.

“What if something wrong happens?” Megi asked while scratching at her hair.

“Many things can and will go wrong, Mayor, but given the circumstances that you do not let me take the easy way, this is the best I can think of for us. Should things happen to go to hell, we will fix it.”

There was another silence, as if everybody was thinking about the plan. In the end, Mayor Megi rose from her chair and said, “Fine, we’ll do it your way. I will sneak to Kinst to ask their assistance. Meanwhile, you see if you have any experience piloting a 'Mech. Cedro will help you. And nobody say anything about what we discussed today. Keep everything to yourself. Alright, get out of here and do your job. Parker, meet me again tonight and tell me what you find about yourself.”

As everybody dismissed, I saw a perfect opportunity to ask the mayor about the ruin I found yesterday during the excursion. When the mayor walked toward the door, I halted her and asked, “Mayor, when I was out looking for Elbil yesterday, I found this ruin…”

By the way Megi jerked her head, I knew that this had really surprised her. Moreover, I found it in her eyes that she wished I had never said it. “Whatever you saw down there, Parker, don’t mention it to anybody.” She spoke with lower voice. “Not to Cedro, not to your lance mates, not even to me… ever again!”

“But mayor,” I argued, “there was a BattleMech inside the ruin… a very big one…”

“Listen to me Parker,” she interjected. “A lot of people will get hurt if you keep talking about it.”

“Hurt?” I could not believe my ears. “Why? A 'Mech that size could help us in our defense against the Hunt Lance. I do not understand why people will get hurt.”

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with, Parker,” Megi looked at me like a mother looking at her son. “Let’s keep it that way. The less you know, the better it is for everybody. Including you. So let’s forget about the ruin and the 'Mech, hmm? This conversation never happened.”

How could I assume the conversation never happened? I did not understand why Megi wanted to conceal this fact so much. Even if I could not drive it properly, the big 'Mech would deal a tremendous blow to the Hunt Lances’ morale. I could only guess the ruin and the 'Mech were parts of a dark page in Hogye’s history. Or maybe it was personal to Megi, that she would rather not see the 'Mech again, even though it could even the odds a little. I did not seem to have a choice. I thought I just had to respect her wish that I did not bring the 'Mech into my defense plan.

But still…

“Mayor Megi, there is something else. I met somebody down there, a man, who seems to be living in the ruin. He seems to know me. Who is he? At least give me that, Mayor,” I pleaded.

I could see it was hard for Megi to answer my last question. I heard her heaving a labored breath, then spoke firmly, “He’s just an insane wanderer who poses no threat to anybody, so we just ignore him. Don’t let your mind be bothered by little things, Parker. You have a much bigger task. Forget about him and learn to drive the Commando. I’m leaving for Kinst.”

I pressed her again for answers but Megi shrugged off my attempts and left me alone. I felt dejected. I knew she knew that the ruin and the mysterious man were a critical element to unearth my forgotten past, yet she blatantly denied me from the truth, declaring a massive catastrophe if I continued my quest. Seriously, who was I? Was I a hit man of a crime syndicate? A godfather? A mad scientist? A terrorist?

I did not know how long I stood there pondering about my past. Cedro woke me up with a harsh shake on the hand, “Parker, amigo, what are you doing? Planning the battle, no? Let’s try out the Commando. You’ll like it.”

So I followed Cedro to the 'Mech garage. Other technicians were working hard to brush up the remaining Cutlass and the weapons. In the distance I saw Trejo, the manager, looking at me with a hateful stare. His business was halted by this incident. Although the Hunt Lance did not pay him, the 'Mech repair and maintenance allowed him to use up spare parts. He lived off the bonus from the big 'Mech industries such as Kallon, Defiance, or Irian. I knew he hated me for sending away the Hunt Lance, thus ceasing his cash flow.

Cedro led me to the Commando at the corner. It was a small 'Mech, barely five times the height of typical technician in the garage. The bulk of its torso was monopolized by a huge missile launcher with six tubes gaping just above the waist. Two holes peeked from the upper side of its right arm, another one on the left. Two antennae jutted out from behind the head.

“This is an old COM-7X, a very rare variant of the Commando,” Cedro tutored me while the elevator took us to the cockpit. “It replaces the traditional arm-mounted SRM-2 of a COM-2D with double medium lasers, and uses the extra weight for armor and heat sink. You have comparable firepower, but more protection, and less dependency of ammunition. But…” Cedro paused a moment while opening up the hatch to the cockpit, “pay attention to the heat gauge. You can fry yourself easily by overusing the triple lasers.”

“I will keep that in mind,” I replied while trying to get comfortable in the small cockpit.

“I will talk to you through the comlink,” Cedro put on my helmet. “This neurohelmet will merge you with the 'Mech. You and it will become one. Controls are very much self explanatory…” he ceased, shot a strange look at me, then said, “Do you even need these tutorial? Have you not piloted one of these before?”

“We will see, Cedro,” I gave him my thumb. “We will see how much I can remember.”

Cedro closed the hatch, and I waited until he reached a safe distance from the Commando. In all honestly, I did not remember one bit about being in a walking nuclear reactor, a BattleMech. Sitting inside this cockpit was just like sitting on a car, and these blinking gauges were more annoying than instructive. I did not remember how to read these gauges, and I had a feeling that I would never need them.

However, this strange feeling started to creep inside of me. The same feeling that I had when the first time I saw the pictures of BattleMechs at the hospital. It was a blend of thrill, conceit, wrath, sovereignty… and immortality. I wondered if it was a product of sitting elevated inside this war machine, knowing that with a flick of my finger I could destroy anything… or because somehow my brain still recognized how it felt to be a MechWarrior.

There was only one way to find out.

Slowly I pushed the thruster forward. My 'Mech responded with a gentle gait. I could hear the stomp of its feet echoing throughout the 'Mech garage. Using the joystick on my right hand I steered the 'Mech to the right, going for the large door. My adrenaline rushed through my veins, and my heart felt like pounding in my ears. The sunlight illuminated the cockpit as I walked out of the building. It was a totally different perspective. I never saw Hogye from this angle before, and it gave me a jolt in my stomach. I felt like a god of war.

“Muy bueno, amigo, muy bueno!” Cedro screamed in my ears. “You do remember, no? Now try to give it a full run outside the town! It’s been a long time since somebody stretches its legs!”

I guided the 'Mech through the street until I reached the perimeter. I pushed the throttle to maximum, and the 'Mech dashed forward. I felt like I was being nailed to the command couch. The speed gauge showed 96.5, which was impressive, considering the age of this relic. Cedro must have done a very good job maintaining the nominal condition of this 'Mech.

“Now let’s see if you remember how to shoot,” Cedro crackled again. “Look at the right joystick. Red button is for fire. Press that button and everything inside your targeting reticule will fry. You can fire the weapons individually, or link them together with the green button. The orange button is for alpha strike. It’ll trigger all weapons at the same time. It’s very powerful, but you’ll overheat after two or three rounds. Come on, give it a shot!”

I did, and a gush of heat hit me as the weapons blasted. Three emerald streaks blitzed in the air, and six missiles leapt from the tube, creating white trails of smoke. They erupted in the ground, creating a geyser of dust and pebbles. I waited until the weapons recycled, and hit the alpha strike button again. The heat spiked to half maximum level, and I started to sweat. But I was not through. One more alpha strike, and the computer beeped, telling me that I had reached a dangerous heat level. The Commando slowed down, and I started to smell burning rubber inside the cockpit.

“Remember, if you’re getting too hot, flush the coolant a little,” Cedro informed me. “It’ll cool your 'Mech faster. But you have only so much coolant. If you flush too much, you’ll get dry, and nothing will help you from being roasted inside the 'Mech. So carefully pace your weapons.”

“I get it,” I replied. “I reckon it goes the same with the ammunition.”

“Si, Parker. Try different things, then bring it back when you’re done.”

I took my time, taking the Commando to different parts of Hogye, sprinting up and down hills and valleys, just to get the feel of the control. By this time I was confident that I was a MechWarrior before. I did not remember what I piloted, but everything felt right. I knew that I belonged here in the cockpit. The longer I stayed, the more comfortable I felt. My hands felt like merging with the joystick and throttle, and my brain became more and more adjusted to the neurohelmet signals. For a moment, I became a child with his beloved toy, and I did not want to go back to Hogye. I wanted to be here forever.

It was already late when I parked the Commando on the garage. Cedro had been waiting impatiently, and his edginess painted the garage through his eyes as the elevator brought me down. I was surprised to see Mayor Megi in the garage, but when I saw the sparks in her eyes, I knew she could not wait to tell me that she had won five more battle tanks.

“Kinst answered our call to arms,” Megi stated, just as I expected. “They heard what happened, and they are eager to fight the Hunt Lance with us. Their old tanks are slow, but their firepower is still formidable. I believe you can use them wisely.” She paused a moment, then looked at me in the earnest, saying, “Thank you, Parker. Thank you for giving us back our dignity.”

“It is the least I can do to repay your kindness,” I replied. “I feel I will always be indebted to you.”

“Well then, I guess we can call it even,” Megi said, smiling. “Now get to rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day for us.”

I watched the mayor until darkness swallowed her figure. I knew she was hiding something. I could feel it. But right now, I felt like I was in a crossroad. I could force her to tell me what she knew, but would it change anything? Would it change everything? Or I could just accept me ‘as is’, but I would never know my true identity. Was this my life, or was this the life Megi wanted me to live?

I felt like I would never find the answers.

EIGHTEdit

Outskirt Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 8, 3058


The day had finally arrived.

As I predicted, the Hunt Lance came in full fury, sandwiched by two lances of tanks on both flanks. The Viper’s JagerMech took the central stage, leading the entire company. On its left was Wade Avery’s Bushwacker, a good all-around BattleMech. On the Viper’s right were a Trebuchet and a Centurion. Cedro warned me about the Trebuchet. With a pair of long-range missile launchers, this 'Mech posed the greatest threat for Hogye’s civilians, especially in the hands of a skilled pilot. The tanks were mostly Vedettes with a pair of missile carriers.

I sat in the command couch of the Commando, jacketed by tons of armor, armed by three lasers and one missile launcher, yet I felt naked. Looking at the big guns these monsters brought, I felt I would not stand more than three minutes. I start to question my sanity. Was this worth doing, or was it just a vain attempt?

But deep inside of me, I believed that everything was possible. Two of the greatest weapons in any commander’s arsenal are audacity and surprise. It was time to teach this lesson to my enemies.

As the Hunt Lance rolled into Hogye, all they saw was one solitary 'Mech, and a 25 ton relic at that.

I marched toward the Hunt Lance, and halted just on the brink of wide strip of grass. I waited until they reached 1 kilometer from my position, then opened a communication channel with them. “This is Parker. I understand that we have some unfinished business, and as far as I know it does not include Hogye. So let us find a way to solve our problem without including Hogye.”

A curt chuckle burst on the comlink. “You’re right, bonehead! We don’t have to kill everybody. But the only way you can save them is to jump out of that beer can you call a 'Mech and surrender. Now this is your last chance to be a hero. Surrender yourself or Hogye will suffer from your insolence!”

I put the Commando into a slow backpedal. “I will give myself to you, but in a warrior’s way. I bid myself and my Commando against you and your JagerMech. I wager Hogye’s independence along with my bid. If I win, you must cease your relationship with Hogye and Kinst and leave in peace. If you win, you have me.”

The mercenaries chortled more. “What are you, a Clanner? A Commando against my 'Mech? Are you nuts? Just cut the crap and get out of that thing, or we’ll torch Hogye to the very last man!”

I put the thruster to maximum. “No, Mister Viveros. I will not surrender.”
Just as my last words flew over the comlink, my radar screamed proximity alarm. The Bushwacker and the Trebuchet launched its missiles. I reversed direction and broke into a sprint toward Hogye, crisscrossing my path as I went. Seconds later the first missile hit my back, followed by half a dozen more in a quick succession. Each explosion shoved me forward. The missile rain continued, and my head got dizzy with the jarring sound. I tried to twist, but one missile hit my leg. I felt the Commando lose its balance and tumble, flat faced, to the ground.

The crash took my consciousness away for a moment. When I opened my eyes, my gauges were busted up. The smell of burning titanium lingered in the cockpit. I tugged my joystick backward to bring my Commando to its feet, but the ground quaked with explosions, making it hard to stand. Smoke and mud hampered my vision, and the noise of the constant explosions were making my head hurt. I looked at the radar and saw the Hunt Lance had fired up their engines, closing quickly on my position. The tanks followed them just several meters behind the 'Mechs.

“Parker!” Megi screamed on the comlink. “Are you alright? Get out of there!”

“No!” I rebuked. “We must follow the plan!”

“No time, you idiot! They’ll munch you out before you can activate it! I’m calling for help!”

“No! Follow…..the….plan!” I screamed, just as my radar rang again. The distance between me and the Hunt Lance was down to 600 meters, so the missiles would need less time to impact. I kept my course for one second, then quickly engaged a hard right turn. Half of the missiles flew pass my back, the other half tried to follow my maneuver, but the majority of them ended up on the dirt. Only a few managed to pepper my back. But the rear armor of my Commando had been severely mauled, so these few busted into the internal structure and dangerously threatened my reactor. Warning sound swarmed my head. I knew that my 'Mech could not survive another attack on the back.
But when I scanned their position, I saw that the mercenaries had almost reached the strip of grass where I had been standing moments before. They trotted confidently forward, sure of victory, until the JagerMech stepped into the trap.

It was a wide gap, three meters deep, covered with a thin grass camo net and filled with gas and tar. The JagerMech lost its balance and flopped awkwardly into the pit. The tanks saw their leader plunge into the pit and tried to stop, but at their full speed, they needed too much time to come to a complete halt. One by one they plunged into the pool of doom.

The Bushwacker, Trebuchet, and Centurion managed to maneuver clear, but six out of the eight tanks were trapped in the pit, along with Viveros’ JagerMech. They tried to reverse, but the trench was too deep for them to climb up. I yelled into my microphone, “Now! Light them up!”

The Cutlass battle armors, who had been hiding near the trench, came out of their refuge and quickly put their rifles to work. Strands of lasers zipped toward the trench, and in a second, the pit turned into a bonfire. The flame rose into a large wall, separating the mercenaries from Hogye, while roasting the tanks slowly. The tank’s armor was thick enough to sustain the heat, but the temperature inside the cockpits was hot enough to force the crews to get out. It was a mistake. As soon as they got out of the tanks, they were torched. Some of the exterior of the tanks were hot enough that the crews just melted onto the tank, creating black stains on the armor.

From the broken visor of my cockpit I watched as the 'Mechs and the two remaining tanks were thrown into confusion. They were trapped on the outer side of the firewall. I could imagine their comlink filled with screams and unintelligible orders.
Maintaining the momentum, I gave another order. “Kinst, send them the rest of the way to hell!”

Hogye’s perimeter was covered with light forest, a perfect place for Kinst’s tanks to hide. The mercenaries had not recovered from the shock of the pit, when out of nowhere five Vedettes burst from the wood and fired their autocannons into their midst. Shards of armor flew in every direction as the 'Mechs twisted and twitched, trying to fire back. But the confusion threw every attempt to make a coordinated counter attack, and the Kinst’s tanks happily chewed on their armor from every direction.

“Focus on the Bushwacker!” I cried out. “Take one 'Mech at a time!”

Meanwhile, the JagerMech was still trapped inside the pit, but the Viper’s valiant effort finally freed it from the blazing ditch. Unfortunately, he climbed up the wrong side of the pit. His lance mates were on the other side of the wall, and he stood with his back against the firewall, facing me. Half of the 'Mech’s body engulfed in fire, and I knew he could only make a couple of shots before he shut down.

“My offers stands, Hautpmann Viveros,” I closed on him in an intimidating posture. “You want a warrior’s way to end our quarrel, you can have one. We finish it here and now.”
“Asshole!” the Viper replied and fired all his weapons at me. His rushed attack went wide; however, one shell of his UAC slammed home into my right torso. I felt a dazzling quake when the Commando twisted. My console shrieked, signaling critical hit. The shot cut my power in half. Lucky for me, I did not have weapons stored on the right torso.
But the alpha strike, though hurting me greatly, did more damage to him. His hot JagerMech was overheating on the verge of shutting down. His movement slowed down, and he tried to cool off by flushing his coolant, but the fire on his 'Mech lit up the coolant, exaggerating the flame.

I did not waste this opportunity. Pushing my thruster to maximum, I torso-twisted to the left and circled the JagerMech, striking its left leg. The Viper tried to catch me with its autocannon ensemble, but I went quickly out of his firing arc. My lasers and missiles chipped the armor on his left leg, and before long, I was able to dig deep into the myomer. I hit my missile trigger, and warheads came out flying from the tubes, slicing the leg myomer like hot knife through butter. It was amazing, looking at the towering 'Mech staggering under my assault. I triggered my lasers, severing more and more myomer bundles, until the leg was left shattered.

But I was so engrossed in hitting the leg that I failed to notice Kinst’s tanks were in trouble. The tide of the battle had shifted toward the mercenary’s favor. The three 'Mechs had assumed a defense position and started torching the Kinst’s Vedettes. Two tanks had been utterly destroyed, and the third was wobbling under the onslaught of the mercenaries. The Trebuchet launched its missiles, and the tank ended up in a ball of fire.

“Parker, we can’t hold on much longer,” the voice of one of Kinst’s tank crackled. “We need immediate support. We lost…”

A loud boom ended the transmission, and I was thwarted. I was very close to dismembering the Viper, but I could not finish the job. But without Kinst’s help, I would have not gone this far. I had to help them. So I swung by and left the Viper who was still trying to catch me with his slowing JagerMech. I went through the flaming gutter that had stifled a bit, and quickly climbed the pit on the other side. Minor fire adorned my 'Mech, but it only raised the temperature several notches. Knowing that I would be fine, I sprinted toward the battlefield.

I made a half-loop turn to the left while training my guns at the Bushwacker. I knew that I would have trouble doing anything to the 55-ton 'Mech. But I had to relieve the remaining two tanks. So I let loose a barrage of lasers and missiles at the Bushwacker’s most-depleted armor, its right torso. My lasers cored the torso that was weakened by cannon rounds, and my missiles wiped out the remaining armor. It hurt the medium 'Mech, as I could see smoke and sparks burst from the wound. My armor tracker stated that the Bushwacker had less than 15-percent armor on the left torso. I knew that another good salvo would breach its left arm, rendering its missile launchers useless.

Nevertheless, the Bushwacker returned fire. Missiles and ballistics flew above my head by a mere centimeter. I could almost feel the heat of the lasers swooshing close to the cockpit. I tried to fire back, but under such pressure, my marksmanship went wide and landed on a pile of rocks. As the mushroom-like cloud of dust soared into the air, the Bushwacker fired again. My console squealed as the missiles latched on to my overheated engine. I tried to dodge, but three missiles slammed into my right torso. The consecutive explosions ate away the remaining armor. The power generator overloaded, and a large quake ripped my 'Mech from the inside. I hung on to the console as the Commando fidgeted about, sustaining the explosion and sudden loss of mass. My right torso and right arm were gone.

I was busy thinking of a way to beat the Bushwacker when the JagerMech arose from the fire. I knew I did not have enough firepower to beat the Bushwacker, but I could always borrow it from the Viper. He was not an intelligent MechWarrior. His attack pattern was predictable. The only thing that made him dangerous was the sheer firepower of his JagerMech.

“This does not have to happen if you consider my bid, Mister Viveros,” I hailed him while putting my Commando between his crosshair and the rest of the Hunt Lance. “For the last time, please consider my bargain.”

“You’re bargaining your own soul to satan, you little prick!” the Viper croaked, half chuckling. “You’re skinned, yet you speak like you’re in an Atlas. Soon your pride will become your death!”

“I will not die today!” I yelled while firing my missiles at his cockpit. “You will feel my wrath!”

“Go to hell, you sonofabitch!” the Viper yelled back. “And take your 'Mech with you!”

That was the sign. He intended to singe my Commando with his entire arsenal, and he proclaimed it out loud.

I pushed my joystick hard, as hard as I could, and let my Commando dive to the ground. Seconds later a torrent of autocannon rounds and laser streaks whizzed through the air, ravaging the void that was me a moment ago. Half of the hot rounds fell onto the right leg of the Trebuchet. Chunks of armor and burnt myomer blasted into the air in a thickening cloud. The lanky 'Mech staggered, taken by surprise by the unexpected attack. I twisted my 'Mech around and, using the flame as a bullseye, hit my alpha-strike button at the burning leg. The leg burst into flame, and the Trebuchet careened to the ground like a log.

I could imagine the look on the Viper’s face.

“Battle armors! Get the pilot! Now!” I got up and covered the Cutlass as they made a move to the fallen Trebuchet. The remaining Kinst tank boldly mimicked my move and took its last stand, firing its autocannon at the Centurion. I focused on the Bushwacker, and although I could not hit its left torso, my marksmanship put some scars on its front armor. I knew that the Bushwacker could destroy me anytime. But I had to buy enough time for the Cutlass to kill, if not capture, the pilot of the Trebuchet. It would be a tremendous blow to the mercenary’s morale.

But I did not have to wait that long. In a methodical fashion, the Hunt Lance decided to retreat, leaving the fallen Trebuchet pilot at our mercy. That was something that would stay in my head for a very long time. I knew that the Viper was not a respectable leader. But leaving his crew behind, consciously, was low. And the Bushwacker and the Centurion did not stand up for their fallen comrade either. They just followed the JagerMech to retreat to the forest. I could only guess that it was the true nature of mercenaries. When their fight turned bigger than their pay, they just left everything behind and ran.

“I don’t believe this…” I heard Megi chanted repeatedly on the comlink. “I don’t believe this…”

“We still have the Trebuchet pilot,” I replied. “We need him alive. Secure him before the battle armors kill him out of joy.”

I turned off my Commando, and started to climb down. Kinst’s tank helped the battle armors to drag the pilot out of the cockpit into the open. It was a woman; scared, confused, and mad. Her CO damaged her 'Mech, then let her die in the hands of the locals, people that were supposed to kneel in front of her mighty BattleMech. It all reflected in her eyes. Megi tried to calm down the battle armors, but two of them had drawn their laser rifles, ready to grill her brain with a short burst of laser.

“No! She is more valuable to us alive than dead!” I pushed them behind.

“If the Viper knows that she’s still alive, he’ll come back for her!” one of the battle armors argued. “We have to show them that we take no prisoners!”

“If the Viper knows you kill her, he will come with a vengeance!” I rebuked. “Being alive, she has a bargaining power. You are right, the Viper will come back for her, but we can use her to slow his advance!”

“My lance mates will come and burn you all!” the mercenary fizzled. “Let me go, and I will see what I can do to reopen negotiation!”

“Girl, you’re dead to them!” Megi smiled arrogantly. “Your only open negotiation is with us! Give us something, and we’ll see what we can do to spare you.” She got up, shot a triumphant smile at the mercenary, then cued the Cutlass battle armors, “Take her to the brig!”

I saw the hesitation in the battle armors’ eyes, thinking that killing the mercenary was still the best way. But they respected their leader. They dragged the female pilot to the jail. Megi looked at me with indescribable stare. “What you did today is the impossible, Parker. You cut off their tank support, and you stole one of their 'Mechs. I don’t know how you did it, but you gave a new meaning to war.”

I looked at the Trebuchet. “I wished I had the Viper hit the Bushwacker instead of this Trebuchet. Wade Avery was the best MechWarrior in the Hunt Lance. If we got him, we certainly can end this struggle quicker.”

“A Trebuchet sounds good enough for me,” Megi walked back to her vehicle. “I’ll have Cedro come and take care of it. I’ll have my hands dirty on the mercenary, see what we can squeeze from her. In the mean time, you need to rest.”

I could not agree more. “I will see you tomorrow, Mayor.”

As the mayor left the battlefield, I threw one last look at the field before I left. Columns of Vedette decorated the pit, still billowing smoke. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. Pieces from Kinst’s tanks scattered on the ground, a memento of how costly dignity was to the people of Hogye and Kinst. The Trebuchet, once a proud war machine, lay helpless on the ground like a beaten warrior. The only 'Mech standing was my Commando, perched proudly with its disemboweled torso.

I spent some time contemplating what I brought to these simple people. Was dignity really worth the war, destruction, and death? I could not answer the question. Yesterday I thought I brought good to these people. I was not so sure anymore.

NINEEdit

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 10, 3058


“Holla, Amigo! Come, take a look at this machine! I can’t believe I am working on a TBT-5N, one of the most successful medium 'Mechs of all time! It’s got speed, agility, good armor, balanced long and short-range weapons, and electronics to use them! The twin LRM-15 will hurt most heavy 'Mechs in one salvo! I know good 'Mechs, and I’ll say this is a treasure, Senor Parker! We can use this to repel the Hunt Lance once and for all!”

Watching the glee in Cedro’s face brought smile to my lips. He was a technician, and the Trebuchet to him was like a precious toy to a child. He was not Cedro that I met several weeks ago, when I first came to the hangar looking for a job. He was a infatuated man that just received the BattleMech of his life.

But aside from what Cedro told me, the Trebuchet was, indeed, a very fine machine. The successful story behind it hearkened back to the mid 28th century, when the so-called Star League was still in full swing, and the Inner Sphere was still expanding its territory. It was a blend of speed, agility, and firepower. Of course, it was not as fast as the Commando, but it carried enough guns to hurt most heavy 'Mechs. Having a pair of LRM-15's under my command certainly boosted the morale of Hogye, while at the same time severely damaged the Hunt Lance’s.

“When do you think you can finish fixing up the broken leg?” I asked.

“Usually it takes about two or three weeks,” he chimed. “But for you, Amigo, I’ll do it in a week.”

“Are you sure?”

“Santa Maria is my witness!” he said in the earnest. “Give me six more days and I will give you an operational Trebuchet!”

“I greatly appreciate it, Cedro,” I gave him my appreciative nod. “I hope the Viper do not come to Hogye before then.”

“Si. Let’s hope not,” he nodded.

Actually, it was my biggest concern right now. I expected the Viper would try to negotiate the return of his lance mate that we snatched during the battle, or at least made another attack. It had been 40 hours since they left Hogye, and I saw no sign of the Viper trying to retrieve his comrade. I assigned the Cutlass battle armors to scout the perimeter, looking for any sign of the Hunt Lance. But they had vanished into thin air, and the battle armors could not find any trace where they went. I knew the Viper was not a sophisticated man, so this sudden hiatus of activities made me nervous a bit.

So I went to the jail, thinking that I could get some insight of the Viper’s perspective from the female mercenary. I did not expect that she would give the information easily. I saw how dedicated she was to her lance mates and her CO, even though they treated her badly. I did not want to use force to gather information from her, but I might have to. I just thought that if I could present her unprecedented facts that the Hunt Lance had abandoned her, she might give me what I wanted.

The girl sat alone in the cell, the very place where I was locked up several weeks ago, guarded by two Cutlass battle armors. Her golden hair covered half of her face. Her hands were chained to the chair, and her face emanated fatigue. But I still saw the steel-hard defiance in her eyes. I started to feel sorry for her. She allied with the wrong person, and now she was paying the price.

“I admire your devotion to your unit,” I spoke coldly. “I wish they had intention to do the same for you. But from my point of view, it was not going to happen. I am sorry for you. You gave your heart and your soul, but your commander is a despot and a coward, and what you get from them is scorn.”

“Devotion,” she chuckled curtly. “What do you know about devotion, you pathetic redneck! Just drop this bogus sympathy of yours. You will not break me!”

Just as I expected, she raised her guard as soon as I established contact. From the look on her eyes I knew that it would take a lot of beating to break her guard. I did not want to break her that way. So I cued the guards to let me go into the cell and talk to her face to face. “Is that what you think what I am here for?”

“You’re not here to socialize,” she scoffed, then realized her mistake. “What do you want?”

“Negotiate,” I spoke frankly. “It has been 40 hours, and I expect to see the Viper anytime soon. But my scouts cannot find any trace of him within a five kilometer radius of Hogye. I want to believe that he is planning something, but we both know that strategy is not his way.” I paused a moment, letting her digest my words. “I want to know what he is doing. I want to know his escape plan when everything goes bad, and I want know his move in a desperate situation.”

“You said it yourself, the Viper is not a very bright commander,” she looked at me with a derogatory stare. “To admit that you can’t figure out what he’s doing is to admit that you’re retarded.”

“I am giving you a chance to start a new life,” I replied. “I assume you do not want to go back to CAMR, after what happened in the field. If you help me out, I can take you as far as Outreach, so you can start a new life. Or, if you are tired of being paid to fight, I can take you to Tharkad. You can go virtually anywhere from there.”

“And why do you think I want a new life? CAMR is my life! I will not giving up my unit!”

“Then what do you offer?”

“What?” she widened her eyes, taken by surprise. She did not see it coming. I saw it in her eyes that she was caught off guard. She expected abuse, torture, severe beating, and I knew she prepared herself for such treatment. I attacked her where she expected the least, and I knew I could break her easiest that way.

“I said I came here to negotiate,” I said, “and negotiation works both ways. I gave you my offer, and you rejected it. Now I expect to hear yours.”

She looked at me in a funny way. I gave her my grave stare, letting her know that I was serious. She bought my play, so she thought for a moment. I knew she hesitated. She was well aware that negotiation was not her forte. But when she looked up, I knew that she would go for it. She decided to use this opportunity to buy her way out. A decision that she soon learned to be a blunder.

“Why don’t you let me go?” she chimed.

“And why do I want to do that?” I played along.

“If you wanna take a risk getting pounded by my lance mates, be my guest. Just remember this: I’m the only one that can save your butts. If you let me go, I’ll talk my CO into not attacking Hogye. I can be very persuasive sometimes.”

I knew she was trying to bid her way out by giving an impression that she could be an important part in our survival. She was a mercenary, after all. She was using up her resources, selling her advantages, to get out of the jail. But the way she rushed to bid herself out of Hogye told me that she had no experience in negotiation. I could easily trip her and get what I wanted without breaking a sweat.

“We beat you when you were a company,” I maintained my cold tone, setting up my trap. “Now there are just three of you left. Beating the rest of the Hunt Lance will be a lot easier than before, since I have your Trebuchet. You are not offering anything for me.”

“Oh, look at you and your simple, naïve perspective,” she chortled. “Do you really think the rest of the CAMR would just watch this little uprising of yours? The Viper is a jerk, but Commander Rick will never let his comrades behind. Just wait until you see the entire battalion of CAMR swarm Hogye. When you realize that you should’ve considered my offer, it’s all too late. So think wisely, Mister! I’m your only exit from your doom!”

I smiled in response. “You just gave me what I wanted. The Viper is waiting for reinforcement, possibly Commander Rick himself. That is all I need to know.”

I paused briefly, indulging myself in a burst of panic that emanated from the mercenary’s eyes. She realized she made a terrible mistake. She tried to find a way to fix it, but she knew there was no way to undo what she just did. In defiance, she just dipped her head to her chest, hissing, “You set me up, you sonofabitch!”

“Now listen to me carefully,” I talked slowly, triumphantly. “You know that you cannot go back to CAMR. You are a traitor in their eyes. You also know that your lance mates will not come for you, and when they come pummeling us, they might as well pummel you.” I paused briefly. “My offer stays. I want every details about how Commander Rick runs his unit. I want to know how he fights, how he organize his lance mates in battles. I want information about each and every member of CAMR in full dossiers. I also want information about their BattleMechs. If there are modifications, I want to know them in detail. In return, I will take you out of Engadine.”

The girl looked into my eyes, drawing every bit of my gravity, trying to convince herself that there was another way to get her to safety. But I made it really clear what I wanted from her, and she knew I would not budge about my demands. She knew that her survival would only lead her to a tarnished, grotesque life of a traitor.

“You’re asking me to betray my unit,” she hissed with venomous tone.  “My bonding to the CAMR is purely a matter of money.  But I am a professional.  Either you make me an offer I can’t refuse, or just kill me.  Offering me a free ride out of Engadine is not giving you what you want.”

I waited until her outburst subsided, then spoke gently, “I cannot give you a better offer. But as far as I know, you are unemployed. The Hunt Lance breached the contract the moment they left you behind. You are a mercenary, a soldier and a businesswoman. I think you understand that this is the best deal you can get. Thinking in privacy might open your mind. When you are ready to make a decision, you can let the guards know.”

I started walking out, but when I reached the door, I heard her calling, “Can you take me to New St. Andrews?”

“The Periphery?” I turned around.

“Home,” she replied. “Swear to me that you’ll take me there, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the CAMR.”

Of course, it was easier to drop her at Tharkad or Outreach than New St. Andrews. The small periphery state was almost unheard of, and only a handful of merchant ships that commuted there. But perhaps it was the price that I had to pay. So I grabbed this opportunity, “New St. Andrews it is. I will guarantee that you will be in the first available flight out of Engadine.”

The flame in the girl’s eyes puffed out. I knew it took a lot of her to willfully commit such treachery. I could see that she was not a typical greedy mercenary that I saw in Viper Viveros. She had dignity, although she still fought for money. I had confidence that she would not lie to me.

“Alright then,” she breathed heavily, as if the entire world was in her shoulder. “As you know, Rick is our CO. He’s riding a Cauldron-Born, a 'Mech he acquired in a Trial of Possession in Luthien. His second-in-command is Captain Ian Reeves, riding a Marauder with three PPC’s. The other command lance mates are Jack Kalliharn in a BattleMaster and Laura Ford in a Catapult. Battle lance consisted of a Marauder, an Atlas with two PPC’s, an Awesome with four PPC’s, and a Mauler. You already know the Hunt Lance. We also have several armor assets for fire support.

“Commander Rick is the best MechWarrior and a cunning tactician in the unit. He was one of the brains behind the Smoke Jaguar’s destruction at Dinju Pass, Tukayyid. He can spot even the scantest hole in the enemy’s defense and ream it. Ian Reeves is a brawler, a perfect right-hand-man for Rick. Ian will dive into battle and wreak havoc in enemy ranks until Rick stop him. So it depends on who leads the reinforcement. If it is Ian, then expect heavy fights. If it’s Rick, then expect the unexpected.”

“Any chance that Ian will respond to negotiation?” I queried.

“No. Ian is not a man of words. The only way to stop him is to kill him, but it’s close to impossible. He is the best dogfighter in CAMR, and you'd have to be Kai Allard-Liao to beat him.”

“What about Rick? Will he negotiate?”

“Rick is a man of honor. He will respect anything you may offer. But he’s also a proficient negotiator. He’ll chew on your defense and force you accept his terms as much as possible. Don’t negotiate with him if you don’t have enough skill. However,” she hesitated a moment. “I’ve never seen him reject a trial. Clan trial. That might be your only chance.”

“I see. How good is he in a duel?”

“He’s the leader of CAMR. What do you expect?” she scoffed.

“Alright then,” I cued the guards to let me in. I unshackled her hand. “Accept this gesture as my gratitude. I will see if I can make you more comfortable. But I cannot let you out just yet. Not until we finish everything.”

“It doesn’t make any difference, but thanks anyway,” she rubbed her wrists and walked around the cell to stretch her legs. “What should I call you, MechWarrior?”

“Parker,” I replied. “People called me Parker. May I have yours?”

“Evee,” she said. “Evee Ridinghood. Since we’re semi-colleagues now, I think it’s better to call each other by names, don’t you think?”

I smirked and nodded. “Of course, Evee.”


Mayor’s Office,

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 11, 3058


“She told you,” Megi shot a cynical stare at me. “Just like that? She told you everything?”

“We had a deal,” I explained. “She gave me information about the CAMR, in exchange of her liberty. She wanted to go home to New St. Andrews, so I guaranteed it.”

She let out a sharp breath. “You soft punk! So what’s your plan now?”

“We have two alternatives. If Commander Rick leads this reinforcement, then we can force him to have a winner-take-all duel. We cannot win another full-scale battle this time, but I am sure I can win a Clan trial with Rick.”

“A Clan Trial,” she huffed. “I should’ve known that you’d come to this.”

“Actually, I offered this to the Viper prior to our last engagement, but he rebuffed it.”

“Of course he wouldn’t take it. He’s a moron in a big gun. All he can do is shoot!”

“The hardest part is to coax Commander Rick to take this path,” I continued. “Evee mentioned that Commander Rick is a master negotiator. We need an exceptional negotiation plan to talk him into this trial. I will try, but I think I will need you to do it together.”

Megi did not react.  She kept her eyes focused on whatever she was looking at, as if she did not hear me.  I tried to extract what was in her mind, but her expression was too cold to read.  I waited several minutes until she decided to give her answer.  “Assuming I can persuade him into it, are you up to this fight?  Remember, Rick is also a good MechWarrior.”

“Cedro is trying to fix the Trebuchet in a week,” I replied. “It is twice the size and three times the firepower of the Commando. I know I can fight at least a heavy 'Mech using the Trebuchet.”

“What’s the second alternative?”

“A last-stand fight with the best CAMR MechWarrior, Ian Reeves.”

“Well then,” Megi sighed. “Let’s hope that the good commander will give us a visit.”

“Thank you, Mayor,” I nodded one more time, just as her stature left the building.

TENEdit

Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

April 18, 3058


Two days ago, my scouts spotted a group of BattleMechs, mostly heavies with some assaults, advancing toward Hogye. The scouts did not mention exactly the class of the 'Mechs, but they did state a Cauldron-Born. MechWarrior Evee Ridinghood was right. Commander Rick was coming to Hogye.

Cedro did a wonderful job fixing the Trebuchet. He informed me about some modification to the chassis, particularly the struts that would make the medium-weight machine run smoother. I would be able to ‘paint’ an enemy while running full speed, perpendicular to it. Such a feature would be highly advantageous, especially when fighting a 'Mech bigger than the 50-ton Trebuchet.

However, against Commander Rick’s Cauldron-Born, it was only a small advantage. I studied the specification of the 65-ton workhorse, and it was truly a masterpiece of the Clan engineers. No other 'Mech, heavier or lighter, possessed a better combination of speed, armor, and firepower than a Cauldron-Born. Perhaps only Mad Cat, or Timber Wolf in Clan tongue, had better performance than the Cauldron-Born.

So I shifted in my cockpit, trying to get comfortable inside the Trebuchet while the CAMR moved slowly toward Hogye. They were still 1.5 kilometers away, but I felt like I could hear the sound of their feet already. As I expected, the Cauldron-Born led this band of mercenaries, followed by two lances of heavy 'Mechs. At the very back, I noticed the JagerMech, Bushwacker, and Centurion followed the heavy 'Mechs.

“Commander Rick,” I heard Megi spoke on a broadband comlink. “My name is Megi, the mayor of Hogye. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I think you know what I want,” a stern voice replied. “You are holding one of my lance mates, and you have one of my 'Mechs. I want them both back.”

“Commander, the Hunt Lance came to my town with malicious intent over a small dispute. Your company tried to destroy Hogye with overwhelming firepower. However, we held our own and captured one of your MechWarriors with her 'Mech. This proves us that we can defend ourselves.” Megi paused briefly before saying, “Your service in Hogye is no longer needed. We are grateful that the CAMR, under Hauptmann Viveros, provided protection to the people of Hogye. However, we’re taking the Trebuchet. We won it fair and square in combat.”

“That is not going to happen, Mayor,” Commander Rick rebuked. “You are breaching our contract. On top of all, you need to pay off your contract. Then you have to return my lance mate and my 'Mech.”

“Commander, my name is Parker,” I interjected. “This squabble stemmed from me. Let me finish what I started, so you can leave Hogye alone.”

“So this is Parker, the infamous guest of Hogye,” Rick mumbled. “I don’t usually negotiate with a stranger or somebody that doesn’t offer me much. But you intrigued me, stranger, so I’ll entertain your offer.”

“I motion for a duel,” I put my idea forward. “You, or your finest MechWarrior, against me. If I lose, you will have your revenge, and Hogye will concede to your terms. If I win, you will leave Hogye indefinitely and forget about the contract, until we need your service again.”

“I see that you’re familiar with Clan culture,” Rick huffed. “Did Ridinghood talk?”

“As a matter of fact, she did. She was no longer part of CAMR the day she was left behind by her commander. She does not wish to go back to CAMR.”

“I’ll be the judge of what she wants and what she wants not,” Rick snorted. “Alright Parker, I’ll fight you. But you can’t use that Trebuchet. It’s still mine, and I don’t want to fight you in one of my 'Mechs.”

“Ah, Commander Rick, then what should Parker use to fight your mighty weapons?” Megi interrupted. “The only 'Mech we have is a Commando. You’re a respectable MechWarrior, aren’t you Commander? How do you explain to the universe that you, a respectable warrior in a Clan tech, win a duel against a Commando?”

“The Hunt Lance, then,” Rick decided. “You can use the Trebuchet, but you’ll fight the Hunt Lance instead of me. All three of them. If you win, you can keep the Trebuchet, and we’ll leave Hogye in peace. If you lose, I want Ridinghood and the Trebuchet back, plus Hogye must pay for the contract breach and the expenses of the battle. Failure to meet my demands results in total annihilation.”

It might sound intimidating for most MechWarriors, but as a matter of fact, I felt relieved. I would prefer to fight the three Hunt Lance than Commander Rick. I had seen them in action. I knew I could handle the Viper, although he had a 15-ton advantage. I knew I could handle the Centurion. The only problem was Wade Avery with his Bushwacker. If I could dispose the Viper and the Centurion quickly, without taking too much damage, I had a good chance to beat Wade.

“Deal!” I quickly agreed before he changed his mind. As I stepped forward, the Hunt Lance advanced toward me. I could feel adrenaline rushed through my blood vessels, and I did not like it. My breath turned into short and intermittent gasps, as the JagerMech's image grew larger and larger in my screen. I drew a deep breath, trying to placate my increasing distress, and locked my senses on the incoming JagerMech, now 500 meters ahead.

“Commander Rick is wise giving me the privilege to stomp on your ass, you little thief!” I heard the Viper crackled over the comlink. “Our quarrel ends here. Now prepare to die!”

Without even waiting for my response, the Viper fired his autocannons within 400 meters. I slammed my feet on the pedal, jerking my Trebuchet to the left. A second later a fireball ripped the ground where I stood just a moment ago. I brought my 'Mech a little bit more to the left, waiting for the auto-lock system to finish painting the JagerMech, then pushed the trigger. White smoke covered my windshield for a while, and the guided missiles plunged into the gut. The JagerMech reeled, withstanding the explosion, but shrugged it off and fired back at me. Beam javelins danced on my left and right. The Viper launched everything he had to knock me out, but his attack pattern was easy to dodge. Several cannon rounds manage to peel my armor, but nothing was critical.

Suddenly, my console howled proximity alarm. The Bushwacker and Centurion had put their launchers to work. I tightened my grips on the joystick, then shoved it to the right. I could hear the lanky 'Mech groaned as it responded to my abrupt movement. Most of the missiles missed their mark by a mere centimeter, but the few that succeeded raked my right arm, pushing my 'Mech into a twist. Half a ton of armor flew into the air, and the armor tracker turned yellow.

I always knew that this was the kind of tactic I could expect from the Hunt Lance. They overwhelmed me by 3-to-1, so their biggest advantage over me was their number. They would pick me from any possible direction, running me out. Obviously I could not outshoot them. Forget my plan to quickly dispose the Viper and the Centurion. If they kept doing this, they would wear me out in half a minute. I had to find another way, and the first thing that came to my mind was to disrupt their coordination. Break their bonds. Divide and Conquer.

“Still think that you cannot beat me by yourself, Viper?” I taunted him using general frequency, intentionally broadcasting our dispute, hoping that he would slip his tongue. “Am I that big of a menace in your eyes? Your 'Mech is 15 tons heavier than mine, yet you still need the assistance of a Bushwacker and a Centurion.”

“It’s not even your 'Mech, crook!” he spat in response. “Avery, Hunter, squash him like a worm!”

Multiple cannon traces charged my cockpit with audacious intensity, but I expected this. I pressed my joystick forward and triggered my lasers. Heat spiked up as three tubes discharged watts of energy, stabbing the JagerMech in the torso. I ducked at the right time, just as lasers and missiles from the Centurion flew above my head. I followed up with three blasts from my lasers. The Centurion swayed left and right to dodge the beams, but one of them sliced its shoulder. I kept moving, dodging as many rounds as I could. But a well-placed salvo sliced a deep cut on my left leg. The alarm sounded strut damage. I realigned my crosshair to the Centurion's midsection, but two shots from the Bushwacker threw my targeting system off. A vigorous quake enveloped the cockpit, nearly throwing me out of my seat. Sparks burst out from busted circuitries. Warning message flooded his ears, and acrid smoke filled the cramped cockpit.

“How does it feel, scum?” I heard the Viper taunted me. “You’d better say your prayer quick, or you won’t have a chance to it after all.”

“Even if you kill me today,” I replied, aligning my crosshair with the JagerMech’s center, “your tyranny will soon come to an end. All a man need to oust you is heart and rectitude.”

“Tyranny? My tyranny? What do you know about tyranny, you punk!” A burst of energy speared from the JagerMech’s arms, smashing my right shoulder. My entire right torso disintegrated in a yellow fireball, chewed by an internal explosion. I covered my head with my arms, as the Trebuchet’s wobbly knees could not cope with the abrupt change of mass. It crashed to the ground.

I fought hard to get my consciousness back. I could not lose, not to this guy. I was the one that originated this conflict. If I could not finish it, then I would leave Hogye in a worse position than the way before I miserably tried to set everything right. This was a critical moment for everybody. No, I could not lose. Not today.

“I am hard, but I am fair!” the Viper kept ranting on the comlink. “If you see that as a tyranny, then it’s my tyranny that led this Hunt Lance intact. It’s my tyranny that saved everybody from many hard battles we’ve gone through. You’re just a redneck, Parker. You don’t understand what it takes to be a commanding officer!”

“I understand one thing,” I got my 'Mech up. “You left your lance mate in the hands of the enemy.”

“You sonofabitch!” the Viper rattled his autocannons. My Trebuchet shook and trembled sustaining volleys after volleys of cannon rounds. At point blank range, the cannon shell’s punching power was enough to grind the torso armor into scrap metal. Fire burgeoned from the impact, tossing chipped armor into the air. My console flickered incessantly, alternating between distorted images of the battleground and total static. Why exactly I had not exploded yet was beyond my guess.

“She is a soldier and a mercenary!” the Viper roared on the comlink. “She knows the consequences, and she knows that our mission is more important than her life! You’re not even a merc, you punk!”

“And who judges what is important and what is not? You?”

“You damn right I do! I’ve got enough of your crap! Avery, Hunter, let’s burn this asshole!”

No one moved.

“Avery! Hunter!” Viper turned back, only to see the Bushwacker and the Centurion stood idly in the distance. “I said singe this sonofabitch and send him to hell! What, something wrong with your comlink?”

“So are you just gonna decide if the mission worth more than my life and John’s, just like you did to Evee?” Wade Avery’s voice crackled, calm and clear. “Had we been disabled that day, would you have had fled alone?”

“Jesus, Avery! Are you questioning my decision now?” the Viper started to get really mad. “You’re a soldier, for Christ sake! Your life is for the mission! And yes, I’ll waste you punks if you don’t do what I say!”

“You don’t care about us,” Wade’s voice thundered on the comlink. “We’ve been covering your six for so long, and you don’t even have the scantest decency to recognize us as your lance mates. We’re just tools to you. I tell you what, Viper. From this moment on, we’re no longer taking your orders.”

“What the hell is this? You come back here, scumbags!” Viper bellowed, but the Bushwacker and the Centurion turned their backs at him and walked off the battlefield. “Commander Rick, are you gonna do something about this mutiny? They are desecrating you by disobeying my command! I request immediate assistance!”

“You breached their trust, Viper,” came Rick’s answer. “I can’t do anything unless you win it back.”

“Commander?”

“Finish the fight, and we’ll talk about getting your lance back.”

Well, my plan worked, but not the way I imagined. I was hoping I would turn their guns at each other. I wanted to make them fight each other, then I would pick up the survivor, which should have been mangled badly. I never thought Wade and John would leave the Viper. Maybe they realized everything when I mentioned about Evee, and decided it was enough. It was a nice turn of event, however. Unexpected, but nice.

Now my Trebuchet was in really bad shape. My entire right torso had been blown apart, along with it my right arm with two medium lasers. My remaining weapons were one 15-pack missiles and one medium laser, all in the left arm. If the Viper had just one lucky shot, I would be fighting throwing rocks.

But looking at the hesitant gait of the JagerMech, I knew I would trump this duel.

“If we settled everything with a duel back then, none of these should happen,” I said as the Viper trudged toward me. “You would still in charge of Hunt Lance, and I would be either dead or out of Engadine.”

“Let’s just finish this off, scumbag!” the Viper hissed. “Now go to hell!”

The Viper blasted his autocannon and spearheaded his laser beams, but I shrank back, then fired my missiles at the JagerMech’s chest. The JagerMech trembled and spun uncontrollably before the Viper forced his dominance over it. He paused for a moment, then blazed his entire weapons while closing the gap with me. His uncoordinated attack whooshed left and right of my cockpit, but it was surprisingly easy to dodge them. I danced some time, waiting for my missiles to reload, then send another wave at his midst. Again the JagerMech staggered. The front armor breached, spilling gallons of coolant to the space. My laser incinerated the coolant, and the 65-ton monster engulfed in a flame.

“Damn you Parker! Damn you all to hell!” he screamed on top of his lungs.

It was a sad irony that the last thing he would remember, before he died, was his utter abhorrence at me. I knocked the trigger once more, sending my third wave of missiles to his center torso. The front armor was shredded open, exposing engines and delicate circuits to the fire. The flame torched the ammunition bin, and in a second, the JagerMech erupted in a geyser of fire, parts, and smoke.

I took several deep breaths, wiping the sweat that drenched my face, and lined up my crosshair with the Bushwacker, in case they wanted to continue. But they kept their posture at long distance, and I knew that the fight was over.

“Commander Rick, two of your combatants have turned their back from the battle, and Parker killed the other one,” Megi quickly took advantage of the situation. “I say that we have won this contest, unless you see otherwise. I expect you to honor our agreement.”

There was a long lull, but in the end, Commander Rick decided, “Alright, you win. We will not see each other again, unless you want it to happen. And keep the Trebuchet. I see that it is a very useful machine for Hogye in the hands of Parker. I wish you good luck in your future.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Megi said courteously. “You are a respectable man, and if we see each other again in the future, I hope it will be in much friendlier circumstances.”

I could not believe what I just heard. It was over, it really was. I climbed up the Trebuchet, letting the cool air of Engadine enveloped my body. As my feet touched the ground, the CAMR had turned their back at Hogye and started their journey back to where they came from. The charred hulk that was Viper’s JagerMech was still crackling with fire, but everybody knew that it was the last thing they would ever see of the CAMR, at least for a very long time.

I could almost see Hogye in the biggest fiesta they had ever had tonight.

“That’s it, Parker,” Megi stood beside me. The aura in her face told me that she was still trying to accept the fact that we succeeded. She paused for a long time, watching the flame on the JagerMech flickered, then turned to me with the biggest smile on her face. “We did it. Hogye is now an autonomous town!”

I stretched a smile, and even thought it was just a smile, it never felt better. Other people started dancing and screaming erratically, realizing that from this day, they would live like any other people across the Inner Sphere. Fear had been their regular tone for years, and today they would start to learn living without it.

“Come on, Parker! We have a long overdue party!” Megi grabbed my wrist.

“Mayor, as much as I want to be a part of it, I cannot,” I politely refused.

“What do you mean you cannot? You’re the one that make this day possible!”

“Mayor, I gave my word to Evee Ridinghood that I would take her to her home once this fight is over. Now that it is, I have one more task to fulfill before I can celebrate. Bear in mind that we succeeded because she gave us the key information about her former unit. We owe her one.”

Megi looked at me in a strange way, as if I was some kind of alien. But I knew she understood me. She gave me a look of wonder and pity, then said, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“I will be back before you know it, Mayor,” I nodded. “Just keep the food warm.”

ELEVENEdit

Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 2, 3058


Starport.

It was the only door into Engadine, and it was the only way to leave the cold world. It was a major civilization amalgam, much bigger than Hogye. Men and machines blended together, creating a sardonic harmony. I had never seen a dropship before. I had, as a matter of fact, in a picture. I had never seen one alive. Here at Starport, I could easily spot three of them being gutted by hundreds of workers and techs.

I watched everything from behind a large glass window of a local tavern, sitting comfortably while sipping my liquor I was sitting comfortably in a tavern, waiting for Evee to get on her flight. We arrived at the Starport yesterday, and we were lucky that we did not have to wait long. The dropship would take Evee to Tharkad in six hours. Her connection flight to New St. Andrews was three days after her land, so she did not lose much time.

I sat there, watching her emptied her glass through a straw. She was a fine woman in her early twenties, with long wavy hair and slim but muscular features. She was an odd rarity. While typical MechWarriors were lazily kempt and adorned with scars, Evee was a fine specimen without a single trace of combat. It was almost like she was a new BattleMech straight out of the factory.

“My father was the head of security of House MacGregor, one of the ruling families in New St. Andrews,” she explained the other day. “Of course, as the chief, safety was the primary issue for him. I was stuffed with defense doctrines since I was a kid. I piloted my first 'Mech when I was 17. The Trebuchet, the one you used to kill the Viper, was my 18th birthday gift. Most kid in New St. Andrews thought that I missed my childhood. But I always feel that my father spoiled me. Guns to me are like toys to other kids… normal kids.

“Two years ago the prince of MacGregor family was kidnapped by a rival family, due to his own stupidity. My father devised a plan to get him back, but he was killed in the process. I was destroyed, so I left for Outreach. I was hoping to get killed, so I could reunite with my father. But Commander Rick is a gentleman and a scholar, which reminds me very much of my father. I realized that my father would not want me to take this path. I was waiting to go back home ever since. I’m happy that it finally happens.”

“I have to apologize for wrecking your 'Mech,” I said, trying to start some conversation. “I did not know how much it meant to you. Cedro tried his best to fix it, but for two days, he could only fix the armor. I feel bad to return your 'Mech to you in such a horrid condition.”

“Forget it,” she smiled with the straw still stuffed in her mouth. “There are some good techs at New St. Andrews. They’ll fix it in no time.” She sucked the last drop of liquor in her straw, then leaned back on her chair. “I can’t believe I’m going home. When I made the deal with you, I thought I made the greatest mistake of my life. But now I knew I wouldn’t regret it. I’m glad that you’re a man of honor.”

I nodded in a smile.

There was a news screen near the counter, and it was covering news throughout the Inner Sphere, and beyond. The reporter explained that Phelan Kell, the son of a renowned mercenary leader that made it to the rank of Wolf Clan, had safely made it to Kell Hound’s base in Arc Royal, taking with him a third of Wolf’s armada that was fighting the Jade Falcons. In another news, Victor Steiner Davion led a massive task force to Coventry to answer Jade Falcon’s incursion, trying to prove to the warlike societies that the Inner Sphere was everything but timid.

The reporter then discussed the existence of Clan warriors amongst the mercenary unit Kell Hounds and their famous cooperation against the Jade Falcon on the planet Morges. This brought the relation between Clanners and Spheroids to a new level. When asked about it, Phelan answered, “The Refusal War gave us new perspective about ourselves and about our brothers from the opposite society. I am lucky to be a part of both. I just wish my best friend could see what I see. I lost him during this war, and I know he’s out there, watching for me.”

“Did you hear that?” Evee commented over the news. “It hasn’t been a decade yet when the Clanners tried to destroy our society. Now they’re our neighbors. Arc Royal now, who knows what then. Soon they’re walking in our bars, drinking our beers, eating our food, and still bragging about their superiority to us. I haven’t met one, but if I did, I’d kick his ass so hard he’d fly back to Strana Mechty!”

I smirked in response. “I think we all need to change our way of thinking in order to live as neighbors. Rid the prejudice. We need to learn from Phelan and Natasha Kerensky how to deal with the cultural differences.”

“Natasha’s a spy, ferrchrissake!” Evee snarled. “And Phelan… well, yeah, he did, but he’s one out of millions of Spheroids that were killed, enslaved, and derogated as genetic filth. Freebirth.” She hailed the waitress for a refill. “That’s what they call us. Freebirth. And they so eloquently proclaim that they’re trueborns, but in reality, it’s their way to express their loss of the nurtures of a mother. Damn Clanners. I hope they all go to hell.”

I watched her gave away her hatred toward the Clans with great amusement. Somehow I found the whole situation entertaining. Her eyes sunk deep into the socket, but what was left uncovered proclaimed in the earnest that one day, if she met one, she could rip a Clan apart barehanded. The veins in her neck bulged, and her breaths became deep.
I could understand Spheroid’s abhorrence toward the Clans. They were arrogant and claimed to be the superior, more civilized beings, evident in the epithets ‘freebirth’ and ‘barbarians’. They were genetically altered: bred, born, and raised just to war. Unlike us, their sole function in their short lives was to fight, and their ultimate glory was to be immortalized in the genetic pool. That was a pathetic life, but the Clanners were proud of it.

We sunk into our own reckoning, until somebody got into the bar. I almost did not recognize him, but his feature was hard to miss. It was Fercyn, the ex-sheriff of Hogye that left the people he was supposed to protect. The protector of Hogye that chose not to confront the mercenaries in order to keep them fighting the nolans. He had certainly lost his interest in life, as was apparent in his unkempt hair and face. His swollen eyes told me that he was intoxicated. I did not want to speak with him, but unfortunately, he spotted me.

“Well I’ll be damned!” he mumbled as he walked toward me. “Don’t suppose I can get away from my curse, do I?” He took a glance at Evee, and somehow he remembered her. “And now you’re working with them. Your desire to burn them cost me my job, and now you embrace them. You’re just one bastard, sonofabitch…”

“Go away, asshole!” Evee growled. “Take your drunken bullsh…”

“Evee,” I tapped her arm, trying to solve this non-confrontationally. “Mr. Fercyn, let me explain…”

“What? Trying to take control of the situation? That’s so typical!” Fercyn became more erratic. “You just have to be in control! I was doing what’s the best for Hogye, but you just can’t stand being an ordinary guest that you had to do something stupid to make the town turn away from me! They don’t need me anymore because they have Parker, the hero! Hooray!”

“I did not try to take control!” I snapped. “I did not make the town turn away from you. You turned away from them. It was my mistake, I admit, and I stuck with it until I got everything right! Now Hogye is an independent, autonomous town, free from outside force. It was just like everybody wanted. We have a small force, and within two months, we will have a platoon of battle armors. We can defend ourselves from the nolans. I am here because I promised Miss Ridinghood a transport to New St. Andrews when she helped us in the final confrontation with the CAMR."

I paused briefly to take a deep breath. “There is so much to do at Hogye, Mr. Fercyn. We will host The Rooting in December, something we have not done since 3056. You are a part of Hogye for a long time. We still keep the Commando in good condition. It is still your 'Mech.”

“Is that so, huh?” Fercyn fumed. “Listen to me, wiseguy! There’s nothing left for me at Hogye! As long as you’re there, they’ll see you as the messiah, and me Judas! They’ll wipe out everything what I did for them for years, and replace my name with yours! You and your reckless, stupid acts!”

“Megi will not forget what you did for Hogye…”

“That bitch was the first to expel me from Hogye!” Fercyn roared. “What I did was nothing more than history to her, compared to what you have! I can’t compete with you!”

“And what is it that I have? What do you think I have and you do not, so Megi favored me over you?”

Fercyn shot a derogatory smile at me. “Look at you, you pathetic smug! Why do you think she favors you over the entire Hogye? I know you came to Hogye to hide something, and I know damn well she knows it too. Whatever you’re hiding, it must’ve well worth the entire town!”

“I do not hide anything!” I bemoaned. “I did not even know what happened to me! Mr. Fercyn, do you…”

“Cut the crap, Parker. I know who you are…”

“Sir, is this man bothering you?” suddenly the bartender came.

“No, no, I know him,” I tried to defend him. He held a piece of information to my past, and I could not afford to lose him. Not now. “Please, Sir, let him stay.”

“I’m just leaving,” Fercyn snorted, then turned away and got out of the bar.
I could only watch as Fercyn disappeared. I went back to my chair, thinking about what Fercyn just mentioned. This was the biggest breakthrough about my past, although it was not what I expected. Fercyn knew about my past. He did not mention it explicitly, but I knew where he was heading. He was referring to the ruin in the wood with the mysterious 'Mech. He knew about it, and he thought that it was related to me somehow.

Then something bothered me. If Fercyn was true, what was I hiding from? If Fercyn knew this all along, why did he keep quiet? Why did he not confront me the way Megi did? And why did Megi never get straight with me about it? I started to feel that I was being deceived by everybody. And I felt that Fercyn held the key to my past.

“Parker, is that true?” Evee gave me a strange look. “What in the world are you hiding?”

“Evee, stay away from this,” I decided to talk to Fercyn some more. “It is a pleasure to know you both in and out of the battlefield. I wish you the best, and I hope we meet again someday.”

I got up, shook her hand, left several c-bills on the table, then walked out of the bar. I turned around to a small alley between buildings then swung to the back of the bar. I found nothing, only a small alley with strong stench of urine. I quickly walked past the alley until I came to the other street. There was no sign of Fercyn. I walked around the block several times, but he disappeared into mist.

When I went back to the bar, Evee had already gone, so I decided to go back to Hogye. I could not wait to confront Megi about this. I knew she knew something about me, and she had been denying me for some reason known only to herself. This time, I would not let her fool me again. I had to know what she knew about me.

The journey back to Hogye was hardly enjoyable because all I could think of was Fercyn’s comment about my past. When I arrived at Hogye, I wasted no time and went to the capitol. Megi was there talking to her staff, and upon seeing me, she quickly dismissed her entourage. Then she caught the cloud in my eyes, and knew that tonight would be a long night.

“How’s the trip?” she fibbed interest. “Did she get onboard?”

“I assume. I met Fercyn at Starport.”

“Did you? How was he?”

“He said he knew about my past, and he said you knew it too.”

First, I saw wrath blasting through her face. Then she calmed down, taking some deep breath, then dipped her head into her chest. “What did he say?” she asked, her voice was hoarse, trying to cover her emotion.

“He said that I came to Hogye to hide. I am hiding something, and he said you knew it too.” My chest felt like it was about to explode. “Is this true?”

“No,” Megi quickly replied. “No, Parker. He does not know about your past. Nobody knows about your past. You came to us with all your mystery. We found you half dead in the snow. That’s it.”

“Then why did he accuse me of hiding something?” I pressed my anxiety. “What benefit would he get by telling me things that are not true? What did he want from me?”

“I don’t know, Parker!” Megi snarled. “Maybe he heard something about you that I’m not aware of. Maybe he met somebody that knew about your past. You’re asking the wrong questions to the wrong person. Why didn’t you ask Fercyn yourself? He’s the one that tells you things, so don’t come and goad me about it!”

I look at Megi, extracting any hint of lies from her expression. I could not find even the scantest trace of deceit. She was telling me the truth. But still, I felt that she was hiding something. Megi was a tricky individual. She answered my question truthfully, but I knew she knew more. She held things that I wanted to know, because I did not ask the right questions. It was exactly like Megi said. I was asking the wrong questions.

“Why do you do this, Megi?” I moaned. “Why are you playing games with me? Just be honest with me and tell me what you know about me.”

“Parker, you’re obsessed,” Megi sighed. “You did wonderful job giving Hogye its dignity. You’re young and have a bright future. But all you think of is your past. Why can’t you just look ahead? Think about this: maybe Fercyn’s right. Maybe you were hiding something. Maybe your past was dark and cold, and your hands were smeared with blood and misery. Now, you have a chance to forget those and start a new life. Do you think you’re ready for the truth? You can’t control your past, Parker, but you can control your future. I suggest you do it.”

Who would not abide to that? Under my breath I cursed Megi for being such a good talker. She got a point, and she put it in a way that no one would argue with her. I felt that she was trying to disrupt my attention, to force me to see the other direction so that she would not have to tell the truth. But she was dead right. I could have been a saint, but I could also have been an evil. Like Megi said, I could not control my past. So why risk it?

“You’re angry, and you’re tired,” Megi said gently. “Just sleep it off. If you still want to talk about it, come by my office tomorrow. Your mind will be much fresher.”

Well, I agreed. It might have been the long-hour drive to Starport and back. It might also have been my envy to Evee. She was so delighted to go home. I did not have a home. I did not have anybody to go back to. I felt trapped in this world. Hogye was a nice town, but it was not my town. These things accumulated into a time bomb that erupted when Fercyn provoked me. Maybe a good night sleep would wash away my petulance.

“I see you tomorrow,” I nodded at Megi, then walked out of the building.

I felt so tired that when I came to my place, I almost missed a small package on my door. It was a box, wrapped hurriedly in a drab paper. There were no names, no address in the package. First I thought I would wait until morning, but then I decided that I had five minutes to spend on the package before I went to bed. What I saw inside completely made my heart jump.

There was a picture and a note inside the box. The picture showed Evee, roped and muffled on a small bench with guns on her head. Two men sandwiched her, but the photographer intentionally left out their faces. Evee was in no pain, but her eyes screamed confusion, anger, and fear. I read the anonymous note, and I could not believe what it said:

We have your beautiful partner. You can save her by taking ‘it’ to Starport. There is a small abandoned airfield north of Starport. You have 48 hours to bring ‘it’ to the designated place. Come alone. We will not harm her, but we’ll break one of her bones for each hour you come late, starting from her fingers. If you tell anybody or call the police, she’s dead. So think wise.

TWELVEEdit

Outskirt Hogye, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 3, 3058


The same question kept running through my head as I reread the blackmail note.

“Why?”

The note did not specify what “it” was. And I did not remember if I owned anything that that was worth capturing Evee. Except maybe the 'Mech in the woods. It was the only thing that glued everything together. I was, possibly, a weapon trader or a thief. I stole the 'Mech, then went to Engadine to hide. Now owner of the 'Mech had found me and wanted it back. Or somebody just heard about me, and wanted to take advantage. Megi knew about this, but she did not want me to know that she did. Maybe she wanted a piece of it for herself. Or maybe she was planning something.

It was not that Evee meant anything to me, but I could not let her be hurt by any previous actions of mine. She should not be in this situation in the first place. She should have been on her flight home to New St. Andrews. I would never forgive myself if she was hurt because of what I did.

I was tired, I could not think clearly, but I did not want to lose time. So I rested for two hours, then set a course to the hangar. I hijacked one of the Cutlass battle armors, grabbed a laser rifle and the neurohelmet for the Commando, stole Cedro’s tools, then tiptoed out of the hangar toward the woods. I did not wish to fight, but the nolans were still there.

It was almost dawn when I arrived at the ruin. It was dark and quiet, as if something was waiting for me. I checked the infrared scanner, trying to pick up any living creatures within a 100-meter radius. I could only see heat traces from bugs and small arboreal mammals. There were no signs of humanoids, big or small. Holding the rifle in my right hand and the infrared scanner in my left, I entered the ruin.

As I walked, I started to second-guess my decision. What if the kidnappers were talking about something else? What if this 'Mech was not the only one that I brought to Engadine? What if there was something more precious than the war machine, and that was what they wanted? Evee would be dead for sure. But I had no way to know all of those things. This was the way I could think of to save her, and I had to do it.

And there it was, the rugged machine, standing alone in the dark, still leering at me as I walked slowly toward it. I wished it could speak, so I could ask it questions. I could check its battleROM and see if it did have something about me, providing I could start it up. BattleMechs were protected by a voice-recognition system. But I learned from Cedro how to bypass the system. If the neurohelmet were compatible with the 'Mech’s system, then I would have no trouble hijacking the 'Mech.

Once again, I was so engrossed in my thought that I forgot to check my infrared scanner. By the time I realized that I was not alone, it was too late. Something launched itself at me. I took a glimpse and realized it was a humanoid, but it was too small to be a nolan. It was human. He swung his hand at my face. I flinched, but I was not fast enough. A loud bang exploded in my head, and I careened to the ground.

He must have hit me with one of the rocks or metal rods that were scattered all over the place. My visor broke, and my helmet died. I stripped my helmet and got my laser gun, but the attacker had retreated. Through my infrared scanner I spotted him crouching behind a metal formation, waiting for another opportunity to strike me. Then I remembered him. He must have been the strange guy that claimed the 'Mech was his.

“I mean you no harm,” I tried to lure him out. “I come here for the 'Mech. It is mine.”

Just as I expected, he jumped out of his refuge with a thick metal bar in his hand. “Why didn’t you die?” he screamed while swinging the bar like a mad man. “Go away! Die! Die! This 'Mech is mine!”

When he was close enough, I ducked and shoved the butt of my rifle into his midst. He screamed a muffled scream, teetering and retching. I grabbed his left arm and twisted it backward. He yelped and went to the ground, writhing as he tried to free his hand. But I was not about to let him go. I pressed my right knee on his ribs, and he gasped, then stopped moving.

“Who are you?” I asked, releasing the pressure on his ribs a bit.

“Damn you, trashborn!” he grumbled. “I die today, but someone just like me will kill you tomorrow!”

“Trashborn? Why are you calling me a trashborn?” I pressed his ribs. “Do you know me? Just tell me who you are.”

“You’re not getting anything from me, invader! Die! Die!”

I realized I would not get anything from this man, so I cocked my hand and punched him as hard as I could. His head flailed back, then stopped moving. I frisked him, but I could not find anything in his clothing, if it could be called clothing. I dragged him and laid him on a flat surface that looked like a box, then started to climb the 'Mech. I had no time to analyze why I was considered an invader.

My Cutlass battle armor was too big for the cockpit, so I stripped it before entering. The cockpit was a mess. This 'Mech surely went through a severe beating. Half of the gauges were busted, cables dangling from the ceiling, and an acrid smell of burning rubber floated in the air. But it was intact. I sat at the command couch, trying to think about what the 'Mech had gone through. It certainly came off world. Nothing in Hogye’s database had any resemblance with this one, and nobody mentioned anything about it.

After a while, I tried to start the 'Mech. It rumbled and coughed, sputtering and shuddering before the engine ran nominally. I reckoned it was quite a while since its last run. The computer beeped, and although half of the gauges were smashed, it worked fine. A minute later, a female voice crackled through the speaker, “Voice identification initiated. State your name, rank, and serial number.”

Preparing the tools to bypass the voice-recognition system, I answered halfheartedly, “Whatever.”

I would never be prepared for what happened next. The console rang, the cockpit turned bright by a series of blinking LEDs, and a female voice delivered the thunder, “Reactor online… sensor online… weapon one online… weapon two online… weapon three offline… weapon four online… all system nominal… Welcome aboard, Star Commander Kerensky.”

Kerensky. The 'Mech just called me Kerensky.

I choked, I could not breathe. I felt my lung was filled with sand. My heart jumped to my throat, and my stomach twisted so hard I felt it was about to burst. My ears rang. I had to lean on the command chair for a while, waiting for my brain to take control of my body. Sweat ran down my face, even though it was not hot in the cockpit.

I was a Kerensky.

As I calmed down, I closed my eyes and tried to digest this abrupt change. My entire theories about my past were wrong. I was not even from the Inner Sphere. I did not have parents. I was born from a eugenic system along with hundreds of other warriors. I was created, bred, and programmed for just one purpose: to fight. I did not have a life. I would never have a life. Fighting was my life.

I was a Clanner.

That explained my violent nature. That was why I tended to solve every problem by fighting. That was why I did not flee from the two nolans when I got a chance, and instead fought until I killed them. That was why I had clear vision in battle, and could take any measure necessary to win against overwhelming odds. That was why I acted, spoke, and looked different than anybody else.

I had no choice but to accept this. It was a fact. But this fact opened up a myriad of questions: what were all these 'Mech parts? Was I any part of them? Who was I? Why did I come to Hogye? I would not have come to Engadine as a Clan warrior with no reason. Like I said, Clanners did not have a life but fighting. Why did I forget about everything? And what was Megi planning all along? Did she intend to bury this fact forever?

These questions made my head hurt. I grabbed my neurohelmet, but the jack was not compatible. I guessed Clan 'Mechs used different parts. I opened a panel under the dashboard and disengaged the cables that connected the 'Mech control system to the neurohelmet jack. I manually connected them to my neurohelmet, then donned it. The circuit was not fully compatible, but it was sufficient to get control over the 'Mech’s body. I grabbed the joystick and increased the throttle. The 'Mech creaked when it started to walk. The lack of handling had taken its toll on the 'Mech’s joints. It walked like a zombie. But it walked.

I could not wait to see Megi, so as soon as I cleared the ruin, I put the throttle to maximum. The 'Mech galloped with a limping gait, partly because the legs were not equally lubricated, partly because my neurohelmet was not designed to handle Clan technology. The 'Mech’s arms flailed comically to maintain balance. It was already sunny outside when I took the 'Mech to a rocking run.

As it trampled the ground in an uneven pace, I took a quick look at the 'Mech’s armament. It sported two large lasers on the torso, one on each side. The arms hosted two massive LBX-20 cannons, again one on each side. The one on the right was not operational. The armor level was dangerously low. I could see the armor tracker blinking on the main screen. There was a bay for jump jets on each leg, but there were none installed. And surprisingly, this 'Mech was quite responsive. The handling was not that much of a difference than the Trebuchet, although I would bet this 'Mech weighed almost twice than the medium 'Mech.

I could imagine the people of Hogye would react if they saw this 'Mech. I was right. They froze with their eyes wide open and mouth agape. Nobody moved as I maneuvered on the street and parked it right in front of the capitol. I climbed down to see Megi, but she was already there. Her reaction was more of sorrow than surprised. I guessed she knew this day would come sooner or later. She shook her head in defeat, moaning, “Oh, Parker…”

“This 'Mech recognized my voice,” I gave her a stern look. “The computer called me Kerensky. You knew about this, did you not? You know my past. You always knew but you denied it. Your claim that you found me lying on the snow… that is not true, is it? Why, Megi? Why do you do this to me?”

Megi looked at the crowd that started gathering around us. “My office,” she said and walked into the capitol. I followed him into her office. She locked and dead-bolted the door, then sat on her chair. She took a long pause, then started her overdue explanation.

“I was a Rasalhague commando soldier when we first encountered your kind. Skyami and I were among the best commando units. We were trained to wage all kinds of combat, and we were good at every one of them. But none of them helped us when Wolf razed Rasalhague Republic in 3049. Thousands of Rasalhagians died, and the unfortunate ones were taken as bondsmen and bondswomen.

“I was quite lucky to be taken bondswoman by an honorable warrior. Skyami, however, should better die. His bondholder treated him like a toy. Constant physical and mental abuse for two years finally broke him. He became mentally unstable, and his bondholder planned to kill him. I noticed this, and I talked to my bondholder. He sympathized with Skyami, and challenged Skyami’s bondholder in a Trial of Possession. He won, and he cut our bondcords. He let us go. That day, I swore I would return his favor in any way possible. However, Skyami had been permanently damaged by the treatment of the ruthless Wolf Clanner. So I took him to Hogye, Engadine, far from the razzle-dazzle of wars, hoping to spend the rest of our lives peacefully.

“That night, you came to Engadine. Your dropship crashed and burnt in the middle of the wood. At that time, we were plagued by the nolans, so nobody came out and searched for what was going on. The Hunt Lance never cared about what happened. It was two days later that you came to Hogye asking for help.”

“I asked for help?” I stuttered. “So you did not find me? Why did I not remember any of this?”

“You came to me wearing your Wolf uniform,” Megi sighed. “That triggered Skyami. He bashed your head with a wooden plank, then took off to the woods. He never came back. I took you to the infirmary, and when you woke up, you did not remember anything. Skyami’s blow damaged your brain, so I coined the story about you getting found in the snow. I am sorry, Parker. I really am…”

I could only imagine what happened that night. Some of the dropship’s crew, my Clan comrades, might have survived, but the nolans feasted on them. That was why I did not find any single trace of human being on the ruin. The ruin was my dropship, and the nolans cleaned up every single human, even those who died on the crash. I did not even know how I could survive such a brutal environment.

“You could have told me,” I mumbled. “Why were you keeping this from me?”

“I lied to the entire town,” Megi averted her eyes. “Nobody knew about you, except what I told them. They only knew that Skyami found you. You don’t understand, Parker. These people hate Clanners. They blamed their lost of prosperities on you. Hogye was a rich town once, where noblemen from all over Inner Sphere gathered here for the Rooting. The Clan invasion changed them into a sick, dependent society.”

“But I gave them back everything!” I roared. “You are going to have the Rooting this December. Is that not enough? You do not have to lie anymore!”

“I have to!” Megi yelled back. “I swore I would return the kindness of my bondholder!”

“By lying?”

“Yes, even lying, because after this…” she paused to hauled a massive breath. “After today, no one will remember what you’ve done for us. After today, you’re just a Clanner. An outsider. A cancer. The root of their misery for the past five years. You were perfect, Parker. You’re young, you’re strong, you have heart. You could’ve been a better replacement for Fercyn. You could’ve lived the rest of your life as a simple, happy countryman. But it doesn’t matter anymore. You were born out of a canister. That is how you’ll always be remembered in Hogye.”

I would never see it coming. I used to respect Megi, but the latest events led me to believe that she was conniving. I would never think that she went through all the hassle, even risking my trust in her, just for saving me from my own stupidity. I felt horrible. The Wolves surely never trained me in this field, because I did not have any insight of what she might be thinking. I did not know anything about human emotion. That was my flaw as a Clanner, and it ruined everything Megi worked so hard to keep.

“So now you have to think about what you want to do, Parker, because you can’t stay here anymore,” Megi’s voice was morose and full of regret. “Going back to the Wolves might be your best option. However, if you decide to stay in the Inner Sphere, you have learned a lot about our society. Take this event as a reminder on how you judge people. Unlike Clanners, Spheroids don’t always use their brains in making decisions.”

“I understand,” I dipped my head to my chest. “But I do not remember being a Clanner. I do not even remember my Clan name. As far as I know, I am Parker, an unlucky Spheroid.”

Megi gave me a sympathetic look. “Then see Phelan Kell. He’s a Spheroid that had lived in Clan society. He can teach you how to be a Clanner again. He might know who you really are, since he’s also a Wolf Khan.”

I realized that it was my only choice for now. I got up, walked toward Megi to shake her hand, but instead she hugged me. That was the first time someone ever did it to me. I felt warm. I did not want this to end. But I knew it had to.

“I am sorry,” I whispered. “And thank you for everything.”

“The honor is mine,” Megi replied. “Take care of yourself.”

When I walked out, the people were still there. But their expression was different. They were cold, bitter, and full of hatred. I knew I was no longer welcomed in Hogye. So I climbed up my 'Mech and rode it out of Hogye. When I reached a hill, I paused for a moment to look at the small town that I had lived and learned to love. It was still vivid in my memory how I gambled with my death to defy the CAMR. It was all history now.

Then I remembered that I still had some unfinished business.

THIRTEENEdit

Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 4, 3058


The abandoned airfield was located about five kilometers outside Starport. There were three runways and numerous helicopter pads, and a small traffic-control tower. Medium-sized hangars scattered on the western part of the airfield, and some rusty trucks lay idly in front of them. Judging by the height of bushes that covered half of the runways and helicopter pads, I knew that nobody visited the airfield for a long time. It was a perfect place to hide.

I stood about 1.5 kilometers outside the airfield, wondering if I should do this in the first place. I meant, should I risk myself to save a Spheroid? If I were truly a Clan MechWarrior, a Kerensky no less, then I would have been superior than anybody in Engadine. I could have shared the same genome with Natasha Kerensky, the greatest MechWarrior that ever lived. I could have been next in line to lead Wolf Clan to glory. I could even have been a Wolf Khan myself. Should I just go back to where I belonged? What was I doing here in an abandoned airfield?

Yes, this was a stupid idea. This could be a trap. Evee, the one that I was trying to help, could have been a player. So could Megi, Fercyn, Cedro, Trejo, and anybody else in Hogye. Where else they knew that there was a big 'Mech near Hogye? It might have never been a secret. They made it a secret because I was the only one that had access to run it. My voice. They set up this atmosphere to coerce me to take the 'Mech out.

But if it was otherwise, if Evee died because I abandoned her, I knew I would never forgive myself. I had a chance to do something and I did not do it. I did not know how I could live myself. Hence, I decided to stay.

Once again, I checked my weapons. My twin large lasers would provide enough long-range battery before I could close in for my power punch. Had the other LBX-20 been operational, I would have had vile firepower within 300 meters, and I knew I could take on anything. But one LBX-20 would provide more than enough punch for most heavy 'Mechs. I still did not know what kind of 'Mech I was riding, but with this much firepower, I could care less.

I pushed the reactor forward, and my 'Mech started to trundle. It still creaked and squeaked with every step, but the limping had diminished, replaced by a smooth gait. As it ran, I tried to remember if I had ever been here. I had to, since the computer recognized my voice. But even my best effort could not retrieve any memory. I was completely lost.

As I entered the airfield area, a lance of Savannah Masters emerged from a hangar, followed by another lance of Harassers. They boxed me, but kept their distance. Two Drillsons and a mobile HQ rolled from behind another hangar, and they stopped about 500 meters in front of me.

“Exit your 'Mech or you’ll never see her alive again,” somebody called out from the comlink.

I measured my odds. If things went bad, I could destroy both Drillsons in an alpha strike and stomp on the Savannah Masters and Harassers, assuming my 'Mech could endure some hits. There were no sign of 'Mechs within a 1-kilometer radius. But they could be hiding. I did not know these guys, so I could not underestimate their level of technology.

“No! Show me that she is still alive, or I will end everything right here, right now!” I rebuffed, lining up my guns at the Drillsons. I had to show them that I was interested in Evee’s life, but I had to show them that I held equal firepower. Only then I could make the most of this negotiation.

There was a long lull afterwards, then the door of the mobile HQ sprang open. Two men with guns heaved a woman out of the vehicle. I zoomed in to the vehicle, and yes, it was Evee. She was tired. She probably did not sleep during this entire ordeal. Her arms were tied behind her back. But her swollen eyes blasted open when she saw my 'Mech, a real treat in my part.

“Satisfied? Now exit your 'Mech, or I’ll have her brain scattered in the runway!”

I knew that they were serious. I decided to yield, although I would make myself vulnerable. I climbed down the 'Mech, and the vehicles closed in on me, guns trained on my person. About a dozen men dismounted the vehicles, mumbling among themselves while looking up at my 'Mech. Only three of them focused on me, aiming their guns at my head.

“Buenos noche, puto!” a much-too-familiar voice greeted me. I turned around, and there he was, standing by Evee’s side, wrenching her hair in a rude manner. “So it is true, huh? All this time, when you’re acting like a complete idiot…”

“I swore Megi that I would never tell anybody,” I fumed. “How did you know? Did Fercyn tell you?”

“Fercyn? Fercyn una maricon!” Trejo chortled curtly. “He’s too caught up riding his Commando to notice a Gladiator in front of his eyes! I am the smart one. I always know that you’re not from Engadine. You’re not from the Inner Sphere! You’re a filthy, hijo de puta Clanner!”

Gladiator. So that was how my 'Mech was called. Gladiator.

“Who are these people?” I queried.

“Have you heard about the Bone Devils? They’re a well-known pirate band from outside the Periphery. There’s this rumor: when Phelan Kell arrived at Arc Royal with a third of Wolf’s army, he lost a number of ships. Some of his warriors went AWOL. Cansado de hacer puñetas, don’t you? Wanna screw real women like us Spheroids? But you think we’re so stupid that you can fool us. You and your conceited pride always think that we are inferior! Guess what, guevon! Your pride has become the death of you!”

Again, I was left dumbfounded. Pieces of information about my past kept barging into my head at the worst time possible. Now I was an AWOL soldier, a part of Wolf’s Delta Galaxy that jumped to Arc Royal under the leadership of Phelan Kell. Of course, Trejo did mention ‘rumor’, but more than often a rumor held some truth. If that was a fact, why did I leave my touman and come to Engadine? This act was certainly a dezgra in Clan culture, whatever the reason was. Was I dezgra?

“If you want my Gladiator, then take it,” I said, able to name my 'Mech for the first time. “Let Evee go.”

“Ha ha, they want the Gladiator,” Trejo guffawed and drew his gun. “I only want you. Cagare en usted y banquetearé en la concha tu puta! Hope you enjoyed your stay at Engadine!”

Although I did not know what he said, I knew what his intention was. With the nozzle of his gun lined up with my forehead, I did not need to decipher his Spanish. He would kill me and Evee, or worse, kill me and desecrate or torture Evee. I did not fear death, but I feared for her safety. I did not have much time. Trejo’s finger had started squeezing the trigger when I noticed the greedy stares of the pirates when they gazed upon the Gladiator. They gave me an idea. It was a very slim chance with a very great risk, but I had to take it.

The enemy of my enemy was my ally.

“Kill me, and you will lose the opportunity of fortune that you had never imagine,” I intentionally cranked up my voice, hoping the pirates would hear me. “My dropship landed only several kilometers outside Hogye. Nobody knows its exact position, only me. There are four stars of Clan 'Mechs inside the dropship. I am willing to take you to the location in exchange of Evee’s life.”

“Nice bargaining, Parker, but I’m not interested in Clan 'Mechs,” he drew a deep breath, then came back to me with hatred pouring out of his eyes. “I made more money selling 'Mech parts than selling 'Mechs. So you can kiss your offer goodbye and…”

Trejo never had a chance to finish his sentence. A loud bang stopped him, and half of his head disintegrated into smithereens. What was left of his head flailed aimlessly, splattering blood to Evee’s face. He teetered for a moment before slumping to the ground. His hands were still twitching when another man, obviously a pirate, came and blasted the remaining part of his head with his massive gyrojet pistol.

I gazed upon the lifeless body of Trejo, and wondered what I had done that incited his total abhorrence at me. Perhaps he had a bitter encounter with other Clanner in the past, and it carved a perpetual wound in his mind. Perhaps I cut the source of his income by driving the CAMR away from Hogye. He did mention that he made a lot of money from selling 'Mech parts, and his primary customer should be the Hunt Lance. Or perhaps he just hated me. I would never know.

“Stupid scumbag! Who doesn’t want Clan 'Mechs these days?” the man mumbled, blowing smoke from his pistol, then shoved the big-barreled gun at my head. “Now let me repeat what you told Trejo a minute ago. There are more 'Mechs… Clan 'Mechs… lying idle in the wood near Hogye. And they’re ours, if we just let your partner go. Is that correct?”

This was a different scheme, and I could not use the same strategy that worked nicely with Trejo. Trejo was driven by hatred, while these pirates craved nothing but wealth. Greed oozed from their eyes as they looked at me. However, he was careful. I knew I could end up like Trejo if he did not like my answer. I had to come up with a very good reason why I, a Clanner, was acting way beyond a Clan’s stereotype. I took a deep breath, buying some precious seconds, then gave me my response, “Yes. Let her go, and I will take you to the 'Mechs.”

The pirate looked at me, weighing my answer, then at Evee. I could tell he was drooling over my offer, but something still bothered him. “Clanners don’t negotiate. Why are you doing this? What do you want in return? How do I know that this is not a setup?”

“I want nothing from you,” I fibbed with confidence. “She saved my life, and I am simply paying my debt. If you do not know already, we Clanners regard honor above our lives. If you still doubt me,” I paused, “I will give this 'Mech to you right now. I know how to reset the voice-recognition system. Then you can let her go, and I will take you to the rest of the 'Mechs.”

I could not believe what I just said. I, a Kerensky, a Wolf Clan warrior, had just told a lie. I told him that Clanner always told the truth, but at the same time I lied about it. I felt disgraced. Maybe it was the reason why I left the Delta Galaxy. Or worse, I did not leave, but was merely banished. I was always a dezgra.

However, the pirate totally bought my lie.  He smirked and nodded, and the aura of doubt was lifted off his face.  He barked orders to his comrades, then said, “Fool me, and I’ll blow your head off, just like your friend!”

A minute later, some pirates came with a portable elevator. The pirate shoved me into the elevator – with his gun still in my head – and brought the elevator up. When the chamber was leveled with the cockpit, I climbed out and opened the hatch. I waited for him to enter the cockpit. He sat on the couch, chuckling in satisfaction as he gripped the joystick.

I bent down and picked up one of Cedro’s screwdrivers that were scattered on the floor. “Now I will open the panel to reset the voice-recognition system. In a minute you will need to input your voice over the microphone so the computer will use it as password.”

“Just tell me when it’s done,” he huffed, still playing with the joystick. I crawled under the dashboard and acted as if I was scuffling with the electronics. But actually, I did nothing. The pirate was too caught up to notice it. I let him sink in his ego and continued my “work” under the console, while planning a crippling strike. After a while, I got up, started the 'Mech, and waited until the computer asked me to state my name, rank, and serial number.

“Speak onto the mike and the computer will record your voice,” I nodded.

He stretched his neck to get close to the microphone. That was when I delivered my blow. I jammed my screwdriver into his neck, just below his chin. His eyes widened, his mouth gaped, but since I ripped his vocal cord, only hoarse wheeze slipped out of his mouth. He grabbed his gun, but I shoved my screwdriver in as hard as I could, until the tip burst from the back of his neck. His gun clattered on the floor as his arm flailed in the air before grabbing my hand.

I pushed him off the command chair, then snatched the gyrojet pistol from the floor. In the meantime the pirate got a solid grip on the screwdriver, then pulled it out of his neck. Blood and water gushed out of his wound, and he writhed on the floor. I closed the hatch, cocked the gun, and pulled the trigger, ending his misery. The mini rocket ripped his ribcage and exploded inside his midst, spreading gristle all over the cockpit.

I leaned on the wall, gasping for air. The cockpit was about twice as spacious as the Trebuchet’s, but it was still cramped with two men inside. It was hot, humid, and reeked death. I claimed the command seat, swiped the console that was covered with blood, then spoke into the microphone to initiate startup. I knew Evee was not safe yet, and nobody knew about what just happened in the cockpit. We were completely isolated from each other.

So I jiggled the joystick for a while, twisting left and right, then connected my microphone to the external speaker, and with my best impersonation of the dead pirate I spoke, “Hey, look at this! I have the ultimate weapon! Get the girl up here! I would rather savor this moment with her than this filthy Clanner!”

The speaker distorted my voice a bit, so two pirates came and released Evee from her constraint. She stretched her arms and legs, then came to the elevator escorted by the pirates. Through the bloodstained canopy I watched the elevator slowly levitated until it reached the same level as the cockpit. They dismounted the elevator, then spotted the blood on the canopy.

Before the pirates could get their guns, I sprung from the hatch and shot one of them on the chest. He keeled over as my round erupted, pushing him off the 'Mech and sending him straight to the ground. The other one managed to aim his gun at me, but I was quicker. One shot to the shoulder and the explosion sheared his arm off. He cried an agonizing scream before losing his footing, and fell to the ground.

Evee froze, looking at me in disbelief.

“Get in!” I yelled, hurling the gyrojet pistol. She stood still as if her brain refused to function, but when bullets started to graze the 'Mech, she snapped out of her trance and hopped into the cockpit. She saw the dead pirate, and a soft gasp escaped her mouth.

“I am sorry for the mess,” I strapped myself in the drenched command seat. “Just scoot over until I finish with these pirates.”

Evee did not respond, so I put on my neurohelmet and pushed the throttle to maximum. The entire 'Mech rumbled when it jerked forward. The sudden movement pushed Evee to the back of the cockpit, pressing against the lifeless body of the pirate. I could hear her moaned in disgust. But it was not time for comfort. She was safe, that was all I cared about.

Suddenly a chain explosion blasted my 'Mech from behind. I held my joystick backward, then twisted my 'Mech to the left. The pirates had started scrambling their tanks, and one of the two Drillsons started throwing missiles at me. I knew that my 'Mech did not have enough armor to withstand their onslaught, so I quickly stretched my 'Mech’s left arm, and squeezed the trigger.

I felt as if the ground quaked with a loud thunder. The entire cockpit shook. A bright muzzle flash blitzed from my left arm, sending clustered munitions at the Drillson. At 150 meters, the result was devastating. Half of the hover tank disintegrated in a fireball, and the remaining bulk flew off the ground ablaze before exploded in mid air, spreading flaming parts to a wide area.

“Holy crap…” I heard Evee mumbled in my back. “A Drillson in one shot? That’s a serious firepower!”

I ignored her, and quickly trained a Harasser that started to move. My targeting reticule burnt red, signaling I had a solid lock, so I hit my lasers. Two emerald beams lashed the 25-ton hover tank, singeing its engine and grilling the pilot inside. Two Savannah Masters tried to outflank me to the right. I knew my torso twist could not match their speed, so I simply raised my right leg and kicked the two tanks. My foot hit a Savannah Master on the side. The tiny hovercraft spun uncontrollably before slamming into another Harasser. It exploded upon impact, and the fire engulfed the Harasser. In a second, the Harasser pilot jumped out to safety.

I heard a loud clang, and my weapon tracker signaled me that I had another LBX-20 round to shoot. I targeted the other Drillson, still lining up with the mobile HQ. My cannon bellowed, and the Drillson roared in glorious explosion, blanketing the mobile HQ with flame. The mobile HQ reversed and started to retreat, but it was only a matter of time before the crews abandoned the overheated car.

Losing comrades at an alarming rate, the pirates decided to retreat to the airfield. I was overwhelmed by an outlandish feeling, an urge to charge them and burn them to the last man. I lined up with a Savannah Master and fired my laser. As it burnt, I singed another one. And another one. I grew hungrier with each explosion. I kicked my 'Mech to maximum speed while blasting left and right, feeding my bloodlust.

“No!” Evee suddenly halted me. “They had Manticores and Von Luckners in those hangars. You can’t battle in this condition.”

Her warning served as a wake-up call for me. She was right. My armor was only hair-thin. I was lucky that these pirates were lousy shots. They could not get a critical hit on my 'Mech, and there were almost a dozen of them boxing me. But I could not press my luck. I yanked my joystick to the left, and my 'Mech swiftly changed direction.

“Where are you going?” Evee asked.

“Starport,” I replied. “Getting off Engadine.”

“Where?” she asked plainly.

“It does not matter. Just get out of Engadine. Then we will think of how to get you to New St. Andrews.”

FOURTEENEdit

Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 4, 3058


The quiet morning turned into a total frenzy when I led my 'Mech into Starport. People screamed and yelled as the 'Mech’s feet thundered on the pavement, leaving a trail of ruin as they smashed cars, windows, canopies, and building decorations. I tried as much as I could not to squash people. But the tight turns and the narrows streets between buildings did not give me much room to maneuver. I felt sorry for the inhabitants whose cars I crushed, whose buildings I raked, but I did not have much choice.

 Despite the difficult environment, my 'Mech seemed to be able to handle tight turns extremely well.  I reckoned it should weigh at least 90 tons, but it did not feel like it was an assault.  I wondered why I had never heard about a Gladiator before.  Nevertheless, this Gladiator recognized me, and I could see why I chose it as my personal 'Mech in the past.

The small roads of Starport led me to the vast dropship gantries, and there were at least four dropships being loaded up. I circled the complex until I came in front of a big Union. Trucks and loaders stampeded out of the dropship, and I noticed sparks started to spurt from its giant engines. The ramps were hauled away from the doors, and I knew this dropship was ready to launch. I throttled up and climbed the ramp and forced my way into the belly of the dropship. I did not even see the insignia on the hull, but I was beyond care.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Evee growled. “We could end up in Chaos March.”

“I promise you home,” I unbuckled my seat belt. “That is where I am taking you.”

As I climbed out of my 'Mech, dropship crews amassed at the feet, shouting and yelling. I knew they were unhappy with my stunt. The door that was almost shut now sprung back open. I did not want to hijack this dropship, but it seemed that it was the only way to get this dropship taking off.

“What the hell are you thinking?” I heard one of the crews yelling. “Get out! You’re not going with us!”

“Take us with you, and this 'Mech is yours!” Once again, I have to pimp out my 'Mech.

“No! Now get out! We’re not taking off with you!”

“We have to get out of Engadine,” I said, half pleading. “Please, let us come with you…”

Suddenly, the entire dropship quaked. A low moan echoed in the bay, followed by a shower of sparks from the ceiling. The crews dismissed themselves and scrambled out of the dropship, but the door rumbled close. Evee and I bartered looks, and we knew that the Bone Devils had found us.

“If this dropship does not take off soon, we are doomed,” I stated the obvious.

“Looks like it’s going nowhere,” Evee replied. “They need at least five more minutes before they can return fire, and another five minutes before they can bring this blimp to space. Those Manticores will singe the engines from long range, waiting for the Von Luckners to close in and deliver the deathblow. We’re trapped.”

A series of explosions ripped the bay apart, and fire started to blaze in several locations. I knew the dropship had enough armor to withstand punishment from the pirates. It might survive, but I did not want to wait. I did not now how many pirates out there, and that made me nervous. I had to get out of the dropship. Unfortunately, all the bay doors were closed.

I hated the fact that I had to blast my own exit, but it was the only way out.

“Hang on,” I said while strapping myself back on the chair. I punched the alpha strike, and my 'Mech trembled as all guns roared in unison. Two emerald beams cored one of the bay doors, spraying molten titanium on some of the crews on the ground. My clustered munitions put a massive dent on the door, pumping out more titanium chunks. Nevertheless, the door still perched.

Another series of explosions ripped the dropship. Light flickered out, and cries of agony sorted through the sound of twisted metals. Almost the entire bay had been engulfed in fire. I felt the heat crept into my cockpit, raising my heat tracker several notches up. I waited until my guns fully recycled, then hit the alpha strike again. The bay door staggered under my assault, but despite losing an enormous amount of part, it lingered on.

“Come on, come one,” Evee muttered nervously. “Break, dammit, break!”

I swiped my eyes from sweat. The hull behind me almost gave in, and an azure bolt pushed through the wall, incinerating a coolant system above my head. Flaming goo burst from the pipes, raining down on my 'Mech. Heat spiked up to dangerous level as the entire surface of my Gladiator was swallowed by the fire. One more minute inside this hell and my 'Mech would shut down. I had to get out of here quickly.

As I heard the clang, I pushed my 'Mech forward and blasted my LBX-20. The impact almost brought the door down. Almost, but not quite. The adamant door was still standing, but my blast 25 meters from the door knocked a large crack on the door. I took two steps back, then throttled up to maximum, ramming my right shoulder onto the crack. This time, the door crumbled, and I was free.

Less than five seconds after I busted out of the flaming dropship, it exploded. A brilliant flash lit up the city for a moment, followed by a mighty quake. I did not even remember if there was a bang. My 'Mech staggered under the onslaught, swaying left and right to cope with the quake. I jiggled the joystick, fighting to keep my 'Mech standing. It took me half a minute to steady up my 'Mech. Smoke and debris filled the air, hampering my radar and visibility. Anything beyond 300 meters was a complete blur.

But instead, I found refuge inside this cloud of debris. If I could not see my enemies, then they could not see me. This cloud served as a smoke screen. I pushed the throttle to one-third maximum and guided my 'Mech in the smoke. Guns, cannons, and explosions rattled in the distance, so I maneuvered my 'Mech away from the noises. In this milieu, I expected to bump myself into buildings, but so far I only trod on small cars and trucks. As the smoke cleared out, I pushed my throttle to maximum.

But I never thought I would face another kind of trouble.

“This is Starport Police Department. Stand down and exit your 'Mech!” Half a dozen Cavalry helicopters blocked my way. They hovered in pairs, stretched in such a way that I could not shoot them down in quick succession. On my far-left flank, a lance of UM-60 UrbanMechs trundled on the street, blocking my other exit.

Had my 'Mech been in good condition, I would have dove into battle and taken out the Cavalries, before using my speed to outflank the UrbanMechs. Those slow coaches should fall quickly under my guns. My blood boiled, thinking how far I could go if I decided to engage them. But my armor was almost stripped to the internal structure. The Cavalries were fast and agile, and the UrbanMechs carried 10-class autocannon. One unlucky shot may render me miserable.

But the police was not a real threat. I knew they would not kill me if I did not initiate hostility. My biggest worry was the Bone Devils. Two Manticores and one Von Luckner had cleared the smokescreen and were racing toward my position. There was a building behind me that blocked their line of fire, but soon they would clear the building. I could not move because the cops were in my way.

“This is your last warning!” The cops bellowed again through their external speakers. “Stand down and surrender, or we will open fire!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Evee yelled. “Smoke those bastards!”

“I will not shoot the cops!” I refuted. “I do not have enough armor to withstand their missiles!”

“Would you rather get shot by the Bone Devils?” Evee roared. “The Cavalries may or may not hurt you, but a PPC or an AC-20 round will certainly turn you into pulp. Take a chance, dammit! Shoot the damn cops!”

Evee had a good point. In fact, I felt the same way. However, I saw another way. Four UrbanMechs and six Cavalries should be a perfect match for the Manticores and the Von Luckners. If I could make the cops and the pirates kill each other, I could get out of here virtually unharmed. Deception and running away from battle were not the Clan’s epitome, and once again I disgraced my lineage by using this tactic. But I guessed I had been living among the Spheroids for far too long.

“Trust me on this, Evee,” I said while I manipulated the joystick. My Gladiator stretched its arms in the air, assuming a surrender stance. I hooked up my external speaker to my microphone then said, “Do not shoot! Do not shoot! I have reached combat loss grouping and Bone Devils pirates are in my back! They want to kill me!”

“Exit your 'Mech and surrender!” the police repeated their demand. “We’ll cover your back!”

“There is no time!” I fibbed panic, watching one Manticore swung around the building behind me. “If I get out now, they are going to kill me!”

I amazed myself by my lying skill, so much that I doubted that I was ever a Clan MechWarrior. Four of the Cavalries flew over my head to cut the path of the Manticore. When the tank cleared the building, the cops issued a standard ‘stand down’ order. But the Manticore had no intention to play by the rules. An azure bolt leapt from the tank’s turret and chomped half of a Cavalry. The chopper sputtered and spun uncontrollably until it hit an apartment building and exploded in a yellow fireball.

“Officer down! Officer down!” I heard the other cops screamed. “All hands, waste the pirates!”

About three dozen missiles swooshed out of the Cavalries and rained upon the Manticore like a hailstorm. Burning chunks of armor flew in every direction as the 60-ton tank writhed to sustain the onslaught. It swung its turret in all direction, trying to hit the Cavalries with its machine gun and missiles. But the Cavalries were too fast for the pirate tank. Another wave of missiles stabbed the Manticore from every direction. The tank staggered like a wounded beast, and started spewing smoke from its turret. The cops hit it one more time, and the turret erupted.

The fire was still licking from the disabled Manticore when a stream of missiles dashed from behind a building and hit another Cavalry. The chopper exploded midair, spreading burning parts everywhere. Another stream of PPC rose up and ravaged yet another Cavalry. The chopper took a plunge on top of an office building, splitting the glass wall as it slid down to the ground, and exploded as it touched the ground. The remaining choppers turned to face the incoming Manticore and Von Luckner, firing their missiles at the pirates.

I watched my radar. Another lance of pirate heavy tanks was closing in, but the police UrbanMechs had almost reached the battle zone. I had no intention to watch the fight, so I throttled up and left the scene, overlooked by both parties, just like I had foreseen. I walked freely through the streets of Starport.

But I was naïve if I thought I could get out of Starport that easy.  More Cavalries took off and boxed me from three different directions.  Without warning, they sprayed their missiles.  I banked hard to the left, missing the missiles by a hair, but some managed to hit my right arm.  The entire cockpit rocked as my LBX-20 cannon erupted, taking the entire right arm with it.  The sudden loss of mass almost toppled me, but I managed to keep my 'Mech standing.  Lucky for me, I lost the non-operational cannon.

I twisted right and fired my laser at a helicopter. Tongues of fire belched from the doomed Cavalry as my laser stabbed its fuselage, ripping the armored belly as if it was made of jelly. The fiery carcass plunged to the ground and disintegrated in a fireball. The other Cavalries broke formation, but I quickly lined up with another chopper and let loose another laser beam. The emerald beam torched the missile launcher under its nose, and as it exploded, it mutilated the fuselage. The Cavalry burst into flames.

The wave of retaliation soon came forth. The Cavalries regrouped with their guns hot at me. Their missile tubes went alive with sparks and smoke, spitting barrages of explosive warheads. I ducked and squatted, letting the barrages flew over my head to ravage the building behind me. Hundreds of explosions festooned the building like fireworks. Several Cavalries unleashed their missiles, two of which stroke me on the chest. The impact forcefully jerked me behind. I gritted my teeth before I regained control over my 'Mech, but the next wave of assault came inbound. They always attacked in unison, forcing me to be the defender most of the time. Heat spiked to one third of maximum point as I jerked my 'Mech forward. The building behind me started to burn after repeated attacks from the choppers.

I hoisted my left arm and wildly fired my large-bore cannon right between two Cavalries. My cluster round shredded the armor of a Cavalry, and crushed the canopy of another. One of them quickly spitting smoke. The other one banked to its left, but I was not going to let it go. A stream of pure energy darted out from my right torso, breaching the Cavalry’s tail. The hapless chopper spun uncontrollably before crashing into a supermarket.

“My 'Mech is on Hangar D-7,” Evee stated. “Drop me there and I’ll help you fighting these buggers.”

“We have to go past the pirates and the UrbanMechs to get back to the hangar,” I rebuked her idea. “I cannot risk it.”

“But we may never get past these cops,” Evee said. “They’re just keep coming!”

“I will find a way. Just sit tight and watch my back.”

I was fairly lucky because the buildings provided cover from the Cavalries. I could dodge most of their missiles, but I could not play this game forever. Two Cavalries attacked me from my right flank, two more from my left, trying to catch me in a crossfire. I winced as the shockwave pushed me around, making my escape feel harder. Splinters from the buildings ricocheted on my window glass. I returned fire with my laser. Two green lights went straight through the cockpit of a Cavalry, broiling the pilot alive. A burst of fragmented shell flayed another chopper, ending its life in an orange fireball. Burning debris was tossed into dozens of meter radius.

By this time, I was standing in front of two big warehouses, and the choppers were making a turn to regroup and to get a better position. I pushed my 'Mech into one of the warehouses before the choppers showered me with missiles. The warehouse shuddered as the missiles smashed the roof. Concrete bits flew in every direction. I backed up, and before the Cavalries were finished recycling their guns, I put my guns to work. My lasers eviscerated a pair of choppers, while my cannon carved holes on the third. It was not enough to bring it down, but it was enough to make it turn and limp away from the battle.

“You’re clear!” Evee exclaimed. “Now’s your chance!”

I could not agree more. I put the reactor to maximum, then let my 'Mech sprinted on the street before more choppers coming our way. I brought my 'Mech out of the city, and until then, no one challenged us.

FIFTEENEdit

Outside Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 4, 3058


The explosions were still ripping the city apart when I parked my 'Mech behind a hill, ten kilometers outside Starport. As I climbed up my 'Mech, I could still see the flash of explosions and smoke rising from the center of the city. I wished I could go back to the dropship gantries and hitchhike another dropship, but I could not do that without getting noticed. Besides, the dropships must have shut their doors. One bad example was enough. So I had to find a different way to get us out of Engadine.

I waited until Evee got out of the cockpit, then heaved the bloody mess that was a Bone Devils pirate out of the cockpit. I put the body on the ground, then stripped my blood-soaked cooling vest. That left me with my shorts and my boots, since I did not wear anything else. I was about to loosen my boots when I caught Evee looking intently at me. Her eyes glistened with confusion.

“So you’re a Clanner,” she muttered. “Do you have a plan to tell me or are you gonna keep playing with my ignorance?”

I look at her. She was tired, she was confused, she was angry at me. “I am sorry you have to know it this way,” I said empathically. “I was as ignorant as you are until yesterday.”

I told her everything. I told her how I first met the 'Mech in the wood, and how Megi forced me to promise not to mention or see it anymore. I told her about the letter which drove me back the wood, against my promise to Megi. I told her about how I prepared to bypass the 'Mech’s security system, but in the end I did not have to because my voice opened up the lock. I told her what Megi told me, and I told her what I thought about myself.

“These past two days revealed more than what I have been getting for two months,” I told her. “Imagine how you live your entire life believing that you are someone, then suddenly you are someone else. My life started three months ago, and I come to believe that I did something hideous in my past. I thought I was a thief, a terrorist, a killer, or someone much worse than that. I came to Engadine carrying my sin. Now I know that I am none of those. My sin has nothing to do with what I did, but with what I was. I did nothing wrong. I was just born on the wrong side of the universe.”

Evee averted her eyes from me, looking at the smoke that rose from Starport. She did not say anything, which made me feel bad. I remembered how she hated Clanners, just like typical Spheroid in Engadine. It must have been traumatic for her knowing that the closest man in this alien world was the one she expected the least. And it was even more traumatic for me knowing that I could do absolutely nothing. Once again, it was nothing to do with what I did. It was all because of what I was.

“I understand your feeling,” I tried to break the ice. “You hate me.”

“Hate you?” she scoffed. “Believe me, I want to hate you, you Clan sonofabitch. But you gave all your heart and soul to save me, to bring me home to New St. Andrews, to keep me out of the pirate’s hold… you made me impossible to hate you!” She turned her face toward me, looking at me with her fatigued eyes. “Why did you come back for me, Parker? What made you, the highest caste in the Clan society, going through all the trouble for a freebirth like me? Isn’t that against your stupid code of honor?”

“You went through all this trouble because of me,” I replied. “I could not let you burden my load. Besides, I gave you my word that I will make sure you go to New St. Andrews. Clanner or no Clanner, I keep my promise.”

She looked at me in a funny way, weighing my response, but the look in her eyes told me she could not make a decision whether to hate me or to like me. She watched the smoke pillar again, and after a long pause, she came back at me and said, “You know, I came from the Periphery, but I am a proud Spheroid. I have been saving up my loathing toward the Clanner, thinking that one day I will meet one and just unleash myself at him. Never once I thought that I would owe my life to a Clanner, so much that the only thing I could think of is a ‘thank you’.”

I nodded my response.

“So what it’s like to live in the Inner Sphere?” she asked. “You like it better than in your touman?”

“I wish I could tell,” I replied in a sigh. “This is the only life I know. I do not remember what is like to be a Clan MechWarrior. I do not remember what happened to me before I crash-landed. I do not remember what made me leave Phelan… if I was ever Phelan’s troop, that is. I do not even remember my name.”

“The pirates were pretty damn sure you’re from Phelan’s Delta Galaxy,” Evee mused.

“I think they just assumed I was.”

“Then how did they figure out your 'Mech? Do you think they were lucky assuming you had it?”

“I do not know, Evee. That is why Megi suggested that I go to Arc Royal. Ask Phelan himself. He is a Khan, a Wolf Khan, leader of my touman. He should know what happened to me.”

“But Starport is not accessible for us anymore,” Evee mused. “Everybody’s looking for us. We have to get rid of the pirates. Hopefully, it clears our names, so the police will let us take off from Starport. But there’s a chance that they still deny our pass for the sake of their fallen comrades.”

It sounded like a good plan, until I realized something. “We? What do you mean ‘we’?”

“'We' as in, 'you and I.'”

“You cannot be serious!” I stepped back. “This has nothing to do with you, Evee. My past is mine and mine alone. Besides, I promised you home. You are not going anywhere but New St. Andrews.”

“What if you were an outlaw? What if you came to Engadine to escape Phelan? What if Phelan and his Wolves want your head? Haven’t you thought about that?”

Actually, I have not. I thought about the reason why I left my Clan world. Perhaps I was a crooked Clanner, a dezgra that was banished because I disgraced my unit (and by the way I worked my way out of trouble, it was a solid possibility). Perhaps I was a failure in Wolf’s genetic program, so they threw me away after they erased my memory. Perhaps this and perhaps that. But I never thought a possibility that I came to Engadine to escape Phelan’s wrath. Should it be the case, then I must have done something evil, so repulsive that a warrior of Phelan’s caliber wanted me dead.
I started to realize that maybe – just maybe – living without a memory was the best option for me.

“I’m not saying that you can’t go to Arc Royal,” Evee continued, as if knowing what I was thinking. “I’m saying that you can’t rush. I know it’s painful to live without a past, but your life is more precious than your memory. If you want to meet Phelan, at least you have to be prepared to face anything, including Phelan.”

I saw the gravity of her decision, and I knew she would not back down. She used to be an aristocrat in her own realm, and she would not let this one go, especially since she owed me her life. Well, she thought she owed me her life. I never thought that she did. I was only doing good things.

“If you insist,” I moaned in defeat, switching my sight to my one-armed 'Mech. “Unfortunately, we are stuck with my near-defunct 'Mech. If we can find a way to fix it, I can beat the pirates.”

“Don’t you have a home at Hogye?” Evee muttered.

“It is not my home anymore,” I sighed. “They know I am a Clanner, and they do not want me to be a part of them. They still blame everything that happened to them on the Clan invasion.”

“That’s absurd,” Evee huffed. “Well, that’s so much you can expect from rednecks. How ‘bout this: let’s sneak back to Starport and talk to the chief police. Give him an offer he can’t refuse in exchange of fixing your 'Mech, and full access out of Engadine. If he rejects our proposal, then Starport is not worth our time. We’ll figure out something else.”

I looked at Evee, and for the first time, I admired her brainpower. She matched my aptitude and resourcefulness, and working with someone that was comparable to me felt really good. I nodded, and she knew I liked her idea. “Now let us find some water to wash out this blood, shall we?”


Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 6, 3058


Although Starport was an utter mess, life went on. Only one-third of the buildings survived the battle between Starport Police and the Bone Devils, but it did not disheartened the inhabitants. They kept strolling on the street, working their jobs, living their lives among rubbles and burning cars. I could only guessed that this was not the first time such an attack hit Starport.

Earlier today, Evee and I sneaked back into the city and looted a destroyed building which used to be a huge department store. There was too much blood on our clothes, so we had to find fresh ones. I found a jacket with a hood, a pair of jeans, and undersized sneakers. I never realized that my figure was bigger than normal people, until I tried to find clothes my size. I could comply with the jacket and the pants, but the sneakers really hurt my feet. Worst yet, they were the biggest size available, so I had no choice. Evee found much better luck, basically because she was a Spheroid. It seemed as if the entire items were designed solely for her.

The next couple of hours we waited in front of the police station, watching cops taking control of the situation. There were still two UrbanMechs left, but they were mauled badly. One had lost the prized Autocannon-10. Some helicopters loitered above the HQ, and police armored cars dropped fresh cops in the vicinity. But for two hours, we waited in vain for the chief to come out. We knew he was inside the building, and we knew he was busy leading his force to maintain order. We had a proposition for him, and we were waiting to deliver it when his mind was not monopolized by his duty. That was, whenever he called it a day and went home.

When we thought he never went home, he emerged from behind his building. This middle-aged, stocky man barked orders to his subordinates, then walked on the street. We waited some more, and when he was just about to disappear from our sight, we followed him. It was starting to get dark, and soon we found out he was not going home. He went to a bar.

“How’re your feet?” Evee asked.

“Fine,” I replied unenthusiastically.

“Once you get used to it, you’ll forget the pain,” Evee coined sincerity.

I scoffed. Through the glass window we watched the chief took a round table in the corner and ordered a bottle of gin. It was obvious that he was waiting for somebody, so we thought we had only a small window to give our proposition. We barged in, and liberally took the seats in front of him. His eyes widened for a moment, but he calmed down faster than I expected. I smelled something suspicious, and when I looked at Evee, I knew she sensed it too.

“Chief, I know you’re busy, but we just need a moment of your time…” Evee quickly seized the moment.

“I’ve been expecting you,” the chief leaned back in his chair. “Help yourself with to a drink.”

“Expecting us?” I shot up from my chair, preparing for the worst. “What are you talking about?”

“Relax, Parker. He was expecting us, not you. But we’ve been talking a lot about you.”

I recognized that voice. I never thought I would hear it again. I turned back, and there she was, Mayor Megi, with Fercyn on her side. This was some development I was glad to know, but of course I wanted to know what brought these three together.

Somewhat I knew the answer.

“You left a trail of destruction anywhere you set your feet on, Parker,” the chief smiled. “I heard about you and the CAMR. Pretty impressive stunt for a stranger, I should say. Mayor Megi called me three days ago warning me about your possible arrival at Starport. She was right. Had she not informed me, we would’ve had more casualties.”

“What can I say?” I could only reply in a joke. “I am a Clanner. I excel in destroying things.”

“Before you arrest us,” Evee interjected, “we have a proposition for you.”

“You’re in no position to negotiate, mercenary!” Fercyn hissed. “You’re nothing better than Parker. Money is all you care about, so just shut up.”

“And who do you think you are, coward?” Evee snarled back at Fercyn. “You, the pillar of defense for Hogye, ran with your tail between your legs. Parker did more for Hogye in three months than you in your entire career as Hogye’s sheriff! You shut up!”

“Everybody calm down!” the chief got up when the tension arose. “We have time, so why don’t we let missy tell her proposition.”

“Call me Evee,” she exhaled sharply. “We both know that the Bone Devil gang occupied the old airfield. We also know that they wield heavy tanks, Manticores and Von Luckners. I don’t know how many of them came to Starport, but I saw at least a company of them, escorted by Harassers and Savannah Masters. They’re pretty much comparable with your force.”

“True,” the chief said. “The battle was a stalemate. They retreated. Had you not killed two lances of my choppers, we could’ve killed at least two more of them.”

“We are sorry for that,” I tuned in. “But we did what we had to do. Now we want to help you rebuild your force by taking possession of their tanks. There should be enough tanks and parts for you to salvage. Evee and I had been working on a strategy to beat the pirates and get as much salvage as possible, but we cannot do it alone. We need your help.”

“Parker and I will lure the heavy tanks out of the airfield. Once most of them left, you take your force to wipe out any pirates lethargic enough to stay at the airfield. Force them to surrender. Claim your prize. If you want a bigger prize, come and help us. Or just leave them to us. It’s a simple plan. You get the easier part, and you get to take all the salvage.”

“The only problem is that our 'Mechs are not in good condition. If they were, we can beat the pirates. So here is our proposition. You repair and reload our 'Mechs, we fight for you, you get the salvage, and you let us go.”

“That’s it?” the chief frowned. “That’s all you want?”

“That’s all we want,” Evee smirked. “You might ask ‘Is it too god to be true? Can you trust a Clanner and an ex mercenary?’ Well think about this: we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives in your jail, or in your crosshairs. We’re not doing you a favor. We’re buying off our own freedom.”

The chief looked at me and Evee interchangeably, then shot a glance at Megi and Fercyn. At last he emptied his glass and said to Megi and Fercyn, “Sounds good to me. Feasible to you?”

“Wait a minute,” Evee quickly interrupted. “We’re making a deal with you. How do these guys come into our deal?”

“Parker told me you met Fercyn,” Megi explained. “So when Parker left Hogye, I searched for him and explained things. I told him that Parker might try to find a way to leave Engadine through Starport. We were here when you blasted into Starport with the Bone Devils in your six.”

“Can’t do anything quietly, can you, Clanner?” Fercyn growled in mockery.

“So we decided to help Starport police. Engadine is not the best place for Parker, and we want him to be with his kin: the Wolves in Arc Royal or Strana Mechty. By helping Starport police, we’re helping Parker to return to his touman as quickly as he can.”

“The sooner he’s out of here, the better,” Fercyn added. “By far my Commando is the fastest 'Mech around. You need me to deal with the Harassers and Savannah Masters. Additionally, the battle armor squad now answers to me. They’re a great addition when you’re making your raid to the airfield. In return, I’ll ask a portion of the salvage, but the good chief doesn’t seem to mind. So yeah, we’re in.”

I looked at Evee, who subsequently flashed a smile at me. We never thought this plan would go this far.

“That settles it then,” the chief drew a deep breath. “Get your 'Mechs into the hangars. I’ll get my techs to repair them, although we might not be able to do much with the Gladiator.”

“Any help is greatly appreciated, Chief,” I said. “Thank you.”

SIXTEENEdit

Outside Starport, Engadine,

Melissa Theater, Lyran Alliance,

May 17, 3058


Ten days of repair gave my Gladiator a big boost in armor. The police hangars did stock enough ferro-fibrous armor to patch my 'Mech. Now the armor tracker was topped off. Unfortunately, they did not have the parts, the knowledge, or Clan-tech LBX-20 cannon to replace my right arm. They also did not have the ammunition for my working LBX-20. They did, however, scrub my cockpit and wash out the blood. So for the next battle against the pirates, I would go into battle with my lasers only.

Things were better for Evee. Her Trebuchet was Sphere-tech, so the police technicians could fix it in no time. They did not just repair and reload her old missile launcher, they installed two brand-new ones. Evee was very proud of her 'Mech. It was her father’s birthday gift, and seeing it in good hands really lifted up her morale.

I was standing idle three kilometers away from the airfield, hiding behind the shadow of a hill. Fercyn waited just 20 meters on my left. His Commando looked very small from my current perspective. Of course, my 'Mech towered a full seven meters over it. For a moment, I doubted that Fercyn would contribute anything to our offense. But his forte was not the Commando’s arsenal or armor. It was its speed, and soon I would find out how pleasurable an addition Fercyn was to our force.

“Don’t think we are good, Clanner,” Fercyn croaked through the comlink. “I’m not doing this because I want to help you. I’m doing this so that you can get out of Engadine. I’m doing this for the sake of Hogye.”

“Whatever your intention is, I appreciate it,” I chose not to confront the old sheriff. “Hogye deserves the best. Evee, are you in position?”

“Lock and load, my friend,” she chimed. “Just bring them to me!”

“Starport Police. We are in position, ready when you are.”

“Alright, this is Parker. I am going in.”

I pushed the throttle to maximum. My Gladiator galloped to the top of the hill, overlooking the airfield some two kilometers away. I cranked up my power scope to maximum, and a hideous long-barreled PPC of a Manticore materialized before my very eyes. I tallied half a dozen Manticores, four Von Luckners, a company of Savannah Master, and two lances of Harassers.

I fired up my reactor and let my 'Mech sprint across the hill. The stomps must have awakened the pirates from their slumber. The hover tanks quickly closed the gap while the heavy tanks assumed defensive position and swung their turrets at me. The Manticores in my scanner were still 1.5 kilometers away when azure bolts started flying in the air. Spheroid PPCs had a range of 850 meters, so I still had half a kilometer to cover. I lined up with a Harasser, which quickly crisscrossed its path, then singed it with my lasers. A geyser of fire and splinters blossomed into the air, showering a 100-meter radius with burning shrapnel.

Suddenly I heard my console screaming. The heavy tanks had entered one kilometer range and started showering me with their missiles. Rocking explosions staggered my 'Mech. The whole right torso blazed like a volcano as the missiles rammed themselves into my 'Mech. I felt it twisting and lurching to the left. I yanked my joystick hard, keeping it standing. Nevertheless, I lost a ton of armor on the right torso.

It was much easier if I just charged the heavy tanks and attacked them at 800 meters. My 'Mech had exceptional agility for an assault, and I could use it to outflank the much slower tanks. However, our goal was to capture the tanks, not to destroy them. So I turned back and started running toward the hill. The Savannah Masters had already reached their firing range, and started peeling the armor off my feet.

“This is Parker. I start taking fire from ten heavy tanks and almost two companies of hover tanks latching on to me. I am taking them to the hill. Watch your target.”

“Copy that,” I heard Evee responding. “Take’em to my crosshair, Parker!”

But as eager as Evee was, I knew I could not go too fast. I should give them the impression that I was alone, an easy target for them, so they would lock their guns on me and follow me around like puppies. So I twisted a little to the left and hit my lasers at the first Savannah Master that passed my crosshair. My laser boiled the thin structure of the 5-ton hovercraft, claiming everything inside the cockpit. With a massive shudder the Savannah Master exploded-hot metal hurled all over the place.

The remaining Harassers unleashed everything they had, forcing me to clench my grips around the joystick as missiles peppered the armor on my leg. The balance-calibrating signal on my neurohelmet made my head throb. I let them sink in their confidence, munching my left side, then abruptly pivoted to the right and put my crosshair squarely on a Harasser. At 400 meters, my twin lasers spitted their venom, and the Harasser met the same fate as its comrade fifteen seconds ago.

By this time, the Manticores and Von Luckners had almost reached their gun range, so I decided it was time to run. I whipped my 'Mech to full speed, and crisscrossing my path I climbed the hill. The Bone Devils were so overconfident that they gunned their while throwing me everything they have got, trying to hurt me. By the time they noticed Fercyn powering up, it was too late. A quick burst of lasers dug deep into a Harasser’s hull. The hovertank shrugged the attack and sent its missiles to keep the Commando at bay. But Fercyn piloted his 'Mech like an artist, deftly sidestepped to the left, avoiding the missiles by more than a foot. Then his torso burst into light, sending streams of missiles towards the 25-tonner. The weakened armor of the Harasser gave way to the armor-piercing rounds, leaving the hull eviscerated. Fercyn spitted his laser into the heart of the tank, torching the magazines, and singeing the tank in a gigantic fireball.

The pirates were caught off guard, but they quickly regrouped. Two Savannah Masters lined up with Fercyn’s Commando and scored a clean hit on his torso. A medium laser, by itself, was just a nuisance. Two, however, hurt bad, especially on a thinly-armored 25-tonner like a Commando. Light smoke twirled from impact area, and Fercyn staggered to cope with the loss of armor. Two more Savannah Masters fired their lasers; one missed, one struck a hole on Fercyn’s leg.

I tried to divide their attention. I fired my laser to one of the hovercrafts. The Savannah Master on Fercyn’s left caught fire, forcing the pilot to jump out to safety. I backpedaled and put my crosshair at another Harasser. The small hover tank twisted left to right, but it never escaped my line of fire. With a click on my trigger I incinerated the tank.

Just then, the first Manticore cleared the hill.

“Keep your heads down, boys!” Evee screamed in joy. “This one is mine!”

A rainfall of missiles poured down on the Manticore, which was still spellbound. The missiles cleaved the armor on the turret, turning it into a mangled, smoking, sparking structure. The Manticore fired its PPC wildly, hoping to hit the sniper with its blind fire. But some 900 meters away, shaded under the gloom of rocky mountain, Evee put her long-range missiles to good use. Another set of missiles flew in the air before punishing the 60-ton tank with their warheads. Fire and armor chips raced into the air as Evee’s surgical strike ripped the turret apart. Without its turret, the tank was impotent.

“That’s one in a million!” she gloated, reveling her work. “Keep’em coming!”

But the Bone Devils realized that they were walking into a trap. They restrained their movement and retreated in a methodical fashion. The remaining Harassers and Savannah Masters followed their big brothers while firing their guns once in a while, keeping us from charging directly into their formation.

Had Evee waited until more tanks came into range, we would have disabled at least three or four. But I could not blame her. She was a good MechWarrior, a fine markswoman at her best that had smitten a 60-ton tank in just two salvos. She was young, however, and her enthusiasm killed our momentum.

“Crap!” she mumbled. “They make our plan, don’t they?”

“Right,” I pushed my throttle to maximum. “Form up on me. We have to disable the tanks at point blank.”

“Sorry, Parker,” she realized what she had done. “Coming up at full speed.”

“Is it just me or do you forget what I’m riding?” Fercyn blurted. “I ain’t attacking the heavy tanks!”

“Fine,” I replied, somewhat knew what Fercyn was thinking. “Just cover our backs from the hover tanks.”

There were several ways to disable a tank. The easiest way was to hit its track. One laser hit was enough to break the track and immobilize the tank, but the turret was still alive. The other way was to destroy the turret, but there was always a chance of ammo explosion, rendering the tank useless. I did not know which one was the best for me. I would see it in the battle.

As I reached the top of the hill once again, two Manticores were waiting for me. I tightened my grip on the joystick as two azure bolts raced toward me. One flew right beside my head, the other one struck me dead center. I felt my 'Mech slalomed like a mindless zombie, and for a second all gauges went black. Some clusters of ferro-fibrous armor geysered from the impact, and the armor tracker turned orange.

I knew the Manticores needed at least eight seconds to recycle, so I lined up my crosshair to the bigger threat, a Von Luckner. Two streaks of emerald beams lanced from my torso and landed perfectly on the tank’s hull, roasting the armor into smoldering shards and critically wounded its internal structure. The heavy tank paused briefly for balance before swiveling its turret for a return fire. Ballistics and missiles whistled among the smoke to hurt me. I crunched my own lips as four missiles slammed into my torso. Holding my breath, I punched the laser triggers once again, and two bright bolts of laser speared the 75-ton tank on the turret. The turret glowed orange, but the tank moved backward and showered me with its missiles.

By this time, the Manticores were ready for action. Two PPC beams slugged me on the left arm. I smelled burning myomer as flaming splinters spread out in the air. Although my LBX-20 was depleted, I did not want to lose the gun. I slammed my right foot on the pedal and yanked the sticks backward, bringing my Gladiator backpedaling just as the lasers recycled. I focused on the Von Luckner and stabbed the turret, just as it was about to hit me with its massive 250-millimeter cannon. The delicate structure in its turret gave in to the laser beams. The heavy tank rocked as the turret erupted.

The Manticores launched everything they had at me. My 'Mech shuddered under the onslaught, and the armor tracker turned a dangerous red. I kept my move, stepping backward, when some 30 missiles swooshed right above my right shoulder, and maimed a Manticore on its left side. I stole a glance to my right, and a big Trebuchet sprinted just 50 meters behind me. The triple nozzles sparkled, spitting a trio of crimson beams, and the Manticore’s right track melted into sweltering ooze. The Manticore trembled as its track stretched to the point of breaking. Evee let loose another barrage of missiles, half of which exploited the gash on the right track. The track blasted off, followed by a loud clunk when the 60-ton tank came into a screeching halt.

“I hope it’s more than a make-up for my haste,” Evee chimed on the comlink. “Never thought I’d save the great Kerensky in the battle.”

“I have everything under control,” my ego did not allow me to acknowledge the fact that I needed assistance from a girl. “And I am Parker. I might have been Kerensky, but I am Parker!”

Just then, a blue streak zipped from the other Manticore and smote Evee squarely in the midst. Chunks of burning splinters were tossed within a 50-meter radius as Evee jerked back and forth. The 50-ton Trebuchet spun uncontrollably, trying its heart out to regain control. Lucky for her, the Manticore could not keep up the pressure. I tilted up my torso twenty degrees, putting my crosshair squarely on the Manticore’s front hull. I barked my guns, drilling the hull, pumping out molten armor. Evee regained her balance, and with a vengeance showered the tank with her missiles. Some of her warheads ripped through the weakened hull, pushing through the internal structure, and incinerated the engine. The tank roared in a glorious fireball.

“Just when you thought you’re better,” Evee commented. “Thanks, Parker.”

I swung to the right, ready for another fight with another Von Luckner, but the tank ceased its movement. Soon, all the remaining pirate tanks halted. From the horizon I watched helicopters advanced toward us, and I realized that the Starport Police had done their job. The helicopters encircled the remaining pirates and started barking order to surrender, which the pirates obeyed without further resistance.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. Here I was, sitting at a walking nuclear reactor with weapons that could destroy the pirates within minutes, but I had to wait for the cops to relieve me. Perhaps it was the way I was designed: an engine of destruction. I felt my blood was still boiling, ready for another round of carnage. I felt like I was just about to get warm, but the battle was over. There was nothing left for me to fight. Quite disappointing, but I understood that this disappointment was the key to open the door to my past.

“Parker, the Starport Police had seized the old airfield,” Megi stated. “Their UrbanMechs, along with our Cutlass battle armors, managed to capture most of the Bone Devil’s leaders. The rest escaped or were killed during the raid, but I don’t think they pose threat anymore. We’ve blown them apart. You just bought yourself a ticket to Arc Royal, buddy. One of the dropships at Starport is willing to take a detour to Outreach. From there, you’ll find no difficulties finding another ride to Arc Royal.”

Nobody understood what it meant to me. Soon enough, I would learn about my past. I would become ‘somebody’, not just some body without a past. I would be just like Megi, Fercyn, Evee, or any other people that had a history, a home, and a soul.

I knew I could face disappointment. I could be the least person Phelan wanted to meet. I could be Wolf’s genetic waste, flushed down their sewer to the middle of nowhere, a world called Engadine. But I did not care. All I craved was a history of me as a human being. I did not want to be a zombie for the rest of my life.

“Hear that, Parker?” Evee said. “Are you ready for it?”

I could not conceal my smile. “Of course. Of course.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s a chance you don’t get what you want in Arc Royal. Or, your past is not the way you want it to be. Do you understand what I mean?”

“At this point, I would give everything,” I heaved a deep breath. “I would give everything to have a past, no matter what it is. My past defines my being, Evee, be it good or bad.”

SEVENTEENEdit

Old Connaught, Arc Royal,

Arc Royal Defense Cordon,

September 12, 3058


I had never seen a metropolis before. And even if I did, I did not remember it. Hogye was a small town, Starport was big, but Old Connaught was huge. I could stretch my neck until the back of my head touched my shoulder blade, and I still could not see the top of the buildings. They were so high I thought they were higher than the clouds. I could blink until my eyes hurt, and I still could not spot the edge of the city. Perhaps if I hopped onto one of the skyscrapers and climbed to the roof, I could see the end. It was that huge.

The journey from Engadine to Outreach was boring. There was nothing we could do except talking and playing cards. Evee taught me this ancient card game called Poker. It was a tricky game, and I was never good at it. And the crews liked to take advantage of that fact. They squeezed me, ganged up on me, took my money, and coerced me to keep playing so they could take more money from me. Spheroids. No wonder Clanners regarded them inferior. They wasted too much of their time.

From Outreach, we hitchhiked a ride to Arc Royal. The mercenary Kell Hounds and Wolves in Exile (that was the name people called Phelan’s Wolves) had a tight bond. They fought together at Morges, shredding the Jade Falcons to pieces during Refusal War. Just as Megi said, we found no trouble going to Arc Royal using one of Kell Hound’s dropship.

Arc Royal, though, was different from Hogye. Most of people here were big. I was big in Engadine, but here I was small compared to people in average. And often I saw things I had never seen before: men and women twice my size. Literally, twice. They were about three meters high, easily weighed 200 kilos if not more, and their biceps were much bigger than my thigh. These people were giants. I read some information about Elementals before, men and women bred to don the Elemental suits, but I had never seen them in person. Perhaps I had, but again, I did not remember.

This was what it was like to live in a Clan world.

I did not know what Evee did, but she managed to get us a pass to meet Phelan Ward. I reckoned it would be hard to meet the Khan of Wolf in Exile, but I would not contest that any further. Still, she piqued my curiosity. When I asked, she smiled.

“This is a different Clan than I expected,” she stated. “This Clan isn’t horrendously pompous. They’re kind to mercenaries. I have no comparison, but I heard how Clanners treat us badly. Us, I mean, Spheroids, not you. But here, people are friendly. I guess it’s because Phelan’s background as the heir of the Kell Hounds.”

“Does it change your perspective toward us, Clanners?” I asked.

“They’re OK,” she smirked. “But I still want to kick a Clanner’s ass.”

The elevator brought us to the top of the building, and as soon as the door opened, two Elemental warriors grabbed us and searched us for weapons. They confiscated our guns, then let us through the door. It was a huge room, and I did not know if it was an office or a living room. All kinds of things were piled up everywhere. In the middle of the room stood a man with dark curly hair, about my height but with much less body mass. His conversation partner, a woman with white hair, was about the same size as me although slightly taller.

I looked at them, and I knew immediately that he was Phelan Ward, the Khan of Wolf in Exile. I did not know the woman, but I would guess she was Ranna Kerensky, CO of the 4th Wolf Guard Assault Cluster. He looked at me like he was seeing a ghost, but he quickly regained his composure. He rushed at me, grabbed my arm really tight, and spoke in disbelief, “Darien? You alive? You sonofabitch! Where the hell have you been?”

I choked under Phelan’s verbal assault.

“Phelan, I think something happened to him,” the white-haired woman came and looked at me intensely. “It looks like he did not remember us. We might be talking to a different person.”

Quickly Phelan released his grips and drew his sidearm. The woman whistled, and the two Elementals at the door burst into the room, guns at the ready. The woman drew her gun and shoved it at my temple, while one of the Elementals, a giant woman, pointed her gun at Evee. The white-haired woman took a small box and, keeping her pistol at my head, scanned my eyes with the box. A series of blips rose from the box, and when the woman watched the result, she lowered the gun and tossed the box at Phelan. “It is him.”

Phelan read the box, then waved at the Elementals. The two giants retreated, and Phelan came to me. I was frozen. I did not know what to do, just watched him watched me with his head shaking. “Jesus, Darien! What happened to you? Don’t you remember me? Ranna? Evantha?”

Darien. He kept calling me Darien. I would guess that was my real name: Darien Kerensky.

“I…” my words stuck in my throat. “I did not know what happened. I woke up six months ago in Engadine, oblivious to anything but myself. I did not even remember my name, so people called me Parker. That was the only name I know. I am Parker, a stranger on a foreign land. Then I learnt about myself, little by little. I was a Wolf MechWarrior bearing the name of Kerensky. That is why I am here, because I know you can help me.”

“And you said you settled for Parker?” Ranna shot a mocking smile at me. “You are Darien Kerensky, and your name is the epitome of Wolf’s greatness. How did you assume a name as sissy as Parker?”

“Have you been listening?” Evee growled. “He lost his memory, you ass!”

Ranna looked at Evee in a derogatory stare. “Who is this that you bring to our attention?”

“This is Evee Ridinghood, my closest friend,” I explained. “We saved each other’s life, and she helped me ever since.”

“So you are enjoying the treat of freebirths, quiaff?” Ranna huffed. “Tasting the fruit of their crudeness?”

“She is my friend, and if you still value me as one of your own, I request that you regard her as is,” I quickly interrupted, knowing that Evee was ready to explode. “I did what I did because I was lost. I lost my memory, and I am here to ask for your assistance. Please, enlighten me of whom I once was. I will ask no more.”

Phelan was quiet for the last five minutes, but now he took charge of the situation. “Where should I start, Darien? You lost 27 years, for God sake! You are Darien Kerensky, a ristar in Wolf Clan Alpha Galaxy, born from Kerensky’s sibko in 3031. You were small and weak compared to your sibkins, and the Clan almost flushed you because they thought you differed from typical MechWarrior phenotypes. But they recognized the advanced analytical ability you developed during your early upbringings. Even Natasha Kerensky was impressed.”

“The Natasha Kerensky?” I could not believe what I just heard. “Did I meet Natasha Kerensky?”

“She was your sponsor when you fought for your Bloodname,” Ranna explained. “Even in your basic training, you attracted many people. True, you were weak in physique, but your true strength lied in your brainpower. So the Clan trained you to be a military intelligence, ‘games and theory’. The great Natasha personally asked, and bidded, for you so that you could be transferred to Thirteen Wolf Guards.

“During the Tukayyid Campaign, you were among the first MechWarriors that was set loose by Natasha to recon ComStar’s force around Brzo and Skupo. Your intelligence data was critical in Natasha’s plan to crush ComStar in a swift, decisive move. When others rest, you worked to shadow ComStar. You always knew that ComStar would counterattack, and your sharp analysis once again helped the Thirteen Wolves to spoil ComStar’s plan. So we were ilClan, the first among Clans, during the Tukayyid Campaign.

“For this success, Natasha sponsored you in the Trial of Bloodright for Kerensky Bloodname. It was on your last fight that you got your Executioner, or in your Spheroid tongue, Gladiator. You beat a seasoned MechWarrior and claimed his 'Mech as isorla. You named it "Red Baron" and from then on, you were inseparable.”

“It was not until the Refusal War that you fought your greatest battle,” Phelan continued. “Somehow Ulric Kerensky predicted that the Wolf Clan would not survive the war, so he transferred all the best warriors to Delta Galaxy under my command, and asked me to leave to Arc Royal. He wanted to preserve the best for the next generation of Wolf Clan, and you were among the selected few. Imagine how furious Natasha was upon hearing Ulric’s decision to transfer you, but Ulric was a wise man with a great vision.

“However, your transfer worked to my advantage. I assigned you and your star to take on the city of Webster in Sudeten. The city was under the siege of Star Colonel Jerome Helmer: a brutal, sadistic warrior of the Jade Falcon. He and his trinary had been pillaging the city like a madman. He was also known for his eagerness to break Clan rules. But because nobody could beat him in Trial of Grievance, the Jade Falcon was sort of letting him be the totem pole of its viciousness, and enjoyed the reputation he brought for the Clan.

“You were outnumbered 3-to-1, but you hung on in Webster for two full weeks, harassing Helmer’s troops, driving him crazy with frustration, without losing a single star mate. In the brink of insanity, Helmer called for a Trail of Possession for Webster. You told me that Helmer cheated. You lost three star mates in a duel that supposed to end the struggle. You called the air strike, I sent them, and we never saw Helmer again. I could only hope that the air strike got him, but I doubted if we ever did.

“After Sudeten, we made our jump to Arc Royal. That was the last time I heard from you. You never made it to Arc Royal. Sometimes I thought maybe Helmer had his hands dirty in this event, considering his reputation. But again, I cannot undermine our own security guards. They are the best, and I trust them.”

This was too much.  I had been waiting for this since the first day I opened my eyes at Hogye, but I never had the slightest cue of what I was.  Five minutes ago I was a vagabond, shifting from one place to another, wondering about the place I could call home.  Now I was a ristar in Wolf’s rank with illustrious career and, eventually, a sworn enemy from Jade Falcon.  It was not that I did not like everything.  Too much information overflowed my mind so much that I thought I was going to throw up.

“However, that part is your past,” Phelan continued after a brief pause. “You are here, and you still have a place in my ranks. This is your home, Darien. You are a trueborn, the finest product of Wolf Clan’s eugenic system. You are a Wolf Clan, bred as a Wolf Clan, trained as a Wolf Clan. Your life is Wolf Clan. Come home, reclaim your great history, and live as you are destined to live: a Wolf Clan MechWarrior. You can take as long as you need to recover. As Khan, I will reinstate your rank. Soon you can resume your duty, and carry the pride of Wolf Clan, as Star Commander Darien Kerensky.”

This should be an easy question. The Wolf Clan was my lineage, so I should have jumped right ahead at the first opportunity. But instead, I hesitated.

Strange.

I should not hesitate. I did not have a reason to hesitate. I was a Kerensky, a Wolf Clan MechWarrior. I had a Bloodname that I fought for in a Trial of Bloodright. I should be proud that my Khan still saw me as spotless, after everything that happened to me. After everything I did.

But the fact was… I did hesitate.

“I know you are still tired and confused,” Phelan cued the Elemental guards. “Sleep it off. We will continue our discussion tomorrow.”

I looked at Evee. “What about her?”

“I value her gallantry and contribution to return Wolf Clan’s property, and I will pay her kindness. She can stay for one day, and I will arrange the Kell Hound dropship to take her wherever she wishes to go.”

“Good enough for me,” Evee nodded her approval. “Thank you, Khan Ward.”

I did not know how long I was quiet. I was still quiet when the Elementals escorted me out of Phelan’s room, several floors down, and into a small room. I was quiet when I opened the window, looking at the city of Old Connaught which were flooded by human, vehicles, and 'Mechs. I was quiet when the Elementals left me alone in the room with Evee, and I was still quiet when finally Evee stated the obvious, “Aren’t you supposed to be glad that you finally find your home?”

“It is not that I am not glad to find out about my true self,” I sat on the bed, still looking at the city through the window. “I truly am. You will not have an idea how it was like living without a remembrance of yourself for six months. I know who I was now, and for that, I am relieved. It explained everything, why I was so much different than people that I met for the last six months. For that, I am glad.

“But the life that I know is the life I lived for the past six months. I might be Star Commander Darien Kerensky, but for all I know, I am Parker. I might be Wolf Clan’s trueborn MechWarrior, but I always feel that I am a freebirth… freeborn. I used dishonorable tricks in combat to achieve my goal. I lied, I cheated, I segregated farther and farther away from Clan’s typecast. And the worst part is… I do not feel bad about it anymore.

“I cannot turn away from what I am. I was Wolf’s ristar, a key player in Natasha Kerensky’s unit, a Ulric Kerensky’s handpick to pass Wolf’s best genetics to the next generation. Have you ever thought of what could have been had I not lost in Engadine? I could have been standing in Ranna’s place in Wolf in Exile. I could even have been Phelan’s saKhan. And all these things are still within my reach. I am home. This is my destiny, and coming back to Wolf’s rank will fulfill my destiny.

“But you heard Phelan yourself: I am a property of Wolf Clan. I am worth, but as a property, not as an asset. I am bred to war, and that is what I will do for the rest of my life: to wage war for the glory of Wolf Clan. Clan’s life was one-dimensional. Spheroid’s way of life was more… colorful. I learnt things aside from fighting. I learnt to live, to have a choice, to have a future, to play, to have a hope. You taught me how to be a freeborn. You taught me how to be human.”

I buried my face in my palms. It was the first time I was this confused. My mind was overloaded with doubts. And it was not the question of what I would spend the rest of my life as, a Spheroid or a Clanner, that made my head explode. It was the question of why I was considering this idea in the first place. As a Wolf Clan MechWarrior, I had everything others could not even dream. Why would I consider things as subtle as being freeborn? Should I not think about it at all?

“I am a daughter of the head of security of House MacGregor in New St. Andrews,” Evee said after a brief lull. “My father gave his life for the sake of MacGregor’s heir during a clash with a rival house. House MacGregor is eternally indebted to Ridinghood family. I’m sure they will accept you if I personally ask them, and they will honor you if they know what you did to me. You are a man of honor. You gave me your word, and you went to hell and back to keep your promise. And you defended me in front of that bitch. Nobody stood up for me the way you did.”

I did not understand what she was doing. She did not make things easier. She confused me. “Evee, you know that I am a Wolf Clan MechWarrior. You know I am Wolf’s property. I do not have a choice. I have to go back to my ranks, because it is who I am. No matter how strongly I want to be human, I am only a property of Wolf Clan. I cannot take your offer.”

“You are a human, Parker,” she looked at me in the eye. “You might be born out of a tube, but you are no less flesh and blood than me. You might be trained not to succumb to your emotions, but you don’t lose them. The fact that you feel hard to leave your life for the last six months is the proof. I hate to see you spend the rest of your life being a slave to your Clan. So here it is, my offer to give you to become a real human. New St. Andrews is a far cry from the battle you are destined to excel in. But you’ll get a chance to feel what it’s like to be a human.”

“I cannot do that,” I sighed. “This is what I am.”

“Then this should change your mind.” She leaned over to graze my lips on her soft, moist lips.

I felt divine. I did not have comparison, but it made me freeze and for that instant, the only thing running through my head was how good her lips felt. Never have I felt such a way. I did not even know if I could feel that way. I could not explain it, but the sensation was both tender and raw, sweet but savage at the same time. I felt as if I was losing control, and it scared me to death, so I pulled back.

“Evee,” I stuttered. “What are you doing?”

“A preview,” she smile, hooking up her arms behind my neck, “of what your life would be like if you come with me.”

She pressed her lips to mine again. Her tongue invited itself into my mouth, and her fingers ran through my hair. My brain was screaming at me, ordering me to stop her before everything went out of control. But my hands seemed to have a mind of their own. My arms drew her closer to me, and my palms skimmed the contour of her curves. I heard an encouraging moan escaping her mouth, and I lost all inhibitions. I yielded to my animalistic urge.

Evee was right.

EIGHTEENEdit

Old Connaught, Arc Royal,

Arc Royal Defense Cordon,

September 23, 3058


My lust had taken control of my decision.

“Attention! This is Star Commander Darien Kerensky of the Wolf Clan. I am bidding my segregation from the Wolf Clan under Khan Phelan Ward. I bring myself and my 'Mech into this Trial of Possession, and I challenge anybody who would stand against me!”

This was unheard of, not within any Clan in any time. Trueborns were proud of themselves. They always regarded themselves as being superior to freeborns. The Wolf Clan regarded my motion to be a degradation of standard. Furthermore, the Trial of Possession was intended for two parties claiming the same thing as their possession. Never before a Trial of Possession be used to grant a quittance of a Clan warrior from his touman. It took a week for me to sway Phelan and Ranna to grant my wish.

I stood alone inside the Circle of Equals, wondering what in Kerensky’s name I was doing. I went through this Trial of Possession claiming something that had never been mine or any other Clanner’s. I was virtually negating every effort I made to find my true identity. My name would be scratched from the warrior’s list, and building me up would be remembered as the single greatest mistake Wolf Clan had ever done.

But the funny thing was: Evee made me think that those things were worth doing. She opened my eyes that trueborn’s black-and-white life was inferior compared to her colorful freeborn’s way of life. She sucked me into it and she ‘persuaded’ me, in a way that I could not possibly resist, to take a chance and live like what I was supposed to be: a human. She was a barbarian to Wolf Clan, but strangely enough I willingly chose to sell my soul to her.

“This is MechWarrior Xander of the Wolf,” a Mad Dog prime stepped out of the crowd and into the circle. “You may be a blood-named warrior, but you are a disgrace to the Wolf Clan! I will crush you like a freebirth!”

“This is Khan Phelan Ward of Wolf Clan,” my once commander blared on the speaker. “I am very disappointed at you, Darien. You were born from our finest seed. You were trained in our best program. The Wolf Clan has high expectations in you. Now you want to leave your career for a savage life as a freeborn. Natasha Kerensky would be devastated if she learnt what you did. I should have just dismissed you as dezgra.”

I watched the 60-ton 'Mech trained all its weapons at me. It would be any minute before Xander barraged me with everything he had got. I knew that I outweighed him by 35 tons, but he was the first of a string of MechWarriors that sought for instant glory. I had to minimize my damage against him. So I quickly aligned my twin LBX-20’s, fully-repaired and fully-loaded, put the crosshair at the Mad Dog’s torso and fired off. A stream of fragmented rounds leapt from my nozzles and pounded the Mad Dog, chewing its armor like heated blades through butter, and overloading the gyros. The bird-like heavy 'Mech swayed comically before slumping to the hard plaster, kicking off dirt and pebbles into the air.

“Yield,” I intimidated him to save me from further damage. “You are not a worthy opponent. I do not want to kill you. Yield, and you can still find glory when you are ready.”

“You talk like freebirth!” Xander hissed on the comlink while bringing his 'Mech back on its feet. “Now die as a freebirth!”

My proximity alarm screamed. The young Wolf MechWarrior had me in his crosshairs, and fired his missiles. I knew it was a rushed shot, so I sidestepped before the swarm speared the air where I had been a moment ago. His lasers followed his warheads; some raked me squarely on the center, raising a cloud of ferro-fibrous mist. I raised both arms to bring my ballistics to bear. My twin 250-millimeter cannons roared, vomiting fragmented shells that shredded Xander’s right arm and torso, setting them ablaze. My lasers made their ways toward the Mad Dog’s stripped torso, and the right missile launcher blossomed into an orange fireball.

Xander teetered in his 'Mech, but he was a defiant MechWarrior. As soon as he regained his footing, he fired his missiles from point blank range. I flinched, but four missiles rammed themselves onto my right side. Several explosions jerked my 'Mech, but I quickly regained control. Xander lit the air with his barrage of lasers, two of which perforated my left torso. A ton of armor was gone. I reversed but he charged me with his lasers, thinking that he could push me out of the circle of equal. I let him think that way, and right on the edge of the circle, I yanked my joystick hard to the left.

My 'Mech pivoted and turned 90 degree to the left. Xander, still charging me dead on, put a break on his 'Mech before he stepped out of the circle. I resume walking in reverse while looping a bit to the left. Now Xander’s back was facing the edge of the circle. I lined up my crosshair at his left side and hit my alpha strike. The untouched armor on his left gave way to my scattered-shots, busting the internal structure. The momentum of the explosion pushed the Mad Dog behind. Staggering, Xander’s 'Mech writhed to keep on its feet, and involuntarily stepped out of the circle of equal.

Like I said, I did not want to kill him.

“I claim victory over MechWarrior Xander,” I proclaimed my triumph. “Is there anybody else?”

“This is Star Commander Aileen of the Wolf Clan,” a Summoner C entered the circle. “A lot of warriors looked up to you, Star Commander. Now that you wish to consciously disgrace the Wolf Clan, let me be the one that erases your name from the Remembrance.”
I did not have to read the specs of a Summoner C to notice that this variant was a brutal brawler. The mammoth UAC-20 on its left arm could lay waste to my 'Mech, and even though I could move past it, it could seriously hurt my 'Mech. The big gun was my primary target.

The Star Commander opened up her attack by a zigzag while relentlessly pumping out her streak missiles. I ducked but my 'Mech caught several missiles on the hip, one fatally weakened my right kneepad. My speed dropped ten percent. The Summoner hit its jump jets and aimed its left arm at me. I cringed, knowing that there was not enough time for me to escape this onslaught. But I did push my joystick to the left. Chunks of ferro-fibrous armor flew to all direction, following a deafening crunch. My right torso split into two, just above the rotating gyro. I smelled coolant, and I knew I did not have much time. I had to finish it quickly before I overheated.

Smelling blood, Star Commander Aileen nicked me again with her lasers. I keeled over, but her medium grazed my left shoulder. My 'Mech staggered in its feet, coping with the sudden loss of mass, but I let it sway for a moment. I wanted her to press her attack, to build her confidence, so she would cook herself out. And it worked. She trained her weapons at my center and attacked me with all available weapons. Her right arm glowed, a second later my right torso lost another layer of armor. Another wave of Streak missiles sacked my midst, pillaging the armor. My armor tracker turned bright yellow. I held my joystick hard, keeping my 'Mech standing. As I regained balance, the Star Commander aimed her UAC-20 at my midst, then suddenly realized she could not take another shot without getting shut down. Excessive use of lasers, missiles, and jump jets had taken its toll.

“My turn,” I said, raising both arms while Aileen flushed about half of her coolant, trying to get her 'Mech to firing condition. But the heat slowed her down. I put my crosshair on her UAC-laden arm, then fired my twin LBX-20’s. Smoldering ferro-fibrous, fire, smoke, boisterous booms, all went up in one explosion. The Summoner rocked and twisted, its right arm dangled with only a few strands of myomer and cables. It realigned its crosshair, but I sprinted toward her right blind spot, firing my laser to keep her off balance. She swung her right hand, trying to slice me with her laser. One went flying above my head, the other zipped pass my right arm. I kept moving, circling the 70-ton brawler, until I heard the clang, marking my readiness. As she eagerly turned toward me, I waited until I got a clear shot at her arm. My alpha strike consumed her upper arm in a brilliant flash. Burning shrapnel rained down the circle of equal, and when the smoke cleared, her right arm was gone, taking the laser weapons with it.

“I am offering you a chance of Hegira, Star Commander Aileen of the Wolf Clan,” I spoke through the external speaker while assessing my damage. “You cannot continue this battle with only one weapon. Wisely take my offer, and resume your quest for glory another day.”

“I would rather die, Stravag!” her reply was short, cold, and vile.
I checked my coolant level, and realized the container was only half full. I had to use my lasers wisely. Aileen launched her answer: six Streak missiles jetted toward me. I twisted to the right, letting the missiles slammed into my left side. The armor tracker went orange. But I could not afford another hit on my right. If the leaking coolant ooze caught fire, I would get shut down. I brought my 'Mech to a complete stop and fired my laser at Aileen’s busted right torso, straight into the hole where her right arm should have been. The beam went deep into the reactor core. Blue sparks spewed from the Summoner before it disintegrated in a gigantic fireball.

“I claimed victory over Star Commander Aileen,” I said. “Is there anybody else that opposed me?”

“This is Star Captain Ephraim Vickers,” a Timber Wolf entered the ring. “You are a fine MechWarrior, Star Commander. It is a great loss for Wolf Clan that you must die. But what must be done, must be done.”

This was a Bloodnamed warrior in a very dangerous 'Mech. I still outweighed him by 20 tons, but I had a coolant leak and chomped armor. One unfortunate shot from the fresh Timber Wolf could put me in jeopardy. I had to be really careful in my attack.

The Timber Wolf walked the circumference of the Circle of Equals, training all guns at me, sizing me up. I mimicked his move, walking in the same direction while putting my crosshair squarely at its midst. This game went on for about five minutes. Nobody started the fight. He knew I had a leak, and he knew I did not have much time. He wanted me to hit him first, because he was locking on to the leak on my right side. I had to start the fight quickly, but if I shot him, his counterattack could be devastating. So I stopped my 'Mech and spoke loudly on my speaker, “Star Captain Ephraim Vickers does not have an intention to fight me. I claim victory over him!”

“That is nonsense!” Ephraim rebuked. “He is the one that does not fight me! He is dezgra!”

“I already scored two victories in this Circle of Equals,” I proclaimed. “Khan Phelan, if he does not start the fight soon, I demand my third victory.”

“Ephraim, start fighting or step aside for the next combatant,” Phelan replied.

My strategy worked. Ephraim was forced to draw first blood, thus exposing his weak side. His missile boxes flickered, sending a barraged of missiles. I pushed the throttle to maximum and flinched to my left, away from the warheads. Some missiles scraped my shoulder, turning the armor tracker to orange. I raised my right arm, trailing the Timber Wolf, and sent him my answer. The scatter shot dug deep into the armor, cracking its right torso. Its machine gun roared, followed by four strings of lasers. I heaved my joystick as far to the left as I could, bringing my 'Mech running on the side of the circle. I fired my left LBX-20, but the Timber Wolf ducked. For the first time in this Trial of Possession, I missed.

Ephraim continued on his assault, firing all missile launchers and discharging his warheads as soon as his weapons recycled. I jerked behind to dodge his attack, but half of the missiles sliced my left arm. Warning alarms wailed raucously at the loss of struts and actuators. The shockwave almost threw me off my feet. I gritted my teeth as tremendous tremors overwhelmed my senses. My control panel burst, and my communication screen broke, spreading flaming LCD goo and acrid smoke throughout the cockpit. The armor tracker on my left arm went blinking red. I knew what it meant.

Ephraim dashed forward, firing his lasers at my right knee. The kneecap split into two, spurting sparks and smokes, reducing my 'Mech into a limping platform. I returned fire with my lasers. The twin barrel on my torso flashed in unison, discharging millions of joules. Ephraim rolled left in the nick of time, eluding the strands by a mere centimeter, then fired his missiles again, half of which plunged into my torso. The armor tracker went red as I strived to keep standing. My 'Mech was a mess: only 15 percent armor remained on the center torso, left arm almost blown off, coolant leakage, and a destroyed knee. I could not use my speed anymore. The only way I could win this round was frontal attack that negated most of Ephraim’s long-ranged weapons. I did, however, outweigh Ephraim by 20 tons. I had to use it to my advantage.

“Now I am offering you a Hegira, Star Commander Darien Kerensky,” Ephraim gloated. “Like I said, the Wolf Clan will be dearly bereaved if you die. Just forget your intention to live with barbarians, and work under my trinary. I will overlook all the disgraces that you made.”

“With all due respect, Star Captain, I refuse,” I spoke calmly. “I have chosen my future.”

Having said that, I hit my alpha strike. The Timber Wolf staggered hard to keep standing, but it quickly returned fire. Emerald beams lanced from the tubes, straight into my right torso. My tall 'Mech swayed to cope with the impacts and loss of mass. His missiles flew again. I twisted to the left, sacrificing the armor on my right side. My head throbbed in pain as chain reactions consumed my 'Mech, threatening to rip it apart. One of the missiles torched the leaking coolant. A major fire broke out, engulfing my right torso, raising the temperature several notches up. The fire destroyed the internal structure, and within seconds, I lost my laser on my right torso.

But I refused to go down. For Ephraim, this fight was another contest. For me, it was my life. I was standing up for my choice. I raised my right arm and busted Ephraim’s left torso. I pivoted, brought my left cannon to bear, and hit the Timber Wolf just before it shot me. The sudden change in direction threw its marksmanship. Four strands of laser zipped two meters away from my left arm. He pounded me with his missiles, but at 90 meters, his long-ranged missiles were all but useful. I barked my right LBX-20, and at 90 meters, the effect was devastating. The fragmented shells slammed into his mid-torso, twisting the 75-ton 'Mech. Smoke billowed from the cracked torso, a sure sign of internal damage.

Nevertheless, the Bloodnamed warrior was relentless. He fired his lasers, hoping to catch me with a lucky sucker punch. Two of his lasers landed on my left leg, which was virtually untouched. I lined up my crosshair at the gaping hole on Ephraim’s torso and fired my laser. The emerald beam torched the ammunition feeder for the missiles. A series of reaction tore the Timber Wolf from inside, ripping its limbs and destroying the engine. The bird-like 'Mech twisted and shuddered before crumbling to the ground.

“I claim my victory over Star Captain Ephraim Vickers,” I announced. “I demand…”

“A victor, you are indeed,” a familiar voice crackled in my comlink as a Warhawk stepped into the ring. “But this Trial is far from over. I am Star Colonel Ranna Kerensky, leader of 4th Wolf Guard Assault Cluster. I refute your demand, and I bid myself, my 'Mech, and Wolf Clan’s approval to this Trial.”

“Does that mean if I win you would grant my wish?”

“If you win,” Ranna chuckled. “Do you really think you can win? You have lived with freebirths for too long that your skill has deteriorated. If your 'Mech were any less than an Executioner, you would have been defeated. Might as well take a Hegira, Darien!”

“Neg, Ranna,” I firmed my grip on the joystick. “Fight me!”

Ranna was the last and the best warrior I had to fight. It was unfortunate that I had to do this at the worst of my 'Mech. My left arm was almost gone, my torso was almost stripped from armor, and fire ravaged my right torso, rendering my laser useless. The more I thought, the more I accepted my disadvantage. With my 'Mech’s current lacerations, I would not be able to fire my weapons simultaneously without excessive heating. And a short burst of Ranna’s PPCs would knock out my reactor. I had to shield my reactor at all cost.

As the Warhawk reached 20 meters, I slammed my feet on the pedal. My 'Mech tottered on its limping leg, and I trained my entire arsenal on Ranna’s left torso. Reddish flames sprouted at my nozzles as I fired my lasers, followed by a blistering roar of my LBX-20s barking in unison. I knew I had to take the initiative. The 85-ton machine jerked behind; its chest bleeding sparks and coolant. Ranna’s left torso glowed and belched; her arms flailed uncontrollably, trying to regain balance that almost escaped her.

The Warhawk could withstand my alpha strike, mine would not withstand hers. So I dragged my feet around her, trying to get out of her firing arc. But my 'Mech was almost done for. The last alpha strike spiked my heat level to orange. My eyes started to get obscured because of the heat and the sweat. Ranna pivoted and twisted as far as she could. My lasers almost came to the end of recycle time when two streaks of particle beam lanced my left arm. Blue sparks burst from my arm as my left LBX cannon flew a dozen meters to the left. The sudden loss of mass almost toppled me, but I tugged my joystick as hard as I could. My Gladiator veered hard to the right, and regained its balance.

A PPC was a dangerous weapon not only because it had incredible destructive power, but because it also fried the delicate circuitries. My targeting reticule went out. So now I had to rely on my own eyes. Ranna aimed her left arm at my center, but I fired my right LBX-20. My shot was not enough to do serious damage, but it was enough to scatter her aim. Two streaks of PPC beams flew above my right shoulder by a mere centimeter. The missed beams streaked through the void and despoiled a building. I followed up with my lasers to her midst, but they only singed two darkened spots on the squat, well-armored torso

The Warhawk flexed its feet to change direction sprung out of the building and fired its missiles. At only 50 meters apart, Ranna’s long-ranged missile performed just like a short-ranged Spheroid missile. I dodged the poorly aimed warheads easily and rolled to the right to take an aim at her mangled left torso. My LBX cannon blasted, but somehow Ranna expected this. Her Warhawk twisted left, missing most of my fragmented shells, then stretched its right arm and fired its twin PPCs. The bluish light strands slammed into my left torso, grilling my last remaining armor and incinerating the internal structure.

My eyes were obscured by sparks and smoke as a vigorous quake enveloped the cockpit, nearly throwing me out of my seat. My innards felt like jumping up to my throat. Warning message stabbed my ears, and acrid smoke filled the cramped cockpit. For several minutes, I did not know what was real and what was not. When everything calmed down, my vision was a mix of red stars and blurry sight of consoles in the cockpit, but I could see where I was standing. My entire left torso was gone. My speed was reduced to 20 percent. I had only half my weapons, and a paper-thin armor. And my coolant had drained dry, and what was left caught fire. My 'Mech was a complete mess.

I felt like my wish to be a human would end as a plain Wolf Clan MechWarrior that died in the Circle of Equals. Just like Star Commander Aileen, Ephraim Vickers, or any other MechWarriors that I might have killed during many trials that I had won. It never dawned on me that I would throw my life for a dream. Yes, a powerful dream, but a vain one. I should have known that I would always be a Clanner.

But my 'Mech was still running, probably drinking the last bit of juice. I had one last chance to answer Ranna. I knew the chance of winning this duel was close to none. My dying 'Mech was no match for her fresh Warhawk. But at least I would die with honor. I put the 85-ton assault 'Mech under my targeting reticule and raised my remaining arm. Ranna flinched to my left, but it was exactly what I wanted. I twisted a bit and fired everything I got left. The emerald beam streaked through smoke, and stabbed Ranna right on her left torso, while my fragmented shell ripped the internal structure apart.

I never believed in luck, but after today, I would never question its existence anymore. Ranna’s left torso disintegrated in a yellow fireball, shuddering the assault 'Mech. The Warhawk jerked backwards, and its wobbly knees could not cope with the abrupt change of mass. It crashed to the ground, squirming vainly as the ammunition bins tore up its torso from inside.

It looked like the fight was over, but I knew Ranna was an ace. It was not over until she yielded, or until she was dead. I did not want her dead. She was an irreplaceable member of Wolf in Exile, and her death would severely hurt the Clan. So I whipped my 'Mech, bringing it close to the Warhawk, and shoved my right cannon at her midst, pinning her to the ground.

“Yield, Ranna,” I spoke through my external speaker.

“You stravag!” Ranna spat. “Go ahead! My splash explosion will take you down with me!”

“I am already a lost cause to Wolf Clan,” I emphasized on each words. “But you… you are Wolf’s pillar of defense. Think of the future of the Wolf Clan. Think of Phelan. Think of how the balance of power would shatter if you die. You are too valuable to die, Ranna. Yield, and just let me go.”

There was a long pause. I understood what was going through her head. As a Kerensky, Ranna had her pride. But so did I. I guessed it was not too humiliating for Ranna to lose to another Kerensky. Her reply came in short but firm burst, “Aff. I yield.”

I could hear myself heaving a deep, long breath. As I climbed out my 'Mech, Phelan met on the ground. His eyes told me that he was hurt. “Well, there you have it,” he said somberly. “You won your freedom. It is a shame that you leave us, Darien. This day will leave a dark page on the Remembrance. I just hope that none will take your path.”

I did not know what to say to him.

“Now go and claim your prize,” the khan stepped back, then turned his back on me. I stood there waiting for him to assist Ranna, then walked away from the scene. Deep inside, I felt bad. I was a Wolf. I was a Kerensky. I was using up my privileges to do a thing I was not even supposed to think about. Phelan was brokenhearted, and it was because of me.

However, I could not lie to myself. The Wolf Clan was not my home anymore. I had found a new home, and I won it fair and square in the circle of equal. Not even Phelan could deny me from going home. No, it was not Engadine, not Hogye, New St. Andrews, or the Inner Sphere. I had found my home in Evee.

NINETEENEdit

Wolfen, Kell Hound’s Jumpship,

Calafell Recharge Station,

Alarion Province, Lyran Alliance,

November 7, 3058


Despite utter disappointment, Phelan repaired my 'Mech to nominal condition and provided us with a Kell Hound jumpship for an unadulterated flight to New St. Andrews. I could not help feeling regret, and deep in my heart I cursed myself for giving in to my desire. But somehow I knew he would let me go. I knew he knew he lost me the moment I did not fall in when the Delta Galaxy arrived at Arc Royal. And to be honest, I was a replaceable asset; just like any other Wolf MechWarriors. Well, maybe except Ranna.

The journey to Evee’s home world was long, mostly because Wolfen was an old jumpship. It took the Merchant-class ship a month to reach Calafell, and another month to Khon Kaen before we would cross the border to Circinus Federation. The captain mentioned that it was not until March when we reached New St. Andrews, so he asked Evee and I to make ourselves useful. But there were nothing in this old ship that could make us useful.

So we mated. We mated, and we mated some more. Not a day passed without mating.

I had never done this mating ritual before, and even if I had done it prior to my days at Hogye, I did not recall. I guessed the Clan installed this doctrine that my only function as a MechWarrior was to fight. It was hard at first, mostly because everything about this ritual was against my perception as a Clan MechWarrior. But Evee showed me that my limbs, my sensory organs, and even my mind could be used as means of affection. Her skillful coaching and abundant of patience propelled me to become attuned to this ritual. We spent the better part of our days in our chambers, and we went out just to eat. We became objects of lewd comments and jokes for the ship’s crews, but Evee did not seem to mind. I did not mind at all.

But often I was left with disdain and guilt. I felt like a barbarian, giving in to my inner desire. I felt satisfied but vulnerable, divine but mortal. The confusion was nothing like I had ever had, even after Evee’s consolation.

“You don’t have to be confused,” she said while lying on my chest. “This is the natural way to preserve our species and to express our feeling to each other. I know you’re scared, but you’ll enjoy it once you get rid of the confusion.”

“I am not scared,” I rebuked. “I just feel… weak.”

“Ah, you macho Clanner,” she cooed, playing with my nipple. “It’s typical of you. Everything regarding feelings is weak. You’re not being weak, Parker. You’re being human. We are born with feelings, and denying your feelings is the same as denying yourself as a human. Be this your first lesson to be a complete, adult human life: it’s okay to expose your soft side to someone you care, because you trust her.”

“Is it? Then what do you feel about me?”

Her answer did not come promptly. She spent some time breathing on my chest, then she raised her head and looked me in the eye. “You may not understand this now, Parker, but over the past few weeks I’m kind of having a feeling for you. That’s why I did everything I did, because I don’t want to lose you.”

“But Evee, you hate Clanners!”

“True,” her face floated closer to mine. “And thank goodness you’re not one anymore.”

Before I could answer, she pressed her lips on mine. Her touch quickly rejuvenated my spent body. I did not know what was happening to me. Every time she touched my lips, I felt this animalistic euphoria took control of my body, throwing all inhibition and pride as an ex-Clan MechWarrior. My mind screamed for me to stop, to have a little dignity, but my body would not listen. I was powerless against my own desire.

But this time, our courtship was interrupted by a series of alarms.

“What the hell is going on?” Evee jerked her head. “Looks like the ship’s having a problem.”

“An attack?” I mused. “Stay here. I will go to the bridge…”

I was just getting up from the bed when the door sprang open. Two giant figures burst into the room, obviously Jade Falcon Elementals, pointing their laser guns at my head. The third one, a medium-built man dressed in Clan’s uniform, marched into the room with extravagant but conceited gait. He swept the room with his eyes, twitching his cheek as if holding back an urge to vomit, then latching on to me with utter disgust. The fire in his eyes felt like flaying my naked body, as I stood silly in front of him, naked from head to toe.

He was a Clanner, I was sure of that. His emblem on his shoulder told me that he was a Jade Falcon Star Colonel. He was well into his fifties, and his age could easily be twice as mine. But it was his hate-laden aura that gave him prominence. I had never seen such a dire need to crush me under foot, not even in the eyes of the Viper back in Hogye. Whatever I did to him, it was obviously serious. And then, it dawned on me. There could be one and only one person that held so much grudge on me.

Jerome Helmer.

“Look at you,” he spited; his voice was full of force. “I spent months tracking you down, sending my best spies all over the Inner Sphere, hoping to finish my unfinished clash with the only Wolf I came to respect. And this is what I have found: Star Commander Darien Kerensky in a brothel, defiling his heritage with a freebirth. I curse my decision to find you, Darien. You do not deserve anything, including life.”

“Who do you think you are, asshole!” Evee burst and reached for her gun.

“Evee, no!” I stepped in front of her, practically blocking her from the Elementals. I remembered what Phelan said about Jerome Helmer: a sadistic, code-breaking MechWarrior that would do anything to get what he wanted. “Your fight is with me, Jerome. Let her go.”

“Or what?” a curt reply escaped Jerome’s lips. “Do you think you are worth a trial? You have nothing that interests me! Even if you think your ‘Kerensky’ name gave you honor, you have degraded yourself to a freebirth’s level. Like I said, you do not deserve anything. You die now, and this ship is my isorla.”

My mind was not working, but he did imply that he took control of the ship. It was possible that Jerome had had everybody killed, everybody but Evee and I. I did not care about the others. I cared about Evee. I did not want her to die in the hands of Jerome Helmer. Time was critical, as I knew that Jerome was serious. I had to find a way to get Evee out of this stupid fight. And since Jerome charged me of dishonor, I would do the same.

“This ship belongs to the Kell Hounds,” I scoffed. “Taking this ship means stealing from Kell Hound’s possession, and provoking open confrontation not only with the Kell Hounds, but also with Wolf in Exile. I do not think Khan Marthe Pryde would like that, since I do not think the Jade Falcon is ready for another Sudeten.”

Actually, I did not remember what happened at Sudeten. Something about the Jade Falcon losing miserably during the Refusal War, as told by Khan Phelan. But fortunately, Jerome did not know that I lost my memory. Whatever it was, he bought my ploy. I could hear his teeth chatter and see his fists clench, so hard his knuckles turned white. Once again my bluff saved me from untimely death, but would it save Evee’s? I hoped so.

“You want a fight, freebirth? Then you will get your fight! Grab him!”

The two Elemental warriors busted me to the ground, pinned my arms behind my back, then heaved me up, yanking my hair behind. They were almost twice as big as me, so I was completely overpowered. Through the corner of my eyes I saw Jerome snatch Evee’s gun and grab her rudely by the arm, ushering her along behind me and the giants toward the mess hall.

Jerome and his soldiers had indeed taken control of the ship. The entire crews of Wolfen were collected at a corner of the mess hall. A couple of them lay on the ground, riddled with bullets. I reckoned these two were the only ones bold enough to stand up against the invaders, but they paid for it with their lives. Half a dozen Elemental battle armors guarded the room, and they flung bitter stares at me as I was ushered to the center of the room.

“Hold her,” Jerome tossed Evee at an Elemental, who quickly pinned her hands behind her back. She was crying, but she bit her lips to muffle herself, not wanting to give Jerome the satisfaction. I could imagine her horror, realizing that her fate hung on a thin thread, wondering if it would eventually break. And in fact, this was all my fault. I brought this to her, even if I did not do it on purpose.

“Attention! My name is Star Colonel Jerome Helmer of the Jade Falcon,” Jerome removed his clothing. “I motion for Trial of Grievance against former Star Commander Darien Kerensky of the Wolf. I bid myself in this trial, so let no one interfere!”

The Falcons quickly made a circle, encompassing me in the middle. Jerome entered the circle, cracking his knuckles while snorting his hatred. He was old, but the muscles in his body were proof that he did keep in shape. I was mistaken if I thought that he was a solahma, although he looked small and old.

“Now attack me, freebirth! Fight or I will kill your coffin mate right in front of you!”

It was clear that his intention was to make me outraged by insulting and threatening Evee. Coffin mate was an obscene expression for two people that grew close together, an unacceptable concept in Clan society. I felt my rage creep from my belly up to my head, but I knew I could not get provoked. I dashed, rocketing my right punch at his face. Jerome flexed his body backward, letting my fist swing millimeters from his face, then slammed his boot into my stomach. But I predicted his move. I simply backpedaled, then jerked forward and kicked him in the knee.

“Stravag!” Jerome winced as his right knee sunk into the ground.

I pressed my attack by a wild hook to the head, but Jerome dodged it easily by rolling backward. I tried to follow up with quick jabs, but the marathon sex with Evee an hour ago had taken most of my vitality. I felt sluggish. My feet felt like bricks, and my back was as stiff as if it was made from glass. My jabs faltered midway, and Jerome smiled in disgust.

I knew I could not initiate the attack. I was not quick enough to hurt Jerome. I had to change my strategy and let him draw the first blood. So I stayed in the middle, facing the Jade Falcon while he circled me like a hungry beast waiting to crush his prey. This went on for a while, until Jerome was bored. His breath hissed, telling me that he was ready to attack me.

Jerome took a stance and sprung forward with three jabs, one of which sagged me in the abs. It took my breath as I keeled over. Jerome followed up with a roundhouse kick, but I dodged it before launching my answer. One straight punch to his nose and he staggered. I gave him two jabs and a clean straight to tear his lips. Blood and saliva sprayed out. I cocked my right arm and sacked another hard punch to his temple. His knee buckled.

I thought I got him, but clearly I was wrong. Just as I grabbed his hair to kick his face, his elbow slammed into my solar plexus. My world collapsed, enfolded by pitch darkness. I took a step back, breathing through my mouth. Jerome dashed forward and rained down his punishment, left and right hooks to my body, followed by two straights to my head. He scored about a dozen hits, and each punch felt like it burned a slab of tendon out of me. I tried my best to block his assault – dodging did not seem to be plausible anymore – but he skewered through my defense every time. I tattered backward, and Jerome used the space to launch his roundhouse kick to my head. I felt my head explode, and the next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, wheezing and gasping for air.

I contorted my muscles to get up, but I was practically done for. My vision was obscured, my knees trembled to support my body. My breath came in short gasps, and I felt thick salty fluid leaking into my mouth. Meanwhile, the Jade Falcon commander snorted restlessly, pacing back and forth like a hungry tiger. His eyes were scorching with rancor, waiting impatiently for me to get ready, and the crowd cheered for him.

“You fought like a freebirth,” he taunted me. “Your disgrace is now complete, Darien.”

“I am not done,” I retorted. “We are not done until one of us die.”

“If that is your wish,” Jerome shot his right fist forward. I churned to the left and blocked his arm, but the force was so great I almost lost my balance. Jerome followed up with his left hand, but I pivoted back, letting the fist swoosh a mere centimeter in front of my chin. The moment Jerome cocked his arms for another attack, I hooked his jaw with my left hand. A loud thud echoed as Jerome staggered, but he quickly regained his balance. My punch was simply too weak for him.

“I will tear you up from limb to limb!” he hissed. “You will beg me to end this fight!”

“Not until I kill you,” I taunted him as he readied his stance for his next move. Jerome hustled to close the gap, and in quick succession, launched his flying kick. I threw my body to the side. He landed on the grated floor, and leapt into the air again. I took the way to the right, but Jerome was one second faster. His boot lodged into my stomach. I felt my gastric fluid was squish out. My entire body levitated for a while, before I crashed down to the floor, flat on my back.

This time, Jerome did not waste any time to revel in his work. He charged me and sacked another good kick into my stomach. I could feel my mouth stretched in a grimaced as I hunched over, my breath started came intermittently. Jerome cocked his left arm and whipped it toward my face. Then he grabbed my right thumb, and with all his might, flipped it backward. The crack echoed through the room, and I felt a shot of pain surge from my hand.

I screamed.

“Oh God, stop!” I heard Evee crying from the edge of the circle, but I knew she could not change anything. Deep inside I just grateful that it was I who had to go through this ordeal, not her. I just hoped that there was still some good inside Jerome, that after he had done with me, he would let her go.

Jerome buried three more punches into my head, rendering me useless on the floor, then grabbed my wrist. He put his boot on my arm pit, his shin under my elbow, and twisted my arm. It felt as if I was struck by a lightning bolt. My hand twitched, and another surge of pain rushed from my elbow to the rest of my body. My vision turned dark, overwhelmed by the pain. I was not sure if I cried out or not. Jerome was literally tearing me up.

“I have waited so long for this moment,” Jerome chuckled. “Too bad you are not the man you used to be, but I must admit this is just as fun. Of course you can make my day by surrendering, and letting yourself be taken as my bondsman. I could spend all day chopping you to pieces, but I think disrobing you from Wolf’s majesty is a better use of my time. So say it, Darien Kerensky. Surrender, or die a slow death!”

Surrender was one of the worst sins in Clan culture. It implied that I was inadequate, and should not be considered as a warrior in the first place. But I saw a way to save Evee and the ship’s crews. Jerome did not seem to put interest in anything except my complete disgrace. By giving him what he wanted, I hoped he would let everybody go.

“On one condition,” I whispered. “You get me, but let everybody go.”

“Still have the fight in you,” Jerome gloated in mockery. “What is it that you value from these freebirths? Have you forgotten who you really are? Your act sickens me, but I guess it was because you are a Wolf. Only a Wolf would value a freebirth more than it should be, like your ancestor Ulric the traitor.”

“Kill me as you please, but you will not hear my yield unless I have your words.” I panted. “You have nothing against these people. Free them.”
And it seemed that Jerome’s quest was not complete until I sank into the lowest abyss of humiliation. He crouched beside my head and said, “Aff. I promise these freebirths will continue their way without harm from my force. Now say it, Darien! Say it before I change my mind!”

I did not see any other way to do it. “Aff. I yield to Star Colonel Jerome Helmer of the Jade Falcon.”

Jerome got up, spat on my face, then proclaimed in glory, “Hereby I claim this freebirth as my bondsman. He is a traitor to his heritage, and his punishment is eternal humiliation. His words mean nothing to me, but in remembrance of the good MechWarrior that he was once, I will let you go unharmed.”

I could not see anything. My eyes were swollen and obscured by blood. My body did not have any might left to stand up for myself. But I knew I saved everybody. As I was dragged on the floor, I heard Evee calling for me. And it was the last thing I remembered before I was enveloped in darkness.

TWENTYEdit

Alengka, Wotan,

Jade Falcon Occupation Zone,

February 11, 3061


I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman.

A bondsman was an official prisoner of war in Clan culture. A bondsman, be it a freeborn or a trueborn, was supposed to receive reeducation from the host Clan. Some sort of brainwashing, some might say. He was injected with the host Clan’s doctrines, forced to go through the Clan’s process like sibko cadets, until the bondsmaster deemed him fit to be inducted into the Clan. As the final step, he was to go through Trial of Position before being considered as the host Clan’s warrior.

Jerome Helmer never intended all of those for me. The moment he acquired me as his bondsman, he forced me to work with people from laborer caste. Be it on his ship or his station at Wotan, he made sure that I had my hands dirty with filth, cleaning up things that even the laborer caste found them repulsive. He assigned his two Elementals to guard me like a dog. And above all things, Jerome enjoyed every second of my misery.

I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman.

Of course, the Elementals knew everything. They heard what I did to Jerome, and they heard what I did to myself, so they decided to have an entertainment of their own. In almost three years I was held bondsman, not a single day passed without me being called freebirth. It was the most obscene epithet for any Clanner, trueborn or freeborn.

“Hey freebirth! You left a spot!”

“Freebirth scum, do you miss your coffin mate?”

“Freebirth! Get your ass down here and scrub my suit!”

Being called freebirth put me in a corner. I was not a freebirth, and even if I was, I still had to defend my dignity. I had to motion for Trial of Grievance against these giants, but the Elementals easily dwarfed me. If I got lucky, I could stand five minutes and delivered serious blows to the giants. If I hurt one of them, he refrained from insulting me for a day or two. But the other one covered for his friends, so it really did not matter to me. If I had a bad day, I would drop knocked out in less than a minute, bruised to the bone. I lost count on how many times I swallowed my molars and chewed on my tongue. And once again, Jerome Helmer never missed a single trial.

I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman.

Nighttime was my only consolation. When everybody was too tired (or bored) to play with me, I spent an hour or two looking at the stars. I wondered if Evee made it to her home. I hoped she did. But even if she did not, I hoped she found what she wanted. Somewhere, in one of those blinking stars, I hoped she did fine.

I never forgot her. Even at the worst day in this living hell, I had her in my mind. She kept me alive (and sane). The first months were the hardest. My body ached for her, and I always wondered if I would ever see her again. But as time went by, I started to think that being parted was the best way for us. I still did not remember what I did before I lost my memory, and I could not forgive myself if she was harmed because of what I did. It hurt me a lot to think that I would never see her again, but it was for her own sake. She was better off without me. But still, she was the best thing that ever happened to me. I would never forget her.

I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman. But I was wrong.

It was one of those nights when I layed on the plaster of Jade Falcon base, watching the stars, when suddenly the sirens wailed, followed by night-lights and frantic movements of soldiers. It was no ordinary siren. It was a scramble siren, a sure hint that the base was under attack.

It came quickly to my attention. Clans never attacked by surprise. They always let their opponents know that they were coming. They stated their intention, a precise listing of their warriors, and the prize if they accomplished their mission. This batchall ritual was part of the code of honor that Clanners upheld above all things. The attack of this Falcon base was, indeed, a surprise attack. I could see distress, panic, and confusion in the eyes of the Jade Falcon troops that filled the front yard like ants. A surprise attack… it could only come from Inner Sphere.

“Hey! You!” I heard someone calling me. “Get inside! This is not a drill!” Before I realized, somebody grabbed my arm and yanked me to the side. Two Mad Dog OmniMechs thundered out of the hangar, crushing crates and drums that were lazily scattered on the yard. One of them trudged on the place I occupied five minutes ago. As I receded toward the bunker, more 'Mechs came from the hangar. Three more Mad Dogs, two Summoners, three Hellbringers, two Timber Wolves, two Warhawks, and Jerome’s own Dire Wolf, the Apocalypse. The green 100-ton monster pounded the ground with so much force I had to hold on to a pile of crates to keep myself standing. A star of Elementals rode on the back of the Apocalypse, with another star followed it closely on foot.

I was going with others, mostly merchant and laborer caste people, to hide in the bunker when the sky went alive with explosions. Missiles, lasers, and ballistics roared interchangeably, and sickening metal groans filled the air. Then I heard two successive Gauss rifle barking, but it was different than any Gauss rifle I had ever heard. These couple was hoarser, louder, as if the 'Mech itself was standing right on top of me. It was not Clan Gauss rifle I heard many times, so it must have been the Spheroid’s Gauss rifle. A twisted crunch broke out, then a ground-shaking explosion. Burning debris rained down on me, and I had to hide behind a stack of crates.

Curious about this weapon, I stuck my head over the pile. My heart almost stopped when I saw it. Perching proudly in front of Jade Falcon trinary was a gigantic 'Mech, nothing like I had ever seen. The torso was wide and bulky, hoisting two enormous guns, one at each side. It looked like a colossal double-barreled shotgun. I had never seen such massive firepower. Its arms sported laser weapons, and its legs were like two pillars, even bulkier than the Dire Wolf’s. If somebody told me that the 'Mech weighed 150 tons, I would believe him.

The Jade Falcon threw everything at this monster, but it marched forward as if it did not feel a thing. Molten metal flew in every direction, but it kept on coming, swiveling its torso before it latched on one of the Hellbringers. Then it showed what it was made of. It hit its alpha strike, right on the Hellbringer’s midst. The Gauss-esque slugs ravaged the 65-ton OmniMech with such a force that the Hellbringer toppled and slid on the ground long before the splinters from its chest rained down on top of it. The Hellbringer squirmed to get up, but the smoke and fire on its torso told me that it would not stay long in the battle.

I was too captivated watching this new 'Mech to notice that there were more 'Mechs than I originally saw. Another assault 'Mech, the venerable Atlas, broke forth the formation and buried two PPC bolts on the torso of the mangled Hellbringer. My prediction came to realization. The Hellbringer did not have enough armor to stop the PPC bolt from roasting its internal structure. It blasted into a fireball, and again I had to duck under the crates to avoid the raining splinters.

The Elementals on the Dire Wolf quickly dismounted the assault 'Mech while Jerome stirred it to take on the big new 'Mech on the center. The battle armors swarmed the Atlas, but a Marauder and an Awesome burst from the crowd and swept the Elementals with their PPCs. No less than 7 PPC bolts carpeted the ground where the Elementals stood, singeing six of them in quick succession. Almost half of them were evaporated, and what remains were limbs without heads and bodies. The Atlas marched madly onward and squashed the remaining Elementals like a psychopathic boy crushing toads under his heels, grinning in pure delight.

For a moment, I sunk myself in a sea of bliss, watching Jade Falcon Elementals crashed and burnt under the Atlas’ foot. I hoped the two Elementals that gave me misery were caught under the Atlas’ heels, molded into a twisted pile of flesh and metal. This demented thought monopolized me for sometime, until I realized that the Inner Sphere 'Mechs were not alien to me at all, except the new 'Mech in the center.

As the battle raged on, I realized that the Marauder had three PPCs, the Atlas was equipped with two PPCs, and the Awesome sported a quad of those particle weapons instead of the standard trio configuration. I had learnt about them before, not in a battlefield, but by their specs. These PPC-laden 'Mechs were part of the Combined Arms Mercenary Regiment, the very unit that I met on Engadine, three years ago. My entire body suddenly jumped in thrill. Was it coincidence that this unit attacked this Jade Falcon base? Maybe it was, but if it was not, there was only one explanation why these guys were here in this very night.

Evee.

And before that thought dissipated from my brain, the ground shook with raw force. A small 'Mech, one that I had never seen before, raided the base from behind, defying the turrets that lathered it with lasers and cannons. Then another 'Mech came in, similar to a Hoplite but very different in armament, taking down the turrets one after another. And then, a lanky BattleMech came to spotlight. The much-to-familiar missile launchers on its right torso and left arm prompted me with a sharp, undisputed realization that the entire set up was not a coincidence at all.

Evee had come back for me.

It was the best moment I had ever felt in my entire life, as far as I could remember. She never abandoned me. Her summoning of the CAMR to free me from Jerome’s hand was proof that I owned a sacred place in her heart, just like I gave her a piece of my soul. This feeling made me smile, amidst explosions and raining debris and choking smoke that threatened to asphyxiate me. But to me, at this very moment, the explosions were mere fireworks and the raining debris was just a drizzle that celebrated my inauguration as a full human being.

The 'Mech trio continued to blast their way into the Jade Falcon compound, grilling the turrets and mowing down the infantries that vainly tried to slow them down using handheld weapons. And then, Evee spotted me. Her gesture transformed into the Trebuchet’s body language when it lowered its guard, dropped to its knees, and very gently lowered its left hand. I was more than happy to oblige. I climbed onto the giant hand, and when she brought me toward the canopy, I could see her through the plexiglass. Her face was buried inside her neurohelmet, but her eyes stabbed me straight into my core.

I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman. Evee proved me wrong.

As I hung on to the Trebuchet’s hand, she pumped her 'Mech and dashed out of the complex. The battle still raged on, but with half the intensity. The Jade Falcon trinary had been reduced to a smoking, smoldering binary with OmniMechs that would explode anytime. The CAMR, though most of them were still standing, teetered in smoke and sparks. Some had lost arms, others limped to safety. The new 'Mech still proudly took the center stage of the attack, although it was not as splendid as when I saw it the first time. Its left arm was gone, its boxy torso was riddled with holes, and its hips were smoking. And now, the pride of the Jade Falcon trinary moved in front of him, obviously gunning toward its destruction.

The Apocalypse wasted no time, firing its entire weapons at the new 'Mech. PPC bolts whipped from its arm, flaying the big 'Mech on the center torso. Twin laser bolts came in, coring one of its big guns, spreading molten armor and internal structure into the air. The ultra autocannon rounds peeled the armor even more, and the missiles chewed the remaining armor, drilling the chest. Tongues of fire licked from the wound, and the 'Mech staggered hard, fighting to keep standing on its feet.

But whoever designed that 'Mech really knew how to make a pure assault 'Mech that could withstand fierce punishment, even from a Dire Wolf, and kept fighting. Its giant weapons barked, spitting two enormous masses at supersonic speed, and instantly breached the right arm of the Apocalypse. The arm flew a dozen meters back as the Dire Wolf swayed on its heels, coping with the sudden loss of mass. The Apocalypse quickly regained control, but the new 'Mech dashed forward and rammed its left shoulder at the Dire Wolf before it could align its weapons for another shot. The impact jarred the two giants. The left shoulder of the new 'Mech sunk in, instantly destroying the big gun on its left torso. But the Apocalypse was not ready for the impact. The 100-ton 'Mech careened on its left leg before toppling, crushing its missile launcher under its own body weight.

As the Apocalypse struggled to get on its feet, the other OmniMechs moved in to attack the enemy, but the CAMR retreated methodically. Under the barrage of Catapults they backpedaled, sweeping the Jade Falcon’s formation with their PPCs. The big 'Mech, burning and smoking, fired its last round before turning back. The Jade Falcon moved to pursue the CAMR, but the PPC and missile rain slowed their advance. The Apocalypse regained its footings, but two PPC streaks from the Marauder staggered it. Some OmniMechs that still had PPCs and missiles bartered fire with the CAMR, but the gap between the two forces became larger and larger.

The chase continued for some time until two Union dropships descended from the sky. They provided fresh firepower from their PPCs and missiles, forcing the Jade Falcon to halt their advance. As the dropship touched down, the CAMR climbed the ramp, taking refuge inside the thick armor of the dropships. Evee brought the Trebuchet into the wide bay of the Union where dozens of technicians were waiting. She gently lowered me to the floor, and paramedics swarmed me and harnessed me on a chair. Then the big 'Mech came in. I did not see Commander Rick’s Cauldron-Born, so I assumed that he was the pilot of this brute. It stood by Evee’s side, and even the Trebuchet’s shoulder fell short under its arm. As everybody secured themselves, the dropship trembled, and I felt a tremendous force impaling me into the chair. I had not felt this for three years, and I was glad to feel this discomfort again.

I was still tied to the chair when, after minutes of taking off into the atmosphere, Evee exited her 'Mech and threw herself at me. She did not change a bit. I struggled to free myself, but she did not wait. She wrapped her arms around my head and mashed her lips against mine. I could not even raise my arms to embrace her, but she did not seem to mind. She attacked me with 3-year of hunger, and all I could do was lie down and took on her assault. I wished I could reciprocate more, but I could not.

“Three years, Parker,” she buried her face on my chest. “Three damn years. God, I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” I replied truthfully. “Everyday of my life.”

“Look at you,” she grazed her fingers on my maimed face. “They certainly wanted you to hate your life, didn’t they? Are you alright?”

“I am now,” I shot a smile. “They took some parts of me, but I am still the same man as three years ago.”

“Let the paramedic check you up,” she called on the medics. They came and freed me from the harness, and ran numerous gadgets all over my body. Almost all my orifices were probed by devices. I squirmed and groaned in protest, but they did not let me go. They forced me to lie down once again, injected a kind of substance into my vein, and strapped my elbows and knees. I did not know for what purpose, but my joints had been the favorite targets of the Elementals. They did hurt a lot the first few months, but I learnt to ignore them. I guessed the paramedics were trying to fix me to full condition.

As the paramedic worked, I noticed a gentleman walked toward me. He was young but her eyes told me that he was a battle-hardened warrior. He stood beside Evee and tapped her shoulder. Just a general tap, a well-done tap or a sincerity tap. Evee shot a warm look at him that was flooded with gratitude, and I knew he was Commander Rick, Evee’s former employer.

“So this is Parker,” he smiled at me. “We meet, at last. It’s a privilege to meet you. You still owe me a lance mate and a 'Mech, but now I see why Evee left me for you.”

“The honor is mine, Commander Rick,” I nodded politely. “And you still came after me despite our grudges. I am forever indebted to you.”

“I just do whatever my patron want me to do,” Rick glanced at Evee. “I work for her now.”

“Over the past 3 years I collected enough money to hire them,” Evee explained. “Phelan Kell refused to help you, and Kell Hounds and other major mercenary units demanded higher fee. CAMR was the only one mad enough to go to a Clan-invested world and kick the hell out of Jade Falcon, for a reasonable price. I wish we could kick them back to Strana Mechty, but this suffices for now.”

“How do you beat Jade Falcon’s radar grid?” I asked.

“We did a contract at Ningpo a year back,” Rick stated. “We captured a Liao’s Raven intact, and we unlocked the secret to their stealth armor. We applied it to our jumpship and dropships. It worked fine. We weren’t detected until we reached 1 kilometer from the base. That’s why we surprised them. If they had time to put up a defense, we might not achieve what we achieved today.”

“That explains,” I said, looking at the new 'Mech. “And I suppose you have a new 'Mech.”

“Like it?” Rick chuckled. “That, my friend, is a Fafnir. The flagship of Defiance Industries. The future of Lyran warfare. It is the only 'Mech that can carry two Heavy Gauss Rifles. If you missed it when I put those weapons to work, then you missed the entire show. I crippled a Daishi with this baby.”

“I saw that,” I said. “Once again, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” he replied. “I’m a mercenary, and I’m just doing my job. So I’ll leave you two alone. I believe you have things to catch up. You have a lot of times until before we reach New St. Andrews.”

New St. Andrews. That was Evee’s home. A sudden sting hit my mind. Evee was bringing me home, while Jerome Helmer was still on my tail. This could not happen. I would bring disaster to her home planet, just like the way I almost harmed her three years ago on Wolfen. All my inhibition came back to me, overpowering the surge of bliss that clouded my judgment for the last hour. I could not go with Evee. I could not be a part of Evee’s life. We could not be together. She was better off without me.

“Evee,” I gagged. “Evee, there is something I need to talk to…”

“Shut up!” she replied curtly, then kissed me with fiery fervor. “There’ll be time to talk. But for now, shut up and just love me!”

I thought I would spend the rest of my life as Jade Falcon bondsman. Evee proved me wrong. But I wished she did not do that. I wished she just forgot about me, because now I had to break her heart.

TWENTY-ONEEdit

Archangel, CAMR’s Jumpship,

Wotan’s Jump Point,

February 12, 3061


I always knew that my decision not to go to New St. Andrews with Evee would damage her heart. I knew that I would sound like an ungrateful barbarian. I could not imagine what she went through to muster a BattleMech force strong enough (and foolish enough) to go to Wotan and smite Jerome Helmer in his own home. It must have been a real feat. But maybe it was not. Maybe Evee was a genius, or a very lucky girl. I did not know, and I did not dare to ask. But this much I knew: she did this to be with me.

When I told her that I decided not to go with her plan, she thought it was a joke. Then she realized that I was not capable of making a joke yet. The sparks in her eyes, the highlight that I admired from her the most, simply slipped away. Her smile faded, and her gleaming skin turned dull. It was as if my words had sucked the life out of her. I realized that I did not just damage her. I killed her mentally.

But still, I had to do it.

“How could you?” she whimpered, her voice shook. “How could you do this?”

“Evee, I am a Clan 'MechWarrior,” I tried to explain, but the chance Evee would understand seemed bleak. “No matter what I do or where I am, I will always be a Clan MechWarrior. I tried to fool myself thinking that I could be somebody else. The truth is, I gave us a false hope. Had I stayed at Arc Royal, this would have never happened. You would have never met Jerome Helmer in the most adverse situation I could have imagined.”

“But you promised!” she erupted, tears gushing out from her eyes. “You promised to go with me! You never failed your words, Parker! And now you’re telling me you want to leave it behind?” She got up, fire in her eyes as if she wanted to burn me alive. “Do you know what I had gone through to get you out of Wotan? Do you know that I gambled with my life just to get enough money to hire this unit? Do you know that I almost gave up my life in the hands of terrorists? And do you know why I didn’t, Parker? Because I promised to take you with me! You showed me how to do it, you sonofabitch!”

She lanced at me and punched me in the gut. After what the Elementals did to me for the last 3 years, that punch did not sting a bit. But it did hurt me in a different way. It stabbed me in the heart. Evee fired at me full force, each punch burnt a piece of my mind. I let her do that. When Evee was through with my gut, she went to my face. She hit me like I was a punching bag. It was very un-clan like of me, letting a freeborn disgraced me in a physical contact. But I did not care about it anymore. She could not hurt me the way I hurt her, so I kept my hand steady on my side, until she ran her breath out.

“You promised…” she gasped between her sobs. “You promised…”

I wrapped my arms around her, and she exploded in my chest. Her hands still stroke me, but the power had gone, replaced by sorrow and desperation. In the end her hands clawed at my chest while she soaked my shirt with her tears. I caressed her golden hair, hopefully I could alleviate her pain, even in the smallest way possible.

“Remember three years ago when Jerome Helmer raided Wolfen,” I spoke gently. “I wish you have never gone through it. I did the unthinkable, quitting my touman and leaving my comrades behind, along with the pride of Wolf that I should have upheld with utmost dignity. But the greatest mistake I made was I thought I could change what I am, just because I could not remember who I was before. No, Evee. The ghosts of my past will haunt me for as long as I live. Jerome Helmer was one of them. I do not know if there are more Jerome Helmer in my previous life, and the wisest thing for you to do is to avoid it.

“It is not that I regret everything that happened between us, nor I undermine your effort to save me. Moments with you are the best moment of my life, and the thought of you kept me alive through the brutal years of Jade Falcon’s bondsmanship. But I will always be a Clan warrior, an embodiment of war. Pain, suffering, and death will always go my way. I cannot change it, and I cannot let you be a part of it.”

I did not know if Evee understood or not. I expected she would fight to deny it. But she stopped hitting me. After a long pause, she pushed herself off of my embrace and looked at me in the eye. She might have swallowed some of my explanation, and then she might not. But her eyes were still burning with wrath.

“Arrogant jerk! Who do you think you are that you can control the course of life? I’m a MechWarrior, Parker. I am bound to suffer and die just like any other MechWarriors. What would it matter if I die vainly in the hand of some Clanner scumbag or die in a blaze of glory? What do you care? You’ve taken hundreds of lives. What would it matter if you lost another one?”

“It matters because it is yours.”

I did not know the true meaning of this simple testimony. It just slipped off my mouth. But I knew it was true. It made me thinking: why did I feel obligated to preserve a freeborn’s life? Was she that important to me, or was it just because I felt compelled? Why, of all possibilities, I chose the most painful way for me and for Evee just because I wanted her to have the best outcome? Or was everything she said true?

“You don’t understand a thing about human life,” she hissed. “You made a promise but you don’t know what you promised to do. But that’s just the way you are, isn’t it? Like you said, you’ll always be a Clanner. Just get out, Parker. Get out and leave me alone.”

Just like I had foreseen, I failed to make her see things my way. Being alone might help her, but I doubted she would ever accept my account. As I closed the door behind me, I started to see the future of our relationship: she would always remember me as a liar. And the worst part was, I did what I did to save her from danger. It was an irony that I had to live with as long as I lived. Maybe Spheroid’s life was not always black-and-white as Clanner’s life. Or maybe I did not understand a thing about Spheroids, just like Evee said.


Archangel, CAMR’s Jumpship,

Wotan’s Jump Point,

February 13, 3061


Just before we were ready for a jump off Wotan system, the CAMR ship was getting an unexpected call from the Jade Falcon. Actually it was not all that unexpected. Losing a battle with a Spheroid unit in their own home, no matter how dishonorable the Spheroid fought, was a disgrace. So they did the only thing that would restore their honor: a Clan Trial. It was unexpected because it took Jerome Helmer 2 days to do it.

“Inner Sphere barbarians,” Jerome spoke over the main comlink. “This is Star Colonel Jerome Helmer of the Jade Falcon. You dishonorably attacked us without warning, and you stole something that is my possession. I will not let this outrage go without punishment. I hereby issue a Trial of Possession against you and your entire force. I bid my nova to this trial.”

“My name is Rick,” the commander replied in a casual way. “I am the commanding officer of Combined Arms Mercenary Regiment. From what I heard, Star Colonel, you didn’t acquire your bondsman in an honorable way. You issued your trial with your gun on his head. That was a mistrial, hence your possession of your bondsman is invalid. I simply took what was not yours.”

“You are the lowest kind of freebirths,” Jerome shot a smile of arrogance. “You mercenaries defile the sanctity of war with your greed. Your accusation only proves your lack of knowledge about our culture. But I guess that is the farthest your rudimentary mind can comprehend, quiaff?”

“Quite the contrary,” Rick responded. “By holding a gun on his head, you eliminated his chance to bid for a fair trial. You forced him to fight a trial which benefited you whatever the outcome might be. I don’t know what you call it in your language, Star Colonel, but in my language we call it chickenshit.”

“Call me all the names you want,” Jerome started to show his rage, “but your words do not prove anything. My motion stands. You will fight me on Wotan. The winner may resume the possession of Star Commander Darien Kerensky.”

“Yet it proves my point,” Rick flashed a derogatory smile. “Fighting you in your home town. Even if you win, what honor does it give you?”

“Honor is not a factor in our squabble, freebirth!” Jerome flared. “You dishonorably attacked my base, so I am not bound with code of honor anymore. You will fight my trinary plus a binary of Elementals within five-day time, here in Wotan. I will send you the coordinate of my circle of equal. If you fail to meet my demand, it means you do not have a quality to solve our dispute as a warrior. I will acquire my bondsman myself by taking my nova to New St. Andrews.”

This move was not unexpected at all. Somehow I knew Jerome would bring Evee’s home to press Rick. Evee’s cheeks twitched and her arms clutched, but Rick remained calm. I remembered that Commander Rick was a skillful negotiator, and he was well versed in Clan trial. I did not remember how good Jerome was. By the way he used violence to force his opponent to bow to his demand, I suspected Jerome was a fair negotiator and a ruthless warrior.

“Your fight is with me, Jerome,” I interjected. “Let us finish it without including these people.”

“I do not wish to negotiate with a bondsman,” he scoffed. “You do not have anything my interest.”

“Then I will meet you on your designated coordinate,” Rick responded, gesturing me to back down. “You have the advantage of home, so I will bid my entire force against your nova. I will bring a company of BattleMechs, one company of armor, and one wing of aerospace fighters. In addition to that, I will have Parker fight on my side.”

“Your force is fine,” Jerome showed a superior smile, “except Darien Kerensky. He is still my bondsman. He is not to take part in this fight.”

“Why?” Rick quipped. “You won’t negotiate with him, you won’t fight him. I see that you are trying to get a bargain by excluding him in every way. Maybe I ought to bring him to battle. He can be my lucky charm.”

“Your approach disgusts me, freebirth!” Jerome snarled. “My decision stays! Darien Kerensky is not to take part in this fight! Defy me, barbarian, and you will suffer the consequences!”

“Alright, if you’re that terrified of him,” Rick turned to me in a casual way. “Sorry Parker, you have to sit this one out.”

I had no choice but to yield to Jerome’s demand.

“Then it is settled,” Jerome concluded. “I expect you to honor our agreement. I will see you on the battlefield.”

As soon as Jerome disappeared from the main screen, Rick called Evee and me to meet him in the briefing room. Some MechWarriors, including Wade Avery, had waited when we came in. Wade still remembered me. He gave me a nod when he saw me, but the situation prevented him to do more than that. The lively attitude of Rick had gone, replaced by gravity. I guessed he intentionally acted easygoing just to annoy Jerome. It worked beautifully.

“Commander, you don’t know how much I appreciate your avoidance of my hometown into this fight,” Evee said when she arrived. “I know this fight is way off your contract parameter. I can’t pay you now, but I will find money for your service. Just give me some time. I can work it out.”

“You seem to have forgotten about me completely, Evee,” Rick smirked. “This is not about your contract anymore. This asshole cannot be let roam the Inner Sphere. The fact that he waited 2 days before he issued his trial was an indication that he would not play fair. He’s up to something. I smell his treachery reeking all over his voice. Parker, you fought him before. Do you remember anything at all about it?”

I wish I did. I tried hard to bring any memory alive, but I had never been successful. “No. All I have are stories from Phelan Kell. I was told that I fought him for 2 weeks, and eventually managed to bleed his force before he challenged me to a Trial of Possession. I was told that he cheated the trial, but I could not recall what he did exactly.”

“What do you know about Wotan?” Ian Reeves tuned in.

“It is a rocky planet with a lot of mineral. Most of terrain comprises of rock and mining sites. Some terrain does have woods and oceans, but they are minimal.”

“He must’ve chosen Wotan for a purpose,” Rick mused. “He must know every corner of the planet, and he’s using it to his advantage. He expects us to falter in a battlefield foreign to us. Or his forces are burrowed underneath the surface, ready to attack if needed. If we’re not careful, we could be walking right into his killing fields.”

“Then our fighters must have good eyes,” Wade suggested. “They must find enemy’s position early in the battle. In the mean time, we need to prepare ourselves against any odds. The Jade Falcons have better 'Mechs and better knowledge of the battlefield. Only excessive simulations will put us in the same footing with the Clanners.”

“Right,” Rick shot up. “I want everybody in the simulator now. We only have 4 days to prepare the trial. I want Joe and his Wolfhound Legion take the center stage in the simulation. They’ve been our back up, but now our lives depend on them.”

“Is there anything I can do, Commander?” I called him. “This battle concerns me, so I want to participate.”

“You heard him, Parker. He doesn’t want to fight you. The time will come for you to settle your score, but this war is mine. Just sit tight and let us do the work.”

“What about me?” Evee added. “Are you gonna ground me too?”

“You can join us,” Rick replied. “But if I were you, I’d stay close to Parker. This war is built around him, and there’s nothing Jerome wants more than Parker. He might be using this trial as a diversion from his secret plan. I don’t like surprises in a battle. I need you more as a back up than a front-line warrior.”

“Then I’ll do that,” Evee said. “Although I wish I had a chance to kick his ass.”

The CAMR left us alone in the briefing room. Evee came to me, her eyes sparkling with anticipation. “If we win this trial,” she said, holding my arm in the earnest. “If we kill Jerome, would you reconsider coming with me to New St. Andrews?”

I always admired her persistence. She had a quality to be a great leader and a great MechWarrior, and I ached to go with her. But the encounter with Jerome changed my perspective. It was lucky that we had not gone far from Wotan when Jerome decided to challenge us. I could not imagine if he did come to New St. Andrews.

“Evee,” I exhaled. “If I can get my memory back, I would reconsider coming with you anywhere you want. But even if it was the case, I could not be sure that I posed no danger to you, your home, or any other people that is close to you. Have you overlooked Jerome’s threat to come to your home planet? Are you willing to sacrifice your home in exchange of me?”

Evee stared at me blankly, but I knew that everything finally seeped in her common sense. She averted her eyes, staring at the floor for a long time, then decided to accept my reasoning. “Why do you have to be a Kerensky, Parker? Why can’t you be a Steiner, a Davion, a Liao, a Marik, or a Kurita? Why can’t you be a MacGregor, for God sake?”

“I do not know the answer,” I replied. As a matter of fact, I did not know if it was real or rhetorical. There were some things about Spheroids that I could not quite understand. “I wish I knew.”

“You don’t have to answer that, stupid!” she smacked my arm, and for the first time in two days I saw her smiling. “In all honestly, I’d rather you be a Kerensky than anything else. You’re blunt, simple, and honest. Even if I don’t get to be with you, at least I have a memento of you as a straightforward man.”

 Her comply was a big relieve for me.  I wanted her to understand that it was hard for me to do this, but I had to do it.  She might still fight my reasoning, but at least she had accepted the fact that we had to part.  It was enough for now.  I hoped, when she got older and wiser, she would finally understand everything.


TWENTY-TWOEdit

Drummond Valley, Wotan,

Jade Falcon Occupation Zone,

February 18, 3061


Jerome’s choice of circle of equal was a wide plain, twenty kilometers long and almost a hundred kilometers wide. Light forest garnished the drab valley, providing attractive variety if observed from Wotan’s orbit. But it also provided good refuges for Jerome’s nova. Commander Rick had been increasingly anxious about this fight. He had a strong feeling that Jerome Helmer, despite his Bloodname and colorful commendations, would not play fair. Of course, there was no proof it would happen except for snippets of Phelan’s story, but he was nervous nonetheless.

Thirty minutes ago, four Union dropships landed on a cliff overlooking the valley. Rick quickly orchestrated his troops into two groups. His Wrath Lance and armor company formed a wedge formation, centered on his massive Fafnir. The rest of his troops formed another group, spread two hundred meters away from his position. He unleashed the Wolfhound Legion, CAMR’s Corsair wing, to recon the valley and initiated attack as soon as they saw Jade Falcon’s hidden nova.

I was stationed at the dropship’s bridge with Evee and her two companions. I could see the entire company through the main screen of the dropship, or I could ask the tactical officers to zoom in on any particular 'Mech I would like to observe. But it would not matter. I would rather be with them, on the cockpit of my 'Mech, than in the dropship.

“Wolfhound Legion, see them yet?” Rick’s voice came over the comlink.

“Negative, Lead,” Joseph Jarhkan, the wing commander replied. “Nothing came up on my radar so far. The forests are too thin to hide 'Mechs and armors, and I can see through the trees. The Jade Falcons are not here yet.”

“This is dropship command,” Evee spoke on her headset. “I’m not seeing anything either. Maybe they’re not planning to stain this trial, Commander. This is their home. They might not want to look bad in their own yard by winning a trial using dezgra tactic.”

“This is the world where Crichel slew Kerensky using artillery,” Rick rebuked. “Jerome will only live up to Crichel’s reputation as Jade Chickenshit. There’s something wrong about the entire trial setup. I can feel it. Joe, scan the valley one more time. If you can’t find them, we’ll declare victory and accuse them dezgra for forfeiting. Maybe they’ll show their face that way.”

“Roger that, Lead,” the Corsair wing made a tide turn at the edge of the valley and made another pass to find the Jade Falcons. I could imagine the tension bubbling on those pilots as they swept the valley in low altitude, drawing the attention of the Falcons. But so far, their attempts had been futile. The only armed force in the entire valley was the CAMR. Although Jerome’s reputation preceeded himself, I started to agree with Evee.

But I assumed too much too soon.

“This is Wolfhound Legion, I spotted multiple inbounds 15 clicks of your position,” Joseph chimed. “Stand by for head count… fifteen BattleMechs, heavy and assault Omnis… two star of Elementals! No doubt about that, Lead. The Jade Falcons are heading your way!”

“Hit them, Joe! Concentrate fire on the biggest 'Mechs and hit them hard!” Rick yelled his orders. “Ground force, march! Let’s get this fight over with!”

Daishi’s on the lead!” Joseph shouted. “Wolfhound Legion, smoke the Daishi!”

Through the main screen I watched the Corsair wing turned northbound and charged the Jade Falcon nova that started to appear on the radar. One star alone consisted of the Apocalypse, Jerome’s Dire Wolf, or Daishi as my fellow Spheroid called it, and four Warhawks. A star of three Summoners and two Hellbringers guarded the command star on the left, and another binary of three Hellbringers and two Timber Wolves closed the formation on the right. Elemental battle armors piggybacked the OmniMechs.

For the first glance, it was obvious that Jerome pushed his superior range of his weapons to the limit. Clan’s PPC would deal serious damage long before the CAMR could return fire. Nobody would contest this tactic, and should Jerome win, he would win a fair fight. However, this fact had been unveiled years ago when the Clans invaded the Inner Sphere for the first time. Since then, the Spheroids had developed a dozen strategies to tame the Clan’s superior range. As innocent as it looked, I did not think Jerome would depend solely on the range of his weapons. Commander Rick was right: Jerome must have had another ace up his sleeve.

“This is dropship command,” Evee stated. “Commander, you’re wandering too far from the dropship. Slow down and let them come to you, so we can provide fire support when needed.”

“Thanks, Evee, but just keep your eyes open for Jerome’s dezgra tactic,” Rick replied. “I’ll handle Jerome myself.”

As the CAMR raced to meet the Falcon nova, the Corsairs climbed a good 200 meters to get an unobstructed line of fire at the Falcon rank. It was not long before the Corsairs and the Falcon OmniMechs started exchanging long-range blows. Tracers of light illuminated the dim morning as rockets flew in both directions, ended up in fireballs and mushroom-like cloud when they hit their targets. Two Corsairs were thrown into the air when several PPC bolts singed them midair. Another Corsair roared in flames when three missiles gutted its armor, torching the fuel and the ammunition and the pilot in one swift explosion. The battle went quick, but in the end, it was clear that the Corsairs were seriously outgunned by the OmniMechs. But some of their lasers stabbed the Apocalypse, setting up minor fire on various parts.

“We lost 50-percent strength,” Joseph reported. “Those damn PPCs are killing us! Permission to disengage, Lead! We can’t win this round!”

“Go ahead, Joe! Give me sitrep!”

“These are Falcon regulars, very high precision! But we spoiled the Daishi real good! Look for the flaming assault 'Mech for a quick victory!”

“Got it, Wolfhound Legion! Thanks for your support! All hands, bring down the Apocalypse!”

As the remaining Corsairs retreated, the CAMR ground force launched their attacks. Their cannons flashed, raining down their punishment toward the Falcon’s trinary. Fragments of chipped armor flew to every direction as the metal drones hammered the Apocalypse from the sky. But the Falcon trinary quickly assumed attack position that covered Jerome’s 'Mech, and launched their PPCs and missiles like deadly hail. A combination of lasers and missiles shredded the armor of Ian’s Marauder, exposing its engine to air. Fire raged on the busted engine, blocking the view of the driver. Two Hellbringers lined up with the blazing Marauder and used the bonfire as their bullseye. Ian staggered to stay on his feet, spreading his PPC to a wide area. Cover fire from the Atlas and the Awesome blanketed the air, trying to divert as many OmniMechs as possible. But two Warhawks lit up their PPCs, and Ian’s 'Mech toppled in flames.

“Damn it! I’m out!” Ian’s voice crackled between series of static.

“Eat this, sucker!” Rick hissed and let loose his deadly Heavy Gauss slugs. Long blue tracers zipped in the air, ended up in an unsuspecting Warhawk. Sparks blossomed as the bullets peeled the armor of the 85-ton OmniMech layer by layer before grilling its engine. Three consecutive explosions ripped the Warhawk from inside, and the remaining hulk came crashing to the ground. Not through, Rick pumped out his lasers at the Warhawk’s torso where smoke and sparks spewed out. The internal structure could not block the concentrated energy bolts. The Warhawk went off, sending fiery chunks and black smoke to the air.

The CAMR armor company positioned themselves half a kilometer out of the main battlefield and sent barrages after barrages to the Jade Falcon right flank. One third of the company’s PPCs and autocannons punished the front row of Jade Falcon’s OmniMechs, the three Summoners. One of them burst into flames, consumed by the deadly accuracy of the armor company. Gaining some momentum, the CAMR staggered to its formation and fought back. Their cannons flashed in fast blitz, spitting deadly rounds that ground the Summoners to pieces. The Falcon’s Warhawks tried to bring balance to the battle, but the coordinated attack from the CAMR 'Mechs and armor company held them back.
It looked like for five minutes the CAMR controlled the battle, until the Elementals dismounted the OmniMechs and started swarming the CAMR 'Mechs. Three battle armors climbed the Atlas and peeled the armor, gunning for the delicate structure underneath. The Atlas twisted and twitched wildly, trying hard to throw the Elementals away from its back. But the battle armors clung to the 100-ton 'Mech like ticks, disposing layer after layer of armor until it reached the circuitry. With a burst of machine gun they cut off several main power cords. The Atlas spasmed, teetering on its heels as more and more cords were singed. Twenty seconds later it tumbled, losing all power.

I watched the entire sequence from satellite overhead map, frustrated because I could not do anything to help the CAMR. I could go and join the fight, but perhaps it was what Jerome wanted. Perhaps he designed this situation to coerce me to dishonor the batchall, so he could use his secret weapon. No, I could not do anything helpful. I could not give Jerome the satisfaction. Rick knew what he was doing, so at this point I just had to do what he wanted me to do.

While the CAMR 'Mechs were occupied by the new threat, Jerome and three of his Hellbringers sprayed their autocannons and missiles at the armor company. Their guns belched fire, sending bullets and missiles toward the slow-moving tanks. Their razor-sharp marksmanship punctured the tanks, robbing them from their lives and their accomplished goal of supporting the 'Mechs. The tanks quickly assumed defensive formation, but the OmniMechs were more than they could handle. One by one they exploded in geysers of fire and shrapnels.

The Elementals that brought down the Atlas jumped off their fallen prey and chased Ellen Ford in her Marauder, but Wade Avery came with a vengeance. Blood sprayed from busted midst, and the Elementals were chopped down into bloody heap of flesh and ferro-fibre. Ellen, grasping the potent of the battle armors, turned back and blasted her PPCs at the rest of the Elementals. More than half of the Elementals were enveloped by the raging fire. Those who survived turned back and retreated, only to be stomped by nearby CAMR 'Mechs.

“Stupid toads!” Ellen’s voice came over the comlink. “Mech fight is not a place for you!”

With both supports gone, the battle had turned into a free-for-all, unClan-like melee that defied all code of honors. Two Timber Wolves ganged up on Commander Rick, showering his Fafnir with missiles and lasers. Rick ducked, letting dozens of missiles pass his head, then aimed his mammoth guns at one of the Timber Wolves. But before he could unleash his attack, the other buried a good salvo of lasers into Rick’s right torso. Molten metal sprayed from the impact, but Rick simply lined up with the Timber Wolf and fired. The two Heavy Gauss slugs bludgeoned the 75-ton OmniMech, ripping its right torso open, knocking it to the ground.

Rick pressed his attack with a quick burst of lasers, but the other Timber Wolf scored another good hit with its missiles. The 100-ton Lyran 'Mech staggered to the left, tottering on its left foot. It came back and snapped a shot at the attacking Timber Wolf. A loud crack ensued as his 250-kilo slug smashed into the round torso of the OmniMech. The 75-ton aligned its crosshair, but Rick fired his other Heavy Gauss, throwing the Clanner’s aim away. Fire and smoke engulfed the OmniMech’s torso. Three red streaks leapt from Rick’s Fafnir, stabbing the Timber Wolf squarely at the flaming crack. The OmniMech breached, shredded by chain explosions that originated from its ammunition bins. Seconds later a fireball ripped it apart from inside.

The downed Timber Wolf managed to get on its feet, and Rick would have been able to destroy it if Jerome did not come to the Wolf’s aid. Jerome’s autocannon bullets carved a meter-long gash on the Fafnir’s right leg, and his PPCs slammed into the mangled right hand. The Fafnir jerked behind, splinters of armor flew to every direction. Three consecutive blasts from the Timber Wolf turned the Fafnir into a blazing hulk. One Heavy Gauss ball put the Timber Wolf back to the ground, but the Apocalypse locked its entire arsenal on the Fafnir and hurled everything it had. The Fafnir’s right torso disintegrated in a scintillating, ear-splitting explosion, and the big 'Mech was forced to backpedal.

Evee and her two friends were engrossed in the fight, pumping up their fists everytime a Jade Falcon OmniMech fell, but cussed whenever a CAMR 'Mech met the same fate. “That cheating sonofabitch!” Evee snarled as Rick’s Fafnir slumped. “That’s his own code of honor he’s disrespecting! That’s it, I’m not letting the Jade Falcons kill my former employer with some cowardly tactic! Everybody to your 'Mechs!”

“Outside interruption will only benefit the Jade Falcon,” I interjected. “Reinforcement justifies Jerome a ‘Grand Melee’ where he can disregard all honor. It is possible that it is what he wants.”

“Then what can we do, Parker?” Evee erupted. “Are you going to sit your ass off while others gamble with death for you? You ignorant jerk! You’re a Clanner, you know about this Clan crap more than anybody! Work it out, find a way to hamper the Jade Falcons! Because if you don’t, I’m going in there!”

Evee’s face was flushed with rage, her veins bulging in her neck when she yelled at me. But as much as I agreed with her, I could not take a chance. Jerome was a cunning warrior, and he knew everything about me, how I think, how I react, how I function. I had to assume that everything was included in his plan. On the other hand, the CAMR was running out of time.

But fortunately I did not have to think hard. The dropship’s radar detected another group of Jade Falcon war machines moving fast from our rear flank, 10 kilometers away, obviously gunning for the dropships. It was a clear violation of the batchall, but at least I did not have to guess what Jerome was planning anymore. Commander Rick had foreseen this attack; he just could not tell when it was happening.

“Now what do you call that?” Evee flamed, zooming in to the attacking force. “Two Dervishes, three Phoenix Hawks, five Manticores… What the hell? Those are Spheroid’s technologies, for Christ sake! What is Jerome thinking? I thought he hated Spheroids!”

“He must have claimed a lot of isorla,” I mused. “No marking on the attacking force. He is using his isorla weapons to attack us from behind. My guess is that the warriors are not Jade Falcon’s, most probably Dark Caste’s warriors, or worse, mercenaries. Should anyone question his integrity, he could always disavow this attack. Anybody who knows his staunch crusader philosophy will believe him.”

“Conniving bastard!” Evee reached for the comlink. “Rick must know about this…”

“No!” I halted her. “That is exactly what Jerome wants. He wants to divide Rick’s attention, if not his force. No, let the CAMR fight Jerome as nothing happens. Rick wanted us to watch for any cowardly attack. This is our responsibility.”

“Are you saying you wanna take on Jerome’s Dark-Caste binary?” Evee looked at me, confused. “We only have a lance to guard 3 dropships. What are you thinking?”

“Jerome thought he could outsmart and outgun us,” I stared into her eyes. “But he just gave us an exit. Clanners are not trained to cheat. When they do cheat, they make a lot of messy mistakes. We can use these mistakes to beat them in their own game.”

“You’re not listening to me!” Evee yelled. “How? How are you going to beat ten Jade Falcons with only a mixed lance?”

“I am a Clanner, remember?” I gave her a smile. “I know about Clan crap more than anybody. So trust me.”

Evee looked at me in utter confusion. “This gotta be working, Parker, or you’ll kill us all.”

“Just do what I say,” I got up and turned to the dropship’s tactical officers. “Cut off all communication frequencies! No radio contact to the CAMR! Jam the Clan’s transmission too! I want everything that happens here excluded from Jerome and Rick! Get your guns hot, but do not touch the Manticores! Focus on the 'Mechs! I want the Manticores alive!”

TWENTY-THREEEdit

Drummond Valley, Wotan,

Jade Falcon Occupation Zone,

February 18, 3061


Running down the stairs to the bay, I kept thinking why Jerome waited this long to strike. Why would he wait until half of his nova was butchered by the CAMR? Was it to lure me into the battle so he could motion for Grand Melee? Was it to give himself an alibi that he had nothing to do with this attack? Was it included in his plan? Or was it because he simply ran out of patience?

Those thoughts would likely remain a mystery to me, but I would not complain. Like I mentioned, Jerome left a huge gap in his plan. These attackers, even if they were Clanners, were not front-line troops. The fact that they used Inner Sphere technologies but grouped in a mixed binary told me that they could be sibbies, solahmas, Dark Caste warriors, or maybe even mercenaries. They were either inexperienced or reckless, which worked fine for me.

A vast array of weaponries greeted me as I arrived at the hangar. Countless CAMR technicians rushed up and down the ladder to give my 'Mech the final touch, seemingly eager to see it in combat. Yes, my red Gladiator was standing in the hangar, sandwiched by Evee’s prized Trebuchet and two other 'Mechs I had never seen before. The last time I saw my 'Mech was before I took off to New St. Andrews from Arc Royal, almost three years ago. Evee and CAMR technicians took a good care of it. I should have called it an Executioner customary to Clan terminology, but it was the Gladiator that I learnt to know. After all, it was just a name.

The alarm screamed, trumpeting the sign that the bay doors would soon open. Technicians scrambled out of the area, leaving only the combatants in the hangar. I took the command seat and pushed it out of the dropship as soon as the bay rumbled open. The Jade Falcon flotilla immediately emerged on my radar, ready to take on the two dropships from long range. I glanced over the window and saw Evee rolling parallel to my Gladiator. The other two rolled to my other side. One looked like a bulky tugboat with two big arms, the other one was slender, almost a close reminiscent of the old Stinger.

As I predicted, the Jade Falcon mixed unit attacked the dropships without warning. Dozens of missiles leapt from the Dervishes, each making a colorful trail on the air as they ate the distance. The majority of the missiles exploded upon inmpact, spitting flames like fireworks, carving cavities on the armor, but not strong enough to breach it and do serious damage. A moment later a wave of PPC bolts leapt from the Manticores, smashing the dropship’s hull. The dropships shrugged the attack as if nothing happened. They returned fire with their PPCs and Gauss Rifles, but the 'Mechs deftly dodged the attack by hiding behind hills and woods.

“Stay here and attack your closest 'Mech,” I commanded Evee and her comrades. “Only attack the 'Mech. I want the tanks intact.”

“What do you have in mind?” Evee blurted.

“I will lure the 'Mechs out into the open, so the dropships can hit them. Cover me.”
I fired my engine, bringing my Gladiator running under missile and close with the two Dervishes. The Phoenix Hawks went airborne and rained down their lasers on me. Two large laser strands stabbed me in the chest. Scorching metal chunks swooshed all over the place as my 'Mech tipped to the left, coping with the sudden change in the balance. I tugged my driving sticks as hard as I could, swaying my 'Mech back to the right. One of the Phoenix Hawks soared past my head, but Evee and her comrades caught it as it landed. Bullets, missiles and beam strands zipped around, catching the 45-ton 'Mech off guard. It tattered in its heel, twisting to maximum to strike its attackers. But half a dozen missiles stabbed it from every direction. Before it had a chance to regain balance, bullets from the tugboat-like 'Mech crunched its front armor, while the small slender 'Mech being pummeled the medium 'Mech with its torso-housed lasers.

I left the Phoenix Hawk at Evee’s mercy, and dove deeper into the battlefield. The Dervishes switched targets and latched on to me. My proximity alarm screamed, broadcasting missiles in hot pursuit. I tried to crouch, but half of them detonated on my torso. Ear-piercing rattle drilled my ears so loud I bit my lips. The Phoenix Hawks banked hard to the right, missing the trail of PPCs and Gauss slugs from the dropships, and hit my right arm with their lasers.

I knew I could not match their dexterity, and I had to rely on my armor and my guns. I directed my 'Mech the Dervish pair missiles and showered the one on the right with my lasers. Its left torso glowed in red, and the sudden change in weight sent the 'Mech staggering on its left leg. I raised my left arm and triggered my LBX-20. The Dervish twisted as the fragmented shell carved a hideous gash on its right torso, rendering half of the launchers useless.

I was ready to hit it with my right LBX-20 when the other Dervish sprayed its missiles. The warheads ravaged my front armor, some thrust dangerously close to the internal structure, pumping out metal gristle and setting minor fire. I shoved my joystick to dodge a barrage of lasers over my head. The ravaged Dervish charged me with its missiles, although my LBX round seemed to damage its targeting system. All missiles went wide. I realigned my crosshair with the Dervish and fired my cannon. The bullet shredded the 55-tonner and ignited the ammunition bin. An orange fireball engulfed the 'Mech. The CASE system localized the explosion, but the shockwave toppled it.

The dropship’s batteries fired off with a newfound vigor. Three rounds of PPCs stabbed a Phoenix Hawk in the torso, evaporating tons of armor and internal structure. Its right torso blasted, taking its most powerful weapon with it. As it struggled to stand, I lined up all my guns at its torso and fired in unison. Three consecutive explosions ripped the 'Mech apart, but it was the fourth that clove the hapless 'Mech into burning debris.

The Manticore pressed the attack, firing their PPCs from long range. Concentrated particles grazed my left arm, throwing blazing masses into the air. The armor tracker turned orange, warning me to take more precaution if I did not want to lose my left gun.

“Still don’t wanna chew the Manticores?” Evee cracked.

“No, leave them alone,” I responded, pumping out my lasers at a nearby Phoenix Hawk. “I want them intact. Concentrate fire on the 'Mechs.”

“As you wish,” Evee’s reply came in crisp and quick. Almost three-dozen missiles flew over my head, swarming the remaining Dervish. I swung to the left and unloaded my LBX cannons at the medium 'Mech. It did not take long for the left torso to burn and erupt, causing the Dervish to jerk behind. Tongues of fire licked every direction. As it staggered, I hit my laser trigger. My lasers speared the Dervish at the center torso, not enough to gouge its internal structure, but more than enough to set major fire. The Dervish turned and blasted its missiles at point blank range. I managed to flinch at the right time, and the missiles just glided harmlessly on my side. In a desperate move, the Dervish powered its jumpjets, but four PPC bolts from the dropships singed it midair. The Dervish turned into a supernova.

I turned to a Phoenix Hawk, but a brilliant flash consumed the canopy, and I found myself rocking back and forth in my cockpit. Spark burst out of the console; the light went out, smoke and fire extinguisher blended into a suffocating fog inside the cockpit. I was overconfident and forgot about the Manticores, and now I paid the price. My right torso split open, and my large laser went defunct. The PPCs fried my targeting system, so from now on I had to rely on my eyes. But the smoke obscured my vision, and for several minutes I tattered like a drunken man.

“You cocky bastard! Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Evee started to move out. “Dropship command, smoke the Manticores!”

“No!” I screamed, but it was too late. Evee tracked a Manticore and showered it with her missiles. The warheads ripped the tank’s tail, rendering it sputtering and smoking, but failed to stop it. The dropships fired off several PPC salvoes, none of which connected, but the Manticores were forced to take evasive maneuvers, hence stopped firing. Evee fired again, and this time, her missiles landed squarely on the turret. The turret exploded, and the burning splinters rained down the field like a meteor shower.

“Damn freebirth! Stop!” I shouted involuntary. “Do not waste the Manticores!”

I did not know why I used that word. I never intended to use it to anybody, let alone Evee, the woman I shared my desire with. It just slipped off. Perhaps I had lived in Clan society for so long that I started to turn into a real Clanner. Perhaps the pitched battle tickled my brain to remember who I once was. Or perhaps it was just a burst of frustration that after making myself clear several times, Evee still defied me.

Nevertheless, it was a mistake, a huge one.

“What? What did you call me?” Evee turned her Trebuchet toward me. The glint of reflection from the sun on her Trebuchet’s canopy reflected the flare of wrath on her eyes. “Is that why you rejected me? Because I’m a freebirth? Because unlike you, I’m a genetic dirt? Because I’m not your equal? Asshole!”

Three red lasers darted me. I turned my 'Mech to the right, blocking her attack with my right arm. The lasers gouged a ton of armor, sending chunks of molten armor flying in the air. Although I knew that she did not meant the attack, it made my blood boil. She intentionally fired on my 'Mech, and by Clan standard, it was a challenge. I raised my right arm, but stopped my thumb before pressing the trigger.

“Come on, trashborn!” she said over the comlink. “Now you remember what you’re made of, huh? Come on, finish it!”

Another wave of medium lasers stung me, turning the armor tracker on my center torso into bright red. I knew I ticked her off, and she was getting back at me, but her action had gone beyond logic. Firing at my 'Mech – twice – was a blatant offense. Somehow my subconscious mind still functioned as a Clan MechWarrior. Now I could only see her as my enemy. It was hard to restrain myself from hitting my trigger. But I held myself. I would give her one more chance to back off. If she hit me one more time, I had no choice but to return fire.

“Evee, do not do this,” I held my breath. “Please, do not fire on me.”

“Or what?” she screamed. “You’re gonna waste me, like all freebirth cunts that don’t deserve to live? Go ahead! See if I care!”

Her laser cannons sparkled again. This time, I sidestepped to the left and let them zip right in front of my nose. I could not let it go anymore. I raised my left arm and smashed Evee’s right knee. The Trebuchet buckled as its knee exploded, then careened to the ground. A series of profanities flooded my comlink, evidence of Evee’s frustration. My heart sank to see her powerless like a log, but I had no other choice. That was exactly what I said to her. “I am sorry, Evee, but you left me no choice.”

The other two 'Mechs stood in awe, but the tugboat-like 'Mech raised its arms, aiming them at my center torso. The small lanky 'Mech turned to my left flank and raised its double medium pulse lasers at my rear. I quickly twisted left, pointing my right LBX-20 at the tugboat-like 'Mech and my left the lanky one. “I do not want to hurt you,” I spoke sternly. “This squeamish has nothing to do with you. But I will fire if you shoot me. Stand down and take care of Evee.”

The two 'Mechs hesitated, aiming their guns at me but did not follow Evee’s step. By this time, the dropships and the Jade Falcon binary stopped firing, looking at us with utmost confussion. Then the remaining two Phoenix Hawks woke up. They pumped up their lasers, filling the air with fizzling strands of red javelins. Three strands bored my 'Mech on the right torso, smashing the remaining stump of the large laser cannon and turning the structure into a heap of molten metal. I swung to the right and fired my right LBX-20, striking the Phoenix Hawk in the left torso. A burst of flame jetted as the entire torso erupted. The Phoenix Hawk trembled, but still defiant to return fire. I recoiled, letting the beam strike void. I triggered my lasers and a bright strand of light sliced the right hand of the Phoenix Hawk.

The Manticores launched salvos of PPCs, but I ducked hard, letting the bolts swerved above my head. The other Phoenix Hawk launched its lasers and peeled the armor of my left arm. Flaming chunks of ferro-fibre flew in every direction. I ignored it and kept pressing the armless Phoenix Hawk. My laser gutted its torso, yet it was still on its feet. Its nozzle went alive with sparks, spitting laser after laser. I heard a ‘clunk’ on my right arm, and quickly aimed it at the Phoenix Hawk’s midst. Fire belched, and its armor gave way, giving the shells free access toward the reactor. A small explosion ensued as the 45-ton 'Mech turned into a mini nova.

The Manticores barked their cannons, this time with much greater accuracy. Two bolts blasted and stripped the armor off my left arm. My 'Mech swayed to maintain balance. The remaining Phoenix Hawk jumped and fired its lasers on me, but the dropships tracked it down and smacked it with well-placed Gauss salvos. It fell and skidded on the ground, leaving a huge fiery scar on its chest. Within seconds, missiles and ballistic shells rained down upon the downed Phoenix Hawk. Some shots went astray, but the ones that hit the targets shredded the armor of the 45-tonner. The medium 'Mech retaliated with another round of lasers, but the dropships hammered it with their PPCs. The Phoenix Hawk disintegrated into fiery mist.

Losing their 'Mech escorts, the Manticores turned back and retreated. I could not afford to lose the tanks, so I floored the pedal and brought my 'Mech into a sprint. PPC salvos swooshed left and right, but I crisscrossed my path, missing bolts after bolts, while getting into the range of my laser. When my crosshair burnt red on the butt of one Manticore, I connected my comlink to general frequency. I assumed they were Jade Falcons, so I issued my warning according to Clan custom, “Jade Falcon amors, this is MechWarrior Parker. Your unit has been defeated. I claim you all as my bondsmen. Lay down your weapons and surrender or you will face grave consequences!”

Much to my prediction, the Manticores reacted by firing every weapon in their inventory, but it only made matter worse. The heat level slowed it down. Perhaps they were not Clanners, but instead mercenaries. The chance that Jerome Helmer hired a mercenary unit to cheat on us was close to impossible, but on the other hand it might serve him an advantage, considering his hard-core Crusader beliefs. I tried different strategy, “Armor unit, whatever Jerome Helmer is paying you, I will pay you double. Lay down your weapons and surrender, and you will be aptly rewarded.”

The Manticores kept on rolling. I realized that I had to make an example out of them. It was a shame, though, that everything had to come to bloodshed. But I did not have any other choice. I fired my laser at the nearest Manticore. Flaming droplets of molten armor flew like leaves in autumn, and although the Manticore was stubborn enough to keep rolling, smoke twirled from the rear hull. I hit it again, and the tank slowed down and caught fire. Several crews visibly jumped out of the tank, but one of them was still inside, driving the tank with gusto. I fired as soon as my laser recycled, and the tank burst into flame.

“Bondsmen, stand down!” I cried out desperately. “Or I will waste you right now!”
This time, the Manticores yielded. They stopped, waiting for me to get close. “Do not shoot!” finally somebody responded. “We submit ourselves as your bondsmen.”

“State your identity, your rank, and your unit,” I yelled. “And do not think you can defy me. My 'Mech had enough armor to withstand your PPCs, and you do not want to taste my LBX cannons.”

Actually, it was a lie. My 'Mech was a complete mess. My front torso was blinking red, and one PPC shot was enough to carve into it and wreck the reactor. But bluffing was all I had. Fortunately the Manticores bought it, which another sign that they were not soldiers to be reckoned seriously. “My name is Star Captain Norm, Zeta Solahma Cluster, Zeta Galaxy.”

“Zeta solahma?” I mused. The fact that they were doing dezgra tactic in Inner Sphere war machines started to make sense. They were washed-up warriors that were deemed unusable for the Jade Falcons. This was their last shot at immortality, to reenter the warrior caste they once belonged to. Jerome used them to his advantage, which I presumed included promises to guarantee their places at the warrior caste if they did this for him. I did not know what had gotten into Norm’s mind when he agreed to carry on a dezgra mission, but then I did not want to know. “You are a long way from home, Star Commander. But now you will work under my command. You will carry my orders without questions.”

“Aff, we yield,” Norm replied. “What do you want us to do?”

“Follow me,” I smiled. “I have a score to settle.”

TWENTY-FOUREdit

Drummond Valley, Wotan,

Jade Falcon Occupation Zone,

February 18, 3061


Jerome’s plan was to trick me with the Zeta Solahma. He did not try to hide the fact that he cheated. The Zeta Solahma used Inner Sphere war machines, but arranged in Clan’s star structure instead of Spheroid’s lance. He wanted me to think that he had broken the batchall, so I would join the battle. That was his ulterior motive to exclude me in the battle. He needed me to break the rule. When I did join the battle, he would claim no knowledge of the Zeta Solahma, based on the battleROM that I was attacked by Spheroid force. He would issue a Grand Melee and summon his reserved troops to wipe out what was left of the CAMR. Anybody who saw this would take his side.

But he left me one small window of opportunity. I was supposed to crush the Zeta Solahma to the last man without asking questions. He expected me to act with vengeance, like a typical Clanner when he was cheated. He did not know the fact that I lost my entire memory of being a Wolf Clan, and the Spheroids had shaped me into a new breed of MechWarrior. He did not know the fact that cheating was my game.

So I herded the Manticores toward the battlefield. The CAMR had been reduced to one-third of its original force. The ones still standing had long reached combat loss grouping, and it was a matter of time until they broke down. The Jade Falcons were no different. The valley was littered with charred hulks, both Clan and Inner Sphere. For a quick glance, it looked like the battle was a stalemate. However Jerome’s Apocalypse still had all its weapons operational, and he started pressing forward, nailing the battered CAMR 'Mechs with its PPCs, lasers, and autocannons.

“Target the Jade Falcon OmniMechs, but leave the Apocalypse alone,” I commanded. “I will deal with Jerome Helmer myself.”

The Manticores lit up the sky with their PPCs. Their concentrated fire slammed into the torso of a Summoner. The front armor, severely weakened by the battle, failed to stop the high-charged bolts. The 70-ton OmniMech erupted, dissolving into fiery splinters and molten titanium. The remaining Jade Falcons were visibly shocked, obvious in their hesitant moves when they regrouped. They spotted the Manticores, but they did not return fire immediately. It was a mistake as the Zeta Solahma routed their crosshairs toward a Mad Dog. The triple blue bolts dug deep into the left torso armor and lit up the ammunition bins. The Mad Dog swayed as its left torso erupted in brilliant flash. The shockwave pushed it hard to the right, and the OmniMech cartwheeled to the ground.

“Parker?” Commander Rick said through the comlink. “What the hell are you doing? You’re not supposed to be here!”

“There is no time for explanation,” I replied. “Just form up on me.”

Meanwhile, Jerome pressed forward and fired his PPCs at one of the Manticores. The tank exploded immediately, raining down burning splinters to the other two tanks. I fired my lasers at the incoming Dire Wolf while the Manticores fired twin stream of particle bolts at a limping Warhawk. My lasers went wide, far above Jerome’s head, but I only wanted to divert his attention from the Manticores. The PPC bolts carved a deep gash on the Warhawk’s shoulder, nullifying the missile launcher. The impact threw the Warhawk off course. It swayed back but a CAMR Marauder singed it with a well-placed salvo. The Warhawk blossomed in an orange fireball.

“Freebirth barbarians!” I heard Jerome fizzled on the comlink. “Your little minds cannot uphold honor the way we do. From now on, the Jade Falcons are not bound by any code of honor. Prepare to meet your doom, freebirths! Your worthless lives are over!”

As I predicted, two fresh novas started up and marched onto the battlefield. They formed an arc with Jerome as the centerpiece. I tallied no less than 15 Summoners, four Warhawks, and five Hellbringers razed the small woods on the battlefield and turned the valley into an open field. Countless Elementals hitchhiked on the OmniMech’s back, waiting for their commanders to detach and ripped the CAMR with brute power.

I did not know why the air reconnaissance failed to spot such an immense firepower. But Commander Rick had foreseen this. Jerome literally flooded the valley with OmniMechs. All he needed was a reason to use them. And the reason was me. In his eyes, I cheated the batchall, so he was calling for a Grand Melee.

“Well, thanks Parker!” Rick snorted. “You’ve just buried us all!”

“Just wait for me here,” I replied while I throttled up to meet Jerome in the center. “It is my battle now. Do not come for me, no matter how dire you think the situation is. If I do not survive this battle, I want you to know that it has been a privilege knowing you and the CAMR. Please take care of Evee for me.”

“What the… are you nuts?” Rick blabbered. “What are you doing? Parker!”

I cut off the channel and marched onward, facing Jerome’s Dire Wolf. The Jade Falcon OmniMechs raised their arms to smoke me, but I held my arms up in the air, signaling cease-fire. I could see that these new MechWarriors still upheld honor, which worked to my greatest advantage. They lowered their weapons and let me come forward until I stopped 50 meters in front of Jerome.

“Darien,” Jerome spoke with imminent distaste. “We agreed that you were excluded. You are still my bondsman, and you have no right to fight in this battle. It is clear to me that you have completely disrespect your heritage. You disgust me. And I believe this abomination is the brainchild of yours, quiaff?”

“My name is Parker Kerensky,” I ignored Jerome’s demand of a direct answer. “I came to the Jade Falcon assembly bringing a charge – and a proof – that Star Colonel Jerome Helmer had defrauded the sanctity of our batchall by sending a force outside what was agreed on the batchall to attack our dropship without warning.”

“That is nonsense!” Jerome yelled. “Do not cover your filth with a baseless accusation, freebirth! How dare you speak gibberish?”

“I have defeated your force and taken them as my bondsmen. Star Commander Norm, speak for me!”

“This is Star Commander Norm, Zeta Solahma Cluster, Jade Falcon Zeta Galaxy,” a slight hesitation was imminent in Norm’s voice. “My bondholder spoke the truth. I was ordered to take out a mercenary dropship containing a Wolf Clan deserter. My price was a place in Jade Falcon front-line galaxy along Wolf border.”

“You prove nothing!” Jerome retorted. “You will die because of this nonsense!”

“So you motion for a Trial of Grievance, quiaff?”

It took a long time for Jerome to reply. I guessed he just realized that he had spoiled his own plan. My plan was simple. I did what he wanted, so he thought that his plan worked properly. Then I used his secret weapon, the Zeta Solahma, to claim treachery out of his conduct. I knew he was not a good negotiator, so I knew he would trip. By doing Trial of Grievance in front of dozens of Clan warriors, he could not cheat. There would be no way around it for him this time.

“Aff, Trial of Grievance it is,” he finally agreed after a long pause. “I bid myself and my 'Mech into this trial. Let this be our last encounter, and let no one interfere! I will cherish every minute knowing that you had died by my weapons!”

The Clan OmniMechs stepped back and formed a kilometer-radius circle boxing Jerome and me. I checked my 'Mech and realized that it was in worse condition than Jerome’s. My degraded armor could not possibly sustain one alpha strike in center, which I was certain Jerome would do. I had to divert his first attack, but considering how small the circle of equal was, I did not think it was a possibility. My only options were to hit Jerome before he hit me, or to block his brute power with my body part that still had sufficient armor. The latter choice had a higher rate of survivability, although I might have to sacrifice a weapon or two. I thought it was the best choice.

As soon as the circle was cleared, I quickly twisted to the left. Jerome fired his entire guns at me. Energy and ballistic whittled my right arm, shredding the armor and cut deep into the internal structure. The last missile shot chewed my right shoulder, mutilating my right arm just below the joint. Sparks burst out from the stump as my 'Mech staggered hard. The arm flew several hundred meters up in the air, and the combination of the shockwave and the sudden loss of balance forced my 'Mech drop on its knees.

But I knew Jerome would have to wait several seconds to reload. I twisted right and put my crosshair at Jerome’s left shoulder. Jeome mimicked my move, twisting left and exposed his right side at me. He knew that my alpha strike would not damage his right torso, which was still virtually untouched. So I refused to play his game. I got up and peppered his right torso with my lasers, saving my LBX-20 for a more decisive shot. Molten armor geysered from his right torso as my lasers shed a ton of armor. Jerome swung his right arm to the right, trying to catch me with his PPC. But I sidestepped his attack easily. My Gladiator’s unusual agility brought me to Jerome’s blind spot. He twisted frantically, trying to get me on his crosshair. But I maintained my advantage, sinking waves after waves of lasers onto his right torso. Soon, his right torso blazed with fire, and I sent it home with a clear LBX-20 shot. A blue glow emanated from where my scattershots hit, seconds before the right torso blossomed into a blue outburst. The explosion neutralized the PPC and laser cannon in its right arm, and an UAC5 on its right torso.

Jerome reversed his direction, and twisted his torso to the right. I had a clear shot at his depleted center, but my LBX-20 was not ready. I fired two rounds of laser at his center torso, just to keep him off balance, then raced out of his firing arc. Suddenly my proximity alarm wailed. Jerome tracked me down with his missiles, and a burst of white smoke soared from his boxy launcher. I tried my best to dodge them, but seven of them hammered my rear armor. The whole 'Mech shook when the missiles exploded, pushing me forward with thunderous bangs. I tugged my joystick as far as it would go, keeping my 'Mech standing.

“You fight like a freebirth!” Jerome’s voice was saturated with loathing. “Do not think you will ever regain your attribute by fighting me in a Trial of Grievance. I claim no honor killing you today.”

“I seek no such things,” I replied, rebounding from Jerome’s last attack. “I am reclaiming my life, my right as a human.”

“Such a pathetic notion,” Jerome chuckled wryly. “Your life means nothing. Your life was Wolf Clan, a fact you disgustingly repel by turning into a freebirth barbarian. You are Wolf filth, and I curse myself for having to clean up after Wolf’s incompetent breeding!”

“You do not have to,” I replied. “Because after today, you do not have to do anything anymore.”

Jerome found me and fired an alpha strike. Once again I twisted left, letting his assault land on my right torso. His concentrated shots torched my right torso withing seconds. The quake blackened me out, covering the cockpit with a blur of blinking console and acrid smoke. I smelt burning myomer, and it made me sick. I knew I lost my right torso without scanning the vitals. The smoke and the blast disoriented me, and I could only wait as my 'Mech tumbled to its left. The hard fall might have damaged my gyro. The console flickered and died, and sparks burst from the monitors. My hands bled, and I tasted the saltiness of my own blood as a splinter stabbed me just above my right eye.

As I laid there getting my consciousness back, I began to understand the whole situation. I still did not remember what I did to him in Sudeten during the Refusal War, but I hurt his pride. His quest to harm me, to harm Evee, and everybody that was close to me was his attempt to get his pride back. In his small world there was only one room for us, and he would not stop until one of us was dead. This was a personal war I was fighting. What an irony. He called me freebirth, but his act was more freebirth than mine.

My ego refused to give Jerome the satisfaction. I had come this far. I survived Ranna Kerensky, a more dangerous MechWarrior when my Gladiator was in a worse condition. Through the smoke I saw Jerome’s Dire Wolf walked toward me, moving in for the kill. I quickly raised my left arm and fired a shot at him. My rushed shot went wide, but some fragments ripped Jerome’s missile launcher. Sparks blossomed from the box-like launcher. I could not see clearly, but I fired my remaining laser at Jerome’s vicinity. It miraculously hit the missile launcher. Orange fireball bloomed as the box disintegrated. The misilles took out the entire left torso, cutting off the left arm as well. Lucky for Jerome, the explosion did not touch the reactor. Otherwise, the fight would have been finished.

The smoke still obscured my view, and my screens were all gone, but I was sure Jerome did not have more weapons in his inventory. I raised my left arm, but I could not see him. I fanned the smoke out using my hand, and when it cleared a bit, I saw Jerome’s Dire Wolf less than 50 meters away from my position. Losing all weapons giving him the right to initiate physical attack. I tried to flinch, but it was too late. Jerome’s bulky torso rammed my 'Mech in the midst. My 'Mech staggered to stay erect, but the momentum was so great it lost balance for the second time. I fell backward, flat on my back, as Jerome gunned his engine toward me. I knew what he was trying to do.

Before I could get up, Jerome paced his Dire Wolf and raised his right foot high above my cockpit. I had no choice but to block it with my left arm. The Apocalypse’s foot fell on me like a hammer, and my LBX-20 cannon was crushed. But the arm structure stopped the foot from stomping on me. Jerome put on more pressure on his right foot, and I could feel that his foot is getting closer and closer to my face. Knowing nothing better to do, I shot my last laser cannon.

My shot grazed the Dire Wolf’s foot and singed its center torso, right below the chin where the armor was lowest. Tongues of fire licked from the Apocalypse’s bulk as the 100-ton 'Mech wobbled, consumed by chain explosions that ripped it from inside. The green monster shook and quaked, then slumped to the ground, burying half of the cockpit on the warm soil.

Slowly I arose, champion of a pyrrhic victory, and slowly turned to face Jerome. None of the Jade Falcon OmniMech moved. It was a signal that the Trial of Grievance was still going, and that Jerome Helmer was still alive. I swung around to face Jerome from the front. Fire engulfed the Dire Wolf barring the cockpit, and if Jerome was still there, he did not have much time before the fire enveloped the cockpit.

“Go to hell, freebirth!” Jerome croaked, still defiant even in his doom. “You won, but you will never own me!”

“I do not wish to own you,” I replied. “I just wish you would leave me alone.”

“You disgraced me, surat!” Jerome roared. “You killed my men! You humiliated me in front of Chistu and Crichell! You robbed me from my destiny!”

“The Refusal War was over. Let it go, Jerome, and die in peace.”

“Peace!” he snorted. “There is no such things as peace!”

Deep in my heart, I pity him. I wanted to get him out of his burning 'Mech, but for Clan custom, dying in a blaze of glory was the ultimate death. It was the most I could give him, and I would not rob him from his destiny for the second time. So I stood idle, watching the fire consumed the cockpit bit by bit, until Jerome’s constant insults turned into a long, rasping scream, and ended in a silence. All that left was crackles of fire.

So died the ghost of my past.

The Jade Falcon OmniMechs walked toward me, reducing the circle of equal into quarter-kilometer radius. “Star Colonel Jerome Helmer is a decorated MechWarrior,” one of them said in the comlink. “He deserves to be in the Jade Falcon gene pool.”

“What would become of me and my friends?” I queried.

“You slew one of the most fearsome Star Colonels in Jade Falcon ranks,” another one replied. “Even when he used dishonorable tactics, you did not succumb into barbaric fight and kept faithful to Clan’s honor. It is our privilege to respect such novelty. You are free to go. Leave the Zeta Solahma and collect your injureds. The Jade Falcon will grant you a safcon out of Wotan back to the Inner Sphere. You will not be harmed.”

“Your kindness is much obliged,” I stated. “I hope we meet again someday in a kinder situation.”

I turned my back and walked toward the CAMR dropship. I could imagine a thousand questions burning inside Rick’s mind, but I did not want to engage in a conversation right now. Questions could wait. For now, I wanted to rest.

TWENTY FIVEEdit

Archangel, CAMR’s Jumpship,

Wotan’s Jump Point,

February 19, 3061


“You should’ve told me,” Commander Rick bemoaned, clearly annoyed at my decision not to inform him about the Zeta Solahma. “This is my dropship. I need to know what happened to my dropship. What were you thinking, overriding my authority and taking care of the Jade Falcon yourself? Did you not hear Jerome saying that you were not to engage the battle?”

“I did not tell you about the attack because it would distract you,” I defended my action. “The purpose of Zeta Solahma was twofold: to distract you and to lure me out. Jerome knew he would not win the fight in a decisive fashion. He needed you to get distracted, and he needed me to break the batchall. That was the reason why he sent Zeta Solahma.”

“But you did break the batchall,” Rick mused. “Then what good was it to exclude me from the information?”

“I saw an opportunity to end the fight in a trial, just the two of us, without your intervention. Everything rooted to our first encounter back in Sudeten, during the Refusal War. It was a personal war, and I wanted it to end so everybody can move on. And you and the CAMR do not have to fight in my behalf anymore.”

“Personal war, huh,” Rick scoffed. “Don’t you think Jerome was way over his head? I mean, everybody can have a personal war, but his was nothing that I have ever seen. You must’ve pissed him real good. What did you do to him, really?”

“Honestly,” I paused briefly. “I do not remember. From what Phelan told me, we were locked in a battle for two weeks. Jerome had number advantage, but my unit could stay long enough until he issued a Trial of Possession for the city of Webster. He used a dishonorable tactic, so Phelan had to order total demolition of Webster.”

“What a sore loser,” Rick sighed. “So you never recover your past, eh?”

“No,” I replied. “And I may never will. I think I just have to start a new one.”

“As…?” Rick looked at me in the earnest, waiting for my response.

“I do not know,” I averted my eyes. “I just do not know.”

“Have you ever considered being a mercenary?” Rick stated. “As you know, my unit is depleted. We can certainly use someone your quality. Someone that understands military strategy, but also fights like a cornered animal. And if you don’t like my unit, I can refer you to any mercenary units throughout the Inner Sphere. I know fighting for money is against your rectitude. I also have some connections with some Davions and Kuritans. I can refer you to them, but the chance you can work for the Houses is considerably less than mercenary unit.”

I saw that one coming.

“Do understand this, Commander Rick. It was not because of you or your unit that I decline your offer. I am a man with no history. I just passed one ghost of my past, but I do not know if there are other Jeromes waiting for me. I cannot let anybody fight my war, or suffer because of my war. If only I could remember everything about me, I would certainly consider your offer. But for now, I must say no.”

“I see your point,” Rick drew a deep breath. “What about Evee?”

“Especially Evee,” I buried my face in my palms. “I still vividly remember how close she was to death in Jerome’s hand. I had never been so frightened. Fighting the nolans barehanded, fighting your Hunt Lance outnumbered and outgunned, getting stomped by Jerome, nothing even close to watching her shaking under Jerome’s gun. I could not let it happen again.”

“So you’re just gonna ditch her,” Rick exhaled sharply. “She loves you, you know. After you were taken bondsman by Jerome, Evee joined the Hanson Roughriders. Her unit was besieged by overwhelming Liao partisans with no means of escape. She sustained weeks without proper medication when she was punctured in the lung. She almost died on Carver V, yet she prevailed and came back to Outreach with enough money to hire the CAMR to get you out of Wotan.”

“I know,” I sighed in reply.

“It’s obvious how she feels about you, and it’s also obvious how you feel about her.”

I looked at him in confusion. “How could you possibly know?”

“There’s so much you need to learn about Spheroids, my friend,” Rick got up and walked away from me. “Talk to her. Tell her how you feel. Not what you think how you feel about her, but what you really feel about her. Don’t think, Parker.”

I sat down for a while, thinking about what I would do about this situation. I never understood human emotion. Perhaps it was the way I was brought up, to put logic ahead of emotion, so I could perform efficiently in any kind of situation. Evee, however, was not always logical. Her decision to offer herself to me on Arc Royal, her sudden outburst when I inadvertently called her freebirth, those were her two most irrational actions. Why would she want to live with a Clanner like me when my nature made her want to kill me?

But as I thought more, I too acted irrationally. I left Wolf because of her. I let myself be disgraced because of her. I broke all Clan rules to preserve her life. Not that I remembered everything about being a Clan, a warrior caste no less, but I was beyond normalcy. Why would I sacrifice myself for a barbarian and a mercenary, the lowest kind of being by all Clan standard? I did not know what drove me.

Obligation?

Debt?

Love?

Lust?

I was confused. I was so caught up in my thinking I did not hear Evee coming. She sat next to me, but her eyes were far away.

“I was an idiot back there,” she muttered. “I hit you with my 'Mech. I sincerely apologize. If I could turn back time, I’d take everything back.”

“It was my mistake,” I replied. “I am the one that needs to apologize. I do not know why I said it, but I know it hurts. I slipped. I never meant to say it to you, so I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”

Evee did not answer it directly. She leaned back on her chair, playing with the tip of her hair. I could hear her heavy breathing, as if she was holding something back. After a while, she looked at me, the wrath in her eyes still flickered, but with less intensity. “For a moment I thought that the beating you received for 3 years finally brought back your memory. I thought you looked at me the way Jerome looked at me, because that’s the way a typical Clan looks at an Inner Sphere.”

“You know it is not true,” I replied.

“It hurts, dammit!” her fire turned to tears. “Losing you was the single greatest loss in my life. Losing you because you think I don’t deserve you – after everything I did – is beyond what I can take.”

“You did not lose me!” I grabbed her hand. “You never lose me. You are with me every single day, even when I was at Wotan.” Then I said something that I never thought I was capable of. “Evee, I love you. I will always love you.”

It was hard to describe her reaction. She was startled. Her eyes opened wide, her mouth agape, and for a moment I was afraid she would have a seizure. Her face turned white, but her eyes exploded with bliss. Her lips trembled as she squeezed my hand, and her voice was laden with hope when she uttered, “Then come home with me!”

“Evee,” I whispered desperately. “You know I cannot do that.”

She leaned back on hear chair, averting her eyes to the stars through the window. Somehow I knew she understood my decision, but some part of her still refused to accept it. She said motionless for a while, then looked at me, “Sometimes survival is not really the important part of my life. I’d rather live a short happy life than a long empty one.”

Somehow I understood what she implied. Still, it was against my principle. “I know it is not a warrior’s way, but this is my battle. Every war in my past is mine to fight, not yours. I let you get close to one and I will regret it for the rest of my life should anything happen to you.”

“So that’s it, then,” she sighed in defeat. “Will we ever be together?”

“When I am sure that my life is perfectly safe for you.”

She smiled. It was a sad smile, but I knew she accepted the fact that we were two different worlds. Togetherness was something we could only dream about. She clenched my hand and coerced me to stand. “Come.”

“Where?” I noticed the spark in her eyes.

“Making the most of our last time together.”



424px-Kerensky

Transferred from Sarna

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