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Suomi Warders
By: Dave Waino

Chapter 1: The Wages of Honor
Chapter 2: A Wager with the Clans
Chapter 3: A Trap of Imagination
Chapter 4: Trials of Loyalty
Chapter 5: Eye of the Storm
Chapter 6: Twists of Fate
Chapter 7: Domestic Issues
Chapter 8: Fateful Choices
Chapter 9: Deadly Objectives
Chapter 10: Hard Truths and Harder Questions
Chapter 11: Major Decisions
Chapter 12: A Call to Arms
Chapter 13: Allocation of Resources
Chapter 14: Special Delivery
Chapter 15: Seize and Rescue
Chapter 16: Combined Arms
Chapter 17: Battered 'Mechs and Broken Bodies
Chapter 18: Matters of Perspective
Chapter 19: Deals of Life and Death

Suomi Warders: 3057

Innocence Lost - Part One
Innocence Lost - Part Two

Chapter Index
Edit


Chapter 4: Trials of LoyaltyEdit

Plot Synopsis: To avoid continuously repeating backfill information in each story section the following brief sketch of previous events is offered. If you’re up on Warder history from the previous installments <Wages of Honor, Wager with the Clans, & Trap of Imagination>, just skip to the main story.

It is 3052. The Suomi Warders are (currently) a dual company sized unit lead by the scion of a Free Worlds League industrial conglomerate. The unit has specialized in defending industrial locations and providing combat and technical training. For the past several years they have spent their time seeking pirate engagements as their CO hoped to find information about his missing sister, taken during a pirate attack on a JumpShip. Most of the unit hails from the same planet (Sampsa) and generally share their CO’s anti-pirate passion.

Recently the Warders were engaged by a planetary Lord of Hamano in the Draconis Combine to train the local militia and repel a possible attack by pirates that had been raiding within the area. The Combine’s Military Governor of Hamano had just been recalled and was later killed under mysterious circumstances. Tai-sa (Colonel) Stephen Yamoto, the new M.G,. tried to usurp the Warder contract and use the unit for his own purposes but Major Linna used a loophole to void the contract. Before the Warders could arrange to leave the planet the pirates attacked. Tai-sa Yamoto withdrew his Combine troops leaving the city of Jeddah to the ravages of the attackers. Despite not having a contract as well as orders from the Tai-sa to withdraw, the Warders elected to fight the pirates and defend the city.

The battle was short but pitched. The invaders had a pirate element which was completely destroyed and a mysterious mercenary element that was badly hurt but withdrew after wiping out the Warders’ heavy tank lance and damaging a few other Warder assets. Combine Officer Chu-i (Lieutenant) Naoko Fujiwara elected to assist the Warders while the Emir of Hamano (whom had originally hired the Warders) sent both his MechWarrior trained son Basem and an "under the table" payment to advance the Warder cause. During the fight Jason Larson became the only surviving pirate by defecting and was captured by the Warders. He proved to have information about the CO’s missing sister and was later accepted as a MechWarrior ‘Cadet’.

Bound for Outreach to face a Mercenary Review Board against charges filed by the Tai-sa, the Warders were forced to take a side trip to the Periphery by their JumpShip’s previous itinerary. On the independent world Coleson’s Orb they engaged in war games with the small local defense force then were forced to stand by helplessly as a Clan Nova Trinary soundly defeated the local military (CORDF) and seized the planet. Assisted by an overly low Clan bid for forces to be used, the Warders defeated a Nova Cat unit for the right to leave the planet. Star Captain Lauren Gallagher, the Nova Cat CO, then challenged Major Linna to a single duel with the promise of letting the local population flee the planet as prize against Linna and his new-tech BattleMech becoming her bondsman. Although she was arguably the better pilot, he managed to squeeze out the win by a combination of using sensor equipment she had not thought to mount, clever tactics, and unknowingly using her phobia about fire to his advantage.

As the general population was now free to leave the Orb, a number of ex-CORDF petitioned to join the Warders. Dispossessed of ‘Mechs or vehicles, these soldiers were largely infantry and techs but enough tankers to fill a lance and one MechWarrior also mustered into the Warders. The Warders also bought out the contract of the CORDF’s one DropShip. A second DropShip full of the children of Coleson’s Orb is currently under Warder protection. The Warders are now finally inbound to Outreach where the Combine consul for mercenary deals with Tai-sa Yamoto while pondering on what path honor lays. Additionally, the Warder activities on Hamano have interfered with the illicit activities of a shady industrial leader who has decided to take direct action against John Linna before the Major can use his wealth and position to press a private investigation of the Hamano raiders.)

Fellini’s Garden Terrace Restaurant

Planet Drayson, Free Worlds League

23 March 3052

Stephan Ong quietly left the table and it’s sole remaining occupant behind and blended into the other patrons of the high priced establishment. It was one of his most accomplished skills; blending into the background of almost any social gathering ranging from grungy Periphery taverns to fancy Capellan receptions. Arranging to have people killed was another of his highly honed abilities and it was that latter ability for which the Chairman of Rold Investments had retained his services once again.

The Chairman’s summons had come at an inopportune time and Ong had almost decided to ignore it. Stephan was currently involved in delicate negotiations with a Drayson planetary official. He also had a few political problems to lay to rest back at his new home within the Circinus Federation. As the Federation was deeply hostile towards the Free Worlds League, returning to deal with those issues would require a long detour through a neighboring Periphery state. But Stephan Ong was a founding member of the Assassin Triad of Santander’s World. He had taken retainer money from the Chairman and felt honor bound to take the Chairman’s assignment.

A small pang of loss rippled through him as he thought of his home world. The cursed Ghost Bears had over-run the assassin’s hold as they gobbled up worlds that lay between Clan space and the Inner Sphere invasion corridors. Ong happened to have been on assignment in the Combine when Santander’s World was lost. Working quickly and quietly he had managed to gain control of several of high lord Vaslasek’s agents and teams and incorporate them into his own. A small part of what Helmar Vaslasek had built from his poor far-flung world lived on through the network that Ong now maintained. While Stephan Ong had gone on to establish himself as an unofficially sponsored Pirate Lord of the Circinus Federation, it was the special arrangements he made for high paying clients that kept his raider band equipped. The Chairman was the wealthiest of his clients, thus like any businessman Ong extended his best account special consideration.

The assignment wasn’t easy, but shouldn’t be too difficult either. His personal involvement would not be required, which was just as well as he was eager to return to the Federation and deal with a rival who was raiding in Ong’s assigned territory. Stephen had two capable assets on Outreach already. They likely had local connections of their own by now. He would send a trusted emissary to deliver the contract and observe the operation. That someone actually travel to Outreach was a necessity. Despite their claims to the contrary, ComStar regularly employed sophisticated ELINT software to sift through messages they sent looking for words, passages, or names that would automatically flag the dispatch for review by ROM, their intelligence arm. The chance of detection was small, but even that was too much for him to accept. Luckily, Stephen had such a trusted person available here on Drayson to send in his stead. With any luck the Review Board process at Outreach would drag on a bit allowing his team time to act. While anyone was killable anywhere, trying to eliminate Major Linna on his homeworld would be much more difficult. Despite the tight security of the Dragoon world and the dangerous presence of Wolfnet agents, Outreach would be the best place to tie this matter up as quickly as the Chairman was paying to have it attended to. Absently humming a popular local tune to himself, Stephan Ong left the club and melted into the general population of the city.

DropShip Baltic Serenade

Zenith JumpPoint, Outreach System

27 April 3052

John Linna tossed and turned in his bunk, the two-thirds gravity being generated by the Serenade’s slowly accelerating burn toward Outreach coming perilously close to freeing his body to bounce from the bed and fall to the deck. It had taken more a bit more than a month to arrive in the Outreach system. It had required good fortune and outright bribery a few times for recharges using the Emir’s funds, but the three ships of the Warder flotilla had managed to make excellent interstellar time on their way back.

The morale of the Warders was good and getting better the closer they got to Outreach. Although John and his Exec had yet to iron out how they would deal with rank issues in the long run, the newly recruited CORDF members had integrated into the standing Warder forces fairly easily. The Orb tech force was somewhat behind the times but were willing workers and eager learners. As the Warder techs were used to a training role, they were busily bringing the Orb folks up to speed on the latest in League systems. The two shattered tank forces found a shared bond in their losses and had formed friendship rather then rivalry. The ex-CORDF infantry was numerous enough to form three individual platoons. While there was some rivalry between the standing and new Warder troopers, the Orb ex-patriots had quickly realized they were outclassed by the three highly trained Warder platoons. But rather than be dismayed by the difference, the new troopers were excited about their newly discovered chance for advanced training. The one MechWarrior that had signed on, Sergeant (now Brevet-Lieutenant Junior Grade) Misty Florens, remained somewhat distant still. Her scores in the sim pods were good, but she had yet to fully deal with the loss of so many of her lance mates to the Nova Cats. Lieutenant Aukland had taken the newest Warder pilot under her protective wing however, proclaiming that once they got to Outreach Gracie would find another female MechWarrior and form an all-girl lance to terrorize the pirates of the Periphery with. Or anyone else that dared challenge them.

Contrary to his people’s dispositions, John’s had worsened as the trip had worn on. A number of things preyed on his thoughts. The hidden backers of the attacks in the Combine, the lurking threat of the ongoing Clan invasion, and the realization that once they cleared Naoko’s name of desertion charges she’d have no reason to remain with the Warders all gnawed at him. But his biggest worry had become his sister Holly. Though he was heartened to know that- at least as of a year ago- she was still alive, it also seemed that if she had been serving on a DropShip crew then she would have had opportunity to get word to her brothers by now. Why she hadn’t done so weighed more heavily upon him with each passing day.

He hadn’t had the nightmares in years, but as his sleeping body thrashed about his bunk in the low gravity he was having them again now. Oddly, he knew it. Within the dream he somehow knew that he was within a dream as he watched himself floating in zero-G in the small bridge of a JumpShip. Five other people occupied the small space, three crewmen and two pirates. This scene played out mainly as he remembered it when awake. The pirate leader suddenly looked down in concentration as a report only he could hear came over the light headset comm-gear he wore.

"Shooting?," demanded the large, scruffy man into his mic pick-up. "Who’s shooting? At what? Slow down and give me a coherent report blast you!"

The second pirate looked to his leader in concern, trying to divine what might be going on elsewhere in the large JumpShip. With both pirates distracted, two of the crew suddenly took action. The helmsman dove for the thruster controls while the captain pushed off from his chair and sailed toward the pirate leader. The young female yeoman conducting the tour which had brought John and herself to the bridge stood motionless, frozen with fear. John himself had been caught off guard by the sudden activity and floated motionless as well.

There were many things John would never fathom about the JumpShip attack. The next event was one of them. From near the entry hatch the pirate ‘guard’ brought up his short barreled shotgun and fired at the motionless yeoman. Her chest exploded in red mist as her body was thrown back. In this dream the sound was turned off. He remembered the gun’s roar as being very loud in the small space but this time it was silent. It was only after killing the harmless yeoman that the pirate had shifted his aim to fire on the helmsman. The pirate leader had demanded that the ship be brought to relative rest, the purpose of which could only be to allow a DropShip or shuttle to attach. By slamming all of the port side directional thrusters onto full the helmsman had put the JumpShip into a spin which would make docking any craft upon it nearly impossible until the spin was arrested. It was a brave action that kept the JumpShip from being flooded with even more pirates but cost the helm officer his life as the shotgun spoke again, sending it’s deadly pellets ripping into the man’s back. Why the guard pirate had bothered to shoot the harmless Yeoman John would never know.

Although the guard had locked a leg through a wall strap to keep his place, the recoil from the shotgun had twisted him to one side. John watched his dream self finally spring into action. Pulling on a clipboard hard enough to snap it free from it’s wall tether he spun it at the gun wielding pirate like a disc and then launched himself off the wall with his legs. The pirate automatically moved to protect his head from the incoming clipboard. Before he could recover and get himself righted John was on him. They grappled for a moment, each trying to control the shotgun. It went off to John’s side, burning his hand and spraying pellets into both the ship captain and the pirate leader. Both yelled out in pain (silently in the dream) but continued to struggle with each other. John lost the shotgun but realized that his foe had come lose from the wall. The "ceiling" was quite low at the hatch entrance and John was closer to the "bottom" deck. He pushed off of the deck and rammed the pirate into the bulkhead above. The pirate was temporarily stunned as his head crashed into the plating. John then managed to get one arm though a grab loop and a hand full of pirate hair with the other.

Again and again he watched himself pound the pirate’s face into the wall. Blood floated freely about him as he destroyed the leering face that had so casually shot the yeoman for so little reason. He wasn’t sure how many times he had actually smashed the man’s head against the unyielding metal but in this dream it was an impossibly high number. Finally he released the pirate and snatched the now drifting shotgun just as the pirate leader gutted the captain with a long knife and pushed off towards him. At the last possible instant John turn and fired point blank into the leader’s stomach, blasting him back the way he had come trailing bright red blood and bits of pink flesh. When John let himself think about it in waking life, the entire fight had been over in mere moments. In this dream it seemed to have lasted an eternity.

John had gone directly to the ship’s captain. Despite his fatal stab wound the man had not hesitated one instant. In a command tone that brooked no refusal and that John would hear in his mind for all his days the captain ordered John to take him to the communications panel and then to precede immediately to Blue Five - where the children were. Whatever it cost, the old captain had said as his life leaked away to float about the bridge, safeguard the children.

The scene jumped to a behind the shoulder view of his dream self frantically pulling along the transit bars of the weightless corridors. From his memories of the real event John knew that the captain had spent his last moments of life contacting the attached DropShips full of Andurian and Sampsa guardsmen who remained unaware the JumpShip had come under attack from within. They would soon fight their way past the pirates guarding their docking-locks and eventually John would join them in fighting the last of the invaders still on board. But that was still quite a while later in coming.

John saw that he was now wearing a light armor vest. He’d taken it from a dead security woman he had found floating near a hatchway. The long frantic scramble through the weightless hallways and the two fights with pirate guards were passed over. John suddenly found himself riding one of the transfer cars that moved people from the zero-G environ of the JumpShip’s main body out to one of it’s revolving rings that simulated gravity through centrifugal force. Blue section was a specific quarter of one of the grav decks, section five the area that had been reserved for the dignitary’s children. Such as his sister.

He had remembered to invert himself "upside down" so as the car neared the outer ring he was on his feet rather than his head. Charging out of the opening doors he had run into another one of those unexplained moments. The doors to the transfer car next to his were just closing and he had gotten a quick glance at two faces looking back at him in surprise. The men had been ship’s security, probably startled by the sight of his now blood soaked body wearing a section of security armor and waving a shotgun around like a wildman. He wondered if they had even known that the ship was under attack or if they had survived the bitter, no-quarter battle that was to follow later.

Another quick scene jump and he was rushing into the cabin that had been set up as a play area. A small, foul impish looking man seemed to be about to fire on a group of children with a laser pistol of some sort. John’s rush caught him before he realized anyone had burst into the area, dislodging the pistol as the two of them crashed into a play table with enough force to rip it from it’s floor moorings. John had rained several hard punches into the man’s head while sitting on his chest before becoming aware of a new threat too late to react. He had screamed (silently in the dream, oddly there was still no sound) as searing pain blossomed across his back. A second pirate had struck him with some sort of electrified flail of chain lengths that had actually burned through the protective vest. He watched himself take a second strike, which he remembered as not hurting quite as bad as the first. Doctors later opined that some nerve endings had probably been destroyed by the first attack.

From his out-of-body perspective it looked like he had then executed a planned, calculated maneuver but from his memories he knew better. He watched himself roll away from the pirate, grab the table, and use it first as a shield against the whip-like weapon then as a barrier to push the pirate out of the cabin with before stabbing him to death with a knife he had taken earlier. When it had really happened he had been blinded by pain and had totally forgotten about the table until he bumped into it while frantically rolling away from the source of his agony. Using it as a shield had been a desperation measure half accident, and rushing the pirate with it had occurred only after he realized that he had lost his shotgun and didn’t know where the pistol had clattered to.

The area temporarily secure, he had quickly realized that several children were missing – his sister among them. From the less terror stricken kids he had been able to learn that a few of them had been taken earlier by two of the bad men. No one knew why. He hadn’t done much to comfort the little ones at that point. Instead he had repeatedly yelled into the wall mounted comm panel, sobbing for help as his heart broke under the conflicting needs of searching for his sister, searching for his parents, and protecting the group of children now under his care from any further harm. He had stayed with the children until security forces from one of the attached DropShips had finally found their way to him.

At this point the dream left reality and entered the domain of fantasy. Dark fantasy. Now he was desperately following a caricature of the classic space pirate image from the holodramas as the patch-eyed buccaneer pulled his screaming sister along behind him. John kept almost catching up only to have a hatch slam closed. Frantically he would open it only to race down the next section too late to save his sister. Over and over this happened as she pleaded with him to save her.

In the waking world the reduced gravity lost it’s battle and his jerking body slid half out of the bunk and his knees hit the deck. He awoke panting and in a sweat, but not panicked or confused. As his dreaming self had somehow known it was a dream the return to the real world was somehow less disorienting. John had never seen his sister again after breakfast that morning. At least the nightmare had spared him reliving the sights of finding his dead parents among the slaughtered passengers or the multiple times he had thrown himself at pirates in a blind rage alongside the equally reckless security forces. He had been heedless of any danger to himself, perhaps seeking death and almost finding it. Only the skill of the surgeon attached to the special med-crew sent specifically for that trip and an unusually well equipped shipboard trauma center saved his life from the wounds he had received charging the last hold-outs. No quarter had been offered or asked.

Checking his wrist-chrono he saw that it was mid-afternoon by ship’s time. He’d missed a morning sim-session. Shaking his head to clear it of lingering visions he stood and decided to go see what the results had been.

In the mess hall that had become the Officer’s Mess for the voyage the Warder MechWarriors were spread about the tables indulging in various beverages and small talk. They had just finished their debriefing following the sim-session exercises. The Serenade lacked a true debriefing cabin of any sort. and the sim-pods themselves were actually mounted in what was usually a storage area. The two senior Lieutenants had agreed to leave John asleep when he failed to show earlier in the ‘day’. Not knowing that the Major’s participation had been planned, the rest of the warriors had never even realized their CO had been a no show. Even the newest of them could tell that the Major had been distracted of late however.

Naoko had made sure to sit across from Sven after the formal mission reviews had ended. Waiting until the others all seemed to be involved in their own conversations she ventured to break into Lieutenant 1st Jorgenson’s thoughts.

"Lieutenant-san," she began hesitantly as he looked across at her curiously, "please forgive me if I overstep protocol. But could you please explain to me about the Major’s missing sister and his…ordeal…when she was lost?"

Sven took a deep breath and held it for a moment. Her interest was innocent and natural. But it was not a subject any Warder often spoke of. Anyone from Sampsa already knew the tale. The entire incident was a driving force behind the Warders’ cohesiveness and sense of purpose. The Warders were changing now though. He and Gracie had sensed it starting. Then in planning sessions during this trip the Major had confirmed it himself. The unit was going to grow and in doing so take in a good number of people from other planets. People that didn’t share the same history. Sven suddenly realized that somehow the word "sister" had penetrated the other conversations, bringing them to an expectant hush as all faces turned toward him. His eyes locked with Gracie’s, who nodded in agreement that she willing to live it again.

"Well, I suppose the four of you have heard some hints but not the full story," Sven started as he made eye contact with each of the MechWarriors they had picked up since Jeddah. "That’s because it’s something we don’t talk about very often but in a way it’s at the core of what the Warders are. So before some news-jock hits you up for sound bites on Outreach it’s time you heard the story of the Starcade Massacre.

"Sampsa, the planet Suomi lays on, lays on the border of space between Marik loyalist planets and the Andurian Principality. The Andurians are now part of the Free Worlds League but have not always been so. Over the course of several wars many battles have been fought on Sampsa as the Andurian loyalists struggled against House Marik forces upon our planet for it’s strategic location.. For a short while Sampsa was even an independent buffer world between the two from around 2532 until the Reunification War that formed the Star League in the 2570s. In any case, after many battles and two occupations the citizens of Sampsa bear little love for Andurians. The Starcade was a large luxury modified JumpShip that dated back to the Star League itself. About eight years ago, at House Marik prodding, much of the political and economic leadership of Sampsa had boarded the Starcade for a trip to the Andurian capitol in a symbolic gesture to put old grievances behind our peoples.

"Both the Major’s as well as Lieutenant Aukland’s parents were aboard. John and Gracie were in the academy at that time, and the young siblings of both – the Major’s sister and Gracie’s brother – were traveling with the parents. The Major – remember, just a cadet at the time – had been granted leave to travel with his family while his younger brother had elected to stay on Sampsa to finish his private school exams.

"A pirate band managed to seize the control decks of the Starcade without raising an alarm to the scores of security troopers riding unawares in attached DropShips. They captured many of the dignitaries, holding their children as hostage against the cooperation of the adults. Interviews with the survivors all agreed that for no apparent reason someone started firing on the prisoners. A good portion of our planet’s leadership was killed in moments.

"The Major was on the Starcade’s bridge at the time. He’d been taking a ship’s tour and happened to be on the command deck when the pirates burst in. The pirates had planned to dock a DropShip full of compatriots but the bridge crew put the Starcade into a spin that kept the DropShip from being able to attach at the cost of their lives. In the struggle Major Linna killed the two bridge pirates then fought his way alone to where the majority of the children were being held while the ship’s captain put out the distress call with literally his dying breathes.

"According to the kids, the Major got there just before one of the pirates was about to start shooting the ones that couldn’t stop crying. Another melee followed and he saved the children. What he didn’t know was that a group had been taken to where the dignitaries were as visual proof the pirates held the children. The Major’s sister was among them. Lieutenant Aukland’s brother was not. Putting aside his personal desires the Major stayed and safeguarded the children until the security forces from the DropShips could relieve him.

"He then went looking for his family alongside the security forces only to find his parents murdered. Gracie lost her parents on that bloody deck as well. His sister missing. The kids that had been taken earlier had been spirited off the Starcade as hostages. The Major then fought alongside the security troops to clear the remaining pirates until he was grievously wounded.

"Fighters were launched along with escorting DropShips to destroy the pirates. But a shuttle stolen from the Starcade made the haven of a JumpShip that had been recharging in the area. The AeroSpace fighters were able to run it down but destroying it or attacking the JumpShip would have lead to the children’s death. Turned out the recharging action was a sham as the unnamed JumpShip cut the charging sail lose and jumped out. It couldn’t be followed – the Starcade wasn’t able to go anywhere. The pirate JumpShip was found later, adrift with no crew. They must have had another ship ready to take them further on right away.

"Investigators spent many months going over evidence, trying to find those responsible. Obviously one or more members of the Starcade’s crew had to have been involved. But explosives had been set on the JumpShip and blew out several compartments. Some of the Starcade’s crew were never found. There was no way to tell who had been destroyed by explosion and who might have left with the few pirates that escaped. Eventually the investigating council decided that it was a botched pirate action seeking ransom rather than a political act of terrorism. No group ever claimed responsibility.

"The population of Sampsa collected enough money to buy the Starcade. I was with a police squad at that time and I remember we collected over 3,000 Finn-marks ourselves. That grand old lady of the Star League’s golden era was consigned to our sun. No one could bear the thought of perhaps having their children or grandchildren ride upon those blood soaked decks. Major Linna became our national tragic-hero. The young cadet that had saved the next generation of leadership at the cost of his own family."

The door hatch swung open just then and Major Linna ducked into the Officer’s Mess. Brevet Lieutenant JG Florens, used to being a Sergeant of the CORDF, immediately shot to her feet with the call, "CO on deck. Atten-shun!" Like many Sergeants, she had taken to rolling out the middle syllable and barking the final one.

Such displays were not expected during an informal encounter in Warder military protocol. It was one of the reasons MechWarriors were traditionally officer grade in the Warders. So senior officers could interact with their fellow pilots without everyone jumping to their feet all the time. Basem and Naoko, both trained in the more formal Draconis Combine, had reacted to the call automatically while young Jason was simply startled to his feet by the Orb warrior’s sudden outburst. The senior Warder pilots snapped to as well. It was the first time John could remember Gracie coming to attention like that since…well, actually he couldn’t remember exactly when but he was sure it couldn’t have been that long ago. Could it? At first John though some sort of joke was being played on him for sleeping through the sim session. Then he noticed the damp eyes of some and tasted the emotion of the small room. Somehow he instantly knew that they had been discussing the Starcade.

He just couldn’t deal with it right then. Leaving them at attention for a quick moment he fumbled himself a cup of coffee and retreated back to the hatch. "Carry on everyone. I’ll be going over the press requests we picked up from the recharge station at the Zenith point so I’ll be busy for a while. I’ll uh…"

Leaving his last sentence unfinished he simply waved a good bye and dodged out the hatch.

"What’s wrong with Major Linna," asked Cadet Jason in confusion.

"He doesn’t like talking about it," explained Gracie as she dabbed at teary eyes. "His warning sensors could detect the questions about to be fired his way."

"But he’s a real hero," argued Jason, "why wouldn’t he want to talk about it?"

Basem Dhafar rested a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. "Tell me my friend. If an entire planet proclaimed you a hero would you feel like one having failed to save your parents or sister ? If you had seen your planet’s people laying dead on the decks? He feels the weight of those he could not save, not the joy of the families of those he helped. That he had no chance to save them does not easily soothe his soul of it’s pain."

"But…but, I mean…he couldn’t have…" trailed off Jason. His mind was having a hard time wrapping itself around the concept that being a hero could be so costly or so tragic. But it was starting to. "Oh man…" he breathed at least. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

Early in the story Naoko had wrapped herself in the stoicism of Bushido. The tales of loss had been many within the Combine as the Clans had advanced. Her eyes reflected how the tale had touched her heart however. The story also helped explained the scars the Major bore. To have faced such conflict in giri and suffered such loss; the Major must bear worse scars than those on his body. Basem’s planetary culture was more inclined to showing emotion than Naoko’s thus he had not worried about the misting at the corners of his eyes. He was filled both with empathy for his commander’s misfortune and fierce pride that the Major had accepted him as a fellow warrior. Basem hoped that he would find such courage within himself to place his people before his personal desires as both his Father the Emir and the Major his CO had so amply demonstrated. He felt blessed to have such fine examples of leadership. A Sampsa native, Lieutenant Parks was well acquainted with the story and remembered the planet wide collection to purchase the cursed JumpShip. He felt John’s and Gracie’s loss but was mainly moved towards anger at those that would prey on civilians and children. Within Misty a dam finally burst. Combined with the pain of her recently lost comrades she found this new information to be more sorrow than she could contain. Hastily excusing herself she retreated from the room to find someplace private to cry. Sergeants, or Brevet Lieutenants for that matter, did not cry. At least not before fellow warriors that she hardly knew.

Gracie moved over to the serving galley and filled two cups with hot water and grabbed some tea bags. She put it all on a small tray. Sven moved over next to her. "Are you OK Gracie? Where are you going?"

"Hmm, yes Sven. I’m fine. This is for John and I. In your years as a Warder have you ever known him to drink coffee?"

He smiled tightly and shook his head no. John didn’t like coffee. He always joked that it stunted your growth.

"Old pain, old scars. They all heal with time. Or so I’m told anyway," she smiled sadly. "I think maybe you should give Misty about fifteen minutes to herself then go check on her Sven. I’ll be with John. Hey Frank, why don’t you run that Blue Ridge scenario with the rest of the gang again? I’ll catch up with you guys at dinner."

Parks nodded and moved toward the hatchway. "You heard Mother Goose. Let’s go hit those pods, Warders. And I warn you now, I’m not nearly the pushover Gracie or Sven is when I’m Lance Leader."

The three newer Warders smiled weakly as his small jest helped to break the glum mood. As if First Lieutenant Aukland ever went easy on them or Sven wasn’t always challenging them to defend their tactical decisions. With Parks it was usually damn the LRMs and full speed to alpha strike range when he had the lead. Although Jason kind of liked it when Lieutenant Parks was calling the shots. The simulations were more fun.

Harlech City

Outreach

30 April 3052

Although it was still early morning with many of Harlech’s denizens just starting their commute to work, Council Heiro Taki had been in his office for almost two hours. It had always been his practice to start the day’s tasks early to allow time in the later afternoon for whatever new situations might have arisen. And if nothing new had occurred, then there was time for afternoon tea along with some meditation and reflection.

With Tai-sa Yamoto’s arrival last week the Warder issue had begun to dominate most of Heiro’s time. Not that there had been much more to do than wait for the unit to arrive. But the officious Yamoto and his demands and inquiries required much time and attention. The two of them had spent the last four days trying to decide if the case would be kept with the ComStar Mercenary Review Board – which had increasingly come under criticism as being unresponsive and out of touch – or to move it to the newly forming Mercenary Review and Bonding Committee that was backed by the Dragoons and some of the other Great Houses. To be precise, Taki had been waiting for Yamoto to decide. It had been clear from the start that the Tai-sa regarded anything Heiro had to say as mere suggestion. It seemed that the ComStar board would soon officially fold. As Yamoto and his Warlord still felt some gratitude for ComStar assistance in the War of 3039, it seemed that the Warder case would be one of the last ones decided by the ComStar Review Board.

If he had his choice, Council Taki would have quietly withdrawn the case. Although the Tai-sa had some valid legal points, Yamoto was unfamiliar with the concepts of popular public opinion or a public media. Within the Combine the press was part of the government. Here, it tended to be pro-mercenary overall and was free to report whatever it wished. Unluckily for the Tai-sa’s cause it was a slow news week and the ComStar Review Board docket was public record. Reporters were kept at the charge stations and they had already sent in preliminary interviews with the Warder CO while the Warder office in Harlech as well as the local DEW Industries office had issued well crafted news releases based on information radioed ahead from the DropShips. Their arrival time happened to coincide with the morning news programs. The Tai-sa may not understand public relations but it was obvious that Major Linna did.

Heiro used a remote to activate the flat panel vid-display in his office. Although his staff would later prepare a detailed synopsis of the media reports, he wanted to watch some of it firsthand to get a feel for what was being broadcast. The image of a woman wearing semi-military looking tan fatigues and perfectly applied makeup appeared. Every since the Clan invasion had started many reporters had taken to wearing quasi-uniforms to ‘enhance’ their reports.

This is Lori Wanagher reporting live from the Harlech Interplanetary DropPort. As you can see behind me, the first of the Suomi Warder ships is about to touch down here on Outreach. As some viewers may recall, the Warders are lead by Major John Linna, the wealthy heir to the Linna fortune and the celebrated Hero of the Starcade Affair that cost him his family eight years ago.

History repeats itself today as John Linna once again rescues a group of children, this time an entire DropShip full of them from a small Periphery planet that has fallen to Clan invaders. Tom Jones will have the full scoop on the Warder / Clan clash later in this show. But the Warders are here and the Nova Cats are not, so you do the math.

Heiro frowned to himself. "You do the math" was a saying that had recently come into vogue with the Harlech media. It was overused and he had never been fond of it to begin with. He also found the Harlech media too sensationalist for his taste although not as bad as the Solaris reporters. The camera feed zoomed in on a disembarking BattleMech, tightening so that the insignia of the Warders, a golden lion wielding a blue sword on a white shield bordered with blue, filled the screen for a moment as the reporter prattled on.

Controversy dogs these Lions upon their return however. The Draconis Combine has lodged an official complaint against the Suomi Warders stemming from the Warders’ defense of the city Jeddah on the planet Hamano. Apparently the local Military Governor is upset that the Warders elected to defend the city – enough so that he traveled here to Harlech to personally pursue the matter. Major Linna denies the charges as politically motivated and vows to clear his unit’s honor before a ComStar Review Board. Tai-sa Yamoto of the Draconic Combine has refused to comment. The Combine’s office of the Council of Mercenary Affairs has issued a statement saying that all will be made clear before the Board.

Remember, more in-depth coverage of the breaking stories and personalities involved is available on our PlanetNet Site at…

Heiro clicked off the set. Someday his superiors would come to understand that how the Combine presented itself to the rest of the Inner Sphere did matter. But that day wouldn’t be today. On the contract issue they were going to get – to use a local term – ‘cheesed’. As to Chu-i Fujiwara’s standing he was pretty sure that the Tai-sa could prove his case. Which, Heiro’s private investigation hinted at, was likely to be a bad thing for Naoko Fujiwara.

Harlech DropPort

Outreach

30 April 3052

On the grounded Baltic Serenade only three people were left in the MechBay. The BattleMechs were all gone. A few had been moved by truck while Granny and Fire Wraith had been ferried by techs to the waiting hangar that would house the Warder ‘Mechs until they left Outreach. This had allowed John and Gracie to stay behind and had the added bonus of causing the waiting reporters to chase John’s Camelot in the mistaken belief that he was piloting it. The third person in the bay was Vilho Rajanen. Vilho wore the rumpled jumpsuit of a common day worker and carried two overstuffed travel bags.

"Are you sure you want it this way?" John asked him for about the fifth time.

"I’m sure Major," Vilho responded. "I left recorded messages for everyone else with my good-byes. I just want to fade back home quietly. Besides, the last thing I want is a horde of reporters looking for a quote from the ‘fallen Warder’."

"The battle logs don’t have any indication of what occurred. You’ll have a clean slate Vilho."

"I know that and I appreciate it…John. Thanks for everything Sir. It was an honor to serve with you."

John stepped forward and took the offered hand. "The honor was mine Vilho. Take care."

"Hey listen you Mountain Bred mule. I expect you to have beers in the cooler and shrimp on the bar-bie when we get back. And a big smile on your face."

"I’ll see what I can do in that department," promised Vilho as he returned Gracie’s hug. "I’ll miss you Mother Goose. For a sour old lady that’s always poking her nose in other people’s business you’re not half bad. Even if you are an Aussie."

"Hah, go Bulldogs!," she chortled. "And you won’t miss me because I’m going to spend my free time hanging out at your place eating out of your kitchen."

It was Vilho’s turn to chortle. "Like either of you ever allow yourselves free time. But I’ll keep the kitchen stocked just in case. You two take care of yourselves, you are the Warders. And go find Holly and bring her home. I know it’s not much for me to say but any help I can give is yours for the asking."

Vilho drew himself to attention for what he expected to be the last time. "Sisu Sirs!"

"Sisu," responded both officers in near unison.

A sly smile played across Vilho’s lips as he added, "and No Worries."

Gracie laughed out loud as John colored slightly in embarrassment. He really wished he hadn’t accidentally coined that phrase.

"No Worries," she heartily replied.

They watched Vilho’s back retreat across the duracrete in silence for several minutes. Finally John sighed heavily. He had one more bitter farewell to wish. The sealed CMRs, ‘Container for Mortal Remains’, along with a small honor guard taken from Second Platoon would be transferring to a new DropShip and headed for home. There would be a unit memorial when the rest of the Warders finally got back, but the families of the deceased would have their loved ones returned with all possible haste. Many outfits buried their dead near the places they fell, uniting the body with what it died fighting over for all eternity. Some smaller units simply couldn’t afford the cost of shipping the dead across the cosmos. But leaving their own behind was not Warder tradition. One way or another, a Warder always returned home. The question of what to do with non-Sampsa Warders leaked into his always working mind. Yet another side issue caused by his decision to enlarge the outfit. He’d have to look at the standard contract again when he found the time.

In the cavernous hanger temporarily assigned to the Warders the MechWarriors had grouped around Sven after powering down their mounts. Or riding over with the tech crews. Misty Florens had been assigned the captured Flashman – but it was still missing a leg. Lieutenant Parks’ Bushwacker was effectively destroyed but he had brought over the spare Hermes II while Lieutenant Dhafar still had no ‘Mech assigned to him. He wasn’t worried about it though. Basem planned to buy one here on Outreach. He could simply wait for the Major to find him one, as Parks was, but Lieutenant Dhafar had been raised to know that with privilege and wealth came the responsibility to equip yourself rather than needlessly use the resources of others. Any Warder funds spent to secure him a ‘Mech would be less money the unit had to replace it’s tanks or find Lieutenant Parks a new ‘Mech.

"All right, listen up MechWarriors," called out Sven. "The Major and our Lance Leader are busy with other business so it falls to me to get everyone tucked in tight. Or as it’s early morning, at least to the right bivouac. Sergeant Harding has supplied me with our billet information and you should all be pleased to hear that we prima-donna ‘Mech pilots will be enjoying the Redison Hotel here near the DropPort. Our illustrious Lance Leader gets her own room but the rest of us will be paired off. I’ll take a wild guess and say Naoko and Misty will be roommates. Frank and Basem, I’ll let you two fight it out to determine who gets saddled with Jason and who gets stuck with me.

"There’s a mini-bus waiting out there to take us to the hotel. Other than a unit briefing scheduled for later tonight our itineraries are clear. Keep your hand-cells on your persons as they’ll work for intra-Warder communication in Harlech and Sergeant Harding informs me that they’ll be on line with the local phone network by this afternoon. For those that haven’t been here before Harlech is a uniform friendly city so there’s no worry if you want to wear Warder clothing rather than go civie. Just watch out for the lower end Mercs that might try to prove something by picking a fight with us just because we’re the news item of the day. Any other questions, toss them to me on the bus. Oh, almost forgot. Naoko, the Major will be calling you later about a legal meeting for the review case. That’s it. Let’s board and go check out the Redison."

Though small, the bus had enough seats for each pilot to have their own bench as the driver piled their personal gear on the roof rack. Although all of them were somewhat impressed by the bustle and modern design of the Harlech DropPort, neither Jason or Misty had never seen the like of such a place. For a short time Jason was actually rendered speechless as he took in the sights.

"Hey, what’s that," Parks suddenly cried in excitement as he pointed toward the runway area.

They all turned to look at the oddly configured craft that was swooping in to a slow landing.

"That’s a LAM. A Land-Air Mech," supplied Sven. "It’s a BattleMech-AeroFighter hybrid. It can change between the two forms. Very old, not many of them left in service. I don’t think anyone makes parts for them any more."

"It’s rad-tech!" exclaimed Parks, "I want one. Do you think we could talk the Major into buying a couple?"

Jorgenson laughed. "Frank, you don’t use jump jets much less fully vectored AeroSpace thrusters. What in the world would you do with a LAM?"

"Besides my friend," chimed in Basem. "I do not think you would find one to your liking."

"Oh, why’s that?"

"The LAMs are limited to a low total mass and much of their weight is occupied by the equipment that allows them to change form. They cannot carry much of a weapons payload – often only a few medium lasers."

Parks frowned. "I see your point. That’s no good. I want more guns than my old Bushwacker, not less. Oh well. Maybe I can talk the Major into an assault ‘Mech. Think what I could do with an Atlas." He rubbed his hands together gleefully at the thought.

Even Misty joined the laughter as they drove on across the DropPort.

Later that morning Osmo Woods was strolling across the outdoor common area of a small mall, looking for a place to have a little brunch. Uncharacteristically, he was out of Warder uniform. His taste in casual clothing happened to mesh perfectly with that of the local population. Osmo had a very specific location for brunch in mind, and scanning the tables arranged around the commons he spotted what he was looking for. Or perhaps more precisely, who he was looking for.

He slid into the unoccupied chair at the table, setting his shopping bag under the table next to the one that was already there. By planned coincidence, the bags were identical ones from the same nearby music store. The bags would leave with different men than the one that had brought them to the table.

"Osmo, good to see you again," smiled the well built man from behind mirrored sunglasses.

Woods smiled in return. "Stan the Man. It’s been a while. I was expecting Linda."

"Hey, I was in town and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Major Noketsuna has been impressed with what we’ve learned about the Warders. And your last burst about Hamano and Coleson’s Orb; I look forward to reading the details you just brought. I envy you Lieutenant – or should I use your Warder rank of ‘Captain’ – for actually having a direct say in conducting a battle through their Bifrost system; it’s too bad more units don’t see the benefits of rolling intelligence into the actual operation phase instead of just planning."

Woods looked off thoughtfully. "Yeah, it has it’s advantages. But you also vector good soldiers to their deaths. So it’s a mixed bag."

Stan shrugged. "Never a good thing to lose people," he agreed. "But it always happens. I guess the smaller the unit the harder the concept of ‘acceptable losses’."

Osmo just nodded. Stan decided to change the subject.

"So anyway, I take it from your information request that your Major Linna has a line on his long lost sister. So what do you think- if he finds her what will the Warders do next?"

"That’s the good news. Our accidental meeting with the Nova Cats has changed John’s perceptions somewhat. He knows now that the Clans want Terra and a new Star League. While Sampsa is one of the few Inner Sphere places that doesn’t exactly revere the Golden Era days, it’s also not that terribly far from Terra. So he’s decided that it’s time to rebuild the Warders into a larger unit again. Once he recovers Holly I think we’ll go Clan hunting."

Stan nodded. "Good news indeed. It will be good to have the Warders and their high tech connections facing off with the Clans rather than wasting their time chasing bandits. You’ll need to keep this to yourself but your Major either has very little time or a good amount of time to build his unit. It’s been kept quiet to avoid a general panic but the CommGuards and a few special additions are facing off against the Crusading Clans on a little planet called Tukayyid soon. If we win the invasion is halted where it is for fifteen years. If they win – Terra is theirs."

Osmo leaned back in shock. "Good God," he mumbled. Talk about placing all your bets on one number.

"Don’t sweat it Osmo. We’re going to win. And it’s better to do this now. The longer we wait, the more likely various Clans will adopt more Inner Sphere-like combat practices. Wolfnet is a little worried about the ComStar forces involved though. First at the size of their secret army and second at how green some of them are. But we think they’ll pull it off. If they don’t though, we’ll probably recall you. That’s the only reason I’m telling you anything of this. So you’ll know why if you get a sudden and unexplained recall order."

Osmo just nodded. He realized that somewhere along the way he had stopped considering the prospect of being called back. His Free Worlds citizen "wife" was actually a Wolfnet agent doing cultural observation. He’d dropped out of contact with his father here on Outreach years ago. The Warders had become his life, especially after he became directly involved in their combat operations.

Stan studied Osmo carefully. He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw.

"Don’t lose track of your true loyalties Osmo. The Dragoons mean the Warders no harm, but when we need you back then we need you back. The Warders are simply your assignment. The Dragoons are your home."

Osmo seized tight control of himself. "Understood Sir."

"Good then. Well, the info you requested is on that disc including something on that Flashman. Here’s a verbal freebie though. If your Major is going to be looking for more Bushwackers he’s out of luck. The attempt to make them IS Omnis is dead. They’ll go into general production as a fixed model but not until next year or so. The whole IS OmniMech program is bogged down actually…" As Stan talked Osmo nodded attentively occasionally. But he really wasn’t paying too much attention to Stan’s discourse on IS ‘Mech design. His mind was on Tukayyid and recalls.

"…Oops, I wanted to go over their new 3C equipment but I see one of your Warders and she’s making a beeline right for us."

Osmo looked up at the nearby shop window, using it’s reflection to spot Gracie closing on the table. The strategic position of the darkened windows was what made this a favored meeting table.

"I better fade. Good to see you Osmo."

"And you too Captain," replied Woods.

Osmo grabbed Stan’s bag from under the table and stood. He started leaving, then made a show of ‘suddenly’ spotting Lieutenant Aukland. "Hey Lieutenant," he called cheerfully. "Been shopping I see."

Gracie nodded, waving the bag from the toy store in agreement. "Who was that?" she asked.

Osmo shrugged. "An old friend. Mike Taylor. Went to school with him here on Harlech."

She watched the man Osmo had been talking to disappear into a store. "Yeah," she replied thoughtfully.

"So what’s in the bag?" he prompted.

She returned her attention to Captain Woods. "Just a little something from ‘aunt Gracie’ for John’s daughter when we get back. A toy set. Nothing special. What are you up to today?"

Woods smiled. "I’m meeting up with some of our fellow Warders to do a little shopping of my own. For really big toys. Tank sized ones."

"Well, I heard that Ranger’s looking for an Atlas. Bad idea. His ego’s tough enough to live with as it is. In fact, I’m on my way over to the Mercenary Hall’s training center to knock him down a peg or two. The light rail stop’s over that way right?"

"Yes. Next block down to the left."

"Thanks. See ya later Osmo."

"Later," agreed Woods. He carefully followed her long enough to make sure that she really did go to the train stop, then headed off for his "shopping trip".

Mercenary Hall

Harlech City, Outreach

30 April 3052

At an outdoor café near the Mercenary Hall the Warder MechWarriors were relaxing around a large table as they waited for Gracie. The new members had been astounded when a group of youngsters had rushed up and asked for their autographs. Sven and Frank passed it off as common activity. The Warders were all over the news right now. ‘Flavor of the Week’ as Parks had put it. Some Dragoon unit would come home or an outfit that was here to refit after a tough scrape would touch down and the Warders would slip from the radar screen. Frank Parks ate it all up though, promising a gaping Jason that their Warder uniforms were babe magnets for the next few days and he knew all the right night spots to take Jason to put their current notoriety to good use. Sven preferred it when no one took a second look at them. He hoped someone else would blow into town soon. Basem and Misty were both bemused, unsure what they thought about the whole thing for different reasons.

"That looks like Lieutenant Aukland over there," announced Misty. Although she was used to MechWarriors in general, she was unused to all of them being officers or to being a Brevet officer herself. In her mind she had always pictured herself as a career Sergeant. But the Major had said he was going to put together some sort of officer training program for herself, ‘cadet’ Nellson and anyone else the Warders wanted to wear officer bars.

The others turned to look and saw that it was indeed Gracie headed their way. Parks stood to get her attention and called out, "Hey Lieutenant. Did you get my Atlas yet?"

Several heads in the café turned at the mention of the famed 100 ton assault ‘Mech. Gracie only shook her head ‘no’ and laughed. "You’re dreaming Ranger. What I have in this toy bag is more your speed."

Frank made an exaggerated show of looking hurt, playing to the light crowd, before sinking back into his seat. She arrived and took an empty seat with the others.

"Where’s Naoko?" she immediately asked.

"With the Major and the lawyers," replied Frank. "So what is in that bag? Jason’s birthday present?"

The youngest Warder present flushed crimson as Gracie pulled the box from the bag.

"Present for my ‘niece’. Take a look, they’re cute."

Through the clear front they could see several colorful plastic figurines of what were obviously BattleMechs – but designed so that faces and animal features were notable on several. A pair of bases were included that let the figures be mounted then used against each other in an electronic battle of sorts. The box was marked in English, Japanese, and German.

"Poke-Mech," read Sven off of the box. "What’s a ‘Poke-Mech’?"

Gracie shrugged. "Cute and expensive. The shop guy said it’s the big thing with the kids these days. Here on Outreach anyway."

               "I know of these toys," added Basem. "While they were only starting to reach Hamano, on the planet of the academy I trained at they were very popular. Translated it roughly means ‘pocket Mech’, or a BattleMech that one can keep in one’s pocket. They are from an animated children’s show that started on Luthien but has become popular in many other places as well. As I understand it, each Poke-Mech has special powers and grows to between one and three meters tall. They are 'tech-trained' by their young owners and then are used to battle each other and the show’s villains." 
               Gracie was reading the back of the box as she held it for the others to see the front. "Hey, these are kind of funny. ‘Erbie the LuckMech’, ‘BunnyJack’, and ‘LizardLot’." 

Sven shook his head sagely. "Gracie, you know her mother doesn’t approve of war toys."

Gracie started to argue that these cute little Poke-Mechs weren’t war toys. But gave up the thought right away. Sven would see through such a lame excuse. So she went with the truth.

"I know. But I don’t care," she smiled. "Now let’s go embarrass our fellow MechWarriors in the sim hall. And if anyone spots an active match with someone named Cowgirl in it let me know. She left an application with our office here and I’d like to check her out."

As they entered Jason was immediately captivated by the large arcade area just to the left of the foyer. A huge holotable was displaying a three way fight of sixteen hand sized BattleMechs. Open booths around the table held the battling players. Large letters across the overhead projection tray bore the legend ‘TechWarrior 4’. The ground detail and projected ‘Mechs were incredibly lifelike. Jason felt a hand rest on his shoulder and turned to see Gracie smiling down at him.

"TechWarrior’s for loser and wanna-bes. And game heads like Parks. The real stuff is back this way where only qualified MechWarriors are allowed. If you thought our sim pods jury rigged on the Serenade were impressive wait until you see this set up."

Parks laughed as he paused next to the two of them. "Don’t listen to her Jason. TechWarrior jams. It’s rad-tech to the extreme. We’ll come back and teach these yahoos what real warriors are capable of later."

Jason soon found he had to agree with Aukland. The Harlech sim-pods put the TechWarrior game to shame. Each cockpit was on hydraulics and could be set to simulate heat effects if you wanted it to. The controls were authentic and modified but real neurohelmets were required to operate them. There were many display screens and holotables scattered about the lounge area from which one could watch any ongoing simulation that hadn’t been blocked as private by the combatants. A battle pitting a single 40 ton Clint against three units marked as 45 ton HCT-5S Hatchetmans caught Basem’s eye. The Clint was marked as Cowgirl.

"Perhaps this is the woman you seek," suggested Dhafar as he pointed out the match.

The Warders crowded around the display, which caught the attention of those already watching. But the two uniformed warriors and the jump suited tech type quickly turned back to the battle display. Reading the display over the Clint Gracie saw that this was some new variant she was unaware of. It quickly became apparent that the tech favored the lone Clint while the MechWarriors were unit mates of the Hatchetman pilots. Gracie didn’t recognize their unit patch. The tech wore none.

On the surface it wasn’t a very fair match. The three slightly heavier ‘Mechs were armed with LB-10X autocannons, a triple brace of medium pulse lasers, and one very mean looking hatchet. By pulling the specs from a nearby monitor Gracie saw that the Clint was armed with a single ER PPC and two medium pulse lasers of it’s own. But the battle area helped even things out a bit. It was a desert theme with many tall rock pillars and deep crevasses. She doubted you’d ever find such terrain in real life but it served for the computer simulation.

The Clint was using it’s superior speed and jumping ability to keep at extreme range while using the pillars as cover and to keep more than one Hatchetman from targeting her at a time. For their part the trio of 45 ton ‘Mechs were trying to heard the Cowgirl into a triangle between them. It looked like they might have finally boxed her when she jumped up onto a pillar too tall for the other ‘Mechs to reach on their lesser jump jets. She then started jumping from pillar top to pillar top occasionally stopping to splash fire down on her opponents. Gracie realized at that point that the scenario designer had placed the taller pillars so that a properly equipped ‘Mech could do just exactly what the Clint was doing.

Gracie leaned down and tapped the young looking tech guy on the shoulder. "There money riding on this match?"

He looked up at her, startled to be addressed. "Uh, yeah," he admitted. "50 C-bills."

She smiled. "Good. If your friend there is up to it I want the next match. Let’s call it 100 bills. That’ll be the 50 you have and the 50 she’s about to win. Same scenario."

The young man looked over the other Warders cautiously. Gracie was pretty sure that he had noted and their lion patches but couldn’t tell if he recognized them. "How many of you?" he wanted to know.

Oh, she was a cheeky pilot Gracie smiled to herself. With an equally daring friend. How many indeed. "Just two of us," she replied lightly.

"You’re on," the tech-kid exclaimed excitedly as he turned back to watch the current match.

It played out much as Gracie had expected it to. One by one the Hatchetman ‘Mechs fell to cumulative internal damage as the Clint sniped away at them from out of reach. Only towards the end did one of Cowgirl’s foes attempt to mount the lower pillars for better range. But he missed his jump to the next pillar and crashed to the ground where the Clint quickly added a PPC bolt to finish the wounded ‘Mech off. One did manage to land an LBX burst on her leg, shredding all the armor and doing light internal damage, but it was too little too late. The two MechWarriors grumbled about the unfairness of the contest but elected to pay up when Gracie strongly suggested they do so then sit back to see how it was really done. They even decided stay and watch the upcoming match.

The tech guy introduced himself as Shane Washington. After talking into the internal comm system for a moment he told the Warders that his sister agreed to the bet and was ready to go if they were.

Gracie turned and smiled at Sven. "This should be right up your ally Lawman. Let’s go corral us a Cowgirl."

"After you Mother Goose," bowed Sven with a sweep of his arm towards the pod stations.

Parks rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "I don’t suppose anyone wants to bet against my two friends?" he called out to everyone in the lounge hopefully. "I’ll give odds."

Central Harlech City

Outreach

30 April 3052

Naoko and John rode side by side in the back seat of the ground car in relative silence as the driver worked her way through the lunch hour congestion of Harlech. The huge people-mover-express project underway and slated for completion next year was supposed to ease the traffic but the driver doubted it. She started to cuss out a TA marked cab that had cut her off but remembered who her main passenger was and kept her remarks to herself.

John was gazing absently out the window, lost in thought as his mind played over the legal options he had discussed earlier with his lead council. Naoko was looking out the opposite window to keep herself from looking at him. This was the first real time they had spent alone together. It would have been a good opportunity to strike up a true conversation – had she been able to shake the images of his healed wounds and the story of the Starcade from her mind. But she couldn’t, so other than some small talk she remained quiet. After what seemed like a very long ride they were finally at the building that held the offices they sought.

The lobby was impressive but the offices they soon entered were stunning. A dapper man with gray hair and a slim build came from an inner office to great them as soon as the secretary announced their arrival. From the nameplate in the lobby and the monogram on the inner doors Naoko assumed the man to be Perry Tortuga. He greeted the Major warmly.

"John, it’s great to see you back in Harlech again. And this must be the illustrious Chu-i Fujiwara that a ranking Colonel has come all the way from the Combine to retrieve. Charmed my dear."

She had thought she was offering her had to shake his, as John had done, only to be surprised as Mr. Tortuga clasped it then bowed to lightly kiss the top of her hand. He stepped back and appraised her.

"I can see why this Colonel Yamoto finds you worth the effort."

Naoko blushed, flustered and unsure how she should respond. This was not behavior she had ever encountered before. Mercifully, the Major came swiftly to her rescue.

"Take it easy Perry," he grinned as he patted the barrister on the shoulder. "She’s not used to those of you blessed with Latin blood. In short, you’re embarrassing her."

Tortuga bowed deeply then. "My apologies Chu-i. I meant no harm, I am simply an old romantic fool. I shall endeavor to be more business like. Please, follow me and allow me to introduce you to the rest of your team."

Wondering what the lawyer could possible be talking about she followed the two men into the inner office as they made small talk about local politics and construction. A slightly chunky blond man and a slender Asian woman waited within.

"Mister Linna, Chu-i Fujiwara, allow me to introduce Paul Monk and Leena Muyo. Paul is an expert on military law and mercenary regulations while Leena is an accomplished corporate attorney who has presented many civil cases as well as being well versed in public relations. She is, if you will, our mouthpiece."

The four exchanged nods and quick greetings as Perry lead them to a black marble conference table. "I must say John, that was some masterful PR you had lined up on arrival. Did you have a PR team with you on the ship?"

John shrugged. "No. That was mainly my own work with some elements added from the DEW offices here. It was fairly standard stuff I thought."

Perry waved away the younger man’s attempt to downplay the complement. "It was not standard, it was perfect. And the child refugees. That was outstanding." Perry could read the growing anger in John’s face and quickly continued before John could interrupt. "Ease up there John. I’ve known you long enough to know that you wouldn’t drag a bunch of kids across the cosmos just to generate some positive PR. I was simply saying that I am pleased that you were willing to let your good deed be promoted to advantage. Too many times you let your charitable acts go unheralded. Seems to be something of a national trait for you Sampa types actually."

"It wasn’t like I could hide an entire DropShip full of children," noted John. "And I promised I’d keep them safe so I wasn’t inclined to send them off to Sampsa alone. Which reminds me, you do have your staff working on the work visas for the Orb refugees that will be following right?"

"But of course my dear friend. But now let us turn to the matter at hand. Paul has some interesting observations to add to your ideas about defense tactics. We shall, how is it you MechWarriors say it, ‘splash them’ good."

"That’s more of an old fighter jock term but I get the picture," smiled John. "All right Paul, what do you have."

Naoko was seated next to Leena, who seemed to have heard whatever it was Paul Monk had to say already and wasn’t paying much attention to the discussion that was starting. She smiled at Naoko when she realized the Combine MechWarrior was looking at her.

"Ohayo," nodded Naoko. -Good Morning

Leena Muyo looked at Naoko blankly. After a brief moment she shook her head negatively from side to side. "I’m afraid I don’t speak Japanese Ms. Fujiwara."

Naoko stumbled over her apologies. "I assumed that you were also an interpreter. I did not mean to be rude. I humbly apologize Ms. Muyo."

"Make it Leena. And there’s no need to apologize. It’s actually Paul that’s fluent in Japanese. My role is to present the case and hopefully defuse some of their presentation strategy. They’ll be using a young female staffer to present their case in an effort to soften the Board’s bias against the Combine’s traditional cultural treatment of women. Sort of a visual statement that women are treated with opportunity by the Combine and to validate that this isn’t a witch hunt against you just because you’re female by playing on the subtle assumption that one woman wouldn’t help attack another without good cause.

"Of course this Yamoto guy really is culturally repressed. He’ll dislike having a mere woman like me punching holes in his case and hopefully become agitated enough to disrupt his own team’s legal work. Perry also wanted to soften our overall look from the presentation table. Then there’s the chance I’ll actually get to directly questions Yamoto. I might be able to fluster him into an outburst that will weaken his credibility and maybe discredit his testimony even if it was factual."

Naoko looked at her in amazement. "All of this was actually considered and planned in advance? The Review Board can be swayed by small things such as who does the speaking or how well they do so?"

Leena grinned. It was the same predatory grin Naoko had seen warriors wear in anticipation of a contest or battle. "You better believe it. It’s one of the reasons the Review Board is folding – it got too political. But we drew a good Board for this one that will base it’s decisions mainly on the legal issues. Still, take it from me. It might look like a hearing room but when we take our seats before the Review Board we’ll be entering a battlefield with it’s own special rules of engagement. But have no fear Ms. Fujiwara. In this battle Mr. Linna has pulled out the big guns and arrayed them on your side of the map. They’ll never even know what hit them."

Mercenaries Hall

Harlech City, Outreach

30 April 3052

Keena Washington settled herself more comfortably into the sim-pod’s seat. This would be her third money match today. And it should be the easiest she figured. Whoever these yahoos where they thought that just two of them were going to be enough to take her. Keena had taken as many as five opponents down in this scenario. The Cowgirl would show them how a Solaris gladiator got things done. She clinched her arms together in front of her then stretched them out, working out the kinks and getting ready for ‘battle’. Although the heat buildup restrictions were in play, her pod was currently configured not to actually pump heated air at her. She checked a secondary display Keena that in a real ‘Mech usually carried reactor information but in the pods showed simulation data. She was surprised to see that her two adversaries had elected to leave their internal heating option on. Curious as they would know that hers was off. But all the other sim choices were set at maximum realism and the engage light was green so it looked like they were ready to go. The callsigns Mother Goose and Lawman appeared on the side display.

Keena keyed the comm. "Lawman and Mother Goose, welcome to the Pillars of Pain. You two ready to get it on?"

"I was born ready Cowgirl," replied a strong female voice. Presumably Mother Goose. "Call it and we’re a go."

"Then I call it," Keena told them as she started the Clint forward.

She watched her sensor display with interest to see what their plan was. Shane had told her that her two opponents had watched the last match so they must have a plan. Not that it would do them much good. She had three different patterns to win with in the Pillars scenario. As long as she didn’t allow an adversary a long ranged energy weapon she almost always came out on top. The simulation assumed that the rock pillars interfered with direct radar, but that the various electronic emissions of the three ‘Mechs was sufficient to provide tracking. The two Hatchetman ‘Mechs started moved to the left, probably headed for the area that had fewer pillars but more crevasses. Looked like it was going to be pattern number two.

Then the pair of contact blips left her scope.

Keena rapped the display with her knuckle, double checked that the simulation status still showed the other two as active in the sim, then stopped her ‘Mech behind a pillar for a moment. She chose a different comm line. "Sim Control, this is pod 7B. Is my scenario functioning properly?"

"7B, this is control," came a bored voice. "That’s affirmative. You, 2C and 3C are all green. No error reports on the sim."

"Thanks Control," she mumbled. So it looked like she had a couple of slick types on her hands. Well, the Cowgirl had plenty of real combat experience Keena reminded herself as she realized what they had done. She dropped her sensors to passive only as well. Now they wouldn’t detect each other until they were fairly close. It was time to warm up the old Mark One eyeballs. Visual sighting might occur before sensor contact depending on the pillar placements.

Lawman jogged his Hatchetman along the outer border of the scenario arena. He was still working on getting used to the slight pull to the side caused by the heavy melee weapon grafted to the arm. It was basically useless for this scenario and he had considered jettisoning it. But the gyros and jump jets were balanced with it’s weight in mind so he held onto it. His only long range weapon held more interest for him. The LBX cannon was a favorite of his and somewhat his specialty. Both Warders had elected to use normal shells rather than the sub-munitions type. This particular one was a different model than the weapon on his Bushwacker. Autocannons were all designated in 5,10, and 20 types (although currently the LB-X type only came in a "10") but the numbers reflected relative damage potential rather than actual caliber size or muzzle velocity. Thus one AC 10 might fire one or two large rounds while another would be firing a quick burst of 10 smaller rounds. His Bushwacker carried a slow loading LB-10X that fired a single high velocity 95mm round. This one fired a burst of smaller 60mm ones. Damage models and field testing showed that the relative damage to a given target was roughly the same regardless of which type hit. Sven had a slight preference for the slower rate, larger round cannons on the belief that they jammed less frequently than the high rate ones.

"O.K Goose, I’m here. Looks like you’re right. These edge pillars have a lower one in jump range and a second tall closer to mid point. Hope I still remember how to jump."

"No Worries Lawman. It’s just like riding a horse. You never forget."

"Is this a good time to mention that I grew up in the city and never rode a horse?"

They both laughed as they engaged the jets and hopped up the first lower pillar. Although neither employed a ‘Mech with jumpjets, each made sure they staying in practice both in the sims and with a jumper kept back at Warder HQ for just that purpose. From the second level pillar each popped to the third level. Then they made the dangerous jump to the only other third level pillar they could reach with the Hatchetman’s jump range. Then they waited.

Keena crossed the floor of the Pillar arena twice without finding her foes. She’d checked twice with sim control to make absolutely sure the others were in her sim and with growing interest control had confirmed that yes indeed the two Hatchetmans were still lurking about. In fact, control was now actively watching the match. It had become somewhat comical to watch the Clint scuttling from pillar or pillar seeking foes that were perched about 170 meters above at low power mode. Both the staff of the control booth and the spectators in the lounge were wondering why the ‘Mechs with the high ground hadn’t fired on the Clint yet despite several opportunities.

Staying with a losing strategy had never been one of the Cowgirl’s faults. If she couldn’t find them from the ground then it was time to climb the pillars. Walking a circle to first make sure no one was waiting to nail her in the back while she jumped, Keena moved to one of the more central pillars and carefully lined up her vector. The pod’s seat inflated slightly and the hydraulics shook it, giving the illusion that she was being pressed back into her seat by upward acceleration from the jets. As her feet touched down and she steadied the 40 ton machine she was faced with the improbable. To her right on another of the level three pillars was one of the Hatchetmans. Keena’s threat warnings lit up as the Hatchetman’s sensors went active and a targeting radar locked onto her.

She was way too close- as in within range of the three pulse lasers the Hatchetman carried. Her Clint’s minimal armor couldn’t stand up to a pounding match with the better armored Hatchetman. Working from memory and long practice as much as anything else she broke into a run punctuated with long jumps as she tried to hopscotch across the pillar tops away from the larger ‘Mech before it could fire on her. It was an impressive display of piloting ability and quick reflexes. It saved her from eating the pulse lasers but as she landed from her first jump a LB-X burst shattered her left arm. The armor was flayed away along with most everything else except the central bone spar and the main myomer bundles. The actuators all glowed green on her panel but she’d hate to have to actually use the arm for anything. Luckily her main gun was in the other arm. Two more jumps and she’d be ready to fire back.

In the lounge, Shane was yelling a useless warning at his sister. He wasn’t on the comm and she was over a hundred meters away and locked in a sim pod. But she got the message soon enough after her next jump. As it was already registering the targeting radar of the first Hatchetman, when the second started targeting her the threat system was already reporting a warning. Busy jumping, Keena had failed the notice the new sensor blimp until her left leg was savaged by a LB-X burst from the opposite direction of her first contact. She hadn’t lost anything vital, but that leg was now armorless and had suffered some internal damage.

She might cuss, cry, kick, or throw things; but the Cowgirl never panicked. With the hard won skill of dozens of firefights she quickly evaluated her situation. Keena realized that the hustler had been hustled. Her two foes had found the outside pillars that were accessible to them and risked the long jump for the next pillar in. Now no matter which level three pillar she went to, at least one of them would be able to fire on her. None of the pillars would allow her to fire from outside both of their ranges, and up here there was no cover from their fire. Right now she was in the worse possible placement – in their crossfire.

Her only chance was lower down now. She rushed for the edge of the wide, circular pillar and snapped off a PPC shot. She doubted she would make it however. As expected, her pod shook violently as another cannon burst slammed into her. Keena had taken the extra moment to head in a direction that wouldn’t expose her rear to either foe but it didn’t do her much good. The left torso was hulled by the shot. The structural damage was survivable but a critical hit within destroyed the torso mounted jump jet. Then a second cannon strike severed the left leg while three pulse laser bursts savaged her from the nearer Hatchetman. The pulse damage was simply insult added to fatal injury at that point. She was in the process of pitching forward from the missing leg. In another few heart beats she was going over the edge sans half her jump jets. Her hand jabbed down and pulled the ejection bar while her Clint was still angled upwards but nothing happened.

The red ejection system failure icon began flashing. She knew that the manual suggested manually exiting a BattleMech via the main hatch in the event of an ejection failure. What to do while falling 170 meters in a dead ‘Mech wasn’t mentioned. Two thoughts flashed through Keena’s mind in the brief moment before her pod crashed down from it’s elevated perch to simulate the fall. The first was that this was going to hurt. The second involved wondering if this really was a random system failure or if someone in control had over-ridden the ejection command as payback for repeatedly questioning their simulation. Either way, when the sim crew warned you to cinch the pod restraints tightly they meant it. Keena was slammed around her pod until the computer decided the falling Clint had come to rest. The main display was now dark with a simple message in white type centered on it.

Pilot has been killed.

The comm still operated as she heard the same feminine voice note casually, "live by the pillar, die by the pillar."

Keena really hoped that it had been the silent male pilot that had blown her leg off and skewered her with pulse lasers. She really hated losing to other women. She didn't like losing to men either, but at least they were often more gallant about their victory on the rare occasions they scored one.

The pod hatch cracked open and a tech was standing there, ready to help her out of the capsule. "You all right? It’s been a while since someone rode a pod down that hard. If you’re up to it the Warders have invited you to meet them in the main lounge."

Keena climbed unsteadily from the pod. Her butt hurt fiercely but she would be die before she let the pod tech or people behind the glass of the control room see her rub it. "The Warders?" she asked. The name sounded slightly familiar for some reason.

"Yeah, the Warders. The two MechWarriors that just ended your eight match winning streak."

"Oh them," she replied with little enthusiasm. "Sure. Guess it’s time to pay the piper."

As Keena elected to visit the locker rooms for some privacy to massage her aching backside, Sven and Gracie beat her back to the lounge by a good margin of time. Shane sat glumly where he had watched the match from while Parks was gleefully collecting payments from several parties within the room. An excited buzz could be heard as the anti-Cowgirl strategy for the Pillars Scenario spread through the lounge. She wouldn’t be winning any more easy money from the pillars scenario.

"Well, what did you think?" Gracie wanted to know from Sven.

"She showed great piloting skill and managed to clip me on the run with her PPC. She also reacted quickly when she realized we’d boxed her. But it’s hard to tell much from such a canned scenario. She’s probably practiced it so many times she can make the jumps in her sleep."

"About the same as what I was thinking. Her combat record claims she the real deal. Solaris trained and service in several merc units. I admit that I’m a little concerned about how many units she’s drifted through but anyone that will only sign a contract if her brother is also signed as a tech gets a second look in my book. Besides, how can I pass up checking out someone named Cowgirl?"

Sven just smiled. Gracie had been raised on a ranch with horses and beefaloes. How could she indeed?

"There she is," suddenly announced Shane as he pointed across the lounge.

Most of the Warders weren’t sure what to think at their first sight of Cowgirl, but Mother Goose immediately liked what she saw while Sven frowned slightly at the outfit. Cowgirl was a lean, dark skinned woman wearing a long legged leopard print leotard under a jacket of rough cowhide with lines of leather fringe. A wide gunbelt hung low on her hips. Calf high boots of snakeskin completed the ensemble. Hailing from a planetary culture that still remembered the ancient NorAmerican legend of the Wild West; Gracie, Sven and Frank were able to fully appreciate her attire. Or "un-appreciate" as the case may be. Still, it was not her clothing that drew their immediate notice.

Each Warder did a double take between the ebon beauty walking towards them and the fair skinned, blondish tech behind them. Despite the obvious coloring difference, there was definitely a strong family resemblance. Shane’s fists balled unconsciously as his face grew stormy. "Yes, she’s my real sister. You got a problem with that," he challenged.

In a group babble they hastily assured him that they had no problems with it.

Keena marched up to the group, picking out the tall capable looking woman and the well muscled blond man as the two senior MechWarriors of the group. "Mother Goose and Lawman I presume."

Sven nodded as Gracie took a half step forward. "Which would make you Cowgirl. AKA Keena Washington. Shouldn’t you have a hat?"

"I lost it in a little dust up a few nights ago with some coyotes that were hassling Shane- if it’s any concern of yours. Did you want something other than to get your money and to gloat?" Looking more closely, the faint sheen of a bruise was barely visible on her right cheek.

Sven and Gracie exchanged a confused look. "I would have expected you to be at least a passably polite to your prospective lance mates," he observed to the woman.

It was Keena’s turn to look confused. "Prospective lance mates? Do I know you people?"

"You are the Keena Washington that left a dossier with the Warder office here a few days ago aren’t you?" asked Lieutenant Aukland.

"Uh..that was me," interrupted Shane. He looked to his sister. "I heard about them in the news three days ago and submitted your files. I checked them out on the PlanetNet and they have a good reputation. Actually, I didn’t really think they’d be interested. I must have forgot about it. I didn’t realize who they were when I took their bet."

Keena sighed heavily then walked over and affectionately wrapped an arm around her younger brother. If she’d expected perspective employers today she’d have dressed a mite more – military. "Well, I guess we just missed another chance kiddo. Don’t sweat it Shane, we’ll hitch a contract soon." She looked up to Gracie. "I suppose you’ll be wanting your money now."

"Actually, how would you like to earn it back?" asked Gracie.

"How so?"

"That little exercise in pattern memorization we just ran didn’t really tell us anything about what kind of MechWarrior you really are. I’d like to have you team up with Brevet Lieutenant Florens and me against the guys here in some more realistic scenarios. Say an hour of your time for 100 C-bills?"

A grin creased Keena’s lips. "I’m in. Can I use a sim of my real ‘Mech?"

"Sure, all the better," replied a surprised Gracie. "But your dossier doesn’t mention that you own a ‘Mech."

"I know. I didn’t list it because I didn’t want anyone to offer me a spot just because I have a new model Orion."

Frank whistled to himself. "That’s some heavy metal," he observed.

"Which you’re about to find out first hand in the sims," agreed Cowgirl. She turned back to Gracie. "So Mother Goose, is this your unit? And won’t we be taking advantage of these poor fellows by only spotting them one Mech?"

"Don’t worry, we’ll give them an extra weight advantage as well. As to your first question, no. In the Warders, Mother Goose answers to the Duck. That would be Major John Linna. Impress us enough with your team play in the next hour and I’ll arrange an introduction."

"Message received loud and clear," agreed Keena as she read Goose’s name strip. This Lieutenant Aukland had just said that she wasn’t looking for a hot shot. The Warders wanted a team player. And while the Cowgirl liked to talk the talk and walk the walk of the lone gunslinger, she knew that in a real war you were only as good as your weakest lancemate. Keena could tell that the big fella called Lawman had his doubts. She promised herself that within the next hour she’d put them to rest.

"Let’s go then," nodded Gracie. "Sven? We’ll be using our real rides too, Granny and a Flashman. Set yourselves up with whatever you want but keep it reasonable. That means no Atlas for Ranger-Danger over there."

Frank scowled at her but laughed. "I’m going to use an Urbie just to embarrass you."

"Now that," said Sven as he clapped his friend on the back, "I’d like to see."

As the Warders and their prospective recruit made their way back to the sim pods Shane suddenly found himself faced with two MechWarriors he hadn’t noticed in the lounge earlier. Their charcoal gray uniforms bore no name tags. Their black lightning bolt insignia was unfamiliar to him.

"Hey, they vas the Varders, yes?" asked on of them.

Shane understood what he meant and decided against correcting the other’s pronunciation. "Uh, yeah."

"The guy about your age. Do you know him? He looked like my cousin," said the other.

"No, just met him. Didn’t really talk to him actually. His name was Nelson or something like that."

"Oh, guess it wasn’t him. Thanks kid," shrugged the second man as both MechWarriors moved on. Shane sighed in relief. For a moment he thought that some serious trouble had found him.

Out front the two men paused behind a building corner and looked back at the Mercenary Hall.

"Das Hauptman vill not be happy to hear this," lamented the first.

"That pirate kid’s supposed to be dead. Now he’s in Harlech sporting a Warder uniform. I’m going to try to get a peek in their hangar. If there’s a Flashman in there I think it’s safe to say the Hauptman will be somewhat more than ‘not happy’."

Mackie Testing Facility

Outside Harlech City, Outreach

30 April 3052

As he surveyed the wooded field Lieutenant Karl Fosters had his mind on war machines. But not of the BattleMech variety. "Hurry up guys, the demo has already started," urged Fosters of his fellow Warder officers.

Captain Woods and the two tank lance Lieutenants reluctantly followed the infantry officer up onto the aluminum benches of the review stand. Glancing around they could see only four other groups were present. Several hundred meters away stood a derelict Commando that had been propped into a standing position by steel bars welded so as to keep the legs upright and a set of thick wooden beams supporting it from the rear to keep it on it’s feet. A little way from the rusty Commando stood several plywood structures that the program claimed represented a command center. The hot sun beat down heavily on the shadeless stands.

"No offence Karl, but this looks pretty pathetic," Jeff Kyyhkynen of Mosquito Lance noted. "What are we doing here again? I thought we were looking for tanks."

"I already showed you. Here." Karl waved the glossy brochure at him and Jeff took it again.

"This Lieutenant Laidie pictured here is definitely a looker all right," Jeff said after looking over the tri-fold sheet once again. "But last time I checked VTOLs weren’t tanks. I vote we find the nearest watering hole."

"Captain," pleaded Karl, "it’s only a twenty minute demo. Just bear me out please? You’ll see it, I’m sure you will."

Captain Woods scratched behind his ear and surveyed the empty grounds. "We’re here now. We might as well see what these Laidie’s Hawks can do. Grab a seat Jeff." Osmo secretly wished that the infantry leader hadn’t been so stubbornly secretive about what he expected the Captain to "see" at this demo.

As Jeff grumbled to himself, Lieutenant Ben Runeberg smiled slightly. Jeff was always in a hurry to do everything. Must come from rushing around in those blindingly fast Lightning hovertanks. Ben pulled out his D.E.W. Industries MaxiNote noteputer and started reading through a download of available machinery he had pulled from the ‘Net earlier.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," came a voice from the scratchy sounding loudspeakers, "fellow officers. Laidie’s Hawks are pleased to present the Redhawk multipurpose helicopter – or VTOL as they are often popularly known. The Redhawk is a state of the art fusion powered 30 ton machine capable of…."

The rest of the speech was drowned out by the drone of ten very large, very ugly VTOLs crossing in front of the review stand at flank speed. Captain Woods watched them pass with mild interest. He hadn’t seen their likes before. They were manufactured someplace in the Periphery if he remembered what the brochure had said correctly.

Lieutenant Kyyhkynen watched them with a calculating eye as they raced off across the horizon. "For crying out loud," he muttered to no one in particular, "my Lightnings go faster than that."

Ben couldn’t help needling Jeff a bit. "Not through that forest they just flew over." That earned a sour frown from the scout tanker.

After a few more fly-bys to demonstrate the concept of "tactical surprise", eight of them broke off and made a two pronged attack run on the stationary Commando. Each fired a 5 tube LRM at it. The hapless BattleMech was quickly knocked down in a cloud of dust. The ‘copters then made a close in run to "finish it off" with their single medium laser.

Jeff snorted at the display of minimal firepower. Even Ben had to admit that he was less than impressed. Sure, hitting a target with around 40 missiles was going to mess it up. But at a ratio of eight attackers to one defender you better outnumber your enemies by a wide margin. The missile launch system was pretty slick though. The armored launch bays started flush with the machine’s skin then extended outwards from the rear sides of the crafts to fire. The missiles rushed forward so that the front two-thirds of each VTOL was sheathed in exhaust smoke as the LRMs rocketed forward. Might block some of the pilot’s vision lanes but it looked impressive from the ground. The lasers were a common nose mounted affair.

The compound attack was a bit more interesting. All ten blasted the faux buildings with missile salvos then swooped in for a few laser shots followed by a close circling attack where mean looking mini-guns were fired from side bays. Against infantry the combined attack would have been devastating. Against heavy tanks or BattleMechs he doubted they’d have gotten close enough to try the rapid fire machine guns. Although Ben admitted to himself that many tanks couldn’t elevate their main guns high enough or traverse their turrets quick enough to fire on an airborne target.

There had been a running commentary, occasionally drowned out by VTOLs, during the entire show. Most of the Warders had tuned it out. The closing pitch was that Laidie’s Hawks were available for hire and where they could be found for further information. Karl Foster remained enthused about what he had seen while his fellows shared the opinion of the other groups of viewers. But obviously there was no way the Hawks could deliver on their over-inflated promises of raining destruction from the sky.

"Ohh Kaayyy," drawled out Jeff. "Now can we go do something important?"

Karl remained undeterred. "There, surely you see it now Captain. Explain it to this fan-head."

Osmo arched one eyebrow as he considered. Nope. Still clueless. "It’s your discovery Lieutenant. The honor is all yours."

Lieutenant Foster grinned. "Yes Sir. I don’t know why the Hawks didn’t demonstrate their main purpose, but we can ask them later. Right now we have three elite infantry platoons, two of them long range patrol and anti-mech trained while the third is specialized for heavy weapons operation. We also have three more platoons of regular infantry back home and we just picked up three platoons of CORDF troopers. And what do we have to move them around a combat zone? Three unarmored hovertrucks – which combined can only move one platoon at a time. Or we have some of them hang onto the outsides of the Lightnings while Mosquito lance drives really, really, slow.

"If you actually read the material you’ll see that each Redhawk is designed to airlift an entire platoon. And with four tons of armor and the miniguns they can insert in a hot LZ if necessary. With the LRMs and the right warheads they can clear a LZ of hostile troops or even work as aerial mine droppers. Then there’s medivac, scouting, and cargo transfer. They can lift three tons, five tons without ammo aboard. The whole trip here we kept talking about the need to assault rather than just defend. To do that, my troopers need to be able to move around the battlefield.

"Don’t think of those VTOLs as under-powered flying tanks, picture them as flying APCs and multi-role infantry support vehicles. Plus I’ve already checked their rates. We can sign them all for a song."

The other three officers ran over the demonstration in their minds again, this time with a new perspective.

"It would keep Ben or I from having to shepherd a herd of thin skinned APCs around," admitted Jeff.

Osmo stood up and stretched. "I agree with your evaluation Karl. Let’s go have a chat with , uhm..what was her name?"

"Lieutenant Jennifer Laidie, Sir," Karl supplied from memory.

Laidie’s Hawks had fallen on hard times of late. When they had first mustered out of the Taurian Concordant and purchased the decommissioned Redhawks it had all seemed like a grand adventure. Taurian spending had been shifted from VTOL to BattleMech forces and a large number of ‘copter pilots suddenly found themselves flying desks as their machines were put on the auction block. There wasn’t enough money for maintenance any more. Scraping together every credit a group of them could beg, borrow, or steal they had gotten a great deal on fifteen low hour Redhawks and quickly signed on with a local mercenary outfit. They were then essentially doing what they had been doing, but as independent contractors rather than government employees.

But after a few months their new employers started to feel the pinch as well. Garrison duty wasn’t terribly high paying and the mercs needed to repair battle damage from their last campaign. Once again the VTOLs were deemed too expensive to keep and the Hawks discovered the down side of independence. Variations of this theme continued. Over the next two years they lost three machines and five crews; all to a lack of funds to keep them rather than battle. Running out of options the unit voted to move to Outreach and try their luck in the Inner Sphere.

They’d scored a few short term contracts, several as search and rescue for downed AeroSpace jocks performing strafing runs. Other than that it was the occasional odd job that had barely paid the bills. They’d done everything from ferry industrial equipment when the civilian fleet couldn’t cover the demand to buzzing around as part of a holovid movie about a super-soldier out to rescue his missing colleagues from behind Capallan lines. They were bivouacked in tents on a rented parade ground to keep expenses down.

Lieutenant ‘Jenny’ Laidie sighed heavily as she filled in the flight time on her log. The day hadn’t been worth the expenditure of ammunition. She hadn’t needed to ask the ground crew what the crowd had been like. From the air she’d been able to tell that the stands were basically empty.

"Captain, I think," started Flight Officer O’Grady. He stopped short at her scowl. He kept forgetting that she had demoted herself. It was supposed to make it easier for her to fit into an existing command structure. Lieutenants supposedly found jobs easier than Captains.

"Lieutenant," he started again, "I think that maybe we should reconsider that traffic ‘copter offer. We could rotate between the ships to keep the airtime spread between the frames. That will help keep maintenance costs down. We could swing it."

The other flight crews were in the large tent as well. They all looked to the conversation with interest, although it was one they had already heard four times before in the past week.

"Until we need to overhaul all ten birds at the same time. Then we’re cheesed," she pointed out. They’d already been in Harlech long enough to pick up some of the local cuss words. Still, she had almost 100 people counting on her to take care of them. Maybe they should take the traffic thing until something better came along.

Suddenly her main tech came bursting through the tent flap calling "Skipper, Skipper!"

By their traditions the lead pilot of a given VTOL was referred to as Skipper regardless of rank. As the lead Skipper of all the Skippers, it had become her unofficial tag as well. Her officer training classes had claimed this came from a time when the wet navy had been the only military force to operate ‘copters for a chunk of Taurian history.

"Over here Sergeant. What’s up Willie?"

"There’s some guys here to see you Skip. Officers from that Warder outfit that’s been on the news. Corporal Nesmith is leading them here the long way."

Laidie exchanged electrified glances with O’Grady, her exec. The Warders belonged to some rich guy from the Free Worlds League. Saved a bunch of kids from the Clans if you could believe the news feeds. Supposedly in trouble with the Combine but who cared? They needed a contract.

"Clean up, clean up," urged O’Grady with waving motions of his hands.

The gathered flight crews burst into activity policing empty field ration containers, drinking cups, articles of clothing and stray gear into anything that had a closing lid or shutting drawer. Some stuff simply ended up hastily shoved under a table in the corner where six airmen then sat to hide the pile with their bodies. "They’re coming," hissed Willie from the tent entrance.

"Look busy," whispered Jenny. Everyone pretended to be studying the logs.

Corporal Nesmith entered with four men in tow. He stood to attention and saluted his CO, nervously announcing, "Lieutenant Skipper, this is Captain Woods and Lieutenants Runeberg, Foster, and Kyyk…uh, Kikeun…

"Kyyhkynen Ma’am," supplied Jeff towards the Hawk’s leader.

"…of the Sumi Warders," finished the airman.

"Ten-hut," rapped out O’Grady. Those in the tent came to attention, the airmen by the corner table being careful to screen it from casual view.

"Actually, that’s the Suomi Warders," corrected Osmo as he stepped forward and offered his hand to their CO. "I’m the Executive Officer."

"Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m actually Lieutenant Laidie, not Lieutenant ‘Skipper’." The Corporal glowed red and considered fleeing the tent as Laidie shook the Captain’s hand. "As you were everyone," Laidie announced.

"What can we do for you Captain?" she asked with a smile. Curiously she noted that there wasn’t a MechWarrior among the visiting Warders. From their collar pins she guessed two tankers and an infantryman. She wasn’t sure what the Captain’s pin indicated but he didn’t wear his hair buzzed like most MechWarriors did.

"We’d like to talk to you about your little demonstration," he replied. Objectively he noted that she was one of the most beautiful women he could remember seeing in a uniform. Her dazzling smile held no effect over him however. You weren’t much of an intelligence officer if a pretty face could throw off your thinking.

"Yes, indeed. What did you think of it?" she asked hopefully.

"Not much," he replied truthfully. "I was curious what you see as your unit’s actual combat role."

Jenny could actually feel the expectation drain from her people. Looked like another bust. These guys were probably just curious about what that little dog and pony show her Hawks had just performed was supposed to prove. Maybe a side bet between two of them or something.

With a short weary laugh she sank down on a bench. "As our demonstration so aptly showed it sure isn’t ‘Mech busting," she sighed. "The Redhawk is a large, slow multipurpose bird. Used in numbers they can throw down a good saturation attack, especially against static targets. They also make decent advance scouts or infantry support vehicles to add some quick firepower somewhere. But mainly they’re armored busses. Deep insertion, hot landing zones, quick redeployments, pulling injured from the front; these are all things we excel at. Delivering people or equipment to where it needs to go regardless of what stands in the way is what we do best."

"I’m glad to hear you say that," Osmo told her. "As it happens, we have around nine infantry platoons that occasionally need a ride. Two of them spec-ops. If you’re interested we’d be talking multi-year contract. Heavy cross-drilling with our other force components, moving your dependants to our home in the League, rank integration; a long term commitment type of thing. Think it over. If you’re interested here’s my contact number here on Outreach. We can meet at the Hall and iron out the details."

Jenny blinked twice, scarcely daring to believe what she was hearing. She spoke slowly and carefully to make sure her voice stayed even. "That sounds good Captain. We’ll discuss your offer and I’ll get back to you by tomorrow."

"Tomorrow will be fine. We’ll be evaluating armor the rest of today anyway. I look forward to hearing from you Lieutenant."

The Warders exchanged good byes with the Hawk officers and left the tent. They made it about thirty-five meters away before a spontaneous cheer could be heard behind them. Osmo grinned at the other Warders. "I guess they forgot about the lousy sound blocking characteristics of synthetic canvas. Now, before we finally start looking at tanks we have to decide which one of us gets to tell the Major we just hired almost a whole company of VTOLs."

ComStar Mercenary Review Board, Blessed Blake Building, Hearing Room 2A

Harlech City, Outreach 1 May 3052

Adept Toni Lopez adjusted her robe for a better fit as she sat. It was hard to concentrate on the case before her knowing that today was the day it should start. Perhaps she should have considered the ComGuards after all. The ComStar military was perhaps even now locked in struggle with the invading Clans. The biggest shame was that no one outside the blessed order knew yet. There would be no word until it was over. The average Inner Sphere citizen just didn’t understand how hard ComStar worked to safeguard both the old technology and the future of the Inner Sphere. But they would know soon enough that ComStar did more than just operate the devices of interstellar communications. ComStar was the backbone from which the body of civilization was supported. Rubbing at her brow she forced herself to keep her mind on her duties. To her left sat Captain Mathew Corigan of the Light Horse, to her right Major Thomas Scott of the Highlanders. In the last year ComStar had changed the Board structure around several times trying to find a mix acceptable to the Houses and the large mercenary armies of the Inner Sphere that would head off the formation of an independent non-ComStar review structure. What existed now was basically what the new Mercenary Review and Bonding Commission was using. Except they had the backing of the major players of the Inner Sphere while ComStar’s influence was waning through suspicion and doubt. She felt sure such doubt would be laid to rest at Tukayyid. But as it stood today this would likely be her last new case. The two mercenary officers were from outfits at least marginally friendly towards ComStar and served as voting advisors. Technically, she could veto their vote on her own authority but she had never chosen to do so. In truth, she had found them more interesting to work with than the Adepts and Acolytes that had filled their positions in years past.

The procedures of the Review Board were left purposely open in several areas. The Board had free reign to choose what evidence it would entertain and which it would not. How the evidence was obtained was not material to the Board, only it’s veracity. The plaintiff and the defendant were considered as equally weighted before the Board, but the Board was not responsible for creating a level playing field between the two. The two sides were not required to share information or evidence, nor provide each other copies of the briefs they submitted to the Board. More than anything else, this may have lent itself to the charges that the Board could be bought. When a Great House went against a small mercenary company the difference in resources often affected the courtroom. This would not be one of those cases however.

Seated to one side of the hearing room was the Warder faction, on the opposite side the Combine one. Adept Lopez had ordered the media agents cleared from the room. Rightfully, such information dissemination should be in the hands of Blake. But that was a different issue than she considered today. Her and her two Board members were seated high up behind the bench. Opening statements were about to be presented. Making sure the counter attached microphones were off, she glanced over to make sure the court reporter was ready then nodded to each of her fellow Board members. "Are there any observations before we hear opening statements?" she asked them.

"Just that I could buy a retirement villa on the lake for what the Major must be paying for that legal team," mused Captain Corigan.

"Aye laddie. And after reading the briefs I’m thinking that me grandpappy twas right when he said ‘you get what you pay for’."

The Adept hid a smile. Though she would never admit it, the occasionally caustic and often humorous comments of the two officers was a source of much amusement for her. She’d miss them when the Review Board was dissolved. Still, appearances must be maintained. "Then if there’s no important business," she sniffed, " I will open this session."

After the official intonations were completed and everyone sworn in, the Draconis Combine presented it’s case. Chosen to speak for them was a slightly plump Asian woman who had a surprisingly resonating voice.

"Honorable Madame Adept, Honorable Officers of the Board. You have before you our submitted evidence. The specific charges are listed in our brief, but to summarize our presentation I offer the following:

"While employed on Hamano Major Linna and the Suomi Warders did willfully break a contract that, by their own admission, was legally assumed by the Draconis Combine through one of it’s rightful agents, Tai-sa Yamoto. They then willfully ignored the orders of Planetary Governor Yamoto not to engage in battle on Hamano, bringing about serious damage to the city of Jeddah and directly resulting in the deaths of several civilians.

"Following this complete disregard for the legal civil authority of Hamano they spirited away Chu-i Naoko Fujiwara and continue to harbor her. With the Board’s permission I submit to evidence that the woman seated next to Major Linna is indeed Naoko Fujiwara."

"So noted and entered," intoned Lopez.

"She is clearly a Combine citizen and member of the DCMS, thus subject to it’s laws and regulations and not this Board’s. We ask the Board to order her summarily delivered to Tai-sa Yamoto’s custody." Council Taki looked pleased with the presentation but Tai-sa Yamoto sat with a sour look. He still did not believe that this charade should be necessary.

Leena Muyo stood. "Esteemed Adapt Lopez, Esteemed Board Members Captain Corigan and Major Scott; I will present opening summation for Major Linna. You have in your possession our brief as well and as I’m sure you have noticed it tells a different tale. Board precedence from many cases clearly holds that contract matters are to be judged upon what an officer can reasonably assume from an order rather than the specific semantics. As you are no doubt aware, this is to deal with situations to keep within context an order such as "clear the docks". Such an innocuous order could mean to remove all objects from it or to kill everyone upon it. Major Linna realized that the Tai-sa Yamoto was expecting the Warders to fire upon peaceful protestors that the Tai-sa continues to label as dangerous subversives.

"Further more, while his order was of itself a clear violation of the contract that the Tai-sa had assumed, the Ares Conventions are quite clear on the matter of purposely firing on civilians. Additionally, the Conventions also required the Major to defend Hamano from hostile attack regardless of weather the local military authority planned to let the attack occur."

The Combine’s presenter sprang to her feet. "Objection Madame. The Suomi Warders left planetary service and became a free and independent military unit under David Linna in 2795. They are not now, nor can they legally be, signatures to the Conventions. While they may elect to uphold and preserve them, the Suomi Warders are not entitled to use them as a legal shield for their actions."

Perry Tortuga smiled to himself as he saw they had just scored points with the Eridani Light Horse officer and the ComStar Adept. Both organizations still put great stock in the Conventions. But the icing on the cake was still to come.

"I am pleased to see that my esteemed colleague is familiar with the long and protective history of the Suomi Warders," smiled Leena. "However I remind the Board that Major Linna is also a Reserve Officer of the Suomi Defense Force, which is a part of the civil-military of the planet Sampsa which is in turn a member of the Free Worlds League which is in turn a signature of the Ares Conventions. Thus he is sworn to uphold and obey them, something he has repeatedly shown himself willing to do even at great personal risk. I believe the people of Coleson’s Orb can attest to this. The Conventions clearly state that any forces- public or private- under the command of an officer bound by the Conventions is also bound by them. This applies equally to a mercenary forces under the direct control of their Conventions bound officer as well as to employment by by a planetary governor also bound by the Conventions.

"Simply put, the Ares Conventions required Major Linna to refuse to use force against civilians. Also to repel the invaders even though he did not have a contract to do so. The Conventions require all due military aid against pirates, regardless of House affiliation."

"This is absurd," interrupted Tai-sa Yamoto. "You use the Conventions to accuse me of planning war crimes?"

"If the shoe fits," suggested John from his table.

Adept Lopez banged her gavel down several times to restore order. "Tasi-sa Yamoto. You will restrain your outbursts or I will have you removed from these proceedings. Major Linna, all comments are to be addressed to the Board- and had better be relevant or you will join the Tai-sa in cooling your heels in the hallway. Ms. Muyo, please complete your summary."

"As you wish, Madame Adept. As to Chu-I Fujiwara, I wish to first point out that the plaintiffs first claim this Board has no authority over her, then asks you to order her return. If the Board chooses to excuse itself from this matter then we will accept that. We already have a number of worlds prepared to grant Ms. Fujiwara political asylum. If the Board wishes to exert authority in this matter then we point out that Ms. Fujiwara acted as an independent agent in the fighting on Hamano and has an assumed contract arrangement with the Warders. Furthermore she is indebted to them for transport costs and destroying one of their BettleMechs. Thus she cannot be summarily ordered from the Warders ranks with full due process. In a case where a House military claims prior obligation to a member of a private military due process requires a full Court Martial of the central military administration of the plaintiff House. We are prepared to argue her case on Luthien should this Board so order. Lady and Gentlemen of the Board, I rest my summation."

Fortunately for himself, Yamoto was so taken with rage at the absurdity of these claims he was momentarily unable to speak. Otherwise that would have been the end of his presence in the hearing room. Council Taki was forced to admit to himself that they’d been soundly defeated by an able foe. The Ares Conventions defense had been a masterstroke. To argue against such a defense would be to argue against the Conventions- which wouldn’t go anywhere with this Board. Instead of a days long debate of details, Heiro now expected a summary judgement today on the contract issue. What the Board would rule about the Chu-I would prove interesting. Technically a ruling to take it to Luthien should be a victory for his office. But Yamoto’s Warlord clearly did not wish this case moved beyond his private domain. Given the weak political status of the ComStar Review Board it was entirely possible they would rule themselves to have no authority in the issue. If Yamoto still wished to pursue Fujiwara then it would require a civil action in the Free Worlds League legal system. Or, Taki realized darkly, more direct action by unsavory agents. Heiro couldn’t think of any other instance where a Tai-sa had been sent to chase down a lowly junior office. Especially one that hadn’t been wanted in his ranks in the first place. This entire affair had deeper meaning to someone.

Adept Lopez carefully checked that the mics were off before consulting with the Board. "Do either of you wish to either hear witnesses or recess for discussion?"

Captain Corigan was quick to reply. "I’m thinking they should be pinning a medal on Major Linna for risking his people to defend their city rather than dragging him to the Board. He did what any good Eridani officer would have done."

"Aye," agreed Major Scott. "I’ve a mind that the entire Combine complaint tis a sham."

"And as to Chu-i Fujiwara," prompted Lopez.

Corigan leaned back thoughtfully. "That’s a tougher call. I don’t like the thought of an officer deserting her ranks. But she did uphold the Conventions by engaging both the Hamano raiders and the Nova Cats. I’d like to hear further evidence and do some checking of our own before deciding anything."

Scott rubbed at his beard. "I say we put them off for a couple of days to research the matter."

"Sounds good to me," agreed Corigan.

"Then I will abide by your recommendations Gentlemen." The Adept turned the mics back on. "In the matter of contract violation and conducting an unlawful battle this Board finds that the Suomi Warders acted with just cause and will face no penalties. In regards to the legal disposition of Chu-i Naoko Fujiwara the Board will need several days to research the legal precedence and reserves the right to conduct it’s own investigation into the matter. A new hearing date will be communicated to your respective offices by noon tomorrow latest. Chu-i Fujiwara is instructed not to leave Harlech until we have decided upon her case."

The Linna table was both pleased and very surprised at the quick resolution to the first half of the complaint. Amid a round of congratulations the others mistook Naoko’s subdued response as a reaction to having her part of the matter left undecided. In point of fact it was the realization that win or lose she’d be leaving soon that gnawed at her.

"Looks like we’re halfway there," announced John happily.

"Hey John, since this wrapped up way sooner than expected there are a few patent issues I’d like to run by you," Perry told him. "I didn’t want to muddy the waters earlier but since we have the extra time now…"

"Sure, Perry. But I’ll want to brief my unit by seventeen hundred. But then we all go out to a victory dinner. We’ll meet at our hotel at," John paused to do the math and switched to ‘civilian’ time, "say… seven o’clock. My treat Perry so don’t bother padding your expense account."

"Sounds great," laughed Perry.

"May I bring my wife?" Paul wanted to know. John assured him that it was not a problem. In fact, John would be pleased to meet her.

"Naoko, do you mind heading back by yourself? You might need to dodge some reporters," John realized.

"It’s not a problem, Mr Linna," Leena assured him. "Leave her in my care. I know plenty of tricks when it comes to the media."

Naoko smiled. "I will be fine with Ms. Muyo. I will see you at ‘seven o’clock’."

"Great, see you ladies later." Ignoring the Tai-sa’s glare John followed Perry toward a side exit to make his way back to the lawyer’s office while Paul left for home.

"Is something wrong Naoko," Leena asked as she loitered in the now empty hearing room.

"Hai," agreed Naoko. "For one thing, I have only military jumpsuits and this borrowed dress uniform to wear. I do not know what type of clothing is expected at a … business dinner…on this world. "

"Typical men," Leena snorted. "Always charging off making plans without a thought for a girl’s difficulties. You probably haven’t even been paid since you left Hamano either I bet. Well, let me take a good look at you. Yes, I think you’re just about my sister’s size. She’s a club singer so she’s got about three closets full of outfits. I’m sure we’ll find something simply stunning."

"Oh Ms. Muyo, I could not…"

"Hey, call me Leena OK? You are in need of a girl friend right now and I just volunteered. But if it makes you feel better you can call it part of the legal service. Somebody’s going to get pictures of us at dinner no matter what we try so we’ll show a flashy you to the media. The glamour P.R. approach, people just eat that up. Trust me on this one. Besides, it’ll be fun. It’s too bad about your hair. Guess you need it like that for those helmet things you wear huh? Well, maybe a cute hat. Let’s go Naoko, destiny and broken hearts await."

Much later Misty Florens was sitting on her bed leafing through the tech manuals for a Flashman while her roommate was in the bath preparing for a dinner engagement. The dome headed 75 ton BattleMech was in the same weight range of what Misty had been piloting but was in an entirely different universe of tech level. And incredibly, the Warder techs had already told her they planned to mount new computer equipment in it. Even more surprising, they wanted to know if she wanted them to redesign the weapon mix or not. That simply wasn’t done where she had come from. A ‘Mech fought with what it had and if a gun got blown off that couldn’t be refitted only then did you started looking for something else to mount there.

So much had changed in so short a period of time. She moved her arm around in front of her so she could look at the blue trimmed shield with the golden lion again. On her unit patch, a black sphere had been added where a ‘v’ was formed by the bottom of the white shield. It represented Coleson’s Orb. All the ex-CORDF forces wore the modified patch with the Major’s blessing. The Warders seemed to be a dream unit so far. Good pay, good food, good equipment, good comrades…simply a dream unit. Too bad she had been forced to pay so much for the chance to join. Tears threatened to form again and she angrily forced them to cease. She was going to have to let go of her lost comrades. She was going to have to get used to the fact that in her calling she would lose even more of them.

The swish of the door opening was a welcome interruption to her thoughts. Framed in the doorway stood Naoko in her borrowed eveningwear. "Do you think it is all right?" the Combine office asked modestly.

Misty let out a slow whistle of appreciation. "Naoko, you are beautiful. Stunning. Gorgeous. Whatever Japanese is for ‘Wow’."

Naoko looked down shyly. "I know that I wear less piloting a ‘Mech…but this seems so much more…revealing."

She was sheathed in an emerald green cocktail gown. Thin straps bared her shoulders while the clingy material hung down to just above the knee. The back had a deep vee cut into it. Looking closely, one could make out the writhing form of a snake like Eastern style dragon highlighted in a lighter green stitching snaking up the sides. They coiled and rolled as she moved. A pert green hat with wide black mesh that hung halfway down her face rested on her head while low healed green pumps adorned her feet. Naoko had consented to carring the matching handbag even though she had nothing to put in it. She’d also stoically endured twelve pairs of hosiery until the sisters announced that the right shade had been found.

"That’s because an outfit like that is designed to capture attention and invite folks to imagine what might lay underneath."

"Oh," breathed a startled Naoko. "Perhaps I should wear something else."

Misty made a motion toward the clock between their beds with her head. "Unless you plan to borrow my orange sweat suit I think you’re out of time. Honest Naoko, it’s perfect. And I’ve seen plenty of women on this rather warm planet wearing much less that that during the short time we’ve been here. You’re going to turn some heads downstairs, I can promise that. I think a big part is just the difference. We’re used to seeing you as a warrior, as a Samurai. Not as a…"

"As Geisha," supplied Naoko. Actually she had to admit to herself that this was rather fun. She had been a little girl since the last time she had let herself be…well, a girl she guessed.

"Hey, I’m no fashion queen or anything but here’s what you should do. Don’t ride the lift all the way to the lobby. Hop off at the Mezzanine level and glide down that long staircase that leads to the main lobby. The guys will just eat it up. Oh, and wait a few minutes to give me a head start. I want to plant myself at a corner so I can watch all of them watching you."

Misty actually giggled when she hopped up. It had been a long time since she had been simply a girl too.

Naoko’s grand entrance started off just as Misty had planned. Florens took up a spot on the Mezzanine balcony from which she could see the Major talking near the fancy lobby bar with some of his dinner guests. Misty thought he cut a handsome figure in his black and white formal wear with a red cumberbun. He still had that long, thin bladed knife he and many of the Warders carried all the time. She’d been meaning to ask someone what the blade’s significance was. An image of Naoko in her slinky dress and armed with her two Samurai swords slipped into Misty’s mind and she giggled again.

The main desk was several steps from the lobby bar. Across the lobby was a sunken area full of small tables and yet another bar. A good number of Warders were gathered around those tables. Both the tables and the lobby bar had a good view of the grand staircase. This would be perfect. The lift doors opening caught her attention from the corner of her eye and she glanced over to see that Naoko had arrived. The green clad warrior began her decent.

Almost like the Warders below had active radar running many somehow became aware of Naoko’s approach and turned to look. Or gawk, as the case might be. The Major glanced up, started to look back to his lawyer friend, then snapped his eyes back to Naoko where they became mesmerized. "Visual sensors locked on target," Misty mused to herself. She was slightly envious of the Major’s obvious interest. Not because she wanted the attention for herself but more in the general manner that Naoko had someone looking at her that way. Back on the Orb there had been someone that had looked at her like that and she’d been too busy being the perfect sergeant to bother responding. She’d planned to get around to it later. Now he was dead and there wouldn’t be a later.

"Hey Ranger, it’s your roll," prompted Gracie from her side of the backgammon board in the recessed bar area. Sven sat to one side observing the game as the three of them waited for Basem and Jason to arrive. Parks just kept rattling the dice in the cup. "Sampsa to Parks, Sampsa to Parks, please respond Space Cadet Parks," she needled.

He finally did. "Wow," he said.

"That’s something you don’t see every day," agreed Lawman.

Gracie twisted so she could look over her shoulder at whatever it was half the bar seemed to be gawking at. It was probably some decked out floozy with big…her thought process stopped dead as it reset to register what her eyes were reporting. Gracie had noticed when they first met that Naoko was a cute little thing. But whoever had dressed the lady up had done a superb job of presenting the entire package. She’d seen starlets and high society wives make grander impressions – but only rarely. Looking over to where John was hanging out with the lawyers told her that her good buddy the Major was getting an eyeful as well. A very good eyeful.

Maybe, she groused to herself sourly as she sunk back into her seat and focused her eyes on the game board, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if the Chu-i got shipped back to the Combine. Soon.

John found himself drifting towards the staircase in a daze as he watched Naoko nearing the bottom of the stairs. Although the two women looked nothing alike, the last time he had been so captivated was by his ex-wife. His ex was a woman that knew how to make the most of her assets. Naoko was understated in many ways that his ex was a skilled exhibitionist. Still, the green vision was breath taking. His line of sight was suddenly impaired by a brown jacketed shoulder as John absently walked into someone that was crossing his path. The drink John was carrying sloshed some liquid on the large fellow.

"Oh, sorry about that," stammered John as he was startled out of his reverie. "Let me oohhfff." The fist slamming into his stomach effectively curtailed any further apology.

"What did you call me?" roared the giant of a man as he seized John’s biceps and shook him like a rag doll.

Thomas Chan drifted around behind Lynx’s back as the skilled brawler shook the Major. Chan wanted to be where he could keep an eye on the lounge full of the target’s men. He had been worried about finding a way to start the fight when this perfect opportunity arose. Though local rather than Triad trained, Lynx hadn’t even needed Chan’s prompting to take advantage of the situation and had positioned himself perfectly. Although poor at long range thinking, the hulking Lynx showed great prospect. When this was over he’d be held the maximum three weeks while Harlech security tried to bust his self defense claim but in the end they’d have to let him go with a public fighting charge at maximum. After all, some fifteen or twenty of the Major’s own troopers were here to be witnesses.

Confused and disoriented, John felt the vise-like grip slip down his right arm to clamp on his hand. His attacker was then yelling something about drawing a knife as their hands swept up high together. Hie leuko blade flashed in the hotel’s lights as the two of them struggled to control it as it hovered in his grasp just above shoulder level. Except it wasn’t a struggle. The brown coated man had seized full control over both John’s hand and the knife. Somewhere in the back of his head he realized that he was about to get knifed and survival instincts combined with semi-forgotten training to lurch him into action.

John whipped his left arm in a circle motion from the elbow, using the side of his forearm to roll down on and slam away the man’s grip on his upper arm. Struggling against his opponent’s superior strength with his right he bought a few extra heart beats to pull a knee up high for a close-in downward kick into the other’s thigh as his left arm completed it’s downward snap. The kick didn’t have enough power to injure his attacker but it was forceful enough to propel John away from the other’s close embrace and out of range knife range as it slashed through the space he had just vacated. John was able to yank free of the grip on his right hand after the missed knife thrust. The blade fell to the floor as John stumbled backwards and crashed into a luggage cart. The cart tipped over spilling bags everywhere as he crashed down and over the cart.

Lynx spared a quick glance at Chan to see if he should finish it or not. It seemed that the chance to make it seem like self defense had passed. Chan gave a nod. Finish the kill. Thomas reached for his concealed flechette pistol as Lynx scooped up the knife. They’d have to pin this on the Combine after all. On the chance such a deception would prove needful they had left Timmons in the car while Chan had escorted Lynx. Most people couldn’t tell a Japanese face from a Chinese one. Utter some Japanese to be overheard and the seed was placed. They had evidence to plant later to complete the ruse. Chan sensed danger before he completed his draw and looked behind him to see the green clad beauty that had made all of this possible charging him at top speed. He immediately saw in her eyes that she was intent on attacking him.

He almost got the gun up into play but she swept an outside circle kick around that caught his hand and sent the gun flying. Rather than making the mistake of trying to recover from such an attack, she let the momentum spin her around and slightly to his side. Chan threw up a high guard with one arm and brought his knee up in a leg check against either the spinning backhand or side kick he was expecting from her. But instead she managed to plant the original kicking foot on the carpet where it came down with enough force to arrest the remainder of her spin and fire a straight back-kick with the other leg directly into the middle of his chest. He staggered back gasping for breath as his sternum was forced in, compressing his rib cage.

Chan backpedaled and crouched, putting up the best guard he could muster until he recovered enough air to attack but she then went after Lynx rather than press her attack against him.

John saw stars as he rapped his head against something hard but willed himself to keep moving. Bags both soft and hard skinned shifted beneath him as he tried to scramble to his feet. The big guy suddenly loomed over him again, this time directly wielding John’s knife. As the blade came down for him John managed to get a small suitcase between them to deflect the blow.

Naoko took three skipping steps towards John’s attacker and launched an all out round-house kick. The knee came up first then the leg extended out to whip the foot around as her hips rotated over the half hop of the set foot. This combined to put as much muscle power and centrifugal force into the attack as possible. She preferred shoes over bare feet for this kick. Most people don’t realize how easy it is to break a toe or upper foot bone when using many of the more powerful kicks. Her attack landed low on his exposed ribs, eliciting a grunt of pain that coincided with a slight cracking sound. She wondered if it had been a rib or a toe but she was already in her fighting void. It would require more than a broken toe to distract her.

As her entire momentum was stopped by his mass, she required a quick moment to regain her balance before attacking again. She was trying to back out a bit when his large arm came spinning around almost impossibly fast. Naoko threw a high forearm block up just barely in time to meet it but the strength difference was too great for her direct blocking move. Her arm was bashed back into her as the backhand caught her in the shoulder with enough force to knock her four steps back and into the bar.

"Go, go, go," Thomas was yelling in Japanese as he recovered his pistol and started for the entrance. Lynx didn’t understand the language but he easily caught his employer’s meaning. It was time to run while they could. A sizable number of mercenaries were just starting to come out of their seats. Lynx hopped the overturned cart and headed for the door.

Chan sprayed two flechette shots at the mercenaries, causing them to dive for cover. Knowing that these Warders did not swagger around with handguns he had no concern about return fire. Although most wore the slightly curved knives Thomas knew he’d be outside to the waiting car before anyone could intercept him. He thought about killing the woman that had dared strike him but professionalism won out and he fired the remaining flechettes at the assigned target. Proving that he was not as inept as he had first appeared to be, the Major managed to tip the metal luggage cart up on one side and use the heavy steel base for cover. Thomas thought he scored an arm hit but didn’t take the time to confirm the damage. Both Lynx and he brushed past a startled doorman in his silly gold tasseled uniform. The pair spilled into a waiting hovercar that then shot out into traffic under the skilled control of the third team member. The car was stolen and would be found later that night a burned out wreck. Bad luck might cause them to miss, but they were too skilled a team to leave easy evidence lying about. Lynx had even held onto the knife so that it wouldn’t be available for prints.

General pandemonium broke out in the hotel lobby as civilians scrambled about wondering if it was all over while some Warders chased out the revolving doors in vain pursuit of the fleeing assailants as others rushed toward their CO as he extracted himself from the fallen bags. Those that had rushed outside found Captain Woods and his tank hunters arriving on foot shouting for answers about just what was going on. Being the closest to him, Naoko reached John several moments before anyone else could get there. He asked if she was all right at the same time she noted that he was hurt, then for a brief instant they simply looked into each other’s face.

Then John abruptly looked away and started walking toward the central lobby. "Thank you Chu-i, looks like you saved me from my own stupidity." He looked across to where Sven, Gracie and Frank were quickly approaching. "Was anyone hit?"

They slowed and looked behind them. The general consensus seemed to be that no one had been struck. With one exception.

"You got shot," Gracie bluntly pointed out.

"It’s just a graze. I’ve had worse." He started walking towards the lift.

"Major. You’re bleeding," protested Sven. "John!" he forcefully added as the Major waved him off and kept walking.

John stopped and looked at the blood that had seeped through and darkened the fabric just below his shoulder. He clinched the muscle then tried moving the arm. It stung but worked fine. He had escaped with a very minor flesh wound. Still, he supposed he should have it looked at. But he refused to stay down here and be gawked at by everyone. He’d seen Osmo arrive; his exec could handle whatever follow-up this stupid mess required. "Yes, you’re right. Someone kindly send the doctor to my room. Perry, I’m afraid I’ll have to take a rain check on dinner. If security needs some sort of statement I’ll be in my room. My apologies everyone."

Then, leaving a stunned audience behind him, he stepped into the open lift doors and disappeared from sight. The three MechWarriors exchanged puzzled looks as Osmo waded into the lobby still trying to get a handle on what had just occurred.

Frank looked back from the lift doors to his two friends. "Can anyone give me a clear read on this? I didn’t even see it start. First Noako’s coming down the stairs then she’s kicking some guy that pulls a gun while some other guy is trying to knife the Major. She saves his bacon and then the gun guy’s shooting at everyone and John pops up and says ‘Thanks for saving me. By the way, I just got shot so I’m going up to my room.’ Did he get smacked in the head or something? And what the frack was he apologizing about just now. "

Gracie’s and Sven’s puzzled looks turned to worried ones.

"Somebody give me a blessed report!" demanded Captain Woods loudly. As most of the Warders and guests exchanged blank looks Naoko stepped forward.

"Captain-san. The Major and I were to join the legal team in dinner tonight. As I was coming down the stairs I saw the Major and another man accidentally bump into each other. The man struck the Major and they struggled. As the Major’s knife came out a second man pulled a handgun. I was able to disarm him then attack the first one who was trying to stab the Major. I was struck and pushed away while the second man recovered his gun and fired shots into the lounge and at the Major. They ran outside Sir." She noticed something at her feet and knelt to pick up the discarded leuko scabbard.

Osmo stared at Naoko in disbelief. "John Linna got in a bar fight and pulled a night?"

"Hai," nodded Naoko in sorrow.

"No, wait!" called a voice from the stairs. "It didn’t happen that way."

They turned to find Misty rushing down the stairs. "Those men where trying to kill him," she asserted.

"Uh, we kinda scanned that one from the gunfire Misty," frowned Gracie.

"No, I mean from the start. It was a set up. I was up there at the corner watching everyone down here when Naoko was on the stairs. I saw the whole thing. The big guy was watching the Major and had to sidestep to make Major Linna run into him. Before the Major even had a chance to react the guy slugged him twice and grabbed him. To me it looked like it was the big guy who pulled the Major’s knife and then held his sleeve and waved the knife around for a moment. To make sure someone saw I guess. Only then did he try to stab Major Linna.

"After the Major pushed away and fell over the cart I know I saw the big guy look to the Asian guy for some sort of signal. And when the Asian guy ran out he fired twice at the lounge then unloaded the rest of his pistol at the Major when Naoko was standing right there. This didn’t look like a simple bar fight from where I was standing."

Osmo rubbed his eyes. An assassination attempt against the Major? He’d rather believe that than think John was waving knives around in a bar fight; but still- it seemed a little far fetched. But then again it wasn’t looking too good in the courtroom for the Combine Colonel right now and they did have that Flashman they was in the process of tracking. Not to mention one of the actual pirates. Misty had said an Asian guy fired on John. Maybe it wasn’t so far fetched after all.

"Everyone listen up," rang out Osmo. "Until we know otherwise we assume that someone’s after the Major and maybe some of us too. Lieutenant Foster, I want some of your troopers in the Major’s hallway ASAP. And from this point forward everyone wears sidearms. If you don’t own one see Lieutenant Foster who will assign one to you. Lieutenant Parks, find Nelson immediately and bring him here. He’s a logical target. Fujiwara…" Osmo paused as he realized that although she was a logical target as well, according to what he’d just heard the gunman hadn’t bothered to shoot at her. Still, for appearances;"…stay close to Florens in case they decide they want a crack at you too. Lieutenant Runeburg, get back to the hangars and check our security. Did anyone get a hold of the Doctor? ….Good, thanks. Am I missing anything?" The last part was directed at Sven and Gracie.

"How about those security consultant guys we took to Hamano with us," mentioned Sven. "They should be good at interviewing and putting an overall picture together. They work for one of the Major’s companies so we should be able to trust them. I think the Major has them overseeing the kid’s from the Orb."

"Good idea, they can look for clues or whatever," added Gracie. She had a thing or two she wanted them to check.

"Sounds reasonable," nodded Osmo. "I’ll call them and have them get over here as soon as they can. Everyone else, return to the lounge area. I’ll need to interview everyone and that’s going to take a while so make yourselves comfortable."

As Woods moved off talking into his hand-cell Sven nudged Gracie and nodded towards Noako. She was absently turning the empty knife sheath over and over in her hands. They stepped close so they could talk to her quietly.

"You look pretty down for someone that probably just saved John’s life," Sven told her.

She looked up at them. "Captain Woods thinks I might be involved.’

"How can you say that," argued Sven. "We all saw you take on the knife guy."

"The man with the gun, the Asian man," she noted with a heavy emphasis on the word ‘Asian’, "could have shot me but chose not to. Captain Woods is your Intelligence as well as your Combat Communications officer. He noticed. It is his job to notice. It is his job to wonder at such things."

"That’s silly Naoko. We know you wouldn’t be part of anything that would try to hurt John," disagreed Sven.

"There’s something else, isn’t there?" asked Gracie.

"Hai," admitted Naoko. "I have offended the Major-san’s honor and cost him face."

Sven started to object again but Gracie silenced him with a light touch so that Chu-I Fujiwara could continue without interruption.

"I saw it in his eyes. I interfered with his fight. I made him look foolish saving him in this silly dress. There are many Samurai that would rather die than be saved by a woman from a fight they had not lost yet. I should not have attacked the second man. I am dishonored by costing the Major face before his unit."

"You can’t be serious," breathed Sven. But he saw that she was. He knew the concept of ‘face’ was important in the Combine, but for the most part Naoko had seemed so…modern and League-like so far. Sven looked helplessly to Gracie.

Gracie took a deep breath and closed a vice around her heart.

"Naoko, listen to me. I understand what you’re saying and you’re somewhat right. He was embarrassed. He thought he’d accidentally started a bar fight that got the rest of us fired on. Maybe he even felt stupid because he was getting his tail whipped. That’s why he acted like a grade A idiot just now. But you did nothing wrong. If Misty is right and this was all a set up then you just saved John from assassination and he’ll need all of us to stay sharp and alert because they’re probably going to try again. But you must understand in your heart the most important part.

"The Warders are not old school Samurai. Yes, we are warriors that share some Bushido traits and yes we have our own system of ‘face’. But it’s not the same as you’re used to. No one here is going to think any less of John because some guy the size of a DropShip messed him up or because it was you that saved him rather then big ol’ Sven here. You have not caused any dishonor to the Major. John’s that rarest of finds, Naoko. A reasonable man. Pretty soon he’ll start to think through the whole thing and a while after that he’ll realize what an ass he was. Give him some time then go to him Naoko. He’ll want to talk, to…apologize. You don’t have to fear the same old problems of Yamoto and his type with us. Or with John."

Naoko bowed in gratitude to he taller woman. "Hai, thank you Aukland-san. I…do not know what to say."

"Just go," motioned Gracie toward the direction of the lifts. "I’ve got to check with Ranger to see if he’s turned up Jason yet."

With another nodding bow, Naoko retreated back towards her room.

Sven squinted at Gracie. "I admit I’m just a big unreasonable man, but did I miss something or did you just basically send our little Combine beauty up to John’s room?"

Gracie sighed heavily as she watched Naoko heading away from them. "Not exactly like you mean. Hell, maybe sort of like you mean. Farg-it, I don’t even know what I mean. They’re both adults, I guess they’ll work it out."

He shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "I’d noticed that he seemed somewhat interested in her. It’s not really my business, but I always sort of thought that you and John would …you know…get back together some day."

"Sometimes me too Lawman. But John and I both know it can’t work. Same problem as the first go round. Leave us alone together too long and we always end up reminding each other of all we’ve lost. The hurt we share is the biggest part of what we share. That which bonds us as friends also separates us as soul mates. Ah hell, listen to me. I sound like a damn poet or something. And a bad one at that." The waver left her voice. "What were you doing tonight Sven?"

"Nothing now. I was going to keep an eye on Jason and Frank to make sure they stayed out of trouble. Earlier they had planned to sneak over and play some TechWarrior but I don’t think that’s on the itinerary anymore. Why?"

"Because I have a rare urge to get very drunk tonight. As I don’t plan to do it here in a bar full of fellow Warders I need someone to make watch my tail and make sure I make it back to the hotel when it’s time to start puking."

"I’ve got your six covered Goose. You can always count on that."

"You’re the best Lawman. And even reasonably reasonable. Tell you what. Let’s pull rank to make our reports first then ditch these uniforms."

Upstairs John paced about his suite like an angry caged animal. The analogy was wasn’t far off though anger was directed at himself and the cage of his own construct. Nothing kept him within the room except his unwillingness to leave. Doctor Sengali had recently left after inspecting then bandaging his arm. Flechette weapons often left a shredded mess for a wound that was difficult to deal with medically. But only a few of the dozens of strips had actually hit him and those had likely been ricochets. With their low penetrating power, the rest of the flechettes had been deflected by the cart base. The Doctor fished out the few in John’s arm, disinfected as a precaution, and bandaged him up. Sensing John’s mood, the Doctor had wisely elected to keep his questions to himself and withdraw immediately upon finishing.

As he prowled between the three rooms John felt an irrational need to break something. He’s been mooning over Naoko like a high school boy then idiotically caused a fight with the biggest guy in the lobby. A fight in which he had been handily thrashed before many of his troopers. Not exactly a stirring recommendation of his prowess as a warrior. And the knife thing- what was that all about? He was no puukko-junkkarit. He knew next to nothing about knife fighting. Had he really panicked so badly that he’d pulled his knife against an unarmed man? What if he’d been carrying his sidearm?

The guy’s friend had been carrying. Not only had John gotten himself shot at, far worse was that he had endangered his people for absolutely no reason. And Naoko; he shuddered to think about it. Had the guy elected to fire on her rather than himself she’d have been seriously wounded. Maybe even killed. And all because she looked good in a dress and he couldn’t keep his thoughts where they belonged. Then to top it all of, after she’d trashed her dress saving his pathetic butt instead of being thankful he’d been angry at needing saving. His luggage caught his eye. He rarely bothered to put his stuff in the drawers or the dressers and tended to just lay his bags out on luggage stands and any other flat surface. The next few minutes were spent working off angry energy by slamming his bags around the bed chamber.

The door buzzer sounded, snapping John out of his self-directed temper tantrum. Looking around he saw that he’d managed to make quite a mess. Scooping up the closest shirt he could find he threw it on and went to the front door, making sure to slide the bed chamber door shut to hide the mess. He found his executive officer and Ty Wilson, one of the corporate security guys from his Myrmidon Company, waiting on the other side. Osmo brushed past him before John could say anything with Ty in tow.

John snorted as he saw what they carried. "Come on in and make yourself comfortable. I see my performance was so stirring you’ve decided to stuff me into body armor and strap a gun to me."

"Major, this stuff is because someone is trying to kill you. And I mean preplanned assassination, not out-of-control bar fight," snapped Osmo.

The Captain’s heated delivery was enough to slow John down for a moment. He noticed that Osmo was wearing a holstered gun. Standing Warder orders forbade sidearms during non-mission periods except when a clear and present danger was evident. "I’m still thinking it was all just a stupid accident but I’m willing to listen to what you have to say," he allowed.

Osmo nodded to Ty, who set down the gun case and laid out their observations.

"One of your MechWarriors happened to be watching you when the altercation started and swears that the man you bumped into – we’re calling him Lunk for now until we get a positive I.D. – walked into you on purpose. She also said he immediately attacked you before you even managed to get a word out. Most guys in a bar fight want to exchange taunts before throwing punches. The bar tender hadn’t seen Lunk until the day we showed up. The guy’s been hanging around the hotel since that day.

"The other one, we’re calling him Gunner, had been hanging around the same amount of time but so far none of the staff remembers seeing the two of them together. Yet Gunner pulls a concealed weapon, fires to keep your troop’s heads down, and then unloads everything at you while running for a waiting get away car. Too many things wrong there for a simple case of overreaction. Why not shoot Ms. Fujiwara? She’d just beat the snot out of him. Why shoot at you to help Lunk? Until then there was no connection between them. And having a waiting car was a necessity should a hit go wrong but a tip off that it was a hit. The first assumption is that a Combine faction is behind this of course. They have the most direct connection and there is some weak evidence from the language use and facial features of Gunner. But we can’t rule out some sort of revenge from the remains of some pirate group or raider outfit that you’ve tangled with. Although I lean towards a professional hit team rather than pirates. My gut feeling was that this was all staged to look like a simple bar fight gone tragic. Despite the fact they failed, I’d say this team was damn good. They almost pulled it off."

Analyzing it again, John could see that he never had decided to pull the knife out. Suddenly Lunk’s hand was on his and the knife was there too. It would also explain why Gunner emptied an entire clip at him. "Come to think of it, I think I’ve seen that Gunner guy somewhere before."

"Maybe following you around. It would be helpful if you could remember where Mr. Linna."

The bitter chill of fear washed through John as he considered the possibility. Odd as it might sound, knowing a couple of guys were lurking about the city planning to kill him with a knife or pistol was a much scarier proposition than facing down an enemy ‘Mech armed with several tons of weaponry. "Your thoughts Osmo?"

"I think it’s linked to the Hamano contract somehow. We’ve got both Jason and one of their ‘Mechs and maybe somebody knows we do. I already have some friends breaking down the Flashman’s history and some preliminary information on it. But this wasn’t an official Combine Op. They’d send a DEST team to simply pop you without witnesses, not try to set up a public ‘accident’. You’d go to bed tonight and wake up dead tomorrow morning."

John scowled. "Thanks for the happy thoughts Osmo."

"Sorry Sir, I was just thinking out loud. The point is someone laid out some big money to have you killed but now we know and can take precautions. If they really desire an ‘accidental’ killing they may not even try again. But just in case they try a car jacking or something I’d like you to wear that light grade vest under your clothing and carry Boomer."

John glanced at the dark colored gun case. Within was a 90 year old slug thrower, a perfectly working heirloom from his grandmother’s side of his family. It was a replica of a side arm used over a thousand years ago. His Great Grandfather and then his Grandmother had both been fond of antique firearms. This one bore the stamping Colt M9111 on it, although his Grandmother always swore that the manufacturer had gotten it wrong and the markings should be M1911 for the year it went into general service with an ancient Terran army. The internal parts were of modern metals but the pistol was still designed to fire a heavy subsonic round rather than the smaller caliber, high velocity rounds favored by current gun makers. If family legends were to be believed the trusty .45 had seen it’s two previous owners out of a few tight jams. Family history failed to record who had first named it Boomer. He opened the case and withdrew the pistol. If nothing else, it’s weight was comforting.

"It’s funny how little guns have changed," he mused. "Alright, you’ve convinced me. So now what are you recommending we do about it."

After the briefing session had finished and the two men had left John felt a little better. Still somewhat spooked, but better. His anger had faded although he still felt stupid for the way he had behaved immediately afterward. As he hadn’t fired Boomer in at least seven months, he stripped the pistol down being careful not to get any of the gun oil on his clothing. On Gracie’s jersey he realized. He hadn’t gotten around to returning it and it had been the closest shirt at hand when he had hastily reached for one. That reminded him he needed to go straighten up his clothes when his hand-cell beeped twice. That was a sign from the hall guard that someone safe was about to knock on his door. A few moments later the door buzzed once again.

Grinning ruefully to himself he went over to it. He had to admit he had this coming. Thumbing the lock he pulled it open. "Hey Gra….Naoko," he corrected in surprise.

Naoko paused for a moment to steady her breathing. "Major-san, I wish to apologize for…." She was stopped by the light touch of his finger on her lips. As her eyes had been cast down she hadn’t seen his hand moving to hush her.

"No Naoko, it’s me that needs to do the apologizing. You saved my life, apparently from actual assassins, and my first impulse was to nurse my bruised ego. I acted like an idiot. My best excuse is that my brain was impaired by the beating I was taking. So I’ll use it. I hope you can forgive me."

"It is not my place to forgive you. You have done and risked so much for others; so much for me."

A sharp pang of guilt ran through John. She still didn’t know that he had ordered her Kintaro disabled and unwittingly started the chain of events that had lead to her being with the Warders. But he’d do it again in a heartbeat he realized. He gently tilted her chin up so he could see her eyes. "Hey, what happened to the confident MechWarrior who defies DCMS Colonels and faces down Vultures? I’m not even in your chain of command. It’s your place to smack me upside the head if I deserve it."

Naoko smiled. She’d spent her life struggling against the traditional subservient role of a proper Combine officer’s daughter. Where had this sudden change in her demeanor come from? "Perhaps it is the clothing. I do not feel much like a warrior dressed like this," she mused.

"Well you look lovely. And you sure managed to move like a warrior. Although it looks like you put some wear and tear on your gown. Lost your hat too huh?"

That caused her to remember the sheath clutched behind her back. "Hai, I lost the hat. This is yours from downstairs."

He withdrew his hand from it’s gentle touch upon her chin and took the empty knife scabbard. He turned it over a few times while gazing at it. "Looks like we both lost something. This was an academy graduation present. I suppose I won’t be seeing the leuko again."

"I am sorry that it was lost… John."

"Wasn’t your fault. I’ll just have to learn to take better care of the things I care about I guess."

They looked into each other’s eyes and John saw something that he firmly told himself was only in his imagination. And even if it wasn’t, after dragging the woman hundreds of light years across space and putting her in a position where she was forced to live off of his largess he couldn’t take advantage of her. All she had at the moment was the clothes on her back and her BattleMech. And the clothes probably were probably borrowed while the Combine would likely try to claim the ‘Mech. It was time to start taking that better care he had just been speaking of.

"Naoko, I’m very sorry about my behavior after the fight.Hopefully you can forgive me. Maybe we can meet for breakfast and go over our legal options and your plans for after the hearing. It’s in three days by the way. Totuga told me earlier that a date had been set. Maybe in a night or two we can try the dinner thing again. Perhaps a bit more casual this time. And no gunmen."

She had thought he was going to invite her in. She thought she would have accepted. But now they both sensed that the moment had passed.

"Hai. We shall talk tomorrow John. There is no need for forgiveness between us. Sleep well John."

"And you Naoko."

They exchanged shallow bows then he watched her walk down the hallway for a few moments. He ached for something he hadn’t really though much about for a few years. Between this fierce urge and his recent surges of anger, embarrassment and fear he was emotionally wrung out. Boomer and his clothes could wait for the morning. He needed to hit the sack. As he entered the bedroom and stripped off the Bull Dogs jersey he knew there was someone else he should apologize to as well. Several someones actually but one special someone deserved a personal apology rather than the group one he now planned to deliver sometime tomorrow. Using the phone by the bed he called Gracie’s room.

She wasn’t there. He thought about buzzing her on the hand-cell unit but she was probably doing something important so he decided not to interrupt her. He’d try her again a little later. John lay back on the bed with his suit pants and shoes still on. He didn’t stir again until morning.

Draconis Combine Compound Harlech City, Outreach 30 April 3052

Far across town Heiro found that sleep eluded him. Thus he was still awake and sitting in his home study during the early morning hours when the Dragoon courier delivered the data-disk. It was an unusual hour and unusual method for a delivery, but the message was from an unusual source.

It had been a communications channel that Heiro had been reluctant to use. But his usual connections, built upon the ebb and flow of Draconis giri – the mixed pulls of duty to one’s Lords, friends, family, and nation- had failed to reach the levels he was trying to reach. Thus Council Taki had made a discreet contact with a surprised Major Michi Noketsuna of the Dragoons. The commander of the Dragoon Intelligence Group had the required contacts and sufficient interest in the overall affair to arrange delivery of Heiro’s inquiries to the proper levels on Luthien. Heiro sat for a long time pondering the possible ramifications of what he had done. The sun was rising over the horizon before he finally placed the disk in his system and started the decryption process.

What he found on it was both defeat and salvation.


Chapter Index
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