For tonight, I thought I'd start posting the squeal to "Snakedance". This was my first solo effort, even though I left Rob's name on, as he was still very much a part of the process. This was the first (and up to now, the only) time I used one of my own designs in a story (The Rattlesnake was about 98% Rob's work). I hope you enjoy the opening act:
Tales of the Headhunters: Wozniak's Wraiths #2Duel
Craig A. Reed, Jr. ((c)1995 Robert Madson and Craig A. Reed Jr., 2005 Rewrite by Craig A. Reed Jr.)
Nunivack CommandChirikof Operations Area, Federated CommonwealthMarch, 3051
A Clan ’MechWarrior walks into a bar. . . . Doesn't that sound like the beginning of a bad joke? Well, not in this case. When this joker walked into the wrong bar, it ended with a duel. But I should start at the beginning.
The Annul Bar is in the city of Sharpsberg, Antietam’s capital city. It's supposed to be a replica of a type of old Earth bar that's called a Pub. Inside, the oaken beams, wooden tables and soft lighting combine to give the place a cozy feeling. The only jarring exception to the feel are certain reminders of the outside world, like the large Kuritan Banner that hangs behind the bar, the spoil of a raid years ago. Several pieces of Mech armor, tarnished by age, yet still showing the insignia of the dead 'Mech's unit, were scattered about the walls. To some, it's a little uncomfortable, but to us it's home.
It's the favorite bar of my outfit, known more by their nickname of Mallory's Headhunters then as their official designation as the Antietam Guards, for several reasons. First, its near the fortress that houses our HQ when we're on planet. Second, it serves great food and drink at decent prices. And third, and the most important, Its owned by one of us, Regimental Sergeant Major Grady Hachkaser (Ret.), a man who keeps us well supplied with drink and advice on anything, asked for or not.
There was a good crowd in the bar tonight, mostly Headhunters, both active and retired, with a few locals who braved the atmosphere. The four of us, Myself, Mikki, Tony, and Corlin, had managed to snag our favorite booth in the back, away from the bar itself, in order to quietly celebrating several things. The first was that we were finally getting some down time at home after nearly a year of playing tag with Clanners. Another reason was that we be staying for a while, training some newbees in the fine arts of mayhem and destroying ’Mechs. Third, we were tasked with pulling together another ’Mech company to fill out our battalion. The last thing to celebrate was my promotion to Captain of said company.
"How did old 'Happy' take the fact they promoted you ?" asked Mikki with a lopsided grin.
"Major Hart took it the same way she takes everything that involves me," I replied, sipping my beer. " She scowled at me in her sweet and gentle way and threaten to shoot me if I got out of line."
That brought a round of chuckles from everyone, including Corlin. In the last year, our Clan bondsman had loosened up a lot, though there were still times he could be reserved. It had taken him a few months to adjust to the idea that we weren’t a Mercenary unit, which the Clans don’t really like, but he was settling into his new life now. At the current time, he was well on his way to snagging the four slot in my new Command Lance, so the next time we went out, he would be going with us.
The Clans had stopped their invasion near the end of last year, for exactly what reason we weren’t sure of. Rumors that the Clan’s IlKhan, their leader, had been killed in some battle in Rasalhague Republic persisted, though the Clans could have just been rearming and placing themselves for their next wave of attacks. Whatever the reason, we were pulled back for rebuilding. We had taken losses, but there were several Clan-held worlds who had felt our opinion of their invasion.
“You thought about who you’re going to have in the company?” Tony asked. He had filled in as Lance Sargent so well, when I got the company, he naturally ended up as my Company Sargent, the senior NCO.
“The Major is sending over a list of candidates,” I replied. “She’s promised a good selection.”
“Have you decided what’s the Company’s nickname is going to be?” Mikki asked. Short, petite, she looks like everyone’s kid sister. But Corlin found out the hard way that under that little sister image is a dirty and vicious fighter. He had suggested that he demonstrated what a trial of grievance was. Mikki volunteered and got a little carried away in the demonstration. It only took Corlin two weeks before he stopped limping. . . .
“Wozniak’s Warriors?” Corlin suggested.
“Williams’ company over in Third Bat is already known as the Warriors,” Tony replied.
“Besides,” I said, “We’re going to be a fast attack company, not one of the sluggers.” Before the Clans showed up, each Headhunter battalion had been made up of two medium, two light ’Mech companies, an aerospace company and a company of infantry. Now the battalions were being rebuilt as one assault-heavy command company, a medium-heavy company, and two light-medium companies, with a heavy aerospace company and a reinforced armored infantry company. My company was going to be one of the light-medium companies, built on speed and mobility.
“So we’re going to be fast moving and hard hitting?” Mikki asked.
“That’s the plan.”
“Like ghosts,” Corlin whispered.
“Or,” said Tony, with a smile. “Like Wraiths.”
“Wozniak’s Wraiths?” Mikki said, trying out the name. “I like it.”
“I, too find it fitting,” said Corlin.
“That’s three in favor,” Tony said. “What about you, Boss?”
“Thanks for including me in the discussion,” I said sarcastically. “And suppose I say no?”
“You’re outvoted, Boss. Wozniak’s Wraiths it is.”
I sighed. “Whose turn to buy the beer ?" I asked.
“Yours,” replied the three of them in unison.
"Figured," I said in a wounded tone of voice.
“Hey, boss, look at it this way,” said Tony as I stood up. “You're now making enough to pay off your bar tab.”
"Not if I have to buy you guys beer all the time," I shot back over my shoulder as I made my way through the tables to the bar.
Grady himself was behind the bar, a short, wiry man with a bald head and a hook nose. He smiled at my approach, and asked for my order. I placed my order, three Golden Lion beers and a bottle of Fulgar's for myself, and stood there taking to Grady for several minutes. The conversation had just gotten around to my bar tab, and when it was going to be paid off, when the front door slammed open.
A pair of giants strode through the door. They stood there like a couple of oversized bookends for several seconds, then stepped aside to let a normal size human through the door. If the two unarmored Elementals hadn't been a giveaway, the joker who strode in couldn't have been mistaken for anything else but a Clan ’Mechwarrior. The place had fallen silent at the appearance of the Elementals, but you could have heard a pin drop when the ’Mechwarrior stalked in like he owned the place.
He was slightly shorter than me, but broader. His dark hair was cut close to the scalp, which revealed a mass of fine scars running across his skull. His features, battered and scared from years of combat, were screwed up as if he smelled something bad. A green Falcon was tattooed on his left cheek, which didn't leave any doubt which outfit he was a part of. A slim blonde followed him in, her expression tempered with anxiety, and stood next to the Elementals by the front door.
He looked around in disgust, staring at each person in the room one at a time. He made eye contact with me, and I stared back at him with a look of disdain, and I smiled as he broke eye contact first. He finished giving the room, and the people in it, the once over, then headed for my lancemates in the corner.
By a quirk of fate, we were the only Mechwarriors in the bar at the time. The rest of the patrons that night were a mix of techs, off-duty infantry, and others that weren't human in the eyes of most Clanners. No, this jerk was looking for a fight, and he pick my Lance for it.
He stood there at the table for several seconds, looking over my friends like he was picking out a clean pair of socks. He zeroed in on Corlin and said in a scornful voice "Corlin, is it not ?"
"It is," Corlin replied in a low voice, meeting the newcomer gaze "What brings you here, Tosig?"
Tosig's smile was cold and bleak as he replied " I am just looking around. I like to know where Freebirth scum hide when they are not in battle."
"You will not find what you are looking for."
"Are you so really sure?" The sneer was completely in place now. " That is a revelation coming from such a poor excuse of a warrior."
"I was beaten in battle, in fair fight." By the tone of his voice, the poor kid was on the verge of challenging this joker to combat.
"Maybe." Tosig look at the others at the table, then zeroing in on Mikki. His smile was cold. "Or maybe there were. . . . other reasons?" The tone in his voice left no doubt on what he was implying.
I saw Mikki's face redden, which meant one of two things; either she was embarrassed, which I don't think she's been since she was twelve. What was more likely was that she was getting mad, which meant Tosig was seconds away from digesting eight centimeters of steel the hard way. And the dark looks that Tony and Corlin were giving Tosig, they weren't going to stop her. I saw Mikki's eyes narrow and her hand disappeared under the table. One more insult, and the Jade Falcons would be short one ’Mechwarrior.
The loss of Tosig wouldn't keep me or anyone else in the bar awake at night, but I really didn't want to explain to the Colonel why we had a stiff Clanner on our hands. As the Household troops for the Duke of Antietam, anything we do, say, or cause reflects on the Duke and his Family. Colonel Mallory's Father is the Duke, and one day the Colonel will trade the CO slot for that role. So I did what I thought was right at the time.
"HEY! TIN FACE!" I yelled "YOUR FATHER KNEW YOUR MOTHER!"
That got his attention. He turned slowly, his face a mask of anger. "Were you talking to me?" he asked in a slow, measured tone.
"No, I was talking to the banner on the wall," I replied, motioning to the Kuritan pennant "But it has more sense then you, and doesn't talk back. Less arrogant too."
He took two steps towards me, the arrogant sneer replaced by fury. "YOU DARE TALK TO ME LIKE THAT?" he bellowed, spitting out each word like an autocannon round. "I am Star Captain Tosig of the -"
"I don't care if you're the ghost of General Kerensky himself," I shot back, my voice surprisingly level. "You've no right to walk in here, make lewd suggestions about my people, and generally act like a spoiled two-year-old. You've two choices here." I held up my finger. "You can walk out of here with your pet Neanderthals, climb back on your dropship, blast off, and never set foot on Antietam again." I held up a second finger "Or you can be carried back to your dropship by your pet Neanderthals. Now, which will it be?"
It took him all of two seconds to make up his mind. With a bellow that would have done an elephant proud, he charged me. His first kick would have finished me right there had I stayed. As it was, I barely moved out of the way in time, and I heard the wood splinter as his kick connected with the bar. He spun towards me in time to catch two hard lefts and a right uppercut that snapped his head back. He staggered back, his eyes unfocused and glazed, his nose leaking a stream of red. He shook his head to clear his vision, and they refocused on me, and the hate and contempt he had for me was burning there, brighter then before.
He attacked me again, this time more deliberately. He caught me with a hard left to the jaw that snapped my own head to the left, followed by a right hook to the ribs that hurt. I stepped back, and as he threw an overhand right for my head, I stepped inside and hit him in the gut as hard as I could. As his breath exploded from his lungs, I grabbed his right wrist and upper arm and use a good old judo throw to toss him onto the middle of a nearby table with enough impact to collapse the table. The table’s patrons dove out of the way as the table disintegrated, leaving a stunned Tosig lying in a mix of booze, half eaten food, chips, shattered glasses and smashed dishes.
As I moved forward to finish the job, a huge pair of arms pinned my arms to my side. I thought an Elemental had joined in and began to struggle, but the voice that was bellowing in my ear was a familiar one.
"CAPTAIN WOZNIAK! IT'S ME, SERGEANT MAJOR DREGONOV. STOP FIGHTING. IT'S OVER."
It took several seconds for Dregonov's voice to penetrate my skull, but when it did, I relaxed. Dregonov slowly released me, and I turned to him and said "Thank you Sergeant Major. I think I'm all right now."
"That's still remains to be seen," said a voice from behind Dregonov, and inside I groaned as I snapped to attention, along with every single active duty soldier in the place. The last person I wanted to see right then was Colonel Mallory, but he has a habit of being in the middle of anything that has to do with the Headhunters, no matter where or when.
The Colonel stepped around Dregonov and looked at me as if deciding what to do with me. Behind him, Deak, the Colonel’s bodyguard, hovered like an irritated wasp, his cold eyes missing nothing. Finally, after several seconds of intense scrutiny, The Colonel said in a low, calm voice "Would you like to explain your actions here, Captain?" The quiet tone of voice meant he was really mad. The Colonel never shouts, but I've seen enough people wither under the quiet voice and his cold blue eyes to make me wish I was somewhere else right now, like in a combat drop over Liao.
His eyes never left me as I explained. After I finished, the Colonel glanced over to Grady, who was still behind the bar. Grady nodded slowly in agreement, and the Colonel refocused his attention on me.
"I see," he said in that same calm voice, looking at me in a thoughtful way. "Anything to add?"
I was stiff from all the standing at attention, but I wasn't going to relax one muscle until the Colonel was satisfied. "No Sir."
"Very well." He turned to Dregonov "Sergeant Major, see to the. . . .Guests." Dregonov, whose big enough to be mistaken for an Elemental, nodded his bald head once, and moved off to take care of the problem.
For the first time since the fight started, I took the time to look around and get my bearings. Tosig was being revived by one of our medics and the blonde Clan ’Mechwarrior. The twin Elemental bookends were standing in the middle of a group of hard-face Howlers who were just looking for reason to get in some target practice. The rest of the patrons were being herded out into the night, leaving just my lancemates, the Clanners, and the response team of the Colonel's in the bar.
"Captain Wozniak, get cleaned up and report to me in one hour," said the Colonel. "Bring your Lancemates and we will figure out what happen here tonight."
I nodded, saluted, and walked over to where Mikki, Tony, and Corlin were. The relief on their faces was clear, as well as a couple of smiles. Just as I open my mouth to say something, a bellow broke the low mummer that had been the only sound in the room."YOU! STRAVAG!"
I spun on my heel to face you-know-who. Tosig was back on his feet and was already looking for a rematch. He was bloody, battered, but the gleam in his eyes was dangerous. The other Clan ’Mechwarrior, a short, slim woman who wore her hair in a tight ponytail, held him around the waist, in an attempt to restrain him. He was screaming at me, spitting curses like machine gun fire, and I thought we would have round two right there. Two of the Howlers were moving to help the blonde, but they were several meters away
"You are a dead man!" Tosig howled at me. He started moving towards me, dragging his companion along like she was some baggage. The two Howlers reached him and each grabbed an arm, arresting his advance, but doing nothing about the glare I was receiving from him.
And it was some glare. His eyes were wild, and his face was a deep red hue. This wasn't the same arrogant Clan MechWarrior that had stalked in here earlier. Instead, what stood there straining to reach me was a crazed killer, wanting my blood. I have never seen someone so consumed by anger before.
Before I could do anything, the Colonel stepped between us. He and Tosig locked eyes, and stood there for a minute, each waiting for the other to back down. As I watched, the mad gleam in Tosig's eye slowly faded, and sanity flowed in to replace it. He relaxed, and his partner released her death-grip from around his waist, but the two Howlers didn't relax their grip on him.
"Are you through?" asked the Colonel, his voice was as cold as a New Sytris winter.
"I am." A touch of the arrogance came back into Tosig’s voice. "And who are you?"
"Colonel Ian Mallory."
"Is he your man?" Tosig asked, pointing at me with his chin.
"Then I challenge him, here and now, to combat. I am Star Commander Tosig of the 305th Assault Cluster, of clan Jade Falcon. I have participated in four planetary invasions, seventy-four battles, and have thirty-six kills to my credit. What say you to this?"
Everyone stared at him in shock, myself included. There was silence in the room for several seconds before the Colonel said "I say no."
Tosig looked at the Colonel with surprise. "Do you speak for him?"
"So it is true." That arrogant smile was back, as if it hadn't left. "You Headhunters are cowards and not worthy of an honorable death." Clearly, Tosig was in crying need of an attitude adjustment.
“And you are not worthy of being dealt with as a warrior,” The Colonel replied. He motioned to the Howlers holding Tosig to release him.“You do not act as a warrior should.”
The Clanner brushed himself off in a theatrical manner. “Imprison me,” he hissed, “and my clan will deal with you harshly.”
“Your threats are empty.”
“Do you care to challenge me, or do you too hide behind your rank?”
The Colonel’s smile could have frozen Oxygen. “Go back to your clan, Star Commander,” he said. “Death waits for you here.”
“Death does not scare me.”
“No, you seem to be seeking it.”
“That is my business.” His smile was cruel. “Care to challenge me?”
Before the Colonel decided to cure Tosig of his nasty habit of breathing, I stepped forward, and stood next to the Colonel. "I am Captain Gordon Wozniak. I have twelve campaigns, twenty-three raids, and twenty-six kills to my credit, three of which were of Clan Jade Falcon. I accept your challenge. Five days from now, on Battle Island." Battle Island was one of the training ground the Headhunters used, a chunk of land in the northern sea of Antietam. It would be the perfect place for a fight, with no civilians to get in the way.
"Agreed." Tosig's smile was large, and I wonder for a moment if that wasn't the reason for coming in here in the first place. “Release me, and I swear that I will cause no more trouble for the next five days.”
“What makes you think I want you around for five days?” the Colonel asked.
“Because it would not be wise to be labeled as a Dezgra unit.”
“They are not Clan!” Corlin shouted. “They cannot be labeled as Dezgra!”
“Maybe not, but they will be view as no better then Bandit case, by all Clans. You know me, Corlin. You know that there are Warriors in power that will listen to me. And it will not take much to declare your new friends as breakers of Rede. No Hagira will be extended, no Isorla would be allowed.”
“That doesn't sound good,” I said.
“It is not,” Corlin replied, looking a little pale. “Any Clan unit we would face in battle would fight and pursue us until we or they were all dead. No Bondsmen would be taken, no chance of withdrawing will be allowed. Anyone taken prisoner would be executed.”
“That definitely not good,” I muttered.
“Captain,” The Colonel said. “Shut up.”
Tosig continued. “If the duel goes on at the scheduled time, no matter the outcome, your people will not be labeled Dezgra. On that, you have my word.”
“Why should I trust you?”
Tosig looked at Corlin. “You know me, Corlin. You know that I do not break my word, Quaff?”
“Aff,” Corlin replied. “Colonel, he will keep his word.”
Colonel Mallory nodded slowly. “Star Commander,” he said “There is a training base three hundred kilometers southwest of the city that is not currently in use. You and your people will use it until the duel. If we spot you anywhere else on this planet in the next five days, I will cancel the duel and throw the entire bunch of you into a jail cell. Is that understood?”
Tosig nodded. “Perfect.” He looked at me. “You will die,” he said, then turned and strode out of the bar, the blonde following him like a little puppy. The pair of Elementals fell in behind them and the four of them marched out the door and into the night.
“That could have gone better,” I said.
I found almost everyone staring at me as if I had just declared my undying love for Natashia Kerensky. Even the Colonel, who does not show strong emotion in public, looked at me in surprise. The only three who didn't look at me like I was insane were my lancemates. Mikki and Tony had resigned looks on their faces that said 'here we go again', while Corlin wore an expression that was part concern, part thoughtful.
"What's the problem?" I asked the Colonel.
"I said no." His eyes were boring through me now, and now I was thinking about it instead of reacting, the implications of what I had done sent a chill into me. But I was in it, and I don't like to back down.
"I'm sorry Colonel," I replied "But there's no way that any genetic freak of nature with a bloated ego is going to walk into OUR bar and insult all of US with impunity." I shot a glance at Corlin. "Sorry, Corlin, no offence meant."
"Insults I can live with," shot back the Colonel "Dead Warriors I can't." He directed his attention to Corlin "Is there any way to call this off?"
Corlin shook his head "Only the combatants can, and not without good reason. To do otherwise would brand the one who called it off as a coward, and not worthy to be a warrior. He had influence with his Galaxy commander and the SaKahn. He could have carried out his threat to have us treated as Bandit Caste.”
The Colonel swore under his breath. He then said "How well do you know this Tosig?"
"I know him somewhat. When I was with the Jade Falcons, he was considered a Rinstar.... er.. a ’MechWarrior with great promise for a Bloodname.”
“So he’s a good ’Mechwarrior?”
“Very good.” Corlin frowned. “But there is something is wrong here."
"His anger that he displayed towards Captain Wozniak. That is not normal for him.”
“Part of my charm I guess,” I said. The Colonel glared at me.
Corlin shook his head. “It is not like Tosig. He is cruel and arrogant, yes, but never have I seen him so out of control. Irrational anger like that is not him. It is a weakness that a Clan Warrior cannot afford, and he has always taken pride on being the perfect Clan warrior."
"For the record, what does he pilot?" I asked.
"A Summoner, or what you would call a Thor. He favors the primary version."
It was my turn to curse under my breath. A Thor. Seventy tons of heavy ’Mech that could move as fast as most mediums. Primary version carried a heavy autocannon, extended range particle projection cannon and a long-range missile rack. At the current time, I had still my Rattlesnake, but it wouldn't stand a chance against a Thor one on one. I started to speak, but the Colonel cut me off.
"Enough of this. Captain, go clean up and I want you and the rest of your. . . ” His gaze took in my entire Lance. “. . . happy little crew in my office in fifty minutes. We've got a long night ahead of us."