Friday, March 14, 2014

Snakedance, Part 2

Just a small update before we get back to the story....

I've got a writing assignment for a CGL project (Non-Battletech) that is due April 1st, so I'm putting by Battlecorps writing on hold so I can concentrate on this.

Anyway, the rest of Snakedance!


        Although we were a 'Mech short, we were still the best unit for this kind of mission, a search-and-rescue in hostile territory. Our Rattlesnakes look a lot like the more common Jenners, which is intentional. Inside, though, they're stuffed full of high-tech upgrades. They have almost twice the armor and firepower of a Jenner, and they're even more maneuverable. We could cover a lot of ground fast, deal with a lot of units that might try to stop us, or outrun what we couldn't outfight. We weren't looking for trouble, but no matter what Captain Hart thought, we were ready to make trouble for anyone who wanted it.

        Three quiet hours later, we entered the Ramagen Canyon system. The Canyon is a dry riverbed, and one of the great tourist spots on the planet. It's not quite as big as the Grand Canyon on Terra, but searching it one valley at a time is still a long and painful process. Clearly, the Star Guard boys were not standing around waiting for us to wander by.

        We'd been winding our way between the sheer granite walls for nearly an hour when Mikki's voice came over the radio. "I've got a moving MAD contact at 10 o'clock, range 2500, and it's a BIG one!"

        "IFF reading?"

        "Negatory, Woz. If it's one of ours, he's not advertising the fact."

        "Might be one of the Guards or a TDF member, but it could be a hostile. Let's check it out. Mikki, behind me; Tony, you take the rear."



        We closed cautiously with the contact. At about 1000 meters, we came to the mouth of yet another box canyon, much like the dozens of others we'd already checked. The floor of the canyon was uneven, with small clumps of tired-looking trees growing between rock-strewn patches. The canyon was about 1000 meters long, with jagged 200-meters cliffs on either side, and an even taller cliff at the far end. We'd seen the same features over and over again.

        The thing that made this canyon different were the two 'Mechs at the far end. One was a Star Guard ‘Mech, an Awesome that looked like it had been fed through a meat grinder. It had fallen onto its back, smoke streaming from several armor breaches, and its right arm PPC barrel was twisted and bent.

        But the other 'Mech. . . .

        It was standing there, as if it was waiting for something. It had a pod-like body, like a Stalker, with an armored shield over the top and a missile rack on the left shoulder. The heavy forearms had multiple barrels instead of hands, and the legs bent backward like a Marauder's It was an assault class 'Mech, one that look like it been designed to do one thing -- kill. A chill ran down my spine as my battle computer confirmed what I'd already guessed--this 'Mech wasn't a familiar design to anyone in the Inner Sphere.

        Now, we could have backed up and gotten out of there, but it never really crossed our minds. First, we didn't like enemy ‘Mechs wandering around behind us. Second, we wanted some blood in return for Hanson and Flynn. And third, it was still possible the Guard ‘Mechwarrior was still alive, and we were ordered to find all the mercenaries we could.

        Tony said it all: "What in blazes is THAT!?"

        "I don't know," Mikki said, "but I wouldn't want to meet it in a dark alley."

        "I've got news for you," I replied, as I activated my targeting system and gun cameras. "That's what we're doing right now."

        "Boss, you always did look at the bright side of things," came Tony's response.

        "Can the chatter for now. Spread out, pattern Delta."

        Mikki started edging her 'Mech toward the left wall of the canyon. "We're not going to have a lot of room to maneuver in here, Woz."

        "It's the best way to go up against heavy armor," I replied. "We'll have to substitute cover for distance." As Mikki continued her move on my left and Tony mirrored it on my right, the 'Mech at the end of the canyon stepped forward, its arms bringing their weapons to bear on us. We stared at each other for a few seconds, each side sizing up the other. Then, without warning, a gravelly, distorted voice came over our supposedly secure radio.

        "I am Corlin of the Jade Falcon Keshik, Clan Jade Falcon. Who do I have the honor of meeting in combat?"

        Tony's muffled curse told me that I wasn't hearing things. How could this guy tap into our scrambled communications? I took a couple of seconds to recover my wits and decided to play by the book for a change.

        "This is Lieutenant Gordon Wozniak of Second Battalion, First Regiment, Antietam Guards. Deactivate your weapons and open your canopy, or we will be forced to open fire."

        Even with the distortion, I could hear the contempt in the raider's voice as he replied, "I do not yield so easily, Lieutenant. The Star Guards Stravag have already found that out. Prepare to defend yourselves!"

        "Switch to scramble India, guys," I called into the radio. India is our ‘unauthorized’ lance channel. We use it when we don't want our own side to know what we're doing. Hopefully, the raider only had our standard unit scrambles and wouldn't be able to break this one right away. I punched the new code into the radio. "This guy not only has our scramble codes, he's got a serious attitude problem. What do you think we should do about him?"

        "Happy told us to stay out of trouble," said Mikki. "But then again, when have we ever been able to stay out of trouble?"

        "I don't think we should just walk away from this," replied Tony. "After what they did to Hansen and Flynn, I'm not in the mood to let some self-important assault jockey intimidate us."

        "It's your call, Woz. Do we take him?" asked Mikki.

        I bit my lip and thought for a second. The MAD gave this guy's mass at 100 tons, and the invaders were ton-for-ton nastier than anything we'd ever run into before. Our Rattlesnakes were worlds better than standard Jenners, but I had almost decided that discretion was the better part of valor when the other guy made our decision for us. A flight of LRMs ripped out of the launcher on the raider's shoulder. Although the missiles fell far short, they made his intentions clear.

        I switched my radio to the company channel. "Bravo Leader, this is Rattler Leader requesting immediate assistance. One enemy assault 'Mech of unknown design trapped in a box canyon with a downed Star Guard ‘Mech. I'm transmitting video over the data channel. Please acknowledge, over!"

        Happy's voice came over the speakers. Even through the heavy static I could hear the resignation in her tone. "Rattler Leader, this is Bravo Leader. Roger on receiving video. We are not in position to support you. Reinforcements cannot arrive in under three-zero minutes. You're on your own."

        "Understood, Bravo Leader," I replied. I didn't really expect any help, but it doesn't hurt to ask. I switched my radio back to the lance channel. "Mikki, Tony, if anyone asks, remember he shot first. If this guy wants a fight, he chose the wrong people to have it with. Let's take him!"

        We tore down the canyon at full speed, Tony hugging the right wall, Mikki the left, and me charging right up the middle. Delta is our favorite tactic for taking on big 'Mechs. The idea is basically to avoid giving the enemy a shot at any single target for more than a few seconds. As one 'Mech draws the enemy's fire, the others go for the weak back armor. Done right, Delta means that at least one 'Mech will have a back shot all the time. It isn't the ideal way to fight in a canyon, but we didn't have time to develop new tactics.

        The raider wasn't much for fancy tactics either. He stepped away from the Awesome and came at us head-on, as if he expected to crush one of us with a single volley. With a standard Jenner, that might work. This guy wouldn't be the first one, though, to be surprised by a Rattlesnake's armor.

        As I closed, I could make out the insignia on the 'Mech's chest: a green bird holding a sword in its talons. The Warbook computer came up with zip on the insignia. I had just enough time to register that fact before a barrage of laser fire erupted from the raider's Mech.

        This guy might have been arrogant, but he was good enough to back it up. At 600 meters, he didn't have much of a chance to hit a target moving at better then 115 klicks an hour. Still, the lasers flashing all around me were way too close for comfort. "Watch out!" I called, as I launched my 'Mech into a 200-meter jump to the left that took me out of the immediate line of fire. "This guy's almost as good as he thinks he is!"

        "I see it, Boss," replied Tony as he finished his end run and begin to approach the raider from behind.

        "Me too," said Mikki, as she mirrored Tony's move on the other side.

        The raider turned to keep his weapons aimed at me, but his move exposed his rear armor to Tony's fire. Armor vaporized from the left arm, but there was no obvious damage.

        Instinctively, the raider turned toward the immediate threat. By turning toward Tony, though, the raider had left his back exposed to Mikki. More armor puffed, this time from the right leg. Then it was my turn.

        Rattlesnakes are heavily armored for light 'Mechs, but they aren't designed for stand-up fights with assault 'Mechs, especially one that has more firepower than any two Atlases. My job was to get in the enemy's face and distract him while my lancemates chewed on him from behind. With a bit of luck, I might survive. With a lot of luck, I might even do some damage.

        The raider swiveled toward me, took one step forward, and then the world lit up like a nova, his laser barrage backed up by medium autocannons. My canopy quickly polarized, but not fast enough to keep me from being dazzled by the glare. I slammed down on the jump jet controls and the laser triggers in the same convulsive motion and vectored to the right, landing heavily. A quick scan of the monitors showed heavy damage to my 'Mech's left arm and torso, but no malfunctions. Tony's voice cut through the static.

        "You all right, Boss?"

        "Nothing hurt but my pride. You take decoy. I'll work on him from here."

        "Roger. I'll...Mikki, break left!"

The raider had turned his attention toward Mikki. As she dodged to the left, he triggered another massive laser volley, throwing in the LRMs for good measure. Mikki avoided the worst of it. Even so, enough connected to strip the armor off her right leg and torso.

        "I'm still ticking," called Mikki, before either of us could react. To prove her point, she triggered a retaliatory salvo. Four of her lasers scored, cutting deep into the damaged armor on the raider's right leg.

        I moved forward and triggered all my lasers as the raider reacted to Mikki's fire. Five of my shots chewed deep into the raider's torso, but not in time to prevent him from firing a second volley at Mikki. This time she was ready and jumped clear.

        "Tony! Keep him busy!" I yelled as I pushed my 'Mech to full speed. "Try to cover me, I'm going to do something really stupid." From the front, this bogey could ace any of us in three volleys. So far, though, he hadn't fired anything to the rear. Maybe he didn't have anything back there to fire--I was about to find out the hard way.

        I ran my Rattlesnake right up behind the guy; I couldn't have been more than 10 meters away. At this range, he was even uglier from the back than from the front, but nothing shot back at me. As Tony dodged yet another volley, I triggered every weapon I had. If I had a slingshot, I would have fired it, too. Eight eye-searing beams lanced from my 'Mech into the bogey's rear, cutting jagged holes through layers of torso armor and into its vitals.

        There are few mobile objects that can ignore that kind of damage, and this 'Mech wasn't one of them. He tried to spin around and shoot at me, but one of my shots must have creased his gyro. He managed to turn about halfway, then staggered forward half a step, trying desperately to turn his back away from me and stay standing at the same time. Tony's Rattler came flashing in, adding his lasers to the barrage, and Mikki added some more. The raider scored a couple of hits on Tony, but then the raider must have lost it. He started firing wildly, sending shots in every direction, but not hitting anything but the canyon walls.

        I screamed into the radio, "We've got him! Go for the damaged leg!" as I slammed another volley onto his back. Mikki and Tony fired almost simultaneously, carving deep furrows through the damaged armor on the raider's legs, and savaging the 'Mech's internal structure, severing the limb. This time, he couldn't keep control, and the enemy 'Mech collapsed onto its face, sending a cloud of dust into the air.

        As we closed in for the kill, a hatch popped open on the head of the raider Mech, and the pilot jumped out, landing hard in a pile of rocks. He slowly climbed to his feet, his hands raised in surrender. As we moved in to cover him, just as the tension of battle was starting to ease, our MAD detectors lit up with multiple targets, no more than 300 meters away, directly behind us.

        The three of us spun as one to face the new threat. It took us several seconds to realize that the 'Mechs at the canyon mouth weren't an avenging group of raiders. These 'Mechs we recognized, and underneath the maze of scorch marks and battle damage on their armor we could make out the Star Guards insignia. A heavily-scarred Thunderbolt stepped forward, and a clipped voice came over the general frequency.

        "I say, we seemed to have missed all the fun. Might I inquire which of you chaps is Leftenant Wozniak?"

        "That would be me," I replied as I tripped my IFF beacon. "And who are you, if you don't mind me asking?"

        "Ah. I'm Major Lethbridge, in command of what remains of the 3th Battalion. Your Captain Hart--delightful lady, I must say--informed us that you might be in a spot of trouble. I see you found Charlie.”


        “Charles Fellows, the Awesome’s pilot.”

        “We don’t know if he’s still alive.”

        “Well, let’s find out, shall we? I'm frightfully sorry we're late; the cliffs confused the signal from your transponders and we were misled into the wrong canyon. I'm delighted to see that our help was not required, but rather disappointed that you've finished without us."

        "Sorry," I responded. "Our friend here doesn't seem to want to play anymore."

        "Oh, that's unfortunate. The lads and I were quite looking forward to a second go-round with these blighters. He's your prisoner of course. You'd best accept his surrender before he changes his mind."

        Something about the way this man could keep his sense of humor in the middle of disaster struck a chord in me. I decided that the best thing I could do would be give Lethbridge a chance to meet the enemy as a victor instead of a victim.

        "Would you do me the honor of accompanying me, sir?"

        "Delighted, Leftenant."

        Leaving a couple of the Guards near the mouth of the canyon to make sure we weren’t surprised, the Thunderbolt and a battered Centurion walked down the canyon toward us. While the Centurion went over to the Awesome, the Thunderbolt stopped near me and a tall figure climbed down from the ‘Mech. As he walked to the feet of my 'Mech, I got out of the cockpit and climbed down.

        The Major was a older, gray-haired man with a neatly-trimmed mustache and an air of command about him. He waited until I on the ground before he said, “You had better luck with the enemy then most of us did.” I just nodded to Lethbridge, drew my pistol, and together we walked toward the prisoner.

        He had sat down to wait for us, holding his head in his hands. As we approached, he raised his head, but made no attempt to stand. Lethbridge and I stared at him for a second, glanced at each other, then looked back at our captive. The pilot of an assault 'Mech, the warrior who had so coldly challenged us, couldn't have been more than 20 years old!

        Apparently, we weren't the only ones surprised. The prisoner's eyes locked with Lethbridge's, and his jaw dropped. "I did not know we were fighting a Solahma unit!" he exclaimed.

        “A what?” I asked.

        “A unit of old warriors!” he said, looking at Lethbridge.

        "I may not be the picture of youth, but I deserve more respect than that from a child like yourself," replied Lethbridge coldly, his joviality vanishing into a glare that could shatter armor.

        I moved forward to divert their attention from each other and onto me. "In the name of the Federated Commonwealth and of House Mallory, I require your surrender," I said, quoting directly (I swear!) from the Antietam Guards's Code of Military Conduct.

        It was my turn to be stared at. "You are Lieutenant Wozniak?"

        A few good lines ran through my head, but with the state Major Lethbridge was in I figured I'd better keep playing it straight. "I am."

        He bowed his head slightly to me. "Very well, I surrender to you. You and your comrades are superior warriors. I hereby submit myself to your Clan Mallory and their justice."

        Meanwhile, Lethbridge had wandered away to cool off and was looking in the hatch of the enemy 'Mech. "I say, Leftenant," he called out. "This machine is remarkable! I've not seen a design this sophisticated in my entire career!"

        At that moment, Tony broke in on my wrist comm. "Woz, Cap'n Happy is on the line, and she's mad enough to chew through a DropShip’s hull. You'd better let her know what's going on."

        "Patch me through, Tony," I replied, keeping my eyes on my prisoner.

        "...olation of direct orders..." came Happy's voice, in its usual sweet and soothing tones.

        "Rattler Leader here, Bravo Leader,” I said, sounding cheerful. “Good news; it's Headhunters one, raiders zip. We have a prisoner, a mostly-intact enemy 'Mech and we managed to find a lance of the Star Guard. Major Lethbridge says the enemy 'Mech is something special. Any chance we can keep it?"

        "Wait one, Rattler Leader." After about a minute, Happy came back on line. "You’re in luck,” she said, the last word spat out with all the intensity of a curse. “There’s a small convoy of supply truck near your current location. The Major is sending them to your location, ETA twenty-two minutes, to pick up the enemy 'Mech. You and the Star Guards can escort it to the landing site. And assuming you can avoid any more trouble, they’ll be enough room for your lance, but after this stunt, I really don't care if you're aboard when we take off. Copy?"

        "I copy, Bravo Leader. By the way, Happy, Major Lethbridge sends his warmest regards." Tony didn't cut the link fast enough to avoid a few choice words from our fearless leader.

        For the next half hour, I had nothing to do but talk to the prisoner. It turned out his name was Corlin, no last name--according to him, you have to pass some sort of test to get one. He was from a unit called the Jade Falcons, but now, since we'd defeated him, he considered himself part of "Clan Mallory." This was his second campaign, and he was upset at himself for losing to three "overgunned garbage cans," as he described light 'Mechs in general and our Rattlesnakes in particular.

        Well, the Convoy showed up. The Awesome's pilot was battered, bloody, but still breathing. We packed Corlin’s ‘Mech and the Awesome onto the trucks, managed to avoid the rest of the Jade Falcons, made it to the landing site in time, and we boosted outsystem at max thrust all the way. The surviving Star Guards went to Wotan, while we hopped to Black Earth long enough to get ourselves together, then we went on the offensive. Over the last six months, we've been doing what we Headhunters do best, hit-and-run attacks against the Clans, and we're shipping out again as soon as we complete repair-and-resupply.

        As for us, it turns out the 'Mech we captured was what the Inner Sphere would called a Daishi, but what these Cans called a Dire Wolf. Corlin was part of the first wave of Clan invaders, the descendants of the long lost Star League Defense Force. That little revelation gave some Intel boys some much needed nights of no sleep. The Dashi was quickly claimed as an ‘intelligence asset’ by MIIO, but Colonel Mallory ‘forgot’ to tell them about Corlin, figuring that since we were going to be the ones in direct combat with these Clans, it would be best to have an expert on them close at hand. Because of that, the Headhunters have a new "special consultant" by the name of Corlin Mallory.

        Ever since that battle, one question has been running through my mind. Corlin was on the young side to be piloting a brand-new assault 'Mech. If these guys are putting young pilots in assault 'Mechs, what are the veterans driving?

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