And now, State of Grace, my 22nd Battlecorps story, have been published. More in a future blog post about my thoughts on the stories I've gotten published.
But back to Duel
On the fifth day, I awoke early, took a long hot shower, and got dressed. Both Mikki and Tony were waiting for me outside, both of them somber in the dawn's light. We didn't say much as we walked to the Leopard DropShip that would take me to the island. At the DropShip, a large group had gather to see me off, including Corlin, the Colonel, and even Major Hart. Most murmured 'good luck' and 'show that Clanner whose boss' type of encouragement, while some just shook my hand in silence. It felt more like a wake then a sendoff, with me as the Guest of Honor. Hopefully, it would improve from there, because it couldn't have gotten much worse.
We lifted off, and headed north. Seventy minutes later, Battle Island came into view. It’s a barren, desolate island thirty or so kilometers off the coast, nothing but rock and dirt that withstood all attempts by farmer, miner, and homesteader to use it. It’s the main reason why it functions as our full scale training area, where we can got all out without having to worry about civilians, property damage, or prying eyes.
Once the reporters show up, the island had been placed off limits to all but cleared personnel, which was Tanni and Corlin. They had both come out early that morning, to make sure the Gash was clear of any obstacles to a clean fight like vibromines, Elementals, or a hidden lance of Headhunter assault ‘Mechs. The entire fight was going to be broadcast to the Headhunters and ‘guests’ by means of several camera drones supplied and controlled by Comstar. The Press had howled about that, but the local Precentor managed to calm the waves.
Rook’s Gash was towards the center of the island, a dark streak in the brown and grey landscape. I was to enter the Gash from the north, Tosig from the south. There we would duke it out until one of us was dead, unable to continue, or fled the Gash. From what I’d seen of Tosig, the third option was out. He wasn't going to retreat, and I didn't think he would let me, if I chose to do so.
By the time the DropShip reached the northern end of Rook's Gash, I was already in the cockpit of the Claymore, powering up. Hooking into the video feeds of the DropShip, I watched with one eye as the rocky surface of the landing area grew larger and larger, finally turning to black as the ship landed. As the DropShip settled, the massive door to my bay opened, flooding the cockpit with sunlight. I waited until the canopy adjusted for the light before I stepped outside. The Claymore moved easily out the hatch and onto the rocky ground.
Sheer rock walls rose to my left and right, framing the narrow twisting path that laid ahead of me. The entrance to the Gash itself was hidden in deep shadow, like a unspeakable creature waiting for its prey. Despite the fact it was daylight, I felt a chill go through me, the type of feeling that hides in the back of a person's mind, no matter how advanced they are. For the first time since that night in the bar, I realized what I had really done. I had challenged a warrior from a society where a merely good warrior is considered to be a major disappointment, and average warriors don't even make it out of training. Had I really lost my mind by doing this? I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer. . . .
"Yo, boss, speak to me." Tony's voice sounded concerned, and it took me several seconds to respond.
"I'm still here," I replied with more confidence then I felt.
Tony let a sigh of relief. "I thought for a moment you had gone south on us."
"Not yet anyway. I was just thinking how I got myself into this."
"The same way we get into everything, Boss. At full speed with our eyes closed."
"Tell me about it." I started to move towards the canyon entrance. "Any sign of our friend?"
"Radar had a DropShip landing at the Southern entrance of the Gash ten minutes before we touched down," replied Mikki, who was up in the cockpit with the pilot.
"So, he's shown up." The entrance slowly defined itself in the shadows, and I could just make out the path ahead of me. "How are the odds running?" I just knew that somebody would be betting on this battle, and I knew that my lancemates would be right in the middle of it.
Tony was silent for a moment before he spoke "Not good boss. Odds the last I heard were five to two in favor of Tosig turning you into a memory."
"Well, kick in 50 C-bills for me" I replied, trying to sound calm and almost carrying it off.
"Already did, Woz," said Mikki. “Even Corlin added a few C-bills to the betting pool.”
"Any more good news before I go into this?" I asked in a sarcastic tone.
“Wait a minute,” Mikki replied. When she came back, I could hear something in her voice that wasn't right for her. “Corlin just called me. Tanni just told him that Tosig was denied the right to compete in the last Bloodname trial.”
“What?” I asked, not sure I had heard her right.
“Tosig is of the Hazen bloodname,” Mikki explained. “There was a Trial of Bloodright in that line three and a half months ago. Tosig should have been one of the top contenders for the honor, but he was not allowed to compete.”
Not good, I thought. “Does Tanni know why?”
“No wonder he’s pissed,” I muttered. Having a Bloodname in any of the Clans meant you were someone. They were the heritage that each of the ‘Trueborn’ warriors aspired, to own a Bloodname and have your DNA as part of the next generation. So, not only was Tosig an insane MechWarrior, he was a very angry and insane MechWarrior. Forget about throwing the book out the window, start with tossing the library and go from there. “Any more good news?”
"Neg, Boss,” Tony replied. “Only Mikki, Corlin, and myself wish you a lot of luck, and may St. Cameron guide your aim."
Now I know I'm in trouble, I thought with a weak grin, if Tony is calling in the Saints. "Copy Tony, and thanks."
By now, I had made it through the narrow passage and found myself in Rook's Gash. The Gash itself is a long, roughly rectangular canyon with a few low scrub brush, a couple of piles of rock and dirt could be considered hills, and a shallow pound full of scummy water near the middle. Several dozen rock formations, most higher than a 'Mech, dotted the landscape like a forgotten set of children's blocks. The formations make light of sight tricky, which worked in my favor, as it neutralized most of the range advantage Tosig’s weapons had. Of course, that was before we found out that Tosig had no problem with getting up close and personal with his opponents.
I moved through the valley, picking my way slowly. Just as I reached the middle of the canyon, the sensors told me that some large and metallic was moving off to my right. As I glanced in that direction, a glint of metal caught my eye from some rocks about two hundred and fifty meters away. Without thinking about it, I backpedaled the Claymore.
Tosig’s Thor, painted in a dusty brown to match the surrounding rock, open fire first. The charged particle beam missed me by scant centimeters, but the missiles and sub-munitions from his autocannon peppered my armor and sent me staggering back an extra step. Automatically, I returned fire, sending a Gauss rifle round and a spread of long range missiles back at him. The reply was slightly off balance, and only the missiles connected with the Thor, hitting him in the legs and lower torsos as he ran to my left.
Before he could fire again, I hit the jump jets and landed behind a pile of rocks, out of sight. A quick survey of the monitors showed moderate damage across the front of my 'Mech, but nothing serious. I had just began to move again, when the radio channel Tosig and I had agreed on crackled to life.
It was Tosig, crowing like a rooster. "Where are you, coward?" he said in a sickly sweet voice. "Do you not want to play anymore, quineg?"
I didn't answer, but darted out from behind the rocks at a full run. Three hundred meters off to my left, the Thor turned towards me, caught by surprise. In the ensuing exchange, I took a solid ER PPC hit in the left torso, as well as more missiles in the legs. I came close to losing my balance, but just managed to keep the seventy-five ton ’Mech from falling flat on its face. My Gauss round struck the Thor in the right arm, while my missiles again peppered his legs and torsos. Before he could fire again, I made the cover of another rock formation.
I counted to twenty, then popped out into the open again. The Thor was about two hundred meters from the rock spire I was using for cover, running toward me, trying to close the distance, but as soon as I appeared, he darted to my right, snap-firing the PPC in his right arm. The charge particle beam slammed into the rock several meters to my right, showing the Claymore with rock fragments. I fired the Claymore’s large laser, striking the Thor just below the cockpit, melting armor like wax. Before I could fire again, he vanished behind another spire.
“Who’s running now, Tosig?” I asked over the radio. A growl was his only response.
For the next ten minutes, it was a game of hide and seek. It was a nerve-racking experience as we tried to guess where the other was at any time. MADs were somewhat useless because of the high metallic content of the rocks, so both of us had to rely on sight, experience, and our luck. Three more times we saw each other and exchanged fire, each of us hitting the other hard enough to strip armor and send us reeling back into cover. My torso armor was thinning out to the point where it wouldn't stop a kid with a slingshot, and the right leg wasn't much better. On the other hand, the armor on the Thor’s legs and right arm was nearly gone.
I kept one eye on my damage readouts, the other eye out for Tosig, all the while trying to think my way out of this mess. Both of us were hurting, and it wouldn't be long before one of us got the better shot. But Tosig had better skill and the better 'Mech, while I had to rely on the Claymore's slight advantage in weight, and my knowledge of the Gash, and that wasn't enough for me. The sniping we were doing were taking a slow, steady toll on the ’Mechs and our nerves. After the first round of insults of Tosig's, the channel between us remained silent, adding to the slightly eerie feeling this fight was taking on.
I was standing behind a rock formation, deciding what I was going to do next, when I heard a growl. I glanced around, looking for the source, when it hit me that it was coming from the open channel between Tosig and myself. I felt my pulse quicken as Tosig, who had forgotten his open mike, growled again, an inhuman sound that set my teeth on edge. An angry sound, full of hate and ....
One of the required texts that all members of the Antietam Guards have to read is the classic The Art of War. You might say it’s the way the Headhunters conduct our operations. A passage from Sun Tzu’s work popped into my mind, the one involving the five traits that are dangerous in generals. ‘Those that are quick to anger can be shamed. . . .’
The memories of the bar fight, of his insane-like range only reinforced the idea that was forming in my mind. It was a risk, it was stupid, but so was the current situation of playing tag with Tosig. His anger was his weakness, and if he was angry, he might make a mistake I could exploit.. Of course, he could become enraged to the point where he pounded me into paste, but my options were limited.
Wasting no more time, I turned my mike on. "Hey! Toecheese!," I yelled. "Call yourself the superior warrior? You're a superman, alright - super stupid, super irritating, and super ugly." The growls got louder, so I continued. "What's the matter, canister-breath? Can't find one little old lowly Inner Sphere warrior you can beat up on?" A bellow, similar to the one in the bar, threaten to puncture my eardrums, and forced me to turn down the channel's sound.
“Aw,” I said. “Poor widdle Tosiggy don’t like that?” The growl became more pronounced. I was hitting a nerve.
I saw movement off to my right. The Thor had stormed out of hiding, looking for me. I let him know where I was by darting to my left, firing the Claymore’s Gauss rifle, large laser and the missile rack. The slug snapped past the Thor’s left shoulder close enough to rattle the armor, and the laser drilled a hole in the rock just above the Clan ’Mech’s head. The missiles struck all across the Thor’s front, sending it staggering back.
I darted back into cover before Tosig could recover and return fire. I could have continued attacking, but Tosig would recover fast and I didn't think I could survive another toe-to toe exchange. I put the Claymore into a full run, changing position before he came after me. “Still there, Toecheese?” I asked.
“You. . . will. . . Die!” Tosig snarled.
“How, by talking me to death?”
I heard the sound of jump jets and saw the Thor rocket into the sky from behind and to the right of me. He spotted me and at the top of his arc, started firing at me with his autocannon and PPC. I continued running as I was pelted by molten rock from the PPC’s near miss and several of the subclustrers from the autocannon that struck the still-pristine rear armor. “Ha!” I shouted over the radio. “Getting sloppy in your old age, huh?”
“I. . .shall enjoy killing you,” Tosig hissed in response.
As he dropped out of the sky, I launched the Claymore into the air, guiding it toward a small knob of a hill dominated by a cluster of spires. By the time he could turn and try to get a shot at me, I was already among the rocks near the crest. “I’m shaking in my boots, Toecheese,” I said.
“Come out and fight me!” he screamed.
“Come and get me, you has-been,” I shot back. I backed the Claymore off the hill until I reached the bottom and slowly to the left. With the hill between me and Tosig, I hoped he’d think I was still on the hill. The rocks I was using for cover were massive and contained heavy concentration of metals. With a little luck, he’d be looking at the hill and not on the surroundings.
“Has-been?” he growled. “You dare call me a Solahma, Stravag?”
“I dare, but you already know the truth.”
“What truth is that?” Tosig spat out.
“That even your clan thinks you’re a has-been. That’s why they didn't let you compete in the Trial of Bloodright three months ago.”
“How did you know....Tanni! I shall kill her with my bare hands!”
“You have to kill me first, Solahma-bait,” I replied. “Or are you going to wait down there until I die of old age?”
There was a blood-cuddling scream that sounded like a soul lost in Hell, and through a gap in the rocks, I saw the Thor begin to move forward, toward the hill I had landed on. “How long before you lose a Trial of Possession to a younger warrior?” I taunted. I didn’t want to give him a chance to think. “How long before you’re wiping the behinds of the newest sibko?”
By now, the Thor was in a flat out run, charging the hill. Over the radio, Tosig was frothing at the mouth, screaming curses and promising me a painful death. He raced up the hill, slowed only by the slope. For a second, I felt sympathy, but that was washed away by the reality of the situation. I stepped away from the rocks, into the open.
The Thor was halfway up the hill, maybe three hundred meters away. By the jerky motion of the 'Mech as it climbed, it was clear that Tosig was not in control of himself. Part of me wanted to fire now and dump everything into his back, but another part of me said into the radio in a low clear voice "I'm behind you, Star Commander."
Tosig turned quickly, firing as he turned. Despite his anger, or maybe because of it, the Claymore shuddered under the full assault of the Thor's firepower. The status board started flashing as several missiles penetrated the weak left torso armor and took out one of my medium lasers, while the ERPPC nearly took off my left arm.
It wasn't all one sided, however. The ERPPC and most of his 'Mech's right arm went spinning away from the impact of a supersonic slug, and the Claymore's ER large laser bit deeply into the Thor's right leg, sending molten metal in every direction. My missile swarm impacted high on the chest of the Clan 'Mech, and his missile launcher slowly fell away from the torso and hit the ground. The Thor staggered up the hill several steps, smoke and fragments pouring from it.
"Finished?" I asked coldly. "Or do you want more?"
"Never!" Tosig croaked."I...will...not be...beaten by.. a Freebirth !"
"Face facts, Leadhead. You're beaten, only you're too proud to admit it. Surrender now, and you'll be treated fairly."
"NOOOOOO !" With that as his battle cry, he charged down the hill at me, firing wildly with the only weapon he had left, the Autocannon. I held my ground, part of me not believing this, the other part cooling lining up the Thor in my sights.
I waited until he closed the gap to less than two hundred meters before I open fire. The Gauss round blew apart the right kneecap, dropping the Thor onto its face. As the 'Mech fell, the large laser and missiles cut deep into the torsos and ripping apart the engine shielding, forcing the ’Mech to shut down. It slid down the hill another twenty meters before it come to a stop near the base of the hill.
For several seconds, I just stood there, watching the fallen 'Mech. It was a feeling of exhaustion that swept over me as I radioed the waiting medevac teams to come in to clean up.
The story concludes Friday