|A Storm of Snowbirds
Author: sentinel28 PM
Louisa Arla-Vlata's Royal Green Jackets are sent in as a pathfinder force on a Word of Blake occupied planet. Combat drops are never routine, but Louisa soon finds herself in for the fight of her life on a world that might just be a tiny bit familiar. Like winter, the Snowbirds are coming...Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Sci-Fi/Adventure - Words: 5,816 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 1 - Follows: 1 - Published: 06-05-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8185190
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A STORM OF SNOWBIRDS
A Sentinels Short Story
By Sentinel 28A
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Something short and sweet, straight up with a twist. (Well, short for me, anyway.)
Something's wrong here, Louisa Arla-Vlata thought. I'm bored. By no circumstances should she be bored, she knew. Most people would find the idea that she was bored at a time like this to be borderline insanity. Yet here she was. She checked the instruments of her Nightsky BattleMech again, but everything was nominal. The sky around her was a beautiful, cerulean blue, the clouds below fluffy like cotton.
She and her 50-ton war machine were falling through the sky at near terminal velocity, the ground still thirty thousand feet below.
Combat drops were considered some of the more hair-raising experiences a MechWarrior could experience in their career. Few claimed to enjoy it, and those who did were considered mentally deficient. A high-altitude combat drop, like the one she was on, essentially consisted of dropping an anvil out of a spacecraft and hoping it hit the ground right side up and on target. Hers had started at the edge of space, where the sky around was more black than blue, and one could see the curvature of the planet below. The drop would take about twenty minutes. She was ten minutes into it and could not believe she was bored. One couldn't move the 'Mech too much. Few 'Mechs were aerodynamic, and imparting a spin on the drop could easily become an out-of-control death spiral. Some MechWarriors did it anyway, to show off.
Louisa stretched as best as she could in the cramped cockpit and flexed her fingers and toes. She saw ice had formed at the edges of the cockpit; it was well below freezing outside. She wore the combat uniform of a MechWarrior, which consisted of a neurohelmet, cooling vest, shorts, and soft shoes, basically slippers. It was a little cold inside the cockpit, but Louisa knew that wouldn't last once combat began. MechWarriors had to wear somewhat skimpy clothing or roast once the shooting started and the heat scale climbed.
The clouds came up fast, and her heart rate quickened—a little. The clouds were white, not the angry, towering gray of a thunderstorm. Dropping through a storm was a good way to make a long career short. Louisa Arla-Vlata was only twenty-five years old, and intended to stay alive for another twenty-five. Nonetheless, she settled her feet on the floor pedals and her hands on the control sticks. Not much longer.
The sky was blotted out by the clouds and the ice was replaced by rain scudding across her tripartite canopy. It was not heavy rain, and if the winds increased, her instrument panel still showed her on course. She reached forward and switched on her radio: orders were to observe radio silence on the way down, to preserve surprise. There was a good chance the defenders would not be anticipating the Snowbirds Special Missions Combined Arms Team—two overstrength companies of BattleMechs, with another company of tanks following behind on the DropShips—to be landing on top of them.
The clouds began to break up, and then rose above her, and finally Louisa could see the ground. Even partially hidden by rainclouds, it was impressive: in the distance, high mountains rose, their snowcapped peaks lost in the clouds, while the oceans of this world shined at the very edge of her vision. Below her, rolling plains stretched to infinity everywhere but west, where the foothills began; that was covered in thick forest. It was what was immediately below her that caused Louisa's heart rate to finally get to what doctors would call strenous.
It was a city. Not a huge city, but one fair-sized, like Louisa's hometown of Sancrist back on Virentofta. It had obviously been one of the very first established on this planet, because she could see how the original grid system, the standard spoke-and-hub so common to Inner Sphere cities, had gradually degenerated into suburbs and sprawl. The central business district's skyscrapers reached towards her, and in the very center of town, there looked to be an old castle. Impressively, the city was still surrounded by a high wall, which was uncommon except on worlds where banditry—or raids—were common.
Her view of the city was obscured by smoke, and as she descended, she could see flames licking at the base of some of the smoke columns. The city had been hit, and hit hard. Louisa saw flyspecks on the wide boulevards of the central district and knew what they were without her 'Mech's computer telling her: that would be Gamma Battalion, another unit of the Sentinels Regimental Combined Arms Team. Gamma was the leading edge, given the unenviable task of securing drop zones for the rest of the regiment. Circumstances on the ground forced the Sentinels to drop earlier and more disorganized than Louisa's mother preferred. Sheila Arla-Vlata liked the beginnings of her campaigns to be quiet for her regiment, and loathed combat drops; Louisa knew it was because her mother was terrified of them. On the ground Sheila Arla-Vlata, the legendary Snowbird, was fearless; put her in a DropShip and all bets were off. Sheila had given her two battalions of the regiment's Rapid Deployment Force a choice who would be first in, and the impetous commander of Gamma, Danielle Blackthorn, volunteered before the Snowbirds' commander, the quiet Kahvi Falx, could even open her mouth. Now Louisa wondered if Gamma had paid a heavy price for their commander's aggressiveness.
A red light came on her instrument panel, followed by a shrill tone in her earphones. A quick glance at a monitor told her that her altitude had dropped below ten thousand feet above ground level. I hate this part, she thought, but it was either this or end her career as a flaming crater on the surface. She tried to relax and stepped down hard on both pedals.
Plasma from the fusion engine heart of her Nightsky was vented through jets in the 'Mech's back and feet. Her velocity instantly slowed and Louisa was shoved down and back into her seat with enough force that she involuntarily gasped. The invisible hand of gravity continued to press her into the seat cushions until it finally began to lessen. Altitude still dropped steadily, but had slowed to a survivable rate as the ground rushed towards her. Buildings and walls rose up around her, and she saw thin clouds billow up as her jumpjets flashed standing water on the ground below to steam. The Nightsky's feet struck the ferrocrete street below with enough force to jar her teeth, but she was down and safe.
And that was really the easiest part of the whole thing. Louisa turned her head from side to side; her 'Mech's head, slaved to her neurohelmet, did the same. The scanner was clear, and she smiled; her drop had been on target, exactly where her lance was supposed to be. Now she needed to make sure the rest of her unit was all right as well. In training, Louisa had been told to expect one out of every twenty 'Mechs to take heavy or catastrophic damage in a combat drop in clear weather. For the first time in over half an hour, she spoke into the throat microphone pickups. "Green Lance, check in."
Lance Commander Louisa Arla-Vlata commanded the Alpha Medium lance of Alpha Trinary of the Snowbirds SMCAT, with a listed strength of four BattleMechs. Though Alpha Medium was the formal designation of the lance, reflecting its average weight of 'Mechs, the Sentinels had given its lances nicknames, most after famous Terran military units, though some were named for past commanders, usually ones who had died heroically. Her lance was one of the former: Alpha Medium's nickname was the Royal Green Jackets, the ancient name of the British Empire's famous Riflemen. Just as the Riflemen were intended to act as skirmishes in front of the main battle line, Alpha Medium was to probe ahead of the Snowbirds' Alpha Trinary. To honor those men, the lance painted their upper torso panels rifle green; it was Louisa's idea to add grinning sharkmouths on the 'Mechs' heads as well. Both looked a little out of place against the bluish-gray camouflage preferred by the Snowbirds, but she and her lancemates liked it.
"Green Two! I'm here!" Louisa saw the familiar and welcome shape of a Valkyrie appear to her right, exactly where Yurika Misumaru was supposed to be: the bubbly, overly enthusiastic Kuritan had probably enjoyed every minute of the drop, and strict radio silence was the only thing that had stopped her chatter. Battle was the only time Misumaru was remotely quiet. Louisa would have it no other way; Yurika was her best friend.
"Green Three, ready to rock." From the left came the spindly, humanoid Spider of Hitomi Dunn. From a distance, the Spider could easily be mistaken for a human, other than it being five times taller. Unlike the blocky, well-armored Valkyrie and Nightsky, the Spider was thin and lightly armored, trusting to its incredible speed for survival. Dunn's survival was another story, as she was aggressive to a fault: so willing was she to risk her fragile machine in combat that other MechWarriors nicknamed her "Hit Me." She had been handed to Louisa after being kicked out of three other lances, but through example, patience, and occasionally threats Dunn calmed down enough that her attacks were now more smart than reckless.
"Green Four. Checking in." Louisa instinctively looked for the hunched-over shape of a Black Hawk, what the Clans who the Snowbirds had captured it from called a Nova. Then she remembered that Richard Habersohn was still on the DropShip, a baulky gyro holding him out of this battle. At the last minute, Alpha Medium was assigned Vikka Sentinel, who at seventeen was one of the newest recruits to the regiment—so new, in fact, that she was borrowing a 'Mech from Sheila Arla-Vlata's regimental command group. The Vixen was a superb little 'Mech, like the Black Hawk a captured Clan machine, but there had been some mutterings why a "noob" would get such a 'Mech. Vikka Sentinel was no noob: Louisa had known her since she arrived in the regiment as the ward of Maysa Bari when she was three. Vikka was a feral child when Maysa had found her during a raid into Clan occupied space, and she had taken the surname of the regiment that adopted her, much like unblooded Clan warriors who joined the regiment did. Though Vikka had grown into a beautiful young woman, she still carried the ferocity that had allowed her to survive as a child: a cold fury that unnerved everyone around her. Vikka tended to hit people, a lot. Louisa suspected that she had been assigned as a temporary replacement to Habersohn because no one else knew her quite as well, and Louisa had done such a good job with Hitomi Dunn…
"Green Six, stirep, are you in position?" John Lawson's voice startled her out of her recollection. He was the commander of Alpha Trinary, though she couldn't see his distinctive Archer anywhere.
"Green Six to Talisman Six. In position. Sorry." She knew she had missed his first commanders' call. Get your head in the game, Arla-Vlata, she chided herself.
"Roger that. Green, hold the southwest corner where you are. I'm sending you the Red Rippers to back you up." The Red Rippers was the nickname of Alpha Assault, the heaviest lance in the Snowbirds. Louisa rolled her eyes; that meant whatever was coming at this southwest corner was big. Lawson wouldn't assign the assaults otherwise. "Expect enemy contact, company strength. Hold the line—Gamma chased the Wobbies out of town, but they've regrouped, reinforced, and they're on their way back. Understood?"
"Okay. One other thing: no calling in artillery or airstrikes. The locals don't want us to destroy their city trying to save it."
"Roger, understood." Not having artillery or air was bothersome, but not the end of the world; MechWarriors tended to regard both as luxuries, not to be expected but always welcome. The city already looked shot up, but then again, repairing random damage from laserfire and autocannon shells was easier than artillery missiles or bombs.
She heard Lawson break the link to talk to his other three lances, or to Falx, who probably landed somewhere in the city center. Bravo Trinary would be on the other side of the city. "Green Six to Greens," she transmitted to her lance. "The bad guys will be here in a bit. Find some cover and get ready. We've got to hold the line until the rest of the regiment gets here." Which hopefully won't be long, she added to herself. If one full company was coming in her direction, it meant that probably a full battalion was on its way. She called up a map of the city on a secondary monitor. Her section of the line was like a L lying on its side; the map showed three gates: one in front of her, one about half a mile behind her, and another half a mile to her left, on the long part of the L. The last gate was not her responsibility; the other two were. Her Heads-Up Display showed Alpha Assault moving into position behind her, which made her feel better. The Rippers were commanded by her friend Priss Musashiya, whose bulky Awesome was definitely reassuring. To either side were the mammoth, hideous shapes of Kagome Yamada's Masakari and Albert Gayheart's Gladiator, two immense formerly Clan OmniMechs. Bringing up the rear was Nick Duffy's JagerMech; designed to fight aircraft, Duffy's machine was not as well-armored and nowhere near as well-armed as his lancemates, so Musashiya had put him to the rear.
"Enemy sighted!" Hitomi Dunn's voice rang out on the open net. Louisa opened her mouth to snap at her, but Dunn realized her mistake and quickly added, "Green Three to Snowbird Alpha elements. Enemy sighted, southwest corner, position two-seven-one."
"Green Three, Ripper Six, strength?" Musashiya sounded annoyed, but then she always sounded annoyed.
"Ripper Six, enemy strength is…one company, twelve 'Mechs."
Louisa swallowed nervously, though she hated herself for feeling nervous. The gate in front of her—really just an open spot in an old city wall that had been knocked down for a four-lane highway—was not big enough for a full company to get in at once. It would become a kill zone. "Green Three, Green Six, fall back to a new position."
"Move your ass, Three!" Louisa shouted. She didn't have time for an argument. Dunn's tiny Spider, if she stayed where she was, would end up squarely between two companies of BattleMechs. She watched Dunn break cover and take up a new position behind some warehouses; the locals had built everything right up to the walls, which gave good cover if nothing else. Missiles suddenly arced over the walls, but landed far behind Dunn's 'Mech.
Louisa licked her dry lips and risked a quick pull at a straw set next to her head, that ran back to a container of water set behind her ejection seat. At least it's water this time, she thought, trying to distract herself from the fear that had abruptly manifested itself in her stomach, and not tequila like Yurika did that one time on Mayetta—
At the far end of the gate, three-quarters of a mile directly ahead, Louisa spotted the first enemy 'Mech, like a hunter might spot the first deer of the season. It was a fleeting glimpse: the 'Mech was a Locust, a light scout 'Mech even smaller than Dunn's Spider, doing the same job. The Locust pilot shot across the gap to disappear behind the wall, just long enough to draw a single desultory PPC bolt from Yamada's Masakari which went far wide. It had been also just long enough for Louisa to notice two things: one, that it was one of the newer, more sleek Locust models, and two, it wore the overall white scheme of the Word of Blake.
And once more, we play our dangerous game. Louisa remembered Danielle Blackthorn's overly dramatic words, but good ones, because the Sentinels had been fighting the Word of Blake for three years now. The line was inching back, planet by planet, towards the cradle of humanity and the WOB's homeworld, Terra itself, but it was a long and bloody road. Louisa had never been to Terra, never wanted to go there, but figured if she survived this and a dozen more campaigns, she likely would. But evil enough to this day, she believed: first she needed to live through the next five minutes.
More 'Mechs made the run across the gap, also dodging light fire from the assault 'Mechs behind her, more Blakist 'Mechs in their white cloaks: two medium Raijins, a light Duan Gung, and a light Mercury. "Green Six to Ripper Six. I think they're flanking us right," she advised Musashiya behind her.
"Roger, Green Six. I can see that." Musashiya's voice was calm, not angry, acknowledging the fact and accepting it. Louisa heard her giving orders to Alpha Assault, shifting them ninety degrees to cover the other gate: though the Awesome, Masakari, and Gladiator alone nearly outweighed the Word of Blake machines, the latter were still a threat if they got in behind. It would make Louisa's job harder, because now they would not have nearly enough support once the Blakists stormed the gate in front of them. She could distantly hear explosions to her left, and smoke billowed above the wall there, from the other side, which meant the Blakists had hit the south wall.
Then, without warning, her own battle began.
One moment the gate was empty; the second later, it was full of white-painted 'Mechs moving through it, three abreast. In the lead was a Nexus, a light scout 'Mech; to its left was a Grim Reaper, which was the same weight as her own 'Mech. Bad, but not overwhelming. The latter was what appeared behind the leading three 'Mechs: a Quickdraw, an Orion, and worst of all, a Stalker. Things were about to get interesting.
The Nexus accelerated quickly, dashing down the street and then suddenly turning and racing down a side street. No one fired at it: despite the Nexus having all of the armor protection of a beer can, it moved too fast to track. With luck, it would run into Gamma Battalion, reforming to the rear.
The remaining five Word of Blake 'Mechs opened fire. Lasers and missiles laced the street. About half hit their targets, Alpha Trinary's assault 'Mechs. Armor melted and shattered under the fusillade, but none of the 'Mechs were badly damaged, and Musashiya shifted back to return fire. The Snowbirds' fire did little damage as well, and the Blakists advanced, though as they grew closer, Louisa could see that a few of the 'Mechs already showed the scorch marks and blackened craters of battle; evidently this was what was left of whatever Gamma fought earlier.
"Green Six to Greens. Hold position." There was no way Louisa was sticking her light machines between two heavier forces.
"Green Six, Ripper Six. Fall back through us and cover the left flank. Ripper Four is having some trouble covering that flank." Out of the corner of one eye, Louisa could see Duffy's JagerMech firing its autocannons.
Louisa's mind instantly ran through options. She had a better idea than Musashiya, and decided to risk it. "Greens, you heard the lady. Jump and fall back." Dunn and Misumaru leapt backwards on silvery jumpjets, drawing some random, vain fire; Yurika sent a flight of missiles back. Vikka, placed to the rear, skipped backwards: her Vixen could walk backwards faster than many 'Mechs could run forwards. The three would join up and fight alongside Duffy on their own: Sentinel MechWarriors were trained to fight in teams that could change in a moment's notice, as lance and company assignments rarely remained during pitched battle.
Louisa herself stayed, and she saw a telltale come on her instrument panel, then vanish. Musashiya had noticed her absence, and was either too busy fighting or just trusted her to do her job. Either way, Louisa was not moving her 'Mech, because from the pattern of enemy fire, she had not been noticed. Her Nightsky was hidden behind a three-story apartment building to the front, another one behind, and the wall to her left. The right opened into the street. She zoomed in a secondary monitor on the front window of a groundcar parked on the curb: in the reflection of its mirrored windscreen, she could see the Blakist 'Mechs.
The WOB machines moved forward methodically and by the book, behind a cloud of missiles launched by the fire support 'Mechs. The white painted 'Mechs were rapidly not white painted any longer, as Musashiya savaged the column. Her former Clan machines hit harder and at longer range, and the Blakists were having trouble advancing into the teeth of it. Louisa wondered how the WOB commander would react, and was right when the enemy charged as quickly forward as possible: their only chance was to get in closer, where the odds would be more even. It surprised her that the Stalker would lead the charge, firing its missiles and large pulse lasers, but it was the heaviest machine, and Musashiya was concentrating her fire on the Quickdraw and the Orion.
Wait, Louisa, wait, she told herself. The Stalker thumped forward, causing the ground to shake and the windows in the apartment building to visibly rattle. A sign reading Godswood Apartments crashed to the ground. Then the Stalker slid past. It was a hideous 'Mech, which someone had once compared to what would happen if a DropShip and a BattleMech loved each other very much: a boxlike torso, with a bulbous, fat projection sticking out in front containing its lasers and the cockpit, with massive legs supporting it, though it looked terribly unstable. It was not designed for aesthetics, but simply to kill at all ranges. It moved past, presenting its slabsided rear to her, and Louisa stepped into the street, unable to resist yelling "Surprise!" The Stalker's pilot abruptly detected her, but it was too late. Louisa pulled both triggers, her fingers mashing all four buttons on the control sticks simutaneously. The Nightsky was modestly armed for its size—only an extended-range large laser, two medium pulse lasers, and a small pulse laser—but they were very accurate. Her lasers carved holes through the thinner rear armor of the Stalker's torso and down across its hips. Louisa did not expect to get through, and hadn't—the Stalker was still almost twice her size—but now the Stalker's pilot was in trouble. He could turn and duel the Nightsky behind him, and present a flank to the assault 'Mechs in front of him, or ignore the Nightsky and hope his lancemates could take down the smaller 'Mech. Either way, he was facing opponents all around, and Louisa could see that the Quickdraw, Orion, and Grim Reaper were out of position to stop her, having sought cover as they moved forward. One touch of the jumpjets, and she would be behind them as well.
Then her heart jumped. Stepping out from behind a thick protrusion of the city wall, unseen until now, was a Warhammer. It was an older model, but that was no comfort: it still bristled with weapons, the most lethal of which were the twin PPCs its arms ended in. Those arms leveled on her.
"Oh shit!" Louisa twisted away from the azure bolts. Both missed, but now it was Louisa who was smack in the middle of a Word of Blake unit. She could now see Musashiya's Rippers moving forward, a solid wall of assault 'Mechs, but they were still at long range. Somehow, she needed to stay alive for the next two minutes.
The Warhammer surged at her, firing its medium lasers, the PPCs steaming with waste heat. Louisa dodged the ruby beams, ducking under them, then firing back a blast from her large laser, lancing into the Warhammer's side. She shifted to face the Grim Reaper, which had advanced to trap her. She cursed as her lasers went wide; the Blakist pockmarked the Nightsky's center armor with short-range missiles, then hit just below her 'Mech's head with a large laser shot. A PPC shot from the Warhammer slammed into her back, and alarms screamed in her ears, announcing the loss of nearly all of her rear armor and the loss of a heat sink. The Nightsky rocked with the damage, and Louisa fought for control; the street was slippery with rain puddles.
Louisa gritted her teeth, more angry at herself than the Blakists. The fact that her chances of dying young had just increased expotentially never occurred to her. As missiles peppered her from the Grim Reaper, she turned on it. "Time to get medieval on your ass!" she shouted, dodged a laser blast, and swung her right arm—and the Nightsky's most potent weapon, a four ton axe blade. It bit deep into the Grim Reaper's right side, tearing through armor to expose the sparking insides of the enemy machine. The Warhammer was coming up, having taken a random PPC shot from somewhere, but it was too slow, she had the advantage—
As Louisa twisted around, the Orion suddenly turned and blasted her with its heavy autocannon. The impact took her by surprise; unable to keep her balance, Louisa felt her 'Mech toppling over to crash into the ferrocrete below. The thick armor of the cockpit protected her from damage, while her helmet absorbed the rest of the shock. But she was sprawled at the feet of the Warhammer, who reared back and aimed its weapons squarely at her head.
And then it was the Warhammer who went down, in a spray of water and tangled 'Mech limbs. What the hell… Louisa thought, firing a quick snapshot at the Grim Reaper as she got to her feet. Then she saw. "Holy shit—Vikka?"
The Vixen was already on its feet, and from the damage to it, Louisa could see what had happened. Vikka Sentinel had charged the Warhammer, which outweighed her nearly three to one, and tackled it, sending both 'Mechs down. It was an insane move, but it had worked, saving Louisa's life, and now it was the Warhammer who was helpless. Louisa didn't give the Blakist a chance; chivalry was for after the battle. Ignoring machine gun bullets that chipped her armor and lasers that melted it, she triggered everything at pointblank range. Her pulse lasers scored deep rents in the PPC barrels that formed the Warhammer's arms, while her large laser punched a hole into the torso. Vikka added her own shots: despite being a small 'Mech, the Vixen packed a punch, and her lasers tore off one arm and turned the right side into a ruin. She delivered a savage kick into the bargain, and left the coup de grace to Louisa, who slammed the axe directly into the center of the Blakist 'Mech's torso. Armor crunched, audible even over the noise of battle and the insulated cockpit, and a shower of sparks blazed underneath as Louisa tore the axe free. She saw the Warhammer suddenly go limp and knew she had hit the gyro. The enemy 'Mech was helpless. She centered the laser on the cockpit, and broadcast on what she hoped was an open frequency. "Word of Blake Warhammer. Your gyro is destroyed. Surrender or I'm putting my hatchet through your fucking head."
There was a stirring in the cockpit, then a tremulous voice replied, "Your prisoner, miss."
The battle ended quickly thereafter. The Orion and Grim Reaper pulled back, stepping over the motionless Quickdraw, which was missing its head and the pilot inside after a Gauss shell from Gayheart's Gladiator blew it to pieces. The Stalker had gone down as well, under a savage pounding from Musashiya's Awesome and Yamada's Masakari. Everywhere else, Blakist forces were in full retreat, having never penetrated more than a few blocks into the city. They had been forced out by Gamma Battalion, reformed, and attacked, but were not expecting to run into a second battalion. The dropzones were secure, and the rest of the regiment was coming down in a fleet of DropShips. Any other battles would be fought far to the south.
Louisa opened the canopy, and blessedly cool air flooded in. The Nightsky was a cool-running 'Mech, with its heat sinks bleeding off nearly all excess heat, but sustained combat still turned the cockpit into an oven. The air was tinged with the pungent smells of burning steel, melted asphalt, and ozone. Grabbing a jacket out of the locker behind the ejection seat, Louisa tied it around her waist, then attached a rope ladder to the side of the cockpit, clambering down. She almost wanted to cry at the damage to her Nightsky: the once-pristine gray camouflage was chipped and burned, and armor plates hung forlornly in places, were driven back into the 'Mech in others, and in still others had just melted into metal scabs. The sharkmouth around the base of the cockpit was missing a few teeth. "Sorry, baby," Louisa remarked to her machine. Even the Snowbird crest was gone, though where she had painted the words Aloha! on the hatchet blade was still legible.
Parked next to the Nightsky was the Vixen. Louisa walked over to where her lance had gathered. Yurika Misumaru immediately glomped her in a hug, and Hitomi Dunn was uncharacteristically wearing a huge grin. Her arms were around a shaking Vikka Sentinel, who looked as if she couldn't decide whether to smile or throw up. Dunn laughed as Louisa reached them. "Holy mother of pizza, Louisa! Did you see this girl? Did you see her? Holy mother of pizza!"
"I saw it," Louisa replied. She reached forward and enfolded Vikka in a savage hug, which wasn't easy with Yurika holding onto Louisa's long red pigtails with both hands. "You saved me today, Vikka."
"I, uh…" Vikka stammered.
"You are one crazy bitch!" Dunn exclaimed. "Fucking hell—I just sat there. Vikka runs her 'Mech up to full speed and just baseball slides into that Warhammer like a boss! You kicked up a bow-wave like a hovercraft, Vik! That Wobbie didn't know what hit him!" She laughed again. "Your new callsign is Honey Badger, Vikka, because you do not give a shit!"
"Yay Vikka!" Yurika added. "Louisa, Louisa, Louisa! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." She pulled away from Vikka. "Thank you."
Vikka was normally a very intense, very serious young woman. Now she looked almost scared to admit her success. "I…I slipped," she whispered. "I just meant to get close. The Vixen went out from under me, and I couldn't stop…so I just threw it into a base slide like we did in softball practice back in school…I don't know…is it always like this?" Her hands were shaking uncontrollably.
"Sometimes." Louisa let go as Dunn made a mess of Vikka's long black hair, already plastered to her skin with sweat. Normally, Dunn would have gotten hit for that, but Vikka could only grin sheepishly.
Yurika left off playing with Louisa's pigtails long enough to see Priss Musashiya approaching them. She didn't look happy, but Musashiya rarely did. It was not Musashiya who distracted Green Lance, however, but the man next to him. He had a mop of curly black hair, brooding brown eyes, a thin beard grown obviously to disguise his youth, with little effect—Louisa could tell that he was the youngest person there, with the exception of Vikka, and then not by much. He carried himself like an older man, however, dressed in a black combat uniform with a black armored vest and black helmet slung under one arm and a heavy pistol sheathed on the opposite hip. The only spot of color was on his right shoulder, which showed a snarling gray wolf's head. The effect was quite striking: even Louisa, who rarely found herself affected by a particular male, found her mouth getting drier than it already was, and she hoped that the newcomer didn't speak Japanese, because Yurika whispered exactly what she intended to do to the young man and how many times.
Musashiya, who did speak Japanese, shot Yurika a look that would freeze a sun, then turned the same expression on Louisa. "I should kick your head in, Arla-Vlata. Didn't you look before you leaped? I appreciate you trying to ambush that Stalker, but somehow you missed a fuc—" she scowled at the man next to her "—a damn Warhammer?"
Louisa looked as contrite as she could be. "I screwed up, Priss. I'm sorry."
"You should be. John Lawson sent me down here to chew your ass. Says he doesn't want to have to fill out the paperwork or be the one to inform your mother that you're dead because you were stupid." Musashiya sighed, and Louisa smothered a smile: she could tell that the older woman was not as angry as she looked. Most of this was for the stranger's benefit.
"Am I in trouble?"
Musashiya shook her head. "No…consider your ass chewed. Besides, you'll be bunking down tonight with these other morons you call a lance, and that's punishment enough." She turned to the man in black. "I know they don't look it, sir, but these are the ladies who held the southwest corner. With my lance's help, naturally." She pointed at each in turn. "Vikka Sentinel, the softball slider you remarked about earlier; Hit Me Dunn, Chatterbox Misumaru, and the Commander's daughter, Louisa Arla-Vlata."
The man smiled, self-consciously, and put out a gloved hand. "Hello. My name is Robb Stark." He motioned around the city. "Sorry it's not in better condition, but let me welcome you to Winterfell."