==Chapter 17==—

Fenix Fusiliers Headquarters "The Nest"

Merlon, Caselton

Draconis March, Federated Suns

October 31st, 3145

Ryza watched as the technicians worked on her suit of Infiltrator Mk. II battle armor. The tried and true Davion design was one of the earlier adoptions of Clan Battle Armor by the successor state and Ryza's suit had been with her since the end of the jihad.

Armed with an infantry grade Gauss Rifle and mag-clamps to allow it to hitch a ride on a BattleMech the same way a suit of Elemental armor could her Infiltrator suit was one of only a few the Fusiliers had managed to acquire before Stone's edicts had seen the group disbanded—the bulk of their Battle Armor was either Purifier suits acquired from Republic connections before Caselton was restored to the Suns or the far more common and less effective Inner Sphere Standard.

Jhonen had been looking at ways to smuggle some Marauder suits through some contacts working for the Taurian Concordat, but nothing had ever come of it and besides Ryza had seen the things and she doubted anything so bulky and cumbersome could be as effective as the old tried and true Elemental armor.

She had talked to Dominic about trying to see what sort of battle armor Sea Fox could offer but it was not high on his list of priorities. That meant that her Infiltrator was an important piece of equipment to the regiment and even if Lindsay had left her armor and infantry assets behind in favor of a lightning strike raid with the use of her Mechs when the retaliation came Ryza's suit would need to be in perfect working order.

When the time came to once again take to the field and protect her late husband's birth world she fully intended for the only thing holding her back to be her own age.

Something that was starting to weigh on her mind no matter how hard she tried to ignore it. She was only reminded when the white-haired woman marched into the room to stand beside her and without a single word of greeting say, "You have heard about the children, quiaff?"

"There are many children, which do you mean specifically, Ragna?" Ryza asked.

"Alayne and Elim of course." Ragna said.

Ryza scoffed dismissively, "Taken as bondsmen by the Dragons. Unfortunate."

She wouldn't admit that it irked her to imagine Theo's Mech being potentially used against the Federated Suns after all the time and investment they'd put into bringing it back to life. If there were an afterlife—and she was indifferent—she could imagine he was probably laughing about it, or grinning that damn grin of his whenever things turned out the opposite of what they were expecting.

"Fortunate they survived. But I find myself in an odd mood since I heard of it." Ragna said.

"I do not mean to be blunt, but is there a reason you are telling me?" Ryza asked.

"Busy watching the techs at work?" Ragna laughed.

"Disinterested in your topic of conversation." Ryza told her simply. "The children are alive, they are keeping their Mechs, they will fight and fight well. They are promising warriors, we trained them ourselves, I do not know what more you expect."

"Do not mistake me, I am not fearful for them." Ragna told her, and Ryza turned to the smaller woman and raised a skeptical eyebrow at her.

Ragna smiled and said, "I am not. I am envious. I remember when my sibkin and I were captured by the Fusiliers, I remember feeling so ashamed that I had been bested by mercenaries in my first real engagement since testing as a Mechwarrior."

"I can imagine." Ryza said, but in reality she didn't have to.

For her it was far worse, she had just won her blood name and was set to undergo a trial of position for the rank of Star Captain, a difficult level to reach for an Elemental.

She had felt like such a Ristar, and then she had been captured, imprisoned, made a bondswoman. The shame of it all had been too great for her to even accept the opportunity to be quietly handed over to her Clan, better she thought that the Jade Falcons believe Ryza Helmer had died with honor against an unworthy foe than that she had allowed herself to be captured instead.

Ryza asked, "You say you are envious of them? Why? Do you believe their experience with the Draconis Combine will be as positive as yours was with the Fusiliers?"

"I doubt it. But they will have a chance to face real warriors and test themselves. What I would not give for the chance to fight my kinsmen again, to test myself against the next generation of Ghost Bear."

"A fascinating take on things." Ryza said with a slight shrug.

"You and I, neither of us should still be alive, Ryza." Ragna commented.

"I know." Ryza told her.

"I have fought battle after battle through the Invasion, the Civil War, the Jihad, and through it all I did not fear death. Now at the end of my days I do fear death, I fear dying the same death as my brother and sister who passed away asleep in their beds." Ragna told her, and Ryza flinched at the former Ghost Bear's manner of referring to her sibkin.

Ghost Bears believed strongly in family, just as the Fusiliers did but it was not a trait that Ryza shared and even after decades it bothered her to hear another Trueborn speak in such a manner. She turned to the smaller woman and asked, "Are you speaking to me because you believe that I can relate?"

Ragna shook her head and said, "I am speaking to you because you are of the Clans, you are one of the last survivors of the Fusilier bondsmen. I am speaking to you because only you will understand what I am saying."

"But I do not understand what you are saying." Ryza told her.

"Neither of us should be alive." Ragna told her again, "Our time has passed, even when it comes to teaching the youngsters. Ragnar and Marcus serve as our successors, surely you realize that."

"That is why you stepped down from instructing," Ryza told her, "but I am not as old or as frail as you, there is still more I can teach these whelps. For the time being I am alive and I will be of use to my Clan . . . so to speak."

Ragna smiled and said, "I do not plan to wither away. But I think that it is natural for the old to step aside for the younger generation."

Ryza frowned and folded her arms asking, "Can your pontificating step aside for the climax of this conversation?"

Ragna's smile widened, and the signs of aging on her face were all the worse as the old Mechwarrior said, "I know why you still live Ryza Helmer. You can rail against it, you can pretend that it is not so but you live because you loved your husband and you are afraid that everything he built will be destroyed in this tumultuous time. But, freeborn though they may be our descendants are strong; the Fusiliers will survive and if the Fusiliers survive so will the Federated Suns."

"I know that," Ryza scoffed, "Marcus, Ragnar, Lindsay; any of them would walk barefoot into hell for Caselton, for the Federated Suns. But the Suns are not simply struggling, they are dying. Theo had his own devotion to a dead dream, and the ranking conventions of the Fusiliers stand as the proof of that."

"Are we ourselves not born out of a devotion to a dead dream?" Ragna countered, "To hear Theo speak of it in the day the Federated Commonwealth meant as much to him as the Star League means to us."

Ryza smirked and said, "You are right, the Star League remains but a memory, with the shallow Inner Sphere attempt at restoration being hailed by so many as the final nail in the coffin of the grand dream. The Federated Commonwealth might have been the mightiest nation since the Star League but it was no Star League, and it is a dream that did not survive its second generation."

"But it was a dream made reality for a time, and though short it will still be a time remembered through history. It is for the strong to make their dreams a reality, it is for their children to keep the dream alive, is it not?" Ragna suggested.

"My point is that devotion to an idea means little if you do not have the power to preserve and perpetuate that idea. The Federated Suns are proving that they do not have that power, the Lyran Commonwealth is being mauled from every direction if the rumors are true. Both halves of the nation my husband loved are on the brink and the truth is that even if their warriors win every battle from this day forth they will not be restored in this generation or the next. The Federated Commonwealth was weak and its two halves are even weaker. Unless it is willing to change, as the Star League Defense Forces changed when they became the Clans then both the Lyrans and the Suns, who do not remember how to be strong alone can die together. Yet we have embraced the weak Suns even though a Mercenary force should mean the freedom to fight for the strong.

"And Theo's legacy? For all the devotion of the Fenix clan the Davions did nothing when Stone dismantled Caselton and disbanded the Fusiliers. The Steiners for that matter could hardly have cared less. The truth is that Theo devoted his life to the Federated Commonwealth, to the Steiner-Davions, to Victor and then that devotion was shown not to have mattered to all in sundry. I saw him live under Republic rule, I heard him laugh under Republic rule but never once did I see him accept Republic rule, never once did I hear him speak of the Republic the way he would speak of the Federated Commonwealth and now I listen to Lindsay, Marcus and Ragnar, even Elim and Alayne speak of the Suns the same way."

Ragna had listened to her speech quietly and patiently, now the old woman asked, "Why do you fight if you believe it is hopeless?"

"I did not say it is hopeless," Ryza shrugged. "Lindsay may be Ben's granddaughter but she inherited Theo's heart, and that heart, that devotion to an entity that gives no damn for any of us may consume and doom us all."

"Ragna said, "Or it might well create something stronger than anyone expects. We were both bred from the greatest of genes to be the greatest of warriors but when we fought the Fusiliers we were defeated, we were captured and our strength was only added to their own. Now I think it's time for us to accept that we have done what we can."

"What do you mean?" Ryza demanded.

"I think it is time for the end," Ragna explained, "For me at least. You can linger on if you like, watch over the children a while longer. But for me the end is near, and I welcome it. Not as an old woman in my bed, but as a Mechwarrior. When the end comes I will not go quietly, I will make the Capellan Confederation bleed for every grain of sand on this world. The Inner Sphere has no Remembrance, but when the end comes I will make sure that it is such and end that it will be remembered both as the act of a Trueborn warrior worthy of her genes and as a challenge to my Freeborn spawn to surpass me, to eclipse my glory and keep alive the dream their forefathers fought for."

"Seyla." Ryza said, smiling in spite of herself. "At least we can agree that it is better to die in a blaze of glory than to fade away. When I die I hope it will be in such fire and glory that Devlin Stone will tremble in hell knowing that I am coming."

"How do you know Stone is dead?" Ragna asked.

"Because that is the real reason I am still alive," Ryza said, only half joking. "I am not still here because I believe the younger generation are unfit to inherit what we are leaving them Ragna . . . I am alive because I will not die until I know that Devlin Stone will be there waiting for me to see if a spirit can slay another spirit."

"You live out of hatred for the man who saved the Inner Sphere?" Ragna asked with an amused look.

Ryza admitted, "You were not wrong. I loved my husband . . . but he loved the Federated Commonwealth. Victor Steiner-Davion let it be destroyed because he was too weak to preserve it, too weak to fight the battles that needed to be fought to keep it alive. Victor was a great warrior, and by all accounts a good man but if I had ever had the chance I would have killed him for his weakness, and now he is dead. My husband also loved the Fenix Fusiliers . . . do you see where I am going with this, Ragna?"

The Mechwarrior smiled and said, "Stone destroyed the Fusiliers in pursuit of a dream of peace and pacifism that would never outlive him. Then he disappeared, entrusting his dream to men too weak to uphold it so that in the end his dream amounted to nothing and he destroyed the Fusiliers for no reason, left Caselton and so many worlds like her open to the predation of those without honor."

"Stone is a great warrior and by all accounts a good man. But if I ever have the chance I will kill him for his foolishness." Ryza said casually, though she saw one of the technicians working on her suit visibly pale at the statement.

"I do not think Theo would have counted either man as his enemy." Ragna pointed out.

"He would not, and they were not." Ryza said, "But they are mine. Theo respected both of them, he accepted the decisions they both made and he smiled. But I saw plainly those two men took or corrupted every good thing in his life, his reason for living and never cared. Perhaps it is foolish to say that without that he would still be alive today, but I can say that I believe he would have died with fewer regrets."

Ragna smiled slightly, but she said, "I think that might be the saddest thing I have ever heard you say. You do not live on out of love for your children or even truly for your husband, you live on out of hatred for those that they would never wish ill against?"

Ryza smiled broadly and said, "I am Jade Falcon. Unlike the Ghost Bears if we are going to feel affection we will show it in . . . let us say, odd and more destructive ways."

Hadrian had to admit that the appeal of a Mining Mech was significantly less than a Pack Hunter II, even if the Pack Hunter was just a training Mech.

But thanks to them the Fusiliers had access to the components they needed to bring the company of Pack Hunters up to spec which meant that they'd gone along with the rest of the regiment. The sibko, for their efforts had been 'rewarded' with the Industrial MODs formerly assigned to the regiment's second battalion.

They were in great shape but they just weren't . . . well, they just weren't real Mechs.

Even though the Dig Lord Mining Mech was more than twice the mass of the Pack Hunter II Had would bet practically anything that the BattleMech would take the Industrial in a fight eleven times out of ten.

He commented to Vika as they worked together on the Dig Lord, "This is quite the downgrade, isn't it?"

She smiled and cleared her throat, wordlessly reminding him to correct his speech to, "I mean . . . is it not?"

"Aff. But what can we do? This company would have been ill-suited to a raid to begin with. Thanks to the trade deal with Sea Fox the Fusiliers have a whole extra light company to rely on on Tikonov improving their chances of success. We cannot grudge them that, quiaff?"

"Aff." Had responded, still getting used to the clanner talk. He supposed it was probably more natural for Vika, being raised with it but for him it was still a bit of a struggle.

Luckily everyone was pretty patient with him when it came to it, even the instructors.

He wouldn't normally be helping Vika work on the Dig Lord but there wasn't a lot else for him to do. His own team's Mechs were all in order, the Crosscut Forestry Mechs and Carbine Construction Mechs were both just thirty toners, less than half the mass of the sixty-five ton Dig Lord.

It was a totally different experience from working on the Crosscut he'd been assigned, or helping Hikaru with his Carbine, and all three Mechs were different from working on the Pack Hunter. The Industrials were a lot less sophisticated in general, but due to their status as MODs nothing was strictly speaking 'according to the manual' and they had to figure a lot out about the Mechs, even taking into account the things their previous Mechwarriors had told them.

Since most of the best techs had gone with the regiment there wasn't really anyone to hold their hands in the maintenance exercises . . . though Marcus—who'd remained behind, though Ragnar had not—was watching just in case any fires needed to be put out.

The Dig Lord wasn't Had's Mech, and Vika wasn't part of his star, but since Had was hoping to someday inherit his father's Awesome—which might be quite the trick as it was more likely to go to his older brother—he'd claimed that he just wanted to spend some time working on a heavier machine. He was sure he was utterly transparent given the look Marcus had given him, but Vika didn't seem to mind.

Besides they were in a pretty similar position with both their fathers having left with the regiment. Had even used this to change the subject from the Mech asking her, "Do you worry about your dad going to fight on Tikonov?"

"No, not exactly," Vika said, though she didn't sound like she had a lot of conviction. She elaborated, adding, "I mean I do not think he will be injured on the raid . . . but I do worry in general, I suppose? I mean things are just unpredictable these days and it is difficult to properly plan anything . . . and no plan survives contact with the enemy . . . it just seems like anything can happen lately."

"Aff." Had nodded. He knew Vika was related to one of the students who'd been taken prisoner by the DCMS, so he guessed that was what she meant by saying that it seemed like anything could happen. Still he said, "Well you can't—uh you cannot undersell the raw power that the Fusiliers have gathered these past few years. A whole BattleMech battalion is a formidable force these days."

"Whole BattleMech regiments would have been involved in taking Tikonov," Vika said as she looked off into the ether and whispered, "what I wouldn't give to see it . . . the kind of fighting our ancestors would have seen, Inner Sphere regiments pitted against Clan Galaxies, hundreds of Mechs . . ."

Had smiled and cleared his throat, Vika seemed surprised and looked around but Had told her, "Do not worry, you were quiet and I do not think Marcus is nearby."

"He is not, but I am," a woman's voice said behind them. Had turned to see what looked like an older version of Vika, a woman who looked . . . well, old and yet somehow still stood straight and strong. Her hair was stark white and her face wrinkled but the resemblance between the two women was strong all the same.

Vika stood up and at attention so Had did the same as the woman who could only be Ragna approached them with a look in her icy blue eyes that seemed to be appraising the both of them.

Finally Ragna said, "You should not fantasize about those days. Live for your own time, I suspect if you live long enough you will see grand battlefields like the sort I was raised on."

"I hope so." Vika nodded.

"I do too." Ragna nodded, a smile crept across her face and she said, "You are Freeborn, but you are my blood after all. It would give me great pleasure to see you make a name for yourself on the battle field."

"Thank you." Vika said, though she was still standing at attention.

Ragna turned on Had next though and asked, "And you, Harrison's kin?"

"His son, ma'am." Had nodded. He doubted the old woman's use of his father's first name was a sign that they knew each other very well, his father had never mentioned her after all. Still Had had learned that many Clanners refused to refer to others' surnames as they viewed the owning of a surname—or a Bloodname in their culture—as a thing of great significance.

In the Clans only so many Mechwarriors were allowed Bloodnames passed down from the original followers of Kerensky. Had knew from Vika that had she not been captured by the Fusiliers Ragna's Blood House would have been Jorgenson but as she and others had been 'adopted' by 'clan Phoenix' they had taken the surname Phoenix largely, Vika said, to appease those who just expected them to have them.

"Ragnar told me about you," Ragna said, though she chose not to tell Had whether or not what she'd heard was good. Instead she said, "Tell me about this Mech, boy."

"Uh, it is Vika's Mech . . ." Had said.

"Yet I asked you, not her. Tell me about this Mech." Ragna insisted.

Had nodded and said, "Well . . . it is an Industrial MOD, formerly piloted by Hauptmann Morgan Fenix. It weighs sixty-five tons, and has a maximum speed of fifty four kilometers per hour leaving it on the slow side even for a heavy Mech. That particular model has been stripped of its four Fluid Guns in exchange for two ER Large Lasers and an LRM 10 with two tons of ammo making it a threat at long range and it retains its Rock Hound Mining Drill in the event anything gets too close."

"How does an Industrial Mech sport such an armament?"

Well it helps that its previous owner had the surname Fenix, I expect, Had thought but he said, "Her I.C.E. engine was removed and replaced with a standard engine, and her Heavy Industrial armor has been replaced with standard BattleMech armor. Except for her Industrial frame she might as well be a proper BattleMech."

"Then you and I have very different ideas of what a proper BattleMech is," Ragna said with a look in her eye that Had recognized because he'd seen the same look on Vika's face, and just like that he knew the old woman was playing with him, and relaxed a bit.

He said, "It was the Mech of a battalion leader, it is easily the most heavily modified of all the MODs, even the other three Dig Lords in the Companyare not this formidable."

Ragna folded her arms and nodded, "A suitable reward for your part in capturing the Sea Fox bandits."

"Aff." Vika said.

"Neg." Ragna said with a shake of her head, "You have it wrong. If Theo were still commanding this unit you would have been promoted to Mechwarrior for what you did, not simply given a minor reward and left to continue training."

"I appreciate the opportunity to continue my training," Vika said, "I am still unequal to my seniors."

Ragna scoffed and said, "Humility is unbecoming of a warrior! Be proud of your skills, both of you! Those are the talents that will keep your kin safe when I am gone. You have been born into troubling times, the galaxy has tumbled into a war it was not prepared for and though you are mercenaries you are in the service of a nation so badly maimed it may well succumb to its injuries. You must be better than every enemy that stands before you, you must be warriors."

"Aff, we will be. When we have completed our training-" Vika was saying but Ragna cut her off.

"This Mech is an insult. In my day a promising young warrior would never be given a second-line Mech like this, not even a Freeborn. This Mech would go to a Solahma fit for nothing but garrison duty because this Mech is fit for nothing but garrison duty. It is a Mech to die in, not a Mech to fight in."

Vika frowned and said, "I . . . cannot complain. I am not yet a Mechwarrior, but Kommandant Ragnar has assigned me this Mech for the duration of my training."

Ragna shook her head still though and looked up at the Dig Lord saying, "When I was your age I was training in OmniMechs, you have never even piloted a proper OmniMech have you? This Mech should have gone to an old good-for-nothing like myself. You should have been in one of the Pack Hunters on Tikonov . . . this is a Mech that will see battle as a last resort, not on the front lines. The front lines are where young bloods like yourself belong being given the chance to make a name for yourself."

The old Trueborn continued to stare at the Dig Lord in a way that started to make Had feel a little sad. In a way he could almost see what she was getting at, in her day a promising young warrior would be given the best equipment and sent into the real battles while washed up old has-beens like herself were given garrison duty. These days with even garbage Mechs like Industrial MODs being line-worthy equipment an oldster like Ragna had nothing to do but wait for her natural end while she watched her granddaughter act as if an Industrial MOD—even a heavily modified one—were a worthy Mech for any kind of warrior.

Had understood it because he felt the same way. They'd bluffed the Sea Foxes, they deserved real Mechs and a chance to fight in a real battle, not clean up duty with the regiment's worst equipment. Even if they were still just youths it wasn't as if a mercenary regiment were a military regiment, they could be more flexible about the age of their warriors.

Ragna was right, it wasn't fair.

Vika's eyes were cast down for a second before she said, "Perhaps in another year I will be able to earn such an assignment, Grandmother."

The word 'grandmother' seemed to shake Ragna out of her daze.

There was an awkward quiet for a moment, and then Vika said, "I think . . . that is to say I am confident that Mechwarrior Alayne will fight well against Clan Ghost Bear. She will show your kin that your bloodline is strong, even if your descendants are Freeborn we have inherited much from you. She will make you proud and she will return alive, Grandmother."

Ragna smiled and said, "I expect her to put your other cousins to shame, and Elim as well even if he can only boast Jade Falcon blood. If the Fenix Fusiliers are to survive this Dark Age they will need warriors like that, and you two will need to be every bit their equals if not their betters. Fight well, kill many enemies and die in a blaze of glory before you end up an ancient bag of bones like me."

"Aff." Vika said, then quickly she said, "But I would be honored to have the skills necessary to live to see your age. You are alive because of your skill, Grandmother, you and Ryza both."

"But we should be dead, the both of us should be long dead. Our time has passed, our wars have been fought. Now all that remains for us is to stand on the sidelines and hope you kids can fix this mess."

"We'll do our best." Had offered.

Vika cleared her throat, but Ragna only smiled and said, "Good luck."