Chapter 8 of the Snowbird Saga

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, here we are, Chapter 8. Sorry it took so long to update, but after the marathon writing session to finish Snowbird Chained, I needed a small break. Plus I tried to start writing this last Sunday, but was too distracted by Clan Patriot advancing to the Super Bowl. Yeah—Clan Patriot. It really is like watching the Clans roll over all opposition. ("They Have Arrived. Nothing We Have Can Stop Them.") As a Dolphins fan, I am truly hoping that the Super Bowl turns out to be Khan Belicheck's Twycross. (Eli Manning as Kai Allard? Well, he has been known to self-destruct.)

Anyway, back to the ranch. I decided not to write an epilogue to Snowbird Chained. It really wouldn't have contributed to the story, and I wanted to get right into this. Oh, and remember when I mentioned that I'd like to have a job that allows me to write a lot and get paid for it? I kind of have that job now.

I tried to avoid as much as possible stealing from Stackpole in Warrior: En Garde, but given the similar situation, some overlap was inevitable. Riva Allard is a real character; she was introduced briefly in Warrior: Riposte. Jim Anderson is my own invention (though he is based very loosely on a character in Omaha the Cat Dancer). Events on Vantaa are, except for the inclusion of the Jade Falcons and the Sentinels, pretty much what is described in the Wolf Clan Sourcebook. As of this chapter, the Snowbirds saga will generally follow the established timeline (planets will fall when they're supposed to, anyway, and certain battles take place when they're supposed to) if not strict canon.

Note that I don't open this story arc with the normal "What Has Gone Before"—I leave that to Max towards the end of this chapter. This is also a bit of a short chapter, at that…

REVIEWER'S CORNER: Rouge: You're welcome. Sorry you don't like the idea of Senefa defecting, but I actually had that in mind all along. Senefa is the anti-Phelan Kell; she's a woman of conscience who suddenly realized she was on the wrong side. Still, there will be some twists and turns, and it's not going to be easy on her. As for the Jihad, well…I can't say too much without giving away what's going to happen in the last few chapters of this story, but to paraphrase the old tagline of the 20 Year Update, "Don't think of your character as being 20 years older…think of her daughter as being ready for battle."

Kat: thanks. That confusion was exactly what I wanted to convey. I kind of wish I had written more, but that will have to do. And yes, Rouge is right: your time is coming; somehow, I've got to put you in here—or Sigurd.

Bien: always good to hear from you, but you could've just e-mailed me the stats of that Victor! (Though I do like it…) Your alter ego will, like MacArthur, return. And yes, I need to update the Snowbirds' TO&E, but that will have to wait until Chapter 9.

Noveltigger: You could say that the Snowbirds got a nice bonus out of this mission.

Moisin: We'll see…and yes, there will be blood…

FraserMage: We'll get back to the war presently.


Katrina Steiner Memorial Military Hospital

Tharkad, Donegal March, Federated Commonwealth

18 July 3051

Pain. Pain was Sheila Arla-Vlata's world, alternated with long periods of soft blackness. She learned to dread those hours—she thought they might be hours; they might be days or even just minutes—but the pain at least told her she was still alive. At the other times, she wasn't sure if she was unconscious and dreaming, or dead and in some sort of purgatory, or worse.

The pain started first. The blinding pain of the Elemental crushing her arm, of being bounced roughly awake as she felt herself on what had to be a DropShip rising into the atmosphere, then of needles being sunk into her skin. Her memories were hazy and disjointed, to where Sheila was unsure if she was imagining things or it was reality. She remembered a cold wind lancing through the blankets that covered her, then the feeling of weightlessness that might have been yet another DropShip ride, and the worst—the wrenching, nauseous sensation of a hyperspace jump. More cold, more pain, more needles, and even the dull scrape of a bone saw.

The blackness was filled with more dreams. She remembered the Nagelring, and the near isolation she suffered for being a mercenary's daughter at a school of noble families, an isolation only partially allieviated by her acquaintance with Victor Steiner-Davion and her close friendship to Mimi Stykkis. The vivacious, dancing Mimi turned into the half-dead, paralyzed Mimi, and Sheila screamed aloud, wondering if she was about to share her friend's fate. Senefa Malthus invaded her dreams next, at once the kind angel-woman lifting her from the hell of a prison cell to give her water, and the cruel demon-warrior who blasted Sheila's 'Mech out from under her; Senefa's face wavered and became the cruel Athena Henderson, and Sheila screamed again at the memory of her body and mind being ripped apart under the straps and the drugs. Sheila relived battles, some of which were surreal, in which she saw herself as her nickname, a snowy owl, fighting a jade falcon with the green eyes of Senefa or the dead blue of Athena; others in such complete and livid detail that she felt her body unconsciously gripping control sticks and stomping jump pedals. Through it all, Max's face and voice was there, soothing her, making the nightmares go away; she cried when she remembered having to briefly choose between the Snowbirds and her lover at the dropzone outside Fort Pilum, and shuddered remembering the sweetness of their first lovemaking that day of the rain.

Finally, Sheila felt herself awake, this time to the point where everything wasn't in some sort of gauzy dreaminess or the harsh reality of an operating room. It was slow, where Sheila felt her body and mind waking up as if she was a BattleMech herself, with systems gradually coming online after a forced shutdown. Smell came back first, which was how she knew it was a hospital from the cloying scent of disinfectant, a scent she hated since Sheila had always associated hospitals with pain. Next came hearing, though that was muffled and distant, though she could hear the steady beep beep beep of an electrocardiogram that was obviously her own heartbeat, and the sound of her own breathing. After that was sensation: the dull ache from her left arm, pins and needles in her right arm, various other objects stuck in rather unnatural places for such things to be, and the cool flow of oxygen through tubes in her nose. Finally, there was sight, as she slowly opened her eyes. Everything was dark, but after a wild, panicky moment in which she thought she might be blind, she realized the room was just dim.

Sheila looked down at herself. She couldn't see much, since she was swathed in covers to her neck, but she could tell she was wearing nothing but a hospital smock. She absurdly wished for her uniform back, since the day she had been captured by the Clans, she had either been wearing ill-fitting coveralls, smocks, or blankets. It seemed like she had been basically naked more in the past few weeks (months?) than she had with her husband during their months of marriage.

And speaking of her husband, she slowly turned and saw Max sitting in a chair next to her bed, sound asleep, a book folded on his chest. Her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton, but she summoned up what saliva she could, and whispered, "Max?" To her annoyance, he failed to stir, so she reached out with her left arm to shake him. The arm responded, but then pain shot upwards and she gasped; something underneath the covers hit the metal railings of the bed with a distinct thunk. That woke him. He blinked, yawned, looked over at Sheila, and did a comical double-take as he realized she was staring back at him. "Sheila?" he said, nearly as softly as she had, as if not quite believing what he saw, then sat bolt upright. "Sheila!"

Since her left arm wasn't quite working properly, she motioned for the water glass she spotted on the shelf next to her bed. Max, who obviously wanted to hug her but was afraid of hurting her, seized it like a man in the desert and slowly brought it to her parched lips. It was bottled water, but to Sheila it tasted better than anything she had ever tasted before. "Thanks, honey," she whispered. "Now you can kiss me." Since Max could not seem to form coherent words, he did so, and it was just as sweet as the water.

When they had at last parted—Sheila noted in passing that the EKG had sped up noticeably—Max looked down at her, smoothing some errant strands of hair from her face. He wiped his cheeks of tears, then did the same for her. "How're you feeling?" he asked her, his voice rough with emotion.

"Like shit," Sheila answered truthfully. The mere act of moving made muscles obviously not used in awhile scream in pain, and all the needles and other items stuck in her body moved and hurt too.

"That—that's good," Max replied, then they laughed, which did feel pretty good. "I'll get the doctor." Sheila didn't want him to go at all, but luckily he never left her sight, just going to the door and speaking with someone there. Minutes later, two green-smocked doctors returned, and their faces split into smiles at her status. "Glad to see you're awake," the female of the two said. "We were starting to get a little worried." She held out her hand, and Sheila shook it with her right hand. "I'm Doctor Riva Allard."

"I thought you looked familiar," Sheila said, in awe. Riva Allard was the daughter of Quintus Allard, former head of the Davion MIIO intelligence service, and the sister of Justin Xiang Allard, MIIO's current head, and Daniel Allard, second-in-command of the legendary Kell Hounds. Her familial relations paled in comparison to her own pedigree, however: Riva Allard was a leading figure in neurology and the expert on cybernetics.

"Doctor Jim Anderson," the male said, and Sheila had heard of him as well. Anderson had been a famous infantry commander before he had stepped on a mine in the War of 3039. He had gone into medicine and also pioneered cybernetic techniques, which he used on himself—Anderson was missing his right leg from above the knee and his left foot. The fact that the two of them were here in her hospital room meant that something was wrong.

"Before we go any further," Sheila said, "what's wrong with me? Give it to me straight up."

Allard sat on the side of her bed, opened her mouth, and then looked to Anderson. The older man put his hands behind his back. "We had to amputate your left arm," he said simply.

Sheila sighed. "I figured as much. I can't really reach it…can you…"

Max slowly, reluctantly, pulled back the sheet. "I can't see it very well," Sheila said, so he grabbed her fingers—at least she supposed he had—and lifted up her arm. Sheila leaned forward, peering at it in the semi-darkness.

She had seen amputees, of course; it would be hard not to do so in an Inner Sphere that had been at war for nearly three centuries. It was impossible not to see any in a mercenary unit, as many MechWarriors who were medically retired from House units often were snapped up by merc units needing veteran warriors on the first bounce. Max's own father Todd had lost an eye and part of a shoulder to a Liao strafing attack, and had a metal replacement for his shoulder, though the Sentinels were too poor at the time to afford a cybernetic eye. There were others in the Sentinels who had artificial arms or legs. Sheila wondered if she was simply inured to such sights or she was still in shock, because she felt no revulsion or surprise at her new arm.

The doctors had done a good job, she supposed—the cybernetic replacement looked like an arm, so she wasn't stuck with some piece of angle iron with primitive fingers or a hook. It roughly followed the contour of a natural arm and ended in a complete hand with all five fingers. Had it been covered in paint or synthetic flesh, it could've easily passed for a flesh-and-blood arm. Instead, it was dark gray with a metallic sheen, except for lighter shades of gray that crisscrossed the arm at the joints of her arm and fingers, and her fingernails. "It's not so bad," Sheila remarked. Max let go of the fingers and her arm simply dropped like a dead thing.

"Can you lift it?" Allard asked.

Sheila tried to no avail. "Use your elbow," Anderson instructed. Sheila did, and slowly, her arm lifted from the bed. It flopped back onto her shoulder, but after a few more tries, she was able to at least do that. "It hurts," Sheila said, her face covered with a thin sheen of sweat. Her arm felt like it was on fire—from the elbow to her shoulder. There was no feeling below the elbow.

"That's a good sign," Allard told her with a smile. "It's the nerves and muscles. That arm is made from mostly composites, but there's steel in there as well. Your muscles aren't used to lifting that much weight. That will change."

"I can't use the fingers," Sheila protested. She willed them to move, but nothing happened.

"Sheila," Anderson cautioned, "you've just woken up from about a month of a chemically-induced coma. That's the reason the lights are low; your eyes aren't used to it. Give it some time."

"A month?" At least she knew now how long she had been out. "What happened? What about the Snowbirds? What about my parents and the Sentinels? What about Senefa—"

Allard was about to reply, but Max shook his head. "I'll tell her."

"Very well. Now, if you don't mind—" Allard turned down the covers and Sheila turned red with embarassment as she and Anderson lifted the smock and looked her over. "No point in blushing," Anderson grinned. "I was here when they brought you in." After a few more minutes of poking and prodding, they replaced both smock and sheet. "Your prognosis is good," Anderson continued. "You sustained no head injuries, and the muscles in your chest have healed nicely. The medical team on Vantaa had already fixed your shoulders by the time you were shuttled back here—you're on Tharkad, by the way. Unfortunately, we couldn't save your arm. We tried. The bone structure was basically gone, and there was extensive nerve damage. Rather than living the rest of your life with a withered and useless arm, and also because we feared gangrene could set in, we had to amputate."

"I understand," Sheila assured him. "You did the best you could." She lifted the arm again. Move, dammit, she commanded her new fingers, but they stubbornly refused. "How long before I can use this like my old arm?"

Anderson and Allard exchanged a glance. "Sheila," Allard said gently, "you will probably never have all the range of motion of your old arm. You will, however, be quite functional with it. You will probably even be able to play the drums again." Sheila had driven her parents crazy with a drum set her father had, in a moment of weakness, bought her when she was twelve, but even they had to admit she was pretty good with them. "But that's not the real reason you ask, is it? You want to know if you will be able to pilot a 'Mech again." She sounded bitter.

"Doctor Allard, it's my duty."

"Yes, I know. Remember that my brothers are MechWarriors, and Justin has a situation quite similar to yours." Allard shook her head. "I apologize, Sheila. It's just that, as doctors, we occasionally have a tough time accepting that the people we put back together want to know the nearest opportunity they will have to start taking other people apart."

She faced Sheila squarely. "The good news is that we've made huge strides since 3026, and your situation is much better than my brother's. He had the arm completely blown off; we were able to salvage the nerve ganglia in yours. Combined with cyberneural techniques, you will need none of the special adaptative functions my brother needed to pilot his Centurion back on Solaris VII or in the Fourth War."

"So what's the bad news?"

"The bad news is that you will never quite have real feeling in your hand. Like I said, you will regain your basic motor functions and be able to pilot a 'Mech, but it will not be easy. It will be exceptionally difficult, like learning to walk again. You may find that it will be an impossible task." Allard paused. "Sheila, you have a gift for training. You could become a teacher or some other function besides being a MechWarrior."

"I loved being a warrior," Anderson put in. "I tried to get back into it. I failed. There's no dishonor in it, Sheila. You have already given a full measure. In fact, your heroism is what has given you that arm—it was expensive, as you've probably already suspected, but it was paid in full by Prince Davion, for your actions on Outreach. You can retire with honor…if you wish."

"No," Sheila said firmly. "How long?"

Allard shrugged. "Six months to a year."

Sheila smiled. "Doctor, I'll bet you both a hundred C-bills each that I'll be back in the cockpit in four months."

"I don't take sucker bets." Allard got up.

"Me neither," Anderson added.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Because neither of us think you can do it, and that's a third of your monthly salary," Anderson answered with a half-grin. "And if you prove us wrong, we don't want to be out the money. So we'll see." Sheila decided not to press the point; at least they hadn't outright told her she was crazy. By the look on Max's face, he had already decided she was. Allard motioned at her other arm, the one that was still real. "I'll have the nurse remove most of those needles. Are you hungry?"

"Not really. Thirsty."

"The anaesthetic tends to dry you out. We'll leave the IV in you for the rest of the day. How about using the bathroom? Can you manage?"

"I think so."

"Have the nurse or your husband help you."

"I could use a bath." Sheila wrinkled her nose; the room did smell of sweat.

"Well, we can probably arrange something. I'm sure you can help with that." She looked at Max and winked. Sheila blushed again, and motioned Allard over to whisper in her ear. Allard's grin was huge, and it changed her face completely. She looked like a mischevious little girl. "Try to wait until tomorrow. Newlyweds." She rolled her eyes. "I'll leave you both. You have some catching up to do."

Max told Sheila everything—the desperate race to the Sharpsburg DropPort, the taking of the Minerva (though he was careful to leave out the part where he was nose to nose and hip to hip with Senefa Malthus), and the confused, murderous battle that ensued between Marion Rhialla's task force and the Jade Falcon 'Mechs that had left two Snowbirds dead. There had been a rather tense moment where Sentinel fighters had been scrambled to intercept the Minerva, despite the DropShip pilot's frantic pleas of wounded being aboard—a situation solved when Max had begun screaming "Sic semper tyrannis!" into the radio. Sheila's father Calla had allowed the captured Clan DropShip to land at that, remembering the password Justin Xiang Allard had given a Davion raiding party on Sian, the then-secret password that Allard had been a Davion spy all along. No Clansman would know that, so the Minerva was let through. Max decided not to mention that Sheila's mother Arla had been nearly hysterical upon seeing her daughter's condition. The Vantaa doctors had stabilized Sheila, but it was obvious that Vantaa's medical community could not give her the care she needed, and so she was shuttled up to a JumpShip and sent back to Tharkad.

The news from Vantaa was bad. For unknown reasons, possibly either Senefa Malthus' defection or simple exhaustion, the Jade Falcons had pushed the Sentinels off Marye's Heights but had been unable to cross the Anna River into Cold Harbour. Calla had been prepared to fight it out—even if Cold Harbour was overrun, there was plenty of good terrain for the defense further south—but then Clan Wolf struck. They had grounded outside the capital of Rissala; outnumbered and outgunned, Marshal Sarah Steiner had offered to fight the Clans according to Clan tradition—a massive one-on-one fight where the victor went on to fight the next challenger, and the last one left standing would win. The battered 10th Donegal Guards had fought hard, but lost. With the 12th Star Guards already mauled by the Falcons in the Massanutten Valley and the Sentinels battered, Steiner decided that Vantaa was indefensible, and informed the Wolves that she planned to retreat. To her surprise, the Wolf commander agreed to let the AFFC forces go without further conflict. Cavell Malthus had made no such agreement, however, and attacked Cold Harbour as the Sentinels were beginning to retreat. The Sentinels had managed to escape with minimal losses, but also at the cost of being forced to abandon the Vantaa Militia. Max's eyes welled with tears at that; he had become friends with members of that militia, namely Captain Keynes, who had helped lead the attack on the Sharpsburg prison camps. Calla had told the militia to head into the mountains and keep a low profile, that the Sentinels would send back a rescue force, but it was a hollow promise and both sides knew it. Vantaa was gone, one more world lost to the Clans. The only good news was that casualties were much lower than anticipated, and the Sentinels could replace their losses on Sudeten, their new location; the Clans had not renewed their offensive anywhere else.

But that would change, and the Inner Sphere now knew when—thanks to Senefa Malthus. While Senefa had not exactly sung like the proverbial canary, mainly because there simply was not much she knew, she had told her interrogators that the Clans fully planned to attack as soon as a new ilKhan was elected. She had been a treasure trove of information about the inner workings of the Clan government, or what passed for it, and Clan culture in general, but that was all. No House of the Inner Sphere was any more reluctant to torture than the Clans, even the generally progressive Federated Commonwealth, but it was unnecessary with Senefa. Since she had asked for asylum, she was not a prisoner of war—but no one quite knew what to do with her, either. For now, she was more or less under house arrest, also on Tharkad, though she was being kept at government expense at one of Tharkad's swankiest hotels, so her imprisonment was hardly inhumane. The only other Clanfolk taken alive in the Sharpsburg raid, Elemental Star Commander Vornzel, was even less communicative, but he had almost nothing to tell in any case. He had been treated for a severe concussion and also brought back to Tharkad, though he was held in a POW camp with the few Jade Falcons that had been captured on Twycross and Planting. He was, by all reports, adapting to prison life as well as could be expected, even organizing a rescue party when an avalanche had struck a Tharkad highway near the camp. Senefa, on the other hand, had retreated into a shell, her only activity limited to eating, sleeping, and voracious reading.

Sheila was still exhausted, and after a bowl of soup, had fallen asleep. Max resumed his spot on the chair and held her hand until he too succumbed to sleep. The nurse arrived to disconnect Sheila from most of the various implements attached to her body, but seeing the couple looking at peace for the first time in weeks, left them, only tucking a blanket around Max and turning down the lights.

Max had left something else out of his talk with Sheila, but it was because he had no way of knowing what else Senefa had revealed to MIIO. It had been so explosive that Simon Johnson, the head of the Lyran branch of MIIO and formerly of the Lyran Loki secret service, had at once classified it Eyes Only—as opposed to the Most Secret classification given Senefa's information on the inner workings of Clan society—and sent it via slow fax to Justin Allard on Outreach, Johnson not daring to risk it on the possibly compromised hyperpulse network of ComStar.

In it was a transcription of Senefa reporting on the Liao agent's attempted contact with the Jade Falcons—and the middle man, Duke Samuel Bonner of Furillo.