CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN
A Battletech Short Story
By Sentinel 28A
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, my Inu-Yasha story "The Hunters and the Hunted" seems to be dead on arrival, and I'm still working on ideas for "Down the Well," and I'm still stuck on "Evangelion Evolution"—so…looks like it's time to revisit the Battletech Universe.
Someone (I think it was Rogue) asked if I was going to do a "Snowbirds of the Future" story with Louisa Arla-Vlata, Sheila and Max's adopted daughter, in action against the Word of Blake Jihad. When I finished "Snowbird Triumphant," the last thing I wanted to write was more Battletech, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Then I read John Antal's Combat Team, The Captains War: An Interactive Exercise in Company Level Command in Battle, and thought, "Hey, this might serve as a good basis for a Snowbird story!" At first, I freewrote some ideas with Sheila, but decided that a company-level battle for someone who, by the time of this story, commanded two regiments of 'Mechs would be a step down…and thought instead of Louisa.
So, here is Louisa's first written adventure. Let's see how this works out…
Please note that I may have gotten some details wrong on the WOB Jihad. Living where I do (East Podunk, Montana), my Friendly Local Game Store doesn't carry any Battletech stuff. So aside from occasional trips to game stores back east, I'm as cut off as the Inner Sphere is. This, I think, could work just as well: you're seeing the Wobbies from the Sentinels' POV, and the Sentinels don't really know very much about their enemies.
WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: It is the year 3070. The Word of Blake Jihad is in its third year.
It has been 20 years since the end of the Clan War, and thus the Sentinels have been under the command of Sheila Arla-Vlata for that long. Sheila has added to both the legend of her own regiment and herself, in action in virtually every war fought by the Inner Sphere since 3052—the First Taurian Incursion, the Refusal War, Operation Guerrero, Operation Bulldog and the Huntress Campaign, and the FedCom Civil War. Operating from their new base in the Draconis Combine and under contract to a Star League that no longer exists, the Sentinels have been drawn into battle with the Word of Blake—but enough that the WOB has decided to destroy the Sentinels by assaulting their home planet of Virentofta…
Saddle Peak Pass
Virentofta, Pesht Military District, Draconis Combine
11 September 3070
It was raining. Louisa Arla-Vlata hated the rain.
For some, the rain was soothing, even restful. Not for Louisa. For her, the rain always awakened demons that she had long since locked into the recesses of her mind—but in the rain, they came back. Jade Falcon Elementals. Fire. Her father, her real father, screaming for everyone to abandon the truck. The feel of the mud beneath her feet and knees as her mother, her real mother, pushed her from the tailgate of the truck. The feel of her sister's hand in hers as they jumped, and the sudden wrenching as her sister was pulled away from her. The shockwave of the explosion of the Elementals' missiles hitting the truck. The feel of heat on her face as fire swept away her parents. And the rain falling on her face as she ran, ran far away, the sight of the rain on her new mother's face. That day, Louisa Keynes had become Louisa Arla-Vlata.
Yes, Louisa had plenty of reasons to hate the rain.
Today, however, she had other reasons. Ahead of her, a green-painted Virentofta Ranger truck was barely discernable through the streaming rain that obscured the asphalt road beneath them. The fact that the road would be very slick mattered little to Louisa, since she was riding in a Lynx hovercraft armored personnel carrier, or to the squad of Sentinels Light Infantry who rode in another Lynx behind them. The Rangers had to slow down, though, which in turn slowed the column. Worse, the road was narrow, hemmed in on either side by thick pine forest. Behind her was the open hatch of the gunner's position, and rain streamed down the ladder to soak everything in the cabin. Louisa stole a glance up the hatchway, seeing the boots of Lance Corporal Malcolm Fox turning as he swieveled the turret left and right. She didn't know Fox, although he wore the same snowy owl patch of the Snowbirds Special Missions Combined Arms Team as she did. Infantrymen and MechWarriors rarely mixed. A raindrop hit her squarely in the nose, and Louisa swore softly as she wiped it off and settled miserably back into her seat.
"Bet you wish you were back in your nice, warm, watertight 'Mech, huh, Lance Commander?" Louisa turned to face Sergeant Maxine Colburn, who was grinning at her discomfiture. Normally, Sergeants didn't talk this way to Lance Commanders, who were officers, but this was the Sentinels, and things were usually pretty informal. It was usually better this way.
Louisa decided to take the mild jab in the spirit it was intended. "Envious, Sarge?"
Colburn nodded, turning the control wheel slightly right to follow the road. "You bet, ma'am. I'd take a heated 'Mech cockpit any day of the week over this crap." She thumbed towards the turret. "Normally, we'd be buttoned up, but the damn hatch jammed the other day, and we haven't had a chance to get maintenance to look at it. They're a little busy at the moment." Louisa imagined so: there was a war on, after all. "You're the Commander's daughter, right?" Louisa nodded. "Huh. How'd you draw shit duty like this, ma'am?"
Louisa was used to that. Her mother—her adopted one—was Sheila Arla-Vlata, the commanding officer of the Sentinels Regimental Combat Team. People sort of assumed, for better or worse, that because she was the commander's daughter that she would get certain privledges. When Louisa had announced to her parents that she intended to follow in their footsteps and become a MechWarrior, her adopted father, Max, had told her that she would get no special treatment. In fact, she would likely get the opposite: people would resent her. She had found both people among the Sentinels, though few who outright hated her and thought that she had pulled strings to not only graduate from the Sentinels training program as a lance commander, but get assigned to her mother's old battalion, the Snowbirds. Louisa had earned both, and if some didn't believe that, that was their problem.
"Oh, you know how it is for us MechWarriors," she responded lightly. "We occasionally want to slum it and see how the other half lives." She smiled to show she meant nothing by it.
"Ha!" Colburn loved it. "Well, if you ever want to trade, ma'am, you just let me know—"
The missile came without warning, streaking from the trees to hit the Ranger truck just under its right side. The explosion sent the truck cartwheeling over to land on its roof. Gunfire raked the column next, and Louisa could hear the bullets striking the armored sides of the Lynx. "Oh shit!" Colburn exclaimed, slamming back the throttle. The Lynx nearly stood on its nose and then slewed around to the right, but narrowly avoided colliding with the burning wreck ahead of it.
"Contact right!" Fox shouted, and the turret rotated to bear on the treeline. There was a hissing noise as three medium lasers laced the pines with ruby beams. Wet wood flashed to steam and the trees exploded, but the gunfire didn't abate.
The sudden ambush had taken her by surprise, and the flames threatened to bring her nightmares to life. Louisa fought down the icy fear in her stomach, grabbed the assault rifle from its stowage on the door next to her, and charged it. The armored plexiglass window next to her starred as a bullet hit it, causing her to jump and duck instinctively below the window. Colburn was trying to get around the Ranger truck, to put the Lynx's armor between it and the treeline. Louisa saw one of the Rangers open the driver's side door and begin to crawl out of the overturned truck, but this only attracted the enemy. Machine gun fire kicked up sparks from the pavement and found the Ranger, whose head exploded in a red and gray mist.
Then another missile shot from the woods and headed directly for the Lynx. Louisa saw it and dived below the instrument panel. The detonation of the missile against the faceted armored front of the APC bounced her around, but the thick parka she wore over her uniform and her helmet saved her from more than bruises. She saw Colburn drop out of her seat, her shoulder bloody. "I'm hit!" she screamed. Louisa saw that the windscreen had cracked and starred under the missile's impact, sending fragments through the cab and into Colburn's shoulder. Bullets thudded against the Lynx, but she heard no shooting from the other vehicle.
Something's really wrong, Louisa thought, then rolled her eyes at her own understatement. The turret above her was silent. She tugged on Fox's pants leg, saw the rivulets of blood streaming down the leg, and pulled Fox down into the Lynx. Most of Fox's head was gone. Bullets spanged off the Lynx. Knowing she had to do something, Louisa climbed over Fox's body and into the turret. She stuck her head out of the turret hatch for a moment, ducked when a bullet whined over her head, but had seen what she needed to see. There were infantry in the trees, and weak sunlight glinted off of metal.
Manei Domini! Louisa had heard of the elite cyborg infantry of the Word of Blake, but had never seen them in person. Fear crawled up in her throat: rumors said that the Domini didn't take prisoners, or those that had been taken didn't live through the torture, and that the Domini were mindless berserkers. With effort, she fought down the fear, gripped the triggers, and began firing into the trees, lacing them with the lasers. The Domini's charge died before it had started.
Louisa risked glancing out of the turret again behind her, to the other Lynx. The hovertank had stopped, but its turret faced forward. The side hatches were open and she saw twelve infantry huddled against the lee side of the Lynx. "Sergeant!" Louisa shouted. A head glanced up. "Get up that goddamn hill and flank them! I'll cover you!"
The sergeant nodded. He turned and yelled at the squad. "You heard the LC! Follow me!" The sergeant ran around the side of the Lynx, sprinting for the slight cover given by a copse of bushes. After a moment's hesitation, the squad followed, taking strength from the sergeant. Louisa turned her attention back to the treeline and held the triggers down, sweeping the triple lasers back and forth until the barrels began to glow from waste heat. Finally the other Lynx began to turn and added their lasers to hers. She stopped firing when she heard the distinctive cracks of the Sentinel infantry's Federated Long Rifles and Ryonex submachineguns. She peeked above the turret and saw the flash of steel as a naginata fell.
The gunfire tapered off to a few shots, then it was silent. After a few moments, Louisa saw the sergeant come out of the treeline, his rifle over his shoulder and a naginata steaming in the cool air. The blade was red. He finally came close enough for her to read his nametape: Harris. "Sitrep, Sergeant," she ordered.
"Twelve of them, LC. They didn't want to surrender." He looked at the short naginata, the distinctive collapsible melee weapon of the Sentinels Light Infantry, as if noticing the blood for the first time. "I got two wounded—neither badly." He glanced down. "Sorry, LC. You shouldn't have needed to get us going. I just…froze. I know better than that. I'm a SLI sergeant, for the love of Freud."
Louisa smiled tiredly. "It happens to the best of us."
He met her eyes. "How old are you, LC?"
"Not your first engagement?"
The flames of Vantaa danced in Louisa's mind's eye. "No, Sarge." She sighed. "Leave the bodies, but make sure you disable the weapons. Make sure the other Lynx crew is okay. The infantry compartment of the Lynx was divided from the crew cab; her own hovertank was only carrying supplies. "And see if anyone survived that." She pointed to the overturned Ranger truck.
"Roger that, LC."
Then she remembered Colburn. She climbed back into the cab. "How's it going, Maxine?"
Colburn was pale, and her shoulder was a mass of blood. Louisa gently pushed her hand away and ripped the uniform open. A jagged shard of plexiglass was embedded in Colburn's shoulder. She reached into a box between the seats and withdrew a first aid kit, rapidly opening it and withdrawing a few battle dressings. Louisa packed those around the shard. "I can't pull this out," she informed Colburn.
"Yeah, I know." The eyelids fluttered. "I'm tired…"
Louisa snapped her fingers in front of Colburn's face. "Stay with me. You're going to make it." She stretched the dressings tight, earning a gasp of pain from the other woman, but it would stanch the blood. "Okay?"
"Hurts like hell."
"It's supposed to." Colburn glared at her, but Louisa ignored her. Then Colburn abruptly remembered Fox. "Where's Mal?"
"He's dead. I'm sorry." Louisa tried to feel sorrow for Fox, but she didn't know him, and Louisa long since had learned to be hard when it came to battlefield casualties, for her own sanity.
Both women jumped when the driver's side door opened. Harris stood there, his rifle and naginata slung now. "No one left alive in the truck, ma'am. I got some people policing the bodies. We can't just leave them here."
"That's true. Any intel from the Wobbies?"
"No. No identifying ranks or markings. They had a radio, but it got totaled—or they smashed it. Hell, we wouldn't even know if they were Manei Domini if it wasn't for all the metal on them." He shuddered. "Makes you wonder if they're even human anymore." Louisa almost replied that they bled and died, so they were human enough, but didn't want to upset Colburn any more than she already was. "What's your orders, LC?"
"My orders? What happened to Lieutenant Schultz?"
"Um." Harris glanced involuntarily back at the other Lynx. "The LT's indisposed, ma'am. I think maybe she banged her head on something." Louisa knew instantly: Schultz had frozen and was in shock. She read Harris' eyes and remembered Schultz nervously informing Louisa before they had left the base that she had never been in combat before. There were too many like that in the Sentinels: the regiment had been idle too long after the FedCom Civil War, and only a few units like Gamma Battalion or the Snowbirds had actually been out on operations. There were a lot of Schultzes in the Sentinels, and they would have to learn the lessons that the veterans like Louisa already knew. She chuckled softly, ironically: I'm a veteran at twenty-four.
But whatever the case, if Schultz was out, that left Louisa in command, and she remembered her mother's words when Sheila Arla-Vlata had sewed on Louisa's lance commander rank tabs: when in command, command. "Okay, Sarge. Load the dead into the back of this Lynx." She didn't want the surviving infantry being forced to share close quarters with corpses. "Take Sergeant Colburn here in your Lynx, and find me a new gunner and driver. Then let's get the hell out of here before more Wobbie freaks show up."
"Yes, ma'am." Harris nodded—he didn't want to salute Louisa for fear of snipers—and got an arm around Colburn. "C'mon, Maxine." Colburn opened her mouth to argue, decided against it, and allowed herself to be pulled from the cab. He handed her off to another soldier, then reached in to get Fox. Louisa climbed out and helped him, not looking at what remained of Fox's face. She would have nightmares enough as it was. They wrapped the body in a poncho, and two other soldiers loaded it into the back of the Lynx.
"You saved our ass back there, LC," Harris said suddenly.
Louisa held her hands out, letting the rain wash the blood free. She hadn't noticed it until now. "Well, I wasn't just going to sit there, Sarge." Her hands began to shake.
"No, I mean it." Harris dropped his voice. "Schultz froze, ma'am, and the damn turret locked in place. I got everyone out, but man, when that machine gun opened up, I wasn't going out there for a pension until you put it down and yelled at me."
"There was a machine gun?" Then she remembered. "Oh, that's right." She shrugged. "Well, like I said, I just couldn't sit there." Her hands were now shaking uncontrollably. She stuffed them in her pockets. It happened after every fight she'd ever been in. Louisa knew it was just the adrenaline wearing off, but it seemed like a sign of weakness. "Just doing my best," she finished lamely.
"Your best is pretty good, LC." He slapped her on the shoulder and walked back to his Lynx. Louisa stood there for a moment, in the rain, then shook herself and returned to her Lynx. There was a new driver there, an unsmiling private who gave her a brief nod and steered the Lynx around the burning remains of the truck.