CHOOSERS OF THE SLAIN

A Battletech Short Story

By Sentinel 28A

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Sure has been awhile, huh?

I've been going through the occasional author review on and noticed that there's been more than a few notes from people asking if I was going to finish this thing. (Including a PM from Texray!) Well, it's been quite the year (almost) since I updated last, or even got on . Some of the reasons are personal and I'd rather not go into that; a lot more has been due to my efforts to do this writing thing professionally, so I've been editing/finishing two novels. Publishing for real is a lot tougher than just writing fanfiction, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get back into fanfics. I did dabble a bit in it (check out my short story A Storm of Snowbirds), but nothing really solid.

Then the bug hit, just as it did with Misato's Revenge, and here we are. This chapter doesn't quite finish Choosers of the Slain, but it is the climax and all that remains is epilogue.

Thank you for not abandoning this story. I'll try not to stay away for a year...

It actually took over two hours, though to Louisa it seemed to take two days. It was difficult to move in the dark, especially the wounded, only some of which bore their wounds stoically. The supplies were unpacked and buried: Musashiya worried that setting fires would only outline the hill for WOB artillery. Those troops of the 63rd that could eat did. The Snowbirds policed the ad hoc base, checking for stragglers; along the way, someone dispatched the Blakist soldier caught in the wire with a single shot. Louisa, munching on a piece of ration lemon bread, heard the shot and found to equal parts relief and horror that it did not bother her in the slightest; she finished the cake and went over to lend a hand to the stretcher party.

Finally, it was done. The Snowbird vehicles were packed tooth-to-jowl with the 63rd's soldiers, to the point where most of the able-bodied were riding atop the tanks. That would be bad should TF Valkyrie run into any more opposition, but the Word of Blake seemed to be ignoring them. Louisa sent Hitomi Dunn and Robert Habersohn to scout the base of the hill, but aside from the burning remains of the artillery battery and a few WOB stragglers who fled at the sight of 'Mechs, the immediate area was deserted.

Louisa was glad to get back into the cockpit of her Nightsky. It might smell of machine lubricants, steel, and her own sweat, but that was better than the stench of Hill 5423, which Louisa knew she would carry to her grave. Almost as soon as she strapped in, Musashiya radioed, "Green Six, Wolf Six. All accounted for."

"Okay, Wolf Six. Lead them out." Louisa watched as the ponderous Awesome took its place at the head of the convoy, flanked by the other assault 'Mechs, which dwarfed the vehicles and the trees. The Assault Lance was barely scratched from what combat they had seen so far tonight, and were quite impressive. Now the vehicles rolled or floated past, with their precious human cargo. She saw someone waving from the gunner's position on Granville Shade's Lynx and waved back, wondering if it was Roger Ulquiorra. For a teacher, he fights well, Louisa thought. She smiled to herself. He must've taught at some pretty damn tough schools.

Finally, she waved her own lance into formation as the rear guard, feeling a bit like an ancient wagonmaster. Now all she had to do was get her own task force, plus the remnants of the 63rd, back across the river. That called for a lot of assumptions, which she did not like: she had to assume that the bridges were still up—she had not left guards—that the Word of Blake was not patiently waiting for her to walk into a trap, that the river would be a barrier to the WOB, and that no one broke down. Just like the wagon trains of old, the column could not move faster than its slowest vehicle.

Louisa walked her Nightsky down the hill, the last off Hill 5423. She spared no backwards glance; it was just one more battlefield, and not one to remember. Instead, her mind was on the here and now. Each step the Nightsky took with its thirty-meter stride was one more step back to friendly lines. Louisa felt the fear: not overpowering, but there. She waited for the explosion of a mine, or the detonation of artillery, or the radio report of an ambush. None came, but every second seemed to pass unnaturally slowly. She had read about this, what one soldier-author called the eternity of the moment. Nothing else mattered but that next step.

At last, she was off the hill. She could see the column turning to bypass the still-burning artillery battery. The sky was beginning to lighten a little, and the rain had stopped. Louisa thought she could see breaks in the clouds above. Maybe it'll be a beautiful day—

"Green Six, Green Two. Contact report."

Louisa's stomach clenched. "Green Two, go."

"I have enemy BattleMechs at eleven o'clock, six klicks. Unknown strength."

A hundred heads swieveled in that direction, both human and BattleMech. Anything from the north had to be enemy. Louisa peeled off from the column and went to the top of a small rise, zooming in with her 'Mech's sensors. Her mouth went dry.

There was a company of them. Their white paint was pristine and softly glowed in what little ambient light there was. They were marching in column, but almost as soon as Louisa saw that, the column swung out smartly into three lines of four, turning in her direction. "An understrength company," Louisa mused to herself: a full WOB company would have eighteen 'Mechs rather than the normal twelve. It could be a mercenary company. Either way, it was here to kill her and wipe out her column.

There was really only one thing to do. "Green Six to Red Six and Shovel Six. Make your best possible speed to the bridges. Do not wait for us. When you reach the bridges, blow them behind you. We'll cover you."

Dore's voice came back frantic. "Green Six, we're not going to leave!"

"Yes, you will, Shovel! That's an order! Those infantry won't last a second against 'Mechs and neither will your engineers. Bunny Six, I want you to cover Red and Shovel to the ridge above the crossing point. You're the rear guard and fallback position—we'll be there presently."

"Roger that, Green Six." Pryce, the veteran, knew what Louisa intended to do and did not argue.
"Break. All Valkyrie 'Mech elements, this is Green Six," Louisa addressed her MechWarriors. "We need to buy some time for the tracks. Those are Wobbie 'Mechs over there—let's go kill them."

Louisa could hear Musashiya's grin through the radio. "Roger that, Green."

Her lance fell into combat formation without an order, spreading out: Habersohn brought his Black Hawk alongside her, while Dunn's Spider moved out to the left and Misumaru's Valkyrie dropped back. Each position played to their 'Mechs' strengths: while the Nightsky and Black Hawk were built for slugging matches, the thinly-armored Spider would be best working in behind and making hit-and-run attacks, and the Valkyrie could pour missile salvos over the others' heads. Also without orders, Louisa edged her lance to the left, while Musashiya brought hers down straight at the Wobbies: the assaults would slam head-on into the enemy while Louisa tried to flank them.

Louisa glanced at her battle computer, which identified her opponents: a light, medium, and assault lance. The light lance had two Nexuses, an Eagle, and a Raijin, while the assault lance was as heavy as her own, with an Albatross, an Awesome, and two Thugs. The light lance was manuevering to meet her, while the assaults accepted Musashiya's challenge. That left the medium lance in the middle—a Grim Reaper, an Intitiate, one of the new Blackjack OmniMechs, and a Buccaneer. Louisa had a feeling that the medium lance was the command lance; there was something about its placement, or it was just a combat career that already spanned a decade. Either way, she was sure of it. An idea came to her: a desperate, crazy idea, but one that might allow her to redress the odds.

"Green Six to Green elements," she radioed her lance. "Go for the medium lance! Don't worry about the lights—just go straight at the mediums! That's the command lance!"

No one acknowledged her; they didn't need to. Now was when the training and the experience showed itself: four minds and four 'Mechs had to act as one. Louisa knew that her lance could do it. The question was if the Word of Blake lance was just as good and experienced.

The Blakist light lance turned a fraction too late, obviously expecting Louisa's lance to go for them first. Louisa smiled to herself, seeing her opponent's plan in a flash of her mind's eye: she was supposed to engage the lights, leaving her flank open to the mediums. The lights would then zip past her, to come in behind or move on to engage the vehicles behind her. Who do you think I am? Louisa thought with a snort of derision. I'm not a noob, asshole. I wonder if you are.

She still had to fight her way through. Two ruby lasers splashed against her armor, leaving long rents in it, but she ignored it. Another sliced into the Nightsky's leg, causing enough damage to sound an alarm. Louisa pivoted slightly, raising her left-arm large laser, and fired back this time, at a Nexus. The thinly armored 'Mech shuddered with a hit and took no further interest in her. She saw the other Nexus go down in pieces as Habersohn let fly with eight of his ten medium lasers. Out of the corner of one eye, she saw the Eagle taking missile hits from Misumaru's Valkyrie, and Dunn's Spider was already far out in front, leaping behind the Intitiate—and then they were through. She dodged a cloud of missiles that landed behind her, from the Grim Reaper, and drove straight at the Buccaneer. One look told her much: the Buccaneer had three horizontal stripes on each arm, command symbols. Most units painted those out, since it identified who the commanders were to enterprising MechWarriors who then knew who to kill. That either meant this was a green unit who had not learned that important lesson yet…or someone who was very good; Sheila Arla-Vlata flew a battle flag from her Shruiken, daring her enemies to try and take it.

Her mind ran through the Buccaneer's capabilities. It was five tons heavier than her Nightsky, slightly faster, and better armed—like her 'Mech, it carried an ER-Large Laser, but instead of her trio of pulse lasers, it carried a single medium pulse and four standard mediums, plus a SRM-6 launcher—and, like her, it had a hatchet. Her one advantage was that the Buccaneer was no better armored, and unlike her, it had an ammunition bin that was perfectly placed to blow the 'Mech apart if it got hit. Nor did it have jumpjets.

The Buccaneer fired first, its large laser tearing armor away from the Nightsky's chest. Louisa stepped to one side, avoiding a flight of missiles, then cut furrows in her opponent's own chest with her pulse lasers. The hatchet suddenly came up, four tons of steel aimed at her 'Mech's neck. Louisa reacted without thinking, dropping the Nightsky down so that the blade just missed her head, close enough that she felt the side of the hatchet scrape against the top of her head armor. Yikes, that was close. It ruined her own swing.

They were close to each other now, almost touching, enough that Louisa could see the enemy MechWarrior in the Buccaneer's blocky head module. Both had accepted single combat without communication; the battle raged around them, but for Louisa and her opponent, there was only this battle. She reared back, dodging some of the lasers fired at her, but more rents appeared on her armor. The hatchet fell again, missed, and then was brought up as Louisa came forward with her own hatchet. "Got you!" she yelled, for it was a feint: while the Blakist tried to parry the hatchet, she stepped forward and kicked. She cursed as she missed, but the Buccaneer gave ground. That's right, you have to watch my legs too, Wobbie.

The Blakist MechWarrior suddenly let loose with everything, risking the heat spike, but Louisa slammed down on her jump pedals, shooting into the air. Only one laser hit, tearing away one of the Nightsky's fingers. She returned fire, her pulse lasers stuttering fire at the Buccaneer, and was rewarded with more hits. She came down next to him, ready to exploit the damage. Yet her opponent anticipated that. Even as Louisa felt her Nightsky touch ground again and tightened her fingers on the triggers, the Buccaneer pivoted slightly and hit her with the large laser and a flight of missiles. She raised the left arm, taking the damage there, but her 'Mech rocked dangerously with the damage. Then the Blakist swung his hatchet. It went under her upraised arm and slammed hard into the Nightsky's side, splintering armor. The whole 'Mech shuddered, and somehow Louisa managed to keep her feet. Alarms warbled for her attention, and a wave of heat swept through the cockpit. She turned and fired the Nightsky's head-mounted small pulse, and got lucky: the beam flashed into the side of the Buccaneer's head. Both 'Mechs now staggered away from each other.

Louisa gasped for breath in the heat, sweat exploding from her pores. She knew instantly what had happened. My engine's hit—that's waste heat being vented so the damn thing doesn't melt down. One more hit like that and I am literally toast. She looked at the Buccaneer. Armor was melted and scored across its chest, but she could only guess at any internal damage. The Blakist recovered and came at her, firing his weapons low at her legs, trying to force Louisa to close the distance into the lethal arc of the hatchet. Once more, Louisa triggered her jumpjets, settling for a small hop to one side. It was enough for the other MechWarrior to miss, but not enough to throw off her own aim: pulse lasers, because they fired in short pulses rather than a continous beam, were hard to dodge. She carved more armor off, but still the Buccaneer remained standing, so she charged in, raising her own hatchet. "Two can play that game," she hissed.

Just as she had reminded the Blakist of her 'Mech's feet, her opponent abruptly reminded Louisa that the Buccaneer had two arms. Without warning, the blunt-ended laser cannon that formed the Buccaneer's right arm was shoved straight at her cockpit. Somehow the head armor held against the impact, which starred the plexiglass of her canopy and sent Louisa reeling. With the enemy 'Mech filling the windscreen, she held down both triggers; so did her enemy. At range human infantry would find uncomfortably close, neither MechWarrior missed—but it was Louisa who lost her balance and went down.

Though it probably only took a second, it seemed to take longer than that for her 'Mech to hit the ground, enough that she tensed and was even able to check to see if the seat straps were tight. The impact caused her teeth to clack together painfully and felt like someone was banging a sledgehammer against her helmet. Alarms were now going off all over, and the number of red lights on her instrument panel told her that the Nightsky had suffered major damage. Seeing the Buccaneer closing for the kill, she threw herself to one side, causing her 'Mech to roll away, but yet more lasers struck her left arm. Louisa only had a second to survey the damage: a heat sink was shattered, her engine was still venting heat to avoid an explosion, armor was virtually gone from the 'Mech's torso and head, and worst of all, the large laser was destroyed, fused into junk and then crushed when she fell.

Then she saw that the Buccaneer's left side was in just as bad of a shape. The rest of the Blakist 'Mech looked fairly intact, but she thought she could see into the torso, through buckled armor plates. Louisa nodded once. I've got one chance. If I screw up, he'll kill me anyway, so might as well.

Louisa flung her Nightsky at the Buccaneer.

The Blakist warrior's surprise was reflected in his 'Mech, which seemed to hesitate. Louisa's shots had done damage, and the Buccaneer was unable to bleed off weapon heat as well as the less-armed Nightsky. As a result, the fire was feeble and missed in any case. The missiles impacted, but if any found their way into the Nightsky's vitals, they missed anything important. Louisa didn't bother with her remaining pulse lasers: she aimed the chipped hatchet straight at the left side of the Buccaneer's chest. Instead of using the edge, she thrust it forward like a sword. Her aim was true and it slammed into the enemy machine's torso with a clang that she could hear in her cockpit. The Buccaneer staggered back, but did not fall, even as she pulled the arm back.

For half a second Louisa was sure that she had missed. Then small explosions burst free of the Buccaneer, which rose in intensity. The top of the other 'Mech's head blew off and an ejection seat fired high into the air, even as the explosions reached a crescendo as nearly a ton of high explosives—the Buccaneer's SRM-6 magazine—exploded. This in turn caused a sympathetic explosion of the engine, which was contained by its magnetic fields, but the Blakist machine was now a sparking ruin. What was left of it sagged and fell onto the ground, splaying out much as a human would.

Louisa quickly looked around, backpedaling from the destroyed 'Mech. There were others around, and those others were staring at her, if their 'Mechs were any indication—and then the Blakist 'Mechs began edging backward, slowly at first, and then accelerating. They left two of their number on the ground besides the Buccaneer—the Nexus Habersohn destroyed and the burning remains of the Albatross, which had been caught between the guns of Kagome Sentinel's Masakari and Edward Redrock's Flashman. None of the Blakists escaped damage, but though they were still combat viable, their morale was broken. Their leader was down, their enemy was still strong, and there was no point in fighting any longer. As if by mutual consent, Louisa saw her task force also pulling back.

"Wolf Six, Green Six. How're we doing?"

Musashiya came back a little breathless. "Okay, Green Six. Wolf Two's got some gyro damage—" Louisa could see that Mido's Mauler was wobbling as it walked—"and I'm missing my right arm. I don't think we can take another fight." Musashiya paused. "Then again, I don't think they can either. How are you?"

"I'm pretty pounded. Wait one, break. Greens, sitrep."

"Green Two. Got some heat sinks out, but I'm okay." Habersohn's Black Hawk looked like someone had taken a hammer to every inch of it, but Louisa could tell the damage was mostly superficial.

"Green Three. I'm out of ammo, but I'm okay too." Louisa let out a breath at that: Yurika was all right. Her Valkyrie did not look good, but it could take a lot of punishment for its size. That left one.

"Green Four here. Hell, I haven't been touched. Want me to pursue?" Louisa laughed, as she saw Dunn's Spider come loping into view. The little 'Mech was not even singed, its light blue and green paint job still pristine.

"I think we've done enough for one day. Fall back through Bunny. Break. Bunny Six, Green Six, you okay?"

There was no response. Louisa repeated her radio call, then Musashiya followed up with her own. Nothing. Suddenly, Louisa remembered how many Word of Blake 'Mechs had retreated—enough for two lances, counting the losses, but her count came up short three 'Mechs. Oh God, Louisa thought in horror, that's why we were fighting even odds. They sent their light lance around to the tanks. The carnage that even a light Nexus could do to the convoy would be considerable.

"Valkyries, step on it!" Musashiya waved her lance forward with her Awesome's remaining arm. Louisa turned and ran for the ridge as fast as her wounded machine could go, her mind filled with images of dying men and blasted vehicles. My fault, she shouted at herself, my fault. I got all caught up in that single combat, knights in arms bullshit, while the Wobbies massacred the 63rd and my tanks! Louisa, you stupid bitch, they'll break you into small pieces and your mother's going to crucify you and you deserve it, you dumbass—

She topped the ridge. Before her were the burning wrecks…of four Word of Blake 'Mechs.

Her jaw dropped, and then the realization hit her of what had happened. As they topped the ridge, the Blakists made the same mistake she had, thinking that tanks were helpless against BattleMechs, simply because the 'Mech was the undisputed king of the battlefield, and MechWarriors the knights. Tanks were at best rooks, the heaviest perhaps bishops.

But even rooks and bishops could kill. Pryce had sent the APCs on ahead, trusting to luck that there would be no ambush between the ridge and the bridges, and nestled his tanks hull-down just below the ridge's crest. When the Blakists topped the ridge, they ran into a broadside most 'Mech lances could not muster: a murderous fusillade of eight medium lasers from the Ontos, three PPCs from the Schrek, and a hurricane of missiles from the SRM carrier. That had destroyed the other Nexus and the Eagle; the Raijin, heavier than the others, fared no better, for it had tried to flank the Ontos and came up against the twin AC/20s of the Demolisher. Not much was left of the Raijin.

"Green Six, Bunny Six. Sorry about not checking in; my long-range radio went out from concussion damage—I have line-of-sight only." Pryce sounded bored. "What kept you?"