Stacking the Deck, Part Three


Yuris, Victoria Commonality

Capellan Confederation

15 July 3111

 

‘It feels good to be back in the cockpit of Mighty Tom,’ thought Carver, ‘ even if it is a bit more crowded because of the probe.’ Smith ranged a little ahead of Carver, dodging about the trees unnecessarily fast as he got reacquainted with his BattleMech. “How’s it running Smith?”

“Well it feels fine to me, but Grandpa Ned seems to think the new arm is too heavy.” He swung the Stinger’s arm about, making it look casual, not at all like a thing that took years to master. “I think they actually put all of the armor in the right place instead of leaving some of the weak points like the old one had.”

Carver shook his head. “Leave it to you to be unhappy with extra armor.”

“Oh I’m not unhappy. I like the extra armor just fine. It’s Grandpa Ned that’s unhappy, but I think he’ll get over it soon enough.” Smith continued to crisscross back and forth over the track they were taking, all the while moving his new arm about, looking for all the world like he was performing a dance to music that was in his head alone.

A half dozen Karnov heavy transports flew over them, just above the tree line, heading west at a breakneck pace. Art Pemberton and his boys were loaded up in their Infiltrator Mark II battle armor and on board those same helicopters heading for a drop zone southwest of the area the Ranger Hollander had made his home. The plan was for Art’s Special Missions platoon to sneak in close using the stealth capabilities of their armor to see if they could catch the enemy outside of his ‘Mech. Failing that they would act as scouts for Carver and Smith, hopefully giving them enough of an upper hand to beat what had become Second Company’s nemesis.

An incoming message from the transports was harsh with static. Even here, where the forest was considerably thinner, the interference took hold of their communications. “See you tomorrow morning Leftenant Carver. Don’t be late.” Even through the static Carver could hear the grin behind forest green mask of the platoon leader.

“Not to worry Leftenant Pemberton, Smith is too anxious to get back there to let us fall behind. We’ll be there, just make sure you get that comm rig set up so that you can direct us to our target.” The portable communications booster was a big part of their plan, an attempt to cut through the interference of the deep forest and allow them to coordinate their actions better.

“Will do Carver. We’ll signal when everything is in place and ready for your assault. Good luck and good hunting.” The last few words were all but inaudible as the distance grew and the static became more pronounced. When the connection closed Carver was left with the sounds of his Hatchetman stomping through the forest. The steady tread quickly became a drone of familiar noise that settled into the background as he and Smith made their way to the rendezvous point.

“Smith, close it up a little. We have a long walk in front of us and this might be as close to rest as we get for quite a while.”

* * *

The sun was just clawing its way above the western horizon when they reached the rendezvous location northeast of where the two lances had been attacked. The plan was to hold there until they got word from Pemberton, then they would move in on the ‘Mech that had bedeviled them more than a week earlier. With the battle armor platoon spotting for them and the improved electronics of Carver’s Hatchetman they would be able to keep tabs on the elusive Hollander and bring it to its knees.

The Hollander’s massive gauss rifle provided more destructive power than any two or three other light ‘Mechs combined, but it had almost nothing in the way of armor. The Kensington’s Ranger had created a substantial advantage with his familiarity of the area, making it possible for him to use his single weapon to devastating effect while avoiding all but the most superficial damage. Their plan was to neutralize that advantage to a degree, then all it would take is a couple of solid hits.

Time ticked by slowly as Smith and Carver waited, maintaining a powered down state that would help them avoid detection, but leaving them dangerously exposed if the enemy happened upon them by luck or design. Carver looked out of his cockpit window to where Smith sat, unseen, within the cramped confines of his Stinger’s head. He could almost sense the other MechWarrior twitching with anticipation.

Carver was about to radio to Smith, his boredom almost as pronounced as he imagined the enlisted man’s, but he was beat to the switch by a squeal and a burst of static. “Compass, this is Omelet. Come in Compass.” The static was harsh and made Pemberton’s words almost inaudible, but Carver welcomed the sound nonetheless.

“This is Compass, go ahead Omelet.”

“We’re in position…emy sighted…o Holland…ident…olding posi…do n…mend immediate advance…” The white noise and shrieking whistles of interference made it impossible to understand completely, but there was enough to tell Carver it was time to act.

“Copy Omelet. Compass is on the way.” Carver started the power up sequence for his ‘Mech, bringing the powerful fusion reactor at its core to life, preparing it for a battle he would not lose. “Smith, fire up Grandpa Ned and let’s get to it. My hatchet feels like cutting into a Capellan today.”

“Roger that L.T.” The Stinger’s reactor heart pulsed to life, the heat bloom clear on Carver’s monitors. Starting up one of the massive war machines was rarely a speedy process, except in urgent circumstances. The two MechWarriors checked through all of the readings within their cockpits, making sure that everything was reading exactly as it should be. Once everything was reading in the green the two BattleMechs made their way toward the point of last contact.

The trip was short, even walking at the considerably slower speed of Carver’s Hatchetman, but the short bursts of static, chirps and whistles left Carver on edge. The noise suggested someone was trying to get hold of him, but nothing was making it through. The comm booster the infantry had taken with them should have made communications at this range all but clear, but there was nothing. He had tried reaching Pemberton a couple of times during the walk, but received nothing in the way of a reply except teeth-grating feedback. A more paranoid man might have worried about ECM jamming, but the Hollander did not boast the equipment necessary. Never mind that his Hatchetman was not supposed to be equipped with an active probe either.

As they approached the site, Carver announced to Smith that he was turning on his Beagle. The moment it activated he knew they were in trouble. A wall of interference was preventing his probe from delving beyond what his own eyes could see out of the cockpit. “Smith, keep sharp and stay within visual range. We’re being jammed. Let’s find Pemberton.” The two ‘Mechs moved through the trees with as much stealth as a marching band. Carver kept the external microphones turned on and cranked up to the point that he could hear birds singing outside as he passed. He stopped, motioning for Smith to do the same. Something had caught his attention and he needed some quiet to figure out what it was.

The sound of the wind blowing past his ‘Mech and the quiet murmur of the forest were all he heard as the seconds ticked by. He was ready to chalk it up to tension and a touch of paranoia brought on by the jamming, then he heard it again; the sounds of heavy footfalls somewhere in the distance. It was hard to tell with the artificial quality of the sound coming through his speakers, but Carver was sure it was a little north of where they had been heading. He motioned with his titanium-sheathed hatchet for Smith to follow, and together they headed in a more northerly direction, hoping to be the ones with surprise on their side for a change.

As they passed wide of the place of their last defeat, they slowed, using their eyes to find what their sensors could not. Occasionally the radio would come to life in a hash of static and the suggestions of language behind it, but nothing clear came through. Pemberton and his men were survivors so Carver did not worry about them specifically, but he did worry that their plan, would fail and that he would fail Potter.

“Comp…mp to Grid A7..ot zo…CM gener…mul…tar..wounded…” A brief break in the static told Carver little more than that Pemberton was still alive and something was going on at Grid A7. Carver quickly called up the map and found the location, which was just north of them.

The sonic boom of a gauss rifle round passing by struck Carver’s turned up microphones and sent a devastating wave of sound through the amplified speakers within his cockpit, bouncing a crippling blast of noise about the confined space. Carver screamed as his eardrums burst almost immediately, despite the noise dampening qualities of his neurohelmet.

Carver could not tell if the echo had subsided or if he just couldn’t hear it any longer, but he would have to worry about that later. Looking out the cockpit to the left he saw a tree beside him, snapped in half at the same height as the head of his ‘Mech. Instinct took over and Carver peeled off to the right, moving and dodging as fast as he could, trying to provide as hard a target as possible for the Hollander. “Smith, I can’t hear shit. I think I’m deaf. I’m going to head for A7. Cover me.” Carver held his hatchet before him, a talisman set to ward off evil spirits that might bar his path.

Carver crashed into a clearing that neither helicopter nor DropShip had been able to see in the numerous flybys of the area. The trees surrounding it were enormous even by local standards, and their branches knit together far overhead, creating a shaded space that any other time he might have described as beautiful. On the northern end of the space were the remains of a man in forest green battle armor, half buried in a crater that mercifully covered what little was left. Carver never slowed as he ran across the open ground until something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. A blinking rescue beacon like the one that was in his survival kit sat atop a camouflaged tarp, covering something the size of a small car. A quick look around showed no one else in the clearing, so he trained his pulse lasers on the beacon, blasting it and the equipment underneath into nothing but scrap.

The moment he released the trigger the static cleared from his Active Probe’s screen, giving him the first clear view of the area. Immediately behind Carver was Smith’s Stinger, pacing back and forth across the southern edge of the clearing like an anxious attack hound. To the west there was a light BattleMech moving in fits and starts, but even more importantly there was a second light ‘Mech to the south of them, coming their way.

“Smith, ‘Mech inbound due south of your position, coming up fast.” Carver moved to the southwest, trying to put himself between the two enemy BattleMechs while moving in to support his lancemate.

* * *

The moment he received the message from his leftenant, Smith pushed his Stinger into action, ducking low behind a large tree on the southern edge of the clearing. Smith watched, waiting for his chance at revenge. “Don’t worry Grandpa Ned, we’ll get our revenge on the bastard who took our arm.” Smith looked about the area before him, trusting his eyes more than any sensor. The ECM being down had certainly helped with some of the static, but it was still present and he didn’t want to miss his opportunity just because his equipment told him his enemy was not there. Ahead of him the enemy Hollander eased out from behind a tree with all the grace and skill that Smith had come to expect from this particular opponent. The Ranger BattleMech approached the clearing cautiously, scanning for an enemy it knew had to be there, but Smith was so close to the iron filled tree that he blended into the background and wouldn’t be seen until he wanted to be.

As the Hollander approached Smith’s hiding place it stopped, its torso turning back and forth, searching for the enemy it suspected was there. “It’s not fun being the one being hunted is it?” Smith whispered inside his neurohelmet. The Ranger ‘Mech turned in the direction that Carver had headed and took a step forward, exposing his back to the hidden Stinger. Smith popped out from behind his tree and fired his medium laser into the back of the ‘Mech that had been no more than scratched against two lances of the Second Company’s finest. The focused beam of light burned through the thin flank armor of the Hollander, not stopping until it ruptured one of the heat sinks within the BattleMech’s chest, sending a green cloud of vaporized coolant out of the wound.

The Hollander turned and fired his gauss cannon at Smith’s Stinger, missing it narrowly. “Damn this guy is good,” Smith said through gritted teeth. He thrust his left arm forward and vented a portion of his reactor’s plasma through the nozzle located there, bathing the head of the enemy ‘Mech with fire. The Hollander was one of the coolest running BattleMechs in existence, but no MechWarrior ignored the dangers of fire so the Ranger stepped back from Smith, giving him an opportunity to move and use his superior maneuverability.

Smith moved back and around, careful to keep his eye on the enemy as he tried to stay wide of the oversized rifle sticking out of the Hollander’s right chest. Another slug shot from it, but went well wide of the rapidly approaching Stinger, shattering another tree. Smith smiled when his laser came back on line and prepared for another shot. As he pulled the trigger, something struck him from behind, forcing his shot wide and knocking him to the ground.

The top half of the tree that had been struck just moments earlier had fallen forward, landing squarely on top of Smith’s BattleMech. “No, no, no! Come on you piece of junk!” Smith pushed and strained, trying desperately to free himself but managing to do little more than roll over in time to see the Hollander approach. The thirty-five ton walking gun stood over him, taking its time as it slowly bent over, halting with the barrel only meters from the head of the fallen Stinger. Smith looked up though the cockpit window into the black abyss of the barrel above him and sagged. There was little he could do but wait. “Well Grandpa Ned, I guess I’ll be joining you in the haunting business.”

Smith did not want to see the metal slug streaking toward him, preferring the painless surprise of instant pulping to the fraction of a second he might be aware of his impending death. As a result he did not see Carver charging in behind the Hollander or the swing of the hatchet that ended with the titanium-sheathed weapon being buried in the head of the Capellan BattleMech. But he did hear it. The terrible scream of metal tearing through the ferro-fibrous armor and metal skull shrieked through the air, ending only with the hatchet crushing the pilot hidden at its center. The Hollander fell to the side, its life spent.

Smith opened his eyes once more and was glad to see the gauss rifle replaced by the modified Hatchetman standing above him. “Hey there L.T. Nice of you to show up.”

Everything was silent for a minute before the radio crackled to life. “Sorry Smith, I’m still having a hard time hearing. Let me cut you out of there then we’ll go get the other one.”

“What other one?” Smith watched as Carver moved to a point beyond his ‘Mech’s feet and raised his hatchet once more. The swing was fluid and natural as if he had spent a lifetime using his BattleMech to create oversized firewood. The blade bit deep into the wood and Carver had to take another swing, but two was all it took. Using his free hand the leftenant lifted a portion of the tree and pushed it to the side just enough for Smith to roll his Stinger clear. Standing up, he did a quick check of his ‘Mech and noted immediately that its right arm was crushed to the point of inoperability. “Bastard got my other arm. Grandpa Ned is pissed!”

“Looks like your right arm is useless, but the left isn’t in bad shape. There is another light ‘Mech to the west of here. It’s moving, but not much, let’s go see what it is up to.” Carver was shouting into his mic. “You hang back and move around to the flank to give him something to worry about, but your armor is too damaged to take anything but small arms fire.”

“You got it L…” Carver turned and headed west, not waiting for a response from Smith. The Stinger pilot smiled and headed off after his lance leader, moving off to the side, curious to see what else the enemy had been hiding out there.

The two men approached the second BattleMech cautiously, uncertain as to what they were facing. Smith swung around to the south while Carver marched a direct line to the west, intent on finishing what had been started nearly two weeks earlier. Smith could hear the sound of battle long before he was in position to harass the remaining enemy ‘Mech. Small arms fire popped and hissed in the distance, certainly not something they expected to encounter on this trip. Smith raised the left arm of his battered Stinger and looked at the flamer housed there. It really wasn’t all that much use against another BattleMech, but against infantry it was a nightmare brought to life. Usually Smith left infantry to others, but he wasn’t going to be worth much against anything much bigger than unaugmented soldiers, so he decided he should at least make himself useful.

* * *

Carver’s Hatchetman strode through the forest of oversized trees, imagining each of the trees silently fearing the blade of his hatchet as he passed them. The ringing in his ears continued but to a lesser degree. He thought he heard voices through his radio every now and then, but he was uncertain. His Beagle Active Probe kept the second BattleMech in sight as he approached, but he was unprepared for the chaotic scene that played out before him as the enemy came within visual range. A score of unarmored infantry in green and brown uniforms fought against a half-dozen Special Operations soldiers in their Mark II Infiltrator battle armor while another three of them grappled with a Hollander that was nearly identical to the one he had killed minutes earlier.

The radio came alive, but Carver could barely understand the muffled voice. He assumed it was Pemberton or Smith, but it made little difference. “Pemberton, get out of the way and I’ll end him.” He felt strong and sure of himself, ready to end the menace that had plagued his dreams for too long now. The armor-clad Federation soldiers jumped away from the Hollander, jetting back to where the rest of their platoon members had found cover against the heavy weapons of the Capellan infantry.

The enemy ‘Mech wasted no time, turning and firing on the Hatchetman. The slug smashed into its upper leg, crumpling armor and sending Carver stumbling back into the trees. The Hollander backpedaled between the two groups of infantry, gaining some distance between itself and the hatchet that was so effective at close range. Carver struggled to right himself, but it was hard. Whatever damage had been done to his ears was affecting his balance as well, so he used a tree as additional support until he was back in control.

The Ranger BattleMech stopped, bracing itself for what it hoped would be a killing shot, when the battered but unbroken Stinger of Mike Smith burst out of the trees, shoulder lowered, charging at full speed. The enemy MechWarrior tried to move out of the way but only succeeded in turning what would have been a solid shoulder block into a glancing blow. The effect was the same as the Hollander lost its balance for a moment and stumbled to the side, stepping on some of the infantry that were supporting it. The Stinger righted itself after the impact and turned to the infantry below, spraying plasma over their position amidst a chorus of screams. One of the Capellans kept his head about him and fired a pair of short range missiles from a shoulder mounted unit. The projectiles corkscrewed through the air and slammed into the already-damaged knee of the Federation BattleMech. There was a terrible groan as the Stinger twisted on the shattered knee and the lower half of the leg fell away. Smith managed to keep from falling on his own infantry, but the impact with the ground damaged the gyro that made standing upright even possible. For all intents and purposes he was out of the fight.

Once again the Hollander and Hatchetman faced off, a moment of stillness dragged on by the perception of all who witnessed the confrontation. The two warriors moved in unison, firing as they moved. The gauss slug of the Capellan ‘Mech crashed into the left arm of Carver’s Hatchetman, destroying most of the armor and throwing the aim of his pulse lasers off, but the shotgun-like autocannon peppered the thin armor of the Hollander, worrying away more of its defenses.

The enemy BattleMech retreated as quickly as it could without exposing its back to Carver. The trees made the going slow while more autocannon rounds struck the Hollander until one of the sub-munitions struck a hip effectively crippling Carver’s opponent. Noticing the sudden hitch in his enemy’s step Carver closed the gap between them, dodging around trees with an ease that came with anticipation. The Capellan swiveled and fired one last desperate round from his shoulder mounted cannon. Carver anticipated the move and ducked below the shot before returning upright, his hatchet swinging upward in a deadly arc that cleaved clean through the barrel of the enemy’s only weapon. Sparks flew from the severed barrel as its containment field collapsed.

Fractions of a second before the gauss rifle exploded the head split and erupted as the MechWarrior’s ejection chair rocketed him up and away from his rapidly collapsing war machine. Carver watched as his enemy shot upward but felt no satisfaction when it slammed into a branch that was as thick as a man is tall. Carver turned away from the dead man falling from the sky, his thirst for vengeance as sated as any man’s could be.

* * *

Leftenant Steven Carver walked out of the medic’s office, hands in his pockets. He looked down at the ground, bandages still covering each of his ears. Three weeks had passed since the battle with the Hollander Twins (or so they were being called around the base), and still the doctor insisted on him wearing the large square white bandages for protection. “You’d think that after four-thousand years of civilization someone would have come up with a color other than white for gauze,” he grumbled to himself.

The base had slowly worked its way from temporary structures to permanent buildings and with them came additional traffic and additional soldiers. Carver had a private room in the new officer’s quarters, but he didn’t care for it. The short time on this world when he had shared a tent with his lancemates had been some of the best. Even with the loss of Naminski and the absence of Potter it had been better than living amongst the officers on Mendham. The officers made for decent enough company, but living with his lance had been something different, giving him a perspective that he felt made him a better officer.

“Hey L.T. What’s got you down in the dumps? No lollipop after your visit with the doctor?” Smith frowned like a child who had been told to go to bed without desert, or at least he tried to look that way until he could hold it no longer and laughed out loud. “God I kill me!”

“Well at least you kill someone.” Potter said as she slapped the newly striped Corporal. “Heaven knows you can’t seem to kill anything else.”

“Now let’s be fair, he did manage to fall on a couple of foot soldiers while we were in the woods.” Carver laughed and joined his comrades. “Come on, I got a care package from civilization this morning and I’d be willing to bet there’s some excellent alcohol in there just waiting to be consumed by the three of us.”

“You have room for a fourth?” Leftenant Pemberton walked up to the trio, his smile wide enough to suggest that he had just gotten away with something. “It’s been a while since I’ve had anything better than the battery acid we brew behind the motor pool.”

“Why do you drink that stuff?” asked Smith. “Can’t you get something better at the officer’s club?”

“Well sure, but I wouldn’t want my guys to think I was a wimp now would I?” He punched Smith in the shoulder, knocking him back a step. “Now what are we celebrating here?”

Carver picked at the bandages on his ears and said, “I get to take these things off tomorrow and then I can take Mighty Tom back out for a ride.” All three of his companions cheered and shook his hand. It felt good to be with them, his friends.

They walked to the officer’s quarters to retrieve the liquor hidden away there, ready to drink to their own good fortunes and to the friends they had lost. When they arrived there was a tall soldier leaning against the wall, a Private’s rank on his collar, the name Martin stitched into the patch above his left shirt pocket. Seeing Carver he straightened to his full height and threw a salute that was as crisp as any cadet fresh from New Avalon itself.

“Sir, I’m Private Christopher Martin. Captain Trask says I’ve been assigned to Charlie Lance sir and that I was to deliver this to you immediately sir.” He handed Carver a data slate which required his thumb print to activate it.

Carver read through the briefing and smiled. “Well folks, it looks like the intel recovered during our little skirmish three weeks ago proved useful after all. Apparently the Capellans will be dropping a company of light ‘Mechs a few hundred klicks west of where we fought the Hollanders. They think our expertise in the woods makes us perfect candidates for leading the little ambush we have planned for our visitors. Time is of the essence and we leave tomorrow.”

“Terrific! Grandpa Ned was getting a little tired of all the sitting around anyways. Just make sure Potter here keeps the legs attached to her new ride this time will you L.T.?”

“I would Smith, but that is the Corporal’s job. Didn’t they tell you that?” Carver laughed and tucked the slate under his arm.

“If you think I’m listening to him for one minute you’ve both lost your minds,” stated Potter with a smile.

“You want to come with us Art? I’d be willing to bet they finished welding those infantry handles to my ‘Mech by now. I’m sure I can carry you and your squad.” The request had been fought by the technicians at first, but a short visit by Art and a letter from the Captain made it happen.

“Sure, why not? It’s always entertaining hanging around with you Charlies.” His laughter encouraged the others until they were all laughing, with the exception of Martin, who looked decidedly confused.

Carver straightened up after a moment and looked Martin in the eyes before asking, “Martin, how do you feel about sharing a drink with a lunatic, a grunt and your other lancemates?”

“Is…is that allowed sir? You’re an officer and it’s still early. Shouldn’t we be…”

Carver interrupted the rather proper young enlisted man, “Look Martin, in Charlie Lance we do things a little different. We’ll break you of all the good habits you’ve learned since you joined up and we’ll replace them with the bad ones that will keep you and the rest of us alive until our time has come. And your first lesson of the day is to learn to properly enjoy a good glass from Glengarry.”

Advertisements

One thought on “Stacking the Deck, Part Three

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s