Freya was so excited she could hardly sit still. Finally, her father had let her come along in a real battle. She’d putted around in Mr. Buttstomp plenty of times on garrison duty, but something about thundering across the landscape full tilt into battle…that was different.
“Damn it, Freya! Get back into formation with the rest of us!” Mazer bellowed through the comm. Freya heaved an audible sigh and came to stop while Mazer and the rest of the Star caught up.
She rolled her eyes as he reiterated that the Arbalest was a lightly-armored, lightweight fire-support ‘Mech that couldn’t even rely on speed to get out of a jam; even the variants with MASC were slower than the heavy-end medium ‘Mechs, blah, blah…all things she’d heard countless times before.
She slouched in the command couch as Hellstar appeared on her right. The Dire Wolf kept walking, its whorled grey camo nearly a perfect match for the angry skies overhead. As the rest of the unit moved alongside, she fell into place. Of course, he’d take her on a milk run, not a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Just her luck…
“Contact!” Benjamin shouted over the comm. Freya’s heart jumped, and she scanned her HUD just as Mr. Buttstomp got the targeting info. 5 bogeys, a Star’s worth to match theirs. One heavy, one light and three medium ‘mechs: Two Ryoken, the Nova was a bit of an oddity, a Grizzly and an Uller.
Comm lasers twinkled faintly as mist drifted across the plain, and Freya’s comm hissed.
“I am Hanse of Clan Ghost bear, Star Commander!” The Batchall started. Freya had heard her mother give her Clan’s version more than once, and figured it wasn’t worth listening to. She was more interested in who she’d fight. The Ryoken would be a challenge, renowned for their ability to sustain massive damage before doing down. The Nova was slow, and suffered heat problems due to the twelve medium lasers. The Grizzly she’d never seen before…
The Batchall ended, and the baritone crack of a Gauss round rattled her canopy. In the distance, there was a faint puff and a sparkle as a cockpit, and the pilot within, ceased to exist. Freya zoomed in and watched as the sparking hulk of the Grizzly slowly toppled. She zoomed out suddenly as a light blue-and-grey blur filled the screen.
Her challenger was making their way across the battlefield.
Freya grinned. The Uller? A scout ‘Mech; faster than her, but with just as little armor. Easy prey as far as she was concerned.
“Eat my whole ass!” She growled as she punched the buttons on both control sticks. Two bright green beams reached toward the Uller, leaving steaming tracks in the mist, but in the time it had taken her to fire, it had closed some of the gap between them and only one laser hit its target; yellow-orange flecks of slagged armor flew off the ‘Mech’s shoulder, but it was a glancing hit, at best. Freya cursed as she waited for the lasers to recycle. She fired a volley of LRM’s, but again, the Uller was too fast, so she decided to back up a few steps. Instead of the usual, repetitive lurch of footsteps, the Arbalest rocked and shuddered violently.
The deep bass and sheer volume of the sonic boom reverberated inside the cockpit, rattling her teeth. Seconds later, Freya realized she was falling.
Mazer had just finished gutting his target, and turned to watch Freya when he saw the Omnimech’s right arm. He felt his stomach lurch as the rippling boom penetrated Hellstar’s cockpit, and looked back to his daughter’s ‘Mech. The heavy ferro-nickel slug, traveling at a mind-bending hypersonic speed, smashed into the Arbalest’s right hip.
For a split second, Mazer thought that maybe it had just grazed her, that Freya would be lucky enough to still have limited use of the leg. He could see her backpedaling, but once the ‘Mech’s weight shifted to the undamaged leg, he saw that the slug had had hit just right. Things seemed to be in slow-motion as he watched the leg pull away at the hip joint, sparks flying as damaged skeleton and electrical wires snapped under the stress. The ‘Mech kept going for a moment, but when it went to take the next step, was met with nothing but air.
Freya had to force herself to relax in the command couch instead of instinctively tensing up, but the impact was still colossal. Her hands flew loose from the controls as she was jammed forward into the harness. She grunted as pain shot through her, fear starting to take root. Mr. Buttstomp had gone down on its right side, and Freya quickly set about trying to get upright.
“You are arrogant, freebirth girl! If you survive to become my bondsman, I will teach you your place!” The pilot of the Uller snarled over the comm.
“EAT SHIT!” Freya replied as she grabbed the controls. She managed to roll the ‘Mech from being partially on its back to laying face down, but when she pushed off to get its feet under it, the Arbalest flopped back onto its belly like a maimed animal. Freya looked ahead of her and felt her chest go tight.
The Uller was standing still, lining up the shot. She felt terror overcome her as she heard the familiar hum of a capacitor building a charge, then saw the long, elegant barrel of a Gauss rifle – something she’d forgotten the Uller could mount – and realized she was likely going to die.
She squeezed her eyes shut as she waited for the thunder.
A bright flash diffused through her eyelids, but there was no impact; the comm line was still open and the audio went fuzzy for a split second.
She looked up again as the Clanner let loose a string of curses. The Uller was turning away from her, its right arm hanging by a few shreds of cable and skeleton, the ragged edges of the limb still glowing and deformed from the PPC. From somewhere behind her, four bursts of green light peppered the Uller’s torso and cockpit, sparks and slag flying off of the ‘Mech, the medium pulse lasers leaving white-hot craters in the armor.
Seconds later, the enormous black foot of her father’s Daishi slammed into the ground next to her cockpit as he advanced grimly on the injured Kit Fox. She let loose a breath she hadn’t know she was holding.
As the Clan ‘mech turned to run, the rising hum and mighty crack of a Gauss rifle rolled over Mr. Buttstomp, the bass note reverberating in Freya's chest. At such close range, the impact of the slug on the scout ‘Mech was enough to topple it onto its side. It hit the ground with a thunderous crash, streaks of pale blue light melting angry grooves into the legs and torso as the thirty-five ton machine rolled onto its back.
Freya finally noticed that on the outline of the Arbalest on her HUD, the right leg gone black.
“Holy shit…” She said, realizing the limb had been severed. The groaning of metal and Clan curses over the comm drew her attention back to her father, and what she saw was a testament to his anger.
“Honorless stravag!! You and your freebirth brethren are an insult to the ideals of Kerensky!!” The Clansman shouted.
Mazer had one of Hellstar’s enormous feet on the cockpit of the Kit Fox, pressing down slowly. She could see the Dire Wolf lean into the smaller machine, and at a little over three times’ the Uller’s mass…
“What are you doing? Stop, you’ll crush the cockpit, goddammit!!” Freya shouted into the comm. She was met with silence, punctuated only by the screams of the pilot and sudden keen of glass shattering as the Uller’s cockpit windows burst from their frames.
“DADDY! STOP IT!” She found herself desperately needing to be out of the Arbalest, and frantically undid her harness. She dropped onto the cockpit canopy, beating on it with her fist as Mazer began to lean into the smaller ‘Mech with more force. The crunching and grinding of armor and infrastructure was deafening now, and small showers of sparks flew from under the Dire Wolf’s foot. The pilot screamed.
“NO!! DADDY, NO!!” Freya was beating furiously on her canopy with both hands now, the emergency release forgotten, tears streaking her face and mingling with sweat from the heat of the cockpit. The pilot let out another inhuman screech of terror before the cockpit finally collapsed like a beer can under the 100-ton assault ‘Mech. Metal wailed and there was a sickeningly moist crunching sound before the comm cut out.
Mazer wiped sweat from his face as he climbed out of the cockpit, hastily sliding down the ladder to the ground. James and Zeke had already gotten Freya out of her ‘Mech and were sitting with her, waiting for the medic. She was squatting, leaned over with her face in her hands.
“Freya!” Mazer called out as he ran towards her. She looked up, then jumped to her feet and ran to meet him.
“DAMN YOU!!” She raised her fist and hit her father in the chest. Mazer stumbled back a step, more from surprise than the force of the blow. He looked at his daughter’s tear streaked face, twisted with anger and grief. She hit him again, more feebly.
“Why? Why did you have to kill him like that?” She shouted.
“I-” Mazer started to console her, but she hit him again. He put his arms around her and pulled her to his chest as she broke into sobs.
“You’re h-horrible…” Her anger faded and she buried her face in Mazer’s cooling vest. He hugged her tight for a moment, trying to reassure himself that she was going to be just fine.
“Come and sit down, let it out.” He gently steered his daughter to James’ truck, and sat next to it with her.
He waved off the medics, watching her as she cried. She didn’t have the benefit of formal military training like he’d had. And even with a top-of-the-line education from the Nagelring, his first near-death experience on the field had left him with a cockpit that smelled like vomit for weeks. He smiled and hugged her again as she quieted into occasional sniffles.
“I told you…war is hell. It’s not something to glorify. People die, and they die in terrible, terrifying ways. And there isn’t always the mask of anonymity to shield you from it.” He said softly. Freya hugged her knees and leaned into him.
“But…I heard him die…I heard the screaming, the…the crunching,” A palpable shudder ran through her. “Why did you step on him?” Mazer sighed.
He’d been fighting since he was 25. He was almost 80 now. Even though he had a good family and rebuilt his Mercenary unit, out in the middle of a fight the cold took over. He’d crushed the Clanner’s cockpit because he had wanted to. That person had almost stolen his little girl from him, and he wanted to make them suffer.
He tried to come up with something comforting to say, a way to explain or justify what he’d done, but nothing came to him. So, he took a page from his wife’s book.
“I stepped on him because I wanted to kill him…in the worst possible way. In that moment, he was nothing to me. When you’ve seen what I have seen, dehumanizing your enemy is frighteningly easy. There’s a reason I see a psychiatrist, Freya. I don’t sit on a comfy couch and have a chat over a couple cups of coffee. I describe symptoms.” She looked up at him.
“Can…I come with you next time?”
Mazer was stunned. Freya had always been cocksure, more than a little arrogant, and often turned her nose up at help…but this was an opportunity, and he wasn’t going to miss it.
“I’ll call Dr. Jameson and let him know you’ll be there.”
Freya nodded, pressed herself against him even harder, and they watched as Mr. Buttstomp’s retrieval got under way.