Kolovraty, Lyran Commonwealth
1 May 3039
Even on chilly Kolovraty winter can't hold on forever. At least for the comparatively warmer equatorial regions anyway. After eight long standard months, winter was finally beginning to let go its grip on the Inn Valley. The days were warmer, the snow was melting, and farmers were looking forward to spring so they could plant crops.
The Innsbruck Militia was supposed to be on an increased state of alert because of the new war with the Draconis Combine, but Colonel Phillips and Duke Sheridan had far more important matters to deal with; namely getting their newly-acquired BattleMechs repaired and finding or training MechWarriors to pilot them. The war was regarded as something happening far away and of no concern to the citizens of Kolovraty. Which was what Duke Sheridan said when he went on a live broadcast and made an address to his people. The dispatches he'd received informing him of the war were weeks old, so obviously the government on Tharkad didn't consider the issue to be top priority for snowy little Kolovraty. The front was five or six months away by normal JumpShip routes. The Draconis Combine was of no concern here.
Furthermore, Duke Sheridan considered this to be simply another of Hanse Davion's wars and the Lyran Commonwealth shouldn't have gotten involved. However, the new Archon, Melissa Steiner (who happened to be Prince Davion's wife) obviously thought differently. So now brave Lyran troops were putting their lives on the line so the Fox (as he was known) could, in his endless greed, try to gobble up more Combine worlds. The Draconis Combine was no threat to Kolovraty and never had been. The threat here was pirates, and thanks to the courage and skill of the Fighting Fusiliers that threat seemed to have finally been greatly diminished, if not eliminated.
Jimmy Han was now, at the Duke's personal request (along with a very large bonus) giving classes on BattleMech maintenance and repair to the Innsbruck Militia's technical team. The mechanics had already been learning a lot on an informal basis, but now that the Militia had fifteen 'Mechs to look after, their knowledge would have to increase a great deal. Colonel Phillips was sending out notices to neighbouring systems via HPG that the Innsbruck Grenadiers were looking to hire Techs and MechWarriors, offering competitive salaries along with generous signing bonuses. Several of Innsbruck's civilian pilots (who drove Cargo, Lumber, Mining, Industrial and AgroMechs) had signed up with the Militia in hopes of one day becoming MechWarriors. In addition, the Militia was advertising its need for aircraft pilots to fly their new Boomerang spotter planes, which were now undergoing the process of being assembled.
Although it was highly unlikely that there would be any more raiders for a long time, there was still the need to go out on patrol. You never knew. The assorted scum of the Greater Valkyrate must have learned by now what had happened to the first group of pirates to attack Kolovraty, and when the remnants of the second gang got back home they would only confirm the news. But there were all sorts of pirate bands wandering around the Periphery, and they might not have gotten the word to stay clear because Kolovraty was now garrisoned and no longer helpless.
It was a nice day for a patrol in any case. The sky was clear and hugely blue, the sun was shining, and Apollo was looking especially magnificent today. It was warm as well, slightly above freezing, which was just-need-a-good-jacket weather for Innsbruckers. Having been raised in a northern latitude city himself, Garadun felt the same.
He strolled across the tarmac and entered the main hangar where all the BattleMechs were housed, Fusiliers and Grenadiers alike. It was damned noisy because there was a lot of work going on, what with so many BattleMechs needing repairs and overhauls. Not even counting the battle damage, the former pirate 'Mechs were in exceptionally bad condition. Rust and grime were the least of it. The astechs had their hands full. They were being supervised and aided by Jimmy, whom they regarded as their unofficial boss when it came to 'Mechs. Cera, Sun-Lao and Isabelle were also lending a hand because they had some technical skills (Sun-Lao was a qualified fusion engine mechanic) and Ian and Sayuki were giving their own rides basic maintenance.
Garadun made his way over to the gantry, waving to Cera as he went up the stairs, and entered his Hunchback through the rear hatch as usual. He sat in the command couch, hooked up his cooling suit, put on his neurohelmet and attached the leads, then began the process of starting up the 'Mech's fusion engine. Once it was properly warmed up and ready to go, he entered his pass codes into Igor's computer and brought the machine on-line. He gave all his systems the once-over and everything looked fine. He honked the horn twice, nice and loud to get people's attention.
"Stand clear, please," he called over his speakers and got several waves from ground crew as they stepped out of his path. Jimmy gave him a thumbs-up and he returned the gesture with Igor's right hand. The Hunchback stepped from its berth, made a smooth turn to the left and then walked out of the hangar at a gentle 20 kph.
"He makes it look so easy," Isabelle remarked to Cera.
"What so easy?"
Isabelle gave a thumbs-up. "Doing that with the 'Mech's hand."
"That's not hard, you know," said Cera, smiling. "All you have to–"
The shockwave of the explosion knocked the two women off their feet, along with several nearby astechs, and when they looked up from where they lay on the ground, all they could see was an enormous, fiery mushroom cloud billowing into the air, the flames quickly giving way to vast clouds of smoke. All sorts of shrapnel, pieces large and small, were bouncing across the tarmac in every direction from the centre of the blast, which were followed by assorted chunks raining down out of the sky.
"GARADUN!" Cera screamed and scrambled to her feet. She ran out of the hangar but there was nothing to be done. The Hunchback was gone, a huge and extremely deep crater in the ferrocrete tarmac in its place.
"There!" said Jimmy, pointing into the sky as he came running over. Everyone looked up to see a parachute several hundred meters above them; dangling below it was an ejection seat and its pilot.
"Gar! Gar! Oh my God!" yelled Cera and ran after him as he drifted to the ground. The mushroom cloud was still rising when he hit the tarmac, and she was at his side moments later with Jimmy and the others closing fast. There was blood on his face, one of his hands was burned and he was unconscious. But he was alive.
"Nonono, oh no no," said Cera and desperately fumbled with his harness release. Pulling him free of the ejection seat, she gently laid him on the ground and took off his neurohelmet. He was alive and breathing.
"Medic! Medic! Get a medic!" she screamed, tears in her eyes.
"Medic's on the way," said Jimmy as he reached her side, and knelt down to examine his friend. "Doesn't look too bad. He's gonna be okay, Cera. Don't worry."
Cera looked back at the mushroom cloud. "God, what happened?"
"No idea. His 'Mech was perfectly fine when I checked it this morning."
"Ambulance is on the way," said one of the astechs and the sirens of emergency vehicles could be heard, growing louder very quickly.
Cera cradled her best friend in her arms, kissing his forehead. "You're gonna be okay, don't you worry. You're gonna be okay."
When Garadun woke up he found himself in a hospital bed with Cera sitting in a chair beside him. The medical staff had tried to tell her that she couldn't wait in his room, but she had put her hand on the butt of her laser pistol and told them if they tried to stop her then she would blow their fracking heads off.
You don't argue with a crazy woman with a gun.
"Hey," he said groggily.
"Hey there," she said with a smile, her face filled with relief and happiness. "How you feeling, partner?"
"Like crap," he said and lifted his hand to rub his eyes. It was bandaged and there was an I.V. line jabbed in his arm. He took in his surroundings, lifted the covers to check his condition, then sighed and looked at Cera.
"What the hell happened?"
"Don't you remember?"
Garadun blinked and gave it some thought. "I was in Igor, walking out of the hangar to go on patrol, and then…then I think an alarm went off. Then there was…I dunno, something. Now I'm here."
Cera took a breath and let it out slowly. "Igor blew up."
"Your Hunchback blew up," she told him. "Just blew the hell up on the tarmac. We don't know why, but the fusion engine exploded and took the rest of the 'Mech with it. Jimmy says if your auto-eject system hadn't been rigged the way you'd asked him to do it, you'd be dead right now."
"Yeah, I had it set not to go off if there was an ammo explosion, but to activate if there was an engine overload or something." He stared at Cera. "Igor's really gone?"
Cera's expression was one of anguish. "I'm sorry, Gar. I am so sorry."
"Jao gao," he said, numbly.
Cera held his good hand. "I'm sorry, Gar."
"I'm Dispossessed," he said incredulously.
"We'll get you another 'Mech, I promise. Alexandra will take care of it, I'm sure."
"Wong ba duhn," he said and sat up, now pissed off. He yanked the bed covers back and swung his legs over the side. The I.V. drip line tugged on his arm. He cursed in Capellan again (he said it was good for that) and ripped the lead out, tossing it aside. He yanked the biomonitor off his chest as well. He was clad in one of those degrading, humiliating hospital gowns that hadn't changed much in a thousand years.
"Where's my damn clothes?"
Cera didn't even argue. She lifted up a big paper bag with rope handles and gave it to him. He flashed her a look of deep gratitude. The universe might hate him but he had Cera Kuroda, his very best friend and partner. Feeling pain all over (ejecting from an exploding 'Mech is never easy on the body) he threw open the door and stepped into the hallway, looking left and right for a bathroom.
"Down there on the right," said Cera, coming to his side.
"Domo." He hobbled off.
"Mr Morr! What are you doing?" cried a nurse as she came hurrying down the hall. Cera got in front of her and put her hand out.
"Leave him alone," she said, glaring.
"But he can't get out of bed! He's in no condition to–"
"He can do whatever the hell he wants," Cera told the nurse and gave her a solid shove. "Go get a form to sign. We're leaving."
Cera drew her laser from its holster, holding it by her side. "Try and stop us."
The nurse gave her a fearful look and ran off, yelling for security. By the time help arrived Garadun was out of the bathroom and fully dressed, his Chameleon Stables jacket on his back and his assorted weapons in their usual places. Cera had holstered her laser pistol but was ready for action.
"And where do you think you're going, Mr Morr?" demanded Dr Whitehall, the attending physician. Two security guards were at his side, the nurse behind them.
"I'm outta here," Garadun replied.
"No, you're going back to your room," said the doctor.
Garadun put his hand on the butt of his big auto pistol. "Make me."
"Don't even think it," said Cera to the guards, half-drawing her laser.
Dr Whitehall was shocked and alarmed. "This is a hospital! Put those guns away right now! If you don't I'll call the police."
"Go ahead," said Garadun, smirking. "Me and the IPD get along just fine. You can tell them how you tried to hold a patient against his will."
"Mr Morr, you're in no condition to leave this hospital."
"This ain't my first rodeo. Now go get a damn form for me to sign, or I'll just walk outta here anyway."
"I shall file a complaint with your commanding officer!"
Throwing his hand ups in frustration, the doctor stamped off to get the proper forms. Garadun signed them and, with Cera at his side, got the hell out of the hospital.
An hour later they strolled into the Innsbruck Barracks mess hall, she looking proud and he looking battered but alive. All the Fusiliers were there, as were many of the Militia, all talking over coffee or beer.
"God, what a load of scruffs," said Garadun.
People turned and there was a roar of welcome. They were all relieved to see him up and about and apparently fine, but also wondering why he wasn't in the hospital. But they shook his good hand and patted him on the back, and he got hugs and kisses from the ladies. Alexandra embraced him tightly.
"I'm okay," he assured her.
"I got a call from the hospital," she said trying to be stern, but failing. "They said you and Cera pulled guns on them?"
"That was me," Cera admitted unashamedly. "They tried to stop my partner from leaving – which was his right – so I explained how wrong they were."
Jimmy laughed. "You gotta love Solaris girls."
"Stupid gits," Garadun muttered. "So what the hell happened?"
"The IPD bomb squad and the Innsbruck accident team are examining the evidence right now," Alexandra explained, motioning him to sit down, which he did. "So are the Militia explosives experts. Right now we have no idea."
"It was sabotage," Jimmy stated flatly, crossing his arms over his chest. "There's no other explanation. That BattleMech was in perfect working condition, not a damn thing wrong with it. There's no way the fusion engine simply exploded on its own."
"You think it was a bomb?" said Cera.
"Very likely. I just don't know how," he said, frowning. "This is a secure military base. Or at least it's supposed to be. Someone would have to get onto the base undetected, get into the hangar, open up the 'Mech, and plant a bomb in the right place. Then seal the whole thing up again, leaving no sign that it'd been tampered with."
"Which would mean a real professional," said Garadun thoughtfully.
"If that's true…then why?" Ian asked.
"To kill me, obviously."
"But a bomb? That's kind of extreme, isn't it?"
"Not to mention expensive," Cera added. "Hiring a pro like that doesn't come cheap. They'd have to be shipped in from off-world."
"But who hates Garadun that much?" said Sayuki, who was quite upset.
"I don't lack enemies, beautiful." He sighed. He was used to people trying to kill him. It came with the territory on Solaris. But putting a bomb in his 'Mech? That was targeted assassination, that was. By someone who was well and truly pissed with him.
The question was who.