October 4, 3023
The week before his father died, Ryan Van Chise lay awake in the cooling breeze of an October morning in the capital city of Balhain. He stared at the ceiling fan in the candle light with his hands folded behind his head. Dawn was an hour away and the only sounds were the ambient noises of the small palace; generators turning on and off, a pair of dishes gently colliding as someone put them away, soft soled servant shoes passing his door with quiet steps while muted boot falls of the guards went the other direction.
He only barely noticed the ceiling fan. He was thinking about the smells inside his father’s Marauder. The cooled sweat-on-bare-metal scent that seemed to permeate many Battlemech cockpits, the faded tinge of worn leather on the seat, the faintly traceable odor of rubber and a bit of unknown musk all danced together to give Bloodletter its own personality.
He imagined the centuries old Marauder leading charges during the fall of the Star League, head capping Free Worlds League ‘Mechs from half a battlefield away. Nimbly evading blows in close combat with hulking assault ‘Mechs to deliver a smashing cockpit blow with its odd, paddle shaped forelimbs.
At the age of sixteen, much of his daydreams were inspired by the endlessly recycled Immortal Warrior series and the adventure novels he loved: books bound in hard cover with carefully threaded binding that had been around since the Star League, when a brief movement toward antique book format swept the nobles of the Lyran Commonwealth as the new status symbol.
So, lost as he was in this daydream world, he only haltingly became aware of the ‘Mech hangar doors across from the palace grinding open. A spill of gold light fell through the window in a gradually spreading wave.
He stood up and put on his robe, passing a reflection in the long floor mirror that had given many young ladies in the local community quickened hearts and blushing cheeks. He ran a hand through his short spiky hair and rubbed his eyes as he looked out the sideways oval window of his quarters.
There was his father’s Marauder, flanked by two Crusaders and one Thunderbolt. The ‘Mech bay doors were sliding open on all four bay, four hundred feet across the courtyard from where his elevated room looked down. He watched the techs swarm upon the machines, realizing they were being prepped for action.
Are we under attack? We must be. We…
He jumped with the three hard knocks on the double wooden doors of his room. They opened when he was just a few feet away, hand outstretched to unlock it.
His father was there with two local militia soldiers. They all wore desert camo, but his father – the Landgrave of Rosice – wore a ceremonial tattoo that cut above his left eyebrow in an elegant black curl, tracing back up his hairline near his left ear. A second upraised slash near his ear donated the second decade of his rule.
“Ryker, get into your ‘Mech gear. We have to go.”
“Are we under attack?” Ryker pulled his robe sash absently.
His father scowled. “Perhaps. Suit up and meet me in the ‘Mech bay in ten. These men will escort you when you’re ready.”
A third soldier came into the room and saluted. “The palace is secure and all men are at their posts.”
“Baliss is in charge until I get back.” He looked at his son. “Nine and a half minutes and counting.” He marched out of the room.
Nine minutes later, Ryan was climbing into the cramped cockpit of the Bloodletter. It was a desert camo Marauder, matching the spreading deserts that had encroached on Rosice after the agrotech that sustained greener places had died off over the centuries. Much of the fighting on Rosice rotated around sand choked, burned out cities suspected of hiding old treasures or tactical outposts along the remaining population centers. With so much of the population retreating toward water sources, sand and death were all that remained in the old metropolises, and the military forces on Rosice were quick to match the land.
Ryan pulled down a jump seat behind the cockpit and sat down, momentarily eyeing the waste sanitation pod nearly touching his knees as his father went through the start-up of the ‘Mech.
“Dad, is Recolda okay?”
“Your sister’s fine. She and your mother are staying in the palace. This is work for the Landgrave and his heir.”
Ryan frowned and looked out the cockpit glass. The palace was actually built on the remains of a large mobile structure from the Star League days, parked near the Balhain River and immobile since the First Succession War. No one remembered what the mobile structure was for; it had been overgrown with new buildings in and around the original framework. Somewhere inside, in militaristic metal halls that segued sloppily into polished wooden palatial corridors, his mother and sister were under heavy guard.
“Belt up,” his father said. Ryan strapped himself in. A moment later, the Mech lurched in the controlled, vertigo-inducing fall of its first footsteps. After a moment it evened out and the ‘Mech swung south. The Crusaders and Thunderbolt fell into step alongside it.
“So, what’s happening, Dad? When do I get the story?”
“There’s been a rebellion at the Balhain-Sosani water treatment plant. Twenty-seven people are dead. Most of them ours. We killed most of the terrorists but we have three in custody. The militia is holding them until we can see them ourselves.”
“Couldn’t we just go in a Striker or something? Why the ‘Mechs if there are no other ‘Mechs around?”
“I am a noble for one reason and one reason only, son. I have this Marauder. I want the prisoners to see that and know they are dealing with a Mechwarrior and royalty at that. Also, the possibility exists that this could be a trap. For us. If we show up unprotected the Landgrave could be removed with a single sniper shot. Most people are smart enough not to snipe at BattleMechs.”
Ryan leaned back in the seat and watched the terrain go by over his father’s shoulder, frowning and anxious.
The sun was cresting the mountains when the Marauder came upon the massive, rusting hulk of the water treatment plant, its metal tentacles spread across the Balhain River. Smoke was floating away from several new holes in the building, while three platoons of militia held the prisoners outside. Several white cuts in the ground resolved themselves to be sheet-covered corpses as they approached.
Casualties, Ryan thought, and paled. They’ve killed. They’ve killed our people. They really did.
The prisoners, three of them, were on their knees with their hands laced together behind their heads.
The soldiers backed away as the Marauder drew within twenty meters. It leaned forward, the polarized glass of the cockpit hiding the pilot from view. The Crusaders took a place at either shoulder. The Thunderbolt raised its left arm, pointing its knuckles at the prisoners. It clenched a fist and the arm mounted machine guns cocked. The soldiers on the ground stood at ease.
Ryan’s father keyed up the external address system. “You wanted my attention, and now you’ve gotten it. Do I need an introduction?”
The men were silent.
He muted the communication for a moment. “You’re here for a reason, son. You have two lessons to learn today. The first is that a monarch has obligation to his people. Life is a system of interlocking aristocracies that follow the same basic rules of ecology, when you come right down to it. Everything in the food chain is either predator or prey for something else, and human beings obey their tribal nature by grouping together with those that will protect them. Natural selection occurs in leadership as often as in the wild, with inappropriate leaders disposed of by the pack.”
“Someone’s trying to dispose of us? By attacking a water plant?”
“Barons Wrynn and Hoscher have coveted my seat for over a century. By demonstrating we can’t protect our people, they get closer to asserting a popular claim. My word is meaningless if no one listens. Both Hoscher and Wrynn have a lance each of’Mechs, so they aren’t without claim to nobility. The only thing that stops them from attacking me outright is that I still control popular opinion with the people, and my ‘Mechs are better. They can start turning popular opinion around with stunts like this. Fear and terror are ancient weapons of statecraft.”
Ryan nodded. “So, what do we do now?”
“That’s lesson number two. As a leader, you have to be prepared to make difficult decisions. Heart wrenching decisions. Ugly decisions. Always protect the people. Show them that no harm on them goes unpunished. Watch, but brace yourself.”
The Landgrave reset the external address. “You have attacked one of the last water treatment facilities on this planet. You have deprived the Solsani community of water and killed my people.”
The leftmost prisoner started to speak. He stopped, wide-eyed, as the Marauder took one step closer, and then slammed its foot down on him. The Marauder's foot ground from side to side. The other two men recoiled, lunging away from the display, but were seized by the soldiers and shouted down into submission.
“Leave this corpse where it fell.” Bloodletter removed its foot and righted itself. “Spread word to Solsani that any citizen suffering hardship may come here and throw a handful of sand onto his body. He will be buried only by the will of the people he’s wronged.”
The Marauder cockpit swung to face the other two. “That leaves you two. Saboteurs and terrorists. And above all, you’ve attacked technology. I was told that the factory could be repaired up to seventy-eight percent of its original output. That’s a thirteen percent decrease in how it started off. This will create disease and famine without proper irrigation and sanitation. I have no reason on Rosice to let you live.”
“We were contracted! We were merely following orders!” One man was all but bawling now, but at least he was submitting something useful.
“And who was it that hired you?”
“A third party in Solsani! Offered us five thousand kroner each to submit accurate reports on guard patrols and system plans!”
“And you would have this information, how?”
He wept for a moment. “We were employees here.”
“And it never occurred to you that this was going to be as destructive as it was, I suppose. It never crossed your mind the kind of damage that could be done. If you’d destroyed this plant outright, Solsani would die and thousands with it. They’re rationing water to start with.”
“It was a generous sum if we'd ask no questions. M’lord, you of all people should know the hardships of our kind! We scrounge for food, we ration water, we sift through the dead sands for long lost technology. We live the death of the Star League every day!”
“And men like me, and those you've killed, struggle to keep what remains of that legacy alive. Provide my sergeant there with every scrap of information you have. You and your compatriot will be held as my men follow up the leads. If I can produce a result to the culprit inside of one week, you’ll simply spend the rest of your life in prison at hard labor. If I can’t, you will be tied up in the desert to wither in the sun of Rosice. I don’t expect that death to be pleasant.”
The sergeant saluted. The Thunderbolt lowered its arm.
Landgrave Van Chise keyed a tightbeam to the Thunderbolt. “Andren, I need temporary facilities set up here at the water plant. I want a garrison here and full military security. Any tampering with the plant is to be met with immediate, lethal force. See to it we have a generous perimeter, and have the entire plant checked for bombs or poisons.”
“Copy that, Desert Hawk.”
Ryan’s thoughts drifted as his father ordered the two Crusaders to stay behind a few hours until the garrison arrived. He had seen corpses under sheets but now, he’d seen a man killed. The ruin of tattered flesh and pulverized bone below had stained the sand a sickening shade of ruby.
I get it. I get the point. He swallowed in a dry throat. This isn’t a game, but we’re playing for keeps.
Edited by Rush Maguin, 24 June 2012 - 07:54 PM.