“Sir, you have a visitor,” Ivar said as he opened Colonel Reed’s office door. Without looking up from his screens filled with administrative work, he nodded and non verbally agreed to the visitor. Ivar went back out to his desk as Alex clicked a few screens closed then turn to face the door and greet his visitor. A short stocky Asian minister walked in with slouch hat and old military coat still on from the chill of the autumn afternoon.
“Father Vang! A pleasure to see you visiting us at Seraphim command. How can I help you?” He greeted him warmly. Minister Vang smiled broadly and reached out to shake his hand.
“More blessed that I deserve, Colonel. I hope God is shining on you today?”
“He certainly is.”
“Excellent. I hope this won’t take too much time from your duties,” Vang apologized, taking a chair. “I come on an errand for your company, actually.”
“Oh? This is a new twist for you. Normally you don’t help out with our recruitment. It seemed a bit out of your duties and interests,” Alex smiled and waited politely.
“Oh yes, most definitely. Normally I would not have been involved but I felt the need to intervene in this matter. I have apparently run across a rather discouraged potential recruit for you.”
This was most odd indeed. Minister Vang was scrupulous in cultivating the spiritual life of his flock here on Ascension and did not involve himself in more secular matters. Although he did not oppose mercenary units such as the Seraphim, he did avoid involving himself in their affairs. More than a few of the Seraphim attended services at his small church on the other side of town and he was a well respected in the community dealing with the more downtrodden.
“So he asked you to come in his stead?”
“Oh no. He’s not asked me to be involved at all. In fact, I think his situation is causing him to miss an opportunity to join your group.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” mused the Colonel. “Suffering from some battle fatigue or something?”
“No.. not that per sey. No no. It seems that he feels unworthy to take that final step. I came by to broker a meeting between you two. He’s too intimidated to approach the Seraphim recruitment outright. Afraid to learn the truth I gather, or fearing shadows that do not exist. I’m not quite sure.”
Colonel Reed sat back and reflected a moment. Good mechwarriors are excellent to find, but battle fatigue cases or those who are damaged beyond functionality are a drain and morale breaker for any unit. Caution must definitely be observed.
“I guess I am a little unsure what you are here for then, Minister? What would you like to do?”
“I think you should meet him and see if he would be a good match for your unit.”
“Why not one of my recruiters? Any of them would be a good evaluator of talent and potential fit.” Minister Vang shifted a little in his chair as if that would help him find the right words.
“It isn’t that he wouldn’t, but I believe a personal touch from you would be the best first step, Colonel. The man is a true believer, but he needs coaxing to understand the benefit he could provide.”
“I feel like we’re dancing around the issue here, Sir. Care to enlighten me a bit more?” The thrust to the heart of the issue was gentle but no longer interested in playing around. Work was pressing.
“Dyabolum, Qui victimat malus, pro Deo.”
“What?” The Latin phrase slipped under the Colonel’s guard.
“Do you know your Latin, Colonel?”
“It’s a tad rusty, care to enlighten me?”
“The man says it is his motto. It means ‘The fiend who slays evil for God’.”
“So the man’s got a little repentance issue? Sins he feels cannot be washed away, or is on a vengeance kick and wants to scare his enemy with big ancient words? That’s rather P.T. Barnum, wouldn’t you say?” Alex had seen theatrics before, and some of the worst charlatans put on the sack cloth and ashes or pranced around pretending to be the big bad wolf when they were nothing of the sort.
“He has many regrets and feels the weight of his sins, this is true,” the minister explained. “I don’t think he’s being theatrical as much as he is expressing his dedication to his cause of repentance. I don’t know what sin’s he’s committed. He hasn’t talked about it yet, but they must be heavy and implied that someone like you, Colonel, might be able to understand them if you talked. He’s obviously tried in the past and failed.”
“So where is he that we may talk?”
“He would want neutral ground to speak with you.”
“One moment, let me ask this: Why me? Did he single me out by name?”
“In fact, he did, Colonel. Apparently he either knows you or knows of you. I get the strong impression he is here because OF you.” The emphasis the Minister put in that last statement made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up on the Colonel’s neck. Not that he was afraid by any means, just the early warning that made him be extra cautious.
“He is familiar with me.”
“And he wants to see me, specifically.”
“I think so. It seems he does not know how to approach you and is wary of any cutouts and subordinates.”
“Why would that be?”
“I don’t know. You will have to ask him.” Alex steepled his fingers and leaned forward to emphasize the caution he was feeling.
“Father Vang, you realize that I am now feeling a need for grave caution. It is not uncommon for many who hate what the Seraphim stand for to put a bounty on my head. How can I know that a meeting with this man would be safe?”
“I can’t prove that to you, Colonel Reed. I can only say that in my heart, and I prayed on this before I came to you, that I think you have nothing to fear from this man. I further believe that he needs you and your unit and may be of great service to you, the Free World’s League and God if you give him the chance.”
The Colonel was silent. He looked away and leaned back in the thick leather chair. The only sounds were the ticking of the office heater, a far off lance of mechs stomping in the maintenance bays as they were being repaired. The pause stretched out as possibilities and calculations were made.
“I will consider this meeting,” he finally concluded. A smile came across the minister’s face. “Before I do, though, I want to pray on this. It is highly irregular.”
“I understand completely Colonel.”
“What is the man’s name?”
The smell of mud was the reminder. Thick and cloying, with a hint of sulfur. It was an errant breeze that brought back the fields and valleys of his homeworld. His whole life was in a cul-de-sac like valley, of steep sides with a mostly dormant volcano at the head, and alluvial swamps at the foot, cut through with drainage ditches and thick fields of all variety of ‘truck’ farming vegetables. Small towns dotted the area around collection centers, that then shipped to the rail head and then off to the spaceport for off-world export.
Those days seem so long ago, yet the memories cut his mind like knives.
Since arriving on Asuncion, nothing reminded him of home. The skies were lighter, the day slightly longer, the seasons more severe and the sun shown less, even though the locals bragged about ‘Sunny Asuncion’. He guessed it’s the tourism angle. Nobody goes to rainy worlds for the weather.
Well, maybe one or two somewhere.
The day was bright with small fair weather clouds dotting the sky. The smell of the mud came from the hot springs dotting the little grotto at the bottom of Arden Falls. It was a small tourist spot on the southern branch of the Jourdain River. A small A-Frame gift shop touting the natural marvels of the geothermal springs stood behind him. The glass side facing towards the roaring water dropping only a few dozen meters in a rather thrilling cataract of water. Apparently local sports aficionados loved to kayak over it, and the docks below had more than a few people tending to their gear after a thrilling ride.
He had his back to it all right now, watching the gift shop from the observation deck. He hoped this wasn’t a mistake, but his spirit told him no. Inside, he recognized the man in the military uniform. Colonel Reed did not come alone. That was to be expected. Instead his bodyguard stayed in the gift shop while he came out the back door with the other. That one stood at the bottom of the stairs.
Colonel Reed came down to face the very large man with blond hair and scruffy overgrown goatee in the long coat and baseball cap who had his hands folded flat on his broad torso as a subtle sign he was not going to take any hostile act. He was also leaning up against the railing, again, a position to show he was not going to try to shoot and flee. He observed a casualness about this Kjudoon that he wasn’t sure was sloppiness, resignation or deception. He chose instead of a safe place to meet, but a snipers heaven. Of course, if he had partners, it was unclear who was going to be the target.
“You must be Mr. Kjudoon.” Colonel Reed said without preamble. “Father Vang delivered your message. What do you want of me?” Feeling this exposed made him all the more aware of the protective clothing he wore and the exposed sensation of his head.
“It’s just Kjudoon, really.”
“All right, Just Kjudoon, what do you want of me?” He smiled when he made the small joke.
Kjudoon sighed, looked skyward for a moment. A bird of some sort floated on the winds.
“I’m trapped, sir, and I need your help escaping it,” he said without looking down. Alex Reed squinted a little at the odd way the man stated his position.
“How are you trapped?” Kjudoon looked back after a second, and locked his eyes dead on his. It was unsettling for a second, but then Alex saw it; a deep brokenness was in this man.
“I have fled everything I’ve known. I have done terrible things, and betrayed those who I had pledged loyalty to, for they were evil men. I stole what was not mine in an arrogant attempt to become more than what I was and change the course of my own life. All this evil, I have done. I deserve a firing squad, but am too much the coward to face what I deserve.” This man said flatly. There wasn’t any shred of compromise, nor plea for forgiveness. A raw statement of fact, and almost casual acceptance of his own need for punishment.
“I’m not the Police, why do you come to me with all these things?”
“Because you are also the man that put me into this position, so to speak. If you had not done what you did, I would not be here.”
The statement was like a hard finger to the sternum.
“You blame me for your actions?” The response was calm and measured. Who was this man who came in and made such statements to him? Kjudoon sighed deeply, turned around, and put both hands on the wooden safety rail, as if to offer his back to see if it would be a fatal move.
“At first I did. I hated you for a while. But really it wasn’t you I hated for I just didn’t want to admit the truth. I hated myself for what I got into. This was because you were the first person I ever had to stand in stark contrast to all I knew. Then I hated myself more for what I needed to do to escape my circumstances. And the saddest part? I’d not do a single thing different. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it all while arranging my trip here.”
“So we knew each other? I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you.”
“No, you wouldn’t, but I watched you quite intently for the time you were on Tavis Minoris.”
“Forgive me, but you’ll have to refresh my memory there.”
“Tavis Minoris is a small world, barely a moon in the Pilpala system on the Liao Marik border. The Seraphim had one of its first actions ever there. I guess Marik wanted to give you all a test run against a particularly nasty local problem known as Traeger’s Legion. They claimed to be a mighty merc unit, but in reality they were nothing more than a large band of cutthroats and thieves preying on both side of the Marik/Liao line.”
The name awoke the memory in Alex. It was hardly much of an action for the three companies of Seraphim that dropped onto that small world, but what action was there was incredibly vicious. Traeger’s Legion was a small pirate unit that had some particularly nefarious habits and tastes. He supposed, to the locals, a slavery ring backed up by mechs is a big and powerful deal on a world the size of Tavis Minoris.
When Liaison Pen had given the job to the Seraphim, it was a good paying job, because they wanted to make sure an example was made of Traeger. He had leftover Mechs from the Second Succession war, old Comstar junk and the remnants of a supply depot from one of the numerous civil wars that ravaged the FWL. That force made them local players, and big problems for many people on both factions out there on the fringe where the governments barely cared what happened as long as their needs were met. Liao had even said they’d turn a blind eye if the Seraphim had to pop over to excise that pestilence from their space.
Traeger had thought a small inconsequential world would hide his band of miscreants best by appearing to be nothing more than a blip on the radar, visited mostly by agricultural bulk haulers and quiet living with a population that was easily dominated.
His pilots were obviously skilled individuals as well, but were used to facing only a lance of mechs here and there run by local militias and was excellent at one on one fighting. The problem was that the Seraphim were not going to play that game, and the battles were short when they foolishly came out to meet them. The open fields and plains left them no place to hide, and their silly duelist strategy allowed them to be cut down in apocalyptic fashion.
Unfortunately for the Seraphim, Traeger was fast to take his revenge on the local populace and his remaining mechs did their best to cause maximum destruction and hardship on the citizens they blamed for bringing in outside help. The slaughter was shocking in it’s rapidity. Those remaining bandits fled then into the badlands, and took almost a week to hunt down and kill. In that time, the suffering they caused was almost out of a fairy tale.
In the end, Traeger was captured, alive in his Firebrand Jaegermech trying to burn a small city with his flamers. He and his clique of seven were all captured alive, even if one had to be saved from the severity of his own wounds.
Justice was meted out quickly.
“You were part of Traeger’s crew?” Alex was now on high alert. If this Kjudoon was, he was a criminal and was going to have to be shot right here, right now, because he would be an incredibly dangerous man. All the cryptic behavior sure was pointing that way too. Instead, Kjudoon laughed. The laugh had such power and depth, coming from deep in his belly, Alex flinched.
“No no! I was not part of those monsters! Oh, Lord! No! I hated them! Hated them so deeply, you have no idea.”
“So you were one of the innocents they tortured and made to suffer?” Alex desperately wanted to draw down on the man who was possibly crazy and unarmed. But large enough to be a danger if this became physical.
“No, I wasn’t innocent, but I did suffer. I served them in a manner. More or less, I was just a driver hauling food to a client as I had to dozens of other customers. Just another stop.” Kjudoon paused again as if somewhere deep in his mind he was reassessing the truth of that statement. “And that’s not quite true either. I turned a willing blind eye to helping these people. I saw the girls they stole and sold. The drugs they loaded in the back of my truck. I knew many of those cargos I hauled were stolen goods from who knows where. But the money was excellent and I just needed to survive. I had… obligations… to people to take care of. Their money made it possible.
“Inside I was suffering though. I knew what I was enabling. I didn’t dare try to quit because I knew what Traeger was like and he enjoyed making examples of people. I could have been one if I had stood up. But I was with them when you showed up and started killing them all. An act, by the way, for which I am eternally grateful, regardless of the cost.”
“These mixed signals you’re giving me are really hard to follow. How do you know me?”
“I was there the day you hung Traeger by the authority vested in you by the Free World League.”
Ah. Something Alex didn’t like remembering. One of the most distasteful, loathsome acts he ever had to do as a commander of the Seraphim. He had to preside over the trials and probable executions of every one of Traeger’s men he caught alive. In the end, 77 were hung in seven days. It was nigh Biblical.
He remembered the night he was debriefed by Pen on that action. It did not matter that he ran the tribunal with the most grace and honesty as he possibly could. He had to order the death, by hanging none the less, and 77 men and women paid for their horrible crimes that were all well documented and added onto by their actions when the Seraphim arrived. Pen had stated he wanted a statement made that this activity would NEVER be tolerated in the FWL and used the paladin-like public view of the Seraphim to make it. This sure made a statement. Righteous indignation tempered with what many considered holy judgment. Criminal activity and piracy in that sector of the inner sphere dropped severely for a long time after.
He still was not happy to have done it, no matter how righteous the reason. And now, he was faced with a man who witnessed what he did, considered it a dark hour and approved!
“Not my finest hour,” Alex said humbly, now he started to pace a little.
“On the contrary, it was one of the finest hours I ever saw.” Again, Alex was taken aback.
“You approve of a slaughter of men and women like that?”
“No. that is not what I approve of. I approve in how you tried everything in your power to be fair, objective and merciful in everything you did. Most merc units I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few since, would have just lined them all up against the wall by the list, rambled off a few ‘by the power invested in me… blah blah blah…’ and opened fire with a mech’s machine guns on the lot of them.” You did not. You followed your orders, that I knew of, and then carried them out in the best way possible for a terrible situation. You were left no choice on all sides, and you were a paragon of virtue.
“Not only that,” Kjudoon continued, “this was all done against the backdrop of the Seraphim’s humanitarian efforts. Till you showed up, every mech in the world was a symbol of oppression, evil and suffering! The instant that Six Winged Shield shows up, that whole paradigm is flipped upside down overnight. Suddenly, a mech meant that food and succor was being brought. It guarded trucks that brought salvation to so many. It killed evil. It protected towns. It rescued people from a mud slide. Do you know how many lives you saved? How many hearts you healed? How many souls dragged back from the maw of destruction?”
“And then there was your faith. You came to a world without any idea of what salvation was and LIVED the part of savior. Almost nobody on that world knew God or Jesus, but you lived for Him there. You showed the whole side of Jesus; the lion and the lamb. Not only that, the Bibles you left caused a revival and fundamental change in our society, because you lived it. No, you were not perfect, and we saw that… but you kept living it anyway.”
When would the surprises stop? This man, Kjudoon, was acting as a flail on his emotions! Nothing Alex expected came, and just when he thought he understood what was being asked, the world went upside down again! This broken, impossible man kept challenging him in his understanding of what was facing him now. And he still didn’t know what he wanted!
“I had no idea. I could only hope the Seraphim brought good to those people.”
“Well, you did. More than you can imagine. You know that Alex is the most popular name on Tavis Minoris? Reed’s number two. I think Joe is number three.”
“All we did was destroy some small time pirates and criminals.”
“No, you didn’t. From your view, Traeger was a nobody with little power. To us, he was the devil incarnate. His mechs gave him the power to rule uncontested. As long as he kept the public front towards the FWL, and all those who came to get food from us were kept in the dark. His abuses of power had left an entire planet resigned to a lifetime of suffering and fear.
“You changed a world’s view overnight. Your forces came in, defanged the devil himself, tried and convicted him then executed him for the horrors he had done. A people unable to see outside their own atmosphere were suddenly free of their greatest oppressor. What do you think that does to a people when they watch someone slay the devil?”
“I have no idea.”
“It changes them for the better. They want to be like you. They want to follow you. Emulate you.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
Kjudoon became very still.
“That’s my problem. I don’t know why I’m here, but I know I have no choice BUT to be here.” His voice was thin and distant. “I used to know, once. But now that I’m here, it’s changed.”
“Why is that?” Alex felt his heart go out to this man yet again as he continued to be forced onto an emotional rollercoaster.
“I was only a minor cog in Traeger’s operations. I drove the trucks that kept his operations going. I lied to myself that I wasn’t really part of it, but I was. The money I earned doing that is proof, even though I needed it to keep my people alive. A regular Jean Valjean, I am.” Kjudoon laughed bitterly at himself, illusions stripped away again.
“I was driving the day you opened fire. I was caught in the crossfire in the opening battle. Amazingly, my truck was untouched. I was sure you would blow it up and gun me down where I lay because that is what we always saw from Traeger. I watched you from a muddy ditch, as your Battlemaster and six other of your mechs tromped through an onion field. I still smell the ozone from your PPCs and the fuel from the missiles. One Cataphract walked within two hundred meters of me. The crack of it’s auto-cannons left me deaf for an hour afterward.
“I saw you cut down all eight of Traeger’s men out there in less than two minutes. A task I never thought I’d see done. You didn’t get into the whirling turning death spirals I saw from their little bragging reels they liked to show on local media. You all maneuvered together, picked one target, and obliterated them, as they straggled in to you. At the time, I was more scared you would just be a bigger, better organized, and worse version of what Traeger was. I was very wrong.
“But then, I had to hide. Everyone knew that I worked for Traeger. A few of us got together to try and survive from hiding because we were sure we were next. I made sure I was at the trials, even though it was a big risk and I watched from hiding. There were so many witch hunts in those days, and I was one of the witches. I watched you when Traeger hit the end of that rope. There was no malice there. Only silent grief. At that point I knew you were a man I wanted to serve under. A group worthy of service”
Alex sat down on the bench, and listened to the birds chirp against the soft roar of the waterfall nearby. So much had been thrown at him by this man.
“Of course,” Kjudoon continued on. “I had no ability to serve the commander of a battlemech mercenary unit. I didn’t even pilot mechs. But I knew where I could learn, and so I had to start planning a way to put myself in a position where my service to you could be of use. My life on Tavis Minoris was over purely if nothing more than being a pariah for having worked for such an evil man. I couldn’t swing a hammer, and construction jobs were all that was left. I could drive a truck, but I was blackballed. My choice was one of flee, or face starvation.”
A shudder went through Kjudoon’s body. It was obvious he was fighting for control of his emotions at that moment.
“Besides, I had no one left to provide for. Traeger took care of that in the aftermath.”
Kjudoon sat down opposite Alex and continued.
“I knew I needed to get the skills in piloting a mech. I needed to get the money to get myself off world, and bring a gift appropriate for someone who did so much.”
“Yes. Gifts is really more like it. Something you should have gained already but missed.”
“A Jenner, Orion, Jagermech and Kintaro. I hope you let me pilot them, as I have been practicing.”
Colonel Reed’s jaw dropped. He was being offered a full lance of mechs, and the servitude of a mech pilot in a show of gratitude?
“They’re mostly rigged for LRMs, but it’s what I’m good with and practiced at.”
“You’re offering me 4 mechs.”
“Yes, because you should have found them if I had not removed a map from a captured clubhouse for Traeger in his ‘home town’ as it were where his men hung out. It had the locations of all his caches, including some reserve mechs. Like most small time thugs, they did their biggest work where they played hardest. That bar you found was the viper’s nest, and where I got most of my work. So I knew precisely where to look, and took it as a possible piece of security in case I had to deal for my life or freedom.”
“So you’re the reason we had to actively search for all those little larders Traeger set up?” Kjudoon blushed and ducked his head at the words being said out loud, and sounding probably angrier than the Colonel meant.
“Yes. If it makes you feel any better, you found all the mechs, but for this one lance. I looked at them all after you left, and now I’m offering them to you, if I get to pilot them.”
Alex slumped back against the railing while sitting on the bench and laughed in exhaustion and resignation. That search had taken weeks because Pen wanted that war materiel. They were sure they got all of it, but now to find out a brilliant gem was missed? All because a trucker stole a map out of one office. Alex threw up his hands in a gesture of resigned futility.
“How are we going to get them here? That was a long trip the first time.”
“No worry. They’re already here. I smuggled them in over the last 5 months.”
“WHAT?!” Alex shot up to his feet.
“It wasn’t that hard really. Originally there were 6 of them, but I sold two of them to generate the credits in which to get them here. The few million Cbills managed to get them off world one at a time in some very large shipping containers, and I know a lot about shipping containers. With the help of some well bribed… friends… They got off world as used farm equipment”
“Used farm equipment.” Alex snorted at the humor of it.
“Actually one came in as ‘soybeans’.” Both men laughed at that.
“Since we’re such a farm addled planet, nobody thought twice to look. Your reports to the FWLM left no doubt all war materiel was captured.”
“Okay, so you’re here to join the Seraphim and serve me, right? Why all the drama with all of this? I admit you have the flare for the theatrical, but why not just go through channels?”
“Honestly, because I doubt myself. Like I said, I knew where to get trained to drive a mech, and other than that Jagermech, I’m finally a fair to middling pilot. What I had to do to get there has left me questioning myself. I don’t know if I’m worthy to be part of your unit, knowing who I am and what I’ve done. I know dozens of units out there would take me on, but I suspect they’d just cheat me, steal my mechs and leave me flat with nothing, or dead in a ditch somewhere. I do not believe the same of you. I knew that the instant I saw the hangings. Not you.”
Kjudoon and Alex sat in silence for a bit. A small group of kayakers made their way past them on the smoother waters of the river below the falls on to their next adventure. The sun now lower in the warm autumn sky, lengthening the shadows and allowing a chill to creep into the shade.
“So that’s what you mean by trapped, and I am your only hope of salvation. You can’t stay home, because you’re ostracized for what you’ve done. Others will just rob you and leave you for dead. You’ve gained skills that can only be used in a very specific field, and you feel a debt towards me for causing your life to turn this way. Would that be a fair summation?”
“It would be.”
“But now you feel too sullied and sinful to join a group like the Seraphim because you couldn’t live up to our code?”
“Yes, there’s that too.”
“Shucks, son. We’re all broken and sinful. We just chose to drag ourselves upwards, and in doing so, raise up others. You’ll fit right in.”
Kjudoon had his turn to take pause and evaluate an unexpected statement.
“What if I fail?”
“What if you don’t?”
“What If I violate your code?”
“Let’s burn that bridge when we get there.”
“This has been the most unique of job interviews. Very well, you’re hired. Now come on. You have a lot of unpacking to do and mechs are heavy lifting, and then you get to clean out the Panda enclosure before you hit the sack,” Alex said standing up smiling to himself and turning back to the gift shop.
“Okay… wait what?!”