FANDOM


Suomi Warders
By: Dave Waino

Chapter 1: The Wages of Honor
Chapter 2: A Wager with the Clans
Chapter 3: A Trap of Imagination
Chapter 4: Trials of Loyalty
Chapter 5: Eye of the Storm
Chapter 6: Twists of Fate
Chapter 7: Domestic Issues
Chapter 8: Fateful Choices
Chapter 9: Deadly Objectives
Chapter 10: Hard Truths and Harder Questions
Chapter 11: Major Decisions
Chapter 12: A Call to Arms
Chapter 13: Allocation of Resources
Chapter 14: Special Delivery
Chapter 15: Seize and Rescue
Chapter 16: Combined Arms
Chapter 17: Battered 'Mechs and Broken Bodies
Chapter 18: Matters of Perspective
Chapter 19: Deals of Life and Death

Suomi Warders: 3057

Innocence Lost - Part One
Innocence Lost - Part Two

Chapter Index
Edit


Chapter 1:The Wages of HonorEdit

Dhafar Industrial Compound

Jeddah city, Hamano, Draconis Combine

02 March 3052

A long, sleek hover-limo slowly roamed across the open space of the central compound as it oriented toward the main gate. The driver maintained a slow speed and kept his attention focused on avoiding the scattered clusters of off-world soldiers. Conversely the passenger within found his attention focused on those same soldiers. As they slowly slid by the tinted windows each nodded, waved, or outright saluted as if they somehow could tell when his eyes fell upon them. They were his people; the Suomi Warders.

By definition the Warders were a small mercenary unit. When the Warders fielded their infantry, tanks and BattleMechs they got paid to do so. It would be fair to say they enjoyed close corporate sponsorship however. When they traveled D.E.W. Industries of the Free World’s League provided a corporate DropShip. In fact, that same consortium of companies kept the Warders updated with the latest in electronics and weaponry and even provided their pension and insurance plans. There was no denying that when your CO also happened to be a wealthy scion of an inter-planetary defense industry conglomerate a unit can expect a few perks here and there.

Or perhaps even a heap of perks. Maybe even the greatest perk a soldier, tanker or MechWarrior could ask for: the ability to pick your battles. Put simply, the Warders never had the need to accept the dirty bush-war contracts typical of the Fourth Succession Wars period. (Or any Succession War period). When the giant humanoid war machines of the Warders took the field it was always in defense of those that required aid or to train and equip those that wished to defend themselves. They had never raided other worlds for political reasons. They never plundered "enemy" realms. Most of their contracts were to repulse or hunt raiders – usually pirates of the periphery planets. To John, this made the soldiers outside the car more than simple mercenaries. To him they were everyday heroes. Men and women willing to risk their lives to help others.

Movement on the other side of the car caught his attention. Walking carefully to avoid the ground troops was one of the giant humanoid war machines that dominated the battlefields of the 31st century. This one was affectionately named "Granny" by it’s pilot. The machine’s nickname was perhaps the only friendly thing about it. Towering over 15 meters tall and massing around 80 tons, the blue and green BattleMech was named the Awesome by it’s original designer and it’s destructive capability lived up to the name. Granny was the heaviest ‘Mech that the Warders fielded and provided heavy hitting power at any range for the ‘Mech lance. Originally a 9M model, it had been modified by the skillful techs of the Warders so that sophisticated battlefield information / communications equipment and a self targeting anti-missile system had replaced the close range weapons usually mounted on a AWS-9M. It’s three extended range particle projectile cannons and medium output pulse laser system were top line Inner-Sphere weapons and had been left undisturbed but two medium lasers had been added. These lasers were actually mounted low on the hips although only a trained eye could easily spot them. With broad shoulders that actually rose slighter higher than the "head", armored deflection plates rising up from the outer arms like shields and thick legs that flanged out like giant shinguards the Awesome had always looked slightly like a hockey goalie to John. Albeit a one handed one as this giant’s right arm ended as one of the ER PPC barrels. It carried a different kind of "big stick" and was used to backstop the other ‘Mechs in a fight.

As the limo cleared the exit gate and gained speed John twisted to see out the rear so he could see where Granny was headed. The large sphere of the dropship Baltic Serenade glistened in the afternoon sunshine out past the building clusters. The Serenade was one of several modified Seeker class ships his company owned. Capable of achieving orbit then leaving planets to attach onto a waiting JumpShip the Serenade and her sisters delivered the equipment of war across vast interstellar distances to the many eager buyers of a scattered humanity perpetually in conflict. The irony of being able to afford to only accept "clean" contracts because the various companies of his family’s business empire raked in billions of C-bills selling weapon systems to star nations that mostly warred with each other was not lost on John. Irony seemed to be playing a large role in his life of late. The current situation was a prime example.

First there was their current location and contract. The Soumi Warders were currently on station within the Draconis Combine- a star nation of primarily Japanese custom that some thirty years ago had cultivated a poor general relationship with mercenary units by shooting one of premier ones to pieces and shooing away many others. It seems their lead House had decided that hired warriors didn’t measure up to Kurita samurai ways or the code of Bushido. But then the terrifying Clans invaded from unknown space and easily conquered many Combine (and other nation’s) worlds. When the Combine home world of Luthien faced Clan invasion mercenary forces played a key role in saving the capitol. Faced with a large front and a better equipped enemy the Combine leadership rethought it’s stance on mercenary contracts and interstellar trade in general. The Combine borders were now open to Free Worlds trade and full of merc units both big and small.

The Warders’ contract had brought them to a planet called Hamano. John had been informed by his communications team that Hamano loosely translated to English as "beachside". Well, no argument there. Hamano’s surface was mainly saltwater with several scattered landmasses of moderate size that were largely covered with sand. It was very hard not to be beachside on Hamano. The primary inhabitants of Hamano were not of Asian descent but rather where the offspring generations of various religious pilgrims from what was once called the Middle East on ancient Terra. Actually, very few worlds of the Draconis Combine had Japanese names, but this far-flung slice of ancient Arabia did.

Ahmed Dhafar, The Emir of Jeddah, had called upon John Linna to be both businessman and MechWarrior. The Emir’s high tech electronics production facilities were being raided by a pirate force that the small Combine garrison was too small and spread out to seriously challenge. Aside from actively protecting the central compound that the Emir had concentrated production within, the Warders would also provide final training for a newly forming local militia force. The Combine was a lawful society and current laws seemed to prevent the local garrison forces from training a "private, indigenous" force even though the Emir had been granted permission to form over a year ago by the Combine’s Defense Ministry.

Once the import and customs paperwork was signed off by the Combine Military Governor then D.E.W. would dispatch another Seeker full of armored vehicles, small arms and a lance of factory fresh ‘Mechs for the Emir’s new defense force. The Warders would hand over protection of the city of Jeddah and the important Dhafar Industrial Complex to the new militia and be on it’s way home. It should have been a "win-win" all the way : The Warder’s fill another contract, D.E.W. racks up a nice little sale, Hamano’s a safer place and the Combine isn’t out any cash or troops for the improved planetary defense. Except after almost three months the paperwork still hadn’t cleared and the now outgoing Governor Hedark hadn’t met personally with John as either John Linna, CEO of D.E.W. Industries or as Major John Linna, CO of the Soumi Warders.

Leaning back in his seat and facing forward again John rubbed at tired eyes. The people of Hamano might seem basically the same to off-worlders but they had some key internal divisions. One of the smaller political-religous factions considered the Clan invasion an opportune time to start anti-Combine demonstrations and activities. Hailing from the occasionally raucous and always individualistic Free Worlds League John sympathized with some of their points. But the Warders were not on Hamano to either aid or hinder the anti-Combine movement. John was convinced that Emir Dhafar had no connections to the protest factions as was the Combine military commander for the island-sector Naoko Fujiwara. But somebody somewhere in the Combine was not. Not only had the clearance for the hardware been "misplaced" a new Military Governor had been sent. The new one, a Colonel (Tai-sa in Combine ratings) Steven Yamoto was apparently eager to get his agenda rolling. A text only message John had received yesterday from the new Governor had summoned John, the Emir, and the sector commander to a "priority" meeting set for the day following the Governor’s touchdown on the capitol landmass. Governor Yamoto had decided to show them honor by flying over to their island rather than making them go to him.

John hoped that was a good sign. But somehow he couldn’t shake the feeling that events were in the process of ‘going south’. He tried to tell himself that things couldn’t go too poorly. After all, there were several "out" clauses in the contract that either he or the Emir could activate if the deal turned sour. John might have to go home with only partial payment – maybe even take a loss on the trip- but other than being razzed by his brother for losing money while out playing MechWarrior instead of minding the family business it wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, if the new Governor did kick the Warders off planet he wouldn’t get a crack at the raiders. Any encounter with Periphery bandits held out the slim hope of providing the information he so desperately sought. But, he grimly admitted to himself, this far from the original incident the chance of useful information was less then none.

During the rest of the short trip John’s mind drifted through memories of ski trips at home as they drove through the desert. The with a sudden start he realized that the driver was in the process of opening his door. Blinking as the open doorway let in the afternoon glare John saw that they were already at the Combine command building. He chided himself about losing the ride time daydreaming. But now here he was at the nondescript concrete building. Nodding his thanks to the driver he walked up the short flight of steps and saluted the DCMS soldier on guard duty at the door. The guard returned his salute in a perfunctory manner without even making eye contact. It wasn’t until he had already stepped past him and entered the lobby that John realized the guard had worn an unfamiliar unit patch. Tai-sa Yamoto had brought his own guard force with him. Was that a sign of something? John didn’t know enough about Combine military protocol to make a guess.

The Corporal (Go-cho) at the reception desk was familiar to John but the second armed guard was not. Although the guard saluted John, he also issued what was obviously a challenge of some sort in Japanese. As John didn’t understand Japanese he slowed and looked to the Go-cho for an interpretation.

"Weapons are not to be allowed in the Tai-sa’s presence," supplied the young man somewhat sheepishly.

Frowning, John started to ask "what weapon?". He did not habitually wear a sidearm. Then he noticed the small table next to the corporal. The two swords normally worn by a DCMS Mechwarrior officer and a standard issue Combine pistol lay there next to the ceremonial knives normally worn by the Emir and his son. By reflex his hand drifted to the sheathed leuko blade worn by warriors of his culture. Wordlessly he unfastened the knife from his belt as he stared pointedly at the guard. No mixed messages here. This Yamoto guy was making the statement that he was in charge and planned to get his way regardless of the desires of others. To John the leuko was a mainly just a cultural badge and functional tool. But the ornate knives of the Dhafar had religious significance while disarming Lieutenant (Chu-i) Fujiwara of her swords had to be some sort of insult in Draconis military society. As John had started respectful relationships with both parties he felt an instant dislike of the Tai-sa forming.

Mainly to give himself a little time to calm his thoughts he paused to study his reflection in an interior office window before proceeding to the conference room. Absently he noted what he saw. He thought he cut a pretty trim figure in his dark blue and white uniform. Slightly taller than the average citizen of the Free Worlds League he had the sandy blond hair and blue eyes still common to those of Scandinavian bloodlines even after many centuries of cross-cultural marriage. John had recently turned 27 but thought that in his face he could easily pass for five years older. It was the eyes his ex-wife still claimed. She said they were windows to an old soul. Windows or not, he knew that many people had told him how easy it was to read his mood by his eyes. Right now they seemed to be trying to bore a hole through the glass, a sign that he was already letting the Tai-sa get to him. Breathing deeply he relaxed his gaze and put on the face he had learned for business negotiations. His brother (who did the face better than John though Mike was two years younger) called it the "3 Cs" face – calm, curious and caring. It was time to enter the lion’s den.

As he walked down the short hall tapping his personal data pad against his thigh he realized that the guard had not even asked to look at it. It could easily be a bomb. Security had definately not the reason for the weapons check. One of the Emir’s household staff was waiting at the doorway. He smartly opened it and preceded John into the room.

"The Esteemed Officer Major John Linna of the Soumi Warders", announced the doorman in precise English to the four people within. The doorman bowed to all then withdrew, closing the door behind him.

Even as Tai-sa Steven Yamoto started to address him, John’s mind had slipped into the command mode of information processing it slipped into during combat or important business negotiations (arguably often the same thing). He noted immediately that although he was a few minutes early everyone else had obviously been here a while. Yamoto stood at the far end of the narrow table with his back currently to the others and was in the process of pointing at some figures projected on the wall. They were in Japanese so John immediately dismissed any attempt to decipher their meaning. Chu-i Fujiwara, the leader of both the only DCMS ‘Mech unit on this island as well as commander of the small DCMS presence in the sector, was sitting ramrod straight in her seat. She had her focus fixed on a point that John judged to be several meters beyond the wall across from her. She currently had the most expressionless face he could remember ever seeing. At the other end of the table from Yamoto sat Emir Dhafar. He wore the colorful robes of office donned for official moments over his somewhat stocky frame. In stark contrast to Fujiwara’s expression, his hinted at mild amusement as if he found some hidden humor in whatever Yamoto had been talking about. Just around the table corner to the Emir’s right sat his son Basem. Basem had graduated from a Combine ‘Mech academy and returned home to lead it’s home grown militia. Outrage and the need to "do something" fairly shimmered from his tense, forward leaning posture. But with grim determination Basem Dhafar was holding in whatever outburst was aching to let out.

"They said you would be punctual," said Yamoto in English as he turned to look at the Warder Major. "As we all share this language we shall continue in English. Please, take a seat Major." The Tai-sa matched action to words and flicked off the projection with a remote while retaking his seat at the head of the table. Yamoto’s disdain toward him for not speaking Japanese was very clear within the Tai-sa’s gracious offer of the language switch.

Like I bet you speak Finnish or Swedish, though John to himself as his 3C face mildly replied, "Thank you Tai-sa Yamoto." John took the seat opposite Fujiwara. There was no indication she had even noticed him.

The Tai-sa was dressed in what John assumed to be samurai robes. Yamoto had to adjust the two swords slipped through his belt so that he could sit down comfortably at the table. He wasn’t surprised that Yamoto was armed. What did mildly surprise him was Yamoto’s total lack of Asian features. The DCMS Military Governor was fair skinned with light brown hair that showed steaks of gray. By now John should have known not to assume anything from a name. He was confident that his 3C face had not reflected his surprise though.

"I asked the others here earlier than you for internal business. As I have already explained to the Emir and the other Lords of this planet the Draconis Combine faces a dark time during which we must all pull together and do our part to repel the Clan invaders from our beloved worlds. While Hamano is too far from the Clan invasion sectors to be strategically important and lacks a military force of any value to lend to the cause, this world has vast mineral deposits and produces several important electronic components. Both of these will prove vital to the war effort. Acting under Tai-shu Vederman’s orders I have invoked full Martial Authority over Hamano."

John simply nodded attentively as Yamoto paused to gauge John’s reaction. This Warlord Vederman had apparently sent the Tai-sa to effectively seize planetary governance from the somewhat parliamentary system of Sheiks and Emirs that ruled Hamano. The big question was why. What was it Yamoto was sent here to do that his predecessor wouldn’t or couldn’t do? Presumable the answer would be forthcoming shortly.

Yamoto was unable to decipher any meaning in the mercenary major’s calm, attentive expression so he continued in the same flat but crisp tone.

"Obviously you are wondering how this change affects you. As of now we are invoking House Kurita law and ComStar Mercenary Review Board regulations to assume your contract from Emir Dhafar under the Emergency Wartime Acts. Rates will be adjusted to Combine standards with myself being your direct contract administrator. The vehicles and ‘Mechs you have brought for the Emir’s unit will be transferred to the capitol for deployment by DCMS forces. The Combine will reimburse the Emir of course."

Yamoto paused again to see if John was going to protest the contract assumption. While John’s mind was still whirling over the overall implications of Yamoto and his Warlord holding the Warders’ contract there was one glaring problem with the Tai-sa’s order.

"My apologies Tai-sa, but there aren’t any vehicles or ‘Mechs to hand over," John informed the new Governor.

A bit of anger crept into Yamoto’s voice as he leaned slightly toward John.

"Explain this," he demanded. "Both the Tai-shu and I read the manifest orders and specification sheets."

John shrugged and tried to smile apologetically.

"The import documents were never signed by your predecessor. That stuff never left the League."

Yamoto exploded into several quick bursts of Japanese of which John could only make out the ex-governor’s and the Emir’s name. The Emir’s name came up toward the end of the outburst and apparently in the context of a question as his Lordship replied calmly to Yamoto. And in English so John could understand too.

"Your Excellency, I dearly wished to inform you that the equipment had never been shipped. However you had clearly expressed your requirement of strict obedience and then forbade me from speaking on the subject until after you had informed Major Linna yourself."

There was a silent pause during which John assumed that the Tai-sa was counting to ten in Japanese or something similar. The fury was still in his eyes but the voice returned back to it’s matter-of-fact tone

"Very well, we will do without them. Chu-i Fujiwara, as my Battlemech could not be shipped with me I will be assuming yours."

That cracked John’s 3C face, almost brought Basem out of his seat, and put the first emotion into Naoko’s features that John had seen since he arrived. Yamoto probably had the military authority to take her ‘Mech – but you just didn’t do that to a fellow Mechwarrior without damn good justification.

"Yes Tai-sa, I…" Naoko’s whispered reply failed as her voice broke.

John felt as if he saw the personification of shame and despair in her face. In that instant it was as if she went from being yet a mostly anonymous uniformed person that he occasionally spoke with about logistical matters to a "real" person named Naoko who was about to unfairly suffer a great loss. Of course he had always known she was a real live person, but somehow this sudden vulnerability made her more "real". More like the way he often viewed his Warders as the people behind their rank or function. Instantly he knew that he was going to break some regulations.

"What Chu-i Fujiwara was going to tell you is that her Kintaro has been suffering electronic failures in the gyro control circuits. My technicians have been attempting to solve the problem for several days now at your ‘Mech facilities. I do not believe that it is currently functional Tai-sa."

Yamoto eyed John dubiously then looked back to Fujiwara – whom had regained her composure but stilllooked unsure.

"Is this true? Non DCMS personnel have been working on your Battlemech?" he asked.

The Emir answered before she could open her mouth to respond.

"Indeed your Excellency. Danielle Electronics and Weapons runs one of the best technical programs in the Inner Sphere. As I am sure you are aware they produce many of the field upgrade kits and even operate custom ‘Mech fabrication facilities on Solaris and Outreach. When your technicians asked my people if they could help in the fabrication of some chips not in DCMS stores I in turn asked Major Linna for his assistance. They brought the most amazing field repair and fabrication facilities with them."

While the Emir was talking John was pretending to be studying his PDA and checking something as he tapped keystrokes into it with the stylus.

Yamoto listened to the Emir’s statement with some skepticism. It was certainly possible that the DCMS techs had run into a problem they couldn’t fix on this backwater planet. They did not have a full support unit here. But he had not risen to the rank of Tai-sa by taking information at face value.

"We will revisit this subject later," decided Yamoto. There were, after all, more important matters to attend to.

John touched the "send" icon as the Governor turned his attention back to the mercenary officer.

"As to your deployment," intoned Yamoto. "This rebellious activity in Jeddah can not be allowed to continue. With our armored vehicles in use guarding important installations on the capitol island you will have the responsibility of assisting the local police with crowd control. Of particular note is the unrest at the city university and the striking dock workers. These situations must be put right."

A black pit started churning in John’s stomach. He hadn’t been to any of the protest sites but the corporate security team he’d brought with him had checked them both out and pronounced them well organized but violence free. One man’s protest had become another man’s rebellion. John hoped like hell his 3C face held.

Nodding his acceptance of Yomoto’s orders he let a hint of negotiation creep into his voice.

"My security people have already done some checking. Being largely unarmed the crowds don’t pose any threat to my ‘Mechs or tanks. But the mobs have been growing more violent each day. I only have three ground platoons. No way they can physically hold back a mob if there’s trouble. Even with police help…"

John could see the astonishment growing on Naoko’s and Basem’s faces as he was talking. The Emir was eyeing him speculatively while the new Military Governor seemed pleased with the general direction John was heading.

"…they would over-run any line we formed. I guess what I’m saying is that my equipment isn’t exactly packing water hoses and my troopers aren’t carrying non-lethal weapons. What are my orders if these rebels go wild and start destroying property or endangering others or something?"

Yamoto’s face and tone grew quite solemn.

"Though it pains me to say this…if after sufficient instruction to desist any persons continue their illegal activities then your units are authorized to fire warning shots followed by live fire until such time as the mob disburses. Tai-shu Vederman and myself will take full responsibility in such an event."

Yeah, I just bet you will though John as he allowed the first real grin of this meeting to find his face.

"In that case then Colonel," John smiled, "on behalf of the Soumi Warders I acknowledge your orders and formally inform you that said orders void our contract per section six, articles one through four. We’ll be leaving within the three local day window provided for by ComStar mercenary regs."

Yamoto looked stunned by the sudden announcement.

"You cannot be serious Major…"

John cut him off mid-sentence. "I am deadly serious. You invoked Combine pay rates but otherwise left my standing contract with the Emir intact. Section six of our contract covers enforceable orders. We wouldn’t have accepted Emir Dhafar’s orders to fire on civilians and we’re certainly not going to take yours. You want to with-hold our pay – fine. You want to issue a challenge with the Merc Review Board – be my guest. I’ll meet you there. But the Warders are not going to do your dirty work or take the fall for you."

For several moments the Tai-sa and the Major silently glared at each other. Yamoto sensed that the Free Worlder was quite serious. Weather the contract claim was valid or not, he would not use his unit against the cowardly rebellious scum that struck at the Combine’s heart while she was in such mortal outside danger. He couldn’t even think of a decent threat that was likely to mean much to this honor-less mercenary. It was obvious that this meeting was no longer under his control.

"You have your three days Major. If you are still on Hamano after that you will be detained as a possible spy. I shall remember you Major Linna."

"Every time you use one of our many products I hope," replied John. Without another word the Tai-sa withdrew from the room.

Basem immediately jumped up from his seat and yanked John up out of his for a manly hug. John had never been much for such displays but the culture on Hamano involved a lot of such displays. John had managed to learn to deal with the double cheek kisses popular on several worlds around his so hugging wasn’t that bad by comparison.

"That was wonderful my friend," exclaimed Basem as he stepped back and allowed John some breathing room. "You saved Chu-i Fujiwara’s ‘Mech and smartly maneuvered that madman into your trap. I must admit, you had me fooled and on the edge of my seat."

A sneaky suspicion slipped into John’s head that maybe the Emir – or at least his son – had a bit more involvement with the protest movement than he had though. Not that it mattered. He would no more have acted against Kurita loyalist citizens for the Emir than he would against protestors for the Combine.

"Well, I was very clear with your father that we would only act against invaders when we drafted the contract," shrugged John. "As to the Kintaro – it broke down all on it’s own."

"Excuse me Major," said Fujiwara as she rose, "but is it true that my Kintaro is currently non-functional?"

John glanced at his digital pad. He could see that a reply message had just arrived from his chief tech.

"Yes mam," he responded. "I’m afraid that it will be out of service for a while."

Exactly why it would be down he didn’t know yet. He’d have to ask the Chief what he had done later.

Naoko smiled faintly and saluted him.

"Although I expect that I will have to give it up eventually, I thank you and your staff for your earlier help. The Tai-sa will make trouble for you if he can, so be cautious. Now I imagine that duty calls and I must go see what the Tai-sa would have me do with myself."

Bowing to each of the three men she also left the room. The energy surge that John had felt after foxing the Tai-sa dropped away as he watched the Chu-i depart. John got to leave the man behind in three days. She was stuck here with Yamoto who would likely spend his anger toward the Warders on her and the Emir.

"Chu-I," he called to her just as she reached the door. She paused to look back. "Look, uh…don’t let him get to you. Tomorrow always brings a new opportunity right?"

Again the very faint smile from her.

"That is not exactly how the saying goes, but yes – tomorrow may offer different choices than today did."

Then she slipped quietly out the door.

The Emir tipped his chair back and rested his feet up on the conference table. Doing so revealed that he was wearing a pair of golfing pants beneath. "Well my friend, it looks as if our relationship may not be as mutually beneficial as we had both thought. You are a man of his word and a man of honor though, and I feel enriched for having met you."

"And I have been pleased to have met you and your son as well. I am very sorry that we will not be here if your raiders return."

Emir Dhafar waved John’s remarks off with one hand.

"Do not fear Major. Allah wills as he wills. Perhaps if the Combine focuses more resources here the raiders will go elsewhere. Who knows? Perhaps the Clans have already sacked whatever world the bandits hail from. You had to deal with the evil of the moment. Do not berate yourself about evils that may never be. Tell me Major – do they have golf on your world? My son and I were going to jet over to Sheik Ahmed’s today before all this unpleasantness began. There will still be time for a quick nine holes if you would care to join us. There are still a few particulars I would like to discuss with you."

John thought it over quickly. There was much to do before departure, but it wouldn’t exactly be polite to turn down the Emir’s invitation.

"If you can find me a set of clubs I think I can manage to smack a little white ball around a fairway. I just need to put in a call to my people and let tell them to take down the saunas and start picking up their toys so we can go home."

"Excellent," beamed the Emir. "Most excellent."





"Bifrost" Combat Communications, Information & Control Vehicle

Dhafar Industrial Compound

Jeddah City, Hamano, Draconis Combine

04 March 3052

John double timed across the thirty meters distance between the open DropShip ramp and the large squat wheeled vehicle that served as the Warders’ mobile control center. Most of the unit’s equipment had already been stowed away on the Baltic Serenade. Just before lift-off tomorrow the CCIC vehicle and their ‘Mechs and tanks would be taken aboard leaving only a few open storage collars within the Serenade’s bays.

The situation in Jeddah had deteriorated quickly. Although Tai-sa Yamoto hadn’t acted against the small protest movement in Jeddah yet, there were reports of clashes between DCMS security forces and protestors in the capitol city. Warder techs had been ordered out of the Combine ‘Mech facilities and the unit’s personnel effectively confined to the Dhafar Industrial compound nestled within the city near the ocean. At least Yamoto’s techs had not been able to revive the mysteriously ailing Kintaro of Chu-i Fujiwara. Master Chief Tech Harding had privately guaranteed his Major that until John gave the said-so the Kinaro wasn’t going anywhere. The stripped down DCMS support unit lacked a heavy lifting vehicle capable of moving the 55 ton ‘Mech and Yamoto certainly wasn’t going to ask to borrow one of the Warder’s. While the Emir’s corporation happened to own two industrial construction vehicles that could do the job – but both had suddenly suffered mysterious engine failures very recently. Oddly, an exact date when the repairs would be completed was still "unavailable". So the Kintaro sat in the makeshift DCMS hanger. John had yet to tell Naoko about the tinkering however.

He had been trying to come up with a scenario that would appease Yamoto and keep Naoko from being dispossessed of her ‘Mech but nothing had jelled in the last two days. The Warder’s had an unassigned 30 ton Hermes II he had briefly considered using as some sort of concession prize but three things stopped him. First, technically the ‘Mech belonged to the Warders and not him personally so it seemed unfair to his people to just give it away. Second, there didn’t seem to be a reasonable way to work such a deal. (Here Yamoto, take this Hermes II and we’ll undo the illegal tampering so your Lieutenant that I hardly know can keep her Kintaro O.K. ?) Heck, would Naoko even go for such a move? So far she hadn’t violated her orders, John had simply made it impossible for her to comply. Two days after his impulsive move he was having serious second thoughts.

The last reason was the "accidental" death of the ex-Governor in a boating accident before he could return to Luthian. There appeared to be something going on within Combine politics that Governor Hedark had been aware of when he blocked delivery and kept the war equipment out of Yamoto’s and Vederman’s hands. John had thought that politics were played tough in the League but it seemed that Hedark had paid for his dissent with his life. John wasn’t going to give new Governor the time of day much less a BattleMech.

Adding to his worries had been the lack of a JumpShip. Their DropShip could lift them off plant but without one of the specialized ships that "jumped" through space via a Kearny-Fuchida drive to attach to they couldn’t leave the planetary system. Staying was not an option. He had little doubt that Yamoto would try to arrest him and that the Warders would resist. But through the combined effects of a good number of high priority messages hyper-pulsed from the ComStar facility, enough C-Bills to buy a decent car on most planets, and some plain old luck John had managed to line up a JumpShip that would detour from it’s intended route to pick them up. He didn’t even want to think about what the ride itself was going to cost.

Or at least he thought he had lined up a jump-ride. His Executive Officer Osmo Woods had just summoned him to the secure confines of Bifrost One to discuss what he would only call "a space matter" on the comm-line. Woods had been Mil-Intel with the legendary Wolves Dragoons before immigrating to the League and joining the Warders two years ago. Considering that the most advanced and secure com equipment on this entire planet belonged to them it seemed like overkill to insist on talking within the confines of the CIC vehicle. But Woods had mastered his art with the Dragoons and John had learned to trust the man’s insights. John sincerely hoped he wasn’t about to learn something drastic about JumpShip scheduling.

The huge armored trailer always seemed cramped inside as it was stuffed with various equipment and monitors. John found it more cramped than usual as all three of Osmo’s Command / Communications team were present as well as the four person corporate security consultant team that had joined the trip. The consultants were not part of the Warders but from one of John’s subsidiary companies. They had all worked with Osmo before however and often served as the unofficial intelligence gathers when with the Warders.

Captain Woods adhered more strictly to traditional military discipline than most of the ‘local’ Warders. He pulled himself to Dragoon regulation attention and held a perfect salute until John returned it.

"Sir, we have inbound DropShips to report," Woods announced.

Automatically John gave the "At ease" command that he knew the Captain would wait for before becoming less formal. Then John moved to where he could see the tracking projection the others were all looking at. It currently showed a 3D image of Hamano with one red blip very near the planet, a second some ways out and a red vector arrow with the numbers along it. Two blue vector bars with numbers indicated the direction of JumpShips.

"Looks like this little system just got pretty crowded. All right Osmo, what do we have?" asked John.

The Captain indicated the first red blip.

"This is an unidentified DropShip that appeared several hours ago. Hamano doesn’t have a full array of space sensors so it wasn’t picked up until short range sensors on one of the moons spotted it. The satellite we placed in orbit on arrival is gyro-synched over this island and mainly looks down so it can’t really tell us much unless the DropShip runs under it. However friends in Hamano Space Control have leaked to us that this DropShip hasn’t answered any hailing calls and it’s emissions match those of the craft used in earlier raids in this area. We believe that it moved into the planet’s orbit path a few weeks ago and only recently undertook a high G push to close on the planet."

John took advantage of a pause in Osmo’s report to ask a quick question.

"What brings that conclusion?"

Woods pointed at one of the blue arrows.

"This indicates a Jumpship that is sitting at a pirate point. Once the incoming DropShip was spotted the outer sensor array made a full sweep and found it. It looks like the collector sails are pulled in, so we assume it is charged and ready to jump. In past attacks the raiders always jumped immediately upon return to their JumpShip. The scenario that fits our best current data is that they jumped to a pirate point well away from the planet, taking advantage of the poor sensors of Hamano to hide themselves and collect the energy needed for a new jump. The DropShip then coasted into position at low G and kept itself on minimal power to reduce the chance of being spotted. Once the planet closed the distance itself the DropShip started a high G run at the edge of close sensor range on the assumption it would soon be spotted anyway.

"Hamano Space Control picked it up four hours ago. Depending on how soon it decides to start braking and where it goes, planet fall will occur in about two hours. Based on transmissions captured from a raid six months ago we have designated the DropShip as the Magnolia, an old Fortress class DropShip that is listed as lost in the Periphery 80 years ago in Jayne’s List of DropShips."

"And the other ships?" asked John.

"A Combine JumpShip at the zenith point and an inbound Union class from it. Both vessels were expected and have been communicated with Space Control. The Union carries follow-up support for Yamoto but as this planet sits over six days from zenith at 1G that Union will get here long after the raiders are gone. The second blip is the outbound DropShip that originally brought Yamoto here. It’s already over two days away and is bound for the DC JumpShip."

John stared intently at the display even though there was nothing more it would tell him. Mainly it gave his eyes something to look at while his mind sifted the alternatives.

"Well, unless the Magnolia tries to set down on top of us or a Combine base it’ll land unopposed. Hamano has no fighters or space defense platforms to attack it with and I’m not going to throw the Serenade against that thing. The last three raids consisted of six ‘Mechs with four APCs for support. If the DCMS will play ball with us we can easily kick them off this island if they land here. I’ll get in touch with their command and see what they want to do. Anything new about changes in raider strength?"

Osmo looked to one of subordinates. She swiveled her chair to better address the others.

"In it’s original configuration the Fortress class carried 12 ‘Mechs, 12 heavy vehicles, and 3 infantry platoons. It also sported an artillery cannon for ground support. There’s no way to tell how much modification it has undergone or it’s operational status. Converted mainly for ‘Mech carrying it could easily hold 16 and maybe even 24 depending on mass. We know that at least some of the bay space is set up for vehicles from the APCs however. Analysis of salvage records from previous raids indicates they may have added two more ‘Mechs if they have the pilots. A report of observed forces is filed for review."

"Thanks," nodded John to the commo tech. "O.K., let’s go to DefCon 3. Get me a secure line to DCMS command and get the Emir on the line as well. "

A half hour later John sat dejectedly within the small sound-proofed cabin inside Bifrost that he had been making his calls from. Yamoto had curtly informed him that the Warders were expressly forbidden from any combat operations on or about the planet. He had also expressly forbidden Emir Dhafar or anyone else public or private from employing the Warders for a short term defense contract. The DCMS forces were all being withdrawn to defend desalination plants or Combine compounds. While the ample civil defense tunnels under Jeddah would effectively curtail civilian casualties the raiders were being given carte blanche to shoot and loot the place.

Current information indicated that the island Jeddah occupied was the likely landing zone. There where only three things of note on this island. Jeddah city and it’s surrounding farm systems at this end, the official "space port" at the other end, and a mining operation roughly in the center of the island. At cruising speed the average medium ‘Mech could cross the island in a bit over four hours. If the Warders loaded up and lifted within the next hour or so they could easily avoid the invading DropShip and head out to where their jump out was scheduled to appear in five days. John banged his hand down on the counter in frustration. The common sense thing to do was bug out. But he couldn’t bring himself to make that order.

Naoko Fujiwara sat in the dim cockpit of her Kintaro. Through the viewport she could see her two techs hunched over a computer monitor as they went over the same chnical data for the fifth time. The 55 ton Kintaro’s fusion reactor would fire up and the sensors would come on line. She could target the torso mounted weapons. But the multi-ton gyros and the sophisticated neural feedback system that allowed the human looking BattleMech to balance and move refused to cooperate. Naoko thought she could move the arms, but feared that doing so would unbalance the machine and send it crashing to the ground. Hers was really the only effective ‘Mech of her lance. The other three were older Urbanmechs – a design that resembled walking domed trash cans with weapons slapped on the sides. Their effectiveness was not well respected among most Mechwarriors. Her crippled Kintaro had been gifted to her Grandfather for gallant action during the War of 3039 and piloted by her father before being passed on to her. Now under his command it could not perform it’s duty. She felt that the great machine wept silently somewhere deep within.

The three Urbanmechs had been ordered to take up a defensive position at the water desalination plant at the very tip of the island. The Tai-sa was leaving Jeddah undefended. Revenge for his loss of face with the Emir and the Warder’s perhaps? Punishment for allowing protests? Either way such action was without honor. As DCMS members they had all sworn to protect Draconis Combine citizens.

With resignation she keyed the command circuit of her communications consul.

"This is Chu-i Fujiwara reporting to Defense Command."

She was surprised to hear Yamoto’s voice answer.

"Where you successful in repairing your ‘Mech Chu-i ?"

"No Tai-sa," she replied wearily.

"Very well then. Send the techs to the bunker," replied Yamoto.

"And my orders Tai-sa?"

"You? You have failed the Emperor by allowing the protest movement to rise and you fail your duty now by allowing your ‘Mech to fall into disrepair. You are worthless Chu-i Fujiwara and will not claim the title Busosenshito again. Do whatever you want Chu-i as long as you do not interfere with the rest of our forces."

"Understood sir." Replied Naoko. She keyed her external speakers and told the two techs to head for cover. With reluctant nods and waves toward her cockpit far above they indicated their understanding and left the hanger.

That was that then. She was to be stripped of her lance command and of being a MechWarrior. The neurohelmet sagged heavily on her shoulders as she banged her fist on the control panel before her in frustration. She should probably climb down out of the ‘Mech and go find a shelter or something. But she couldn’t bring herself leave the Kintaro alone.


Standing in lose ranks before a lowered ramp from the DropShip Baltic Serenade were the 184 men and women of the Suomi Warders present on Hamano. The small DropShip crew and a score of civilian employees were present as well. John stood on an ammo crate at the top of the ramp so he could see everyone and they could see him.

"Traditionally the Warders have not used a unit vote to decide which missions to accept. But by its nature this situation has become a volunteer only mission."

He paused as a woman dressed only in the working uniforms of a MechWarrior -shorts, a tank-top and combat boots- stepped forward from her group below. The sandy haired, green-eyed MechWarrior was First Lieutenant Gracie Aukland, the lance leader of his ‘Mech unit and pilot of the Warders’ heaviest BattleMech.

"Sir, Mother Goose and Granny volunteer for duty sir! And unless I don’t know a kangaroo from a kiwi fruit the rest of ‘Stalker Lance volunteers with me. If they know what’s good for them anyway."

The other three MechWarriors started to drift forward and chime in but John waived them off.

"Goose, it is traditional to let the CO lay out the situation and explain the dire risks before volunteering."

Lt. Aukland saluted smartly. "Sorry sir, I withdraw my volunteering until after your speech sir." She took an exaggerated step backward as light laughter rippled through the gathering.

John smiled briefly as well, but the seriousness of the situation fell back in on him.

"I’m sure you all know the basics of our situation. No contract, no pay, and we’re being kicked off planet. However, the raiders we were originally here to chase away have arrived and are now on planet. They touched down at the space port on the other end of this island and shot up the place. They’re on their way here to shoot up Jeddah next. They have more forces than expected. Our eye in the sky has identified eight ‘Mechs that shot up the space port and now march this way. Six are definitely our previous raiders. They consist of four lights and a medium lance anchored by an 80 ton Victor. They left their ground troops and APCs to secure the space port. What’s very worrisome is that a second eight ‘Mechs waited for the first eight to secure the landing field then sprinted into a hanger under ECM. We know there’s eight through an eye-witness report sent in by a police officer that hid in an office and called what he saw. We sort of high- jacked his report from the local comm net.

"You all know what we’re packing today. Four ‘Mechs, four battle tanks and four hover-tanks. Plus my command ‘Mech and our three infantry platoons. There’s also a couple of movable static defense launchers and other assorted small stuff. We’re all wired with the best gear in the Inner Sphere and we’ll have the advantage of defending. If they hit us with all 16 ‘Mechs though….it probably won’t work out that well for us.

"The DCMS commander on planet has ordered us not to engage and will not commit their forces to defend Jeddah. We could probably either leave or just hop to another island and the raiders would let us go. But something about just letting those pirates casually march in here to shoot and loot doesn’t sit right with me. Weather we win or lose, many people would say that we spilt our blood for nothing if we fight today. This isn’t even our star nation much less our planet. But if enough of you want to take on the raiders – then we’ll show them what the Warders do to pirates . No one that elects to sit this one out will suffer any consequences from me or the Warders. Frankly, I don’t really have a compelling reason to ask you to follow me on this one."

Mother Goose stepped forward again.

"Sir, may I ask a question?"

"Shoot Goose," nodded John.

"Is your speech done now sir?"

"Yes, I suppose it is."

"Then I say that we can’t just let scumbags like these raid at will. It just isn’t civilized. So now I officially re-volunteer to scorch some pirate tail feathers sir. "

To a man and woman the entire ‘Mech team of pilots and techs stepped forward behind their lance leader. Their voices rang out nearly in unison.

"Sisu Sir !"

The ‘Mech folks happened to have gathered at one end of the lose formation. From the next group next to them stepped Lieutenant Ben Runeberg of the tank lance.

"The Rough Riders are ready to thunder on their parade too," he added to the Mech team’s pledge.

"Sisu Sir !" rang out from the tankers and their tech team.

Lieutenant Jeff Kyynkynen stepped up from the next group down.

"Mosquito Lance is with you Major."

"Sisu Sir !" chorused the hover lance team.

Next stood the three infantry platoons. Karl Fosters, the Lieutenant First Grade that headed the infantry company, stood his ground to one side of his unit. "First Platoon, your response," he barked.

In perfect unison all 28 troopers of 1st stepped forward as one. Their Sergeant turned her head 45 degree to look squarely at her infantry officer and held her salute to him.

"First Platoon, Snow Hunters !," rang her voice.

"Sisu Sir !" they called back as one powerful voice.

By unit and exactly as first platoon had the other two chimed in.

"Second Platoon, Roughnecks !."

"Sisu Sir !" came the roar.

"Third Platoon, Guardians ! ,"

"Sisu Sir !"

Lieutenant Fosters saluted his sergeants who lowered theirs in return, then turned to salute and hold to the Major.

"First Company reports ready for battle Sir !"

John didn’t trust his voice to respond. He gave Fosters the best salute he could muster so that the ground commander could snap his arm back from the salute being held.

That only left the mixed assortment of supply, medical, communications and other non-combatants as the last group. Sergeant Harding stepped forward to speak for them.

"The ground pounders put on a hard act to follow; but we’re with you too Major."

What they lacked in uniformity they made up with passion as "Sisu Sir !" shouted the "admin" people.

Captain Jennifer Lars of the DropShip stepped forward.

"This ship doesn’t move until everyone is back on board and you give the say-so Major. We’re in with you too," she announced. Her crew gave a ragged but enthusiastic "Sisu Sir" call as well.

John viewed them all with fierce pride in his heart. The call of "Sisu Sir" had been the "can-do" of his world since it was first inhabited. Sisu was a Finnish term that had been adopted by the original mix of Scandinavian, North American and Austrialian/Kiwi settlers close to 800 years ago on John’s world. It didn’t really translate to English well but roughly meant a willingness to endure, to find a way, to fight even impossible odds or give one’s life for what one believed in.

There were moments in life that sometimes seem to stand still and last impossibly long. Times when it felt like all the powers of the universe had picked just then to focus their might on supercharging the atmosphere. The very air seemed to dance with the electricity of determination and spirit. A chill literally ran down John’s spine. This was just a small bandit encounter on the edge of nowhere – but at this moment it felt like an epic engagement which would decide some vast, unseen fate.

What does one say at the end of a moment such as this. Everything he thought of just seemed anti-climactic. They knew he was proud of them and that they had his thanks. Best just to harness the energy and get the ball rolling.

"Let’s do it then Warders. Get the lances formed over there on the quad. Section leaders, we meet in fifteen in Bifrost. Ground platoons grab every thing that goes boom and warm up your skimmers. We’ve got about two hours – let’s use them wisely."

Unnoticed in the shadows of an open vehicle bay some 200 meters away a skinny young man in a Dhafar Industries work-suit pulled out a small cellular comm unit and punched in a private number.

"This is Ali. Let his Lordship know immediately. The off-worlders have just decided to defend the city on their own."

After receiving confirmation from the party on the other end that his message was understood he folded the comm unit and slipped away into the darkness of the building.

John stood at the feet of his BattleMech and simply admired it for a moment as activity swirled around him in the DropShip’s ‘Mech bay. The huge war machine had what John considered to be the more graceful design lines of the golden era of Star League ‘Mechs and very strongly resembled a giant wearing a graceful suit of futuristic armor. The "helmeted" head held a large domed "face shield" of reflective gold colored material that both protected the cockpit lower down and housed powerful communications equipment and sensor arrays higher up. From the outside there was no indication of where the cockpit ended and the sensor array began. The business end of a medium output laser extended from the lower chin and resembled some sort of breathing apparatus to the untrained eye. It was one of two prototypes that the custom ‘Mech works had produced and was designed for a special role on the battlefields of the 3050s and beyond.

This was a new-type command BattleMech. The Inner Sphere had been looking for an edge against the superior range and targeting capability of the invading Clans. Analysis from many military think tanks showed that despite having a doctrine of combined arms use that mixed their frightening battle armored infantry with their powerful configurable Omni-Mechs; overall Clan units often failed to fight as cohesive units. They eschewed artillery or air support, almost never used armored vehicles in direct combat roles, and often would adhere to a strict single-combat systems where each MechWarrior picked an opponent and fired only on that one enemy until one of them was destroyed. Positive results in unit coordination from specially modified units such as the double cockpit Battle Master hinted that superior tactical coordination might be part of the edge the Inner Sphere needed. Starting from partial Lostech designs that had eventually filtered to various Free Worlds weapons manufacturers from an old Star League memory core which had been found the Gray Death Legion years before, John had worked off and on with the design team that had produced this modern marvel.

The CAM-A1 Camelot. John had originally wanted to name it after a mythical Finnish hero but the marketing department had convinced him that naming the new ‘Mech the Vainamoinen was a less than stellar idea. They were probably right – after all, almost nobody knew of the stories of the Kalevala while most of known space still knew something of the legends of King Author and Camelot.

The Camelot massed 55 tons, a balance point between the demands of speed and reaction verse armor and weaponry. It was also somewhat configurable. While not a true Omni-Mech such as the Clan’s fielded; several of the main secondary systems were installed in large internal bays in frameworks that could be entirely removed and replaced with a different framework holding something else. Extra power ports and mount points were sprinkled liberally within the structure of the ‘Mech to allow dissimilar parts to be attached. It’s weaponry mix was three medium lasers and one of the new model extended range PPGs. It mounted 9.5 tons of the higher tech, lower weight ferro-fibrous armor and four jump jets giving it the ability to cross terrain that might otherwise slow or stop the ‘Mech. With an eye toward mass production and providing extra space to counter the bulk of the extensive shielding an extra light fusion reactor required the Camelot’s interior structure was of normal metals rather than the lighter but difficult to manufacture Endo Steel.

It moved well, was well armored, but was a bit under-armed for a 55 ton combat ‘Mech. But this medium BattleMech mounted the specialized combat control computer systems that could make the sum of a lance more than it’s parts. Nearly five tons of sophisticated equipment took in real-time sensor feeds from other properly equipped units and displayed the info on the extra monitors of the enlarged cockpit. Two-way data was exchanged with a mobile command center as well to provide battlefield wide data processing. This allowed a commander to direct his forces and track the enemy real-time from the battle lines. While two-seat systems had existed for many years, this was a programming evolution to allow the data to be viewed and used effectively within a one-seat configuration.

Another asset of this advanced C3 system was the ability to actually calculate firing solutions and weapon trajectories by combing the sensor data of all units in the command link and feeding that data to the firing unit. A unit firing from long range on a hilltop could shoot into a brewing melee of closely engaged ‘Mechs with little fear of hitting a friendly target accidentally and with accuracy equal to the closest friendly unit to the chosen target. Such equipment had been available for many generations but it had rarely been used. The main complaint (other than cost) was the limited linking – usually only four units. As most Inner Sphere armies fought in the paired "wingman" formation of a four ‘Mech "lance" it cut lance effectiveness to have the lead one directing an engagement rather than pouring on their personal firepower.

Advanced programming allowed the Camelot to link four units to itself as well as link into the command trailer which had some 20 plus tons of similar equipment. In effect it the Warders fielded a five ‘Mech combat group similar to a Clan "Star" except John’s main role was engagement coordination rather than directly attacking. Thus they operated more like a "Lance plus One" than a "Star". The standard four vehicle lances of tracked and hover tanks they fielded were also equipped to be part of the system. Thus all twelve of their combat vehicles worked in pairs with the command staff in Bifrost to provide strategic information and coordination while John was free to roam in his Camelot to provide tactical direction at the point of attack.

Of course if the enemy figured out that one particular ‘Mech was coordinating the fight they would likely try very hard to shoot that ‘Mech into little pieces. Thus the Camelot also carried the latest in ECM equipment to make it harder to deduce what it was capable of as well as harder to track and hit. As a hole card, the Camelot was equipped with the special triple-strength myomar "muscles" that actually grew stronger when heated. If an enemy units swarmed around the Camelot it could fire and move even while over-heated and even gain a little speed and extra hitting power if direct melee was called for.

John rode the lift up to the docking clamp near the base of his ‘Mech’s head and climbed through the hatch into the cockpit. Like all MechWarriors he wore very little beyond a cooling vest when piloting because of the great amount of heat that a BattleMech generated while fighting. His leuko went into a special compartment in the side of his command couch so it couldn’t bounce around the cockpit and injure him. While many ‘Mech cockpits ranged from cozy to downright claustrophobic, John’s was fairly spacious. Extra monitor screens arced somewhat behind him and his seat could actually slide back to allow better access to the rear (lesser needed) monitors. There was even a jump seat that folded out from the back of his and an extra coolant jack for a second vest to be plugged into to. Anyone sitting there would be riding backwards however and personally John had hated it the one time he tried it.

After attaching the thin sensors that measured muscle movement to his legs and arms with adhesive John pulled on the heavy weight of his nuerohelmet. The helmet actually allowed the pilot’s own sense of balance and spatial relationship to be partially transferred to the BattleMech. This was the main reason the giant machines moved so fluidly and could carefully pick their way through rough terrain or even punch or kick an enemy in close combat. With some practice the system even allowed ‘Mechs to pick up objects without automatically crushing them. Admittedly, many ‘Mech designs did away with the complicated hand and lower arm actuators and effectively turned a BattleMech’s arms into weapon pylons. But John had always preferred actual hands on his ‘Mechs. He’d even convinced Aukland to let the techs retrofit a custom hand onto one arm of the Awesome she piloted.

Hooking everything up and double checking his restraints he fired up his reactor and started keying in the security codes that would wake the Camelot. Like many ‘Mechs his had a voice recognition module installed keyed to a specific phrase. He smiled at the irony of his key phrase – one that had been part of his grandfather’s favorite saying.

"Money for nothing."

"Reactor engaged. Communications and weapons systems on line. All systems nominal," replied the young female voice of his on-board computer. The system would play specific messages based on certain programmed events. Some pilots didn’t like the distraction but he found the reminders and warnings helpful when his mind was watching the overall battle or concentrating on gunnery. As he moved the Camelot out of the DropShip he idly wondered what his ex-wife would think if she knew that his BattleMech’s voice was a digital imprint of their daughter’s. Maybe it would seem weird to others to have a nine year old girl giving battle updates but John found it a voice that he heard even when deeply concentrating as well as a constant reminder why he needed to stay sharp and stay alive.

The Warders had had many weeks to lay out various defensive plans and run them through the simulators. They were facing one ‘Mech force advertising their approach vector toward the "top" part of the city and a second that was meandering to where it might or might not attack from just south of the "middle" part of the city. Thus the Warders had split their force as well. First infantry platoon was specially trained in anti-‘Mech combat and often practiced with the ‘Mech lance so those two units would go set up ambush in the upper city. Second infantry was also ant-‘Mech but usually practiced with the Star Destroyer tracked tanks and would stay with them. As the ‘Mechs left the tanks would remain near the DropShip so they could either respond to the second ‘Mech group or move to assist the Snow Stalkers in their green and blue ‘Mechs.

The fast moving hover tanks had already exited the city to the south and would be used to swing around the outskirts on either a targeting run for the long range missile attacks of the Star Destroyers or for flanking attacks if only one ‘Mech force attacked Jeddah. They were not heavily armed or armored and would not last long in a prolonged engagement in the city streets where their speed advantage would be hampered. Third infantry platoon was heavy weapons based and armed to defend the Bifrost command vehicle. Third even had some one shot SRM missile systems on portable trailers and two mobile remote controlled pulse laser turrets.

John’s Camelot cleared the bay ramp and moved toward the four waiting ‘Mechs. Each was painted in a diagonal jagged stripe pattern sometimes called ‘tiger’ or ‘jungle’ pattern of dark blue and dark green. As camouflage it was absolutely useless in the desert terrain outside the city. But until things got really up close and personal BattleMech combat was based on radar and sensor contact rather than eyeballing the enemy. In a close range knife-fight inside the city the uniform color scheme would help tell friend from foe while the jagged nature of the design would make it more difficult to identify specific ‘Mech parts or even facing at a glance. Standing together to the right were a pair of the newer BattleMechs fielded by the Inner Sphere. These were second generation Bushwackers. They were very close to being Inner Sphere OmniMechs and the next generation going on-line soon promised to be so. The Bushwackers were "chicken walkers" whose knees flexed the opposite direction from a human’s. The body section was long and narrow with a cockpit that was mounted on the forward top section of the main body rather like an AeroSpace fighter. The arms were modifiable weapon mounts that lacked hands. The legs and body configuration gave the 55 ton ‘Mech a fairly low profile as it barely cleared 12 meters at the top of the back.

Next to Granny the Awesome waited a 40 ton ‘Mech that was a Vulcan by virtue of it’s original chassis but had been heavily revamped. John had picked it up cheap on Solaris from it’s owner after it gotten shot up during it’s first use in a free-for-all session. Originally a modern VT-5M model, this Vulcan had the same thin rounded torso on twin cylinder hips with a spherical head mounted between shoulders that "v"ed up from the main body as other Vulcans.

Internally though, this one had been drastically altered to be the lance’s "scout" ‘Mech. It sported ECM gear to hide itself as well as the Beagle Active Probe system to better spot enemy units. Plus the special C3 unit of course. The original jump jets remained for agility. In a major refit an extra light engine was installed which allowed armor protection to be upgraded. The original anti-personnel flamer and machine gun had been pulled on Solaris for arena combat. An all energy compliment of one large laser and three medium lasers filled the weapon mounts – plus a small laser tacked on by Warder techs mainly because there was a little room left and they happened to have one literally lying around the shop. While some might feel a Vulcan was a bit slow for a scout role, John had never been too keen on light 20 or 30 ton ‘Mechs and had built his unit accordingly. They had the hovertanks if a quick, light scouting trip was required.

John keyed his comm system on the channel that would transmit only to the other ‘Mechs.

"Everyone showing green?" he asked.

"Mother Goose is ready to do some cooking," replied Gracie from the Awesome.

"Kissa, ready to pussyfoot around sir." That was Vilho in the Vulcan. (Kissa translating Cat). He was Goose’s wing ‘Mech.

"This is the Lawman. Ready to lay down the law with the bandits," replied Sven from the Mech John always thought of as Bushwacker One.

"Ranger here and ready for danger," came Franklin Parks’ voice from Bushwacker Two.

John smiled to himself. Comm tags, or battle names as some preferred to call them, where fairly common among MechWarriors and AeroJocks. Sometimes you picked our own and sometimes somebody else managed to pick it for you. Every time he called for a board check they always had some little statement to liven their report. Of course he could simply look at their systems readings on his own monitors but such posturing was part of the espirit de corps of being a Mechwarrior. While he didn’t really understand what drove the infantry, MechWarriors he understood only too well. He switched to the task force channel that would broadcast to the troopers as well as the ‘Mechs.

"Ready to go Snow Hunters?" he asked.

"First Platoon reports full strength and ready to go Sir. Skimmers fully loaded and operational. Both tractor-trailer rigs prepped and ready to roll"

That was the ever efficient voice of Sergeant Samantha "Sammi" Cascade. John didn’t recall ever having heard her crack a joke. But then the non-com officers didn’t treat the officers with the same familiarity that officers shared amongst themselves. For all John knew she was the life of the party when no-one wearing anything more weighty than Sergeant stripes was around.

"Roger Snow Hunters. Snow Stalkers report ready to go. Head on out Sergeant," John told her. Then he switched back to the ‘Mech’s tactical frequency. "This is the Duck and I’m all green. Sounds like we’re ready to go set up camp. Waypoints are on your systems. Kissa take point. Let’s move ladies and gentlemen."

The pirates were advancing down the main (read ‘only’) highway into Jeddah. After cutting through the agricultural belt that surrounded Jeddah the highway split into two wide multi-lane avenues that entered the city proper. The founders of Jeddah had elected to maximize the useful soil for food, thus the city was comprised mainly of tall steel and cement multi-story structures. The Warders ‘Mechs set up with a pair hiding at intersections to the outside of each main avenue with John farther back and centered. They had all powered down their reactors for the moment. With the power off and their ‘Mechs hiding among the tall buildings the pirates wouldn’t detect them until visual contact occurred. First platoon had set up along the more eastern avenue near an intersection that had a subway access point. With their satellite providing a real-time feed they could watch the eight wireframes of the raiders getting closer on their displays. John could have even watch real-time video on one of his monitors if he had wanted to.

While the satellite wasn’t equipped to provide much more than infrared and visual signals the command team in Bifrost had long ago placed IDs on the invading ‘Mechs. They had simply zoomed in on them then matched the image to their database for the two ‘Mechs Captain Woods wasn’t able to identify from memory. The forward lance consisted of four light Battlemechs, not one over 30 tons. While no ‘Mech could be considered harmless, John figured that with tactical surprise his team should be able to knock out the smaller ‘Mechs quickly. If one or even two of them did happen to get away and sprint for the DropShip the defenses there should be able to handle that.

The second lance would be more trouble. It consisted of a 40 ton Assassin, 45 ton Wyvern, 55 ton Dervish and an 80 ton Victor. If John’s team could take out the scout ‘Mechs quickly and without suffering much damage the Warders would have an advantage in weight, numbers and weapons over the second pirate lance. But victory always had a price and slugging it out with the second lance was going to beat up John’s team somewhat. The big trick was going to be to win with enough armor left to be useful if that second attack group hit from the middle. Ammo shouldn’t be a factor for his team as the Snow Stalker lance was configured mainly with energy weapons and the Bushwackers carried extra ammo for their advanced LBX-10 autocannons. John rolled his shoulders around to stretch them out and try to break up some of his tension. Waiting was always the hardest part of an engagement and that’s all there was to do for about the next ten minutes.

Captain Woods voice suddenly broke the silence of John’s cockpit.

"Duck, this is Bifrost One."

"Go Bifrost One." John’s reply was automatically returned on the private command channel Woods was using for this contact.

"I have Emir Dhafar patched on line from a cell call. He wants to talk to you."

"We’ve got some time until contact, go ahead and put the Emir on."

"Rodger Duck, hold a moment."

A few seconds later the Emir’s familiar voice sounded in John’s headphones.

"Hello my friend. It seems that you will soon be fighting, yes?"

"Yes sir," John replied. "We didn’t take too kindly to their uninvited visit. I’m afraid we’re going to cause some collateral damage with this dust-up though."

"That is regrettable. But these raiders have shown that they destroy much during their visits anyway. I would prefer to only have to rebuild my city once."

"We certainly plan to put them out of business Emir."

"Listen my friend. I know you lead from the front and time is short. I called because there are men on their way to your DropShip. They are friends and will help you if you will let them approach."

"Did you catch that Bifrost?" asked John.

"We’re on it. Lieutenant Fosters is stepping out to look for them now," replied Woods.

"Our thanks Emir," said John. "We’ll take any help we can get."

"God be with you then John Linna. We will speak again when you are in orbit and on your way home."

"Good luck to you too Emir Dhafar."

God, Allah, Budda, or even Odin. John never turned away any help or blessing. And thinking of ‘help’ he adjusted his map scale so that he could see if the DCMS ‘Mechs had changed their minds. Nope, all three of them were still sitting at the water plant to the south.

He had to resist a strong urge to spang himself in the helmet with his palm. He’d totally forgotten about the Chu-i’s ‘Mech. It must be shut down right now and it couldn’t have been moved anywhere. John keyed his private channel to Osmo again.

"Bifrost One this is Duck."

"Go Duck."

"This is ears only."

"Hold…..O.K., I’m in the sound room."

"Find the Chief and tell him fix that Kintaro immediately."

Wood’s voice sounded dubious. "Are you sure? After two days the DC techs couldn’t get it on line."

"I’m sure. I had him sort of ….disable it for me."

"Say again please?" The surprise in Woods’ voice was quite clear. Sometimes John wished he had lower quality communications gear.

"You heard me right. When Yamoto announced he was taking it from Fujiwara I sent a quick message to the Chief from my PDA telling him to turn it off. It was stupid of me I know, now we’ve sabotaged DCMS equipment. I had hoped to find some way to correct the situation but never got around to it. As far as I know Fujiwara isn’t aware that we messed with it. But she might be needing it before we load up and leave the planet."

Woods actually laughed into the com-link. "I have to admit, I would never had thought you capable of such deviousness."

"You obviously have never seen my tax returns."

"I’ll get the Chief on it right away Duck…..hold a minute…..I’ve got Fosters waiting for you on the main channel."

"Put him through," agreed John.

"This is Fosters, Sir," came the ground commander’s voice. "I’ve got about 90 men from the dissolved local militia and the police force here offering to help sir. But they don’t have anything big enough to dent a ‘Mech."

"Did you have something in mind Lieutenant?"

"Yes Sir. As you know we’re practically a mobile arms show. I’d like to give them the one shot launchers and a pile of satchel charges Sir. Oh, and maybe some high caliber assault rifles."

John tried to smile and frown at the same time. He hadn’t been aware that they were a mobile arms show. Somebody must have been stockpiling small arms and that someone was probably named Fosters. Still, split into three groups or so and armed with rocker launchers they could put some hurt on a ‘Mech foolish enough to get close.

"If you think you have time to train them you can give them whatever you and the Captain think is appropriate. I’ll leave their deployment to you two."

"Understood sir, Fosters out."

John checked his main engagement plotting display again. The main force had slowed and was still several minutes away. The scout lance had moved farther ahead then the others. But the other eight unknown ‘Mechs were now charging hard across the desert. They would hit several minutes after the first group engaged John’s ‘Mechs. He could see the icons representing the four Star Destroyer tanks moving in the direction of Raider Force Two. As his Grandmother was fond of saying; things were about to get interesting.

Master Chief Harding slammed the wheeled utility car to a stop with the screech of tires and the smell of over-heated brakes. Grabbing his small tool kit he launched himself out of the door and made for the open hangerbay where he could see the Kintaro sitting forlornly with its head slumped forward resembling a dejected armored warrior.

Fumbling with his comm-box in his haste he finally keyed it to the tactical frequency of the DCMS lance and spoke into it.

In the dark interior of her BattleMech Naoko’s head snapped up as a voice she didn’t recognize called her name in English. "Hai, this is Fujiwara," she replied.

"It’s me, Chief Harding with the Warders. We met when you first had gyro difficulties a few weeks ago."

She blinked in surprise. She remembered the broad shouldered tech. "Why do you come? Hasn’t your unit lifted from Hamano yet?"

"Huh? Oh, no ma’am. We’re not lifting. We’re fighting. I’m here with the new chip for your ‘Mech."

Naoko’s surprise became deeper.

"Fighting? New chip?"

"Yes to both. Look ma’am, time’s running very short. Power up and lift the head while I move this companionway into place. The chip needs to go in the nuero-relays that are under an access panel in your cockpit floor. I’ll fill you in while I position the ladder."

New hope flared in her for a moment. "I will comply," she informed the tech as she matched action to words.

Harding heard the low whine as capacitors started to charge and myomer muscles flexed. He reached the companionway controls and started the access platform moving toward the Kintaro’s head.

"Basically the Major decided that we weren’t going to let the pirates raid this place without a fight. We just picked up a little ground support from the locals but as your DCMS pals aren’t coming to playtime it’s going to be tight. This new chip was ready this morning but I forgot about it because first I was loading our toys to leave then I was prepping them for combat. The shooting’s about to start but the Major sent me down here to make sure we got your ‘Mech up and running before…whatever happens, happens."

While she didn’t follow all of the Chief’s rapid-fire English colloquialisms, she did understand the main body of his statement. She felt the gentle nudge of the access platform bumping into place by the head hatch.

"Major Linna had you complete the chip fabrication even though the Tai-sa had ordered you not to touch this ‘Mech again?"

His voice sounded farther from the comm-box. He must be climbing the ladder while holding it in one hand she realized.

"Well, I guess you could say we kind of felt responsible. I’m almost at the hatch. You’ll need to step out onto the platform so I can get in there to work."

Naoko slipped out of her seat and squeezed around it to the rear of the small cabin. She hardly knew what to make of this sudden turn of events. Her Kintaro restored? The Warders fighting the raiders?

She swung the hatchway out.

"I thought that the Emir had been forbidden from hiring you?"

White teeth flashed in a wide smile as Harding swapped places with the DCMS MechWarrior and started to remove the hatch fasteners. "He was," replied the Chief without looking away from his work. "We just sorta decided we couldn’t just jump planet and leave the civies holding the bag. So we’re taking on the pirates as a freebie. Sorta crazy huh?"

Noako’s head bowed in shame for her unit. These mercenaries from a different nation understood bushido and guri better than the samurai that was supposed to be leading DCMS forces on Hamano. One of them had even left his post to repair a machine that may well prove their enemy at the end of the next day. Her oath to House Kurita and the Draconis Combine called for obedience of her superiors. Yet Kanrei Theodore Kurita, the very head of the DCMS, had repeatedly stressed the Busosenshito’s duty to the people of the DCMS.

"No," replied Naoko more to herself than to the Chief Tech. "It does not sound crazy to me at all."

Sergeant "Sammi" Cascade had a slight build and only stood about 166cm tall and weighed around 68 kilos but she often put men twice her mass to shame on long marches and had taken down many a challenger- male or female- in fighting matches both fair and foul. She simply refused to be intimidated by anything on two legs or four; animal, human or BattleMech. The group of mostly hard cases that comprised First Platoon was likely the best bunch of soldiers she had ever served with. While they weren’t trained to the level of the Inner Sphere’s elite commandos they were specialists at long range patrols and winter survival. The Snow Hunters were also trained anti-‘Mech troopers.

And they had simply the best tools to work with. Some of them would be seeing their first actual battle use in the next two minutes.

Sammi peered down again at the color LCD screen in her hands. It was wired to a finger sized camera lens that pointed down the street. Depicted on the unit was a small 20 ton ‘Mech named a Flea slowly walking down the deserted avenue towards where she and several other troopers hid in the stairwell of the subway entrance. The Flea was basically a pillbox on chicken legs. The heavy machine guns mounted on the side of it told her that this was one of the older models. She almost hated to waste their ambush on such a weak foe. If she was foolish enough to let it hose down her people with those MGs however that likely be her last mistake. The ballistic fabric and light armor panels of their combat suits would provide scant protection from the weapon fire of even the smallest ‘Mech weapon.

"Range between targets," she asked into her headgear as the vibrations from the oncoming BattleMech started to become noticeable in the concrete stairwell.

"The lead is still holding about a 300 meter distance over the trailing ‘Mech," reported the observer perched high in one of the buildings. When they had neared the city the ‘Mechs had fired on several buildings for no discernable reason. As they moved into the tall ones they had stopped firing to look more carefully for their prey. The prey was about to turn the tables.

The Flea clanged past the subway without noticing anything amiss. Truth be told, the lack of any civilians running around in panic had somewhat unnerved the pilot. The city seemed to be deserted. Sammi waited until it was close to the next intersection.

"Now – Now – Now ! Move it apes," she suddenly ordered.

Like a swarm of angry insects blue-green clad troopers came boiling out of the subway stairs and adjacent doorways. Most of them brought to bare shoulder fired missile launchers against the rear of the BattleMech before them. A few scattered several cake-box sized squares into the middle of the street instead.

"Steady…Fire!" came the order.

26 missiles blossomed from their launchers. The Flea pilot had no warning- no missile lock detection or power up notice – before the explosive projectiles rocked the ‘Mech violently. The deadly little flock scoured all of the armor from the left leg, penetrated and damaged the right arm-weapon housing and punched through the thin rear armor of the left back. Within the Flea pilot Ters only had time to scream in pain as feedback from his nuerohelmet actually singed his hair. The machine pitched forward and crashed to the ground as the MG ammunition in the holed back was cooked off by the missile explosions. Sammi would have loved to stay around and enjoy the festive sight of the sparks flying from the wounded ‘Mech’s back but she knew what coming next. She had her troopers running to the cover of a side street almost immediately after they had fired. The cake-boxes had already started to rapidly expand.

Trudging along behind the Flea, Ellie June looked up from studying the radar display of her Dervish in surprise as the multiple explosions occur in front of her. 200 meters down the road before her their lead ‘Mech had just exploded. It took a moment before she noticed the small figures of ground troops scurrying for cover down a side street. It looked like some had paused in the intersection to line up another shot. Ellie smiled grimly as she halted her Dervish and aligned both arms on the still figures. Those arms ended in short range missile launchers. Each spat two missiles while a pair of torso mounted medium lasers fired. Her targets were hovering on long range. One laser went high while the other went wide and melted a long line of windows. One of the missile flights did strike on target. Heat surged into the Dervish cockpit but it’s cooling heat sinks quickly lowered the temperature to normal.

Sammi counted her troopers as they ran past her then fell in behind the last one. At the intersection the inflatable decoys bravely held position until the missile flight obliterated them. It might had been a waste of decoys but they couldn’t have counted on knocking the Flea down in only one salvo. The shockwave made her stumbled and tripped up the trooper in front of her. She grabbed and righted the soldier and together the tumbled over the side of their waiting transport. As the hovering transports accelerated away Sammi looked back for the next part of the act.

There was the smell of burnt hair and roasted electronics in the Flea’s cockpit. Ters could taste blood in his mouth but somehow was still conscious after getting zapped by his helmet and then smashing front-first into the pavement. Warning tones shrilly wailed as he checked systems status. He knew he must be one lucky guy. Had he been carrying a full load of ammo it would have blasted through and likely taken out his reactor. Glancing up through what was normally the skyward viewport he could see down the avenue. A large cargo hauling truck had just pulled around the corner and was rolling toward him. There was, he realized with growing panic, no driver in it.

As the truck full of explosives was remotely detonated the shredded torso was actually pushed back toward the Dervish. The few unbroken windows within the area where shattered by the shockwave. As she watched the torso slide past behind them Sammi was very grateful for the sound dampening technology in their combat helms. That blast would have easily burst any eardrums unlucky enough to be within a block or so. The trooper she had helped pull into the flat-bed skimmer rolled over to look at her. It was Jenkins, the youngest member of the team.

"That was fun." He yelled enthusiastically. "Can we do another?"

Sammi only grinned and shook her head before rapping him sharply on the helmet.

John nodded in satisfaction as the Flea was destroyed. Bifrost team had located the Raider One’s tactical frequency several minutes earlier. It wasn’t even level-one scrambled. Thus John had been able to listen to the pirate leader Malkite order his light ‘Mechs into a rough V formation stretching across four streets, then send them a good 200 meters in front of his heavier ‘Mechs. Now John got to hear him now swear while demanding a report on the explosions.

"Ground pounders knocked down Ters with missiles then blew him away with a truck bomb," tersely reported the Dervish pilot. "But I wasted at least some of them."

"Damn," spat Malkite. "All ‘Mechs, shoot anything that moves and stay away from trucks. Jason you pus-head, take that Commando and drift left. See if you can spot the remaining ground troops. Mike and Max, shift one street left. Everyone keep sharp."

John keyed his own comm system on the command tac frequency.

"Sergeant Cascade, you’re going to flash past a Commando in a moment. Goose, you should have that Thorn about to cross in front of you. Watch it though Kissa, the Javelin has moved ahead of the Thorn on the outside and if shifts left at the next intersection will end up coming up behind you."

"We’ve got it scoped Duck," replied Aukland. "When I light up that Thorn Kissa will power up and cut off the Javelin. I’ll fall in to support him after finishing the Thorn."

John agreed with her plan. She was completely hidden in the "u" shaped courtyard of a highrise apartment. Kissa was just south, standing in the street next to the same complex. The Thorn was going to walk right by her while the Javelin was on a parallel course behind the building. Kissa wouldn’t get a free hidden shot off but the Awesome should make quick work of the much smaller Thorn then the two of them could finish off the Javelin. John realized it must be a nightmare for the pirates to be creeping through the buildings without knowing where or when a ‘Mech would appear and strike. Tough luck for them.

On his monitor he watched the icons of the trooper transports flash past the forward arc of the Commando. As expected, the raider ‘Mech never had a chance to fire. Curiously however, the pilot failed to report spotting the skimmers and turned to follow the general direction they had traveled.

"First Platoon, the Commando seems to be following you. Be aware that Raider Force spotted the truck before it blew and will fire on such vehicles at first contact."

"Understood Sir," came Sergeant Cascade’s reply.

In the back of the skimmer she thumped Jenkins on the helmet again.

"Hey kid, you’re in luck. It looks like we have another playmate."

"Goose" Gracie kept flicking her eyes between the monitor with the street overlay that showed her target’s position and the actual view out of her armored viewport. In just a few more seconds her victim would be walking into her sights.

"Come on bady, just a few more steps," she cooed. Then in triumph she laughed "Gotch’ ya".

Slapping on her main power switch, the ponderous Awesome lurched to life. The heads-up display flashed on, superimposing the target reticules for her three ER PPCs. At point blank range and dead in front of her all three overlapped and the targeting triangle was immediately red with a positive firing solution. Within the small 20 ton Thorn the pilot reacted swiftly when his sensors detected the other ‘Mech powering up. Looking out the side viewport the Thorn driver saw three big barrels pointed his way from less than fifteen meters away and decided this was no time for heroics. He hit the eject toggle at the same moment Goose squeezed her trigger.

Three bolts of blue-white high energy protons lashed from the Awesome to ravage the Thorn. One completly melted through the right arm. The small long range missile launcher that hung from that arm fell to the ground along with everything else from the shoulder joint down. Both of the other two blasts crashed into and through the left center torso. Armor melted and slagged while the internal support skeleton was blasted apart from the combined hit. As the Thorn designers had elected to store the LRM launcher’s ammunition in the torso the missile clusters detonated to add insult to injure. A cloud of dark smoke enveloped the Thorn as the CASE panels designed to contain and channel an ammunition explosion away from the ’Mech’s center did their job. But it was a moot point as the damaged BattleMech lurched sideways and came to a leaning rest against the opposite building.

Inside the Awesome Goose had her breath taken away as the high heat of discharging her weapons washed through her cockpit. She could feel the cooling effect of her vest laboring against the oven-like heat but ignored both as she prepared to follow up her weapon attack with a kick. The Thorn has lost one side but had an older style tall and heavy powerplant that did not extend into the torso sides. Her sensors showed that the smaller ‘Mech was still on line and operational. An instant before she kicked she caught sight of the other ‘Mech’s head area however. The raised foot of the mighty ‘Mech was set back upon the ground. She hadn’t seen a cockpit hit but obviously one of her weapons or a secondary explosion had nailed the head. Where armored viewports once existed was nothing but black smoke. Her sensors were not tracking an escape chair in the air.

Directly behind her but separated by twenty meters of building the Javelin stopped where it was as it registered both the Awesome’s power-up and Kissa firing up his Vulcan.

"Max…Max…are you there?" came a voice over the pirate’s channel.

"Give me a bleeping report," Malkite was calling at the same time.

"Can’t see him…oh my God, that’s an Awesome," cried the Javelin pilot as it’s computers made a tentative match to Goose’s energy emissions profile. Second ‘Mech, second ‘Mech! They’re going to box me. I’m out of here."

As the Javelin was already facing away from it’s comrades the panicky pilot elected to not waste any time turning around. As he carried jump jets he ignited the thrust ports and launched himself forward onto the top of a low storage building across the street from him. This whipped him past Kissa before he could bring any weapons to bare. The taller buildings Kissa stood between blocked line of sight to the Javelin. As the roof held on touchdown, for the moment the Javelin had jumped away from danger.

"Mike get back here you coward," the pirate leader was roaring into his comm as John trigged his own team’s circuit.

"Goose, you’ll never catch him. Kissa, stay with him and keep him away from the Serenade. If he tries to circle back to his friends see if you can snipe off a few shots. I’ll move over there to be Goose’s lance-mate for now."

With a jaunty "Roger, Duck," Kissa maneuvered around the corner and ignited his own jump jets in hot pursuit. Soon the two of them were playing a leap-frog game of keep-away that took them toward the city docks.

"Damn it, where’s that Jason kid?" demanded Malkite. None of his remaining raiders knew. "O.K., withdraw to point echo and regroup. We’ll slide west where we can see over the buildings and squash these insects."

It was tempting for John to taunt the pirate leader over their comm frequency but he knew better than to give away the tactical advantage. As he engaged his reactor and activated his ECM he checked his engagement display and saw that the Commando was indeed missing. He knew Cascade’s team was good but there seemed no way they could have taken it down in the past few minutes.

"Bifrost, did you track the Commando?"

"Afirmative," replied one of the other Bifrost staffers. John realized that his executive / intelligence officer must be busy with something else at the moment. "It shut down somewhere in sector charley seven sir. Smoke from burning buildings is blowing that way and is obscuring our sat based visuals sir."

That was bad luck with the smoke. It was downright odd for the Commando to shut down though. John keyed the ground frequency. "First platoon. That Commando is playing possum somewhere around grid charley seven. Go see what he’s up to."

"Find the Commando," confirmed Cascade’s steady voice. "Wilco, Sir.".

Captain Osmo Woods was staring intently at a monitor zoomed in to show the area around the approaching group of ‘Mechs that the Warders had tagged as Raider Two. They seemed to be an entirely different animal than Raider One. Painted a uniform tan and bearing no markings except being numbered one through eight, visual ID from the satellite showed them to be four 30 ton Spiders and four 75 ton Flashmans. Both groups were in a diamond formation with the Spiders 180 meters in front but traveling at the slower cruise pace of the heavier Flashman ‘Mechs. Both ‘Mech types mounted only lasers – which would eliminate the need for carrying ammo around in their support ship and make sure no spent shell casings got left behind that might be traced back to the manufacturer. While his team had been able to locate Raiders Two’s comm frequency, these raiders were using top grade scrambling. So far the Bifrost team had not been able to defeat it.

Woods had Mosquito Lance lurking behind a ridge line just out of estimated radar range of Raider Two’s lead element. Mosquito consisted of four 35 ton Lightning hovertanks. These particular units had been sold as surplus by ComStar and modified by the Warders. The medium grade pulse lasers mounted up front were kept but the single shot SRM launcher mounts were removed so that a NARC missile launcher with ammo and the command/communications/control equipment could be installed. (The lead Lightning only mounted one pulse laser so that the master replay unit could be squeezed in). The NARC missile carried a cluster of homing devices that could attach to a target then activate so that friendly missiles could achieve a better homing lock.

The Mosquito lance’s main combat role was to race in close to an enemy to attach NARC pods and provide ranging information through the C3 system so that the long range missiles of the Star Destroyer lance could rain destruction upon that enemy. With a flank speed of 184 kph they could close in fast. The biggest problem with the plan was that the Lightnings had not been designed to carry a turret. The NARC launcher had to be mounted where the old SRM launcher had been on the side, thus they fired to the right of the hovertanks. This required the Mosquitos to get close then break left to use the NARC.

Osmo saw that the heavy Star Destroyer tanks were in place. The ‘Destroyers were a new multi-role battle tank that was rolling off a DEW subsidiary assembly line. These 60 ton tracked MBT were built to keep on fighting when other vehicles would be looking to break off. The LRM 20 system had a whopping 30 salvos of ammunition when either 6 or maybe 12 was the norm. Backing up the long range missiles was a turret mounted ultra AC/5 auto-cannon with 40 rounds of ammo. When an enemy closed an SRM 4 in the body and medium pulse laser next to the AC/5 would come into play. They could take a pounding better than most ‘Mechs as they mounted 12.5 tons of armour plating. They had been modified to carry C3 computers as well, which had reduced missile loads for all of them – more so for the command tank carrying the master unit.

The trick would be to time the Lightning’s rush so that they emerged from the ridgeline and made their first run just as the ‘Destroyers came into firing range. Both tank units carried fusion engines so they would show up on the enemy scanner systems as quickly as a ‘Mech would. The display Woods studied showed (in various colours) the firing ranges and arcs of the destroyer tanks as well as circles for 10 seconds of movement at either cruise or flank speed for both friendly and enemy units. Likely sensor range for the enemy units was marked as well. Checking his calculations one last time Woods touched a spot on the screen with his electronic marking pen.

"Mosquitoes stand ready. On my mark make flank speed for the way point that I just transmitted. After your first pass swing over behind that hill to the left for cover and we’ll see how Raider Two responds. Rough Riders stand ready to power up and fire at my command. Mosquitos…three….two…one…mark !"

Captain woods closed his eyes for a quick moment and took a deep breath. With the Dragoons he had often been part of the information gathering and mission planning that put people in jeopardy but did not have the ability to affect a battle once it started. With the small units involved and the total communications that the Warders’ used he got to make real-time corrections and decisions. But that also meant that he got real-time feedback when things went bad. Glancing at the bank of monitors that showed vehicle and crew status for all thirteen Warder units Osmo wasn’t sure if being part of making the battle unfold was something he liked or hated.

In the modified Lightning dubbed the Brainiac by it’s crew Lieutenant Kykkhkynen gave his lance the go order and they thundered off leaving a plume of sand in their wake. He knew that their sudden appearance and closing speed would mean the enemy probably wouldn’t fire until just before or during their turn. As the human looking Spiders grew larger in front of them he wondered if they would try to pursue or not. The Spiders were very fast ‘Mechs with a top speed of around 130. They had a great jump capability so if they did pursue they might be able to jump to the top of the hill his lance would need to slow to curve around it. If they decided to charge the ‘Destroyer lance instead his hover lance might not be able to do much about it.

The Mosquitos were approaching in a "line abreast" formation. Saunders suddenly called from the right most Lightning – number four which the crew called the Road Kill.

"Hey Bossman, that rear Spider has funny stuff sticking out of it. There’s extra dishes sticking up over the shoulder."

Kykkhkynen zoomed his magnification. The steady-cam system kept the image fairly stable considering they were hurtling along around 180 kph.

"Sharp eyes Gunner 4. It’s probably EMC gear. Two, break left at 180 meters from the lead. Three and Four follow me in closer and break on my mark. Gunners concentrate pulse fire on raider lead then everyone but Moss-Two try for a NARC hit on the rear contact. Moss-Two, NARC the lead if it’s still up or target of opportunity otherwise."

"Good plan Mos-One. Riders confirm they will concentrate fire on rear Spider. All units, fire as planned," confirmed Captain Woods from Bifrost.

In the Tin Can, otherwise known as Rough Rider One, Lieutenant Ben Runeberg made a final systems check. Runeberg was an ex MechWarrior that had piloted ‘Mechs on six different worlds before an explosion wrecked his inner ears and destroyed his lower left leg. Unable to pilot ‘Mechs anymore he had been miserable on a production line as a quality inspector until a friend had talked him into trying the tanks he had once denigrated as a MechWarrior. He had found to his surprise that the teamwork of a tank crew appealed to him. It was bye-bye factory life and hello battle tank from that week forward.

"You heard Bifrost," Runeberg ordered his unit. "First salvo goes to the rear ‘Mech. Tank commanders take missile control so gunners can concentrate on the cannons. Cannons fire first opportunity, hold LRMs until after NARC launch. Roll up to your fire points."

The other three tank commanders acknowledged and the Star Destroyers rolled forward. Their target locks flicked green and the fire solution numbers grew better as the data from Mosquito lance was automatically fed into the calculations.

Mosquito Two fired first, sending a spray of red laser energy at the lead Spider just before it executed a left back manuever. It was a long range shot at high speed against a moving target. Sand glazed to glass to the left of the target ‘Mech. A brief moment later the sky was alive with the red bursts of pulse lasers and the green streamers of laser fire. At short range the three other hovertanks fired their combined five pulse lasers at the lead Spider. Four struck home. Two rippling hits walked across the right arm, melting away the armor and myomar muscle underneath so that it hung uselessly from a shred of skeleton and melted off a little chest armor for good measure. The second hit dead center and melted away most of the center armor while the last flayed all the armor of the left leg then did a bit of internal damage including fusing a lower leg actuator locked. Although he had fired, that pilot failed to score a hit with either of his pulse lasers before the combined fire of the fast moving hovertanks buffeted his ‘Mech enough that he lost control and it fell.

The two outside ‘Mechs of the formation managed to score one hit apiece, costing Moss-One almost a third of its forward armor and Moss-Three to lose about the same of it’s right side armor. The Flashman ‘Mechs walking some 120 meters behind the Spider group had waited for better range before firing their large lasers. Just as the Lightnings started their turns they opened up with three lasers each. It was a mostly empty gesture as the target solution was very low. None the less one lucky MechWarrior managed to burn off a good chunk of Moss-Four’s frontal armor. Turning to the left inside the Spider formation the three hovertanks fired their NARC missile launchers. This was a low probability shot as well but the skilled gunner on Moss-3 managed to land a NARC pod on target. Moss-Two fired at the prone Spider but was unable to place the pod on target.

"NARC’s away," called Jeff Kyyhkynen as his pilot sped off on their new heading.

"Open fire," Runeberg calmly told his lance.

Mosquitos One, Three, and Four had lost their C3 data connection when they had gotten inside the ECM range of the rear Spider on their attack run. That had been the reason for the early turn of Two. That had forced long range shots for Two but it had remained outside ECM range and now fed range and speed data back through Bifrost to the heavier tanks. Solutions would have been better from the closer hovertanks, but Two’s data effectively changed the ‘Destroyer’s shots from long to medium range parameters.

With a thunderous roar that momentarily startled the volunteer native troops stationed around the tanks, 20 long range missiles shot forward from each of the four tanks. Just afterward the cannon of each adjusted and fired as well. Runeberg frowned at the master command display. Either none of the NARCs had hit or the new model type they though would defeat ECM wasn’t defeating these guy’s ECM. Still, the firing solution was such that with a tad of luck they should score at least two salvo hits. Ditto the guns.

He called the missiles right on the money. Two flights failed to track the dodging Spider closely enough to score hits but two did. 24 of 40 missiles hit, blasting armor off all across torso area as well as chunking the armor of the arms and legs. Relieving the gunners of LRM duty proved a good idea as the skilled gunners actually put three of four auto-cannon fire shots on target. One round blasted the remaining armor off of the right torso to little other effect. However the injured left leg took another hit that blasted out most of the myomar muscle structure and shattered the hip joint while the third round blasted through the center torso and chewed up some structure including damaging the powerplant shielding. Though it staggered under the kinetic onslaught the pilot kept his feet under him. Crippled and venting extra heat from it’s engine it was effectively out of the fight however. The pilot gamely refused to punch out however so that he could provide some ECM coverage to the larger ‘Mechs while they passed him.

Choosing to ignore the retreating light hovertanks for the moment the sand colored Battlemechs moved to running speed to close the gap on the LRM tanks as quickly as possible. The two untouched Spiders sprinted ahead of the heavier ‘Mechs and had closed the gap to 270 meters by the time the ‘Destroyers’ weapons had cycled and reloaded. The range was too great for the Spider’s medium pulse lasers as they entered the boundary zone between long range for the SRMs and minimum range for the LRMs. The Spiders would just have to weather this one and continue to close range. Starting to sweat from the rising temperature inside his tank, Runeberg paired his lance off and gave the fire order.

They were on their own fire control computers now as the zigzagging Spiders charged in. The SRM’s couldn’t get a positive lock on the charging ‘mechs so none of the tank commanders elected to try the shot. The Autocannons were flicked to rapid fire mode and shells and missiles arced from the tanks to the ‘Mechs. Runeberg smiled to himself as both Tin Can’s missiles and autocannon fire struck home. Unluckily, only six LRMs actually made contact. They did knock the armour off the right arm and chip at the left leg. The autocannon put one round into the right torso shredding the armour while the second round barely missed to the same side. His firing partner failed with the missiles but landed both cannon rounds on the hard charging ‘Mech. One hit center and one hit left. The frontal armor across that Spider was now paper thin. Rocked and battered the pilot kept upright and charged on. The other Spider sucked up 12 missile hits and one cannon hit on it’s charge. The LRMs blasted away the armor from the left torso and leg and damaged the right leg while the high velocity cannon round actually struck the head in the "nose" area just below the cockpit windshield area. The armored cage was rocked but held firm. Wind whistled through the cracks at the bottom of the armored plastic though. Another head hit would be fatal.

The Flashmans passed the two originally injured Spiders at their impressive-for-a-75 ton-‘Mech running speed but were still out of range to fire on the tanks. At Woods’ direction the hovertanks had started a loop before reaching the next hill thus they remained in the rear right arc of the ‘Mechs. Two of the MechWarriors cranked their right arms back and torso twisted just enough to snap single laser shots off at the fast circling hovertanks but both shots burnt only sand and dirt. Soon the Mosquitos were going to face a decision though. If they charged the big war machines one or more would have to delay the run at the other tanks or absorb an attack on their rear armor. Of the first two Spiders to take damage the fallen one had not tried to stand yet while the injured one had moved the short distance to stand near and cover his fallen comrade. It couldn’t move very well but it could still shoot just fine.

Both tank lance leaders could read the movement circles supplied by Bifrost for themselves. (Mos-One was now out of jamming range). Neither liked what they saw. The heavy units of Raider Two would be within firing range of the Rough Riders within ten seconds. Lieutenant Runeberg’s Star Destroyers were soon to be on the hammer end of the closing ‘Mechs.

The Star Destroyers had deployed within the outskirts of a light industrial area. Unfortunately they had not been able to place any truck bombs or other traps here. There were almost 120 armed men scattered about undercover however. Ben knew they had done fairly well so far but he had really wanted all the Spiders down by the second salvo. He commed his lance.

"Fall back like we planned. Drivers keep our noses pointed at the big ‘Mechs. Fire LRMs and guns at the second lance, everything else at our new neighbors."

Both Spiders took to the air on their jump jets and rode pillars of fire in a tall arc that brought them down about 30 meters from the tanks’ original position. By backing up Ben’s lance had stretched the distance between them to an average of 90 meters. Ben wanted to keep some distance if possible because there wasn’t much the tanks could do if the ‘Mechs resorted to punching or kicking attacks. For three of the tanks this was the last retreat however- they literally had their backs against a wall now. The Flashman ‘Mechs had held their fire for the better chance to hit of medium range. That coincided with the two Spiders landing amid the hidden defenders while rushing the tanks. An ancient saying notes that war is hell – and right at this moment all hell broke lose. The tanks fired on both ‘Mech lances, the ‘Mechs all fired on the tanks, and a bee’s hive of man portable missiles, two-person small lasers, and good old fashion large caliber assault rifle fire assailed the two Spiders.

As the heavier ‘Mechs had not spread their formation, the jumping Spiders found themselves sharing the forward firing arc of the tanks with the Flashmans. The left most Spider was hit with three short range missiles. These blew off some torso armour on the left side but hit and penetrated the centre section. One of the center mounted pulse lasers was then blasted into scrap. It also suffered the red searing darts of a burst of pulse laser fire that burned away the right leg armor and damaged the structure including an actuator.

From close range, concentrated ground fire inflicted heavy cumulative damage on that same ‘Mech. The right arm and both legs were both reduced to Swiss cheese but most telling was the large amount of fire that found the holed center torso. Three critical hits to the engine occurred as the pure savage damage of the attacks severed the main support columns and collapsed the center. Automatic safeguards kept the reactor from going nova and ejected the pilot out the top of the head amid the drowned out cheers of the locals that had come to defend their homes. Before he was shot skyward however the MechWarrior had dished some damage of his own by spraying his pulse lasers into Rider Two. Almost a ton of armor was melted from the tank, some of which dripped into the drive wheels for the tracks before hardening again. Two didn’t know it yet but their movement had been impaired by the attack.

The second Spider also found itself under a hail of fire. It too scored two pulse hits on one of the tanks. Rider Four took the damage losing armor from the front and turret. While the armor loss was minimal the laser fire washed across the vision ports of the crew temporarily blinding them as they were starting to survey the effects of their shots. Momentarily stunned, the turret ceased to track its target. Rider Four’s damage had already been done however. Their SRM4 launch had placed all four missiles into the Spider. They blew away the armor on the right leg and damaged it while two others opened the already weak left chest, blowing out a jump jet. The pulse laser of Rider Three also played across that same side, frying another jump jet before slicing the entire section away to fall to the ground with it’s attached arm. Rider Three also placed all four missiles on target, punching out the center chest armor and reducing the right leg to a few myomar muscle bundles and the main skeletal structure. The hail of ground fire chewed away at the torso to do internal damage and damage the gyros but what took the Spider down was ground fire to the already weak right leg. The pilot managed to balanced it on the remaining leg for just long enough to punch out. Both of the Spider pilots rode into the blue on ejection chairs with a sustained and vectored thrust. They arced toward the Southeast from where the hovertanks had initially started their charge.

From this maelstrom of close range combat a longer ranged battle raged as well. High velocity shells and long range missiles arced out while green laser fire flashed in. On Ben’s orders the tanks had combined their longer range fire on the lead Flashman. Perhaps distracted by the Spiders, the tankers only managed to land one missile flight and score one cannon hit. The Flashman’s antimissile system kicked in, destroying several of the missiles in flight just before they struck. Nine managed to get through and pepper the armor of the left leg and center torso. The double fire of the autocannon took more armor from the same leg and some from the left torso. In return, four of the large lasers from the larger ‘Mechs found targets. Riders Two and Three lost some frontal armor while Four took more hits to the turret which melted away entirely. Gunner Four immediately ceased to exist.

Runeberg was trying to raise a response from Rider Four to no avail when Kyyhkynen in Moss-One made a decision. Somebody had to take some of the heat off Ben’s lance or the next exchange was going really cost the Riders. Moss-One’s commander could only think of one group in place to do the job.

"Mosquitos, form as column on me. We’re going in to strafe those ‘Mechs."

"Moss-One, I don’t think that’s wise," countered Captain Woods from the Bifrost command vehicle.

"Bifrost One," replied Lieutenant Kkyyhkynen, " if you’re giving suggestions we’re going to help the Riders. If you’re giving orders we’ll break off and comply as directed."

There was a fairly long pause before Bifrost One finally answered. The Mosquitos had already closed a good chunk of the distance by then.

"Sisu Moss-One. Do what you have to do."

"Punch it boys. I’m designating targets now," Jeff ordered his lance as the Brianiac surged to full speed.

Scattered about the parking and loading areas of the industrial park the warriors of Jeddah cheered wildly at the sight of the two fallen Spiders as the pilots jetted away. Platoon Three’s leader didn’t join their good cheer. He had his eyes on the next wave of approaching ‘Mechs. Those ones were much bigger and less damaged. In a moment the Jeddah volunteers would realize that they had just used up all of their single fire missiles. He wondered if they’d still feel like cheering then. He gave orders for his platoon to fall back to the concrete buildings and tried to convince the Jeddah volunteers to do the same. They didn’t see the need to give ground to the enemy.

As Warder Platoon Two scrambled for cover and three of the four Destroyers maneuvered slightly for optimum fire arcs the advancing ‘Mechs slowed to cruise speed. Having observed the fate of their scout lance, they drifted into firing positions 150 to 180 meters from the ‘Destroyers and a full 90 to 120 meters from the ground units. Except for the trailing one. That one remained at flank speed but drifted left before turning sharply right. It was now moving across and behind it’s advancing brethren so that it could swivel it’s torso to either face the tracked tanks or the approaching hovertanks without exposing rear armor to either. Although the Flashman actually mounted stronger rear armor than many ‘Mechs, no warrior allows free shots at their aft if they can help it.

In Bifrost Captain Woods had been distracted by the report of one of his command-communications team while trying to decide if he should wave off the pending hovertank attack. As the Major was currently directly involved in a firefight and Woods elected not to bother John with the new information. After giving Moss-One the green light to make their run Woods turned his attention back to the specialist seated in front of him to the left.

"A truck and a Kurita ‘Mech you say?" he asked.

"Yes sir, Chief Harding is apparently inside it with Chu-i Fujiwara. He says that she wants to assist us. The truck is a civilian model that I have not been able to contact. It may not have a radio or comm unit. It’s approaching from a different street but both of them seem to be headed for the main gate."

"Have Lieutenant Fosters and a team from Platoon Three meet the truck at the gate. It doesn’t come anywhere near us until they see what’s inside it. Give me the channel the Chief is on."

"Connecting now sir."

"Chief Harding, is that you?"

From inside the cramped compartment of the Kintaro Harding smiled when he heard the Captain’s voice. He was hunched over Naoko sideways on one side, trying not to sneak a look down her cooling vest. Very often anyway.

"I’m stuffed inside with the Chu-i right now sir," he responded. He was pleased with himself for remembering not to call her "lieutenant".

"Chu-i Fujiwara, this is Captain Woods. Has your lance decided to join the battle?"

"No Captain," she replied sadly but firmly. "It’s just me and my Kintaro."

"Understood Chu-i. The ‘Mech engagement to our North is going our way but the raiders will probably break past our units to the East. Please make your best speed to the DropShip and we’ll deploy you from here to support. We’ll send you a tactical frequency to switch to so you can be on line with the rest of us. Thanks for your help."

"Just doing my duty," Naoko replied.

In Bifrost Woods looked back to the specialist again.

"Tag her as Friendly on the IFF system. She doesn’t have the right scrambling equipment so set up a bounce feed on the open frequency so the lance leaders can talk to her."

He swept his eyes across the status monitors and winced as two tanks went double-redline. Tankers were dying, but a quick glance at the status board told him that so far their ‘Mech lance was fairing well.

In the North of the city Jeff and Gracie had managed to use their map modules to out maneuver the raiders and momentarily isolate the Dervish long enough to inflict a decent pounding on it before it sought cover. The two Bushwackers had also isolated a foe and hit it but instead of seeking cover behind a building the Wyvern pilot decided to stay and fight it out. Rather than stay it’s wing-‘Mech, the Assassin, stepped out to support it’s fellow pirate. The four ‘Mechs traded fire down a broad avenue.

The Wyvern had suffered armor damage across five body compartments but was intact and ready to hit back. At 90 meters the LRMs would not have time for a proper lock but it fired everything else – a large laser, both small ones and the six tube SRM mounted in the right torso. Being at the extent of their range the small lasers passed harmless between the two Bushwackers. Parks felt a shudder run through his ‘Mech as arm armor ran in rivulets from the laser hit and three missiles exploded hitting his front and one leg.

"Double Alpha Time!" called Ranger to Lawman as Parks pressed the stud that fired every weapon he had at the raider ‘Mech. Though very powerful, BattleMechs are subject to difficulty from building and retaining heat. As one retains heat that it can’t shed the movement of the myomar muscles are affected and electrical feedback combined with other problems starts to degrade targeting systems. Too much heat could actually touch off stored ammo and fail-safe systems would actually shut an overheated ‘Mech down to avoid reactor meltdown. The fragile human component – the MechWarriors piloting the machine – was subject to heat problems as well. Thus the scant clothing and special cooling vests worn while piloting. In response to such problems some ‘Mechs were designed so that a pilot couldn’t overheat their ‘Mech very much. This Bushwacker was not one of those.

Heat surged around Ranger as an ER large laser, two medium lasers, a pair of medium pulse lasers and the latest generation LBX-10 autocannon firing standard dual-purpose AP rounds raged to life. Everything except for one of the mdium lasers hit. The barrage further slagged and busted the Wyvern’s armor but failed to reach anything vital as it managed to spread itself out fairly evenly.

"Alpha Time," agreed "Lawman" Sven as he unloaded his full weapons compliment as well. While he also carried an ER large laser and LBX-10, Sven had balanced his heat output through multiple simulation sessions. With a pair of SRM4s rather than the brace of laser weapons his ‘Mech’s heat sinks would make sure that not enough heat was retained to affect it’s systems. Green energy joined a high velocity round and two flights of missiles to all score heavily on the scarred Wyvern. The laser burned deep into the torso to melt structure and melt part of the gyros while the missiles flailed armor from arms and legs. The LBX round was the killer though as it smashed through the remaining armor of the right torso and ignited the SRM ammo there. The special CASE panel blew off to channel the exploding missile’s energy away from the center but the right side would be blown clean away in mere seconds.

"Ejecting," yelled the frantic pilot as the autosystem detected the growing ammo explosion and fired the explosive studs that held the armored canopy in place. Both Bushwacker pilots watched in horror as a small fireball blossomed up behind the rising canopy rather than an ejection chair.

"Did you see that?" asked Lawman into the comm-line.

"He just exploded," confirmed Ranger from the other Bushwacker. "But we didn’t hit it anywhere close to the cockpit."

Within the Assassin, Lindy Rands had just finished lighting up one of the Bushwackers with her Artemis Fire Control System. She fired her LRM5 at just outside short range. All five missiles rode the infrared targeting beam in to explode against Lawman’s left torso. From behind the Wyvern she watched it suffer multiple hits from the two ‘Mechs she didn’t recognize then gasped as the missile ammo started to explode. Relief flared in her as the pilot announced his punch-out – then her blood ran cold when she saw only flames rise above the Wyvern’s head.

"Damn head-hunting bastards!" she screamed as she ignited all her jump jets. If they wanted to shoot for pilots then she was willing to play their game. Her version of the game was called "death from above" by MechWarriors everywhere.

Lindy’s VOX circuitry had automatically transmitted her screaming rage. "Hey, we didn’t do it," replied Ranger – forgetting that while he could hear the raiders he wasn’t transmitting on their frequency. Thus Lindy couldn’t hear his denial. Not that she would have cared.

John checked his threat display and stepped into the street behind the Assassin – just a few moments after it took off on multiple plumes of fire. He tried to get a good target lock on her but just couldn’t line up a decent shot. In growing dread he realized that the descending ‘Mech was angling to land on top of Parks’ Bushwacker. He watched transfixed as Parks belatedly brought his arm mounted weapons up to fire as he realized her intention but failed to get a shot off before the 40 ton BattleMech crashed down on him feet first.

One foot shattered armor from the left arm Parks protectively crossed above his cockpit while the other actually smashed into the cockpit itself. The damage failed to penetrate the "head" armor but the impact slammed his real head backwards inside his neurohemlet hard enough to give him a concussion. Shaken and Woozy he was unable to keep his ‘Mech from toppling backwards. The right arm reached back as it fell, suffering armor damage and levering the machine sideways so that the front mounted cockpit slammed into the ground taking even more damage before the battered ‘Mech and it’s unconscious pilot came to rest on their side.

With rage fueling her piloting ability Lindy managed to recover from the impact and keep her craft on it’s feet despite severely damaging her ‘Mechs right leg. Laughing maniacally she started to limp around the fallen Bushwacker so that she could line up her pulse laser to rain red death through the cracked cockpit armor of her enemy. No other ‘Mechs existed in her world now except the one that she had arbitrarily decided had killed her lover.

Less than 30 meters away Sven swore as he twisted to his right to bring his weapons on target. His target triangle turned red. Far down the street John was also looking at a red triangle. Despite the range factors involved, John’s targeting computer was giving a solution better than 80%. Both Bushwackers were broadcasting the C3 data feed that the Camelot was using to improve the aiming indicator. As he steadied his aim John noticed in his threat display that the Victor was going to line up on him if he didn’t move. He had to shoot now or seek cover. There was no hesitation. His ER PPC and medium lasers blazed away just as Sven’s weapons spat destruction as well. Shooting as if Ranger’s life depending on it (which it did) there were no misses.

Blue-white energy from the Camelot sliced through the Assassin’s rear torso and severely damaged the engine housing. Missiles, autocannon fire, and the green of laser fire sliced the 40 ton ‘Mech to ribbons. With the left side crumpled, one leg crippled and the other blown clear off the machine it crashed to the ground. Lindy saw stars as her ‘Mech impacted. Ribs cracked and her spine slipped discs. The taste of blood was in her mouth as she groggily punched in the over-ride codes to keep the Assassin from trying to shut down. It was venting heat and who knew what else into the cavity below her cabin from the engine hits. A woman possessed, she used her barely functional left arm to align the weapon bearing right arm on her target. Red pulse energy chewed into the downed Bushwacker, missing the cockpit and instead tearing at the left shoulder’s armor. Sven hopped forward and kicked out with his 55 ton BattleMech. His foot crashed into the shattered remains of the damaged torso, collapsing the few remaining structural support and sending the Assassin’s carcass rolling back onto it’s back. A short circuit activated the ejection system and Lawman was treated to his second view of an exploding cockpit that day. He looked up toward John’s Camelot just in time to see it sway under the impact of a gauss rifle projectile.

Then an ear-piercing scream erupted over the comm line shared by the Warder Mech’s.

In Bifrost Captain Woods winced and slapped down his volume control.

"Send a text message to change to Tact-A2," he immediately ordered even as he was thinking ‘Who the hell was that?’ Frantically he checked the ‘Mech status displays. The Major showed heavy leg armor damage but was on the move. Parks’ vitals indicated that he was likely unconscious but otherwise intact. Sven Jorgenson was in good shape while Aukland and her slow moving Awesome were remarkably untouched. Rajanen he realized. Kissa’s ‘Mech showed no head armor remaining and that it was firing everything it had on board. Over and over again according to the info feed running below the main icons. The big questions was what was he firing at? There wasn’t a live reactor anywhere near him according to the relay feed from the Vulcan’s own sensors.

"Angie, pull up the target camera from Rajanen’s Vulcan. I want to see what he’s shooting at."

The camera feed showed a Javelin criss-crossed with laser burns sagging back against a building that was literally holding the BattleMech upright. It was obviously non-functional as Kissa laid into it yet again with all of his weapons. His wordless scream continued to sound across Tac-A1.

"Sir, his ‘Mech is heat balanced. Standing still like that he fire indefinitely without shutting down," Angie reported.

"I know," said Woods quietly as he turned his attention back to the tank clash. "I know." What I don’t know is what to do about it, he caustically thought to himself.

Lieutenant Kyyhkynen led his Mosquitos charging across the landscape toward the towering BattleMechs. He had ordered everyone to fire pulse lasers at the ‘Mechs about to fire on the ‘Destroyer tanks but gave each Lightning a secondary target to try a NARC hit on. Odds wouldn’t be that good but this was likely the only pass they’d get before the Flashmans walked between the buildings. No one could try for a NARC on the rear guard Flashman – it would be to their left side. It would also get free target practice. Jeff was counting on their speed to keep them safe. Against multiple lasers their armor would not be sufficient.

The rear guard Flashman tracked the incoming hovertanks on their diagonal approach. Rather than trying to spread his fire over several he picked what he guessed would be the unit leader to focus his fire on. It was a low odds deflection shot but he had three large and five medium lasers to fire in rapid succession. Focusing on the rear one he started firing.

Moss-Four’s front and left side were sliced open by several laser hits. The craft nosed down, struck the sand and started a wild cartwheel across the landscape sending bits of hovertank flying in every direction. Mercifully, the tightly packed crew of three had been dead before the nose even started to drop. Jeff saw the lights go double redline for Moss-Four but kept his attention ahead where three Flashman BattleMechs were creating a deadly lightshow of laserfire. As always, the mourning would come later.

If the Spiders had been dealt with brutally by the ground forces, their bigger brothers returned the favor in kind. Bodies vaporized to water vapor and carbon flakes as the Flashmans used their medium lasers to tear up the armed men on the ground while firing their large lasers at the tracked tanks. The outstandingly heavy armor of the Star Destroyers allowed them to weather the multiple hits with armor to spare. Except for Rider Four. Sitting still and bearing an open turret hole to the world it suffered a laser hit that reached the crew compartment in the main hull below the turret. The "Silver Hammer" had become a ghost tank.

The domed figure of the lead Flashman disappeared in a cloud of smoke as a swarm of missiles descended upon it from the combined tank fire. The antimissile system depleted it’s ammo against 72 incoming birds. Armor shattered from every part of the ‘Mech as many warheads along with autocannon fire and small arms fire battered it. Both the left torso and right arm were laid open and armor was lost most every place else. It’s loss of a medium laser in the right arm was of small concern but the XL class powerplant overlapped through all three torso compartments and it took shrapnel damage. The pilot grimly suffered through the counterfire and kept his ‘Mech’s feet under it but the tell-tales lights in his cockpit were mostly red. Firing all their weapons had run the Flashmans hot – and now his had extra heat to contend with from the lost engine shielding. He decided to start moving towards the closest cover before another internal hit or two finished off his engine entirely.

The Mosquitos now struck, firing their pulse lasers at 120 meters and closing fast. Three bursts struck the unblemished Flashman marked only with a big 3 on it’s side. Both legs and the right rear took armor damage. In Moss-Three the pilot spared a glance at his commander just before they fired.

"Remember the Twycross Sim Sarge?"

Moss-Three’s commander remembered. At Twycross, hovertanks had been a big part of handing the Clans one of their few defeats. Moss-Three’s driver had a particular action that was his favorite re-enactment and he always finished it in the same way. Sergeant Fells reached down and activated a switch.

"Collision avoidance deactivated, crash bags green," was his only reply to his pilot.

It is a design oddity that the Lightning was given a set of aft winglets that can be used to "jump" over objects as tall as two meters when moving at speed. Doing so and retaining control was difficult in real-world conditions however. In this instance it didn’t matter that the rising vehicle started to drift tail up and to one side. The warning from his lancemate had come to Flashman 3’s pilot too late to try to avoid the hurtling hovertank that had just turned itself into a 170 KPH 35 ton bullet. On the other hovertanks Gunners One and Two had beat the odds and made NARC hits as their pilots performed a 45 degree turn. Gunner Three never bothered to fire as he was too busy bracing himself and wishing that his crewmates had bothered to give him a vote.

Even on a noisy battlefield full of laser whine, explosions, and the chatter of small arms fire the wrenching metallic wump of the contact drew attention. The unlucky Flashman took severe armor damage to it’s left leg and the left arm it had lowered to ward off the impact then was spun to that side and pushed back to fall, stripping more armor from it’s right arm and shoulder. The Lightning named "Rhyme n’ Reason" spun like a top and bounced to a jarring stop with the bottom side still pointing down. Ears ringing and head spinning, Sergeant Fells was mildly surprised to find that the computer simulations had been right. As long as the target absorbed most of the impact by getting pushed back, the ramming vehicle would suffer only moderate armor damage. Of course the simulator didn’t spin like that.

"You insane …," started Kyykkynen,"…Fells, get that crate out of there before someone drills you."

"We’re…on…it," came the Sergeant’s woozy reply. In the background of his transmission could be heard near hysterical laughter and the sounds of someone puking. Three’s pilot re-engaged the collision avoidance radar (which he noticed did display a green system light) and struggled to push away the deflating airbag as he goosed the throttle in the direction they happened to be facing. Hopefully he would stop seeing double before he actually had to try directly controlling the craft.

From a nearby building Sergeant Smith of 2nd Platoon watched the titanic collision in awe as the BattleMech was smashed and knocked to the ground. Guilt gnawed at him because he had ordered his troopers to hold fire just now, effectively letting the volunteer locals attract the attention of the heavy ‘Mechs and get shot to pieces. Assuming that his troops minimal firepower wouldn’t have made much difference against the heavy ‘Mechs he had wanted to spare his unit casualties. But now a plan was forming. The fallen ‘Mech looked to have taken heavy leg damage. If it passed close enough when it rose again maybe it would be time to put their expensive training to the test.

In the command Star Destroyer Runeberg directed his remaining units to maneuver so as to continue to concentrate their fire on the same Flashman as it and the one slightly behind it moved to their right towards the shelter of the a cluster of buildings. As neither attacking MechWarrior wanted to risk the shutdown that heat build-up from continuous fire might bring, both laid off the medium lasers and concentrated their large laser fire on one of the tanks. The rear most ‘Mech had the same heat concerns and snapped off a few medium laser shots at the two hovertanks that were retreating to his left before he turned and started on a path that would angle him away from his lance. Eventually the ‘Mechs might pull off a pincer envelopment within the confines of the buildings if they paired off now. Flashman 3 struggled to his feet surprised to find that except for a piddling amount of ground fire pinging harmless off his armor no one was shooting at him. By the time he oriented himself and located the stinking hovertank that had dropped him it had sailed unmolested through the storm of fire between the heavier units and turned down a tight alley.

Across town Sammi was eyeing a Commando that appeared to be hiding in the excavated basement of an otherwise empty construction site. Checking that the climbing straps and grappling gear of young Jenkins was properly secured before double checking her own she turned to her gathered troopers.

"Lets do this by the numbers you apes. But nobody pops a charge until my say-so. Now let’s go climb us a ‘Mech."

First Platoon of the Soumi Warders sprinted forward for their first combat swarm of an enemy ‘Mech. Though he never faltered a step, as he paused pit-side to launch his magnetic grapple Jenkins realized that he had wet his pants.

Fujiwara’s Kintaro paused at the main gate to the Dhafar compound long enough for Chief Harding to use the standard rope ladder and climb down from the cockpit. But before he left he lightly rapped Naoko on the nuerohelmet with his knuckles.

"Just remember – when I send a pilot out in a working ‘Mech I expect it returned back to me that way. Good luck and good hunting MechWarrior."

It was his traditional good luck parting he used when sending a Warder out to battle. He figured she qualified today. Strapped into her seat Naoko couldn’t turn to look behind her but she waved one arm in acknowledgement as she thanked him again for returning her ‘Mech to life. Once on the ground Harding was surprised to see Lieutenant Fosters and trotted over to him while the Kintaro marched away toward the battle.

"Who’s in that one," the Lieutenant asked curiously of the BattleMech.

"The Drac sector leader for this island, Fujiwara. She’s decided to do a little free-lance raider busting," replied Evans.

"Somehow I don’t think that’ll go over well with the new Military Governor."

"Probably not," agreed Harding. Then he flashed his big grin. "But then again who are we to talk. What are you doing way over here Lieutenant?"

Fosters nodded to the sandbag emplacements and the four armed men behind them. "We’re waiting for a truck."

"What truck?"

As if on cue a wheeled transport vehicle picked that exact moment to pull into view down the roadway. Fosters turned to glance at it. "That one I suppose."

The distant sounds of explosions and energy fire could be heard from the North and East now that Harding was out of the Kintaro. The Chief was struck with an odd feeling as he and the Lieutenant casually discussed a truck while men and women were fighting and dying only a few dozen clicks away. But a soldier’s life was full of such oddities. Ten minutes from now he and the Lieutenant could be the ones fighting for their lives. Best not to go down that track he decided. Harding focused his attention back on the truck.

"Now what fool would be out doing deliveries during a ‘Mech raid?."

As the truck pulled closer both men were surprised when the Emir’s son Basem hopped from the passenger side of the cab. He threw a snappy salute at them and smiled.

"Hello. I am happy to be seeing you. I meant to be here earlier but it took longer than expected to load two of the crates."

"Crates?" asked Karl Fosters in a puzzled tone.

"Ah. Perhaps you had better look for yourself," replied Basem enigmatically.

Frowning, Harding motioned for his men to hold their place as he walked forward. The truck had a low sidewall but a ribbed canvas cover hid whatever it carried from view. As he followed Basem to the rear of the truck he realized that the Chief was right behind him. For a moment Fosters considered sending him back then figured that as their Chief Tech was also their Supply Quarter Master he might as well let Harding look too. Besides, somehow Harding always seemed to know about everyone else’s business anyway.

Basem climbed into the back and started punching numbers into the electronic locks of the containers within. Karl counted eight of them. Each was maybe the size of a half ton crate of heavy machine gun ammo. He pulled himself inside and made room for Harding then lifted the lid of the first one.

It was the Chief who found his voice first.

"Holy sweet mother…"

Dumbfounded, the two men flipped open the other chests then quickly closed them again.

"We can’t take this," Fosters started to tell Basem.

"But you must my friends," interrupted Basem. "This is a gift from my father and from the people of Jeddah as well."

"Uh, Lieutenant," opined Harding, " maybe we should let the Captain and the Major make the call on this one."

Fosters hadn’t formed a reply yet when Basem spoke again.

"I have a gift to ask of you though." Both Warders looked at Basem sharply, wondering what was about to be asked in return for these crates.

"I have discussed this with my father over the past few days. I, Basem Farouk Dhafar, formally ask to join the Soumi Warders. If this is not allowed then perhaps I may stay as an observer. I am shamed to admit I have not yet studied your bylaws so I do not know the technicalities."

Fosters wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but it certainly wasn’t this.

"I thought you were going to head the local militia unit here," protested the Lieutenant.

Basem shook his head sadly. "There will be no Jeddah Militia while the current Warlord rules. I have learned much at the training academy but I will learn much that is important about leading men from such an honourable unit as yours. When things change and there is a militia here on Hamano, then I will be ready."

Karl hoped out of the truck. "I guess we see the Captain. The driver?"

Basem shook his head to indicate ‘no’. "He must stay here to care for his brother’s family. His brother died last year of a liver cancer."

He hadn’t needed the family history lesson but he did have the information he was looking for about the driver. The Lieutenant pointed at Harding first then stepped around the truck to point at two of the guards as he talked.

"You, drive this thing into the DropShip and secure it for liftoff. You two, on the running boards. No one looks inside this truck except me, the Sarge here, Captain Woods or the Major. Where the truck goes, you go. Anyone asks - there’s just a couple of old contaminated fuel cells on board. Clear?"

The two troopers jumped up. "Crystal, Sir," they replied.

"O.K. Basem," sighed the Lieutenant. "Let’s go surprise the Captain."

Once again the Star Destroyers fired at the same stubborn BattleMech and once again it refused to fall. Drawn by the NARC missile beacon now attached to it a swarm of missiles hit the Flashman as well as two autocannon rounds. The pulse lasers failed to score at the current range. First the left and then the right arm was blown clear, depriving the ‘Mech of the large lasers mounted within. The left torso was laid bare and suffered internal damage and there was barely a shred of armor left anywhere on it. Wisping smoke rose from internal electrical fires but the sparking BattleMech kept it’s feet and rounded a tall building corner with it’s colleague. Rough Rider two was destroyed by laser fire in the exchange however as the concentrated large lasers finally sliced away the frontal armor and ignited the missile ammunition. The explosion blew off the front section of the tank but the crew was saved by the internal CASE blast-wall that sent most of the explosion out the sides and top.

Flashman 3 failed to notice the infantrymen hiding near it as it slowed and fired off a few wasted laser shots at the Star Destroyers. His plan was to move straight down the current lane then link up with his lance-mate. Belated motion caught his eye and he realized that several men were running away from directly underneath his ‘Mech. He started to track his weapons to fire on them when the first charge went off and his ‘Mech lurched to the side. Several more followed. The hip actuator joint on the damaged leg had been blasted and was locked in place. He fired off one medium laser toward the two fleeing infantrymen he could see only to have stirred a hornets nest of shoulder fired missile and infantry laser fire in response. Armor was chipped off here and there to little effect but incredibly a wayward missile flew exactly up the laser barrel mounted in the center chest and destroyed it. As it backed away the medium lasers were washed across the building, fusing cement and steel while vaporizing body armor and flesh. The ground fire from the building fizzled out.

In the North of Jeddah John had moved to where he now covered the corner around which the Victor would emerge should it charge while Sven was dragging Franklin Parks’ ‘Mech around a different corner. The Victor stayed put and Lawman managed to drag Ranger out of immediate danger from the pirate leader. John backed up and stepped near Sven. It was a classic stand-off. Whichever ‘Mech went down the street and around the corner first would get slammed hard. Checking his tactical engagement view John could see that the Dervish was carefully making it’s way to rejoin the Victor. John touched a control followed by a point on his display panel.

"Mother Goose, make straight for this waypoint then follow the street right down to us and regroup."

"Copy Duck. Wilco," she replied.

As the overhead satellite showed that Malkite was sitting tight for the moment John widened the scale to look at the battle as a whole as he switched to the private line with Woods.

"Bifrost One, what’s the sit-rep with Kissa?"

"Well, he stopped screaming a moment ago so the channel is clear again. But he’s not responding to any calls. As you can see for yourself he’s so close to that Javelin that if he keeps shooting it and it goes nova it will take him with it. Right now the only thing I can think of is to hope he over heats first."

"Roger Bifrost. I’m going to try to talk to him. Switching now," replied John. On the new channel he tried a calm and reasoning voice. "Kissa…Vilho…Vilho Rajanen – please respond."

Dead air was his only answer. After that he tried using a command tone and ordering Kissa to stand down but that brought the same dead-end result.

"Duck, this is Goose"

"Go Goose."

"I never turned off Tac-One so I could hear you trying to reach Vilho. Can I have a try with him sir?"

"Go ahead," agreed John in a tone that suggested he doubted she would have better luck than he did.

"Vilho, this is Gracie," she cooed. "Linda called, Sven. She wants to talk to you."

John frowned. Who the heck was Linda? He kept a wary eye on his overhead display but the Victor held station.

"Did you hear me Vilho, Linda wants you."

A horse, shaken voice finally responded.

"Linda?" asked the MechWarrior.

"Yes, it’s Linda calling, Vilho. She needs you to stop shooting so she can hear you better. Vilho, can you do that so she can hear you better?"

Both Duck and Bifrost One sighed in relief as Kissa finally let go of his triggers and his Vulcan’s data feed reported the weapons off line.

"Yes, I can hear you now Linda. No, I’m fine. Really Linda, I promised I’d come back." Vilho’s voice trailed off as he continued his conversation with a voice only he could hear."

"Goose, just who is Linda?" demanded John on tac-2a.

"His new wife. It was supposed to be a secret because her family doesn’t approve of soldiers," She replied.

John’s jaw dropped open in astonishment. Then a bit of anger crept into his voice. "So I take it you didn’t update his personnel file and let the rest of us know. How’d you know to use Linda to get through to him?"

"He’s been my wing for three years Sir," started Gracie. "We talk and lately he’s mentioned re-occurring dreams about his ghost trying to visit her after he got killed by a cockpit shot. He was a little spooked but I thought he’d be OK."

John had known he wasn’t going to like what Gracie had to say by the sudden deferential tone of her response.

"Dammit Aukland, you should have reported that. We could have done a psych profile or something."

"My lance, my call Sir," she replied steadily. "I made the wrong decision. I’m sorry Major."

John rubbed at his eyes wearily. Damn, Damn, Damn. But would it have mattered? Even if the medical officer wanted to pull Vilho from duty would John have sent him out to battle anyway? Vilho would have volunteered anyway– he hadn’t taken the chance offered earlier to sit this one out. Kissa had sounded like his normal self when this all started. There were always stories of people just cracking under pressure. But it had never happened to anyone John knew before. John was clueless about what to do next about Vilho.

"Drop it for now Mother Goose. We have more immediate concerns. He should be safe where he is." A new blip on his display caught his attention. "Hey Bifrost, I’m showing a new friendly over by you. Did you put a tech in the Hermes II?" Although their reserve scout ‘Mech did have a C3 system, there with all the other ‘Mechs on line no open channel remained for it send data to.

"Negative Duck," came Woods’ voice. "That’s Chu-i Fujiwara in her Kintaro. It should pop up marked that way in a moment. I have her standing by on an open channel. I can patch her in whenever you say."

"OK Bifrost, put her on." John paused for moment to give the Bifrost team time to comply. "Chu-i, do you read me?"

"Yes Major."

"I won’t lie, we can really use your help. But aren’t you disobeying orders?"

Her voice was strained with bitterness as she answered. "No Major. As the Tai-sa informed me of my worthlessness he also said I could do whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t interfere with Combine deployment. There do not seem to be any Combine forces in the direction I am headed."

"No," agreed John quietly, "only four of them and two of us. Will you take direction from Captain Woods and coordinate with us?" Major Linna realized he didn’t really know her motives. Was she out to prove her worth or planning on suicide in battle? Or maybe something in between.?

"Yes Major. My duty is to protect this planet from invaders. I will do my duty to my best ability."

"Our thanks Chu-i. You don’t share our satellite feed but right now it looks like the Flashmans have paired off and are conferring on strategy. One pair is above and the other below our last two Star Destroyers and will likely try a squeeze play. Captain Woods will vector you in. Bifrost One, I’m sending Lawman on the double to support the Chu-i. Reform Mosquito lance near you in case a chance for a quick run occurs while the Flashmans are engaged. And tell Moss-Three that I said no more bumper-pool with their hovertank. Next time they’ll be waiting to fry them. Any word from First Platoon on that Commando we’ve lost? How’s Second Platoon doing?"

"Sergeant Cascade reported spotting it a few minutes ago but no word since. Second got shot up pretty bad after planting leg charges on a Flashman and report destroying the hip. Corporal Sanchez is in command of Second now."

"Thanks Bifrost. OK Lawman, get moving. Goose, get ready. As soon as Lawman leaves their scanning scope they’ll probably come after us figuring it’s down to two on two."

Both MechWarriors returned acknowledgement and Sven turned his Bushwacker to trot off toward the other battle. Time seemed to crawl as John split his attention between watching to see if the Flashmans had made their move, watching to see if the Victor had, and for some sign that Ranger had regained consciousness.

"Duck?" It was Woods again but on the private channel. John acknowledged.

"Basem is here and he brought…well, never mind that right now. He wants to enlist with the Warders or at least be an observer. He’s also volunteering to take the Hermes II out in support of Fujiwara and Lawman."

Several things ran through John’s mind very quickly. Basem was a graduate of one of the best ‘Mech academies in the Combine and had already been checked out on that Hermes II. A Hermes II is no match for a Flashman. But then neither was anything else he had out there at the moment. Enough combined firepower can bring down anything (one of his Grandmother’s sayings). Getting the Emir’s son killed would be bad. Getting his DropShip killed would be worse.

"Swear him in then strap him in. Hiring rank Lieutenant Junior Grade. Pair him with Fujiwara."

Woods’ "Roger" sounded at the same time as Aukland’s "Here they come !"

John zoomed his tactical overview to center on their area. "OK Goose, engage at will."

The Dervish and the Victor side-stepped into an intersection some 200 meters from John’s Camelot and 400 meters from Granny the Awesome. As the Dervish’s SRM capped arms came up along with the Gauss Rifle arm of the Victor the image of an ancient western gunfight like in the holovids came to John’s mind. But as targeting computers chimed to tone it was missiles, lasers, PPC energy and the silver flash of a magnetically accelerated gauss round that filled the air rather than simple lead. The pirate MechWarriors split their fire with longer ranged weapons firing at Mother Goose in her Granny while shorter range ones sought the Duck. John belated realized he and Gracie should have concentrated their fire as he shot at the Dervish while she fired on the Victor.

In a glittery flash of flying glass the gauss round missed Granny and shattered the nearby tower’s glass surface and who knows how many internal walls. The Dervish peppered the old girl with LRM missile fire but the non-standard equipment anti-missile system Granny packed knocked down several of the missiles. Both standard and pulse laser fire along with SRM missiles played across John’s ‘Mech but other than stripping some armor did no major damage. All three of Goose’s ER PPC bolts smashed into the Victor, rending the armor over both torso sides and the right arm. Duck’s combined fire laid bare the Dervish’s right arm and damaged an actuator while reducing it’s armor to critical levels in three other places.

"Concentrate on the Dervish," John called as he jinked his ‘Mech to the side a few steps and fired again as soon as his weapons had cycled. Crushing heat flared through his cockpit but as long as he didn’t move around too much overheating wasn’t a worry for him. The Camelot carried double heatsinks enough to bleed off the heat of his weapons. Goose did not share John’s good fortune in that area and had already built enough excess heat to slow her ‘Mechs movement a bit. She walked the Awesome forward toward John’s ‘Mech and used only two of her ER PPC plus her medium pulse laser. She’d still be running a little hot, but she could tee off against the Victor again if the Dervish went down. Despite having a relatively good shot, John only scored with two medium lasers this time around. One damaged an arm and the other a leg. Gracie’s ER PPC blasts punched through the center and left torsos, shattering internal structure and laying waste to engine shielding. Her pulse laser also found engine as the red darts danced across the open chest cavity.

Without having conferred on their comm-line it seemed that raiders had come to the same conclusion about grouped fire. Both fired on John. This time the heavy depleted uranium and nickel ball smashed home, nailing John’s right leg just as he was shifting the ‘Mech’s weight in a side step. Combined with SRM and laser hits across his upper torso he lost control of the ‘Mech and it fell down flat on it’s bottom in a sitting position before flopping to one side. Programmed to start a damage report after a fall, his daughter’s computerized voice informed him that all systems were operational then advised him to check his armor indicators as some areas were now red. He ignored her advice as he struggled to push himself into a position he could shoot from.

"You hurt Duck?" called Gracie’s anxious voice.

"Nothing but my pride," gritted John.

"Happens to the best of us sometimes," she commiserated. "Targeting the Victor."

It was nice of her to say – but he couldn’t recall her ever having lost pilot control and dropping her ‘Mech. Especially right in front of a live enemy. That Victor was going to put a real hurt on him in a moment. He was watching his recharge indicators wondering who would fire first when the Dervish pilot’s voice sounded on the comm line to the pirate leader.

"Damn, shutdown sequence failed. Get away fast Boss – it’s gonna blow. Ejecting now !"

The canopy of the Dervish shot up as the explosive bolts fired. But once again a small fireball rather than an ejection seat followed. The Victor ignited it’s jump jets and expertly performed a midair twist to change facing and drifted back up the side street it had originally come from just as the Dervish blew. The explosion buffeted John’s ‘Mech but he was too far from the blast to suffer any damage.

John decided the time for tactical advantage was past. He switched over to broadcast on the raider’s tactical channel.

"Attention Pirate Leader Malkite. This is Major Lippa. I suggest you think long and hard before pushing this fight farther. Whoever is bankrolling this little trip of yours has rigged your ejection systems to kill you."

"Hah, Lies to keep me from jumping over there and crushing you like a bug."

"You just saw it yourself. I can send gun camera video to you from the others. Think about it Malkite. Your Tan to friends to the East won’t even let you onto their tac channel. They’ve hung you out to dry big time. Power down and surrender to us. You’ll live longer."

"I doubt I’d survive long. Drac justice kills pirates after very quick trials," he laughed.

"We’ll take you to Outreach for a Mercenary Hearing," suggested John.

"Another laugh. Like I’m bonded with the Guild. Sorry, you ain’t taking me in one piece."

"So we’ll just pick up the little pieces," chimed in Gracie. "Makes no never mind to me."

There was a long pause which John used to good advantage to regain his feet. Just when John thought it was time to give the word to go after him the pirate leader finally commed back.

"Major, you ambushed us and kicked our ass but good. But I’m thinking that your tanks didn’t do as well against the Bolts. So I figure you can chase me or go help your friends, your call."

John sighed. His faster ‘Mech could catch the Victor but would be hard pressed to out-fight it. Gracie could out-fight it but would have a hard time catching it because it had jump jets and she didn’t. Of course, she might be able to pick him off at long range once on the desert.

"It’s now or never Duck," Gracie prompted him as the Victor turned and fled at top speed down a side street.

"We help our own," decided John. "Bifrost One, watch that Victor and warn us if it doubles back. Send recovery teams for Ranger and Kissa. We’re moving to help what’s left of the Rough Riders. Any word from First Platoon yet?"

"Actually yes," Woods informed him. "Sergeant Cascade reports they have captured the Commando."

"Captured it?," John asked in surprise.

"Apparently it’s young pilot no longer wished to be a pirate. He claims he was planning to surrender so he ran away and powered down at first opportunity. "

"That’s a new one. Secure him in custody until we can check his background I guess," John ordered.

Rigged ejection seats, Combine samurai defying orders, run-aways, sudden volunteers, mysterious unmarked ‘Mechs, mid-combat mental break-downs…this was one weird day. John would have found it all comical except for the fact that people were bleeding and dying today.

In the Tin Can, Lieutenant Runeberg was among those doing the bleeding. He was trying real hard to make sure that it was the other guys that did the rest of the dying. He couldn’t believe how much damage that single Flashman had managed to aborb. Although it was mostly out of the fight now the other three were trouble enough. Tying off a battle dressing over a bad burn on his arm he considered his options. The satellite feed showed that the four enemy ‘Mechs had paired off and were north and south of his two tanks. The street pattern was mostly grids, giving long lanes of fire between the tall office buildings but around the more cluttered industrial buildings obstructions often shut off LOS. The ‘Mechs looked to be starting to close in on him with the South pair moving very slowly. One of the two probably had leg damage. Both of the North pair had NARC beacons pinging on them- and one of those two had to be about ready to go down.

His gunner, Corporal Torgbed, was eyeing the threat radar. "Hey L-T, whatever we’re going to do we better do pretty soon Sir."

Ben saw that his gunner was right. All lanes out would be covered soon. The cement and gravel yard looked like the best bet. The tall gravel mounds could provide cover for damaged sides and there was open ground on one side of the yard in case the Mosquitos tried another attack run. Plus a few scattered heavy vehicles that could…

"Hey El Teeeee," drawled his gunner.

"I see it, I see it," growled Runeberg. So much for a defensive position. The enemy ‘Mechs had just started toward the DropShip and industrial compound. "Alright Rough Riders. Helps on the way but we’re going to have to keep their attention for a little while longer yet. It’s going to be bad – but if we don’t they’ll probably reach our ride home."

"Sisu L-T," replied Sergeant Kay from the other remaining tank. "We take then out or go down shooting."

"Sisu Kay. Let’s roll."

As the southern pair were closer they rolled forward at top speed toward those ‘Mechs. The second ‘Mech pair immediately took up pursuit but the tanks were as fast as the ‘Mechs on the pavement. They had an edge actually as the ‘Mechs had to be careful about skidding while the tracked tanks had no such worries. The two target ‘Mechs stepped back behind a tall building at a corner to wait. As they came down the street toward the waiting ‘Mechs the tanks would not get any LRM fire off. The Flashman MechWarriors were trying to force a close-in fight where the AC/5s and LRMs of the tanks would less useful.

"Hey L-T, do you wee what I do at frontside 10?" asked Kay over the comm-line.

Frontside 10 would be 10 o’clock with noon facing forward. Ben swung his visual scanner to the left as the Star Destroyers approached the intersection that the ‘Mechs were lurking around.

"Indeed I do. Reverse turrets, let’s do it," Ben agreed.

The building on their left was display glass for the last half of the block. Inside various cars were on display on a vast showfloor. As the turrets spun to face to the rear to protect the weapon barrels both tanks veered hard to the left and smashed through the glass and into the building. They charged across the open flooring, scattering cars and smashing flat the occasional piece of furniture before bursting forth 45 degrees from where they had entered the building. This popped them out on the same street the ‘Mechs were "hiding" on but far enough away for a flight of LRM missiles. It had taken the BattleMechs too long to interpret their sensor readings and react to close the distance. The tanks spun on their treads and opened up taking only a small amount of hastily aimed medium laser fire in return.

Picking out the damaged Flashman from was easy. It was the one without the arms. Long out of anti-missile ammo and carrying a NARC beacon to attract missiles the already battered Flashman went down under an avalanche of long range missiles with a few SRM and AC/5 double-tap cannon hits thrown in for good measure.

"Back under cover," ordered Ben as the mostly untouched Flashman rushed them. Rider 3 took heavy laser hits on it’s side as the two of them drove back into the building. The BattleMech found itself unable to target the tanks. The angle was too steep. The low profile Star Destroyers did not share it’s difficulty as they started shooting at the Flashman’s legs with their pulse lasers at short range. It backed away to the intersection but that only allowed the tanks to bring their cannons back into play. Minus a good bit of leg armor it finally retreated around a corner to wait for the other two ‘Mechs of it’s lance. They arrived shortly there-after.

After a quick conference the three remaining Flashmans decided on a course of action. Cycling slow enough to keep from building up heat they couldn’t shed each began continuos fire on the building itself.

"Kay, when I rush them you head out the side. I’m bailing my crew," ordered Runeberg.

"Screw you Ben," she shot back. "If you charge then we charge."

"Yeah L-T," his gunner agreed. "We’re not bailing and leaving you alone."

"No way," confirmed the driver.

"This is mutiny you know," complained Ben. But it was pride and thanks that lurked behind his words rather than anger. "All right then. All for one and all that. If this building comes down on us we’re all dead anyway. Before I lost C3 reception in this building it looked like two friendlies were almost here. We’ll hit the front and hope they can get the rear. I guess Valhalla gets six more worthy warriors today. You guys have been the best I’ve served with. On three we make our own door. Side by side, Kay take left and we take right. One…two…"

Naoko hurried her Kintaro down the street Captain Woods had indicated with the Emir’s son Basem right on her tail. She had waited for Basem and his faster Hermes II to catch up but chose to use her heavier BattleMech to take the point position. With the impressive real-time intelligence that Woods was radioing to her there was no need for a scout ‘Mech. The Captain had told her that the two remaining tanks had actually smashed inside a building where enough signal feed escaped that he could tell the tanks were there but little else. Captain Woods was now vectoring them right to the milling Flashmans by literally telling her when to turn left or right. She had practiced with this type of command/control in her training academy but had never actually been with a unit prestigious enough to be so equipped. Even more remarkably, Basem had told her that he actually had an over-view electronic map showing real-time icons of the enemy movement and facing. With the Vulcan and one Bushwacker taken off-line there was now an open data feed for the Hermes II to utilize. As Naoko’s ‘Mech was not equipped with the required C3 slave or displays she had to relay on Wood’s input for tactical data.

"O.K. Chu-i, at the next corner turn left. You’re inside their radar range now but that building should mask your signal until you hit the next intersection. There you turn right and will be looking at their backs, range approximately 240 meters."

"Understood," she replied.

"I can actually see them," marveled Basem as he watched the secondary display. What wonderful technology the Warders had.

"Lieutenant Dhafar, it takes a while to get used to so much information," came Woods’ voice into their helmets. "Stay focused on piloting and shooting. And remember, no heroics. You don’t have to take them down by yourselves. Just wear them down and keep them busy until more help arrives."

"Yes Captain," replied Basem. His pride stung a little but he knew that the Captain was right. Staying alive and winning required solid fundamentals. But he couldn’t help but keep glancing at the display. "Hey look!" he suddenly called excitedly.

"What,…where?" demanded Naoko. She looked about frantically but didn’t see anything.

"He’s seeing the tanks on the tac display," Woods informed her from Bifrost. "They just appeared from the building. They just bought you a free back shot – don’t waste it."

"I won’t," she promised. Then to herself whispered "Here we go" as she rounded the corner of only her third real engagement with enemy BattleMechs.

Her first thought was of how large the 75 ton broad shouldered, dome topped Flashmans looked even almost 250 meters away. Her heart started hammering as she aligned her targeting dot to center on one of the enemy’s backs while she waited for missile tone. A storm of green light was tearing up the ground in front of the Flashmans. She knew that that’s where the tanks must be.

Just a few meters away Basem barely pulled to a stop before ramming the Combine ‘Mech then turned and brought his weapons on target. Sweat slicked his hands and neck even though his ‘Mech hadn’t built any real heat yet. In his mind he had been replayed various parts of lectures over and over. "In an ambush wait for the missiles to fire before using other weapons" popped into his head. He waited for her to fire first as he steadied the aim on his ultra AC/5 and pulse laser. Basem flipped the canon to double fire – he wanted to make sure that his first salvo counted.

After what seemed like an eternity but was really only a few seconds Naoko got lock-on tone and fired. Her Kintaro packed a LRM 5 plus two SRM 6’s and two medium lasers. She winced in surprise at the unexpectedly fierce heat. She had never fired everything in one blast before. One laser and SRM spread missed but the other three weapons scored hits. Basem added a double tap of AC/5 but missed with the pulse laser. By happenstance they both attacked the number 3 Flashman. Their combined fire flayed away it’s rear armor but failed to penetrate. Some of their hits struck the damaged leg, munching all of the remaining armor and doing damage to components within. The tottering ‘Mech was finally felled when the smoking hulk that was once the Tin Can drove into Flashman Three and finally snapped off that leg.

The two remaining Flashmans turned to the new threat. Basem and Naoko nervously skittered toward the outside corners of the intersection but otherwise held their ground as they waited for their weapons to cycle and wondered whose would be ready first.

"They’re running hot at the moment, expect reduced fire but take cover after your next shot," Woods voice calmly instructed them as if this was a training sim. With their concentration split between targeting the now moving enemy while shuffling around themselves neither actually answered. But both understood.

Target locks turned green/ red/ gold in various cockpits and MechWarriors opened fire. The green of lasers flashed as missiles, red laser pulses and physical ordinance criss-crossed the street. Armor ran from Naoko’s legs and left torso but she held firm as she sprayed missiles and lasers across the front of her enemy in return. Basem’s left arm flashed a red armor warning at him following a large laser hit and he suffered two medium hits as well. He did score again with the cannon, pumping two shots into the torso region of his target.

"Break off to bearing 30, Break off to 30," Woods was calling to them. "Next time it’s all three big lasers."

For the first time Basem felt vulnerable rather than powerful in a BattleMech. He realized that six large laser hits would certainly hole several of his sections. It was definitely time to move. He actually got all the way across the intersection from the far side before Naoko turned and ducked behind safety from the nearer side of the intersection.

Woods’ calm voice filled their helmets again. "Flank speed to the next intersection. Hold there to fire, be ready to clear the street. They’re going to try for a crossfire but we have a strafing run lined up."

On her radar Naoko could see one Flashman moving parallel to them while the other charged toward their last position. The building interference started to take effect and she lost exact track but she could see their intent. If the enemy ‘Mechs took both ends of the cross formed by the streets she and Basem could only avoid the fire of one of them. But her radar was picking up new signals directly behind her fleeing ’Mech now. The hovertanks had just edged into sensor range and thus must be in position to rush down on the Flashman they would soon step out to see their backs. With the advantage of the C3 computer and satellite display Basem didn’t have to mentally picture the layout as Naoko had. He could just look at the monitor. He could see the two of them, the intersection behind them the enemy was moving toward, and the hovertanks beyond that. He and Naoko hit their intersection and turned to face the hovertanks.

Naoko wasn’t the only MechWarrior who could read a sensor display and picture the battle scene. The ‘Mech between her and the approaching Lightnings stepped out slowly without facing either threat and instead leveled one arm in each direction, firing the two lasers in each. He missed the hovertanks but put a large laser hit on Naoko’s Kintaro. Her heat was already hovering at the point where her ‘Mech was slowed a bit so Naoko held off on the pulse lasers but fired all of her missile launchers. The LRMs and one SRM flights scored hits and chipped more armor from the legs and arm of the larger ‘Mech. Basem decided he was having too much trouble trying aim both the pulse laser and AC/5 so he stuck with what seemed to be working for him. One of his two round hits, scoring on the head while the other went high. One round wasn’t enough to penetrate – but any further hits would likely break through. The hovertanks fired and raked several pulse hits across the left leg, arm and thigh of the scarred BattleMech. One of them started to rise higher and higher as it closed on the Flashman while firing.

"Moss-Three…" warned Captain Woods. That was all there was time to say before the light hovertanks were upon the ‘Mech.

Knowing what had happened to his lance mate, the Flashman pilot hastily jerked backwards between the buildings just before the Lightnings streaked past.

"Just keeping him honest Sir," replied the commander of Moss-Three as they blasted between the two friendly ‘Mechs and down the street.

"Now Lieutenants, go down that East branch after the other one."

To her credit Naoko immediately complied despite her misgivings. Charging to confront the least damaged enemy ‘Mech with their two lighter units did not seem like the best strategy. She doubted they could take it down before it’d twin came around behind them. But then again perhaps the best possible outcome for her would be to die honorably.

"Oh, Chu-i," Basem commed to her suddenly. "This will be very good."

Not having a clue what he was talking about, she wondered if he had a death fantasy as well. As they neared the corner the enemy ‘Mech’s position firmed on her threat display but despite his lead he was not at the nearby corner yet. In fact, he seemed to be slowing … and now back pedaling.

"Woops Bifrost," came a new voice on the shared comm. "Looks like he either scoped me or just plain got the ‘noids. But the target is backing out of the box."

"Confirmed Lawman. Engage at will but don’t rush him," replied Woods.

"Roger and Wilco. Time to tag the collar."

With his extra gear Basem had seen what Naoko had not –Lawman’s current position. Sven stepped his Bushwaker into the street and opened up with cannon and laser at long range. Naoko understood now. If the Flashman has continued into the intersection it would have been him in the crossfire of Lawman from the side and her and Dhafar from the front.

"Chu-i, you and Lieutenant Dhafar engage as well. But don’t close."

"Roger Bifrost." She complied.

They edged out far enough to see the backpedaling Flashman and added their fire to Lawman’s continuous hits. The tree of them chewed up the enemy ‘Mech and scored some internal damage on it before it made the safety of the next intersection.

"Looks like they’re leaving Duck," said Woods over the shared channel everyone could hear. "Do you want our forces to pursue?"

John hesitated. In truth, he really wanted to run down and smack the raiders hard. But as they’d already won would the extra revenge be worth losing any more of his people?

"Negative Bifrost One. Confirm will all units that they are not to engage except in self defense. All ‘Mechs regroup at the waypoint I just designated. Moss lance, slip out of the city where I just marked and keep out of weapon range but inside their sensor range to keep them from thinking they can sneak back in. But Moss-One – pick one of yourlance to check on Second Platoon. Transport any critical cases back to Serenade immediately. We’ll check on the survivors of the Rough Riders. Bifrost, coordination of rescue and salvage is yours. I’ll be on the ground in a few minutes.

"Good job everyone. Lieutenant Dhafar and Chu-i Fujiwara, nice work. Warders, we’ve all lost good fiends today. Let’s not lose anymore because we were too slow to collect our wounded. Bifrost One, I’ll want a sit-rep in ten minutes. Duck out."

"Follow me Chu-i Fujiwara, " Basem jubilantly commed to her. "I have the waypoint on my display."

"You have the lead," she agreed. Naoko felt slightly jittery from unused adrenaline now that the immediate danger was over. A growing numbness pulled at her thoughts though. Was this the end then? What was to become of her now?

Sammi listened intently to her earpiece to hear the Major’s disengage instructions over the continuing monologue of her "prisoner". Since the moment she had broke the lock code and busted through his cockpit hatch the kid hadn’t shut up. Her blood pounded with the mix of fierce elation and grief that was often the bittersweet result of winning a battle. The pride of winning and stark joy of simply being alive always seemed to come at the cost of a few more comrades and friends lost forever. This time out her platoon was unscathed. That happened all too rarely. She sent her unit and it’s skimmers to support the medevac of the tank clash area.

Looking out the viewport of the cramped Commando cockpit she got the shivers again. She really hated being inside these things. They made her feel so vulnerable, sitting a dozen meters or more up in the air like a golden target for everyone to zero in on. MechWarriors often talked of the feeling of power derived from one of these things but when the brown stuff hit the rotary oscillator she preferred to have good old terra firma directly underfoot. And AeroFighters? MechWarriors may be delusional but AeroJocks were downright crazy.

Sighing she held on to the bulkhead with both hands and waited out the walk to the DropShip. She had shouldered her weapon long ago realizing that the only threat this kid posed was of talking her to death. He had told her all about how he was the son of spacers and grew up shipboard. About how he got the itch to live planetside, worked a Loading ‘Mech at some rusty recharge station at the edge of the Periphery, then finally got the chance to be a real MechWarrior only to find out he had fallen in with pirates rather than "real mercenaries".

"Say again," she directed the kid as she realized he had finally asked her a question.

"I asked what’s going to happen to me now," repeated Jason from the Commando’s cockpit seat.

"I suppose that will be up to Major Linna," she shrugged without real interest.

"Linna? That’s kinda funny," he called over his shoulder.

"Why’s that?"

"I knew a Holly Linna a year plus back or so is all. She was crewing a JumpShip as a cargo-loader. Good hand with a Load-Mech too."

Sammi’s spine stiffened with a jolt. "How old was this Holly," she demanded.

Jason stammered his answer a bit, scared by her sudden intensity.

"I don’t know. Older than me. Maybe 20 or so."

Total amazement seized Sammi for the first time in she didn’t know how long. No one served with the Soumi Warders for more than a year or so without knowing The Story. Heck, there probably wasn’t anyone on the whole continent of Soumi that didn’t know the Linna Story. Could the Major have finally struck pay dirt after six years of pirate chasing?

"Park this thing over by our DropShip ASAP. You’ve got some talking to do with the Captain and the Major."

Jason almost told her that one didn’t "park" a BattleMech. But as he couldn’t see behind him to notice that the fierce looking woman had long since written him off as harmless and put away her weapons he simply answered in the affirmative to her order.

It was roughly thirty minutes after Raider Two’s four remaining ‘Mechs had started their retreat. Feeling washed out but unwilling to just sit by the sidelines, John had just taken the initial medical report from the Doctor and was starting to discuss salvage priorities with Chief Harding. He was standing near a group of folding tables and chairs that had been set up for the unwounded MechWarriors and Tankers to use for a ten minute break. The ground troopers were welcome too but they stayed mostly to themselves several meters away. Everyone knew there was still plenty of work to do because the Major wanted to be buttoned up and ready to lift before the raider DropShip was ready. It was unlikely the raiders would risk their precious DropShip to directly attack Jeddah but John wanted the Baltic Serenade ready to go if they tried. The smaller Serenade was almost twice as fast as the other DropShip but not if it was sitting on the ground. Captain Woods had informed him that the raider defector had important information and something about a truck that John should look at but the Major had decided that both of those could wait until after liftoff. Woods was still coordinating from within Bifrost.

He and Harding were debating if there was time to grab more than the legged Flashman when an explosion made everyone reflexively hit the dirt. There were no follow up explosions so they all cautiously looked around. Someone pointed to the captured Commando were it stood some 80 meters away. Black smoke curled from the now exposed cockpit. John swore to himself and keyed the headset he was wearing.

"Bifrost One, this is Duck. How’s the progress of that Victor?"

"He’s almost back to his DropShip but he’s just stopped," reported the Captain after checking a monitor from the bank of nine others like it.

"If you zoom in I think you’ll find his cockpit blown. You couldn’t hear it inside Bifrost but somebody just pulled the trigger on the ejection-bomb on the Commando."

"Radio remote. Nasty. Somebody doesn’t want to leave any pirates behind."

"True," agreed John. "But they made sure they picked up all of the Raider Two pilots."

"I had noticed," replied the Captain. "Any specific orders?"

"No, carry on. I’ll have Harding load it aboard with the ‘Mech Mover. Duck out."

John noticed Naoko standing alone and staring wistfully up at her Kintaro. Telling Harding he’d be right back he walked over to her.

"C-bill for your thoughts Chu-i ?" he asked.

"Excuse me? Oh, I understand. In truth Major I don’t know what my thought are. I made contact with Command and was informed that as soon as they can get a team through the celebrating Jeddah crowds I am to be arrested and my ‘Mech impounded. The wages of honor I suppose."

They both stood silently staring at the scarred and pitted armor of the Kintaro. Finally John spoke.

"Listen…Naoko," he began tentatively. "Like all good academy grads everywhere I’ve read The Book of Five Rings and the Zen of Mech Warfare but I can’t really claim to know or understand the samurai way or the code of Bushido. Right now only you can decide on which path lay honor and duty. But I do know that you did the right thing today. And I’m pretty damn sure that this Tai-Sa Yamoto and his WarLord Vederman are running something underhanded that they would prefer didn’t come to the attention of House Kurita. On the face of things the obvious choice is to surrender yourself to your unit like a good little soldier and count on a review board or court martial to set matters straight.

"But I honestly don’t think you’ll live to see either. You’ll be shot trying to escape, suffer a "boating accident", or simply disappear. So I’m suggesting that you lift with us. We’ll be going to Outreach for Yamoto’s legal challenge so you’ll have plenty of time to decide what you want to do. If you want to save your DCMS career you’ll have a much better chance of doing it from Outreach than from here. And if you don’t…the ‘Mech Bay doors are open with the Warders. You’ve earned a spot with us if you want it. Or if not us, I’m sure plenty of units would take you on.

"So what do you say? Want a ride off this planet?"

Naoko stole a look at the Major’s face. It was an honest face to match an honorable man she decided.

"Your Sergeant Harding told me that when he sends a ‘Mech out, he expects it returned as well. I cannot let the good Sergeant down. I will leave Hamano with you Major Linna."

He held out his hand. "How ‘bout just ‘John?"

"You will be kind enough to tell my why your call sign is "Duck" sometime I hope?"

He laughed. "And let Gracie miss out on all the fun? No, you’ll have to try to pry that story from her."

As she shook his hand and smiled a weight was lifted from her shoulders. But she wondered if she was just putting off her fate for a few more weeks or taking a course that truly offered honor and redemption.

Back among the gathered MechWarriors Gracie nodded toward the two figures shaking hands below the Kintaro. "Looks like your luck just got better Basem," she announced loud enough for all to hear.

Basem looked up from his foodbar curiously but it was Sven that asked the obvious question.

"Why’s that oh glorious and wise Lance Leader?"

"Look over there. Look’s like the Warders just picked up our newest new recruit. That means that Basem isn’t low man on the totem pole and he hasn’t even been with us for two hours yet."

"We’ll see," laughed Sven, "but I think she’s got time in grade all over our friend Dhafar here."

"It is ironic though my friends," Basem informed them solemnly.

"What’s that?" asked Gracie.

"Those characters painted on her BattleMech," he indicated, "they are the names in kanji writing of the three MechWarriors that have been graced with the honor of piloting it. By the name Fujiwara repeating it looks to be her grandfather and father and herself."

"So what’s the ironic part," Sven wanted to know.

"The literal kanji translation of her name," mused Basem. "Naoko means ‘obedient child’."

Gracie choked on the water bottle she had been drinking from.

"All things considered, you’re right," she conceded. "That is ironic."

DropShip Baltic Serenade

CO’s Quarters

Outbound from Manao

05 March 3052

John leaned back and read over the report he had just finished typing into the computer.

Initial Post Engagement Report

March 5, 3052

Jeddah Defense – "The Rough Rider’s Battle"

The Section Leaders have decided to name this engagement in honor of the Rough Rider Lance. A full report with Section notes will be attached after we complete debriefings.

The Raider force consisted of sixteen BattleMechs, Four APCs and an undetermined number of ground troops. Only the BattleMechs moved to engage us, splitting into two force groups and applying a two pronged attack. Initially we defended with five BattleMechs against the group designated Raider One and our eight tanks against the force designated Raider Two. One unit of anti-mech ground troopers was assigned to each defense force. The tank lances were additionally supported by several units of local citizens that served as ground troops and two additional BattleMechs – one a DCMS unit and the other our spare scout unit piloted by a new recruit.

The specifics of the engagement is being downloaded and distilled from the command data records. I elected to defend from within the tall buildings of the city rather than face greater numbers on the open desert. Attacking with complete tactical surprise the ‘Mech vs ‘Mech battle in the North city resulted in complete victory. One of Raider One’s Mechwarriors surrendered his unit, one escaped toward his dropship, and the rest were destroyed. All members of Raider One were killed as their ejection units had been rigged with explosives by unknown parties. The cockpits of both the escaped unit and the surrendered unit were exploded by remote control. Both Lieutenants Junior Grade Franklin Parks and Vilho Rajanen suffered head trauma as the result of cockpit hits during the action. Rajanen’s damage was minor and he has returned to duty. Parks is more seriously injured and may not pilot a ‘Mech again. First Platoon was commended for destroying one ‘Mech and capturing the Raider deserter.

Our hovertank lance made a run against the incoming Raider Two force to assist with targeting for the LRMs of the Star Destroyer tanks. Enemy ECM initially reduced the effectiveness of our Combat Control Communication system. The enemy light ‘Mechs closed the range quickly and a spirited fight ensued during which the ground troops inflicted heavy damage on the BattleMechs. The heavier ‘Mechs arrived and forced the defenders back into the city with great loss of life to the ground troops. Second Platoon successfully launched a leg assault during the action but was heavily damaged. The Rough Rider Lance valiantly held against superior forces until friendly BattleMech support could arrive. But the Riders paid a heavy price. Of 12 crew members only lance leader Lieutenant Ben Runeberg, Sergeant Millie Kay, Corporals Tors Torgbed and Jeffry Washington, and private Mark Ryan survived. Regarding vehicles, only Lt. Runeberg’s tank survived and it may not be repairable. Mosquito Lance lost one tank and crew, Sergeant Ivan Torres along with privates Ouni Katajen and Markko Upida. Two Flashmans and two Spiders were destroyed, two of the same of each damaged and driven away. Platoon Leader Leif Smith of Second Platoon was killed in action along with privates Erik Tanney, Lane Martin and Linda Seabreeze. Twelve others were wounded but will return to duty. The four MechWarriors of raider Two are believed to have escaped and rejoined their DropShip.

Their DropShip lifted planet and made for a waiting JumpShip. It does not look like they will return to Hamano as of this time.

This engagement was undertaken without contract and without the permission of Tai-sa Yamato of Hamano DCMS Command. We contend that we were forced to act in self defense of our forces and DropShip which clearly seemed to be the target of the raid itself. A review board on Outreach will decide the issue.

We will have to rethink our engage plans regarding the use of missile tanks. Keeping the enemy at range without using BattleMechs to delay them proved impossible. Perhaps more mobile missile support should be investigated. Our spotter hovertanks should perhaps be changed to something perhaps slower but more heavily armored and with the weapons turret mounted. Our anti-ECM NARC beacons proved totally ineffective.

Salvage comprised of a Flashman with leg damage but otherwise mostly intact and a Commando with internal cockpit damage. We also picked up a few assorted ‘Mech weapons and actuator parts. Chief Evans will file a full report.

Well, that covers the basics John thought to himself. There was a good amount that would not be going into the final official report to records however. The contents of that truck Basem arrived in was one. The Emir had sent boxes full of C-Bills, bullion bars, and industrial and weapons grade laser crystals along with two that were obviously full of items the local population had donated. Everything from jewelry and expensive watches to family pictures and children’s toys. (Plus a set of golf clubs). The total worth of it all was more than the original contract value by a good amount. But Basem was adamant that all of this was a gift from his father and the people of Jeddah that refusing the crates would shame his people greatly. It looked like John’s brother was going to have to work up some creative accounting to explain all of this at tax time.

The exact nature of Kissa’s "head trauma" wouldn’t be discussed until John could have a real psychiatrist examine him. So far it didn’t look good. Vilho broke out in a cold sweat and got the jitters just standing in the ‘Mech bay. Most of the other MechWarriors were now uncomfortable around him and frankly John had no idea how to handle the situation. And they all faced a long, close quarters ride through two star systems before hitting Outreach.

Ex-pirate Jason Nellson was another Warder secret. The young man had carried important information about the true nature of the raiders as well as info personally stunning to John. About a year and a half ago Jason had actually spoken with John’s long lost sister. Eight years ago Holly had been taken captive in the JumpShip pirating action that had killed John’s parents. He could barely believe that now, on the wrong side of the Periphery fighting what now appeared to be corporately sponsored raiders, he had finally found the solid lead that six years of pirate chasing with his unit had failed to produce earlier. Real confirmation his sister still lived. He was elated, but also deeply troubled. Why hadn’t she contacted the family by now. It seems that when Jason met her she had the freedom to do so. Finding her would be hard. The information was over a year old and a JumpShip plying the fringes would be hard to track. Plus he had a date with the review board to keep him occupied. But he would find her. He had always believed it in his heart before – but now he knew it in his head as well. It would just be a matter of time.

The fact he had one of his people sabotage Naoko’s ‘Mech just to keep it out of Yamoto’s hands was yet another secret that wouldn’t make the official records. He still wondered if he had done the right thing. She might have lost her Grandfather’s ‘Mech but maybe she would have gotten it back when Yamoto’s unit was shipped. Or maybe Yamoto was one of those DC hardliners that disliked women in combat roles and would have sunk her career just because he could. There was no way to know and now she was basically homeless. At least she had some of her personal effects. The Emir had sent what could be gathered from her quarters before the DCMS returned to the Serenade just before lift-off.

He sighed again and flicked off the computer. That was the problem with many command and business decisions. They often had to be made with too little information and logic rarely seemed enough to determine if your course of action was correct. You could only use instinct then wait and see what developed.

Like his Grandmother was fond of saying, time would tell.

Time would tell.


Chapter Index
Edit