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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 1 - By the Horns[]

TCS Samantha Calderon
The Gateway, Hyades Cluster
September 27th, 3025

“My god . . . am I dreaming?” whispered Ethan Mendoza as he touched the solid bulkhead reverently once again.

“Here,” Helena answered as she handed him a crystal glass filled with liquor, keeping a second one for herself.  “Dan?”

“One of us needs to stay sober, Skipper,” the XO answered with a grim chuckle.  “If you are dreaming, Commodore, then for us it is a nightmare come to life,” his smile and chuckle faded away.  “Just based on what you have said, the Star League was more vindictive than even we thought they could be . . . all of the yards are gone?” he asked in a shocked voice.  “The graving docks over Samantha; the orbital foundries at Jamestown; the component and weapon factories on Taurus itself!  According to your information, we have a single yard—in the entire Taurian Concordat!—one yard able to produce JumpShips!  And no WarShips.”

“The Star League was rather . . . perturbed,” Ethan said with a shake of his head, “at our continued intransigence following the War, Commander Stiles,” and then his face clouded and red anger—a deep and broad anger that was clearly visible on his face and body—welled up from inside him.  “The bastards didn’t want to ever have to fight us again; so they crippled as much of our industry as they could.  Crippled and maimed us enough that when the Star League fell we lost about half of our worlds thanks to their policies that didn’t let us build vital components out here.”

Ethan shook his head and he swallowed half of his whiskey in one quick gulp—but the shock of the powerful liquor calmed him down . . . somewhat.

“They stole half of our worlds, and when we rebuilt, their death throes destroyed half of those we had left, Admiral, Commander.  Which isn’t to mention the pirates and renegades that have plagued us non-stop since authority collapsed outside our core systems.  Oh, we have had peace—for a given definition of peace,” he spat sourly, “but the incessant raids and attacks on our people, the need to relocate millions of civilians as power and water failed on a score of worlds; all of this and a series of unfortunate . . . accidents kept us from rebuilding.  And when we finally managed to stop our slide we discovered that the nice people from the Star League who just wanted to help their backwards and primitive cousins had censored and edited all of our libraries.  They didn’t just make an effort to remove blue-prints and plans, because that would be too easy to overcome,” and Ethan laughed grimly.  “No, the bastards actually changed text in instructional manuals and textbooks; they deliberately removed the knowledge that we needed and so ****** up the basic learning materials that we haven’t been able to rebuild back to what we had in the Age of War even now, two centuries after it all fell apart.”

Helena exchanged a look with her executive officer, and he shrugged; she nodded in reply—and then she smiled.  “Commodore,” she began in a quiet voice, “I do believe that you count on that part of history being over and done with.  As I said earlier, we were part of an expedition that intended to preserve the best parts of the Concordat independent of Ian Cameron’s damned Star League.  The rest of the Flotilla, if they survived,” she added, “are still out there somewhere—we just have to find them.  And,” and here she grinned broadly, “my flagship carries aboard her a Data Core containing the accumulated knowledge of the Taurian Concordat, as of the year 2596.  You still have printers?  Because engineering textbooks, blue-prints, and schematics are NOT going to be a problem.”

Ethan blinked and he swallowed the second half of his whiskey before setting down the crystal tumbler.  He nodded.  “It is indicative of the sad state of affairs, Admiral Vickers, when I tell you without exaggeration, that the information you have offered is quite possibly more vital than the entire firepower of this WarShip.”  And then he winced.  “A WarShip . . . we have a ****** WarShip, a working WarShip.  Hanse Davion and Maximillian Liao will go ****** ballistic.”

Helen sighed again.  “Unfortunately, Commodore, we are working and functional only if you can discount the Kearny-Fuchida Drive Core.  Commander Fletcher might be able to restore the drive . . . given a few months to make repairs; if, IF, that is, that you are able to retool factories to produce the components that we need.”

“Understood, ma’am,” Ethan answered, but then he grinned.  “But your guns work, and so do those big-ass transit drives back there on your hind-quarters—you can fight and you can maneuver, and ma’am, no one has had a WarShip able to do that in more than a century.”

“Oh, yes, Commodore,” Helen laughed, “our guns work and I’ve got a full load of nuclear ordnance aboard.  I would say that I pity anyone that tries to attack Taurus on my watch—but my pity reserves are just about depleted,” she finished in a cold, cold voice.  “Someone jumps into this system on my watch, planning to strike the capital, their JumpShip and DropShips are going to be devoured in nuclear fire.  Unless I am feeling like playing with them; in which case our Naval Lasers and PPCs will tear them apart a millimeter at a time.”

And Ethan drew himself up and swallowed heavily.  He had read—in secondary school—about the heroic Helena Vickers and her twenty years of fighting against the League.  She was a national hero, for all that the Star League bureaucrats had tried to extinguish all mention of her—but only now was he beginning to understand, to see, the unremorseful utter hatred that ran through her body at the merest thought of those from the Inner Sphere invading even this Concordat—a Concordat so very different from her own centuries past.

“There are different rules today, Admiral,” he whispered.  “JumpShips—all JumpShips—are sacrosanct.  They are not attacked, but can be captured.”

“Really?” asked Helena in an acrid voice.  “Does that apply to this ship as well?”

Ethan blinked, but then the Admiral waved off his reply.  “I’ll comply with your rules—your time, your universe . . . for now, Commodore.  But if defending Taurus means blowing an Inner Sphere JumpShip and every living soul aboard her to Hell, then that is what I’m going to do,” and she took a sip of her own whiskey.

“Dan,” she continued, “while the good Commodore is still in a state of shock, perhaps you can inform him of what else we are carrying.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” the XO answered cheerfully.  “Commodore Mendoza, as part of the Expedition of Exiles, we gave up two of our four docking collars to transport the Fourth Battalion of the Calderon Red Hand.  Their Legionnaire-class DropShips carry two ‘Mech companies and two ASF lances apiece—so we’ve got a full strength Battalion of the some of the most fanatical defenders of the House of Calderon on hand,” he smirked.  Dan Stiles actually smirked at the two higher ranking officers.  “I am given to understand that units today are a hodge-podge of different ‘Mechs and vehicles; your logistics must be tangled to Hell’s Heart.”

Ethan frowned.  Where was this popinjay going?  And then the light bulb went off as Dan Stiles nodded.

“Aye, Commodore.  In our day, we fielded entire battalions and regiments of the same BattleMech.  The Red Hand is outfitted exclusively with Typhons, Commodore, supported by eight Skyhawk aerospace fighters.”

The Taurian Commodore coughed, his eyes going wide.  “Both of those are extinct designs!  The League did not allow us to retain them!”

“****** the League,” whispered Helena.  “In addition to the Red Hand, we are carrying two Mirage-class Assault DropShips, four Orbitmaster heavy lift shuttles, a quartet of Defiance-class gunships, sixteen Banshee light ASF, and sixteen more Skyhawk medium ASF.  All with combat veterans at the controls—just like the rest of this ship.  And I’ve got more than two hundred colonists intended for the Exiles aboard in my passenger quarters,” and Helena smiled again.  “Engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers . . . all of whom should be able to help you correct those errors that the League bureaucrats introduced.”

She paused, and then she sighed again.  “But right now, at this minute, I need to know the current passage through the Asteroids—we are dreadfully vulnerable sitting here immobile at the Jump-Point, Commodore.”

Ethan winced.  “Ma’am, until the Protector gets here, I cannot—literally cannot—give you the nav-details for an exit lane.”

“That isn’t a request, Commodore,” Helena snapped.  “WarShips are most vulnerable to a surprise attack when they anchored at rest within weapons range of a Jump-Point.  All it would take is one ship—ONE SHIP—that isn’t even armed to materialize just slightly off-target and vaporize half of this vessel in the process!”  She paused and bit her tongue as she saw Dan slowly shaking his head.  “Commodore Mendoza,” she began, “Ethan.  I need to get this ship off this jump-point ASAP.  You are a flag officer in the Taurian Concordat Navy, mister!  Start acting like one and show some initiative!”

“And if I don’t?  I suppose you will make your way through the field like a bull in a china shop?”

“Guns blazing, Ethan.  If you don’t give me a lane, then by God I will clear one,” Helena answered softly, and the younger man nodded.

“Damned if you won’t, will you?” he shook his head and grinned.  “Very well, Admiral; you will have your lane and a parking assignment outside of the Jump-Point itself—but I will fire into you if you move so much as a meter from that parking orbit without authorization; is that clear, ma’am?”

“Crystal, Commodore Mendoza—and it is what I’d expect from a Taurian naval officer,” Helena answered with a grin.

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