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Emergence (Concertverse) Chapter Cover

Emergence (Concertverse)
Book 2 - Chapter 9
[]

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Ice, Snow, and Death[]


Battle of Hersch Pass[]

Hersch Pass
Weishaupt Mountain Range, Franz Continent
Tharkad, Donegal Province
Lyran Commonwealth
Transglass Inner Sphere
20th June, 3143


Missiles streaked through the air and descended upon Frederick Wolfe's Sunhawk. While his heart pounded his left hand punched down the key to activate the fifty ton OmniMech's myomer accelerator circuitry, pushing his machine to a run of over a hundred fifty kilometers per hour to evade the incoming fire. He glanced at his tactical display long enough to confirm the rest of his lance were right behind him in their Guerrilla OmniMechs. Lieutenants Alex McNaughton, Amira bint Khalid, and Paora Munihera kept the pace with their own machines' MASC likewise engaged. Alex, with some skill, twisted the humanoid machine's towards the origins of the missile streaks in the sky and let loose a counter-salvo of thirty long-range missiles from the torso-mounted pods on their machine, while Amira's advanced ECM system jammed the incoming Clanner missiles to undermine their target locks. Wolfe checked his own crosshairs as well but confirmed he had no such shot with the Clanners hiding behind the ridge line along the western edge of Hersch Pass. Until he had line of sight on the missile-carrying enemy 'Mechs his laser armaments were useless.

Alex's LRM salvo was not alone. A lance of Whippoorwill hovertanks from the Fourth Royal Cavalry Regiment rained forty LRMs apiece upon the ridge line. Explosions flowered on unseen targets, more than Frederick expected until he noticed the Hummingbird III VTOLs dancing in mid-air, using their agility and speed to evade fire while maintaining laser fire, and presumably TAG spotting lasers, on the enemy's fire support machines. One of the pilots' daring proved insufficient as clusters of submunitions found their rotor and half-tore off the whipping blade, causing the Hummingbird III to plummet groundward.

"Battalion Command to all companies, enemy forces confirmed heavy in Hersch Pass. Alpha and Bravo Companies are engaged with Four-RC, Four-AAR, and Seven-RAI elements. Relaying tactical instructions on Company Command channels." He mentally translated those designations: Fourth Royal Cavalry and Fourth Arcadian Assault, two of the armored regiments in the Third Proctor Guards Armored Brigade, and the Infantry Brigade's Seventh Royal Assault Infantry. That meant a mix of mid-weight cavalry tanks and heavy and assault-weight tanks with mechanized assault and heavy-weight battle armor suits. With both 'Mech and organic VTOL support like they had overhead now, it was a strong defensive force that could repulse an enemy brigade and hold the Pass.

Assuming the enemy didn't put long-range weaponry on the western ridge and flank the line, anyway.

Nova-Black Hawk (Firing in the City - MWO Version) 2

Black Hawk Medium OmniMech firing

His systems warned of a hard targeting lock. Wolfe veered his "Mech against the DI Computer's input, barely evading a sizzling laser beam from an enemy machine now cresting the ridge. He fired snap shots with his arm-mounted large lasers. One beam missed entirely but he was rewarded by a bright flash of molten metal from one shot slicing into the armor of a low-shouldered machine. The warbook quickly identified it as a Black Hawk OmniMech on his systems. Looks to be packing similar armament to me, he mused at seeing the laser assemblies mounted beside the 'Mech's hand actuators. A bright sapphire beam sizzled through the air and glanced along his Sunhawk's upper torso, above and to the right of his cockpit. He returned the favor with a shot that just barely missed. Before he could fire again, a gauss slug smashed into the torso of the Black Hawk. The Clan machine retreated back above the ridgeline.

"Bravo Lance, we'll give you cover fire." Captain McGruder's voice crackled over the line. Wolfe's tactical display showed the approximate position of her Ranger and the rest of Alpha Lance. "Charlie Lance is moving into an enfilading position to the southwest, but we need that ridgeline."

"Roger, Charlie Command. Bravo Lance, on my six." Wolfe checked the height of the ridgeline. At least forty meters up. Too high for a direct jump, we'll have to get up the incline a bit. "Keep your MASC engaged as long as you can." If our Techs did their jobs right the actuators should be in good enough shape to keep this up.

At his lead Bravo Lance rushed along the snow-packed ground of Hersch Pass. Alex kept their LRM bombardment up whenever they had a fresh salvo loaded, which contributed to the counter-fire from the three remaining Whippoorwill hovertanks that kept the enemy forces honest. A platoon of Bombardier suits freshly dismounted from a Grand Bull transport added to the counter-fire while sheltering behind the Bull, each firing eight missile salvos from their back and left arm-mounted launchers. The air overhead was filled with missiles and the beams of laser light stabbing at the determined Hummingbird choppers maintaining TAGs on the enemy machines. The fight was big, almost chaotic, and Wolfe and Bravo Lance were just one cog in a much larger tactical machine being built back at Battalion Command. If the Clanners force the Pass they'll have an open line to Bauer's factory site, Wolfe thought. Best to stop them here, and that means taking that ridgeline and protecting the flank.

The ground sloped upward as they approached the lower edge of the ridge. He searched for a path up but found none, at least none in visual range. Means nothing close enough, we'll have to make the jump. His machine would just barely make the height but the others, he expected, would enjoy several more meters of clearance in their jumps.

The Black Hawk appeared at the ridge crest again. A fusillade of missiles erupted from the ridge line. Alarm warnings sang the moment Wolfe's instruments confirmed the missiles had a lock. Adaptive warheads, no minimum arming range, just like our Terran-tech launchers. Without AMS mounts they had no means to shoot down the missile bombardment, but Wolfe hoped that a run speed of a hundred and fifty kilometers per hour would provide a defense of its own. Missiles rained down around Bravo Lance regardless and the reverberations of direct hit echoed in his cockpit, if not as many as he feared it could be. His displays flashed yellow to show where the missiles had chipped away at his armor plate with their warheads. Still, no penetrations. Laser streaks and tracer fire filled the air before him. More red showed on his monitor, to the right. One of the Clanner "Stars" had broken the line and were gunning for his lance.

The Black Hawk's arms lowered and fired at them. The pilot's gunnery was not lacking and the Clan warrior had led his shot well. Both large laser beams carved into Wolfe's 'Mech, flying armor from his right leg and right arm. He frowned at seeing he right arm large laser icon go red. Damn lucky hit! The Sunhawk wobbled under his control from the loss of nearly two tons of armor plate. Wolfe focused and held the throttle forward, letting the DI compute adjust while his forward motion evened out the wobbling and kept him moving. Closer… closer… He lifted the left arm and fired a laser shot that speared the Black Hawk in the chest. The beam played over the gauss slug's handiwork and thick oily smoke poured out with a stream of flaming liquid. Got a heat sink!

"Crap!" The call came from Manihera. "Right arm lost! Took an autocannon burst!"

"We're almost there." Wolfe replied. "Hold your courses, MechWarriors!" He said the words and felt an echo in his head. 'Hold your positions, MechWarriors!' That's what Lance Loo Miller said in the Wood. Said it until that Drac bastard put a PPC into her cockpit. He pushed the hot memory away with a moment of will, aided by the impact of an autocannon burst that tore his 'Mech's right arm away. This isn't the Wood! Keep it together!

His Sunhawk slowed on the incline up the ridge. 'Mechs with hand actuators and very good pilots could have scrambled their way up, but Bravo Lance had another, faster method. The moment his speed dipped steeply from his feet fighting for purchase, Wolfe slammed the key to turn off his MASC while his feet pressed his jump jet pedals. Jets of plasma-fueled flame lifted his 'Mech skyward, meter by meter. This is going to be close!

Just seconds after his cockpit view cleared the gray and brown rock of the ridgeline his jump jets howled their five second fuel warning. He shifted his feet to direct the thrust and push him laterally forward in those final few seconds. He was rewarded by the sensation of his 'Mech hitting solid ground. Immediately he confirmed his surroundings. The force of enemy 'Mechs were joined by two dozen armored infantry soldiers, half of them at the ridgeline with visible LRM packs on their suits and the other half further back. He ignored them to focus on the Black Hawk that had pestered Bravo Lance and wounded his machine. It was already tracking its laser arms on him. Can't take that hit! he thought while spitting his crosshairs on the Black Hawk. He squeezed all of his triggers. A sapphire beam from his left arm joined the emerald of his torso-mounted medium lasers and the biting ruby needles from the head-mounted micro-pulse laser. The Black Hawk moved at the last moment, shielding its gaping wound from his laser fire, but it was too close to dodge completely. The lethal light cut deep into the Clan machine's body. Wolfe was rewarded by the telltale wobble of a 'Mech afflicted by a gyro hit. Go down! Go down damn you! he thought while heat warnings blared in his ears. The cockpit was becoming a sauna between the heat of his lasers and the full burn jump it took to ascend the ridge.

But the Clan MechWarrior was too skilled. They kept their machine standing and brought their machine's arms to bear on his 'Mech.

Five more emerald beams converged on the Black Hawk. Three struck home, one exacerbating the first wound and another adding to the one Wolfe had just inflicted. A moment later a dozen missiles crashed into the Wolf 'Mech, all of them on its central body. Repeated explosions tore metal hide and bone alike from the 'Mech, leaving smoking wounds as it finally toppled over. With his heat lowered, Wolfe took a final laser shot with his left arm into the opened guts of the Black Hawk, spearing the fusion vessel within. Plasma briefly splurted from the wound, incinerating snow in plumes of steam when it hit the ground, and the 'Mech grew completely still.

The rest of Bravo Lance landed beside Wolfe's cooling machine. "Good kill, team," he said, turning his focus on the rest of the enemy. His crosshairs focused on one of the battle armor soldiers rushing towards them. The micro pulse laser mounted under his cockpit blazed once more. "Maintain the engagement. Clear the ridge!"

Bravo Lance advanced, weapons blazing, while a company of Hummingbirds moved overhead to drop their squads of Man-at-Arms battle armor suits into the fight. Wolfe let his 'Mech cool off another couple of seconds before returning to the fray.


Battle Between the Rails[]

Tharkad City Municipal Railyards
Bremen Continent


“Well, Hauptmann,” Leutnant Bentley said, wincing as the medic extracted one last ferroglass shard from his side, stifling a curse as they quickly disinfected and bandaged the wound. “We found them.”

That much was obvious; the demi-company of hovercraft parked in the empty marshaling area showed it. Holed lift skirts, scorched and splintered armor, and Bentley's Condor was missing one of the missile racks mounted high on the rear deck. More medics were tending to injured crew around them.

“We couldn’t get far into their recce screen,” he continued. “but I’d peg it as at least a full cluster; we marked elements of two more trinaries beyond the one screening."

Talia nodded, looking at the Tribune’s map table. They’ll hit the remote sensor fields in a few minutes. “Okay. Get your people under cover, Bentley. And thanks.”

She turned to face the comms board. “Positions, everyone. I’ll coordinate from here. Remember, call for defensive fires as and when you need. Captain Rosenthal, any air support you can get us.”

“Got the biggest dogfight since Tikograd going on overhead,” the Davion officer replied calmly. “But I’ll see what I can do.” She noted the image’s background, that Rosenthal was strapped into the cockpit of his Vulpes. That led to thoughts of her Regent, she could command almost as well from there as here. No, Talia thought, taking a calming breath. Not yet.

The clatter of tank tracks, the crunching of heavy duty vulcanized rubber tires on gravel, and the tread of BattleMechs came from outside, icons spreading out on the tactical displays. Voices, as well — a shouted demand to know where their reserve mortar bombs had gotten to, battlesuit-amplified voices directing vehicles to their positions, one torrent of abuse from a militia sergeant aimed at a luckless battlesuit trooper who’d driven their Fenrir through a mortar pit’s sandbag walls by accident.

“Long Tom section Gamma to commence firing FASCAM as the Wolves hit the outer edge of the remote sensors,” Talia ordered, calculating range fields. “Mortars and LRMs to commence at eight hundred meters. Priorities are long-range platforms and any command units you can identify.” Unlikely, Clanners didn’t tend to readily identifiable tactical recog markers, but it was worth a try.

Amber icons started to appear, the solid burn of definite contacts rather than the flicker of probables, and the heavy concussion of the Long Toms firing began its steady metronome, like a door slamming amplified a hundred times over.

In many ways, it was the sound that kept her reminded that this wasn’t just another kriegsspiel session in the Nagelring’s command simulation rooms. The dislocation, the first time she’d commanded from relative safety rather than leading from her ‘Mech’s cockpit, unsettled her, and Talia clung to the sounds to keep herself grounded. The Long Tom artillery guns’ deep, booming rhythm, intensifying as the whole demi-battery began shooting. Sharper cracks of mortar fire, infantry and ‘Mech-mounted both. Rippling shrieks of long-range missiles. Finally, the dry stick snaps of laser and Gauss fire, and the lightning-bolt roar of particle cannon.

Talia frowned as she watched the icons moving, flickering with damage codes and status updates, speaking softly as she directed fire missions and short counter-punchs. Something is wrong here, something is very ****** wrong. A straight attack from line of march was standard Clanner tactics but all that she could see was a single light trinary and what looked like a pair of vehicle binaries. This is the obvious move, and it’s obviously going to fail; it might have worked on militia alone, but the Wolves had to know they’d be up against more than that here. Just ignoring that wasn’t their reputation or her own experience with them, at all.

“******, you worthless tankborn bastard.” she whispered, too low for her headset to pick up, cursing the anonymous Star Colonel facing her as Wolf icons began to black out and the air lance went in. Downblast from the VTOLs’ rotors rattled roof panels as they flashed overhead, lasers, particle bolts and missiles clawing grievous wounds into a lightweight Gambit, sending the ex-Marik machine crashing to the ground in wreck. One of her pilots didn’t live to see it; a light tank’s flak shells shredded their rotors, left the VTOL spiraling into a building. “You’re murdering them, you’re murdering good soldiers, call them back.”

Something snagged at the edge of her thoughts; a reason the rest of the Wolf cluster hadn't put in an appearance yet. Talia's frown deepened as she turned the thought over in her mind, and her blood ran cold as it clicked. Yes. Yes, it would work. It'd need troops with absolute faith in their commanders, and those commanders to be willing to countenance anything for victory, but the Wolves had both.

"All elements, beware of feigned retreats." Talia said over the command channel, speaking slowly and carefully to ensure no confusion. "And under no circumstances are your units to advance beyond five hundred meters from the railyards without my express order. Acknowledge." Affirmative responses came back, from all but one. “Kirklin, respond. Hauptmann Kirklin, acknowledge receipt of orders.” Still nothing.

Talia felt like swearing at the top of her lungs, or throwing her headset across the compartment — neither advisable — as she recognised exactly what Kirklin had done. The old frequency switch; a dodge she’d used herself to avoid unwise orders. But now, it may mean disaster.

“Rayne,” she called up the senior Mechwarrior cadet. Daughter of a duchess, Talia remembered; one of the Homeless, granted, but highborn enough that Kirklin might listen to her. “Get over to Hauptmann Kirklin’s position, relay my orders to hold position to her, and report back to me. Go.” And now is the time, I think.

Barely waiting for the Mobile HQ crew's acknowledgement of orders to route command comms to her 'Mech, Talia sprinted across to where the Regent knelt, hooked up to an auxiliary power truck. Scaling the chainlink ladder and pulling it up behind her felt like a homecoming; so did stuffing her battledress jacket into a storage locker and hooking sensor and coolant feeds up to her cooling suit. A familiar, centring ritual.

Running through the final power-up sequence, Talia checked her neurohelmet’s throat-mic was in place and live before speaking slowly and deliberately. “Pattern check, initiate. Hauptmann Talia Yuen.”

<{“Voice print confirmed.”}> the soft, feminine computer voice, unchanged since the first Mackie took to the Yakima testing range more than half a millennium ago, responded. <{“Initiating code phrase check.”}>

“Lux e tenebris.” From darkness, light. Her family’s motto.

Displays lit in a riot of colour, power and weapons readouts. Inertial compass. Targetying system.Tactical map displays. Talia focussed in on the last, resisting the urge to curse as she saw the icons of Kirklin’s company pushing forward after the retreating Wolves, leaving the lone icon of Rayne’s Barghest standing still.

“Ma’am.” Even covered by her neurohelmet’s ’s visor, Talia could see spots of colour high on Rayne’s dark-tanned features. “Hauptmann Kirklin directs me—”

“What did she say?” Talia pushed her Regent Assault OmniMech up to a low walk, moving to take her place in the defence.

“She said to… to teach your grandmother to suck eggs, and that I was a —” Rayne’s flush deepened, and the cadet took a moment to control her emotions before simply saying, “She offered insult, Ma’am.”

"She was just as green as you, her first time in the ring, girl. Now, get on back to your position. We've got work to do."

When she was a cadet, Talia had watched the controlled demolition of a skyscraper, to clear ground for new development. The destruction of Kirklin’s company reminded her of that accelerating collapse, where it had seemed, briefly, that nothing was happening and then everything began to happen at once.

One moment, Kirklin’s company were chasing a weaker foe, withdrawing in good order. The next, as the fleeing Wolves turned suddenly at bay, dropping the jamming fields that had shrouded them two fresh trinaries emerged from hiding, pouring fire into Kirklin and her troops. Damage codes flickered faster than her eyes could track, the Long Toms’ salvoes redoubling in intensity, shredding through ammunition and barrel life at maximum rate to try and arrest the inevitable.

Turkina (by SU-SMD)

Turkina Assault OmniMech

It wasn’t enough. Within less than a brace of minutes the Hesperan company was gone — Kirklin dying last, a monstrous Tomahawk II Assault OmniMech eviscerating her Atlas even as her own fire ripped the arm and shoulder mounts from a Turkina — save for a fleeing Sarath Quad OmniMech, its turret blown apart, and a short squad of Standard battlesuits clinging to the Sarath’s back.

And just like that, a company of veteran troops with a solid commander get pasted. Damn. There was no time for more; the Wolves were still advancing.

“Call it out, people. Any backup we’ve got, now.”

The Tribune’s crew offered a combined arms battalion, mixed Davion Guards and Stormhammers, driving up from the south and twenty minutes out. That was good, better was who was leading it. Julian Davion, a name and a reputation that was worth that battalion twice over. Rosenthal added a demi-squadron of Stukas Heavy Fighters, five minutes out, but only for one pass before they’d need to break off and rearm.

It’ll do. “Rosenthal, call the strike.” Talia ordered, reaching her own chosen position, holding the gap between the cadet BattleMechs and Virgil’s lance. Exactly the place to put the best machine you had. She closed her eyes for a moment, just listening to the comms traffic.

“ … remember, aim high on an Elemental. Take out the missile launcher and the suit’s power pack goes with it.” Leutnant Price, briefing another of the cadet battlesuit troopers.

“ … Yankee White squadron, confirm attack direction west. Targets in open, you are cleared hot.” Rosenthal, calm and collected as he guided the aerospace pilots in.

“ … that’s it, boys. Keep those pretty backsides towards me and the sharp ends at the Clanners. I can restrain myself and they can’t.” Virgil, coolly amused and contemptuous of the Wolves.

“ … first man that runs gets my bayonet in his guts.” Scatter from the militia infantry’s squad channels, some nameless NCO with a warning as old as battles. Her mother’s words, from that long night of drunken truths before she’d deployed for the first time, came to Talia; The first task of command is to make men and women face death. Love, respect, fear; you use whatever works.

And the Wolves came on, more numbers now than she had now. But not enough to win decisively. “Don’t think of it as being outnumbered, people.” Talia put as much of a smile in her tone as she could, “Think of it as having a nice big target selection.” Scattered chuckles answered that.

She drew her target-lock markers onto the Tomahawk centring the Wolves’ advance. Almost certainly their CO, those things were rare enough that they wouldn’t be trusted to a lesser warrior.

Stuka Heavy Fighter (Battletech Space Wars Game Mod)

Stuka Heavy Aerospace Fighter

The Stukas came blazing out of the heavens, so fast they were barely on her screens before leaving them. The thunder of near-sonic flight nearly overwhelmed the noise of their autocannon and particle beams sowing destruction through the Wolf formation. Armour spalled away from tanks and ‘Mechs, battlesuits came apart. Talia saw at least two ‘Mechs, a Mad Cat III, and an Executioner lose limbs, and the turret of an M1 Marksman Tank rose into the air on a pillar of fire as its missile magazines blew.

“Let ‘em have it, people.” Talia called, stepping her machine forward into full view as she stabbed out lightning blasts at the Tomahawk.


Feeling the Pressure[]


Wolf Clan Command Post
Bremen Continent


Seth Ward's choice for his primary landing point had been an obvious one to Alaric and, as it turned out, the defenders. Without safcon the descent itself had been a rough experience and only through the profligate use of NL-45s and Isegrim Stars had they shot down enough Lyran aerospace to ensure safe landings for Alpha and Beta Galaxies. The move had, at least, ensured the other Galaxies a less-eventful landing despite harassing strikes by Arcadian aerospace elements on Delta Galaxy's landings. Nevertheless, after three days of battle it was clear the Wolves' victory would not be an easy one.

Seth Ward looked up from a fresh report from Heidelberg while the holotank continued to show the broad image of their operations. Alaric hid the grin at his frustration over the utter failure to accomplish everything. "Cooper continues to struggle?" he asked.

"These Arcadians fight more strongly than we expected given the Sea Foxes' information," Seth said. "Zeta has made no progress, nor Delta."

"I see. Still, they keep those Arcadian formations from joining the defense of Tharkad City, and contribute to our cause in that fashion," Alaric pointed out. He indicated the holotank's markings. "Gamma Galaxy has already broken one of their composite units and moves to secure the Lockheed-CBM facilities near Cold Creek. Kappa Galaxy forces the Buena Guards to remain in their positions at Weibetal to protect the TharHes facilities, and my Beta Galaxy is already holding down approaches to Tharkad City itself and pins the First Royal Guards to the Nagelring. Once Alpha is committed we can force an entry into the Triad."

"The First Davion Guards are not wholly drawn out," Seth reminded him. "And the Arcadians' raiders vex Gamma and Kappa Galaxy's supply lines."

"Yet they dare not come under the guns of our reserve formations or our DropShips," Alaric pointed out. "I have tasked two of my aerospace binaries to intercepting them when they next move over Bremen. The raiders will be forced to disperse for evasion." Which will reduce their capacity for mayhem well enough, he added mentally, though he felt it didn't need stating. "As for the Davions, they are already drawn into fighting with my Clusters. Once Alpha is committed I will bring my best Cluster across their flank, here." He indicated the regions east of the Rail Yards. "We have worn down their defenses enough to ensure an aerospace approach vector. Together our best galaxies will strike at the Triad from two sides."

"I will take the Triad." Seth insisted. "You will hold the Davions in place." His lips curled into a disdainful grimace. "Do this well, Alaric, and I will nominate you for the next Bloodright to become available in our Bloodhouse."

It sounded like a generous pledge. But you will jump at the weakest Bloodright to offer me, and use my refusal, if it comes, to deny me further opportunities. And if I accept it… you will find other means to undermine me based on that choice. Regardless Alaric could not say such out loud. "Tharkad City will be ours. Have you given thought to preventing the Lyran and Arcadian leaders from fleeing our victory?"

"I have held an aerospace reserve to intercept and disable any ships fleeing the Triad." he said. "Once we have killed Archon Melissa and eliminated her protectors, the rest of their leadership will be our isorla or die."

With that, the Lyran Commonwealth disintegrates, even if we are forced to fall back from renewed Arcadian reinforcements, Alaric thought. The Arcadians will be caught in a swamp of seceding worlds and local rulers and we — I — will have the breathing room we need.

"Return to your warriors and prepare for my signal," Seth ordered. "It will not be long in coming."

"Aff, my Khan."


Turn their gaze to the incoming Pack of Wolves[]


The Triad
Tharkad City
23th June, 3143


The War Room's holotank displayed the state of the ongoing battle. It provided Nathaniel a worthwhile visual aid to understand all of the reports coming in though, as always, it struck him as terrible impersonal. All of those towns marked in amber are homes for thousands, millions, of innocent Tharkadians now under the Clan boot, he thought. The losses are numbers, but represent so much death. So many souls lost to us. So many good people. His eyes journeyed towards the continents where the majority of his soldiers were fighting two of the Wolf Galaxies. By numbers the battles should have been in their favor, given the size of the forces engaged, but the Wolves were living up to their reputations. The Third Proctor Guards held Hersch Pass only by a sliver and were being slowly levered out of the Dietz River Valley by weight of firepower. The fighting on Heidelberg was static, but the Wolves' ferocity had led to losses on both sides.

Holotank (Mass Effect Version)

War Room's Holotank

This is what you want, cousin, he thought, his mind wandering to Lord Arnold back home. All this death, all to claim systems that have not flown our flag in peace since before you were born. You survived this hell, but maybe it changed you. Maybe you grew to like it? Why else would you press me so on readying to begin it again?! Nathaniel chuckled bitterly. And yet here I am. The warrior-king on a holy crusade.

Jasek glanced his way. "Highness?"

"Hrm?" Nathaniel shook his head. "Idle thoughts, Lord Jasek, nothing but idle thoughts of arguments at home. Is there more you wish to share with me?"

"Your Arcadian Rangers have taken some losses trying to hit Gamma Galaxy's rear areas," Jasek noted. "One of their raiding commands lost two assault dropShips to aerospace interception. But they have the Wolves' attentions diverted and Brigadier Fraser's keeping the tempo up."

Nathaniel nodded. More lives lost. "Then the strategy continues to go as well as we could hope."

"That's better than we've experienced since HAMMERFALL, Highness." Jasek Kelswa-Steiner answered wryly. "That's why I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"It usually does." Matthew Proctor-Steiner-Davion approached the two with his eyes on the holotank. "General Proctor's asking permission to launch a flanking counter-attack, he thinks he's got an opportunity to inflict a big loss on the Wolves."

Jasek brought up more information on the fight on Heidelberg. "Ordinarily I'd insist he not do such a thing." Jasek said. "It's too risky."

"Typically you don't expose yourself when your enemies are happily throwing themselves into your fields of fire." Matthew said with a certain bemused flippancy. Nathaniel considered if he might ever be jaded enough to talk that way about killing. When you see so much death in your life, I suppose you find shelter in dismissal of it. "But General Proctor knows his unit and he's not a gloryhound. If he thinks the Second Guards can deliver a hammer to the Wolves' flank I'm inclined to say yes."

"You know your commanders better than I, General. And the Second's been holding up well enough that I don't doubt their morale."

Matthew chuckled. "They're used to having to stamp down Communalist guerrillas that the UOG keeps arming in Porrima March. Now they've got a real fight. Shooting at proper BattleMechs is a relief from walking on eggshells." He turned his head to Nathaniel. "My Lord, shall I signal our blessing?"

Nathaniel thought on it for a moment before nodding. "Do so." General Bridger, the younger, would have launched without asking. Will do so if the Wolves provide him such an opening. He stared at the map and tried not to think of all the lives being lost in the hundred or so firefights breaking out across Tharkad.

"Trillian wasn't lying about you," Jasek said. When Nathaniel glanced towards him, he added, "She said you weren't a warrior type. You're playing one, but deep down, you just want this over."

"Don't we all?"

"I want the Commonwealth saved, and Skye recovered. After that, well.” Jasek shrugged. “To be honest, I’d probably stay in the army anyway, Highness. It’s a career, and I am quite good at it. And even in peace, I think there’s always going to be a need for soldiers."

"A necessary one, I know." Nathaniel shook his head. "Yet I wish it were not so. War is a plague on mankind, and it has cost us all too much."

"So it has." Jasek looked beyond Nathaniel. His eyes hardened. "And there it is."

"Hrm?"

"The other shoe just dropped."

Nathaniel turned to the display to find out what he meant. He was greeted by the sight of multiple Wolf icons, including all of the markers with the Greek letter alpha attached, in motion.

They were all headed right for Tharkad City.


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