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Emergence (Concertverse)
- Chapter 3

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Part 1[]

AFS Arcadia, In Orbit
Timkovichi, Coventry Province
Lyran Commonwealth
12 August 3142

The reports from the surface were encouraging, at least, or so Lord Paul thought.  The "Jade Falcons" were being smashed by a concentrated effort of the 8th Strikers, the 1st Kell Hounds, and one of the 4th Grenadiers' regiments, while the other was busy assisting the… "other" Kell Hounds in fighting the "Hell's Horses".

While it wasn't unheard of for military units to adopt animal names as unofficial nicknames or code names, entire organized bandit forces like this sounded outlandish.  Especially given the reports he was getting of the sophistication of their technology, much of it "Royal" Terran equivalent instead of 'Star League vintage.  Where did such people get the means to produce that level of technology?

These were questions occupying him as Lord Paul entered the wardroom on one of the ship's grav decks. Arcadian design philosophy typically doubled or even tripled the number of grav decks per ship, accepting the increased maintenance needs for the expanded facilities and living quarters for the plentiful times when a WarShip could not be kept under thrust.  Grav Deck 2, for instance, had the wardroom and infirmary, complete with surgical theaters, every room configured to switch between the orientation of thrust-provided gravity to the spinning grav decks.

Waiting for him were a number of his captains, as well as Admiral Kruger and Captain Dante of the Ghastillan fleet.  While the Royal Federation officers were in their red duty uniforms with black Naval highlighting and blue trim, the Ghastillians had blue uniforms with an orange barnous draped on the shoulders and similarly orange highlights.  Admiral Kruger saluted with the others and Lord Paul returned it all.  "At ease.  General Bridger reports that the battle below is entering a clean-up phase, and S&R missions are already under way for the enemy ships destroyed in orbit.  That leaves the more pressing matter."

"This."  The word came from Captain (Lady) Karla Proctor-Steiner, CO of the Arcadia and a granddaughter of the late High King Ethan Proctor-Steiner, as she tapped a key and lit up the wardroom's display holotank with a three-dimensional image of the "jump field" persisting high above Timkovichi.  Her bright blue eyes matched the color on the image, which played over her bronze skin in the light.  "We've all logged hundreds of jumps in our lives.  Nobody has ever heard of anything like this?"

There was a shaking of heads.  "It felt like what they say a misjump would feel like," Admiral Kruger noted, his accent a thick Teutonic one.  "I thought I was dying."

"I think we all did," Lord Paul noted solemnly.  "So, we have no idea what it is.  A theory, then?"

A voice with Skye burr spoke up.  Captain Quinton Fitzhugh was a tall spacer man who looked more like a permanent JumpShip dweller than a normal WarShip captain.  Since he was the commander of the transport JumpShips, that was unsurprising.  "Aye.  Whatever happened, I ken it's our way home."

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean, sir, is that I heard th' broadcasts from below.  This isnae our Inner Sphere," Fitzhugh insisted.  "I ken how it sounds, but think about it.  These folk aren't like anythin' we've seen before.  Th' planetary authorities aren't even th' right ones."  He looked expectantly at the Ghastillian officers.

Kruger shook his head.  "They are not.  They insist they are in the Coventry Province of the Lyran Commonwealth.  They know nothing of Ghastilla."

"Right."  The JumpShip skipper sounded satisfied.  "So let's let our minds play a bit, dinnae fash yeself about what sounds 'real', just what might be.  We have a misjump of sorts that drops us intae orbit of a planet, tae close for a pirate point.  An' everything sounds wrong here.  The locals dinnae call themselves Ghastillian, they say they're Lyran.  These 'Clans' are about an' none tae friendly.  Even th' HPGs are actin' strange.  Everythin' says th' world isnae right.  So stands tae reason we're not in th' right world."

"You mean like some of those science-fiction holovids of alternate histories?" Captain Choudhury asked.  "We're in such a history?"


"So what does that have to do with getting home?"

Fitzhugh gestured to the image.  "Well, it's a field.  A K-F field, alright.  I say we fly intae th' thing, see what happens.  Fly a remote drone in first, then bring it back."

"Assuming the drone survives, we may still be cut off from contact," Lord Paul pointed out.  "We won't be able to bring it back through."

"So we leave a program in th' thing, tell it tae turn about an' come home", Fitzhugh suggested.  "Or attach some holos an' have it transmit, tell people tae send it back if they find it."

Lord Paul considered the proposal.  He considered any thought of flying in a manned ship, even a DropShuttle, to be out of the question, at least until they had more information.  But Fitzhugh's approach would give them a chance of finding out what they needed to know without unnecessarily risking lives.  "Alright.  Can this be done?"

"Work the drones right, and yes," Captain Kevin Sheffield of the Emancipator said.  "It can be."

"Then let's have our technicians get to work," Lord Paul said.  "Anything else?"

"Any word from below?" asked Captain Choudhury.  The Bolanese man's expression was tight with uncertainty, but so were most of the others.  Everything had happened so fast, and now the questions were just piling in.  Could they get home?  Would they get home?  What was going on here?  Having something concrete and certain to speak of was a relief from that, at least.  "Have we suppressed those murderous 'Clans'?"

"General Bridger's last report indicated so, yes," Lord Paul said.  "Enemy forces are defeated or surrendered, with a few potential diehards left."  He nodded to Kruger.  "The 4th is assisting the local units in dealing with them."  He didn't see fit to refer to said local units by their self-described name.  If Captain Fitzhugh is right, then at least it explains the disparity.  Two Inner Spheres, different histories, but yet Kell Hounds in both?  I wonder what else is repeated? "We will let the Techs get to work on the matter of the drone.  In the meantime, allow the crews to stand down from combat alert and see to casualties.  Assure them everything is handled."

He was answered with "Aye"s and nods and called the meeting to a close.  Everyone with the exception of Admiral Kruger filed out.  "If your JumpShip driver is correct, it would change so much," Kruger said.  "For all of us."

"Indeed. Especially…"  He hesitated, but Kruger's expectant look prompted him to keep speaking.  "...especially if this is something that can be repeated."

"Ja," was the only reply his allied counterpart gave.

The city of Cirenholm was yet to return to normal, but at least the killing was over.  Now it was time for the medics and local rescue personnel to see to the injured.  Some of the intact Sunhawk 'Mechs aided as they could, the MechWarriors following directions on moving debris with hand-actuator arms and the like.

Evangeline wasn't one of them.  Her 'Mech, damaged so thoroughly, now stood among the other damaged units in the shadow of the landed Charles Sinclair.  She sat on the foot of her machine, neurohelmet cast aside, letting the cool wind blow through her dark hair and sunburnt face while her mind struggled to process everything.  Under her dark red cooling suit with blue trim and gold highlights, she could feel the tank top and shorts were still soaked in sweat.  By all rights she should be looking for a shower and a change into a fresh suit, but her mind wasn't  focused on such.  Lance Lieutenant von Krager's dead.  So is MacDonald.  And Captain Kincaid died… just like that.

She'd watched their deaths, Kincaid and then von Krager.  The latter, coming from a machine that by all rights should've fallen well before it got to that point, seemed a particular mockery. As if their enemy simply wouldn't die. She remembered pumping laser fire into the enemy machine and watching it essentially disintegrate, yet she kept firing, screaming for it to go down, even when it was and her lasers and PPC were accomplishing nothing but melting scrap and the ground beneath, overheating her 'Mech until it finally shut down.  Yet she was still squeezing the triggers for several seconds before Major Perez's voice crackled over her speakers.  "Stand down Lieutenant!  Stand down now!"

They have to be dead. They have to be.  The Captain, Lance Lieutenant von Krager, Tom, they can all rest knowing that thing's dead.

She wanted to cry.  She wanted to curl up and just cry at it all.  The death and devastation… what was it for?  What was it all for?  How had her parents endured this?

A shadow cast over her.   She looked up into the sunburnt face of Lieutenant Kilroy, in a bedraggled cooling suit like hers.  The unit patch of the 8th Strikers on his sleeve matched hers, and his rank insignia of a single silver bar likewise.  "Well, lass, looks like we're fit for the lobster pot," he said cheerfully in an Arcadian Islay burr.  It lacked the thickness of a Skye accent like the late Thomas MacDonald's.

"You heard?"

"Aye."  He plopped down onto the dirt and grass beside her.  "The Lance Loo and the Captain.  Bad day, all around."

"We got them though," Evangeline said.  "That… that thing is dead."

"You did that, right?  Heard the Major 'imself had to talk you down," Kilroy remarked.  "Aye, you've got a fine angry streak in ye, Eva.  That pilot's lucky to be alive."

Her eyes widened at hearing that.  "What?  The pilot's alive?"

"It's what I heard from the salvage crews.  Not in the best of shapes, with her cockpit the mess it was, but they've got her in the infirmary on the Sinclair."

Evangeline clenched her fists.  How?  How is that possible? God, how could it be right?!  Captain Kincaid and Lieutenant von Krager are dead and that… that monster still lives?!

"Woh." Kilroy took her hands.  "Don't ye fash yourself about it.  I can't imagine she'll live long given the number you and that Awesome pilot did to her 'Mech."

"She's lived too long already," Eva sighed bitterly.

"Why don't ye come with me?  They've got a mess set up.  I think ye can use some grub."

"I'm…" The truth was she was hungry, but could she trust her stomach with good the way she felt?  She felt sick at knowing the killer of his superiors, officers who fought to keep her alive, was still breathing.  It was a mockery by a cruel universe.

Yet the look on Kilroy's face would brook no opposition.  Evangeline sighed, nodded, and stood, following him toward the growing bivouac outside of the AFS Charles Sinclair.

It wasn't hard for them to find the mess tent, given the smells coming from within.  The cuisine was heavily Arc-Royal, a combination of Germanic and Irish influences that heavily favored sausage and potatoes and all the varieties thereof.  The cooks were a mix of the 8th Strikers' commissary personnel and what Evangeline figured to be the locals.  A bowl of what looked like a sausage stew and a healthy portion of potatoes in a white gravy were provided to her and Kilroy.

They were about to take a seat when they were approached by a figure in a field uniform, undoubtedly hastily added to cover a cooling vest and shorts.

“Hey.” A slight, wiry young woman, with dark hair and skin and pale grey eyes, she had one arm bound up - with a green-and-blue checkered scarf, of all things - across her chest in a gel-filled support cast, and half her face swathed in bandages. “Leutnant Allison Palisser, Timkovichi Armoured Guard. Just … just wanted to say thanks, really, for saving our lives back there.”

"Leutnant."  Kilroy grinned and, after setting his food down, saluted in respect.  "I'm guessin' you were that Awesome pilot?  Well done job there.  Your machine looked almost as bad as that wanker ye brought down.  As for the introductions, I'm Lieutenant Kevin Kilroy, 1st Battalion 8th Strikers.  This is my lancemate, Lieutenant Evangeline Penton-Vallejo."  He gestured to Evangeline while she likewise set her tray down.

Allison saluted in turn. “I’m willing to bet you’ve both got me by date of rank, Leutnants,” she smiled, very slightly. “And, yes, Say Your Prayers is mine. She’ll be fine, given a few weeks in a repair bay; my great-grandmother had her shot down almost to bare structure twice in the Jihad and still made it through.” Allison’s expression sobered. “Not like your friends, I’m afraid. Still, I’m glad Lady Trillian got you here in time to save our necks.”

Given the pain hadn't receded at all, Evangeline was surprised at the stab of pain she felt at the reminder.  Only at the last moment did the final sentence register enough for her to react.  "Lady Trillian?"

“Trillian Steiner-Davion, ja,” Allison replied. “She said she was going to get Colonel Kell whatever reinforcements she could, but this is a whole lot more than we were expecting.”

There was no mistaking the confusion on their faces, and Allison was quick to pick up on it.  "Lady Trillian didn't send you?"

"No, she didn't," Kilroy answered.  "To be honest, I'm not sure who could be said to have sent us except God Almighty Himself.  We were jumpin' into Timkovichi for some trainin' and war games with the Principate and Canopians, then it felt like we were bein' pressed through a grinder, suddenly we're in orbit and gettin' the call to make a combat drop under hostile fire."

“Canopians?” Allison blinked. “Why the hell would they be halfway across the Sphere for exercises? Especially with us - we hate them almost as much as the Davions do!”

Evangeline watched the confusion deepen on her lancemate's face.  She was numb to it all at the moment, even if her mind felt a catch at it all.  The Canopians were part of the Spinward Pact, and had been since the start. They'd even sided with the Royal Federation against Scipio O'Reilly during the short-lived Scipian Dominate of the late 31st Century, if she remembered right.  They'd certainly done nothing to win the hatred of people in former Lyran space.

"The Canopians are, well, loose in their morals, as my mum would've put it, but what's this from?  They've been allied to the Lyran Alliance states since…"  Kilroy stopped and blinked.  "Oh, this is givin' me a headache.  Ye're talkin' about stuff like a Jihad and a Lady Steiner-Davion, and now this, and I ken ye're havin' trouble with what we're sayin'.  And with that weird jump, it's like the world's..."

"...gone wrong," said Evangeline.  "Like something slipped loose in the gyro and now you can't keep your 'Mech straight."

“Hell, the instructors at Buena were always telling me to talk less, listen more.” Allison blushed a little. “Sorry, for, well, assuming.”

"Well, it's not every day that ships jump into high orbit of a planet, that's got us all out of sorts," Kilroy pointed out.  He gestured to an extra seat at the table.  "Anyways, why not get to yer tatties while they're warm?  That was a crazy fight with that winged 'Mech and I know I've got the stomach grumbles."

“I’m good with that,” Allison agreed. “Bringing down a Khan’s hungry work.” At their looks of confusion, she explained, “That was Malvina Hazen, the Falcon Khan herself, we were taking on; that black rose symbol on the Shrike, it’s the blood-mad bitch’s personal emblem, LCI are positive on that.”

They didn't need to specifically know what Clans were to guess what a 'Khan' was, given standard military education usually touched on the Mongols at least.  "We were fighting a command unit, I knew, but their main command unit?" Eva said, realizing it all made sense.  "We should've called for more support."

"Aye, well, it came quick enough, but that Hazen woman's an insanely good MechWarrior."  Kilroy dug a fork into his potatoes and gathered a bite. "She took down a Malleus like it was the slowest helo ye'd ever see.  We'd all best be thankin' God we're still alive."

“Yeah.” Allison nodded, her expression pensive. “Before you guys hit the ground, I was … pretty sure I was gonna die in the next thirty seconds. Which wouldn’t have been that bad, but I was pretty sure we were gonna lose, too.”

"If she's the one who ordered all the killings we were sent to stop..."  ...then Captain Kincaid and Lieutenant von Krager and Tom MacDonald died for something, Eva finished in her mind, while aloud she only managed, "...then it was worth it.  I mean, all of it.  Losing Captain Kincaid and Lieutenant von Krager."

Kilroy swallowed and nodded once at Eva.  "Aye, they'll rest easy then.  And I think they'd be wantin' ye to see to yer needs, Eva."  He gestured to her food.

That prompted her to take her first bite.  The taste was what she expected, but with a tinge of sourness to it.  Not from the food, but her thoughts.

By the time he arrived at the Kell Hounds’ Praetorian mobile HQ, Jacob Tanhause had managed to change into a clean uniform and - with the aid of half an e-rat bar and a mug of cold coffee - felt something close to human again. He waited for a moment while the infanteer on guard duty checked his ID, and then waved him on.

Colonel Kell and Leftenant-Colonel Allard were immediately obvious, standing at the holographic contour map and discussing the day’s action. They were studies in opposites; Nadia Allard was young for her rank, a short - just barely over the LCAF’s minimum height requirement - and slim brunette, wearing an immaculately tailored and pressed uniform, and combat engineering collar tabs, speaking in low, quiet tones while standing almost immobile; Evan Kell was big, tall and broad-shouldered, his respectable-but-worn battledress jacket half-unbuttoned over a cooling vest as he made expansive gestures over the map table, red-blonde hair greying at the temples and a v-shaped scar cutting across the right hand side of his face, just missing his eye.

Conversation stopped as they noticed him, and Evan waved Jacob over to join them. “Good to see you, Kommandant - Jacob.” He gestured at the map, scattered with times and details of actions. “We were just discussing today, and waiting for you and the CO of this Eighth Striker to show up. It’s been a helluva day.”

Jacob nodded at that, smiling without any kind of humour. “Better than it could’ve gone, sir.”

That got a deep, booming, “Hah!” and a slap on the back that nearly knocked Jacob sprawling from Evan. “True enough, that; and I’d have been blamed for it going that wrong. I know, Nadia, I know,” he raised a hand to cut off Allard as she started to speak, “You didn’t guess she’d be willing to wipe out her own forces to get us either, but I should have guessed. Kelswa-Steiner told us she’d used nukes on Skye and Glengarry, it’s not like Warship fire’s an escalation from that. And Malvina’s shown us a dozen times that she doesn’t care about any lives if they get in the way of winning.”

“Be that as it may, sir,” Nadia replied, “I think we can save the recriminations for later. General Bridger will be here soon, and we need to bring Kommandant Tanhause into the overall picture.”

“Right.” Evan stepped over to the control panel, refocusing the map on the rolling hills to the west. “The situation is, more or less, we’ve won. Both Falcon trinaries are down, thanks to our new allies, and it turns out the Horses weren’t that happy to die for Malvina’s victory when they figured out that was what almost happened. Still figuring out their losses, but we’ve confirmed a Cluster and a half of casualties, and three trinaries surrendering to us. Gotta check with the Arcadians what they’ve confirmed, but it looks like only part of one Cluster - Triple-Sixth Mechanised, from the markers; lot of ProtoMechs - made it out; into the hills, going guerilla.”

Their conversation came to an end with the distant whump-whump-whump of helo blades whipping in the air.  They emerged to see a pair of VTOLs on approach, larger transport models although still having just one rotor blade apiece.  One was in orange and black coloring with an insignia of three black arrows pointing outward through a red circle with a white-and-black ring around it.  The other had a sky blue and white paint job with a golden-winged white hawk.  They were virtually the same model, with differences making it clear they were OmniVTOLs and not simply variants of a design.

The craft came to a landing.  From the first emerged a man in a gray uniform with orange rank tabs on the lapels and a black beret on his head.  The presence of stars on the rank tabs made the flag rank obvious.  A similar insignia was on the woman that disembarked beside him, dark-toned skin and a lithe build, although her rank tab had an eagle instead of stars.

From the other VTOL came a middle-aged, silver-haired man of dark ebon skin, wearing a red uniform with a three star insignia on the colors, arranged in a square, with blue cuffs and shoulder borders and gold trim.  The name "Bridger" was in black on the right breast.  A tan-faced, shorter woman to his side had a one-star square on her collar and the name "Laguna".  A man of dark bronze complexion followed her, a golden hawk insignia in the place of the star, and a bindi mark on his forehead with the name "Patel".  The latter two each had the same unit patch that Jacob recognized from the units that dropped to his troops' aid.

It was the final pair of figures that caught their eyes and made the world seem to freeze.

There were differences in the uniforms, certainly, very minor things, but the sandy-haired woman with crow's feet set into the outer sides of her eyes and the taller man of light brown complexion were clad in a uniform that resembled a hound's head, with the ears reaching the shoulders and one acting as the clasp for a half-cape.  It was the unmistakable design of the Kell Hounds' own duty and dress uniforms.

"Colonel Kell?"  The man with the three-star insignia spoke first.  His accent was a firm tone, not quite Star League English.  "I'm General Bridger.  Lieutenant General Sir DeMarcus Bridger, in full, commander of Training Force Siegfried.  These are my subordinates.  General Joachim von Istenberg of the 4th Ghastillan Grenadiers, his XO Colonel Lady Louisa von der Kemp.  Brigadier Lady Ana Maria Laguna, Commander of the 8th Strikers, and her XO Colonel Jagdish Patel."  Bridger's voice took on a certain tone that made it clear he knew the next part would be the most difficult for them.  "And Colonel Deirdre Ward and Lieutenant Colonel John Fromm of the 1st Kell Hounds."

Jacob was the least afflicted by the announcement, which immediately hit his perception of reality and skittered off.  But it was impossible for Evan and Nadia to enjoy the same detachment.  Nadia paled, as though she’d seen a ghost; Evan’s reaction was more aggressive, face reddening as his big, shovel-like hands with their brawler’s scars clenched and unclenched in time with his breathing. Then, after a moment, he forced himself to breath out, slowly and fully, hands resting at his side. “Well, this is a hell of a lot more effort than anyone but my niece’d go to for a joke,” Evan commented, “so I guess I’ve gotta take you as you are, Colonel Ward. At least for now. As for introductions on my end,” Evan gestured, “I’m Colonel Evan Kell, also of the Kell Hounds; my exec and CO of the First Regiment, Leftenant-Colonel Nadia Allard; and Kommandant Jacob Tanhause, senior surviving officer of the Timkovichi Armoured Guard.”

Everyone present noticed the reactions.  A certain sympathy showed on Ward's face, but she didn't flinch from Evan's immediate response either, and Fromm had the same look Tanhause had.  "Colonels.  Kommandant."  Bridger nodded.  "Before we get to the long-tailed meguana in the room, so to speak, we might as well finish business first.  The hostile force is mostly surrendered or destroyed, and prisoners have been taken.  The enemy forces that escaped, including those over-sized battle armors, will be pursued by the 8th Strikers as needed to keep them from going to ground.  As for prisoners, a few of them committed suicide, or attempted it, while others are already inquiring about serving in our forces.  As if we would simply recruit them.  Frankly we have no clue why they're behaving this way, but I figure you can explain."

“They’re totally serious, General.” Evan smiled. “I’ll see about my staff getting you a full primer, but, well - most Clanners don’t have any issue with losing what they figure’s a good, clean fight, and they’re thinking you’ll take them as bondsmen - let ‘em earn their way back to combat status working for you. I’m guessing the suicide attempts were ones who couldn’t deal there; bondsref, they call it.”

Bridger and the others processed the thought.  It was Colonel von der Kemp who finally spoke.  "So, they willingly go over to their enemies, and those that refuse commit suicide?  And… this isn't a ruse?  They are loyal to you?"

"Been that way with us for nearly a century, and among their own for longer," Evan answered.  "They stay loyal to the new boss. It's just how their culture works, how they’ve been taught to think about it; that you’ve beaten them, and the better warrior deserves to be in charge. And, like I said, most of ‘em don’t tend to hold grudges over what they reckon’s a fair fight."

"Given your casualties, and that you have experience with them, perhaps you should take responsibility then," Bridger suggested.  "It's clear that there's a lot we must learn about… everything.  And about what's gone on."  He nodded to Colonel Ward.  "Including the fact that we have two different versions of the Kell Hounds here."

"Well, he's got the look of a Kell, I'll give him that," Ward remarked.  "And the uniform's a bit off, but feels right.  Colors too.  I'm hoping Archduke Ethan's heirs come out like this one."

And now it is time to address the long-tailed meguana, thought Bridger.  "I suppose now that the killing has subsided we need to get to the bottom of things, like how there can be two different sets of Kell Hounds."  With Admiral Marik having informed him of Captain Fitzhugh's idea, Bridger asked, "Have you folks ever heard of the Royal Federation?  Or the Kingdom of Ghastilla?"

His answer was three shaking heads.  "The only Federation I'm familiar with is the Federated Suns," Evan answered.  "Which you clearly aren't; wouldn’t be, they’re fighting for their lives last we heard; and they haven’t put together a fleet like yours since Cholame."

Bridger nodded.  "Alright.  The Arcadian Free March?"

"Only Arcadia I've seen is a quiet border world down by Marik space, near Dar-es-Salaam," Jacob remarked.  "I was stationed there when I was a Leutnant, back in ‘11, actually. Nice people, but definitely not the center of their own March or anything."

"Well, I'll be damned," Bridger muttered.  "Maybe that old spacer is right..."

The AFS Emancipator drew as close to the field as any of the ships in the Arcadian force dared.  In the ship's command center, Captain Sheffield maneuvered himself through the micro-G and into his command couch, which he strapped himself into.  "Our status?"

A Technical Officer, Iola Montague, spoke up.  "The drone's been prepared, sir.  If it loses contact with us it'll send out a broad band call.  If we're in luck, there'll be a JumpShip close enough to pick up the signal before long and send her back."

"But it won't come back itself?"

"No sir."  That reply came from Lieutenant Commander Harold Ubuntu, one of the Officers of the Watch and chief technical officer (as opposed to the Chief Engineer, who minded the fusion plants and engines).  "We can't be sure how the drone will come out the other end.  So we can't guarantee it'd come back on its own.  Someone will have to guide it back."

"Well, let's hope someone's there to do just that," Sheffield sighed.  Assuming the other side has that thing too.  "See to it, Commander."

"Aye sir.  Officer Montague, deploy the drone."

"Aye sir, deploying drone."

The drone in question emerged from its compartment on the ship's hull.  Normally such camera drones were employed to examine damage on the hull or a nearby ship.  Now, however, its small electric ion drive drove the unmanned device, a flat cylinder about two meters long, toward the blue field.  All cameras remained fixed on the drone while it flew on toward the field.  Sheffield swallowed, wondering what would happen, if the drone would even make it through, or if the entire thing would prove a cruel illusion.  Will I get home to Darien and the boys?  He thought of his husband and their adopted children, how much it would hurt if they never came home.  If they were all written off for a misjump.

There was a flash.  The drone was gone.

Sheffield's eyes were on Lieutenant Lauven.  The Tharkad-born woman nodded at him. "It looked like a jump to me, sir.  The drone's gone through."

"But no radio communication?"

"None.  Control signal is down," said Montague.

"So, all we can do is wait." Sheffield folded his hands in his lap.  Please let someone be on the other side.  Please…

Part 2[]

The interior of the Mobile HQ|Praetorian Mobile HQ was quiet.  General Bridger and Colonel Kell sat at opposite ends of the holotank table with their groups.

"So, the Great Houses didn't fall here," Bridger said quietly, summing up what they'd just heard and read, mostly for the chance to play it out in his head.  "They survived the Succession Wars."

Evan nodded once.  "Not easily, but they did."

"And then these Clans came, and they're the descendants of Aleksandr Kerensky's army.  Because he didn't die on Terra and he took the SLDF out of the Inner Sphere before the Great Houses could recruit their countrymen into their armies."

"Right.  They ended up having their own little version of the Succession Wars, almost destroyed them, and Aleksandr's son Nicholas built the Clans out of the survivors."

Bridger took in another breath and rubbed at his forehead.  "I'll be damned.  You hear all sorts of stories about Deep Periphery colonies that regress to barbarism, or embrace wildly different cultures, but this is extraordinary."

"Wasn't for us, then or now," Nadia said bitterly.  "The Clans have always been trouble."

"And then ComStar broke in half and one half were this religious order that waged war on everyone," Laguna continued for her side.  "You make them sound like they were out of something by, I don't remember the name…"

"Azimov," said Colonel Patel.  "They sound like a corrupted version of Isaac Azimov's Foundation."

"I'll take your word for that, Colonel Patel.  But yeah, the Word of Blake waged the Jihad.  Nuked and poisoned a bunch of worlds.  Some of the Clans joined us in fighting back, and we eventually took Terra from them and broke 'em."

"And in the aftermath, you formed a new state around Terra, this 'Republic of the Sphere'."

Evan snorted.  "More like Devlin Stone did.  But he's made something of it at least.  At least, he did…"

"And then the HPG network died, and you can't get it back up, and the entire Inner Sphere descended into a new series of wars."

"That's about right, General, yes," Jacob answered.  "What's left of the Republic's staying quiet.  Word is they've got some kind of technology that forces ships to misjump if they enter the heart of Republic space, so they raid as they want and nobody's heard a thing of ships sent to return the favor."

"Everyone's got their own fighting to worry about," said Evan.  "The Commonwealth's reeling from the Clans.  The old Free Worlds League is back, but Alaric and his Wolves have been taking their worlds for a while now, and they're still trying to get Andurien back in the fold.  And the Dracs and Cappies are giving the Federated Suns hell right now."

"And what about you?" asked Jacob.

"We've had our own complicated history," said Bridger.  "Kerensky died on Terra.  DeChevalier couldn't keep most of his army from returning to their homes to fight for their houses.  He managed to secure Terra and surrounding worlds and oversaw Jerome Blake founding ComStar."

"The 1st Succession War cracked up the Houses, then they tried again anyway and collapsed," Deirdre continued, taking over.  "By the mid-29th Century all five Great Houses were either gone or mere shadows of what they were before.  People call the fighting afterward a 'third' Succession War, but really it was just a lot of pain and chaos for the Inner Sphere.  Over fifteen hundred worlds became independent, out of the survivors, but a lot of 'em ended up pirate havens or petty little empires for local nobles-turned-warlords, and they raided and counter-raided one another for everything from supplies to slave labor."

Bridger continued from there.  "The Terrans kept a minimum standard to things, and intervened when it was threatened, but they didn't have the interest or will to pick up any pieces.  Instead, the Successor States multiplied during the 30th Century.  Some were former regional governments asserting themselves, or entirely new ones forming among the independent worlds.  We worked, traded with the Terrans, and got technological recovery going."

As Bridger took a drink from an offered water canteen, Evan observed, "So your Kingdom of Ghastilla and the Royal Federation, you're formed from the systems that made their own Successor States?"

"Yes.  And in the early 31st Century, what we call the Renaissance period started.  By the 3020s we were even building some of our own Star League-era technology.  That ended up just getting everyone's appetites up, though, and starting around 3030, the Successor States began expanding rapidly into independent worlds.  Some slower, some faster, but the end result was the same; fighting over worlds intensified, and everyone geared up their militaries for it.  So we consider 3030 the start of the Second Age of War."

"A number of the Successor States didn't survive the Second Age."  Von Istenburg took over the narrative.  "Especially the first decade.  By the end of the 3030s the surviving powers were too strong to easily conquer, though, and the following wars were less decisive.  Which was when the Terrans got involved."

"They were humiliated in 3039 by the Capellan Empire, and they were too stubborn to become partners with any Successor State.  So they relied on their better technology and an initial blitz to try and forcibly subjugate us in 3050.  But we didn't break, counter-attacked, and after ten years Terra fell to our forces, putting an end to the Terran Union."

"Some interesting parallels," Nadia Allard murmured.   "3050 is when the Clans invaded the Inner Sphere and it was ten years later that we beat them on their own homeworlds, made them foreswear ever invading again."

"'God is a comedian with an audience afraid to laugh'," Bridger quoted with a half-grin.  "To return to our own history, everyone was exhausted by the fight with the Terrans, but their worlds were more prizes for us to fight over. We let ComStar keep Terra, under supervision, but the rest of the Union was divided by neighboring states, and nobody liked the shares they won.  So more fighting happened through the rest of the century."

"But nothing like a proper Succession War?" asked Jacob.

"Not until 3110.  The Capellan Empire attacked Andurien, again, and it spiraled.  The entire Inner Sphere ended up fighting one another, harder and nastier than ever before. That one, we called the 4th Succession War."

"Who won?" Nadia's question was the obvious one.

"Nobody, and everybody?  Ask ten different people and you'll probably get five or six answers at least," Brigadier Laguna chortled.  "We ended the war in 3120 after ComStar called a peace conference on Dieron.  Most of the leadership of the Successor States showed, or at least their top advisors, so someone called it the Congress of Dieron, and the results, the Peace of Dieron.  And the name stuck."

"As did the peace.  Not easily.  The Royal Federation tried to retake Sirius after the Congress made us give it back to the Capellans, but that effort went nowhere," Bridger explained, disdain on his expression making it clear it was an old frustration.  "There's the occasional raid or squabble over a planet, but nobody is willing to take it further, not anymore.  Too many Successor States feel they got something from the Peace of Dieron, so they won't jeopardize it, and they won't let it be jeopardized.  So whenever things get a little hot, the 'Concert of the Sphere' kicks in, and cools things down."

"Well, you've clearly kept something of an edge," Evan said.  "Maybe more than we did after the Jihad was settled."

Bridger chuckled.  "It's why we keep up the exercises, every year.  It's what we were jumping to Timkovichi for this year, our first practices with the Flavian Principate and their allies in nearly four years.  Lord knows how they're taking our absence."

It was impossible for the others to miss the tone in his voice.  It was an awkward moment indeed. "We'll be the best hosts we can manage, General, that I promise," Evan assured him.  "After what you've done for us… well, it's the least we can do."

"We'll have to see how the Navy's test goes, I suppose."  Those words were spoken with the tone of a man wondering if he was going to get to see his family again.  "Until then, any new developments on the stragglers?"

"They've spread out, but with your air power corralling them won't be too hard.  The worst news is here."  WIth some keystrokes, Jacob brought up a holographic map of a hilly, mountainous region along a river.  The image shifted to show a series of passages underneath the hills and crags.  "The Jansen Caves.  They're a local tourist site, mostly, although back in the day the SLDF used it for survive-and-evade exercises.  I'm guessing the Horses know that, since some of their surviving ProtoMechs are taking refuge in them.  The caves are big enough for the Protos, but not for an ordinary 'Mech or even a vehicle.  We'll need infantry to clear them out, and they'll take a lot of people with them."

"These 'ProtoMechs', they're the ones my soldiers reported fighting?" asked von Istenburg.  "The oversized battle armor?"

"That's one way to describe 'em.  Things are basically the next step up from battle armor, not quite to 'Mech weight."  Evan tapped a key to bring up battlerom footage of the fighting.  The others witnessed the small machines in holographic form, firing light anti-armor and anti-infantry weaponry in a battle with the Kell Hounds.  "Damn Horses, they're playin' it smart.  We press them too hard, they'll just fall back into the caves.  Could be months before we clear them out."

"Then I should have a word with Colonel Makepeace," said Brigadier Laguna.  At their interested looks, she said, "Like all Striker Armored Infantry Regiments, the 8th's includes an attached company of Spectres."


"Infantry special forces, highly trained, using sophisticated lightweight battle armor," Bridger said.  "They've got a visual camo system that lets them blend into environments, stealth armor, and ECM.  They're not as effective against armored units in a straight up fight, but if the Spectres do their job, they won't have one."

"Well, General Bridger, if you're offerin', I'm not sayin' no," Evan remarked.

"Consider the offer made and accepted then," Bridger replied.  "Brigadier Laguna will make the call now."

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