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Chapter 2[]

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Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little[]

The Vault[]

Caddo City, New Dallas
Free Worlds League
8 September 3007

Max, Frederick had noted, did not like jump-travel. Or travel at all. He didn’t say anything about it, but he tensed up if someone even drove at speeds he considered ‘too fast’. Dropships taking off and landing had him white-knuckled, and actual jumps made him so nervous that out of simple sympathy, the more experienced traveler had offered him a sedative usually reserved for those with Transit Disorientation Syndrome. The older man had declined though, stating that he didn’t like to medicate for anything that didn’t actually require that.

On a scale between comfort and JumpShips, the cooling vest and rad-suits being worn for the salvage work were about a three out of ten in Fredrick’s estimation of his new secretary’s discomfort.

However, the Geiger counters made it clear that rad-suits were needed for the men on the ground. The residual radiation was worse than Frederick had expected - probably evidence of the Mariks using particularly dirty nukes. In hindsight, that probably shouldn’t have surprised him. The Captain-General during the early First Succession War had been easily offended, he’d probably taken New Dallas’ refusal to accept the questionable benefits of joining the Free Worlds League the way a debutante took being turned down for a dance.

Being more used to the cooling vest part of the precautions, Frederick himself was having a better time than Max as they entered the vault that had been uncovered in the ruins.

The barracks building had survived the centuries fairly well - unlike much of the above-ground city it had been built to SLDF specifications, meaning that the years hadn’t done much to wear them down. That hadn’t been enough to save the inhabitants from the shockwaves or heat of a nuclear detonation, but it at least made it stand out among the other ruins.

Clearing it had required careful work by the company of combat engineers Frederick had recruited for the raid, supported by the Seventh Lyran Regulars BattleMechs, with their ability to move tons of debris with comparative ease. He’d brought four companies, leaving all of Second Battalion and a company each of the other two battalions in order to present a threadbare pretense that the Regulars were still on Wyatt.

Even SAFE - the Free Worlds League’ intelligence service - would have seen through that, but having deduced that half the regiment was missing, he figured they’d probably be too proud of that discovery to do more than warn inhabited worlds in raiding range that they might encounter the Seventh.

Forty ‘Mechs, working in shifts, could do an astounding amount of work and thus, not only was the ramp leading down into the old bunkers now cleared, there was also a wide roadway from the entrance to their dropships. That would make carting away the contents relatively easy.

“What are we looking at?” asked Max, looking at the shadowy shapes lying in the first cavernous vault.

It wasn’t a ‘Mech hangar - the ceiling was too low - but Frederick could decipher and order to what he was seeing. “I believe that’s an early-model Orion,” he answered, pointing at one of the dust-covered machines. Then he gestured to others behind it. “Several of them. And there must be other chambers beyond.”

Orion Heavy 'Mech

“There are, sir.” Captain Timothy Hickson of Charlie Company saluted as he approached. Frederick had drawn lots among the company commanders for who got first shot at exploring the contents and Hickson was the lucky devil. “Would you like the good news or the bad news?”

Max snorted slightly but Fredrick shook his head. “Bad first.”

“There’s more than we can take with us,” the slightly younger officer reported. “Which as bad news isn’t that bad, but it’s going to break some of the lads’ hearts.”

“That much?” Frederick exclaimed.

“‘Mechs, as you can see. Tanks. Artillery. Some aircraft… although, honestly, I don’t think those are serviceable.” Hickson shrugged. “Small arms, spare armor plating… we only have three dropships so there are some hard limits.”

“Well, that’s a Star League problem.” Frederick felt his lips curl into a smile, and he lightly smacked Hickson on the shoulder. “As long as no one knows we’ve been here, we can load up the best of it now and then arrange a follow-up expedition for the rest.”

He’d only been able to arrange a single Jumpship for the ‘raid’, so he’d brought a pair of Overlord-class dropships which were significantly underloaded with four companies of ‘Mechs and two squadrons of aerospace fighters, plus a Mule freighter for what they hoped to find. That was thousands of tons of lift capacity… he tried to rub his forehead and wound up patting the top of his rad-suit. “Can you give me an idea of the quantities involved?”

“I saw some kind of heavy tank - looked a bit like a Von Luckner - a couple of vaults further in,” Hickson told him. “There has to be full regiment of them down here.”

“A regiment!” Frederick exclaimed. He hadn’t cross-trained to serve with conventional troops like Katrina, but that didn’t make him the sort of fool that ignored their potential. A regiment of heavy tanks was a significant presence on the battlefield - and that alone could fill up the hold of the Mule.

Max took a deep breath. “Might be early-mark Merkavas,” he guessed. “They were the Hegemony’s preferred heavy tank right up until the Star League - Mark VII and VIII were fusion powered, it could be these are earlier models with diesel engines.”

Hickson shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure there’s some LTV-4s as well, why anyone would retire them I don’t know but that’s what they looked like. And then there’s the ‘Mechs.”

“I saw the Orion over there,” Frederick agreed, stepping aside as a work crew went by them, clearing the roadway for the flatbeds to come in and recover contents. I might have to leave the trucks behind, he thought. We can replace those, and the equivalent tonnage of parts could be worth a fortune. “How many ‘Mechs are we looking at?”

“I’m not sure,” the captain admitted. “Several companies worth. There’s not a lot of variety - but Archers, Orions, Rifleman… and about half the ‘Mechs seem to be Mackies. I can’t help but think that those belong in a museum. I didn’t think there were any left.”

Rifleman Heavy 'Mech

“We might donate one to a museum if we can’t fix it up,” Frederick told him. “But for now, we need to catalog what we have here - search thoroughly for anything that might be hidden - and figure out what to take. We can’t carry an entire regiment of ‘Mechs unless we start discarding our own…”

Archer Heavy 'Mech

“Take off the armor,” suggested Max quietly.


“They’re not operational,” his secretary pointed out. “And the Commonwealth can make armor without any difficulty. First generation ‘Mech armor was heavier than current standard plating, so it might as well be left behind. It’s just taking up tonnage and volume, plus the techs would need to remove it to make sure they’re fit for use. This way that can be replaced by fresh, modern armor that’s just as good - a heavy ‘Mech could save several tons with that.”

Hickson chuckled. “I guess we don’t need the armor from here either then?”

Max shrugged. “Check it. But with more than we can carry, that’s something we can set aside for later at the least.”

“Taking armor off a ‘Mech without wrecking it will take up technician-hours,” Frederick told him. “It’s all very well if we have the time but we can’t stay here indefinitely. If nothing else, we only have the food and other supplies for a couple of months.”

He looked around, hands on his hips. “We’ll get one ‘Mech of each model we found here back to the ‘Mech bays of our dropships and see if the techs can get the plating stripped quickly. If so, it could get us ten to fifteen percent more lift capacity. It’ll also give us a chance to see what we’re getting. No offense, Max, but if the armor’s that bad then the rest may also be barely worthwhile.”

“At least the LTV-4s will be fine,” Hickson offered reassuringly to the civilian. “We’re still using them today, so it’s just a matter of getting them loaded.”

“That’ll be second after the sample ‘Mechs,” decided Frederick. “By that point we should have enough of an inventory going. Your company can have the rest of the day to explore, Tim. But I will want a detailed map and report at the end of that.”

Max walked over to the Orion and tapped it with one gloved hand.

Watching him, Hickson lowered his voice. “Was he the source on where to find this?”

Frederick narrowed his eyes. He didn’t want stupid subordinates, but at the same time… “He had some of the information, I had some. We put it together.”

The captain’s grin was visible through his visor. “I thought he didn’t seem to be the normal staff a… senior officer brings around. But getting a lostech prospector into the mission under that cover makes more sense.”

“He’s actually working out as a secretary as well,” Frederick told the captain. Max had considerably more patience when dealing with some of Wyatt’s nobility than he did. A rather substantial number of that group had realized suddenly that they had a highly placed member of House Steiner on-hand who wasn’t married and there had been a ridiculous number of invitations before he managed to get the raid away. “Anyway, get on Hickson. You’ve got to be more interested in what else we find here than in my personal staff.”

The captain saluted again and strode off into the darkness, his hand-torch flashing over all sorts of interesting shapes as he went.

Frederick watched him for a moment and then turned to look at Max. “Ha-” He was cut off as his comm pinged urgently for attention - the tone that meant ‘no, really, this is an actual emergency’.

Reflexively, the young colonel reached for the device - currently inside his rad-suit - and managed to press the receive key. “This is Colonel Steiner.”

“Sir.” The voice wasn’t familiar yet. “Captain Moffat needs to speak to you. Captain?”

Moffat was in command of the Overlord-class dropship Shield of Skye, Frederick’s command vessel for the raid. His voice, at least, was identifiable. He, like his ship, was from the Isle of Skye, the heartlands of the pre-Lyran Federation of Skye.

“Colonel,” Moffat reported. “We’ve had an alert from the observation satellite that we left in orbit. Multiple jump-signatures at the Nadir jump point.”

“Damn!” Frederick exclaimed. That was lousy luck - this was a dead world, who would be visiting. “Well at least it’s the Nadir jump point - they might not realize we’re here.” Their own jumpship was waiting at the Zenith jump point, meaning that New Dallas’ star was between the new arrivals and them.

“I’m sorry, Colonel.” Moffat’s voice was apologetic. “There are also dropship plumes visible. A flotilla is headed in-system and there isn’t really any other planet they could be heading for.”

“...I see.” It was unlikely to be a coincidence, Frederick concluded. But almost no one had known that this was their destination. “Very well. Radio silence then - let our JumpShip know by tight-beam, and we can use low power transmissions for now without worrying about them being picked up in the outer star system. I assume they’re under normal thrust.”

“I don’t see anything to say otherwise, Colonel. So they’re likely to arrive in only four days - at best.”

Which meant three days to load everything that was possible, Frederick concluded. “Understood, we both have preparations to make. Get everyone up and working, we’ll be eight on and four off for the next forty-eight hours.” By that time, they’d know if whoever was arriving had enough strength that the Regulars would be better off escaping, or if they could hold their ground while more was taken onto the dropships.

Cutting the channel, he strode over to Max - who had turned already, overhearing some of the conversation. “We have a problem.”

Max waited as he outlined the situation and then scowled. ComStar.”

“ComStar?” They were neutral - or at least had to pretend to be. Taking a side here was something that seemed unlikely to Frederick. What would they gain at the cost of endangering their status? He said as much.

The older man shook his head. “They know we’re here for a reason, and they know it’s appealing enough for a member of House Steiner to come here personally. Besides, who else would know where we are? You, me, the jumpship captain and navigator were the only four people who knew before we left the Wyatt system. But the ComStar outpost here might have its own HPG, in which case they could have passed the word.”

It still seemed a little far-fetched to Frederick, but Max had had a lot to say about ComStar during their quiet conversations about the possible future. And at the end of the day, the chances that whoever was arriving was friendly was negligible.

“Either way, it looks as if we’ll have to fight for this. I need to get ready - see if you can find the core that you talked about. That, if nothing else, we cannot afford to fall into the wrong hands.”

Battle in a Dead City[]

Caddo City, New Dallas
Free Worlds League
12 September 3007

Force Commander Azi Ochombo wasn’t privy to whatever intelligence had brought the Twenty-Fifth Marik Militia to this sweltering wreck of a world, but for once it seemed to have been accurate. The distinctive shapes of three DropShips were visible in what had clearly once been a thriving city and their markings were those of the Lyran Commonwealth.

“Positive identification,” he reported diligently to his commander, back at their own landing zone. “Two LCAF Overlords and a single Mule.”

“Graverobbers,” Colonel Yusagi pronounced solemnly. “The Lyrans have no respect for the sanctity of the dead.”

Azi refrained from pointing out that it was their own nation that had killed the people of this world. It had been a long time ago, and the current Captain-General would not have approved such excesses. “We have no sign of their aerospace fighters,” he said instead. “They could easily have two squadrons available.”

That would leave the Lyran fighters outnumbered two to three, much like their ‘Mech strength. And the flagship of the Twenty-Fifth’s dropship force was the mighty Excalibur-class vessel Retribution, which had brought a cavalry regiment along - two tank battalions and a third made up of mechanized infantry. While the infantry would be in a poor state if they had to fight here - the radiation wouldn’t be immediately deadly but it would cause long-term issues and the men knew it - the tanks would give the Militia a substantial edge in firepower.

He could almost imagine Yusagi shaking her head. “Azi, once they launch the fighters they’ll need to bring them back aboard the Overlord with cranes - you can’t land them in the launch bays while you’re in a gravity well. They weren’t going to launch when it would draw our attention. If their commander was a fool, he’d do so now - to try to bounce you before our own fighters could intercept, but he’s more likely to keep them in reserve to use when he must - probably to escort them on take-off.”

Bringing his Hermes II up behind what had once been a church of some kind, Azi let just the sensor fins around the ‘Mech’s head poke up and over. “There’s a lot of heat and metal out there,” he concluded. “They may be spooling up the drives to take off.”

Hermes II Medium 'Mech in ruins of Caddo City.

Yusagi made a disappointed noise. “A very competent Steiner. Unfortunate - if he stood to fight for whatever they came for, we could have torn half a regiment apart in an afternoon. But at least this way we can secure whatever they found for the Free Worlds League. Move your ‘Mechs forward - Second and Third Battalions will focus in once you have their exact location.”

If the Lyrans were really pulling out, Ochombo wouldn’t be surprised if they left booby traps, but that just meant that the Colonel was right - the sooner he got on site, the less time they had to do that.

“This is Arcane-Actual,” he ordered on the battalion net. “We’re the point of the spear. Move in and find them. If you’re taking fire, take cover and report in. Fire support lances, be ready to hunker down and use your LRMs.”

Purple-painted ‘Mechs moved through the ruins - most of them fast mediums. Ochombo kept his Hermes II with the center of the line, flanked by a Phoenix Hawk and a Cicada. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see three Trebuchets and a Dervish moving up behind them - the fire support lance for A Company. The four ‘Mechs could put a lot of LRMs into the air, but rough terrain like this might favor larger and heavier designs - which was very much the Lyran style of warfare.

They crossed the center of the city without incident and Ochombo checked the map - a hastily compiled one printed off on the dropship after they were diverted to deal with this incursion. He didn’t know who’d reported the presence of Lyran ‘Mechs here but it was probably a lostech scavenger who’d been scared off. That would explain Colonel Yusagi having lostech on her mind. More likely the Lyrans were building a supply base for raids deeper inside the Free Worlds League. The FWLM had raided deep inside the Lyran Commonwealth while Alessandro Steiner focused his regiments on the border - it made sense that his successor would want to repay that.

“Reactors powering up!” The report was shouted over the battalion net. “Grid Delta Four - ambush!”

It was the left flank - Ochombo turned automatically in that direction. “Spot for the missiles,” he called. “Diabolist-Actual, we have contact on our left flank.”

“Understood.” Andrew Merrick - not Marik, as he was careful to point out - was new to command of Second Battalion, but he’d got plenty of command experience. “We’re moving up to support you.”

First Battalion’s commander checked his map. Still no solid targets being reported. “Pull out of Grid Delta Four,” he ordered. “Fire support, put some fire into that grid. Let’s flush them out.”

Long-Range Missiles erupted from the ‘Mechs behind Ochombo, arching up over the long devastated city. The dropships seemed to be in or near an old planetary militia base. It made sense - there was open space for the three dropships to land.

Explosions shook the buildings in Grid Delta-Four, but they sounded like the LRMs hitting stone and concrete. Even at this distance the difference between that and hitting ‘Mechs was significant.

“Colonel, can you swing the armor around the left flank, envelop the militia base from the west?” he requested. “The highway should be clear enough for them.”

“I’m way ahead of you, Force Commander,” Yusagi reported. “They’re rolling up on your flank right now.”

There was something to her using her command company to defend the dropships, Ochombo conceded. It left her out of the action with freedom to look at the big picture.

“Arcane-Actual to Arcane-Blood-Conjurer,” he alerted all three companies under his command. “Pivot and envelop the enemy in Delta-Four from our left.”

The shift left disordered the thirty-six ‘Mechs even more than the streets had already, but they were moving the right way when two more reports came in.

“Artillery fire!”

“Gamma-Three, ‘Mechs moving!”

“Guru-Actual -!” Ochombo was just beginning to call in the two companies of the Third Battalion (the third was Yusagi’s command company, on guard at their landing zone) to hit this new concentration of Lyrans when he was drowned out by a barrage of explosions smashing into the streets that Andrew Merrick’s battalion was entering. Buildings blew apart - fortunately nothing left was tall enough to come down on the ‘Mechs, but the debris added to the shrapnel from the shells.

“Arcane-Blood-Conjurer, push through!” he snarled instead, switching back and forth between radio channels. “Guru-Actual, you’ll need to be our hinge. Colonel…”

“Keep the pressure up,” she confirmed without waiting. “Their dropships are preparing to launch, whatever you picked up were decoys!”

“We’re under artillery fire,” he warned, his Hermes II smashing the rusted remains of a groundcar underfoot as he moved through the ruins as fast as he dared. That had to mean someone was on the ground, fighting. Surely the Lyran commander wouldn’t just abandon them? Then again, they did have a reputation for social generals…

Yusagi didn’t reply directly. “They’re launching their fighters,” she warned. “Our own will try to intercept, but they must be making for orbit - there’s no other possibility!”

Despite distant sympathy for the Lyran soldiers who were being betrayed by their leaders, Ochombo lowered the shoulder of his Hermes II and drove the forty-ton warmachine through the wall of what might have been a factory at one time. The interior was gutted and he was able to crash out of the other side, barely slowing.

“Sir, the reactor signatures are pulling back.”

Were they breaking? “Accept surrenders if offered.” But only if offered. Trapped rats could bite.

Overlord Class DropShip lifting off

Between the buildings he saw the egg-shape of one of the Overlord dropships lifting off. The roar of the engines reached him just a moment later.

As the first dropship rose off the ground, the other two came into view - contrails around them marking the aerospace fighters providing them with coverage.

As Ochombo kicked aside half a truck, part of the wreck caught on the wing-like flanges of the Hermes II’s ankle, and he paused to make sure that it was clear. Looking up again after he’d made sure he wasn’t about to wreck his actuator, something about the angle of the dropships struck him.

They aren’t going directly upwards, they’re going to stray over our anti-aircraft umbrella… no, over the dropships. “Colonel!” he shouted in warning, but it was too late.

Up above the Twenty-Fifth Marik Militia’s landing zone, both Overlords opened their lower hatches and ‘Mechs began to rain from the sky.

A Daring Tactic[]

Caddo City, New Dallas
Free Worlds League
12 September 3007

Low altitude drops were dangerous - there was very little time for a Mechwarrior to adjust if something went wrong. In addition, more than half of Frederick’s little force didn’t have integral jump-jets. They’d been fitted with auxiliary jump-packs instead, but those mechwarriors had less experience with their use so there was more risk.

But given Marik aerospace advantage, there was no safe route. Even escaping was in question - and Frederick had a preference for taking the aggressive approach.

He also wasn’t averse to learning from mistakes. Max had told him about the Alliance Games, a military exercise where he and the Tenth Lyran Guards would have been humiliated by the Davion Heavy Guards - outmaneuvered to the extent that they lost their dropships and were forced into a long slow chase, trying to pin down a more mobile foe while unable to resupply.

Well, now the boot was on his foot!

Zeus Assault 'Mech

Half the distance to the ground was gone before he fired the thrusters attached to the back of his Zeus, just a light tap to keep the eighty-ton ‘Mech correctly orientated.

Below him, the enemy dropships stood almost defenseless. A single company of ‘Mechs was scattered around them, clearly having been focused on patroling the perimeter rather than maintaining a close guard. Bright light spilled out of the open dropship hatches - with the interior already contaminated by the air, it made little sense to close them up when the ‘Mechs would be expected back shortly. And almost none of their turrets were firing upwards.

A few hundred meters above the sprawling parking lots of a derelict shopping mall, Frederick triggered the main burn of the jump-pack. A digital display blurred as his vertical velocity reduced sharply, turning a fall that would have shattered the Zeus like glass into something survivable.

The landing was brutal, even with the ‘Mech’s legs flexing to absorb the impact, he felt it up his spine and Frederick’s neurohelmet slammed forwards, dragging his shoulders against the straps. But now he was on the ground, and more than thirty other ‘Mechs were landing across the site.

“Move move move!” the burly Colonel roared. One ‘Mech had been near the dropships, a purple Centurion, trimmed in red and blue like all of the Marik Militia.

Centurion Medium 'Mech

The smaller ‘Mech opened up with everything it had as Frederick pushed his Zeus into a charge. Autocannon fire pelted his chest while a laser slashed barely above one shoulder. Long-range missiles roared across the divide, barely arming before they added a few more trivial craters to his ‘Mech’s armor.

He didn’t bother with his own LRMs. His autocannon was smaller than that on the Centurion, but he had a large laser as well as a medium and they carved glowing lines across the Marik ‘Mech’s right arm. That wasn’t his real objective though. The cylindrical missile launcher that made up the right arm of the Zeus was reinforced for this, and he brought it down like a hammer on the crested cockpit of the enemy.

The crest broke, but the head itself was still basically intact - testament to the protection around the man or woman inside.

Still, they were off balance and with more than fifty percent advantage in tonnage, Frederick rammed directly into them. Back-pedaling frantically, the Centurion struggled to stay upright - being trampled here could leave it helpless.

Lasers flashed back and forth between the two briefly, carving more damage into both. With both thicker armor and more lasers, that exchange would eventually favor the Zeus, but it wasn’t what Frederick was after.

They reached the ramp up into the nearest of the eight Union-class dropships and the other mechwarrior didn’t realize until it was too late. The Centurion stumbled and then fell off the ramp, onto its back between the ramp and one of the dropship’s landing legs.

For a moment, the mechwarrior must have feared that Frederick would destroy them - but he ignored the ‘Mech and marched up and into the dropship’s interior.

It was not mercy. As soon as the Centurion was no longer obscured by the bulk of the assault ‘Mech, a Commando and a Griffin from Hickson’s company began working it over with lasers and short-range missiles.

Commando Light 'Mech "Custom variant"

Standing his Zeus inside the ‘Mech bay, Frederick thumbed his speakers to maximum volume.

“I’m inside your dropship,” he demanded. “Power down and surrender, or I’ll open you up from the inside.”

There was a double ping from his radio, someone was on the emergency channel. “-eus, calling the Lyran Zeus!” the voice called.

He cut his loudspeakers, replying on the radio. “I hear you.”

“Hold your fire - if you hit a fuel line, you’ll kill yourself too.”

“I’m inside the better part of eleven tons of armor,” Frederick told him. “I like my chances better than yours.”

There was a pause.

“Ceasefire,” another voice asked - someone older, calmer. Smart enough to be worried, steady enough not to panic. Good. He could work with that. “We request a ceasefire to negotiate.”

Frederick flipped back to the regiment’s channel. “Did any of the dropships managed to close up?”

“No.” “None.” “We got them.” The company commanders were unanimous.

Still… “Confirm, do we hold all nine of them.”

“Every last one of them, sir,” Timothy Hickson sounded confident. “I’ve cleared their perimeter and we have a ‘Mech or two in all of them.”

Frederick smiled wolfishly. “Excellent work.” Then he went back to the emergency channel. “Ceasefire - as long as your ground forces hold their position - and pull your fighters back so mine can make sure that they’re complying.”

He was more concerned about them overrunning the remaining troops around the boneyard, really. Every truck he had left was roaming the streets in flatbeds with salvaged reactors tied to them, pretending to be ‘Mechs lying in wait. And the artillery barrage they’d fired had used up the tiny stock of artillery shells someone had left in the vaults for no reason he could see. Fortunately, none had misfired, but it could easily have been otherwise.

“Understood,” the man on the radio requested. “May we recover the mechwarriors outside? They’re being exposed to the radiation.”

“We’ll bring them to the external airlock of this dropship,” Frederick told him and then gave those orders.

That took precious moments and he waited for the message that someone had done something stupid, and he was going to have to follow through on his threat.

Small Mobilehead Quarters (HQ) Vehicle

However, the next signal was from the small headquarters van he’d left at the cache. “Max?”

“As far as I can tell, they’re holding position,” the older man told him seriously. “We have visuals on over a ninety active ‘Mechs, seventy-odd tanks and enough heavy APCs for a battalion. They’re forming a defensive perimeter between us and you, but the fighters don’t see anyone heading for either of us.”

“Stay sharp. It’d be easy for someone to sneak through the ruins,” Frederick warned.

“One more bit of good news,” Max added.


“Would you believe that firing the artillery shook up the vault enough that one of the walls crumbled?” the secretary asked. “And right behind it was the datacore. Of all the luck. We almost missed it entirely.”

“Heh.” He’d have been happy enough with the ‘Mechs, but this was good. Almost too good. Everything was coming up trumps. “Alright. Now I need to do the hard part. Talking them out of fighting to the death.”

“It says something about humanity that that’s the hard part.”

What was so odd about that? The soldier thought. The Marik regiment’s honor would be stained by this either way. It would be necessary to handle it carefully, so they decided to take the route of retreat rather than fighting to the death.

Opening the channel, he demanded: “Put me in touch with your commander.”

There was a pause and then another voice. “This is Force Commander Ochombo.”

The equivalent of a Kommandant? Ridiculous. “If you’re trying to tell me that you came here without a single Colonel, I can only assume that you think I’m an idiot.”

Ochombo snorted. “Colonel Laws of our supporting regiment flipped a jeep while we were loading. He’s back on Dieudonne with a broken leg. And Colonel Yusagi is among the wounded. I’m senior among the battalion commanders. If you wanted a Colonel, it’s your own fault none are available.”

Frederick laughed. “Congratulations on your battlefield promotion.”

“If you come out of the dropships, I’ll be pleased to accept those congratulations.”

“Not just yet.” Then he let a chill enter his voice. “You can probably overwhelm the forces I still have at the cache, but not before I wreck these dropships and withdraw to my own. And if you come at me directly, I can do the same although withdrawing might be a little harder.” The Twenty-Fifth Marik Militia had enough fast ‘Mechs that breaking contact to embark on the dropships would be challenging.

“And yet those seem to be my basic options,” Ochombo replied, tersely. “Unless you have a third path. And I’ve no intention of surrendering my entire regiment to you.”

“Death before dishonor? I can respect that. However, any attack will destroy your regiment anyway. Without dropships you have to survive on what food and other supplies you have in your combat units. Not to mention that exiting them risks radiation exposure. I can’t imagine it taking less than a week for rescue to arrive - and that assumes that your jumpships finish charging, report in and a rescue mission can depart immediately. At best, any such mission will be able to recover your equipment - you yourselves will be starving and probably suffering radiation sickness.”

“But we might at least take you with us - whoever you are.”

“Ah? Frederick Steiner, Colonel of Seventh Lyran Regulars. Destroying your regiment for half of my own works out in my favor, but really… this poisoned mudball isn’t exactly worth that to either of us. So, here’s my offer: I will ransom you six of your dropships in exchange for the other three. That’s enough that you can keep your force intact until additional dropships can arrive to rescue you.”

Ochombo paused. “What do you get out of this? What’s worth giving us back the dropships?”

Frederick grinned to himself. He’s interested. He values his honor, but not to the point of self-destruction. “Honestly, the cache we found is too large for us to carry it all. Even with three additional dropships we can’t take it all. Your Excalibur and two Unions will be enough for us to take quite a bit more of the contents back to the Commonwealth.”

“You want me to surrender the Retribution?! Do you have any idea how rare Excalibur-class dropships are?”

“There’ll be one less in the Inner Sphere if you decide to fight this out,” Frederick pointed out, hearing steel enter his voice for a moment. Then he forced himself to relax. “Either way, you’re losing it. But if you take the deal then you avoid losing six other dropships and hundreds of soldiers.”

The Marik Militia officer hesitated. “You said you can’t take everything from the cache.”

“There’s more than a regiment of ‘Mechs and at least that many heavy tanks inside it. And that’s just the start. I’d have to leave my own ‘Mechs behind to take all of them and I’m not quite willing to do that.”

“...and I suppose it’s all wired to blow once you take off.”

“Absolutely,” lied Frederick. They’d used all their mining charges to get into it.

“Remove the charges and let me send a squad of infantry to verify that, and you’ve got a deal. I’ll need something to show for this disaster, even if it’s just your leavings.”

Gotcha! He kept the victory from his voice though. “Twelve hours for us to remove them, then you can check the cache and see what we’re loading up. Once that’s done, you evacuate the three dropships, and we’ll move in our own crews. But before that, you ground your aerospace fighters.”

Once they were down, it would be difficult for the Leaguer’s to get them up in the air again. Frederick would have to stage his own through the two Overlords, but that was manageable and with air control he’d be in a much better position.

“...alright. But I’m alerting our jumpship to depart for reinforcements as early as I can. If they arrive before you’ve loaded up everything you want, then it’s just too bad.”

Victory tasted sweet, Frederick thought.

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