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Frederick Steiner and the Man (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 5[]

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Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little[]

Conversation between Scoundrels[]


Halstead City, Halstead Station
Dieron District, Draconis Combine
30 November 3008


“You are a con-man, Colonel Steiner.” Cranston Snord’s words were more admiring than critical as the two men’s ‘mechs strode through the open gates into Halstead City’s principal dome.

“What in the worlds are you talking about?” enquired Frederick, most of his attention looking out for ambushes. A firefight inside the dome would endanger many thousands of lives but the ISF and DCMS were not notorious for their concern about such matters. Also, they’d trumpet that all blame lay upon the Seventh Lyran Regulars and it wouldn’t take a large percentage of the city’s population believing it for the Regulars to be badly outnumbered in manpower, if not in armament, by local resistance to their presence.

The mixed company of ‘Mechs behind them were a mix of Snord’s Scouts - as the mercenary unit had finally elected to name themselves - and Frederick’s command company. Casualties in smashing the brigade of militia guarding Halstead Station hadn’t been high, but two months of combat operations across four different worlds had left many ‘Mechs with a list of minor faults that had been neglected in favor of repairs that directly impacted combat operations. With a few days leeway before any reinforcements could possibly arrive, Frederick had ordered a full maintenance cycle to get his troops ready. The limited available infantry force he’d brought for the raids were behind the ‘Mechs as they entered the city, they’d be more useful in here.

Honestly, he wouldn’t be surprised if the DCMS didn’t bother sending reinforcements right away. Halstead Station was a fairly unimportant world - low gravity and a toxic atmosphere leaving the population below a million souls - and they’d have no grounds to expect he wouldn’t be gone before they arrived. Like New Dallas, the habitable planet was only three days travel from the jump point, much less than the usual week or so. He could take off right now and the jumpships would have finished charging their drives before the dropships reached them.

Snord’s Archer swung its arms casually as the mercenary answered - a subtle sign that the mechwarrior was also on guard for any surprises. “You brought me all this way so that LIC could dig around on Clinton for what I wanted there.”

“Oh, the Castle Brian?” A smile creased Frederick’s face. “Well what else would you have wanted there?”

“I knew it!” The mustachioed mercenary captain was grinning though. “You scoundrel!”

“That almost sounds like a compliment.”

“It’s a professional compliment, from one devious wretch to another!”

‘Wretch’? Frederick preferred scoundrel, as little as it matched him. It fit Snord though - he’d been playing out negotiations on Clinton so he could ask for a landhold containing an entrance to the long lost SLDF base buried on the world. However, in his absence on this mission, it must have been found. “Anyway, I imagine you can have the landgrant for the place once we’ve picked it over.”

Snord paused. “I had that very offer - and I shall accept. But I won’t forget being outsmarted like this, Colonel Steiner. I shall be on guard in the future.”

The duke grimaced. “And trying to put one over on me?” Would he have to watch Snord for betrayal now?

“In any and all future bargains, yes! You are sharper than I took you to be.”

Frederick laughed shortly. “You don’t have much experience with Lyrans, do you?”

Snord also laughed. “At least you - or was it your cousin Katrina - offered the landhold. That puts you above Janos Marik in my estimation.”

The other man could almost imagine Max commenting: ‘An elite company no doubt’. He shook his head. “Well, from one scoundrel to another… I will remind you of a term of our existing contract.”

“Oh?”

They had reached the center of the city and Frederick halted his Zeus facing the main administration building. “The clause where anything you capture is yours… but we must receive authenticated copies of any data you capture, salvage or uncover.”

Archer (In city ruins - by Jayden Morris)

Archer Heavy 'Mech

Snord turned his Archer sharply and backed it up behind the Zeus so that the two ‘Mechs were covering each other’s weaker rear armor. “Do you mean that this entire raid is a cover for a data heist?”

“Oh please. Raise your expectations, Captain. In the days of the Star League, Halstead Station was homeport for the entire Fourth Fleet of the SLDF. They had a major base right here, with housing for dependents, their own schools and even a university.”

There was a moment of silence and then Snord said softly: “I think we’d better talk about this face to face, not by radio.”

That seemed like good advice. Frederick powered down his ‘Mech and once infantry had fanned out to add to the perimeter, he unstrapped himself and climbed down from the cockpit, taking a military longcoat with him to give him a little more coverage than just his mechwarrior shorts and boots.

Cranston Snord joined him on the ground a moment later, having apparently taken the time to put on a grubby T-shirt and jodhpurs - perhaps to further his reputation as an eccentric. The mercenary gestured for Frederick to join him in the shadows of their ‘Mechs’ legs. “Freddie, old buddy, old pal… are you suggesting to me that there might be a Prometheus core here?”

At its height, the Star League had anchored its educational system with a network of universities and libraries that had each possessed a regularly updated date core that contained - according to legend - the complete sum of human knowledge. The truth was rather more mundane - actual cutting edge research, as well as military secrets had been withheld. But even so - such a core would contain a wealth of scientific knowledge lost since the Star League fell, and perhaps more importantly, it would give the broad context into which surviving scientific understanding fell.

“Unfortunately, no. Or rather; all records indicate that there was one and that it was removed by Kerensky’s soldiers comparatively early in the Amaris Civil War after they withdrew from Halstead Station to fight.” Frederick shook his head. “However, the core was hardly the entirety of the university’s records. The site itself was long since destroyed and built over, but I believe that their vaults were missed - and those vaults likely contain what remains of the university library.”

“You are a sneaky devil, Frederick Steiner and I am proud to be working with you. Maybe some of this luck will rub off on me.”

“Just don’t call me Freddie,” he retorted.

“What’ll you give me in exchange? I know better now than to offer you anything for free.” the ex-Wolf's Dragoon offered teasingly.

Frederick gestured for them to leave their ‘Mechs. A squad of guards was waiting to escort them into the administration building, where he hoped to find some older maps of the city. “If we find what we’re here for, if we make it home safe, and if there are no… games over the copies that our contract requires you to hand over, then I might be persuaded to make a gift of a derelict ‘Mech to you - one of those found on New Dallas. In exchange for certain considerations.”

“Like remembering your name?” asked Cranston, following him up the steps. “It must be quite a ‘Mech.”

“I also want your silence on what we find, however large or small.” Frederick was not smiling. “Those who recover lostech prosper but those who find the data to create more have a nasty habit of dying and their finds being lost again.”

“Ah…”

“As for the ‘Mech, how about a first-production-run KY2-D-01 Kyudo? The second ‘Mech developed by the Terran Hegemony. If the unit numbers are correct, it dates to 2444 and it’s probably the last example of the design anywhere in the Inner Sphere…”

Cranston laughed. “Oh Frederick, if only you were a woman, I’d make you Rhonda’s stepmother in an instant. You fight well, you bargain sharply, and you have a nose for salvage.”

“And if you were a woman, you’d still need to raise your game considerably to have more than my professional interest.” He pushed open the door and looked at the signs - which were in Japanese. Fortunately knowing your enemy’s language was on the curriculum at both the Nagelring and Sanglamore so he had a good working knowledge.

“So what do we want the old town plans for?” Snord enquired, playing dumb.

Better than him blurting out the truth, Frederick thought. “If any resistance springs up here while we’re in the city, they’ll likely go to ground in disused tunnels. Older maps that show such things are priceless for even a temporary occupation.”

“Clever, clever.” The mercenary nodded. “I see that I have much to learn.”


An Unexpected Encounter[]

Halstead City, Halstead Station
Dieron District, Draconis Combin
9 December 3008

Dropships were burning holes through the toxic atmosphere of Halstead Station and every single one of them looked to be headed for Halstead City.

“We could have done with more aircover,” Tim Hickson noted absently on the command net. “If we had a full wing with us, they’d have real trouble getting down without losing at least one dropship.”

“Something to keep in mind for the future,” Frederick replied stoically. “It’s not as if they’re bare.”

The Eighth Dieron Regulars were apparently not done chasing after Cranston Snord yet - a pair of Scout-class Jumpships had arrived within five minutes of each other, each carrying an Overlord-class dropship. That meant two battalions of ‘Mechs would be arriving to reinforce the rallying remains of the militia that were holding onto the other cities on the planet and trying to pretend that they were going to push Frederick offworld. That threat was much more concrete now, and the Dieron Regulars had one of the Dracs’ double-strength aerospace squadrons with them - twelve fighters against Frederick’s six.

The only good news was that the Overlords weren’t the only ones inbound - a pair of LCAF Jumpships had arrived as well, carrying the second raiding party to reach the rendezvous point.

Unfortunately, the battalion of the Tenth Skye Rangers was also fairly light on aerospace fighters, so they were only bringing aerospace numbers to parity - and Frederick had ordered his own fighters up to escort the Rangers in. He didn’t want the Dieron Regulars to get ideas about a counter-attack.

Hickson sighed. “Sir, is there any point in my asking why we didn’t just take off to join the Rangers at the jump point? The Kuritans don’t have the fighter strength to threaten us and once the Rangers’ jumpdrives are charged we could just leave. The other raiding parties could get here at any time, but so could reinforcements.”

“Classified, Kommandant. If I wind up out of action, you know where my safe is and you’ll be authorized then and only then to find out. It’s shoot-yourself-before-reading stuff.”

The Kommandant nodded grimly. “I’m glad there are orders covering this, because if there’s a court martial they’ll say Snord is rubbing off on you.”

For a long moment Frederick met his current second-in-command’s eyes. Then he rubbed his brow. “If it comes to an inquiry, Tim, I would prefer that you report exactly that. The truth is far too sensitive to be circulated somewhere as public as a court martial.”

“Even at the cost of your career, sir?”

He slapped Hickson’s shoulder. “I can’t tell you more without breaking security. Now let’s get back into the command center. Our new comrade will probably want to ask me the same questions you just did.”

Leaving the observation deck, Frederick looked at the holo display in the middle of the Retribution’s command deck. “Is it just me or does it look like the Regulars are heading for Madison?”

“Yes sir, that is correct.”

He nodded. The planet’s second largest city and a logical choice to stage from. “Acceptable. We’ll have to see what they can pull together from the militia, but two battalions doesn’t bring them to more than parity.”

The four Union-class dropships were now in view, rotating to land, their fusion torches almost too bright to look at even at this distance. Three of them carried companies of the Tenth Skye Rangers while the fourth was an infantry-conversion loaded with their support.

DropShips (leaving planet) (Farseer Animation)

Union DropShip with covering aerospace fighters moving through the solar system.

“I’m going out to meet the Rangers,” he decided. “Better to give them a warm welcome - and it strikes me as pretty unlikely that anyone will try to raid us right now. The militia are going to be too busy coming up with excuses for why they haven’t pushed us off planet. Hickson, you’re in charge.”

Leaving the Kommandant studying the tactical deployments and no doubt wondering what in the world was so important about Halstead City, Frederick descended to the Retribution’s ‘Mech bay. While vastly larger than the arriving Unions, the towering dropship carried only twelve ‘Mechs - most of its cavernous capacity was committed to tank and infantry decks. However, his Zeus was waiting for him - there had been so little action that the techs had even repainted it in a slate gray camouflage suited to the rocky surface of the planet, and almost as well to the tunnels beneath it.

The hatch opened once he was mounted up and Frederick marched his Zeus down the ramp, holding position until the door closed again behind him. He didn’t want to get caught the same way that the Marik Militia had been on New Dallas so there was a rigid rule that all dropship hatches were to be opened only when necessary. It put extra strain on the circulators to have to pump toxic air out every time - but better to shave a few hundred hours off their service lifespan than to lose their way offworld.

Truthfully, he didn’t need to be in his Zeus to get to the four Unions that were landing - they were only a kilometer away. But there was always the possibility of a sniper waiting to pick off a vulnerable LCAF soldier outside of the dome.

By the time he reached the Skye Rangers, the ground was beginning to cool from the heat of their thrusters. “This is Tiger-Actual,” he signaled. “Welcome to Halstead Station.”

“Tiger-Actual, this is Lightning-Actual.” It was a young man’s voice and he didn’t have a Skye accent. While he didn’t know the Kommandant leading this raiding party, that wasn’t to say Frederick didn’t recognise him. And he could tell that the man wasn’t in the best of moods. “Hold one while we authenticate with your command center.”

Frederick waited impatiently, trying to plan for the conversation. In theory he should just be able to give orders - he was senior in rank. But the Kommandant wasn’t from his regiment, so the chain of command wasn’t entirely clear - and beyond that, the other man had connections.

“I’m on the dropship to your left,” Lightning-Actual confirmed after eighty-three seconds. “We’ll open a hatch for you.”

Sure enough, a ramp lowered from one of the Unions. Frederick’s seismics picked up other sounds from the far side of the little formation - Skye Rangers disembarking where he wouldn’t have line of sight into their ‘Mech bays. Paranoia gripped him for a moment, was this a trap? Combine dropships in false colors?

But no, they had the right codes and even if some of the raiders had been captured, there were multiple precautions. It would be very very hard to fake this.

And he hadn’t walked over here to turn around!

The Zeus entered the ‘Mechbay, although he had to halt between the actual individual cubicles, for all twelve were occupied. Obviously there had been no losses - at least to this company. The cubicles were dark, but he could tell that four of the ‘Mechs were powered, watching him.

One cubicle lit up sharply, not one of the active ‘mechs, after the hatch closed. There was a man standing on the bay gantry, wearing a field uniform and a breathing mask.

“Colonel Steiner, if you’d join me, please.” It wasn’t a question and Frederick bristled for a moment, then forced it down. Snord hadn’t found the vaults yet and without the Rangers’ help, holding onto Halstead Station would be challenging.

Pointedly, he marched the Zeus forwards until the cockpit was only about a meter from the gantry the other man was standing on. The door to the Union had closed and he could hear the fans working to replace the air with something palatable, but nonetheless he donned a breathing mask of his own before opening the hatch and climbing out.

From there, he secured a safety line to the cooling vest he was still wearing before leaping across to the gantry - he was angry but not going to be reckless. Missing the landing and falling to the hanger floor, nine meters below would be a poor first impression.

As it happened, that didn’t take place and a moment later he was facing the Skye Ranger’s Kommandant - taller and leaner than him, with thick black hair. Frederick knew that the younger man had a mustache but currently the mask covered it. “Kommandant Kell.”

“Colonel Steiner.” Kell saluted crisply, like the Nagelring graduate that he was. “I felt it best to convey my concerns privately about engaging in a conflict on the surface of Halstead Station at this time. It is possible that my understanding of our orders is deficient somehow…”

Stop trying to talk like a Draconian officer,” Frederick told him bluntly. “If we’re really in private - and we’d better be - I don’t care much how blunt you are.”

Morgan Kell nodded. “What the hell are you doing down here? This is just a rendezvous point and the plan didn’t even require us to hit the world. I can see you faking a raid to buy time for the rest of us to arrive; but now their reinforcements have arrived, it’s a fight we don’t need.”

“There is another objective here,” Frederick told him flatly.

“One that isn’t in the briefing?” The Kommandant’s voice was sardonic. “Really?”

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, the colonel regretted it. Breathing masks didn’t really make that a pleasant experience. “Kommandant, as far as everyone else here is concerned - except one other officer -” (He had a faint qualm at implying that he meant a LCAF officer, rather than Snord) “- that is a classified matter they have no need to know.”

Morgan Kell gave him no answer except a look that was the textbook example of silent insolence.

“You have a certain piece of paper,” Frederick continued after a moment. “I know it, you know it. If you insist on knowing, then I have no choice but to tell you. All I can request,” he added bitterly, “Is that you treat it as privileged information.”

The Ranger’s eyes narrowed. “You resent that latitude being given to someone?”

“Yes.”

“Because it is unearned, in your eyes?”

Frederick paused - this was a question he hadn’t prepared for, he realized. “You obviously have Katrina’s trust, but trust should be within… specific competences. I don’t know how you earned that trust so I don’t know what limits I should expect to that.”

“You mentioned it, not me,” Kell pointed out. “Did you consider that I might not pull it out for every disagreement I have with my chain of command?”

That stung. The implication that Frederick would, if the shoe was on the other foot, be doing exactly that. Frederick gripped the rail of the gantry. “A fair point,” he forced himself to say. “Do you wish to invoke that?”

“...since I seem to have made that impression on you, I’ve no reason not to,” pointed out Kell. “Would you like to see it?”

He gestured sharply in dismissal. “I don’t need to. The fact is that I have credible information that there’s a university vault under Halstead City, containing technical books from the Star League. I mean to bring them back to the Commonwealth - ideally without the ISF finding out about it.”

Now it was Kell’s turn to look surprised. “I see. You didn’t tell General Regis about this? Or the Archon?”

“My source isn’t approved by LIC,” he replied tersely. “And while my cousin trusts you, she and I are not that close.”

“I see. Is your source available?”

Frederick shook his head. “Too much chance of falling into the wrong hands.”

“I’d have liked to see it.” Kell walked over and looked at the other ‘Mechs in the hanger. “Looking for lostech… you’re more of a romantic than I expected.”

He snorted at the idea. “There are very practical benefits if we can recover it.”

The Kommandant shook his head, still facing away. “Looking for lost Star League material is one of the things my brother and I dreamed of when we were younger.” He turned back to Frederick. “I’ll not put my battalion at undue risk, but right now the odds aren’t that bad. If that changes, we may need to withdraw - even if it risks House Kurita unearthing what you’re after. I think it’s safe to say they aren’t under the impression this is just a raid now.”


Raid Force on Halstead Station[]

Halstead City, Halstead Station
Dieron District, Draconis Combine
16 December 3008

It might be mildly heretical to some of the Lyran mechwarrior community, but the Atlas wasn’t an ideal battlemech for all circumstances. It had heavy armor and the close range firepower could be crushing, but it was slow and at longer ranges it had limited options.

Unfortunately, the streets of Halstead City were practically ideal for the design and two of them were closing in on Frederick’s position.

Twisting so that he was side-on to them, the colonel managed to avoid one of the streams of depleted uranium shells from their autocannon as he returned fire. The other ripped chunks of armor from his Zeus’ right arm, severing some of the myomers inside it. While he was already far too close to use the missiles firing from that arm, he could have done with the option of smashing the reinforced limb.

His own fire added to visible damage on the front of one of the Atlas, but didn’t seem to penetrate, even though he’d hit with both lasers and his own autocannon.

Rifleman (Firing In Desert with Water - Miniature painted by Kazdok)

Rifleman Heavy 'Mech in combat.

Fortunately, he was only one step-backwards from cover and as he moved clear, a pair of Riflemen opened up with their lasers, adding more scars to the pair of Dieron Regulars leading this push through the city. They couldn’t keep it up for long - being older and smaller than the modern Rifleman the two of them combined were only equal the tonnage of one Atlas and they weren’t well armored even by that standard.

Still, it let him cool his Zeus slightly. It wasn’t the first time he’d fired everything he could and the inside of the domed city was rather warm already. Angling his ‘Mech, Frederick lifted the safety cover on the ammunition dump controls and flipped one of the two switches. Several salvos worth of LRMs spilled out onto the ground.

“Snord, I hope you’re making good progress,” he growled into his microphone. “We’re running out of space to trade for time.”

“We’re practically shoveling them into shipping crates,” the mercenary replied. “I can’t guarantee they won’t be damaged if we hurry any more than we already are.”

It would have been easier to fend off the Eighth and Fifteen Dieron Regulars (an intact battalion of the latter had arrived to tip the balance in the favor of House Kurita’s banner four days ago) without having to divert ‘Mechs to carry the university’s books away - but the longer it took to clear the vault, the longer the defense had to hold. Given the close quarters, Frederick had ordered every Archer in his force to play loadermech - their primary armament was long range missiles that were of limited value inside the city, and they all had a pair of hands to work with.

This would have been a lot easier if he had more trucks to work with, but the civilians had decided to be uncooperative by hiding everything of military value that they could - including trucks of every description. It kept the traffic light and easy to control but he suspected that someone was trying to improvise weapons to fit onto them.

That meant that Morgan Kell and Cranston Snord were working practically side to side and the Skye Ranger cut in: “We have about half of it on the dropships. Sorting it out will be a mess but if you can hold for two more hours, we should have it all.”

The Dieron Regulars were halfway across the city already. They’d realized that pushing out across the plains towards the dropships wasn’t going to work - the Apostles dug in around the dropships would murder them in the open ground, and Frederick didn’t lack hovertanks to spot for them. Every LTV-4 lost could be replaced with Saracens, Scimitars, and Saladins hovertanks captured on Al Na’ir. So instead, they’d rushed the tunnels from Madison to Halstead City, using the Fifteenth’s heavy mass to blast through the choke points.

It had cost them half the battalion to do so, but Tim Hickson had lost half a company and the Dieron Regulars held the ground which meant they’d salvage their fallen ‘mechs as well as several of Frederick’s.

For a moment, Frederick was tempted to just tell them to burn what they couldn’t take. It was what Hanse Davion would have done a few years from now when he raided the planet. However, he’d already decided against doing so. Letting the Combine recover part of the cache was unfortunate for the Lyran Commonwealth, but LIC might be able to steal copies later. The important point was that the books survived.

“I can’t promise you two hours,” he replied. “But I’ll do what I can.”

The two Riflemen were struggling, so he signaled them to withdraw and stepped back out into the street One of the Atlases had a burned out wreck on one arm where its medium laser had been but that was the only part of their armament that they’d lost and they both plastered him with SRMs as he came back into view, then opened up with the autocannon.

Frederick’s Zeus staggered and he rode it, stepping backwards. The pair had good pacing, but they may not be very experienced - he would have used the autocannon first and then the missiles, which might have found weak spots opened by the autocannon.

As it was, his right arm was a stiffened wreck and would likely need to be completely rebuilt, while the Zeus was heating up, suggesting something had hit the shielding around its powerful fusion reactor.

That made using his lasers a risk, but it was one Frederick had to take and he felt sweat streaming down his face inside the neurohelmet as he raked the crosshairs across the Atlas on the left at shoulder height. The skullface of the larger ‘Mech gained an extra mouth below that intended by the designers, but the rest of his shots were absorbed by the glacis and the rounded armor over the shoulders.

Forcing down his frustration, Frederick continued to back up. He knew that the command staff were monitoring pushes like this on a dozen streets - there was no point calling for help because the only reserves were already committed to replace ‘mechs that had been sent back to the dropships for repairs.

“Lean right,” a warning came across the local tactical channel and Frederick complied, hitting the Atlas again with just his relatively puny autocannon.

A PPC fired past him and smashed directly into the already battered skull-face of Frederick’s target. Adding to the existing damage, the plating buckled and the earlier scar merged into the sculpted mouth. For a moment there was a visible glow through the ‘eyes’ and then a hundred tons of ‘Mech fell backwards, the pilot dead.

The ‘Mech that had fired was a frankensteinian monster - parts from at least four different ‘Mechs of varying sizes were visible. But there was no denying its effectiveness and it strode forwards to support Frederick, lasers firing at the one remaining Atlas.

“I don’t suppose there are reinforcements on the way?” the same voice asked.

“Not in the near future,” Frederick admitted. It must be Sneede, he thought. Snord was proud of the technician-turned-mechwarrior who’d built his own ‘Mech out of discarded scrap.

Honestly, given that it worked some of that scrap was probably a little too hastily discarded and might have been retained if someone hadn’t fiddled with the paperwork. But this was no time to argue about that: Sneede met both the requirements for an ally: he shot straight and he was firing at Frederick’s enemy.

“Oh, that’s not fair,” the Scout added a second later as two PPCs fired back, one of them searing through the cover on the missile launcher that occupied one side of the mismatched ‘mech’s torso. Fortunately, no missiles exploded.

“Panthers playing back up?” Frederick asked. He couldn’t tell from his own position, which was probably all that was keeping him from even more severe damage.

“No, another Atlas!”

Who put PPCs on an Atlas? Well, that would be a question for another time. Frederick looked at the street corners. The advancing Atlas in the lead was about to reach the street he’d taken cover in just a moment ago. “Do you still have LRMs?”

“For all the good they’ll do at this distance? Yes.”

It was a long shot, but that was about what was left right now. “When it’s about to reach the next corner, put a full salvo into the road around that corner - right side,” he clarified.

Sneede didn’t reply immediately but he opened the cover on the missile launcher anyway. Fortunately, it opened.

The Riflemen emerged from cover and added their fire briefly, but it was evident neither had the armor left to continue fighting without repairs.

Then a full salvo smashed into Frederick and his gyro protested as plating across the chest buckled and the weight distribution of his Zeus changed sharply. He fought the controls, but even the best Lyran engineering had limits and all he could do was ride the fall, going down on one knee and catching himself by bracing the muzzle of his autocannon against the ground.

He was a sitting duck!

There was a rush of missiles and he could feel the impacts of at least two against the canopy of his cockpit.

But then there was a louder thunder ahead of him and when he looked up past the scarred armorglass he saw that one of the buildings was collapsing on top of the Atlas.

“What the hell?” asked Sneede. “Was it not up to code or something?”

“Probably not.” Frederick forced his Zeus upright and looked for the second Atlas - buried under many times its own weight, the first one would be a while digging its way out. “And I dumped my LRMs in that street a moment ago.”

“Ah. Lucky that they went off the way you hoped.”

Seeing no sign of the other Atlas, Frederick opened the broadcast channel. “This is Tiger-Actual. We had a building come down here - may as well let what emergency services remain know about it. Hopefully it was empty.” He had issued a warning for the civilians to go to shelters once the attack began.

“Understood, Tiger-Actual. Can you hold?”

“I think this street is pretty much blocked.” And the temperature of his Zeus was returning to something resembling normal levels. “How about the other advances?”

There was an ominous pause. “Contained, for now. If losses rise, then we may need to pull back to the next defensive line.”

That was a line of heavily built residential blocks on what had once been the university campus - very close to the vault. Ceding that much distance was far from ideal. On the other hand, it was a shorter line…

“Move a lance of artillery in,” he ordered. “Have them start shelling the buildings in front of that line. Once we have a clear field of fire around the line, we’ll make an organized withdrawal rather than wait and risk doing so under fire.”

“Sir, we don’t know that those buildings aren’t occupied.”

“We issued a warning,” Frederick growled. “Issue another if it salves your conscience but I’m more concerned about our troops’ lives than I am with those of people too dumb to get out of the way when we active tell them ‘mechs will be brawling in the streets.”

“Ho! Colonel,” Sneede said suddenly. “You might want to see this.”

“What?” He cut his microphone and moved his ‘mech to join Sneede’s.

The collapse of one building hadn’t gone without damage to others and one neighboring building had lost most of its wall. Through it, a neatly parked - if now covered in light debris - formation of trucks were parked.

“Mining trucks,” Sneede pointed out. “Open back, so if they were just stacked up they could drive right up and onto a dropship then tip the contents out.”

Frederick had an image of what the librarian at the Nagelring would have said about treating books like that. Probably best they never found out. But there were dozens of these trucks.

Retribution, this is Tiger-Actual,” he ordered. “Get the hovertanks loaded and send a hover APC down here with every tank driver you can get into it. I think we just found the trucks we need.”

A rumbling sound from the main pile of remains of the building showed that something was trying to get out. Sneede marched his ‘mech over to the heap and waited.

After a moment, the hand and forearm of an Atlas broke through the surface. Sneede’s mech opened up on the limb with all three lasers, carving glowing lines through it. Continued waggling got the elbow out eventually but by that point, the limb was missing both the laser and the fist.

“If you keep digging yourself out, you’ll have little of your ‘Mech left,” Sneede warned the Combine mechwarrior in a friendly tone, his loudspeakers shaking the dust left by the collapse. “It’s all the same to me if you stay down there until your friends catch up and can give you some help.”

That apparently was enough to convince the samurai in the Atlas not to try again. Or perhaps that had been the only limb he could move while pinned under most of a large building. Either way, there was no further immediate evidence of reinforcements arriving until one of the large hover APCs (another prize from Al Na’ir) arrived with twenty drivers. None of them were trained on mining trucks exactly, but Frederick didn’t need them to drive neatly, just to get to the vault and then carry the contents off to the dropships. It didn’t matter if they caused a little property damage along the way - he’d just ordered several dozen buildings be destroyed.

“Steiner, what’s this I hear about trucks?” asked Snord. “We could really do with them.”

There was the - by now familiar - sound of an Apostle firing in the distance.

“And what was that? Are you firing artillery inside the dome?”

“Yes.”

“Is that yes there are trucks or yes you’re firing artillery.”

“Yes,” Frederick said again.

“Kell, did you know your colonel is crazy?”

“He’s not my colonel.” Morgan Kell sounded quite happy with that. “Are we really that desperate, Colonel Steiner?”

Frederick sighed. “If we need the final defensive line around your current location, then yes. I’d rather be prepared. Get loads ready for at least twenty trucks and maybe we can get this lot out before the Eighteenth Dieron Regulars manage to punch through. I think they know you’re here, Snord. And they seem to want revenge for whatever you said to them on Al Na’ir.”

“That conversation was in confidence,” the mercenary declared. “I can’t tell you personal details like that.”

“I really wasn’t asking.”

If Snord was taking this seriously, we might be in real trouble, Frederick concluded. But if he’s wisecracking like this then I think we might make it.


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