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Suomi Warders
By: Dave Waino

Chapter 1: The Wages of Honor
Chapter 2: A Wager with the Clans
Chapter 3: A Trap of Imagination
Chapter 4: Trials of Loyalty
Chapter 5: Eye of the Storm
Chapter 6: Twists of Fate
Chapter 7: Domestic Issues
Chapter 8: Fateful Choices
Chapter 9: Deadly Objectives
Chapter 10: Hard Truths and Harder Questions
Chapter 11: Major Decisions
Chapter 12: A Call to Arms
Chapter 13: Allocation of Resources
Chapter 14: Special Delivery
Chapter 15: Seize and Rescue
Chapter 16: Combined Arms
Chapter 17: Battered 'Mechs and Broken Bodies
Chapter 18: Matters of Perspective
Chapter 19: Deals of Life and Death

Suomi Warders: 3057

Innocence Lost - Part One
Innocence Lost - Part Two

Chapter Index[]

Suomi Warders Thirteen: Allocation of Resources[]

by Dave Wainio

Commander’s Office

Warder Base (Fort Ilmarinen)

Outside Suomi City, Sampsa

28 November 3052

The late morning sun was working its way into the bright sky promising another warm spring day for Suomi. Hot, cold, or in between – it really didn’t matter much to the man sitting in the leather chair behind the large wooden desk at the moment. Even if he had been of a mind to notice the weather the building’s HVAC unit would be keeping the environment at shirt sleeve temperatures either way. At the moment minor concerns like the weather or the temperature in his office didn’t even register on his consciousness.

His office. As John glanced around the spacious area he realized how little he had done to personalize the room after his Grandmother had left it. On a shelf stood four cherished models of out-of-production BattleMechs he’d had since he was a youth. A few framed pictures stood in the bookshelves. He and the rest of his family years ago the summer before the Starcade Massacre redirected his life. School photos of his daughter. One of he, his ex-wife and Sandi at the lake house. Hmm, maybe he’d ditch that one for something else. His academy hat resting on the hat rack where it had lain untouched for a long time. The legend was that if you tossed it high at graduation then managed to somehow find it again then keeping it at your billet was supposed to bring good luck. Good luck. What he needed at the moment was more along the lines of divine inspiration that plain old luck.

In truth he rarely spent much time here. As the majority of his ‘paper work’ was actually data and text files stored on the central computer network he was able to do most of it from just about anyplace he happened to be. In the past when he had been on planet he had always been on the run from meeting to meeting, board room to war room, as he juggled his corporate duties with his military ones. Now that he had been relieved as Chief Executive of D.E.W. Industries he found that he had much more time on his hands. So he’d seen more of the inside of this office. In theory it should be a comfortable haven to settle down and think important thoughts. In practice it felt no different than a rented office suite on a foreign world. If any wisdom from previous Warder commanders was floating about the base it seemed that none of it was concentrated here.

In his first year at the academy he’d asked a professor what she had meant when she had referred to a situation as a ‘catch-22’. She told him it was an old military term from pre-space travel Terra and to find the source and get back to her with a ten page paper on the subject by the end of the week. He didn’t ask many questions after that. But he did learn that the term was coined as the title of a novel set during Terra’s Second World War. It referred to a situation that was either circular in logic or otherwise impossible to solve as the solution was unobtainable without first performing an action that required the unobtainable solution. John was thinking that he had better insight into that novel now than he had had as a newbie MechWarrior cadet.

The factual, logic based part was easy to line up. His second in command, who served as intel and combat communication / tactical officer, also happened to be secretly employed by the Wolf’s Dragoons mercenary outfit. In short, a spy. Yet Osmo had also faithfully lead the unit against attackers during John’s recent absence and directed a rescue operation that saved John’s daughter from kidnappers. Sending him packing right before the Warders were about to launch a campaign against the pirates that had butchered many Sampan leaders within the Starcade’s bulkheads and that were connected to the party that was trying to kill him and kidnap his child could potentially be a bad thing to do. Keeping him around, should he continue to send info to the Dragoons, could also potentially be a bad move. For that matter, just announcing that their intel office was a spy for someone else could do great harm. Thus the Catch-22. John wished to reduce the risks faced by his people yet no matter what choice he made the risks seemed to increase.

Startled by the loud electronic beep that suddenly intruded into his thoughts, John almost jumped to his feet. Relieved that a vid system had never been installed, he sheepishly reached over and hit the button that activated the speaker-box system on his desk.

“Yes?” he asked more or less politely. He’d asked to not be disturbed. Somebody in the outer office must have been a pretty persuasive talker.

“Lieutenant Colonel Sir? You’re brother is here to see you. He insists that it’s very important Sir.”

“Important huh? By all means, send him in.”

John watched for his brother with open curiosity as the door guard pushed open the door from the outer office side and the stocky younger Linna brother meandered in. They had code words set up if something drastic had occurred concerning John’s daughter or their sister Holly. Jeffery Linna had not used either. Thus it would seem there was no emergency in progress. There really wasn’t anything else John could think of that would bring his brother out to the base and to this office. In fact, John couldn’t even remember if Jeff had ever been in this office. Jeffery had followed their parent’s footsteps and gone totally civie in life.

As the door was pulled shut leaving them alone the younger brother flopped down into one of the overstuffed chairs that faced the desk.

“What’s with the armed guard at your door?” asked Jeff. “I don’t ever remember seeing that before.”

“I don’t remember having a yet unidentified multi-corp hiring assassins to kill me before either,” shrugged John. He didn’t like it much but Osmo had insisted. And in his head John knew that Osmo was right about the security issue. Like he was about many things.

Rather than be taken aback by John’s acid rebuttal, Jeffery actually smiled. “Touche as they say. Point for you big bro. Sorry, didn’t come here to rattle your cage.”

John sighed. “Sorry I snapped. Got things on my mind. So I’ll skip the chit chat and jump right to the point. What are you here for? You’re on my call-through list. You could have just buzzed me.”

“True, but some things are best said face to face rather than impersonally over a comm line. So as your financial advisor and accountant I have come to tell you that you are broke.”

John just snorted in semi-amusement. “We both know that I’m worth around three billion- give or take a few Fin-marks.” His brother had a peculiar sense of humor and an occasional flair for the dramatic. Came from their mother John had always figured.

Jeff waived off John’s response. “Sure, in imaginary money. Stock ownership, options, property, government bonds, and such. But I’m talking cash on the counter top money here. In case it has slipped your mind, you aren’t collecting any paychecks these days. No more CEO pay from D.E.W. and you continue to refuse to draw a salary from the Warders. I assume you actually looked at the numbers before personally buying six fighter craft and a DropShip? Maybe added them up in your head or something before signing?”

The L.C. just shrugged. “Sure. Exceptionally good prices they offered actually. I know you mean well Jeff but is there a point to this? I needed the ships. I have lots of money. So I bought them. That’s what you do with money – you buy things you need.”

It was Jeff’s turn for a heavy sigh. He’d been through versions of this conversation with his brother more than once over the years. “No, you don’t need them. The Suomi Warders need them. I keep the books for your unit too. Look, we both know the history lesson part of this. The Warders had gotten a bit thin in the pocketbook by the time Grandmother took over and she steadfastly refused to ask Grandpa to dump some of the Linna fortune back into the enterprise.”

John nodded to himself in agreement. Their Grandmother had been a line officer from a respected but not particularly moneyed family that had joined the Linna clan by marriage. An improbable union, but a loving relationship that lasted a lifetime. Along with his Grandma’s many good traits had been a streak of stubbornness that was near legendary. She had been determined to keep the Warders afloat through their own resources rather than call upon her husband’s finances. The pension, medical, and housing funds had all been kept in solid shape but at the cost of selling half the warder BattleMechs and mothballing the rest. She turned what had been primarily a military unit into something that more closely resembled a uniformed corporate security force for hire.

John viewed things differently than she had. After he joined, and even before he’d assumed command, he’d liberally mixed his personal finances with the unit’s and essentially bankrolled the reformation of a Warder BattleMech force. He’d also invested funds on behalf of the Warders in a number of areas. The investments combined with his willingness to take the unit off planet for anti-raider missions and his idea of building a training cadre to hire out to teach others had enlarged the unit’s coffers many fold.

“But now,” Jeffery was reminding his brother, “the Warders have a solid bankroll. There is a Warder equipment budget you know. You’ve primed the pump already. Let the Warders pay their own way. Until your quarterly earnings money rolls in at the end of December you’re a bust in the liquid assets department.”

The thought actually made John laugh. He was technically among the wealthiest people on the planet and yet he was also technically out of money. “I concede your point Jeff. But I’ll just have to sell something. The equipment budget can’t absorb an entire DropShip right now. Even at one quarter the list value.”

Jeff rolled his eyes in exasperation. “You are the same guy that used to lead acquisition bids and fend off hostile takeovers of subsidiary companies right? Whatever has been on your mind must really be a whopper because you’re missing the obvious Brother- mine. Borrow the money. Or actually, have the Warders borrow the money. That’s what most small mercenary units do.”

“Well, I suppose we could do that. I’d need to personally guarantee the loan to get a decent interest rate. Most financial institutions want a signed contract before they’ll loan money for military equipment and as you are well aware there is no contract for this mission. This is my personal little jaunt.”

“Our personal little jaunt,” corrected Jeff.

“All right you schemer. I can see that sly grin of yours peeking out from that poker face you’re trying to wear. This entire ‘how to pay for the DropShip’ discussion has just been a build up to whatever it is you’re here to drop on me.”

“Well, it is true that you’re basically out of cash,” grinned Jeff. “But as to the loan part, with the big names that are now paying for this ‘little jaunt’ you shouldn’t have any trouble at all.”

“What have you done?” asked John warily.

“What I’m good at. Collected up a bunch of money from people that have too much of it anyway. Look, it’s no secret that you’re headed off someplace soon. Towards the Combine according to the rumor mill but that’s beside the point. So I passed the hat around among select family and friends. Or in the case of our family and friends it was more like a wheelbarrow than a hat. They have no clue what you plan to do but simply on the strength of knowing that it’s important enough that you were paying for it yourself they opted to pool their money and fund the contract.”

John suddenly understood his Grandmother’s resistance to using Grandfather’s money far better than he ever had before. “We can’t do that…” he started to object.

“Yes, we can,” interrupted Jeff. “Eventually you learned to not try to take everything upon yourself and started using your command staff in the Warders to share the burden. This is no different. I don’t know squat about ‘Mechs or tanks or tactics but I do know finance. There’s no need to bear the financial burden alone. Let us help. Let me help. What I’ve collected isn’t enough to fully pay for your DropShip but it will damn well cover travel, payroll, and a lot of your material needs. BattleMechs are weapons, information is a weapon, and money is a weapon. This is just the start of the campaign John. Whatever conglomerate is bankrolling these pirates is going to come after us tooth and nail as soon as they think we know who they are. It’ll be gun fights, it’ll be legal fights, and it’ll be business clashes. It might well come down to who has the most resources and how they can be applied. Don’t squander your personal resources now when you don’t have to. You might need them later.”

“You know, I believe you’d have made a better military officer than you think Jeff. Point well made. This thing isn’t over just because we trash some pirates in the Periphery. I leave the money stuff in your hands. Finance the ship, put the contract funds in escrow, and so forth. And try to leave me enough money in my personal account that I can buy a round or two of drinks and maybe catch dinner and a show okay?”

“Now you’re talking sense,” smiled Jeffery as he stood. “Guess I’ll be moving along to get the ball rolling. Don’t work too hard and tell Sandi her Uncle Jeff said hello.”

“One out of two anyway,” promised John with a wry smile. They both knew he would pass the greeting. As to working too hard….John would do what he felt needed to be done.

John saw his brother to the door only to find a new visitor waiting for him in the outer office. His brother’s visit had been unexpected. Pastor Curtis’ arrival was unfathomable.

“I hope I’m not intruding.”

“No, not at all Pastor,” countered a perplexed John. “Jeff was just leaving and I have no other appointments.”

“Pastor,” nodded the younger Linna in greeting.

“Good to see you Jeffery.”

Jeff was always nervous around priests of any stripe. That even included ComStar adepts even though they technically weren’t clergy. There wasn’t any real reason he could put his finger on about his aversion to those of the cloth but Jeff made quick good-byes and beat a hasty retreat. John invited the Pastor into his office, shutting the doors behind them.

“I must admit I’m surprised to see you Pastor.” John motioned to one of the chairs. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Actually there is,” admitted the priest. “I’ve recently spoken with a few Warders about their staying back from this campaign or not. Obviously I can’t discuss the specifics of the discussions but I gather from those I spoke with that this is a particularly important mission and that just about everyone that can walk will be going. I know that my position as unit chaplain is honorary rather than official, but I’ve discussed it with the Parish Elders and they are in agreement with me. I’d like to join this campaign John. I think it’s important.”

John blinked as his mind churned through the implications and ramifications of the request. There had long been a church nestled among the living quarters of the base. It was self regulated, meaning that while it was on the base it wasn’t run by or for the unit. But by default most of it’s members were current or ex-Warders and their families. The Pastor of that little church had traditionally presided over any rituals such as the memorial services for the fallen. But the priests on base had been civilians for as far back as John was aware. John knew that Maako Curtis had once been an infantry sergeant with a Marik Legion before turning to the cloth. But the Pastor had always said that if he never saw a real battlefield again then God would have granted him his fondest personal desire.

“Are you sure Pastor?” pressed John. “What about the dependents left behind? They’ll need comfort and support in our absence.”

“Lieutenant Colonel,” smiled the older man, “just as you do, I have an ‘executive officer’ to look after things when I’m gone as well. Pastor Nurmi can handle things by herself without any problem.”

John almost winced at the mention of an XO.

“I can’t think of a good way to put this delicately Maako,” sighed John. “But on this trip things are going to get messy. There’s going to be some hard fighting against desperate types. There might be some nasty choices required. It could easily become a pretty ugly op depending on what we find when we get there. From other conversations we’ve had I gathered the impression that you didn’t really want to go into that type of situation again.”

Maako reached across and patted John on the shoulder. “You’re a good man to worry about me like that John. But all those reasons you just mentioned are the reasons why I can’t turn my back and just wait it out here. As you’re well aware, I have credentials in general psychiatric care and grief counseling to go along with this spiffy collar. So I offer more than just spiritual guidance. But if I am to be as a shepherd to my flock I need to go where the flock is going. I’ve been witness to some very…bad…’ops’ in my day. I don’t relish being there to witness good people dying. But that is where I can do the most good - out there where ever it is you’re going. What more can I say. Sisu. It applies to all walks of life, not just the warrior path.”

Sisu. What must be done must be done and it is no use to count the cost. A national philosophy. The Warder’s motto. It was as true for a priest as it was for a soldier.

“How can I turn you down? Liaison with Sergeant Harding about how much mass you can bring as personal gear. We’ll get you a berth but I can’t tell you the launch date until we’re almost on top of it. So pack whatever you want to take with you within the next four or five days and be ready to lift at a moment’s notice.”

“Good, good. I’ll keep myself ready. Thank you John. This is the right thing. You’ll see.” The Pastor stood to take his leave.

The right thing. John hoped so. But the right thing wasn’t always readily apparent.

“Pastor, I want to ask you something. I know this is out of context but…is motive important? If a man does the right thing for the wrong reason does that negate the good that has been done?”

Maako dipped his head in thought, considering carefully for a moment as the Lt. Colonel waited silently.

“A difficult question. I do not believe that objective evaluation of how much ‘good’ or ‘bad’ occurred is the key issue. One can always debate matters of degree. But I believe that what is in one’s heart when making choices or taking actions is the primary factor. Surely, someone can do a good act for selfish reasons, or have good intentions yet cause harm. But I would say while that the motives don’t really affect the judgement of the act’s value, they reflect the actor’s values. And a person’s values are always significant. More significant than anything they have done.”

John pursed his lips as he mulled that over.

“Is there anything you’d like to talk to me about?” probed Curtis with concern.

“Not at the moment. Maybe sometime else. But thanks, you’ve given me a good deal to think about.”

After the Pastor had left John returned to his chair and idly rocked it, lost in thought. Several snippits from previous conversations floated though his mind. If logic can’t find the answer, let your heart decide. A battle of resources. Values are more significant than actions. Sisu.


So many shadings possible within the term. In his mind he could hear it ringing out from his troopers loud and strong in moments both joyous and grief filled. From voices grouped and single voices. Those voices spoke to him now. They told him to make a decision and implement it then get back to the work of prepping for the campaign. Stewing in his office all day wasn’t going to solve anything. John pulled open a side drawer and grabbed his hand-cell unit and punched in a number.

“Gracie? …..Yeah, it’s John. What are you doing right now?……..Good. I’m glad he’s there. Can you two come over to my office? There’s a decision to be made and we don’t have the time to drag it out……Thanks, see you in a few then.”

He closed the connection and set the comm unit down on the desk. Maybe his timing was off as the Pastor had already left, but he uttered a quick prayer that he was about to do the right thing. And for the right reasons.

On the other end of the signal First Lieutenant Aukland shut her hand-cell down as well. She looked across the munitions charts on the table at Sven. “John wants us to swing by his office.”

The big man nodded. “He’s made a decision then.”

She didn’t need to ask him ‘about what?’.

“Seems so,” agreed Gracie. “We find out if Osmo will be staying with us or if he’s on the next DropShip for Outreach.”

A short time later the two MechWarriors were settling into seats in John’s office. Gracie looked around at the sparse décor.

“You know,” she admitted, “I can’t even remember the last time we had a meeting in here.”

John nodded in agreement. “Not very often. I guess I still think of this office as my Grandmother’s rather than mine.”

“I never served under her but I understand she was a good leader,” added Sven into the silence.

“She was,” sighed John finally. “That she was. And believe me, I’ve asked myself what she would do in my position about a thousand times.”

“Did it help?” Gracie wanted to know.

“Nope. She had totally different methods than me. The only thing I realized is what I had already realized long ago. I can’t try to do things the way she did.”

“We assumed you had decided something though,” prompted Sven.

“Well, I’ve almost decided something. But you two have input into this matter too. I’ve talked obliquely about the subject with a couple of people and got some good food for thought. But there’s a few things I want to ask you two before committing one way or another.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” nodded Gracie. “All for one and all that. Fire away.”

“I’ll start by laying out my thoughts. I’ve turned this thing over in my head and looked at it from every angle, weighed the risks and benefits, and so forth. But the scales keep balancing and I keep finding myself left with two choices. Fire Osmo for breaking the confidentiality clauses in his contract on the general principal that rules need to be enforced. Or keep him on the general principal that he’s my friend, he’s valuable to the unit and I want him here. Neither reason – blind obedience to regs nor my personal wishes – are exactly one hundred percent valid ones to make such an important choice from.”

John leaned back in his seat as he continued.

“So I’ve been floundering. Naoko told me that when logic fails then it’s time to listen to your heart. My brother reminded me that the upcoming attack is really only the first step in a campaign that could get very ugly. It’s likely to move to non-combat oriented fronts and be a battle of resources over the long haul. And just now Pastor Curtis got me to thinking about how sometimes it’s not the action that is important to evaluate but the person behind the action. So I decided to make a choice from my heart and then see if I could build a strong enough case to back it up. There’s no question that Osmo’s a vital resource to the unit. And while I have some of the best security types money can buy working for me in the civilian company I own, I have to assume that so do the other guys. But I doubt they’ll have what money can’t buy. A WolfNet trained intelligence officer.

“When I look at the man instead of the act I see a man doing what he felt to be an important and honorable thing. Helping to stop the Clans. It just happened that the Dragoons sent him on an ineffective mission. In the performance of his duties as a Warder, Osmo has never let us down. He says his heart is with us and I believe him. I have some requirements he’s going to have to agree to before I let him stay but before I get that far I need to hear from you two if you’re still willing to work with him. Because if it boils down to a matter of either of you or him then that’s an easy choice for me to make. You two take precedence without a shadow of a doubt.”

The other two MechWarriors exchanged glances. Gracie nodded to Sven that he should go ahead and speak for them.

“We’ve talked it through already,” noted the huge framed warrior. “As long as we have some extra safeguards in place to make sure he’s not still sending reports then we have no problem with having him stay.”

“Neither of us are too hot on trying to use him as a double agent though,” added Gracie.

“Nor am I,” nodded John. “Then we’re in agreement. A second chance. I’ll call him in so we can all talk. On his way here I’ll lay out the changes I have in mind. Some of them are on the drastic side.”

Main Entrance

Warder Base (Fort Ilmarinen)

Outside Suomi City, Sampsa

28 November 3052

Osmo Woods, Captain for the moment anyway, stepped out of his ground car and shut the door. The spring air carried a hint of wild flowers as he gazed out across the parking lot towards the forested hills. As he swung his view around towards the gleaming high rise structures of Suomi City he couldn’t help but wonder if this was to be the last day he’d take in these sights.

He’d never really been in love so he’d never suffered through a true heartache over a lost romance. But the ache he felt in his heart now had to be just about the same thing. Osmo felt sick to his stomach as he marched towards the gate guard. Where had it all gone wrong he wondered? A war orphan adopted by the mighty Wolf’s Dragoons he had been living a fairy tale. He had thought he’d learned all there was to know about honor and duty in his early training. Then he’d been shaken by the revelation that the Dragoons had started as Clan spies. When he’d become WolfNet he’d been told the truth so he had known long before it had become general knowledge to the rest of the Inner Sphere. But he’d rationalized it all to himself by seizing on their new direction of warding the Sphere from the invading Clans. Being sent to join the Suomi Warders had been just another assignment. Just see what technological advances were coming out of the Free Worlds League and see if John Linna could be persuaded to lend his considerable wealth to growing the unit and then nudging him to take a contract that would hinder the Clan cause.

Nothing terribly sinister. At the time Osmo had deeply believed that every Sphere citizen should set aside their nationalist quibbles and work together against the Clans as their duty to civilization. John was running a mercenary company after all. They could win some battles, earn some Clantech salvage….it was a potential win – win situation all around.

But the longer he had spent time amongst the Warders and away from Outreach and WolfNet the more he came to realize that there was so much more going on in the Inner Sphere than just the Clan invasion. A funny thing for an intel officer to have an epiphany over but that’s what had happened. Working for WolfNet his fellow Dragoons were just fellow soldiers to him. Comrades to be sure. But he didn’t have much interaction with the rank and file Dragoons. They were interchangeable faces and uniforms. Heck, some of them were even products of clone tanks. The Warder staff became individuals to him. He knew who had kids and who didn’t. Where they lived. What the favorite breakfast foods of his comm specialists were. In a word, the Warder members had become family.

He discovered that there was still more to be learned about honor and duty. And that was when he had become trapped between the two. Honor and duty. Dragoons and Warders.

The gate guard saluted him and added a morning greeting just like he would have any other morning. Osmo didn’t read anything in to that. His training told him that if John planned to arrest him (which was an unlikely scenario) the attempt would occur once Osmo was in a small room with few exits. It wouldn’t be out in the open at the main gate. Not that is would matter. Osmo wouldn’t try to resist. If John planned to send him away it would likely be quietly. Damaging moral when the unit was riding a buzz of excitement wouldn’t be worth the extra humiliation that would be dumped on him. And if a miracle was to occur and he was going to get to keep his Warder uniform then the WolfNet connection would have to be kept secret. Thus whether this was Woods’ last day as a Warder or not the guard was never going to know the truth of the matter.

He struggled with a wave of frustration as he returned the greeting and walked on. Arguably he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d just been following orders lawfully given to him that had seemed reasonable at the time. He wasn’t a bad person. Then he sighed heavily. This wasn’t about if he was a bad person or not. It was about what he had been doing. A snatch of an old literary classic came to his mind.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

Shakesrod or Shakespear…something like that. What…maybe fifteen hundred years ago? He wasn’t sure. Didn’t matter, it was still true enough.

The receptionist smiled pertly and the door guard ushered him into John’s office without bothering to search him for weapons. Osmo swallowed to clear his throat so his voice wouldn’t crack and steeled himself to enter the lion’s den. He smiled in irony to himself as that thought flashed through his head. The Warder’s crest was a lion, and he was about to enter the den of the head lion.

He decided that whatever was about to befall him he would face it with dignity. He had already decided what he would do if released from duty. He felt confident that his resolve wouldn’t falter. As he had expected, the rest of the Review Board was there with John. Gracie and Sven both rose to nod a greeting to him as he entered and the guard pulled the door shut again sealing the four of them together.

“Sir, Captain Woods reporting as ordered,” Osmo barked smartly as he saluted.

John returned the salute but without much enthusiasm.

“You can stow the military protocol for a while. Right now it’s just John, Gracie, Sven and Osmo in this office.”

“Understood … John.” Woods had almost used ‘sir’ again.

“It’s been a trying two nights for all of us Osmo. So I’m not going to beat around the bush. I have a number of provisions for you to consider and if you agree to them, and we are all convinced of your sincerity, then we’re prepared to let you keep that uniform.”

Osmo had been braced for a devastating emotional blow. When he received a reprieve instead his knees almost buckled in shocked disbelief.

“Hey Osmo, maybe you’d like to sit down?” asked Gracie softly.

“Huh? Oh, yes,” mumbled a dazed Woods. “Yes thank you. I think I would.”

Sven pushed a chair towards him and Osmo gratefully sank into it.

“To start I need a question answered,” John told him. “Your ‘wife’ and fellow agent. You’re not actually involved with her right? Romantically I mean.”

“No. Strictly a working relationship.”

“Good. Then she goes. Tell her she has two days to get the hell off my planet before I turn her over to the Planetary Bureau of Investigation.”

Woods just nodded.

“As to yourself, if you plan to be a Warder than you can’t be a Dragoon too. Just like your contract with us actually reads but this time you really mean it and live by it. You’ll send your resignation to the Dragoons and if they decide to enforce your enlistment agreement with them then you’ll have to go back and finish it. If they cut you loose but want compensation for lost time on your contract then you’ll have to pay for it yourself. If they have some sort of secret policy that says no one leaves WolfNet alive then you can’t stay with us because I’m not going to place any of my people in any extra danger just by having you around. Is all of that clear?”

“Yes,” Osmo replied through a thick throat. “Just by tendering a resignation I’ll make myself unreliable in their eyes. They won’t want me any more. I don’t believe I know anything critical about the Dragoons so I can’t see them wanting to silence me.”

And it was all true. Osmo knew some passcodes to ask for information from the WolfNet databases through the ComStar systems but passcodes where changed all the time. The only other operative on an assignment he knew of was his faux wife and she’d be reassigned after being sent packing.

“Now to the nitty-gritty,” intoned John as he leaned forward onto his desk. “You have broken discipline and some consequences are in order. Plus the simple fact that I have to consider the welfare of the entire unit. Trust has been damaged. You’ll have to agree to accept any extra security scrutiny I deem necessary any time I ask for it. That will mean I’ll be using my civilian security people to keep tabs on you. You’ll be living in a glass house for quite a while Osmo. Maybe a very long time. Ultimately I’ll place someone else as security/intel head. You’ll be our combat communications and tactical officer. Any problems so far?”

“None,” breathed Osmo. “You’re being more generous than I probably deserve.”

“Don’t say that,” warned John. “Because you better show us that you deserve this chance we’re offering you to be what you’ve told us you really want to be. Don’t prove this decision to be a mistake.”

“I won’t,” Osmo vowed.

“The final thing deals with the overall command structure. I can’t in good conscious let you continue as my designated second in command.”

Gracie and Sven looked to John in surprise. He hadn’t mentioned this part of his plans to them. Osmo merely looked on in full attention. He hadn’t figured he’d be allowed to stay. Losing some rank was of no consequence to him. He certainly understood why the Lieutenant Colonel would want to rearrange command to fall to those he trusted the most.

“I’m going to take advantage of the jump in rank you arranged for me to hand out some long overdue promotions. While I’m at it I’m going to rearrange the unit organizational chart and chain of command. I’m making all company commanders Captains which means we’ll have a VTOL, Armor and Infantry Captain. Specific department Staff Chiefs – such as Tactical / Combat Communications or Training will be Captains as well. Congratulations Sven, as Chief of Training you just picked up a set of Captain’s bars. Gracie, as the company commander of the ‘Mech company you would normally be a Captain, but as you’re my new XO you’ll need rank over everyone else so I now dub you Major Aukland. The line of command will pass through the combat company leaders before dipping to the support staff officers. I still have no clue what I’m going to do with my retired full bird Colonel and his AeroSpace jocks but we’ll work something out. A new Command Staff I have yet to put together will take over many of the functions we’ve been using the Review Board for but Osmo, you’ll still be part of a Tactical Review Group we’ll put together. Are you going to be able to accept this new order of things Osmo?”

“Without hesitation John,” he answered heartily. Osmo reached up to brush the back of his hand at the corner of an eye to blot away the wetness. “Me? Exec Officer?” asked Gracie in surprise. “Are you sure John?”

“I’m sure Major,” he smiled. “I never should have jumped Osmo over you in the first place but you were so adamant that all you wanted to do was be a MechWarrior and kick pirate ass until we found Holly. Well, we found her. And you’ll still get to kick pirate ass. But now I’m going to make you wade through the paperwork just like I do before I let you go play in the ‘Mechs. It shouldn’t be too bad though Gracie. Since I’ve lost my civilian job I’m around the office more often. Captain Jorgenson, you have anything to add?”

Sven shrugged in bemusement. “Only that you still manage to surprise me Lieutenant Colonel Linna. Thank you for the promotion.”

“You deserve it,” grinned John. Now that he had committed to keeping Osmo he felt almost giddy with the relief of no longer having to ponder the issue. “Captain Woods. Are you prepared to join your fellow Warder officers and serve with them in good faith for the betterment of the unit, the protection of this planet, and the benefit of the people of the Inner Sphere as a whole?”

Osmo stood to attention as he proclaimed “Yes Sir!”. He couldn’t help it. He was just a protocol type of guy.

“Good,” nodded John, “because we have an invasion to plan and not much time to plan it in. We need to get cracking.”

“John,” asked Osmo hesitantly as a thought jumped into his head. “When do you want me to send that resignation to the Dragoons? They might request my immediate return.”

The newly minted Lt. Colonel pursed his lips as he considered the question. The Dragoons fielded something like five strengthened BattleMech regiments plus four large operational command sections including AeroSpace and armor support. He had what might generously be called a reinforced battalion of combined arms. At the moment he needed Osmo far more than the Dragoons possibly could.

“Send it tonight after you tell your ‘wife’ that you’re filing for a divorce. But instruct ComStar not to deliver it until the day after we leave. I’m serious about you putting your service terms on the square with the Dragoons. But if it just so happens that they can’t find us until after this op is over then that’s just the breaks.” John had taken at least a few of his Grandmother’s methods to heart.

“Understood,” smiled a relieved Captain Woods. “And from the depth of my soul; thanks. I swear to you all that you’ll never regret this day.”

Tactical Planning Room (The “War Room”)

Warder Base (Fort Ilmarinen)

Outside Suomi City, Sampsa

30 November 3052

Captain Jennifer Laidie studied the data on the display before her carefully. She didn’t see anything that rung alarm bells so she leaned back and stretched. Captain. It was almost hard to believe. She had awoken yesterday a First Lieutenant and went to bed that night as a Captain. And she wasn’t the only one. Most of the officers in the War Room with her were wearing shiny new promotions. It seemed that the Review Board had met two days ago and decided to reorganize. Newly minted Captains Fosters of the infantry and Runeberg of the armor company flanked her to either side. Gracie Aukland, now a Major and the new XO, was next to another new Captain- MechWarrior Sven Jorgenson. Also present was the Colonel from the local AeroSpace force that had quit to captain a DropShip for the Warders. At the moment he was a brevet Major. John Linna presided, himself newly promoted as well. Only Captain Woods had not received a new rank but he showed no signs of being upset about it.

Since their arrival on Sampsa Jennifer had developed a high opinion of Captain Woods. He was a natural with logistics and a strong tactical thinker as well. Assuming the rumor she had heard at breakfast was true, it was a shame about his wife running off with that travelling medical supplies salesman like she had. But whatever personal turmoil the Captain might be going through none of it leaked out to interfere with his duties. The man was a rock. It seemed curious that the Lt. Colonel had named a new Exec, but Jennifer understood that Aukland had been exec before Woods had arrived. It probably had something to do with that conversation about trust the Lieutenant Colonel and her had had but she had no idea what the actual details were. And it seemed that she never would.

Not that it mattered much to her. After that trick they pulled to help Aukland get away to join the search team anything was possible from this outfit. For all she knew the Woods as XO might have been a long term charade for some reason and Aukland was simply retaking her rightful role.

As Jennifer had expected, the vote to join the campaign had been 100% in favor among her unit. That included an astech who was two months pregnant and a supply aid who had a broken leg. Jenny had put both on the denied list. They’d have to wait for the next campaign. She hadn’t been the only company commander required to tell people that they would have to stay home. Privately she was a little worried about the intensity everyone had about this mission. She hoped that the gung-ho enthusiasm would endure the long space trip that was before them. For now Jenny and the others in the room finally knew their target. They had over 130 parsecs to travel to reach a system that the Star League stellar maps had mistaken designated uninhabitable. Lurking in a buffer zone of supposedly useless systems between the Circinus Federation and the Free Worlds League, their target planet was serving as a trade port for fencing stolen goods and as a base of operations for at least two pirate bands.

One of those bands, the Yu-shan pirates lead by someone named Ong, was going to have a very bad day in a few months. That was the purpose of these meetings. To iron out the details and make that day as bad as possible.

The long space trip was the subject of the numbers on her screen. Interstellar raiding and warfare was hampered by the distances involved. Not that the vastness of space had been enough to dampen human interest in such activities. But the issues of communications and travel/supply became limiting factors that restricted operational planning. As ludicrous as it might sound it was not uncommon for military units to drop onto a planet having no idea how strong the enemy was, where they might be concentrated, or even if they were still on the planet.

Communications was the first stumbling block. ComStar had eventually set up repeater stations on most known planets. These allowed electronic messages to be forwarded across the InnerSphere faster than light speed. But there were still limits. Depending on your priority level and the overall traffic flow it could take days to weeks to bounce a short message from station to station to your destination with a like time required for any reply. Thus even if you had an observer on your target planet to send updates, that observer would have to be able to pay ComStar and know your travel schedule and try to send messages to where you were supposed to be if any updates were required while you were en route. As the Hyper-relays were usually planet side for defensive purposes having the message forwarded by radio or courier to a ship in null-grave orbit added hours to days as well.

The nature of interstellar travel is why you would be floating around the fringe of any given star system waiting for your messages. Powered by the improbable but functional pan-dimensional gravitational mathematics of a Kearny-Fuchida drive, JumpShips plied the stellar oceans by making instantaneous hops that ‘jumped’ up to 30 light years distance away. This amazing feat of physics had a few drawbacks however. The drive itself was massive and required huge amounts of energy. A special solar collection array had been devised – the jump sail – to make use of the free radiant energy of the nearest star to recharge the K-F drive. But recharging was generally around a one week operation. Travel by JumpShip became a matter of jump, wait, jump, wait. Recharge stations and lithium batteries could help if available but these options were limited for most JumpShip captains. As the K-F drive only functioned in the barest of gravity it was necessary to keep the jumps outside the gravitational eddies of a given star system. Thus a JumpShip can get you close but after that a DropShip is required to motor the rest if the way to your desired destination.

The upshot of all this was that if you desired to attack someone say 40 parsecs away you were looking at a three week delay for your jumps plus one to four days travel time from planet to JumpShip on either side of the trip. A good may things can change in a month. Not to mention the requirement of feeding your troops for that period. The Warders had much farther than 40 parsecs to travel. Luckily for them the natural laws of commerce and economics would aid them on their trip.

Being rather expensive to operate, most JumpShip captains preferred to keep their docking rings full of paying DropShips and stayed to a circuit between a few star systems that had enough traffic to support them. Thus stellar shipping lanes existed with large numbers of JumpShips plying routes that lead between the most populous worlds and feeder routes served by lesser (often smaller) JumpShips. JumpShips would go to a system, dislodge any DropShips headed for the local planet, then pick up any riders that wanted a lift to the next system. Thus with some careful planning and a good amount of money spent on ComStar messages one could reserve slots and ride the trade lines by changing to an outgoing JumpShip that was charged and ready to go at each system.

Which is exactly what the Warder flotilla of DropShips would be doing. The fastest path to their destination was actually an arc that swung through the most populated section of the Free Worlds League where JumpShips were plentiful. As they got closer to the edge of the FWL the waits would become longer. For the final leg they would require a JumpShip that would deliver them and then wait for their return. A Jump Guild representative contacted via hyper-pulse was busy arranging the contract already. By the time the Warders got out to the Periphery their ship should be waiting for them. This exercise in travel planning had been repeated three times to provide false trails for anyone that might try to determine the Warder’s destination.

It was enough to boggle the mind and Jenny was fine with leaving the stellar part of the operation to Linna, Woods, and Tapiovarra. She would concentrate on making sure that everything her company required was loaded on the DropShips. How the DropShips got to the target was upper staff’s problem.

After the jump update the Lieutenant Colonel brought up the brainstorming notes from yesterday’s session regarding mission failure points. On both the little screen in front of her and the projection screen on the wall a circle with the word FAILURE appeared that had lines radiating from it. Each line had a potential event that could cause mission failure. Many of those main lines had branch lines that broke the event down into smaller, better defined possibilities. A number of them had blue lines attached with potential solutions, green for safeguards, or orange for delegation of looking after that problem. Many of the main branches ended up with sub-branches similar in nature to other each other. A summary list of the shared failure events was off to one side.

“I’ve pulled the common threads into this side list,” John was telling the assembled officers. “As you can see a lack of information – slash - incorrect information and keeping the Yu-shan from killing the captives before we can organize our landing and get forces out to rescue them are our biggest problems. Much of the rest of the failure events…enemy not present, enemy too large, unable to locate prisoners, prisoners moved, prisoners used as hostages, and so forth stem from these two issues. So what can we do about it?”

“I don’t think we can realistically push our hired information source for much more,” opined Captain Woods. “If he starts sniffing around there too much it could tip the pirates off to trouble. We have isolated the six week cycle of the JumpShip that runs that circuit. As part of it’s route dips into FWL space it should be a simple matter to track it and have reports sent back to make sure it hasn’t deviated from schedule.”

“The further ahead of us we send them the more warning the enemy will get,” announced brevet-Major Tapiovarra. “But we can send a pair of the fighters ahead for recon purposes once we arrive in system. One of the birds we have is an actual recon model. It should be able to locate any decent sized camps so we can target our ground assaults.”

“And once dirtside we can use troopers in the VTOLs to seize and hold any prison-farm camps,” added Captain Laidie.

“If I may,” voiced Captain Fosters of the infantry, “I think we need to be more proactive than just collecting as much intel as we can on the way in.”

“I agree,” nodded John. “But how would we do that?”

Karl Foster looked around at the other Warder Officers. “We need assets on the ground before the main strike. They could scout out the enemy, maybe do some sabotage, and secure the captives before the pirates know they’re under assault.”

“That would take some sort of specialized insertion craft,” thought the DropShip commander out loud. “I don’t know if we can get one at this stage in the game.”

“Actually I’m thinking more like weeks before we attack. Not just hours,” explained Fosters. “Here’s what I’m thinking. We know that a Scout class JumpShip lugs a DropShip or two to that planet every six weeks and that the planet is used as a laundering operation to exchange goods for items that can be resold. Rumor says that pirates and grunge level mercs will often find employers there. What I propose is to send out a disguised force ahead of our main body that inserts via the regular jump stop then sneaks away for a covert patrol of the Yu-shan’s island. We time our arrival for around two weeks after our scout team has arrived. They can transmit their intel to us as we burn in system. If the island is too hot to take we just slip in one DropShip to pull them out. If its not they have pre-selected targets and hopefully have secured the captives. Heck, they might even be able to take out the orbital search radar dish the Yu-shan have on the island.”

John and Osmo exchanged looks.

“That could work,” Osmo admitted. “But what about planet side transport. The DropPort field and the planet’s only city are located over a natural gas field they’ve tapped for the energy. Its about 30 klicks from the coast and from there it’s another 80 klicks to the island.”

Fosters frowned. “I’m not sure. I guess they’ll have to secure transport once there. Maybe steal a boat or something.”

“Just take your transport with you,” exclaimed Jenny in excitement. “All kinds of contraband equipment probably changes hands there. Our Red Hawk VTOLS were built for rough handling on Periphery worlds. Just release and stow the rotors, box them up, and ship them out with the scout team. After they get there on some night when it’s dark and noisy just reattach the rotors and away you go. The island has a volcanic ring around three fourths of it. We land on the outer edge and cammo the helos in the jungle. The insertion team can walk in from there.”

“You can’t count on equipment being available on Periphery plying DropShips to move a 30 ton VTOL,” pointed out Tapiovarra. “You’ll want to arrange for your own industrial ‘Mech of some sort to tag along.”

“We have a list of cargo carrying DropShips that frequent that area,” noted Woods. “One of them is owned and operated by a distant relative of MechWarrior Jason Nelson. There’s no way to ensure that it happens to go on that particular circuit but the local spacers will likely know each other. Jason’s relative might be able to drop the right word to make sure our team can get on a ship that will be traveling with that Scout. And Jason is experienced with cargo handling, space ops, and industrial loading equipment. We could add him and a loader ‘Mech to the team then just leave the loader behind when they head for the island.”

There was a pause in the conversation as everyone looked around to see if any major problems had been missed. It seemed that no one could think of any.

“All right,” decided John, “it sounds like something worth planning out to see if it’s feasible. Karl; you, Jenny, Jeffery and Osmo will be our planning team to put an outline together. Go ahead and pull in a few other people if you need to. I imagine that you’ll probably want Sargent Cascade in on the ground floor. I hate to rush you but I’d like the best plan you can get for us by tomorrow night. Then we’ll critique it and decide if we should go forward with fine tuning it or drop the idea. Any questions? Okay. Now let’s take a look at some of these lesser problem points and see what we can come up with.”

Hangar Four

Warder Aerodrome

Outside Suomi City, Sampsa

02 December 3052

MechWarrior Jason Nellson hopped from the open topped utility jeep with a word of thanks to the driver and stood aside as it pulled away and roared off across the aerodrome tarmac back towards the base. He remembered when he had first arrived at the Warder’s home. This airfield had been basically boarded up. Now the place was humming with activity. Through the open door of another hanger he could see the sleek dangerous forms of several AeroSpace fighters. Three huge, gangly VTOLs sat off by another hanger, people scurrying about doing something or other. He couldn’t tell what from that distance. Farther away a cargo class DropShip was on the ground with all it’s bay doors open as support staff practiced loading and unloading huge crates as fast as they could. It seemed that with every day their departure drew neared the activity level managed to increase another notch. In fact, it was precisely this fact that left him feeling uneasy this morning.

With everyone else at planning sessions, training sessions, gathering or checking gear, and what not he had found himself pulled from the day’s training exercise with the Steel Posse to come see the L.C. at one of the unused aerodrome hangars. Lawman had just shrugged and said he didn’t know what it was about when Jason had asked him why Lt. Col. Linna wanted to see him. Obviously it was likely that his Lance Leader knew something that Jason didn’t. But Jason had learned long ago that Lt. Jorgenson was good at keeping his thoughts to himself. If Lawman didn’t want him to know something then Jason wasn’t going to know. Until the L.C. told him personally it seemed.

Jason wiped a sweaty palm on his pants before reaching for the door knob of the access door. Racker realized that his heart was pounding. The MechWarrior / Cadet-Lieutenant was more nervous about this mysterious meeting with his commanding officer than he had been in the last firefight. Well, maybe not he decided. But it was a darn close call either way. Sucking in his breath and marshalling his courage he pushed open the door and went inside.

Within he could see L.C. Linna and Sergeant Cascade standing near an old Deer-Cat model multipurpose cargo handler. Jason guessed this one to be the upper end of the line, maybe twenty five or thirty tons. It was a hybrid machine half tracked forklift and half industrial ‘Mech. Somewhat like a bulldozer – centaur creation. The arms could manipulate cargo into small areas while the forklift blades were capable of hoisting an incredible amount of weight. The treads of the tracked section where rubber coated for grip on deck plates and each cleat had an electromagnet allowing the machine to cling to floors or walls in zero gee. The Deer-Cat line was also capable of pulling or pushing loads several times their own weight. The two people by the cargo mover looked up at him as he entered.

“You wanted to see me Sir?” asked Jason. He winced as he heard his voice crack.

“Indeed I did Jason. Come on over here,” called John. “I take it you’ve seen one of these before?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Can you operate it?” the Lieutenant Colonel wanted to know.

Jason glanced nervously at the infantry sergeant but could read nothing from the woman’s face. “I would think so Sir. We had a much smaller one on my parent’s JumpShip in the main cargo hold. But the basics would be the same. I’d need some practice to get used to the arm servos. On these older industrial designs there’s no neural interface. It’s all manual.”

“So I had noticed,” chuckled Linna.

Jason turned beet red and suddenly found his own feet a very interesting place to look. What was he doing lecturing the C.O. about indi-‘Mechs? Of course the Lt. Colonel knew there was no neural interface.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you out to this hanger so I won’t leave you twisting any longer,” John told the young MechWarrior. “What I’m about to tell is confidential. You are to tell no one of this conversation. You’re here because Sergeant Cascade is leading a special mission that requires someone familiar with space operations and cargo handling. I’d rather send one of us instead of hiring a civilian contractor and, to be frank, we think that a distant cousin of yours might prove helpful to the op on the other end. But before you give me an answer I want to lay out a little of the plan so you know what you’d be volunteering for.”

Jason just nodded when the Lieutenant Colonel looked at him to make sure he was paying attention and understood. The youngster had found that his throat had dried up making a verbal response far too risky to attempt at the moment.

“The Sergeant’s team will leave before the rest of the unit. Their job will be to infiltrate the target area and gather intelligence prior to our arrival. Part of that team will include two of our helicopters in crates. Your main job will be to make sure those crates are well taken care of and can be pushed to where ever they need to be when it’s time to open them. To get to the target area, boarding a DropShip that links with a specific JumpShip is critical to the mission. We don’t expect problems but it might be helpful if you can influence your relative to put in a good word for the team. We’re talking the Periphery here so sometimes who will vouch for you is as important as the color of your C-Bills. From the final commitment point there won’t be much room for error. The team will be without support until I arrive with the main body. There are some questions I can’t answer unless you commit, but if you have any questions go ahead and ask.”

Jason worked his jaw for a moment with no sound coming out. Part of his heart was soaring with excitement. It was the fulfillment of many a day-dream fantasy. A secret mission behind enemy lines. But at the same time a cold hand squeezed at his gut. His role was to operate the Deer-Cat – a glorified cargo handler. He had thought he had proven himself as a MechWarrior. Yet he had lost the last two ‘Mechs he’d piloted in combat for the Warders. Both damaged beyond repair. And now they had Kissa back. Plus the L.C.’s sister and her lance.

“Uh, Sir…does this mean I’m not needed in the lance any more?” he managed to ask in what he felt was a calm tone.

John blinked in surprise, then latched onto the track of thinking that the young warrior had taken.

“Not to worry Racker,” assured John. “This isn’t a demotion. Once the main force touches down we’ll link up and you’ll be behind the controls of your ‘Mech before you know it. We’re going to need every ‘Warrior we have. I’m not asking you to miss the show. I’m asking if you want to get there early.”

Smiling with relief Jason let his enthusiasm for the mission have free reign. “Sisu Sir! Tell me what you need and I’m good to go!”

“I’m glad to hear that,” nodded John. “But understand that if you’re in then you’re under Sergeant Cascade’s command for the duration. And I mean from right now until we link up far down the calendar.”

The young MechWarrior felt his enthusiasm die off as he stole another glance at the rather formidable looking non-com. He gulped once but managed to answer in a steady voice.

“I understand Sir. I officially volunteer for the mission.”

“Good. Then I’ll leave you in the Sergeant’s care. And remember: no discussing the assignment outside of the mission team. Not with your buddy Ranger. Not with anyone. Lawman and I will handle explaining your absence to the others. From here on you’ll be staying with the mission team.”

“Understood Sir.”

“Good luck then. We’ll talk before you leave. Sergeant Cascade…he’s all yours.”

Cascade snapped to attention. “Yes Sir,” she barked.

John bid his good byes and departed to deal with the next item on his agenda leaving the MechWarrior in the Sergeant’s care. She eyed him for a moment in something that wasn’t quite a glare but definitely wasn’t friendly either. All in all she’d have rather trained one of her own to jocky this cargo machine around. But the planning team was convinced this kid might be important to making the final link that would get them to Yu-Shan.

“Your first task should be simple enough,” the Sergeant informed Jason. “Get used to this thing by driving it around the hanger and moving that stack of junk over there to the other side of the hangar. Then open up the repair hatches on this thing and start going through the tech manual. You’ll need to be able to handle at basic repair and upkeep on it once we’re underway.”

“Yes Ma’am,” sang out Nellson in his best imitation of her ringing bark.

“That’s ‘Yes Sergeant’,” growled Cascade. “I’m a working stiff. Just like you are for now. I’ll be back in three hours. You’ll get a little chow time then I’ll take you out to the Arcade for introductions.”

She started to march off.

“Excuse me…Sergeant?” asked a perplexed Jason. “An arcade?”

Sammi paused to look back him. “The ‘arcade’ is our pet name for our specialized training area. It’s where we practice shooting people. I’m sure you’ll find it to your liking,” she informed him dryly. “Now you have your orders. Carry on.”

“Yes Ma’….Yes Sergeant!”

As Jason climbed onto the Deer-Cat he wondered what he had just gotten himself into. The only thing he knew for sure at the moment was that he darn well better have a good working relationship with this cargo mover before the Sergeant came back for him.

It only took him about ten minutes to get the controls worked out. However as he used the forklift blades to lift one of the crates he ended up scraping his load against those stacked behind it. Perplexed he locked the machine in position and climbed out onto the locked tines. A visual inspection of the crates showed them all to be perfectly rectangular so it wasn’t odd sized boxes causing his problem. Checking the scraped one he noticed that the lid had come loose. Out of curiosity he pried it up and looked inside then almost felt backwards off the elevated lift in shock when he found ammunition containers inside. A closer inspection proved that the crated containers were empty however. Probably destined to be returned to the manufacturer for reuse. But none of this told him why he was grinding the crates together.

Returning to the driver compartment he put the load down and backed away from the stack of crates. There was a seem running down the ferrocrete floor from when the slabs had been poured and Jason used it for an old trick he had been taught by has dad. Although in the JumpShip’s cargo bay there was line painted expressly for the purpose. Jason carefully lined up his tracks on the edge of the line and let the Deer-Cat move forward at a very slow crawl. After a while his treads where on top of the line. The stupid thing was pulling to the right, probably a drive gear imbalance feeding slightly more torque to the tracks on one side than the other. Fixing it would require a major strip down. Something far beyond his ability. However the drift was minor. He didn’t think he’d have much trouble adjusting for it. Keeping a closer eye on the alignment of his fork tines as he moved back towards the crates he started again.

Exactly three hours later Samantha Cascade was back to collect him. She had him demonstrate his ability with the Deer-Cat and grudgingly admitted he was passably decent with it. Still, she informed him that he’d be practicing with it and tinkering with it every day from now until she told him otherwise. Then it was off to lunch.

Except for Ranger and Lawman, Jason had always found himself feeling awkward around the Warder officers. With the Sergeant it felt about ten times worse. He kept remembering the little talk with him she had allowed before he had been accepted as a MechWarrior cadet with the Warders. How she sought to reach the pinnacle for a warrior – which for her meant attacking BattleMechs from foot. If she and her Snow Hunters Platoon brought down ‘Mechs they must rip through ordinary human foes something fierce. As he tried to choke down some food against a stomach tied in knots he had a sudden glimmer that by accepting this mission he was going to learn about a whole new side of battle. One that was a galaxy away from the inside of a ‘Mech cockpit. His hunch was right and his education started immediately after lunch.

The Warder’s base was rather large; far larger than their current needs dictated. There were many buildings that had been carefully closed up decades ago for future use. As Sergeant Cascade wasn’t much for small talk they traveled silently across the base (on foot) to a building that Jason had taken to be a closed storage facility the few times he’s passed it. To his great surprise the building had been converted into an indoor practice range for small arms assaults complete with modular walls that could be moved about to form rooms and halls and a control room the rode a track suspended from the ceiling allowing it to be positioned to overlook most of the floor space.

“Welcome to the Arcade, MechWarrior,” Cascade announced without preamble as they entered.

“Rad-Tech,” breathed Jason as he looked around. He hadn’t even realized he’d spoken out loud until he saw the Sergeant’s baneful glare at him.

“Follow,” she grunted as she stalked off towards a waist high wall that was topped with a clear see-through barrier of some sort.

As they approached he could see that a three walled area lay on the other side. The space had some concrete blocks and other urban junk strewn about with an armored vehicle centered in it. Jason read the name “Hetzer”, stenciled in big yellow letters, on the side of the wheeled combat machine. To Jason it looked like an oversized armored car carrying a huge gun in front. Maybe a class 20 autocannon the MechWarrior figured. That would put a hurt on anything that came close. Another soldier was already standing at the observation barrier and turned to exchange nods with the Sergeant then looked back to the Hetzer. Cascade snatched a light helmet for herself and gave one to Jason two. He put it on, fitting the ear protection flaps in place and making sure the clear visor was locked. Before Jason could ask what was going on the man that had been at the barrier blew shrilly on a whistle.

Seven troopers burst into view from among the concrete chunks near one wall, startling Jason with their sudden appearance. They careened over the various obstacles and swarmed around the vehicle, three of them jumping aboard to plant mines. Although the explosions where reduced charges prepped solely for effect, Jason still flinched and half ducked when they went off. Three others immediately sprang forward then, pulling open the access hatches blasted by the charges and spraying automatic fire into the interior while the last man kept overwatch up and down the imaginary street. In a well rehearsed ballet the shooters dropped down as their clips of blanks ran dry and the original hatch bombers where right there to throw in grenades and slam the hatches back shut. Then they all withdrew to cover once again.

The whistle blew again. “Fourteen point five seconds,” announced the whistle bearer.

As the attack squad stood up from cover Cascade stepped around the side of the barrier slightly.

“The breach charges need to go off together. An undogged hatch might be thrown open by the concussion inside and dismount the slowest charge before it blows. Call out the set and pull the pins as one,” observed the Sergeant. “And fourteen-point-five? My Grandmother can take down a Hetzer in under fourteen. Do it again!”

The squad filed out a door in the walls to collect more dummy charges and set up again as Cascade stepped closer to the Corporal overseeing the exercise.

“They’re looking pretty good,” she told the other non-com. “Two more run through then set them loose for an hour R&R break. That should take you to about PT time.”

“Ya got it Sarge,” nodded Corporal Hemway.

“Let’s go,” Sammi said to Jason as she nodded the direction he was to walk. He gulped and went where she had indicated suddenly very glad that he usually rode about nine meters above any given battlefield. Although his knees went a little weak as the thought struck him that back on Coleson’s Orb it had been a very good thing none of those Elementals he fought had made it up to his cockpit hatch He wouldn’t have lasted any longer than the imaginary crew of that Hetzer.

They climbed the ladder up to the tracked control room. Jason discovered it was actually two rooms. A larger outer chamber that had lockers and assorted training gear in it set with a few monitors linked to a control room on the other end that was lined with windows allowing anyone inside to see out over the Arcade. There were two troopers in the dressing area wiping down light plastic armor pieces as they entered from the outer catwalk.

“Park yourself here for a moment Nelson. After I have a quick chat with Sargent Sanchez we’ll head over the live fire range.”

Cascade glanced at the other two troopers.

“Hey Jenkins, you just volunteered to be our MechWarrior’s gun buddy. Stow that practice gear. I’ll be right back.” Sammi slipped into the control room leaving Jason with the two troopers in the locker area.

“Howdy, name’s Jenkins,” supplied the young soldier that Jason figured couldn’t be any older than he was. “Let’s get you some shooting gloves and a ballistic vest. Hey, don’t I know you?”

“Uh, I don’t think so,” shrugged Jason. “I’m Jason Nellson.”

“Oh yeah, Racker right? Been blundering around in that captured Centurion,” said the other trooper in the locker room with a snap of her fingers. “We were looking into your viewport a few weeks ago. Remember?”

“You had your dark visored helmets on so I couldn’t tell who I was looking at,” supplied Jason. “But I remember.”

And he certainly did. He’d been walking along about eighty meters from Ranger and keeping a sharp eye on the forest floor for the infantry they’d been told to expect. Jason had been more worried about accidentally stepping on someone than a simulated attack against his ‘Mech. He happened to look at a side monitor and heard a soft thumping sound against the front viewport. Looking up he found two bodies pressed against it. They’d slapped a big package to the armored view port between them. Through the transparent material of the cockpit front he could see the inside of the quarter meter suction cup and read the words “You’re Dead in Fifteen Seconds”. Then they had waved and rappelled down and away out of his view. Jason had been so startled he’d just stared at it for at least five seconds before trying to use an arm to knock it off. He’d found out that a Centurion couldn’t touch it’s own face. The designers had probably never saw the need or maybe had even done it on purpose so the head couldn’t be damaged by an arm that was flailing about from combat damage.

Inside the control room Sammi exchanged greetings with her counterpart from Second Platoon, Sergeant Jerson Sanchez.

“So what do you have there?” asked Sanchez as he indicated Jason through the one-way window where the MechWarrior was being handed an armor vest.

“MechWarrior Jason ‘Racker’ Nellson.”

“What are you supposed to do with him?”

“Would you believe make him a land warrior in eight days?”

Jerson barked a short laugh. “No. Eight months maybe. If you were really lucky.”

Sammi snorted in amusement. “Remember the briefing where they told us that someone from the unit experienced with spacer ways that happened to have a handily placed relative might be attached to the op.”

Jerson nodded. He hadn’t been in on the initial planning sessions. But once it had been decided to expand the operation from just First Platoon to the First plus a squad from Second trained for building entry and a squad from Third – the sniper team plus some heavy weapons specialists- he had been brought on board. Two VTOL crews were already attached to the op and he had run them through some quickie training sessions to get a feel for their skill level in small arms combat.

“He’s a spacer?” asked Jerson dubiously.

“The real deal. Born and raised on a JumpShip before he decided that life planet side was more appealing to him. We sort of picked him up at Hamano.”

“The kid hiding in the Commando right? I remember that. He gonna be a problem you think?”

She turned and eyed him speculatively through the window as Jenkins was yammering away about something or other to the now armored MechWarrior.

“I don’t think so,” decided Sammi. “I read his service file. He’s lost two ‘Mechs- which isn’t exactly anything to write home about – but he wasn’t faulted for pilot errors in either case. In fact, it seems he was cool and level headed under heavy fire. Especially for a rookie. Lieutenant Jorgenson reports that the kid is good at taking orders and doing what he’s supposed to do. The only thing I’m worried about is his attitude. He’s got a serious case of Heroic Warrior syndrome.”

Jerson laughed. “Too many adventure novels and war vids. A common problem with any youngster you let put on a uniform. He’ll grow out of it sooner or later.”

“Well, I’m thinking that sooner is better for our purposes. What’cha got running down there right now?”

He pointed out towards some wall clusters. “We had been running a hostage rescue scenario. That’s supposed to be part of a village with that large ‘hut’ being the command center building. I had my team attacking while one of your squads played D. I gave them some down time a few minutes ago but I can call them back for more if you want.”

Sammi examined the area for a moment. She was half tempted to slap some plastic armor on Nelson and give him a paint gun and send him down there. Getting all the hostages killed or getting himself whacked a few times might accelerate his learning curve a bit towards separating real combat from fantasy stories. But it also might undermine his confidence. And might set him up to be laughed at by some of her people. By and large there wasn’t friction between her troopers and the MechWarriors or tankers. But her platoon certainly viewed itself as far better trained and tougher than any other soldiers that wore the Warder blue. It was true, but Cascade didn’t see any reason to give her people extra ammunition by setting up the MechWarrior to fail at something he’d never been trained for.

“Nah, keep whatever time table you already have going Jerson. I’m going to take Nelson there out to the range to see what – if anything – he knows about small arms.”

Exiting the command chamber, Sammi nodded to Jenkins and Racker to follow her back out onto the catwalk. The three climbed down to ground level where Jason looked out with interest over the mock village that had been set up.

“Is this for practicing the mission?” he asked.

“Only in general terms,” allowed the Sergeant. “We can only guess at what we might find. This particular op was set up as a hostage rescue from what would likely be some sort of minimal security prison camp. The attacking team had five minutes to secure it using only small arms.”

“So they were supposed to capture the people in the command post?” asked Jason.

Samantha Cascade cocked her head slightly sideways as she studied the MechWarrior. “We’re going to be on an island and outnumbered something like eighty to one. At the point we assume this type of op would start, our main force wouldn’t be landing for anywhere from eight hours to two days. All of the rescued hostages from what might end up being different camps are going to have to be hidden and protected in the jungle until relief arrives and can find us and can link up with us for extraction. Does taking prisoners sound like a viable option to you?”

“But…you can’t just kill them in cold blood,” protested Jason. His ‘gun-buddy’ rolled his eyes in disbelief at the MechWarrior’s protest.

Sammi merely shrugged. “Pirates are usually a poorly disciplined lot, organized and lead by force of personality. Take out the leaders and they sometimes just melt away. They certainly loose effectiveness even if they stay and fight. Taking a handful of lives could save dozens or more of your own side in the fighting to follow. Not to mention that these are scum sucking raiders that rob, rape and pillage whenever the chance occurs. If you were leading the team what would your call be?”

Jason mulled it over. It didn’t seem right to just open a door and start shooting. But on the other hand he couldn’t refute anything she had just said. He thought of the Hetzer. “So you’re saying just throw a grenade in there and run for cover.”

The non-committal shrug came again. “Has it’s advantages as a plan. What do you think of his plan Jenkins?”

The other trooper grinned lopsidedly. “I think I’d want to look inside first and see if there were any hostages before lobbing explosives. But unless time was pressing shooting them would be better. The grenade might not kill all of them and if you get lucky enough to have a shot at the enemy’s commanders you don’t want to waste the chance.”

Jason felt his jaw start to fall open and clamped it shut. It was hard to reconcile the friendly grin and bantering tone with the chilling remarks about gunning down officers if one had the chance.

“So that’s the correct solution then?” Jason wanted to know as he took in the Sergeant’s nod of approval. “Shoot everybody?”

“This isn’t a multiple choice exam on tactics,” sighed Cascade. “The only correct answer is the one that saves the hostage and neutralizes the hostiles. Preferably without getting you or your team shot up doing it. Sometimes the mission is to take pictures without being seen. Sometimes the mission is to eliminate anything that moves. It’s not really any different than what a BattleMech is expected to do. It’s just more up close and person when we do it. Any more questions?”

“No Sergeant,” started Jason. Then he thought of Lawman and how there always seemed to be lessons within anything if one looked hard enough. There was no reason to assume that the Sergeant wasn’t as crafty in her specialty as Lieutenant Jorgenson was in his. “Actually…yes. I do. What exactly do you expect me to learn before we go? I haven’t practiced this kind of stuff. Heck Ma’am, I barely passed the pistol qualifying course here. We didn’t have much need to guns on my folk’s ship. I assume your people spent weeks if not months or years training for this kind of fighting just like I sim in a ‘Mech almost every day. I’m not going to pick it commando skills in a few afternoon sessions.”

For the first time in, well since she’d suddenly burst into his Commando’s cockpit something like nine months ago, he saw a look of approval pass from the Sergeant towards him. It seemed he had finally done something right.

“You just might have more smarts than I was ready to credit you with. Everyone on the team will bring certain skills to the mission. In this type of combat your fighting skills are not up to the job and we can’t get them there in the time we have. But none of my shooters can fly or navigate helicopters nor do any of us have the innate knowledge of space operations that you have. You might notice if a crew is behaving normally or if they’re up to something when the rest of us would be oblivious. Every member of the mission team has an important role. I know you’re used to team work through your lance training; but in our line of work combining our efforts effectively as a team is far more critical. You have to know your role on the team and fulfill it. No backseat driving, no second guessing, no improvising unless the plan doesn’t cover the situation. And especially, no lone wolf heroics.”

“I understand Sergeant,” nodded Jason.

She considered the young warrior for a moment, sizing him up again. Trying to determine the level of his maturity just as she had done with dozens if not hundreds of recruits over the years. He’d be okay, she decided, as long as he could really get it through his head the nature of special ops work. Jason shuffled nervously as she studied him, then felt his blood chill a few degrees as the Sergeant’s eyes turned cold. It wasn’t that she was directing any anger or disapproval at him. It was the casual finality of what she said and the tone she said it in.

“On the ground, down in the mud and snow where we fight, there are no second chances. There are no radar lock warnings, no anti-small arms fire systems, and we don’t wear six or seven tons of ferro-fibrous armor. If you get hit you don’t check your HTML display to see how much protection you just lost while you turn to look for your attacker. You’re hurting, bleeding and probably out of the fight if not outright dead. It happens fast and you almost never see the person that shot you. If it comes down to it and you find a hostile under your sites you kill him and then you look for his buddy that you haven’t spotted yet. Before you or one of your teammates gets killed. I don’t expect to place you in any firefights but when and if we engage an enemy it’s kill or be killed. There are no other options.”

MechWarrior Nellson glanced at the other trooper as the Sergeant was talking. He was listening as if Cascade was merely stating the obvious. Just making a common sense statement about the nature of things. What was that ancient saying of his mother's? Oh yeah, Dorothy, you’re not on Terra anymore. He was stepping into a whole new universe.

“I understand Sergeant,” he heard himself repeat. But even as he said it he wondered if he truly did. Sure, he knew what the words meant. But could he really understand until he’d walked in their boots? Until he’d been under fire without a BattleMech’s armored hide between him and his assailant? And he could see that although she was nodding that she accepted his answer for now, Sergeant Cascade was eyeing him and wondering the same thing.

“Let’s get moving all ready,” she announced suddenly. “We’re wasting the Lieutenant Colonel’s money just standing here.”

The Rold Building, 23rd floor

Planet Drayson, Free Worlds League

03 December 3052

Chairman Miller rolled his chair up to the ceiling-to-floor windows that comprised the outer wall of his office suite atop the Rold Building. Far below him was a large park with a small lake. It was a perfect square swatch of green surrounded by steel and concrete. Directly across from him were some smaller buildings and the girders of an incomplete structure that was to be the twin to this building. Like this building, that one would be his as well. Well, Rold Investment Group’s anyway. But for all practical purposes he was Rold Investments. To his left were more tall structures including the spires and domes of the TaniCorp building while to his right the large industrial complex of Kellor and Sons – which was a subsidiary company owned by Rold – stretched out for four square city blocks.

That was where he lived now. He had a palatial estate outside the city and a private helicopter to take him there. He also had suites permanently on hold solely for him in eight top class hotels in five cities on the planet. Yet for the past three weeks he wheeled down to the garage level and let himself be hoisted into an armored limousine which was part of a small autocade of vehicles that drove the short distance to the Kellor complex. There he sealed himself into one of the visiting VIP homes surrounded by armed guards, the outer fence and the parameter security devices. For all his wealth and the shadowy power he controlled he had become a virtual prisoner.

He could lay the blame on a number of sources. Bad luck. The late Hauptman Schmidt. Steven Ong, the Triad Assassin that seemed to have jumped into a hole and pulled it shut behind him. Any of the supposedly elite mercenary commandos he’d hired for the failed kidnapping. Himself for failing to have the problem dealt with earlier. The Suomi Warders for foiling his plans again and again. But he knew where the true source of his troubles lay. The face of the demon that haunted his dreams and forced him to live in a gilded cage.

John Linna.

The man simply refused to die like a good little soldier despite the best efforts of the Chairman and fate itself. Linna was a tenacious bulldog seemingly obsessed with following the trail of his parent’s killers. And unfortunately for the Chairman that trail eventually led back to him. Ironically the original Starcade affair had been a total failure for Miller. The stoic Sampsans had failed to strike back at their hereditary foes here in Andurien space and a last minute turn of heart by an Andurien noble had crashed his attempts to maneuver the Anduriens to attack. The little brush war he had attempted to engineer following the failed Andurien bid for independence had never come to pass, the special investments he had made never panned out, and counting out-of-pocket expenses for Ong and the attack group the assassin had assembled Miller had ended up with a net loss on the Starcade plan. Had he decided against launching the risky venture then John Linna never would have lost his parents and the chain of events that turned John into what he was today would not have occurred. Rold Investments would have continued forward engineering conflicts and backing the occasional Periphery strike or pirate attack to advance their profits. The Chairman would be resting comfortably in his bed at night without a madman pursuing him.

It was all quite vexing.

Miller had advanced far in life despite having lost the use of his legs to a spinal injury at fourteen because people always underestimate those they saw as handicapped. Having a keen mind, large reserves of raw determination, and an utter lack of moral reservations had seen him the rest of the way to the top. The Chairman had always operated from the sideline, always been careful to avoid becoming the target of a rival. But now he could sense that he was slowly being dragged into the light by Linna. Where John had been and what he might have had discovered during the ill fated attacks on Sandi and the Warder base was still unknown to the Chairman. All of Miller’s Samspsa contacts were out of play now, including that shrewish ex-wife of Linna’s. She’d never known who was pulling her strings – or even that her strings were being pulled – but she had been a useful means of distracting Linna’s attention if nothing else. Now Miller faced a well financed foe that had proven to have a keen mind and matching determination.

There were, however, two important differences between himself and John Linna. The first was that John controlled his own private army. Say what you wanted about the pen being mightier than the sword and such rot, but it was simple fact that brute force resolved many issues in the 31st century if you had enough of it. Chairman Miller did have control of a vast pool of money however, and thus had moved to counter Linna’s superiority in the brute force are. Although Miller still had a company of mixed mercenaries at a hidden base near the Combine border, after the appalling failure of the Hauptman’s Blitzkrieg against the Warders the Chairman had decided to hire a top ranked “name” unit rather than trust his bargain basement mercs. Apparently what the military types claimed was true. You can give lousy soldiers great equipment and all you end up with is a well equipped lousy unit. He wanted a unit who’s mere presence would keep Linna and his personal dogs of war away until Miller could figure out a plan to deal with the situation. The obvious answer was the most famous mercenaries of all – Wolf’s Dragoons.

The Dragoons were in a rebuilding phase, busy absorbing their equipment and personal acquisitions from the Clan war. They rarely bothered with small corporate garrison contracts but even the Wolf’s can use a DropShip full of easy cash now and then to keep their soldiers paid and equipment operational. An agreement had been reached to employ a small part of their Gamma regiment. It was not a prime sample of the Dragoons. Their CO Parella had let discipline slip by Dragoon standards. But they were still Wolf’s Dragoons and that should make even John Linna think twice about what he planned to do with his little band of Warders which was even now preparing to launch itself at some target unknown to the Chairman. If his home here on Drayson happened to be the target then Linna was in for a surprise. The Gamma elements had already arrived from Outreach. They were stationed at the Kellor complex and prepared for ‘pirate activity’.

Thus the Chairman had effectively countered John’s advantage in brute force.

The other difference between them was a matter of scruples. John Linna had shown repeatedly that he was handicapped by a set of them. Miller knew that he himself was not. That was the Chairman’s greatest advantage in contesting with Linna. The only problem was that until Linna made his next move the Chairman could only wait. The advantage was John’s at the moment. But that would soon change, Miller promised himself.

That would soon change.