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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 14: Special Delivery by Dave Wainio

Notes: A plot synopsis and list of characters from earlier chapters is at the end of the story for anyone requiring a refresher on the Warder saga.

Warder Base (Fort Ilmarinen)
Outside Suomi City, Sampsa
21 December 3052

The MechBay was a swirling motion of blue informs and rolling equipment as the Warder techs performed final checks on the great metal beasts entrusted to their care while astechs and support personnel started packing up the final pieces of gear that had yet to loaded onto the waiting DropShips.

"Lieutenant Colonel, Sir?" called a loud voice over the din of the activity.

John Linna looked up from explaining to his daughter what the different color guide lines painted on the floor meant. Master Sergeant Harding, the unit's Chief Tech and John's crew chief for his personal BattleMech, was baring down on him with a datapad thrust forward in one hand.

"We never got those experimental extended range missiles," the Chief announced without further preamble, "but we did get the anti-personnel warheads. I substituted more autocannon ammo for the mass slotted for the AWOL missiles."

John took the offered pad and looked over the figures. The Lt. Colonel knew that he should probably have tapped someone else to be Load Master - the personal responsible for calculating and assigning the mass the Warders planned to fling into space against the DropShips' total load capacity. Harding had enough to do riding herd on the tech force. But the Chief Tech had been loading the Warders for action before John had joined the unit. A load-and-lift op just didn't feel right without William Harding running the numbers.

"As always Chief, your figures look AOK. As to the new LRMs, I probably wouldn't have used them anyway. A live shooting match isn't the best time for weapon testing."

"But you're okay with those ER lasers though, right Sir?" the Chief asked anxiously.

John suppressed a grin and a sigh. That must have been about the 100th time in the past three weeks the Sergeant had asked him that same question. A set of the new extended range medium lasers about to go into production in several Free World's League factories had been sent to John for evaluation by the weapons division of his family's conglomerate. Sergeant Harding had bench tested the snot out of them before mounting them - with John's permission - in John's Camelot BattleMech. Then John had re-tested the snot out of them from the cockpit. They worked just fine. Better than fine compared to standard medium lasers actually. But there was an old saying by a designer named Murphy that it was always wisest to let someone else do the field testing. As Murphy had put it so long ago- what can go wrong, will go wrong.

"Relax Chief, the lasers are working perfectly."

"Good then Sir. Your 'Mech is prepped and ready for load. Now if you'll excuse me I need to make sure none of these muffin heads damages anything important."

"Carry on Sergeant."

As John watched his Chief Tech wade into the crowd he could hear Harding's voice start bellowing at some unseen unfortunate.

"Hey! Careful with that pallet. That's live munitions there, not canned field rations!"

John's daughter started to ask him something again but another voice calling for her father's attention interrupted her.

"What's up Osmo?" John asked the Captain.

"The VIPs are getting restless over at the main doors," reported Captain Woods, "but the main bulk of dependents are now off base and the majority of the unit is loaded and ready for lift at the aerodrome. This is the last section to go here. Right now it looks like we're about ten minutes behind schedule but the DropShips all report ready to lift and the weather looks clear for the launch window."

Despite the departure timetable they had produced in the planning sessions, John had kept his own private schedule which added thirty minutes for the inevitable last minute problems. So to John they were more like twenty minutes ahead rather than ten minutes behind.

"We're looking at around two months of travel time to make it up Osmo. But thanks for the update. Tell our guests I'll be right over for farewells. I just want to make a quick check on my sister and see how her lance is doing."

Osmo smiled to himself at that. The L.C. had been making quick checks on just about everything for the past hour and half.

"Yes Sir, I'll stall them as long as I can."

"Sir?" broke in a new voice.

Both officers turned as one to ask "Yes?"

"I mean Lieutenant Colonel Sir," corrected the young man wearing a bright orange vest. "I was wondering if you had any orders concerning the departure order?"

"Closest to the door goes first and so on," John informed the taxi-director. Carrying directional wands and his comm gear, the T-D was responsible for making sure there were no collisions and that no passers-bye got stepped on as the eight to nine meter tall BattleMechs made their way out of the hangar area. "Just make sure that security has cleared the VIPs from the hangar doors after I give the start call. Wouldn't do to get a Senator or General squished."

"Yes Sir. I mean no Sir. I mean it wouldn't do to get anyone squished Sir."

As the T-D left John's hand-cell unit started to buzz. However, Sandi had had quite enough of being ignored. Grabbing the sleeve of his jumpsuit with both hands she gave it a huge tug. He glanced down at her, then around at all the activity, then scooped her up into his arms. Getting picked up hadn't been her intention but she didn't resist much. John usually wasn't a very demonstrative person but knowing he had to leave her behind in less than an hour made him want to hold her all the more while he could.

"Dad," tried Sandi again, "I promise I won't be any trouble if you let me go with you."

"I know Snowflake. And I'm sure you wouldn't be any trouble at all. But as I've already explained to you it's too dangerous. On this trip no family members are allowed. That means my family too."

"Daaadddd," sighed the girl in exasperation. She was used to getting her own way. Even when her mother initially said no, Sandi had usually found a way to get what she wanted by hook or by crook. However she had found her father's friends and subordinates to be far less willing to go behind his back than her mother's servants had been willing to subvert their employer's wishes.

"I just wanted to be with you," she added in a quiet voice as she finally accepted that he wasn't going to budge on the issue.

Her solemn plea tugged at his heart. But it wouldn't be right to haul her out to the Periphery and then endanger her. She couldn't go and that was that. His hand-cell started buzzing again. But just maybe it would help if & ..

He flipped open the cell with his free hand and put it up to the side of his face.

"Linna here & & .yeah & & yeah & & that's fine. I'll get back to you in a couple minutes on that, I have something else I have to take care of first. Just use you own judgment." He hit the key that would automatically shunt any more calls to messaging and slipped the hand-cell back into the pocket he usually carried it in. "Hey Snowflake, come along with me. There's something I want to show you."

John took his daughter over to the lift his 'Mech was docked next to and swung the safety bar shut behind them. Sandi's eyes were huge as she stared up at the nine meter machine.

"You've never been inside a real one before have you?" he noted.

She shook her head. "Mother didn't want me around war stuff," she added unnecessarily. John was very familiar with his ex-wife's stance on military related gear.

"Well I've got a special secret to show you. Make sure you don't let go of the guard rail there."

Sandi stared breathlessly as the lift ascended towards the command module of the Camelot. Her eyes drank in the proud golden lion burnishing a blue sword that was the Suomi Warder's unit emblem. A red ghost like image had been painted on the upper left breast of her dad's machine with the name 'Fire Wraith' superimposed across the artwork. In several places a large blue numeral three was painted over the green on black tiger stripe pattern the Warders often fielded. Initially she had wondered why her dad didn't have 'Mech number one. He was the CO after all. But he had explained that the numbers were assigned randomly so an enemy couldn't make any use of the designations. Despite the fact they would be fielding less than 16 BattleMechs, several of the Warder 'Mechs were marked with numbers in the twenties to forties. The Catapult that Lt. Rajanen would pilot as her father's wing was number 42 for example.

Once the lift locked in place at the Fire Wraith's head, John keyed the pass code into the access panel. With a soft hiss the pressurized hatch popped open and soft lights came on in the interior.

"Rad-tech," breathed Sandi as she peered inside.

"You've been listening to Uncle Parks again," snorted John. He leaned forward to hit a few keys on the consul then stood straight once again. "Engage voice command. Engage active stand by mode. Authorization: Linna, John. Voice pass code: Money for nothing."

"Voice recognition engaged. Authorization accepted. Engaging active stand by," replied Sandi's child-pitched voice to the pair standing close together neat the hatch.

The blood and flesh Sandi gaped in surprise as she heard herself coming from the cockpit speakers. "That's my voice!" she exclaimed.

John turned and kneeled down to be on face level with her.

"That's right Sandi. And this is why you're always with me whenever I go away on a trip. You never leave my heart and I can never forget your voice because you talk to me everyday. Even when you don't know it."

She reached out and rubbed the cockpit wall next to a panel of blinking lights that was a main computer relay rack. "So I'm kinda like your guardian angel. I keep watch over everything in your 'Mech for you."

"You are Daddy's angel Sandi," he told her. "Forever and always."

John had accepted long ago that it might be a little odd to have his daughter's voice print as his computer's voice. But the voice print reminded him why he had to keep his revenge and anger urges under control while piloting; that he had an important reason to make it home. It was also a voice that would register on his conscious no matter what else was going on around him. He would never miss an important automated warning because he was occupied with other concerns.

A silent moment passed between them. Then the awe wore off and she clapped her hands together in delight. "Make me talk again Daddy!" demanded Sandi about the computer voice.


Outside at the mouth of the hangar General Latoya Harrisberg of the Sampsa Defense Force was slapping her ex-aide Jeffery Tapiovarra on the shoulder.

"Hah, demoted to Major I see. Just what you deserve for abandoning my office," she ribbed him in good nature.

"And it's good of you to come see us off General," he dead panned. Then a sly smile slipped onto his lips. "Say, did you know that Lt. Colonel Linna pays his Majors about 30 percent more than what some SDF Generals pay their staff Colonels?"

Latoya chortled in amusement. "Ah, so that's how he steals the SDF's finest to staff his own private army. Rolls out his wheelbarrow of money."

Jeffery laughed. "Seriously though Ma'am. I have to admit that it feels great to be the captain of a command deck again. I know you do important work in your office but & well, I don't know that I ever really got used to flying a desk instead of a DropShip."

"I know," she sighed. "If I hadn't had the bad grace to grow old I'd still be up there flying too. How I envy you this opportunity Jeff. Even now I'm tempted to go stow away on your carrier and hitch along for the ride."

"It would cause a major scandal once everyone figured out you were gone," pointed out her ex-aide, "but I think we left the port side ramp down if you really mean it Ma'am."

She smiled fondly at her friend. "So tempting. So tempting. But I better keep my tired old butt here where it belongs. Say, where is your new CO anyway? I'd like to steal a private word with him before he goes."

Captain Woods happened to be hovering around and caught her question. He looked around and spotted John and his daughter leaving the Camelot. "There he is General. Looks like he's coming down the lift from his 'Mech."

The General had to go through a few more hellos with gathered folks before she could break free to approach John. She watched as his daughter pointed at the Catapult and he nodded, apparently granting permission for the youngster to go examine it. The little girl ran over towards the ex-Capellan 'Mech with a huge smile on her face. How old was she now, Latoya wondered. Ten? The girl was named for her father's paternal grandmother - and Latoya's life long friend - Colonel Sandi Lammi-Linna. Watching the younger Sandi bouncing across the hangar floor brought back memories to Latoya of running around running around the sand lots playing soldier with the elder Sandi when they had been kids. The likeness between the youngster and her great grandmother at the same age was incredible. Great Grandmother. That certainly made Latoya feel old in her bones despite the slow-age process that was now available in the Free World's League.

Lt. Colonel Linna looked up and saw her approaching. He waved and altered his course towards her.

"General Harrisberg, thanks for coming down to send us off. And thanks again for your help securing the AeroSpace assets. They'll be a huge help."

"I wish I could have done more. Hell, I wish I could go with you. I wish a lot of things actually. But mostly I wish you well on your mission. God speed John Linna."

"Thank you Ma'am. We'll do all right."

"Do all right?" she scoffed, "your boys and girls are going to kick some serious Circinus ass!"

She turned to look out over the thinning swarm of Warder personnel in the hanger. "You've got a real solid unit here John. The kind of cohesive and hard hitting outfit your Grandmother would have loved to have built. She always wanted a true combined arms outfit. She would have loved to have seen this. But she knew you would finish what she wasn't going to be around to take care of herself. I think her only true regret in life was that she wasn't going to be able to fight off the cancer long enough to see the day the scales were evened for the Starcade."

"We'll make her proud General," promised John solemnly.

"You already have son. You already have."

Many meters away, Holly Linna was loitering around the Catapult with the rest of her lance. As she was still in disguise to keep potential spies from knowing that the missing Linna sister was no longer missing, the MechWarrior really didn't see why she had to be here at the final send off rather than where her 'Mech was. As a private lance hired in a support role for the Warders, her little unit's equipment had not been kept on the Warder base. In fact, the four light 'Mechs of her lance were already loaded on one of the DropShips.

Although as the commanding officer of an autonomous unit, she supposed her place was here no matter how junior her rank or where her 'Mechs happened to be. But if she had to suffer all these starched necked VIPs then her lancemates were going to share the misery. The other three members of her unit were leaning against the Catapult's feet as well.

Lieutenant Holly Linna watched her niece skipping towards them and frowned to herself. The girl was a precocious little thing that knew more about BattleMech identification than some Black Warriors she had known from her last unit. A born MechWarrior no doubt. But the whole thought of her brother having a child of his own just felt weird to her. Sure, Sandi had been born before the whole Starcade affair- but as a child her self Holly hadn't really thought much about it. John had lived at the academy and his wife with her parents so it wasn't like the baby was around all the time. But somehow seeing the girl in the flesh really drove the issue home. Her brother was a grown up with a family. Holly couldn't imagine ever having a family of her own. Few of her ex-Black Warrior brethren had kids. Or at least ones that they admitted to or took care of. She noticed her Grandmother's friend General Harrisberg talking with her brother. Grandma Sandi had always held a special place in Holly's heart. A good portion of that affection had shifted to the General now.

"I'm going over to say hello to the General," she told her friends. "I'll be right back."

"We'll still be here," grunted MechWarrior Leena Callahan. They had gravitated away from the social gathering as soon as had been practical and were now waiting impatiently for the call to board the DropShip and get the show on the road.

Holly exchanged a quick hello with her niece as Sandi arrived then headed off towards her brother and the General. Sandi rapped at the rough textured armor on the Catapult's foot with her knuckle as she looked up to read the inscription "Siamese Cat" along the forward jutting fuselage section of the 'Mech. Leena and the Bahti sisters looked over at the girl from the other foot.

"Looks like your Dad has a bunch of important friends," Inra Bahti said to the little girl by way of making some conversation.

"Yeah, I guess so," replied Sandi in disinterest about the VIP guests. The girl's true interest stood before her. "Hey, any of you ever pilot a Catapult before?"

"How do you know one of us isn't this 'Mech's pilot?" Leena questioned.

"Because this one is the only Cat we have and it's Uncle Kissa's," explained Sandi in exasperation. Why did so many grown ups assume you were stupid just because you were a kid?

"Uncle Kissa. That's a hoot," snorted Leena. "I'll have to remember that next time we're on the comms."

"No little one," supplied Inra with smile. "We pilot scout 'Mechs. Smaller, faster ones."

"Besides, I wouldn't be caught dead in slow old missile boat," scoffed Leena.

"Fire support 'Mechs play an important role on the battlefield you know," declared Sandi firmly.

The three MechWarriors gaped at her for a moment. Then Leena found her voice.

"And I suppose your Daddy the Great MechWarrior has taught you all about it huh?"

Little fists balled on slim hips. "My father is a great MechWarrior. One of the best."

"Little girl," scoffed Leena, "you're looking at one of the best right now."

"You're just another big-head," snorted Sandi. "When you have as many confirmed kills as my Dad then you can brag."

Inra's ears perked up at that. She assumed from comments overheard from Ranger and some of the other Warder MechWarriors that there was a friendly rivalry going on over total kills. But try as she might, she had found no official postings anyplace. No kill board, no painted silhouettes on their personal 'Mechs, no stats in the public computer files; nothing. "How many would that be?" she asked.

"Eight solo, ten more shared," announced Sandi with pride. "Just counting 'Mechs and not vehicles of course. Oh, and one from foot be he doesn't count that one. Mother Goose, Lawman, and Ranger have a few extra solos on him but that's because he mainly runs the fight from his command 'Mech these days. Plus they have an extra battle on him now. Kissa's a little behind because he usually scouted. But I guess the four of you can take over for him now."

Leena bristled at the implied slight while Inra stifled a smile at the girl's well placed barb. Yawni actually whistled out loud, impressed. Assuming the girl was correct it seemed as if these Warders had seen far more combat than Yawni and her sister had guessed. "Those are impressive numbers. We hadn't seen anything around the base with their kill totals on them."

Sandi smiled smugly. "Dad has taught me one thing about being a MechWarrior. The good ones don't have to brag."

Leena scowled at the girl, who made a face back at her then turned and headed back towards the safety of her father. The stocky MechWarrior turned her scowl on the Bahti sisters.

"Not a word," she warned them.

"Not if the Goddess commanded us herself," agreed Inra as the two sisters struggled to keep smirks off their faces.

Heinlein Recharge Station

Nadir Point, Merton System, Free Worlds League

28 January 3053

Jason Nelson checked the clearance on both sides of his towed load once again as the Deer-Cat clanked along the ramp between the DropShip Star Dancer and the space station Heinlein. It was a tight fit through the bay hatch but he was looking good even allowing for the drift of his slightly non-aligned drive treads. Without consciously thinking about it his eyes automatically swept over a number of dash mounted tell-tales. The cargo mover was showing all greens including the most important- the magnetic system in the treads that kept him stuck to the ramp. His suit markers were all good too and he showed over two hours of air left in his main tank. He was toting airtight cargo containers from the ship his party was leaving onto the recharging station they would be staying on for a few days while they tried to arrange for the final leg of their journey.

Looking "up" above his head he could see the yellow sun of the Merton system blazing away. It was basically a non changing and somewhat boring sight but it was much better than looking at the floating ball of junk the locals called a space station. Jason had seen some pretty rat-trap ships as a kid as well as a few trashed looking stations but this place was downright scary. For the moment he wasn't worried. He was in an environmental suit working in the unpressurized cargo bay. Thus if one of those dubious looking hull patches that dotted the station failed it wouldn't kill him. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to sleep very well after getting a good look at the outside of this place though. Unless he slept in a environ-suit perhaps. And no doubt the inside wouldn't be in much better shape. The least the crew could have done would have been to cut adrift the tattered solar sail attached to the sunward end. One look at it was enough to make any seasoned spacer decide to stay on his own ship rather than board the station. The Heinlein had lost it's ability to actually offer recharges to visiting JumpShips decades ago. But Jason assumed that the array must still collect some power or it wouldn't still be there. Power the dilapidated station could ill afford to waste.

He'd stow away the two containers belonging to the strike team then spend another seventy minutes or so moving a bunch of other containers out of the Star Dancer. Then he'd secure the Deer-Cat, meet the 'Dancer's master, and collect his pay and sign off of the crew roster. For a good part of the trip he'd ridden as a passenger and moved their two containers only when the local crew didn't have the proper equipment. Then they'd found the Star Dancer on it's way out to Merton and Jason had managed to sign on as a short term cargo hand. He might need to continue the masquerade as a freelance crewer for the final set of jumps so having finished this little gig might prove handy to give him a local resume.

Truth be told, he'd rather be out here moving cargo anyway. And not just because of the station's dubious patch jobs. Sergeant Cascade had been in a foul mood every since New Year's at the Schiedam system. They'd lost three troopers in a huge brawl there on New Year's day. None of them had been killed, but all had received injuries severe enough that Cascade had been forced to send them to the planet for extended medical treatment. Jason had been there for the 'festivities' and bore a scar on his left arm as a souvenir. What a cluster-puss that had been.

Sitting at Schiedam's nadir point is an old Star Lord JumpShip with a burned out jump drive. It had been serving as a customs and cargo exchange station for going on eighty years now. A huge group from the Illyrian Palatinate happened to be aboard waiting for a different DropShip on their way toward some sort of pilgrimage to Terra. As far as Jason ever heard no one knew what set them off, but about ten minutes after midnight Terran Greenwich time an internal debate with the pilgram group became open combat. Shortly thereafter general rioting broke out and no one was safe. Cascade's team had attempted to stay out of it all, but became involved while protecting the cargo bay that held their cannistered VTOLs. But once they became involved, the Sergeant had decided that enough was enough. With the small local security detail over-run, the Warders had ended up putting down the riot themselves to save the Star Lord from suffering more harm. The ship's (stations?) Captain had offered Cascade a contract on the spot to stay as the new security chief but obviously she declined as they had a mission to accomplish near the Circinus Federation.

Cascade's Snow Hunters had saved from harm a good many crew members an passengers but had lost Bjorn, Moriarty, and Kivi from the mission. The three might be able to link up with the main body when it came through in a few weeks. But the three troopers represented almost seven percent of their force of forty two troopers - all three out of action before they had even made planetfall on the target world.

Jason made another visual sweep of his controls and the ramp behind him as he sighed once again over what he had discovered about the nature of secret missions. They seemed to be long periods of extreme boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Right now he was in one of the boredom parts but he had discovered that boring wasn't nearly as difficult to bare with the terror part still fresh in his mind.

"Nelson?" asked the speakers in his helmet.

"Yes?"

"It's Cascade. It looks like your cousin's ship is in the system but isn't going our way. I think we found one that is making the link we need though. As soon as you're done there meet us in the grav deck. I want you to put in a call to your cousin before we approach the Captain on the ship we want."

"Understood," he answered. Samantha Cascade didn't expect long answers or extra questions from her team. Plus the comms might not be secure. The next phase of their plan required talking what would likely be a suspicious DropShip Captain into taking them on board for a ride to a planet that didn't officially exist. A good story spun for his cousin could mean that Jason's background would 'check' and give the team an extra measure of credibility. Or the proper lack of credibility in this case. After all, they weren't Suomi Warders at the moment. They were lowlife riffraff trying to take contraband to an un-named party on a lawless ball of dirt outside any national boundaries that laundered stolen goods and housed pirates. And there were already three less of them than there should be.

Yep, boring wasn't such a bad thing at all.


Jason leaned towards the pick-up camera and grinned as he held the record button down with one hand.

"Greetings Mandy. It's me, Jason Nelson. Your cousin. Good to see someone from the family again after all this time."

He let go of the record button and hit send. At the moment his cousin's ship was outbound from the system's one inhabited planet and far enough away that there was an almost forty five second delay between transmission bursts. Now he would just stare at the frozen picture of his relative until she received his reply, recorded her own, and sent it back. Jason was aware of Cascade and Sanchez hovering nearby but so far they had not tried to steer his chat by feeding him lines during the intermissions.

After what seemed like an eternity her picture jumped to a new expression and started talking to him again. "Hey, little Jay! You're all grown now I see. What brings you out this way? Last I heard you were a runaway looking for greener pastures planet side."

Jason let out his held breath and wiped at the sweat on his forehead. He was very happy for the choppy and delayed conversation as he wasn't sure he'd had been able to pull this off if he had to do it face to face with no extra time to think. With interstellar communications being expensive and spacers often being more closely bonded with the crew of their ship than with any far flung blood relatives, family news tended to be exchanged slowly and in a hap-hazard manner among spacers. Although Jason had gotten word to his parents some six months ago about his joining the Warders, it seemed that his cousin hadn't gotten the word yet. As far as she knew he was still a runaway that had left his parent's ship. That was good. His contrived story about getting booted from the Warders wouldn't be necessary.

He hit the record button again. "I drop them a line from time to time when I can afford it. Right now I'm working for some people that have a priority delivery going into the Federation. Then I'll have the C-Bills to finally do what I always wanted to do. We're thinking of making the run with a Captain named McGee. His DropShip is the Zeus. Know anything about him?" He hit send wondering how much Cascade knew about spacer slang. A priority delivery meant something being smuggled. If you were 'making the run' then you were along for the ride and didn't plan to tell the ship's Captain your business or cargo. If a spacer was 'joining a run' then they planned to be more open with the master of whatever ship was involved and perhaps cut him or her in on the action.

When his cousin's image came back it was laughing. "Seems that you take after my side of the family line. McGee's a bit of a faulty lock but he always rides the yellow and likes thinking his hold will be full on the way back too. If I was you I'd go ahead and join his run but promise him a return ticket even if you don't mean it. Keep a fitting wrench handy and you won't have any problems. Don't leave your cargo uninsured though- just in case. Out of curiosity, what is it you need C-bills to do? I can always use a solid tether on my crew if you're looking for a berth."

Cascade and Sanchez exchanged looks after the message. Neither followed the nuances but both were experienced enough to know that specific information had been included beyond face value.

"We heard the words but what was she actually saying?" Cascade asked Jason.

"She was telling me that McGee can't be fully trusted and that he often accepts small risks but won't put himself or his ship in a big risk situation. She figures that it's not a problem to tell McGee whatever story about moving contraband we want but that it would be best to keep an eye on him, keep an eye on our cargo, and promise him some sort of profit in the future if things go well for us. I guess she's decided she likes me because a 'solid tether' is someone you trust to watch your back."

"Sounds good," decided Cascade. "Ask her to vouch for you if McGee calls then beg off the line."

Jason nodded, ordered his thoughts, then hit the record button.

"Thanks for the invite. I'll keep it in mind if my plans go sour. Can you do me a family favor? If McGee runs a clear call passenger check would you pass a green code back on me? The sooner I help my current 'friends' deliver the sooner I'm on my way to finally becoming a MechWarrior."

Trading passenger info with other nearby ships was a common practice that few travelers were aware of. Identity papers were easily forged and many parts of the Periphery and even the Inner Sphere didn't even bother wasting time with them. Ship Masters would pass on word of any trouble making or deadbeat passengers to other Captains. It was one of many unwritten Codes of the Spacers.

"Sure thing. If you run into anyone headed for Maxwell or Edmondson tell them I'm a good ship and I'll be stationside in not too long. Keep your boards green Jason. Make sure you drop me a line next time we share systems again."

"Can do. And you take care too. And I'll keep an eye out for you while I'm in the sector."

Jason signed off the looked over at Sergeant Cascade.

"Looks like we're set for you to start bargaining with McGee."

She nodded. "Good job Nelson. Get some food and some sack time. There's no telling when we'll have to load up."

Just then a long groaning sound echoed through the deck plates as the station flexed slightly in response to it's station keeping jets being fired.

"The sooner we get off this thing the better Sergeant," he told her as a shiver ran down his back.

Like he was going to be able to sleep on this rust bucket.

Town of Barbary

Planet Yu-shan, Circinus Federation border with FWL

09 February 3053

Sergeant Samantha 'Sammi" Cascade hopped up onto the hood and then to the roof of the rusting truck that had been abandoned next to the landing pad. From the higher vantage point she could better survey the area. Behind her the round bulk of Captain McGee's Zues sputtered, hissed and steamed as a stream of people left via one gangway while cargo was being pulled from a larger ramp. Just off of the ferrocrete landing apron a group of people waited. Some where hawking junk to the new arrivals while others stayed huddled near cargo they planned to have loaded onto the DropShip for departure. There were three guards in mis-matched military grade infantry armor carrying assault rifles watching over the tableau. While one of them had frowned at her as she climbed onto the truck none of them really cared enough to do anything about it.

From the truck roof she could see that except for the landing apron and a runway the area was bare dirt. She was holding a cloth over her mouth at the moment as cinders of ash occasionally drifted down from the dark clouds above. The ground was covered with the stuff like a dirty snow fall farther way from the apron. In the area around her the exhaust of the landing ship had blown it all away. Half a continent away a volcano had erupted recently, filling the skies with thick clouds of ash. She had yet to make a determination if the atmospheric conditions would be a help or a hindrance to her mission.

Arrayed to two sides were a bunch of warehouse like structures, most wood but a few of metal. She'd already rented one of them from the field owners by radio on the way in. To the rear of the field the towers of natural gas drilling rigs and a refinery complex were visible. It didn't seem very sensible to put such a potentially explosive complex so close to the only landing facility, but she'd seen stupider things in her time. The 'front' of the field was defined by the squat administrative building beyond which a dirt road led down the slight grade to the town itself. A few buildings lay between the field and the town, taverns by the looks of them. A number of people that had just departed the Zeus made it as far as the door of the first tavern and immediately ceased their journey upon Yu-shan. They were probably very thirsty she mused to herself.

This was, to Sammi's mind, the most critical phase of the entire mission. A solid ops plan should never include a part where the insertion team is supposed to just wing things but there hadn't been much choice in the matter. Information about what they might find on Yu-shan was unobtainable in the short amount of time they had before they had to start the long interstellar trip. Indeed, that was one of the main purposes of her mission. Obtaining information.

There just wasn't much information cataloged about this planet. It was in a system sitting between the Circinus Federation and Free Worlds League borders that was long thought uninhabitable due to Star League charts but apparently had been discovered and put into use by Little Bob of the Federation as a base to launder goods from. The Star League charts called the system a string of ten numbers. Those using the planet had taken to calling it Yu-shan. In ancient Chinese legends, Yu-shan was the Feather Mountain where the high god had a lesser one named Kun executed for failing to stop a huge flood damaging the lands. What- if any- significance could be made of the planet's name was unknown. They didn't even know who had named it. A number of criminal leader types maintained 'retreats' on the planet, three terrorist outfits were rumored to have hidden bases, and two of Little Bob's unofficially backed pirate bands laired here. One of them, the appropriately named Yu-shan pirates, was her target. They operated from a large island roughly north of her present location.

As far as their intelligence sources had been able to determine, only one JumpShip Captain was entrusted with the coordinates at the moment. That man was a personal friend of Little Bob's and ran a circuit between Federation and League worlds with the occasional visit to Yu-shan to send a DropShip or two planetward. It was the planet's only contact with the outside universe as there was no ComStar presence on Yu-shan and thus no hyperpulse generator. Until the JumpShip came back around two months hence the planet was on it's own. Thus everyone would be in a hurry to complete their business and board the Zeus before it lifted in fifty-two hours. It was the last ride out of town for quite a while. Sammi had other plans for her eventual departure from this rock.

Under the watchful protection of half her team, MechWarrior Nelson would be stowing their two cargo containers in the rented warehouse. Each contained a Red Hawk troop lifting helicopter and a few tons of field gear for her troopers. As soon as they obtained enough navigational information to make sure they could find the correct island, they would steal away in the VTOLs then land the craft and hide them. From there they would fan out to scout the island and prepare to secure the hostages just before the arrival of the Lt. Colonel and the bulk of the unit. Which is what made this the linchpin of the operation. If they couldn't find the target island they certainly couldn't secretly insert there.

She glanced down as the truck rocked slightly under the weight of someone else clamoring onto it. Flight Officer Wes Parker, the lead VTOL pilot, was climbing up.

"There's two light AeroSpace fighters and a few conventional jet fighters parked on the other side of the DropShip," he told her without preamble.

Technically he outranked her, although he was new to the Warders while Sammi had been in Warder blue longer than their CO had. However, except for the portion of the mission when the team was in the air in the 'copters, it was Sammi that was in charge of the op.

"Bad news for us if they catch us in the air then?" she noted. It was more statement than question.

"No way we could outrun or out fight them," he agreed.

"Then we'll just have to make sure it doesn't become an issue."

"About what I was thinking," he agreed. "I have Lex taking a closer peek at them for your recon report. I thought it might be important."

She nodded as she studied the town. The Warders didn't plan to attack the town, but it was conceivable that the town might send it's fighters to help the pirates.

"I haven't seen any sign of 'Mechs around. Have you?" she asked.

"Nope. One of my gunners overheard two passengers say that BattleMechs aren't allowed around the town because they might upset the balance of power."

From what they had recently learned it seemed that the balance had already been upset as the Yu-shan pirates had fought with at least two other bands including the second pirate group dirtside here

"Good. One less worry," she noted. "Let's regroup at our warehouse and decide how we're going to proceed from here. It's almost nightfall and I'm sure that things heat up around here once the sun goes down."


Jason walked down the boarding ramp of the Zeus for what he figured would be the last time. McGee had asked him if the DropShip could hire him and his Deer-Cat industrial 'Mech to offload the ship and Jason hadn't seen any harm in agreeing. It was what any strapped-for-cash spacer would have done. But now he was having second thoughts about the whole thing. McGee had been pretty insistent about Jason joining his crew and giving up on silly dreams of becoming a MechWarrior. Which told him that McGee had talked to his cousin. But the way he kept pressing the issue rather than hand over Jason's cargo handling fee had started to unnerve the young 'Warrior. Jason had been getting a bad feeling about things and had started to wish that some of the Sergeant's troopers were still around to back him up. But after promising the Captain that he would consider selling the Deer-Cat before the Zeus left, McGee had finally relented and paid up so that Jason could leave. Jason had been smart enough not to pilot the Deer-Cat back to the ship after his last delivery. If it had been in the Zeus' hold Jason doubted he would have been allowed to drive it out again.

It was, Jason noted at the bottom of the ramp, very dark with the sun down and the sooty skies blocking out the weak moonlight. They didn't seem very big on outdoor lights around here. He stood at the foot of the ramp for a few moments to orient himself then turned toward the warehouse that most of the mission team would be in and started walking. He should be getting excited about finally making it to the island, but he found himself mildly glum. For all practical purposes his part of the mission was over. The VTOL crews would do their thing, then he'd end up sitting with said crews waiting for the Lt. Colonel to arrive while the Snow Hunters prowled the island doing their thing. Even though it had been made clear from the start that he wasn't going to be part of the patrol element, he had secretly harbored hopes that somewhere along the line the Sergeant would have a change of heart and decide to take him along in case they captured a 'Mech or could otherwise use his help.

Fat chance of that, Jason thought sourly to himself.

"Psst, hey Kid," called a quiet voice from the darkness near an intersection of two buildings.

Jason looked around warily. "Who is it?"

A female figure slipped out of the shadows. "It's me, Kladeth. From the Zeus."

Jason was wary, but relaxed a little. He recognized her as an assistant engineering tech from the DropShip crew. He'd talked to her a couple of times. She was maybe two or three years older than him. The rest of the crew called her 'Chesty' as she was particularly well endowed topside. He had thought the nickname rather rude but she didn't seem to care.

"I wanted to talk to you about your plans to be a MechWarrior," she continued. "I know somebody here that could probably help you. I was thinking that maybe in exchange you could help me get away from the Zeus."

"Uh & ." stalled Jason in growing panic. Sure, he wanted to help her if he could. But he really couldn't get involved in anything involving the DropShip Captain at the moment. Plus he didn't need any help becoming a MechWarrior. He already was one.

"Look, it can't hurt to just hear me out," she pleaded. "McGee's after your cargo loader. I know something you need to know."

She motioned for him to come near as she leaned forward to peek around the corner back towards the DropShip and make sure no one was watching. As she did so he noticed that her tight coveralls were unzipped down the front a telling amount. And she didn't seem to be wearing any garments underneath.

He glanced around and saw no one, although in the shadows of the warehouses that didn't mean much. Still, he drifted cautiously over towards her. It couldn't hurt to hear her out and if he could help her without jeopardizing the mission then it was the responsible thing to do. As he drew near she backed up a bit, shifting nervously from foot to foot. Jason kept telling himself to focus on her face, but found his attention drawn to the jiggling flesh that was barely contained by her jumpsuit.

"This is kinda embarrassing," she admitted in a girlish voice. Jason looked down to his feet and blushed as she took one last look around to make sure they were unobserved.

Then Jason made a surprised 'urk' sound as she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him forward, then spun around them both around so she could slam him hard into the wall. She kneed him in the groin just hard enough to get his attention without seriously injuring him and leaned bodily against him pinning him in place. Her breasts were pushing directly against his chest but under the circumstances what could have been a wonderful fantasy went unnoticed. The knife she held to his throat and the large guy carrying a metal pipe length that had appeared from the shadows held his undivided attention.

"On the other hand, I bet this is even more embarrassing," she growled in a voice that was now anything but girlish. "The Captain gave you a more than fair chance to sign on willingly. Now we do it the hard way. You can join the Zeus or I can cut you open and we'll just take the loader-'Mech. The choice is yours."

Jason was careful not to move but his eyes flashed around wildly looking for options. It wasn't unknown for crews to shanghai unwilling members into their ranks, especially out here on the fringes.

Kladeth grinned evilly as she wiggled her bosom against her captive.

"Ohhh, it can't be that hard a choice can it?" she cooed. "You're kinda cute. I'm sure I could make your stay on the Zeus a bit more & exciting."

The man behind her chuckled. The timber of the voice was familiar. Jason was sure he was another crewman from the Zeus. Not that the knowledge did him any good.

"Come on Chesty, let's just cut him and take the Deer-Cat. He doesn't look like a keeper to me."

"Hey, a lady gets cold during those long lonely space nights," she mock complained over her shoulder.

"Lady?" grunted the other in amusement. "Yeah, that'll be the day. Besides, if you get cold you can always come to my bunk."

Jason's eyes widen slightly as he looked towards the man with the pipe. Both his captors assumed it was because of the casual mention of killing him. What they never had the chance to realize was that he had noted yet a third form melting out of the shadows. The pipe wielder suddenly dropped from Jason's line of sight over Kladeth's shoulder with barely a whuffled 'humph' sound.

Sensing danger more that having really heard anything, Kladeth turned her head to look behind her. Just as she did a fourth person Jason hadn't even seen appeared from seemingly nowhere and ripped her away from him while carefully controlling the knife arm to make sure he wasn't cut. In the space it took Jason to draw in a breath Kladeth was dragged backwards down onto her butt and her own knife was used to slice open the front of her throat. The astech stared at Jason's face in confusion as her life bled away while trooper Haarno controlled her in place until Jason saw Kladeth's eyes go blank and roll up. The Zues crewperson's form went limp.

"Suckered in by a pair of big tits," snorted trooper Ouni Haarno from above Kladeth's dead form. "You're still a rube aren't you?"

Jason's brain hadn't really caught up to the change in his situation yet. It did register someplace in the back of his mind that although trooper Jenkins had become something almost like a friend, private Haarno had never really 'warmed' to him. The trooper with her wasn't Jenkins though. It was Master Class Private Bronski. One of the deadliest of a deadly bunch.

"Cut him some slack Ouni," breathed Bronski quietly. "Just walking away would have brought him trouble anyway. He had to hear her out. Hey Nelson, snap out it kid. We've got to sanitize this site and get the hell away from here ASAP. Go see what's in those crates over there."

Jason shook away the shock of the sudden killings and made himself do what the Master Private had told him to do. The crates proved to be discarded empties, most of them in poor shape.

"Empty," he reported.

"Good, they'll do," decided Bronski.

Bodily lifting the dead man at his feet to avoid leaving drag marks, Bronski carried him towards the crates. "Give Haarno a hand," he grunted.

Jason reluctantly moved over towards the other trooper who grinned at him in the dark and told him to get the feet. They lifted the limp form and carried it over to the crates and set it back down while Bronski looked for a crate that was complete enough to hide the bodies from view.

"What do you think? Plant fake evidence or just dump them?" asked Haarno.

"Just dump," decided Bronski as he selected a box that was missing the lid but was otherwise intact. "Although on second thought; in case anyone decides to play Sherlock over these two strip their valuables. See, we have a horrible robbery gone bad on our hands here."

The two troopers quickly went through the dead man's meager possessions before dumping him in the box while Jason stood numbly by. Then the pair of them stripped the jewelry and money pouch off Kladeth before tossing her in as well. With their minimal work towards a fake motive complete the pair moved a broken crate which still had a solid base up onto the one holding the bodies. The bodies would be found when they started smelling if nothing else, but the troopers planned to be long gone by then.

Haarno nudged a stunned Jason in the ribs. "Don't worry MechWarrior. She wasn't your type."

"Ouni, take point. We'll use corridor alpha to return," said Bronski.

Without another word she slipped away into the shadows to scout the pathway that Bronski had chosen.

Jason jumped slightly as he felt a hand rest itself on his shoulder.

"I know. Pretty damn mean and nasty," Bronski's shadowed face told him. "The Sarge sent us to keep an eye on you. She didn't like the way McGee was eyeing you and that Deer-Cat. For what it's worth kid- is was you or them. If I thought you could have agreed to go with them and lived I wouldn't have acted. We could have just grabbed you back later. But she was going to get the start codes from you, then play with you a bit and kill you. Haarno and I could both hear it in her voice. A thrill killer. Trust me, I know the type. You didn't cause her death. She did it herself when she decided to have some fun slicing up an innocent spacer. Specifically, you. Now keep your eyes open and walk quietly. It's time to move."

Jason started off in the direction Bronski indicated, wondering how long it would take before he managed to forget the image of Kladeth's cleavage drenched in her own blood. Or her confused eyes dulling away to nothingness.


Down the dirt road from the landing field Sergeant Cascade and the two VTOL pilots were nursing beers in a tavern calling itself the Launch Pad. Neither they or the other troopers spread out in the tap room had come to drink. They were there to pick up information. Nothing very promising had come up yet. Flight Officer Stacey Hornig nudged her fellow pilot Wes when she noticed the two newest patrons enter the bar.

"Looks like the jet jocks," she noted.

Two of the fighter craft had left just before sundown. After circling around for a while they had headed off. A little while ago they could be heard returning to the field.

Wes got Cascade's attention at the barstool next to him. "Jackpot if we can grab it," he told her.

Sammi looked over at the two guys Wes was nodding towards. "How so?"

"Those notebooks they just put down," explained Stacey. "It looks like our brush pilots stick to established procedures. Those look like their flight logs. They'll have maps, nav frequencies, coordinates of where they've flown recently, etc. I'm surprised they keep them on paper instead of in a noteputer, but the important thing is that either one of them will have all the info we need."

"Then I'll arrange to borrow one. You two stay casual. Drink up and then go outside. I'll have Meri meet you there. In about six minutes someone will be out with one of the books. Go through it and scan what you need quickly. Then head for the warehouse."

Sammi stood to go have a word with one of her people inside the bar leaving the two VTOL pilots to do as she had bid. Both of them would have preferred to remain inside and see what was about to happen, but Cascade wasn't the kind of person one ignored.

At the table the Warders were now interested in, a pilot named Marl Styles was just taking a long slurp from his beer after sharing a joke with his wingman when someone bumped into his chair. The brew slopped out of the mug, some spilling on his flight suit. The pilot started to rise in protest before he even looked to see who it was. Half way up a hand clamped on his shoulder and pushed him back down. Styles looked up over his shoulder to find himself looking into the ugly face of one damn tough looking merc type. His indignation fled as he realized that the big guy had several friends with him. As a general rule infantry types liked to pound on pilots. Judging by the numbers involved Mark had a bad feeling he was about to be on the loosing side of a whole lotta hurt.

"Hey sorry about that," said the voice attached to the vice still latched onto his shoulder. "We were goofing around and not paying attention. No need for a ruckus, what hey?"

The grip relaxed as Styles stopped trying to stand. "No need," agreed the pilot in surprise. They seemed slightly drunk but these yahoos weren't belligerent yet. That was a minor miracle in itself around these parts.

"Good on ya then," smiled the ugly face. "Hey barkeep, another round for my friends here on me." The merc soldier pulled a couple of C-Bills from his pocket and tossed them on the table.

The wingman had half risen and was still partly out of his seat. He looked to Styles to see if pride demanded they push the issue or if they would let it go. Styles had already made that decision based on the odds.

"Ease back down Darren. These gentlemen don't seem to be looking for any trouble."

"Got plenty already without looking for extra," joked the big guy as he stepped back. He was ready in case the pilots changed their minds but instead the senior pilot waved him off and accepted the apology. The other patrons sitting nearby had momentarily hushed in anticipation of a fight, but went back to their own business when it became apparent that none was forth coming.

Once outside trooper Chan pulled the notebook out from under his jacket and handed it over to the waiting VTOL pilots. He'd snagged it while everyone was distracted. Parker and Hornig flipped through it and whenever they hit a page they wanted held it out for private Meri to run a scanning wand over and download the info to the trooper's portable computer. In less than two minutes they had the desired pages scanned and saved. Cascade had appeared with two troopers called from the bar next door. She sent them back inside to drop the book behind the pilot's chair and shove it under the seat so it wouldn't be reported as stolen. Then the entire group was headed back for the rented warehouse with no one the wiser as to what had just happened.

"You know," confided Parker to the Warder Sergeant, "I was expecting bodies flying out of windows and stuff. Instead that was a pretty slick trick."

Cascade shrugged in the darkness. "Flying bodies weren't the best solution. Violence is our last resort, never our first choice."

The Sergeant pretended she didn't see the look of disbelief that passed between the VTOL pilots. They clearly didn't believe that she meant what she'd just said, but she didn't really care what they believed. It was just useless side talk anyway. The important thing now was to regroup and make sure they had the information they needed. If they did, they might even be able to lift off before dawn this very night.


Jason punched in the start codes to the Deer-Cat cargo 'Mech as troopers from First Platoon literally brought down the rear wall of the warehouse. The prefabricated building had a modular frame the wall panels were bolted to. It was more convenient for the Warders to go out the rear of the structure off into the darkness behind the landing field than out the front of the building and around the side.

He pushed at his breathing mask to make sure it was in place against the ash that had started to fall once again as he carefully maneuvered the tracked vehicle past the side of one of the VTOLs. There he paused, half out of the wall opening. He gazed around with the night vision goggles he wore while two troopers attached a chain between the helicopter and his tracked 'Mech hybrid. As he lightly brushed his hand over the control readouts a chill ran down his spine. People had been willing to kill him for this thing. A stupid loader 'Mech. Two people had actually been killed for this cold lump of metals and plastics.

No, he told himself angrily with a shake of his head. Those two Zeus crewmen hadn't died because of the Deer-Cat. They'd died because they were violent thieves and killers. Or about to be killers anyway. He tried to push the whole thing out of his mind. There was a job to do. His hands mostly stopped shaking.

Working in total darkness during the early morning the two helicopters were towed down a slight incline and over behind some of the natural gas drilling rigs. As the machines were readied for flight the wall was replaced and the cargo crates sealed back up with the Deer-Cat parked within one. Locals might break into the crates before the mission was over but the insertion team wasn't concerned about it. There would be nothing to indicate what might have been within. The sounds of the pumps and other equipment easily covered the start up of the VTOLs, although no one was around to hear them anyway. Flying by instruments and night vision gear the two Red Hawks lifted and slipped away low over the ground. Soon they were out over open water.

Flight Officer Parker kept a wary eye on his flight instruments as his 'copter churned through the air with the sea only twenty or so meters below. With the moonlight blanked by the ash clouds it was pitch black. Even night vision gear was of little help with nothing giving off heat or light. It would be easy to become disoriented and head off in the wrong direction or even drop down into the sea. The rotating sweep of the island's orbital search radar gave them a basic directional heading however, which was being triangulated with the radio beacons placed at the airfield and town to aid navigation for the DropShips and limited local air traffic. The co-pilots of both Red Hawks listened intently across the comm channels that had been lifted from the borrowed flight logs but the complete absence of chattered indicated they had slipped away unnoticed and cruised the sky alone. The flight engineers monitored passive sensors for radar bands while sweeping the horizon with infrared in case they needed to change course to avoid a surface ship. The nose and side gunners kept their own look-out vigils as well.

In the main body of each VTOL Warder infantry sat on benches with their gear secured down the center of the fuselage. Other than head sets and inflatable flotation devices they still wore the same semi-civilian clothing they had been wearing for the last twenty four plus hours. Trying to break out their gear in the inky interior of the 'copter would be fruitless and no light would be risked to mess with gear they wouldn't need for hours. A few of the more unflappable souls found sleep. Many of the rest felt too exposed hanging in the air to relax. With no prohibition against quiet sound, a number of conversations were going on over the interior ship comms although the two VTOLs were maintaining radio silence between themselves.

There were six tracks of jacks running down the outer hull. Each was on a separate circuit and a plug could be inserted into the track to tap into the internal comms. As Jason sat drowsily secured to the bench he hadn't bothered to dip into any of the conversations. With the adrenaline surge gone and the after-adrenaline shakes finally subsided the MechWarrior found he was about to nod off. He wasn't fighting it, so he startled violently when someone laid a hand on his knee. In the dark he couldn't see who it was but he felt someone's hand plug a headset line directly into the box attached to his shoulder epaulet that would allow personal conversation between people without them yelling over the chop of the rotors or being on one of the six shared lines.

"How are you doing?" asked a voice he recognized as belonging to Trooper Jenkins.

Jenkins was the only Snow Hunter that Jason could say he had a real rapport with. Similar in age, the two had naturally hit it off as Jenkins had assumed the unofficial duty of explaining to the MechWarrior any cultural or procedural points about the ground pounders that Jason was unable to figure out on his own. Still, there was a measure of distance between them. Jason still didn't know the trooper's first name for instance. It seemed that everyone simply called the communications specialist Jenkins.

"A little sleepy," admitted Jason.

Jenkins laughed. "No, I meant that little fracas at the landing field. I know the Sergeant didn't say anything to you but Haarno and Bronski reported it. The Sarge said it was a righteous kill and not to sweat it. But I figured you're not a SCS like they are so maybe you might be a little shaken up."

The MechWarrior had been around the troopers long enough to pick up most of their lingo. Cascade had pronounced the killings as necessary to the mission (and thus 'righteous') while an "SCS" was a Stone Cold Shooter. To Jason's mind everyone seated around him fell into that category but within the platoon they seemed to have 'higher' standards.

"Oh. I'm all right. I guess," sighed Jason. "I mean almost getting killed doesn't bother me much. I mean it does a little, but I almost got toasted twice in 'Mechs. So it's no big deal. But every time I close my eyes I see her face. I mean & it's just weird is all. One second a live person is in front of you and then suddenly it's blood and death. I know it was them or me & it's just weird to see it happen like that. So fast & & I'm not making any sense, I know & ."

Jason trailed off. Jenkins reached over and gave the MechWarrior a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

"Believe me buddy, it's better fast than slow. For either you or the other guy. Look, we don't talk about it much but I bet almost all of us see the faces. Or the bodies. It fades a bit with time. For me it helps to bring up other faces & people we saved or helped. Like those kids we pulled from the Orb before the Nova Cats took over. You were a big part of that one."

"Thanks, I'll try that. Hey Jenkins & Haarno and the others & they don't think much of me do they?"

"I wouldn't put it that way. Actually I'd say they figure you're not that bad. They know you're a blooded MechWarrior and you've got your share of guts and all that. It's just that you haven't really proven yourself in their eyes. Not with the kind of skills we use I mean. We kinda judge people on whether we'd want them backing us up in a firefight. You know, 'walked a kilometer in our boots' and that kind of stuff. Heck, maybe there's a bit of jealousy for you glory hogging MechWarriors but it's nothing personal. Remember, this isn't R&R time at the base bar. It's been game face time the entire trip."

"So why do you put up with me?"

"Older bond," smiled Jenkins unseen in the darkness. "A guy's gotta look out for a fellow spacer."

"You're star born too?"

"Yep, a JumpShip. Ancient history though. I didn't spend as long as you on the deckplates."

"Wow. Imagine that. It's a small universe," mused Jason.

"Well anyway, I just wanted to check on you. I better go back to my seat now."

"Hey, can I ask you one more question?" Jason wanted to know.

The trooper paused from unplugging the comm jack. "Fire away."

"Lieutenant Colonel Linna is a MechWarrior, not a ground trooper. Yet the whole platoon talks of him like a ship crew would a beloved captain. I'm not jealous or anything and I'm as proud as the next guy to serve under him. I was just curious what the connection was."

Jenkins was silent for a moment as he collected his thoughts.

"Most of the platoon was here before he was. Not me of course, but a lot of the gang. When the Major & I mean LC & .returned them into being a real fighting unit rather than the rent-a-guards they had become under his Grandmother that racked up a bunch of points. But it's deeper than that. Somehow we always knew that when push came to shove at the big showdown First and Second Platoon were going to be the main show. You can't rescue people with a BattleMech or a tank. You need skilled troopers on the ground. And we knew that the L.C. knew too. That we're here is proof of that.

"Plus the LC has proven more than once that he's willing to get dirty and bloody. From those pirates he killed single handedly on the StarCade to a 'Mech he, Sergeant Cascade, and Bronski took out in the middle of a riot with home-made explosives- every manjack on this VTOL knows that the LC has worn their boots and faced the kind of fight they face. So I guess you could say we'd all be fine with the Lieutenant Colonel watching our backs. And we're willing to do or die for him because we know he'd never send us to do something that didn't need to be done. I'm not very experienced but even I know that that's a rare thing to find when you wear a uniform."

Trooper Jenkins kept the personal part of his loyalty to John Linna to himself. Not just from the MechWarrior he was now talking with but from almost everyone in the unit. Jenkins' parents had been crew aboard the Starcade. Their deaths by explosion had forever shrouded them in potential guilt. Jenkins had been a kid when the attack occurred, but he had actually been aboard that night. A then Cadet John Linna had saved him and a bunch of other kids at the expense of losing the Linna sister to the pirates. When Jenkins had heard that John Linna had resigned his commission in the Sampsa Defense Force upon graduation from the academy to join his Grandmother's mercenary outfit there had been no question in Jenkin's mind he would do the same as soon as he was old enough. Everyone assumed that Linna would use the Warders to go looking for his sister and his parent's killers. That's pretty much what his Grandmother was preparing to do anyway. Jenkins had wanted in on that action. And to maybe find proof that his own parents had not been involved.

It had taken years, but John Linna had found his sister Holly. Jenkins knew the secret truth because Cascade had included him on the team that had slipped away with the LC for the rescue. All that was left was to punish the guilty. And perhaps vindicate his parents.

"Listen to me go on," snorted Jenkins. "Sorry, don't know how I got on a lecture track like that. You've seen more of the universe than I have. I'll see you later when we're on the ground again."

"No problem, thanks for the info," replied Jason.

As the trooper drifted back into the inky blackness Jason settled back to try to sleep. Idly he wondered about the story of his CO with the Sergeant and trooper Bronski going after a BattleMech on foot amid a riot. It was doubtful he'd ever get the details from any of the principals involved. Maybe Jenkins knew more about it and could fill him in later. He was just starting to drift away when those dimming eyes and the blood came back again. With a frown he forced the visions from his head and concentrating on remembering the party the locals threw after they had defeated the Nova Cat challenge force on Coleson's Orb. Eventually, Jason found sleep.

Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space

10 February 3053

Whoever had named the planet's islands had been not been influenced by the Chinese mythology that had provided Yu-shan's name. The largest ones were the only ones with names and those were all colors. Indigo Island, Violet Island, Orange Island, etc. This particular land mass was marked Emerald Island on the local maps they had scanned.

A steep ridge formed by volcanic action circled three quarters of the roughly crescent shaped island. The pirates had the planet's only orbital radar set up on one of the highest points while their main base was supposedly an old Star League structure someplace at the foot of the crags on the interior side. Much of the island was tropical forest although rolling hills and large rice cultivation patties ran from the center to the open end of the mountain ring. There was an airbase near one 'horn' of the mountains with some sort of small village north of it. Purchased information hinted that there were at least two camps of prisoners but not where they were on the island nor who was in them. That was part of what they were here to find out.

The VTOLs had detected no air search radar but kept low to the deck as they approached the island as a precaution. As the morning sun cast it's first weak rays they located a site where they could set down near a burst of tree growth. Working quickly and scanned the sky with wary eyes, the two crews broke down the rotors of each VTOL and with winches secured to tree trunks pulled the machines under the leafy canopy. Infrared reflecting camouflage tarps were then secured over the 'copters to hide them from skyborn eyes. Each fusion reactor was totally shut down to avoid detection by emission. Only an hour had passed after completing their chores when the low rumble of conventional jet turbines could be heard. Two aircraft passed far overheard, unmindful of the intruders hidden below. Inside the VTOLs the engineers were monitoring the communication frequencies on battery power.

Not expecting any sort of intrusion, the jet pilots were broadcasting in the open. It quickly became clear that it was a routine flight that had seen nothing unusual. By listening to their chatter a rough schedule of the infrequent flight patrols was noted by the Warders. There was an old axiom that no plan of battle survived contact with the enemy. Cascade's twist on that saying was that a well executed plan denied the enemy the chance of screwing up your mission. So far, her version had the upper hand.

At the moment the air was free of volcanic ash. But dark clouds of the stuff could be seen on the horizon as Samantha Cascade assembled her forces for a quick briefing.

"Listen up troopers," she barked, "thanks to the excellent work of our air crews and borrowed MechWarrior- we've inserted into the target zone completely undetected. Today we'll unpack and check our gear. Other than watches it's rest time after that. We'll leave at Oh-Seven-Hundred tomorrow morning after a final check. First we'll get up over that ridge line, then we'll set up a base camp on the interior side and break down into our task groups. Make sure you all take your chem-war masks with the smoke filters. If that ash drifts our way you'll be wanting them. Sergeant Sanchez and I will be redistributing some gear and ammo based on our mission losses at Schiedam. Any questions?"

"Can we call out for pasta and meatballs tonight?" someone wanted to know as the others chuckled.

"Torren, thanks for volunteering for a few extra kilos of gear to carry tomorrow," sighed Cascade. "Now, anyone have any real questions?"

Jason was tempted to ask what he could do to help. But he was pretty sure he knew the answer. Stay out of everyone else's way.

"That's it then people. Get to work. The Lieutenant Colonel's counting on us. Don't let him down."

"Sisu Sergeant," called out the group - albeit not as loudly as they would have on a parade ground.

Jason found himself fascinated by the equipment he watched unpacked and checked for functionality over the next few hours. The shorts, cooling vest, and pistol belt that was his usual 'working clothes' as a 'Mech cockpit seemed second rate compared to the high tech stuff the troopers had.

Everyone had a ballistic weave suit that was strategically vented with mesh for warm climate use with pockets for ceramic armor inserts on the thighs, shins, and upper arm. An energy / ballistic plate torso piece complete with a built in water storage bladder and powered cooling system fitted over the flack suit. Over this a special belt-harness combination was worn that provided gear attachment points and served as a climbing harness. Both the suit and the breast plate had active electronic camouflage with color changing fibers and some IR suppression. They had heavy looking full faced combat helms with commo and sensor abilities he could only guess at. While the heavy looking helmets had a powered cooling system, Jason got the idea from overheard conversations that standard open faced helmets would be worn most of the hike with the heavier combat helms saved for specific mission use later.

What most intrigued the MechWarrior were the forearm guards. One held a small computer while the other had a built in pistol grade laser powered by the military powerpack worn at the back of the belt. Rather than carrying holstered sidearms, the arm mounted laser took over the back-up role a pistol traditionally filled. Vibroblades and microhook gloves completed the outfit - aside from the weapons of course. While most of the platoon was carrying an Intek laser rifle, everyone had a secondary weapon. Suppressed submachine guns, grenade launchers, VLAW launchers & .it was an impressive display of hardware to Jason.

The huge bulky backpacks they planned to wear destroyed the deadly look of the armored trooper. In point of fact they would be encumbered beyond the ability to effectively fight once the packs were added. However the packs would be stowed away at the base camp. For their scouting forays they would take only what was necessary for the short mission. Some of the troopers carried specialist gear rather than the extra weapons. Communications gear, medical supplies, demolitions equipment & .then there was the heavy weapons team from Third Platoon.

One team of two carried two sniper weapons in cases. A Nikon-Colt semi-automatic slug thrower and an Intek laser rifle similar to what the others had but fine tuned for extra range and attached to special optics and a bipod. There were two squad automatic weapons (short barreled light machine guns), a light recoiless rifle, a Hellborne Assault laser, and a Grand Mauler Gauss Cannon worn in a special balancing harness by a huge trooper easily as large as Jason's lance leader Lawman. Objectively, Jason knew that the man portable weapon carried nowhere near the firepower of true 'Mech class weapons. Actually standing near the beast gave one the impression it could shoot through armor plates with ease however.

Around midday the troopers took a break for their last hot lunch for a while - pre-prepared meals heated with the microwaves in the VTOL galleys. Jason was wandering aimlessly through the mounds of gear each trooper had laid out when a dark metallic canister next to a hulking pack caught his attention. It was a bit shorter than his forearm and looked just about the right size to grasp. As it was laying aside unattached to anything, he picked it up assuming it was some sort of electric torch.

Examining each end he found no lens on either side. There did seem to be concentric rings etched into it however. There was a rocker switch set in the middle of the moderately heavy tube. He was only meaning to test the tension of the rocker switch when he pushed it hard enough to engage it. He dropped it in surprise and jumped a step back as it violently telescoped out under the power of springs and myomer strands to form a pole maybe one and a half or so meters long. Hastily he scooped it up and tried to somehow retract the ends, but found the item steadfastly refused to return to its original far shorter length.

He almost dropped it again when he heard Sergeant Cascade's voice directly behind him.

"And if it would have been a bomb of some sort?" she asked.

Jason winced at the sound of her voice but made himself turn to face her. "I'd uh & I guess I'd be dead. I'm terribly sorry Sergeant. I didn't mean to activate & whatever it is this is. "

Tentatively he offered it to her and she swept it from his hands in a deft motion. Then she knelt beside her pack and pulled a wire lead attached to a power supply from a side pocket. Touching it to the correct place on the item she hit the switch and the myomers within contracted, retracting the devise.

"Don't play with things that aren't yours," she admonished him sternly.

"Yes Sergeant," he answered chagrined. "May I & may I ask what it is? I've never seen anything like that before."

"Not likely you would have," she grunted. "Not many people still train the staff as a combat weapon. But the Braves I ranged with on the Preserve Lands still do."

Stepping a few paces back from him she activated the toggle again, extending the titanium alloy staff back to its full length. It whirled around her head and body in a blurred pattern too intricate for Jason to follow as the Sergeant whipped it about, occasionally freezing for a brief second to emphasize a block or strike. Then her kata came to a sudden end frozen midway through an overhand strike. She lowered the staff and returned to her pack for the power lead required to retract the weapon.

"Carrying the traditional one wasn't an option so I had this one made. It opens with enough force to break bone. I trust I won't find you toying with it again. Or anyone else's gear for that matter. Some of those things are explosives. Show's over, run along now."

Jason back away slowly, then beat a hasty retreat. Somehow the conversational dismissal was worse than if she had snapped or growled at him. Inside the VTOL called the 'Friendly Fire' by it's crew he dejectedly found an electronic reader and loaded a BattleMech recognition disc then dropped down onto the bench in the main compartment. It seemed that he was cursed to always be doing stupid things. Like the dumb remark about biting his cheek in the Blitzkrieg battle, or getting suckered by the Zeus' crew, or getting caught messing around with the Sergeant's personal gear. In the action vids the young hero always came through and heroically saved the day. He sure wasn't in one of those. Sometimes it seemed like his life was more like one of the Dabbot and Castillo comedy vids. And he was Castillo rather than the smooth talking Dabbot.

Mired in self pity he tried to lose himself in memorizing the shapes, sensor returns, and weapon loads of the hundreds of BattleMech designs mankind had produced over the centuries. He didn't notice when Cascade looked in to check on him or when Jenkins did the same thing later on.

Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space

11 February 3053

The morning dawned dimly as the volcanic clouds had drifted over the island during the night. Ash was falling lightly, a factor of concern for the VTOL crews as they would need to figure out a way to periodically clear the stuff from the camo-tarps. Jason was sitting on a folding camp seat among the Red Hawk crews as they watched the troopers gearing up for their march over the ridge. Other than the infantrymen quietly running down checklists as each inspected an other's gear and the chatter of some local birds, the camp was still and quiet.

Suddenly Cascade and Sanchez looked up from what they were doing, alerted by their comm sets that trouble was inbound. Three troopers appeared through the foliage shortly later, two of them supporting the third between them. They brought the injured trooper over to the camp seats and gingerly deposited her onto one of the folding perches. Private Nurmi, one of their medics, pulled out a knife and started cutting off the trooper's boot.

"What happened?" barked Cascade.

"Just bad luck Sergeant," replied trooper Miles. "We were the water detail. Jouko was just standing at the bank filling canteens like we were when the rocks suddenly shifted and gave out under her. She rolled her ankle real bad."

"Are the canteens still at the stream?"

"Yes Sergeant."

"Okay, take someone else with you and bring them back. Don't forget to drop a purification pellet in each and watch where you walk. We'll take care of Jouko."

Cascade and Sanchez exchanged worried glances as the troopers went back for the water. They left the medic in peace while he examined the ankle but both were thinking the same thing. Not only would Jouko's loss require them to discard some more gear, she was one of their two communications experts.

"Well, what's the word?" Sergeant Sanchez finally asked.

"I'll have to set up the portable fluoroscope to be sure but my bet is that it's broken," answered the medic. "I'm afraid she won't be walking anywhere for weeks, minimum. Sorry Sergeant. These things happen."

"It's not too bad Sarge," countered Jouko through gritted teeth. "Just juice me with some pain killers and I can make. All I have to do is make it to the base camp."

Cascade looked hopefully at Nurmi, but the medic shook his head no. That was good enough for Sammi. If the medic said no way then it was no way. But she'd take the responsibility of making the call.

"Sorry Jouko, you'll have to sit this one out. Nurmi, use the x-ray scope to check it then slap a cast on it. Hustle it up though, we're going to leave behind schedule as it is now."

Jouko was definitely more pained by letting her buddies down than the ankle, but other than giving her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder there wasn't anything Cascade could do about it. Damn. That was four troopers down before they'd even started. And Jouko was one of only two commo specialists. Standard comms was no problem for anyone in her unit. But now Jenkins was the only one they had to handle the orbital communications gear they would be using to pass their reports to the incoming DropShips.

"Uh, Sarge?" asked the second comm specialist from behind her.

She turned. "Yeah Jenkins?"

"Well, uh & standard BattleMechs carry sat-based communications equipment that isn't much different in operation than what I'm carrying. 'Mechs receive and transmit to orbital control locations and do satellite bounces and such. I could teach Nelson what he needs to know to be my backup in a couple of evenings."

"The same goes for our Flight Engineers," added Flight Officer Parker. "Either one of them could learn the gear quick enough if you want one of them."

Both engineers voiced their willingness to volunteer.

Sammi looked over at her fellow Sergeant. "Jerson, let's have a little pow-wow."

"So what do you think?" she wanted to know after they had walked off a little way.

"I think that VTOLs are notoriously finicky. They've done fine so far but if one develops a problem the flight crews are going to need their engineers more than we need a back-up commo."

"Unless Jenkins gets killed," she sighed. "But overall I agree. What about Jason? Are you comfortable taking him with us."

"Well, he didn't do too bad in training or on the way here," reasoned Jerson. "In theory all he has to do is hike to the base camp and sit there. And who knows, if we do liberate a 'Mech it might be handy to have him around."

"If we need to commandeer an enemy 'Mech then I think we'll be in a huge pile of hurt. But we can't complete our intel gathering objectives if we can't transmit it. It's almost against my better judgement but he's in. Let's go tell him."

Jason looked up in surprise as the Sergeants called him over.

"Here's the deal kid," announced Cascade. "We just lost one of our two commo operators. Jenkins thinks that with his coaching you could fill in as backup. If you think you're up to it we're going to take you into bandit country with us as the second commo op."

The young MechWarrior didn't have to think twice. This was a chance to redeem himself and he knew the correct answer.

"Sisu Sergeant," he replied enthusiastically.

"Let's suit you up then," she muttered sourly.

Jason was disappointed to discover that he was to receive only part of what the others wore. No flack suit for him, nor fancy combat helm. He did get the torso armor unit and the webbing harness gear plus the standard helmet everyone would be wearing for the first march. Instead of a laser rifle and a satchel of grenades he was outfitted with one of the suppressed submachine guns and extra ammo for it. He was also saddled with three rounds for the recoiless launcher. He couldn't use them, he was just carrying them. He expressed his dismay to Jenkins, who was helping him equip.

"Look Nelson," explained the other trooper patiently, "you're young, strong and healthy. But you don't have the endurance training we do. Back at home we're not jogging around together all the time just because we like running and chanting. All this junk I'm wearing is heavy. We've got a long hike and a mountain to climb. Plus just pick up that pack with the commo gear you'll be carrying. Trust me, you'll be happy you're not lugging the rest of this stuff around with you within an hour after we start hiking."

Jason hefted the pack. It was pretty heavy.

"But shouldn't I at least have a rifle?"

"Jason my friend, if you end up needing a rifle before we get to the base camp then this mission is shot to hell and we're all dead. If it will make you feel better you can carry mine. I don't mind giving up the extra kilos," Jenkins told him in exasperation.

"So maybe I should just wear what the Sergeant gave me and shut up about it," observed Jason with a sly grin.

"It's usually the best thing," agreed Jenkins with an amused snort.

"Okay, sorry about the whining. And thanks for suggesting me."

Jenkins' demeanor turned very serious. "Don't thank me yet Jason. There's still a long way to go and a lot that can happen. And trust me, the faces of dead friends are far worse to see in your dreams than the faces of dead enemies. So keep you head down, do whatever anyone tells you, and don't let us down okay?"

"My word," nodded Jason.


A short time later Sergeant Cascade was addressing her assembled troops.

"Listen up you sloggers. By now you all know the drill. Don't eat anything you find growing here and don't drink the water without letting a purifier tablet have at least forty seconds in it. Nothing left behind when we stop to show we came through. We're on recon so no shooting unless given the clear to do so. Someplace out there are a bunch of hostages counting on us even if they don't know it yet. Out in space are the rest of the Warders. They're counting on us as well. We're here because we have the skills and ability to get it done. So let's do it. We'll go in two columns; point walkers out at least thirty meters ahead. Make sure your personal comm units are set on the lowest power setting. Range will be less than two kilometers but there won't be anything to be picked up if the enemy is scanning the channels at their base. But even so, no unnecessary comm use. Stick to hand signals as much as possible."

As the columns moved out Cascade fell into step next to Jason.

"All right Nelson, you stay close to Corporal Bearny. When we stop for breaks don't let her out of your sight. If you need to take a leak, she goes with you. And she holds the commo gear while you're answering the call of nature. Don't go near Jenkins. He and you have the two orbital comm sets so we can't lose you both to the same blast. Let's make sure we're clear on the next point. That comm unit you have is more important than you are. You may not fall off any cliffs, expire in an explosion, get vaporized by a 'Mech laser, or suffer any other unfortunate event that will damage that commo gear. Got it?"

"Uh, yes Sergeant," he nodded. "Protect the commo gear."

"At night camp Corporal Bearny will take your commo gear so that you may go train with Jenkins on his. That's the only time you don't need to know where the Corporal is. Any other time I ask you where she is, you better be able to point to her and she better be within ten meters. Any questions?"

"No Sergeant."

"Good." As Sammi walked back up the line she paused next to Corporal Bearny.

"Hey Beth, make sure our MechWarrior doesn't get lost in the trees okay?"

She grinned. "No problem Sarge. I'll be a good baby sitter."

The rest of the morning passed in relative quiet as the platoon and a half made it's way through the jungle foliage to the base of the ridge line. Three pickets were set out while the rest of the group rested and ate a little prepackaged food. As Jenkins had predicted, MechWarrior Nelson was already glad he wasn't carrying as much gear as the others were. Looking up the steep volcanic face before them Jason was extra happy. It looked like a heck of a climb.

This ridge was old enough that vegetation grew up the sides. Still, the cover was scant from aerial observers. There was generally only one aerial pass over this side of the island per day, and the group waited through an extra long lunch break until the patrol jets were heard off in the distance above them beyond the ash cloud. Soon they were heard again, headed back the other way. Then the troopers started up the incline. The going wasn't as bad as Jason had feared for the scouts had found a broken pathway to follow. By mid afternoon they were more than halfway to the top, edging along a narrow animal path that wound up the otherwise almost vertical slope.

In the lead, Private Master Class Leroy Johnson was carefully testing the footing as he held onto the cliff face with his microhook gloves when he noticed a glint of metal from the rock wall next to him. Signaling for the others to pause he examined the wall more closely and almost lost his perch in surprise. This was important enough to break comm silence.

"Sergeant Cascade, I think I just found a disguised door in the cliff," he reported.

Sammi worked her way past a few troopers until she could get up to the front with Johnson. By that time Leroy had used a combat knife to scrape away the lava rock around the door seals. She sent him ahead to see if the trail continued while she examined his find. He was back a short time later.

"Trail ends just around the next curve," he reported. "From here we either use the door or pull out our pitons and start climbing straight up."

"I found the access panel while you were checking the trail," she told him. "Scoot back a ways to make some room while I call up Meri."

Private Master Class Eino Meri was their computer and electronic security specialist. Meri examined the panel for a moment then used some tools to remove the face plate. He probed with assorted testing prods for a few minutes.

"There's still power, but not much," he told the Sergeant. "Very simple security circuits. I can get past them. My guess is that it can be over ridden and locked down from inside however, thus the minimal security. No way to tell if it's dogged from within expect trying it. One thing though, the only place I've seen connectors or a circuit chip like those is in old Star League gear. I hesitate to say this & but I think we just stumbled onto the back door to a Star League cache."

Little was capable of stunning Samantha Cascade, but Meri's simply announcement was. Her mouth hung open for a few moments before her brain kicked back into gear.

"Makes sense actually. The pirates probably picked this particular island for lostech rumors. Supposedly their main base is ex Star League. The big question is if this is an escape path to their base." It didn't seem likely though. The Star League facility was many dozens of kilometers away and this was a person sized door. It seemed like an awfully long walk for an escape tunnel. This was more likely a different facility. Turning her gaze out over the ocean, her guess would be an observation post of some kind. The main access was likely on the more gently sloped opposite side. This exposed approach would be an escape route in all likelihood.

Lostech; the advanced technology of the Star League, much of which had been lost through centuries of warfare. There had been significant gains since the Gray Death memory core had been found but there was still so much that had been lost. Securing a lostech find would be worth the extra risk to their mission.

"Pop it open," she decided.

There was an audible hiss as the door's seal was broken, but it moved just a few centimeters. A little prying showed that it swung open on the Sergeant's side. Carefully they pulled it open to reveal a dark, smooth walled tunnel beyond. Sammi switched to her full combat helmet then edged along the backside of the door now that it was flush against the cliff and then used a vision probe from her belt that was plugged into the helmet system so she could peer down the passage without exposing her head.

The light coming in the open door allowed her to see far down the tunnel with her light enhancement system. The details were fuzzy in the green on green, but there was definitely something with barrels on a tripod farther down the passage. An occasional blink caused her to change to normal vis-light on high magnification. The blink was a red ready light in the inky darkness down the hall. A quick test with a second sensor wand told her that there was no detectable microwave activity. So they were probably dealing with a heat or optical sensor rather than a motion detector. She had Meri detach a grapple from the back of her pack. This one was spring loaded. Slowly she edged it around until it was pointing down the hall then fired the grapple. It clanged a few times then came to rest. Using the vision probe to keep an eye on the hook, she started reeling it in. Sammi managed to catch a tripod leg with the grapple. The hook held, and she started slowly reeling in the heavy weapon. Once it was close to the door she could see what it was. A gattling barreled mini-gun of with what she assumed was a self targeting sensor of some sort attached. An automated sentry gun.

However, before the device was within reach it was halted by the power line attached to it. Whoever had set it up hadn't been concerned with being able to push it all the way to the door it seemed. After a quick discussion they decided to try another grapple. After two tries they caught the tripod leg they wanted and pivoted the weapon to face the wall. The weapon didn't start firing so presumably it was an infrared or other heat sensor of some sort.

"I'll go," volunteered Johnson.

Sammi nodded. She hated to send others to take risks in her stead but she knew it was the best play. She was in command of the entire mission and couldn't afford extra risks this early in the patrol.

With Meri's help the scout detached his hiking pack. Then Leroy gingerly edged around the Sergeant and then into the opening, sticking like glue to the opposite wall from where the mini-gun pointed. Sweat dripped down his forehead as he got closer, and the extra warmth in the tunnel had nothing to do with it. With great relief he made it behind the gun and pulled the plug from the sensor. A few moments of examination allowed him to figure out how to safe the weapon. He motioned the all clear.

The rest of the team funneled in. Closing the door behind them, they fanned out and carefully started to search their find. It was indeed an abandoned facility. Very abandoned they discovered. Beds had been stripped, much of the furniture was gone, and there was few clothing or personal effects left about. It had been an orderly and non-rushed departure. In the central control room they discovered that two of the computer memory drives had been taken as well. The base was running on minimal power supplied by hidden solar collectors and a submerged tidal turbine system that had degraded to 20 percent effectiveness over the centuries. It was enough for minimal light however, so they turned them on to aid the search.

Corporal Beth Bearny was leading her squad down a wide hallway when the lights came on. Jason drew in a deep breath as he read the writing on the far door next to the eight pointed Cameron Star insignia of the Star League Defense Force.

Mech Bay.

The rest of the squad read the markings as well, then automatically looked at Jason as he gaped at the door. A lost SLDF 'Mech Bay. It was literally almost beyond belief. Something you only read about in war fiction.

"Everyone hold up here," ordered Bearny. "There's not much lip on either side of that doorway and if I was going to place another sentry gun the other side of that door is where I would put it. We'll call it in and wait for the Sergeant's word."

Once contacted, Cascade agreed with the Corporal's assessment and pulled everyone out of the exposed hallway. Jason fidgeted for the next forty minutes as Meri struggled with the master control systems until he finally achieved a link to the doors and over rode the security coding. By the time the door slid open more than half the team was waiting around the corner. There was indeed another sentry gun - two in fact - but by experimentation Meri was able to cut their power supply from the control room. The troopers advanced, wary of physical traps such as trip wires for mines. The guns proved to be the only defense however.

MechWarrior Nelson wandered into the center of the large cavern and spun slowly in place in disbelief at what they had found. Nothing. Not even a lousy little scout 'Mech. Except for scattered crates and two wheeled vehicles sitting on rotted rubber tires, the bay was bare. The disappointment was plain on Jason's face.

Corporal Bearny walked over to him in the center of the empty space.

"Try not to take it so hard Nelson. I mean realistically, why would they leave valuable military resources like BattleMechs behind? Besides, Sergeant Cascade says there are two exits leading to the other side of the range so this will make a perfect base camp. And there might be something useful in the crates."

He glanced at her and shrugged in resignation. It probably had been foolish to get his hopes up. "I'll help check the crates," he sighed.

The Corporal sent a few troopers to see if anything could be scavenged from the armored cars then had the rest of the group spread out. Trooper MacNeal scrunched her nose in disgust at the smell as she opened one case to discover that SLDF rations don't hold up well over a few hundred years but apparently something in them survived as organic. Trooper Miles laughed out loud as he found two crates of SLDF regulation issue underwear in vacuum sealed pouches. Torren and Chan scored big when they found three crates of Mauser 900 assault rifles. Once the standard issue rifle of the SLDF, the pulse laser rifles had a built in grenade launcher and a compartment in the stock that contained emergency supplies. It was a somewhat significant find. Only the Clans and ComStar currently had the ability to produce pulse laser technology in a shoulder arm. Should they choose to do so, the Lieutenant Colonel's DEW Industries could probably reverse engineer the technology from a few of these pristine samples.

Additional finds included some hand tools, field camping gear, spare parts, and some explosives that none of the Warder troopers felt like trusting after all the years that had passed. Two crates of drained but rechargeable SLDF military power packs were discovered but the most immediately helpful find was a fusion recharger. Virtually unseen since the First Succession War, the remarkably small and lightweight reactor could recharge up to five packs at a time and run almost indefinitely.

Sometime later the entire group was gathered in the MechBay for Sergeant Cascade to fill everyone in on what had been found and how their operational plans had been affected. Unfortunately the field base's communications equipment had been stripped when the small complex had been abandoned. However with two exits on the interior side of the ridge they would use the complex as their base camp from which various mission teams would depart to scout the island. Sergeant Sanchez and his squad of Roughnecks from Second platoon would take command of the base. Their specialty was building entry for hostage rescue. They would wait for First Platoon's squads to complete their scouting before undertaking their operations. The Guardians, the squad of heavy weapon specialists from Third Platoon, would also stay at the base. Their role would be to defend whatever landing site was eventually chosen. And now to defend the base, if necessary. Jason would be staying at the complex as well. As the base was less than a day's march from where the VTOLs were hidden, they would send a team back to collect the air crews and give them a more secure place to wait. It would take at least fifty minutes to get the VTOLs into the air so there was little point in staying near them. A guard would be left to report if the machines got discovered.

"So in short," Cascade was summarizing, "I know there's some disappointment that the complex was largely empty. It could have been a big salvage bonus for us. But with enough power for minimal operation, this site offers a far more advantageous base camp location that we could have hoped for in our wildest dreams. It's a bit farther from the center than I would have chosen but the security outweighs the extra walking time. We'll start planning the objective sorties in three hours and launch them tomorrow. In the mean time everyone can grab some rest time. Anyone that wants to help can join me in field testing those Mausers to see if they work right."

"You know what the best thing is about all of this," Jenkins said from beside Nelson. They had stowed their comm packs, removing the restriction that they stay apart from each other.

"What?" asked Jason glumly.

"We can have warm chow now!"

Jason thought of the rectangular packages they called 'peffer's. The Prepared to Eat Field Ration, or PEFR, that served as their meals. He failed to see how warming them would be much improvement. In fact, the thought of how close he had come to finding mythical Star League 'Mechs had left him without an appetite at all.

"That's great," he murmured without enthusiasm. "Just great."

"Hey cheer up Chum. It could be worse. It could be raining."

Jason grimaced at the old infantry joke.

"How would we know?" asked the MechWarrior as he glanced around the underground chamber.

"My point exactly," beemed the trooper.

Giving in to his companion's unshakable good cheer, Jason snorted in bemusement. He'd dreamt up plenty of exotic scenarios about his future exploits as a MechWarrior while a kid on his parent's ship. But Jason was sure he'd never come up with anything as wacky as the situation he had found himself now. Hiding out in an ancient Star League facility on an island teaming with BattleMech equipped pirates. Ordinarily he would have said this kind of stuff only happened in holo-vids. But here he was.

Elsewhere, all across Emerald Island, the Yu-shan pirate band carried on with their normal routines unaware that they - usually the hunters - had become the hunted.


Plot Basics to This Point: Roughly eight years ago a civilian JumpShip named the Starcade carrying many high placed families was raided by pirates while on a peace delegation trip within the FWL. John and Holly Linna's parents were killed along with many others and Holly was abducted along with four other children. John Linna was in the Sampsa Military Academy at the time and although he killed many of the pirates, he could not save his parents or his sister. He joined his Grandmother's small mercenary outfit after graduation and built up a 'Mech lance to search for his sister by taking anti-pirate contracts. When his Grandmother passed away, he became the owner and CO of the Suomi Warders.

Holly Linna eventually escaped and became a MechWarrior in the Circinus Federation on a solo search for revenge. The pirates believed her killed in the escape and are unaware she still lives. Recently John Linna found Holly and they were re-united but the relationship remains strained.

Chairman Miller of the Rold Investment Group was the mastermind behind the Starcade attack trying to stir Andurian separatists into war with Sampsa to sell more equipment. He hired Steven Ong, who has a ring of assassins and spies, to plan and stage the attack. Since then, Ong has taken secret control of a pirate group near the Circinus border with the League as a base of operations to run his Triad Assassins from. Through a number of clashes, John Linna and his people have been gathering information and clues regarding the Starcade massacre. Having discovered through paid informants that the current Yu-shan pirates of the Emerald Island are lead by people involved with the Starcade attack, John has gathered his unit and launched a strike. A small group of ground troopers have been sent ahead to scout the area and secure the hostages believed to be held on the island in commando raids before the DropShips of the main body arrive.


Memory Refresher of the Characters:[]

Inra and Yawni Bahti, MechWarriors (Sisters, members of Holly Linna's lance) Bronski, Private Master Class (Member of Warder's First Platoon. Experienced commando) Leena Calahan, MechWarrior (Member of Holly Linna's lance) Samantha "Sammi" Cascade, Srg. (Platoon Sergeant of the Warder's First Platoon, very capable combatant leading the infiltration mission) William Harding, Master Technical Srg. (John Linna's personal tech and Chief Tech of the Warders) Latoya Harrisberg, General (Member of planetary defense forces, helped John buy some fighters) Stacey Hornig, Flight Officer (New Warder, one of the two VTOL pilot-commanders) Jenkins, Private First Class (Member of Warder First Platoon. He was also on the Starcade as a child but few people know this) Holly Linna, Lt. (John Linna's younger sister. Currently commander of free lance 'Mech unit) John Linna, Lt. Colonel (Current CO of the Suomi Warders) Sandi Linna, civilian (John Linna's 10 year old daughter) Wes Parker, Flight Officer (New Warder, one of the two VTOL pilot-commanders) Jason Nellson, MechWarrior (Recently joined Warders as a MechWarrior. Born a spacer, he has been assigned to the infiltration team) Jeffery Tapiovarra, Major (Was General Harrisberg's aide as a Colonel, with her consent is now the Warder AeroSpace commander) Osmo Woods, Captain (Warder's Military Information and Communications Officer)

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