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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 15: Seize and Rescue[]

by David Wainio

Note: A brief synopsis is at the end of the story.

Sierra System

DropShip Baltic Serenade

08 February 3053

Lt. Colonel John Linna scratched at his chin absently as he watched a recording on his computer of Pastor Curtis’ most recent sermon once again. John’s Warders were currently three days or so away from their final ride - a DEW Industries owned JumpShip that was waiting to perform the clandestine hop into Circinus space. That meant his unit was about nine or ten days away from dropping on the Yu-shan pirates where a small Warder advance force should already be deployed. While the Pastor was not part of the planning or briefing sessions, he seemed to have divined the nearness of their target destination. His latest sermon had been very, very heavy on the importance of self control and the dignity of human life. All human life as the Pastor had noted at least three times. John was pretty sure he got the intended message but decided it was best to talk to the Pastor directly to clear any misconceptions. John keyed in a message requesting the clergyman pay him a visit at Curtis’ earliest convenience then closed the vid-window of the sermon and brought up the main operational chart for the mission.

Armchair generals like to toss about pithy quotes like no battle goes as planned, military intelligence is an oxymoron, and so forth. While history is full of examples of poor plans and poor execution, it also records many well designed battle plans that were well executed. Hanse Davion wasn’t called "the Fox" for nothing after all. Sure, the unexpected could kill you- but to a large degree John felt you made most of your own luck in a military op by how close you decide to ride your odds. His plan had contained risk up front but decreased the odds of problems in the closing phases. He couldn’t contact his advance team, but he knew from messages they had left behind that they had arranged for the final leg to the ‘hidden’ planet. Having managed that, John couldn’t imagine Sergeant Cascade failing in the matter of camping out behind enemy lines for two or three weeks. So far, most everything was going according to plan.

In the small ward room John currently occupied sat a number of his fellow MechWarriors. They were reviewing a tactical exercise in small groups but it was more busy work than real studying. Until there was fresh intel to work over not much was left for the Warders to do. In the past two months spent shuttling from JumpShip to JumpShip everything stored aboard every DropShip had been double checked at least twelve times. Every time table had been gone over more than a dozen times.

He had just started to aimlessly review his force break down units for the umpteenth time when the sound of the hatch opening brought his eyes up from the screen. One eyebrow arched in mild surprise as John watched Pastor Curtis step through the portal and close it behind him. The Warder C.O. stood.

"Pastor, is this a coincidence or where you looking for me? When I sent the e-message I really did mean when you had a moment. Not right at this moment."

The other man waved casually to indicate it was a non issue as he nodded hello to the others in the cabin and moved towards John’s table.

"Old NCO habits die hard," Curtis joked. "The CO says jump, you ask how high. Seriously John, I’ve been meaning to talk to you anyway and it’s not like there’s much for any of us to do at the moment. When I got your buzz on my hand-comp I asked control where you were. I happened to be on the same deck so here I am."

"Please, have a seat," offered John.

Officially the Warders did not have a Chaplain Corps or uniformed clergy of any faith. However most of them - the ones native to Sampsa anyway - had been raised in the planet’s dominate Lutheran sect making the Pastor of the ancient church located on the base grounds the unofficial unit clergyman. It was Pastor Curtis who had been conducting the benedictions, weddings, special services, and funerals for longer than John has been in command. This was the first time the Pastor had actually asked to join a campaign however. Although John respected the Pastor’s experience as an ex-military man as well as his councilor training and intuition for the human psyche, he had become uneasy about bringing Curtis with them. John had yet to come up with any logical reason why the Pastor shouldn’t have come along. But he had to admit to himself that he wasn’t fully at peace with the idea either. Didn’t matter much though. It was far past time anything could be done about it.

"Thanks," nodded Curtis as he sat. "If I may be so bold as to guess, this little meeting probably has something to do with my last sermon."

John snorted to himself in amusement. It seemed the Pastor wanted to get right down to brass tacks without any chit chat. That suited John just fine. Although he felt he sensed a bit of hesitation in the cleric’s tone despite the directness of his words.

"Well, yes and no. I was just watching the recording from the shipboard vid system and thinking about the fact that we’re almost at our destination. Which prompted me to wonder about the bottom line reason you wanted to join a campaign out of the blue. The only other time we started this conversation I’m not sure I really got a full answer. Admittedly, I have noted a definite theme to your last batch of services."

"Laying it on a bit thick huh?," sighed Curtis. "Well, perhaps I was. I’m here because I’m concerned for everyone’s spiritual needs. And because I know what these no-holds-barred brushwars can be like from direct experience. You’re dropping against a nasty enemy. One that carries extra emotional meaning for more than half of the unit. An enemy you and many of the others have personal reason to hate. Combat situations are already intense without revenge built into them. I wouldn’t want …well, that anyone might end up carrying special regrets about their actions against these pirates in the years to follow."

John frowned slightly. "If I may speak plainly, that ‘anyone’ you just mentioned seemed to be marked with Lieutenant Colonel tabs."

Curtis smiled ruefully to himself. This was a conversation he should have started weeks ago but he’d kept putting it off. After all, despite the collar he was only human. He knew John to be a thoughtful and honorable man - but also as a man that had been driven by the tragedy of losing his family to right personal wrongs. Despite John's lieutenant colonel tabs, he too was only human. Humans sometimes made mistakes. That was simply the nature of being mortal. "Well, yes I guess I mean you specifically at the moment," admitted the Pastor.

"And?…" invited John neutrally.

"Your people have huge faith in and loyalty towards you John. And they’d be hard pressed to find a leader who deserved such devotion more than you. But we’re all only human. Anger, hatred and revenge can make any of us consider things that we’d normally not consider."

"I’m passingly familiar with the concepts of anger, hatred and revenge," John noted dryly. "Is there a specific concern you have Pastor?"

Curtis sensed the severe chill that had settled between them but pressed on regardless. He had his own duty to follow just as the soldiers did. "Frankly, yes. The disposition of the prisoners that are bound to be taken. Their fate will literally be in your hands."

The full picture jumped into focus for John and he didn’t like what he was scanning. He meant to keep his voice calm and level. But he hadn’t really been thinking about donning his command persona and this revelation had caught him off guard. He was aware that his voice rose somewhat as he spoke and managed to bring it back down by the final words.

"I take it your concern is that there won’t be any prisoners by the time we lift from Yu-shan," John observed accusingly.

"I wouldn’t put it that way," soothed Curtis, "but the standing mission orders are rather…open to interpretation. I just want the long term implications of any actions on Yu-shan to be carefully considered."

Rather than respond, John punched a couple of quick keyboard jabs into his portable and brought up the orders in question. They were very brief at the moment as he had forgotten to update them two weeks ago when he had finalized his plans. However they did not read to him like carte blanche to execute prisoners.

No undue risk shall be assumed in the capture of enemy prisoners. Those deemed to have direct involvement with the Starcade massacre will be returned to Sampsa for trial. All others will be dealt with expediently and locally.

John spun the computer to face the Pastor, although it seemed obvious that Curtis already knew the content.

"For your information Pastor," John intoned icily, "the reference to dealing with prisoners locally means that I have made arrangements with the government of Maxwell across the border in League space to accept and prosecute any pirate scum we end up corralling on Yu-shan. It will be far more expedient for us than searching out witnesses and hauling the lot of them all the way back to Sampsa for trial. And I meant what I said in the first part of the order. I’m not sending any of my people into caves or cockpits or vehicle cabins just to effect a capture. The pirates come out when we give them a fair chance or we blast them out. I assure you Pastor, I have no intention of being the first Warder commander in over 200 years of history to order the deliberate slaying of unarmed prisoners. Which is exactly what you were thinking I was going to do weren’t you? You came all the way out here to keep me from slaughtering them the same way they slaughtered our people on the Starcade."

"Please don’t take this personally John," replied Curtis in what he hoped was a calming and contrite tone. "I wasn’t accusing you of anything. I’ve been in ugly places and times myself and I know you have as well. We both know that sometimes events can get out of control and good people will do bad things. I’m pleased and relieved to know that you have given the matter the attention and deliberation it deserved."

John took in a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. Don’t take it personally? After all the years Curtis had been there beside him at the memorial services for fallen comrades it hurt like hell to know that the Pastor thought John would order the troops to murder prisoners. He noticed that the others in the small cabin were all doing their best to look like they weren’t listening in on the conversation.

"Don’t tell me you guys have been thinking the same thing about me too," he said to the room in exasperation.

No one replied, but he read the guilt in several faces plain enough. It had crossed most of their minds as well.

"I see," John announced tightly. "Well, you all heard the prisoner orders update I presume. I’ll post the specifics to the general orders for the campaign by ship’s nightfall. Now if you’ll excuse me I have other matters to attend to." He turned his attention back directly to Curtis. "Thank you for visiting with me Pastor. It has been educational."

As he was speaking John had risen and snapped shut the screen of his portable computer. However he didn’t trust his trembling hands to pick it up without fumbling with it so he left it on the table as he marched for the exit refusing to risk eye contact with anyone present. The tableau remained frozen for the brief moment required for the Lt. Colonel to reach the hatchway, then the surprise wore off and practically everyone jumped to their feet as John reached the hatch.

Lt. Basem Dhafar was the first to collect himself and speak.

"Al-Linna, we meant no…."

But John just held up a palm to ward off the comment while muttering "later." Leaving a stunned silence behind him he disappeared out into the hallway beyond.

MechWarriors Gracie and Sven, John’s closest friends and the next two ranking officers in the unit, exchanged a quick glance that conveyed both their mutual dismay and served as a quick ‘discussion’ as to which of them should go after him. Gracie started to get up…then noticed that Naoko was already headed for the hatch in John’s wake. An icy pang of jealousy stabbed at her heart but she slowly lowered herself back into her seat. Gracie had squandered her ample chances to return her years-long friendship with John back to a romantic level. She had vowed to herself not to interfere again with Naoko’s and John’s partnering. Much as it hurt Gracie to admit to herself, it was the Combine MechWarrior that stood the best chance of getting through John’s emotional defenses to diffuse the situation.

Pastor Curtis looked glumly around the room at the remaining MechWarriors. "My sincerest apologies everyone. I hadn’t intended to cause a scene. Honestly, I have the utmost respect for him. The Lieutenant Colonel is usually so analytical and dispassionate I didn’t anticipate angering him."

"We know you were just doing what you felt was right Pastor," sighed Gracie to the clergyman. "But you have to understand that it’s his darkest worry. For years he’s been chasing the sick bastards that kidnapped his sister and killed his parents and butchered the others on that ship. All that time he’s wondered how much like them he would have to become to finally see the job done. The others of us that lost family on the Starcade probably wonder the same thing about ourselves from time to time. I know I sure as hell do. Tell you the honest truth; if I was in charge I’m not sure I’d be taking prisoners at all much less transporting them to a neighboring system."

Basem Dhafar actually moaned quietly in his despair. Despite being a citizen of the normally reserved Draconis Combine, the people of his culture were prone to open displays of emotion that would shock citizens of most other Combine planets. John Linna had placed his Warders between Basem’s home city and invading pirates to the direct displeasure of the Combine appointed Military Governor who had planned to leave Hamano to it’s fate for failing to quell a few non-violent protests against Combine rule. Though trained at a Combine military academy, Basem had joined the Warders to learn leadership from a man that had proved he understood what honor and duty meant. Now Basem felt he had insulted his CO’s integrity without cause. While the Arabic based culture of Basem’s home did not embrace the concept of "face" the way the greater Combine society did, the people of Hamano had their own version and certainly understood the ways of the DC. In his mind’s eye Basem had just clearly insulted the Lt. Colonel’s honor and lost much of his own by the simple act of allowing himself to doubt his leader’s judgement about the prisoners.

"I must go make apologies at once," Basem decided.

Lt. Florens rested a restraining hand on her comrade’s arm.

"Now is probably not the best time Basem," she counseled. "Let Naoko talk to him. Besides, we probably looked guilty because we were thinking about what we’d do, not what he planned to do. I honestly can’t say how I’d react if some Nova Cat prisoners fell into my hands after the way they slaughtered my old unit like it was a sport. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for him or Major Aukland."

"Never the less I have let my personal doubts and weakness sow disrespect on a great man," declared Lt. Dhafar. "As the future Emir of Hamano I cannot allow myself such failures. I must live up to what Al-Linna and my people deserve of me."

"Don’t be so quick to pile extra pressure on yourself," sighed Misty Florens. "The universe will dump plenty on you without you having to seek out any extra helpings."

He nodded at the wisdom of her advice, but she could see in his eyes that his heart had not believed a word of it. It was probably what would make him a good commander for his home Militia some day while Misty didn’t see herself ever commanding more than a single lance.

Pastor Curtis wearily took to his feet. He had come on the campaign to ease the worries of his flock. Instead he had increased them. At the moment there wasn’t much he could do to try to undo the damage. Hopefully the awkwardness would sort itself out. After all, the Warder MechWarriors were a pretty tight crew and the Lord worked in mysterious ways often misunderstood by man.

"For anyone interested there’s a prayer meeting at oh-nine-hundred. Once again, my apologies."

Naoko paused at a hall intersection. She could only think of two places where John might retreat where he would be assured of some privacy on the cramped DropShip. The first was his cabin, but as she was practically a cohabitant he’d likely surmise that she might look for him there. That left his BattleMech unless he was planning on suiting up and heading out an airlock. She turned for the deck lifts. As she entered the smallish DropShip’s only MechBay a hint of motion on the platform near John’s Camelot’s head proved her guess correct. He had retreated to his cockpit. She had noticed this tendency growing in him when he wanted to wander off and think. It was not unusual for MechWarriors to form deep attachments to personal BattleMechs. But John had not been such a warrior for most of the time she had known him. Being wealthy and having access to a number of BattleMechs, John had treated them like replaceable machines rather than an old family friend. Yet on this voyage he had been spending more and more time just looking at his ‘Mech or actually sitting in the darkened cockpit.

She rode the mini-lift up to the collar ring then paused indecisively at the closed cockpit hatch. Part of her wanted to speed to his side to comfort him while part wanted to respect his privacy and give him the time alone that he so rarely got these days. It was a close call, but she reached over and flipped open the armored panel that covered the access controls. She had planned to punch in the entry request code - the equivalent of a BattleMech’s doorbell - but noticed that the cycling light was green. He hadn’t locked or sealed the hatch. Her hand seemed to pause of it’s own accord, then she made herself push the open key. The hatch started to swing open on it’s hydraulics and Naoko almost stumbled back in surprise when she heard John’s daughter announce that the portal was ajar.

"Computer, voice program two," she heard John’s muffled voice order from within.

Naoko recovered her equilibrium and ducked inside the dark cockpit. She could make out John’s outline as he sat with his back to her. The Camelot series was unusual in that it had a command cabin design to accommodate two, with the passenger riding backwards facing the rear. She folded down the jumpseat and eased into it as her mind raced through different things to say. She ended up not saying anything at all for a good while. Finally John’s voice broke the silence.

"Yes, it’s Sandi’s voice. No, I didn’t hide her in my BattleMech and bring her along."

"I…I didn’t mean to intrude. But the hatch was cycled to open so I let myself in."

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Why bother locking it? Only about four people on board have the brass tacks to beard the lion in his den and come in here after me. If one of you did, then it must be important."

She didn’t understand the reference to tacks but the lion reference was clear enough. The Suomi Warder’s insignia was a lion wielding a blue sword. He would be the Lion and his cockpit his den.

"Hai, it is important," she nodded to herself in the darkness. "John, none of us believe you intended to massacre helpless captives."

"After I gave myself about five seconds to think, I knew that," he sighed, "but I think the possibility has been worrying our good friend the Pastor."

"I am not familiar with his background, although you have alluded to him having some rough experiences before become a priest. Perhaps he simply worries about such an occurrence no matter who is involved. And while I am not familiar with your Bible, I must assume that he was simply acting in accordance with his teachings and meant no insult to your honor."

"The Bible," mused John quietly. "An amazing work. Open to vast interpretation. An eye for an eye. Turn the other cheek. Thou shall not kill. Specific instructions on stoning to death those that speak against the Lord. Maybe I should be able to find my answers there, but I cannot. So I find myself retreating here more and more when I’m facing my internal demons. I sit here and listen to my little girl’s voice run through routine start up checklists and tell me that the main reactor is off line. Kinda stupid way to seek comfort isn’t it?"

"A letter," she replied quietly. "Or a tri-D still. Some jewelry or a lock of hair. A voice recording. It’s all the same. A physical reminder to focus your memories and warmth on. My BattleMech is a tie to my Grandfather. My swords remind me of my parents. I’ll never forget the tea ceremony at which they were presented to me following my graduation. I imagine that more than once you’ve seen me absently sit and click a blade up and down slightly in the scabbard repeatedly. To have your daughter’s voice here I easily understand. What I don’t understand is why you reacted so sharply to the priest."

"Because he was right," John spat bitterly.

"I did not believe it then nor do I believe now that you ever intended to order ill treatment of any prisoners," she denied firmly.

"I sure as hell considered it. Even went as far as starting a list of which parts of the unit I figured would go along and which might balk. I thought about how to spin the whole thing, about what excuses I might come up with. Tried to rationalize why it should be done. A kangaroo court and a pistol or rope. Bing, bang, boom and good bye." His voice dropped to a raspy whisper. "It’s been almost a decade and yet sometimes when I close my eyes I see the bodies and the blood. I can feel the weight of my mother’s head as I cradled her dead body. And I mean during the day. Like when I’m staring at a computer screen wondering which report to read next and I pause to rub my eyes or something. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that maybe if I kill them all then the pictures in my head will go away. But I know they won’t. Just like actually finding my sister alive didn’t absolve me of my guilt for failing to protect her in the first place."

Naoko felt her soul resonating with the anguish in his voice as they sat back to back in the dark with an armored seat between them in the darkness.

"You…have never shared these things with me before," she noted quietly.

His tone strengthened as a bit of ironic humor crept into it.

"Well, I wanted to impress you with my heroic stature side rather than scare you off with my raving lunatic side."

"You are no lunatic," retorted the Combine warrior. "You’re a brave and thoughtful man who’s been through a terrible tragedy and came through as an inspiration to others. And you’re also impossibly hard on yourself. As befitting a true samurai I suppose, but it is still unhealthy for you. John, you had the same revenge fantasies any warrior would have but then took the path of honor over personal vengeance. Berating yourself for simply being human is not the path of bushido. Accept what is in yourself; strive to better yourself. Seek your guidance from your sense of honor and duty. If only I could open your eyes to see yourself as I and the others see you."

"Not sure that would be a good idea," he snorted, "I have enough problems without an over inflated ego."

"You have a strange sense of humor Linna-san," she chided. "One you use as a shield at times. But in this case you are probably right. I prefer you with a small Lawman sized ego rather than an enlarged Ranger or Cowgirl sized ego. Perhaps it is better that you do not see your best qualities."

"And you complain about my sense of humor," he sighed wryly.

"Hai, and rightly so. But seriously John, are you all right? Is there anything else? You’ve been unusually edgy for the past two weeks."

"It’s just having nothing to do. I never really thought about it but I guess I always fill all my time because it keeps my mind busy. Keeps my head in the future and the present rather than the past. But only one more jump and then it’s final prep time. I’ll be too busy to overanalyze things too much. Which reminds me, it’s about time I cross swords with my sister again. I went along with continuing to keep her true identity a secret even after we boarded ship for the campaign but it’s about time to break that silence. The unit needs something new to occupy their thoughts. She can’t hide from her true identity forever."

"No one ever can. Then I guess it is time to go," she replied as she started to get up.

"No…hold on a moment." Naoko could hear the rustle and light thumps as John shifted and rested his feet out in front of him on the main command consul. "Let’s just sit here a while. I think the universe can spare us for another five or ten minutes."

"Hai," agreed Naoko. "I could use a little reflection upon happy memories."

"Happy memories," he agreed.

Lost in separate thoughts yet bound by love and companionship, they sat back to back in the dark. Neither spoke another word, but they had reached the point in their relationship where none were necessary. To be together and alone and at peace was enough to make the moment magic.


Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space between Circinus Federation and FWL

13 February 3053

Bjorn Collin brought the wedge shaped hoe down into the soil with far more force than was necessary to dislodge his intended target - a scraggly weed. The scars his body bore were a reminder of the folly of attacking his captors so he sought to wear out his aggressions on the non-complaining dirt of the vegetable field. He straightened up a moment to stretch out his sore back and swept his eyes across his surroundings. Sixteen other "Visitors" - the name they called themselves in irony - were working among the rows along side him. Off to one side, standing on the meter tall berm that surrounded the vegetable patch, was one of the camp guards. Bjorn would have loved to sink the rough edge of his farming tool into the fat slob’s chest rather than the ground but he knew he’d never get close enough to try. The pirates had long ago marked him as one of the dangerous ones. They kept a sharp eye on him. Camp Two’s rumor mill said that Bjorn was only one more incident away from being transferred to Camp Three where the captured military types and the trouble makers were kept. Part of him wouldn’t mind. He’d rather be kept with those still willing to defy their masters - even if in little ways - than with those that had accepted this life to be their fate and did their best to remain unnoticed. But getting himself transferred would mean leaving Pavel and Matti behind. He couldn’t allow that.

As the oldest of the three, Bjorn had taken it upon himself to do what little he could for the other two after the trio had been ripped away from their real lives from the decks of the JumpShip Starcade. They had been children then. Arguably, they were still kids now. Pavel Goldson and Matti Poutvaara anyway. Bjorn no longer had a clear idea what year it was, but he knew he was in the older stages of his teen years. He was tall and tough; strong despite the limited diet allowed the Visitors of Camp One. But little Pavel had not fared as well. Sickly to begin with, the youngster had not held up well under duress and captivity. Luckily the guards didn’t try to make Pavel work in the fields. But Bjorn feared the day the pirates might decide that a sickly young teenager wasn’t worth feeding anymore.

Even now, years after the attack in which they had been kidnapped, Collin had no clue why the pirates had bothered to take them or the two girls off the Starcade. The girls had disappeared when the first ship transfer had taken place. Maybe they had been killed and tossed out the locks. He didn’t know. As for himself, Bjorn was the son of a high ranking security official and thus a logical target. Except the pirates had gloated long ago that his parents were killed on deck along with everyone else on board. They had told him this to emphasize that there would be no rescue. To convince him that no one knew they were missing and that there was no hope for him. He had never fully believed them. Why keep him unless he had value as a bargaining chip of some kind?

Still, the passing years had worn on even his stubborn refusal to yield. There were a number of Visitors with prominent relatives on various planets of the Inner Sphere held in Camp Two. Yet none had ever been returned for ransom or favor. Some of them had been here for at least five years before he and his two fellow Sampsans had been dropped here at least five years ago. Perhaps these Yu-Shan Pirates were right. Perhaps there was no hope of rescue. But there was always hope for revenge. Bjorn’s natural optimism may have been stamped from him but his smoldering hatred remained.

"Careful Bjorn, Stillman is looking at you," hissed Morris Yankov from the next row over. The Rabbi was a kind man and fellow captive who tried to comfort the other Visitors as best he could. He, along with the rest of the camp, feared that the youngster would be dragged away or simply shot if he caused any more trouble.

Bjorn turned to look back at the guard. The fat pig was indeed watching him with a scowl.

"So let him look," spat Collin. "He’ll get his someday and I’ll be there to laugh and spit on his corpse."

Still, Bjorn knew it wouldn’t do to push his luck too far. He swept his eyes across the dark clouds of volcanic ash drifting above and told himself to be thankful that at least the ash wasn’t falling today. A lingering look at the inviting green foliage beyond the rice patties and he turned his attention back to the task at hand.

The hoe came down in another titanic heave.

Hidden in the trees, two sets of eyes were carefully studying Bjorn.

"What do you think?" whispered Samantha "Sammi" Cascade.

"I’m positive Sarge. That’s Bjorn," replied Trooper Jenkins quietly as he stared intently through the snooper scope. "And I think that’s Matti over by the far corner."

Sammi dialed up the computer ‘aged’ image of Matti and centered her scanning scope on the indicated target. Comparing the two images she was inclined to agree. Jenkins was working off of memory and imagination. What the pirates had told Bjorn was not fully true. In reality there were a number of survivors and there were people that remembered. The young trooper hidden with his platoon Sargent in the jungle was one of them. Jenkins had also been a child on the Starcade but his fate had been kinder. He had been rescued just before the pirates were about to kill the remaining children. He had never forgotten, and he had never given up looking. Nor had his unit’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel John Linna of the Suomi Warders.

"We’ll check the camp to see if we can get an I-D on Pavel," decided Cascade.

Jenkins tore his eyes away from his captive countrymen. What he wanted to do was go down there and take out the two guards right the now. He wouldn’t even need the rest of the team. He could do it himself no sweat. Yet although Jenkins hated the thought of leaving the captives in pirate hands for even a few minutes longer, he knew it was the right play. The Warder main drop was days if not weeks away at this point. The advance team would have to wait until just before the landing before going into action. Now was the wrong time. He started to slither back away from their vantage point.

"Roger, Sarge," he whispered. But not a minute longer than necessary he promised himself.

Between the dark ash in the sky above and the dense tree canopy, the Warder infantry troopers were almost tempted to use their night vision gear. While Jenkins knew that the other two members of the scout team were watching their backs, he was unable to spot them until they were literally only a few paces away. Their rigid armor pieces at torso, arms and legs were muted greens and blacks now. Sergeant Cascade had ordered the active camouflage switched on and the full combat helmets broken out. The small advance party of the Warders had to be careful about depleting the charges in the power packs that ran the armor’s cooling and camo systems but being discovered now would be not only their deaths but perhaps the captives’ as well.

Although the Lieutenant Colonel was inbound with the collective might of the mercenary unit, at the moment Sergeant Cascade and the platoon and a half of infantrymen under her command were the entire Warder presence on the island home of the Yu-Shan pirates. Less than 45 troopers faced off against hundreds of pirate gunmen, dozens of vehicles, and at least a company of BattleMechs. Cascade might have felt sorry for the pirates - for they had no idea of the trouble that lurked in the foliage of their island home - but pity wasn’t something she wasted on scum like these. The part of the mission that had been largely out of her control - the insertion - was successfully completed. Her team was now in the bandit’s backyard and the bad guy’s didn’t have a clue. The ground mission phase had begun and here she had confidence and control.

Sammi’s platoon had broken down into small teams and filtered out across the island on their assigned operational tasks. They would scout the island, literally mapping it with their digital recording equipment while marking targets and spying out the enemy’s readiness and composition. When the Warder DropShips finally began their burn towards this planet several digital broadcasts would be waiting for them. Sammi planned to see to it that not only would her arriving unit know how many tanks and BattleMechs they faced upon landing, they would know what identification numbers were painted on which unit and what the pilot ate for breakfast.

Important as the scouting part of the mission was, the second aspect was far more critical to the assault’s over all success. First Platoon, backed by specialist squads from Second and Third that were currently waiting at the base camp, would engage in a series of commando raids designed to secure the priority prisoners and disrupt the pirate’s ability to detect or counter attack until a solid landing zone had been established. After that it would largely be up to the armored vehicles and hulking BattleMechs on the DropShips to deliver the death blow following Cascade’s troopers’ stinging wounds. That was fine with the Sergeant. The MechWarriors could have the glory of the killing stroke. There would be plenty of blood and fighting for all that wanted some. All that mattered in her book was results. Her team would secure the prisoners. They would fully recon the island. They would secure the landing zone. In the parlance of her direct predecessor, failure was not an option.

Several kilometers away a similar scene was playing out as Master Private Bronski surveyed a work crew wading in a rice patty. As unlikely that it was that any of the distant guards might be training a parabolic listening device on the clump of trees he hid within, he still hand signaled for his team to pull back into the jungle before asking for their observations.

"It sure looks to me," trooper Chan noted, "that several of those hostages are wearing uniform sections."

"I saw that too," confirmed Ouni Haarno. "I know I saw two Marik Militia patches and a Combine tunic. And that older guy the other prisoners defer to has what looks like an Eradani Light Horse emblem on his shoulder sleeve."

"I agree," nodded Bronski. "My guess is that this camp has all their military hostages together with others that are either extra important or maybe potentially dangerous. The guards watch them pretty close for a group stuck on an island with no place to go even if they did escape. We’ll do a circle of the camp and make recordings then settle in for the night to see what kind of patrols they run. Stay in your pairs, staggered four meter formation. Chan, you’ve got point to the opposite side."

The night brought a black rain of sludge from the sky as the water drops bonded with the volcanic ash. For most of the scout teams the weather brought mild frustration as the camp guards were more likely to change their usual routine to avoid mucking around in the rain. PMC Eino Meri almost danced in delight however as he swept his helmet cams across the chain link fence surrounding the relay tower far north of the prison camps while the thick droplets drummed on his armor. As the dual vis-scanners were in recessed positions with mini fans blowing air out the ports, the image projected on the interior of his solid visor was clear and sharp. The two pirate guards had retreated into the small shed at the gate. It was unlikely either would decide to take a stroll as long as the rain held up.

"Bearny, we should just do it now. This rain’s perfect," he enthused to the Corporal leading this particular team.

Beth scanned the small, fenced area and saw what her teammate did. The guards would stay inside and had poor visibility to the base of the tower as there was no lighting.

"Will the rain mess with your gear?" she wanted to know.

"I thought about it," admitted Eino, "but I don’t think it will be a problem."

"You sure you want to climb that thing in this mud storm?"

He grinned. "Magnetic clamps and grip-gloves work when wet Corp. I’d hate to waste this chance. It might not rain again the next time we happen to be here."

The Corporal frowned to herself. She’d prefer to call the Sarge and see what Sammy’s call would be but radio silence was in force. Calling for advice was out. This op had been simply to examine the sensors and relays….but this might be their best chance to install the recording unit. She sighed to herself. Well the hell, time was wasting. Like her Great Uncle liked to say, those who dare - win.

"All right, let’s do it. Jaff goes up with you and plants some insurance charges. Laney and I will cover. If the rain stops you have three minutes to tidy up and get your arses down on the ground again. Got it?"

"Right as rain," quipped Jaff Miles.

Beth just rolled her eyes. Jaff was always trying to slide in a joke or pun. Once in a rare while he even managed to be funny.

"Just get moving," she sighed.

The team assigned to assess the orbit reaching search radar had determined that the Star League era antennae dish structures were far too large to knock down with anything explosive the ground pounders had with them. The radar data was piped down an armored sleeve into an underground conduit. They had been hoping that a radio or microwave antenna was passing the info forward. That would have been a target they could have subverted or demo-ed. Luckily the conduit and it’s data cable wasn’t buried very deep. They had been able to detect the current and trace the line down to this relay station where the feed was converted and sent on via microwave to the pirate’s HQ area.

Eino and Jaff approached the fence from a direction that was windowless from the shed then paused to detect for active or passive sensors. Finding none - that they could detect anyway - the fence was checked for current then the pair of them scaled it and dropped down on the other side. Staying low but moving swiftly, they mounted the foot of the construction of metal bars and started their way up. Eino went first as he needed to get right up next to the sending dish. Jaff started hiding his explosives about a meter down from where the computer and electronics specialist was anchoring himself to set up shop.

Using his body as a rain shield, Eino carefully took a probe from the tool kit attached to his inner forearm and took some readings from the input terminals. Working more assuredly as his examinations proved the pass through to be a standard and straight forward affair he opened the connection box and attached looping clamps that gave him a pair of extra leads outside the box. He was forced to mount his record and playback device on top of the connector area, but unless someone actually climbed the tower to examine the back of the dish no one would ever notice. In six minutes that flew by for him but seemed agonizing slow for the two troopers pulling overwatch down on the ground, Eino was done and had buttoned the connector box back up. He touched a small stud on the unit then pulled out a remote and activated it. A tiny red diode almost invisible in the night announced that all was functioning as it should.

They slipped back down the tower, scaled the fence once again, then faded into the trees to join the other two members of the team. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes had passed. Eino snorted to himself in amusement at how easy it had been. A short fence and two bored guards that probably viewed this posting as a penalty detail had just lost the pirates any chance they might have had of actively opposing the impending landing. There were likely all sorts of security measures in place around the pirate command center to keep out intruders, grinned the electronics specialist, but they had obviously failed to give proper thought to protecting the integrity of the incoming data. The Star League engineers had but luckily for the Warders someplace over the centuries the feed line had been lost or severed requiring this shortcut to keep the search radar connected to the base. An Achilles heal so to speak.

When the Warder DropShips and fighters finally approached close enough to be detected by the ground based system, the pirates would be watching a re-run of the previous night’s empty sky. The first hint they would have of invasion would be when they could visually spot the burn flares in the early morning sky.

Which would be far, far too late for the pirates.

PMC Eino Meri couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. About sixty C-Bills of electronic parts and three hours of his assembly skill and a ten minute install was going to derail many hundreds of millions of C-Bills and man hours of enemy war machine. God he loved his job.

As the sun came up other small teams, two of them just a pair of troopers, were either preparing to record their targets or settling down to get some sleep depending on the assignment. Parabolic mics would be turned on the denizens of the small village that housed the few ‘neutral non-combatants’ on the island. Vis-scan equipment and recorders were being packed closer to the island’s one operation AeroDrome. Bridges were being examined. Landing areas evaluated.

And near Camp One fidgety hands palmed combat knives and favored weapons in the morning gloom. Camp One turned out to consist solely of female captives. They performed menial chores such as washing, but that wasn’t what had the Warder troopers seriously considering breaking the mission orders and blowing the brains out of every guard in the camp before the day grew much older. Last night’s scouting had provided ample evidence of the other services extracted from the captives. A group of pirates had arrived and been given the run of the camp to choose their victims. Some of the women were resigned and went quietly. Two struggled despite the odds, which just seemed to excite the men involved even more. Training and discipline had held the Warder troopers in the tree line. But only barely. The Camp One team made two solemn vows concerning the liberation of this camp. The first was that they would be part of the Camp One capture team. The second was that other than hostages, no one was leaving that camp alive.


Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space between Circinus Federation and FWL

16 February 3053

It was raining again on the Emerald Island. The single moon was a half disc in the sky, but the thick cloud of volcanic ash from an ongoing eruption hundreds of kilometers away kept commo specialist Jenkins from enjoying the sight or gaining any useful light from the heavenly body. He muttered to himself under his breath as he straddled a branch and punched a slight adjustment into the high powered communications pack that was set up on a makeshift platform high in the tree tops. PMC Eino Meri had spread his tale of scaling the relay tower in the last storm, and that was fine for him. But Private First Class Jenkins had little love of high places and he certainly didn’t like high places that where drenching wet.

This was his third night in the tree. Sergeant Cascade had decided to take advantage of the thick tree line that grew on the top of the western ridge near their base camp to set up the orbital transceiver. They had folded out the big mesh net antennae in the tree tops. From the ground or from above it was invisible to prying eyes. With the information from the copied flight logs that had been ‘borrowed’ just after their arrival it had been easy to calculate proper times and trajectory to send their pulsed message out into space towards the jump point where the rest of the unit would appear. With the mini fusion recharger they had found Jenkins had been able to keep the special high output energy cell topped off so he could make six sends per night. Each would be on a slightly different aiming point, requiring him to clamor among the limbs and manual trim the antennae net.

As he fired off the last coded pulse of the night he couldn’t help but look up into the dark sky as if he could somehow magically penetrate the murk above and see all the way out to where they hoped the gleaming JumpShips and the pack of DropShips should soon be floating. If the Sergeant was worried at all about missing the contact window she wasn’t showing it. Then again, she never really showed much of anything other than an amused grin when one of her younger charges failed yet again to match her in whatever task was being performed. He, on the other hand, was worried sick. If something went wrong and the rest of the Warders failed to arrive then the captives were screwed. This advance patrol could break them out of the camps easily enough. Security was just plain dog bad at two of the three camps. But they’d never make it off the planet.

A rapid blue blink started on the panel before him. At first he just stared at it, refusing to believe that he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. Then with a little shake of his head he reached out and ran a quick verification check, his slight frown turning into a smile.

"Sarge," he said into his helmet boom, "incoming traffic. They’re in system already."

"Drop it down," came the reply.

Jenkins ran the decode program then copied the data onto a reader cylinder which went into a plastic tube attached to a light line. He lowered the container down to the waiting Sergeant who slipped the data coil into a reader unit on her belt. She turned her attention to the forearm mounted mini-computer they all wore, flipping up the screen cover and reading the text. A fierce grin came to her lips.

"Hey Jenkins, can we send another message?" she asked into the low powered comm set.

"Only if someone hauls this power supply back to the B-C for a quick partial charge," he responded.

"Okay, lower it down."

"Roger Sarge," he relayed as he maneuvered himself to where he could get to the power supply. If she was going to the bother of recharging right now, then that could only mean one thing. The Lieutenant Colonel was out there somewhere above this system’s sun. First Platoon would soon be making their presence on Yu-shan known.

Zenith Jump Point

System 0503214 (Star League Survey Number), "Yu-shan System" (Local name)

16 February 3053

Sparkling with reflected sunlight from their solar energy collecting sail arrays, the pair of DEW Industries employed JumpShips was slowly being left behind as the flotilla of six DropShips powered away from them. The high tailed Leopard CV took the lead with it’s six fighters prepared for launch from it’s bays. Trailing behind came the three smallish ships that carried the Warder combat troops then a pair of large merchant class units brought to ferry away rescued hostages and salvage. To anyone scanning the area there would be no doubt that an invasion task force was inbound. However, like many of the far flung Periphery systems this one had no ability to scan the jump points. The Warders in space remained as undetected as those on their planetary destination.

John Linna stood before the main bay doors within the second ship in line. The bay was the largest open space on the DropShip and Warder uniforms of blue on blue filled in the empty spaces around the equipment stored within. As he surveyed the sea of faces he was struck by how many of them he actually knew and could put a name to. Massing around 3,700 tons, the Baltic Serenade was capable of carrying only eight of his BattleMechs plus around a dozen vehicles. What he had started to think of as the ‘old crew’ was aboard with him. Those faces he didn’t readily know largely belonged to Ladie’s VTOL company. Half of the helicopters had ended up on this ship and half on another.

Glancing at his watch and seeing that the scheduled time had almost arrived, he looked to the commo techs. The one at the tripod mounted recording camera gave him a thumbs up to indicate the inter-ship network was up. Another sitting with a laptop in her lap nodded and brought up a light blue background on the large screen set to John’s right. The blue trimmed white shield of the Suomi Warders was displayed on the screen, the heraldic yellow lion within the shield rising up on it’s hind quarters while brandishing a blue sword.

"Test please Sir?" asked the third tech as he pointed a direction mic at the Lt. Colonel.

"Testing, testing…one…two…three," supplied John.

There wasn’t a space big enough to hold everyone even if docking all six ships together had been an option. Most of the outfit would hear the objectives brief via relay while watching him on a screen. He knew that the bays of the other ships would be filled with his people as well. Mics set up with the biggest groups would convey their reactions back to him. John regretted that his sister couldn’t be here physically with him. She had chosen to remain on the DropShip that was carrying her lance, their Mechs, and some infantry and support personnel. It was going to disappoint a whole bunch of people that were going to want see her in the flesh after the announcement but that was probably the point. Holly wasn’t really prepared to face hundreds of well wishers. He couldn’t really say he blamed her for that. Neither could she make herself look beyond achieving the revenge she sought. That he did blame her for. He’d tried to coax her into making some sort of plans, to make at least a minimal accommodation regarding regaining her past. But she refused to do so. At least as far as she would admit to him anyway. This troubled him more than he had told anyone.

Lately he had come to realize that he had let far too much of his daughter’s life slip past him, that he had ignored friendships and had isolated himself from all but a select few in his drive for vengeance against their parent’s murderers. Despite the fact his ex-wife had been indirectly involved in the Starcade massacre he had come to be thankful that he had married and become a father. Someplace in the back of his head had always been the idea that some day his sister would be found and justice would be his then he would return to the life of a family man and start being a good dad. Reality was proving more complicated than his simple fantasies, but the idea still stood. Holly had been found, and justice was falling within his grasp. The family dream he had expected to return to had been modified, but he still had family. And he had unexpectedly found new love.

His sister had none of those things save her two brothers and she still seemed to harbor resentment towards them. Or towards him anyway. Even as he had started to wonder if bringing her on this mission was a wise move, he realized that he had never had a choice. If he hadn’t brought her, she would have found the Yu-shan pirates or their backers on her own sooner or later. At least this way her odds of surviving her revenge quest were better. Physically anyway. During his crusade he’d come to see the darkness within his own soul, been brought face to face with the things he was willing to do for his revenge. He wasn’t sure that those were places a man should force himself to tread. Ignorance truly could be bliss. John wondered if his sister could mark a place in her conscious where she would go no further. If she could make ever make peace with the things she likely contemplated doing should she get the chance. Hell, he wondered if could.

That’s enough of that Mr. Lieutenant Colonel, he told himself angrily. Now was not the time for such thoughts. Lives were depending on his decisions, deadly results rode upon his leadership or lack of same. Psychology and theology could wait for later. For the next week there could only be the Warrior. Wondering what it all meant in a cosmic scale would only lead to weakness, and in this place at this time he would allow no weakness. Here in this star system the only thing that mattered was force. He would yield his force to maximum effect.

A positive signal from the sound tech told him they were ready. He nodded to the tech with the computer to start the presentation. One of the commonly used march tunes started up to give those watching the screens a few moments of warning. Then the image switched to Master Sergeant Hernandez who snapped out a sharp ‘ten-hut!’. The image then switched to John from the camera trained on the Sergeant over on the infantry DropShip.

"At ease," John announced formally as he looked straight at the camera lens.

"Greetings everyone. Over two months ago I asked you all to take up arms and follow me out to the Periphery without supplying much in the way of details. The rumor mill has run rampant since then and the time has come to settle those betting pools…."

A small titter of laughter sounded from the speakers carrying comms from the other ships while the VTOL folk before him chuckled loudest of those on the Serenade.

"…we are currently in a system that lays in unclaimed space between the Circinus Federation and the Free World’s League. Yes, we are really chasing pirates. But no, this is not a rescue mission to seek out my sister. The truth is she’s already been found. The leader of the company of light Mechs we employed for this mission is none other than my sister Holly Linna. I apologize for the ruse we carried out for the past few months but our information indicated that the Starcade pirates believed she was dead and we needed them to go on believing that until we dropped the hammer on them. You my friends, will be that hammer. She has asked me to convey to everyone that her name was assumed but not her position. Holly truly is the commander of a free lance of BattleMechs and that is the manner in which she expects others to interact with her."

He paused as the excited buzz washed through the ships. Although a few people knew already, most of the unit had not. To those that had just been told, the fact that the long lost Linna sister had returned at the head of a BattleMech lance was astounding news and had to be an incredible story. However, John had no intention of launching into that story at this time. In fact, he had loaded the news of his sister up front in the briefing on purpose. He hoped to dull their curiosity about his sister with the tactical information he was about to present.

"I regret to inform you that Marci Chen - who was kidnapped with my sister- was killed during their escape from the pirates. Hers is one more life the pirates are owed retribution for. However the three boys that were taken - Bjorn Collin, Pavel Goldson and Matti Poutvaara - are still alive and are captives along with some fifty-five other hostages being held in camps by these so-called ‘Yu-shan Pirates’. Thus this is a rescue mission, just not for my sister. As the core group and leadership of these Yu-shan pirates are the same ….people….that attacked the Starcade many of us have a personal interest in shutting them down. Our mission objectives are simple. We will rescue the hostages and we will ensure that these pirates will never harm another soul by putting them permanently out of business."

The last statement came out not as a promise or a boast, but as an edict. Even those listening via the comm links could hear and sense the raw determination in the Lieutenant Colonel's voice. It was not as simple a matter as failure not being an option. They where a willing force of fate, a cosmic balancing of the scales for an injustice left unresolved for far too long. Lt. Colonel Linna was the lodestone to which the maelstrom of the moment clung. Here and there across the ships voices called out in matching fervor while many heads bobbed in assent.

John paused again as the current of agreement swept through the ships.

"No doubt many of you have noticed your missing comrades and accepted without complaint the general answers you were given about them. Now I can tell you that all of First Company’s First Platoon along with specialist elements of Second and Third and two VTOL crews were deployed to Yu-shan ahead of us. They have successfully infiltrated the landing area and have scouted out both the locations of the hostages as well as collected information on the enemy’s forces and deployment. They have also compromised the pirate’s orbital detection radar. But most importantly, they will stage preemptive raids just prior to our arrival to secure the hostages and damage the enemy’s ability to coordinate. The pirates think themselves safely hidden behind their Circinus contacts and ‘secret’ world. But the viper’s nest is beset with the Lion, and our sword will aim swift and true. Their reign of terror ends here in their own lair at the hands of all of you and your brave comrades already on the surface.

"Section leaders will have all of the information we have available about the enemy and the terrain. Study it. Know it. Dream it when you are asleep. The hostages and the advance force cannot hold old against the pirates if attacked. Thus when we hit dirtside we will be making a rapid deployment and will come off the DropShips ready to start swinging. Know your deployment procedures. See them in your head when you close your eyes at night. The pirates have a slight numerical edge on us so we have to come out fighting and keep the initiative and make them fight on our plans rather than theirs.

"We are superior in everything from maintenance to equipment, skills and training. But the pirates will have their backs against the wall. They are not going to submit without a fight. But in here where it counts…" John thumped his chest over his heart… "I know that they are weak and corrupt while you are strong. Some of you have worn Warder blue longer than I have, while others have been with us less than a year. Yet all of you have earned the right to wear that lion patch into battle and I’m proud to fight alongside of all my fellow Warders - new or old. We have about four days to finalize our battle plans. It seems like a long time but it’ll fly by before you know it. So let’s get at it people. There are people down on that planet counting on us. Dismissed."

Pastor Curtis was watching from the rear of the bay as those within the Serenade jumped to attention and the Warder can-do call of "Sisu Sir!" reverberated along the deckplates. The soldiers aboard these craft were ready to follow their Lt. Colonel to the very gates of Hell. Which was probably an apt analogy for the type of fighting they were likely to face when cornering a powerful pirate band in their lair. He just hoped that John wouldn’t lead his people through the gate and beyond once they reached it.

On the Granite Bay Holly Linna had holed up in the wardroom her lance had claimed as it’s own with her three fellow lance-mates for her brother’s little speech. She’d known he had finally gotten tired of letting her put him off sharing the news of her identity, so she had elected to stay away from the crowd that would be gathered in the bays where the big screens had been set up. She would undoubtedly now become the creature of curiosity she never wanted to be. People would look at her when they thought she wasn’t paying attention and whisper. They’d discuss what types of things she must have endured. They’d think they could understand - when they never could. Well, a few maybe could. Like Sergeant Cascade. Or that private Jensen who had been onboard the Starcade when she had.

The worse thing was that people would feel sorry for her. She didn’t want pity. Pity was useless. She wanted blood. And she planned to start collecting very soon.

Empathic to her lance leader’s moods, MechWarrior Calahan held her tongue. The well placed sarcastic remark was Calahan’s forte, but she knew that Holly was in one of her funks and wouldn’t be receptive. Her and Holly had started out as rivals for leadership of the small group of female wanna-be warriors that were allowed to test out for the Black Warriors. They had discovered that working together was the most effective way to get rid of the other stronger candidates for the limited training positions. An uneasy truce had turned into a steadfast if rough friendship. Both were emotionally scarred and unwilling to trust others and yet had somehow come to trust each other.

The Bhati sisters had just sort of attached themselves to the sour pair Leena and Holly made. Having a father that had served with the Warriors until his death, the sisters had a leg up on the competition plus they had each other to rely on from the start. They also had natural talent and a smattering of informal training the others lacked. Leena never had gotten a good answer from either one of them about why they had wanted to join the two pairs of women together to win the four open positions as a group. Inra merely shrugged the question off saying that their Goddess hinted that they should do so. It had proven to the best so far. But Leena couldn’t help but wonder if the Bhati sisters would continue on the same path she and Holly walked. They just didn’t have the same drives and were far more smitten with these Warders than she or Holly were.

Inra and Yawni had watched the screen showing the Lt. Colonel with rapt attention. It had required a bit of effort on their part not to come to attention like the Warders had so obviously done elsewhere. They were not part of the Warders and Holly Linna was their CO rather than John Linna. The sister’s knew that showing honor to the Lt. Colonel in such a way would only earn them a scowl from Leena who seemed to think that any kind remark about the Warders or their commander was some sort of treasonous slander against Holly.

With a shared glance each sister knew that the other had sensed the same thing in the elder Linna. Their faith taught them that warfare and strife was essentially a natural force similar to gravity or spirit. It was part of both human nature and the order of the universe. Like fire, it could bring about helpful benefits or destroy entire communities. The Goddess personified such strife, though she was as much elemental force as human-like personality. She did not direct one’s choice in how to use one’s skills as a warrior, but sometimes her touch showed through those gifted to be directly in touch with the basic elements of what it was to wage war. In varying degrees she could use others as an avatar of sorts, her power echoing through a mortal vessel. Holly Linna had shown with such fervor and power on a few occasions, winning through when objectively she should have had no chance to succeed.

But while Holly was like a tornado - ferocious in her fury but wild and unpredictable, touching to the ground only sporadically - her brother was both the monsoon and the tsunami. He was focused and purposeful. To oppose him would be to oppose the tidal wave. All that is in the path will be washed aside. They could sense that he was aware of the powers of life and death that marched at his word and he used that power with full consciousness of the fact. Not because circumstances brought him to leadership or with the self delusion that he was just doing his duty or performing as an officer role is supposed to. He was not playing at games of adventure. He was making war with his full effort and with an understanding that he was doing just that.

It was thrilling to see this in action much less be a part of.

They looked over towards where Holly brooded, lost in her own thoughts. It was not a good thing. Neither sister was insensitive to the horrors of Holly’s childhood but they had never been able to fathom why Holly would want to distance herself from her brothers, especially the warrior one. To expend energy on such thoughts now was not useful. Now was the time to be preparing for battle. The fire in Holly’s eyes that had occasionally reflected the gaze of the Goddess had dimmed. Perhaps it would return as they drew closer to land fall the sister’s hoped.


Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space

16 February 3053

MechWarrior Jason Nelson sat quietly with the two VTOL crews off to one side as the Warder troopers assembled their gear for final check and gathered into their mission groups. They had been beaming their report and operational plans out into space for several days. The messages had been received and a return one sent back - a congratulations for their good work and the go ahead for Sergeant Cascade’s plans. The abandoned Star League look out post they had been hiding within had become an ant’s nest of activity following the Lt. Colonel’s reply.

The island they were on was pretty big as Jason figured things. Crossing it at the widest part would be about a three day hike. Maybe four for him. A volcanic ridge rimmed the western and northern part while a river ran split the island into two halves. Rough terrain dropped immediately into a swamp area along the river in the north. The main pirate base with most of the BattleMechs and the command center was located on the west side of the island while most of the pirate tank and infantry types lived in an old resort village on the northeast coast. A single road with an impressive expansion bridge linked the two. The three prisoner camps where all on the west side of the river while the aerodrome and space field facility was on the east side in the lower corner of the island near the river. A small village of what passed for civilians on this planet was at the south mouth of the river. Two more bridges, both wooden ones constructed within the past ten or twenty years, spanned the river. One was around the middle of the island and one near the southern village. Although down around the middle bridge or lower a Mech could wade across the river if the pilot desired.

As everyone except the guards left down at the VTOLS had attended the briefing, Jason knew that the troopers were breaking into small groups to accomplish certain tasks. Three groups would liberate the three camps. Little resistance was expected at two of them. In fact transporting the rescued prisoners was more of an issue than freeing them. Despite the extra risk of early detection it had been decided to use the two Red Hawk transport helicopters to airlift the prisoners away from the camps. A pair of small two-person teams would set out to make sure the spoofing device attached to the orbital radar was operating and to damage two sensor towers (to hide the VTOLS) and destroy the two wood bridges. The Star League suspension bridge was far too large and well built to be dealt with by the demolitions the troopers had with them. Thus the Lt. Colonel had said an aerial assault by the incoming AeroFighters would knock out that bridge to isolate the pirate ‘Mechs from their conventional forces. The largest group of Warder troopers would hike over to the air field and secure it just prior to the Lt. Colonel's arrival. The VTOLs would take the hostages there. If all went according to plan.

It had sounded good when Sergeant Cascade had laid it out, but looking at the gathered infantry it seemed to Jason that they would be spread awfully thin.

"Rock hard toothpaste tube," said one of the air crewmen as he pulled yet another hundreds of years old item from one of two recently discovered footlockers. They were seated just behind Jason and their ruminations had been going on for almost ten minutes now.

"Toss," decreed the fellow’s friend.

Jason glanced at them in mild annoyance. How they could be fishing through that old junk right now was beyond him. While there wasn’t anything for them to do at the moment - the strike teams would need a few days to be on station so the air crews wouldn’t leave for the VTOLs for another three days - it didn’t seem right to be mostly ignoring the troopers as they were preparing to leave.

"Uh…clear rectangle with paint speckles on it," came the first’s voice.

"What?" asked the other crewman.

"I don’t know what they are. There’s a least a dozen of them. See?"

For some reason the puzzled tone of voice caught Jason’s full attention and he moved sideways slightly so he could see what was being held aloft.

"Toss," said the disinterested nose gunner after a quick glance at the hand sized, paint splattered rectangle.

"Wait…don’t toss that," exclaimed Jason in surprise. "Those might be important."

"Really?" asked the surprised airman. "What are they?"

"An antique star mapping system. Those plates go in a special reader. It was sort of a back up plan in case the nav computers went down. My dad had an old set of the region around Terra as a keepsake passed down through the generations," explained Jason.

"What systems are they then?"

Jason took one and peered at it. "I can’t tell without a reader or computer," he shrugged. "These numbers along the bottom are reference points. But without knowing the base point they refer to they could be of any sector. But we better keep them and turn them in to Captain Woods when the main force gets here. If nothing else they’re valuable as antiques."

"Heads up," interrupted airman Washington, "the Sergeants are headed this way."

That got everyone’s attention. The two Flight Officers commanding the VTOLs exchanged curious glances then motioned for everyone to gather together. Although Flight Officers Wes Parker and Stacy Hornig outranked the infantry Sergeants, it had been made clear at the start of the mission that on the ground the two Sergeants were calling the shots. Neither helo-pilot had had any reason to be unhappy with the situation so far.

"Sergeants," greeted Flight Officer Parker as Cascade and Sanchez stepped up to the helo folks. "What’s up?"

"Flight Officers," nodded back Cascade. "Sergeant Sanchez wants to leave a stopping force near the southern town as a good number of the airfield guards tend to be there partying on any given night. But we’re running a bit thin on gun hands. We were wondering if you could part with a couple of your VTOL gunners to join the assault teams."

Parker and Hornig exchanged looks once again. Technically the gunners could be ordered away from them as the ‘ Hawkes had formally joined the Warders en masse. After their previous experiences with other outfits it was a pleasure to be consulted rather than just bullied.

Parker was the senior VTOL officer so he knew Stacy was waiting for him to make the call.

"As long as we’ll be putting down in fully secured LZs, I guess we can spare our side gunners," Wes thought out loud. "But I’d feel better if this was a volunteer situation and you could explain what you have in mind before they commit."

"Fair enough," nodded Cascade. "But once anyone is in, they’re in. There won’t be time for me to explain tactical orders. I’ll be leading the AeroDrome assault. I plan to leave most of the fighting to my folks. It's what they’re trained for. But the main gate has three sandbag emplacements we won’t be able to get to immediately. I’ll need a fire team to lay down some suppression fire on them and keep them pinned while we secure the control center, BattleMechs and aircraft."

"BattleMechs?" asked Jason in sudden interest.

"Si, there are three kept at the airfield," explained Jerson Sanchez. "However the pilots seem to prefer sack time to patrolling in the early hours. All three sit parked near a small barrack from midnight until well past sun up."

"Then you should be able to capture them intact," enthused Jason.

"That’s the general idea," intoned Cascade matter-of-factly. "I suppose you’ll want to tag along to serve as prize pilot."

"Well, sure…I mean Yes Sergeant," agreed Jason. "Assuming we can break the security and get one started…."

He trailed off as Sammi Cascade speared him with the withering look she used on the unthinking. He should have known that the Sergeant wouldn’t have even mentioned it unless she felt they could gain access to the control protocols.

Wes Parker nodded. "I see," he said into the awkward silence. "Well, what do you think guys? Any volunteers?"

His pair of side gunners stepped forward immediately. Those of the Friendly Fire waited for an almost imperceptible nod from their F.O. before joining his own.

"Looks like you have yourself an extra fire team," Parker noted to Sergeant Cascade.

Cascade nodded. "All right then people, follow me. We have to get you armed and outfitted then hit the trail. We’ve got a long walk before we get to the fun part."


Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space

18 February 3053

Northwest section

Privates Master Class Meri and Toberg lay atop a windswept hill as the gently falling ash slowly covered their bodies. Theirs was a mostly boring assignment that would put them out of the action soon to occur across the island. Elsy Toberg was one of the demolitions experts and mildly annoyed that the only thing she’d be blowing up today was the small sensor tower they could barely see off to their left. It would detonate by timer pretty soon, although from this vantage point she could override by radio to do it earlier or not at all in case a last second call came through the comms.

Eino Meri, the ground unit’s sole computer tech expert, was pleased to be where he was. There really wouldn’t be anything to see, but he still liked being near his handy work to oversee that all was functioning correctly. On the remote chance that the Lt. Colonel arrived off schedule he might have to reset the recording device. However, the most likely case was that the two of them would see the Warder’s burn-in flares in the predawn sky and find the relay station below still slumbering in the assumption all was well.

Once they were done at the camps, one of the VTOLs would buzz over and pick them up saving them a two day hike to the aerodrome.

Southern Village

Each of the four squads of First Platoon had a demo specialist. Miles and Ohmalo, from third and second squad respectively, were currently floating in the warm and murky river under a ratty plastic tarp that was attached to part of a fallen tree. Fifteen meters downstream stood their target. The southern most bridge.

The middle bridge had been wired the day before and had been a snap. No human guards and only two easily spoofed motion sensors. At the appointed hour it would become so much wet kindling.

This one would prove a more worthy challenge. A patrol walked the bridge’s span and cameras watched the banks. Luckily the main base up north treated the river as a dumpster. A good amount of flotsam rode under this bridge every night. One more piece wasn’t going to cause any notice.

There wouldn’t be any time to do anything fancy underneath. No calculations of load bearings or central stress points for minimal ordinance usage. They’d just slap overkill sized plastic explosive charges on the four main support pilings and go with the flow until they could safely exit the river. The delaying force that would be watching the village road to the aerodrome would be waiting with their armor and other gear. Two of the fire team were probably watching the bridge at this very moment but neither explosives man bothered to look for them. Where ever they might be, the overwatch team would be well hidden.

Unfortunately they wouldn’t get to hang around to watch their handywork. Once out of the river they’d have to double time it to the east side of the town through the jungle to set up a new batch of surprises for any pirate ground pounders that might decide to take a ride out to the landing field. A busy pre-dawn morning but they knew that the other squads would be busier.

Camp Two

Corporal Aarno Hemmay checked the computer screen built into the armguard on his left forearm. The soft luminance displayed icons that indicated his squad was in place. Although they had scrambled communications via their helmets and belt radio packs, voiceless digital signals updating everyone’s deployment status via wireless network were in use at the moment. Once the action started there wouldn’t be time for tapping commands onto the small screens. But until then they wouldn’t take even the minute risk that somehow their voice comms might get picked up and deciphered.

First Squad of the Snow Hunters was the best run-and-gun squad of the platoon. The Corporal had been somewhat surprised when Sergeant Cascade had assigned them to take this camp rather than be part of the aerodrome assault. Even with total surprise, the airfield mission was going to involve a firefight. The operation here should be a total zombie walk. On the other hand, this camp held the three StarCade hostages and a number of other civilian prisoners. Rescuing them was one of the prime goals of the entire planetary assault. In that light Corporal Hemmay could understand why Sammi had put her best squad on the job. In testament to the importance of securing this particular prisoner camp a trooper had been pulled from Sergeant Sanchez’s squad to replace Elsy who was away blowing up a sensor tower.

The Corporal doubted he needed the extra help. The way this camp was set up a score of pre-teen Forest Scouts armed with sticks and rocks could probably take the place. Still, First Squad would leave nothing to chance.

There was one central guard tower sweeping the camp with a search light. It gave off plenty of ambient light when pointed away from him for Aarno to use a low powered starlight filter and determine that the light was manned. The lone guard was using the light to aimlessly keep an eye on things with frequent checks of the prison barracks doors and windows. It was a rather stupid way to keep watch of course. His night vision would be destroyed, making him blind to anything not in his pool of light. Furthermore, a generator located directly under the tower buzzed away to power the light. He wouldn’t be hearing much of anything either.

Another glance at the screen told him that the time had come. It was oh-four hundred local. The other teams would be attacking. As would his.

"Alpha team, go," he said softly within his full faced helmet as he tapped the go code into his arm computer for good measure.

Troopers Bronski and Harper emerged from a large bush and moved quickly and quietly towards the one gate. Although both figures had a laser rifle slung over their body armor, it was silenced sub-machineguns they clutched in their hands. Keeping the weapons trained on the lone guard as she slept with her face pressed against the window of the crude security shed they passed through the gate by cutting the two bottom strands of wire.

Although they had internal suppressors and subsonic ammunition, the "silenced" SMGs still emitted a bit of bolt clatter when fired. The chance of the guard in the tower hearing was nil, but First Squad wasn’t there that morning to take risk extra chances. Bronski safed his weapon then dispatched the sleeping guard with a well practiced knife attack. He left her propped up in the window in case the tower guard swept his light this way. Not that the tower guard would be an issue after a few more minutes.

"Tango bagged, gate secured," reported Harper. "Moving on tower."

"Roger," replied the Corporal. "Teams Bravo and Charlie move in and cover." The separate beep sounds in his helmet speakers came from the two teams sending an arm pad reply.

Bronski and Harper crouched behind a parked utility car as the light swept nearby, then moved to a building corner that screened them from the tower while the other two teams moved in through the gate. Then the two troopers waited until the light was playing across the far fence and quick stepped up to the tower base. It was a simple wood affair with a rough ladder leading up one side. If they could have seen each other’s faces through the solid face plates they might have exchanged a fierce grin. As it was Harper pointed to his arm computer. Bronski nodded and they each selected a custom icon loaded into their mini computers. The two units synched and made a random choice. An X and an O came up. Two Xs or Two Os meant Bronski, the mix meant Harper. He turned and mounted the ladder.

His two helmet mic pickups were set at normal hearing level so he could judge ambient sound levels. Thus Harper had no fear that the faint rustle of his combat suit would be audible above the buzz of the fuel burning generator. Reaching the top he paused under the half-wall of the tower cube and steadied himself with one hand while readying the SMG with the other. Directly over the generator not even the clacking of the bolt was audible on the ground. Below Bronski watched the light shaft wandering around and gave Harper the go call when the light indicated that the guard’s back would be to his buddy. With the weapon held up at helmet level where the camera inputs were mounted, Harper rose up and fired a short burst dead center in the tower guard’s back. The small man grunted once in reflex as he was pushed against the spotlight, then slid wordlessly to the floor.

Harper climbed the rest of the way up and straddled the prone form as he grabbed the spot light handle and started it sweeping around the camp again. Wouldn’t do to have some fool out taking a leak and notice that the light in the tower was pointing straight up for some reason.

"Tango bagged, tower secured," reported Harper.

"Rog that," came Aaro’s voice. "I’m coming. Bravo and Charlie move to your next way points."

Bravo and Charlie both answered verbally this time as they were on the move. Meanwhile Harper and Bronski scanned the camp in infrared and light intensifier modes, being careful not to look into the bright spotlight. Not a soul stirred as one Warder pair moved over to the main barrack hall while the other was closing on the secondary hut that had been identified as a domicile for the female guards. Alpha Team (Harper and Bronski) would cover from the middle while Aaro went to pay an early morning visit to the camp commander.

Bravo Team, consisting of troopers Jenkins and Chan, paused at the door to the low wooden building to look over at Charlie Team. With a hand signal from the second building indicating they were ready over there as well; both teams quietly pulled open their respective doors and slipped inside. Bravo entered a hall maybe three or four meters long. To their left was the exterior wall of the building, to their right a single room that a quick door check told them was the rec room. Within was a small refrigerator for drinks, some music and Tri-D gear, a table and a couch. At the end of the hall was a single main room lined with cots on the right. Chan did a quick count of the sleeping forms.

"This is Bravo. There are only five in the barrack. Repeat, only five in the barrack. Someone’s missing," reported Chan.

"Understood," came the Corporal’s voice over the line. "Alpha, be alert for one missing tango. Keep an eye on the latrine."

Although it increased the risk slightly, the sloppy security at this camp had lead the two Sergeants to decide to try for a capture on the sleeping guards while planning the op. When Jenkins said he was ready, Chan flicked on the lights and started ordering the pirate guards out of bed via the speaker units on his combat armor. Confused and groggy, the pirates stumbled out of bed to find themselves staring into the weapons of two armored and helmeted figures that were herding them towards the wall across from their cots.

Surprised, unprepared, and in their underwear for the most part the pirates immediately gave up any ideas of resistance. Except for one. Neither Warder trooper had a clue where the hand laser came from considering how little any of the pirates were wearing in the muggy night, but one of the pirates proved far more belligerent than his compatriots. He was also much stupider. The sidearm was only halfway raised to a firing position before Doran Chan speared the would-be gunslinger on a ruby shaft from his Intek laser rifle. The smell of burnt flesh filled the room but neither Warder trooper - breathing filtered air within their combat helmets - noticed. The remaining pirates all dove for the ground in fear which almost cost them their lives as both troopers reacted to the new motion. However they checked their fire as they saw the guards were cowering rather than attacking.

In the smaller four person female’s quarters Ouni Haarno and Micheal Agricola had woken the two women they had found within when the whining discharge of the laser and popping of vaporizing flesh came from the nearby building. The younger pirate sporting a purple mini-mohawk tried to use the distraction to reach for Ouni’s weapon. Haarno simply snapped the SMG’s stock out, catching mohawk girl in the chin and sending her flying. With a snarl the pirate gathered herself then launched towards Haarno once again despite the fact the Warder trooper’s opaque faceplate was pointed right at her. A solid kick sent the mohawk pirate crashing to the floor once again.

"After the third time the undertaker is picking lead from your body," warned Ouni as it seemed the pirate was gathering herself for yet another attack.

"Thelm - let it go," advised the second pirate prisoner as she stared at the laser rifle pointed at her midsection by the second invader. "They’ve got us. No reason to get killed now."

The younger one let out a snarling growl type sound but acquiesced and after wiping at her bloody nose slowly stood and put her hands up in the air.

"Charlie Team reporting. We’re missing two tangos here," reported Agricola now that the excitement was over. "Two secured."

"Bravo. We bagged one tango here," reported Chan, "the other four secured."

Corporal Aarno grimaced to himself at the news as he fast walked through the rooms of the commander’s small home. Three tangos were unaccounted for at the moment. The single laser shot had not been audible within this building so he doubted the camp commander had stirred. Still, the Corporal kept his weapon steady and ready before him with the butt plate firmly against his stomach. He would bodily turn corners or to scan a room so the laser rifle always pointed the way he was looking. A red dot that only he could see - for it was projected on his helmet viewplate based on the camera diode on the rifle - glowed steady in the center of his field of vision.

Locating the bedroom door he pushed it open with his foot and snorted to himself. Two empty vodka bottles were on the nightstand. Two naked bodies lay entwined and half covered by a thin sheet on the large bed. By the heavy snoring Aarno figured he might have a hard time waking this couple up to capture them. The weapon and light ballistic vest laying near a pile of clothes that included women’s underthings convinced the Corporal he’d just found one of the missing tangos rather than a camp prisoner.

"I’ve got the commander plus one missing tango here. I’m going to let them sleep until I can get back up from someone. Bravo and Charlie use your zip-cuffs. Alpha scout out the missing tangos. There’s a good chance they’re together."

A chorus of confirmations was coming back over the comms when Harper reported movement by the motor pool shack. Bronski was in action immediately, electing to stay with the SMG while flipping up the solid shield visor of helmet. By and large he preferred to use his normal sight rather than the imagine generation gear of the helmet visor. The sub-m wasn’t equipped to project a targeting dot via the Ground Warrior combat system like the laser rifles anyway.

Awakened by a pressing need in his bladder, camp guard Stillman had lurched up from the blankets were Tara still lay sleeping and staggered towards the motorpool doors when he thought he had heard a shot. Trying to concentrate through a hangover he paused in the open door with his shotgun in hand. He never went anywhere without it. Even to hang a whiz. Glancing up at the tower where the light was rotating about he scratched at his butt. No one had a laser weapon in the camp except that idiot Bill and the base Captain. Maybe one of them was drunk and shooting at rats or something. The both of them were chanking lamers. As far as Stillman was concerned, he should have been in charge of this camp long ago.

Well, at least he had finally scored with Tara. The little bag of Green Mist he’d bought off a Zeus crewman had cost three month’s pay but it had been worth it. Good thing that cloghead Bill had been right about Tara’s taste for the Mist. In fact, since he still had a half bag….Stillman stopped his mental dialog with himself as he blinked into the darkness. He’d brought up the shotgun without conscious thought before realizing that a dark armored figure had just materialized from around a corner. He had no idea who it was but the instincts of a man who had spent almost twenty years running with the roughest crowds was screaming danger at him. A rough coughing and clattering sound came from the figure just as he fired a snap shot with the scatter gun. Then he found himself loosing his grip on the prized weapon as fiery pain erupted across his chest and his arm went dead.

He staggered back two steps as he heard his heart slowly thump-thump-thump in his ears and the figure came three bounding steps closer. It was a man in a heavy combat suit he realized. And pointing a sub-machinegun at him. In a sudden burst of clarity he realized he’d taken a burst of small arms fire and was about to take another one. He was looking at his own death.

Bronski squeezed off another controlled burst and the big man in the doorway collapsed to one side. Cussing at himself for letting the fat bozo get a shot off he threw caution to the wind and charged into the open doorway. He found a woman inside, now sitting up and looking about the darkness in confusion. It only took the Warder trooper a minute to realize that she was still in a drug or alcohol induced fog. A quick check of her clothes and he found one of the pirate patches of a red skull and white flames on a beret.

"Tango bagged, second tango captured. That should be it," reported Bronski.

He rubbed at the thigh plate where a few pellets had left dimples from their impact. Good thing that blast hadn’t been about a hand’s width towards his center and a tad higher Bronski mused. Damn but Sammi would have his head for making such a stupid mistake. That had not been a capture situation. He should have just dropped the fat guy from the corner rather than try to move in on him. Luckily it had all worked out.

A few minutes later the Corporal got his help securing the camp commander, who had slept through the muted shotgun blast as well. The call went out that the camp was secure and half the Warder team moved to release the prisoners while the other half watched the road to the one gate.

Within the first of the two prisoner barracks Bjorn Collins had woken with a start. He’d always been a light sleeper and some sort of blast or shot had soounded. In a panic he looked across to make sure that Pavel was still in his cot. Bjorn had feared that the pirates had decided to get rid of his sickly friend and somehow managed to pull him out of the barracks without waking Bjorn. But Pavel was still there, looking back at Bjorn as the sound had woken him as well.

"What was it?" he asked in Finn.

"A shot I think. Wake Matti while I wake the others."

Several others had been woken as well. But the screens that allowed minimal airflow into the barracks were of a type that blocked sight. The door was locked, so they had no way to know what was going on outside. There had been no other notable sounds however. Until almost five minutes later when the sound of someone working the padlock on the outside of the door could be heard. The Visitors grouped together at one end of the main room, most looking fearfully towards the door. As the guards never got up early, whatever had brought someone to their door in the early morning hours couldn’t be good. Bjorn caught himself wondering if this would finally be the time he got himself killed or beaten and moved to Camp Three.

The door was pulled open and a young man around Bjorn’s own age stepped in wearing infantry body armor sans helmet. Breathes were sucked in and held as they stared at the young soldier that was staring at them. None of the Visitors could ever recall seeing any of the pirates in anything like that get up. A similarly clad warrior stepped in behind the youngster. This one was wearing a black combat helmet with a dark blank face shield. Although each was heavily armed, neither was holding their weapons in a threatening manner. Then the youngster spoke in a voice that cracked with the emotion of the moment.

"Bjorn? Matti? Pavel? It’s me, Barney Jenkins. I was on the Starcade with you guys. We’re here to rescue you and everyone else they’ve got."

At first the prisoners stood still in disbelief. Bjorn finally made himself step forward where he could get a better look at the figure. This Jenkins did indeed look vaguely familiar. Then it came back to him. He had been the son of some ship’s crewmen. He and Matti had been playing two-tier checkers. The subdued black on green insignia painted on the trooper’s breast plate caught his eye as well. Bjorn knew that symbol. It was from a private military force based around Suomi City on his home planet. His father had mentioned them a number of times. Dread and uncertainty was replaced by elation. They hadn’t been forgotten.

"I remember you," shouted Bjorn as he grabbed Jenkins in a bear hug. He released the trooper and stepped back to address his astonished fellow prisoners. "We weren’t forgotten. We’re saved! Someone hired the Suomi Warders to come get us. We’re finally going home!"

A ragged cheer went up from most of the Visitors, although a few were leery to let themselves believe. Rabbi Yankov stepped in to speak with their rescuers.

"There are other camps you know? And many more pirates. You are prepared to get us all off the planet?"

Jenkins nodded through tears of joy rolling down his face. "Yes, we know. We have squads at both camps. And more taking care of other things all across the island. Our armor and ‘Mechs will be here within a few hours. We’re not just rescuing you hostages, we’re here to put the Yu-shang pirates out of business permanently."

"Then God has delivered," breathed Yankov. Then with a little shake he let himself fully believe what his eyes and ears were telling him. His practical nature asserted itself. "The Bible tells us that vengeance is the Lord’s, but in this case I think a little helping hand won’t offend him. Until your main force gets here though we have people to safeguard and you’ll need to know which prisoners have become … friendly…with our captors. There are children here you know. They cannot be expected to walk far…."

"Whoa…hold it…," interrupted Jenkins. "I think you should talk to Corporal Hemmay. He’s out in the center of the camp. Everyone here needs to grab whatever they want to take with them because the bus will be here in less than ten minutes."

"The bus?" asked Bjorn in confusion.

"Oh, that’s just what we call them. Transport ‘copters. Plenty of room for everyone but you can’t take much in possessions with you right now. We’ll come back later."

"Laddie," drawled one of the other prisoners, " ‘tis no need to be worrying none. You’re looking at most everything we own." The others nodded in agreement.

"What….what about our parents?" Bjorn asked suddenly.

Jenkin’s face turned dour. "It’s not good news," he admitted.

Thunderclouds formed on Bjorn’s face as his two compatriots buried their heads in their hands at confirmation of what they had feared. The rabbi moved over to comfort them as best he could.

Fifteen minutes after the liberation, Bronski and Harper pulled the final sweep detail to make sure the team wasn’t leaving anything behind they might want to take. The VTOL sat on the ground outside the gate with the rotor throwing up dust as it waited. The dead camp guards lay where they had been felled, although all weapons had been policed. The ex-guard now prisoners were secured in the front section of the VTOL, away from the glares of the newly freed Visitors in the rear.

As he passed the motor pool Bronski paused in confusion. The bloated form of the guard he had killed had somehow sprouted a hoe from his chest. The farming tool’s handle rose from the corpse at about a 45 degree angle. He shrugged to himself as he passed by to check the motor pool building one last time. The other camps had been liberated already and it was time to dust off. There’d been some trouble at one though and First Squad was in a hurry to move out and see if they could assist. As to this fat corpse, if one of the hostages had found the time to add a little insult to injury - or to death in this case - it was no skin off his nose.

Camp Three

As this camp had better security and eighteen guard personnel, taking prisoners was not part of the attack plan. If the pirates surrendered, fine. But being outnumbered more than two to one, the Warder squad taking Camp Three couldn’t afford to lose the initiative. As they were outnumbered, conventional wisdom might argue that they shouldn’t attack at all. However only four guards were active in the early morning hours, giving the Warder force a two to one advantage during the critical early moments of the battle.

And a short vicious battle is what it was. Similar to Camp Three, there was a central tower with a guard in it. However there were two gate guards and one wandering the grounds. Corporal Beth Bearny led her troopers on a crawl along a drainage ditch that had been cut very close to the gate. Using a camera wand that attached to her helmet system she watched the gate guard until the proper time came and when the guards were looking in towards the camp at something she gave the signal. Her troopers rose up quietly and rushed towards the fence wire as quietly as they could.

They covered half the distance before the gate guards reacted to the new noises and turned to see what might be making the sounds. In the three more seconds they spent peering at the dark shadows trying to determine what was moving out there in the dark, the lead Warders had slowed to a walk to better aim. Short bursts from the silenced SMGs they were carrying as their secondary weapons stitched both gate guards, dropping them immediately. A vibro knife easily cut through the thin wire and they were swarming into the camp on pre-set routes.

Two of the self inflating decoys they occasionally used in anti-Mech work were thrown out near a building corner close to the front gate while the squad support weapon team run like mad for the other end of the building. Other squad mates headed off for their fire positions using the low buildings for cover from the tower guard. Beth finished prepping her VLAW as the tower guard spotting two human figures carrying weapons near the front gate that didn’t belong there. There was no hesitation in the tower response as the guard wanted to get the intruders before they finished peering about and started moving again. A light machinegun opened up from the tower and tore up the two decoys as Beth stepped around a different corner and centered the low wall of the tower in the sight of her Very Light Anti-armor Weapon. The small missile launcher was designed to damage lightly armored vehicles or gun bunkers. A sandbagged tower of light wood was no problem. A whoosh was followed almost immediately by an explosion and sandbags were sent flying along with the tower’s occupant. If the explosion didn’t kill him, the fall finished him off. He hit the ground and lay still.

Their biggest concern was that the guards might fire into the flimsy buildings that housed the captives. Two troopers swung down to that end of the camp searching for the remaining night guard while the rest took up positions to fire on the guard quarters. Lights had come on in one or two windows following the shooting and explosion, although the more savvy pirates knew to leave their light off. The foursome of one building made a rush towards the single parked armored personal carrier within the camp only to be met with laser fire from two different locations. Two were cut down immediately and the other two hit the dirt and exchanged fire for a few more moments until they too were killed.

Camp Three’s commander decided that discretion was the better part of valor and sought to leave via a back window that faced the fence. Pfc. Torren was stationed to cover that fire lane for just such an occurrence and elected to shout out a surrender chance rather than just shooting the pirate officer as he was halfway out the window. Torren’s chivalry was repaid by the pirate snapping off a burst from a machine pistol as the commander abandoned the window and rolled back inside his small home. The private called it in but held his position. Until the Corporal told him otherwise, he would cover the length of the fence on this side of the camp. But if that commander happened to show himself in either window again Torren would be happy to send a burst of laserfire in that direction without further warning.

The intensity of a gunfight has differing effects on people. Adrenaline mixes with fear and excitement. Moments can seem to slow or race. Reaction times can become slowed or hair triggered - even for an expected encounter. Trooper Jones and camp guard Elian were both moving purposely with their weapons at the ready looking for an enemy to shoot at. Yet when they rounded building corners only six meters apart, each was startled for a moment when the very thing they were looking for appeared in their night vision gear. That quick second and a half seemed to play out for a full minute or more before their minds processed the image as a target and willed the body into action. Weapons snapped on line at practically the same moment as Jones fired a pulsing burst of laser fire from the salvaged Star League assault rifle he was carrying while the pirate fired a three round burst from a far more common heavy assault rifle.

Each caught the other high in the opposite hip and both went down in a blaze of pain. Jones happened to have a fire-buddy that the pirate lacked however. Trooper Jerome-Ali fired her laser rifle into the pirate just as he was hitting the ground then rushed to Jones’ writhing form as she called in the bagged tango and injured squad mate. Another important difference between Jones and Elian was personal body armor - as in Jones was wearing some and the pirate was not. The upper leg plate had stopped two of the rounds although the third had punched through the ballistic pants just past the edge of the rigid armor to tear the hell out of Jones’ inner leg. Messy and painful, but not likely to be fatal. Jerome-Ali pressed a field bandage to the mess while fumbling for one of the painkiller shots in her personal medkit and trying to watch for more tangos at the same time. It was a moment that seemed to last forever for the two troopers, but in mere minutes she had Jones patched up without further incident on their side of the camp.

A pitched firefight was roaring at the guard barracks as the remaining pirates fired from their sleeping quarters into the darkness. The Warder return fire was mainly to keep the guards contained until their grenade launcher and VLAW could be brought on target. After the first pair of detonations, the two guards remaining decided they had had enough and waved a sheet out the open door. It wasn’t white, but the Warder troopers got the message. Securing them, four of the squad took up the matter of prying the commander out of his home. Corporal Bearny figured that a grenade fired into the front part of the house would be a good opening argument for the camp commander’s unconditional surrender. The explosion shattered the remaining glass outwards from the building and sparked a small fire within. Beth was just starting to think that she might need to reiterate her point with another grenade when a bloody figure stumbled out of the front door coughing heavily and holding his one good arm above his head to signal surrender.

Less than 10 minutes from when she had lead her squad out of the ditch and the camp was hers. The platoon’s medics had been sent with the camp squads. Beth sent the corpsman to work on Jones while she directed a camp sweep for unexpected guard stragglers. Once she was sure the camp was secure she used the keys thoughtfully provided by the camp’s ex-commander to start opening prisoner shacks. Beth soon found herself returning the salute of what she would term an elderly man wearing the tattered remains of a Eradani Light Horse uniform jacket.

"Marcus Temen of the Light Horse - Captain; retired- at your service Ma’am," he announced in a voice that was stronger than she had expected to hear. "Despite having been mustered out before my capture I have been given the honor of serving as the prisoner’s commanding officer. May I present Lieutenant Juan Darnell of the Marik Militia and Chu-I Hiero Rokku of the DCMS - our other two officers - and my aide Sergeant Chaney; also of the Light Horse. You have our gratitude for our liberation. May I have the honor of knowing your unit?"

"Of course Sir," she replied just as formally and with a hint of pride sounding in her tone. "I am Corporal Beth Bearny, Third Squad, First Platoon of the First Infantry Company of the Suomi Warders. We’re a private force hailing from the Free World’s League." Beth had added the last bit when it was obvious that the retire Captain had not heard of the Warders.

"The FWL eh," nodded Temen. "Well good show here. May I ask who is footing your contract and if you are capturing the other camps as well?"

She glanced at her arm-comp for an update. "The other two are taken Sir. We’re going after the airfield at the moment as well. A VTOL is inbound to pick us up. How many are in your command?" She had the scouts count from the first recon but figured she’d get his as well.

An ironic smile came to the Captain’s lips as the young non-com referred to his rag-tag bunch of prisoners as a ‘command’. "Four from Quint’s Olympian Ground Pounders, two of us from the Light Horse, one each from Brownson’s Horde and the Arm of Thor, four from the FWL militias and three from the DCMS plus four civilians that were deemed too dangerous for the main camp. Nineteen in all."

Beth scanned the assorted prisoners as the Captain indicated the different groups and frowned to herself. "The DC and Light Horse don’t ransom prisoners, but I’d think that deals could have been cut for the others. What are all of you doing here?"

Marcus shrugged as he replied. "My personal belief is that we’re trophies. As near as we have been able to determine each of us are from units that have had contact with Master Zou’s forces. I wasn’t even actively serving the Light Horse anymore when I was kidnapped while visiting relatives near the Lyran - League border. Some of us here were taken in battle, others were outright kidnapped like I was. Zou has been by to silently gloat over us from time to time but he has never addressed any of us directly that I am aware of."

Darnell of the FWL had been making a head count of his rescuers while Captain Temen had been talking. "Say Corporal," Darnell wanted to know, "are the rest of your people outside the wire or something?"

Beth laughed. "I’d say so. Way, way outside the wire. As in mostly off the planet. What you see is what you get at this camp."

Chu-I Rokku whistled in appreciation. "You faced impressive odds to rescue us. Yet I am forced to wonder how long we shall have our freedom. There are considerable numbers of pirates on this island."

"Not to worry Sirs," she told them. "We’re just the advance force. The main force is inbound and will be here soon. BattleMechs, tanks, AeroFighters - the whole nine yards. We’re not leaving until we have this Zou guy in hand or in the ground."

"If you have an extra ‘Mech I’ll be happy to help," Darnell responded. "I’m sure we’ll all pitch in to show these devils what for. Who’d you say was paying for all of this?"

"I didn’t say Sir. Although we picked up some travel money from the good people of Sampsa, this one’s on Lieutenant Colonel Linna. Our C.O. He brought us out here on his own."

"On his own eh?" asked a surprised Temen. "I say, that’s a good show. I look forward to meeting your Lieutenant Colonel."

Camp One

The pirates ‘pleasure camp’ had the best security and thus drew the largest of the camp liberation teams. Second Squad was only down one member, and had two members of the heavy weapon squad added to their number for good measure. As with the military prisoner camp, the Warder op team expected a bit of a fire fight at this camp as well. Although squad leader Corporal Mac Nielsen hoped to penetrate the wire and neutralize the guard towers before the fireworks started.

Unlike the other two camps, this one had a pair of towers. They stood at opposite corners of the compound. Like the other camps however, the buildings within the wire provided numerous blind spots from observation. This camp had lights unevenly illuminating much of the area. Despite the extra security measures, second squad remained undeterred in their resolve to wipe the camp garrison force from human memory.

Nielsen split his ops group in half, posting Alpha team near the front gate / tower and taking Beta to the rear where the second tower was. As the towers were essentially sandbags on wood platforms supported by stilts there would be no difficulty scaling them. The tower legs had been used as part of the outer wire’s posts, allowing direct access to the wooden beams. The plan was straightforward and simple, devised to take advantage of the camp’s layout and the element of surprise. Beta team would quietly take out the rear tower then move forward through the back of the camp where the only structures were the rickety bungalows housing the prisoners. Once they were in position to lay fire down on the buildings occupied by the guards, Alpha would launch an attack on the guard force stationed at the front of the base. Beta would move forward and take any defenders that emerged in response to the gate attack from the rear. Care would be taken that Beta didn’t accidentally take any friendly fire from Alpha.

Four dark armored troopers crawled through the low foliage and grass undetected up to the tower’s base as the attack clock ticked down. When Nielsen’s arm computer told him the other assaults had begun he sent two of his team up the legs. With their microhook gloves and boot attachments scaling the poles was a snap. A quick count over the comms to coordinate and both lifted themselves over the sandbags to put a quick burst of suppressed SMG fire into the unsuspecting guard.

"Tower Tango bagged," came the call over the comms. Neilsen left one of his team in the tower with a laser rifle then took the remaining two with him to spread out midway through the camp. Then he called on alpha to start their assault.

As this camp had a pair of armored cars, with one always on duty at the gate, the unit’s heaviest weapon had been deployed to deal with them. Trooper Bernard shifted slightly so he could fire around the tree he was standing behind and sighted his targeting optics on the gunner copula where a guard was casually smoking a cigarette and chatting with a colleague standing next to the vehicle. The Grand Mauler Gauss Cannon bucked in it’s harness mount as the crack of it’s slug breaking the sound barrier washed out the whine of the capacitors discharging. The round hardened slug smashed through the light shield around the heavy machine gun sending metal shrapnel bursting out. The guy at the gunner position simply disappeared in a burst of reddish mist as the projectile passed through him while his conversation partner fell to the ground holding his face and bleeding from multiple shrapnel wounds.

The thunder crack of the gauss cannon was the signal for the rest of the team to open up. Two launcher fired grenades arced out to land within the two sandbagged fire pits on either side of the gate while trooper Smith laid a hail of suppression fire into the tower with her light machine gun. Bernard recharged and put a second round through the drivers compartment of the armored car while pulse laser fire from the recovered Mauser assault rifles lashed over the gate guards before any of the stunned pirates began to react. Despite the fire Smith was pouring into the tower, the guard there still managed to return some inaccurate bursts from his post. Until Bernard finished recharging and punched a huge hole through the sandbags with another gauss round and silenced the tower.

One gate guard managed to start retreating while firing his rifle at the laser flashes but only succeeded in drawing attention to himself and getting cut down by the very people he was trying to target. Alpha rushed in to take up the firing positions that had just belonged to the enemy and prepared to take down anything that showed itself.

Corporal Nielsen listened to Alpha’s report as the sounds of the first clash ended. Six tangos down and Smith reported that the 14 mm heavy machine gun in one of the fire-pits was operational. That only left another fourteen guards, making the straight odds almost even now. With his people armed and armored and the enemy just waking in confusion, the combat odds were in his favor for the moment. But he knew he had to keep the momentum to keep the odds.

"Smith, fire on only the three north most buildings. You’ll endanger us or the hostages with punch through from the heavy MG otherwise. Go ahead and hose those three down then switch to your S.A.W. Same goes for that Mauler - don’t fire that gauss straight across. Remember that the camp commander has someone with him. Don’t fire on his quarters. And put some grenades into the barracks buildings." The heavy machine gun and the portable gauss were powerful weapons, but both could easily pass entirely through the thin buildings between the two fire teams. They would have to be used with care.

Suiting actions to words, Neilsen lined up the over-under configured Mauser assault rifle and fired the grenade in the launcher. He cursed when it hit the edge of the window frame and bounced away from the building. He saw another one pass through - fired by a squad mate - just before his went off harmlessly in the dirt. The other blew out the rest of the windows in the light building and likely incapacitated anyone within. The flash was muted by the camera system projecting the image on the inside of his combat visor. That gave the Corporal a new idea. He ordered one person from each team to start picking off the lights. With their night vision gear, the Warder troopers would have another advantage.

Sporadic return fire was coming from two buildings that must have been somehow armored as each was taking far more fire than would otherwise have been the norm when the Warder in the captured tower reported a startling development.

"Say again?" snapped Neilsen as he pulled out of his firing position to give the report his full attention.

"I repeat," repeated Pmc Johnson, "someone just wiggling out of a loose wall board in the central rear hostage barrack. It looks like one of the prisoners and she seems to be working on opening the door from the outside now."

A few choice Finn cuss words rattled around the inside of Corporal Neilsen’s helmet. The last thing he needed at the moment was some of the prisoners freeing themselves and running around the camp before it had been secured.

"Well climb down there and stop her," ordered Neilen.

"Roger," replied Johnson unenthusiastically. He was unsure how he’d do that if they wouldn’t listen to him but he hustled down the drop ladder and sprinted for the escaped prisoner. As he approached the waifish woman that had crawled out the secreted loose board was just finishing getting the lock undone. The door swung open to reveal three other women, all of whom froze as they locked eyes on him. He flipped up the protective visor part of his helmet so they could see his face in an effort to appear less menacing.

"Easy there ladies, we need you to lay down on the floor for your own safety until we finish securing the camp," he informed them.

A formidable matron in her late forties stepped forward. "Are we to become your captives then?" she demanded.

"No…we’re here to rescue all the prisoners. We’re the good guys," insisted Johnson.

"I have no clue who you are soldier. And from our experience one soldier is as bad as the next. Unless you’re prepared to shoot us we’re leaving. It’s been two years we’ve been waiting for an opportunity and we’re not letting it pass. From this moment forward no one ever uses us again."

Johnson worked his mouth open and closed but couldn’t think of anything to say. Pure hatred shined in the eyes of the woman staring at him as if he had something to do with what they had endured. Taking his silence and lack of motion to mean that he planned no violence at the moment the leader started giving orders to the other women.

"Lisa, Mary…go open the other two shacks and let the others out. Make sure everyone grabs their bundles. Sophie, go start on the wire over there with those cutters."

"What about Wildcat?" Lisa wanted to know.

"Let her out too. She’s unpredictable but a real hellcat in a fight. Plus we can’t just leave her here."

"The Others?" Mary wanted to know.

"They’ve made their bed with the pirates long ago. If these…people…," she gestured at Johnson. "are on the level they’ll be fine. If not, then they’ll just have to learn to please new masters."

As the others left to do their leader’s bidding Johnson could hear the tempo building in the firefight at the two barrack buildings. He had muted his comms to talk to the prisoners and was itching to find out what was going on but he had to try to talk some reason into these ladies.

"Look Ma’am…we’re the Suomi Warders. We’re taking the whole island. Everyone will get to go home. Honest, you’re safer with us than out in the bush."

"Never heard of you and I don’t trust anyone I don’t know," she snapped. "Plus there’s no more ‘home’ for most of us. Decide quick if you plan to point your gun at me or not."

Johnson stood around helplessly protesting as twelve of the prisoners he had arrived to save quickly gathered their meager belongings and slipped away into the night. He was no longer in a hurry to get back on the comms but he knew he had to report the departure.

Following Johnson’s report Corporal Neilsen swore another blue streak in his helmet then reactivated his comm system. "No, don’t try to follow them Johnson. If they’re that adamant then the only way we’ll be able to round them up is at gun point and I won’t do that. Come up near my position and add your firepower; Pourtance got hit and is down. At least with the buildings behind our position now empty we can shift positions and bring our heavier weapons to bare on the holdouts. Listen up everyone, we’re going to shift for better fire positions. Here’s the plan….."

The Aerodrome

Sergeant Cascade crouched in the muddy ditch where she preferred to be. In the front. She was now at the crucible where a non-commissioned officer’s two primary duties came into conflict. To complete the mission and to keep her troopers from harm. To her there was never any question which duty was primary. It was the mission. Her additional task was to make sure the bad guys did far more of the dying than her people.

Confident and skilled as she was, Sammi was no fool. Her plan had spread her forces out dangerously thin in the calculated risk that surprise would balance out their lack of numbers. That and the superior abilities of the troopers under her command. The sensor tower and bridge ops were essentially walk-throughs. At the prison camp with the Starcade survivors there should be no difficulty. The other two camps and the airfield posed greater challenges. The surest move would have been to concentrate her forces on the three camps. But the number of pirate forces on the island was notably higher than expected. The units best chance to defeat the pirates en masse was to work from the defendable airfield. Then the Lt. Colonel’s forces would be able to disembark from the DropShips in the minimum amount of time which would in turn allow the maximum amount of time for the Warders to prepare for the inevitable counterstrike. The L.C. might even be able to go on the offensive if he chose to. If she could take and control the aerodrome.

It meant greater risk for the attack teams and the hostages at the other two camps but Sammi was no stranger to making hard choices. Lt. Colonel Linna had agreed with her assessment and cleared her to deploy as she saw fit. Sammi had no doubt that the L.C. saw the implications of her plans. But he was no stranger to making hard decisions either. It was one of the main reasons she had come to respect her C.O. so deeply. He willfully made the tough calls with his eyes wide open and without passing the buck or complaining about fate.

Though the airfield attack carried risk, it was neither foolhardy nor impromptu. A scout team had watched the field for three days and probed possible approaches while estimating enemy strength and noting their location and patrols. As one would expect from non-professional soldiers in what the defenders considered a safe location, their security procedures were lacking. Far too much reliance was placed on automated sensors. Those sensors that her team had already beat by a combination of careful routing through a drainage cannel, the IR reduction and active camouflage abilities of their combat suits, and the electronic spoofers her team carried with them. They were already well inside the wire perimeter. The sniper team, diversionary force, and heavy weapons team were all on station in their assigned posts outside the wire.

A check of her arm computer showed the op countdown. It was almost hammer time. She tapped at the slim button that would tell her team to move out on their assigned tasks. Once the shooting started they’d start using voice comms. Until that moment she wouldn’t risk someone in the control bunker picking up stray, garbled voice comms. It was all part of the art of completing the mission and staying alive. Knowing which risks lead to victory and which risks might spell defeat.

She and two other troopers made their way across the landing field along building walls and in the shadows. Their target was the control bunker. A slim tower with a crow’s nest box of glass that rose above it remained empty and unlit as it had all the nights the field had been under surveillance. It seemed no one bothered with the control tower when there were no flights. The reinforced duracrete bunker had one wall with a bay of windows protected by armored slits that were currently open and a single armored door. The door had cameras mounted above it. Plan B was to plant explosives on the armored windows and blow them in then shoot through the large slits. That would nullify the control center but not capture it.

Plan A revolved around the fact that at almost the exact same time every pre-dawn, the same comm tech had left the bunker to walk over to kitchen mess and rummage up something to eat. It was probably a routine break to keep him alert and active in the wee morning hours. Sammi leaned up against the wall just around the corner from where the camera would be able to see and secured her laser rifle to the rear of her armor and slipped out her telescoping staff and a "flash-bang" grenade. The idea scenario involved a live prisoner or two from the five people inside. The comm tech opening the door would not be one of them.

From her vantage point on a knoll overlooking the forward part of the base Corporal Maxine Utala was peering intently at the armored door of the command bunker through the high powered Nikon sights of her Colt semi-automatic sniper rifle. Her spotter, Pfc Joe Cooper, was watching the window of the same building just as intently through a high powered imager. They both wore open faced helmets with mic booms attached allowing them to use the optical gear they carried as well as talk to each other off the comms.

"He’s up. Moving to where I can’t see him now," reported Cooper. "Estimate about ten seconds."

Maxine heard him in the small part of her that was not the rifle or the bullet. She counted down from ten in her head. But most of her consciousness was the weapon she cradled on a bipod - the weapon she had become. The view of steel suddenly slid away as the door opened and a target was in her sights. She never really thought of them as people when she was shooting. Only as targets or non targets. The sighting crosshairs were adjusted a bit high and left to allow for wind and dropping. Then she gave the trigger the gentle pull that spat a titanium alloy bullet from it’s resting place in her rifle.

Sammi’s combat helmet picked up the supersonic crack of the sniper rifle and she started to rush for the open door even before Cooper was calling out that the tango was down. She knew that the shot was the signal at which her team would start firing into a number of targets. Several dozing or otherwise unaware people were getting killed without ever knowing what had happened as she stormed around the corner with the concussion grenade already in the air before her. AeroSpace Jocks and MechWarriors could afford the occasional duel of honor in their heavily armored war machines. On the ground, with only a bit of ballistic weave and a few centimeters of ablative ceramic armor wrapped around your fragile body, combat was played with a different set of rules. There was no such thing as an unfair advantage. Other than a glance to make sure he was dead and she didn’t accidentally trip over him, she never paid another thought to the prone form just inside the open doorway with the huge gaping hole in his chest.

The grenade’s ear popping explosion and bright flash had no effect what-so-ever on the combat suited Sergeant. Dampers killed the noise and flash. A multiple snicking sound purred as the staff extended and three steps later she was swinging it around and catching the guy closest to the main comm board low on the rear of the skull with a solid blow that sent him to immediate unconsciousness. She heard the brapping burp of sub-machinegun fire somewhere behind her, which had to be an enemy as the two with her attack team had combat shotguns. The SMG fire was for her team mates to deal with. Sammi’s concern was the staggering pirate still a few more steps away clutching a laser pistol in one had and a suddenly aching head with the other. A brief triple strike pattern with the staff and the gun dropped from numbed fingers followed by the body dropping from a numbed head.

Two loud booms from the room-busters sounded. Their count left one person and only one room. She dropped the staff and readied her secondary weapon - a suppressed SMG - as the two shotgun wielding troopers of Second Platoon took up position on either side of the door. At her nod they kicked it in, one leaning in low while the other stood and leaned in high. The flash of a laser rifle burned up some arm protection in a near miss as both shotguns blasted away. Double impacts tore through the final guard, forcing the shattered body backwards in a spray of blood and tissue.

Cascade made immediately for the defense station consul to keep the automated turrets locked down. Although the large lasers and class 5 autocannons were designed for anti-air and anti-vehicle roles, it would be a bad thing to let anyone get the bright idea of targeting them in the general vicinity of any of her people.

"Uh, Sergeant Cascade…it looks like you’re hit," supplied one of the other Warder troopers from behind her. Now that he mentioned it, the back of her leg did sting a bit.

A quick inspection revealed armor damage and a shallow furrow in the back of her calf from a graze that had managed to penetrate. Slapping an adhesive bandage patch on it she was already concentrating fully on the battle reports. The little scratch on her leg wasn’t even worth noticing.

Jason Nelson was behind a natural berm with the four VTOL gunners and one of Second Platoon’s troopers to ride herd on them. He was laying under a shrub with a VLAW launcher resting on his shoulder. He’d already made sure several times that no one was directly behind - hardly necessary as everyone else was strung out along the berm too. Their job was to lay down fire on the main gate. Three weapon bunkers and a light armored personal carrier where arrayed against them at the moment. Sergeant Sanchez’s order to fire came over the comms just after the crack of the sniper rifle.

Although he wad little training with the Very Light Anti-armor Weapon, the launcher was relatively easy to use. Center the targeting dot in the circle over the enemy vehicle and pull the trigger. As the APC was sitting still at the moment his lack of knowledge regarding lead factors for medium range shots was irrelevant. Which a loud swoosh the small missile leapt out and streaked towards the APC as his fellows opened up from their positions. He saw it impact, rocking the APC slightly. A larger rocket fired by a recoilless rifle from across the road where the heavy weapon team was set up punched into the driver’s area. Jason didn’t even know if anyone was inside. He slid down the dirt a bit for cover and started working at loading another missile. He had four to fire before switching to the pulse rifle laying next to him.

Gordy Wells, one of the VTOL gunners that had joined the fire team, noticed Jason struggling with the launcher and worked along the bottom of the berm until he was next to the MechWarrior and could help. Together they got another round loaded and then climbed back to where they could see over the dirt ridge. A number of enemy guards lay on the ground but a few were returning fire from the bunkers at the front gate area. A sandbagged, reinforced concrete bunker from which a large caliber machine gun protruded caught Jason’s attention when it fired off a burst towards where the sniper team and recoiless rifle were. He sighted on the gun slit and fired. Once the puff of dust from the cement cleared he could see that he had taken a big chunk out of the bunker but failed to breach it. Looking around for a moment he couldn’t see anything else that looked missile worthy then he slid back down a bit to load another missile.

Just then he was caught in a maelstrom of flying debris as dirt and rock kicked about him while an invisible buzz saw slashed at the brush and tree branches. He could physically feel as well as hear the rapid thuds of the heavy rounds whapping into the berm and the trees. Without conscious thought he immediately balled into a fetal like position trying to protect his head as the world went crazy with motion around him. A sharp pain in his back knocked the breath out of him and his left arm went numb.

Then just as suddenly as he had come under the hail of fire, the wild crashing and thudding around him stopped. The machine gun was seeking other prey at the moment.

Trying not to moan from the pain, Jason attempted to reach behind him with his functional arm. His ears were ringing and he was disoriented. Something in his mind seized on the idea of finding the medic so he struggled to his feet. Almost immediately he was hit and knocked down onto his butt.

"Look at me," yelled a voice near his face. "Can you understand me?"

Pfc Sakarin’s voice penetrated the fog and Jason’s eyes regained their focus.

"Yeah, I can hear you," he replied as his wits returned. "I think I’m hit in the back."

A detached part of Jason’s mind was surprised at how calmly he’d announced his injury.

Priita Sakarin shifted off of the MechWarrior’s middle where she had tackled him to take a look.

"There’s no wound," she announced. "A falling tree limb probably smacked you. Might have cracked a rib though. Stay down under the berm line or you’ll wind up like him though. Give me that VLAW."

Jason looked in the direction Priita had nodded and almost gagged. Gordy’s body lay face down near the top of the berm with one arm blown clean off and what looked like half of his head missing. The dirt near the berm ridge literally had furrows in it where the huge rounds had clawed their way through the soft soil at the top.

"Grab that missile trooper," snapped Priita. "Fight now - freak later."

Jason shook off most of his stupor and pushed the missile toward the trooper with his good arm. She expertly loaded it then grabbed him and pushed him flat against the berm as a short burst of machinegun fire slammed into their position to test for a response.

"Stay down here," she told him then shifted a few meters to one side where there was still some foliage for cover and remounted the berm. The VLAW belched smoke and fire from the rear end as the missile flew away. Then she scrambled back down.

"That finished the job," she announced. "Does that arm work?"

Jason realized he was cradling his left arm with the right. The feeling was coming back into it and he could make a fist now. "Starting to," he allowed.

"Then take your rifle and follow me," she snapped. "We’ll be back for Wells there when the shooting stops - I promise." Swallowing hard against a dry throat, Jason picked up his rifle and followed the trooper to a new firing position.

Across the aerodrome a vicious battle waged that had no battle lines or safe zones. The Warder troopers had positioned themselves to fire upon the MechWarriors and aircraft pilots that attempted to rush from their beds into the early morning. The occasional pistol fared poorly against the armor and assault weapons born by the invaders.

The other two patrol vehicles proved more stubborn. Initially they rushed for the front gate as that was where the attack seemed to be coming from. Two troopers moving to support the gate battle after shooting up a barracks were caught in the open between buildings by one of the APCs. Despite the ballistic armor he wore Pmc Jones was practically cut in half by the vehicle class machine gun and Corporal Hansen went down with heavy injury to his legs. Before Hansen could be finished off, a sniper round exploded the exposed head of the APC open copula gunner like a ripe melon. The driver maneuvered to put a building between himself and the general area of the front gate only to put himself within reach of other Warder troopers that planted a satchel charge on the slow moving vehicle as it rolled by. The driver’s search for cover ended shortly there after.

A combination of small arms fire, grenades, and a hit from the recoilless rifle finished off the second. With that APC burning, the resistance at the airfield ground to a halt.

Jason eased down the berm and rested with his back against the cool soil as the Sergeants called the all clear. He was exhausted despite the fact the battle had lasted less than fifteen minutes and he had traveled a total of maybe thirty meters during the fight. His breathing was ragged and his hands shook slightly as he pulled the largely empty energy pack from the Mauser and replaced it with his last fresh one. He had drained one and most of a second and he couldn’t even say if he’d actually hit anyone. But he didn’t think he really wanted to know.

"You okay?" Jason looked up into Priita’s face. Or her helmet faceplate anyway.

"Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit washed out. What now?" he wanted to know.

"Now a few of us will be on watch, a few will do a search for enemy lurkers - and the rest of us will tend to our dead and wounded."

Jason took a deep breath, then hoisted himself up from the ground. "Okay, let’s get to it then," he said firmly. Though in truth he had no idea which ‘it’ he was referring to.

Sergeants Cascade and Sanchez had climbed up into the glass control tower to survey the area. Dawn was just starting to lighten the sky to the east. Below them they could see the VTOLs coming to rest near the hangars. So far the mission had been a resounding success. Caught totally unaware, the enemy had lost all three prison camps, two sensor towers and bridges, and the airfield. Some of the captives had taken off into the brush but neither Sergeant planned to do anything about it until far later in the day.

"Four dead and eight wounded," Sanchez was saying. "Not bad so far."

"So far," agreed Cascade. "But there’s more to go."

On cue, the delay team near the south village came on the comms to report contact with a column trying to reach the airfield.

"Hit them as hard as you can then fade," ordered Cascade. "We’ll set up a reception committee." She switched channels. "Hey Meri, if you’re done enjoying your helicopter ride get over to those ‘Mechs and start hot-wiring one for our MechWarrior. Looks like we might need the firepower."

"Which one Sarge?" came the radioed reply.

"I don’t care - which ever one Nelson picks. Just get the brain box spliced in and running waves ASAP so we can jack a ‘Mech before the enemy gets here."

"Sisu Sergeant," came the reply.

Sammi had made direct contact with the incoming DropShips. They were about seventy minutes away. The fighters that had been deployed ahead to strike the remaining bridge and secure air superiority were about fifty minutes away. The force from the village could be here inside forty minutes if they decided to haul tail feathers and had a couple of decently fast vehicles.

"A neurohelmet codebreaker can take anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour to find a match," observed Sanchez.

Cascade shrugged. "So we plan to stop them without a ‘Mech and if we get one in time we’ll be all the better."

Sanchez nodded in agreement. "Well, we’ve got the heavy weapon teams back now. Let’s see if we can get the turrets on line and decide where to stash the rescued hostages until the show’s over."

"Let’s do it," agreed Sammi as she suited action to words and bounded down the stairs to the control bunker below. "Just one last fracas and then the big guns will be here."


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 grew up to become 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. Holly is leading a free lance of her Black Warrior friends that is under contract to John’s Warders.

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. These troopers have been on the island undetected for a few weeks now.

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